So, I’ve lived in Cambodia twice now. One for a year, where I was mostly in Siem Reap (there were 10 weeks at the start when I was in Phnom Penh). This time I’m in Phnom Penh. These are the two major differences and they mean that there are other differences as well.
Siem Reap versus Phnom Penh
I’ve been asked which I prefer. The answer is both. Siem Reap is more green and works at a slower pace. The traffic is less chaotic and there is a lovely river sleepily drifting through the centre. The centre of Siem Reap is very touristy, which can be good if you want to escape to cafes and restaurants. It also has quite a buzz during the evenings.
Phnom Penh is chaotic and crowded and the traffic is bad. It can be hot, noisy and exhausting. However, it is also colourful and vibrant and is one of my favourite places in the world. There are some many amazing things going on and it’s great to see Cambodian life in full swing. Phnom Penh is also changing and developing so rapidly it’s crazy seeing it grow literally before your eyes. There are also so many cool restaurants, bars, malls, cinemas and places to go.
South versus North
Whilst I was in Phnom Penh last time, I stayed in the south of the city, so the area around the Russian Market and Boeing Tompun were really familiar to me. I definitely did not know the Toul Kork and north of the city at all. I only knew if from journeys around the airport and the few times I visited Vitou’s in-law’s house.
Now I live in the very far north of the city, in Phnom Penh Thmei. There’s a road, with houses on one side (where I live) and fields on the other. There are occasional cows wandering about. This area was pretty much unfamiliar to me, and it left me feeling a bit disorientated and bereft of my familiar surroundings. However, I’m getting to know this area better and I feel I have a wider knowledge of Phnom Penh as a whole.
Khmer versus Expat
Last time I worked in a Khmer school and spent most of my time outside of work with expats. Now, I work in a n international school and spend most of my free time with Khmer people.
My school is a bit of an expat bubble. There are Khmer staff, and sometimes I sit with them an subject them to my poor language skills. However, apart from the temperature, the A/C and the insects, it’s easy to forget that you are in Cambodia.
A lot of my old expat friends are in Siem Reap still, or have moved elsewhere in Cambodia. Also, many of them visited home for a couple of months as soon as I arrived. This means I’ve not actually had an opportunity to see former expat friends.
Last time, I made a good Khmer friend, Vitou. However, he lived in Phnom Penh, whilst I lived in Siem Reap. However, now we live about 5 minute’s drive from one another. Our friendship has grown really close, and I also know his family well now. I’m glad that they all have pretty good English as my Khmer is still quite limited. Most of my free time is therefore spent either just with Vitou or with his family.
Working in an international school is great, but it does mean there are added pressures. The work is a bit more intense than last time (although nowhere near as intense as working in a UK mainstream school). Last time, I was the only English teacher, I set my own curriculum and I decided how that would run. I think the autonomy meant that I could decide which pressures and difficulties I would take on. (Setting and marking homework: no; reports and grade setting: no.) There were other factors determining my choices as well, but it did mean that I was able to make my life easier. The basic level I was teaching at also meant that very little written work was being produced, so it could all be marked in class.
However, here I’m a part of a department, following set curriculums and having to work within a wider school framework. This means that you have to do the things you don’t want to do or do things in a way that would not be your first choice. Obviously, when you have to work within systems that have to meet a whole variety of needs, it means that sometimes the way you do them is not perhaps what is easiest for you.
Also, I’m doing Khmer in the evenings. The pressures of my Khmer assessment and the normal pressures of end of term collide, so that was a painfully intense period. Being a glutton for punishment, I’ve enrolled in level 4, and this semester has very few breaks.
I’ve also offered to help with teaching in the village and I’ll soon be helping play music on Sundays at church. I keep taking on little things and sometimes it becomes a bit much and feels like death by slow slicing. However, most of it is really rewarding but I’m going to have to practise pacing myself better. Therefore, it does feel as if I’m a bit more busy than last time. This means that the last six months have gone by incredibly quickly. I’m already a quarter of my way through my second stint here. That’s quite scary.
I’m attempting to answer some of your questions, or questions that I’ve had asked of me by others or perhaps questions I’ve perceived or felt were implied.
