Is it really worth it…?

 

Looking back at my first 4 months teaching English in Thailand: the struggles and the rewarding experiences I had:

I am tired.
That is because I am learning a new skill – teaching. When I think about it, most of what I do doesn’t really matter as the Intensive English class is not considered a core subject, so neither the school, nor the parents or the kids view it seriously. The level is very low and the bar for the lowest grade you can give is continually getting raised. So even if the kids are only able to look at you and breathe they still get 60%. When I was at school, you had to put in quite a bit of work to pass, but here they take it as a given.
Kids come to class 10 minutes late, it takes 20 minutes to calm them down and gather attention during the class (it’s a constant battle), which leaves you with approximately 20 minutes of teaching time at most.. Added to that, at least half of the kids won’t do anything without the adrenaline rush caused by the teacher standing behind their back.
The book that I teach from is designed for 5-6 hours of classes per week, and I only have three 50min lessons. Each lesson has at least 5 vocabulary items, a new complex grammar point, listening exercises, reading comprehension, several written exercises from the book and even more from the workbook. To top it up, we have to submit so many grades for every unit that we need to grade the girls almost every lesson. My kids are learning past perfect and reported speech, yet they can’t put a simple sentence together about what they did last weekend. It seems as if nobody cares if the kids actually learn anything…
But still, I put so much effort into it. During the first month I was surviving on just a few hours of sleep per night. I would take tons of work home, plan lessons right up to going to bed and start again first thing in the morning. I wanted to somehow make the material understandable and interesting for the girls. I changed the slides, added my own, created worksheets, and designed interactive lessons where the kids could get out of their desks for something other than “Teacher – toilet?”. I even brought in and did a full lesson with a teddy bear giving orders and requests, with the girls changing them to reported speech. I don’t know how many times I went round the class, taking the time to explain new grammar individually – even to the girls who showed no effort whatsoever.
Sometimes I wonder – is it really worth it…?

I taught these girls for a few months now and most classes became manageable. I can see my efforts paying off as a noticeably larger number of kids started to work. There are even a few who looked hopeless initially, but suddenly in the last month started to actually understand what they’re doing.
And it’s so rewarding when the smart ones ask me a question, and instead of answering I give them a question back – there’s a pause of thinking… Suddenly their little faces light up, and you can just see that ‘ah ha!’ moment in their eyes. And at that moment you know they understand. You should see the joy it gives them – priceless.

Ok, maybe what I do doesn’t really matter for this school. But for me it’s worth it. I try out different things and I get to see what works and what doesn’t work when teaching. If anything, it helps me to develop as a teacher and, more importantly, as a person. Whatever I decide to do in life, I put my 100% into it. I give it my best. I get to keep the knowledge, skills and experience I gain. The more effort I put in, the more I develop myself. The more I grow as a person.
Everyone has a blueprint, an idea of their own perfect self. But it’s not possible to get there in an instant. You take little steps, overcome hurdles along the way, go through different experiences – you grow as a person. With time, your blueprint changes. It becomes even better, something you couldn’t imagine was even possible. But if you don’t put your 100 % in on the way, you don’t grow and cannot reach your full potential.
If you could reach something without putting the effort in, you would miss out on this journey of self-development. When you grow, your goals grow with you, making you become your better self. But if you’re not willing to give it your 100%, is it really worth doing?
Birthday card

Raw Cacao Coconut truffles

Since we started exploring Bangkok it almost became a tradition for us to get up as early as 5am on Saturdays and set off somewhere to watch the sunrise. Most likely pollution has something to do with it, but the sunrises here are spectacular. One of our favourite places to watch them is from the skytrain between Ratchadamri and Sala Daeng stations: the orange sun peaking through the mist of the foggy Lumphini park with skyscrapers in the horizon looks pretty magical.

Lumphini Park, Bangkok

So there we were, bright and early, having travelled all the way from Bearing to Sala Daeng by 6:30, waiting for the sun to appear. Unfortunately it was so cloudy that the sun didn’t come out until about 8am. So instead of taking a few rides back and forth on the skytrain to watch the sun (I know it sounds silly, but the best view is in between the two stations!) we decided to grab some coffee and take a stroll in the park. We saw one of the giant monitor lizards in the water and we were so fascinated to see it from such a small distance that we stalked it along the shore.

monitor lizard, Lumphini Park, Bangkok

But then we had to do some shopping. Shopping is tiring. I spend hours browsing through hundreds of items and very rarely find what I’m looking for. Yes, I’m picky when it comes to choosing my stuff, but only because I want to make sure I really like it and that it’s going to stay with me for a long time. That reflects my philosophy in life in a way.

