Korat, Thailand: “Teacha Ewwin”

As most of you know I am not a teacher by trade making this entire experience uncharted territory.

Three months have passed since I moved to Korat to teach. Although I requested a rural area, the city life is growing on me. Korat has everything you could possibly need; two state of the art malls, a Costco-like supermarket (Makro), along with bus and train stations making travel around Thailand very easy. Down the road from our accommodation is a grocery store, pharmacy, KFC & Swensons (famous Bangkok based ice-cream shop). We’ve even discovered a pizza company that delivers, although we often find a pile cheese in the corner of the box (the downside of delivering pizza on a motorbike).

XploreAsia placed the four of us at Anuban Korat Ratchasima School, a large government school, in central Korat. The school has 1,000 kindergarten (anuban) students and 4,000 primary (pratom) students.

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Kindergarten army

The four of us have very different teaching roles at Anuban Korat Ratchasima School. Claire and Rachel, who both have teaching degrees from America, are homeroom kindergarten teachers. They spend all day with their 30+ students and have gotten to know them and their Thai co-teachers pretty well. Ella and I, who don’t have teaching degrees, are the “rotating” kindergarten teachers. We teach 30 classes a week (30 mins/class) and have over 400 students . Ella teaches K2 (ages 5-6) and I teach K1 (ages 4-5).

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The “falang” teaching squad
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Morning assembly

A day in the life 

  1. 6:00am: Roll out of bed. Put on all black (year-long mourning period for the King)
  2. 6:30: Say goodbye to Superman (our security guard) and start the 1.5 mile walk to school
  3. 6:45am: Grab a coffee at 7-11 or fried bananas from a food stall
  4. 7:00am: Say hello to the donut workers (who speak little English but are always excited to see us) and their pup Lil’ Lady
  5. 7:15am: Arrive at school
  6. 7:45am: Morning assembly
  7. 8:30am: First class
  8. 9:00am: Second class
  9. 9:30am: Third class
  10. 10:00am: Fourth class
  11. 10:30am-12:00pm: Relax before lunch (lesson plan if the wifi is working)
  12. 12:00pm-1:00pm: Free lunch at the school canteen
  13. 1:00pm-2:30pm: Relax, lesson plan, nap
  14. 2:30pm-3:00pm: Fifth class
  15. 3:00pm – 3:30pm: Sixth class
  16. 3:30pm: Walk the 1.5 miles home
  17. 4:00pm: Go for a run at the Rajamangala University of Technology Isan track / get stared at
  18. 6:00pm: Grab dinner at the nearby night market or food stall (mom & pops is our favorite)
  19. 7:00pm: Indulge in some Gilmore Girls or OSTNB. Thank you Netflix!
  20. 10:00pm: Zzzz
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Cooking @ mom and pop’s food stall
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Our Thai momma (Meme)

The days can be tiring, especially because my classrooms don’t have A/C, however, I will admit I love my job. The little ones have grown on me…much more than I expected.

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Favorite class (K1-10)
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K 1/8
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K 1/8

The Thai kindies

  1. They are nothing short of adorable.
  2. They love to pet, kiss, hug, and lick you. I’ll be mid-teaching and one kindie will be rubbing my leg while another will be petting my hair.
  3. Stickers are dangerous. Give one away and a stampede is eminent. Brace yourself.
  4. High-fives are just (if not more) dangerous than stickers. My favorite type of high-five is “the post nose pick high-five”.
  5. Speaking of boogers, they are everywhere. Hanging out of noses. Smeared on shirts. Covering hands. In Thailand, it is impolite to blow your nose in public thus making my job booger central.
  6. Little kids can be gross! Not only does the school not provide toilet paper (typical in Thailand-hello bum gun) but there isn’t any soap in the bathrooms -use your imagination on that one. This makes for a lot of mysterious brown stains.
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Lego showing off his muscles
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Three best friends
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K 1/10
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Children’s Day

The Thai classroom

  1. There are normally three teachers in each Kindergarten classroom: a head Thai teacher (who rarely teaches and is never in the room), the assistant teacher (who does most of the teaching but has no say in classroom decisions) and the assistant (who cleans up and disciplines the kids).
  2. Salaries for these 3 positions vary greatly. The head Thai teacher is employed by the government and gets a raise each year (~30,000+). The assistant teacher is employed by the school and makes significantly less even though they do most of the teaching (~15,000). The assistant is also employed by the school and makes even less (~6,000). For perspective, I make 34,000 (including the housing allowance), which equals ~ $900 USD / month.
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Coffee lunchtime break with Claire & Rachel’s assistant teachers
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Fellow teachers

