Studying Thai in Chiang Mai: Advice from a Long-Term Chiang Mai Resident

I recently came to Chiang Mai to focus on writing and other projects. As someone who is generally interested in languages and in getting to know locals that might not be able to speak English, I decided that studying the Thai language would be a worthwhile investment of time and money. While multiple people have recommended just going the self-study route, I think it is important to know yourself and which approaches are right for you. Moreover, one approach may be right or wrong depending on where you are in your mental state and which language you are studying. Indeed, in the past I have both self-studied and taken formal classes. Most recently, I was in Japan trying to re-learn the Japanese I had forgotten from years of neglect via self-study. Now, however, I realize I am not sufficiently motivated to do a proper self-study for the Thai language. Moreover, Thai is a tonal language, unlike Japanese or most Western languages, which means pronunciation will be a huge challenge. I consider proper pronunciation to be a weak point for my language learning abilities and thus I hope to benefit from taking formal classes with a trained instructor. Plus, the course fees are quite reasonable and I like the idea of spending a bit of my money supporting a local educational institution.

The ED Visa

When I first considered coming to Chiang Mai for an extended stay, I was just planning to do what most others do and get a multi-entry two-month tourist visa, which is slightly inconvenient for long stays, but definitely manageable. In fact, I didn’t even know about the ED visa until I decided to investigate courses. But, it turns out that if you enroll in an officially recognized course of study, you can be eligible for a special ED visa. This visa will allow you to stay in the country for extended time with only occasional renewals at the local immigration office. Typically, programs are promoted offering a one-year ED visa, but I believe it can be extended longer than that if you study longer.

The benefits of an ED visa are two-fold. First, after your initial visit to a neighboring country to apply for and receive the visa (which gets you an initial 90 day stay), you no longer have the hassle of needing to leave the country. On the flip side, if you actually want to leave Thailand during your stay on an ED visa, you will have to request a re-entry permit from the immigration office (1,000 THB) before leaving; if not, when re-entering your ED visa will get canceled. The second benefit is the cost savings of an ED visa vs. a tourist visa. With a tourist visa, you will need to leave the country three times (every 90 days) and renew the visa at the immigration office four times (1,900 THB each time). Two of the times you must leave the country involve a simple one-day jaunt to the Myanmar border. I did a quick calculation of what it would cost to stay a year on a multi-entry two-month tourist visa versus an ED visa and found that the ED visa would save about US$360 (see below, assuming a base in Chiang Mai and that you don’t leave the country while on the ED visa).

# Days ActivityTourist VisaED VisaDifference
0Trip to Vientiane*545054500
60Immigration renewal (30 days)190001900
90Trip to Mae Sai / Immigration11001900-800
150Immigration renewal (30 days)190001900
180Trip to Vientiane* / Immigration545019003550
240Immigration renewal (30 days)190001900
270Trip to Mae Sai110001100
330Immigration renewal (30 days)190001900
US $$646.88$289.06$357.81
* 2000 THB for visa; 1600 for transportation; 1350 for Laos visa; 500 for lodging
(using 1 USD = 32 THB)

11,450 THB savings is not insignificant, and in fact, is about half the cost of the cheaper one-year courses on offer in Chiang Mai (about 38% the cost of my program). If looked at that way, studying Thai in Chiang Mai really becomes a very affordable proposition for those who plan to stay a long time.

A Detailed Look at the School Options in Chiang Mai

So, with the decision made to commit to a one-year program and receive an ED visa, I started investigating schools in Chiang Mai that qualify. At one point, I made a request for feedback on the CMU course on the I ♥ Chiang Mai Facebook group. One member, Naoko Osaki, kindly sent me a very helpful and detailed look at the various school options in Chiang Mai. I asked her if I could publish it here and she kindly agreed. Here’s what she wrote (slightly edited).

