The Joys of Slow Travel: 6 Months in Bangkok

I’ve absolutely loved every second of my past travels around Europe. I look back on my adventures with much fondness. From jumping from attraction to attraction, from catching one bus to another and from photographing anything and everything, because lets be real, Europe is exquisite. However, no matter how many information plaques I read, how many tours I took or how many photographs I captured, I only gained a surface understanding of that culture. I was constantly on the move to see everything I could, but never felt it in all its glory.

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In all honesty, I actually only realized this when I recently read an article based on slow travel. So many aspects of the article resonated with me, which left the concept lingering in my mind a little longer than usual.

Slow travel is about spending longer periods of time at a destination or location. In doing so, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of what you are seeing, hearing and experiencing. The concept echos simplicity and leisure. Its involves absorbing the deeper meaning behind the functioning of that specific society and immersing yourself within their way of life.

Fast forward to the present. Over the past 6 months, I live on the outskirts of the sprawling Bangkok metropolis. Although “Bangkokians” have a good reputation for being able to speak English, that is not the case in the area I live in. In fact, most people stare at us in shock and the kids often touch us, as if to check if we are real. The most familiar food in our immediate proximity was probably the Pringles and banana muffins sold in the Seven Eleven downstairs. Basically, I threw myself in the deep end of a new and vastly different culture. However, it is this experience, coupled with my recent readings, that has my mind hooked on this concept of slow travel.

As I wake up each morning, I open my balcony doors to the wafting smell of bubbling rice porridge over a gas stove along the streets below. If I walk slightly further down the street, I’m welcomed (and lured) by the sight and sweet smell of Thai doughnuts accompanied by condense milk for dipping. Talk about a good breakfast, right?

To get to the local market, I do as the locals do and catch a Songtauw there, which is basically a truck with benches at the back. I can’t always commend them for their driving skills but the only person who seems to find to mind is the farang, being me. As I stroll along the market street, motorbikes zooming past me whilst transporting entire families, I notice all the golden gems this little market has to offer. From the vendor selling his blooming flowers to the local bakery displaying copious local treats to a tiny street cart selling the most delicious popped-rice snack drizzled in a caramel sauce. The carts owner, a small old Thai man, speaks no English, so I am forced to practice my Thai in order to make my purchase. Speaking Thai can be daunting, awkward and frustrating but even if I don’t get the message across, I never walk away empty handed. I will always leave those moments with a sense of richness as I’ve always gained a new experience, negotiation skills and a new Thai word to add to my growing vocabulary.

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I have been so fortunate to experience the Thai culture, which has been enhanced in so many ways thanks to the Thai teachers I worked with. Their generosity and warmth towards me has made all the difference to my slow travels and their inclusion of me within their important ceremonies has provided me with a first hand account of their daily lives.

Related: The Truth About Teaching English Abroad 

As the term progressed, the teachers made an effort to invite us English teachers into their lives outside of the school environment. We played Badminton on Thursday evenings and did Aerobics on Mondays and Thursdays. We were encouraged to take part in (or at least have the front seats at cultural ceremonies), which were bright and beautiful.

That’s the beauty of slow travel. You have the time and energy to discover the gold in the most unexpected places, which you probably would have over-looked on a short trip. For me, slow travel has been about living, growing and glowing in a new culture, which wouldn’t have happened on the scale it has if I was speeding through my travels.

Kelsey x

The Truth About Teaching English Abroad

Currently, I’m sitting in my classroom, on the outskirts of Bangkok. It’s my last day of teaching in Thailand after six months and I’m filled with a whirlwind of conflicted emotions. On the one hand, I’m relieved to be finished because I experienced some really tough times. Yet, on the other hand, the children I have taught have really touched my heart and I’m going to miss these connections and moments we have created together.

People (including me) say its one of the most rewarding, fulfilling and self-discovery journeys that you could embark on, because it is. However, that’s because it is also filled with a lot of difficult times, frustration and being far outside your comfort zone. When you come out on the other side of all of this, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

The actual teaching part has been one of the toughest, most frustrating yet rewarding aspects of this journey. There have been times when I have cried, when I have wanted to storm out of the classroom, when I have had to call the Thai teacher in because I couldn’t control the class and when I have simply felt like quitting. However, there have also been times when I have been given massive hugs full of love, loads of high fives and fist pumps and a lot of heart-warming moments when some of the children finally grasp a concept. My heart just explodes with pride, not only for them but also for myself, because it took a lot to get to that moment. I have new-found respect for teachers around the world after this experience.

