The ESL Scene in Cambodia Part 1: The Teachers

The reasons people give for deciding to move to Cambodia to teach English are as varied as the characters that walk into English institutes here and call themselves teachers. Many people start as English teachers after coming to Cambodia as tourists. The unsuspecting immigrant finds it all so intriguing and they decide to make a home out of their newly found paradise. Most foreigners, lacking the ability to speak Khmer, generally aren’t qualified to do anything else in Cambodian society, so teaching English seems a natural immediate fit. Others use teaching English as a means to an end. They see teaching as a job to get themselves established with while they look for work in another field or attempt to set up a business.  Some teachers in Cambodia are career teachers and have followed the teaching circuit around Asia and down to the tropics to finish up their careers before retirement. Still others are here for the cheap beer, pussy and drugs and they have no qualms explaining that to you. Yes its a mixed bag of tricks down here in the jungle and you meet new and interesting people everyday.

When someone in Phnom Penh asks you, Whats your job? and you say, Why, I’m a teacher, the inevitable follow-up question is going to be, What do you teach? You see in Cambodia, there are good teaching jobs and there are English teaching jobs. Foreign teachers salaries range anywhere from the bottom of the barrel slop-job schools that pay $5/hr to sustain a teachers boozed up/drugged out existence all the way up to a king-like (by local standards) $30,000+ a year for teachers who qualify for positions at international schools.

A native speaking English teacher makes about double that of a junkie tourist, with his or her salary averaging in at about $10-$12 an hour. There are generally no benefits for lowly newbies. The top-off point, salary-wise for an English teacher who has been here a couple of years and stayed with the same school is capped at about a max of $20 an hour and a few benefits if the school is generous. Most English teachers in Cambodia are making between $900-$1300 a month, depending on what the terms and conditions with their employers are.

If you’re in Cambodia, low on cash and want to make a go of it here, chances are, you’re going to end up teaching ESL sooner or later; but weary traveller, fear not. Asia Pundits is going to going to be bringing you an in your face series on what you need to know about the ESL scene in Cambodia. We are going to give you the low-down and the ins and outs on the industry. We are also going to let you know about pitfalls that you can avoid, should you choose to jump ship and set up shop in the Kingdom of Wonder.

Our first part of the series will feature the people who are the most involved in the ESL education community, the movers and shakers, the teachers. We are going to let you know about the characters you’ll be working and running around with, should you choose to move to Cambodia to pursue a career as an English teacher. Do you have what it takes to make it in this highly competitive and rapidly expanding industry? You’ll see it all when you come to Cambodia; its best to be prepared before you arrive. Let us introduce you to who’ll you be working with.

The Teachers

The ESL rodeo clowns running around Phnom Penh are a colourful and sorted set of folks. Some are perfectly normal people who lead lives comparable to ESLers in other countries; however, the normal sort are in the minority at the several schools in Phnom Penh that I’ve had the pleasure of working at. The majority of teachers living in Phnom Penh are characters cut straight out of a Kerouac or Bukowski tale, true specimens of the human species. Many go off the rails while in-country and others were off the rails before they even got here. English teachers in Phnom Penh lead precarious and unconventional lives by western standards. The dark and dirty nature of Phnom Penh sucks in people of a certain ilk and Cambodian society chews them up a bit and spits them back out into what they are while they’re here. Its a place where anything goes and everything is for sale and available 24 hours a day. Booze  and sex are as cheap as can be and the drugs are plentiful. There is nobody to tell you no in Cambodia except for yourself. The country is a true degenerates playground, a testament to the glorification of instant gratification in the digital age.

As Cambodia has emerged from its not too distant genocidal past, the Cambodian government has opened its arms and welcomed international investment and tourism of all kinds. In trying to draw foreigners in and shake the country’s reputation as a land mine ridden hell hole, Cambodian officials have made visa regulations very lax for citizens of most countries. Unlike most other countries in the world, Cambodia has no real restriction on the amount of time a foreigner is allowed to stay in-country. Prospective teachers simply pay for a month-long business visa upon arrival at the border. It is possible to renew the business visa for up to a year at a time indefinitely. There are no background checks or questions asked as to what you are going to be up to for the next year. Your reasons for being here are taken on good faith, a wad of cash, and a wink and a nod from a travel agent, no visit to the immigration office required. With little to no visa regulations, schools get quite the mixed bag of characters rumbling through this dusty outpost on the edge of the Mekong.

Another reason for the apparent lack of quality teachers in Phnom Penh is simply the transient nature of the place. The leading industry in Cambodia is tourism. There are backpackers and travellers coming and going through the country all the time. Some of the travellers fall in love with the place (or a find a local girl that fits their fancy) and decide to set up shop. That is, until they realize that Cambodia really is still a third world country, people are poor as fuck and that maybe things back at moms house weren’t too bad at all. These type of teachers are the most despised by the long-term ESL crowd in Cambodia because they feel the backpackers intentions for coming here were nothing more than self-serving at best. Long-termers feel the midnight-running backpackers ruin the good name of foreign ESL teachers in Cambodia. The way visa regulations are set up here basically allows and encourages bottom feeder teachers to exist and thrive. So far it seems, the government doesn’t seem too interested in changing the immigration regulations any time soon and Cambodia will continue to see backpacker teachers for some time to come.

