Southeast Asia

World Cinema - Posters

World Cinema: One Film Per Country

Around the World in 102 Films

From the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia, the list aims to shift the world’s focus on North American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. This world cinema list is a true and authentic celebration of foreign cinema. Sparkling with diversity, we offer you 102 of the best foreign films ever made, one film per country.

To write this article, we spent years watching and re-watching every film mentioned in this article; exceptions being those films considered “lost”. Still, our article features merely the top of the iceberg of all the foreign cinema output we watched to compose this list. To make sure each country on this list is represented by an authentic, locally produced film of the highest quality, we’ve watched over 3,000 non-U.S. films in the past two decades.

Pick a Country

AfghanistanAlgeriaArgentinaAustralia AustriaAzerbaijanBangladeshBelarusBelgiumBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBrazilBulgariaBurkina FasoCambodiaCanada ChileChinaColombiaCook IslandsCubaCzechoslovakiaCzech RepublicDenmarkEcuador EgyptEl SalvadorEstoniaEthiopiaFinlandFranceGeorgiaGermanyGreeceHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIranIraqIrelandIsraelItalyIvory CoastJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanLaosLebanonLithuaniaMacedonia MaliMauritaniaMexicoMongoliaMoroccoMyanmarNepalThe NetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew ZealandNicaraguaNigeriaNorth KoreaNorwayPalestineParaguayPeruThe PhilippinesPolandPuerto RicoQuebecRomaniaRussiaRwandaSamoaSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbiaSloveniaSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth KoreaSoviet-Union SpainSri LankaSwedenSwitzerlandTaiwanThailandTunisiaTurkeyUkraineUnited KingdomUruguayUnited States of AmericaVenezuelaVietnamWest-GermanyYugoslaviaZambia

Lists of the best foreign films in the world

While in the past there have been some attempts to create lists with the best foreign films of all time, each one of those lists made our film scholar souls cringe. They either listed a film like Dracula (1992) as an entry for Romania or featured the Outback-drama A Town Like Alice (1956) as an Australian film, failing to recognize that these films were produced and directed by foreigners, starred foreigners, and said very little about the country they attempted to display. You’ll find no such entries on our list!

Travel the World Through Cinema

Over the course of this list, we will travel across the continents to explore the world’s splendorous cinematic landscape. We will highlight hidden gems produced within each geographical region, one film per country. From the famed film industries of France and Italy to the virtually non-existent industries of Myanmar and Saudi Arabia and the now-defunct countries of West-Germany and Yugoslavia; you’ll find them all in the list.

During our cinematic journey across the globe, we will offer you a historical outline of each country’s local film industry. Additionally, we reflect on the socio-political factors that shaped the countries’ cinematic landscape, which resulted in the production of the films we recommend.

The Best Films of Europe

The Best Films of Africa

The Best Films of Asia

The Best Films of Oceania

The Best Films of the Americas

Browse Films by Geographical Region

More articles on Movies

World Cinema: One Film Per Country Read More »

East and Southeast Asian Cinema (Kiki's Delivery Service)

Cinema of East and Southeast Asia

Explore the very best movies from East and Southeast Asia, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

CambodiaChinaHong KongIndonesiaJapanLaosMongoliaMyanmarNepalNorth KoreaThe PhilippinesSouth KoreaTaiwanThailandVietnam

The History of East and Southeast Asian Cinema

South Asia and Southeast Asia’s pop culture landscape is largely dominated by South Korea and Japan. From manga novels and anime films to Rilakkuma bears, J-pop, and Disney’s Japanese version of Lilo & Stitch, Japan is a dominant force in the entire region. South Korea’s rich pop culture adds fuel to the fire, and together with Japan, easily fights off both Hollywood and Bollywood.

Only recently has American cinema grown in popularity throughout both South Asia and Southeast Asia, namely due to the success of monster hits franchises such as Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but local productions, as well as Japanese, Korean and Chinese films, still stand tall.

East and Southeast Asian Cinema (Kiki's Delivery Service)
(Credit: Kiki’s Delivery Service / Majo no takkyûbin, Japan)

Aside from Japan and South Korea, China also strongly influences the cinematic nations in both geographical regions. China’s influence on its neighboring countries is of a more social, cultural, and economic nature. Throughout history, China has been an important trade partner in the eastern regions of the Asian continent. Though most of South Asia and Southeast Asia was left in peace by the various Chinese empires that came and went, parts of Vietnam, Laos, and Mongolia once belonged to various Chinese dynasties.

Southeast Asian Cinema (Good Morning, Luang Prabang)
(Credit: Good Morning, Luang Prabang / Sabaidee Luang Prabang, Laos)

The Best Films from East Asia

In East Asia, we scale the deserts of Mongolia and traverse the vast landscape of China towards the small nation of Hong Kong, before visiting both politicized North Korea as well as K-Pop nation South Korea. Crossing the Sea of Japan, we then touch shore in both prosperous Japan and on the island of Taiwan.

Mongolia: The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Directed by: Byambasuren Davaa, 2005.

World Cinema 067 - Mongolia (The Cave of the Yellow Dog)
(Credit: The Cave of the Yellow Dog / Die Höhle des Gelben Hundes)

Due to the country’s geographical positioning, Mongolian cinema has been primarily influenced by Russia, separating the industry thematically from the rest of South Asia. After the Mongolian socialist revolution of 1921, film became a tool for education. Heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, Mongolia’s educational films mainly took shape as Soviet-style propaganda films. Both documentaries and films narrated the stories of revolutionaries and focused on the heroics displayed in Mongolia’s ancient legends.

Until the 1990s many Mongolian films were co-produced with the Soviet Union. Additionally, these films were often directed by Soviet directors. When socialism came to an end in the 1990s the country’s ties with Russia weakened. Though there are still films being co-produced with Russia, such as the historical epic Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, the Mongolian film industry sought out new partners to help produce films. Several examples can be found in the career of director Byambasuren Davaa. Davaa chose to follow up on her film studies in Ulaanbaatar with a degree in documentary film and communication sciences in Germany, which led to the production of two German-Mongolian documentaries and the feature film The Cave of the Yellow Dog (original title: Die Höhle des Gelben Hundes, 2005).

The Cave of the Yellow Dog was filmed on location in Mongolia and tells the story of Nansal, a young girl who, against her father’s wishes, befriends a black and white dog. Nansal is part of a nomadic family living on the Mongolian steppe. Her family leads a relatively simple life, migrating across the country and living off of their livestock. The Cave of the Yellow Dog is comparable to Kazakhstan’s slow-paced drama Tulpan, which similarly followed the rhythms of everyday life within a remote countryside setting. The Cave of the Yellow Dog combines beautiful imagery with a simple yet charming family-centered narrative, making the film a fulfilling experience counteracting the bombastic films of modern-day pop culture.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog tells the story of Nansal, a young girl part of a nomad family living on the Mongolian steppe. Conflict arises within the family when Nansal befriends a young dog, whom her father believes is responsible for attacking their livestock.

Find The Cave of the Yellow Dog on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

China: Aftershock

Directed by: Xiaogang Feng, 2010.

World Cinema 068 - China (Aftershock)
(Credit: Aftershock / Tang shan da di zhen)

The Chinese box-office is one of the most influential in the world. Hollywood often awaits the returns from China to greenlight sequels to their more out-there blockbusters, offering China significant power within the industry. Both Pacific Rim (2013) and Ant-Man (2015) received the sequel-nod after China’s warm reception and, staying within the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a moment, both Iron Man 3 (2013) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) included scenes shot in South Asia just to tailor to Asian audiences.

China’s own film industry dawned in the early 1900s. After the violent Boxer Rebellion managed to overthrow the Qing dynasty and ended foreign influence within the country, film found its place in the newly formed Republic of China in 1912. China’s domestic industry slowly grew bigger, leading to a golden age in the 1930s. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 halted progress within the industry, but after the end of World War II, China’s cinematic landscape once again flourished. Like in the Soviet Union and Mongolia, film became a tool for propaganda. During this time, films such as Guerrilla on the Railroad (1956) glorified the country’s Communist Party.

Film production in China came to a near stand-still between 1966 and 1976, when Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong’s initiated the Cultural Revolution, a movement aiming to preserve the country’s Communist ideology by purging all remnants of capitalism from the nation. Following Mao’s death in 1976, economic reforms led to a revitalization of the country’s domestic film industry. During the 1980s and 1990s, many Chinese films reflected on the distress caused by the Cultural Revolution. Great examples of these so-called “scar dramas” are the films Hibiscus Town (1986) and Coming Home (2014).

