Category Archives: travel

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!

 

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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!!

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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Kuala Lumpur, Baby!!!

I want to add a random note before I talk  about my trip to Malaysia. Numerous friends and family members have asked if I need them to send me money. You’re all incredible, and I am so grateful to have such a supportive team on my side. I think that in a previous post I might have given the wrong message about my financial situation. I have saved up a comfortable amount for this trip, but I have just been a total cheapskate since I’ve been here (thanks, Thailand!). While living here, it’s easy to get into the mindset that $6 is an expensive meal, $10 is an expensive pedicure, and $20 is an expensive day trip. I want everyone to know that I’m doing just fine, the only difficulty that I’m experiencing is coming to terms with being able to spend money on fun. I’m not broke, I’m just cheap!

I have spent the last 4 days and 3 nights in Malaysia, and I don’t even know how I’m going to keep this post from becoming a whole chapter of a book. I went into Kuala Lumpur (KL) with no expectations, and ended up having an amazing experience. I could try to explain the trip in a chronological order, but this post would never end.

The overarching theme of my trip was the haze from the Indonesian forest fires. It was literally overarching.

On the plane ride over, about 10 minutes after the captain had announced to prepare for arrival, I looked out the window and it didn’t seem like we were descending. All I could see were clouds, and the cabin started to smell like imagefire. Although I had anticipated the haze, I had no idea how bad it was actually going to be. Before I could even see the ground, the wheels came out from under the airplane and we landed.  I have no idea how it was possible for the captain to even see the runway. It was much worse than I thought.

I reserved an apartment through Airbnb that was right outside the downtown area. I booked the place because it’s about 1 mile from the city center, and it had stunning views of the Petronas Towers- the tallest twin towers in the world. The drive to the place took about an hour, but my taxi driver was awesome, so it went by really fast. He spoke English very well, and we mostly talked about the haze situation. I quickly realized that the Indonesian fires are not only an environmental catastrophe and a general inconvenience, but a serious human rights issue.

The driver told me that he hadn’t seen sky in two months. Apparently he was used to it, as he said it happens every imageyear, although, he said that this time was worse than any he’s ever seen. He had sores on his eyes and a lung infection. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the fires were started for slash and burn agriculture for palm oil production, but quickly grew out of control due to the dry season and the nature of the fires. They’re peat fires, so they are able to exist at 25 feet under the ground. Small, contained fires are legal, but it’s tricky to keep them contained and manageable. My driver told me that even though the Indonesian government claims to want to keep them in control, they always turn their head and give the corporations a slap on the wrist when the fires lose control. Slash and burn agriculture is much faster and cheaper than the alternative, and the corporations and government alike make some serious cash off of palm oil production. Indonesia is going through an exceptionally dry season, so there is no end in sight for the haze situation.

Schools nationwide have been cancelled for over 14 days of the month of October, and they’re not even in the same country as the fires. Children in Indonesia have died from respiratory infections resulting from the haze. I could rant and rave about this all day. It’s absolutely unbelievable. Sigh. Sorry to be super heavy, I’ll switch it up and tell you about my trip now.

imageMy taxi driver from the airport was awesome, and he was definitely an exception to the rule of taxi drivers in KL. In the city, it is illegal for a metered taxi to fix the price of a trip and not use the meter. It’s posted on signs in both Malay and English on their taxis, yet, it’s hard to find a taxi that will actually abide by the rule.

I was used to haggling prices in Phuket, so my first few taxi rides were based on negotiation. Without realizing it, I was being charged double the normal rate. In front of the place I was staying, the taxi drivers were all congregated in front of the building, and they all offered me rides by quoting a price. I had intended on using my GrabTaxi app, but it doesn’t work without cell service. Once I had the information about taxis being required to use a meter, I tried to point out to the drivers that I knew what they were doing was illegal. I was astonished at their reaction.

Each time I pointed it out, I was met with an incredibly offensive response. To put it into perspective, here is a list of things that happened when I mentioned it was illegal to forego the taxi meter:

-A man spit at my feet

-One man burped in my face

-I was told to “F off”

-I was completely ignored and shooed away

-They tried to tell me that during high traffic, the law doesn’t count,

-The law doesn’t matter after sundown,

-The law doesn’t exist in the city of KL, and

-They don’t have to use a meter on the way to tourist attractions

To humor myself, I asked a police officer if any of the things these men were saying were true. I simply asked, “hey, is there any circumstance in which a taxi doesn’t have to use a meter?” The cop looked really concerned, and said, “who said those things to you? Please show me who. This is highly illegal, and we want to tell them it’s wrong!” Considering that 90% of taxi drivers in front of tourist attractions refused to use the meter, I was extremely doubtful that this cop was being sincere. I eventually found that it was most effective to flag down a taxi that was already driving, and say “meter, please” as soon as I got into the vehicle. I only ran into 1 driver who refused to use the meter, and I simply rejected his offer and flagged down the next one.

imageThe apartment I was staying in was great, but the whole setup felt like it would’ve been a disaster if the building were to catch on fire. For starters, the building’s fire alarm was going off the entire time due to the haze. They couldn’t turn it off, so they just turned it down. There was a quiet beeping throughout the duration of my stay. Additionally, the key card that I was given was required to get through the front door of the building, into and out of the room with the elevator/stairs, to access the elevator/stairs, and to access the room I was staying in. It was great security, but I’m not sure anyone would be able to make it out of there in a hurry without their key card.

