Volunteering in Cambodia, Part 3: 5 Cold, Hard Truths of Volunteering Abroad

Volunteering in Cambodia Childcare Program

When we decided to volunteer for the first time in a childcare program in Cambodia, it’d be fair to say that we had an idealistic vision that we could leave a positive imprint and change the lives of kids in need. After all, reading other volunteers’ testimonials led us to believe that we could have a major impact at the orphanage we were placed. But volunteering is not always a rosy picture and we were facing that reality that our volunteering wasn’t going to have any real impact.

There’s nothing we regret about our volunteer experience and we would volunteer again. We learned more about the world and we learned a lot about ourselves. The knowledge and the bonds we gained are invaluable and will only help us grow. However, if we had a chance to do it all over again, we probably would’ve done a few things differently. There are many things we wish we knew before volunteering. Here are five cold, hard truths that we learned while we were there:

1. We weren’t prepared for how bad things really were.

This one caught us by surprise since we both had been in countries that had socioeconomic issues and thought we had a moderate understanding of what to expect. However, it wasn’t until we got involved directly did we realize how shocking and different our perceptions were from the real life. We really did struggle to adjust for all the various harsh conditions, such as the extremely hot, humid weather, polluted air and water, diseases, and poverty. Each day was mentally and physically draining when we really began to understand what the people were up against.

2. Things weren’t always what they seem.

When we were assigned to an orphanage, our assumption was that most kids, if not all, would be orphans. After all, we thought the volunteering organization carefully vets the programs they work with. But we found the majority of the kids we worked with had at least one living parent and some see them fairly regularly (this is common in many so-called “orphanages”). This upset us and challenged many of our personal beliefs about volunteering and childcare programs.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for some of these programs. We currently sponsor two kids from the orphanage with terrible backgrounds and the program does put the kids’ best interests at heart. But unfortunately, many programs are ethically compromised and exploit the kids to unsuspecting volunteers and tourists. It is incredibly important to do research prior to volunteering in similar programs.

3. Short-term volunteer programs may have minimal impact and could even be counterproductive

This is based mostly on our personal experiences and other information we came across for childcare programs, but there are many reasons why short-term programs are discouraged. The main point is you virtually have no time to establish any meaningful relationships with kids you work with. In the first week of our program, we spent a lot of time trying to remember the kids’ names and finding out what their personalities and skills were. By the time we made any progress, our second week was up and we had to leave. With children that are not living with or have no parents, establishing long-term and meaningful relationships is important towards their development. Those can’t be achieved in a mere couple weeks. Additionally, some kids can suffer from psychological issues with the frequent recycling of volunteers, which can harm families and communities. You’re much more likely to make a real tangible impact with long-term volunteering.

4. If you’re not a teacher, then you shouldn’t be teaching

One of the things asked out of us was to teach English to the kids. Well, none of us had any teaching qualifications or prior experience and we could not speak Khmer to communicate with the kids and properly translate or explain words or phrases. You also can’t really teach much during a short-term volunteer stint. We didn’t have many resources and there was little information from previous volunteers. We created a few of our own lessons, but it was unlikely the kids would be able to retain that information in such a short period of time, and we didn’t have a curriculum ready to pass down to the next volunteers. It’s an impractical cycle and not beneficial for the kids. They needed a real teacher with real training and experience, who could provide a structured curriculum, and keep track of the kids’ progress. It especially frustrated me that instead of paying the volunteer organization setting up our placement, we could’ve have donated money to hire a teacher instead.

In the end, we fundraised enough money to hire an English teacher for a year so the kids could be properly taught. For $1,900, every kid got an English book with lessons and followed a structured curriculum.

5. We weren’t going to change the world

Like I said, we thought we were going to make a meaningful impact in these kids’ lives, but we ended up doing very little that could be construed as significant. It was very discouraging for us and made us feel like we were completely useless.

This doesn’t mean you should be discouraged from volunteering. It’s important to look at the big picture; we couldn’t change these kids’ lives right then and there, but we recognized some problems and were able to address at least one of them. So even if change happens one small step at a time, it is a big step in the positive direction. We are hopeful that our contributions will slowly open up a brighter future in the years to come and will influence others to do the same.

