Teaching in Thailand: Mixed Level Classrooms and Classroom Behavior

Two of the most common complaints I hear from other teachers in Thailand are that the students are in classes well above their English proficiency level, to the point where their class seems “pointless”; and that the students can be very uninterested and misbehaved.

In my (limited) experience, there is some semblance of truth to both of these complaints, but I also think some of it is just stereotypical teacher statements that get repeated year after year. There is a “no fail policy” in Thailand where students are promoted to the next grade regardless of how much they know, or how they do on their exams.  The students also know that they can’t fail, which some attribute to low motivation for learning.

I have learned quite a bit about each of my 6 classes (Primary 1- Primary 6) that I teach for English and/or science at a small, alternative Thai private school.  This may or may not be the case for classrooms in Thailand in general, or for ESL classrooms in other countries, but what follows are observations from my first two semesters as a new teacher in Thailand.

Mixed Level Classes

Your class will not be one cohesive group with all of the students at the same level of English proficiency, behavior, educational needs, interest level, age, or maturity.  I’m sure most of these differences (aside from the extreme variance in English proficiency levels due to the  “no fail policy”) are fairly universal, and something teachers everywhere have to adapt to.  However, in Thailand I teach 6 different grades and in every single class I have a mix of the following:

High performers

These students sometimes have at least one parent who is a Native English Speaker (NES), but sometimes not.  Either way, the high performing students are clearly lightyears ahead of the lesson I am teaching and the rest of their class.  They either love this fact because they get to show off to the teacher (usually the younger kids), or they are very, very bored.  For example, there is no reason a 6th grader who can hold entire conversations in English about just about anything should be spending 50 minutes learning adjective opposites.

Low performers

In every single class there is at least one, but sometimes a handful of students who know (almost) no English other than the “Good morning Teacher” and “Thank you Teacher” they say at the beginning and end of class.  Or they speak English at maybe a K3 or P1 level, but they are in a P5 science class conducted entirely in English.  They can usually repeat words back to you, but the lesson is far too advanced and you know they are not comprehending most, if not any, of what you are saying.

I do not know for sure how this huge disparity in English language proficiency within one class has happened, but Jake and I have a few hypotheses. Some students may have fallen behind way back in Kindergarten, P1, or P2 and then never caught up.   Then these same students may have even forgotten what they had learned previously, since they were so lost they stopped paying attention and speaking English months, or even years ago.  Or some students may have transferred into the school at an older age without any previous English language experience, and were therefore immediately behind and never caught up.  Or we suspect a handful of our students may not even speak Thai as their first language, and potentially their families came from Laos or Myanmar, or a hill tribe, and so they may be behind even in their Thai classes, while English is maybe a third or even fourth language they are trying to learn.

With graded language, the low performers in an ESL class can do really well with simple English lessons.  However, when trying to teach science or math concepts, even when only introducing a few new words in the entire lesson, you know there is a huge chunk of vocabulary that they should probably learn way before the English words to learn electricity, or cells, or photosynthesis.

Students with special needs

I also teach a number of students with special needs, which is common in many Thai schools.  Many students with special needs will be mixed in with sometimes 40+ other students per class in the large government or wat schools, where they can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.  The small, alternative nature of our school means we have a high proportion of students with special needs  who do much better with the school’s smaller class sizes, one-on-one attention, and Thai teachers who seem to really know how to teach and interact with them.

One child with autism will occasionally flip open her book and point to a random image, and will then repeat back the English word I provide to her.  These basic vocab words are never the point of the lesson for that day, but this is a way I can still teach something to this one child during the “practice phase” of the lesson (see here), and the few times I can get her to speak, and in English nonetheless, are priceless.  By going with the flow and doing something on her level, everyone in the class is learning something.  Seeing this child point to images and hearing her tell me the words I taught her the previous week without any prompts; and then receiving a big, wet kiss on the cheek immediately after, rates highly as one of my favorite teaching moments so far this year.

The average student

Hopefully, the majority of the class falls into this third category, which is the level I aim for my lesson to be taught.

After a few minutes presenting the new material with carefully selected graded language, we move on the practice phase of the lesson (see the 3P’s lesson format I learned from SEE TEFL here).  I have made practice a much larger part of my lessons than we learned to do in the TEFL course, because the practice phase is when I can give extra help to the low-performing students, and teach something a little more advanced to the high performing students who finish their work in 2 minutes.  This results in as much one-on-one tutoring as possible.

I am fortunate in that I have very small class sizes where this is possible, and if you teach in a school with 50 kids/class it is unlikely you may even know who needs what kind of help, let alone have the time to make your way around the room at least once. But with the extremely varied English proficiency levels in all of my classes, and the small class sizes, this is the way I am able to do most of my teaching.

Our students are very uninterested in any sort of presentation up at the whiteboard, but they are very eager to practice and participate in games and activities.  And if some of the students didn’t hear a word I said during the “presentation” phase, the practice phase is a time to re-teach the lesson individually if needed.  This brings me to the next point…

Classroom Behavior

You will not have a class of children all sitting quietly at their desks, looking up at the board, taking notes, and successfully responding to modelling and drilling cues or instantly beginning the activity you introduced.

All of my teaching practices were with classes of fairly well-behaved students (others in my course were not quite as lucky), so this was the biggest change for me as a first year teacher.  It is not uncommon to have half of the class doodling in their sketch books or coloring books and claiming they don’t have books or notebooks for this class.  A third of the class will be playing some sort of game with a variety of interesting toys or objects that they find way more entertaining than notebooks and listening to the teacher.  This includes comic books, marbles, playing cards, toy robots, stuffed animals, slime, swords or bows and arrows made out of rulers and string, the list goes on and on.

