Supporting Children and Schools in Cambodia!

While Volunteering In Siem Reap …

Children are the future!

Siem Reap is no longer a place for just visiting. Over the past years, somehow it has transformed itself into a more popular destination for volunteering.  Many charitable projects, both newly founded and well established, always leave a space for volunteers to fill in. If you are a long(-ish)-term volunteer, you will find yourself in one of these situations below.

A Begging Child

If you find yourself facing a boy begging in the street and asking you for money, what would you do? It’s quite natural that you would want to hand him some of your pocket money, hoping this would somehow make his day. It is a very generous gesture, but wait a minute! Before doing so, please consider the possible outcome of your action. Firstly, in a tourist city like Siem Reap, it is quite possible that this child is a part of a bigger gang group controlled by an adult who, at the end of the day, your money ends up with. Secondly, the question is what will this child spend your money on? Good if it is food, but what if it’s sniffing glue? This means you are a source to their continued addiction, which I’m sure you no way want this to happen. Lastly, in many aspects, allowing this child to earn in the street means encouraging him to keep begging, dropping out of school and, even worse, staying in the street permanently. It is true that some children desperately need help and we do not suggest that you should not help but it is importance to be careful in the action you are taking. It has been recommended that the best way to get these children out of the street through a specialized NGO programme or the likes rather than giving directly to them.

Think Twice Before Giving to Cambodia’s Kids

A Milk  Beggar Mother

Another situation you might face while in Siem Reap, is of a mother begging for milk for her child in front of a mini mart. She is not too shy to go straight to you to ask you to buy her a gallon of milk. There have been a good number of gallons of milk given to this woman and finally end up back in the mart shelves. It’s simple. You give her for free, and she sells it for a price. It is true that we should (or even must) help in such a situation (if it is genuine), but seeing a person exploiting your generosity is unacceptable. On the other hand, if it has been advised that you should support an adult business by purchasing his/her books or souvenir items.

Buying Supplies for a Floating Village School

If you plan to spend your weekend at the lake, make sure to choose the recommended trip organizer. There have been accounts of people being ripped off with a fake floating charitable school. They would take you to a school showing you around how the education system works and how needy the school is. Eventually, they would ask you to buy schools materials available onsite to donate to the children. And guess what? The books cost way more than they should. Once you realize you get stuck in this situation, you should politely refuse to do as requested or just buy as little as you can (in case you wish not to disappoint your host) as it is your liability to donate these items.

An Orphanage Visit

Getting involved with an orphanage is such a great story to share with friends and families. But please be considerable of this. Orphan children are children in need of special care and only genuine and lasting one would benefit their life. The practice of “just visiting to see,” is enough to be called “appalling” as this would degrade the children dignity to an attraction subject or live sad but entertaining story. Thinkchildsafe.org gives a well illustrated example of how this degradation is done!

There are many ways you can get involved to help improve the life of these orphan children, but none of them is visiting to see and donating $10 or so for that.

Getting Involved with a Charitable Project

As a Westerner, you are labeled as wealthy regardless of your real fortune. It is quite possible that you will find yourself being dragged by charm, friendliness and good intention into committing yourself financially and physically in a cause. Your gesture is wonderful and your local partner’s purpose is exceptional. However, it is always smarter to ask about the future of the project if you really want to make a difference, small or big alike, through your commitment. What does the project want to achieve? Who does it benefit? How can it achieve that? Is it a kind of just-do-it project? Or is it a serious one with a clear mission, objectives, actions and plans?

Not all projects make a huge difference but by defining a project mission, you know the efforts and money you put into the project is not wasted. Sometimes, you might just need to channel your resources to someone who knows what they do better to ensure the impact.

Joining a Religious Ceremony

Once you have made a few Cambodian friends at your school, they might invite you to a wedding or other religious ceremony.  During these events, it is common the rituals include prayers recited by monks, during which Cambodians are religiously required to pray with their palms together and with their feet bent beneath. Although you are not a Buddhist, it would be a wonderful gesture to follow your local friends. Make sure to pray and sit appropriately like everyone else. Sitting cross- legged in front of monks or older people is regarded as a rude gesture. If you would like to take pictures, try not to interrupt the prayer by walking across the crowd, but instead find yourself a place away from the praying direction. If you do not want to join this part of the ceremony, take a short walk outside and come back when the blessing is finished.

