Amongst my friends I am very much known for going on random adventures. Often unplanned. So naturally, when my friends found out I was going to Cambodia, their response was ‘of course you are.’
Cambodia was a country I had only heard about purely due to the fact that my babysitter when I was 10 years old was a backpacker and had just travelled around Southeast Asia. I was shown the picture of her at a place called ‘Angkor Wat’ and thought to myself ‘wow!’ Never had I thought it would be a place I would want to visit for more than a couple of days though... I looked at the tickets for the Angkor Wat complex wondering why someone would want a 7-day pass there? This peaked a greater interest in Cambodia, but I was nervous.
I had been contemplating the idea of volunteering abroad for a few years, the pandemic being a major obstacle. I hastily decided this would be the safest way to see the country. I had travelled alone before, but not in this capacity. I immediately signed up to be a challenge leader as well; I thought ‘Why not? You’re going to be a teacher soon anyway.’ Despite this reassurance, I became instantly overwhelmed at how out of my depth I had become. I’ve lead a class of students, but I’ve never recruited a team before. I’ve travelled to surrounding countries, but I’ve never been to THIS country before. I knew nothing about Cambodia, nor about their culture, or even how to say ‘thank you’ in Khmer, the local language.
As my team arrived at Siem Reap airport, the first glance reminded me of Broome, Western Australia. The small building resembled more of a mini resort than an airport, and somehow this was comforting. We trudged through the airport customs in silence, we were exhausted. Our group mentor, Chloe, met us at the airport but as she was meeting another group, we had a private taxi for the four of us in my team. Our taxi driver spoke no English and it was a 2.5-hour drive. Some of us slept, and the rest stared out the windows eagerly soaking in the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. It was loud and busy - we had arrived on the first day of election campaigning. What an introduction!
When we arrived at the Hub in Battambang, we were met by Srou, one of the lovely FutureSense Foundation staff. After we settled in, we were given a short tour of our home for the next 2 weeks, and then we had lunch. The food was incredible. The first meal was not even the best meal, though every single meal at the Hub was so full of flavour.
Over the first weekend, we had a tour of Battambang. We met our tuk-tuk driver, Bouth La, who would be driving us around for the next two weeks. He lived during the Khmer Rouge, a tragic, political-driven event in the 1970s and had a lot to tell us openly about it. Despite his hardship in life, he is the kindest, and most intriguing man that I have met in my life. He made the experience of visiting the Killing Fields, temples, and cultural areas so much more meaningful.
We also went through the FutureSense Foundation orientation, debriefs, cultural workshop and language workshop. We worked hard in the language workshop, not fully realising just how useful it would be. Khmer is a fun language to speak and if you’re good at math, it’s an easy language to count in. We also learnt about the Cambodian government school system and that primary-aged students are only required, and supported, to go to school for 3 hours a day - they had to pay to attend extra classes. As a student teacher learning about the Australian curriculum, this was quite a shock.
Now for the hard work. On Day 1, we spent the morning brainstorming potential activities and lesson planning for the following day. As a few of us were teachers, we were gently reminded to take off our ‘teacher’ hat and put on our ‘facilitator’ hat. This meant being more relaxed about the specifics in the class, such as behaviour management. Whilst we were there to have fun and teach the kids, we also had to understand that not every single student would enjoy every single activity, and to learn to let go of the idea that they all had to do the activity.
We were able to observe a workshop on the first day to get an idea of what sort of activities engage the kids. We supported the workshop by running through an activity in pairs with half of the group each. I felt confident that I would adjust to the facilitator role.
The next day, we implemented our prepared workshops with our first class at the supplementary education centre, a school built by Australian Rotarians as a means of alternative schooling. We were so underprepared in terms of activities, and I became quickly overwhelmed. We were lucky enough to have a half hour break between each class, so we brainstormed some new topics and ideas. The second lesson was a lot smoother. We learned the importance of extensive planning very early on and for the rest of the week, it went well. Our students were the most beautiful, respectful students, and they had so much character too. A group favourite was visiting the coffee stand down the road from the school in our break. The coffee is the best, and a great pick-me-up between those afternoon sessions.