The whole purpose of my trip was to renew my Thai tourist visa for another 30 days until my work permit is approved for a 1 year visa. The night before I went into the embassy, I was double checking that I had all of my paperwork in order when I realized I didn’t quite have enough cash for the visa itself. I went down to an ATM to withdraw cash, and my card was declined. Since I’ve been out of the country, I’ve had to call my bank at least 5 times to remind them that I am not in the United States. Granted, I am glad they are keeping a close eye on my account, but it’s become quite a hassle. In Thailand I am able to call internationally with my phone, but I didn’t have service in Malaysia. If I was unable to go to the embassy the following morning, I would’ve had to wait until Monday to complete the process. Needless to say, I was in panic mode.

I had WiFi at the apartment I was staying in, but there isn’t really such thing as free international calling, even if it’s through WiFi. The internet connection was horrible, and it took an hour to download an app that promised the first 10 minutes were free. After having downloaded the app, I got a hold of my bank and explained to them my situation.  “Thank you for calling First National Bank of Omaha. My name is David, and I am happy to assist you with your inquiry today. May I please start with your full name, the last four of your social, and a good number to reach you?”

GAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!  “Yes hi, David, despite having told the bank 100 times that I now live outside of the country, you all continue to leave me without access to MY OWN MONEY!!! I’M GOING TO BE STUCK IN MALAYSIA FOREVER!!!!!”

Just kidding. I didn’t say that. Call center employees do not deserve the wrath of anyone’s frustration. I politely explained my situation, and he said “Everything appears to be okay on your card ma’am. Oh wait, I do see here… let me put you on a brief hold while I speak with another department.” After waiting on hold for 9 minutes, I watched as the free 10 minute call dwindled away. I felt hopeless at this point. To be incredibly dramatic about it, I felt like I was Rose from Titanic, letting Jack slip away into the ice cold water. DON’T GO!! I begged. I couldn’t buy another 10 minutes through the app because my account was on hold.

To make a long, winding, overly dramatic story short, I ended up finding the app “Dingtone” which gave me a free 30 minute phone call (thank you Dingtone!! I’m forever indebted). Apparently the bank decided to change my debit card to a “compromised” status, because I had “tried to use it in Thailand.” I had a wonderful 20 minute wait for them to tell me that they’ve temporarily changed the status of the card to active, and they’ve sent a new one out in the mail for me to use when I got home. I reminded them that I won’t be home for another year, there should be a note on my account, and they said, “Oh, really?” Yes, really. Someone find me a new bank.

After two and a half hours of dealing with them, it was 12:30am. I went to bed but had a hard time sleeping, wondering if my card would work at the ATM the following morning.

The Thai embassy in KL is only open from 9:30am to 11:30am, and I had been advised by multiple people to show up at 8am in order to be able to process everything on time. I left my apartment at 7:30am and had a taxi take me to an ATM to withdraw some cash. We went to 4 different ATMs before we found one that accepts Visa. A tip to anyone considering a trip to KL- bring a MasterCard.

I arrived at the embassy at 8am and there were already 9 people ahead of me in line. It’s not like you can arrive and take a number and sit down. The line is at the gate in front of the building with standing room only. This was the only time I was grateful for the haze, as the sun was merely a red dot for decoration. It was about 80 degress out, when it should have been 90+. I had brought my Kindle, and the time went by quickly.

Directly behind me in line was a Buddhist nun. She had her head shaved and was wearing a white robe. I was previously distracted by my reading, but I wish I would’ve struck up a conversation with her sooner. For the past year she has been living in a Buddhist temple in Chaing Mai, Thailand. She was born in California, but has spent the majority of her life in Japan and Australia. She was such an interesting woman! Currently, Thailand does not allow a woman to be ordained as a monk, and trying to be a female monk is considered rebellious. She continuously has to leave the country to renew her tourist visa, because the Thai government will not allow a woman to stay on a meditation visa. I was so intrigued by her story.

At 9am, two men and a woman in their twenties walked up to the front of the line at the gate. Everyone was giving them the death stare, as we had all been waiting in line for an hour already. The Buddhist nun walked right up to them and politely told them that we had all been waiting, and suggested they head to the back of the queue. I was absolutely shocked to see that these people were incredibly rude to her, and basically told her to go away. The woman walked back to her place in line and said, “Some people are just going to be that way. Don’t let it ruin your mood.” LET THIS WOMAN BE A MONK ALREADY!!!  (p.s. Once I got back to my Airbnb, I read a very interesting article about female monks in Thailand. Now that I’m back in Thailand, I can’t access the site because is blocked by the government. If you’re curious, google “female monks in Thailand” and click on the “daily mail” link. It’s incredibly interesting).

