The only Farang (foreigner) in the village!

Trip Start Nov 16, 2005
Trip End Jun 04, 2007

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Friday, June 30, 2006

This last month I've (Karen) been teaching English in a remote town in the middle of NE Thailand. An experience of highs and lows that I'll never forget!

NE Thailand (AKA Isaan) has a culture very distinct from the rest of Thailand. The people speak a language closer to Laos than Thai and have their own food, music and customs. Few tourists visit this part of Thailand; the economy is the poorest in Thailand with most families from farming backgrounds.

I was the first foreigner to come and teach at this school, so the kids and staff were very excited to have me. The idea was that the kids and teachers would now have the opportunity to hear native English (rather than 'Thai English' from the Thai English teachers) and to improve their speaking skills by coming and talking to me and speaking in lessons.

John didn't want to teach, so while I've been teaching he's been relaxing and watching the World Cup on some of Thailand's finest beaches. It's been tough as we've spent the last 6 months together 24/7, but at least we were able to stay in touch by phone and email. I was lucky, I was kept so busy that time flew by. When I was not teaching I was taken on trips to karaoke, beauty salons, aerobics, temples/museums, local festivals and shopping. In fact, it was hard to get any time to myself, as they thought that I would be bored and homesick if I was ever left on my own!

My placement started with a few days "training" at the charity's HQ with 3 other volunteers. [For anyone interested, details of charity I worked for can be found at]. Our training was a crash course in some basic Thai phrases and Thai culture (don't touch the kids heads, don't point with your feet, don't step over people or food on the floor etc) and one or two ideas for lessons. Our first day teaching was to go to a nearby secondary school to be classroom assistants for Year 1's English Day. This, in fact, turned out to be each volunteer put into different classes, given a microphone and told "you speak". Talk about dropping you in it! Managed to survive by saying a few things about myself and singing some kids songs - all Thai kids seemed to love singing songs like "Head, Shoulders" and "If you're happy", even the 18 year olds.

The next day was spent travelling 5 hours on a 'local' train to my school's nearest train station, a town called Si Saket, 30kms from my school (the school's name being a very snappy Khowangwittayakom School). I'd been told that someone from my school would be there to meet me from the train. Instead, I was greeted by the entire English dept (6 teachers) plus the Head Master, all wearing matching pink T-shirts and holding a sign with my name on.

At the time I thought they were wearing the pink T-shirts especially for me. I was soon to discover, however, that pink T-shirts are worn by all the teachers every Thursday. I'd had some lovely new clothes made up in Vietnam to teach in, but hardly got to wear them - for the first 2 weeks I had to borrow a yellow T-shirt to wear most days to commemorate the King's 60th anniversary. Every Wednesday all the teachers (and students) would dress in scouts uniform (very funny seeing grown men donning shorts, socks pulled up to the knees and the obligatory woggle!) and whenever there was sports days for one year, all the students and teachers would wear tracksuits, even though only one year was participating.

For the next month I was to be staying with one of the English teachers, Pi Taung, a lovely lady about my age who lives with her mother in a village near to the school. I had the luxuries of my own room and bathroom, although the room was wooden with a tin roof and so was too hot to be in during daylight hours and my bathroom was downstairs with a cold shower and squat toilet. Basic, but clean and perfectly adequate - I have spent the last 7 months backpacking after all!

For my first day at the school, the teachers had been told that this should be for me to meet the teachers and students but not teach. My day started with me getting up at 6am to go with Pi Taung who was giving alms to the monks (see Laos entry) at the local temple. Left for school at 7:30am and everyone had to stand up at 8am for the playing of the national anthem and then the flag raising ceremony (AKA school assembly). After the flag had been raised, I was asked (told) to speak to all the students and teachers (900 students and 35 teachers). I introduced myself (not sure they understood a lot though) and then sung them a lovely little tune that goes like this:

Hello, Hello, Hello.
Hello, how do you do?
I'm glad to meet with you.
And you and you and you.
La la la, la la la, la la la

Not sure how I made it through the month teaching as I can't sing to save my life and can't draw either, and yet most of my lessons I had to sing songs with the kids and draw pictures to help them understand the English words I was teaching. Maybe they were laughing at me rather than with me?

