REALITY CHECK: Volunteering in Rural Cambodia as an English Teacher

If you are planning to visit Cambodia and are wanting to volunteer in order to immerse yourself in the local culture while saving money on the cost of accommodation, then the chances are that you will sign up with a volunteering portal like www.workaway.info or www.helpx.com

The view from our bedroom window

If you do a search of volunteering opportunities in Cambodia, it is immediately apparent that there are quite a large number of privately run English schools that come up in your searches, mainly located in Phnom Penh, Kratie and Siem Riep. If you read the descriptions of several of these schools you’ll notice that very often they are run by a private individual wanting to offer free English lessons to disadvantaged children in his neighbourhood or village. In exchange for 3-5hrs/day of teaching 5 days/week volunteers are offered free accommodation of varying quality for 7 days. In Cambodia food seldom seems to be included in these offers, and volunteers can either make their own food, or in some cases 3 meals/day are supplied for $5/person/day. That is the maximum charge that Workaway allows to cover food, electricity, etc.

The local market in Orussey where our host’s wife bought all of the meat and vegetables we ate during our stay…

When we decided to start travelling the world and volunteering, we discussed what kinds of volunteering we would be keen to get involved in. As we are both trained English teachers of course teaching English was on our list, together with working on eco-projects, local tourism initiatives and eco-friendly resorts, etc.

We were very excited at the prospect of making a difference in children’s lives by teaching English in a rural village in Cambodia, and after looking at feedback from previous volunteers at several of these free informal English schools we settled on the Dolphin School of English located in the village of Orussey, which is close to the town of Kratie, about 240km from Phnom Penh. Kratie is on the Mekong River, and one of the selling points of teaching near Kratie was the opportunity to see the very rare and endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins nearby.

Akhona teaching the level 1 class

As this was to be our first volunteering assignment through Workaway, we played it safe and opted for a two week period of volunteering including weekends. We didn’t want to commit to a longer period only to find that we had made a poor choice as that would mean letting down our host by leaving earlier than agreed on. We noticed that many hosts tried to force a commitment of at least a month, or even longer in some cases, but we were wary of them and went with a more easy-going host.

The children of the Dolphin School of English on our final day of volunteering – the director of the school Mr Yuth joined us for the photo.

The whole idea behind our blog is to share our actual experiences on the road as we have experienced them. Ours is not a glossy travel blog where we stay in sponsored resorts or promote sponsored travel accessories. We tell it like we see it. So our Reality Check articles reflect both the positive and negative experiences we have had. In this post we look at both the Pro’s and Con’s of volunteering in rural Cambodia as an English teacher.

NOTE: This kind of volunteering is not for everyone as conditions in the village can be quite a shock to people coming from developed countries. If you are averse to dirt and filthy streets with rubbish and litter strewn around, then it’s best to avoid a Cambodian rural village…

I have already shared our first weeks experience teaching at the Dolphin School of English here. Since writing that post we also chatted to volunteers at another free English school down the road from our school, and realized that the challenges facing volunteers seem to be the same regardless of which school one ends up at:

Pro’s

  • A unique opportunity to live life like a Cambodian villager for a short period of time
  • If you like children then this can be a great experience if you make time to connect with the kids
  • Very low living expenses as accommodation is free, and food is cheap
  • If you seek to local people and your hosts you will gain an insight into the realities facing ordinary Cambodians – you can really get to know local people well

Cons

  • Very often no hot water, so cold showers every day
  • Very basic living conditions – no TV, Aircon or fridge
  • No structured syllabus and sketchy record keeping of what has already been covered with the students
  • Most volunteers have absolutely no training or background in teaching – so they find it easier to play games with the students rather than actually teach making it difficult for the next person.
  • No revision and examination of what students know on a regular basis
  • Poor student discipline is a challenge – kids pay little attention to teachers instructions. This is a bad habit they have picked up as a result of previous experience with easy-going volunteers
  • Few of the students at our school couldn’t actually speak English at all. Some could write it, but only with lots of assistance
  • Copying from other students was rife
  • Children start expecting every volunteer to take them swimming over weekends (at a cost of $1/child) or buy them ice-cream or sweets. This equates foreigner volunteers with money and financial gain.
I taught the level 3 class – and the heat every day had me sweating non-stop 🙂

So while it can be a great experience to live in a village, eating traditional Cambodian food every day and becoming part of the local community as much as it is possible for a Westerner to be accepted by the villagers, to be honest Akhona and I often questioned whether or not we were really making a difference to the children’s lives…Volunteers come and go, some stay a week, some stay a month. I have a feeling that the kids have realised  that the relationship is a transient one and I wonder how seriously they actually take the volunteers. Maybe the volunteers like to think they are making a difference by playing games with village kids and attempting to teach them some English, but in my opinion what is needed is a more structured  approach to make a real difference. 

The exuberance of the kids often lifted our spirits

I would advise travelers eager to really get involved in sustainable solutions to Cambodia’s many challenges to get involved with a registered NGO or charity and to try and avoid the ‘voluntourism’ trap which in some cases may do more harm than good…Do your research and try and find a volunteering opportunity which comes well recommended by other volunteers.

Cambodian toilet as found in most rural restrooms…tricky to use the first 10 times or so…

Reality check:  Volunteering in rural Cambodia is not for the feint-hearted. We spent two days searching for something as basic as toilet paper. Western -style food is also rarity, so be prepared to eat rice three times a day, accompanied by various boiled stews, fermented fish, lots of banana’s and some pretty unusual desserts. We stumbled across a KFC clone selling chicken for almost $1/piece. Familiar fruit like apples and oranges are imported so are very expensive, and forget about eating butter on your bread, which was also often hard to find fresh. Levels of sanitation and cleanliness are very low, and mosquitoes abound. The traditional toilet can be a bit of a culture shock. We experienced daily power outages lasting for up to an hour, and generally around supper time. Without a fan to cool you off the heat can become almost unbearable. We had to walk everywhere, as public transport such as taxi’s are virtually non-existent in the villages. Tuk tuks were available near the city cenrtre which was around 4km from our village, so not a viable option for general use. If you are adventurous and up for a challenge then go for it as we did and live like a local…

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derekserra

Derek Antonio Serra is a photographer and filmmaker who has run several successful businesses in the film, tourism and advertising industries. He has recently embraced the nomadic lifestyle after selling his businesses and home. His passions are photography, travel and writing.

2 thoughts on “REALITY CHECK: Volunteering in Rural Cambodia as an English Teacher

  • 12/09/2017 at 7:02 pm
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    Sounds like quite an adventure!

  • 12/09/2017 at 8:36 pm
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    This is the ‘real’ that one meets. An experience that humbles one more and more each day.
    I know and trust that you will both bring more to the communities that you meet and at the same time walk away with “MORE” in your personal lives.

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