Life had never quite prepared me for Bangkok. It was a full-bloodied assault on the senses. It was the ultimate cosmopolitan melting pot. It was a head-spinning mix of the old and the new. It was a veritable smorgasbord of everything that's different about Asian culture.
I've been teaching at a small kindergarten school for about three months now and have to say I'm loving every second of it. I'm really beginning to feel that I have found my vocation in life. I just wonder how long this honeymoon period will last.
Research (or lack of it)
I decided to arrange a teaching job while I was still in the UK and completely ignore the advice on many of the websites what I read. When I started my research, there seemed to be too much information to take on board and I couldn't be bothered with reading it all. It's worked out well in the end though. I'm at a great school with great students and a great boss. I couldn't really ask for more.
I spent a lot of time researching teaching positions and found an agency that took care of everything. They met me at the airport in a battered old minivan. They arranged my accommodation. They even provided me with a sim card so I could keep in touch with family back home. There was also a photo on their website homepage of six people on a beach - about my age - all jumping up in the air. They looked like they were having such a cool time. I had typed and sent an e-mail before you could say full-moon party cocktail bucket.
The agent replied immediately and after asking me a few questions such as ‘do you have any experience?' and ‘what colour are your eyes?' the agency offered me a ten-month contract. I was initially concerned about what I would do for the two months unpaid but the agent said "you no worry, I take care everything" and that really put my mind at rest. In fact after meeting the agent face-to-face, "you no worry, I take care everything" has become something of a catch-phrase, especially when it's time to discuss work permits and a proper contract - one that I can physically hold in my hand.
The Thai head teacher at the kindergarten is lovely and I value her encouragement. When I'm standing in front of the school gates at 8.00 each morning to greet the parents, she appreciates it's uncomfortably hot out there but she shouts "you're doing a fantastic job" from her air-conditioned office on the third floor.
Thailand is primarily a Buddhist country, but before I came here, I knew nothing about the religion itself other than some of the Buddha statues I've seen in photos are all really big and really shiny.
I thought that learning a little about Buddhism might help me settle into my newly adopted country so I borrowed a book from the local library. However, even after reading it cover to cover and skipping some of the boring bits, there are still so many questions left unanswered. Is it truly the path to enlightenment? Is it viable to exist and be happy in a world without any material possessions? And is it acceptable for a novice monk to touch a woman even if no one can see us behind the temple?
Surviving on 30,000 baht a month, even in Bangkok, hasn't been a problem. Well, less a little bit of tax and the 5,000 baht a month that goes to the agent. The cost of food here is incredibly cheap and it's super-delish. I'm usually a vegetarian and vegetables and fruit cost next to nothing at the local market, especially if you hover around the stalls at four in the afternoon just as the market traders all want to sell out and go home. That's when you get the real bargains.
Food and friends
I've made plenty of Western friends as well, which helps to keep your sanity. The couple who live next door, Rob and Patricia, are both digital nomads but they do a bit of teaching when sales of their five-dollar e-books are a bit slow.
If they're both feeling a bit flush on a Friday night, they'll say "come on Jem, let's all go out and chase down a great big steak and fried onions. Our treat!" I just laugh and say "How many times have I told you guys I'm a veggie?" But I tag along just to keep them company.
Later in the evening, with my stomach bloated and groaning from the most enormous steak and fried onions you ever set eyes on, we'll hit a few backpacker bars and get a little tipsy. But I never drink on a night before school. There are a couple of guys who turn up to work stinking of alcohol from partying the night before and I dread to think what the kids' parents must think when they almost pass out from the fumes.
Putting something back
Many young people like me - who are out here to do a year of teaching or at least until their parents' money runs out - will sign up to do some volunteer work with elephants. Elephants are the number one animal in Thailand as well as crocodiles. But whereas elephants roam wild in the forest, the crocodiles work mainly putting on shows for tourists.
I didn't fancy working with elephants purely because it was ‘something everyone else did', so I volunteered to do several weekends at a gibbon sanctuary instead. The gibbons are just sooooooooo adorable. They recognize you the moment you walk into the camp and run up to have a cuddle. But the best part of all? Gibbons just love posing with you for selfies.
Out and about
Because I haven't been in Thailand all that long, my opportunities for travel have been limited. One of my teaching colleagues, David from Bristol, invited me to accompany him to the seaside resort of Pattaya (pronounced Pat-tie-ya) for the weekend. I wasn't keen on going because I'd heard it was run by the Russian Mafia and appealed mainly to people into nightlife, but I went anyway. When we checked into our guest house, I wasn't feeling too good and decided to have a nap. Dave said he fancied going out for a walk along the beach road to take in a beautiful sunset over The Gulf of Thailand. He was gone for 9 hours.
The bestest trip I've done so far was by train to the north of Thailand, where I actually got the chance to stay at a remote hill-tribe village. I stayed as a guest of the village headman for two nights and I've never experienced such warm hospitality. Apart from a pick-up truck, a fridge-freezer, an enormous flat-screen TV and a satellite dish, these people had got nothing!
I'm putting together quite a list of places that I want to see when I get the time (probably the next mid-term break) Firstly there's Kanchanaburi and all its connections to the war between England and Japan. Everyone knows the famous Bridge Over The River Kwai and I would love to walk from one end to the other if it's not too hot. There are also cematries and museums and lots of places to get a Thai foot massage.
A nicer beach resort than Pattaya is Hua Hin, which takes about three hours to get to from Bangkok. I'm hearing lots of good things about it and can't wait to go. Think of a quaint Thai fishing village where time has stood still for centuries but now has a Burger King. It sounds brilliant!
I also plan to do Ayuthaya, which used to be the old capital of Thailand. It's known for its huge amount of temples but for a few hundred baht (depending on your negotiating skills) you can get a driver to take you round them all in a single day.
Jatujak and the story of the non-slip bath-mat
Today I went to Bangkok's weekend market or ‘Jatujak' as the Thais call it. Unfortunately, it felt like I had picked the hottest day of the year and my new purple tie-dye floppy fishermen's trousers were sticking to me in no time. The weekend market is a great place to pick up stuff for your apartment. I bought a couple of bath towels (25 baht each) and a bath-mat to stop me slipping when I get out of the shower. I think that was 70 baht for the bath-mat. I tried to knock the seller down to 100 baht for the three items and we went back and forth for a good ten minutes - but she wouldn't budge. The sweat was pouring off me. Oh and I also picked up a love bracelet made from leather and black onyx. That was a fixed price. 750.
I call my family once a week on Skype video. Everyone gathers around the computer to hear all about my adventures and I'll admit to getting a bit teary when I speak to them. This is the longest I've been away from home and there are so many things I miss, especially Mr Snaffles, my pedigree Pomeranian. But they hold him up to the screen and he recognizes my voice instantly.
My Dad hates seeing me get upset and reminds me that anytime I want a break and to fly back home for a week or two, he'll put the money for a return ticket straight into my bank account. But will I ever even manage to pay back the 5,000 pounds he gave me as a going away present? I love you Daddy.
OK, that's enough from me. I'm off to get a tattoo.