A Journey of Discovery: Teaching in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A Journey of Discovery: Teaching in Chiang Mai, Thailand

by: Milena Schembri

Traveling to Chiang Mai felt like turning the page to a new chapter. Starting with an overnight bus from Hua Hin, the sleep may not have been the best, but as I dozed in and out, a breathtaking sunrise over the mountains was my first sight of the beautiful Chiang Mai. It hit me that this enchanting city would be my home for the next little while. On my first day, I stepped into Tonkla, the school that would soon become my professional home.

Before being hired, I was drawn to the mission and values of this school. In the heart of Chiang Mai, Tonkla prides itself in taking a different approach to learning and teaching compared to other schools in Thailand. The founder of the school; Boonanake Maneetham, built the foundation of Tonkla with the belief that student happiness is essential. He states, “The brain works best when it’s happy, loved and cared for.” The word “Tonkla” itself means “little tree.” Just like a tree needs water and nutrients to grow; happiness is like water that brings nutrients to the children’s taproot, branch roots, and hair roots. It was exciting to soon be a part of a community that understands the importance of happiness and how it affects the human being as a whole.

Again, it felt as if the stars were aligning and everything was falling into place. A school with values and a mission like Tonkla is one that I always pictured myself working at. It feels as if the values of happiness and taking care of oneself are the same values I had for myself. I’ve had realizations that my own happiness is what matters most. If I’m taking care of my own well-being, then this radiates to those around me and causes a rippling effect of happiness . After visiting the school for the first time, I was amazed by the design and loved how it was surrounded by nature. I was eager to meet my students and immerse myself in the community.

One of the more challenging aspects of being away from home was missing Christmas with my family. I remember my instructor- John from Xploreasia explaining the stages of culture shock and living abroad. I definitely experienced different emotional states as time passed. I included a visual below for reference:

I believe I experienced the “shock” stage around Christmas time. Christmas at home has always been one of my most favourite times of the year. I love seeing family and friends, cozying up on the couch, and enjoying the festivities that come along with the holiday season. This year, I was in a new city, not knowing many people yet, and figuring out my berings. Looking back, the experience of missing home taught me to appreciate what you have in the moment. When you’re constantly doing the “same old things” it feels repetitive at the time, but when you leave “the same old things” you end up realizing how much you love it all. This experience has made my appreciation for home grow and has made me look forward to my return. There were many cultural differences to adapt to such as the struggle to communicate with locals, simple tasks like buying things at a grocery store, running out of hot water, and BUGS.

I realized that these stages of culture shock aren’t linear. Going in and out of the stages is similar to flowing with the waves of life. Situations, and emotions will arise that are uncomfortable,
but nothing lasts forever. I’ve learned to find gratitude in my current situation and look at it as a once in a lifetime experience. I left home with a mission to make the most of my time in Asia and immerse myself into a culture that is completely different from what I’m used to. I began to move into the transition and acceptance stages of the culture shock wave. I was now eager to make Chiang Mai my new home away from home.

As I immersed myself in my teaching role, a profound affection for my students blossomed. I got to know the unique qualities of their personalities. Tonkla hosts many events for their school community on a monthly basis. This is something I wasn’t accustomed to. The active involvement of parents adds another layer of community richness. I’m looking forward to continuing to develop my teaching skills throughout my time at Tonkla School.

I began to explore and enjoy the amazing city. I couldn’t believe how much there was to do. From the beautiful jungle hikes and waterfalls surrounding the city, to the endless amount of coffee shops in the city square, to the breathtaking temples. I fell in love with Chiang Mai. I began to meet more people with similar interests as me! One of these interests being yoga and meditation.

Something I didn’t realize before coming to Chiang Mai is that it’s often referred to as the “City of Meditation” due to its rich history and strong connection to Buddhism. Yoga and meditation are something that I enjoyed teaching and practicing at home. I was eager to start a healthy routine and take advantage of the spiritual practices Chiang Mai had to offer. Trying different yoga classes, meditation techniques, and speaking with Monks have been tools to help guide me on my own spiritual path. I’ve experienced profound revelations about my true essence, how important it is to observe the mind, and how precious the present moment is.

After reflecting on my experiences, I can’t believe how much inner growth I’ve experienced. I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude for the decision I made to embark on an adventure that has led me to call Chiang Mai, my new home for the next little while. Working at Tonkla has not only been a job but a transformative experience that has enriched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. My students and other staff members will forever have a special place in my heart.

Choosing to come to Thailand was not a decision taken lightly; I knew there would be ups and downs, but what I’ve come to realize is that even when things don’t seem to go as planned, that’s
the purpose of the journey. Living in Thailand has been a journey of self-discovery. I’ve learned to identify and address bad habits and patterns, manage stress, and not overthink or plan excessively. Allowing life to unfold naturally has become a mantra, trusting that everything is happening as it should. One of my favourite quotes that I’ve repeated to myself throughout my travels is “life happens
not to me, but for me.” Everything in life is a lesson. I’ve learned that I should treat people with kindness and respect- just like Thai locals, enjoy the unfolding of life and appreciate every single moment in the “NOW,” to accept the highs and lows of life because everything shall eventually pass, and to not take life too seriously. We’re meant to enjoy life, have fun, and learn. This land of smiles has left an incredible mark on my heart. I can’t wait to live the rest of my life rooted in gratitude, appreciation, adventure, and love. I want to thank Greenheart for allowing me to use this platform to share my experience, and I hope I encourage others to follow their dream… whatever that may be for you.


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