Gill Morris is a British teacher who has taught English in Thailand on and off for several years. But having moved to Bangkok, Gill discovered she enjoyed nothing more than exploring the city and discovering its ‘hidden side’. And as a result she’s just published a fabulous book on the topic of Bangkok’s European heritage.
Gill, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. Firstly, congratulations on getting your book published. It’s called ‘On the Trail of Bangkok’s European Heritage’. How would you describe the book and what does it contain?
Thank you very much Phil. My book is about Bangkok’s European connections. Since the 16th century, Bangkok has had many relations with several European countries, something that I wasn’t aware of until I stumbled across the information.
So, I decided to write a book about it. It’s a guidebook for people who want to learn about a little of Bangkok’s past. I have walked the streets of Bangkok finding these locations and I hope that others will follow in my footsteps to do the same.
There are many locations around the city; some well-know ones, like Hua Lamphong Railway Station and the Mandarin Hotel but there are a lot of places that are definitely not on the tourist trail; the old customs house or the Chinese clock tower in Lumpini Park for example.
I have mentioned a little of the history but that is just to set the scene, my book is really to get people out and about to discover these locations for themselves. I really hope that people will get as much enjoyment out of getting to know the city as much as I have.
So the inspiration came from you just wandering around the city and getting off the beaten track and thinking ‘hold on, there’s a book in this’?
That’s pretty much what happened. I am always interested in learning about new things and I was doing some research to find out if there were any castles in Thailand when I came across a map, produced by the European Union National Institutes for Culture in Thailand (EUNIC), that had information on European heritage.
I started reading and decided that I was going to start my own little project for my blog. So I made a list of the places I wanted to go and find and started to explore the city. I was so interested in the places I found, plus the fact that I love walking, I thought it would be a good idea if I could create a book so people could go in search of these places for themselves.
Let’s go back in time and get the full Gill Morris story. Where are you from in England Gill, and what did you do there career-wise?
Actually I was born in Scotland, in Edinburgh, but moved to England when I was 12 because my Dad got a job there. So most of my life I lived in Northampton.
My first job was with United Dominions Trust where I worked as as cashier/clerk. Then, in 1992, I got a job with Nationwide Building Society and I was with that company for 16 years. I had many jobs while I was with them, including Senior Customer Adviser, Financial Adviser, Manager, and Senior Mortgage Consultant.
I took a career break in 2008 to go travelling, and returned to my old job as Senior Mortgage Consultant from 2012 to 2014. I took another career break and came back to Thailand.
Yes, I looked at your Linkedin profile and saw that you had held various important positions at financial institutions. But it sounds a world away from the lifestyle you lead nowadays. Is this the story of someone who was desperate to escape the Monday to Friday desk job and routine?
Not really. I had never thought about travelling before and settling in a foreign country. I was always happy just to have a two week holiday every year. I was married before, and my husband and I were at a point of wondering whether we should continue the marriage; we were kind of living separate lives.
So, in 2005, I took myself off to Australia to work out in my head whether we should continue the marriage. That’s when the travel bug bit. Upon my return home we ended things; a mutual decision and I am happy to say we are still friends, but I wanted to go travelling again.
In 2007 I went to Australia again, and then in 2008 I went travelling for 10 months. It was during this extended period of travel that I decided I was going to Thailand to teach English. Now I am here and loving what I do, and even though I currently work 6 days a week, I could never go back to the Monday to Friday routine, working 8 hours a day. As for the desk job, I don’t want that either. I much prefer doing what I do now.
Was settling in Thailand always the objective or were you looking for work wherever you might find it?
I had already been to Australia twice before I travelled around a bit, and that was the place that I actually wanted to go and live. I have family there, but the immigration laws are very strict. Working visas were, unfairly, only available up to the age of 30. I am not sure if that has changed since, but I was already over that age.
During those travels, the first place I went to was Thailand and I spent two months there doing Muay Thai boxing. I wasn’t actually boxing, it was training really. But, in any case, I loved every minute of it, met some wonderful people, and fell in love with the place.
You ended up living and teaching in Surin in North East Thailand and you were there for three years. You must have enjoyed it there. Good times?