Bonus Tip: Research, research, research before volunteering.

There are many sources citing the many conflicts and negative impacts of volunteering. Regardless of what program you’re interested in, do your due diligence and thoroughly research to make sure you are in a legitimate program that prioritizes the communities involved and fits your skill-set. It can potentially make a much more meaningful and rewarding experience for the volunteer and for the programs that are being helped.

Leave us a comment below on your experiences as a volunteer.


Exploring Temples in Angkor – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia Temples

The main reason we wanted to visit Cambodia was to see the renowned Angkor Wat and many of its other temples. We definitely saw Angkor Wat, so check that off the bucket list, but there are literally thousands of temples to check out in Angkor, Siem Reap. Thankfully, many temples are in close proximity to each other and we had a wonderful and knowledgeable guide that took us around. So even when we were there for only a weekend, we still saw several other amazing structures. Here are the temples and sites we explored during our visit.

Angkor Wat

There’s no doubt that Angkor Wat is the biggest attraction, literally and figuratively, out of all the temples in Cambodia. It’s actually the largest religious monument in the world! The temple is enclosed by a wall measuring 2.2 miles long and surrounded by a moat.

Inside the wall is a long path that goes straight to the temple. Off the path, on each side are lily ponds for the famous picturesque reflection of Angkor Wat. We went early at 5 am to catch the sunrise and it was absolutely breathtaking! There were also loads of tourists also trying to take the same shot (something to expect during your visit), but after an hour the crowds mostly emptied and left us to explore the temple mostly to ourselves.


Bayon Temple

Known simply as “The Bayon,” this temple is well-recognized for having massive carved, smiling faces on top of its towers. There are stairs within the temple that will take you to the top level and let you come face-to-face with these giant stone faces. You can also climb one of the outer towers to really get a great semi-aerial view of the temple and its surroundings.

East Mebon

This temple used to be entirely surrounded by water and could only be accessible by boat. It stands on top of an island in what was once a baray (artificial body of water) that was used for irrigation. You can find many well-preserved, fine-detailed sculptures of elephants, lions, and mythical creatures and figures. The top also provides a great vantage point to see the temple layout and a perfect view to watch the sunset.

Ta Nei

Off the beaten path, Ta Nai is a semi-ruined temple hidden in the tall trees of the jungles. Because of its isolated nature, very few tourists are seen venturing here, so it’s very peaceful and you can explore without being interrupted. The inner part of the temple has largely collapsed with some parts being supported by wood planks. Still, there are still plenty of carvings with intricate details to see and is worth the visit, especially if you want to get away from the crowds.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is distinctly recognized for its large trees and roots growing within the temple. You can see the long thick roots slowly morphing and engulfing parts of the temple over hundreds of years of growth. The temple is also famous for being the location for the film “Lana Croft: Tomb Raider,” but despite its Hollywood exposure, it still feels very hidden and secluded with the trees covering the ruins.

Angkor Thom South Gate

There are five gates that gave access to Angkor Thom (which means “The Great City”). The south gate is distinguishable from the others for having stone statues on both sides of the road leading up to the gate.

Angkor Thom East (Death) Gate

You can climb up from the side to get a closer look at the gate and walk along the wall that surrounds the city.

There are also other smaller or lesser known temples and structures all over Angkor. Many of them are in ruins but can still be explored at your own leisure.

If you need some tips for getting around, you can read our article for different methods to see the temples and check out our video below. Let us know what your favorite temples were and where else you would recommend.


Volunteering in Cambodia, Part 2: Playing with Kids and Playing Teacher

Our second entry picks up from where we left off at end of our first entry, when we were introduced to our volunteer placement New Hope for Orphans in Pursat, Cambodia. We met several kids and spent some time playing with them before departing back. Once we got back to our homestay, we talked about our initial thoughts about what we saw at the orphanage and tried to formulate a game-plan on what we were going to do. We didn’t really get any specifics for our responsibilities, so although we were eager to start working with the kids, we also knew there would be quite a few challenges ahead of us.