4 hours later we just wanted to find a nice cosy coffee place to sit down. And it turned out to be an impossible task… we walked around for a while until we gave up and just sat down on a bench in the shopping mall opposite Central. We decided to just go home. We were making our way out, but one poster caught my eye: Veganerie. A vegan cafeteria, hidden on the top floor of Mercury Ville mall. Could it be better? (more info about Veganerie here)

Veganerie Bangkok Veganerie Bangkok

Veganerie Bangkok

As I was enjoying a raw chocolate brownie with a soy milk latte, I remembered these little bites of goodness we used to make a lot. Raw chocolate truffles. Dates are expensive in Bangkok, so we haven’t really made them here. But I stumbled upon a different recipe on this blog, that uses coconut oil and butter instead of dates, and thought of giving it a try. This is Thailand, so all things coconut should be cheap and available everywhere, right? Well, not really. Coconut oil – ok. Coconut butter?.. Say again? I expected this would be a challenge to find.

So I resorted to this version of the truffles. Now the only thing I didn’t have was coconut flakes. I thought I could just pick them up at any random store, or even our local market. And how wrong I was… coconut flakes don’t exist here in Thailand. I think with so many fresh coconuts available everywhere people here just make their own. With no oven though and curious ants in the kitchen roaming freely on anything that is not triple packed I didn’t dare to try. But then on a Saturday trip to Little India a week later we accidently found a tiny shop with all kinds of baking supplies you can imagine. And they had coconut flakes! Not to mention 1kg of pure cocoa for 300 baht (!) So we made the truffles. And they tasted great. Although I still prefer the version with the dates.

raw cacao coconut truffles

Here’s the recipe (adapted from The Squeaky Kitchen):

1 cup ground almonds

1 cup dried coconut flakes

3/4 cocoa powder

1/3 cup honey (replace with agave nectar if you’re vegan)

1/3 cup coconut oil

  1. Put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix them well together. If you’re using the same cup for measuring then measure the ingredients in this order: coconut flakes, almonds, cocoa powder, coconut oil, then honey. When the cup is oily, the honey runs off incredibly easy!

raw cacao coconut truffles

  1. You can roll the mixture into balls straight away OR you can place it in the fridge for about 30 minutes first. This will allow the coconut oil to set, so the balls will not be so oily and you won’t need as many coatings of cocoa.

Something fun that I hadn’t tried before was to wrap something inside the balls. I used dried cherries, but you can also use cranberries or nuts – anything you fancy! And if you mix it up, it creates a nice little surprise with every truffle that you bite into.

raw cacao coconut truffles

  1. Coat the truffles in cacao powder, coconut flakes or crushed nuts. They’re best after you’ve let them sit in the fridge* for at least 12 hours as the dried coconut flakes have time to absorb the oil and become soft. Supposedly they should keep in the fridge for up to a week or longer in the freezer. In our house there were never any left after 2 days, so we don’t know. Has anyone managed to not eat them all straight away?..

*Something to bear in mind: this version of truffles is high in coconut oil which melts in room temperature. So make sure you keep the truffles in the fridge as otherwise you’ll have little oily puddles under every one of them.

raw cacao coconut truffles

Visa run to Laos – Our detailed itinerary

**2016 update:

You can no longer apply for a double-entry visa at the embassy, you can only apply for a single-entry, or the new multiple-entry 6-month visa, (or use a visa exemption) more details here.

Once you use up all of your entries, extensions and you’re out of days in Thailand, you go to any country in the world that has a Thai embassy or a consulate and apply for another double entry visa. You can go back to your home country if you wish, but if you’re time-strapped, you need to make this process as quick as possible. Hence, most travellers go to Laos, as it only takes 2 working days. We both used the same company on different occasions and the service was efficient and reliable – just what we were looking for. If you haven’t done it before and want to know how it works, you may find this detailed itinerary useful. I will write about my own trip and include Auste’s experience from her trip the month before in brackets.

OVERVIEW:

The company is called Sawasdee (SWD) and their website is thaivisaservice.com (check it out first!). They have grey vans in the Tesco Lotus car park next to On Nut BTS station, just under the big Tesco sign. Details and departure times are listed on their up-to-date website. You don’t need to book a seat as they ALWAYS have vans there, just make sure that you have the documents you need (the website has a list), 6 months passport validity, etc, as it’s all your responsibility. I saw one English guy getting off the bus at the Laos border just to be told to get back on and sent back to Thailand as he only had 4 or 5 months left on his passport. Also, remember to pack a jumper as once the air con is full on you might freeze in the van, and it gets quite chilly in the mornings up north so it’s best to be prepared.

