Kompong Phluk, Cambodia: Village On and In the Lake

Michael CarterBy Michael Carter

Remember your school days when part of the year you would walk to school and climb a towering set of stairs to the entrance, and the remainder of the year would row there in a boat right up to the doorstep? No? Then perhaps you didn’t grow up in Kompong Phluk, Cambodia.

Where is Kompong Phluk, Cambodia?

Many often call Siem Reap “Temple Town” because of its proximity to Angkor Wat. Kompong Phluk, makes for an interesting day trip from Siem Reap. It lies just 16 km away from Temple Town, although the meandering road makes the trip closer to 31 km. It is actually a collection of three floating villages by the Tonlé Sap Lake. The Tonlé Sap River fills and empties into the Tonlé Sap Lake, depending on the time of year. The Tonlé Sap is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, thanks to its unique plant species, fish, and animals, many of which are listed as endangered. Close to 4,000 people call Thnot Kambot, Dhei  Krahom, and Koh Kdol — the three villages of Kompong Phluk — their home. Severe flooding is not uncommon during the rainy season, but for the denizens of Kompong Phluk, Cambodia, it is an annual expectation.

A photo of a building in Kompong Phluk during the dry season

How Do the Locals Survive?

Kompong Phluk translates roughly as Harbour of the Tusks. The community sits high on stilts averaging six metres high. During the wet season months, from May to late October, the denizens rely on fishing. This includes river shrimp and the slightly larger river lobster — which is nothing like the ocean lobster I loved so much in Canada. With the change of the season in November, the water flow reverses and begins receding. Basic farming supplements the fish shortage. Villagers erect temporary shacks by the lake to accommodate the new (and temporary) agricultural activity.

With Siem Reap and the nearby Angkor temples attracting tourists, curious visitors are increasingly making trips to Kompong Phluk. This relatively new site made its way onto the tourist trail within the past couple of decades.

Kompong Phluk’s Flooded Forest

At about 6,000 hectares, locals refer to the largest mangrove forest in the area as the flooded forest. For a donation of around $5 US, local women will paddle you throughout the mangrove in their small boats. With this proving to be another source of income for the residents, the mangrove forest has a good chance of remaining intact, a blessing for both the village residents and people around the world.

A Helpful Donation or a Scam?

I think most travellers like to help add to the places they visit in some way. Despite that,they don’t want to feel they are being scammed. I think it is always one of the greatest dilemmas a traveller can face.

There is no shortage of children in Kompong Phluk. Like most Cambodian people, I find them to be very photogenic. They love slipping into your photographs. Unlike many of the street beggars I have encountered in larger cities, these kids attempt to use their smiles to entice you to purchase basic school supplies for them, such as notebooks and pencils. I curiously witnessed the process and it became rather apparent that these supplies had been bought and sold before. Meaning that they get you to buy the book and invite you to their classroom and then await the next generous group to come along.

An Educator’s View

It was a real dichotomy for me as I have worked in education for over two decades. Furthermore, I’ve lived in Cambodia since 2007, so I’m more familiar with mischievous Cambodian school children than the average tourist. I watched as two western women bought supplies and I accompanied them up the stilted stairway to a large classroom filled with happy, smiling faces. The kids seemed truly grateful and I questioned myself for doubting — perhaps even knowing — that their opportunistic mothers may have put them up to all of this.

A photo of the tourist and Kompong Phluk, Cambodia children

I suppose that if you go to Kompong Phluk, Cambodia someday and encounter this situation, you will have to allow your own feelings to guide you.

All about Michael

We first met Michael Carter back in January 2020 when he was interviewed by close friend and fellow Dreams Abroad contributor, Edmond Gagnon. Michael has since gone on to pen his very own articles for our site. These have seen him recount visiting some of his favourite places in Asia such as Vietnam’s Con Dao Islands as well as those on the other side of the world like Havana, Cuba. We can’t wait to see what more Michael has to share!

Laos: The Sleepy Sister of Southeast Asia

Harold Michael CarterBy Michael Carter

Welcome to the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), a land-locked and less-traveled nation in Southeast Asia. The population of the country has yet to reach 8 million. Most first time visitors to Southeast Asia concentrate on the Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang corridor. Perhaps rightly so, as Luang Prabang is truly a wonderful UNESCO world heritage site. But Laos has plenty of other less publicized gems located in the far southern and eastern Champasak region, hugging Vietnam and a small northern border section with Cambodia. Join me as we take a look.

Pakse, Laos

Pakse (population around 75,000) is the hub of the southwestern corner of Laos. It is located along the confluence of The Mekong and Se Don rivers. The backdrop contains a series of rugged hills. The riverside sunset views are spectacular. Mother Nature used a masterstroke when painting this scene.

What is there to actually do in Pakse? Surprisingly, I found the city has a decent selection of satisfactory eateries. The Panorama Restaurant on the rooftop of the Pakse Hotel provided a 360-degree view of the entire city. It offered optimum sunset gazing with cool, clear air in a relaxed setting. Makeshift restaurants pop up along the riverside in the late afternoon. This is an ideal way to mingle with the locals over some Beerlao. If alcohol is not your cup of tea, there are numerous excellent coffee shops in Pakse.

I rented a bicycle during the day to get around. This is one of my favorite ways to explore a new place. I get a bit of exercise and I can cover more distance than I would simply by walking. If you want a less tiring activity, watch or ask to join a game of pétanque. This French-introduced boules game is very popular in Pakse. 

Not impressed with the excitement factor yet? Read on.

Corner Cafe

Spread Your Wings

OK, so you’ve wound down for a couple of days in Pakse, Laos and now you want to become a little more active.

The nearby Bolaven Plateau is the country’s coffee-growing region. The French introduced the production of coffee in the early 20th century. Presently, Lao coffee is renowned and appreciated worldwide. Other attractions and curiosities in this area are numerous waterfalls and the villages of ethnic minorities.

The Bolaven Plateau is wedged between the Annamite Mountain Range. The Annamite straddles the Vietnamese border on the east and the Mekong River on the west. During the American-Vietnam war, the area was strategically important to both sides. The US heavily carpet-bombed the Bolaven Plateau. To this day, UXOs (unexploded ordinance) riddle the dense jungles. Sticking to marked trails or hiring a guide when hiking is advised.  

Been There, Don Det

Finished with your jungle trek and want to relax again? Head further south to Si Phan Don, a 50-kilometer region just east of the Mekong barely on this side of the Cambodian border.

Si Phan Don translates to approximately 4,000 islands, half of which are submerged during the rainy season. This is the widest area of the 4,350-kilometer-long Mekong River system, offering stunning views of lush jungles and scenic waterways. 

I caught a skiff in Ban Nakasang and settled on the island of Don Det.

Don Det gives an entirely new definition to the term ”laid back.” If you want to get your travel budget in order and slow down beyond belief for some time, Don Det is the haven for you. 

Pace of Don Det, Laos

Two Tribes

Two distinctly contrasting tribes coexist on the island of Don Det — the TVs (travelers, tourists, visitors… take your pick) and the DTs (permanent Det dwellers, locals, natives… take your pick). The TVs are a curious lot and a constant source of amusement for the DTs. I wonder what the DTs did for entertainment before the arrival of the TVs.

TVs come in all ages and from various nations, but all seem to share a fondness for lassitude. The biggest decisions of the day lie in the answers to: “Where to eat next?”, “Where to go for the next beer?”, and “Do I want to eat regular food or ‘happy’ food?”. The more adventurous of the TVs have been known to vacate their hammocks long enough to engage in the rather boisterous activities of floating down the Mekong on inner tubes, lounging on the small beach, or perhaps renting a bicycle to escape the hustle and bustle of the north end of the island. The favorite expression of the average TV is ”chill out.”

The DTs, on the other hand, are also a relaxed tribe, but in a much more traditional way. Their days are spent fishing, repairing fishing nets, playing pétanque, caring for their chickens and gardens… and of course, being amused by the behavior of the TVs.

Don Det Beach

Is it on Your Bucket List Now?

Some travelers have limited time and feel that hanging out and simply enjoying a place wastes too much of their travel time. Although true in some cases, remember that you won’t see the world in one trip. Stick around a while and enjoy the place you are at. 

If you like Vegas-style entertainment, 5-star accommodations, or piña coladas by the seaside — well, Laos might not make your bucket list.  

If you want something much simpler and want to take a step back in time for a while, then this is your ticket.

I hope to share my experiences in a different part of the world with you again soon.

Introducing 2020’s Mid-Year Most Popular Travel Articles

We are halfway through 2020! A couple of years ago, we started publishing a mid-year review to see which articles were read the most. This has been an interesting year so far and thanks to you, our Dreams Abroad community, we are proud to release our mid-year review. Here are your favorite articles of the first half of 2020 to remind you which topics were at the top six months ago. 

So far, 2020 has been a year filled with backpacking, travel tales, teaching in Cambodia, and the impact of COVID-19 on our team in different countries. We are pleased to share our most popular travel articles with you.

How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach

In this illuminating interview, Ed Gagnon caught up with Michael Carter, a fellow Canadian he met while Michael was working in the restaurant industry. Ed explains Michael’s affliction for wanderlust coupled with his move to southeast Asia in 2000. Michael has been living, teaching, and traveling abroad for 20 years. 

Traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodi Travel Articles

If you would like to know more about how to stay and teach in Cambodia, this is undoubtedly a great travel article to read. Since this interview, Michael Carter has joined our team. Be sure to check out Michael’s second interview as well as his own articles. 

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Emma Higgins taught in Phuket, Thailand for a year before deciding to backpack around southeast Asia for three months before heading home to the United States. In this article, she gives 10 reasons why you should backpack around southeast Asia. Emma discusses some of the cultural complexities that transform you into an especially strong traveler. In addition, she points out how you’ll learn new languages, the many different foods you’ll encounter, and how to get out of your comfort zone and discover a new one. 

The Multifaceted Effects of Coronavirus in Our Education System

children being creative

Bebe Bakhtiar is a teacher who has been working during the COVID-19 pandemic. She takes a moment to shed some light and share her concerns about the impact of the virus in addition to what its impact will have on our international education system. This article covers the positive and negative effects of the Coronavirus on students and teachers. In this powerful piece, Bebe urges all community leaders to fight harder for our education system and its teachers. 

Arriving in Mexico City

Arriving in Mexico City

Tyler Black read about Leesa Truesdell’s trip to Mexico City and decided he wanted to also visit, too. Upon arrival, he talks about the view from the plane and how large the city is. He arrives in Mexico City and discusses the first day of his itinerary. Tyler certainly enjoys tasting the local food, touring the downtown city center, and seeing the nightlife. He provides recommendations for a taco and churrería in the city — be sure not to miss this article. Anthony Bourdain ate at the same street taco vendor! 

My Tour of Paris by Night

Moulin Rouge in paris

Leesa Truesdell shares her tour of Paris by night. She talks about the rippling effects of her canceled flight through a series of articles. In this last piece of the series, she spends a very special birthday touring Paris, living a dream she had had for years. This article talks about the different places she explored with her tour guide and the different ways to approach Paris at night (if you are a beginner). If you enjoy reading about Leesa’s solo travel adventures, then this one is a must-read. It has been one of her most popular travel articles. 

Mid-Year 2020 Best Travel Articles

Be on the lookout for our annual review coming in December 2020. You (our readers) decide who makes the top five by reading our content. Each time you read or click on a post, we appreciate it. Thank you so much for reading and being part of our community. If there are other things you would like to know from any of our writers, please send us an e-mail or leave a comment. We will share your feedback with them.

by Leesa Truesdell

Five Reasons to Visit Angkor Wat

I hate it when someone asks me to name the one favorite place I’ve visited. It’s one of my personal quirks: I don’t do favorites, whether it’s colors, cars, or cartoons. That’s just me. Having said that, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a list of favorite places. The ruin sites at Angkor Wat, for example, will always have a front-row seat in my memory bank. 

Anger What? You ask. It’s a place that many have never heard of, most likely because it’s in Cambodia, a country that’s mostly ignored by the average tourist. As it happens, I have a friend who moved there to teach English, and knowing that we share an affliction of wanderlust, he suggested that I come to visit his side of the world. 

Largest Religious Monument in the World

If you enjoy seeing ancient ruins sites as much as I do, then you must visit Angkor Wat. The Buddhist temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the God Vishnu, it was built for Khmer King Suryavarman early in the 12th century.  The modern name, Angkor Wat, means Temple City. Or, if broken down, Capitol City and Temple Grounds.

Angkor Wat

The name Angkor Wat is used to describe the largest and best-preserved temple but it can also include Angkor Thom and Bayon, which are equally impressive sites. Too numerous to mention, there are several more temples in the area. Each successive king took it upon himself to outdo his predecessors by going bigger and better. The three major sites can be taken over a two-day leisurely tour. It can be done in one day if you want a kamikaze experience.

Angkor Thom

Cambodia is Cheap

Thailand and Vietnam may see more tourists than neighboring Cambodia, but it is by far the cheapest of the three Southeast Asian countries. Beers can still be found for a buck and meals for under five. Despite it being cheap, don’t fear the cuisine. Meats and vegetables are always fresh and flavored with an amazing array of spices. It was there that I learned about all the different colors and varieties of curry. 

Tarantula Appetizer

Accommodations in the capital city of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap,  the nearest city to the ruins, can be found at a fraction of the cost of any American city’s best nightly price. The bus fare from the capital to Siem Reap was a pittance, and a tuk-tuk driver for the day is $15 to $20. To understand and appreciate the ruins, a good tour guide costs about $60 for the day. Some drivers and guides will negotiate their prices if things are slow. 

Religion and History of Angkor Wat

I don’t follow any particular religion, but I was intrigued by how the Hindus converted to Buddhism. Like other Muslim/Christian sites around the world, the conversion is evident in the artwork and facades of their temples and buildings. The three-mile perimeter and sheer size of the monument is mind-boggling. The whole site is surrounded by a moat, making it seem even cooler. Modern-day Khmer Monks in orange robes can be seen wandering or praying within the temple walls. 

Aerial View of the temple

A Unique Ruin Site

I’ve visited the pyramids and temples in Egypt and ruin sites in Mexico and Guatemala, but the ancient temples at Angkor Wat are truly unique. Khmer architects used sandstone to cover the facades of their temples, a material that they masterfully carved. At Angkor Thom and Bayon, giant faces adorn the entrance to the temples. 

Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, scenes depicting important events or everyday life are carved into virtually every surface throughout the complex. The massive blocks that form the walls in the structure are so tightly fitted that some seams are difficult to locate. The ravages of time, jungle, earthquakes, and war took their toll on the Angkor ruin sites, but meticulous restoration has brought them back to life. 

Ta Prohm

Angkor Wat is Incredibly Cool

If you haven’t seen Angelina Jolie’s movie, Tomb Raider, give it a watch. Much of it was filmed in and around the jungles and ruin sites at Angkor Wat, and more specifically at Ta Prohm. There is no other place like it on earth. Giant silk-cotton trees have rooted themselves between the giant building blocks, giving the temple an eerie appearance. In some cases, tree roots look like giant hands grasping stones the size of small cars. 

Jolie’s film crew frequented a restaurant called The Red Piano while they filmed on location. When I visited the eatery, they had her table roped off as a tourist attraction. The walls surrounding the booth were lined with autographed photos of her and the locals. She took a shine to the poor and orphaned children while she was there. There is nothing else to really see in the city, as it is basically a bedroom community for the ruins. 

Like many other touristy sites, it is best to get there early. My guide suggested using the rear exit to start my tour. It was a great move; I got excellent unobstructed photographs and didn’t bump into other tourists until later in the day. For an overall and excellent view of Angkor Wat, try going up in the hot air balloon. It sounds tacky but you won’t be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t. 

If you want to read about any of my southeast Asian adventures take a look at the travel section of my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

Sandstone Carvings

Life in the Time of COVID-19

 

Harold Michael CarterApologies to Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez for borrowing from his book titled Love in the Time of Cholera.

Dreams Abroad is all about living, working, and traveling abroad. So what’s it like to do all of these things during these current pandemic days? I’ve been doing all three during the past month or so. First, a bit of background information. This is the first piece I’ve written for Dreams Abroad, but I have been interviewed in several articles about teaching abroad recently. Check two of the three boxes, as I live and work in Cambodia. I recently took an eight-day trip to Thailand during the third week of March, from March 14th to March 21st. Check the third box. Here is my story.

The news and casual awareness of COVID-19 first surfaced here in late 2019. The first reported case in Cambodia was announced on the 27th of January. Fast forward to the 7th of March when they recorded a second case in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s top tourist draw, as the small city is only 12 km from Angkor Wat. When this happened, the government ordered all schools in Siem Reap closed for two weeks.

Closer to Home

Samae Beach, Koh Larn, Thailand COVID-19
Samae Beach, Koh Larn, Thailand.

I live and work in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Everyone at our workplace knew that when the inevitable — cases reported here — happened, our schools would get closed down as well. I had signed a new contract at the beginning of February and still had a week of holiday owed to me from the previous contract, so on about the 9th or 10th of March, I booked a flight for Bangkok leaving on the 14th.

On the 13th of March, they recorded a few more COVID-19 cases. Cambodia now officially listed seven cases. The writing is on the wall for the teachers. The school announces a meeting for the Saturday morning of the 14th to discuss a contingency plan. I do not attend as I am safely buckled into my Air Asia flight to Bangkok by 9:00 a.m. Later that day, the government announces the closing of all schools until the 20th of April (at least).

A Hauntingly Empty Airport

My one-hour flight to Bangkok was only about 70% full. There were no crowds to speak of at either airport and expedient processing through customs and immigration. I spent a night in Bangkok and then went to visit friends in a nearby coastal town. I spent a day on a small island called Koh Larn. Everything was business as usual — although with reduced numbers of people — for the first four days or so. I remember paying respect to my Irish heritage in fine fashion on the 17th for St. Patrick’s Day. 

airport thailand COVID-19

Around 6:00 p.m. on the 18th, the police came around to a number of places to request their closure. The government of Thailand had decided to close entertainment places, cinemas, and bars, but restaurants could remain open. Life was significantly quieter during my last three days in Thailand. Borders around the world were closing up faster than windows during typhoon season. Part of me hoped I’d be marooned in Thailand for an extended holiday. But, I wasn’t loaded with cash and my family was waiting for me in Cambodia, so the other part of me was glad the borders between Thailand and home hadn’t buttoned up. 