Although you might encounter the above situations, there are still a lot more on the positive side, awaiting your exploring. Your decision to come to Cambodia could be a life-changing journey.

Reflections on Our Time at Wat Chork Pagoda School

by Marion & Bill Gilbertson (Volunteer teachers from NZ)

My first impression of Wat Chork Pagoda school which is situated  four kilometres outside Siem Reap town, was of a large, colourful pagoda towering above the surrounding countryside.

Behind this vibrantly painted building was the school, a two-storey building with several large classrooms upstairs and three smaller rooms plus office and library downstairs.

 Bill and I had travelled out in a tuktuk with Tola for our first teaching session. Principal monk Venerable Houn Hen was waiting to greet us with a beaming smile and lots of enthusiasm. Houn Hen is the director of ‘Human and Hope Association’ (www.humanandhopeassociation.org/) and he has been instrumental in providing much of the inspiration behind setting up Wat Chork Pagoda school. He believes strongly in giving back to his community so has set up a programme that runs for six days a week from 4pm to 8pm and caters for students who want to improve their English. The school is staffed by a team of capable and keen Khmer teachers who give up their time to help the children in the local community.

On arrival we immediately got the feeling that we were about to become part of an enterprising group of people.

As the students arrived Houn Hen directed us to one of the classrooms where we observed a teacher explaining the finer points of the present continuous verb tense to her students. Within a short time both Bill and I were joining in the lesson and giving suggestions. Over the next two hours we joined separate classes and quickly got into the swing of working alongside the teachers.

The text books used at Wat Chork are called ‘Let’s Go’ and ‘Cutting Edge’. They are graded from beginner to advanced level and each class works at a different level. Teachers were aiming to cover 2 pages a day with their classes, as well as having a weekly review session.

I found the text books were a bit thin on reinforcement of new material so Bill and I worked with the teachers and students to provide a range of ways to explain new language rules. We discovered that ‘visual’ learning works best, so did a lot of drawing on the whiteboard to illustrate new vocab. The teachers appreciated having English speakers in their classes to correct pronunciation, explain grammar etc, and we really appreciated having the teachers on hand to get points across to the kids in Khmer.

On a Saturday afternoon we organised and ran a workshop for the teachers focussed on lesson planning, and tips for classroom management. We also taught them some new games and songs. The teachers said they had found it really helpful.

We worked at Wat Chork four days a week from 4pm to 7pm for 3 weeks and during that time got to know the staff and some of the many students. Class numbers varied depending whether children could make it and an attendance register was kept. The kids were aged between 9 and 18 years old.

Three weeks wasn’t really long enough to make a huge difference but we decided that every little bit helps. With our start time being later in the day it gave us lots of time to explore Siem Reap and the surrounding countryside and get to know our way around (including finding a very cool coffee shop in town) Wat Chork is easily within biking distance from Siem Reap, however as it was dark when we finished teaching we decided to travel to and from school in a tuktuk.

While working at Wat Chork we stayed at a wonderful guest house in Siem Reap just off Wat Bo Street called ‘Sweet Dreams.’ It is owned and run by Nini and his family and we were delighted at how helpful and friendly they  were ‘Sweet Dreams’ is where most of the ‘About Asia’ volunteers stay during their time working in Siem Reap. It was really good to be able to talk to other volunteers about their experiences and share highs and lows over a beer at the end of each day.

Overall being in Cambodia was a very revealing experience and certainly never boring. After our teaching we travelled south to Kampot, staying at two wonderful places and really getting a feel for the quieter pace of life in the south of the country compared to Siem Reap, which is very tourist oriented.

I think that being able to help teachers and students in Cambodia learn English is a valuable thing to do as it empowers them in a small way, as well as building positive cross cultural bridges. Volunteering is a good way to become involved with a country and for that reason I’m very glad that I chose to teach in Cambodia.

Marion and Bill Discussing Work with Venerable Houn Hen


Siem Reap in Cambodia?

Siem Reap Centre

This Roundabout is Marked in Central Point of Siem Reap City.

It’s hot, it’s dusty, yet the traffic is getting busier and busier day after day over the past weeks; an indication that more people are coming to Siem Reap. It’s one of the hits in the Asian tourism destination box office, some people might say. Why is it so? Simply because it beats the expectation and, in many instances, by a large proportion.

