Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Working in the Kingdom of Wonder - the Expats Guide to Cambodia - 1 August 2012

For expats working in Cambodia can be a fascinating experience one, however, that comes with a few pitfalls which can affect foreigners and locals alike. Over time, I’ve chosen to stay and work in the self-styled Kingdom of Wonder for a number of reasons. After visiting neighbouring countries, I found Cambodian people amongst the most friendly and willing to engage with me and other foreigners.
They also have the most positive outlook of the people in the countries in the region that I have visited.  The latter seems all the more remarkable given the country’s recent turbulent history for between 1975-78, Cambodia suffered arguably the single most comprehensive disaster that has befallen any country in the world since 1945.
In terms of assimilation, Cambodia is easier in many ways to integrate into as a foreigner. The visa requirements are more straightforward for expats looking to stay and look for employment especially when say compared with Thailand. Work visas for Laos and Vietnam are certainly more rigid and the processes more rigorous, even for the more universal occupation of English-language teaching.
Hotel accommodation in Cambodia is also reasonably priced, it’s easy to negotiate weekly or monthly rates, and of a good standard. Apartments for rent are plentiful, leases are not always preferred, and there are few restrictions to renting in Phnom Penh.
To get an apartment it’s easy to walk around parts of Phnom Penh and simply look for the signs on the shop house balconies. English is widely spoken, and if you do find yourself talking to mum or dad whose English is worse than your Khmer, they usually call in the kids who will be pretty fluent, so communication is straightforward.
If you prefer a more formal approach there are a number of real estate agencies in the capital, run by expats and locals, who use the same media for housing used for jobs and other services (see below) to advertise.
Expats working in Cambodia tend to fall into one of three categories: they work for NGOs, intra-governmental organisations or foreign diplomatic missions; own some form of business or they teach a foreign language, usually English.
Those in the first category are the lucky ones usually being paid a Western salary to live in a developing country. They also enjoy other perks, which probably all ensures that they take pleasure in a life of not insignificant comfort. Some embassies will employ locally-based expat staff to oversee visa processing but largely advertisements placed locally for staff are aimed at Cambodian nationals. Whether this is designed as some form of empowerment for Cambodians or merely aimed at reducing legation costs is unclear.
Organisations like the World Bank or UN organisations have their own recruitment processes and recruit expat staff outside the host country and transfer them in. Once staff get into these organisations they tend to want to stay there, becoming used to the salaries offered, lifestyle of the well-heeled expats with domestic staff and expensive schools and health care offered along with their positions.
Cambodia is awash with NGOs – up to 2,000 depending on who’s counting. They come in all descriptions from the big internationals like Oxfam, World Vision, and Save the Children, to one-man bands, and some best not mentioned at all. Quite how you go about getting a job with them is a bit of a mystery. Senior roles for expats such as country managers are, like UN roles, recruited overseas.
Other roles more technically specific; such as irrigation engineers, midwifery advisors and HIV experts, are sometimes advertised in the English-language dailies; the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post or online usually at Bong Thom (Big Brother) and the more recent Expat Advisory websites.
Some NGOs will take on volunteers free of charge as, well, volunteers. Others expect you to pay for the privilege of working for them often attracting inquisitive professionals looking for a break from the monotony of life back home or students on their gap year looking for work experience.
One possibility for looking for work with NGOs is cold calling. Get yourself a moto, a local private motorbike and rider for hire, or hire your own motorbike (beware the crazy traffic) and armed with freshly printed copies of your CV hit the streets in Phnom Penh south of Sihanouk Boulevard, where there are so many international aid organisations based, it’s called “NGO-land”.
Make sure you are armed with a mobile phone and local number. Sim cards are readily available from local providers though as a foreigner numbers are often limited to only one or two operators. An easily identifiable email account, though not an outrageous address is also a must as landlines in Cambodia are a technology that has almost entirely been bypassed.
One expat, a long-term resident, told me never to underestimate the value of networking as a means for employment. Phnom Penh is not a big place and the expat community is quite small. There’s a large group of Francophones, plenty of Americans and those from downunder, mainly Aussies. T
he US Embassy in Phnom Penh is huge for the relative small size and importance of Cambodia, and resembles a rather large caramel wedding cake. In a statement of broad crassness they had it built on the former site of the French Sporting Club, and the scene of a Khmer Rouge massacre. There are English, characterised by their inherent dislike of the French, and a smattering of eastern Europeans, usually Russian.
There are collections of other Europeans dubious and otherwise. Sometimes associated with aid organisations by their place of origin; Handicap International is Belgian, GIZ is German. While staff at others such as Oxfam, Save the Children and the Red Cross, come from all over. Much like some of the expat tropical brigade, these aid workers are “lifers” incapable of living back home.
Cambodia, like Thailand, attracts a share of retirees. These are often ex-military able to claim a life pension while still relatively young, which allows them to maintain a fairly comfortable life in a developing country, complete with good food, year round warm weather, and um, younger companionship.
The degrees of separation are not numerous, though this is not always a good thing. Hitting the happy hours at some of the more salubrious establishments along Riverside or the Le Hotel Grand on a Friday could help or swinging an invitation to the monthly Friday barbecue and drinks session at the Australian Embassy may lead somewhere.
Failing that all sorts of people turn up in some of Phnom Penh’s more well-known hostess bars along Street 51 or in the side streets off Riverside, so don’t discount those as a possibility either. Mixed in amongst the middle-aged spread of many expat punters casting furtive glances about, are a sprinkling of diplomats and technocrats. Sharkys Bar on Street 130, which claims to be ‘the longest running rock’n’roll bar in Indochina’ attracts a fair sampling of expats. Not all are on holiday or just simply in a daze.
Most businesses owned by foreigners in Cambodia are guesthouses or bars, or both. Bars, in their various forms are a dime-a-dozen, with most unlikely to succeed in any form. A few, usually long established with a distinct clientele, do okay and a few do well, but they are the exceptions. Happy hours, which can last for hours in Cambodia as in other parts of Asia, are usually at cost price and designed to draw in the punters so that the food served can turn a profit.
Getting a good cook therefore is an asset – not hard in Cambodia - but generally bars, like their off-shoot, guesthouses; are hard work and long hours for not much return. Staff turnover is usually quite high, and finding a local partner to deal with all the local business peculiarities such as signing leases and dealing with the errant constabulary useful, but sometimes hard to come by. Corruption, endemic in Cambodia permeates all aspects of life, so introducing more transparent processes familiar in some other countries can be a slow, uphill battle.
Unfortunately, bars like some other businesses in the Kingdom of Wonder, attract owners who feel that because they’re not at home they can act and behave in a manner not in keeping with common respect for humanity and generally accepted forms of common decency. Consequently, some expats – and also locals – use their position as employers to verbally, physically and sexually abuse their staff.
A regrettable situation aided by poor enforcement of labour laws, legislative loopholes and corruptible officials prepared to turn a blind eye to abuses perpetrated if the price is right. (TBC…)


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