Vietnam

Whoa. I don’t even know where to begin. I kept so busy in Vietnam that I couldn’t find a single free moment to sit down and write about it all. Right now I’m on a layover in Malaysia on my way to Bali, so I want to try to get a post in before the mayhem continues!

Vietnam was absolutely amazing. I’ll start from the beginning.

I didn’t do a whole lot of research before going to Vietnam. I booked my flight into Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and out of Hanoi in the north, so I had ten days to make it all the way up the coast. While I was traveling, I felt ridiculous for making that kind of itinerary for myself, but now that it’s said and done, I’m glad that I did.

I landed in HCMC in the afternoon and it took me over an hour to get through customs. There weren’t a lot of people, but the visa process in Vietnam isn’t as streamlined for tourists as it is in Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Before going to Vietnam, I had to get a letter granting permission to enter. There are tons of companies online to secure the letter, I just went with the cheapest one with good reviews. It cost $20.  I had to print the letter and an entry form to show at the airport in Bangkok before I was able to get my boarding pass. It’s unnecessarily complicated. Anyhow, upon arrival, I gave my passport and approval letter for them to process my visa. It cost another $20, and I was waiting for them to do it for about 45 minutes. For an extra $20, they could do it in 5, but I wasn’t in a rush.

I exchanged my currency right in the airport. I was shocked to see that their exchange rate was higher than when I searched on Google, and there wasn’t a fee to exchange it. I was happy about that.

The taxi to my first hostel cost about $15 for an hour or so ride, which is expensive by backpackers standards but pretty cheap compared to the United States. Within the first minute of leaving the airport, the mayhem that is HCMC traffic became a reality. Lines on the road are not observed, and I think it’s safe to say it was crazier than Thailand. It was organized chaos, though. Everyone was honking their horn the entire time, which is the complete opposite from Thailand.

When I got to my hostel I was really scared to cross the street. There was an intersection nearby without a stoplight where cars and motorbikes just had a free for all, and it somehow all worked out. I watched an elderly woman cross the street and noticed if you’re walking, you just have to trust that the cars and motorbikes will go around you. I met a few people from the hostel that showed me how to walk right into moving traffic and not get hit. It’s completely against all human instincts, but it’s absolutely nuts. The only option for crossing the street there was to walk confidently across and to not pause. The most accidents happen when someone doesn’t continue their pace, I guess. I found it pretty interesting.

My first meal in Vietnam was Pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup. I’ve had it before in Seattle, but trying the real thing was out of this world. The broth tasted about the same, but the noodles were incredible. They served it with a huge variety of condiments, and everything was delicious.

I only stayed in HCMC for 2 nights, as I was in a rush to make it up to Hanoi. I got a chance to visit the War Remnants Museum, which was so fascinating and depressing. It was all about the American War (what we call the War in Vietnam). The majority of the displays were photographs, but they had really detailed captions with lots of interesting information. There was a whole exhibit on how the war was protested all over the world. The most interesting exhibit to me was the Agent Orange Exhibit, because it was the most information I’ve ever learned about Agent Orange. I remember learning about it in high school, where they basically told us, “yeah, we used chemical warfare and it was bad…” but seeing the actual impacts of the chemical (that is still affecting Vietnamese people today) was pretty intense.

They had deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde, and that was probably the worst part for me. After spending a good amount of time there, I was pretty depressed but I’m glad I went.

My friend told me that I had to check out a city called “Dalat” on my way up north, so that was my first stop after HCMC. When I was planning the trip I made a note that tickets can be purchased online for the bus website, but because I didn’t actually buy the ticket I didn’t realize that they don’t accept foreign credit cards. I spent a good hour in the hostel trying to figure out why my card wouldn’t process, and I was frustrated once I found out why.

HCMC is pretty touristy, and they have a lot of little shops around the area I was staying in that offered bus tickets. The guy at the first shop that I went into wanted to charge me 2x the price that was listed on the website. When I told him about my dilemma with the credit card, he was nice and honest with me and told me that the bus company’s office was right around the corner. It took a total of 5 minutes, and I had my ticket booked and paid for with cash.

The bus ride to Dalat was really nice! The sleeper busses have two levels of reclining “beds,” and they weren’t too shabby!

Because I’d only been in Vietnam for 1 full day, I was pretty excited to get to relax and enjoy the scenery. The bus attendant was incredibly friendly. The bus was really cold, so he gave me a blanket, then he tucked me in like a burrito! He was really sweet and accommodating throughout the trip, and in hindsight I know now that a lot of Vietnamese people are like that.

Dalat was my favorite part of Vietnam, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of the climate and the hostel that I stayed in. The altitude of Dalat is about the same as Fort Collins, so it was a lot cooler. It’s the coldest I’ve felt since I left Colorado in September. When I say cold, I mean it was like 75 degrees, but it still felt incredible.

The hostel that I stayed in was called “Mr. Peace Backpackers Hostel,” and I picked it because of the incredible reviews online. I was greeted at the door by a Vietnamese guy about my age (“Mr. Peace”) who ran up and gave me a big hug and a cold water. As I got to know him more, he opened up into a pretty outrageous personality, and quite possibly one of the best hostel owners I’ve ever stayed with.

He convinced me to take the “Mr Peace Secret Tour” and I am so glad that I did. It started at 8am and didn’t end until 6:30pm. We went to see everything that is an absolute “must” in Dalat, which included: a silk spinning factory, an incense factory, a broom factory, a rice wine distillery, two waterfalls, a rural town, a gerber daisy farm, a rose farm, and a coffee plantation. The whole tour was done by motorbike, so I was on the back of one of the guides’ bikes. He had a real motorcycle, so it was nice and comfortable compared to the standard motorbike. They also gave me a legitimate helmet, and not the garbage cheap ones that usually come with motorbike rentals.

There were only 4 of us who signed up for the tour, so we had 4 bikes with 8 people. The cost of the tour was $40, but it was absolutely worth every penny.

We drove past a dog butcher, but Mr. Peace was gagging so much that he could hardly tell us about it. He basically muttered that people in Vietnam eat dogs. It was really sad and disturbing to see, so I’m not going to go into the details.

 

Aside from the tour being amazing, I found that I got along very well with everyone else that was staying at the hostel. I made friends with people from Mexico, Germany, Canada, and Switzerland, and we had the best time getting to know each other. I feel like I’ve known them for much longer than the short 3 days.

I ended up having such a great time in Dalat that I got distracted and didn’t get my bus/train combo ticket booked in time for the following day. I was planning on going up to Hoi An, which is about 18 hours to the north. I had booked a homestay for the following night (and had already paid for it) so I was upset with myself for not handling it before the offices had closed. Mr. Peace helped me book a combo bus ticket that left at noon that would get me to Hoi An at 6am the following morning at 6am. I was bummed that I had already paid for the homestay and was going to miss a night, but I couldn’t do much about it.

The bus ride up was pretty miserable, I’m not going to lie. The beds weren’t as spacious as the bus I had taken before. My backpack goes absolutely everywhere that I go because it has my laptop in it, so I was sharing the tiny bed with my backpack. Every two hours or so they would pull over to let everyone out to go to the bathroom, and it was impossible to get a solid sleep because they would turn all of the lights on and yell at everyone to go to the bathroom.   I arrived at my homestay at 6am and I was exhausted.

The homestay is the only homestay I’ve booked since I’ve been traveling around. They had great reviews online and I thought it would be nice to have a room to myself after weeks of shared dorm rooms. It was really rejuvenating to be able to rest up, and they gave me a pedal bike to ride around Hoi An.

Hoi An is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main reason that I fell in love with the place is that you can get custom made clothing for CHEAP. I was immediately suckered in by a lady who started talking to me on the street. Hoi An was probably the pushiest place I’ve been to so far. The people on the street will not accept no for an answer, and they follow you. This lady helped me find an ATM, then asked if I would at least take a look in her shop.  She had tons of photo albums of dress designs that she could do, and rows upon rows of different colors of fabric. I ended up picking out a dress and fabric (even though I don’t really have room for a dress…) and she made me a dress in just FOUR HOURS!!! She quoted me $20, and I was way too tired to try to bargain with her. I agreed because, let’s face it, a custom made dress for $20 is quite alright. I felt duped because I know that they would’ve taken half of that, but I’m not going to dwell on it.

She had me try it on when I went to go pick it up, and I have to say, it’s my new favorite dress! The sewing is very quality, and the material is soft. It fits me like a glove. I’d call it a “win.”

