Super-size portions, Native American Indian reservations and a respect for the environment were all part of an eye-opening trip to the US recently undertaken by local translator and tour guide Chhon Chhea Yut.
Yut was selected, along with an Oddar Meanchey NGO director, from 200 applicants to spend six weeks in Montana and Washington DC, as part of the University of Montana’s US State Department-sponsored ‘Professional Fellows Economic Empowerment Program.’
The exchange program, now in its third year, is designed to broaden participants’ professional expertise, and to “support mid-level Southeast Asian professionals… with concrete skills they can use to generate economic growth.”
The program involves work placements, conferences and business skills training, as well a ‘cultural introduction to the US’ through a two-week homestay with an American family.
“They take 14 young emerging leaders from Southeast Asia to the US to connect with professionals,” says Chhon. “The main goal is to foster mutual understanding between US and Southeast Asia, and also to learn more about American culture, and how private sectors and the government work together.”
Yut says a personal highlight was living with retired couple Jeff and Vicky Tiberi in Helena, Montana’s capital. Yut, who runs his own tour company, Angkor Walkers, was placed with them because Jeff also formerly worked in the tourism industry.
“You get a chance to learn about US family lifestyle, how it’s structured,” Yut says. “It’s quite different from Cambodia where everyone stays at home, six or seven kids in one room, there’s no privacy. And where most people drop out of school early – they don’t value education especially in the countryside.
“They placed me with a countryside family but it seems like most of the kids were finishing masters degrees or PHDs. And no one stays home when they finish school –it’s only mum and dad. So it seems like freedom and individualism is really strong.
Kids can travel even when they finish high school. I found it very interesting.”
Jeff also coached Yut in staff management, recruitment and work-related problem solving.
Trips to Yellowstone Park and Glacier National Park were also inspirational, particularly as ex-monk Yut plans to expand his business into an eco and Buddhist tour company later this year.
“I went to the US hoping to learn about how tourism can support and improve community, in terms of responsible tourism,” he says. “In my present business I’m providing tours to people visiting Angkor Wat, but I want to incorporate environmental themes.
“All around the country there are lots of environmental activists who are monks trying to protect the country’s resources. For example, in Oddar Meanchey there’s a monk who’s won lots of awards for his work. We can bring people there to do trekking and learn from them.
“There are also monk activists in Battambang and Tatai in Koh Kong who are trying to protect the jungle, so we can learn about that and Buddhism at the same time.
“What I saw in the US was how people preserve their resources. In Montana they have trees like we do here, but people really seem to respect the environment. They’re more educated about preserving resources for the benefits of tourism and also for the world – it’s important to have that beautiful and unpolluted nature to live in.
“So it’s pretty sad when you look back at Cambodia and see lots of illegal loggings, land-grabbings and economic land concessions, but having gone to those national parks in the US and seen how nature is still intact and the effort they put into protecting it, I think why don’t we do this here?
“I can’t change the government but maybe there’s a small part I can play in educating travellers. People can stay in those communities in homestays, and the locals can benefit. And instead of cutting trees down for charcoal maybe they can do something for tourism.”
Another eye-opener was a visit to some of Montana’s Indian reservations.
“I was so surprised that there were independent countries within the US,” Yut says. “They’re called reservations or nations – eight independent countries in Montana itself. We got a chance to go to three of those countries and learn about their government – they have their own president, their own economy.”
Blackfeet Country, however, he says stood out from the other two reservations.
“As soon as I reached the border, I felt like I was back in Cambodia,” he says. “Casinos, bad roads, and people there told me that corruption is really bad. There are problems with alcoholism and there was trash everywhere. I was shocked.”
He added that the people “look Cambodian, and when you learn about their beliefs you feel like they’re even closer to us. They believe in spirits, they talk a lot about how they respect nature and their main motivation is hunting.”
One aspect of American culture that left Yut reeling was the size of the food portions.
“In Missoula we got the chance to explore the city and every time we went to an American restaurant I was so surprised by the portions. Oh my god, they were so big – lunch and dinner, I don’t know how people can finish it,” recalls Yut. “I always took half the food home in a doggy bag.”
He was also surprised to find the country so multicultural.
“Whenever I thought of America I always thought of white people,” he says. “I never realised it was so diverse. Missoula is a college city, and I was so surprised by it – I realised you cannot really define what authentic American food is or an American city.”
He adds that he asked his mentor Jeff what constituted a real American city.
“Jeff said, ‘What do you mean? There is no such thing. Everyone’s from all over the world – that’s America’.”
Yut concludes, “I think the whole experience has really helped me a lot, to help me shape my tour company based on American expectations, because most of my customers are from America. Now it seems like I know more about their expectations in terms of culture, food, time efficiency and communication – and that’s the aim.”