Living in Surat and Housing

  • Night on the Town by David Modini 2013

    It’s the end of another long work day and you’ve got baht burning a hole in your pocket and an itching desire to do something other than just go home. Despite a lack of recognition in many popular guide books, going out for a night on the town in Surat is actually a fun experience. There is a wide selection of restaurants and bars in this lovely little town, enough to keep you busy for a long while.

    Going out in Surat consists of two things - eating and drinking.  Yes, it’s painfully obvious, but that’s a good place to start.  Most places combine the two but there are some that lean more one way or the other.  So it’s 7pm on Friday night and you want to enjoy the start of the weekend, what do you do? First thing’s first, you need some food.  Yeah, you could go to the night market, or a little chicken stall on the way home to pick up some food, but you just got paid.  While you’re at it, why don’t you invite some fellow teachers?  Not only are there some good restaurants, but they serve some cheap beer.  My personal favorite is Casa.  It’s a restaurant not too far from teacher housing and the schools, and they serve delicious food.  Not only that, but the owner is a friendly guy named Nung who sounds like he grew up in New York.  That’s because he did grow up in New York.  Sitting out in the beautiful back patio, sipping on a cold Leo draught as your Casa-style buffalo wings are served in front of you is a great way to start your weekend.  Another Super English favorite is  Earth Zone.  It’s located within walking distance from most teacher housing and the owners are extremely fun and friendly.  Ask Tristan where he prefers to eat and drink in Surat and before the words come out of your mouth, he will say, “Oy mate, Earth Zone is the best place in Surat.  Their food is bloody delicious.”  (Or some other stereotypical Australian jargon).  GM Bar (while I have little experience there) has some good food and drinks and also a nice big screen to watch Premiership soccer matches on.  There are so many small places around town that have friendly faces ready to serve you some food and alcohol.

    Now you’ve eaten, how about some drinks?  Yeah, those two go hand in hand but sometimes you just want to shake things up.  Coolin’ Out is a really welcoming place that actually hosts many of Super English’s impromptu get-togethers.  You order a Singha and it gets to your hand nice and cold and in a beer cozy (or stubbie holder).  The music is nice and relaxing even if the people are lively.  Big’s is another bar with a nice laid back scene.  It’s host to the bi-weekly Thursday quiz nights.  [Even though it doesn’t have much to do with going out in Surat, Big’s also has a really impressive used book collection that they will gladly lend out to you.]   If you’re feeling up for some dancing, head to Kortormor, the place that’ll make you wish you went there sooner (and more often).  Yes, Surat actually has a pretty lively club that’s a lot of fun.

    I could go on and on with recommendations of places to patronize, but maybe by this point you’re wondering about specifics of going out in Surat. What makes going out in Surat different from going out at home? The first thing I noticed was the sheer friendliness of every single staff member at every single place I went to. They will attend to your drinks and fill them up themselves once it gets to dangerously low levels. You are not expected to fill up your own drinks. “Why would you need to fill your own drinks at a bar or restaurant?” you’re probably asking yourself right now. Well, if you order a big bottle of beer, they will bring it out and serve you in a glass, sometimes with ice. Wipe that look of revulsion from your face, you will soon learn to appreciate cold, watery beer in a climate like Surat’s. Also, almost every place allows you to bring in your own bottle of liquor. It’s customary and polite to buy mixers and ice from them (yes, you have to buy ice).

    The local Thais who go out for a night on the town are also extremely friendly. You will be surrounded by smiles and “hello’s” as you make your way through the bar or restaurant. I can almost guarantee that you will be offered a sip of someone’s drink straight from their cup. As you walk by, a Thai person will see you and offer the drink in his hand to you. It’s hard to say for sure if they would be offended if you turned it down, because I’ve never done so. If you walk by with an empty glass in your hand, they will spot it and start filling it with their own bottle of beer or Thai whiskey before you can even say “Sangsom.” Everyone in your vicinity will be more than happy to test out their English, and it will usually surprise you how good it is.

    Sometimes, going out in Surat is a complete, but pleasant, surprise. The best times you will have are when you are not expecting them. Ask Tristan about the time he and Sak from Earth Zone went to O2. Or ask English Chris when he did the same. One day, I went to Pool Koff with my friend Scott and spent the day in the pool, drinking coffee, using the wireless internet, only to be invited by the owner to stay after closing time for his son’s birthday party. He pours us some whiskey and sodas and starts bringing out the food. Have some prawn chips. We dig into the prawn chips. Have some roast duck. We dig into the duck, a little more cautiously. Have some pig ear. Pig ear? Scott and I have a bit of a face-off, and we both try a piece. At least I can say I’ve tried it. The table is outside, next to the pool, under a beautiful night sky. The owner and his family eagerly try to engage us in conversation, and their lack of English combined with our lack of Thai doesn’t really stop us from having fun. We try the spiciest tom yum soup I’ve ever had, and wash it down with some more whiskey and soda. Our rudimentary language skills in each other’s language encourages quite a few laughs. Soon enough, the party is winding down, but some of the younger attendees invite us to Music Live. (As an aside, Music Live is a live music place that has a Thai band playing seemingly every night. It’s also right down the street from our house and we never even thought of visiting it.) As we head in with our Thai hosts, we feel as if we are the first foreigners to ever set foot in the place. It’s actually quite busy and the band that’s playing interrupt their set to welcome us. Then, they played for us what might very well have been the only song they knew in English - Happy Birthday. Sipping on our Heinekens with our new Thai friends we can barely speak to, listening to a thrilling rendition of the most commonly heard song in the world… It was a fun night.

    As for me, if you ask me what my ideal way to spend a night out in Surat would be, I’d have to say it would involve drinking with the neighbors. Well, they’re technically only your neighbors if you live on Chalokrat Rd. near Soi 7, but they are friendlier than any neighbors I’ve ever had. He refuses to let you pay for a beer, and the other neighbors are just as eager to fill you with a few drinks. English will get you far enough, but any effort to speak Thai will be greatly appreciated. To me, that’s the best night in Surat. Actually, the best nights in Surat are the ones you don’t say “no” to.

  • My First 48 hours (and Beyond) in Thailand by Peter C. Meltzer 2013

    I came to Surat Thani in late July, 2001. A lot has changed since then, but some things remain the same: very few teachers, if any, have a smooth arrival. It’s a long trip and once in Thailand you are greeted with a foreign language, culture, lifestyle, and climate. It can be unnerving, stressful and exhausting. It is not for the weak of heart, mind or spirit. You have to come with the right attitude of “relax – all will be well,” for while the bumpy arrival remains omnipresent for every newcomer so does the aftermath; give it some time and everything works out just fine.

    The cultural portion of my journey to Thailand began when I was hired by a language school and told I had to be in Surat in two weeks. That wasn’t a big problem for me. I can move fast when I need to. I got all my tickets and everything squared away within a week. Then I waited for the visa documents to arrive. They came three days before I was going to get on the airplane. I sprinted through Washington, D.C., to the Thai Embassy where I filled out the visa application, got my photos in order, had my cash ready, handed everything in and was told “No.” I asked, “What do you mean, ‘No’?’ The grumpy Thai man behind the thick window would only repeat the word “No.” I showed him my one way ticket to Bangkok. I asked what the problem was. I asked if there was anyone else I could talk with. Every request was met with the same answer. This would be a bit worrisome to a regular westerner who is accustomed to having a wide array of information and options available. I’ll admit I felt some panic at knowing nothing and having no idea how to proceed.

    I returned home without the visa and tried to get in touch with the school. I searched through all the email correspondence and found they had never given me any number to call in case something went wrong. I sent an email of course, but I was getting on a plane in a few days and thought it would be good to have something to tell the visa folks at the airport in Bangkok. Finally, I was able to track down a cell phone number by digging around the school’s website and, after about a dozen attempts, I finally got a hold of someone. She told me that I would get the visa once I had arrived in Thailand. Fair enough. I got on the plane two days later.

    Concerning the flight I’ll only say: Never travel Northwestern. If you do, do not eat the beefcurry. Bad idea.

    Like everyone else, I landed late at night in Bangkok. However, this was before the much-needed taxi line where you are assured of your requested destination. I had been advised by some teachers to stay at the Don Muang Mansion, which was apparently just across the highway from the airport. I never saw it. I exited the airport, hopped into a taxi, said “Don Muang Mansion”, the driver said “okay”, and he took off like he was vying for a spot on the Nascar circuit. About 10 seconds later he says, “Don Muang Mansion no good. Cannot, cannot.” I said, “Don Muang Mansion good good. Can can. Go to Don Muang Mansion, please.” We’re still speeding away from the airport at about 85 mph. The driver says, “Don Muang Mansion 1 week. No 1 night,”which I took to mean you can’t stay at the Don Muang Mansion just one night, you have to stay a whole week. I told him that wasn’t accurate, but he persisted. We went back and forth about it several times, all the while getting further and further away from where I wanted to be. Now, prior to coming to Thailand I had an extremely short fuse. I had read all the cultural tips about staying calm, so I was really having a hard time controlling my famously volcanic temper (Later I learned that taxi drivers are exempted from the “keep your heart calm” rule, basically because they are out to fleece you in any way they can). I hadn’t been expected to be tested so vigorously after only
    being in the country for a few minutes. Nevertheless, I managed to not explode and finally said, “Whatever.”

    About 20 minutes later the taxi driver pulled into an area of Bangkok I had never seen before nor seen since. There were bars all over the place, people were fighting in the streets, and there was a barrage of neon, colored lights. If I hadn’t been jetlagged this may have been fun, but I hadn’t slept in something like 30 hours and my energy was wearing thin. The driver dropped me off at the Washington Suites. The comedic irony of having travelled 24+ hours from Washington, D.C., only to be dropped off at the Washington Suites wasn’t lost on me. I got overcharged on the cab, checked in, got overcharged on the room, found the room to be an absolute dump with people pounding on the walls, sat down and thought for a moment, then picked up my bags, went back downstairs, checked out, hailed a cab and went right back to the airport. That was an expensive and exhausting lesson, but a good dose of reality. Welcome to Bangkok!

    I spent the night in the airport. This is the old airport where they cranked up the air-conditioning as high as it could go and people were walking around wearing sweaters. This still is the case at good old Don Muang. All the chairs were metal and something you might find in a mental institution. I didn’t get any sleep.

    The next morning I flew down to Surat. I picked up my bags and went outside to look for the person from the school who was supposed to pick me up. There was no one there. With no cell phone or any other means of contact, I sat down and waited. About 45 minutes later the school’s van pulled up. Contrary to Ryan’s tale, there had been no vehicle breakdown. The person picking me up was just plain late for no apparent reason. I got in and was taken directly to a 3 hour Saturday class. After class I was taken to the owner’s house, where I was told I would be staying temporarily because they didn’t have any other housing for me.

    I was given a room with lots of closets, a bed, and a standing air-con unit. Not too bad, I thought. Then I found that all the closets were full of clothes already. No big deal. I lived out of my suitcase. Then I discovered that a standing a/c unit doesn’t do much good in a country as blistering hot as Thailand, as hot air rises and cold air falls. Since the a/c unit was already low to the ground, the cool air went right out under the door. A good lesson in Chemistry, or is it Physics? Then I found out that I was living across the hall from the very elderly grandfather, who looked either right through me or as if I was an intruder in his realm. Alright. I was quiet as a mouse and stayed in my room. Then I found out that I was also living right next to, and sharing a bathroom with, three Thai teenagers. Okay. I’d have to figure it out their moods and schedules. Then I discovered that the house was gated, so you could never get in or out unless the non-English speaking gardener was available/awake to unlock the gate. So much for late nights out.

