Back in September 2016 (about 4 months ago), Michelle and I left Colorado after a short 4 week post-Peace Corps break in the US. Since then we’ve traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, and now Myanmar. One of the things that has made it a very rewarding experience (and more affordable) is that we’ve been volunteering along the way. Using a website called workaway.info, we have found short term volunteer positions that provide us with room and board in exchange for working about 25 hours each week. On the website there are a number of different experiences available, and the one that took us to Cambodia was to work at Koh Thmei Resort.
We knew very little going in: it was on an island in Ream National Park, run by a German couple, and they had pigs, ponies, and 4 dogs. To get to the island we took a bus from nearby beach town Sianhoukville and asked to be dropped off on the side of the highway in Ou Chamnar, a village about 45 minutes away. We then hired two motorbike taxis to take us and our backpacks about 30 minutes down a partially paved road. The road ended in tiny Koh Kchhang fishing village, ripely scented with drying fish and shrimp, where we caught the boat to go out to Koh Thmei. The boat ride took us out of the village and through the mangrove channels surrounding it.
Leaving the shoreline we motored into seas that were a little rough, enough to rock the long tail boat and threaten to soak us. We both quickly donned our rain jackets and wondered which spot on the island would be our destination. When we did arrive, we were greeted by Kavita and shown to the cabin where we would live for the first 2 weeks of our month-long stay. Kavita is one half of the German couple who runs the resort. We would meet Michael, her husband, later that day when he returned from a shopping trip on the mainland. The actual resort is probably not what one would think of when planning a resort trip. There are no air conditioners, no pool-side massages, and no in-suite flat screen TVs with foreign satellite channels.
There are a total of 9 wooden bungalows with thatched roofs. Each one has a shower and western toilet in the tiled bathroom. There are electric outlets and fans over each bed, but the resort runs on a combination of solar and biodiesel generators, so from about 10:30 pm until 7:30 am there is no electricity. Each of the bungalows is about a 20 second walk from the ocean. As there are no nearby shops or restaurants, the wooden thatched roof resort bar/restaurant is the only option around. The food is great and the beers are cold; as Michael and Kavita say, “Germans know about cold beer!”
There are a few trails for hiking through the jungle, there’s an ocean to swim in, snorkeling a short boat ride away on the next island, hammocks, sun beds, and plenty of games in the restaurant. Aside from these it’s a pretty quiet place and a good one for relaxing, unwinding, reading or writing. Oh, also… there’s no wifi/internet and cellular service is weak. As I said, it’s a really good place for unwinding and relaxing.
So, for our first two weeks working at Koh Thmei Resort we stayed in a two level wood cabin that was about a 5-10 minute walk down the beach. This cabin was built by friends of Michael and Kavita as their getaway from the world (Joachim and Eugenia, they work with Doctors Without Borders and deserve such a getaway). When they arrived for vacation we moved out of their cabin and into one of the empty guest bungalows. When all of the bungalows were full (for New Year’s) we moved into the volunteer house, which was a simple two room wooden dorm building. This was without an attached bathroom, which made middle of the night bathroom walks to the restaurant a little more complicated.
While we were on the island, most of our work involved helping out in the restaurant: acting as waitstaff and tending the bar. The rest was manual labor around the property. Michelle took charge of raking leaves and beach cleanup. I was tasked with pulling weeds, which I got to feed to the pigs, and keeping a drainage pipe clear on the beach, which involved shoveling large quantities of wet sand. I actually quite enjoyed the sand shoveling, as it was like a more serious version of building moats on a beach as a child.
Some of our work was a little hard, but most was fairly easy though our hours were longer than the standard 25 per week (we were working about 42 hours each week, Monday-Friday). Neither of us minded since we were so well taken care of ( as I mentioned before, the food was pretty great), surrounded by nice people, and were tasked with socializing with the guests while in the restaurant.
The guests included a few Americans, many Germans, a Swiss couple, a British couple, a French guy, and several Swedes. In addition to the guests there was the staff, including Michael and Kavita, another German (Harold), 4 Cambodian ladies and 1 Cambodian guy. Harold used to be a professional chef, but left Europe to travel Asia. He had volunteered at the resort previously, and stayed on as a chef. He was a little quiet at first, but as I got to know him better found him to be a really kind and funny man. He could also speak some khmer (the Cambodian language), which meant that he could communicate with the Cambodian staff. While the Cambodians did speak some English, it was not a lot. When we first arrived they acted very shy around us and were hardly willing to speak a word. We worked to encourage them to feel more comfortable (using a lot of gestures and ridiculousness) and by the time we left they were talking to us. A little. They were really nice people, as all of the staff were. By the end of our month’s time on the island we felt like members of the family, regretting not being able to spend more time working there, but looking forward to our next experience.
While on the island we saw some amazing sunsets.
There were beautiful dark nights.
And there was a New Year’s Eve party with sky lanterns.