The Winds of Change…

Next week will be my last week here in Chok Chai before I start my new job March 7th.  Originally I had planed with renewing with my current company and going to a high school in Nong Kai, the border crossing point with Laos. But out of interest, and second thoughts with renewing with the company, I went on to Ajarn.com and found a school in Trat offering a year long contract with  paid vacation time, 2hrs from Koh Chang, and near Cambodia, I decided to apply.

A couple hours after I sent an email to the agent, responsible for liaising between applicants and the school, she replied and we set up an interview for the next work day.  The interview went well and after some negotiating on the start date, I was offered the job!  What this job means is that now I will still be teaching high school students but now on a full year contract with opportunity to go to Koh Chang and Cambodia on the weekends.

The other upside of moving to Trat is that it is big enough to actually have a gym and, cross fingers, apparently a muay Thai gym.  Last year on my travels I went to Pai where I spent a month doing muay Thai training and fell in love with it which awoke my desire to get in better shape.  So I’m hoping with this move I can focus more on getting fit and taking steps toward one of my bucket list items, to eventually have a muay Thai fight.  That goal is a long way away but I’m excited to be getting back on track.

From March 7th to April 8th I will work at the new school until the end of school semester.  From what I understand I will just be proctoring exams, marking them, and planning lessons for the next semester starting in May. In between then I aim to go to Koh Chang for a weekend; so expect a post on that and the subsequent feelings of beach envy if you are not so lucky to be in warmer climes.

My 1 month vacation time promises to be fun.  On the evening of April 8th I’ll be headed to Bangkok for the night before catching a plane to Chiang Mai early the next day.  In Chiang Mai for the 9-10th I’ll be participating in the 10th annual Chiang Mai Ulitmate Frisbee Hat tournament.  Back in Korea I used to play in the ROK U frisbee league so I’m psyched to get back on the field of battle catching hammers (a type of frisbee throw, not a literal hammer!).  Playing in an ‘international’ ultimate frisbee is another one of my bucket-list items which will make this an even more special experience for me.  At the same time someone special to me from Korea will be coming to visit and celebrate Songkran with me in Chiang Mai.  After the tournament and a few water soaked days of Songkran in Chiang Mai, my guest and I will head back down to Trat for a day before finishing up in Koh Chang for a few days.

On the 18th I will head to Bangkok with my guest where I will catch a flight to Abu Dhabi to visit my father for the remainder of my vacation.  There I will adopt  2/3 of Mike ‘The Situation’ from Jersey Shore famous GTL.  I’ll be hitting up the gym and tanning by the pool by day and relaxing by night. I’ll be there until May 6th when I’ll be returning to Thailand in time for the next semester.

Good times ahead then!  I hope you’re on the road to reaching your goals, whatever they may be and that you stay tuned for some exciting posts over the next couple months; Koh Chang, life in Trat, ultimate frisbee and Songkran in Chiang Mai, and Abu Dhabi. Peace and love!

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Korean vs. Thai public school system

With the school semester in Thailand coming to a close I’ve gained a decent understanding of what the public school system here is like compared to the public system in South Korea.  I admit I have not taught in the public school school system in Korea but I do have a good understanding of it through my own research, talking to EPIK (English Program in Korea) teachers, and having taught in the private system which does have some similarities to the public sector.  So let me break down some of the things I’ve observed when comparing them.  This post will examine what it takes to teach in their system, salaries and benefits, what you teach, the students, expectations, and other criteria.

Teacher qualifications

THAILAND: It used to be that just about anyone could get a job teaching in a public school here in Thailand but those days are rapidly fading and now due to a crackdown by the military junta on unqualified English teachers.  Nowadays a degree and a positive attitude are the bare minimum requirements to get a job teaching at a public school though a preference and more money is given to teachers who have some kind of TEFL certificate.

KOREA:  Qualifications required here are similar for the public system, until 2012 only a degree was required though candidates with a degree and a 100+hr TEFL certificate were preferred.  Nowadays those are the bare minimum and I believe the TEFL certificate must include an in-class section to be considered.  I should also add that the budget for the EPIK program has been repeatedly cut in recent years meaning fewer and fewer jobs so competition is fierce.

