Modern 21st century Phnom Penh is a bustling, open city, alive with work and activity, and yet it still retains something of the old world charm that it was fabled for before the awful events of the 1970’s. Along with the rest of the country, the capital of Cambodia has emerged into the middle of this decade with hope and confidence that the future will be better than the past, and there is certainly no better time to visit than now.
If you intend to stay for an extended period, teaching English is a great way to get to know the country and people and make some travelling money while you’re at it.
Due to the massive growth in the country’s economy, of which trade and tourism from English speaking countries has figured very highly, tens of thousands of Cambodians, young and old, are looking for a quality grounding and certificates in English. Teaching English as a Second Language then is a fantastic choice for someone looking to spend some time learning about the real culture, history, and lifestyle of Cambodia and South East Asia, and it is a genuine chance to meet people from all walks of life that you wouldn’t otherwise.
Qualifications – It was possible in the past to land a teaching job without any relevant qualifications, but that is thankfully getting rarer and rarer these days. At the very least, a TEFL certificate or degree in English will be required, and some kind of teaching or tutoring experience is a definite advantage. Without one or the other, the better schools may start a prospective teacher off with a test class or limited hours to ascertain whether they do indeed have the ability to teach.
For the highest paying private or international schools and colleges, a full teaching degree and qualification, such as P.G.C.E. or HDip is required, usually with two years’ experience.
Documentation – A professional looking C.V., which lists experience and qualifications, and copies of any relevant certificates and references, are vital.
Always include a passport photo (in professional attire) with your C.V., a Cambodian mainstay, and get a local phone number as quickly as possible. This is very important, as most busy principals and managers won’t bother with an email address, preferring a simple, direct phone call.
Do some research prior to entering the country and give yourself an idea of when the schools and colleges start their term. Remember that Cambodia only has two seasons, wet and dry, and the country’s holidays, like Khmer New Year, differ markedly from those in Western countries. Chances of employment in the middle of term are slim.
By arriving close to the end of term or even at the start of the term break when schools are putting together rosters for the coming months, a prospective teacher will find that their services are in the most demand.
Job Hunting – Some of the larger and more popular schools in Cambodia for foreign teachers are Beltei, Pannasastra, Home of English, and the ISPP. It’s important to look as professional as possible when visiting schools like this. With the often searing Cambodia sun, a t-shirt and shorts is de rigueur in many social circles, but not professionally. When you teach you will be expected to look smart, so it’s a very good idea to arrive looking the part. You will be judged on how you look, so if you intend to work somewhere that is reputable, be prepared to give a good first impression.
When you visit schools, try to meet someone in management or H.R., making an appointment by phone if necessary. Leaving your C.V. at the receptionist’s desk (often students themselves) is likely to get it filed and forgotten.
Extra Legwork and the Job Interview – While the ex-pat community in Cambodia is quite large, it’s said that there are 20,000 Westerners living in Phnom Penh alone, it is not so big that there isn’t a lot of mixing between social circles. Almost everyone will know someone who is teaching in some capacity, and even if they don’t, they will probably be able to point you in the direction of a campus that you may have missed. Letting people that you meet casually know what you’re looking for can very often open up possibilities that wouldn’t occur otherwise.
Once your C.V. is accepted and the school has gotten in contact, a sit down, face to face interview is the next step. The interview process in Cambodia isn’t demanding when compared to some countries, but just getting in the door doesn’t necessarily mean that you are guaranteed a job. Make sure to show up on time, dress smart, and emphasize your qualifications and experience. For many, these are fairly basic rules to follow, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize or simply don’t bother.
Preparation is the key. A lot of people think that because they can speak English, they can teach it. This is not the case. Some people are very good with grammar and theory, but have no idea how to actually explain it in terms that others can understand. Others are poor when it comes to the theory, but make up for it by being great with students and building a rapport. Some people, unfortunately, have neither, and either give up, or become embittered and blame the students, which is not good for either party.
In order to give yourself the best chance for a successful term and a pleasurable teaching experience, read through the textbooks that the school provides from end to end and make sure that you have understood everything, including preparing your own simple word definitions.
A patient teacher who knows their topic inside out is respected by Cambodian students, and they will also (as fee payers) expect to be treated courteously at all times. Loud, rude, and abrasive attitudes are counterproductive, and it is has not been unknown for teachers to be let go a couple of weeks into a term because the class will not work for them.
