I’m currently travelling Southeast Asia without a set time limit. The duration is basically determined by how long the budget lasts and I enjoy doing it. You can read more about my thoughts leading to this new chapter here. So before I started this journey I sat down and thought about what I want to do with my time and achieve during this trip.
Pretty early it became clear to me that travelling around and jumping from one to the next tourist attraction is not the way I want to do it. I rather want to engage with the local people and leave much more behind than just my money. I want to learn more about the different sides of life, gain new skills and donate my time to projects where it is needed. My answer to achieve this: Volunteering.
In this blogpost I’m sharing my first volunteer experience I did with the platform Workaway. I spent one week in a rural school in Cambodia, helped designing their website and taught English every day. In exchange I got free food, accommodation and a priceless experience. This blogpost is for you if you would like to know more about a volunteer project in a school with Workaway – including my thoughts, the daily routine and the challenges.
Why I love volunteering while travelling
I did my first volunteering project in a school while travelling to Indonesia in 2016. Back then I was pretty new to the whole backpacking world so I did one of the organized volunteer projects with an organization I paid for. Since then I always planned a little volunteer project as part of my travels. Not only was it an amazing way for me to connect with a country and people but also a great opportunity to give back.
Volunteering while travelling is a very unique way to get familiar with the culture and challenges of a country. On top of that it teaches you so many new skills – from social skills to task specific ones. You not only learn a lot about the project but also about yourself as you will have to get beyond your comfort zone. There was no project so far where I didn’t have an emotional rollercoaster during the first few days. Summing up, volunteering while travelling gives you an experience you will never forget which is why I love it so much.
What is Workaway
Workaway is an online platform that connects travellers with many different volunteer opportunities around the globe. Most of them offer free accommodation and food in exchange for your work. Some ask for a small fee for the meals. The work hours, minimum time and perks vary depending on the project. Hosts can be families, businesses, individuals and non-profit organizations. The work ranges from social work, animal welfare, farm work to helping out in a hotel. There are lots of different projects which suits everyone’s needs!
You can see all the available opportunities on their website. To be able to contact the hosts you have to get a 1-year membership first. If you are travelling with another person it’s cheaper to get a couple account. The around $40 seem like a lot of money but after only doing a one week workaway you already saved more money than the membership fee.
Click here to sign up via my Workaway link and get a free month added to your membership!
What I love about Workaway is that it enables travellers to:
- Engage in volunteer projects around the world, get in touch with people from another country & dive into a different culture.
- Travel many different countries around the whole world while being on a budget.
- Connects those who need & those who want to give something.
About the project
The project I signed up for was Cando School in Cambodia. They needed help with website design, creating photos and videos as well as with teaching English. Cando School offers education to Cambodian kids from the age of 5 up to 18 years old. They have three locations in Cambodia: In Kong Pisey, Kampot and Chumkiri Province.
I decided to volunteer at the project in Kong Pisey which only started in January 2023. The host told me that the living conditions there were a bit more challenging and it is the most rural project located on the countryside in Cambodia. I thought the more real the experience, the better. I really wanted to get to know more about life in Cambodia and dive right in. Also I felt like this kind of project would maybe be chosen by less people so my help was needed there more.
Cando School is not supported by the government. It’s a genuine heart project brought to life by the founders of the schools, Kim and Kosal. Thanks to their effort, children in the surrounding villages have access to proper education and can then to continue high school in the city.
Accommodation & food
I joined this Workaway project in February 2023 together with my partner Brad. But we weren’t alone! In Kong Pisey they were able to host six volunteers at a time. It was great to share this experience with others. As we were staying for different lengths it was also a great opportunity to pass on knowledge about the project to new volunteers. Due to so many helping hands we were also able to focus on different areas and give a lot of attention to the kids. They just loved playing with and talking to us.
Brad and I stayed with a family in a typical Cambodian house located next to the school. The accommodation was basic but had everything we needed: A mattress, mosquito net and a fan. The bathroom was a little hut with a big pool and ladle (the shower). This is one of those out of comfort zone examples. You just have to go through it but realize that what might have felt really uncomfortable in the beginning is actually not too bad! And you value the ‘normal things’ in your life much more after an experience like this.
Everyday we shared three freshly cooked & locally sourced meals together, each of them coming with rice. For me it was mostly different kinds of vegetables. What really amazed me was that they accommodated to different diets: Vegan, vegetarian & meat was all possible! A lot of the Workaways I’ve found so far state in the description that they offer vegetarian meals which is amazing.
