I feel safe in Suzhou

It’s been a while since I last posted here.

I have plenty of unfinished blog entries such as my time in Hokkaido during the snow festival, the trip to the Hong Kong Ocean Park, to the glass bridge in Sanya, to the Nanjing Memorial Site, to the deer in Nara. I wanted to write more about life in Zhongshan and life at my new home, in Suzhou.

What can I say? Life got busy.

But busy in a good way. Mostly.

I have so much to catch up on and share here, and I’m sure I’ll start getting round to it in a while only to take a break again. That’s something in my nature too, to get caught up a bit in the present.

But let’s talk about the present.

Things got a little strange, didn’t they?

I’m currently in Suzhou and I feel very safe here. I think it’s important to understand that like everywhere else you go in the world, some parts of the puzzle are more… suitable than others. I’m in a very good puzzle piece. We’re able to go out and about with masks and life is a little normal here only I can hear more children laughing and playing outside, which I think is actually a blessing for them, especially after being inside for so long.

I’m back at work, but it’s unlikely students will re-start kindergarten anytime soon.

So now and then, I have a little spare time. I’m taking life gently.

Views & Shopping in Tokyo Skytree

I was lucky enough to be able to visit the famous Tokyo Skytree as part of my Japan holiday. Although one or two moments like Ueno Zoo was disappointing, all in all the adventure was an incredible experience, and Tokyo Skytree was definitely a good part of that.

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View of Tokyo Skytree from the main entrance

Tokyo Skytree is a tourist attraction in central Tokyo, known for its dizzily high observation tower and tourist friendly mall and restaurants. It’s worth a visit for the trip to the observation decks alone, which even gives you a chance to view Mt Fuji if you’re lucky.

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When you pay to go to the observation deck, you pay just for lowest observation deck first. Then, if you decide you want to go a bit higher, you can purchase another ticket after you’ve arrived on the deck. Because there was a special Kingdom Hearts 3 event, I decided to do just that and the views did feel a little more impressive but without the event I would be satisfied with just exploring the first deck.

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A keyblade dedicated to Tokyo Tower
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Poster of the Kingdom Hearts 3 exhibition

The Kingdom Hearts 3 exhibition was a real treat, especially as I didn’t actually know it was happening until I arrived at Tokyo Skytree. After a visit to the tower, I enjoyed some gyoza and crepes from a restaurant and cafe on the ground floor, and visited the mall’s Pokémon Centre, possibly one of the best Pokémon Centres in Tokyo for its variety.

But after visiting twice, would I visit Tokyo Skytree again?

If I was going with family it would have to be yes, as my brother would insist on visiting. (Again.) The food in Tokyo Skytree is nice but you can find it in other parts of Tokyo, so its not necessary to make the trip. I’m really glad I visited and I might go again. Thank you Tokyo Skytree 🙂

Ueno Zoo is a disappointment

We had some spare time and thought we’d check the local zoo out as it was cheap. We didn’t expect to see too much but disappointment still rose from the horizon.

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Ueno Zoo is about a 20 minute walk away from Nippori station, and is close to Ueno station in Tokyo. At the time of writing, there is a strange amount of feedback saying that the zoo is larger than expected. This is odd, as the zoo is certainly very small. Perhaps this is because the monorail is currently not existent, so it’s an unruly uphill walk between the west and east sides of the park.

But what feels smaller is the cages that the animals are kept in. As a Briton, I am used to seeing better managed zoos with more engaging environments for the animals to live in. Although Japan is well known for some anti-animal welfare policies such as excessive whaling, I was hoping Ueno Zoo would strategise itself in having fewer exhibits but hosting these exhibits very well. Instead, primates, flamingos and penguins were crowded in cage-esque exhibits that lacked any resemblance to their natural environment with little to do and little to no shelter away from the public. Much of the animal’s food was attached in a manner that the animals had to approach the public in order to eat, but with this along with no shelter for the animals to hide away from the public’s viewing eye did sit uncomfortably.

