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Teaching English in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

All the teachers are on drugs just to get through the day.

My new boss seemed quite nervous during the interview. His hands were shaking and he avoided eye contact, preferring to look at his computer screen or the ground instead of my face. He asked only one question, “Do you really think you can do this?”

“Yeah,” I answered with a shrug.

“Then you’re hired!” he exclaimed, shaking my hand, only briefly shooting me a sideways glance. “We have a full-time position that would be perfect for you… So… what are you looking for as far as money is concerned…?”

“I’ve heard $10 is the norm around here, I guess that would be fine.”

“Right, $10 an hour. Sure. When can you start?”


Less than 48 hours later I was standing in front of two dozen young Cambodian students. I had learned that I had been bought in to replace a mad Irishman who had shown up to work every day drunk or high on crystal methamphetamine. I quickly realized that the students expected the same from me. The first two classes went well enough, but by the third class I realized I was facing the most undisciplined, anarchic children imaginable; most of the students were 16 years old and still in the 7th grade. No one was listening to me as I tried to explain the class rules, mostly to respect each other and the teacher, and only to speak English in class.

One student stood up and chucked a plastic water bottle at a fellow classmate, hitting him in the face. I walked over to the student, not really angry, but realizing that I needed to show authority.

“GET OUT!” I shouted in his face, loud enough to send him reeling back in his chair. I followed this by picking everything up off of his desk and tossing it out the door. He was sulking as he left, and the class sat in frozen silence.

“If anyone else does anything like that again, they’re gonna do push ups. You understand?!”

The class nodded its understanding and remained quiet for the remainder of class. After lunch I returned to the office. There I met my co-workers, who had on average about two weeks of seniority over me. We sat there, bored, discussing booze and drugs like office workers in the United States would discuss television.

“Man, at the end of the day all I want to do is veg out and smoke a joint,” Laura, a young Canadian woman with deep brown, bloodshot eyes and a toothy grin explained. “These FUCKING kids are driving me nuts!”

“Yeah, I know,” Jake, a Canadian man in his late thirties who was about the size of a grizzly bear added. “This whole fucking society is driving me nuts… If you need good bud I know a guy who’s solid. No shake, just nice green buds…”

Ben, a young man with a long dark beard, crazy eyes, and a tangled mass of hair on his head stumbled in later. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week, and reeked of booze from two meters away. He flopped down at a desk and buried his face in his arms.

“Are you alright!?” Laura asked him laughing.

“Ahh… fock… I feel like shite…” he groaned in a thick English accent. Laura laughed louder, almost hysterically – she was probably high.

We were joined in the office by two Filipinas, who presumably had formal qualifications, but didn’t seem to understand anything we were talking about. Between all of us we had less than two years of experience at the school, and Jake had more than half of it. Few jobs are as itinerant as an English teacher in Phnom Penh, but I actually intended to stay around for awhile. It didn’t take long to settle into a routine.

My cushy, five hour a day job gave me more than enough money to lead an extraordinarily comfortable lifestyle by my meager standards. I rented an apartment near my school and bought a bicycle, which allowed me the freedom to move about the city, albeit at my own personal risk. The new apartment was comfortable, and I began to cook my own food, which made life even more orderly.

I woke up around dawn every morning, went to my first class after a light breakfast, and began the day’s inevitable battle for moderate control of the classroom and at least the appearance of doing my job. After the first couple of classes, I would return to the teachers’ office where I sat for an hour sipping coconut juice and trying to stay cool in the weak air-conditioning.

Inevitably, I was stinking by late morning, when I had my last class before lunch, the group of 16 year old misfits who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pass the 7th grade. In reality, I didn’t care what they did, as long as they didn’t make my life more difficult. My martial discipline seemed to be working, however, and the severe behavioral problems seemed to be dissipating.

After the class, I would return to my apartment, grab the bike, and ride it to the small open air market down the road. It was a dirty affair, with foul meat covered in flies and vegetables rotting in gutters mixed with raw sewage. I would buy everything I needed and pedal back, usually bare-back in a heavy sweat, much to the amusement of the Cambodians, who would often point, laugh, and shout at me as I passed. I would point back and laugh hysterically, jeering at their childishness, but my insults were often misinterpreted as friendliness. I wished I knew enough Khmer to truly piss them off.

After cooking and eating lunch, I would lie in bed for a few minutes before having to return to work in the afternoon. Two more classes and the day was done. Immediately upon finishing class, I would hurry home, roll a fat joint, grab a beer from the fridge, hop on the bike, and begin the psychotic trip through the city to the lakeside.

Driving in Phnom Penh can most easily be described as a battle for inches. The notion of personal space being non-existent, and there being no control of anything by the police, traffic in Phnom Penh breaks down to utterly individualistic competition. My bike, a Chinese-built piece of shit unfit for a twelve-year-old-village-girl had the nasty habit of losing its breaks in traffic. I would push it hard, trying to keep up with the motorbikes, weaving in and out of traffic past the omnipresent Lexus SUV’s and Hummers with RCAF (Royal Cambodian Armed Forces) license plates.

