“Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our decent and will be landing in Chiang Mai, CNX shortly. Please fold away your food tray, place your seat in the upright position, and fasten your seatbelts.”
…Is what I think the captain said as my final two and a half hour flight aboard LionAir began its decent. The first of many times I would infer from context what my interlocutors might be saying to me. I dis embark, and for the first time enter a foreign country as an immigrant. As I’m accustomed to a somewhat unsystematic carrying out of these such obligatory proceedings, I was pleasantly surprised that twenty-five minutes later I was waiting for my perhaps equally unsystematic giant green backpack to roll onto the luggage conveyer belt. The awkward shape and unforgiving size of my backpack called for the use of a trolley, and thus completing my overall look of first time sole traveller. A look which was reinforced with a Cheshire Cat smile peeking out from behind my scarf, which needless to say was the last time I needed that fashion accessory, although it certainly wasn’t the last of the Cheshire Cat smiles.
Thailand, TH: is described as the Land of Smiles, a description which was confirmed within the first few minutes of my arrival. As I walked through the sliding doors, I felt welcomed by the many smiling faces encountering me. Then, almost as an attempt to outshine the smiles, the searing heat embraced me, making a mockery of my scarf. Mr. Dave was picking me up at the airport, and taking me to Eco Resort Chiang Mai, where I would be staying over the next three weeks as part of the Entrust Premium TEFL program to which I was enrolled. Having found Mr. Dave, who now drove us out of the airport parking lot, just as I was beginning to feel the cool air expelled from the vehicles air-conditioning, I noticed a billboard with the words; “Buddha is not for decoration, respect is common sense”. Being guilty of that myself, I realise just how little I knew about this extraordinary country, nor did I really know whether Buddhism was a spiritual, or philosophical way of life or a religion. Immediately I became aware of my juxtaposed position as both aspiring teacher and aspiring student. Through the window I caught glimpses of the outside.
A myriad of motorised scooters and motorcycles darted between lanes, the appearance of defying all traffic rules was offset by a sense of effortlessness conveyed by the drivers, who’s confidence was communicated by the absence of helmets, and number of passengers traveling on a single scooter. Branches of black encased cables haphazardly draped from poll to poll stretched out as far as the road. These cables seemed to lead the way to Eco Resort, as I was soon saying farewell to Mr. Dave, and since I was the first to arrive, would only be saying hello to my fellow course companions the next day. I was nervous, not so much because I was in a foreign country alone, but because I had never shared a room with anyone before, especially not two other girls who I’d never met. With a little help from social media and an absence of privacy settings on the part of the others who I would soon be joined by, I was able to do a tiny bit of snooping allowing me to recognise my roommates upon arrival.
Nestled in nature, Eco Resort, which was soon referred to as Eco’s, was a backpackers paradise spread out over grassy gardens homing ancient trees. A whimsical setting, with stepping stone paths to secret koi ponds, and tucked away benches. On the other side of the resort a more modern feeling is achieved by sun-loungers scattered around a crystal clear swimming pool, and to the right a shaded area hosting a table tennis table and the all important laundry room. As the day drew to an end, and my first night alone in Thailand was quickly approaching, I was feeling a little homesick. My first night was pretty uneventful, as I was only brave enough to venture up the road to a coffee shop before going back to Eco’s. I sought comfort in holding the feeling of jet lag responsible for having gone to bed early that night, and thought instead I would wake up early and channel my inner explorer then. It was two days before I met anyone else enrolled in the course, during which my nervousness had dissolved and was replaced by the feeling of delight at the thought of exploring with other people. I would never have guessed that a text message asking, “Where you at girl? We’re at the restaurant” would be the beginning of an unbreakable friendship. It was a friendship forged in shared experiences, a passion for teaching, mosquito bites and one very messy room. The three of us who had arrived early, had the weekend to get acquainted with not only each other but the incredible city we found ourselves in.
We arrived the weekend before class started, which unbeknown to us was the celebration of Chinese New Year as well as the Chiangmai flower festival and parade. It was by accident that the three of us found out about these festivities, and how lucky we were that we did, since it was an experience which left us dazzled. As we followed the sound of the music down the street we could feel the energy rising. People gathered in the streets, which had been transformed into a stage where colourfully dressed dancers moved those watching with their graceful movements. A synchrony of straw hats marching behind, brightly coloured flowers took the shape of mythical creatures which were pulled on wheeled platforms. Ancient buildings and iconic gold temples formed the backdrop to the parade. Fallen flowers dyed the streets purple, which we carried on the bottom of our shoes all the way back to the resort. As if to stick to our shoes like a memory in our minds.
