By Sally Stephenson
The heat struck like an overwhelming blow. I walked down the stairs onto the tarmac of Dubai’s airport and quickly boarded the air-conditioned bus to the terminal so I could catch my connecting flight to Bangkok. Around me everything was different, my conscious accepted it as normal but deep down the overwhelming feeling of being in the unknown crept slowly to the surface.
I boarded the flight to Bangkok and soon I was in the Land of Smiles. I was met by a lady from the AYC offices and in meeting my first person from Thailand I found her welcoming and embracing. She offered me a traditional Thai flower and wanted to make sure I was okay after my long flight. The Land of Smiles was personified in this woman, and just what you wanted to see when you stepped off a long plane journey into a foreign country. She met another English teacher from Newcastle, and we were soon off to the bustling city of Bangkok.
Remember being the new kid at a school? Or first day nerves at either school or work? Well, that’s what it was like arriving at the AYC offices. Everyone seemed to know everyone and the demons of my social anxiety began to grow. I quietly sat by myself, made small talk with people. All nations seemed to be represented there; British, Irish, South African, American, Kiwi and more. All of us had found our way to a simple office building, ready to begin our adventure in Thailand. We were then all bused up and sent off to the dizzying heights of Pattaya. Pattaya is known as the red light district of Pattaya, the nightlife has a notorious reputation for prostitution and ladyboys, a far cry from a simple suburban English upbringing. Motorbikes, tuk tuks and songathews sped around streets that were adorned with Thai lettering and sights and sounds unseen anywhere else.
Sleep was elusive that day. There was too much to do from getting the bus, the two hour bus journey, checking in, meeting all the other teachers and setting out in Pattaya for dinner. Sleep was like a scrap of paper caught in an up draft that I wanted to grasp so badly yet always out of reach. Seeing Pattaya through sleep filled eyes was certainly an interesting way to be introduced to Thailand. The shock value would linger just below the surface… scratch it just enough and it can overwhelm.
People think of Thailand from what they see in the guidebooks. Typical images come to mind: beautiful beaches, temples, Bangkok nightlife and full moon parties. Young backpackers out to explore the world and all it has to offer for the cheapest buck they can offer. For us teachers we were experiencing something quite different – prostitutes overcharging for a can of Coke, men trying to drag us into Ping Pong shows and trying to keep up with everyone in the hopes of not getting lost on the winding streets of a strange new world.
When we got back to the hotel room and crawled into a bed, I had been awake for thirty hours and completely pulled from my comfort zone… but found that I was surrounded by new friends and a new future that I hoped would bring the promising delights of everything that had been advertised to me.
Our first days in Thailand were ones that were hidden away in an air-conditioned seminar room where we were put through a full week of cultural awareness and information on teaching and living in Thailand. Most of the information I’ve now forgotten except for one classic line:
“Thai history is like my dandruff, we don’t talk about it.”
Little did I know how accurate this sentence would be. Thailand exists very much in its own bubble, it honored a King and Royal family that would inspire any writer to think of interesting dictatorship fantasy stories but also stir in a great amount of respect for Thai people. Many Thais live in poverty while their King lives in high luxury and yet they continue to worship him. It is a concept I never quite understood but I didn’t question it as the famous phrase “This is Thailand” was often repeated to me.
The decision to celebrate a wealthy King while a nation seemed to struggle was one of the many small intricacies that I would come to accept. When our week in Pattaya was over we were taken from our safe little bubble and forced to say goodbye to our new found friends and than sent to our new teaching locations. I was to be sent to a school two hours outside of Bangkok in Chachoengsao teaching five year olds. I was dismayed to say the least as I had hoped for a southern location and high school students, but I was determined to make the best of my time and determined to do right by the school that had chosen me. Little did I know that this would be the start of a personality trait where I would put too much expectation on myself and set the bar too high for what I wanted to accomplish. Thereby, at the end of my first week I had forgotten the most important phrase I had been taught in Pattaya:
“This is Thailand”
Since 2007, Sally has lived in Australia, America, Thailand and New Zealand. She currently writes fiction and non-fiction while training for a career in Project Management. Her tales span the course of all of her travels and more information and blogs can be found at her personal site: http://www.sallystephenson.com/.