So, you’re thinking of teaching in Thailand, but what’s it really like? Sun-drenched beaches and lazy afternoons, or smog and stuffy classrooms? Well, a little bit of both really… hear it from Alice McBrearty, who headed to Thailand for six months after finishing university:
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I made the biggest decision of my life on a cold, dark February morning; stuck in the library doing an essay for the third year of my degree, I decided that instead of returning to university after the summer to do an Honours year, I would go on an adventure!
So I did. For six wonderful months, I combined backpacking with teaching English in Thailand - an enchanting country I had longed to explore having read about its distinct culture, fascinating history, ancient traditions and abundance of natural beauty.
Before Asia, my only travelling experience had been camping in the countryside and a couple of short European package holidays and city breaks: not much compared to living and working in a country halfway across the world but I relished the thought of leaving my comfort zone of family, friends and familiar surrounds for an exotic faraway land.
Yet with only part of my student loan left, I had little more than enough money to cover a return flight. Then I discovered that the high demand for English teachers in Thailand often encourages backpackers to teach while, during or after they travel, and furthermore, many schools in Asian countries require only that you are a native English speaker in order to teach, although preference is given to those with experience or qualifications.
For peace of mind, I enrolled on an online TEFL course with i-to-i, which took just over one month to complete and helped prepare me for teaching, providing me with lesson ideas, advice and forcing me to brush up on my grammar skills. i-to-i also gave me invaluable support before I left; if ever I had any questions or concerns, I talked to a member of their team and received friendly and helpful advice and information about all aspects of planning and preparing for trip. It made the idea of working as an English teacher and living in a foreign country much less daunting.
At the end of the course, I received a TEFL Diploma and within weeks i-to-i was sending me job offers from Thai schools. Following a 20-minute phone interview with one employer, I was offered a 6-month paid teaching placement at a private language school in Bangkok.
The day I took off from home ground, any niggling fears I had disappeared as I realised that whatever might happen, it would beat sitting in a library doing a dissertation!
Touching down in Bangkok, however, I felt completely bewildered and it was a week or two before the buzz of the city really started to thrill me. It felt like I had been hibernating all my life; it was no place like home: smelly, dirty, muggy, crowded, noisy, claustrophobic, hectic day and night, a constant stream of cars and motorbikes carelessly zipping back and forth, horns of multi-coloured taxis blaring, rusty bicycles attached to food carts, open-top trucks, wobbly tuk tuk and over-loaded battered buses! It was like the scene of a Hollywood blockbuster, just before a superhero comes leaping out of chaos!
All thoughts of home faded fast as I started living like a Thai. With delicious hot and cold food sold cheaply on every corner (from fresh fruits to meat on a stick and live insects!), the laid-back friendliness of the people, beautiful ancient golden temples appearing as if out of nowhere among modern buildings - it was difficult not to fall in love with the city.
My insight and absorption into Thai culture grew deeper as I began work as an English teacher. I became good friends with the Thai teachers who accompanied me in the classroom to translate when necessary, meeting with them after work to eat, drink, laugh and talk for hours about the children we taught and the absurdities of our contrasting ways of life. I was given many ‘insider tips’ that tourists find out the hard way, like respecting the Thai custom of removing footwear before entering temples, classrooms and Thai houses. I was told of the importance of never touching a child’s head (it is seen as the temple of the body), never pointing to feet (they are the ‘lowly’ part of the body, so this is considered rude) and always bowing to someone if they bow to you (it is a polite way to greet a person, like hand-shaking,).
Thais generally hate to cause offence and so often say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’ and nod and smile even when things go wrong. A phrase commonly used when shrugging off problems is ‘mai pen rai’ (meaning ‘it doesn’t matter’ or ’nevermind’) and I adopted this mantra for the duration of my stay; saying it aloud had a calming effect in difficult or stressful circumstances like when caught in a traffic jam for hours! The Thais’ light-hearted take on life was infectious - if something wasn’t “sanukï¿½ (fun), it wasn’t worth doing!
Even more infectious was the enthusiasm of the children I taught. On my first teaching day I was a bag of nerves yet teaching a class of nearly 40 excitable children aged from three to thirteen turned out to be one of my most pleasurable experiences. Although it was a challenge, I was swept away by their warmth, willingness to learn and instant respect for me as their teacher; each lesson I was greeted with big smiles and hugs and small hands reaching out to take mine.
It helped that lessons were designed by the school to be fun, stimulating and interactive and that typical activities included singing favourite childhood songs like ‘Five Little Ducks’, playing games such as ‘Mr Wolf’ and drawing on a whiteboard, with no desks or chairs in sight!
After hours of energetic teaching in the sweltering heat, I spent the evenings relaxing with a freshly cooked meal from a local stall (usually costing less than £3) and - on a particularly taxing day - by receiving a traditional Thai massage at one of Bangkok’s many parlours (also around £3!), which always left me feeling revived and ready for the next day’s classroom workout.
One night I took part in the Loy Krathong festival at Lumphini, Bangkok’s biggest park, where celebrations included fireworks, parades, music and dancing. But best of all was the candle-lit lotus floats everyone purchased from nearby stalls, which are made from lotus flowers, banana leaf and incense and are traditionally believed to bring good fortune when sent down a river as a wish is made.
The peaceful, hopeful atmosphere made me feel my adventure had just begun.
On a salary of 28,000 Baht per month - which, at around £380, was higher than the national average wage - I had more than enough money to cover the low costs of living and to save any extra for travelling, which I did nearly every weekend.
Getting around Bangkok was made easy by the skytrain, a station of which I was lucky to stay right next to, in subsidised accommodation near the school’s main office. Running through the heart of the city, the skytrain - when compared to other transport on the hazardous, congested roads - is a relatively cheap, quick, air-conditioned and more reliable alternative.
A city that never sleeps, Bangkok is a 24-hour feast for the senses. From the intoxicating aroma of Chinatown and the buzz of the Night Bazaar to Chao Praya River, where a ‘hop on, hop off’ cruise takes you to temples including Wat Arun and the golden Reclining Buddha, intricately detailed and expertly constructed, each part revealing something of Thailand’s historical, cultural and religious roots.
A little-known gem an hour-and-a-half bus drive from Bangkok is The Ancient City, the world’s largest outdoor museum known by Thais as ‘Muang Boran’. Its layout is a 300-acre replica of the country, with all the main temples laid out in relation to how they appear on the map. Holding a large umbrella to protect me from the blazing sun, I cycled around on an old rusty bike and had a lunchtime nap under a mango tree!
Contrary to being escorted around and having excursions arranged for me at the tick of a box, as an independent traveller I revelled in not knowing what I was doing each day. The best things happened when I least expected them to.
Weird and wonderful things, like getting lost in a forest of itchy-coos, giant millipedes and spider webs in the San Lum National Park; sheltering in a tuk tuk during a terrifying yet spectacular thunderstorm at the Angkhor temples in Cambodia; hearing nothing but the sound of water gently lapping and the occasional croak of a frog while bamboo rafting down the River Kwai; taking a bumpy ride on an elephant or an even bumpier ride on the aptly named Death Railway in Kanchanburi.
Then there were the times I never wished to prolong and felt fortunate to leave: namely witnessing the scale of poverty across the country’s poorest parts, where beggars were persistent, and often malnourished children and dying amputees. My awareness of their desperate plight grew with my sense of helplessness to relieve their misery.
Such poignant moments I’m not likely to forget. Another was walking through the Hellfire Pass, the infamous old railway line linking Thailand to Burma built by Japanese prisoners of war during WWII; and visiting a landmine museum near Siem Reap in Cambodia, set up by an inspiring, courageous man who, having fought as a boy in the country’s civil wars, now dedicates his life to destroying landmines, of which hundreds of thousands still exist.
Highlights of the journey were exploring on foot the crumbling ruins of Ayutthaya, Thailand’s former capitol only an hour out of Bangkok; taking a sleeper train to Thailand’s only other city, the northern Chiang Mai, and waking to the sunrise over rolling green fields. Also memorable was being served porridge for breakfast in Krabi after months of rice, and sharing my bedroom with a gecko!
Despite missing Scotland’s cool climate and mountainous landscape, and never quite getting used to being stared at curiously (though not necessarily impolitely) by Thai passers-by, the only regret I have is that I couldn’t extend my trip. Unfortunately I left before the country’s annual water fight, the Songkran festival in mid-April, which celebrates the Thai New Year and involves paying respect to Buddha by sprinkling water over the hands of monks and throwing water over each other in the streets (all in good cheer) as temperatures soar and the hottest season begins.
Living and working in a foreign country was an authentic experience I will never forget. Now I have been badly bitten by the travelling (and indeed the TEFL teaching) bug, I plan to take off on another adventure as soon as I can. I became completely immersed in a different culture in a way that I wouldn’t have had I stayed only a few weeks. Teaching brought me closer to the people and gave me the chance to make a real and lasting contribution to the lives of children, some of whom have kept in touch (and whose ‘goodbye teacher Alice’ cards I keep in a box).
I am now back home and working as a private English tutor, as well as a freelance writer and proofreader. The experience has completely changed my outlook; I am now more open to change and more aware of the diversity in the world. In the meantime, working as a freelancer, I am on the road to pursuing a career path that will enable me to work while I travel across in the globe.
To anyone who is desperate to travel but strapped for cash, I recommend you give TEFL teaching a go. It is a great opportunity to work and save money while getting to know the country and its people from the inside, as a worker and not simply a tourist. And for anyone planning to visit Thailand: smile a lot, try everything, and remember when things don’t go as planned – ‘mai pen rai!’