Douglas Hodgson - Care & Community in Cambodia
I arrived at Phnom Penh airport at around 4pm, although after the long flight I scarcely knew what the time was as my body clock was all over the place! After filling in my visa application, myself and a number of other volunteers met Chammy, a Projects Abroad staff member, who warmly welcomed us to Cambodia and drove us to the volunteer guesthouse within the centre of the vibrant, colourful and thriving city.
I was a little nervous to begin with as only just being 16, I was easily the youngest volunteer there, but everyone was so nice and friendly, and just as eager as I was to begin our work and to gain as much experience as we possibly could from our trip. I soon made great friends with my roommate Tom and so many others and was already enjoying my stay in this fascinating country.
Experiences of Phnom Penh
The guesthouse was located in central Phnom Penh, meaning we had great access to shops, café’s and transport. Just down the road was the Projects Abroad volunteers’ apartments. The cooks there were lovely and always made plenty of food and met any dietary requirements that any of us had. Lots of rice, noodles and chicken were always served, as well as pineapple, watermelon and dragonfruit (an acquired taste!).
A short bus ride away was the Russian market where we could split off and enter the maze of shops and stalls to buy any clothing, food or souvenirs we wanted. I loved this area and managed to get lots of pairs of harem’s, a few t-shirts and lots of bracelets and other items for friends and family back at home; and by using some persuasion, managed to get lots of money discounted from the original prices! Using a mixture of American dollars, and the traditional Cambodian Riel was confusing at first but we soon got the hang of it! Everybody in the city was so helpful and happy, it made the atmosphere in Cambodia’s capital a wonderful place to be.
Volunteering in Cambodia
Our placement for the first week of our trip was at Kamara, a school for children aged 3 to 6 years old located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, about a 40-minute bus drive away. As soon as we arrived we were greeted by the class of about 30 children, all of which were extremely friendly, happy and appreciative. Throughout the week at Kamara we helped teach the children some English, prepare some of their meals and the beds at naptime, as well as playing with them as much as possible!
Our main work, however, was clearing the garden outside the school, planting flower beds, and repainting the walls, these were all quite physically demanding tasks (especially in temperatures reaching 39 degrees Celsius!) but as equally fulfilling, and at the end of the week, it was extremely satisfying seeing what a difference our work had made.
For our second week we were working at Home of Hope, a disability and HIV centre about half an hour away from the guesthouse. Our task here was to erect a structure that would provide shade over the homes playground, in order that the children could play there during the day, where it is normally too hot to do so. We also were asked to paint and decorate a sensory room at Home of Hope, where children and adults with disabilities could go to touch, smell and hear things that could help improve their overall senses or give them a new sensory experience.
Building the shade structure outside was tough and demanding as it required lots of digging, sawing and lifting, but by the end of the week it had been completed and it was clear to see how much the children appreciated our work. We also took as much time as we could to spend time with the children and men at the home, playing with them, helping them learn, or just sitting with them and talking, all of them were so kind and joyful and it was a highlight of my trip to be able to share such an experience with these people.
Cultural activities in Cambodia
On the weekend in our stay in Cambodia we took the long journey to Siem Reap by bus, and the morning after we arrived took a tour of some of the ancient temples in the area, travelling in between them by tuk-tuk (which was great fun). The biggest temple we visited was Ankor Wat, which was absolutely stunning, and I find it hard to believe that it has been around since the twelfth century. Our tour guide told us a lot about the history of the temples and the people who built them, and what they were used for, and it was very interesting learning about a culture that I had very little knowledge about.
After our tour we went back to our hotel, then went out to visit the Siem Reap night market, which was much like the Russian market in Phnom Penh but a little more dispersed, here we bought souvenirs of our stay in Siem Reap.
Later in our second week we took a day to visit the Killing fields and the S21 museum in Phnom Penh. This was a very sobering experience but one that you must do if you are visiting Cambodia, I had very little knowledge on this topic which made the reality that such mass genocide happened so recently even more harsh. The museums were very informative and gave everyone time to reflect on what they had learnt.
My overall experience
I originally wanted to go on this particular trip to Cambodia, as it was a part of the world that I knew very little about and had never travelled to that part of the world before. By going on the trip I have learnt a lot about this wonderful country and its people, I have made some great friends and it has influenced my decision to take a year out to go travelling before university. I was a unique and amazing experience and the two weeks flew by!
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.