Working Hours/Salary/Tax – Typical salaries for English teachers in Cambodia range from about $600 to $1500 a month; however, the relatively low income being offset by a low cost of living. Those with experience can probably hope to get a little more. Private tutoring is also an option to increase the number of hours per month and these private classes will usually be more monetarily rewarding than ordinary language schools. Look at daily newspapers like the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post, as well as ex-pat classifieds sites like Khmer440 and BongThom, for openings. Teachers with full teaching qualifications (e.g. P.G.C.E.) should look to the international schools, where yearly salaries start at just over $30,000 and go as high as $55,000.
Working hours per week can vary from 15 to 30, depending on circumstances.
Best of Luck! – The ideal of course is to have something lined up as soon as you arrive, but if you’re the adventurous type, there is nothing like getting out there and hustling. Just remember to enjoy it!
First Impressions of Teaching in Cambodia
Driving into Phnom Penh the first thing you notice is the bustle. This is an open, working city, where shop fronts are deliberately left wide open to allow in cooling breezes and entice the customer with the produce. Workshops ring with the sound of saws and hammers on steel, and there’s constant activity wherever you look. I first arrived in the city in the late autumn of 2009, passing through on my way to Australia, or at least that’s what I thought at the time. I arrived from Bangkok, and the streets and roads were immediately different, unpaved a lot of the way, my taxi throwing up dust as it weaved its way between the ocean of scooters and tuk tuks. The roads changed from what were essentially rough shanties to larger buildings and hardware shops to smaller streets that all seemed to specialize in selling one type of product. Here was the street that sold lamps, fans, and mattresses, then you’d turn a corner and pass by three tailor shops in a row. Next, there would be a street of mobile phone shops. To my mind it didn’t seem to make sense setting up two shops right next to each other that sold the same thing, but I quickly picked up that it was the done thing in Cambodia.
I intended to stay in Cambodia for a couple of months at most, and probably do some volunteer teaching while I was there. I had read that English teaching was quite popular before leaving home and as I had a B.A. in English, I thought I might be able to make myself useful doing something. When it became clear though that I was going to be staying a lot longer than I had originally planned, I began to look around for some serious paid work. I didn’t have a TEFL at that stage, but I had been told that if you had some teaching experience and college qualifications that you could probably find something. In the bad old days, Westerners in Cambodia could be hired simply because they came from English speaking countries, regardless of their academic or training background, but things had tightened up in the last five years or so before I arrived.
My job hunting was an adventure in itself. I was staying in a hostel pretty close to what could be termed the center of the city, at least for ex-pats, BKK1. The BKK stands for Boeung Keng Kang, and as I was to learn, the city was divided into a grid system with four or five main boulevards acting as arteries all around it. BKK1 was an island divided by four of these boulevards north, south, east, and west. The boulevards themselves were named for Cambodian or Khmer royalty mainly, although one of the largest is named Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, due no doubt to his support for the recently deceased King Father of Cambodia in times past.
The smaller streets are numbered, from number one well into the hundreds, and although a few of them have names, most simply go by the street numbers, which are marked clearly on the city maps. My problems started when I put together a list of schools to visit and drop my C.V. into. I hired a motodop (motorbike driver) for the travelling. I didn’t have a bike myself at the time, and I figured having a local driver would be handy for finding the various schools around the cities. What I didn’t realize was that the number system had only been introduced a few short years before and that the locals didn’t bother with it at all, preferring to find their way around by using the Buddhist temples and the various marketplaces dotted all over the place as landmarks.
What followed was great fun. Under a baking sun, my driver Sopahna and myself would race around the city searching for the schools on my list, with him periodically stopping to ask directions from his motodop colleagues as to where we were and where we should be going. As the drivers tend to congregate in groups at corners, you could be guaranteed that you’d get at least three different answers about which was the best route. The debates could get quite energetic, with much pointing in various directions and rapid fire sentences in Khmer going back and forth. We eventually found the places we were looking for and getting lost so often actually had an unexpected advantage as we ended up passing a lot of schools that weren’t on my list and visiting them too. I also got to see more of the city in a few days than others did in months. I would arrive back in the evening, red with the sun, and recount adventures I had had that day of ending up by the lake or some temple on the outskirts that no one had heard of, let alone visited.
