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.

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