Living in Cambodia
Cambodia may not offer the highest pay for ESL teaching, but it can offer two major cities – Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – that are accessible and livable, with diverse populations and vibrant social scenes for expats.
Khmer, the language of Cambodia, is both easy and difficult in comparison with other languages in the region. The easy part is that, unlike the languages of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, it is not tonal. Tones are usually quite difficult for foreigners to master, as they play a very small role in western languages. You won’t have to worry about being misunderstood in Cambodia because you said a word with a high tone when you should have used a mid tone or low tone.
On the other hand, Khmer is difficult because the writing system is unique, and the characters are more complex than Thai, Lao and Burmese. In addition, like Thai, Lao and Burmese, there are no spaces between words in written Khmer. There are sometimes spaces between sentences. This makes the learning curve a bit steeper, but after your vocabulary has grown you’ll find it easier to separate the different words in a sentence.
Eating in Cambodia
Phnom Penh is unique among large cities in Southeast Asia in that you can find a wide variety of international food for quite cheap. Furthermore, the city is small enough that you can easily get to all these restaurants within a few minutes. It seems that it’s easier for foreigners to set up businesses in Cambodia than in other neighboring countries, so you’ll find Mexican restaurants run by Mexican people, Indian restaurants owned by Indians, as well as Middle Eastern, Japanese, Korean, Lebanese, and most other kinds of cuisine you can think of. Naturally, you can also find a good selection of western food, though well-known western chains haven’t made much headway in the country as of yet.
Cambodia also has a good street food scene, with lots of push carts and small restaurants set up on sidewalks. The cuisine includes a good mix of curries, soups and stir-fries, and fish from the country’s large central lake are a significant part of the diet.
Street food in Cambodia is cheap enough that you shouldn’t really have to cook if you don’t want to. If you do, however, you can find western food at a few specialty food shops as well as at privately-owned supermarkets which try their best to imitate more modern grocery stores, complete with fruit and cold-food sections, as well as a good variety of imported food. Other than that, you’ll find plenty of veggies and fresh fruit at local markets. In terms of the ease of shopping for food, Cambodia is well ahead of Laos but significantly behind Vietnam.
Cambodia is somewhat poorer than neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, so it may be surprising that it’s so much easier to take in an art exhibition, watch an independent film, or find a wine bar in Phnom Penh than in Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok. However, the country has attracted a steady influx of foreign aid and foreign aid workers for years now. In addition, local laws seem to allow for foreigners to set up businesses a bit more easily in Cambodia. It adds up to a place where expats can find a wide selection of international food for cheap, and where foreigner-friendly social events and clubs are easy to find.
Whether you’re interested in the arts, want to learn a new language, or are just looking for a group of friends to play football with, you’re likely to find it in Phnom Penh. The city is human-sized but dense with activities, so you can likely get to just about anywhere you’d want to go within 10-15 minutes on a motorbike. The traffic isn’t as bad as in Ho Chi Minh City, but there’s more going on than in Vientiane.
Like Laos, there’s very little intra-city transportation in any city in Cambodia. Until you get your own bicycle or motorbike, you’ll be at the mercy of tuk-tuk drivers and motorbike taxi drivers to get you around. The tuk-tuks are much cheaper than in Laos, but you’ll find your transport costs start eating into your salary significantly if you have to pay $1-2 every time you want to go somewhere.
Most expats purchase a bicycle or motorbike soon after arriving. Though the traffic can be daunting for those who have never driven one before, it’s not nearly as bad as in neighboring Vietnam. Take some time to practice riding at night when the streets are empty and you’ll get the hang of it.
Teaching in Cambodia
Cambodia doesn’t have the best reputation for the kinds of teachers it attracts. In the past, stories abounded of backpackers without teaching experience who decided to hang around and teach for various periods of time, either to save up more money for travel or to simply continue the backpacking lifestyle while living in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. However, the Cambodian economy has been growing in recent years and foreign investment has been coming in, so some more reputable schools have been opening up recently.
You’ll find a good mix of private elementary schools and high schools in Phnom Penh, along with quite a few language centers and universities. The selection is more limited in Siem Reap and Battambang, but there are still jobs to be found. Since Phnom Penh has a sizable expat population, there are also more opportunities to teach or tutor expat kids.
There are a variety of English schools in Phnom Penh, including a lot of private kindergartens and primary schools, private secondary schools, adult language centers and universities. Siem Reap, the country’s second-largest city, has fewer of each type of school though there are still a considerable number of jobs. Outside of that, cities such as Battambang, Kampong Cham and Sihanoukville have a few schools as well. In my eBook you’ll find the most extensive list of language schools, private elementary schools and high schools, and universities in Cambodia.
Check out my eBook for even more information about teacher salaries in Cambodia, as well as the most extensive list of schools in Cambodia that you’ll find on the internet!