Volunteering in Cambodia

It's cheap and cheerful, a chance to teach keen Cambodians - and learn a thing or two, Ross Peake writes.

If you're thinking about travelling and volunteering in south-east Asia, Eleanor Paton wants to hear from you.

She is looking for English speakers with a passion for education who want to step out of their comfort zone for a few months and immerse themselves in a vibrant, Asian culture - today's Cambodia.

In Phnom Penh, the curries are to die for and the cost of living is cheap - how does $US4 sound for dinner in an air-conditioned restaurant? Or $US1 for noodles with fried egg on top at the Russian markets?

Paton's pitch is likely to resonate strongly if you are in your 20s or retired.

The task she would like you to take on is challenging at times but very rewarding - teaching conversational English to Cambodian people who have a thirst for education. You don't have to be a trained teacher, just have a commitment to teach for a few hours a day.

And here's another big plus - you don't need to raise thousands of dollars nor pay to attend, as so many charitable organisations demand. Paton is the recruitment officer for Conversations with Foreigners, based in Phnom Penh, which teaches English to 900 people every day.

The CWF building is where you will see a demonstration of the determination of young Cambodians to learn English, with hundreds of students arriving at 6am for lessons, and another wave after work.

Phnom Penh has been the national capital since French colonisation of Cambodia and was once known as the "Pearl of Asia".

There are a number of surviving French colonial buildings scattered along the grand boulevards.

The capital of two million people is bustling, with buildings going up on every block and the streets very busy with traffic that can only be described as chaotic.

But the noise of the city is a good indicator of the zest of the people and their determination to get ahead in life.

Looking around, it's hard to believe the city was emptied under the barbaric rule of the Khmer Rouge. But S-21, the former torture camp in an inner suburb, and the "killing fields" nearby, are sombre reminders of how millions of people suffered and were executed.

Now Cambodia is a premier destination for tourists and volunteers. To cope with the influx, Cambodian people are learning English, the language of the ASEAN.

It's a vital currency for those who wish to work in government, commerce and tourism, and converse with their neighbours in Thailand and Vietnam.

CWF was set up in 2006 with help from AusAID and now has about 20 staff, 900 students and about two dozen volunteers at any one time.

Jacinta McLennan, from Brisbane, is a typical volunteer. The 24-year-old social marketer is travelling with a friend as they both take time off from their careers.

"I had looked into quite a few volunteer programs in different countries I was interested in going to," she says.

"At the start of this program, we visited the villages to see the work the money goes towards.

"Part of the reason we like this program is because the revenue raising is transparent … the students pay for their courses and the money goes to the rural development team."

Her advice to those busy working and living in suburbia?

"There is no better time to travel than between when you finish school or your degree and getting commitments; you have a very short window."

Julie Eaglen, from London, is semi-retired, seeing the world after a lifetime working as an arts administrator.

"The cost of living here in Phnom Penh is a lot lower than in western Europe and we eat out in Khmer-run restaurants most evenings because we finish teaching here at 8.30pm," she says.

"I really enjoy meeting people from different backgrounds from my own and from cultures other than the Western culture.

"I am lucky enough to be someone who has English as their mother language and I know there is a thirst in other countries to be able to communicate in English nowadays.

"So if I am able to pass that on and help people acquire the knowledge they want, then I'm really pleased to be able to do that."

At CWF, Paton is looking for people who can give three months, rather than spend a few days at a so-called children's orphanage to put photos of "charity work" on Facebook.

The young British woman first came to CWF as a volunteer teacher before returning later to work on the staff. Like the young female lead in the movie Sunshine on Leith, she found her hometown London a bit boring and wanted to see the world.

"I'm here because I loved it when I came out for the first time in December 2012," she says. "I love living here because I feel the city has a little bit of edge, it's quite exciting.

"Cambodians are really, really friendly and they're very warm and welcoming and it is not at all an expensive place to live. It's very, very cheap."

Paton had done volunteering in the UK on human rights projects, and some charity work, but she had never volunteered overseas.

"I wanted to try teaching so I came here," she says. "CWF has a responsible volunteer program, they train you so you can teach, and it's teaching with a development angle which I'm interested in."

The group charges Khmer students $US50 a term, about $US1 a lesson, with the profits going to the Cambodian Rural Development Team, which works in villages.

In Phnom Penh, the English-speaking volunteers from overseas can choose to live at CWF's Volunteer House, which has shared rooms.

"It's Khmer style so that's part of the experience," Paton says.

The city's air-conditioned coffee shops are built to the same standard you would find in Sydney or London and naturally all have free Wi-Fi.

CWF operations manager Huy Sambo says a group of friends from university, where he studied accounting and business administration, set up the rural development program and later CWF.

The first English classes at CWF were run in September 2006 and the business has expanded quickly, mostly by word of mouth among young people.

"When their English is good, they can find a good job," he says.

Huy says the majority of volunteers come from Australia, but also from the UK and the United States.

When they sign on, they can expect to teach in the mornings and again in the evenings. In other words, most of the day is free to immerse yourself in the culture or chill out.

Ross Peake travelled at his own expense.