Visa run to Vientiane

A common part of life of an expat is the dreaded visa run.  A visa run is basically a journey to another country to renew, extend, or get a new visa.  In my case and many other teachers in Thailand, I had to leave the country to change from a tourist visa to a work visa.  Most expats head north or south depending on their location; south to Penang, Malaysia, or north to Vientiane, Laos. Due to me being out in the Isan countryside, my visa run was to Vientiane, a place I visited last September (and got left at the border!)  This post will give you a rough outline of what to expect and my own experience.

So I set off from my town Chok Chai around 5:30pm and got a bus to Nakhon Ratchasima (Karot).  There I hung out at the mall for a couple hours and got some food. Then I headed off to the Save One market.  This market is open air for the most part and simply HUGE and it is possible to buy just about anything. After another couple hours in the cold (did I mention that during the days of my visa run it was crazy cold for Thailand, like 10-12c) I waited for my bus at the meeting point.  Eventually my bus arrived sometime after 10pm, late, after seeing many buses just stop and leave without me, I finally got out of the cold and crawled over the other passengers to find a place at the back of the bus next to a lovely French-Japanese saleswoman.  We talked on and off about our love of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and other great shows before both deciding to at least try get some sleep.

Along the way to the border you will stop several times for bathroom breaks (and in our case a chance to hide in the warmth of 711s).  The stops will also give you a chance to meet your other visa runners.  Ours was mostly Filipinos, South Africans, the French-Japanese lady, and a pair of British guys.  Depending on the people in your group, it will make or break the time spent on your visa run.

Depending on how many stops you make, the quality of your driver, where your journey starts (typically Bangkok), how many additional stops you make to pick up other visa runners (like my situation), and other factors, you will probably get to the Thai border town of Nhong Kai an hour or 2 before the border actually opens.  We just used that opportunity to buy more snacks and try awkwardly sleep in uncomfortable positions crammed in next to everyone else.

Around 6am you will see a massive crowd of people beginning to mill around the closed barrier.  You will then be given a tag which has the name of your visa run company so you won’t get lost in the growing horde.  When your group goes through the barrier you will get to the immigration check point building.  If you have overstayed your Thai visa you will go to a room on the left to pay and go through the border that way to link up with everyone else who go past the regular windows.

Once on the other side you will be driven directly to the Thai consulate, only a 30 minute drive thankfully, and there you will give over your passport and visa documents.  After that you head back to the hotel, solidifying friendships made during the night over breakfast, then you’ll sleep.  A lot of people tend to just sleep all day and come alive at night.  Not my group.  After only arriving at the hotel around 10am or so I went to sleep but was then woken by my new friends around 1:30pm to grab lunch.

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As you can see, the weather was a bit cold and drab but it didn’t dampen our spirits.  Our group consisted of 2 South Africans, A Swede, the French-Japanese lady, a Brit, and myself.  Only myself and the Brit had been to Vientiane before but we insisted on taking us into the center of town to find a restaurant but in the end I convinced the group we head to the river front where I knew for certain there were restaurants from my time here back in September.

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We settled upon a place called Little Hanoi, the food might not have been the greatest but the big Beer Laos certainly helped foster the budding sense of camaraderie in our group.  I should also say that the Lao kip currency is near worthless outside of Laos and it is hard to find somewhere to exchange it.  Thai baht and US dollars are widely accepted in Laos and you can even get most of our change back in Thai baht.

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Preserved lizards and scorpions, common sight in Southeast Asia

Feeling better after lunch and beer in our bellies we headed off to the night market which was setting up by that point in the afternoon. We wandered around looking for warmer clothes to buy mostly but the fact it was cold and we were foreigners only meant their prices were even higher than usual.  I came close to buying a couple different sweaters and coats but ultimately I thought they were too small or overpriced. Becoming thirsty again, we took a tuk tuk to a bar that the British guy insisted upon.

 

For dinner we then headed out out to an Indian restaurant (trust foreigners to go to another country and not eat the local cuisine ha!), had more beers, then headed back to the hotel.  The ride back to the hotel was fun in and of itself; we were feeling merry and singing and humming the Game of Thrones theme song, Star Wars, and our national anthems much to the bemusement of everyone within earshot as we passed by in our little tuk tuk.  You’d think that after being cooped up in a van all night we’d be exhausted, we were but the night was only just beginning.

