To (Buddhist) Hell & Back (NSFW)

About a month ago, I was in a market in a small town in central Thailand and I stumbled across some crazy statues. Bizarre, grotesque, and morbid, they were exactly my jam. I can’t really explain how or why they got my synapses firing but I was utterly absorbed by them. It turned out they were depictions of Thai Hell, that which is called Naraka.

I’d seen a little bit of the hell atmosphere at the White Temple (which I think is on par with the Taj Mahal) but I had no idea of either the breadth or the scope of a proper Hell garden. (This article has a good assortment from around the country.)


You can’t start talking about Buddhist hell parks in Thailand for long without mentioning The Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden. Of all the Hell parks, it’s the biggest and the bestest, and the only one with English translations. (For an detailed account of it specifically, this article is pretty well-written.)

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I’ve now been to three Hell Parks and there are some commonalities. You are usually greeted by giant ghosts, which are monstrous spirits of hunger called Preta. These are creatures I wasn’t previously aware of but they’re basically the spirits of those people who were too greedy. They have swollen bellies and long tongues and are doomed to always be hungry.

My first thought was that perhaps it was a relic of the christian missionaries who have been doing their best to sandpaper down all other cultures and mores. That may be true, but some scholars believe that Jews and then Christians got torture-hell from Buddhists.

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Then you walk around and see the various punishments doled out to those who transgress morally. Though it seems morbid, people bring their kids to these places. From what I’ve seen, none of the children at the parks seem particularly horrified.

Though it’s fair to say they can be pretty disturbing. See below.

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20180908_142547This is how Naraka works. When you die, the first stop is to go visit Phya Yom (the Death king). Though he has a morbid name and sometimes appearance, he’s an impartial judge and he has four buddies who check the record of your deeds. The good deeds are on a gold plate, and the bad deeds are on a piece of dog skin. If you were cool, rejoice, but if you’re bad, a nigh-eternity of hell awakes.

It’s not actually forever though. Unlike other hells, you aren’t in Naraka for eternity, just until the end of the Buddhist era (until a new Buddha is born on earth). Which as Alan Watts says, maybe isn’t literally 10 million years, but it’s quite long.

What kind of bad things get you into Naraka? Specific bad behaviors will turn you into certain kind of animals. For instance, if you harm plants or herbs you will change into a goat head. If you steal from others, you get a monkey head. If your mischief is just general hooliganism, you get a crocodile head. The worst sin you can do is to hurt your parents or monks and then you go to the bottom of hell.

It is very patriarchal and petty, which isn’t a shock for a religion that still considers it an offense for women to touch monks. Women are doomed for cheating on their husbands or getting abortions.

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The punishment for liars

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She cheated on her husband

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Suitable punishment for a rapist

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(Nearly) Eternal fate for those who get abortions

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Classic cutting off a thief’s hands

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A warning against those who drink too much alcohol

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You don’t want to know what she did

So despite being didactic and patriarchal there’s an amazing sense of otherness and wonder in these warning statues. They’re definitely worth a visit for those who appreciate the morbid, the ghoulish and the macabre.

 

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English and I and me

When I was considering taking the job at English and I, I googled but couldn’t find much. There are a few videos on youtube and one post from 2012 (back when it was still called Fun English) but little else. No black lists and nothing on the forums.

Now that I’ve been here for 4 months I’m happy to go into more detail for anyone else in a similar boat. I’ll do my best to keep it as neutral as I can, but full disclosure is that none of the foreign teachers are all that happy with the school these days. (Perhaps not the Thai teachers either, but I’m less familiar with their feelings.)

The Good

The school pays on time, always, and in full. In the ESL world, that’s not nothing.

The campus is pretty, well-manicured, and there is aircon in all the classrooms and teachers’ room.

There are tons of hammers and sticky balls and pre-made game supplies at our disposal.

The manager is a Westerner and an English speaker. He’s on the side of the teachers, which again is a real treat in the ESL world. When you get here, he gives you a tour of the city and even took me to Big C to shop for household options.

We get sick days, and can go home early if we’re not feeling well.

I haven’t ever eaten there, but lunches are free at the canteen.

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The Mediocre

Lopburi

There are some benefits to living in Lopburi. The cost of living is pretty low, which is probably the biggest. The ruins are nice. The surrounding area, nature and temples, is nice. It’s not far from Bangkok.

