Making The Move
How to prepare yourself for life in Thailand
Thailand is not only a popular holiday destination, it is also a country many foreigners want to live and work in. However, giving up your life in the west to move halfway around the globe and take a leap into the unknown is evidently no small feat. Uprooting yourself - and possibly wife and kids - from a country you may have lived in since birth takes careful consideration and preparation in order to avoid bitter disappointment down the road.
It will come as no surprise that most people making this life-changing move are single (or happily divorced) without children. Even then, giving up your accustomed surroundings, friends and worldly possessions in pursuit of a more fulfilling life-style is no split-second decision - or one made when under the influence. In this month's article, I'll address some issues that may worry adventurers pondering a move to Thailand to become an English teacher and give some practical advice that might come in handy either before or after the move.
If you're still in the safety of your western home, the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether you are really sure you want to travel to the other side of the world in order to pursue a teaching career - because realistically speaking that is about the only job for which there is a big demand for westerners - and live a long stretch of time in a foreign culture. This decision should never be made just after a fantastic, fun-filled beach holiday in Thailand, where your only daily worries were limited to what to have for lunch and which bar to patronise at night. If your desire to move to the Land of Smiles is mainly based on your urge to see your summer sweetheart again, you'd better let your infatuation cool off a few months in order to avoid rash decisions you might regret forever after.
Once you've made the decision to take the jump, it's time to get organised as you'll have lots of things to do. Quitting your job (if any) and giving notice to your landlord probably top the list. Informing friends and family, selling your furniture (and possibly car) and getting rid of stuff in general are not to be underestimated either. I feel that if you're really committed, it's better to go for a clean break as putting things in storage or filling up your parents' attic only results in unwanted bills and mountains of dust. Moving all your stuff around the world could cost more than it is actually worth. If you're a tenant, subletting your dig to friends may seem a good idea at the time, but once they call you for every minor problem or skip town unannounced you'll wish you hadn't. If you're a home owner, get in touch with a trustworthy estate agent who manages rental properties.
It is probably easiest to make the move to Thailand when you're single, live in rented accommodation, are fed up with your job, don't consider friends and family to be of monumental importance, and are quite familiar with foreign cultures. It is a plus, but not essential or foolproof, that you've visited the country beforehand. Previous teaching experience and relevant qualifications will also give you an important edge. If your employer allows you to take a sabbatical with the option to get your old job back, don't think twice. If you don't have the resources to scout your final destination beforehand or are already planning a possible move back home before even taking off, it might be a good idea idea not to burn all your bridges and have some kind of pull-out scenario in place should things not work out.
Please understand that the above profile is flexible. If you don't fully recognise yourself in it, don't start being miserable and put all your plans on hold. Strong motivation can be an excellent substitute for lack of whatever you're short of if you don't fall into the 'perfect candidate' category. However, if you've never set foot abroad, have never travelled independently, have a hard time making friends, thoroughly dislike exotic food, get homesick easily, are not used to taking the initiative and need your hand held most of the time, then I wouldn't bet the kitchen sink on you bringing the house down in Thailand.
Anyway, let's suppose you do want to move to the Kingdom no matter what. You'll have to save some seed money first in order to pay for a round trip ticket and organise your job hunt once you're on the ground. You should be aware that applying from overseas is virtually a waste of time unless you're PGCE qualified and have teaching experience in your home country. You'll need some nice clothes (which can be acquired quite cheaply in Thailand) and money to get a place to live and buy some essentials (I'm not referring to a wide-screen plasma TV here but to ordinary stuff like bed linen, pillows, a fan, an electric kettle and possibly a fridge).
Airfare and emergency cash included, you'll ideally need a minimum of 3,000 US dollars before making the move. This amount is not set in stone but only a guideline; I estimated airfare at USD 1,000, emergency cash at USD 1,000 and initial expenses at USD 1,000. This is supposing you don't want to find yourself in a faraway land forced to take up a career as a beggar or bum; I am also assuming you don't want to pester your family at home into sending you money every other week or build a reputation as freeloader among your newfound local friends and colleagues. If you plan to do a TEFL or CELTA course before starting your Thai teaching career, make sure to have another fistful of dollars handy.
Don't forget that once you have arrived in the Promised Land, you should hunt for a job before settling into an apartment as you don't want to get stuck in endless traffic for your daily commute. This means that you may have to stay one to four weeks in a hotel or guest house before moving into a more permanent place, depending on the success of your job hunt (by the way, if you still haven't found a satisfactory job after a month, I'd start planning the return leg). Get yourself a local SIM card - available on just about every street corner - so that possible employers can contact you easily. Get streetwise in your new surroundings. Know that metered taxis, Skytrain and subway are often the easiest and cheapest way to get to an unknown destination timely without arriving drenched in sweat. This is no time to start saving a few baht by using non-A/C buses or walking several kilometres to your next interview in the sweltering heat.
Once you have successfully landed a job, start looking for a place to live. Inner city places near good transport links might save you a lot of time but usually come at a considerable premium. Although Skytrain (BTS) and underground (MRT) are difficult to beat when it comes to getting around easily, they are rather limited in range. Many areas outside of the city centre have comfortable vans and buses going into the belly of the beast, so unless you are addicted to the adult entertainment zones in downtown Bangkok, taking up a job on the outskirts of Greater Bangkok is definitely worth considering. I wouldn't dismiss jobs further afield out of hand simply because of the absence of either Skytrain or underground. As taxis are cheap, the money you save on rent will more than likely surpass your monthly taxi fares.
Try to get accommodation near your workplace or at least within a reasonable distance of the school you'll be working in. It's difficult to say what an apartment will cost as it depends on quality and location; it can range from 2,000 baht for a spartan room in the boonies to 20,000 baht or more in the CBD. MrRoomfinder.com might give you some idea of what's out there, although I feel you'll mainly see the more expensive tip of the accommodation iceberg. As a rule of thumb, I think rent shouldn't take more than 20% out of your salary if you plan to make ends meet. Most landlords will insist on a two months' deposit and a month's rent up front. Utility charges will be another 500 to 5,000 baht monthly, mainly depending on your use of A/C.
Living and working near the beach is probably the dream of the majority of foreigners arriving in Thailand. It's also the dream of many expat teachers who have been in Thailand for years. I'd take it for what it is: a dream. Apart from a handful of jobs in Phuket, Hua Hin and some lesser known beach towns, the bulk of teaching positions can be found in and around Bangkok, which has after all a population of nearly ten million. For some, reality kicks in when you realise that living and working in Thailand is a world apart from coming here on a package holiday.
Although your health is invaluable, I don't think you should buy expensive medical insurance beforehand as Thailand is cheap compared to the west. Most people already have some kind of travel insurance anyway. Also, good employers offer medical insurance for free or at a reduced cost. If they don't, take out your own locally by contacting for example BUPA, a major insurance company which offers competitive packages or Ajarn.com's Group Package from Tony Dabbs. Don't bother bringing a truckload of medicine from home as Thailand probably has more pharmacies than the rest of the world combined. Yaa (Thai for medicine) is cheap as well.
In order to survive Thailand as a bachelor(ette) you don't need the skills of an experienced housewife as the average cost of eating out is anywhere from affordable to dirt cheap. Keeping your clothes clean is also a piece of cake as myriads of laundry shops around town are keen on washing your dirty underwear and pressing your shirts. Again, you don't have to break the bank to use these services. I don't think shopping even deserves to be mentioned, but let me point out anyway that small purchases can be made at the 7-Elevens that possibly outnumber the urban cockroaches. More substantial shopping pleasure - and possible credit card hemorrhaging - can be experienced at local or international hypermarkets such as Big C, Tesco Lotus and Carrefour, as well as at the massive shopping centres such as Siam Paragon, Central Plaza, The Mall, the Thai-style behemoth BMK, the hi-so hang-out Emporium and the snobbish Gaysorn, most of which are conveniently located within the city centre.
Once you're settled into your new job and dwelling, you should explore other possibilities for getting around cheaply such as motorbike taxis, vans, buses and river boats. Those of you who plan to work and travel around Thailand or Southeast Asia should realise that it's not always easy to take a few weeks or months off whenever you feel like it. Either choose a school which allows for long summer holidays or travel around the region before taking up a job. Southeast Asia is probably the easiest and cheapest part of the world to travel in, with lots of wonderful beaches, national wonders, ancient temple complexes and exotic foods. Although inexpensive, an average one month's itinerary will still cost around USD 1,000 minimum, so make sure to have either credit card or money belt available. If you're not into travelling, check out the parks Bangkok has to offer as they are welcome and relaxing oases in the noisy concrete jungle.
