Teaching English in Cambodia

An elephant blocks my bicycle path. He’s an old elephant with drooping, mottled pink flesh and twisted tusks, cleverly painted with polka dots and stars. His name is Joh and he is sixty-two years old. I know this because Joh’s trainer, Ahni, is twelve and occupies the third seat, second row of wooden desks at Lolei School where I teach English six days a week. Later, Joh will nap under a weeping willow while Ahni practices punctuation.

Together, the three of us cross the scorched field toward our yellow school house. A thick cloud of dust from Joh’s heavy footsteps drifts upward, shading the oppressive sun for a brief moment. We draw nearer to buoyant voices in the school yard and we are soon surrounded by blue pleats, ribbon-bound braids and gap-toothed giggles.

It is morning in Cambodia and time for another school day to begin.

Getting to know the locals

My bicycle commute along Cambodia’s Highway 6 is far from the lethargic, monotone carriages of Chicago’s transit system. Years of dressing in corporate pinstripes, reading stock tips, and drinking Starbucks’ double-shot lattes during the rush hour frenzy left me ill-equipped for this dynamic culture where vivacity screams from every window terrace and market stall. Literally.

See you is good,” cries the Shoe Man Fix-It Man (as his sign says in big neon pink letters). Makeshift handyman stalls congest every spare inch of Siem Reap cement, but Rith, with his charming manners and connoisseur coffee beans, is my favorite. His young daughter sleeps soundly at our feet as Rith chatters about baseball and pours spoonfuls of syrupy condensed milk into my Nescafe. Thick and sickly sweet is the only way to drink coffee in Cambodia.

Sua s’dei!Hello!” shouts the bread stall lady. She rushes to my side, her tiny hands clutching bags of day old biscuits (num turk) for my students. The bread lady will wait for me tomorrow and again the following morning, always with leftover loaves, biscuits or cakes to feed grumbling bellies. It is inspiring that the locals worry about my students just as much as I do. Nowhere is the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” better understood than here among the sugar cane fields of South-East Asia.

From tourist to teacher

I have been living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for several weeks teaching English to children between the ages of five and 19. Schools for Children of Cambodia, a British charity that runs seven schools in the province, provided me with a bicycle, a box of chalk and a suggested class roster based on last year’s school attendance figures. The number of students that show up on a daily basis far surpasses this guesstimate, but I never turn away a student.

Many of my pupils work at Angkor Wat, selling souvenirs, homemade scarves and cold drinks. They wander through the crumbling ruins with baskets of trinkets yelling, “Capital of Illinois is Chicago! Population of USA is 300 million! USA play football and eat McDonalds. OKAY! You buy now?” I’m in competition for their attention along with the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit this archaeological wonder every year.

Depending on their work schedules, I have up to 35 students squeezed in my crowded dirt-floor classroom. When we run out of desks, they sit on window sills or line up on the floor in front of the chalkboard. Our room lacks electricity, running water and an adequate amount of pencils, yet the students arrive every morning with positive attitudes and an unquenchable thirst to learn.

My students see English as freedom, a Willy Wonka ticket into the world of commerce and knowledge. With a sound understanding of the English language, one can hope to escape the norms of society in a third world country and become a successful business owner or go on to college.

Finding the teaching job

I arrived in Siem Reap after a claustrophobic Thailand border crossing and was instantly covered in an ever-present red dust precipitating from the heavens. My intention was to briefly visit Angkor and travel on to Vietnam. I didn’t expect to feel immediately comfortable and at home in Siem Reap, 8,000 miles from my actual home in Illinois.

It takes many months of backpacking to understand what the word comfortable means. The heat of Southeast Asia was nauseating. I didn’t speak a single word of Khmer, the language of Cambodia, and the country seemed to operate on a rather sluggish time schedule. However, the locals had a captivating energy and lovely manner that simply enthralled me. I liked the small town vibe of Siem Reap. I felt safe. And, I admit, I was also ready to rediscover the depths of my backpack.

Volunteer positions at Schools for Children of Cambodia requires no previous experience or TEFL certification. I stumbled upon the school while doing an online search for volunteer opportunities in Southeast Asia. Not really thinking that they would be interested in me, I emailed the director and announced that I was passing through the village in a few days and would like to help if they needed it. YES was the resounding response! Two days later, after laughter-filled coffee meeting with Gabby, the organization’s founder, I climbed aboard a moto and drove out to Lolei School. I was warned that it was a bit outside city limits, and that the SCC had difficulty securing volunteer positions due to the school’s out-of-the-way location. I wasn’t discouraged.