I also went to see the ancient ruins of “My Son” the Hindu temple outside of Hoi An, but honestly I’m starting to feel a little burnt out of temples. Also it was like 105 degrees.

I tried my new favorite Vietnamese food while I was in Hoi An. It’s called Bahn Xeo, and they were kind of like tacos. They take a savory pancake and fill it with bean sprouts, green onions, and pork/shrimp/tofu (depending on your preference) and then they deep fry them. To eat them, you soak a piece of egg roll wrapper in water and roll them into it with mint leaves and cucumber, and then they’re dipped in peanut sauce. They were incredible, and I’m going to have to find a recipe when I get home!

From Hoi An I had a flight to Hanoi because another 18 hours in a bus just wasn’t practical. I bought the ticket a month in advance and it cost me $30, so it seemed worth it to have more time in Hanoi and less time in a bus.

Random note: On the way to the airport I saw a dead guy. There was a motorcycle accident where the guy was dead but they just put a little piece of cardboard to cover part of his body.  It was on a highway and the police were just directing traffic around him. It was intense.

I be honest about my time in Hanoi, I didn’t find anything particularly charming about it. It was chaotic and congested, and I was just passing through on my way to the airport. I was only there for one full day, but I made the best of it and did a walking tour. I met some new friends from London and Romania, and we spent the day exploring together.

It’s so unbelievable how easy it is to meet people while traveling. Now that I’m thinking about it in the 10 days I was in Vietnam, I’ve somehow acquired 15 new friends on Facebook. Traveling alone is the best way to meet a lot of new international friends. While I was exploring with my new friends in Hanoi I remembered why I travel alone. It is fun to have people to talk to and explore with, but traveling with people really slows down the whole experience. We ended up with a crew of about 6, and moving around the city took forever because it seemed like everyone needed to stop for something at different times. Even coordinating dinner took a solid 2 hours because we were waiting for everyone to finish doing what they were doing, then we waited for everyone to get ready, and then finding a restaurant we all agreed on took forever, and then finding a restaurant that we all agreed on that could accommodate 6 people was nearly impossible.

My final dinner in Vietnam was amazing, though. Between 6 of us we ordered 10 different things off of the menu and shared them all. I had the most incredible spring rolls that I’ve ever eaten! I am definitely going to miss the food in Vietnam.

Now that I’m gone, I realize how much I wish I would’ve just traveled in Vietnam for the whole five weeks of travel. Although I love moving around and seeing new things, Vietnam was so beautiful and diverse that I wish I would’ve had a lot more time to explore. Usually when I travel through countries I consider it my last time, because each time I plan a trip I want to see a country that I haven’t seen before. Vietnam was the first country that I’ve traveled to that I decided that I will definitely be going back. I absolutely loved it there!

Well, I started writing this post when I was the airport in Malaysia but I didn’t quite have enough time to finish. I’m in Bali now and I’m completely worn out. I will be moving pretty fast through Bali as well, but I’ll have 26 hours of travel on my way home to post an update about Bali.

I also wish I could’ve uploaded some pictures to go with this post, but the wifi at my current hostel in Bali is impossibly slow. I’ll be doing a mass upload when I get home!!

It doesn’t seem real that I’m going to be going home in just a short 9 days!! It’s a bittersweet mix of feelings between excitement and sadness.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

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Cambodia: Part II

On Sunday night I decided to go to the Cambodian circus.  I had found it on TripAdvisor as a “must see,” and it’s been a while since I’ve last gone to a circus. Two Malaysian girls from my room at the hostel were also going, so we decided to split a tuk-tuk ride there. The tuk-tuk driver offered us a price of $4 total to take us there, wait for the show to be over, then bring us back. This is when I realized how hugely I had been ripped off before.  Most of the times that I overpaid I knew I was getting ripped off, but I have such a hard time bargaining over a difference of $3 when I know it means more to those people than it does to me.

Anyhow, the circus experience was phenomenal. Our tuk tuk driver wasn’t familiar with where it was, but I was able to use Google maps on my phone (despite not having service or wifi) to navigate us there. The two girls, the driver, and I were all pretty blown away that we were able to find it like that.

The venue was a traditional circus tent with seating to accommodate fewer than 200 people. There were three ticket options ranging from $18-35, but we booked the cheapest because we figured it wouldn’t be too bad. I’m actually glad I didn’t spend the $35, because we were still seated right up against the action.

The Phare Circus is a product of an NGO that allows underprivileged kids to attend imageperforming arts school for free.  It was created after the fall of the Khmer Rouge for a way for kids to heal from the hardships they’d experienced. The proceeds from the performances go back into keeping the school up and running.

The show lasted about an hour and a half. There was a projector screen with translations into various languages so everyone could keep up with the dialogue of the show. The storyline was about a disabled man who came to a village and was ridiculed by everyone, so he asked the gods to turn him into a beautiful woman. Once he was a beautiful woman, he tempted all of the men in the village, and everyone wanted the woman to like them. Disease came to the village, and they thought the woman was a curse, so they killed her. Once she was dead, the gods came in and said that they misunderstood the woman’s purpose and that disease came because they were shallow in who they were accepting. They apologized, the woman came back to life as the disabled man, and they all lived happily ever after.image

When they first came out on stage, they came out with such booming energy that I felt so excited my eyes welled up with tears. I think it was a combination of exhaustion and excitement, but I haven’t seen someone do that since I took my niece to Sesame Street Live. It’s hard to put my finger on what it was that was so electrifying about their energy. Throughout the story they performed outrageous stunts that kept the whole audience entertained.  At the end of the show they offered everyone a chance to go down and meet the performers. We decided not to, just due to the lines. It was a great experience, though, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone traveling in Siem Reap.

The day after the circus I went on a tour called, “A Day in the Life.” I booked online a few weeks in advance because the tour only operates 3 days a week, and they’re small groups. I was picked up at my hostel at 7:45am, and met up with my tour group which consisted of a mother and daughter from Maryland who are a military family currently living in Seol. We got into a van with our guide and a driver. Our guide, Lee, spoke flawless English with an Australian accent.

Lee told us about the tour company (Beyond Unique Escapes) and the nonprofit HUSK Cambodia. HUSK is an amazing nonprofit that focuses on improving the lives of people living in rural villages. They have built schools, implemented water filtration systems, imagethey build houses, and so much more.  Our first stop on the tour was at a market about 3 miles outside the city of Siem Reap. We walked around to pick out ingredients for the lunch that was going to be prepared later in the day. The market tour felt a little bit uncomfortable, because everyone was staring and they weren’t smiling. When I asked Lee about it, he said that it’s because the people aren’t used to seeing foreigners and they were probably scared.

After the market he took us to a Buddhist pagoda, where we walked around and learned more about the Buddhist culture in Cambodia. The pagoda had a school for boys, which prompted me to ask Lee about the girls. He said that the girls traditionally stay at home and learn how to be a wife. They’re not able to become monks anyway. That is where HUSK foundation comes in, as they’ve setup a school within the village with free access to over 400 children. We learned some startling statistics about the children attending school in Cambodia. The most amazing piece was that in the high tourist season, 75% of the school kids leave the village to sell souvenirs at the temples. Lee told us that it is important not to give money to the children, because it only adds to the begging cycle.  The HUSK school is 100% taught in English by volunteers. They don’t have enough resources to have a proper school schedule for everyone, so the age groups rotate on a schedule of three classes per week for an hour and a half each class. It was really startling to hear how little access to schooling the kids have, but amazing to hear of foundations such as HUSK that were there to help.

From the pagoda, we went to each pick out a fruit tree. I guess a tree was included in the price we paid for the tour. They were grown by a local farmer, and we were going to plant imagethem in the house of a local family. I picked a custard apple tree, and then we got onto carts being pulled by cows to get to our next site. We met a local family who taught us how to weave together palm leaves to fix a wall of their house. In total we weaved 15 panels, and it felt like we actually helped the family. They seemed very grateful, and it didn’t seem at all like we were being intrusive tourists. We planted the trees and headed out, but not without being profusely thanked by the family.

We got to meet some local women sewing stuffed animals to sell as fair trade handicrafts. The nonprofit provided them with the materials to sew, and they directly received a part of the proceeds from the sales. The building that they were working in was constructed using plastic water bottles packed with plastic bags, and was built by a school group from Canada. All of which was organized through HUSK. I can’t overstate just how much this foundation was doing to directly benefit the people of the village.

I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty during the entire thing. A big part of me regrets the decision to teach for profit in Phuket. After I saw the lack of schooling available to the kids in Cambodia, I wished I would’ve spent the last 7 months of my time helping them instead.

