Almost two years ago now, I went on a life changing trip to Cambodia. Nestled between Vietnam and Thailand, it seems to be often overlooked by travellers when they visit South East Asia, but this little country has much to offer. For two weeks in July, 2016, I embarked on a trip with My Gap Year. Having always wanted to go back to Cambodia at some point and immerse myself more in the culture, and step beyond the "touristy" stuff. Personally, I try to be as ethical and conscious as possible its everything that I do, and travelling is no different, which made me so excited to finally get the chance to try something new and make a difference. I wanted more than just an overseas holiday, I wanted to travel with a purpose.
This trip was the second time I had been to Cambodia, having visited when I was in my early teens on a family trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. I had known since my first experience of Cambodia that I wanted to go back at some point, so when the opportunity presented itself, I took it (who wouldn't?).
During the first week, we spent our days in a village just outside of Siem Reap, aiding the locals in building a new home for one of the families. We hammered down flooring, carried building materials, and got to spend lots of time playing games with the village children. But the best part of all, was seeing the faces of the family whose home we built. Words will never express the gratitude on their faces.
The second week was spent at a children's centre in Siem Reap, where we taught English. I'm not sure who learnt more during that week though, the Cambodian children, or myself and the group I was travelling with. Their smiles were huge, and everyone had bilingual conversations as we picked up more of the local language, and seeing how much they all enjoyed learning was amazing.
Of course, on our days off from the volunteer work that was the foundation of the trip, we still got to do some exploring. We ate at lots of the highly recommended restaurants (almost all of them locally owned and run), visited several of the temples including Angkor Wat, and enjoyed evening beers and afternoon swims. A healthy balance of work and play.
One of the things that was most important to me when planning the trip was that I chose the right organisation to travel with. There are lots and lots of different organisations around the world that run various travel tours, some are aimed at sight seeing, some are aimed at those on a gap year looking for the ultimate pub crawl, and some are focused on volunteer work in developing countries. The latter having many issues around it, meaning you need to do your research.
It was a good friend that recommended My Gap Year as she had a wonderful experience with them, and since has actually begun working for them, running most of their Cambodian trips. The difference with My Gap Year? It's aimed at younger people who want to travel consciously, and they make sure that every traveller ticks all the boxes. Upon application there are police checks, the signing of child protection declarations and during the trip the leaders will share local knowledge and tell of the incredible work the foundation has been doing, with an emphasis on how its all collaborative with the local people. A hand up, not a hand out.
The friends I made, experiences had and memories made were incredible, and I definitely plan on doing more conscious travel in the future (so make sure you follow to get all the updates!).