One question I’ve not been directly asked but it seems to hang in the air a bit is “are you fluent in Khmer yet?” The answer to that is no. That’s the short answer and if that satisfies you, you can stop reading here. If you would like a fuller explanation of why not and why it probably isn’t happening anytime soon (despite my best efforts), then carry on.
First, the idea that Khmer can be learnt within a short time is usually expressed only by people who have never attempted to learn Khmer. They may have experienced learning another language, maybe French or German or Spanish. However, this is not quite the same.
There’s the “fluent in 3 months” idea that is bandied around the internet or people who have a vague awareness of foreign languages. And yes, it is perhaps possible to learn a language to a level of fluency in just three months. It is not possible, however, to learn all languages to fluency in three months. It depends on what your mother tongue is, your previous knowledge of language learning and your knowledge of linguistics. Also, it depends on what type of fluency you are aiming for.
The idea I think somewhat originated from the US Foreign Service Institute. That is the governmental body that heads up the training of diplomats and other foreign service workers. They rank different languages according to how long it would take an English native speaker to acquire that language to various levels of fluency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. The end goal for this scale is for an overall professional fluency, which would be more demanding than a conversational fluency. And when they determine how long a professional fluency would take, that is how long it would take someone with 25 hours of class time a week, with an addition three to four hours of self-directed study a day (so around 45 hours of study a week). These classes are conducted by a team of linguistic experts, native speakers trained to teach and training specialists.
Even with that amount of dedication, the shortest amount of time it would take to meet their required standards for a language is 24 weeks, or 6 months. That’s for languages such as French, Italian and Spanish. These languages are considered closely related enough to English to make it easier.
Japanese on the other hand is considered one of the hardest and would take around 88 weeks.
So, where is Khmer? It’s in the group that would take about 11 months to learn. 11 months of 25 class hours a week. That’s 1,100 hours of Khmer class. Khmer is significantly distinct from English. It has a plethora of sounds that English does not have and are difficult to produce, it has a script that seems to read in spirals and comprises of the longest alphabet in the world, as well as a complex system of social registers.
You may say, but you’ve been in Cambodia 16 months already. That should have been more than enough time. I would like to remind you that the Foreign Service Institute provide 25 hours of class time a week. At my most intense learning stage, I did ten weeks of ten hours a week. That’s 100 hours. So, after that, I only had 1000 more hours to go. During my first year in Cambodia, I probably did a further 70 hours and another 5 hours of classes in the year I returned to the UK. Recently, I have done 10 weeks of 4 hours a week at G2K, 1 hour a week at school (a maximum of 18 hours) and a further 10 hours with Vitou helping me.
Therefore, I have around a further 897 hours of classes to go until I reach the Foreign Service Institute’s required standard.
Of course, I have the additional benefit of living in the country. However, my work means that I often live in a very English-speaking bubble and the Khmer I do get to use tends to be very repetitive and doesn’t progress beyond what I know already. (How long have you lived here? Where are you from? Do you like Cambodia? I would like to go to AEON Mall II. Yes, I went there yesterday.)
I shall persevere as much as I can. I need to not put too much pressure on myself and not to expect perfection straight away. I have definitely made progress since being back but there are still constant and daily struggles and mistakes. Once I am fluent, I will let you know.
I love my time in Cambodia. I also try to avoid presenting a “suffering martyr”. However, I did have a bit of a moan. The following is a (slightly censored) message I sent over WhatsApp to my parents:
My bed is an insect graveyard. Dead animals everywhere. I spray myself with 95% DEET to be safe. It doesn’t work because I still get bitten. But it is enough to strip the plastic off my nice laptop case when I touch it. It’s impossible to have nice things here. I accidentally bleached my nice work trousers because my shower wasn’t draining (admittedly more my fault than Cambodia’s). There are ants crawling in my laptop, dust everywhere, clothes get stained where someone left pink dragonfruit on a seat or they get torn by the random nails everywhere. Everything is just more effort. You can’t just drink water from a tap so you always have to be on top of how much water you have in your filter. You can’t make a salad without giving yourself diarrhoea. The stream nearby stinks. The road to school is terrible. When you get post the ants usually have got to it first. All your chocolate melts. My iPhone battery is dying because of the constant heat and power fluctuations. You can’t make a cup of tea without sweating the same amount of bodily fluids. You have to take your shirt off to have a [dump] because the bathrooms are so hot and humid.
