Last memories in Cambodia

What did you like most about the SFS experience?
“What did you like most” is the most common and the hardest question that we often asked each other during RAP (reflection, announcement, and physical activity/game) time, especially about our field trips. Normally none of us can pick our favorites, because every single moment during the semester abroad with SFS was uniquely phenomenal. Each SFS field trip has taught us to think critically about not only the environmental problems in the cultural context of Cambodia, but also the people.

Soaking my feet on a rice paddy field, planting mangroves at the coastal line, and staying for a week on a floating village in the Prek Toal core area for Directed Research, have made me immerse myself into the Khmer culture and the warm welcome from hospitable and sedulous people who possess admirable resilience and courage. These experiences, of course, cannot be marvelous without three amazing professors, Dr. Chouly Ou, Dr. Lisa Arensen, and Dr. Georgie Lloyd, who are not only experts in the field but also incredibly knowledgeable about Khmer cultures and tradition.

My favorite faculty & staff (Missing Dave, our Director)

You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
I love the peaceful atmosphere no matter where we visited in Cambodia. I am impressed by the Khmer people who are down to earth, hospitable, and kindhearted. The majestic metropolis of Angkor, the breathtaking sight of mangrove forests in Kampot, Phnom Kulen mountain with the carvings at Kbal Speal, Prek Toal core area, famous for the largest endangered waterbird colonies in Southeast Asia, and the Mekong River, inhabited freshwater dolphin Irrawaddy… these are just a few examples of the amazing places I’ve been able to explore this semester.

Pelicans in Prek Toal core area, Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve

What is life at the field station really like? What are the best and the most challenging parts of living at a remote field station?
The field station is a home that we can spend time in to regain our energy after every field trip. We have a balcony to study, sleep, stretch after class, and listen to all the sounds of the life at the outskirts of Siem Reap. All of the students often have movie nights, studying nights, and ice-cream/snack parties in the lounge, which is a great space for relaxing or having a break. The station is very close to downtown Siem Reap, so we often take a tuk-tuk to town to get a change of atmosphere.

What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
Time management is vital in this program, because the intensive schedule requires students to push themselves. However, it is fortunate that SFS Cambodia has a group of supportive professors and staff who always try their best to help everyone.

What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
Hiking to Bokor mountain, a beautiful mountain with high biodiversity in Kampot province where massive economic plan threatens to eradicate everything, was a depressing but important experience. Visiting Cat Tien National Park in my home country of Vietnam to learn about the conservation management and the rights of indigenous communities living inside the park also gave me so much to think critically about. Being in Cambodia during two important national holidays, Pchum Ben and Water Festival, also allowed me to learn more about the culture of this beautiful country. Last but not least, our community engagement experiences in which we taught environmental lessons at the HUSK community school was one of the most meaningful SFS activities for me.

One of our two teams teaching the students to make jumping ropes from plastic bags

Give three adjectives that best describes how you are feeling right now.
Grateful, Empowered, and Dazzled.

Two rangers helping us to gather fish data for Directed Research in Prek Toal core area.


First impression of my abroad semester in Cambodia

Why did you choose to study abroad with SFS?
I was so lucky to learn about the study abroad program with SFS very early through my Environmental Science department at Hollins University. When I saw there was a program in Cambodia/Vietnam, the idea of conducting a research about the region where I was born and grew up made me excited to attend this SFS program. Additionally, directly hearing about the experiences of SFS alum, Kayla Deur, who is also studying at Hollins, is another factor that brought me to Cambodia with SFS.

What are your first impressions of the country?
The beautiful architecture of Siem Reap International Airport, which resembles Buddhist temples, blew me away after a long, never-ending flight. The hot tropical air and humidity made me sweaty in only five minutes after landing off the airplane. It is a good sweat, notifying me that I am actually coming back to the tropics and starting an appealing semester in Cambodia. I thought I was coming back home when I saw more motor scooters and bicycles than cars and more local markets than giant grocery stores in Siem Reap. This city possesses a mixture of various communities: from the dynamic zones of the downtown to placid roads of small villages around our Center. What strikes me most is the splendid appearance of the Angkor temples and the brilliance of ancient Khmer society.

