Voluntourism taught me a lot actually. So much so, that I went on to base my my undergraduate dissertation on Voluntourism. It all started with a solo trip to Cambodia, a sign up fee on a volunteer website and no real guidance or knowledge of what I was doing. I found myself alone in Cambodia at 19 years old with all the freedom and desire to ‘do good’ in the world.
WHAT VOLUNTOURISM TAUGHT ME
MY MOTIVATION TO VOLUNTEER IN CAMBODIA
Volunteer tourism is something I had always been interested in, I wanted to ‘help’. I felt I should do my part in the developing world and like many other western volunteer tourists I wanted to make a difference. This the most common motivation for taking part in volunteer tourism and also the most common mistake a lot of people make.
When deciding to contribute in the developing world volunteer tourists, including myself, make a decision that is born from good intentions but develops into something more selfish. It sounds harsh to say but once I decided to volunteer I chose Cambodia – not because Cambodia needed my help but because I wanted to visit Cambodia. And this is usually how the story goes.
I love to travel, like most volunteer tourists, and we see Voluntourism as our way of giving back to the communities we are travelling to. But somewhere, somehow, something got me thinking? Who am I actually helping? Was it myself. Did I choose to volunteer because I could and it facilitated a travel dream of mine?
The answer to that question is usually yes and not just for me, for most volunteer tourists. Although, it would perhaps take them a while to admit it.
Volunteering is an altruistic notion that and that isn’t a negative thing, but often volunteer trips and plans transpire and the act of volunteer tourism can become, for the most part, very self-altruistic.
If you plan on travelling to Cambodia solo like I did, a volunteer project may be the perfect way to start your backpacking trip.
|Our volunteer group at The Hope Agency Project, Cambodia|
THE VOLUNTEER TOURISM IDEOLOGY – WHAT VOLUNTOURISM TAUGHT ME
We were almost an hour from the nearest town, down some winding and unofficial dirt tracks in a small village in Takeo province. We were absolutely and undoubtedly in the middle of nowhere and that alone should’ve meant that spending mass amounts of money was particularly difficult.
|The Hope Agency volunteer project – it has been renovated since this photo was taken. I arrived in the very early days of the project|
|The older kids at the school before class starts|
MY VOLUNTEER TRIP TO CAMBODIA – VOLUNTOURISM
I’d chosen Original Volunteers as my organisation to volunteer in Cambodia with and I based my destination choice solely on where I wanted to go rather than what the actual project had to offer, social responsibility didn’t even cross my mind
I left from Manchester on a warm June morning for China. From China I would take my final flight to Phnom Penh where someone would collect me from the airport. I arrived in Cambodia backpack filled with schooling essential for all the children whose lives I assumed I’d change.
|Poor quality photos due to a poor quality camera I took on the trip with me|
The project I chose to take part in is called Hope Agency, if you plan on taking part in a Voluntourism I urge you to research projects rather than agencies. Go direct to the project and take care in researching how ethical and sustainable each are. If you have to go through an agency do your research, I wish I had known then what I know now about corruption across Volunteer agencies.
|The communal volunteer shower/toilet facilities – I used the terms shower and toilet loosely but I believe they’ve been updated since my stay|
ARRIVING IN CAMBODIA – VOLUNTEER TOURISM IN CAMBODIA
At first I had no idea what he wanted, and then I realised, he wanted paid. The ‘small fee added extra I assumed’. Foolishly I pulled out my money wallet with my US dollars still firmly wrapped in their Thomas Cook envelop. I had no idea how the exchange went but I woke up $60 dollars lighter.
HOPE AGENCY – VOLUNTEER TOURISM IN CAMBODIA
The volunteer project I had chosen was called Hope Agency, a project established and ran by Jason, the man I’d met when I first arrived. Jason told us he had chosen to leave his job in Phnom Penh and return to his family’s village. An extremely deprived rural farming community he once called home. Jason had purchased some land and started the project.
Hope Agency is definitely a project worth investing your time in. Its a long-term sustainable effort created by the local community to impact the local community. The aim of the project is to give the children the opportunity to learn English language skills which opens them up to more employment opportunities in Cambodia’s growing tourism sector.
Initially I was going to go for another project where I could pay a fee to stay in a single room with a shared bathroom. Due to lack of money from my student life and desire to challenge myself I ended up going for a free project with limited facilities. The only fee I had to pay was the £125 contribution fee to Jason’s Hope Agency.
Whilst researching for my undergraduate dissertation the people I spoke to had all contributed significantly more than me to various agency costs they had encountered throughout their Voluntourism experience.
|My class photo before leaving|
|Teaching a class|
MY THREE WEEK VOLUNTEER TRIP – VOLUNTEER TOURISM IN CAMBODIA
|Weekend on the coast of Cambodia. Sihanoukville also known as Kampong Som|
|Volunteer group at the beach|
The facilities at the project in Cambodia, as advertised were basic, the toilets weren’t toilets and the shower was a large water tank you scoop water out and splash all over your body. I didn’t really care, I was there to challenge myself and there to make a difference so I embraced my new home with no questions asked.