There are other things, but that’s just what I included in my rant.
I am so incredibly lucky to be in Cambodia. The country is beautiful. The people are incredible. There are such amazing things to be grateful for. Everyday is filled with such blessings.
But there will be moments when you just need to vent. And that’s okay.
I’ve been trying to learn new Khmer songs, especially ones that I sing at church each week. I’ve started off simple, often with children’s songs and ones with familiar tunes. This is because it’s hard enough trying to learn the words in a foreign language, let alone learn unfamiliar tunes that a culturally different, with unexpected trills or chord sequences.
Christian songs provide quite a good opportunity as often they are closely translated and keep the original tune. So that makes it easy for me to understand and to learn the new vocabulary!
I’ll provide a video, the Khmer script, then a Romanised version, then the IPA for linguistic nerds. If you want to find out what system I used or why I made the choices I did in transliteration or transcription, see my Khmenglish page. I will also provide a link to a pdf of all versions side-by-side, as well as a list of each of the words and their meanings.
I’m answering some FAQs about my life in Cambodia. They may be questions I’ve been asked or just ones I think are in the back of people’s minds.
This question seems to come in various iterations: what food/drink/clothes/place/whatever do you miss most from the UK? I’ve even been asked who do I miss the most a few times, as if I’m not going to give a socially acceptable answer to that one (I would say, “My family, especially my niece, and you of course.” Whether any of that is true, I’ll never tell).
I’ve actually answered this question before, but that was back in 2016, when I had pretty much first arrived. However, things have not changed since then. I still get the questions and I still answer the same thing. There is nothing material that I have missed in the UK.
I really enjoy my life in Cambodia. I like the food, I love the people here. There’s also such a wide range of Western foods or Asian food restaurants (and even Middle-Eastern food) available there’s nothing much to miss. I understand how there might be things you would miss, especially if you were in a different country or even area of the country that doesn’t cater for Western tastes so much or with such much variety available. However, that doesn’t seem like too much of a problem here.
I know that people do miss things from home. (I did a Facebook survey, and it was about 60/40 split of those that missed stuff and those that didn’t.) There have been fleeting moments when I miss something, usually when I am ill or tired or had a tough day. But it has never been more than a fleeting moment.
But, I still have a massive problem with answering that question, or perhaps I still have a problem with what I perceive to be everyone’s response to my answer. First, it’s a loaded question; it assumes already that I miss something. That makes my response to it already awkward and unnatural. But there also seems that the question is layered and that there are other implicit intentions behind the question. (Maybe this is the case or maybe I’m just making it into a problem when it isn’t.) However, when people ask me “What do you miss the most from the UK?” I feel like they are asking “What do you miss about your Britishness the most?” or “What about our shared past and identity do you miss the most?” The question is not simply about things: it’s about my heritage and my sense of belonging and the things and memories I shared with people back home.
By answering, “Actually, I don’t miss anything from the UK” its like saying, “I have turned my back on my Britishness” or “I reject my life at home.” Often, when I tell people that I don’t really miss anything I see a look in their eyes as if I suddenly lifted a sharp axe above my head and physically severed any connection that we once had. That that is not at all wha it feel like to me or my intention.
First, all my colleagues and students at HOPE School will attest to my Britishness. I am definitely not rejecting my heritage. (I teach Dickens and Shakespeare, for goodness sake.) I often fill meetings and social interactions with awkwardness and necessary unnecessary pleasantries. I stare silently to express my utter and explosive rage at something. I’m very British and it’s going to take a lot to knock it out of me. Sometimes, it’s softened a bit. I’m perhaps not as judgemental about perceived social faux-pas as I once was. Also, I’m learning to sometimes “put down” my Britishness, as if it were a hot cup of tea, ready to pick it back up when the moment is right. But I’m not rejecting Britain or my life at home.
It also doesn’t mean that I didn’t like things you sent me or you shouldn’t do it. I don’t put sentimental attachment onto things or foods, but I do like being thought of. For me, often the actual gift doesn’t matter, it is definitely a case of it’sthe thought that counts. If you want to send me something, head to Poundland or somewhere silly. Dafter the better. I recently received a box of PG Tips in the post. When I opened it, I did not think. “Great, I’ve been dying for a proper brew.” I thought, “Someone went to the effort of wrapping, labelling and posting something so that I would feel remembered.” It’s the gesture that touched me.
So, don’t expect me to miss food or things. But that doesn’t mean I hate you and it doesn’t mean I want to be forgotten about, either.
Wow, 2018 has been quite a year. It’s had two British royal weddings; a FIFA World Cup in Russia; the Commonwealth Games in Australia; Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress; 4 UK citizens were poisoned using the nerve agent Novichock killing one; the northern white rhinoceros became extinct; Indonesia was hit by both an earthquake and a few months later a tsunami, together leaving tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands injured; and a children’s football team and their coach were rescued from caves in Thailand. When considered next to this global perspective, my life is not nearly as significant or dramatic, but 2018 was an important year for me, just the same.
It’s also really difficult to look back on: not emotionally but in terms of ordering and placing certain events that happened. My brain did this weird thing when I arrived back in Cambodia. The previous year in Cambodia and the subsequent year back in the UK seem to have gone through this strange cognitive shift. My brain seems to have arranged them so that UK life and Cambodia life maintain a contiguous narrative. So thinking about early 2018 is really hard, because I have to make a mental effort to tell my brain those events did happen at that point in time. I’ve currently got a Facebook poll going to see if anyone relates to this. If I’m on my own, I’ll let you know.
Seeing as this blog is as much about recording memories for me as it is about sharing them with you all, I thought I would try to sum up the whirlwind that was my life.
In December 2017, I applied for a position at HOPE International School in Cambodia. On 11th January, I was offered an interview. This would be a Skype interview at 6.00 am on a Wednesday, before I went to work. The interview was a success and I was offered a job two days later. I was returning to Cambodia. However, at this point, I did not know whether I was going to be living in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. HOPE has two campuses and there was a suitable position at both. I had told the school I did not mind which one I went worked at so had to wait for their decision.
I turned 30! I’m not really a huge birthday person (my own, that is- I get more excited about other people’s), but with some reluctance I arranged a celebration. I had to endure the cake being bought in by waitresses singing and shaking tambourines. It was awful. My friends delighted in how terrible I found the experience. The cake was great, though!
I also found out that I would be in Phnom Penh, teaching International Baccalaureate and iGCSE English and English literature. There was a little bit of grieving for the future I would not have in Siem Reap. However, I loved Phnom Penh (I still do), and I reminded myself that I would love it just as much.
It started snowing at the end of February, but eventually got deep enough to have a couple of snow days.
I enjoyed the snow, but I decided I definitely had enough to last me for the next two years in Cambodia. I remember the winter of 2017-2018 as very long, dark and cold. It may be because I had skipped the winter of 2016-17, so I was less prepared, but I remember driving home each day after school and it being very bleak.
I booked my plane tickets: Heathrow to Bangkok (with a change at Moscow); and then Bangkok to Phnom Penh a day later. However, because of the Russian involvement in the US elections, and heightened tension between the UK and Russia due to the recent poisonings in nearby Salisbury, my mother did not approve of my route and airline choice (Aeroflot). However, I was more than happy to exploit the post-World Cup plane prices.
My mum turned 60. I created a “old ladies starter kit” for her. She was overwhelmingly pleased with the gifts, which was concerning as the aim was to buy useless, unwanted presents. The only thing she was particularly horrified by was the pearl chain for her glasses.
April, as it was the holidays, was also a time to start sorting out a lot of my stuff. Most of my belongings went to charity shops.
I also made some បបរ (babar, or Cambodian rice porridge) and Cambodian styled coffee.
“Go to dentist” was one of the first things on my “Return to Cambodia to do list”. I finally ticked it off! I was needlessly anxious about needing more fillings, and I was problem free. (Well, at least my teeth were.)
I remember May was a particularly beautiful month. The sun seemed to shine a lot and it reminded me how beautiful Britain was.