Throughout the week, we engaged in many extracurricular activities. We went to the Bat Cave, which was breathtaking. We also saw the Killing Cave, which was breathtaking but in a whole other capacity. We celebrated Chloe’s birthday by doing a cooking class at a lovely local restaurant, Coconut LyLy. I could not recommend this highly enough! The food was delicious, and it is a brilliant introduction to traditional Cambodian food. We had cooked ourselves a lovely 3-course meal for the extremely reasonable price of 14USD. Our menu consisted of spring rolls with sauce, Cambodia’s national dish - Amok, and Coconut pudding. Coconut Lyly cooking classes are a MUST in Battambang.
We lesson-planned at lunchtime and at night and had established a pool of games that we could incorporate into learning. Our topic was time, so we focused on schedules and sequencing, as most students had prior knowledge of verbs and actions. Workshops became super fun as the students engaged more and more with the content and developed their knowledge quickly. It was rewarding to say the least.
Our free weekend came around quickly, and we soon found ourselves doing the 2.5-hour journey to Siem Reap. There was a range of emotions: tired, excited, sad, and fulfilled. We had vaguely planned out activities. Of course, we would hit up Pub Street and the Angkor Wat Temple Complex (not at the same time). We settled into our (super awesome) hostel and had some goodbye drinks with the other group who were leaving.
We woke up before the sun to reach Angkor Wat by sunrise. It was breathtaking. We had 7 temples included in our tour, which we paid 6USD each for (on top of the entrance fee for the complex- 56AUD) and it was a mission and a half. Our tour finished by lunchtime, and everyone went their separate ways for down time. We met in the evening to check out the night markets and to go for dinner.
Then, on the Sunday, we indulged in some relaxation, museums and our final food wishes. Another MUST is to visit Wild Café in Siem Reap - they have the BEST spring rolls! Our taxi picked us up at 2pm and we arrived back in time for dinner at the Hub.
Throughout the second week, we facilitated workshops at a government school. This was quite a different experience to the week before due to student ability, age ranges in the classroom and behaviours. We had also had an adjustment in our team numbers, so there was now 3 of us facilitating the workshop, instead of 2. This worked out well for us, as some of our classes had over 30 students; so we were able to break them up into smaller groups to run activity rotations. Our biggest barrier was the weather. Sometimes it was too hot, sometimes it was really rainy, and this was a challenge when planning workshops. We had to create a lot of backup activities on the spot. Nevertheless, we had some great moments. You can’t beat a good boogie in the classroom! Nor can you top the excitement of students trying to teach you to say all the words you have taught them in English in Khmer.
Every day, our students would follow us back to the tuktuk in our 15-minute break. Rain or shine, they wanted to be around us and we found that many students from other classes wanted to hang out with us too. They would teach us Khmer words, ask us questions and play games. Despite our exhaustion, it was such a special feeling.
On the Thursday, the school was closed, so we were able to relax a little. We then went to Banan Temple, which was 45-minutes away by tuktuk. It rained nearly all the way there, but stopped long enough for us to climb up. The steps were steep, but the view from the top was so pretty. Upon returning to the hub, we relaxed for a little, before going to teach at the Buddhist University. I taught the advanced English class - I was so nervous, I didn’t know where to start. But I was provided a lesson plan and worked through it. It was a really lovely class. Teaching at the university is not a compulsory part of the Challenge, but I highly recommend it. You really don’t know your limits until you push yourself.
Friday was our last evening. After facilitating workshops and a huge group debrief, we had a goodbye dinner, buffet style prepared by the beautiful ladies at the Hub. We also enjoyed some Khmer dancing, and the famous karaoke. It was so much fun!
The end of the trip brought so many emotions. My key takeaway was that any game can be adapted into a learning activity. My highlight was how welcoming and enthusiastic the kids are about learning and teaching their language too. The biggest challenge was leading a group of adults in a foreign country. But there is so much support to get through it. The trip really reaffirmed why I decided to teach in the first place. Even for non-teachers, it really is an experience of a lifetime and I 100% want to go back to Cambodia. Before even returning home, I have signed up to another Challenges Abroad program: the 2024 Amazon Sustainability Challenge in Peru. The perspective, growth and skills learnt throughout Challenges Abroad programs is really something that money can’t buy.
If you’re considering a program- DO IT. If you haven’t considered a program, DO IT. And if you really want to challenge yourself, become a Challenge Leader.