The Savong Organization Cambodia helps disadvantaged children in poor households to improve their prospects and reach a higher potential. It is supported by overseas donations, and is assisted greatly by volunteers who come and teach.
Volunteers are encouraged and supported by everyone within the organization, and they enjoy a very positive experience, but as is true with most things; the more prepared you are, the more you get out of the experience. So this page is designed to help prepare you better for volunteering at the organization.
Before you volunteer, do think about why you’re doing it and who you’re hoping to benefit. If you’re looking to just get a few photos for Facebook, and a pat on the back, then you’re probably not doing it for the right reasons. The last thing we want is for anybody to think that visiting our children is a tourist attraction – we want to help these children build a future for themselves.
NGOs in Cambodia are collectively getting critical of volunteers who are here to put in a quick appearance, and spend most of that time taking photos.
As Friends International organization says: Children are not a tourist attraction.
So think about the long term legacy you wish to leave in Cambodia. You can discuss these things with us if you wish before you come.
Having a clear ethical compass is useful.
If you make a friend in a nation such as Cambodia, are you prepared to have that friend for life?
Volunteers need also to be sensitive to the local culture.
You are a guest in a school environment. So treat the students, staff, teachers and the facilities with respect.
Starting Your Volunteer Journey
Before you arrive in Siem Reap you would already be in contact with us through email. Let us know when you will be arriving so that we can arrange for our trusty tuk-tuk driver to pick you up.
Savong and his family run a guesthouse about 2km from Siem Reap town, and you are of course very welcome to stay here during your time here.
We will also arrange your transportation to and from the school where you will be volunteering.
Once you arrive at the school, you will meet a teacher and they invite you to their classroom. They’ll guide you, and show you which book they’re using and which pages they’re working from. These are easy books. And the teacher is there to translate if anything becomes unclear.
But this is when the magic happens. The students are amazingly welcoming. They’re keen to meet you, and they’ll ask you a lot of questions. How old are you? How many brothers and sisters have you got? Really they break the ice for you.
Ice? You’ll wish you had some. This is hot work, so bring a bottle of water. The time will fly past.
What makes the experience so good is the way you actually meet locals and discover their enthusiasm for things we sadly take for granted. Education. Books. Classroom games.
The numbers in your classroom will vary each day and each week depending on the local farming schedule. In busy seasons classes are smaller because many if not most children are required on the family rice farm. (This is what crimps school attendance and literacy rates in Cambodia.) At other times attendance is very high. So a class may range between 15 students right up to what we think is the record: 68 students – jam packed in these small classrooms.
The age of the students will range from as young as 12 years old up to about 20 years old. It is quite common in Cambodia for older teens to return to school and to share the classroom with 12 year olds. They all get on really well. But for teachers it is important to pitch your lessons neither too young nor too old. You will get a mix.
If you’re planning ahead, think about bringing something fresh or different. How about a photobook from your home town? Or a classroom game that one of your teachers taught you. Or bring a flag from your country (an informal tradition here) or a lesson you’ve already prepared.
Longer Term Volunteers
Most visitors to Cambodia visit Siem Reap for just a few days. However if you wish to stay longer, and wish to dedicate more time to volunteering, you are most welcome to include the Savong Organization Cambodia in your plans.
Longer term visitors build up a great rapport with the students, and you can develop lesson units that take the students forward significantly.
Some volunteers stay for a couple of weeks, others are able to stay for several months. There is no minimum requirement for the time you spend with us; just that you bring your energy, and your enthusiasm.
The first step on your volunteering journey is to work out a realistic schedule for yourself. Once you have established how long you want to volunteer for, then just let us know.
Sometimes there are peak periods when there are already other volunteers committed to the schools, and if things are too crowded at one of the schools, then we can place you at one of the other branches. Another option if things are completely full during your time, is to find another organization you can volunteer at. Savong works closely with other ethical NGOs so he is able to recommend alternative places if this is necessary.
Cambodians are easy to relate to. Countless tourists have referred to the famous Cambodian smiles and remark on the friendliness of the people as they welcome you into their lives.
In that context it is easy to feel so at home that you forget a few local protocols.
Wear appropriate and conservative clothing. Don’t be scruffy. Females: no short shorts or revealing tank tops. Local standards are very modest and very tidy. Dress reasonably professionally and not provocatively.
Shoes off at the door. That applies to people’s homes, and to the school classroom.
Keep a professional relationship only: arms length from the students you teach and from the teachers you work with. No flirting or hint of sexual activity.
Do not cross this line or we must take action with the police. Child safety is paramount – and that goes for students of all ages.
Try not to point! There you are, in the classroom and you’ve asked the class a question. “Yes, you…have you got the answer?” And there you are, pointing, western style, with your index finger. In Cambodia that’s considered quite rude. Try to indicate with the flat of your hand.
Even ruder: pointing at somebody with your foot.
Working with kids, you may well be inclined to give them a pat of encouragement. Well, if you must, a pat on the shoulder is okay — but a pat on their head is definitely not polite: it is demeaning.
You may have a young monk or two in the class, dressed in their orange robes. Their presence certainly adds an unexpected dimension to your experience. Treat them with respect as you would the other students. But a note for females: you are not to touch a monk.
