Merry Christmas from Thailand!

Merry Christmas, everyone! I have to apologize for the lack of posts lately.

My school decided against giving us the time off for the holidays. Monday through Thursday of last week was chaotic, as we were all covering the classes for the Thai teachers.

I’ve felt a lot of sentiment from my friends in the U.S. that teaching imagekindergarten is “a walk in the park.” I’d like to point out that it’s not only having to play mind games with 30 EFL five and six year old kids, but the Thai curriculum is intense compared to U.S. standards. These kids aren’t really allowed to stay kids for very long. Most of the day they are going through lectures and book work. They have tests every other week. It is possible to fail kindergarten here. When I have to find new worksheets for math (err.. “Maths”), I have to search the web for 2nd grade level.

The Thai teachers are the actual homeroom teachers at our school. They have the desks in the classrooms, and hold the majority of the responsibility for the children. They are in charge of greeting them in the morning, taking them down to mid morning break, lunch, and nap. As an English teacher, my only real job is to teach them their 3 English classes per day. Last week all of the Thai teachers were sent on a trip to different parts of Thailand to observe in other schools. I have to be honest, it wasn’t until they were all gone until I realized how incredibly good I have it to be an English teacher.

I’m actually feeling pretty guilty. Foreign teachers are paid at least twice the salary  of the Thai teachers, and we are doing half of the work that they do. Additionally, the Thai staff is required to work on Saturdays. I work at a government school, and the Thai labor standards only require one day off of work per week.

Before I saw firsthand what the Thai staff had to go through, I was griping a little about having to work overtime. The principal agreed to give the English Department the day off on Christmas day for covering the Thai staff. I selfishly thought it wasn’t fair, but then I realized how fair my situation actually is in comparison to the other teachers. Honestly, I feel pretty guilty about the situation.

Well now that I’ve gone off on a tangent about the school, I’ll try to get back on track.

Covering for the Thai teachers wasn’t that bad, really. The kids had a half-day, so we were only in charge of taking care of them in the morning. We were able to do a lot of fun Christmas crafts. I had suggested we include something about Hanukkah or Kwanza, but we were given very strict guidelines to keep all bits of religion out of it. It’s a Buddhist school, after all.

I had read online that if you freeze shaving foam that it looks and acts just like snow. My co-teacher and I decided to try it out, and it was wildly successful. The kids had such a great time playing with it, and only a couple of the kids noticed the strong aftershave scent of the snow. They said it smelled like soap, and we told them it was because that is what Santa smells like.  imageI was really excited to teach the kids about Santa and what not. I got really excited because I’d downloaded a few of my favorite Christmas songs onto my computer and I was going to share them with my students. My favorite Christmas music as a kid was the Beach Boys Christmas album, and I was so pumped to play it for them.

I dusted off a pair of speakers and brought them to my classroom, and promised the kids that if they were good throughout the class then we would have a dance party at the end. I plugged in my computer with so much joy and anticipation. I started to play the first Beach Boys song on the album, “Little Saint Nick” and was dancing like a madwoman. I was having so much fun dancing, and then I looked up to watch my kids not even moved. THEY LIKE DANCING SO MUCH. They hated the Beach Boys. I was crushed.

On the day of Christmas Eve, the English contractor that controls the English Program (separate from the school, but still paid by the government) put on a Christmas party for the kids. They had games and prizes, and lots of candy. The kids were free to wear whatever they wanted. Quite a lot of them dressed up in Christmas gear, and a lot of the imagelittle girls decided to be princesses.  I was asked at the last minute if I would be able to dress up as Mrs. Clause. I was pretty excited at the opportunity. When I was getting ready with “Santa” (the British science teacher), they handed me a sweater and a skirt, and that was it. I dug around the office and found a wig, some jingle bells, and some tinsel. I ended up being the younger, more hip version of Mrs. Clause. The kids went absolutely nuts. Because I had a British Mr. Clause, I decided to adopt a high pitch British accent. We had so much fun.

After the exhausting week of school, I sent off to spend my three day weekend on Ko Lanta- or Lanta Island. The trip is about a 3 hour boat ride from Phuket to the east.