In our TEFL course we learned to bring our energy above the class’ energy level, and that we need to become the most interesting thing in the room.  But it is honestly quite hard to compete with what the students are already doing when you first walk through the door.  I can put on a show and dance all I want, but kids know what they want to do, and as much as I try to trick them into learning with games and activities (I will have an entire post about the importance of games and activities soon!) and topics based on their interests, some days they are just completely checked out.

You figure out little tactics that help, and it varies from class to class.  For example, in one class I have started giving directions just one time and then I immediately start counting.  I then write the number of seconds it took for every child to do what I said, whether it was “quiet please!” or “everyone; stand, please!”, on the board.  This saves my sanity in that I only have to say it once, and the students respond more to pressure from one another to do what I said than they do to me constantly saying the same thing.  They then want to get the number I wrote on the board lower and lower every time—so following directions becomes a game.  However, I also know that this tactic would not work even the slightest bit in other classes I teach.

Another class responds well to a “game o’meter” (copyright Jacob Geller 2015 :-)) drawn on the board, that starts off class full.  If they are misbehaving during the (already limited) presentation, I will erase part of the meter so the “game levels” begin to drop.  The students in one class really, really want to play the game (which is actually the learning activity for the lesson anyway…but they don’t need to know that ;-)) so this class responds really well to this tactic.

Another tactic I stole from Jake is to assign points in the game for various behaviors.  This has worked tremendously well for one very competitive, usually very rowdy class in particular.  If the team answers the question correctly they get one point, but if everyone on the team was sitting—bonus 5 points!  If no one spoke Thai and they only discussed the answer in English—another bonus 5 points! If everyone on the team was quiet (other than discussing the answer)—more bonus 5 points!  This tactic had almost magical child-behaving powers, and made a normally very loud class all sit quietly in their seats and speak English throughout an entire 50 minute class.  This works for them because they are very competitive and love team review games.  In another class this wouldn’t work at all because for that other class the points don’t really matter, and whoever wins or loses this game doesn’t matter, and they would rather just play with their slime and robots.

So you find what works for each individual class. 

You also learn which battles to fight, and which to let go.  If it will take 10 minutes and all of your energy and attention to convince one child to give up a toy, or to sit in their seat—it’s not worth the time or the effort and it will affect everyone else’s learning for 1/5 of the lesson.

Sometimes kids sitting on the floor are actually the most engaged students in the room.  They are actually looking up at me, the teacher; answering questions; and getting excited to show me what they know.  So why waste time trying to get them to go back to their seat where they will be less engaged, and pay less attention?  To have some semblance of a typical Western classroom where all of the students sit at their desks?  It’s a battle not worth fighting, at least for me, in certain classes.  In other classes though, if I let that slide, then that child, and everyone around him, would be completely disengaged for the entire lesson—then it becomes a battle worth fighting.

One student with special needs will roam around the room, building various objects, but I know he will listen and respond if I call on him throughout the lesson.  So even if he is not modeling and drilling like the other students; or looking at me, or the board; I can ask him questions throughout the class and he still learns as well as everyone else who is sitting at their desks and looking at the board.  Again, another battle not worth fighting, because he is still learning, as is everyone else.

You will get to know your class and how they all interact in order to figure out what is worth fighting, and what is worth letting slide and just moving on.

Teaching in Thailand is definitely much more difficult than a TEFL course advertisement with a picture of a 20-something relaxing in a hammock on the beach may lead you to believe (I’ve seen a number of those on Facebook, and they make me laugh). But the students (at least the ones I teach!) are incredibly sweet, wonderful little people.  More to come on teaching in a Thai school, and my students in general, very soon.

How does this compare to your experience?  Do you have any tips for me or other teachers who struggle with mixed level classes or behavior issues? Leave a comment below!

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Penang, Malaysia: Monkey Beach

I knew next to nothing about Penang, Malaysia before Jake and I were told by EFL (the language school that handles our visa and work permit, and the same school where we took our TEFL course) that we would go there to get our Thai visa.

We found out that our paperwork was ready just 3 days before our visa expired, so we very quickly planned a trip to leave Thailand 2 days later.  The last minute planning and surprise destination resulted in a great mini-vacation, and we ended up really enjoying our time in Penang.

penang map
Penang is a state on the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia

Other bloggers have covered travel, accommodation, and things to do in Penang pretty extensively, but the next few posts are some long overdue highlights from our 3 day visit over Thanksgiving 2015.

Motorbike ride along the coast and Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach is a small beach in Penang National Park in the North-West corner of Penang Island.

We took a very scenic 30 minute motorbike ride from our hotel the Kimberley House, along the coast, to the entrance to Penang National Park.

From the entrance you can either do an hour and a half long hike, or take a boat to get to Monkey Beach.  If we had had more time and worn better footwear,  we would have wanted to explore more of the National Park; but we arrived in the mid-afternoon wearing sandals, so we decided to take a boat over to the beach.  There are a number of small stands at the entrance offering tours and boat rides.  I can’t remember how much we paid, but I believe the boat ride to Monkey Beach is usually about 50RM (~$11USD).

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walking out to the boat
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Boat ride to Monkey Beach: enjoying the ocean for the first time since moving to SE Asia 3 months before

The beach itself is small and relaxing with very clear, beautiful water.   Since Malaysia is a majority Muslim country (61% of the population in Malaysia overall, and 45% of the population in Penang are Muslim), we felt a little uncomfortable spending too much time in our bathing suits.  From what I’ve read, if you go to a hotel pool or touristy beach where there are lots of foreigners, bikinis are the norm.  In general, bikinis and bathing suits are fine at the beaches in Penang, but when we visited Monkey Beach the only other visitors were Malay who swam fully covered from head to toe.

