If you think that teaching English is the only option available for those wishing to work in Thailand, then meet a dozen or so 'lucky' folks who don't call themselves teachers anymore.
Marcus had been teaching in Thailand for three years when he finally got a lucky break. "I worked for several private language schools as both an English and French teacher. I consider myself native speaker fluent in both languages. Unfortunately I hated teaching English and there was never going to be enough work teaching French to be able to pay the bills. What I really wanted to do was start up my own computer troubleshooting business but lacked the start-up capital. If not my own business, I just wanted to work in computers. I disliked the teaching immensely but needed the income it generated. Then purely by chance I met a Thai businessman at the local tennis club. He owned several large condominium buildings in Bangkok and told me that one of his biggest problems was collecting overdue rent from foreign residents. He asked me to come and work for him. All I had to do was refer to a list of late rent-payers and call them up with a reminder. I wouldn't have to meet them face-to-face. It was just a case of giving the residents a friendly 'nudge' with a friendly phone call. The owner didn't mind when I did the work as long as I got the results.
Not only did we negotiate a modest salary of about 20,000 baht a month but I got to live rent-free in one of his condominiums - a place I would never have been able to afford on an English teacher's salary. And so I set to work. I made phone calls for two hours every evening from 7pm to 9pm when the foreign residents were at home. I found the job easy. No one ranted at me down the phone and they duly paid the rent money owing. Don't forget that these were 50,000 baht a month apartments so when you have thirty residents defaulting on that amount of money, it's a problem that needs addressing.
I was able to give up teaching completely and concentrate on developing computer programs, which I hawked around various companies. Eventually I landed a full-time job at a computer company for 60,000 a month. But I still kept the debt-chasing job. That was far too good a number to give up.
Jonathon says "I was in my early twenties when I first came to Thailand. Like so many others, I'd grown disillusioned with life in the UK and the whole nine to five existence, and just knew there was something better out there for me. I got myself a world atlas and a pin...and the rest is history. I knew right from the start that teaching English was the most realistic way of earning enough money to survive, but I never fell into the trap of thinking that it was the only way. I was constantly keeping an ear to the ground for something better. By ‘better', I mean something better-paid than the 150 baht an hour I was earning and something that would rescue me from the daily grind of riding Bangkok buses from one freelance job to another.
I taught English for three very long years. I was actually extremely good at it and the students loved me. Re-enrolments were never ever a problem. But I'd be constantly looking around me at the crummy apartment I was in and the fact that I was living this hand-to mouth, day to day existence. I just couldn't see myself teaching English for years on end. I had in truth, grown to hate it.
My big break came totally out of the blue. I was teaching a group of corporate students and one of them told me that she knew a farang guy (Indian actually) who was looking for a European or American person to sell advertising space in some of Bangkok's best-known ‘middle-class' magazines. I decided to give it a go, and knew from day one that I had found my niche. You need one major quality to sell advertising space in Thailand - you need to have no shame. I've been doing this for six years now, and I never think twice about calling up the head of a company to ask if they are interested in what I've got to offer. If there's an appointment to be got, then I'm the man to get it. I'm aggressive without being pushy and I can flatter people without coming across as insincere. That's been the secret of my success. The rewards have been huge. I've just bought my second condominium cash (I rent out the first one) and I'm smoking around in a brand new motor. My daughter just started international school and I'm earning enough to employ a full-time nanny. Yet underneath, I'm basically the same guy that taught English for 150 baht an hour. You like this, but every Saturday morning, I still give English lessons to a young girl and her mother at their family home because they were my first ever students and they told me they could never study with anyone else. I have increased the rate to 400 baht an hour though (as if I need the money)"
Stories like that of Jonathon's and Marcus's above will undoubtedly lift the spirits of many a dejected teacher. It's very easy to look at the Ministry of Employment's list of occupations prohibited to foreigners and think to yourself ‘is teaching English really all there is?' and indeed one of the most common emails we receive at ajarn.com is from someone who feels that they would be better suited to anything, absolutely anything bar teaching English. These stories are not presented to belittle English language teaching at all, but to show that for some ‘lucky souls' - where there's a will......there's always a way.
Derrick from Reading hated Bangkok from day one. "I really didn't know what people saw in the place. Noisy, dirty, congested hell-hole. I couldn't wait to get out. This was about 1992, and it seemed like even though I loathed Bangkok, I was a prisoner there because Bangkok was where all the jobs were. It wasn't like it is now where you have teaching vacancies the length and breadth of the country. I can't understand why someone would stay in Bangkok now unless they were earning in excess of 50,000 baht a month. I did English teaching for a few months before moving to Hua Hin a bit further south. I was lucky to hook up with a Thai partner who also happened to be a very good business lady, and together we pooled our savings and opened up a small restaurant. As Hua Hin has developed I've gone on to do other things. I'd rather not say what they are but they're well within the realms of the law. I'm convinced that Thailand is a land of immense opportunity but there is certainly a ‘right place at the right time' factor. I'm no businessman but everything I've touched has turned to gold. I guess I've just smiled a lot at people. Yes, that's definitely it. I've kissed a considerable amount of ass over the years, but I certainly don't feel ashamed about it.