Week 1: A slow start and figuring things out

Like I said, our responsibilities weren’t very clear. Our schedule was set up for 2-2.5 hour sessions in the morning and afternoon, with two separate sets of kids, with a two-hour lunch break. At the time, the director was away but we were able to call him to ask what they expected from us and what previous volunteers did. In short, our responsibilities were to watch over and play with the kids and teach them English.

To say we were woefully unprepared for the latter task might be an understatement. None of us had any teaching experience or bought any teaching materials, and we were expected to help these kids grasp parts of the English language in two or three weeks. The kids kept addressing us “Teacher Ling, Teacher Mat, Teacher Lydia,” so we had to do our best to be teachers.

We looked around for what resources we could work with to build some kind of English teaching activity. There was really not much available to us but we did find a few previous lessons they worked on. It was the best we had to start with.

For the first session, we focused on over introductions, learning each kid’s names and playing some games. We brought a game called Jumbling Towers, which is pretty much the same as Jenga. They seemed to like that game. We did have a lot of fun playing with them and their enthusiasm is really infectious; they were always smiling and laughing, despite their tough conditions. We also talked with the kids as much as we could, learning more about their personalities and their English capabilities before heading back to our homestay for lunch and recharge.

For the afternoon session, we were planning to do more of the same with the new set of kids. But we were caught in a torrential rainstorm. We were sheltered under the gazebo for 30 minutes and everything, including ourselves, got soaked. After the rain subsided a bit, everyone moved to the main building. We got to talk with the kids and played with them too. They were all also very enthusiastic and energetic, constantly running around and playing their favorite games. Later, the rest of kids came back from school and joined us in the fun. It was a good first day hanging out with the kids and getting to know them.

On a side note, the working environment was very brutal for us. It was routinely 90-95℉ or higher and the humidity was killing us. We also had to wear long pants and shoulder covered tops for cultural reasons. It was definitely very physically draining on us, so the lengthy lunch break was desperately needed for a recharge, as we would often shower and take naps. What was crazy to me was some kids were wearing layers of shirts, sweaters, jackets, and even wore gloves! I don’t know how they do it!

Getting into a groove

The next couple days were mostly the same routine; we would go teach and play with the kids in the morning, go back home for a two-hour break, and meet the kids in the afternoon to do the same. We came up with a few English lessons with basic spelling and pronunciation. The kids also did some drawing exercises with some basic English words. Things seemed to be progressing relatively well and we were getting an idea of the capabilities of each kid. And whenever kids answered a question correctly and completed their lessons, we rewarded them with stickers and fruits that we got from the market. They loved the fruits because fruits like apples, grapes, oranges and bananas were luxuries because they are mostly imported or cost too much.

We eventually met the director and ask for more information about the kids and their needs. The important basic necessities they needed were rice and medicine. Some of the kids had open sores and wounds that needed to be treated, and Mat is a nurse so she knew what medicines to get. Lydia and I contributed 200 kilograms (440 lbs) of rice, which would last for four months for the entire orphanage of 40 kids.

The director also said we could try teaching English with the older kids in the evenings. We were already unsure of what we were teaching the younger kids, but we were willing to help with whatever they needed. At least it was more clear with the older kids since it was much easier to communicate with them. Primarily, we were going to focus on their lessons from their school and help them with anything they didn’t understand. But we didn’t get a chance to do any lessons for the first week since we had some other things going on.

During one of the late afternoons, for $20, we hired an ice cream truck to treat all the kids. Everyone was able to get a cone with two scoops of ice cream and an ice boba drink, which is a pretty darn good deal if you ask me! The kids loved it and it was great to see them enjoy it. For us, we consider ice cream almost as an everyday commodity, but for them, even at 50 cents for ice cream and a drink, it’s a welcome luxury.

On the last day of our first week, we were actually scheduled to do some lessons with the older students. But there was a mix-up and we didn’t get to any lessons. Instead, we witnessed the kids having a prayer session and going over the Bible, which they did every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Everyone started off by singing several songs in Khmer (the Cambodian language) presumably about Christ. Then they all sat in a circle and read excerpts from the Bible and interpreted their meanings. They concluded the session with prayers and, despite their tough situations and environment, the kids prayed for our health and our safety first before praying for themselves.

For me, it was a profound moment that I wouldn’t forget. It showed me the incredible kindness and care these kids have even when they don’t have much. However, it also showed, despite their smiling, enthusiasm, and outgoingness, they were still hoping for better things to come. It did hurt me and made me feel a bit guilty, so I wanted to do my best to help the kids in any way I could.

Week Two: Smoother sailing, Not enough time

During the weekend, we took a short trip to Siem Reap, where we visited the amazing Angkor Wat and several other awesome temples. We also found a small shopping mall where they had a bookstore and school supplies. We went on a bit of a shopping spree buying things like English books, pencils/pens, crayons, paper, nametag holders, microphones, and several posters with basic English words and brought them all back to the orphanage. The kids looked excited and interested in their new items, so we were hopeful that they would put them to good use.

One of the posters we got was a birthday calendar so you could write down the birth date for each person. When we asked for everyone’s birthday, we found that they don’t celebrate birthdays and many of them didn’t even know their birth dates. Lydia later set up a birthday celebration for a girl named Silat with a birthday cake and candles. It was Silat’s first ever birthday celebration at age 19.

With all the school supplies and posters, it was easier to create some more constructive lessons for the younger kids. We also could identify which kids were more proficient with their English and gave them harder exercises to work on, and those who were struggling we would pay a little more attention. It started to feel like an actual classroom and the kids seemed like they were understanding some things.

For the older kids, we finally started evening lessons with things they were learning in school. They told us what they were working on grammar focusing on verb tenses. Let me tell you, if you’re not astute with all facets of the English language, it can be hard to teach and explain these things. Simple past, present, future; present, past, future continuous/perfect; present, past, future perfect continuous; that is a lot to handle! Beforehand, I did plenty of relearning my proper English and printed out additional exercises with explanations in its simplest terms. We applied those to the evening lessons and it actually seemed to help the kids understand a little bit better. I gave them just a little extra homework just to see if they understood, and when I checked their work the next day, they did really well! It was great to see the kids pick it up so quickly. Meanwhile, the younger kids were catching the swarms of termites flying around us. Turns out the termites were caught to be eaten, like many bugs in the world. It’s considered a delicacy and eaten when fried. We didn’t eat any but it was fun to watch them chase the termites.

Final day and “See you later”

Unfortunately, just when we were getting the hang of working with these kids, me and Mat’s time came to the end of two weeks. (Lydia was staying for another two weeks with some new volunteers coming, so she was going to do her best to continue with the lessons.) It was sad to leave so soon, but we made sure the kids we would celebrate our time with the kids.

On our last day, we treated the kids to a day at a pool at the KM Hotel in Pursat. For $45, we rented the pool for several hours to swim, play, and enjoy some of the amenities. After they exhausted themselves, we brought over some fruit, milk and energy drinks for them to recharge before going back.

Later, we brought back over the ice cream truck for everyone to enjoy. The kids also hooked up the microphones for some singing. We would be serenaded with songs by the great Justin Bieber and even some beatboxing from one of the kids. It’s pretty amazing to see how talented and self-sufficient these kids were with fairly limited resources. Afterward, we all sat down to watch a scary movie which, interestingly enough, was their favorite genre even the younger kids. For them, the scarier the movie the better, while I really really do not like scary movies! They’re way braver than me!

Finally, at the end of the night, it was time to part ways. We gave everyone hugs and words of encouragement, how we were amazed for their love and kindness, and embracing us like we were part of their family. We didn’t say any good-byes; instead, we said “see you later,” so that we do see each other again.

It was tough for us to leave so soon but it was also an experience to remember in many different ways. We learned many things about ourselves and still have many questions left to be answered. Hopefully, we will see these kids again soon and hope they are doing better because they deserve better. I hope we were able to make some kind of impact in these kids’ lives, but only the future will be able to tell us if we did.


Check out our full gallery with the kids at New Hope for Orphans, Pursat. Part three of our post will be coming soon and will focus on our thoughts about the program in general and question if volunteering is always the right thing to do to support a cause. Comment below if you’d had similar experiences or have any questions about volunteering abroad.


