Home Is Where The Hostel Is – From Connemara to Cambodia

‘To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure” – Freya Stark

It’s funny sometimes how it takes longer than anticipated to truly feel at ease in a new place. I’ve come to the conclusion that some places simply may never feel like home – the school floor upon which we slept in Uganda, for example, or the layover area of Helsinki airport.
But really, when it comes down to it, what even is home? We adapt to our present situations, and continue to beat onwards regardless of what came before or what is coming next. Right now I am here, and I have finally begun to adjust to the fact that Cambodia is currently my temporary home, and boy is life here more difficult than I had expected!

Local children wave as they see us pass..

It may sound extreme, but I honestly believe that the past two weeks have been some of the most testing of my life, with as many ups and downs as there are staircases to climb to each lesson and each floor within our new schools and homes (that’s a lot!). At first, I didn’t know whether or not I’d stick it. Hell, I still change my mind every couple of hours, and from what I’ve heard from the other interns, many of their stories are similar. In general though, things have finally, finally reached a kind of level enough field where we can live within our means and support ourselves to some extent within this crazy country. For me anyway I think it took longer than I expected for the initial buzz of travelling and being in a new place, with new people, completely alone and self-sufficient to wear off, and I hadn’t honestly taken much of the teaching element of things into consideration.

 Luckily I have a bit of teaching experience to stand behind me, and so I wasn’t relying too much on things to be organised for me – I work well on my feet, ‘winging it’ and adapting to unpredictable situations having been a large part of my previous work (grá mo chroí Coláiste Lurgan!!). This is where the main problem lies in Cambodia and with the LoveTEFL programme in particular – the teachers and schools here really had no idea what to expect from us, nor us them. This combination led to several extremely frustrating days of half-teaching, half-observing, being thrown into teacherless classes with no prior knowledge of what had been taught, nor what level of understanding the kids had of English – trial and error was literally the only method we could have used, the mistakes we made seeming even more humiliating due to our total ignorance to even the way the schooldays were laid out, and what the children see when they looked to us – we are only the second pair of Western interns to ever work at this particular branch of NYIS (New York International School).

Our humble Cambodian kitchenette

Our school accomodation and wifi situation has (thankfully) finally been remedied somewhat, and we’ve rearranged our limited kitchen appliances to form a kind of kitchenette area, using some of the tables and chairs from the classrooms as a base. This now means that we can at least stock up our own fridge and prepare some meals at home, although these are still limited to foods that are either microwavable or toastable. Eating out was acceptable for the first week or so, but I feel if we are to truly adapt to living in this city instead of being tourists and properly settle in, it’s simply not sustainable! (Not to mention it being expensive). I don’t think the LoveTEFL organisation took into consideration that some of us are on quite tight travel budgets, and cannot afford to be eating out as regularly as seems to be required – the lack of basic appliances for cooking is testament to this. Also, the fact that there was minimal access to internet until this week was extremely frustrating, especially given the fact we are expected to be planning lessons during the evenings – it just didn’t make sense!

Chandelier in a tuk tuk

All things aside, overall it seems to have finally taken a turn for the better, or at least levelled out somewhat, the actual teaching element of the programme for me proving actually kind of enjoyable and rewarding when the kids respond and succeed in class. I’ve taught one class the same story in three different accents, and both they and their teachers seem hugely appreciative of the exposure to different pronunciations and intonations of words! Sometimes I think we forget that even our presence here in the schools for the Khmer children is effective in their learning. For them to be exposed to other cultures, languages, and identities is as important as it is for them to be attending school in the first place. It opens their eyes to the world and presents them with knowledge they might use to help themselves in the future, language being the key to any sort of communication, be it on an academic, emotional, or spiritual level.

What it was for us as kids to walk down the street – our countries being far more multicultural and multi-denominational in population, is similar now to what we are providing by our presence in the schools, many of them functioning on extremely limited resources and funding.
I don’t want to speak too soon or jinx things, but I am finally feeling somewhat more at ease here, and useful during the schoolday!