Ueno Zoo made me consider the views of one of my acquaintances who refuses to see animals in zoos altogether, citing them as facilitators of animal cruelty.  While I still feel that zoos such as Colchester Zoo in the UK do fairly well with their exhibits, I feel that the same level of compassion and passion for animals is lacking in Ueno Zoo and other animal-centered attractions in Japan.

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That said, there was this monkey exhibit that looked fairly interesting for the monkeys and the tiger exhibit had some forest-esque theme, though again this seemed for the benefit of the public rather than the animals itself.

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There was some choice on the menu if you’re not vegetarian, and the prices were affordable. But honestly, the whole feeling from Ueno park is just one of ‘meh’. The shoebilled stork was an impressive sight and the perry dogs were cute. There were bears to see including the two species of Japanese bears which was interesting, though felt unloved despite being a ‘Japanese national species’. I’ve made a note to try and see the perry dogs and shoebilled stork again in a better habitat, away from Tokyo. And if you want to see a panda? Don’t bother with Ueno zoo. Go to Chengdu in China, or Ocean Park in Hong Kong for a better time.

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Beware of working illegally in China.

It’s frightening how easy it is to be on an illegal visa in China.

Despite the increasingly difficult visa process in China, landing a teaching job and living in China continues to become an attractive prospect to many would-be teachers. I have loved my time in China so far and am considering staying another year, even though finding honest employers can be difficult. Luckily, I’ve found a great contact to get me direct employment under schools themselves, which is the best way of finding legal, stable work as a teacher in China. If you decide to use an agent instead, be extremely cautious.

If you’re caught working illegally you can end up being arrested and sent to jail for up to a month, to then be deported and not allowed to return to the country. Agencies such as SeaDragon EducationFirstLeap and even Disney themselves have had employers become in trouble and forced to bribe their way out of situations, hide from the police or abandon their employees when they end up in jail. This is despite the agencies promising to give their employees a legal visa, yet failing to do so. Even if it isn’t your fault, as a foreign employee you can still be punished.

So how can you ensure that your experience in China is a friendly, legal one?

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Make sure you have a bachelors degree

It’s illegal for schools to employ you if you do not have a bachelors degree. A TEFL certificate is also necessary and must be approved and recognised by the particular area of China that you intend to work on. (Some regions will have different requirements and will refuse certain TEFL certificates) You should not be able to get work as a teacher if you have a TEFL degree but not a bachelors degree. Likewise, you should not be able to become employed if you do not have a TEFL degree.

Make sure your visa states that you can work as a teacher

On your visa there will be in English a heading that says ‘purpose of residence’, underneath it must say that you are being employed as a teacher. Unfortunately, the characters underneath will be in Chinese, so you must find a way to translate them through someone you trust or a very good app.

Make sure your visa is issued at the correct place

Some people in Beijing have been caught out, because their agency has registered them at a cheaper place in a different area in Beijing.

You should never have to give away your passport

Your employers may require your passport at occasion to change your Z visa into a residence permit and they may use it to help you register with the police (which is also a legal requirement you must do when you get to China!) but you should always be able to go with them. Do not allow anyone to borrow your passport for sometime.

Leave if your agency gives you excuses

The fact is, there’s still high demand for teachers in China. If your agency gives you any kind of excuse on why your visa is delayed or they give you the wrong visa… Leave. You don’t even have to give them warning. Just pack up and go. Remember, it’s always illegal to work on a tourist visa. What I would recommend you do is to stay in Hong Kong legally for a while as a tourist, find legal employment online or through WeChat for China, fill out the relevant paperwork and return to China comfortably with a legal visa and a good employer.

A good recruiter is your best friend

Sometimes, life in China comes down to who you know. If you want to find a good honest recruiter who will find you legal employment as a teacher in China, just send me a message and I can put you in touch with my favourite recruiter.

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First Experience of a Korean BBQ

If you’re a meat lovin’ foodie and you love your BBQ, put the Korean BBQ experience on your bucket list. If you’re a vegetarian, this is one to pass.

Honestly, we had no idea where we were going.

Our coworkers in Zhongshan seem super excited to go out for the evening to a local restaurant, and it was only when I opened the menu did I notice that there were a lot of Korean words under the Chinese.

