Scott Walker originally came to Thailand for a holiday because of his interest in Buddhism. He then quickly made plans to return here for a longer period. He tried the teaching game for a while, decided it wasn't really for him - and has now started his own business.
Hi Scott. Welcome to the ajarn hot seat. I suppose our story starts with you getting into Buddhism back in the USA. How did that come about and who was your guiding light?
I started studying and practicing Buddhism (Nyingmapa School) in 2000 under the guidance of Sogan Rinpoche. Rinpoche had fled Tibet to Dharamsala, India and was then able to relocate to California where he has lived for about nine years. We are still in touch and I'll take the family to see him this week before we fly back to Khon Kaen. He's a super guy and you can find out more about him at www.sogan.org
You were obviously interested in visiting a Buddhist country. Any reason you chose Thailand?
The reason was financial. I found a round trip ticket from San Francisco to Bangkok for $590 and the brief bit of research I did on Thailand suggested expenses would be minimal while in the LOS. Good luck finding a flight for under a grand these days.
You arrived here on a New Year's Eve just five days after the tsunami. It probably wasn't an ideal time to start a holiday in Thailand. Did the disaster dampen your spirits any?
The devastation from the tsunami was beyond belief and I certainly didn't know what to expect upon arrival in Thailand. However, after a mere eight hours in Bangkok, I was on a flight from Don Mueang airport to Roi-et, far removed from the Phuket area. Despite the fact that many people from the Isaan area were working in Phuket at the time the tsunami hit, you wouldn't have known a disaster had occurred judging from how the local people were going about their daily routines. Mai pen rai, as they say…life moves on.
Before you left for Thailand, you put your profile up on a Thai dating website. How many eager-to-please tour guides did you get to respond?
I don't recall the exact number, but it was overwhelming. There were well over one hundred "respondettes". I thought perhaps I had been confused with some Western celebrity (laugh).
So how on earth did you narrow down the field and who did you eventually choose as the 'winner'?
The problem wasn't finding a young, pretty lady - the average age of the women who wanted to chat with me was around 24 and most looked like models. I ultimately cut the field down to three based on English language ability, then picked one to meet with three days before I departed.
Forgive my naivety but why was it so important for you to have company when you could have just arrived here, got settled in and then took things as they came?
It wasn't important to me at all, especially since I wasn't looking for a relationship. While doing some research about Thailand prior to leaving, I came across the site and, since I was single, thought, "Why not?'. I had never done the on-line thing before and found it quite intoxicating, especially given the beauty of those showing me so much interest. Being a bit naive, I certainly wasn't aware of how many sharks swim in on-line waters.
Your chosen soul mate took you up to her home in Roi-et but the relationship only lasted a week?
"Soul mate"? Cringe! Recoil! Vomit! Okay, the five days, thirteen hours, twenty-six minutes and eight seconds weren't really that bad, but who's counting! I had no idea of the expectations that were set in motion by me going to her home.
I was clueless that this was a precursor to marriage - a marriage that everyone except me was planning on happening quite soon. As soon as the full reality of what was going on hit me, I left and didn't look back. Also, her personality had something to do with it, too. Many stereotypes are at least partially based in fact. The "Asian women are submissive" one isn't in Thailand and she was as domineering as they come.
Did you enjoy being in the Issan area though?
Absolutely. I spent the last week alone in Udon Thani city. I got a room at a place called Top Mansion which had recently opened, just down the street from where The Irish Clock was being built. My, how that little street has changed since then. The people I met were great-Thai and foreign-and the city was very livable.
Let's fast forward a little. You went back to the USA and decided to make the move here for a longer period. Was it easy to cut the ties back home? Did you feel at the time that you were making the right move?
I had finished a three year work contract and I was single with no children. Like most Americans, our family was spread out across the country as adults and I was used to being on my own. I decided to go back to Isaan for a few months (staying off-line, this time) without any long-term expectations, though I was open to relocation. I packed one suitcase and with a couple hundred thousand baht in pocket, returned to Udon.
And Udon Thai felt like the place to settle?
I returned because I had a good experience with the city previously and because I'm not a big fan of tourist areas. Although I've since visited Samui, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Bangkok etc., I prefer the more laid back Northeast. When I say I love living in Isaan, I mean a city. I think most Westerners would go stark raving mad cooped up in an actual rural village for too long. Anyway, I'm glad I went back to Udon because I met my wife of 6 years there soon after I returned. Sometimes the best things in life come to you when your'e not looking for them.