I did wear my bathing suit to go swimming and the water was very warm and surprisingly easy to float in.  However, I spent the majority of my time on the beach, in a t-shirt and long shorts, and felt completely comfortable.

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Monkey Beach is named for the crab-eating macaque that live there.  Within a few minutes of our arrival the macaque emerged from the trees to roam the sand and try to eat our food.  

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Despite their name, the macaque do not eat crabs and instead eat mostly fruits, seeds, and a variety of plants and animals.  They are amazing to see up close, but after some time spent monkey-viewing I felt like I couldn’t relax on the beach too much, or else the macaque would steal our stuff!  

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Many macaque, especially those that live in places like Monkey Beach, are not afraid of humans at all. They steal food both from garbage cans and directly from people.  One study found that 14% of the macaque’s diet came from food provided by humans.  I was a little afraid of some of them, and did surrender Jake’s backpack to a sneaky macaque at one point, but Jake had no problem getting it back.

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My favorite was the infant macaque latched onto his mother’s stomach.

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At low tide the beach was covered in sand dollars and some of the fastest moving snails I’ve ever seen.

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Jake learned that sand dollars are a thing for the very first time (how has he never heard of a sand dollar?!).

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Monkey Beach is a great place to relax and read a book in a hammock or on one of the lounge chairs (find a spot away from the monkeys!), see some macaque up close, and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

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Have you visited Monkey Beach in Penang? Would you like to?
More about Penang coming soon!

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National Children’s Day 2016

National Children’s Day is a day to celebrate children, recognize their importance in Thai society, and most importantly, to have lots and lots of fun!

National Children’s Day is held every year on the second Saturday in January.  Although not technically a national holiday, the day is celebrated throughout Thailand.  Businesses put on events with games and activities (magic shows, contests, workshops, parades, etc.); and many zoos, museums, and other attractions offer free admission to children.

Many government offices, which are usually not open to the public, are open on Children’s Day for children and their family to visit.  Children can take a guided tour of the Government House (office of the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers–similar to visiting the White House in the US), and this year the Government House lawn was turned into a dinosaur theme park.  The Royal Thai Air Force puts on an air show and allows children to explore the aircrafts up close.

One temple in Nonthaburi even installed a number of large replica characters from comic books, movies, and literature.

There is clearly a lot going on to celebrate being a child in Thailand.

Every year the Prime Minister  announces a motto for Children’s Day. This year’s motto was:

เด็กดี หมั่นเพียร เรียนรู้ สู่อนาคต

“Good children are diligent and crave for learning, for a bright future.”

Since Children’s Day falls on a Saturday, our school celebrated by having a big party on Friday afternoon.

The P5 students organized the games, and the P6 students were in charge of the gift swap.  Every student and teacher brought in a wrapped gift (worth at least 50 baht,or ~$1.50) that could be for anyone at the party (students aged 1-12, teachers, or parents).  Jake and I settled on some really beautiful, decorative notebooks since a notebook is age appropriate for just about anyone, and our students are drawing every chance they get.

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The P6 students numbered every gift and made a  chandelier with hanging paper hearts.  At some point during the party everyone picked a heart, and the number inside determined which gift we received.

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Gift swap

One of the P3 students traded her original gift for my notebook, and ran over to show me how excited she was.  Jake got a Mickey Mouse pencil case, and I got some sort of Thai educational computer game–both were clearly intended for Thai children.

The most interesting part of this party though, were the games.  There were games planned for every single grade, from nursery 1 (1-2 year old babies) all the way up to P6 (11-12 year olds), and every single one was extremely entertaining.

Nursery 1 had what I am calling “baby races”.  One to two year olds “raced” across the yard–guided mostly by the older students and teachers.

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Lining up the babies…

Inevitably this results in one child racing towards the finish line; a few children taking a few careful steps forward and then either freezing in fear, or backing up slowly; and the rest running off in every possible direction other than towards the finish line.

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baby race chaos

Nursery 2’s game (2-3 year olds) involved picking up various balloons and putting them in colorful, plastic bins–essentially cleaning up.  They also needed quite a bit of help.

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Kindergarten 1 (K1) had an actual eating contest.   The 3-4 year olds stuffed their faces to see who could finish their snack bar the fastest.  This was hilarious, and it took the foreign teachers a few minutes to figure out exactly what was going on.

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The next Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut

K2 and K3 students (4-5 year olds and 5-6 year olds respectively) played musical chairs.

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This round of musical chairs was very successful in that their was only one crying incident, and the tears stopped immediately once she received her prize.

Prathom 1 (also called Primary 1, P1, or 1st grade) raced across the yard to scoop up water from a bin, carry it back to the start, and see which team could fill up their water bottle the fastest.

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The P2 students (2nd grade) each wrapped a balloon around their ankle and tried to pop each other’s balloon with their feet.  The last one with their balloon still intact wins!

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The 2nd graders who play football (soccer) every day after school were the best at this game

P3 and P4 had some sort of flour-blowing race.  The students lined up (girls first, then boys), raced across the yard, and then competed to see who could blow all of the flour off of a paper plate the fastest.  This results in a huge cloud of flour, and flour all over the face and hair of everyone participating.

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Lining up. The P4 boys are very competitive.
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Flour-blowing in action
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Who finished?

P5 students MC’ed the event and helped organize and set up all of the games throughout the party–so I guess that’s why they didn’t have their own game.

