For the past two years I have been researching for the perfect programme and organisation to volunteer abroad with. I made the decision to travel to Cambodia as it is one of the poorest countries in Asia in need of English speaking volunteers. I was intrigued by the Khmer Project. None of the other countries I researched offered the opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of a Cambodian while making the most of your travels. I was only able to take two weeks off from work, which I understood was not a lot of time for travelling around the country if I had work five days a week. The Khmer Project combined learning and experiencing daily life from the people in Cambodia while seeing all the sites I would want to see on my time off.
Arriving in Cambodia
The flight was a long one, but I knew once I got there I had to enter with a willing attitude and positive mind if I wanted to make the most out of such a short trip. I arrived at night, which meant I did not sleep that night due to jet lag.
The first day I was welcomed at the volunteer apartments by Projects Abroad staff. I immediately felt comfortable and capable of living in Cambodia for the next little while with their support and Khmer language lessons. Just arriving from Canada and getting a short glimpse of the life in Cambodia, the difference between a developed and developing country was an evident and unpleasant one.
This was probably the hardest and most upsetting issue for me to deal with during my trip. Seeing young children begging or selling on the streets, people living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and malnourished stray animals broke my heart. Then seeing some of the nicest cars and houses I’ve ever seen in my life while other people are living in those conditions angered me. I’ve always been an advocate for equality being a student studying social work, so I am grateful for my experiences in Cambodia as I left even more motivated to be more involved in the change.
After my introduction and tour to get me adjusted to Phnom Penh (the capital city where the volunteers live in), I was already packing for a trip the next day to Siem Reap. This was probably the coolest part of my trip where I was able to learn about the history and importance of the ancient temples, including Ankgor Wat and the temple the movie, Tomb Raider, was filmed in! Accompanying me was my Projects Abroad coordinator from Cambodia who was the coolest and always had a lot of information to offer about the culture and history.
After this trip, I was immediately thrown into another one to Takeo Province. Like I mentioned earlier, I would not have been so eager and able to jump right into these experiences if I did not enter the country with that attitude and mind-set, which is important to keep in mind. Unfortunately, global warming is taking its toll on everyone, especially the rice farmers in Cambodia who cannot earn a living if there is no rain for rice to grow in. This meant that instead of helping a family plant rice, we travelled around the small town on bikes to help another older couple plant fruit trees on their farm. What type of fruit? I have no clue. Partially due to the language barrier and also not knowing that those fruits even existed!
For the rest of my stay in Cambodia, I stayed in the apartments with other volunteers and only did day trips such as making a traditional Khmer puppet (which takes three half days!), cooking traditional Cambodian food, learning traditional Khmer dancing, visiting the national museum, visiting the Royal Palace, meditating in a Buddhist temple, visiting the areas of Cambodia that were used during the devastating Khmer Rouge, and teaching English in a school outside of the city in a poor community. Being with the kids was another highlight of my trip because they inspired and uplifted me. I have never seen children so eager and excited to learn English!
During their play time I would be trying to clean up the flashcards and they would keep grabbing them, holding them up, and yelling “Teacher! Teacher!” so I would tell them the English word for the picture on the card. I thought I was going to be of help, but they showed me how no matter your circumstance, happiness is found in about anything if you look for it.
This trip turned out to be everything I expected it to be. The Projects Abroad staff was helpful and available every step of the way, the volunteer apartments were comfortable and very clean, the food was delicious, and every individual I met while volunteering was grateful for the work I and other volunteers were doing. In just two weeks it felt as if I completed a month’s worth of things on the Khmer Project.
The experience was life changing in the way I was able to make friends with volunteers from all over the world, learn about Cambodia first-hand from my Cambodian coordinator who was with me every day, and most importantly how I was immediately exposed to the unfortunate circumstances of this very poor country by teaching young children and simply travelling around the country. The only regrets I have are not staying longer and not doing an additional project to combine with the Khmer Project in order to be of more help to the people.
Volunteering is the best way to travel and the only way to truly understand and empathize with the inequalities of this world. Not only does this experience give me an advantage on my resume, but more importantly it gave me the confidence to broaden my career goals to a global level.