Before I decided to go to Phuket I had been accepted to serve in the PeaceCorps in El Salvador. My main priority was to make a difference and gain cultural experience in return. After applying, but before being accepted, I backed out. I think what made me change my mind was the lack of individual freedom and the 28-month time commitment. I am content with my decision not to go, but there’s still an ounce of regret there. In Phuket I had all the freedoms of a 25-year-old Westerner, and I stayed for an ideal amount of time. The main problem is; I wasn’t working to improve the livelihood of an underprivileged community, which was something that originally spurred my desire to travel abroad again.

It’s a complicated balance, I guess. I know this is not my last trip abroad. There are endless opportunities to volunteer abroad for shorter timeframes, and I know now that I’ll just need to seek them out next time. Just a learning experience, I guess.

Getting back on track though…

The tour felt less like a tour, and more like an insight into the efforts of HUSK Cambodia to improve the lives of underprivileged communities. It was an inspiring and humbling day.

The next day I left for Bangkok, where I am now. There will be a whole new post on the Thai New Year coming up soon, but I’m done writing for now. J

Also, I am heading to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam tomorrow at 11am. Everything is moving so fast it is getting hard to keep up with all that I have to say throughout these travels!

 

Stay tuned!

p.s.

I have my laptop connected to a wifi hotspot from my cellphone, since I am trying to use the last remaining data on my Thai SIM card. I was able to upload a lot more pictures, so make sure to check them out!

 

Cambodia: Part I

Well, I am in Bangkok for the 2nd time now! I spent the past 5 days in Siem Reap, but the internet connection at the hostel was pretty bad. I wrote the following post on Sunday, April 10,  but was unable to post until now. This is Cambodia: Part I. I’ll try to get the rest out soon!

I flew into Cambodia on Thursday morning. I will be honest here, I didn’t do a whole lot of research before I came. I guess I got lazy about it because I figured I’d only be here for five days.

When I was at the airport in Bangkok getting ready to leave, I went to a money exchange counter and asked to change the equivalent of $100 from Thai baht into Cambodian riel. The lady at the counter laughed at me, and said “mai mee” which means “we don’t have” in Thai. She held up USD. I had read online that USD can be used in Cambodia, so I switched the money over to USD. I had been thinking that it was an optional currency- that you can basically choose which you’d like to use. That’s not a lie, but it’s a little less optional as I had found out. Cambodia generally uses the USD for everything over $1.  Everything under $1 is paid for in Riel. For example, when I first got here I paid for a $5.25 meal with 10 USD, and my change was 4USD and 3000 Riel. 1000 real is equal to 25 cents. I was perplexed by it for the first day, but now it makes a lot more sense.

I also didn’t realize that Cambodians drive on the right side of the road. I had finally gotten used to the traffic direction in Thailand that crossing the street here took me a minute to figure out. Since it’s what I grew up knowing, it’s been easy enough to adjust back.

When I got to my hostel, exhaustion had finally caught up to me. In the previous 3 days I had flown to Bangkok, took a 2 hour train ride up to Ayutthaya and back, and then flown to Siem Reap. I started to feel like it was necessary to relax a bit. The Thursday that I got here was pretty much a rest day. The hostel does laundry for $1 per KG, so I put on my pajamas and turned the laundry into be washed, and then I took a nap.

The lady at the desk said the clothes would probably be done by 9pm. I went to check at 9pm, and she said they’d be done the following day by 9am. I woke up at 8am the next morning ready to explore. At 9am I checked to see if my laundry was done but it still wasn’t. I ended up waiting around in the lounge in my pajamas until 1pm.  I was pretty content with just resting up.

Once I went out to explore, I realized how crazy it is that I only flew an hour on the plane, and I landed in a country that has some pretty distinct differences from Thailand. The imagemanner of driving, the writing, the language, currency, and even the landscape. There is a stark difference in the terrain. Whereas Thailand has a lot of lush greenery, Siem Reap is dry as a bone. The roads are mostly all dirt, and they’re in terrible shape. It was quite a shock at first.

The poverty is a lot more obvious than it is in Bangkok or Phuket, and with it comes a lot of begging. Walking down the street here, it’s amazing how many times you have to tell people “no.” There are tuk-tuks every few feet with men hollering, “where you go, lady?” “tuk tuk, lady?” and massage parlours with women shouting “you want massage? Massage, lady?”

There are children on the street selling packs of 10 postcards for $1. They all have the exact same schpiel, “Lady, you want to buy postcard? $1 for 10. See? One, two, three….” And imagethey count out all 10 postcards. It’s heartbreaking. They’re on vacation from school right now (just like Thailand), so I’m not sure if they normally beg on the streets or if they’re just doing it on the holiday. It’s tough to decide whether giving them $1 would really help them, or if it’s encouraging them to beg for money as a way of life. Hard to say.

The 2nd day I was here I had a really hard time saying no to people. There are hundreds of landmine victims playing music on the streets, selling books, and finding alternate ways of panhandling. As I was eating lunch, I was approached by a man with both of his arms amputated at the elbow. He had a basket of books around his neck, and he was using what was left of his arms to pick them up and try to sell them to me one by one. He had a piece of paper that he took out of the basket that explained that he was a parent and couldn’t work because he was damaged by the landmines. I didn’t buy any of his $15 books, but I put $2 in his pocket. I felt really bad for him.

5 minutes after I did that, I was approached by a man in a wheelchair with no legs. He was selling books also. He gave me a piece of paper, gave me his schpiel, and asked if I’d like to buy a book for $15. I told him I didn’t have any money, and so he left. Less than 2 minutes later, I was approached by another landmine victim. And then a child selling magnets and bracelets. And then a street performer set up his act right in front of my dinner table, jumped through a ring of knives and fire, and then held out a hat from a tip. It because apparent that I had to keep a tough will and hang onto my money, otherwise I’d be flat broke.

Sticking with my budget has been a tough task overall. There are so many things that are $1 that they all add up, and soon I’m out $20 without even remembering what it was I paid for.

I’ve also been spending too much on food. Siem Reap is a huge tourist area, so there are restaurants of all kinds, with prices that are on par with prices in the U.S. I’ve been spending more on meals than I should be, because they have menu items such as feta salads. FETA. I had feta for the first time in 7 months, and I could’ve died. I need to remind myself that because I only have 5 days in Cambodia, I need to stick with authentic Khmer food.

So far, all of the Khmer curries I’ve had are, and I hate to say it, just not on par with Thai imagecurry. They’re still good, but they’re not nearly as strong or spicy. I’ve also gotten lots of questionable cuts of meat. I’m trying to hang on to every last bit of my sense of adventure when it comes to food, but it’s been tough. They have tons of edible bugs here, from tarantulas to scorpions, but I just can’t bring myself to try one. I’m growing pretty tired of dinner being a mystery dish, and I think a big part of me is gravitating toward the feta salad because I’m craving the confidence to know that I’ll enjoy my dinner and it won’t be a waste.

I’m already 1200 words in and I haven’t even gotten to Angkor Wat. I’m going to have to stop fluffing around with these posts.

So the hostel that I’m staying in helps organize tours. They have a board with the tour offers on them, and it’s easier than walking around trying to find a decent tour in town. I saw a tour advertised on the board for $6 that included 5 different temples (including Angkor Wat). It was a sunrise tour that left at 4:30am. I thought it was a pretty good deal, so I signed up. The price was cheap because it was a shared tuk tuk ride between 4 people. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t going to be a guided tour.

Leaving the hostel at 4:30am was a weird experience. There were people still awake and partying from the night before, and I was too groggy to comprehend anything. There were four of us that were put into a tuk tuk and sent on our way to the ticket office.  One of the girls that was awake from the night before was part of my tour. It was cool to talk to other travelers about their travel timelines, where they were going and for how long, what their plans were, etc. We got to the Angkor Wat ticket office at 5:15. A single day pass is $20, or a 3-day pass is $40. Despite being here for five days (with the sole purpose of visiting Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat), I opted for the single day pass. Every single person I’ve talked to who has been here has told me that three days of touring is exhausting and overwhelming. After having completed the one-day tour, I’m glad that I only bought the single day.