The place draws in all kinds of teachers: There are sexpats, love-begotten travellers who took the plunge and married a local, ice-heads, middle aged conspiracy theorists, stay-drunks, grizzled Vietnam war vets, backpacker teachers fresh out the local clown college, paedophiles, dead-enders, teachers that give it there all and fall flat on their faces, quiz night junkies, real junkies, economic refugees from the West, pill poppers, waste-awayers, midnight runners, dope fiends, gossip queens, jaded career teachers, wanna-be rock stars,  aged hippies riding on those waves from a different time, professional teachers, who show their true profession after a few drinks, warrant dodgers, thieves, already goners,  drugged out madmen, perves, dipshits, loudmouths, lowlifes, Cali girls, teacher for one-dayers, wandering mystics and you’ve already been introduced to all the rest on your last backpacking adventure through Asia or the last time you visited the local expat watering hole.

One type of teacher you are sure to meet in Cambodia is the long-termer. This type of teacher can usually be seen sitting around the office, drinking black Vietnamese coffee, reading copies of the Phnom Penh Post or the Cambodia Daily and bitching loudly with other long-termers about the ills of Cambodian society and the poor working conditions of the school. These teachers usually sit segregated in the corner of the teachers room and away from other teachers because of their self-perceived higher status for being in Cambodia for so long and putting in the time. You can also find them talking shit over at, where they can regularly be seen discussing the finer points of life in Cambodia or offering helpful advice to new arrivals.

Schools have mixed feelings about long-term teachers. On one hand, schools like long-termers because they are willing to stay indefinitely, unlike most of the trashbags that blow through town. On the other hand, schools aren’t sad when they go because new teachers don’t command as high of a salary and are more easily manipulated. Long-term teachers would be great assets to schools if they actually gave a shit about anyone besides themselves. Most long-term teachers do their job adequately, but rarely go above and beyond the call of duty. They rush out the doors of the school as soon as the bell rings and are usually on their motos before the students are even out the door. They generally have no interest in showing a newbie the ropes. Unfortunately you’re going to have to ask these cynics for help when you first start because Khmer management, are for the most part, incompetent about training new teachers. Try to play nice with these guys when you first start your new job.

I saw one of the more famous posters from Khmer440 and a long-term English teacher in Cambodia tell some geezer part-timer from America, clearly inept with computers and needing a little help entering his scores, I don’t have time to listen to your dribble! If you need help, go down to the office and ask one of the admin women to do it. They aren’t doing anything and you clearly don’t have a clue! The old man sat there speechless for a moment and said, Well, OK then, and got up and walked out of the room, clearly stunned by the long-termers outburst. The riled-up long-termer then turned to me and asked, Shouldn’t he be dead by now? Its this type of attitude that you’ll be up against, so one should be wary about asking stupid questions or things can quickly go awry. The old codger from America who couldn’t figure out the spread-sheet was fired, and of course they kept the long-termer, who despite his crotchety attitude, did know how to properly run an Excel spread-sheet.

Cambodian language schools usually keep around at least one or two foreign drug addicts/alcoholics in-stock. This type of teacher sometimes comes to Cambodia with good intentions, but is quickly sucked in by the 50 cent beers and easy access to prescription and illegal drugs. You will often see these guys coming into work looking all sweaty and haggard after missing a few days due to being sick. Their ruse is eventually discovered after their drug and boozing efforts over-take the efforts they are putting into teaching and they begin to miss work for days at a time. These teachers either end up going back to their country to sober up or/and to continue their misguided existence, or they go home as a pile of ashes to sit quietly on the family’s fireplace mantle for the next 30 years.

Cambodian schools also like to keep a fresh supply of middle-aged western women around as well. These sex-less creatures are there to make sure conversations during the break-time don’t get any more out of hand than they already are. Most of these women last a term or two before moving on to another job or another country. While middle-aged dregs generally don’t mingle well with other teachers, they can be insightful resources into the mindset of your mother and shocking examples of lives too far gone after years on the road.

Another type of teacher you’re invariably going to meet is the aforementioned and  infamously dreaded backpacker teacher. These teachers rock into Phnom Penh and think they are going to save Cambodia from itself. They have grand plans of taking the city over and the sky is the limit. They always start the job off saying they are going to live here for several years and may even plan to learn Khmer. Some backpackers even go as far as getting qualified from Language Corps, a 30 day and $1500 qualification that is essentially worthless outside of Cambodia and is a total waste of time because schools here couldn’t care less about a teachers actual qualifications.

The same routine always inevitably follows with backpacker teachers. After the course, the teacher finds a job with ease. A month or two into the job, the teacher realizes that the training program has taught them absolutely nothing about what they need to actually be a teacher. The new teacher is usually then promptly fired or they quit on their own accord after the term finishes. A backpacker might drift around from school to school for a while until funds dry up and they’re forced to call mom and dad for a ticket back home or they may simply jaunt off on their next backpacking trip, never to be seen or heard from again.

Language schools also contribute greatly to the low quality of teachers in Cambodia. It seems that they will hire anyone who fits the bill of a westerner, so long as they speak passable English. There are absolutely no standards; white is right in Cambodia. The schools usually don’t even bother to check-up on the applicants CV or see that degrees presented by applicants are in fact legitimate. Khmer management see foreign teachers as a means to an end. The end game is the school making money and the smaller details aren’t important. It doesn’t matter to the schools who’s standing in that classroom; it could be some slack-jawed idiot for all they care, so long as its a westerner with a pulse. Teachers are the replaceable parts of the school in Cambodia. There will always be someone who is willing to teach for 10 dollars an hour here. Throw someone in there, kill that time, fill up those classes and get er done. Its the Cambodian way!

That about leaves us at where we will pick up next week: Language Schools and Administration. Stay tuned for more tales from the ESL scene in Cambodia.

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