The line-cutters (Russians, go figure) got into an altercation with the woman at the visa counter, and they ended up having to wait much longer than anyone else who had been in front of them. Processing my visa only took about 15 minutes once I had got in, and I was on with my day. If you have any questions about the Thai visa process in KL I would be happy to answer any questions you may have via e-mail.

Moving on!

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Chairs made from 100% ivory

Another major part of my trip was experiencing Islamic culture. In Malaysia, roughly 50% of the people are Muslim. Coming from the U.S. (especially CO), culture shock was definitely real. I knew that Islam was dominant in Malaysia, but for some reason it didn’t really sink in until I arrived. I will admit that this trip increased my knowledge of Islamic culture 110%.

I saw on TripAdvisor KL that the Islamic Arts Museum was the #2 attraction in the city. I decided it would be a good place to learn. After having visited, I can understand why it is so popular. The museum cost about $1 to get in (I used my old CSU ID for a discount, haha), and has four floors packed full of artifacts from different Islamic Empires throughout the centuries. I learned about  everything from ancient jewelry to environmentally sustainable mosque construction.

The National Mosque of Malaysia is right across the street from the museum, so after spending 2 hours in the museum, I decided to have a look. It is open to tourists on and off throughout the day in hour and a half intervals (they close to non-Muslims to allow for prayer). I was dressed conservatively enough for a Buddhist temple, but showed up under-dressed to peek inside of the mosque.  Right when I showed up, a woman grabbed a robe for me and got me dressed. I didn’t even have time to react. I got the full on hijab.  Oh man, I was out of my element. I had a guy take my picture, and after I’d looked at it, I had to try really hard to keep from laughing. I don’t think twice about it when I see a Muslim woman dressed like that, but I felt ridiculous wearing it as a non-Muslim.  Chalk one up to the experience, I guess.

The mosque itself wasn’t really extraordinary in terms of architecture. I wasn’t allowed to enter the prayer hall, so I really only walked up and peeked in. The whole ordeal took less than 10 minutes. I picked up some brochures to gain a little insight into the Islamic faith. Let’s be clear here, I picked them up because I wanted to know more about the unknown. I think the most interesting quote from all of the brochures was, “Women will never reach true liberation until they stop

You can tell by my face that I was definitely out of my element here.

You can tell by my face that I was definitely out of my element here.

imitating men and value the beauty of their own God-given distinctiveness.” I’m not here to condemn the religion or say what’s right or wrong, but we’ll just say that I wouldn’t last long as a Muslim.  I hope you appreciate the picture, because I really had to talk myself into posting it. I know I’m not going to live that one down.

The most awkward part of the entire ordeal was taking off the robe and headscarf once I was outside of the mosque. The men that were standing outside had an absolute field day with it. I was getting cat calls and kissing noises, and was incredibly uncomfortable. After living in Central and South America I have learned to ignore the behavior, but it was something I have yet to experience from Thai men. I’ve never been shouted at or harassed since I’ve been in Thailand. KL was an entire different story.

The majority of women in KL were dressed extremely conservatively. I was dressed very modestly by American standards. One of the days I was out walking in a sleeveless shirt and jeans, and a woman called me a prostitute. I saw many non-Muslims who were dressed less conservatively than I was. The whole thing was intense.

imageAs for the sight seeing in KL, there is a “hop on hop off” bus tour, which is like any other city’s big red bus tour. The ticket lasts for 24 hours and costs under $10. It was a great way to sight see and hit the major tourist attractions with limited time. My only problem with it was that sometimes it was faster to walk from point A to point B because the traffic was so bad. Also, as nice as it is to sit on top of a double-decker bus, the haze was burning my eyes and making me cough.

Tickets up to the sky bridge in the Petronas Twin Towers were half off because the haze was so bad you couldn’t see anything. They were booked, so I opted for the Menara KL Tower. They were doing a haze promotion that was free entry to the aquarium with purchase of tower ticket. The KL tower was completed in 1996, and I have to say, the place looks like it hasn’t been renovated since 1996. It’s not like they don’t have the money, either. It’s one of the busiest attractions in the city.

The “aquarium” was a bunch of small uncleaned fish tanks that were jam packed with fish that were way too big to imagehave 14 of them in the same tank. It smelled like someone threw up a tuna sandwich inside of a city park bathroom, but luckily the walk through it only took 5 minutes. It was hardly a consolation for paying full price for the KL tower ride up. The view would have been incredible if it weren’t for the haze. They took my picture in front of a green screen and photoshopped in the normal view in the background, then wanted me to pay $10 for the picture. It felt especially fake, because I had only seen about 1/3 of the actual view. I didn’t buy the picture.

The setup inside the tower was also rundown, and I don’t think the carpet has been changed since the building’s construction. At one point I walked by the room with the elevator and watched a man spraying an aerosol can full of fragrance onto the carpets.  Despite the haze, the view was still pretty impressive, and I think it was definitely worth the trip.

