After I finished high school I embarked on my first solo trip to Cambodia for a month. I’d signed up with a gap year and student travel adventure specialist (called Real Gap Experience) to volunteer as an English teacher at an orphanage in Siem Reap, and after only one month of volunteering, I feel as if my eyes were finally opened. Here is a list of things that I wish I was told before I embarked on my trip:
1)Signing up with a specialist volunteer company is fine the first time, but if you want to return to the same place, don’t sign up again.
Before I arrived in Siem Reap, all my questions were answered by Real Gap. What chargers did I need, did I need to fundraise, could I bring a box of instruments to donate, etc. When I got there, I realised that Real Gap Experience had nothing to do with me anymore. I was put with a local company, with locals working there. This local company was simply just Real Gap’s partner company. This was when I realised that most of the money I had spent (and it was quite a lot of money) actually went towards Real Gap Experience- so-called ‘the Western company’ according to my Cambodian coordinator. He wasn’t trying to gain my sympathy, I should’ve guessed that he wasn’t going to receive the money he deserved. That’s why I believe that signing up with a specialist volunteer company is only useful as a first-timer as it gets you connections, but when I go back (which I plan to some time next year), I don’t want to associate with Real Gap again.
2) Go for a longer period of time.
This was my biggest regret. Before I went, all my friends and family said: “Wow, a month is a long time!” but it really isn’t. It’s really easy for high school groups to organise a two-week trip around Cambodia and visit two or three orphanages to teach underprivileged kids for a day. What difference do you think that’ll make? Because then a week after another group of students will come and teach them the alphabet again… When I think back to how I was educated in primary school, I remember that each week we had a list of vocabulary to learn, and EVERY DAY in that week we’d have fun activities that consolidated our understanding of these words. Then at the end of the week we had a test on it. On top of that, we had a test that could have had ALL the material we had learnt in the past 10 WEEKS. Learning is about consolidating new information by using it in different ways, and then testing yourself. It’s also about how much you can recall the information after not revising it for a long amount of time. It’s a long process. 2 weeks might make you feel like a saint, where you feel like you taught them something new everyday, but how much of that information retained a week later? A month later? You’ll never know! For me, I tried to test my kids regularly and on topics from previous weeks, but even then, a month seemed like it was the bare minimum for even ONE topic to encode in their long-term memory. My recommendation would be 3 months minimum.
3) Be prepared to do more than what you signed up for.
I originally signed up as an English teacher, with the intention of teaching them music if I could. However, I somehow managed to land myself in other roles such as- disciplining the children who were living at the orphanage who weren’t taking English classes, taking a child to the hospital after he fell off his bed (head first!), and writing documents and reports for the orphanage. In retrospect, I would’ve never had the opportunity to do these things back at home without the relevant qualifications, so I’m glad that I had so many learning experiences. However, at the time these responsibilities got very stressful at times, to the point that every now and then I felt as if I needed a holiday from my holiday. Remember this tip, so you’ll keep things in perspective!
4) You will probably be pestered to donate money, to the point that you WILL get frustrated.
The truth is. We as volunteers are the problem. We try to do good things to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate than us, and most of the time we do it by donating money. The problem with that though, is that managers of these orphanages will realise that pretty quickly, and then will do everything they can to dig even one more dollar off you. Just stay strong, and remember, donating THINGS like time, clothes and toys is much better than donating money.
5) Try NOT to get attached to the kids.
This experience is probably your first one as a classroom teacher, and we all know that all teachers will develop their favourites. You will most certainly have one too, and when a student knows they’re the teacher’s pet, they’d normally love the teacher too. But think about what happens when you leave? You’re going to return to your ‘normal’ life, but your favourite kid is going to suddenly feel neglected and unworthy.
5) If you really want to make a difference, keep the connections and keep coming back.
I left Cambodia on a Sunday, and for some reason, the manager of my orphanage had asked if he could visit me in my guesthouse. Turns out, I was apparently appointed as a member of the Board Member who’s supposed to sustain adequate funding of the orphanage. I had no idea this was going to happen. Now at this point, I was already pretty frustrated with the manager and have long suspected his corruption (a lot of previous volunteers here also had this thought, especially the returning ones). How was I going to make a difference? I knew whatever I was to going to do was going to be for the kids, so my only option was to return another day to (hopefully) dismiss their current manager and make the system transparent. I’ve started planning with a couple of other previous volunteers who also want to make a REAL difference, and at least one of us is always there.