Teaching English in Thailand: Living in Thailand
Thailand, the “Land of Smiles”, is a great destination for ESL teachers who want to teach abroad and experience a country rich in history, famous for its culinary arts and replete with vacation destinations.
While many ESL teaching positions are in Bangkok, a beautiful and busy metropolis famous for its floating markets, spectacular sights, and delicious food, schools throughout the country employ foreign language teachers. On days off, ESL teachers can tour Thailand's world-renowned landscapes like the evergreen limestone islands of Koh Tao and the white sand beaches of Koh Phi Phi Don, Phuket and Koh Chang.
Housing in Thailand varies greatly between simplistic village dwellings and downtown luxury condominiums and houses. There are options for every income bracket and lifestyle choice. If living in a luxury Western complex, frequent dining at five star hotels, owning a vehicle and having household staff is important, then a teacher’s salary would likely not accommodate this lifestyle. However, most ESL teachers would be able to find suitable apartment accommodations and enjoy a moderate lifestyle at a very reasonable price.
Generally speaking, a bachelor apartment is a common choice for teachers. They are normally a single room with a bathroom, air conditioner, and include basic furniture such as a bed, wardrobe and chair. The air conditioner and hot water heater (if included) are usually area units that can be turned on and off as needed. As electricity charges are generally above and beyond the rental price and can be quite expensive, being prudent to ensure all units are turned off when leaving the apartment is important to avoid a large bill at the end of the month.
Some landlords require three months (or more) payment in advance and a better price can often be negotiated with a full year’s payment up front. As in North America, landlords vary greatly, with some being very attentive to tenants and others responding slowly to requests. If possible, securing a reference from a previous tenant is ideal.
Schools sometimes provide accommodation or assist in securing them. Finding an apartment near the school would simplify life to avert heavy traffic in large urban centres and ease the pressure of after school activities and early school start times.
Airfare is typically not included in contracts for teaching in Thailand. On the rare occasion that it is included, it would normally take the form of a contract completion bonus. As such, factoring in the cost of a return flight along with all other expenses is important when negotiating a contract.
Most schools include medical coverage in their contracts following a three-month probationary period. During the first three months in country, some schools may ask for an employee to obtain their own insurance or may assist in covering it through one of the various organizations such as BUPA or AIA.
Health care in Thailand is inexpensive and normally of high quality. ESL teachers can also choose to obtain insurance through a company in their home country before going abroad. This is usually a good idea no matter where you travel.
It would be prudent to bring a year’s supply of any medication for which you would not be comfortable using a substitute, as brands will often vary from North American pharmaceuticals.
As in many Asian countries, the established government retirement age is somewhat flexible in the private sector. Thailand’s retirement age of 60 is generally adhered to in government schools and most often followed by private schools. Some private schools will retain teachers over 60 if they have an already established relationship with them and feel that they continue to be of benefit to the school.
As most health insurance companies will not grant policies for employees over age 60, finding employment in this age bracket can be a challenge.
Technology and Advancement
Thailand, as with most countries in South East Asia, is technologically advanced and ESL teachers will find communicating within the country and outside of Thailand relatively easy and inexpensive. If teachers do not have Internet access at their accommodations, there are options for accessing the internet and making phone calls elsewhere:
- Purchase a cell phone with a SIM card
- Purchase calling cards
- Visit an Internet café
- Use wireless Internet
Many schools now have high speed Internet, and as such Skype can be accessed while at school if permissible.
North American Food
North American food continues to establish a presence in Thailand. In Bangkok and other large city centres, chain restaurants such as McDonald’s, KFC, Hard Rock Café, and Burger King can be found easily.
Western supermarkets are less prominent; however, imported products are becoming more and more common. Makro, a bulk food store, (somewhat similar to Costco) generally carries western products at a reasonable price.
The three-wheel “motorcycle/car”, known as the Tuk Tuk, is slowly being replaced with the fuel efficient and air conditioned Toyota and Honda automobiles. Most taxis in Thailand are metered and as such, fares do not need to be negotiated. It is best to choose a metered taxi with a reputable company unless travelling a long distance.