Lovely Jubbly Villa Hostel

 Our weekend was spent in the Lovely Jubbly Villa hostel in Phnom Penh, a quieter and more relaxed spot than the Mad Monkey of last weekend, although we did go out anyway for Halloween and watch the Rugby World Cup final in the Aussie XL bar not too far away. On Saturday myself and one of the other interns booked a tour with Nature Cambodia to visit The Killing Fields Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, and see the surrounding villages via quad bike – something I’ll admit I was really excited to try!

Quad Biking with Nature Cambodia
Orange, Green and Blue

It was a good mix of a serious versus fun afternoon, as the sombre content of The Killing Fields was made up for by the exhilaration of the orange dirt tracks our guide Johnny took us around on the quad bikes. At one point it felt like freedom was the orange, blue and green hues that surrounded us on all angles, and we returned to our tuk-tuks feeling like we’d gotten our money’s worth. It’s worth mentioning here that this tour was extremely well organised, and from each pickup, drop off and switch over to another element of the tour it flowed seamlessly – one of the first times since arriving to Cambodia that something has actually seemed to work out without a hitch!

Main Memorial Building at The Killing Fields in Choeung Ek museum – over 8,000 people lost their lives in this small area

It was sobering to think of the tragedies which occurred at Choeung Ek, but I feel it was a necessary insight into the country’s history which left us more aware and appreciative of the successes of the country today, and how far it has come to escape the Khmer Rouge regime.

We made our way back to the hostel, ready to leave the haunting images of the fields behind and sample the yummy food and drinks menus that really added to the Lovely Jubbly experience, along with the pool, with the prices proving a lot more affordable than those at the Mad Monkey. We even started to find our way around the city a bit as we made our way on foot to and from several places – something that I myself had been hesitant to try until then. Next weekend we’ve booked a stay at the sister branch of the Mad Monkey in Kampot which is a couple of hours outside the city –a break from Phnom Penh that I personally am really looking forward to!

This is so unlike me

Til’ then….keep on tuk-tuk’in!

View of the sun setting over Phnom Penh from the roof of our school

Useful links

Lovely Jubbly Hostel Website / Facebook / Trip Advisor
Nature Cambodia Website
Tso Sleung Museum on Trip Advisor
Aussie XL Bar Website / Facebook / Twitter
The Mad Monkey Hostel / Facebook / Twitter / Trip Advisor
LoveTEFL Internships 

How to…. Become a Pro At Awkward Silences! – From Connemara to Cambodia

….Come to Cambodia!

One thing I had not taken into consideration much in my decision to come to Cambodia, was just how alien the writing and text of Khmer language is in comparison to English. While it may seem an obvious issue to many seasoned travellers, I had neglected to consider how basic some of the locals’ English skills really are – especially because we are based largely away from the main tourist-areas of the city which, when you think about it, are generally the areas regularly encountered by backpackers. It has rarely occurred before that I have met with such a complete and utter blank barrier of misunderstanding, with little or no way to break through it – I would wager that 80% of every interaction here consists of a sort of ‘yes?-no?–maybe?-’ kind of awkward silence. Worse even than the most extreme cases I’ve encountered teaching in the Gaeltacht – at least with the Irish language, the alphabet is the same!

It’s like a plate of spaghetti

The symbols of gobbledeegook here that look pretty and oriental to a certain extent but that make no sense whatsoever to any of us leave me feeling displaced and uncomfortable – this is what it’s like trying to understand the street signs and local language (Khmer). Think Arabic, with slightly more twirly loops and a tighter formation, which we were informed only pauses for spaces between words in order for a breath to be taken as it’s being spoken.
It reminds me of learning to read English for the first time – trying to make sense of an alphabet so alien that it seems impossible it could make any kind of sense to anyone ever! It’s a feeling of frustration that I haven’t had to experience since I was 4 years old!

 The printed type on signposts and shop signs is tough enough, but spending time teaching in a local school has exposed us to handwriting of the same lettering, so complicated it makes even the most intricate of calligraphy seem dull in comparison. (I say this having no idea what the words in these pictures actually say – I could easily be posting pictures of anything from it being Monday the 26th of October to what Class E3A had for dinner last week!).

I agree wholeheartedly.

