Ken May

You will always be an outsider

The dark underbelly of the Thailand TEFL industry

Students bottle-necked at the gate waiting to enter the temple for free. I hovered far behind them trying to negotiate. I spoke in Thai as politely as possible while offering staff a respectful wai (a traditional Thai hand gesture). But, her own hands gripped my shoulder dragging me back. The woman insisted as her fingernails dug in, “You farang. You pay 30 baht”. I tried to reason with her. I am the tourism teacher at Rajabhat University Phranakhon Sri Ayutthaya. This visit was for a tour guide class. My students need to learn about local tour sites. We could either memorize passages straight from a book or visit the temples in person for active hands-on learning. I was acting in full capacity as a teacher. I even dressed respectfully in the standard shirt and tie. Still, the woman’s hands refused to release, “You farang. You pay 30 baht”. No discount are offered to foreign teachers, even if we are Buddhist. Once again a Thai official reminded me that, above all things, I am an outsider.

This event wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it was the third time it happened that day. I got stopped at Wat Ratchaburana earlier. I spent the previous hour in class discussing the history and architectural details of this temple. I wanted students to go outside the classroom to see, smell, and feel it all live. Students had no idea that a staircase was built in 1959 that leads to a crypt below. There were old Buddhist murals that I wanted students to practice describing to me. We even met a Thai scholar at the entrance great. It would have been nice for us to speak together as professionals while students practiced translations, but the only words uttered to me were, “Your admission is 30 baht”. On the way there, a tuk-tuk driver demanded that I pay fifteen, when students were only asked for five. And we took that ride together in the exact same vehicle. In the end, the only rational given for this double standard was, “You farang”.

These double standards are getting expensive. I have two tourism classes that require field work. It cost me 200 THB last week just for admission fees alone. It is true that virtually every temple in Ayutthaya has openings where tourists can sneak in for free [hint: walk around the outer walls until you find a section low enough to climb]. However, I didn’t want my students to observe me breaking such rules. There are principles involved that I am not willing to compromise. There is the matter of respect for professionalism. Education is a form of improvement. I strive to produce a constructive learning environment that local students will remember. In turn, do Thai officials strive to attract and retain skilled teachers? Or are migratory “cowboy” teachers still good enough? Likewise, do officials want to produce new revenue-generating tours? Or is persisting with the old stagnant variety the preferable alternative? It benefits Thailand to lift standards to a higher level. These admission fees are quick profit at the expense of overall development. These fees should be waived so teachers like me can train students properly (and weekly discount passes, good for all temples, should be offered to virtually all visitors as an incentive for them to stay longer). The long-term outcome ultimately benefits Thailand, but are these positive contributions secondary to the fact that we are outsiders?

Next week, I plan to inform students that I will no longer take them to the temples that demand payment from me as a teacher. I am tired of being singled out in front of my students. Enough is enough. Let the inefficient status quo protect its own interests for now. I won’t be picking up the tab. It is too bad for my students. Many of these temples are where qualified tour guides are most desperately needed. My students could have profited from the demand for English-speaking assistance. They could have planted the seeds for new eco-tours. They could have promoted creatively fresh day excursions to provincial cites. The city could boost its reputation with locally trained guides, rather than the usual Bangkok-based travel agencies. This makes common sense. Shouldn’t the cash stay here rather than be given to the most dominant metropolitan city? Local travel agencies are starting to proliferate. New growth is happening. Ayutthaya has the potential to become a future hot spot for long-stay visitors. There are more sites to see and activities to do than either locals or tourists realize. Sometimes it takes a foreign traveler to point out the tasty morsels lurking outside the familiar. But is it more important to Thai officials that I am an outsider?

As a foreigner I am also prohibited from becoming a tour guide. I can not legally own my own travel company, even if it employs well-trained students. Like other outsiders, I would be required to put up funds to start a business with Thai partners who have controlling interest. In other words, I would need to start a shell company – though new laws might make this practice illegal in the future. Those who invest in Thailand are taking a serious risk. Outsiders can put money into a start-up company only to have it taken away by Thai partners. Foreign husbands may invest lifetime savings into a family home, only to have it snatched off by a Thai spouse because outsiders are not allowed to own property. This anti-foreign-ownership environment makes Thailand ripe for crime. Manipulative swindles are rapidly burgeoning. Outsiders are commonplace marks for almost any scam (artificial gem stones, forged antiques, dishonored contracts, bar girl hustles, standard bribes, etc.). As a stranger in a strange land, it may be difficult to find the same level of justice that you would expect at home. And it is only a matter of time before occupational scams start hitting our schools. The investments made by English teachers (time, money, energy) are unlikely to lead to the payoff of job security. As an outsider any business transaction can go sour, and it remains to be seen if anyone will protect us. Likewise, nobody will bail teachers out in case of a stock collapse, an outbreak of war, or a natural calamity. You must pay the “admission” and “exit” fees in the end.

As an English teacher in Thailand you will always be an outsider. We are required to check in every 90 days with the immigration department or pay an exorbitant fine. If we decide to stay at the same school for an extra year, we must physically leave Thailand to start a new visa process. Although there are a few shortcuts available, some more risky than others, the basic process requires a trip across the border (usually Malaysia or Lao) to get an initial three-month-visa. This short visa enables teacher to apply for a three-month-work permit. Then teachers are allowed to apply for an one-year-long visa. Afterward, teachers must loop back to the provincial office and change work permits to twelve months. The process of obtaining a legitimate visa is very long, and it often demands a lot of expensive, time-consuming, travel. By the time I completed my visa process, it had cost me nearly 10,000 THB ($250). Add another 2,500 THB ($62) for a multi-entry visa, otherwise you will pay 1,000 THB every time that you leave Thailand – even for day trips. Tax-paying English teachers with Thai wives and Thai children are offered no reprieve. They, too, must pack up every year and run for the border. Long term EFL professionals are given no breaks. They are given visas at the usual rate. To a degree, this expensive process reminds me of charging admission fees. Being an outsider, you must pay the maximum rate just to get into schools to teach legitimately.

