Posts Tagged With: Cambodia


Yesterday we arrived in Thailand after 6 and a half weeks in Cambodia, 5 of which we spent living and volunteering in Phnom Penh. Way back when we started planing our trip, working or volunteering abroad was high on the list of things we wanted to do, and we spent many hours researching. When we finally found an organisation called UBELONG, both affordable and offering different types of placement (teaching English for me, something other than working with kids for Law!), we then settled on Phnom Penh as well. Having this last few weeks booked in advance helped us planning a lot of the rest of our time in Asia.


We finished last Friday, and are still digesting the experience I think! For us both, it ranged from rewarding to frustrating at times, and it took a while to get to grips with the Cambodian way of doing things. Timekeeping, organisation and the pace of work are ’different’, so in some ways 5 weeks doesn’t really feel like enough time to make a discernible impact. On the other hand, it also felt like time to move on; being in one place for such a long time was weird after so much travel.

It’s probably with rose tinted specs, but I really enjoyed my experience. I think it’s easier to see if you’re making a difference with teaching English, as the kids either improve or they don’t. I was lucky in that I had a small group to work with for at least 2 or 3 hours each day, so I could plan my lessons and see what worked and what didn’t. I also enjoyed the time I spent with the other, younger students, but such short lessons with bigger, mixed ability groups were harder to move forward. By the end of the last week, my older students had definitely improved at least a little bit and they seemed sad to see me go as well.

Grade 2

I’ll miss the students, especially the older group, and hopefully they’ll have another teacher take them over soon. They were funny, and gave me a hard time at points, but most of the time we got on very well. The melodramatic, comedy response of “Teacher, no!” to most of my instructions will always make me laugh.

The boys

Pheakdey... The little shit

It does make me think I’d like to teach English as a foreign language again possibly, but also makes me wary of short term volunteering – there were maybe some people we met during our time in Phnom Penh that were more voluntourists. Some of the orphanages and NGOs also seemed to be more interested in the money the volunteers bring, rather than the skills they might have.

Cambodia is a country with thousands of NGOs and orphanages, with huge problems with corruption and a big reliance on foreign aid, as well as a tragic recent history. Living and working here for even a short while has been a really rewarding and interesting experience. We’ve met some awesome people, had some hilarious nights out and hopefully made a little difference somewhere at some point!

Since finishing, we’ve spent a night on a desert island, met up with some Vodkatrainers, had a hassle free border crossing into Thailand, and celebrated are 12th anniversary of being together. Off now to spend another night on a train, this time to Chiang Mai.

Koh Rong Samloem

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Life as a (short term) Phnom Penh resident

By signing up to volunteer for 5 weeks, we also committed ourselves to being temporary residents of somewhere new. After 2.5 months of travel and spending no more than 4 days in one place, it was a relief to actually unpack our rucksacks and know where we were going to be for a while.


Phnom Penh, home of 2.2 million people, is definitely different from life in Falmouth! And actually a really fun experience, even for Sam who has never lived in a city and struggles with the occasional crossing of the Tamar to the big city of Plymouth!

The traffic is pretty crazy, but a lot of the architecture and wide boulevards are beautiful and there are some great local and western style bars and restaurants.

Our volunteer company organised us somewhere to stay – the wonderfully quirky Tattoo Guesthouse – which is like home now. It’s pretty near the centre of the city and is full of volunteers from all over the world. We have made some really great friends, even if most of them are under the age of 22 and we are the old married ones!

Phnom penh

Being able to stop for longer than a few days has given us time to do things that we normally like to do, rather than just see the sights. At home we love watching films and haven’t really seen one since we left to travel. So a trip to the community movie house The Flicks, was such a treat, especially the bed like cushions they provide as seats. We even managed to see a film without superheroes and with Zac Efron!

The Flicks Cinema

We’ve also spent a day at an outdoor swimming pool, played five-a-side football (Sam, not me), tried to go walking when it’s not been too hot and spent quite a long time trying to find good cheesecake. We haven’t found it yet, but we still have two weeks to enjoy our time as temporary ex-pats, and now that I’ve managed to get used to the shock of getting up at 6am for work every day, we will be trying to fit in as much stuff as possible.


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Back to work for a bit

In our last 2 1/2 months of travelling, Sam and I have barely spent 10 minutes apart, so it was a very strange feeling to head off separately on our first days at “work” in Phnom Penh.

We originally decided that we wanted to do some volunteering as part of our year long trip to challenge ourselves and try something different. When we first arrived, we suddenly realised that we hadn’t really given too much thought about how much of a culture shock it might be. But getting to know the other volunteers in our hostel has been great and we’re getting into the swing of things now!

