THE TRAVEL DILEMMA: ALONE OR AGENCY?
To be a teacher in Thailand, you have two choices. To do it alone, or do it through an agency. I was very close to going it alone as I had heard bad reviews about some agencies taking your money, being unsupportive and not preparing you for the changes you will experience in Thailand. So it’s safe to say I did my research! I came across Xplore Asia through excellent reviews and blog articles about them. Whether it takes you 3 minutes or 3 years to make that step, It’s one of them OMG bubble moments when you realise that that moment has arrived. You feel sick and excited at the same time. You say “Let’s do it!” and pay your deposit. I just made THE step that I have been thinking and dreaming about doing for the past two years. It’s the start of an incredible but scary journey to a new life. Looking back, I am so happy I chose to go through an agency and that I had chosen Xplore Asia. They become your armbands during this transition into teaching in Thailand and the first four weeks of being an Xplore Asia participant was just incredible.
The four weeks with Xplore Asia started when I arrived at the H2 Hotel in Bangkok that was thankfully on the outskirts as I’m a little wimp that didn’t want to deal with the most chaotic city in the world so early into my Thailand adventure. That’s what living a sheltered Valleys life will do to you. The starting line was an all-you-can-eat 6.30am breakfast and the meet and greet with all the other participants on my team. ‘The Red Team’. I know it’s incredibly cliché to go on about the bonds and relationships you make with like-minded people when you travel but it’s also so incredibly true! That’s why I love travelling. For the people you meet and the memories you make together.
There were four teams altogether on the October 2016 group. Red, Yellow, Blue & White. We all set off towards Hua Hin which is about 2-3 hours away from Bangkok by bus. Hua Hin will be our home for the next month while we settle into our new lives in Thailand and train to become TESOL teachers! October is one of the busiest intakes of the year as it is a school holiday for Thailand and a new semester starts in November. Because of this, the Red Team did not stay in the original accommodation that Xplore Asia provides, but in a separate house closer to the main streets called Baan San Pluem. We also had an ‘advisor’ for the Red Team called Vee who was the cherry on our red team scone! ‘Advisor’ quickly turned into ‘Friend’…
Our first day consisted of a tour around Hua Hin, including the very westernised local mall which is really easy to get to on a songtaew to buy the essentials that we needed. I mean everything. Felt like a numpty thinking that Thailand wouldn’t have make-up and essential girly stuff so I became a self-confessed hoarder traveller and there was no need. They had a big supermarket there called TESCO. They sold everything from Thai products to British products. The prices were on opposite ends of the scale but still! The absolute essentials I would suggest purchasing is a fan, toilet roll, hand sanitizer and some school supplies (i.e. markers, pencils, etc.). The mall is also excellent for exchanging money and buying phones, laptops, etc for a much cheaper price than back home. I bought my Samsung Galaxy J7 (equivalent to S7) for 7,500 baht – about £150. Laughing.
We casually rode in luxury in an air-con minibus back to our house where we had the chance to settle in, unpack before we went to the Xplore Asia offices to sort out boring stuff such as rent and other money-related business and we had our very first Thai Language lesson! It can be overwhelming trying to grasp a new language which totally relies on different tones to change the meaning of a word but so much fun too! I’m quickly learning that Thai people do speak broken English so learning Thai is not a means for survival here but to differentiate us as teachers who will be making a life in this country, not just another farang visiting the place. So it’s a goal of mine to learn as much as Thai as I can during my time here.
Over the next few days, Xplore Asia helped us set up things we could’ve never done by ourselves as newcomers in this country such as help setting up a bank account and visa support. We had a few introductory lessons on Thai culture, politics and the TESOL course that we are about to embark on – very helpful. Made me realise that I actually did need my hand holding for a few things and became thankful that I didn’t try to ‘wing it’ by myself. Plus, the people in my Red Team turned out to be pretty darn awesome. By the third day, we had a team chant, matching bandanas and a reputation. There’s team bonding and then slightly above that line were the Red Team.
The first week is a cultural orientation week where we went on multiple excursions to give a flying start in embracing Thai life and culture…
Muay Thai – Basically, boxing. It’s a big deal over here. Wales = Rugby. America = American Football. Thailand = Boxing. So we crammed into this sweat box of a gym and tried out our kickboxing moves with Thai trainers. So much fun. Just be ready for the sweaty gloves. There is an opportunity to purchase lessons with the trainers which a few of our team did and thoroughly enjoyed. Me? Think i’ll stick to something like Zumba…
Elephant Sanctuary – “Elephants & Pineapples” was exactly as it stated on the tin. We visited a pineapple plantation and purchased pineapples to feed the elephants at the sanctuary. These elephants that are being cared for have been rescued from organisations who brutally treated these beautiful creatures and carry people on their backs day in, day out for hours on end. The mistreatment they have endured meant that they can become distraught and upset with loud noises and too many smells (no deodorant or bug spray today!) so they had to be shackled for our safety. It was upsetting to see but we had fun feeding them and spending time with them. They especially love playing with the water. Amazing creatures and something I want to do more of during my time here. So please bear this in mind if you ever purchase a ‘tour’ or a ‘ride’ on an elephant and think about the torture and mistreatment they are going through to give you a cheap 30 minute thrill and a cracking instagram picture. It’s really not worth it…
Buddhist Temple & Meditation – This was my favourite excursion by far. Not only were the views incredible but the temple itself was stunning. My pictures really don’t do it justice. We walked up some stairs which will be a little difficult if it’s hot season but we went early in the cool season so we were good. Sweat = Calorie burn! We got to the top and soaked in the views ahead of us and gave our respects to Buddha in a small prayer room at the top. We then walked back down and headed towards the temple where we mediated with a monk who lives there. The whole experience was fascinating! So women are not allowed to go anywhere near the monks and they cannot touch us. Therefore, men always go to the front when mediating and women stay at the back. The monk told us about himself, the Buddhist religion, the lifestyle of monks here at the temple and led us into 10 minutes of mediation. Meditation requires you to switch off your mind and thoughts and focus on your breathing. Easier said than done! Over-stimulated western brains are extremely hard to shut down. It’s gonna take some time!
