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.
Many people choose to rent or buy a scooter in Thailand. Read about riding a motorbike in Thailand safely.
By Todd W John
Staff Writer, XploreAsia
Thailand is a country where the preferred mode of transportation, especially for the individual, is the motorbike. Every city, town and village seems to have motorbike rentals available at reasonable prices. They can often be purchased without breaking the bank.
If you do decide to get a scooter, there are some considerations you should make. First and foremost is you should have ‘some’ experience driving a motorbike, hopefully previously in your home country. If you do not have any experience it is not a deal breaker, however, be realistic. Start out slow, very slow. Look for an outlying, low traffic area to practice getting comfortable with your new skills as a ‘biker’.
Next, take the time to acquaint yourself with the rules of the road and how they may differ from your home country. Americans, for example, must come to terms that Thais drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. This can be very disorienting, especially with the way people drive in Thailand.
You must understand that the Thai people interpret traffic laws as ‘polite suggestions’ as to how they should drive. They are very free form and abstract in their driving behavior and this presents a whole new world of challenges when motoring in the Land of Smiles. As westerners we have been taught very strict rules and even a minor failure to adhere to the law is quickly enforced.
You will quickly find that this is not quite the case in Thailand. Ignoring a traffic signal in Britain? That’s a ticket. Broken taillight in Chicago? That’s an ordinance violation. Does your vehicle have a headlamp that is even just too dim on your vehicle in New Zealand? That’s a fine you’ll have to pay.
While these are technically against the law in Thailand, enforcement is largely nonexistent. That being said, there will be road blocks and occasional safety checks that are essentially random in their time and location. As a foreigner living and driving in Thailand you will be stopped as a matter of course so that they can make sure your papers are in order.
Note: It is a good idea to get an international driver’s license in your home country before traveling here, which is usually quite easy and inexpensive.
There is a mandatory helmet law in Thailand. Authorities began enforcing it with much more vigor a few years ago. Indeed you will notice that locals will often forego wearing one and get away with it. For a foreigner it is much different… so make sure and wear one.
The same can also be said when it comes to general traffic rules and signals. It is not unusual for Thais to drive down the wrong side of the street to make it to the side road or business. Thus be careful to look both ways when pulling into traffic, not just in the direction of where you expect traffic to be coming from.
Night time driving may also be precarious. People driving motorbikes, and even cars, operate in what some people have come to refer to as ‘stealth mode’. This is when the vehicle has absolutely no lights on. There is no rational for this but it happens, a lot.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then is Thailand, on a per capita basis, consistently ranks as one of ‘most dangerous places to drive in the world’. You must take care to look after your own safety and drive defensively and be very alert.
As in any country, drinking and driving is a miserable choice. As the XploreAsia video discusses, there are a myriad of ways to get around Thailand via public transportation that will keep you safe should you decide to have a night out on the town.
Above all be aware of your environment and use sound judgment when taking to the roads. Thailand is a beautiful country with a vibrant culture and you’ll want to make sure that you are around to enjoy it for a long time.
Cambodia: A Mini Adventure
Our first long weekend was last week and we jumped at the opportunity to travel. Our first out of country adventure? Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Traveling to Cambodia was the definition of a shot in the dark. We live in such a small town that there are no bus schedules to find on the internet and since we can’t read Thai, we were pretty much winging it. We live relatively close to the border crossing (Chong Chom on the Thai side and O’Smach on the Cambodian side), but since it’s not the passage most people use to cross into Cambodia, we weren’t sure if they would issue visas on arrival. Erring on the safe side, we took the long way around. We took a bus from Suwannaphum ⇒ Surin ⇒ Sa Kaeo to meet a fellow teacher friend and then went to the Aranyapathet (Thai side)/Poi Pet (Cambodian side) border.
To get home, we decided to test out the Chong Chom/O’Smach route and it took less than half the time! Anyone in northeast Thailand traveling to Cambodia should definitely consider going this way. We took a two hour taxi ride from Siem Reap to the border and then took a taxi/hitchhiked to Prasat (beware of a white Toyota with a crazy eyed driver and thank goodness for the kindness of strangers). From Prasat, we took a bus from Surin ⇒ Suwannaphum and made it home in record time!
Border Crossing Tips
- To get a visa, you will need a 4x6cm passport photo. You can get an e-visa in advance on the internet (photo still needed), but it is a bit more expensive, plus I like having physical proof in my passport 🙂
- There are convenient little places around the Aranyapathet/Poi Pet border that will take your picture and give you multiple copies for only 100 baht!
- There will be a lot of travel companies waiting beforPassport Control to try and sell you a visa. They might be legit, they might not. Either way, I suggest going through the official channels (obviously).
