3 Life Lessons I Learned From Traveling to Cambodia

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Travel has the power of changing the way you look at life entirely.

In a world ruled by technology and social media, it’s so easy for us to lose perspective. We often find ourselves comparing our lives to others, focusing on the things we wished he had instead of appreciating what we’ve already got.

But I had the biggest reality check of my life when I traveled to Cambodia at 17 years old, almost 30 years after my parents escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide. 

Growing up, my parents told me stories of how poor their homeland is. How each day they would wake up only to work the rice fields or sell cookies in the markets, making just enough to provide food for their family. When I misbehaved, they often threatened to send me there to experience what life was like for them. Sure, I had an idea of what to expect in Cambodia, but damn was I severely under prepared.

The culture shock was immediate. As soon as we landed in the Phnom Penh airport, I noticed the extreme poverty and unsanitary conditions. The streets were filled with garbage and beggars. I was terrified and just so far outside my comfort zone. After a sleepless night in a seedy hotel, I spent the majority of the next day’s bus ride to Battambong crying. I begged my dad to let us go back to Thailand (where we had just spent a week), a westernized country that was more like what I was used to.

Over the next 3 weeks of living in the countryside with my aunties, cousins and other family members, my attitude started to change. I observed a lot. Toilets weren’t more than a hole in the ground. You only owned a mattress if you had money. But the thing that stuck out the most was the fact that they never complained, even with how little they had. They were just grateful to be alive.

I came back to America with a renewed mindset. This trip gave me the opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth. Below are some of the major lessons I learned, which now serve as principles that guide me as I live life each day. 

It’s not about keeping up with the Joneses.

Growing up in the middle class in one of the richest states in America, I grew up in a community where there was a lot of pressure to have the latest and greatest thing...to never be satisfied with what you have. I always wished we had a pool and that I didn’t have to wait until college to get my first cell phone. 

But it wasn’t until I returned home from Cambodia until I realized how much I took for granted the blessings I had. Food was on the table every night. I had a pair of shoes to wear and a bed to sleep in. And the only thing I had to worry about each day was to go to school and get an education.

Life isn’t about comparing yourself to others and focusing on what you don’t have. It’s about being grateful for what you do have.

Respect the struggle.

Seeing first-hand where my parents came from makes their work ethic and successes that much more admirable to me. 

Since Day 1, they’ve both been in survival mode. From growing up in a country with no opportunities to fleeing the Khmer Rouge genocide to starting a life in America. 

Imagine being lucky enough to survive a war, only to move to a foreign country with no education, no money, and no support system. There were so many reasons for them to just give up, but they never did. 

They kept their heads down, hustled hard, and did whatever it took to figure it out and survive.

Having only a second grade education, my mom was placed into high school. She learned English and cleaned houses so she could go to college. My mom eventually got her B.S. and M.S. in computer programming. My dad worked as a janitor in a hospital for many years when he met Dr. Roach, one of our family’s biggest blessings. As one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met, my Grandpa Roach fostered my dad, encouraged him to study for his GED, and convinced him to pursue his B.S in electrical engineering.

Although my parents came from nothing, this didn’t stop them from grinding hard and building a life where my brother and I didn’t have to experience what they did growing up. And for that, I have an undefinable admiration for my parents and their sacrifices and work ethic. The definition of true gangsters.

Hustle hard, stay humble, be grateful.

“Molly, why are you always hustling so hard? Will you ever be happy with how far you've already come?”

Here’s the thing: my hustle isn’t related to my happiness. 

Traveling to Cambodia opened my eyes to how much my parents sacrificed so that I’d have as many opportunities as possible to build my own success. I always felt like if I didn’t conquer the world, my parent’s sacrifices would go to waste. And that I’d be robbing so many people around the world of opportunities they’d die for. 

That’s the reason why I hustle so hard.

I pushed myself to graduate with a B.S. and M.S. in Chemical Engineering. I faced adversity head on as a minority female engineer and busted my ass to thrive in a male dominant work environment. I challenged myself to continue learning new things outside my comfort zone, like web design and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. And I promised myself never to say no to new experiences (which is how I ended up having a muay thai fight under my belt!). 

But through all these things, I learned to always stay humble and be grateful. 


Traveling is like a breath of fresh air. It’s an opportunity to take a step back from your normal life, re-calibrate your perspective, and gain a bigger appreciation for everything you’ve got. 

Embracing the culture shock from my first trip back to my homeland of Cambodia at 17, I figured out what was truly important in life. I realized that the opportunities I was blessed enough to have, others would never have access to. But most importantly, my perspective of my parents changed. Coming to America with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, they busted their asses to build a life of success for themselves. I’ll forever admire their work ethic and be indebted to the sacrifices they’ve made for me. Their hustle makes me hustle harder.

You can learn some pretty incredible things about yourself by traveling and keeping an open mind.

What’s the biggest reality check you’ve had during your travels?

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about the author
Molly Chhiv
What's up, my dudes! I'm a weekend adventurer and blogger based in the U.S. that found my self-confidence, independence, and limitless potential through the outdoors. So much so that I quit my engineering job to do more fulfilling work in the outdoor industry!

But real talk: the outdoors can be intimidating. So I'm on a mission to empower you to find your confidence to adventure more. From beginner hiking tips to learning how to travel on a budget, I've got you. Whatever your adventure and whatever your skill level, I'm here to HYPE YOU UP!

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