Namtok Philo National Park

Another fresh post this week about one of Thailand’s central eastern hidden gems; Namtok Philo National Park!  In Thailand last week we had a five day holiday for the Buddhist celebration of Makha Bucha.  While I spent most of my time on Koh Chang, where else, by day three I was pretty exhausted with the partying and late nights and decided to drive home from Koh Chang early.  It was also fortunate that my lovely Thai girlfriend had time off from work to join me in Chanthaburi for the last couple days of the holiday.  This post is about how to make the most of a visit Namtok Philo National Park.

namtok1
Park entrance, tickets sold on the left

What is Namtok Philo National Park?

It is a lovely national park set in Chanthaburi province containing luscious green jungle with a calming river and impressive waterfall at the end of the hike into the jungle.  There are also a few monuments built to commemorate King Rama V’s visit to the area in 1875.  But wait, what makes this place a hidden gem besides an abundance of natural beauty?  The fact that the river is positively TEEMING with fish, and that’s a word I don’t use often!

namtok4
These fish positively fill the river and they aren’t afraid of the many people who come to swim and relax in the cool jungle river

How to get there?

From Chanthaburi it is a simple 20 minute drive to Namtok Philo National Park and you should see signs the closer you get.  Just rent a bike for the day if you are in Chanthaburi and off you go!  Free parking was available so there should be no trouble looking for a spot to park.

namtok5

What to see/do?

When you get into the park you can just follow the various paths and nature trails along the river up to the waterfall.  At the river you will see an abundance of fish and Thais swimming in the river or relaxing on the riverbank with a picnic.  I really recommend bringing a bathing suit or clothes you don’t mind getting wet and going for a swim.  To really top the relaxing nature of your visit off, act like the locals and bring a picnic!  This place is perfect for an afternoon swim in the cooling waters while getting your feet nibbled on by small fish like the massages you can see in Siem Reap and other places in Southeast Asia.  Don’t forget to bring your camera!

namtok6

Food and drink?

My advice is to bring a picnic but there are also a few small restaurants and places to buy snacks and drinks inside and outside of the park.

namtok8

How much?

If you are renting a bike for the day, that might cost you 250 or 300 baht.  Full tank of gas? 100 baht.  Foreigner ticket price? 200 baht.  So right away you can see this is a very affordable and relaxing day trip and one that I highly recommend if you are visiting Chanthaburi.

Hope you enjoyed reading and that this post inspires you to add another stop on your Thai travels, take care and stay tuned for future posts!

namtok2
The girlfriend and I

 

Advertisements

Roadtrip to Cambodia

I’m back!  Due to a combination of factors; a change of school, no wifi, a touch of laziness, and frankly nothing happening, I have been tardy in posting.  So it gives me pleasure to write about my latest adventure; a border run to Cambodia!

As you may have read before in my previous post about my visa run to Laos, you can see and do a lot as well as meet some great people to make your time worthwhile.  The difference in this trip, to the Baan Pakkad-Phsar Prum border crossing, is that it was not the destination that was the highlight of the trip but the journey itself!

I mentioned to a co-worker that I needed to go to Cambodia to get my visa stamped for another 30 days on arrival back in Thailand and he suggested I take my motorbike.  I think he was half joking but I took him seriously, did some research, asked a friend to join me, and that weekend off we went!

My friend and I, another Canadian, met up for breakfast and did some last minute fact finding before we set off.  As our luck would have it, it started to rain heavily.  The rain was so heavy that I could barely see in front of me from all the rain distorting my vision that I put my sunglasses on.  This helped me somewhat and ultimately helped persuade me to stick to the mission and not head back.

Cambodi2

What really made the drive more enjoyable, after the rain had lightened to a drizzle, was the beautiful scenery; luscious green landscapes for miles around, mountains off in the distance, the occasional waterfall, and the bemused looks of soldiers at occasional checkpoints to see a farang that far out in the countryside driving a motorbike.

Cambodi3

For those who are interested in driving motorbikes on long distance journeys, as opposed to just jetting about in town or on an island, I found no problems on my small bike and I just followed what other Thais on their bikes were doing; stick to the side of the road and you should have no problems!  Occasionally this is not possible and you will have to mix it up with cars but if you just drive responsibly and move out the way for oncoming cars, it shouldn’t be an issue.