Before I left South Africa, I thought I was fully aware that I had led a very privileged life compared to majority of my fellow South Africans. However, when I moved to Thailand and I started to actually live in a low-income area, I only truly realized how privileged I am. The area is very industrialized and I am one of five foreigners to be seen around. Therefore, people stare, people take photos without consent and there really isn’t anything pretty around besides a temple and the flower sellers. Most prospective teachers expect palm trees, cascading waterfallscrystal clear beaches and playing with rescued elephants. Whilst all of that is possible over a long weekend, that will not be your everyday reality.

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Everyday, you’ll be dealing with children who would rather chat with their friends than learn English (there are exceptions), you’ll deal with feeling isolated as the Thai teachers may avoid speaking to you, you’ll deal with REALLY naughty kids who don’t care if you get angry, you’ll probably live away from the tourist destinations, people will speak about you in Thai right in front you, you’ll be stared at, people will randomly take photos of you and with you, you’ll feel uncomfortable, you will miss home, you’ll experience major culture shock and you will probably cry at some point.

This doesn’t sound great, right? Well in order to reach the rewarding and self-discovery phases of this journey, you need to push and persevere through these tougher aspects.

You need to build up a sense of trust between you and your students. It’s tough not being able to understand one another and you will probably feel a sense of frustration and helplessness. However, getting angry or irritated with students simply because they don’t understand you will only erode the already new and unstable relationship. I personally experienced this in high school, which made me put minimal effort into the subject. I swore never to do this to my own students but sometimes it’s easier said than done.

Attempt to learn the local language, your effort won’t go unnoticed and it will make your life a lot easier. Your willingness to learn their language will encourage your students to learn yours.

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If you teach in a government school, you might teach children with learning difficulties. This can be especially challenging when you have 25-50 (depending on your school) other students wanting your attention. Try to understand these children. I taught a few autistic children and really formed a good bond with them. One boy in Prathom 3 didn’t like the air con, so we had an agreement that he could sit by the door, with it slightly open to feel the warmth. By attempting to understand these types of situations, you’ll avoid a much bigger disruption.

You will need to learn to not take life so seriously and laugh in the face of adversity because, well, you’ll probably experience a fair share of it. Some students won’t care about English, some students will speak over you, some students may have learning difficulties and some students won’t see the value in English. Don’t take offense, they are just being kids. Some of my Prathom 1’s made paper planes out of their worksheets and instead of getting angry, I decided to fly the planes with them. Boy oh boy, did they love that. One little boy got out of his seat just to give me a big hug.

You need to make the effort to smile and greet every Thai teacher you see because they will eventually go out of their way to make you feel at home. In my case, they invited us to Aerobics with them twice a week, which made both them and myself feel more at ease around each other. It made me feel as if I was actually a part of the staff. After a little more effort, another group of teachers invited us to play Badminton with them once a week. They made an extra effort to teach us as well as to provide us with transport and equipment. How welcoming is that!? The more involved you become, the more you will learn about the culture too.

I, by no means, have perfected doing all of this as it is harder than it seems. There are still times where my frustration gets the better of me.

This experience is 100% about what you make of it. It’s your choice to not let adversity and naughty children ruin your entire day. It’s your choice to start your day with a positive mindset. It’s your choice to use this opportunity of discomfort to grow and glow and it’s your choice to make the most of every lesson thrown at you. If you choose to start your day on a negative note, complain about everything and let the little things get to you, well, your going to gain nothing.

This experience has taught me more than I ever imagined. From what I am capable of to the direction in which I want my life to go and I can honestly say that I am proud of myself. I feel like I can handle anything after this. So, bring on the new adventure of Vietnam and beyond.

