Joko MacKenna

Cultivating novelty

Making sure the novelty of living in Asia doesn't wear off

Hey folks! Joko here, your senior Myanmar correspondent at It's approaching one year since I left The Land of Smiles for the wild, final frontier of TESOL in SE Asia, and, as anniversaries often make one feel, I find myself more and more contemplative as the date approaches.

I think about why I'm here. Why I left Thailand. Why I left America in the first place. The answers to those questions probably aren't all that different from lots of other foreign teachers here in this part of the world.

I came here for the midget ladyboy hookers. Same as most of us, right?

What? No? Okay, just kidding.

New experiences

Perhaps the biggest factor in my decision to uproot everything and move to another continent was a desire for novelty. I wanted to see something totally different. Live a whole new way. Experience a culture totally different than my own.

When I first came to Bangkok, I found novelty in droves. I'd walk around just experiencing the place. The foods, the sights, the smells, all of these were wondrously new and exciting. Even teaching English was new and exciting; I'd never done it before.

For all the readers who've ever done this, you might know what I'm talking about. I think as well that this desire for seeing something totally different is what drives a lot of new foreigners to come here as well. Any culture shock I was feeling was offset and compensated for by this really great feeling of how incredible and different everything was.

Oo! Look at that! A roadside market! Ah, look at that incredible temple! Wow! There's a 5-foot long lizard just cruising the shallows of a city lake! Cool!

Novelty wearing off

Over time, a lot of that initial enthusiasm wore off. I still felt it when I traveled outside of Bangkok, but as the months wore on and the city became more and more my home, the charm and exoticism of things like the tuk tuk, congealed pigs blood and the neighborhood mosque blasting prayers at 5:30 AM began to wear off.

Bangkok became more and more like a dirtier version of Los Angeles and not the Shangri-La it felt like at first.

It wasn't the only reason, but me losing my sense of wonder about the place was part of why I left Bangkok a year ago. If I'd chosen to move to another part of Thailand, I might have renewed my feeling of novelty, but as it turned out, I moved to Myanmar.

Rekindling the passion

In Yangon, I found that feeling again, and I'm happy to report, a year later, I've still kept it. Sure, I've seen the inspiring pagodas a million times. Yes, I've ridden in taxis through insanely chaotic traffic more often than I can count. I've wandered the busy, colorful, exciting open air markets filled with smiling faces every night on my way home. I've seen Yangon and I've come to know it. Yet, it still surprises me. It can still leave me in awe whenever I leave the house. It still seems so new.

Ironically, one of the odd aspects of being an expat in Myanmar has given me a whole new appreciation of Bangkok.

Back to Bangkok

See, a business visa here is good for 70 days; renewing it is near impossible. Consequently, the visa run is part of the expat's life here. Where do we go? Bangkok, of course. It's a little over a hundred bucks round trip via one of the budget airlines, so I've been back to the Big Mango four times this last year.

Each time I've gone, I've stayed in a different part of town. Even though there was no need (I could fly in and fly out on the same day if I wanted to), I wanted to experience a new part of Bangkok (naturally seeing old friends was a factor too), and so I've stayed a couple nights.

My most recent trip ended this morning, and I had a wonderful time. Things felt familiar, but different. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Combining temporal and physical distance from my old life there, it's like Bangkok is a whole new city again.

Myanmar is home for now

I'm happy I've renewed my contract for a year and a half. In the past 11½ months, I've seen so many changes here in Yangon. It's kind of like I'm seeing the city and nation remake itself into a new place before my eyes.

That's certainly part of why I've been able to maintain that feeling of being in an exotic, new place here after a year, which I wasn't able to do in BKK. More importantly though is my mindset. I've consciously chosen to continue to appreciate how different things are. I've not assimilated yet, and whereas I recognize that doing so will be important if I choose to live here long-term, for now, I like being an extended newbie. I want to keep that feeling as long as I can.

Lest ye become as little children, thou shall not enter the kingdom of wonder.

I ask my fellow teachers who've been here more than a few months but less than five years: do you still feel like you're in a new and exciting land? Does anything make you go 'Wow!' anymore? I think appreciating the novelty of a place is partly a conscious choice.

I'm going to cultivate mine as long as I can.



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By john , uk (20th February 2015)

I have been living in Thailand now for 10 years and spent most of my time in Chiang Mai.

i was one who thought he could change the world and bring the Thai kids education up to international standard. It took me the about 5 years to get over that one.

I now have an old car and 2 dogs. I spend as much time as I can travelling to every part of the North and walking the jungles and national parks. The dogs love it.
I have realised that Thai people are not the humble people I thought they were. i still have many Thai friends but thats all. Only drinking buddies.

What I have discovered is the country itself. Driving into a small town in the middle of nowhere. Asking if I can camp near the river and ending up relaxing with the farmers who still do not understand why my labrador always wants to play football with them.

I have driven all of the North and eastern Issan. i will be moving to Rayong for the next school year and planning on driving all of the eastern area of Thailand. Over 5 years of driving around I have gone through 2 old cars. All up with repairs they cost me 135,000 baht. I just bought a new one for 50,000 baht and I can sleep in it. I have a Thai Rung that is 28 years old but all the engine and running gear are from a 2004 Toyota van.

it is amazing what is out there in second hand cars now that appearance is so important to the Thais. Anything that is not fashionable can be purchased very cheaply.
i also make kids ebooks from the photos i take of the dogs while travelling. My young students love reading them. Especially when they are lying on the dog.

Have fun

By T Mark, Phitsunalok (20th February 2015)

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