- Make sure you have your passport (duh), departure card (because you are departing Thailand), and passport photos and head through Passport Control. It is pretty straightforward and there are plenty of signs to guide you through the process.
- Once you get past Passport Control, you’ll have to go to the visa on arrival office (little building to the right of the giant, pretty stone gate) , fill out a form, pay about $30 (1200 baht), and then you have a visa that is good for 30 days.
- Then head to border control, where you fill out an arrival card and then you’re good to go!
- There is a free bus shuttle from border control to the Poi Pet bus station, and from there you can get wherever you need to go very easily.
There are SO many hostels in Siem Reap, go on Hostelworld and browse to your hearts content. I suggest selecting one that is in close proximity to Pub Street (the main tourist area in Siem Reap). We stayed at The Siem Reap Hostel and it was amazing. The staff at the hostel are extremely helpful and book your tours and transportation for you. You just have to tell them where you want to go!
Our first adventure was seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We were up and ready to go at 4:30AM (yes, I was awake at 4:30AM). You can get an Angkor pass, which allows you to visit all the temples and sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park. One day tickets sell for $20 or a three day ticket for $40. We sleepily trudged our way to the temple and while it wasn’t the generic orange and red sunrise, it was still beautiful and well worth the early morning pilgrimage.
Next in the circuit was the city of Angkor Thom. The Baphuon Temple in the city was hands down my favorite temple. The view from the top was breathtaking and I’ve decided that I could definitely have gotten used to being a queen back in the day.
Last on the circuit was Ta Prohm. Unlike most of the other temples in Angkor, it has been left alone, resulting in a beautiful interaction between man-made objects and nature. Towering trees that are easily hundreds of years old grow on top of and through the various structures of the temple.
After the temple tours, we went on a walking food tour organized by our hostel to introduce us to Cambodian foods we might not have tried otherwise. We tried a sweet and salty noodle dish, fried bread, veggies, and meats, cow intestines, and a dessert that I have dubbed an Asian snow cone. I would 100% recommend the dessert because it’s delicious, but I did think it was too sweet. Words I never thought I’d utter my whole life. The cow intestines weren’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but definitely not the best. The texture is what really got me. It’s chewy, like squid. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the Cambodian delicacy of fried tarantula was not available (apparently spiders aren’t in season right now…?) and I’m (not so secretly) glad because I didn’t have to decide between my paralyzing fear of spiders and my curiosity to try something new.
On Saturday, we visited Cambodia’s holiest place, home of a large reclining Buddha carved right into the mountain top and swam at the base of the amazing Phnom Kulen Waterfall (as seen in Tomb Raider, and sadly, we didn’t see Angelina Jolie).
All in all, seeing Siem Reap was well worth it and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who wants to go to Cambodia. It was a nice change of pace and it was kinda fun to be the tourists again. In the future however, I would like to go back and experience a less Western and more authentic Cambodia.
Shirley is 21 years old and a recent graduate from the University of Richmond. She fancies herself a fish (the water is her home) but her friends call her bird. Well, Shirleybird. Shirley took an amazing opportunity to study abroad in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Now she’s teaching English in Thailand with one of her best friends.
Keep up to date with Shirley and her travels by following her blog!
A Couple Day to Day Pleasures of Life in Thailand
The title says it all, so in no particular order, here are a couple of things that make me smile on a daily basis thanks to life in Thailand.
The running joke is that there are three types of weather in Thailand: hot, hotter, and hottest. So if scorching temps aren’t your thing, then this may not be the country for you, but call me an iguana, because in my opinion there’s nothing better than soaking up some tropical rays. There’s never a sunshine shortage in Thailand, and I can count the amount of times I’ve gotten cold here on a couple of sunburnt fingers. When the sun goes down the weather stays warm, and at night it’s the perfect temperature for drinks on the patio, or a game of dominos under the starlight.
Thailand does have a rainy season of course, and it can cause problems with transportation and flooding, particularly in the southern areas of the country. The tropical storms are a sight to behold though. Huge gusts of wind, spatters of rain, and loud thunder cracks batter the country, showcasing the fury of Mother Nature. The rainy season can be exhilarating, and the daily showers are usually a nice mid-day break to the stifling heat. The rainy season can be a test of endurance though, the daily rain showers can really start to wear on you after eight wet weeks.
Life in Thailand comes with many welcome surprises and sweet treats. Sweet Thai iced teas, sugary green teas, bubble teas, blended fruit smoothies, syrupy soda’s, and cold cocoas are just a few of the delicious drinks sold cold on every road here in Thailand. When the sun is beating down on you, nothing beats a sugary iced beverage to lift your spirits and delight your taste buds. For less than $1 American dollar, sweet blended drinks are available on every street corner, making it difficult not to indulge on a daily basis.
