Hannah Atherton - General Teaching Projects in Cambodia
Having spent the most part of my gap year working as an au pair for comparatively wealthy Western families, I decided to volunteer with Projects Abroad in order to see the other end of the spectrum; to work with under-privileged children in a developing country. I chose to volunteer in Cambodia because I was interested in its history and was keen to learn more about its culture and traditions. It’s also a part of the world that I had never visited so I wanted to challenge myself.
Arriving in Cambodia
After a long flight to Phnom Penh, I was picked up by a smiley member of the Projects Abroad team. During the taxi ride to the apartments I was shocked by the poverty I saw all around me; the litter in piles on the street, bare-foot children begging amongst the vehicles and women pulling carts loaded with plastic making their way slowly through the traffic. At the time, I felt eager to start straight away but pretty nervous about the six weeks ahead of me. My nerves would soon wash away when I met the other volunteers and began work at my placement. Kind Projects Abroad staff would support me throughout my whole placement and ensure that these six weeks would be ones I will remember for the rest of my life.
I volunteered as an English teacher of children aged around 8 to 10 at VDTO primary school in the west of the city. Every day, after our 20 minute tuk tuk ride (which was arranged by Projects Abroad – thankfully!) I would be greeted warmly by the headmistress of the school then go to find the children in the classroom. They really were such friendly children and each day I looked forward to giving and receiving hugs and high-fives with the students. At break time we’d play games like ‘duck, duck, goose’ and clapping songs. In class time, I was able to get creative and plan my own lessons for the students, with the guidance of textbook and friendly local teachers to help with translation!
Over my six weeks there I got to know not only the students in my class but also those out of it pretty well. It was great to be able to see them progress and the moment when something confusing ‘clicked’ with them was a wonderfully satisfying feeling. It made me realise how much I take for granted - how fortunate I was to have had an education and been able to have easy access to even simple things to enhance it, like colouring pencils. Even the fact that in the UK each class has its own classroom – our room was split between two different classes and two different teachers.
The children at the school had little but were full of warmth. On my last day, I was covered in stickers they’d plastered all over me. They refused to say ‘goodbye’ so instead we all said ‘see you again’. I was so sad to say goodbye to them at the end that I even cried!
I also spent a Sunday taking part in a community day at another school in a slum area just outside Phnom Penh, giving out care packages of rice, hand soap and detergent and explaining some aspects of hygiene to the families. It really opened my eyes and was a very important part of my time in Cambodia for me.
I loved living in the volunteer apartments in Phnom Penh and getting to know the other volunteers, who were from all over the world. It was so interesting to be able to get to know more about their cultures in addition to Khmer culture. There were so many people there during my time in Cambodia and I also got on really well with all my room-mates. In the evenings we were able to relax together over a communal dinner, ping-pong on the rooftop or in the bars of Phnom Penh, sharing our experiences from the day and planning our trips for the weekend.
At the weekends we were free to travel around. Initial worries about who to travel with flew out of the window because you could be sure that at least one person was keen to travel to the same place as you. It was really special to be able to travel en masse to some of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to. I spent two weekends exploring the wats (Buddhist temples) and streets of Phnom Penh, was silenced when hearing the atrocities that had been committed by the Khmer Rouge at S-21 and Choeung Ek, was awe-struck by the incredible temples of Angkor, danced like crazy in Siem Reap, swam with sparkles (bioluminescent plankton) in the sea around Koh Rong, learnt about the life of the Pnong tribespeople in the east, and prepared a traditional Khmer meal thanks to a cooking course in Battambang. I really would urge future volunteers to use their free time to explore as much of this beautiful country as possible.
Everywhere I went, I met interesting people who were willing to talk to me about their country’s turbulent past and their lives now. Cambodians are very friendly people and I feel so lucky to have been able to spend time in their incredible country, meeting and doing what I could to help some of their people.
I would definitely encourage people to volunteer with Projects Abroad in Cambodia. The support you receive from Projects Abroad is brilliant, from asking any questions you have before you set off, to ensuring that you are settling in to your placement during your time there. The work you do will be worthwhile and very rewarding and the memories will stay with you forever.