My journey arriving in Thailand for the first time
18 Hours. 18 hours with cramped legs, no pillows, crying babies, and exceedingly questionable food. The first 15 were spent wondering if the program to whose orientation course I was currently en route was actually legitimate – a very real concern given the amount of information, or lack thereof, I was provided prior to boarding my flight. And after a mad dash through an ill-labeled and predominantly deserted terminal, the next 3 hours were spent realizing that I would be arriving at my destination in the middle of the night, in a brand new city, with no accommodations booked…
Arriving in Thailand
I had resigned myself to the idea of camping out at the airport as I had done numerous times at Rome Fiumicino. Thankfully the English gentleman next to me, a sommelier by profession, offered me the couch in his hotel room which was conveniently located on the same property as the airport. We became acquainted over several glasses of cheap airplane wine and traded battle stories of foreign travel experiences. Chatting away, the last leg of the journey practically flew compared to the grueling non-stop flight from JFK to Hong Kong, and before I knew it I stepped out of the airport and was hit with the full weight of the oppressive, wet heat of Bangkok like a sack of bricks.
The Englishman and I hailed a cab and were at his hotel within 20 minutes. Not quite ready to turn in, we decided to beat the Thai heat with cold beer and luckily the bar was still well open.
My companion informed me that he would be leaving the hotel very early, not much later than sunrise, and to feel free to leave as late as I wanted, so long as it was before the check out time.
Getting to Pattaya
The next day I notified the staffing company who I was to work for that I’d landed and was then given the address in Pattaya where the orientation was being held. I showered, made sure my pack was all set, and headed back to the airport on a shuttle bus. Once at the airport I had to locate the terminal that ran hourly buses to Pattaya.
After stopping for a quick bite to eat at a snack stand and sitting on a nearby bench, I looked over the railing and realized that I had only been 1 floor up from the bus terminal since having gotten back to the airport and had probably passed the escalator down a dozen or more times. Quickly making my way to the lower level, I purchased a one way ticket.
Adventure Club was the chosen soundtrack for the next three hours as I strove to take everything in. I watched as rows of palms and small cement villages flew by while boys raced down unpaved tracks beside the highway on dirtbikes, startling stray dogs and flocks of hens from their paths.
My mind wandered farther and farther with each mile. The excitement which usually accompanies my rovings was marred by an undercurrent of hesitation. It was new for me and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Traveling, seeing the world, had always been my dream, and I don’t mean ‘seeing the world’ while lounging in the shade of an umbrella by the poolside of some corporate resort. I mean truly seeing it – the good, the bad, and everything in between.
My thoughts flew to the boyfriend I had left behind in boot camp, the bills that would most likely go unpaid (unless I figured out some way to transfer any money I earned to my US account), the history degree I had thus far done nothing with . . . I wondered if this was the right move.
A clean handkerchief suddenly being shoved in my hand jolted me from my thoughts and I looked up to find the young Thai girl next to me smiling kindly. I realized my face was salty and damp with tears and smiled gratefully back, feeling somewhat foolish as well. Drying my eyes, I did my best to harness the rational side of me and disperse all the fears that had just been running amok in my brain. I am here. I made it to Thailand. I have enough money to last me a month in the event that this teaching position doesn’t pan out. But most importantly, I am in goddamn THAILAND and I did that. I got myself here without anyone’s help. I will make this experience worthwhile or I will die trying – and I really had no intention of dying, just to be clear.
Getting off the bus in Pattaya
Pattaya seemed worlds different from the busy chaos of Bangkok and although still hot, the breeze coming in off the ocean was cool and refreshing.
I was so close to reaching my destination but standing in the middle of the bus station, I now had to figure out how. I had reasoned that it wasn’t within walking distance but I couldn’t see any taxis in the vicinity either. That’s when a fleet of open-backed, bench-lined pickups off to the right of the bus stop caught my attention.
A genial Thai man stepped right up and asked where I was going, his easy English throwing me off for a moment. My Thai pronunciation of the place confused him but luckily I had the address on my phone and was assisted into a truck along with about 8 other passengers, both Thai and foreign. The road wound along the bay and I sat back and watched patiently as the other passengers were dropped off at their respective destinations.
Being in that truck, I couldn’t help but smile. I was really here and in a few minutes I would be at a hotel figuring out what exactly I had come all this way for.
I should have been more nervous now than anything. This was the moment of truth. But whether it was that I had simply worried myself out on the bus or whether it was the steady crash of the surf just a scant few yards from the road, I found myself unable to be upset. Like all those worries had been, at least temporarily, washed from my mind.
The hotel I was staying at was as far from the bus stop as humanly possible. There was a line to check in and a Thai hostess brought juice out to all the waiting guests, those in line and those lounging in the chairs and couches that crowded the far side of the foyer. Only a small handful weren’t here for the orientation as it turned out and within 30 minutes, the organizers of the program walked in to introduce themselves.
We were asked to go to our rooms, get settled, and then meet in the dining hall for dinner at 7. Those who had arrived earlier remained in the lounge area while the rest of us happily went to wash the day’s travel dust off.
Arriving at the hotel
My room was located on the ground floor with a secondary door that opened out onto the pool. A feature which I was very excited about, although not quite as excited as I was about the complimentary bottle of whiskey they provided.
The girl rooming with me showed up shortly after – a quiet girl from Canada but she seemed friendly enough. We took turns showering and figuring out which among our piles of international wall adapters were functional in this country and which weren’t.