Radical Reptiles and Awesome Arachnids
Although not everyone will share my interest in these creepy crawlers, there are some amazing creatures lurking on the walls here in Thailand. A foot long neon lizard is not an uncommon sighting on the walls of my apartment. The most common giant gecko here is called a Tokay, and while the first few sightings were alarming, now they are a real treat. These lizards are gorgeous and completely foreign to any commonly spotted wildlife at my home in Seattle. I’ve also seen some amazing snakes, and other large ground lizards outside that I’m glad have never made their way into my room. Fear not though, if reptiles aren’t your thing, there are massive spiders here which are like something out of a nightmare. The Huntsman Spider is one species I have found in my room on several occasions. These suckers are huge, and fast.
Once my girlfriend went into the bathroom, and not ten seconds later I heard a blood curdling scream. When I ran in, I saw the legs of a huntsman sticking out of the middle of the toilet paper roll! The massive arachnid realized it had been caught, and ran out of the roll. Feeling like Frodo, and acting rather erratically, I grabbed the hygiene gun (commonly referred to as the bum gun) from off the wall, and started spraying the spider towards the shower drain. To my amazement, this sucker moved forward through the pressure of the oncoming water blast. My girlfriend ran to retrieve a flip-flop, and like a scene out of 28 Days Later, she bludgeoned the creature to death. Although we felt kind of bad about killing such a large spider, sleep would have been impossible knowing that colossus was still lurking about our room. Talk about freaky. Thailand is also well endowed with massive red centipedes, snails, and giant frogs, so if you can get past the initial fright, these creatures are an amazing sight.
That Thailand Smile
Anyone who researches into a life in Thailand will most likely hear about the Thai smile, but it is more than a cultural characteristic, it is a way of life. In Phukieo, Chaiyaphum, where I live, it seems like every passing face has a big warm smile glued to it. People will go out of their way here to be pleasant to one another, smiling, waving, and nodding hellos. While occasionally people in America might greet you with a salting of attitude, here, any attitude away from a positive and friendly greeting is near non-existent. It’s hard not to smile in Thailand.
The wai is the standard form of greeting in Thailand. To wai someone you must of put your hands together in a prayer-like position and bow slightly to the person you are greeting. To me, it seems like there is so much more respect and meaning behind the wai than the standard American handshake. It is truly a humbling experience to really understand the mechanics and meaning of the gesture. As a teacher in Thailand, students and members of the community are constantly giving me wais. As a foreigner it’s really nice to be reminded of how much the town respects your position and what you are doing at the school. Giving wais to other people also serves as a constant reminder to respect those around you.
The Community Park
Almost every town in Northeastern Thailand has a community park at its center, with workout machines and a jogging trail. The park in our town comes alive every night around 5:30 PM. Teachers, policeman, market vendors, students, and everyone else from the town can be seen jogging around the track, doing group aerobics, participating in group sports, and biking around the lake. Besides providing an awesome sense of community, it’s a lot of fun to make your way through the park, stopping to talk to everyone along the way.
I play basketball at the park in our town a couple nights a week, and even though most of the people I play with speak almost zero English, it is one of the highlights of my week. I really love the sense of sportsmanship that Thais have. Even in friendly park games of basketball in America, there is likely to be at least one person who gets overly competitive or aggressive. Americans also tend to only allow certain people to play in community games, excluding younger people, unathletic people, and often girls. I’m not saying this happens every time, but it does happen. It’s just part of American culture, we are competitive people. While people in Thailand want to win, they let anyone who wants get in on the action play the game, even if it hurts their chances of winning. It doesn’t matter if ten people over thirty years old are hustling up and down the court, if a seven year old girl comes up and wants to play basketball, she’s automatically thrown into the game. In the community park, people just like to play sports for fun, and it shows with the way they cheer on the opposing team, and pass the ball to everyone evenly, even the weaker players on the team. Spending some evening time in the community park is a big part of the culture here, and an awesome experience.
Swapping Stories with Other Expats
Although this mainly happens when I travel outside my town, it’s always interesting to talk with other expats traveling and working in Thailand. Whether they are clean cut and well dressed, or dreadlocked and totally granola, every traveler has an interesting story to tell. Other expats are always willing to tell you about an awesome hostel they stayed at, a great bar they just happened to drop by, or why you should or should not spend a month in Cambodia. Through talking with other travelers like myself, I’ve been able to construct treasure maps of awesome locations, recommendations of random foreigners I’ve crossed paths with at bus stations, hotels, or historical sights. So if you come to Thailand, and you happen to run into a 5’8” (5’10” on a good day) handsome American with striking blue eyes, named Justin, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation and share all your awesome adventures with me!
