Cambodia | Global Awareness in Action

Telling a People's Story

Travel to Cambodia on this summer program for high school students to learn in-depth about the lives of contemporary Cambodians. Explore Cambodian culture through interviews and meetings with local contacts and organizations. Visit USAID sponsored schools to learn about their education projects. Take in the gorgeous ruins of Angkor Wat and the stunning beaches of Kep. Present your group’s work during a youth forum facilitated by your leaders and local contacts.

June 28, 2015 - July 25, 2015
Students completing grades 9-12
Global Awareness in Action
Typical Group:
16-18 students, 2 leaders
4 week(s)


Cambodia is a nation of friendly, energetic, and hopeful people who struggle daily with the scars of genocide and the challenges of rebuilding.  They have fascinating stories to tell that we capture with video, still photography, and sound recordings, combine with our own impressions, and refine into a multi-faceted collage portraying the faces, sounds, colors, sensations, aspirations, and challenges of contemporary life.

Gathering and re-telling these stories accurately and sensitively requires that we engage directly and in depth with Cambodians, and that we go below surface impressions and simple explanations to understand the complexity and inter-relatedness of the challenges they face. We join them as active participants, not passive observers, as they work, play, dance, and sing. Creating an informative, accurate, and moving final piece also requires that we learn about the story-telling process, and explore a variety of effective approaches.

Teens Traveling in Cambodia, Southeast Asia

Build your story-telling skills as you explore Cambodia in depth.

We meet and work directly with students and instructors at a school that trains young people to be circus performers, as well as providing them with daily living skills and support, at schools focused on teaching the intricate skills of traditional Khmer performance arts, and USAID operated schools. We meet with peace activists, rural villagers, Buddhist monks, NGO workers, and local leaders, among others.

Begin with an orientation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, before heading to the smaller city of Battambang. Join students at a local circus school, explore the various work of several international NGOs, and spend time interviewing Buddhist monks. Then travel to the small city of Siem Reap to visit the spectacular ruins of Angkor Wat, visit a USAID operated school, and continue meetings with local organizations.  The next stop is Phnom Penh where we spend several days collaborating with schools, visiting USAID’s headquarters, and exploring ornate temples and memorials of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Spend three days in the  beachside town of Kep on the gorgeous Gulf of Thailand where we stay at an ecolodge and enjoy the lush jungle and pristine beaches. Return to Phnom Penh to prepare for and participate in a youth forum facilitated by your leaders and local contacts. Students generally complete between 10 and 20 hours of community service volunteer work over the course of the program.

“What I expected and what this program offered was beyond my own comprehension. As a seventeen-year-old, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to go to the places I went to and meet the people I met. It was life changing! I plan on going back to Cambodia as soon as I can to continue my work there.”

— Elisabeth Leigh, Fusion Academy, Encino, CA

Throughout the program we live in small hotels and guest houses.  Accommodations are simple but safe and comfortable, and typically feature air conditioning, western-style bathrooms and showers, and reasonably reliable electricity.

Our focus is our story-telling mission, but there’s time for some recreation, too.  Ride an elephant at the Wat Phnom temple, join the mass outdoor dance session at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, watch a sunrise over the breathtaking temples of Angkor Wat, and swim in the warm, clear water in the Gulf of Thailand.


  • Learn and practice story-telling techniques using video, photography, sound recordings, writing, and performance.

  • Discuss peace activism with a former boy soldier at his rural home on the banks of the Mekong River.

  • Get to know Cambodian teenagers as you join them in their activities, and record their classes and performances.

  • Watch a sunrise at the beautiful temples at Angkor Wat.

  • Present your team’s finished work during a youth forum in Phnom Penh.

What to Expect

You will be directly involved with local people every day, and must be eager to engage with them. Expect to be an active participant, not a passive observer. While language obviously presents an issue, many Cambodian young people speak some English, all are eager to learn, and we will have a translator available.

The process of shaping scattered images and impressions into an effective story requires care and patience.  You must be willing to take time to do the detailed work that will ensure an effective and moving presentation.  Since you will be working intensively with an interdependent team, you must be committed to constructive critiquing, collaboration, and shared responsibility.

At Putney we take pride in our reputation for careful, thorough planning and attention to detail. The descriptions of our high school summer travel programs are based on our experiences in previous summers and our plans for this summer. It is inevitable that some things described here will not happen exactly as presented. To get the most out of the Putney experience, participants need to be flexible in responding to unforeseen situations, and creative in taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. We expect Putney participants to share responsibility for the success of their experience. Rules that provide a safe and structured environment, set curfews, and prohibit the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco are in place and enforced. We expect you to behave in a mature and productive way at all times.


Tuition: $5,590

Putney organizes escorted international flights. Please consult us for fares.


Learn about last year’s program by reading the 2014 Global Awareness in Action Cambodia Blog.

Departure from New York •  Together with your group, embark on a month-long project in Cambodia.  The group flight departs from JFK International Airport where you meet one of your leaders who flies with you to Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh: Orientation • Spend the first few days getting to know your group and leaders. Participate in an in-depth orientation about Cambodia, your story telling project, and discuss expectations.

Battambang • Travel by private bus to the smaller city of Battambang for an extended stay and collaboration with local schools.  Get to know the students, participate in and record their activities, and visit their homes and families. Learn about the work of international NGOs working on various important issues. Discuss your experiences and impressions within your group, and learn and implement effective storytelling.

Teens Volunteering in Southeast Asia

Our time at the circus school in Battambang allows for great friendships to form.

Siem Reap • Visit Siem Reap, a small city adjacent to the magnificent ruins of the Angkor civilization.  Explore the dramatic art and architecture of this massive site. Visit a school operated by USAID and learn about their education initiatives.

