The Morning After Cambodia

What happens the morning after? Will we get closer? Or will I just feel like I just made a big mistake? The “morning after” usually refers to what happens after two people have sex. And it usually depends on what happens the night before. In my case, the morning after refers to Cambodia, and to what happened a few months ago. I do not mean that I had sex with the country (of course not), but I do refer to the manner in which I was emotionally overwhelmed, because it was at least as ‘deep’. 😉

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In love with Cambodia @ Koh Rong Samloem

I mean, if you are in love with a country and you have thought about the decision to volunteer, your entire experience can be something turning out dramatically different than your initial expectations if the country – or other (f)actors – do not seem to be on the same line as you are. Volunteering won’t automatically bring you closer, you might probably feel better by doing it initially but if you and the country do not seem to find a solution for the projects you’re working on, you might be asking yourself questions:

  • Why do I (still) want to volunteer?
  • What does voluntourism mean to me?
  • Does voluntourism fit with my values?
  • Is this a short-term thing or do I see this having a long-term benefit?
  • And if we have a relationship, what does connect us?

I never expected myself to raise these questions in my mind, but after working in the volunteer industry in Cambodia, I did ask myself many deep questions about volunteering and tourism (so called ‘voluntourism’).

  • What kinds of projects work?
  • Who will benefit from our projects: the locals, the industry or the volunteer?
  • What will we do if it fails?

Tonle Sap & Basket Weaving 233

What if voluntourism was like a fake ‘snake’ / sneaky friend?

“Don’t fear the enemy that attacks you but the fake friend that hugs you.”

When I was working in Cambodia this summer, the first weeks I was doing my job great and I traveled around with the volunteers. Only by the time we were finishing our volunteer projects, I started to raise these questions. Some things just weren’t right. Maybe that’s the reason why I stopped blogging? Because I was confused?

I mean… If you are building toilets without offering maintenance or technical support, what does the family then do when the toilet is broken?

I mean… If you are building water pumping wells and you don’t supply the water filters, how can those people then give water to their children?

I mean… If you are teaching English to a class of children, but you only stay for two weeks, how can you get to teach them something worthy?

I mean… If you are going to play with orphans in a so-called orphanage, does it really make these children better if you leave again after two weeks? 

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Volunteering in Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Summer 2014

These are only a couple of questions that raised in my mind, after working as a volunteer group leader in Cambodia… And of course, I have seen many beautiful things too and the volunteering did contribute to many factors too. I am only disappointed that I feel like voluntourism does seem to have more positive impacts on the personal development of the lives of my volunteers, than it does on the country. That is why I talk about a “morning after” effect.

In the mean time, months have passed by that I am back from Cambodia, but I can’t get this questions out of my mind. And as I started my Masters in Anthropology in September, I found that this issue is the appropriate topic for me to write my thesis about. Therefor, I am now researching a lot about Voluntourism and its impacts. And I have found surprisingly much information and articles about it. So much that I am even stuck in finding my own research question to solve in my thesis. 🙂 So if you can help me, comment bellow and help me finding my thesis topic!

No, the real reason why I want to share my feelings about voluntourism in this blogpost, is not about willing to stop the explosion of voluntourism. I still do have a lot of respect for all the volunteers in the world that want to spend time hoping to help a country and its people forward. I believe that they all have the right intentions, but that the problem of voluntourism is somewhere in a layer underneath: somewhere between the intermediaries and the local businesses… And I am afraid I am not powerful (and even not brave) enough to fix that fundamental issue.

to hell with good intentions

What I do hope to send out as a message via this blog post is to be aware that you might be going to hell with good intentions. One of the problems is that “There has always been a nagging inadequacy around the assertion that one cannot sell poverty, but one can sell paradise. Today the tourism industry does sell poverty.” (quote from my Professor Noel Salazar from Tourist Behaviour: A Psychological Perspective)

I am afraid that I cannot give you that much answers yet, but what I can advise you is to be careful when you decide to go abroad volunteering. You can find tips and tricks on http://learningservice.info/ , created by the ‘rethinkers of volunteer travel’. Because I am convinced that we all want to make the most out of volunteering and travels, but we have to do it the right way. And if we – volunteers – are aware of the critical issues in voluntourism, we are one step closer to rethinking and re-creating what used to be a noble random act of kindness.

service-learning

And don’t worry, I don’t have the intentions to stop volunteering. I won’t stop before I have the feeling that something has changed, partially through my efforts. Because you have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. ❤ Share the message if you agree that volunteer travel needs to change. Awareness is the greatest agent for change! ❤