But still Lopburi isn’t probably a top 50 location in Thailand. It feels like a place with all the inconveniences of a big city without any of the benefits. There’s always lots of traffic and construction. Getting across the street can take forever and sidewalks are few and far between. Soi dogs are a real danger, especially after dark. I’ve seen multiple students with scars from dog bites. There’s not much to do here. It’s one of the hottest parts of Thailand too. There aren’t many foreigners here, and if you’re not into going to the bar it’s tough to make friends.

Banjongrat School

The pay isn’t bad for Thailand. It’s 32,000 Baht (about 975 usd) for the first two months and then 36,000 Baht (just under 1100 dollars) after that.  With (semi-mandatory) after-school classes, you can bring in close 1200 USD per month.

But the school has a lot of policies that affect us in strange ways. We have to wear different colour shirts on different days–red usually but yellow for king days and white for buddhist days and traditional thai for other times. The usual ESL pattern of last minute cancellations are here too, but to be honest are far better than most hagwons in South Korea.

We don’t have to wear ties (ironic in this country) but we do have to wear belts and “smart trousers” and dress shoes.

Thai teachers

I’ve never taught with another teacher in the room and I was a little leery of how it would go. But for the most part, the Thai teachers at English and I are pretty awesome. There will be personality conflicts (which is why I rank this neutral) but overall the Thai contingent is a real perk of the job.

Students

This is neutral on balance as well. Some of the students are very bright and hilarious.  I look forward to three or four classes a week because we have fun together. But in general they’re pretty naughty. Going into classrooms with no desks and funny foreigners and knowing they’re playing games, it’s hard to get them to listen.

They do have awesome names. Pees and Poos aplenty, sure, but there is Singha (named after the beer), Lookpeach, Titan, Love, Hi 5, Shogun, Bonus, Soda, Boeing and her sister Runway, Wipcream and her brother Cappucino, Brandname, Google, Air Force, Army, Cartoon, Atom, Meow, Guitar, Benz, Ball, Beer, Please, Thank You, Name (naturally) and a litany of others. Also names are usually gender free, so boys are named Jennifer or Chelsea and so on.

Classes are usually around 20-25 kids, but semi-regularly are doubled. 20 kids isn’t too bad, but anything over 30 and it becomes difficult to manage.

Structure

There is a very strict structure at English and I. Classes are subdivided into 9 or 10 sections. I have been chided for not saying “good morning” at the beginning of the class. One teacher is criticized for not singing the requisite number of songs. It’s one thing to have a structure. For new teachers, it is actually super useful. But it’s so rigid that it feels very oppressive.

Work Permits,etc

Now, I had (almost) no problems with this. My permit was acquired a week before my visa expired and it was no worries. I got help setting up a bank account too. What’s more, I didn’t have any cash on me and they loaned me 1000 baht (30 USD) to deposit. BUT….

…I and 2 others were sent home one day when the immigration officials came to investigate. I’m still not sure why, because we were told we were legal. One of the new teachers (now leaving in a month) still hasn’t got his work permit! So I don’t think it’s dodgy, it could just be a case of “Thailand being Thailand,” but it’s something to be aware of.

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The Bad

Kindy

This is no one’s fault and unlike the others on this list doesn’t really have a “solution.” But it’s worth mentioning that for everyone, Kindy days are the worst. The kids aren’t that badly behaved, for the most part, but tears and poop are part of the day most days. I know now that I’ll never take another job where kindergarten teaching is required. Your feelings may very well be different on the matter, but since we all dread it I think it’s worth listing in the Bad section.

Workload

The expectations are high. We teach 24 classes a week (50 minutes a class so more like 27 by the usual standard.) These classes are pretty tiring–no chairs and we’re on our feet the whole class. Then there are two after-school classes a week. These are somewhat mandatory; meaning you can say no but if not enough teachers sign up then they can make you do it anyway.

When teachers quit, those who remain pick up more classes. When teachers are sick, we combine their classes with ours, leaving us with classes of 40-50 students.

Lesson planning takes a long time, especially the first few months. Then there’s grading, where we have to mark and correct tests and worksheets for 300-500 students.
Finally there’s grading. At the end of term, we have to enter 15 weeks of grades, 3 series of tests, and write comments for each of our students. This is something like an extra 25-50 hours of work.

It’s more work than anyone can do during work hours. Some teachers have to lesson plan at home. If you can’t do it at work,then you’re expected to do it at home, for free. The fact that no one can do it all during work hours doesn’t seem to change the policy.

