Michael Yockney - 2012 Program Participant

What inspired you to apply for a volunteer program abroad?

I had lived with a friend who had volunteered in Nepal, and had so many tales to tell! When I finally saved enough money to go traveling myself, I wanted to do something similar; to go somewhere unique, to do something I would always remember. It was also my first experience traveling alone, I knew that if I volunteered, I would join a ready-made group of friends sharing an amazing experience!

Swimming at Kirirom National Park

 A day trip with CWF to Kirirom National Park.

Why did you choose Conversations With Foreigners?

Initially I was interested simply because it was so affordable, and in a location that I knew almost nothing about! When I did more research, I found that the values and ethos of CWF align closely with my own; Ensuring maximum impact, transparency, prudent use of resources, sustainability. As I read the CWF website, learning more about responsible volunteering, it became obvious that this was a high quality programme.

What was your favorite part about volunteering in Cambodia?

I absolutely fell in love with Cambodia. I think everybody does. Most people will talk about the warmth of the people, said to be the friendliest in the world, or the rich culture and ancient history. To me it was the optimism. Cambodia has a dark history, with wounds still clear to see, but the Khmer people look to the future with determination and hope. The thirst for education, the enterprising spirit, and the simple quiet optimism is plain to see in the good natured hustle and bustle of the streets. I've been back to Cambodia many times since volunteering in 2012, it never ceases to amaze and intrigue me.

What makes CWF unique? What about your program experience?

CWF was like nothing I've ever seen before or since. It’s a grassroots programme run with the professionalism of a much larger organisation. What truly makes them unique is the staff; The genuine care of the staff for the volunteers and for the school made everyone feel like we were all in it together. The staff became my friends as much as my fellow volunteers, I attended weddings and parties and visited rural family homes for festivals. It is always the people who make the experience, and those people made my experience something I will never forget.

Boats in a remote fishing village on the Mekong in Cambodia

Travelling by boat to stay in a remote fishing village on the Mekong, visiting rural projects by CRDT.

What was the CWF support like in Cambodia?

The support was exceptional. Staff were available at all times, day or night, for any kind of problem. Our Volunteer Coordinator, Soriya, was always on hand to take us on social outings, make travel arrangements, help us avoid cultural misunderstandings, and of course take us to the doctor when we inevitably fell ill. She also arranged for Khmer lessons for anyone who wanted them. The staff continue to be among my closest friends today!

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently during your time in Cambodia? 

I wish I had applied myself more to the Khmer language lessons! My teacher was a high level student, we became friends and mostly just hung out instead of studying! After three months I was good at ordering beer and food, counting, bargaining, directing a Tuktuk, and talking about football and motorcycles in Khmer; but not very good at naming fruit or animals or any of the traditional beginners vocab. But that’s what it was all about, learning language for real life!

Describe what your daily life was like in Cambodia.

I had classes in the early morning, 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., then afternoon classes from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Classes at CWF are scheduled around students other commitments like work and university, so most of us volunteers had similar schedules. I would wake up at 5:30 a.m., and go downstairs for breakfast. I lived in the Volunteer House, so breakfast was usually bread, fruit, eggs, and a few sweets from the bakery. Coffee and tea, naturally. A quick (cold) shower, and away on my bike to school through the grey of the morning, past sleepy dogs and grandmas doing aerobics along soothingly quiet (soon to be chaotic) streets.

Class from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. was surprisingly fun, I was sometimes tired but my students soon woke me up! I had medium level students as I was not very experienced, mid levels are the easiest to teach. We would focus on pronunciation, speaking in complete sentences, and confidence. I found that many of them were able to read and write fairly well, but had poor speaking and listening skills. Most had grown up in the rural provinces, where local English teachers pass on incorrect pronunciation. We followed the CWF curriculum, which made it easy to create activities to keep the lessons interesting, while covering important topics with vocabulary appropriate to the English level.

After class we would head home, maybe detouring to the local market for iced coffee. The Russian Market is a famous attraction to tourists, but to us it was just the local spot to buy some cheap clothes and a street food snack! Other days we might go to the local pagoda to participate in a meditation session, or maybe our students would want to take us somewhere for (second) breakfast.

