Back to Battambang: Thesis Fieldwork and Reunions in Cambodia

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Thanks to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund, I had the opportunity to return to Battambang, Cambodia to complete my MSc thesis fieldwork in medical anthropology.

Battambang is beautiful. Located in the northwest of the country, two hours from the Thai border to the west and five hours from Phnom Penh to the south, the province is known as the “rice bowl” of Cambodia, and spreads out in emerald green paddies in the rainy season. Its capital, Battambang City, is known as the centre of Cambodia’s arts scene, with many of the most famous singers and authors over the past few decades hailing from (and making art about!) the area.

Battambang is also special to me personally. I lived there for a full year in 2014-2015, working for a Khmer-founded and -run NGO called Buddhism for Development. During that year my colleagues and friends in Battambang took me in: they taught me how to live respectfully within Cambodian culture, spent hundreds of hours trading Khmer and English phrases, and shared their decades of experience in community-based support for people living with HIV. The year also raised many questions for me, such as: what does it mean for entire health programs to be foreign-funded? Why might so many Cambodians rely on local unlicensed medics for healthcare rather than going to the hospital? I thought a return visit might allow me to answer some of these questions, and wanted very much to see everyone again.

Before I left I was worried about how the research would go. The anthropological approach of participant observation basically means, “get as close as you can to people and to a community while maintaining a critical distance”—but it’s slim on specifics and maintains as much flexibility as possible. In my previous research in molecular biology and public health, I had protocols and surveys written out from the beginning. Here, I had very little; what would I actually do?

In the end, the research was very informative, and the flexibility was key. Research turned into social visits, and social visits turned into research. One weekend I met up with a classmate who was also doing her thesis work in Cambodia. Instead of talking research as I’d expected, we debated the merits of bikes vs. motorcycles for our daily commutes and I gave her a list of good foods to try. The next day, I caught up with a good friend from Battambang intending purely to visit, and we ended up talking about the anthropology field of kinship and how that framework applied to both our families. Similarly, a coworker’s invitation to a social event he was holding led to some very informative conversations.

In the end, the return trip was a wonderful experience both academically and personally. Many thanks to PGAF for allowing me to build on previous relationships, and see how much more there was to learn in a place that felt so familiar.