Honestly, I wasn’t meant to volunteer in Cambodia. Just until I saw the post by Mr. Kim about the orphanage CPOC on the Couchsurfing website, I thought it was a good opportunity for me to help out people as well as experience local culture. So I decided to give it a try. I stayed at CPOC for a week in order to know how everything worked from the inside and to help out in any way I could.
CPOC or Caring for Poor and Orphaned Children is located in a village 2 hours away from Phnom Penh and ran by a disabled man called Mr. Kim. CPOC is funded solely by donations which are made by volunteers since Cambodian government doesn’t give any financial support. But it has successfully done a lot of work such as offering free classes on English, Chinese and computers, building or improved houses and supporting poor families with animals, water and food from a community garden. Living conditions in CPOC is very basic, far from the point it needs to be. The bathroom is just a simple tent made from some metallic plates and the toilet is an Asian squat style. Electricity is unstable, and clean water and other necessities are insufficient. These are reasons why Kim needs the help of people in any way to make a better living environment for the kids and continue the CPOC projects. For more information, you can go to the CPOC website www.cpocfoundation.com
In 1 week at CPOC, I mainly taught English at a public school for kids. There were 5 classes a day, the earliest started at 7.30 am, the last was at 5pm and every class lasted 1 hour. I worked with some other volunteers from many countries: India, USA, France, Czech Republic and Germany. The number of volunteer depended on the number of students in class. Usually, there were about 2 or 3 volunteers teaching, but the 5pm class was the biggest one so we needed more volunteers (about 4 or 5) to teach and keep the class disciplined. The classroom was very simple and had no electricity. It was fine for those classes in the morning but for the last one at 5pm, it was more difficult. Generally we finished our lessons before sunset, but sometimes, like on gloomy days, it got dark sooner so we had to use light from our phones to help the kids see what was written on the board. I was a bit unlucky on the first day since there were no students when we got there but things got better then once the kids came to our classes, especially the 7.30 am and the 5pm ones. Teaching them was fun. They knew only basic English so we tried to keep the lessons as simple and exciting as we could. Our lessons were two parts: new words on different topics and games which the kids found the most interesting. They kept raising their hands and saying “Teacher! Me!” to play the games. They were so energetic and excited (sometimes overexcited) about the games, which made the classes become disordered and crazy sometimes. But they were adorable. Our classes were always full of laughter and the kids loved our lessons, which was very gratifying.. They were very nice to us. We were given so many of flowers, pictures the kids draw themselves and other stuff at the end of every lesson. Every time we walked or cycled on the street, they excitedly said hello, waved their hands and smiled at us. Some girls even made their hands into the shape of a heart, hugged or kissed me on my cheek, which made my heart melt. They were so sweet!
As there were no English classes on the weekend, I joined the team to go build house walls for a local family. Their house wasn’t made of bricks, but metallic plates. So you can imagine how simple the house was, cannot you? We connected the plates by nails and steel wire, but the plates were very sharp. Since we didn’t wear protective clothing nor did we carry first aid kit with us, some of us got cut (one got a really serious cut). We worked hard for 1 hour and a half to finish the walls. I had never done this work before, then after experiencing I realized it was extremely a hard work. However, no matter what work we did, it could be simple one or hard, our aim was helping other people to live better.
I spent my free time at the orphanage playing with the kids, cooking with them or cleaning the house. To be honest, I’m not good at playing with kids but I tried to spend more time with them, and we gradually got closer. Like those at the school, the kids at the house were all friendly, helpful and very hard – working. They managed to do all types of work from cleaning, feeding animals to fixing stuff and cooking. I helped them out in the kitchen or around the house. We also drew and coloured pictures, explored a nearby pagoda and played football together. The more I was with them, the more I got to understand them better. It’s hard to imagine that they all had sad stories about their families and lives; therefore, every time I saw their smile, laughter and happiness in their innocent eyes, I felt happy and peaceful.
I also spent my time with other volunteers chatting and sharing our own experiences and stories about our cultures, countries and travels and having fun together. It’s so great to meet like – minded people from all over the world and listen to their stories. We strolled over the local market, discovered some cheap – but – good food such as fried cakes (that we called pita as they actually looked like the pita bread), 2000R smoothies and some yum condensed milk coffee. We shared both fun and terrible experiences we had encountered on the way travel. One of our topics was fake monks in Cambodia which happens in other South Asian countries (including Vietnam) and some other countries like India. According to our host and other volunteers who have stayed in Cambodia for long, there were a lot of fake monks in Cambodia and they tried to rip off foreigners and even locals. The host also complained that even for the real monks, they lived like kings in castles as they didn’t do anything more than chanting and receiving money and valuable stuff from normal people, while some had to work their ass off but didn’t have enough money to lead their lives. Moreover, it seems to be a trend when many young males want to become monks nowadays just because it’s the fastest way to get richer. I just felt sad to hear that since religion is something which is solemn and respected but people are taking advantage of it to pursue their own purposes. Our belief is being challenged, which is genuinely heart – breaking.
It’s hard to say goodbye, especially when you get used to a place. Although I didn’t stay at CPOC for long, I definitely had an unforgettable time there. The kids treated me as a family member. On the day before I left, they kept saying “Come back!” or “Stay longer” to me, the girls made me some bracelets and one even almost cried when I said I left on the following day, which made me speechless. I miss everyone and everything there: those lovely kids, friendly people, beautiful countryside view on the way to the public school to cheap and good smoothies, even the noise of vehicles or animals at the house. All of those good memories are recalled whenever I read status posted by anyone who has experienced life in CPOC, or see photos or videos about CPOC on facebook.
One thing I’m really concerned about is the sustainability of the projects Kim is running as he is sometimes in short of money. But with the help of volunteers and Kim’s big heart and strong will, I believe he can run those projects sustainably and keep CPOC vibrant. And hopefully, the hygiene and living condition at the house can be improved so the kids can live the best life as they deserve.
What I have gained during my stay in CPOC is priceless for me. Volunteering there has helped me understand the lesson of “Give and Take” better. There is no boundary when it comes to matters of heart. No matter where we are, either in Vietnam or Cambodia or anywhere else, we should keep our heart open to help out other people, shouldn’t we?
Kim sold the volunteers, including me, a lie. The orphanage was a scam and Kim just stole money donated by the vols. I was shocked to hear and I guess so was every volunteer who has spent time there. However, some volunteers have taken over the house and worked with social workers to stabilise, structure and register the orphanage as an officially registered association, and everything now works out quite well. This experience just taught a lesson of trust, true love and true volunteerism. However, the teaching experience and time spent with the kids were just great. I hope the volunteers can keep up their good work and make the centre better and stronger than ever before. I might go back some day!