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Written by Alice McLeod on 11 / 08 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

Embarking on a transformative gap year journey is a decision that opens doors to invaluable experiences, and what better way to dive into the heart of Cambodia's vibrant culture than through the eyes of our team leader and founder of the Red Road Foundation, Rachel Riggio? In this filmed interview, we sit down with an inspiring leader who has navigated the captivating landscapes and communities of Cambodia, sharing with us her journey that led to her setting up the Red Road. From what led her to start a new life in Kampot to her hopes for the foundation she's pioneered, Rachel shares with us her insights and connections, and let's us know why everyone should step out of their comfort zone whilst on their gap year.

Who is Rachel and what is the Red Road?

Rachel is our Cambodia programme team leader. She's originally from the LA, but has been living in Cambodia for 10 years. She initially thought she'd only be in Cambodia a year or two, but fell in love with how wild and wonderful it is, and knows she'll be there for the rest of her life. She loves travel, adventure, nature, and making the world a better place.

The Red Road is based on a small organic permaculture farm, and houses a school, as well as supporting small local businesses. The school teaches local children English, maths, leadership skills, as well as arts and crafts. When Rachel first set up the school many of the kids weren't going to school at all, as the nearest government school was a very long walk, and the families couldn't afford the books and uniform they needed.

What inspired Rachel to set up the Red Road, and why Kampot?

After working for the government back in the US for six years in the mental health sector, Rachel felt liek she wasn\t making the diference there with the way things were run and the systems in place. She had life experiences that led her out of the country and was craving being around humble and grateful epopele, but was also finding herself surrounded by other people who wanted to make a positive difference in the world. Rachel wanted to create something that meant these people could help, and could work towards a hub that would benefit people. This inspired her to found the Red Road, and has since met people from all over the world who want to help and who have been inspired to see themselves differently after volunteering there.

Rachel was lead to Kampot after she went on a trip around Cambodia with her brother, the co-founder of the Red Road. As they travelled they realised there was a real issue with human trafficking, and this really inspired them to set up the Red Road. They chose Kampot as they felt that children in rural areas were more at risk of being trafficked, so decided to set up a free education centre there in aim of reducing this. There were lots of factors that meant Rachel ended up in Kampot, but she feels like it was meant to be.

What's the advantage of volunteering here, and what does a typical day look like?

Not only do the local children benefit from meeting a range of enthusiastic volunteers who will each bring something new and dynamic to the table, but the volunteers are able to have the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and to be humbled and to give something back. They can step off the tourist trail and find out about the real struggles of rural Cambodians, a step away from the shiny Siem Reap and hostels. Rachel agrees that the more people give and involve themselves in the project, the more self-confident and proud they feel about themselves.

No two days are the same, but most usually involve project work in the morning, a siesta during the hottest part of the day, and more project work in the afternoon. On days when the school is open the day revolves around that, including helping the kids practice their English, playing sport with them, and taking part in arts and crafts.

If you'd like to read more about a previous Leaper's time in Cambodia then you can read about her experience here.

What does Rachel feel her biggest achievement with the Red Road, and what does she love the most about her job?

The Red Road has been giving free education to kids in rural Cambodia for nearly 10 years now, and at this point the project is very nearly self-sustainable, no longer relying on donations. Through hosting Leap trips, selling moringa oil (grown locally and made onsite, bamboo straws, and recycled glass products, Rachel will be able to keep the Red Road self-sustainable in the years to come.

Rachel loves seeing the difference it makes. She loves seeing the kids learning, and having new dreams and experiences that they wouldn't have had otherwise. When she first moved to Cambodia the children would say they either wanted to be a farmer or a policeman, because that's all they really knew; now they're wanting go to college. In fact the Red Road was involved in one of the first kids who ever went to college from that village. She also loves having the opportunity to meet people from all over the world who want to come and make the world a better place.

What's her favourite thing about living in Cambodia?

Rachel loves that the people are wild, free, and present. They take their time to really look you in the eye, and you have very genuine interactions with people. People aren't constantly rushing from one place to another, and every day is an adventure.

So there you have it, a brief insight into Rachel's life in Cambodia running the Red Road. If you've been inspired by her and her story, and would like to see it all yourself then you can check out our 3-week Cambodia programme. Not only will you get to volunteer at this amazing foundation, but you'll also get to see the splendour of Siem Reap, the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, and chill out on the beaches of Koh Rong Sanloem. Here at The Leap we truly believe that one of the best things you can do on your gap year is contribute to a volunteering project in the country you're backpacking through, and this is the perfect opportunity to do so with a foundation that's making a huge positive difference to the life of rural Cambodians. If you'd like more information then don't hesitate to get in touch.


How easy is it to get from the UK to Cambodia? It's a long ol' way but it's easy enough to do. A common route is through Singapore, but you can also go via Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Ho Chi Minh City. You can split the journey up so it's not so long all in one go, or you can brave the 15+ hour journey in a oner.

Do I need to speak Khmer to get around Cambodia? It certainly wouldn't hurt, but it's an incredibly tricky language to learn, so most people get by with the basic phrases (please, thank you etc). If you join our team programme then you'll be guided around Cambodia by Rachel, who speaks fluent Khmer.

I'm an independent traveller and would like to volunteer at the Red Road, is that possible? It is! You can go to Rachel directly through our independent gap year travel advice hub.

I'd like to start my gap year in Cambodia but I'm not sure where to go next. From Cambodia all of South East Asia opens up before you. You can read our blog here about the best route through SE Asia or you can get in contact and speak to our friendly team about your options.

Want to join us in Cambodia?

If you'd like to join Rachel and her efforts at the Red Road then check out our three week Cambodia programme. Not only will you get to see the amazing work the Red Road is doing firsthand, but you'll tick Angkor Wat off your bucket list, see elephants living their best life in a sanctuary, learn more about the history of Cambodia at the Killing Fields, and round off your action-packed three weeks on a stunning tropical island.

Find out more

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Here at The Leap we can help both team traveller through our programmes and/or the backpacker.

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