I didn’t love Cambodia when I first arrived. I’d just left a bunch of travelers I’d spent the past two months with, which meant we were basically best friends. I knew the next time I saw them, if ever, things would be different: they were becoming lawyers and going home to start their first real jobs. On the other hand, I wasn’t ready to let go of the travel dream (and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to), so I decided to carry on alone to do some volunteering in Cambodia.
I arrived in Phnom Penh and it seemed a little more in-your-face than other parts of Asia I’d visited. I spent the first two days I was there sitting in bed, mourning the loss of my travel buddies, eating ice cream in my pajamas with the curtains closed watching reruns of Gossip Girl. Finally, I mustered up the organizational skills to book a bus to Takeo, a little village I’d never heard of before a girl I met in Laos told me I just had to go there because the people were amazing.
I’d always wanted to volunteer for a while. In fact, I spent a few days volunteering in Laos at a casual English conversational school. It was fun, but so casual I didn’t really get the experience I was looking for.
I remember gazing out the window on the bus to Takeo at the landscape that was so different to that of my home country; the fiery red roads, the burnt grass and the white cows that were as thin as a stick.
The houses were different too. Many of them were simple shacks, seemingly held together with ropes and each with an obligatory hammock, which was partially covered, providing shade during the blistering heat. Before I’d even arrived in Takeo, I knew this place was going to be really different.
I walked into the orphanage and was met by a group of curious faces. Their English was impressive ,“what is your name?” “how long are you here for?” “where are you from?” were just a handful of the questions I was bombarded with.
That first month I spent there will go down in history as one of the happiest months of my lives. I know you volunteer with the intention of enriching the lives of others, but I found it surprising how much it enhanced my own. At one point I realized I had cramp in my face and I deduced it was because I had actually been laughing and smiling too much – that’s how ridiculously happy I was.
I taught English with some actual English teachers. Our classes were so popular that other children came to the woven windows and peered through them, desperate to get a little more exposure to the English language – regarded as a key to unlocking a brighter future in Cambodia.
Since my first visit I’ve been back another three times. I am actually desperate to volunteer somewhere else in the world, but I made such special bonds with the kids there that I don’t know if I’ll ever want to stop volunteering in Cambodia.
In my time volunteering in Cambodia with New Futures Organisation I’ve helped build a school, taught English as an assistant and to my own class in a beautiful pagoda, spent one-on-one time making bracelets, having my hair done in their salon with GHDS (I was surprised, too), helped cook lunches with the cooks, helped kids with their English homework, painted murals and fell in love with Cambodia.
I thoroughly recommend volunteering overseas as it is a great way to give back to communities that don’t have the resources they need to move forward. It’s also a very unique way to be embraced by a country and to get to know the locals. I miss Takeo every day and often refer to it as my Cambodian home. Above and beyond the volunteering experience, I also made some of the best friends of my life here and have visited them throughout the world.
Have you volunteered anywhere? What was your experience like?
About the Author:
Izy Berry, from The Wrong Way Home, is a solo female traveler that is addicted to exploring new places, despite being stabbed and having some of her stuff stolen along the way. She believes that travel doesn’t have to be expensive and would rather spend all her money on travel than medicate herself with possessions. You can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.