When asked if she was ready to begin her second year teaching in Cambodia, Rachel De Ste. Croix answered, “I was born ready!” Below, the spirited Londoner shares her insights on Cambodian weather, conjuring up clothes, street eats, and other facets of Phnom Penh’s “buzz and drama.” 

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Rachel, as someone who has a background in illustration, how did you decide to teach English in Cambodia?

I’d worked as a freelance designer/illustrator for a couple of years, but was getting bored with spending all my time alone in a small room with just my art materials and laptop for company. I’d visited China a few years before and fancied seeing more of Asia, and was interested in the idea of teaching but couldn’t afford another degree in the UK. I ended up in Cambodia because the TEFL course I chose was based in Phnom Penh, but planned to move to Thailand or Vietnam after the course was completed. After a month in Thailand I realised that I missed Cambodia, and decided to return to teach there.

Rachel on a Bokor Mountain trek

Tell us about your job in a Cambodian school—how is the day structured, how much English do the students receive?, etc.

I teach Kindergarten and Playschool [note: this is pre-kindergarten], and have worked at a few different schools since I arrived (last year I worked mornings at one and afternoons at another). They all have catered to quite different kinds of families with different expectations. All are immersion schools—English is the primary (and theoretically only) language spoken in class. However there are assistants in every class who are able to translate or speak with the children in Khmer when it’s really needed. At my current playschool all the classes have exercise, singing and circle time together, phonics/numbers introduction, a snack and break time, plus work based around a monthly theme and plenty of arts & crafts.

I repeat the morning lesson with my afternoon students. On Fridays they have gym, swim and do fun activities instead. The school is well-established and organised, which is not the case for a lot of places here, and my class is small—12 students. At my old school I had 30! Also worth noting is that Cambodia has an extremely high number of public holidays, which is pretty nice when you’re getting paid a salary, but often inconvenient if you’re on a per-hour fee.

Children on Koh Dach Island practicing for the day that they can do this on a moto

Only 12 students, lucky you! What is the typical English level in Cambodia, and what is the demand for English education?

Most of Phnom Penh’s population speaks at least some English. Nobody expects foreigners to be able to speak Khmer, as it’s not widely spoken outside of Cambodia. Parents want their children to learn English from the earliest available opportunity. It opens the door to the possibility of further education and so many more jobs. The population here is very young (something like 50% of the population is under 21). There seem to be a more new schools opening in response to the population boom, but the number of “native speaker” teachers is also growing as people leave the US/UK in response to the recession.

 

Horribly blurry photo from the day I rode past an elephant. Presumably Sam, the city’s only (captive) elephant, who lives near Wat Phnom giving rides to tourists. Despite the fondness for printing elephants on tourist items here there are very few left in the country.

You’ve just returned for a second stint in Cambodian after 4 months in England. How has your first experience shaped the way you approach situations in 2012? What aspects will be trickier this time around?

I’m returning to Cambodia with a good grasp of how things work here—I know my way around Phnom Penh, which schools have a good/bad reputation, what hours and pay a good job offers, how to find a flat and the cost of living, and have a group friends living in the city as well some as other parts of the country.

As for trickier–I miss my family and friends back in London, of course. Also, the turnover of expats here is pretty high, as people don’t often stay for long. There’s a constant cycle of losing old friends and making new ones, although some are here for the long-haul.

My English friend married a lovely Khmer guy on Otres Beach, and they burned scented wood after the wedding. I didn’t have to do any editing on this sunset, it really gets that gorgeous and of course it smelt beautiful too.

I also had to say many good-byes last year so I sympathize with that aspect of living abroad. What are the most difficult cultural adjustments in general?

You have to adjust to using tuk-tuks and motos to get around pretty quickly, since there’s no other public transport within the city. That means regular haggling and getting to know the local drivers. I try to make the effort to dress somewhat modestly because, fairly or unfairly, you get treated with more respect. That said, I’ve rarely felt unsafe.

Another thing to adjust to is the lack of “proper” shops and western brands. I buy most of my clothes from the market, although it’s possible to get things custom-made or copied for a relatively low amount. There is a Mango here, but it’s basically a luxury store! Buying trousers is a challenge if you have hips at all, and shopping for underwear is a total pain. I’m not big by UK standards (5’3 and size 8-10), but here I occasionally feel like the Hulk…

There are two currencies here–Khmer Riel and US dollars. There’s 4000r to $1USD. You can use them interchangeably, which can be a bit confusing at the end of a long day. Having wi-fi at home here is a bit of a luxury, and sometimes the internet stops working when it rains. Power cuts can happen quite regularly, depending on where you live and work. Finally, when I arrived here I found it hard to walk around, since the pavements are occupied with all kinds of vehicles and debris, but now I hardly notice.