The Thai school system

  1. Everything is extremely disorganized and inefficient. You are rarely told about school events and no one keeps you in the loop. Even the other falangs (foreign teachers) at our school are extremely distant. Half the time, I never know if I am supposed to teach or not.
  2. Hierarchy is extremely important. How you treat others is dependent on where you and they fall in the hierarchy. Age and position are the two greatest indicators of status. For example, I initiate the wai to my older head Thai teachers while the younger student assistants initiate the wai to me. The school director should receive a “deeper” wai than a head Thai teacher.
  3. Appearance is everything. How you dress is a huge reflection of your status and a popular conversation topic. Many of the Thai head teachers dress to the 9’s: silk skirt suits, perfect hair, high heels, and lipstick. Ella wore lipstick to school one day and she instantly became a celebrity- every Thai teacher wanted a picture with her.
  4. Thais are obsessed with weight. It is a topic of conversation on a daily basis. On our first day at the school we were given cake by the director and department head. When we offered them a slice they responded with a very matter-of-fact: “We don’t want to get fat.” Better yet, when we finished one of the teachers pointed at each of us and repeated  “fat, fat, fat, and fat.” Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
  5. Kids with “disabilities” are often ignored, pushed to the side, or labeled as “crazy.” Many kids who are difficult to control are automatically labeled as LD regardless of whether or not they have a true learning disability.
  6. Corporal punishment is the main form of discipline. Hitting, smacking, slapping, & public humiliation are commonly used. Often, the little ones are forced to tears.

 

Korat, Thailand: My New Home

Before arriving in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) I knew very little about the city. I heard it was big but I had no idea how big. Korat (also known as the “gateway” to Isan) is home to over 500,000 people and is the third largest city in Thailand. The city is booming and has been growing drastically over the years.

What really caught me by surprise was the distinct economic inequality among Thais in Korat. The rich are extremely rich and the poor are incredibly poor. You see Thais with run down motorbikes driving alongside Thais with BMWs and luxury SUVs. The Korat Mall was another surprise. It is just as if not more luxurious than any mall in the States. Not only does it have designer stores (which I can’t afford even with a foreign teacher’s salary) but it has a 4D movie theatre, ice rink, and water park -quite the contrast to the dilapidated homes and businesses just outside.

After orientation in Bangkok, we took a 4 hour bus ride to Korat. Finding a place to live was a nightmare. The accommodation our teaching agency set up fell through 2 hours before our arrival. As a result, we booked a hotel for a couple of nights while the Thai teachers from our school drove us around to explore places to live. Without them, we never would have found an accomodation.

We opted for Ploy Place, a long-term “hotel style” accommodation (common in Thailand) just outside the city center. Ploy Place is by no means cozy (imagine white tile floors and white walls) but it is very clean and much newer than other housing in the city. It is also near two of Korat’s universities so we are surrounded by college students and bars (a nuisance on the weekdays when the music is blasting but a good time on the weekends). Speaking of music, that’s another thing I’ve noticed about Thailand – everything they do is exceptionally loud. The movie theatre is loud, the bar music is loud, and the singing is loud –  my ears are constantly ringing!

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Nearby college bar
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Our security guard (Superman) acting out Thai beers (Singha beer – lion)

What surprised me even more about Korat is that no one walks – using your two feet to go somewhere is a foreign concept. No one does it! Instead, Thais motorbike, tuk tuk, or songtaew around the city (songtaews cost 8 Baht / 22 cents). This has made us farangs (foreigners) quite the spectacle because we walk everywhere: to the night market, to the Rajamangala University of Technology track, to the restaurants and even to and from school (1.5 miles). It’s quite humorous; every time we tell a Thai we are walking their reaction is always the same: an appalled “NO! You’re going to walk?!”

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Our favorite tuk tuk driver
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Mr. Cookie’s pimped out tuk tuk
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Friendsgiving in Korat with Mr. Cookie

To make us even more peculiar, Ella and I have been befriending the guard dogs (oops) and strays on the way to and from school. We’ve already named 7 of them (embarrassing I know but for those who know me you know I can’t resist).