The temples that we visited were amazing. I am so glad that I woke up as early as I did toimage see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It was a beautiful experience. The other temples were pretty cool too, but the problem with not having a tour guide is literally having zero information on the temples themselves. They hardly had signs in English about the history of the temples. Most of the information signs were about archeology and restoration of the structures. They were cool to look at, but I felt like I didn’t get the full experience without a tour guide. Nobody else in our tuk tuk group wanted one. By 5:30am the German girl started to sober up and she complained about absolutely everything. She was really dragging us down. We were dropped off at each temple for about an hour, and she kept trying to convince us to leave early so that we could get back to the hostel because she wanted to nap. I had to try pretty hard to not let her dampen my spirits.

Even at 5:30am, the temples were absolutely packed with people. It’s funny when you look at the pictures I took you’d think that there wasn’t anyone else around. The truth is, most imageof the most famous parts of the temples had a line to wait in if you wanted your picture taken. I took a bunch of cool pictures of the sunrise over Angkor Wat, but I was taking them alongside hundreds of people.

For each temple I stood tried to seek out an English speaking group tour and follow them around. It worked out well. As it turns out, one of the temples that we went to was where they filmed the movie “Tomb Raider.” I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t followed a random tour. It was pretty hard to stay motivated to tour the temples because it is unbearably hot here. By the time we’d gone to our 5th temple at 11am, it was 104 degrees. The dress code is very strict about women covering their shoulders and legs, so I was in a lot of clothes too.

I guess if I were to do it over again, I would still purchase the single day pass, but I’d look for a guided tour to get the full experience.

Today I took it easy again, and did a walk around the old city checking out the markets and little stalls. The souvenirs are eerily similar to the souvenirs in Thailand. I’m pretty confident I’ll see the same souvenirs in Vietnam and Indonesia as well. There are some really beautiful fair trade handicrafts, but with the backpack as small as I’m carrying, I have to be strict with myself about not buying anything.

I did, however, buy a baseball cap. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve actually worn a hat around since I was a kid.  I’ve read dozens of packing lists for SE Asia and they always include hats, but I’ve always ignored them.  I finally caved and bought a hat after walking around touring Bangkok and Siem Reap, because the sun has been horrible to my face. Despite loading up on sunscreen every couple of hours, I have another sun rash across my forehead that’s worse than the first time I got it back in Phuket. So far the hat seems to be helping.

Ahhh, there’s so much more to say, but I’m afraid this post is long enough already. I have two more days here. I’m going to the circus tonight and on a “Day in the Life” tour tomorrow, so I’ll have plenty more to write again soon. I also have tons of pictures to upload, but I’ll have to wait for a hostel with better wifi. I also had not one, but two sketchy massage experiences in Cambodia, so I’ll try to include those into Cambodia: Part II.

It’s also impossible to upload a lot of pictures given the crappy wifi situation, but I’ll be uploading a lot once I get to a better connection.

Thanks for reading!

Arthur

This morning I made my way from Ayutthaya to Bangkok. I arrived at the train station at 11, not realizing that the next train wasn’t leaving until 12:15. I waited in the 98-degree heat just trying to keep a positive attitude. 12:15 came around and as I walked to the platform, an officer advised me that the train was running late, and it wasn’t going to arrive until 12:45. I was sweaty and frustrated. Once the train had finally arrived, I boarded to find out that the only empty space to sit down was on an edge of a bench. It was shaping up to be a rough morning.

About 20 minutes into the ride, a bigger seat opened up and I moved spots. A woman got on the train and was selling frozen towels and cold water. Things were starting look up.

I was fidgeting with the towel wrapper when the old man sitting across from me took it from my hands, twisted it up, and then popped it. I wasn’t the only one on the train who was surprised. He let out a little laugh and handed it back to me.

He introduced himself as Arthur. He pulled out a few rubber bands from his pocket, and my miserable train morning turned into a hilarious adventure.

He started doing funny little tricks with the rubber bands. He put one over his pointer and imagemiddle fingers, then waved a hand and they “magically” transferred onto his ring finger and pinky. Immediately after, he taught me step by step how to do it myself. He made me do it seven times by myself, and then gave me a thumbs up. Then he showed me a new trick. Then he taught me how to do the new trick. Then after I had done it seven times by myself, we moved onto a new one.

Once I’d learned the rubber band tricks, he looked around the floor and found a straw, and he started to teach me tricks with the straw. I cannot state enough how incredibly entertaining this all was. We were clowning around and laughing so hard that the other people on the train started watching, and it was quite entertaining. Did I mention this man only knew about 5 words in English?

After the straw tricks, he got out a coin. After the coin, he found 2 matchsticks. After the matchsticks, and I kid you not, he reached into his luggage and pulled out two metal forks. He balanced a matchstick and forks on top of a water bottle on a rickety train.image

The whole time this was happening, he had a squeaky toy in his back pocket. He would randomly squeak it, and then look around like someone else had done it. My stomach hurt from laughing.

This man was an absolute gem of a human being. In between teaching me his sweet tricks, he noticed I had a blister on my foot. He took out some tissue and Neosporin and bandaged it up for me! I was blown away at his kindness.

It was such a privilege to be able to have Arthur’s company on the two-hour train ride. The time flew by without realizing it, and I had hardly noticed the 98-degree heat on board the train. Even though I hadn’t known him for long at all, it was sad to say goodbye! As we were getting off the train, he said “Don’t forget me!”

 

Trust me, I won’t!

Thaime to Move On

Well, I have about 24 hours left in Phuket, and I’m feeling surprisingly at peace. On Friday I was a hot mess.

imageFriday was my last day of teaching the kindergarten orientation. It wasn’t too emotional to say goodbye to that group of kiddos because I’d only been teaching them for a few weeks. The heaviest part of leaving my classroom was looking back at all of the work I’d put into it. I remembered the nights I stayed at the school until 8pm making decorations for the class, and how excited my kids were when they saw the changes. I felt happy that I was leaving the classroom warmer than it was when I got there.I also left the new teacher with a desk that was much cleaner than my predecessor had left it!

Saying goodbye to the staff at the school was bittersweet. There were two teachers in the office that I just didn’t jive with, so I was happy to wave them goodbye. It was especially hard to say goodbye to my supervisor and the boss. My supervisor basically taught me how to be a kindergarten teacher. She has been so helpful and supportive throughout the semester, and I’ve cried on her a few times. I was sad to say goodbye to the main boss because I really enjoyed working for him. He’s in the process of hiring 6 new teachers by May, so I felt pretty bad contributing to that number.  He let me know (again) that I was the only member of the kindergarten staff that they were actually considering to take over as kindergarten manager. I truly wish I enjoyed teaching more.

The final week in my apartment was stressful because I was tasked with getting rid of everything that wouldn’t fit into my backpack. I had somehow managed to acquire quite a bit of junk since I moved here. I think since I thought that I would be staying in my apartment for a year, that I might as well make it look and feel like home. I ended up imageselling most of it on buy/sell Facebook groups, but for a fraction of what I paid only six short months ago. The most expensive item that I’d purchased was my motorbike helmet for $45. It’s pretty unusual to see a Thai person wearing any sort of helmet, let alone a helmet with full facial coverage. It made me feel like a power ranger, and it gave me the courage to drive on the highway.

I had the helmet posted online for over a week. I dropped the price from $30 to $20 to $10, and nobody wanted it. I was talking to my boss about it and he joked that if it didn’t sell, then I should just give it to him. Thursday night someone had offered me the equivalent of $6 for it. At that point I just decided that I might as well just give it to my boss.

I didn’t realize how excited he was going to be when I gave it to him.  He gave me 5 beers that he had under his desk. This is why I loved having this ridiculous British man as a boss. That probably sounds bad that he had beer at an elementary school, but there’s a story behind this. The English company gave him money to buy lunch for the whole office, and he’d asked us if we wanted lunch or if we wanted “take away beers.” We had decided on the beer, and the 5 beers under his desk were left-overs from that day.  Needless to say, I’m happy I decided to forego the $6 sale of the helmet and just gift it to him.

I came to Thailand with a duffle bag full of mostly clothes. I had a ton of clothes to get rid of. When I’ve lived abroad in the past, it was easy to just pass off the clothes to the local friends I had made. This time was different, because as I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t really made any Thai friends. I ended up giving the bulk of them to the Thai secretary of the school, who looks through them first and then donates them to the Burmese, who are a hugely disadvantaged population here in Thailand. I felt pretty good about getting rid of a bunch of stuff, because it was easily going to go to good use.

