Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Making the Most of my Free Time


I spent the first few days in my new apartment in Thailand getting oriented.  After the initial fear that my school coordinator instilled in me wore off and I settled into my new job, I realized I had more free time than I knew what to do with.  I taught 20 hours per week, and I only had to plan for two different lessons.  My apartment was inside the school so there wasn’t even a commute time to factor in my day. 

My alarm would go off at 7am; I’d throw some clothes on and be in the teacher’s office by 8am.  Throw in a few classes and a lunch break and I was done.  By 2:30pm my teacher duties were over for the day.  So with about seven hours to kill before bedtime, how did I occupy my time?

  • Cooking terrible food using my hot water pot.  I’d buy packs of ramen at 7-11 and toss various spices or vegetables in it.  My best dish was probably ketchup noodles.
I know I can make something with this
  • Reading.  I discovered my love for Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, and free romance novels from Amazon.  I read some great pieces of literature along with some downright filthy books. 
  • Exercising.  I hate running, and after one failed attempt to run outside in the sweltering heat I decided to move my workouts indoors.  With no gym available I had to be creative.  I’d do lunges across my room with jugs of water in each hand mixed in with jumping jacks. 
  • Redecorating.  While I couldn’t paint the walls or buy new beds, I could add touches off home.  I covered the walls with pictures, bought hot pink towels and strung Christmas lights.  
Doesn't it look cozy?
  • Trip planning.  Every weekend was a mini adventure.  I used the week to plan where I wanted to go so I always had something to be look forward to.
  • Gchat.  I hate to admit it, but I’m not going to pretend like I was constantly being productive.  I’d spend hours on Gchat swapping stories about my students, and it was nice to have some human interaction.
  • TV.  The only English shows I got were Law and Order, House, Royal Pains, and Criminal Minds.  The television also worked well as a nightlight and for covering up the sounds of animals in heat outside my door.
  •  Eat.  Most nights I’d venture to the market before it got dark to grab a smoothie before popping into an outdoor restaurant for a plate of fried rice.  Then I’d inevitably hit up 7-11 for dessert. 
what I had to look forward to at bedtime
While I'm not sure I made the most of those 100 square feet and I had some terribly lonely nights there; I grew tough, strong and developed some serious coping mechanisms that I know will help me get through anything, or at least to the weekend and somewhere better.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Don't Leave After Dark


I moved into my Thai apartment late one night in the middle of rainy season.  My school coordinator walked me through a dark parking lot, past the outdoor school canteen, up a steep flight of stairs and ducked around a corner to my room. An older man met us, the janitor, who spoke no English and let me inside. My coordinator left me with a stern warning, “Don’t leave after dark, it is not safe for a girl.  I will pick you up at 9am tomorrow.” 
my school during the daytime
So I found myself alone in a 100 square foot dorm room. There was no food, no Internet and a TV that played about four channels. I did have two hard beds and A/C. I laid down feeling less than excited about my accommodations. The next morning my coordinator picked me up to run errands and only made things worse. She told me she could not guarantee that the janitor, a construction worker or any other random person wouldn’t try to rape me. Thanks! I was instructed not to walk around the town at night by myself and to stay in my room every evening.  I felt my hands turn to ice and goose bumps formed on my skin, again. 
the view from my apartment
As soon as we got back, I immediately called the director of Overseas Education Group (OEG), my teaching program. He was of little help.  “Oh, it’s just a language misunderstanding. I’ll have one of the Thai-speaking girls call your coordinator - she was just overreacting. You’re safe, I promise.” It was hard to believe that he could be so callous, brushing me off with a promise that my coordinator wouldn’t talk like that anymore, rather than send someone to make sure that I was safe or try to find me a better place to stay. I was alone, after all, in a strange and now scary country. If they even could help, it was clear that they weren’t going to.
my neighborhood at night
Fortunately, my situation turned out to be a (very) little bit better than I first thought. I discovered that the janitor was a very nice man.  He lived with his daughter and was friendly and helpful whenever something broke in my apartment. The school surrounded me and insulated me a little from the rest of the city – a good thing considering how rough my town could seem. Traffic was terrible and crosswalks were non-existent. Another teacher told me the park next to my school was a place to buy drugs. I lived next to a jail (right next door to an all-girls school, of course). On top of that, I stood out as the only American in town.
the vegetable market next to my apartment
As you can imagine, I had a lot of free time in my apartment. From sundown until I went to bed, I would be in my little room with spotty Internet access, waiting for the weekend.  How did I pass the time and was I productive?  Find out tomorrow! 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dream Destination - Antarctica



Announcing a new weekly feature - Dream Destinations! Each week I'll focus on a new part of the world I'm looking too add to my personal travel map. I'd love to hear from you, too, if you have any suggestions, maybe somewhere new I've never even heard of.