Film became a form of liberation as well as a source of entertainment. The rise of China’s so-called Fifth and Sixth Generation of directors drew worldwide attention to the Chinese film industry. Dramas such as Farewell My Concubine (1993) and The Road Home (1999), as well as martial arts films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and historical epics such as Red Cliff (2008), became famous around the world. Influential director Xiaogang Feng made his mark on the industry with The Dream Factory (1997) and went on to direct the box office hit Aftershock (original title: Tang shan da di zhen, 2010).

Heart-breaking from start to finish, Aftershock depicts the devastation of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake and its aftermath. Modern-day Chinese films such as Aftershock easily fight off foreign competition, indicating the steady growth the industry has seen since Mao’s death: in 2018, China set an all-time box office record following the release of domestic hits Operation Red Sea (2018) and Detective Chinatown 2 (2018).

Set over the course of 40 years, Aftershock tells the story of a family separated by the devastating earthquake that levelled the city of Tangshan in 1976.

Find Aftershock on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Hong Kong: Internal Affairs

Directed by: Andrew Wai-Keung Lau & Alan Mak, 2002.

World Cinema 069 - Hong Kong (Internal Affairs)
(Credit: Infernal Affairs / Mou Gaan Dou)

Up until 1997, Hong Kong was under British control. Starting out as a rural area inhabited by farmers and fishermen, the colony developed into one of the most significant financial centers in the world. After World War II, Hong Kong’s film industry flourished along with its trade industry, but split up into two different branches: a Cantonese branch producing films for the natives of Hong Kong and a Mandarin branch aimed at mainland China. Due to its enormous export market in China, the Mandarin film industry was able to work with bigger budgets than its Cantonese sibling. This led to the production of many low-budget, but wildly successful Cantonese martial arts films.

During the 1970s, the “wuxia” martial arts genre grew in scope and popularity. Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) sparked the kung fu-craze overseas and the actor played a major role in opening the world to Hong Kong films. Following in Lee’s footsteps, kung fu comedy actor Jackie Chan soon became Asia’s biggest box office star, further spreading Hong Kong films across South and Southeast Asia.

Despite not receiving any government backing, the Hong Kong film industry easily fended of the dominant force of Hollywood’s film industry during the late 20th century. This was perhaps due to the industry’s highly commercial nature, which combined the tone and style of Hollywood films with more surrealistic elements borrowed from the Chinese industry. After the 1990s, however, the country’s once-prosperous industry went into a decline and successful films became more sparse. Some films still gained international success, such as the martial arts series Ip Man (2008-2019) and the police thriller Infernal Affairs (original title: Mou Gaan Dou, 2002). Often quoted as being “The ‘Godfather’ of Hong Kong”, the latter film was remade into the Academy Award-winning The Departed (2006).

In Infernal Affairs, an undercover police officer spends a decade working from within a triad to gain intelligence, while one of the criminal gang’s members in turn works as a mole within the police department, doing the same.

Find Infernal Affairs on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Taiwan: Eat Drink Man Woman

Directed by: Ang Lee, 1994.

World Cinema 070 - Taiwan (Eat Drink Man Woman)
(Credit: Eat Drink Man Woman / Yin Shi Nan Nu)

Film was introduced into Taiwan by the Japanese, who took control of the island in 1895. The island had been previously colonized by the Netherlands and both Chinese and Spanish immigrants had set foot on its soil. The Japanese lost control of the island at the end of World War II when China took over. Following the Chinese Civil War, China’s communist leaders expelled the nation’s ROC government, who re-established themselves in Taiwan, claiming Taipei to be their new capital. The status of Taiwan as an independent country remains disputed until today.

China’s claim on the island after World War II ushered in a time of growth for the local film industry. Japanese film had influenced the nation’s film industry for decades and many conventions from Japanese films were adopted by Taiwan’s filmmakers, who were able to produce films free of mainland China’s censorship laws. The import of films from Hong Kong and the arrival of television, however, threatened the country’s national film industry in the mid-20th century.

During the 1980s, a group of young directors managed to rejuvenate the island’s film industry. By moving away from the clichéd melodramas and action flicks of the past and focusing on the realistic portrayal of Taiwanese life, Taiwan’s new wave of directors obtained success with films such as In Our Time (1982) and A City of Sadness (1989). Following the revival of Taiwan’s film industry, a series of more fantastical films were produced, such as Ang Lee’s wuxia-revival film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the absurdist The Wayward Cloud, in which a water shortage in Taipei makes the sales of watermelons skyrocket.

Ang Lee is perhaps one of Taiwan’s most successful directors. His down-to-earth family drama Eat Drink Man Woman (original title: Yin Shi Nan Nu, 1994) closely matched the industry’s renewed focus on social issues. Eat Drink Man Woman is a contemporary Taiwanese film, portraying the generational and cultural conflicts plaguing many modern Taiwanese families.

Each Sunday, master chef Chu ritually prepares an elaborate family dinner for his three daughters. As his daughters start to move away from their father’s traditional values, conflicts arise at the family dinner table.

Find Eat Drink Man Woman on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

North Korea: The Flower Girl

Directed by: Ik-gyu Choe & Hak Pak, 1972.

World Cinema 071 - North Korea (The Flower Girl)
(Credit: The Flower Girl / Kotpanum chonio)

Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied forces following World War II also meant the surrender of the Korean peninsula, which had been under Japanese control. Korea was divided into two occupation zones, with the United States administering the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet Union taking control of the north. Though the country was to be unified after the formation of a united government, negotiations fell through, and in 1948 civil war engulfed the peninsula. Neither the north nor the south was able to gain full control of the peninsula, which led to a restoration of the status quo set after WWII.

North Korea isolated itself from the world, shrouding the development of its national film industry in mystery. Official North Korean sources claim their cinematic output to be an “unprecedented sensation”, with Kim Jong-il having stated that the film industry’s role was to help people develop themselves as “true communists”.

North Korea isolated itself from the world, shrouding the development of its national film industry in mystery. Official North Korean sources claim their cinematic output to be an “unprecedented sensation”, with Kim Jong-il having stated that the film industry’s role was to help people develop themselves as “true communists”.

North Korea’s first film My Home Village (1949) shows the nation’s strong communist ideals, glorifying the revolution of the country’s peasants against the oppression of Japanese imperialists. Later North Korean films, such as The People Sing and The Flower Girl (original title: Kotpanum chonio, 1972) embraced a similar ideology. Like many communist films, The Flower Girl was a heavy melodrama. The film focused on a peasant girl trying to make due selling flowers to take care of her sick mother during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Despite Kim Jong-il’s claims of cinematic prosperity in North Korea, other events tell a different story. During the 1980s, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, two prominent South Korean directors, were kidnapped. They were taken to North Korea and instructed to make films that would help the country “obtain global acclaim” with its film industry. It would take several decades more before North and South Korea would finally be able to peacefully produce a film together: the animated film Empress Chung (2005).

Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, The Flower Girl follows Koppun, a young woman who, after the death of her father and the imprisonment of her brother, hopes to earn enough money selling flowers to be able to buy medicine for her sick mother.

Not available on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

South Korea: My Sassy Girl

Directed by: Jae-young Kwak, 2001.

World Cinema 072 - South Korea (My Sassy Girl)
(Credit: My Sassy Girl / Yeopgijeogin Geunyeo)

After the division of the Korean peninsula following World War II, film directors in the Northern and Southern half of the nation competed to be the first to release a new film. South Korea “won” with the release of Hurrah! For Freedom (1946), which, much like North Korea’s first film, portrayed the resistance of the nation’s people against the Japanese.

Over the course of the 20th century, South Korea grew from being one of the world’s poorest nations to one of the world’s wealthiest. The South Korean film industry grew along with the country’s economy and South Korean films soon found their way into cinemas worldwide. Though government censorship held back the industry until the 1980s, South Korean films managed to earn worldwide acclaim with early highlights such as crime-drama The Housemaid (1960) and The Aimless Bullet (1961), which focused on the post-war Korean society.

Overcoming the Asian financial crisis, the 2000s saw a resurgence in the popularity of South Korean cinema abroad. In 2001, Kwak Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl (original title: Yeopgijeogin Geunyeo, 2001) paved the way for Korean cinema at an international level. The film drew a large cult following in South and Southeast Asia and opened the world to Korean films. Acclaimed successes such as Oldboy (2003), The Host (2006), and Train to Busan (2016) were praised worldwide. In 2020, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), the first Korean film out of over 30 entries to be nominated, won both the Academy Award for both Best International Feature Film as well as Best Picture, becoming both the first film to do so.