“Go on, pick something!” My coworkers said cheerfully, and then went back to talking in marathon speed Mandarin over the circular table. There was a giant overhanging vacuum just above a small pit in the centre of the table. I looked blankly at the menu.

It was a menu full of raw meat.

Without knowing any Korean, and with very limited Chinese, I honestly had no idea what kind of meat was what, and living in Guangdong province, you really want to know what you’re ordering in advance. (or at least, what you’re supposed to be receiving.)

It was a little odd for me, to look at and order the meat before it was cooked, especially in a restaurant scenario. I handed back the menu.

“You pick.” I said back, cheerfully but also knowing that one of my coworkers had a particular love for snake and dearly hoped that it was not going to be the day to experience it.

They ordered several items with ease, calling over the waiter and demanded snacks and appetisers to be supplied asap.

There was a short ten minutes of awkward conversation, where we spoke a mix of English and Chinese together which somehow reached the topic on boyfriends/girlfriends and the family, but never about oneself. Then… The meat arrived. Raw and ready for the grill.

In this restaurant the servers cooked the meat in front of you. That is, in-between serving guests and managing their demands. It was a real multi-task operation and you had to admire them for that. I know now that a lot of BBQ restaurants will require you to cook the food yourself, so extra stars to the staff.

And the result?

Yeah, the food was pretty good. There were a variety of meats, but all of them were meat I would potentially eat in the UK to my personal relief. Korean pizza even popped up and while it was… Not how a westerner might understand pizza, it was still enjoyable and spicy. There were plenty of sauce and appetisers to go around and it was pleasant to sit together round the table. Oh, and you could spin around the appetisers too if that’s… Appealing to you…?

Since my first experience, I have been to a few of these places in China and I really recommend them. Often they are good value for money, although it is a little overwhelming trying to order the food if you are not literate in Chinese. (Or Korean) I think it’s a shame there aren’t many vegetarian options on the menu, but vegetarianism is not so popular in China at the moment, compared to how it is in the West.

Moved to Suzhou!

And to think, I still have Zhongshan posts to finish…!

It’s been crazy busy over these recent few months. Near the end of the school year, there were quite a few plays and school events the children (and therefore, the teachers) were heavily involved in, then there was the case of… finding a new job, packing and returning home for the summer month.

I miss my Zhongshan students tremendously.

I really got to know them, and I was able to bring in a lot of good behavioural traits and routines. Now, I have to start all over again, with a new 3-4 year class, but this time all the way in Suzhou. I moved not because of the school, but because of the agency that was assisting the school (and has since been replaced by the school!). I think it’s really important to share my experiences on that agency at some point in the future, so that’ll be a blog post – But I also have a lot of other Zhongshan posts I want to include. It’s actually quite hard to find information on Zhongshan, so maybe it’ll be helpful to a few people?

And of course, gotta write about Suzhou! What a city! It’s much bigger than Zhongshan, and has a really different feel to it. While I like both cities, I can say that life in Suzhou has been a little easier as a foreigner and I feel safer on the walkways as there are small roads that are dedicated to scooters and bikes. I haven’t been able to find Char Sui Bao yet, and that might not be surprising as Guangdong province is supposed to be the capital of good bao. But with a city this big, this diverse, I’m sure to find some, somewhere!

Where to find cheap food in Xiaolan, Zhongshan!

And we’re talking about cheap food that tastes good too!

What happens when you first enter a country with a culture (or cultures!) completely foreign to your own? Do you head straight to the food cart round the corner and point to the foreign menu pinned on the side that you can’t read? Or do you do the opposite, panic and freak out, and head to your local Starbucks or McDonalds?

I ended up doing a bit of both at my first time, mainly the latter not due to freaking out, but due to exhaustion. Experimenting can be fun and adventurous, but after a hard days of work, not knowing what kind of meat is going to appear on your plate and in what condition is not the most fun way to spend an evening. Especially when the aftermath may be greeting you in the morning the next day!

The problem with western food is that there is not a lot of it and it can be very expensive. (It’s also not always cooked properly if you live in Xiaolan!) But if you happen to be in Zhongshan, here’s some cheap and cheerful places to eat that won’t leave you feeling hungry or sick. (Probably.)

Thank You

Thank You can be found on the ground floor of Seaport City – you know, the largest building in Xiaolan that acts as your ‘North star’ if you happen to get lost. I love Thank You, as it offers a wide choice at a cheap price, and you can see the food that you are purchasing, just grab a tray, point to the food and say zhège. If you order at least two items you will probably qualify to receive a free cup, if not, just point to it and say zhège. You cannot pay by card at Thank You, you can only pay through cash or WeChat (Weixin.) Then, just zhège zhège to your table and chī chī your food.

The only bad side is that very occasionally there’s a couple of flies dancing around, and it can be a bit crowded during rush times. Avoid the rush and you’ll be fine. Also, it is difficult to understand the exact prices of the dishes you are ordering, but the prices are generally pretty good especially if you work out that you only need to order one ‘main dish’ and one side. But also beware, if you’re sensitive to caffeine, the cola is very strong.

Finally, you can ask them to cook you an egg or two, you can ask for just plain rice (which is very cheap) and you can ask them to pack up your food for takeaway if you are in hurry.

Korean Take Away

Takeaways come and go, but so could any of the restaurants I mention on this post to be honest. It’s incredible to see things suddenly disappear and be replaced by a shining new restaurant. I’ve already written about the Korean takeaway, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you happen to be local.

Café De Coral

Café De Coral is a very cheerful restaurant chain that has a nice outlet in the local Daixin in Xiaolan Town, Zhongshan. (Find it in the building after the main one, if you pass through an array of knock off handbags you’re on the right path). They have giant menus right by the door with pictures, and all you need to memorize is their code ‘A3, B6’ etc. If not, just take a camera phone, take a picture of what you want and say zhège. (Honestly, the first word you need to learn when you get into China.)

The prices are incredibly good and the quality of the food is also very good. The only negative is that I recommend you to try to avoid going to the bathroom and all costs, but if you do go, realise that you probably did go right the way, keep going forward, mind where you step, and straight on is the ladies, somewhere to the right is either the kitchen or the mens. Also when you go, brace yourself, do your business and get outta there!

Venice Restaurant

No matter where you go, there’s always a Venice somewhere in Zhongshan. The chain is pretty decent with an incredibly large and thorough menu that is translated to a readable quality. The quality of the food you get is fantastic but you will need to expect long waiting times. Unless you’re ordering steak, eating at Venice is very cheap and if you are in the need to cool down during the 8-9 months of summer, the drinks and desserts  are very fun.

Leaving your first school as a TEFL Teacher

Leaving China is complicated, as well as finishing your teaching contract. 

After a great deal of thought and reluctance, I have decided to leave my current kindergarten in China due to my terrible agency. It was difficult at first to find another genuine agency that could offer a legal visa, but eventually I was able to find a good recruiter and will be moving to Suzhou in the late summer. My advice: Make friends with locals and expats and someone will always known someone who can help!

But lo and behold, agencies don’t like it when you leave them. You need something called a ‘cancellation letter’ if you want to transfer your visa to another school, which is your legal right to receive if you ask. But agencies have been known to try and prevent you leaving by ignoring the law. You also need a release letter, which is again your legal right to receive and again, can be ignored by your agency. Well, to be honest, agencies like to ignore the law in general, so that really should be no big surprise.

It’s also recommended to get a criminal record check at the police – And you will definitely need one if you plan to leave China for good. Before my contract was officially ended my agency specialists were like “Sure, sure! We’ll help you!” but now the contract has ended it’s more like “Ok, 200 yuan for our time please.”

Ending your contract with your landlord is also a pain, so try to do that as early as possible. If you plan to stay for another year in the same place, do not tell your landlord that you will be away from a couple of months. And make sure your agency doesn’t either – Because guess what, they told ours, and now wanting to evict us early! Another good idea is to change your lock without telling them, because the likelihood is your landlord will try to rent your apartment when you are away, or at least ‘take a look’. This is a widely known thing, for landlords to charge double event and for expats to come back to find someone else living in their apartment!!

You also need to contact your SIM company and end your contract with them if you are leaving China for good. Otherwise, they will continue to bill you and well… It just makes me uncomfortable.

