Olivia Dehnavi - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Cambodia
I didn’t really know what to expect from Cambodia. I knew little about the country before deciding to volunteer there and in fact part of my reason for choosing it was because I knew it wasn’t a typical tourist destination. It made me feel adventurous to be traveling to a land no one I knew had visited, somewhere that has only recently become accessible to tourists and still retains an untouched feel.
The Projects Abroad staff in Cambodia looked after me from the moment I arrived and were always around for a chat or to provide advice. Rath, the cook, looked after us like a second mother and cooked us fantastic meals. The accommodation was very pleasant and comfortable and the Projects Abroad staff had great advice on where to visit, how to be safe around Phnom Penh, and how to make the most out of your stay.
My project was teaching English at one of the schools where the director of the school, Tep Virak, was always very accommodating and open to new teaching techniques. He understood that the students needed to learn, but also needed to have a good time to get the most out of their education. The students were used to learning by repetition and recitation, so games, activities and craft sessions are very well received. I was given a book to work through, but had the chance to improvise and work on things the kids enjoyed.
My students were incredibly friendly, fun and trusting. I didn’t expect the tidal wave of energetic hands pulling me out to play at break-time. They love to play ball games, clap hands with you or just sit on your lap and look through a book. Have a bouncy ball, stickers or bubbles handy (just don’t expect them back if you give them away). Something that really struck me was how generous the students were. Not a day went by when they didn’t offer me pictures, drawings or paper flowers. You cannot help but be aware of how little they have, but they give you what they can. The job was very fulfilling, and I knew that my voluntary contribution was extremely helpful and greatly valued.
On my final day, the director showed us around the neighborhood where most of the students were living. A large part of Cambodia’s character is that it is not dominated by chain businesses and transnational companies. People buy and sell on the roadside, pulling the food or drink that they have prepared in carts or selling on a market stool. After a month of teaching, seeing where the students were living was a great shock. I knew they lived in poverty, but it was hard to imagine coming from my own privileged lifestyle. For the students education is a huge privilege and their lunchtimes are often spent helping out with their family’s work.
For me Cambodia was a land of extremes. I saw hardship, poverty and desperation, but I also saw an incredible amount of hope and happiness. The Khmer Rouge brought genocide, conflict and misery to Cambodia 30 years ago. The result is that Cambodian people are grateful for the peace that they now have. Visiting places like the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng museum, you are struck by how devastating the history is, but also the beauty of your surroundings. Cambodian people have been struck by sadness but they are welcoming, trusting and eager for a bright future. There is a lot to be learnt from a Cambodian way of life.
For future volunteers coming to Cambodia, I would recommend that you are prepared ready for a change of lifestyle and enthusiasm to help out. Weekends can often include painting, cleaning or building Projects Abroad locations which means that you are often able to become involved in a variety of projects. You will have plenty of time to explore and experience the country during the week as well as at the weekends to anything from the Angkor temples to the Kbal Chhay Waterfall in Sihanoukville (especially if it’s raining). Travel is safe and cheap so there is no excuse for not exploring.
I recommend trying to learn some Khmer too – simple greetings and phrases go a long way. I learnt from my students who will bombard you with new words once you show an interest. Get to know the Projects Abroad staff, they’re great, and try local food from market stalls (especially a fruit called ‘mangosteen’). Always bargain, but remember that whoever you’re bartering with is likely to be worse off, it’ll benefit them more than it inconveniences you.
Cambodia is called the ‘Kingdom of Wonder’ for a reason. When I left the students sang ‘Jingle Bells’ for me. The fact that they were singing an English song for my benefit, when none of them had ever seen snow, warmed my heart. I will always remember my trip – there is so much to see and explore. Spend as much time there as you can, you’ll make great friends and learn a lot about yourself and your approach to life.