My major splurge of the trip was the 96 hour binge eating food tour of Kuala Lumpur. Because it’s a big city, I was able to eat Mexican, American, Mediterranean, French, Indian, and Japanese food. I haven’t had much for food diversity since I’ve been staying in Thailand, so I was having a hayday with international cuisine. The Indian food was the best I’ve ever eaten, and I ate a four course meal at a four star restaurant for under $15.

imageI also found a breakfast place that had a “bagel with cream cheese” on the menu. I was so excited until the waiter brought it out. There are only a few things that will make me throw a toddler tantrum on the inside, and one of them is the bagel impostor. I felt deceived. I wanted to cry.

Just kidding. It was almost representative of a bagel, but not the real thing. My least favorite part about living abroad is the lack of bagels. Cry me a river.

I haven’t nearly said all that I wanted to say about my experience in Malaysia, but I have to cut this off now. Let’s just say that KL is an incredible booming metropolis that is definitely worthy of a visit. Having only experienced the major city within the peninsula, I’m now curious to discover the rest of Malaysia.

One last thing I’ll add:

Even in a city of 1.5 million people, I hardly saw any Western tourists. I had multiple people ask me if they could take their picture with me. I felt like a movie star. I made sure to get a picture on my own camera for some of them, because they were pretty hilarious. I’ll leave you with these….

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The Vegetarian Festival

Less than 24 hours from my previous post, and I decided to write again. How’s that for predictability?

Last night I went to the Vegetarian Festival right after publishing my previous blog, and I think it’s crucial to write about it now, before I head to Malaysia tomorrow.

I realized that the major factor that was preventing me from going to see the events in Phuket Town was that I didn’t want to drive through the madness and traffic. I realized I was being silly, and I hopped in a taxi and made it over there. I have recently discovered the app GrabTaxi, and I’ve found it has saved me a ton of time and money. This isn’t a plug, but they should definitely be paying me as their promoter. The app allows you to set your pickup and drop-off destinations on a map, it estimates the fare, and shows the metered taxis in the surrounding areas.  If you’re walking down the street in any part of Phuket, it’s normally very time consuming to find a metered taxi. All of the taxi drivers, tuk tuks, and motorbike taxis set their own rates, because they know they can make far more by ripping you off. For example, I was once charged 350 baht for a normal taxi to take me from my place in Kathu to Phuket Town. Yesterday, it cost me 180. That’s a difference of about $5, and $5 goes a long way here.

imageAnyhow, I was incredibly relieved that I hadn’t driven, because the traffic was out of control. The taxi driver dropped me off at the apartments that I used to stay in, and I met up with Michelle, a friend from my TEFL course. We walked to the festival with plans to grab dinner along the way. The streets were packed with food stalls offering an overwhelming amount of food. It was funny to see that although it’s a vegetarian festival, a few of the stalls had managed to make imitation hot dogs, and other food that looked like it was meat. As I usually do, I bought a little bit of everything, and then only ate about 1/3 of it. I get really excited to try new things, but then I’m way too full to eat all of it. My favorite of the night were some super spicy deep fried seaweed fritters. Everything tastes good fried.

We walked down to the end of the street where the Jui Tui Shrine is. The online schedule said that the fire walking was supposed to start at 8, and we made it there at 7:30 to secure a good spot. The festival is so noisy due in part to the sheer amount of people, but definitely the major contributor is the firecrackers being set off everywhere you look. I’ll get to the fireworks in a bit. We were standing out front of the Chinese temple, with a pretty good view of what was going on in front. There were about a dozen imagetattooed men standing in a circle, showing only the whites of their eyes, chanting and shaking their heads back and forth. They were all barefoot, and wearing white pants and multicolored bejeweled aprons. There was one elderly woman in the circle, and she was wearing a bright pink outfit that looked exactly like a graduation cap and gown. I’ve read online that the men in aprons are the mediums, that they are the ones who channel the gods during the ceremony. I have no idea about the woman, though. Man, I wish I knew.

The mediums are highly respected- any time a person had to walk past one of them, they gave them a wai (folding hands in a prayer position at the chest, and bowing the head). The height of the hands during the wai changes with levels of respect, and the people were giving them the highest version of the wai, which meant they were holy figures.

Michelle and I were taken back just watching the chanting and the head shaking. There was a lot going on, and then one of imagethe mediums turned around and yelled super loud and motioned for everyone to sit down. There weren’t any chairs or anything, everyone just plopped right down where they were standing. Shortly after we had sat down, another man yelled and pointed and there was a type of panic set off. He motioned for everyone to stand up. Michelle and I just went with whatever the crowd was doing, even though it was somewhat alarming. When we stood up, two men walked through carrying a wooden sculpture. Another man yelled at us again to sit down. He was holding a long wooden stick with long blonde hair at the end, and was waving it in the air. I made a joke to Michelle (she also has blonde hair) that it was the hair of the foreigner who didn’t follow directions. The whole ordeal was confusing and intense.