There’s: Limpus (he has an awkward limp and hated us at first but we quickly won him over), Spot, Lola, Blackey, Nugget (puppy), Tiny (5 day old sick puppy who passed away last week), Wolverine (he’s terrified of farangs – particularly me), and my favorite Lil’ Lady.

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Spot
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My main man Limpus
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Lola and Spot

So, not only are we farangs (there are very few in Korat), but we are farangs who walk everywhere and befriend the dogs. Say hello to your newest Korat freak show!

Bangkok, Thailand: Teacher Orientation & Sky Bar

From Chiang Mai, I took a bus (with other teachers from my TESOL course) to Bangkok where we had orientation with our teaching agency. Many incoming ESL teachers (who don’t know the process of teaching abroad) are hired by agents rather than directly by the school. Agents “streamline” the process and are supposed to act as a middle ground between the school and foreign teachers.

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Bus life is rough

To be 100% honest, I am not a fan of my agent…they are not helpful or knowledgeable. More often than not, I find myself taking the initiative to ask questions to clear up any confusion. They also take quite a large chunk of our salary for themselves. Rumor has it they take almost half of what the school pays them to have us. In no world do they do enough to deserve that kind of money…Sure, they help with the work permit but they don’t do much beyond that. At one point I had to remind them to take our bank account information so that we could get paid! Not to mention, we had to sign a contract stating that if we were to leave the agency we would have to leave our school (even if the school wanted us to stay). By contract, we would be banned from teaching at the school for 2 years.

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Fellow teachers at orientation

We spent 2 days in Bangkok for orientation with our agent. While there, we celebrated our friend Kate’s birthday in the city. It was quite the adventure. Getting a taxi was a nightmare as was the heavy traffic into the city center. It took us close to 2 hours to get to the city center and to make matters worse it was monsooning. I have never seen so much lightening and rain in my entire life.

Looking like wet dogs we arrived at Sky Bar, one of the famous rooftop bars in Bangkok. Sky Bar is 63 floors above the city. It was also where The Hangover 2 was filmed. At first, we weren’t allowed to go outside because of the storm but once the rain ceased they opened the outside bar.

You could feel the residual electricity from the storm. Our hair was standing straight up and every time lightening struck in the distance, an electric tingle shot down our bodies. Such an indescribable feeling: terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.

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Sky Bar

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Rooftop
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City views

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Chiang Mai, Thailand: TESOL & Exploring

So much catching up to do! My MacBook crashed, leaving me with a $600 repair bill so blogging has been a bit of a challenge…

It has been almost 2 months since I said goodbye to my family in the Bali airport. I spent the first month in Chiang Mai completing a TESOL course through XploreAsia. Afterwards, I moved to Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat for short), where I am currently a Kindergarten TESOL teacher. Korat is a large city 4 hours northeast of Bangkok and the 3rd largest city in Thailand. It’s no Chiang Mai (I loved CM), but it has everything you need and then some (the mall has a 4D movie theatre, ice rink, and water park out of all things).

I have nothing but great things to say about the month I spent in Chiang Mai. Nestled in northern Thailand and surrounded by jungle and mountains, Chiang Mai is a popular backpacker destination.  The city is home to over 400,000 people and is always welcoming tourists. Streets are congested with motorbikes, tuks tuks, and songtaews which can make crossing the road daunting at times, however, unlike other large Thai cities, Chiang Mai has managed to retain a semi-authentic Thai feel. CM is no Bangkok.

Not to mention, the food is phenomenal and the options are endless: American, Indian, Burmese, Mexican, and of course Thai street food (try the Khao Soi- a northern soup/noodle dish or roti (fried bread) with banana and nutella). Cafes are also popular. They line the streets and many offer wifi making them a popular spot to relax and work.

My biggest piece of advice when visiting Chiang Mai? Get lost! Roam the tiny alleyways. You’ll likely stumble across hidden temples and tasty mom and pop cafes. Stop and take a moment to examine the colorful and quirky graffiti decorating the city walls.  Some pieces are rather bizzare, making you wonder about the artist and the inspiration.

Apart from exploring, there are a number of different things to do in the city center. On top of the list is shopping. Stop at the Night Bazaar (every night market) and take a look at the charcoal drawings. I bought two beautiful pieces for ~$30/each from an artist named Tanakorn (his shop is hidden in the back of a warehouse). Eat some Thai ice cream. Watch a live band. Go to a ladyboy show (it’s an experience). Expand your culinary palate! (I fell in love with iced butterfly pea tea). Last but not least, on Sunday night, make sure to head to the Sunday Night Market. Get there early and bring with some patience because the streets are always packed!