My volunteer placement is with an NGO called Farmer Livelihood Development (FLD) who provide agriculture training to rural people to help them develop their skills and improve their standard of living. I will be helping them to develop a marketing strategy.

After a 30 minute tuktuk drive to the office, I met with the CEO and Project Manager and  realised how strangely familiar many of the issues were to my job at Cornwall College Business in the UK. Hopefully that means I can do something vaguely useful while I am here, although at the moment it still seems like quite a daunting task.

On my 3rd day in the office they asked if I would like to join them for a trip toMondulkiri, one of the remotest provinces in Cambodia, to join in with a series of management workshops. The trip was for 5 days and leaving the next day, so it was a bit of a shock, but I thought  I’d better just go for it!

It was strange to say goodbye to Sam, but I got in the minibus – me and 17 Cambodians – and we drove the 350km out into a far corner of the country, which borders with Vietnam. The countryside is beautiful, very green and forested, and it’s not as hot as the city which is nice.


It was a fascinating experience to be part of a different business culture. The meetings were run very collaboratively and democratically, and although I can’t imagine meetings running in the same way back home (two hour lunch breaks,no shoes, meeting outside, clapping at the beginning and the end of eachsession) it was clear that everyone was very passionate about what they do.


NGOs in Cambodia work in English, although all the meetings were run in Khmer. Everyone was very helpful at translating for me though and I was made to feel very welcome, especially by the two girls who I was sharing a room with.

We managed to have time for some fun as well, and visited Sea Forest (so calledbecause the hills of trees look like a sea) and Bou Sra waterfall.


I did eat an awful lot of rice, including for breakfast, but on the last night the girls had a party for me and managed to buy lots of western food – chips, fried chicken and bread! It was really sweet.

Sea forrest

I now have just over three weeks left to put my plan together, but have gotten to know FLD and my temporary colleagues much better. And although it was very strange to be apart from Sam and be the only foreigner amongst so many locals, it was a great experience.

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The working week

After 3 days in Kep, beaching, pooling and islanding, we moved on to Phnom Penh. The 3 hour bus journey took just under 6 hours, on some pretty awful roads – and seeing how roads are one of the few things the Cambodian government does for its people, the journey was a good indicator of their effectiveness.

Rabbit island

Phnom Penh has a fairly compact city centre, and from our guesthouse to the river is around 20 minutes walk. You can’t go more than 100 metres though without being offered a tuk tuk or moto – apparently one of the weirder western traits is that we like to walk places. The mix of French colonial style buildings and roads, crossed with the crazy pace and traffic of an Asian city give it a really interesting feel.

Central Market

Our home for the next 5 week (4 left now), is the Tattoo Guesthouse, a place for long term volunteers. It’s a bit rough and ready, and our room wasn’t the cleanest when we got here, but after. Laura baby wiped the walls and we unpacked it’s actually quite nice. The main problem is the lack of wifi in the rooms, meaning we have to go downstairs to use the internet – champagne problems…


On our first Monday, along with 7 other newbie volunteers, we were picked up by the guys from Star Kampuchea to find out about our volunteer placements. The orientation day was quite fun, a mix of Cambodian history lesson, Khmer speaking practice and role play games about the placements. We also went to the Russian Market and bought mobile phones, and it’s quite novel to be using one again after so long. This day also gave us a taste of the Cambodian working practice as well, with a 2 and a half hour lunch break in the middle of the day! On the Tuesday we had a city tour, as well as visiting the nearby Killing Fields at Choung Ek. Nowadays people know all about the Khmer Rouge and the awful things that happened in the 70s, but actually going there and reading about things was very intense and disturbing. We also visited a Buddhist pagoda, where Law and I were the only ones not to pay for a blessing and a bracelet. Karma could get us for that.

Killing Fields

Finally, the Wednesday was supposed to be the first day at work… Except for me, it wasn’t. It was a national holiday, so no school! No such luck for Law, so while I took it easy, she went to work at the NGO Farmers Livelihood Development. They offer training to people in rural communities and Law is working with their marketing person to develop a strategy, which she describes as weirdly similar to Cornwall College. She can write more about it next time, but some highlights include a couple of long meetings entirely in Khmer, and a weeklong trip to the countryside!

I started work on Thursday, and my school is called the Center for Children’s Happiness. It’s an orphanage attached to a primary school, so after a morning of teaching ABC and saying ’hello’ a lot, I got asked to work with an older group of boys who need extra English. So, from 7am to 11am I have 10 or 11 teenage lads to teach English and Maths too, before they start High School at 1pm (after another 2 hour lunch break). I’ve only done a few days, and it’s both exhausting and fun. The school is half an hour away so I get a tuk tuk at 6.30, and their English ability ranges from excellent to poor, so it’s hard finding things to keep everyone engaged. There isn’t a Khmer translator either but one of the boys is older, and his English is very good so he has essentially become my assistant. During the breaks, he asks hundreds of questions about me, England and anything else, and writes down everything I say for extra practice.