Flying back just eight days later from my departure, the plane was now only about 30% full. Air Asia doesn’t serve alcohol on short flights. Too bad, as with those low numbers, I could have had a cart of wine to myself.

Returning Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ferry to Thailand mainland
Ferry to/from Koh Larn (Thailand) to the mainland.

 

Returning to Cambodia by air is always a breeze for me as I have a one-year multiple entry visa in my passport. This arrival was especially quick. I had to fill out an extra form on the plane which asked which countries I had visited in the previous 21 days. I gave it to one of the ladies wearing masks and gloves upon arrival, and off I went through immigration. 

pier on Koh Larn
View from the pier on Koh Larn.

I spent a relaxing Sunday (March 22nd) with my family in Phnom Penh and by now I am aware that I won’t be teaching the following day. So what about this job? What do I do? What did I miss? The devil on my shoulder who represented the half of me that wanted to be stuck in Thailand nodded and winked at me, saying “See, I told you so.”

 

Monday the 23rd — students can’t go to school, but they left school open to teachers. In both the students’ and my absence the previous week, teachers were busy learning the tricks of online teaching using Google classrooms — something which was new for all but two or three of us. We used next week to make practice lessons for the students to help them adjust as well. The school had collected the necessary contact information so that at least the older students could do this. The new school term didn’t actually begin until April 1st. So, we conducted online teaching from then up until the 10th. At which point — enter a nine-day break for Khmer New Year.

Khmer New Year Break

celebrate Khmer New Year every April
Cambodians love to decorate their houses and prepare plenty of food to celebrate Khmer New Year every April.

Khmer New Year officially lasts from April 13th to April 15th, but when factoring in travel days, the country closes for at least a week. It is based on the Buddhist calendar, so we were celebrating the incoming 2564 BE (Buddhist Era). People celebrate with traditional games, heavy drinking, and gambling. They also spend lots of time with extended families and make frequent visits to pagodas. The capital empties out as the masses head for the provinces.

There was a bit of a twist this year though, because on April 8th, the government announced the holiday will be postponed this year because of COVID-19. They want people to keep working and avoid a mass exodus to the provinces for the holiday. Nevertheless, we respect the holiday and stopped online teaching from the 10th to the 20th of April.

Epilogue: Life Goes On in the Time of COVID-19

The 20th arrived and the government still had not given the green light to reopen schools because of COVID-19. In our case, we are informed we will no longer be paid a full salary and are offered 50%. The teachers held a closed-door staff meeting to decide how much work we should actually do to earn these reduced financial rewards. The new hope/projection is that the schools will open again in early May. If this proves to be true, all of this will be a mere bump in the road. If not, the better schools will survive — but other schools will likely be bankrupt within three or four months.

COVID-19

by Michael Carter

What It’s Like Teaching English in Cambodia

by Edmond Gagnon

Michael CarterIn the first part of Michael Carter’s interview, he told us how and why he chose Cambodia as his new home. He targeted Southeast Asia but did not have a particular country when he first decided to come. Then, he visited a friend he’d made from Germany who was living in Cambodia. Seeing Cambodia’s gorgeous atmosphere and rich culture, he immediately applied for a job there and the rest is history. 

Here is the second part of his interview teaching English in Cambodia.

What is a typical day at your school like? 

“A typical teaching day for me begins at 7:40 a.m. and finishes at 4:10 p.m. Many schools run early evening classes as well, but not where I currently work. There is a long gap between morning and afternoon classes, between 10:30 a.m. and 1:20 p.m.). This is mainly to coincide with typical hours of Khmer schools. Most students study for a half-day at Khmer school. Students from wealthy families who can afford English schools spend the other half of their day there.”

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

The place I work employs a lot of people for various duties. There are probably about fifty to sixty teachers on staff. The day is divided into six classes — three before and three after midday. I teach anywhere from four to six classes a day, which adds up to twenty-four teaching hours per week. Most schools here use a twenty to thirty hour teaching week as a base. Notably, the afternoon classes do not have the same students as the morning.”

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

Teaching English in Cambodia“I tend to work independently most of the time. This is partly because I am the only one teaching the courses I do teach (i.e. sociology and psychology). But for other subjects, there are typically three teachers teaching the same thing and they often share ideas and materials. We also have a computer database where teachers can store and access lesson plans or worksheets that have been shared.”

