Finding your feet in this wild city where anything goes!
Having made the decision to teach in Cambodia you will probably have a thousand and one questions in your head about everything from pay cycles and accommodation to nightlife and medical facilities. In this article I hope to provide you with the answers to some of these questions. I have just returned from a four month stint, teaching for a well known school in Phnom Penh. During my stay I experienced all the ups and downs that life in a developing country could throw at me, but left with many fond memories, some lovely friends and some incredibly useful teaching experience for my future teaching career.
The first thing I'd recommend you do is to forget anything you might have read in 'Off the Rails in Phnom Penh'. It may be a fun book presenting fairly accurate information on the recent history of the country, but what must be remembered is that a subjective, semi-fictional account of life in Phnom Penh 5 years ago bears little relation to the reality of life there in the present.
So, what do you need before you set off? At least 1500 dollars would help tremendously, more if possible. Don't arrive skint. The deposit for a flat, visa costs, unexpected medical bills and living expenses (about $500 per month for a comfortable life) for 6 weeks all add up very quickly. Get a one month business visa before arrival at the embassy or on arrival at the airport. You cannot buy a business visa if you arrive by land. A TEFL certificate and a good working knowledge of English grammar are essential for landing the best jobs as well as providing you with the necessary knowledge for the communicative teaching methods required to be used by teachers in most schools. Without these you can expect lower rates of pay and a hard time from your students when you are unable to answer their questions on the finer points of the English language. A Bachelors Degree will help you get a job if you're not TEFL certified but it won't help you in the classroom, unless it is an English degree of course. I would also suggest you take out a decent insurance policy which will pay for the costs of repatriation, should the need arise. An open mind, patience of a saint and a big smile will also go a long, long way.
Ok, so you've arrived, what next? Find yourself a guesthouse as a temporary arrangement; you'll be wanting to get an apartment as soon as possible. There are decent guesthouses scattered all over town offering rooms from $2 per night up. For $3 dollars a night you should get a small clean room with a toilet and a window. There is a small backpacker area on Boeung Kak Lake with many restaurants and guests houses of varying quality to choose from. Grand View guesthouse is a good option as their prices are the same as others but it is made of concrete so it is not only cooler but quieter. You'll find that most of the guesthouses in this area have plastic walls dividing the rooms -- good for shadow puppetry but no a lot else. There are many other guesthouses around town so it really just comes down to preference of location.
Once you've settled in, go and find an apartment. Arranging transport for the hunt for accommodation is easy. Motos charge anything from 1000riel ($0.25) for a short journey to 4000riel ($1) for a journey right across town. There are several agents who can help with this task or you can just drive around and look for signs outside, advertising flats for rent. There are more flats than there are tenants and by shopping around there are some beautiful places available for very reasonable prices. In the $150-$200 dollar range you can expect a clean, fully furnished flat with two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, lounge (with cable TV) and a large balcony. Sometimes the balcony doubles as the lounge and can equal the size of the entire flat. For $100-$150 you can get the equivalent with just the one bedroom. Most landlords will expect you to put down a deposit of at least one months rent. You should be able to move in straight away. Before signing anything it is worth asking the neighbours about flooding in the rainy season or else you maybe swimming to work.
Work is generally easy to come by, depending on your qualifications and the month in which you arrive. March, April and May are good for work as many people leave to go back home for the summer, creating many vacancies. Go dressed smart -- an ironed shirt, clean shoes, pressed trousers or a skirt if you'?re a lady and a tie if you're a man. I can't stress the importance of this enough. If you are applying for a job as a teacher you should look like a teacher. If you're qualified it is a teachers market. There are too many schools to mention here (the Yellow Pages has a complete listing) but a few of the more reputable ones are Asia Pacific International School, Home of English and ACE. These schools pay regularly, offer the best rates ($9 upwards) and have the best reputation. The pay cycles vary between the schools. Most schools pay monthly whereas others pay bimonthly. It is usual to have to work a couple of weeks in hand which acts as insurance for the school against you doing a runner on pay day. Initially this can be awkward but on leaving you get a nice lump sum. A six month tenure is the norm.
If you are unqualified there are plenty of schools that will hire you purely for the fact that you can speak English, whether you're a native speaker or not. They pay about $5 and hour, no questions asked. In an emergency these are worth thinking about because, despite the lower rates, they tend to pay weekly or bimonthly.
When you first start, expect to be given just a few hours, possibly at unsociable times of the day. Don't be disheartened. These first couple of weeks could be likened to probation. The school wants to see exactly what your abilities are, as well as whether you are reliable or not. Turn up on time and do what you've been trained to do and you'll soon get enough hours to fill up your day and line your pockets. I started on 14 hours a week and was up to 32 hours a week within the first month. With all the lesson preparation, test design and marking, that was my limit.
You'll be given books to work from for most of the classes. Some of these are good and others not so good. When the books are lacking or simply inappropriate for use in Asia, there is a veritable wealth of materials available for free on the internet.
If you have a couple of hours to spare now and again, there are several orphanages that are desperately in need of volunteer teachers. Just grab a handful of pencils and paper and wander on down. They would be extremely grateful for any time you can spare.
Once the lessons are over for the week and you've got your pay packet, you may be wondering what there is to do with your hard-earned dollars. Once you've got to know a few people you'll find there are often house parties at the weekends. There are many, many good watering holes such as The Lounge (Riverhouse), Soho Bar, Heart of Darkness, Howies, Talking to a Stranger and The Pink Elephant to mention just a few. If you're after international culinary delights, which would excite even the most discerning of gastronomes, you are spoilt for choice.
Phnom Penh Water Park is a popular place to visit at the weekends. It's really quite dinky compared to those in the rest of the world but it is a great place for people watching and topping up the tan. Outside of town is the go-kart race track. Aside from hiring karts by the half-hour, they host regular enduro rallies: for $150 dollars you can enter a team of up to 6 people and take turns in cutting up the opposition. These races last several hours and culminate with an evening beer fest with a DJ providing the dance anthems.
Other entertainment available includes jet-skiing, bowling, shooting and microlight/helicopter trips.
If it's shopping which floats your boat, there is a good selection of markets selling everything your heart desires at bargain prices. DVDs and textiles are generally of very good quality. Books, jewelry and stationary are also good buys.
Cambodia is second in the world for the number of public holidays every year. This means plenty of long weekends and the opportunity to escape the maelstrom of Phnom Penh to the relaxed provinces. If you'd just like to make a day of it, you could go to Kien Svay, south of the city on the river. Here you can lazy around on a floating pontoon and gorge yourself on lobster, squid and fish, sold from passing boats and cooked in front of your eyes on the onboard brazier. You could take a bus to explore further afield or, if you are confident on a motorbike, hire a scrambler and do it independently. If you take it slow and wear protective clothing this is an ideal way to enjoy the entire journey, not just the destination. I'm not going to recommend anywhere; that's for you to find out. Just get a map and take a look for yourself. You won't be disappointed.
The Cambodian people, especially the younger generation, seem to have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, so anyone who can facilitate their learning and help them and their country along the road to prosperity and continued peace is welcomed with open arms and, of course, a big smile.
Take a walk on the wild side for a delightful experience you'll never forget!