Cambodia is highly underrated. Majority of English teachers flack to China, South Korea, and Japan. To be honest, I never even considered teaching in Cambodia when weighing my opinions. After my interview with Alfredo…… I *may or may not* regret everything.
Alfredo is a Mexican American living and teaching in Phnom Penh, Cambodia alongside his wife. We chat about why they chose Cambodia, why he loves it, what makes Cambodia so special, and how you can teach there too!
Cambodia is home to the largest and oldest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat along with 4,000 discovered temples. Cambodia’s rich culture and luscious landscapes attract tourists from all over the world. With one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia and low cases of COVID, it’s the perfect home for English teachers. Cambodia is also one of the few countries that do not require a Bachelor’s degree to teach!
Are you packing your bags? Wait! There are a few things you should know before you book your flight.
Hi Alfredo! Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello everyone! My name is Alfredo Trejo Contreras and I am originally from Hidalgo, Mexico. I moved to the U.S. as a kid and lived there for about 20 years. I spent most of that time living and working in Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. As is the case with many hard-working Americans, I have done all kinds of jobs in order to make a living (construction, restaurant work, translating, interpreting, outreach, and so on).
Nine years ago, I met an amazing person who introduced me to the idea of teaching abroad. She and I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia over a year and a half ago and have been teaching English here ever since!
How did you know you wanted to teach abroad? What made you start on this path?
I had been working as an outreach coordinator helping and assisting agricultural workers, mainly from Haiti and Central America, for four years before moving to Cambodia. Traveling has been one of my greatest passions since I can remember. I have traveled all over Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. I believe this is one of the reasons why my heart has always had a hard time settling in one place – I feel like I could belong everywhere. My wife (then girlfriend) planted the teaching abroad seed in me a few years into our relationship but it wasn’t until we traveled to Vietnam in 2017 that I decided it was time to leave everything behind and start a new chapter in our lives.
Can you tell me a little bit about the hiring process? How long did it take you to apply then move to Cambodia?
This was the most difficult part in our case.
I feel like no matter how much is done in preparation, there is always something that slips through the cracks, especially when moving to a completely new place.
I don’t like to use the term “third world” since it sounds a bit degrading to me but I feel like I have to use it with Cambodia. It is a beautiful country, and its people make it even more amazing, but their system has been broken for years and just recently started to see progress. Due to this, most of the international schools struggle to maintain the desired level of organization.
It is common to see teachers knocking on schools’ doors in order to get interviewed and hired. We were unaware of this. We made a big mistake by sending emails to schools only to later realize that they don’t really bother checking them.
I have been told that some of the upper echelon schools do hire beforehand but this is limited to a few institutions. After a few days of not hearing from anyone, we decided to go door to door like most teachers do and drop our CVs.
The interview at our school had two parts. The first one consisted of the typical questions about ourselves such as teaching experience, qualifications, teaching methods, class management, and so on. In the second one, we had to do a demo class that was observed by a supervisor. Since we passed, we sat down to discuss our contract, bargain our salary, and ask other questions we had about the school.
Teaching in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Can you walk us through a typical day teaching in Cambodia?
In my case, I teach from 7:40 a.m. to 2:20p.m. The class ends at 1:20 but I have to stay one hour to prepare things for the following day and to write reports when needed.
I work in a homeschooling program at my school so I would say I am privileged. Most teaching jobs start around 7:00 a.m. and go up to about 4:00 p.m. I teach only one class of 13 second-graders. We have three breaks, including lunch, between 7:40 and 1:20.
My program doesn’t require lesson planning since each kid is working at his/her own pace using their set of books. My job is to mark their work, help with any questions, and check each lesson upon completion. However, I try to introduce different methods to help those with unique learning abilities to make it more effective and fun. We play educational games, watch cool science videos, do cooking classes, work on science experiments, and do crafts. This allows me to encourage group work since, as I mentioned it before, the curriculum is not set up for it.
My apartment is so close to the school that I walk to and from it almost every day.
Navigating from home to school and vice versa can be pretty hectic if you live too far from the school you are teaching at. The traffic can be very bad in the mornings and afternoons so riding a motorbike or a bicycle if you can, is the best option.
Tip: Grab and PassApp are available in Phnom Penh. They are the Uber version and have the option of booking a motorbike, tuk-tuk, or car. I usually travel to school using a tuk-tuk through Grab when I don’t feel like walking.
What is your favorite thing about teaching in Cambodia? Least favorite?
My favorite thing about teaching in Cambodia is the love I receive from my students. I find kids in Cambodia very humble, loving, kind, and respectful. This works in my favor in the classroom. I was a bit scared at the beginning because I didn’t know what to expect but they made it all so easy. My kids (old and current students) are the main reason why I/we have considered sticking around for a bit longer.
