Bangkok vs Chiang Mai

How do the two biggest cities in Thailand measure up?

Dear Ajarns and prospective Ajarns,

A couple months ago, I told Webmaster Phil that I would be willing to author a few paragraphs about my experience teaching in Thailand. He said he would appreciate that and so here they are:

I moved to Thailand from America on September 25, 2001. I had come earlier in July/August to interview at several schools in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I was fifty-five at the time and was unwilling (terrified) to just quit my job of twenty years, pack up, and trust that I would be able to find work. As it turns out, doing that would have worked out fine, but I know I felt a lot more secure, while quitting my job and making the change, knowing I had a good position waiting for me here.

I should mention that I have a master's degree in T.E.F.L. I had been working at a university in America (not teaching) and had free tuition as one of my benefits. When I decided to act out my decade-long dream to come live in Thailand, I got my master's first. I also taught for two semesters in America before coming here. I say this because a master's degree (and some experience) was required for both the jobs I have had here.

Let me tell you, while I think if it, that I have not regretted coming to Thailand for even one minute. I'm not happy every moment, but I have zero regrets about having come here. I am sure I would be full of them if I had not.

Thailand is an amazing country, just like the slogan says. The people are wonderful and it's definitely an adventure to live here. However, I wouldn't say it's for everyone. Do your homework. An interesting site is http://www.stickmanbangkok.com/ on which there is a (150 page) section on teaching in Bangkok. A good site to visit if you want to work at a university is http://www.inter.mua.go.th/glance/index1.html which lists every university in The Kingdom and helpfully sorts them by private and public. You are on the definitive site for job hunting.

I have never been interested in working at any position other than a full-time lecturer at a university. I would not be good teaching kids and I have no interest in language schools or traveling around doing corporate work. There are some tempting jobs at resorts down south teaching hotel staff. The pay is good - about 40,000 baht per month - but some properties that employ English teachers are a bit isolated. I decided to work at universities and am now working at my second.

My first post was as the full-time contract advisor of Fundamental Skills in the English Department of a big government university in Chiang Mai. At the time, the school had six "contracts" and twenty-five part-timers. It was a fine job in most ways. The campus is very beautiful and Chiang Mai is a nice town. I'm in BKK now, and I miss many things about CM. For instance, I had a nice studio apartment in a great building with a beautiful mountain view for 5,000 per month.

The single biggest difference between the various universities in Thailand is whether or not they are government schools. Most people here would generally say that the best universities in the Kingdom are Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, and Kasetsart. All three are government schools. The problem with all pubic schools is the pay. The current remuneration for a full-time contract at government schools is 25,580 baht per month.

That isn't much and the number hasn't changed in many years. Government schools (as of the last time I had inside information) are supposed to start cost-recovery next month. In my opinion, that process could get ugly. I certainly wouldn't be hoping for a raise this year if I were at a government school (not that you'd ever have gotten one before).

I have been in touch with a former colleague who's at Thammasat (Rangsit) now. He gets a lot of extra work outside his contract - seven hours a week at 1,000 per hour. That schedule comes to about 55,000 per month if the extra work is steady, which it never is. More importantly, seven hours a week, outside normal hours, is a lot of work.

My contract in CM only called for teaching seven courses a year, three in one term and four in the other. That's only nine contact hours a week for one term and twelve hours a week for the other, and there are plenty of weeks with no classes. Don't get too happy - they have plenty of other work for you to do. Edit this and then proofread that. Write a test, take a meeting, and by the way - be there 9 to 4:30 weekdays. After a couple months I noticed I was working seven days a week to keep up. I mentioned this to my supervisor and was told that everyone was working evenings and weekends. The workload did get better after my complaint, but I lost political points. Don't imagine those are unimportant. I had been told that I would have the opportunity to teach extra classes for extra money, but I only got one extra class in a year.

Supply and demand in Chiang Mai has kept the price for teachers low. My school paid the part-timers 250 baht per hour - with fifteen hours a week the maximum permitted. That's only 16,250 per month if you have work every week, which you never do. Good luck during the long summer vacation. Most of the part-timers had second jobs at language schools. The most convenient way to live while working at a government school is to have your own money.

250 baht per hour was the standard at language schools as well. Everybody wants to work in Chiang Mai. The best job I ever heard of in CM was at the British Council for 30,000 per month, and if you're not English, save your time. Anyway, I couldn't live on 25,580, even in CM. It can be done for sure, but not living in the style I prefer. I have a car, I go out a lot, and I don't like to skimp. Luckily, I don't drink. Forget about saving anything.

