Cambodia is a country trapped by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the deaths of around two million of their own people. It is a terrible memory that still lives on in the country, yet the happiness and kindness that fills the Khmer people still shines through. I have never encountered a more welcoming country than Cambodia, which is what made my volunteering experience this summer so much more special.
Venturing to Southeast Asia is like travelling to a completely different world; everything changes. Extraordinary temples and palaces are dotted around the country with their oriental design catching your eye. Markets are packed with tourists and locals rummaging through the clutter. The food is packed with intense flavours you have never experienced before and the fruit is made up from all the colours of the rainbow; everything is so new and exciting if you are travelling there for the first time.
However, I was lucky enough to fully embrace the culture as a volunteer. I was living with the loveliest family and a counterpart who both taught me so much about the Cambodian way of life. It is relaxed and easy, you greet everybody with a smile and you make every effort to help those around you. Originally, I thought I would hate being situated in a rural village, but I instantly fell in love with the serendipity of the place. Relaxing on a hammock overlooking the Mekong river and being stuck in a wooden house in the middle of a monsoon downpour are memories I will cherish forever.
The best part of my entire experience in Cambodia was every second I spent with the sweetest children I have ever met. They are the ones that brought me incredible joy and fulfilment in a way that I have never experienced before. All my favourite and funniest memories have been at times when I was surrounded by them. They made me realise the true importance of cherishing every little thing you have and just remaining tremendously happy in life. No child should ever be denied basic human rights.
Yet, lack of opportunities in rural areas still remains. Children are offered free education but many remain stuck in the same village, mimicking the same thing their parents did due to financial problems and lack of decent infrastructure. Even though so much more needs to be improved, I have realised that change is happening slowly but surely, as Cambodia is in no way in the same position it was just 40 years ago.
Volunteering in a developing country has been the toughest experience I have undergone in my life. Besides the fact that I was stuck in an office writing a report for the majority of my placement, while also being so far away from home and in total isolation with no proper toilet or shower, this opportunity has made me realise the importance of appreciating even the most basic of items and opportunities that many of us take for granted.
I would recommend volunteering abroad to everyone because it really develops you as a person, while also providing an eye-opening short-term impact. However, it is important to also do your research and make sure the organisation is reputable, non-profit and sustainable. There are too many voluntourism companies out there without adequate research and knowledge about the projects they commit to. At the end of the day, if you choose to volunteer abroad, you need to accept the fact that you are there to work and not to travel. Nonetheless, there is nothing more rewarding than totally embracing a new culture and helping those less fortunate than yourself.
This is an experience I will remember forever and I am so thankful for the new insight it has provided me in life. Cambodia will forever remain in my heart for its caring nature. Visiting one of the killing fields after my placement was over made me realise just how far Cambodia has developed, and it gives me hope that other countries will follow suit. More work still needs to be done, but development slowly starts to take place when you take things step by step.