I didn’t really have any concrete plans for the island. I’d heard it was a beautiful place to go, and so I booked a cheap hostel and that was all I’d known. When I got there on Friday afternoon, it started to rain right as I got to the beach. I got an hour long massage, and spent the afternoon relaxing. After the rain stopped,  I drank a cocktail and watched the sunset, which was spectacular. image

On Saturday I decided to take a snorkeling tour. It left at 8:00am and returned at 6:00pm, and cost about $20USD (lunch included). The tour started on a longtail boat- the classic boat of Thailand that you’d see if you googled a Thai boat. It was a windy morning and the waves were rough. There was a British guy in the back of the boat who was throwing up during the first half hour. After about an hour of cruising, the boat slowed down to a stop. We weren’t near any of the islands, and the two men in charge of the boat started to fiddle with the engine. They hardly spoke any English.

One of the men came up to the front of the boat and said, “smoking.. no worries…big boat come… no problem.”

imageApparently the engine had died. After about 15 minutes, we were met by a larger tour boat. They transferred us on, and tied up the longtail to the back. We soon found out that we were joining a tour- a much more expensive tour, but “no worries.” It was a huuuge upgrade with complimentary snacks, nice seats, and the option for air conditioning. It was great!

I hadn’t ever been snorkeling before I came to Thailand, but now I’m in love. I wish I had an underwater camera. It is so amazing to be able to see in nature what you’ve only seen in aquariums in doctors offices. I saw sea urchins, puffer fish, parrot fish, angel fish, and tons of crazy coral. image

The last stop of the tour was Emerald Cave, and it falls within the top 5 coolest things I’ve ever seen… ever. Despite it being extremely crowded, it was an amazing experience. It’s basically an island within a cave within a cliff.

The boat pulled up at the side of a tall cliff and let us out of the boat. We swam underneath the bottom of the cliff, and through a magnificent limestone cave. At the entry there was a little bit of sunlight, so you could see the height of the cave and all of the intense shades of pink and green inside. After swimming farther, the sunlight was gone and it was pitch black. Because the cave is so tall, there is plenty of room to stay above the water to swim. The tour required that we all wore life jackets. Thankfully one of the tour guides had a flashlight, so we could see which direction to swim. image

I have to say that up to that point, I was terrified of caves. I think I’ve conquered my fear now, because it was simultaneously the most awesome and horrifying experience. When it went black I thought of turning back. I wasn’t sure I could go much farther, because I was legitimately scared. I went in a little more, and then I saw light on the other side.

Once I got to the other side, I realized that the water was so shallow that I could stand up. The cave opened up to a beach, which was enclosed 360 degrees by limestone cliff and lush jungle. It was breathtaking. It’s hard for me to describe… but basically the island was like a doughnut that you had to swim through a cave to get to the middle. Again, I wish I had a waterproof camera.

Anyhow.

That’s about all I have in me for today. I have two more days of class, and then I have New Years Eve and New Years Day off for a holiday. I’ve decided to buy a plane ticket to head up north and check out Chiang Mai. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things, and I’m pretty excited. I promise I will write about it as soon as I can!!!

I hope everyone had a fantastic Christmas, and I hope that you have a great New Year! Despite my tales of how I am spending my holidays in paradise, there’s still a big part of me that is missing home.

 

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Some General Updates…

I can’t overstate how fast time has been flying. I cannot believe I have been in Thailand for 3 and 1/2 months already.

I haven’t learned much Thai yet. It’s especially hard to learn because I am not allowed to even attempt to speak Thai with my students at school. My friends outside of school don’t speak Thai either, so that doesn’t help. I’ve been making strides in my Thai lessons, but it’s only reading and writing. After about 7 lessons, I’ve learned to write 30 consonants and 15 vowels. There are 5 different tones that I am familiar with, but it’s still so hard. Lately I haven’t had a lot of drive to study in my free time. My Thai tutor is getting a little frustrated with me because we’re not really progressing. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve chosen a tutor that would teach me how to speak first and write later. It’s not very useful to be able to read Thai when you have no idea what you’re saying.

I’ve been trying to force myself to learn a few new words in Thai per day, just by using Google and whatnot. I have been choosing words that relate to food, as ordering food is really the only chance I get to practice (which sounds pretty pathetic, haha). I learned how to say “delicious,” “I can eat spicy,” “I like spicy,” and “very very spicy.”