But what about the emotional side of leaving the kindergarten for good?

Actually, it was okay for me. I expected to be more sad than I actually felt. I was likely enough to have complete control of the day so I designed lessons that I knew they’d behave in and would have the most fun in. We went through what we did in the year, and I even got to play guitar in front of them, being able to play through a goodbye song that I made up myself – And have them sing a long! It was great.

Should you offer to keep in touch with the parents? Since I’m interested in online teaching, I offered some parents my email address, (unfortunately my WeChat broke!) Some parents absolutely did not want to keep in touch and that hurt a little, but it shouldn’t – It’s not against your character, it’s against needing to be in contact with an old teacher. But some parents were delighted to keep in touch, and while I didn’t expect ANYONE to send an email, I did actually receive one from a parent I got along rather well with, so that was fantastic.

And then there is dealing with the external school events that the school really wants you to ‘volunteer’ for. Once your contract ends, that’s entirely up to you. It’s awful if the school is depending on you to turn up even though you’re not being paid for it.

And finally, one needs to clean up and move on! Time to get rid of all those school projects (though take photos of your work, you can use them as part of your portfolio to get into a new school!) and start a fresh new leaf. And that in itself can be very exciting. Sometimes its good to reflect, but not for too long. What is done is done, now move on!

How to make and use effective flashcards as a Kindergarten TEFL Teacher

Flashcards serve as an effective learning tool for kindergarten students when used appropriately. While some schools in China may provide TEFL teachers with resources, others don’t, and committed TEFL teachers will need to spend some office hours into making colourful flashcards for their lesson plans. Feeling daunted? Help is at hand, here’s some useful tips on making a super pack of flashcards!

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Use very clear images

‘What’s that supposed to be?’ You may ask yourself when you inevitably come across a bad flashcard floating around the ‘English resources’ department. Unfortunately, it’s a given that as a TEFL teacher you will come across some terrible flashcards, and the bad ones are usually those who use people and are trying to describe emotion or action. Some flashcards also hold cultural context that may difficult for children to understand, for example my students do not wear aprons during class so were confused to see an apron on a flashcard.

Hand drawn flashcards are difficult and time consuming to make, so it is often best to find images on the Internet. Be wary of copyright, especially as the school may end up promoting your hand-made flashcards along with your name, to parents and other would-be teachers. (More about that later)

High quality and free for commercial use photos can be found at Pexels.com and Pixabay.com respectfully. You could also take your own photos, especially as children love to see images of their local area which brings in wonderful prompts for free-flow conversation in class.

Another quick note – If you are using text, be sure to make it as clear and easy to read as possible and use a large font. Some parents may not realise their child is short sighted, and some may not be able to afford glasses for their students.

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Use colour

Flashcards should be bright, eyecatching and colourful, don’t accept anything less. Consider how colourful children’s cartoons are, and the outer-packets of sweets (to catch the children’s eye, so they beg their parents to buy them!). Children use many resources in their brains to recognise flashcards, and this will include certainly include colour.

Laminate them

Protect your cards from the elements and your students. Your school is very likely to be able to help you with this, and should be pleased that you are creating your own resources for class. Laminated cards can be used over and over again without the need to worry and also look great. (You may also be able to take them with you to your next TEFL opportunity!)

Alphabet cards

For young kindergarten children, letters might appear boring, especially on flashcards. I recommend using bold and easy to recognise objects on alphabet flashcards. For example, for ‘Aa’ you can use a bright apple. Some of your students will be more advantaged than others, and by also including the written word ‘Apple’ underneath you may be helping students maintain their lead and gain confidence in recognising the shape of words. This will also help students learn how to pronounce ‘Aa’.

Most of the professional flashcards I have come across will use capital and lowercase letters for their alphabet packs. I recommend doing so, as your students are likely receiving extra classes outside of school and the teachers may only use lowercase or capital letters in their classes. It also will help students link the letters together appropriately.

