Taking the Leap
So you’ve made up your mind to escape from the rat race and travel to Thailand to teach English. Friends have told you how easy it is to find work there and you don’t want to miss out on the action any longer. You’ve probably spent months thinking about and organizing it, doing online TEFL courses, having a criminal record check, getting the right visa and eagerly reading “The Rough Guide to Thailand.” But, as the old adage says: “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and a travel guide is no better than a recipe book – it shows you how to make cake, but you can’t eat the book. Your real adventure begins the minute you set foot on Thai soil.
This guide aims to outline some of the pros and cons of being a TEFL teacher in Southeast Asia’s most popular destination and give you a few pointers on what to expect. If you’re planning to teach in Thailand for the first time or have already been here for a while, this is the perfect starting point. Most of the information does not apply to long-term teachers and residents.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain
You’ve Got a Friend
Teaching in Thailand is a rollercoaster ride of learning curves with a healthy balance of highs and lows and the people you meet will make you laugh, inspire you and force you to re-evaluate long-held beliefs. Thailand’s TEFLers are a mixed bunch of characters who have chosen to abandon their home country for reasons innumerable. The personalities will range from escapist to exhibitionist and you will meet plenty of “big” characters. TEFL teachers usually hail from all the English speaking nations and some European countries. Whatever you think of your colleagues, be prepared to pal-around with other teachers as you become aloof to tourists yet don’t quite feel affiliated with the lifers. One thing is for sure, you’ll never get bored of working alongside a group of people who are courageous and crazy enough to jump head first into Thailand’s TEFL scene.
The Best Things in Life are Cheap
Newcomers to Thailand are always impressed by the low cost of living. You will live relatively cheaply and most people pay in the region of 5,000 to 6,000 baht per month (£120/$200) for their accommodation. Pricier properties go up in luxury but the typical teacher’s apartment will have one room, a shower, balcony, air-con and furniture. As with most things in Thailand, though, nothing is set in stone and apartments will vary greatly. Many of the schools will help you with accommodation and recommend apartment blocks that have other teachers living in them.
Eating out is cheap and coming all the way to Thailand to eat alone in your room is fine, but you could have done that at home. The real benefit from your time abroad will come from immersing yourself in the culture. Food on the soi (street) is cheap and you will pay the equivalent of £0.60/$1 for a meal. Despite being a Buddhist country, Thailand does not cater well to vegetarians and you may want to consider giving up your vegetarianism while you stay. Some foreign teachers avoid eating food from the street vendors at first, partly because they don’t know how or what to ask for and partly because the hygiene standards seem low compared to what we’re used to in the west. In truth, food on the soi is what good food should be: natural, healthy, cheap, free from big corporations. When you buy food on the soi, you know the money is going into the pockets of Thai people. Eat at McDonalds and the profits are going to some fat cat businessman – eat it at your own peril.
Public transport is dirt cheap in Thailand and central Bangkok has a BTS (Skytrain) and MRT (underground). The BTS costs between 15 and 40 baht and is a fast and convenient way to get around. Buses are cheaper and you will pay 20 baht at the most. Some buses are free, though these are old rickety buses that still have hydraulic powered doors and no air-con; worth a ride for the novelty. Taxis are relatively cheap but always ask the driver to use the meter, some drivers will ask for a fixed fare upfront. The benefit of taxis is they’re always cool inside and offer a welcome respite from the humid Bangkok climate.
Easy as ABC
Becoming a teacher in Thailand is easy and many people arrive with no prior experience. Because of the high demand for English teachers, you will quickly get hired on the strength of being a native speaker. Be prepared to be thrown in at the deep end but expect the nerves to melt away and be replaced by satisfaction in seeing the smiling faces of the kids you teach. Most of the schools that hire TEFL teachers have light schedules and you will have some free time through the day. While some schools let you go home in your free time, others insist you stay on the school premises.
Resources are provided and there will usually be a legacy left behind from previous teachers such as flash cards, games, toys etc. It helps to brush up on your knowledge of classroom games before you arrive, though you will pick ideas up from other teachers. Some schools will provide a Thai teaching partner who will help to translate things into Thai and keep discipline in the classroom.