Teacher Retention

Everywhere you go, teachers like to complain about their jobs. We always want less work and we always think we’re being overworked. So take this, all of this, with a grain of salt. But of the 9 foreign teachers here this semester, two have quit halfway through. 5 of them are leaving at the end of this term.  By next month, only one foreign teacher will have been here for longer than 9 months. The 3 new teachers hired with me who started in May are all departing or departed. 2 couldn’t sleep because of stress dreams.

This is bad for their business but worst it’s bad for the kids. From what I’ve heard, the exact same thing happened last year, where at least a few teachers quit unexpectedly. The cycle keeps repeating and the problem is that the solution is locked behind high walls.

The Bosses

One reason I took this job was I really felt like I connected with two of the owners, Bob and Lee. I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t see much of them again. When I do see them, they are very personable and kind. When I almost left two months in, one of the bosses came up from Bangkok and met with me and addressed my concerns, which was great. When they observed my classes, they were very complimentary. So the interactions I’ve had with them have been great.

But also so few. They are not absentee owners. They are policy makers and enforcers. I might be wrong about this (they must have a different perspective) but to the teachers at English and I we feel like mere numbers in a spreadsheet. One teacher, a former croupier in Vegas, said he was literally referred to by number at the Casino and it still felt more humanizing.

Recently, with teachers quitting, we all picked up more classes and have been combining classes heavily. Everyone is sick and pushing themselves. A word from the bosses, a thank-you, would have gone a long way. But we don’t hear anything from them.

Both this semester and and (from what I’ve heard) last semester, the teachers have requested to have a chat with them. My feeling is that open lanes of communication lead to healthy relationships and a healthy workplace. But they have a policy of not really talking to the teachers, preferring to funnel everything through the manager. That makes sense, as a policy, but when teachers have quit and the manager is working 2-3 jobs, it feels more like an excuse not to open lines of communication (for whatever reason.) It feels disrespectful to me, but again I’m sure they have their perspective and all the interactions I’ve had with them have been good.

In Summary

English and I isn’t a bad school. They pay relatively well and on time. Your teaching is a lot of games and many of the kids are super funny. But considering that you could work fewer hours in Vietnam or South Korea or Japan and make double the money, or work half as much for the same money and be in Bangkok or Chiang Mai or at the beach, then it’s hard to justify coming/staying here.

If I could go back, I would almost certainly choose another school. (I had an offer in Bangkok for more money and less work but ironically chose English and I because things here seemed less likely to turn sour.) But if you don’t mind working all the time, taking work home, for less than neighboring countries pay, there are a lot of good reasons to come to English and I. Great teachers, a good manager, funny (albeit naughty) kids. Just know what you’re getting into. My philosophy is if I wanted to work weekends and be stressed at work, I could be working for a bank somewhere and have benefits and a retirement and make a lot more cash. But everyone has a different threshold for this.

If you’re considering English and I, hopefully this helped a bit. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

 

Yeti Daytrips: Suphanburi

 

Suphanburi

Most tourists in Thailand either go to Chiang Mai and the north or the islands of the South. Central Thailand isn’t as enticing. I myself, when traveling through Thailand a few years ago, only stopped off at Sukothai and Ayutthaya.

To be honest, this is fair. The middle of Thailand isn’t as interesting or relaxing as the tourist hotspots.  And it’s so hot. But there are some cool places in central Thailand, with tons of history and cultural sights.

One such place is Suphanburi (just called Suphan by the locals.)

Nahia Chai (LIFESTYLE AND SPIRIT OF THAI FARMERS LEARNING CENTER)

It’s an insult to call someone a buffalo in Thai but the weird thing is that actually buffalos are super rad.  Here, you can feed or pet them and explore an open air museum, plus see all kinds of rice growing and get harvested.

Giant Mungkorn (Dragon)

Behold. The world’s biggest dragon statue. Inside is a museum, but it was too expensive so I can’t tell you if I liked it. Still with all the great statues (including the coolest horoscope statues I’ve seen in Asia) and pagodas and fish ponds and temples, I spent 2 hours here. The Dragon lights up at night too.

Hell Market at Wat Phra Loi

There is a great market here, one of the best I’ve been to in all of Thailand, scattered through the woods. But behind the market is the craziest thing you’ll see all week.

 Wat Sampa Siw aka Doraemon Temple

Adding new characters is a great idea. The murals here are like a mystery, with characters hidden amongst the traditional motifs.

