On a typically boiling hot day in Kalasin, Jum and I had literally walked from school to school with my CV. Even though this was 2011, emails and even phone calls were not the way that schools really functioned.
It was all done on a face-to-face basis, and if that face didn’t fit, you knew where the door was. Even walking on the pavements was a challenge; if they weren’t full of life-threatening potholes they were jam-packed with whatever the shops were selling. I had dressed conservatively in a polo shirt and a pair of cords, but within a few minutes the shirt was soaked with sweat and the cords were as comfortable as a pair of galoshes.
The first school we approached was an anuban school, a junior school of sorts with around 2,000 students. We waited in reception as the admin worker phoned our arrival through to the English department. After what seemed an age, I could hear footsteps approaching. A short, overweight black man announced his arrival in a booming voice.
A tricky start
‘I am Elvis – and who are you?’
I knew immediately that this was not the school for me. But against my better judgement I followed him to another classroom and listened as Elvis and his wife told me about the school, explaining that I could actually work on a tourist visa despite the rules stating otherwise. I knew for a fact that any teacher caught working in Thailand without a work permit and a Non-Immigrant Type B visa would be detained and deported from the Kingdom of Thailand.
‘Oh no, that simply is not the truth!’ they both chorused, and we were joined by an attractive Thai lady who introduced herself as the head of English. Her spoken English was pretty good and as we all walked towards the main building, she explained that I needed to meet the school director.
‘So he can see how handsome you are,’ she squealed with delight.
I was not so convinced, but followed, regardless. Elvis knocked on the door and opened it almost immediately. We entered a huge office with a table that must have been at least 3 metres long. Sat at the other end was a man in his sixties, dressed to the nines in a white military suit complete with medallions and gold coloured pips on the shoulders, and totally involved in his food.
He was Thailand’s answer to Idi Amin!
‘Elvis! What do you want?’ he bellowed in our direction.
‘Mr Director Sir, I would like you to meet Mr Philip,’ Elvis replied.
The Director gave me a sneer and returned to his chicken-foot salad.
‘Philip is from the Ukraine.’ Mrs Elvis had clearly been confused when I told her I hailed from the UK, and I almost forgave her, but when she explained that my OU degree was from an internet university, that was the straw that broke this TEFL teacher’s back.
I was about to say a few choice words but Jum, reading my mind, squeezed my hand and whispered, ‘Mai Poot… okay?’ She was asking me not to speak, knowing that in the past my ribald comments had usually made matters worse. We left the Director to his own devices, and before they could add insult to injury we made our excuse and fled the scene.
A job at last!
The rest of the day had been just as fruitless, and I was beginning to doubt that I’d ever teach – at least not here in Kalasin.
So how did I get the job in Kalasin Pittayasan School? Just by a chance meeting a few days later at the market! I smiled to myself now as I recalled it. I was looking at some half-alive eels and was wondering about the cruel fate these poor buggers were about to meet, when I looked up and saw a well-dressed Thai lady giving me the once over. Just as I was about to move on to the next stall of tortured marine life, she asked me a direct question:
‘Can you teach English?’
Thais were never slow in coming forward, and seldom wasted time on preamble or introductions.
‘I think you look like an English man and maybe our school will give you a job.’ I smiled inwardly as I thought about Elvis and the other schools Jum and I had canvassed a few days earlier. It turned out that Wannee was the Head of English at Kalasin Pittayasan School, the same school where Tom would be starting at in a few weeks’ time. I hadn’t been there when Jum and Tom visited the school, and when Jum had asked if there were any teaching jobs going, she was told that all places were filled. It turned out that my soon-to-be predecessor had been signed up for another year at the school, but had fallen foul of one of the unwritten rules of Thai education:
Students are not allowed to fail.
I struggled to get my head around the logic of that particular rule, but was still pleased that he had stuck with his guns and subsequently created this void for yours truly to fill.
Good news for Mum
Wannee told me to come to the school on Monday morning and to make sure I was dressed smartly, indicating that my current attire of shorts and flip flops would not really cut it. I rushed home to share my good news with Jum, and she looked immensely relieved. If I hadn’t been able to find a job, I suppose we would all have been returning to the UK complete with tails between legs, and nowhere to go.
