Welcome to the first of many expat stories that I will be posting as they are told. These are the stories and experiences from those who have lived or are living the expat life. My hope is that these stories will inspire, inform, and entertain you. So Enjoy!
Our first story comes from 27-year-old Joey, a close personal friend and solo travel expert. Originally from Brisbane, Australia, Joey embarked on a journey deep into the provinces of Thailand that opened his eyes to a side of Thailand that many will never see. From the people to the lifestyle, here’s what he had to say.
How old were you when you lived in Thailand?
23 years old.
Houytom Village, Li Township, Lamphun Province (2.5hrs south-west of Chiang Mai)
Volunteer English Teacher
How long did you live in Thailand?
What made you decide to go to Thailand?
Ultimately, a dissatisfaction with my work and lifestyle in Australia. Spent many years out of school working only for and thinking only of myself. After finishing an apprenticeship and working full time I thought it was time to have a holiday and give something back. Fortunately Thailand ticked both of those boxes. It was easily accessible form Brisbane by plane, classed as a ‘second world’ nation (I was inexperienced at solo travel through developing nations) and a yearning for a unique cultural experience.
How did you find the experience?
Confronting, very challenging, eye-opening, liberating and extremely rewarding.
HouyTom Village is home to the indigenous and stateless Karen ethnic minority. They hold their own language, could be devout Buddhists or Animists/spiritualists and due to geo-political upheavals of recent generations have a hard time retracing their important cultural heritage. Their language is incompatible with mainstream Thai. So the local kids had to learn Thai as a second language and my English lessons were a third! Although their education was free, classrooms were extremely minimally resourced and overcrowded. There were no resources to help kids with obvious learning difficulties or to provide social support to those who came from violent, poor households with many siblings.
What was the hardest part?
NOT HAVING AN ENGLISH CONVERSATION FOR WEEKS ON END.
hahaha, but I didn’t realise I was missing my native tounge until I made a weekend trip to Chiang Mai, or met with the very infrequent European tourist that was on a long-distance cycling holiday.
Thailand was never colonised (lucky for them) but that meant there is no heritage of English. Quite often the best English-speakers to be found were the students as the English teachers themselves must have a received only a basic education. But the younger kids are great non-verbal communicators and many adults really tried their best. So I never felt too isolated.
Being the only white person for literally miles. It took about a month for the faces of passers-by to change from shocked to a friendly greeting.
What was the best part?
All of the above haha.
And staying with a local family in their converted shed (luxurious for an area with mostly traditional straw roofs on stilts). Here, I experienced a real village atmosphere. Where everyone knew everyone. Where a whole village literally was raising their children. The happiness that came from a subsistence based lifestyle and being surrounded by fresh air and open spaces (and cold showers) and losing the consumerist driven tendencies we are conditioned to enjoy in the west (even in Bangkok). What the villagers lacked in literacy, healthcare and income, they made up for with displays of generosity and pure happiness. And it was infectious.
Did you find any cultural differences that were hard to adjust to?
In Thailand, teachers are held in as high regard as a doctor or lawyer here in the west. Coming from a blue-collar background I found this newly acquired status and social expectations difficult to deal with. I wanted my students to have fun while they learnt. I never had it in me to be the authoritarian they expected.
Christmas was celebrated very differently. Work on Xmas day, presents on Boxing Day, then Christmas lunch on New Years Eve (Christian Calendar).
Although these times were lovely I don’t think I have I ever felt more homesick.
Did you find it difficult to organise things like accommodation, work etc?
This is back when wifi was becoming ‘a thing’. I got pretty lucky with my online search finding a not-for-profit that facilitated these English Teacher placements for a very minimal fee ($200-300, a weeks training, accommodation, one meal per day and work placement sorted). These days volunteering is a serious industry and spending a week or two away to donate your time and potentially do a homestay could cost you anywhere from $500 to $2000.
I don’t know where most of this money will go, but I’m sure it won’t be to the people you are aiming to help. I have travelled extensively since and realised that you can find volunteer opportunities anywhere by talking to the right people, checking the local newspapers and doing some prior online research into what cities and communities are doing what and the sort of volunteers they need.
What did you miss the most about home?
Vegemite? Nah, my family and dog. Mostly my dog… and vegemite.
Would you recommend the experience to others?
Yes totally. Sure, there are plenty immensely valid opportunities to volunteer your time in your local community but, there are communities out there that can really use our help.
I did this before the domination of social media. Don’t do this for likes on Instagram, don’t work with kids, form incredible attachments with them for one or two weeks, then leave them devastated – never to return.
But I know some time spent donating yours – is better than none. Just be smart about it. If your stay can only be short, try and retain some anonymity. Or if the organisation facilitating the placement has a high turnover of volunteers – the young people on-site should have similar expectations.
Just ensure your motivations are pure and your heart, soul (and bank account) are ready for an incredible experience.
Joey’s Top Tip!
For anyone interested in living in Thailand, make sure you have a kareoke go-to! Not only will it save your bacon, you’ll gain some respect in the process.