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Cambodia is full of incredible people.

The experience you will have here will be nothing like you expect it to be, but everything you wanted it to be.

Rebecca Lambert on her graduate gap year program with Outreach International in CambodiaYour experience here will be unique to you but influenced by the other Outreach volunteers, your placement, colleagues and friends made along the way, as well as your enthusiasm and ability to embrace all things new and bizarre.  The main thing is to come here with a completely open mind and not to think you know the country because you have read lots about it.

No matter what your project is, you will face challenging and life changing experiences and be faced with the true reality of living in a developing country.  When you live here you can't turn off the scene in front of you because it makes you feel uncomfortable, you have to face the situation head on just like the Cambodian people do and have done for many years.

On many occasions, during the 5 months I was here, I felt out of my comfort zone but got through safe in the knowledge that if I chose to and really needed to, I could return home at any time.  I also knew that Simon our coordinator was on hand whenever needed with reassurance, advice, a listening ear and practical guidance.  He really made sure I felt happy here and was always approachable and brilliant at helping to resolve any problems that arose from my placement.  He really is the source of all knowledge when it comes to Cambodia and NGO's (and good places to go out in Phnom Penh!)

One of the biggest challenges I felt, was with some of the ex-pat community who tended to look at my short term volunteering as unnecessary and unsustainable because I was only here for a short time.  "Voluntourists" we are named.

Through my placement I realized that despite the short time I was here, the individual people who see friendly western faces giving up their time to come to their country and help, enormously appreciate what you can give them in terms of quality of life, new experiences, smiles and your time.  Despite the short length of time you can help, even if its just a little bit and even if its just one or two people.  Surely that's better than not doing anything?

Everyone here has an opinion on what you should and shouldn't do, if you are actually making a difference and whether or not you should give to this beggar or that street child.  I think you should allow yourself time to make up your own opinion, listen to people and read about it but in the end find out for yourself and do what feels right for you.

The cultural differences in this country to the UK are vast and once Rebecca Lambert and Cambodian friends on her voluntary work program arranged with Outreach Internationalyou have embraced them and the novelty has worn off they may start to make sense.  I never got tired of being called "s'ray sa'at" (beautiful lady) everywhere I went but being told I have a big nose, white skin and a big frame did give me a bit of a complex!  (I don't have a particularly big nose, thought I was doing well with my tan and am a UK size 10!)  Being laughed at by Khmer people for eating the food, trying to speak the language and embracing cultural actions becomes normal when you realize that its actually enthusiasm and encouragement.

I came here to work as an Occupational Therapist in a rehab clinic in Kratie Province and was expected to treat patients with conditions I had never dealt with before.  It was a massive learning curve not only clinically but also when getting used to working in deprived circumstances, with limited resources and big communication barriers.  I was enlisted to teach English three times a week which I found surprisingly difficult having not expected it or prepared for it.

The clinic was some times busy but often very quiet because patients couldn't afford to take time off to come to the center, had other family issues or were too scared of western medicine and used Khmer medicine instead.  There were a lot of difficulties with patients and staff when it came to communicating and it took skill to challenge diagnoses and treatment plans without offending people or reducing their enthusiasm.

Living in the provinces gave me a real chance to get stuck into Cambodian life and see how people here really live day to day.  The community visits showed me snippets of the difficulties disabled people face in inappropriate housing and a how there is a massive general lack of medical knowledge in the population.

It is impossible not to get emotionally attached when working with people and there may be situations that at first you see no hope for.  I was involved with a 28yr old spinal chord injury who was paralyzed from the waist down after falling through her house, had no family or money and was in a bad way medically.  I knew if I did not intervene she would probable die. With help from a VSO volunteer and help from Simon, after 2 long and difficult months we were able to get her to an appropriate hospital and receive proper care. It was a difficult journey for all involved.

There is a lot of brilliant work that goes on with a lot of NGO's and this is your chance to help and get involved.  Cambodia has had an amazingly tragic history and still has a way to go before it achieves the standards of living that many people are striving for here and take for granted at home.  Despite this Cambodians seem to be always happy.

I'll always remember the smiles on the faces of even the poorest people.

Outreach International has given me the opportunity to experience a completely unique chapter of my life.  I was able to wholly fundraise the costs of the trip through various fundraising events and applying for grants, meaning I could fully live the experience for myself and everyone who contributed.

The main thing is to be realistic in what you can achieve during your time here.  You will not be able to help everyone but the few you do help will always be grateful that you chose their country to volunteer in.

Enjoy your experience and good luck!

Rebecca Lambert, a qualified Occupational Therapist, arranged her program in Cambodia through Outreach International