Once we got home I must confess I would often nap or laze around reading on the balcony until lunchtime, when the cook Srey Pao would dish out some amazing Khmer food, sometimes assisted by volunteers learning her secrets. Both lunch and dinner are usually cooked meals in Cambodia, served with noodles or rice. Afternoons were for lesson planning, bike rides to explore the city, swimming and using the gym at a local sports club, street food snacks, Khmer classes, and more iced coffee.

Sometimes my students would have free time and would want to take me to Diamond Island, Wat Phnom, or some other local spot, zooming around on the back of their scooters. We also did a lot of sightseeing around Phnom Penh, visiting the Royal Palace, markets, National Museum, etc. Four in the afternoon, back at school for the afternoon classes.

A group of international volunteers in Phnom Penh

Our volunteer group go out with some staff in Phnom Penh.

I finished at 6 p.m., some of the others went until 8 p.m., so me and some others would often go to a local beer garden after school for some 50c draft beers to cool down after those long hot days. The staff seemed to enjoy having foreigners ordering drinks in barely comprehensible Khmer, and they would amuse themselves teaching us Khmer or practicing their own English, always with a laugh and a smile. After a round and a few Crickets (or whatever mysterious snack they gave us), we would head back to the house for dinner, excellent as always from Srey Pao. Most evenings we would gather on the balcony to enjoy the cooler air. Maybe watch a movie all together in the TV room or go back to the beer garden for a nightcap. Some nights we went out to some event in the city, there is a lot of nightlife in Phnom Penh, but mostly we saved our mischief for the weekends!

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Cambodia has a lot of festival holidays, so we had several long weekends. I spent some visiting the ancient Angkor Wat temples or on the postcard perfect island beaches in the south. I was able to attend a local wedding and visited several significant sites around Cambodia. The best was when one of the staff invited me to her home village to stay with her family. Three of us rode “Motos”, small 125cc motorcycles for several hours over dirt roads, across bridge and ferry, until finally we arrived in the remote village. The house was a single room stilt house three meters off the ground, six meter by six meter area. It housed a family of four, plus the three of us for a few nights. There was no power or running water.

When we arrived we were greeted by smiling relatives of the staff member who was our host, and a gaggle of kids from the village. No one spoke a word of English, of course. We stayed for three nights, eating real Khmer food, sleeping on the floor under mosquito nets, and trying our best to be as polite as our hosts were gracious. One night we went to the local pagoda to celebrate a festival night with dancing and music for the whole village. It was only a few days, but I came away grateful and humbled.

Can you explain your housing situation in Cambodia a bit more?

The CWF Volunteer house is Awesome. The rooms are twin share, with a bathroom, so two people to a room. The beds are simple but comfortable enough, with a fan and a mosquito net. My roommate was great fun and remains a close friend. There are six rooms in the house, so up to 12 volunteers. My semester had 11, and it was a blast! The house is like two terrace houses joined on the bottom floor to create a large living room downstairs. One side is taken up but the dining table, the other has couches and chairs, a large shelf of books, and the computer. There is a TV room with DVD player, and a collection of DVDs, and opposite that the Kitchen. The next two floors are bedrooms, and the top is a gigantic covered terrace, with a few chairs and hammocks. We used to hang out on that terrace every moment we could!

The house has Wifi, although its not amazing (what do you expect, it’s Cambodia), and there are also several security cameras. Some of the staff are at the house most of the time, Srey Pao the cook, the cleaner, and often Soriya the Volunteer Coordinator. The house is about five minutes away from the School, in a really safe, quiet neighbourhood in south Phnom Penh. It’s close to the Russian Market, cafes, and a few restaurants and bars (but it’s far from the tourist areas).

How has volunteering with CWF impacted your life?

Volunteering at CWF was truly a life changing experience for me. It made me decide to live abroad, rather than simply travel, and put me on the path to working in international development. I've lived and worked in three countries since Cambodia. I've returned several times to visit Cambodia, and all my friends there; in fact I have volunteered with CWF for two more semesters since 2012.