Teacher salary and benefits

THAILAND: 30,000 baht is pretty standard thought it fluctuates depending on the location and your qualifications and experience.  In terms of benefits, as I mention in my guide to teaching in Thailand, it really depends.  Quite a lot of teachers are placed in public schools by companies and these companies pay your salary and benefits could include accommodation allowance, health insurance, some paid vacation time, etc.  If you are working directly for the school they may pay you a little more but offer no benefits.

KOREA: Salaries start at the low end of 1.8m KRW and max out at 2.5-2.7m KRW, good money.  Then of course you have your flight to and from Korea paid for.  An apartment is paid for.  Severance pay and pension.  About 4 weeks of paid vacation plus national holidays.  A settlement stipend to help cover the cost of buying things for your apartment.  Hands down the Korean public system has the best salary and benefits.

Vacation time

THAILAND: The school year is divided into two semesters. The school year starts in May and the first semester finishes at the end of August or mid September depending on the school.  So what it equates to is that the bulk of your vacation time is in April and October.  Depending on whether you work with a teacher placement company or directly for a school, you may or may not be paid for the time in between semesters which could mean anywhere from at least a month to almost 3 months without pay.  This lengthy period of potentially unpaid vacation is what prevents a lot of teachers from staying in the public school for very long. Teachers do get national holidays off though….

KOREA:  English teachers in the EPIK program get about 2 weeks off in the summer and 2 weeks off in the winter with quite a few paid public holidays.

School facilities

THAILAND: You can expect the range; brand new in Bangkok to crumbling in some of the more rural areas.  On average I’d say it is somewhere in between having been to a few different schools for English camps.  The buildings are typically a bit worn down though it is not uncommon to see schools spend their money on new buildings rather than spruce up existing ones.  The classrooms will be more like seminar sized rooms you were in during university and filled with old, graffiti covered desks and chairs with a number of fans dotted around the room.  Don’t expect AC in the classroom or even in the teacher’s office.  Assemblies will usually take place out on the sports field or under a big sheltered area used for school ceremonies and other events.  The canteen will be open air but under a building.

KOREA:  Schools facilities are much better in Korea but that is what you’d expect from a developed country.  Most schools are fairly modern, classrooms will probably have AC, some have smart boards, there will be a sports field and an indoor hall used for sports and school events, etc.  In short, public school facilities in Korea are typically not so different from back home.

Curriculum and lesson planning

THAILAND: If you work for a teacher placement company, they primarily deal with new and inexperienced teachers and typically will give the teacher a curriculum to teach but often it is just a guideline and teachers can teach what they like, for the most part, as long as the focus is on speaking and listening because foreign English teachers are responsible for conversational English for the most part in public schools in Thailand. When it comes to lesson planning, teachers submit their lesson plans to the company and the company may opt to accept it or suggest changes.  If you work directly for the school they may have a curriculum they want their teachers to follow as it may supplement the work done by the Thai English teachers.  In the case of working for a school directly your lesson plans may be submitted to the head of the English department or simply given free license to teach what you like within reason.  You will also be responsible for making your own teaching materials as it is likely the students will not have textbooks to learn from.

KOREA: The curriculum and teaching materials will be given to you by the school and when you plan your lessons you will do it jointly with your Korean co-teacher.  You may have more or less freedom to plan your lessons, it just depends on your co-teacher and school.  Any additional teaching materials needed for lessons will be the teacher’s responsibility to make.  It should also be noted that the curriculum is very test driven in order to give students the best chance to get into better universities.