Dinner was a simple affair, and I stuck with my roommate at the table. Everyone in our group seemed very open and welcoming which I was glad to notice. I’m not sure what it is about people who travel regularly but they just . . . have a different air about them. They’re more receptive of strangers, more willing to help, and more often than not, more trusting as a whole.
The end of dinner was ushered in by a full introduction of the staff we would be working with. The primary topic of conversation at most tables was how, exactly, all this was going to work.
We weren’t given very much to go on when offered the positions initially, and as it turned out, most people had received either different or wholly conflicting information than their peers. Explained simply, many organizations that offer TEFL or TESOL certification courses also provide a system that initiates communication or contracts between their graduates and companies abroad with whom they maintain working relationships. However once in contact with those other entities, the certification programs are no longer involved and it’s then up to the graduate to follow through on any prospective employment opportunities.
Through this method, it is possible to speak directly with hiring staff from the schools themselves but more commonly third party companies, such as the one that had brought together everyone in that room that night, contracted, trained, and placed teachers in schools they knew to be hiring. It was overall an effective method but it also required a massive leap of faith on the part of the applicants.
We were given instructions on when we would be required to meet again the following day and dismissed from dinner.
First night in Pattaya!
We swarmed the bar district of Pattaya en masse that first night like a hungry horde of 13-year cicadas. We didn’t really know where we were going or what we were doing but we were determined to make it epic.
Most of the bars were too small to hold all of us at once so much of our party spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets in front of them. It seemed prudent to order pitchers over pints to speed up everyone getting their drinks but that quickly just led to everyone drinking personal pitchers. We also learned at that first bar that Thais put ice in their beer – a major taboo for most of us westerners. Besides, it lowered the amount of alcohol we were getting per pitcher, technically speaking.
As the night drew on, our group slowly dwindled. Some likely meandered drunkenly back to the hotel. By the time the bars were closing up, a core group of about twelve of us remained. Catching a songthaew back to the hotel.
Our small crew rendezvoused around the pool back at the hotel with our new-found liquor supply in tow. The air was still pleasantly warm despite the sun having sunk several hours prior. This was very much a blessing as it saved us the unpleasant chill normally experienced when climbing drunk and naked out of a pool to run for towels.
The first streak of pink began to arc shyly across the eastern sky. Conversations were stopped and clothes were donned. Never had a group of near strangers laughed and ran so carefree across the road and down to the water’s edge, possibly through some pricker bushes, as ours that morning. Standing in the surf, the sun – red as fresh drawn blood, larger than life, cut through the still pre-dawn darkness like a knife. A sight worthy of being immortalized, reminiscent of scenes plucked from a Fujishima Takeji masterpiece.
The next day – down to business
Following breakfast would be our first official meeting, the purpose of which was to discuss the contents of the contracts, what we could expect, and what was expected of us in return.
The discrepancies would hopefully, finally be sorted and set straight. Two hours later, they were set straight alright, but not before the entire hall erupted into chaos. People yelling that they were promised more pay, people claiming they’d been told uniforms were provided and who refused to spend their own money on the newly required attire, people yelling to drown out the other people.
This was the first thinning of the herd. Many decided that this situation was simply not to their liking and walked. Not all of course but enough. Most of the organizers were foreigners as well who’d taught previously in Thailand, and several through this very program.
They struggled to keep order until the director of the entire organization, a well-to-do Thai business woman, took the stage and made the most humble apology I’d ever seen from someone in as high a supervisor position as her.
The thought of an American businessman showing that same kind of humility in the face of disgruntled employees is nigh unheard of. Some said it wasn’t enough though, which irked me. Here was this woman doing her best to take care of us as promised and they had the audacity to belittle her attempts at righting the situation.
Having come in with no expectations, partly due to my tendency of jumping headlong and half-assed into situations, this debacle didn’t phase me in the least. Pay and housing were guaranteed, the amount would suffice. I was content. The continued arguments seemed petty and unnecessary. But eventually the peanut gallery subsided and we were at that point made aware that the contracts would not yet be signed. We had to officially be accepted by our various schools first, which became the next hurdle.
Getting assigned to a school
The process of permanent assignment took the remaining duration of our orientation. Some schools only wanted people from the UK under the misguided assumption that because of their accents, the English they spoke was somehow more proper.
This happened with my initial assignment and as such, two Irish girls were chosen to replace me in a primary school in Nan.I was relocated to Lampang, the capital of Lampang province, which is roughly central northern.
When we weren’t having serious meetings, we were in training classes that not only covered topics associated with Thai culture, but also how to handle various classroom situations, create curriculums, utilize available materials – foreign education basics essentially.
Our free time was spent at the beach or exploring the neighborhood around the hotel, relaxing at the newly discovered outdoor hookah bar, or desperately trying to catch up on sleep. What remained of the initial group had splintered off into several factions as naturally happens the longer larger numbers of people remain in close proximity.
Once the contracts were signed, we were free to go. Most of us had at least a week before we had to be in our first classes. Some people wanted to travel for that week but myself and the handful of friends I’d made decided it would be wiser to head to our towns and familiarize ourselves before classes. All of us had to reach Bangkok first however, as no buses went directly to any of our destinations from Pattaya. I quickly rounded up my belongings from the room, stuffed them unceremoniously back into my pack, and headed to the lobby to wait for the rest of our party. We walked out of that hotel 10 deep, feeling invincible in our ability to count and say thank you in Thai, and gearing up for epic night round two in Bangkok.
My first week in Thailand had been a success. I was both alive and employed. What would the next seven months hold? Well, I guess I was about to find out.