    The next morning I awoke early, excited to get out, explore the town, and maybe get some food. No one else was up yet, so I opened up the front door to go out. Right in front of me were two Thai cobra killer ridgeback dogs. These dogs actually managed to look much more intimidating and scary than their name suggests. They are vicious looking animals and they do mean business. Since they were looking at me as if to see if I was really stupid enough to step foot outside, I retreated behind a closed door. Then I remembered that even if I had made it past the cobra killers I would have had to scale a 12 foot gate. So much for my walkabout. I was completely trapped.

    Back in the day I used to eat a lot. I mean I used to eat like Super Teacher Ryan Day. Scary amounts. It was early in the morning, I was jet-lagged and very hungry. Unfortunately, I had no way of getting out to find sustenance. I later learned that in order to get food in that house you had to ask the non-English speaking maid to make you something (which was always fired rice with some vegetables or ramen noodles). Even if I had known that at the time it wouldn’t have mattered as she was still asleep and to knock on her door you had to go outside, past the salivating dogs. So I had no choice but to wait for everyone to wake up, which eventually happened. I spent the rest of Sunday in my room. None of the other teachers came to say hi or ask if I needed help with anything. I didn’t know where they lived so I couldn’t go and bother them. Sunday night the owners of the school took me to dinner with them and their family. I was offered wasp larvae, but politely declined.

    Early Monday morning I was told I had to go to Malaysia to get my work visa. I was taken to a minivan station and dropped off. I spent the rest of the day in minivans, first traveling to Hat Yai, and then onto Penang. I left Surat at 6 am and got to Penang at 5 pm. The visa process there was basically a repeat of DC, full of wonderful rejections followed by no explanations whatsoever. I kept emailing the school and asking them for help in trying to figure out what the hold-up was, but the only answers I got were “You’re in Penang. Enjoy yourself while things get sorted out.” I was in Penang for one week, on my own dime. At the end I didn’t even have enough money for a razor,and I looked grungy. There were times during that week when I thought I had been scammed by the visa guys and would have to remain in Penang, Malaysia, on a permanent basis. That was a fun thought.

    After I finally got the visa, I headed back to Surat where I spent the next 3 weeks waiting for the teacher who had so urgently needed to depart when I was hired to actually do so. I lived in the owner’s house for two months. After that I moved into a house with no bed. I slept on 1/2 inch exercise mats for about six months. Then I got a bed frame and a bamboo husk mattress. The mattress, which could have won prizes as a floor impersonator, was about half a foot longer than the bed frame, so I slept on a reverse 30 degree incline for the remainder of my contract.

    Through all of this I never complained or asked for anything. What for? I was in Thailand and working with the coolest and most fun kids I had ever met. I was having a great time, learning and growing. Sure, there were some things that weren’t perfect, but that’s Thailand. It’s called the third world for a reason. Just as my experience in the taxi cab, Thailand will test you. If you are an impatient person, you will have to learn to wait (I did). If you are scared of spiders, then, sure enough, you’ll see larger spiders than anyone else (this is exactly what happened to Chris M.). If you need everything neat, clean and organized you might lose your mind because that is not how things are in Thailand. Living in Thailand is all about adaptation and flexibility. You learn to deal with frustrations and disappointments as Thai people do, which is to say “never mind” and not let it affect you. Life isn't perfect. Toughen up, get over it, make the best of it, and move on. I am happy and thankful that I had the experiences I did because I learned a lot from them and they changed me for the better. At minimum, they made me more patient and accepting of the way things are. They also made me realize that it doesn’t benefit to stress and complain about how you would like things to be, rather than just appreciating whatever you have.

  • Western Cooking in the East by Amber McCarthy 2012

    When we first started looking into teaching abroad, one of my concerns was whether or not I would be able to cook. At home, I cook almost every single day. I love cooking and I love not following recipes. When I learned that Thai homes rarely have kitchens, I was sad, but I guessed I could live for a year without cooking. When we first arrived, our house was equipped with one burner (runs on propane tanks) that a previous teacher had bought, but there was not a single sink in the whole house, so clean up was a bit of a pain. Where we live now has an outside kitchen with the same burner, but we have more space and a sink. It's a much easier space to work in, but you can make any of the dishes below with just a single burner, a pot, and a pan if you’re willing to work in a small area and deal with the clean up.

    Once you get here and have been here for a few months, you will start to tire of Thai food. Sure, you can eat it everyday and be fine, but sometimes you just want some food from home without spending a ton of money on one of the western restaurants in town. We have shopped around town and found where to get some great ingredients to make some delicious food from home. Some of the ingredients are a bit on the pricey side, but well worth it.

    The easiest, and probably our favorite thing to make, is grilled cheese. You can get bread anywhere (we usually just pick it up at 7-11). The cheese is the trick. Sure, you can use that nasty processed crap, but what's the point of even eating? Tops, Big C, Makro, and Tesco Lotus all sell real cheese. Tops is the most convenient place to get a chunk of Australian cheese in either Tasty or Bitey flavors (both are a bit like a white cheddar). However, if you can get out to Tesco, they have some delicious aged cheddar from New Zealand for the same price. If you’re willing to drop 800 baht, you can also find blue cheese, goat cheese, and all kinds of other weird cheeses that are expensive back home, and way more expensive here. Now here's the trick to making an awesome grilled cheese: mayo. Instead of putting butter on the outside of the bread, use mayo. It's a restaurant trick. It's way easier to spread and it adds some zing to your sandwich.