Ever since I was a child I've always been fascinated with Antarctica. I had so many questions about it since it was always at the bottom of the map. Why was it so far away? Who could live down there? Why was it always painted white? Why aren't there cities and countries, like everywhere else? It was the unknown that drew me in as a little girl and years later, it remains for Antarctica and for everywhere else. 


One day I came across a trip offered through National Geographic that blew me away.  I knew scientists and explorers like Ernest Shackleton traveled to Antatarctica, but now I realized it was becoming a place more accessible to travelers like me.  Well, ones with a hefty bank account, but still. 

This cruise goes to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands in 24 days aboard a luxury cruise ship.  The tour starts and finishes in Buenos Aires and leaves from November—March.  
What I wouldn’t give to a part of this, or a similar trip to Antarctica.  The photo opportunities would be fantastic with the amount of wildlife and scenery constantly surrounding you and I imagine being in awe for the entirety of the trip.  I will go to Antarctica, I haven’t figured out the details yet but I am going.  
Has anyone out there been to Antarctica?  I want to hear about it!  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Quick and Nerdy: Sangklaburi



Happy Saturday!  I'm pleased to announce the writer of Meanwhile in Thailand will be contributing a weekly feature: Quick and Nerdy city guides.

Sangklaburi:

·      In the extreme east of Thailand, Sangklaburi (or Sang Kla as everyone says) is the last town before the border with Myanmar.

·      Mountainous and pretty, the lower portions were flooded in the early twentieth century with the construction of a dam.

·      You can’t cross the border into Myanmar (at least not legally) but you can approach it, if you wanted to see it for whatever reason.

·      Sangkhlaburi is a popular tourist destination for Thai people, who seem infinitely fascinated by the Mon Bridge constructed across the lake. If you do brave the bus ride through the mountains, expect to meet relatively few westerners.
·      There will be a number of stops at border check points. If you can read this, it means that they will almost certainly not bother you since they are only looking for the Burmese.
Boys on the bridge

Sights:

·      The Mon Bridge isn’t much of a sight, as much as the view of the surrounding hills. Dodge the Thai people taking pictures in the early morning mist and watch young boys jump off into the water below.
·      Take a long tail boat out to the sunken temple. It’s only about a ten minute ride but it’s very scenic and if you go during the height of dry season, you can walk and swim through the decaying concrete remains of the temple. It costs around 100 baht for the twenty to thirty minute ride and you can find a boat near any of the floating restaurants.
·      There’s a golden ziggurat shaped Mon Temple if you keep walking through town past the bridge for about a half of a mile. It also stands above the water, offering another scenic viewpoint.
·      There are numerous other opportunities for scenic viewpoints of the surrounding mountains, jungle and river.
Sunken Temple

Get Around:

·      Sanglkaburi is so small you can almost always walk, which is the healthiest option. There are some motorcycle taxis, as well as the ever-present opportunity to rent one.
They are here day and night.

Tips:

·      Because most of the tourism tends to come from Thai people, prices are definitely lower than most other tourist destinations. Accommodations tend to adhere to Thai standards, as well.
·      If you go on a weekend, book your accommodation ahead of time.
·      If someone tells you a Burmese curry is not spicy, do not believe them. They are a liar.


 
Sangklaburi at dusk

Friday, April 26, 2013

What I wasn't expecting!


When I arrived at my school in Thailand I encountered something that wasn’t covered during orientation.   Apparently I would be the butt of a never-ending and confusing joke throughout my time here.  Nearly every day someone would point or even poke my stomach and ask me if I was pregnant. 

