Georgina Terry - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Cambodia
I have just returned home after spending 2 weeks volunteering in Siem Reap, Cambodia. My decision to go to Cambodia was based on my desire to do something worthwhile in recognition of the privileged life I have led thus far and to broaden my horizons by experiencing a totally different way of life before starting university. I can only say that my time in Cambodia wholly exceeded my expectations and was, undoubtedly, the most rewarding and memorable thing I have ever done.
All the volunteers lived together in the same house and lived in the manner of local people, eating traditional food prepared by a Khmer cook and with no hot water available. It was certainly a completely different lifestyle to anything I have ever experienced, but I was amazed how effortlessly I was able to adapt and how quickly it began to feel like home – even eating rice for breakfast soon became second nature.
The other volunteers were such a varied mix of people, from all different parts of the world, but all of them were really lovely and welcoming. I believe that, as we were living together in what was a wholly unfamiliar environment for all of us, the friendship bonds grew particularly strong. By the end of the 2 weeks, it felt like the other volunteers were part of my family.
My job at the orphanage involved both teaching and caring for the 30 children who lived there. The age of the children ranged from 7 months to 18 years old and all of them were utterly delightful with an irrepressible supply of energy and affection.
I had a short overlap with another volunteer, but for most of my time there I was the only volunteer at the orphanage and was, therefore, in charge of making all the decisions. Although at first I thought that this amount of responsibility would be daunting and beyond my capabilities, the receptiveness of the children and the support from the Projects Abroad staff and other volunteers made my job very easy. I spent my time at the orphanage teaching maths and basic English, organizing different activities and playing games with the children - hangman was a particular favorite! The children spoke very little English, but they were all so keen to learn and I was often hailed with cries of “me want more school!”
The most rewarding thing for me was realizing that I was playing a small part in helping these children to realize their potential. For example, on one occasion one of the younger boys, Sak, having seen that I was teaching the older children algebra, asked to be taught the same. I was told by one of the Khmer staff that he wasn’t bright enough to understand so I shouldn’t bother teaching it to him.
This shocked me as at school in England we had always been encouraged to challenge ourselves and to believe that anything was achievable with hard work. I did teach him algebra in the end and although initially he didn’t understand, after I worked with him for a while one on one, he began to comprehend what I was showing him. I shall never forget his elation when he worked through an equation by himself for the first time and got the answer right. A few days later Sak was doing equations the same level of difficulty as the older boys. On my last day at the orphanage, he pushed a note into my hand, which read “Dear Georgie, thank you for teaching maths for me. I miss you every day. From Sak”.
Living in Cambodia
Cambodia is essentially coming out of its dark ages and just starting to recover from the devastating effects of the Civil War. Poverty is visible everywhere and the people are so grateful for any help that is offered to them. The situation in Cambodia is not going to change overnight, but I am certain that small things such as giving children confidence in their ability and cultivating their desire to learn will help make a difference to the future of both the individual and Cambodia in the long term.
Now that I am back home I feel that the most worthy thing I can do is to try and inspire others to go to Cambodia to do the same thing. I am lucky enough to have done lots of travelling and I would say, without hesitation, that Cambodia was one of most amazing countries I have visited. It is culturally fascinating and I was able to spend some of my free time visiting the temples and also a floating village. It has such a vibrant atmosphere, particularly evident in the amazing markets and, of course, the tourist hub ‘Pub Street’, which boasts the best nightlife in Siem Reap.
Perhaps the most striking and inspirational aspect of Cambodia was the extraordinary selflessness of the Khmer people. Their generosity despite the difficulties they face in their own lives is truly humbling and their happiness is infectious. For example, the locals living across the road from the volunteers’ villa offered to let me stay in their home instead of going back to England (I was very tempted to take them up on this offer), plied me with farewell gifts and woke up early to see me off to the airport.
Since arriving back in England I have been reflecting on my time in Siem Reap and I truly believe that, despite being away from my family, friends and daily comforts, those were the happiest 2 weeks of my life. I am conscious that when I’m telling my friends about my time in Cambodia, and indeed in this article, I am not doing justice to my experience.
The natural warmth of the Khmer people, the unrestrained joy of the children at the orphanage and the sense of fulfillment you feel at the end of each day can only really be understood if experienced in person. My experience in Cambodia was eye-opening, enriching and maturing.
So, to potential future volunteers I have only one thing to say: go; Cambodia needs you and you need Cambodia! As for me, I will always be grateful for the lessons I have learnt and I have no doubt that I will return to Cambodia one day.