The Travelling Teacher

Jonny Tamlyn on his experiences living overseas since graduation.

Photography: Jonny Tamlyn 



Last week, a lizard jumped off the curtains of my bathroom and landed flat on my hand. The other evening while cycling back across the city from a gig, a young kid of no more than eight approached me at the lights of a busy intersection to sell me some small, stringed flowers for 10 pence. They now decorate my handle bars. A three-legged wild dog often hops about in the morning outside my house because the locals feed him rice.

I could try and beguile you with tales of ancient pagodas, bamboo villages, and solemnly moving lines of orange robed monks. But, in one sense, the real adventure of living overseas is about working through the subtle textures of life as much as it is about moving from one page to the next in your guide book.

At the end of 2008, the year I graduated, I embarked on a trip that started in New York City and finished six months later in Mumbai, having taken in ten countries across three continents. After six uninspiring months working for a small publisher back in the UK, I left for South Korea to take up a position teaching English to primary-aged Korean children. Having explored Korea and Japan during two incredible years, I returned to Cornwall where I completed my PGCE and three years of teaching at two secondary schools. It wasn’t long before the call of life overseas came again, and before long I found myself heading to Yangon (better known by its colonial name of Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma), for a two year stint at a British international school. Here I remain.

Teaching was never more than a fleeting thought while studying journalism in Falmouth and without wanting to sound overly magnanimous (don’t worry: this isn’t a Department for Education teaching ad) it’s been a hoot. Teaching has exceeded my expectations and given me the opportunity to not only travel but immerse myself in cultures far different from the one I grew up in South-West England.

I’ve spent my first six months here in the hustle and bustle of Myanmar’s largest city (its capital until 2005 when the military junta moved shop to Naypyitaw) and slowly feel as though I’m beginning to work out the place. I’m no ‘Yangonite’ just yet, but I can haggle with the hardiest of cabbies and know where to find a decent bowl of mohinga (rice noodle fish soup – the national dish) and a cheap longhi. Leafy in comparison to other cities in South-East Asia, Yangon is a mishmash of beautiful but badly-faded colonial architecture and more rather uninspiring and drab looking affairs that were thrown up in what looked like a hurry. It’s outside of the city, however, where this country comes into its own.

On my bike, I’ve ridden through humble little villages that survive between the numerous rubber plantations and rice paddies that fill much of the landscape around Yangon. Kids often run out of their bamboo houses with shouts of mingalaba! (hello), faces beaming and hands outstretched hoping for a high five. Wild swimming can be found in the shadow of golden, hilltop pagodas. Further afield, the gentle and mostly forested Shan Hills and its many ethnic groups have shaped a living off the peaceful waters of Inle Lake. With appalling wealth disparity, Burmese people typically earn only a few dollars per day, yet their smiles tell a much different tale. Travelling around the country, I am constantly reminded why so many regard the people here as among the warmest they have ever met.

Gushing over a place with beautiful nature and cultural big hitters isn’t particularly difficult. And I’d obviously be lying if I said it was always a picnic. Horrific pre-monsoon heat can leave you mildly demented and dreaming of a wet and windy day in Penzance and marauding gangs of wild city dogs will often howl into the early hours. Cobbled together, you have quite a package here, one that constantly stirs the imagination and invites curiosity to keep on exploring.

Teaching affords these opportunities in a way that many other jobs do not. Long holidays this year have already taken me to Indonesia, Thailand (twice), and I’m scheduled for upper and western Myanmar and Nepal in March. Life could be worse. Sometimes it feels as though for every set of books I mark a new adventure appears at the end of it. After scores of crap jobs while studying as a younger man, taking the teacher path back in 2009 has been one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. For any of you thinking of trying it for yourselves, home or overseas, I’d say absolutely go for it. Teaching needs bright faces and I promise you the rewards and riches of the profession will wildly surpass the strains of the job if you simply get yourself out there.


Jonny Tamlyn’s wordpress, where you can find more of his stories from travelling: