GOVT 3434: Chinese Empire and the Cambodian Experience

By: Austin McLaughlin '18

Arriving back in chilly, cloudy Ithaca for the spring semester was in stark contrast to the 95-degree sunny days in Cambodia. Altogether, I spent 14 days in Siem Reap and 5 in Phnom Penh. I didn't get a tan, but I did leave with an enriching experience.

This is in part because GOVT 3434 was not like other classes. While the course offers a few days of in-class lecture, it was largely centered on guest speakers, field trips, and on-site lectures. Led by Professor Andrew Mertha, the course delved into questions about the relationship between China and Cambodia and brought in unique political, anthropological, and archeological perspectives in addition to the complex history between the two countries.

While the course mainly focused on Cambodia’s recent history, it still left room for sightseeing of the ancient temples. Notably, Cambodia is the only nation in the world to fly a flag proudly emblazoned with old ruins, and deservedly so, as Angkor Wat is the most magnificent structure I have ever laid my eyes on. The walled complex is huge for something built in the 12th century, and its stone carvings are both intricate and expansive. Later, our class toured the smiling Buddha faces at Bayon and the giant trees growing on the ruins of Ta Prohm. These temples are all representative of Cambodia’s rich cultural history, a source of pride for the country to this day.

Of particular relevance for the course, we had the opportunity to attend the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a tribunal to convict leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Less than 50 feet from us, through a glass pane, was Khieu Samphan, the president of Democratic Kampuchea and the man responsible for the deaths of 2 million people. Seeing his unmoving face was truly a surreal experience. Truly, never did I think I would eat whole frogs, trek through jungles, or even get a massage. Cornell in Cambodia allowed me to try new things and opened my eyes to a different perspective on the world. Thinking about it several weeks later, I am brought back to this original question: why Cambodia?

For me, it was about adventure. I wanted to find the edgiest possible study abroad program offered by Cornell, one that would also offer me intellectual growth. While Cambodia is not a Rome, Madrid, or Berlin study abroad, it remains a unique opportunity for personal enrichment. Before Cambodia, I had no conception of a developing country, much less how a population views and responds to a world dominated by the West. Afterward, I grew to appreciate the abundance and availability of products in the U.S. and the privileged position we live in. The winter course also remains a great option for those who don’t want to miss a full semester in Ithaca, like me, because they love being on campus. I am very thankful for being able to go on this rewarding and transformational trip, as not only was it one of the best experiences I have had at Cornell, but also in my life. Shout-out to the Center for Khmer Studies (CKS) as well as Mr. Pheng, our facilitator, for making this trip possible.

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 Austin at Angkor Wat