How does it feel to be on your own with no direction home? Like a complete unknown... How does it feel? It’s exciting. It’s scary. It’s shocking, educating, strange, lonely, ridiculous, frustrating. It’s rewarding. Thus is my life. In the past two and a half years I've lived on three different continents. Since the summer of 2009 I haven’t stayed in one place for more than 6 months at a time. The past 8 weeks I’ve been moving around so much I sometimes forget all the places I’ve been. And now I'm here in Bangkok, in my apartment, relaxing – and it feels weird. When you live a life where the only constant is inconsistency, you sometimes forget how nice it can be to stop and settle - to plant some roots, to have a schedule, to blend in. But that’s what I’m doing now. I will be calling Bangkok home for at least half a year or so… and then from there, who knows?
I know it’s been a while since my last blog entry about Koh Chang, so this time around I want to cover all the events and experiences that have transpired between then and now. I’ll do my best to recount all my memories of the past weeks, but I’m afraid even my best won’t do the tales justice, nor would it account for the inevitable loss of memories forgotten. So, as the reader, just know that from the words of another great globetrotter, “I have not told half of what I saw.”
After we left Koh Chang we made our way to Pattaya, a popular tourist city on the eastern coast of the gulf of Thailand. This is where our Thailand group would be staying for the next two weeks to do our practice teaching and complete our TESOL program. What you need to know about Pattaya is that there is either a McDonald’s or 7/11 on every street corner, 70% of the people on the beach are old, fat, Russian men in speedos, and its most popular tourist attraction is the red light district. It’s a strange but wonderfully unique city. It’s unforgettable but for all the wrong reasons. And for a coastal beach city, it is a jolting and flagrant contrast to the serenity of Koh Chang. All of these issues aside, this was the last half of our TESOL program. These were the last two weeks that our Thailand group would be together, so of course we had a great and memorable time in Pattaya.
We got into town on a Sunday night and had to be ready to teach a class at 9am the following morning. There was a short briefing by our new friend Indy, the LanguageCorps Thailand coordinator, and then we were moved into our temporary apartments for some much needed rest and preparation for the next day’s trial by fire.
Monday morning the nine of us went off to meet our assigned classes that we would be teaching for the next two weeks. The schools were spread all over town, but I had the great fortune to be assigned to teach a class at a Christian Church only right down the street from the LC office and my apartment. Although it ended up being a great experience, coming all the way to Thailand to teach in a Baptist Church was not exactly what I expected. The class was small (ranged from 3 to 6 students) with students of all ages (16-51 years old). Fortunately, all my students could be classified as intermediate to advanced skill level. This meant that although I needed to teach more challenging subject matter, I had a wide range of teaching methods at my disposal. It also meant the students would generally understand basic directions for any sort of assignment or activity. This made the teaching part of teaching comparatively easy. However, the planning part of teaching was much harder for me than it would’ve been for someone teaching children. While all my friends were planning lessons on colors or body parts, I was planning lessons on prepositions and perfect tenses. I also forgot to mention that I taught a two-hour class – demanding twice the planning per day. Initially, lesson planning was the most daunting and frustrating part of my practice teaching because we had no basis or context for what our students had previous knowledge of. But once I decided to embrace my creative side and just have fun with the classes, planning lessons was a breeze. It also helped to build on previous classes and use the flow of a few days to create cohesive units. For example, I started a class about local geography and directions within South Pattaya. After that I expanded the concept to regional geography and finally to world geography. Each of these topics has its own set of proper vocabulary and vernacular to cover. So in the end, I think the most valuable thing that I took away from our practice teaching was how to form the long term structure of a class.
So we graduated from our TESOL course on a Friday (March 4th I believe), and Saturday morning we were off to Bangkok to start the apartment search. Between the group of us, we had done a good amount of research into the different areas of Bangkok and tried to get an idea of where would be the best places to live for the next 6 months. However, none of us had actually been to Bangkok before, so there was a certain apprehensive sense of unknown as we rode the two hours up from Pattaya. The preparation did indeed help though. When we arrived we immediately found a guesthouse in central Bangkok, and then spent the next three full days exploring different areas of the city. These were long, hot, grueling days. After minutes you were covered in sweat, knowing that you had another five or six hours of walking ahead of you. But in those few days my friends and I learned a lot about the city. Downtown Bangkok was simply too crazy to expect to find reasonable living there, but the Skytrain (BTS) extends well out into the less dense areas of the city. This is where we concluded our three day search. My friends and I all found very nice studio apartments a short walk from the On Nut BTS station, which is currently the last stop on this end of the Skytrain. On a map it would be southeast Bangkok, and it is about 20 minutes outside the central downtown area.
Now that we were able to get settled into nice apartments with easy access to the rest of the city, it was time to begin the job search. It was a somewhat daunting task considering the sheer size of the city and amount of schools to consider, but fortunately we had help from LanguageCorps so all of us already had top priority schools. We began by applying online or sending our resume to LC contacts, but this proved to be less than fruitful. After a couple of days I decided to venture out to the schools I was most interested in with the goal of initiating interviews. This was a much more successful method. Each school at which I had an interview eventually offered me a job, although it did take a lot of time. I didn’t hear back from most places for at least two weeks, which was like torture for my impatient, westernized sense of time. However, I finally accepted a job at AUA, which was number one on my list from the very start.
AUA stands for American University Alumni. They are one of the most well known language schools in Thailand. They have five branches here in Bangkok and many more throughout the other regions of Thailand. I will be teaching at the main branch in the financial sector of downtown Bangkok. Being a “language school” means that they teach only English, and it is usually tailored to the type of students, such as for business people, hospitality workers, or university students. For most the students, the classes are supplemental to their normal school or work, which means classes are generally on nights and weekends. Instead of a typical two or three semester academic year, AUA has six-week terms with a full week break in between. For someone new to the teaching world, I suppose this is a little unconventional, but I think teaching at a language school is better for my personal situation and should be a great experience.
In between sending out job applications and going to interviews, we did manage to do a good bit of sight-seeing and exploring around the city. The major attractions in Bangkok are the large temples along the river and the Grand Palace. Wat Pho is the most famous for its massive reclining Buddha, but I unfortunately did not make it there because I was sick the day my friends went. However I was able to go to Wat Arun and the Grand Palace on different days. Wat Arun is a large, ornate, conical temple. You can’t go inside Wat Arun, but you can climb the unimaginably steep stairs to the top which provides incredible views of the city and the nearby river. There is also a plethora of other smaller temples and gardens to explore within the Wat Arun complex. The Grand Palace is probably the premier tourist attraction in the city of Bangkok. I’ve seen fewer tourists in Disney World. But it is popular for good reason. Every building and temple within the Palace grounds is beautifully artistic. There are ornate statues and carvings everywhere you look. Buildings glitter with gold and gems. It is also home to the Emerald Buddha (actually made of jade), which is probably the most important and sacred Buddha in all of Thailand. It is easy to spend half a day exploring the Palace grounds as there are small museums scattered around in addition to the buildings and temples. It is a truly unique place and everyone should see it once.
We have also done a lot of what I like to call “culinary exploration” around Bangkok. I’ll go much deeper into this in my upcoming food blog, but Bangkok is one of the best cities for eating that I have ever been to. Cheap and delicious meals can be found around every street corner and the range of munching options within the city is ridiculous. Within fifteen minutes of my apartment, I can find Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Middle-Eastern, Italian, or any other kind of cuisine I can dream of – and this only if I get tired of all the amazing Thai food. The best part is they all seem to be located in their own little nooks close to, but hidden from the main tourist areas, which means the food is authentic and cheap. So with all these options to choose from, we try to explore new eating areas as much as possible. This has helped broaden our knowledge of the city to areas that we probably would never have discovered otherwise.
One weekend that we all had completely free, we decided to take a day trip outside of Bangkok to see the floating markets, the Bridge over the River Kwai, and the tiger sanctuary outside of Kanchanaburi. Any tourism agency near Khao San Road sells this trip as a package deal, so we got to do the whole day of activities for $15 with lunch included. It was an exciting but very long day with a lot of driving between locations.
We started the trip leaving Bangkok around 7am for the floating markets, which are about 90 minutes west of the city. The floating markets are a series of canals where women pull up to the side in their boats and sell their food or goods. It is essentially the same idea as any other market, except instead of browsing through stalls, you walk along the edge of the canal and browse all the different boats. I wasn’t planning on doing any shopping here, but the environment did make for some pretty great pictures. We also got to do a 30-minute boat ride through the canals. There is a whole network of canals that snakes away from the market and into the village beyond where you can see real Thai people living along the edge of the water who actually use the river as their roadway. That was truly an eye-opening and memorable experience.
About 45 minutes away from the floating markets is the town of Kanchanaburi. Just outside this town is the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. The bridge was made famous by a 1950’s movie, but for Thai people it is known for the thousands of slave labor-related deaths that occurred there during the Bridge’s construction. The Japanese had invaded Siam and British Burma during World War II and wanted to build a bridge connecting the two countries’ capitals. The Japanese used forced labor to construct the entire railroad, and because of all this, the Bridge is known to Thais as the “Bridge of Death.” While this was an interesting and historical location, there really wasn’t much to do other than walk along the bridge and take pictures of the river below. So that’s what we did, and then we were off to the tiger sanctuary.
The tiger sanctuary really was the main event of this trip. That’s what everyone in our van was waiting for, which is why I think they save it for last. The sanctuary outside of Kanchanaburi is a place led by monks where they take in abandoned and injured tigers and train them from a young age. As a tourist, you can come to this sanctuary to get up close and personal with tigers of all ages and sizes. After a few words of common sense like “don’t go near the tiger’s mouth”, we were able to walk through an enclosed area of about 10 sleeping or resting tigers, taking pictures as we went. A guide held our hand the whole time, leading us from tiger to tiger. After this we were able to watch the trainers exercise and feed the tigers. At the time it really didn’t seem scary at all, but after looking at the pictures and now that I’m writing this I realize how crazy it sounds. This was not something I could ever have experienced back home, nor is this something that many people on Earth have done. Who can say they have felt the fur of a full grown tiger? Who can say they’ve been close enough to a tiger to smell its breath? I suppose now I can.