Cambodi10

At the Thai side of the border, Baan Pakkad, things were very simple.  We just went to the immigration building, got our passport stamped, had them inspected again at the checkpoint, and walked over to Phsar Prum in Cambodia!  After walking a couple hundred meters through the ‘no man’s land’ we went to the Cambodian immigration building and filled out some forms to get our Cambodian visa which cost 1500 baht but could be cheaper if you pay in USD, which is the de facto currency in Cambodia.  They asked for a picture for the visa but we didn’t have any and it was not a problem.

Cambodi9

Now, because we were only in Cambodia for the afternoon we didn’t write how long we expected to stay in Cambodia.  When the immigration official asked how long we intended to stay we were vague and said a day, this turned out to be important for when we went to leave.  They said ok, and then handed back our passports with the green Cambodian visa attached.

Cambodi8

Immediately after walking down the main road to have a look for somewhere to eat we had guys on motorbikes asking if we needed a ride and if we wanted to go to Battambang.  We politely declined their offers and kept on walking.  The main attraction of Phsar Prum seems to be casinos.  I had not known it before going there but there were at least four casinos in this small town.  My feeling is that because gambling is illegal in Thailand, wealthy Thais come to the Phsar Prum to gamble.  We went inside one of the casinos to have a look and inside we were surprised to see how busy it was.  Inside were mostly middle aged men smoking while playing slot machines, blackjack, poker, and roulette.  My friend inquired as to whether he could play with just 1000 baht and they said yes but what I figured was going to happen would be that he would have to buy in to certain games and that ultimately if he won big, he might not walk out of there with money as we were just two foreigners in a country famous for scams and corruption.  He wisely decided against playing and we left to find a spot to eat lunch and enjoy a beer before crossing the border back to Thailand.

At the Cambodian immigration building we were thinking about what they were going to say considering we had just come to Cambodia a couple hours ago and now we were leaving but figured they must be used to it as to my knowledge quite a few foreigners were doing the same as us; dipping into Cambodia to return to Thailand to get the 30 days on arrival visa*.  To my mild surprise the official said that we had to stay the night because the Cambodian visa was for a minimum of one day.  I said that we had to get back to Thailand that day because we had urgent business.  Then he said, ‘ok, 300 baht’.  I honestly laughed because this was totally something I was half expecting to happen.  After a brief discussion we agreed to pay and then the official promptly stamped our passport and off we went back to Thailand.  I suppose we could have argued with them and asked to see their superior but I felt it just wasn’t worth the hassle.

Cambodi4

Back on the Thai border we had no such problems besides a funny look knowing we had just left and came back, clearly just for the purpose of getting the 30 days as our visas were about to expire.  And with that, we were back on our bikes with a sense of relief and accomplishment with the rain having stopped.  With the rain having stopped and there being less traffic, we were able to cut the drive down to about an hour and a half.  All in all it was a productive day and a new experience for me; a road trip on my own bike in Southeast Asia.  The first of many I hope!

Stay tuned for more posts and thanks for your continued support! J

 

*I should also state that 30 days on arrival by land is for G7 countries and was only relatively recently changed from 15 days.

Ultimate Frisbee in Chiang Mai

Ultimate frisbee is one of my favorite sports and so it was awesome to discover there was going to be a hat tournament in Chiang Mai right on the eve of songkran, Thai new years.  I first started playing ultimate frisbee in Korea where I joined the ROK Ultimate league and played for two different teams in the two seasons I played there.  At the first team training session I felt like I wanted to quit because all the other plays seemed to take it so much more seriously than I thought it to be.  Looking back, I’m glad I decided to stick it through because I find it a great sport to have fun, to stay physically active, to meet new and interesting people, and to be part of a community that takes care of each other and knows how to have fun on and off the field, at the bar!