Finally, P6 competed in limbo, where the girls were way better than the boys.

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Every student received a gift after playing the game, plus their gift swap gift, and then additional gifts were given out throughout the party as well.  So every child left with their arms overflowing in presents.

Everyone seemed to have a wonderful time, myself included.

How did you celebrate National Children’s Day?  If you’re not in Thailand, does your country have a similar holiday?  Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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Christmas in NY, New Years in Bangkok

With my re-entry permit freshly stamped in my passport, I flew to New York on 12/23 in order to spend Christmas Eve with my mom’s side of the family, and Christmas day with my dad’s side, just like I have in years past.  It was wonderful to see my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends after being out of the country for the last 4 months.

Lunch with my mom and sister
The Santomauro’s on Christmas Day!

After a relaxing 6 days in New York, I flew to Bangkok where I met Jake for New Years Eve.

New York to Shanghai, 7 hour layover, then Shanghai to Bangkok for a 27 hour trip. Better than the 3 flights and 36 hours it took me to get from Chiang Mai to New Jersey on the way there!

We spent the night at the Grand Swiss Hotel in Sukhumvit, a popular Bangkok district known for shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.  The guesthouses we usually stay in in Thailand have all been very cute, clean, and have everything we could need; but the Grand Swiss is pretty luxurious by comparison which was really nice for New Years Eve.

After getting ready for our night out in the city, we started off at 180° Lounge on the top floor of our hotel.  The 180° Lounge has a little roof-top bar where we sat overlooking the city.

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180° views of Bangkok

After enjoying the view and our buy one-get one 50% off cocktails, we decided to hit the streets of Bangkok.

Bangkok had a number of things going on for New Years Eve.  We decided to avoid the crowds at CentralWorld (similar to Times Square in New York City where there were thousands of people, live bands and DJs, a beer garden, fireworks, etc.) and instead go to one of the many rooftop bars Bangkok is known for.

We wandered the streets for a bit and quickly found the countdown party at Aloft Bangkok‘s Splash pool bar.  For a set price of 899 baht ($25) we get entrance to a rooftop pool party with unlimited food and drinks until 1am.  This is extremely cheap by US standards (especially for all you can eat and drink on New Years Eve!), but pretty pricey for our typical budget here in Thailand.  We normally spend about $1-2 per meal or drink, maybe $7 per day at most if we eat western food.  However, we decided it was worth it and bought two tickets.

A “pool party” was a bit of an overstatement.  There was a pool, but no one was in it.  This party had much more of a chill, lounge atmosphere with bean bag chairs scattered all over the roof.   We arrived about 30 minutes after the party had started so all of the prime bean bag real estate was already claimed, but this actually worked out better for us as it kept us moving around and mingling after each trip to the barbeque or the bar.

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DJ Zaar about to start the party

The best part of the party was the excellent people watching.  The relaxed atmosphere, mixed with an all you can eat and drink rooftop bar, drew a very interesting crowd.  We witnessed groups of Thai 20-somethings, very drunk foreigners, families complete with pre-school aged children (including a little girl in a princess costume who I think had more fun twirling around the roof than anyone else at the party), bored foreigners falling asleep in the beanbag chairs, and 60+ year old couples, all at the same party.

Jake and I had a great time commentating on the crowd, eating an endless supply of kebabs from the barbecue, and drinking bottomless  cocktails, wine, and champagne by the pool.
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Our one-night stay in Bangkok was a nice way to end a year where we moved across the world, and started entirely new careers.  I am definitely looking forward to seeing what this next year in Thailand has to offer.  We have lots of exciting plans underway,so follow my blog to get all of the updates :-).

Happy New Year!

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How to get a Re-Entry Permit in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Just four days before Christmas, Jake and I came up with a plan where I would fly to New York to spend Christmas with my family, while he would go off on a motorbike adventure down to and around Bangkok.  I bought my plane tickets on Sunday, and on Monday morning I went to get my re-entry permit.

No matter what Thai visa you have, once you leave the country (without first getting a re-entry permit) you forfeit your visa, regardless of how much time you have left.  I have a non-immigrant B visa valid until the end of February (and will be extended for a year once my work permit is processed).  If I had left the country without first getting a re-entry permit,  my non-Immigrant B visa would have ended.  If I had then arrived back in Thailand without a valid visa, I would have received a 30 day visa exempt stamp, since citizens of G7 countries get 30 days entry to Thailand without a visa.  However, I wouldn’t have been allowed to legally work with the 30 day visa-exempt tourist stamp, and I would have had only 30 days to stay in Thailand!

Luckily, this doesn’t mean that you can never leave the country without forfeiting your visa.   You simply need to get a re-entry permit before leaving.

To get a re-entry permit in Chiang Mai, go to Immigration at Promenada Mall.

Address: 192-193 Moo 2, Tumbon Tasala, Amphur Muang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai 50000. Immigration is located on the Ground floor in Building A.

Phone: 053-142788

The office is open Monday-Friday, excluding Thai holidays, from 8:30am-4:30pm. However, if you are arriving in the morning, arrive as early as possible and bring something to do while you wait, just in case.

Before opening hours, four lines are set up with long rows of chairs outside of the office—the first line is for extending your visa for an additional 30 days, the next two lines are for 90 day check-ins for various visa types (retirement, medical, non-immigrant, etc.), and the fourth line is for re-entry permits. There is also a cute little coffee shop where you can grab some breakfast and a coffee.

The 90 day check-ins were already lined up all the way down the walkway when I arrived at 7am.  Luckily for me since I was supposed to be proctoring exams at school all morning, there was just one family in front of me in the re-entry permit line.

