In Cambodia, a sense of community lies at the heart of most volunteer programs. From building homes in Phnom Penh to strengthening marine habitats along the Gulf of Thailand, volunteers play a key role in supporting local developments for both humans and wildlife.
Outside of volunteer opportunities, Cambodia’s fast-paced urban scenes and sprawling countryside fields appeal to foreign visitors. Time off will find volunteers wandering amongst the vast temple complex of Angkor Wat, cruising on motorbikes down empty rural lanes, or escaping to the tropical sands of Koh Rong.
It’s important to remember that volunteering is more about what you give than what you get. While you leave with cherished memories of a time overseas, be sure to leave behind a lasting impact on the causes you came to support.
At times, travelers may feel more compelled to contribute to a local community rather than to simply visit. Cambodia presents unique opportunities for overseas volunteers in industries such as housing construction, animal conservation, and human rights.
Construction, Building & Community Development
Though Cambodia’s poverty rates have declined over the years, there still remains work to be done in order to provide economic security for the country’s underprivileged groups. In particular, homelessness remains a major issue in Phnom Penh and other urban centers, where orphaned youth, those afflicted with illnesses, and poor families reside in the streets or in makeshift settlements.
To combat homelessness, organizations such as Habitat for Humanity recruit international volunteers to lend a hand in constructing new houses for Cambodia’s impoverished groups. Participants receive supervision in building homes that will shelter residents, resist damage from typhoons, and provide security for inhabitants.
Wildlife conservation in Cambodia provides volunteers with a unique opportunity to positively impact a variety of ecosystems. Along Cambodia’s coastal stretches, sea turtles and other marine wildlife benefit from clean beaches, flourishing coral reefs, and well-maintained habitats, something that volunteers of Save Cambodian Marine Life and other NGOs make possible.
Inland, wildlife reserves housing elephants, gibbons, sun bears, and other rescued animals equally rely on volunteer organizations to upkeep sanctuary functions. Participants of programs like Pod Volunteer will be placed on teams to assist with the care and rehabilitation of these animals.
Cambodia’s recent history has seen such issues as child prostitution and persecution of minority groups affecting lives across the nation. Human rights campaigns work to combat these and other threats, with volunteers playing a crucial role in the development of safer communities.
Organizations like SHE Rescue Home, which helps female children affected by rape and trafficking, need experienced volunteers to help enact change and repair lives. Keep in mind, many volunteer roles in human rights require some training in social work or similar fields in order to successfully make a lasting impact.
Health and Medicine
Volunteer opportunities in the healthcare sector are more limited in scope for short-term volunteers, but between injuries caused by landmines and a high HIV/AIDS prevalence, especially among drug users and sex workers, Cambodia is certainly a top destination for medical and public health volunteer work.
Volunteering Solutions offers a medical volunteering program based in local hospitals and clinics in Phnom Penh. Medical and nursing students can gain valuable hands-on experience while helping underserved populations in the capital.
Planning Your Trip
Though the volunteer organization will arrange most of the housekeeping items prior to departure, participants can streamline their experience by staying on top of the housing, visas, and other considerations for volunteering overseas.
Where to Volunteer in Cambodia
The majority of volunteer programs, especially those in housing, education, or human rights, operate out of Cambodia’s urban areas of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. In their spare time, volunteers will be able to explore the influences in Cambodia’s present-day structure through historical sites like Angkor Wat and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Organizations also take participants into the countryside to volunteer on projects in agriculture and wildlife conservation. Away from bustling city life, volunteers will immerse themselves in local rural communities, discovering Cambodia’s green rice fields and more countryside wonders.
Housing & Accommodation
As with most overseas volunteer organizations, programs in Cambodia typically provide accommodation for their participants. Living in communal arrangements, volunteers can expect to share and maintain all facilities, with dormitory style or shared bedrooms.
Volunteers may also opt for homestay programs. Adding another layer to the overseas experience, homestays allow participants to more fully immerse themselves in the Cambodian way of life, consuming authentic home-cooked meals, participating in family outings, and getting to know their hosts.