Schools that assist you with the Ed visa application:

  1. CMU Centre for Thai Study.
    Cost: 30,000 THB for 216 hours
    A really bad incident happened in recent years (maybe in 2010 or 2011 I think, but not certain). The Thai course got cancelled suddenly and no refund was offered to those already enrolled, meaning they left lots of people stranded without the ED visa. Generally very unprofessional management of the incident at the time and since then people are generally very wary of their Thai courses.
    My Note: Things have changed; see below for my first-hand experience with this school.
  2. Payap University Intensive Thai Courses.
    Cost: 8,000 THB for 60 hours in 4 weeks
    I have two friends who studied there. They speak Thai fluently, read and probably write very well from what I see. Both of them swear it’s the best course in CM, as long as you can afford it and if you like studying in the academic setting and the approach to the study. VERY intense and demanding.
  3. AUA Language Center.
    Cost: 4,800 THB for 60 hour course in 6 weeks; for a one-year ED visa, you do 5 terms + fees = 28K THB
    In terms of the cost performance, I would vote AUA without hesitation. They do support you with the required docs to apply for the ED visa but they have a limited number of seats in a year to give out the ED visas for and they don’t seem to want to advertise as such (I suspect that they don’t really want to do the admin work that comes with it because they are not a visa school). Anyway, the upshot is that it’s not very easy to get the ED visa through them. The situation might well be different now but at least last Nov, they were offering the ED visa assistance and I have one friend who got the ED visa through them in 2011 (I think). The office staff can be quite curt and not very accommodating, which can be a headache if you need to solve a problem. However, the teachers here tend to be more experienced and mature as compared to other language schools, but at least a couple of them have a reputation of having a quite old-school, authoritarian style of teaching. One of my friends really didn’t like it so she quit. No textbooks (they have them but they are super-outdated so none of the teachers use them) so they all use their own hand-outs most of the time, which means the teaching style can vary depending on the teacher. Two of the teachers I had were excellent. To me, what makes AUA (at least the classes I took) different from other language schools is that they really force you to speak, rather than sitting at a desk and taking notes all the time. By the way, the teaching method at AUA BKK is VERY different from the methods used by the teachers at AUA CM.
    My Note: I recently met an AUA student who is very happy there and did receive an ED visa, though he said they are very strict about attendance and, I believe, making sure you are actually learning the language. I have also heard from him and others that a problem with AUA is that it seems rare that the more advanced courses are actually offered due to lack of enrollment. So, for example, this friend has taken the first two courses twice rather than progressing to courses 3 and 4.
  4. Walen International School.
    Cost: 25,000 THB for 180 hours
    Mainly a visa give-away school in my opinion. I have a friend who goes to the school in BKK (she does not require the ED visa) and she was not very impressed. I had a look at her text book but they do not use any transliteration whatsoever (they employ the Callan method), and it didn’t seem inspiring (no pictures or anything, just solid Thai texts), which could possibly work if you have an appropriate systematic teaching method in place but can be quite daunting if you’re a first-time learner.
    My note: When I went to investigate this school, they explained that at the beginning of the course the only thing taught is vocabulary, not even sentences, and there is no attempt to learn to use it in conversation. Next, you move on to sentences using that vocabulary. After that, I am not sure, possibly you get to conversation, but by then I think I would have been bored to death and long quit the program.
  5. Easy Study Thai.
    Cost: 21,000 THB for 180 hours
    It’s a fairly new school set up in early 2012 by Khruu Yai, who used to teach at CMU and YMCA. One of my friends got taught by her and she really likes her teaching style. I went to observe two classes. The staff were very helpful and the atmosphere was very friendly, but most of the students don’t seem to be so serious about learning Thai. The textbook is very similar to those used at YMCA. One teacher was 30 minutes late. A couple of my friends who also went to observe the class were not very impressed. It’s 2 hours per day, twice per week, which will end up covering pretty much one whole year.
  6. Pro Language School.
    Cost: 23,000 THB for 180 hours
