Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Cambodia
- 1 Communications
- 1.1 Mail
- 1.2 Telephones
- 1.3 Computer, Internet, and Email Access
- 1.4 Housing and Site Location
- 1.5 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 1.6 Food and Diet
- 1.7 Transportation
- 1.8 Geography and Climate
- 1.9 Social Activities
- 1.10 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 1.11 Personal Safety
- 1.12 Rewards and Frustrations
The postal system in Cambodia is somewhat unreliable and varies greatly from province to province. Peace Corps/Cambodia will set up a system for Volunteers to receive packages at the office mailing address below throughout your service, although the Peace Corps will only be responsible for packages and other mail that actually arrives at our office.
You will be able to receive mail at the following address throughout your service:
PCT [your name]
P.O. Box 2453
Volunteers will be issued cellphones during pre-service training and be responsible for the subsequent usage. Cellphone service is widely available even in rural areas and is commonly used. You will be able to receive domestic and international calls and SMS text messages on these phones. Because it is expensive for Volunteers to make international calls from their cellphones, many Volunteers' families have purchased international phone cards online.
Computer, Internet, and Email Access
Internet access is available in Phnom Penh and in most provincial capitals, although price and speed vary considerably. A majority of the Volunteers currently serving in Cambodia have daily or even weekly access to computers or the Internet.
Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have offices at the provincial level in Cambodia. Some have wifi Internet access to their headquarters in Phnom Penh. You may be able to barter your Internet usage by helping these organizations. In addition, some NGOs have started to put computer labs in district schools. However, since schools generally do not have electricity or phone service, these labs must be run on a generator and do not have Internet access.
At the Peace Corps Office in Phnom Penh, there is a Volunteer Resource Room with computers (and free access to the Internet), as well as a printer, and a resource library for Volunteers' use. Whenever Volunteers are in Phnom Penh, they are welcome to use the Volunteer Resource Room, which is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Housing and Site Location
Peace Corps/Cambodia Volunteers will live with host families throughout their service. Since most high schools are at the district level, most education Volunteers live in provincial and district towns. Health centers are located at the commune or village level, so health education Volunteers will be in smaller towns. In the district towns, some homes have electricity and indoor plumbing, including toilets and cold water showers. Electricity is not available at every site. Drinking water must be boiled,filtered, or purchased. Other basic amenities such as soap, shampoo, hair conditioner, lotion, stationery, sodas, and instant coffee should be available in provincial or district centers.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer, you will receive a monthly living allowance, which will be transferred directly to your Peace Corps bank account on a regular basis. The living allowance will be based on what Volunteers need to live comfortably. An annual survey determines whether your living allowance is appropriate. Like Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide, those in Cambodia are expected to live at a level commensurate with that of their Cambodian co-workers. Expensive dinners out at Phnom Penh tourist restaurants will be possible only rarely for you as a Volunteer. However, the allowance is certainly enough to enable you to purchase basic necessities and have a night out occasionally.
Food and Diet
The food in Cambodia is excellent. Khmers like to eat three meals a day, as well as snacks between meals. The staple food is rice, so you can expect to eat a lot of it. Rice is extremely important to Khmer culture, and Volunteers may be surprised by the amount of rice they are expected to eat. It is important to remember that the offering of rice is an intrinsic part of Cambodian hospitality. That said, noodles and bread are widely available, and no two families have the same eating habits. For example, you might have rice with some type of meat for breakfast, fried rice or noodles with or without meat for lunch and rice with curry or stir-fried vegetables for dinner. District towns usually have a market that will serve the surrounding villages, so you should be able to get your basic necessities easily. Provincial towns also have small supermarkets, where you can purchase cheese and other more Western foods.
An amazing variety of fruits and vegetables (many that you have never seen before) are available in season. Food stalls in district towns offer reasonably priced cooked food and are open from early morning until evening. Many Khmers eat at these noodle shops during the day, rather than going home for lunch.
Vegetarians can survive in Cambodia, but some may find it difficult to maintain a strict diet, especially in some social contexts. In some areas, it may also be difficult to get enough protein without eating meat or fish.
Transportation in Phnom Penh is predominantly by motorbike (moto), tuk-tuk (a small carriage pulled by a moto), cyclo (a bike with a chair in front), bicycle (known as a pushbike) or on foot. The central part of Phnom Penh is relatively small, and walking is quite pleasant, especially along the river. Most Cambodians ride on the back of a moto (called a motodop or moto taxi). As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are not allowed to ride on motos, so you will have to use other safe and affordable alternatives.
The intercity transportation system in Cambodia is good. One can travel between provincial towns and Phnom Penh via air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned buses on paved roads. Between provincial towns and district towns and villages, Cambodians travel by van or pickup truck. These smaller conveyances are less well-organized and likely to be crowded. Additionally, the roads are sometimes very bad, especially during the rainy season. Within towns, people ride motos or bikes, take moto taxis or walk. Finding a consistent means of transportation to and from your site may be a challenge, especially in the early months of service.
Peace Corps/Cambodia provides a bike and bicycle helmet to each Volunteer for travel to work, for errands, and pleasure. You will have a bike during pre-service training and will receive training in bike maintenance and repair. You will rely heavily on your bike to get around in and near your site.