 The students

THAILAND: There are three levels of public schools in Thailand; anuban, prathom, and mathayom (I teach mathayom which are the middle and high school grades).  Class sizes range from about 30 up to 40….but can even be as big as 50+!  With class sizes that big you can imagine how hard it can be to impose some level of order and discipline but you can get used to it pretty quickly like I did, but that is another blog post 😉 Not to worry though, depending on what level the students are half of them may not even show up to class.  There is a big problem with students skipping classes in Thailand.  For the most part students are very polite and respectful to teachers and wai them when you see them at school, greet you with smiles and ‘good morning teacher’ (regardless as to whether it is actually the afternoon!), will rush to make space for you if you are trying to get somewhere at school, and often they will kind of stoop/duck past you as another sign of respect.  Don’t let big classes deter you!

KOREA:  In Korea you have elementary, middle, and high schools.  Class sizes are around 20-30 on average.  But you will share the class with a Korean co-teacher who assists you in maintaining discipline.  Behaviorally I have to say that Korean students are so very polite and respectful, at least that is my experience from teaching kindie and elementary students, it might change a little for middle and high school students.  I’d also say that the standard of English is much higher in Korean classrooms and it is not hard to converse with most of your students.

Conclusion

THAILAND: A great place for people who want to earn some money for their travels and try their hand at teaching with a view to teaching for a longer period of time.  You have a lot of freedom in the classroom to teach what you want and how you want.  Contracts can be for just a semester so you are not required to make a long-term commitment.  There is always a huge demand for teachers year round so it is not hard to find a job. The range of locations from the tropical south, big bad Bangkok, and vast beauty of the north means you are spoiled for choice.

KOREA: A good place to start an ESL career because it is a serious ESL teaching destination and you can save some serious money.  The quality of living you can have in Korea is very high and you can live comfortably.  Most students are a joy to teach. You will have less choice on where you want to teach because the EPIK program is so competitive but that is the price you pay to get a sweet job.

What do you think? Are there other categories you think I should add, what have I not considered?  Leave a comment!

 

 

 

Int’l Layovers: The Right and the Wrong Way

No doubt that if you travel lots you have had a layover, whether it be domestic or international, short or long, you probably want to make the most of your time there.  Making the best of your time may only be finding a comfortable place to re-charge your laptop and phone while grabbing some z’s, or it might be exploring the increasingly luxurious confines of the big international departure zones.  For those with even more time and flexibility, you might even be able to leave the airport and explore your local surroundings.  This post is for those people who have had long layovers or will in the future. This post is about how to do it the right way and the wrong way.

The WRONG way

On my trip to Cambodia for the Christmas holiday I found myself with a 14+ hour layover on Christmas Day in Guangzhou, China.  I had never been to China but I had read about the new permits at major Chinese destinations like Beijing, Shanghai, and as it happens, Guangzhou, that allow you to stay in the country for 7hrs.  So it was plain to me that I was going to explore the city of Guangzhou.

Right from the get go my planning was flawed.

  1. I booked a hotel in advance (good) but I did not realise it was a chain (bad) and when it came to arriving in Guangzhou my taxi driver had no clue where it was even with a Chinese address.  He proceeded to drive me around like he knew where he was going, driving up the meter, before handing me off to another taxi who equally had no idea.  When I finally got to the hotel they told me that, yes, I had a reservation, but at another hotel of the same chain….no problem! They’d switch it they said. Except they double charged me after my no show at the other hotel I had just spoken to on the phone to clear up the misunderstanding.  They refused to refund me the cost for the other room. TIP: Buy a local sim card always to clear up be able to make local calls and let your hotel know in advance you are coming, they may have an airport shuttle.
  2. I did not get any Chinese yuan before I got there so I had to get it at the airport where it is debatable as to whether you get a favorable exchange rate. TIP: Get your money in advance, it might take some time out of your day but you’ll be thankful once you grab your bag from the baggage carousel and walk right out with money in your pocket.
  3. I had underestimated how big Guangzhou really was and so rather than being near the city center I was on the outskirts, far away from the things I wanted to do.  Rather than get screwed by another taxi or get lost on a bus I decided to stay near my hotel. TIP: Get a basic idea of how large the city is, how long it takes to get to your hotel, how far apart things are, save Google map route images!
  4. After giving up going out into the center of the city having spent quite a bit on taxi fares I decided to go take a walk around the block.  As it happened there was a night market which was interesting to see. But where I went I wrong was not being adventurous when it came to eating.  I saw many small food carts and restaurants but nothing caught my eye…shamefully my Christmas dinner consisted of a crappy and cold KFC meal. TIP: Don’t be afraid to eat local!  Eating fast food abroad regularly, but especially on a layover, is an opportunity lost!
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Grey uninspiring view from my hotel room
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Guangzhou night market

 

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Depressing; pets for sale in tiny cages….