I was dumbfounded the first time it happened.  I was shopping in small store in my neighborhood when a woman out of nowhere touched my stomach and just said, “baby?".  I was horrified and immediately thought all the rice and noodles had deposited into my midsection after only a week.  After a careful self-examination in the mirror and noticing all my clothes were in fact getting looser, I was confused. 

I chalked that experience up to a misunderstanding and went about my business.   But then it happened again.  I was teaching one of my first groups of students and I found several of them whispering about me and motioning towards my stomach.  “Teacher, baby?”, they would ask.  I would see students in the hallway and get poked in the stomach regularly and questioned if I was having a baby.  I couldn’t figure it out.  Heck, I had students that weighed quite a bit more than me!
 
how I felt
On one trip to Chiang Mai with friends I got some surprising news at the breakfast table after a night out partying.  I was telling everyone about people in my town thinking I was pregnant.  My friend then told me that our tuk tuk driver the night before asked my friends if I was pregnant!  I couldn’t believe it.  I was even wearing a mini leopard print dress that would hardly cover up a baby bump. 

To this day I still can’t figure it out.  Some of my Thai coworkers tried to tell me it was just a joke, but none of my other girlfriends were experiencing what I went through.  I came to laugh at it towards the end and joke back with people, but I never experienced anything like in any of my other travels.  I arrived back in Chicago with a thicker skin, a quicker knack for comebacks, and of course, a flat stomach! 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What keeps me coming back?


With so many dismal guesthouses, dirty hostels, and overpriced hotels out there, it’s a breath of fresh air to find a clean, friendly, and reliable place to lay my head when I’m traveling.  In Bangkok I found just that, a cheap hotel that was consistently clean, in a great location, and with the friendliest staff I encountered in all of Thailand. So what do you do when you find such a hotel? You keep coming back.

lobby area
There’s plenty to eat in the area with the Gateway shopping mall just down the street and Ekkamai Road just a few blocks further, which has more food and several options that cater to Westerners. Additionally, convenience stores are located on either side of the hotel and a small supermarket is just a block away for more food and toiletry options.

Rooms run around $35 per night and include an en suite bathroom with a separate shower (with frosted window - be warned), a King sized bed with spotless linens, flat screen TV, and wireless Internet fast enough for Skype calls.  Breakfast is free and the lobby area is a well-designed space for enjoying a cup of coffee or doing work on your laptop.  Unlike many budget hotels, the rooms are cleaned daily and thoroughly.  I never had an issue with cleanliness in my many visits.
cozy room
It’s pretty apparent why I kept coming back to the DS67 Suites, in spite of Bangkok offering countless options for accommodation.  Other hotels and guesthouses could really increase their customer base with just a few tweaks to their business.  Offering reliable Internet and clean rooms goes a long way with the budget traveler, but more than that, a personal touch can go far with the tired traveler and with everyone blogging, writing and reviewing these days, good service can be big business.

Find me: 
Address: 1497/1-2 Sukhumvit 67 Road  Phra Khanong-Nua Wattana
10110, Thailand
Phone:+66 2 714 8452



Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Travel photo of the week


Location:  Taken just outside of Dodgeville, Wisconsin driving back to Chicago. I'm a midwest girl at heart and there's nothing like cows and the sunny sky to bring me back to my roots.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

When you aren’t an adventurous eater


Shows like No Reservations or Bizarre Foods paint a picture of street food being a delicious and harmless way to experience a new culture.  Eating like a local is cheaper and I always condone adding some non-touristy items to your itinerary.  However, not everyone has the iron stomach of a Travel Channel host.  I recently watched Anderson Cooper interview Anthony Bourdain and Cooper confessed that he is terrified of trying new food while traveling for fear of getting sick.  I used to fall into this same category but I’ve loosened up a bit while still being smart about what I put into my body.

My first trip to Thailand in 2011 wasn’t my first trip abroad, but I’d heard horror stories from people (who of course had never been there) about how sick I could get from the food and water.  I brushed my teeth with bottled water, kept my mouth closed tightly in the shower to avoid taking in any tap water, and ate mostly packaged snack foods for sustenance.   Other members of my tour group wolfed down plates of noodles, curries, and fresh seafood while I ate Pringles for dinner.  I’m not aware of anyone that got sick from the food on that trip, but I arrived back in Chicago feeling terrible from 10 days of straight junk food.

