by Brian Steinbach
Unfathomable as it may seem, we’re imperfect in our ability to predict and estimate our possible needs and even potential shortcomings. Yet the most effective defense is that we do our best to anticipate every roadblock and deliver an experience as bump free as possible. So we plan, plan, and plan some more, but the end result is inevitably that something has gone unforeseen (whether due to our own oversight or others). Ultimately I can only report on my own missteps during the first one and half months here in Surat. So use this as a supplemental guide to your own plans knowing that you will have your own list of things that made you go “oh…” in your first weeks in Thailand.
***Note: I am a first time international traveler out of the states. There are moments ahead that prompt a well deserved, “duh” response in this article. I apologize for those in advance.
In descending order (most important to least):
1st- Coffee, Chocolate, Beer (There’s a joke in there)-
They don’t exist here. Well, that’s a bit of a lie. But the coffee is all instant coffee, often with powdered creamer and sugar pre-mixed in. Beer options are extremely limited, and chocolate is often not what you’d expect (international recipe to keep it from melting or something). As far as, “wish I had known advice”, I don’t have any on the chocolate and beer front. As for the coffee, I did have the foresight to bring my own French press, coffee grinder, and 5lb bag of coffee beans. Though, be warned on the coffee. If customs decides to go through your bag, they may decide to dump out your coffee into your bag with all of your clothes (Though irritating, I could think of worse things than reeking of coffee for the first week in Surat).
-Note: Rest assured, the superb food does what it can to make up for that which we’re deprived.
1st (seriously)- Phones-
I didn’t think I would be using a phone while in Thailand. I canceled my phone service and opted for using Skype as my communication mainstay while abroad. Two realizations came up in lieu of this plan; the readily available and easily acquired SIM card, easily replenished with credit for purchase at any 7/11 (which are as common as Star Bucks in a large city back home); and the lack of Internet access in Super English housing (See #2).
First, if you’re 100% unfamiliar with SIM cards, and buying credit for them, one of the teachers will show hook you up when you arrive (My roommate did). So don’t worry on that front. For the most part, these phones are for contacting Peter, other teachers, and other friends you’ve met around town. You can chat back home, but it’s a bit steeper at something like 5 baht a minute (I recommend Skype for those calls if at all possible). Still, for emergencies, your family should be able to contact you in a pinch.
Have an iPhone?: You can get your iPhone set up with a local Sim card. But make sure to bring your original Sim card. I did not, and had to send for it after I bricked my phone (I won’t explain here, but bring the original SIM as a precaution if you fancy using the phone here).
2nd – Internet in Super English Housing-
I knew that Internet was not provided through our housing, but I didn’t know that it was out of the question to work something out through the landlord. The Internet is a pretty large staple in modern communication. And when you plan on using Skype to stay connected back home, and considering hour differentials (12 hours for me), it makes staying in touch a bit cumbersome. There are at least three Internet coffee shops between my house and work, and Internet is always available at the SE office. But that means you have to do your communicating/ Internet work during those available hours (ie. If the coffee shop closes at 6:00 P.M…).
So, that’s a big one to keep in mind. Communication isn’t impossible, and Internet access certainly isn’t scarce. It just takes some planning for you, and those you’re contacting back home.
Note from Peter: Since we rent all the houses for our teachers, we cannot install internet there. It is ultimately up to the landlord, since it is their name on the house and address. They usually say “no” because they don’t want to end up with any problems. So a landline internet connection at the SE houses won’t happen. However, some teachers have gone around this hurdle by connecting to the internet via their cell phone. They have hooked their phone up to their computer and gotten an internet connection from that. It probably wasn’t fast enough for Skype, but they were able to check their email, watch Youtube, etc. So internet in SE housing is possible, but it won’t be dsl speed.
3rd- Credit/Debit/Banking info-
Prior to leaving, I visited my bank to make sure they knew that I would be in Thailand for the next year. The purpose being so that they wouldn’t cancel my cards when they noticed someone 12 hours away from where I normally am bought mass amounts of sweet, sweet macaroni and cheese (rare) at some unlikely place in Thailand. It’s a good idea, and I advise you still do it. That said, I have not used my credit or debit card once in the two months I’ve been here (think of them as for emergencies).
I can still pay bills online and, should I wish to, make online purchases with my accounts back home. However, you will be setting up your own bank account in Surat Thani after you get your work permit all sorted out. The SE staff basically does this for you. All you have to do is be there to sign the papers. This can take a couple months (still waiting on mine to go through). I did not realize that I wouldn’t be able to put money in and out of my accounts back home with ease (and charge free). This one isn’t too big a deal; it’s just something I wasn’t aware of prior to arriving. While you wait for your permit, you’ll be hoarding what money you did bring with you (and any paychecks you earn along the way) in little tin cups buried in the yard.