It’s important to look as professional as possible when job hunting like this, so do not just show up in a t-shirt and shorts, even if it is very hot. When you teach you will be expected to look smart, so it’s a very good idea to arrive looking the part. You might not like it, but you will be judged on how you look, so if you intend to work somewhere reputable, be prepared to give a good first impression. Next, when you arrive, try to meet someone in management or H.R. Make an appointment if necessary, as just leaving your C.V. at the receptionist’s desk is likely to get it filed and forgotten. Always include a passport photo with your C.V. and get a local phone number as quickly as possible. This is important, as most managers I’ve spoken to won’t bother with an email address; they prefer a simple, direct phone call.
For some, getting called back can be as quick as dropping in a C.V. in the morning and getting a call in the afternoon if their qualifications (TEFL especially) are in order. It took a little longer for me due to the fact that I was still in the process of acquiring my TEFL through an online course, and I’d also made the mistake of arriving at a time when most of the school and colleges were in the middle of term. Again, this is where meeting someone with responsibility for hiring is important as they will remember you when the new term is rolling around and they are looking for teachers. The lesson is if you’re planning on traveling to a new country to look for TEFL work, make sure to research when the schools are hiring beforehand. Term times differ between Asian and European countries, as well as between the various institutions within those countries themselves, so the more you know the better.
Another thing to bear in mind is that in most places, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Try as best you can to get talking to people around you about what they’re doing and where they’re doing it. For instance, one morning having breakfast in my hostel, I got talking to a Dutch girl who told me she was teaching in a school close by that I had completely missed on my travels as it was off the main streets and pretty much unlisted. Friends would text me the names of schools as they passed around the city themselves, and I would make an effort to visit.
In the end, it was a friend of a friend who helped me out after weeks of applications hadn’t garnered anything except a meeting with an American evangelist who told me straight off that he had nothing open for the next six months, but he thought it was a good idea to “touch base.”
Luckily, my contact was somewhat more helpful in that he was a former teacher himself, and was able to pass my C.V. on to the human resources department at a private university. Within a day or two I had an interview set up. I had actually filled out an application at the same institution a couple of weeks before, and funnily enough, in my interview the dean asked me why I hadn’t come to them sooner, rather than let my friend tell them about me! Although the interview process in Cambodia isn’t demanding, just getting in the door doesn’t necessarily mean you’re guaranteed a job. Make sure to show up on time, dress smart, and emphasize your qualifications and experience. For many, these are fairly basic rules to follow, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize or simply don’t bother.
Although my interview was successful, I still had to wait a few weeks until the new term got started. Luckily, this allowed plenty of time to prepare for the classes I would be teaching. It seemed that the policy for new teachers was to bombard them with as many grades as possible, so I found myself poring over books for elementary, high school and adult English classes over the next few weeks. Like a lot of native speaking English teachers, I found that although I knew how things were supposed to be done, I had no way of explaining why they were done the way they were. “They’re going there with their friends.” The triple use of a word with the same sound in this sentence was an example. Why was it written this way? There was the definite and indefinite article to explain, and what was a complex sentence? Indeed, what was a compound-complex sentence? I had learned some grammar at school, but it hadn’t really extended beyond nouns, verbs, and adjectives as far as I could remember. I began to worry. I found myself spending the mornings and afternoons by a pool (it wasn’t all bad!) reading the problems and doing the exercises that in a few weeks I would be teaching myself.
Preparation is the key. A lot of people I have met think that because they can speak English, they can teach it. This is not the case. Some people are very good with grammar and theory, but have absolutely no idea how to actually explain it in terms that others can understand. Others are poor when it comes to the theory, but make up for it by being great with students and building rapport. Some people unfortunately, have neither, and either give up or become embittered and blame the students, which is not good for either party. During my first month looking for work and my next month preparing for it I came across all three, and I made sure to learn what I could from them as well as making myself as familiar as possible with the subject matter. I wanted to avoid that first time a student put up their hand and asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to for as long as I could.
All too quickly, however, the days ticked by and before I knew it the Monday of my first day had rolled around. Ironically, or predictably, depending on your perspective, as soon as I had gotten a concrete job offer with a starting date, all those schools I had laboriously sped around to with Sopanha on his scooter started calling and offering me work. Luckily the job that I had accepted still seemed the most attractive, but it was good to know that all that time and hard work had been for something. Of course I managed to show up in the wrong classroom for my first class that day, but they do say it’s best to start off with a laugh!