There is a small office next door to the main Immigration office that opens at 8am to do photocopies and passport photos.  The nice man in front of me saved my spot in line so I could go make my copies at 8am without losing my place.   At about 8:05 the doors to the photo/copy office opened, and people began to rush in forming two lines.  I already had an extra passport photo, but I made a copy of my passport pages (front page and visa page) for 5 baht.

I was able to get everything together before 8:30am, but it’s probably better to come prepared with everything you need.

To get a re-entry permit you need the following:
  1. A completed re-entry permit application (completed in blue or black ink)
  2. Your passport and a valid visa 
  3. Photocopy of the front page and visa page of your passport
  4. One 4cm x 6cm passport photo
  5. 1000 baht (cash only) for a single re-entry, or 3800 baht for multiple re-entry.

Note: If you will leave the country 4 times or more during your current visa, then it pays to get a multiple re-entry permit. Otherwise, get a single re-entry permit each time you will leave.  However, you should also account for the time and money you spend going back and forth to Immigration before every trip with a single re-entry permit.  I will likely leave and re-enter Thailand 2-3 times during my current visa, so I went with the single re-entry permit for now.

Right on time at 8:30, a few Immigration Officers (IO) set up just outside of the main doors in order to begin giving out numbers to those lined up and waiting.  When it was my turn at the table, the IO quickly reviewed my application, checked my passport, asked me to add my phone number to the bottom of the application and sign each page, and then handed me the number 5 and told me to go inside.  The inside of the Immigration office looks like a DMV, or any other typical government office.  I took a seat and waited for my number to be called.

Just like the four lines outside, there are four desks inside of the office that correspond to each of the 4 visa processes they do at this location.  The re-entry permit desk started calling numbers at about 9am, and within a few minutes my number was called.  The IO reviewed my paperwork, asked for the 1000 baht re-entry permit fee, stamped the permit into my passport, and handed me a receipt.  I was on my way by about 9:10am.

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Inside of the Immigration office at Promenada Mall

Please note that with anything visa related, experiences vary tremendously from day-to-day.  In forums, Facebook groups, and blogs you will hear how easy certain visa processes are on one day, and how terrible it goes another day.  It very much depends on the day, in addition to what you are trying to do (for example, if you are doing a 90-day check-in or a visa extension, rather than the less common re-entry permit).  If you are going in the morning when it tends to be very busy, it is probably better to be there as early as possible.

In my experience, by 7am the lines for 90 day check-ins were already extremely long, and they give out only a limited number of appointment spots each day. Sometimes people have to come back to Immigration a few days in a row if they don’t get there early enough and all of the numbers are given out to those ahead of them in line.  Other times, people arrive in the middle of the afternoon and walk in and out without a problem.

Re-entry permits never seem to take more than a few hours, but it’s better to be safe than to mess with your visa!

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Enjoy your international flight!

When you arrive back in Thailand after your trip, you will complete an arrival card as you normally do.  When the arrival card asks for your visa number, be sure to put in your re-entry permit number, not the original visa number.  You can now enter Thailand using the same visa!

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Chiang Mai International Half Marathon 2015

On Sunday, 12/20/15 I ran the Chiang Mai International Half Marathon.

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After moving to Thailand in late August, I ran only once or twice during my four week TEFL course and the beginning of my job hunt, so I decided to sign up for a race with just 7 weeks to train as a way to start running again.

In typical fashion, I trained reasonably well (meaning I did all of my long runs, and maybe 2 shorter runs during the week) for the first few weeks.  Then, I went to Penang to get my non-immigrant B visa and didn’t run that entire week, including skipping my long run.  Following Penang, I got sick and was coughing and wheezing which made it hard to breathe normally, so running was off the table.  I did two final long runs (one 9.5 mile run, another for 9 miles) and no other shorter runs or workouts at all, and that was it.  So in short, I had no business trying to run well on race day.

However, this was my first international race and it was in my new neighborhood, so I was pretty excited for the experience.

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Chiang Mai Marathon Expo at Tha Pae Gate

The race had an extremely early start time because of the Thailand heat, even in winter.  The marathon started at 4am and the half marathon (which I was running) started at 5.  My plan was to leave my apartment by 3:45am.

Jake is amazing and woke up in the middle of the night to drive me to the start. The whole drive he discussed how crazy running a race in the middle of the night is…which is probably true.

Half Marathon 12-20-15
4am drop-off

There were no signs at the start to line up by pace, so I started near the back since I was planning on running very slowly.

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Lining up at the crack of dawn

After a leisurely run around the moat to start, I was feeling really relaxed (later on when looking at my splits I was running slower than a 10 minute/mile pace) so at mile 8 I started to pick up my pace–I ran about 9:20/mile for the rest of the race which felt a lot better.  The only problem was my left IT band started aching at about mile 10.  My IT band hasn’t bothered me since this same problem happened at mile 23 of the NYC Marathon in 2013…essentially it acts up when I run a distance more than I should be, given my (lack of) training.  The pain got worse as I continued running, but I kept going at the same pace and finished with my second worse half marathon finish time ever.  However, I ran the whole way (my only real goal for this race), ran very significant negative splits, and finished feeling pretty motivated that I can train to  run well here in Thailand following this race.

My only issue with this race was the lack of mile markers and clocks on the course.  There were no clocks on the course at all, and there were distance markers put out in kilometers, but not consistently.  As an American, I just couldn’t convert kilometers to miles fast enough in my head to see if my GPS watch was accurate (turns out, it was).