Unfortunately for me it seems that ultimate frisbee in Thailand is based mostly in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, hundreds and hundreds of kilometers from the two towns I’ve worked in in Thailand.  So after I missed the Bangkok Hat Tournament back in February because I had to work in an English camp, I made damn sure I wasn’t going to miss out on a hat tournament in Chiang Mai.  I booked my flight from Bangkok months in advance and after the day in Ayutthaya, I crashed at the airport for the night and flew out bright and early the next day.

fris2

At Chiang Mai airport I was lucky enough to have arranged beforehand to meet up with another player to split a cab to the fields north of Chiang Mai at  Maejo University.  The other player, a Kiwi, turned out to be a pretty chill guy and we hung out in between games and at the after party events.

Once at the field it turned out that 20 people who signed up didn’t show up.  This meant that there was now one less team and the teams were now mixed up to try ensure a equal strength teams.  For the 1700 baht I paid to register for the tournament I got a goodie bag that had stickers, a mini water gun for songkran, a wristband reading ‘Chiang Mai ultimate’, and a couple other cool small items.  I was assigned to the orange team and made my way over to their field to find them just about to start their second game.

My teammates were welcoming and I was quickly practicing my throws with one of them in order to break off the ring rust from not playing for months.  Now I should say that April in Thailand is part of the hot, dry season and so the temperature was easily close to 40 Celsius which made playing that much more exhausting.  Thankfully, each team had their own shaded area complete with water, a cooler of ice, and a big fan.  When it came for me to play my first point for the team I did quite well.  I made the catches that came my way, laid them off back to the handler, and finished by making the assist for the point.  Not a bad way to introduce yourself to a new team!

fris1

We ended up losing the game on universe point I believe but it was just great to get out on the field after so long away and to be with a team that I felt comfortable with.  After the game there was big buffet of Thai food laid out for all the players who, myself included, were understandably starving and thirsty from running on and off over the 2 hours of games played.  Regrettably I was told by one of the organizers at lunch that I had to switch teams to help another team out with their number of guys.  It was at that point where I should have realized that I could have said I wanted to stay with orange and they probably would have been ok with it, instead I switched and though it was not said, I felt some of the orange players might have been a little understandably let down that I agreed to switch.  Sometimes I’m just too willing to make other people happy when I should just stand my ground.  So after lunch I switched over to Team Teal, or as we became better known as, Feel the Teal.

The new team welcomed me to the fold but right away away I could feel the vibe was a little different, mostly stemming from on of the oldest and most experienced player who was taking the tournament more seriously than the other players.  This turned out to be a running theme throughout the rest of the games over the weekend.  At this level of competition, similar to the level I’ve played in Korea, I think the game should be more about everyone having fun, developing their skills, gaining experience, and ultimately everyone getting some time with the disc, even if it is just catching it up field and then passing it back to the handler.  If this was a more competitive level than I would completely understand more playing strictly to win than to have fun, but that was not the case for this tournament.  Suffice to say some members on the team and myself included, were a little overlooked and overly criticized by one or two more experienced players.  Still, I did not let that issue prevent me from enjoying my field time and doing my best for the team when called upon.

One of the bizarre moments of the day came when in the afternoon a thunderstorm broke out with heavy rain and wind forcing the players off the field and under the stands.  The window blew so hard it actually started blowing away all the covered areas.  Thankfully it didn’t rain too long and before we all headed back out onto the field for the, shortened, remainder of the games.

fris3

After the last game all the players barrelled into the fleet of specially hired songthaews waiting for us.  Teammates, briefly teammates, and others in our songthaew thought we’d be the first back to Hug Hostel, the official hostel of the 10th Annual Ultimate Frisbee Songkran Hat Tournament, but it turns out our driver was running on Thai time and despite his ride being the first full, he decided to have a couple smokes before driving.  The ride back made for a good picture though!

fris4

At night we used the wristbands given to us to go to a bar and restaurant called Big Daddies.  There we were greeted with an all we could eat buffet and an open bar.  Having not had Western food for awhile, I had plate after plate of chicken wings and potato wedges, with a healthy amount of Leo beer to wash the food down.  I even ran into some current and former ROK U alumni.  Not wanting to drink too much I ended up heading back to the hostel early for a good night’s sleep, a far cry from some of the ROK U party nights!