Do not single out particular students – for example to give them money or special gifts. Our School and Children’s Home try to operate fairly, and a kind, well-meaning gesture towards one student can have unintended consequences and prove hurtful to others.
Do not compromise the dignity of anyone you meet or photograph. We’ve seen photos taken by tourists – photos of crippled children – from Cambodia and other poor nations – posted on Facebook with derogatory, insensitive and ultimately unfunny comments that neither dignify the children in the photos nor say much about the intelligence of the tourists.
Try and learn a few useful words in Khmer. Hello (sousday in Khmer), how are you (sok sabay te), and thank you (awkun) are a good starting point.
Westerners come over as amazingly direct: quick to get heated, inclined to argue. So show patience. That means listening carefully, thinking about what was “not” said, and being sure not to talk over the top of others. Phrase criticisms (for example of a child who has got the answer wrong) in a positive way. “Good try! Almost there!”
The overriding rule is really easy. Simply show respect.
The Siem Reap climate can be described as tropical with seasonal monsoons, and the weather is warm year round.
There are four distinct seasons – broadly split into the rainy season and the dry season.
- November to February. Cooler and dry.
- March to May . Hot and dry.
- June to August. Hot and wet.
- September to November. Cooler and wet.
The really rainy months are June and July and then, after a slightly drier August September and October: the height of the wet season and when Cambodia is at its most photogenic. During the wet season major monsoons can sweep through the region and cause flooding and disruptions to land and air travel.
We’ve communicated now with dozens of volunteers and heard their stories. One of the biggest anxieties about a journey to the region is about health.
Well, a good recommendation is to get preventative health vaccinations before you go to Cambodia. Hepatitis A and B, tetanus and Typhoid are all risks. Malaria is the other main risk, though the only preventative treatment is to take Malaria tablets with you on the journey.
All these jabs make things sound worse than they are — but because of the rare case of contracting something serious (and the really serious consequences if you do) you are far, far better to be prepared.
Most travelers discover that in the tropic you need to drink copious amounts of water — and taking bottled water with you wherever you go, is recommended. Local bottled waters are fine.
Because of the risk of dehydration, tablets or powders that boost up your salt levels can be useful: think of those isotonics that runners and cyclists use. They’re good.
The big one, really, is the risk of getting stomach upsets and diarrhea. Many visitors suffer this AFTER they have left Cambodia. Bring those disinfectant hand wipes, and bring over-the-counter medications such as Imodium to help stabilize your stomach.
By day, and night wear insect repellents to ward off the mosquitoes. Malaria is present in Cambodia, and around wet season there are a million ponds and puddles with larvae just waiting to hatch and seek your warm, delicious human blood.
Overall in our informal poll of visitors, most have suffered diarrhea and upset stomachs, while only a thin minority have encountered anything worse.
The main thing is that if make sure you have all your preventative health vaccinations before you leave your home country, take care with the foods you eat in Cambodia, and take all the necessary measures to minimize mosquito bites, then you should be fine.
Cambodian Public Holidays
The last thing we’d want you to do is plan on volunteering with us when all the staff and students are on holidays, so to help you plan your trip and volunteering schedule, here is a list of Cambodian public holidays.
- January 1: International New Year Day
- January 7: Victory Over Genocide Day
- February 4: Meak Bochea Day (Date varies depending on the lunar calendar)
- March 9: International Woman’s Day
- April 13-15: Khmer New Year
- May 1: International Labour Day
- May 3-4: Visak Boachea Day
- May 7:Royal Plowing Ceremony
- May 13-15: King’s Birthday Holiday
- June 1: Children’s Day
- June 18: King’s Mother Birthday
- September 24: Constitutional Day
- September 28-29: Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day Holiday)
- October 15: Commemoration Day of King’s Father
- October 23: Paris Peace Agreement Day
- October 29: King’s Coronation Day
- November 9: Independence Day
- November 24-26: Water Festival Holiday
- December 10: International Human Rights Day
How To Get Started
So if all of that sounds great and you’re really keen to volunteer with us then the first thing you need to do is figure out when you will be arriving and for how long you want to volunteer for.
Also have a think about some of the things you might be interested in teaching the students. You can teach them about:
- Your country: the students love to hear about where your country is, the main attractions, what kind of animals it has, how the people live there, and the different types of food
- Your town/city: you can tell them about what it looks like, how you get to work/school, how big the place is, and any festivals that occur there
- Your hobbies: introduce the students to some of your favorite hobbies, some of which they might not have heard of before
- Your studies: if you study at university, or have completed your studies, then why not teach a crash course on your major, you never know it might inspire someone to go on to university to study in the same field
- Your other interests: if you’ve got any other interests, regardless of how strange or wonderful it might be, share it with the students, they love to learn about all types of different things
You don’t need to come up with an elaborate teaching plan; just have a few ideas about something interesting you might want to teach the students.
You will of course be teaching from a text book as well and following an existing teaching plan, but there will be time for you to also teach them other things that you’re interested in.
Once you’ve got an idea of your arrival date in Siem Reap, how long you want to stay for, and a few ideas about what you might want to teach, or if you have any questions at all about your volunteer experience, then please get in contact with Simon Lim, our Volunteer Manager, here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please also read through our Volunteer Policy Form, as well as our Volunteer Resources.
We look forward to welcoming you to Siem Reap shortly!