September 16th 2016, 4.45am the alarm goes off and I jump out of bed. It takes a lot of effort to jump out of bed at that time, but not when you have the excitement of starting a journey that you have always dreamt of. It was time to leave behind work and the gloomy English weather to go and carry out a volunteering project at a school on the other side of the world with THISWORLDEXISTS, a project and an adventure with 13 other people from around the world!
Volunteering at a school had always been on my bucket list, I didn’t have a specific destination or vision in mind, just that I knew I wanted to do it.
I wanted to because I have always been in a position to do so.
I guess the satisfaction of being selfless and devoting some of my not too precious time to help the lives of others was the main reason, and when the opportunity to visit Cambodia with THISWORLDEXISTS came up I jumped at it with both hands.
The first joy came on day 1, the crew of new faces started to assemble from around the world. It was exciting to meet people who had the same visions as I did, who wanted to travel, explore and most importantly help others. The group did not feel like strangers for long, with so much in common, an instant bond formed between us. After just a few days it honestly felt like we had known each other for years as we shared jokes and exchanged travel stories that continued to bring us closer. The start of the trip was perfect for forming these friendships, people had come off long flights and some had not visited Cambodia before, so it was a chance to familiarise ourselves with the essence of Cambodia, to try the incredible local cuisine and to partake in some history and tourism by visiting the sensational Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Siem Reap. An absolute must do in South East Asia!
The next step of our journey was to head to the famed pristine jungle of the Cardamom mountains where we would commence the first element of the trip - The Adventure.
All THISWORLDEXISTS trips are structured to include a challenge of some description, the challenge in Cambodia would be to trek through the jungle for 5 days. Everyone was buzzing with excitement to get started as we drove through small farming communities to an opening in the jungle. The team were introduced to our knowledgable guides, all of which were carrying bags that made our rucksacks look pathetic - these guys were jungle pros!
It was an easy start, we slowly made our way into the jungle on fairly established tracks, it wasn’t like taking a hike across the fields though. Every footstep you watched carefully as we came to terms with our new jungle environment that we would be a part of for the next 5 days. The heat of the jungle became increasingly intense, and drinking lots of water is a necessity, you soon learnt that keeping hydrated was the key, in fact getting wet in anyway just didn’t feel a problem but offered more relief from the sticky South East Asian climate.
In the jungle you don’t get swing bridges and walkways, if you need to cross a stream or river you do it by foot. Every day had at least one crossing, and it was always a great pleasure to get wet and cool off. Ironically we would carefully cross the river trying not get anything wet, then drop our bags and take to the river for a swim to cool off and enjoy the serenity.
These river swims proved to be the most popular activity of the trek, luckily for us every evening we camped beside a good swimming hole so opportunities to cool off were abundant. This wasn’t by luck, nor our judgement as we really had no idea where we were during the entire trek. It was down to the phenomenal knowledge of our local guides that knew the jungle better than I know my small garden at home. They seemed to know every inch of the jungle, generations of their families had roamed these lands and the skills, craftsmanship and orienteering had been past down through generations.
From setting traps to finding natural ingredients and sources of food they taught us the tricks of the jungle as we trekked through, what blew our minds day in day out was the craft of building camp every evening. We would arrive at a camping area in the afternoon tired and ready for a swim so we all would unwind and enjoy our new surroundings, during this time our guides would continue to work forming shelters to sleep under and making fires to cook dinner on. A few of the camps they had used before and had basic infrastructure as a foundation, however some had nothing and the guys worked tirelessly as they made sure we would have a dry place to sleep. This never failed to impress us and we were eternally grateful every evening when we got into a cosy hammock to sleep in with a full belly from another amazing meal.
As we trekked further into the jungle our path was even more unclear, often the guides would have to cut back growth to open it up big enough that a person could squeeze through. We never got lost though and always felt safe, it was on the treks that the group began to bond even more. From hiking word games to big group chats there was never a dull moment in the jungle, especially when we were greeted by the waterfalls! We were so lucky to see these beautiful sights in amongst the dense jungle canopy.
You would often hear the noise of a waterfall as you approached, as you got closer getting more intrigued at what size it would be. To our delight they were virtually always epic and nearly always provided another excuse to go swimming. 5 days of trekking, sleeping with the noises of the jungle and waterfalls, seeing beautiful sight and forming even better friendships came to an end as we popped out onto a road on day 5, it felt strange to pop back out into the real world and really highlighted what an amazing adventure we had just undertaken.
The memory of that experience will stick with me forever and will remain a travel highlight of my entire life.
Now that we had completed our personal challenge, it was time to give back to Cambodia and complete the most important part of our trip - The Project.
Before making our way out to Boeung Kunchung Primary School, we had time to clean ourselves up, relax a little and have some time to ourselves. As soon as the Tuk Tuk driver dropped us off you could see that this school was so different to any that we had been to as children. It was basic, rural and a little overgrown, but one thing was exactly the same, happy children. We were greeted by lots of them, even though it was not a school week when we visited. They all wanted to be part of this exciting new chapter for the school and were eager to meet us, play and get up to mischief!
It felt like these children were no different to any other children, which cemented even more to me that what we were doing was a great thing, to give all children the same access and benefits from education wherever they were born.
The money raised prior to the trip soon started to make a difference as the school’s transformation started to take shape. New toilets with running water and hand washing facilities were installed, with education that followed on the importance of personal hygiene. The classrooms and general site had a major clean up and a good lick of paint, focusing on waste management for the future to build a more enjoyable place to learn - the waste management program also helps to fund an ongoing literacy program for the school.
By sprucing the place up we reinstated a sense of pride in the school for the community, it made it more of a focal point for the village and made it something they could be proud of.
Our main work was the transformation of an old building that was being used to house a cow in recent years, with no benefit to the school at all. After a tough few days this cowshed became a library that will be filled with books for the children to improve literacy skills. The money raised also helped the teachers gain a higher level of literacy from a training and development program, knowledge that they can pass down to the schools pupils, along with other teachers that pass through the school in future years. The wider community of Boeung Kunchung will truly benefit from the new infrastructure we helped create for them.
Working everyday at the school was hugely rewarding, it felt like you really were helping and achieving something. It wasn’t a holiday, we were all focused that this was something great to work hard for and that optimism and enthusiasm was converted into a passionate project.
We left the village after 4 days feeling a huge sense of personal connection with the school and its many students, I will never forget the smiles on their faces.
Volunteering and going on an adventure with THISWORLDEXISTS offered me an opportunity and an experience that I couldn’t have had as a regular tourist to Cambodia. I also was gifted new friendships, the opportunity to take a huge amount of photos, many unforgettable memories and the sense of achievement from helping others less fortunate.
Do you want to join THISWORLDEXISTS this September for your own adventure of a lifetime? Visit the Cambodia adventure page here to find out more or make a reservation today.