Helping out in Cambodia


Helping out in Cambodia?

Most of you know that for the last few years I’ve spent the winters travelling around Asia. So far I’ve spent time in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Japan, Malaysia, and this year Cambodia has been added to the list.

For the last couple of winters I’ve spent time both as a retreatant and as a helper/volunteer at Wat Kow Tahm, a meditation centre on the island of Koh Phangan, southern Thailand. As a volunteer my main duty was assisting their long term “handyman” a very capable German cabinet maker called Felix. The pair of us would do our best to keep the old wooden dorms in working order. We also made a whole load of bunkbeds for the retreatants. It was a great place to spend time, and I learnt a great deal from living and working with such a well intentioned bunch.

Last year the resident teachers, Steve and Rosemary Weissman retired to Australia. So this year I’ve used a service called to find a new place where my woodwork skills could be put to use beyond making instruments.

That is why I’m currently in Cambodia. A couple of days back I was a few miles down a dirt track, close to the Mekong river, not so far from a town called Kampong Cham. Helping out at a new NGO-run school.
The whole project is run by a very energetic and selfless chap called Sophal, a social worker from Siam Reap. The organisation is called OBT. The school has around 60 students of all ages, and OBT teaches them for free.

Education in Cambodia

Teachers in state schools are so poorly paid they demand money from students to give the tuition required to pass even basic exams. If children don’t pay, they won’t be taught. Most rural families exist on less than $25 a month. They simply cannot afford to pay the “fees” and many children drop out of education young and go to work in the fields or in the clothing factories.

If they’re lucky.

If they’re not so lucky they can find themselves begging, picking rubbish or working in the ever present sex industry.

Education is a way out. Well, it is if they can find a job, but without education their chances are very poor. Cambodian English speakers are needed for the booming tourist industry. Very few speak English here and the standard of those who do is pretty dismal.

They are trying to educate the children at OBT. And that’s good. Luckily I wasn’t teaching English as the kids really would be stuck if they’d picked up my Geordie accent!


What I did do was teach a little guitar to some of the kids and worked with these two very skilled house builders, putting together the new library and building a house for one of the teachers.

teachers hut

I’d like to claim a big role but that wouldn’t be true, as much of the heavy work was done before I arrived. They work very fast. The teacher’s house was almost done and including the foundation has taken three weeks. My role was helping to lay the split bamboo floor, and hand chop the mortices in a frame for a new house.

bamboo floor

Watching the two fellers work has been great. They are extremely skilled and have little in the way of tools.

I’m no slouch when it comes to woodwork, so it’s not as if the fellers have been slowed down by my presence. I would watch them work for a while, see how they do things, then when asked, join in.

munKhmer craftsman

I’ve seen a lot of others work over the years, but I was really impressed watching the elder of the two fellers, Mun, who hand cut a neat large mortice (a big slot for another piece of the supporting frame to fit in) in the tough hardwood timber sections with an old tatty chisel and an axe. That was it. Two tools. He used the axe head as a hammer to chop either mortise end, then the axe blade to chop out the middle. Skilled work.

Luckily, the jobs given to me I managed to get right. There are stories of western tourists coming here to “help” build walls and dig ditches only for the locals to have to re-do the work as it’s been so badly done.

That said I don’t need to help these folk build anything. The Khmers are perfectly capable of building their own school houses, and if I really wanted to get more school houses made, I could pay. What I charge for an hour of my time in the workshop would pay for 10 skilled Khmers for a day. One hour of my time for 70 hours of work.

So what is the best way to give?

I could just send money. Nothing wrong with that. I do anyway. Lets hope you do too. Direct debits are wonderful for that sort of thing. But using the skills I’ve learned to help directly means I benefit also.

Which brings me to investigate not only my motivation in volunteering, but also how and what I learn will inform my actions in the future. I’m sure many have gone through similar process themselves reflecting on not just why they give but how.