 

Vegan (near) Lopburi: Episode 5

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This one comes with an asterix, because it’s as close to Saraburi as it is to Lopburi. It’s 20 k / 30 minutes away, but it’s right next to Wat Phraphutthabat, one of the biggest and coolest temples in the area. (See the end of the post for more there.)

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Plus it’s Loving Hut. This one is run by two smiley ladies and it has a huge menu. The culty propaganda isn’t as upfront and center as some of the other locations I’ve been to. Prices aren’t the cheapest by Thai standards but each meal is about $1.5-2.50

As always, my only camera is an old phone so sorry for the potato quality photos. But there’s a whole range of vegan ice creams and sorbets as well.

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Now I have to say of the two dishes I ordered, I didn’t love either one of them. But they weren’t terrible and with 100 other options I’m sure there’s something there I’ll like.

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Wat Phraphutthabat

One of the oldest temples in Thailand, it is one of many places in SE Asia that claims to have a footprint of Buddha. It’s name actually means something like “Buddha’sfootprinttemple.”

Buddha might be bigger than you have always thought because the footprint is massive, about 21 inches wide, 5 feet long, and 11 inches deep.

The original temple, like so much in this area, was sacked by the Burmese in the same attack that destroyed Ayutthaya. But the current temple is ornate and ancient.

Here are a few pictures of the temple.

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ESL Life: Expect the Unxpected (clothing edition)

 

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One of the rules of living in Asia, perhaps the first and most fundamental one, is to expect the unexpected. This is true in most areas of life but particularly of the ESL world. Classes are cancelled last minute, students are added or removed without any notice, Friday nights are claimed for work dinners with your boss, again with little notice.

This all becomes second nature after a couple of years. What’s new for me these days is how much the school cares about our clothing. To me, the idea that teachers even have to have specific outfits is completely baffling. Especially for those of us teaching primary and kindergarten students. Wearing ties and skirts and tight clothes is the opposite of practical or logical. That’s not just a Thailand thing, of course.

1532137115006But what maybe is a Thailand thing, or at least something I haven’t seen elsewhere, is that seem to delight in thinking of new clothes for us to wear. Mostly we wear red polos but on Buddhist days (once or twice a week) we have white tshirts to wear and because the King’s birthday is this month we have yellow shirts to wear once a week and now we have traditional clothes to wear once or twice a week too.

It’s not too much a bother, though it’s sometimes hard to remember the correct outfit required for that day. I have to wonder about who is getting paid to think up new outfits and my western brain feels like they could perhaps spend that time on something more productive.

But it’s all part of expecting the unexpected.

Vegan in Lopburi: Episode 4

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I wouldn’t say I saved the best for last, but I did save the most obvious for last. Nooms is the vegan-friendly restaurant in all the guidebooks; it’s listed on happycow and it’s the one most tourists in Lopburi are likely to find. It’s good, and by western standards it’s not expensive. (Though it’s 5=10 times the cost of some of the other jeh places in Lopburi.)

There is a vegetarian section of the menu. Someday if I go with an egg-eating friend I’d like to spring for the Vegetarian set.

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Nooms is the only place I’ve been to in Lopburi where the Thai food tastes like it does in the west. I think that’s pretty much the appeal–it’s like your favorite local Thai diner, but it’s here in Thailand, amidst monkey-strewn ruins and clinging tropical heat.

I’ve been twice, tried the red and the green curry (not sure which one is better) and once got an order of spring rolls as well. They also serve fruit shakes that are up to the standard you’d expect.

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All in all it’s easy to see why Noom’s has become an expat oasis. Noom rents out motorbikes to many of the teachers at my work, there is a quiz night on Thursdays, and there is a decent street market on Wednesdays just outside.

Vegan in Lopburi: Episode 3

Ngok Nam Organic Farming Center and Restaurant

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Another great little jeh restaurant that sells some selected vegan groceries too. They have a couple different kinds of soup and 3-4 different kinds of curry as well. The food is grubbing and quite cheap. They don’t have much an English presence online but it’s fairly central and there are directions in this post.

 

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2 kinds of curry

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Delicious Raadnar

 

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Now in retrospect I don’t necessarily recommend this particular tin of “vegan chicken” but they have ramen, salad rolls, crunchy rice snacks, and lots more.

 

 

It’s at the Sra Kaew traffic circle, just behind the large monkey statue. You can find it here

 

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Find this roundabout. It has statues of lions with elephant trunks.

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Then find this statue. It’s right behind this Hanuman statue

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