You have probably heard and read it a million times: volunteering abroad (be it short or long-term) is an ultimately rewarding, once-in-a-lifetime experience. It sounds like a cliché, right? There is the truth to it though, and I’m happy to repeat it for the million+1st time – volunteering really is amazing.

When planning our travels we often get absorbed in what we want to do and see. Quickly, it’s all about indulgence, less about altruism. Volunteering abroad, however, gives you the chance to benefit both ways. I started off my experience in Cambodia as an English teacher for 2 weeks, but of course it could also take you to other places in Asia, Africa or South America. When I looked for an organisation to go with, I was shocked by the exorbitant fees some of them charge the volunteers. Often  this includes a one-off registration fee plus contribution fees for each project. Not always do they give you a transparent explanation of what this money is used for, how it benefits the project in addition to your work, and how it might be used to give you the support you need as a volunteer. With many different NGOs and charity projects looking for volunteers it is definitely a jungle out there – not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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I registered with Original Volunteers, a trusted UK-based online agency. They offer a wide range of projects in various countries and they are somewhat efficient with replies. The account I signed up for set me back £275; money which – in retrospect – I could have saved by skipping the agency and contact trustworthy local NGOs directly. You can find them online, or in the back of your Lonely Planet guide-book.

Before setting out to Cambodia, my mind was troubled with the usual stereotypes of the country. High criminality rates, a dangerous place for female solo travellers – all that. Luckily, it turned out to be completely different. The Cambodians are some of the kindest and most helpful people I’ve ever met, and backpacking here on my own I always felt safe and at peace.

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I eventually ended up volunteering for HOPE Agency, an NGO based in Barkod Village, two hours away from Phnom Penh. Many Cambodians live in slums or immigrate illegally to Thailand. HOPE’s mission is to teach children basic English language skills, so their chances at the job market are improved and they get a chance to break the pattern. Volunteers are expected to give 2-3 English classes per day either by buddying up with others or solo.

My experience with HOPE was very rewarding. The founder, Jason, is a friendly and laid-back coordinator, who always had an open ear for my issues and tried his best at answering my questions. Upon landing, he had arranged a taxi for me (roughly $40 to reach the village) and when my phone didn’t work he drove me to town to sort out my sim card. His sister is in charge of the kitchen and always whipped up great meals for all the volunteers. The family was very welcoming and caring, and assisted us in all things transport and day trips. Jason is also updating HOPE’s Facebook page with images of their project, fundraising events, the construction of a water system, the kids and surrounding farm animals. Up to date I have the feeling I know what’s going on in the village – that’s the kind of transparency I need.

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Many have asked me what the biggest challenge was during my volunteering trip to Cambodia, and while at first I thought it would be hygiene, it turned out to be something else. All we had to shower was rain water, dust is literally everywhere and power cut-offs happen on a regular basis. There were also moments asking for endurance, for example when I got bored by the slow village life, but what was really disconcerting at times was the companionship of other volunteers. First up, many seem to come for the wrong reasons – to collect photo memories rather than dedicate their heart and soul to another community. Secondly, however, I felt particularly uncomfortable being the only Asian girl among a flock of British volunteers. I studied in the UK and have many friends from different countries, but I had underestimated the problem of blending in with their tight-knit group. Maybe it’s a question of cultural understanding and language skills, but the British vibe in the group was rather intimidating to me.

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I hope my story will help you getting a better idea of what volunteering in Cambodia is like as an Asian girl. There were ups and downs, but in conclusion you should not feel discouraged to go – whether you are Asian or not. Finally, here are a few things to keep in mind, before you go:

  • If you plan to volunteer at a school, make sure your preferred dates don’t coincide with school holidays. A teacher needs students to be a teacher.
  • Smart is your best choice for a pre-paid sim card. It’s the network with the best coverage and the cheapest deals.
  • Currencies used are the Cambodian Riel (KHR), but also US dollars.

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*This is a guest post by Fiona Kee from Malaysia.