Ella Bolster - Care & Community in Cambodia
A fourteen-hour flight is a long time to anticipate the journey I was about to embark on in Cambodia, however, as I stepped off the plane in Phnom Pehn, I immediately realised that this was not enough time to fully prepare myself.
The climate was the first thing that hit me; thirty degree heat and intense humidity, yet this only excited me even more as I began to realise how far away from home I actually was. The second thing I noticed as I was being driven to my accommodation was the road rules, or rather the lack of them. It was manic! With tuktuks and motorbikes weaving in between the traffic; I kept my eyes fixed on the window for the whole journey.
Why I decided to volunteer in Cambodia
Like most of the other High School Special volunteers, I had just finished school which was a lot of stress and hard work. I decided I wanted to do something meaningful, something that could potentially help others, and that is when I discovered Projects Abroad.
A friend of mine had done a High School Special project in Cambodia that summer and it was all I heard about when she got back, so I thought I would do a bit of research. I investigated all of the countries available that offered Care projects, as I wanted to work with people. Out of all of the options, Care & Community in Cambodia seemed the best option, as it was far from home and I needed a culture shock. Eight months later I was off.
Working in Cambodia
On my High School Special there were about thirty volunteers, which was quite a lot. Because of this, we were split into two groups. The first group would go to one of the placements for the first week, and the second would go to the other, and then we would switch around.
My first placement was at Svay Pak Khemara Day Care Centre which was for children aged 3 to 6 years old. The centre provided education, care, support and protection for vulnerable children in the community. We had a few days at the centre, as we took a couple of days off in the week to visit places such as the Palace.
We arrived with a typically warm Cambodian welcome, with two ladies waving at our bus, who turned out to be the staff. The building was small, and as we walked in we were greeted with curious little faces peering out from behind the door. We introduced ourselves to the children and staff, and began to work.
My Care & Community placement
Throughout the few days we accomplished a lot, despite the 33 degree heat; we cleared the whole front garden of weeds and cleared all the rubbish. We also swept the leaves, laid soil, planted flowers next to the pathway, and sanded and painted the walls. I absolutely adored my time at Khemara. I have never seen such friendly, inquisitive children before.
We gave them English books and bubbles, which brought smiles to their faces. It was so refreshing to see children so grateful for items that would be taken for granted elsewhere. As the bus pulled away on the last day, we were waved goodbye by all the children and staff, who had been incredibly welcoming to us, and I don’t think there was one dry eye on the bus.
My second placement was at Home of Hope. I was familiar with this centre before coming to Cambodia so I was extremely excited to get the chance to work there. Home of Hope is a home for adults and children living with a wide range of disabilities. We only had two full days there, and we finished off the work from the first group. I painted the sensory room with a few others, while everyone else either helped finish building the shaded area over the playground, or interacted with the children.
My fondest memory of this place was during a thunderstorm; everyone ran out and played football in the rain. Despite completely ripping my trousers while attempting a slide-tackle in the mud, I would say that this was a very nice way to bond with the residents and experience a true tropical thunderstorm in all its glory.
On the last day, both groups came together, and visited both placements again for the last time. We went to Home of Hope in the morning, and returned to Khemara in the afternoon, where we performed a very out-of-tune rendition of the ‘hokey cokey’, which the children (and volunteers) loved.
Saying goodbye to Cambodia
I have never been so sad to a place before. Saying goodbye to this country I called home for 2 weeks was tough enough, but leaving the volunteers I had been with for that time was the worst part. They had become my family for that time, and I have definitely made friends that I will keep in contact with for a very long time.
The plane journey back home was very quiet. This was partly due to the physical exhaustion I was experiencing, but also because I wanted to reflect on the time spent in Cambodia. Not once did I turn on the TV during my flight back home; reliving the memories from my trip was already enough entertainment.
When I got home, I got an overwhelming feeling of appreciation for my home. Being in Cambodia has definitely changed my outlook on life, and I am grateful for things that I would usually take for granted.
If you are thinking of going on a Projects Abroad trip, my advice would be to not hesitate. It truly was a life-changing experience for me; the Projects Abroad staff were so helpful and welcoming, and if you want an experience to remember, I would definitely recommend it.
I would not say I have returned back to reality by coming home, in fact quite the opposite. Going over there and getting a glimpse into what life is like for them has been a huge wakeup call. I don’t believe I live in reality here, because now I have a better understanding of the Cambodian culture, I have a better understanding of what ‘reality’ truly is.
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.