Classroom Anecdotes

Context: Teaching 14- to 15-year-old remedial students to ask and answer biographical questions in English.

Me: Franco, when were you born?
Franco: Win I bored?
Me: No. When were you bornnnn?
Franco: ???
Me: I was born in 1983. When were you born?
Franco: When?
Me: Mm-hmm.
Franco: (thinks for a minute) one nine nine nine
Me: Nineteen ninety-nine
Franco: Ok
Me: Say it. “Nineteen ninety-nine.”
Franco: Nineteen ninety-nine.
Me: Good. Now say, “I was born in nineteen ninety-nine.”
Franco: I born nineteen ninety-nine.
Me: I was born in nineteen ninety-nine.
Franco: I was born in nineteen ninety-nine.
Me: Good. (Turning to Ploy) Ploy, when was Franco born?
Ploy: (staring blankly) Not know…

.____.

Five minutes later, we’ve moved on to the next question.

Me: James, where were you born?
James: a-rai? (What?)
Me: No Thai. (Franco starts explaining the question to James in Thai) I said, “NO THAI!” James, where…were…you…born?
James: Oooohhh. Nineteen ninety-nine.
Me: No. Where?
James: (shakes his head) Not know…
Me: Were you born in Thailand?
James: (nods)
Me: Were you born in Pattaya?
James: (nods)
Me: Say, “I was born in Pattaya.”
James: I born Pattaya.
Me: I was born in Pattaya.
James: Yes. I tired now.
Me: Ok, go to sleep.

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Moving to Thailand. Step 4: Apply for CELTA

What does it take to get a CELTA certificate? To start with, you’ve got to get into the damn course. And that’s no simple application. Cambridge boasts that somewhere around 97% of people who take the CELTA pass it, and they can proudly attribute this success rate to their admissions. Applying to the program is a rigorous test of your knowledge of the English language, and sounding of your passion for teaching.

Eager to get in, and confident that my Berkeley English degree more than prepped me for this esteemed course, I downloaded the application. The first page explained that I would probably need reference books to finish. Bullshit, I said to myself, and proceeded to answer the first grammar question. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know the difference between past perfect and past simple tenses. I could consult the Internet, but was I going to hang my chances of getting into the CELTA course on what a few could-be-hacks have written in a Yahoo Answers forum?

Consulting the list of recommended reading found on the first page of the application, I hit up Amazon. Thirty minutes and $100 later, I was sitting in front of a blank application stunned by the fact that I actually need to wait for UPS to arrive before I can complete it. I shook off my stupor and said to myself, No problem, I’ll just answer the personalized essay-form questions first. Let’s see: why do I want to teach in 500 words or less…

When the grammar book and teaching guides came in two days later, it still took me two days to finish the application. I labored over incorrect sentences, explanations of synonyms, verb tenses, short answers about teaching theory, and the like. I learned that the Queen’s English pronounces “march” and “after” with the same vowel phonemes. Hell, I learned what a phucking phoneme is!

After losing a weekend on this application, I submitted it via email. Within a few days I received a reply. Sze at International House in Bangkok would be calling me at 10 pm California time in two days to interview me over the phone. Time to sweat again, I thought.

As I fretted over the next few days, I wondered what she could possibly ask me. The email said she’d go over my answers on the application. Did that mean I got something wrong? Did that mean I was vague? Maybe it’s a trap!

Though long, the interview was quite pleasant. Sze asked a few tough questions, but never did she seem bothered to correct my answers if they were wrong. In fact, it seemed to be more a test of my readiness to learn than my knowledge of the English language. It was also a way to gauge of my personality, as is any interview. With nearly 2 years’ professional interviewing experience, I had learned how to get across the better parts of my personality quite well.

After about 30 minutes, she was offering me a position in the course. More importantly, as was one of the trainers she was offering me a position in her class. She handpicked me.

Me teaching

I later learned how important her selection process was. A CELTA is no joke. It’s rigorous. No one who has taken it can adequately describe how draining it is. It’s not necessarily that it’s difficult. If you get in, you’re probably smart enough and passionate enough to succeed. It’s just intensely time-consuming. Every day from 9 to 5, I was at the school—sometimes later; every evening I was pouring over my lesson plans in my studio apartment; every weekend I was completing assignments that were due sometime next week.

Some people struggled more than others. While I found myself falling naturally into a long-desired dream role in the front of the classroom, others would become flustered and have nervous breakdowns, some of them in front of their practice students. But regardless of how well we all immediately took to teaching, everyone spend hours writing lesson plans, perfecting games and activities, and printing and photocopying well over our allotted page count. Twice a week, we were given 45 minutes to teach. It felt like preparing for a performance. It was a performance. It was a delicate balance of remembering every little thing you learned in your morning “input sessions,” from keeping your TTT (teacher talking time) lower than the STT (student talking time), to giving clear directions, to monitoring, and much more.

In my mid-course one-on-one—a private session where your trainer checks in with you to gauge how you feel you’re progressing, as well as tell you how she thinks you’re doing—Sze asked me where I had taught before the CELTA. Many of the trainees had already initiated EFL careers and were simply honing their skills, or were just gaining the credentials needed to earn more money or clout.

“I’ve never taught a classroom before this course,” I replied.

She was surprised at this. “You’re a natural,” she said.

In hindsight, I realize that the rigorous application did exactly what it was supposed to do—at least it did for me. It gave me a sample of the hard work ahead of me. It indicated that I was a capable and promising candidate for the CELTA certificate. It showed that my heart was in the right place, and that I could excel at the profession if I put my mind to it. And I have to say that makes me feel proud.

Some Suggestions for Pattaya

While observing an English class at Maryvit, their teacher, Master Nikorn, led a discussion designed to help develop their use of the second conditional in order to express wishful thinking. The prompt was, “If you were the mayor of Pattaya, what would you change?”

It’s an interesting question for any city, but particularly for a Thai city, and especially for Pattaya. Without doing any real journalism, all I can say is that the current mayor seems to be shrouded in either corruption or incompetence, or perhaps a mixture of both. But again, I have no real evidence to back that up other than whispers and atmosphere. But Master Nikorn’s discussion question is one that I daily contemplate as I encounter different problems and annoyances around my new home city. These are just a few of the suggestions I have for the city of Pattaya.

 

  1. Develop some mass transit.

To help the students brainstorm ideas with their partners, Master Nikorn put up several issues on the board, and asked them if each was an issue that affected Pattaya. “Does Pattaya have a problem with pollution?”

“Yes!” they said in unison. They weren’t wrong. When I walk outside my apartment, I am so badly bombarded with irritants that I immediately start sneezing.

He checked “pollution.” Then he asked, “Does Pattaya have a problem with traffic?”

“Yes!” they replied, exasperated at Pattaya’s famously atrocious traffic situation.

He checked “traffic” as well. “Does Pattaya have a problem with public transportation?”

They looked at each other. Some shrugged; others tentatively shook their heads “no.” Master Nikorn called on students to dig up opinions. The students all seemed to agree that between motorbike taxis and songthaews, the city of Pattaya offered enough transportation options. And don’t forget walking, one student added. Master Nikorn didn’t argue, didn’t push, and seemed to be pleased with their answers. “There are many ways to get around, so it’s not really a problem,” he said.

Internally, I facepalmed. And as an observer, I couldn’t intervene. Even these students’ teacher couldn’t draw a connection between public transportation deficiencies and problems with traffic and pollution.

Motorbike taxis carry one, maybe two, passengers—hardly enough to reduce the average commuter’s carbon footprint. And while they can filter through traffic with greater ease than a coach bus, there are so many of them that they create impenetrable clusters weaving between cars and raising the risk of accident.

Songthaews—or “baht buses”—are pickup trucks with two benches in the bed of the truck. (In fact, songthaew means basically “two benches.”) While there are many of them, they’re highly inconsistent and unreliable, which I’ll get into a little later. They’re more a tourist attraction than feasible mass transit. And they’re less a solution and more the cause of traffic problems with the way they drive, anyway.

So, Pattaya, do you want to reduce traffic and pollution? Invest in buses and light rails. You won’t, I know, because the motorbike taxi association has too much sway. And with a Thai mafia presence in that sector of business, there’s even more pressure to maintain the status quo. But if you want your city to improve and progress, especially with the influx of people you hope all those new condominium developments will bring in, you need to rein in the absolute cluster-fuck that is traffic, as well as the poison that is your air.

  1. Orgnanize your Songthaews

Sure, if I want to get from one end of a major thoroughfare—such as Beach Road, Second Road, and Sukhumvit Road—they’re fairly consistent and predictable. But outside of maybe 7 of the most trafficked routes, songtaews are a waste of time.

Why is this a problem? Even in “East Bay,” the region east of the San Francisco Bay, where AC Transit has a regular bus schedule and well-planned routes, planning to get somewhere important on time is a pain in the ass and a possible crap-shoot. But if you don’t have a car, then a little careful planning can make great use of the AC Transit. My point is, buses aren’t inherently beacons of reliability. But if you add to this inherent unreliability drivers that don’t have schedules, won’t stick to predictable routes, and often neglect to even stop for passengers on their route, then you will have a transportation system that resembles songthaews. It’s a system that no personal, methodical planning can capitalize on, and that no one who needs to be anywhere at a particular time can rely on. Songthaews are so useless, there are usually only two types of people riding them: tourists or retired expats with lots of time to kill, and poor Thai locals who have no other choice.

Songthaew drivers once had routes with stickers or numbers indicating their route. However, as any drive up second road during peak hours will indicate, this has been abandoned. Now drivers go where the most passengers will be. And since most tourist’s route back to their hotel from Walking Street is north on Second Road, there are usually about 900 songthaews there.

Without knowing exactly why, I can only assume this is because the drivers are like private business owners. So they only make as much as their vehicle earns. Thus, they go where the most traffic is to increase their potential revenue. If this is true, maybe it’s time to incorporate them, so that they all get paid the same, no matter what route they take. And to make it even fairer, they can rotate between busy and not-so-busy routes. But alas, that’s asking too much organization and regulation of Pattaya, isn’t it? Never mind. Mai Bpen-rai.

  1. Paint lane lines on Second Road

While we’re on the topic of Second-Road, paint some goddamned lines, already! Not that it generally matters—Thai drivers rarely seem to stay strictly in their lanes. But at least they do it about 60% of the time, which is enough to solve about 60% of the problem with that road. Drivers wander aimlessly, uncertain of where they’re supposed to be, dodging thousands of sonthaews and pedestrians, and hoping they won’t accidently hit a motorbike. Instead of a torrent of inchoate traffic zigzagging down up the road, by painting some lines on the road you might end up with a clean, steady stream of order.

  1. Leave out more trashcans (that goes for all of Thailand)

Ever wonder why your country is so badly littered with plastic bags, empty containers and cups, straw and food wrappers, and other bits of trash? Because people are tired of carrying their trash around. So many times I’ve carried empty bottles and food cartons for nearly a kilometer, then realize the only thing preventing me from tossing it to the side of the road is my well-ingrained stewardship of the environment. I nearly scream, “Are there no trash cans in this country?”

I know. This is opening a Pandora’s box. If you put out more trash cans, that’s more work for someone to do. And since that someone is likely underpaid and lazy, they’ll probably not change the bins as often as they should. So your proliferated trash cans will be overflowing with garbage, adding a notable unsightliness to your country. But you gotta ask yourself, is that any more unsightly than visiting the beach or a temple and seeing trash strewn around carelessly on the ground? Think about it…

  1. Learn the physics of sound

Speaking of pollution, there’s another kind that’s a problem in this city: noise pollution. For example, if five different businesses or vendors within a 200-meter radius all blast their sundry songs at the highest volume, I can hear none of them. Or more accurately, I can hear all of them…at once. All I get is an awful blend of noise that annoys more than attracts.

Add to this the trucks with advertisement boards and blaring radio ads, drivers thumping their god-awful EDM, emergency vehicle sirens, and the foundation-shattering rumble of thousands of coach buses, and it’s wonder I ever sleep in this town.

I’ve learned to tolerate the noise about 70% of the time. But do you really think I care to shop at your appliance store, buy your CDs, eat your chicken, or visit your bar if your message is lost in the urban cacophony of a thousand songs? In fact, I’ve vowed to avoid some of these places merely on principle.

So Pattaya, if you can satisfy these five requests, your city will be just a little more tolerable to live in. Not that you’re doing anything wrong. The multitude of tourists that saunter into your city excited to have their slice of sex pie is surely evidence enough of your success to wave away any complaint.

Vientiane Embassy Run: Part 2

For all the Thailand-resident farang expats on their routine visa run, for all the European and American backpackers passing through, and for all the Korean and Chinese families coming to expand their knowledge of the Asian world, Vientiane sure doesn’t offer much in return.

I can’t say I blame the city. It has been a locus of constant imperial exploit. Between Siam/Thailand, Vietnam, and France, Vientiane has exchanged hands many times throughout history. It’s a strategic city that has been burned and overrun so many times it could never build itself into anything glorious or powerful. Add to that the oppressive Communist regime that currently governs the Lao people, and you end up with squalor, ruin, and poverty.

So as we rode samlor after samlor throughout the city, we passed decrepit block after decrepit block. During the day, shops and residences sit in dim darkness, as electricity is a commodity too precious to waste in the daylight that barely seeps in. Even the temples, though old and monumental, are unimpressive due to their faded and cracked exteriors and hardly kept interiors. Vientiane is a mausoleum of failed attempts to colonize and Westernize the region.

Night Market by the Riverside
Night Market by the Riverside

That its culture is essentially the same as Isaan-Thai, even down to the language, is a testament to the arbitrariness of colonial border-making. Vientiane, for all cultural purposes, should be part of Isaan, but that’s not to say that Isaan should be Thailand, either. I knew going into Lao DPR that I’d be entering a country considerably poorer than its neighbor, Thailand. But knowing and experiencing are two different things.

A back alley in Vientiane
A back alley in Vientiane

What I found most astounding about Vientiane was the cost of living. Despite the alarming poverty of the city, the price for nearly everything was alarmingly higher. A plate of som tam is at least double in Vientiane what it is in urban Thailand. A samlor ride is easily more than one in Udon Thani or Nong Khai. The only things cheaper were the hotel rates. I paid roughly $30 per night, breakfast included, at the Lao Golden Hotel. For the same quality accommodations in Pattaya, I could expect to spend at least $45.

Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket

But Vientiane was where I needed to spend 24 hours until the Thai consulate approved my Non-Immigrant B visa. So my girlfriend, her mother, and I explored what little of the city we could in the time we had. We went to the night market near the riverside and ate Lao food down a side street. In the morning we visited Wat Si Saket, an old temple with hundreds of relief images of Buddha, and an old temple across the street where the French colonists created a museum in order to salvage some of the culture they nearly obliterated.

08d - Enjoy Vientiane

And that was it. After two temples, we ate at the Pizza Company, and then I stood in the hot sun for an hour waiting for the embassy to reopen. While in line I met a nice old American expat named Bob. We chatted about Thai culture, writing opportunities in Bangkok, and what little he’s missed in Los Angeles during his 20 years in Thailand.

As we chatted, a line formed behind us and about 10 other people who were in front of us. The doors opened, and a rush of Russians from the shade across the street muscled us from maintaining our place in line. At first I tried to push in front of them, but when this one fat, middle-aged Russian with gold teeth pushed Bob nearly to the ground, I doubled back to chastise the asshole and help Bob through. I chose number 42, instead of the number 12 that I had patiently earned.

Pay at window 6; collect at same window the next day
Pay at window 6; collect at same window the next day

I picked up my passport from window 6, where I paid. Inside was a crisp, newly printed Non-Immigrant B visa.

Non-Immigrant B (with key information blurred out)
Non-Immigrant B (with key information blurred out) 

We grabbed a taxi and headed for the border. But we had to rush. The Russian impudence delayed me enough to send us scrambling to catch the last bus leaving Nong Khai in the direction of Ban Sokkam.

The Moment of Truth
The Moment of Truth

We arrived at the border, and exited Lao DPR without any fuss, but there was a line and a half. We crossed the bridge on a quite crowded Friendship Bus. We arrived at Thai immigration and queued up.

In an effort to make me hate Russians forever, another Russian guy cut in line. When an Asian tourist protested, the Russian responded, “I stay with my group.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” the Asian man shouted.

The Russian started to ignore him.

“Fuck you!” the Asian shouted.

Anyway, aside from that, we were through immigration without any hang-ups. My new visa was legit!

But we missed the bus back to Ban Sokkam. Our journey back consisted of a shuttle van ride to a gas station, where we transferred to another shuttle van, which dropped us off about 3 kilometers outside Ban Sokkam. My girlfriend’s niece and half-brother picked us up on motorbikes. We stopped on the way home to eat noodles.

My legalization process is hardly over. My visa expires in March, and between now and then my school needs to furbish a teacher’s license from the Ministry of Education, which will allow me to apply for work permit from the Ministry of Labor. With that, I’ll be able to extend my visa another 9 months. Exhausted? Yeah, me too…

The Vientiane Embassy Run, Part 1

The Non-Immigrant B Visa run. A rite of passage for any teacher in Thailand, and one I inevitably had to endure. This account is not designed to give a detailed guide to the logistics of a visa run to Vientiane, nor is it intended to take any authority on the necessaries in obtaining legal status. (If you’re in need of such details, there are much better articles explaining everything from the best and worst Thai embassies for the visa run, to giving play-by-plays of crossing the border, to giving the run-down of everything you need for a Non-Immigrant B or O visa. Discussion forums help with this kind of info, too. And don’t forget the Thai Embassy and Thai Immigration websites.) No, this is simply my own personal account of the process, for the sole purpose of providing a vicarious experience to my faithful readers.

One reason for the above disclaimer is that my journey didn’t start the same as most. I took an overnight bus from Pattaya to Udon Thani. It cost 520 baht. But my next stop after Udon Thani was not Nong Khai, the city bordering Laos, as it is with so many other expats. Instead, I rented a car and drove to Ban Sokkam. At 4 am on Tuesday, 23 December, 2014, I woke up and climbed into the truck of a humble rural Isaan resident, for the cost of 1,500 baht. 01 - Drive into Nong KhaiAccompanying me were my girlfriend and her mother. We arrived in Nong Khai at around 8:00 in the morning.

Crossing the Mekong River, from Nong Khai into Laos, is the Friendship Bridge, a project primarily funded by Australia. Like everyone who wishes to pass into Laos, we needed to get to the bridge. But our transportation to the bridge was also an exception to the norm. Pao’s mother didn’t have a passport. Thanks to ASEAN, she could get a temporary paper passport. So we stopped at a passport office to have one printed. It took all of 15 minutes to do. Their service included a free samlor ride. (A samlor is similar to a tuk-tuk—both are motorbikes welded to towed passenger carriage. The difference, as far as I could tell, is that the samlor is bigger and slower.)

The temporary passport agency that gave us a ride to the Friendship Bridge
The temporary passport agency that gave us a ride to the Friendship Bridge

So we arrive to the Friendship Bridge. Both sides of the bridge are barricaded by border security and immigration offices. The first step is exiting Thailand.

Exiting Thailand
Exiting Thailand

As long as you have your departure card and haven’t overstayed, it’s relatively easy. Just stand in line until the immigration officer stamps your passport. But it’s not easy to have faith in the stack of paperwork in my backpack supposedly guaranteeing re-entry. Having the officer stamp my passport at the Friendship Bridge meant that my precious 60-day, double-entry visa had been used up. My re-entry depended on the Thai consulate in Vientiane approving my paperwork and granting me a new visa—something I was relatively confident would go smoothly, but there’s always that “what if” nagging you while you wait in line.

For those not daring enough to drive across the bridge, there’s a bus. I’ll call it the Friendship Bus. It costs 20 baht per person. It drives you over the Mekong River.

The "Friendship Bus"
The “Friendship Bus”

As we crossed the river, I couldn’t help thinking about all the kingdoms, states, and empires that have risen and fallen along this historic river. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers throughout history that crossed this river by boat, hoping to capture the lands that lay on the other side. I thought of the many trade boats that coursed up and down this river, carrying people’s livelihoods.

The Mekong River
The Mekong River

After a 5-minute drive, we arrived at the Lao border. My girlfriend and her mother waved goodbye as they went into the line for ASEAN nationals—those who don’t have to suffer the nuisance of visas.

Lao Immigration, Visa Application
Lao Immigration, Visa Application

So while they waited in line, I had to fill out a small visa application form. Americans have to pay $35. They say you’re supposed to have a small photo. But when the immigration officer handed me back my passport, my photo fell out along with my change. He waved the photo away when I tried to hand it to him. After that, it was a simple matter of walking through a gate to enter Lao DPR.

Anywhere you go in Southeast Asia where there is mass transit—be it an airport, train station, bus station, or a border—you’ll come face-to-face with a dozen locals all leaning into you saying, “Taxi?” With the charade of crossing borders and applying for visas, I didn’t have the energy to say “No.” So if there’s a cheaper way to get to Vientiane from the border than a 300-baht air-conditioned mini-van, I don’t know about it.

From there it was straight to the Thai embassy. Technically there are two embassies. The one that processes visas—the Thai Consulate—is on a small estate-like property, with a stately building dominating the acreage, and an outdoor covered waiting area and three windows to the right. (Apparently if you go up the stairs behind the windows, there’s a photocopy service, too, but I had no need for it.)

When you get to the embassy, it can be a bit confusing. I arrived an hour after it opened, so I had to find whoever was giving out numbers. It turned out to be the guy behind window 2, which meant that I had to cut in front of someone who was actually supposed to go to window 2 to start their application process.

Vientiane Thai Consulate
Vientiane Thai Consulate

After an hour of waiting, they called my number. I turned in my visa packet, and found myself over prepared as the consulate officer handed back my original university degree and original official transcript.

If you want to know why I called it a visa packet, here’s what it contained: a copy of my university degree, a copy of my transcript, a copy of my contract, a photocopy of my passport and visa pages, a visa application form with small photo glued to the top left corner, a letter of employment acceptance from the school, a letter of approval from the Office of Private Education Commission, a copy of the school’s license, a list of the school’s shareholders, a copy of the school’s business profile, and a photocopy of the owner’s identification. There were other documents included, and I don’t know what they were because they were in Thai, but my guess is that the school was covering all our bases.

The consulate officer then takes his time to verify that everything is in order. Passports get sent in bulk over to the stately building. Inside, I had to wait another hour for them to call my number so that I could pay my 2,000-baht application fee at window 6.

Pay at window 6; collect at same window the next day
Pay at window 6; collect at same window the next day 

Since the embassy usually takes 24 hours to process an application, I had to return the next day at 1 pm. And alarmingly, I had to leave my passport at the embassy overnight. One Russian woman was not having that arrangement. She made quite a fuss, frustrating the one group of people you don’t want to piss off, and further delaying the rest of us from paying. But before long, I was on my way to the Lao Golden Hotel, where I’d make my temporary home without a passport for 24 hours. I guess I had no choice but to go out and see Vientiane.

Moving to Thailand. Step 3: Obtain a Visa

You know what true fear is? Placing your brand new passport into an envelope, along with a visa application and money, and sending it to a building you’ve never seen before in a completely different city. It’s even scarier when you know you’ll need that passport just 3 weeks after the latest promised return date.

One thing I never anticipated in the move to Thailand is how completely inconsistent and perplexing the process of obtaining legal status would be. All I knew was that 30 days—the amount of time the Kingdom of Thailand grants to unprepared American tourists—was not enough time to finish a 28-day CELTA course, settle into a new city, and find a job. So I filled out a form, took a photo, cut a check, and placed one of my most prized possessions into the hands of the U.S. Postal Service and the Los Angeles Thai Consulate.

I’m glad I did it, because I discovered upon arrival how utterly frustrating it can be to obtain a legal working status in this country. If you’ve been following my story, then you already know the whirlwind and panic of my job hunt. And since my legal status is tied to my job, that means every time I changed, I reset the clock for my precious Non-Immigrant B Visa—the one that allows me to legally teach in exchange for baht.

I’m even luckier I haven’t had to do it all on my own. Some employers can’t even be bothered to guarantee your visa, and are perfectly happy paying you under the table and allowing you to go on the infamous border runs every 3 months (more about that in a moment). And many employers will only supply you with the documents that are required of them, and leave you to sort it all out yourself. This would seem not so big a deal, except that if you ask 20 different people how to do it, you’ll get 20 different procedures. And even among the employers that do your paperwork, you’re quite possibly at the mercy of either a 90-day probation period in which you have to work illegally, or a delinquent staff that has no penchant for organization and a loosey-goosey interpretation of “deadlines.”

But even with all the help I’ve been lucky to have, it hasn’t been without misfires. My 60-day Tourist Visa expired 1 week before I started my first short-lived post, whereupon I extended it for another 30 days (90 days total), for a small fee of course. Then, within the first 2 weeks of my current employment, the extension expired. And do you think they had the paperwork ready for a Non-Immigrant B visa run? (Rhetorical question.) Luckily, I had paid extra for a “double-entry,” which means I’m guaranteed two 60-day stays, separated by an exit and re-entry.

So it was off to Cambodia. The “border run,” as it’s called, is so common that there’s actually an industry of companies that aid expats with it. For 2,800 baht, I hired a company to ensure all my paper was in order, to drive me to the border, and to see me to the front of the line.

My “visit” to Cambodia consisted of sitting on a plastic stool under a covering, next to a small building where immigration officers worked behind windows. A Cambodian officer sitting outside slapped a Cambodian visa sticker in my passport, handed it back to the visa run driver, who then handed it to me to take to the window to get stamped back into Thailand. For the better part of my hour-long “visit,” I sat in what was technically neutral territory between Thailand and Cambodia. I think I may have technically entered Cambodia when I used the toilet—but who knows.

For many farang, this is standard practice. Not all expats are teachers, and not all expat teachers work for schools who’ll help you with obtaining a legal working status. And so their lives are measured in 90-day periods, punctuated by visits to neighboring countries’ border cities. Some of them even make a bit of a bucket list out of the ordeal, travelling to a new border each time.

It’s a volatile lifestyle, marked with return trips to your home country to apply for a fresh 60-day visa. Plus, rumor has it that the Thai government is cracking down on undocumented employment, and that they’re doing it at the borders. Actually, it’s more than a rumor—it’s been announced by Thai Immigration. As a result, some expats fear that this current border-run system will break down. But most trust in Thailand’s inconsistency and incompetence and bite the bullet. And they’re faith seems to almost always pay off.

Thailand has been a welcoming country throughout the years, but expats here get the feeling sometimes that we’re increasingly a nuisance to Thai society (what with our critical thinking, sensitivities to human rights, high standards of living, and all). Contrary to our home countries where there’s a large amount of pressure for foreigners to assimilate to the mainstream culture and society, in Thailand there’s a lot of resistance to bringing foreigners into the fold. We simply aren’t, and never will be, part of Thai society as far as they see it. But now I’ve switched rant mode.

The big border run is Vientiane, and that’s because many expats don’t have a 60-day visa, or they’ve used them up and want to get a new one. Vientiane is famous among the expat community for granting visas rather liberally. It’s a rite of passage if you’re too far from Malaysia, and it was only a matter of time before I had to do one myself. But that’s another story altogether…

The point is, unless you’ve got an employer lined up who’ll do your paperwork for you, and have you set up with a proper Non-Immigrant Visa before you arrive, you should definitely get a 60-day, double-entry Tourist Visa before coming to the Land of Smiles.

Thai Music, Part 3: The Influence of the West

As the story of Thai music continues into the final segment of this three-part series, we examine some of the highlights of the myriad of Western-influenced genres and artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. It was difficult to be selective in sharing these highlights, because there are so many. To add to the difficulty, Pattaya Countdown 2015, the city’s 7-day free music festival ushering in the new year, featured some of my favorites among these artists.

Jazz

As with American music, the story of Thai popular music in the 20th century begins with jazz. Starting in the 1930s, jazz started to dominate Thai airwaves. One key and influential early jazz composer was Khru Eua Sunthornsana, who formed the jazz orchestra-band Suntharaporn. His music applied Thai melodies to jazz harmony, and became known as pleng Thai sakorn. Below is a sample. You can hear that nostalgic old jazz instrumentation reminiscent of the roaring 20s. But if you listen carefully, the melody carries that Thai pentatonic characteristic, too.

The music continued to evolve into a romantic music called luk grung—highly popular with the Thai upper class. King Bhumibol himself is regarded as an “accomplished” jazz musician (whatever that means). He is famous for being a jazz aficionado, and plays saxophone. He has also composed a few pieces, like “Candlelight Blues” featured below, which has also been covered by modern American jazz players like John Scofield.

And just to prove that he is capable of playing and capturing the jazz aesthetic, here’s a sample of his Majesty the King playing a solo:

Rock

In the 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll shook the whole world, and Thailand was no exception. Many Thai musicians began to particularly embrace the likes of Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Soon, bands emulating Richard’s sound popped up, and became known as wong shadow. It’s hard to find a good sample on YouTube, so you’ll have to use your imagination as I describe it. Picture some of the idiosyncrasies of Classical and Folk Thai music—a tempered scale highly pentatonic in sound, xylophones and drums that resound their relation to Chinese music, and flutes and percussion that belie Indian influences. Now picture them in that melancholy rhythm and blues of the early 1960s.

Quickly wong shadow evolved into Thai string—a genre of Thai music that resembles Western pop, folk, and rock. One of the first bands to emerge from this movement was The Impossibles:

Over the course of the 1960s and 70s, Thai popular became less Thai, and more Western music with Thai lyrics. It abandoned Thai melodic tradition and embraced the Western scale and vocalization. Rewat Buddhinan is credited as one of the first to lead this departure.

Just like the anti-war music of the 1970s in the United States, Thai rock music had its own protest era, creating a genre known as Phleng Pheua Chiwit (“Songs for Life”). The band Caravan was the most famous in this genre, and forefront in the Thai democracy movement. When police and right wing activists attacked students at Thammasat University in 1976, Caravan along with other bands and activists fled to the rural countryside. They continued to write songs and perform in rural Thailand for local farmers. They deserve a spotlight here:

During the 1980s, phleng pheua chiwit took on a more nationalistic nature. Artists like Carabao and Pongsit Kampee dominated the genre with songs that trumpeted a love of country. To this day, many Thai people regard this latter movement with warmth and enthusiasm, even though the genre declined in the 1990s. The following Pongsit Kampee song is particularly popular, and I’ve heard it many times blasting from cheap speakers in the market:

Modern Thai String (Pop/Rock)

With the fall of phleng pheua chiwit came the resurgence, alongside electronic luk thung and mor lam, of Thai string. Much divergent from its early roots, Thai string of the 90s demonstrated a parallel of pop and rock in the West. Bubblegum pop artists such as Christina Aguilar (not to be confused with Christina Aguilara), Asanee-Wasan, and Bird Thongchai emerged with dainty melodies, formulaic harmonies, and canned rhythms. To me, there’s not much difference between Thai bubblegum pop and Korea’s K-pop, other than the language. Here’s Bird Thongchai for an example:

Britpop-influenced alt rock groups also emerged, including Modern Dog, Loso, Crub, and Proud. In the example below, you can hear the ethereal delay-heavy electric guitar, acoustic guitar rhythm, and dominant sweet vocals.

Thailand also had its own parallel grunge of sorts, featuring bands like Y Not 7. I feel it’s important as we venture into the more modern rock of Thailand to acknowledge the shear stupidity in some of these bands’ names. Demonstrating a limited familiarity with English, these bands clearly don’t appreciate how the sound and words of a name can (falsely) suggest their style. So you have Thai grunge bands with boy band names, and Thai alt rock band names that feel like heavy metal names. Anyway, here’s a Y Not 7 song that reminds me a bit of a Stone Temple Pilots ballad, cheaply recorded, of course:

As Thai rock music has moved into the 21st century, it’s become a bit more tolerable. One thing that impresses me about Thai music in general is the level of musicianship. Even the more formulaic, even rather annoying pop artists are backed by drummers, guitarists, and keyboardists that can really fucking shred. They’re quite accomplished, even if their Steve-Vai-esque tap solos don’t fit the dancing and singing of their picture-perfect pop idols. The place where this musicianship shines is in modern Thai alt and hard rock. So here are two of my favorite Thai bands: Bodyslam and Big Ass.

These names, by the way, are no small names (even if they’re classic examples of stupid names). Almost every Thai at least knows the names, and many wear their t-shirts and try to emulate them in their own crudely formed garage bands (is there any other kind of garage band?). Seriously, I earned street cred with my high school students for admitting I like Bodyslam.

So here’s one of Big Ass’s songs. When I saw them live at Pattaya Countdown 2015, I wanted to light something on fire. So fucking much energy!

Finally, I’ll leave off with the first Thai song that started my journey of understanding this key element of Thai culture. As one of Thailand’s biggest, most popular rock bands, Bodyslam’s new album’s feature track played over the ad-pumping TVs aboard BTS Skytrain in Bangkok. For a solid month, I heard the marketing snippets of this song twice a day—in my morning and evening commutes. And yet, it’s still one of my favorites.

Final thoughts:

It cannot be emphasized enough how important music is to Thai culture. That may seem a rather banal understatement. After all, music is important to every culture. But Thai music is part of Thailand’s national identity. The Thai recording industry is huge and highly independent. And the music it produces is everywhere. It pumps from a thousand speakers in one neighborhood alone. You cannot go anywhere without hearing Thai music, and there are many places where Thai music is the only music being played. Thai music is an essential part of the Thailand experience.