Also, it was completely dark until I got to about mile 9.  That was a little strange, and there was one stretch of road where I had to really watch my footing because there were few lights—but it reminded me of the night leg running Reach the Beach New Hampshire  and Ragnar Cape Cod relays with my friends in the states, which I loved.

Otherwise, the course was well marked in that it was easy to follow and I always knew where to go.  Knowing the city probably helped, and the route was a good one.  The half marathon course went around the moat, the Old City, and down Route 121.  The marathon course does the same, but goes further out and back on Route 121 so that runners also run in and around the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek gardens which are very beautiful.

The race swag was also top notch.  I received a nice medal, flashing running lights (again, most, if not all of the race is run while it’s still completely dark out), and a nice running tank—although I was surprised it was a tank and not a short sleeved running shirt considering Thais don’t really show their shoulders, but I guess runners have a culture of their own.

Now that it’s 2016 I’m considering actually training well and running a marathon or half marathon in Phuket in June…but we’ll see :-).


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Thai School Activities: Music in the Garden

At the school where I work in Chiang Mai, Thailand; we participate in “music in the garden” every Thursday.  Music in the garden has the feel of a block party or a barbeque where all of the students and parents come together after school, make and sell food, and listen to musical performances by some of the teachers (and sometimes students!).

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Music in the garden

To set-up, every student has a job.  Some students help set up the tables and music equipment, while some of the younger students help roll out mats to cover the grass in the garden.

Most of the students however, are helping to cook delicious food.  The students work in small groups and  have a mini-cooking class every Thursday.  Every week they cook something different and there are always at least 4 or 5 dishes to choose from.  We have had fried rice, eggs, chicken, BBQ mushrooms, noodles, pork and sticky rice, among many others.  There is also always a homemade drink of either butterfly pea flower water or punch.


Around 4:30pm we walk outside to join the students and parents.  The older students are set up at tables around the garden in order to sell their homemade food for between 5 and 20 baht per plate ($0.14-$0.57). Some of the parents and grandparents also bring food or other items to sell.  The grandmother of a 4th and 5th grade brother and sister brings multiple varieties of popcorn (caramel, bbq, spicy, or seaweed flavored) every week.  The mother of another 4th grader always brings the dried pork and sticky rice.  At last week’s music in the garden, a group of parents sold jelly candies and mini-candles.

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Lining up for flower water
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Hard at work
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Selling food and keeping track of the money

As for the music, one of the primary teachers always plays the guitar.  The PE/nursery teacher usually sings.  At one music in the garden, one of the 6th grade girls sang and played the guitar as well as any adult you might hear playing music live around town.  This same girl is one of the singers on the school song recording they play every morning during morning assembly.  At an earlier music in the garden, one of the 2nd grade girls (a 7 year old!) played some type of mallet instrument very beautifully for the entire hour.

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Man of many talents
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The usual duo for our Thursday evening garden show
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12 year old musician in the making
A very talented 2nd grader
A very talented 2nd grader
gathering a crowd
gathering a crowd

While the teachers and older students play music and sell food, the younger students (nursery-P3) run around and play.  Since we teach primary school, this is where Jake and I get our weekly dose of kindergarten fun.  Since we are both foreign and not their regular teachers, the kindergarteners find us (mostly Jake) extremely exciting.   There are lots of high fives, funny faces, general goofiness, and climbing all over Jake who is essentially a giant.

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Some of our P1 students just hanging around…
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We have yet to get this little one’s name (asking in both English and Thai), but he’s Jake’s biggest fan.
monster attacks
Monster attack!
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Juggling mini-candles….how to get 4-6 year olds’ undivided attention

Music in the garden is generally a highlight of our week.  We get to relax, eat great food, listen to music, and hang out and get to know our students outside of the classroom.

One of our third graders teaching us Thai writing on Jake's phone
One of our third graders teaching us Thai writing on Jake’s phone

Do you want to hear more about our school activities?  More about places to see in Chiang Mai, or about living in Thailand in general?  Let me know!

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Yoga Wednesdays

At our small, alternative school in Chiang Mai, we have a few unique activities that we participate in each week that are pretty different from what we might do at an American school.

For example, on Wednesdays we do yoga with all of the prathom (elementary) students.

on wednesdays we do yoga

P1-P3 (1st-3rd grade) usually do yoga in the library, which also doubles as our office and is where Jake and I spend most of our time when not teaching.  P4-P6 (4th-6th grade) are usually just upstairs in the music room.

We join the group in the library every Wednesday since the translated schedule we received on day 1 clearly stated, “the school would like you to do yoga with the students”.

I love yoga.  I bought a (pink, Hello Kitty) yoga mat at Big C shortly after we moved into our apartment and I’ve been doing great, free, full-length yoga classes online from home.  Jake on the other hand, kind of hates yoga.

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A typical Wednesday afternoon

The only problem I have is that the class is entirely in Thai, and I have yet to learn very much Thai at all.  I also set up my mat at the very back of the room behind all of the students.  Then whenever we lie on our backs, each row usually alternates head forward or feet forward so that no one’s feet are near anyone’s heads—a very big no-no in Thailand.  For Thais, the head is the most sacred part of the body, while the feet are the lowest and the filthiest.

This usually puts me facing backward for any poses that start off on our backs.  I don’t understand most of the Thai directions, so I spend most of  this time craning my neck around trying to figure out what everyone else is doing, getting into whatever pose that might be, and then realizing that they have already moved on to something else.  The other problem with just copying whatever the  students are doing is when 6-9 year olds are your model yogis, often none of them are doing the same thing as the instructor anyway.