My Sassy Girl was based on a series of autobiographical blog posts written by Kim Ho-sik, in which he described his odd relationship with his girlfriend. In the film, engineering college student Kyun-woo is shamed into assisting a drunk girl on his way home in the train. His encounter with the girl leads to one of cinema’s most quirky, off-beat romances. The film was remade in the United States, India, China, and Nepal, but none of the remakes was able to capture the odd relationship Kim Ho-sik spoke about in his blogs in such an effective way.

While commuting home by train, student Kyun-woo is shamed into assisting a drunk girl when his fellow passengers mistake her to be his girlfriend. Following the incident, Kyun-woo develops a deep sense of responsibility towards the odd – and often abusive – girl.

Find My Sassy Girl on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Japan: Your Name

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai, 2016.

World Cinema 073 - Japan (Your Name)
(Credit: Your Name / Kimi no na wa.

Japan’s film industry is not only one of the oldest in the world, it is also one of the largest. Producing over 600 films per year, more than half of the country’s box office income hails from national film productions. In 1896 and 1897, Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers showcased their work in Japan. Moving pictures, however, were nothing for the Japanese. The country already had a rich tradition of using magic lanterns to create animated stories.

During the early days of cinema, the Japanese came up with a unique way of storytelling: Japanese theatres hired so-called “benshi” (storytellers), who narrated silent films while they played. People would often return to see the same film multiple times, to listen to a different beshi’s interpretation of the tale. Depending on who was narrating, a film could either turn out to be a comedy or a drama. Though the advent of sound in the early 1930s slowly pushed out the benshi, Japan kept the tradition alive well into the 1930s by continuing to produce silent films.

During World War II, film became a tool for propaganda. Though the industry suffered during the war, Japan’s national cinema quickly restored itself afterward, leading the country into a “golden age of cinema” with films such as the period pieces Seven Samurai (1954), Rashomon (1950), and Chushingura (1962), as well as the family drama such as Tokyo Story (1953) and the anti-nuclear monster-drama Godzilla (1954), which sparked an entire subgenre of kaiju (monster) films.

To fight declining box office numbers Japanese cinema continuously reinvented itself, producing increasingly violent and sexual films in the 1970s, such as In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and moving into the realms of horror with acclaimed films such as Dark Water (2002) and The Grudge (2002) in the 2000s.

Though Japan produced a score of highly acclaimed films and the country won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film more often than any other Asian country, it was the development of the anime-genre between the 1960s and 1980s that truly allowed Japanese cinema to make its mark on the world. The cinematic adaptations of manga series such as Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (1984) and Akira (1988) cemented the genre in the world’s mind and from the 1980s onwards, anime films easily fought off competition from American juggernauts imported into the country. One of Japan’s most recent animated gems was the innovative fantasy-romance Your Name (original title: Kimi no na wa., 2016), a film in which the lives of a young girl from a small mountain town and a high school boy from Tokyo become intertwined when they wake up in each other’s body.

One morning, Tokyo-based high school student Taki is surprised to wake up within the body of Mitsuha, a high school girl living in a small mountain town. After realizing he is continuously switching places with Mitsuha, the two form an unusual bond.

Find Your Name. on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

The Best Films from Southeast Asia

It’s time to explore mesmerizing Southeast Asia, traversing the jungles of Myanmar, fighting our way through Thailand, and visiting the rural tribes of Laos, before touring the ancient temples of Cambodia, taking in the beauty of Vietnam and Indonesia, and sailing towards the island nation of the Philippines.

Myanmar: Kayan Beauties (2012)

Directed by: Aung Ko Latt, 2012.

World Cinema 074 - Myanmar (Kayan Beauties)
(Credit: Kayan Beauties)

The first film from Myanmar (or Burma) was screened at the Royal Cinema in Yangon. The film was recorded in the 1910s by director Ohn Maung during the funeral of politician Tun Shein. In 1932, the first sound film followed: produced in India, director Tot Gyi shot the film Money Can’t Buy It (1932) based on a novel by the popular writer Dagon Nat Shin. Both before and after World War II, Burmese films covered a variety of social and political issues. Though, as the films were censored by the British colonial government and were mostly produced by the British Burma Film Company, not everything could be freely discussed through cinema. The country gained independence in 1948, which led to the formation of a socialist military dictatorship.

After the violent suppression of the nationwide protests against the country’s totalitarian government in 1988, the film industry became increasingly controlled by the country’s leading party. The government enforced strict rules: film stars who were politically active during the 1980s and 1990s were banned from appearing in films, directors were picked by the country’s leaders, and even the winners of the nation’s film awards were pre-decided. Nowadays, most Burmese films are produced as direct-to-video films, and very few of them tackle political subjects.

Still, Kayan Beauties (2012) was a wonderful exception to that rule: Aung Ko Latt’s film focuses on three Kayan women, and deals with themes of human trafficking and cultural exploitation. The Kayan Lahwi are a sub-group of Red Karen, and are famous for wearing a series of brass neck rings. Between 2017 and 2019, Myanmar finally saw a revival of its national film industry with international successes, such as the horror film The Only Mom (2019) and the romantic-drama Now and Ever (2019).

Three Kayan women and a young girl from a remote village in Myanmar travel to the city to sell their handicrafts, where the girl is kidnapped by human traffickers after straying from her friends at the market.

Not available on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Thailand: Chocolate

Directed by: Prachya Pinkaew, 2008.

World Cinema 075 - Thailand (Chocolate)
(Credit: Chocolate)

Not long after the Lumière brothers had exhibited their films in Siam (later Thailand) in 1897, King Chulalongkorn visited Bern, Switzerland. The royal visit was recorded by early French filmmaker François-Henri Lavancy-Clarke. Thai Prince Thongthaem Sambassatra brought the documentary back to Bangkok, along with his own camera equipment. The film sparked interest in the medium by the Thai Royal Family, and the prince himself became known as “the father of Thai cinema” due to his many cinematic exploits. Several years later Thailand produced its first feature film, Miss Suwanna of Siam (1923).

Many of the early films shown in Thailand originated in Japan, as Japanese businessmen had opened the country’s first permanent cinema in 1905. In the tradition of the Japanese benshi, silent films were narrated by entertainers and orchestras. Like in Japan, this all ended with the dawn of the “talkies” in 1928. From the country’s first color film, Sri Krung’s Grandpa Som’s Treasure (1933), up until 1942, the Thai film industry experienced its first “Golden Age of Cinema”.

After the Thai government imposed a heavy tax on imported films in 1977, Hollywood films and other foreign movies were pushed out of the cinema, leading to a second surge in locally produced films. Most of these films were low-quality, hard-hitting action films, which eventually gave rise to the production of martial arts films. The film Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003) and its sequels, starring Tony Jaa, put Thai action films on the international map. One of the country’s more successful accomplishments within the martial arts genre is Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate (2008), which featured JeeJa Yanin as an autistic girl with powerful martial art skills, slashing her way through the loan sharks who owe her family money.

Another popular Thai genre is comedy. Thai comedies often feature Kathoey (transsexuals/transvestites) or gays as comic relief or villains. In some films, such as Iron Ladies (1996), Kathoey played the main characters. Iron Ladies is based on the true story of the Thai transsexual/transvestite gay men’s volleyball team that won the national championship in 1996.

Though the heavy taxes on foreign cinema were eventually loosened, Thai film had become a strong medium on its own. Though fewer films were produced, many international blockbusters remained relatively unknown in Thailand during the last few decades. The dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other bigger-than-life event films eventually broke open the interest of the Thai public into foreign films.

An autistic girl with uncanny martial art skills attempts to make money to pay for her mother’s medical bills, which puts her in the path of a powerful criminal gang.

Find Chocolate on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Laos: The Rocket

Directed by: Kim Mordaunt, 2013.

World Cinema 076 - Laos (The Rocket)
(Credit: The Rocket)

Unlike in its surrounding countries, cinema never really found its footing in Laos. Films were made neither during nor after colonialism, and the Laotian Civil War (1959–1975) further halted any development. The communist Laotian Ministry of Culture had a monopoly on film production; they were solely responsible for the production of feature-length films after the monarchy dissolved in 1975. Still, the first Laotian film wasn’t made until 1983. The film, Gun Voice from the Plain of Jars (1983) directed by Somchith Pholsena, was never publicly released due to censorship issues.

