I was looking for a good way to travel and make a little money while doing it, so like many I decided to head to Southeast Asia in hopes of becoming an English teacher. I first signed up for a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course in June 2007. The course was offered in the small fishing village of Ban Phe, Thailand, which was a lot like one of those small towns that you might find in the middle of nowhere. There were no malls and no movie theaters, but if I walked out of the school, took a right and walked a mile, I could stand in the Gulf of Thailand. It turned out to be an amazing town that more people should consider when visiting the country, particularly if they want to get off the beaten path and get to know a place that is often overlooked.
The town is small, but there are some small markets and shops, as well as many small restaurants that are relatively cheap. Because Ban Phe is a seaside town, a number of the restaurants serve up some fantastic dishes made with the freshest of seafood and the most delicious local ingredients. Very delectable treats for the palate, for sure, and most at fairly modest prices as well. All of this access to fresh seafood meals does come at a bit of a price: the town smells a bit like fish and, thanks to the high fisher traffic in the waters around the town, its beaches are dirty and not really good for swimming. The smell does wax and wane with the wind and takes a bit of getting used to, but a quick motorbike drive along the coast in either direction will take you to some beautiful beaches and the people living in and around the town make everything worthwhile. The ocean views are simply stunning, but the spirit of the people is even more so. One day while walking into town, a local villager offered me a ride on his motorbike and then refused to take money from me when he let me off. This kind of shocked me, as I know the people here work very hard and are still endemically in need of money. This wasn't a unique show of kindness; the locals in this area are warm and wonderful in many ways.
One of the best things about being in Ban Phe is that it’s the perfect launching pad for a trip to the magnificent island of Koh Samed [ed. sometimes spelled Koh Samet]. It really is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen and, according to some, has some of the whitest sand beaches in the world. For a small fee, visitors can hop on a ferry from a small port in Ban Phe across the clear waters to Koh Samed. The island, which was developed with an eye toward drawing tourists - foreign and local alike - can be a bit expensive, but it's definitely a worthwhile stop for the beach portion of your trip to Thailand and can be a refreshing change from the better known beaches of Pattaya or Koh Samui. There are a lot of fantastic things to see and do on the island, far too many to include here, but I must admit the memory of the most amazing frozen pina colada I've ever had. Everything was mixed inside of a real coconut, with a fresh, strong island flavour that will be hard to top for some time to come.
Thanks to these and all of the other great things about life in Ban Phe, my work as an ESL teacher took off, starting here and ending up in Bangkok. I enjoyed the work, rudimentary though the materials were: there were no computers, the desks were small and dusty chalkboards were where white boards should have been. The kids, however, were excited to learn English and called me 'professor', which gave me a bit of a thrill. One of the more amazing experiences I had while working in Ban Phe was teaching in school full of monks. I hadn't seen many monks before and knew little about their way of life other than that, as a woman, I had to be careful how I approached the students and that I was not allowed to touch any of them directly. If I wanted a student to write something on the board, for example, I had to put the chalk on the table so the student could pick it up and write on the board; I was not allowed to directly hand it to him. I also couldn't tell the students to sit as it was disrespectful for me to ask the male monks to sit below my height. I was far more worried about offending them than I was about teaching. Fortunately, most knew when to sit so there weren't any problems.
It was a tremendous learning experience in more ways than one to say the least, and it served as a good 'take off' for my next teaching adventure: a three-week summer camp in the country's sprawling capital, Bangkok. The city is simply amazing! A hub of ceaseless activity that was so vastly different from Ban Phe, it couldn't help but provide me with a completely different perspective. Teaching here was dramatically different than working with the monks during my training period. I had a scheduled work day teaching kids from ages five to 13, and I had a Thai assistant teacher, which was a great help. One of the main lessons I learned here had less to do with teaching than it did about culture: kids are kids no matter where you go! They laughed and sometimes - to my dismay - fought, played outside and went swimming. It was totally different than my time in Ban Phe, but gave me a chance to experience more of the country and the people living in it.
Some of the highlights of my stay in Bangkok included the huge malls and smaller markets, the bus rides to temples within and just outside the city's reach, and, of course, the floating market. Visitors can take a guided canoe ride along the river where they can buy lots of fresh fruit and other kinds of wonderful food, as well as fantastic souvenirs for those who remain jealous back home. These, of course, are just a few of the seemingly endless number of things that visitors and those living there can see and do in Bangkok. A person could spend a few days, weeks or months here and never be bored.
The bottom line is that living and working in Thailand culminated in a great experience that, on the whole, gave me more insight into teaching English as well as into the Thai culture, which made me feel more like a local than a tourist. This is exactly what I'd set out to do. Thanks to what turned out to be an amazing experience in Thailand, I can imagine I will continue to do so over and over in as many locations worldwide as I can.
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Amanda Fedewa grew up in Lansing, Michigan and currently lives in Grand Rapids. After teaching English in Thailand, she decided to go back to school and is now studying International Relations at Grand Valley State University. She will graduate in 2012. Her program has seen her complete two study abroad trips to China and India, and is about to finish up a third in South Africa.