22 September 2016

Image of Volunteering in Cambodia: The Trip of a Lifetime

Over the summer, nine students from the Class of 2016 (and one from the Class of 2015) joined volunteering organisation, Camps International, to travel some 6,000 miles to volunteer in Cambodia. College Learning Support Assistant and Wellbeing Coach, Johanne Male, went with the supervising staff, and spent four weeks with Madeleline Atherton, Hannah De Pauw, Faye Dean, Rachael Husselbury, Niamh Kennerdale, Jessica McDonald, William Mellow, Bethany Williams, Lucy Would and Jack Turner on a life-changing journey.

Read Johanne's account of their stay, working across two village camps and soaking up Cambodian life and history.

"We saw people change and grow, developing and nurturing entirely new character traits."

Four weeks in Cambodia was a trip of a lifetime where Birkenhead Sixth Form College joined forces with Nottingham Academy. Meeting at Heathrow Airport, we jetted off in the late morning for our 13-hour flight. Transferring at Singapore with a little stop off in Vietnam, we landed early evening in Siem Reap. As the evening was setting in we had the opportunity to stop off in a delicious restaurant before a good night sleep in a fabulous hotel.

Our first camp was an hour’s drive north of Siem Reap in Beng Mealea village.  The village was very basic, with little stores along the main street. Han, the camp manager, who had been there for many years, took all of us around the area.

The community was all so welcoming to us all! We visited the local temple, which was in ruins, and stopped off at the local markets before our hard labour began the following day! Our ten days in Beng Mealea started off in the local school, constructing:

  • Waste disposal units
  • Foundations for teachers’ accommodation
  • Brick laying for flower beds along pathways
  • Smoothing out the ground surface around the pond

The other two days were working in the local community school, teaching English to children from 6 – 12 years old, and then to the young adults aged 16 – 20.

Beng Mealea camp was designed as a community for the students to live in, with three meals a day to refuel. The students learned very quickly how to use the compost toilets, as this was used for the local crops! On our last day, it was a real shame to leave Han because we had thoroughly enjoyed our time with him and the rest of the welcoming community. The thunder and lightning while we were there was also a spectacular sight to remember.

Our subsequent four-day trek tested out the students and pushed them to the limits. Visiting temples and sculptures along the way, we headed through the forest to the top of the Kulen National Park called the Sacred Mountain. The first night, we watched the sun set and planned to see the sun rise over Beng Mealea. The challenging sleeping arrangements meant staying in hammocks, all together under an open shack, as the rain poured down throughout the night.

The second evening, we had the privilege to stay in the monk village on the mountain. Shacked up in tents where they pray, they kindly fed us and we had the amazing opportunity to pray with them before bed. The 04:15am gong, only 100 yards from us, woke us up for them to pray in the room where we were sleeping. Night number three was at the Kulen Mountain waterfall. For everyone to release their aches and strains, we all dipped into the waterfall. The little fish nibbled at your feet, but this felt ever so slightly different to the fish pedicures that used to be in shopping centres!

We landed at the hotel in Siem Reap after the four-day expedition for a well-deserved rest, but this gave us the opportunity to find out more about the history of Cambodia and visit the town. Seeing an ancient dance piece and the circus who performed an amazing choreography about the Khmer Rounge era were both mesmerising and eye-opening. The next morning, we were up early to watch the unforgettable sight of the sun rising over the Ankor Watt temple, and the temples around the area of Siem Reap.

After our very brief luxury stay, we headed off for our three-hour drive to our second camp, Beng Pia. Staying for only eight days, we set to work quickly. As this village had underground water wells, they were able to pump up fresh water, which hadn’t been the case in Beng Mealea. Upon our arrival, we had the opportunity to visit the local monks’ temple for a water blessing that nearly drowned us! Beng Pia camp was more open for the students and staff (while the tarantulas lived just outside our camp!). The projects we undertook as a team were designed to help the local area and included:

  • Building toilets for two families to share. Digging down for them to flush out to wells behind the building
  • Moulding to prepare for more toilets
  • Reforestation around the village
  • Teaching English in the afternoon with the local children who are learning their third language

Bidding farewell after our week-long stay at Beng Pia, our last journey was traveling to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, for two days. Stopping off at ‘Spider Town’, where you could hold and taste delicious spiders (yes, delicious spiders), we settled into our hotel overlooking the city. We visited the haunting S21 Prison, followed by the Killing Fields – remnants of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime. These places gave a feeling of the visceral intensity of what this beautiful country, and its equally beautiful people, have been through, and how much it has taken for them to progress; the photographs of hundreds of people, and their scattered remains outside. As the rain slowly washed away the earth, more skeleton bones emerged with pieces of clothing they are still wearing. I think every single one of us had a very emotional experience.

Our last day was visiting the King’s Palace and seeing the riches that it holds, with rubies and jewels of the local land, before we boarded the final plane home.   

The students got home just days before receiving their all-important A Level results, which was a touchdown with the reality of life in the UK. The hard work that they’d all put in over the last two years to get such good grades was momentarily suspended during their time in the Far East, as they saw what life could hold if they just happened to have been born on the other side of the world. We saw people change and grow, developing and nurturing entirely new character traits. It really was a once in a lifetime experience, and any of our now-graduates would recommend it to anyone.

Now for Ecuador 2018…

Tags: Volunteer Enrichment Cambodia

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