The first commercial film shot in Laos was Good Morning, Luang Prabang (2008). The romantic drama was directed by a Thai director, with the help of Anousone Sirisackda, a former employee of the Laotian governmental cinema department. In the film, a Thai photographer is sent to Laos by his employer for an assignment, when he falls in love with a Laotian tour guide. The success of Good Morning, Luang Prabang allowed Sirisackda – and other Laotian directors – to slowly start the production of films without the need for foreign support.

While national cinema slowly began to develop, the foreign collaboration also became more frequent. Whereas Good Morning, Luang Prabang aimed to show foreigners the beauty of Laos, Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket (2013) chose to depict a more authentic version of Laos. The film is both uplifting and dark, offering viewers a look into the lives of the ethnic tribes residing in Northern Laos – the most heavily bombed area of Laos during the Vietnam War. Vast quantities of unexploded ordnance still remain in the countryside, maiming and killing civilians every year.

To prove he isn’t the bad luck charm everyone around him believes he is, a young Laotian boy hopes to earn his family some money by entering the most exciting and dangerous competition of the year: a local rocket-building competition.

Find The Rocket on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Cambodia: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

Directed by: Angelina Jolie, 2017.

World Cinema 077 - Cambodia (First They Killed My Father)
(Credit: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers)

Cinema entered Cambodia in the 1920s when foreign filmmakers visited the country to shoot several documentary films. The Cambodian King, Norodom Sihanouk, had a great interest in films. Following his coronation in 1941, he started producing and directing films. Sihanouk completed around 50 movies between his coronation and his retirement from film in 2006. One of his most well-known films is the romantic drama Apsara (1966), which starred Cambodian Princess Buppha Devi and Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak. At times, Sihanouk would star in his films himself as well.

Though Sihanouk’s films were considered to be of low quality, they did open up the country to cinema. During the 1950s, the film industry began to grow after several new local films were screened throughout the country. The first Cambodian-made feature films were shot by directors who had been able to study overseas due to the country’s colonial connections. The 1960s became known as the Cambodian “Golden Age of Cinema”, in which popular films such as the horror film The Snake King’s Wife (1972) were made.

Starting with the fall of Phnom Penh, the regime of the Khmer Rouge put a violent stop to cinema. Though the Khmer Rouge produced some propaganda films to screen at collective meetings, no domestic film industry was left once Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Cities had been depopulated, many directors and actors had been killed, and old films were destroyed.

My Mother is Arb (1980), a horror movie based on Khmer folklore, was the first post-regime film to come out. In the decades that followed, Cambodian cinema once again found its footing, producing films about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era, as well as life under the new Vietnam-backed regime. A beautiful example of such films is the clay-animated documentary The Missing Picture (2013).

Both before and after the Khmer Rouge’s regime, Cambodia’s majestic, ancient temples, had managed to attract the attention of foreign filmmakers. The Angkor Wat temple complex was used as the backdrop of Lord Jim (1965), an adventure film starring Peter O’Toole, and the historical drama The Killing Fields (1984) became the best-known depiction of the Khmer Rouge era. Additionally, the temple of Ta Prohm was used as a filming location in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), which starred Angelina Jolie.

Jolie was captivated by the country and adopted a Cambodian boy named Maddox. She would go on to adapt Khmer Rouge-survivor Lung Ung’s book on her memory of the Khmer Rouge Era into the film First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2016). The film was made in collaboration with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and most shot entirely in Cambodia.

In the 1970s, a Cambodian middle-class girl and her family are subjected to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the country’s new totalitarian regime.

Not available on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Vietnam: The Scent of Green Papaya

Directed by: Tran Anh Hung, 1993.

World Cinema 078 - Vietnam (The Scent of Green Papaya)
(Credit: The Scent of the Green Papaya / Mùi Du Du Xanh)

Vietnam’s local film industry dawned in the 1920s, when a group of Vietnamese intellectuals formed the Huong Ky Film Company in Hanoi. Though the studio mostly produced documentaries, they also shot Vietnam’s first silent film, ‎A Penny for a Horse (1924). Sound films followed in 1937. The wars fought in the country from the 1940s to the 1970s slowed down film production, and most of the local films that were screened were war documentaries, such as Việt Nam on the Road to Victory (1953). While North Vietnam focused mainly on documentary and drama films, South Vietnam focused on war films and comedies.

After reunification following the Second Indochina War, film production increased significantly. Many of these films focused on the war and its heroes and the social problems of post-war reconstruction, such as the war film Season of the Whirlwind (1978). The communist suppression of all capitalist ideas led to the collapse of the economy during the 1980s, while cinema faced competition from video and television.

In the 1990s, co-productions with European countries and films directed by Việt Kiều (Vietnamese living overseas), started to revitalize local production with international hits such as The Scent of the Green Papaya (original title: Mùi Du Du Xanh, 1995) and Cyclo (1995). While the country still claims to be communist in nature, most industries nowadays adhere to capitalist strategies, including the film industry. By creating commercial drama films such as Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), Bar Girls (2003) and The White Silk Dress (2006), local cinema once again grew in popularity.

Mùi, a young Vietnamese peasant girl living in the 1940s, is hired to work for a family in Saigon, where she meets Khuyen, an aspiring classical musician.

Find The Scent of the Green Papaya on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Indonesia: The Raid: Redemption

Directed by: Gareth Evans, 2011.

World Cinema 079 - Indonesia (The Raid - Redemption)
(Credit: The Raid: Redemption / Serbuan Maut)

Before Indonesia gained independence, the country was known as the Dutch East Indies. The first film in the Dutch colony was shown in 1900. Several years later, in 1911, the first locally produced film – a documentary – was released. Most films shown in the Dutch East Indies were foreign films, and many of them came from the United States. The silent fantasy film Loetoeng Kasaroeng (1926), based on a Sundanese legend, was the first local production able to compete with foreign output.

The Japanese occupation of Indonesia saw a change in the local film industry. The Japanese halted all productions and consolidated all film studios into one corporation focused on making propaganda films. After gaining independence, the trend of creating propaganda was continued by producing nationalistic, anti-Imperialist films, while the government banned all foreign movies.

After 22 years in office, the Indonesian president Sukarno was overthrown by one of his generals, Suharto. This led to more changes in the Indonesian film industry. By the 1990s foreign films were allowed back into the country, which led to growing competition for local studios. Films became regulated through a system of censorship, which still holds up today: the country’s current government has each film edited to remove scenes deemed indecent. Any display of homosexuality or sexuality is edited out before the film is screened, including the mid-battle kiss Arthur and Mera share in Aquaman (2018).

More recently, the Indonesian film industry has once again stepped up its game. The country started producing colorful romantic dramas similar to Thai films, such as What’s Up with Love? (2002), popular action movies such as The Raid: Redemption (original title: Serbuan Maut, 2011) and controversial dramas such as Lovely Man (2011), a story about a gay prostitute. Meanwhile, foreign co-production also thrived, including a successful documentary film series by Dutch director Leonard Retel Helmrich. Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars (2010) follows a family of three generations living in the slums of Jakarta, and would certainly be our recommended pick for watching a Southeast Asian documentary.

A S.W.A.T. team becomes dangerously trapped in a high-rise building, after being tasked to infiltrate a derelict apartment building in the slums of Jakarta to capture a notorious drug lord.

Find The Raid: Redemption on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

The Philippines: The Woman Who Left

Directed by: Lav Diaz, 2016.

World Cinema 080 - The Philippines(The Woman Who Left)
(Credit: The Woman Who Left / Ang Babaeng Humayo)

The Philippines was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to embrace the medium of film. In early 1897, the first moving pictures were screened in Manila under Spanish occupation, and the following year, local scenes were filmed by a Spanish director. That same year, following the Spanish-American War, the Philippines became a territory of the United States. Most films screened in the Philippines after the war were produced and imported by the United States. The medium was used as a vehicle for information, education, and propaganda, as well as entertainment.

When the Japanese invaded and occupied the country, they halted film production as they had done in other occupied territories. The Japanese used local Filipino studios and theaters to show their own films and create government propaganda.

Gaining independence after World War II, Filipino cinema became a mix of genres and cultures: from cheap knock offs of popular American films and genres to soft porn films and splashy musicals, commercial films dominated the local box office. Some films, such as the colonization-drama Touch me Not (1961) and the dark Subversion (1962), stood out among the many box office hits. Following the trends of the west, teenagers became infatuated with pop music, rock and roll, and the Beatles in the 1960s, leading to a slur of teen-centered romantic comedy-dramas. Additionally, films criticizing the local political situation became quite popular.