Returning to South East Asia for a second time and actually living there, I knew I would have to loosen up.  In the six months I was there I got sick to my stomach quite a bit.  I think it takes a while for your body to adjust and learn what you can tolerate. The school and town where I lived had very poor standards for food safety; I would see raw meat sitting out in the sun and bugs on food ready to be served, in addition to the number of stray dogs and lack of soap in restrooms. But in addition to the cleanliness, South Asian food tends to be very spicy, which can cause problems too.
dish washing facilities at a stall in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand

For anyone a bit wary about eating in South East Asia, here are my tried and trusted tips:
  • If it looks like it’s been sitting out all day, it has been.  Don’t eat it.
  • Fried noodles and fried rice are usually safe.  Food cooked to order at high temperatures is less likely to carry bacteria. 
  • If you aren't used to eating curry, before a bus or boat ride is not the time to chance it.
  • Stick to ice cubes with a hole in the center—those are made with bottled water.
  • If you see a random pot of hot water next to the utensils, dunk your silverware in it to sanitize them before using. 
  • Skip dairy altogether. 
  • There’s no guarantee cold vegetables were washed in clean water, just skip them.
  • Fruit that you peel (pineapple, oranges, mango, etc.) are safe.
  • Dried fruits and nuts are always available at 7-11 and an easy way to get nutrients.
maybe skip the fish course

It is possible to stay healthy while experimenting with street food and new dishes while traveling.  Food is just one way to experience a culture with traveling so take your time.  After all, that fish head curry isn’t going anywhere!  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Surviving Motion Sickness While Traveling


Growing up I hated traveling.  My motion sickness made going anywhere unbearable.    The second I was in a car on a winding road I would get queasy.  I’ve thrown up in more cars, boats, and buses than I would like to admit.  It took me a long time to come up with remedies that actually worked and made traveling enjoyable. 

These days, without any medications I can handle most flights and bus rides, but boat travel is what always does me in.   I barely made it through my snorkeling trip to The Great Barrier Reef and got sick several times in Thailand with hours left to go on the boat.  The second I can’t see land or a fixed point, I’m a goner.  I love being in the water and never want to miss out because I’m afraid I’ll get sick.

A heavy meal is a definite no before getting on any kind of transportation, and I always have a stash of salty snacks like pretzels with me to settle my stomach and conquer mild nausea.   Keeping my stomach empty or with bland food only is the best way to avoid unnecessary problems.  Some people swear by ginger tablets or tea for digestion and nausea, but these don’t work for me. 

Another thing that doesn’t work for me is Dramamine.   I dislike the bitter taste that always comes with swallowing the pill, and it simply doesn’t offer much relief for me.  In a pinch it can prevent me from vomiting, but if I rely solely on Dramamine I will be miserable.

I never travel without a pair of Sea Bands.  These cloth wristbands have a small plastic piece that presses on the inside of your wrist, using acupressure to combat nausea.  I’ve been using them for at least 15 years, and they always provide relief from motion sickness.  You can put them on before or after symptoms kick in and within minutes you should start to feel better.


But even with wearing Sea Bands, I finally came to terms with the fact that I need prescription medication for any kind of boat travel.   Scopolamine patches are thumbnail sized patches worn behind the ear.  They resemble a band-aid and can be worn for up to three days.  The best part is you can swim and shower without the patch falling off.   Apply the patch four hours before travel and always wash your hands before and after touching the patch.  Be sure to switch ears if you are applying another patch after three days.   Side effects include drowsiness and dry mouth, but in the 10+ years I’ve been using them have never had an issue. 

Motion sickness can put a serious damper on travel.  It may take a while to find out what method works best for you, and I’m not always adequately prepared because travel can be unpredictable.  I would have never experienced the beautiful islands in Thailand or survived a 10-day bus trip in Europe without these remedies.  