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Picture of Ho Chi Minh AKA Uncle Ho in the lobby of the hotel

Back at the hotel the dinning hall had turned into a karaoke party.  The Filipinos were unquestionably the best singers of the night.  Our group took turns singing solo or sharing a song but mostly we kept to the craic and downed bottles of Beer Lao and Hong Thong Thai whiskey.  One by one we slowly crawled up to our rooms to pass out in preparation for the long journey back to Thailand.

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The next morning was rough…I was late to breakfast and hate to eat the cold leftovers….then I went downstairs to find the rest of my group and chat with them at a cafe before returning to the hotel for lunch; lukewarm pad Thai and spaghetti with coca cola to wash it down.

From there we climbed into a mini bus and hung out at the duty free shop at the Lao-Thai border.  I was still exhausted and prompted found a quiet corner and slept for a couple hours before we had to go through Lao customs on our way out.  A another bus took us across the Mekong river where we waited to get our passports back before entering Thailand.

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At the Thailand customs we just filled out a Thai entry form, answered a couple questions at the front of the line to an official, went through, had our bags go through an x-ray then wait for the rest of our group to get through. After that we got on ANOTHER bus, this one taking us Nhong Kai where we waited on the first day.  At Nhong Kai we loaded up on snacks, found our van, said our goodbyes, and headed home.

So if you have to do a visa run I HIGHLY suggest you do it through a visa agency as it is much less painful and infuriating if you do it that way.  Mine cost 6,800 baht which included 3 meals, a hotel room, the buses, and the cost of the Thai and Lao visas.  Mine was actually 300 baht more than the regular cost because I’m a Canadian citizen.  Go with Meesuk Travel if you need to do a visa run, they know what they are doing and I have no complaints whatsoever and highly recommend them as did everyone on my trip. I met great people who I hope to stay in touch with and meet again, possibly on another visa run (!), had some great times, and I’m thankful I now have my work visa!!!

Ever been on a visa run? What was it like? Where did you go? What company do you suggest? Drop a comment and let me know!

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Thai High School Food Porn

So I’ve been a bit busy over the past week; going through the motions for an online teaching job (which now I’m losing interest in due to the fact it is taking so long and my poor wifi connection out here in Isan), making lesson plans and test papers for next week, and I also squeezed in a trip to Laos for a visa run (more on that later!

Instead of writing a long post on the delicacies of Thailand I thought I’d leave you some food porn to drool over while you contemplate your next backpacking or teaching move. Bon appétit!

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Sweet fried pork with breaded chicken and steamed rice

 

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Above is the typical scene in the teacher’s office; the Thai teachers bring in an assortment of food and we all sit down and share it.  They especially like it when I try something very spicy and need to run to get water!

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Sweet pumpkin with curry and rice
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A medley of fried pork, green beans, egg, and rice
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Sweet and spicy fried pork with chicken and rice

 

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Half a chicken with sweet Thai chili and spicier sauce. Grand price: $2.10 USD!

 

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Hard boiled egg with chicken and pork with rice and sweet sauce

 

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Breaded chicken with spicy fried pork and hot sauce

 

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Slices of pork and sausage with cucumber on a bed of rice with sweet sauce

Ok, so this may not be the healthiest food but damn, you come teach at a Thai high school and say no to trying some of these and many more delicious delights for only 20 baht a meal (60 cents)!

What’s the school food like at your school? Great? terrible? Somewhere in between? The food at my first Korean school was awful haha.

Left Behind At The Lao Border

It was around dawn on August 29th last year after a 10+hr overnight bus ride from Bangkok by the time we had exited Thailand and crossed the mighty Mekong river to enter Laos.  The bus ride itself may sound daunting but it was quite comfortable and cheap.  I paid just over 900baht (about $25USD) and I was seated towards the front of the top level of the bus where the rows of seats were divided into 2s and 1s.  Fortunately I booked my ticket in advance and got a solo seat.  The seats were also quite spacious and you could recline them quite a bit so I got a good relatively uninterrupted sleep.  No amount of sleep would prepare me for the shock to come.

