Volunteer History

I have spent the last two months volunteering for HVTO in Sophy Village and I would like to tell you about my wonderful experience there. HVTO (Homestay Volunteer Teachers Organization) is a registered non-profit NGO in Cambodia that gives free English lessons to poor children in the rural countryside. They have three full-time Cambodian teachers and get help from foreign teachers who want to volunteer whenever possible. HVTO was founded by Mr. Sim Piseth, who runs a very transparent, efficient operation. If you want to really help make a difference in Cambodia and would also like to get a glimpse of rural Cambodia, volunteering for HVTO will be an experience you will never forget!

volunteer at siem reap

I first heard of HVTO on Facebook. I joined The Group to Help the Children of Cambodia by Volunteering many months before coming back to Cambodia. Once I arrived in Siem Reap I contacted Mr. Sim Piseth and he met me at the Night Market, where HVTO used to have an ice-cream stand to raise money. The next day the girl that ran the ice-cream stand gave me a ride out to Sophy Village so I could see the school and meet some of the local teachers. All went well, and within a few days I was on a tuk-tuk to Sophy Village.
I arrived at the homestay in Sophy Village at night so I didn’t get to see much my first day. However, I did manage to arrive in time for the first of many delicious home-cooked meals prepared by the host family.

Living with the host family was a very memorable experience too! Although the mother and father don’t speak any English, it never seemed to be a problem. The mother (whom I always called, ‘Mai,’ which means mother in Khmer) is most likely the best cook within the whole country! When she’s not busy around the house or at the market shopping for the perfect ingredients for the next scrumptious meal, she’s quite content to joke around with the volunteer teachers as we exchange the five words we know from each other’s language. The father (whom I always called, “Pa,” which means father in Khmer) is the local doctor, so I always felt safe having a doctor nearby. He also leads a very busy life.

The daughter, Seak Lyn, is also very kind. She also lives a very busy life. When she’s not making the 20Km return trip to school (which she usually does twice a day; 6 days a week) she’s either helping out in the kitchen or staying up late to do homework. Her English is fairly good, but unfortunately she is usually too shy to practice with the volunteers. The son, Seak Nam, is always going back and forth from Sophy Village to Siem Reap, where he studies. He is actively involved in HVTO’s projects, so he also stays very busy. His English skills are excellent. Mr. Sim Piseth and his wife, Seak Lee, also come over for dinner sometimes, and always bring something special from Siem Reap to eat or drink.
There are two main schools that HVTO holds free English classes. They also hold classes at two of the Buddhist Pagodas nearby. I usually taught at only one of the school locations, and at one of the Pagoda locations; when we were fortunate enough to have an extra volunteer during my stay, they would teach at the other locations.

They also have three local English teachers that live in Sophy Village. I usually spent more time teaching with Kimsang and Un, but all three became good friends of mine.They were all very popular among the students and well respected within the community. They are also very busy as well.Some of them are full-time teachers, in college AND make time to help out with the farm work and harvesting in the rice fields.My first class in the morning was with some of the local monks. Their level of English might not be enough to hold a conversation, but their eagerness to learn and constant smiles promises them great success down the road. The class is held at the Pagoda, which is a breathtaking place to enter every morning. The head monk is a very peaceful and cheerful man. He was as curios about me as I was about him. The students were always so excited to start the class, and that was the same every day. They would always see us arrive and hustle into the classroom and take out their books.

at siem reap

They would also bring us fresh-brewed tea every morning. I would also notice that sometimes they had been practicing what we learned the day before on the board after we left, which also proved their eagerness to learn.

The next class was at Sreth School, which is where most of my other classes where. This morning class was a lot of fun!They were a huge group of about 40 students that enjoyed going outside of the classroom and doing activities, like Simon Says, in the parking lot to practice vocabulary and new phrases they had recently learned. Some students would randomly bring us (the foreign volunteer English teachers) beautiful drawings of women in traditional Khmer dresses. During my two-month stay there, I received over a dozen of these, all of which I still have.

