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'Voluntouring' in Cambodia

Posted: 03/09/2012

Alumnus Chris Weigl ’11 developed a love for photography while at Skidmore, where he studied photography, was active as photo editor of The Skidmore News, served as president of the campus photography club, and worked as a free-lance photographer.

Although his major was English, photography became his calling – “the passion that drove almost every activity I pursued,” he said. Last spring, during his final semester, he recognized that a traditional job and regular work environment did not appeal to him. So he applied to Operation Groundswell.

Operating under the slogan “Backpacking with a Purpose,” the Toronto-based organization specializes in “voluntourism” – blending travel with volunteering. The organization sends near- and recent college graduates throughout the world for six-week adventures that Weigl calls “true cultural exchanges.”

He opted for an ecology trip to Thailand and Cambodia. Said Weigl, “The highlights were a week cleaning and feeding the 39 elephants of Elephant Nature Park and 10 days on Koh Rong Island, where we built toilets, taught English, and picked up trash.”

The island was the best part of the trip for him. “With an English degree in my pocket and the photography background to capture their world, I set out to tell the story of this little village,” explained Weigl. As Cambodia’s largest island, Koh Rong is 30 square miles of white sand beaches and dense inland jungle. Approximately 2,000 people live there in five villages, one of which is Koh Roung, with 170 inhabitants. The village has existed for about 20 years.

Four years ago, the rights to develop Koh Rong island were awarded to a Cambodian conglomerate which is now working on plans to increase tourism in the area.  Says Weigl, “Only time will tell whether Koh Rong will be an overdeveloped tourist destination or a culturally sensitive eco-friendly paradise.”

Weigl currently holds several jobs: at a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts, as editor for, and at a camera store. He plans to return to the classroom soon to begin work on a master’s degree in photojournalism. Click here to read more about Weigl.

Photos by Christopher Weigl ’11