At the Lao immigration checkpoint I was unsure how the visa process worked…..I assumed it was just going to be a stamp, hand over the overpriced $42USD visa fee for Canadians (among the most expensive), and walk on through to the other side.  I was wrong.  I made sure to be one of the first off the bus to get to the window and the official just flipped through my passport pages and gestured to a side building with numbered windows.  I went over to window 1 and gave him the money and thus started the process.  At that point while I was waiting I could see the number of people left standing in line to get through the border from my bus was dwindling…to make matters worse the visa officials were taking their sweet time, in part probably because of the early time of the day and the famous laid back Lao way of doing things.  By the time I got the full page pasted on 30 day visa, there was no one lined up to go through.  I rushed back over to the checkpoint and the official promptly saw the visa, stamped it, and I was through.  That’s when I walked over the border into Laos and I couldn’t see my bus.

Gobsmacked I ran around the parking lot area where there were a few closed shops and restaurants, frantically looking for my bus.  It is now I should mention that I left my backpack on my bus seat and in it contained, besides all my clothes, my laptop and a large amount of cash.  Despite not seeing the bus I wasn’t completely freaking out, but only because I was still shocked that this was happening to me.  The bus attendant who helped people find their seat should have known I wasn’t back on the bus because I was the only white person on the bus and if the other people sat around me noticed I was not on the bus, they either hadn’t cared or had told the bus attendant but he choice to tell the driver to leave anyway….Thankfully my running had attracted the attention of a taxi driver.

He asked me what I was looking for, I said my bus and that I think it had left without me.  He said ‘bad bus driver, I take you bus station’.  Sure. Let’s do it.  The driver drove at a good speed the short distance to Vientiane and to the bus station.  There we both got out and by luck I saw my bus and people were still unloading their bags from beneath the bus.  I saw the bus attendant and when he saw me he just gave me a stupid guilty bewildered look like ‘oh I didn’t know’.  I wanted to call him out in front of everybody but I knew that wouldn’t solve anything.  Instead I just said ‘WTF you left me!’.  He mumbled something I couldn’t hear and I just went right past him into the bus hoping to find my bag…to my utter relief there was my bag sitting innocently and unmolested right where I left it.  Knowing that I had foiled the bus attendant and driver’s likely plan to divide the spoils between them was just as satisfying as getting my bag back.

The taxi driver also had a few words with the bus attendant and the attendant was looking sheepish by the time I got off the bus and back into the taxi.  The driver then took me to the Funky Monkey Hostel (highly recommend if you are headed to Vientiane; cheap, friendly staff and backpackers, pool table, a stone’s throw away from the night market and riverfront, walking distance to other city sights). Outside the hostel I thanked the driver profusely and gave him a hefty tip because he saved my whole backpacking trip.

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I guess some advice I can give to other backpackers going through any border is 1) get a clear idea of what kind of visa you will get; stamp or full page, or better yet get it before the border 2) tell the bus attendant to not leave you behind (sounds silly but it might save you!) 3) if possible try go with reliable bus companies, although I know that theft is common in these parts of the world on buses.

Hope you enjoyed my story; I have another wild Lao story to tell sometime soon so make sure to come back and read up and what kind of predicament I get into next!

 

 

My First Week at Chokchaisamakee

(I’m adding pictures I swear!!)

My first week at Chokchaisamakee (Chokchai high school) was rather uneventful.  I had taken the job and been very anxious about what to expect and even once I arrived in Bangkok I still had a few moments of anxiety, thinking about how I was going to deal with the large class sizes of up to or even over 40 students.  Not only that I was a bit apprehensive about getting up on stage in front of over 3,000 boisterous high school kids and introducing myself and on top of that having to run to my first class immediately after.  It turns out, I needn’t have feared too much.