 It’s this lack of comprehension and understanding which greets you like a slap from a still struggling wet fish at the market that makes many day-to-day interactions here so uncomfortable. It’s not only in the physical environment around us, but in every form of communication that exists. Things that we take for granted and think of as ‘normal’ or even ‘polite’ at home are things that would not even be considered by Khmer people. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve specifically explained to a tuk-tuk driver where we wanted to go, had him nod his head in mock understanding with a toothless grin, and proceeded to be carted off into the playstation-game maze of windy, filthy, and downright dangerous streets for half an hour or more as he stops to enquire from other drivers if they know the directions to where he’s going. I understand that they need the money and probably work ridiculous, non-stop and high-risk hours, but it’s kind of in the job description of a taxi-driver to be able to find your way around!

Crazy tuk-tuk traffic at night

 Another thing I’ve struggled to comprehend the logic of here is the structuring of some of the lessons. Because of the extremely varying English levels of students in each school, the conclusion that has been reached and put into practise across the country is to stream the classes according to ability. This by all means works at home in our systems where students attend school from an early age and cover a variety of subjects, therefore providing them with basic language skills and a certain level of education by the time they reach a particular age, making it easy to form classgroups and ensure a similar age range is maintained.

 In Cambodia, however, this is not the case. A lack of funding and general low standard of education means that the schools will teach anyone who is willing to pay the fee, regardless of demand, class size, age, or previous education, be it in English, Khmer, Chinese, or other subjects. This unfortunately necessary logic is how I found myself standing in front of a class of eighteen students yesterday, the youngest girl of five years old scribbling all over her book and wiping apple juice from sticky fingers while a deep-voiced, burly young boy of fifteen cowered next to her in embarassment as I rountinely asked each student to tell me their name and age. While their levels of understanding of the English language may have been of similar strength (very poor), it was clear from the written work I set and the exercises during class that this particular instance of streamlined classgroups had failed massively. The boy was clearly ashamed of his assumed position as ‘oldest student in the class’, and the younger kids’ natural clamour and sing-songy way of pottering through a days’ schoolwork simply was not the correct environment for him to be attempting to improve his language skills within. I’ve heard from speaking to other interns and teachers alike that they’ve come across many such examples of extremely mixed classes and unfortunately streamlined standards of learning, and it really does not add to the general difficulty here of teaching classes whose regular teachers struggle to pronounce even basic English words correctly – the downfall of an education provided by those with only mediocre levels of English themselves. This, again, is an unfortunate necessity for the schools in Cambodia, and a large reason why our presence here has generally been so well-received.

Because birds are good for heat.....?!?
Because birds are good for heat…..?!?

Along with this, I’ve found being thrown in to teach a very weak class for 4 hours straight with no prior warning or even information as to what they have previously covered to be one of the most humiliating experiences I’ve ever had. The students were so weak that they couldn’t even comprehend being asked had they covered a particular page in the workbook, and failed to recognise simple questions and vocabulary that may have enabled me to further their understanding of it. It was as if a literal language barrier existed between the top of the classroom and the bottom, and no matter how we tried it simply could not be scaled. We ended up using the wordless talents of Mr. Bean on Youtube to entertain them for the last half hour of the day, the silent images of England punctuated by laughter (something they can actually understand!) giving them at the very least a visual image of Western culture, and me an exhausted and ashamed break after a particularly painful afternoon.

Teaching is haaaard.

‘Cool Heart’, Fresh Start – From Connemara to Cambodia

‘Cool Heart’, Fresh Start – School in Cambodia

Waiting to do things you are unsure of for people who are unsure what they want you to do or why you’re even there to do them has got to be one of the most unsettling feelings in the world.
I’ve neglected to write until now because of the massively, massively contrasting feelings and rollercoaster of emotions that we have experienced this first week. School in Cambodia is tough.