I was finished with class at noon on Friday, so I went back to my apartment and started packing my backpack and getting the rest of my stuff out of my apartment. I started to imagepanic a bit when I realized just how small a 40L backpack is. I’m not even 100% convinced it’s actually 40L because it’s a knockoff backpack (yes, just like knockoff purses, you can find knockoff backpacks in Thailand). I think the most stressful part of packing the bag was trying to situate my laptop in a safe way. Before I came here I bought an HP Stream Notebook for $170. It has been incredibly useful for lesson planning, watching movies, and blogging. Now that I’m going to be on the move, it’ll be weighing me down a bit, but I’m still happy I brought a cheaper notebook rather than an expensive one. The problem I’m running into when I pack is that the bag is packed so tightly that I feel like there could start to be some pressure on the laptop itself. I’m going to have to pull the laptop out of the bag each time I go through security for the 11 flights ahead… It’s just going to be an adventure. We’ll just say that.

It was about 2pm and I had my bags packed and I was all set to leave. My landlord wanted me to wait around until the evening so that she could check the place. After I’d packed everything, I realized that the place was in the exact same condition that it was when I arrived. My landlord is keeping the entire deposit (2 month’s rent) because I was leaving before the year was up. She refused to negotiate with me, and wouldn’t let find someone to take over the lease so that I could recover some of my deposit. As I was sitting there looking around the place, I decided not to wait around for her. She has a copy of the mailbox key, so I threw the keys in the mailbox and headed out.

I felt a little rebellious leaving like that, but I had a feeling that she was going to try to charge me for something else. She was already screwing me over on the deposit, so I figured that if there was anything that needed fixing she had more than enough money to take care of it. That’s what a security deposit is for, right?

I am SO GLAD I left when I did. Later that night she started rapid-firing angry Facebook messages to me. In case I haven’t mentioned it, she’s a 26 year old ladyboy diva who is constantly posting pictures of her new Gucci bags and Chanel perfumes.  She started messaging me “WHERE YOU GO? YOU HAVE TO PAY CLEAN FEE AND ELECTRICITY. YOU PROMISE. YOU NO STAY ONE YEAR.” I was absolutely baffled that she was demanding that I pay more. I found the clause in the lease where it said that the deposit would cover any outstanding bills and cleaning fees. She tried to say no, that I had to pay it because I didn’t stay one year. She was so angry and threatening that a part of me thought I should drive back and pay it… but there’s no way. That’s the reason I paid a security deposit in the first place. She said she’s going to the rental agency to talk to them about it, and I told her to go ahead. If it turns out that she’s right, and somewhere there’s a clause in the lease that I missed, then I will go ahead and pay it. Until then, I’m not going to be taken advantage of by her. It’s not my first rodeo with rental agencies. Turns out, you can fly halfway across the world, and they’re still trying to screw you out of your money.

I am staying at a hostel in Phuket Town, the area that I was staying in when I started my journey here. I love staying in this area, because everything I need is within walking distance. As I had previously mentioned, I was a mess when I arrived her on Friday night. I was sad about leaving the school, angry with my landlord, and anxious about my travels ahead. I decided I was going to make myself go get a massage. I figured if holding a pen between your teeth forces you to smile, which in turn makes you happy, then getting a massage would force me to relax… even though a “massage” in Thailand equates to getting beat up by a Thai woman.

I went to the same spa that I got my first pedicure in Thailand, because the building is up to safety standards and the place is relatively clean. I saw on the menu that they had a 1 hr massage/1 hr facial combo for $30. At first it seemed expensive, because I’m used to living off of a Thai salary, but then I realized I better take advantage of it before I leave! $30 for two hours in a spa is an absolute steal.

I chose an aromatherapy massage, which wasn’t a traditional Thai massage at all. I had gotten mentally prepared to get the usual beating,  but it was the complete opposite. It was basically an hour of her putting oil on my skin. BORING! The facial ended up being the brutal part.

I chose a “honey cucumber” facial because it was the only one on the menu that didn’t include facial bleaching. It sounded nice and relaxing. After that experience, I will now permanently associate honey with pain. She poured honey all over my face (including my eyelids!) and gave it a vigorous massage. I have some peach-fuzz sideburns going on, and I quickly found out that baby-fine hair and honey do not go together well. The honey stuck to the hairs, and each time she swiped her hands across them it felt like she was slowly trying to wax it off. If that wasn’t bad enough, she then proceeded to take her long nails and poke me all over the face. It felt like she had thrown some bird seed onto the honey and let the birds eat it off. It was the most ridiculous facial ever! She was compensating for the gentle massage, I guess.

Needless to say, it took my mind off of the emotional day, and I could relax at my hostel a little better.

Yesterday (Saturday) morning I woke up and went on a tour to Koh Racha. It’s the last time imageIt’s the last tour I’ll be doing in Phuket (and probably Thailand), but it was the perfect  tour to end with. Koh Racha is an island about 30 minutes away by speedboat. The speedboat ride was wild (he was going way too fast for the size of the waves), and I laughed as the boat full of Chinese tourists clung to their seats in horror. I’ve done a fair share of tours by this point, so I was used to it. Wild ol’ Thailand, baby. I’m going to miss it for sure.

We did about an hour of snorkeling, had a buffet lunch, and then had 3 and ½ hours to
hang out on Racha Island. I had coconut ice cream and hung out on the beach, and it was the perfect way to say goodbye to Phuket. I think the waters of Koh Racha are the clearest of any of the beaches I’ve been on, so it was like I had saved the best for last.

I woke up this morning and feel at absolute peace. I am shifting into adventure mode, and I’m so excited for the next five weeks.  I don’t have to worry about driving around anymore, and I can wander the streets and enjoy my final time here. My flight leaves for Bangkok tomorrow, and I feel like it’s time to go.

I have a solid itinerary down for the first 4 weeks of the trip. I have everything planned up until Bali, which I’m going to try to complete today. I decided that it’s cheaper and much more fun to book hostels, so my rule of thumb for this trip is to not exceed $10 per night for accommodation. So far it’s been easy! The place I booked in Siem Reap is $5 per night. I think I will splurge and stay in a beachside resort for my last couple of days in Bali, but until then, I’m back to the life of dorm rooms and shared bathrooms.

I’m sure I’ll have plenty of downtime to blog during plane, train, and bus rides. Moving around and seeing new sights definitely motivates me to write! Stay tuned!!

Two Weeks Left

Ahh, the inevitable has happened, and I’ve started to neglect the blog that I promised I wouldn’t.

I have two weeks left in Phuket. It is just as bittersweet leaving here as it was coming here. On Saturday afternoon I went to the weekend market. The markets of Thailand have to be one of my absolute favorite parts. I was only planning to snag a few souvenirs and head out, but I wound up staying for about three and a half hours, and I nearly ate myself sick. This time  I’m not talking about the ‘sick’ that comes from the room temperature chicken and rat-kittens in the kitchen. I absolutely gorged myself.

As I walked down the endless aisles of the market, I realized that I’m seriously going to miss everything about Thai food. The convenience, the price, the spice, the flavor… It’s no wonder that after 6 months here, the only real conversation I can have with any Thai person is about how much I love spicy Thai food. I’m obsessed. I bought skewers, sticky rice, taro milk, passion fruit, and everything else that I wanted to cling so tightly to. Let’s be honest about it, I was eating my feelings. With only two weeks left, I suddenly felt like it’s a mistake that I’m leaving. To add insult to injury, driving home from the market I witnessed the most beautiful sunset behind the silhouettes of palm trees.

What am I doing?!

It’s times like those that perfectly capture the roller coaster of emotions that come with living abroad. Moments like those make me want to stay in paradise forever. Unfortunately, the sunset isn’t always perfect. I’m not always on a beach with a cocktail in my hand. I decided to move on because I know that it’s time.  The roller coaster comes with both highs and lows, and I’ve had my fair share of each.

For the last couple of months I’ve been working through some guilt about leaving Thailand after “only seven months.” This probably sounds ridiculous, so I’ll explain a little bit. Thailand (Phuket especially) has an outrageously high number of expats. It’s an attractive location for gap-year kids (like me), retirees, and families alike. There are people from all over the world who have lived on this island for anywhere from 2 months to 10+ years. There are 17 English teachers in the English Department at my school, and only three of us have lived here for less than a year. I’ve had quite a few expats say, “Wow, you’re leaving after only 7 months?! You didn’t last long!” I start to feel like there’s something wrong with me for not wanting to  stay here forever.

Meh. I’m so tired of that guilt.  Living in Thailand long term is not for everyone.  I’ve given teaching in Thailand a chance. Seven months is the longest time I’ve spent living out of the country, and I’m going to choose to be proud of that.

