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01869 338890

Teaching English in Cambodia

Laura Parker tastes a delicacy in Cambodia!My placement with Outreach International at VI Kratie was an absolutely superlative experience and I cannot recommend it highly enough! The work VI does is admirable, and working with the staff there was both entertaining and enlightening. The Kratie centre is the perfect size for an English language volunteer, and out of 10 staff I taught 7 on a daily basis (usually 4 hours of teaching per day), as well as giving guidance with reports, emails, and general correspondence and admin. The staff are really eager to improve their language skills, most have some English already and because much of the physiotherapy and PO training is in English, proficiency is quite necessary. They even finding time to squeeze in an hour's study on the busiest of days, and are always asking questions, particularly relating to the vocab they use in their jobs. As well as focussing on 'working language,' I also found using the English language Cambodia Daily newspaper (that we received a couple of days late in Kratie!) for  general language work particularly interesting. It was far more relevant to them than any eurocentric textbook, and invariably sparked interesting discussions about Cambodian politics, history or scandals... I don't know whether I learnt more than I taught, but they gave me a fascinating insight into current issues in Cambodia today, and this is one of the reasons I'm really glad I was teaching adults and not children!

In a nutshell, the teaching aspect of the placement was both rewarding and manageable, and this would leave enough time for interaction with the patients at the centre. This can be what you make of it... and can An amputee keeps smilingvary from helping run sports and other games, usually with rehabilitative purposes, as well as creative activities, from colouring and drawing to card making, origami, playing the keyboard... if you have any remotely creative skills whatsoever, these can certainly be put to good use!! Kratie is lucky to have a good stash of resources for such activities, as well as the one and only bong Phalla, the housekeeper come wonder woman who keeps the centre running smoothly, and tirelessly devotes her spare time to keeping the patients busy and entertained. Phalla is a reason in herself to come to Kratie, she was like my Khmer mother!! Also, simply chatting and getting to know the patients, and having them help me practice my Khmer was a rewarding activity as any... and in the heat it is quite impossible to rouse everyone to get up join in with games et al round the clock anyway! I ended up visiting one of the patients who lived nearby at home in my free time, and also being the guinea pig in one patient's 'beauty salon,' of sorts!

One of the things VI does is provide grants to patients who have recently regained mobility, to be spent on things as diverse as training courses to bicycles (for example if a child has a new prosthetic leg, and just because they can now walk, it doesn't mean they can cover the daily 3k walk to school and back), and one patient, a 16 year old girl with polio, applied for a grant to set up the first beauty parlour in her village (in a country where weddings are a regular excuse for full blown dressing up and serious beautification, beauty salons are lucrative enterprises!). She came back to the centre with all the equipment she'd bought from the market, and within no time, we'd kicked the boys out of the office, and all the girls, patients and staff alike, spent the afternoon, um, 'testing' the merchandise! I think the biggest contrast to a UK working environment was the pace that everything moves at in Cambodia... SLOWLY! It is easy to get used to this, as it's the most sensible way of coping with the heat and humidity, but far less easy to snap out of once back in stressy, constantly on the go Europe!

Compared to Phnom Penh, Kratie town is, in my opinion, an infinitely nicer place to spend three to six months (or more!!), and I think that if anyone has reservations about being based in the provinces, for fear of being too remote / lonely / far from creature comforts, they couldn't be more wrong!! With a population of 80 000, it's hardly a rural backwater, and right from the word go I was never once at a loss as to what to do and with whom. Once you've been in town for over a week, people realise you're not a passing tourist, and will start to recognise you and take and interest in what you're doing there, and just generally want to chat and befriend you! Prices will start dropping for you in the market, and you will soon find it hard to get to and from work without bumping into people you know! On top of that, the VI staff are incredibly fun loving, and make for a lovely, welcoming community. Being based in Kratie will probably benefit your Khmer too - fewer people have English, so you just have to pick it up faster... and chances are, you will! The language is relatively simple... no tenses / conjugations / plurals, and giving it a go, even in the most basic of situations will certainly help you out! I was invited along to all the celebrations and parties, and it really angered me how the guidebooks give barely two pages to the entire province... there are endless things to do there!! Not only is it a base for exploring the exciting northeast of Cambodia (think elephant trekking, minority villages, swimming in stunning waterfalls, and a giant crater lake...), there is also a multitude of diversions in town itself, from the trivial - getting regular 12.5p professional manicures, to the active - going swimming in the Mekong Sunset over the Mekong River in Cambodiaevery day at sunset. I even made the 20 minute swim across one day, fully clothed of course - Khmer style! The river in Kratie is gorgeous and is very clean. Little beats snacking on fresh fruit shakes or sugar cane juice at one of the riverside stalls, or watching the sun set in technicolour over the Mekong on your cycle home from work. We also have the obvious attractions of the river dolphins, and swimming in the rapids just north of town.

For those still apprehensive of bidding farewell to home comforts, rest assured, Phnom Penh is but a morning's drive away, there are a handful of western run restaurants, you can buy pretty much everything you could need or want here anyway, and there's a friendly and charismatic contingent of expats, all inspiring individuals involved in various NGOs in the area. You will cross paths with likeminded and inspiring people from all corners of the globe. In fact, in some ways it is easier to meet foreigners ('barang') working in the provinces, as they tend to stick together, and it is easier to integrate into a smaller community. Yet by the same logic, the local community in Kratie is also smaller than that of the city, and should you wish to opt out of Western pursuits, it is probably easier to immerse yourself in Khmer culture here than in PP. Also, there are fewer Westerners overall - you are still something of a curiosity to local people.

I certainly had some of the funniest times of my life there - everything in Kratie is a little bit off the wall (in a very charming way!!), and 'bizarre' was a word I used daily! From having friends give me 'Khmer hip hop dance lessons' (not dissimilar from the macarena), to the way all the trees decided to shrivel up, go brown and drop their leaves after 5 days of rainstorms, or simply to the endless amusement of observing Not quite a full load!the Khmer can-do attitude to transportation (4 piggies on a moto, 5 people on a push-bike?,no problem...). Life in Kratie never ceased to amuse, and I can guarantee that volunteering there would be both ridiculously fun, and ultimately rewarding - a combination that makes leaving the hardest part of the placement! I really hope that we can get people to continue filling this placement on a regular basis - the staff at the centre are so unbelievably keen to host a volunteer, the work you would be doing there is invaluable, and lastly, I am convinced that many more people should be experiencing the many many joys of Kratie town!

Laura Parker's placement was arranged with Outreach International