    The main thing we miss from home is breakfast. I am a potato fiend and we were used to eating eggs all the time. Eggs you can find anywhere here (don’t buy the pink ones), but the potatoes you see around town are some sort of yellow/Yukon potato that are not even close to as starchy as a good ol' russet potato. Luckily, we stumbled across really cheap baking potatoes at Makro. Makro is just like Costco and most things are in bulk. If you need baking soda or baking powder, do not buy it here! I now have a pound of baking powder and afterward saw that they have tiny packs at Tops. Oops. Also like Costco, as we realized at check-out, they require a membership card. Since you are a farang, just look confused (shouldn't be too hard) and they'll just scan another person's card for you. Well worth it for the potatoes.

    Another item that you can find at 7-11 is canned tuna. You can also find pasta noodles, tomato sauce, and Campbell’s tomato and cream of mushroom soup at Big C. These items come in handy if you want to pair your grilled cheese with tomato soup, for making simple pasta, homemade mac and cheese, or for making a sorta tuna casserole.

    Moving on to other vegetables, I recently found amazingly delicious (ripe smelling and tasting) hydroponic tomatoes at Tesco. 50 baht for 6 tomatoes. That has been my favorite find. We also just saw hydroponic lettuce at the Sunday night market. Another great find as salad as we know it is rare in Thailand. Salad dressing is a bit of an issue unless you like the idea of pouring flavored mayonnaise on your salad in the form of “salad cream”. I saw sesame dressing at Tops, but if you really like salad,
    you should bring some packets of dry Italian dressing mix (or ranch, but mayo is a bit pricey). I would also recommend bringing a few packets of dehydrated refried beans. A company called World Market makes them.

    So, if you love to cook, you can still make it happen as long as you have a burner, some space, and some creativity. Also, if you're good at cooking while camping, you'll be good at cooking in Thailand. I have included a few recipe ideas below, but you have many more options. Michael made the best curried potato salad for 4th of July and Janet makes some killer biscuits (but she does have a small oven), so there is a lot of room for modification. None of the below recipes are necessarily healthy, but the whole point of this is for comfort, so comfort food it is. Bon apetit!

    One Pan Breakfast Scramble for 2

    2-3 baking potatoes from Makro
    1 medium onion (if desired)
    5 eggs, beaten
    a handful of cheese, grated or cut
    oil, butter or margarine
    salt and pepper

    Shred the potatoes. I couldn't find a grater, so I had to buy a papaya peeler. Whatever works.

    Heat oil/margarine/butter in a pan over medium heat and add chopped onions. Cook until opaque and then add shredded potatoes. Salt and pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes and then flip potatoes to brown on the other side. Salt and pepper again.

    Meanwhile, beat the eggs and shred/cut the cheese. However much you like. When the potatoes are nice and crispy, turn the heat down a bit and let the pan cool down. Pour in the eggs and mix around until almost cooked. Last, add the cheese, continuing to cook until eggs are done. It won’t be pretty, but it will be delicious. Serve with ketchup packets from the Pizza Company. **If you have a tight fitting lid for your pan, you can just pour the eggs in and cover and let it cook that way. It will be more like a frittata instead of the horrible looking mess that the above recipe makes.**

    Huevos Rancheros (requires that you brought dehydrated beans and preferably salsa)

    Refried Beans
    Salsa or chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers
    Sour Cream (you can buy small cups at Makro)

    In a pan, heat the beans (re-hydrate first if necessary). Stir in the tomatoes, onions and peppers. You want the beans to be a bit wet. Next, make little dents in the beans and crack an egg into each dent. Cover and let cook until your eggs are how you like them. To serve, just scoop out an egg, careful not to break it, with the beans. Top with cheese, sour cream and green onions. Serve with potatoes if you have an extra pan and burner (or you can cook them ahead and reheat).

    When French Toast and Pancakes Met and Fell in Love (You can use the below recipe, or you can buy pancake mix. You can get syrup at Tops)

    Bread (the thicker the better. Try a bakery, Big C, or Tesco)
    4 eggs
    1 cup of flour
    1 cup of milk.
    1 tbsp sugar
    2 tbsp oil
    1 1/2 tsp baking powder
    a pinch of salt
    vanilla and cinnamon, if you can find either. You can get cinnamon sticks for sure and grind them,
    but I haven’t seen vanilla yet.

    Beat the eggs until fluffy. Beat in everything else except the bread. Heat pan to medium/high. Dip bread in batter and make sure it's coated. Put bread into pan and cook until the edges look like they're crisping, then flip and do the same. Eat!

    I have been told that these freeze well, so if you have a freezer, there you go. They sell Ziplock bags at Tops.

    Mac and Cheese, Amber and Joseph style
    My college roommate and I made this concoction up and Joseph and I made this back home when we forgot to go grocery shopping and had to use up canned stuff. Some slight modifications here and it’s almost the same! It sounds weird, but just try it. If you don’t like tuna, you can always omit it.

    Macaroni noodles (from Big C)
    Cheese (you can use a combo of the good stuff and the crappy stuff if you want)
    1 or 2 cans of tuna
    2 chopped tomatoes
    2 chopped shallots
    sliced mushrooms (If they look good. Try Tops and Tesco.)
    a few cloves chopped garlic
    chili flake/powder

    In a pot, heat your oil/butter/margarine. Add in the tomatoes, shallots, mushrooms and garlic. Cook until it looks good to you and then dump it all onto a plate. Fill the pot with water, boil, and then cook the noodles (DON’T OVERCOOK THE NOODLES! They keep cooking after you drain them). Drain all but a teeny, tiny bit of the water just to keep the noodles wet and return to the burner over low heat. Add about 1/2 cup of milk, some butter/oil/margarine, and as much cheese as you like. Stir until melted and it is a desired consistency. You may need to add more milk. Add in the tomato mixture and the tuna (drained). Mix. Add the chili flake and pepper to taste.

    Sort of Tuna Casserole
    Here we go with the tuna again, but it’s such an easy, cheap staple to work with! This is pretty easy and you can doctor it up anyway you like. You can also substitute the tuna for chicken if you want.

