31 cool and awesome things about living and teaching in rural Thailand
Before we get into the list I just want to mention that everything is written in good fun. Expats and Thailand veterans will understand more than first timers.
Certain sentences and parts reflect my own specific experience more so than the general one. Some of it might come across as sappy, but I've had a very positive experience in Thailand and the glass is half full for me.
Also, certain points about school life are universal, but thrown in anyways. My reasoning for this is that something trivial like a flag ceremony for example, looks and feels slightly different in a small town versus a large city. If you don't like it please feel free go take a long walk off a short pier (there's the good fun).
Final Note: Some of the things listed below can be found in larger cities in Thailand such as Bangkok, but I have included them nonetheless. See elephants below as example 1.
1) Random elephants
You're sitting at the roadside noodle shop enjoying your evening meal when you look around and two teenage elephants casually trundle past you with a mahout on their way back to the village. Of course they have red bicycle lights tied on their tails, why would you even ask? This never gets old. Seriously, what's cooler then having a friggin' ELEPHANT walking by your local night market every day? Sometimes locals will complain about the elephants like they're raccoons, which is absolutely outstanding for a farang like myself. "Stupid elephants bothering me and my evening meal of guay tiaw nam tok!" Splendid.
2) Local sports pick-up games
You walk over to a football pitch or basketball court and simply ask: "Can I play too?" So simple and so fun. Sport is universal and doing this helps immerse you in the culture, while making new Thai friends. Double bonus. In a rural town you will in all likelihood meet at least one police officer and a bunch of local professionals. Never hurts to have people looking out for you.
3) Aerobic dance classes and the exercise park
Aerobic dance is super fun to watch because there's always a certain degree of unintentional comedy. Sometimes it's the instructor going crazy on an elevated platform walking around with the confidence of an Egyptian Pharaoh screaming through their ridiculous wireless microphone headpiece thingy at his or her students. Other times it's the 70 plus year old granny exercising next to a stunning 20 something. In regards to the exercise park I have three words: Hip. Swing. Machine. That is all. Around 6pm the sun starts to go down and people scatter in a mad dash to grab dinner and get home. All is quiet on the western front by 7pm. It's pretty cool to watch it all unfold while the sun sinks like a drunk, hazy orange. Not bad. Speaking of which.....
4) Sunsets and walks on the beach
OK there were no beaches where I taught in Isaan, but those sunsets were pretty awesome. The flatness of the land and lack of tall buildings makes it seem like you're at one of the lowest points on earth at times. And the skyline is huge because of this, which adds a kind of majesty to the whole process. Throw in a cold Leo and it's a nice way to unwind after a day.
5) The after school snack district
When 3:30pm hits and classes are over the bazaar comes to life. It's usually located along the front gate of the school or near the football/soccer field (I know, I know it's a football pitch relax everyone it's ok I'm Canadian). I don't know what all the food is or is called, but man it's good. And satisfying. Fried chicken on a stick with chili sauce was my personal favourite. Especially after teaching 4/12 and 4/13 back to back on a Monday afternoon. Did I mention the vendors will serve you before a line of 15 students because you're a teacher? And the students don't mind at all because you're a teacher? Amazing.
6) The morning rush to school
You step outside at 7:50am and have 10 minutes to get inside the gate for the national anthem and flag ceremony, which is 2 blocks from your apartment. Then again, everything is two blocks away in town. Literally. In my case, you jump on your Honda Wave and start booking it over. The smell from the "kao neow moo ping" stand smacks you in the face. Maybe a bug does as well. A mini-bus drives by full of kids, some of them sitting on the roof. And by some I mean fifteen. They wave and smile. A motorcycle flies by carrying a family of 4, or was it 5? Students are parking their motorcycles inches away from each other in the archaic parking space. You get to the cross-walk and a policeman is dressed to the nine's, blowing his whistle, master of his domain, directing the masses in and out of the school gate. And in all this semi-organized chaos you just feel...well...alive
7) Riding a motorcycle around town and feeling like a complete badass
Even if it's a 100cc Honda Wave. I'm a farang, in Isaan, on a bike. That's cool. If you don't have a hog then a bicycle can actually up the cool/unique factor. A farang dressed up riding a bicycle to work gets quite a reaction. One of my co-workers did this in Si Saket and Thai students used to comment all the time; "Lam mak", "Tea mak" (really cool, dope, ill, fly, fresh, sick etc.). Anyways bottom line is both options are much cooler than sitting in traffic for an hour or riding a sardine packed skytrain. I'll be "ba-nok" and take a 2-5 minute commute all day.
8) Riding a bicycle around town
Doing this is almost a guaranteed way to cause a laugh riot because farangs on bicycles in small amphoe's is the most hilarious thing in the world. Related to the one above, but just want to reinforce this. Anytime, anywhere in a small town a farang on a bicycle is a sure smile/laugh generator.
9) Barbershop visits and the results that ensue
You think you told him to trim the top and use a number 2 razor on the sides? Ha! It's a crap shoot, especially if you don't speak much Thai. One of the most suspenseful and drama-filled activities you can do in a small town. "Sweet! I always wanted a K-Pop flop-top!"
10) "Wai Loon" Internet cafes
Jammed with 25 Thai teens/wai loons/dek vans playing their modern-day versions of Counter Strike online. So you wanted to Skype home, talk to granny and catch up? Think again. The noise that comes from that place is incredible. Or maybe it's the supped-up motorcycles flying around outside. Either way. Ahhh to be young again.
11) Pinky fingers
While I'm on the subject of wai loons/dek vans you can find many young men in rural Thailand who grow their pinky nail to ridiculous lengths while keeping it perfectly manicured. It's a sign that they don't work. Or don't perform hard work such as farming. Snoop Dogg (Lion) had this at one point. That previous sentence was a bit of a tangent, but Snoop is worth it. Some people say it's to sniff stuff. I've also heard for picking your nose and for scratching hard to reach places. Now that I think about it I'm not sure what the pinky nail is for. But it's obviously the coolest thing in the world.
12) Getting to know your food vendors
There's something really nice about going to get your chicken and having it in a bag, ready and with the exact amount you wanted without saying a word. Just show up and BAM! Dinner's served. Sometimes being the only foreign person around helps expedite things rather nicely.
Note: Bangkok is often thought of as 1000 villages packed together and I have no doubt many city goers know their food sellers. In a small town if the chicken lady is away there's no chicken. Period. And there's definitely no Popeye's or KFC out in the sticks. Speaking of fast food...
13) Western cravings
I stayed in several places where the nearest Western food was 50km away. Sure there was a café that had some drinks, but that doesn't count. And the Western selection at the TESCO Express doesn't count either. I'm talking KFC and McDonald's. During my time I ate local food the vast majority of time and am pretty adaptable. I don't mind fried grasshoppers, rather enjoy them actually. That being said, you get cravings and they come and go as they please. For me this often meant dreams of Dr.Pepper (not sold in Thailand) and good sandwiches (proper cold cuts, real cheese, nice baguette etc.). I wasted spare periods going on food rants with co-workers in the office. Driving to a bigger town and chowing down on some KFC on a Saturday was a highlight for me at one point.
Note: I had a 30baht Oreo McFlurry during my last semester in Khon Kaen that was absolutely horrendous.
14) Small town blues
Or in some instances desperate boredom. Credit goes to Professor Anderson for reminding me about this. Sometimes you get so bored drinking at the local watering hole for the umpteenth time on a Saturday night that you begin doing strange things. Maybe you start counting the number of geckos that run in and out of the walls. The scary part is it actually becomes pretty fun. Or maybe that's the good part. Moving on...
15) Getting sick and going to the hospital
Hospitals are never fun, but man do they make a big deal out of you. Not to mention they give you a sack of medication large enough to last 3 months for that dog bite you got. Can't be too careful now can we? Oh and the doctor, nurse, security guard etc. will all check up on you for the rest of the semester when they randomly run into you at the one TESCO Express or cao-mun-gai shop.
