Thailand: The Beginning


Traveling, much like lack of sleep, can do wild things to the mind. Even the most balanced and kempt person can find themselves altered by this crazy thing we call "travel." Between culture, jet lag, uncertainty, and the nomadic, hermit-crab lifestyle one finds themselves falling into while traveling; the mind goes through a vigorous test of character. When it all comes to a close and you find yourself understanding what the word "structure" means again, that is when all of the highs and lows come together as the glue to bind together an experience that stays with you wherever the rest of your life takes you.


Now that my somewhat sappy, philosophical ramble is out of the way, let's talk about why this blog is here. Emily and I wanted to keep an online account of our travels through Thailand, Southeast Asia, and wherever else we end up. This whole trip stemmed from the curiosity of teaching abroad and the urge to see a part of the world that is in a way, on the other end of the spectrum from Western Culture.


After taking a 13-week, online course, coupled with a 20+ hour teaching practicum, we received our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificates. Our college degrees in conjunction with these certificates give us the appropriate credentials to teach English in a foreign country in virtually any teaching category: Public, Private, Corporate, Language Schools, International Schools, Private Tutor, etc.


Having heard many great things about the country, we booked two one-way-tickets to Bangkok, Thailand for February 25, 2012. With the flight booked, the only thing we had planned was a two-night stay at a hotel close to the airport to figure out a slight plan for our holiday before we began to work. After a 17-hour flight to Shanghai, a 3-hour layover, and a 4 hour flight to Bangkok, we found ourselves through customs and on the Bangkok pavement at 3:45am on February 27th (2 days later for you non-Mathletes). This is when the adventure begins...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Baby Steps and Spontaneity: An Ode to a Semester in the Books

Note: This post was originally published on www.ajarn.com

http://www.ajarn.com/blogs/bob-sohigian/baby-steps-and-spontaneity/

        Taking my first hazy steps onto the streets of Bangkok nearly 7-months ago feels almost like a dream. With no inkling of what the future held, I was essentially more lost than I was in the States. Being disoriented as a newcomer in the chaos that is Bangkok is somewhat of a typical feeling, but I was at ease with it. That is not such an easy thing to do when traveling to a country at the opposite end of the world – a country that you have only seen in pictures and heard of through the wild world of the Internet. Most notably, for a Westerner who has never experienced an eastern culture, Bangkok will make your head spin. The quick cadence, coupled with the hustle and flow this Thai city encompasses is not comparable to that of a large American metropolis (i.e. New York City). Surely the packs of wild dogs will be an uneasy regularity to comprehend initially – along with whizzing tuk-tuks, chatty street vendors, an extreme spectrum between the wealthy and impoverished, as well as the tonal banter of the Thai locals – but with an open mind and spirit, you’ll hop right into the swing of things!





            Everybody has different needs and wants, along with different comfort levels when leaving their home turf. Specifically, teaching in Southeast Asia can be intimidating when leaving your family, friends, and Western standards behind. Your head may very well explode the first time you are handed a spoon instead of a knife – just take a deep breath and slowly allow yourself to adapt to Eastern culture. French fries can be found in big cities, but you will now become well acquainted with variants of the noodle and rice family. Familiarize yourself with the term: “mai pen rai” (no big deal/no worries) – not only will you hear it daily, but any time any sort of stressful situation arises in Thailand, the only remedy will be the use of this phrase. Buddhism flourishes throughout this culture, and even if you are not a religious person, the philosophies are expected to be maintained in daily life. So, your best option is to laugh it off when you get a flat tire on your motorbike in the middle of the monsoon season causing you to be an hour late to work. Odds are, someone will come running over to help you with a big smile on their face, fix your bike faster than a pit stop in a NASCAR race, and send you off, sopping wet and on your way. Yeah, you’ll be late for work, but so will everybody else if it’s raining – mai pen rai buddy!

Mai Pen Rai
          One thing I will say for any aspiring teachers who are even mildly contemplating the idea of hopping over the pond to teach is this: Give it a shot! I for one am 25 years old and despite being here for 7-months, am still wildly unsure of what I want to do for a career. Teaching English as a foreign language, especially in Thailand, is an amazing opportunity for anyone looking to take on a leadership role. Yes, you are an English teacher following a curriculum given to you either by your school, your agency, or a combination of both, but once you step foot into the educational gauntlet that is a Thai classroom, you will quickly find out that Thai Education is light-years away from Western education. If you are looking for a break from your 9-5 lifestyle, if you’re an aspiring teacher looking to gain classroom experience, if you’re a traveler looking to make some cash, or if you are like me and want an opportunity to work in a new environment while gaining knowledge and experience, you will not be disappointed if you decide to make a move in the TEFL direction.

            Some things that are often overlooked in a teaching position overseas are the entrepreneurial qualities that come along with it. Initially, first-impressions of a teaching position in a public school over in this neck of the woods can be quite daunting and you may find yourself questioning your decisions. As with many public school scenarios, many of the classes come in a supersized form with no organization or structure. You can find yourself in hot, stuffy classrooms with rickety old desks, a whiteboard fully equipped with grapefruit-sized holes, and students covering an entire spectrum of levels. You will most likely be thrown into this carnage with simple instructions from your higher-ups: Teach the kids English.


If you’re not told right off the bat, you will find out that Thai students like to have fun. They are loud and respond very well to an enthusiastic, charismatic classroom leader. So if you weren’t informed in your contract, you will be part Hollywood Actor/Comedian and part Educator – it is your new mission to change the world by teaching these enthusiastic Thai-kids how to speak English! Your first few lessons may go swimmingly – that game of “Telephone” was a smash hit with your Matyom 1 students and your M5’s loved hearing about all the cool places you have seen in the world. Your first week might be liberating and although your newly tailored dress shirts and pants need to be wrung out at the end of every lesson, you feel like you can leave work everyday with a check mark in the “job well done!” column.


Well boys and girls, just like in every new relationship, it is imperative to keep things invigorating and exciting – after a couple of weeks, those somersaults and cartwheels that killed it initially, will begin to generate half-hearted and wise chuckles from the crew of football guys that sit in the back of the room. The initial infatuation that magically wooed your entire slew of students may seem to weaken as you try to transport English knowledge from your mouth to their brain. You may find students interrupting your lesson to blurt simple, random English phrases and comments that have near nothing to do with your lesson on the Simple Present Tense. These comments may include, but are not limited to: “Teacher; go home!;” the notorious and cliché, “Teacher; play game;” or naively referring to you as any notably famous person sharing the same skin color (in my case, the three most popular are Justin Bieber, Mr. Bean, and Harry Potter – none of whom I show any resemblance to.). Just like the tides, if you roll with it and refrain from swimming against it, the end product will be a more favorable outcome.

Bieber-Esque?
There will be days when you drop down onto your knees and shake your fists in the air, bewildered that your countless hours of lesson preparation, perfectly timed jokes, and diversity of activities did not seem to stop the large majority of the class from chatting throughout your lessons. There will be certain instances, just like a parrot on the shoulder of a pirate, your students will repeat what you teach them, but any attempt at basic conversation will result in a vacant stare and a nervous Thai giggle. Einstein has an interesting philosophy on “insanity” for situations like these – “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When you feel yourself perplexed and frustrated with your situation at school, take a deep breath. A majority of your students are at a very low level when it comes to the English language and instead of taking a bad lesson personally, do your best to take baby steps to victory.

Thai students cannot fail – it is impossible. If a student decides to lollygag around for an entire term, refusing to put forth even an inkling of effort, that student will still move on to the next level. Any Google Search conducted with the word “Thailand” and the phrase “No-Fail Policy” will produce pages upon pages of research papers, articles, and whiny blogs about how the Thai Education System needs a face-lift as soon as possible. The English level in Thailand, along with their test scores, are near the bottom of the spectrum, which adds a touch of fuel to the “whiny-blog-fire.” As a foreign teacher coming into an education system with these policies, it is important to note that you will have students that don’t try and no matter how unjust it may seem, these students will still pass your class. Although this can be frustrating, it is important to focus on the students that DO want to learn, while attempting to create curiosity within the others.


B is for "Banana!"
Post-Class fun.
Thai teachers have to learn English too!
This is where the idea of being your own boss comes into play. Instead of spending your classroom time sprouting grey hairs on your noggin and barking out orders every time “Donut” and “Bam” are wrestling in the back of the room – engage your students. Show them that you want to be there and that learning English doesn’t have to be copying notes from the whiteboard. Move around the room and involve everyone in some way, shape, or form. Change your voice, stand on a chair, crawl under a desk, make a funny face, play games – whatever you have to do to get the spotlight pointed in your direction, do it. You will always encounter “the sleepers,” “cell phone chatters” and “too-cool-for-school-ers.” Turn your frustrations and failed lessons into experiments. Take notes on how students learn in different scenarios and try to diversify your lessons to keep things fresh and interesting. Have some fun along this Tilt-a-Whirl of a lifestyle you chose and keep the whining to a minimum.  

Final Projects for my 5/1 Class
At the end of the day, every student learns differently. When you are working in an education system that does not permit students to fail, the kids who are labeled “bad students” will take that as a Get Out of Jail Free Card and run down the halls with it – sometimes in addition to the card, they’ll be carrying a dead reptile; try not to condone this type of activity in the halls and you should see students eventually lose interest in it. You have to make these students crave class. They will need motivation to come in and learn what you are looking to teach them, so instead of being frustrated with failed lessons and a boring curriculum, use that entrepreneurial spirit and kick it up a notch. Remember, just like your significant other, flowers, candy, and a Hallmark Greeting Card can only work so many times. Why not try a self-written acoustic tune with some scented Yankee Candles? You may be tone-deaf, painful to listen to, and accident prone when you get too close to a flame, but the spontaneity will not go unnoticed.  

2/1 Presenting their final projects.

Word will get around if you try new things with your students. The kids that were skipping class at first may give you a shot eventually. As a whole, you will hopefully see your relationships with students improve and your lesson-floppage percentage drop. After all, you’re teaching abroad to have a life-changing experience, right? Lighten up, take a risk, and try some new things. At the end of the term you may find that Thailand is still using their “Swimmies” to stay afloat with their English scores, but if your students leave your class with a smile and a bit more confidence using English than they had before, I’d say that’s a baby-step in the right direction.

See you next semester!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Oh Boy ... We Went to Loei!

Note: This blog was origianlly published on www.ajarn.com.

http://www.ajarn.com/blogs/bob-sohigian/oh-boy...i-went-to-loei/

           Even if it’s just for a handful of days, hopping back into the traveling circuit is an epic feeling. I love my job and I’m happy everyday, but there’s this euphoric buzz that runs through me every time I clip on my Osprey bag and wedge myself onto another box-on-wheels. My muscles cramp and my limbs fall asleep within minutes of unintentionally twisting myself into an advanced yoga pose on these clown-car-excuse-for-buses, but it has become part of the experience at this point.

          Oddly, there was a bus available from Tha Bo to Loei, so travel-time to our travel-hub was quite brief – although this was the only portion of our commute that was brief. Being in Thailand for about 6-months has allowed me to develop an open mind when it comes to patience. The term “Thai-Time” is not just an alliterative, clever sounding stereotyped slogan – it is as literal as the word itself. Thais are in no rush to do anything. So, a trip that should have taken 3-hours took closer to 7. Especially on the local transit, the bus driver always prudently picks up every person in sight on the side of the road, as well as takes every ample opportunity to stop for snacks and smoke breaks. So, the moral of the story is: “mai bpen rai” (don’t worry about it) – you’re in Thailand!

            It’s always cool to people-watch and try to chat up the locals in situations like this. I am a professional at spontaneously and chronically napping on public transit, but even that is quite the feat for a 7-hour trip. Although guilty of a few Angry Birds sessions from time-to-time, I try to steer clear of technology on transit. Thailand (especially Issan) is a place where it isn’t an anomaly to sit and observe or speak to the people around you. Yes, a large portion of the younger generation are glued to their Smart Phones (I think at this point “Smart Phone” is a Proper Noun…) just like the average American, but it’s always important to take advantage of the chatty older crowd – they love foreigners and a majority of them will spend time trying to communicate with you. Also, once you start spending some time with locals it’s pretty incredible how much Thai you can actually begin to pick up.

            We stayed in a great little guesthouse called, “Sugar Guest House” (pronounced ‘Soo-gar’) in Muang Loei. It’s in a prime location; has a friendly owner, Pat (who is very good at speaking English – not very common in the Issan region); and its cheap, yet classy rooms make it an awesome choice for a trip to this part of the country. The city itself doesn’t have many of the bells and whistles that accompany a backpacker on the main tourist circuit, but the natural aesthetics in the surrounding areas make it an unsung hero in Thailand. When you’re not bouncing around to the natural beauties that surround, there are plenty of stellar Thai food spots (including the phenomenal food walking street), a few entertaining watering holes, and a heaping smattering of local vendors to keep you beyond pleased with your destination choice.
 
Loei City turns into a cool water park during rain storms

            Being that it’s August, the rainy season is upon us, which unfortunately means that many of the national parks in Thailand close a hefty portion of their trekking and hiking opportunities until October. When I first heard the term “rainy season,” I initially was inclined to believe that for the entire span of the season, it rained like it does in the movie “Rambo.” Now that I’ve experienced and am now a part of the latter segment of the rains, I have found out that it is the quality of the storms and not the quantity. Sometimes, it won’t rain for an entire week, but when it rains, you might as well put your bathing suit on if your going to be outside (which I tend to actually do). With that said, some portions of the country experience more rain than others during this time. As far as I know, hiking opportunities close down because of the inherent danger that lies upon the slippery hills.

Rickety cable-bridge in Loei City - worth checking out, but it does wobble! 
Roadside snack - a bag of live water eels


            Now, that does not mean that the whole area shuts down – this time of year is when some of the wildest colors show themselves and it is a beautiful sight to see. On our first day in town, we rented a Suzuki from Pat and shot up 201 North to the earthy, yet progressive village of Chiang Khan. Resting on the banks of the Mekong, Chiang Khan takes on the mannerisms of Pai, yet it is way milder and has a significantly smaller footprint. A large portion of the architecture is made of timber, which gives the town a homegrown vibe. Although we only spent the better part of a day there, we still had an incredible time.

After spending the first hour walking along a path that spans the Mekong (it seems like they have plans to renovate the path into a walking strip that is handicapped accessible – which is quite progressive for that area), we stumbled upon a gem of a restaurant: Gin Sen Duh; Gin Khao Deh. Literally translated to, “We have noodles; We have rice - this simple restaurant slogan did not do the place justice. Yes, they had both noodles and rice, but it was so much more. Decorated with vibrant, loud colors, the restaurant fit right in to this hipster, Thai town, but it still stood on its own. Run by renowned chef, Mr. Korn, it took on the atmosphere of dining in a friend’s living room. After taking our order, we watched as Mr. Korn prepared a few dishes for the parties ahead of us. With a calm and collective demeanor, flames flew vertically as Thai cuisine danced in the air with a small flick of his wrist. Even with the heat of the Thai sun, coupled with the steamy kitchen, only small beads of sweat formed around this culinary guru’s tiny, awesome mustache.

Chiang Khan
Walk along the Mekong

Refreshing on any day of the week - one of Thailand's 3 beer selection...
Please be advised: Emily did not consume any Leo beverages before riding this pink hippo.



Snail snagging up some waterfront property
Nice try you odd looking goose....we see you too.

Mr. Korn had apparently been a big-time chef down in Bangkok for the bulk of his career. He took a holiday north and after his first encounter with Chiang Khan, his life-long views changed. It was time to open up a place of his own that made a positive contribution to a community that gave so much to him. He did just that by satisfying local taste buds on a daily basis, and making a couple of farang feel right at home. Dining with us on that day was the worldly Chiang Khan local, “Yo.” We began chatting and it turned out he had some pretty epic traveling experiences – one of those being an epic cross-country road trip across the oh-so-familiar United States. It’s a shot in the dark, but maybe that’s why his English was so good… While traveling, it’s circumstances like that one, which make life seem so simple. All you need is some friendly people, a couple laughs, and some tasty food to make all worries whisk away.