There were ten of us who had enrolled in the course that February, and what an incredible group we were, so kind and supportive. Before the end of the first week, we had become our very own little Thailand family. The week began that Monday morning, it was the first day of our TEFL course, and our course facilitator and lecturer was meeting us at Eco’s that morning, at 8:30am sharp. To ensure that we weren’t late, we decided to meet at the Eco’s restaurant for an early breakfast. The mood was slightly sleepy, with only a hint of first-day-jitters. Our minds had been put at ease by the very comprehensive welcome pack which we had all received prior to our arrival in Thailand. As we sat together eating breakfast, each of us having found something to our liking since the breakfast buffet seemed to exceed all of our expectations, and having rounded the meal off with a few pieces of fruit, it was time to gather outside the hotel foyer and meet our new TEFL lecturer.
Our lecturer made his presence known by having a folder and pen in his hands, with a list of all our names that one by one he ticked off before we left Eco’s. It was only a ten minute walk to the Entrust TEFL’s training centre, and it happened to be ten minutes in a direction that, before then, most of us hadn’t walked. We removed our shoes, and placed them to the side of the ground story floor of the Entrust training centre, along with the all the others. It is customary to removes one’s shoes before entering a building such as a temple or someones home, since the bottom of one’s shoes are dirty, and are therefore left outside to be retrieved when one is leaving. This speaks to the nature of Thai’s, who in general seem consistently trustworthy, and have an inspiring sense of integrity. Whether the shoes left outside were expensive brand new sneakers, rugged hiking boots or everyday flip-flops they were right where we left them upon our return. Up we went, to the third story where our classroom was situated. We each made our way to one of the colourful chairs and adjoining desks, a selection that might have revealed something of our character, or perhaps only our vision.
First, we had our course, where introductions were made, expectations put forward, and a general overview of the course structure and events to come clarified. Each of us were handed a rather big blue book containing our study material, material that would almost certainly come in handy in our teaching days to come. After an opportunity to ask any questions and before a quick break we returned and resumed with a lesson on the history of English. The rest of the day seemed to fly by, with it being probably the most theoretically dense and thus justifying our decision to head out later that evening for some live music and street food. We ventured out a bit further than we had done over the weekend, and stumbled upon the Kalare Night Bazar.
It was a taste and sound sensation, with local singers and songwriters showcasing their talents on a brightly lit stage. There were food stalls with foods from around the world which formed a square like shape around rows of tables.
By the end of the course, we had become regulars, and returned to the same seats at the front of the stage almost every night. We even found ourselves at the receiving end of a wave hello from a number of the bands who played during the week. This was probably because we all sang along, whoo’ed and cheered, we even had a talented musician in the group who on occasion would join the band on stage.
The next day we had our first test, and soon began our peer-to-peer reviews which required us to practice our teaching in front of the class. Although this was at first, very daunting, it ended up being a lot of fun, and great practice for our prospective job as teachers. During the week we were assigned, at random, topics according to which we would plan a lesson and teach to the class at the weeks end. My topic was the weather, which I liked, as it was slightly different to the others as it required the question word “how” rather than “what”; for I would ask “how is the weather?” and not “what is the weather?”. We practiced as a group in the evenings, and brainstormed new games that would be (1) fun, (2) elicit the vocabulary and (3) be easy and affordable to set up. For the most part, our games could be played with a number of plastic cups and a pingpong ball. You’d be surprised just how many vocabulary or content eliciting games can be played with just these few items.
Since February is a short month we powered through our workload that week, as that Friday we had our first Thai cultural excursion. It was absolutely a manageable workload, and worth it anyway as we had something very exciting that we were working toward. Early on the morning of our first excursion we hopped onto the back of the songthaew (‘red car’ in English), which is a popular mode of public transport in Thailand consisting of two rows of parallel seats in the back of pick-up truck or bakkie (depending on where you come from). And off we went, first stop Bai Orchid And Butterfly Farm. We wondered though the thousands of different coloured orchids to the tranquil sounds of a small waterfall trickling nearby.
