Ajarn Street

A teacher in Chiang Mai

Is it paradise or pants?

I moved to Chiang Mai after six months in Samut Prakarn (probably a worse place than BKK). I arrived here with a non-teaching mornings-only job lined up, editing financial news for a UK newswire on a laughable wage. Armed with a bit of experience and a recently completed ECC TEFL course I approached 5 of the decent 8 language schools in town. I dressed to meet Thai expectations (tie and smart shirt/pants), tried to speak Thai and had all my papers ready. By the end of the day I had two offers of part-time work. One was with CEC, a very busy Thai-run outfit that was more of a baby-sitting agency than a school, the other was with the Australia Centre, one of the more professional and prestigious schools here. So, juggling the three, I had plenty of hours work, with a combined salary of 25k.

After awhile it became obvious to me that although my initial impression was that Chiang Mai had too many wanna-be teachers and not enough jobs, the quality of 'potential' teachers here was woeful. I saw guys with dreadlocks, teachers in T-shirts, girls wearing skimpy 'backpacker-type' clothing, dirt old men, etc. I realised that a little understanding of Thai expectations and a professional approach went a long way. One hirer gave me some insightful information. He had been school manager for several years and had seen lots come and go. His office was centrally located on the canal withing spitting distance of guesthouses. At least 20 people came to see him a week. Some didn't even have a CV, and some were dismissed by the receptionist for poor dress. He reckoned he binned 10 of the CVs, and only 5 others were worth keeping on file. If he hired one a month he was lucky. 'You have all the right qualifications and are well presented young man, unfortunately I have nothing for you right now, keep coming to see me each week' he had said.

And so I settled into CM, working mornings only with several other farangs and a team of Thais for a pultry salary of 10000 baht a month (80 hours work), and several hours in the evening between the two language schools, I found an apartment out in the suburbs and cycled everywhere. None-the-less, it was easy to settle in, the environment was much better, I soon made plenty of friends among the ex-pat community, the Thais I met were less material and more down-to-earth, wilderness was at my doorstep and things were cheaper. A lower salary didn't really matter to me.

Six months later things have moved on. As a freelancing journalist (which I am by profession) I had made a breakthrough with a UK company writing content for websites (My specialist area), I soon gave up the awful mornings-only job, and dumped the Thai-run school (for all the usual reasons, cancelled classes, disorganisation, lack of curriculum etc.), and now I have a burgeoning copywriting business which employs 15 people part-time. I run everything from home, turnover is quick, and I'm making 3 times more than my previous teaching salary. I seldom mingle with the tourists in town, still live cheaply and occassionally teach at the Australia centre for good measure. I get frustrated at the poor standard of service here and the low level of professionalism among the people (Thai and Farang alike), but the math is good when doing business with overseas clients. A lot of people here have set up product export companies.

I've been lucky, but the harder you work the luckier you get. The truth is, Chiang Mai is full of 'life stylers', people who don't want to work, people who will happily live off 10,000 baht a month, eat at noodle shops and loiter in tourist bars playing pool, riding their bicycles everywhere and seldom leaving CM other than for the monthly visa run to Mae sai. It's a small place, the schools know who's who and won't touch them. Many hang around for months looking for work, but eventually give up, broke and broken, and leave. They don't bother to learn any Thai, in CM you don't need to. I know several who have arrived with their act together and landed plum jobs on no prior experience. There are few jobs in Thai high schools, but a handful of international schools hire properly qualified people. Occassionally they hire ex-pats who have been here awhile with their 'ear to the ground'. Sometimes it's a waiting game of getting in with the crowd and waiting. There are lots of people here who subsist on bit work from the various language schools, and eventually leave. Few language schools offer full-time contracts, and few even underwrite a Non-Imm B application.

It's easy to get by in Chiang Mai, consequently it attracts the scum. I've had people apply for a job with my fledgling company who admit to being down to their last 300 baht. Others have asked for advances less than 2 weeks after starting (I let them go). Some can't even afford to do their visa run (700 baht).

Then there are the retirees. Those who have made their money elsewhere and simply loaf. Some are as young as 35 or 40, but they distort the picture, leading others to believe that it is OK to party and not work. There is also the NGO crowd, mostly working quietly for Burmese aid outfits that aren't entirely allowed by the government. They are serious, compassionate people on varying salaries who have been recruited externally.

Chiang Mai is way better to live in than BKK, but that's my opinion. Nowadays I prefer an early morning mountain bike ride to a night out at the MOS. I'm settled in my little bungalow, with a normal life, regular places to go to, where you almost always run into people you know, the traffic is dodgy, but not too congested, the air is cleaner, but not always clean, It's cooler, sometimes rainier, but a little humid at times, the pace is slower, sometimes its really boring, but there is a steady stream of cultural events put on at the uni. There are a few nightclubs worth going to, plenty of bar girls, less odious rich Thais breezing around, and most things are cheaper. It's possible to have your own house and no one need use public transport. The mountains are really accessible, everywhere in Thailand is noisy, locals in Chiang Mai can also be frustrating.

