The ACL in my right knee has been ruptured for 37 years

This is the story of the anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee, how it snapped in 1977 and remains snapped to this day. It took another leg injury suffered twenty-five years later, however, to allow my ACL problem to be eventually diagnosed.

Back in 2002, when I was living and working in Melbourne, I used to regularly attend ‘Tai Bo’ classes in a gym. The ‘Tai Bo’ was short for ‘Thai Boxing’, but it was like a cross between aerobics and boxing and I loved it. There are other versions of it, such as ‘Body Combat’, and I recommend it for those who want to keep fit, but only if it’s done properly. The correct way is to complete the exercises as if you are actually hitting someone as hard as you can. But I digress.

I was participating in a Tai Bo class one night and the exercise I was performing involved placing my hands at the sides of my head and raising my knees up alternately to touch my elbows. This exercise can be done as low-impact by leaving the feet on the floor or, to add a bit extra, a small jump can be added as the knee is raised. I chose to do this and, as I did my little jump, I landed on the side of my right foot and went over on my ankle. I can’t tell you how many times I‘ve done this in my life, but this one was particularly bad and extremely painful but I foolishly went home instead of admitting myself to hospital. It happened on a Friday night and I thought a weekend of rest (I couldn’t walk on it anyway) would suffice, but it was still badly swollen and still painful by Monday morning and I had to take three days off work before I could put any weight on it.

Instead of going to see a doctor (and being given the mandatory anti-inflammatory tablets), I decided to visit a physiotherapist, who eventually referred me to an orthopaedic specialist. I was quite happy about this, because I hoped that he might recommend surgery to fix my wobbly ankle once-and-for-all.

He examined my ankle (which had returned to its normal appearance by this time) by twisting and turning and pulling and flexing it and compared it to my left one (which wasn’t much better). He then examined my knees in much the same way, and as he was checking my right knee he said, “Whoa! When did you do you ACL?” I asked him what he meant and he said, “Your anterior cruciate ligament. It’s gone. Look.” He then moved to my left knee and bent it and pulled it forward and it moved back to its original position by itself. He then performed the same procedure on my right knee. “See?” he said. “It doesn’t move back. That’s because your ACL has gone.” I told him that I had hurt my knee several times when I was younger and he said that it was probably the first bad one when the rupture occurred. “I remember the first time”, I told him. “Was there a loud crack?” he asked. I told him that there was and that my knee had swollen up like a balloon. “Yep. That would have been it”, he said. He asked me when it happened. I told him it was in 1977. “Bloody hell!” was his reply.

I still remember the day very well. It was the first weekend of the May school holidays. I was 14 and playing Australian Rules football for my local junior team, the under 15s and on this occasion we were playing a team away. I was tall for my age and was quite good at taking marks (catching the football), so that meant I was a forward and in this match I was playing at Centre Half Forward, my favourite position. I was naturally not as fast at running as the smaller players and so my tactic was, whenever possibly, to flatten an opposition player before he got a chance to grab the football on the ground and run away from me. Early in the match the ball was in my area, and, as I ran towards it, a small opponent was running for it at right angles to me. I could have waited for him to grab the ball and then tackle him, but I decided to line him up and give him a classic ‘shirtfront’ – a hip-and-shoulder bump to set him on his backside and make him think twice about coming near me for the rest of the match. Nowadays  this kind of thing is illegal, but in 1977 it was part of the game and I remember lining the kid up and preparing myself for the impending impact. I tucked my elbow into my side and pushed my shoulder out but I didn’t hit the kid. He had bent down to pick the ball up and I went right over the top of him. The only problem was that my legs basically stayed where they were momentarily and then followed me as I rolled over the top of him. I heard the loud crack that the orthopaedic surgeon referred to (a louder version of when your knees crack as you squat down) and then I experienced the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I’ve broken my collarbone (also playing football when I was 9 years old), been hit by a car on my bicycle and even had a vasectomy, but the pain in my knee beats them all. It was excruciating around my knee and seemed to spread all throughout my leg.

I lay on the ground clutching my knee in absolute agony hoping for the pain to subside, but it never did. I was told to get up by a few of my teammates and also by the assistant coach from the boundary line (who had a voice like a foghorn), but I was in too much pain. I knew there was no way I was getting up unassisted, so I waited for someone to come on to the ground and help me.

The game continued and I waited and waited and eventually the father of a teammate came out to see me and half-carried me off the ground. I was trying desperately not to cry as I reached the boundary line and was virtually ignored by the two coaches while they worked out which substitute to replace me with. There was no medical equipment at all, not even a band-aid, and in the changing rooms there wasn’t even a chair for me to sit on. The father offered the back seat of his car for me to sit in and so I remained in there for the rest of the match in agony, watching my knee balloon up. There was no suggestion of taking me to hospital or even to a doctor. Eventually the game ended and I managed to limp into the change rooms to collect my clothes and returned to the car. I was fortunate enough to be driven directly to my house.

My parents were home as I hobbled in the front door and I immediately lay on the sofa in my football gear, minus my boots. I told them what had happened and showed them my huge knee. Later that night the pain subsided slightly but I could not move my knee at all. If I tried, there was a sharp stab of pain.

I spent the entire two weeks of the school holidays lying on the sofa. My knee eventually ‘went down’ and I gradually regained full movement in it. By the time school went back it was fine and I began training again as if nothing had happened.

I played the rest of the year for my local junior side (we finished 4th) and also for my school, playing on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons and training four nights per week. I had absolutely no problems with my right knee at all, there was no pain and it did not restrict me in any way.

A couple of years later I was playing for my school when my knee suddenly ‘popped out’. It was a very quick movement out of joint and straight back in, but the effect was the same as my original injury (the rupture). Extreme, intense pain followed by huge swelling. Again, two weeks later everything was fine (I got some time off school) and I resumed football as before. This time, however, I convinced my mother to help me find out what was wrong with my knee.

We visited a GP, who carried out a brief examination involving some pushing and pulling of my knee. He remarked on how loose my knee joint was and I told him that I was ‘double-jointed’ in my thumbs and fingers. He announced that my problem was caused by a lack of minerals and suggested I buy a large bottle of multi-mineral tablets and bid me farewell. He didn’t even order any x-rays.

