A Week-In-The-Life of Chris & Cathy: Traveling Teachers

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Attempting to avoid Canadian winters at all costs, Chris & Cathy decided in 2004 that traveling and teaching would be an ideal way to immerse themselves in foreign cultures and not merely pass through them, staring wide-eyed from a bus. They quit their jobs, sold their house, put everything remaining into storage and boarded a plane bound for China with intents to become traveling teachers.

More than 2 years later they moved across the strait to Taiwan where they are currently working in Jhudong, Hsinchu county. Between teaching contracts, they take off for about three months to go backpacking. Please enjoy a week-in-the-life of Chris & Cathy as they travel through Thailand and Laos.

(This post was originally published in 2009; links and content have since been updated)

See also: Earn Income by Teaching Abroad

Traveling Teachers, From Taiwan to Thailand

The flight to Bangkok was straightforward enough and we met our daughter May outside the arrival gate. She looked healthy and happy but tired. This was probably due to the fact that she was lugging around a backpack that appeared to almost match both her size and weight.

Upon leaving the terminal we were immediately accosted by cab drivers wanting to take us into the city about 40 minutes away. I’m pretty sure the Thai planning authority purposely built the airport a substantial distance from downtown to generate jobs for impoverished, cut-throat taxi drivers but at 11:00 at night after a long day of packing and waiting around we just couldn’t be bothered haggling over a couple of dollars. Of course we paid more than we should have, but we also paid less than we could have and the driver was at least entertaining as I tried out conversational niceties from May’s Lonely Planet phrase book.

DAY 1: Bangkok (Banglamphu)

Fabric store in Bangkok; beware of travel scams taking you to places like these! says Chris & Cathy, traveling teachers

Traveling independently for any length of time requires a healthy dose of caution to be balanced with an equally healthy measure of ‘laissez faire’. Too much of one or the other can have serious repercussions on your trip, leaving you either too suspicious of people to enjoy yourself or overly susceptible to being taken advantage of. After a while you develop an awareness; a traveler’s intuition if you like. When you have it, I don’t know what it’s called but when you don’t have it I call it ‘Road Rust’ and we had it. Not only that but we had it in a city that separates tourists from their money quicker than an Irish wake separates a man from his senses. Unfortunately it was to make for a rude introduction to this vibrant and dynamic city.

The Bangkok Gem Scam essentially involves a tourist being approached by a friendly ‘good Samaritan’ who will offer you some sage advice about local attractions or rip-offs. He will then offer to locate an honest driver for you. The goal is to gain trust by first taking you to a few places you want to go to and, once that is accomplished, to get you into a jewelery store or fake travel agent where you will be badgered into buying something expensive and completely fake.

Seeing the sites in Bangkok Thailand

All day long as we were travelling from site to site, I’d had a vague feeling that something had been playing out around us, something that we’d been involved in but were mostly unaware of. When we went back to the hotel we noticed a warning poster in the elevator politely informing us that we’d been unwittingly separated from the herd by a group of professional swindlers who’d tried their damnedest to bleed us dry.

It was soul destroying to know that we’d been exploited solely because we’d been foreign, friendly and approachable; that if we’d been mean, dismissive and ignorant we would have effectively protected ourselves from being potentially fleeced by grinning charlatans. Fortunately we’d been smart, or fortunate enough not to purchase anything.

Welcome to Thailand.

The land of smiles.

Welcome to Bangkok.

Trust the smiles at your peril.

(See also: 24 Classic Travel Scams, and How to Avoid Them)

DAY 2: Bangkok (Banglamphu)

This morning we talked to the odd looking trans-gender receptionist at the hotel about purchasing tickets for the overnight sleeper to Chiang Mai. She/He made a couple of phone calls and reported success! There were 3 sleepers available in 2nd class air-con for the next night’s train. While not being equipped with all the privacy and frills of 1st class, the 2nd class option more than suited our needs. We booked the tickets and headed out to explore the notorious Khao San road.

Khao San and the streets surrounding it are a veritable Aladdin’s den of travel and ticket agents, crafts, paintings, pirate CDs and DVDs, fake diplomas and driver’s licenses, second hand books, t-shirt vendors, street snacks, backpack supplies, souvenir stalls, massage parlors and endless labyrinthine alleys of suspiciously discounted ‘designer’ clothes. It is famous worldwide and has developed from humble beginnings into probably the most extreme example of a “backpackers’ ghetto” that you are likely to find anywhere in the world. For all its notoriety it’s a pretty short street. How can such an undersized street have such an over-sized reputation?