May saw the royal wedding. I baked a lemon and elderflower cake, as that was what Harry and Meghan were having. It was the biggest cake I’ve ever baked.
There are perils of nice weather and living in the New Forest. The excursions into the countryside bought me too close to the local wildlife, and I got my third tick since returning from Cambodia.
The hot weather did bring some spectacular storms, which I hated driving in. However, I braved it, and drove to a hill in an open area of heathland to get a panoramic view of the lightening. Unfortunately, storms don’t film well on iPhones, so what I captured didn’t do it justice.
I drove to Cornwall and back to visit the Bemrose family. It nearly killed my car and I remember there being sand everywhere. It was a great time. It was also a blessing going to the Bemrose’s church and people offering to pray for me.
I also went on a zombie-run with my work bestie. I found out I was no-nonsense and a bit cut-throat in survival situations.
There was a heatwave and everyone seemed to lose their mind. However, it reminded me very much of teaching in Cambodia. I was able to implement some of my hot weather tricks (including wearing t-shirts under you shirt, which everyone thought was crazy, but it isn’t).
The end of the month saw the year 11 prom. I love proms, possibly more than the kids.
I find out that I would not be teaching the International Baccalaureate. This is simultaneously frustrating (I had bought and begun reading the set texts) and a relief as I had little previous knowledge of the system and it was causing me some anxiety.
On the last day of June, I drove up to Coventry and back, for the Bagg-Lowe wedding. It was great to see them get married and to catch up with some old friends!
This was the last month I had to prepare for leaving to Cambodia, as I was leaving on the last Monday of July. So, I intentionally left it quiet. There was only my dad’s massive 60th birthday party, my farewell party, a church goodbye, cooking a Cambodian meal for my church small group, and the various end-of-year goodbyes at school; as well as trying to pack within my baggage allowance. So, July, was in fact, a crazily busy month. I think that was useful in a way, because I just had to get on with it and not think about what was happening.
The last day of school was emotionally charged. A lot of the kids cried. Some of them only came in because it was my last day (missing the last day of school is quite common…). They filled my car with balloons (they spied an opportunity when I was returning somethings from my car to my classroom and hadn’t locked it again). They also designed and bought me a horrible, garish t-shirt and it remains one of my very favourites.
After this whirlwind, I finally packed and was ready to leave…
Early on Monday 23rd July, I headed off towards Heathrow Airport on a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. At last, I was heading back to Cambodia.
I enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of Bangkok (except the part when they tried to sell me expensive jewellery and suits). Bangkok had enough that was familiar to make me feel I was definitely getting close to my goal, but there were enough differences to know I was not quite there yet. Perhaps its because I wasn’t seeing the familiar sights and didn’t have a sense of my bearings, like I do when in Cambodia. The temple tours were fun, though. You definitely get the sense that Thailand (then Siam) was a grander nation than Cambodia in the last few centuries.
After 24 hours in Bangkok, I boarded another plane to Phnom Penh. I was already excited in the airport when I realised, whilst queuing for security, that I was in a line with a group of Cambodians. Then at the departure gate, there were more Cambodians. I did debate for a while whether to try and strike up a conversation, but I think that jet-lag would have made it too hard.
After about an hour, the plane turned and tilted, revealing the meandering Mekong River. I could see Koh Dach (Silk Island) in the centre. Then I could see Chaktomuk (the four faces). Its where the Tonlé Sap river, the Mekong and the distributary Tonlé Bassac all join; the centre of Phnom Penh lies on the banks of this 1 km stretch of water.
We swooped over the north of Phnom Penh. Comparing Bangkok and Phnom Penh as you flew over them, you definitely saw how Phnom Penh was smaller and less dense than the other capital. However, as I saw the familiar grid pattern and boreys (neighbourhoods), I definitely knew which I had the emotional connection to. I did manage not to cry.
I finally arrived in Phnom Penh, a bit dazed and tired. A new colleague took me to my new apartment for the first time. It looked great, but a little bare. I had about a week to sort myself out.
Of course, one of the highlights was being reunited with my Cambodian brother, Vitou.