How and why we help becomes an interesting topic, especially now my opinion is informed by actual experience. The wish to help is in many of us, as is the desire to be generous, to share what we have gained over the years. There are many options for giving open to us these days, and no shortage of good causes.

What isn’t in question is whether generosity is a quality worth developing. It is.

However generosity without reflection, generosity without wisdom is indulgence. It can even be detrimental.


In this village, young enthusiastic “voluntourists” turn up, often with few skills or little experience, and find themselves teaching English or maths in a class of eager pupils. By the time “teacher” is aware of what each pupil is already capable of its time to leave. The children don’t get an education and the volunteers leave without or without a wonderful feeling for their efforts.

Eager western students turning up wanting to help and make a difference, but the reality of how things work here (or don’t work here) found them flipping between grief or anger. Grief for the death of a romantic dream, anger and frustration because things were not how they wanted them to be, or anger that people didn’t appreciate or take advantage of the help being offered.

But I suppose that’s preferable to the other side of the equation: if we have too much “equanimity” but not enough of the compassion (the wish that others and ourselves might not suffer) it leads to indifference and inaction – We don’t care, we do nothing to help when it might be appropriate.

Seems to me helping in a country where 50% of the population is under 25, life expectancy is 57 and infant mortality is through the roof, is appropriate. Cambodia is a wonderful place, perhaps the most likable countries I’ve ever visited, but chronic poverty, rampant corruption, and political problems make things difficult, if not impossible for the majority to improve their lot.

Lowering your expectations

What seems to be important is lowering your expectations of what good you can do, and what effect your efforts will have.

A good case in point is one of my fellow volunteers, an experienced, qualified primary school teacher who had always dreamed of coming to a poor country, teaching, inspiring and making a difference. That dream died quickly enough after arrival. Western ideas about education, about creativity, about engaging and inspiring simply are not relevant. It’s not how folk learn here. A large part of learning is by repetition, by rote. Rather like it was in my parents’ day.

But rather than lamenting what couldn’t be done she looked at what could, and put together a simple program to help train the rest of the teachers to asses the children’s ability, and to teach not only what might be of use to the children but to teach it in a way that the kids could use.

Keep lowering…

Even at this point you have to lower your expectations – other volunteer teachers may disagree with the program and not enforce it. Some may agree but not understand it, some may agree, understand it but leave.

It’s a situation that calls for a lot of equanimity. You do your best, you help how you can, and then it’s up to others as to whether your efforts are put to use.

So who do you give to?

So who do I give to if I want to donate? Finding a project where your donation will be spent wisely is not as easy as one would hope.

I get the uncomfortable feeling that some NGOs may start out with good intentions but end up existing to keep a roof over the organizers head by putting smiles on western faces.

So when donating to a charity or NGO, what do we go by? Websites? The opinions of others? Personal experience?
You may be thinking of volunteering yourself, or perhaps your children are going to?

Well, it is easy to set up a website, post pictures of cute smiling kids and get a queue of well intentioned western travellers on your doorstep wanting to help, wanting to donate and wanting to feel good about doing so.

school house

Not the conclusion I was hoping for…

It would be naive to think my effort here is going to transform many lives. Spending time here has helped me to develop a little more wisdom about giving and a little more equanimity about the results of giving – seeing first hand just how much effort is required to help, and how difficult it is to make a real difference.

There are lots of NGO’s out there and some do more good than others. A few are no better than bureaucratic agencies that exist only to keep a roof over their own heads. It seems some operate with the intention of making wealthy western volunteers feel nice about being generous without doing much for the communities they’re supposed to serve. Some NGO’s are well intentioned but poorly run, others are well run but face insurmountable obstacles.

But most I hope, are well intentioned.

OBT, the people whom I was helping seem to be well intentioned if nothing else. They are facing social, organizational, financial and political “road blocks”, their direction is unclear, yet despite this a trickle of the kids here are getting into respectable, decent paying jobs with the English and other skills OBT is helping them to develop.

And that’s something.

Despite all this, some NGO’s do a really good job. I shall hunt a few out and feature them in a post soon.