I’ve got asked with exaggerating questions often about the safety of Siem Reap. “Is it safe to walk about (landmine)?” “Is it safe for a solo female traveler to be here?” Some thought Siem Reap (Cambodia) is just a wrecked land in their imagination after reading “Brother Number One” or “First, They Killed My Father.”

But once stepping out of an airplane, the well-maintained airport buildings give them at least something to hope after deciding to come this far against their parents’ will. There is no Eiffel Tower, correct, and there is no Maglev, true, but there is something else so catchy about this country. And it’s the lifestyle and the people, not to mention its sophisticated cultures.

Cambodia was once known as the smiling people in the early 60s (now it’s Thailand), during which a tourist wouldn’t have his visa granted or renewed easily. Smiling is the most common way of communication. People smile when they greet, when they are shy and when they speak. This charm has lifted the country upwards in the like list.

A question about Siem Reap. “Are there ATMs here?” Stop your imagination and come to learn the truth. Banks, restaurants, massage places, and stores are just a few steps from each other scattering everywhere within Siem Reap City. The river cutting through the town makes pleasant late afternoon walk paths, while brands of well known luxury hotels like the Raffles and Amanresort can be spotted along the road to Angkor Wat.

There are more the city can offer. To the north, the ancient temples in the number of thousands are there awaiting your exploration. Don’t expect you can visit them all as even if you are a local you still can’t manage it without a real commitment. To the south, Tonle Sap Lake, the biggest fresh water lake in South East Asia, offers new prospects of livelihood, the floating villages – floated houses, floated schools, and floated markets. It also is one of the top destinations in the country for eco-tourism.

Siem Reap Photo

The Mangrove in Tole Sap Lake

The vibrant city of Siem Reap, small and cozy, has attracted around 2 million tourists this year to visit its famous Hindu temple of Angkor Wat (watch the flash mob at Angkor International Airport to welcome the 2 millionth visitor). More are expected to come! Besides, a small population of expats in Siem Reap (Facebook page: Local and Expats Living in Siem Reap) seems to be growing. Some are not here, but, of course, the connection is still made with this land.

Over the past two months, pride is among Cambodians especially for the Siem Reapers with the recent attention being directed to this ancient kingdom. The regional meeting of the South East Asia nations gives people a good glimpse into what Cambodia has become now. The repeated present of famous visits like those of Angelina Julie also makes her fans know a few more cafés in Siem Reap.

Cambodian people are still very poor and it’s true that there are numerous issues hampering the development process, but to play a fair game, give it a break and give it a visit. You will have a wonderful experience if you are open-minded and do not want to change everything within a few days, be respectful to the people and the local cultures, and forget your price tags for a few days :).

Challenging But Inspirational

It’s time to look at it in a longer run! It is true that they did not have any proper trainings, and it’s true that for some of them, traveling more than an hour just to get to the town each day in order to take an hour or two of training sessions does not make any sense. But this doesn’t mean the end.

I met them a few times myself.  Although I didn’t work closely with them (Dara being the one who runs the programme), I believe, for them, it’s not all about making money. They were disappointed when their students didn’t show up; they’re greatly disturbed when the test results were not what they expected; they asked questions when they found out I might have ideas leading to their solutions, and they all smiled their big grinning smiles with vigorous head bows when I asked if they would like to improve their teaching skills. They are dedicated English teachers, whose backgrounds range from a waiter in a restaurant to an ex-employee of some locally well-known organizations.

Chamnan Bear was one of them. We were once colleagues, and although we are now no longer that close (from the distance barrier) we’re still very good friends and I am still greatly impressed by what he has done. His playful manner doesn’t show much of what he is thriving at. We’ve employed him to teach English in Prey Dangheurm, a school-turned-island in the rainy season, where he also runs free English class for Buddhist monks on the top of his another free class in front of his home. Sejane Seak is another example. He is only a few moths short before turning 19, but his self-taught teaching skills have impressed all volunteers with whom he worked. Once he was a teacher during week days but at weekends he was a student himself, traveling all the way from the village to take a two-hour English session in the town.

They are the inspiration to their students, and the role models for their fellow villagers by doing what they are doing. We will invest more in them and in the long run, we hope more children will benefits from this investment.

Sejane Teaching His Class

Sejane Teaching His Class

What Children in Cambodia Do During Their School Holiday

It’s the time when most students look forwards to … school holiday! In Cambodia, there are two separate holidays; the first one is for two weeks during April (when Cambodians celebrate Khmer New Year), which is dubbed as a small vacation, and another one officially starts from August to the middle of September, when the rainy season weather brings downpour almost every day to the country tropical landscapes, and the likeliness of flood in many school grounds.

Awarding Ceremony at Phum O before the Small Vacation

Awarding Ceremony at Phum O before the Small Vacation

Although the official school holiday kicks off from August, pupils in Cambodia, especially those in the rural areas, tend to play truant from school after the state exam, which normally takes place in the middle of or early July.

So, what does a typical child in Cambodia do during their school holiday? Not much of traveling or summer – well, rather rainy season – events, but a lot to do with more studying or/and work! In cities or towns, teenage students in secondary schools will scout for extra language or computer  classes during this time of the year, while those who are now old enough and has some command of a second language –say, English or Japanese – goes on seasonal job hunts in hotels or restaurants (for Siem Reap) or in any other vacancies available to them. For those living in the countryside, their break from school fits in very well with the time for farming work ranging from ploughing and herding cattle to fishing, or even building houses. Some come to sell their labours in construction sites in cities pushbike-riding no less than an hour just to get to work and another hour or so to get back home every day.

Younger children in cities normally spend most of their time at home but many also takes an hour of extra language class while children in villages follow their parents to paddy fields helping with cattle cares or just loitering around at homes all day while their parents are away.

From the second week of September on, all pupils have to show up at school again and have to register in their new classes. The rest two weeks of the month are for maintenance work, the tasks include clearing grass from the school ground, cleaning up their classrooms and planting trees.

Teaching Volunteer Service in Cambodian Schools

There have been numerous debates over whether teaching volunteering service is beneficial to children and schools? Different people have different opinions and base on different reasons. However, there are definitely ways to make use of the volunteering resources available for schools and communities.

Volunteers should not be placed so that they have a project to work in. They should be placed where their skills are needed or can benefit the projects. For example, in a school where the Cambodian teachers are not properly trained and have limited English language ability, volunteer teachers can play an important language role in this classroom. It’s simple as in this situation the volunteers have the advantage of speaking English fluently or speaking it as their mother tough language, while the Cambodian teachers do not.

However, a serious volunteering service needs time commitment. A volunteer cannot do much within a few days, or even a few weeks, as s/he needs to learn to adapt to the new concept as a teacher and to the new, and often surprising, learning environments in country like Cambodia. On the other hand, some not-for-profit projects, which charge volunteers, aim to raise funds for the projects and create jobs. In spite of this, there should be a mechanism to strictly monitor the distributions of the funds raised for the latter.

Recently we did a survey with twenty teachers, who work directly with volunteers, from eight different schools, and we have found some interesting results. Only 5% of volunteers actually take the class when working with Cambodian teachers, while 85% co teaches. 85% of volunteers take less than 1 week to adapt to the task which means real teaching only happens from the second week.

While asked for their opinions, all teachers give a range of benefits they see volunteers can contribute to their teaching. The most common are that volunteers help improve the student’s speaking ability (pronunciations especially), confidence in their language performance and bring new teaching ideas into the class. However, some also raise their eyebrows for what they see as confusions. These include the facts that volunteers tend not to take the set curriculum or lesson plans seriously, and that they play too much or do a lot of fun activities not related to the language learning. So, volunteers need to integrate these activities as parts of the students’ learning, not just having fun with their students.

All teachers prefer to have one native English speaker volunteer helping in their classroom, regardless of the volunteer teaching experience.  Only 11% of them prefer volunteers to stay less than four weeks, while 89% prefer volunteers to commit longer, up to a term period (three and a half months). All of them need no more than one volunteer in their class.

During volunteering time, what the teachers say they wish the volunteers to assist them with are  finding new teaching techniques, pronunciation, energizing the class activities by getting involved with the students, and explaining non-Cambodian contexts (for example, “what is a McDonalds?”) Besides, they think volunteers should be better prepared with the lesson plans and learn more about the school curriculum. Volunteers can find various formats of lessons plans and other resources on the Internet.

Surprisingly, a majority of the English teachers (73%) do not think a teacher book helps volunteers much in their teaching.

It is true that a volunteer is helpful in an English classroom where students need practical language practices and the inexperienced teachers need language and teaching improvements. However, s/he has to be willing to learn more from the school and the new environment. Besides, placing an inexperienced volunteer in a school which has well organized curriculum and properly trained teachers can cause unintended challenges to the classes and the teachers. The surveyed schools above do not have these kinds of curriculum or teachers.