Insert Joke here
Nothing better on a hot Thai day then some Pinky Sprite or Blue Ananus...
The man of the hour....Mr. Korn

Along with that culinary treat, Chiang Khan – along with Loei – have unbelievable coffee shops. Thailand, generally speaking, can fall on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to a satisfying and spine tingling cup of Joe. In many instances, you can find yourself sipping on an instant cup of mahogany tinted liquid that will bring you one step closer to maxing out your blood sugar content (if you don’t want your teeth to rot out of your head, remember the phrase “nam tan nit noy” – which translates to “sugar, a little.”) The coffee is cheaper at these powder stands, but often there will be more sugar in your cup than coffee. So, when you see a coffee shop with an espresso machine, you are in luck. In the Chiang Khan and Loei area, there are plenty of these to choose from, all with an awesome atmosphere, and friendly staff. Personally, a good cup of coffee goes a long way for me, so having real coffee shops in the area is always a nice bonus.



One of the coolest fish tanks I've ever seen 
Usually the rule is to not pee in the pool, but for filtration and decorative purposes I guess we'll let it slide. 
Vintage Em 


My advice would be to leave the coffee for the morning or the evening, and spend your days exploring the virtually unscathed landscape that Loei has to offer. We got a chance to check out two very cool spots: Tham Moharan (Moharan Cave) and Nam Tok Huai Lao (Huai Lao Waterfall). Both spots were clearly labeled on the map to be located south of Loei, right along Highway 201, so, we figured it would be easy to find. What we found out through trial, error, and small talk with locals along the way was that these two tourist attractions were available to the general public – you just had to be able to read and comprehend Thai in order to find them. The comical, yet surprisingly logical facet that my travel partner and I did not take into consideration was the mere fact that we were indeed in Thailand. Although it takes longer to see the sights when you can’t read the road signs and your map is not to scale, it adds an extra pinch of fulfillment when you finally arrive at your destination.



The bag of bananas was a better choice than the eels...


Tham Moharan was an especially cool place to arrive to. Located behind a giant yellow gate (we never would have found it if we didn’t decide to park the bike, surpass the gate, and adventure down the long path to the cave entrance), the cave offers quite a unique experience – it is essentially a self-guided tour. As you walk up the steps toward the entranceway, there is a switch on the wall you push up in order to turn the electricity on in the cave. Although it is slightly lame that electricity is provided in the cave, there are still plenty of awesome crevices, dips, and ducks to explore with your headlamp. There are many impressive stalactite and stalagmite structures that will “wow” you from start to finish. Not to mention, there is a significant bat population! As soon as you enter, you will find them squeaking and swooping right over your head. Surprisingly, they tended to stay in the wider caverns, but some of them were not afraid to get pretty close! So, as you are meandering through the caverns, be wary that big bats means big “guano.”

Tham Moharan




It looks like cave art, but not exactly sure what it is...
Located about 30 kilometers from Tham Moharan is the captivating Nam Tok Huai Lao. Set back from the main highway, the drive to the waterfall alone is worth the trip. Due to the dire need for a pave, it is well advised you take your time on your way there, or you’ll end up walking to the waterfall. The slow-route won’t bother you though because you are surrounded by rural, mountainous Thailand, in a most-unadulterated spot. Vibrant greens, beautiful farms, and giddy villagers swarm in this area, which makes getting lost quite the treat on your way to the waterfall (there are a few turns that are unmarked, so asking for directions is almost necessary).

Bamboo




Nam Tok Huai Lao
Nom Tok Huai Lao is a 9-tier waterfall. Simply stunning from start to finish, each tier keeps you longing for what lies ahead. Beads of sweat were dripping down my face with each step and the humidity covered my body like a fleece blanket. Barrages of bamboo shot up all around the forest making for nice decoration and a fun percussive activity on the way up. When hiking in any Thai jungle, something that can easily be overlooked (literally) is the colonies of ants that spread out amongst the soil. It may sound boring, but it is most certainly not – the way they work is incredible! Thailand is home to hundreds of species of ants who are bustling about at all hours of the day, so make it a point to check them out. Although they were a nice addition to the waterfall hike, words cannot describe the top tiers of Nam Tok Huai Lao – so go see it for yourself!    

Our trip sadly came to an end the next day. It is never easy to come to terms with leaving a beautiful place, but with every excursion that ends, another follows. All I can really say now is: go to Loei, you won’t regret it!