The scent of fragrant blooms seemed to tickle the inside of my nose, while the gentle trickle teased my ears. A dangling curtain made of beads hung before me, I pulled it back, and entered a magical place where billions of butterflies flew, their scaly wings reflecting rays on sunlight that danced across the dew soaked leaves.
Next up was the elephant rescue centre, which we drove along windy roads that pathed a way through dense forests that populated the mountainside to reach. The higher up the mountain we drove, the cooler the air outside began to feel as it blew so generously through the back of the songthaew. We knew we were getting closer as the smell of earthy dung was begging me to remember home once again. The scent had the hallmarks of the African bush, to which I am no stranger. I watched as the rest of the group made their way down to the river, where they would help give the elephants a bath. I had made my very own friend that day, a little brown dog, who like the elephants scent reminded me of home. It was beautiful looking out over the farm-like lands that swept along the mountainside. We must have worked up quite an appetite as our tummies began to grumble.
So off we went, and this time our destination was a charming little restaurant made of wood which was perched along the riverbed. It was the river that we would be white water rafting down after lunch. We enjoyed a fabulous Thai lunch, followed by more of Thailands mouthwatering fruit.
Then we pulled in our bellies, put on our lifejackets, divided ourselves into groups and boarded our rafts. It really was the perfect activity to do on such a warm day. Our group was spread out over three rafts, which we took as an invitation to wade up to the other rafts and with our paddles splash each other playfully. Along the river we could see wooden houses, some on stilts. Some had big wooden decks that extended out over the river, while others were more modest and seemed concealed behind straw walls. Children were playing on the rivers edge, and waved as we paddled by. I noticed a man who made his way across the river along a wire reaching both sides. He held the wire which stood just above his head, and as we passed by smiled.
Rafting through the rapids, that day, we peeked into the lives of those who lived along the river. We were all so privileged to be floating down the river as the rest of the world seemed to go about its day as normal. Clothes were being washed, animals being fed, and patient fishermen sank their lines to wait for fish to bite. It seemed such a humble peaceful way of life, I thought while sat aboard the raft. It’s easy, I suppose, to see the lives of others through a nostalgic romanticised lens, but knowing quite well the effort it took, and work required to live in such a remote and isolated place, I couldn’t help but be swept up in the tranquility of it all. We had one last excursion that day, and headed this time down the mountain into the ever increasing warm that didn’t so much creep up on us as it did hurdle towards us. The last excursion of that day was a hike to a hidden waterfall. The path, at first, seemed indistinguishable from anything else, as if claimed by shrubs and trees. It wasn’t far that we had hiked, nor was it very hard, and soon enough we could see the natural rocky waterfall that peaked out from the trees. The water carved its way between two large rocks on either side, where those brave enough would slide. I left my shoes where they’d stay dry, and dipped my feet into the water. It was so clear I could see right down to the bottom. We cheered encouragingly from below the waterfall and watched the brave slide down. There was a somber feeling as we drove back to Eco’s, and I was overcome with a sense of calm. This was the first time I had ever been so at ease with people I hadn’t long met.
As the second week beckoned toward us, we practiced for our teaching practical. We knew that soon we would be teaching at a school, and needed to master these teaching steps. The majority of the second week was dedicated to teaching and reviewing, with a few tests and assignments dispersed over its duration. We tended to spend our lunch break at either one of two places that were both nearby. My tastebuds were tantalised by som tam (spicy green papaya salad), pad Thai (Thai style fried noodles), pad boong (morning glory) and a delicious decadent coco and banana smoothie. In Chiang Mai I found myself spoilt for choice when it came to food and eating out, as there was an abundance of vegan and vegetarian options. I rather enjoy a spicy meal, a craving easily satisfied by Thai food. This love affair with Thai food began with enticing aromatic spices, and although sometimes my love was unrequited, it was often met with a flavourful fuse of coriander and cloves, crushed chillies, peppercorns and lemongrass that charmed my tastebuds. We worked hard that week, so good food was essential. It was our last full week of the course, and the last week before our real life teaching practical, so it was jam-packed with assignments, tests and teaching practice. We had all printed out and laminated a set of teaching flashcards, each of which were designed to teach vocabulary pertaining to our given topics. There were six vocabulary words in total in addition to the topic word.
