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Volunteer teaching in Cambodia

Working as a volunteer teaching English to a group of Cambodian
kids must be easy, right? TNT’s Carol Driver discovered the reality…
There are 40 beaming faces staring up at me waiting for my next
move. Their eyes sparkle and they giggle as I jump up and down on the
spot in front of them, attempting to sing “with a moo-moo here and a
moo-moo there” from Old MacDonald’s Farm.

I know I look
ridiculous, but I’m far from caring. It’s 2pm in Cambodia and it’s a
searing 40C. We are crammed into a tiny, non-air-conditioned make-shift
classroom in Phnom Penh.

I’m trying desperately to keep their attention as they want to go and play.

Thankfully
it works. By the time I add a pig, cat, cow, horse and dog to the
story, they’ve got the right idea and start chanting the animal noises.

I manage to make it to the end of the lesson – sweat running down my back.

I’m in the country’s capital city for three weeks as part of a
volunteer project, helping the charity Riverkids, which offers children
at risk of being trafficked or sold into prostitution, a free education.

On
my first day, I’m taken to the slums where many of the kids live. The
scenes are heartbreaking. The tiny, wooden shacks balance around mud
paths. There are dirty, naked toddlers wandering aimlessly. We see some
women working, cooking meals, while most of the men are lying down,
watching TV on dated, black-and-white screens. Many of them have drink
and drug problems.

The children look helpless. It’s easy to
see how celebrities such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie think they’re
helping communities by adopting children. But it’s charities such as
Riverkids that are really stopping the cycle of poverty.

Volunteer as an English teacher in Cambodia
I’m staying at a guesthouse with around 15 other volunteers who are all placed at various locations across the city.

My
project is a 25-minute hair-raising tuk-tuk ride away, weaving in and
out of the chaotic traffic on lawless roads. In the classroom,
volunteers prepare their own lessons. It’s an early start
– my day kicks off at 7.30am with a group of nine to 15-year-olds.

As
I walk into the classroom, the students stand and chant “Good morning
teacher” in Khmer and then English, as they clasp their hands together
in the traditional respectful greeting.

After English is
computer studies – but, as Riverkids doesn’t have the resources to buy
an electricity generator, and there’s a power cut every day, the
lessons are always cut short.

With no electricity, there are also no fans, and the intense heat makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

During
breaks, the children rush out into the dirt-floor playground, without a
care in the world, and engage in  boisterous games or sing and dance.

They
chase each other, pulling one another to the floor. There are scrapes
and hits as well as bruises and cuts as they get into the spirit of the
game – but not once do any of them cry.

Commercially, Cambodia
is growing as a traveller destination. However, due to political
instability which ended only recently, it’s far behind neighbouring
Thailand in terms of popularity. But tourists can help in terms of
bringing money to the country.

In Phnom Penh, Friends and The
Lazy Gecko cafe are two restaurants serving great local food which also
help support charities. And there are great bars and restaurants around
the Riverside and Lakeside areas.

To really immerse yourself in the country’s culture, you have to understand its turbulent past.

The
only way to see firsthand the devastation the Cambodian people have
endured is by visiting the haunting Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing
Fields.

The museum is a former school used by ex-dictator Pol
Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime as a security prison where from 1975 to 1979,
between one and two million people were held, starved and tortured, and
then sent to their deaths in the Killing Fields.

The photos of
the prisoners on the walls make for grim viewing and drives home just
how recent the country’s turmoil was. For less emotive sightseeing,
visit Wat Phnom temple or the National Museum, home to a fine
collection of Khmer art.

Back at Riverkids for my afternoon class, I raid the charity’s limited storeroom for supplies for my last lesson.

It’s art and singing with children as young as three – some of whom speak no English, so communicating with them is difficult.

The
classroom is a 15-minute walk and, although it’s a struggle carrying
bags filled with paper and paints, it’s a great way to meet the locals,
who are friendly – greeting me with curious smiles and acknowledgements
of “hello teacher”.

Despite the fun element attached to these
classes, I find them the most stressful lessons. Controlling 40
demanding children who are armed with paint, water and fingers – and
who don’t understand English – isn’t easy.

I spend the next hour
running around, clearing up spilt water, helping children who have
difficulty drawing. At the end of the lesson, the children playfully
smear colours down each other’s faces and in one another’s hair.

I shrug my shoulders and laugh as the kids line up at the small sink to wash their hands and faces.

Exhausted,
I make the journey to meet with the other volunteers, who are also
tired and stressed, and we talk about how difficult our days were and
what went wrong during our lessons.

As I pull a text book from
my bag, a note slips out. “I love you teacher from Srey Mai,” it reads,
and it puts a smile on my face.

It’s then I realise why
“voluntourism” is growing so much in popularity – more of us now want
to do something useful during our holidays, to immerse ourselves in a
culture and country rather than just the hotel swimming pool.

While
it’s ultimately the students who I want to benefit from my time in
Cambodia, I can’t help think that it’s the children – with their robust
attitudes and camaraderie despite their deprived pasts and uncertain
futures – who have taught me the greater lesson. And that’s what makes
it so rewarding.

WHEN TO GO: Dry season runs from November to April.
GETTING THERE:
Qantas (with partner Jetstar Asia) offers flights from London to Phom
Penh via Singapore. Fares start from £862 (including taxes) for travel
April 8 – June 15. See qantas.com.au.
GETTING AROUND: On the back of a motorbike, or there are tuk-tuks as well as taxis. Make sure you barter though.
VISAS: Required but available on arrival.
CURRENCY: Riel, although Cambodians prefer American dollars. 1 GBP = 1.6 USD = 6 RL
LANGUAGE: Khmer.
GOING OUT: A beer costs $2.
ACCOMMODATION: Shared
accommodation is included in the i-to-i Meaninful Travel’s Teaching
English in Cambodia course, which runs from four to six weeks, priced
from £860.
GET MORE INFO: i-to-i.com
Images: i-to-i images
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Categories: Education, Local News
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