My mother then decided that a chiropractor was the best option (she was paying for it and taking me, so I had no say in the matter) and I was a bit worried when he ordered me to strip to the waist but thankfully he was referring to the top half of my body. He immediately did as any chiropractor does and worked on my back. I reminded my mother that it was my knee that was the problem and, with my school pants still on, he ‘adjusted’ my knee and announced that it was fine. I was thrilled by such an easy fix and couldn’t wait to resume playing footy with my ‘fixed’ knee.

Not long after, of course, my knee half-popped out, giving me quite a scare and proving that the chiropractor’s efforts were useless. Incidentally, I’ve used chiropractors extensively throughout my life and they are excellent at treating back and neck pain. With my knee, I was back to square one and it seemed that no one was really interested in getting to the bottom of my problem. It was still the 70s and knee injuries, especially anterior cruciate injuries, were virtually unheard of. Several famous footballers had problems with knees, but it was usually attributed to cartilage, not ligaments and my problem was compounded by the attitude towards kids and injuries. Kids, even strapping tall ones like me, weren’t expected to suffer serious injures like muscle tears, dislocations, bone fractures and especially ruptured ligaments. Kids are resilient and flexible, as if they are made of rubber, and so I don’t think my knee injury was ever really taken seriously.

I kept playing football with my ruptured ACL for another six years, hurting it again after I had left school and was playing senior football. This time I was working, and so I took myself to see a physiotherapist, hoping once again to have my problem fixed once-and-for-all and being still totally unaware that inside my knee was a major ligament that had been snapped for many years. The physiotherapist was very skilled and my knee was wrapped in a heated blanket before he worked his magic with his fingers all around it for about half an hour. I then received infra-red and ultrasound treatment and usually fell into a deep sleep at the same time. My knee felt great but it was still loose and wobbly and by that stage I had given up ever having it looked at properly. By this time it was the early 1980s and some players that I knew were having their knees operated on, resulting in long, ugly scars on either side. These were the days before ‘keyhole’ or arthroscopic surgery and I didn’t fancy having two scars that looked like leeches running down the sides of my legs. The wife of a friend of mine hurt her knee playing netball and had her kneecap completely removed, which put me off even more. On top of this, there was no guarantee that the operation, attaching a section of the tendon from the kneecap to the inside of the knee joint, would even be successful. My knee never gave me any trouble, even when running, and I quit playing football when it started to interfere with my work.

It’s quite amazing to think that I played the majority of my football and all of my senior football with a bad knee. I feel sorry for anyone who damages their knee and know exactly how a player is feeling and going through whenever I see them writhing on the ground, clutching their knee. These days, the operation is performed quickly and a section of the hamstring tendon is used for the ligament graft, so the kneecap or patella tendon is not touched. The players are usually sidelined for the best part of a year, although some players have started playing again far earlier.

I had the opportunity to have my knee reconstructed in 2010 when I was able to finally have my right ankle properly diagnosed and repaired. I was living in Bahrain and was annoyed by the pain in my right ankle whenever I tried to exercise. This time, I had the proper treatment and my x-rays revealed that two of the three ligaments holding the ankle joint together had snapped over the years. I was able to have them reattached and it’s now the best that I can ever remember it being. I turned down the offer for a knee reconstruction simply because it’s not necessary. Every now and then it does ‘pop’ out slightly and I sit cross-legged and work it back in. There’s still no pain in it at all, which is the main thing.

I guess it’s a little ironic that it took a serious ankle injury for me to discover that I had been carrying a serious knee injury for most of my life. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was still able to play football well, taking plenty of marks and kicking goals week after week despite not having an ACL. I don’t recommend it, though.

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Thailand Memories: The Tsunami Part 3 – How the tsunami changed my life

I’m not an expert, but I’m now quite sure that I suffered from some form of post traumatic stress disorder in the weeks immediately following the tsunami. I did not seek nor receive any form of counselling, but I was able to discuss what I went through with many people, especially family and friends who were concerned about me. I thought about and relived the events of that day over and over and came to the conclusion that if there must be something that I could take away from my survival of the tsunami, to perhaps learn from or use in the future. I never really questioned why I had managed to survive when so many others had not but my sudden change of mind that ultimately saved my life did bother me. Why did I make that decision and what had influenced it? Was it destiny? What would have happened if the car had not passed and given me time to change my mind? Did some ‘unseen factor’ make the decision for me?

Over the years I came to the conclusion that any effort to answer these questions was a waste of time. The fact is that I changed my mind and it saved my life. So what could I learn from that? Now, whenever I suddenly decide that I don’t wish to do something that I have already planned, I don’t beat myself up about it. If something doesn’t feel right, I won’t do it and it sits easily with me.

Conversely, if something doesn’t work out or go the way I wanted, I have a much more positive attitude about it and conclude that it wasn’t meant to be in the first place. In the past I took rejections from job applications very badly but my feeling now is that any potential employer who doesn’t give me a job is probably not worth worrying about and a much better job is waiting for me. I found this to actually be the case in the years following the tsunami when I worked in Oman and Bahrain.

Another way that the tsunami changed me was in the way it taught me about death and dying. Before the tsunami, I’d only ever been to four funerals: both my grandparents on my mother’s side, a kid from my school who got electrocuted, and the grandmother of a friend of mine in Thailand. So I hadn’t been exposed very much to the idea of death and grieving. I felt a terrible sadness for all the innocent people who were killed, much more so than those who perished in New York on September 11, 2001, for example. For the first time in my life, however, I really came to understand how fragile life is and how easily and quickly it can be taken away. I found how easy it is to take for granted that life is not forever and there is no guarantee that any of us will live to be a ripe old age and die from natural causes. There are so many ways to die, so many accidents waiting to happen and I nearly died simply while lying on a beach. In truth, I could have also been killed whilst riding my motorcycle to Nai Harn beach, I could have drowned, I could have been attacked by a shark (highly unlikely), I could have been kidnapped, the list is endless. The point is that there’s no point worrying about dying but that doesn’t mean I will live my life recklessly from now on. I am just much more aware that death is so close and can happen at any time.

I’ve found that I don’t think as much about the future as I once did and spend much more of my time and effort thinking about the present and what I want to be doing now. Obviously I can’t do that all of the time, but I don’t feel so bad anymore when I put something off to be done at a later time. I’d always been made to feel guilty if I did not ‘get things out of the way now’ so that I could relax later, and this applied to my work as well as to my life. My thoughts now are that if I am dead then they won’t be done anyway, so why bother worrying about them? Most people see this as procrastination, but I don’t have a problem with leaving things to the last minute.

