Louis Bunce travels to Cambodia and fits right in
By B.L. Azure
Louis Bunce visited Ankor Wat, the largest religious monument on the planet. It was built in the 12th century and served as the capital of the Khmer Empire. (Courtesy photo)
ARLEE — There is a great big world outside of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Arlee High School senior Louis Bunce found that out this summer on the other side of the planet. He also found out that he fit in a lot more than he or his entourage expected. The other side of the world where Bunce dropped anchor for three weeks — June 20-July 12 — was Cambodia, a country with a colorful and rich history but one with a recent sordid past. He was among several Montana high school students involved with the American Youth Leadership Program that learned about Cambodia and its environmental issues through workshops, lectures and field trips.
The reason Bunce fit right in was because he resembled the Khmer people. He fit in so good in fact that other students with his group often approached him with questions thinking he was from Cambodia. Even the Cambodian people would make that mistake and talk to him in the Cambodian language.
“A lot of people thought I was a Cambodian,” he said, adding that his Montana counterparts told him that everyone thought he was from Phnom Penh and was one of the tour guides. But he understood that. “When we were walking around going to a market I saw many people that looked like they could be (American) Indian — it was like walking round a powwow.”
The 17-year-old Bunce was among 20 Montana high school students tabbed to participate in the 2013 American Youth Leadership Program Cambodia educational sojourn. The 27-day program included 21 days in Cambodia as well as pre- and post-trip seminars to prepare them for the trip and to gauge their thoughts afterwards. Two Montana high school teachers were also a part of the program and accompanied the students to the Southeast Asia country. Also with the group was University of Montana faculty members. Cambodia was once a part of the French Colonial nation of French Indochina that also included Laos and Viet Nam.
Arlee High School senior Louis Bunce (middle first row) fit right in with the Khmer people on his recent trip to Cambodia. (Courtesy photo)
“I didn’t know where Cambodia was when I first heard about the American Youth Leadership Program going there,” Bunce said about hearing about the potential to go to Cambodia from representatives from the University of Montana Mansfield Center who gave a presentation about it at Arlee High School last year. “My first thought was that it was in the Philippines.”
Bunce researched Cambodia after learning about it and then when he got accepted he read a lot of books about the country and the Southeast Asia region as well as viewed movies.
The most eye-opening movie was the “The Killing Fields” about the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979 when the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2 million Cambodians and members of various ethnic groups. That amounted to 21 percent of the population and focused on intellectuals, educators, ethnic groups and clergy whose lives were lost due to executions, disease, starvation and forced labor.
When Bunce stepped off the airplane in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, he was greeted with a blast furnace of heat and humidity, like he never experienced before.
“I was so glad to be on the ground after the long flight,” Bunce said. “It was so hot but we soon became acclimated.”
Louis Bunce and other Montana high school students visited many religious temples while in Cambodia. (Courtesy photo)
Bunce and his fellow Montana entourage spent eight days in Phnom Penh touring the city and area as well as meeting the local people. Then they toured the beaches, mountains, rivers, villages and temples. While away from Phnom Penh the group stayed with hosts in their homes.
He soon became acclimated to the local dietary sustenance: rice with various fish, seafood, fruits and vegetables sides. “I ate 90 meals and everyone had rice,” he said.
One thing Bunce had a hard time becoming acclimated to were the leaches that are abundant in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
“None of us had any clue there were leaches there but we soon found out there were plenty of them in Cambodia,” Bunce said. “When we were hiking we had to stop every five minutes or so to take off the leaches. Everyone had sandals or flip-flops so we had plenty of leaches on our feet and of course our legs. They even got under our clothing.”
The most impressive stop on the tour was at Ankor Wat. “When I first saw Ankor Wat, I said ‘Wow, this is a very huge place,’” he said. “That was just the outside of it. When we walked through the gates we got a better view and a better feel of just how big the complex was. It was super wow big.”
Bunce said he was very impressed with the people and the country.
A de-leached Louis Bunce (right) and members of his Cambodia educational sojourn group pose for a picture while their buddy picks leaches off his legs. (Courtesy photo)
“I’d love to go back,” he said. “I am telling everyone they should go there if the ever get the opportunity. The people there are so nice and respectful. You can talk to any of them and they are happy to talk to you. They are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
The ALYP is sponsored by the Youth Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. State Department in conjunction with the University of Montana Mansfield Center.
The AYLP is designed to advance mutual understanding between the people of the United States and of other countries, prepare youth leaders to become responsible citizens, spark an interest in learning about foreign cultures, and develop a cadre of Americans with cultural understanding who are able to advance international dialogue and compete effectively in the global economy.
Managed by the Mansfield Center, which has extensive and well-established relationships in Southeast Asia, the Cambodia Program focuses on the environment and climate change, introducing youth and educators from Montana to the unique environmental challenges Cambodia faces, while fostering international dialogue between Montana and Cambodia youth about the similarities and differences of environmental issues of their homes, and encouraging collaboration in working toward solutions.