The bus from Poipet to Siem Reap rolled past wooden houses on stilts, children playing in the dirt, chalk-colored cattle with jutting spines and people: herding ducks or fishing with nets in the vast mud puddles left by the monsoon season or riding together on motorbikes, perhaps dangling a child alongside. Every now and then, the scene streaming past the windows featured new construction: a hotel, a university building, a casino. The bus paused at a brand-new tourist stop that served cold drinks and Asian food. Two years ago it didn’t exist, said one of the bus passengers, Calvin biology professor David Dornbos. “Cambodia is on the move,” he observed, adding: “I guess I am a little surprised by some of the things that are being built and how it’s being developed.”

Also aboard the bus were 25 Calvin students from a variety of majors, engineering professor Leonard de Rooy and two instructors, all of whom spent the month of January on the “Transforming Cambodia” interim. The group traveled throughout Cambodia, visiting villages, schools, orphanages and non-governmental organizations to see how development works in that country.

“We’re trying to overcome the demons of our past, but we’re not very good at it,” Theary Seng described the current situation in Cambodia. Seng is a political activist and the author of Daughter of the Killing Fields, her memoir of growing up during the era of the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist movement that arose in the country during the years immediately following the Vietnam War. From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge—themselves Cambodians—tortured and killed approximately 1.7 million of their country’s population (according to the Cambodian Information Center). The generations since that era have struggled to establish educational systems, businesses and effective leadership, according to the development professionals the Calvin students met while in the country.

Before learning about development efforts, the “Transforming Cambodia” group played tourist at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. “Our time in Bangkok, touring the palace … is to allow the students to transition into the new time zone—12 hours different— as well as transition into the Asian culture,” de Rooy said.

And when the Calvin group crossed into Cambodia, it toured Angkor Wat and other ruined temples of the Khmer civilization. “Angkor Wat was awesome … ,” said junior interdisciplinary major Abbie Belford. “I have been to historic places before but never to an ancient place. Knowing it was designed by mathematicians, astronomers and architects—I just felt like I was in the presence of greatness.”

The tourism in Siem Reap also had a purpose: “When we are in Siem Reap, we go to the Angkor temples first so that they can get a glimpse of what almost all tourists are there for,” said de Rooy. “Most of the tourists spend only one or two days in Cambodia—to see the Angkor temples. They fly in, visit the temples, and fly out … Last year, there were more than 2.5 million tourists that came to Siem Reap to see the temples, so the tourist industry is a big industry for Cambodia.”

The Calvin group also visited the New International Builders Community (NIBC), a Korean-run organization of schools: two kindergartens, a first grade and a prep school named Ephpha-tha (Hebrew for “Be thou opened”).

The NIBC—whose hidden name is Not I, But Christ—was founded in 2005 by Hakchul Kim, an architecture professor at Handong Global University (HGU) in South Korea, who also led the first “Transforming Cambodia” interim with de Rooy. The organization grew from short-term mission efforts led by teams from the Korean university, and de Rooy sits on its board.

“Their parents don’t want to send their children here when they hear that we are teaching them Bible stories,” said NIBC director Juhwan Kim (Cambodia is 90-percent Buddhist), “but they continue sending them here because they realize we are educating their children well.” The Korean staff of NIBC is shaping the students as the future Christian leaders of Cambodia. It’s a tough job, Kim acknowledged, because Cambodian students of all ages typically attend school only half-days and often sporadically. “Stop and start. This is Cambodian,” said Kim.

As they work to improve that educational picture, the current NIBC leaders are training Cambodian teachers. “We hope that Khmer leader will be head of NIBC,” said Kim.

At the NIBC compound, the Calvin students played with the kindergartners and taught a little English to the prep school-ers. They also bonded with the Ephpha-tha students while daubing the NIBC school in nearby Kontrak village with a coat of yellow, varnish-like paint. “We talked about our faith a little bit,” recalled Chris Crock, a senior engineering major of his conversation with an Ephpha-tha student up on the scaffold. “We have the same goals, the same struggles. There’s a commonality.”

Elsewhere in Siem Reap, the Calvin students served lunch to children at several floating schools via the Dail Community, a Korean relief effort, and motored through a floating village, a community of houses on stilts that lines the shores of Tonle Sap Lake. The people who live in the floating village make their living by fishing and begging. “Many students felt guilty for going through the village and taking pictures of the people, their houses and their lives, making it like a zoo,” blogged junior education major Alison de Rooy (Leonard de Rooy’s daughter) about the excursion.

Calvin students trekking through a floating village.
Calvin students trekking through a floating village.

“What does good development look like?” asked Dornbos from his perch atop a lunch table in a pavilion at the Rawlings Institute in Koh Kong Province. The interim had traveled there for the Global Entrepreneurship Training Conference 2010 (GET10), an effort by students and faculty of Handong Global University and Handong International Law School (HILS) to teach principles of entrepreneurship to students from universities all over Cambodia “These are the up-and-comers,” observed Dornbos.

He had gathered the students for the first of several debriefings on what they’d experienced thus far. One student allowed that, while he was initially skeptical of the NIBC, he felt that the Korean schools did a good job of honoring Cambodian culture. Other students talked about the necessity of training Cambodians to develop their own country and still others about the need to promote a healthy lifestyle in Cambodia.

Amanda Hayes, a sophomore engineering student, critiqued the kind of development organization that fosters a dependent relationship: “You’d have a pretty screwed-up situation if you have a 26-year-old child, and the parents are still meeting all its needs,” she reasoned. “But when the child grows up, it would be great if he still had a loving, friendly relationship with his parents.”

