Volunteering in Cambodia
Cambodia is a country of extremes — of ancient temples, colourful markets, excellent food, and a turbulent political history.
More than 16 million people live in Cambodia, which is divided into 25 provinces plus the municipality of Phnom Penh, and shares borders with Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
The landscape spans low-lying plains, the Mekong Delta, mountains and coast along the Gulf of Thailand. The capital, Phnom Penh, is home to the art deco Central Market, the glittering Royal Palace and the National Museum's historical and archaeological exhibits. To the northwest lie the ruins of Angkor Wat, an extensive stone temple complex built in the 12th century during the reign of the Khmer Empire.
More than 94% of the population is Khmer, and over 95% practice Buddhism. The two main minority groups are people of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage. There is also a significant Muslim Cham community, and a number of indigenous hill tribes in the remote north-east of Cambodia.
Having regained stability following the trauma and genocide of the twentieth century, Cambodia has begun to rebound with strong growth on the back of four key sectors: textiles, tourism, agribusiness, and construction.
Textiles and tourism are the largest industries, while agricultural activities remain the main source of income for many people living in rural areas.
But there is plenty of work still to do: the UNDP ranks Cambodia’s human development as 'low', and the country’s GDP per capita ranks 155th in the world.
Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of Cambodia partner organisations achieve their development goals since 1992.
Volunteering opportunities in Cambodia support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Agriculture and rural development
- Private sector partnerships and enabling
- Gender empowerment
- Child protection
No matter where you are in Cambodia, you will find homes and restaurants serving Tapioca Banana Pudding. In fact, Australian volunteers are served their first bowl at their orientation training.
Download the recipe for Tapioca Banana Pudding
Life as a volunteer in Cambodia
Culture and religion
Cambodia is a nation rich in culture and customs; understanding these is helpful to making the most out of a volunteer assignment in the Kingdom of Wonder.
When in public, physical displays of affection should be kept to a minimum. Hugging or kissing will make people feel very uncomfortable.
When you meet someone, it is polite to remove your hat, bow slightly, and put your hands together in a ‘prayer’ position. This is particularly important when you meet monks and elders.
In social situations many Cambodians may become embarrassed and uncomfortable if you loose your cool, as this is not socially acceptable in Cambodia. They may even smile out of awkwardness, which can make the situation more confusing.
Buddhism is practiced by over 95 per cent of the population, with many following Theravada Buddhism. Religion is part of everyday life for most Cambodians, young and old. Monks are respected, pagodas are located throughout the country, images of Buddha hang in homes above offerings, and temples are attended during religious holidays.
Most villages have a wat (temple) and monks are a common sight around the country. There is also a sizable Islamic community of about 200,000 Cham people, who live mostly in villages to the north of Phnom Penh. There is a very small Christian community in the centre of Phnom Penh. Astrology is widely observed.
The soles of your feet should never be pointed towards anyone, particularly the Buddha. This is because feet are considered to be the dirtiest part of the body.
There are roughly 22 public holidays each year. The Khmer New Year celebrations bring the country to a standstill for three days in mid-April. The Royal Ploughing Festival takes place near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in early May. The Khmer calendar's most important festival is Bom Om Tuk, celebrating the end of the wet season in early November - it's the best time to visit Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Lunar New Year is celebrated by Chinese and Vietnamese communities in late January or early February.
Dressing modestly is essential when visiting temples. Temples are sacred places of worship and it is considered disrespectful to dress inappropriately. Take off your hat and shoes when entering a pagoda, office, or someone’s home. If you feel that you want to, you can also make a small donation when visiting a pagoda.
In the workplace, casual dress is considered appropriate. Formal work attire is not common but it recommended to have a formal outfit on hand for special occasions.
Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. French is spoken by older Cambodians and also in government circles. Although English is more common with the younger generation, it is not widely spoken.
Learning basic phrases in Khmer is strongly recommended as it will it enrich the cultural experience, and be essential for communication.
Language training is offered to all volunteers and can be discussed further with your in-country team.
Cambodia has a tropical monsoonal climate with distinct wet and dry seasons. The wet season usually begins in May and lasts until late October. In the dry season, from November to March, there are generally clear days, morning fogs and smoke haze. Relative humidity exceeds 80 per cent in the wet season and rarely drops below 70 per cent in the dry season.
In Phnom Penh, temperatures are high throughout the year, ranging from low 20's to high 20's during January, the coolest month, to about 33-34 degrees during April, the hottest month. Temperatures can reach up to 38 degrees in summer. During the wet season, spectacular electrical storms can flood the streets of the city within minutes.
Over 98% of the population uses the internet, and there are a number of service providers on offer. Internet connectivity is good, particularly in urban areas, and the cost is relatively cheap.
Food and dining
There are plenty of supermarkets available in Phnom Penh. Prices are similar but products can differ. There are some supermarkets in the major provinces like Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville and Kampong Cham.
In Phnom Penh there are at least six large markets where fresh fruit, vegetables, household items and clothing can be purchased. It's best to shop for local foods as western food is more expensive.
Bartering is a must in the markets, and can be a lot of fun. However be polite and refrain from driving prices unnecessarily low – settle on a price that’s reasonable for everyone.
Other markets to visit in Phnom Penh include the Central Market, the Olympic Market and Bong Keng Kong market.
In larger cities, there are a variety of cuisines on offer including local and western style foods.
Vegetarians and vegans will find suitable options in many restaurants but may be more limited with street food.
Our in-country team assist volunteers in finding suitable housing and will conduct a safety and security check.
Volunteers are encouraged to live with other volunteers or foreigners, who can provide support with utility costs and managing relationships with landlords.
The other alternative is to go through one of the many real state agencies, as they are very knowledgeable about the rental market and often will not charge a fee for their services. Be aware that at times rental property owners will charge extra as compensation for their required payment to the real state agency.
In Phnom Penh and other big cities the most common and cheapest form of transport for volunteers is a motodop.
Motordop drivers are mostly friendly people who like to strike up a conversation with their passengers. It can be beneficial to have a moto driver who drives you regularly. Ask for their phone number so you can arrange rides with them directly. It's really good to know your moto driver as it can save you a lot of hassle as times can be arranged in advance.
Carsharing apps, including PassApp and Crab, have become recently popular, and are quite affordable.
Bicycles are a good option if you want to make your own way around but be aware they often go missing - a good lock is essential. Walking is generally safe, however most locals do not walk due to weather conditions.
Motorbikes can be purchased but it's important to note that Cambodian Police often stop foreigners for all sorts of reasons. You will need to hold an Australian motorbike license and be covered by insurance.
Cambodia is generally safe for volunteers but following sensible precautions and staying alert is advised. Crime is low, however, it’s still essential to watch out for your belongings.
Most victims of crimes in Cambodia don’t bother to report them — filing a police report requires a payment and rarely results in the return of possessions. It’s well known that there is more crime in the lead-up to major holidays such as Water Festival and Khmer New Year.
Before applying for a volunteering assignment in Cambodia, please do some further research on living in Cambodia and the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
Two Australian volunteers are working with the World Health Organisation to improve public health in Cambodia.
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