The tsunami also helped me to wake up to the fact that death is the absolute worst thing that can ever happen to someone, therefore anything less than death is not really worth all the effort of worry or disappointment. I lost my wallet and passport when I was living in Bahrain and some people asked me why I wasn’t more upset about it than I was showing. Sure, it was an inconvenience and an expense to apply for a new passport and ATM cards and driving license, etc, but so what? Similarly, I have become much more blasé about sporting results, especially when my football team is concerned. It’s nice to have success, but sports losses are surely the least of a person’s worries or concerns.

I have a superannuation fund that I can access in six years time. I know that I am expected to use this to help me live for the remainder of my life, especially when I become too old to work. Before the tsunami I would have made every attempt to ensure that the amount I end up with will do just that, but I know now that I will be spending a fair portion of it (assuming I am still alive in 6 years, of course) and doing something that I enjoy. I seriously doubt that I will purchase anything major that I may not have a chance to enjoy fully, such as a property or a car, but I can see myself travelling quite a lot. I plan to be able to do things that I can while I am still alive and ‘young’ enough to appreciate them.

In the years after the tsunami, I found myself concerned with having to take something positive from it in order to give some understanding to why I had managed to survive it. I felt that if I had simply carried on as normal, then I was being dismissive about what I went through, as if it was nothing. What the tsunami taught me was that nothing lasts forever and my life should be lived to the fullest as much as possible now, because there’s no way of knowing when it will end.

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Thailand Memories – The Tsunami Part 2: My contribution to the relief effort

The week following the tsunami in Phuket was a difficult one for me and I was still in a bit of a daze, trying to figure out what I had been through and how I had managed to survive. I felt a huge sense of having to help in some way but I couldn’t do anything financially. I wanted to perhaps help the clean-up or help with reconstruction but didn’t really know where to begin.

The news was filled with more and more depressing information about the full extent of the devastation. As we know now, it had travelled as far as Sri Lanka and was responsible for more than a quarter of a million deaths. The TV in Thailand naturally concentrated on the local damage and many stories emerged of all the foreign tourists who had lost their lives, as well as a nephew of the King of Thailand himself. It seems that everyone knew someone who was affected, especially in Phuket. One of my students at the time, who owned and operated her own chain of massage and beauty spas, told me she had lost an employee who was working in her spa in Khao Lak, a coastal town north of Phuket. My student told me that she had arranged for her employee’s family to provide hair samples in a bid to identify her, which I thought was a bit strange. There was nothing left of my student’s spa, it was completely demolished. She was thankful that she had two others to earn her living from.

The hospitals in Phuket had filled to overflowing with the dead and they posted pictures of them on the Internet to try to have them identified. Page after page of these pictures, many of them foreigners, were on display and it was hard to understand how some of them could not be missed by someone. Many had horrific facial injuries and were probably unrecognisable.

No one felt much like working or learning English during that week and I remember my boss telling me not to bother going to work and Thailand was in mourning anyway. The aftershock tsunamis never eventuated and I was able to borrow my friend’s pickup truck and take my motorcycle to the Honda service centre, who were offering to repair any tsunami-damaged motorcycle for free, which was extremely generous of them. They asked me no questions about my motorcycle, the damage was quite obvious.

I spent New Year’s Eve having dinner at the home of my friend, the manager of the hotel where I first went after the tsunami. We watched the latest news and in addition to the now all-too-familiar scenes of destruction and bodies was an interview with Thailand’s leading forensics expert, Porntip Rojanasunanthe, who headed a  team organising how to handle the dead. I recognised her by her rock star hairstyle and I asked my friend what was being discussed. She told me that khun Porntip was appealing for volunteers to help her team identify the dead at a special centre set up at a Buddhist temple in the town of Takua Pa, also to the north of Phuket.

I was amazed that the head of the forensic team had to go on TV and appeal for help from a country of 65 million people but I learnt that Thai people don’t like being around strange, dead bodies very much and they have a huge belief in ghosts. Volunteers were asked to meet at the Phuket Town Hall the next day and I saw this as my opportunity to help out but didn’t know what I would be doing. I told my friend that I was going to the Town Hall in the morning and she said she would go with me.

The Town Hall complex in Phuket is quite a large one, with several buildings and lots of open space. When we arrived we saw a bus full of Korean search and rescue experts who had travelled to help gather the dead. There were several large notice boards set up, which were plastered with pictures of missing people, mainly foreigners. These had been placed by friends and loved ones and I knew that after a week it was highly unlikely that any of these people – singles, couples and families – would still be alive. It was extremely sad to think that an entire family of five, for example, could go to Thailand for a wonderful holiday and all die.

We registered as volunteers and were told to go into one of the buildings that had a conference room setup. There were about 40 of us, mostly foreigners but a few Thai people, and we were spoken to by an American man. He told us we would be travelling to Takua Pa to help identify the dead and that we should prepare ourselves because, as he said, it was a ‘pretty ghastly scene’.

Soon we were all on our way in a bus but we could not travel the direct route because the road had been washed away at Khao Lak. I had passed this town many times on my way to Myanmar for my visa renewals and knew the place well. Like Patong, the beach area of the town was totally flat and I later saw video footage of the tsunami as it approached. Unlike what happened at Nai Harn, the wave had broken a long way from the beach at Khao Lak due to the shallowness of the water, and a wall of whitewater just smashed through everything in its path. In the video there were people still strolling along the beach as the whitewater approached in the distance and I knew they all would have been killed. Khao Lak was a favourite destination for Swedish tourists and remains as the place where the most Swedish people have ever died in one place.

We eventually arrived at Takua Pa and entered the temple complex to be hit immediately by the smell, which we had been warned about. It’s a smell I’ll never forget – a mix of rotting human flesh and excrement. The complex was very well organised and we were given protective clothing, rubber gloves and boots and face masks to wear. Our job was simply to help move the dead bodies from one ‘station’ to another so that they could be identified. One station took body samples for DNA identification, another station was for visual inspections (scars, tattoos, etc), another was for full body x-rays (to check for old injuries like broken bones) and another smaller x-ray station for dental identification. In short, they were looking for anything at all that could be used to help find out the names of all the dead and the reason for this was apparent as I saw the state of the bodies for the first time.

I had assumed that the dead would be inside body bags, as I had seen on the news the previous week, but as I came to the area where we were to begin moving the bodies I was shocked to see that they were all laid out with their body bags  open. This was the visual identification station and people in white coats with clipboards were inspecting them. The dead were all dressed as they had died and I saw why identification was so difficult. They must have been in the water for quite some time and their facial features were just unrecognisable. I don’t know exactly what happens to a waterlogged body, but the eyes of the dead were all open and bulging, as if they had swollen up. Also, all of their tongues were bloated and seemed to fill their mouths up and were all sticking out. There was also a whitish foam coming out of many of the dead’s nostrils. It was such a strange, shocking sight to see so many dead with all their eyes open, all looking remarkably similar. In this state it was easy to see why they could not be identified easily.

The dead were still arriving on the backs of trucks as we were working and there were several refrigerated freight containers that we were told were already full, all having been inspected and processed, awaiting identification. A Thai man and woman arrived while we were there and were able to confirm the identity of a man from his tattoos and were given permission to take him away. They had his coffin ready on the back of a pickup truck.

The dead were all laid outside in neat rows and I would guess there must have been about two or three hundred. We worked with the Thai victims only and there was an area set aside for the foreign victims, of which there were about fifty who were yet to be processed. It was heartbreaking to see so many half-filled body bags amongst them, obviously children.

We moved the dead by loading them in their body bags onto stretchers and then carrying them over to the next station. Army cadets would then load them onto the x-ray tables. We’d then load the already x-rayed bodies onto our empty stretcher and move it to the next station. We just did this over and over again for the time we were there. One of the bodies we had to move was huge and we needed four people to lift the body bag onto the stretcher. As we were doing so, the side of the body bag split and the gentleman’s leg fell out. The two Thai cadets thought this was hilarious and we all ended up laughing as we tried to stuff the leg back inside. It actually felt good to be able to find something to laugh about and I think we all felt relieved by it.

We were given plenty of food and drink and we were constantly reminded to take breaks and not to try to do too much, due to the heat and humidity. Every time we had a break we had to completely change our protective gear and thoroughly wash ourselves. During the breaks I had a good look around the complex and found there was a very well-organised computer centre where all the information about each victim was entered. On one trip to the toilet I managed to pass khun Porntip herself and it was nice to be able to say hello to her.

In an effort to keep the bodies cool, blocks of dry ice were placed amongst the bodies, giving off the familiar white vapour that clings to the ground. We worked until it was dark and the sight of the bodies in the fading light surrounded by the white mist is one I will never forget.

By the time darkness set in my friend and I were completely knackered and we were told that the bus would not be returning to Phuket for another couple of hours. Luckily, we met a group of Thai university students who had driven up for the day and offered to take us back. The next day I went to the Town Hall to help again but I was told that volunteers were no longer needed.

I was very grateful for the opportunity to be able to help in some small way after what Thailand had been through and it was again pure luck that I had been watching TV at the time of khun Porntip’s appeal. I wish I could have done a lot more but Phuket was quickly returning to normal and my services were once again needed at the language school.

Part 3: How the tsunami changed my life

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Thailand Memories – Sheer Terror: My Encounter With The Tsunami

With the ten-year anniversary of the Asian Tsunami coming up, I thought it would be a good time for me to report on my encounter with it, which took place on Boxing Day, 2004. It remains for me the only time in my life that I have experienced true terror, and, although I have survived a cyclone and being hit by a car on my bicycle, it is the only time in my life where I thought that I was going to die.

I was living in Phuket at the end of 2004 and working as an English teacher at a language school not far from Phuket Town. Much to my annoyance, I worked the previous day, Christmas Day, but I had Boxing Day free as it was a Sunday and so I was determined to make the most of it. As most people would be aware, Phuket has some of the loveliest beaches in the world and although I am not a ‘beach nut’, I did like to relax in the warm sun and take a dip in the warm water that surrounds the island.

I had been living in Phuket for just over a year and my favourite beach was Nai Harn beach, located at the bottom of the island. It was about a 30-minute motorcycle trip from where I lived, but it was worth it as the journey was quite flat and safe and the beach was not overcrowded. There were usually some nice waves there that were ideal for a spot of body surfing, which I enjoyed especially.

When I awoke on Boxing Day, however, I had decided not to travel to Nai Harn but to ride across to the other side of the island and try Patong beach, which I had never been to before. Patong beach is the most popular on the island and also the largest but the water is shallow and the waves are small. I wanted to go there because it was closer for me and simply because I felt I owed it to myself to go there, and Boxing Day was the perfect opportunity. It meant a hair-raising trip across the top of a few steep hills on my motorcycle to get there and this was the main reason why I preferred Nai Harn. On this occasion I decided I would put that behind me and check it out.

I left my apartment at about 9:00 am on a glorious, sunny morning. Boxing Day occurs in the High Season in Thailand, a period of long, sunny days with virtually no rain that begins at the end of the rainy season in November. I had my towel, my phone, a book to read and the clothes I was wearing as I strapped on my helmet and took off. I approached the end of my small soi and stopped to allow a car to pass. A right turn would take me to Patong beach via the town of Kathu, whereas a turn left was the way I would normally go to Nai Harn via Chalong. I still don’t know why but as the car passed me I turned left and immediately made the decision to travel to Nai Harn and once again give Patong a miss. Perhaps it was the trip over the steep hills or just a feeling of being happier with what I was more familiar with, but I now know that my instant decision later saved my life.

I completed the pleasant ride to Nai Harn, passing some small farms and villages and parked my motorcycle next to a large tree not far from the beach. I took my few belongings and rented a sun lounge for the day for 100 baht and soon I was relaxing in the warm sun with my book. There was not a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky and a fleet of yachts were moored about 200m offshore that were present for the King’s Cup sailing regatta. It was indeed a picture-perfect setting.