It was our first week of experiencing life as intern teachers at the schools, and while I can’t speak for anyone save the three girls that I am living with, I know myself personally that I was completely and overwhelmingly under-prepared for the lack of organisation and gaping holes left in the planning on all sides of the programme.
Neither the school we were due to stay at, the TEFL organisation we have booked through, nor the school myself and Cathy have been placed at seemed to have been able to inform us of anything, be it what time the school day started and finished, information regarding timetables, free time, transport to and from the school (we have to get a tuk-tuk there and back everyday), or much else really about what was expected of us. All we kept hearing was ‘I will call someone and find out’, and ‘I will check this out for you’. These may be considered minor issues at home in Ireland or the UK where a little bit of messiness would be balanced out by the fact that our surroundings would be in some way familiar, but when you’re left standing watching 4 grown adults babbling away about you in a different language and clearly debating what to tell you to do in a foreign school where nobody speaks the language and the kids run around eating battered fish and squid-flavoured crisps for ten minutes every hour, it’s difficult not to get a bit frustrated. It was all just so alien to us, and I feel this culture-shock element of the transition wasn’t really taken into consideration by anyone.

I don’t know if it’s just in the Khmer culture to under-inform and not properly plan or allow room for questions, but as we were disorderly shipped from one location to the next and directed towards different members of staff to pose the same questions, the answers to which nobody seemed to have or make any effort to find out, we couldn’t help but get a bit distraught and begin to doubt the decision to ever come on this trip.

 That was the negative side.
The positives were equally as strong – the kids are adorable, so willing to learn, and absolutely fascinated with us. Their chanting in unison as you step foot inside the classroom, and respectful bow of welcome every time they set eyes on us gets me everytime, and although even many of the teachers’ pronunciation and language accuracy is dodgy at the best of times, there is no denying the will to learn and dedication to progress that underlies everything. While I find language barriers to be one of the most frustrating social constrictions of all time, the fact that this is in a school-setting where the focus is actually on trying to reduce the extremity of such a barrier really helps and serves as a constant reminder that steps are actually being taken to help improve the communication between staff, students, and new clueless and naïve intern-teachers.


To be fair I don’t think the blame came could have been placed on any one party or individual in particular, the problem instead being a general lack of organisation and failure to supply some basic and obvious information within the first few days and hours of becoming interns.

-All of this is what was going through our heads for the first few days this week, and until I managed to sort a few things out and take a step back from the initial problems and look at them rationally, I didn’t want to write anything too judgemental or harsh. I’m used to dealing with and working in a chaotic environment – it’s just that this paticular one is also exremely foreign, operates through a language derived from Sanskrit and with an entirely different alphabet, and is in a continent where I have never step foot before– I feel it was quite understandable that I got a bit flustered!

As the week progressed it has improved slightly, with an introductory meeting eventually being scheduled at the end of the third day, and a few classes spent sitting in silence at the back of the room as neither the teacher nor we knew exactly what we should be doing.

I get the impression that Khmer people are just too nice! They come across too timid to make any definite assertions of decisions regarding us or any other visitors, yet it’s difficult to feel comfortable and accepted in a strange situation and country if nobody takes the reigns and makes some definite moves or plans. If I weren’t so wary of offending the culture and their way of going about these kind of assimilation periods (which I get the impression they don’t do often), I would have had no trouble taking the bull by the horns and re-structuring the entire system but, as you can guess, that’s not exactly an option.


As it stands it was a relief to reach the end of the week, and we were finally provided with a full itinerary and timetable to begin the following Monday. Indeed, a lot of our concerns about correct teaching attire and how satisfied the principal was with our progress were deemed irrelevant as an ‘important meeting’ he called with all staff at the end of the week was spent planning a Halloween party for next week!

Things can only go up from here, and I feel with the right attitude, a bit more patience, and keeping a ‘cool heart’ as the Khmer people say, we will settle in a bit more this week.


Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them

From Connemara to Cambodia

Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them

The Royal Palace of Cambodia

It’s funny that as soon as I finally have something and somewhere to write about regularly and keep people updated with that I find it difficult to get the right headspace and time to sit and actually write it. I think the main and most important difference is that I’ve been so busy, no longer having the time to spend thinking about travelling and being elsewhere and doing something different, seeing new things – I am now finally living those thoughts and wishes, and no longer stuck in the repetitive cycles and mindset of not being in the moment – because I am all here. I am doing the something different, I am seeing the new things.

I’ve never been so fully engrossed in a place or trip or country as I have been this past week, and it’s only starting to hit me that this is actually my new home until Christmas. As the ‘holiday’ mode wears off and we begin to settle in to our new surroundings, there’s a sense of identity and self-sufficiency that comes along with it unlike any I’ve experienced before.

