In the second of series on volunteering abroad, Patricia Sloan talks about how she is settling in to a new life in Cambodia.

It is exactly two months since I left from Manchester Airport outward bound for Phnom Penh and into the unknown. I had spent the weeks prior to departure saying good bye to family and friends and then embarked on my life as a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas for the next two years.

While this may seem like a relatively long period of time in a placement, the time required to build relationships, understand work culture and find effective ways to support colleagues and encourage development should not be underestimated.

Preparing to volunteer

I made my final decision to apply to work in overseas development in December 2006. I applied to VSO and was invited to participate in a selection day at their London office. Once through the selection process, I worked with a volunteer placement advisor to match my skills with a vacancy in the countries in which VSO have programmes.

We both identified the hospital management advisor role in North West Cambodia as potentially suitable as it matched my skills profile, and the process for preparing my placement was underway.

My CV was sent to VSO Cambodia, and onward to the Cambodian partners, in this case two referral hospitals in Mongkul Borei and Thmar Pouk in North West Cambodia.

Mandatory induction programmes involved developing practical skills relating to working and living overseas combined with significant elements of discussion relating to the personal challenges and coping strategies that would be needed to overcome them. But there is nothing that can prepare you for the reality of a situation.

“In country” orientation

I arrived in Phnom Penh with six other volunteers who would be working in VSO Cambodia’s Health or Livelihoods Programme areas with VSO Cambodia. For the first few days we were accommodated in the VSO programme office, with time to recover from jet lag and to start to geographically orientate ourselves to our new surroundings.

This was followed by a seven week in country orientation programme which consists of a series of briefings including topics such as personal security, culture and personal health. For four weeks of the programme, we relocated to Kampong Cham, a town north east of Phnom Penh for Khmer language training.

This part of the programme was both intensive and very important. Although English has rapidly replaced French as the second language in Cambodia, outside Phnom Penh in the provinces and rural areas, few people speak English.

Learning Khmer is also symbolic and demonstrates willingness by VSO and their volunteers to adapt to the country in which they are operating in. I now take great pleasure in speaking and joking in Khmer with people on the buses and the markets, and they are amazed that I can speak some Khmer, no matter how limited.

Another important aspect of cultural orientation involved a “home stay” with a Khmer family in a rural village. The objective was to expose volunteers to a working rural community, and provide insight into the daily lives of Khmer people. I stayed with a farmer and his extended family for a 24 hour period and joined in the family’s daily routine.

Personal coping strategies

On a more personal level, I have a number of support networks which are proving invaluable. Firstly, the group of volunteers with whom I arrived in Phnom Penh on 25 October 2007 are an ongoing source of mutual support both on an individual basis and as a group. I anticipate that the relationships that I have formed with the other six volunteers will continue to operate as a support system through out the next two years.

Another major source of support has been the emails, letters and parcels of support and good will that I have received from my family and friends, and also from my colleagues in the NHS in these first few months. They have been invaluable especially the melted but still delicious bar of chocolate sent by one of the secretaries at Tameside and Glossop PCT.

Settling into a daily routine of work and home life has been important in helping me to feel part of Cambodian life. Cambodia is a country that wakes up very early, from 5 am onwards, and goes to bed early, and have adjusted to this pattern quite quickly.

As yet I am not missing any specific thing about the UK. But I do now appreciate the value of many of the things I took for granted before such as a clean water supply, and a reasonable public transport system.

The In country orientation may appear long, but combined with the patience of the staff at the VSO Programme Office in Phnom Penh, I now feel well equipped to go into my work place and face the challenges that lie before me during the next two years.

Box out

VSO is an international development charity that works through professional volunteers who live and work at the heart of communities in 34 countries around the world. Working in partnership with local colleagues, they share their skills and expertise to help find long-term solutions to poverty.

The charity recruits skilled and experienced professionals from a wide range of backgrounds including health, education and business. Health management professionals are needed to develop hospital management systems through staff development, budget planning and resource management, particularly in Cambodia.

VSO volunteers usually have a professional qualification in their field as well as a minimum of at least two years' experience. As well as professional skills, they must have the right personal qualities, which include confidence, flexibility and the ability to work effectively with others. Volunteer placements can last from two weeks to two years, with shorter-term assignments aimed at those with a high level of experience.

In return, VSO offers a comprehensive volunteer package including return flights, basic accommodation, a local living allowance, NI contributions for the period of service (or country equivalent), insurance, comprehensive pre-departure and in-country training as well as support from a dedicated VSO team on the ground.

For more information visit http://www.vso.org.uk/volunteering/

Patricia Sloan is currently on a career break from her role as a director with Tameside and Glossop Primary Care trust.