So you want to teach abroad? I get quite a few emails from people that are interested in making the best life decision ever, so I figured I’d try and create a comprehensive “everything you need to know” guide. I discuss how exactly I went about moving across the globe and answer some of the most common FAQs. Notable points: I am American and this will be centered around teaching in Thailand. What I have to say may be helpful if you're interested in other countries as well, particularly in Southeast Asia. Let’s start here:
What’s the best route to take?
So, based on what I know now- there are two options.
Option #1: Greenheart Travel. This is a Chicago-based company and they're WONDERFUL. This is the route that I chose after much research and comparing Greenheart against other programs such as CIEE. It's going to cost you some money, but I'll tell you what you're paying for- someone to hold your hand and ease you into Thailand as well as a huge network of new friends. Also, a TESOL certificate if you don’t have one already. A TESOL is a certification you should have to teach English as a foreign language. The video below offers some great insight into the TESOL course- I'd linked to this video in a previous blog post, but my two best friends and me had the honor of being ambassadors for Greenheart. They captured some highlights of our first month in Thailand and it'll give you a good idea of what to expect.
So about Greenheart- they handle all of the pre-departure chaos and answer every annoying question you come up with quickly and patiently. They work hand in hand with a Thailand based company called XploreAsia who takes over when you arrive. They'll pick you up at the airport and help with the initial "holy shit I'm in Southeast Asia" feeling. You can do a one-month TESOL with other participants in either Hua Hin or Chiang Mai, or if you're already qualified and ready for placement, there's a week long orientation in Hua Hin. I did the TESOL course in Hua Hin and chose an October start date which had a HUGE group of over 100+ people. This was fantastic for making friends and one of their biggest intake months for teachers, therefore I highly recommend starting then. Towards the end of the course, XploreAsia will help place you in a school. It can be anywhere in the country, and you are able to give preferences and accept/decline offers. Be warned that there's no guarantee you'll keep getting offers if you decline, though. My placement was the first one offered to me, and was located about 30 minutes north of Bangkok at a government high school in a province called Pathumthani. It was not the best city I could have imagined living in, but it was a wonderful experience nonetheless. So along with your school placement will come housing options. Sometimes your agent will take you apartment hunting, and sometimes they have housing already in place for teachers. I ended up with the latter- there was an apartment complex near school where the majority of my school's teachers lived (we had about a 15 person foreign language department.) But, more on housing in a bit.
Option #2: If you're a brave soul, just showing up to Thailand and getting a position on your own is your second option. I understand that this sounds AWFUL to someone who has never been to Thailand, but if I knew then what I know now, I'd have considered it. That's just the thing, though- "if I knew then what I know now." I only know what I know now because I used Greenheart, if that makes sense. In all actuality though, it’s pretty easy to rock up and get a job. What that does is eliminate any program fees and there's no agent involved to take a cut out of your salary. The downside? You're on your own to figure things out, and when you're fresh off a plane in a foreign country, that can be a bit daunting.
This leads me to a story. After my semester at the government high school I decided I wanted to live in Bangkok. So I moved. Without a job. I got an apartment first which was totally putting the cart before the horse, but- I had full faith that I'd find something. And I did. Through Craigslist of all things. And because I’m all about full disclosure- here comes salary talk. Because it’s important. I found a job at an international school making 45,000 baht a month which is much higher than a lot of places (I made about 33,000 at the government high school.) But keep in mind more remote placements have lower costs of living, so 33K was totally sufficient. Had I used an agent to get the job at the international school, my salary would have been a lot lower. So, this is the good thing about going out on your own. Again I must stress, as a first timer it's probably best to go through a program. Once you get a handle on things and develop a better understanding of how Thailand works, you can always go out on your own after a semester like I did. One thing you need to understand is that contracts here are not the same as they are in most countries, which is to say it’s not as binding as you think. Do they want you to stay for a year? Yes. If you break your contract is it the end of the world? No. Teachers leave all the time and break contracts, it's just the way things go here. That being said, I broke my contract with the international school one month in, during their summer school. I did not feel good about it, at all- but I was given another job opportunity that I simply could not pass up.
