Living and Teaching in Thailand: It Takes a Village
"Asia is the new Europe." At least, that's what many travel websites would have you believe. In this globalized age of budget travel and widespread English communication, a European vacation has become as affordable and accessible as a cross-country sojourn was just twenty years ago. More and more, travelers who want a true adventure in intrepidity are turning to China, India and Southeast Asia to satisfy their cross-cultural curiosities.
So it makes complete sense that Thailand has become a prime destination for travelers from all over the globe. In a country that is about the size of France, one can find miles and miles of pristine white sand beaches, breathtaking mountains and jungles untouched by urbanization, and fast-paced city life that rivals that of any major world center.
Yet there is a huge part of Thailand that most visitors never even think about. Only about two percent of tourists ever make it to the vast region of Isan. Isan is the name given to the northeastern region of the country. Nestled far from the typical tourist traps, Isan has a largely agrarian economy and is the poorest part of Thailand. Instead of glitzy nightlife and bohemian beach bums, you are more likely to glimpse farmers in conical hats waving to you from rice paddies. You are less likely to sideswiped by a speeding motorcycle taxi than you are to be waiting on a dusty dirt road for a herd of water buffalo to go by.
While these images may not appeal to casual tourists, I found Isan to be as amazing a destination as any in Thailand. After working as an English teacher in a remote village, I truly believe that I experienced the ever-elusive “real Thailand” much more closely than I would have in Bangkok or Phuket.
How I Learned to Teach English
My Isan odyssey began a couple of years ago. My husband and I were interested in teaching abroad and we knew that a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate is useful when searching for jobs overseas. However, as we searched for TEFL courses, we began to grow discouraged. Many of the programs leading to the certificate were not only pricey, but were held in very remote locations. Of course, Chris (my husband) and I desperately wanted to leave for some far-off locale, but we weren't sure about traveling to a foreign country to take a 6-week course with no concrete job prospects guaranteed thereafter.
Just when our search appeared fruitless, I stumbled upon an advertisement for TEFL International's Thai Special Project. TEFL International offers TEFL certification. The Thai Special Project offered a free 4-week TEFL course in exchange for five months of teaching in a rural Thai village. We knew that this was exactly what we had been looking for, and within three months we were on a plane to Bangkok.
While our four-week training course in tropical Thailand was a wonderful experience, our adventure truly began once we boarded the bus for Ban Muang. We nervously watched our surroundings become more and more rural as we tried to make sense of the passing road signs. In a combination of broken English and even more broken Thai, we made an arrangement with giggling Thai teenagers who were sitting behind us. We agreed that they would alert us when we finally reached our village, as neither Chris nor I could read Thai script and we were both worried that we would miss our stop entirely.
We needn't have worried, though. When the teenage girls alerted us as to our stop, we eased our way to the front of the bus. A friendly-faced woman nudged us and asked us what we were doing. I proudly announced, in Thai, that we were English teachers. Before I could say anything more, she hugged me excitedly and took me by the hand. This is typical of Thai culture. While public displays of affection between men and women are strongly discouraged, members of the same sex are often seen hugging and holding hands.
As it turned out, this kind woman was one of teachers at our school, and she immediately took us to the village's lone furniture store to buy a mattress, a fan, and mosquito netting (three items that are absolutely essential for a good night's sleep in Thailand). Then she escorted us to a local noodle shop for a delicious Thai dinner. Small food shops (raan ahaan in Thai) are ubiquitous in Thailand. Even in the most remote village you can always find a place for a quick meal. Because most Thai homes are not equipped with kitchens, the noodle shops are popular places for villagers to congregate in the evenings and discuss the day's events.
The raan ahaan are just one aspect of the public mode of life in Thailand. Most homes (or, at least, the bottom floors of most homes) have large doors that are open all day and only close when the occupants go to bed for the night. Chris and I could rarely finish our walks home in the evenings without at least a handful of local townsfolk waving us into their houses as we passed by. While this degree of friendliness and hospitality may initially overwhelm some Westerners, it is another indication of the astounding kindness of the Thai people.
This kindness is intrinsic to the Isan experience. Ban Muang is, by far, the safest place that I've ever called home. While our parents, back in the States, worried about our safety, we had an entire village looking after us and taking care of our every need. As a native New Yorker, I was naturally wary of walking by myself after dark. On one of the few occasions that I walked home alone at night, I was startled when a group of men starting yelling at me from the shadows of a nearby alleyway. As I tried to hurry past them, they became more insistent and started walking toward me, motioning for me to come with them. I held my breath and prayed silently. I was sure that they were going to attack me and no one would even notice, since the streets were otherwise empty.
I had almost passed them when I heard one of them yell: “Teacher!” I looked more closely and realized that he was one of my students. He and his friends motioned toward his tiny motorbike. He had only been trying to offer me a ride home. I hopped on and enjoyed the cool night air as we breezed through the village.
Not only were the residents of Ban Muang the friendliest people I've ever known, but Chris and I never ceased to be impressed with their ability to relax and have fun. One of the most important words in the Thai language is sanuk, which means “fun.” Thais believe that sanuk should be part of every aspect of life, including work and school. Laughter was a key component of every class that I taught. After teaching American teenagers, I was consistently amazed at the fun and joy that Thai students inject into academic life. As long as you incorporate an element of sanukinto a lesson, they are always eager to participate.
Perhaps the most important aspect of our Isan adventure was that our rural surroundings allowed us to fully enjoy the richness of Thai culture. We weren't distracted by the frenzy of the big city. There were no expat hangouts in Ban Muang. We didn't even have a television set. This forced us to get out and appreciate Thai culture in a way that we may never have been able to in a more urban setting.
There are not many Westerners who get to know what it's like to love an entire village and to have them love you. I miss Ban Muang. I miss my village. I miss my students.
I even miss the water buffalo.
For More Information
Ajarn.com is the definitive website for anyone interested in teaching in Thailand. It contains countless resources for both current and prospective teachers.