Before I learned these words, I was being served food that had a little bit of a kick to it, but was pretty tame. I was starting to think that either “Thai hot” was a myth, or that I had just eaten so much spicy food that I wasn’t able to taste it anymore. All of that changed once I learned how to order spicy food in Thai.

The first time I ordered in Thai, I was a little nervous that I was going to say the wrong tone and everyone was going to laugh at me.  I was given a polite smile, a huge discount, and some seriously spicy food. I ordered a  spicy papaya salad that was so hot it turned my lips dark red/purplish. It was so ridiculously hot that about 30 minutes after eating it, I felt the same burn going on in my stomach. I have officially experienced “Thai hot.”

Another word that I learned in Thai that I probably should’ve learned earlier is the word for teacher. In Phuket especially, it is important to establish yourself as an expat and not a tourist. It comes with a larger amount of respect, and seriously cheaper prices.

For example, last weekend I wanted to check out a place called “Paradise Beach.” It’s a private stretch of beach that charges an entry fee to let people access the beach, beach chairs/umbrellas, snorkeling gear, kayaks, stand up paddle boards, and beach volleyball. The standard entry fee is 500 baht (~$15USD) to enter. I smiled politely at the woman at the counter, and told her I was a teacher. One of the employees at the beach has a student at my school, and they immediately treated me like royalty. They let me in for free! I’m not usually one to try to use status for extra perks, but in Phuket it’s necessary. Almost all prices are negotiable here, and it’s critical to distinguish that my salary is paid in Thai Baht and not USD.

That was one of three beaches that I went to last weekend. December has been a little crazy with days off and holidays.

Last week I had a 5 day weekend due to the visa run and the extra day off for Father’s Day on the 7th. Father’s Day in Thailand is set on the king’s birthday, and Mother’s Day is on the queen’s. Everyone wears yellow on Father’s Day because it is the king’s color. Typically at school, we wear yellow on Mondays to honor the king. This year, there was a decree sent out that all government employees must wear yellow the entire month of December. I was a little upset when I got the news, but only because I look horrible in the color yellow!

Anyhow.

Teaching has been going great. My students have really started to grow on me. It is amazing how much psychology goes into teaching. I’m finally getting behavior management under control, but it’s taken a lot of mind games. All of my actions have to be really dramatic- super enthusiastic if I’m teaching a new subject, very serious if I’m trying to be strict. There’s a lot of acting involved.  I love kids so much and it hurts my heart to have to yell at them.

We have one more full week of school, and then the holiday schedule is pretty up in the air.  The Thai teachers are going on a retreat from Dec 21-24, so we will cover their classes, and then they will cover our classes for Christmas Day. After that, the school still hasn’t decided whether or not they’re going to let the English teachers have off the 28th-30th for covering the Thai teachers. the 31st and 1st are public holidays. As it stands right now, I could potentially have off the 25th-3rd, but the school hasn’t decided. It’s so frustrating! I’m trying not to get my hopes up.

Well, that’s the broad scope of updates for now. I heard that Colorado got a lot of snow today, and it’s hard to not get homesick at that! Being away from home over the holidays is definitely tough, but I know that I’ll never regret being where I am for them this year.

OH MY GOODNESS!! I ALMOST FORGOT.

I. FOUND. BAGELS. IN. THAILAND.
Click here! to check out the video I made of my experience. I had to upload it on Facebook instead of Youtube because they got cranky with the copyright issues of the song choices.

Enjoy 🙂

 

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Visa Run to Penang

Yesterday I re-entered Thailand on a Non-Immigrant B Visa (YAY!). Finally, the visa shenanigans are over (for now).

As I have previously mentioned, I was required to go to Penang, Malaysia to apply for the long-term visa, as the school had prepared the work permit paperwork specifically for that embassy. I hadn’t heard great things about Penang, but I went into it with an open mind.

The most common way for teachers here to go on the visa run to Penang is to go by bus through a company that takes care of the transportation, one night in a hotel, and three meals- all for around $125USD. I wanted to fly into Penang and do it on my own, but the cost of the visa company ended up being more attractive than the alternative. The visa itself was an extra $80 USD, and now that I’m on a Thai salary… well, I’ve got to save where I can.

