My path to Chiang Mai

When Phil invited me to start my own ajarn blog, I sat for a long time thinking what to write. The forum and the main site contain giga-bytes of relevant and useful information for teachers developed over many years of this website’s life. What can I add? I think what I can add is love. Please don’t click away yet guys, because this love is something we can all share. We can all be part of my love affair. I want to confide to you my reasons for falling head-over-heels for an old, hot, occasionally wet, sometimes dusty but never boring lover: Chiang Mai. What will follow over the following months and years will be my first-person narrative of a farang teacher’s life in Chiang Mai with tales of expats, local personalities, festivals and history. It may not interest readers who have never fallen for the charms of this exotic and mystical lady, but it’s my blog so mai pen rai.

I guess for my first blog I should talk about my journey to become a teacher in Chiang Mai. Way back in 1990 I backpacked from Australia back home to the UK. Travelling through the Nusa Tengra islands of Indonesia I met lots of travelers heading in the opposite direction who told me tales of wonderful and amazing Thailand. Through Singapore and Malaysia the stories continued until the day I finally arrived at the Thai border. I looked across and not only anticipated but also imagined the great experiences I was about to meet, so what a disappointment when I finally arrived. People seemed unfriendly and greedy in the south; Koh Samui was the same; Bangkok made me consider going home.

I decided to give Thailand one last shot and go trekking from a northern city called Chiangmai, or was it Chieng Mai. I wasn’t really interested in the name though, as I was going there for mountain walks with hill-tribe people. However (this is a very big ‘however’), I was absolutely charmed by the people, sights, smells, food and culture of this place I now know is called Chiang Mai. It was love at first sight.

Reluctantly leaving Thailand I moved to Hong Kong and Macau. From Macau I took the night boat to China, well Guangzhou to be exact. From there I traveled by train to Beijing to catch the Trans-Siberian express to Moscow and then on to Berlin and finally home. It was an amazing adventure that changed the way I looked at life. Years passed in provincial-town England and despite a well-paid job, nice house just outside London and a beautiful(ish) girlfriend, there was something missing.

As the 90s progressed I more and more understood that the only time I had truly felt alive was when I was shoe-stringing my way through Asia in 1990. However, I was now trapped. I felt I couldn’t just walk away from a pretty good job. In addition, there was my mortgage and also the woman I planned to marry to consider. Eventually one day while driving home after another 12-hour day, the internal pressure to change something exploded. The girlfriend was ditched. A flight was booked. My house was leased to a nice young couple. A Lonely Planet book for India was purchased. A year was then spent doing and seeing things in India that made Harrison Ford’s adventures in The Raiders of the Lost Ark seem mundane. As the year drew to a close and thoughts of the flight home grew stronger, I started to panic. I knew a life of mortgaged marital bliss in the suburbs wasn’t, and would never be, me anymore.

Like a corny plot twist in a Hollywood movie, life dealt me a couple of aces while traveling on a rickety old bus in Sri Lanka. I had sat next to two English teachers who worked in Bangkok, and their tales of teaching in the Big Mango enthralled me. I left the bus knowing that this was the path I was going to take. Anyway, cutting a long story short that included a TEFL course, an English exotic dancer, Benidorm, a few tears and a temporary job in a dry-cleaning ‘factory’, I was on my way to Thailand a couple of months later with a well-deserved 120-hour TEFL certificate. I planned to head to my favorite city in Asia from my 1990 adventure. I landed at Don Muang airport at 1:47pm on October 21st 1999 and was on the Khao San road night bus to Chiang Mai a day later. Since then there has not been a single regret regarding my decision to make this break and relocate my life to Asia.

My first year in the north was spent intentionally avoiding too much work. After a year in India I was going to party and work would just get in the way. However, I had enough teaching hours from a language school job to cover living costs and finance a Honda-dream lifestyle. Through a friend I got my foot in the door at the British Council teaching centre. A 2-year full-time contract and fixed salary followed and financed a nicer apartment and a growing bank balance. The bank balance was blown when I took a 6-month holiday at the end of my contract. I managed to travel around Thailand and visit Laos, Cambodia and Burma while still keeping an apartment in Chiang Mai. It was worth the expense. I then became a Director of Studies at another school before starting my own school around 6 years ago. I am still a school owner, but my day job since 2006 has been TEFL trainer.

Over the coming months I plan to blog about living and teaching in the north with profiles of different schools and teachers (past and present), plus interviews with foreign teachers and people involved in education. Thrown in at appropriate spots will be advice and news for newbies and potential expat teachers. Chiang Mai also knows how to celebrate and the Loy Kratong and Songkran festivals are celebrated here with an enthusiasm and passion not seen anywhere else, and I won’t forget to write about these as well. To be continued…

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This blog was first published December 11th, 2010 on ajarn.com

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