Cute Cambodian Kids Try to Say Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Lucy Crook and Mathieu Cuvelier were volunteering with ABOUTAsia Schools at Phum Svay Primary School. With the principal permission, and the excitement from the children to get involved, they made a short video clip to raise funds to support Cambodian children, and below is what they have to say:

My girlfriend and I left London in September 2011 to go travelling around the world. On the way, we spent 3 weeks volunteering as English teachers in a rural Cambodian school. Whilst we were there, we decided to set the kids a challenge: to learn how to say the hardest word in English…

Here’s how they got on.

Support the kids at http://www.aboutasiaschools.org/donation (all donations are made securely through paypal).

Made by Mathieu Cuvelier and Lucy Crook with The Viral Factory.

If you’d like to learn more about our time volunteering with the kids, log onto our blog (http://bit.ly/K2xQii) and if you fancy volunteering yourself, you can find more information at http://www.aboutasiaschools.org/volunteer

BIG thanks to all our fantastic students, our fellow teachers/crew Sechen, Pong and Lida, the School Principal, Tola, everyone at ABOUTAsia Schools and The Viral Factory for all their precious help.

Hope you like it.


Prey Dangheum – The Jungle of Breath

Prey Dangheum is a farming and fishing village by the edge of Siem Reap’s Tonle Sap area. Literally, “Prey” in Khmer means “jungle” while “Dangheurm” means “breath.”

So, where did it get its name from? It’s from a popular folk tale, and here is just a brief summary. It was told that a king of the Angkorian Era had a very beautiful princess, who owned a pet crocodile. The pet and the owner had very strong affection towards each other, so it was told. Then, upon growing up, a prince from China visited the kingdom and asked for her hand from her King father and, he agreed to the proposal.

Realizing she had to leave her land, she went to say farewell to her pet crocodile.  The crocodile, was so moved that it swallowed her and escaped from the palace pond, hoping to keep her inside forever. Soon after, it was traced down in Tonle Sap, and was cut open so that the princess was saved. However, the journey to bring the princess back ended at a village where her last breath was spent. That village is Prey Dangheurm.Presently, the people in the village can recall the folktale well and from generation to generation.

The people’s life in this village depends on rice farming and fishing. Like in many other rural areas in the kingdom, the long sun baking work never pays off properly for its hard labour.

Luckily, small children can go to the village primary school, which consists of one wooden and one brick building, and both of which are in very bad condition. 312 children spent 4 hours a day in these buildings perching on dirty table and benches, learning various basic subjects, except the important English language. Not a surprise!

Our first visit to the school was made a year ago when the breathtaking view could be seen from the school as far as the Tonle Sap water horizon. Such a contrast, the view and the condition of the school … well, so was the village.

After a few more visits with school supplies, we decided to pick this village for a food donation for 10 families, sponsored by MasterCard Singapore. Chris, our Honorary President, was so moved by the event that he spent the rest of the following day planning and discussing to do more of the same for the villagers.

Now we have managed to set up an English programme in the school which will provide free English lessons to the children from March 27th, 2012.

However, with the current school situation, there are a lot more needing to be done. The principal has been calling for various sources of support to fill a new site with earth to build a new school building, fortunately funded by the government. Without its new school site being properly filled and flattened, which needs truckloads of earth, the construction will not be able to start.

Prey Dangheurm Wooden School Building

Prey Dangheurm Wooden School Building

You can reduce the school’s plight by going to www.aboutasiaschools.org/donation to contribute specifically for this school. A standing school will educate hundreds of children to come and it is the first route my young fellow Cambodian villagers will take to walk out of poverty towards the light of life.

Cambodian School Bells

What is the school bell like in your country? In Cambodia, we can claim a variety. See below. Which one do you like best?

Some teachers award their student by assigning him/her to bang the school bell.

Another School Bell

What is your reaction to this bell?

Another show of school bell

Christmas is coming!

Another year has gone by, and finally it’s Christmas time for the families to reunion again. We celebrate this year Christmas with our achievement of being able to reach out to 68 schools of around 37,000 students in total in Siem Reap Province alone. Hopefully with every given book, pen, or pencil, the students will be better encouraged to go to school, where their future door of escape from the hard work can be opened. Watch this 50 second video and please you accept our best regards.

[Our Adopted Schools.]


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