Julian Pang - General Care Projects in Cambodia
Half way through my second year in university, I had to organise my three month summer. I needed to stay in Australia to gain some practical experience for my sports science degree but I also wanted to spend a month travelling outside the country. I went to a seminar at the university, about a unit of study that requires students to undertake an overseas volunteer experience. Volunteering has always been something I wanted to do, but I never knew where to begin or who to speak to. Immediately I knew this was the perfect opportunity as it allowed me to travel over the summer, and get credit points counted towards my degree. Furthermore, I got to do something I’d never done before.
Like many others, I had no idea what I had signed myself up for, nor did I have an idea what volunteering is like, and how I can help and contribute, but I was completely ready to get out there for an adventure. I chose to do a one month project in Phnom Penh because I have never been to Cambodia. I have also studied about the famous temple Angkor Wat in school so I was inspired to learn more about the place and its culture.
First impressions of Cambodia
My first impression of Cambodia is that it resembles China in many ways. I grew up in China and went to an international high school in Beijing for seven years before going to Australia for university. Settling into Phnom Penh was rather easy for me as I just felt like I’ve gone back home. Breathing polluted air, grey sky, chaotic traffic situations and bargaining for prices at the local markets were nothing new to me. The biggest challenge I had to face was probably the language barrier, but most Cambodians understand common sign language and simple English words. If a motor driver didn’t understand my directions at all, I just called up a local Projects Abroad staff member and if they were free at the time, they would be more than happy to translate anything for me.
My Care placement
I was placed in an orphanage called Home of Hope, which was run by church brothers to take in those that are abandoned. The people living there are of all age groups who are either mentally disabled or HIV positive. They also had a football pitch, and a classroom for nearby village children who could not afford to go to government school. My job was mainly to take care of the children. In the morning I normally taught English classes and played games with the kids during their break.
Once the children from local villages went home, I continued to work with the children who were HIV positive and also helped to feed and play simple ball games with the children who were mentally handicapped. I soon came to realise that as long as I organised something for them, they loved it because they knew someone was caring for them. Often, they only get to play these ball games when volunteers come because the orphanage staffs are too busy with other duties. My afternoon schedule was very similar. Sometimes I would organise an English class and if only a few showed up, I would play football with them or organise some more ball games that included all the children.
Accommodation in Cambodia
Volunteers all live together at one of the Projects Abroad apartments, which was a wonderful set up as I got to meet many people from across the world. We had cooks and cleaners working to provide us three meals a day and keep things clean, which made me feel very spoilt. We did have to wash our own clothes, but I never had to do the dishes or clean the toilet.
I loved the food the cook made. When other volunteers asked me to eat out, I would always hesitate to go with them just because I would feel like I was missing out on the amazing food the cook prepared for the night. We had a proper living room with sofas and a TV with English channels, but the best thing about the apartments is the rooftop where we hang out and have drinks. However, after a tired work day, I much preferred to lie on the sofas than to climb three levels of stairs up to the roof.
For the weekends I did some travelling to other parts of Cambodia but also stayed in Phnom Penh sometimes. The most memorable event was the four day weekend when the funeral for the previous Cambodian King Sihanouk was held. I went to see the king’s procession where his body was transferred from the Royal Palace to the cremation site. It was unique and I was very lucky to witness a royal funeral in another country! I learnt a lot about Cambodian culture, especially how united the people are. They all dressed in white and black, some even travelled from other provinces to show their respect for the king.
I went to Siem Reap for another weekend. It is the tourist area of Cambodia where the historical Angkor Wat temples are located. It was another great cultural experience to learn about the history of Cambodia. Although heavily damaged from war, the sculptures and monuments were some of the best I have ever seen. Waking up at 5am from a late night to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat was something I didn’t regret at all. I travelled there by myself, but because there are so many tourists and backpackers in this small town, I never felt like I was alone. In fact I went to visit parts of the temples with a new friend who I just met the previous day.
The ‘dirty weekend’ is another fantastic opportunity to fill up a Saturday in Phnom Penh. It is an event organised by Projects Abroad during which volunteers go to a placement and help in some extra practical way. We went to a school to paint their walls and add some colourful murals. The idea is to add colours to the plain white walls in the classrooms so that Cambodian children can study in a more happy and lively environment. I was responsible for the theme underwater world and I painted a shark and some fish. I am not artistic at all but I was still glad to contribute something recognisable on the wall which would benefit the children’s learning.
My Cambodia Experience
I have enjoyed every moment about my experience in Cambodia. I still remember how lost I was at the start. I didn’t know what to expect at all but after this experience I feel like I have done more than I first anticipated. Volunteering is a new thing for a lot of people, and it can be scary initially. However, there are many great staff and friendly volunteers in Cambodia who are willing to help.
The social part is another important aspect of making my volunteering trip remarkable. I was very open minded, engaging myself and trying new things. I always went out with other volunteers because I always wanted to discover something new, either learning more about the country or simply learning more about my volunteer friends. The most important thing I realised is that volunteering is more than just helping the ones with needs. It is also through volunteering that you interact and learn a lot about the world, the people around you and even yourself, and what you can do to make people’s lives better.
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.