Mastering the commute and language (well, trying to master it)

I push off at 5:30 a.m. when the smell of breakfast noodles and fruit pastries sweeten the morning air. On the outskirts of town, rural residents are beginning their mass transit towards the city center. They walk, they ride, they push, pedal and drive. I saw a unicycle once, teetering along the dotted center line. The rider had a basket of pineapples balanced on his head and a grinning child clinging to his back. I hope they arrived safely.

The morning’s vigor is fascinating. Everyone is in high spirits, hopeful that Buddah will bring good fortune today. Bicycles with baskets of squealing piglets, pony carts full of banana leaves and motorcycles with entire families stacked like chronological Legos are anxious to begin work. Bears on iron chains, monkeys in colorful dress and elephants wearing intricate necklaces will spend long hours earning derisory pocket change, only to make the long walk home again after sunset.

By now, as the only American teacher in Siem Reap, everyone wants to be friends with the blue-eyed blonde from “the city where the Bulls live.” Many run across the road with gifts of pomelos or rambutans, tasty Asian fruits to share with the students. At the gas station, a simple platform stacked with gasoline filled Fanta bottles, I accept a coloring book from a good Samaritan and share a small joke with Sovann, the town’s Casanova.

Yes, I can joke in Khmer now. I can also buy food at the market, chat with a taxi driver and, most recently, I taught an entire class lesson without leaving my students utterly perplexed. At least, I think I did.

Khmer is not a tonal language like many of the neighboring languages, but there are many difficult complex consonant clusters to master. For many phrases, the articulation must be exact, and the slightest mispronunciation can leave one feeling totally mystified. I once thought I said, “Raise your hand if you like the color purple.” The entire class stood, left the room and started picking up rocks from the yard.

Cambodian locals

Cambodians form a lovable and resilient society. For a country that suffered such recent heartache and loss, I expected anger, sadness, perhaps even rejection because I was a foreigner and, thus, wasn’t sentenced to Pol Pot’s horrible genocide. Instead I see pride, optimism and overwhelming kindness everywhere I look.

It’s in the eyes of the mute candy peddler who sells my favorite brand of chocolate. He collects handfuls of colorful pens for my kids and always enjoys receiving a special drawing from the class in return for his kindness. His voice was stolen, but his smile is genuine and his handshake is firm.

It’s in the heart of my wheelchair bound neighbor who gathered the entire street for an impromptu Thanksgiving feast. A land mine took her legs, yet her soul remains free of hate and her laughter cures even the most stressful of days.

It’s in the bond of the three brothers who rescued me (and my not so trusty bike) from the roadside one rainy morning. Their parents and grandparents were executed by the Khmer Rouge. Remarkably, the brothers stayed together to raise the family and put their sisters through school.

It’s in the warmth of the entire town for accepting me into all aspects of community life. Villagers take turns inviting me over for simple meals and conversation. In Cambodian culture, every relative is embraced and the family home often includes a distant, crazy aunt or a son-in-law’s mother. We speak broken English and eat noodles on kitchen mats or outside in the shade of a banyan tree.

It’s oh so easy to fall in love with Cambodia.

Accommodation and entertainment in Cambodia

There are many of us who left behind marketing careers, downtown condominiums, and cars with four wheel drive and cozy interiors to begin a life far from Westernized normalcy. Australians, Irish, Dutch, German, English and American; divided in nationality but united in compassion. Many of us live together in Rosie’s Guesthouse, one of the many quaint lodges that cater to long term residents.

For five dollars a night, Rosie’s offers a private room, hot water, clean towels and comfortable mattresses. The shared kitchen is well stocked and spotless, perfect for self catering or curry cooking contests, and a nearby movie theater lets us hibernate during monsoon season rains. On muggy evenings, when the oppressive heat snakes though our rooms, we have dance competitions on Rosie’s veranda, swinging our hips to the beat of the rom kbach and lam leav.

Outside of Rosie’s, Siem Reap pulses with karaoke clubs and rich, American influenced cuisine. Massage parlors, internet cafes and disco-techs camouflage every corner, competing for patronage with bold signs and trendy music. Backpackers in all stages of undress wander the streets, buying shirts embossed with Tiger Beer and Bob Marley. Tomorrow they may travel to Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, additional stops on the holocaust tour and sun lover’s beach circuit.

Cambodia is a prime location for visiting other South-East Asia countries. Want a beach holiday or jungle safari? Hop on a bus to the islands of Thailand or catch a quick flight to northern Laos. School holidays are a great opportunity to explore and collect additional passport stamps.

On shorter breaks, we head to the country with neighbors or groups of students. Away from the city center, refreshing lakes and waterfalls wait to provide a welcome break from the oppressive heat. A favorite, Tonle Sap Lake, also hosts a colorful bird sanctuary and shady, picnic retreat. We string hammocks under the palms and sip rice wine, a local concoction that’s strong, sweet and sharp on the tongue.

Cambodia’s amazing cuisine

I’m never bored with Cambodia’s food selections. As a vegetarian, I was ready to live on rice and packaged crackers in this meat loving country. Was I ever wrong! Hidden within the winding pathways of the French Quarter is a ridiculously affordable banquet to the palette and an ideal spot for snacks and local cuisine. Vendors sell bags of mangos ($0.50 U.S cents), savory bean pastries ($0.15 US) and crusty khao gee (baguettes) stuffed with rice and fresh vegetables.

Later, I will wander up Psar Chaa (the Old Market) and buy chamkar, a tasty vegetarian soup cooked in a huge chhang khteak followed by tuka-lok, fruit smoothies sweetened with cane nectar and banana paste. Eating like the locals is inexpensive and, apart from the offensive smell of fish prahok and nimble dexterity required to eat soup with chopsticks, usually quite enjoyable.

A new home?

There is no specified route along the backpacker trail. Like a ripened tree, every branch leads to a fresh experience, an exciting adventure, a new romance or, in my situation, a transitory home. I’ve adjusted to the intense jungle humidity, developed a flair for fixing unreliable bicycles and learned to whip up a fine Cambodian stir-fry in fifteen minutes flat. I even partake in – and enjoy – the afternoon siesta. Half a world away from Chicago, Illinois and the comforts of corporate America, I found acceptance in a foreign land and job satisfaction at the end of a red, dirt path. And I don’t earn a single penny.

Instead, I have three little girls skipping in front of me, holding hands and singing the ABC song. Knee socks cling to their skinny legs and tightly bound plaits swing in the air. There are no school bags. No lunchboxes. No playground equipment to greet them in the schoolyard. They simply have boundless joy, steadfast trust and incredible affection to share with their teacher.

Working in Cambodia Resources

Unlike teaching English in wealthier Asian countries, the salary for teaching in Cambodia is minimal or nothing at all. If there is a wage, expect to earn around $3 – $10 US. Many volunteer based organizations offer to provide accommodation, meals, and local transportation. While not required with many English teaching positions, the TEFL certificate is extremely useful, especially for teaching private lessons.

Schools for Children of Cambodia: SCC is a British charity that focuses on education efforts in the Siem Reap province. This organization no longer accepts teacher volunteers but they are always looking for volunteer positions working with their UK team.

Savong School: Volunteers are able to teach for a day or several days at Savong’s School, a rural village east of Siem Reap. Volunteers are not paid but basic room and board are provided. Additionally, a full time, Khmer speaking teacher is on the premises to provide guidance. www.savong.com

TEFL Certifications: Bridge offers a 140 hour TEFL certification course in Phnom Penh. Upon completion of the course, they will also help with job placement in Cambodia or within broader Asian. Participants must be a native speaker of English and over 20 years in age. www.bridgetefl.com

Volunteer in Cambodia: Volunteer in Cambodia is a valuable resource for finding volunteer teaching positions in Phnom Penh and can also help obtain TEFL certificates. The company assists with accommodation, orientation, job placement and supplies. Volunteers teach conversational English and one-on-one tutorials if needed. www.volunteerincambodia.org

If teaching isn’t a priority, there are possible work opportunities with National Government Organizations (NGO’s), restaurants and bars, tour agencies, and SCUBA diving companies.

The NGO Forum –This is a member organization for local and international National Government Organizations in Cambodia. Job listings include human resource positions, research managers, program evaluators, and budget officers. www.ngoforum.org/kh/eng/core/

Volunteers Making a Difference: VMAD accepts volunteers for one week or year round. Opportunities include working in child welfare, rural development or medical and nursing. VMAD provides meals, water, tea, coffee, project transport, and accommodation, but they do not provide expenses for flights to and from Cambodia. www.volunteer-cambodia.org

Finally, the website www.siemreaplife.com is published by current expatriates of Siem Reap. It is a fun resource that features new restaurant openings, musical events, and film and festival schedules. Find out in-depth and intimate information about the Siem Reap not found in guidebooks.