One woman’s experience living and working as a teacher in The Land of Smiles
By Carla Gott
The idea of living and working overseas can be daunting. The rewards can be self-discovery, lifelong memories and friends.
While preparing for my trip to Thailand, everyone in my family and my small group of friends had something negative to say. I understand and appreciate their concern, but what was my alternative? Stay home my whole life? No thanks.
My mom, who has never been to Asia, came up with a handful of questions no one could answer. Friends told her different stories, and her worries only seemed to grow. ‘What if they kidnap you and take you to the Philippines?’ She asked, and, ‘Can you really trust people?’ Perhaps at the core of their worries, they pointed out: “You are a girl. You can’t do things boys do.”
TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and Yahoo! Answers do a fair job giving general advice to travelers, but as was the case with my mother she wanted more direct reassurance. I am a real person who took the big jump and now have real experience of Thailand. I can answer your inquiries and those your own parents might have. I am here for you. Consider me your friend, your pen pal and your adviser to help you navigate Thailand – and hopefully to ease your mother’s concerns as well.
So what’s to be worried about?
Safety? As a 20-something woman who moved to Thailand alone and has traveled in other foreign destinations, I can say that that this is a remarkably safe country. Even in my home state, Maryland, I don’t feel as safe as I do in Thailand. However, common sense helps here just like at home. Don’t walk around with $1,000 in your pocket when you don’t have to. But we will get to the things to avoid in a bit.
Creepy crawlies used to top my list of things to be scared of, way ahead of meeting new people or having to stand in front of new students and grab their attention from the start of a lesson. Bugs? Uggh! I was afraid I would see a snake in my room and I also feared spiders. And all those mosquitoes…
Well, after several months in Thailand I haven’t seen a snake so far – and I hope not to see one any time soon (if you do see one, just steer clear – they don’t like the sight of you anymore than you like the sight of them. It will head off quickly enough). I have seen bugs the size of my pinky – but these have been slow-moving things and are easily avoided. And any spiders keep to where they belong – bushes and corners well out of most folks’ sight. However when it comes to mosquitoes this is the one bug to give decent amount of consideration to and prepare for. Most of the day, they are not around. Come dusk on a still night, and they can be a nuisance if you are not prepared.
I have learned to carry mosquito repellent – everywhere.
I recommend you buy repellent as soon as you land. It comes in all sizes of containers at any drug store, most corner shops and general goods shops such as 7/11s – from mega-sized cans for your bedroom to scented, pocket-friendly mini-sprays and sachets of cotton wipes that are great for use on legs and arms as the sun goes down. They’re easy to spot – most carry a picture of a mosquito.
The other big worry is who do you know? You are out there, all by yourself, and your family advice will almost invariably be: Don’t travel alone!
The fact is – sometimes you have to. But unless you are determined, it is almost impossible to travel solo. Wherever you go, there will always seem to be someone looking just as lost as you might feel and keen to meet up with a friendly face, share a bus or train ride, or test out a street stall loaded with unfamiliar goodies that are going to be your dinner.
So don’t be scared to come to this side of the world all on your on. Surprise! You’ll soon have more friends than you had at home. After a few months in Thailand, my circle of friends has widened hugely. My closest friends are from different parts of the world. Making friends here is easy – unless you decide to stay in your room the whole day.
Fears sensibly put in their place, let’s get down to the packing. I graduated from Uni, packed three suitcases and I was gone. With one terrible mistake and that was the three suitcases. Within a week or two, I had given away half of my clothes.
Thailand is in the tropics which means sunshine, lots of it and often humid, sticky weather. And sometimes gorgeous cool breezes.
That means you need a few T-shirts or other light tops, and a two or three easy-to-wash trousers, dresses, or skirts – they will dry overnight. Don’t bring dress suits and three pairs of high heels. Do bring comfortable shoes for walking.
When you need more clothes, you can have fun buying stuff as and when you need it at unbelievably cheap markets and road-side stalls.
Personal accessories – obviously take what you need from day one. But don’t overdo it – Thailand has most everything you will want, unless you are in one of the smaller villages. Even in the smallest town, you will see the same brand names that you use at home. One exception and one useful tip: If you use tampons, pack a few boxes of them. They can be difficult to find in Thailand.
But above all, remember – if you pack it, you carry it. And in the tropics, that can be hot work, especially by the time you add some souvenirs to bring home. So pack light, travel light, and enjoy the experience.
Once you’ve arrived, is it all plain sailing? If only… I’ve had good times; I’ve had bad times, but overall I have loved my experience.
So what’s not to love?
We all react differently to tropical weather. Your skin can glow – or break out in spots; your hair can decide to shed itself more than is usual – or not. If it does, don’t panic – it is called acclimatization. The climate forces some changes, eating exciting new foods brings others.
One common change – new eating habits mean many of us lose excess weight. Another plus – except for special occasions, I no longer wear makeup because I soon sweat it off, sometimes almost as soon as it goes on. Who said with travel comes freedom?
