Living and Teaching in Small Town CambodiaApril 17, 2006
City life or provincial life in Cambodia can make for two parallel but very different interpretations of single country. One’s expatriate life can have a sweet childhood in the city when experiences are fresh, shiny and new but can then stumble into troubled teenage years resulting in the clammy pallor that comes as a result of too many lost weekends and late nights.
For some, life in Phnom Penh can become a thorn in the flesh and the joys that come from wandering, encountering and discovering need to be renewed elsewhere and preferably in a city that isn’t bursting at the edges. Provincial Khmer life is certainly no Shangri La but can provide a new and multi dimensional experience for someone who wants to find a different cast of characters and emotions from those in Phnom Penh.
As a teacher, it’s certainly no less easy to cast off the shackles of the proletarian condition in the small town than the big city but, providing one finds a reputable employer, teaching can be a more enjoyable experience than in Phnom Penh. Students here in Battambang don’t master the target language with any more apparent ease than their metropolitan peers but they attempt to do so with considerably more effort and application and having better and more dedicated students when teaching one’s mother tongue can make professional life less of a drag.
It’s often commented on that locals here are, almost without exception, guileless and rather chummy. Boy racers are a fairly recent phenomenon in the provinces and we simply don’t see the types of flash, bling bling Khmers that disport themselves in Phnom Penh. Furthermore the small number of expats living here has meant that locals have not had their hearts hardened by being forced to deal with the harbour sharks (pickled in beer and nicotine), and other aimless foreign drifters, bar-flies, cliches and caricatures who live on the fringes of society in Phnom Penh causing such surreally disturbing scenes as can often be stumbled upon in the evenings along the Street 51 strip of bars. Locals here aren’t used to the qualities of sloth, mediocrity, cynicism and meanness of spirit which are sadly so prevalent amongst a significant minority of Phnom Penh based expats. These themes have yet to emerge here.
It’s just about possible to live life here forsaking the comforts provided by Phnom Penh’s impressive array of Western eateries. We don’t have any restaurants here serving sun dried tomatoes or with faux Terence Conran designed toilets or waiters dressed as catwalk models or chairs that wouldn’t look out of place in Coventry Cathedral. But we do have excellent Asian food at bargain basement prices and for an expensive splurge out Phnom Penh is reachable in four hours by express bus.
Quite apart from the, at first sight, quite pristine and sun bleached French Quarter with its narrow shady streets and Sino-Khmer merchants, Battambang is also a far cheaper place to find accommodation than Phnom Penh. For a reasonable monthly outlay, one can live in quite grand and comfortable circumstances
Battambang does not have any late night bars patrolled by sharp-eyed Asian women looking to exchange their company for cash. What it does have in abundance is intelligent, eligible Asian women who’ve mastered the art of the flirtatious text message. Sex prowlers would be bored and lonely here but most other western men looking to settle down into a monogamous relationship might find that they’ve suddenly developed a strange and almost hypnotic power over women. One could, almost inadvertently, find oneself married with children without really noticing it.
However, the befits of living in a small town that hasn’t been over-run with foreigners do need to be weighed up against the disadvantages, one of which is the very small number of fellow expatriates available for convivial company. In Battambang, as already stated, there are few lifestyle expats with only a tiny smattering of teachers. The thirty or forty foreign residents are mainly made up of well-paid NGO employees and American Evangelical Christian types – the former of whom seem no more or less disobliging than their Phnom Penh based cohorts while the latter can be easily avoided with a little tact.
There isn’t much metropolitan sophistication to be found here and Battambang is not a place to live for anybody with a low boredom threshold. When we go to the bar we are talking literally and mean the bar, for there is only one with a western owner and the home comforts one can expect from an expat owned bar. Aside from the late night karaoke venues, which are very much set up for the local market, the town including its one western owned bar, goes to bed well before midnight. Hence, on the one hand, bar bills seldom amount to much and one gets to view life from a relatively sober vantage point but on the other hand Battambang would provide the perfect agony of boredom for most metropolitan night owls.
The four-sided well defined space of shady French designed streets is still a delight but is nonetheless under attack, although not yet on the destructive scale that we can see happening in Phnom Penh – which has already led to that city losing much of its charm. Nevertheless, unregulated development here is still happening albeit at a slower pace. One long time expat has estimated that in ten years here he’s seen over 50% of the historical buildings in the French town either demolished outright or renovated unsympathetically with their original facades often being replaced at best with charmless garish tiling and new, ‘modern’ and quite unvaryingly ugly windows or at worst with a vast plastic advertising board covering the entire upper story of the shophouse.
Yet having considered these gripes, on a hot April night in Battambang with dusk slowly creeping in from the distance and with an ice-cold beer in my hand and just enough of a breeze to lightly shake the leaves of the palm trees outside my house, Phnom Penh (and its teeming traffic and air thick with fumes and with its thousands of motorbikes all trying to simultaneously blow their horns in unison) seems a long, long way away.
There’s a lot to be said for solitude and serenity.