As I leaned over my fiancé to catch a glimpse of the flooded rice paddies out of the cabin window, my body was filled with that feeling of excitement, yet again.
I left my home in Brighton, UK, seven years ago. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to travel extensively as well as live and work in Asia, the UAE and Australia. I always get that nervous exciting feeling as the plane descends into a foreign land but this time it felt even more special. It was my third visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia and this time I had managed to convince my fiancé of just two months to come with me.
Whilst most people en route to Siem Reap were heading to see the world famous, majestical Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, our trip was quite different.
I first visited Siem Reap in early 2014 as a solo traveller. A friend of a friend had worked as a volunteer in a school out there and I was eager to get involved in a similar project.
Unlike its neighbouring countries, Cambodia's poverty hits you in the face the second you set foot into the country. This is not surprising considering its very recent and brutal history. This was one of the main reasons that drew me to volunteering in what I found to be a country full of hope and wonderful people.
Just a few kilometres away from the 5 star hotels which have popped up around the mesmerising temples, stands a small non-government organisation (NGO), a school which provides free education, food packages and healthcare to 109 families from a small slum village.
The organisation named SOID was set up by Mr Vanna, a local man, and is funded by overseas donations, mainly from the Netherlands and Belgium. Without the school, children as young as seven years old would be sent out to work to help earn an income for their poverty-stricken families.
Here, I worked as a volunteer for two months, using my experience as a primary school teacher to provide training and guidance to the four local teachers. I raised money to buy basic teaching equipment, and painted one of the classrooms with useful resources such as an alphabet frieze, numbers, and other things that would assist the teachers in teaching English.
The experience was incredible and after two months I vowed to return. Six months later I was back with a few hundred dollars of donations from friends and families, boxes of books from my local schools plus a brand new digital, teaching system that would provide a structured, progressive and interactive way to teach the students English.
I spent another two months setting this up and training the teachers. I also worked with a group of the older students to design t-shirts to sell to tourists, which would help the school to earn a small amount of income for themselves.
18 months later, with only ten days in Siem Reap, I couldn't wait to return to the school to see if what I'd set up was still in place. As we approached the school gate in our rickety tuk tuk, Mr Vanna, ran out to greet us. The warm welcome we received from the staff and children was overwhelming, particularly for Andrew, my fiancé, who had first stepped out of his comfort zone the moment we had boarded the plane to Cambodia.
I was very proud to show off to Andrew the two classrooms I'd painted on previous trips and it was great to see the teachers still effectively following the new teaching system.
We were happy to give Vanna a large donation which we had collected from our friends and families back home. During our few days there, we painted the final classroom and met one of the recent school leavers named Pov who SOID is currently funding to undergo training at a bicycle repair shop.
With our donations, we bought Pov everything he needs to start his own bicycle repair business, helping him to secure a future for himself and his family.
On our final day, after fond farewells, we promised to return in a year or two. I'm extremely honoured to be a member of the board of this amazing organization and I look forward to many more future trips to Siem Reap!
About the NGO, SOID:
SOID (Supporting Orphans and Indigent People of Cambodia for Development Organisation) is a small NGO that provides free education to the poor children of Veal Village, Siem Reap.
SOID welcomes visitors to the school and appreciates any donations. Volunteers at SOID can be extremely valuable as they help to give our children the confidence and skills to practice English as well offering the teachers new interactive and engaging ways to deliver lessons. Unlike many other organisations, SOID does not charge volunteers for this experience, we just ask for a time commitment of one month. To find out more please visit www.soidngo.org.
About the Author: Lisa Marcantonio is a primary school teacher from Brighton, England. Lisa first visited Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2013, as a SOID volunteer at Veal Village School and returned to the school in 2014 and 2015. She is now on the Board of Directors of SOID and continues to raise awareness and funds to support the running of the project. Lisa has travelled widely and has lived and taught in the UK, UAE and Asia. She currently resides in Melbourne, Australia, teaching children with special educational needs.