They lit off some fireworks in the center of their circle, and then they left the shrine and walked down the street in a procession. Everyone was following them, so we did too. At this point, I realized that maybe we had gone to the wrong shrine for the fire walking. This was intensely cultural, though, so we followed along with them. We quickly realized that it is protocol for the bystanders to chuck fireworks into the crowd. There were pregnant women, small children, and elderly people throughout the crowd. Nobody seemed to bat an eye.

Everyone thought it was especially funny to throw them at the foreigners. When we were near the shrine, it was impossibleimage to escape them. The narrow alleys left us really no choice but to run through them. Once we got to the bigger street, we were able to stand behind the people who were throwing the firecrackers. It was so intense that we both had our head on a swivel, and we ran at even the sight of a single firework. I remember looking up and seeing one coming straight at my face. I wasn’t sure if waving a white flag would be a sign of surrender here. The whole crowd was dressed in white, and everyone seemed pretty cool with having fireworks thrown at them.

People had set up shrines in front of their restaurants that were in the path of the procession. As everyone was walking, some of the mediums would come over and bless the shrines. The children lined up on the side of the streets in a wai position, and the mediums would come over and bless them. All of my pictures turned out blurry, because I was taking them while dodging fireworks.  image

After it was clear that it was the end of the procession, Michelle and I headed back to the temple to see if maybe it was time for fire walking. I was pretty sure we’d missed it, but part of me was holding out hope that we’d get to see some. They had some projector screens setup, and they were showing clips from the face piercings earlier in the day. Upon seeing them, I realized that seeing them on a screen had been overwhelming enough, and I felt okay that I hadn’t seen them in person. I wasn’t even too concerned about seeing the fire walking anymore.  At this point, my ears were ringing so hard from the fireworks that it was painful. Next year I’ll bring earplugs.

We walked back to the temple on a side road, as to take a break from the fireworks. The ally was quiet, and we walked past a sweet old man sitting on his porch. I nodded my head and smiled, and just as I looked up, the old man had a lit firework in his hand. Before I could finish a “what the….?!” he started laughing and tossed it right at my feet!!! Of course I screamed and started running, but he got me good. I didn’t get burned, but I did feel the pings of them hitting me.

With enough excitement for the night, we decided to head home. I walked with Michelle back to the apartments, and then decided to walk a little ways out of the street to try to catch a taxi. I walked out and down a road that I knew had enough imagetraffic to have a taxi, but figured it was far enough away from the excitement. I was wrong. I walked straight to a different Chinese temple, where they were using the big boy fireworks to shoot them at each other. I quickly ran into a narrow alley for shelter, when I heard too little boys giggling. I looked down and saw both of them looking up at me with their ears covered, one of them with a lighter in hand. What the….. boom. These two little boys were all by themselves in a little alley, lighting off fireworks of their own. There was literally no escaping the boom.

Instead of waiting for a GrabTaxi, I walked straight up to a motorbike taxi (yes, they provide helmets), accepted his overpriced fare, and got the hell out of there. I actually got what I paid for with this guy, though. He is in a reggae band, and he loudly sang reggae the entire drive home.

I slept like a baby last night.

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Wat Chalong

Yikes, guys! I didn’t realize it’s been 6 days since I’ve last written. I’ve been slacking.

imageOn Wednesday I went to visit Wat Chalong- or Chalong Temple. I had seen it as I drove past on my way to the beach one time, but was improperly dressed an unable to go in. Wednesday morning, I woke up for a Thai lesson at 9am. After my lesson, I had decided that I was going to cover my knees and shoulders, and head to the temple.

Guided tours through the temples are available, but they end up costing around $45 per person. I gassed up my scooter for a whole $3, and found my way there. It was about a 20 minute ride through 100 degree sunny weather, with about 80% humidity. I’ve gotten used to the fact that if I’m going to be outside for longer than 10 minutes, I should plan on imagebeing smelly for the rest of the day. It’s hot here. Upon arriving at the temple, I realized that it wasn’t critical to show up with everything covered. There was a man at the entrance handing out sarongs to the people who weren’t properly dressed. I wish I would’ve known that before I had gone. I had passed the place multiple times, but turned back because I didn’t think I was wearing the right clothes.

Wat Chalong itself is considered the most important Buddhist temple on the island, and it is comprised of multiple structures. The original building is believed to have been constructed between 1802-1840, but the actual date is debated. There wasn’t much reading material as far as history went, so I basically just walked around and marveled at the architecture and artwork.

The temples all strikingly beautiful, and the site is well kept. I really enjoyed touring them, but couldn’t help but feel awkward taking pictures while people were praying. There were multiple stands to purchase offerings for the shrine. Common offerings include flowers, water, and cherry soda. Many people will bring food, small gifts, etc. The gifts are purchased specifically for the gods, and are left untouched at the shrines. Side note: At the place I had previously stayed in Phuket Town, the shrine at the restaurant next door always made me smile. The women brought so many shots of whiskey to their shrine. Occasionally they’d leave a plate of food, but it was almost always whiskey.

imageIn addition to people giving offerings at Wat Chalong, there were many people who were lighting incense and leaving them, chanting prayers, and leaving slips of paper throughout the cracks of the statues. I felt intrusive, and tiptoed around the whole thing, only taking a few pictures of the insides of the temples.

The main structure is huge- three floors high. It was a quick steep climb up the stairs to the top, but the view was outstanding.  I love the details of the structure themselves, and have somehow always been drawn to foreign architecture. In the bell tower of this temple, there is a lotus flower sculpture, surrounded by a glass casing, with holes to insert donations. I couldn’t believe the pile of money that was surrounding the area. I can’t imagine how much it costs to upkeep the temple though, as many of the Buddha statues are plated in gold.

After Wat Chalong, I decided to drive to the famous Big Buddha statue. The Buddha sits on top of a mountain, and it’s approx 148 feet high and 82 feet across. I’ve seen it multiple times driving through the island, but have never made it to the top of the hill. Well, I can say that still stands true now. I never ended up making it to see the statue, because I took a wrong turn and ended up at the opposite side of the island (about 30 minutes in the wrong direction). It’s funny how frequently this seems to happen to me. It’s easy to get lost here, but never difficult to find your way back.

I decided to stop at a restaurant and grab a bite, and I connected to wifi to figure out exactly where I was. I was less than a half a mile from Kata Beach. My location had me in a triangle between the statue, my apartment, and the restaurant I was eating in. Rather than go the 25  minutes to the Buddha, then an additional 25 minutes home, I figured I would just go home. I was starting to get tired, and I figured I probably shouldn’t be driving all of that way with a groggy mind.

I’d have to say that my temple day was definitely the highlight since the last time I’ve  written. It’s been raining quite a bit, which makes transportation on a motorbike limited. On Friday morning I experienced the largest downpour since I’ve been here. It dumped so much rain that the streets started accumulating water, a sight which I hadn’t seen yet. I looked up the weather forecast to see how long it was going to stay around, and saw on the radar that a huge typhoon is hitting the imagePhilippines right now. A very small tail of the storm was right over Phuket, which I’m guessing had contributed to the intense downpour. It’s  hard to say, though. I’ve only been here for about 7 weeks now, so I’m not sure if it was monsoon rain or due to the typhoons.

To the right is the typhoon in the Philippines. If you look at the top of the picture, where the “c” is in “dtac,” and then follow it straight down to the first little bit of red, that’s where I’m at. I’m definitely grateful that we’re not being significantly impacted by the storm.

I can’t believe this time has gone by and I haven’t checked out any more of the Vegetarian Festival!!! I’ve been kicking myself about it. Tonight there is fire walking and bladed ladder climbing, so I’m going to go check it out.

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Downtime in Paradise

I am starting to feel a little restless. “How is that possible?!” You ask. “Aren’t you in a top notch tourist destination? Why don’t you go to the beach every day? Go ride an elephant! I would kill to be in your position!”

I’m not saying that it’s anything short of awesome to be here, but my personality doesn’t like downtime. There’s always an something inside of me that feels like I need to be contributing. I’m not good at lollygagging. Also, I’ve had to stretch my budget to fit 3 months without income. I had planned for 2, hoping to get a job right after the TEFL course. As it all worked out with my poor timing, the schools are on vacation until November, and I won’t be paid until the end of the month. I’m stuck between wanting to keep busy and trying to be cheap.

The food and accommodation here are ridiculously cheap, and for that I am thankful. To put it into perspective, I can stay full on less than $4/day. Gas cost also goes a long way when you’re renting a motorbike, so I have no problem getting around the island. My ultimate downfall is when it comes to the endless range of activities for tourists on this island. If money weren’t a factor, I could start my morning on an elephant trek, then go sea kayaking through mangroves, see a imageladyboy cabaret show, and then throwback some Singapore slings while listening to live music on the beach. It sounds AMAZING. Unfortunately, that kind of day would cost me about 25% of the salary I will be making come November. For now, I’ve been trying to tackle all the freebie tourist attractions that I can. It may sound silly, but I can’t wait until school starts in November.

I must say there are still a handful of attractions here that are free and noteworthy. The first, as mentioned in an earlier post, is Monkey Hill. Now that I think about it, I think I could take a backpack full of bananas and spend an entire day there. That would sure create a sense of purpose in my life. I could become the monkey version of the crazy pigeon lady. That being said, I’m not sure I’d be able to make an escape once I ran out of bananas.

There’s always the beach. I can’t get enough of the gorgeous beaches here. I won’t go into too much detail about how awesome the beaches are here. They’re fantastic (see above). We’ll leave it at that.

Another free attraction in the area is the Kathu Waterfalls. The waterfalls are about a 2 minute drive up the road from the school I’ll be teaching in- they’re both on the road “Waterfall Road.” Last Saturday I decided to go check them out. The entrance to the park is a parking lot with a few local residences and restaurants nearby. Kathu is outside of the super touristy areas, so the place isn’t marked with a whole lot of obnoxious signs. The place was definitely constructed for tourists, though.

The climb is a long concrete staircase, with intermittent rest stops with bits of information. I’d read online that there are three waterfalls throughout the journey to the top. I climbed up a little ways and found the first. To my disappointment, it was man made. It’s my own fault for setting my expectations so high. It’s actually a beautiful park, and there were quite a imagefew local boys playing in the water.

