Rob Lee spent a total of two years teaching in Bangkok. In his early thirties, Rob felt that although Thailand often seemed like paradise on earth, the failure to secure any kind of long-term security constantly nagged at him. He's now teaching in Spain but hopes to return someday to the Land of Smiles.
Rob, welcome. It's very brave of you to open your soul in our hot-seat because it's been a young life full of big decisions by the sound of it. Just to clarify things from the start, you'd really had a bellyful of life in the UK?
A big, aching bellyful! I’d spent all of my twenties studying and climbing the career ladder. In many ways I was lucky, I worked as a scientist in the MOD from age 19 and they sent me through university part-time, then sent me back to do an MBA when I was getting promoted. I got to travel to the US and around Europe a little for collaborative projects. Plus being a civil
servant I had a good non-contributory pension. Sounds good, right? But I couldn’t get rid of a nagging feeling that I was missing something and that life was more than achieving ‘respectability’ at work. I mean, work was interesting but I got into it by accident, I couldn’t really say I was fulfilling any personal desires.
When you think about it, most people have their whole working life decided by an ignorant teenager and I suppose I started to feel that I wasn’t thrilled by what I had to look forward to.
Both living abroad and teaching are things that had been rattling around in my mind over the years but because I was so wrapped up in studying I never did anything about it. One thing that really made an impression on me was when a colleague came into the office one day and announced he was moving to Japan. For weeks I kept thinking about this bloke and quite frankly I was bloody envious of what he was doing. He was a very ordinary guy, in fact he was victim of a lot of piss-taking in the office for being a bit of a tosser.
This really got me thinking, then I heard about an old friend who was living in Bangkok and teaching English. I visited a couple of times and it went from there. So I just grew more and more unhappy with life in the UK and thought “Well, if he can do it…” Just one more comment on this topic, the day I resigned from my job in the MOD was one of the most memorable days of my life. It was the only job I’d ever known but immediately I knew I’d done the right thing. I still keep in touch with some former colleagues and I can’t believe how ‘grey’ they are.
Tell us a little about the two years spent in Bangkok as regards where you worked and how much money you were making?
I did a fairly even split between school work and a language school. Sometimes I still think my first job was the best but perhaps that was because it was all brand new and exciting. This was with one of the old established chains in Bangkok and I got sent to teach at a private girls’ school near the Sheraton Royal Orchid. It was an easy introduction into school teaching in Bangkok because it was all girls and it was a very small school by Thai standards. I was teaching the whole of Pratom 5,6 and Mattayom 1,2,3 which was a total of 12 classes so that shows how small the school was. Plus each class only had about 35 students. I reluctantly left at the end of the semester, I really wanted to sign a new contract and return for at least one more semester but to do that I would have faced two months unpaid. I had to find a new job and I ended up in one of the well-known language schools in Bangkok. I enjoyed teaching the adult students and the Thai staff at my centre were a pleasure to work with. It was a brand new branch and I was the only permanent teacher there at that stage, so most days it was just me and the three Thai girls, we had a lot of laughs. I still keep in touch with them. I left to do a TEFL course, briefly worked in a large government school and then went to a girls’ college with small classes that I got to see for four hours a week. I enjoyed that job immensely but the pay wasn’t the best and there was a hell of a lot of paperwork involved.
Overall my experiences were positive but I was always in a bit of a dilemma about what kind of teaching to do. I enjoyed the work at a language school but a six-day week working into the evening started to become a real grind after a while. On the other hand I could work in a school with great working hours but I found that the teaching wasn’t nearly as satisfying. In the large school where I briefly worked I had up to 60 in a class. I know that’s not unusual for Thailand but I just didn’t see what difference I could make in one period a week. I would love to observe teachers who can teach in that environment and make it work, just to see what the hell they
The full-time jobs I had were in the 30-35,000 range and I know I could’ve done better but at the time I was more concerned with trying a number of different kinds of institution. When I was in 9-5 jobs I usually supplemented my income with a few evening classes.
Even though you've moved on, it sounds in your email like Bangkok really made a huge impression on you?