The facilities at the university left a lot to be desired. There were six computers for all the teachers, but that didn't matter much because the connection was so slow you couldn't really do anything on them anyway. I did all my computer work at home on a much faster connection (which was still slow).

Another thing I never got used to was the lack of air-conditioning. I never had a classroom with aircon. Half my classrooms didn't even have a fan. Yes, Chiang Mai is a little cooler than Bangkok, but it still gets plenty hot. I started wearing white shirts because they don't look quite as bad when soaked in sweat. Some teachers carried their own fan around, but I couldn't do that.

Government schools are bureaucratic. They are not open to change. Everything is done "by the book". The textbooks I used were grammar-based and produced by the school. Since the courses for which I was mainly responsible were taught to the whole university (sometimes forty sections), there was zero room for creativity. That's fine if you like that. Get your teacher's book and (after reconciling it to the text) find that for the first ten minutes of the lesson for Tuesday you do so-and-so. The next fifteen you do this-and-such. There were coordinators and co-coordinators for every course. There were overall coordinators, sub-overall coordinators, and test committees. And if your grammar knowledge isn't perfect - keep it to yourself. I'm serious.

Don't get me wrong - I'm very proud and happy to have been at the school in CM. My colleagues were very nice, the students were fine, and my lifestyle was good (with a little help from savings). As I mentioned, the campus is beautiful. It was the perfect place to start, but I finished my one-year contract and moved on. Most of the best teaching jobs are in Bangkok and that's where I am now.

Had I started in BKK, I may have been swamped by culture shock. This is a town that eats the weak. It's huge, the air is dirty, the traffic is as bad as its reputation and it's hot as hell. I pay 15,000 a month for my apartment (but it is nicer than my place in CM). You can get an apartment for a lot less, but I like a nice apartment, I live alone, and I want to be relatively close to my work. (You really don't want to set yourself up with a cross-town commute in Bangkok). The Big Mango is not without some considerable advantages as well. It took some getting used to, but I'm happy here now.

I have a great job now. As you might imagine, I'm at a private university. I choose not to name it. I want to write some details and don't want to compromise the privacy of my administration or my colleagues.

My base pay is 40,000 baht per month before taxes, which run a little under 10%. Eight periods a week of seventy minutes each are required to earn base. That's nine hours and twenty minutes of contact a week. You could live here in BKK on 40,000 - plenty of people make it on less. For me though, 40K here is about like 25K was in CM. The good news is that at my current school I make a lot of money besides the base salary.

Permit me to remind readers of a fact I mentioned at the start of this story. I have a Master's of Science in Education with a major in Teaching English as a Second Language. By the time I accepted my current position, I had been teaching almost two years, the second at a good school in Thailand. Competition for jobs at the top tier schools is keen, even at the government schools. From my experience, without a master's, they're impossible to get. I take my responsibilities seriously, as do all my colleagues. I'm twice the age of some of them, but we are all professionals. We're held to a high standard.

I am allowed to teach up to a maximum of six extra hours a week. I rarely get that much. This summer I will have two hours a week of extra work. For the fall term, I will have five extra periods per week, the same as I had last semester. This extra work is paid at an extremely good rate - over 1,250 per hour. I made exactly 73,000 in April, my best month yet and pretty close to the best month possible. I will average a little over 60,000 per month (before taxes) year round. I don't feel guilty when I cash my checks.

That's because thirteen periods a week is plenty of work. That's fifteen hours and ten minutes a week of contact, which is a lot, even if you have only three different courses. I teach only four days a week, so I have a day that I have to be in the office but don't teach. That's a pretty good thing. It gives me time to plan lessons. I get Sundays and Mondays off. That will change to Saturday and Sunday next semester. I shudder when I read ads on this site that offer a pittance for 25 contact hours a week, sometimes five and a half days a week. That would be too much, even if you had only one course.

I signed a two-year contract last October. I get two weeks vacation per year and two paid weeklong semester breaks a year. Arranging time off for Christmas is no problem. In CM, I got the two weeks vacation but no other time off, and couldn't go home for Christmas because we had midterms then.

My hours are actually worse now, in that I have to be at work from 8:30 to 5:00. But in six months at my current job I have done the same amount of those time-consuming extra jobs that I used to do in a week in CM. Now, I mainly teach. The rest of the time in the office I use to plan lessons and meet with students. Nobody is watching so I could actually do pretty much as I please, but it's OK with me to be in my office - it's nice.

