Our first gig volunteering in Cambodia didn’t exactly go to plan

The classrooms at the 'Old School' where we spent most of our time The classrooms at the 'Old School' where we spent most of our time

We were so excited. We’d lined up our first gig volunteering in Cambodia at a school just outside Siem Reap. We’d fired off a couple of emails to a few charities in the Siem Reap area a few weeks prior to our planned arrival but hadn’t had any replies. So just before we were due to go there for a look we decided to make a phone call. Within 60 seconds of our call being answered we’d been accepted and we were on our way. It’s one of the reasons we started this nomadic adventure, to volunteer where we can and help those less fortunate than ourselves. We were heading to a school to teach English and help out in any way we could.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out the way we’d hoped.

Arriving in Siem Reap to volunteer

We arrived by bus and Rady, the man who runs the show, was there to pick us up. We got chatting and found out all about the growth of the Cambodia English School of Higher Education Organisation (C.E.S.H.E.O). He started C.E.S.H.E.O five years ago and in that time had grown from nothing to four schools and close to 1,000 students. No student pays to go to school, and in addition to the English lessons on offer, there’s also a classroom full of laptops to develop their computer skills as well. They are government registered NGO charity run schools, and survive completely on donations without which they would not be able to provide the free education they do. It’s a remarkable achievement and Rady deserves any accolades that come his way.

We arrived at Rady’s house where all of the volunteers stay, but because we needed a private room given we’re travelling with a toddler, and all of the private rooms were taken, we were given a room at the house of one of the tuk tuk drivers who transports the teachers to and from their assigned schools each day. We were isolated from the other volunteers, and in the end, this arrangement led to our premature departure.

We had planned to stay for a minimum of two weeks, but had set aside three weeks if we were really enjoying ourselves. We paid $US80 each per week that covered food, board and transport, so we handed over $US320 on arrival for the first fortnight. I’m still not sure about paying to volunteer, the idea doesn’t exactly sit well with me, but because it was our first time and we really wanted to help, we paid the fee.

Thrown in at the deep end

Because I have a Bachelor of Education degree and was a teacher in a former life (I haven’t stepped foot in a classroom for over 10 years), Sarah and I were given the task of writing the school curriculum. My initial thoughts were ‘wow, that’s quite the assignment’. We started on a Thursday and were told to observe classes for the first two days, make notes and assess the level of the students, then start writing the English curriculum for all developmental levels the following week. I knew it was going to be nigh on impossible, even if we stayed for the entire three weeks, but we thought we’d give it our best shot anyway.

A couple of Danish volunteers teach an English class

A couple of Danish volunteers teach an English class

The volunteer ‘teachers’ aren’t qualified to teach at all, they’re just travellers with big hearts who want to help in any way they can. We met some great people from all over the world – England, Sweden, Denmark, Trinidad, France, Germany and Mexico just to name a few. Unfortunately they don’t have much support in the classroom. There’s no curriculum to work from, hardly any resources to help them plan and execute lessons, and all they have to go on is a log book that records what the students have been taught in previous lessons. But the log books aren’t always kept up to date, so on many occasions the students sit through similar lessons throughout the year. The volunteers work in pairs and do the best they can, but with just a whiteboard, marker pen and boundless enthusiasm, they aren’t given much of a chance to succeed.

The accommodation would take some getting used to

The accommodation was like nothing we’d ever stayed in before. We knew it was going to be basic, and rough, but we weren’t quite prepared for what we were given. It was a bedroom that hadn’t seen a broom since the house was built, and we weren’t the only occupants in the room. Several geckos had set up camp behind the wardrobe, there was an army of ants doing what looked like non-stop shuttle runs across the floor from one wall to the other, and as I was to find out in the middle of the night when it decided to dig it’s fangs into my shoulder, a centipede lived there too. One of us got a little overwhelmed at one point, and tears were shed. I won’t name names, but it wasn’t Jack or I.

There was a small room within the bedroom where the toilet and shower were, an en suite of sorts. The toilet didn’t have a flush mechanism, so when utilised you had to pour water into the bowl using a metal pan filled from a tap in the wall. However you couldn’t ‘flush’ paper down the toilet, so that had to be thrown out with the trash. The tap and metal pan also doubled as the ‘shower’ which wasn’t exactly tempting, so they were either quick or skipped. However, strangely enough Jack enjoyed having cold water poured on his head, so at least he had some fun in the ‘shower’. Like I said, it was basic and not what we’re used to, but it’s part of the experience. One of the girls volunteering summed it up perfectly when she said the environment we found ourselves in was ‘character building’.