All kinds of fresh tropical fruit is available everywhere in Thailand, and you can buy a good sized bag for usually under $1 USD. Awesome is an understatement. Fresh Coconuts are no exception, they are plentiful and inexpensive here. Coconut juice is filled with electrolytes and potassium, and I have yet to find a single beverage (well maybe one…) that is as refreshing as chopping the top off a coconut and sticking a straw in it. On a hot day, a coconut is the perfect fruit.
There’s plenty more I could add to this list, spicy food, amazing guitar solos, and opulent temples, just to name a few. But I’ll keep it short and sweet. It’s hard not to smile in Thailand.
Justin is currently teaching a second term at a school in Phukieo, Thailand. He graduated from the TESOL course last October with his girlfriend, Krissy. He’s having an incredible experience in Thailand and is a passionate educator.
Justin is one of our featured writers in the field, keep up to date with his progress on his personal blog.
How about a life-changing adventure teaching across Southeast Asia? See what we have to offer here!
Moving On to Bigger Things
Monday was working 9-7 in an office. Tuesday was working 9-7 in an office doing coffee runs for survival. Wednesday up until Friday was me sitting in front of a computer screen from 9-7, casually getting interrupted by other unhappy colleagues arguing with the boss. The ratio of week days to weekend never made sense to me. My weekends were crazy and spontaneous, travelling up and down the east coast of Australia. But before I knew it, I was back in front of my computer screen, enclosed in a small room.
I was scrolling through the net one day, (I say the net because you know how you’re on one website and after about fifty clicks on random things and an hour later, you’ve ended up somewhere completely off track?), I came across something along the lines of “Teach In Thailand!” First of all, I had no idea where Thailand even fell on the map and secondly, I was a horrid student. Potentially putting up with someone like me was not on my bucket list, but still I found myself clicking on the link and filling in my details.
It was the next day I received a call from a woman who would help me for the next few months planning my trip to Thailand.
I received my visa, quit my job, turned twenty, gave over half of my wardrobe to my lovely, Brazilian flatmate, and my cute but psycho (no not me) cat, Blaze, ran away which was perfect timing if you ask me.
Sitting on the edge of my bed with my mother who had flown over from New Zealand to say goodbye, life decided then and there that it would throw a brick at me. That brick would be my very first anxiety attack. I couldn’t breathe, every little worry that I didn’t think was there before, or at least hid very well, was screaming at me. Mum throws her arms around me and is repeatedly saying, “It’s ok, just breathe.”
Not even half a day later I arrive in Bangkok airport. Of all places for a twenty year old girl who has just had an anxiety attack to go, SHE GOES TO BANGKOK? It’s almost like I was begging for another episode.
I meet up with the small group of other people who have given up their lives in other parts of the world to do this. After just one hectic night together on the streets of Bangkok, I can say I honestly felt happy, excited and most of all my mind was free of bad thoughts.
We study, party, learn, explore, meditate and even at times cry together. Then I get the news that I got offered an ESL teaching job, even though I hadn’t graduated with my TESOL certificate yet.
I take it.
I cry as I hug my friends goodbye and jump on board a bus that will drive for ten hours to reach my new home; Trang, located in the southern part of Thailand.
Starting Out as an ESL Teacher
Don’t ever expect something when going into unfamiliar grounds. I thought I was going to be able to chill out, explore my new town, make some friends maybe. Wrong. Oh, how wrong I was. They threw me into the school almost as soon as I put my feet down on Trang soil. Like, Eden, don’t catch your breath just yet. My new job was teaching 6-12 year old, Mini English Program Students English and Art at Anuban Trang School. Mini English Program basically is a segregated part of the school where students learn most of their subjects in Thai AND English, of course at a bigger cost. My agents take me in, I meet a few of the other foreign teachers and then I get given my timetable which shows that I have five classes to teach that day. I’m thinking great, I can go home and prepare lesson plans for these classes next week. Wrong again. So, so wrong. I am told I have to begin teaching straight away, no lesson plans. Just wing it basically. I think I muttered a “Are you being serious?” There I was, standing in front of this class of seven year olds, in a country where Thai is their first language and me not knowing what they even know about English or Art.
In all seriousness, I don’t know where I pulled it from, but I fully aced teaching this class. We’re going over fruits. I’m drawing. I’m asking them what it is. They’re all yelling the answer at me. I say “Are you sure? I think it’s a banana.” They’d respond, “Noooooo, Teacher! Apple! Apple!” We’re laughing and joking and learning. My agents are sitting there with massive grins on their faces. They don’t even stay for the whole lesson. They’re just like yeah, this girl’s got it.