Day 2 - Royal Palace Grand Palace in Bangkok Thailand

The afternoon was absorbed by the Grand (Royal) Palace.

Needless to say it is massively impressive. Never before have I been quite so astounded by the architecture and accoutrements of a building or temple. But then, calling this place a collection of buildings is akin to calling the Amazon and the Nile a couple of rivers.

Gilt, mirrors and frescoes abound. Polished orange and green roof tiles cover the gloriously conceived temples; gleaming stupas reach for the clouds, marble covered floors and mosaic encrusted pillars are at every turn. Dazzling gold leaf glitters and glistens in the sunshine and appear to swathe every surface not already covered by small intricately detailed tiles or vibrant paints. The whole place is an almost incomprehensibly amazing feast for your eyes. It is staggering in its opulence and, after visiting more than my fair share of palaces over the years, this is one that truly took my breath away.

DAY 3: Bangkok to Chiang Mai

Clutching our tickets and labouring under the weight of newly acquired backpacks courtesy of a Khao San road vendor, we piled into a taxi to fight through the early morning rush hour. The sheer volume of traffic on the morning streets of Bangkok is absolutely astonishing. It is choking, teeming and guaranteed to make you late.

Eventually we arrived at the train station and made our way onto the platform to wait…

…. and wait ….and wait. Unlike China; where the trains look as if they’ve been rejected by every major and minor rail company in the world but actually manage to run punctually, the Thai trains seem to run on their own particular clock. Unfortunately nobody else seems to know where the clock is or what time it’s set for.

Forty five minutes later the train decided to put in an appearance. Thankfully it was clean and the seats were comfortable enough. The ceiling mounted fans were novel but I had the sinking feeling that they were our ‘A-C’. Air-circulators as opposed to air-conditioners.

It’s all in the small print, as they say.

DAY 4: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is an ancient walled city surrounded by mountains in Northern Thailand. It was originally founded in 1296 by King Mengrai and was given its name to reflect its establishment. Chiang Mai literally means ‘New City’.

Not very creative I’ll admit but what can you do?

He was the King after all.

Nowadays it is a major center for tourists to visit the ‘Karen’ and ‘Lisu’ hill tribes and for both elephant trekking and bamboo river rafting expeditions. We visited some tour operators and managed to book a tour incorporating all three activities for 700 Baht per person (about $23 Cdn) for the next day.

DAY 5: Chiang Mai

Promptly late, we were collected by our tour group in an air conditioned minivan and driven at breakneck speed up into the mountains. The scenery was gorgeous but I doubt that our driver took much time to appreciate it as he whipped the protesting vehicle through curve after sinewy curve.

Our first stop was an elephant reserve where we were introduced to the lumbering, gentle creatures and helped onto their broad backs by our guide. After a short distance he slipped to the ground and motioned for me to take his spot. Not wanting to pass up a golden opportunity to make a fool of myself I slid forward until I was straddling its massive neck. Balancing myself with my knees and hands; being swatted by it’s ears as it fanned itself and looking down over it’s grey wrinkly cranium as it swayed rhythmically forward was an experience I’ll never forget. The hair on its head and trunk felt like patting a brillo pad and once in a while I felt, quite literally through the seat of my pants, a deep, rolling rumble so resonant that I was amazed nobody else could hear it.

After plodding through the dense jungle, we bid ‘adieu’ to the elephants and drove a short distance up the road for our bamboo rafting venture. The rafts themselves were nothing more than stout bamboo logs tied together with rope and twine with a ‘seat’ of sorts for someone who didn’t mind getting a wet bum. Cathy sat while May stood and I was elected to ‘steer’. Using a long barge-pole to navigate the bends of the river wasn’t as easy as it looked and I was in awe of how deceptively simple the Thai river guides made it appear.

Karen hill tribe home in Thailand

In the afternoon we visited the ‘Karen’ hill tribe. It’s hard to believe in this day and age that people still live in the same manner as they have done for centuries; perhaps even millennia. Flimsy shacks with dirt floors, communal sleeping quarters, pigs, chickens and ducks roaming around unchecked. Dirty, scruffy, wide-eyed kids and even scruffier dogs; ran around scaring the chickens and it’s easy to imagine that nothing much has really  changed from what you imagine it has probably always been.

