I’m originally from the UK. We are traditionally a nation of lazy language learners as English is so widely spoken around the world. Apart from some rudimentary Spanish, English is my only language and so I was determined to learn Khmer when I moved to Cambodia in 2015. This could be challenging at times as everyone wanted to practice their English with you, but my Khmer skills definitely helped in many situations where English wasn’t on the table. After learning Khmer in Cambodia, I am now conversational and know all the basic necessities.
How to Stay in Cambodia
Cambodia is one of the easiest countries to enter/move to and the visas are available at the airport on arrival. For a stay of 30 days or less (that can be extended once, to 60 days) you can purchase a tourist visa for $30. If you would like to stay for 60+ days you will need a $35 ordinary/business visa which can be extended indefinitely from within the country. This also allows you to work in Cambodia legally, although you may also need a work permit which costs $100 per year. Click here to learn more about how to get a visa in Cambodia.
Settling down in Cambodia is relatively easy, and you will actually find many home comforts from North America and Europe. Local business owners from Vietnam and Thailand often travel into Cambodia to purchase specialty goods – meats, cheeses and delicacies not often found locally (hello French butter!)
Teaching English is one of the easiest ways to move and work in Cambodia. Hospitality work is available but generally pays very little and isn’t enough to live on without savings. An average bar wage is around $200 USD per month, and an ESL teacher is around $1k USD per month, the latter being more than enough to live and travel on. Click here to learn more about how to teach English in Cambodia.
Where to stay in Cambodia
Because of the large expat community, western apartments are readily available and easily obtained. Our lettings agent even helped us move from our hostel to our new home! Cheap rooms can be found for $10-15 per night which is what many people do until they find a monthly rental property. We were only in a hostel for 3 nights, securing a teaching role in 48 hours and then a property the next day! It’s very informal here and moves quickly if you need it to!
We lived in Siem Reap which is a busy but small town with lots of shops, restaurants and markets. It is the home of the Angkor Wat temples so the bustling tourist trade keeps the town feeling busy. For quieter locations, Battambang is a sleepy colonial town and there is a good expat community in both Kampot and Kep which are also a lot quieter than Siem Reap (bonus of being by the beach too!) The capital, Phnom Penh is another option but only if you like big, noisy cities!
Languages in Cambodia
English in Cambodia
English is commonly spoken in all the major towns, and much less so in the rural areas. Tourism is an important part of Cambodia’s economy so English is taught from a young age. Generally, younger people are more likely to speak English than the older generations as education was completely halted during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Anyone deemed to be an academic or involved in education was murdered in an attempt to create a ‘peasant class’ of subservient farmers. As well as learning the language, I tried to learn as much as I could about its history which still hugely affects the modern societal landscape.
Khmer in Cambodia
The native language of Cambodia, Khmer is spoken everywhere in the country and the dialects don’t vary much. My students taught me that people from the countryside pronounce things slightly differently to the cities but I couldn’t notice these variances at all!
One of the best things about learning Khmer is the absence of grammar or tenses! Each sentence is made up of words and phrases and gender pronouns aren’t used. So once you know a word – you can use it in any situation and even if you mess up the word order, you can still get your meaning across without sounding too silly.
Numbers are one of my personal favourites, and I can count up to 100, as well as useful numbers for currency like 1000 and 4000.
One = Moy
Two = Bee
Three = Buy
Four = Buen
Five = Bram
These numbers then repeat. So Six = Bram Moy (Five + One) Seven = Bram Bee (Five + Two) etc.
This makes haggling in markets and eating/drinking considerably easier, and you can stop paying tourist prices for everything!
People and culture in Cambodia
View this post on Instagram
Piles of precarious fruit at Phsar Leu market. #travel #wanderlust #travelling #travelgram #travelphotography #asia #explore #visiting #greatday #lp #lifestyle #instagram #instadaily #photooftheday #instagood #picoftheday #beautiful #photography #igtravel #view #earth #vacation #trip #destination #traveladdict #aroundtheworld #globetrotter #market #cambodia #fruit
Cambodian people were always shocked to find that I was learning Khmer which was both joyful and a bit sad. Clearly, tourists spend little time learning basic phrases even though it’s such an easy and rewarding language to learn. Locals were always happy to teach me new phrases when I asked and one Khmer friend used to teach me silly phrases that I would unwittingly repeat until someone pointed it out! His favourite was ‘Arkhun (Thankyou) Mugaplug’ which basically translated to ‘thankyou big cowpat’ which is a very colloquial/humorous way of saying thank you very much. I was saying it to waiters and other friends before someone set me straight! My friend thought this was wickedly funny and chuckled away every time I said it!
Learning Khmer, or at least a few phrases and some numbers will help you vastly while travelling or living in Cambodia. Almost everything is up for negotiation unless it has a price clearly displayed and pricing tiers is very real for locals and tourists. By learning a bit of the language I can’t guarantee you’ll get local prices but you’ll definitely find haggling easier!
How to learn Khmer in Cambodia
View this post on Instagram
Siem Reap Water Festival – the boat race #travel #wanderlust #cambodia #travelphotography #asia #travelling #travelgram #explore #visiting #mytravelgram #backpacking #greatday #lifestyle #lp #boat #river #nature #instagram #photooftheday #picoftheday #beautiful #igtravel #aroundtheworld #earth #view #vacation #trip #travelerrday #worldplaces #water
Along with a bit of Youtube, I learned almost all of my Khmer language skills from Khmer people. Every time I spoke to someone new I practiced my skills and would just ask how to say new words and phrases and then assimilate them into my phrasebook (in my head!).
I find this is the best way to learn any language, and it’s particularly easy in Cambodia because everyone is so welcoming and eager to help you learn Khmer. If you wanted to learn more quickly or at an advanced level there are local Khmer classes available, or you could easily find a local speaker who you could hire for a few hours a week.
Another way is to check if there are any language courses online which offer Khmer classes.
More Asian language experiences:
> If you are interested in learning Khmer in Cambodia, or if you’ve done it and have anything else to add, leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts!