Cambodia: A Volunteer’s Frustrations


I hunch over my laptop in a tiny room shared by 8 people. It’s 5pm. I’ve been in this position since 8am. I’m pretty sure scoliosis is setting in.

This is my daily routine in Phnom Penh, writing grant proposals for People Health Development Association (PHD). I only have 4 weeks so I want to accomplish as much as possible. The more grants I apply for, the more funding PHD can receive.

Socheat had this shirt on when he came to pick me up one morning. I, of course, freaked out and asked where he got it. Apparently the other PHD boys have been asking for one for the last 6 months. I turned on the smile and 1 day later had my very own!

With that goal in mind, I finish each assignment at a New York workaholic pace (about 4 hours quicker than anyone anticipates). Then I sit for 2 hours, waiting for my boss to find something else for me to speed through.

PHD’s 7 employees are male, Cambodian, and under 30 years old. Only my boss, Ratanak, and the project manager, Socheat, know enough English to communicate with me. I’m the first foreign volunteer to work in their office.

I can’t communicate. I’m the only female. I haven’t slept in days because I live in a furnace-like room with no air conditioning. Bottom line: I’m frustrated. I feel like I shouldn’t waste time in an office with nothing to do. I feel like I’m not making a large enough difference. And I’m not seeing the impact.


PHD is a small, local NGO that began as a project under CARE International in Cambodia. They educate and train Cambodian university students on sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and gender issues. These students become peer educators who organize youth awareness activities at their universities.

Cambodia’s youth population is massive, with 70% of the total population younger than 30 years old (a result of horrific genocide). Most never receive sex education, and if they do it’s neither accurate nor comprehensive. This is a huge issue considering the prevalence of the sex industry and HIV/AIDS.

PHD’s staff provides a safe, comfortable environment for youth to learn about sex and ask questions. They discuss the female and male reproductive systems, how you contract HIV/AIDS, how to prevent disease, and many of the issues surrounding gender based violence.

Ideally, PHD’s programs will eliminate the stigma surrounding sex education in Cambodia and help change social attitudes of future generations.



The PHD boys plan a Friday night out, sensing we need a chance to connect outside the office. We hop on motos and arrive at a vegetarian restaurant. I point to what I want on the menu and they order in Khmer.

Ratanak leans over and says, “I ordered you a coffee, too. I think it’s about time for your hourly injection.” He smiles. I laugh. And that gesture was the icebreaker we needed. Free coffee. (Really. If you’re ever in Nashville, go to Frothy Monkey. The baristas will tell you every time they gave me a free cup I begged them to run away with me.)

After Ratanak’s little joke the banter was effortless. We talked about crazy siblings and awkward dates. My attitude switched from frustrated work mode to human connection mode, and I felt at ease.

My desire to make the biggest difference possible in a short amount of time had prevented me from relating to another culture. I was moving too fast – missing each day’s beautiful moment – just like my Italian friend warned.

I’m disappointed I wasted my first weeks in a cloud of frustration. But I went to work on Monday with a fresh outlook, ready to embrace what the day provided. I realized the opportunity I had ignored. I’m exploring the ins and outs of a local NGO. It’s intimate. It’s cultural. It’s full of “where’s my stash of aspirin?” moments. And while my ability to help may be limited, I’m learning, and that’s the most important part.

I’m not sure where I derived such an intense work pace. A competitive school environment? Most likely. Self-inflicted perfectionism? Definitely. But I’m beginning to question whether an robotic work ethic (so frequently attached to the American businessperson stereotype) creates barriers when forming relationships?

Within myself I think I’m finding the balance. Human connection is a universal desire. We want people to accept and understand us. And, sometimes, the simple recognition of your caffeine addiction is all it takes.


8 comments on “Cambodia: A Volunteer’s Frustrations

  1. Katie Wright says:

    Hang in there, Lauren! I know it may seem frustrating at times, but I’m sure they really appreciate your participation. If you feel like you’d be better off in another department, say so! Just know that you’re beautiful and needed!!

    • batesla says:

      Hi Katie! Thank you!!! I actually wrote this a week ago, and I’m feeling a lot better about my job now. The biggest challenge is that they’ve never had an outside volunteer before, and initially they had no idea what to do with me lol. The cultural barrier was really intimidating for me at first, but I’m slowly finding my way :).

  2. Aunt Liz says:

    Hey Lauren ~
    Life is full of hard work & good times!
    I think a balance of both is what it’s all about……
    Find a Passion and make Money doing it!
    Keep Good Friends!
    Have an Open Mind.
    Always make a Little time for yourself. Be Kind to yourself!!
    You certainly have been very giving to others & no doubt you will recieve all sorts of benefits from your Compassion.
    You are working so hard… are making a difference!
    I love Following you………Be Well and Enjoy your Coffee!!! Love Liz

  3. Hannah says:

    hahahaha your hourly injection. that’s adorable. so glad you’re feeling better about it ❤

    • batesla says:

      haha it’s a problem… and I am, slowly but surely. I’m off to Bali in a week for some girly, pampering time which I know you will appreciate ;). So happy you’re loving Turkey! Keep me updated ❤

  4. Mom says:

    You are learning a great and valuable lesson. It’s not just a lesson about NGOs and Cambodia. Its a work life lesson about the importance of people, culture, and becoming part of a team. Sometimes the most effective way to make a contribution is to slow down, listen, and create a trusting conversation with your colleagues. I am so proud of your ability to view the possibilities and limitations from outside your own perspective. That is real growth.


    The range of what we think and do
    is limited by what we fail to notice.

    And because we fail to notice
    that we fail to notice
    there is little we can do
    to change

    until we notice
    how failng to notice
    shapes our thoughts and deeds.

    R.D. Laing

    I love you! Mom

    • batesla says:

      Awwww momma!! What a fantastic quote!!! It’s incredible how easy it is to “fail to notice” in so many aspects of our lives and the world. I love you!
      ps – I started tearing up while reading that. What’s wrong with me? Every time we talk I’m crying haha. Let’s try for a tearless skype date this week ;).

  5. Aunt Liz says:

    Ohhhhhhhh…….I want to go to Bali !!! Take lot’s of Photo’s !!
    John would so love to go there too.
    Hey see if you can get a deal on John Hardy Jewelry They are based in Bali and Environmentlly Friendly !!

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