DAY 6: Chiang Mai to Huay Xai (Laos)

We woke early and were shuttled to the bus station for our trip to Laos. The journey was uneventful but tolerable and the landscape was spectacular. Vast, flat plains back-dropped by mountains flanked with lush vegetation soothed my eyes and smooth, undulating, non-frost-heaved-tarmac soothed my bum.

We arrived in Chiang Kong 6 ½ hours after leaving Chiang Mai and as we disembarked a gaggle of demonstrative tuk-tuk drivers descended upon us like seagulls squabbling over scraps at the beach. They shepherded us towards their derelict vehicles for transportation to the ferry dock where we piled into longtail boats for our journey across the mighty Mekong river. About 10 minutes later and a whole $1 per person poorer we set foot for the first time in Laos, entering the country at the small frontier town of Huay Xai where we set about getting our arrival visas processed. Essentially this seemed to involve a whole lot of waiting around while nothing actually got done. Apparently the guy who was in charge of providing the authorization and Visa stamp was on break and nobody could find him. So while the immigration guards played games on their cell phones, chain smoked and studied us from behind intimidating looking, mirrored aviator sunglasses, once again we waited.

In due course his eminence arrived and after paying $42 each for inconveniencing him, we were stamped and ready to go. We quickly located a hotel not far from the ferry dock and for 90,000 Kip (approximately $9.50 Cdn) we were able to rent a triple room with a fan for the night. Originally the owner had wanted 110,000 but using my travel honed negotiating skills I bargained him down by 20,000 Kip, which I justified by figuring it would probably go a fair way towards paying for a very welcome, ice-cold beer on the banks of the Mekong over dinner.

DAY 7: Huay Xai to Pak Beng

At some point an enterprising Mekong river captain must have realised that transporting foreigners would be a hell of a lot more profitable than chickens and rice because the boat we found ourselves crammed into was immensely crowded. At least we had seats though, unlike some of the poor souls who arrived late and ended up spending 6 hours sitting on the floor in the smoky, throbbing engine room.

Huay Xai sunset over the Mekong river in Laos

Watching Laos slide by from a boat on the Mekong is an experience I will not soon forget. As we passed by, fishing boats plied their trade and kids splashed naked in the river, laughing and waving and occasionally treating us to an impromptu wrestling match, a game of tag or a display of cartwheels. Jagged, saw-toothed rocks sprouted from the muddy water, cows and goats lounged on the sandy shore watching us curiously or drinking thirstily at the waters edge. Fragile looking shacks perched precariously on stilts amidst steep, forested hillsides which were dense with vegetation so thick that they appeared impassable. We passed through it all with a sense of wonder as the boat chugged relentlessly downstream under clear blue skies.

Occasionally we stopped to drop off supplies that had been strapped to the roof or to pick up people who flagged us down from the riverbank. Every time we did, hordes of scruffy kids descended upon the boat and walked through the congestion of seats hawking all kinds of snacks and beverages from Pringles chips to Laos beer. When we eventually arrived in Pak Beng we were tired and numb-bummed but content.

Pak Beng is quite literally a one street town on the banks of the Mekong populated by hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, and convenience stores catering exclusively to the foreigners who arrive by boat every day and leave every morning. Nightly at 11p.m the electricity goes out and in anticipation of the darkness; almost as if it is expectantly holding its breath, the town is quiet and dark at 10:00. We fell into early, exhausted sleep soothed by the whirring of the fan.

Sometimes, life is just glorious.

Chris & Cathy are teaching in Taiwan for another term while planning their next trip scheduled for July. Where to? Maybe India. Maybe the train from Bejing to Lhasa with a pit stop at Everest Base Camp. Then again, there’s always Malaysia or Indonesia

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2 thoughts on “A Week-In-The-Life of Chris & Cathy: Traveling Teachers”

  1. Wow, you have been to some wonderful places on your travels. Are you heading for somewhere specific to teach or passing through many?

  2. Mostly we’ve been in China and Taiwan but are considering relocating after this contract finishes in 2010, perhaps to Korea or Japan? We’d like to still visit Nepal and Tibet, Malaysia and Indonesia but probably not to teach. Taiwan has been a good place as the money relative to China is quite good and the location relative to anywhere in S.E Asia is excellent.

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