Floating lilypads outside the Royal Palace

The confusion over tuk-tuk prices, haggling at the markets, getting lost down unfamiliar streets and tasting all kinds of new and strange foods I swore I’d never even take a whiff of before is all part of the excitement of learning to live a new lifestyle, and accepting and appreciating things as they are in the moment. I’ve come so far out here – travelled over 16 hours, saved up the money and challenged myself so I have time to spend growing accustomed to and experiencing a new way of life, to shake up my own and prove to myself that there are other ways of being, thinking, and living than the stagnancy I had become so accustomed to. Even though it’s different, and I’m enjoying every second, I’m not going to limit myself to it either – we must always keep moving.

New friends!

There are so many things to experience, so many places, people, and routes to take, that has made me realise that ultimately the only thing keeping my head clouded and in the darkness before was my own negativity and inability to appreciate the light in the world. That’s easy to say as I sit in the shade from a glorious 34 degree ray of sunshine in South East Asia, but I’m talking figuratively here aswell as literally!

Spotless grounds of the Palace

Our visit to the Genocide Museum of Phnom Penh was eye-opening to say the least, and shed some light on the dreary history of Cambodia which we’d heard about, yet failed to understand in detail before. The rows of cells and torture mechanisms still in existence (some fully furnished) and barbed wire on the outside of the buildings to prevent suicide attempts as the innocent prisoners suffered under the Khmer Rouge really shook me to the core and reminded me that all is never what it seems.

Block of Prison Cells in The Genocide Museum, many still containing the locks, chains, and torture instruments which bound prisoners

The “Land of Smiles” which we’d been introduced to the country as suddenly seemed all the more powerful as a title, as we considered the hardships the Cambodian people have been through in such a short space of time (it has been a mere 40 years since the prison was in use). To have the resilience and strength as a population and city to recover from such horrors and progress onwards after any growth of the sort being stunted for years is admirable, and even though they seem to struggle still with poverty and wellbeing, the general standard of living around here seems to be simple, yet sustainable.
In the end, isn’t that all we want? To be able to sustain ourselves, in an uncomplicated and easygoing way, without getting too caught up in trivialities and superficial worries that are ultimately damaging to our beings and make things harder on all around us?

“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime”

The young monks we observed around the Royal Palace of Cambodia and Wat Phnom on our final day as ‘tourists’ before starting teaching placements embodied this peace of mind and simpicity of lifestyle, their brightly coloured orange robes informing the world of their devout nature.


I found it interesting to discover that there are 3 main reasons a young Buddhist enters the monkhood, the first being an obvious devotion to the religion, and need to shorten the distance between himself an The Buddha in a personal vocation to search for Enlightenment. The second occurs only if a family is too poor to send the son to school, or to afford to keep providing for all children in the family. Any young boys who find themselves at an age suitable to entering the practice are morally required to do so, to lessen the strain upon the family and expand potential for their own futures. The third and probably most surprising reason a monk enters into the practice is as an element of the recovery process from addiction, mostly drug-related in Cambodia, but also involving alcohol and other ‘soul-damaging’ practices within the Buddhist community. While all young monks have the choice to enter into the practice, not all monastic undertakings are definitive, with a ‘temporary’ Bhikku (young monk) merely taking the robe for a few weeks, months or years of his life to dedicate some time to a monastic and detached life.

Young Monks at the Royal Palace

I tried taking a picture of a small group of monks from a distance, and was taken aback as one laughed, raising his own iPhone in response to take a picture of me!

It really just proved in a very peaceful and lighthearted way that our cultures have so much to learn about one another, and that exposing ourselves to them can only lead to a further understanding and acception not only of ourselves, but of the world around us and our space within it.


The traditional meals of Cambodian Banh Cheo, a sort of flour pancake served filled with broad beans and a peanut sauce, and another containing tofu and stir fried vegetables were interesting to experience, and really added to the shift in our mindsets from being mere backpackers and tourists to working ‘citizens’. It’s strange to think that from today onwards we will be contributing to society and sharing knowledge necessary for our young students to expand their own horizons in the future, and hopefully understand a bit more about Western culture.


