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Svay Rieng is a sleepy little Cambodian town of around 20,000 people near the Vietnamese border, nestled in the middle of a small province of the same name.  Described by Lonely Planet as having “quite literally nothing to do”, it is a far cry from the heaving backpacker bars and incessant tuk-tuk drivers of Phonm Penh or Siem Reap.  Cows and chickens roam the streets while the sandals of orange-robed monks kick up small clouds of dust as they walk to and from the local wats.  Other than the chance to experience a side of Cambodia that is missed by many travellers, however, I was there for another reason – to spend a few days volunteering with a couple of locally based NGO’s.  With no idea what to expect on my arrival, I now suspect that this may end up being one of the biggest highlights of my time in South East Asia.

Volunteering has long been on my list of things to do in life, and like many such things with no set deadline I’d never got around to actually doing it.  Determined that that was going to change while in Cambodia, but equally determined not to fall into the trap of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on one of the many ‘voluntourism’ packages of dubious benefit to anybody except the company taking your money, I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with a couple of fellow New Zealanders who are working with Cambodian organisations in Svay Rieng under the auspices of the Volunteer Service Abroad program.  Graham and June were kind enough to offer me room and board, show me round and generally make my stay as easy as possible while I was in town, for which I was very grateful.

Nobody quite seemed to know whether there was a bus servicing the town from Phonm Penh, so I ended up having my first share taxi experience.  Opting to pay for the luxury of the front seat rather than sharing the back seat with the five other people already in it, the two hour ride was fairly uneventful.  If you count people wolfing down fried crickets, the driver refilling the gas tank with the engine still running and being accosted by children with stumps for arms begging for money as uneventful, that is.  Within minutes of leaving the Cambodian capital there was little doubt that I’d left the western word far behind.  Despite my concerns that trying to explain ‘round pond, pink house’ to a carload of people who spoke as much English as I did Khmer would be a challenge (there’s no street names or numbers in that part of Svay Rieng), we managed to track down my new temporary home without much difficulty.

The following day I cycled with Graham out to the woman’s shelter run by CCPCR, feeling like somewhat of a novelty as children and adults alike shouted out ‘hello’ at every opportunity.  Unlike in the tourist towns and cities, however, this was not a precursor to trying to sell me something but merely a chance to practice some English and share the genuine warmth and friendliness of the Cambodian people.  To say it was a refreshing change of pace would be quite an understatement.

Established in 1994, the Cambodian Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights was one of the first NGOs in Cambodia to work for the plight of young women. With shelters in Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng, CCPCR’s mission is to rescue, recover, and reintegrate young women ranging in age from three to 25 years old and provide them with basic needs such as food, shelter and counselling, as well as informal education ranging from agriculture and horticulture, weaving and sewing through to English lessons and computer skills training.


Over the few days that I was in town my undefined role slowly took shape.  Fixing up PCs that were suffering from age, dust, virus and occasionally wasp infestation was the most regular task, as well as teaching basic computer skills class, taking part in geography and other lessons and spending as much time as possible talking to and playing games and sports with the girls and young women in the shelter.  Within an hour of arriving I had a small group of curious kids following me around, asking questions and giggling at my every exaggerated word or movement.  That they were able to trust me – a white, male stranger – so quickly after the horrors that many of them have suffered through speaks volumes about the success of the programme that CCPCR is running and the tireless work and effort that the staff and volunteers put in every day in an attempt to help these girls build a better life.

Hearing some of the stories of abuse and neglect regularly gave me a lump in my throat – and yet watching the joy of children filled with excitement and enthusiasm for learning literally run into the classroom and grab a pen and paper,  or a couple of girls laughing and shrieking as they wrestled on the floor beside me oblivious to the terrible physical injuries that had been inflicted on one of them by her own father, gives me significant hope for their future.  A single chance in life is often all that it takes.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to spend some time a few kilometres out of town, at the picturesque REDA facility.  The Regional Economic Development Association works with people affected by HIV/AIDS in Cambodia, both those living with the disease and children who have been orphaned because of it.  With a focus on both direct assistance and training, the REDA ‘campus’ contains several catfish and frog ponds, pig pens and other areas aimed at helping those affected gain crucial life skills, as well as a library, sleeping quarters and various administrative offices.  Much of the work is done in the villages and rural areas of the province, however, with a strong outreach program.  I was able to lend a hand sorting out a few computers here too, as well as teaching some of the staff how to do basic maintenance themselves.

As if the benefits that I gained from spending time with so many wonderful children and adults during each day wasn’t sufficient, the opportunity to explore the town and eat and drink where the locals do (there aren’t many other options) was another huge highlight.  While I do really enjoy meeting and hanging out with my fellow backpackers along the fairly well worn South East Asian trails, being able to get away and spend time somewhere where tourists just don’t go was something very special indeed.  My heartfelt thanks to everyone who made my time in Svay Rieng so memorable – I have a strange feeling that this, my first visit there, will not be my last…

A little bit of money can go a long way in Cambodia, but sadly organisations like REDA and CCPCR never have enough funding to provide the essential services needed by some of the most disadvantaged children and adults in a country left devastated by civil war and genocide.  If you would like to play your own small part in helping out, leave a comment below or contact me directly and I’ll put you in touch with the right people.

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