My departure from Myanmar was let’s say a little shaky. Food poisoning and two plane rides don’t necessarily go hand in hand, but despite this, I was happy to be back in Cambodia.
Reunited with some of my volunteering friends from Borneo, as well as a lovely group of newbies, we set off to our first project site – Camp Beng Mealea, which was located around 65km northeast of Siem Reap.
On arrival we were welcomed by our camp leader Han, who after showing us around our new home, briefed us on our project work for the up and coming two weeks. With a brand new pair of gardening gloves (thanks mum) and a new Camps International Cambodia t-shirt, I was ready for the month ahead.
It seems we were eased into volunteering with our first project work, which involved a spot of gardening in the Camp’s plant nursery. At first we were reunited with our trusty hoes to clear and soften a patch of soil before creating raised beds. In the dry months the beds are dug into the ground to protect the food and drain in any water, while in the wet months, the beds are raised to stop any flooding. In these carefully constructed beds we planted cucumbers and the local greens, morning glory, also known as ong choy. We then covered the beds with mounds of grass to protect the seeds from excessive rain, as well as any peckish animals.In the weeks ahead we spent quite a bit of time in the nursery doing a number of jobs including:
Weeding – we cleared the area around the already present trees to stop weeds eating away at the plants. Additionally, we placed large pieces of cardboard and banana trees on the ground to kill the weeds (by stopping any sunlight), as well as to keep the ground soft.
Planting – similar to the jungle in Borneo, we shifted soil before planting small trees into black plastic bags, which once grown, would be placed in the nursery. We also dug holes and planted banana trees, which were uprooted and carried from the camp.
The idea of the nursery was to demonstrate to the locals the importance of being self-sufficient, as well as providing essential food for the community (and future volunteers). Prior to volunteering I hadn’t really thought about how important education can be. I don’t mean schooling like teaching English, but more practical education such as how to plant and look after a vegetable patch. At home you would read instructions and if that fails resort to Google. However out in a small village, you can only learn by being taught, as there is no room for trial and error when you have a family to feed.
I was disappointed to leave Borneo without teaching any English, so when Han asked the group if anyone would be interested in running a class for the afternoon, I was the first to put up my hand and nominate myself and my partner in crime Emma.
The school, which was funded by Camps International, offered a place for kids in the local community to learn English free of charge. Emma and I arrived in the classroom to a large group of excited kids. We were lucky enough to teach two classes, one of which was a group of younger children, who were adamant they wanted to learn fruits, as well as an older group, who we sat down with and taught conversational English. I was also lucky enough to take part in the break-time football!Other then the reward of teaching kids, it was nice to physically see money from Camps International being put to such valuable use. The school, previously an orphanage, was a good size and the one teacher who taught there, was an impressive man who spoke brilliant English. I even met his adorable son on our last day, who I spent about an hour blowing bubbles with and ‘keeping up the balloon’.
Work at the local school:
During our time in Camp Beng Mealea, we spent many hours hoeing and brick-laying at the local school. As the government decides on the placement of each teacher, the majority have to travel many miles a day. Because of this, most schools have buildings within its grounds for the teachers to sleep in during the week. The school in the village was no different and our project saw us laying foundations for a new reading area outside these small housing facilities.
Being within a school, we attracted a lot of attention from the kids, who were both eager to chat to us and to help with our work. I was lucky to make a few new friends, who helped me build a wall to stop erosion around the area.
Plastering new school:
Plastering was added to my list of new skills learnt during my time volunteering. I can’t exactly say I exceeded at it, as it took me until the last day to fully get to grips with it. However knowing we were plastering a brand new English school, I put in my headphones, listened to some grime music, persisting through the anger and re-plastering until it was presentable. Being a perfectionist, this to me was the hardest of all the projects I’ve done volunteering. I just wanted to it be perfect for the kids whose futures would be shaped in this room.
Our last project work involved digging and hoeing a large hole, which would later be filled with water to become a duck pond for the community. The pond would be a place for locals to keep fish and ducks that if needed, could be used as food.
So that concludes my time at Camp Beng Mealea. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that everyday you wake up eager for the project work that lies ahead, because it just isn’t true. It’s hard demanding work both physically and mentally. Sometimes you have to remind yourself the importance of even the smallest projects, as you can’t always be reaching for what you believe is the most significant. At the end of the day the work we were doing was what the community asked of us. That was thanks to our inspiring camp leader Han, who took the time everyday to sit down and listen to the people in the village.
Jessica Storm ✌️