Volunteering at a Cambodian School

During my travels I always take time to help others practice their English (especially villagers) and I’ve been trying to find a good place to volunteer in a more formal fashion. Unfortunately I often find places that people call a scam, feel like tourist traps, or actually charge money to volunteer instead of requesting donations. I was lucky enough to meet Bob & Claire Carroll in Siem Reap. They are a lovely couple who manage the Angkor Voyage Villa hotel where I stayed and I overheard them telling another traveler about VDCA – the Volunteer Development Children’s Association, an official NGO in Cambodia. From their website: The school was first established in 2005 by two Buddhist monks, Rathana Nn and Togh Main, who wanted to give some of Siem Reap’s poorest children a future by offering free education and advice. Within just four years, VDCA has evolved from two basic thatch classrooms to a large and colorful school with more than 600 students who enjoy learning and playing here. I spoke with another guest who had volunteered and she had nothing but good things to say about it. One of the travelers I met on the road was going as well and I took a tuk-tuk out and joined her. The tuk-tuk driver’s helmet was strangely appropriate…

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As soon as I arrived at the school a school bell went off and children were shuffling around. I found my friend already volunteering in a class where she was teaching advanced English students about how her fellow Canadians grow food. While I waited for her to finish up a staff member gave me a brief tour. They have five great classrooms ranging from beginner English to more advanced English, an art room full of beautiful artwork made by students, and a computer room which I did not get to see. The artwork is sold in town and the proceeds go back to the school to subsidize education. Families pay 6,000 Cambodian Riel (approximately US $1.50 per month) to send their children to school and donations, art sales, and volunteers enable that price to stay low.

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I was then invited to teach a class and was shown some classrooms, many of which were covered in hand prints from the students.

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I made it to another classroom with some students that were starting to pile in. It was then I found out that there were no fixed course schedules, teachers were free to ask questions and teach students all about themselves, where they are from, and what they do or to simply teach something they find interesting. The students found this much more engaging than a more structured course load and I imagine it kept many of them coming back. Their English was quite good and they were very excited about the camera I had put down on the table. It was then I decided to talk about photography and cameras.

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After talking teaching English for approximately twenty minutes I was invited to sit with the boys of the class and answer questions. I showed some of them how to take portraits and let the students have my two cameras to play with. The students told me they wanted to show the world what is really going on in Cambodia and what life is actually like. They told me that many tourists come to Siem Reap to party and tour the ruins but nobody actually ventures a few blocks outside of the city to see the real Siem Reap, only the tourist trap that is Pub Street. A few students quietly told me that it is very sad after the civil war and that they were very poor… before quickly changing the subject and happily asking me what it is I do in my free time. Many students quickly realized (or already knew) that photography could help them spread their message and hoped I would come back to teach more photography classes. After inquiring with the staff I later learned that the school was very short on supplies and space and a film photography class would be impractical, even with donated equipment. Even though the Khmer Rouge devastated Cambodia and killed over 20% of the Cambodian population back in the late 70’s it would still be beneficial to see real images coming from children in the area. Talking to these children has me now thinking about how I can use my photography to help the people. If any of you have ideas about that, please let me know in the comments!

The photos below are mostly taken by students during the class.

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The girls called this boy “bro saat” which means “cute boy”.

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And another boy after the girls’ hearts.

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As I taught the boys English, many of them taught me Cambodian in return. I learned about 20 words and phrases from them, many of which they made me say to my friend Ashley without explaining what they meant… which naturally lead to many giggles from the girls. When the girls told Ashley what the words meant, she jokingly attacked me with a marker and the students were quick to photograph the ensuing hilarity. Apparently they told me to tell her that she was a beautiful girl and that I wanted to kiss her. Whoops! They assumed we were a couple but I literally had only met her and her brother the day before at the Bayon ruins.

At the end of the class the students all thanked me and my friend “Teacher Ashley”.

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I’m sure I don’t need to explain the virtues of volunteering. If you’re looking to help out, the VDCA is a great organization that always needs more volunteers. You do not need any teaching experience and you only need to volunteer a few hours if you are just passing through or don’t have much time. If you find yourself in Siem Reap I recommend you contact the VDCA to see how you can help!

Website: http://vdca-cambodia.org
Email: info@vdca-cambodia.org

You can also inquire with Claire and Bob Carroll at the great Angkor Voyage Villa located at House 161, Group 4, Sivatha Road, Svay Dangkum Commune (Sok San Road), Siem Reap. Angkor Voyage is affordably priced and the location is extremely convenient. If your driver doesn’t know where it is you can tell them to take you to the Red Piano hotel which is just across the street from it. Claire and Bob can tell you all about the VDCA and can arrange a tuk-tuk to the school for you. They’ll also happily sit down to chat with you about anything and everything ranging from Siem Reap, Cambodia, travel bookings, or life in general.

Website: http://www.ourbestwesternguesthouse.com
Email: ourbestwesternguesthouse@gmail.com or clairearcher410@hotmail.com

If you do make it out to Siem Reap definitely consider visiting the VDCA or other volunteer groups!

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