While the main tourist attractions served as a great way to further our knowledge of the city we are about to take up a lengthy residence in, there is a certain reassurance in being on the way to a more settled environment and day-to-day structure, even if it will be interspersed with various national holidays and days off! We’re excited for the next stage of the journey and to meet the students and staff of our school.

Interns on the steps of Wat Phnom!


My Humble Cambodia – 6 Weeks To Go

My Humble Cambodia – 6 Weeks To Go

In 6 weeks time I will jet off to Cambodia to spend 7 weeks teaching as a LoveTEFL volunteer. While it’s not the most excotic, revolutionary or innovative and original way to travel, it suits my current situation so well in that I have such a yearn to move and see and learn about the world and places and people I have not yet seen, but lack severly in available funding (I SUCK at saving!).
As I began considering a long-haul trip and went about researching possible destinations and routes, the realistic length of the time I could afford to have spent travelling alone gradually began to reflect the ever-depleting balance in my bank account, and I was forced to reconsider. Wanting to spend a lengthy period of time abroad was going to cost me, and I was more than likely looking at returning home to an empty bank account with my head hung low and another few months living back at home and being bailed out by my parents. This way, I get the best of bost worlds – 8 weeks solo travel, living in South East Asia and really getting to experience a taste of what life is like there, with weekends free to do as I please, and a structured routine for the weekdays which is sure to keep me (I hope!) from celebrating too hard at the extent of the freedom I’m sure I will feel at taking this step. At the end of this 9 weeks (I have a week longer after the course to myself in Myanmar) I will be returning home, not only with a certified TEFL qualification, but with genuine firsthand experience of teaching English to foreign students in their home setting – something which will undoubtedly lead to further job prospects for me both at home and abroad in the aftermath of my travels (post-travelling-blues are more definitely a real thing!)
This way I don’t feel so bad by blowing what little savings I have on this trip. Does ‘blowing’ really factor into this situation? I feel like I’m making a genuine extremely valuable investment into my life here!!

 There are certain things I’m nervous about, certain things I’m excited about, and other things that I can’t even begin to imagine how I’ll feel about. For one, I’ve never travelled very far alone, something which has only fueled my scatterbrained tendencies and given me excuses to depend on other people to get around and navigate for me. I know for a fact that this solo trip will be good for me, and it will only build on all the work I’ve done in past months to better myself and strengthen my presence here.
I’m excited to experience the culture and people of Southeast Asia – from what I’ve heard they are some of the friendliest and most easygoing people in the world. I don’t want to be getting too far ahead of myself in all these musings, but it’s difficult not to get excited at the prospects of a trip like this! The fact that I’ll be teaching young children language skills which will aid them in their communicative and social skills, help them be stronger and have more to give as they move forwards in their lives really appeals to me and makes me feel that I will finally be contributing to something worthwhile by helping other human beings advance in their lives. In my teaching experience up until now I have definitely found this to be true, however such diversity of cultural boundaries and opportunities to discover more about myself and the world have never before presented themselves to me or seemed so huge and exciting.
In the weeks leading up to this trip I will be concentrating on completing the online section of the TEFL course, whilst also preparing and strengthening myself both physically and mentally to undertake this trip. Today I’m focusing on securing myself an international police-check which is necessary for all LoveTEFL interns in order for them to be eligible to teach abroad. This is basically just a garda-vetting form which has to be signed by the Garda Superintendent at my local station (or ‘Supernintendo’, as we used to call them!). I’ve already checked out the vaccinations necessary to travel in Cambodia, but it seems I’m covered for them all since my trip to Uganda this time two years ago! Hard to believe it’s that long since we were there, I still remember it so clearly!

 While I plan on trying to keep this blog updated on my preparations and plans for the upcoming trip, I also understand that too much pre-meditation and pre-planning for something so large as a trip of this extent can not only get boring to read, but may ultimately result in an anti-climactic experience when I actually arrive! Hopefully I’ll be able to write regularly while I’m there, if I have no internet access then I’ll be sure to write it anyway and post it at a later date.

 For now, Lia suhn hao-y!! (That means goodbye in Kmer!!)