Jo of The Blond Travels grew up in Poland and lived in the UK for 10 years. Then, without having done much planning, Jo quit her job in London and moved to Thailand. Find out how she fell in love with travel and created her new lifestyle in this interview!
You caught the travel bug the first time you went to Thailand. What was it about this trip that made you want to travel more?
The sights, smells and tastes of Thailand stole my heart, but I was also taken away by the freedom I felt while travelling. We didn’t really have a schedule. We went to Bangkok first and then decided where to go next on a whim. I didn’t know that you could travel like that.
Some of my friends in the UK did backpacking and I had no idea how they could afford travelling so much. During that trip I realized that countries like Thailand are really cheap. Plus, you could stay in hostels and dorms and still have a wonderful holiday.
I finally felt like doing something else rather than being stuck behind a desk. At 30, I understood that in my 20s I should have lived my life in a completely different way, that I took life too seriously when I really should have done more travelling, have fun more.
Together with your sister, you then took another trip to Thailand, as well as Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. The trip lasted three months this time. How much did the trip cost and how did you afford this trip?
I was married at the time. We both had good jobs and I could save quite a bit. I used to have a set goal for each month – so as soon as I got my salary I would put aside around £50. Not much, but it’s a lot when you’re saving to go to Asia. At the end of the month, if I had anything left, I would put that aside, too.
I cannot remember how much the trip cost, but I would assume it was something around £3,000, including flights. They had a very good promotion at Air Asia (a Southeast Asian budget airline) and we bought all our flights within Southeast Asia from them. We also took a lot of buses – A LOT!
How did you manage to take off for three months for this second trip? What about your job?
I was a personal assistant at one of the medical organization in London. My boss was quite understanding. I told them I wanted to stay in the company, but I also wanted to travel for three months. They gave me one-month fully-paid leave, plus two-month unpaid leave.
I actually wasn’t that bothered about it. I decided that if they say they don’t want to give me that leave, then I will just quit. I could always get a job somewhere else.
You finally left London for good at the end of 2013 and have been traveling ever since. How did you prepare yourself for this? Did you have savings? Did you raise some money when you sold your stuff? Did you have a job lined up? Online sources of income?
Hahah no, I didn’t prepare myself for any of that. I am laughing because I remember being completely freaked out about the trip, to a point where I didn’t even want to plan anything.
I decided to leave because after I came back from the three-month trip my husband and I split, and there was nothing for me to do rather than leave the city I didn’t like much, quit the job I didn’t enjoy and look for happiness somewhere else.
I did have some savings. Not much, but I did. And again…my divorce was a very unlucky episode in my life, but it did help me financially and thanks to that I could afford not to work for a little while.
I also sold my stuff on eBay and raised a little bit of money from that.
I read a lot of things online about what I could do and I decided to be a teacher in Thailand. I didn’t have a job lined up. All I knew was that I needed to do the TEFL course and look for a job. My plan was to start earning in Thailand and then use that money to sustain myself in Asia so I wouldn’t have to use my savings.
I didn’t have any other sources of income. It was just careful financial planning, not spending too much while travelling and pure luck.
What are your living expenses like as an expat in Chiang Mai?
I pay around ฿4,500 (4,500 Thai baht = around US $125) for a studio flat per month. This includes water, electricity and WiFi.
I have my own scooter, which I bought for ฿25,000 (US $695) last year. The gas costs me around ฿100 (US $3) per week, but that varies depending on how many trips I take.
Food is really cheap here. A rice dish costs me ฿40 to ฿50 (US $1.10-$1.40) and a bowl of soup ฿35 (US $1). I hardly ever cook at home because it is too expensive, but from time to time my boyfriend and I prepare something nice. I don’t have a kitchen, but I bought a small stove and we can make simple dishes.
There are other costs of living, such as laundry (฿20 or US $0.50 for one use of a washing machine) and phone (฿500 or US $14 per month).
The most expensive part is going out. Alcohol can be quite costly. A large beer in a bar is around ฿100 (US $3) and a cocktail ฿120 (US $3.30). Of course, you can just go for a Thai alternative to rum and whiskey, which is a little cheaper. I like going out and I like making trips during the weekends outside of town, so that costs me quite a bit.
