22 Years in a Thai School

camels

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.

chinesefriends

 A month later I crossed into India and caught a train up to New Delhi where I met up with my sister and her husband who were in India with their baby daughter. I travelled with them for a while before setting off on my own again. I really enjoyed the culture of India and the food of the Southern region. I ended up in Calcutta where I caught a small prop plane to Bangkok in Thailand. I arrived in early February 1994. Up to that point I had spent several months in each of the countries. I never really had a set schedule for my trip or road plan, though there were places where I wanted to visit. My only rush at the start was to get over the Karakorum Pass before the snows came in and closed off the road.

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.

school_03

Before I left England, I already had a contact to visit in Thailand. My mother used to run Scout Commissioner courses at Gillwell Park in London. One year, two of the participants on her course were two ladies from Bangkok who ran a school there. Apparently, in Thailand all students were Scouts. After the course had finished, they kept in touch. Before I left home for my around the world trip, my mother wrote to them to say that I would be passing through. They invited me to visit. I was in two minds to do this. But, when I reached India I sent them confirmation to say that I was on my way. They replied that they would pick me up at the airport.

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.

school_01

The next day they invited me to visit some of the English classes. Fortunately for me, the school owners spoke English which made it a lot easier. However, they never had a foreign English teacher before. They had Thai English teachers but they could hardly speak any English. They gave me a text book, pointed me to a classroom and said, “Go and teach”. It was literally like being thrown into the deep end. I had no idea of what to teach or even the ability of the students. It was a classic example of people thinking that just because you are a native speaker that you can teach English. Luckily for me, teaching is in my blood. Not only my mother, but my two sisters and various aunts and uncles were all teachers. I managed to survive and even enjoyed myself. But, I was still only planning to spend a week before heading south down to the Malaysian border.

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.

school_02

 I finally left Thailand in late May 1994. I crossed into Malaysia and then from Penang I caught a boat across to Samatra in Indonesia. I then island hopped as far as Bali. From there I flew into Australia, about a year after I had originally left home. After spending Christmas here, I was planning to then fly to New Zealand and from there to South America, North America and then back home. However, while I was staying with my relations, I received a phone call from the school principal. She invited me to come back to Thailand to teach there for one year. I didn’t have to give it much thought. I immediately said “yes”. As we all know now, one year became two, and then three. Before I knew it, twenty two years had passed and I am still here at the same school.

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.

34 comments

  1. I just enjoyed reading this post, Richard! For the past 22 years, my life revolved around my students. I used to teach high school students in exclusive Catholic schools for boys (Don Bosco Teachnical Institute in Makati and San Beda College in Manila). After graduating from college with a degree in Political Science, I thought of becoming a lawyer. Luckily, the first semester of law school did not interest me much unlike the personal fulfillment i felt while teaching. I dropped out of law school, continued teaching History and Economics and enrolled in TEFL course and a few units in Masteral studies.

    But I decided to leave teaching to find my way in discovering the artistic and creative soul in me. I took up a class in writing video documentary production and got hooked in theater production. I went back to teaching and used what I have learned from film and theater productions. As you may guess, classroom teaching was never the same again. Students just loved learning more when their innate artistry and creativity were put to the fore. Students realized that learning could be fun despite the rigors of school works.

    Indeed, teaching comes from the core of our being! It is not about academic degrees and teaching credentials (although they matter), but the love a teacher puts into the classroom and the students spell mcuh difference!

  2. Svetlana says:

    I find your story fascinating. I’m currently in Thailand on vacation, and I see lots of school kids every day. It always made me curious about what their schools are like. Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Eoin O'Kelly says:

    Excellent and so true… Being happy with what your doing is so much more important that life’s luxuries.. Well done!

  4. pino pezzoli says:

    At the beginning i was thinking to read quickly your article, but row by row I was impressed about your story and the long and huge experiences you had the opportunity to live.
    Your capability to write in detail such as fascinating memories gave to me a sort of way to dream…wondering to be there as well.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Jerry Brown888 says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. It is very inspirational. You show the world the meaning of true happiness. There are very few Richards like you in the world. I hope you will publish a book about your life experiences.

  6. Piyaporn says:

    Thanks for sharing such an amazing story and how much you love Thailand. I am Thai and I am living aboard for almost 9 years but I can’t call it a home. You are very lucky and tge way you see life just fascinated me. You are such an inspiration!!

  7. Christian Vincent says:

    Thanks for sharing Richard, and thanks for the continuous knowledge of Thailand you bring through various social media

  8. Philip Lee DeHart says:

    I would love to stay in one school for that long, but they keep bouncing me every year or shorter, all with different reasons. I’ll be bouncing again next month to who knows where.

  9. David Bland says:

    After 15 wonderful years in Thailand my Thai wife of 21 years and I decided to move back to my home town, Melbourne, to be close to my family before it’s too late.
    It has been great to reconnect after so many years and in particular discover the joys of grand parenting. However, both our hearts are still very much attached to Thailand and my wife’s family, along with many others, who are now life long friends.
    Like you, I ended up in Thailand via “circumstances”. I moved from Australia to Hong Kong for work in 1994. Shortly after arriving I met my wife. Also like you, I had little knowledge of Thailand. But, when my work finished in 2000, our choice was to come back to Melbourne, or try and make a life in Thailand.Initially, the plan was to spend a year, or so there, but it took more than 15 years for us to move on. Now, even though we will most likely only return to Thailand for extended holidays, our hearts are still very much over there. I feel very fortunate to have been able to get to know Thai people.