The RIGHT way

Having been teaching or traveling in Asia since February 2014 I was finally headed home back to Canada after backpacking in Thailand and Laos as well as a month in Abu Dhabi to visit my father.  I had booked the cheapest flight I could find from Abu Dhabi to Toronto months in advance and a couple times I had received emails informing me that the itinerary had changed but I had scarcely looked at them because it was months away and I was busy doing my CELTA and backpacking.  It was perhaps a week before my flight to Toronto when I thought I’d take a look at the itinerary and it turned out that I would have a layover of around 9hrs  in Rome.  Immediately I set to work to make this layover work, the RIGHT way.

  1.  First I researched if it was indeed possible to enter Italy without a visa while waiting for a connecting flight.  It was; I hold a Canadian passport so there was no issues here.  Even though I arrived the day after the Paris bombings I was stamped through immigration with the official barely bating an eyelid. TIP: Always check ahead to see if you can even leave the airport; your nationality or the host nation may not allow you to leave the airport, you may need a visa.
  2. I knew this time that it’d be a good idea to get some euros ahead of time.  Luckily my dad had some euros leftover from his work trips so I got some from him and I was able to find an ATM to withdraw money using my visa card. TIP: If you can’t get money ahead of time it is always a good idea to bring a credit/debit card that you can use internationally to withdraw money and equally a good idea to tell your bank ahead of time in case they notice the activity and deny you access to your funds.
  3. Next I looked up transportation from the airport into the city center and the best means to get around it. I found the amazingly helpful website The Rome Toolkit which helped me immensely.  Seriously, if you are planning a trip to Rome, consult this website as it has just about everything you need to know about transportation, hotels, and the sites. I found that there is an express train from the Fiumicino Rome called the Leonardo Express train and it would only take 30 minutes from the airport to Rome Termini, the main train station in Rome.  I also found that Rome has a subway system that was cheap, easy to use, and with stops located within walking distance of a lot of the tourist attractions. Sorted! Tip:  Always allocate the time to and from the airport to the city in your layover equation.  Also, it might be an idea to get a day pass when using a city’s subway system if you know you will be using it a lot. I underestimated how much I was going to use it and
  4. Then the tough part; deciding what to see and do!  Luckily Rome is not nearly so sprawling as Guangzhou and most of the sites I was researching were at the heart of the city and within walking distance of the subway as mentioned prior.   I narrowed my list of things to see and do to: the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, and of course, the Colosseum.  I specifically chose these sites because they were close to the subway stations and I knew by limiting my self to just a few special places I could more fully appreciate them than having to ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’, snap a few pics, then run off to the next one and repeat.  TIP:  Get ruthless!  Dig deep and think about what you really want to do in the limited amount of time you have.  Ask yourself, what would I truly regret not seeing if I never came here again?
  5. Food.  This time I did not make the same mistake of missing out on the local specialties, though I did go for the most predictable; pizza and gelato.  I had looked up the best places to eat pizza and gelato but what in what is a running trend in how to do a layover the RIGHT way, I comprised and ate pizza and gelato at a place just next to the Trevi Fountain (which I should say had just re-opened to the public after a multi-million euro renovation and looked spotless in its ageless beauty).  Luckily, the pizza place I had gone to was actually also one of the most highly rated places for gelato.  I’m not sure of the name, but it was directly to the left of the fountain and inside you are still able to see the fountain.  TIP: Don’t be afraid to splurge money on food if you only have short layover; it beats the hell out of eating McDonalds at the airport!

