Thank you Cambodia

For two weeks I was lucky enough to be a part of the Engineers Without Borders Design Summit trip to Cambodia in July 2019.  We flew into Phnom Penh and learnt all about the history, language, culture and customs of the Cambodian people for the first week of our trip.  This included workshops with a language teacher, a cultural lesson, learning about human centred design and visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and S21 Genocide museum.  The second week of our trip we stayed in remote communities in the Kratie Province to fully immerse ourselves by doing homestays and living with the families.  We formed groups and interviewed people within the community to understand how they live and work.  At the end of the homestay we created an idea to better the community and presented these to the community leaders. 

Before my trip I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want to think of what it would be like just in case I would get scared or nervous.  I really wanted to be able to learn something about myself, but I was unsure how I would be able to do this as I didn’t have an itinerary. Looking back now, I am glad that I didn’t have any expectations before the trip as it meant that I was living in the moment and took each day at a time.  I really enjoyed working with lots of different students from all over Australia.

Figure 1: My Group ‘Giant Ibis’ wearing matching Cambodian tops at our Graduation Night

Doing the workshops in Phnom Penh were helpful to be able to understand the country and the Cambodian people as the lessons gave us background to the country. We did workshops with a few Cambodian’s including a language lesson, learning about how to speak the native Cambodian language called Khmer.  This became helpful when we did homestays as the families are not able to speak English.  A second workshop we had was a cultural lesson with a young woman called Lea Phea who taught us the “Do’s and Don’t’s” of Cambodian culture.  She emphasised the importance of family in Cambodian culture and how it is the centre of their lives.  Lea Phea also talked about her life and the impact of the Khmer Rouge on her family and she started crying when she talked about how she doesn’t have any grandparents as they were killed during the genocide and she will never be able to meet them.  I was really upset when I saw her crying in front of us when she was describing how she wants to meet them but never will. 

Figure 2: My group with Lea Phea (in the left corner) after her cultural workshop

An amazing Cambodian woman I met was at the Russian Markets while we were doing an empathetic workshop which involved us talking to strangers and asking them about their lives.  She was running a bag stall at the markets and was very friendly and approachable and talked to us about how she runs her family’s stall every day from 6am to 5pm.  We were astonished and asked her if she has ever thought about going on a holiday and she said no.  Her siblings are all older and married, so she left school at 15 to work at the shop and has been doing so for the past 8 years of her life.  Her aspiration is to study English as her friends are studying at university and don’t have to work every day like her.  Her smile and laugh were so contagious and made me realise that you don’t need to have money to be happy. 

Other workshops we did were on human centred design and taking a strengths-based approach that are helpful when working on an engineering project.  The most impactful part was when we visited the Genocide Museum which was solemn and despairing.  Seeing the torture and death that occurred only 40 years ago was confronting and made me empathise with the Cambodian people. It made me realise that I didn’t know a lot about their history and their culture, but I now have a new appreciation for the country and people.

I stayed at Koh Pdao, a small village on an island along the Mekong River and we stayed with different families within the community and interviewed people to understand their values, strengths and issues in the village to create teams.  It was interesting to be able to talk to the doctor, who was the most well off in the village as he had a flatscreen tv and sent all his children to University.  In comparison, I was staying at the village chief’s home and he had one light bulb and his children were farmers helping him on the rice patty fields.  It was also very intriguing to talk to people who weren’t involved in tourism as they were poorer and unable to send their children to high school as they couldn’t afford buying a bike for them to travel.  My group aimed at getting more of the villagers involved in tourism that are not currently involved.  We created a three day itinerary package for tourists to spend more time and money in the Koh Pdao community with the inclusion of new activities such as ploughing in the rice fields and cooking classes which are aimed to get families who are not currently involved in homestays to participate in tourism to receive another form of income.

Figure 3: My home stay family with myself and my roommate at the front

I learnt a lot about myself, engineering processes and Cambodian culture.  Immersing ourselves within the community proved an invaluable experience as it allowed us to fully understand their needs and lives by sleeping in their homes, ploughing in the rice fields and eating with them. 

I learnt how to take a strengths-based approach which means focusing on the positives of the systems that are currently in place and concentrating on making these better rather than fixing on what it is missing.  Taking this approach allowed us to create a solution that the community would implement, as it is culturally appropriate and builds upon an already existing system.  We realised that tourism has significantly increased the community’s standard of living, but there are still a few families who are not involved, so we wanted to work on this strength so that more people are involved. 

Figure 4: My group after ploughing in the mother and grandfather’s (in the centre) rice patty fields

I have previously taken a human centred approach to engineering projects at university, but not like how we did in Cambodia which was an incredible insight into the importance of talking to all stakeholders rather than focusing on design and ideation.  I learnt the importance of focusing on stakeholders and understanding their needs, wants and concerns.  This proved important as we were able to understand what they wanted rather than what we thought they wanted to change.

The most important key learning experience was understanding and appreciating another culture. Before the trip I didn’t think much of Cambodia as I had not heard of it much.  Living with a Cambodian family and talking to lots of different people allowed me to appreciate their way of living.  I want to be able to apply this when working as an engineer so that I can be more understanding and empathetic with stakeholders.

Figure 5: Me at the front of a temple with offerings of flowers and incense

My plans are still the same, but my motivation, mindset and attitude have changed.  I want to be able to make an impact on the lives of others using biomedical engineering, but I want to impact those that are less fortunate and living in third world countries.  I want to be able to use the humanitarian engineering that I learnt on my trip and apply it to my degree and career to help others.  I want to take a strength-based and human centred approach to my work and personal life as it allows me to understand the stakeholders and their needs much better.  I want to do more travelling and homestays to immerse in different cultures and become empathetic to other cultures and appreciate what I have at home in Australia.

P.S. If you ever have the opportunity to go on a BUILD trip – definitely go for it and apply! Going to Cambodia has to be the most life changing experience I have ever had and I highly recommend everyone to at least apply. You’ll never know what it’s like until you’re there 🙂

Georgia Kirkpatrick-Jones
Bachelor of Engineering (Biomedical)/Diploma of Professional Practice


Applications for the Summer 2019/2020 Engineers Without Borders Cambodia close September 1st 2019. See our database for more information: bit.ly/BUILDAbroadEWB

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