Things that you need to know about Cambodia
What terrific news! After working double shifts for the past 6-months to save money, you’re about to head-off and pursue that long-held goal of teaching English in Cambodia. Your interest in Cambodia was sparked by email and SKYPE communication with the good people at AVSE-TESOL in Phnom Penh. Personally, I think you’ve made a great choice. Cambodia is the ‘last frontier’ for English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching.
In this blog post I’ll highlight key information about Cambodia that will help with making the transition to ‘living like a local’ a bit quicker than it might otherwise be.
Tip: They say we should be mindful of bad things that have occurred in history, so it’s less likely they’ll be repeated. With this idea in mind, no stint teaching English in Cambodia would be complete without visiting the ‘Killing’ Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, illustrating the Khmer Rouge years.
The Kingdom of Cambodia has a checkered history, not just over the past four or five decades, but for time immemorial. What we know as Cambodia today was part of at least two ancient realms before declaring independence for the first time in the year 802. At its peak in the 12th century, the Khmer Empire was the largest nation in Southeast Asia (as we know it today). The Angkor Wat religious temple, modern day Cambodia’s premier tourist attraction, dates from this period. Skipping forward six centuries, Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1867. Other than a period of Japanese occupation (1941 to 1945), the French ruled Cambodia until 1953.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia under the leadership of the infamous Pol Pot. It’s estimated that the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of more than two million Cambodians, a quarter of the population at that time. In addition to massacre on an industrial scale, the Khmer Rouge destroyed much of Cambodia’s historic architecture and sites that carried religious importance. What wasn’t destroyed by those who ruled Cambodia during this period, was left in ruins by years of war and neglect. In the space of a couple of decades, Cambodia went from being a place that Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Dictators went out of their way to visit, to a place of unimaginable suffering. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Cambodia began to emerge from the darkness of war and famine. The monarchy was restored in 1993 and today Cambodia operates a ‘multiparty’ ‘democracy’ with a King as the head of State.
While Cambodia’s reintegration to the world community is one of the success stories of the late 20th century, there’s a lot of ‘nation-building’ work that still needs to be done. Cambodians see a direct connection between English language skills and the development of their country. This directly translates into decent jobs teaching English in Cambodia for people like you – folks with the skills, knowledge, qualifications and willingness to step outside their comfort zone.
Tip: Don’t swim or wade in a river or stream in Cambodia. It might look inviting, but there’s a high chance of something lurking in the water that will make you very ill.
The total land area of Cambodia is 181,035 square kilometres. Cambodia shares land borders with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. River systems, especially the Tonle Sap and the Mekong, flat farming land and mountain ranges are Cambodia’s most prominent geographical features. Rivers that flow through the country are essentially the lifeblood of Cambodian society. Among other things, Cambodia’s rivers provide an important food source, transportation and water for agriculture, the country’s main industry.
While Sihanoukville in the south of Cambodia is best known as holiday destination for beachgoers and folks who like casinos, it is the country’s only deep-water, maritime port. Sihanoukville has undergone massive transformation over the past decade on the back of casino-related development, funded almost exclusively by Chinese companies.
From a geographical perspective, most of the English teaching jobs in Cambodia are in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Finding a teaching job in a rural area in Cambodia is possible, but it requires patience and lots of networking because they’re relatively few in number.
Tip: If you’re invited to eat with a Khmer family at their house, make sure you remove your shoes and hat before going inside. Also, a small gift, perhaps fruit or flowers, will be well-received.
Cambodia’s population is estimated to be 16.6 million people. Khmer is the largest ethnic group in Cambodia – 90%+ of the total population. Other ethnic groups in Cambodia with sizable numbers include Khmer Muslims, Vietnamese, Chinese and tribal groups such as the Pnong, Tampoun, Jarai and Kreung peoples. Over the past five years in particular, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of foreigners from Europe, North America and Australia who are living in Cambodia. Anecdotally, the key ‘pull’ factors include the low cost of living, the relative ease to open a business and an expat lifestyle that’s afforded by teaching English in Cambodia and other lines of work where English language skills are vital.
I’ve had the good fortune to spend years travelling around the world. I have lived and worked in 8 different countries. I can put my hand on my heart and say without a shadow of doubt that Khmer people are right up there with the best of the best. Abject poverty prevails in Cambodia, but your average Khmer person will literally give you the shirt off his (or her) back. You’ll be invited in for meals, even though it’s not uncommon for a family to forgo a meal because they don’t have any money. There is every reason for Khmer people to be hostile towards foreigners given the pillaging that has occurred throughout history, but they’re not hostile at all. They’re a forgiving lot.
Tip: Monks are revered in Cambodia. It’s important to always show respect to monks. Make sure you are dressed conservatively (fully covered) before entering a temple. Under no circumstances should you touch a monk.
Official statistics on religious affiliation in Cambodia don’t exist, but observers estimate that around 97% of the population is Theravada Buddhist, with the remaining 10% consisting of Christians, Muslims and other denominations.
During your time teaching English in Cambodia, you’ll no doubt have the opportunity to visit any number of pagodas and other places of religious significance. It’s wise to do a bit of research beforehand on the places you plan to visit. Apart from providing information that will make your visit more meaningful, you’ll be informed about behaviour, dress code and suchlike, that’s considered appropriate at that location.