Another great thing about my current school is the facilities. I have a computer on my desk and the connection is good. I have my own (little) office. Every inch of my campus has aircon. I have a computer in every classroom, most with Internet. I have digital overhead projectors and sound systems. I do most of my lessons on PowerPoint or MSWord and use the Internet a lot.

Another big difference between my two schools is the help I get with visas and work permits. Now I go with the International Affairs Liaison in a chauffeured aircon university car, smile on cue to the official (to whom I am not required to speak), and pay the fee. In CM they told us (approximately) where the Immigration, Employment, and Tax Offices were located and sometimes provided the requisite documentation. Other than that, we were on our own. It was frequently a nightmare. I couldn't recommend working for a school that doesn't give you some help with Immigration, and I personally wouldn't work without a permit.

A huge difference between the two jobs I've had is in the way the fundamental responsibilities are delegated. In Chiang Mai everything was provided and there was no room left for a single discretionary activity. By contrast, my current school gives me total freedom. I get a course description and decide everything else for myself. I select the textbook, design the curriculum, syllabus, and outline and teach (usually) all the sections of the course. Total freedom does bring total responsibility. I prefer this way.

One final difference is quite important to me. I'll be fifty-eight this year. At government schools you may not have a full-time contract after the mandatory retirement age in Thailand, which is sixty. You may continue as full-time part-time but you may not have a contract. At private schools they are much less strict about this. Since I don't have much savings, can't take even early Social Security until I'm sixty-two, and have no plans to go back to America to teach, this is a very good thing.

That's about all I have to say for now. I hope my words have been some help.

Ajarn A

Here is a ranking of language schools in Chiang Mai that I constructed after conducting a fact-finding mission and is based on hard evidence from interviews with rivals and former teachers. I think it is fair and if anyone challenges it, I have data on class size and all of the other relevant info. Chiang Mai is vastly different from Bangkok for several reasons: 1) population size (2 million in the province, 150,00 in the city); 2) 100 baht an hour for a group class is considered expensive; 3) courses for young learners are tricky to schedule because most take extra classes (science, math, Thai, etc) on Saturdays, leaving only Sunday); and 4) most schools close at 8pm on weekdays and 5pm on weekends, with few able to offer morning or aftermoon group classes unless they are corporate ones.

Ranking of Language Schools in Chiang Mai by Prestige and Academic Quality

This list is based on a comprehensive survey from May to June 2003. It includes considerations such as: teacher qualifications and experience, number of proficiency levels; class size, curriculum; course management system; and school facilities (computers, language lab, etc)

Level 1: British Council, Australia Centre, English First, Princeton
Review

Level 2: London House, Direct English, AUA, King's College

Level 3: ECC, CEC, Education Mall, Interlanguage Education
Centre, Prestige

Level 4: NES, Teya

Note: This list includes only the most well-known language schools. There are hundreds more, primarily Thai owned and managed.

* AUA used to be a Level I school but its quality has slipped in recent years as testified by former teachers and students. British Council has the largest market share, with 650 young learners (70% of total enrollment). Direct English, affiliated with Pearson Education, is a new school and it's difficult to assess its quality because of its low enrollment. EF Chiang Mai, which officially had a soft opening on May 14th, opened 12 new courses within a month, a new record for language schools in Thailand, and especially remarkable considering that Chiang Mai's city population is only 150,000 and the school opened during the low season. By comparison, it has taken Inlingua and other EF branches in Bangkok over 6 weeks to open a single course. Princeton Review, though in Chiang Mai for one year, has had only 20 students; and the reason for this is simple: its prices are over three times more expensive than any other school in Chiang Mai (18,000 baht for 54 hours).


Comments

I raked in 100K last month in bkk, but that included my classes and tutoring within the school. Regardless, I am still pining for a year in Chiang Mai. The traffic, the air pollution, the impending problems with the government; bkk is not for me. Because you seem to be very proud of your degree, and it seems that it is valuable, I think that you should be paid more in bkk. I am planning on taking a pay cut and headed for CM. To me, quality of life far exceeds the extra money that you ultimately lose in this crazy city. I like a fast pace to an extent, but is bkk still Thailand? I see more whites on the bts than thais during some intervals of the day. I want to live in Thailand, and not a mega city comprised of almost 15 million people gridlocked in traffic snarls and disorder.

Good luck, but I think we are moving in opposite directions. Bangkok has worn me down, and if CM is lacking a night life, then it is my mission to change that. But a day were I am not almost murdered by a dumb ass motorbike driver, is a day when I would rather be in CM.

Don't forget, look both ways before you cross.

By David, Bangkok (2 years ago)

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