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.