New censorship rules invoked under President Ferdinand Marcos sought to regulate films, which meant political films and soft porn films were banned. Commercial films remained successful, but became increasingly unimaginative and predictable. Television grew in popularity, budgets were shrinking, and eventually, the post-war “Golden Age” of Filipino cinema came to an end in the 1990s. Due to the changes in the industry, the 2000s saw a rise in the production of low-cost, high-quality independent films, such as the 8-hour-long adventure-drama A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016) and Lav Diaz’s revenge drama The Woman Who Left (original title: Ang Babaeng Humayo, 2016).

In 1997, after 30 years of wrongful imprisonment, a woman plans to take revenge on her former lover, while reuniting with her daughter.

Find The Woman Who Left on Amazon.com.

^ Back to Start ^

Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

More articles on Movies

Cinema of East and Southeast Asia Read More »

Gate Duty at a Thais school

Teaching English in Thailand: The Quirky Life of a Thai Public School Teacher

Thailand is a country pulsating with thrills and excitement: from elephant safari’s and spiritual sanctuaries to the (not-so-spiritual) go-go bars and party islands; the country holds something for everyone. Nothing in Thailand, however, is as adventurous as the life of a public school teacher. Teaching EFL at a Thai public school offers “farangs” an instant, deep immersion into the country’s complex culture, while at the same time guaranteeing to perplex them and allowing them to discover the true meaning of the term “sabai sabai”…

Here’s a small peek inside my life as a Thai public school teacher, at Thailand’s University Elementary School…

Table of Contents

“Living and Working in Thailand”, a little peak inside my life as a teacher in Thailand (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Rituals, Rituals, Rituals

My alarm goes off early in the morning. It’s not even 6:00 AM and I’m already out of bed. I have gate duty today, which means that from 6:45 AM until 7:45 AM, I will be standing at the front gate of our school greeting every single man, woman, child, dog, and lizard that walks through the gate… as well as every single one of them that walks out again.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, gate duty is when (foreign) teachers are told to stand in front of the school building before and after school starts to look good, smile, be friendly and make sure that every parent will happily continue to contribute their salaries to the fine educational institution you work for. At my school, gate duty is carried out by approximately five teachers every day. Carefully planned, there are always one or two “farang ajarns” (foreign teachers) in the mix, and at least one of those is white. Today, the white one is me.

Gate Duty at Thai School
At the first day of the schoolyear, everybody is present for gate duty (Credit: Chrismel Jorolan Photography)

The sun has already risen and with every “sawadee kra(p)” the temperature on the schoolyard rises. Three well-dressed, uniformed Thai teachers form a line next to me. My Filipinocolleague who is also on gate duty today hasn’t arrived yet. I carefully try to position the old, screechy fan that is supposed to keep all of us cool in a way that we each get a whiff of fresh air every two minutes or so.

Though I still have a full day’s work to look forward to, my engine is already overheating. Five minutes before the end of our gate duty, my Filipino colleague walks through the gate, quickly joins the simmering ranks of our little welcoming party, greets the vice-principal upon her arrival, and then dives into the teacher’s room to have his breakfast. Well done, sir.

After a quick eat-while-you-run breakfast the second ritual of the day starts: the school’s Morning Flag Ceremony. All students are lined up on the now blistering hot schoolyard, perfectly aligned by grade, class, and student number. We, the homeroom teachers, stand next to our respective homeroom classes to (literally) keep them in line – and to keep them from falling asleep.

The ritual starts with a schoolwide chant of the national anthem, followed by the anthem of the school and the anthem for the King. During the latter, something magical happens: everyone in the whole school – students, teachers, and even those parents who hastily come to drop off their children – suddenly freezes in their tracks, as if an unforeseen blizzard instantly froze over the entire building. It’s a sign of respect: whenever you hear the King’s song being played in Thailand – whether it is at the local cinema or at the metropolitan Victory Monument – every Thai person stops to salute their ruler for as long as the song lasts. (Think about this if you want to get rid of someone in Thailand: just play the song and run off! Keep in mind though that you might be arrested and trialed for disrespecting the King if you do…)

The cinematic presentation of the anthem of the former King, played before every movie in one of Thailand’s Major theaters. It’s a mighty impressive presentation every time it appears on the big screen (Credtit: Major Cineplex & the Tourism Authority of Thailand)

A speech follows and two children are selected to raise the Thai flag. After the songs and speech, the children, already aching to break the line and run away, are told to sit down and meditate to some calming music. Meanwhile we, the teachers, make sure this doesn’t result in any ruffles, such as a kid trying to pick his nose with his own feet, or another playing a quick game of Minecraft on his smartphone.

The Morning Flag Ceremony at a Thai School
Attending the Morning Flag Ceremony (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

After the mandatory meditation session, a pop song rings through the school evoking the concept of “morning exercise”. Now, the children are expected to dance away their energy. One of my cheekier kids moves her arms in a silly manner. Her classmates giggle. Finally, one of the school’s most respected employees ends the ceremony by giving a lengthy speech on student behavior. Then one by one, class by class, each sweating group of youngsters is dismissed and deemed “ready to learn”.

Yellow for the King, Light Blue for the Queen

I welcome my kids to our homeroom and get ready to start the day. Like always, the kids are dressed in their colorful uniforms, matching the school’s emblem. The way they dress is strictly regulated by the Thai government. Everything from the length of their hair to the color of their socks and hairpins is regulated; nothing is left to chance. Nobody is allowed to stand out: in Thai public schools, everyone is equal.

Aside from wearing professional clothing at all times, teachers are to adhere to a similar set of rules. When it comes to clothing, color means everything in Thailand. Depending on which day or which month it is, teachers are expected to wear clothes matching the events taking place in that period. Here at my school – and I imagine it to be the same in every other school – the most important color is yellow.

For most of December, we are required to wear primarily yellow shirts due to the birthday of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, receives the same treatment in July. In August we switch to (light) blue for (former) Queen Sirikit’s birthday, in April it’s purple Princess-month, Friday means wearing “traditional Thai clothes”, New Year means wearing “Hawaii-shirts”, sports day means wearing “orange shirts”, and so on… It takes a large wardrobe to be a teacher in Thailand and it is important to make sure you always wear the right outfit, to make sure you don’t lose face. For me, finding out I could wear my breezy Northern-Thai shirts on Fridays was a true blessing!

The King's Birthday
On the December 5th, everybody celebrates (late) King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday wearing yellow (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

The Face of the School

Today a ceremony is held at our school. As always, we were duly informed of this less than half a day in advance. The whole school is buzzing with energy and it’s difficult to keep the students in their seats. I dismiss my homeroom and make my way to my first class, where I’ll be teaching Phonics. The ceremony will not begin until after lunch at 1:00 PM, which means during the morning classes will continue as planned. Yet somehow, I find the classroom empty…

In these situations, we are ordered to stay inside our classroom and “continue doing our jobs, unless being told otherwise” – kids, or no kids. I decide to wait a bit before walking to the teachers office to enquire what’s going on. After a few minutes, I’m surprised by the sound of deafening music blasting through the air. I look outside the classroom window and see half of my class dancing on the grass, while an unfamiliar Thai teacher directs them with the grace of a debarred conductor. I watch perplexed as the little kids’ dance routine results in an imitation of Miley Cyrus’ choreographer’s wet dream.

Stuffed Animal at School
Kids or no kids, the show must go on! (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

With no explanation to be found, I dutifully move on to my second class, Prathom 5. Luckily, everyone there is present. Today we have a difficult lesson ahead of us: we’re tackling a new grammar structure ahead of this month’s test. I take out my teaching materials and get going. Halfway the lesson, someone rudely starts banging on the door. Before I can open it, the vice-principal barges in, silencing the room with her screams. Not a word of English is spoken; she directs only the kids and disappears. One minute later my classroom is empty and I’m left explaining the meaning of the word “graceful” all to myself… sabai sabai!

After 15 minutes or so, news finally arrives from the Gods – those teachers who had worked at the school the longest, got promoted, and were handed the keys to the castle, whether they knew what to do with it or not. One of my Pilipino colleagues knocks on my door to convey a message from the Almighty Ones: “The ceremony is happening right now, we have to come and stand in the schoolyard.” “Any idea why?” I inquire. She laughs, “I don’t know. They changed things, I guess.”

We gather with the other farang teachers on the schoolyard. While a Thai woman rattles on in a microphone on the school stage, our kids run around the schoolyard, seemingly taking some time off from their studies. “What are we supposed to do here?” one of my farang colleagues asks, looking quite puzzled. None of us holds the answer.