Some of the local kids join Jack watching Peppa Pig on the iPad

Some of the local kids join Jack watching Peppa Pig on the iPad

Stranded a long way from home

Sat, our host and tuk tuk driver was given the task of driving us to Rady’s house for breakfast every morning, then bringing us home after dinner each night. Given there were only three kilometres between his and Rady’s house, the one we were staying in was his, and he was hired by Rady to take volunteer teachers to and from the schools of a morning and evening, you’d think this task would be quite easy for him. Wrong, think again! Sat liked to party, and during our first week there we had to walk to breakfast in 35 degree heat twice, and once home in the pitch black after dinner at 9.00pm. Ordinarily, if we didn’t have Jack with us, Sarah and I would simply chalk it up to an unreliable driver, give him a piece of our mind the following day, and get on with the job. But when you’re in outback Cambodia, and you’re carrying a sleeping toddler home along a pitch black country road for three kilometres, we absolutely draw the line.

Time to leave

The following day we spoke with Rady privately and explained to him it wasn’t working out for us and we were going to be leaving a week earlier than expected. We told him that if it were just Sarah and I we’d simply suck up Sat’s tardiness and carry on developing the curriculum. But Jack’s safety is our number one priority and when we’re isolated from the rest of the group and don’t have reliable transportation, that’s unacceptable. To Rady’s credit he completely understood and told us he’d refund the money we’d already paid for the second week, which he did the following day. We’d informed him each time Sat wasn’t there to take us to Rady’s or drive us home, so it wasn’t a complete surprise to him.

The computer room at the 'Old School'

The computer room at the ‘Old School’

You still should help at the Cambodia English School of Higher Education Organisation

Despite our experience I would still highly recommend anyone without kids to go and help out if you can. The students are fantastic, you’ll meet some great people just like you from every corner of the globe helping out, and you’ll do your bit to help those less fortunate than yourself. But be warned, there are things you should know before you arrive.

  • If you don’t have a private room ($US80 per week per person) you’ll be in a dorm room ($US60 per week) with at least 12 other people. It’s a mattress on the floor, a mosquito net and depending on how many people are in the room, a small space for your gear.
  • Forget air-conditioning, fans will be the only respite from the constant heat.
  • Breakfast is at 7.00am, lunch at 11.00-11.30am, and dinner at 6.30pm. There’s a big gap between lunch and dinner, so be prepared.
  • School is from 8.00am-10.00am, then 2.00pm-6.00pm. There’s a big gap in between lessons so have something to read or do or you’ll get quite bored.
  • While it says you’ll have Wi-Fi access, it’s so slow and unreliable most of the time you just won’t have any. Either bring your own or be prepared to go without.
  • You’ll meet some great people and possibly make some lifelong friends.
  • You’ll help disadvantaged kids learn English and potentially go on to make a great life for themselves.
  • You’ll grow as a person, both from the teaching experience, and living in these conditions for a short period of time.

You never know, you may love it and stick around for months or even years. James, the second in command, has been there 18 months and is currently building a house for himself. Others have been there for several months and don’t have any plans to leave. Another who was volunteering has left to look for another job as she wants to stay in the area.

Bite the bullet, get out of your comfort zone and go and help someone in need by volunteering in Cambodia. While our experience wasn’t great, it hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm to volunteer again which we will no doubt do sooner rather than later. However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this experience, it’s that we need to ask a lot more questions when applying to volunteer about what we will be facing to ensure Jack will be safe and happy while we’re there.

4 Comments on Our first gig volunteering in Cambodia didn’t exactly go to plan

  1. What an experience! I’d love to volunteer someday, so I enjoyed reading your story. I don’t have kids, but I’m a city girl who’s not used to darkness, so that 3km walk would’ve been downright scary for me. I don’t see why they’d have no curriculum after 5 years, but some education is better than none at all, I guess.

    • It sure was an experience, one that will serve us well for future volunteer gigs. The walk home in the dark was scary, crazy dogs barking at us and no footpath so cars and trucks were just missing us! They simply can’t afford work books so therefore no curriculum, and no teacher staying for long enough to write one. Good luck with future volunteering, despite our first experience we highly recommend it.

  2. Although thousands of people have been here and had a good experience. Please don’t let this article convince you not to go to CESHEO.

    • I 100% agree Daniel. As I mentioned several times, particularly towards the end of the article, I strongly encourage people to get along and help out at CESHEO if they can. I just wouldn’t recommend it if you have small children with you.

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