After I came back to Thailand, in 2009 to complete a TEFL course, one of the people on my course suggested I try a school in Surin, as one of their previous students had found work there. And, it just so happened that a Thai friend of mine was living and working there.
I contacted the school, went for an interview, and got my first teaching job. I found a house and moved in and for the first year or so, I didn’t really do much; going to work and spending time with my friend. Then my friend left and I was living alone and I didn’t want to stay. Then I started to go out with my work colleagues and started to make new friends. So I ended up staying for 3 years. In the end I loved Surin but it was mainly because of the people I met and befriended.
Having lived in Bangkok for the past 2 years I couldn’t live upcountry again though. I much prefer big city life, something I thought I would never say.
You then returned to England to finish your degree and sell your house. Ah, so you were renting out a place in England and getting a nice income from it each month? Sounds like a big decision to make to return home after three years though?
Yes, I was renting out my house but to be honest the extra money I was making was going on other bills so I didn’t really have much spare.
I decided to go home for a number of reasons. First, I owed about 6 grand on a credit card and was paying the minimum amount off each month. I worked out that, due to the interest, I had only paid about 40 pounds off in a year. It was going to take me years to pay it off.
I decided to use my career break to return to Nationwide and pay it off. I managed it within 18 months because, when I returned home, I was living with my parents so it was easy to do that. Mind you, my credit card balance has crept up again and I am back paying it off but with my salary that I get now, I am paying it off fairly easily.
The second reason was that I had started a degree with The Open University around 1993 and I had taken a long break from it, but in 2010 I decided to restart it because I needed a teacher’s licence and I thought that if I ever wanted to find a new teaching job it would be easier if I had a degree.
So I arranged for all the course material to be sent over so I could study. The Open University allows you to study overseas for 3 years for the same cost of studying in the UK. After that they increase their fees to more than double what I was paying and I couldn’t afford that, so I went home to finish it. I graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Science.
The last reason was to sell my house. Living in Thailand has taught me that I don’t need all the material things that I used to have at home and I decided that I didn’t want to own anything, that way I was free of any problems that may occur.
For example, while I was renting my house my parents had to deal with a few repairs on my house and constant phone calls from my tenant. I didn’t want them to have to sort my problems out so I sold the house.
Now I own nothing, only my personal belongs and I am very happy about that. That way, if I want, I can just up sticks and move on. Nothing major to sort out.
You started a blog about Thailand. Was that while you were back in the UK?
Yes, it was. When I went travelling I kept a journal of everything and sent emails home to keep everyone updated with what I was doing. I few people commented how good my stories were and that I should write a book of my travels. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but, then, when I was doing my degree I realised I loved researching the topics for my essay and writing them up.
My first blog posts are an embellishment of my journal and it has really just gone from there. I write about places I have been and things that have happened. I also write informative pieces in case anyone else wants to visit as well. I have written about my travels in other countries too, not just Thailand.
And, more recently, I started a photography blog so I have somewhere to put some of the many photos I take. My blogs are something I do in my free time but if I could inspire others to go and see a little of the world for themselves that would be amazing.
OK Gill. Degree finished. House sold. Money banked. And it’s back to Thailand and six months in…….. Bang Saen of all places. For those not familiar with Bang Saen, it’s an unassuming, small-time beach resort that’s about an hour’s drive from Bangkok and very popular with Thai weekenders. But a strange choice for a foreigner looking for a place to settle, Gill? Surin to Bang Saen – I’m looking for the connection.
When I lived in Surin I had the idea of living near to the sea and close to Bangkok, not in Bangkok, just close so I could go in and see my friends easily. One of my friends from Surin was living in Bangsaen and I wanted to know at least one or two people in my new home. So I got a job and moved there shortly after arriving back in Thailand.
It didn’t take long for me to wonder what the hell I had done. I hated the job I had, actually the kids were fine, it was the boss I didn’t like. I think I imagined that it would be as Surin was; a few friends to socialise with and a job I enjoyed. When it didn’t turn out that way I was so very disappointed.
For the first time since I had come to Thailand I would go as far as saying that I was unhappy and I was all set to go back to the UK again. Thankfully, my friend in Bangsaen advised me not to make any decision and to apply to the company I now work at, and I am so glad I did. I am 100% happy with my work and life here in Bangkok. Bangsaen is a lovely little town but it’s just not for me.