Compare this price gouging with other countries. My one-year, multi-entry, visa and work permit for Hungary only cost me $40, and I never had to leave the country to obtain it. My multi-entry visa and work permit for Korea only set me back about $50. I picked up my short visa at a Korean embassy in only one day, and it was easy to extend that duration to twelve months once I arrived. Japan and Taiwan also have relatively simple visa procedures. Wealthier Asian countries keep the price down to make teaching more alluring. Hungary places a low price tag on visas because it has a poor economy. Therefore, it is baffling that a developing country, such as Thailand, demands that outsiders pay 4-5 times the rate as other Asian countries. Think about this closely: English teachers can get permits/visas in Korea for one-fifth the cost of Thailand’s, plus Korean school will pay housing and airfare. Western teachers in Thailand can nearly triple their salaries by moving. Therefore, it is worthwhile to ask why foreigners teach in Thailand when there are better deals elsewhere. And if a teacher chooses to reside in Thailand, why bother going through the hassle of becoming legitimate?

These questions lead to the dark underbelly of Thailand’s EFL industry. Let’s face it: the cowboys have invaded and they’re here to stay. Many English teachers are tourists who only want to extend travel by getting a quick paycheck. Some are fly-by-night sex-pats who have run out of cash. Many English teachers are fleeing a criminal past, or hiding from life back home. A significant number of English teachers have bought phony university degrees from Thai vendors on Khao San Road. I know one teacher who designed his in only one hour at an Internet café in Bangkok. Some English teachers have worked on bogus visa stamps bought from dodgy Thai agencies. Even fake TEFL certificates can be produced on locally “pirated” software. Many English teachers work here even though they are not native speakers. I have met “non-official” English teachers from Germany, Belgium, France, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India, and the Philippines. And many of them could barely speak or write English. Teaching gigs are easy to pick up even for non-native English speakers. Experience, integrity, and quality are non-variables. Thailand is willing to settle for less. If you cut your toe on a piece of glass you would practically bleed out your next job or grow it as an infection. The demand for teachers is very high and supply is rather limited. At times Thai schools would be willing to accept anyone off the streets if they look “foreign”.

Thailand’s giant-rolling-donut of a loophole is that English teachers can work here for years without ever going “legitimate”. They can cut through bureaucratic red tape with monthly visa runs. This process is simple: visit Thailand on a monthly tourist visa, work until time runs out, then head to the border for a visa run. Come back with a new tourist visa and start the revolving process all over again. Many English teachers prefer to work off the radar. When they tire of a teaching gig they can abandon the school. When the next full-moon rave takes place on Ko Pha-Ngan they can simply leave. Students hardly get to know them. There are no strings attached because the contract was never valid in the first place. Work permits and long-visas can be bypassed. The cowboys are also immune from the insulting 90-day check-ins. These English teachers exist outside a system that recognizes them only as outsiders. They are crashing the gate in mass and climbing walls without paying. At times I think ‘more power to them’. They are driving down salary rates, but maybe they are taking a path more righteous than mine.

Teacher quality depends on the bait that Thailand is willing to cast. If schools are willing to employ bottom-feeders than so be it. It is easy for good teachers and scholars to find jobs elsewhere. However, many of us stay because we have fallen in love with Thailand. It’s a curse I tell you. The county’s primary flaw is that it makes few distinctions among “farangs”. We are all outsiders. It doesn’t matter if one is a professional teacher who is dedicated to a school or a fly-by-night cowboy who will take the money and run. You will both get paid the same most likely. The visa run doesn’t get any easier or less expensive because you have proven yourself as a reliable foreigner. Professional English teachers are not given any discount rate for residing at the same location for years. Your visa will not be placed on fast track because your school provides solid references. You are highly unlikely to receive tenure or any long-term faculty position. Westerners still have to kiss their children and spouses goodbye as they retreat to the nearest border on visa run. We are all outsiders. We will always be outsiders. Thailand does not belong to us and it never will. Yet, many of us have invested so much life into this relationship that it is difficult to move on. We learn to compromise. Some teachers chose to play the game and others don’t. Meanwhile, Thai students are bottle-necked at the gate waiting. And we dig in our pockets looking for change.


You state (and I quote) "Therefore, it is baffling that a developing country, such as Thailand, demands that outsiders pay 4-5 times the rate as other Asian countries. Think about this closely: English teachers can get permits/visas in Korea for one-fifth the cost of Thailand’s, plus Korean school will pay housing and airfare. Western teachers in Thailand can nearly triple their salaries by moving. Therefore, it is worthwhile to ask why foreigners teach in Thailand when there are better deals elsewhere"

It would seem that you have answered your own question by, in the very next paragraph describing many of the types of less desirables who land teaching jobs in Thailand. Given that and given your comments above, MY question to you is why stay?
Yes you mentioned that "we have fallen in love with Thailand" but given the disadvantages, the double standards and disreputable behaviour of so many "colleagues" that in and of itself does not seem to offset the negatives. And this becomes triply so should one have a wife and kids to support.
To list a personal example...I fell in love with Korea and stayed there for over a decade. Yet I slowly realized that my time had come to leave even though I could have happily stayed there another decade. Declining salaries, poorer living conditions, disreputable colleagues and the sometimes open racism all played a part although by no means a whole in my decision. As in Thailand "you will always be an outsider".

By TheUrbanMyth, China (12th July 2015)

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