So anyway, after my song I was presented with numerous bouquets of flowers, balloons and a teddy bear - all gifts bought for me by the staff and kids. Can't imagine school kids back home buying presents for a new foreign teacher, can you? I was given loads of presents by the teachers during my time there - jewellery, clothing, accessories, etc.

I was then taken to 4 lessons with one of the English teachers and yes, I had to teach even though we were told we would NOT teach on our first day. Luckily I'd jotted down a few ideas the night before just in case this was sprung on me! Spent most of the lessons writing my name in Thai (the only thing I can write in Thai, but the kids didn't know that) and showing photos of my friends/family - the kids loved this.

The school day is pretty long in Thailand, 8-4:15pm. I only taught 3-4 hours a day and so was free the rest of the time for the students/teachers to practice English on me. As there were so many classes, I only saw each class twice in the month I was there. My first lesson was just introductions/greetings for the kids to get to know me - it was a little tedious having to repeat this 24 times though. At least I had a bit more variety for lesson 2, as I could teach whatever I wanted. The first week I was teaching in the students' classrooms. They don't have fans so I was getting pretty hot and getting covered in chalk every lesson. I didn't say anything, but the next thing I knew they had opened up the school "theatre" for me to teach in - an AC room with projector and computer, and I had this for the rest of my time at the school.

I had to learn straight away to be flexible and prepared for anything as lessons were cancelled and re-scheduled, so I was sometimes teaching a lesson with no notice. Lessons were cancelled for events like fancy dress / singing contests, sports days, scouts anniversary, dance practice, ceremonies like "Respect your Teacher" and "Rocket Festival" (firing rockets into the air to bring the rain) and a day off to celebrate the King's 60th anniversary. I was asked (or rather 'told') to be the school's "Queen" in the town parade. Being Queen involved me being dressed up in local Thai costume, sitting on a carriage with my 'King' (a 6th form student), and then being stared and called 'Farang' (foreigner) by all the locals!

That was one thing I found a little awkward, being the centre of attention everywhere I went. I was always being talked about - they wanted to know what I'd eaten / was going to eat, who I've spoken to and what was said, where I'd been / was going to go (I even had to announce that I was going to the toilet!). I guess it was to be expected though as having me there was a novelty for them.

My time teaching finished with me having to give another speech to the students and teachers and then being given some lovely presents. In the evening a party was held for me at the school hall, with me singing Karaoke being what the teachers were most excited about.

I learnt a lot during my time teaching, and was sad to finish, but at the same time glad to be continuing my travels with John. I'll finish this entry with a few interesting things I discovered about Thai culture whilst teaching:-

- I was always getting asked (both verbally and asked to write down) personal questions about my love life, salary, family's jobs and my weight - none of this is taboo in Thailand.
- I had to dress modestly (no showing shoulders or knees) at all times, even when going for a shower. I was told to shower up to 4 times a day (I didn't smell bad, they just like you to shower as much as possible).
- If you ask for your food to be not spicy, this means they'll just put in 1 chilli (rather than 10+) - they wouldn't give you the dish with no chilli at all.
- If you need to beckon someone (e.g. call a student to the front of the class), you must point your palm downwards and do it upside down to the way we would normally do - the way we do it means you are trying to seduce them.
- When going out for food, the most well off person will always pay the entire bill and far too much food will always be ordered.

Miss Jepson, English Teacher extrodinaire esq.
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paultidey on

Good Morning Miss Jepson!

What a really great travelogue - my wife is a teacher's asst. & so will enjoy reading this herself & I love it that the teacher you stayed with is another PT! And John got to have some 'bloke' time on his own enjoying the footy! Interesting bits about Thai culture at the end aswell.

The other PT

lindyholmes on

If You're Happy and You know it
Hi Karen,
What a great blog entry; I love reading about your teaching experience and can just see you there, singing English songs in front of such a large group by yourself. I am so impressed and awed that you did that alone (the whole experience, not just the singing). At least when we did it in the villages north of Pai, we had Jordan and John to support us.

Hope you are enjoying your travels, wherever you and John currently are. Will continue to check out the site and follow along from Seattle.

Angie on

Wow! I some how came across your page. I love it! I am from Thailand and now moved to US for 10 years. I had a farang teacher for 3 years when i was in high school in Thailand. Reading your story made understand how my teacher felt back then. I ws wondering how and what he really think about us as well. By we really enjoyed him. I am sure your students and all the teacher really enjoyed you as well.

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