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There's something unsettling about seeing tourists tramping through a heritage area, and taking their photos of colourful locals, and many visitors want a more reciprocal experience: of meeting locals on their own terms and giving, not just taking.
Cambodia offers many opportunities for this kind of deeper experience, and while the concept of Voluntourism runs on that knife-edge between tokenism and making a real difference, it is making a really positive difference to a number of organisations including orphanages, schools and micro-finance enterprise promotion.
In Siem Reap there are dozens of excellent organisaitons that run programmes to help the needy. Don't be fooled by the apparent prosperity of Siem Reap town - just a short way into the rural areas are some of the poorer areas of all Cambodia, and the gap between rich and poor is widening with the recent economy hurting in particular the sustainability of small rice farms. In the year 2000 a rice farmer grew enough to feed the family for a year. At today's prices, the same harvest no longer covers the living costs for a year.
The difference between tokenism and making a long term difference occurs after you leave for home. To be honest, some visitors seem to treat their day or two as a photo opportunity (though everyone enjoys the one on one contact,) but some visitors are touched by the experience more dramatically. Behind many organisations in Siem Reap, orphanages, support organisations for children and schools - are dedicated people from better-off countries who stay in contact and help by offering ongoing support.
Some of these organisations work on more formal lines. One example is a good Australian based organisation that handles Meaningful Travel on a global basis. This organisation often ask for you to fund your stay: after all they need a sustainable model, and they offer good programs.The Cambodia experience can, in this way, provide something much more profound for today's tourist.
Consider visiting a not-for-profit organisation, to contribute time, to hear the stories and to connect at this deeper level - not just for the duration, but as a personal commitment. A common reflection, ironically, is that the more you give, the more you get back. That's not something you can say about a visit to Vegas.
However be careful. Without doubt and despite Giovernment licensing, some organisations are poorly managed or are outright fronts for taking the tourist sympathy dollar? Where can you find assurance?
YOU CAN GET AN OVERVIEW
One place to check things out is here. If you wish to have a chat about ways you can help and get more information regarding areas in need of support, it's worth visiting the ConCERT (Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism) office, situated close to the Old Market. ConCERT is a central point of information for organisations working in a wide range of areas of support, such as education, healthcare, childcare, landmine issues, combating human trafficking, water access, agriculture and environmental protection. Their website also offers Responsible Volunteering Guidelines which will help you prepare for a successful and memorable volunteering placement.
MANY VOLUNTEER SCHOOLS
Savong's School, was established by locals to provide free language education to local children in order that they get employment opportunities in the burgeoning tourism sector: the only major employer in town. The school has been supported, and visited by people from all over the world and the best endorsement of the foreign visitors is that they are welcomed by the students for providing real language practice. Savong's School is just one of several schools in the area, and they accept volunteers either on a short-term (a couple of days) basis, or on a longer term basis. There's a thirst for real teaching skills to learn English (try teaching it to learn what a hard language it is!) and Japanese. In 2008 after several students aproached the Director, Svay Savong, the decision was made to build a small orphanage also - these children have one or two parents but their home lives put them at risk. (Poverty is the main issue.) The school also offers university scholarships to the top students each year, and these offer 4 years support at University: fees, laptop, transport into town and a small living allowance.
Other organizations like Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC) offer free tours of local schools for tourists. The tour guide is a long-term volunteer at the organization and gives a great description on the education system in Cambodia including teaching conditions and cultural issues. For those travelers interested in the school system, this is a great way to not only learn about but also to help out with educational development in the area. Quesitons are not only encouraged but answered knowledgeably and of course, every tourists' donation is greatly appreciated by the staff (however, not necessary). This is a great way to experience first hand, the youth and schools around Cambodia. Visits leave from the Singing Tree Cafe in Siem Reap every Friday at 10:45am and last between 1 and 1.5 hours.
Two more very good education providers are:
Students at Savong's School. Really excellent young people to share your knowledge with.
Volunteers and other visitors might like to add their experiences and organisations here. One to check out is Angkor Orphanage Siem Reap Provinciale.
CHILDREN AT SCHOOL AT OSBORNE HOUSE MARCH 2009
Another opportunity to help comes through the Cambodia Orphan Fund an NGO based in Siem Reap.They have an orphanage Osborne House for 35 children plus 2 bamboo classrooms on site for 100 local children. They run a large professional volunteer programme and are always looking for volunteers to help in orphanages, schools and community projects.
So if you're heading to Siem Reap give it a go.
GUNG AND THE CHILDREN FROM OSBORNE HOUSE
The Place is believed to be getting back on track after being rocked badly in october 2010 when the British Director of Cambodia Orphan fund was arrested in 2010 by British and Khmer police on charges of the abuse of Children.
The experience highlights the point that for the short term visitor, things may not be what they seem. Do serious homework. Don't just walk in off the street. Be very wary of these types of projects especially when they involve orphanages.
There is an excellent a report on Al Jazeera on orphanage tourism in Cambodia. Very informative, everyone should see this!
Voluntourism is something you ought to seriously consider before you journey to a nation such as Cambodia. However you dont need to pay any Western organisation to volanteer there are many good Khmer NGOs that can be supported directly after you visit Siem Reap and have spent some time at the project to assess it.