Bangkok made a massive impression on me. I’m not sure exactly why but I remember that I felt at home in Bangkok from the first moment I arrived. The whole time I was there I had this overwhelming feeling that I was where I wanted to be. I love cities and the bigger and more hectic the better. I used to happily walk for hours exploring the city, I think my record was a
walk from Charn Isaara (Sp?) tower on Petchburi Rd to Sena Nikhom near T&T. I enjoyed the chaotic feel of the place and the wonderful contradictions evident throughout the city. Many people complain about the heat but I really did enjoy the steamy tropical climate.
The only thing that consistently pissed me off was bus travel, for a year I refused to use hot buses and only went back on them because I was bloody skint after I finished my six-week TEFL course. Right now I spend much of my time thinking about getting back there, I've got a plan of sorts as you will see later. I do feel homesick. Yeah, I miss it loads.
So let's get to this financial security issue. I think it's a brave decision to say I love this place but what am I going to do for money when I'm 65. Is that pretty much how it went?
Exactly! I’m going to paint a really gloomy picture now. Imagine you’re in your late 50’s or early 60’s, you’ve lived in Thailand for 30 years teaching English for a living. Maybe you have a couple of million in the bank. Then for some reason you can’t work anymore, maybe you suffer from ill-health, maybe you just don’t want to work anymore. That two-million will start to disappear rapidly unless you live like a monk. As the money starts to run out, what are you gonna do? Go back to the UK and put yourself at the mercy of the social services? Come on! The UK will be a foreign country to you by then. Thailand is home, your only home. The thought of going back to Blighty after 30 years and living your last years in council provided emergency accommodation is enough to break your heart. Really, Phil, this might sound breathtakingly pessimistic but I believe there are plenty of people in Thailand who are heading for exactly that kind of scenario. When I read about foreigners who have taken a leap from a tall building I’m absolutely convinced that this is the reason in many cases. I was sitting by an outdoor bar one Saturday night last year, suddenly the power went out and emergency vehicles started arriving. It turned out that a bloke staying in a seedy hotel opposite had sent his girlfriend to the Family Mart for some SangSom and jumped off the roof while she was away. It chilled me to the bone.
My pension will give me, in today’s money, about 800,000 baht at 60 and about 15,000 a month thereafter – it’s not much is it? However, I’m only 33 so I’ve got many years to add to this. I just don’t want to leave it too late.
Why do you think so many teachers don't quit on Thailand when perhaps they really ought to?
It’s just too damn easy to stay. I only left because of some family business here in Spain but I’d been thinking for some time that if I wanted a long and prosperous future in Bangkok I would have to leave for a while, get my affairs in order and return in a stronger position. The thing is, if I hadn’t had that catalyst that forced me to leave when I did I probably would have found it almost impossible to book the flight, pack up my things and leave voluntarily. I remember the day I left seven months ago and it just seemed like a bloody nightmare sitting there at the airport without knowing when I’d be back.
It’s very easy to get into a comfortable routine in Bangkok and let the years drift by, hoping that something will turn up and bring your fortune. I hate being away from Bangkok and I think about it constantly, but now I AM away I’m determined to stay away until I can return with a much better chance of a decent future there.
One of our most common questions raised is 'how much do I need to earn to live comfortably in Bangkok'? I guess you'd be a good person to aim that question at?
Well, you can take two men on the same salary, with the same financial responsibilities – one will be living well and the other will need a bank loan to buy a sandwich. I believe that there is no reason for any teacher in Bangkok to be earning less than 40,000 and you don’t have to work too hard to do that. If you’re reasonably restrained in your nocturnal habits you can live comfortably on that. You can’t save much, if anything, but you can live in a decent two-bed apartment of which there are plenty in BKK for less than 10,000, have a few beers at the weekend and get your pole greased occasionally if you want to.
People do tend to raise the bar so much in Bangkok, though. There are some expats there who are convinced that if you don’t drive a brand-new Mercedes, live in President Park and take several five-star holidays each year then you’re a f@ck up.
What do you think is a good age to be for a teacher in Bangkok? That's another question I often get. You're in your thirties. That always strikes me as a good age.
