ambodia has always been a country of interest to me. I knew nothing about Cambodia until meeting my first Cambodian friend in high school and since then I had grown fascinated by this unique culture. Having visited Cambodia on a holiday, I had always wanted to visit it again but not as a tourist. I wanted to live there as a local and do something meaningful. The opportunity came last year when I graduated from university and wanted to take a break from my studies. I did some research regarding volunteering organisations and found Projects Abroad. I signed up to do a 24-week Teaching project and after a year I was ready to begin my journey.
The nine-hour plane journey and the overnight stay in Kuala Lumpur were overshadowed by the excitement of living abroad. My plane was late getting into Phnom Penh airport and I couldn’t contact the person picking me up. However as I exited the terminal I saw the designated person waiting with a sign who took me to my apartment. I was very happy to see him and enjoyed the car journey to the apartments whilst getting a glimpse of culture and the bad traffic on the way.
I knew what to expect from Cambodia – the poverty, corruption, humour of the people, the culture and also the general happiness of the populace. I engaged in friendly conversation with the driver and was met by a Projects Abroad staff at the apartment who showed me to my room and introduced me to my new home for the next six months.
My Teaching placement
The next day I had my orientation around the city and caught a tuk tuk to the school with my supervisor. I met the staff at the Projects Abroad office and they all seemed to be very friendly. I also enjoyed meeting the staff and the kids at the school, who were typically very shy. I felt comfortable in the working environment and was eager to begin. The journey from the apartments to the school was an adventure in itself. Coming out of the city was a different vibe to that of the countryside.
The city flourished with colonial architectural buildings and a bustling city life iconic of Asia; scooters hooned their way through gaps in the roads, while tuk tuk drivers stalked pedestrians who were possible clients. The countryside saw a difference in housing, had a poorer inclination of wealth as seen through the number of potholes on the main roads, and a food market buzzing with flies. Monks floated around from house to house with alms while school children cautiously rode their bicycles to get to class.
My first day of teaching was very nerve racking, as I have no experience or training to be a teacher. This was made easier by the welcome of a coffee from the staff at the school. This made me feel more settled and when I first arrived in class I was happy to observe the teacher for the day, as I was his assistant. The cultural difference of teaching and behavioural attributes of the kids is different to western standards and I had a hard time understanding these differences. However over the next couple of weeks I adjusted to understand the teacher and the kids more, which helped me obtain more confidence in my own teaching.
The typical day teaching began with a coffee and chatting with the staff for 30 minutes before class. I enjoyed learning more about Cambodian culture while engaging with the staff. I found the staff humorous, friendly, accepting, well dressed and a little shy. However, one of the greatest attributes I observed throughout my time interacting with the staff was how close we were when I left. For example, at first when I took a photo with them I would put my arm around them and they felt very shy about being photographed. When I left, they sometimes put their arms around me and were happy to take photos together. I also remember having general discussions with the staff that ended in games of badminton in my lunch break.
I also fondly remember my interaction with the kids. At first they tended to avoid me in my lunch break. They seemed to be scared of me and I found it hard at times as they ran away when I opened my mouth. Throughout my time they got to know me more and I had some memorable interactions with them. I had some students who invited me over to their house, where I met their parents, sister, cousins, uncle, auntie, grandmother and their dogs (who seemed to like me and no one else in the area!). I would hang out at their house after work and sometimes they invited me to their parties on the weekend. I would have lunch with them during my break and I would eat sweet Cambodian food with them after school.
When I first arrived in Cambodia I was frustrated by the cost of tuk tuks and I wanted to live more like a local so within the first three weeks I bought a bicycle, which when I left to come home, I brought back to Australia. Buying a bicycle was one of the best decisions I made throughout my time volunteering. On weekends I would ride to meet friends, go to markets, visit Riverside, explore the city and ride home from the church at my school. When I became more confident I would ride home every day from school, which took 1 hour 15 minutes... that is to say if I didn’t stop by the local pagoda to take a rest or get distracted and do shopping. I was lucky to not have any accidents as the streets of Phnom Penh and the countryside can be dangerous. The best thing to do is to ride normally and vehicles will just avoid you.
On weekends I would sometimes hang out with other volunteers, meet my Cambodian friends who are living in Phnom Penh, meet my supervisor, go shopping with the security guard and have time by myself. During the Khmer New Year I visited Kampot with some other volunteers. My sister came to visit me and we went to Sihanoukville. My dad also visited and I showed him around Phnom Penh.
I enjoyed making new friends, forming friendships with other volunteers and the staff and students who I will remember for a lifetime. I enjoyed exploring Phnom Penh on my bicycle, visiting the markets, hanging out at a Buddhist temple in my free time, doing meditation, walking and exploring the streetscape.
Volunteering has been a fantastic experience, and I would recommend it to anyone. It was challenging at times but very rewarding. I would advise anyone wanting to volunteer to make the most of your time abroad. Some people recommended not riding a bicycle in Phnom Penh. I ignored their advice and had the best time of my life, and saw things which I would have had the chance to otherwise. Don’t be nervous about going out and giving it a try... you will not regret it!