This was the first full lesson I had ever planned, and it was all very exciting. I was looking forward to seeing how different it was teaching the lesson to actual students as opposed to my classmates, who happened to have a very good grasp on the English language. It was such fun walking into class with the material that would allow us to set up and play our chosen games, together with our colourful laminated flashcards. I started to get the sense of what it might be like to actually be a TEFL teacher. I think my favourite section we covered during the course was teaching grammar and the eight parts of speech. This might have something to do with my love of reading and writing but it was also partly due to the way in which it was taught to us. It was very innovative insofar as a clever use of multimedia was used to show just how easy it might be to teach these somewhat tricky topics to foreign English language leaners.
During our first week of the course we had our photograph taken and recorded a short video that was posted online for prospective employers to watch and contact us if they wanted an interview or to hire us. I have never been very comfortable in front of a camera, and this was no different. I ended my video saying: “…and together we can conquer the world”. It was nothing short of a direct contradiction to my character, and something I don’t think I have ever said before. However, during the second week, I found out that a company had seen my video, and wanted to interview me over the phone. I was so excited, as it meant moving to Rayong, and exploring a new part of Thailand. I made sure to avoid any phrases that might give the wrong impression about me, and luckily, the interview went really well. It was all very exciting, as one by one we seemed to be getting placed in various jobs and were all soon going to be scattered around Thailand. It was perhaps a bittersweet moment as it suddenly dawned on me that after the course, it would be a while before I‘d see anyone else from the group again. Luckily we had the rest of the course and another fun cultural immersion trip to enjoy before goodbyes were in order. We were invited to join the various government sectors in their very own imitation of a school fun day. We wore our Entrust shirts proudly that day, as in sacks we hopped across the school field. Placing last in every race would not stop us try with all our might to make it to the finish line, whether in a sack or with the last swing of our banana racket that sent our pingpong ball to the other side. We sprinted, relayed, popped balloons, and felt like Superheroes, since the first race we played was called Super Girl/Man. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much in my life as I did during that race. It was a wonderful fun day, and a great way to mingle with and meet some new people. Thai humour was revealed that day, and it sure did make me laugh. Everyone was so friendly and made such an effort to include us in the event.
Our leisurely start to immersing ourselves in Thai culture began this time with a guided meditation and mindfulness of breathing session which was lead by a monk. We sat with folded legs on a wooden platform raised slightly above the ground. Towering trees blocked out the bright sun, chipper chirps of birds that seemed to chatter and chirr to each other through the overhanging branches. The recognisable orange robe worn was a symbol of our guides’ dedication, and a pillar of his faith. Monks are seemingly the embodiment of discipline, yet he sat before us with a big grin on his face, and told us we were about to have some fun. In Thailand, monks are primarily a representation of Buddhism. They are responsible for preserving and carrying out the teachings of Buddha, and dedicate their lives to scholarship or meditation. I took a deep breath in, and slowly out as my arms and hands moved up and down with each breath in and out. Breath and repeat, not unlike real life, our first valuable lesson of that day. We were all very relaxed and ready for muay Thai, which was next agenda and took place just over a little arched bridge a few meters away.
Our Kru, otherwise known in English as teacher, was a former muay Thai champion, a master in his own right. We grabbed some boxing gloves, formed a circle and stood in flighting stance. We braced ourselves for stiff legs later as Kru counted: “Sŏon, nèung, sŏng, săam…”. Muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing, is a traditional Thai martial art that originated during the Medieval period. How it distinguishes itself from other forms of kickboxing is that you can use your elbows and knees, and has been a massive influence in modern-day mixed martial arts (MMA). After trying our luck in the kickboxing ring we swapped our gloves for robes.
Next up was the herbal steam room, as signalled by the scent of herbs which clung to the air and wafted past my nose. Unfortunately, I did not attend the rest of the activities that day, as my poorly packed giant green backpack caused a slipped disk in my back. I have no doubt, that I missed out on loads more fun as off the others went to a shinning Silver Temple, where they took part in a traditional ceremony, made key rings and received a blessing for a monk (something I should have considered). I can however, say that the Thai hospital system is highly organised and efficient. I was in; diagnosed and out in under an hour and received plenty of care during the time I spent waiting.