Of course, Mum would have let us stay with her and Dad in Fort William but that really did not appeal to me after our last visit. Dad’s Vascular Dementia was getting worse, and every time I spoke to Mum I could hear the strain in her voice. She’d accepted some help in the form of several carers, who came in two’s four times a day. I know that Mum hated any outside interference, no matter how well meaning it may have been. Mum had been a teacher all of her life, so I decided to call her and break the good news. The phone rang for what seemed like an age before the answering machine kicked in.
I left a brief message, wondering what she could be doing at this time of day. It wouldn’t be until a year or so later that I would learn the answer to that question.
So Monday morning came and Jum insisted on holding my hand for the whole event. We scootered our way to school – it was only one kilometre, if that, and although the new term hadn’t started students seemed to be everywhere.
The Language Department was on the first floor and as we made our way up the stairs, it began to sink in just what a huge school this was. KPS was a government institution, and had been around for over a hundred years. More than 5,000 students attended, with around 300 teachers; of these only seven or eight were foreigners like me.
Just as we were about the open the door, it was flung open and a tall black fellow welcomed us in.
‘You are a very handsome man!’ he exclaimed, and stuck out a huge hand for me to shake. I squeezed just hard enough to show that I was no pushover, and he returned the favour. Introductions were made and I looked around the room, to see about forty pairs of semi-interested eyes giving Jum and I the once over.
Wannee was not there, but we were shown some chairs and asked to wait. The lack of professionalism surprised me as I noticed the ramshackle tables and chairs, and it looked as if the whole room full of teachers, all female, were having a good old gossip – about us.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a slim Thai lady of about thirty, smiling at me.
‘Can you help me?’ she said in a sing-song voice. This phrase was soon to be one of the most common I would hear in this particular room.
‘Sure, no problem.’ I smiled.
She skipped back to her desk and returned with a hefty book and some paper. This was the first time I met Pai, a Thai English teacher who had found an easy way to get her assignments completed for her Master’s Degree. So I was the next victim. I grimaced inwardly as she explained the question and looked hopefully at me for some sign of acceptance. She needed a 500-word summary based on a chapter in the aforementioned tome, which resembled War and Peace. I wondered if this was part of the interview, and gave it my best shot.
Meanwhile Jum had wandered off to explore around the school. After all, her son and husband would soon be spending a lot of time here. I only took twenty minutes to finish the mini-essay, and by the time I had handed it back to a beaming Pai, Wannee had arrived.
The interview was quite unlike anything I had ever experienced. It went something like this:
‘How much salary do you want?’
‘How much can you pay me?’
‘What is Open University? I never heard of this!’
‘It is a very fine British university.’
‘Okay, can you start in two weeks?’
‘Your salary is 25,000 baht per month.’
And that was that. I left to find Jum and we went out to celebrate my first ever teaching job. So the morning of all mornings finally arrived and it was time for me to become a teacher; a giver of knowledge, a mentor; all of these things. Who was I trying to kid? My old buddy, self-doubt was already creeping in as I looked at my choice of attire for this massive day, and I wasted at least fifteen minutes simply looking at shirt-and-trouser combinations.
Khon Uan and other 'insults'
It was about 7 a.m. and the temperature was already hitting 30 degrees Celsius. I decided on black slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt. Jum had chosen these for me a few days earlier; we had bought them in the local Tesco supermarket. Despite sharing the name and parent company with the consumer goods giant in the UK, the Thai version of Tesco was a far more adventurous place to visit and had a veritable treasure trove of oddities stacked in each aisle. It was when I was trying on the shirts and trousers in the changing rooms that I discovered I was carrying a little extra timber. I was always a short, stocky guy, but to discover my waist was now approaching 40 inches was a surprise.
When Jum had asked the shop assistant if she stocked any larger sizes, she’d cast me a slightly sympathetic look and scuttled off to the store room. Emerging ten minutes later with an armful of garments, she explained to Jum that these were the only shirts and trousers that would fit me. She referred to me as ‘Khon Uan’ (literal translation – ‘Fat Person’). Thai people were often this frank and I had long since stopped being offended; what was the point? I had, at first, been wont to fire off similar back-handed compliments to the ‘offenders’.
Years ago I was in the immigration office applying for an extension to my Tourist Visa. After handing in my documents, I was waiting for what seemed like hours to be called back to the officer’s desk, and then I heard my name being bandied about. ‘Hua Lan Yoo Sai?’ I was being referred to as ‘baldy’! (This was entirely accurate of course.) To make matters worse, the offending gent was in possession of the world’s most obvious wig. I was called back to the desk and, after a brief conversation, I smiled at the Elton John look-alike and asked him where I too could buy such a magnificent beast as that which currently adorned his bonce.
Of course he didn’t understand a word, so a helpful Thai lady who worked alongside him was only too happy to oblige. When the message eventually got through, his face turned a nasty shade of purple and I tried not to smile as he adjusted the toupee slightly.
But the last laugh was on me, because when he handed the passport back the letters ‘REFUSED’ were staring right back at me in bright red print. Lesson learnt the hard way. From then on I always let similar remarks ride, just in case.
A proper teacher at last
Anyway, back to the first day of teaching, and after deciding that I looked okay in the Tesco outfit, I went into Tom’s room to wake him up. He was already developing into a handsome young man, with probably more European looks than Thai, and this type of feature went a long way in a country that was a little shallow when it came to judging one’s personality over appearance. I’d been that age once, and remember how, all of a sudden, the opposite sex had started to become visible.
Checking myself out in his mirror and realising that a short, bald, overweight, middle-aged man was looking back at me, I wondered how the teachers and students would judge me…
Tom rolled over and reminded me that he wasn’t due to start until tomorrow; I was on my own here. Jum wished me luck and kissed me goodbye as I hopped on the bright yellow scooter and made my way to my new job. It was a beautiful day, and the light breeze against my face was most welcome as I sped my way to the school. It really seemed as if this was going to be a most excellent day.
After all, I had spent seven years of study getting my Open University Bachelor’s Degree and TEFL certificate. It would have been a crying shame if these pieces of paper had been nothing more than a little window dressing for a shop that was devoid of any real achievement or aspirations.
So a teacher I finally was, and as I pulled up outside my new school and looked through the locked gates, I thought about the chain of events that had led to my employment at this huge establishment. As I walked up the path towards the Language Department I winced; my foot had started to ache. I was prone to getting ingrown toenails and my latest one was a real beauty. The big toe on my right foot was going ballistic, as the nail had eaten into the side without mercy. Wearing formal shoes had made matters worse, and I cursed myself for not getting this treated earlier.
I noticed some attention from the students, who were looking at me like a lion sizing up a young calf.
As I climbed the stairs and entered the Language Department I felt a chilled blast of air conditioning wash over me – most welcome. I looked around the room for a familiar face, but there were none. Nobody had even stood up to introduce themselves, so I looked around again and noticed a desk in the corner of the room with a name tag that read ‘Phillip’. My name was spelt incorrectly, but I didn’t really care. I walked over and tried to get comfortable in the small wooden chair. By now the toe was really hurting, and I was feeling lightheaded.
For we teachers, the first day was all about finding out who you were teaching, and preparing lesson plans. Gradually the room filled up and it soon became apparent that I was the only English, or rather Scottish, one here. Mustafa greeted me with a bone-crushing handshake and explained that he would be helping to make me feel comfortable on my first day. I had liked him from the offset; this larger than life character had a very friendly way about him. The rest of the day was spent with me trying to get a first lesson plan together, and having a look around this massive school. Over 100 classrooms, some of them in buildings more than four stories high, no air conditioning and jam packed with chairs. I was gobsmacked to learn that there were up to 60 kids in a single class! How the hell would I manage?
Mustafa smiled and laughed like only he could as he let me in on a little trade secret: ‘The students are lazy; they do not wish to learn from us. You need to entertain them, not teach them.’
Well, this guy had survived one year already so I suppose that he must have had a point.
I was studying my lesson schedule and was shocked to learn that some days I would be teaching for five hours in a row while on others, for only two lessons in the whole day. It seemed that English conversation was not a priority, and whilst I would teach each of my 18 classes once per week, they would get three times as many lessons from their Thai English teacher!
Little wonder that the Thai students had such a poor grasp of spoken English; they were spending too much time wrestling with grammar and writing essays that they couldn’t even read.
That evening I prepared myself for the first day proper, and was amazed to see that Tom wasn’t in the slightest bit nervous. In fact, he looked as if it would be just another day. I kind of envied him as I wondered how the next twenty four hours would pan out. My toe looked as if it was going to explode, swollen to the nines and frankly, was starting to reek. Tomorrow was Thursday, so if I could last till the weekend I’d ask Jum to come with me to Kalasin hospital to have the nail removed.