That day a South African woman from my school, whom I would become very good friends with, side saddled me on the back of her bike and we rode to my new apartment. I was shown about five different places that I could move into. One place had a major ant infestation, another was so dark and gloomy I felt like the sun had disappeared. Of course it wasn’t until the fifth one was shown to me that I had decided, yes. This is the one. It was a brand new modern apartment with a huge room already furnished with a king sized bed, table and chairs, television, vanity, wardrobe and fridge. Off from that room was a bathroom with a modern toilet and a hot shower. The apartment building had free parking, 24 hour surveillance cameras operating, big security gates and my favourite; FREE WIFI. Obviously I decided to pay more for the luxury of all these things. I was well aware of cheaper accommodation but I knew that it meant bucket showers and squat toilets which I hadn’t quite yet accustomed myself to.
Soon enough I get myself into a really good rhythm at school. (Wait, do I call it school or work? I don’t know.) I planned my lessons according to the textbooks the students have. They’re great. One topic will generally last a few weeks. One of my favourite topics in English I did with my P4 students was Emergency Services. Teaching them what to do in the event of a house fire, doing role plays with each other with one acting as someone who has an emergency and the other acting as the phone operator for the emergency services. We even did a few classes on Tsunamis, which really interested them because they all knew about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Thailand. At the end of this topic one of the other foreign teachers organised for the local Fire Fighters to come into school and speak to the students, they had the best time.
The feeling you get from giving your own knowledge to someone who takes it in willingly and appreciates it is completely overwhelming. I never realised how extremely lucky I was knowing the English language. Thai’s know that English is the key to so many opportunities and that’s why they’re eager to learn it. No one should be denied the right to be educated, so I think it’s wonderful that there are so many foreign teachers leaving their western lives to pass on their own knowledge to these beautiful people.
When I wasn’t working I was off exploring the country. Like any other twenty year old would do, of course I headed to Phuket. Where of course I partied for days until I literally was lying on the floor of the backpackers exhausted like “Help me”. I got that help alright, helped onto the boat to Phi Phi Island where I partied even more except I had a bloody brilliant beach to fall flat onto.
I got to experience high-end shopping in Bangkok, Songkran in Chiang Mai, blessings of a Monk in Phuket, snorkeling in Phi Phi Island, amazing/endless market shopping in Songkhla, cricket eating in Hua Hin. Just endless amounts of new experiences and fun.
Looking Back at Life as an ESL Teacher
In March 2015 my teaching came to an end. Unfortunately visas can get difficult and you need to make sacrifices. I have returned to New Zealand where I am going to begin university. It was such a hard decision for me, but I know that once I get my degree I can return to Thailand and teach once more. The relationship I built with my students, my 6-7 year olds in particular gave me feelings I had never had before. I left them begging me to stay, crying, tugging at my skirt. I miss them every single day and I love them like they’re my own. Teaching in Thailand is by far the best decision I ever made and it makes me so excited for my life ahead. I mean, i’m almost 21, and I feel like I’ve already accomplished such a huge thing in my life. I will always encourage people to never settle for a life they know is too small for them. Get out there. Try something new. Go somewhere you haven’t been before. Offer all that you have to give to someone who wants and needs it. I promise you will feel richer than the man with the most money in the world.
Eden Le Comte
Eden is Australian born, and lived in New Zealand most of her life. She grew up in a squash orientated family but I broke herself away from it after realising it wasn’t what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
Eden has a lust for travel, adventure and throwing herself in the deep end.
Still on the fence about teaching ESL in Thailand? Our latest XploreAsia video is here!
Keep up to date with everything XploreAsia by checking out our Facebook page.
Learning English for Thai People: A Path to a Better Life
Before expats come over to teach in Thailand, many assume that Thai peoples’ main motivation for learning English is personal interest or as an extracurricular activity. This idea tends to be founded from our own personal experience as most of us learned French or Spanish for those same reasons throughout our primary and secondary schooling. We studied other languages either because of a desire to travel or to enhance our university applications. However, this assumption of Thai peoples’ motivations for studying English is slightly misguided. While some Thai people do learn English because they plan to travel or for fun, the majority of Thais study English, or pressure their children to do so, in order to improve their material wellbeing or social standing.
English language skills are in great demand in Thailand. One widely recognized reason for this is that they are essential to supporting the country’s burgeoning tourism industry. Last year, Thailand had more than 26 million visitors arriving by plane—an increase of over 200% in the past decade. However, an often overlooked and arguably more important reason that English language skills are in such high demand in Thailand is to support the country’s massive export manufacturing industries.