Another reason why I like teaching in Cambodia is that it’s so easy and cheap to travel to other Southeast Asian countries. I feel like Cambodia is right in the middle and very close to neighboring countries. Visiting other nations is so convenient.
I have learned to love teaching so my least favorite thing is actually unrelated to teaching. Being far away from family and friends both in the U.S. and Mexico is the hardest part of this whole experience.
Do you recommend teaching in Cambodia? If so, why? What is special about Cambodia?
I would certainly recommend teaching in Cambodia. Whether you want to find a place to settle down for a while or just use the country as a base for traveling – Cambodia is a good option for both.
Also, it can be cheap here depending on individual needs, so saving is totally possible!!
How much do teachers in Cambodia make?
The salaries depend on the school.
The schools are unofficially divided into three categories; high, medium, and low standard. Salaries range from $2,000, $1,400, $1,000 per month respectively. These are average salaries so the exact amount would be based on qualifications, experience, etc.
One important and interesting fact I learned the hard way is that bargaining your salary is a very common practice in Cambodia, especially with the medium and low standard schools.
Note: It is important to note that these salaries only apply to Phnom Penh. Other provinces or cities have their own salary rates, which are lower.
Is housing included in your pay? How much is the cost of living?
No, I have not heard of housing being included in addition to a salary here in Phnom Penh.
The rent would depend on someone’s needs. I know plenty of people who do house sharing. Typically, these are big, traditional Khmer houses but with all of the necessary things (kitchen, bathrooms, internet, cable, fan or AC in most cases). I would say this is the cheapest in the city ($150-$200 or so per month after utilities).
If someone wants to live on their own, which is in our case, there are plenty of modern/western style apartments always available. We live in a nice one-bedroom apartment and our rent is $400 before utilities.
The water here is very cheap. We pay a flat fee of $5 per month. Electricity on the other hand can be a little pricey based on how much it is used. Our electricity bill runs between $100 and $150 per month because of the AC. It was hard to adjust coming from the West where most people use it all the time. I feel like things get better once your body adjusts to the climate though. I am finally able to be comfortable in the bedroom or living room with just a fan.
How much does someone spend in Phnom Penh? I don’t know how much of a help I will be on this one since I am like a very old grandpa whose life revolves around work, gym, and home. We go out occasionally – twice a week, more or less. Food is not that cheap in Cambodia. This is one of the things I was really surprised to find out about. Eating out at decent places can be more expensive than places like Vietnam or Mexico, for example. However, like in many other countries, there are always those stands around the corner selling cheap, traditional food. I have not been brave enough to try them yet, but I will at one point.
My wife and I cook at home a lot so that saves us some money since we go to the markets and buy in bulk. But if eating out is what people want, the average breakfast, lunch and dinner are at about $5 to $9 on average. Some places are always trying to attract new customers so deals and specials are frequent.
Are you able to save money?
Saving money while teaching in Cambodia has been possible for us. Even though I still have some things I am paying for in the U.S., I save about $500 each month on my end. If it wasn’t for those additional financial obligations, I would probably be able to bank in between $800-$900 per month, I believe.
In South Korea, there was a huge community of foreign teachers. Is it easy to make friends in Cambodia?
Yes! We have a huge expat community here in Phnom Penh. There is a large number of people from the UK, America , France, South Africa, and Australia so going out regularly would most certainly result in many new friends!
Obviously with COVID, I’m sure things are different in your daily life and job. How’s life there amidst a global pandemic? How is the country and your employer handling the pandemic?
Things are much better now. However, we didn’t see or experience much of what is happening like other places, like in the West. The government here tried to take the right precautions as soon as they could. Schools were some of the first businesses to close so we had to move to virtual learning in March.
Thanks to having one of the lowest numbers of cases in South East Asia, the government decided to give the schools the chance to reopen last month.
Most schools are open and teaching in person at the moment. We have to follow some guidelines (using masks, sanitizer, keeping a distance, etc.) and face random inspections here and there.
What are your plans for the future? Do you and your wife want to stay in Cambodia?
We are getting used to life in Cambodia and as I mentioned before, our students are amazing. This place has the potential to bring balance to our lives so I think it is safe to say that we will commit to being here for a while.
Our dream is to invest in Mexico and live there at some point. Earning a good salary here and the cost of living being low will hopefully help us achieve our dream one day soon.
Advice for Teaching in Cambodia
For someone who is interested in teaching in Cambodia, what is the first step in starting that process? Any advice on getting hired in Cambodia?
The first step would be really wanting to venture and live abroad. Then I would say you need to be prepared academically and mentally. Most of the high standard schools have a better system in place so they require a BA and teaching experience. If you have both, you could get hired even before arriving in Cambodia.
The best way to find a job in Cambodia is packing your suitcase and getting here. Most of the hiring happens in person. Even if you have contacts here in Cambodia, they rarely hire from a distance. Even though having friends and contacts in Cambodia doesn’t guarantee you a job, it can provide moral and emotional support.
Who can teach in Cambodia? Do you need a degree to teach in Cambodia? Do you need to be a native speaker? Do you need a TEFL certification?
For what I have seen, almost everyone stands a chance to teach in Cambodia. There are plenty of schools holding different standards so there is room for all kinds of people!
A degree is not necessary in Cambodia unless you are applying for the upper-level schools. However, almost every school will request a teaching certificate at least so make sure you get one!
Being a non-native speaker is also not an unconquerable obstacle to teaching in Cambodia. I myself am not a native speaker even though I lived for more than half of my life in the U.S. However, you’ll probably have to knock on doors a little harder than those who are native speakers. It is possible though! We have teachers from the Philippines, Spain, Egypt, and Mexico working at my school. I am unaware of their exact citizenship status but having a passport from an English speaking country is a plus! I hold a Mexican and an American passport, which I used to enter the country and apply for a job.
Is it safe to work in Cambodia?
Cambodia is one of the safest places I have ever been to! The people here are very friendly and welcoming towards foreigners.
The only thing I have heard of and experienced so far is someone coming from behind on a motorbike and snatching your phone or wallet so I would encourage people to be careful with their belongings when going out. Other than that, Cambodia is pretty safe. At least it’s not like in many other places where you have to watch out for your life. Here, you’ll only need to watch out for your phone or wallet!
Is there anything you wish you knew before moving to Cambodia? Any packing tips or cultural tips? Things you wish you would’ve packed?
Most of the things I wish I had known are related to the hiring process.
I wish I had known that schools try not to hire couples and even then, they still prefer to hire females over males. This was a big headache for us because we had been used to working together for a long time so we really wanted to keep doing it.
We ended up working together after knocking on so many doors but it was extremely difficult. At first, I thought it was because of me not being a native speaker and not having blonde hair and blue eyes. This proved to be wrong when I started meeting guys from the USA and South Africa who had to move and do something different because of not being hired at schools.
The following are things we learned along the way.
$$ Tip: Make sure you come prepared economically. If you don’t have an offer on the table before leaving your country, it usually takes about a month or so to finally start seeing the fruit (money) of your labor. That being said, make sure you have some savings available to help you sustain yourself while waiting. I would say a couple thousand to be on the safe side.
The other thing to consider before moving to Cambodia is that many places here only take cash so having money with you or a debit card you can use to withdraw money from ATMs can be very helpful!
Any last bits of advice or wisdom?
Moving to Cambodia has been a rollercoaster of emotions.
Some things have been good and some have been not so good, especially if we add Covid -19 to the mix. However, it is all a learning experience. I moved here with a lot of skepticism. I am a non-native speaker who still has a bit of an accent. I wanted to bang my head on the wall so many times in the beginning because I felt like I had betrayed myself. “How dare you decide to put yourself in this situation?” I would ask myself. “A non-native with an accent teaching English, really?” That went through my head many times. But life is pretty funny. We tend to overthink and place many negative things in our mind that certainly shouldn’t be in there.
It has been over a year now. My wife has been promoted to a supervisor position and I think I am doing pretty well in the program I am in. I am constantly reassured by some of my coworkers and my supervisor of the great job I am doing with my kids.
That being said, please don’t ever think low of yourself. There are always people who see you as a role model and love what you do!!
If someone has more questions about Cambodia, is it okay to reach out to you? If so, what is the best way to contact you?
Absolutely. If there is anything we can do to help, we’ll do it with pleasure. This is my email email@example.com and it is probably the best way to reach out. I do have FB and Instagram, Alfredo Trejo Contreras and Fedi Trejo respectively, but I am not on either very much.
I hope to be able to help someone with this information and maybe see some of you here in Cambodia soon! Stay safe!
Thank you so much for your time, Alfredo! I loved hearing your story and I’m *low key* ready to move to Cambodia. You?
Teaching Abroad Resources:
- Get TEFL Certified
- How to Teach in South Korea
- Is Teaching Abroad Right For You? (What I Wish I Knew Before Teaching Abroad – Honest Pros and Cons)
- Escaping South Korea: Why I Did A Midnight Run
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