Three hours later, the ceremony ends. A multitude of pictures was taken, many of them featuring us – the “farang ajarns”. Meanwhile, our phones are constantly ringing due to all the pictures being shared in our respective classroom’s LINE-groups, which are used to inform the kids’ parents of what we are doing at school. Despite having asked plenty of questions, our roles on the schoolyard, the mysterious dance practice, and even the meaning of the ceremony itself, remains unexplained.

After the ceremony, we return to our regular teaching schedules. Of course, since the afternoon classes were originally cancelled, I hadn’t prepared for these. I quickly improvise and initiate what was supposed to be tomorrow’s class. Again: sabai sabai. Don’t worry about it…

Thai Bureaucracy

No day at school ever came and went without a similar show of force from the Gods. Sometimes classes were cancelled due to dance practice; sometimes classes were cancelled due to a man handing out cold drinks; sometimes classes were cancelled due to classes being cancelled. It was a constant surprise to see what the Thai public school rollercoaster ride would bring us next!

One of my favorite weeks had been quickly dubbed “Mind Mapping Week”. It all started one Wednesday evening, while my partner (slash colleague) and I were watching a movie in the comfort of our home. Our phones rang, bringing a message from our boss: next Tuesday an important delegation of representatives from the ASEAN community would visit our school to observe our teaching methods. In their own respective schools and countries, they used mind mapping as a tool for education. Now, the vice-principal had decided to show the visitors how wonderful we had adapted the same concept in our school. Of course, in order to prove this, these mind maps first had to be made…

The events that occurred in the next few days were a tour-de-force of Thai public school policy: “fake it ’till you make it”. Or better yet: “fake it ’till it looks like you made it!” Like a thunderstorm, teachers desperately swept through their classes, hour after hour, instructing each class in every single subject to draw a mind map. English class? Make a mind map about your hobbies – in English! PE? Make a mind map about the types of sports you know! Science? Make a mind map about how to make mind maps! In the third period, I stepped into my next classroom, proclaiming to the pupils: “Good morning students, today we will not work on our Writing assignments. Instead, we are going to-” One of the students interrupted with a loud, deep sight: “…make mind maps!”

Things I can do well
“Things I do well”, a mind map made by a student from Prathom 5; only one of the hundreds of mind maps (Credit: Mai)

The mind mapping circus ended with a humongous pile of mind maps being slapped on the vice-principal’s desk, all neatly tied together per subject, per class. Once the delegation of representatives arrived everybody was at their best behavior and classes were taught to ultimate perfection, each teacher pulling a bag of magic tricks out of their pockets. It was as if the entire school had been lifted off the ground and was transported to an alternate universe. The mind maps themselves disappeared into nothingness right after… and so did the magic tricks. Most importantly, though, the visitors were impressed, and many pictures were taken. Sabai sabai!

Things I can do badly
“Things I do badly” (Credit: Mai)

Good Teachers and Bad Teachers

Nobody likes a bad teacher. However, what a bad teacher is, is up for discussion. The definition of a good teacher is very different in Thai public schools from other schools. A teacher who teaches “lessons appropriate to the students level and age, in a way that helps them to develop into skilled and knowledgeable individuals” might be let go at the end of the year, while a teacher who mostly takes pictures, plays with his phone during teaching hours and lets students run around the classroom might get a bonus for being a very likable teacher. It’s all a matter of what is important to who, and who notices what. At the base of this lies the concept of the hierarchical pyramid.

The Hierarchical Pyramid

At my school, the top level of the hierarchical pyramid is occupied by the Gods. Everything they say and do is the law. If they say dance practice is more important than test preparation, it simply is, no questions asked. The school’s vice-principle is their greatest tool: a glorified assistant to the Gods, who never smiles and believes herself to be the true Queen of the Gods. She exercises her power left and right on a daily basis, just to make sure she can still make her reluctant votaries dance.

One of the school’s Deities’ most flabbergasting decisions was related to a school project. The Thai government had laudably implemented the Project-Based Learning-system in each of their public schools. The PBL-system involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students “acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems”. For us, that meant tackling a yearlong multi-faceted project with our respective homeroom classes. Even though for months in a row, the Gods kept changing their minds as to what the content of our projects should be, I enjoyed it very much. I was the only teacher who had actually used the PBL-system at the university level and was very happy to guide my students throughout their projects.

After 22 weeks of hard work – collecting information, preparing presentations, creating brochures, posters, and the parents designing and tailoring special clothes for the children to wear on the day of the presentation – our boss casually passed on a message from the Almighty Ones: all projects were now canceled, “because, duh“.

Cyanide & Happiness (Thought Process)
The thought process behind most school policy decisions.* (*In accordance with Thai government regulation, no alcohol was consumed during this process) (Credit: Cyanide & Happiness / Explosm)

Second to the Gods is our own boss – a friendly Western man who started a business recruiting farang teachers for Thai schools in the region. The school I worked at was his biggest client and his office was situated inside the school grounds. After years of experience with the Thai educational system, he knew when to let things go and when to stand his ground. Through him, I was taught to just respond to the Gods’ curiosities by adapting the “sabai sabai” anthem.

The third layer consists of the teachers themselves. Each teacher at our school has his or her own agenda: some focus on providing the kids with the best education possible, some focus merely on looking good in the eyes of the Gods and our boss and some try to do the impossible by managing both.

During my tenure as a teacher within the public school system, I learned to just let things be as they were, without trying to swim against the Gods’ merciless currents. However, one thing I never let go of: my devotion to actually educate my classes – something that was often oddly obstructed by the Gods in favor of taking cute pictures and pleasing the outside world.

A Parent’s Love

My fool-hearted focus eventually led me to success. I learned how to bypass the currents by reaching the hearts and minds of those most powerful within the school. Those who could – and would – oppose the Almighty Ones, and win. Those forces of nature were the student’s parents… Crunching down the system of the Thai public school to its very core, it all comes down to one thing: money. And that money comes from the parents… Win over the parents, and you win over the school itself.

Luckily, I was blessed with the most loving set of homeroom parents imaginable. Under the “leadership” of the one mother who spoke English, the parents formed an enthusiastic, loving community within my homeroom. It was easy to reach out to them and their friendly and helpful nature was a pleasure.

In part thanks to them, I have a meeting today with the vice-principal regarding the cancelled PBL-projects. We are the only class who finalized their projects at the time of cancellation and hopefully not everything was in vain. As an unavoidable tool of power, I carry the students’ amply filled project files to her office: “showing off” was the school’s main subject, and this time I could use it to fight back the currents. I knock on the door and step into her office to discuss the option of continuing our project. My bilingual colleague helps with the translation of my questions. The situation doesn’t look good: the vice-principal is in a bad mood. She just had a fight with another teacher and looks as impatient as ever. “Sabai sabai,” I think to myself.

Completely ignoring every snarky comment, every grunt, and every sign of impatience, I simply continue to explain the situation to her as if I’m talking to Buddha himself (herself). I convince her to take a look at our work and after hearing me out, she decides to allow us to hang our posters and present our work to the children’s parents, the other teachers, and the other classes!

Teaching Thai Elementary School Students
Student presenting his drawing of Dubrovnik, Croatia, as part of a project on traveling (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

I walk back to my classroom and sit down. With a deep sigh and a smile on my face, I make the announcement to our homeroom’s LINE-group that our presentations will be held! While I write my message, the vice-principal walks in. I look at her, perplexed: for the first time since I started working here, I see her smile. “Good work, teacher,” she says in broken English. I struggle to find my words for a second, having only known this woman to be described as the Gods’ [insert inappropriate term] before. “Thank you,” I smile back, “the kids and their parents will really appreciate this.”

Redemption

During the last period, I teach my own homeroom class. Despite all of the currents ripping through the Thai educational system, one factor should never be ignored: the education, health, and wellbeing of the students themselves. Once this became my sole focus, rather than just trying not to drown in the Gods’ rip tides, I found a way to approach the system in the most effective way: by taking care of the parents, I could take care of their children.

I look around the classroom. The day has almost passed and because all the kids have finished their work, I allow them to play on the floor. Tong, a shy, slightly chubby boy is practicing a new form of meditation: he runs through the classroom, lets himself slide onto the floor, and comes to a halt in a perfect meditative position, eyes closed. Tiger, the class clown, is dancing in front of the whiteboard, clearly in a world of his own. The girls are grouped together in the reading corner where one of them takes great pleasure in playing “teacher” with the other girls. Some of the boys are playing videogames on their phones.