Lots of love

x Julie x

Livin’ the GOOD Life in Cambodia

I’m writing this post during a rainy Saturday evening in Siem Reap. Although it is rainy season, it has only rained for a few hours a day, mostly in the afternoons or evenings. And while I’m sitting here cosy in my bed with the laptop on my lap, I have time to daydream about the past month here in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Actually, it is not a dream – it is real – but the time has gone so fast ever since I arrived here, that I realize I’m already half way through and there are still so many things I would like to do. I guess “time flies when you’re having fun” and you can definetely only regret chances that you didn’t take in life. But before I get too deep in my musing, let me briefly tell you what I experienced the last 4 weeks here…

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Life feels good when you are doing something good… ❤

When I came back from my short field trip to Sihanoukville on a night bus, I was sick. That bus was one of the most horrible experiences in my entire travel life. I had to sleep in a cabin which looked like it was for one person, but I had to share it with two. The journey took also more then 14 hours (19.00-09.00) with no space to stretch your legs/arms and hardly any toilet stop. I had to go home from the office later after that day, and I slept the clock round, taking paracetamols struggling to get my sudden high fever down. I was scared to have catched a tropical disease and was worried about being so sick as the group arrived next day. But surprisingly, I felt a lot better already the next day and God-bless-my-strong-body-and-mind, because ever since the group arrived the 2nd of July, I have been busy for more than 15 hours a day, each day!

Siem Reap Volunteer House

The Volunteer House in Siem Reap

After picking up the group at the airport, I showed them the volunteer house in Siem Reap where they would be staying for 4 weeks, and I took them for a strawl around town. Later at night, we had the welcome dinner and the next morning we did the orientation session about their volunteer projects here. The afternoon was spent getting to know eachother during a visit to the local handicrafts market and the best icecream bar in town (The Blue Pumpkin).

 Siem Reap first drink

First drink with the Leapers in Siem Reap

The day after that, we started our first day on the project sites, which consisted mainly out of introducing them to the work and dividing them in smaller groups. The afternoon teaching project did not seem to be able to offer us the desired work, which caused a lot of extra work for me and the project leading team to find another school. Stressy days!

Siem Reap Projects Self Help

Self Help Community Centre

Then at night, we started of the weekend and I decided to go out for a drink with the girls to socialize and get closer to them. We headed to the famous Pub Street, which is the most famous street in Cambodia, with endless dining, drinking and party options… As pretty much everyone got way too drunk way too fast, I headed back home at a descent hour, sober.

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First night out in Siem Reap with the volunteers

The next day, Saturday, we planned a full day visit to Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument in the world, a temple complex for which you need at least two days to visit the main sights only. Spectacular!

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

Monks around the Temples of Angkor Wat

We also used our free Sunday to visit some more of the temples and I felt a 100% blessed to be able to work in Cambodia for the summer and seeing al these beautiful and unexpected things in the world.

Siem Reap Angkor Wat

+/- 3 million of tourists visit Angkor Wat each year…

After an impressive first weekend, I started a new work week with loads of positive energy. We started to build a water pumping well in a local community in the Puok District, and we were able to find a great little school for the afternoon teaching sessions, with many children in need to learn English. The first teaching experiences were hard as it was difficult to tell their level of English, but the great thing is that while the volunteers are teaching, they learn as least as much theirselves too from the experience itself. It was definetely a great opportunity to do this for a few weeks, and the children obviously loved our presence at the school. They are adorable!

Siem Reap Water pumping well project

Our water pumping well, nearly finished…

By Wednesday we already finished our 2 water pumping wells (each group one) and we moved on to the next water project: building a toilet. We could see that the locals benefit a lot from our help and so our time is very well spent. We are doing such a great job here, which gives a huge feeling of appreciation! However, I had some difficult days on a personal level, maybe because I was tired and adapting to a new life style and a new group in a new country again, but it could not stop me from feeling proud of myself for what I was doing here! And the more the days passed, the more I started to enjoy Cambodia and the group. (of course I would!)