Rescue Paws – We visited the rescue paws centre and met some of the residents there who are beyond gorgeous!! We basically spent a few hours playing with these adorable pups and learning about the hard work they do at this charity as they try to rescue street dogs in need of rehabilitation and treatment. This was so nice to see as we had already come across so many street dogs in Hua Hin with no home or owner. It’s really sad. During our time, two dogs that ‘lived’ by Bam Sam Pleum had a litter of puppies but no home. We tried our best to feed and play with these pups but it broke my heart to see them out in the streets during the storms and during the night…
Cooking Class: We also had the privilege of having a Thai Cooking lesson with ‘Maa’ who is the Thai Mother of Explore Asia and an absolute sweetheart! She taught us how to prepare a ‘Som Tam’ which is Papaya Salad and one of my favourite dishes and ‘Pad Thai’ – Thai Fried Noodles, which another favourite! There’s not much Thai food that I don’t like to be honest…
THE TESOL COURSE
So a week into the program, we started our TESOL course with our instructor Paul. TESOL = Teaching English as a Second or Other Language. There are many names for them – TESOL, TEFL, TESL, ESL CELTA… They’re all basically the same. Throughout the course, it made me think about the amount of people who just ‘wing’ a TESOL course online. Looking back now, 2 weeks into teaching, there is not a hell’s chance that an online course could’ve prepared me for teaching English in Asia! Not saying that people don’t do it with success but the practical hands on classroom experience and feedback you get during the course was invaluable. A lot of participants have never taught before so for them it’s not just about learning how to teach, it’s about building confidence, self-esteem and handling classroom management situations.
So during the three weeks of learning and qualifying, a lot of our time was taken up by lesson planning, preparation, homework and sleeping. But we still had time on the weekends to venture out on excursions. We went to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park to explore the Phraya Nakhon Cave which held a small, beautiful Buddhist temple. There was a little hike involved but for those less walkactive, there is an option to get a boat to the beginning of the second hike to the cave. So you still need to pack the hiking boots. The hike is beautiful in itself and then breathtaking when you reach the cave itself and you are presented with this beautiful temple which was built 126 years ago. Xplore Asia recommended this excursion and even organised a pick-up truck taxi to take us. Legends.
We also went to the Pa La Au Waterfalls the following weekend which was an adventure! We decided to go as further as we could into the jungle and swim amongst the waterfalls but that meant extremely slippery rocks, swinging from vines to get to the linking path, crossing rivers… Result = a few lost toenails, a few scrapes and stunning views! We eventually got to our destination. A lake amongst waterfalls. Ready to jump in, I look down and see a thousand fish staring at up at me. So I have this fear thing… Fish and water. Together? Total meltdown. I was encouraged into the water on the back of my friend Luc. He drops me off on a rock facing the waterfalls where everyone had started to jump off. It looked so much fun. I wanted to stick two fingers up to this phobia once and for all! So I started to swim to the rocks with Luc when my old friend anxiety makes an appearance and consumes me. So back to the rock I went to watch everyone do something that presented as being the most fun, easiest thing in the world but for me, it was a challenge I physically could not do today. But one day, I will. Facing fear requires baby steps and I had already made a lot of new fish friends so I had done enough conquering for one day…
Hua Hin itself is an awesome place. It has a quirky night market where we would hang out, get massages, buy bandanas, drink smoothies and eat meat on a stick. We also discovered this cluster of bars and restaurants on the main road behind Bam Sam Pleum and there shining a halo was the most amazing burger place. We ate there a lot. And this reggae bar with the funniest Thai reggae man and his Polish wife. He had dreads down to his feet (not an exaggeration!) and played the piano with his feet! Real quirky people with Chang Mai beer and cocktails made into trees.
Also, there is a place called ‘Dune’ just by the entrance to the beach (also behind Bam Sam Pleum) which had the most expensive cocktails (Happy Hour = 4-7pm) and the most incredible views of the sea, beach and Hua Hin itself.
So eventually, our time in Hua Hin was coming to an end and we had completed our two days of teaching English to local children who were underprivileged which was so much fun and so sweaty! We were in teams of three for the first day and taught Kindergarten. The second day, we were in pairs and taught Primary aged children. Like I said, invaluable experience that, in my opinion, is essential for preparing us for the big, exciting, challenging world of English teaching.
We graduated. We celebrated. We made lifetime, priceless memories. We made promises. We made plans. We laughed. We cried. We became a family. There is nothing like the feeling of meeting people who you just connect with. I met one of my best friends. Travelling welcomes these people into your life for a reason and for that, I am extremely grateful to Xplore Asia for throwing us all into the Red Team boiling pot! We went our separate ways one by one… Until Thailand is ready for the Red Team once more!
My next stop? Krabi.