After the morning classes I would have a long break before the afternoon classes started. This is probably my favourite part of the day. This is when I could go exploring. It’s like travelling back in time a couple hundred years going around the local area. Almost everyone would say ‘hello’ or ‘bye-bye’ when you go past. You would see scenes that you wouldn’t even imagine existed in the year 2010. People would be fishing in the ditches; many would have shops set up, and they all seems to sell the same 10 items; little kids running around naked; the elderly Khmer women smiling at you with their red teeth and lips from chewing beetle-nut their whole lives. It’s amazing how flat Cambodia is too. It’s so peaceful to see rice fields as far as the eye can see filled with water buffaloes. Then I would get ‘home’ and wait for the call of, “Yum bai,” which means, “Let’s eat!” Everyone that was home would come eat together. The food was always so good! All sorts of meat prepared in so many unique ways. The ONLY constant thing about every single meal was the rice. They even served noodles a few times, but that also came with rice. After living in SE Asia for almost 3 years now, I need rice with my meals just as much as the locals do. She made the best Loc-Lac and fish soups I’ve ever tasted! She also made some western cuisines that turned out great, including French fries, fried chicken and some others I can’t think of right now. After lunch the whole family, including me, would take a little siesta before returning to their busy day.

My first class in the morning was with some of the local monks. Their level of English might not be enough to hold a conversation, but their eagerness to learn and constant smiles promises them great success down the road. The class is held at the Pagoda, which is a breathtaking place to enter every morning. The head monk is a very peaceful and cheerful man. He was as curios about me as I was about him. The students were always so excited to start the class, and that was the same every day. They would always see us arrive and hustle into the classroom and take out their books. They would also bring us fresh-brewed tea every morning. I would also notice that sometimes they had been practicing what we learned the day before on the board after we left, which also proved their eagerness to learn.

Volunteer at siem reap

The next class was at Sreth School, which is where most of my other classes where. This morning class was a lot of fun!They were a huge group of about 40 students that enjoyed going outside of the classroom and doing activities, like Simon Says, in the parking lot to practice vocabulary and new phrases they had recently learned. Some students would randomly bring us (the foreign volunteer English teachers) beautiful drawings of women in traditional Khmer dresses. During my two-month stay there, I received over a dozen of these, all of which I still have.

After the morning classes I would have a long break before the afternoon classes started. This is probably my favourite part of the day. This is when I could go exploring. It’s like travelling back in time a couple hundred years going around the local area. Almost everyone would say ‘hello’ or ‘bye-bye’ when you go past. You would see scenes that you wouldn’t even imagine existed in the year 2010. People would be fishing in the ditches; many would have shops set up, and they all seems to sell the same 10 items; little kids running around naked; the elderly Khmer women smiling at you with their red teeth and lips from chewing beetle-nut their whole lives. It’s amazing how flat Cambodia is too. It’s so peaceful to see rice fields as far as the eye can see filled with water buffaloes. Then I would get ‘home’ and wait for the call of, “Yum bai,” which means, “Let’s eat!” Everyone that was home would come eat together. The food was always so good! All sorts of meat prepared in so many unique ways. The ONLY constant thing about every single meal was the rice. They even served noodles a few times, but that also came with rice. After living in SE Asia for almost 3 years now, I need rice with my meals just as much as the locals do. She made the best Loc-Lac and fish soups I’ve ever tasted! She also made some western cuisines that turned out great, including French fries, fried chicken and some others I can’t think of right now. After lunch the whole family, including me, would take a little siesta before returning to their busy day.

I would arrive back at Sreth School later that afternoon and teach a few more classes. These classes included some of HVTO’s students that have been studying for well over a year now. Many of the students were advanced enough to hold a basic conversation.During my first few weeks, the students all seemed too shy to try to talk to me.However, after a few weeks most students felt comfortable to practice their English skills with me and weren’t afraid of making mistakes. It was interesting teaching English in a new country (I’ve taught in Indonesia and Vietnam before) and seeing how students’ mistakes (grammar and especially pronunciation) vary greatly from country to country based on their L1 (first language).

