Volunteering, Living and Learning in Cambodia
Living in Cambodia while working closely with Lotus Outreach Cambodia and Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre is a dream come true for me. Ever since a family trip to India I have known that my years living in Sydney were to come to an end.
How I Made the Decision to Go
Three years and one degree later I landed in Cambodia, and after half an hour knew this was the place for me. I returned to Australia with the plan of applying for a master’s degree that would take me back to Cambodia. Being interested in development and education, I approached the head lecturer of research masters in the School of Education from my University and he suggested looking into Education for Development. After some preliminary research I decided this was the perfect area for my studies. I started reading, planning, and booking tickets. I started meeting people who were involved in NGOs in Australia, and I even made a special trip over to Cambodia to meet NGOs that I could potentially study. In the end I decided to research the role of NGOs in providing education in Cambodia.
Heading abroad for me was not very intimidating as I was so sure I knew what I was getting into. I had visas and passport sorted, tickets bought, and an orphanage to work with in Battambang (N/W Cambodia).
How and If to Live and Study in Cambodia?
So in my case it was easy, I knew that is where I was supposed to be. But how does one discover this? How do you know if you will be able to cope while living in a country so very different from your own?
Most importantly, there is no shame whatsoever in deciding this does not suit you, and heading home. Before you can decide to move to a country such as Cambodia, you need to accept that you will be able to go home if you need to. Once you understand this, every other challenge you meet will have a solution and nothing will be impossible.
Are you patient? No? Come, but expect to learn a great life lesson. Us expats (Barang) here in Cambodia have a saying… “This is Cambodia.” Nothing happens when you think it will, people say yes when they mean “what the hell are you talking about,” tuk tuk drivers and street sellers will hassle you non-stop until you learn to speak their language enough to say “I am not a tourist.” No matter where you are, if you are in a rush your food and the bill will take four times as long as normal.
Can you handle being constantly reminded of the weight you have put on since arriving in the country of delicious food? “Oh lady you so beautiful, you so big, look, nice fat” as they pinch your arms. The girls here also have a tendency of stroking your skin if you happen to be very pale. So prepare to have your personal space invaded.
And on the topic of delicious food…. Seriously get as much of it as you can, but be prepared to be sick. Everyone is, and everyone talks about it, even while eating.
Yet I would not give up living in this country for anything.
Working in Cambodia
The minute you step off the plane the heat and humidity slap you in the face. There is no gradual introduction to Cambodia; it is there to greet you in the air. But it felt like home.
Four months in and so much has already been learned about this new world, but there is still so much more to discover. I am slowly learning Khmer, practicing and traveling around the country where possible. But I learn the most at work. We have recently been conducting monitoring visits to the various LOA programs, and every day I see a family living in unimaginable circumstances, or a school teaching remarkable classes with no resources at all, or a child forced to look after his siblings because they were orphaned a month ago. These people are survivors, and are an inspiration; sometimes however they are merely surviving, and this is where I can see how vital the support we provide is to the lives of these children who have nothing. I had to hold back tears a number of times when we delivered new bicycles to girls that live too far from school, and rice to a family that had not eaten rice for almost a month, living on water plants they had collected from the flooded fields near their house.
But this is not feel good work. You do not come away from these visits feeling like you have done a great thing, but rather you spend days upon days pondering how else we can help these families to get out of the poverty cycle. You lie awake at night wondering if you could find some fruit trees, or would it be better to help them set up a chicken pen? As a new projects officer, the most important lesson I have learned so far is that we do not need to do something huge, we do not need to build a monument to change the lives of these people for the better. It is the grassroots opportunities, the provision of rice or a bike that alleviates stress, or the chickens that will provide a small income—that makes the difference to the people with whom I am proud to be working.
Studying Abroad in Cambodia
First of all, you need to be prepared for doing a lot on your own initiative. Particularly if you are doing research, as your supervisors will not have time to tell you precisely what to do all the time, you will not be able to pop into a library, you may be blocked from some Internet sites you want to access. My university hub site currently will not let me re-enroll from overseas, which is a little bit of a challenge.
