Story: Volunteer Experience - Tasha

I’m Tasha, I’m from the United States and I volunteered with ANSA for 5 weeks starting in December 2023. I had visited a bit of South East Asia already, but didn’t know much about Cambodia before I arrived.  I came to ANSA mostly to help with writing or editing English language grant proposals and helped with proposals around gender equality and social inclusion in government agricultural services, indigenous people and gender responsiveness in sustainable forest and other land use and gender equality in land and natural resources rights. In addition to the technical work, the ANSA team helped to make my time here mean so much.    


My second week here, I was invited to accompany the staff to Ratanakiri province, the furthest province from the city on the Cambodian/Laos border. On this trip, ANSA was interviewing members of the local indigenous population for a proposed project meant to educate the younger population on sustainable forestry and other land use. As we got further from the city, roads and other infrastructure started to deteriorate but the country became more beautiful as we left behind the usual congestion of motorbikes, tuk tuks and street vendors, crossed the Mekong River and drove thru fields, forests, and eventually more mountainous landscapes. We visited several small indigenous communities during the time in Ratanakiri. Coming from the US, it’s rare that I’ve been so obviously a minority in any setting.  But even without the Khmer language and standing out as one of even the paler Caucasians, I was welcomed with “Hellos,” bows, warm smiles, and consideration to my needs/comforts. Here, I learned about the deforestation and illegal logging these communities have faced and how it’s impacting their future ability to stay in their homes and continue to support their families. I also experienced first-hand gender inequities during these community meetings with both the lack of women leadership representation and women lacking confidence/ability to speak up.   


This wasn’t a typical travel experience since I spent my weeks working, but I got to visit a couple other areas of the country on the weekends. Most notably, I visited Siem Reap and toured Angkor Wat and several of the other temples that were part of the Angkor city which was the capital and biggest city of the Khmer empire centuries ago. Many countries from around the world have donated money for restoration and upkeep of this recently proclaimed UNESCO world heritage site. The place was amazing perhaps my favorite thing I’ve seen in SE Asia. On the other hand, I also learned more about the history of wars, genocide and other injustices that the Cambodian people have faced and continue to face.  As an American, it was a hard visit to a land mine museum where I learned about the number of rural Cambodians who are still harmed or killed by undetonated land mines or other explosives that the US was a part of placing or dropping during the Vietnam War.  Near Angkor city, I also visited a village of rice farmers that even currently is one of several communities being forced to migrate from the area due to their proximity to the site. 


Visiting the country in this way, gave me the opportunity to get a bit more than the superficial look I’ve gotten in other areas. Even with the historical and current hardships and injustices, I’ve seen the sense of community, family and joy as I lived in neighborhoods that most tourists will never see or sat down to a shared meal where jokes and laughter were maybe as important as the food (and food is important here!). I am definitely leaving Cambodia with some new perspectives and I know I can’t help but change some of the ways I think and live in the future.