The next day our team fought point for point each match but ultimately ended up not being able to win a game.  What was more important to me was simply getting out there to play and getting to know my teammates better.  In the end the tournament final was contested between the purple and green team.  The final was a really competitive game with the underdogs Team Purple prevailing against the favorites Team Green, the score was 12-10 I believe.

fris5

The tournament itself I believe was very well organized and I strongly recommend it to those coming to Thailand next April around songkran time.  There was the official hostel which had discounted prices for players.  There was free transport to and from the fields back into the city.  Plenty of food and drinks available at the field during and after games.  Lots of Chiang Mai ultimate swag to buy, which I indulged in and bought a disc so I can try and practice more.  The fields were in very condition and much better than I had been expecting.  Games were competitive as the teams were just about even in strength as possible. The party events themselves having the free food and drinks for the Saturday and Sunday nights was a nice touch too.  I think the only thing that people might have changed would have been being able to drink on the campus, because beer is an essential part of any hat tournament, alas Maejo University is a dry campus.  Overall it was a great tournament to be a party of and definitely one I hope to play in again.

Do you play ultimate? What is your favorite ultimate tournament you have played in abroad? Let me know in the comments, cheers!

A Day in Ayutthaya

Thailand is a Buddhist country blessed with an abundance of natural and also mystic beauty.  While Phimai Historical Park is arguably Thailand’s number one site to visit temples of breathtaking beauty and serenity, the sites to be seen in Ayutthaya are not to be missed either!

Ayu2

Getting to Ayutthaya

The city of Ayutthaya is only about an hour and a half away from Bangkok which makes it perfect for a day trip or a stepping stone on the way up north to Chiang Mai or south to Bangkok.  Buses to Ayutthaya run from Mo Chit bus station and Victory monument.  There you should be able to get a van ticket for only 60 baht.  You can also take the scenic route by catching a train from Hualamphong station in Bangkok.  Tickets start as low was 20 baht!

Ayu8

Getting about

Since the temples are spread out across the center of the city you will need to get some way to transport yourself around.  The cheapest but most time consuming way, because you will have to wait around and do some more walking, is to catch a songthaew.  These should cost no more than 10 baht a ride and there are quite a few driving around the city.  For those more physically inclined, and perhaps staying the night, you could rent a bike for a less than a hundred baht at most hostels or guesthouses.  If you prefer to feel the breeze in your hair, then you can rent a motorbike for a few hundred baht with a full tank of gas.  Then there is the option which I took, hiring a tuk tuk to ferry you around the city for a few hours.  900 baht for 3hrs is what I paid but split between a group of people it is arguably the best option after you have been walking around in the blistering heat and just want a break between temples.  You can get taxis, songthaews, and tuk tuks from the bus and train station.

Ayu5

How much?

Farangs (foreigners) pay 60 baht to enter the different temple areas while Thais pay 30 baht, I believe.  For expats who work and live in Thailand I have read that if you can show them proof that you live in the country, like showing your visa or work permit, you can pay the Thai rate.

Ayu7

Which temples to see?

Now this is a matter of taste, because I only had a day in Ayutthaya I chose to go to the four most popular temple sites but really you could easily spend 2, 3 or more days exploring the full extent of the temples and ruins spread out across the city.  Personally I went to Wat Phra Si Sanphet (the largest temple in Ayutthaya), Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit (which houses a large bronze cast image of Buddha), Wat Phra Mahathat (with a tree growing over the head of a Buddha statue), and Phet Fortress (great views of the river!)

Ayu11

After the temples

I found Ayutthaya to have a real chill laidback vibe to it and definitely backpacker friendly.  At night a good place to go to is the night plaza where there is a market selling food, clothes, souvenirs, and generally the usual stuff you expect to find at a market in Thailand.  Nearby for dinner or drinks is the Cowboy bar and restaurant.  There you can get Thai and Western food at reasonable prices, it also has a pool table and live music.  For those wanting to go to a club or just have drinks, I recommend going to Zeedzaa Pub and Restaurant.  While calling itself a pub, it is closer to a club the later you go with DJs and live music.  There was a closed off room with a TV playing sports, which I guess was the pub portion.  No dance floor, but people start dancing at their tables once the beats begin to drops and the drinks flow.  I was the only foreigner there but I was made to feel welcome by Thais giving me cheers.  I will say that drinks were a little more expensive than I would normally pay (120 baht for a big Singha), but I was with a date so I couldn’t complain.

