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Teach English and Travel in Thailand

First of All, Deciding Where to Go

Buddhist statues in Thailand
Buddhist statues in Thailand.

During the course of my 3-year career as a flight attendant I decided that I wanted to actually live in another country, absorb the culture, and learn the language. I was lucky that the airline I worked for had a varied international schedule. I saw that all around the world it really wasn’t that difficult to find a supportive group of travelers going through the same thing you were.

After deciding to live outside the U.S. the next question was where to go. I wanted a drastically different experience, so Europe and Australia were definitely out. I wound up choosing Thailand because I had been there and liked it, and it seemed friendly to foreigners. And it had a psychedelic script I was eager to learn.

I wanted to work there as an English teacher, but I was not sure if this was possible. So I got to Thailand not knowing if I could get a job or not.

I headed straight for the traveler’s ghetto on Khao San road and started asking everyone I ran into if they knew about teaching English or knew of anyone who was already teaching. I got some good leads, and within a month I was teaching at a small school and also working with an agency that sent teachers out to give private lessons.

When you say you teach in Thailand most people seem to envisage grass huts in the middle of rice fields and starving children in front of blackboards. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.

First of all, I rarely taught Thais during the whole five years I was in Thailand. The vast majority of my students were either Japanese or Korean. Many Japanese and Korean businesspeople work for multinational corporations in Bangkok. They usually stay for two or three years, so they bring their families. It seems they all want to improve their English. At my school most of the students were Japanese housewives and businessmen, and with the agency I mainly tutored Japanese elementary and high school students who attended international schools with English-speaking teachers and students.

I soon learned that speaking English is a huge challenge for the average Japanese adult. They may have a large vocabulary and an understanding of grammar, but English conversation is very difficult for them.

The high school kids were another matter. Many spoke English very well, especially those who had friends who were native speakers.

Teaching young children turned out to be most rewarding. It took some creativity to sit across a dining room table with an 8-year-old who knew about 50 words of English, all nouns, and conduct an hour lesson in English. But with patience and organization everything worked out fine.

The one-on-one or small group-tutoring situation is very personal. I was often allowed a free hand to teach as I saw best in a way that would never have been possible in an institutional setting. All in all it was a very gratifying experience.

Another benefit of teaching outside of institutional confines was that I could set my own schedule. This gave me lots of opportunities for travel. It was very easy to tell clients that I would be off for a week or two. Most appreciated the rest.

Travel in Thailand

Thailand is an easy country to travel in. The rail system is cheap and ubiquitous and there are buses at all hours of the day and night. In fact, travel might be a little too easy. There are hordes of tourists, especially in the south. But if seclusion is what you want, then it’s not so hard to find a lonely beach.

In the north the large number of tourists is said to be eroding the fragile lifestyle of many of the hill tribes. But I think if you go with a small group and are willing to do some walking, tourism can be beneficial for both tourists and villagers.

Crossing the border into Malaysia is a dramatic change from a Buddhist to an Islamic culture. Entering Laos is like going back to the older, quieter Siam. You can still feel the French influence there.

Why did I leave? Well, it had been exactly five years. I had learned to speak and read Thai, met a lot of great people, and eaten enough noodles for the next three lifetimes. Other than that, I had some unfulfilled ambitions that needed to be attended to, and I just felt that if I were to stay longer I needed the perspective of a year or two in the States. I’m still considering returning.

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