I had planned to go for a swim, order a few beers from the nearby beach bar and later have a nice lunch at one of the restaurants at the rear of the beach, but I was initially just happy to relax and be thankful that I wasn’t working and that it was such a gorgeous morning. As my watch ticked closer to 10:00 am I decided that I needed to cool down, and so I prepared to go for the first of many swims for the day. There was already a good-sized collection of tourists from the nearby resorts on the sand and in the water as well as all the Thai vendors plying their trades, renting sun lounges, selling drinks, ice creams and souvenirs. The area of water in front of me was quite free, so I removed my T-shirt, kicked off my thongs (flip-flops) and stood up to make my way into the water. There was only one problem: there was no water.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye the water had receded by about 50 metres, as if the tide had gone out. It was such a strange sight and happened so suddenly that those who were swimming out in the deeper waters were able to stand and walk all the way to shore. I was not at all concerned by this and neither was anyone else at the time and I remember several people laughing and pointing at this unusual phenomenon. I had not been to Nai Harn the previous December and I assumed that it may have been just a strange seasonal thing, unique to that part of the world, something to do with the tides or the moon, perhaps. Sure enough, after a few minutes the level of the water slowly rose and returned to where it had once been as if nothing had happened. There was no wave, simply the water gently coming back to the shore and stopping right at the edge of the beach.

I had put my T-shirt back on and was sitting on the sun lounge during the wait and so I once again prepared to go for my swim. Right on cue the water receded again, but this time only by about 20 metres and the water came back almost immediately. It didn’t stop at the shore this time, but gently rose up the beach, almost reaching my sun lounge and then receded again. It got about as far as the shore and then rose again, this time coming up to me, splashing my book and phone and upsetting some plastic tables and moving a few of the empty sun lounges. It was still all very gentle, with no waves involved at all.

I picked up my book and phone from my table and then discovered that one of my thongs had disappeared. I stood up to see if I could find it and the water came back again, this time faster and further up to the back of the beach. Now there were many sun lounges being flipped over, uprooted umbrellas and many blue cushions from the sun lounges scattered along the sand. People were starting to gather their belongings and move away from the shore and a few were calling to others to get them out of the water. I then discovered that my beach towel had joined my thong and I decided to join the other people to the back of the beach and so I sat on a low, concrete wall about half-way between my sun lounge (which was still there) and my motor scooter.

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The view of Nai Harn Beach from the water’s edge, showing the elevation.

I would estimate that the difference in height between the normal edge of the water at the beach and the wall I was sitting on was 2-3 metres and I thought I was quite safe while the water was playing its tricks. I was now concerned about my phone and was checking to see if it was still operational when the water rose up yet again all the way to the wall, splashing me, my phone and my book. It receded once again, allowing me to see that my phone was now pretty much useless. Everything was so gentle, which was probably why I was not worried or frightened, more annoyed than anything. I noticed that a group of young Thai men were in the area of my motorcycle, moving theirs to higher ground and I thought that seemed like a smart thing to do. I didn’t know when the water would stop rising and falling and so I put my book and phone in the basket on the front of my scooter and started fishing my keys from the pocket of my swimming trunks. Suddenly the Thai fellows looked in the direction behind me (at the beach) with looks of shock on their faces. I have a tiny memory of looking behind me over my right shoulder and seeing a huge wall of water coming towards me. The next thing I knew, I was a good 30 metres away on some higher ground near the restaurants at the very back of the beach. I have absolutely no memory of how I got there.

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The low wall where I sat. The large tree on the right is where I parked my motorcycle.

Looking back at what followed over the 10 years since it happened, I know that I immediately went into shock and just stood where I was. I looked at the spot where I had been standing a few seconds earlier and nothing was there. The motorcycles, including mine, and the Thai chaps were all gone. The wave just swept the motorcycles away as if they were toys and I assumed the Thai guys had fled the scene as I did. If I had been thinking clearly, I would probably have looked for an even safer place to go, such as up a tree or on the roof of a building, but I just stood where I was thinking that if another, larger wave came, then I was a goner. My life didn’t flash before my eyes but I do remember thinking that, after seeing what the water had done to the motorcycles, that I was no match for it and I was doomed, that it was pointless to do anything and if it was my time to die then this was as nice a place as any that I could think of for it to happen. My view of the beach was blocked by the trees I was standing amongst and I just stood and waited. Thankfully, that last wave was ‘the big one’ and the next only made its way up to the low wall and just over it.

At no time did I think ‘tsunami’, or ‘tidal wave’ or ‘earthquake’. I had seen countless footage of the well-known image of the huge tidal wave as it makes its way to the shore and what I saw was nothing like that. I knew that something quite catastrophic had just taken place and a tremendous amount of damage had been done. I ventured back to the low wall and saw a scene of total devastation but thankfully no bodies. The water was still ebbing and flowing but only as far as the low wall and gradually receded more and more. It would be another four hours before the water approached anything like normal. What was once on the beach was now all in the water – the hundreds of sun lounges, umbrellas floating upside down, plastic tables, large coolers, massage mats and a sea of floating blue cushions. All of the beach vendors had had their livelihoods ruined and, in typical Thai spirit, put on brave, smiling faces as they watched their assets and businesses drift slowly out to sea. The sun lounge vendors began attempting to salvage whatever they could and I tried to help them, but as soon as we would drag an undamaged sun lounge back up the beach, the water would rise and drag them all back out again.

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I ran to the area on the left in front of the restaurant.

I gave up and decided that I needed to find my motorcycle, not only because it was my only means of transport but also because I had locked my wallet (containing my passport) under the seat. I had a good look around the area where I last saw it and found no trace of it. I ventured further inland, away from the beach and down a small hill and saw my helmet in the distance, sitting in some grass under some trees at the side of the track that lead to the beach. I was thankful that I at least located my helmet (which had been in the basket on the front of the motorcycle) and concluded that the motorcycle must be somewhere in the vicinity. As I walked to pick up the helmet I saw a dead man.

He was Thai and fairly young and was draped over the branch of one of the trees but facing towards the beach. He was quite lifeless and had been there for over an hour. The wave must have swept him down the hill and into the trees but I couldn’t tell if he was one of the men who were standing near my motorcycle. I decided to leave him for someone else and was a bit unnerved as he was the first dead person I had ever seen, apart from a motorcyclist I once saw on the side of the ride on my way to work in Melbourne (but he had been partially covered).