I had spoken with some teachers at the school about the best company to go through. We got to talking about the bus ride down, and they started talking about horror stories.

“A guy in our bus had to slap the driver awake on more than one occasion!”

“Our bus driver was racing with another bus!”

“Did you hear about the bus that crashed and killed 4 people?”

“Seriously, Sarah, just put a blindfold on and try to fall asleep.”

The bus drivers have a horrible reputation for reckless driving. I decided I would choose a seat near the back, pop my headphones in, and try to sleep. The trip left Phuket at 9pm and had an estimated arrival time at the hotel in Penang of 8am(ish).

When the bus showed up, I realized it was less ‘bus’ and more ‘van.’ The van had three rows of three seats. I was the last to be picked up, so I had to sit in the front row, middle seat. There wasn’t any room for my backpack except for beneath my feet. There wasn’t much room between my seat and the center console, so I settled in for the 10 hour bus ride with my legs crossed on top of my backpack.

The driver didn’t waste any time living up to his reputation. Just watching him speed through the roads that I normally drive on made my stomach a little sick. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

I didn’t end up getting much sleep because a) the foot room situation, b) the driver and c) we stopped every 2 hours for 15 minutes so that people could get out. There wasn’t an aisle in the van, so anyone who had to get out was climbing on top of one another to reach the exit. Did I mention there weren’t any seat belts?

We made it to the border by 4:45am, and everyone was pretty groggy. The border didn’t open until 5, and it took about an hour for everyone to get through. There were about 20 vans full of people on visa runs, and they all arrived at the same time. I was one of the last people to make it through immigration, because the guy in front of me was causing some problems. He had overstayed his tourist visa by 3 weeks, and he had to pay a fine of 500baht ($15 USD) per day- so about $280. I actually got a huge laugh out of watching the whole situation unfold. Possibly one of the worst things you can do in public in Thailand is lose your cool. Upon hearing the fine that this guy had to pay, he slammed his fists on the glass and started screaming , “What the F#*$!!! How can you even do that! Why is this happening to me?! You all are f#*!@($ racists! I don’t have that money to pay you!”

I don’t know what happened from there. He didn’t get to cross the border, though.

After the border, we got into a new bus with a Malaysian driver. It was 6am, and he was blasting Indian music for the 2 and 1/2 hr drive to the hotel. He seemed to be a more cautious driver, though, and I somehow ended up in a deep sleep for the rest of the drive.

When we got to the hotel, they had everyone turn in the paperwork for the embassy. I have to say, this is the major perk of going with a company. They go to the embassy and do the dirty work while you sit back and do whatever you want. My hotel room was really cute! It had a TV with a lot of English channels, so I was able to relax and watch  some TV. Unfortunately, the news of the San Bernardino shooting was on every channel. I felt sick about the news.  I turned off the TV and decided to go wander the city. After hearing about the 355th mass shooting in the United States this year, I found myself in a Muslim country worrying about my friends and family back in the States. I’m not trying to start a debate. Just sayin’.

I went into Penang with a few goals. Don’t die on the bus ride there, secure a B visa, and eat my body weight in Indian food. The hotel I was staying at was about a 5 minute walk from Little India, and so I went to check it out.   I found a little Indian vegetarian place to eat lunch, and my experience was hilarious. They had a bunch of different “thalis” on the menu, which I learned are a bunch of different dishes served in little bowls around a plate of rice. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew that the place was vegetarian, so I couldn’t go wrong and order any crazy mystery meat. I ended up ordering “the MAHARAJA” because, well, come on guys, who wouldn’t order the MAHARAJA?! It was the only dish on the menu that was spelled in all capital letters,  and was the most expensive- coming in at a whopping $3USD. image

I was the only foreigner in the place, and so I thought everyone was staring at me because I was a foreigner. I looked at everyone else’s plates, and they had dumped out the mini bowls, and  were eating everything with their hands. I was sitting in the middle of the restaurant eating the MAHARAJA from each individual bowl with a spoon. I caught some people staring at me, and I started laughing with them. One of them said, “It’s okay, girl! You have the freedom to eat however you want!”

I’ll never forget that.

imageI had a nice time looking through the traditional Indian shops of Little India, but the heat of the city was absolutely unbearable.  I went back to my hotel and fell asleep for 4 hours. When I woke up, I set out for round 2 of Indian food.

 

I made it about a block from the hotel when a short and round Indian woman with a warm smile asked me if I was hungry. She was quite a character. I didn’t really look at the menu, because she convinced me that she could make a really good red curry chicken. She wasn’t kidding.image She brought me out some cheesy garlic naan and papadum to go with it all. It’s safe to say that it was the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten. I know I said that about the food in Kuala Lumpur, but this was so much more. She fed me until I had to beg her to take the food away.

Ok, ok, I need to stop rambling about Indian food now.

Thursday was the only full day I got to spend in Penang, and I think I spent it well. I woke up at 7am on Friday to a call from the front desk, saying that check out is at 8 and the passports would be there soon. We all piled back into the bus and were back on the road. Indian music and all.

The trip back home was miserable. I hate to be a whiner about it, but it was bad. This weekend is a holiday weekend for the king’s birthday, and we hit some really bad traffic. Going through immigration back into Thailand was hell. We spent an extra hour at the Thai border because we had arrived 5 minutes after a massive tour bus, and also because we had a Turkish man in our group. They pulled him aside and did who knows what with him, just because Turkey is on a list of suspicious countries. We all had to put 200 baht (~$6USD) in our passports to bribe the immigration officers. It wasn’t even by choice. The driver of our van basically didn’t let us get out of the van without doing it. He said that it would cause major problems if we didn’t. Gotta love Thailand.

When we got back into the Thai van, a Swedish girl asked me to trade seats because she felt sick. I didn’t have a problem with it, and gladly switched seats with her. I was filled with instant regret. Not only was the seat in the back of the bus, but it was right next 2 Russian dudes that wouldn’t stop talking. The one who was sitting directly next to me was 50 shades of repulsive. I didn’t care to ask his name, so I’ll just refer to him as Vladimir.

Vladimir was the most obnoxious person I think I’ve ever seen in public. There were 9 exhausted passengers in the bus, and he was talking louder than I talk to a classroom of 30 kindergartners during heavy construction. When his friend didn’t want to talk to him anymore, he made phone calls. He took his shoes and socks off and rested his feet on the headrest of the poor lady in front of him. He elbowed me so many times that I started to anticipate the next one.   I quickly understood why the Swedish girl wanted to move up front. Every time we stopped for a rest break, he went into the 7/11 and came out with handfuls of junk food. Not chips and candy, but 7/11 “hot meals.” Keep in mind this is SE Asia. He hobbled into the bus with mincemeat sandwiches, shrimp burgers, and pork meatballs. Remember Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka? Vladimir was the Russian version of that kid. I really wanted to discreetly take a picture of him for the blog, but didn’t dare look in his direction with all of the nasty burps he was letting out.

Sheesh. I hate to be so negative about the whole thing, but the trip back was seriously miserable.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed to arrive back at my apartment. Now I have a three day weekend, and all I want to do is sleep. That trip was exhausting. I realized that I really only saved about $40 by doing the bus trip. If I ever have to do another Thai visa run, I am going by plane!!!

 

 

 

 

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Loy Krathong in Phuket

I won’t lie, the holidays are hitting me right in the feels, and I am homesick. Luckily, the Loy Krathong Festival happened to be the day before Thanksgiving this year, so I was given a nice distraction from being far away from my family.

I had read up on a few holidays before coming to Thailand, and Loy Krathong was one I had flagged as  “not to miss.” I saw pictures on Google and in guide books that showed thousands of paper lanterns floating up into the night sky. That was basically my idea of what it was supposed to be.  You would think I’d know by now that I need to stop drawing expectations from what I see online. The total number of lanterns I saw? One.

Loy Krathong (important note here that the “h” is silent) is an annual tradition of creating floating vessels (krathongs) and sending them off into a body of water to send away the bad energy, wish for good luck, and pay respect to the water gods. It is also a bit of a romantic holiday. I’ve read so many different interpretations of the holiday, so any information I’m going to provide here is based solely off of observation and imageinformation from my coworkers.

On Wednesday morning, my Thai teacher insisted I be in her classroom at
1pm. It’s normally my planning period, but she told me she wanted my help with making krathongs with the students. I was excited about the opportunity, because I didn’t really know what they were traditionally made from, let alone how to make one. Making krathongs with the kids ended up being a blast, as I think they helped me more than I helped them.

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This is Silmee! (Pronounced “Simee”)

The base is traditionally made from a stump of a banana tree. It is wrapped with banana leaves that are pinned into place with little metal pins. It is decorated with flowers (and lettuce, and whatever else you can find), and 3 incense sticks and a candle for good luck. Something that really caught my attention was everyone’s willingness to share materials. Each kid brought in their own grocery bag full of tree stumps, banana leaves, flowers, and pins. I was amazed to see kids walk over to each other and reach into their classmate’s bag to find a flower they needed, and nobody cared. I don’t think I’ve seen children interact in such a collective manner. Since I didn’t have any materials  to make my krathong, they insisted I use theirs. Some of the kids’ krathongs came out much better than mine, but I think it was okay for my first try!

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This is Nudee- probably my most artistically inclined student.

After the sun sets, the krathongs are taken to a body of water, where the candles and incense are lit and the little boats are floated away. Some of the teachers invited me to go with them to Saphan Hin- a park in Phuket Town with the biggest celebration of Loy Krathong on the island. The park is on the eastern coast with ocean access, and also has a lake in the middle. The water in the ocean was choppy, so everyone was floating them in the lake. At first I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t release mine into the ocean, and then I realized that in the excitement of the holiday, I hadn’t realized how horrible the festival is for the environment.

Floating away the bad energy in the ocean seems so mystical, but in reality it’s kind of a mess. My krathong was made from banana leaves and imageflowers, but it also had a ton of metal pins in it. Other peoples’ boats were made with plastic, or sugary cake. Some of them were made out of fish food, which is something I can get behind, but for the most part, they were not really good for fish. I figured that releasing it into the lake had better odds of it being disposed of properly.

It is good luck to send off the krathongs with a lock of hair and money tucked into them.  I couldn’t believe that some people were swimming in the lake and picking through the krathongs to find the money in them! Nobody said anything about it. I took a picture of some of the krathongs in the water, and then a little boy popped up out of nowhere and counted the money he had found.

imageAfter about an hour of watching the festivities, I asked a coworker about the paper lanterns I’d seen in pictures on Google. I had previously seen in the news that they were banned from Phuket, but I thought it was for environmental reasons. She told me that they were banned because they were flying high enough to potentially be sucked into the engine of an airplane. Not for environmental reasons.

Loy Krathong is definitely magical, but after all is said and done, I feel bad for the environmental cost of having such a holiday. The following day, I read in the news that a mass cleanup of the park generated 14 tons of trash. WHAT!! That’s insane. For a holiday meant to give thanks to the water gods, and water as a resource, it’s pretty crazy to celebrate by polluting the waterways. Even so, the krathongs that were made from organic material are going to be sitting in a landfill and not biodegrading. It’s a pretty crazy palm-to-face realization that the celebration is magical and whatnot, but it’s coming at the cost of the environment.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy the cutesy pictures of us trashing the environment. *sigh*

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Koh Yao Noi

Despite having going to Koh Yao Noi the night before I had written my last post, I thought that the island experience deserved a story to itself. As promised, here it is:

With the chaos of school last week, I had decided that my weekend was going to be spent on a peaceful island. Instead of searching the web for the “best getaways near Phuket,” I decided to ask around to some of the teachers at my school to see what their opinion was on the best place to go. My only request was that it was a relatively short ferry ride.

I thought about going back to Phi Phi, since it’s absolutely beautiful, but I wanted to experience a new place. I love going to Phi Phi, but the ferry takes about an hour and a half. It’s also packed with tourists, advertising, and overpriced meals. Oh, that reminds me. It has been brought to my attention to note that the correct way to pronounce “Phi Phi” is “pee pee.” I’ve gotten so used to saying it that the silly factor doesn’t phase me anymore. Same with Phuket. It is pronounced “poo ket,” but it’s still a little bit funny to say it the way it looks like it should sound.