My experience in Sophy Village also made me realize just how important it is for organizations like HVTO to exist in developing countries like Cambodia. It’s no secret that Cambodia’s education system is still recovering from unimaginable devastation to the country’s entire infrastructure that will take several generations to repair. By learning English, these children open up doors of opportunity and worldwide information that hasn’t been specifically translated into Khmer. I was shocked at some of the stuff they didn’t know that I assumed was well known all over the world, especially in a village that is located less than 30Km from one of SE Asia’s most popular destination among foreign travellers (the Angkor Wat temples near Siem Reap). I had entire classes that didn’t recognize the Superman symbol on my ring. Even after one of the local teachers explained it to them, they still didn’t have any idea about it. Based on some of their questions about geography, I wouldn’t be the least surprised to find out that they have never seen an actual globe and have no concept about how big the Earth actually is. Almost all of the students (and teachers) have never even been to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, which is just about a five-hour bus ride from their village. It was really weird living in a village in the year 2010 where people are still dying from drinking unclean water only because they have never been educated on some simple facts. I’m saying this just to remind everyone of all the information that some of us have easy access to and take for granted.

The sun would just start to set at six o’clock, which was just enough time to head home on my bicycle before it was pitch black. As soon as I would pull up to the house I could usually see Mai cooking through the kitchen window. I would usually have enough time to watch some TV episodes I had downloaded on my netbook or read a book before dinner was ready.Seak Lyn was usually still at school so I would usually just eat with Pa and Mai, unless we had another volunteer at the time.

Dinner was served in the usual way as the other meals. Everyone gets a HUGE serving of rice, and then everything else on the table is up for grabs. There was always some sort of meat and vegetables that had been freshly prepared, and there was always more than enough of everything.After my first week of living in the village I went back to Siem Reap at the weekend, and several of my friends had noticed that I had gotten noticeably chubbier! All the leftover food is fed to the family dog and cat, and sometimes they can’t even finish it. Dessert is usually a combination of fresh fruits (pineapple; watermelon; banana, etc) beautifully cut and some sort of variety of local pastries.

at siem reap

After dinner the whole family would usually sit on the floor and watch their black & white TV for a while before going to bed. There is no power in the village, so in order to have one light for the whole house and a small converter for plug-in electronics, they use a car battery that they have to take to get charged every few days. If kids in Western countries had to transport a 20Kg battery back and forth every few days in order to watch TV, I bet they would watch a lot less!

HVTO also decided to hold a class for the local teachers. This was a great opportunity for me to share my previous experience teaching English as a Foreign Language. I also got to share the teaching methods I learned while earning my CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) from the University of Cambridge. This methodology class went quite well; I only wish I could have helped with it for a longer period of time. Many of the concepts about how people learn new languages were completely new to them, but they picked up very quickly. After the second methodology class was held, I observed all three of the local teachers using methods we had discussed.

at siem reap

Overall, my time spent in Sophy Village was well spent. It’s very important for students studying English to be exposed to native speakers of that language. Language is an art, and with continued help from their local English teachers and the help from foreign volunteers they have the potential to excel. I’ve heard horror stories from other Westerners about their experience volunteering for other organizations, so I feel very fortunate that I came across HVTO. They are an effective and successful organization, and are definitely helping to greatly improve the local communities. If you ever get the chance to talk to Mr. Sim Piseth you will know how sincere and dedicated he is to insuring that HVTO does everything possible to improve the lives of the youth in Sophy Village and the surrounding areas. None of this could be achieved without sponsors and volunteers worldwide.

If you have the chance to come to Cambodia, volunteering is an opportunity you can’t pass up. It will open your eyes to a rural countryside of a developing country you could never imagine. You will also be offering immeasurable help to a country and community that desperately needs foreign aid.

If you have any further questions about the program there, or about my personal experience, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Danny Mack
Email: danny.mack@teachesr.org

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