I kept walking around in my bare feet searching for my motorcycle and wondered if the wave had perhaps taken it out to sea as there was no sign of it anywhere. I gave up and went to sit at the restaurant near where I had been standing earlier as I was still shaken by the day’s events and by the dead man. The water was still surging backwards and forwards and as I sat, a group of foreign people arrived and for the first time I heard the word ‘earthquake’. They were all neatly dressed and had no doubt come to have a look at the effects of the tsunami and then I learnt that there had indeed been an earthquake and what I had witnessed (and survived) was a tidal wave. They spoke to the people at the restaurant and said that other areas of Phuket had been hit as well, especially Kata, Karon and Patong. I also heard that there were ‘many dead’.

I reflected on what had happened and wondered what I was going to do. All I had was what I was wearing and the keys and the helmet for my motorcycle that wasn’t there. I thought about walking back in the direction of home and hitchhiking, but I wanted to know how my motorcycle could simply disappear, so I determined that I would keep looking for it. I searched an area below the tree where I had parked it, an area that had filled with water after the waves were biggest and now had finally drained away. It was now filled with tree branches and other plant matter and sure enough, I eventually caught sight of a tiny piece of bright blue hidden under all the mess. It took me half an hour to remove all the branches, vegetation and sand but I had found my motorcycle. There was no sign of my phone or book. I pulled it upright and opened the seat and was relieved to find my wallet still there. Everything was naturally soaked, including my passport, but at least I had some money and I could maybe get a taxi back home. There were many people at the beach now and some Thai gentlemen saw me struggling with my motorcycle and helped me to lift it up the hill and put it back where it once had been, next to the tree. One of them insisted on trying to start it, but I knew it was a pointless exercise, it had been submerged for hours.

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My trusty, waterlogged motorcycle.

I went back to the restaurant and ordered a beer and sat and thought about what I had gone through. There’d been an earthquake somewhere, a tsunami (but not the tsunami that I had always pictured), much of Phuket had been hit by it and there were many dead. I had seen a dead man and I had finally found my motorcycle and now I was thinking about getting home and what I was going to do about my motorcycle, which was totally wrecked. On top of all this, I had to go to work the next day!

By this time it was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I struck up a conversation with the young Thai chap who served me at the restaurant, and had seen me with my motorcycle. He said he was going to Patong to see if his sister who lived there was alright and offered to give me a lift there on his motorcycle. I took him up on his kind offer and soon we were on our way along the back roads of the island, which were high and unaffected by the tsunami. We arrived at Kata beach from the hill and the scene was just amazing. The waves had smashed buildings, there were cars upside-down on the beach, cars scattered across the streets, debris and sand everywhere. People were picking through the piles of rubbish (probably looking for survivors) and it took us a long time to get through the area. Amazingly, vendors were still trying to sell their wares, picking out their undamaged stock on putting them on display at the front of their ruined shops. I couldn’t believe that.

The scene was repeated all the way up the coast as we continued to Patong. The next main beach, Karon was also damaged extensively, windows and signs of businesses all smashed, walls destroyed and cars scattered and overturned. When we arrived at Patong, I asked my friend to drop me at a hotel where I knew the manager and hoped she could help me get home. He assured me that his sister should be OK as she lived in an elevated area and I thanked him profusely before he sped off.

The hotel was located well away from the beach and quite a distance inland. I walked inside in my dishevelled condition and was quite shocked at what I saw. The lobby was packed with foreigners all demanding to check out and wanting to be taken to the airport. I saw my manager friend behind the counter trying desperately to placate the guests but she was overwhelmed. The hotel had not been touched by the tsunami at all, but these people only wanted to get out as quickly as they could. I could see that the manager would be busy for some time and I was starting to feel hungry, so I decided to find somewhere to get something to eat and return when she wasn’t inundated with these rather selfish guests. People had lost their lives and livelihoods and all these guests were concerned about was getting refunds on their holidays.

The nearby area was not touched by the waves and I eventually found a restaurant and had a welcome meal. The street was filled with traffic and people and I saw a lady I knew when I was living briefly in Chalong. I asked her what she knew about what had happened and she said the earthquake was huge and had happened in Indonesia and had caused the tsunami. She said that the west of Phuket had been hit by it as well as the island of Phi Phi, which had been completely wiped out. She also mentioned that everyone was worried about ‘after-shocks’ and were busy trying to move to higher ground.

I hadn’t considered aftershocks when I had first heard of the earthquake, but I knew that they are always smaller that the main quake. At least it explained why there were so many people moving around in the streets, some of them with household possessions tied to the backs of their vehicles.

By the time I had got back to the hotel it was after 4:00 pm and the scene in the lobby was much quieter. My friend the manager was very surprised to see me and naturally asked me what I was doing in her hotel dressed for the beach. I told her my story and she was shocked that I was alive because she had heard that hundreds of people in Patong had been killed. She told me that since 10:00 am when the tsunami struck, guests had been demanding to check out and receive refunds. She looked totally exhausted and when I asked her if she could give me a ride home on her motorcycle she just said, “Here, you take it. I’m staying here tonight.”

I located the motorcycle in the employee’s car park and drove through the streets of Patong. I decided to take the beach road and see what the tsunami had done and I was stunned at what must have taken place there. I also wondered how so many people had lost their lives when I only saw one dead person at Nai Harn beach. The difference was that Patong beach is almost totally flat and the waves were able to reach quite a distance inland, sweeping everything (including people) in their path. Anyone who was on the beach at the time would have simply been carried away and smashed against trees or buildings, there was nowhere for them to run to. I, and many others at Nai Harn, had been saved by the hill at the back of the beach. As I was riding along the foreshore of Patong it really hit me that if I had been there earlier that day I would have certainly died. It was a chilling thought, picturing myself being washed ashore by a huge wave, struggling to surface for air and then being slammed into a building or a clump of trees.

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Patong Beach after the tsunami. Flat, with nowhere to run.

I saw the same devastation as I had at Kata – so many cars askew everywhere, even stacked on each other, so many things smashed and destroyed, some buildings just completely gone and only the tiled floors remaining. Police and emergency service personnel were in the area, no doubt looking for survivors and also trying to restore some sense of order. I slowly made my way through all the cars over the layer of sand that had been deposited over all the streets until I started to make my way inland towards home.