Geography and Climate
Cambodia is in Southeast Asia, in the southern part of Indochina. It covers an area of 181,035 square kilometers and has a population of slightly over 13 million people (2003). Cambodia's climate is warm, humid, and tropical. The country experiences tropical monsoons from May to October, causing flooding in large portions of this mostly flat country. Cambodia has four seasons: Cool and wet, cool and dry, hot and dry, and hot and wet. April is particularly hot and muggy, just before the monsoons start.
The most significant geological feature of Cambodia is the Tonle Sap Lake. During the rainy season, as the Mekong River reaches flood stage, it forces the Tonle Sap River to flow backwards. The water of the Mekong flows northwest to fill the huge Tonle Sap Lake to many times its normal size and volume. When the Mekong flood has peaked and the lake reaches capacity, which usually occurs in late September, the river changes direction once again to flow southeast into the Mekong and south to Vietnam.
You will spend much of your free time socializing with your Cambodian colleagues and neighbors, eating, attending Cambodian festivals, weddings, and other cultural events. Your ability to adjust to and enjoy this kind of social life will be an important aspect of your success as a Volunteer. Cambodians spend a lot of time socializing with their families. As most houses in rural areas are built on stilts, you will see many families passing the time under the house during the hottest part of the day. Cambodian women generally socialize in and around the home. Cambodian men often socialize outside the home, playing sports, shooting pool, drinking, and playing cards or chess in cafés. Many of the activities that are popular with men are associated with gambling, and are therefore not appropriate activities for Volunteers to participate in with students.
Volunteers may meet periodically in provincial market towns to share ideas and experiences. In keeping with its goal of cross-cultural exchange, the Peace Corps expects Volunteers to establish social networks with Cambodian friends and colleagues at their sites rather than seek out other Volunteers for social activities. Such networks enhance Volunteers’ ability to be effective in their work.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Cambodians, even if very poor, dress neatly and take great personal pride in appearances. Following this example as a Volunteer will increase your effectiveness and credibility in the community. First impressions in Cambodia are extremely important. Throughout your Volunteer service in Cambodia, from the moment you step off the plane at the start of training to your arrival at your work site, you will be expected to dress professionally. Cambodian staff, host families, colleagues, community members, and local officials will pay very close attention to how you present yourself.
Peace Corps Volunteers, especially teachers, will be seen as role models. Appropriate professional dress for men includes slacks and collared short-sleeved shirts and neat shoes (no flip-flops). For women, blouses (with collars) and long skirts are appropriate for work, with closed shoes or shoes/sandals with back straps (no flip-flops). You will find that colleagues may wear more open sandals or shoes (mules, slides) as well, but Volunteers should bring both and take time to observe what is most appropriate. Sleeveless, transparent, tight and/or low-cut tops, as well as going bra-less, is inappropriate. Shorts can be worn around the house and to play sports, but they are not worn by either professional men or women at work.
Male Volunteers should be aware that long hair, beards, moustaches and earrings are generally not worn by Cambodian teachers and are considered to be inappropriate, particularly in the rural provinces. Multiple-pierced ears and visible body piercings or tattoos are also not appropriate for either gender. If you have tattoos, be prepared to wear clothing that will cover them. Additionally, shaved heads may cause unwanted attention; in Cambodia, a shaved head means you are becoming a monk.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Cambodia Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Cambodia. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Each staff member at the Peace Corps is committed to providing Volunteers with the support they need to successfully meet the challenges they will face to have a safe, healthy, and productive service. We encourage Volunteers and families to look at our safety and security information on the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov/safety.
Information on these pages gives messages on Volunteer health and Volunteer safety. A video message from the Director is on this page, as well as a section titled “Safety and Security in Depth.” This page lists topics ranging from the risks of serving as a Volunteer to posts’ safety support systems to emergency planning and communications.
Rewards and Frustrations
Cambodia is a study in contradictions. It is an ancient culture that has existed for more than 1,000 years that, at times, is frustrated from a pace of development that is lagging behind that of its neighbors. From another perspective, Cambodia has only recently emerged from decades of terror and turmoil. In spite of this tremendous setback, Cambodia has made remarkable progress in a short time and is continuing to develop rapidly. The development needs in Cambodia are huge. The education and health systems are still emerging from a state of complete collapse, the agricultural systems that support most of the population are still quite primitive, and infrastructure gaps can still make completing simple bureaucratic tasks difficult. Corruption is endemic in all government systems, including education and health care. Legal systems are also fragile, and many laws relating to basic human rights are not enforced.
At the same time, the potential for impact as a development worker in Cambodia is enormous. Cambodian people are kind and friendly, eager to learn so as to improve their conditions. Everyone is aware of the problems and most are willing to discuss solutions openly. The countryside is beautiful, the food is delicious and nutritious, and Cambodians are proud of their ancient history.
Cambodians, especially those over 30, can tell you stories of horror and loss. Everyone has lost family members and friends under the Khmer Rouge regime. Yet, as a largely Buddhist society, people get along peacefully and without visible rancor or competition.
Although the potential for job satisfaction in Cambodia is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. The pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work — perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your co-workers with little guidance from supervisors. You may work for months without seeing any visible impact from, or without receiving feedback (positive or negative) on your work. Development anywhere in the world — including disadvantaged areas in the United States — is slow work that requires perseverance. You must possess the self-confidence, patience and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, resourcefulness and, above all, patience. The Peace Corps staff, your Cambodian co-workers and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge, as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers around the world, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave feeling they have gained much more than they have sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.
See also: Cambodia