You also need to be prepared for something much more challenging. Everything you knew, everything you were taught back home and every idea you had is wrong here. OK, perhaps this is an exaggeration, let us say 5% of what you were taught was right, particularly if you had good teachers, but this world operates in its own way. For me, every NGO I have worked with or met or tried to research for my studies has a different perspective, a different method, a different belief, and I am telling you now, not a single one of them falls into the models of development I researched for my literature review back home. My advice—be prepared to change your views and open your mind. Since being here I have revised my entire Masters research question. I am now focusing on the perspective of local NGOs and members of the communities where I work, and I am asking them what they believe development is.
It is so hard to turn off that side of your brain that says “I was taught that this is right when I went to University, so it must be right.”
Living in a Developing Country
When moving to a developing country there are a number of useful hints that I would like to share based upon my experience.
Money: In Australia there are a couple of credit cards that allow you to withdraw money overseas with no international transaction or money conversion fee, saving a good $14 each trip to the ATM. However, and this is important advice, go with the more reputable bank, even if it is harder to get the credit card approval. I chose the easy option, having never had a credit card before, and the bank decided to get a “new look” card and suspend my account until I had called some number back home and activated my new card… which was sitting on my desk at my parent’s house. An interesting couple of weeks there.
Water: Do no drink it! However it is always worth researching how local NGOs handle this issue. One NGO in Cambodia has developed a ceramic water filter system for $10, meaning you can save money and stop using a thousand plastic bottles a week. It is RDIC's Ceramic Water Filter.
Pets: I have three kittens, but I have decided to remain in Cambodia for the foreseeable future. Please do not get a pet if you are thinking of staying for only a year. Animals tend to live a lot longer than that and it is not fair to them.
Sanity: Get a hobby, something you really enjoy doing at home. I paint and sew. Even if you never actually get anything done, just knowing that you have a hobby to fall back on can keep you from going crazy when work, study, and life in Cambodia bring you down. And it happens. A lot.
Skype: Set up Skype dates with your friends, make sure they all get together on one end, and make sure you catch up on all the gossip. It seems superficial but it is very important for your mental health. Facebook is great too. Get your friends to invite you to their birthday parties, you can be there in spirit!
For a while, avoid big shopping malls. They are scary at the best of times, but try to imagine entering a Gucci store after a year of seeing people in rags at local markets. No joke, you will need to adjust slowly to such material and cultural differences. Malls will at first seem more shocking than the poverty did when you arrived in Cambodia so many months ago.
And now for the most important piece of advice: Come back! It is so easy to spend a year or so in a developing country, achieve so much in your work and studies, and even make a difference, and then head back home and sink back into your old routine. Same friends, same job, same bar on a Friday night. Before long you will have only a vague memory of that “cool experience” you had when you were younger. So I am not suggesting you never leave (unless that takes your fancy), but make plans to come back, to visit for a couple of weeks, to do another three month stint perhaps. Just having a little bit of your home experience still ahead of you will help you to hold on to the importance of your time studying abroad.
Charlie Cristi grew up in various places around New South Wales, Australia, with Sydney being the place to call home. Charlie moved to Newcastle for undergraduate work and continued studies there through a Research Masters Degree. Charlie is a passionate teacher and a belief in the importance of education has led to study in Cambodia.
Charlie hopes to remain in Cambodia for a very long time, with a few trips out and around, including returning home. Charlie is working with and researching two organizations established and run by Cambodians, Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre, and Cambodian Organization for Children and Development, who both receive funding from the International NGO Lotus Outreach. In the near future Charlie will begin a new project working with early childhood education as a means of prevention of sex trafficking.
Charlie’s travel experiences include Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, with plans to visit Thailand and India, and travel through Europe and Morocco later in the year.