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Constructive Cambodian


Having recently returned from two months in Europe, Kounila Keo has a better understanding of the world and, more importantly, a better understanding of herself. Here, she writes about the challenges posed by foreign places and the invaluable benefits to those who maintain a strong will and open mind

Regardless of where you live travelling can be costly, but it is barely a consideration for many people in Cambodia, where 30% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

But should we settle for staying static in this ever changing and evermore competitive world, abundant with opportunity to improve oneself and one’s society?

I suppose the answer to this question varies based on how much you value the long-term social impact that travelling can have on those lucky enough to travel.

Waking up with the comforts of home one day and falling asleep in a completely exotic country can be a huge physical challenge that one must cope with, ultimately the positive outcomes will offset any difficulties a traveller might experience. Moving beyond the familiar will make you yearn for more, and that is why I’m always ready for my next move.

You don’t need to travel to another continent or have a specific purpose in mind to reap the benefits of travel. Whether a business transaction in the nearest city or a religious pilgrimage halfway across the world, travelling promises to excite and expand your mind.

So, if travelling is both highly important and expensive, the pressing question, especially for Cambodians, is how to make the best use of the limited chances we get to move away from our communities, albeit temporarily.

One thing that travelling can’t do, is allow you to escape responsibility or forget your problems. I had a friend that ventured to the West to escape her problems, but upon her return, I was struck by how little she had learned about herself or the places she visited. What you get out of travelling, wherever you go, will ultimately depend on what is going on in your mind, and how open and honest you are willing to be.

The most important part of every trip, for me, is advancing my quest for knowledge. Travelling is an eye opener for those who take the pains to get up and go, and along the way one will continue to pay the price for personal improvement Picking up new skills, exploring and becoming more familiar with foreign cultures are, in my viewpoint, the keys to returning from your travels a better person.  

My latest knowledge quest was in the form of a two-month course on Multimedia and Online Journalism in Germany, a cold land 20 hours by plane from Cambodia, where smoke rises from your mouth as you speak.

Upon arriving, I joined a diverse group of fellow journalism students and soon learned that my four years of journalism training as a student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh taught me many things that others in the programme didn’t know and left out things familiar to the others.

This is an example of another truism towards travelling; it can enrich our own appreciation for culture while also helping us heighten our sensitivity to the opinions, perceptions of others by understanding how people are shaped, in many ways, by their native culture.

I never felt adequately prepared on the trip, so communicating with nearly 20 people from more than 10 countries was extremely challenging, often requiring all the sensitivity I could muster. Tolerance was a necessity, especially when no common ground seemed to exist. In one instance, as we talked about ‘search engine optimization’, gender issues emerged from nowhere and continued to distract from the discussion like gravel crunching beneath our feet.

I have a fairly vivid memory of the world around me that day, but even as it fades, the importance of that incident will remain with me. It taught me to always hold back my most extreme emotions in front of others and instead be willing to accept disparities. You may not understand what I’m talking about, but that is to be expected as the lessons learned from travelling require more than reading books or magazines, especially when it comes to human emotions and feelings.

Apart from dealing with a diversity of people, I also visited cities with disparate identities, and while they each prospered in their own way and contributed to rising living standards in the country, almost every aspect of life in Europe’s biggest economy has naturally remained friendly and simple.

The final revelation I will share from my own travels is this: travelling empowers me.

Newly-won freedom, independence and responsibility, which I have been seeking since my travels commenced, came from two months lived in Germany, where the physical features, languages, food, and attitudes were drastically different from those in Cambodia. I continually became more self-dependent and conscious as life was suddenly much busier, requiring me to catch an early bus or train from my apartment, on my own, and take the two hour trip to and from class. Mind you, I was also tasked with cooking for myself, which I rarely do when living at home.

While there are countless lessons left out of this column, those who have not travelled are unlikely to understand even those lessons that are included, and I challenge all of you to leave familiar surroundings and learn the invaluable lessons of travel on your own. The findings of an American researcher friend help illustrate the importance of travel. After her one month tour of the country, she told me that she noted that those who had travelled were significantly more open-minded and intellectually empowered. Travelling in her informal study wasn’t defined as leaving the country, it only meant that someone has been exposed to an unfamiliar place and experienced the accompanying similarities and differences, rather than viewing them through an author or camera lens.

It is this delineation, between being told about something and experiencing it in the flesh, that explains why we hear so many stories of how travelling changed lives. For instance, a well-travelled, dear friend of mine told me two years ago, “you can’t measure yourself by consulting those close to you, not that they don’t know anything about you, but you will only get to know your true self by going to unfamiliar places.”

While living in a foreign country for a few years is sure to teach you to appreciate the differences in people, it’s not realistic for everyone. Grab any opportunity that comes your way. It can be a three day conference, a week-long vacation, or a two-month course in modern media methods. You will return a different person from the one who departed, as long as you don’t forget to bring yourself along for the trip.

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