Art & Social Action in Cambodia

Hello SHABL,

Today I am reminiscing about my first and only trip to Southeast Asia. Cambodia, to be exact.

Oddly enough, Cambodia had never been a thought in my travel-obsessed mind until the opportunity to go there for school credit came my way in 2005. I was 21 and it was in the early days of my career as a “gypsy”. Up until then I had mostly been interested in traveling to Europe, but when I learned about this Art & Social Action in Cambodia course my school was offering, I thought it would be an excellent chance to learn more about this part of the world and diversify my travel portfolio.

Upon telling my parents that I wanted to do this, my mom was like “WHAT. No way” and my dad… well, he wasn’t explicitly against it, but all of a sudden literature on landmines and Pol Pot started appearing on my desk out of nowhere. A couple of weeks went by when my prospects really weren’t looking so good then finally I was able to convince them that it was actually a great idea for me to go. Not only was it a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it was for a good cause, the Khmer Rouge was out of power, and hey, I really needed the school credit. So I went.

There were twenty-six other students from my school who also went and I knew none of them. Most of them were from the Art Education department and ended up clinging to each other (I was the International Studies outsider). That’s why I’d actually consider this my first experience in “solo” traveling because I mostly did my own thing when we weren’t in class.

Cambodia turned out to be one of the kindest countries I have ever visited. You give a dude $1 to take you somewhere on his motorbike and he will sit and wait – sometimes for hours – then drive you back. Not just kind, but honest. That was my impression, but then again I didn’t wander off too far from familiar territory or go out partying late at night by my lonesome. For the three weeks I was there I mostly stayed in Phnom Penh because we had class and community service Monday-Friday, but halfway through we all went to Siem Reap for a couple of days to check out Angkor Wat. Photos of that are here.

Traveling to Southeast Asia for the first time was rad, seeing Angkor Wat was amazing, but actually the thing that left the biggest impression on me from that trip was hanging out with these girls below (and one boy). This is part of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights (CCPCR) – a rehabilitation shelter for children rescued from child labor and sex trafficking – and where I spent most of my time.

For the duration of the course, we teamed up with Cambodian students from Pannasastra University (PUC) and developed art projects that we could work on with the kids at CCPCR – our largest one being a huge mural that we painted in their bedroom. Why all the art? I didn’t really understand at first but then it became quite apparent why it was such an integral part of the program. At the heart of it was the belief that art can be used as a medium for empowering. Not only is it empowering; it is extremely therapeutic. It can also transcend culture and social inequality which made the language barrier less of an issue.  The art projects served as a perfectly non-confrontational way for them to vent their frustrations and even helped build confidence.

As warm and gentle as I found Cambodia, the dark side is that it is plagued with poverty-induced child labor, nasty sex trafficking and an extremely large population of orphaned children whose parents have died from AIDS. It is the poorest country in Southeast Asia and still recovering from a brutal civil war so not surprising that so many families and children are easily lured in by the promise of money. Most of these girls were not kidnapped or forced into a life of slavery by the criminals running it; they were actually sold into it by their parents or made the decision themselves because they thought it was the only way they could survive.

It wouldn’t be enough for me to tell you this was a life changing experience. It is one thing to learn about a place or a problem from afar, but so much more affecting when you are there hearing about it and dealing with it first hand. Volunteer/study abroad programs are such a great way to get yourself out there in the world, especially to places you might not otherwise visit. This trip made a huge impact on me for a lot of different reasons, but from a traveler’s perspective, I’d say it is what made me realize that traveling is the best form of education I could have and the main reason I will never stop.

Interested in learning more about CCPCR? Check out their website for ways you can donate/volunteer.