Volunteering in Cambodia, Part 1: The Process and Introduction

There are many enthusiastic and kind-hearted people who to make a difference in this world. They want to contribute their time, effort and money to support a worthy cause. A popular way people like to contribute their resources is volunteering, where they can help on the frontlines, gain firsthand experience, and see directly their hard work help their cause.

This was our mindset when we decided to volunteer abroad in Cambodia in a childcare program. We didn’t exactly know what to expect but we wanted to try it out and give our full effort to help the program in any way possible. This post is the first of a three-part entry, focusing on our volunteer experience and observations during our time there.

Getting Started

There were various programs locally and internationally, and we chose to volunteer internationally so we could also do some traveling on the side. After some research, we chose to go to Cambodia since we were wanting to see some of its famous temples like Angkor Wat.

We went through a recommended organization, International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), to help arrange the logistics of our placement. It’s a pretty reputable organization with over 60,000 volunteers since 2007 and with programs in over 30 countries. Their placement fees are also reasonable and they are transparent with where that money goes. When we applied for the childcare program, they required us to produce a resume, criminal background check, getting mandatory travel insurance and completing a training module. (It’s important for every organization to be asking these questions in order to ensure the safety of the subjects within the programs.) We were approved for a two-week program in Pursat, Cambodia that started in June.

First Arrival

The first part of our program was in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia and where we would receive orientation. Just letting you know that in June, Holy smokes, Cambodia is REALLY REALLY HOT! Temperatures were reaching 40 °C (104 °F) and adding humidity on top of that made it feel hotter. I wouldn’t say we were surprised, given that we had just come from Taiwan which was pretty hot in its own right, but it did feel more stifling in Cambodia. We were a bit surprised that Phnom Penh, despite being the capital city, didn’t really have a proper infrastructure. There were no street lights, stop signs (or any signs for that matter), sidewalks, many roads were unpaved, and tons of tangled power lines. Still, the pace of the city is chaotically fast and it oddly seemed to work for the people there.

We were housed at a homestay with around 30 other volunteers. On orientation day, we spent a few hours briefing over the history and culture of the country and the policies during volunteering. We also had a tour through the city, including an eye-opening visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and then to the Central Market. We didn’t really get to do much more and by the next day, we were on our way to our placement.

Transferring to Pursat 

Previously, we were assigned in the city of Siem Reap, which is where Angkor Wat and most other temples were located. However, we were notified that we had been switched to Pursat. It was a city we weren’t familiar with but we were teamed up with another volunteer, Lydia, and were willing to help with whatever was needed.

Geographically, Pursat was right in the middle of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In reality, you might’ve thought it was practically in the middle of nowhere. During the four-hour van ride to Pursat, as we drove past mostly the countryside and rural areas, I knew that this place would be a very different compared to most places I’ve been accustomed to.

Our first stop in Pursat was our homestay provided by the Leng family. The family ran a clinic at the house [which was great since we all got sick at one point and they took care of us] and also had a business making Buddhist Monks’ robes. Mr. and Mrs. Leng were very welcoming to us and prepared a home-cooked lunch for us [and would do so for every meal every day]. Their house was nice and comfortable, though the night heat always made it a challenge to sleep despite having multiple fans. We occasionally paid for the use of air conditioning at $10 USD a night when night temperatures were as high as 85°F. But it was a great place to stay and we’re thankful to the Lengs for accommodating us.

After lunch, we were given a tour of the main part of the city. Practically opposite of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Pursat is a much smaller city, was much less chaotic, had far fewer people, and was more rural than its larger counterparts. The city has no tall buildings and consists mostly of small businesses and shops. There was only one bus stop, two major banks that we saw, a handful of restaurants (but mostly small roadside eateries and shops), a pair of schools, and two or three hotels. There weren’t many cars on the road; you were more likely to be sharing the roads with scooters, cyclists, and even cows! It also has a central market where you can buy various fruits, vegetables, meats/fish, and other foods and goods. You can pretty much bike around the main part of the city in 30 minutes and just outside of the main city is the countryside and residential neighborhoods.