The teaching agency wasn’t aware that in fact the school was having its midterm exams that week and so I wouldn’t actually start teaching until that Friday.  So, instead of the gauntlet of fire I had been expecting I had 4 days of deskwarming!  If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to the times a teacher must be at school even if there is no teaching and no actual work to be done, or least no work that couldn’t be done from the comfort of home!  A lot of teachers are used to this if they are working in the EPIK program in S. Korea and I’ve done my fair share as well at my first teaching job.  You either hate it or don’t mind too much, I can’t think of any teachers who would rather watch movies at a desk than at home.

So I made the most of my time in the office by lesson planning, making class materials, organizing my desk, listening to music, browsing the web, eating, etc.  I also got to know my fellow farang (foreign) English teachers during that time and I quickly was made to feel welcome by them and the Thai teachers who also share the office.  The only thing that made the time pass slower was the heat.  Apparently the ‘winter’ in Isaan lasted a week and now it is regularly high 20s and low 30s.  The office has no AC and nothing but open windows and fans to help cool it down…which the fans mostly fail to do and instead serve to just blow all your paperwork across the office much to the amusement of the Thai teachers.  By the time Friday rolled around I was just about ready to start teaching.

While I may have still have been nervous a tad bit about teaching such big classes, I was quite excited to start teaching again.  But to make the day even more interesting was the fact that it was Children’s Day in Thailand which meant that a lot of kids were unlikely to show up because they’d just finished their midterms and didn’t give a fuck.  Not only that, my predecessor had failed to do all the tests for his classes so my very first class in Thailand was a quick introduction to the class followed by me ordering them out and into the class one by one to complete a quick three question speaking test.  The following class was better, I was just introducing myself and playing games with them because I didn’t want them to be ahead of the other classes.  It was the next class that I didn’t quite enjoy.

On my schedule I’d been told that I had two ‘problem classes’ that the previous teacher had most difficulty with.  As my look would have it I had one of those classes my first day of teaching.  They were one of my older, less advanced classes and entirely without any girls.  As any teacher knows, girls can be your best allies in a class with unruly boys, whether it is them explaining things, having them help other students, or just to arrange the class boy girl boy girl to settle the boys down….even if the girls don’t like it so much since it usually means separating them from their friends (sorry!)  So this class was full of boys who really didn’t care to be taught anything that week, about shouting over the teacher, ignoring instructions, etc.  I just kept going through the lesson plan as best I could and helped the few boys who seemed interested.  The behavior of Thai students vs. Korean students is a post I’d like to do in the future once I gain more experience here.  Anyway.  By the end of the class I was practically shooing them out that was how bad they were and to be fair I had been warned.  My last class after that ended before it even began.

Somewhat anticlimactically not a single student turned up to my last class!!  It turned out it was because there were Children’s Day activities on the field they were most likely engaged in but nobody had told me so I simply sat in the big empty classroom using the wifi on my phone to pass the time.  I wasn’t the only teacher who didn’t have any students show up so I wasn’t too concerned about it.

So that was my first week teaching in a Thai high school.  I’ve started the new week here and writing after my first ‘normal’ day of school and it was pretty much the same.  I think already in just 2 days I’ve overcome my worry about the class size.  Teaching such large classes is challenging, but in a positive way that I look forward to tackling more in the weeks and months ahead.

Have you ever taught in Thailand?  Let me know your thoughts!

 

Doing the CELTA: My experience

Wanting to be taken more seriously in the field of ESL I decided to take the CELTA as a way to become a better teacher and to invest in myself some of that hard-earned K-money from my year and a half in Korea.   I looked around Asia and settled on doing mine with International House in Bangkok. I’m going to say it now that this is more about the CELTA course and not about my experience with IH.

Overview

The CELTA, which is accredited by Cambridge University, is considered the gold standard of initial TEFL/TESOL English teaching certifications. Only the Trinity TESOL certification is comparable and there is a lively debate as to which is better/worth the money because as far as I’m aware the CELTA is considerably more expensive generally. I’ll make a future post about the CELTA vs. Trinity debate but for now I’m sticking to what I know; the CELTA and whether it was worth it.

The CELTA is a 4 week intensive practical teaching certification that includes 6hrs of observed teaching broken into 8 45min classes. That’s 2 classes each week. On top of the observed teaching portion of the course are 4 written assignments; 1 each week.

