Before we left home, Sue and I had decided that we wanted to do some volunteer work on our travels. We joined a group called WorkAway which arranges volunteers in many countries all over the world. Anyone who can offer free accommodation in return for some help can register on the site. We decided on two projects: an orphanage in Cambodia and a butterfly farm in Laos.
We arrived in Phnom Penh after a long bus journey although we did find it hugely entertaining to have free wifi, and we could send photos back home as they happened. On one occasion our road turned into a river during a thunder storm and we loved passing Buddhist monks, rice fields and buffalo. I had been to Phnom Penh before around 5 years ago and was troubled by the poverty and upset by a visit to the Killing Fields and torture camp S21. Cambodia’s people suffered terribly from the Pol Potts regime and lost 25% of its people to starvation and torture. The country is trying hard to recover from this horrific legacy but it takes a long time to recover from such a past.
We stayed just one night before leaving for Siem Reap where we would be helping out. Siem Reap is also close to the famous World Heritag Site of Angkor Wat which we wanted to visit. Our sweet driver Sam Nong collected us by Tuktuk and took us the 7 km to the orphanage. Sam would be our guide and driver for our entire stay at Siem Reap, and he made sure we got to see and buy everything we needed. He and his wife and family are also part of the big family at Aspire.
Sean Somnak is the owner of Aspire and he provides a home and education to 30 orphaned or destitute children. Five of the children in his care have already been to college or are working, one couple married and three still live and work there.
With the help of donations, Sean has managed to buy a piece of land and over years has put up a temporary school and several small houses and sheds. These are homes to girls and boys dorms, a volunteer house and some makeshift homes where Sean has allowed some needy families to come and stay and where he and his wife, mother and children live.
Ducks, chickens, geese and dogs wander everywhere and first thing in the morning the chickens have to be evacuated from the open air classrooms! The atmosphere is happy and loving and complete feeling of one big happy family where everyone does their chores and older ones help the little ones with great love and care.
It was baking hot when we arrived and all the children came out to see us. The beautiful smiling faces were instantly uplifting and welcoming. Sean makes sure the children all learn English – not only is it helpful for getting a job but has also become a common language between south east Asian countries and enables them all to communicate in a common tongue.
We helped giving classes in English every day and the children were delighted to have native speakers to help with pronunciation. Sean’s dream is to build a proper school for his own and the local poor children and to date has built the basic structure of a fine building. With the help of donations bit by bit the school is taking shape. As soon as we saw it, we realised that our friends and family back home would probably love to help out, too. So we set about raising funds as quickly as we could. Incredibly in just over 10 days we had raised enough to complete the downstairs windows and doors for 4 classrooms. We also bought some badly needed supplies, games, books and lots of food. Cambodia is a relatively expensive country in SE Asia and the cost of supplies is surprisingly high so it was wonderful to see how well Sean spent and accounted for every cent we gave him.
On our final day we had a party for the children and they danced and played traditional Cambodian music for us. It was the best of fun and a happy day we will remember all our lives especially our attempts at joining the children on stage for the fun.
To round off our memorable stay in Siem Reap, we booked a few days in the Antanue Spiritual Resort & Spa through Agoda.com. For a paltry $10 per night we got a lovely twin room and breakfast served to our room each morning. The hotel has a nice pool and the sweetest staff who help with anything they can. A spa in the grounds offers 30 minute facial or foot massage for $10. From here our trusty Sam took us to the world heritage site of Angkor Wat at 4.30 am to see the sunrise. Not only is this the best time to arrive, before most of the throngs of tourists, but it also means getting in 5 or 6 hours of sight seeing before the burning sun zaps any remaining energy you have left!
Volunteering abroad here was unforgettable. This place has to be experienced. Ancient cities and temples, some up to one thousand years old, lay buried deep in the Cambodian jungles until rediscovered over the past 60 or so years. One in particular was made famous in the Lara Croft – Tomb Raider film of 2001. Major excavation work is going on to save many ruins from being lost to the jungle yet again.
And so onwards to our next destination – Thailand.