An Introduction to New Hope for Orphans

Our last stop of the day was to be introduced to our placement. Our placement was an orphanage named New Hope for Orphans (NHO), which houses about 40 kids from small children to older teenagers. When we arrived, several small kids came out to greet us and give us hugs. They were giving us big smiles, showing a lot of enthusiasm, and they obviously wanted to play with us.

We were given a walkthrough of the area; the main building was two stories; the first level with a room for the office and library; the second level was where the kids slept, where boys and girls are in separate rooms and everyone sleeps in bunk beds. There were several bathrooms, a kitchen, dining area, a gazebo for teaching, and a playground. A director and his family operated the orphanage and there were multiple caregivers to help with all daily tasks. We stayed for over an hour meeting several kids and playing some games to introduce ourselves. Their favorite game was Duck-Duck-Goose and we also taught them how to play Red-Light-Green-Light, which they seemed to enjoy. We got to briefly meet some of the older kids as they were coming back from school.

After our introduction, we went back to our homestay to rest and prepare for our program. I think we were all generally excited to start working with the kids in the coming weeks and hopefully have a positive influence in their lives.

Check back for part two of this entry and comment on your thoughts of what you’ve read so far.


Cambodia’s Dark Tourism: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Glass cabinets and containers displaying rows of human skulls and bones, a haunting visual that serves as a memorial and a reminder of the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia’s darkest era in history and how it affects the country today…

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and led by their leader, Pol Pot, they sought to turn Cambodia into a purely agrarian state (or a country completely self-sufficient in farming and agriculture). Under the regime, two million people, a quarter of the population at the time, were executed or died from starvation or illness. People of intellect and skill such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and artists were viewed as threats to the extremist ideology and immediately killed off. This left a major void for Cambodia’s development after the regime fell in 1979, as mostly low-skilled workers were what remained of the population and a contributing factor of the slow rebuild of the country.

We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh that chronicles the period of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Formerly a high school, it was converted into a prison named “Security Prison 21” (nicknamed S-21). This site was literally a hell on Earth. At least 1000 prisoners would be crammed into the small rooms at one time and chained to the floor. The people could barely eat or drink, had to use the rooms as bathrooms, would be lucky to receive one or two showers a month, and could not speak to each other without risking getting killed. Prisoners were interrogated by the guards through the means of extreme torture including electrocution, whipping, breaking bones, waterboarding, and more. Even if a person had survived the interrogation, they would ultimately be sent to the Killing Fields to be executed.

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people went through Tuol Sleng. Only 7 of them survived.

From the outside, beyond the barbed wires, Tuol Sleng looks like an ordinary school. On the inside was a more solemn scene, as former classrooms were converted into prison cells and interrogation rooms, and graphic images or photos depicting the torture or death. Rooms contained thousands of photos of prisoners (dead and alive) that were photographed during processing and serve as the lasting memories of the people that were lost. Many of the victims were children and teenagers.

Throughout the entire visit, I felt overwhelmed with sadness, confusion, and anger. I questioned why and how this could have happened, why humanity allowed this to happen. Even after learning the history, it’s still difficult to grasp.

Of the 7 that survived Tuol Sleng, only 3 remain alive today. We met two of them, Chum Mey and Bou Meng. They were able to survive since they had skills valuable to the regime, but both tragically lost their families. Today they tell their heroic stories of survival and continue to seek justice against those who participated in the genocide. We bought and read their books, which were chilling yet remarkable tales of survival.

Reading the books showed how horrible the regime was. I had thought the people that conducted the interrogations at Tuol Sleng were just terrible people. However, many of the guards were only following orders to get confessions from the prisoners for their superiors. Some of them were just teenagers not really knowing why or what they were doing. If they didn’t get a confession, they themselves could also be executed. It just shows what the power of fear can do to any individual.

It’s been 37 years since Cambodia was freed from the Khmer Rouge, yet its devastation is still seen throughout the country. The effects are long-lasting as the country continues to rebuild. It’s unfathomable that events like this in human history have occurred, but even today these things are still happening. We can only continue to learn from history and hope for a better future.

You can see all of the images below.