I look at the clock and see that we’ve got five minutes to go. Clapping my hands, I order the kids back to their seats. Together, we recite this week’s vocabulary list. I “wai” the students: “thank you, class.” In unison, the kids respond: “thank you, Teacher Pim”. Knowing this is their cue to go home, the students put their chairs on their tables and run out. One of the students runs back at me and gives me a generous hug. “See you tomorrow, Teacher Pim. I miss you!”

Thai Elementary School Students
Eventually, these kids make everything worthwhile (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

With a smile on my face, I erase the board. I managed to survive yet another day of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the Thai public school system – a rollercoaster ride not even a night in Bangkok can match. For now, the day is over. Or is it..? A harrowing feeling creeps up and settles in my mind. I stop for a moment to look at the clock. Of course, there’s still the afternoon gate duty! No worries… it’s only 34 degrees outside, after all.

Sabai sabai!

Side Notes: A Thing or Two About Thai Public Schools

Thailand hosts a wide range of teaching jobs, offering aspiring teachers anything from jobs at primary schools to jobs at universities or night schools. Many ESL job openings in Thailand, however, are created by public schools. This is in part because many Thai public schools run a bilingual English Program (EP) as set by the Royal Thai Ministry of Education. The curriculum of EP schools requires several subjects to be taught in English at Prathom level (elementary school, ages 7-12), including English, mathematics, science, physical education, music, home economics, guidance counseling, and scouts.

Subjects taught may vary per school, but the basics are the same for every school. In Matthayom (secondary school, ages 13-18) students are taught in English in all subjects, with the exception of Thai and social science. Additional to the EP program, some schools run Intensive English Programs (IEP), which, as silly as it may sound, offer only a few classes in English as opposed to the more intensive (normal) English Program.

Either way, the message is clear: “foreign teachers wanted!”

More articles on Thailand

Teaching English in Thailand: The Quirky Life of a Thai Public School Teacher Read More »

Monthly meditationceremony at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

Teaching English in Thailand: Living and Working in Khlong Luang

Teaching English abroad allows travelers to stay in foreign countries for extended periods of time, while at the same time traveling around the world. One of the most popular countries in the world to work as an ESL-teacher (English as a Second Language) is Thailand.

Situated in Southeast Asia, Thailand will offer you the perfect combination of modern Asian culture and rural countryside experiences. Thailand’s capital Bangkok is one of the region’s main hubs and is regarded as one of the world’s major cities “where east meets west”. Throughout the years, Bangkok adopted all the comforts of the Western world, yet maintained its sense of self majestically.

In the city, heavy traffic conditions are counteracted by a state of the art public transportation system, huge shopping malls are situated next to tiny, family-owned shops, big restaurant chains compete with small food stalls, and the tranquility of the Buddhist temples merges with the city’s bombastic red-light districts. Nevertheless, within less than 100 kilometers from the city, you can still find yourself lost within the country’s rice paddies, fishing villages, and floating markets…

Table of Contents

Travel the Globe
Teaching abroad is considered one of the best ways to explore the world (Credit: Pixabay)

Khlong Luang

One of those places is the Khlong Luang District, situated45 kilometers north of Bangkok along the road to Ayutthaya. Khlong Luang houses around 100 tiny villages, as well as Thailand’s largest campus, Thammasart University. The campus in Khlong Luang is known as the “Rangsit” campus – and was founded as an extension of the university’s campus in Bangkok. With its bright yellow and red flags, the esteemed university attracts students from all over the country.

The Rangsit campus has become a small village in itself: within the last decade student apartment blocks, coffee shops and 7-Elevens spurted out of the ground between the rice fields of Khlong Luang to tend to the needs of the district’s new residents. Several idyllic canals lined with waterlilies still run through the campus and offer passers-by a surprising amount of wildlife: not a day on campus goes by without a confrontation with a large, several meters long monitor lizard.

Monitor Lizard
One of the campus’ many amphibious residents (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Thammasart Rangsit is far enough removed from Bangkok to shed all the capital’s touristic hubbub, yet still buzzes with activity day and night due to the high amount of residential students. Outside the campus, the canals between the rice paddies are still adorned by small wooden houses.

Due to the arrival of Thammasart Rangsit in the district, special services were set up in and around the campus, tailored to the needs of Thammasart’s students and teachers. These services include private schools for studying English, a kindergarten, and a primary school (for the children of the local staff). Thammasart’s on-campus facilities also include a library, a temple, a stadium, an aquatic sports center, a tennis court, a gym (with a swimming pool), a gas station, a post office, a hospital, and a pre-school childcare center. Off-campus there are shops, hairdressers, mini-markets, cafés, and clubs. Faculties, offices, and dorms make up for the rest of the campus.

Map of Thammasart University Rangsit
Map of Thammasat University, Rangsit (Credit: Thammasat University)

Teaching Opportunities

There are plenty of opportunities to teach English in Khlong Luang. First and foremost, there’s Thammasart Rangsit and the adjacent Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). Both require well-qualified teachers with considerable experience. The workload at universities in Thailand is light, while the pay is quite high: expect to earn north of 60,000 baht (€1.590 or $1,880) per month.

Just a few steps outside the southern gate of Thammasart Rangsit lies the vivid U-Square, where several language schools have set up shop. These schools usually offer part-time work at around 350-500 baht (€9,30-13,10 or $11.00-15.50) per hour, with an average class duration of 1,5 hours.

Thammasart University Rangsit
The Rangsit campus of Thammasart University (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Within 10 kilometers of the Thammasart’s campus, you will also find a host of international schools, offering high salaries averaging at 45,000 baht (€1,192 or $1,410) per month and up. Most of these schools are situated around Future Park Rangsit, one of Asia’s largest malls halfway towards Bangkok. In the area, there are also a few private schools, which usually pay around 40,000-60,000 baht (€1,058-1608 or $1,250-1,900) per month.

Last, but not least, on Thammasart Rangsit’s campus grounds there is a kindergarten and a public elementary school. Working at a public school in Thailand pays around 30,000-45,000 baht (€795-1,193 or $940-1,410) per month. The workload is intense and often exceeds 40 hours per week, but in return, teaching at a public school will allow you to completely immerse into Thai society, unlike any other type of school.

While living in Khlong Luang, my (also CELTA-certified) partner and I combined a full-time job at Thammasart’s elementary school with an evening job at a local language school. Additionally, we set up our own private tutoring classes at the Golf View student community village. Our private learners ranged from students seeking to quickly advance their language skills and students preparing for a language test to young professionals preparing to move abroad.

Elementary Students at Thammasart University
Students gathering for a ceremony at Thammasart Rangsit’s primary school (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Housing, Community, and Cost of Living

Among the countryside dwellings of Khlong Luang lies a colorful complex of apartment blocks named Golf View. This is where my partner and I settled during our stay in Thailand.

Golf View serves as a small self-contained community. The complex counts 22 colorful seven-story flats, supported by a host of little restaurants, launderettes, hairdresser, mini-markets, a gym, a sports hall, and a swimming pool. Each of these shops is family-owned and operated. The community of Golf View consists of students, young professionals, teachers, and local entrepreneurs. A host of recurring faces serve the residents their daily meals, which makes living in Golf View feel like settling down in a small village.

During our first week in Golf View, we still had to find our bearings: no one at the local restaurant spoke English and in the beginning, it was a continuous challenge to prevent our food from being overly spicy. Even “not spicy” still meant a pepper or two. During one of our dinners, a student came up to us. In broken English he asked whether the proprietor of the restaurant could take a picture of us for his Facebook page; the man was apparently very proud to have Caucasian guests. It felt a bit awkward to be asked for a picture just because of our skin color, but we understood. Despite these first, strenuous interactions, however, we were able to pleasantly ease into the community once the novelty factor of our two white faces had worn off.

Golf View, Khlong Luang
The colorful apartment blocks at Golf View (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Living in Golf View made it easy to emerge into the daily life of Thai people, something we quickly learned Bangkok would have never allowed us to do – at least, not to this extend. During our stay in Khlong Luang, we met less than ten Westerners in the entire whole region; three of them were our colleagues, one of them our boss.

Living in Khlong Luang was perfectly affordable. Our rent came up at 6,400 baht (€170.- or $200) per month, plus approximately 1,500 baht (€40 or $47) per month for the internet, water, and electricity. The rent included an unavoidable 200 baht “white people tax” charged for “the view of the rice paddies”; something we noticed our Thai neighbors were not paying for. Due to our double salary, we were able to live quite comfortably: we had a new, fully furnished apartment with two rooms. Most of our colleagues, however, rented single apartments at 2,600 baht (€68 or $81) per month.