A typical day
The school was running classes from Monday to Friday starting at 7 am. From 7 am until 11 am, with a break every hour, Kim and Kosal were teaching Khmer classes to the younger children. We, the volunteers had free time in the mornings and I mostly used it to have breakfast, work on the website and prepare the afternoon class. At around 12 we had lunch.
The afternoon English classes were running from 1 pm until 7 pm, including regular breaks. Brad and I had a class each day from 5 pm until 6 pm where we taught basic English to the children. They use workbooks which were a good reference when we planned the class and games. Sometimes it was quite challenging to explain the tasks to the students as they just started learning English a few months before. But in the end they understood and it worked!
At around 8 pm we had dinner and sat together for a while until we went to bed. Every day was similar. The weekends were free time. There were local busses going from the village to Kampot and Phnom Penh which is great for a weekend trip. Brad and I however only planned a one week stay and left the school on Saturday.
Thoughts and findings
Before the Workaway I was really nervous. A few days before I asked myself “Why on earth would you choose the project with more challenging conditions? Where is it exactly? How close is the next supermarket?” and many more questions. Basically I was confronted with all the things that could go wrong. But then I reminded myself regularly that the worst thing that could happen was that I really didn’t like it. And if that was the case I could just leave. This thought was very comforting and wiped out my fears and worries.
It was also never my dream to teach English and volunteer in a school to be honest. We chose the Workaway as the ones in animal welfare were much harder to get and required a minimum stay of at least a month.
In hindsight all worries, fears and doubts I had were basically unnecessary. My findings:
- Teaching children was fun & felt rewarding, especially when the children liked the class and were engaging in all the tasks and games we prepared.
- Life showed me again how different the standard of living can be. What seems super basic in one country is a big luxury in another. While I’m debating where to have brunch on the weekend, they are working on a water purifying system on Saturdays in the school to not be dependent on plastic bottles anymore.
- We, as in the society I grew up in, tend to tie our emotions a lot to material things. But seeing how happy those children were showed me that it mostly matters to be healthy and in good company. There were no fancy toys around to play with but with creativity they didn’t even need them.
Advice for your Workaway project
I hope this little insight inspired you to give it a try! Whether it’s a Workaway project or a volunteer project in your local community. Finally, I’d like to pass on some advice for your own Workaway project:
Think about the social experience you would like to have
If you are looking for a social experience and don’t want to feel to overwhelmed I recommend to choose a Workaway that can host more than one volunteer. It’s very nice to have someone to share your feelings and thoughts with. Sometimes due to language barriers it’s not always easy to communicate like you would with your peers.
At the same time doing a project on your own will be a great experience to strengthen the relationship with yourself and also with the local people. Language barriers can be overcome and you get to bond with the people in a very special way.
Choose a suitable Workaway
If you have special dietary requirements it’s best to ask the host in the message before your stay! Most of the Workaways I saw can accommodate to vegan and vegetarian diets or sometimes only offer those. It’s best to talk about details like this before your stay to not make you or your host feel uncomfortable. The same applies to things like electricity, internet and others that are important to you.
Stay longer than one week
If there was one thing I would do different it would be the duration of my stay. We left the school way to early but couldn’t extend due to visa regulations. The reason why I recommend to stay at least one week is that you need a good 3-4 days to get to know everyone, find your own routine and settle in. When we felt that way we already had to leave. I think a great amount of time to stay in a volunteer project is 2 weeks or more.
Don’t let your doubts stop you
The last advice is a super important one. If I had listened to all my doubts and worries before every volunteer project I would’ve probably never done any of them. I vividly remember my first days in a dog rescue shelter in the North of Thailand where I was so overwhelmed that I wanted to leave on day 1. Luckily I didn’t and went back a year later.
In general I’m a person who needs a few days to settle in when I arrive in a new environment and who overthinks a lot right before the start. I learned to not listen to the worries and doubts (coming from my brain) and rather change the way of my thinking into a more positive one (like asking myself ‘What is the worst that could happen?’).
Give yourself some time to settle in and if you really don’t like it or your gut feeling tells you otherwise you can still leave. The uncomfortable feeling comes more from our brains who need energy if we do things beyond our comfort zones. But with those experiences you can only grow.
A video about my Workaway experience
Find this volunteer project on Workaway: Cando School.
All in all I had a great time at Cando school and it will surely only be the start of many Workaways to come! It’s an amazing way to also explore countries which are usually more expensive. If you would like to sign up to Workaway click here to get one free month on top of your 1 year membership.