Thailand competes with many of its regional neighbors to be a top destination for foreign direct investment (FDI). Thai government officials do everything in their power to attract the attention of multinational corporations like General Electric, General Motors, Unilever, and Microsoft to convince them to open a factory or regional headquarters here in Thailand instead of somewhere like Vietnam, Malaysia, or China. While Thailand’s beaches, mountains and the friendliness of the Thai people make a persuasive argument, promoting strong English language skills of the local workforce is the final frontier. As a result, this is something that the Thai government fixates heavily on. Every two to three weeks there’s an article in the local media lamenting that Thailand is falling behind its neighbors in standardized tests of English language capability. With the exception of the agriculture industry, English language skills are in extremely high demand. Unfortunately, throughout the tourism, manufacturing, and education sectors, Thailand is falling behind its regional neighbors in this regard.
There is another important reason that learning the English language is currently in such high demand in Thailand. On December 31st, 2015, the countries of Southeast Asia will enter into a new phase of regional integration known as ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Thailand is a member of this union which began an unprecedented era of international cooperation between nations. ASEAN established a regional trading bloc that will lower the barriers to the movement of people, goods, and services across Southeast Asia. Being that there is no common language amongst the countries in the region, communication between nations is done almost entirely in English. As a result, English has been declared the official language of the ASEAN community. Therefore, not only are English language skills in demand in the private sector, but in the Thai government sector as well.
How big of a difference does learning English make to the typical Thai worker or government employee? It really is remarkable. If you take two Thai workers, who are in all ways equal (education, age, experience, performance), but only one has strong English language capability, he or she can earn anywhere from 2-3 times the salary compared to their non-English speaking counterpart. This is why from the national government level all the way down to the individual family, massive financial investments are made in English language education. It is important to not only Thailand’s development as a nation, but also for the development of the individual Thai person and their earning potential.
Thailand is still a developing country. The average salary of a Thai person is roughly USD 5,000, compared to USD 40,000 for someone living in the United States. In fact, the economic and class structure in Thailand looks nothing like that in the United States. Thailand’s middle class is very small compared to the United States and is a relatively new socioeconomic group. A few generations ago, there was no middle class in Thailand. Bangkok is the only area of Thailand where the middle class is prominent and it makes up 50% of the city’s population. This figure accounts for the majority of middle class individuals in Thailand. Outside of Bangkok, the middle class shrinks to a very small percentage. For example, in one of the most populated regions of Thailand, the Northeast, the middle class makes up less than 10% of the population. The vast majority of Thais in areas like these are poor farmers.
Because the middle class is a relatively new social group, the class system in Thailand still largely resembles pre-modern times and is built upon unequal relations between the traditional elites (land holders) and peasants. While we are a long way from those ancient times, this pre-modern class and social structure still exists in many ways, and it represents a huge barrier to upward mobility.
A majority of Thais are born poor, they live poor, and they die poor. Their children end up going to underfunded schools with apathetic teachers and often drop out before they reach graduation. Sound familiar? You could say the same thing about many inner-city communities in the Western world. The main difference is that those communities represent nearly 75% of the population in Thailand. To this day, there is still very little upward mobility for Thais born into a lower class family. Chances are, if you are born poor, your offspring will be poor, and they will in turn raise family trapped in this vicious cycle of poverty that repeats itself generation after generation. There is a way to break this cycle of poverty. This is where English language comes in.
If you can speak English, you can move up in Thai society. You can move out of poverty and provide a better life for yourself and your children. English language skills are an important springboard to the middle class and a way to leave poverty behind. Young Thai kids who you encounter in the classroom might not appreciate this, but their families, their communities and the Thai government certainly do. As a result, Thailand hires more than 10,000 native English-speaking teachers each year. Despite this, the current supply of native English speaking teachers still doesn’t meet the overall demand.
Because of all of this, native English speaking teachers play a very important role in this country. They hold the potential to help a child born to a family of rice farmers to have a fair shot at providing a better life for their children. In my years of training and preparing thousands of native English teachers in Thailand, I think most Westerners coming over to Thailand don’t fully grasp the extent of good they can do. For most of us it seems strange that some language we grew up speaking and taking for granted could be so important to the future of Thailand. But that is the reality. As native English-speaking teachers, we possess an important skill. While I don’t mean to come off as ethnocentric, English language skills truly can be one of the most important skills that Thai people will learn in their years of schooling. I liken the role of teachers as somewhat akin to joining the Peace Corps, a wonderful program with a long history of helping people. In the Peace Corps, volunteers typically go into areas to build homes, wells, schools, and infrastructure to help communities grow. As ESL teachers in Thailand, we have the ability to impart a special skill that will enable hundreds and maybe thousands of young Thai people to improve their lives. They can use these skills to one day improve their homes, their communities, and reinvest in future generations. I imagine that many teachers didn’t foresee the potential impact they could make when they first decided to teach English in Thailand. And on top of it all, you get paid for it!