Now I realize Thailand may not be your first country of choice. Luckily, Greenheart offers teach abroad programs as well as homestays and work abroad programs in many different countries (Colombia, Indonesia, Italy, Myanmar, South Korea, and Australia to name a few.) I can't stress enough how great Greenheart is, so make sure to check those out.
And now, the things people ask about the most.
What’s the housing like?
First, the XploreAsia program housing. It seems the accommodations vary for each course, but if you do the TESOL you'll be put up in an above average place for a month. Depending on how many participants there are in your session you may be spread out in different hotels/guesthouses/etc, but most likely anyone who came through Greenheart will stay together. We stayed at a guesthouse of sorts for mine, with two people to a room. It was basically like having 27 of your best friends in one hotel. You all just hit it off because you're like-minded people. After all, not just anyone decides to up and move to Thailand. Anyway, it was clean and bright and had everything we needed, really. Western bathroom facilities, storage for our things, and a decent bed (prepare yourselves though because beds in Thailand generally suck and you’re going to feel like Fred Flinstone for a while until you adjust.) I also had to take my laundry down the street to a laundry lady that washed dried and folded everything for me. It was worth the walk.
As for placement housing, because you could be anywhere it's kind of impossible to generalize. You'd just have to put your foot down if something was unreasonable. They want to make you happy and they want you to stay so they're going to try and find a place that you like. For 6 months I lived in a rather ghetto apartment complex, but it had an awesome pool and a gym. This was where most of the teachers from my school lived, though some chose to live elsewhere. I had one big room with high ceilings. There was a king bed, vanity, wardrobe, table and chairs, a porch, and a western bathroom. It did the trick. It was also about $100 USD a month, so. There’s that.
My apartment in Bangkok now is pretty sweet- 27th floor of a condo and it's about $300 USD a month. It's the first time I felt truly comfortable, and "at home." It's fully furnished with a living room, bedroom, galley kitchen, bathroom, and balcony. Pretty new building and really modern and cute. There’s a gym, pool, café, hairdresser, laundry, restaurant, and a 7-Eleven all on site. There really is such a wide range of accommodations you could get based on your placement but it won't ever be anything that's not tolerable. And if for whatever reason it is, you just insist on finding something else. Also note that you give placement preferences to the placement team, and I'd say Bangkok is where the most jobs are. If you decided you liked the city you can be positive you'll have no problem finding a nice place. Also, you'll always have a washing machine. Somewhere. Dryers are the things that tend to be MIA. You'll learn to get real creative. I hung my clothes on a strand of Christmas lights across my porch. Oh, and also note that the outlets here are compatible with American plugs. Score.
What’s the weather like?
There's "seasons" here but to me, the whole year has felt about the same. It's hot. The end. The hottest months are April and May, the rainiest June to October, and the “coolest” and driest are November to February. Some days may be more humid than others, or may rain more than others, but at the end of the day it is TOASTY. I personally think the “low” season (which coincides with the hot as hell and rainy months) is a lovely time to come to Thailand. Everything’s cheaper and year round it really doesn’t feel like there’s all that much of a weather difference. Daytime highs are usually in the 90's and nighttime lows are in the high 70's.
What do I pack and what do you wish you’d left behind?
A lot of people would say leave the jeans at home. For the first 6 months of my time here I would have agreed, because I never wore them. I was sweating buckets and just getting into them was a task. Recently though, it’s become apparent that I’ve acclimated to this crazy country, and now I wear skinny jeans all the time. Take that as you will. The warmest things I brought were a jean jacket, a sweatshirt, and sweatpants, and only because I like being cozy and you can always crank the AC. Plus, malls and movie theaters can be pretty chilly. I brought one pair of heels, sneakers, flats for teaching, and sandals.