    If you want the ED visa, I think this is probably the best compromise and I guess that’s why I’m studying here. The staff are very friendly and helpful; they seem to know what they are doing regarding the visa application and the subsequent procedures. They seem to assign 13 to 14 students to one class, assuming that at least 1/3 (or possibly 1/2) of the students won’t show up most of the time. And I think they are right! In my class, usually 5 to 8 students turn up, which suits me well! They have five teachers and I heard 3 of them were pretty good (luckily my teacher is one of them). Their textbooks are pretty good, considering, although their transliteration system is not very intuitive and can be confusing at times. If you go to school continuously you will complete the 180 hours in less than 7 months, though you get to stay in Thailand without going to school for the remaining time. Alternatively, you can have a 1-month (or more) break between the levels if you prefer, but you may need to start with a different class if you take more than 2-month break.
    My note: Most reviews I have read online and received in person about Pro Language are the same. Everyone likes the school (I also found the staff helpful and friendly), whether they are serious about learning Thai or just want the ED visa. I think they strive to be an all things for everyone school. If you want to learn, you can definitely do it there but if you just want the visa, they’ll take your money and help you with that. The reason I chose not to go to Pro Language is that they don’t teach the Thai script until quite close to the end of the course, if at all (I wasn’t clear on their answer to that question when I posed it).
  7. Talk Talk Language.
    Cost: I think 25,000 or 27,000 THB for 200 hours
    This very small school is one-lady operation. I went to talk to them. It turns out that there’s only this lady I was talking to who teaches Thai (and there’s another lady to take care of the admin). I got the impression that she is a pretty competent teacher but the course fee was a bit more expensive than the others and the fact that there’s only one teacher means that there won’t be much flexibility in terms of schedule so I didn’t go with them.
  8. Cornerstone Language School.
    Cost: 30,000 THB for the INITIAL 200 hours + 7,000 THB for ED visa administration
    I have two friends who studied there and none of them recommend it. I also went to talk to them. They are quite a bit more expensive than the others and the way they operate seemed a bit deceiving (after paying the initial fee you will be asked to pay more once you completed the 200 hours so basically it’s like credit you buy) and my friends ended up paying quite a lot more than they anticipated to begin with. I don’t know about the quality of teaching though.
  9. Sandee Thai Language School.
    Cost: 18,000 THB for one-year (200 lessons = 180 hours?)
    The opening of the Chiang Mai branch in late 2012 has been delayed and is now due to open some time in 2013. They are going to open their CM branch on Suthep Road.
    My note: The current website shows no information about a Chiang Mai branch so perhaps those plans have been canceled?
  10. YMCA
    Cost: Standard Thai – 1,800 or 2,100 THB for 30 hours; Thai Script – 2,000 THB for 30 hours; Elementary Thai – 2,000 or 2,300 THB for 30 hours; Intensive Thai – 3,800 THB for 50 hours; Exam Prep Thai – 3,500 THB for 50 hours; Thai Daily Life – 1,500 THB for 10 hours
    I also studied at YMCA’s Thai language course and lots of people seem to like it there. I guess it’s quite inexpensive and the schedule is 3 days a week so it suits many people. They don’t offer the ED visa but apparently they are going to start doing so soon, according to a Thai friend of mine who’s working there. But, who knows, this is Thailand… Their textbooks are okay, not great but I’ve seen worse. The teachers tend to be CMU graduates and some of them were good at the time. Quite relaxed and friendly atmospheres, I had such fun in my classes but really didn’t get me going with speaking Thai though.
  11. Effective Thai.
    Cost: 450 THB per private lesson, 225 THB per group lesson so 120 group lessons for ED visa = 27,000 THB
    My note: Naoko wasn’t aware of this school so I am adding it to the list. Effective Thai is the Thai language program located at EFL Learning Centre. ED Visas are available for 90 private lessons or 120 group lessons (50 minutes per lesson). Classes are held in the Chiang Mai school location as well as online via Skype. I don’t know much about this school except that I met someone recently whose husband is studying there and seems to like it. They arranged their ED visa in Australia before coming, which sounds convenient. I wonder if other schools offer that option. From a cost perspective, this school is awfully expensive. While it is true you only need 27,000 THB for the ED visa qualification, if you compare to the typical 180 hours/lessons at other schools, Effective Thai costs 40,500 versus 20-30K elsewhere. The school location is on the eastern side of the city, whereas it seems most others are central or west, so if you are interested in being in that part of the city and school location is an important factor, Effective Thai might be useful.

Note: Naoko studied at the YMCA in June 2010, two terms at AUA between January and Mar 2012 and is currently studying at Pro Language on a one-year ED visa course. She visited and inquired about the schools (Easy Thai, Talk Talk, Cornerstone and AUA) in Nov 2012.

Intensive Study Options

There are undoubtedly more options for doing shorter, more intensive Thai language study, but since my interest was in the ED visa I didn’t investigate these options. YMCA is included in the list above since Naoko had experience there and since it seems they might someday offer the ED visa. Plus, it is one of the schools you hear recommended the most. If you know of other school options, please share in the comments.

My Experience at CMU

After my investigation of the schools (with Naoko’s help), I decided to try the course at Chiang Mai University. CMU is known as “maw chaw” (mɔɔ chɔɔ, ม.ช.) in Thai. I admit to being nervous about doing so because almost all the information I could find online was discussing the unfortunate events that occurred a few years back (which Naoko mentioned). Still, I liked the campus setting, and I was especially excited by the fact that they teach a balance of Thai skills, including conversation and reading and writing the Thai script. Plus, the administrative office seemed to be well-run when I visited and I managed to find a couple of folks who took their intensive 15-day (45 hours) course who said great things about it.

At the beginning I was a bit concerned because it seemed there wouldn’t be enough students to start the June course and I would have to wait a month for the July course. This would have really tested my commitment to giving CMU a try, but fortunately a couple more students showed up with interest and the school contacted me to see if I was willing to start just a week or so later than the originally planned start date, which I was happy to do. So, I guess you could say that showed the flexibility of the program staff, which pleasantly surprised me considering it is one of the major universities in Thailand (thus, I would have thought, very bureaucratic).

As for the ED visa, in this respect I think CMU shines. Other schools told me that the paperwork would probably take 2-4 weeks, which would have meant, in my case, a trip to Mae Sai to prevent overstaying my 30-day visa waiver (I originally flew into Bangkok). With CMU, the paperwork was finished in exactly one week and that is typical, not a special rush for my situation.

So, how about my experience in the program? I have been studying there for a about four months now and I really like the course. The professor is professional but also very relaxed and likeable. In total, there are eight students representing eight different countries (Japan, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Austria and the United States). We used the textbook written by a different professor at CMU for the first level 15-day intensive course for several months. It’s focused mostly on practical conversation with key vocabulary and grammatical structures, though it doesn’t systematically explain the grammar (the professor is good about filling in any blanks and answering questions). The book uses transliteration but also includes Thai script for most of the vocabulary. The intensive course doesn’t study the script at all, but we started to learn it after the first 3-4 weeks, which I am very pleased about. Very recently, we finished the first book and switched to the second level 15-day intensive course textbook. It covers many of the same topics, but apparently introduces new vocabulary and grammatical structures.

One thing to mention about the CMU program is the schedule. Basically, the class meets for three months and then takes a one-month break. So, in total the course takes up a year but only nine months of study time. I am not sure if I like this or not. On the one hand, it might be nice to have those three one-month breaks to do some traveling around Thailand or the region. Alternatively, it might be nice to finish the course in nine months and then have three months to travel around. In my particular case, I think either is fine, but you might find this a deciding factor.

Final Thoughts

The Thai language is a tonal language, and thus good pronunciation is a challenge. The basic grammar I have learned up to now has been straightforward with no verb conjugations, very few singular/plural distinctions and no masculine/feminine/neutral distinctions. The writing script presents a significant challenge compared to a simple alphabet like English, but it isn’t quite as horrible as it seems upon first inspection. I’ll probably follow up with a post going into more detail on the language itself, but for now I will end with an unqualified recommendation to study Thai if you plan to make Thailand home for an extended period of time. And, if you choose to base yourself in Chiang Mai, hopefully this guide will help you choose a school.

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