Since I’m always up for feeling better on the road, what methods do you use for motion sickness? 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

how to order food in Thailand when you don't speak Thai


Ordering food in Thailand outside of popular tourist destinations such as Bangkok or Chiang Mai can be difficult.  When I arrived in Thailand I knew a few basic words in Thai, but quickly realized I should have learned the names of popular dishes as well.   Simply saying, “Pad Thai”, won’t get you far as that dish isn’t nearly as popular or available as people think. 

Many restaurants will only have a menu written in Thai and street vendors will not speak English.  Unless you’re content with pointing to a random menu or vat of steaming food from a vendor each time, it’s best to learn some dishes available almost everywhere.  Here’s a bare bones Thai lesson that served me well nearly everywhere: 

Rice- Khao (cow)
Chicken- Gai (guy)
Fried- Pad
Vegetable- Pak-
Nam- Water
Curry- Kaeng (gong)

Khao Pad Gai- Fried Rice with Chicken
Khao Pad Pak- Fried Rice with Vegetable

The bill- chek bin
Delicious- aroy
Thank you- Kop Kun Kah (women end with “kah”)
                        Kop Kun Krab (men end with “krab”)

Be polite, always smile, and say thank you.  Saying the food is delicious never hurts either!  Good manners go a long way in Thailand and Thai people always appreciate making an effort.   

Saturday, April 20, 2013

my favorite candy from around the world

I'm not always the healthiest eater while traveling.  Layovers, slow Internet connections, and endless bus rides always give me the munchies.  I can easily spend an hour in a 7-11 or other convenience store shopping around for candy I haven't tried yet.  While some of these are available at supermarkets in America, it's just not the same snacking on Pocky in your apartment back home.  These are just a few of my favorites: 


Cha Chas.  I found these treats all over Indonesia and in Kuala Lumpur.  While nearly identical to M&M's, there's something about the shape of a peanut Cha Cha that I like better.  It's rounder, smaller, and the shell just tastes better!
Pocky.  Probably my favorite part of Pocky is the sheer number of the chocolate covered biscuit sticks that are in one package.  They are fun to eat, don't leave crumbs behind, and I could find a box for under 20 baht ($.60) in Thailand.  Available all over Asia and certain stores in America, Pocky comes in sweet and savory flavors.
Tim Tams are over the top delicious.  I first discovered these biscuit cookies in Australia and hoarded a box of carmel Tim Tams in my freezer for nearly a year later before realizing World Market carries them.  Also available all over Asia in full sized packs, as well the convenient 4-pack, I ended many evenings with a trail of chocolate crumbs in my bed.  Vanilla cream, original, and cappuccino are some of the best flavors.
Koala's March are chocolate filled miniature cookies that go by the name of Koala Yummies in America, and I was first introduced to them in a Subway kid's pack when I was little.  Easy to snack on with adorable faces, I got my chocolate fix often from these little cuties.  Available all over Asia.  
Almond balls!  Chocolate covered almonds seemed like a downright luxury while shopping at 7-11 in Thailand.  I would often justify these as a health food since it was almonds, even though the thick chocolate coating was clearly what I was after.  




Friday, April 19, 2013

The cost of eating in Thailand


Food is cheap in Thailand.  With an abundance of street food and local restaurants, you can easily eat for well under $5 a day.  Be aware that tourist destinations like Phuket will be more expensive, and even items at 7-11 will have a higher price tag.  My advice is to learn what street food you like and pack your own snacks to save money when traveling. 

Most accommodation won’t have a kitchen because all the locals eat out for every meal, so in a country like Thailand buying groceries is actually more expensive.  Alcohol, American name brands, or chain restaurants are more expensive, but even on weekends I found myself never spending much on food.  I lived in a small town outside of Bangkok, but frequented Bangkok and other cities each weekend.  Here’s an honest look on how I typically spent my money on both weekdays and weekends.

