Angkor Tree School is the third place I have volunteered and the third place where I have been teaching english. Firstly it was a very different atmosphere to both previous ventures and so far each one has provided different opportunities to practice different pedagogical approaches. My first job was in Beijing where I taught mostly through play and reading with Dennis. Secondly I was working in a language centre in Haiphong where we used textbooks and worked our way through units. Finally, here at Angkor Tree School, I started working alongside a teacher as he taught vocabulary and slowly encouraged him, along with help from other people who run the school, to move towards phonics so the children were learning to read and not just reel off a variety of body parts, animals and other miscellaneous pieces of data.
I won’t focus on this as I feel it makes for quite a boring read but figured it was worth mentioning.
The whole place had a lovely sense of community. About 2km outside of the town centre of Siem Reap and 2-3km away from the entrance to Angkor Wat, it was a perfect middle ground between having everything you needed close by and being relatively peaceful. The volunteers all stay together either in Sokhom’s home, the founder, or in an apartment across the road from his house. It’s located about 5 minutes walk from the school. Children from the school would come along to visit teachers at the house and also come on a few trips we organised which was really good fun. But more about that later.
During my stay there was a birthday party which the volunteers and host family helped make special by getting cake, kazoos, poppers and all the other usual birthday accessories. Following that we went to a lake with to have a relaxing swim in the skin fryingly hot sun. I managed to avoid most of the sun as they did have a lot of shade. They clearly are conscientious of the paler skinned people’s plight. We had a feast of chicken, rice, fish, tamarind sauce (which was excellent). It is customary to eat all of the bird in Cambodia including the bones as they are ‘small enough to eat’. I couldn’t progress to that level of indulgence but I have levelled up my prawn game and now eat the shells as well (next step is eating the head!).
There were lots of photo opportunities as prospective donors and sponsors came to visit the school and get their pictures taken with the kids. I carefully managed to avoid being in many of these photos. However one of my fellow volunteers has been snapping away like a paparazzi pro so I’m sure some photos will surface. A week later and they were erecting the gate to the school, an auspicious event as it not only makes the schools profile more visible but also wards off demons and ill omens. As part of this opening Sokhom and his wife set up a little shrine. Again as with Buddhism it is not a religious affair but more of a spiritual and cultural practice.
That weekend we also went to a waterfall, again with some of the kids from the school. It was a long drive and one of the volunteers was leaving in the evening. We arrived to many other local families just setting up in the little makeshift shacks with their food (most people just bring their own). Hammocks, a freshwater stream, lots of laughter and further down the way a fairly heavy flowing waterfall. It was a really nice way to spend some time with the kids (although most of them I didn’t teach) as I think the more important part of this trip is not teaching but also providing care. On that note there were a few instances where I acted as a cycling paramedic when I found kids who’d fallen off their bikes and scraped their knees. Whilst the wounds were fairly superficial the conditions and environment definitely would allow infection to rage through them. The kids would hop on the back of the bike and I would take them back to school where Mark would patch them up, apply disinfectant and patch them up. I thought these experiences were vital in helping the children realise that we’re not just teachers but also surrogate parents which is what I feel is most important about teaching, regardless of location or type of school.
It really has been a great experience, and echoes what I’ve felt throughout the entirety of Cambodia. I’ve never been alone. When I arrived in Phnom Penh I quickly made some friends in my dorm. The same happened when I arrived in Kampot, so much so that we all decided to meet up on Koh Rong Samloem. From there in Sihanoukville I met some great people at the bar and had a fun time, despite the fact that I thought Sihanoukville was a bit of a dive. Then I came to Angkor Tree School. Met more travellers, met some great kids, and some really admirable people that are trying to increase the chances of these children getting better jobs in the future.
If you get the chance you should definitely give them a hand!