What Voluntourism taught me

Thursday, May 18, 2017

In a sentence? Voluntourism taught me a lot actually. So much so, that I went on to base my my undergraduate dissertation on Voluntourism. It all started with a solo trip to Cambodia, a sign up fee on a volunteer website and no real guidance or knowledge of what I was doing. I found myself alone in Cambodia at 19 years old with all the freedom and desire to 'do good' in the world. 


Cambodia at a glance

 ✓ Language: Khmer - French is also spoken in some areas of the country

✓ Currency: Cambodian Riel - US Dollar is widely accepted as a currency in Cambodia

✓ Street food: $1-$2 - Fruit, snacks and insects  

  Restaurant food: $5 - Traditional and western style food widely available in bigger cities and tourist areas

 ✓ Getting around: Tuk Tuks are always the cheapest, consider night buses for longer travel

 ✓ Places of interest: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh


All prices in US Dollar


My motivation to volunteer in Cambodia

Volunteer tourism is something I had always been interested in, I wanted to 'help'. I felt I should do my part in the developing world and like many other western volunteer tourists I wanted to make a difference. This the most common motivation for taking part in volunteer tourism and also the most common mistake a lot of people make.

When deciding to contribute in the developing world volunteer tourists, including myself, make a decision that is born from good intentions but develops into something more selfish. It sounds harsh to say but once I decided to volunteer I chose Cambodia - not because Cambodia needed my help but because I wanted to visit Cambodia. And this is usually how the story goes.

I love to travel, like most volunteer tourists, and we see Voluntourism as our way of giving back to the communities we are travelling to. But somewhere, somehow, something got me thinking? Who am I actually helping? Was it myself. Did I choose to volunteer because I could and it facilitated a travel dream of mine?

The answer to that question is usually yes and not just for me, for most volunteer tourists. Although, it would perhaps take them a while to admit it.

Volunteering is an altruistic notion that and that isn't a negative thing, but often volunteer trips and plans transpire and the act of volunteer tourism can become, for the most part, very self-altruistic.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
Our volunteer group at The Hope Agency Project, Cambodia

The volunteer tourism ideology

There were a few things that triggered this kind of thought process within me, during my Cambodia volunteer trip and I often felt completely alone in my analysis of my experience in Cambodia.

Everyone around me seemed to be having so much fun and I watched as everyone became preoccupied and caught up with being on a volunteer trip. I was myself, I was swept up with the exotic travel that came with my volunteer tourism experience. The weather, the food, the people, the culture. Whilst being completely caught up in the Voluntourism experience many of my fellow volunteers I feel missed a lot of the things I began to notice.

There were things I couldn't help obsessing over whilst taking part in the project. During my time in Cambodia I couldn't help but acknowledge the amount of money people were spending in the most rural and remote area of Cambodia. We were almost an hour from the nearest town, down some winding and unofficial dirt tracks in a small village in Takeo province. We were absolutely and undoubtedly in the middle of nowhere and that alone should've meant that spending mass amounts of money was  particularly difficult.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
The Hope Agency volunteer project - it has been renovated since this photo was taken. I arrived in the very early days of the project
We were in the middle of nowhere but everyone seemed to be spending excessively, it made me feel like we were at some kind of tropical resort where the good times and drinks aren't free. It became more and more obvious that volunteering meant something different to each of us, yet we all threw money away each day. Perhaps it was that once-in-a-lifetime mentality. "I'm only here once" I remember telling myself.

This was just the beginning of my concerns but I bet you're wondering how all this spending would be negative on the local economy, but it is. The excessive volunteer tourist spending was unsustainable for the local area and will inevitably do more harm than good if not controlled correctly.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
The older kids at the school before class starts

My volunteer trip to Cambodia

I'd chosen Original Volunteers as my organisation to volunteer in Cambodia with and I based my destination choice solely on where I wanted to go rather than what the actual project had to offer, social responsibility didn't even cross my mind

I left from Manchester on a warm June morning for China. From China I would take my final flight to Phnom Penh where someone would collect me from the airport. I arrived in Cambodia backpack filled with schooling essential for all the children whose lives I assumed I'd change.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
Poor quality photos due to a poor quality camera I took on the trip with me


The project I chose to take part in is called Hope Agency, if you plan on taking part in a Voluntourism I urge you to research projects rather than agencies. Go direct to the project and take care in researching how ethical and sustainable each are. If you have to go through an agency do your research, I wish I had known then what I know now about corruption across Volunteer agencies. 


What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
The communal volunteer shower/toilet facilities - I used the terms shower and toilet loosely but I believe they've been updated since my stay

The arrival in Cambodia

My airport pick up was sketchy, a non English speaking, non official looking man with my name scribbled onto a piece of paper took my bag and pointed towards the exit. It was definitely one of those moments when you remember your parents telling you to never get into a car with a stranger. Here I was getting into a car with a stranger after 20 hours of travelling to Cambodia. Caution to the wind, this was for the greater good. 

