Saturday, 20 May 2017

Why you shouldn’t teach English in Thailand

(posted on linkedin.com)

Teaching in Thailand is not a rewarding experience, neither financially or career wise. There are better alternatives, including the new option of online teaching. Test these before heading to the Land of Smiles, but if you go this is what you need to know.

The first hurdle is visa paperwork. Mere words do not suffice to describe the complexity—the ever changing and growing complexity. To start, you must spend a few days at your school getting all the various bits of paper together, having them photocopied, signed, and verified, next visit several different government departments, and then leave the country(!), travel to a Thai embassy, and then wait for the Thai officials to process your ‘paper’ and return a work visa. All with lots and lots of ‘stamps’—just make sure that the correct colour is used. This usually goes ok, but not always. To add insult to injury Thai schools expect you to pay for this. A week and $1,000.

Having secured your coveted visa you are now in front of your students, here the fun begins. The Thai education system is stuck in the 19th century: rote learning, teachers swaggering with big sticks in their hands, obedience, and absolutely no questions. This is against the official policy of Communicative Learning Teaching (CLT), but few pay this any attention. Also, expect also to be out of pocket for supplies you buy for your students, and to never be told what is happening in your school. You must develop your courses, teach, grade, deal with problems, and to never expect help from your fellow Thai teachers, most of whom don’t know enough English to speak with you. You are 90% on your own. 

For this you will receive the princely sum of around $1,000+ a month. This is not a bad salary, but not a great salary, it is also a salary that has remained unchanged for over a decade. There will be Thai teachers, with seniority, who make more. You can live on this, but don’t expect to save. There is the option of better schools and private teaching, but don’t come to Thailand for the salary.

Coupled with the low salaries are the growing number of 9-10 month contracts—to put it directly you will not be paid during the school holidays—insulting and painful. Many teachers have reported that they only find this out the hard way, being told at the end of the month that there is no salary. 

From here lets look long term, except there is no long term. As an “alien” you can expect to get a 12 month contract, a 12 month visa, but nothing more. You can work in the Kingdom for a lifetime, and then have 7 days to leave after your last visa expires. Not welcoming.

Lastly, most importantly, education. The Thai education system is bad. In 2016 over 50% of students failed the five national standardised test subjects (O-NET). Let me say that again, more than half of students failed all of the test categories. The nation failed. The students failed. The system failed. The best subject was the Thai language, the worst (unsurprisingly) was English—and nothing has changed. This against a backdrop of one quarter of the national budget going towards education. With inadequate classrooms, lack of support, and poor training one wonders where the money goes?


My advice would be to look elsewhere in Asia for a country in which to teach. Look for a future, look for a career, but not in Thailand. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

Vang Vieng, Laos — again! 2017

This idyllic small town has been a goto destination of mine since I first came here five years ago. The reason is simple, it is a cool, friendly, comfortable, and fairly happy town. It is also dedicated to travellers, backpackers, and similar people. In short, a place to relax and have a little fun.

After five years I still enjoy a visit, and I plan to return in the future, but the town is changing. The demographic is now fewer younger people, though they still predominate, and more older folk, families and such. Tubing and beer bars are now in decline, good and bad to that, but there are lots of other nature oriented activities to do. The big change to come is the rail link with China, due in five or so years. When this occurs hordes (pardon me) of Chinese tourists will flood across the border , heading south to merriment and enjoyable times, turning what is a now trickle into an avalanche.

A sign of this coming change are the new and rather stodgy looking hotels recently built and under construction—heavily contrasting with the traditional and original hotel and guesthouse buildings that are constructed from wood and bamboo. Still, times change. The annoying aspect of this is the lack—the complete absence—of any form of city planning. Is this a Libertarian paradise? If you own the land you can build whatever you want on the land. Great fun. This means that the town centre retains its small-sized charm, for the moment, but around the town, trampling over rice paddies and homes are new hotels leaping skyward.