Ayu12Ayu10Ayu9Ayu6Ayu4

Ayu3
If you’re wondering why this girl pops up in a few of the pictures, that was my Thai guide and date!

So I hope you find time in your travels to fit a day in to visit Ayutthaya.  I will say that you should bring lots of water as it can get very hot if you’re visiting during the hot end of the dry season (40 Celsius when we visited!!!) If you’re just looking for a day out of Bangkok, interested in Buddhism, or you like to see Asian ruins, Ayutthaya is just what you’re looking for.  Please comment and like if you found the article helpful for your future visit!

Next up I will write about how I got on at the 10th Annual Chiang Mai Ultimate Frisbee Hat Tournament. Catch you later!

 

 

 

Where have I been?

It has been an exciting and action packed last few weeks having started my vacation at the start of the month.  As I mentioned in a previous post April was always going to be busy, so here is a teaser of the posts I’ll be writing in the coming days…

My original plan for my school break was to head straight to Chiang Mai from Bangkok but I eventually decided to make a few stops along the way…..

….including a night on the beach drinking beer with a friend in Pattaya….

pattaya-beach-20-1

…followed by a couple days of site seeing in Ayutthaya…

sleepingbuddha.jpg

….before heading to Chiang Mai for the 10th annual hat tournament, nicely timed for the weekend before songkran!

songthaew.jpg

Next up I had a relatively quiet songkran on Koh Chang and in Trat.

songkran

And now I’m in Abu Dhabi visiting my father until the new semester starts up in May!  Stay tuned for some informative but fun posts in the coming days and weeks ahead!

Overcoming feelings of isolation and alienation abroad

We all come to a time when we’ve been traveling, backpacking, or teaching abroad long enough to feel the ache for the familiar or the strain of having left family, friends, and relationships behind back home or just other places on our journey.  It is during these times you must make the effort overcome feelings of isolation and alienation.

I experienced these feelings on more than one occasion back in Korea after a long Friday night/Saturday morning partying downtown.  I’d wake up feeling hungover as hell in a tiny shoe box of an apartment with nightfall having already descended. I’d ask myself if this was the best I could do to make my weekends count and I always knew the answer was no but still ended up having more weekends like that because it was what my friends did.  Gradually I broke out of that cycle and found that a quiet night in after a hectic week of work was often what I needed to re-charge my batteries.

Now in Trat, Thailand, my problem is living in a town that I don’t know much about, there is a distinct lack of information online, there isn’t much of an expat community, the language is even tougher to learn, I’m still discovering what foods to eat, and while I have another foreign teacher at my school, we’re not close.  To compound this my two closest friends from my last school in Chok Chai chose to head home and end their time in Thailand.  For the past two weekends I’ve been in Koh Chang on Lonely Beach which helps me forget my current feelings of transition but obviously going there every weekend is not the answer.

Am I becoming disillusioned with a life of backpacking and teaching abroad? Far from it.  I’m writing this to show that for people who are just starting out this kind of lifestyle, or having been doing it for years, that the feeling of homesickness, isolation, and alienation, affects everyone time to time.  What matters is how you tackle it!  So here are some of the things I’ll be doing to settle in more and make the most of my time in Trat, these are also things any traveler or teacher abroad can do to beat the blues.

  • Keep busy: take language lessons, start a blog, plan your next move, get a start on making teaching materials for next week, etc
  • Familiarize yourself: go walks or take bike rides around the local area to discover what your surroundings have to offer, you may be surprised!
  • Contact family and friends: Message them, call them, Skype them, do what ever it is you need to do to keep in touch with your close ones to let them know they’re in your thoughts no matter how far away you are.
  • Get fit: Physical fitness plays a big role in keeping mentally fit.  Go for long walks, jogs, or runs, buy a bike and find some trails to explore, get a gym membership, join an expat sports league, in short; get active!
  • Start dating: apps like Tinder are a great way to meet new people, whether they are fellow expats or locals, whether your intention is to look for a friend or something more.  Putting yourself out there is a surefire way to fight back feelings of loneliness and can lead to an exciting new social life!
  • Relax:  backpacking or teaching abroad have their stressful times so it really is essential to once in awhile take time to simply…..relax.  Read books, have a Netflix binge, go to a beach and just look out into the horizon and contemplate the mysteries of life, just not too seriously!   It is ok to have the occasional lazy weekend; they’re healthy for your mind and your bank account, not to mention Game of Thrones starts up again next month, never a bad time to start from the beginning to refresh yourself 😉