Often, when for some reason such as an ox or elephant in the road or a grizzly motorbike accident the cars and bikes ahead of me would suddenly stop, I would be forced to either swerve into the other lane and face oncoming traffic or dig my heals into the ground Fred-Flintstone style to come to a stop.

Ostensibly, cars in Cambodia drive on the right side of the road. This is partly true for cars and trucks, but motorbikes clearly operate by different rules. It is perfectly acceptable (in fact it is expected) that a motorbike will switch lanes well before the turn and drive against the flow of traffic until he comes to his turn, taking a hard left, then continuing on against traffic until eventually an opening appears and he can slowly move back to the right lane.

Unfortunately, vehicles and bicycles that need to make right turns are often in the way of this leftward turn, leading to innumerable problems and often head-on collisions. With both motorbikes and cars doing whatever they want the roads quickly become utterly chaotic nightmares. There is never a moment of relaxation on the streets of Phnom Penh, especially during rush hour.

I maneuvered through the chaotic jumble while draining my beer. Finishing, I would throw the can to the sidewalk, assured that some homeless child would pick it up to take it to the recycling for a penny. Everyone has to do their part for humanity, I assured myself. In a decent sweat, I rolled back to the lakeside ghetto, ready for sunset and a chain of joints and weird characters.

Sunset on the Lakeside was something of a ritual, and I would always find someone to share a smoke and a story with. Often, I would find someone who was looking for work, and as it made my boss happy to find new recruits, and referred many of them to my school. After sunset, I would eat dinner at an Indian restaurant and ride my bike back through lighter traffic to my apartment. It was a somewhat empty existence, if tolerable.

More than a month disappeared in this way, and I began to feel like an old hand. The endless party began to wear me down, along with the spoiled kids, whose $500 cell phones were worth more than the average yearly per capita income of a family in Cambodia. Much to their surprise, I instituted the push up rule, and had kids pushing the ground like a drill sergeant on an almost daily basis, which helped with the discipline problems. I was sickened by the waste, squalor and filth around me, and was already seeking a way out in my own mind.

I asked my boss for more hours and a raise, hoping to make more money and speed my flight. Surprisingly, he agreed, and within two weeks I was making eleven dollars an hour and had six more hours per week at the “University”. He asked me to help him find more teachers, as several more drifters had quit or been fired.

“I need white people,” he told me bluntly. “They don’t have to be native speakers, better if they speak good English…”

I helped as much as I could, referring several of my boozing, pot-smoking friends to different posts throughout the school. The “University” classes were a pathetic joke. Fifty students packed into a steamy room and proceeded to chat away while I tried to lecture on “Cultural Studies,” a subject for which I had virtually no educational background.

When I gave a written assignment, nearly all the submissions were directly plagiarized from the internet. As I read the papers clearly written by native English speakers, I wondered how my students (who could barely put a sentence together) imagined that I wouldn’t catch on. Or maybe the culture was just so permissive that they didn’t even consider cheating to even be an issue.

Indeed, it seemed to me that nearly every aspect of Cambodian society involves cheating, from the horrendously corrupt government to the public education system, where grades are given based on a parent’s bribes to the administration and teachers.

After a series of complaints from my students that they “weren’t having enough fun,” I changed my strategy, and we played games in most of the classes. Twice a month I would have them read from the book. There were no more complaints.

Two more months of this passed, and though I had a comfortable apartment with a nice balcony very near the school for $185 a month and was easily saving $500 a month, life became exceedingly empty. Phnom Penh is far from any natural beauty, and though it would be possible to go to the mountains or beach on a three day weekend, these were quite rare. There were holidays nearly every week, but by some instance of bad luck or just typical Cambodian illogic, they were all in the middle of the week, meaning that I just had one more day to sit in Phnom Penh, not making any money.

Eventually, my nerves were shot and I found myself grinding my teeth in anger over every instance of a tuk-tuk hassling me or a student talking on his cell phone in class. I had fallen into a dangerous lifestyle, and my moral fabric was becoming badly tattered. I feared, like many Cambodian expatriates before me, that I would go utterly mad if I didn’t leave immediately.

On my last day of class, another one of my fellow teachers at the school pulled up to me on his motorbike as I was walking to class. I hadn’t spoken to him much before, as he preferred to pass his time in the Cambodian teachers’ office. When we had chatted, the topic usually reverted back to his affinity for brothels or his hatred for “niggers.” I had a strong suspicion of his being a pedophile, and he was certainly completely insane. I avoided him.

“Don’t believe anything they tell you!” he said with wild eyes. He was a dark, fat man, with bags around his eyes like someone in the early stages of full-blown AIDS. “They’re all lying!” he continued breathlessly.

“Yeah, man,” I murmured as I walked away. I was later to learn that he had just been fired and had attacked my timid boss before getting dragged to the ground and thrown out by security.

A week later, I took my pay and left the country without a word to anyone, drifting to a new horizon.

M.J. Lloyd

James Tramplefoot has been, and will continue to be on the road indefinitely, for years and probably decades.