My airport pick up had been organised by Original Volunteers and I knew for a small extra cost my ride from the airport to the project had been booked months in advance. As a solo traveller I felt it was wise to include this added extra.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
The graduate volunteers on our final night at the project

I arrived despite the long car journey and complete darkness, to the school complex where I would be volunteering and staying. I was instructed to sleep on a bed frame and climbed into my mattress-free bed and began to unroll my sleeping bag when the driver came towards me and held out his hand. At first I had no idea what he wanted, and then I realised, he wanted paid. The 'small fee added extra I assumed'. Foolishly I pulled out my money wallet with my US dollars still firmly wrapped in their Thomas Cook envelop. I had no idea how the exchange went but I woke up $60 dollars lighter. 

The children of Bakod village at The Hope Agency, Cambodia

Hope Agency

The volunteer project I had chosen was called Hope Agency, a project established and ran by Jason, the man I'd met when I first arrived. Jason told us he had chosen to leave his job in Phnom Penh and return to his family's village. An extremely deprived rural farming community he once called home. Jason had purchased some land and started the project.

Hope Agency is definitely a project worth investing your time in. Its a long-term sustainable effort created by the local community to impact the local community. The aim of the project is to give the children the opportunity to learn English language skills which opens them up to more employment opportunities in Cambodia's growing tourism sector.



When I signed up to Original Volunteers I paid a small sign up fee. I chose to do one of Original Volunteers newer projects which was free due to the lack of facilities the project provided. Initially I was going to go for another project where I could pay a fee to stay in a single room with a shared bathroom. Due to lack of money from my student life and desire to challenge myself I ended up going for a free project with limited facilities. The only fee I had to pay was the £125 contribution fee to Jason's Hope Agency.


In volunteer tourism terms paying a one off fee of £125 is very minor, some agencies and projects take thousands of pounds from budding tourists and eager do-gooders to participate in equally as new and developing projects.

That's something I've always been conscious of avoiding. The profit-making nature of some volunteer projects and organisations out there. When choosing an agency or a project always do your research if things aren't transparent then there is usually a reason why. Whilst researching for my undergraduate dissertation the people I spoke to had all contributed significantly more than me to various agency costs they had encountered throughout their Voluntourism experience.

My class photo before leaving 


What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
Teaching a class 


My three week volunteer experience

And so it began, my three week stint of volunteer English teaching in Cambodia. After the uncertainty of my first night I woke to be greeted by 20 other volunteers all eager to get the meet the new girl.

My first day in Cambodia was filled with friendships, school tours and a tour of true local village. Being alone I made friends very easily. I'd arrived at the beginning of the week and had already managed to make plans to visit the coast that weekend. The appeal of taking part in an organised volunteer project is usually supported by the fact explorers can take part knowing there will be other like minded people at their projects which often gives people the confidence to go it alone - as I did.

Weekend on the coast of Cambodia. Sihanoukville also known as Kampong Som 

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
Volunteer group at the beach
The facilities at the project in Cambodia,  as advertised were basic, the toilets weren't toilets and the shower was a large water tank you scoop water out and splash all over your body. I didn't really care, I was there to challenge myself and there to make a difference so I embraced my new home with no questions asked.

Perhaps if I had paid more of a substantial contribution fee I would be disappointed but I was always aware and well prepared for how basic 'basic living' would really be. That's something to keep in mind, basic living often means just that.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
A group trip to Angkor Wat


English teaching in rural Cambodia

When I arrived at the gates of the Hope Agency project in Cambodia the teaching started almost instantly, a system was in place so that when one person left another arrived and that person would fill the place of the one that just left. Each new comer was always partnered with a longer term volunteer. During my three weeks there were new arrivals and departures every other day. The minimum stay was two weeks, others chose to stay for three months, some longer.

Many projects our there have a minimum stay of two weeks and some even prefer volunteers to dedicate longer. The continuity and consistency of a flow of eager volunteers is essential for Volunteer projects to remain operational. Hope Agency is no different, it survives on the altruistic feelings us travellers feel towards the developing world and selfish desires aside, without us it may not exist.  

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
The school grounds at Hope Agency, Cambodia 


The project set up

We were all given two classes and two hours worth of teaching per day. Some of us would take part in the early morning creche whilst other visited the local village and the local orphanage. This was the general theme of week days if you weren't teaching you were able to get involved with the community, visit the local temples or head into the city to see the market. Due to the volume of volunteers and the ratio of volunteers to classes/pupils two hours teaching per day was all the project offered.