Of course, there are many other housing opportunities in Khlong Luang. Accommodation opportunities range from simple one-room, on-campus flats to freestanding houses in the middle of the forest.

Our first full year in Thailand we spent about 1,000,000 baht (€26,446 or $31,270) together, which includes any and all costs – even holiday expenses.

Lizzy the Common House Gecko (Tjitjak)
When living in Thailand, every once in a while you will have a new roommate (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Eat, Drink & Party

Food prices around Golf View and Thammasart Rangsit’s campus come up at 40 baht (€1.06 $1.25) per person for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; 60 baht (€1.59 or $1.88) including drinks. The prices in Khlong Luang are so low, it makes absolutely everything in Bangkok feel expensive.

Around Golf View, AIT, Interzone, and U-Square there are dozens of cafes, coffee shops, and restaurants. I would definitely recommend the coffees at AIT’s Hom Krun Coffee, Indian food at AIT’s Som Tam Eatery, club sandwiches at Interzone’s Kissing You, and of course the Thai classics Som Tam with sticky rice and Tom Yam Kung from proprietress Joy’s family-owned and operated restaurant in Golf View.

The Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand (AIT)
At the Asian Institute of Technology you can find amazing Indian food (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

As for parties, in 2015, the Thai government issued an amendment to the country’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Act: it was no longer be allowed to sell alcohol within 300 meters from any educational institute. This caused many of the local pubs around Thammasart Rangsit to close, or to scratch alcohol off its menus. Thammasart’s students simply shrugged off the government’s law, though, and took a short ride towards the now incredibly popular range of cafes situated just outside the government’s booze border. For some major partying you can take a dive into Bangkok’s crazy nightlife – go crazy with the other “farangs” at Khao San Road, or party with the locals in the less touristic areas of the city.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday markets are set up on campus grounds. At the markets, you can buy freshly made food, clothes, and a wide range of accessories. We especially liked the Interzone Market, which offers the possibility to eat Western food. Living in Khlong Luang, far from Western society, non-Asian food became a real treat! Aside from every Thai meal imaginable, vendors at the Interzone Market offer potato-based dishes, Italian food, and many other Western meals.

Though at Golf View we sometimes visited the local Italian restaurant, the chance that they actually had Italian food was always slim. We once had to wait over a month for the chef who made the restaurant’s pizzas to return… and when he finally did, he didn’t have the right ingredients to make pizza.

Transport Around Golf View and the Campus

Transport between Golf View and Thammasart is regulated by Golf View’s administrative office. Minivans continuously run between the community and the campus all day, leaving whenever a van is filled to capacity.

Walking across Thammasart University’s campus will take approximately 30 minutes, but due to the heat, it is not recommended. As an alternative, there are five types of transportation available within the campus. There are several small yellow busses offering free transport across campus. The routes these yellow busses follow are additionally frequented by songthaews, which cost 4 baht (€0,11 or $0,13). The songthaews, however, are quite uncomfortable during the day as even a five-minute ride can feel like a fifteen-minute sauna experience.

If you are in a hurry to get somewhere, you might consider using a taxi. Regular taxis and motorcycle taxis can be found at each of the campus’ entrances and along the major roads surrounding the campus. Any given place within the campus can be reached for approximately 30 baht (€0,65 or $0,77) by regular taxi service, or for 20 baht (€0,43 or $0,51) by motorcycle taxi. Unlike in Bangkok, motorcycle taxis are quite safe on campus as the roads are spacious and the traffic is light.

Personally, though, I prefer the fifth and final option: renting a bicycle. For just 5 baht per day (€0,11 or $0,13) you can rent your own campus bicycle, which you are allowed to use until you no longer need it. You can arrange to rent a bicycle at the campus’ Sports Service Center, or at one of the bicycle storage facilities. The rules relating to bike-rentals change quite often, however, and it will depend on the mood of the employee at the bicycle storage facility what terms you’re offered. To make things easier, bring an interpreter to explain what you want.

I used my bicycle to get to work every single day. The campus is bicycle-friendly and has special paths allocated for cyclists – although Thai students often confuse these for footpaths. The campus’ scenery is great, cycling offers a bit of exercise and most important: it allows you to arrive at work without a single drop of sweat on your forehead, while your colleagues who took the songthaew will be running towards the nearest fan.

The Thammasart University Rangsit Campus
Renting a bicycle also allows you access to more remote spaces of the campus (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Surrounding Area

From Khlong Luang, popular destinations such as Bangkok, Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai are easily reached. There are busses, songthaews and minivans offering transport between Khlong Luang and Bangkok. Minivans to Bangkok run throughout the day from Thammasart’s on-campus terminal and costs 32 baht (€0,85 or $1,00). The minivans leave whenever filled to capacity and there are always plenty to go around.

A taxi covering the same 40 kilometers to the city center will cost between 200 and 300 baht (€5,30-7,95 or $6.25-$9.40) depending on traffic. Taking a taxi comes with the option of using the elevated high-speed expressway, which will cost another 80 baht (€2,12 or $2,51). However, other than being a fancy way of traveling, this won’t actually offer you a speedy arrival. During the day and at night both roads are clear; during rush hour you’ll be happily stuck on both roads.

From the local train station – which can be reached with the same busses and songthaews that go towards Bangkok – trains travel south to Bangkok and north toward Chiang Mai. Major cities served by the northern line include Ayutthaya, Nakhon Sawan, Phitsanulok, Lampang and Chiang Mai. Another major transport hub is the Don Muang airport, which offers both national and international flights.

Close to Thammasart Rangsit you will find Future Park Rangsit, one of Asia’s largest malls. The 280,000 m2 mall houses a plethora of shops, including two major department stores each at one end of the mall, several major supermarkets, over seventy restaurants, and food outlets, eight banks, over a dozen hairdressers, a post office, a fitness club, a host of language schools, a 2-acre cinematic megaplex and a whole floor primarily allocated to selling electronics. From Future Park bus terminal busses and minivans depart towards Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Bang Pa-In, and many other destinations.

Wat Phra Dhammakaya
Monthly meditation ceremony at Wat Phra Dhammakaya (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Lastly, Thammasart Rangsit is situated close to Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the most well-known and the fastest-growing temple of the Dhammakaya Movement. Every first Sunday of the month, hundreds of monks and thousands of Buddhists gather at the temple for meditation. Join them, or take a few days off to attend the temple’s POP House Meditation Retreat.

A New-Born Community

Overall, Khlong Luang offers ESL teachers a unique view of a magnificent country. While many teachers hoping to find work in Thailand either opt for the riches of Bangkok or the bohemian vibe of Chiang Mai, Khlong Luang offers visitors something completely different: a once in a lifetime experience within an authentic, new-born community, risen from the country’s fertile rice fields.

More Information on Teaching English abroad

Job Search: most jobs for foreign teachers can be found on TEFL.com, Ajarn, i-to-i TEFL, Dave’s ESL Café, and ESL Base. TEFL.com and Ajarn often prove to offer most vacancies in Thailand, however, a more direct route into employment comes from speculative job applications. Apply directly at specific schools, either by e-mail or during a personal visit.

List of schools in Thailand: check out the extensive list of schools based in Thailand, compiled by ESL Base. When I was looking for work in Thailand, I applied at approximately 60 Thai schools, many of which are included on this list. Bear in mind that though many of these schools might have awful looking websites, this does not mean the quality of those schools is equally bad. Use your common sense before applying to each school; the quality of their response to your application will tell you a lot more about their qualities as an employer than their websites do.

Thai Visa and Work Permit: for each country, visa requirements differ. Most Western nationalities are granted visa-free travel to Thailand for a period of up to 30 days. If you don’t have a job before you move to Thailand, it is possible to directly apply for a visa with a 30-day extension at the Thai embassy or consulate, to allow yourself more time to find employment. Once in Thailand (and employed), it is possible to change your tourist visa into a Non-Immigrant Visa “B” 90-day work visa, which can in turn be extended for a period of one year from the date of your first entry into Thailand. Many schools will aid you in this process.

Thammasart University: Thailand’s second-oldest institute of higher education, Thammasart University, offers well-paid jobs in a professional environment.

Housing: around Thammasart University, there are many housing opportunities, such as Golf View and The Campus.

Transport to and from Thammasart University: Transit Bangkok offers a schedule of all busses within the region of Bangkok and also lists the schedules for the MRT (the metro), the BTS (the sky train) and the boats on the Chao Phraya River. Keep in mind Thammasart also has its own minivan service to Bangkok, and songthaews run the same routes as busses all day long.

More articles on Thailand

Teaching English in Thailand: Living and Working in Khlong Luang Read More »