Let's talk about teaching. I saw a good post of yours on the ajarn discussion forum. It seems you just got tired of teaching after several years. What happened?
I didn't tire of teaching, per se. I often miss the students. What I grew quite weary of were the adults (Thai and foreign) and the insane bureaucracy, particularly at government schools. Before I elaborate, let me state that as a short-term option, Thailand is a great place to teach. When you start a position, you're welcomed with open arms and all is festive and glorious.
It's like the first three months of a new relationship when both parties are on a pink cloud, but inevitably the baggage from prior, failed liaisons surfaces to sabotage the endeavor. While I made enough money (45-50 thousand baht a month) to support my family, there was little or nothing being saved for the future. That was a big factor as well.
You've got a wonderful story about your first morning at your first job at your first school. I love this one.
Well, it was quite a shock! My first teaching gig was at the biggest High School in Chaiyaphum-Satri Chaiyaphum. Although I have a BA degree from the University of Michigan & majored in English, that in no way prepared me for entering a classroom of fifty teenagers!
Actually, before I taught my first class there, something happened that really underscores the reality of teaching in Thailand. I showed up at the school as directed about twenty minutes before the morning assembly commenced & met the head of the English department at the front gate.
She was quite accommodating and led me behind this slightly elevated stage that stood between the two of us and 3,000 students. the national song blared out at the usual 8am, then the students said some prayers, all the while she was yakking my ear off.
Suddenly, she led me up on stage. As we walked, she whispered "Now go introduce yourself to the school for 3-5 minutes" and handed me a microphone. No warning...no time to prepare...nothing. I have no idea what I said to be honest, but that was the start of teaching English in Isaan.
You've decided to start your own business. By the look of the website you're recruiting young American teachers to come and work in Thailand for their gap year. Is that about it?
Actually, Khon Kaen Education & Travel Programs (KKETP) is multi-faceted. Teaching English is just one of numerous activities that students from any country can experience while doing their "gap time".
Our gap year program focuses quite a bit on travel, too. We have started doing tours around Isaan as well, and we are excited to be able to offer kayaking in March. Katt will acquire the TAT license for tours upon our return from California next week.
In addition to offering a gap year program and tours around Northeast, Thailand, we offer a variety of English language courses, a Thai language course and a "teacher's training boot camp". This course is quite helpful if you're considering becoming an English teacher in Thailand. In fact, I recommend people take that course not just before looking for a job, but before even considering taking a TEFL course.
Teaching in Thailand may not be for you and we give you a no holds barred account of what to expect if want to try the "teaching game". We are linked with a major TEFL course provider, who will be offering their TEFL course in Khon Kaen starting this March.
I will be observing the TEFL student's practice teaching sessions and offering "constructive criticism". Finally, we have recently added a "volunteer" page to our website. The purpose of this program is to connect volunteers with people/organizations who need genuine assistance, for example, orphanages, poor rural schools etc. This is a free service that we look forward to enlarging in March. Our website address is www.kketp.com
Sounds good. You're flying to and from the USA to do roadshows so it sounds as though you're willing to throw a bit of money at this?
We are currently in California and attended three gap year fairs in the Bay Area. We had a chance to meet over three hundred potential students and it only cost $600. Also, most of my family lives in this area, so accommodation was free. If we are able to get a few students this time around, we'll consider a broader marketing scheme in the future and spending some real advertising money in numerous countries.
I feel that Thailand is becoming more and more attractive to the gap year teacher rather than the long-termer. Would you go along with that?
I totally agree. Teaching English in Thailand is a fantastic short-term option. It can be a good way to get connected with the local community and pay for your expenses. Also, the experience could lead to greener, financial pastures as a teacher elsewhere in the world.
That being said, I wouldn't recommend teaching English in Thailand as a long-term career. Ultimately, I saw that I needed to earn more money for my family than was possible as a teacher. Also, I yearned to be my own boss again.
Hopefully, KKETP will provide the income and independence necessary for me to remain in Thailand. Thanks for the interview Phil and keep up the good work at ajarn.com It has been a valuable resource for me and many, many others over the years.