The people volunteering for longer periods ran the classes and the 3 weekers, like myself, assisted. This worked well as it always meant the longer term volunteers had more time teaching and contributing and the handover from volunteer to volunteer was easy and didn't disturb the children so much.

The system seemed to work, most volunteers enjoyed the endless downtime and it meant free time to socialise and get involved with Cambodian community life and Cambodian culture.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
Tuk Tuk to Angkor Wat - A single ticket allows you in for Sunset the evening before you visit the temples
This was another aspect of my volunteer experience that got me thinking. For someone so eager to help I spent a lot of time doing my own thing and enjoying myself. I was immersed in my Cambodian school and spent all week there but most of the time I felt free to explore and join in non-school activities. My time in Cambodia easily became a trip for myself as well as the project.

Overall, I felt the teaching aspect of my time in Cambodia was well organised. Although many of the classes could be haphazard at times, I guess Cambodian schools are probably a lot less like British schools in that regard, especially those with a language barrier. I really felt that there were so many good intentions surrounding the program that it was really difficult to see any of the volunteer efforts as negative. But I did feel it was important that I analyse the situation I was in and be critical about sustainability.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
My volunteer group after a water fight with the children at the school


The other side of Volunteer Tourism

On the weekends we travelled. The endless possibilities and opportunities that become available to us whilst volunteering in the developing world have made Volunteer tourism one of the fastest growing new forms of post-mass tourism. A desire to help and good intentions trip that is  also riddled with selfish desires and bucket lists.

This feeling and understanding is really how my dissertation was born. Was I volunteering because I felt I had to? Was it more of a self fulfillment reason? Is it a right of passage? I got thinking about how I felt about Voluntourism before my trip and how I felt afterwards. What had changed? Had I not benefited the lives of the people I met like I had initially thought? And that's how I got my title. Voluntourism: Perceptions and Expectations.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
A night bus through Cambodia
Although I was volunteering I got to spend three weeks in Cambodia for nothing but a small sign up fee and the cost of my flights. We paid the bare minimum to eat and nothing to sleep, our services bought us a mixed dorm floor to sleep on. In exchange for our native English speaking talents we got a whole lot in return especially considering it was all for two small hours per day of actual volunteering.

The sense of security that I felt at the project was probably the most priceless aspect of my volunteer experience. Having others to explore with and share the experience with. Also, the added security of having Jason the project leader a native Cambodian that could organise and help us with anything we required.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia

Outside the general teaching hours we had free time. Each night in Cambodia we drank and danced every night in the middle of nowhere and somewhere deep in the dark nights of the Cambodia countryside.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
The incredible (and not so incredible photo) of Angkor Wat, Cambodia


What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
Exploring Angkor Wat
Orphanage visits were a regular, a trip to a local Khmer school, the town, the market, the capital, the beach, Angkor Wat and Siem Riep.  I even got to regrettably ride an elephant. This is not something I support nor believe in, I made a naive choice at a young age and it is not something I am proud of. If I had my time again I would make a better decision.

Something that was very pure and born primarily from good intentions became the greatest solo adventure of my teenage years.

My volunteer experience in Cambodia became self fulfilling in nature very quickly and through my dissertation research I wasn't the only person that had felt this way. Yes, I wanted to help. But what help could my mere three weeks in Cambodia do for anyone? Was I more of a hindrance than a help? Was I exploiting? Wait... Was I being exploited.


What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
A day spent visiting a local orphanage. Since my time in Cambodia I have read extensively about the many orphanage scams in the country and truly hope I wasn't involved in supporting this
I got thinking about the money we had been spending and exploitation crossed my mind. After the research I conducted I began to see Voluntourism as a mutually beneficial but also a mutually exploitative relationship. Each party was willing to sacrifice something for the other to exist. For the local community, the exploitation came surrounding the money that the voluntourists provided. For the voluntourists the exploitation came from the selfish reasons for choosing a particular project or country. 


What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
Exploring Angkor Wat with my terrible camera 


Economics, mutual exploitation and volunteer projects
 

I soon got looking into the economies I had impacted through my volunteer experience in Cambodia and I hated to come to the realisation that often the things I spent my money on only really existed because of my volunteer tourist presence. The bus services that left the project every weekend to transport us to various places. The tuk tuk drives that would greet us at the gate every morning for those heading to various other places - the school, the market etc.

Everything from the small snack shop outside of the school seemed to be sustained by the sheer volume of tourists and volunteers with the same notion to help. I wasn't sure these economies would exist if we didn't and I couldn't help finding article after article that asked the same question. I began to wonder about how sustainable volunteer tourism was, especially in Cambodia, South East Asia and the developing world. Although I was exploiting Cambodia for my trip, I was also being exploited and at the time, I didn't really mind.

It crossed my mind so many times that all the people I met during my trip were unaware of the possible false economies they sustained and supported during their time in Cambodia. The tourist/local community relationship is obviously far more complex than just being mutually beneficial but during my time in Cambodia I was faced with a whole range of positives along with a whole range of negatives.

What Voluntourism taught me, Cambodia
My last night in Cambodia's Capital - Phnom Penh



Voluntourism

Voluntourism as a whole is complex, but its important to realise its presence in the growing tourism market and our responsibility as ethical travellers to take on board the information available to us regarding Volunteer Tourism. Corrupt organisations fill the market and large fees are often taken from tourists and never make it to the project. If I could offer any advice before planning a volunteer trip it would be to research and not to stop researching until you are perfectly sure your good intentions are not exploited, but also to not exploit.

Volunteer tourism offers travellers a great opportunity, but it is out duty to research and make sure we are as switched on as possible when it comes to the area we are visiting and what we are contributing. Yes, of course have fun and of course be selfish when appropriate but don't mistake Voluntourism for an excuse to travel it is so much more than that and requires the research and understanding it deserves.

Thanks to everyone I met in Cambodia and Jason at Hope Agency - I couldn't of had this experience without you

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12 comments

  1. I watched a documentary on voluntourism last year (can't recall the name of it) and this post reminded me of that. Who's exploiting who? I think everyone gets exploited. The locals, and the good Samaritans :/ Great read. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. If you can remember the name please let me know! I'd love to watch it.

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. Interesting article, glad that your time in Cambodia got you thinking more critically about the impact of your travels. I think there are still many issues about voluntourism. For instance, when it comes to creating false economies you could even argue that this push to "educate children to speak English to get jobs in tourism" is a false economy, propped up by volunteers with little to no teaching experience, promising kids a job in a tourism industry that just doesn't have that many jobs to begin with. And perhaps Cambodia and countries like it have other, more pressing, educational needs that aren't being met. Anyway, just a few of my thoughts. Happy to see a fellow traveler reflecting on important issues!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment and taking the time to read. Yes, I completely agree with you. When it comes to ethical travel we should all be critical. Perhaps that is also a another false economy and a mindset born from volunteers and western trevellers in the developing world. Another very interesting point!

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  3. This is such an interesting post, I love your critical stance and I definitely learned about false economies, which I've thought of before but didn't know there was a term for! I'm going volunteering abroad in a few months but I've decided to go straight to the project rather than through an agency and as it is at a refugee camp I'm confident that it has less of the downfalls of typical voluntourism. Also, think a lot of your critiques could be expanded to programs like Teach First (in the UK) or Teach for America (US) in terms of sustainability and exploitation!

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    1. Yes, I always urge people to go directly to the project. Agencies and the 'middle-man' so to speak can be riddled with hidden costs and corruption. From my research I really get into this in my dissertation. I went into it with the feeling that I wanted to 'out them'.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment :)

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  4. I am really interested in doing this, thanks so much for sharing. Sounds like you had a great experience :)

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  5. I suggest to volunteer locally first. I engage and help organize voluntourism trips in my home country, the Philippines. Our group is composed of local backpackers. We coordinate with communities and find out their needs, plan, do fundraising and then hold an outreach program. Mainly we give out school supplies. We include side trips to explore the province as part of our itinerary - hence making it a voluntourism trip. We shoulder our own expenses, the money we raise as part of fundraising all goes to the donations. We know where the money is going because there's no middleman in our setup.

    I think there are other ways to help without anyone getting exploited.

    This is a short explanation of what we do, in case anybody's interested: www.taraletsanywhere.com/voluntourism-new-travel-trend/

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    Replies
    1. That sounds like a really worthwhile cause! And I think that's definitely how all volunteer projects should work. Agencies are often not always the most ethical way to find trips to take or projects to get involved in.

      I'm glad you've found a local and sustainable project to get involved with - there are many out there!

      Will take a look at your article. Thanks for commenting and reading!

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    2. Very interesting post. I have never been a volunteer but I've seriously considered it and still do. Just like you, I want to help people, but how can you properly help them? The corruption in the volunteer- and orphanage organisations is disgusting. I've heard it's very common in India - which doesn't surprise me, sadly.
      Also the economy surprised me. Sure, I'e heard about this before but it never crossed my mind that volunteers - people who have good intentions - can be the cause too.
      Really interesting, your post gave me something to think about.
      Thanks for providing this information. If I ever end up doing volunteering, I'll definitely do some research first.

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    3. Thanks for reading and I'm glad you found my post insightful and helpful. I hope it can definitely help you in the future if you do decide to participate in Voluntourism. The majority of us have good intentions but they can easily be exploited by a host community or we can very quickly start to exploit our hosts too. It's so important to be informed. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment :)

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