What’s it like living and teaching in Chiang Mai
A day in the life of English teacher in Thailand is one of wonder, charm, routine, exuberant noise, spiced up taste buds and a little sweat!
Chiang Mai in the rainy season really is something special. Mist hangs over Doi Suthep mountain as you gaze out from the balcony of your condo, the mornings cool and glorious. There may have been an overnight shower so everything is damp but fresh. The Nok Kaew (crystal bird) sings away, there’s a tukae lizard croaking away from a nearby tree and away in the distance a temple tannoy plays soft ballads to awaken everyone before a droll monk sermon.
You stop briefly at a noodle shop on your street to spoon up warming bowls of jork (rice porridge with pork dumplings) and some local coffee – brewed the old fashioned way using muslin sieves. Then you hop on your bike and cruise through the quiet early morning streets to the school.
The route to work cruises past giant rain trees, with ancient pagodas looming up beside you as you putter down Suthep road towards the Old Town. Suan Dok Gate stands before you like an ancient postcard and you swing left and run alongside the pretty moat that has defended this city for 700 years. There’s a giant picture of the King and Queen above you, all decorative and belovedly constructed, then you turn right and slip into the quaint old town with its timeless lanes.
The school is already busy when you arrive, all the middle class moms rolling up in their late model Toyotas with their cherubs neatly presented in their local Lanna fabrics that are a Friday tradition. The little girls have their hair immaculately tied in ribbons, the boys are pre-occupied with mobile phone games. They’ll look up enthusiastically at their farang English teacher and uniformly yell ‘Good morning teacher I am fine thank you and how are you’, unabashedly.
Everyone assembles for the national anthem at 8, as dark grey clouds of the annual monsoon hang ominously over the school courtyard. These schools can be huge, up to 1,500 students, which the teachers strictly arrange into order. Thai kids are taught to be respectful of authority and seniority and you’ll seldom have a problem with discipline.
The classes are a riot of fun. You will likely be the highlight of the kids’ week, especially if you’re engaging and willing to inject some child-like enthusiasm into the world of learning a ‘difficult’ language. The Thai teacher will likely afford you plenty of freedom to conduct games and other means to make the learning experience effective. It’s something the traditionally trained Thai teachers aren’t really permitted to do. As the foreigner, you can get away with anything; just keep it appropriate, learning centred and within the lesson plan and methodology we’ve taught you at UniTEFL.
Lunch is entertaining. You have a busy diary of engagements all week, invited to join this group of exuberant lady teachers, or that group of students. Careful what you spoon into your mouth enthusiastically, Northern and provincial Thais like their dishes spicy.
The afternoons can be a drag, fortunately Chiang Mai doesn’t get hot in the rainy season, it’s just perfect. The periodic showers take the warmth out of the humidity, but you’ll sweat all the same. It can be embarrassing, for Thais are fastidious about personal hygiene. It’s a good idea to wear a vest under your shirt.
By three the day is over. You might hang-around to participate in the chess club or some sports, that always scores brownie points with the head teacher – afterall you are getting paid more than anyone else on the staff. Besides, it’s usually fun.
Chiang Mai, meanwhile has awoken to its busy twenty-first century traffic jam of progress, so it’s advisable to get home before 5, though a motorbike makes light work of the gridlock. There’s a few gyms scattered around the city suburbs, but you’re better off getting on your bicycle and pedaling up to Huay Kaew falls at the base of the mountain. Stop to pick up a quart of beer from a roadside vendor so you can hike up a little ways to the peace and quiet of Pha Ngoep, where you can sit beside the cascading river and gaze down over your new home as dusk falls on the docile Ping valley.
Come dinner time and you’re spoilt for choice. In the Nimminhemin area, near your condo, is a whole bunch of rustic and atmospheric bars and restaurants especially for the university students. Decisions, decisions, do you settle for pad krapao or Khao soi for dinner. Perhaps, if you’re meeting some of your friends you’ll order a spread of food to share the Thai way, geng kheo wan (green curry) and tom yum goong (piquant shrimp soup), pad pak ruam (stir fried vegetables) and gai phed med mamuang (chicken with cashew nuts). If someone at the table is mischievous they will spot dancing shrimp on the menu, tiny, raw and still alive. The gruesome trick is to soak them in chilly and then pop the squirmy critters in your mouth!
You’ll still be there by midnight, a table full of empty Chang beers and a band crooning Thai love songs or mimicking Adele songs with their own lounge-music touch. The place fills up, everyone seating on low stools, against a backdrop of curious retro décor that is stamped with the signature style of Chiang Mai University’s art students. All of it is geared towards a Thai aesthetic that can best be described as ‘cute’. It will be the overriding impression you get from living in Thailand.