The Lonely Planet guide describes Mukdahan as 'not an exciting place'. Sounds like we could be in trouble here. Is there any hope for a TEFLer?
The Lonely Planet guidebook says......?
"On the banks of the Mekong, directly opposite the Lao city of Savannakhet, Mukdahan sees few visitors. It's not an exciting place, but there's enough of interest to fill a relaxing day"
Probably the only reason Mukdahan gets mentioned is that plenty of visa runners used the town as a stopover when passing through on their way to Savannakhet. In a way it's a transit city, but its growing. It's not that exciting but can provide for a nice slow-paced lifestyle.
In general, what are the pickings like for an EFL teacher?
It's not a big city, thus there is not a variety of jobs but there are positions available.
Pretty much all the secondary schools in the city and district towns have foreign teachers (that I know of). The ones that offer MEPs and EPs hire a lot of foreign teachers and often have to rely on agencies to fill the positions. A number of primary schools (in the city and province) are starting EPs/IEPs/MEPs, so I only see more positions being available in the future. For NES teachers, salary is likely to be in the 30,000 baht/month range.
There are language schools around, but I don't know of any that hire/sponsor foreign teachers. Ubon Ratchathani University has a campus in town, but it's small and don't believe they hire foreign teachers at that location (though I could be wrong). They have a large plot of land right outside town that has yet to be developed and that could well be a source for future opportunities.
How far from Bangkok or civilization?
About 650km from Bangkok; an 8-10 hour bus ride. There is no train station or airport, but Nokair and Airasia have Fly and ride tickets that are getting affordable.
It's easy to get a bus/van to Nakhon Phanom, Sakhon Nakhon or Ubon as well, then connect to air. Closest airport is actually right across the river in Savannakhet, but the visa costs make it prohibitive.
Distance wise, Hue and Danang in Vietnam are only 5 hours away. So if you're looking to travel around during a school break, there is easy access to Central Vietnam.
What's the place like for nightlife, eating out etc?
Thais like to party and there are bars to go to. There is not a variety but there are a few pubs around, Thai style with live music.
Many Thai bands/singers pass through as well, and it is easy to go to concerts if you're into such things. There is one Western-style bar called the Picking Cowboy but its quiet most of the time; good if you want a drink and some pool. They used to have a nice band play, but I don't know if they are still around.
Food is good and the night market is pretty big for the size of the city. Because it's on the border there is a lot Vietnamese food along with Isaan and Thai food. There is a restaurant that opened up on the river with their own brick-oven, they make excellent pizza (for Thailand). Other than that there isn't too much in the way of Western food. So if it is a necessity, better to cook yourself.
How much to rent a house or basic apartment?
Studio apartments run between 3,000-5,000 baht/month. Never saw condos or townhouses. Houses can be found, (with help from Thais) around 5,000/baht a month, unfurnished. Quality and size vary and it takes time to find one. Some schools provide housing, standards vary, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
Shopping malls, department stores?
Big C, Macro, Global House, Thai Watsadu, Robinsons and a Major cinema have opened up. There is also a Tesco Lotus.
The city is growing; it's been tapped as a Special Economic Zone by the government so there is a lot of investment in infrastructure in the province. As a result, many chains are popping up. It will be interesting to see what happens in the upcoming years with the whole ‘AEC', to see if it makes any difference in the city.
There's also the Indo-china market by the river which is good for cheap souvenirs, snacks and goods. Some of the best prices I have seen on silk/cloth/tacky souvenirs have been at the market. It's a good place to stock up before a trip home.
How is mobile / internet coverage?
I think this question is likely irrelevant by now - it's everywhere.
Will you be stared at? and what's the likelihood of a good beating?
You will be stared at, yelled at etc. No matter how well known you are in town, there are always people who look surprised to see a foreigner. No beatings though if you're not looking for one.
Taxis, buses....or horse and cart?
Some foreign teachers I worked with claimed it's a walkable city, which would probably be true if there was cool weather, even sidewalks and no scary soi dogs.
There are sky-labs (big tuk tuks) for hire, but I find they overcharge foreigners (no matter how your good Thai/Isaan is).
There is a metered taxi service, you can call, and good if you want to somewhere a little outside town (immigration or Robinsons) Otherwise, buying a used motorcycle is the most convenient way to get around.
Main advantages of living there?
It is very easy to save money since there are not too many places to spend it. It is easy to pick up extra tutoring work as well if needed. People are friendly in town and willing to help you out. If you stay for a while it can feel like you are part of the community and people will look out for you (including students).
Though it's small, there are pools, coffee shops, nice restaurants, a park etc. to occupy your time with.
Also with Savannakhet across the river, visa runs are easy (transport wise). Immigration is at the bridge and an easy trip for visa extensions/90 days/re-entries.
And what are the downsides?
The distance and time it takes to get to other areas of Thailand. If you want to take a long weekend at the beach, half your time will be spent travelling.
Lack of western food/entertainment can get to some. Not many people speak English well so communication could be an issue (I speak Thai, so can't judge what it would be like with a language barrier).
Any local attractions?
The riverside has the Indo-China Market and some restaurants. Mukdahan Tower is cool to check out for views of the Mekhong and a museum on local ethnic groups.
There is a national park with stones shaped as mushrooms about 12 km outside town.
Temples are everywhere with a nice one that sits on a hill right outside town, and another in town that is home to monkeys.
That Phanom is only 45 minutes away with a famous temple.
In October there are boat races on the Mekhong with teams from Laos and Thailand competing which is fun to watch. Other than that there is not much.
I liked riding my motorcycle and exploring on my own. If you need a bigger city, Ubon is 2.5 hours away and Khon Khaen 4 hours.
Where's the best place to meet other farangs or are they best avoided?
I met most foreigners through work, and they come from everywhere. Not many stay longer than their initial contract so it can be difficult to make lasting connections. Outside of work you will see people who have settled down with family, but there aren't too many.