What I didn't know before I left was this: any and all clothing items you may ever want or need can be found here. There's a Forever 21, H&M, and Sephora in Bangkok. All sorts of stores you thought you might never see again. They’re here. I go shopping all the damn time and it's a horrible habit. Also, most toiletry items can be found here, too. Don't bring full bottles of anything. Bring travel stuff to get you started then hit your nearest Big C or Tesco or any other store (including 7-Eleven) and they'll have Pantene or Dove or Tresemme or whatever you want. I would recommend bringing a few moisturizers, because a lot of stuff here has whitening agents in it and you can't always read the bottle. Maybe some deodorant too, as a lot of that has whitening ingredients. For the ladies- they tell you tampons are hard to find, but that's really not true. I looked like I had a stockpile of ammunition in my suitcase and it was so unnecessary. They’re a bit more expensive but there are western markets or you can find them in 7-Eleven.
Pillows, sheets, bath towels...all of your start up needs can be found here, no problem. Save yourself the space! I'm not a light packer by any means, and I brought a lot of the stuff listed above only to find that it was a waste of space. Bring some long skirts and basic tops for teaching. You can always buy more, and some schools will give you clothes, like mine did. I would wear x color polo on Monday..."Thai" style on Tuesdays (they helped get those items) and so on. Will totally depend on where you're placed if there's a uniform or not, so best not to overpack and just wait and see.
What shots did you get?
The shots everyone talks about are all RECOMMENDED by the CDC, they’re not required. Hep A, Hep B, Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Malaria….they’re all precautionary. Totally a personal decision, and depends on how much of a hypochondriac you are. Also depends on if you plan on trekking around in jungles for days on end- in which case it’s probably a smart idea to protect yourself. My insurance covered a lot of the shots, so I got the standard recommended ones (Typhoid, Hep A, JE.) If you’re paying out of pocket, I’d personally skip out. JE was over $200 and Malaria pills weren’t covered either- pretty pricey. You can also get shots in Thailand if you change your mind or need to get the second shot in a series. It’s likely a bit cheaper, too.
Is it hard to meet people?
You’d have a hard time NOT meeting people. I met two girls online through the Greenheart Facebook group and just through pre-departure discussions they became amazing friends of mine. I planned on doing this whole thing solo, but we hit it off in such a way that we confidently asked to be placed in Thailand as friends.
My TESOL course had over 100 people in it from all over the world so there were plenty of friends to be made there as well. Thailand in general has a huge expat community and I have no problem meeting people in Bangkok. More and more people are traveling these days...working and living abroad...so I really believe that no matter where you choose, you won't have an issue finding friends. And if you go through Greenheart, no matter what country you choose, there will be other Greenhearters to connect with doing the same thing. Also consider joining Meetup.com if you want to find friends with similar interests.
The ever important CELL PHONE.
Hope you like Apple cuz that’s what I know about! In the US I had Verizon Wireless and I currently use an iPhone 5s. The 5s comes unlocked, so all I had to do was take out the SIM and put in a Thai one. One of my favorite things about Thailand is that I pay about $6 US per MONTH for my phone plan with True Move. I have a data plan with unlimited internet (it gets slower the more you use, but you can pay for extra speed) and I get 150 minutes of talk time. Texting is extra, but just download WhatsApp or Asia’s more popular app LINE and you’re good to go. Also if whoever you’re talking to has an iPhone too, iMessages don’t count as texts.
Is it safe?
Here’s the thing. Shit happens in every town, city, country, etc. So yeah, shit happens here, too. And yeah, it’s a little bit more unnerving because you’re not in your home country. That being said- aside from the bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok in August, I have yet to feel unsafe here. Even in the aftermath of this blatant act of terrorism, I feel fine. I walk around this city at all hours of the day and night by myself and have never felt threatened. I do have friends who have been mugged in popular tourist spots, so use common sense when it comes to your belongings. The one thing that’s probably the biggest issue regarding safety is motorbikes. I know way too many people who have been in accidents and I’m fairly certain motorbikes are responsible for a huge chunk of the death toll in this country. I personally refuse to drive one at this point in time because I have no doubt I will kill myself and/or someone else…but if you do, just be safe. Buy a helmet. You’re not invincible.
If I've missed anything, use my contact form to shoot me an email. I'm always happy to help people out that are looking to take the leap. Just know, no matter how many doubts or concerns you may have, it's totally worth it.