The hike is increasingly difficult as you ascend up the stairs, but nothing too intense. It’s easy to forget that it’s man-made, because you’re surrounded by lush green jungle. Just as your mind escapes into “jungle trek” mode, you look over and see the trail of trash that’s left behind by the previous tourists. It made me really sad, because it was an absolute mess.

The 2nd waterfall was gorgeous. I’ve heard from Mr.B (my favorite taxi man) that the waterfalls are better now because of the monsoon rains. It’s not a huge waterfall, by any means, but it was serene to sit next to.

As I hiked up to the 3rd waterfall, the concrete stairs stopped and the path turned narrow, with stepping stones as a path. I have to admit, I walked about 10 feet in, and turned around and went right back out. For some reason, I got legitimately scared. I was by myself, nobody knew that I was there, and I had no idea what was tucked away inside that gorgeous rain forest. I thought about snakes, and freaked myself out. I was out.

In hindsight, I really wish I would’ve given it a chance. I was already 2/3 of the way up, and I turned back. Oh well, at least it’s just up the street, and it’s free 🙂

Another option for free entertainment is to check out a temple, or a “wat.” The architecture is incredible, and they exist on every stretch of the island. I’ve been into a couple, and have definitely been impressed. It’s required to wear a shirt that covers the shoulders, and pants that cover the knees. It’s 89 degrees and 90% humidity here, so I’ve only been into temples on planned occasions.

The Kathu Shrine is between my place and the school, so it’s very close. Yesterday was the start of the vegetarian festival,image
and I decided to go see what it was all about. The mortifying body piercings don’t happen until a few days into the festival, so I just cruised up for some dinner. I was incredibly excited for the opportunity to eat whatever was in sight without having to worry about it being strange street meat. There are tons of food stalls, but I soon found out it’s important to pick one that has posted prices for their food. I saw some fried corn & chili fritters, so I indicated that I would like to purchase some. I watched every person in front of me pay 10 TBH, and when it was my turn, the lady asked me for 20. There wasn’t a sign advertising they cost 10, so I didn’t have any ground to stand on. I smiled and thanked her. Even though she ripped me off, the difference was about 25 cents. I knew the 25 cents meant more to her than it does to me.

During the vegetarian festival, attendees traditionally wear all white. I completely forgot, so I was in normal clothes. I was worried about standing out, and then I laughed and realized that I stand out no matter what I’m wearing. I did see quite a few Thai people that weren’t following suit. Nobody was sticking to the “sleeves” rule, so I felt okay.

I saw a Thai family struggling to fit themselves into one selfie with the shrine. I walked over and acted out that I would take their picture for them, and they were super happy. I took a few, and then one of the men grabbed his camera and indicated that they wanted a picture with me. They took quite a few. I thought it was hilarious. I even got my camera out and insisted that I have a copy of the same picture. Look at how adorable we are:image

Being the only foreigner with all of the chaos of the festival was pretty overwhelming, and I felt a huge push of culture shock. The small children were lighting off fireworks and throwing them into a pit. I watched a little boy (maybe 2 years old) wander into the pit when nobody was watching. Right before another boy threw a firework into the pit, another boy ran into it and dragged the 2 year old out. Everyone was laughing about it, but it scared the crap out of me. The festival is fantastic for people watching.

I could’ve stayed longer, but I was pretty overwhelmed. I’ve got 8 more days to check it out, so I have plenty of time until I leave for Malaysia on the 20th.

About that….

Today I received a call from Steve, one of the directors at the school. He is my contact for work permit/visa issues while Bronwyn is back home in South Africa. Steve is from the UK and to be honest, sometimes I have a hard time understanding him. Yes, we both speak English, but sometimes I feel like British English is a whole new language. Regardless, Steve had some bad news.

Apparently the application process for a work permit can be a pain in the ass. The timeline to get my work permit, visa, and teacher license is a stretched out process, and there are definitely setbacks along the way. I was initially told that my paperwork would take less than 2 weeks to process, and I cleared it with my supervisor that it was good timing to set my flight to Malaysia for 2 weeks out. I have to go to Malaysia to get my visa, and I have to have my work permit before I have my visa. I have to have my work permit and visa before I can get my teacher’s license. Steve got a call today that there was some issue in the review process, and my work permit won’t be ready for 3 more weeks. It was a bunch of political jargon that Steve was describing, and he basically just said, “I’m horribly sorry. I know it’s a pain. Welcome to Thailand.”

My tourist visa runs out on the 31st, and I have a nonrefundable ticket to Malaysia. It sounds like I’m going to have to go to Malaysia to renew my tourist visa, come back into Thailand, and then leave the country again at the start of November so I can re-enter with a Non Immigrant B Visa. It’s all a huge headache. Because it pertains to my personal visa, I have to pay for everything myself. On the bright side, maybe I’ll try Cambodia or Vietnam for my 2nd visa run. Who knows. I’m not complaining about the traveling part. A round trip ticket to these countries runs about $50. It’ another stamp on the passport!

