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The ESL Scene in Cambodia – Part 2: Soft Landings, Getting a Job (and Keepin’ Your Sanity)

By: asiapundits Posted: September-23-2012 in
Mid-day chaos on the streets of PP.

Soft Landings
Like most westerners who end up staying in Cambodia, I showed up with little to no plan of action, or much cash at all to speak of. If I wanted to experience life in the tropics of Asia, I was going to need to eventually find some work. Eventually was the key word when I first arrived. I had just left Korea after six years on the lam from post-university life responsibilities in the Korean ESL Machine. I was a well-seasoned classroom rodeo clown by the time I rolled into Phnom Penh. “If you can hack it in Korea, you can hack it anywhere,”

I said to myself, trying for encouragement as I walked off the plane and into the heat and humidity, about to begin my new life. Six years in and there was no going home. I wasn’t about to give up that Asian expat dream I had for created for myself in my mind, even if the vision and direction of that life had been lost years ago.

I had vacationed to Cambodia in the past, so I had a very rough feel for the vibe of the place and the price of things, but beyond that, I was pretty much lost at sea. I had enough money to stay afloat for a month or so, not comfortable living mind you, but enough dough to be in a sort of poverty level survival mode at a flophouse while I searched for a job and struggled with becoming a writer. I lounged around for about two weeks, just getting a feel for the place. I drank cheap Angkor beers at local watering holes and listened to old-timers rant and rave about the day-to-day dramas of small city expat life on the Mekong. I went on long walks through the city, just taking in the place and pace of life in a wanderlust filled daze. For what seemed like the first time in a long time, I let my days get away from me at the pace of my choosing instead of a schedule chosen for me by others. There is a subtle acknowledgement among people living near the equator that things can always wait another day. It was a comfortable and reassuring feeling after six long years in Korea, running around like a madman, trying to earn those man-wons and chasing the capitalist’s dream up in the big hustle of Seoul.

The early morning lifestyle of the Cambodian people was a welcome change of pace and I quickly found myself going to bed and waking up earlier than I ever had in Korea. I genuinely felt more productive during the day, especially the early morning hours. I would sit around the riverside, work on my writing projects and just enjoy the scenery. The days, as well as my worries, would lazily drift on down the Mekong River. I was poor as I could have been financially for a man nearing his 30s, but as rich as I had ever been, with my $150 a month shit-hole of a guesthouse on an obscure street in the middle of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

As things usually go, the money started to run lower than I wanted and the prospect of being a homeless foreigner on the mean streets of Phnom Penh didn’t sound all too appealing to me. If I was going to stay, I was going to need work that would pay the bills. In a place like Cambodia, your options as a westerner, except for a few that have mastered the language, are going to be linguistically limited. So at the time, and with the amount of cash I had, it only seemed natural to fallback on teaching English, a job which I have had a love-hate relationship with for over half a decade. Say what you will, it pays the bills. I enjoyed a few more days of gazing out on to the riverside and settled into the fact that my carefree days of mid-afternoon writing and ice-cold Angkor beers were coming to an end and that a whole new host of challenges lied ahead of me, and the first of these was getting a job.

Getting a Job in Phnom Penh
On a random Wednesday morning in early March, I woke up and decided it was time to get a job. I got on the internet and searched for language schools in the city. I marked the schools I was interested in applying at off on a map and numbered them by proximity to where my guesthouse was located. Then I printed off about 20 copies of my résumé on high quality paper at a local copy shop, as well as my numbered list of schools and their corresponding addresses. Step one was finished. I had all the documents I needed to get a job in Cambodia, including my original university diploma, reference letters from earlier jobs and sealed transcripts (that no one ever asked to see).

I was starting to look more like a bohemian wanderer than the English teacher I was claiming to be, so I went and got a cheap haircut and shave. They do a great job with this in Cambodia, and for just a few dollars they will quickly transform you from bedraggled backpacker, fresh off the beach, into English teacher extraordinaire. Well maybe not, but at least you’ll look the part. For some of the more grizzled, a $15 dollar tooth cleaning, which they also do a great job with here might also not be a bad idea.

After I was all spiffed up with a new hair-dew, I headed over to the Central Market to stock up on some of Cambodia’s finest in developing world business-casual chic. I think I spent around $50 dollars, and for 50 bucks, I must say that I looked pretty damn sharp in my new get-up. I was now fully ready to go out and get my new job and it only took a day to get ready. Not too bad at all. I knew with confidence that tomorrow I would have a job. I celebrated by going out and getting sloppy drunk with a few other “teachers”. As I said, everything in the tropics, even professionalism, can wait another day.

