In my last post I talked about my flights; today I’m going to talk about what my first few days were like. I’m going to save details about my particular placement and host family for later posts; this post will instead give a general idea of what it’s like to arrive in Phnom Penh as a STAR VAC volunteer.

Day Zero

Since I came in on Saturday night, I had a “zero day” on Sunday to adjust and rest a little. I think this was definitely a good decision—with a 14-hour time difference and a 16-hour flight, I wasn’t particularly solid on Sunday…but I was also able to completely jolt my schedule onto a morning-skewed Cambodia time with plenty of sleep: wake up at 6AM, go to bed around 9:30PM.1

Just to get me out of the house, Mr. Savuth took me along when he went to visit his mother and brother. This was my first time on a motorbike, which is one of the usual ways for individuals or pairs (and rarely, trios) to get around in Phnom Penh. Although traffic is pretty crazy here, it felt quite stable and, well, fairly safe, but it was a fun way to just see what this part of the city was like.

And what is it like? Nothing so surprising. It’s a city, but not a big first-world urban center like downtown SF, New York, or Tōkyō. Instead, it’s more like some of the farther-away parts of SF, or maybe downtown Berkeley, with plenty of shops on the main streets, houses on the side streets. People are sitting in open cafés or at food stands or in their open storefronts, or sometimes there are workers taking a break from their construction or lying in a hammock under a stopped truck. Everyone’s means are more meager, for sure, but it’s not like the city feels depressed. On the contrary, there’s a lot of hustle and bustle. It’s just very hot, humid, and dusty, and that wears on native Cambodians as well as foreigners. But a smile can go a long way.

Day One

The actual “volunteer placement” starts on Monday, with an orientation by STAR Kampuchea. “My” mentor, Serei, came with a tuk-tuk to bring me to the main office, where I met the one other volunteer who arrived this week. (Usually there are more like ten or twelve.2) Two other “program assistants”, Brem and Hauke, gave us an introduction to the history of Cambodia, along with some survival tips, culture info, and a few “Dos and Don’ts”. Serei came back for a quick language lesson, and then we headed out.

On the way to lunch, we stopped at a store that offered prepaid cell phone SIM cards. Neither of us had a SIM-compatible phone, but Brem promised we’d pick up cheap phones after we ate, which we did. Brem handled everything, of course (Hauke has only been here for four weeks and doesn’t speak much Khmer yet), and all we had to do was bring our passports for ID and sign our names. Hopefully we didn’t sign our souls away to a cell service provider…but I guess that’s what Brem was there for.

Lunch was in the “Russian Market”, one of many bazaars in Phnom Penh jam-packed with clothing and small purchaseables. In the center is a somewhat-open room with various food stalls—vaguely reminiscent of the open food court in Emeryville, or the okonomiyaki buildings in Hiroshima. I guess this is a little safer than normal street food, being inside…but in any case, it was delicious.

After lunch, there’s normally more orientation material, but since there were just two of us they decided it’d be better for me to visit my work instead. (The other volunteer wasn’t going to work that day, so she stayed at the market instead.) What we hadn’t figured on was that with the standard two-hour lunch break in Cambodia, no one was there to let us back into the STAR Kampuchea office. So we ended up killing time in a café, where we had iced coffees and I learned to play Cambodian chess.

My placement is with PIO, so we took a tuk-tuk to their administrative office, where I again signed my life away, this time for real. After that we headed to the school itself, and I got to go in and say hello to the kids I’d be teaching.

At this point I was apparently supposed to get a copy of the book the teachers are basing the lessons on, but we forgot to ask for it. (If you’re planning to volunteer-teach, try to remember to check things like this when you first visit the school.)

The day was over, and I was returned to my host family’s house—my new home for the next six months. That night I got to meet the other volunteer staying in the house, and talked with her a little about her placement. As nice, cheerful, and accomodating as my host family is, it helps to have someone to ask for help who went through a similar experience as a volunteer and as an outsider. Fortunately, it seems like many of the STAR VAC host families have room for two or three volunteers, so this “baton-passing” of information probably isn’t uncommon.

Day Two

Normally, there are two days of orientation for new volunteers, but since there were only two of us this week, they decided we might as well just cut it short and get to work. The usual welcome party was folded into next week’s group.

So instead of going back to the STAR Kampuchea office, I went to work…

  1. The volunteers from European countries have had a harder time, though; the time difference is close enough to home time that it makes things troublesome, but far enough that it’s not an automatic shift to a morning schedule. ↩︎

  2. Next week is a holiday, so everyone who was going to come next week was supposed to come earlier or later. Then that didn’t actually happen—there are a few people arriving next week anyway—so it was just two of us this week. Apparently last week there were around twenty new volunteers. ↩︎