A lot of aspiring TEFL teachers will find their experience a bit more straightforward than I did. As I said earlier, preparation is the key for getting ready to do those first few classes, but it is also true when it comes to getting that first job. Make sure to have your qualifications in order and your arrival date timed so that you’ll be arriving just when the schools are looking for teachers. The ideal of course is to have something lined up as soon as you arrive, but if you’re the adventurous type, there is nothing like getting out there and hustling. Just remember to enjoy it! By following the directions listed here, you’ll greatly increase your potential to get hired, best of luck!
First 24 Hours in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh Airport is quite small in comparison with most other international hubs you will find in capital cities and is very easy to navigate. The first thing you will be required to do is organize your visa, presuming that like most new arrivals you haven’t arranged it in advance. Two visa types are available at the counter directly in front of the arrivals gate: business and tourist. Both of them are good for a month, with the tourist visa costing $20 and the business version $25. Have passport photos and your immigration form (it will have been given to you with your boarding pass) ready. Forgetting the photo is not a big problem; they will simply photocopy your passport and charge $2, but it is usually best to have everything in order to ensure a smooth arrival.
Be wary of “service charges” being added to the prices shown above the counter. If this is attempted, simply stand your ground and insist on paying the price as displayed. Alternatively, ask for a signed receipt.
There are kiosks available just outside of the arrivals hall where you can buy sim cards and organize transport. There are also some currency changers. As a tourist, do not take large amounts of the local currency (riels). American dollars are much more useful. It’s also better to wait until you are in the city before changing your money, as airport prices are generally higher with commission.
Remember 4000-4300 riel = $1
You’ll often be handed riel in place of coins and small change. This is a helpful way to think about it. A 1000 riel note is a quarter (25 cents) and so on.
Transport into Central Phnom Penh
There are two main modes of transport into the city- tuk tuks and meter taxis. Tickets for both can be bought at the kiosks just outside arrivals. Expect to pay $7-$10 for a tuk tuk and $10-$11 for a taxi.
If you don’t have a lot of luggage, tuk tuks are great for getting a feel of the city as you drive in and absorb the bustle and atmosphere, as well as the heat.
If you’re tired or simply looking for something more comfortable, the couple of extra dollars for the air conditioned taxi is well worth it.
Travel around the city
Getting around Phnom Penh is very easy, though the greater number of cars (particularly SUVs) appearing in the last few years has meant that it is not as quick as it used to be. Urban public transport as you know it (buses, metro, trains etc.) doesn’t exist, however. Tuk tuks are available on virtually every street corner and will take one or two people virtually anywhere for $2-$3. Expect to pay a bit more if you are going very long distances or in groups of three to six.
Motodops, basically men with scooters, will provide the same service for $1 to $2 and are a lot quicker. There is of course a great risk when travelling with no helmet (Cambodian law only requires the driver to wear one), so be wary and don’t take unnecessary chances.
Meter taxis are becoming much more common and are generally cheaper and safer than both tuk tuks and motos. Just make sure that the driver turns on the meter or you agree a price for your destination.
Phnom Penh has a wide variety of hostels and hotels available. The main areas for tourists are the Riverside, where some of the higher end hotels provide fantastic views over the Tonle Sap/Mekong, chief among them Paddy Rice Irish Bar and its hotel. For more affordable accommodation, Streets 136 and 172 have a wealth of places to sleep and eat. A little further down on Street 258, the Australian-owned Lazy Gecko has great rooms at low prices and provides the best quality you will find in the city.
For those looking for the liveliest stay, the Top Banana Guesthouse on Street 278 has a great open plan bar that serves good beer along pumping tunes until the early hours.
Day 1 in Phnom Penh
Most visitors to Phnom Penh tend to gravitate toward the famous Killing Fields and the former prison S21/Tuol Sleng. These are well worth visiting to reflect on the country’s tragic past, but be aware that it is very heavy going and can be quite upsetting.
More cheery diversions are the Royal Palace, the National Museum, and Wat Phnom. The Palace offers an echo of what the splendour of the Khmer court must have been like at its height, while the Museum is a treasure trove of artefacts from the Angkor period and before. Wat Phnom, meanwhile, is a Buddhist temple atop the city’s highest point (which is not all that high to be honest) and has a collection of monkeys swinging from its trees.