Serious flooding. Had to basically swim home that day. The waters always go down after a few hours though–Phnom Penh just has terrible drainage.

You mentioned that it’s often cheaper to eat out than to make your own meals—what’s one example of popular go-to street food? What other goods or services  can you enjoy for cheap in Cambodia?

With cheap street food try to buy from places that are clean and popular (so a high turn-over of produce). French bread with “mystery meat” slices and pickles for $0.50 – $1.50 is one option, and probably won’t give you food poisoning. You can buy fruit from carts for very little (I never got sick from that but I know some people avoid anything uncooked), and drinks like sugar-cane juice, fresh coconut or delicious Khmer coffee for about 2000 – 4000r (I hope you’re keeping up with the currency conversions here…). If you want a non-mystery-meat dinner for around $1 – $2, it will be rice or maybe noodles with a meat and/or vegetable side, and probably not very exciting. If you spend around $3 you can eat something a little fancier at a place with air-con! Eating at a fairly high-end restaurant is unlikely to cost you more than $10-15. It depends how much you drink, though too.

My favourite cheap service here is custom-made shoes. You choose a style from a shelf or photograph, select the colours, leather and heel type, get your feet measured up, and collect your new shoes a week later–and the most I’ve ever paid is $18. You can also get clothes made to measure or copied for a relatively low amount. “Luxury” treatments like manicures, pedicures, massages and decent haircuts can also be purchased for under $10 – $15 (indeed for well under $5 if you go to somewhere that caters to locals). I choose not to splash out on these things back in London because the relative cost is much higher.

My feet in some custom-made peep-toe sling backs from Toul Sleng Beautiful Shoes

Why bother with Mango when you could have your dream clothes designed and ready within a week?! Speaking of splurging, which countries have you visited since living in Asia? Also, how’s the transportation to and from Cambodia?

I’ve been to Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s possible to get a bus from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap to Thailand or Vietnam, or you can fly to quite a few other Asian destinations. This year I want to see more of the north of the country, and visit Laos, Burma and pretty much everywhere else in Asia to be honest!

 Central Market Bus Station on a public holiday. All buses were delayed by 4-6 hours because…”it’s a holiday.”

What a globe-trotter! When you came back to London after a Cambodian year, what did you miss about Phnom Penh?

Living in the city centre within 10 minutes’ journey of most of my friends and seeing them a few times a week at least. In London most of my friends live on the opposite side of town, meaning a journey of over an hour and about £8 for a return ticket, so if I was lucky I’d see them once a fortnight. The cost of renting a nice 1-bedroom place for myself in Phnom Penh costs me under 20% of my wages, whilst a simple shared flat in London cost me 50% of my wage there.

Riverside from a boat

In Phnom Penh I also kind of liked being out of the loop with Western trends and celeb culture. When I look at a British or American magazine here it seems quite strange. I missed the daily sunshine, and the city’s buzz and drama–every time I look out my window here something is going on. There’s a certain immediacy and lack of permanence here. In London it sometimes feels like nothing ever changes. That said, I was also really happy not to eat any rice for a while!

Goods for sale

“Buzz and drama” does indeed sound enticing. On the other side of the coin, what do you miss about England?

I miss having different seasons—not the winter so much, but the rest of the year! Here it’s the end of the hot season and it’s about 35° C for most of the day. I also miss being able to blend in. I’m clearly a foreigner, so there’s near-constant attention from people. Sometimes I think it would just be nice to go to a big H&M or TopShop and be able to buy something cute off-the-peg easily, although in another sense I don’t miss that at all. I miss the food quite often; salad, fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, good chocolate, cake that actually has flavour, carbohydrates other than rice or noodles… you can get those things here, but they don’t always come cheap!

Serendipity Beach: where Cambodians bathe full-dressed alongside an unusually high number of brightly-coloured rubber floaty things.

Rachel, one final question:  what tips would you give to someone who’s interested in teaching English in Cambodia?

Give it a go! Some people love it here, some people hate it, but you won’t know unless you try it!

When she’s not teaching playschool, Rachel works as a freelance designer and illustrator. Check out the artistry on her website, Precious Little, and her twitter, @precious_little.