I Live Here

A recap of my life in the Land of Smiles from Chiang Mai to Klaeng and everywhere in between…

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As of tomorrow, I will have lived in Thailand for 11 weeks.

While the time has certainly flown, it also feels as though it has been MUCH longer since I left.  Those tearful goodbyes and farewell dinners seem like eons ago.  So much has happened, it is hard to believe it has been only a few months.

You know how in your normal life, days, weeks and months can flash by as if you’re on autopilot?  One day turns into the next and before you know it the daily grind of work, life, family and routine have carried away the seasons and time itself?  At least it did for me, which explains how three years of post-grad life flashed by in an instant.  It is also one of the reasons I decided to move away – to take advantage of time before any more of it escaped me.

Well, moving to a new country seemed to have the reverse affect – it slowed the passage of time, intensified every emotion and made each day a unique entity.

I left New York on September 23rd.  I experienced a really phenomenal travel high during my 27 hours in transit from New York to London > London to Singapore > Singapore to Chiang Mai.  This feeling of euphoria continued until I arrived at Noppakao Place, my hotel/residence for the next month.  Because the minute I entered my room, the high wore off and the gravity of my situation finally hit me.  So I broke down.  As I knew I would.  The intensity of my high from the international flights was met with an equally as intense low in the form of panic.  To put it mildly, I freaked out.  And the questions and doubt crept in: “What have I done? Did I really leave my life to come here?  Can I handle it?  I miss home.  I miss my family and friends.  I don’t know if I can do this.  When was the last time I was this homesick (answer: when I was dropped off at college and had a similar panic attack)?”

I got myself off the ledge by messaging my sister and a few friends, crying it out, taking a few deep breaths and starting to unpack.  It was at that moment, crying into my unzipped luggage, that my roommate Mahreen, a former nurse from outside of Toronto, walked in.  I was an emotional, jet-lagged wreck and she was a kind-hearted caregiver – we hit it off right away.  Mahreen was there for me during my most vulnerable time and we’ve been best friends ever since.

That day, which began with a rocky morning, turned out to be amazing. After chatting with Mahreen, I met a few others from the program who had also arrived early.  Introductions were followed by 11 am beers on my new friends’ balcony, a group trip to the bank and some questionable dinner choices.

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(First day crew: Anna, Elizabeth, Brian, Me, Brian and Mahreen)

That first day in Chiang Mai felt like a week.  I may have been jet-lagged, but I swear, I felt the intensity of every moment as if it was in slow motion.  The next few days before orientation, and the official kick off to my TESOL program, felt like a month.  And so began the now all too familiar phenomenon – time feels different here.  In reality, I had only known these new friends for hours or days or weeks but the amplified emotions (both positive and negative), culture shock and adjustment to this new place, instead made the time feel like months and years.

If you cannot already tell, I loved my first month in Chiang Mai.  It was filled with great times, incredible people, new friendships, a few panic moments and a certification to teach English.

Although I could write a novel about those four weeks, here are the highlights:

We began the month with a few cultural activities, basic Thai lessons, lectures and an introduction to the TESOL course.  Most importantly, it was a phenomenal bonding time with my program mates.

What else was I up to?  Well, I…

  • Visited Doi Suthep and Wat Umong
  • Hung out with elephants (just fed and bathed them, elephant riding is a really abusive tourist attraction) at the Elephant Nature Park
  • Demonstrated my lack of artistic skills at a Thai painting activity
  • Kicked ass during a Muay Thai class
  • Climbed waterfalls at Buong National Park
  • Spent I-don’t-know-how many hours riding in Songtews, red taxi trucks, to and from class daily
  • Explored various markets around Chiang Mai where I ate tons of great food and bought several pairs of elephant pants (lightweight cotton sweats that became a uniform among both guys and girls)
  • Visited Pai, a hippie backpacker mecca north of Chiang Mai
  • Survived two days of English camp at a local school
  • Graduated with a TESOL certification and the apparent ability to teach

Our days were spent mostly in class and nights were spent hanging out, eating, drinking and enjoying the city.  I ate tons of fried rice and noodles and drank my fill of Chang beer.  I wish this month did not have to end.  It felt like college, studying abroad and every travel group I’ve ever done combined, but better because I’m 25 and it validated my decision to leave my life at home for something different – the risk was already paying off.

However, reality came knocking, and on October 27th, I left Chiang Mai and after two bus rides and 17 hours on the road, I arrived in my new home, completely alone.  I live in Klaeng, a town in the Rayong Province, about 4 hours southeast of Bangkok.  I was picked up and delivered to my apartment by one of the other foreign teachers and left to my own devices for a few hours before a Thai teacher, Noo, picked me up for some shopping.  And so came another panic, an emotional release of everything I felt  – from sadness over leaving my friends and a city I love to straight up fear and discomfort over starting to teach, as well as the most crushing isolation I have ever experienced.

My room, located in an old apartment building at school where the other foreign teachers lived, was, as I affectionately refer to it as, a Shitbox.  The Shitbox was very dirty, smelly, covered in bugs and spider webs and lizards and lizard poop.  The Shitbox had not been painted in 20 years and the mattress seemed just as old, the bathroom emitted a terrible odor, the sink was on the balcony and the shower had no heater.  Apparently, the English teacher who lived there for a few weeks last term (before ultimately leaving the school altogether) called it a “prison.”

Mai pen rai, right?

Things vastly improved after Noo, and her sister, Nid arrived.  Firstly, they surveyed the room and decided we would go to Tesco (a large department store) to buy cleaning supplies, sheets, pillows, etc.  Secondly, within 30 minutes of being together they told me I should consider myself their new younger sister and they wanted to take care of me.  Instantly, my feelings of isolation, fear and trepidation subsided and things started looking up.

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While the three of us did a decent job fixing up The Shitbox, I decided it was not the best living situation for me.  I actually made peace with the lizards and their poop, the cold showers and the balcony-teeth brushing. However, the school is 2 miles from town and there are no options for food or shopping within walking distance and I wanted to avoid buying a motorbike (too many friends have gotten into accidents – no thank you).

So, my second week, I moved to a hotel/residence in Sam Yan, the downtown area of Klaeng.  And I could not be happier, except for the cockroaches who love my room, but hey, its Thailand, so there will always be roaches.  I’ve also avoided getting a motorbike because Thai’s are the nicest people in the world and a few friends are willing to carpool me to and from school.  Sam Yan is a fun neighborhood with lots of shops, cafes, restaurants, markets, and even a gym, which I happily joined after my sprained ankle heeled.  I’m usually the only farang (foreigner) I see walking around, but the stares I get are always followed by smiles from curious onlookers.

I work at Makudmuang Rattachayalai, a secondary school with 1,000 students.  I teach 28 classes, or roughly 800 teenagers ages 13-18, once every two weeks.  Now, if you’re thinking that that does not sound like much in-class time, I would agree.  Seeing my kids only twice a month leaves little room to really TEACH them much of anything.  However, I’m rolling with it.

We learned in TESOL that our primary job as English teachers is not to drill the kids with vocabulary or grammar – they have Thai English teachers who do that.  My job is to get them comfortable speaking the language and allowing them to hear my lovely native English-speaking accent.  Though teaching is hard and can be a daily challenge, I am having a blast.  I’m finding my groove and enjoying myself in the process.  Walking in the hallways is like being a celebrity – I get about 300 hundred “Hello Teachaaa” and “Good morning/Good afternoon Teachaaaaa” greetings a day and even some claps and giggles of delight when I walk into the classroom to teach.  I really love hanging out with the students in class and seeing them around town.  In the last week I’ve run into half a dozen students on the street, on my way home from the gym, at markets where they help their parents in the evenings and buying food.

The teachers at my school are incredibly warm and welcoming and I could not feel more at home.  I have a lunch crew I eat with most days, I play volleyball with a few teachers occasionally and socialize during staff parties (sidenote: Thais love drinking beer and singing awkward karaoke, even at “work” parties.  It is an experience.)  I also love running into coworkers at Tesco or the market (both of which happened within the last 3 days).  It makes me feel like a legitimate part of the community.

A huge perk is my town’s location.  Klaeng is located about 20 minutes from a decently touristy beach, meaning in addition to dipping my toes in the sand and ocean, I can easily find western food (at great expense to my wallet).  Even sweeter, is that another 20 minutes away is the ferry to Koh Samed, one of Thailand’s lesser known islands

I travel every weekend, mostly to visit friends in and around Bangkok.  I have also been to Koh Samed twice and to Korat, a city 5 hours north of Klaeng, for a Friendsgiving reunion with TESOL friends.

After 11 weeks, time is actually no longer standing still like it was in Chiang Mai.  I’ve acclimated to life in Klaeng, teaching and seeing friends on weekends.  In fact, settling into the routine of working again and traveling once a week, has made time speed up.  At this rate, I expect the semester to fly by.

So, to recap my recap:  I am having an amazing experience thus far, from Chiang Mai and Pai to Klaeng and Koh Samed.  There are many ups and downs to living overseas, but I love my town and my school, my TESOL and Thai friends and I really enjoy teaching.

My new challenge is trying to stay in the moment and enjoy the rest of the semester before my wanderlust kicks in and I can move on to the next phase of my time abroad, TRAVELING.

Oh, I should also mention that my name is no longer Sarah…it is now officially Salaaa or Teachaa Salaaa.  I think it has a nice ring to it.

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