    Noodles (any shape)
    1 can of cream of mushroom soup
    1 onion, chopped
    several garlic cloves, chopped
    Haitai Saltine crackers

    Heat oil in a pot and cook onions and garlic. Empty onto a plate and fill pot with water. Boil. Cook noodles. Drain. Add mushroom soup, onion mix, and cheese. Heat through. Serve with broken saltine crackers on top and a big glass of water. It’s a bit salty.

    No Oven Biscuits
    Janet makes some amazing biscuits, as previously mentioned, but she has an oven. I haven’t tried this particular recipe yet, but I intend to soon. You can also use this batter to make dumplings by dropping the dough into boiling water or soup.

    1 cup flour
    1 tsp. baking powder
    1/4 tsp salt
    1/2 cup water
    1/4 cup oil
    1/2 cup grated cheese (optional)

    Mix dry ingredients. Slowly add the water while mixing until you have a firm and sticky dough. You can also put everything in a plastic bag and knead it that way.

    Heat the oil in a pan. Drop spoonfuls of dough into the oil and cook until golden, turning after a few minutes.

    TIP: Cream of mushroom soup (watered down with some milk) makes decent gravy if you want biscuits and gravy. Just add the meat of your choice if desired. Back home we made this occasionallywith veggie sausage links.


    A few final tips:

    If you eat at the Pizza Company, save the package they give you that has a bunch of ketchup packets in it (I doubt you’ll actually want to use this on your pizza, so you should have plenty). It also has chili powder and oregano that comes in handy later.

    White pepper is delicious! I douse my eggs and potatoes in this back home, so I was stoked to find it here. Back home it’s like 12 bucks for a tiny container. Here it’s about a dollar. I’m stocking up before we go home. Give it a try. Joseph thinks it smells like horse manure, but I think it’s amazing. It also makes your coffee have a bit of a zing if you eat something with it and then take a sip of coffee.

    Don’t buy “bagels” or “baguettes” from Big C. It’s just regular bread dough that they shaped into a bagel shape and then baked until it became incredibly dry. However, do buy their croissants. Throw in a hot pan for a few minutes and you have a tasty, buttery treat.

  • The First 72 Hours by Amber McCarthy 2012

    When we were first hired by Super English we could not find very much about the town of Surat Thani in any guidebooks or online. We saw a few photos, but everything else that we imagined was based off of articles we read on the SE website. Based on that, we imagined a very small town on a river with maybe one or 2 main roads. We thought that everything would be a 5-minute walk to get to and that the ferry to the islands left from the town, not from a dock 45 minutes away.

    When we landed at the Surat airport, we were so excited to feel the humidity and see all the foliage surrounding the airport. Wen picked us up and was very friendly (although the 40 minute drive to town was a bit teeth clenching). We told her we needed to get pillows and she brought us to her brother’s shop so we could get some. As she drove us through town, we realized that Surat was more of a small city with buildings everywhere and hardly any open spaces in the central part of town. This wasn’t at all what we had expected, but no big deal.

    Then she brought us to our new home. From the outside, we were thinking we didn’t know what we’d gotten ourselves into. It was down an alley and next to a machine shop where people were outside welding. It didn’t look like a place that anyone would live. Wen dropped us off and we went in and met our new roommate Brian.

    The living room was nice and open and the floor had just been cleaned. Fine so far. Then we saw our bedroom. It had not been cleaned at all and the person before us had left a lot of his junk for us to deal with/throw out. The mattress was discolored with holes in it and you could see places where springs were sticking out and where the stuffing had sunken in. There was mold around the doorframe and on the ceiling and at least 30 small holes that had been patched all over the walls. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Especially after seeing Brian’s nice, white mold-free walls. Then there was the bathroom situation. Downstairs there is a squat pot and the shower. Upstairs, attached to our room, is a weird, semi-outdoor Western toilet that you can’t put toilet paper in (which, we learned, is the case everywhere in Thailand. Bad plumbing). To us newcomers, neither of these options was very appealing. Either attempt the Thai squat and risk peeing all over yourself, or use the Western toilet but sweat your butt off outside in the heat.

    After we dumped our belongings, Brian took us around town and to Big C where we got some necessities and then out to dinner. This helped ease our worries quite a bit because he knew all the places to go. We were just so overwhelmed with everything that without Brian, we probably would have starved the first few days.

    That night, we both had minor breakdowns thinking, “What did we get ourselves into?” It wasn’t at all what we expected, but we calmed down and told each other we just needed to settle in. The next day Brian took us to Super English to check email and Wen took us to get our new favorite dish, a spicy green papaya salad. We explored a little more around town and slowly started to adjust to our new lives. We visited the Saturday night market and drank beers and painted Doremons, tried Thai coffee at several different places, and ate lots of new food. After 2 days of that, we decided to head out to Koh Samui for a few days to relax.

    Koh Samui was beautiful, but expensive. We enjoyed our 3 nights there and I would recommend going there to any new arrivals. When we returned, we had fresh eyes and were able to appreciate what we did have in Surat (cheap food for one thing!). We are lucky to have hot running water whenever we want it, as a lot of other teachers have to take cold bucket showers every day. We also learned that some of the other new teacher housing was much worse (but has since been remedied). We spent a few hours cleaning mold and throwing away the previous person’s junk, and that made quite an improvement.

    This didn’t technically happen until our second week here, but the one major thing that made us really realize we were in the right place was visiting the schools we would be working at. The kids were all so excited to see us and the little ones were the cutest things we’ve ever seen. In general, the people here are amazing and just being in Thailand is a dream come true. The best advice I can give to someone coming here is this: lower your initial expectations of the town (you will come to appreciate it very soon) and be ready for some serious change. If you can stick it out for the first few weeks and get out around the town, meet people and get to know the area, you will be just fine.

