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Do You Want to Teach in Southeast Asia?

Why do teachers want to teach in Southeast (SE) Asia? When I moved here, I had pictures in my mind of “The King and I”, street food, and warm weather. It turned out to be all three of those and more. I have lived in Southeast Asia with my husband and teenagers at several different points in my career. I have taught in both large and small international schools in Thailand, Laos, Korea, China, and Vietnam. I have found similarities and differences between the cultures, customs, and my American lifestyle. The weather has a common theme in this part of the world. There are only two seasons: rainy and hot. They both involve a large amount of water and humidity. However, the sun is up for 12 hours a day which is a positive point. I would like to share my Top 8 Reasons to Live in Southeast Asia from an educator’s point of view.

Is that really the price?

A teacher’s salary goes a lot further in SE Asia than the Western part of the world. The teacher package can include rent, return flights, insurance, and a lucrative salary. If you want to build your savings account, this is the continent to work in. It also comes with extra perks in your daily life. There are Morning, Night and Hill Tribe Markets full of street food. Local grocery stores are cheap and eggs are fresh from the farm. If you go to a grocery store with North American packaged food, be careful to look at the prices. You will pay much more for your favorite cereal, snacks, and comfort food overseas. I usually bring some comfort food with me from the U.S. in my suitcase for moments when I need a taste of home.

There are many modern shopping malls throughout Southeast Asia with name brand clothing, electronics, and movie theaters showing the latest Hollywood films. Crowds of people enjoy spending their time in the air-conditioned mall with lots to do. When walking through crowds, keep your hands to yourself and try not to touch anyone. Personal space is important and people seem to flow through crowds without bumping into each other at all. Be aware of the exchange rate for the store items at the malls. Many stores have Western clothing that costs more to buy than at home. You will find meal bargains at the Food Court. There are modern bowling alleys, musical instruments, and even new cars for sale inside the mall. It is enjoyable to roam around and see the locals having fun at the mall eating DQ (Dairy Queen) ice cream cones, doughnuts, and cotton candy. Sugar overload!

Betsy Suits: Former School Head, Diamond Head International School (Laos)
Betsy Suits: Former School Head, Diamond Head International School (Laos)

Too much sugar requires exercise. Aerobics classes are outside in parks and parking lots all over the continent for less than a dollar an hour. I enjoy being the only expat following the motions of the instructor on the little tabletop stage. The music is blasting out from a speaker on the ground. Don’t worry about paying because the collector will approach you at some point and ask for your money. It is a fun way to mingle with the locals and get exercise at the same time. If you decide to join a gym, the pricier ones are in the malls and the small, cheaper ones are in every neighborhood. Check for air conditioning before you pay. Another helpful tip!

Transportation is affordable from every street corner. You can take motorcycles, tuk-tuks, truck taxis, and taxis. There are also online apps such as Lift, Uber, and LOCA, depending on the country. Take advantage of affordable massages, hair cuts, nail salons, and other skin treatments. Ask other teachers where they go because prices do vary for locals and tourists. I recommend you skip the promises of cheap body sculpting and a flat stomach in 20 minutes. It is best to go to a registered doctor for any plastic surgery or you might regret the results when you look in the mirror.

Do I need a visa at the border?

It is true that the Southeast Asian countries are close together and you can travel by buses, minivans, taxis, trains, boats, and planes to cross borders. There are travel agents in little offices offering transportation at very low prices. You can decide how adventurous you want to be and choose the price you want to pay. Remember to always keep your passenger ticket and passport in a safe place. You can bring passport size photos with you or get them taken locally for your visas. Keep a ziplock baggie full of aspirin, Dramamine, throat lozenges, shampoo and soap to travel with. You never know what shops will be open or what items are available when you arrive. Always carry a refillable water bottle and a cloth bag for groceries. Save the planet from all the plastic bags and bottles that are polluting Southeast Asia. Take a look along the roadside and river beds and you will see piles of plastic everywhere. In 2020, Thailand passed a new law banning plastic bags in all stores. Luckily, they are selling cheap, cloth bags at the cashier check out.

A tuk tuk motorbike taxi next to a temple in vientiane, Laos.
A tuk tuk motorbike taxi next to a temple in vientiane, Laos.

The Internet connections vary from area to area in each country. You can connect to wifi in most hotels and restaurants. Whenever the Internet didn’t work at the beach, the locals blamed it on the shark that bit the undersea cable. You can also purchase phone cards with the Internet at most convenience stores. There are usually a couple of English Cable TV channels in SE Asia. Some Internet channels are blocked in this part of the world on your computer. Check with other teachers for the details before you arrive.

