Katherine Hardy and her partner Rob, both from the UK, jacked in their jobs in the civil service to travel the world and teach English. They slung a few things in a backpack and after seeing a few countries, they both ended up in Chiang Mai. But they've already got itchy feet.
Katherine, welcome to the ajarn hot seat and firstly, a big thank you for all the other excellent contributions you've made to the ajarn website. OK let's get down to business, tell us a little about how you and your partner Rob met and how long you've actually been together?
We met back in the UK while both working for the government. We’ve been together about a year and a half now. We were friends first, but only together as a ‘couple’ for six months before we decided to leave the UK.
I think it's fair to say then that you and Rob are still in the relatively early stages of your relationship. So to pack up and head out East together must have been a massive decision?
Before we got together we both had ideas in our heads about travelling, though admittedly to very different parts of the world. As it became apparent that our jobs were not secure we began to discuss travelling more and more.
When it started to get to crunch time and booking tickets, we decided that we wanted to stay together and travel together, so without much hesitation we booked a pair of one way tickets to Hong Kong and that was that.
Part of the reason behind us travelling was to be spontaneous and do something out of our comfort zone, so the thought of going together, after not having known each other that long, wasn’t really a concern.
So it's a tale of two kindred spirits, both disillusioned with life in the UK and looking for some great adventure. Have I just about nailed it there?
Yes! We both worked under various departments of the UK Jobcentre, so we were all too aware of how hard things were becoming in the UK for people looking for work.
Neither of us had any real ties to the UK - no mortgage, no children, not even pets - and after years of desk jobs we both felt we needed an adventure and to see more of the world. The timing just seemed to fit perfectly.
You both 'bummed around SE Asia' for several months. Were you intent on looking for work or was it purely a holiday? Where did you actually stay on your travels and what were your thoughts on the various places?
Well we headed first to Hong Kong as I have a friend who teaches English in China and I wanted to visit her. We had a vague plan in our heads, with a Chinese and Vietnamese visa ready in our passports, so that began our journey.
From there we really just travelled along the usual routes but with no real destination in mind (again part of the ‘being spontaneous’ idea behind the whole adventure). We travelled from China, though Vietnam, into Cambodia and finally Lao.
Overall, we saw so many things that it’s hard to put into words. For us, our favourite country was without a doubt Cambodia - so much history, so many beautiful sights and very friendly people.
Realistically we always knew we would have to stop and start work at some stage. We had booked a one-way ticket after all and money was certainly not limitless. We had no real plan for ‘where’ or ‘when’ but we knew that teaching English would probably be our best bet.
You ended up in Chiang Mai. It sounds like it was love at first sight? What's so special about the place for you?
We ended up in Chiang Mai on a bit of a whim. Sat in a guesthouse somewhere in Lao, I decided that if we were going to teach English, our only real option was to do a TEFL course, both to prepare us for teaching and to hopefully help us to gain employment.
After a little internet research I found one in Chiang Mai that seemed to suit us both time-wise and what the course was offering. After a few exchanged emails, we headed to Chiang Mai and enrolled on the course, which was due to start in two weeks time.
We knew nothing of Thailand other than what the guide book said, but like most things over the last few months we just thought ‘why not’ and just packed our rucksacks and headed on.
Chiang Mai was definitely love at first sight. It’s a brilliant place to introduce yourself to Thailand. It still retains much of its Thai vibe while still having all the amenities you could ever need. The people really are so friendly and it just instantly became home.
OK, so you your own admittance, your funds had started to run low so you looked for teaching work in Chiang Mai. Was that something you had planned on doing?
It wasn’t planned, no. We had intended to travel around Thailand for a while after the TEFL course and before finding work, but a combination of lack of funds and the fact that we finished our course in October (prime hiring time for Thai schools) meant that we decided to stay put and find work
I presume that you had also done a little research and already knew that Chiang Mai wasn't perhaps the best choice in terms of well-paid teaching jobs?
Hmmm, you presume wrong. We did no research into salaries in Thailand whatsoever. We simply relied on the information from our TEFL course - that Chiang Mai had a plethora of schools to apply to.
We wrongly believed that this would mean it would be easy to find work, when in reality it took a lot of ‘hitting the pavement’ before both Rob and I had secured jobs. We certainly don’t regret staying in Chiang Mai, but had timing and the money situation been different, I think we would have done more research and moved on.
Do you and Rob both work at the same school? If not, did you try and seek work at the same place?
I was lucky enough to be offered a full-time job pretty quickly through a contact from our TEFL school. We never had the intention of working at the same school, but as we were both looking for the same type of jobs, we inevitably applied at many of the same schools.
Rob later found a part time job at another school, and we both worked for the same language school teaching private lessons.
I've always said that for employers, teacher couples are a good catch because they will support each other and you'll get decent loyalty from them. Have you generally found that Thai hirers, school owners or whatever have looked at you in a more positive light - purely because you are a young couple?
At first, no, we never really advertised the fact that we were a couple and mostly conducted our job searches autonomously. Recently, since we have been looking for new jobs for the start of the new school year, I would say yes it has helped.
I have actually been offered a new job in Nakhon Si Thammarat, and once I told the employer there that I would be moving with my partner Rob, he set about trying to secure him a job too, first with another school and now within the same school.
I think it depends on the employer and his or her experiences with western teachers, as to whether they see teaching couples as a good bet or not. One school in Suart Thani I interviewed with seemed almost ‘put-off’ when I said I would be moving to Nakhon with a boyfriend, asking how long we had been together and implying the relationship might not last and that upon its disintegration I would be on the first flight home! I very sweetly told them this would not be the case, and was offered the job anyway.
Do you and Rob share the same personality traits? You've both obviously got a sense of adventure but is one person more of a worrier, who's intent on keeping your feet firmly on the ground, whereas one of you is a bit more carefree perhaps?
Hmmm, well… We obviously share a sense of adventure and we both set out on this experience with the same goals in mind - basically that there were no goals. We simply wanted to see some of the world, have a good time doing it, and not have to return to the UK anytime soon.
As to our personalities we probably are quite different. I’m certainly the organiser, to which Rob would say I am the worrier, but one of us has to gauge some sort of direction.
He’s very much suited to the Thai way of thinking. Don’t think too far ahead, let things happen, and to be honest it’s worked out for us so far.
I've got to ask this because in your 'cost of living' survey that you did for ajarn, you mentioned that you both share a studio apartment. So what happens when you 'fall out' or have words with each other? Does one of you have to go onto the balcony for a sulk?
Ha ha, well lucky for us neither of us have particularly volatile tempers and we don’t really fall out. Yes, we both have our sulky moments, and the balcony is the perfect place for this, or the 5-minute walk to 7-11, but I think we both realise that we are out here together, we share a small flat, and that we really shouldn’t let the small things get to us. Maybe I’m adopting the Thai attitude more than I thought!
Would you be approaching the whole idea of teaching English in Thailand differently if you didn't have Rob alongside you?
I think I would have approached this whole adventure differently without Rob, and I certainly don’t think I would be planning the next few years out here if I wasn’t here with him. It’s very hard to say. On my own I might have just travelled a bit and then returned home when the money ran out.
You've already let me in on your future plans. That's to say you and Rob are planning a big move to Nakhon Si Thammarat. Chiang Mai to NST sounds like an unusual move. I don't know why; it just does. What made you choose a town at the other end of the country and a place that probably doesn't have the attractions and lifestyle that Chiang Mai has to offer?
As with everything that we have done over the last year, we're going on a a bit of a whim!
We knew that we wanted something different to Chiang Mai. While we love it here, we want a complete change of scenery and I in particular want to be nearer the beaches.
We know someone already teaching in Nakhon and he has told us that there is a great ex-pat teaching community there, which is very lacking in Chiang Mai, probably because there are just so many ‘farangs’ here.
I applied for a couple of jobs, was made an offer, and that was that. The drastic increase in salary is obviously a big incentive as well, along with much better benefits from the school and a lower cost of living. We’ve never even been to Southern Thailand, let alone Nakhon, so it’s a very exciting move for us.
I'm sure you'll do well Katherine. I wish you both the very best of British luck. How long do you seriously think Thailand will be home?
Well I think realistically we shall stay in Thailand for the next 1-2 years. After that we may need to think about money more seriously and head for an Asian country that pays better.
Neither of us see ourselves back in the UK within the next 5 years, but who knows? We have no plan set in stone, only to continue teaching out here for as long as it’s fun and feasible.