This should say, "Me at Thai yoga".

However,  the yoga instructor always seems very happy that we  join her class, and the mid-workday savasana is amazing.

As a final highlight, the Kindergarteners do yoga on Tuesdays.  Kindergarten yoga is possibly one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

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My favorite photo--yoga chaos
My favorite photo–yoga chaos

If you’re thinking of visiting or living in Chiang Mai and like yoga, there are tons of yoga studios, retreats, and classes you can take.  I’m actually considering attending the Chiang Mai International Yoga Festival in January, so I’ll keep you updated on that as well.

Anyone else do yoga?  Would you have liked weekly yoga in school as a kid?  Comment below to let me know what you think!

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Thai Culture and Etiquette 101

Thai culture is extremely interesting.  I am by no means an expert (I’m an American, and I’ve been living here for all of three months), but most of what follows is not only based on my experience living and working here, but was also taught to us on Thai cultural day during our TEFL course.

Temple etiquette

Thailand is 95%  Buddhist and there are over 300 Buddhist temples, or wats, in Chiang Mai alone.  When visiting a Buddhist temple you should be sure to cover your thighs, chest, and shoulders–men wear long pants; and women wear pants, skirts, or shorts that go below the knees.  Everyone should wear shirts or blouses with sleeves so that the shoulders and chest are covered.  In some wats, visitors wear all white or a white top with black pants or long skirt, although in my experience this is rare.

Take off your shoes before entering the temple.  You will see shoes lined up outside of the temple, so just follow the lead of everyone around you and leave your shoes outside.

When entering the temple you should step over the door threshold, rather than on it.

In a Buddhist temple, women kneel  with the tops of their feet flat on the ground and sit on their heels.  Men kneel  with just the  balls of their feet on the ground and the soles of their feet facing straight behind them, and sit on their heels.

Monks are highly respected in Buddhism and Thai culture.  Women should never touch a monk.

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The head and feet

In Thailand, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body.  Therefore you should never touch another person’s head (there are obvious exceptions for hairdressers, doctors, masseuses, etc. as well as some exceptions for children).

You also should never point your feet at anyone, as the feet are considered to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body.  Accidentally pointing your feet at someone mostly occurs  when westerners cross their legs while sitting, or while sitting in a chair with their legs outstretched.

Similarly, this is why you take your shoes off before entering some houses or buildings in Thailand, and always at a temple.  You also should never raise shoes to unnecessary heights, or have shoes hanging loosely tied to a piece of luggage.

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The Wai

The wai (pronounced ‘why’) is both a greeting, and a sign of respect.

In any given social situation, the Phu Noi (little person) wais the Phu Yai (big person) first.  This is usually based on age and status, but a number of different factors can come into play.  I always wai first my employers, the director at a school I am visiting, or someone who is clearly older than me where we do not know each other’s status or position.  When in doubt, it’s probably better to wai first.  You do not need to wai someone you are paying for a service such as waiters or taxi drivers.

If someone wais you and you do not return the wai, it is considered very rude–similar to if someone goes to give you a handshake in the west and you leave them hanging.  Obviously Thais are understanding of foreigners and that you may not understand their culture and traditions, so it’s unlikely you really will offend someone by not returning a wai as a visitor, but it’s much more respectful to understand how to wai appropriately.

There are three stages of the wai:

  1. A first stage wai is for someone of equal status to you, or when acknowledging and returning a wai from someone of lower status.  To first stage wai you place your plams together and equally lower your head while raising your hands until your index fingers touch the tip of your nose.
  2. second stage wai is for waiing someone of higher status.  This includes elders, teachers, parents, or your boss. To second stage wai you place your palms together and  lower your head while raising your hands until your thumb touches the tip of your nose and your index fingers touch the center of your forehead between your eyebrows.  In a second stage wai you bow your head slightly more than you would in a first stage wai.
  3. third stage wai is for the King, the Buddha, or monks.  You third stage wai while kneeing (as described above).  To third stage wai you start with a second stage wai (thumbs to nose and index fingers to forehead) and then follow that by bringing your hands to the ground in front of you and bringing your forehead to touch your fingers on the ground.  

In a temple you third stage wai the Buddha three times–once to the Buddha, once to the Buddha’s teachings, and once to the monks.

Thai Temperament

Thais value “jai yen” or a “cool heart”.  In general, Thais are very laid back and you will hear “mai pen rai” very often.  “Mai pen rai” can not be directly translated to English, but it is often interpreted to mean “never mind”, “it’s ok”, or “no worries”.  To relax and go with the flow is a very positive attribute in Thailand.

Thais are said to openly avoid confrontation (for anyone who knows me well, this is obviously something I kind of love).  However it also means that if a Thai has a problem with you, you probably won’t know it.  This goes back to an important concept of ‘losing face’.   It is very important in Thai culture not to ‘lose face’ so Thais would rather avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation (or person they don’t like) than to have any form of confrontation or disagreement.

It is also considered a major faux pas to outwardly express extreme negative emotions, so expressing anger or loosing your temper in public is frowned upon and causes you to “lose face”.

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Pretty easy to have jai yen here


Thais do love to have fun (“sanuk”) and therefore all activities should have an element of fun–including work and school.  This is a very important cultural point for teachers.  On our very first day of school, Jake and I were asked by our supervisor if we could “make activities for learning”.  We need to include creative ways to keep the kids having fun and engaged in order to ‘trick’ them into learning.  Traditional teaching methods of lectures and worksheets and sitting at their desks for the entire 50 minute period just doesn’t fly here.