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

 “Quitting time — 4:10 p.m. Reasons are obvious I would think.”

How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

“I think most schools are looking for similar teaching styles, but I certainly would say it’s student-centered. We are meant to keep the TTT (Teacher Talking Time) to an absolute minimum. Group work and pair work are preferable to independent studying. Encourage learner interaction and incorporate critical thinking into the activities whenever possible. I create a lot of supplementary material and often look for short video segments on YouTube which may add another dimension to the lesson.”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

One of many city temples“You can’t always stick to a lesson plan to the last detail, but you should have something planned anyway. Sometimes the timing can be tricky, but you don’t want to have flat or inactive moments.”

I always plan some type of warmer (five to ten minutes) to bring the learners on board. This doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with the material in the lesson. It could simply be a short competition of some kind. The purpose is to grab the attention of your ‘audience’. Think of watching a film at the cinema — or reading a story. The first few minutes of a film are crucial to catch the interest of the viewer, just as a writer needs a ‘hook’ to make the reader want to continue. Teaching isn’t any different. Get their attention, wind them up, and then let them go.

After the warmer, give brief but clear instructions for the class activities. This is your time to teach any new material… but don’t ramble on for too long.

The rest, and longest part of the class must allow students to interact/practice etc. Depending on what you have taught, give a short (five minute) recap/review of the lesson’s key points at the end and assign extra practice (homework) from time-to-time.”

Do you work at a bilingual school? Is English being taught as a subject or throughout all classes at the school? Describe the ways English is being implemented. 

“Our school is strictly English only. We don’t simply teach English, we teach subjects in English. Of course, they learn their basics of the language there as well. However, they study social sciences, history, geography, computer, sports, etc. — all in English.

There are other schools which do just teach English language as a class, though. These places usually have early evening classes that cater to young adults after work.

Our school operates a Khmer language school as well and some students study half a day at each.”

What are the standards classroom teachers use to measure the performance of their students?

“Testing mainly. I personally think students are tested too often but this is what the Cambodian parents want and expect. We also make a part of their score based on speaking from day-to-day class activities. Once a month they are given a project or assignment connected to what they’ve been studying. A mark is given for this as well.

At the beginner levels, we stress fluency. Once they’ve attained that, the higher levels base their scores on both fluency and accuracy.”

Does your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help their students succeed?

Stone Masons at work

I’ve probably touched upon these already, but in a nutshell:
  • Critical thinking skills. Students need to be able to both think and express their ideas and opinions. It isn’t about simply remembering a lot of facts and formulas.
  • Social skills. Cambodians tend to have tightly-knit families. Unlike in most western countries, teenagers do not go out or just hang out with friends. They almost always go out as a family unit. Group work at school affords them an opportunity to interact with non-family members. Social media is perhaps changing things a bit, but not necessarily in a positive way.
  • Confidence. Unlike some schools, we do not automatically pass everybody in order to continue collecting their money. Pushing a student to a higher level when they are not ready is wrong. Students will soon realize their skills are inferior to others and this will kill their desire to participate. Getting good grades is something wonderful for younger learners to show their parents. Giving some verbal praise from time-to-time can do wonders, especially for older, less confident students.

Looking back at the first Teach Abroad interview, what have you learned most about yourself since first being in the classroom this year?

“I have been teaching for around twenty years and for about the first fifteen of those years, I didn’t teach anyone younger than the age of about seventeen or eighteen. It was almost exclusively young adults under thirty. This was both in Indonesia and Cambodia. I now teach kids as young as eleven and twelve and up to the age of seventeen or eighteen. One thing I’ve had to adjust to was having patience dealing with young, wandering attention spans. My partner is Cambodian and we have three young children together so I have become used to this fairly naturally.

Something I’ve known all along but continue to practice is changing up the way I conduct my lessons. Yes, I could replay what I’ve done in the past, though I would find that boring. Keeping things fresh is a key to retaining job interest. Nobody likes a mundane job.”

What It’s Like Teaching English in Cambodia

As you are reading this, Michael is seeking shelter from the 37°C temperatures that don’t normally come until at least a month from now. If you have any questions about teaching English in Cambodia, or the country itself, please don’t hesitate to ask.

The Cambodia Killing Fields

by Edmond Gagnon

To truly understand the country of Cambodia, one must first understand its past. Forty years after the massive genocide committed by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), more commonly called the Khmer Rouge, I endeavored to do exactly that. Having an interest in the Vietnam War, I’d heard about the mass killings in the neighboring country of Cambodia. It wasn’t until I watched the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, that I had a better understanding of what really happened. 

The Khmer Rouge

Despite the massive bombing campaign by the United States, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian civil war that ran from 1970 to 1975. They eventually took political control of the country. Their goal was to maximize production by making everyone farmers. To reach their goal, they eliminated an entire social order that included political opponents, doctors, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, and all other upper-class professionals. 

massive genocide cambodia

Nobody knows the exact numbers, but some estimate the Rouge arrested, tortured, and killed anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million people — a whopping 25% of Cambodia’s population. The Khmer Rouge caught civilians and loaded them onto trucks. From there, they brought their victims to remote areas known as the Killing Fields. Here, their executioners sentenced them to death and buried them in shallow mass graves. 

To save the cost of ammunition for such a large task, executioners used poison, shovels, clubs, knives, as well as sharpened bamboo sticks to get the job done. Some executioners took young children to a large tree where they smashed their heads against it. The idea here was that they wouldn’t avenge their dead parents later in life. 

killing tree

This politically ironic catastrophe happened because China and the U.S. trained and supplied the Khmer Rouge with weapons and intelligence to counter the power of Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Sadly, it took thirty years for the monsters the world powers created to fade and finally be brought to justice. 

victims of killing fields

Learning About the Past in the Cambodia Killing Fields

None of what I’d previously read hit home until I visited the Cambodia Killing Fields monument. It sits about ten miles out of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. I felt overwhelmed by a sense of grief. I felt like I should remove my shoes to walk on the sacred ground. Constructed of concrete and glass, the towering monument contains stacks of human skulls. It was as if I could see the faces of the multitude of victims parading through my mind. 

killing fields Cambodia temple

I felt afraid to speak or ask questions as I quietly explored the marked grave sites. Signs explain to the visitors what exactly professionals found in each mass grave — naked women or headless bodies or children. A knot formed in my stomach; no other place on earth evoked such a strong emotion from me.

victims of mass murder

The result of this mass genocide undeniably set Cambodia back decades. With most of the country’s professionals executed, the financial, educational, medical, and political systems were in chaos, with only young and inexperienced people to fill the void. I witnessed the effects of this first hand. It’s something the country is just now almost fully recovered from. Many still consider Cambodia as a developing country, partly because of its past. Nonetheless, there are many other beautiful things to see and do there.

truck stop cambodia killing fields

The Royal Palace and surrounding grounds are a must-see while in Phnom Penh. Close by, on the river, colorful boats offer a waterside view of the capital city. The passage of time, lessons learned, and experience gained has led to Cambodia entering the 21st century successfully. If you’re visiting Thailand or Vietnam, Cambodia is close by and a cheaper alternative to absorbing the Southeast Asian culture

 

How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach

Harold Michael Carter(Harold) Michael Carter was born and raised in Stratford, Ontario. He studied journalism and discovered at an early age his affliction of wanderlust. Michael furthered his education in life by backpacking his way through Europe. The most important thing he learned from traveling was that he needed to do more of it. 

I met Michael through extended family, when we visited Stratford, home of the Shakespeare Theatre. When he wasn’t working as a manager or bartender in town, he shared photographs and stories of his travels abroad. We bonded over beer, wine, good food and tales of far away places.  

He left Canada for Cambodia in January, 2000, using Phnom Penh as a base from which he could explore Southeast Asia. In 2005 he left for Indonesia, where there was plenty of work back then. He managed to travel and visit home in 2006 and then returned to Cambodia in 2007. He still resides, teaches, and travels from Cambodia today. 

I interviewed Michael Carter to offer an insight into how traveling and teaching abroad can turn into a life lived abroad. 

 

Why did you choose to teach in Cambodia?

“I didn’t choose this country in particular, but I did target Southeast Asia. The main reason was that I wanted a base for traveling in this part of the world. I had previously visited Thailand and initially considered moving there. However, I came to Cambodia to visit a German friend who was living here at the time. I applied for a job just for the hell of it and the rest is history.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?

“This was my first teaching job abroad. After roaming the globe for many years, I decided I wanted to base myself some place other than Canada. I was inspired by a writer from Montréal whom I met in the Czech Republic. He was writing and teaching in Prague. I thought to myself, “This is exactly what I want to do — write and travel and be able to financially support this lifestyle.” I had recently severed a relationship and no longer felt ‘tied down.’ I returned to Canada to work for a few months and by the end of the year I was Asia-bound.”

What did you think teaching would be like? Where are you teaching now?

“I thought teaching would be an ideal venue to interact with local people. It was a new venture and was somewhat exciting in the early days. I probably followed the script in the beginning but soon developed my own style. I am currently teaching in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where I reside with my family.”

Carter Family

How did you prepare for your teaching job? What steps did you take?

