Embracing the vibrant spirit of Cambodia

Ray Lewis shares how the vibrant spirit of Cambodia and University grants came together to create an unforgettable journey and paved the way for exciting job prospects.

Volunteering with GapGuru, I found myself immersed in the heart of Battambang, Cambodia, on a trip that would shape my perspective and challenge my limits.

Thanks to grants from the University and a GapGuru scholarship, my partner and I spent five weeks in Cambodia where we dedicated our time to a local community project providing supplementary education to children.

Along with two other volunteers, we created workshops and delivered them to the local children, helping to facilitate their learning.

As a Media Communications student, I also had the opportunity to create content for GapGuru’s social media platforms, giving insight into the work being done at the Cambodian hub. This led to an internship where I now play a role in managing GapGuru’s social media accounts and making creative content for the organisation.

Exploring new cultures

My time in Cambodia was a whirlwind of incredible experiences. One of the highlights of our journey was the week we spent volunteering at an ethical elephant sanctuary.

There, we had the privilege of walking through the jungle alongside the gentle giants, preparing food for both the elephants and playful monkeys, and helping with the maintenance of their habitats – which involved a fair share of weeding and shovelling poo.

Bath Spa Student Ray Lewis - a female with dark curly hair, stands with two men, with an elephant in the background

Our adventures extended far beyond the sanctuary. One of the most emotionally charged experiences of our trip was learning about the Khmer Rouge.

Whilst visiting Wat Banan Temple, our usually upbeat, reliable 'boy-racer' type Tuktuk driver shared his own story, recounting his experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime and how it had left deep scars.

It was an eye-opening and humbling experience, which really emphasised the importance of bearing witness to history and spoke to the resilience of the human spirit.

Learning new languages

We were lucky to stay at the hub for four weeks, which gave us plenty of time to bond with the fantastic in-country team. They were our strongest touch point to the Cambodian food, culture, and language.

Our Khmer lessons at the hub were the foundation to connecting with the local people. It was heartwarming to see how the local people genuinely appreciated our efforts to speak their language, and each conversation turned turned into a wonderful language exchange.

One of my fondest language lessons came from our spirited group leader at the elephant sanctuary. She’d enthusiastically shout “Let’s go!” (តោះ​ទៅ! – taoh​ tow!) in attempts to motivate us for a shift of poop scooping under the midday sun. We adopted this as our rally cry throughout the trip whenever things began to get a bit tough.

Ray Lewis helps some Cambodian school children with a craft activity

Another gem was a phrase used to say thank you, which directly translates to “thank you big big” (ឣរគុណធំធំ – au kun thom thom) which was gifted to me by the sweet lady who managed the drinks stall I visited to get my daily fix of Thai tea.

At the restaurant in Siem Reap, after we'd finished our beef Lok Lak and expressed our gratitude in Khmer, the friendly owner taught us how to ask for the bill (សូមវិក័យប័ត្រ – som let loy).

I think it’s beautiful how we were able to pick up these little linguistic souvenirs and keep the heartwarming memories that came along with them.

Learning and sharing some of the local language was, in its own way, an adventure within the adventure.

Creating new connections

It wasn’t just the people of Cambodia that I had the opportunity to exchange culture with, but the other volunteers at the hub. I learnt all about American culture from Tamour and Rommie, and life in Australia from Gabby and Dan.

I was even able to share some knowledge of my own in a funny exchange, informing one of the English volunteers that us Welsh people do in fact have our own language and culture separate to theirs!

I made such close friends on this trip that made for teary goodbyes, but I’m so glad to have met such amazing people along my journey. 

Welcoming new perspectives

I was so fortunate to be able to spend such a significant amount of time in Cambodia and immerse myself in the culture. Connecting with people from completely different backgrounds changed my perspective of the world completely.

Student Ray Lewis (a female with dark curly hair) with a Cambodian woman

It became evident that only staying within a familiar environment would limit how much I could grow as a person, bringing to light how essential it is for me to continue to break out of my comfort zone.

I learned that by embracing change, seeking new experiences, and connecting with people from diverse backgrounds, we not only grow as individuals but also contribute to a more compassionate and understanding world. 

Volunteering is not just about the hard work invested. By immersing myself in the role of being a global citizen, I was able to see the real and lasting change that it can bring to people's lives.

Seeing the smiles on the faces of children we worked with, building relationships despite our differences in language, and witnessing the appreciation from the local communities gave my journey profound purpose and fulfilment. It's a reminder that there's incredible beauty in dedicating your time and energy to make a positive difference for other people.

As someone from a working-class background, I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to do anything like this. It’s important to look into what opportunities you have and ask for help to make them happen, and I know first-hand that the University is here to support you the best they can.

So, for those contemplating spending time abroad as part of their studies, my advice is easy: seize all opportunities.

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.



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