Language Requirements & Tips
In Cambodia, the official language is Khmer. While your volunteer supervisors will likely speak English, there’s no guarantee that every local you come across will. As such, keeping a Khmer dictionary or phrase book on hand will be helpful for communicating. You may even be able to pick up on some basic conversational skills, especially if you opt for a homestay program.
Cambodia possesses a year-round tropical climate. Living in soaring temperatures and sometimes rainy conditions, international volunteers should arrive equipped with summer attire and a light rain jacket. Look out for monsoon season from May to November, where precipitation will be much higher. Volunteers traveling during this time may find a waterproof bag or backpack to be helpful.
Even if your volunteer work won’t take you outside for long hours, daily sunscreen and bug spray applications will help ward off intense sun rays and pesky mosquitos. Other essentials include a power adapter, a water bottle, and hand sanitizer.
To volunteer overseas in Cambodia, you’ll need a visa. This can be acquired upon arrival, and both tourist and business visas are valid for 30 days. Officially, volunteers should go for the latter, which is able to be extended without exiting the country and, as of today, costs $35.
Cambodia’s cost of living is much lower than that of the U.S., with Numbeo reporting that consumer prices are over 30% reduced. As such, volunteers will have little trouble budgeting for meals and side excursions. Mobile SIMs are equally simple, with cards from top providers like Metfone and Smart available for purchase when you arrive at the airport or within urban areas.
Health & Safety
Like any trip overseas, there are health and safety items to keep in mind when volunteering abroad. In Cambodia, the potential risks shouldn’t manifest into anything more serious, as long as volunteers exercise reasonable caution.
The CDC advises that travelers get their Hepatitis A and Typhoid shots for travel to Cambodia, with additional vaccinations applicable to some travelers. For volunteers in programs that will require extensive outdoor work, long-term stays (over a month), or contact with animals, shots for Japanese Encephalitis, malaria, and rabies may be needed.
Some volunteer organizations fold insurance for participants into their program fees, but, if not, you should think about purchasing a medical insurance plan separately. Depending on the type of volunteer work you’ll be performing, you may be at a higher risk of injury in the field. Knowing you have reliable health coverage will ease any anxieties you may have about volunteering overseas.
With the lowest advisory level issued by the Department of State, Cambodia doesn’t possess any extraordinary threats to traveler safety. That being said, volunteers in Phnom Penh should exercise some additional caution, as theft and violent crime occurs in higher rates in the country’s capital.
Additionally, foreign volunteers should also be aware of tourist scams when visiting Cambodia, most of which involve being cheated out of a lot of money. Most commonly, travelers who don’t pre-negotiate transport costs and conditions with tuk-tuk drivers may find themselves paying an exorbitant fee at the end of their journey.
Volunteer Programs in Cambodia
InterExchange Foundation Christianson Fellowship
The InterExchange Foundation Christianson Fellowship awards up to $10,000 to young Americans who are passionate about helping communities abroad thrive and are eager to learn about the local culture. Fellows identify a project or an organization working on an issue they care about, and with the support of the Christianson Fellowship, contribute their skills and passion to that endeavor for at least six months on-location abroad. This intercultural experience is a meaningful way to help others, improve skills, and gain insight about another culture.
Operation Groundswell Financial Needs Grant
For those interested in an Operation Groundswell program, consider applying for financial assistance through the Operation Groundswell Financial Needs Grant. You'll submit information about yourself, the program you want to go on, and why you need financial assistance, and the OG team will review your information to determine what financial assistance they can provide. Applications are accepted throughout the year, so be sure to apply as soon as you apply for the Operation Groundswell program you choose.
Rustic Pathways Scholarships
Every year, travel company Rustic Pathways give away $250,000 to students from across the world. Scholarships are varied and it's worth checking back in after they've been awarded as late-season scholarship redistribution -- where uncollected grants are reallocated to new applicants -- takes place a few months later. Among their scholarships, the most relevant to prospective volunteers are the following: