Why Cambodia and Siem Reap in particular ?
Cambodia can be associated with orange-robed monks and Angkor temples. I didn’t hesitate long before taking my decision about choosing it as my destination for my volunteer project. I just felt like there was some magic about this place, the rich culture and the reputation of its people being kind and smilling inspite of the difficulties they are facing.
I chose Siem Reap as it is not only a gateway to the magestic Angkor Temples but also a small vibrant town that offers a variety of activities to choose from. I especially liked that it was located close to some beautiful spots such as Angkor temples, Phnom Kulen mountain or the floating villages so most of my weekends were filled with exciting adventures. I am inspired by asian architecture, thus I loved being surrounded with some beautiful pagodas and temples in town. There are also a plenty of yoga places to choose from. I especially enjoyed the combination of high intensity Khmer kickboxing training with Vinyasa yoga classes to cool down.
Cambodia is a developping country where people sometimes live for as low as 2$ per day. I had a desire to contribute into raising the standards and leaving a small impact in the development of the local community. Having worked in a corporation so far, I wanted to give back and help the poorer, disadvantaged people. I found an opportunity to volunteer with my professional skills thanks to Professionals Doing Good that matched my skills with the needs of a locally rooted social enterpise Manava.
Social enterprise vs non-profit organization
At first, I was sceptical about the idea of volunteering for a social enterprise instead of a non-profit organization. Isn’t it supposed to be a company that makes profit ? – I thought. That was not completely the case.
The diffrence between a non-profit and a social entreprise is their business model. The resources are managed in a different way and come from different sources. Both a non-profit and a social enterprise are operating with a strong social mission to use their model as a force to drive a positive change.
On the one hand, a social enterprise sells goods or services and uses a portion of the profits to reinvest in the local community. They do this by addressing social issues, improving locals’ quality of life and development as well as conserving the environment. Community and environment welfare are their purpose of existence.
On the other hand, charities fund their projects through donations or fundraising. All the money raised goes to a particular case, which means that the procedure needs to go all over again whenever there is a new cause.
My volunteer project for Manava
Manava designs and creates hand-woven bags and baskets out of locally harvested rattan and willow. They currently empower 15 Khmer artisans by providing them a fair income and preserving the ancient weaving crafts. The women are currently earning 4$ a day that makes them more self-sufficient and being able to work from their homes and look after their families. Some women have as many as 5-8 children.
This sustainable business model not only creates a financial independence and creative freedom to these artisans but it also contributes to the developpment of the local community. Together with some NGOs, Manava strives to provide a quality weaving training, a life skill program as well as English classes to weaver’s children.
Their workshop is located in Kroh Bei Riel that is known as a weaving village. It was really interesting to see the simple yet vibrant village life.
Manava’s aim is to empower more Cambodian rural women by providing them with a sustainable income, thus they need more sales in order to achieve that.
This experience was enriching as I was constantly learning new things and I could express my creativity. I have been wanting to develop my skills in digital marketing, photography, picture editing and I could do so by creating meaningful content for social media communication. I have also learnt about sustainable, ethical fashion as opposed to fast fashion. Human values and even lives are sometimes at stake in the fast fashion industry. This taught me to be more aware and selective of what I buy.
Deeper insight into this experience
For me this experience was something beyond a simple volunteering. It was an immersion into local culture and a path to knowing myself better. The challenges of doing things in Cambodia are real, everything goes slower here that teaches you a great dose of patience and flexibility. For instance, I experienced people turning in late for meetings or meetings being cancelled last minute. The electricity cuts in the whole town (the energy is mostly hydropowered and there isn’t suffient level of water during dry season) are frequent. All I could hear from my fellow expat friends is that: “It’s Cambodia! Hey, it’s normal here, just let it go and don’t get frustrated too much !”
I’m convinced that you attract what you really believe in and what you are keen on doing. Your values determine your priorities. My aim in Cambodia was to have as many meaningful experiences as I could.
We tend to have a more comfortable life in western countries with easy access to almost everything. I felt the need in stepping out of my comfort zone and challenging myself. For instance, I had to cycle every day in 35° heat with a heavy backpack, but what’s life without struggles ? It only makes us stronger. When I had a flat tyre, I transported my bike the “Cambodian way” and I was proud I managed to do it !
Would I recommend volunteering in a developping country like Cambodia ? Of course I would ! It teaches you humility and seeing things from a different perspective. Moreover, it leaves you richer with meaningful experiences and even friendships !
The simplicity, welcoming and kindness of Cambodian people truly touched my heart. I still picture a little Cambodian girl riding a motorbike with her parents and sending me smiles, kisses and “hellos” while passing by. It melts my heart thinking about this 🙂
If you are interested in learning more about volunteering in Siem Reap with Professionals Doing Good, I invite you to read my interview here, where you can also find other stories featuring previous volunteers.
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