Volunteering in Cambodia can be an incredible way to truly explore and experience such a majestic destination. Why volunteer in Cambodia? Aside from the untouched beaches and the iconic temples, the country has a painful past. Cambodians are still rebuilding their country and bringing their culture back to life. Over the years, many nonprofits have been working hard to help local communities form sustainable ways for income, growth, education and more. Such nonprofits could benefit from the help of skilled volunteers who are looking to offer their time and knowledge while travelling abroad.
Over the past couple of years, my direct work with Cambodian nonprofits and volunteers seeking to assist them has helped me understand that unfortunately not all volunteer nonprofit partnerships are successful, and that are many aspects that must be considered in order to make the time with the nonprofit meaningful, responsible, and sustainable.
One key conversation that constantly comes up is the preparation period. Many of the nonprofits I have communicated with have shared with me that an especially prepared volunteer often means their time with the nonprofit is more effective since there are fewer surprises and issues to resolve upon arrival. Travellers as well have echoed similar sentiments in explaining that knowing what to expect and being prepared for their time abroad allowed them to hit the ground running and focus on the goals and projects they came to assist.
This is exactly why I have put together a list of the top 9 tips travellers to Cambodia should consider in preparing for their volunteering trip abroad.
1. Learn Key Phrases from the Local Language
In many of the more urban areas of Cambodia, you’ll be able to get by speaking English. Once you leave the cities to volunteer in more rural locations, you’ll need to know some of Khmer, the local language, if you want to communicate. When travelling to new places, it’s always a good idea to memorise a few key phrases so you can ask for directions, buy necessities, and show locals that you’re making an effort to respect their culture. It is a good idea to learn some words and phrases, along with writing them down with their phonetic pronunciation in a notepad to carry around with you.
2. Choose an Organization to Volunteer with and Communicate with Them in Advance
There are many nonprofits working throughout Cambodia, and every nonprofit work in a specific field, has a set of goals, and different projects they want to implement. It’s important to take your time as you research organisations and choose one where your personal skills and interests can truly come in handy. It is also important to communicate directly with the nonprofit, ask as many questions as you need, and make sure you understand exactly the work you’ll be doing.
3. Time Your Trip Well
Cambodia has a tropical climate, without four seasons. No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll be facing high temperatures. April, May, and June are the hottest months of the year, so if you’ll be volunteering outdoors, you may want to go before or after that time. When planning your trip, keep monsoon season in mind as well. From December to April, Cambodia experiences its rainy season, with slightly cooler temperatures and a lot of rain. January and February tend to be drier.
Be sure to pack clothing made of breathable fabrics and keep the country’s modest values in mind when choosing what you’ll wear on hot days. I also suggest thinking about the schedule of holidays and festivals in the country. Khmer New Year is a three-day festival in mid-April, the Water Festival takes place in early November, and Pchum Ben is a 15-day celebration from the end of September until mid-October.
4. Know the Culture
When you travel to volunteer, you’ll be spending a lot of time communicating with locals. It’s important to know about the culture and to show respect while visiting the country. Modesty in Cambodia is very important, especially in more rural areas and at religious sites like the temples. You’re expected to be covered up, including shoulders and legs. In some locations, you’ll be asked to leave if you aren’t dressed appropriately. Monks are seen as very important symbols in Cambodia and should not be touched, or interrupted while praying. Additionally, it is considered impolite to use your left hand when interacting and that you should never touch another person on the head, which is considered the holiest part of a person.
5. Get Your Paperwork in Order
Make sure you have your paperwork, including documents and visas, in order before heading off. You’ll need both a passport and a visa to visit Cambodia. Your passport should be obtained before leaving the country and should be valid for at least six months after you plan to return, as advised by the government. Most people travelling to Cambodia can purchase a one month visa at the airport upon arrival. If you plan to stay longer, you can have your visa extended at the Immigration Department in the country.
6. Steer Clear of Cambodian Orphanages
It is extremely unfortunate to learn that many orphanages worldwide are in reality a front for a money-making scheme, and Cambodian orphanages are no different. Though of course there are some that are entirely legitimate, studies show that over the past five years there has been a 75% increase in the number of orphanages in Cambodia, which in no way correlates with the number of actual orphans. Such orphanages are run like a business, with managers luring in well-intentioned volunteers and pocketing their generous donations to themselves. In order to make sure your time is spent with a responsible organisation, look for projects which promote community-based solutions for children within their community.
7. Avoid Elephant Sanctuaries
Just like fraudulent orphanages, those running elephant sanctuaries are more often than not using the cute factor to lure in tourists with money. Many sanctuaries keep elephants in unsafe environments until they’re paraded throughout town where tourists can pay to take a ride and have their photo taken. Elephant sanctuary owners use an abusive method called phajaan, or crush, to train the animals by essentially crushing their spirits and keeping them isolated for long periods of time. Clearly, the health of the elephants isn’t a top concern, so the animals are often sick and weak. If you’re interested in animals, there are organizations that provide opportunities for animal volunteering in Cambodia.
8. Understand your Role as a Volunteer with the Organization
If you choose a reputable organisation, you’ll be able to gather plenty of information about what you’ll be doing while volunteering in Cambodia. Getting in touch with the organisation directly is the best way to prepare for your trip. Ask about what activities you’ll be participating in day to day, what challenges you should expect, and what the goals of the volunteer program are. By gathering this information, you’ll be able to prepare yourself for the trip, set your own goals, decide what to bring along, and make the most of your time spent in Cambodia.
While you’ll be going on your trip with a plan to volunteer, you’ll have time to explore more of the country, and you should! Cambodia is an incredible country with so much to offer. Plan to tour some of the historic sites with a local guide to show you around. Eat at local restaurants and try as many different dishes as you can. You might even consider a homestay, living with a local family overnight to experience life as a local. Such opportunities are a wonderful way to further explore the country in with a responsible and ethical mindset while making sure your money goes back to the local community, where it is most needed.
Travelling and Volunteering responsibly means that you’ll need to put some extra time and effort into your travel planning. You’ll need to decide how to use your time effectively, where your energy and resources should go, and how you can immerse yourself fully in the culture. However, all the time spent planning and preparing will be worth it when you arrive ready to go and make a difference.
Do you have any more tips from your travels to Cambodia? Share them below!