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.