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Volunteer Review: Judith W., Teach English and Other Subjects in Cambodia

Why I chose Cambodia?

Judith with her students in Cambodia

Having had such a great time on my first volunteering experience with Projects Abroad, I resolved to make this an annual trip. I was able to take advantage of the immediate 10% discount for being a returner and enjoyed browsing the options for the short term Grown-up Special Projects. These appealed to me because I wanted to work with others of my own age and as I’d had such a great time on my first trip to Nepal. I was keen to see if I’d just been incredibly lucky!

Cambodia appealed to me because it was a part of the world I wanted to see, however, from the website it sounded as if there would be minimal hands-on work during the Khmer Grown-up Special Project. I decided, therefore, to combine that project with another fortnight of Teaching in Phnom Penh. I figured that having a structured introduction to a different culture, with a dedicated coordinator for support on the Grown-up Special, might give me more confidence when I join the Teaching Project afterwards. I was right. This proved an excellent balance of opportunity to really experience Khmer culture and also contribute my skills effectively.

Arriving in Phnom Penh

Judith with the other volunteers visiting the Angkor Wat temples

I’d arranged my own flights and planned to collect my visa on arrival. It was a bit like a chaotic game of bingo as we all had to queue to hand over our passports and the photos we’d brought. We could see a line of officials in uniform working on these from behind a glass screen, but there seemed to be no logic as to which passport came out the other end in which order. The queue dissolved into a kind of a scrum, through which you had to fight your way to the front to see if you could spot your own passport being held up to the crowd. Meanwhile, they tried to pronounce the appropriate name, which usually bore little resemblance to reality. I wouldn’t have recognized the rendition of Judith, but luckily, I glimpsed the color of my t-shirt in the photo, so was able to claim the correct documents successfully. After clearing the airport, I was met by a friendly member of Projects Abroad staff who escorted me to the apartment block where I’d be staying for the next month.

My home for the next month

I’d arranged my own flights and planned to collect my visa on arrival. It was a bit like a chaotic game of bingo as we all had to queue to hand over our passports and the photos we’d brought. We could see a line of officials in uniform working on these from behind a glass screen, but there seemed to be no logic as to which passport came out the other end in which order. The queue dissolved into a kind of a scrum, through which you had to fight your way to the front to see if you could spot your own passport being held up to the crowd. Meanwhile, they tried to pronounce the appropriate name, which usually bore little resemblance to reality. I wouldn’t have recognized the rendition of Judith, but luckily, I glimpsed the color of my t-shirt in the photo, so was able to claim the correct documents successfully. After clearing the airport, I was met by a friendly member of Projects Abroad staff who escorted me to the apartment block where I’d be staying for the next month.

My home for the next month

Projects Abroad volunteers were housed together in an apartment block in Phnom Penh. It is conveniently situated near the Riverside area, just a cheap tuk-tuk ride from some of the main tourist areas. Whilst I was there the place was busy with volunteers on a variety of projects, from Physiotherapy to Human Rights, some staying several months and others for only a few weeks. Apart from the other two volunteers on the Grown-up Special, most were considerably younger than me, but I needn’t have feared being “Granny on a gap year” as they were all incredibly friendly. We often socialized and always ate together. It felt a bit like the United Nations as at one time there were ten different nationalities around the table, nattering away in English and with plenty to talk about. I was lucky enough to have a room to myself, though some volunteers shared. Our meals were cooked by local staff and there was excellent internet access, much better than I’d been expecting.

The Khmer Project

Judith participating in a pottery class

As I’d anticipated, the Khmer Project was more of a cultural experience and I felt that if I hadn’t planned the teaching experience afterwards, I might have regretted not doing much directly to benefit others. It was, however, an excellent introduction to the concept of volunteering, as we were mixing with other volunteers, living a lifestyle unlike regular tourists and supporting many local projects which had been set up to provide an income for local people. It was also excellent value for money as we were able to see quite a bit of the country as well as participating in workshops such as pottery, puppet making and cookery. We visited a silk farm accommodating and employing widows from the Khmer Rouge period, and saw traditional dance and shadow puppetry performances. Despite there only being three of us, we had a dedicated coordinator with superb English, who was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about all aspects of the culture. He soon became our honorary nephew for the duration of the trip!

Traveling in Cambodia

Like most tourists, we were very keen to visit Angkor Wat and the temples at Siem Reap. Our trip included a minibus drive, a guided tour and three nights in a hotel. It was certainly one of the many highlights of my trip to Cambodia. We also visited the Killing Fields and learned a great deal about the sad history of the 70s. We were filled with respect for the dignity of those who suffered such terror, both those who died and those who survived, and full of sincere hope that Cambodia will never make the same mistakes again.

My Teaching Project

The beautiful Angkor temples

After a fortnight it was time to say goodbye to some of my new friends from the Grown-up Special (one of whom I’d originally met in Nepal last year, and we’d met up this time by arrangement). The school was a 25-minute tuk-tuk ride from our apartments. Every day, myself and another Teaching volunteer were transported through the dense traffic for two separate school sessions (9-11am and 3-5pm). This meant that there was some downtime in the middle of the day. It was fine having lunch back at the apartments and using the time for preparing lessons and communicating with home. Although there are funded schools in Cambodia, learning English is not always fully funded. Therefore, most of the children at the school come for just one half-day session. This meant that we had different classes in the morning and afternoon.

I also opted to stay on and do a voluntary early evening session, which seemed to be more open and included older children coming back to improve their English after their other classes for the day were over. I was in awe of how hard the teachers (mainly women) work, being at the school from early morning until 6.30pm. Although teaching English without speaking Khmer is difficult, I felt that I was able to contribute in terms of aiding with pronunciation and grammar. Most of the time we were expected to teach from a language coursebook, though twice a week (and in the after-school sessions) it was possible to be more creative and inventive. This is something the students definitely appreciated.

Grown-up Special volunteers making shadow puppets in Cambodia

The youngsters with whom I worked were wonderful. How clever to be learning not only to speak English but to read and write a completely new alphabet. They were keen and enthusiastic and at the end of each day promised to do their homework and thanked you for teaching them. It made me realize that many of the schools in the west have lost something, despite the far more lavish resources available. In Cambodia, the students truly value their education.

Final reflections

As with my previous trip, I felt that I gained far more than I gave. My experience was only positive and gave me the confidence to do further solo traveling. I flew on from Cambodia to join another tour in Vietnam. I enjoyed comparing the country with where I’d been made to feel so welcome, the preceding month. As my daughter says: “travel is good for the soul”.

Judith W.

This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.

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