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Sunday Night Market
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Live band at the Night Bazaar
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Charcoal drawing coming to life
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Charcoal drawing (Artist: Tanakorn)

Another popular spot in the city for tourists (especially on the weekends) is Yellow Bar or Zoe’s. On Friday and Saturday night the bar is flooded with farangs (foreigners) and expats blowing off steam. Imagine a college frat party and you’ve got Yellow Bar; fun for a night, but I wouldn’t make it an every weekend thing.

There are also a number of things to do outside the city. Explore Doi Inthanon (highest mountain in Thailand) or Doi Suthep (famous wat), learn about rice farming, meditate with a monk, visit the Bua Tong Sticky waterfalls (you can hike up them due to a rare mineral deposit that allows you to grip the rocks), hike through the jungle,  visit a traditional Karin village, or my all-time favorite: hangout with elephants!

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Rice planting
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Jungle trek with flower crowns from our guide
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Trekking
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One of the many waterfalls
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Ice water
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Bua Tong Sticky waterfalls

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Wat Umong
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View from Doi Suthep
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Doi Suthep
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Doi Suthep
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View from Doi Suthep
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Doi Inthanon (tribute to the King Inthawichayonon, one of the last kings of Chiang Mai)
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Doi Inthanon
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Doi Inthanon
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View from Doi Inthanon (in the distance is Myanmar)

My favorite activity in Chiang Mai? Without a doubt the elephant tour I did with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. I chose the sanctuary for a number of reasons. Not only are they an ethical no-riding company but they offer a unique jungle trek option. If you have the time (and money), I highly recommend the full day trekking tour. The day includes feeding, mud bathing, and washing the elephants in a nearby river as well as trekking (with them) through the jungle.

That being said, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to toss away your bucket list dream of riding an elephant and instead booking a tour with a no-riding company. The reasons for doing so are endless. Elephants are (literally) not made to be ridden. Their backs cannot sustain the weight for long periods of time and howdah chairs are even worse than riding bare back.

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Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Even worse than riding the elephants is their treatment during the “pre-riding” or “training” phase. Elephants are highly intelligent creatures and can be very stubborn. As a result, trainers must break their spirit to force submission and make them “rideable”. They are often beaten with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, and simultaneously starved and sleep deprived. Many rescued elephants have battle scars as reminders of their tragic pasts.

My biggest piece of advice when looking for an elephant tour? Chose a company that does not offer riding even if you do not intend to ride them. Your money will still be funding a business that promotes elephant exploitation.

The most famous and respected company in Chiang Mai is the Elephant Nature Park which is home to dozens of rescued elephants. Many friends from my TESOL course chose the full day tour and absolutely loved it. Not only did they feed and bathe the elephants but they got to learn about each elephant’s rescue story.

The company I chose (Elephant Jungle Sanctuary) is another ethical elephant tourism company. It is newer, but it’s reputation is growing.

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Kisses
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All this little guy wanted to do was play…and step on my feet
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Kids from a local Karin village

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Teaching the little guy how to do a handstand

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Mud bath!
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Rinsing off in the river

My time with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was more than I could have ever imagined, however, there are two things I would like to mention as I’m not sure how to perceive them. During the trek, the guides used a stick to hit the elephants to keep them moving and to redirect them. The strikes weren’t hard (or often) but nonetheless, I didn’t want to force them to walk if they didn’t want to!

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The other instance was at one of the camps where we met a two-week-old baby elephant and her mother. The mom was chained up and swaying back and forth (a clear sign of agitation or boredom) while the baby stuck to her side, hiding underneath her belly and in between her legs. When I asked the guide the reason for the chains his response was curt, “To protect the baby.” What I understood from our broken English conversation was that they feared for the baby’s health if mom were to roam freely. The chains ensure the baby will get fed and the plan was to keep her chained for 2 months. I am not an elephant expert but this reasoning didn’t make much sense to me (baby elephants in the wild do just fine – how is this any different?)

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2 weeks old

(That being said) Overall, I loved my experience at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and would highly recommend booking a tour with them. While I would have liked to learn each elephant’s story (bonus if you book with Elephant Nature Park), the experience was a fantastic ethical alternative to elephant riding.