Easy to feel the lure of the big city?
I never thought that I was a city girl at heart, but it turns out I am. As I said, I never wanted to live in Bangkok but now I am living here I absolutely love it. I love walking around and exploring new places. There is so much to do here, that it is going to take me a long time to cover the whole city.
On my day off, there is nothing more I love than wandering around, taking photographs and writing about different places. One thing I was worried about was that there would be too many temptations living in Bangkok, like the many bars and restaurants and I would spend too much money. In reality, it’s not like that at all.
Yes I go out, but those times are few and far between. On saying that, whenever I go wandering I always seem to end up in a restaurant for lunch and a few wines!
You clearly enjoy living in Bangkok whilst many of us long-termers have become a little jaded perhaps. What do you find most inspiring about the place?
There are so many nationalities living in Bangkok, some for many, many years, so I love the fact that I could be visiting a Thai temple one day, and a Hindu temple the next day. The architecture is amazing too.
My favourite building is Mahanakhon in Silom/Sathorn. Whenever I am in that area I can’t help myself taking a few photographs. Also, and I have found this out from researching my book, there are things that you would never know existed; such as the detail of the carved bas reliefs on the Democracy Monument, and the Protestant cemetery.
The city has many secrets, you just have to go looking for them. There is always something new to see.
Technology has taken over everyone’s lives so you have the modern skytrain and mrt trains but there are still remnants of Bangkok’s past lurking under the surface; the canals, upon which you can take a boat across the city. That’s something that is on my list of things to do but I think it’s a wonderful thing that those sort of things remain.
And if you had to choose a favourite Bangkok neighborhood or suburb?
There are a few but I think Phra Nakhon is my favourite and the most interesting. There are many tourist attractions in that area, like the Grand Palace and Wat Po, but there are also areas, like Phraeng Phuthon Road that is home to businesses that have been going for years.
Then there is Phra Artit Road, which has many quirky cafes, bars and restaurants, all a stone’s throw from Khao San Road but it has a more relaxed vibe. Not forgetting the bookstores and art galleries in the area, it is one neighbourhood I will return to again and again.
You are the perfect person to ask this question to. A lot of people are bemoaning the fact that Bangkok is perhaps losing its identity. There are too many shopping malls and condominiums and we’re losing many Bangkok institutions such as markets and the street-food areas. What’s your own opinion on this? Are you saddened by this ‘quest for Westernization’ as I’ve heard it called?
Yes I am. I find it very sad that people, who make their living and have done for many years, get turfed out so a new shopping mall or condominium can be built. It’s not like we need any more of those. A lot of the malls and condos are half empty anyway, so what’s the point.
If it carries on there will be nothing left to see and enjoy. Bangkok may end up just a concrete jungle with nothing worth visiting. I sometimes think the powers that be have no sense when it comes to things like this, otherwise they would see that, actually, people like to see authentic markets and eat street food. For some people, it’s not all about flash restaurants and the latest shopping malls.
We haven’t talked in any detail about the teaching that you do now. Do you teach purely as a means of funding these other activities - the writing and the photography, etc? Or does teaching give you something to do? Or do you just simply love teaching?
I am currently working in a language centre. I am teaching adults which, for me, is so much better than teaching younger students. They want to learn for one thing and it makes my job more of a pleasure. It’s not really like work at all. The hours I work as fab as well. Mostly, I work in the evenings and weekends, so I have all day to do the other things I love; the writing and photography.
On the downside, working evenings and weekends seriously impairs any social life I have because I can’t go out on a Friday or Saturday, when everyone else is off. I just have to have my weekends on different days. But, I am used to the working hours now and, like I said, I get plenty of free time to do the other things.
I would say my work-life balance is fantastic and for that reason I could never go back to working in a government school now. On top of that, I get a week off every 6 weeks, an extended break in April and December, and a yearly bonus (we don’t get that for nothing, I might add, we have to do personal development stuff.) So, for now as long as I am loving my job, I can’t see myself going anywhere else for the foreseeable future.
Gill, it’s been a pleasure to chat. How about giving us some links so we can check out your various blogs and of course, many of us would love to support your book.
Thank you Phil, it’s been a pleasure to chat to you too. Here are some links to my personal blog, etc