Dornbos liked what he heard: “That’s the level of processing I’d hoped to see by the end of the course,” he said. “If that’s what they have to say now, I can’t wait to see what they say by the end.”

From the conference, the students proceeded on to Phnom Penh, where they toured on foot and by van and worshipped at both Khmer and international churches. While it is illegal to share the gospel in Cambodia, most ministers said that the country allows considerable religious freedom. “I’m hopeful, but I’m not naïve,” said Gil Suh, a leadership trainer and ministry coordinator with Christian Reformed World Missions. “You’ve got to take it slow. It takes a long time to change people’s hearts.”

The interim then visited the headquarters of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). After a briefing from CRWRC country specialist Rick DeGraaf, the students visited a privately run orphanage, a neighborhood where the city’s urban poor lived and the headquarters of International Justice Mission (IJM), an organization which combats sex trafficking.

At IJM, the Calvin group learned about the factors that make Cambodia a trafficking hotbed: poverty, migration, family issues, lack of access to education. (Working in the Phnom Penh office was 2008 Calvin graduate Karen Genzink.) The group, along with Handong and HILS students, also had dinner with Seng, who relocated to Grand Rapids, Mich., following the events of the 1970s and moved back to Cambodia in 2004. She spoke about the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders that are currently in the news. “The tribunals are 30 years late, but still necessary,” Seng said. “It’s imperfect justice.”

Students then took a trip to Takeo Province, where the CRWRC has been working for a decade. They visited New Life Church (where the praise leader led Hillsongs in Khmer), villages featuring fish ponds and weaving projects, and a farm that is pioneering sustainable farming practices. “He has this whole biogas system,” said Hayes. “I mean, he lives on a plot of land that’s not that much different than my front and backyard, and we don’t have that kind of system,” she said.

“This is not very poor,” said DeGraaf, who traveled with the group. “Ten years ago, it would have been a different story.” He credited the CRWRC professionals, all Cambodian, who have worked as community organizers in the Takeo villages for years.

The students, who slept four to a bed or on tile floors while in Takeo, were impressed with the CRWRC’s work in that province and with the organization’s 10-step plan to raise up leaders in Cambodia’s communities. “I like their process of doing development,” Crock said. “What I saw ‘fit.’”

Back in Phnom Penh, the group picked up trash around a Buddhist temple as part of the Genesis Community of Transformation (GCT) Environmental Day. At the GCT headquarters, the engineering students helped de Rooy set up the 15 computers the group had lugged from Grand Rapids. Students also visited NGOs that work on water purity and poverty reduction and a few students observed a surgery at a local hospital. They spent another morning debriefing at the CRWRC.

Then the interim toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. The former was a prison under the Khmer Rouge, where 14,000 Cambodians, mostly educated elites, were tortured and murdered on beds that are still on display. The latter is one site of the Cambodian killing fields, where the clothes and bones of an estimated 20,000 victims are still working their way out of the ground. “I have grown up learning about the Holocaust … but I didn’t grow up learning about the Khmer Rouge. When I walked into the corridors and rooms of what used to be a schoolhouse, I was greeted by the gruesome reality of the brutality of genocide,” wrote Bethany Woelk of her visit to Tuol Sleng.

“The Khmer Rouge wiped out one generation and damaged another,” said Navy Chann, the GCT director who also lived under that regime. At Eden Farm near Sre Ambel in Koh Kong Province, Chann and her husband Ly Chhay hosted the interim. The group slept in tents made of mosquito netting and did farm chores in 90-plus degree heat: gardening, widening the fish ponds and weeding some of the 5,000 Soursop trees planted on the 25-hectare spread. “I’ve never been a left-handed hitter,” commented sophomore nursing student Lindsey Van Dyk as she wielded a machete on the weeds. Students also visited villages in the area.

Chann, who worked for the CRWRC for 10 years in Cambodia, and Chhay plan to use five hectares of their property to create the Eden School of Agriculture. (The couple met in a refugee camp, married, and lived in Canada until they moved back to Cambodia in 1998. Their two children, Huoy and John, graduated from Calvin in 2007 and 2008, respectively.)

Various sights from Cambodia: display of skulls, computers getting repairs, motorbikes and a ferry.
Various sights from Cambodia: display of skulls, computers getting repairs, motorbikes and a ferry.

A handful of students, working under professorial direction surveyed and performed soil tests at the farm. Dornbos, who worked in the agricultural industry before coming to Calvin, hopes to establish a research station there where he can improve water and nutrient-use efficiency of the land and test trickle irrigation systems and various kinds of rice. “What Navy, Ly and I really hope for is that (they) can use the farm to engage people from local villages in such a way that they get ideas from what they see at the farm that they can incorporate somehow in their production,” he said.

After their farm experience, the students spent a couple of days at the beach in the Sihanoukville area. They talked about what they’d experienced.

“What now?” asked Dornbos. “How does this change your career choice?” The scene was the final debriefing at Gil and Joyce Suh’s Phnom Penh home, where ham buns were on the menu and many of the representatives of development organizations the students had met were present.

Several students said they wanted to go into development work somewhere. Some thought that somewhere could be Cambodia. And a couple of them talked about teaching at the NIBC. Several students confessed to being confused. The development professionals present assured them that this was a very normal thing.

A couple of weeks earlier, Seng had given the students her view of the matter: “What kind of development should we hope for in Cambodia? This is a place that is overwhelming, and the process is not in your hands,” she said. “What is your contribution? Come. Learn. Befriend the people you come across.”          

Leonard de Rooy and David Dornbos hope to start a Calvin student organization that focuses on mission and development support.