Phnom Penh • Return to Cambodia’s capital for several days to collaborate with and record students at a school dedicated to keeping alive the nation’s rich history of traditional performing arts. Explore the city’s ornate Buddhist temples and royal palaces, as well as the grim monuments of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Meet with Arn Charn-Pond, a peace activist and former boy soldier during the Khmer Rouge era for an in-depth presentation and discussion about Cambodia’s recent past and the contemporary challenges its people face.

“Luc gained a great sense of pride in being part of a group whose members all had an eagerness to learn, open minds, and a passion for doing new things. He felt very supported by his extraordinary leaders.”

— Lucy Wittenberg, mother of Luc Wittenberg, Cambridge School of Weston, Arlington, MA

Kep • Spend your last days in Kep at a small, simple eco-resort in rural southern Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand.  Explore the lush jungle environment and enjoy the gorgeous tropical beaches.

Phnom Penh • Return to Phnom Penh to prepare for and participate in a youth forum facilitated by your leaders and local contacts. Present your story-telling pieces as part of the forum. Share your plans for continuing involvement with the people, organizations, and vital issues you encountered during this life-changing summer.

Head for Home •  Fly from Cambodia to New York.


Background • Cambodia is now a peaceful place, but its people, social structures, and institutions remain deeply scarred by the turbulence of its recent past. The extraordinary ruins of the Angkor civilization, the ornate royal palaces and Buddhist temples of Phnom Penh, and the city’s wide avenues dating to the French colonial period all mark periods of stability and prosperity in Cambodia’s history. Reminders of the Vietnam War, and the Khmer Rouge genocide provide a stark contrast. Today, for all but a small elite, daily life can be difficult, with limited access to work, education, housing, and healthcare. Many NGOs help supply basic services that the government is unwilling or unable to provide, but their efforts are inadequate to meet the need. Despite the challenges they face, the Cambodian people are upbeat, forward-looking, and hard-working. Their openness, and their enthusiasm for meeting and getting to know outsiders, is remarkable. People have fascinating stories to tell, and are eager to share their thoughts and experiences.

Teen Cultural Immersion Cambodia Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s rich history and welcoming people make for the perfect destination to document their story.

Population • Cambodia has a population of about 14 million, with about 2 million living in its capital, Phnom Penh.

Language • Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. Through the 1960s, educated Cambodians also learned French. In more recent years, English has become the predominant second language for Cambodians, and many people, including some teenagers, are conversant in English.

Climate • Cambodia’s climate is tropical, with high humidity and temperatures reaching into the 80s and 90s every day. We visit at the beginning of the rainy season, so intermittent heavy showers can provide a welcome break from the heat. Our accommodations are air conditioned.

“The program exceeded our expectations. The leaders, Ben and Laurie, and this small motivated group of teens became a loving family to each other. This identity really enhanced the experience for my daughter. It was a magical alchemy.”

— Pamela and Birkett Becker, parents of Soleil Becker, Highland School, The Plains, VA

Cuisine • The delicious and healthy Khmer cuisine has similarities to that of its neighboring countries Vietnam and Thailand. It features noodle and rice dishes, stir fries, curries, soups, salads, and abundant fresh tropical fruit. Vegetarian options are available.

Cultural Immersion Southeast Asia Cambodia

The performing arts – including dance, music, circus performances, and shadow puppetry – are all important aspects of Cambodian culture.

Voltage • Cambodia uses 230V. Plugs vary, with many being the same as in the US, and some being the two rounded prong variety common in Europe. You may need a voltage converter to power some of your electronic devices. Throughout the program there is easy access to electricity for charging electronics.

Currency • The US Dollar is an official currency in Cambodia. The Cambodian Riel is sometimes used for small transactions, particularly in rural areas. An ATM card is the most convenient way to access cash.

Visa • A visa is required for travel in Cambodia, but it is issued to U.S. citizens on arrival in Phnom Penh. There is no need for U.S. citizens to apply for a visa in advance of travel. Non U.S. citizens must check local visa requirements.


The Global Awareness in Action Cambodia program is directed by Kelsey Burns. If you have questions, are interested in receiving more detailed information, or would like to talk further about the program or any of our high school summer programs abroad, please get in touch!

Kelsey Burns

Kelsey Burns: St. Lawrence University, B.A., Spanish. A Vermont native, Kelsey has led programs in Spain, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Ghana. She has worked as an associate director at Putney Student Travel since 2003. She currently coordinates programs in Cambodia, Vietnam, The European Alps, Brazil, Ecuador, Spain, and Ghana. Kelsey loves to travel, ski, dance, and spend time with her family.

How To Apply


If you are new to Putney Student Travel, visit our Online Application.  
If you are a Putney Student Travel alumni family, 
use your existing account information to Log In.


You can hold a space in a program by completing the Online Application Form, submitting a signed Agreement Form, and providing the $700 Application Deposit by Mastercard, Visa, or Discover Card through our secure online system or by sending a check to our office. Our admissions staff is also available to take credit card information over the phone.  We will hold a space in a program for a reasonable time, pending completion of the full application process. See Step 3.

After March 15, we will hold a space temporarily as above, but we must receive full payment by check or wire transfer within three days to continue to hold a space in the program.


Before we can make a final admissions decision, an application must be complete.  In addition to the Application Form and Application Deposit described above, a complete application includes:

  • Applicant Statement – Attach a statement explaining why you would like to join a Putney program and what you feel you can contribute to it. Your application cannot be processed without this statement. Approximately 150–300 words is sufficient. Global Action applicants’ statements must be 300-500 words addressing these questions, and detailing their interest and/or experience in the country and issues on which they wish to focus.
  • Two Teacher Reference Forms

These documents are available as part of our Online Application.  We review a completed application within a few days, and notify families of our admissions decision by e-mail.