Michael Volpe is the Managing Director of XploreAsia. He has an extensive educational background in international business and political science, along with nearly 10 years of teaching experience at the university level in Thailand and the United States. He is a Fulbright-Hays Scholar with a PhD in International Public Policy from George Mason University.
How I Overcame Culture Shock as a New Teacher
Culture shock. Let’s be clear from the start. It’s not extreme homesickness, fatigue or frustration with a new diet of foods that we deem unsuitable for our ‘rich’ (bland) pallets. In fact it’s a combination of all of these things with so much more to boot. Everyone who has experienced culture shock will tell you that it’s a real challenge and that it’s something that has to be beaten actively. It won’t pass unless action is taken.
Culture shock is, in a way, a joy to experience. It’s one of the final barriers to truly immersing yourself into a wonderful new culture and surpassing it will enrich you and give you a newfound perspective on all the different things you encounter.
I overcame culture shock in a particularly strange way. It was relatively early on in my experience living and working abroad. I still remember how it happened vividly to this day.
I spent my first couple of weeks in Thailand relishing the energy of other like-minded westerners all experiencing a new culture. These were really exciting times. Everything was intriguing, inspiring and just so different. I must admit, I found myself thinking ‘this isn’t so bad’ numerous times. I honestly never once truly felt homesick and rarely thought about my friends and family back home. I felt positive and, most importantly, present in every waking moment. I made the decision to practice daily meditation and yoga, enjoy a relatively healthy diet and focus on building close relationships with the people around me. I felt like this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I felt secure, wanted, and happy to be a part of something much larger than myself.
These feelings only lasted up until the day I left to my first school placement in a small market town called Ban Mi. I was incredibly emotional on my journey to this new adventure. I felt like my entire world was falling apart and that everything that I had just achieved was for nothing. I admit, while I am an emotional person, I just didn’t feel prepared and I was afraid that I’d made a poor decision leaving so soon.
When the tears subsided and I felt the warmth of the sun pouring through the van window, I suddenly felt peaceful. I knew that the real challenge was about to begin and that this was my chance to start over. Once again, relatively quickly, I thought that I had overcome culture shock, that my low point had passed and that now I can do anything.
I have a habit of speaking too soon and this was most definitely one of those moments. My biggest challenges were yet to come.
My first few days in Ban Mi were initially rather exciting/terrifying in equal measure. I’m not the traveller type, I’m certainly not fearless and I did thrive from the reassurance of friends & family. I came to Thailand to realise a dream of becoming a teacher in a foreign country. I never thought my first major issue would be plucking up the courage to go and buy dinner from somewhere other than 7-11. I eventually found somewhere to eat that would be my go-to place for the duration of my stay. Still unsure of myself, I ate the same dish every night for two weeks. It was good but hardly adventurous.
I’m the type of guy who thrives from routine, any time I’m derailed it’s a serious setback. Things have to happen on time, when they’re agreed and must play out to all of my many expectations. Having these expectations when living in a place like Thailand is simply asking for trouble. My first few weeks were spent becoming frustrated with everything around me. Nothing was going how I wanted it to, people weren’t adjusting to me and I was beginning to resent everything and everyone. I was feeling miserable, tired, homesick and didn’t really feel like being a teacher anymore. I avoided ‘conversations’ with the locals and just spent most of my days in silence apart from teaching. There were many days where I wouldn’t have a single exchange in English to anyone. In hindsight, I’d begun to alienate myself as I refused to accept anything other than my own way to be the ‘right’ way. This..is culture shock.
Early one Monday morning I woke up with a particularly bad attitude. I didn’t much feel like teaching, let alone going to school. Reluctantly I got myself up, headed out of the door and started the relatively short walk to school in 45 degree heat. This journey took me through a market where I diced with death as a pedestrian amongst a million scooters. After the fifth near accident I scraped through the market and made it to the outdoor gym I often used in the evenings. As I walked up I heard a sound coming from a pile of rubbish on the side of the road. As I got closer I noticed a box. The sounds were coming from inside. I carefully opened the box, expecting some sort of death dealing monster to be inside, but was surprised to find four new-born puppies, most of which still had their eyes closed. Why these puppies were placed in this box and put there to be taken away by the refuse collectors I will never know or understand.
All of a sudden, I had a purpose. I was going to take care of these animals to make sure they had a fair shot at life. I carefully took out each puppy and placed them in a safe place, away from harm, outside of the gym. I covered them up and went to work at the school. On my return after school, I got them out from my improvised kennel and fed them some milk, which they hungrily lapped up. I returned to this place every morning, lunchtime and in the evening to take care of these little guys. They grew so fast and I was quickly becoming a popular sight to see in the local community.
The Foreigner that Cares for Stray Dogs
The locals started taking notice and I would often have local kids come, play with the puppies and help me feed them. Some were a little rough and had to be taught how to treat animals, but we got there in the end. I believe that the efforts I made, especially out in the open to take care of these dogs who couldn’t fend for themselves, helped open up the community not only to me, but also to eachother. People banded together to feed and clean the dogs, play with them and give them love. The dogs became part of the community, as did I. People often approached me to chat, to offer food and many times invited me into their homes. I realised that I wasn’t just giving these dogs the opportunity to have a good shot at life, I was giving myself one too. Before making this chance discovery I had all but given up. Now I had a community that supported me, friends, family and the greatest little buddies by my side. I got through culture shock by not focusing on myself but by finding a way to channel my energy into doing good.
By becoming selfless I had realised that the only barrier to overcoming my issues was myself and my own perceptions. So to all of you thinking about coming over or who have just begun your journey, get out there, do good things for others in your community, forget about your troubles and start living.
Culture shock is a necessary rite of passage for any long stayers. It’s also one of the most humbling experiences I have had in my life and I would live it over and over again.
Check out the video of Jon telling his story on the XploreAsia YouTube channel.
Jon is a former teacher in Thailand. Now working for XploreAsia, Jon focusses on marketing and managing the blog. Jon is a passionate movie and music lover as well as having a keen interest in new cultures and ideas.
For more insights in starting out as a teacher, check out his blog here.
You’re on the way to the airport, there’s a silence in the car. There’s so much you and your family want to say but aren’t quite sure how to articulate it. Today is the day you leave your home country, your friends and your family behind. You still can’t believe it, it doesn’t quite feel real yet. In-between bouts of checking if you’d lost your passport since the last time you checked five minutes ago, you get flashes of excitement and fear, all at the same time. You are going to teach abroad.
You say your goodbyes, tell your mum to stop crying, your dad hugs you as he checks to see nobody can see him shedding a tear. You walk through those gates alone. Your family are still standing waiting for you to turn around and come back as they fade away into the distance. Nerves turn to fear, and then the excitement kicks in.
Rewind a few months, you’ve just booked your ticket: the tangible evidence of your drive, passion and hard work. You’ve given yourself a chance for something more, something different and something completely alien to you. You’ve accepted that things just haven’t been enough. You want to see the world and immerse yourself into a completely different culture. At the same time, you want to try your hand at teaching, maybe do some volunteering, and gain all-round new skills. It’s a huge, life-changing decision that is equal parts exciting and terrifying.
You’re officially on the plane. You’ve watched three outdated movies and the baby next to you hasn’t stopped screaming for the past two hours. You’re tired, weary and now so far from home. The plane lands with a bump and you fight your way out of the plane. The first thing you notice is the heat. Your bags are feeling heavier as you make your way to your pickup, but you can finally say you’ve arrived.
Welcome to your new adventure. You’ve come a long way, but life as you know it is about to change. You’re going to have an experience like no other. You’re going to meet likeminded travelers and forge incredible bonds with people who will be friends for life. You’re going to become a teacher, one that your students will never forget, and one who they’ll idolise and want to know everything about. You’ll talk about your experiences.
You’ll tell everyone about the first time you went to an elephant sanctuary and when you received a blessing from a monk at a temple built into a mountainside. You will never forget the first time you got a chance to try-out Muay Thai and the taste of the pineapples fresh from the ground. The dogs you meet at Rescue Paws will always have a place in your heart. You will tell tales of communities welcoming you with open arms, your students, your new families, friends and inspire others to follow their dreams.
You’re going to have tough times, times where you feel lost, frustrated, even angry. But with the supportive network of both the people you meet on the course and the XploreAsia family, you will get through these barriers and re-emerge ready to take on all challenges. These experiences inspire a growth within you that you would have never experienced back ‘home’. Chances are you’ll stay a lot longer than planned as you fall in love with the rich culture and the warm, friendly greetings from passers by. You’re living in a culture like no other, an experience unrivalled, a journey you chose for yourself.
This is your XploreAsia experience – embracing adventure, changing lives.