What are your first impressions of the field station?
It is incredible to have a chance to stay and study with other students, faculty, and staff in the guesthouse equipped with an enjoyable lounge, an amazing opening-air terrace with a ping pong table, and a small, but beautifully diverse, garden. This small station has become a minimized version of my school campus: cozy, convenient, and full of amazing people. However, the field station is only a few minutes away from the downtown of Siem Reap, which allows us to explore the vibrant aspects of this small city. Last but not least, I am feeling like living in a heaven full of delicious meals of authentic Cambodian food, which satisfies my craving for seafood and tropical fruits.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you this semester both academically and culturally?
SFS program has an intensive schedule that requires students to push forward every day. I see myself having some struggles with time management in order to fulfill the academic requirements, get exposed to new places with my schoolmates, and have time to recharge.

What are you looking forward to the most about the semester?
I am really excited for our monthlong field trip along Mekong River to the southeast of Vietnam, which I haven’t had a chance to visit before. It will be challenging but thrilling for all of us to learn and study in these different regions. All the field trips will be the most intriguing and valuable learning experiences for the students.

Give three words that best describe how you are feeling right now.
Sweaty, vigorous, and restless.

Film about hydropower in Cambodia and Mekong Basin

This powerful movie will convey a terrific picture of not only the issue of damming in the Mekong River, one of the world’s largest water resources, but also the land and people of Cambodia.


More information about the effects of dams in Cambodia can be found in this article on the Phnom Penh Post:

Anlong Pi: a disclosure of a community located near a landfill in Cambodia

The stories of foreigners visiting Anlong Pi, the community located near a landfill did not surprise me. I have known and heard of similar situations happening in some Vietnamese provinces. I have seen children and elderly generations collecting water bottles, glasses, and any other recyclable items to exchange for money. However, I haven’t known any dump site that people spend their whole day scavenging for recyclable materials. The stories of Anlong Pi, a landfill not far from the Angkor Wat temple, where thousands of tourists, visitors, and scholars visit, has struck me.

They can earn only $1-2 on average everyday for their arduous work (about 8 pounds for one dollar).


Sustainable development: key environmental issues in Cambodia

This developing country is facing global environmental effects of climate change, like any other country. While attempting to achieve economic growth to reduce hunger and poverty, this kingdom has been depleting its richness: its land and its people. The issue here is not only about depletion of natural resources, but it is more about poverty. Cambodian might show their indifference about the fact that carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has reached 400 ppm, but the majority of them would concern more about the poor crop yields triggered by scorching drought and sudden deluge of flooding. The article by Emily Wight on the Phnom Penh Post clearly state epitomized a farmer’s thinking about climate change, which mainly knows forest destruction as the cause of extreme flooding and drought. Climate change tremendously hits this poor, agricultural country, which is clearly seen by the food security crisis.

Primary environmental problems are mainly consisted of deforestation due to illegal logging, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and water resource management.

  • Deforestation: According to USAID, Cambodia has confronted a significant rate of deforestation and biodiversity loss when only one fourth of the land is protected by the government. Standing among the countries with the highest deforestation rate (1.2%, World Bank (2012)). 59% of total land area is covered by forests, decreasing from 73% prior to 1970. Cambodian are suffering from other closely related environmental problems including land degradation, freshwater depletion, and extinction of endangered species.
  • Loss of biodiversity: this kingdom provided home to a variety of flora and fauna, especially endangered species and large mammals like Asian elephants, Javan rhino, and Sambar deer. Due to illegal wildlife trade, land conversion, and urbanization, many species’ extinctions are accelerating.
  • Land use: two main problems: farmers have no land to use and their lands are poor; land concessions are given to large foreign corporations.
  • Hydropower dam constructions at upstream countries: Damming is a recent environmental issue of this country as it relies on the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Lake for water resources, hydropower energy, and fishery. The tradeoff between producing clean energy and keeping food security has drawn public attention to sustain the livelihood of communities.
  • Floods and droughts are considered as the main natural disaster, which is becoming more and more unpredictable.
  • Waste disposal and management: solid and hazardous waste is disposed and burned improperly, which causes tremendous health and environmental effects on local communities, especially rural ones near the landfills.

Key drivers of the degradation of forests and biodiversity:

  • population growth + increasing population density + income inequality
  • unsustainable use of natural resources due to export-led demands
  • lack of education and commitment on environmental protection at national and local levels.
  • poor infrastructure
  • weak governance


Molly Bergen. (2013). In Cambodia, Environmental Challenges Mirror the Past. Retrieved from

Ministry of Environment. (2009) National Sustainable Development Strategy for Cambodia. 

National Report for Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. (2012)

Buddhism’s impacts in Cambodian ethics

“Environmental ethics addresses how man ought to live in harmony with his environment”. Buddhism’s understanding of nature actually shares common beliefs in recognizing nature. With a long history coexistence of this country and Buddhism, Cambodian daily life must traditionally convey their bonding with the environment as sacred and ethical dimensions in certain ways. Stone carvings in the ancient temples and inscriptions prove the Cambodian regard towards the nature as their mother. However, due to the recent rapid population growth leading to increasing need and greed, they are losing their perspectives by using extensively natural resources, especially timber, rubber, and fish.

Theravada buddhism, which is not affected by Hindu rituals or the divinity of kings, is the current form in Cambodia. Phorst’s study has pointed out three essential views of Buddhist perspectives:

Buddhist believe that human beings should learn the lesson of a bee collecting pollen from a flower. Monkhood teaches “Four Habitual Practices” that are worth applying into environmental conservation and preservation: “to wander around for alms; to wear simple, used clothes; to live at the bases of trees; and to use natural medicines”. Their ethics oppose the notion of unlimited desires and the concepts of materialism and consumerism.

Buddhist sanctify trees and regards the preservation of forest through rituals like tree ordination as a way to purify their minds. Their gratitude towards the plant world can be expressed by their method of protecting trees: “wrapping a saffron robe around the trunks to signify the sacredness of all trees.

According to Buddha, all beings have their values and should be relieved from fear and pain. There is no hierarchy order that diminishes animal rights.

With 95% of population following the faith of Buddhism, Cambodia can sustain their wealth accumulation to bring its citizens out of poverty as well as protect the environment if they are conductive to Buddhist beliefs. There is hope to develop potential strategies for sustainable development in this cultural-rich country.

Chandler, D. P. (1991). The land and people of Cambodia. HarperCollins Publishers.
Phorst, C. (2012). An Implementation of Buddhist Environmental Ethics for Sustainable Development in Cambodia. Prajna Vihara, 13(1-2).

Cambodia’s economy: does high growth rate mean sustainable development?

A diversity of ecosystems and natural resources has provided the input for production and supported the high economic growth for Cambodia in the last decade. However, this growth has neither lifted the majority out of poverty nor protected the environment from degradation.

First, let’s take a look at some of the economic indicators of this kingdom:

Annual growth rate of Cambodia’s economy was 7.7% on average from 1994 to 2011. The national income of Cambodia quadrupled during this period, standing at $909 in 2011. 4 main sectors contributing to the Cambodian economy include agriculture, industry (garments), tourism, and construction.


One of the essential Cambodia’s objectives is  to create youth employment to improve agricultural economy and upgrade environmental management. A weak governance with corruption, abuse of power, and lack of transparency is one of the main reasons.

(Need to add: Table 1: Real GDP Per Capita Growth comparison)

Among developing countries, Cambodia’s growth rate is high but it contains potential unsustainable progress. This country has depended on large aid inflows. One of the main economic challenges that a developing country with a low starting base like Cambodia is upgrade human and physical capital base and institutional infrastructure. Cambodia has to keep up with other countries in labor skills, market institutions, and governance.

Following are critical issues of economic development in Cambodia:

  • This small economy is highly susceptible to external economic changes as it relies much on aid inflows.
  • Production is gained by a narrow group of industries.
  • Lack of high-skilled labor for industry sector is another significant constraint
  • It is ironic that while the majority of this kingdom survive thanks to agriculture, the productivity is extremely low because of underdeveloped irrigation systems.
  • Trade deficit is raising an inquiry for the production of valued products and improve productivity.
  • The steady growth rates in the last ten years has come at environmental and social costs such as high deforestation rate, land degradation, and increasing inequality.


Ek, G. (2013). Cambodia Environmental and Climate Change Policy Brief.Sida’s Helpdesk for Environment and Climate Change, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

National Report for Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. (2012). Retrieved from

IMF. (2014). Cambodia: Selected Issues. Retrieved from