16) Town concerts
Preferably Mo-Lum. If you don't know what Mo-Lum is and you've been in Thailand for over a year A) You've never been to the countryside B) Just give up and go back home. Mo-Lum shows almost never end well. And this is why they're awesome. You know, as long as you make it out alright. There are fistfights, potential gun fights, shady drug deals, teenage motorcycle gangs and massively under-equipped and under-manned security guys. All accompanied by hard-hitting, hip thrusting, drink-an-M150-and-get-a-little-crazy Mo-Lum music. It's the Thai Isaan equivalent of...well...nothing I can think of. Almost forgot to mention all the half-naked ladies and ladyboys dancing super provocative on stage for a bunch of drunk/drugged up dudes. How could anything go wrong?
17) Befriending and drinking with locals
Do I really have to go into why this is wicked? Isaan people have lots of "jai dee" and "naam jai" and are generally more welcoming then other Thais, especially small town Isaan. Drinking Blend285 and Sang Som with a couple of the fellas after a game of basketball or football? Yes please! Alcohol helps break down the language barrier and Thai peoples' initial shyness. They'll open up more and you might be able to develop some really deep and meaningful relationships when it's all said and done. Yay alcohol!
18) Leaving your amphoe for the big bad city
And by big bad city I mean Udon Thani, Ubon Rachatani, Khon Kaen or Korat. Seriously. Come out of a small amphoe for an English competition to one of these places and you're left gawking in awe. "A shopping mall? A KFC? A big TESCO? Nooooo waayyyyyyyy! Man this place is so hi-so it's crazy!!"
19) Meeting the other foreigners
You can meet all sorts of characters out there. You may be the character and not even know it. It takes a bit of guts and sense of adventure to teach and/or live in a rural town. I've heard some amazing stories from all kinds of different people while out in the sticks, often over a beer or bottle of whisky. Good times.
20) Being minutes away from golden rice fields
Especially in October. Everywhere you turn it looks like a National Geographic photo. Stick that in your polluted tailpipe and smoke it Bangkok!
21) Scandalous gossip
"Wait...you mean to tell me Namfon kissed Sonchai in the back of the school? On the mouth?!?! And they're only 16 years old??? Oh my god they're the spawn of the underworld. The new Thai generation is so lost, what are we ever going to do?" Like I said. Scandalous.
Note: School gossip can be brutal and it's best to stay away at all costs. Even the most careful ajarn will get thrown in at some point and often not of their own doing. Just stay calm and be patient till they move onto the next topic. And remember they have much more invested in the school than you. Many have decades under their belts so there's no point getting involved, especially if you're only staying for a year or two.
22) The Meeting or "Phachoom"
*Dos Equis Guy Voice* "I don't always want to kill myself, but when I do, it's usually at a teachers meeting at 4:30pm on a Friday where everything is in Thai and doesn't concern 95% of the people at the meeting. Stay thirsty my friends." Where's that bottle of sang som?
23) Making a joke in Thai
The joke has to be well known, simple and expected. For example: "Farang gin farang." Farang means foreigner and is also the word for guava. So if you have a bag of guava, turn to the nearest Thai person, put on a smile and say "farang gin farang." Guaranteed laugh every time, never fails. If you go full-out Isaan and say "bok seedah gin bok seedah" the Thai person might break down. The learning curve for this is quicker in the country where you have to use more Thai more often in comparison to the bigger cities.
24) Old Thai male teachers
They're 3 years from retirement, been at the same school for 35 years and could not give less of a damn. This is a beautiful thing. Go introduce yourself, make friends and hang out. WAY more fun than they younger Thai teacher who takes themselves too seriously or are into the school politics/gossip game. The best part about the old guys? The dirty jokes and wink wink nudge nudge stuff. I can't write it here, but it's gold. It's like having a crazy older uncle at school. Always reliable for a laugh and a smile.
Note: This is from a male perspective. Farang women would probably not be able to have the kind of relationship described above due to the conservative nature of rural Thailand.
25) Old Thai female teachers
Especially those who work in the hospital/health unit department or whatever it's called. They see young foreign teachers as their children and are ALWAYS giving you free food and snacks. When you combine "food" and "free" it's always a win-win situation. Add a sweet aunt to that crazy uncle.