Before long, the day we had been waiting for arrived, the first of our three day teaching practical exam, our chance to teach at a real school. We all dressed up smartly, some in collars and ties, others in high-heels, but we all had one thing in common: we all looked great. Myself and three others would teach kindergarten first, followed by prathom, which is Thai for primary school, and lastly mathayom, high school. It was really a wonderful experience, one in which I learned a lot. Teaching kindergarten was a great way to start the day off, as the students were so full of energy and loved played games. They taught us a few song and dance moves, and then together we sang… “baby shark…du, du, du, du, du, du…baby shark”. I cannot help but smile when I think about that song. The school prepared a feast for us too, and the students helped make us a colourful dessert. We really were spoilt rotten, and even ended up having a photoshoot by a local photographer who owned a coffee shop down the road. With soaring energy levels and very full bellies we headed off to our next school.
This is also where we met the others form the TEFL group, as it was a big school with many classes. All the students seemed pleased that we were there, and really got involved with the games. Our lecturer was right when he said that they might be competitive, as once there were points involved, the students seemed to master the vocabulary. I realised that day why I wanted to teach English as a foreign language; it was because I had always wanted to feel like I was doing something good with my efforts, something that might contribute to the broader society in a positive way, and maybe, just maybe do something small that might change peoples lives for the better. If every teacher inspires just one student, and makes a positive difference in that one students life over and above just teaching them, it is enough to make you want to wake up in the morning, and do it all over again. It’s an indescribable feeling to witness the moment where suddenly your students understand. They’ve got it, and the content makes sense. I feel privileged to be part of the learning process, to see them go from struggling and grappling with the work to grasping it. At the end of the day the students joined us outside as we waited to be picked up from the school, and handed us stickers and cards to thank us for teaching then. It seemed like we should have been the ones’ thanking them, for being such remarkable students and really easing our transition from students to teachers.
Since we had a bit of time before the songthaew arrived, we took the opportunity to play with the students one last time. It seemed to be their highlight, as squeals and laughter echoed in the abandoned classrooms. Some students were being spun around, others were excited to show us how well they balanced as they stepped from pencil shaped polls that protruded from the ground. We all posed for photographs, and took loads of selfies with the students, who seemed to have their poses down pat.
Soon it was time to say goodbye, with hugs all around, smiles and waves, the final few stickers and hearts stuck onto our shirts, we jumped into the back of the songthaew and off we went. We had done it, and it had been remarkable, three days I will never forget.
With the teaching practical over, we had only one last day of the course. It was our graduation day, but first, as a final attempt to immerse us into Thai culture, we had a Thai language lesson in the morning, followed by lunch, and after which was our graduation. We took our seats, and were handed a booklet which contained a number of useful Thai phrases together with the English translation as well as notes on intonation. I should mention that this booklet has stayed in my bag ever since, for I refer to it on a regular basis when trying to communicate or order food. We went around the room, and learnt how to introduce ourselves, respond to basic questions like how are you, and where are your from, before learning how to ask those questions yourselves. It was not only lots of fun, but as you can imagine incredibly useful. We all sat together and ate lunch at the local spot for the last time, and although it was sad, we still had that evening which was all planned out and the entire group and course instructors were joining us.
Our graduation was lovely, and a wonderful way to round off the three weeks we had spent together learning to be rockstar teachers. Soon enough we would be saying goodbye and boarding flights or busses that would take us to our new homes all around Thailand. We were ready, and knew that with the support from each other and all the experience we had gained from the Entrust TEFL course, that we would be wonderful enthusiastic teachers. That evening we were all meeting at a rooftop restaurant, from which you could see flickering lights in the distance that looked as if they were merely floating in the sky.
As it so happened, they were lights from a temple that was perched on the top of a mountain in the distance. What a beautiful tranquil place that must have been. The lights on the street below danced under the night sky, as we celebrated and enjoyed this beautiful city. I had booked my flight, and was leaving early the next morning, but even so I wanted to stay out with everyone, almost as if to soak them all in before we went our separate ways. There was no doubt that I would see these people again, for as I said, we had become our very own Thailand family. The following month we all met up. We exchanged stories and photographs, and one thing was clear, that we had indeed become rockstar teachers.