I began the climb up the steep hills outside Patong and was surprised to see hundreds of people sitting on the sides of the road, most with blankets. In the late afternoon it was obvious that they were planning to spend the night there, but I couldn’t figure out why. Had their houses been destroyed? Why sit out in the open and not go to a hotel or someone else’s house? I later learnt that these people believed that an even larger earthquake was about to happen and they had simply fled to the highest ground on Phuket to avoid an even larger tsunami.

I eventually arrived back at my apartment but popped in to the mini-mart nearby first for some beer and a few snacks. The proprietor, a lovely, friendly lady, greeted me and asked me if I had heard about the big tsunami. I told her that I was in the tsunami. She just laughed! I repeated that I was at Nai Harn beach when the tsunami hit and she laughed again. She obviously thought I was just trying to make light of the disaster.

When I got back to my room I cleaned up and tried to relax but my mind was racing more than usual. I turned the TV on and saw the scenes from the other areas in Thailand that had been hit, especially the area north of Phuket. This was to be a repeated scene whenever I saw a TV for the next few weeks. The events of that day didn’t seem to be real but I knew that they had happened. I knew that I was lucky to be alive, was thankful that I hadn’t gone to Patong after all and wondered how on earth Phuket and Thailand were going to recover from the devastation caused by the Asian Tsunami.

Part 2: My contribution to the relief effort

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Thailand Memories – Appearance is Everything

During my time in Thailand I discovered and was reminded many times that appearances count for everything there. Foreign teachers are paraded in front of schools in the morning for no other purpose than to show passers by that the school has foreign teachers, whether those same teachers are wonderful or hopeless. Thai ‘superstars’ are admired because they are beautiful or handsome, regardless of the fact that their acting or singing is actually quite poor. I saw another, totally shocking example of this philosophy at the school I was teaching at in Phuket.

I returned to my office after a lesson one day to find the head of the English department standing at her desk, looking through a collection of her students’ work. She stopped me as I walked past and showed me one. “Beautiful, yes?” she asked me. It was a picture of Winnie-the-Pooh eating honey out of a jar with the word ‘fly’ written underneath. The picture was indeed very well drawn, an almost exact likeness to the picture it had obviously been copied from. What I didn’t understand was the word ‘fly’.

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The head of the English department then told me that she had given her students from Muttayom 4 (mainly 16 year-olds) a project of choosing an English verb and then drawing a picture to illustrate it. So ‘fly’ was the verb and it obviously had nothing to do with eating honey. “So this is eating honey”, I pointed out to the head of the English department, “and the verb is ‘fly’?” “Yes”, she said. “Beautiful, yes?”

My God, I thought. Doesn’t she know it’s completely wrong? And the best verb that a Muttayom 4 student could come up with contained only three letters? A seven year-old could have produced the same thing. I looked at her face to see if she was hopefully pulling my leg, but of course she wasn’t. I was stunned. I wanted to tell her how futile the project was, that we were trying to teach English not art and that she should have expected more from a Muttayom 4 student. I wanted to, but I didn’t because I knew I’d be wasting my time and be seen as a killjoy.

So as long as something is beautiful it is to be admired, and the fact that it is completely incorrect or totally inappropriate is overlooked. I was to learn later that this philosophy summed up so much of life in Thailand.

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Thailand Memories: How I Let a Student Hurt Me

Despite all the awful things that happened to me at the worst school I ever taught at, one incident in particular affected me more than any other. What made it all the more unpleasant was that it involved one of the nicest and most intelligent young schoolgirls I had ever met, and she wasn’t even one of my students.

I first met the student in question as I was sitting on my bus travelling to the school one morning. I hadn’t noticed her sitting next to me when she said good morning and that she knew I was a teacher at her school. We had an excellent conversation, she telling me that she was in Muttayom 1 and that she was enrolled in the ‘English Program’. She wanted to become a doctor and hoped to study in America in the future.

It was so nice to have a Thai student break the shackles of communicating with a foreigner in English and it was such a delight to meet one who was so competent at such a young age. It really made me feel good and made me realise that despite the antiquated system that I had been exposed to, some students were able to rise above it and actually progress as learners.

She would regularly come into my office to see her Thai ‘home teacher’ and to deliver notebooks to other teachers from her other classes. She would always come and say hello to me and we’d always have a little conversation before she rushed off somewhere else. She was almost like my little friend.

One day she approached me at my desk and asked if I could help her with one of her ‘English Program’ textbooks. She said she didn’t understand the text for a reading exercise and, after I had read it, I agreed that it was not only confusing but also at a level far too high for Muttayom 1 students. She said she still wanted to know what it was about, and so I explained it to her but also told her that she should be asking her ‘English Program’ teacher about it, a very nice South African chap. She was happy enough with my explanation, however, and left. I felt good again, knowing that she appreciated me enough to approach and ask for help.

She came to see me more often with questions from her book and when I quizzed her about asking her South African teacher she replied that she had, but didn’t understand his explanation. I was happy to help her, but still annoyed that such a book was used in her class, and together we worked through the answers as I challenged her to think and reason, rather than simply supply her with the answers. Despite the level of the course book, she did really well.

On this occasion she left and I decided that I needed to go to the toilet, so I exited the office a few minutes after she did. Upon opening the door I saw her and a group of five other girls sitting on the ground in a circle with the course book that we had just been working on open in the middle. The other five girls were busily copying all the answers that my friend and I had worked on together while she sat with her back to me.

“What are you doing, May?” I asked her. She immediately snatched up her course book and replied, “Nothing, nothing.” I squatted down next to her and asked her why she was letting the other girls copy her answers. “I wasn’t”, she told me. I told her that I saw them all copying from her book but she refused to admit it. It was pointless going on about it, so I continued on and went to the toilet. On my return they were still sitting outside the office copying and this time May looked at me, ignored me, and just sat watching her friends.

I returned to my desk feeling totally betrayed. I knew all about the practice of Thai students allowing their friends to copy from them but it was May’s barefaced lies that hurt me the most. I thought that we had developed some form of relationship but I realised that to her I was nothing more than a resource that she could use instead of her usual teacher. That’s how I felt: totally used.

I never spoke to her after that and she would ignore me whenever she came into the office, which was as regular as ever. I’m sure she was upset with me for challenging her in front of her friends, but it affected me for many days afterwards. I know all ‘good’ and interested students are not like her but it made me question my role as an English teacher in Thailand even more.