When coming to Siam from overseas, arriving on a tourist visa - if possible a multiple entry one - is probably the simplest and most sensible scenario, unless you can obtain a non-immigrant B visa at your local embassy without the hassle of needing to submit extensive paperwork from a prospective employer. After having found gainful employment, your employer should handle the necessary paperwork and apply for a work permit and a yearlong extension of your visa. If you arrived on a tourist visa, this will either need to be converted to a non-immigrant B within Thailand or you'll have to do a visa run to get the latter.
Remember that in order to be eligible for a work permit you should have at least a (genuine) bachelor's degree and a TEFL certificate (the latter is not required if you have a B.Ed). Make sure to bring the originals. If you get your non-immigrant B visa abroad, don't forget to bring a police clearance as well (the conversion of a tourist visa into a non-immigrant B within Thailand, although more expensive at 4,000 baht, seems to make a home police clearance redundant). For more information on this topic, please browse some other parts of this site, the forum or consult the Visa Guru, as I personally get splitting headaches from this ever-changing red tape. By the way, if you're a tree hugger or a nitpicker, this process will be sheer agony: not only will you be asked to sign a ludicrous amount of papers, it will also include a baffling amount of powers of attorney and possibly a few blank sheets just in case.
Although I've covered most of the practicalities in this article, I think that for many planning to move to Thailand the main hurdle before making the final decision to come to Thailand is psychological. From the dozens of emails I've received over the years, it is clear that you have lots of questions which in fact nobody can answer. The list is probably endless, but I'll give a few examples anyway (for more, look at the Questions sections elsewhere on this site).
• Which is the best TEFL course to take? (search for feedback on-line, scour the forum)
• Will I find a job without having experience? (likely)
• Without a degree? (possibly)
• Without either? (who knows)
• Without degree, experience, hair and teeth? (please stay put)
• Will I find a job in Pattaya or Phuket? (are you sure it's the teaching you love?)
• Is 55 too old to start a teaching career in Thailand? (probably not)
• Should I do a TEFL or start a job first? (the former would be better)
• I'm an American citizen but look Thai. Will I find a job? (I'd give it a try)
• I have a 3-year Teaching Diploma, am qualified to teach in my home country, have 21 years experience and have enrolled in a TESOL course. Would my overall qualifications be suitable for acceptance as a teacher of English in Thailand? (does a bear shit in the woods?)
The real answers to all these questions aren't just the ones in brackets, they are also 'I haven't a clue' as I don't personally know you, what drives you, how good and motivated you really are. Teachers with degrees and experience (and a score of unrealistic demands) occasionally muck up job interviews while others without either manage to worm themselves through the door, so if you'll ever get that plum job is anyone's guess. I can guarantee you one thing though: if you've really set your teeth into moving to Thailand and finding a job, you'll probably succeed as long as you try to suppress some of what is considered by Thai employers your arrogant western attitude and expectations. And even if you don't and eventually return back home, make sure to take the opportunity to explore the region and enjoy all the marvels Southeast Asia has to offer.
Finally, I don't think it would be a good idea to consider this column gospel, as some arrive in in Thailand each year woefully unprepared yet seem to find their bearings rapidly and adapt to living and working in a tropical country where some local customs range from eye-opening to mind-boggling. Anyway, as they aren't the ones to worry incessantly and to prepare themselves for every imaginable eventuality, they probably won't come across this piece unless they stumble upon it. This being said, if you have doubts about a move to the Land of Smiles - which is after all only human - I suggest you don't let your insecurity spoil the adventure you're about to embark upon. Take a deep breath and take the plunge; it is likely that you'll learn to swim before you drown. Genuine inquiries remain welcome, but please don't call me when you're stuck at the airport without a clue how to get to the city centre.
This column was inspired by dozens of e-mails received over the last few years and my own move back to Thailand where, after a relaxing six-months' break, I have taken up a new head teacher's position.
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A great article, thanks for sharing your experiences.
By Sabbatical, UK (4th April 2010)