I hope you’ve found this post helpful in your efforts to make the most of your layovers, learning from the things I did right and wrong.  Have you had similar experiences of great layovers or layovers gone awry? What other tips can you give me and other travelers.  Let me know in the comments!

Vang Vieng: Lost in the Laotian jungle

Now If you read my previous article about my first foray into Laos you know it did not go well.  This time, my story is even more extreme and as is almost expected, a lot of extreme Laos stories begin in Vang Vieng while tubing down the Nam Song river.

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Goofy sunglasses and two awesome self-proclaimed piratz

I could easily start this post off with the tale of how I came to be lost in the Laotian jungle but I’m sure you have a rough idea judging from what you’ve read about Vang Vieng and what goes on there while tubing, even if it is genuinely not as wild as it was in years gone past.   In my case I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to go tubing because it was the rainy season when I went and this meant buckets of rain, high water levels, and a much stronger current.  On that day however the weather was gloriousFor the sake of it, my day went like this; wake up, eat breakfast, pre-drink with my French and Italian friends Louly and Fabio, get to the first bar, drink, second bar, drink more, third bar, drink even more, fourth bar, etc.  Also I went tubing between bars.  And then on the way to the next (last?) bar my night began.

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The sound of the rushing river and the buzz of mosquitoes filled my ears when it dawned on me: I was stranded in the Laotian mangroves with nothing but my tube, a broken lighter, a dead cell phone, not even a dollar of Laotian Kip, and no idea how far I was from the nearest settlement. But let me rewind the story a little to give you the full picture.

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Having got pretty drunk on the legendary Vang Vieng river bar circuit, or rather what is left of it, I climbed into my tube as the sun light began to die. I got separated from my friends Louly and Fabio because of the strong river currents and very quickly I was alone. The river was much faster because of the rainy season. As I called out my friend’s names and noticed that I was alone on the river and being sucked by the current off course. I began to get worried. Now, I don’t know if I was on the right course or not but it certainly felt like I was off course and although I could see lights down the river I made the decision to pull myself to shore and walk to the lights. This turned out to be the wrong decision but give me a break, I was drunk.

After paddling to the riverbank, several branches broke before I managed to find a strong vine and pull myself to shore. I was sitting on a sandbar in the mangroves and exhausted and no idea what to do. I looked up and saw a 6 or 7ft tall wall of mud and felt despondent at the idea of having to climb it and get my tube over it as well. With only some light left I did my best to get the fuck out of there.

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Somehow I managed to climb over the sandbank using vines and branches and began to claw and tear my way through the thick undergrowth. I came across what I figured were paths so I decided to stick to them. The paths were in places up to 2ft deep filled with mud and water. Eventually I tossed the tube because I figured I should care more about my own safety rather than trying to get a $12 deposit back, plus it was a bitch to carry while I tried to navigate the path. My sandals however I would have liked to keep, but still being drunk, they kept falling off and getting stuck in the mud, slowing me down and so they too were jettisoned. While I squelched through the mud barefoot I firmly banished from my mind the thought getting bitten by a snake, scorpion, spider, or any other critter.

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I don’t know how long I searched for the place I saw off in the distance while I was on the river but I had no luck finding it. In the dark the paths seemed to intertwine with the mangrove swamp and with a more bushy and thick grass kind of area. In the bushy area I would see what looked like a hill or a side of a road and as I kept moving through this area I realised there wasn’t a road nearby and my only point of reference was the river. It was at that point I thought I could hear music so I persisted in navigating through the grass and bushes even while I became covered in cuts and scratches from thorny bushes and branches. After some time either I had wandered too far away from the music to hear it or it had stopped, I felt it was time to double back the way I came the best I could and find a spot on the river to spend the night.

Initially I went back into the water to see if it was possible to swim across where I could see there was some kind of buildings but decided the river was simply far, far, too strong. Too tired to climb out I had half my body in the water to escape the mosquitoes and I attempted to sleep. Every so often I’d get the strange sensation that I was getting nibbled at by little fish or leeches and so I climbed out and tried to sleep. That was when it started to rain.

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I was only in a tank top and swimming shorts and so I began to shiver from the heavy rain. That was probably the darkest moment for me. I knew I was in the jungle at least until the next day and there was nothing I could do about it. I kept telling myself that I’d get out of this situation and I’d laugh about it over beers. While I told myself that, I knew I was in for a long night. I crouched in a ball with my arms covering my head from the worst of the mosquitoes and whatever else drank my blood that night. I knew that at first light I had to jump into action and follow the paths to where ever they went, no matter how far. Those trench-like paths were going to be key to escape my situation.

Gradually, slowly but surely, the sun began to rose. As soon as I knew for certain I’d be able to see where I was going, I bolted through the jungle, sloshing through the mud, getting more cuts and scratches, but determined to end my unintended jungle expedition.

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I followed one path right up to a single piece of barbed wire stretching across the jungle. Now for those who don’t know, as a legacy of the Vietnam War, Laos is the most bombed country in the world and is still littered with landmines. At that point I was not ready to cross the Rubicon so to speak and I turned around. Going back the way I came I went even further and this time found some hope to fuel my determination. I came across a small fishing shack, deserted, but a good sign. Past the shack I came across fences made from bamboo and plants with huge razor sharp thorns sticking out at me. Then I crossed a stream that had a piece of wood across it and finally I crossed another makeshift bridge to come discover I was in the middle of a rice paddy. With no one in sight I decided I would have to take the risk and go back the way I came to the barbed wire.

Back at the barbed wire I could see the path proceeded past it and further on into the jungle. I ducked underneath it and stuck to the path. At that point I came to another set of barbed wire, this time there were two. I stopped and decided I’d do some recon and check out the paths closer to the river between the barbed wire zone. At the river I gave up completely on the idea of swimming it and slowly approached the second set of barbed wires and climbed through them.

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By that point I was thinking of a number of worse case scenarios 1) I could be walking into a mine field 2) there could be booby traps set by whoever made the paths to keep trespassers like me out or 3) I would get to a field full of marijuana and be shot dead like the tourists in the movie The Beach. With the ad reline pumping I walked down the path and to my delight I saw a bunch of cows and chickens. Never had I been happier to see cows and chickens. Walking past them I could see some houses and then a woman. I cried out ‘hello’ and began waving at her as I walked towards her. She stopped and called out to other people. One by one people began to emerge from little houses, clearly a small farming hamlet. None of them spoke English and one man with a half scarred face seemed to size me up when he saw my waterproof pouch with my dead cracked smart phone in it. Eventually a boy came out, no older than 15 or 16 who could speak some English. He told me would take me back to Vang Vieng.

Getting back to Vang Vieng was not so simple. We walked towards the river and I could see that to get across the river we would be taking a pulley barge that went back and forth. It was me, the boy, a man, and a woman, possibly his parents or family members. Back on dry land I clambered up the rocky path barefoot when the boy told me to wait for him to go fetch a motorbike. Within a couple of minutes he was back and we were off again.

With the sun starting to really shine and the feeling that my ordeal was over a smile crossed my face. At the hostel I talked a little with the boy but sadly I forgot his name, spending a night in the jungle will do that to you when all you want is to be back in your room safe and sound in bed. Although he didn’t ask for money I knew it was the right thing to do. I went back to my room quickly and gave him 60,000 KIP, or about $10, and he thanked me and off he went.

In the room I put my phone on charge, miraculously it seemed to still work, mumbled a few words to my sleeping friend Louly, and collapsed into bed. When everyone else woke up a couple hours later one of the guys in the room says to me ‘so you’re Sean the guy I’ve heard so much about. I overheard a little of your story, what happened?’ I told him the story and he responded by saying that while some people go to Laos, I DID Laos, truly by having survived a night in the Laotian jungle.

I spent much of the day recuperating and relaxing and at night after I had told the story to a few people I could finally sit down with a beer and laugh about the whole thing. I had survived a night lost in the Laotian jungle.

Hope you enjoyed my epic tale.  I’ve read on other blogs that other people had similar stories to mine, are you one of them? How was your Vang Vieng tubing experience?