The coming of the Chinese has mixed reactions in the town, even from those who will stand to make sizeable profits. Many local business owners are anticipating making a lot of money by selling their existing businesses in the next five years. The expectation is that as soon as tourism numbers soar due to the train, Chinese investors will snap up whatever they can, paying astronomical prices (by local standards), for what they want. This will drive out most Laos business folk and create a sizeable inflationary effect on local prices. On the other hand, more jobs, certainly service jobs.

This influx of people will also demand a marked improvement in infrastructure. Quaint Vang Vieng has potholes on its major roads, poor sewage, a shortage of drinkable water (bottled only), and a general air of neglect. Understandable, but not conducive to large scale business growth, and something that must be remedied before a solution is needed, not after.

What is required in the town and province is a plan, a workable plan to cater to the expected growth in tourist numbers, to build a city that is liveable for both tourists and citizens, and to plan for a beneficial future.

Fingers crossed.


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

"Blindsight" A novel by Peter Watts

'Blindsight' (2006) -- a science fiction novel by Peter Watts.


I am a long standing fan of science fiction, it is the genre of choice for intelligent and educated people, and it is the new literature for the 20th century and beyond, however, finding good SF (never used the 'term' Sci-Fi, it is an abomination) can be challenging. In recent decades, in my opinion, too many SF authors have done no more than rehash old ideas and rework existing themes. With this in mind it is a pleasure to find a new author with new works which push the boundaries. Such an author is Peter Watts.

Watts, by profession, is a marine biologist. According to his website bio (rifters.com) he has had a varied career, which was part of the reason he decided to turn his hand to writing. His first novels centred around human exploration and exploitation of the mid-21st century oceans. His latest novel, the subject of this review, is set later in the 21st century with its action taking place in deep space.
The story begins with the detection of an alien artifact at the outer edge of the solar system, and a very public scan of the Earth. This discovery compels the Earth's leaders to launch probes, and then a fully kitted out hi-tech space craft, to examine the artifact. Let it be clear that the background Earth civilisation is totally super science, a trans-humanist geek daydream come to life: advanced AI, virtual reality, genetic enhancement, it is all there. Way to go. Lets try and hang in there until then.
Most of the action takes place on the ship and the alien 'space craft'. 

I am not going to give away too much here but there is some serious, out there science, discussion of the nature of intelligence, consciousness, evolution, advanced science and humanity. The conclusion to all this is that (SPOILERS AHEAD) elsewhere in the galaxy (very likely the universe) evolution has produced intelligence, but not self-awareness. That is to say the aliens are very intelligent but have no individuality, but it is not a 'hive mind', a stock SF concept, these are non-aware, intelligent creatures, motivated purely by instinct. The analogy used to describe the alien presence is a 'dandelion seed'. Watts, in the novel and in an appendix, does point out that self-awareness is not necessarily a survival trait -- what is the survival value in stopping to appreciate a sunset?  I can also add that the crew members themselves are a rather diverse bunch of people, by 20th century standards they would be regarded as freaks.

At the novel's conclusion only one member of the crew is still alive (as far as we know). This lone individual heads back to Earth with a first hand account of humanities meeting with the aliens and the sad understanding that we could be in conflict with the rest of life in the universe. (END OF SPOILERS).

The novel is hard core, hard science fiction. The wikipedia entry for Peter Watts describes him as a biological version of Greg Egan. If you like this sort of thing you will like this novel, and vice versa for all you soft-core fantasy readers. There is a sequel underway, a novel which reveals what happens on the Earth during the time period of the alien encounter. Here's hoping it does not take too long to appear. It will be a good story.

One thing you might want to know is that Watt's work is available on his website, free of charge, as well as available in the more traditional paid formats (paper from amazon and other retailers). If you do download and read Watt's work on an ereader (as I do) consider making a donation. There is an option for this on his site.
Good reading.