"I suppose you might classify me as an in-house company teacher, but I do very little actual face-to-face teaching these days" says Alec from Scotland. I was originally employed by a large multi-national company to give language tuition to as many staff as I possibly could with a bit of proof-reading and help desk work thrown in. As I became more and more familiar with the company's products and the company procedures, I became much more valuable. Now I'm the classic jack-of all-trades. I can meet clients and give sales presentations. I can promote the products and services all over Asia. And it all started from teaching English. Don't get me wrong, I still love to teach but nowadays, I feel I play a crucial part in the overall company itself. Yes, I was lucky to join a company who appreciated my talents. Many companies will employ you as an in-house teacher and see you as exactly that, but take my advice - develop interests in as many areas of the company as possible"
Dave from the USA has worked at many different jobs during his eight years in Thailand, and has an interesting approach. "Networking is what it's all about. There's no secret formula - the more people you meet, the more doors will open. It's common sense really. You have to meet the right people though, and that's usually foreigners in high positions. When I first started out teaching (and I didn't last long at it) I worked with some big-shot financial consultant who was looking to get into something similar over here. He admitted to me that the only reason he signed up as a corporate teacher was to make contacts. As soon as he'd taught three groups of Thai junior managers who'd never made a decision in life between them, he realized that his strategy was all wrong. Meeting the right people is paramount and you rarely/never do that by teaching English.
I joined up with the various chambers of commerce - the Canadian, the British, the American - and as part of the membership deal, you get invited to all sorts of networking evenings by the poolside at some fancy hotel. Sure it can be bloody painful walking around making endless small talk but you'd be amazed how many members will come out with the magical ‘our company could use a guy like you'. These are the jobs that never get advertised. They're out there. They truly are"
Erika, also from the USA, has done well as a freelance writer. "There's nothing radically wrong with teaching English but it just doesn't pay enough. A lot of Americans have crippling student loans still to pay off and earning 25-30,000 baht a month isn't going to put much of a dent in it. I work for several SE Asian magazines and I find that the economic and political magazines pay quite well. But for me, it's the freedom. I tend to be a nocturnal creature, and I can work till three or four in the morning and get up at midday. I just can't imagine me getting up and battling the traffic to get there in time for an eight o clock class. Yeah, working from home is nice"
Barry from the North of England was a victim of the global IT recession so brought his talents as a website designer to Thailand. "I quickly realized two things when it comes to Thais designing websites. They are generally good at the cosmetic ‘fun' things that go into making a professional website, but they lack attention to detail. I decided to get myself a Thai partner and start up on my own, and only approaching the larger companies who had an eye for quality and the budget to match. Believe it or not, I've done really well. I only need one or two good clients a month to give me a very nice living. The marketing side can be a pain - it always is - and I'm not particularly good with negotiating fees but I get by. I'm not outrageously expensive but I'd like to think I'm up there with the best Thailand has to offer in the way of corporate website design. I've even taken on a couple of Thai staff to help with the day-to-day tasks but I keep my eye on them and make sure that every page is proofread at least half a dozen times"
I think many of us have wandered around the weekend market, looking at some of those amazing handicrafts and antiques, and thought about exporting to the west and then sitting back and reaping the cash. For some, the export lark has worked, but for many it's remained just an impossible dream. Benno from Switzerland has been buying up silver jewelry in the Bangrak area of Bangkok for over five years and is already thinking about semi-retirement.
"All I ever dreamt about was living in Thailand, but what was I going to do? I didn't see myself as an English teacher, although I certainly gave it a go. There had to be one thing that I could buy here cheaply and sell at a good profit in the west. The answer was silver jewelry, marcasite jewelry, and a semi-precious stone called Lapis. I researched the markets in several countries around the world and homed in on Italy of all places. I've made a huge killing there.
You have to believe in what you are doing. You will meet obstacles along the way and they will have to be overcome, but there is a market for everything. Never sit back and think that all the good export ideas have already gone"
Find something inexpensive that will sell well abroad and then exploit it. You'll get the same advice from Lester, a confident, slightly brash Londoner, who has been buying up half of Chinatown since quitting his teaching job over two years ago.
"Basically, I sell Thailand-produced goods to people all over the world via internet auctions. It sounds easy but there's a huge learning curve involved. There are payment methods to be worked out, shipping costs to be taken into consideration, and then there's always the time-wasters, but hit it right and you'll make a packet. I'm on first name terms with everyone at the local post office - I traipse down there at least three times a week to send my little packages all over the world. Nothing illegal you understand - simply stuff that people can't get unless they come to Thailand (laughs) and other than that, my lips are sealed. I don't really want the competition" Lester did also mention that he makes six times the amount of money that he did as a teacher.
For some folk it's not about the monetary rewards. Job satisfaction comes high up the list. Trudy from Canada has worked at a graphic design company in Bangkok for 18 months.
"Graphic design has always been my profession and I love living in Thailand, so what a perfect combination. Unfortunately I only earn 20-25K as a graphic designer, which is on a par with the Thai staff. I suppose it's because I work faster than everyone else and can make deadlines. That's how I landed the job. I've heard of several well-paying graphic design positions but I like the people I work with and I come into the office whenever I want (lowers voice to a whisper), But I do teach English a little bit as well"
And finally the movie star - Greg from Newcastle in the north of England. We've all heard the stories of Khao san Road backpackers working as extras for a thousand baht a day and all the grub you can eat, but for Greg, he's found his own niche in the Thai movie industry.
"Look at me. I'm hardly what you'd call Sean Connery, but I'm turning work away left right and center. And well-paid work too! 7,000 baht a day minimum. The film industry can be tiring - loads of standing around doing nothing and waiting for takes, but at 7,000 a day, you don't need many gigs a month to make a comfortable living, and the Thai directors are now finding much larger budgets at their disposal. That said, most of my work is in advertising, so the next time you're at the movie theater and see this big-nosed farang getting out of a helicopter with a bottle of premium whisky - give me a wave. Seriously though, it's all about contacts. It's not what you know but who you know in Thailand"