It has now been 22 years since I started teaching at Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakan, Thailand. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that I would still be at the same school twenty two years later. In fact, I didn’t think at the time that I would be staying longer than one week. It was never my plan to teach nor even to stay in Thailand so long. I left England back in mid 1993 to go backpacking across Asia on a round the world tour. This was my second big trip. In 1991, I spent one year in Australia. I had bought a station wagon and drove the complete circumference of Australia. On my return to the UK, I had enjoyed my time on the road so much that I found it difficult settling down and commuting to work in London every day. The only thing that kept me going was planning another trip. This time, overland to Australia. I had liked Australia so much that I was toying with the idea of emigrating there. I liked the “no worries” attitude.
I still remember very well the day that I left. British Rail was on strike, so at the last minute my parents had to give me a lift down to the port at Dover. I then took a ferry across the English Channel where I then continued overland by rail to Moscow. I spent a couple of days here before boarding the Trans Siberian Express. Seven days later the train arrived in Beijing. I spent several months in China going to places where I rarely saw any other foreigners. I traveled to the far Western border and then down into Pakistan via the Karakorum Mountains. These have some of the highest roads in the world with public transport. A memorable sidetrip here was a visit to the lawless town of Peshawar where, for a few dollars, you could fire kalashnikov machine guns or buy a James Bond gun disguised as a fountain pen. I also continued up to the Khyber Pass with an armed escort to look down into Afghanistan.
At that time, Thailand didn’t really have a good reputation. All I knew was that it was referred to as the “sex capital of the world” and had a serious drug problem. When I was in Australia, I had seen the Nicole Kidman TV movie “Bangkok Hilton”. This had made me paranoid that the police in Thailand would plant drugs on me and that I would end up at Bang Kwang Prison. When I flew home from Australia on the first trip, the plane stopped in Bangkok to refuel. I had the option to do a short stopover here. But, I declined and stayed on the plane. It was just as well. A few days later, there were tanks on the streets as Thailand was having yet another coup. So, this time round, my rough plan was to only stay in Thailand for one week before heading south to Malaysia and Indonesia.
I really had no idea what to expect. The world saw Thailand as a “third world” country and I thought that there would be poverty wherever I looked. However, the drive from the airport to the school certainly changed my mind. All of the cars on the expressway looked expensive and brand new. I remember commenting in a letter home that there didn’t seem to be any old cars. We passed big shopping malls and the billboards were advertising designer brands. There was no sign of poverty here. This continued when I arrived at the school. I had imagined I would be sleeping in a wooden hut on a thin mat on the floor. But, they took me to their school where the living quarters was nothing short of luxurious. I had my own place to stay and as it turned out, I had a servant who cleaned my bedroom and washed my clothes every day. I also had people who prepared and cooked my every meal. This was all such a shock to the system after being on the road for so long and living on an average of $5 per day.
Before I knew it, one week became two and then soon it was the summer holidays. I did a few side trips to places like Chiang Mai, Sukhothai, Kanchanaburi and Koh Chang. Then they invited me to teach during summer school in March-April. They said it was an opportunity for me to earn some money. It wasn’t a lot but as I was staying at the school I was able to save most of it. I knew this would be useful pocket money for the road ahead. I ended up staying at the school for nearly three months. I was having such a great time that I was having difficulty in leaving. However, I was keen to get to Australia before Christmas. I have relations there and I wanted to spend that period with them.
It is actually rare for foreign teachers to stay so long at the same school. They usually move around. But, I guess for me it was different. I was originally invited as a family friend and still today they regard me as one of the family. Thai people are very much like that. I could have moved to a school in Bangkok and easily tripled my salary. But, I decided to stay with this school. Money was never so important for me. As long as I was comfortable, and had a job that was enjoyable and never really felt like work, then I knew I would be happy. People have often asked me why I chose Thailand. I think really, Thailand chose me. I love the culture, the people and the Buddhist way of life. This feels like my home now and I have no plans to return to the UK.