4th- Small things-
- “God save the Quality pants!” – I brought exactly two pairs of black pants for work, and on day one, forgot to roll up my pant legs when getting on my bike for work. The end result was a very unpleasant ripping sound on day one. I learned my lesson. Still…bring a small sewing kit.
- Arrival/Departure Slip: This happened to another teacher, but it very easily could have happened to me. On your flight into Bangkok, or at customs, you will receive a couple small forms that you fill out. They state you’re arrival, and where you’re staying, as well as your departure info, etc. You will give the arrival slip to customs, and YOU NEED TO HOLD ONTO THE DEPARTURE ONE. For Wen’s sake (she’s doing all your work permit stuff). In other words, don’t throw it away. You’ll end up having to drive back out to the airport to get a replacement.
- TukTuk Drivers/ Some Vendors: You are a tourist in the eyes of most. Especially early on in your stay. This means that you look like you have gobs and gobs of money to many of the locals. So, a 10-20 baht TukTuk ride will suddenly be 40-50 baht. Or that bushel of bananas that was 10 baht will be 40 baht. Learn some of the Thai lingo early to avoid this occurrence. You will not be able to convince everyone, at which point you either pay them off or walk away.
Note: I did not realize there would be as much of a teacher/tourist divide when I first arrived. It’s not quite hostility, but we’re not fond of seeing tourists (oversized backpacks, touristy clothing, etc) meandering around the night market and other places we frequent. Surat is mostly touristfree, which keeps our costs lower than the tourist areas. I didn’t know how to take the weird anti-stance on tourism by fellow teachers at first, but it quickly becomes something you adopt and try to keep your distance from.
Packing Hindsight, or Things I should/shouldn’t have brought:
- I brought too many socks. A friend told me that good socks could be hard to find, but I think I went a little overboard. Seriously, pretty much no one wears shoes here unless they’re teaching. You don’t have to take your shoes off before going into every building or store, but it happens enough to the point that even my Velcro sandals seem inconvenient at times. Bring a couple weeks worth of work socks, but I wouldn’t bring more than a week of casual socks in the event that you go hiking. Maybe in six months I’ll be glad I brought this many socks. But right now, all I can think is that I could have packed another book or two in place of the abundance of white socks.
- I wish I had brought a small jump drive (usb memory stick). I brought my external hard drive, but bringing a small memory stick completely slipped my mind. You can buy them here, but it’s something small enough, to where there’s no reason not to bring it from back home for just the sake of making things easier. There have been about a dozen times so far where trading/moving files has come up, where I’ve just been up the proverbial creek until I finally go out and find one.
- I wish I’d either brought one more power adapter, or one fewer items that required a power adapter. The voltage here is 220. Most high-end electronics will be compatible with the 220 (laptops, most digital cameras, and some shavers, etc). But make sure you check the power chords on your stuff. If it doesn’t say up to 220, then think about whether it you really need it, or if it’s something you can pick up for a reasonably cheap price over here. Right now the only things I have are an electric beard trimmer, a coffee grinder, and a wireless mouse. I’ve only used the coffee grinder thus far, but the converter is kind of an irritating thing to move around the house. It’s up to you.
- I wish I had taken that free motorcycle safety/riding course that I told everyone I was going to take…but then ended up being “too busy”. Stupid.
- I wish I had downloaded more television shows that I had never seen before. I have a fair amount, but severely overestimated my ability to find stable Internet connections to download more stuff. Load up your hard drives with music, movies, and television people.***
- I wish all of my pants fit. I was teaching back in the states last fall, and lost a good amount of weight during the spring. As a result of just grabbing all of my work pants, at least two pairs are too large (this is a duh…). Wasted bag space for the lose.
- I kind of wish (though kind of glad I didn’t) I had brought a little more spending money with me for my first two months in Surat Thani. I arrived one week into July, and didn’t start teaching until August. This means my first check comes at the end of August. It will be a full month, but it doesn’t leave much in the way of weekend travel money. Don’t get me wrong though. I only brought about six hundred U.S. dollars (about 20-21,000 baht), and that was more than enough to last me for seven weeks. That includes one four-day weekend to Khao Sok (among tourist options, it’s one of the cheaper, but I dropped about 3500 baht there and back). So, yeah. Money goes far. I’ve had to pass up a few opportunities to travel due to budgeting, but there’s plenty to do in Surat during your first two months getting acclimated. I also imagine that most people won’t be here for nearly two months before there first paycheck. That said; bring more if you fancy traveling a lot in your first few weeks. Otherwise, you’ll probably be fine come first paycheck.
That’s pretty much on my “Wish someone had told me” list. If you’re curious about what I did bring (and not just my regrets), see my “Preparing for Thailand” article on the SE website. And with that, I’ll say good luck, and happy planning.