If you couldn’t tell, the thought of leaving has had me in a pretty heavy state of reflection. The other day I drove around a roundabout in the neighborhood where I spent my first month in Phuket. I remember walking across the street near the roundabout for the first time, and how much I dreaded the intersection. I refused to get on a motorbike taxi. I was convinced that I would spend the entire time in Thailand without even attempting to drive a motorbike. I let numerous taxi drivers convince me that $10 was a fair price to drive me 1 kilometer. I said I would never teach at a British school. I was certain I would find an apartment on the beach. I was determined to become as fluent as I possibly could in Thai.

 

I can’t possibly begin to describe the amount of change that has occurred in the time that I’ve been here. I have learned so much and grown as a person, and  this six months has been more than I could’ve ever asked for.

Oh man, I feel like I’m breaking up with a boyfriend. I’m going to stop being so emotional now.

My last two weeks in Phuket are being spent teaching an orientation for the incoming kindergarten class. They only stay until 11:30, so after teaching for 3 hours I am free for the day. It’s really nice! Especially because it’s becoming pretty real that in just 14 days I begin my journey of 10 flights and 6 countries in 5 weeks with 20lbs of luggage, and I have hardly planned at all. I’m procrastinating to the point where I’ve chosen to write a blog post over planning my itinerary. It’s that bad.

Without a doubt, I am going to be sad to leave Phuket, but the emotions are going to be like taking a toy away from a kid and replacing it with an equally cool toy. I’ll probably cry for a minute, and then be like, “WOW, LOOK AT ANKOR WAT!!! THIS IS AMAZING!”

I know I’ll be reinvigorated with loads to talk about, and hopefully I’ll be motivated enough spill it all out into an occasional blog post.

Until then, thanks for keeping up with my shenanigans! The blog is not dead yet!

 

 

TEFL in Thailand- Rants and Realities

 

We are approaching finals week, where each student is to take 3 English exams and 3 Thai exams. I’ve never taught in the States, so I don’t really have anything to compare this to, but my five and six year-old students are taking three 90 point exams which will count toward 50% of their grade. If they do not pass my kindergarten class, they will be taken from the English Program and placed in lower level English classes that aren’t as rigorous. It’s highly frowned upon to fail students in any grade here in Thailand because of the obsession with losing face. I basically have to guarantee that they pass, but then give my recommendation if I think they should be placed in a lower class. If they are doing well in their Thai classes, my recommendation will become void, and they continue along in the English program.

In the school, we have 60 students in KG 1 (for ages 4 & 5), 60 students in KG 2 (ages 5 & 6), and about 120 students in grade 1.  Today I went into the school on a Saturday to help proctor a test for potential new 1st graders. The students were sat down to take a 50 point exam that had questions pulled from our KG 1 & 2 students’ tests. They had to score 50% or above to be considered for the English program. Out of 64 students, 15 scored more than 50%. The whole time I was giving the exam, Thai teachers were poking their heads in to help the kids translate the test. After all was said and done, the director of the English company who runs the program at our school said, “Well, we have room for 50 more students in the English Program, so we will just have to lower the admission standard to 20%.”

All of this makes my head spin.

I could rant and rave about this all day. The truth is, I don’t know much about how this education system works (or any, for that matter), but now I know why the grade 1 teachers are so frustrated. My KG2 students who go into that class can tell me full sentences about how their weekend went. The new students looked at me with a blank stare when I asked them their name. Mixing those students in a classroom and expecting them all to perform up to the standard of the class curriculum is absolutely insane. After I was finished proctoring the test today, my boss told me that the test scores go out the window if a parent makes a generous monetary donation to the school. Working for this school is frustrating as hell.

The school is a government school. The English teachers make almost triple the salary of the Thai teachers, yet we do not have any say in who advances and who stays.We don’t really have a say in anything, actually. I’m quickly realizing that it all comes down to money.

Last month, I posted about a trip to Trang with some students to showcase their English abilities for prospective parents at a school that the English company (the ones in charge of English teachers’ contracts)  was in the process of building. If you haven’t read the post, I basically explain how the company and the principal of my school decided to open a school together, and how it was a huge crock to see the immaculate displays of how wonderful the new school would be, meanwhile my school “can’t afford” soap for the bathrooms. I promise you that all of the run-on sentences are a direct result of my frustration with this system.

I have recently come across an article about the English Proficiency Index  (EPI) in Asia. To sum it up, Thailand’s EPI is ranked 14th out of 18 countries. The country spends 31.3% of its GDP on education, which is well over Asia’s average of 14%. There is a ton of pressure to increase the EPI because tourism funds about 20% of Thailand’s GDP. Here is the full article.

Schools with English programs get a huge increase in their cut of the budget. When the school’s budget goes up, so does the principal’s. The English company in charge of hiring teachers get paid a monthly percentage of the wages of the teachers they contract. And on of it all- English teachers in Thailand are paid well. Extremely well.

I’ll admit, I am guilty of losing sight of what’s going on.   I am paid a salary of $1,100 USD per month in a country whose annual GDP per capita in 2014 was $5,778. I came in with no background of education and I’m making more than 2x the GDP. I don’t even have a work permit yet. Could you imagine if a 25 year old with no experience moved to the United States and started teaching kindergarten for $121,000 per year?

How do you say “white privilege” in Thai?

Yes, I am a native English speaker with a certification to teach English as a foreign language. I love my students, and I want nothing more than for them to have a quality understanding of the English language. The problem is, can I feel okay accepting a salary that high? Can I really be bitching about hand soap when the government’s resources are being poured into paying me the big bucks?

It just doesn’t feel right.

The school year is wrapping up for the kids, and I’ve done some long, hard thinking about the new school year starting up in May. I’ve come to the conclusion that when I envisioned myself living in Thailand, I didn’t picture this. The money here is good, but I didn’t come here to make money.  I like to travel for prolonged periods of time because I love to fully immerse in new cultures. I just don’t have that here.  I’ve gotten sucked into living the lavish lifestyle of the farang (foreigner) in Thailand.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s such an ideal situation to be able to go on an island getaway every weekend.  I have made some wonderful friends from all over the world. I’ve written countless blog posts about how cheap everything is, and how it’s so easy to live here. I’ve seen the stunning geography of Thailand, but I’ve hardly scratched the surface of real Thai culture.  I have been here for nearly 6 months, and I don’t know Thailand.  I’ve completely lost sight of my true passion for travel. The truth is, this situation is just not nourishing my soul.

I have given my notice at the school. My KG2 students are moving up to 1st grade, and a new batch of students will be ready for the new teacher at the start of the school year in May. My students’ last day of school is March 11th. I am going to help teach a 3 week orientation for the incoming KG1 students, and then I’m leaving.

Sheesh. This post has gotten deep. Oops.

Anyhow… I can’t leave SE Asia having only visited Malaysia and Thailand, so I’ll be doing a little country-hopping before I leave. I’ll be reducing my belonging to all that can fit into a 40L backpack, and I’m going to do a little 5 week tour.

The plan is:

Phuket > Bangkok > Siem Reap > Bangkok * > Ho Chi Minh City > Hanoi > Bali >Kuala Lumpur > U. S. of A.

*I got a sweet deal on flights, but it meant a 3 day stopover in Bangkok. Without even realizing it, I will be in Bangkok from April 12th-15th. April 13th is the national holiday Songkran, which is celebrated with nation-wide water fights. I wasn’t even thinking about it, but I am so happy it panned out the way it did!

I will be heading back to the States on May 6th.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for tolerating my  rants and realizations. I can’t promise any exciting blog posts in the next few weeks, but I will try my best. 🙂

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Expat Life in Phuket

As I’ve settled into Thailand, the blog posts have inevitably become less frequent.There is a lack of motivation to write, but it’s also the fact that I’ve become comfortable in my surroundings. There are still plenty of elements to Thai culture that shock me, but it’s not a “one post per day” sort of experience that I’d had in the beginning.

In order to avoid a boring dialogue of my daily routine, I’ve decided to let you in on my favorite parts of Thailand (so far), and what I’m still truly missing about home.