Perhaps if I had paid more of a substantial contribution fee I would be disappointed but I was always aware and well prepared for how basic ‘basic living’ would really be. That’s something to keep in mind, basic living often means just that.
|A group trip to Angkor Wat|
VOLUNTEER ENGLISH TEACHING IN RURAL CAMBODIA
When I arrived at the gates of the Hope Agency project in Cambodia the teaching started almost instantly, a system was in place so that when one person left another arrived and that person would fill the place of the one that just left. Each new comer was always partnered with a longer term volunteer. During my three weeks there were new arrivals and departures every other day. The minimum stay was two weeks, others chose to stay for three months, some longer.
Many projects our there have a minimum stay of two weeks and some even prefer volunteers to dedicate longer. The continuity and consistency of a flow of eager volunteers is essential for Volunteer projects to remain operational. Hope Agency is no different, it survives on the altruistic feelings us travellers feel towards the developing world and selfish desires aside, without us it may not exist.
|The school grounds at Hope Agency, Cambodia|
THE VOLUNTEER PROJECT – HOPE AGENCY AND ORIGINAL VOLUNTEERS
This was the general theme of week days if you weren’t teaching you were able to get involved with the community, visit the local temples or head into the city to see the market. Due to the volume of volunteers and the ratio of volunteers to classes/pupils two hours teaching per day was all the project offered.
|Tuk Tuk to Angkor Wat – A single ticket allows you in for Sunset the evening before you visit the temples|
I really felt that there were so many good intentions surrounding the program that it was really difficult to see any of the volunteer efforts as negative. But I did feel it was important that I analyse the situation I was in and be critical about sustainability.
|My volunteer group after a water fight with the children at the school|
THE OTHER SIDE OF VOLUNTEER TOURISM IN CAMBODIA
On the weekends we travelled. The endless possibilities and opportunities that become available to us whilst volunteering in the developing world have made Volunteer tourism one of the fastest growing new forms of post-mass tourism. A desire to help and good intentions trip that is also riddled with selfish desires and bucket lists.
This feeling and understanding is really how my dissertation was born. Was I volunteering because I felt I had to? Was it more of a self fulfillment reason? Is it a right of passage? I got thinking about how I felt about Voluntourism before my trip and how I felt afterwards. What had changed? Had I not benefited the lives of the people I met like I had initially thought? And that’s how I got my title. Voluntourism: Perceptions and Expectations.
|A night bus through Cambodia|
Although I was volunteering I got to spend three weeks in Cambodia for nothing but a small sign up fee and the cost of my flights. We paid the bare minimum to eat and nothing to sleep, our services bought us a mixed dorm floor to sleep on. In exchange for our native English speaking talents we got a whole lot in return especially considering it was all for two small hours per day of actual volunteering.
The sense of security that I felt at the project was probably the most priceless aspect of my volunteer experience. Having others to explore with and share the experience with. Also, the added security of having Jason the project leader a native Cambodian that could organise and help us with anything we required.
|The incredible (and not so incredible photo) of Angkor Wat, Cambodia|
|Exploring Angkor Wat|
Outside the general teaching hours we had free time. Each night in Cambodia we drank and danced every night in the middle of nowhere and somewhere deep in the dark nights of the Cambodia countryside.
Orphanage visits were a regular, a trip to a local Khmer school, the town, the market, the capital, the beach, Angkor Wat and Siem Riep. I even got to regrettably ride an elephant. This is not something I support nor believe in, I made a naive choice at a young age and it is not something I am proud of. If I had my time again I would make a better decision.
Something that was very pure and born primarily from good intentions became the greatest solo adventure of my teenage years.
My volunteer experience in Cambodia became self fulfilling in nature very quickly and through my dissertation research I wasn’t the only person that had felt this way. Yes, I wanted to help. But what help could my mere three weeks in Cambodia do for anyone? Was I more of a hindrance than a help? Was I exploiting? Wait… Was I being exploited.
|A day spent visiting a local orphanage. Since my time in Cambodia I have read extensively about the many orphanage scams in the country and truly hope I wasn’t involved in supporting this|
I got thinking about the money we had been spending and exploitation crossed my mind. After the research I conducted I began to see Voluntourism as a mutually beneficial but also a mutually exploitative relationship. Each party was willing to sacrifice something for the other to exist. For the local community, the exploitation came surrounding the money that the voluntourists provided. For the voluntourists the exploitation came from the selfish reasons for choosing a particular project or country.
|Exploring Angkor Watt with my terrible camera|
THE ECONOMICS OF VOLUNTEER TOURISM IN CAMBODIA
I began to wonder about how sustainable volunteer tourism was, especially in Cambodia, South East Asia and the developing world. Although I was exploiting Cambodia for my trip, I was also being exploited and at the time, I didn’t really mind.
|My last night in Cambodia’s Capital – Phnom Penh|
WHAT VOLUNTOURISM TAUGHT ME – VOLUNTEER TOURISM IN CAMBODIA
Yes, of course have fun and of course be selfish when appropriate but don’t mistake Voluntourism for an excuse to travel it is so much more than that and requires the research and understanding it deserves.
|Thanks to everyone I met in Cambodia and Jason at Hope Agency – I couldn’t of had this experience without you|
A 20-something travel blogger based in Liverpool. Covering all things from Latin America to Liverpool local guides and everything in between.