Phnom Penh’s markets, the Russian and Central Markets being the most tourist-friendly, are great places to pick up virtually anything from clothes to ornaments to DVDs for a fraction of the price you would pay at home. They and the surrounding restaurants also serve up a huge selection of local dishes, the seafood being a particular delight.
If you’re looking for something happening a bit later, check out the bars and clubs along Street 51, where there is always something going on.
The street lighting in Phnom Penh is primitive to say the least, so avoid walking alone at night, particularly if you’ve had a lot of alcohol. Opportunistic bag snatching is the most common crime that tourists fall foul off, so keep bags etc. very close.
Meter taxis are by far the safest way to get around, but if your guesthouse recommends a tuk tuk driver, you can arrange for them to get you around for a set fee.
Hotels- $40-$90 a night
Guesthouses/Hostels- $5-$40 a night
Street Food- $1-$2
Restaurant Meal- $4-$8
Beer – $1-$2
Soft Drinks- $1-$2
Finding an Apartment in Cambodia
The rental property market in Cambodia, and particularly Phnom Penh, has changed enormously in the last five years, and it has taken some time for coverage and outlets to catch up. While it is true that rents have risen across the board, it is also the case that the number and range of rental properties has increased also, with hundreds of modern and comfortably furnished units opening up that simply did not exist just a few years ago. Apartment hunting is probably not as much of a bargain grab bag of surprises as it once was, but it is certainly still fun, and just as importantly if you’re volunteering or starting out in the Kingdom, great value.
First Arrival – When first arriving in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, or the provinces, the majority of visitors will spend their first weeks (or sometimes even months) in one of the affordable hostels that are dotted throughout the main thoroughfares. Some of the more popular and social of these are Mad Monkey, Top Banana, and the Lazy Gecko, but a quick perusal on Trip Advisor will quickly show you what’s out there, what other travellers have thought, and what you can expect to pay.
Airbnb also has a list of about 200 properties in the capital alone, which should give you a good idea of how the differing apartments in Cambodia can look like visually, as well as what to expect to pay for them.
To Share or not to Share? This is a big question and one that should be considered before embarking on a search for rental accommodation. There is a great choice of single apartments available in Phnom Penh that start from about $250 a month for a rough and ready bunk, to luxury high rise penthouses that would be extravagant by London and New York standards.
On the other hand, shared accommodation, with its pooled monthly rent, can open all sorts of possibilities that would perhaps be impossible to get anywhere else. Three to six bedroom apartments are not uncommon, and often times they will come with spacious living areas and cooking facilities, as well as outdoor terraces and balconies, affording great views and the chance to unwind in the cool evening air.
Openings for shared accommodation can be found in the local ex pat publications, The Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, while there are also a number of dedicated ex-pat websites, like Khmer440 and BongThom, where great offers are made available on a daily basis.
Pick Your Spot Up until a couple of years ago, most Westerners in Phnom Penh lived in either the BKK1 area near the Independence Monument, or by the Riverside. This has changed dramatically since then, with many foreigners now migrating toward the area around the Russian Market and even BKK3 for cheaper rents and expanded facilities like shops and eateries in the area. Street 63 and the streets off it are a particularly popular and well provided center, and it has an abundance of accommodation from its beginnings around the Boeung Keng Kang market, all the way to its end at Psar Thmey market.
Where to Look – Along with looking at ads in the local papers and online, dropping in to local estate agents will also yield fruitful results. There are a positive myriad of these in the city, all of them varying in contacts, dedication, and quality, so the best chance will come from touring around the area in which you live and keeping an eye out for local property offices. Get a local Cambodian sim card and number and leave it with them, along with an overview of what you are looking for. Chances are they will contact as soon as something comes up and their representative will be happy to show you around the various properties they have on offer.
Bear in mind that estate agents will often expect you to travel with them on a scooter rather than a car, so bring a helmet!
How Much? – Rents vary widely throughout Cambodia and it really is a luck of the draw what is available and for what price in any given week or month. Rents in Phnom Penh are typically much higher than anywhere else in the rest of the country, but a modern single room apartment can be had for around $400-600 a month, while a larger three or four bedroom might start at $600 and go as high as $1000-1200.
Note – While Cambodia has its own currency, the Riel, all large transactions are carried out in US dollars. The exchange rate for Riel hovers around 4000-4200R to 1USD.