It’s a good age, for sure. You’ve had enough experience to know your limits and how to deal with people at work. It must be hard for a wet-behind-the-ears 21 year-old, straight out of university to suddenly be thrown into a school with all the ‘unusual’ management practices to deal with. But I don’t really think there’s a bad age to be a teacher in Bangkok, I feel it’s much more down to your personality. I have heard of schools complaining about a teacher being too old/young but I know of plenty of 60-somethings teaching in Bangkok who are very popular among their students and Thai colleagues.
I'm interested in your life in Spain, because if there's one country I'd leave Thailand for then it's that one. What are you up to there?
didn’t choose to come here, Spain is a smashing country but it’s just not where I want to be right now. I only came here for a few months so I haven’t really ‘made a go of it’, more a case of sorting out things here and then moving on. I’m living in the boonies near La Manga on the Mar Menor and if I’d known when I arrived that I’d be here this long I would have bought a car. The nearest decent sized town is 45 minutes by bus and they only go past about once every two hours.
I managed to pick up a few hours work at a language school although my teaching is all on-site company courses. It’s enough to keep me going until I leave. If I was here to settle for a while I’d definitely relocate to Madrid or Valencia. Spain has plenty to offer, in fact it’s more like several countries under one flag. Most Spanish people identify much more with the region they come from than Spain as a whole. One Spanish journalist reckons that’s why the Spanish football team underperforms with such regularity, the players simply don’t identify with ‘Spain’, they’re all Valencian, Catalan, Andalucian and so on first and Spanish second. It makes for a fascinating country to explore and I’ve met a few expats here who are Spain fanatics and speak all the regional dialects. The Spanish know how to party and they also have loads of fantastic family festivals throughout the year. I remember going to Cartegena to see the Christmas Eve parade, which is January 5 here as January 6 is the big day. They had all these floats going through the streets, giving out little presents to the kids, they also threw something like 4 tons of sweets into the watching crowds. On Christmas Eve in England we get a procession of drunken yobs lamping each other and projectile vomiting into the crowds.
Are you stashing any money away for the big return to Thailand?
No. Because I came in a bit of a panic I didn’t have a chance to research the TEFL market first. In the nearest town to me, Cartegena, there are about half a dozen language schools so I went round them all in September. The problem is they start all courses in September and they run through till June, very few new courses start mid-year. They fill most of their positions in May or June for the following September so it’s bloody difficult to find work at other times. Also most language schools and students expect you to use L1 in the classroom, so as I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish when I arrived that also made it difficult to find work. I walked into Wall Street
with a nicely prepared teaching portfolio and without even looking at it he asked me if I could speak Spanish. When I said no he lost interest pretty quickly. Spain is not a rich country and the salaries here are only 10-15 Euros per hour.
If you want to make money teaching in Spain, learn the language to a good intermediate level, get some wheels and go freelance. Also remember that EU passport holders don’t need work permits and all that cobblers so you are free to look for work in any field rather than just TEFL.
How do the Spanish compare to the Thais as students? I've taught Spanish students before and thought they were terrific. It's been a few years mind.
They’re pretty cool. I’ve been teaching these blokes at a gas production plant and they’re making great progress because they’re committed. The boss there offered me a non-teaching job out of the blue in January but I couldn’t take it because I knew I’d be leaving in 2-3 months. Pretty good money it was, too.
Do you still scour the ajarn jobs board and think about what might be?
Nah, as I said I won’t go back to Bangkok without having some options beyond TEFL. It’s a shame because I really did enjoy teaching in Bangkok. It’s just that with the salaries on offer I just can’t see it as a long term solution to staying there.
Do you still go back to the UK to remind yourself why you left?
Ha! I could get a flight from Alicante for throw away money and be in the UK in a couple of hours but I just can’t think of a reason to go back even for a couple of days. For me, England is rotten now, the streets are full of violent, drunken little shits every weekend. We get British telly here and there are news special reports every bloody day about the binge-drinking yob culture. It’s out of control because the hand-wringing human rights weirdos who have power over the police are more concerned with protecting the rights of these scumbags than in controlling violent crime. Also the cost of living is way, way out of proportion to the quality of life on offer.
The UK is just piss-poor value for money – unless you’re a dole dosser or an illegal immigrant. I wouldn’t mind paying fairly high taxes if it was well spent but there is so much taxpayers’ money wasted because of the obsession with being politically correct. It means that anything
worthwhile either never gets done or goes off half-cocked because everyone in the public eye is so terrified of offending a minority group. Representatives for these groups even laugh themselves at the breathtaking foolishness sometimes displayed by the PC brigade. Recently a family applying for a passport sent a photo of their 7 month old baby to the passport agency. The baby was bare-chested and the agency returned the picture as unacceptable claiming that it ‘might be offensive to Muslims’. A 7 month old baby, for facks sake! Even the Muslim Council of Britain gave a statement saying that this was absolutely bloody laughable and that incidents like this only serve to increase tension. I’m waiting for some idiot to demand that the England football team be renamed because the name ‘England’ excludes and offends immigrants – it really is getting that bloody crazy. So in World Cup 2014 we’ll all be cheering for Team of Sportsmen (or Women, in principle – actually) Selected for Equal Representation of Supporters, or T.O.S.S.E.R.S for short.
So what is the secret of securing financial freedom in Thailand or do you think it just can't be done on a teacher's salary?
I just don’t believe you can save enough on a teacher’s salary alone for a long life in Thailand that includes a decent nest egg for retirement. Some people arrive in Thailand with that nest egg already banked through savings, investments or property. These are mainly older people. For younger people without this security you need to find ways to supplement your income, or
find a way to move into a much more lucrative job. I think arriving with no plan to make money beyond TEFL is fine for those only intending to stay a couple of years or so, but for those wanting to settle it’s asking for big trouble in the future.
What other kind of work could teachers get into 'on the side' here in Thailand? Have you concocted any master plans?
I really don’t know. Phil. Some people manage to make money on the side through providing some web-based service, I suppose. Others come up with an idea and through hard work and persistence manage to make it into a successful business. The bloke who started Expat Motors springs to mind, here. I really take my hat off to these guys. When I was there I thought
about starting some kind of business but I just don’t think it’s my bag. I suppose I just don’t have the balls to do it, especially if it involves a significant investment to get started.
I really have my heart set on returning to Bangkok and settling down there and I think the most realistic way for me is to do a PGCE to qualify as a science teacher, then try to land a job in a good international school. If I can get a salary of 80,000+ with a housing allowance I believe I can build a life for myself in Bangkok. That provides enough of a disposable income to save a good chunk over the years which, added to the pension I already have, should mean that I can stay and retire there. The downside is that I’ll have to return to the UK to do the course, which I’m planning to do next year after a stint in Korea. Even after that I might need to stay on in the UK and get some experience teaching the curriculum. The thought of teaching in England makes me shudder but if that’s what it takes, I’m prepared to do it. I’m gutted that it could be another 3-5 years before I can live in Bangkok again but at least I’ve set a goal and I believe it will be worth it in the long run. Plus I’ve started making a small income from freelance work that I will try to expand.
In a nutshell, any advice to those thinking of coming to teach and work in Thailand?
I made plenty of mistakes and there are people much better qualified to answer this question than me, but here’s my attempt.
Take enough money to support yourself for a few months without working. This way you can take your time looking for a job that’s right for you, I was in a desperate position after my TEFL course where I needed a job I could start tomorrow. I took the first offer I got and it turned out to be a disaster, I ended up being broke for months because of the wasted time. Of course if you’re prepared to do the legwork it shouldn’t take that long to find a job you’re happy with but I wish I had had the luxury of being able to take more time looking for work when I was there.
Also I would say you will never find the ‘perfect’ job in Bangkok. As long as the first job is at least bearable I would say stay for a year, get the work permit and this at least gives you time to settle, get to know Thailand and meet a few other teachers. Then start looking for something better if you want to. I only say this because I went through a phase where I was farting about with a bit of work here and there, waiting for the perfect job offer. It’s stressful. I’ve noticed that the happiest teachers in Thailand seem to be the ones who’ve been settled in a job for a while, even if they have a few problems with the management or whatever.
Lastly, I would say if you’re planning to settle down in Thailand, have a plan. It may be a business idea you want to get moving or whatever, but have a plan and stick to it if at all possible. It also helps to make contacts with others who are doing well in Thailand. There are some tossers who do well and then just want to pull up the ladder, belittle English teachers and gloat, but many more are helpful.