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Volunteering in Cambodia

One of our UBalancer coaches, Fiona, has been volunteering as a teacher in a Cambodian school these past few weeks. We would like to share her story through our weekly blog:

“It is hard to believe that my four week teaching stint in Kampot, Cambodia is coming to an end. It has been a truly amazing experience and one I am very grateful to have been able to have.

The streets in Kampot are filthy, with rudimentary construction sites everywhere, mangy dogs, often with only 3 legsthat roam about sniffing through all the trash. For young children and males, everywhere is a public toilet and motorbikes are king of the road. But behind the grotty facades a lot of charming places can be found. The Cambodian people are lovely – they are incredibly friendly and happy to help. I also feel very safe walking around at night by myself. I haven’t seen a single fight or traffic accident – maybe that’s because I am usually home and tucked up in bed by about 9.

One of the best things I have done was hire a bicycle. It’s nothing like the bike I have at home. No gears, mountain bike tyres (necessary given that a lot of local roads are still clay and very rocky) and a basket on the front. I love it and I love the independence it gives me. I ride everywhere – to school and back twice a day (about 10 mins each way depending on the winds), into town and on weekends I have been going on longer rides through the saltfields and into the countryside. I particularly enjoy riding to school and the kids love it too. Dodging them in the school yard can be more hazardous than the roads of Kampot. Luckily traffic moves quite slowly and although “road rules” are a very loose term here, it is pretty safe. You just need to do a lot of dodging. Being on the bike has enabled me to see so much more. It is often when I’m riding that I come across my most memorable sights – the old guy who cheerfully carts a group of school children home every day in a trolley on the back of his bicycle, the schoolgirls laughing aloud as they ride through large puddles of water on the road after heavy rain, the old lady who smiles and gives me a wave every afternoon as I am heading “home.”

The school itself is interesting. About 86 kids in total but they come in 2 shifts. One lot from 8 – 11am and the next from 2-5pm. All are from extremely poor families and they look as though they are wearing their pyjamas.They don’t seem to change all week and the filth and stench is quite confronting. When I saw their homes on the saltfields last week I could understand why. Washing facilities are zilch and it wouldn’t rate as a priority.

I am doing lots of teaching at school now – it’s amazing how much can be achieved with very little equipment or fancy resources. In the classrooms at home we want all the latest and greatest ( or the parents do!) but with a bit of imagination so much is possible. I was originally discouraged by a lot of the western materials that were used as they seemed to be so culturally irrelevant – texts that talked about “frost” and “sleds” – in Cambodia where winter temps drops to 25 if they’re lucky. Today I had the opposite experience. The teacher was introducing the blend “cr” and cricket was one of the words. As a true Aussie I was thinking batting , bowling cricket – I had to smile when the sentence given to use the word was “My cousin likes to eat fried crickets”. Thankfully they have not been on any of the menus I’ve encountered so far. I am keen to come back again and will certainly bring more with me now that I have seen what is available. The staff are all lovely but language barriers make it hard for us to really understand one another. Culturally we are also quite different and their reserve I sometimes mistake for disinterest. I am really glad I was here for 4 weeks because it takes time to establish trust and for relationships to grow and I can sense this happening now.

Food has been an absolute highlight of my trip. Apart from the joy of not cooking ( or associated tasks) the range available and quality of the food here in Kampot is amazing. I will admit to carb over load – there is a big French influence in Kampot and I have discovered an amazing bakery where I regularly buy hot baguettes and smother them in butter (I know, quite unlike me but they are divine – also have my tube of vegemite with me and it is surprising how good veg tastes when you are away). I am a bit (sometimes a lot) over white rice. Everything is served with rice. Salad and veg are much harder to find but I am discovering more as the needs sends me searching. I love discovering new places and there are plenty to be found, all within easy walking distance of where I am staying. I have also found a fabulous coffee spot – run by expat Aussies. It is a favourite of most of the visitors in town.

The friendliness of the Cambodian people continues to delight me. Tonight, the guy who works on the front desk where I am staying as a security guard ( is usually fast asleep when I wake up in the morning and sneak past to get a cup of tea!) cut a fresh coconut for me to try. Earlier in the evening I had watched him scale the tree in the yard and cut down a few bunches of “royal coconuts” – smaller and yellow in colour- it was superb! They seem to offer such gestures in exchange for the opportunity to practice a bit of English. We take English for granted but it really is the key to success for many of the world’s poorest people.

I have not learnt as much Khmer as I had hoped as English is spoken everywhere. Many many people in Kampot are expats – came for a holiday, fell in love with the place and decided to stay and start or run a business. Lots of French, Belgians, Italians and Aussies – makes for some interesting conversations. I have practiced more French and Italian than anything else and my Khmer is limited to hello, goodbye, thank you and how are you (I can’t answer back to this one but it feels good to use the expression) Everything is bought and sold in American dollars although change is given in reils. Food from around the world is readily available but the best food I have eaten has definitely been Khmer – not dissimilar to Thai which is not surprising given their proximity.

I am really going to miss my involvement at school. It has tested me at times but the relationships I have formed with a few of the teachers and the children are ones I will cherish. It is rewarding to see a few small changes taking place and know that I have had some impact. Already I am planning to return next year and have lots of ideas of ways I can help. Chumkriel Language School (CLS) is really well organised and this is even more apparent after a few weeks in Cambodia. Most businesses/organisations have to deal with a frustrating array of setbacks and impediments and there is no sense of urgency about anything – completing buildings, serving customers etc Power and water outages are regular and erratic and there is no point jumping up and down and complaining because there is nothing you can do but wait. It has been really good for an efficient person like me to have to drop my expectations and allow things to happen in their own good time, regardless of my own agenda.

Cambodia and its people have suffered enormously over the years but they are a resilient people. Often their wants are very simple and family is central to all that they do. I have come here to “teach” the children and teachers at Chumkreil but they have taught and given me so much more. I am extremely grateful to have been able to enjoy this experience, with all its highlights and challenges, and hope that this is the start of a lasting relationship.”

Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Fiona. We look forward to welcoming you home soon.

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