Fares are very inexpensive compared to North American taxi services and a great option for ESL teachers to get around at a very reasonable price.
Tips When Travelling by Taxi:
- Hail a taxi instead of responding to a taxi that approaches you.
- Be alert and appear confident. You are most vulnerable when not aware of your surroundings and when you appear to be a “tourist”.
- Write the name and location of your destination in Thai on a piece of paper in case the taxi driver cannot speak English.
- Carry a map and point to the destination.
- Note the name of the company, name and ID of the driver for security purposes.
- Display a friendly demeanour.
- Give a small tip at the end of the ride.
Train and Subway
Thailand has 4,400 km of railway tracks, not including those in Bangkok, reaching the farthest corners of the Kingdom and its borders with Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. Five main lines can transport you comfortably from Bangkok to destinations throughout Thailand. The only train options in and out of Thailand currently are through Malaysia, and serve as a transfer point to Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
The Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA), also referred to as Bangkok Metro, has an approximate 240,000 daily ridership and costs between 16-40 Baht. The trains run from 6am through to midnight and trains arrive every 5-7 minutes, making this an effective way to travel.
The Skytrain has reduced commute time in Bangkok significantly for many. It reaches most places in Bangkok and while more expensive than taxi, is a welcome alternative to sitting in heavy traffic. There are two lines: Silom runs West to South and Sukhumvit runs North to East converging at Siam, Sala Daeng and Asok stations. While fares range in price, an average trip costs 15-25 Baht.
The bus system in Thailand has a wide range of options. Long distance buses can be classified as follows:
1) Orange buses are the cheapest and slowest, lack air conditioning and stop at every village along the way, making this a cheap way to see local sights and culture, though they are not very comfortable.
2) Blue buses are usually privately or government operated. They are more comfortable, with air conditioning, and only stop in big cities.
3) VIP buses, also known as luxury buses, are great for long distance travel with lots of leg room and comfortable seats. Air conditioning can make it a cold trip so a blanket is often provided, as is a free meal and/or 30 minute stop along the way.
For city travel, there are usually 4 options: public, non-air conditioned buses cost about 7-8.5 Baht per ride. Air conditioned buses range from 9-19 Baht in price. Red and grey microbuses are also air conditioned and good for longer travel. Prices are approximately 20 Baht per ride.
Buses are among the most affordable modes of transportation and as such can become quite crammed during rush hour; it is important to guard any valuables on your person as crowded buses provide an opportunity for pick-pocketers to go undetected.
Other Modes of Transportation
Other modes of transportation that are available for ESL teachers include:
Motorcycle taxis are easily identified as the drivers are clad in orange or red vests. It is a great option for beating the traffic on short trips, although it does carry risks. Beyond being directly exposed to the air pollution, some motorcycle taxis can be aggressive drivers and exacerbate the normal risks identified with this type of transportation. Should this be the transportation mode of choice, one should be careful to keep knees in tight and wear a helmet. Helmets are required by law and you will be the one fined if pulled over so be sure to hail a taxi with an extra helmet.
Cycling is a common mode of transportation in Thailand. The following should be considered for this option:
- Avoid having loose-hanging bags. A securely fitting backpack is ideal.
- Keep a raincoat in a backpack for the common torrential downpours during rainy season.
- Wear some type of reflective clothing at night and sunglasses during the day.
- Avoid “seedy” areas, especially at night.
- Keep bike under lock and key when not in use.
ESL teachers wanting to operate a motor vehicle in Thailand must obtain an International Driving Permit from their home country or posses a Thai Driver’s Licence. While police may be lenient, a Thai Driver’s Licence rather than an international one is required for insurance once in country for three months. Carrying the Thai Driver’s licence is a good alternative to carrying a passport for identification.
Required documentation for a Thai Driver’s Licence:
- Letter of address/visa confirmation from the applicant's embassy– usually costs approximately 200 Baht. Two passport photos are required. Women’s shoulders must be covered for official photos.
- Doctor’s letter within 30 days of applying for license (“Fit to Drive”) – approximately 200 Baht.
- Passport plus 1 signed copy of: face page, visa page, current TM6 card and latest entry stamp page.
- Current home country driver’s license with one signed copy of each page.
- 105 Baht.
The first licence is issued for one year and is often referred to as a temporary or provisional licence.
In case of a motor vehicle accident, determining the party at fault is generally based upon who has the more expensive vehicle, and should a foreigner be among those involved, he/she may bear the responsibility. Fines associated with accidents are sometimes proportionate to the amount of money in one’s wallet or bank account.
One should not call traffic police at an accident, as they would generally factor in a fine (or bribe) that they would keep for themselves. Instead, call the tourist police if you are in Bangkok or a major tourist area and they will send someone to assist you. Take photos of the accident at every possible angle and provide these to your insurance company. Also gather as much information about the other driver as possible but stay calm and let a cool head prevail.
Thailand’s culture, as in most Asian countries, is based on respect and honour. Keeping this in mind when considering various customs and points of etiquette, will give greater understanding and clarity while in-country.
Some other examples of commonly practiced customs and etiquette ESL teachers should know include:
- The “wai” (palms of the hands together in a prayer-like fashion) along with a slight bow, is the most common Thai greeting; shaking hands is not a common greeting. One’s social status is reflected in the use of the wai. A superior would not initiate the wai and would, if initiated by someone else, simply return it with a smile. Using the wai to greet children, clerks or waitresses would indicate that one is not familiar with Thai customs.
- Thai people are non-confrontational and gracious. Avoid a raised voice or the appearance of anger. Conflict is best handled in a calm, controlled manner, out of sight of other people, avoiding loss of face.
- Patience is essential.
- As monks are highly esteemed in Thailand, they should receive preferential treatment, such as giving them the seat closest to the door on buses. One should avoid sitting next to a monk and a woman should never touch a monk.
- Thais believe that the head is the most sacred part of the body and as such, it would be very poor etiquette to touch one’s head (or even shoulder). To stand over someone who is of higher social status (including someone older and wiser) is also considered poor etiquette. Bowing one’s head to show respect and courtesy is appropriate.
- The foot is considered to be the lowest, most unholy part of the body. One should never point with their foot or show the bottom of their feet. Ensure your feet don't point at anyone when sitting.
- As in many Asian cultures, the left hand is considered unclean. Using the left hand to give or receive a gift, pass food, or to shake someone’s hand should be avoided.
- Shoes should be removed before entering a home unless otherwise directed.
- Coarse language and jesting is inappropriate.
- Modest clothing is advised for men and women. Shorts are often deemed inappropriate when worn by adults. Slacks and dresses are better.
- Affection between members of the same sex is very common and not to be interpreted as sexual preference.
- Crossed arms are considered aggressive and boorish
Traditional dining in Thai restaurants is somewhat communal in nature. Generally a group would order their selections as shared dishes. While the younger generation is adopting many western practices, it is helpful to keep the backdrop of traditional culture in mind.
A few things to consider:
- Avoid blowing one’s nose or licking fingers when eating.
- Lingering over the meal and enjoying the conversation suggests your acceptance of the culture, and is a compliment to the host and others present.
- Generally the most well-to-do person at the meal covers the cost. A polite offer to contribute is acceptable but should not be insisted upon as it can cause a loss of face.
- Serving oneself is acceptable, but only in small portions. Taking small portions ensures that there is enough to go around and finishing everything on one’s plate is a compliment to the host/chef.
- It is polite to wait for the host to invite the guests to eat.
- Chopsticks should not be left in one’s bowl as it is a symbol of death.
- The fork is generally used to push food onto one’s spoon.
With 44 consonants, 32 vowels and five pronunciation tones, Thai (Siamese), a tonal language with many similarities to Lao, is the official language in Thailand. Tonal languages tend to have more complexities; however, being open to learning common phrases (and beyond for those ready for a challenge) is a compliment to the Thai people. It would make life in Thailand a richer experience, and add convenience to daily living.
Below is a list of common phrases.
- Please speak more slowly
Pôot cháa long nòi
- I don't understand
Mâi khâo jai
- Where’s the toilet?
Hông náam yòo têe năi?
- How much?
- Very expensive
- Pleased to meet you
Yin dee têe dâi róo jàk
- Excuse me
- Do you speak English?
