By far the most rewarding part of my experience in Cambodia has been the time I have spent in the classrooms of Angkor Thom Junior High School. There is nothing quite like standing barefoot in front of twenty students and explaining the different types of hotels when only one or two students had ever been in a hotel before. The pictures of the downtown New York, London, and Hong Kong hotels have never more distant from my reality than they did the day I first showed them to my students as pouring rain beat down on the tin roof of our classroom and persistently blew in through the door and windows no matter how tightly shut we tried to get them. But their wide-eyed questions about each hotel and resort picture made me so excited to show them buildings and places they never could have imagined. These are students that have never been to a city bigger than Siem Reap, which is only 175,000 people – the New York skyline was an image beyond their imagination. I showed them the Waldorf, the Savoy, the InterContinental in Mexico City, a resort in Barbados, a boutique hotel in Hanoi, and a resort and spa in a castle in the Swiss Alps. With each picture there were new questions, new observations, and new “ohhhhhs” from the students. It was one of my favorite classes so far, and as they came to understand what the terms, “eco-resort, resort, downtown hotel, convention hotel, and guestroom,” really meant I could not have imagined a better lesson to be teaching. For the first time, all of the words we had been studying and learning were images of real places that were out in the world. It was the moments when the light bulbs went on and the world opened up a little bit more for each of them. I saw new understanding on their faces as I explained a resort, and it was so satisfying.
Then, last weekend Molly, Christine, and I brought my students to Siem Reap and we toured three hotels here. The classroom of unbelievable place and pictures was brought to life in a city very near their homes. It showed them what no picture or description could, what these hotels smelled like, felt like, and how impressive their details, decorations, and size actually was. For all but one or two students that day was the first time they went to a market, went inside a shopping mall, ordered off a menu at a restaurant, stood in a hotel lobby, stood in a guestroom, saw a swimming pool, and were served juice from a hotel waitstaff. It was eight hours filled with something new for the students in every moment, and I realized how great of an experience this was not just for the hospitality class but for their lives.
They asked questions of each General Manager or Guest Relations Officer we met, peaked in every bathroom, admired every perfectly made bed, and when we finally climbed on the bus to go home they were overwhelmed, exhausted, but still full of questions for me. The hotel visits showed the students that not only were these beautiful and amazing hotels located all over the world, but they could also be found right here in Cambodia. There is a thriving and expanding hospitality industry in Siem Reap, and these students living in a village one hour away were hardly aware of it. They were going to places and seeing things that were new and foreign, yet located so close to their home. Never before had the contrast of village and Siem Reap been so apparent. We had traveled one hour, but the differences were like a trip to a different country. Without EGBOK Mission, they may have never considered the possibility of a 5 Star Hotel like Sokha Angkor operating in their province.
In class last week, the students were still buzzing and talking about the hotel visits when I made an exciting announcement to the students who applied to Paul Dubrule, the night before their exam and interview they would be staying in a hotel in Siem Reap. Vicchay immediately became unbelievably excited, and began to explain loudly to the other students in Khmer what was going to happen. It was one thing to see a hotel room and stand in a hotel lobby, but it was quite another to sleep in one. I carefully explained that we would not be staying in a hotel as nice or Sokha, but that the staff and owners of Siem Reap Riverside were wonderful. They didn’t care, a hotel stay was a hotel, and Vicchay carefully explained to me that it was an experience he never thought he would have. I laughed and said, “well in two weeks and a half weeks you will stay in a hotel for two nights in Phnom Penh.” He stared at me as it dawned on him that in the span of one week he will stay three nights in a hotel room, when three months ago he hardly knew what a guestroom was. His smile was wide and his eyes were light up as he told me, “My heart is very happy that you came here to teach me hospitality.”