Then there are the basics: toilets. Standard Western-style toilets are now common, but squat toilets are still the default type, particularly in trains and public conveniences. Your hotel might have either – or both. Squat toilets can call for a bit of unfamiliar balancing at first – but you soon get used to them. It’s good idea to keep a bit of toilet paper and hand sanitizer handy.
When you have found wherever you are staying, and before you head out into the great unknown, ask your landlord to provide you with your address in Thai. It will be handy when you are taking a cab back to your place. (Yes – I’ve seen more than one person telling a cab driver – try this road, try that, I’ll recognize it soon…) For this reason, keep your landlord’s phone number on speed dial.
Now you can get to know your surroundings. Familiarize yourself with your neighborhood. Walk around your apartment building, guesthouse, or hotel and take mental notes. How many blocks to the nearest 7/11? Are there any traffic lights or other easy-to-remember signs that will guide you back to your hotel? Plenty of folks can speak rudimentary English, but helping yourself first makes sense.
An early purchase is likely to be a sim card for your phone – or buying a new phone if you left yours at home. Getting one in Thailand is the easiest thing on the planet – and cheap. You can either buy a dumb phone or use your smart phone. Simcards (and top-ups) are available at 7/11s (you will have no trouble finding one), or from numerous other street outlets. If you want internet on your phone, pay a fee of 300 Baht (10 US dollars) and have unlimited access for a month. If you don’t want to unlock your smart phone, you can buy a dumb phone and use your smart phone just for WiFi.
Yes, there is WiFi! You don’t have to try to rely on WiFi cards from back home. You will have Internet at school, there are plenty of internet cafés, and numerous venues and hotels, restaurants and bars have WiFi.
We come from far-off countries with different ways of doing things. So it helps to recognize local culture and norms. These can read like a regime of do’s and don’ts, but recognizing basic courtesies will help bring you quiet acknowledgement from folk you pass by, and easily offered help on the smallest matter when you want it.
A Few Cultural Things:
Cover up – please wear a bra at all times. Thailand isn’t California, and it makes sense to recognize different attitudes to what is good and bad taste.
Being topless on the beach is a no-no. Do not wear tank tops or shorts when visiting temples.
You will be teaching young boys and girls, so be sure you don’t reveal cleavage and thighs in the classroom. It might seem conservative to you, but you are bringing to your classroom the best of the West – not what the kids’ parents might think is the worst.
It is recommended that you buy teachers’ skirts and a plain white blouse. They are very cheap and will never get you into trouble with or offend your co-workers. You can find them in any street market for less than $5 dollars.
More generally, don’t do things you wouldn’t do back home.
That can be tough, given your new-found freedom. You will want to experiment a little bit, let your hair down. However, public intoxication, for example, is never ok. You have to remember that you are in a different country; foreigners already have a reputation for being potentially disturbing.
And the locals are not always angels – so don’t walk around with that $1,000 in your pocket. Pick pocketing does happen quite often especially in areas flooded with tourists so leave your passport at home and carry a copy instead.
If you accept a drink from a stranger, make sure it’s a bottled or canned beer that you see opened.
Thais have a well-earned reputation for being endearingly and genuinely friendly. If someone touches your arm, it’s not sexual harassment.
However, Thai men tend to be shy comparatively and certainly respectful. And it’s ok to have dinner with strangers – I do it all the time! It is often unavoidable. Street food is cheap, tables are often crowded. And when eating among friends, it is the norm for everyone to help themselves from common bowls of soup or plates of chicken. So you will quickly learn to share food, and in the process pick up a few words in Thai and make new friends.
Transport can be remarkably cheap, particularly buses and communal taxis. Tuk-tuks are fun, can be scary, and can be expensive. Make sure you ask the price for your destination before you get on. Motorbikes are cheaper, but can take some getting used to. If you reckon yours is going too fast, tap on the driver’s shoulder and wave him to stop or slow down. Prices are generally negotiated before you get on the bike. After a few days, you will have a fair idea of the general going rates.
Taxis are generally safe. In Bangkok, they are metered, and are not unduly expensive – but make sure the meter is always on.
If you are taking a cab after midnight, you can negotiate prices with cabdrivers. If you encounter a moody driver (it can happen at the end of their shifts, when they have to change with another driver at a predesignated time and place), you can always take the next one. Still, as in any city, it always makes sense to play safe. So it is recommended that you sit in the back. Play with your phone, text a friend. Pretend to be talking to someone or better yet, talk to someone! Have your address in hand.
And last but not least:
Bangkok has phenomenal shopping malls. Some are more glitzy than others, but they all have bargains, and many have top-end international brand-name outlets. If you want to spend $100 in Zara, you can. If you want to spend $10 on an entire outfit at a street market, you can – and can often haggle the price even lower.
However, it is difficult to find good bras and underwear in street markets, so pack light – but pack wisely.
You will have a one-month break in October. Your long break will be in March – May. There are plenty of activities to do during break. They include volunteering across Southeast Asia, English camps, acting gigs or relaxing in the islands. This might be the first time you will be traveling solo since you arrived in Thailand – it doesn’t mean you will be traveling alone. You will meet plenty of people along your way who will become friends and traveling companions. And you will already have plenty of experiences to share with them.
Carla Gott has taught at Thai schools through XploreAsia.