Are the teachers respected?

Yes, indeed. The public educational system is usually free on the Continent. Teachers are highly respected in society and often wear school uniforms. They lack public funding and the classes are often over 40 students. I highly recommend a visit to a local school. The Lao students are in uniform and shy to speak English. They sat on wooden benches with three students at a table. The teacher also in uniform stood at the front of the class. The students listened politely and raised their hands. There were even teenage monks in orange robes in the public school classrooms. All of the students were polite listeners and very well behaved.

The local families who can afford international schools are eager to send their children to learn English. The students are attentive, hard-working, and cooperative. They respect the teacher and do their best in school. Parents usually want their children to work hard, achieve, and have more homework. I had a parent on the first day of school ask for their daughter to change classrooms next door to her ‘lucky number’ room. I did not grant that wish. Some Asian parents ask me if their child is Number One in the class on their Report Card. Many parents want to be in constant contact with teachers by WhatsApp, texting, videos, and classroom cameras. I don’t recommend this because there needs to be a separation of parents and children during the school day. Parents like to attend assemblies, conferences and have their children wear school uniforms. Many families want their children to attend overseas universities in the U.S. or Europe. They can afford after school tutors and want the best education for their children.

Edible Insects at the Weekend Market.
Edible Insects at the Weekend Market.

How does this affect the teachers? You need to scaffold the curriculum so that it includes a challenge for the high achievers in class. Parents want more homework and to hire tutors at home. You can send home an email with suggested websites for extra homework and post the links on your class website. The role of the teacher is very respected in Asia and you will always be respected. You may even be lucky enough to be invited to a family dinner or event. You are their hero!

Is that a Wild Thing?

There are some interesting items on the menus in Southeast Asia. It seems like many of the exotic names of the dishes get lost in translation. You will see menu items such as baby birds in a nest, fish stomach, and unknown animal intestines. At my school, we have a cook who makes local Lao lunches daily. There is always rice served with a mystery food. It is delicious, but sometimes too spicy for me. I have stopped asking what is in the lunch because I don’t always like the answers. One of my weekly lunch favorites is the noodle soup with meat and vegetables in a flavorful broth. The outdoor Asian markets sell raw meat covered with flies, fried worms, baby birds, fried insects, and rodents skinned and ready to cook. These items are set up on outside tables and sometimes they have a circulating fly swatter set up on the table. The human fly swatters look weary and are often seen taking a nap.

I remember my first school orientation in Thailand. A local doctor told us not to drink the tap water and to wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them. He then looked at all the new teachers and said that some of us probably already have upset stomachs from the Thai food. There were nods of agreement in the room. The best part is that you can also go to local restaurants with authentic cuisine from all over the world for inexpensive prices. I have favorite French restaurants in Vietnam and Laos that have cooks as good as Paris at a quarter of the price.

There are also wild animals just walking down the streets in Southeast Asia. Every morning, the roosters wake me up before I see the sun. I read there is always the Head Rooster in a flock that starts with the first crow and the others follow. There are wandering chickens that appear to be backyard pets without a pen. There are dogs and cats that don’t seem to have a home. They wander the streets and dig through the garbage for food. In Thailand, I saw a man walking an elephant on a leash down the street stopping to beg for money in open restaurant windows.

Is that the only way home?

You are a long way away from home. In order to return, you will be spending a night or even a day in a large airport for a long layover depending on where you are going, You will need to be prepared with a Kindle or tablet which can lessen a load of heavy books, headphones, a sweater, handsoap, and even a face mask nowadays. The flight will seem to take forever and the movies get old quickly. If you are lucky enough to sleep on the plane, it will make the whole trip faster. When you arrive home, you can unpack your souvenirs and everyone will love them and think you have spent millions on them. However, they won’t be very interested in your travel stories or photos. Some friends even go so far as to yawn and ask what you think about the local baseball game last night. It is hard to engage others when they can’t relate to your adventures.

Some teachers even choose to spend their summer traveling around Southeast Asia. There are many places to explore and the price is right. You can find cheap flights on many local airlines, train tickets, and adventure tours. There are always inexpensive guest houses, apartments, and hotels to stay in. The Internet and fellow teachers are full of recommendations for trips and places to stay.

With family in Thailand.
With family in Thailand.

You can also plan vacations to scout out new countries and future international schools. I got a job that way. I was on vacation and called up the local international school to see if I could visit. It was summertime and the school was empty. The Head of School was the only one there. He gave me a personal tour and I ended up with a job. Sometimes it is that easy. Set your targets, focus and fulfill your dreams.

Is that another temple?

When you are walking around in a hot, humid Southeast Asia city, there is always a temple to visit. As I walk by, I feel pulled inside to experience the magical mood. Each Asian culture has its own architecture, colors, and paintings in its temples. There are also dorms for the monks and beautiful gardens to wander in. You are welcome to walk inside the temple when they are chanting. However, monks don’t like their photo taken. The monks range in age from 8-80. Parents often send their sons who are misbehaving at school to the monastery to live for a few months. I was told the boys return home with improved dispositions. The younger monks spend their time painting, doing yard work, and maintaining the grounds. They start their day at sunrise with gold bowls asking for donations of food and money. Apparently, they survive on the food that is given to them. They only can eat in the morning and then must fast from noon until sunrise the next day. All of their medical services are taken care of by donations.

My school in Laos had a dedication ceremony for the opening of the school. They invited all their relatives and friends to come early in the morning for the big event. It was raining at 6 a.m. when we arrived and we stood with umbrellas while the monks chanted. They had taken a bus the day before from Thailand for this special event. They stayed in a nearby hotel for the night after touring our school. They brought their gold bowls into our large, open room and lined up. We filed by and put food and money into their bowls. Then they chanted as we sat on carpets in the assembly room. There was also a web of strings hanging from the ceiling that we tied around our heads while they chanted. Afterward, we enjoyed a catered lunch of delicious Lao dishes. We were each given a lucky woven yarn design to hang from our car rearview mirrors. I don’t have a car, so I hung it in my kitchen window.

Where will I live?

Some of the schools I have worked at have teacher housing provided. We lived in furnished apartments with all the school staff as neighbors. It actually provides available friends to do things with when you feel like it. We had teacher book clubs, potlucks, a swimming pool and families to spend time with. One of my schools even provided a bus for staff to the school. It makes life easy to move in and move out at the end of your contract.

If housing is not provided, then schools will often help you find apartments or a realtor. It is fun but challenging to find and furnish your own apartment. If you have to do it, make sure your school gives you an allowance for furniture and household goods. Apartments for foreigners are usually more expensive but often come with a pool and gym. You will definitely need air conditioning, but it often rattles and keeps you awake. Don’t expect hot water or a garbage disposal in the kitchen sink. Hopefully, the apartment includes a washing machine. Dryers are scarce, but you can hang your clothes on the balcony and they dry quickly. You probably won’t have an oven, but instead, have two burners and a microwave. Don’t expect a dishwasher. The roosters will wake you up early and cleaning ladies are inexpensive.

You will need to decide if you want to live close to school or downtown. Sometimes you are lucky and the school is in the center of the city. Are you an early riser or a night owl? You will have to get up early if you want to live near all the restaurants, stores, and nightlife in the center of the city.. Most teachers rent or buy a motorbike in Southeast Asia. It is cheaper and easier to maneuver in traffic. It gives you the freedom and the ability to explore the city. However, you have to drive carefully because there are so many on the road and not everyone is going to be as careful as a driver like you.

What do I need to bring?

Pack light and bring only what you absolutely can’t live without. You can buy all the essentials you need in Southeast Asia. There are modern malls in every large city. They have name-brand stores and restaurants. Laos is one of the few countries I’ve lived in that doesn’t have a Starbucks. You should bring your medicines, lightweight food items for days you are homesick, and other items that you can’t live without. Bring fun school supplies that you won’t be able to buy overseas such as stickers, Crayola crayons, smelly markers, and favorite read-aloud books.

Pack lightweight clothes that can handle the humidity. Clothing with built-in wicking that keeps you dry is perfect for walking around. You may need a lightweight sweater to wear inside. Many buildings are too cold with their air conditioning. Survey the local dress in the country you are moving to online. Some locals dress more conservatively than others in Southeast Asia. Don’t forget your swimsuit!

You are off on an adventure that will make all your friends jealous on Facebook. It will forever change the way you look at daily life. There is happiness to be found in simple pleasures, fresh food, small spaces, and friendly faces. The world is meant to be explored and take advantage of every opportunity to travel and enjoy the continent of Southeast Asia.

Sunset on the beach in Thailand.   
Sunset on the beach in Thailand.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Betsy Suits
I have been fortunate to work in schools in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Over the years, I have been a School Head, Principal, Curriculum Coordinator, Reading Specialist, Head of Learning Support, and a Classroom Teacher. I have published numerous articles, stories, and an award-winning science game. Currently, I reside in Laos.

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