Life-changing journey - Butte teen recalls month stay in Cambodia

2013-08-26T01:30:00Z Life-changing journey - Butte teen recalls month stay in CambodiaBy Piper Haugan of The Montana Standard Montana Standard

Nearly a month spent in Cambodia taught Andie Palagi many things.

In particular, that her teen-age counterparts there have lots in common with American teens.

In July, Palagi, 17, who attends Butte High, returned from a 27-day trip to Cambodia sponsored by the U.S. State Department. She traveled with 20 students and two adults from high schools across Montana as part of the American Youth Leadership Program, which is managed by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana-Missoula.

They mainly studied environmental issues and climate change; a visit to a mining province “reminded me of home,’’ Palagi said.

But the up-close-and-personal trip really showed Palagi that Cambodian kids her age like the same things as American kids. She said most of the high schoolers she met are into Justin Bieber and One Direction, musicians that have a huge worldwide youth following.

“We’re on different ends of the globe, but we’re really similar,” she said. “I was more surprised at all the things we had in common.”

The 13-hour time difference meant when the students woke up at 7 a.m., it was 8 p.m. in Montana. That took some adjustment, Palagi said.

Immersing themselves in Cambodian culture, the students rode bikes a lot, but Palagi’s favorite mode of transportation was the tuk tuk, a cart pulled by a motorbike.

On her first hike in Cambodia, neighboring village people had to rescue her group when their big packs and the “leech city” got to be too much.

“I can say I rode a motorbike through the Cambodian jungle,” Palagi said. “I don’t think anyone else can say that.”

While staying in the homes of Cambodian families, Palagi found many differences — and similarities — in lifestyle. At home in Butte, Palagi said she eats dinner with her family almost every night. The Cambodian families do so as well, but they sit on the floor together after cooking the meal as a group, and they wait for the elders to begin eating before anyone else starts.

“The way they lived was the same, but different,” she said.

In Cambodia, the group studied cultural and environmental issues in the capital city of Phnom Penh and its nearby beaches, many seeing the ocean for the first time. They also toured the forests of the Cardamom Mountains, the villages of Battambang, and the floating villages and ancient temple complex at Siem Reap. A highlight of the program was a visit to the World Heritage site of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which contains the majestic remains of the capitals of the Khmer Empire.

Known to Americans for its ancient heritage as well as its involvement in the U.S. war with Vietnam, Cambodia is one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in the world.

“I’ll remember this entire experience forever because it has been so wonderful. My life has been completely changed for the better …,” said Palagi.

— Reporter Piper Haugan: 496-5572, or

— Information from Kelsey Stamm, project manager, UM Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, contributed to this story.

Copyright 2015 Montana Standard. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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