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Kelsey x

Six Lessons I’ve Learnt From Teaching Abroad

Be grateful

Four months into this journey and I can’t explain how many complaints I’ve heard, even about the smallest of things. Yes, I am out of my comfort zones but complaining and being negative will only make myself and those around me feel worse. Personal growth derives from being out of our comfort zones and I truly believe that being grateful has been a catalyst within my personal growth journey during this period. I understand that we all get some negative feelings whilst in a new and foreign setting but its how you deal with these feelings that will determine your experience and growth.

Gratitude is straight-up good for your well-being too. I found myself smiling more on the outside and warming up on the inside. The people around you will be more attracted to your presence as happier people are easier to be around than negative people. A personal example for me is with a teacher at the school I’m teaching at. Settling into my new job hasn’t been easy but she has helped me pretty much everyday. Even though things are done very differently in Asia and she has been the one to have to break this news to us, I have always thanked her with gratitude, which has definitely made her more open to approaching me. She has even started asking me if I’ve had breakfast every morning, almost as if she is ready to offer something up for me.

Yes, my new adventure may be daunting and yes, things are done very differently in Asia than in the West but I am here to learn and grow as a person. That won’t happen by being ungrateful. Embrace the changes and look at them as positive additions to your life.

Some things I am grateful for:

  1. Being able to fluently speak English because teaching it has made me realize how difficult it actually is to learn.
  2. For this opportunity as I wouldn’t feel like a go-getter, show-stopper if I had stayed where I was.
  3. For having parents who could afford me the opportunity to study further, which lead me to where I am now.

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The True Meaning of Indepedence

Finding your way through a crowded foreign city, not being able to read any signs or speak the language is difficult. This experience has taught me the true meaning of independence in all senses, but more importantly, it has shown me what I am capable of, which is more than I ever thought. I’ve been kicked off buses, dropped off at the wrong location and been unable to communicate with public transport staff but I have found my way home through countless situations. This new sense of independence has boosted my self-confidence and has given me the leverage to back myself in the various situations I find myself in.

I read an article about independent creativity, which resonated with me, even though I’ve never considered myself to be creative. I’ve always been interested in photography but this new found independence and confidence has allowed me to back myself and create my own opportunities by starting a blog and a new Instagram page that has a niche focus. Before this experience, I would have been too worried about what people would think and how I could fail in front of all these people that I know. Now, I feel like a go-getter and show-stopper with all these ideas that are springing to life. Sounds dramatic, but that’s how I’m feeling!

Understanding Myself

The third major lesson I have learnt is simply becoming more in touch with myself, what makes me happy and what ticks me off. As I have been out of my comfort zone, I have realized what truly makes me happy and I have actively tried to fill my life with those things. Something as simple as a home-cooked meal often adds value to my evening as I love cooking. However, this experience has also made me realize what makes me unhappy and I’ve had to confront those issues, even though I really don’t enjoy confrontation. These past few months have made me realize that this experience may be the best thing that has happened in a long time for my personal growth and I’m not going to allow the negativity of others or my own mind get in the way of that!

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Go With The Flow

To be completely honest, I’m actually quite a planner, which sometimes leads to me getting slightly frazzled when things don’t go according to plan. Just my luck, things rarely go according to plan in Thailand. There are times when I’m told that I don’t have class and then all of a sudden there are 25 eager little faces at my door waiting for their unprepared teacher. I’ll plan out an epic weekend away and the transport will be completely off time or the weather will put a dampen on my island getaway. If anything, I’ve learnt  (and still am) to accept what life throws at me, not get frazzled, think on my feet and make the best of the given situation.

Perseverance is key

The first month of teaching was seriously tough. The kids didn’t listen, the Thai teachers barely spoke to us and I was in the deepest depths outside my comfort zone within this vastly foreign and different culture. I could have given up and gone back home to South Africa where I would have been just as lost as I was when I left – nothing accomplished. However, I persevered, adapted to my new environment and adopted an open and positive mindset; and now, I’m in the happiest space I have been in a long time.

Focus on Myself

With so few English speaking people in my area, I’ve had a lot of time to myself. This me-time has allowed me to reflect on my current self, who I want to be  and the direction in which I want my life to go. I’m so grateful for this me-time otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been forced to think about these things on a deeper level.