On the first day your group (depending on the size) will be divided into smaller groups, and then those small groups divided again if necessary. The smallest groups will be the people who teach on the same day as you while the others in your subset group will be the ones observing you, along with a trainer. So for example in my subset there was teaching group A and B, both groups combined were then joined in the afternoons by the same types of groups to make one big group for the learning portion of the course.

Week by week

WEEK 1. Unit 1: Learners and teachers and the teaching and learning context. Your first 2 classes taught will be judged with less criteria because week 1 is more for your trainer to see how you deal with a classroom and the material given to you. After each class you teach from day 1 to finish you will be given an evaluation from your trainer and feedback from the observing group of teachers. In general you either get satisfactory or unsatisfactory which is a fail. You should not fail more than 2 classes if you want to be sure you will not fail the teaching portion of the course. In the afternoons you learn the Cambridge teaching methods. The first written assignment is also handed out and each assignment is related to the topic of the unit. Assignment 1 is typically the assignment which a lot of people have difficulty with. If it is judged to be unsatisfactory, then you are allowed to resubmit it by making corrections. You are only allowed 1 re-submission per written assignment; so it is ok to have to resubmit each written assignment once and still pass the course. It is also ok to fail 1 written assignment because more weight is put towards the teaching component of the course. I should also say that assignments 1 and 2 are the ones where most people have to resubmit.

WEEK 2. Unit 2: Language Analysis and awareness. You’re now given more leeway on how you want to teach the topic of the class. The topic of the class will be something from grammar, lexis, functions, vocabulary, writing, listening, speaking, and reading. Before each class you teach you will talk it over with your trainer and give them the lesson plan and class materials. Your classes will now also be judged using the full criteria to pass/fail the lesson. Your classroom time will be used to bring you up to speed and give you ideas about what to do when teaching something from this area. Assignment 1 will be due at the beginning of the week and Assignment 2 will be discussed and due the next week. Unit 3 is also released in week 2 but not due until late the next week. At the end of the week you will have a mid-course evaluation given to you by your trainer telling you what you’re good at and what you need to improve upon, and also whether you are par for the course at that time.

WEEK 3. Unit 3: Language Skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing. Now you will be free to choose one of the aforementioned topics you have not already done, or do one of the topics suggested by the trainer because they wish to see you improve upon your prior effort. I should also say that you will now switch learners; so if you had intermediate, you will now be teaching elementary. The classroom component will be more of the same except on the topic of Unit 3. By now most teachers are hitting their stride or nervous about the final legs, especially if they have failed one or two lessons or an assignment. Assignment 2 will be due early in the week and Assignment 3 I believe is due the same week but most teachers find it not nearly as challenging as the first two. Assignment 4 is issued by the end of the week, this is the easiest of the four written assignments.

WEEK 4. Unit 4: Planning and resources for different contexts, plus Unit 5: Developing teaching skills and professionalism. Again, teachers should be pretty confident by now especially being the last week as it is just more of the same from the previous 3 weeks but different topics. Unit 4 is the main emphasis of the week and Unit 5 is just a one afternoon thing where you discuss future professional development. Assignment 4 will be due back early in the week. On the last day you will have a free lesson to teach on what ever you like and it will be observed by the trainer. After that there is free time and depending on the center you take the course you will probably either have a little goodbye party with food with your students or have a lunch/dinner with your fellow trainees thrown on by the center. Assuming you have completed all the course requirements you will sit down and sign off on anything not already filled in.

Was it worth it?

I see a lot of people online questioning the value of the CELTA, especially because of how much it cost.  Mine cost $2,100USD.  Of course you can get online courses for MUCH cheaper but the quality is generally not the same, even if it includes a classroom component.  There are exceptions, but generally online English teaching certifications are only good if you want to get your foot in the door, not if you want to be taken seriously and make teaching English abroad a career.  From what I found online the Trinity TESOL is significantly cheaper by hundreds of dollars.  But what I guess what it comes down to it is the effect it is supposed to have on your ability to teach and job prospects.