If you come here, come with the right attitude and you'll succeed. Many come here with long-term plans. I know many who ahve been here 10 years or more. Others come, plan to stay, but never quite make it.


I am 62 and fully qualified as a teacher in UK with a high Honours degree in English from a good University. I also have a Post Graduate Qualification in Education known as a PGCE. I have taught in UAE,Brunei Darussalam and did one term in Phuket.This is in addition to 15 years in English secondary schools.

I am qualified to teach up to Advanced level in Language and Literature in my own country but never bothered to take a TEFL course. I got work on the basis of my excellent qualifications and worldly experience!

What sort of teaching jobs would I be able to get in Chiang Mai on this basis?

By Chris Stark, Phuket currently (10th April 2013)

I thoroughly enjoyed your article and although it is four years later, I just stumbled upon it and find myself in a similar predicament. Originally the plan was to move to Chiang Mai for the year to teach English with my Mass Communications degree, however, it didn't work out quite as planned. Right away I found a job with good pay, but I ran into plenty of administrative issues and I didn't want to settle for feeling miserable.

Eventually my goal is to teach journalism and mass communication in the community colleges back home, so I decided to go after freelance writing/copywriting/editing/etc for more experience. I've had previous experience with newspapers and one website, but never freelance. I've landed a few gigs and it's wonderful, but it would be nice to have more experience.

I noticed you stated you started your own copywriting company and I was wondering if you would be able to take a look at my resume? I believe I can be a great asset to your company since I'm located in Chiang Mai with a degree and experience in the field. It would be very much appreciated. Thank you for your consideration.

By Jordan, Chiang Mai, Thailand (27th September 2011)

As a Chiang Mai resident of 7 years, I consider this my home. My husband and I have lived here comfortably on his pension and I have not had to consider looking for work until this year - our daughter is now 2 years into a very expensive University back in the America and suddenly we're very tightly stretched financially. I've got 17 years' experience in social services, and 5 years' experience working for a dotcom, writing press releases and editing. I got my TEFL from CMU a year ago and have had a few jobs editing and proofreading Masters level dissertations, as well as some English tutoring. But I'm just not finding work, despite having a very nice, thorough promotional package and hitting the pavement regularly. Any suggestions? Thanks.

By Rebecca, Chiang Mai (17th October 2010)

I am an American who will be relocating to Chiang Mai in Mid-October. My girlfriend has gotten a job at Payap University and I am planning on making the move because I feel that cultural immersion is a thing I really need right now. I am 23 and have a BA in Biology from a US institution. I have been looking up and down for jobs on various websites and am finding much of what you have said in your post. It seems that there are a lot of positions which will give you low wages for garbage work and leave a person feeling as if they are not really contributing to anything at all. I am becoming slightly discouraged because as a person with a science background I do not have TEFL certification but would like to obtain a position doing legitimate work for legitimate pay, and it seems like the only jobs available to Farangs (based on the internet) are crappy jobs that you have to fight with a million other people to finally achieve, only to realize that you still have crap.

I am trying my best to find legitimate employment but I am wondering if it would be easier just to get over there in CM and then begin searching again? I have a strong background in volunteer work as well as a good knowledge of science but is this enough to get a decent ESL job?

By Kevin, USA (24th September 2010)

I agree and disagree with portions of the article. Yet worth a read- many are very shocked to only get approx. 20-25K bt ($700US) from teaching full time. As in the developed world people sitting on their arse pretending to look for work get double this... I agree many Farangs come with that freeloading attitude- after running a Hotel for 4 years in CMai. Most Farangs I employed were useless and expected Farang type pay. They never last long...

I think from every 20-30 people setting up a life in CMai, only one will still be around in 5 years. Yet most will travel back for lifestyle reasons. In CMai you need to accept you will not be paid anywhere near what you get in your homeland. I have stated to many they are far better off working 6 months in their homeland and coming to Thailand all cashed up.

Yet you find the rare soul (I am not one of them yet) whom adopt the country as their own and adapt fantastically. Raising a family and operating a good business. The above author maybe one of these people who gave their dream a go. Not sure why others choose to knock him.

By Jay, Thailand (4th August 2010)

I disagree with your comment here. This article is an honest account of looking for work and how to effectively find a job in CM. I am on my way to CM and will soon be looking for work. Without the right attitude, dress, and effort applied, one should not wonder why they cannot find a job! Culturally Thai people place importance on the way one dresses and first impressions to them count... If you are entering another culture then you need to respect these little ways if you expect to settle in and actually find work in their country. This article was very informative and upfront for anyone who is serious about life and work in CM. Who wants to beat around the bush?

By skye, Vietnam, Nha Trang (20th June 2010)

I was hoping to read some interesting information on the region of Chiang Mai, but all I got from your blog was your opinion of you, and yourself, and how you are so 'super-qualified' that you shouldn't even be there!

By Philip Bennison, Thailand (21st May 2010)

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