In the week I had to sort myself, I squeezed in a visit to Siem Reap. I left 11pm on 31st July, to arrive in the town I used to live on 1st August. I had breakfast at my friends’ house, then attended a team prayer meeting, visited the school I worked at and (I think, shared lunch with them), then had another team meeting then went for dinner. The next morning, I was heading back to Phnom Penh. It was definitely a whirlwind. It felt good to be back, but it didn’t make me regret the fact I was now in Phnom Penh.
I started at my new school. The first few weeks were a confusing barrage of alien acronyms and systems. I begun teaching my new classes and it quickly became clear that the students at HOPE has as much life and personality as the ones in Sholing (although it manifests in slightly different ways).
There were also humorous incidents (getting a new gas bottle; being chased by a dog; etc.). I also have a placement test for Khmer classes at G2K. I was tired, somewhat stressed and anxious. They advised I entered at level 3.
I also visited Takeo province for the first time, to visit the Good Neighbours team. They are a part of my sending organisation, WEC, and they run a pre-school and a church in the village. I really enjoyed my time here.
In September, Vitou’s family grew. His wife gave birth to a lovely baby girl!
September was a time of getting into new routines and settling into the new life at HOPE school and north Phnom Penh. I started attending Vitou’s church, which was conveniently right down the road to where I live. I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.
I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.
A friend visited from Malaysia with another of her friends. I took them on a brief tour of Phnom Penh, including Wat Phnom and Central Market.
On the last weekend of September, the new staff had a boat trip along the Tonle Sap and Mekong. It was a great way to see Phnom Penh. On the Saturday, a group of us also went up Phnom Penh Tower, to see the view at the top. With all these night-time photos, they don’t do it justice.
This was again quite a busy month. I was continuing with my Khmer lessons. I also watched a Cambodia vs Singapore football match (Cambodia lost). It was the Pchum Ben holiday. I taught at the rural villages for the first time.
It was also Vitou’s wife’s birthday, so there was a party.
November was Vitou’s birthday, so another party. I had also introduced him and his family to Carl’s Jr. Vitou also began tutoring me Khmer. So, I was doing Khmer at G2K on Mondays and Wednesdays and with Vitou on Tuesday and Thursdays. This did mean that a lot of time on Saturdays was spent retreating to a cafe and tackling the marking and planning I had to do.
Vitou, his whole family and I attempted a trip to Kirirom mountain. We didn’t make it that far as the car broke down. I spent most of the day at Vitou’s dad’s house and then in a car getting towed back to Phnom Penh. Despite not arriving at our intended destination, it was still quite a fun adventure.
The end of November and December were quite stressful and this meant I lost some sleep. This is because it’s marking and reporting deadline time and also I had my Khmer assessment. There were various events going on, and I was often double booked as a result. Also, there’s a difference in western style planning and Khmer style planning for events which often are at odds. However, it was still a really enjoyable month.
It was Vitou’s twin’s birthday. So, again another party. (Next year there will be a party every month from September-December in Vitou’s family.)
There was also the wonderful wedding of my friend, Jonathan. It was great, as I was invited to both the morning and the afternoon session. It was really fun and interesting to see a Christian Khmer wedding ceremony. (I’ll try to blog about it later.)
There was another boat cruise, this time with my WEC team.
I passed my level 3 assessment. I still need to work on some aspects of my pronunciation. I’m going to write myself a plan of action and each week focus on a particular set of sounds. (Sounds geeky, doesn’t it.)
Of course, then there were the various Christmas celebrations. Again, on Christmas Eve I had to negotiate being in two places at once. However, it went without too much problems.
Wow, I’ve been busy
Looking back at it all, I’ve been really busy. 2018 has been a crazy year. The events at the beginning seem a different life-time away. 2019 might be a little bit calmer, but I’m not so sure.
I’m trying to build up my repertoire of Khmer songs. Christian ones are particularly helpful: I know the tunes and I can get the gist of what they are singing as it’s pretty close to the English. Therefore, I’ve been using simple and rather repetitive songs to build my knowledge of Khmer words and phrases.
Again, I’ve transcribed it and transliterated it twice, using two different systems. Read (or don’t) about some of the thought processes behind how I’ve done it here. It goes some way to explain why what you read might not be exactly what you hear, especially in songs.