On average I spend around ฿25,000 (US $695) per month.
I know you did some CouchSurfing, are you still into that? What are some other ways you save on accommodation when you’re not at your home in Chiang Mai?
When I travel alone I sometimes use CouchSurfing. Last time it was in India. I stayed in Kovalam with a really nice Russian guy, who was subletting a whole guesthouse from a local. It was the beginning of the low season and he didn’t have anyone there, so I had my own room with a bathroom for free.
Another way to save money is to make friends wherever you go. Thanks to Facebook you can keep in touch with people you meet in your travels. Maybe they could host you for a little while if you happen to travel to their area. And if they can’t take you in, then maybe at least they will know a cheap place to stay. I only stayed with friends when I visited Australia and it was great.
And if you can, take someone with you. Solo travel is overrated because you end up spending more money. It is cheaper to share a room, a taxi ride, and even a meal with someone. Of course before you decide to travel with someone, you need to be sure that they will be a good travel companion.
You work as a teacher in Chiang Mai. What was the process like of getting the right qualifications and finding a job? How much are you paid and do you get any benefits (housing subsidy, travel allowance, etc.)?
I actually don’t work as a teacher anymore…well, not officially. Two weeks ago I finished my work at the school. I enjoyed the job most of the time, but I was getting more and more annoyed by the bureaucracy and disorganization. The curriculum didn’t make sense and the students couldn’t learn anything because most of the things were too difficult. Also — and this reason for quitting might sound silly to some — I am not a morning person. My classes would start at 8 a.m. and I would be half conscious.
I also wanted to work on my writing and my blog. When you live in Southeast Asia you don’t need to earn much and that allows me to develop my passions and ambitions.
I found a good company that offers online English classes and I teach English online now. I earn exactly the same money as before (around ฿25,000 or US $695), plus I earn money from my writing projects.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from becoming a teacher in Thailand. I think it is a great experience and it really allows you to see the country from the inside. If you want to be a teacher here, then do the TEFL course first. You need at least a bachelor degree. Most schools prefer native speakers, but I know a lot of people from France, Poland and Russia who got jobs here.
The minimum rate is around ฿25,000 (US $695). You can live comfortably here on that. Some schools offer more, plus paid holidays, medical insurance etc., but that’s not the case with every school. For example, my contract was from June to March. After a year, I wanted to stay with the same school. My new contract was again from June, so I had two months of unpaid holidays. You need to be ready for things like that.
How can someone go about finding a job teaching English online? Is there a website where such jobs are advertised or did you find it through someone you know?
I had looked for similar jobs before I got this one. I Googled it and I found a few offers on Facebook groups for expat teachers and digital nomads. One company declined to hire me because I was in Thailand and they decided the Internet wasn’t reliable. Another company refused to take me on because of my accent. My English is fluent, but I do have a slight accent and they said that their clients were picky and only wanted native speakers.
The job that I got now I found through a friend, who recommended me. It is an international company, based in New York. Their lessons are 24 hours a day and I can choose my own schedule.
There are a lot of online teaching companies, but expat teachers don’t really trust them. Some are unreliable, so you need to be careful. Do you research first, or find someone who is already working for them.
Do you have any plans, beyond Thailand and beyond teaching? Are you making any preparations now for that — like saving up maybe or building other sources of income?
At the moment I am thinking of travelling a little next year, and then maybe going to Spain or Italy to settle there. I am not sure yet.
I am not making huge preparations. As I said, I teach English at the moment and that’s a big part of my income. I do want to develop my writing and start getting better-paid projects, which hopefully will allow me to quit teaching altogether.
Unfortunately, I cannot save up at the moment, at least not much, but I am trying to earn more and I think I am going in the right direction.
Joanna Szreder was born in Poland and spent 10 years in England, working various administration jobs. Two years ago she decided to go to Thailand, where she now lives. For a year and a half she taught English in a local college in Chiang Mai and finally decided to quit the job. She now earns her living as an online teacher and a freelance copywriter.