Weekday

Breakfast:
2 eggs served over rice—20 baht
Small orange juice box—10 baht

Lunch:
Plate of veggies and meat served over rice—20 baht
Bag of pineapple—10 baht
Bag of dragon fruit—10 baht

Snacks:
Iced tea—10 baht
Bag of peanuts—10 baht
Serving of corn—10 baht
Bag of raisins—15 baht

Dinner:
Friday rice with chicken—30 baht
Banana smoothie-20 baht

Total: 165 baht ($5.77)

Weekend

Breakfast:
Large orange juice—20 baht
Bag of peanuts—10 baht

Lunch:
Teriyaki chicken bowl at a Japanese restaurant—100 baht
Iced lemon tea—20 baht

Snack:
Bag of fruit—10 baht
2 liters of water—26 baht
Cookies—20 baht
Large change beer—60 baht

Dinner:
Fried noodles with vegetables at a restaurant—60 baht
Smoothie—30 baht

Total: 356 baht ($12.45)

As you can see, food is extremely inexpensive in Thailand.  During the week I ate mostly street food, but spent most of my money on snacks at 7-11.  I found it difficult to eat properly and made an effort to buy fruit whenever it was available.  Drinking water was available at my school, but on the weekend I would typically spend about 30 baht ($1) on water each day.  Be smart about how much you spend on food and you’ll have plenty of money leftover for travel.  

street food in Nakhon Pathom

typical snacks from 7-11

street food and soda water

more of a splurge, yellow curry and a pineapple shake

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What's in my medicine bag?


I’m kind of a walking medicine bag when I travel, and I’ve never regretted hauling all of these items with me.  I’d rather have a slightly heavier bag, rather than scramble around a new city looking for a pharmacy during a crisis.  These items should cover common illnesses requiring antibiotics or over the counter treatment.  I am not a medical professional, so consult a travel specialist or physician before taking any of the listed medications. 

Azithromycin (Z pack)—This can be used for all sorts of ailments.  Just to name a few: respiratory infections, infectious diarrhea, pink eye, chlamydia.  Whenever I’m traveling I like to have at least two Z packs with me because you just never know.

Ciproflaxacin—infectious diarrhea (does not work on some strains in SE Asia), urinary tract infections, skin infections

Penicillin- strep throat, skin infections

Doxycycline—can be used as an antimalaria when used before and after exposure, sinus infections, skin infections

Dramamine—motion sickness, available over the counter

Scopolamine patches—prescription strength motion sickness patches.  Worn behind the ear for up to three days, this is the only way I can make it through a rocky boat ride. 

Monistat—any generic or over the counter yeast infection medication

Tylenol, Advil, Aleve—for basic aches and pains, head aches, etc.

Immodium—cannot stress the importance of this!

Throat Lozenges

Vitamins—a multi-vitamin should be enough

Birth control pills (if you use them, bring several packs in case your brand isn’t available overseas)

Alcohol wipes—for cleaning cuts

Bandaids

Antiseptic cream—Neosporin or something similar

Hydrocortisone cream—for insect bites or other skin infections

Antihistamine—or other over the counter allergy tablets

Electrolyte powder—it’s so easy to get dehydrated when traveling and sometimes water isn’t enough 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The best (cheap) drinks in Thailand


Thailand is best suited for beer drinkers.  Unless you have disposable income, ordering a glass of wine or a cocktail at any bar will cost about four times more than a beer.  Don’t expect any craft beer, as you are unlikely to see anything other than Chang, Leo, Singha, or Tiger.  The occasional Heineken is available, but unless you are at a nicer bar or hotel in Bangkok, these are your best options. 

More than one big bottle of Chang is likely to give you a Changover (a term I wish I had coined myself) and remember, Chang Domestic is stronger than the Export, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!  Or you can really throw caution to the wind and pick up an Archa Beer (only available at select 7-11s)



All Thai beer is best served over ice due to the sweltering temperatures.  I like to call this Thai bottle service! 

I first discovered Mont Clair wine when I was stuck inside a shopping mall during a thunderstorm in Hua Hin.  At around 300 baht per bottle (about $5), it seemed like a great break from all the beer.  I’d compare it best to Charles Shaw (2 buck Chuck) from back home.  This South African wine is available at nearly every 7-11 I went to, as well as Family Mart.  It’s a perfect companion to an overnight train ride or a quiet evening in a guesthouse.  




How did I get my job in Thailand?



Of course there’s a lot more back story to my personal motivations for going to Thailand, but here I’ll explain how I actually got my job teaching English at a high school in Thailand.

I went through an organization called CIEE (ciee.org) that did most of the grunt work in terms of processing my visa and placing me in a school with provided housing.  This of course came with a price tag, which now makes me cringe just thinking about it.  Not including the $50 application fee, one semester of teaching in Thailand is $1,600, and two semesters is $1,900.  Once you arrive in Thailand, CIEE funnels you into another organization called OEG (Overseas Education Group) that handles everything based in Thailand.  So pretty much everyone you’ve been in communication with thus far is now unable to help you.

The CIEE application requires two letters of recommendation, and several short essay questions you have to fill out but none of this matters, probably. If you pay the fee, you are in.  I have no regrets using them for one semester of teaching, but I think once you arrive you find that jobs for native speakers are so readily available, it’s unnecessary.  Trust me, after a few weeks in Thailand you’ll learn the ropes for finding employment, obtaining a work permit, and all the other technicalities that go along with teaching English in Thailand.  Just browsing the website Ajarn.com for a few days will give you about as much information and assistance as CIEE. 

For those of you still thinking of using an organization such as CIEE, here are some pros and cons, along with helpful hints.

Pros:

Orientation.  This is the best part. You’ll spend a week in Bangkok prior to the start of the semester at your school.  Don’t take it too seriously.  Honestly, nothing will prepare you adequately for teaching in a Thai classroom for the first time.  But orientation is fun if you let yourself be laid back.  I went out every single night, explored Bangkok with new friends, and skipped lectures to sun myself at the pool.  Everyone is friendly, so a big reason to go through CIEE is to make friends and travel buddies.

You don’t have to worry about housing.  With that said, I can’t promise you’ll love your apartment/bedroom or find that the program fee made it worth it.  I could have found my own housing in a much nicer area and closer to food and nightlife for a cheaper price.  The majority of CIEE participants I met still had to pay a small fee each month in rent for their included housing.  This makes no sense.  Why even pay a program fee?  I got stuck in a dingy dorm room inside the school cafeteria, but at least it had air conditioning.  Also, don’t believe the photos CIEE will send you ahead of time of your provided accommodations. 

A school coordinator will be assigned to you to help out with any problems and to answer questions.  Some participants I met did have great coordinators at school.  The coordinator would take them out to lunch, show them around town, and give them rides when necessary.  My coordinator, Anchalee, was completely useless.  She never helped me get situated, and dropped me off at my room the first night and told me it was unsafe to leave my room after dark.  I will expand on her later, but I felt completely alone and helpless.

The visa will be handled prior to leaving the U.S.  Normally, U.S. citizens get 30 days on arrival, but this visa will give you 90 days.  Then, your school will take you to immigration to extend your visa and take care of all the paperwork for getting your work permit.  But you can always do this on your own, it just requires you leave the country on a visa run.

Cons:

It’s a gamble.  You can tell CIEE what your preferences are for where you want to teach but there’s really no point in doing this since you’ll get placed where they have an opening.  You could end up alone, you could end up somewhere awful.  You may live in Bangkok but if you are much farther than an hour, you are pretty isolated.  You take that risk when using CIEE, and there’s no way to say you’ll like where you are placed and a non-refundable portion of the program fee is already paid by this time.

You’ll make less money.  If you find a job teaching on your own in Thailand, you will make more money.   Other participants in the program may make twice your salary and there’s nothing CIEE will do about it.   I earned 20,000 baht a month ($650).  The other native speaking teachers at my school made at least 30,000 baht per month and they were all teaching illegally with fake Bachelor’s degrees they bought online. 

If you do have a problem, you’re on your own.  If you get sick, lost, hate your school, suddenly get assigned 10 more classes to teach per week, the school doesn’t pay you on time, or anything else happens, you are on your own.  It becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly, that OEG prefers to maintain the relationship with the school, their repeat customer.

Think carefully before going through a company like CIEE.  Participants don’t generally sign up for a second program or teach in another country with CIEE after their program ends.  I didn’t feel like they had any incentive to keep current participants happy with a steady influx of recent graduates coming in every six months.  But the experience is of course what you make it, there will be good and bad days whether you go through CIEE or find a job on your own.  Considering going through CIEE or a similar organization and have questions?  Email me:  juliakristinsummers[at]gmail[dot]com