  • How I got here By Peter C. Meltzer 2011

    One of the most frequent questions I get asked is “How and why did you start Super English?” Here is

    the answer:

    I first visited Thailand in the summer of 1999. I had gone to visit my uncle, who was working in Hong
    Kong at the time, and he and I took a quick weekend trip to Bangkok. Even though I don’t really like
    big cities, I immediately felt right at home. I clearly remember the taxi ride from the airport into town,
    driving at breakneck speed while my uncle talked about Thai culture. “Thai people are much more
    relaxed about things than westerners,” he explained. “Thais like to try things out. Maybe mix a bit of
    purple with some orange, add a spot of pink, and see what it looks like? Looks bad? Oh well, never
    mind. Looks good? Great!” It’s a basic approach I have tried to carry over to Super English.

    The rest of the weekend in Bangkok only cemented my initial response to Thailand. The food, the
    weather, the people, the scenery, the prices, everything felt very comfortable. The pad thai I had by
    the side of the main river in Bangkok still stands out in my mind as the best pad thai I have ever had,
    and there is some wicked good pad thai in Surat. I left Thailand with a sense of knowing where I

    I graduated a semester early from the University of Virginia and spent those six months volunteer
    teaching for the International Rescue Committee. I taught a family of Bosnian refugees. I worked
    primarily with the mother and father in the family, while another teacher worked with the teenage
    sons. We sometimes combined the groups and did a joint lesson. It was a truly educational experience.
    The IRC doesn’t have a lot of (or any) resources so there was no training, minimal orientation, and no
    support. They handed me a binder with about 150 random pages and the address of the family. I would
    go to this family’s sparsely furnished apartment once or twice per week and sit at the kitchen table with
    mom and dad, who could speak almost no English. No whiteboards, no photocopies, no get-up-and-
    run-around activities. I used whatever useful pages I could find in the binder provided and improvised
    the rest. I learned a lot about teaching. I also learned that teaching was something I was reasonably
    good at. I already knew what I wasn’t good at (calculus, micro-economics, almost all sciences, etc.) so it
    felt good to discover a fun, rewarding skill that could also help others.

    I had also done a fair amount of coaching during my time at UVA. I worked as the assistant track and
    field coach at Western Albemarle High School, which sits about 20 miles outside Charlottesville, VA.
    This was also an activity I found fun and rewarding. I had some success in coaching and enjoyed
    working with kids.

    I decided to combine my various skills and teach ESL abroad. My first choice was, of course, Thailand.
    However, it was very hard to find any position outside of Bangkok at the time. After a long search, and
    almost ending up in Japan, I found one position available at a language school in Surat. I applied for it,
    never heard back, then tried again, and got hired. I arrived in Thailand on July 27th, 2001.

    The position started out great. I loved it. The paperwork was somewhat reasonable, the classes were
    somewhat fluid, but the kids were sensational. I loved every minute with those kids. They were fun,
    creative, intelligent, affectionate, compassionate and motivated. I was able to see almost daily how I
    was improving their English. I threw myself into their education with great enthusiasm and energy.
    When I wasn’t actually teaching, I was thinking about teaching. What types of fun, interactive
    activities could I do with the kids to help their English improve? What was the next step in their
    English language development? How could I make the lessons challenging, rewarding and
    productive? I thought about the students’ likes and dislikes and incorporated them into presenting
    lessons, dialogues, games, etc. It was a great time.

    The town of Surat also really welcomed me, as it does so many teachers. The people were so warm and
    friendly. There were always invitations and activities. Thanks to their efforts, I felt very much at
    home. I studied muay thai at one of the local gyms and the owner, Ajarn Somboon Tapina, has become
    like a family member.

    After about seven months on the job, things started to take a turn for the worse. The paperwork began
    getting out of hand. They originally required some, but now they seemed to be adding new things
    every other week. The school wanted typed student evaluations (at least one page per student), typed
    class procedures (a 10+ page document updated monthly), typed lesson plans (one entire week
    submitted in advance), typed students profiles (at least one page typed per student and updated
    monthly), plus an enormous amount of additional paperwork required for an off-site class at a
    government school. Over the last few months of my contract I was spending substantially more time
    in front of the computer than in the classroom (I was teaching 24 hours per week). I felt completely
    burnt out. When I got in front of the kids, I wasn’t thinking about the class. I was thinking about
    how I would be at the school until 9:30 pm typing. It wasn’t fun. I felt stifled, both intellectually and
    creatively. A few months before my contract was up I let the school know that I planned on leaving
    when my one year commitment was through. I stayed until the end of my contract, finished strong,
    and knew I needed a break from teaching.

    I moved to Phuket and worked with hotels. I worked as a consultant, primarily assisting Thai hotel
    management in marketing and customer relations. I also worked hands-on with the various
    departments in improving customer service and guest relations. Eventually, one hotel hired me as their
    in-house marketing manager. I was the only foreigner. It was a very educational experience. I won’t
    go into too much detail, except to say that all the managers would meet every morning. The meeting
    would last 2-3 hours. Every morning. Each day the managers would debate the decisions they had
    made the previous day and then change their minds from those earlier decisions. Even worse (or
    perhaps better), the decisions they made in these lengthy meetings had pretty much no effect on how
    the hotel was run because once the managers left the meeting those decisions weren’t discussed or
    promulgated amongst the general staff. So a few hours every morning were simply burned away. I
    lasted six months before I couldn’t take it any more. The straw that broke the camels back was when I
    prepared a meticulous (they wanted exact height measurements of beds and things like that) 30 page
    report for an online reservation system called VIP and the hotel management came back and
    complained that I had to redo the entire report. Why? Because the commission rate they had given
    me was incorrect and their “other marketing manager”, who resided in Bangkok and rarely had any
    communication with the hotel, had already independently offered a different commission rate to VIP.
    Moreover, they said the mistake was my fault. Brilliant.