Similarly, it is not uncommon to see Thais at work, in a variety of work settings, laughing and joking and having a wonderful time.

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Having fun during afternoon STEM activities!

Other random cultural points

Appearance is very important.  Sometimes how you look and dress will mean more than other qualifications to show signs of status, or even to get a job.  It is important to be well dressed and clean.

First day of school
Dressed to impress on the first day of school

Thais use their first names rather than last names.   Teachers are called “Teacher” or “Kru” (which means ‘teacher’ in Thai)  followed by their first name.  For example, I am “Teacher Nicole” at school, not “Mrs. Geller” as I would be in the west.  Outside of the classroom this still applies, and people are usually introduced with the title “Khun” followed by their first name; rather than Mr. or Miss/Mrs./Ms. last name as you would be introduced in the west.

Beckoning a songthaew, taxi, tuk tuk, or another person is done with the hand down.  To a westerner the symbol almost looks like you are shooing someone away–but in Thailand this is how you call someone over.  As a westerner it can be a little confusing the first time you see it.

In Thailand, you eat with a spoon and fork.  You hold the spoon in your dominant hand, and use the fork to push food onto the spoon, and then bring the spoon to your mouth.  The exception is when eating noodles or certain other dishes, which you eat with chopsticks.

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Hope this helps!  As always, contact me with any questions.  I’d love to hear about any upcoming trips to Thailand!

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Thai Visa Run to Penang, Malaysia

Jake and I just got back from our Thai visa run to Penang, Malaysia and Penang far exceeded my expectations.  I have heard horror stories of half or full day long lines and paperwork at other consulates, but applying for our non-immigrant B visa in Penang was very fast and easy.


The Royal Thai Consulate in Penang is open Monday through Friday from 9am-12pm, and from 2pm-4pm.

If you are applying for any non-immigrant visa, make sure you will be in Penang for at least 2 business days, the first day to drop-off your passport and apply, and the second day to pick up the visa (same day pick-up is available if you are applying for a tourist visa).   The consulate is closed on both Malaysian and Thai public holidays so make sure to check holiday dates and plan your trip accordingly.

Make sure you have all of your paperwork, and always check the latest requirements as they can often change.  EFL and SEE TEFL took care of our visa paperwork for us, so I can not offer much help here other than to tell you to check and re-check the requirements.  This document from the Penang consulate outlines exactly what type of visa you will require depending on the purpose of your trip to Thailand, and what documents you need to bring to apply for each type of visa.

When you arrive in Penang, make sure you exchange enough money, as the visa fee must be paid in Malaysian Ringgit. Also note that the power outlets in Malaysia are different from the US and Thailand (although the same as the outlets in Britain), so remember to bring along an adapter!

Getting to the Royal Thai Consulate

The Royal Thai Consulate is located at 1, Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 10350 Pulau Pinang, Malaysia.  The phone number is +60 4-226 9484.

We took a cab to the consulate on the first day, which ended up being a waste of money (cost about 25 Ringgit from our hotel).  The walk back was not bad, as long as you map it out on Google maps ahead of time so you know where you are going (about 30-40 minutes to our hotel, Kimberley House, and completely free).

The Kimberley House staff recommended we take the 101 bus (info on the 101 bus route found here) which would cost only about 1.40 Ringgit per person, but it would still take about 40 minutes to get there from downtown.

If you can drive, our recommendation is to rent a motorbike for the day (~30 Ringgit/day) so you can get to the consulate in about 10 minutes (again, map it out ahead of time so you know where you’re going), and then you have the freedom to go anywhere in the city and see the sites for the rest of the day.  We used AM Sinar Enterprise and they were wonderful to work with.

Day 1: Passport drop-off

You can apply for your visa only between 9am and 12pm.  We arrived at the consulate just before 9am and only about 10 other people were waiting for the consulate to open. Right at 9, the security guard opened the gate and we lined up to sign-in before walking over to the main window to collect the appropriate application.

The application for the non-immigrant B visa is fairly straightforward, but it helps to have your address in Penang (current address), proposed address in Thailand, and address of your sponsor in Thailand (found on the bottom of your recommendation letter stating your employment) handy.  You will also complete a passport pick-up slip with basic contact information and your passport number.

When you have completed the application, line up at the main window to hand in all of your forms and pay the visa fee.  For a single-entry, non-immigrant B visa, the cost when we applied was 300 Ringgit (approximately 2,517 baht, or $70 USD).  The consulate will keep your passport and relevant documents, and you leave with your passport slip.  We were told to return back the next day at 2pm.

We really took our time completing the application, and we were still out of there in less than 45 minutes.

Day 2: Passport pick-up

We had the next morning to continue exploring Penang (more on Penang coming soon!) before arriving back at the Royal Thai Consulate a bit before 2pm.

Right at 2pm we were allowed to line up (this line was much longer than the previous morning’s line) to collect our passport and visa.

When we reached the window we exchanged our passport slip for our passport, now complete with a new non-immigrant B visa to allow us an extra 90 days in Thailand, and to apply for a work permit.  We left by 2:08pm…the pick-up process took a mere 8 minutes.

This 90 day non-immigrant B visa will be extended to match the duration of our employment contract once  we receive our work permits (our school can apply for our work permit now that we have the correct visa to allow us to work).

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Front gate at the Royal Thai Consulate in Penang, Malaysia
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Back of the Thai Consulate in Penang, Malaysia

I will keep you updated on our visa extensions, 90 day reporting, and other visa and immigration logistics as they come up over the next few months.  I am by no means an expert, but if you have any questions about your own Thai visa run to Penang please don’t hesitate to contact me, I’m happy to help!

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