40 Things I Learned Teaching English Abroad in Thailand

I am never going to diminish the potential for learning while traveling, but there are some things that a two week vacation just can’t teach you. Spending a significant amount of time in one location allows one to become a part of the community, to understand the culture, to learn what the locals think on a deeper level than what they’re willing to divulge to someone just passing through.

One of the ways to get the most of out slow travel, is to turn it into meaningful travel, with something as life changing as teaching English abroad. As a teacher, you are not only living in a community, but you’re working in it. And as a teacher in Thailand, you’ll be one of the most well respected in the town. Here are 40 things I learned teaching English in Thailand:

  1. How to wai properly – the formal greeting in Thailand where on places both palms together in front of her face and bows at the waist. The younger and/or less professional usually wais first.
  2. How to eat really, really spicy foods. Thais love red chilis!
  1. How to speak enough Thai to barter at markets and travel around the country.
  1. Never to speak negatively about The King. He is everywhere, from posters in houses to school buildings to the movie theater.
  1. To stop whatever I’m doing when I hear the national song at 8am and 5pm every day. It’s played over the radio, television, before the movie at the theater, at schools and in public buildings everywhere.
  1. Instead of asking “How are you,” the common Thai greeting translates to, “Have you eaten yet?”
  2. Food is as much a part of the culture as anything else. If one travels (teachers, take note!) it’s polite to bring back a local food or sweet to share with your coworkers. Also, never eat anything in front of others without offering to share.
  3. Thai high schoolers are just that — high schoolers. They’re as rowdy as you were as a teenager.
  4. Public transportation is everywhere, even in a small village. You just might have to go to the local tuk tuk driver’s house and ask for a ride! In the cities, however, you can’t escape them
  5. Buddhism is more than a religion. It’s a way of life. Thais practice living happily by not letting negative events affect them too much. It’s a “treat others as you would like to be treated” mentality.
  1. Songkran may be the best holiday in the world. Thais celebrate their (Lunar) New Year with a nationwide water fight, and it’s a blast (pun intended).
  1. Umbrellas are not just for the rain. They are also to protect from the sun.
  1. Everybody can sing. When I tell a Thai that I can’t sing, they ask why and how is that possible? Everybody can sing! But maybe not well.
  1. Credit cards don’t exist outside of Bangkok. It’s largely a cash society, and the idea of spending money one doesn’t have is not easily understood.
  1. Thai women love big bows…and flowers, and pleats, and patterns. Getting dressed up for an event is something like Cameron Diaz and her friend in that movie, The Sweetest Thing.
  1. There are more kinds of mango than I ever thought imaginable…
  1. Sour mango dipped in a sugar and chili concoction was disgusting at first, but then became my favorite afternoon snack.

teach in thailand

  1. Thai time is a complete disregard for time. The bus will come when it feels like it. The meeting that was scheduled for 8:30 will eventually start…even if it’s past 10 when it does. The show will begin. And the best part of Thai time is that nobody cares. It’s not like in the U.S. when we think it’s rude or disrespectful to show up late and therefore “waste” someone’s time. Thais understand that everyone has their own lives to take care of first.
  1. Ladyboys (women born into male bodies) are so well accepted they are considered a third gender.
  1. Ladyboys are usually the most popular and most driven students in class.
  1. Thais love to give, and give, and give. They don’t split meals; the host always buys.
  1. Scooters are the most common and affordable form of transportation, and can easily carry entire families of five, babies included. Plus furniture, or anything else that needs to go!

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  1. Thais love loud music, and karaoke. There is such thing as a karaoke bus, which is popular for school outings. Bring ear plugs!
  1. Thai whiskey is the most common form of liquor…but it’s actually rum.
  1. Traditional Thai costume is still worn for special occasions like parades and weddings.
  1. Most Thais swim fully clothed, if they know how to swim. It’s a cultural thing.
  1. Many Thais haven’t traveled around much of their own country.
  1. They’re proud of their culture and country, and it pleases them to see you take an interest in it. Say hello and thank you in Thai, if you can!
  2. Thais are the most friendly people I’ve ever met. They’ll help you with anything you need, from directions to learning the language to ordering food, etc.
  1. 7-11 stores are everywhere. Seriously.
  1. If you buy a water bottle (and you will buy lots), it always comes in a plastic bag and with a straw.
  1. Many Thais don’t use toilet paper and therefore it is not common in bathroom stalls. Sometimes there is a roll outside the stalls so you can get it before you enter, but often it’s nonexistent. Carry it with you at all times!
  1. Public schools celebrate the Christmas holiday, even though they aren’t Christian. Pretty much any reason to party is a win-win here!
  1. Every region is just as beautiful as the rest, though they differ substantially. There’s the mountainous north, the rice fields of the northeast, the capital and old capital in Central Thailand, and of course the famed, gorgeous beaches of the South.
  1. It’s impolite to touch a child on the head.
  1. It’s also impolite to use your feet to point at someone.
  1. Many Thais believe in ghosts. If you wake up to a white string around your house, it was put there to protect you.
  1. The State Tower in Bangkok, where the Hangover 2 was filmed, offers a totally stunning view of the city, and deliciously overpriced drinks (but oh so worth it).
  1. Thais often sit on the floor on pillows made in country.
  2. Teachers are a highly respected part of the community.