Cambodia is home to over 15 million people and the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat. Wat’s more impressive than that? A lot, apparently. This Southeast Asian nation also boasts ornate temples, beaches, and deliciously spicy noodles. Cambodia has been getting back on its feet ever since the Khmer Rouge takeover in the 1970’s, so it now offers many volunteer opportunities in education, NGO work, and microfinance projects. Those who choose to volunteer in Cambodia will learn the country’s tumultuous past and find out how it has shaped the present, while getting to know locals who will no doubt impart their wisdom about overcoming the toughest challenges in life.
Cambodia’s geographic diversity means volunteer placement locations range from large cities to rural areas. Regardless of location, Cambodia is brimming with possibilities to lend a helping hand (or two) while exploring old temples, large tree roots, and timeless towns.
Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital and former hub of both French colonialists and the Khmer Empire. When they aren’t busy volunteering, volunteers can take a stroll along the city’s riverfront and visit the Silver Pagoda or the National Museum, which houses artifacts from all over the country. Better yet, grab a mini buddha souvenir at the Russian Market, then spend a sombre afternoon exploring the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Things have cheered up since the Khmer Empire, so the Killing Fields have turned into a peaceful place that holds a special memorial every May. Don’t forget to finish up every day of volunteering in Phnom Penh with some sticky rice and a glass of fresh coconut milk!
Siem Reap is the entrance town to the famous Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument and a World Heritage Site. Check out the colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the Old French Quarter and the Old Market. Don’t miss the Landmine museum, which holds a collection of mines, mortars, and weaponry; a true blast from the past that boasts a much fancier version of minesweeper for some intense interaction. Wrap up your visit at a traditional Apsara dance performance, or if you prefer the outdoors, stop by the Prek Toal bird sanctuary nearby.
Rabbit Island is a little paradise located just two miles off the country's southern coast, in the Gulf of Thailand. Back in the day, the island was a rehabilitation center for convicted criminals, who were in turn used to defend the island. Now, volunteers and travelers alike enjoy the island’s white sand beaches, and researchers and ecologists flock here to study the plants and animals found in the surrounding coral reefs.
Volunteer Programs in Cambodia
There are many opportunities to volunteer in Cambodia. Flex those volunteering muscles through business development, advocacy work, and teaching options in this gem of Southeast Asia. Generally, if you plan to learn as much Khmer (the local language) as possible, stick with smaller sites, as urban areas will tempt you to speak English because you’ll be more likely to run into English-speaking tourists.
While Cambodia is still rebuilding its education systems, volunteers are needed to teach specialty trades and skills. Therefore, Cambodia is in need of English teaching volunteers. Teaching English can be a great way to volunteer in Cambodia and make a sustainable impact. With tourism rising in Cambodia, business leaders seek bilingual staff and volunteers to teach adults, teenagers, and even preschoolers. Teaching opportunities range from part-time to full-time, and from classes and groups to individual instruction or live-in settings.
Business development is booming in Cambodia, so volunteers well versed in marketing, social media, and finance are extremely helpful for local businesses. Not to mention, microfinance companies are taking off with great success throughout Cambodia, allowing low-income applicants to start small businesses. Volunteers willing to mentor, finance, and play a role in community and economic development are invaluable to locals
Human trafficking is a very prevalent human rights issue throughout Asia, and can be seen in the form of sex trafficking in Cambodia. Therefore, volunteers are needed in rehabilitation settings with women, men, and children rescued from forced bondage and other volatile situations.
Costs & Affordability
Once you land in Cambodia, it will not be difficult to feel like a king living at royal court, especially for those coming from Westernized countries. However, don’t succumb to frivolous spending and keep in mind the generous nature of your volunteering, even when you aren’t “on the clock.”
Due to the lack of economic development, Southeast Asia has an extremely low cost of living, so you can get by on a tight budget as a volunteer in Cambodia. Food and transportation costs are relatively low, and the dollar goes a long way. In Phnom Penh, for example, you can hire a tuk-tuk driver for about $20 a day to take you around to all of the sites.
Those who choose to eat at local markets while volunteering in Cambodia will find tasty rice and noodle plates for as little as a dollar, and the Cambodian version of baguette sandwiches on the street go for half of that! For nicer, sit-down restaurants, prices will run upwards of $3. Be aware that you may get charged more as a foreigner (but really, is it worth haggling an extra ten cents on a $.50 cent coconut, when most people live off of $1 a day?).
Volunteer program fees usually include housing, on site transportation, and meals. Most volunteer programs in Cambodia don’t include flight costs, therefore travel costs combined with program costs can make volunteering fairly expensive. Before backing out of volunteering in Cambodia because of the costs, be sure to check out fundraising opportunities to raise money for your trip.
Accommodation & Visas
While accommodations in Cambodia will vary depending on the structure and location of your volunteer work, you will likely discover a few commonalities throughout the country, including a lower standard of living, basic furnishings, and no promise of hot water. However, local organizations do typically supply pre-arranged accommodations to make sure volunteers have a comfortable place to rest their heads at night. And we promise, what you miss out on in mattress thickness, you will make up for in views and company.
Most volunteer programs in Cambodia will provide volunteers with the opportunity to stay with a homestay family, which is a great way to experience the local culture and practice Khmer. Living with a local family will give you the chance to adopt a foreign way of life and learn how to say highly-useful phrases, such as “‘I’d like more of your delicious noodles, please’” Other individuals that volunteer in Cambodia will live in dorms, crashing alongside their fellow international volunteers. Though this option will give you more independence, it offers less chances to practice the local language.
Regardless of nationality, you will need a visa to volunteer in Cambodia. Most volunteer program packages don’t include visa fees. Instead, volunteer organizations will coach you through the visa process. Refer to GoAbroad’s Cambodian Embassy Directory to find an embassy or consulate in your home country and get an up to date list of requirements.
Benefits & Challenges
During the The Khmer Rouge takeover in the 1970s, the government condemned creativity, self-expression, and education as rebellious acts, so education and all means of making a living through traditional skills were halted. The transition to an open community, with a liberal mentality and right of voice is still underway, so your contribution of global perspectives and patient understanding will facilitate this process. As you volunteer in Cambodia, sharing your time and skills, take time to offer honest conversation and respectful opinions as well.
The Cambodian people are recovering from their harsh past, so as a volunteer in Cambodia, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by the astounding poverty and unemployment that still affects the country. Yet the longer volunteers stay, the better they integrate into the culture and learn to understand the true worth of life’s necessities. Market vendors, rickshaw drivers, and curious passers-by will greet you with a warm smile and a sense of optimism, and you won’t be able to not smile back.
Cambodians will teach you that there’s always a way to rebuild. Volunteering in Cambodia will show you, day by day, that it’s possible to work toward a brighter future, no matter the challenges. Come to make a difference for the better, and leave a much better version of yourself!