Life in Cambodia With Michael Carter

Michael CarterOur readership demanded we get Carter and we have. In Ed Gagnon’s second interview with Michael Carter, he invited us to feel free to ask follow-up questions. After getting to know Michael through his adventures and writing, here they are. 

You first moved to Cambodia from Canada, what has changed in the country since then?”

I arrived here for the first time in 2000 and used it as a travel base for Southeast Asia for five years. Then I left for two years before returning in 2007. I will base my response on my first arrival.

While much of the countryside and provincial towns in Cambodia remain quaint, capital Phnom Penh has changed from being dark and backward to like any other major Asian city. In other words, it has lost much of its charm and there are now issues with traffic, air quality, and eyesore development. On the upside, we have a wonderful international restaurant scene (although it has been under strain because of COVID).

How long did it take you to acclimatize and what do you recommend to other expats who are just moving abroad?”

I guess they aren’t expats until they move here, but for me, this part of Asia is one of the easiest places to relocate. By the time I had reached Cambodia, I was relatively well-travelled. There really were no surprises.

But for a less experienced traveller, I would suggest doing a bit of research… but not too much. You don’t want to form images and expectations in your head which simply might not exist. The best advice is to just go for it. If you are looking to work and don’t know anyone — head straight to a bar. Many expats like to go somewhere to converse fluently with someone who speaks their same native tongue. Take their words with a grain of salt, but at least it is a start.

On a scale of 1-10, how fluent are you in the Khmer language?”

This one is embarrassing for the amount of time I’ve spent here. If I am honest, I would have to say 3.5 or perhaps 4. My partner is Khmer and we have our own lingua franca which bastardizes both English and Khmer.

If you order one food in a local restaurant, what should it be and why?”

In general, I find Cambodian food bland. Although this doesn’t have to be the case if preparing it yourself or someone else is preparing it for you who will follow your requests. Most local restaurants serve basic food. It’s definitely cheap and filling. If I had to pick a favourite Khmer dish I might choose amok. You can research it. Basically, it’s fish with herbs, coconut, and banana leaves. If prepared properly, it can be quite tasty.

What do locals order at the bar?”

From my observations the overwhelming majority order beer. It’s cold and wet and cheap. If you want cocktails, you will have to go to a foreign-owned place and if you want wine, you have to do the same or else go to a decent international restaurant. Unlike beer, wine and cocktails are not cheap here.

What destinations in Cambodia should travelers put on their bucket list and why?”

The obvious one is Angkor Wat. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a damned amazing place. 

If the great outdoors is your thing, head to Mondulkiri or Ratanakiri Provinces. These are underpopulated with some hill tribe people (for lack of a more appropriate description) and plenty of as of yet undestroyed forests.

For animal lovers, try Kratié. It is located right on the Mekong and is one of three places in the world where you can see the Irrawaddy dolphins. They face extinction so keep that in mind for the pecking order of your bucket list.

How much should someone budget for a week’s stay?”

That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer because everyone has different wants and needs. Another consideration is whether you want to simply exist or do you want to actually have fun? Are you living here or are you on a freewheeling holiday? But here goes my attempt.

Backpackers roughing it can get dorm space for about $5 a night. A reasonably decent room in a modest hotel or guesthouse will run in the $15-20 range… Street food is cheap but if you want to eat in a modestly priced restaurant, you can find eateries in the $5-10 range. I would say if you want to live modestly but not on a skeleton budget then allow yourself at least $50 a day to cover meals and transportation etc along with your lodging. If you are on a short holiday, you’ll want at least double that.

What’s the average salary for a foreigner?”

Again, that’s a difficult question. What is the job? Unless you are fortunate enough to be working for a foreign company that pays a salary similar to what you would make in the West, you will probably be underpaid.

I know many of your readers are educators. If you are talking about teaching wages, then Cambodia is not the place to come to make money. Depending on your experience and certification, an entry-level teacher would not make more than $1200-1400 a month. It is also a horrible time to consider taking a teaching job in Cambodia during these COVID days. Currently, they are closed more than open. I have school-aged kids and I know. Some places are going the online learning route. This pays much less than actual teaching as it is a sub-par product anyway. I now hear of former teachers struggling to get by on about $500. In many cases, half of that is going towards their rent.

How safe is the country?”

It’s a walk in the park. Two or three decades ago it had a bit of a reputation of being the wild east. Unprovoked violent crimes are rare here now. Pickpocketing and bag snatching is rife though.

I do find your question interesting as I often wonder why someone based in the US worries about safety. I have travelled in about 70 countries and the only one I’ve been to which I would categorize as highly dangerous is the United States.

What do you miss most about Canada?”

Maple syrup, of course.

No, but besides that, I would have to say nature and the sheer beauty of the great outdoors in Canada. My kids have never experienced a camping trip with campfire cooked-food, starry nights, and loons calling on the lake at night. These are my fondest memories of the country.

A gorgeous purple sunset over the water.

Be sure to catch up with Michael Carter in his next epic travel tale when the world reopens. If you enjoy hearing about his SE Asia adventures as much as we do at Dreams Abroad, feel free to say hello in the comments. Let him know what you would like to hear about next and if you’ve been to Cambodia…?

by Leesa Truesdell

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.