DAY 1

19:30 Meeting at the Tesco car park, I saw one lady with a bunch of passports and a stack of forms, then gave one guy my passport and hung around the van with other travellers for about an hour. Make sure to put your bag in the van straight away to reserve the seat you prefer.

[I came a bit early, they took my passport which was followed by a long wait. It felt strange standing in a corner of a parking lot with a Thai guy who spoke no English holding a bunch of passports, surrounded by about 30 people of various nationalities. I felt like an illegal immigrant and I was wondering whether I will get my passport back or whether the guy will insist on keeping it until we reach the border]

20:15 The van filled up, we were all given our passports back and some visa application forms to complete. We were driving out of Bangkok, I was listening to 8.57 FM and the colourful traffic reminded me of driving out of London at night. Cute little random memories.

23:30 First stop at services, followed by another one at 1:50: 7-11, different eateries, toilets, etc. Plenty of time to stretch out. I nearly got onto a different van as they all look the same!

DAY 2

4.20 We reach the border, the driver gives everyone a colour-coded lanyard with the company’s name. Some get their passport photos done for 100 baht just outside. The border opens at 6am so there’s plenty of time to get a hot coffee, read a book, go to the toilet, etc.

[Not like some other passengers I did have 3 passport photos, the right size and everything. The guy just before me was told he’ll need to get the pictures in the morning as his were in a blue background. Mine were white, so I thought they should be ok. Nope. It turns out you need to wear a collared shirt in your passport photo as otherwise the officials won’t accept it (that’s something to bear in mind for girls – formal blouses are not suitable for passport photos, unless they have a collar.) I remembered seeing pictures on a Kodak place window that I laughed at – a white woman wearing a t-shirt in one photo, and a clearly photoshoped white collared shirt in another. Now suddenly that made sense. As if it’s not enough that they photoshop your face to look like a baby, they give you a photoshoped shirt as well! However, at 5am in the morning next to the Laotian border there was no such thing as photoshop. Instead, everyone who needed a photo had to put on some clothes they gave us – I got a man’s shirt of an indescribable colour and size. And the ‘photo booth’ was a plastic chair under a tree. When I got the printed photos I looked like someone had punched me in the face as there was a massive shadow covering one side of my nose – they only had the light on one side. Lovely.]

Laos, Vientiane visa run

5.50 Masses march the Thai border- there was no communication from the visa run company staff so I just followed the guys I met on the van  – already “experienced” in visa runs of this kind. We queue, the officials take your passport and departure card, put the exit stamps and give back your passport. You give your passport to the company staff again and, feeling like nothing else but a passport-less immigrant, go past the border and onto a bus. It’s cold, damp, and you’re an immigrant.

6.20 Many buses cross the Friendship Bridge carrying everyone to the Laos border. The Japanese and the Filipinos were asked to get on first, don’t ask me why.

[Once the photos were printed we had to pick up our bags and walk to the border where we spent another 20 min or so waiting behind a metal fence – yet another point where you get that feeling of being an immigrant. Around 6 am we got stamped out of Thailand, the visa run company collected our passports and we got rushed onto a bus to cross the Friendship Bridge. And even though I felt like a sardine cramped in a tin with someone’s elbow almost stuck between my ribs, the sunrise over the foggy shores looked pretty magical. ]

Laos, Vientiane visa run

6.30 Waiting for our passports at the Laos border, no communication from the company.

[At 7:00 we were still waiting for our Laos visas. I had long trousers and a thick jumper on, but it was still chilly. Did I get used to the high temperatures already..? Around 7:30 they started giving our passports back, but the visa run company staff said they’d hold onto our passports until we reach the embassy.]

8.00 The Laos border staff took our photos and the company kept our passports. Once everyone had taken a photo we walked through with the guide and onto a van. We were taken to the Thai embassy. We drove past natural shrubby landscapes which reminded me of Cambodia.

Laos, Vientiane visa run

 [8:15 after a long ride in a frozen mini van we reached the embassy. 8:30 they opened and the queue started moving inside. The good thing about being at the embassy this early was that the sun was not as incredibly hot as it usually is later in the day.]

8.45 We were dropped off at the embassy, where we queued on the street next to nice looking 40 baht baguettes, slowly moving towards the embassy’s beautiful front yard.

Laos, Vientiane visa run

9.10 The company staff gave back our groups’ passports with Laos visas in, and the Thai visa application forms.
9.30 I got a queue number and waited to be called.
10.00 I submitted my passport and the application to the Embassy staff and went back to the van, passportless again.

[I noticed the visa run company amended my occupation to “Tourist” on the application form. Ha, a dream job, right? If only such occupation existed… 1 hour to get the queue number, then one more hour wait for your number to be called. Once at the window – 2 seconds. The officer looked at my application, looked at my last Thai visa and I was free to go. One poor guy couldn’t submit his application though as first of all his school didn’t give him the right documents and also he didn’t have enough visa pages left in his passport. Apparently the last few pages in some passports don’t count as there’s no sign saying ‘Visas’ on them. That’s also something to look out for if your passport has these random pages!]

10.15 Van moved. Drivers in Vientiane seemed as if they didn’t have driving licenses, it was annoying as many cars couldn’t stay calmly in one lane, went against traffic, etc.
10.30 We arrived at the hotel for cold breakfast leftovers, then checked into the run-down rooms…

[We were then taken to our hotel which reminded me of Cambodia a lot. It seems like the time had stopped in these 2 countries probably a hundred years ago. All the furniture and decor that must have been really posh at some point, but now looked so shabby – with no attempt to modernise anything… We got breakfast on arrival though, which I didn’t expect. It was almost cold, but still – after this many hours in a van it was nice to eat something other than biscuits. Wi-Fi in the hotel worked for about 20 min in total during the 24 hours I was there. After dinner I got a tuk tuk into town and had a couple of glasses of house wine at a rooftop bar, the wine was surprisingly good! There were 2 random aerobics classes on the riverfront too, which were funny to watch…:)]

Laos, Vientiane visa run

I managed to explore Vientiane quite a bit in the 24 hours I had – check out this post for my experience which should give you some ideas of what you can do.

DAY 3

8.00 Breakfast with quite good range, including toast and scrambled eggs.
9.00 At this point I found out that you could use perfectly stable   Wi-Fi at the other end of the hotel.
10.00 Packing and down to lobby at 11.30.
12.00 Vans move to duty free.
12.30 to 2 pm everyone is doing their shopping/ chilling at duty free.

[Next morning we checked out at 12, around 1 pm we were taken to the border and spent an hour in duty free. There were a couple of places to eat at the back and a good choice of wine in the duty free section. Wine is MUCH cheaper than in Thailand. If only I was allowed to take more than 2 bottles…]

14.15 They gave us our passports back just opposite duty free (where you get on a bus upon crossing to Lao)
14.20 Everyone gets on the shuttle bus to be carried across the bridge.
14.25 Masses get off and straight away march towards the dark booths for stamps. The officer throws your passport back to you like a piece of gone-off meat. Then you go to a white building just opposite, no passport check, just a useless unattended ride through the scanner for your bag.
14.30 You’re in Thailand waiting for your new friends to finish the procedure.

[The agency picked the passports for us and we got them back after crossing the friendship bridge, already stamped out of Laos and we just needed to get arrival stamps on the Thai border.  By 3pm I was back in the Land of Smiles getting on a mini van for what turned out to be a nearly 11-hour journey back to BKK.]

15.00 We were all stocked on snacks at 7-11 and ready for the trip back. After unsuccessful negotiations with the driver about changing vans we started the move back home, in same vans, with same people.
16.45 A 30min stop at services, for a complementary coupon meal worth 30 baht.
19.30 Another pit stop, also about 30min, plenty of shops and toilets for everyone.

The 10-person van was pretty comfy, too bad I found out that seats recline Even MORE only towards the end of the trip. There’s good leg room too, but other vans were more crammed (I think the Filipino ones, for whatever reason).

If you are thinking of arranging the visa run yourself, instead of using a visa run company this website and this blog have a pretty detailed description of the whole process. However, we found that using the visa run company is sooo easy and convenient (it saves you lots of hassle by not having to deal with grumpy officials as much as you would if you did everything on your own AND everything’s much quicker) and the price difference (when you add up all transport, accommodation and admin costs) is minimal. We both had to get back to work the next morning after coming back to BKK around 1am, so getting the least tiring option also played a part in our choices.

Before we started working though we did our first “visa run” to Cambodia. We spent several days in Siem Reap (read about our trip here and here) and explored the Angkor Wat and Co (more on this – here). At that time it didn’t feel like a visa run at all, we were just travelling…:) So if you’re not working and are not limited by the number of days you can get off work to do your visa run, this blog has plenty of great ideas how to make the most of your visa runs from Bangkok.