“I knew I would need some sort of certification and so I bunked with a friend in Toronto and took an evening and weekend TESOL course. If giving advice on the matter, today I would suggest taking a month-long CELTA course. TEFL is accepted in Cambodia but the best schools are now looking for CELTA certification.”  

What are your perceptions of Cambodia during your time there?

“Cambodia is an interesting country as it is evolving so rapidly. While many things have improved, many aspects of the country endeared me more when I first set foot here twenty years ago. To be honest, if I just arrived for the first time today, I doubt I would choose to live here. I now have established a family here and so now I will always have one foot here at least. Where would I choose instead of Cambodia? I suppose if I were single and starting over with Southeast Asia in mind, I would choose Vietnam.”

Angkor Wat Cambodia

What are your goals while you are abroad?

“Life long goals continually change. Travel opportunities would have been my initial answer to this. I now have a Cambodian partner and we have three children together. My goal now is to establish a reasonably secure base for them before I retire. At that time, I hope to pick up with my travels again. (With Cambodia as my base — health permitting). I have taught here and in Indonesia and was a whisker away from taking a job in Azerbaijan. However, I no longer have the desire to take a job in another country.”

What has been your most difficult time there?

“Tough question. I really haven’t experienced too many difficulties. I suppose becoming a financial prisoner is the main issue. Teaching pays well in some countries (such as South Korea & Japan), but the cost of living can be high in those countries. The cost of living is relatively low in Cambodia but the average rate of pay for teachers coincides with that. Most teachers can live here comfortably so long as they don’t expect to have any money left over to move on. It’s sort of like collecting a welfare cheque — it pays the bills with not much leftover. The other issue that could become a difficulty is health care. Cambodia is lagging behind other countries in the region in this department. This is not the place to be if one has health problems.”

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh Cambodia

What has been your best experience?

“Although I might not have thought so at the time, I suppose it was when I took on the task of being an adviser to a Cambodian senator who was overseeing the ASEAN conference his country was hosting. That is my best memory from a professional point of view.

From a personal point of view, I would have to say that collectively I have met a lot of interesting people here. This experience has shaped and reshaped my ideas over the years.”

How do you feel about the culture there? Do you feel you have immersed yourself into the culture?

“Cultural differences and cultural sensitivity will always be an interesting, yet sometimes challenging part of the relocation. I lived in Indonesia for a little more than a year and seemed to fit right in. In Cambodia, I found it more perplexing in the beginning. I suppose I will never fully be immersed in this culture because differences always come up with child-rearing strategies for example. My partner and I are often at odds as to how to raise our children. Essentially we have the best interest of the kids in mind but we have very opposing tactics as to how to achieve this. Cambodia is predominantly a Buddhist nation and Buddhism allows for tolerance. It is pretty much live and let live here — even though my ways may seem curious to others and vice-versa.”

Mekong River Phnom Penh

What advice would you give to other participants about their first year? What are some of the things they must do, and things they absolutely must not do?

Bousra Waterfall Cambodia

“My advice may differ from some you might hear, but here goes. Try to find out information about the schools first and then try for a job at the BEST possible school. (Not necessarily best paying, but one with a good reputation and proven record of longevity). Some people might suggest going for any job and making rookie mistakes at a lesser institute and using that as a stepping stone. Bull to that. All you will do is acquire bad habits. Work with the best or don’t work at all.

Arrive with enough money to sustain yourself for at least two to three months. Schools usually pay once or twice a month. Even if you land a job immediately, you won’t see money for at least a month and you will have initial expenses to deal with.

Finding a School

Most reputable schools are not interested in fly-by-nights. Get a place to live as soon as possible — not just a guesthouse address. Many new arrivals have the attitude they will stay in a cheap guesthouse until they find work. My advice is to look like you are serious about staying and provide an address for your potential employer. If you are only looking for a six-month stop-over to collect some travel cash then you could do better looking at a lesser operation with a guesthouse address. But if you seriously want to spend some time in the country, then present yourself as someone who might stick around. No reputable place of employment wants a high turnover rate of employees.

I’ve taught in two countries in Southeast Asia – Indonesia and Cambodia. In both countries, local transportation is relatively cheap but distances between potential employers are often far and quite spread out and transportation costs while job searching will add up quickly. If you have money, consider getting a small motorbike. If not (as was my case), pick up a cheap, used bicycle. You can get one in Phnom Penh for around $35 US. If you’re old school like me, sling a briefcase over your shoulder with your CVs and go from place to place.”

Stay tuned for Edmond Gagnon’s second interview with Michael Carter on how he traveled to teach in Cambodia. They will be sharing more great adventures with his experiences at his school. To find out more about Edmond Gagnon, visit his website.

by Edmond Gagnon