  1. Megan

    May 23, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    this is so inspiring larissa! what a cool way to see a country you may have otherwise not have been able to see. and this inspires me most because im going there in 2 1/2 weeks 😉

    • Larissa

      May 23, 2012 at 2:04 pm

      You are??? Did I miss something or is it a surprise? Need to catch up with your blog! How exciting! Wish I could go back with you 🙂

      • Megan

        May 23, 2012 at 2:23 pm

        ohhh i didnt announce it there…in fact i probably wont until im actually there (only to update the boyfriend occasionally). im just ‘backpacking’ (well, my idea of it anyways) through thailand, cambodia, laos, vietnam…or wherever i end up. i have had a rough few weeks here because i landed an amazing job and the immigration office wouldnt allow me to work until they processed my visa…which in norway everything shuts down in july. therefore the company had to rescind the offer because i had to be in place june 18. this is the THIRD time this has happened. gosh forbid one have a degree in marketing or mba in international business…it has created a nightmare on my behalf. anywaysss…enough of the negative. but that is the reasoning why the trip was booked haha. i need an escape. if you have any cambodia tips or tips anywhere around se asia…please fire them my way. or just come with and show me in person. 🙂 i picked rainy season to go obviously so it will be quite the adventure im sure 🙂

        • Larissa

          May 23, 2012 at 2:39 pm

          Wow, that is horrible about the job but awesome you are going to Asia! Soooo wish I could join you but actually need to work on extending my visa in Sweden as well as finish my thesis. Wondering how long you are going to be there for? I may be heading up to Norway in July or August so hope I don’t miss you. Will let you know if I think of anything re: Cambodia but in the meantime study this blog – Rob has been everywhere !

          • Megan

            May 23, 2012 at 10:33 pm

            i definitely need to begin blog stalking soon everyone who has been there to get some ideas so im not lounging in hammocks (or roachy hostels) for too long 😉

            im going to be there from like june 7/8 until around july 5ish. then i head to the US the following week for about 2 weeks but i havent purchased a ticket yet so that is still up in the air. i definitely want to see you when you come to norway! i think, if you’re not in oslo the whole time, you’ll find it really beautiful! are you done with school?? good luck extending your visa…hope they are more accepting than this dang country (well norway is accepting…but only to certain immigrants and i clearly dont make the cut).

  2. Magic Travel Andrew

    May 31, 2012 at 3:49 am

    Hi. It was lovely to read a positive story about Cambodia. We’ve been in Siem Reap for something like 5 weeks now. We’ll get to Phnom Penh eventually. There’s so many negative stories around about the past and the present that positives can get overshadowed.

    Without wanting to be a downer, for anyone else considering volunteering, do your homework. Unfortunately, not everything may be as it seems as there are always though looking to make a fast buck.

  3. Larissa

    June 1, 2012 at 5:56 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Andrew. Horrible to read about but very important that people interested in ‘voluntourism’ are aware. I only hope stories like these don’t have a negative impact on the organizations who really are trying to make a difference and not a fast buck by scaring potential volunteers off. Hope you are having a great time in Cambodia and safe travels.

  4. mila

    July 1, 2012 at 6:21 am

    very nice blog entry 🙂
    i like how you write and how you think about this wonderful country.

    regards from switzerland

    • Larissa

      July 1, 2012 at 8:18 am

      Thanks a lot, Mila. It really is s wonderful place 🙂

  5. Isobel

    July 3, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Great blog and fabulous to read that about your good work with CCPCR. I first went to Cambodia in 1997, when tanks were driving in the streets and the country was in its political/democratic infancy. The people were amazingly stoic and surprisingly gentle and honest so it’s good to hear that some things,at least, stay the same!
    Best wishes from the UK

    • Larissa

      July 4, 2012 at 2:01 am

      It was a really great experience and I’d love to go back and see how things have progressed with the org. Can’t believe it was already 7 years ago that I was there. I’m sure a lot of things have changed although in some of the more recent travelers’ accounts I have read, gentle and honest seem to remain choice words for describing Cambodia. Thanks for the comment, Isobel!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read previous post:
Making Moves & Fly Fishing on Little Corn

Good day, Yours truly sits at the Sunset Shack on one of the worst days I've seen since arriving. The...