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Appropriate subjects

Make sure your flashcards are relevant to your curriculum. You get bonus points if your flashcards are relevant for multiple lessons, which will make your time more efficient as a professional TEFL teacher. My flashcards are sometimes double sided, which helps when you are learning about opposites (cold and hot) or comparisons (apple and ant both begin with A). Sometimes, students will be very eager to try and look at the other side of your flashcard, so consider the nature of your class. On the plus side, curiosity increases focus!

Explore different teaching methods

Consider other uses of flashcards instead of just reciting them. Use them as prompts for conversation and questions, ask them if they could demonstrate the flashcard, make the appropriate noise or ask them if they like what they see. You can use arts and crafts, for example you could ask students to copy what they see with pen and paper, this works especially well if you wish to show student the alphabet. You can also use multimedia in class, for example you could show students the flashcards, ask them to identify them, and what animal they would like to see and show a video of the requested animal as a reward.

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Don’t overuse them

No matter how amazing your flashcards are, if you use them too often in your classes students will become bored. What’s worse, they will associate your use of flashcards with boring lessons, and this is a hard bias to break once it’s developed. I use my flashcards on average around once a week, but may use them twice in a row if we are learning some complex key words and phrases. This routine helps keep flashcards exciting and students look forward to seeing them. Students gain joy when they recognise flashcards they have seen and gone through before – but only if they haven’t seen them in a while.

Reward system

What benefit does a student gain from announcing the correct word from the flashcard? At my current kindergarten, we have a token system which allows students to purchase a prize every week. It works well, but rest assured you don’t need to be so fancy. You could use praise students when they give you a correct answer and talk a little about the flashcard, asking questions to students about their thoughts. You could use fun actions alongside them such as ‘snapping your hands’ like a crocodile on the relevant flashcard, or asking students to make the relevant noise. When my students are confident, I also let my students guess what might be coming next, and we often like to have a competition to see who can say the flashcard prompt the fastest.

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Make your flashcards appealing

Finally, learn about your students. For example, if you are a kindergarten TEFL teacher in China, learning about Ultraman is absolutely essential. Students become delighted when their favourite things are woven into flashcards. Think: Superheroes, animals, food. If you theme your classes, you can encourage students to develop new favourites. My students loved desert week and loved memorising my desert themed cards. I have very short video clips of all the animals in my handmade desert flashcard pack, and we have also done various arts and crafts classes using the animals too. This allows the students to have several connections to link up their experiences with correctly recalling the flashcard, making the flashcard more effective in the long run!

Is Jimmy Hornet the best western restaurant in Zhongshan?

Listed number #2 on Tripadvisor, Jimmy Hornet is a well loved pub, restaurant and club that serves western food alongside oldies rock and jazz music with a funky atmosphere. Jimmy Hornet has a couple of chains dotted around central Zhongshan, but I visited the one by Fuwan South Road Shop.

The food menu may feel small compared to other restaurants in Zhongshan, but the quality of the food was good, though westerners will certainly notice the adaptations to their cult classics. Bangers and mash for example didn’t quite include what we Brits call ‘gravy’. The burritos were open ended, but still held good flavour. And the nachos were some of the best I’ve ever had, hands down.

Unfortunately, the menu may not suit Chinese friends and colleagues who might find the menu intimidating, as it does not seem to have any traditional Chinese food options or any seafood. Although there were a few Chinese ethnic people who were eating at Jimmy Hornet, we did see majority foreigner clientele, and our own Chinese friends did find it difficult to choose from the menu.

There are plenty of drinks on offer which meant finally, after several months I’ve been able to enjoy a good Captain Morgan’s rum. Cheers Jimmy Hornet!

Jimmy Hornet hosts special jazz events on Thursdays, and often invite guests for performances on certain days. But what I loved most about the place was that the music was very decent yet of a perfect volume. I could hear my friends and didn’t have to shout or even raise my voice to be heard. The tables were spaced out and the seating was comfortable. The lighting was also fantastic – It lit up everyone’s faces well yet still gave a nice shadowery/night feel away from the table. I plan to revisit Jimmy Hornet just for the atmosphere alone.

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Jimmy Hornet is the best western restaurant I’ve been to so far. The service we received was absolutely incredible. Very polite waitering staff who knew English, we received our food in good time, and it was an excellent venue.

The toilets were weird though. That’s all I’m saying.