HelpX Experience: Volunteering in Cambodia

I have been asked multiple times now how I afford long-term travel. There are plenty of blog posts out there to tell you how to travel on $20 a day, and it certainly is possible. I have done it. If you stick to one city for an extended period of time, it becomes even more affordable.

Over the past couple of months, I have found my new favorite way to travel on a budget: helpX.

HelpX is a help exchange for travelers. It is a great alternative to the more widely known WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) projects. With WWOOF, you have to buy a membership for individual countries, and the work always involves, obviously, organic farms.

HelpX give you access to projects around the world, and jobs that range from working in a hostel to bartending to farming to tutoring to babysitting.

There are plenty of reasons HelpX is great! First, you have the opportunity to immerse yourself more in a new culture by working with locals. It is amazing how little you can interact with locals if you are always in hostels and speaking with other travelers.

You also try a job that maybe you wouldn’t have ever tried otherwise, like farming or teaching. I studied finance. I never imagined anyone would trust me to cook breakfast at a hotel in Greece, but that is exactly what I am doing now. (And now I make a lovely Greek yogurt and fruit salad!)

This post is about my first HelpX experience: teaching English in Angkor Borei, Cambodia.

When I started my trip, I knew I wanted to volunteer with non-profits while traveling. Traveling for me has always been a very humbling experience. Speaking English as a first language is one thing that I know I take for granted on a daily basis, but it is something that provides countless opportunities. IF I can give back as I travel, than I hope it can make my experiences a little more meaningful.

I love working with children and have prior experience teaching English, so teaching seemed like the best way I could make an impact from short-term volunteer projects.

HelpX has more than just hostel jobs and bartending. Although it is only a small percentage of the listings on the site, there are non-profit or social organizations that you can volunteer with. The HelpX page for Cambodia has about a half dozen schools you can contact.

I reached out to ASEAN International English School, and Sophea, the director, quickly responded to let me know they definitely needed help for the weeks in August that I suggested.

The listing included an ask for a $25 donation for each week that you stay there to cover the cost of food. I am not a fan of the expensive volunteer organizations you will find if you do a Google search for “volunteer projects in Cambodia”. From my experience, the host families you live with get only receive a tiny fraction of the thousands of dollars you pay, and frequently the work sites you volunteer at receive nothing.

Your program fee goes towards “organizational overhead and management.” While contacting the work sites, host families, organizing airport pickups, and everything else involved in organizing one of these volunteer trips takes  a lot of time, I do not think that it justifies the expensive price tag associated with many of these companies.

However, I also do not want to be a financial drain on the host family or the work location where I volunteer, so I absolutely supported the school asking for compensation for room and board, as they were already struggling financially. I appreciated that they said up front what would be an appropriate donation.

Asking for money, however, is not typical for most HelpX projects. Most work sites are businesses, and you are exchanging your labor for room and board. However, if you are working at school or another non-profit, I think donating money is often as equally (if not even more) important as donating your time.

I arrived at the school on Monday afternoon. They showed me the volunteer room. There was a fan, two wooden platforms, and two mosquito nets. The wooden platforms were the beds. Mattresses are not the norm in every part of the world, and while the first night of sleep was a little rough, I was surprised by how quickly I can adapt, especially after teaching all day.

I was fed a delicious lunch and dinner everyday, eating with the full-time local teachers. The school really made me feel appreciated. And, it was so much fun!

This is the volunteer bedroom. I did sleep on a wooden bed, but I promise you get used to it after a couple nights!

The kids are full of energy. There are frequent breaks between classes where they play outside. It is a great time to reinforce English through games. Sometimes the kids just want you to chase them and play tag (which I did a lot of), but I tried to get creative to figure out ways the kids would have fun and learn, without even realizing it.

In the local market, I found a booth selling a bag of long balloons to make balloon animals. I went through a “clown” phase in 5th grade when I got a unicycle and stilts, and the phase proved useful! The kids loved having the balloon animals, but they could only have one once they asked (in English), “Will you make a _____, please?”

Balloon animals turned out to be a distraction the rest of the day... whoops!

Balloon animals turned out to be a distraction the rest of the day… whoops!

All of the years of Girl Scouts also paid off. I still know a bunch of silly campfire songs, like “Baby Shark” that the kids loved singing.

There are so many resources online for teaching English. Even if you have never taught a class in your life, you can discover an entire lesson plan with a simple google search. There are lists of great games and songs you can use to teach English. 

If you are in Cambodia and want to take a break from hostels, check out ASEAN school. They can always use the help! Just remember to be adaptable and do not go with high expectations regarding living standards. They never told me what to do. I wasn’t given a lesson plan. You just have to jump in head first and teach! And have fun. 

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