I was enjoying Cambodia and The Leap program more and moer everyday. The work was enjoyable as we moved from the one community to another and it did not feel as tough as the program in Ecuador. It was a luxury to come back every time to the hotel room, having nice food and a shower every day. But I also feel like I’m rather gaining weight than lossing it… So I decided to start a 5 minute workout program daily: 61 sit-ups (the number of days I stay in Cambodia) and 10 squad excercises (with a Youtube clip). The price you pay for having all this luxury and food around you… 😛

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One of the many nice dinners out in Siem Reap

Anyway, after finishing the water pumping well, we started to build 2 toilets for 2 incredibly friendly but poor families in another community. Initially, the project was planned for only 3 days but we ended up staying there 6 days. One of the families had 4 children and they had to walk down the whole street to use a neighbour’s toilet or go in the wilderness. Our toilet was more then welcome so! Their oldest daughter was 17 years old and the only one in the family who could speak some English. In the afternoon she went to school and in the morning she helped her mother with the household. She LOVED having us there and I had many beautiful conversations with her, that in the mean time broke my heart… For example, she asked me about my favourite food, so I said curry and rice (because I thought that might be something she knew) but she didn’t. They only eat rice, leafs, coconuts and other vegetables or fruits they can cultivate there. She never ate a pizza in her life and she did not even know what it looked like.  I took some pictures of her and her mother because they did not have any mirror either to see theirselves, and of course no family pictures either.

Toilet Project Siem Reap

Me with the daughter of 17 years old, she could be my little sister

The family also had a baby pig, which they were growing up to sell later on to get money from. One of their only sources of income… But the pig was the cutest pig ever and became my friend more and more every day. It loved being petted and I took it for a walk a few times because it was too sad seeing it in its small cage. My “Babe” behaved like a dog, was obviously having the best days of its life running down the street, playing in the mud and eating grass in the ricefield. On our last day, I asked the family not to sell the pig for slaughter, but they said they needed the money. So they asked me to help them buying a male pig (this one was a female) so they could make babies and sell those, and have more income. With the money they explained they would build a new house, because the one they had was too old and too small. I realised that indeed one pig extra could change the financial situation of the family drastically. I was convinced and we promised to come back one day with a male pig (costs about $50).

Siem Reap Volunteer piglet

The cutest Piglet I’ve ever seen in my entire life! ❤

I have such a great memories of our time there with these people and piggie! In the afternoons, we went to ELMA School, where my volunteers were teaching better and better every day. The atmosphere there was great and we had also fun with the kids, playing games after the classes. The last day we were thanked with a traditional dance show and an English song, and the volunteers got their certificates of teaching English. Another mission accomplished! 🙂

Elma school

ELMA School : ‘Education – Love – Motivation – Action’

Now we are spending our mornings in Samrong Village near Angkor Wat, where we already made insence sticks (which looks easier then it is), and we plan to do basket weaving for next week.

Insence Sticks

Making Insence Sticks

In the afternoons, we are now going to CDO (Cambodian Development Organisation), where the volunteers spend 2 hours teaching English and Computer classes to orphans and 1 hour of constructing a new orphenage for them each day from Monday to Friday.

There is only one week left at those projects in Siem Reap, so the time definetely goes fast. This weekend we went to the Floating Village and we did a boat trip on Tonle Sap Lake, which used to be the biggest sweet water lake in South East Asia.

Tonle Sap lake floating village

The floating village at Tonle Sap lake

Usually, the girls go out on Friday evenings so they can be hangover on Saturdays, enjoy a brunch in town, have a pedicure/manicure/massage and do some shopping. Then Sundays are reserved for an excursion. The first weekend we went to Angkor Wat (temples), the second weekend we went to Phnom Kulen (waterfall) and this weekend we visited Tonle Sap (Floating Village and Lake). Phnom Kulen was a National Park with some buddhist statues in it and other religious places, but most famous for its giant waterfall. It was nice to cool off and swim there, feeling like Tarzans in the jungle, enjoying a picknick and tanning a bit.

Phnom Kulen waterfall

The waterfall at Phnom Kulen N.P.

During the week everyone goes to bed surprisingly early and the spare time is filled with shopping at the market, going for Indian/Mexican/International food and watching shows like the traditional Apsara dance show. We also got slightly addicted to the fruit shakes that they sell everywhere for only $1: they are frozen and contain fresh fruit! Jummie! 😛

apsara

Apsara traditional dance show at Temple Club, Siem Reap

I think the girls are having the time of their lives and even though I have busy days being with them most of the time AND training my fellow local colleagues in group leading AND writing reports for The Leap AND preparing various documents for the program, I am feeling better and better here because the days go fast and the program is going so well and nice! I’m starting to fall in love with Cambodia’s charming landscapes, laid back way of life and beautiful children. Only one month left to go and I’m back home! Half way through now!

x x x Love x x x

Julie