Siem Reap was once an important part of the early empire in Southeast Asia, home to one of the largest ancient cities in the world, the famous Angkor Wat. Cambodia as a whole has a young population that has witnessed several wars, rulers, and civil strife, giving the country an eerie, yet hopeful, feeling. However, because the country has a long way to go, in terms of development, from economics to education to health, more and more NGO’s and private organizations host volunteer programs in Siem Reap to help boost the country’s hope and support the future of a growing nation.
Volunteering in Siem Reap
Today, Siem Reap houses several organizations, mostly nongovernmental or private, that focus solely on community development. Most of these organizations provide numerous opportunities for foreign volunteers to get involved in local communities and help implement projects or contribute to long term programs. Depending on the skill set and interest of volunteers, they will have the choice to volunteer in the areas of education, health, construction, and environment-related projects, most prevalently. Regardless of the individual volunteer placement in Siem Reap, all of these organizations focus on sustainable solutions that can lead to local community members living better lives.
Education. The lack of sufficient access to proper education in Siem Reap has increased the need for teaching and education volunteers, and there for both local and international volunteer organizations provide quality programs in which international volunteers can contribute to education in Cambodia. Those who volunteer in Siem Reap will have the chance to provide quality education to local students of all ages, in a variety of subjects.
Building & Construction Projects. The newest and most popular way of volunteering in Siem Reap is working on building projects that help improve the living conditions of particularly needy communities. These projects include construction of houses, bathroom facilities, wells, and other community buildings.
Wildlife, Conservation, & Ecotourism. Many environmental threats in Cambodia put indigenous local wildlife at risk; therefore, many wildlife and ecotourism programs have come about to counter negative environmental factors and protect local species. The lush jungles and number of endangered animals outside of Siem Reap make it a great place for conservation volunteering abroad.
All individuals who volunteer in Siem reap should be very careful when choosing an organization and placement, because there are unfortunately many unregistered organizations that do not provide what they say they do, which should of course be avoided. To start with, volunteers should seek out locally (and potentially internationally) registered organizations, since these organizations will be regulated and meet basic requirements.
Life in Siem Reap
The close proximity of Angkor Wat has made the city of Siem Reap popular for travelers from around the world, so there are many hotels, spas, malls, bars, and cafés located throughout the city. Life in Siem Reap is sleepier than Phnom Penh, but the cost of living tends to be quite expensive in Siem Reap when compared to Phnom Penh. There is a popular night market, which spans an entire major street, which hosts bars, cafes, restaurants, and stalls squeezed into every possible corner. However, as a foreigner in Siem Reap, prices will be higher, until you learn to bargain with locals and know what the local price should be. Volunteers can also take time to visit art museums or watch an Apsara dance, Rosana Broadway, or the Cambodian Circus.
Volunteers can enjoy traveling to the outskirts of Siem Reap, as there are many places to see even beyond Angkor Wat. Just outside the city, volunteers can find rice paddies, smaller, rarely visited ancient ruins, and plenty of lush vegetation to explore. Travel outside of Siem Reap is made effortless by easy-to-hire taxis and tuktuks, the nation’s main form of transportation, which range in cost from $3 to $5. Alternatively, there are also motorbike and bicycles for rent in Siem Reap, in most guest houses and at travel agencies.
Costs & Affordability
Living in Siem Reap can be more expensive than living in other cities in Cambodia. But, it is definitely cheaper to volunteer abroad in Siem Reap than it is to live in most “affordable” cities in the Western world. Generally, prices are doubled for foreigners, so take time to learn the local prices to save yourself a couple of bucks and practice your bartering skills. An average meal in a cheap restaurant could cost around $3, but that can go up to $15 in a fancy restaurant. A liter bottle of water might cost around $0.05, and a local beer just the same.
Typically, volunteer programs in Siem Reap include accommodation, airport transfers, meals, and insurance. However, these options will vary from organization to organization, so you should check with your host organization before arrival (or even better before applying).
Accommodation & Visas
There are wide variety of accommodation options available for those who decide to volunteer in Siem Reap, but most organizations house volunteers in their own housing or office complex. If not, accommodation is typically arranged in nearby guesthouses, shared apartments, or, more frequently, homestays. Most guesthouses in Siem Reap provide discounts for long stay volunteers, or travelers, while a one bedroom apartment costs an average of $250 per month. However, volunteers will usually choose to live with other volunteers if residing in a shared apartment. A three bedroom apartment will cost around $450, for a fully furnished apartment with air conditioning.
Individuals who volunteer in Siem Reap can choose from a few different types of visas. For those volunteering in Siem reap for one month or less, a visa on arrival ($30) is the most practical option, and it is extendable for one additional month if needed. For more long term volunteering in Siem Reap, volunteers will need to acquire a business visa ($35), which allows foreigners to stay for 30 days, but it is renewable indefinitely. For easier visa processing before you volunteer abroad in Siem Reap, the best option is to apply for an e-visa online and simply present it at the immigration counter.
Benefits & Challenges
Language. Khmer, or Cambodian, is the national language of Cambodia. However, people living in Siem Reap frequently speak and understand English because of the high tourism rate in the city. On the other hand, not all Khmers speak English, so it is best if volunteers try to learn at least a little Khmer to better interact with more locals.
A City of Extremes. Poverty is blatantly visible through the streets of Siem Reap, and is starkly contrasted with posh luxury resorts. However, despite the economic gap, the quaint city of Siem Reap has its own kind of charm. It may take volunteers a little bit of time to warm up to the city, so patience and understanding is key.
Climate. Cambodia has two seasons, but Siem Reap is quite hotter than Phnom Penh and other provinces. Summer starts in late March and ends in late May. Expats tend to leave the city at this time of the year because of the heat, so volunteers who choose to volunteer in Siem Reap in the summer should come prepared. One of the benefits of volunteering in Siem Reap in the summer is the lower number of tourists that flock to the city, because of the sometimes hard to bear, relentless heat.