Blurry-eyed and exhausted, I lumbered up to a member of airport security staff. I had just gotten off a flight from Singapore, and after the longest series of flights I have ever taken I had finally arrived at my last destination, Siem Reap. He simply asked “Singapore?” to which I responded with a croaky “yes”. He sent me in a different direction to the sign that said Passport Control and after confusingly looking in both directions three times, I realised he was sending me towards the gate to catch a flight to Singapore. I panicked “No wait, I’ve just come from Singapore!”. He laughed hysterically at the mistake, and in my worn-out state so did I, grateful that the Cambodian stereotype of being incredibly friendly showed itself to be true thus far.
Cambodian flag image from Shutterstock
After breezing through passport control, I hopped in a tuk tuk for the first time in my life. Within seconds I awoke from the fogginess of several consecutive flights. It was dark as we sped along and the only light came from small fires on the side of the road. Kids ran by waving to me and shouting “hello”, whole families on a single motorcycle negotiated the crazy chaotic traffic. I don’t think I blinked during that entire journey, and right then I knew I was going to learn a lot here, and so I did. Six months on, and this is what I’ve learned since that first tuk tuk ride.
With a positive attitude, it’s incredibly easy to move here
When I told friends, family, and neighbours back in Ireland that I was moving to Cambodia to teach English, I was met with many questions and raised eyebrows. It seemed impossible for many, and I myself worried about how much I would struggle. I spent hours online, scouring travel blogs, guides, and Facebook expat pages. I had a reasonable idea of what it would be like to move here, but I still imagined myself having to overcome some major obstacles along the way. Surprisingly I haven’t come across many, and I quickly began to see the increasing lure of Cambodia to expats in South East Asia.
Getting a work visa in Cambodia is incredibly easy, especially when compared to neighbouring Thailand, where the visa process is becoming increasingly complicated. English is also widely spoken here, especially in larger cities like the capital Phnom Penh and heavily tourism-dependent Siem Reap. The cost of living in Cambodia is also lower than some neighbouring countries and I quickly found that my money could go a long way here. As an English teacher, finding a job where you can earn enough to live comfortably is incredibly easy, even if you have zero experience. Finding a job that allows you to live very comfortably and save is another thing, but it is achievable with the right qualifications.
Cambodian students are great, but teaching here is not without its challenges
Cambodian students are wonderful. I’ve been teaching for almost a year in total now and have taught students from many different parts of the globe, and each new nationality brings its own little quirks. Cambodian students bring their own sense of fun and dedication that makes teaching here tremendously easy. The students really care about their teachers and respect them, while still being able to poke fun at them from time to time (although that could be just me). Since I began teaching here I haven’t had one frustrating moment in the classroom, which as any teacher will know is a huge blessing.
While the students are great, there are some small challenges when it comes to teaching here. One thing that stuck with me while training for my CELTA was that a lot of course book material isn’t always appropriate in certain situations, especially in developing countries. Many topics simply don’t translate culturally and therefore classes could potentially go downhill fast, so it’s important to bear this in mind and know what works for the students.
Also bear in mind that private English schools or international schools are expensive for Cambodians. Many parents save and sacrifice a lot to send their children to a good school, and with this comes a large amount of responsibility on the teacher’s behalf. Many backpackers decide to stay here and teach English because it’s an incredibly easy place to do so, but unless you’re going to take the job seriously you’ll be doing a massive injustice to those who foot the bill.
As a westerner there were many things I had to learn in order not to cause offense. Grasping generations’ worth of traditions, many of which were completely obscure to me, in a short amount of time is no mean feat. The last thing I want as a teacher is for my students to lose respect for me for something that could have been avoided very easily. Cultural gaffes such as handing things to people with your left hand, touching someone on the head, or pointing the soles of your feet or your finger at someone, can all be seen as disrespectful. Many students will understand that you are a foreigner, so there won’t be any gasps of horror if you do slip up, but it’s best to adhere to the cultural norms where possible.
Some hand gestures are totally inappropriate here and it wasn’t after I had done one in class that I realised just how bad it was. Thankfully my students just laughed and understood that I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew never to do it again.
Cambodians are rarely confrontational and showing anger or frustration is just not culturally accepted. It’s something I try not to do in class as a matter of personal preference, but in Cambodia it’s something you should definitely steer clear of. Unfortunately, you’ll never be able to really tell if you caused offence because your students, or anyone else for that matter, probably won’t show it. More than likely, they will just smile at you awkwardly or not respond at all, but that still doesn’t mean you haven’t lost their respect.
To be friendlier and more open
If you’ve already visited Cambodia or have heard anything about it (besides horrifying stories of the Khmer Rouge era) you’ll know that Cambodians are some of the friendliest people in the world. They usually aren’t shy once they get to know you a little bit and will begin asking personal questions right away. At first it can seem like they are coming on a little too strong, which can be a little intimidating, but they genuinely just want to get to know you. From the little kids singing a drawn out “helloooo” at you to the older non-English speaking generations who you can only communicate with by smiling (until you learn some Khmer that is), everyone is endearing and wants to be your friend.
As a result, I’ve become a much more open and friendly person over the last six months. This seems bizarre to say as I’m not an unfriendly person, but now the frequency at which I smile at strangers and say “hello” is much higher. Now I connect with people on a deeper level much faster than I did before, something which would have scared me in the past, but now seems so completely normal.
To stress less about the little things
Many first world problems cease to exist here for me, now they’re usually met with a shrug. As a westerner I had certain deep-rooted points of view that have now become less ingrained as I learnt to adapt, in some ways, to the Cambodian way of life. Living in a slightly more lawless society I’ve learned to go with the flow a lot more than I used to, which has dramatically changed my outlook on life.
I don’t tend to worry about the little things as much as I used to. Back in Ireland if my WIFI cut out, it would be nothing short of a disaster. Here in Cambodia if my WIFI cut out it’s met with nothing more than an eye-roll and I simply get on with my day.
During my first few days here the hectic traffic scared me, but what I first saw as recklessness I now see as organised chaos. Here the free-flow traffic and casual attitude to road rules means that every journey is nothing short of an event. Traffic lights are mere suggestions and road rules, as I know them, fall generally unheeded as locals career from place to place.
Without many of the conveniences of home I began to realise that living without them wasn’t a real catastrophe at all. On reflection I began to realise that what I saw as incredibly frustrating moments back home are only minor annoyances in Cambodia. Living here you just learn to roll with it and seeing how things work differently here is fascinating to me and has broadened my once narrow western perspective.
To savour everything
With daily expat life, it’s easy to get caught up in routine. I still have to earn a living and it’s easy to forget where I am sometimes. I often tend to take my surroundings for granted. Over time I’ve learned to keep reminding myself of where I am. I’ve learned to step outside my door every day with fresh eyes and remember to not just go through the motions.
Being settled anywhere with many of the comforts of home will become mundane at times, and you’ll simply stop being so surprised by things like thirty dead chickens hanging from a single motorcycle, babies waving and blowing kisses from their parent’s motorcycles, or how petrol is sold in glass bottles on the side of the road. Now I’m making sure I hold onto to that wide-eyed perspective that I first came here with and to seek adventure and the seemingly absurd in everyday life.
I originally planned to stay in Cambodia for six months, now I have reached that self-imposed deadline but I’ve chosen to ignore it. I suppose I really am embracing the organised chaos that defines life here. Cambodia still has a lot to teach me. Moving here was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and as I embrace the cultural differences between my homeland and where I have chosen to live, I realise it’s all just same same, but different.