    After my foray into working directly for Thai people, I went back to teaching. I hopped around various
    language schools in Phuket as a part-time or substitute teacher. I worked with three or four different
    schools over the span of a year. I saw how they operated, how they treated their teachers, how they
    set up their educational programs, and more. It was uniformly unimpressive. There was no
    commitment to the teachers because there was such a high turnover. But one could also argue that
    there was a high turnover because there was no commitment to the teachers. Apparently, this never
    occurred to the schools. The lack of commitment was apparent on all fronts. The schools were very
    hesitant to provide any visas, resources, support or assistance. They simply assigned you a class, usually
    at a Thai school and you showed up. Once again, I learned a lot about teaching. Before going into one
    second grade class, they handed me a paper with the lyrics to “row row row your boat” on it. I asked
    them if this was supposed to be the lesson. They just shrugged. I showed up at the Thai school and
    was escorted by a Thai teacher into the storage room, which was a long, rectangular shape. The back
    half was stacked with chairs, drums, outfits, tables, etc. The front half was moderately clear and had a
    small, A4 size whiteboard on rollers. There were no chairs or desks set up for the students. They
    wouldn’t have fit in the room anyway. I was somewhat perplexed and was about to ask the Thai
    teacher what was going on when 55 eight year olds came storming in and sat down in two long lines
    down the length of the room. The Thai teacher smiled and left without another word. I looked at the
    sheet of lyrics in my hand as the kids were jabbering away in Thai. I tapped the board a few times to
    get their attention and said, “Hello!” They immediately burst into laughter. I folded up the song lyrics
    and did my own teaching. How did I teach 55 eight year olds for a full hour with no book, no
    resources, and no clue as to what their English ability already was? Without them destroying the
    room? I’ll tell you when you get here.

    I could go on and on about many similar teaching experiences such as the one described above. Suffice
    to say that the lack of commitment from the schools towards teachers was, in my opinion, translating
    into a lack of commitment from the teachers towards the students, which isn’t really surprising. How
    is a teacher supposed to do their job without any direction, guidance, advice or support from those in
    charge? It can’t really be done, at least not with any continuity.

    After 1.5 years I realized that Phuket was a great place to visit but definitely not a great place to live
    and work. I had learned a lot but hadn’t achieved much personally or professionally. Surat was where I
    still felt most comfortable and knew I could make the most difference. So in May, 2004, my wife and I
    decided to move back to Surat, which is her hometown.

    I started looking at the other language schools in town and what they were offering. At the time,
    there were three major language schools in town and smaller ones were opening and closing
    sporadically. The final impetus to open Super English came from two main realizations:
    1) The larger schools were good schools, but to me they seemed stagnant, both in terms of academic
    development for the students and the type of professional development they were offering teachers. In
    other words, none of them were trying to be the best they could possibly be.
    2) Some of the newer, smaller schools were opening for all the wrong reasons and were, in my opinion,
    doing more harm than good.

    I wanted to create a school that tried to be the very best it could be. Not the biggest, just the best.
    Whether we achieved the goal of maximizing our potential or not was secondary. The main thing was
    at least to strive for it. I truly felt that the students, Surat Thani, and the teachers who come all the
    way over here, deserved a school like that. In my, and many others opinion, this is really one of the
    very best places in Thailand. I felt like the town had done so much for me during my first year that this
    was a way I could try to show some reciprocity. I also believed that if you let teachers teach with as
    few impediments as possible that they will achieve much better results.

    I took everything I have learned, seen, experienced and thought about and rolled it into Super English.
    I actually often did the opposite of what I had seen and experienced. Instead of checking teachers
    through six tons of weekly paperwork, I tried to completely do away with it. Instead of promoting
    solely based on seniority, I promote based on ability. Instead of either giving a teacher no materials at
    all or very strictly regulating what page has to be taught in class on which day, I tried to find a middle
    ground that allowed the teacher as much creative autonomy as possible. Instead of shooting down
    every idea anyone had, I tried them whenever possible. Instead of thinking of
    management/administration as a controlling body, I thought of it as a supportive entity. Instead of
    calling everyone in for lengthy, weekly meetings, SE generally has just one meeting at the beginning
    of each semester. Instead of requiring office hours, we give teachers the freedom and flexibility to
    think about their classes whenever they choose.

    I believe that over the past six years we have achieved great success. I am proud of what Super English
    is. As far as I know, we are the only language school that:

    - offers a unique, multi-structured support system for teachers
    - has students that study for free based on financial need
    - allows teachers to choose what to teach
    - requires no office hours
    - hasn’t raised the price of classes in over three years (we are the least expensive language school by
    more than 30%)
    - consistently tries out new ideas and approaches to educating the students
    - offers teachers additional money making opportunities, such as writing online articles, taking
    photos, or recording audio files
    - has monthly out-of-class contests for the students to help them improve their English
    - has monthly cultural events, such as a muay thai lesson, a Thai cooking lessons, a beach party, a
    riverboat trip, and more

    As much as possible, we are a school built by teachers and for teachers. Whatever minimal paperwork
    we do ask for is either required by the Thai schools we work with or the Thai government.

    As far as I can tell, our teachers enjoy their work immensely and feel that they are really helping the
    students. Our teachers operate relatively independently and, I believe, as a result the students learn
    faster, better and have more fun doing it.

    Our aim is to live up to our slogan, “The Best School for Teachers and Students”. While we may or may
    not have achieved that goal, we will continue to strive for it. And if we are someday recognized as the
    best then we will still continue to strive to provide the best possible education for our students and the
    best possible work experience for our teachers. Without either of those two, there would be no Super

  • Life in the Big House by Michael Bartolomei 2011

    Our house, is a very very very fine house
    With two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard
    Now everything is easy, ‘cause of you.

    If you get that song stuck in your head don’t blame me, blame Graham Nash. Besides it had to be done: our house really is a very very very fine house. When the semester began I was living in the house that shall not be named. It was across the street from the Big House. I could see the scaffolding, I could smell the paint, I could practically feel the soft spring of the new mattresses. I was on the outside looking in and I really wanted to get in.

