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The Best Places to Volunteer in Phnom Penh

You can help sun bears as part of Phnom Penh's volunteer options.
You can help sun bears as part of Phnom Penh's volunteer options. | © Wildlife Alliance
Voluntourism in Cambodia has come under fire in recent years for exploiting the children and vulnerable people it aims to help. However, there are still ways to give up your time for the greater good, especially if you’ve got the time to invest and a skillset to share. Here are some great places to volunteer in Phnom Penh.

Join a litter pick

Plastic waste plagues Phnom Penh. Straws, bags, bottles and Styrofoam choke the capital’s waterways and heaped piles of rubbish litter the city’s back lanes. According to anti-poverty organisation ACRA, the average urban-living Cambodian uses more than 2,000 plastic bags a year, with 10 million used daily in Phnom Penh alone.

In recent years, there have been efforts to make the country more environmentally-friendly, spearheaded by GoGreen Cambodia and other organisations. GoGreen regularly organises litter picks across the capital, with anyone and everyone invited to join in. Helping tidy up the capital and spread the word to passers-by is a great way to offer a helping hand and make new friends along the way. Details are available on GoGreen’s Facebook page.

Alternatively, if you’re not in town during a litter pick but still want to play your part in the citywide effort to clean up the capital, download the GoGreen Cambodia app from Google Play and flag up clean and dirty spots you come across in Phnom Penh. This information is then collated and shared with local authorities to address.

Friends International

NGO Friends International (FI) works tirelessly throughout Cambodia with the country’s most marginalised youth. From providing vocational training, education, operating a series of social enterprises and running educational programmes to offering outreach support programmes, drug rehabilitation and health campaigns, the organisation has a range of opportunities that give under-privileged youngsters and their families a fresh start in life.

FI has also been a pioneer in educating the world about the dangers of orphanage tourism and irresponsible voluntourism in Cambodia, so don’t expect to sign up to spend a few hours with cute kids. In fact, it will only accept volunteers who are able to offer a specific skillset valuable to the organisation and who can invest a valuable amount of time — after all, what good can be done in a few days?

If this type of volunteering doesn’t tickle your fancy, then you can still play your part by dining at one of FI’s fabulous training restaurants, Friends the Restaurant and Romdeng, or browse the handicrafts for sale at Friends ‘N’ Stuff — all crafted by the families of the children and young people it has under its wing.

Free the Bears

Wildlife enthusiasts will be in their element volunteering at Free the Bears, which is located at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. The organisation works with sun and moon bears that are rescued from the clutches of poachers or the illegal wildlife trade.

They are rehabilitated at the centre before being released back into the wild. Volunteering opportunities with Free the Bears range from four days to eight weeks, with activities including feeding the animals, helping keepers, building and repairing bear hammocks and general maintenance of the centre.

A Free the Bears research internship is also available to university students wanting to undertake a 4–12 week project from its research prospectus, which is available upon request.

Animal Mama

Another one for animal activists is Animal Mama — a vet clinic and pet wellness centre. On top of offering veterinary and boarding services, the centre operates as a shelter, taking in abandoned animals and those struggling to survive on the streets.

The social enterprise also operates Home of Heroes, which offers a loving place for retired de-mining dogs, who have risked their lives sniffing out landmines in Cambodia and overseas, in their final years and pups who didn’t make the cut — saving them from euthanasia.

Volunteers can take part in the human therapy programme, which involves helping to socialise rescued animals and prep them for life in their new forever homes by walking dogs and playing with kittens, cats and pooches.

International qualified and trainee vets, as well as shelter workers, can also enrol in an intern programme slated to start later this year. Here, they are paired with a local student to get first-hand experience working in the field in Cambodia as well as invaluable experience and exchange of knowledge.

English teachers who can spend an hour a day for a minimum of two weeks are also sought to teach staff and local vet students the language.