So that concludes my six main lessons that I’ve learnt since moving to Thailand to teach English. I’m sure there are many more on the way and I’m eager to learn them!

Kelsey x

 

Culture Shock 101

I am an adventurous person by nature. I love seeing the world through new people, places and experiences. However, moving to a foreign country is completely different to actually visiting one. When I say foreign, I mean outside of the Western world. I know many people who have moved countries within the Western world and yes, its tough. However, moving to a country with a completely different culture, language, food and way of life has bee one of the most daunting yet worthwhile experiences I have ever been through, well still going through.

Language Barrier

When moving to Thailand, I knew that there would be a language barrier. However, I was shocked at how much of a barrier actually exists. In the city of Bangkok, most locals can speak simple English but where I have been placed, barely anyone can. Its been difficult and frustrating at times when I’m trying to get a simple message across, figuring out what it is that I are about to eat or just saying where I would like to go. Even with the basic Thai that I have learnt, I am often misunderstood as the language has five different tones that i haven’t mastered, yet. Additionally, I don’t think my accent helps the situation either.

Food

If you thought you could move to Asia and carry on eating the way you always have, think again. Western food is much more expensive than the local Thai food and isn’t as easily accessible. The average street food meal will cost you between 40-60 baht, whereas a Western meal could be anything between 150-500 baht. However, sometimes the prices isn’t even enough to put you off! Sometimes the craving and familiarity of home just becomes too much and you will probably give in.

Thai food is delicious, honestly. However, sometimes the ingredients they use are so foreign to Westerners that it puts us off even trying the meal. I know its daunting, trust me, I’m going through it right now. But you’ll be pleasantly surprised as to how delicious some of these ingredients are when developed in a meal the Thai way.

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Way of Living

The local way of living is vastly different from the Western way of living, which has been a major adjustment. I live in a big apartment block with 20 floors. My apartment is a big room with everything I need as a bachelor. However, as I walk through the corridors, there are full-on families living in most apartments, to which I have one to myself. I almost feel guilty every time someone sees me entering the apartment alone but it is simply a cultural difference that I have to get used to. Additionally, most houses/apartments don’t have a kitchen, which is totally foreign to me. Guess it’s Thai street food for me every night!

As I am living just outside of Bangkok, the local people don’t often see many Western foreigners (known as farangs but pronounced falangs). I’ll be casually walking around the local shopping center and look up to find a couple of people staring at me, and with no shame might I add! At first it was pretty intimidating but I’ve learnt just to take it in my stride.

There are so many differences between our ways of living but these are the things have stood out to be within my first two weeks in my new ‘permanent’ home. I’m sure plenty more will pop up once I start teaching.

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Reality hits…

Let me be real. Culture shock is hectic. You think, “Ah i’ll get used to this food” but that pizza craving just won’t go away and cheese is just so expensive. You practice your Thai and then someone says a short sentence to you. All of a sudden you are back to square one and don’t understand a single thing they just said. You think “I’ll just buy some pasta and sauce to make in my apartment”, then you realize you don’t have a kitchen and even the Western ingredients are expensive. You may feel like everything is counting against you and there might be a few tears involved but there is hope.

Tips

  1. In all fairness, you should really delve right into trying and testing the local food cause chances are, it’ll be really great. It will also allow you to interact with locals on a more personal level. This is especially the case in Thailand where food is something that brings people together. You will probably end up trying some weird but wonderful foods, that you would never have the opportunity to do so back home.
  2. Keep yourself busy – Go see all the attractions you want or even take a day trip somewhere just outside of your area. This way, there is always something to look forward to.
  3. Put some effort in and try to learn the local language.
  4. Do as much in your local community as possible – join the gym, buy their local produce or start Muay Thai.
  5. Treat yo’self! Be it that pizza, chocolate or cocktail – do it every now and then.
  6. Take in every experience and learn from it.
  7. Things aren’t always going to go your way but make sure you tackle every challenge with a positive mindset.
  8. Rather than simply consuming what is around you, create positive experiences.
  9. Work on a ‘passion project’ on the side (Mine is this blog and its been truly instrumental in keeping me up-to-date with what i’m doing but my emotions too).

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Kelsey x