The next morning I woke up at the leisurely hour of 10 o’clock, dressed myself in my new get-up and went out into the blazing morning heat, off to find my dream job. I stopped off at a cheap Khmer/Chinese restaurant to have a quick bite and go over my game plan. The plan was to find a school as near to my guesthouse as possible and convince them to pay me as much money as possible. I had my list of schools, my map, and what I thought were the necessary documents stuffed into an old Northface bag. I was dressed to the nines in my sweatshop tailored duds. As far as I could tell, I was ready to roll. I sat there and sipped a Vietnamese sweet coffee nervously anticipating my future life in Cambodia and thought about what lied ahead. “What would it be like teaching in Cambodia?” “How would the students compare with the students I had taught in Korea?” “You finally went off the deep end, packed it all up and moved to Cambodia, you crazy bastard,” as the traffic and mid-day chaos of central Phnom Penh blared obnoxiously in the background.

The easiest way to get a job in Cambodia, if you’re shooting for an ESL position, is to search out a list of schools you’re interested in applying for and hire a moto-dop to blast you around town for the day. It’s as simple as that. Dress nicely and don’t be drunk or high. As long as you aren’t some sort of freak of nature and have relatively decent people skills, you should be able to find a job within a few hours. The mainstay job I’ve held since arriving in Cambodia took me about 2 hours of bombing around on a motorbike to find. Negotiate the price of school hunting with your driver beforehand and bring a detailed map that marks the schools you’re going to apply at. It might be a good idea to pick a driver who speaks at least some English and not some lop-lop that’s just rolled in from the province and doesn’t have a clue about the city. The driver will often claim he knows exactly where he is going and drive you off into the middle of nowhere, stop the moto, and then ask you for directions to the school. Choose your driver carefully.

My driver blasted me off into the mid-day heat of Phnom Penh. We circled the area surrounding my guesthouse and I dropped resumes off at each of the schools on my list until we gradually got further out into the city. Once in awhile, I would see a school that wasn’t on my list but looked OK. I would have the driver pull over and I would drop my résumé off at the school just for the hell of it, on the off chance they were looking for an English teacher. Who knows, there could be some foolhardy administrator that doesn’t know the score or that rare person that might see value in you as a teacher, just waiting to pay you $15 dollars an hour.

Cambodians still like to do business on a personal level, and while the Internet is becoming increasingly popular, it’s not the best way to get a job here. Sites like and are good resources to see what’s out there and available, but even if schools list jobs on those sites, it’s best to just show up and drop off your résumé in person. If nothing else, you might have a chance to meet your new boss. Cambodians make rash judgments on character and may either decide to hire you on the spot or send you packing. In Cambodia, the standards are pretty low and to win all you need to do is play the game. The first step in winning this game is going into a school and claiming that job.

Be sure to bring plenty of CVs and passport sized photos of yourself because Cambodian schools are obsessed with them. One school I applied at asked me for 4 copies of my passport picture. I asked the receptionist if they were “building a mural of foreign faces” and handed her one copy. About a week later, after I already had a job and was working, the school called me and asked if I “was ready” do an interview. While schools may claim they need more than one picture of you, I wouldn’t hand them anything more than necessary, and I certainly wouldn’t give them any of my official documents until I was actually employed and working with them.

With official documents, schools for the most part don’t seem to really care initially. My school didn’t get a copy of my passport for six months, and then suddenly teachers were required to give them a copy 2 or 3 times in one month, along with the ubiquitous passport photos and copies of our addresses. You will get all kinds of strange requests like this while in Cambodia. I chalk it up as a tradition that dates back to the days of French colonial rule, when colonizers tried to impose some order and mountains of paperwork on their perceived chaos of early 19th century Indochina. Old habits are hard to break I guess and some schools have made official forms for every conceivable purpose in life.

My driver and I circled the central ring of the city and gradually got further and further away from my quaint little guesthouse. “So much for working, near home,” I thought as we drove into frontier-esque Olympic Market area of the city, with the people and goods of Cambodia making their way to and from the provinces and nearby countries in a non-stop stream of action.

I knew I had found the school for me, when at about a block from the school, my driver and I emerged from a side street on to an unpaved and water-logged alley full of dog meat restaurants. The restaurants had the butchered dogs charred skulls on display. The dogs were grinning wickedly at me, giving me a feeling of assurance on getting a job at the school down the road. They knew the score and had seen guys like me before. I felt confident as we drove past the dead grimacing beasts and pulled up outside of what was soon to be my new place of employment.