Here’s what I love about life in Thailand:

The Food. I can’t seem to get enough Thai food. After I’d spent some time in Central and South America, I hated rice and beans. After returning from Panama, I don’t think I ate

image

I found the cheapest pizza in Thailand. The chef/owner is pictured on the menu. 

rice for almost a year. Here in Thailand, I eat rice daily. I eat rice with anything from curry to ice cream. There is such a diversity in the spices of the food that it’s easy to lose track of how much plain steamed rice is actually being consumed.  Sure, I have cravings for food from back home (cough bagels cough cough cheese), but I’ve learned that everything is available for a price. Especially in Phuket, which is pretty much the epicenter of tourism. I’ve been able to find just about every food I could possibly crave. The other night I ate Mexican food, and ate real homemade tortilla chips for the first time in what seems like ages. The whole meal cost me about $14, which felt like a slap in the face. $14 for gorging on Mexican food (margaritas included)… What has happened to me?

The best part about Thai food is that it’s always fresh, and healthy options are always  available. My apartment doesn’t have a stove or even an oven. Once in a blue moon I will cook on a hot plate at home, but the majority of the time I’m going out to eat.

The prices. As accustomed as I’ve gotten to Thai prices, going back to the States is going to be culture shock all over again. Because Phuket is a developed tourist city, the prices are all over the board.  I’ve gotten accustomed to paying $1-$3 per meal. Whoa, converting it to dollars really puts it into perspective for me. $14 was a lot for me to spend on Mexican food, but it was a 3 course meal with 2 margaritas!

Tourist accommodation ranges from a $6/night bunk at a hostel to $850/night bungalow on a private island. It’s easy to spend a lot of money here, but it’s also easy to save. I live in a (really nice) studio apartment for $250/month, and that includes air conditioning, internet, and access to a gym and an amazing swimming pool.  For just $250/month, I’m pretty spoiled.

My transportation costs are also incredibly low compared to what they  were in the States. I spend less than $60/month renting my (really nice) motorbike, and only about $7/month in gas.

I think it’s important to add that by Thai standards, I have pretty expensive taste. It’s definitely possible to get by here on much, much less.

Speaking of motorbikes…

The Motorbikes.  I have a love/hate relationship with them. If you’ve read any of my posts from the beginning, you know that I started out absolutely terrified to even ride on the back of a motorbike taxi. Here I am today, about to tell you why I’m in love with mine as a mode of transportation here. They’re undeniably fuel efficient. The majority of the people here drive them, and it makes sense why. Traffic (especially in Phuket) can be disastrous, *unless* you are able to zip in between the cars on a moped. There’s an intense satisfaction that comes with scooting onto the shoulder of the road during stopped traffic and bypassing 15 cars.  It’s also awesome to be able to pull up and park anywhere on the sidewalk.

The “hate” part of the relationship comes from the limitations of driving in the rain, and the harsh reality that they’re pretty dangerous to drive around.

Another favorite of living in Thailand… you could probably already guess.

The Beaches. It may be the fact that I was born and raised in landlocked Colorado, or it could be that these beaches are world-class. I cannot get enough of the beaches here. I’m

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This is where I saw my first sea urchin in the wild!

almost mad at myself for living here, because I don’t think I will be able to appreciate any other beach as much as I will the beaches of the Andaman Sea.

I wish I could say that my apartment is right on the beach. I would’ve loved that, but it just wasn’t practical. Any apartment on the beach here is going to run at a Western price. I am situated right in the middle of the island, so I have to drive about 20 minutes to get to the beach. I am still incredibly spoiled to be able to pick a beach and just go. Even if I want to go to the world-class dive and snorkel sites, it’s only an hour and a half ferry ride there.

Ok, now that I’ve started listing out everything that I love about Thailand, I’m about 1,000 words in and not even close to saying all that I want to. I’d be sitting here all night if I were going to make an exhaustive list of everything that I love.

Here is a quick list of things I miss from home:

Family. They’re irreplaceable, no matter how hard I try. 🙂

Wine and craft beer. They’re both available, but super expensive. Not just by Thai standards. They’re imports.

Cheese and bread. It is pretty eye-opening to see how much of these I consumed back at home. They’re just not in the Thai diet, which probably explains how I’ve lost 15 POUNDS since I got here. The lack of the aforementioned wine and craft beer definitely plays a part in that.

Hockey. I think the Avs’ #1 spot in the wildcard has something to do with me being out of the country.

Safety standards. You know, like building codes, restaurant health inspections, and traffic safety.

The Rocky Mountains. I am a Colorado girl, after all.

Well, that pretty much sums it up for this post. I hope I haven’t bored you to death! I’ll try to post again soon.

 

Here’s a quick random note to leave you with:

imageLast weekend I drove my bike up to the Big Buddha – a 148ft statue that sits on a hill looking over town. I had initially gone up to watch the sunset, but had the awesome treat of watching the full moon rise at the same time. It was unforgettable!

 

 

 

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Updates (Rants)

The last couple of weeks I’ve been pretty busy with the school.

Friday the 8th was Children’s Day, which is a pretty big deal in Thailand. The classes were imagecancelled, but everyone came to school for festivities. Each class had been working on a dance routine with their students, and I had a great time watching them all. The craziest part about the dances to me were the sexual nature of them all… A lot of the dancing included a LOT of hip thrusting from little boys. The boys from kindergarten put on a performance in long socks, underwear, and a tank top. Although it was hilarious, it was pretty ridiculous at the same time. One of the Thai teachers made a little KG boy stand up in front of the school (the little boy in the tight blue briefs on the left) and made him shake his butt while everyone cheered. I think the kiddo was a little scarred, to say the least. He’s one of my shyest students.

Lunch was the highlight of my Children’s Day experience. The cafeteria was covered in food stalls (setup by the kids’ parents) and everything was free. I chowed down on papaya

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Delicious Thai pastries

salad, chicken and rice, fried banana pancakes, everything. I’ve been in Thailand for 4 and 1/2 months now, and I’m not even close to being sick of the food yet. There is so much variety here that it’s impossible to get bored of.

The day before Children’s Day, I was made aware that we were, in fact, going to be taking 11 kids on an overnight trip to the city of Trang. It had all been up in the air, and we weren’t really sure of the details. All we knew was that we were going with the Thai teachers, students, principle, and owner of the English company on a 3 and 1/2 hour bus ride to show a school how great our kids are at speaking English. I was told to be at the school at 8:00am on Saturday, and that was it.

When I got to the school on Saturday, there were a few students with their parents, a few teachers, and no buses. After about 45 minutes, one of the buses (minivans) showed up, and they piled some of us in and sent us on our way. The kids didn’t really seem sad to leave their parents (THANK GOD), as they were pretty excited to be going on a trip. Myself and 2 other English teachers still had no idea what kind of accommodation we’d be staying in, if we were responsible for the kids, or what type of English performance they were going to be putting on. I don’t think the kids’ parents really knew, either. It was all super confusing.

We ended up getting to stay in a super nice hotel. The Thai teachers took care of the kids, and the English staff each got their own hotel room. There was even a buffet breakfast!

At about 6pm that night, we were finally informed about why we were in Trang. Apparently the owner of the English company and the principal of our school decided to go in on a joint venture to open their own private school. The school was but a concept, as they haven’t even built a pillar of it yet. They plan to open in May of this year, and so they decided to host an elaborate show for prospective parents.

I hate to say it, but it was a huge song and dance, and we were definitely being used as puppets.

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One of the learning stations had a few errors on the sign, which the English staff was quick to point out

They rented out the ballroom of the fancy hotel, and had setup pictures of what the school will look like, concepts of a giant garden where the kids can learn to grow their own food, sample lesson plans and craft ideas (that were taken from our school), as well as learning stations for the kids (new potential students) to play at. The whole ordeal must have cost a fortune. They paid for all of that plus the accommodation for 20 of us from Phuket. Our students were there to put on a play of “The Ugly Duckling” that my co-teacher/supervisor Bronwyn had taught them. Apparently the Thai staff had been working with the kids on their English without or knowledge. It was kind of a ridiculous experience.

Here’s the problem I had with all of this:

Yes, our students are incredibly advanced with their English. I get super proud of them when they get to be the example for the company’s potential. Since before I started working at this school, they’ve been doing renovations. For the last 3 months, I’ve lost my voice countless times trying to yell over the construction to teach, and have had quite the battle with keeping my kids’ focus through it all. Just recently, they’ve started working on something outside of our room that causes a film of sawdust to form over the classroom while we’re trying to learn. The kids’ playground was boarded up because of the construction. The walk from my office to their classroom is (by American standards) incredibly hazardous, because there are pieces of sheet metal strewn about the sidewalks. Construction is moving at a snail’s pace, and the English company is telling us, “it’s all we can afford right now, the budget is really tight.”

Their new school is projected to be finished by May??

