Cambodia Today: A Great Volunteer Destination

by Polly Dean

When one thinks of volunteering abroad in Asia, some well-known countries immediately come to mind. China, India, and the Philippines are just some of the Asian destinations that attract volunteers from all over the world. Gaining momentum, though, are volunteer programs in Cambodia.

skulls on display

Here, nestled between Vietnam and Thailand, are lush mountain villages and bustling cities that seem to never sleep. The small country is full of excitement and prospects for travel, learning, and volunteering abroad. Cambodia boasts a population of more than 14 million and is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Missouri. It possesses an extensive, complicated, tragic, and rich history that contributes to the variety of volunteer opportunities in Cambodia.

The people of Cambodia suffered a devastating genocide from 1975 to 1979, which took approximately 1.7 million people. During that time, the ruling party, Khmer Rouge, imprisoned, tortured, and killed an entire generation. Cambodians have faced their painful past head-on, and today are rebuilding and reclaiming their beautiful country. Scattered between run-down businesses are lively market areas and lovely, boutique-lined streets — showing the promise of a tomorrow for a country that, at one point, didn’t know it would exist.

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer. While English is spoken here and there, a very basic knowledge of Khmer words and phrases is always helpful to anyone traveling or volunteering abroad in Cambodia.

One such situation is transportation. When one flies into the Cambodian airport, a highly recommended and well-known driver is the best way to go. Sam the Man taxi service is one of the most sought-after taxi services in Cambodia. Many others are available, but Sam the Man employees speak English, which helps tremendously to incoming travelers or foreign volunteers.

Angkor Wat ruins

Angkor Wat ruins

Another reason one might want to know a bit of Khmer is to lighten the stress of shopping. Market vendors know basic English, but you will get better information and answers to your questions if you’re able to have a brief exchange in Khmer. Oddly enough, Cambodia widely uses the American dollar, as well as its own currency, the Cambodian riel.

However, only American bills are accepted in Cambodia, not coins (and this is where riel come in handy). Both currencies are accepted throughout the country, but expect to see most prices in U.S. dollars. However, prices in Cambodia are significantly lower for goods and services than those in the United States — great news for penny pinchers and travelers on a budget.

Knowing a few of these tips will make a trip to volunteer abroad in Cambodia both enjoyable and moving. While Cambodia has an extremely tumultuous history, its people are making huge strides and progress. Store owners, market workers, taxi drivers, and passers-by on the street in Cambodia will greet you with a friendly smile and a sense of optimism. The people of Cambodia possess a certain hopefulness and warmth that is contagious to visitors, travelers, and volunteers alike.