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Thailand Memories – The Worst School I Taught At (Part 2)

I began teaching my Muttayom 5 English classes by following the course outline that I had been given, which was getting the students to use greetings and getting them to talk a little bit about themselves. All Thai school children know how to greet in English: “Hello, how are you, fine thank you and you?” I was expected to stretch this out for half a semester and I knew full well that most of my students would not be able to stand up in front of the class and (a) talk about themselves and (b) do so while the rest of the class sat there listening to them. I decided that I should first ascertain the levels of each of my classes and also identify the students who were the most interested in utilising a native English-speaking teacher to help them improve their English skills.

At about the same time a new teacher, Danielle, had been appointed by my agency to teach the Muttayom 2 students. She went to a lot of trouble printing handouts for her young students and was always busy making her own resources to use in the classrooms. She would often stay in the office until 5:00 pm when the last of the Thai teachers would leave. She was similar to me, in that she truly wanted to help her students to improve their English skills, but she was more outspoken about her problems, whereas I knew that it was best to shut up and say nothing. Danielle discovered very early that her students knew virtually no English at all and she was expected to use a course book that they just couldn’t understand and was at a totally inappropriate level for them. Danielle told the tired, old, formerly retired teacher in our office that she simply couldn’t use the book in class and offered to go back to basics and at least teach her students something they could understand and use. “You use the book!” she was ordered. “But they don’t understand any of this”, she argued. “You use the book!” was all the old lady would say. She didn’t seem bothered about the news that the students didn’t understand the book or even ask what it was that they had trouble understanding. Her job was to make the foreign teachers do exactly what she was told to make them do and that’s all she was interested in. The needs of the students never entered into the equation.

It didn’t take me very long either to discover not only how poor the level of English skills was with my students but also the almost total lack of interest they had for the subject. I expected the ladyboys, the beauty queens, and the tough guys to ignore me in class (if they bothered to attend) but the others, even though they were friendly and courteous, just automatically chose to complete work from their other subjects during my classes, which meant copying words from somewhere else into their notebooks. I knew that it would be virtually impossible for me to get them to be able to talk about themselves in English without becoming angry or strict and I wasn’t prepared to do that. For most of the time I just let them do whatever they wanted.

The one ‘English Program’ class that I had in Muttayom 5, I was surprised to learn, also came under the course guidelines as the rest of that level, which was ridiculous to me. These twelve students had their parents paying extra tuition so that they received all their lessons in English and in an air-conditioned classroom. A few in the class were very clever and I though it was insulting to them and their parents for me to be teaching them how to greet people and talk about their family and hobbies. That was fine for the few students in the non-English Program classes who were interested, but not for these ones. I took it upon myself to ask them exactly what they wanted me to teach them and we all sat around a table having an excellent discussion about it together. We came up with a list of the things they were truly interested in and wanted and needed to learn and I set about devising lessons and exercises for them to use in class. I was very happy about the outcome of our talk and my motivation was high. Instead of wasting my time I was about to undertake something with a real purpose.

I don’t know how it happened, but somehow the tired, old, formerly retired lady found out about what I was doing. She was most upset and demanded that I show her my copy of the course outlines for Muttayom 5, which I did. She pointed out what I was supposed to teach but I argued that this was the ‘English Program’ class and surely they were at a level well about the rest of the other Muttayom 5 classes. “You teach this! You teach this!” she told me, hitting the course guidelines with the back of her hand. I then argued that they already knew all of it but she wouldn’t budge. Again she never asked me what I had planned to teach the students and was not concerned about their interests at all, only that I did as I was told. I could see that she was not happy and so I assured her that I would do as she wanted and as I turned to leave she said, “Why do all farang give me the headache?” This really summed up the attitude of the entire department – we were not there to use our experience and expertise, we were there to do as we were ordered to do, to not ask questions and not rock the boat (which is exactly how the Thai teachers are expected to behave at all times). If we try to make suggestions or alterations for the benefit of our students, we are seen as troublemakers, and that’s exactly what Danielle I had become in the short time that we were there.

I returned to my next ‘English Program’ class, apologised to my students, told them that everything we had planned to learn together had been vetoed by the tired, old lady and began to teach them greetings. To my surprise my best student (who had been on a student exchange program to Brazil) stood up and told me that this wasn’t going to happen and he took the whole class to visit the tired, old lady in her office. I remained in the classroom alone for about half an hour and when they returned I was told that there would be a meeting after school in the classroom with all concerned plus a few others and they wanted to know if I would like to attend. I told them I would love to as long as they told me what was being discussed.

Several other Thai teachers attended the meeting, as well as the two tired, old ladies and it seemed that the ‘English Program’ students were far from happy with their other lessons as well, and that I had started something when I got them thinking about what they really wanted to learn. My best student did most of the talking and the body language of the Thai teachers, with their arms crossed and looking at the ground, showed how appalled they were by this show of defiance from the students. A few other students chipped in with comments here and there and my name was mentioned several times, later I learned that the students were saying how much they admired me for what I was trying to do.

The meeting finally wound up, I got home very late and the next day I was contacted by my agency to ask what had happened. Naturally, the reaction of the tired, old ladies was to have me replaced immediately but my agency managed to talk them around, explaining how difficult it was to find new teachers partway through a semester and all the rest of it. A compromise was reached which saw the tired, old ladies come out on top and me put in my place – my ‘English Program’ classes were given to a Filipino teacher and I took over his classes. I knew that I was never going to have my contract renewed at the end of the semester and I never spoke to either of the tired, old ladies again, not even to say hello. I did the absolutely bare minimum that I needed to do but I did manage to help a few of the more interested students in my other classes, which was nice.

The most disappointing aspect of the whole debacle at that school was that at no time, not even for the ‘English Program’ students, were the interests of the students taken into consideration. Two experienced, knowledgeable and interested native-speaking English teachers were at their disposal who should have been given free reign to do whatever it took to improve the English language skills of the students under their care, but the militarised, orders-must-be-obeyed attitudes of those two useless, old cronies prevented it. Danielle and I, in a very small way, could have made a difference at that school, we could have achieved something if we had been given the opportunity but (as I said in the first part of this article) the Thai authorities are not interested in that at all. Again, it makes me wonder why they even bother to employ foreign teachers in the first place and makes me glad that I’m no longer working as an English teacher in Thailand now.

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