Visiting the UK: my first trip out of Cambodia

I never thought that I would be so lucky to visit another country outside Cambodia, until I won a competition to attend the Student Conference for Conservation Science, which is held annually in Cambridge, UK. I applied to present a poster about the status of marine turtles in Cambodia at the conference and was very fortunate that the poster was accepted out of many hundreds of applications. The topic, our marine turtle rapid assessment, is a part of the Cambodia Programme’s Coastal and Marine Conservation Project, which started last year.

I was told that the weather is very cold in Cambridge. “The temperature is sometimes below freezing and you’re gonna be very cold!” Toby, my manager at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), said to me. One week before the trip, I went shopping for warm clothes. Toby asked me, “Socheata, do you have any warm clothes at home?” I said “why should I have them as it is already warm here?!” I was wondering how many jackets I would need to put on me at the same time when I got to the UK.

I arrived two days before the conference started. My room was at St Chads which was around 25 minutes’ walk to the conference hall. It was that time I knew about the cold! The wind was very cold, cold like ice! I got into my room and was pleased to find a heater rather than air conditioner or fan. Yes, I needed a heater!

Every morning, I had traditional English breakfast, “oh…..lots to eat!” I thought to myself, “how could I survive in Cambridge? No Rice, no rice at all, all food is completely different.”

I was very happy to be warmly greeted by the FFI Asia Pacific team the next day, who treated me as part of the family. I saw a clean and tidy city with many old buildings. In the afternoon, the conference participants were taken on a nature walking tour led by Monica Frisch, a member of the Cambridge Natural History Society. During the walk, the students started to know each other, and find out each other’s interests. Lots of talking! I never got tired talking to them and found some who work in the same field and had the same interests to me.

The Student Conference had some 200 delegates from 63 countries across 4 continents. The conference consisted of many interesting plenaries, workshops and studies covering a wide range of both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The talks were very interesting, and were presented by inspiring and motivated speakers most of whom were non-native English speakers.

My poster communicated the results from a rapid assessment of marine turtles in Cambodia. It also pointed out the activities required to deal with current threats, such as by-catch reduction and nesting beach protection. Many students asked me questions about our work; and at the same time, some of them shared similar experiences. I really enjoyed those discussions. The conference was worthwhile as we were able to share knowledge, experiences and build networks. Three days of talking to each other made us feel more like brothers and sisters, and this made it hard to say goodbye at the end.

The following days after conference were all for me to explore more about Cambridge and FFI. It was a great honour for me to stay with our Asia Pacific Regional Director, Tony Whitten’s family. He took me around Cambridge to interesting historical sites. One of those familiar to me is Charles Darwin who is well-known in evolutionary theory. We visited his school, dorm and his accomplishments at the museums. Biking and walking are popular and I found it very useful to fight with cold! I spent three days in the FFI office where I had enjoyable talks, especially with Sara Calçada on turtle conservation in Costa Rica and with Alex Diment who can speak Khmer fluently. He can even speak the language of Cambodian monk and royalty (Dakkun).

It was an unforgettable trip, not only because it’s the first trip outside of Cambodia but also the chance to exchange ideas and learn new things. A short visit but lots achieved I would say!

Many thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Marine Turtle Conservation Fund for their support of the rapid assessment in Cambodia, to my FFI colleagues in Cambodia and Cambridge and to the Student Conference for Conservation Science for their invitation.

You can download Socheata’s blog in Khmer here.