My classroom

After an afternoon of working with the younger ones, I get home at just after 5pm, which is just about the longest day of the volunteers here. Law is starting at 7.30, whilst a lot of the others tend to work from 8 or 9, have a long lunch break and then finish by 4. I did sign up for teaching English, but I’m secretly jealous of the volunteers in the other orphanages whose days consist of play, nap, four hour lunch, play and then home!

The school run

Laura is currently on her trip in the countryside, and doesn’t get back until Friday. It is bizarre not being together after not doing anything separately for months, and while her phone signal isn’t great (she has to climb a hill in the middle of nowhere), she is having a good time, and Mondulkiri is one of the more beautiful but less visited provinces. I know he’s on standby, but Mr. Bower doesn’t need to do a ’Taken’ rescue mission yet. It’s another day off for me today (lots of holidays here), so I’m heading out shortly with some of the other volunteers, whose youth only annoys me intermittently!

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Vietnam to Cambodia – the comedy border crossing

After the Mekong home stay, we decided on going with a little (comparable) luxury in our next place. The lizards / bugs / mice ratio had affected our sleep a bit!

Hopping back on the bikes for the second time, we got to Can Tho bus station, and following the advice of Mr. Hung we bought tickets to Rach Gia on the ’nice bus’, which was a fine 3 hour journey, with the plan to buy tickets from there to Ha Tien. I think we were probably a bit screwed over, but we did managed to get seats on the local bus, which was a bit of an experience. I don’t think capacity was a factor in the driver’s thinking, who just bounced along with his hand on the horn, picking up in random places and filling up completely. At one point, a woman got on with a mattress, and at another they strapped a motorbike to the back. Anyway, we made it to Ha Tien, and with no maps had to go on some more motos to our hotel (we’re getting good at holding on now).


Ha Tien is a sleepy little place, with which is usually skipped over by tourists. It was nice to walk around for a couple of days, and we achieved the main aim of having good showers and getting washing done. There is one English bar, the Oasis, where we did enjoy a cooked breakfast and PG tips! The town was a nice final stop in Vietnam, and with the nearest town in Cambodia (Kep) being so close, everything seemed like it would be nice and easy…

Instead of booking some moto drivers to the border, we decided the official looking bus service through our hotel would be a better bet. Paying the extra dollar, we arranged a 7am pick up the next day. The front desk guy later suggested coming down for 6ish, as apparently we’d need to get motos to the tourist office. Not ideal, but okay.

Easy rider

At 5.50am the next morning, our room phone went to tell us the bikes were here. Hopping on the back, we assumed it would be short trip. 6km later, we were at the border, and clearly there would be no bus. Only one guy spoke English, and as we were stamped out of Vietnam into no mans land, we both knew we weren’t getting quite what we paid the hotel for! Despite reading a lot of posts online saying the border crossing should be $20, our ’guide’ insisted on it being $25, and despite our polite protests, it was getting us nowhere. So, we paid the extra for the visas, and then came the fabled medical check.

Basically a shack next to the visa building (a slightly bigger shack), a surgical mask wearing border guard asked us to fill out some forms to show that we weren’t full of disease. He then took Law’s temperature, pointing a thermometer at her forehead, seeming to be happy, and then asked for a dollar. We knew this was just a con, so while I started to get a bit annoyed Law stayed calm and said “no, I don’t think that’s right is it.” Staying polite, asking for a receipt and then showing our vaccine booklets and marriage certificate(!), he was finally satisfied. The highlight was, after Law said no, he turned sheepishly to the side, with the final gamble being “you don’t pay, you don’t go in” – the fact we already had visas at this point seemed a bit too much for him.

Goodbye Nam... Nearly

With a parting shot of “you should get a cancer vaccination next time you come to Cambodia”, we were in. But not far. With our biker guide, we then stood around and waited, while he seemed to haggle with some locals, he handed over some money and then left us, saying “pay no more”. A guy opened his boot, we put our bags in, and we waited another half an hour for him to fill up his car. Finally, with 5 of us crammed in the back, we set off toward Kep…

And of course, didn’t get quite that far. Stopping around 6 or 7km outside the village, the driver gave some money to another couple of moto drivers and off we went. They stopped and flagged down a couple of English speakers at different points, until they finally got us to our ridiculously idyllic hotel.


It only took just over 2 hours door to door, and was pretty funny, but we still felt a little bit ripped off. For anyone looking at doing this crossing, we booked through Hai Phu’ong Hotel – so be warned! We’re in Cambodia though, in a private bungalow with a pool by the beach, and were there by 8.30am relaxing . Not a bad start to our time here.


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