So that’s what has been on my mind of late transiting to a new school and town as a teacher abroad.  Having put these words to type has made me feel better already and I’ll be taking my own advice, starting with some simple relaxation and reading.  I should also add in just over 2 weeks my vacation will kick off in Chiang Mai for the ultimate frisbee tournament before Songkran, so still lots to look forward to even while not much is going on at school at the moment.  I hope this post finds you in a good place in life as I am now, thanks for reading and take care 🙂

An Escape to Koh Chang

After my first week at work in Trat at new high school I decided to finally put some sand between my toes and go to the backpacker friendly island of Koh Chang.  Having been in Thailand for over 2 months now and not yet made it to one of the nation’s crown jewels in island beauty I was long overdue.  On the Friday I went home in the afternoon to pack my bag to leave immediately from school to save time.  I was also lucky to have a Thai teacher who lived in the area and gave me a ride to Thammachart Pier, which I believe is the most popular pier to head to Koh Chang because the ferry crossing time only takes 30 minutes and 80 baht for a single crossing.  Ferries usually arrive every half hour from 6am to 7pm.  The only drawback  to my plans was that I was told Friday that I had to work Sunday which would mean I would only get one night on the island, still made the right choice and decided to go through with the weekend escape.

20160311_170558

After about 15 minutes a ferry arrived to pick us up and make the crossing. The lower deck is filled with cars and motorbikes and the upper decks have seats, a store or food vendor, and a fresh sea breeze flowing through the open windows.  I went to the upper deck, bought a beer, found a seat with a view and kicked back for the rest of the journey.

After the short journey time  we made to it Koh Chang and I immediately went looking for songthaews. So I find one and only three other guys get on the songthaew so the driver says we’re going to wait for the next ferry. The next ferry shows up a half hour later on and only two more people join us.  It was supposed to be a 100 baht trip but the driver asked everyone for an extra 20 baht so that we’d leave now.  One of the problems with Koh Chang is the scarcity of songthaews and the prices they charge.  During the day prices are ok if there are groups of people going places but at night when there are fewer songthaews running, it can be a hassle because the drivers start asking for extortionate fees of up to or more than 500 baht for rides between different beaches too far to walk to. DO NOT support these prices, always negotiate down.

20160311_174945

Songthaew rides across Koh Chang is like being on a roller coaster with the number of upward winding roads with clusters of development focused in and around the beaches.  70% of the island is still covered in virgin jungle and there are lots of trails for hiking to beautiful waterfalls and incredible views so the ride from the pier is quite scenic but you’ll definitely be holding on to something at certain points.  With stops in between it took about an hour to reach Lonely Beach, the backpacker center of Koh Chang.

I chose Lonely Beach as the place to start my exploration of Koh Chang because I was in the mood to have a good time and a friend recommended Siam Huts to me as the place to stay.  I paid 380 baht for a basic wooden hut with a bed, shower, sink, fan, and toilet.  Perfect for what I wanted: a cheap no-frills place to crash after a night out.

After settling in to my hut and changing from my stifling work clothes I met my friend, a fellow Brit I met from my Lao visa trip, at the bar and we ordered food.  I had a beer and ordered a huge pad Thai that I was impressed to finish.  Unfortunately he wasn’t feeling so well so he was not going to be able to stay out that night.  Still, it was nice to catch up with him and learn more about the island since her lives there.

For the rest of the night I hung out with various backpackers at Siam Huts, sharing stories, and knocking back beers while cheering on the fire show and hitting up the dance floor.  The party went on until almost 3am but by that point I had gone to bed, happy to have had a decent first night out on Koh Chang.

The next day I decided to make the most of my day and sat out in the sun in attempt to build up a tan before I head off to Abu Dhabi in April.  All day I alternated between beer, water, and fruit lassis.  I savored the time out in the sun by reading and thinking about the new job and the upcoming events in April.  For lunch I had a delicious tom yam soup with rice washed down with my second fruit lassi.

20160312_134705

With about an hour left to go before I wanted to take a songthaew back to the ferry I set off on a walk down Lonely Beach to get a feel for the sea and the sand washing over my feet and legs. It was a refreshing way to end my stay but knowing that I could easily see myself going back there again next week this time for the full weekend.

20160312_122944
View from Siam Huts

When it came time to leave the songthaews kept racing past me while I had my hand out but they were all full.  Much to my luck a Thai guy saw my predicament and offered to give me a ride to the ferry  as he was headed to the same place.  I happily accepted but then it dawned on me that he was a big guy and I wasn’t sure his scooter would be able to get up some the steep twisting roads.  While there were one or two moments I thought the scooter would break down, it pulled through and I made it to the ferry in one piece.  I will say that though I was grateful for the ride, he drove like a mad man desperately trying to get to the next ferry.

On the ferry I thanked him again and offered him some money for his trouble but he kindly declined saying it was just a nice thing to do for a person in need.  After the hour long journey, we had taken a slow ferry, we parted ways and I went to look for a songthaew back to Trat.

The problem was not finding a songthaew but finding other riders.  We waited almost another hour before I gave in and paid 300 baht to take me to the market in Trat.  All in all it was a great half weekend and I look forward to returning and exploring more of the island.

Have you been to Koh Chang? Where does it rank among your favorite Thai islands? Let me know what you think I should go see/stay next time I head to Koh Chang!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly about Teaching in Thailand

As a follow up post to my my recent one, I present….

The Good

  • A great place for new teachers: Whether you are thinking of taking ESL as a career seriously, just want the experience of working in exotic Thailand, or in between traveling and looking to make some extra money for a few months, Thailand is a great choice for people who have not taught before.  All you need is a degree and while a TEFL certificate is desired, it is not a formal requirement for a lot of public schools.  Even then, you can get 120hr TEFL online certificate for a couple hundred dollars.  Also, there is less pressure in most Thai public schools because they realize a lot of the teachers have never taught before and therefore there Thai staff are very helpful and understanding in their efforts to help you teach and settle into the area.
  • Food: Come on, do I really gotta mention how good the food is? Thai cuisine extends far beyond tourist favorites like pad Thai, papaya salad, and tom yum soup.  One of my favorite things about living in Thailand are the local markets where I have almost limitless food options.  For $3USD at a market I can easily buy more delicious food than I can even eat!  Typically I’ll buy a main course, rice/noodles with veg and meat, a side dish, perhaps some sticky rice, and a dessert, my favorite being freshly sliced antelope.  All for $3-4!  The food alone should almost be enough of a reason to come teach in Thailand, it truly is a foodie’s paradise.

food5

  • Low cost of living: The essentials to life in Thailand, especially living outside of Bangkok, are incredibly cheap.  For example, my monthly food budget is about 5,400 baht ($150) and I spend 3500 baht ($100) a month on rent. On a starting salary of 30,000 baht a month, that leaves you with 21,100 baht ($600) left over to spend how you like!  If saving money is not a priority for you, then you could easily go on a weekend trip most weekends in a month.  But if saving is something you care about, you can still save about half your monthly salary (if you live outside of Bangkok) and still have money left over to have some fun, whether that is a few nights out at the bar or a weekend trip or two.  The life of a teacher even making starting salary is quite comfortable.
  • Long vacation time: If you plan teaching for a full year at a public school, 2 semesters, then you will be happy to know you will get at least 2 months vacation!  Of course, depending on your contract situation, whether you work directly for the school or through a teacher placement company/agent, you may or may not be paid for the vacation time.  My advice, try work directly for schools and they should pay the vacation time, or find a company/agent that pays for the vacation.
  • Some great students: the students themselves will play a big role on whether you enjoy your job.  But from my experience so far I’ve had some wonderful students who have proven extremely helpful in explaining things in Thai to the other students, telling the noisy students to quiet down, and then giving me goodbye gifts after having only known them for a short time.  I even received a hand drawn portrait of myself by a very talent student!  Another teacher who had taught at the school for a year received a handmade book of pictures taken from their classes and each student wrote goodbye messages to her.  Great students make such a difference and Thailand has them in spades.

thaistudents

  • Location, location, location: Thailand has an abundance of every kind of place to live and work.  From small, rural, idyllic villages out in places like Isan, to towns up north in the jungle near Chiang Mai, big bad Bangkok, or down south near the island treasures of Thailand.  There is a place for every lifestyle in Thailand.

