A Day in the Life of a Hostel Employee in Cambodia

All work and all play: Zanny with friends on a recent excursion in Cambodia. Zanny Merullo

What my average day working abroad in Siem Reap looks like, from start-to-finish. 

Over the past month bartending in the Tipsy Turtles hostel in Siem Reap, I have fallen contentedly into the rhythm of life here. Here's what a typical day looks like for me. 

10:30 am

I’m stirred by the clicking of geckos outside of my window and their low “ge-ckoooo” (or “tok-kae” as they say in Khmer) mating call. As someone who grew up in the woods of western Massachusetts, I appreciate how green this city is. Here palm fronds reach long arms through gates and over alleyways, papaya trees line the walkways, and tall mango trees drop their ripe fruit on the tin roofs, simulating a thunderstorm throughout the day.

I walk out of my room (a three-bedroom dorm that I often have to myself) to the main sitting area and am greeted by the huge, bright smile of Phrom, Tipsy’s manager who works most mornings. I sit with him as I drink my morning coffee with a breakfast of fried eggs and a bowl of mixed fruit. The hostel’s cooks are extremely talented; the fried eggs here are tastier than those of my local diner back at home! 

11 am

I sit with some of the hostel guests for a while, immobilized by the oppressive heat. I struggle with the high temperatures here and sometimes must forgo activities to sit by a fan.

Often, even if I am not working, guests will recognize me and ask to order breakfast or book bus tickets for the next day, but I never mind helping them. Part of living where I work means I am never truly off duty, but I see it as hosting people in my own home rather than a job requirement.

1 pm

When the first pangs of midday hunger hit, I head around the corner to my favourite local restaurant, MLOB café. I discovered it on my first day in Siem Reap, and have been back at least once a week since. The outdoor restaurant is shaded by a thatched roof and is run by a family who spend most of their day together there. The mother does the cooking and handles the money, the father takes the orders, and the young children (once they’re home from school) play with the baby who sits in a crib by the front desk.

Part of living where I work means I am never truly off duty, but I see it as hosting people in my own home rather than a job requirement.

The family laughs when they see me. “You here alone today?” The father brings a menu, but isn’t surprised when I order basil and chilli fried rice with beef and an iced coffee. My goal is to try something else on their menu before I leave Siem Reap, but I just can’t bring myself to do it today. I wave and make faces at the baby as I wait for my food, then slather sweet chilli sauce over my rice and savour every bite of my favourite meal.

2 pm

Every day I make an effort to escape the hostel for a walk. Today that brings me to the pagoda just across the river along with one of the hostel guests. We’d met in Montreal months ago and kept in touch after learning we’d both be in Siem Reap!

Together we explore the manicured gardens and walls depicting the life of Buddha, then sit in front of a wooden statue of Buddha to soak up the spot’s powerful energy before beginning the walk back.

Even though Siem Reap is small and its streets now familiar, I never tire of what I see there. There are children playing outside, families gathered around the plastic tables of their restaurants, and tuk-tuk drivers swinging from inside their vehicles in hammocks, rising only to ask “tuk-tuk, lady?” as I walk by. In the markets, young women proudly arrange the goods they have for sale, and a motorbike passes by me, filled with a family of four, the mother covering the baby’s head from the sun with a scarf.

As I pass I seek out the eyes of the people and, if I am lucky, I catch one of their genuine, toothy smiles. Here I know that I will never feel like a local, even with the phrases of Khmer I am learning, so it is in these exchanged glances that I feel closest to the Cambodian people, and often they leave a deeper impression on my soul than any conversation would have.

3 pm

I return to the hostel for my afternoon shift. Occasionally I work mornings, rising at 6:30 a.m. even after a night out on the town, or nights until the last guests have gone to bed. Today, however, I am filling in a gap in the afternoon.

During happy hour I pour 50 cent beers and check in guests, giving them advice on where to eat (MLOB, of course), the nearest ATMs, and the best way to visit the temples. The hostel fills up quickly and soon the bar area is lively and framed by upbeat music.

6 pm

Vichet, a local who works carving wood in the morning then bartends for us most evenings, arrives and I am free to set up a game of Jack Daniels Honey pong. We play girls against guys, and my team is narrowly defeated.

When I find a set of dentures behind the bar that one of our former guests left behind, I slip them into the next beer of one of the guests I’ve befriended before serving it to him. It isn’t until he brings the glass to his lips that he sees the set of teeth floating, and at this point I am already on the floor in tears laughing. Nothing like a little mischief!

10 pm

Once most of the bar has cleared out and Vichet is set to close things down, the four of us from the whiskey pong game head into town. Instead of following the crowds towards Pub Street, we walk towards the somewhat quieter Sok San road, then down a dirt path to the bar/hostel Aura. There’s a bocce court against one wall, a pool table by the bar, and a ping-pong table under its own canopy in the back.

We pass the next few hours in intense rivalry, then head to a rooftop bar where we can look out over the chaos of Pub Street and the illuminated crowded roofs of the city beyond. By this time, tuk tuks are carrying slumped over tourists back to their lodgings. 

Although most of my day is spent with foreigners, the culture of Siem Reap permeates every experience I have here. The life is simple, the food good, and the spirit of the place deeply peaceful. I finish my drink and say “I’m ready to go home” and when I say "home," I mean Tipsy Turtles. 

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Alexandra Merullo

Alexandra (known by friends as Zanny) Merullo is a 22-year-old former expat in Cambodia who now lives in the mountains of the US. She is a bartender, writer, and avid explorer looking for her next adventures.

Website: zantakestheworld.wordpress.com

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