Cambodia

Program Overview

The Novogratz Bridge Year Program in Cambodia allows participants to explore the complexities of a nation in transition. Based in the city of Battambang, participants collaborate with local organizations engaging in efforts to build a more inclusive and prosperous future for the country.

Battambang has long been a key commercial, agricultural, political, and cultural hub within Cambodia, as well as an important link to neighboring Thailand. Through homestays, language study, community placements, and guest speakers, participants are able to deepen their understanding of community engagement and effective global citizenship, while exploring topics that include wildlife conservation, activism in sports and the arts, the Cambodian sangha, and the country’s ongoing process of truth and reconciliation after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

In Cambodia, Princeton University partners with Where There Be Dragons, an organization specializing in overseas experiential education. Since their founding in 1993, Dragons has managed hundreds of unique small-group service learning programs in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Dragons is dedicated to inspiring youth leadership and responsible global engagement through community-based service projects and cultural exchange.

Program Details

Program itineraries are subject to change based on conditions that impact local travel logistics, public health, and participant safety.

Arrival and Orientation

Following the group's arrival in Phnom Penh, Bridge Year participants make their way to a Chaimbok community in the middle of Kirirom National Park for a weeklong on-site orientation. During orientation, participants have an opportunity to discuss their goals and expectations for the program, build the foundation for an inclusive and supportive group dynamic, review program policies and procedures, and discuss a variety of other concerns relevant to the health, safety, and well-being of program participants and community members. Students also begin intensive Khmer language instruction, as well as participate in introductory discussions on Cambodian history, local cultural norms, and community-engaged learning.  Interspersed within these orientation sessions are opportunities to connect with the local environment.   

Fall Enrichment Program

After orientation, the group embarks on a 3-week exploration of program themes in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and the Trapeang Sangke mangrove plantation, among other locations. During this time, students visit non-governmental organizations, solidarity groups, and aid agencies to gain an understanding of their work and the context in which they operate. Learning themes focus on land sovereignty and development, the impact of tourism, and historical remembrance. In addition to community engagement and enrichment activities, Bridge Year participants continue Khmer language instruction.

Arrival in Battambang

The Bridge Year Cambodia group arrives in Battambang at the end of September. Founded in the 11th century, Battambang is situated along the Sangkae River, approximately 180 miles northwest of Phnom Penh and 60 miles east of the Thai border. With a population of just over 150,000, it is currently the fourth largest city in Cambodia.  

The province of Battambang has long been at the center of agricultural production in Cambodia. It is the country's most important rice-producing region, as well as a major producer of vegetables and fruits, especially oranges.

Following colonization by the French, what had been a small provincial town surrounded by farmland was transformed into an enlarged city with a more urban layout. French Colonial architecture remains a notable aspect of the city today.  

As with most cities in Cambodia, Battambang suffered greatly under the Khmer Rouge, resulting in a mass evacuation to the countryside where many people died.  The city was liberated by the Vietnamese a week after the fall of Phnom Penh on January 13, 1979, but Khmer Rouge guerrillas continued to fight in the province until 1996.

Today, Battambang is a peaceful city where travelers will find Wat Banan (an 11th century temple built by King Udayadityavarman II), as well as trendy cafes, a buzzing youth culture, and active social justice organizations.  

A five-day program site orientation provides the Bridge Year cohort with a thorough introduction to Battambang, as well as practical skills that help participants find their way around the city, make connections within local society, and prepare for  placements with community organizations.

Homestay

Program participants live with families in the Wat Kor village of Battambang. Centered around a pagoda (the “Wat Kor” from which the village takes its name), this historic section of Battambang is lined with fruit orchards, flower gardens, and the traditional Khmer-style wooden houses in which homestay families reside. Here, students might find older Cambodians who speak French and younger people wishing to practice their English. That said, the close-knit village community provides unique opportunities to practice Khmer language skills, build meaningful relationships, and gain deeper understanding of Cambodian culture and society. 

Participants can expect comfortable but modest accommodations. One participant is placed in each home and will have their own bedroom, furnished with a twin bed, desk, chair, and dresser or other place for clothing. Houses in Kor Wat are typically built in the traditional style.  A wooden slat construction keeps the home relatively cool in the heat and humidity.  Wooden stilts lift the home off the ground, keeping it dry during heavy rainfall. While some homes may have showers, participants should be prepared for bucket baths for bathing. Most meals are prepared by and taken with the homestay family.  Bridge Year participants can expect to eat plenty of fish, a lot of fresh vegetables, and a good deal of rice.

Language Instruction

From October through December, Bridge Year participants receive two to three hours of intensive Khmer language training each day, four to five days per week. Language classes are taught by trained local language teachers such as the monks of Wat Domrey Sor (“the pagoda of the white elephant”) or instructors at the National University of Battambang. From January through April, language classes continue with the specific number of classroom hours based on the individual needs and interests of each student.

Placements with Community Organizations

Participants spend 20-30 hours per week collaborating with local community organizations. Travel time to and from a placement varies by assignment but can range from a 10-minute walk to a 20-minute tuk tuk ride. Staff orient students to their respective assignments and provide continuous support throughout the program. Below is a list of partner organizations in and around Battambang. This list is not comprehensive but provides examples of the types of assignments in which students might be placed.