When I arrived at the school, I was greeted by a jumpy but friendly Khmer man dressed in a blue shirt with the school’s insignia on it. He told me to wait a few minutes and that I could be interviewed on the spot. Another man with a shaved head and dressed in the same blue shirt came out a few minutes later and introduced himself as the school’s academic director. I was taken to the school’s closet of a library for our “interview”. We went through with the usual formalities and I offered them a chance to have a look at the usual documents one normally brings along to an interview, you know: a diploma, university transcripts, job references from earlier employers, etc. Besides a peripheral glance, these guys weren’t at all interested in looking at anything, except for my ugly face.

What they wanted to know was how long could I stay in Cambodia and work at their school. They said, “it make the problem” when teachers quit and, “give the headayych.” They explained that they had problems with high turnover and basically seemed to want to make sure I wasn’t going to dip on them unexpectedly. I assured them I would stay on at least 3 months before fleeing for the hills and they seemed genuinely pleased by this.

I told the odd-couple that I wanted $12 an hour and they replied that they couldn’t possibly give me more than $10 to start with. They explained that the highest paid teacher at the school was only making around $12, and that I would have to put in a year there to earn “that kind of salary”. I smiled politely and agreed to the low-ball wage they had offered, thinking in the back of my mind that something better would eventually come rolling my way. No better jobs really came my while while I was in Cambodia, aside from a few part-time gigs that I picked up to help save money, but then again I wasn’t really looking too hard either. I was content with my first job and students for the most part despite the low salary. The way I figured it, why should I trade one piece of shit car for another?

Remember that you are applying for a $10 dollar an hour job that pays around $12,000 a year. You aren’t dealing with Fortune 500 companies here, so try to be realistic in your expectations and long-term goals. These aren’t jobs that you can expect to build any sort of meaningful savings with, and certainly not jobs you can plan for retirement on.

I made several newbie mistakes on my first job hunt in Phnom Penh. I assumed that my driver would be able to take me exactly to the places I pointed at on the map. While we were out driving around, once in a while I would notice the schools had moved or went bankrupt so I was never able to spot them and we would give up. Other times, the streets would be so poorly marked that the driver would lose his sense of direction and abandon all hope and move on to the next school. He didn’t speak much English, but he didn’t do too bad considering the seemingly random numbers assigned to streets in Phnom Penh.

The other mistake I made was that I wasn’t able or didn’t try hard enough to get face-time with school directors. To be fair with myself, I was usually blocked from meeting the chief of the school by some hard-ass secretary, who would then either toss my résumé into the trashcan or put it into the “do not look at again for 3 months folder”. After about 3 months of living in Cambodia, after you are already settled into your new life and job, your phone will start ringing off the hook with schools desperately looking to hire you. There is no plan for the next day here, let alone the next term.

If a school is full, they will generally toss your résumé aside and never look at it again. If they have space, seemingly no matter who you are or what your qualifications, they will call you back almost immediately and give you a job. At one school that I worked at part-time, I got my job mid-term, on my second attempt at applying with the school. I dropped my résumé off on a rainy afternoon and the secretary, after I asked, said the director was able to see me immediately. The administrator at the school smiled sheepishly as she gave me the job and admitted that, “unless I need a teacher, I really don’t look at resumes all that much.” If you can speak to the director of the school, even if they are full, they can at least put a face to a piece of paper later on, and your chances of being hired will be all the better when the school really does need you. The more call backs and interviews you can get, the better your chances of finding a salary that is livable.

Keepin’ Your Sanity
Cambodia is not the easiest place in the world to live, but it’s certainly not the hardest. All you have to do to play the game is show up and make an honest effort. At the same time, however, you should keep your expectations low regarding your salary and work conditions. Cambodia is what it is. Remember, this a developing country that is still reeling from the effects of their recent history and the astonishing greed of the Hun Sen regime. Try not too stress out about the politics of the country too much, as Cambodians seem rather laissez-faire on such matters and you’ll slowly go crazy if you do. My opinion after living in Cambodia is that Cambodians will change the political system of their country at their own pace and a time of their choosing.

Let it all just roll off your shoulders and lazily watch the days drift down the Mekong river. Eat happy pizza and drink Angkor beer. Live life at the pace of the Cambodians, early to bed and early to rise and never too rushed. Take it all in and keep a smile when it all goes to hell. Be patient and polite with the people. This is their country, and they’ve had an unimaginable struggle to keep it that way. Be humble, as you are a guest here and there will be plenty of others like you after you’re gone. Enjoy your life in the tropics. Cambodia is what you make of it.

Part two of an Asia Pundits series on the ESL Scene in Cambodia. Part 1 on Teachers can be found here.

Originally published at


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