Phil, is 25,000 baht per month enough for us to live on?’ The question came right out of the blue, but to be honest, I suppose I had been waiting for it to materialise I sat down with Jum and started to draw up one of my famous budgets Oh, I was quite the dab hand at getting it all down on paper, of that there was little doubt However, when it came to manning up and following through, let’s just say that I was an ‘epic fail’, as my son was so fond of saying these days
My track record with money management spoke for itself – just a few steps away from bankruptcy only last year, so yes, Jum’s query certainly needed to be given some thought. In terms of straightforward maths, my plan went a little like this:
Income:+25,000 per month
Rent – -4,000 per month
Food – -4000 per month
Gas for the bikes – -500 per month
All bills for house – -3000 per month
Phones – -700 per month
This left a whopping 12,800 baht!
Okay, that only worked out to be around £250 in real money, but living in Thailand was certainly cheap… or so I thought!
There was no stress in terms of debts, or worrying if the mortgage rates would rise – and when you consider that the typical Thai household of four managed to survive on 10,000 baht per month, we were quids in. We also had some money left from the house sale, although that was decreasing every day.
I planned to set up evening and weekend teaching classes once I found my way at the school, and perhaps Jum would also get a job. She was still using her British passport, thanks to the skulduggery performed by her lovely family. I still could not believe that this lovely woman was still in touch with those people! Considering what they had done to her, and us, in the last few years, I really believed that Jum should be next in line for the Nobel Peace Prize, or at least get a wooden spoon for ‘Best Efforts’.
Not a day went passed when I watched her trying to deal with that hideous injury that resulted from the attack from Yai Dee. A broken arm and God knows how many pins in her elbow, plus the scar that made all other scars look like scratches. To make matters worse, the entire family had turned their backs on us and refused to co-operate with the police. Then, just a few months later, they all returned with hands outstretched as usual, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt!
I had forgiven this bunch of misfits one time too many and still harboured evil thoughts of revenge as far as Yai Dee was concerned. About five years earlier, when she had fallen out with her younger sister, Hoi, the family had removed Jum’s name from the house and, as described Teaching 135 earlier, she was now unable to apply for an ID card – and without that, a Thai Passport couldn’t be applied for.
Potentially this meant that it would be almost impossible for Jum to work in Thailand, yet the Clampetts still thought they could drop by for the occasional loan, even though their own actions had reduced our income!
I spent a good few minutes in hate mode, then looked up to see Jum had ironed my white shirt and was already preparing some Laos food to take to her oh-so-lovely mother the next day.
My damned toenail was starting to howl once more and I was thinking about taking the next few days of to get it seen to. In hindsight this would have been a very slick move, but I decided to tough it out… big mistake! I said goodnight to Tom and crashed out early for the day.
Nature's glorious chorus
Our new home had a decent garden but the damned thing was full of ants, snakes and frogs. It had rained heavily a few days earlier, so parts of the ground were wet, and even submerged, thanks to the huge wall that gave our home a compound-like feel. This evening I had noticed a weird noise coming from one particular corner of the garden and as the light disappeared, a chorus started up. There were three distinct sounds:
Each of these would be produced at different intervals, and when they coincided the cacophony was immense. Tonight of all nights it seemed to be the World Cup finals of the Kalasin Frog Ensemble, and although I was generally fascinated by nature, I really could have done without it on this particular night in May.
After an hour, Jum came to bed and was pretty much asleep not long after her head made contact with the pillow. I lay awake for what felt like days, and when I checked the time on my phone, it was almost 2 a.m.! I had to be in school in less than six hours, and the amphibious beasts were only just getting into their stride.
Then I heard a new sound, an extremely high pitched one at least three octaves above the rest. Whilst the original chorus backed off a little, this new combination was simply too much for me to bear. As I sat upright and started cursing, Jum opened her eyes and said one word: ‘Snake.’ She immediately dozed off again and I started to realise what she had meant. A snake must also have had enough of the out-of-tune slimy buggers, and was taking immediate action. But it wasn’t the serpent making this din, it was his or her poor victim!
By now it was almost 2.30 a.m. and as I pulled on my slippers and mustered up the energy to join the party, Jum rolled over and said quite clearly, ‘Be careful of Snake.’ I’d grown up with snakes in South Africa, where Norman and I had even caught cobras on occasion. We’d improvised with swimming goggles to avoid the venom that spitting cobras like to spray at humans, and we’d even laughed at the amount of this deadly liquid that sometimes coated the transparent plastic during our fun and games. But I was only 12 years old back then, and a lot faster than this 45-year old body could possibly manage.
As I pulled back the screen door I noticed all sounds seemed to have momentarily ceased, other than the screaming noise. This made it easier to track down, and I soon worked out where the murder was taking place. In the left hand corner of the compound, underneath the branches of our large mango tree, the water was deeper than anywhere else in the garden. I used the flashlight on my mobile phone and picked up a large stick as I approached the hideous noise. As I neared, I could see a thrashing shape, and about ten feet short of the commotion I stopped for a closer look.
Although the phone’s flashlight was just a single LED bulb, I knew I was within spitting distance of a Very Large Snake. My knowledge of reptiles was actually pretty comprehensive, and judging by the size of this specimen, it was most probably some kind of python. Other than a few such as the Mamba and King Cobra, most poisonous snakes do not grow longer than 6 or 7 feet. This big boy was at least 10 feet in length and had some impressive girth action going on.
My heart leaped a little, because after all, didn’t I bring my family to Asia for some adventure and unpredictable events? Well, here was my first real slice of nature’s finest having at it, right here in my garden! I took a few more steps and must have disturbed the snake’s meal time, because he appeared to drop the remains of the plump frog and turned to look directly at me. His head and body almost immediately disappeared under the water, and I instinctively took a step back. By now, there were absolutely no sounds in the garden and it was as if only the snake and I were there, in a weird parallel universe.
For what seemed like an eternity, there was no movement, and I wondered if the serpent had simply decided to lay low until this rather tubby white human ambled off to bed. There was little chance of me doing that, because I knew that whatever this snake was, it was big enough to do some serious damage to my family – and could probably eat dear Megan whole.
Then I started to notice some ripples appearing on the surface. I took another step back as I realised the snake was coming in my direction.
‘Phil, are you okay?’ Jum’s voice broke my concentration and I turned to see her face pressed against the screen window in our room. ‘There is a big snake here and I need to do something about it!’
Within seconds she was by my side with an industrial- sized torch and a massive rake. ‘Phil, it dangerous, come back inside!’ I wondered why she was saying this, as it was clear she had brought the correct tools for the job in hand. Then I heard a familiar noise as Megan came running towards us, barking like a bloody Jack Russell. She must have seen the snake before us, because she stopped a good ten feet short of where Jum and I were. I turned back – and found myself looking at the largest King Cobra I had even seen, staring right back at me, eye to eye. It must have stood at least 5 feet off the ground, making its full length around 11 or 12 feet – a monster!
I loved snakes but immediately understood that there was no way I could catch this magnificent beast without killing it – or it killing me. Christ, all I had wanted tonight was to get some semblance of sleep before the morning, and now I was reliving an episode of Steve Irwin’s life, God rest his soul, in my garden!
Jum had disappeared, and so had Megan, but in an instant my dauntless wife was back – and this time had a different tool in her hands. She had ditched the rake in favour of one of the machetes with an elongated handle. Apparently these were used for cutting down sugar cane and bamboo, and were pretty good farming tools – amongst other things.
Before I could even think out my latest plan of action, the tiny woman next to me simply took four steps forward and let rip with the sugarcane machete, with all of her might. I gasped out loud as the hooded cobra seemed to break in two, leaping into the air as the audible thud of the machete hitting the soggy ground resonated in my ears. That poor beast was going nowhere.
Jum took my hand and as we walked back to the house she said two words: ‘Go Sleep.’
A few minutes later I was just about to enter the land of nod when the frog chorus resumed, this time even louder than before. I imagined them speaking in tongues about the floorshow that they had just witnessed. One particularly large specimen was saying: ‘Hah, did you see the slap-headed foreigner almost wet himself as his little wife killed that bastard snake?’
I smiled as I realised I must now be dreaming, because how could frogs tell Europeans from Thai people?
Daylight came all too soon and as I dressed for the big day, I wondered about the snake and frogs and was it all a dream? Looking out of the window I saw the shape of the cobra’s rather deflated head in the corner of the garden with about a dozen birds having their breakfast on the lawn. Although still an impressive size, in the light of day the snake wasn’t quite the giant that my wife had done battle with last night.
Phil Hall was lucky enough to teach at a government school in Isaan from 2012 to 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed this experience. He also has a book published called Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards.
It takes the reader on a journey from the UK to India and finally Thailand. Debts, Dementia, poorly planned emigration, self discovery, family bonding and attempted murder are all part of the highs and lows of this 18-month true tale. This is an excerpt from the same book with a few alterations.