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Voluntourism in Cambodia: happy smiles all round

There are forty beaming faces staring up at me waiting for my next move.

They giggle as I jump up and down, attempting to sing ‘with a moo-moo here’ from Old MacDonald’s Farm.

I know I look ridiculous, but I’m far from caring. It’s 4pm in Cambodia and it’s a searing 40C. We are crammed into a tiny, non-air conditioned make-shift classroom in Phnom Penh.

I’m trying desperately to keep their attention as they want to go and play.

Thankfully it works. By the time I add a pig, cow and horse, they start chanting the animal noises.

I manage to make it to the end of the lesson – sweat running down my back.

I’m in the country’s capital city for three weeks as part of a volunteer project, helping the charity Riverkids, which offers children at risk of being trafficked or sold into prostitution, a free education.

And, as thousands of students across the country receive their A-level results this week, they’ll be thinking of heading off abroad to volunteer as well.

The brochures bill it as ‘rewarding’ and a chance to ‘give something back’. What they don’t prepare you for is the hard work that goes with it.

On my first day, I’m taken to the slums where many of the children studying at Riverkids live. The scenes are heartbreaking.

The tiny, wooden shacks balance around mud paths. There are dirty, naked toddlers wandering aimlessly.

We see some women working, cooking meals, while most of the men are lying down, watching TV. Many of them have drink and drug problems.

The children look helpless. It’s easy to see how celebrities such as Madonna and Angela Jolie think they’re helping communities by adopting children. But it’s charities such as Riverkids that are really stopping the cycle of poverty.

Back in the classroom, volunteers prepare their own lessons. It means the children are at a disadvantage, as no one really knows what the previous teacher has taught.

My first class is a group of nine to 15-year-olds and I’m armed with flashcards and basic-English books.

As I walk into the classroom, the students stand and chant, ‘Good morning teacher’ in Khmer and then English, as they clasp their hands together in the traditional respectful greeting.

After English is computer studies – but, as Riverkids doesn’t have the resources to buy an electricity generator, and there’s a power cut every day, the lessons are always cut short.

With no electricity, there are also no fans, and the intense heat makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

So, I opt to play games with the class, such as word bingo or hangman, which they enjoy – and it still means they’re learning.

They are keen to play – and are competitive – each vying for my attention by putting their hand up to guess the right word, or to get a full house and win the small prize of a pen that’s on offer.

My day ends with art and singing classes for children as young as three – some of whom have no English skills at all so communicating with them is almost impossible.

Controlling them is no mean feat – and has given me a new-found respect for teachers.

I spend the hour running around, clearing up spilt water, helping children who have difficulty drawing.

At the end of the lesson, the children playfully smear colours down each other’s faces and in one another’s hair.

I shrug my shoulders and laugh as the kids line up at the small sink to wash their hands and faces before going home.

Exhausted, I head back to my guesthouse where I meet the other volunteers to talk about how difficult our days were.

As I pull a text book from my bag and a note slips out: ‘I love you teacher from Srey Mai.’

It’s then I realise why ‘voluntourism’ is so popular.

While it’s ultimately aimed at the children benefiting, I can’t help think it’s them – with their robust attitudes despite their deprived pasts and uncertain futures – who teach the volunteers the greater lesson. And that’s why it’s so rewarding.

Fact box:

Help Teach and Care for Children in Cambodia, from £749 for three weeks.

i-to-i Meaningful Travel 0871 011 1156 Find out more about Riverkids

Fly to Cambodia via Bangkok with Qantas

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