Learning the Lingo
They say that learning a new language improves intelligence and expands our perception of the world around us. Many teachers learn to speak Thai and tackle it with enthusiasm; others are none the wiser after one year. The basics are easy to learn and in a short time you will be able to order food, give directions to the taxi driver and have basic conversations. Fluency really depends on how much you motivate yourself and many people take courses to move beyond the basics. Thai is a tonal language and has five tones much like Chinese does. The tones aren’t quite as mysterious and perplexing as they seem once you get used to hearing them. There are numerous books and websites to help you learn to read, speak, and write Thai, but there is no better way to learn it than to spend time around the locals and make an effort to have a conversation. While books are good, they lack the subtle inflections, variations and colloquialisms. Many people learn Thai better if they have a Thai girlfriend/boyfriend and this is by the far the most natural way to learn. Learning Thai can be fun and challenging and if you put in the effort, you will surprise yourself when you suddenly realize you understand a conversation in Thai. Your experience of Thailand will be markedly improved by learning to speak the language.
“A different language is a different vision of life”. — Federico Fellini
La Dolce Vita
The question most people have before they come to teach English in Thailand is: how much will I get paid and will it be enough to live on? The truth is, it varies from school to school, person to person, and you don’t need me to tell you that it’s often down to the efforts of the individual. However, I will list here the average wages and common ways to boost your income.
The average starting wage for an inexperienced teacher will be in the region of 30,000 baht; sounds a fortune, doesn’t it. However, that translates into roughly £600/$1,000 per month, though most TEFL teachers can live comfortably on that. You can supplement your wages by doing overtime and many teachers build up a number of private students. Depending on the students, you will be able to charge around 500 baht per hour for private tuition. With a little extra effort, you could bump up that 30,000 per month to 40 or 50, depending on how hard you want to work. Most TEFL teachers come alone and don’t have any dependents so for the average teacher, 30-35,000 is more than enough to live the good life for a year or two.
There are, of course, other ways to earn extra money. Many travelers look for ways to make money on the internet and there are numerous writing jobs available if you look around (I personally make an average of 9,000 baht per month from writing). Some teachers end up blogging about living in Thailand, which can lead to writing for newspapers, magazines and websites. Some become highly sought after for their in-depth knowledge of the country and a few go on to write books. Indeed, there is a whole genre of fiction and travel literature written by foreigners living in Thailand.
So, even though starting wages are low in comparison to the wages of those who have been teaching longer and have the proper qualifications (some teachers earn up to 100,000 baht per month), you can live comfortably and do all the sightseeing and traveling you want to on the wages you’re paid.
The cons are hard to weigh up, simply because there isn’t much to complain about. However, it would be naïve to insinuate that everything is hunky-dory for TEFL teachers, and there are one or two things that can be a nuisance, or in some cases a nightmare. The aim of this section is not to put you off, but to let you know what to expect.
Let’s get one thing straight: if you have round eyes and a big nose and live in Thailand, you will never be accepted as one of their own. You are, quite simply, a “farang.” Thai people don’t mistake Chinese people for Japanese, or Cambodians for Malaysians. However, all “big noses” seemingly come from the same place: Farangdom. Doesn’t matter if you’re German, British, American, Australian, Swedish, French; you’re a farang, that’s all they know. You have to get used to being stared at and you will start to understand what it’s like to be a celebrity; it goes to your head, believe me. Ignore the stares and whispering and take it with a pinch of salt.
The origins of the word farang are unclear but it is generally believed that the word originated with the Indo-Persian word farangi, meaning foreigner. By the way, “farang” is also the Thai word for guava.
90 Day Report
Once you have a work permit and visa, you will have to report to immigration every 90 days to show your face and let them know that you’re still providing a useful service to the country and not just bumming around. It’s easy to forget to go and a few teachers occasionally do. In the event that you forget, you will have to pay a fine of 2,000 baht. Luckily, there’s a 14-day window, so you can report seven days before or seven days after. It takes two hours max to do your 90 day report and if the immigration office is nearby, you can often fit it in during a free period. Don’t go between the hours of 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. or you’ll find the immigration officer eating lunch.
For many who visit the Land of Smiles, the hardest thing is leaving it all behind and once you’ve fallen in love with Bangkok’s urban jungle, Chiang Mai’s mountains or the southern islands, you may not want to go home. Going back to your home country can be a major come-down after a year or two of living a stress-free life in a warm, tropical climate. Many choose not to return, or if they do, they do it to get a proper teaching qualification so they can come straight back and get a higher paid job. Teaching in Thailand will not be something that you forget easily, and whether your experience is a dream come true or a living hell, you won’t be left indifferent.
Ray Malcolm is the author of “Bangkok in the 1930s” a travel guide with a historical twist, available for $1.99 on Rama, an iPhone app found on iTunes: http://bit.ly/iTunesRama or through the developer’s website at http://www.crimsonbamboo.com.