Tip: If you’re teaching English in Cambodia in the wet season, make sure you carry your work shoes in your bag and wear sandals to and from school. Why? There’s a good chance you’ll have to wade through knee-deep water every now and again.
Cambodia has a tropical climate with warm to hot weather 12 months of the year. There are two distinct seasons in Cambodia, the dry season and the wet season.
The dry season typically starts in November and goes to the following April. The weather in Cambodia during this period is characterised by zero (or next to zero) rain. With temperatures reaching upwards of 38 degrees Celsius, April and May are the hottest months in Cambodia, with clear blue skies being the norm.
From late May through to October, heavy rain and high humidity dominate the weather pattern in Cambodia. Like that famous song for young children, ‘when it rains, it pours’, probably like nothing you have witnessed before. As quickly as it rains in Cambodia during the wet season, the rain stops and life resumes from where it left off. It’s a sight to behold.
Tip: If taking formal Khmer language lessons while you’re busy teaching English in Cambodia doesn’t appeal to you, learning how to count in the local language in your own time would be a wise move. You will find it handy when buying things.
With 90% of the population being ‘ethnic Khmer’, it’s no surprise that Cambodia’s official language is ‘Khmer’. Interestingly, it hasn’t always been this way. During the colonial period, French was the official local language.
Nowadays, street signs and the like in Cambodia are usually in Khmer and English. Postage stamps and currency include snippets of English. With a high number of Vietnamese, Chinese and Laotian people living and working in Cambodia, there’s a good chance you will come across folks speaking a language that is less familiar, as you go about your everyday business.
Tip: Doing business at any level in Cambodia can be frustrating due to the bureaucratic processes and language barriers. Put ‘one foot in front of the other’ and nearly always you’ll achieve the desired outcome.
Ostensibly the economy in Cambodia is based on the free market system, but government intervention is commonplace. Cambodia has recorded economic growth over the past decade that most western countries can only dream about, largely on the back of substantial foreign investment. Most economic activity in Cambodia is agricultural in nature. Key products include rice (a staple food across the region), rubber, cassava and pepper. Cambodia also has a thriving export market for teak, mahogany, precious gems, textiles and footwear.
Vocational Education and Training, including English language studies, is a relatively new industry in Cambodia. Like other segments of the Cambodian economy, it’s experiencing exponential growth and job opportunities for foreign teachers and trainers outstrip the number of suitably qualified people many times over. This is good news for people who are up for the challenge of teaching English in Cambodia – or some other discipline.
Tip: Make sure you have a pen of your own that works when you arrive at your port of entry for Cambodia.
You will need a valid passport with a minimum of six months remaining and a valid visa to enter Cambodia. You will also need a lot of patience when you arrive at your port of entry. Entering Cambodia can be really quick or really slow, there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.
If your plans include completing the TESOL programme at AVSE-TESOL in Phnom Penh and then travelling outside of Cambodia after the course finishes, a conventional Tourist Visa (coverage for 30 days) may well be sufficient. You can purchase a Cambodian Tourist Visa online or you can buy one at your point of entry. The price is US $30.00. Note, your payment needs to be accompanied by two passport size photos.
Conversely, if your plans include completing the TESOL programme at AVSE-TESOL in Phnom Penh and then teaching English in Cambodia immediately after, you’d be well-advised to opt for the one-month Ordinary Visa (E class) on arrival. Why? It can be extended indefinitely without having to leave the country on what is commonly called a ‘border (visa) run’. The Ordinary Visa (E class) costs US $35.00. Again, you will need two passport size photos to keep the visa people happy.
Tip: Cambodians really dislike bank notes that are old, dirty or torn, even if it ‘s only a nick. ‘Tainted’ bank notes are often given in change when a person buys something as a way of passing the ‘headache’ onto someone else. Carefully check your change for bank notes that are problematic.
Cambodia’s official currency is the ‘Riel’, but local people prefer to conduct transactions in US dollars. Prices are typically quoted and advertised in US dollars. ATM machines all over Cambodia dispense US dollars. Almost certainly your monthly salary from teaching English in Cambodia will be paid in US dollars.
It’s fair to say that Cambodia is one of those places in the world where there’s a need to be extra vigilant with money and items of value. Such is life in a country where abject poverty prevails. Among other things, being extra vigilant includes carrying your wallet in a front pocket, not storing all your money in one place, only carrying the money that you need at a given time, not counting your money in the street and being super careful when you use an ATM. Here’s a challenge for you. Put your ‘thinking cap’ on and come up with another five ‘being vigilant with money’ strategies.
I have touched on several key issues in this blog post, history, people and religion to name only three, with the intent of sparking interest and offering a helping-hand with your transition to everyday life in Cambodia. You’ll encounter plenty of frustrations in Cambodia, but they’re just part of the journey. Almost certainly when you look back on your time teaching English in Cambodia, it will be the people you met, locals and other expats, that will first come to mind. You’re very lucky! Grab the opportunity with both hands.
About the writer: Peter Goudge is the Managing Director (and owner) of Australian Vocational Skills and Education (AVSE-TESOL) in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Online. TESOL certification through Peter’s company, AVSE-TESOL, is all about providing aspiring ESL educators with the skills, knowledge and quality certification they need for jobs teaching English in Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere. Here is a link to the AVSE-website: www.avse.edu.vn