I scrunched my nose and coughed.
“And that’s your first experience with burning trash,” Sam said as we were riding back to the hotel. Sam, the United Planet country coordinator, had just met me at the airport and we were in the tuk-tuk on our way back to the guesthouse to meet the other volunteers. This was not the last time I would ask myself, what am I doing here? I had been anticipating my trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia for months. I thought that I was just going to be volunteering in Cambodia at an orphanage and teaching at an English school, but I was in for so much more.
And So It Began
We visited the Imagine Angkor Foundation and met the children at the orphanage that we would be spending time with over the next week and a half. The 12 children at Imagine Angkor range in age from 5-18 and loved spending time with new people. While I was in Siem Reap, one of the other volunteers and I brought crayons, coloring books, stickers, and other stuff for the children. They sat and colored for over an hour.
One night, when it came time to leave, there were no adults around. We didn’t want to leave the children alone and weren’t sure what to do. It was then that I learned you cannot trust the phone network in Cambodia. I finally got in touch with Sam who told me that the older kids would take care of the younger ones and we could leave. Another lesson in how different life in Cambodia was than the United States.
Our volunteering in Cambodia experience took us to an English school, Khmer Chewy Khmer (Khmer Helping Khmer). The Khmer Chewy Khmer English school is one of the most amazing places I have ever been. The Director, Phaly (prounounced Paul-e), has turned his home into a free school for children to learn English since private English classes cost $5-8/month, which most families cannot afford. The teachers are past students who have volunteered to teach there, and some have moved away from their families, or travel a long way each day to meet that commitment.
At Khmer Chewy Khmer, I either helped one of the teachers with pronunciation, or ran a classroom of my own if the teacher was unable to be there that night. Although the students had donated workbooks, they mostly just wanted to practice their conversation skills and listen to native pronunciation of English words. Their goal is to learn English to be able to work in one of the hotels in Siem Reap or to become a temple guide.
Phaly told us not to come to the school one morning because there was a huge parade celebrating Angkor’s Wat’s one year anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so proud of his country that he thought it was more important for us to see that then help him at the school. The morning of the parade, we started walking along with the procession and ended up walking the whole 6 kilometers to the amazing temple at Angkor Wat.
A couple days later we found out that Phaly’s father was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1977. I can’t even begin to imagine the devastation and destruction that caused a country to still be recovering from something that happened 30+ years ago. Knowing about his father, and knowing that Phaly himself was imprisoned as a slave during the Khmer Rouge makes his dedication and infallible spirit even more amazing. He inspires everyone he meets and has such a passion for making his country a better place. There aren’t many people in this world like Phaly, and he is a person that I will never forget.
My Favourite Sights
Volunteering in Cambodia wasn’t all business, though. We still had time to sightsee, and believe me, there are some amazing sights to see! Some of my favourites:
- Traditional Aspara Dancing
- The Royal Garden
- The Silk Farm – the whole process from the worms to the finished product
- The famous temples of Angkor Wat
- Lake Tonle Sap – a town on the lake
I would highly recommend visiting Cambodia. While I hear the experience is a bit different for men and women, I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything in the world. I went with the non-profit United Planet, an organization that has a variety of volunteer programs (teaching, medical, orphanages, etc.) in several countries across the world. I chose United Planet because it was my first time traveling abroad, and I was traveling alone, so I wanted a bit more support. They provide transfer to and from the airport, an orientation in the country, and take you to the volunteer sites the first day. The cost to volunteer is a bit higher than some other organizations, but you can fundraise and it is tax-deductible, so that helped me offset the cost a bit.
Never have I experienced people that are so connected to one another and have such a strong sense of community. They depend on each other and help each other. This is a country that experienced an awful tragedy under the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s, but you would never know that something so terrible had ever happened. The people are so full of life and love. They want to share their culture with you and learn about yours.