    I am in now and it is glorious. The Big House has three stories, six residents, six-bedrooms, and two bathrooms. It has hot water, I repeat HOT water. (Trust me in a country where “shower” often means a bucket of cold water dumped on your head this is a very big deal). It has a kitchen, a good sized back patio, a common area with a sleek, brand-spanking new 32’ flat-screen TV, and WIFI! Outside the walls of The Big House it is still unmistakably Thailand, but inside it feels closer to a place a 20-hour flight away…home sweet home.

    The front of The Big House opens into a large, safely locked courtyard big enough to hold three scooters, three bicycles and a growing platoon of shoes. The front door opens into the common area which has recently been improved by the addition of 32’ of HD awesomeness. We meet in the common area for “How was school” chats, movie sessions and general lazing about. In a house with six residents the common area is used less than you might expect but used well.

    To the right of the common area is the downstairs bathroom and kitchen area. The kitchen consists of a new stainless steel sink, an old green refrigerator, an electric kettle, a toaster and a blender that doesn’t crush ice. The kitchen doesn’t have a stove. Most kitchens in Thailand don’t. We may pick one up eventually (they are cheap enough) but when you are surrounded by great food for under $1 it’s not a big priority.

    The kitchen door opens onto the back patio. The patio is a work in progress. Its concrete floor and cyclone walls weren’t designed with beauty in mind but we have big plans! Christmas lights, flowers, a hammock and decent patio furniture have all been discussed at length. For the time being we have a small moldy table and a rainbow assortment of plastic chairs. Baby steps. The important thing is that socially we are taking full advantage of our outdoor area; coffee in the mornings, Friday night BBQ’s, beers in plastic chairs, roommates being friends in the outdoor air.

    The remainder of the first floor is taken up by two bedrooms each with high ceilings and enough space for a queen-size bed, a dresser and a desk. At the very end of the hall is a roll-up metal door that is locked at all times and it will remain that way unless we can convince Super English to let us sell water, soda and assorted snacks from our front stoop Thai style.

    The second and third floors of The Big House are bedroom areas. The second floor boasts both the biggest and smallest rooms in the house. The biggest room has dimensions that are well…big. And it has a private balcony. It’s a sweet deal if you have the Super English seniority required to claim it. The smallest room is close to both the toilet and the stairs so that’s nice. The third floor has been ventilated to keep the heat out and renovated to keep the Zen in. Separated on either side by a yoga studio/chill space it has two good sized bedrooms and is probably the quietest place in The Big House.

    Life in the Big House isn’t all about the house. It’s about location, location, location as they say. The Big House is nicely situated to give you quick access to all the important things Surat.

    Food: The Big House is surrounded by good eats. Vendors drive down the street selling papaya salad and grilled chicken. A noodle soup shop the next Soi over is renowned as one of the best in Surat. And Teacher favorites Earth Zone, Kampon, Good Health, Corner Guy, Rice Lady, and the often closed but excellent
    Rice Soup and Thai Donuts place are all walking distance from the house.

    School: Motobikes (a.k.a. scooters) are highly recommended. As a general rule Surat is too big to walk, too small to drive and just right to motobike. Thida (elementary/middle school) is the closest. Even on heavy traffic days Thida can be reached in under five-minutes on a motobike. Suratpittaya (high school) is a ten-
    minute ride (maybe less depending on how much of a weaving daredevil you are). And Super English is just a minute or two further down along the river. Tuk Tuk’s can be taken anywhere in town for 15-20 baht. They are a good way to get around but lack the ease of personal transportation. For those of you thinking, “I’ll save money and ride a bike!” No you won’t. Bikes are great, but not when it is blazing hot and you’re
    dressed in khakis and a button down shirt. The Thai people are big on appearance, they prefer not see Farang disguised as sweat stains.

    Exercise: The Stadium is just around the corner for all your exercise needs. Well, not ALL your exercise needs, but it’s not bad. The stadium has a track and soccer field, basketball courts, tennis courts, badminton courts, a swimming pool, free nightly aerobics classes and a nice park area. It even has a small beat-up
    weight room you can use for 10 baht. If you are not interested in joining a gym The Stadium is a good alternative. If you are interested in joining a gym there are several options in town including a small gym a few blocks down from The Big House that will cost you around 1000 baht a month.

    Big C: Big C is the Walmart of Asia and the closest one is only a couple of kilometers from The Big House. This is good because you can get sheets, a tent, an external hard drive, clothes, a new MP3 player, a new cell phone, shoes, a toaster and shelves in one stop. This is bad because you can put all of those things on a credit card and pretend like it never happened. I’m not saying I know anyone who has done that (cough)
    me (cough). I’m just saying.

    Sounds amazing right? It is. I have lived in several different school provided houses during my time in Surat and The Big House is by far the best. If you were to poll my roommates they would tell you the same. The Big House isn’t perfect. It is situated on a main road and can get noisy at times. A scooter passing at night can sound like a diesel truck driving through your bedroom when you’re trying to fall asleep. A very large powerfully strong strain of ants occasionally tries to claim a corner of the back patio as their own never seeming to remember that we fight dirty. But, these things are small things. The Big House rocks and we all feel lucky to have snagged a spot.

    I am worried though. The Big House is in harmony now. We are all friends. We all love our Big House. But, I fear the harmony cannot withstand the progeny. There is a small impossibly cute cat named Juice Box living just around the corner. Juice Box is preggers. Some of the roommates adore cats, others not so much. The kittens of Juice Box promise to be the kind of cute that elicits high-pitched “Ohhhs” and clapping and jumping up-and-down and coos of “I want one!” Will the progeny of Juice Box be the Yoko Ono of the Big House?



    Super English/Landlord mandated House Rule #1 – No Pets

    Ha! Take that Juice Box babies.