The Bad

  • School organization: Having taught at two public schools here in Thailand, and having spoke with teachers working at private schools, a frequent topic that comes up is the strange way certain things are done at school.  Just as you’re leaving to go home a Thai teacher tells you ‘oh, by the way tomorrow is Open Day at school so no classes!’, or nobody knowing who to talk to to get class outline/lesson planning documents, or going office to office searching for someone and then finally being told that actually that person is not at school that day.  Issues like these are are a reflection of Thai culture in the workplace, which brings me to…
  • Cultural differences: There are always going to cultural differences; it is a part of what makes traveling and working abroad a great experience!  But some differences are harder to adjust to.  For instance, it is common to have lined up at a cafe or have been served at a restaurant and then see that the Thais who came after you have been served first.  For women choosing to work outside of big cities or places popular with tourists where the locals don’t have much experience living around foreigners, women will get a lot of looks from Thai men and women, unfortunately that is a fact of life in Thailand.  The same goes if a foreign man is seen in public with a Thai women, you will get a lot of looks from the locals.  These may not be major issues, but they are annoyances.
  • Visa status: The ruling Thai military junta and prior governments have been changing visa rules for years now so it is hard to know what the rules are for sure, and can often be decided at the discretion of the official.  To get the Non-Immigrant B visa to teach legally in Thailand you will either have to get it before you enter the country, or take a 2 day trip to Malaysia, Cambodia, or Laos to get it sorted.  Some schools will even encourage you to simply work on a tourist visa, which is illegal.  Having said that, it seems a blind eye is turned to those teachers who are on a tourist visa and working but are having their documents processed before leaving the country to get the correct visa.
  • Rowdy students:  Don’t get me wrong, while there are great students, there are also students who are plain rude and aggressive towards teachers, particularly in public high schools where classes can be up to 50 students!  It is mostly the less advanced classes that are rowdiest and they are predominately filled with boys, some entirely.  Those classes can be a drain on you mentally and physically as you have to shout and cajole them into behaving and learning something.   Thankfully, most classes are not like this and since coming to teach in Thailand I’ve only had one class that I dreaded teaching each week; class 4/11.
  • Isolation:  If you are working in a public school out in the countryside, you may be one of the only, if not the ONLY, foreigner in town and thus your every movement will be of interest to the locals as if you’re minor celebrity with less privileges.  It can get quite lonely if you don’t have a support network set up to beat back feelings of loneliness and boredom.  At my school in Chok Chai in Isan I was with 3 other foreign teachers and I still felt bored and lonely at times because there was next to nothing to do besides drink beer and watch Netflix for hours on end.  Do your research before taking a job somewhere out in the countryside.

The Ugly

  • A target for crime and scams:  As a foreigner in their country where most of the people have far less than you, it is unfortunately natural for some of the less honest locals to want to make a little extra money from you.  It can be a taxi driver refusing to turn on the meter or asking for a jacked up fare.  Selling you counterfeit goods while claiming them to be genuine.  The police targeting you for not wearing a helmet while riding a scooter and asking for a ‘fine’, or worse, them asking you to take a piss test for drugs in the street (illegal) and asking for a ‘processing fee’ to make the problem go away.  There are a lot more I could go on about but you get the picture.  As always when traveling or living in a foreign country, it is best to exercise caution and keep informed about news in Thailand.  I’m sure there are more ugly sides to living in Thailand but I think being a target for crime and scams are the biggest ones.

So what do you think? What other good, bad, and ugly sides are there to teaching in Thailand? Let me know in the comments!

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!

 

 

 

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.

riverfront.jpg

statue.jpg

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.

grouppic.jpg

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.

lizards
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.

HCM.jpg
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.

whiskey.jpg

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.

thailaoborder

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!