  • Phare Ponleu Selpak is a non-profit arts school that is famous across Cambodia for its teaching of circus skills. Through performing, visual, and applied arts classes and vocational training, Phare Ponleu Selpak aims to help children and young adults to develop their creativity, communication and concentration skills, and to access a sustainable artistic career, while preserving and promoting Cambodian arts and culture.
  • HelpAge Cambodia is a locally-led NGO and the only organization currently working on elder rights within Cambodia. HAC works for and with marginalized older Cambodians, echoing and voicing their concerns and needs for access to healthcare, social services,  and economic and physical security, while highlighting the many valuable contributions that seniors make to society. HAC is a leading agency on aging and has worked with older people for over 28 years. 
  • Karuna Battambang is a Catholic aid organization that is involved in a variety of projects within Battambang.  Their project work focuses on education, health, socio-economic development, agriculture, environmental sustainability, and support for people with disabilities.
  • Lakhon Komnit (meaning “Thinking Theatre” in Khmer) are a team of Cambodian theatre artists who design and facilitate Lakhon Niyeay (spoken theatre) workshops, projects and performances with communities, NGOs, schools and universities across Cambodia.
  • Children’s Future International (CFI) supports approximately 250 children who face daily challenges in continuing their education.  The vision of CFI is a future where every child is safe, educated, healthy, and thriving.  
  • Puthi Komar Organization (PKO) provides educational and psychosocial support to around 900 children in four youth centers located in the province of Battambang. The organization’s main programs are in education and natural resource management.
  • Ptea Teuk Dong (PTD) aims to help local people of all ages to become better educated, healthier, and more prosperous. The organization started in 1994 to provide support to families returning from refugee camps in Thailand and now works in the areas of childhood education and the economic development of rural families.
  • Seed has the goal of making a meaningful contribution to the reduction of poverty in the world by assisting the growth of sustainable communities in Cambodia. The organization’s programs include work in childhood education, library support, and safe water projects.
  • Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) is a Khmer-led organization with an upstream approach to community development called the Village Hive. Their Village Hive model brings multi-sector services into villages and mobilizes community-wide action to protect children, prevent child-family separation, reunite families, and foster long-term resilience and self-sufficiency.
  • Cambodia Peace Gallery serves as a space for reflection and learning on Cambodia’s journey from war towards peace and a positive future. The organization offers a range of peace education programs and guided tours that highlight the resilience and creativity of Cambodian peacebuilding initiatives. 
  • Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University (PSRBU) is a non-profit public higher-education institution that provides courses and programs in a variety of fields that lead to legally recognized higher education degrees. Students at PSRBU have access to a variety of academic and non-academic facilities and services, including a library and administrative services. Volunteers at this site will more than likely work in the Education & Library department, which might include tasks like leading English speaking and reading clubs, assisting teachers in English classes, helping manage the library, and event organization.

Cultural Enrichment Activities

Over the course of the program, students participate in enrichment activities that foster a greater understanding of local culture and society and promote further reflection on the ways in which active, informed, and constructive participation in community life can help to advance community well-being.

These activities include guest lectures on a diverse range of topics including Cambodian history, politics, economic development, and the influence of Theravada Buddhism.

Bridge Year participants also take part in at least two program-sponsored, multi-day excursions. Excursion destinations depend on many factors including weather, time constraints, student interest, and relevance to the overall program, but a number of different options are available. These include the forests of Oddar Meanchey province, the border town of Anlong Veng, the Dhamma Latthika Vipassana Meditation Center in the hills surrounding Battambang, the Chuor Phnom Kravanh National Park, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh. To the greatest extent possible, participants are given ownership over the research, planning, and management of logistics for these group expeditions.

Finally, Bridge Year participants have the opportunity to engage in independent enrichment activities and/or apprenticeships through which they are able to explore topics such as Buddhist philosophy, Apsara dancing, kun Khmer (a Cambodian martial art), or kru Khmer (traditional medicine), among other aspects of Cambodian culture and society. 

Spring Enrichment Program

In the final months of the program, Bridge Year participants work as a group to plan, organize, and execute a two to three-week excursion through the remote northeast of the country. Up until recently, Cambodia’s northeast provinces (Kratie, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri, and Ratanakiri) have been fairly isolated from the rest of the country due to poor roads, forested terrain, lack of economic investment, and the marginalization of indigenous cultures and languages. In recent years, however, travel to this area has become more accessible.  Staff provide support and input with risk management, logistics, and learning objectives, while the participants work as a team to organize the spring enrichment program.

Program Wrap-up

The final week of the Novogratz Bridge Year Program in Cambodia takes place in Kep, a small coastal town on the Gulf of Thailand. Here, participants engage in a Transference Workshop to examine lessons learned from their Novogratz Bridge Year experience and reflect on their return home, their goals for the future, and the ways in which they can best integrate their experience into daily life at Princeton.

Fast Facts

  • Program Location: Battambang, Cambodia
  • Country Name: Kingdom of Cambodia
  • Population: 150,444 (Battambang); 17,278,865 (Cambodia)
  • National Symbol: Angkor Wat temple, kouprey (wild ox)
  • Languages: Khmer 95.8%, indigenous languages 2.9%, Chinese 0.6%, Vietnamese 0.5%, other 0.2%.  
  • Religions: Buddhist 97.1%, Muslim 2%, Christian 0.3%, other 0.5%. Theravada Buddhism has been the official state religion in Cambodia since the 13th century (with the exception of the Khmer Rouge period).
  • Currency: Cambodia Riel and the US dollar.  Cambodia currently runs a dual-currency system, in which US dollars are widely accepted.
  • Fast Fact: Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, spread across more than 400 acres. This Hindu-Buddhist temple was built in the 12th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.