  10. Andreas Kuschel says:

    So funny, when I was in Bangkok for the first time, more than 20 years ago, I had the same in mind. I was happy that I just stayed a few hours at Don Muang, before I continued my flight to Australia. I didn’t even think about staying a few days in Thailand because of the bad reputation.

  11. Robyn Long says:

    A wonderful account of how life takes us on wonderful journeys of discovery. I hope to spend more time in Thailand in the next few years and do some teaching. I am an English teacher in Australia and teach migrant and refugee students, I love it.
    I have been to Thailand many times and vividly remember my first trip, some 8 years ago now. Little did I realize just how much this “third-world” country would hold a place in my heart and change my way of thinking forever. I now have a wonderful, extended Thai family including some who have migrated to Australia. Looking forward to my next trip later in 2016.

  12. Kirsty says:

    What an awesome story! As I prepare to visit Thailand in June/July again and wish I could make it more permanent. It really is an amazing country.

  13. Andreas Kuschel says:

    So funny, when I was in Bangkok for the first time, more than 20 years ago, I had the same in mind. I was happy that I just stayed a few hours at Don Muang, before I continued my flight to Australia. I didn’t even think about staying a few days in Thailand because of the bad reputation..

  14. Kelvin Choo says:

    Nice write-up
    Soon you will be celebrating your Silver Jubilee in SWP…
    Keep up the good work…
    PS: You are still as handsome as you were 22 years ago…

  15. Chip says:

    Richard, I can relate to little understanding of Thailand. I met my “first Thai” six year ago in Iraq. She was so beautiful I struck up a conversation with her and suggested to her that Thailand was a third world country. Her face very quickly got twisted in an unhappy Thai smile. She politely advised me there were other places besides the United States and Thailand was at least a second world country. She still married and I find myself living here and finding out more legitimate information about this beautiful country. Thanks for sharing your story.

  16. Erin Sexton says:

    THis is such an incredible story!!
    I’ve been teaching in Sukhothai about 3 weeks now and so far, on the whole, I am loving it. I’ve definitely experienced every emotion possible and it has been an adjustment, but seeing my students truly recognize and comprehend what we are learning is the greatest feeling. I have students who can speak English very well, but I also have students who cannot understand even very simple instructions. I think the constant challenge makes the experience even more worthwhile. Though I will say, I would’ve loved to be here before the proliferation of the cell phone and translation apps. I am doing my best to learn Thai so I can encourage my students to learn English as I am learning their language.
    I plan to be here at least through October, but I cannot say how long the charm of Thailand will keep me beyond that.
    Thank you for sharing! I would love to hear more about the methods and techniques that helped you to be successful in your school.

  17. Stacey Nicole says:

    It’s amazing how much you can fall in love with a country… I am also a teacher in a village outside Chonburi my original plan was to only stay there 1 term, 3 terms later im still at the same school with no plans to leave. Thank you for sharing

  18. Keny Ruyter says:

    Thanks Richard!

    I was touring Angkor Wat in Cambodia recently and stopped by what was apparently a school to use the john. On the way out I noticed a classroom of kids reciting some words and stopped in for a few minutes, to share and teach what I knew about the sounds the class were working on.

    It felt inspiring and fulfilling, I’d imagine you probably felt a greater extent of what I did in that short ten minutes.

    Now I am back at home in -4 degree weather, reflecting on my experiences. Cheers!

  19. Tim Reed says:

    I have 32 years of public high school, social studies including AP, in California, Missouri and Texas, USA. I will be getting TEFL, TESOL certificate before next summer.
    I have spent right at 3 months in Thailand over the last 3 years and I am sold, it is the place to be, forever (I will be back late Dec early Jan and hope to move to BKK in June).That said I have a list of International Schools that follow an American curriculum. Getting into one is going to be difficult it seems. Where can I go to find out about government schools? I prefer the high school age as that is what I am trained for. Are some better than others? Do they all pay the same? Are there some demonstration schools – school that are designed for the college able student? Any help would be appreciated. I will have a retirement so pay is not number one goal but more is better. I am interested in being near BTS if possible, or MBT. Are there other web sites that centralize info such as AJARN? Thanks you Mr. Barrow for this site, very well done and spot on from what I have learned.

  20. Tim Collins says:

    Hi Richard,
    I really enjoy your blog, one of the few balanced ones written by foreigners in Thailand. My experiences follow similar lines (but I would have got off that plane 🙂 )
    My first visit was in 1968 and my last was in 2000. “My” Thai family, one of quite a few, have stopped asking me when I will return to Australia. I used to answer “there will come a day on which I stop working, in the afternoon you can send me to “the big barbecue” if you wish after that you can send me back to Australia in a postpack. Like you, I have found my physical and spiritual home. all the best, I will keep reading your blog, keep up the good work – CNXTim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *