In the second of a series on volunteering abroad in the health service, Patricia Sloan talks about her new life in Cambodia and shares photos from her adventure

It is exactly two months since I left from Manchester Airport, outward bound for Phnom Penh and into the unknown.

After spending the weeks before my departure saying goodbye to family and friends, I embarked on my life as a volunteer with VSO for the next two years. (See below for some of my photos.)

Two years might seem like a long time for such a placement, but it takes time to build relationships, understand work culture and find effective ways to support colleagues and encourage development.

Preparing to volunteer

I decided 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 adviser to match my skills with a vacancy in one of the countries where VSO has programmes.

We identified the hospital management adviser role in north west Cambodia as potentially suitable, as it matched my skills profile, and the process for preparing my placement was under way.

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.

I attended mandatory induction programmes where I developed practical skills relating to working and living overseas. But nothing 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 programmes. For the first few days, we stayed in the VSO programme office, with time to recover from jet lag and start to orientate ourselves to our new surroundings.

Then we began a seven-week orientation programme, which consists of a series of briefings on 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 intensive and very important. Although English has rapidly replaced French as the second language in Cambodia, in the provinces and rural areas, few people speak English.

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

Another important aspect of our cultural orientation involved a homestay 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 local people. I stayed with a farmer and his extended family for a day and joined in the family's routine.

Personal coping strategies

On a more personal level, I have a number of support networks that are proving invaluable. First, the group of volunteers I arrived in Phnom Penh with in October are an ongoing source of support.

The e-mails, letters and parcels I have received from my family and friends, and also from my colleagues in the NHS, have been another major source of support. I especially enjoyed the melted but still delicious bar of chocolate sent by one of the secretaries at Tameside and Glossop primary care trust.

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 and goes to bed early, and I have adjusted to this pattern quite quickly.

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.

Thanks to the patience of the staff at the VSO programme office in Phnom Penh, I now feel equipped to go into my workplace and face the challenges ahead.

About VSO

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, national insurance 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