Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken

As some of you probably have already known, I was featured in See Hua News Daily dated March 27, 2016. For those of you who are interested in knowing what the feature article talks about but don’t read Chinese, I’ve taken the pleasure of translating the whole text.

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Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken

By Bong Yi Sien (See Hua Daily News)
Translated by Kenneth Lee

Having travelled from the humble town of Kuching to the hustle and bustle of the bigger city region in Peninsular Malaysia to advance his career, this Borneon lad later found his true, carefree self when he gave up a well-paying job to teach English in Southern Thailand.

What’s the greatest satisfaction in life? Getting to live in a mansion and eating luxurious meals? As for Kenneth Lee, the key to life satisfaction can be simple. Being able to live in simple yet comfortable home – never mind it being small; being able to do what we love doing and lead the kind of life we desire, are already a composite of life satisfaction.

Giving up a well-paying job

After having completed his Bachelor Degree, Kenneth Lee, an 80’s lad, was just like any other university graduate out there, looking to succeed in life. He chose to stay back in Kuala Lumpur to work, while at the same time pursuing his postgraduate studies. From becoming a tutor at a private university to getting promoted into the role of departmental head at another institution, to buying his first ever home, Lee had always lived a rather comfortable life. However, it was only until a year ago that this young man, who happens to have a big passion for travel, decided to tender the resignation letter to materialise his dream to backpack. Ditching his briefcase for a backpack, he would embark on a journey that would change his life direction.

Tendering the resignation letter to undertake a travel adventure

Backpack travelling has never been a strange concept for Lee, who, since the completion of his undergraduate studies, had had the opportunity to travel every now and then. Among the countries he had travelled to included Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar. Soon, he would begin developing a dream to take on a long-term travel, which he eventually worked towards.

Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken
Travelling for the first few times allows Lee to have discovered his passion for solo backpacking.

“My kind of travel may be different from others’. Because I love the cultural aspect of travelling, doing it on my own seems to be the best fit for what I’m looking for.”

Volunteering at a temple in Thailand

In order to materialise his backpacking dream, for three years Lee had been working hard on its preparation, which included saving up an amount of money to cover all expenses during the period of his travel. Finally, in April last year, Lee got to pick up his backpack and set off on a journey into the unknown.

With Hatyai, one of Thailand’s most southern cities being the starting point of his long-term travel, Lee later ended up in the province of Surat Thani, where he was recommended the less touristy Phangan island nearby. While there, a friend introduced him to a temple situated on the mountain top, where he would eventually spent two weeks of his time doing volunteer work at, helping to do such tasks as sweeping up dry leaves in the temple compound. Such a simple yet mundane life in the monastery had surprisingly given Lee a peace of mind. Who would have thought that it would soon lead him to another chapter in his life?

Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken
The very rich Thai culture is why Lee chooses to start off his backpacking journey in Thailand.

Going from lecturing in a university to setting foot in Southern Thailand to teach English

There’s a saying that goes, “changes run faster than plans.” For someone who had resigned to travel the world, never would Lee have imagined taking up the role of a teacher once again in the middle of his odyssey. It is except that this time, Lee is no longer teaching young adults, but school children who speak only Thai.

Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken
Besides teaching English, Lee is at the same time also learning some Thai from the local students.

“Before embarking on this backpacking adventure, I didn’t know such a type of travel couldn’t quite fulfil my spiritual needs in the long run. After travelling for a while and forcing myself into binge sightseeing everyday, I began feeling emotionally drained, so much so that the thoughts of taking on some volunteer work started hitting me.”

Perhaps it’s pre-destined. Lee would later travel northward to another province known as Chumphon, about eight hours by train from Bangkok, and find himself landing a teaching job at a government school. With that, it would kickstart Lee’s life as a backpacker English teacher in Thailand.

Teaching in Thailand, according to Lee, can be much more challenging than teaching young adults at the university level. This is due to that school children are usually very active with a lot of energy. Secondly, due to the low English standards among these children, other than some simple phrases, most of them would have to resort to using Thai most of the times.

Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken
Everyone’s favourite Teacher Ken from Malaysia.

“It’s a blessing I have an appreciation for the Thai culture. Before coming to Thailand, I’d begun learning a little Thai on YouTube,” Lee tells of his experience learning the language. “Due to the non-English-speaking society I’m living in, I can only talk to people in Thai in most situations. But now that after a year being in Thailand, conversing in some basic Thai is so longer too difficult for me.”

Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken
Kenneth in the traditional Thai costume.

Bidding goodbye to the city life, Lee finds a peace of mind living in the woods

Lee is of the opinion that many things in life are transitory and that the events taking place in our lives are impermanent. Being only human, we keep moving from one stage of our lives to the next; nothing is forever.

Having prepared for three years and saved up a sum of money for his travel expenses, Lee says that he had originally wanted to only travel for a year, after which he would return to Kuala Lumpur to pursue his doctorate studies. Such a plan, however, had been completely muddled up following his stint as a teacher in Thailand.

Goofed-up plan

“Sometimes we say things or jump to conclusions too early. Before this, I always used my rationality to analyse and explain situations. But now I tend to put in a little more emotions in the process of experiencing things, and I’ve realised that there are certain things you just wouldn’t pick up when you’re too rational.

A lot of things in life aren’t like what we thought. Sometimes we need to experience things first in order to know what they’re really like.”

Before this, Lee had never thought about resigning to take on a backpacking odyssey or staying in Thailand as a teacher. Being a typical lad, Lee was just wanted to have a stable job after university then settle down. Never had it once struck his mind that year 2015 would be a turning point in his life with a series of significant changes. As he continues this pursuit, Lee is trying to find happiness in life and in whatever may come the way.

Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken
Going from being a university lecturer to a school teacher has only allowed Lee to feel even more connected to education.

From resigning as a well-paid lecturer to embark on the an otherwise long-term backpacking trip to becoming a teacher in Thailand, some of Lee’s friends tend to see it as a waste. As for Lee however, he does not think so; he believes that he has, on the contrary, gained a lot more.

Although Lee now has to face the uncertainty of the future, teaching in Thailand allows him to move towards the quality of life he desires. Lee remains confident about his choice and is willing to bear the consequences of the choice he has made. In fact, he chooses to look at this whole pursuit as a beautiful experience.

Spiritual happiness more important in life

“We need to go through certain experiences in order to know what we really want in life. Such a kind of travel isn’t for everyone, because when you’re backpacking on a budget, you’ll probably spend a lot of time walking in the hot sun – even facing nasty weather – as you move from one destination to the next looking for cheap guesthouses. It simply isn’t as cool as we thought.”

Lee feels that happiness is not all about having and enjoying material wealth; happiness can also be spiritual, something that cannot be seen.

Nothing so ‘cool’ about backpacking

To Lee, backpacking isn’t as cool as some travel blogs may portray it to be; it is a kind of mental training. Backpacking means having to give up the comfort of one’s own home. Wearing the same clothes all the time is something that a backpacker has to get used to. To cut down on travel expenses, one probably has to resort to cheap food. Also, having to move from one place to another as one attempts to find an affordable guesthouse every other day can be a mundane thing to do!

Despite all these setbacks, Lee feels that they are the most realistic experience in life. Lee says he will continue walking this path he has chosen while finding happiness in it.

Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken
For someone who finds the pleasure of interacting with the locals, it is not a surprise that Lee, probably the only Malaysian in his district, is well-known among the locals.

“I always believe that a hardworking person will never, ever starve to death. Sometimes there’re plans we’ve been working towards for such a long time; it will be a waste if we give them up easily just because of some obstacles that may come in the ways.”

Having the opportunity to live the desired life, Lee has his supportive parents to thank

Being able to embark on this special kind of odyssey, Lee only has his supportive parents and siblings to thank. It is only because of their kind support that Lee is able to lead the kind of life he values.

You may wonder if Lee lives a good life as a teacher in Thailand. Well, he now rents a small house near a palm oil plantation costing him 1,500 Thai baht per month. He eats street food and travels on his motorcycle. Life may not as comfortable as when he was in Malaysia, but what he has certainly gained is a sense of satisfaction and spiritual happiness.

Ordinary yet Extraordinary: Backpacker Teacher Ken
A way to blend in with the local students is to go crazy with them!

According to Lee, though he is content with his new life as a teacher in Thailand, it has never crossed his mind to give up his citizenship due to his love for Sarawak on the island of Borneo, the very place he was born in. He feels that the multiculturalism in Sarawak is something no other country can replicate.

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Ordinary yet Extraordinary Backpacker Teacher Ken

The HQ digital version of the article can be viewed and downloaded here.

I would like to extend my thanks and appreciation to See Hua News Daily journalist Yi Sien for featuring me in the weekly segment of the newspaper.