This month marks 15 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 fifteen 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 London every day. The only thing that kept me going was planning for another trip. This time, overland to Australia. I had liked Australia so much that I was toying with the idea of emigrating there.
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.
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 traveled 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 plane to Bangkok in Thailand. I arrived in February 1994. Up to that point I had spent several months in each of the countries. I never really had a strict schedule or road plan, though there were places were 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.
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, on 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.
The next day they invited me to visit some of the English classes. Fortunately for me, the school owners spoke some 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 class 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 school owners 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. 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.
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, 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, fifteen years has 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 trippled 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. I think maybe I was Siamese in a previous life and had meant to one day return to my motherland.
I have collected all of my articles about Life in a Thai School and put them onto a new website at www.ThaiSchoolLife.com. Later this week I will be writing about An Average Day in a Thai School and then later A Tour of a Thai School. I have a lot of pictures about schools in Thailand and I will also be adding them to the website at www.ThaiSchoolLife.com.