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Student Writing Contest Finalist

Volunteering, Living and Learning in Cambodia

Riding a bike across a grass field in Cambodia.

Living in Cambodia while working closely with Lotus Outreach Cambodia and Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre is a dream come true for me. Ever since a family trip to India, I have known that my years living in Sydney were ending.

How I Made the Decision to Go to Cambodia

Three years and one degree later, I landed in Cambodia, and after half an hour, I knew this was the place for me. I returned to Australia to apply for a master's degree that would take me back to Cambodia. Being interested in development and education, I approached the head lecturer of research masters in the School of Education from my University, and he suggested looking into Education for Development. After preliminary research, I found this to be the perfect area for my studies. I started reading, planning, and booking tickets. I began meeting people involved in NGOs in Australia. I even made a memorable trip to Cambodia to meet NGOs I could study. In the end, I decided to research the role of NGOs in providing education in Cambodia.

Heading abroad was manageable as I was sure I knew what I was getting into. I had visas and passports sorted, tickets bought, and an orphanage to work with in Battambang (N/W Cambodia).

Mother and child in Cambodia.

How and If to Live and Study in Cambodia?

So in my case it was easy, I knew that is where I was supposed to be. But how does one discover this? How do you know if you will be able to cope while living in a country so very different from your own?

Most importantly, there is no shame in deciding this does not suit you and heading home. Before you can choose to move to a country such as Cambodia, you need to accept that you will be able to go home if you need to. Once you understand this, every other challenge will have a solution, and nothing will be impossible.

Are you patient? No? Come, but expect to learn a great life lesson. Us expats (Barang) here in Cambodia have a saying… "This is Cambodia." Nothing happens when you think it will. People say yes when they say, "What the hell are you talking about," Tuk-tuk drivers and street sellers will hassle you non-stop until you learn to speak their language enough to say, "I am not a tourist." No matter where you are, if you are in a rush, your food and the bill will take four times as long as expected.

Can you handle being constantly reminded of the weight you have put on since arriving in the country of delicious food? "Oh lady, you're so beautiful, you're so big, look, nice fat," as they pinch your arms. The girls here also tend to stroke your skin if you are pale. So, prepare to have your personal space invaded.

And on the topic of delicious food…. Get as much as possible, but be prepared to be sick. Everyone is, and everyone talks about it, even while eating.

Yet, I would not give up living in this country for anything.

Working in Cambodia

The minute you step off the plane, the heat and humidity slap you in the face. There is no gradual introduction to Cambodia; it is there to greet you in the air. But it felt like home.

Four months in, so much has already been learned about this new world, but there is still much more to discover. I am slowly learning Khmer, practicing, and traveling around the country where possible. But I understand the most at work. We have recently been conducting monitoring visits to the various LOA programs. Every day, I see a family living in unimaginable circumstances, a school teaching remarkable classes with no resources at all, or a child forced to look after his siblings because they were orphaned a month ago. These people are survivors and are an inspiration; sometimes, however, they are merely surviving, and this is where I can see how vital the support we provide is to the lives of these children who have nothing. I held back tears several times when we delivered new bicycles to girls who lived too far from school and rice to a family that had not eaten rice for almost a month, living on water plants they had collected from the flooded fields near their house.

But this is not feel-good work. You do not come away from these visits feeling like you have done a great thing. Still, you ponder how else we can help these families escape the poverty cycle. You lie awake at night wondering if you could find some fruit trees, or would it be better to help them set up a chicken pen? As a new project officer, the most important lesson is that we can do something manageable. We do not need to build a monument to improve these people's lives. The grassroots opportunities, the provision of rice or a bike that alleviates stress, or the chickens that will provide a small income make a difference to the people with whom I am proud to work.

Family on a scooter in Cambodia.

Studying Abroad in Cambodia

First, you must be prepared to do much on your own initiative. Suppose you are researching; your supervisors will only have time to tell you what to do occasionally. In that case, you cannot pop into a library or be blocked from some Internet sites you want to access. My university hub site currently will not let me re-enroll from overseas, which is a challenge.

It would help if you were prepared for something much more challenging. Everything you knew, everything you were taught back home, and every idea you had was wrong here. This is an exaggeration, but 5% of what you were taught was correct, mainly if you had good teachers. This world operates in its own way. Every NGO I have worked with, met, or tried to research for my studies has a different perspective, another method, or another belief. Only a few of them fall into the models of development I researched for my literature review back home. Be prepared to change your views and open your mind. Since being here, I have revised my entire master's research question. I am now focusing on the perspective of local NGOs and members of the communities where I work. I am asking them what they believe development is.

It is so hard to turn off that side of your brain that says, "I was taught that this is right when I went to University, so it must be right."

Child studying what he sees in a microscope in Cambodia.

Living in a Developing Country

When moving to a developing country, there are many valuable hints that I would like to share based on my experience.

Money: In Australia, a couple of credit cards allow you to withdraw money overseas with no international transaction or money conversion fee, saving a reasonable $14 each trip to the ATM. However, and this is essential advice, go with the more reputable bank, even if it is harder to get the credit card approval. I chose the easy option, having never had a credit card before. The bank decided to get a "new look" card and suspend my account until I called some number back home and activated my new card… which was sitting on my desk at my parent's house. An exciting couple of weeks there.

Water: Do no drink it! However, it is always worth researching how local NGOs handle this issue. One NGO in Cambodia has developed a ceramic water filter system for $10, meaning you can save money and stop using a thousand plastic bottles a week. It is RDIC's Ceramic Water Filter.

Pets: I have three kittens but have decided to remain in Cambodia for the foreseeable future. Please do not get a pet if you are considering staying for only a year. Animals tend to live much longer than that, which is unfair.

Sanity: Get a hobby, something you really enjoy doing at home. I paint and sew. Even if you never get anything done, knowing you have a hobby to fall back on can keep you from going crazy when work, study, and life in Cambodia bring you down. And it happens. A lot.

Skype: Set up Skype dates with your friends, make sure they all get together on one end, and make sure you catch up on all the gossip. It seems superficial, but it is essential for your mental health. Facebook is great, too. Get your friends to invite you to their birthday parties; you can be there in spirit!

Thatched houses in Cambodia.

Returning Home

For a while, avoid big shopping malls. They are scary at the best of times but try to imagine entering a Gucci store after a year of seeing people in rags at local markets. No joke, you must adjust slowly to such material and cultural differences. Malls will initially seem more shocking than the poverty when you arrived in Cambodia many months ago.

And now for the most critical piece of advice: Come back! It is easy to spend a year or so in a developing country, achieve so much in your work and studies, make a difference, and then head back home and sink into your old routine. Same friends, same job, same bar on a Friday night. Before long, you will have only a vague memory of that "cool experience" you had when you were younger. So I am not suggesting you never leave (unless that takes your fancy), but make plans to come back, visit for a couple of weeks, and do another three-month stint, perhaps. Having a little bit of your home experience still ahead of you will help you to hold on to the importance of your time studying abroad.

Charlie Cristi grew up in various places around New South Wales, Australia, with Sydney being the place to call home. Charlie moved to Newcastle for undergraduate work and continued studies there through a Research Masters Degree. Charlie is a passionate teacher, and a belief in the importance of education has led to study in Cambodia.

Charlie hopes to remain in Cambodia for a long time, with a few trips out and around, including returning home. Charlie is working with and researching two organizations established and run by Cambodians, Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre which receives funding from the International NGO Lotus Outreach. Soon, Charlie will begin a new project working with early childhood education as a means of prevention of sex trafficking.

Charlie's travel experiences include Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, with plans to visit Thailand and India and travel through Europe and Morocco later in the year.

Related Topics
Student to Student
Volunteer in Cambodia


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