Note: Again a male perspective, but female teachers I've worked with have had really solid relationships with many female Thai staff members.
So we're back to the rice fields. Apart from the amazing view you also get this thing called peace and quiet if you decide to take a walk. You'll see cows, buffalos, birds, farmers and fisherman all moving about their daily routines, intertwined and yet respectfully distant, each playing their role to perfection. The primeval rhythms that have existed for centuries in places such as Isaan are really cool to see up close.
27) Karaoke encounters
There are always several karaoke bars, even in the smallest amphoe's, decorated with Christmas lights and pretty seedy. To the point where you wonder if they decided to play into the seedy expectation by just going completely over the top with it on purpose. If you get within 20 meters of places like this there's a 97.5% chance the school will tell you you're fired for sleeping with a karaoke girl last night. Just kidding. But not really. If you've worked in a small town those last sentences should make complete sense. The walls have ears.
There's also school karaoke, which if you're a non-singer like myself is completely terrifying. Yeah, no problem, let me get up and embarrass myself in front of 150 co-workers at this lovely new years party. Also, screw you Eagles, Ronan Keating, Westlife and The Cranberries. If one more student sings zombie at an English talent show I swear....
28) Weekend to Bangkok
I've taken a few digs at the celestial city of angels, but it's great and I've had many memorable times in the city, most of which I shouldn't write about. Being a city boy myself (Toronto, Canada) it's hard to impress me, but Bangkok is really cool. Period. So when the amphoe has me 5 minutes away from grabbing my grenade launcher I escape to BKK and let loose. Sometimes it means going to the club, dancing and getting utterly wasted. Other times it's hanging out at bar (I know I know pub) and chilling. Other times it's visiting friends and catching a movie. Sometimes it's simple delights like going to the Irish Pub on Silom and getting a really good burger. So yeah, I guess Krungthep is OK after all. Oh and the bus ride there and back is often half the fun.
29) Amphoe co-workers
"There's another foreign teacher? How old? Where are they from? Just tell me everything they've ever done in their life so we can be best friends forever ok?" The foreign community at rural schools in Thailand is usually very tight. Other times people can be distant for whatever reason. More often that not, bonds are formed because they're the only other people who get it. Thai people have the same amount of trouble understanding Western culture as we do understanding Thai culture. Having someone to talk to where you don't have to think about what you're about to say and truly express yourself is really great, especially if there are only a handful of you in the entire town. At my old school in Si Saket there were 8 of us. You become support for each other and lots of special relationships can develop out of these circumstances. It's like when you go into battle and survive together. Sounds corny and a bit over the top, but it's a real sentiment.
30) School trips on the school bus
Graduating M6 students often get a free trip from the school before they graduate and sometimes we're asked to tag along. A free trip? Sounds great! Count me in. Wait, what? We have to be at school at 4am Saturday morning?
So once you drag yourself to school you wait until 5:30am until the buses leave. Obviously because the head coordinator decided to sleep in. So naturally we're all going to sleep once we're on the bus and drive to the mountain right? Wrong. Now this is where things can take a turn into an alternate reality. The Thai teenage karaoke comes out. Pulse pounding upbeat Thai karaoke at 5:30am. And. It. Doesn't. Stop. I spent the first hour being "angry farang." Then I started smiling. Then I started swaying a bit. Dancing happened. Then singing. Welcome to the twilight zone. Did I mention there were strobe lights in this bus? I've never had a more fun/crazy/memorable 10 hours in the bus in my life (5 hours there and back). Sometimes in Thailand you just have to jump right in and shed those inhibitions.
31) Spreading the wealth
You'll meet some students, families and locals who are very poor. Maybe you'll get to know them through another teacher or by yourself. Somewhere along the line you'll realize how much you have and how little they do. So before you leave you might give them a t-shirt or pair of shorts from back home. And that smile you get back in return will stay with you and remind you maybe why you came here in the first place.
Hope you enjoyed reading and congratulations on making it this far. I'm glad I didn't bore you to death. If you have any comments, suggestions, ideas or personal stories/variations on some of the stuff I've written about please feel free to comment or drop me a line
Zach also did an ajarn.com hot seat interview in January 2013.