Personally, I really enjoyed learning the CELTA methods of teaching.  I had taken an online TEFL course like so many people but mine could not hold a candle to the methods I learned during the CELTA course.  I really like the idea of making your classes student centered and interactive.  Already here in Thailand my lesson plans are drastically different than what they would have been had I not learned the CELTA way.  People might debate whether it is the ‘best’ way to teach but for now I will leave that debate to them.  I’m a big supporter of what I learned and in terms of it making me a better teacher I say YES, the course made me a better teacher by giving me whole new approaches to lesson planning and teaching that I would not have known about otherwise.  In this regard, it was worth it.

As to whether it was worth it for the effect on my job prospects I still say YES.  In my first month of looking for jobs in Korea the first time around back in Nov/Dec 2013 I had just two interviews.  This time around, again in Nov/Dec during the height of the recruitment phase, I had 5 or 6 interviews for Korea.  Not only that but the general quality of the jobs I was interviewing was much higher.  The pay was significantly more than my first two jobs in Korea.  I did receive concrete job offers for Korea and I would have taken at least one of them if my recruiter hadn’t been incompetent and fucked up royally….so, yeah.  Personally I feel there has been a significant improvement in my job prospects as a result of me taking the CELTA.

This is just my experience and belief.  What are your thoughts?  Was the CELTA worth it? Is the Trinity TESOL better?  Where did you take your CELTA? Leave me your thoughts.

New Years Eve on Khaosan Road

Having chosen to stay at the Rainbow Khaosan Hostel and Guesthouse in a private room and not knowing there wasn’t much of a common room besides the Indian restaurant as you enter, my time had mostly been spent solo.  I had been preparing for the new job, working on the blog, and an afternoon at the teacher placement agency. Now it was the early evening and I had no solid plans besides meeting up with friend and her friend for a drink.  That and I had a drinks with a girl from Tinder in the works.

As I went to go meet them I was surprised to see the level of security on display.  Not only was the police out in force, but Khaosan Road had barriers up to stop people from getting in.  You had to line up, go through a metal detector, have your picture taken, and then show your passport.  It was clear to see that after the tragedy of the bombing in Bangkok back in August that the Thais weren’t taking any chances.

By stroke of luck my friend ran in to me as I lined up to get onto Khaosan.  To kick things off I bought us big Changs from 711 and the three of us strolled and sipped on our beers as we took in the sights around us.  Bright lights. Milling crowds.  Neon lighted headsets.  Pretty hostesses beckoning us to sit down at their bar or restaurant. Excitement and revelry in the air.

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After walking around a bit we rocked up at a less than capacity filled restaurant and bar with a prime located table to people watch and chat while nibbling on spring rolls and knocking back our beers.  We then decided to go for a walk down Rambuttri road where her hostel was located.  The scenes were similar to those on Khaosan; massive crowds and people priming for a big night out with bottles of beer and Thai whiskey stacking up on either side of the road at many of the tables.  I looked at my watch and said my goodbyes as I went to go find my date at a bar.

When I finally got to the bar after struggling through the still growing crowds she went radio silent on me.  I walked around the bar trying to see if I could spot her but to no avail.  Just when I thought my night would end on a low note another of the girls I had been speaking to said she was on her way.  Now I only I had to fight my way through the crowds, charge my phone for long enough to stay in touch with her, and then fight my way back!

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It took a good 20 minutes to get to the 711 where I was to meet her.  By that point the beer was starting to catch up with me and I completely lost track of time.  All of a sudden it was ’10, 9, 8….3, 2, 1 HAPPY NEW YEAR!!’ The crowds went wild.  People were shooting off entire cans of silly string into the sky and over anyone within spraying distance.  Absolute mental scenes.  It was truly the wildest NYE I’ve had and only last year in Sihanoukville can compare.

With a sigh of relief I at last reached the rendezvous point and there she was looking gorgeous.  We sat out front and drank beers before going to mix with the crowds as by that point they had begun to thin.  I won’t say how the night ended other than that we had a great time and for two people who had no solid plans, we certainly made the most of NYE for such short notice.

How was your NYE?  Did you spend it with someone special in an exotic locale? Were you on Khaosan road?! Happy New Years and safe travels!