The Two Faces of Cambodia – How Will it Affect You?

Becki Enright August 27, 2012 10

Cambodia will tear up your heart at the same rate it will make you fall in love with it, a place so beautiful and a nation of people so warm and approachable that it’s hard to take in the atrocities that once occurred there, the effects of which still linger to this day.

I first visited Cambodia in November 2010 on the G Adventures Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure trip. I wanted a good insight into the country in the little amount of time that I had, with the classic Siem Reap to Phnom Penh route (with some smaller stops in between) providing just that.

The vast countryside and its stunning views, the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat and the bustling capital city of Phnom Penh are not the only things that stay with you, nor are they the only images you will return home with. Beneath the simplicity of life and serenity of landscape is the undertone of poverty – the effects of four years of genocide that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1979.

You’ll learn about that if you visit the The Tuol Sleng  (S-21) Museum and the Killing Fields, but you will see it all around you as you travel through each day:  with the begging and the shouts of ‘one dollar’, the kids who know how to say ‘no school today’ when you ask why they are out working, people maimed by land-mines and other effects of war left to sell whatever they can to get through each day and the absence of an older generation.

It was during those moments that I made a promise to myself to return, not only to see more of this beautiful country where I plan to hike in the jungle areas, visit the sleepy southern towns of Kampot and Kep and discover the eastern areas of the country beyond the capital city and the tourist trail, but return to make a difference.

I’m a huge advocate of volunteering, but of volunteering done in the correct way and for the right reasons. I’m not volunteering here because it sounds good or because volunteering was put on my bucket list alongside destination tick lists. I’m doing it because it feels right. Something in me clicked when I was there, what I saw affected me to the point that I never stopped thinking about it and I returned home thinking that my time in Cambodia wasn’t enough.

While I can’t change the world or heal Cambodia I’m a firm believer in the ‘pass it on’ theory and that if I influence or help just one person who can make a better life for themselves, then they to will go on to also help others in the same way.

But where do you start looking for a volunteering post in a country blighted not only by poverty, but corruption of poverty? Sadly, there is a lot of unjust charitable outlets that exist in Cambodia, looking to exploit its own people for profit and personal gain, mainly applying to orphanage organisations. Children have become tourist attractions, a situation blighting the country and which many responsible tourism organisations are working hard to shut down.

In depth research is key here, or if you are spending a lot of time in Cambodia you could visit first hand some organisations to get a better understanding of how they operate. Ask questions: how is the money spent? How are the volunteers regulated? How is the charity supported? Even ask to speak to the Director.

I heard about New Hope via a friend shortly after my time in Cambodia and set the wheels in motion to go back long term as part of my Round the World travels. The charity helps those in the village of Mondul 3 – one of the of the poorest slum areas in Siem Reap province, Cambodia.

Once a military base, the village is now home to some 300 families made up of army personnel, karaoke/sex workers and displaced men, women and children.  The people of Mondul 3 have no formal education, English language or vocational skills, Living conditions are appalling, work opportunities limited and food scarce. New Hope provides the funds to change this.

It has great reputation and has done some outstanding work. It is also supported by Planeterra and high profile companies, so I immediately knew that the work undertaken by the charity is legitimate. From there I made a direct approach to work as a teaching assistant and on outreach projects, which required a lengthy application (which is always a good sign) alongside a minimal amount of money to be donated, meaning that paying a third party a fee to volunteer per week or month and the charity not receiving the majority of it is taken out of the equation.

I start my work there at the start of December for a three month period. After that, who knows? I may return once again to Cambodia as I’m keen to also work in responsible tourism. You never know what will happen when you are travelling. There might be that one place that will change you forever and become more than just that country you had on your list of top places to visit.


  1. Hope Loudon August 27, 2012 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    Nice article. People need to know that responsible tourism does not include “orphanage tours” and that giving money needs to be done very carefully. I just returned from Cambodia, and found it both beautiful and tragic. I saw lots of tourists giving money to children in opposition to Child Safe’s advice, so I actually started carrying and disseminating the Child Safe pamphlets which could be obtained at airports and other tourist hot-spots. Thanks for joing in this crusade for responsible tourism, and for urging people to do their part,

    P.S. Try to make it to Otres Beach in Sihanoukville and have Vanny’s fried bananas if you get the chance.

  2. Anne-Marie Dean August 27, 2012 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    Becki, thank you for your article.
    I too have just returned from Cambodia. I found the people to be overwhelmingly friendly, happy and warm. All this, despite their countries history and the atrocities many of them would have seen first-hand.
    To then return to western society, where many people complain about this and that and truly appreciate very little, has reinforced my desire to return and spend more (worthwhile, productive) time in Siem Reap and surrounds.
    The responsibility that tourists have when visiting countries like this is so often ignored and respect so often not given to the people.
    Thanks again for your inspiration.

  3. Anna August 27, 2012 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    If people get the chance, I also recommend looking into Tiny Toones, a group of people we became incredibly good friends with when I was travelling and who do amazing work by keeping at risk youth in the slums off the streets by teaching them not only traditional classes like English and Art, but also breakdancing and hip hop. Their community, largely Cambodian, is like a very large family, and is just an incredible group of people.

  4. Backpacker Becki August 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    Thanks Hope. I’m in contact with a couple of organisations there and hope to also work with them in some capacity to spread the word about responsible tourism. I think it’s great you did that! And thanks for the banana tip… I am going that way so will be sure to check it out :)

  5. Josh August 28, 2012 at 5:54 am - Reply

    I have just returned from my first trip to cambodia and I was there for 2 weeks. I really loved the country and feel like I saw so much of it but still have so much more to see! I visited new hope for Cambodian children and stayed there for 3 days, this orphange provided a village just out of phenom phen for over 200 children that were HIV positive. These kids were the nicest kids you could ever meet! If you want some volunteer work to do in Cambodia, volunteer there! Google NHCC and contact them! It will change your life!

  6. Montana The Explorer August 29, 2012 at 8:00 am - Reply

    Very inspiring article ! I too will be set off to Thailand this November for a volunteering stint. Instead of just doing a sight-seeing tours and explorations, i decided as well to become a volunteer and i am so excited about it.

  7. Jewel October 10, 2012 at 9:50 pm - Reply

    How did Cambodia affect me?
    Following our whirlwind visit staying at a small resort outside Siem Reap and doing the usual tourist trail… whilst also experiencing village life. This article rang so true with the profound experience I took away after visiting Cambodia I would never have expected and will treasure for many years to come. Offering me the opportunity to reflect on our our society and all its “haves and have nots” and such disparity. Only wish to now have the opportunity to revisit and YES offer whatever I can to this wonderful country and its people.

  8. Liz October 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    What a coincidence. I recently booked to do a 3 week G Adeventures tour of northern India in January 2013 (hence why I recieved an email about this story) but am also flying from Delhi into Siem Reap and will be volunteering with New Hope for a month! I spent a week volunteering there as a teaching assistant last year, and since returning to Australia have felt a strong desire to return. So I might see you there Beckie! I have requested to help with the outreach projects this time. New Hope Cambodia is definately undertaking some amazing and empowering work for the people of Module 3. It is astounding and inspiring how friendly and loving Khmers are, despite the poverty they live in. It is great to see you sharing your experience with others!

  9. Backpacker Becki October 21, 2012 at 10:52 am - Reply

    I certainly will see you there Liz. I will be there until March. How long will you be staying for?

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