Geoff Richards

An alternative guide

A rough guide to the lonely planet of teaching in SE Asia

I'm being biased here and limiting this article to Indochina [Cambodia, Lao and Vietnam]. You can find all you need to know about teaching in Thailand from Ajarn Forum.

Why am I being biased? Because most people never make it to the other six nations of ASEAN [the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations]: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines or Singapore.

Unless you're a highly qualified academic professional, there just isn't enough work or money in these other countries. Like Hong Kong though, some Singaporean universities will pay top dollar if you've got a PhD and have experience, especially if you've been published. But you won't be teaching English unless it's at the literature level.

Indonesia may be an exception to this however but I don't speak from first-hand experience. And in my eight years of working in Southeast Asia, I know of only one teacher who has made a success of it there, and he was a poster on Ajarn Forum.

You will also need a formal teaching qualification like a PGCE and a number of years of work experience in your home country to find work in Brunei.

If you studied TEFL or CELTA in your home country, something that would have almost definitely been lacking from your course was your tutors experience and knowledge of SE Asia.

When I took my TEFL in London, I had a great tutor who had taught all over Western Europe, BUT I quickly realised on my arrival here that she had absolutely no knowledge of SE Asia.

Not only was I inexperienced, I was also unprepared and alone. Unless you're a trust fund kid or have substantial savings to fall back on, you have to learn to live and work in SE Asia.

Forget what the guide books tell you about teaching in SE Asia. Those sections are usually miniscule and paint an incomplete picture because they weren't written by teachers for teachers. They also don't warn you about any of the teaching pitfalls here. Read on.


On the whole, the Khmers are a lovely bunch of people but if you frequent barang [the Khmer word for ‘foreigner'] haunts, then expect to find your odd bad penny or two. These are exceptions though as are corrupt police officers.

Bear in mind that during the Khmer Rouge era most of the adults of the country were killed and that the adults there now grew up without having parental figures in their lives. What they had were either American camps on the Thai border or the occupying Vietnamese as educators and role models.

Many Khmers are quite shy and nervous at first and the key to this is to make them laugh or smile.

Avoid confrontations over money and never make them look or feel like an idiot in public. They are the only race in SE Asia that will lose their temper or resort to violence, but that is at a real push and it never happened to me.

If, like me, you have an inquisitive mind and can make links between people, places and events, keep your thoughts to yourself. Other foreigners pose the biggest threat in Cambodia but, as long as you watch your back, you have absolutely nothing to worry about: male or female, single or attached, younger or older, etc.

Consider this. A business visa is available to all and sundry on arrival and this can be extended indefinitely without having to leave the country.

You can place foreigners into five groups: NGOs, teachers, private businesspeople, journalists [who paid most of these people and in which overseas media their work ever appeared always baffled me] and ‘the others'.

The latter seem to have no role in the country or any visible means of income. End of consideration. But, please, Cambodia is a beautiful country and I really enjoyed working there.

Pre-recession, you could walk into a job at the many private language centres [PLCs] and the few private schools, and it was easy to earn at least $1,000 a month, and this was eight years ago.

I don't know what the situation is like there now but if it's anything like the Northeast of Thailand which has its own cocooned economy, then it should still be relatively straightforward to find work.

There is one PLC to watch out for. They rarely pay on time and when they do it's never enough. Their building and facilities look good and they have the word ‘business' in their title. Avoid them.

As with all of the countries in this region, you actually need to be there to find work. Most of the work remains in Phnom Penh. Be warned though that it's a small city and that the public behaviour of barangs rarely goes unnoticed by the locals.


I have to say that out of all the countries I've worked in Vietnam is by far and away my favourite. Students, people, culture, cuisine, the works.

Teaching positions were starting to become available in some of the larger towns while I was there, but the mainstay was still in Ho Ch Minh City and Hanoi.

It can take time to establish yourself in Vietnam, so you should arrive with savings that you can fall back on. Unless you want to live in a dump, the average daily cost of living is around the $20 to $25 mark, excluding luxuries.

PLCs provide most of the work and you need to be flexible and willing to work evenings and weekends and at more than one PLC.

There is an excellent national university and a foreign-owned international university. I wouldn't work at the latter again for all the tea in China.

Four years ago, you could expect to earn anything from $1,000 to $2,000 per month. This may have increased.


I visit Vientiane on a regular basis, but I don't have any really good news to report in this article.

I was recently told by several English teachers that there are more applicants than vacancies at the moment. There are too many PLCs and they all offer the same thing and there just aren't enough students to go around.

There is also small number of private, international and bilingual schools in the capital and although you will see them advertising on TEFL Asia from time to time, you need to be in Vientiane to get a firm job offer from them.

I've yet to hear of anyone working in Luang Prabang or Savannakhet although I'm sure that there has to be at least one PLC in each of them by now. Whether they recruit native speakers is a different matter however. It is very unlikely that you will find PLCs elsewhere in the country though.

PLC teachers can earn about $600 to $700 and school teachers about $1,000 a month. Where PLC work is concerned, like Vietnam, it can take time to establish yourself and one English teacher I know told me that she had recently had her hours cut. And this was with one of the better PLCs.


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