While I was preparing for my trip through Cambodia I thought I'd check Couchsurfing for any cool hosts or people to meet up with along the way. I'd had great success with this during my previous travels in both Malaysia and Taiwan so I figured it was a definite possibility for Cambodia. I didn't bother looking around the Phnom Penh area since I already had plans to stay with friends but I did search in Siem Reap. There were a few different hosts offering their couch but one profile stood out to me. Sokhom Khit was looking for volunteers to help teach at the Angkor Tree School a place he started with his wife to offer free English and Japanese lessons to the local village children. The offer didn't exactly fit the Couchsurfing criteria as he asked for a donation in return for room and board, but I was still interested in helping.
After a few hectic days in Siem Reap and one amazing day touring the temples, it was time for me to move on and give back a little bit. I actually had second thoughts about going and was almost going to make an early departure from Siem Reap but I gave it a second thought and knew the kids would appreciate it at least. I arrived at Sokhoms around 5 pm on Sunday and he seemed a bit surprised to see me, I don't think he has the best organization skills. They were just wrapping up a party for the kids that was held earlier that day (it would've been nice for him to mention this) so he told me to take a seat and promptly disappeared. I sat around with a few of the other girls for some time talking a little but eating a lot. They fed me green mangoes and Cambodian style ramen before deciding it was time to head home, leaving me alone. Before long the other volunteers, who had gone to the pool, showed up and we all went through the mandatory introductions.
I didn't realize that Sokhom also lists this school on HelpX and many of the volunteers are there on a long term basis, making my 2 days seem pretty pointless. During dinner, which Sokhom's wife prepared for us, we discussed the teaching plans for the next day and that's when I realized how special, but also challenging this school is. Sokhom started this school to provide supplementary lessons for the children in his village, most of them attend the local public school but lessons are only held for half the day so the kids come to his school before or after (depending on which lesson their in). The lessons are completely run by volunteers who are on a constant cycle of coming in and out, which makes any type of curriculum or routine hard to follow. One of the couples had been there for two weeks which was nice because they were just getting a pattern in order and we were able to stay on track with that. Once we had some rough ideas for the morning it was off to bed, which unfortunately was a hard cot in a hot room, so much for a good nights sleep.
The next morning we were served an interesting breakfast before heading over to the school to start the days lessons. The kids poured in with enthusiastic smiles and numerous "Hi Teacher! Good morning teacher!". This immediately brought back memories of teaching in Korea and made me miss my teachers and students, but it was nice to be greeted by such warm souls. There are two classrooms at the school however they aren't completely separated so it get's pretty loud in there, making it a bit difficult to control the class. I was surprised by how much these kids knew, having only studied English for a few years, but clearly it was their motivation and drive that pushed their success. The morning lesson lasted for an hour and a half at which time we said our goodbyes and 'see you laters'. The end of the class was probably the coolest part of the entire day, the kids all sang a song together which one boy seemed to be more than eager to lead.
The afternoon lesson didn't start until 2:30 so we had a few hours to relax, lucky for us there was a hotel nearby which offered free access to their pool, granted you purchase something to eat or drink. The pool was the perfect spot to relax after days of being shouted at in the city, poor sleep and a morning of loud kids, I really could have stayed there all day. We made our way back for a delicious lunch, much improved from our weird breakfast and then it was time for more teaching. The afternoon went pretty similar to the morning with kids just as enthusiastic and loud, it was hard to shush them though because they were eager to speak English.
Although the day wore me out it was amazing to witness these kids so eager to learn when they come from so little. After speaking with some of the volunteers I was surprised to find out just how hard some of these kids have it. There were two adorable sisters, one who was about 4 years old, who I came to find out have no parents. They're actually living in a half finished building which they are responsible for helping to build, while the other construction workers look out for them and feed them. The building was located almost directly behind the school so when lessons finished for the day we would see the girls traipse back to their home and get to work, hauling heavy buckets and other difficult tasks.
My two day stay at the Angkor Tree School was not long enough but I am glad I made the decision to go back. If (no when) I find myself back in Cambodia I hope I can make a return trip to help teach these amazing children. Also as a side note, Sokhom was sick for the entirety of my visit so I think there's usually a bit more organization and structure to the school, but then again who knows.
If you don't have time to visit one of these schools though there is another way you can make a difference in the city. There are two different children's hospitals in town, both of which are looking for blood donations. You're probably thinking, "Cambodia, needles...mmm I'll pass", the same reaction I got from fellow travelers and friends back home, "Is it sanitary?" I understand these thoughts, Cambodia is a developing country, but these hospitals are clean and sanitary, especially in the wing dealing with foreigners.
After being greeted by extremely friendly workers in the visitor/donation center (they provide loads of info and accept monetary donations) I was led back to the laboratory by a security guard. I was given a form to fill out, basic health history and personal information; thankfully I passed those questions but the problem almost came with my blood pressure. It was recorded at 91/58 with 90/50 being the minimal requirement, I just made it.
About 15 minutes later I was finished and handed a 'goodie bag' which held a can of Coke (which I was promptly instructed to drink due to my low blood pressure), cookies and a sweet T-shirt (not an XL I might add!!) The doctor that took my blood disappeared, but I was greeted by another, whom seemed eager to talk to me. We sat and talked about where I was from, why I was in Cambodia, what I thought of it and how long I would stay for. Similar to many others I had met, he urged me to come back and spend more time there, "you can get job teaching here, too!"
So yeah, there's always that option....
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.