Kun pôot paa-săa ang-grìt rĕu bplào?
Authentic Thai cuisine generally includes a balance of spicy, sour, sweet, salty and bitter (optional) within each dish or meal. Similar to the French, Thais place a strong emphasis on noticing quality and detail, taking small portions and making a meal linger through the enjoyment of conversation and community.
Rice is a staple in Thailand, as in most Asian countries, and is served at virtually every meal; jasmine and sticky varieties are among the most common. Noodles are also widely used in Thai cuisine, often made from rice. Phat Thai is one of the most common noodle dishes, having become very popular in the West.
Purchasing a meal from a street vendor is extremely inexpensive and usually delicious. Exercising caution when doing so is prudent; avoid meat dishes in extremely hot weather and choose vendors using a cooling device of some sort. Selecting a dish that is well cooked is important.
Tap water is not potable and should not be consumed. Purchasing bottled water is very inexpensive and accessible. As Thailand is a tropical country, keeping hydrated is a priority.
Some of the most popular Thai dishes foreigners choose include:
- Phat Thai (fried noodles)
- Kaeng Khiao Wan Kai (green curry with chicken)
- Phat Kaphrao (fried meat with sweet basil)
- Tom Yam Kung (spicy shrimp soup)
- Tom Kha Gai (chicken in coconut soup)
- Yam Neua (spicy beef salad)
- Phat Siew (wide rice noodle with broccoli and meat)
Three seasons dictate the weather of Thailand: hot, wet, and cool. ESL teachers going to Thailand should consider taking attire to match each of these seasons; however, as clothing is inexpensive, it can be purchased (mostly smaller sizes) or made by a tailor once there. There is some variety in temperature, depending upon the location, with temperatures in the hills being wetter and cooler than in other parts of the country.
Hot Season – The hot season is generally short, typically lasting from mid-March through late May, with daytime temperatures reaching up to 40° Celsius with high humidity.
Wet Season – Monsoon rains kick off the rainy season in late May or early June. The season generally lasts until October. Rarely are there full days of rain: sunny mornings are followed by one to two hours of rain and followed again by sun. On rare occasions in August or September, a typhoon may occur. Temperatures average around 32° Celsius during mid-afternoon and drop to approximately 23° at night.
Cool Season – Beginning in early November and lasting through February or March, the cool season brings with it temperatures averaging around 28° Celsius and dropping as low as 10° at night. During the cool season, there may be as little as one occasion of rainfall per month.
Natural disasters, while rare in Thailand, do occur. Droughts and floods tend to be the most common and most threatening forms of natural disasters in Thailand, affecting the majority of the population. Cyclones are a threat for those living in the northern regions. The December 26, 2004 tsunami which hit Phuket was Thailand’s worst natural disaster to date. Advanced tsunami warning systems are now in place to protect the population.
There is no shortage of holidays in Thailand. Many are based on the lunar calendar, and as such are on different dates from year to year. Although businesses and government offices are closed on public holidays, tourist attractions and shops remain open.
Below is a list of some of the most common holidays:
New Year's Day – January 1
Chinese New Year – lunar calendar
Not a public holiday, but widely celebrated
Makha Bucha – full moon in February
Buddha’s first sermon to his disciples – National holiday
Songkran – Starts April 13
Traditional Thai New Year – National holiday
Chakri Day – April 6
Chakri Day commemorates the founding of the current dynasty, Chakri – National holiday
Labor Day / Raeng Ngan Haeng Chat – May 1
Coronation Day / Chattra Mongkhon – May 5
Celebrates the day in 1950 when the current king was crowned – National holiday
Visakha Bucha – May
Celebrates the birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana of Buddha – National holiday
Buddhist Lent – Eighth lunar month
Marks the beginning of the ‘lent’ period – National holiday
The Queen's Birthday – Aug 12
Chulalongkorn Day – October 23
Celebration on the death of one of Thailand’s most revered kings – National holiday
The King's Birthday – December 5
Constitution Day / Rattha Thammanun – December 10
Celebration of the date in 1932 when the country was granted its first constitution
New Year's Eve / Sin Pi – Dec 31