That’s all I have for now! I’ve uploaded some more pictures of the waterfalls and veg festival in the pics section.

Someone eat a bagel with cream cheese for me. I’m salivating like a dog just thinking about one.

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Thaime for some Thai

The other day, I realized that I’ve been in Thailand for 6 weeks, and have only retained the same basic phrases that I learned in my introductory Thai class through the TEFL course. I’ve been surrounded by English-speaking friends, and not many Thai people. It’s crazy to think that you can actually live here and get by just fine without ever learning the language. I mean it’s great, but I thought I would’ve picked up more Thai by now. I also traveled here for the purpose of learning more about Thai culture.

For that reason, I decided to seek out a Thai language school and actively learn the language. I found a language school online that offers a program for travelers to Thailand who are looking to secure a 1 year visa (Non Immigrant B Visa). It’s basically a package deal that people purchase before they come here. The school arranges everything necessary for the students to travel, and it’s a way for the students to have an extended visa without having to leave the country and come back every 60 days on a tourist visa.

Anyhow, my school is arranging my Non Immigrant B Visa for me, but I was interested in joining their group lessons. I e-mailed the school to ask for their address, and it turns out I can see their building from my house. Yesterday I walked in and asked about times, prices, etc.

I spoke with the owner of the school, who sat me down and showed me the curriculum. She told me that their group classes are from 10am-noon every two days. This kind of schedule would work now that I’m on vacation until November, but isn’t sustainable once school starts.

The woman told me that in my situation, it would be better to sit down one on one and take private lessons. She said that the students who enroll in her group classes are really only studying there to obtain a 1 year visa, and so they don’t take it imageas seriously as people who are there to learn. She was definitely a sales woman, but I agreed with her. Learning at my own pace seems ideal, and the price per lesson is about $10. Granted, that’s a lot of money here, but I think it’s worth it.

This way, I’m able to set my own study schedule and show up as often or as little as I want to. In fact, when I asked the woman when I could start, she asked, “how about today?” It was 3:45, and she offered me her 5:00 slot. She said that I can schedule any time I want, including Saturdays and Sundays. I took her up on her 5:00 lesson. I was pretty excited to get started.

The school itself is in an office-type building. Honestly, I didn’t take a tour of the school. I’ve only seen the front desk area, the coffee/tea area, and the meeting room for 1 on 1 lessons. For the life of me, I can’t remember the owner’s name. She is wonderful though. She is probably in her mid 40’s, and told me that she will be there to teach a private lesson any time I’d need, unless she was busy at a weightlifting competition. She’s not bulky muscular, but I definitely wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.

Before the lesson started, she offered me some green tea. She said it’s the best green tea I’d find in Thailand. She imports it from Japan.

At 5:00 sharp, she took me into the office to start the private lesson. I immediately felt like this woman was giving me more than I had paid for. She jumped right into it, and overwhelmed me with all sorts of new information. She provided me with a workbook, a notebook, and a pencil. The first thing she taught me was the “basic” structure of Thai language. There are 40+ consonants, they’re all divided into categories of low, middle and high class, and from there, they’re divided into subcategories that depend on the tone used in pronouncing the consonant.

I immediately had a headache.

She reassured me that we’re going to take it piece by piece, but by the end of the workbook (~20hrs), she told me that I’d be able to read and write Thai. That doesn’t mean that I’d understand what I’m reading and writing, but that I’d feel comfortable with the Thai alphabet.

The next hour flew by, and I learned so much in the short time that we had been working. I have learned to write seven consonants, and about 9 vowel sounds, most of them using the “middle tone.”  She had me working on pronunciation while I was tracing the dotted outlines of them in my workbook. It brought me back to kindergarten, but I’m fascinated by the imagescript. Some of their vowels are placed on top of or underneath the consonants, depending on the word.

The hilarious thing about the tonality of the language is that it brought so much awareness to how I speak. Usually when I’m learning something new, I feel vulnerable, and I instinctively answer as if there is a question mark on the end of my sentence. In English, this wouldn’t be a big deal, because the listener still understands the word. In Thai, this isn’t the case at all. My tutor was having me answer questions in the workbook, and I was answering them with an uncertainty that changed my tone all together. Think of it as saying “three.” and “three?” In Thai, the difference in the tone can change the entire meaning of the word. I quickly learned that even if I am uncertain in my answer, I have to be uncertain in a neutral tone. 😉

She left me with about 6 pages of homework, and we rescheduled for Sunday.  Even though I only know a handful of the consonants, I’ve been looking at everything around me that’s written in Thai, and have been picking out the letters that I know. I have a bunch of free time to study Thai during my vacation, so I figured I better work on it while I can. Also, since I’m learning at a kindergarten level, I think it’ll help me sympathize with my kindergarten students who are learning English!

Until next time, here’s another fun fact I learned about Thai culture:

Teachers are seen as one of the highest respected members in Thai society. To a student, the hierarchy places the teacher above their parents and below the monks.

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