They spent all of this money on an elaborate production of a new private school, and they denied our request for HAND SOAP IN THE BATHROOMS.  Have I mentioned before that there isn’t soap at our school? Not in the teachers bathroom, not in the kids bathroom. I started buying soap for myself because, let’s face it, being at school without soap is disgusting. Apparently this new school is being funded out of the English company’s owner’s own pocket. I’ve been told that the resources for the new school are separate from our school’s resources. Same company though… tough to say.

Ahh, well I have to apologize that this post has turned into a winded rant. I guess I’m just starting to realize that although traveling is a wonderful way to see new insights, it’s also incredibly challenging. I am a pretty outspoken person, and I usually don’t have a problem stirring the pot when things are blatantly unfair. Being an outsider has forced me into a position where I really don’t have a leg to stand on in terms of questioning authority. It’s a good learning experience for me, I guess.

It’s been a long couple of weeks. I promise the next post won’t be such a drag!

Here’s a fun fact to leave you with: In Thai, “porn” means “blessing.” It’s not uncommon to see English/Thai posters that say, “Porn for the King!” I’ll try to snap a picture next time I see it!!

 

 

 

Happy New Year from Chiang Mai!

School was closed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, so I was able to take a four day weekend and head up to Thailand’s 2nd largest city- Chiang Mai. I hadn’t heard much about it, but knew that it was a desirable destination for tourists and expats. One thing I knew for sure was that they have elephants and New Year’s sky lanterns in the North, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it.

Before I left, I was able to sneak in a last minute reservation to spend a day with elephants at one of the most reputable ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand- Elephant Nature Park. There are hundreds of elephant camps in Thailand, but this particular park is known for their extraordinary treatment of the elephants.

I flew into Chaing Mai at 9:00pm, and the tour left the following morning at 8am. We took a minibus ride about an hour outside of the city and up into the mountains. I was overjoyed to be back in a mountainous landscape- even though they’re only about 3,000 feet above sea level. The temperature was significantly colder at about 70 degrees, and I think it was the first time in 4 months that I’ve been without a ” sweat goatee”.

When we started getting closer to the camp, we saw surrounding camps which offered elephant rides to tourists. Initially when I came to Thailand I thought I was going to be one of those tourists- it’s such an appealing thought to be able to sit on top of one of them and trek through the jimageungle. During my time here I’ve learned that the treatment of the elephants in those types of camps are pretty dismal. Our minivan passed by several tourists on elephants, and each one of the elephants had a Thai man sitting on its neck with a spear pushed into its head to direct them where to go. It was pretty depressing to see.

When we pulled around the hill into the Elephant Nature Park, I was
surprised to see tons of animals. The sanctuary is not only home to elephants, but also cats, dogs, goats, and water buffalo. I got really excited when I saw the first elephant. It was the first time outside of a zoo that I’ve seen an elephant, and I got to be incredibly close to it.

We were given a short safety briefing about how to interact with them- don’t walk behind them, don’t stand where they can’t see you, don’t tease them, and don’t use flash photography. My tour group had about seven people, and we were told to grab a basket of food and head out to feed one of the older elephants. She was over 80 years old! We fed her mashed up pumpkin with rice, and it was adorable. I was unbelievably nervous around her. The guide had reassured us that they’re trained like dogs, but it’s a wild animal nonetheless. image

All of the adult elephants had horrible backstories. Most of them had come from the logging industry in Myanmar, or were used as street entertainers as babies in downtown Chiang Mai. There was one particularly awful story that resonated with me:

One of the elephants was blind. She was being used to carry logs in the mountains of Myanmar, and she became pregnant. The loggers did not let her slow down during her pregnancy, and she gave birth on a hill in bad conditions, and the baby did not survive. After that, she refused to work. To force her to work, her owner shot her in the eye. After she kept refusing, he shot her in her other eye. She ended up blind, and the owner of Elephant Nature Park bought her for $2,000 USD.

It was amazing to get to see that she has now made new friends, and she doesn’t go anywhere without them.

imageThe highlight of my tour was being able to see the elephants bathe. We watched a family of them dunk into the river, and they splashed around like dogs. Afterwards, they sprayed themselves with mud to keep cool. We saw a baby elephant rolling around in the mud- a sight which the tour guide said we were very lucky to see. Click here to see the 2 year-old Yindee! We were also able to go with the older elephants and bathe them with buckets of water. I can’t stress enough how simultaneously terrifying and awesome of an experience it was.

One of the elephants started to growl, and the tour guide said it was because she was warning us that she was about to poop. I started to video the growl because I thought it was hilarious, but then got super freaked out when she turned around and made the trumpet noise. I’m sure there’s a better word for it than “the trumpet noise,” but you get the idea. Click here for the video!

After my day with the elephants, I went back to my hostel and rested up for the New Year’s Eve festivities. By 5pm, they were already starting to sell paper lanterns on the street. At around 8, the first groups of people went into the middle of the street to start sending them off.

Looking up from the hostel window, I could see hundreds of them floating imageoff. It was a truly magical sight. They looked like stars. I went out with some new friends from Australia, and we light off some of our own. We were soon after informed by the locals that you’re not supposed to light them upside down-haha. We also made the mistake of letting one go too soon, and we had to imagechase after it before it hit anything or anyone. There was definitely some amount of guilt when pondering the environmental fate of the lanterns, but I tried to push it aside for a cultural reasons.. haha.

There were tons of fireworks let off at midnight, and the only word that even gets close to summing up the experience is magical. I might have to say that it was the best New Year’s Eve experience I’ve ever had.

For the remainder of my trip I spent the days wandering without plans. I visimageited over 10 Buddhist temples without trying. Some of the temples in Chiang Mai did not allow women, which was a new experience for me. Women are not supposed to look monks in the eye, talk to them, or offer them gifts. These temples were very strict about it, so I admired from the outside. There were others that allowed visitors to sit and observe the monks making candles, and that was cool to see.

I had the most awkward experience outside one of the temples on New

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Note: I was so shocked by the lady with the birds that I didn’t notice the man in the wheelchair going down the stairs heading straight toward that dog! 

Year’s Day when I approached a woman who was sitting with cages full of birds. I asked her about them, and she said I could pay 100 baht (~3USD) to open a cage for good luck in the new year. I’m all for good luck, but I couldn’t help but be kind of shocked by the situation. I ended up buying a cage because I felt bad for the birds. The lady placed it in my hand, and they pooped all down my arm. We opened it up and they flew away, and then it was over. I am still a little confused by the ordeal.

On Sunday I spent the day killing time before my 9pm flight. I’m not sure why I booked such a late flight when my hostel check out was at 11am. Luckily the lady at the hostel let me leave my backpack, so I went out wandering again. I found a museum of arts and culture in the middle of the old city, and spent about 45 minutes inside. The museum was mostly dioramas of the old Chiang Mai, but had a few cases of artifacts. I’m not sure if it was just lost in translation, but the English captions on the artifacts only said things like, “pots put together after cracks” and “a part of the building before restored the building.” I wasn’t able to find any dates or geographical information, so the experience was kind of lackluster.

When I went to seek out a place for lunch, I stumbled into a women’s prison. There was a cafe that was open to the public, and I decided to step in. As it turns out, the location is used as a vocational training center for imageinmates that were within 6 months of release. They also had a spa and a gift shop with “prison crafts.” All of the women were great! Most of them had come from extreme poverty, and were locked up for drug offenses. My lunch was delicious.

By 6pm, I did a Google search to see how far the airport was from my hostel. It took about 15 minutes with the traffic in a tuk tuk, but I realized it was only 3 miles away. I’m not sure if it was the temperature in Chiang Mai or just curiosity, but I decided to walk to the airport. It was the most random and hilarious journey. I had enough time, so I figured why not? I ended up wandering through the Sunday Night Market, and saw some great sights along the way. I was getting fatigued by the time I’d reached the airport, but I was so excited that I caught myself whistling the Thai National Anthem for the last 5 minutes of my walk. I might have been a little delirious, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’ve found that I get quite a bit of satisfaction from walking.

Well, that’s about all there is for now. Today I was informed that this weekend I will be joining 6 teachers and 11 students on a trip to Trang (about 3 and 1/2 hours to the south) to show a school how great our kindergartners can speak English. I’m still really confused about the details. I guess the founder of the English company that I work for has a little side project she’s working on and is trying to convince this school that the program is really good. I can’t stop thinking about the nightmare of taking eleven 6 year-olds on an overnight without their parents. Also the fact that it’s going to consume my entire weekend. It’s all about the adventure though, right?

I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday!!!

 

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