Talk about a tangent.

My teacher friends recommended I go to the island of Koh Yao Noi, as it’s a short trip away from the Phuket mainland, and is a laid back place to relax for a weekend. I didn’t fully comit to the mini-trip until it was Saturday morning. My body’s alarm clock has been set at 6:00am since I’ve been waking up for school, and doesn’t turn off for Saturdays. I took advantage of it and decided to head out early.

The best pier to leave for the island is in the north of Phuket, and it’s called Bangrong Pier. A friend had told me that you can catch certain longtail boats that will allow you to bring your motorbike with you. I found a schedule online and saw that the first longtail left at 9:15, so I set out at 8:30 to make it on time. It’s normally a 30 minute trip.

imageThe pier itself was nothing like I had expected. I have previously left for trips on Rassada Pier, which is a highly commercialized port for ferries. Bangrong Pier is a completely different story. It’s a pier in a rural northern Muslim community, with its main traffic being fishing boats. I was expecting it to be a tourist extravaganza, so of course I stood out, as I was wearing a tank top and jean shorts with flip flops. Everyone was extremely friendly though.

Traffic ended up being horrible, and I didn’t make it to the pier until 9:20. I had missed the boat that would allow me to take my bike with me, and the next one wasn’t leaving until 12:30. There was a speed boat leaving at 9:50, so I decided to leave my bike behind. Luckily there was a house with a garage nearby advertising bike security for 20TBH ($0.56 USD)/day. I dropped off the bike and got onto the speed boat.

The speed boat ride was choppy, and a little scary at that. Each wave that we hit rattled the boat and made an unsettling sound. After we had been imagegoing for about 15 minutes, we heard the captain yell something and he stopped the boat. There was a little bit of panic within the passengers on the boat (there were maybe 10 of us), and we were all looking around to see what happened. We eventually saw another boat pull up beside us, and an old man got off the front of the boat and onto ours. Everyone laughed a little bit after we saw it.

The boat ride took a little under 30 minutes, and was beautiful scenery throughout. Once we had arrived on the island, we were surrounded by a few motorbike taxi drivers who were looking for customers. I asked the driver if he knew of any bikes to rent, and he immediately showed me over to one. His price was 300baht (~$8 USD) , which is a little steep by Phuket standards, but I decided it was worth it to explore the island.  He handed over a helmet and the keys, and told me to leave it back where I found it when I was done. I was amazed that he didn’t ask to see my passport or make me sign any paperwork. Later I had explained my surprise to a local, and she said, “It’s a small island. There’s one way in and out is at that pier. He knows you’re not going anywhere.”

The immediate vibe that I got from the island was absolute tranquility. After I had driven off of the pier, I found myself driving through beautiful green shrubs and flowers on my way to my accomodation. There were more butterflies than I’ve ever seen in nature. So many butterflies that the drive through the island left me in some deep contemplation that when you’re on a bike, your face is the windshield. The sheer amount of bugs that get smashed onto the windshield while driving a car, well, that was pretty much the face cover of my bike helmet.

The island has a reputation for preserving its local feel, and frowns upon any sort of commercial development. They are huge proponents of ecological conservation, and there was only one 7-11 on the island. This is quite a feat, as 7-11s in Thailand are normally across the street from one another. The “untouched” feel of the island was a huge breather from the tourist overload of Phuket.

imageBefore I had left Phuket I had found a bungalow online that was close to the beach. I splurged a little (Note: By splurge I mean I spent $28 USD), and went for one with great reviews. I was not disappointed.

The bungalow was an uphill hike away from the main road. It was surrounded by lush jungle, and I felt totally secluded. All I could hear were the sounds of jungle. It was awesome!! There was a hammock on the little balcony, and I spent almost 2 hours just lying there enjoying the peace. It was the definition of tranquility.

The location was also killer. It was only about a 2 minute walk from the beach. The beach had an incredible view of the notorious limestone cliffs of the Andaman Sea. I think there were maybe 4 other people on the beach. I found a deserted hammock in the shade, and did about 2 more hours of relaxing in a hammock.image

The bungalow was on the eastern side of the island, and I wanted to see the sunset, so I drove all the way across to the western side to see the sunset. It took me a whopping 11 minutes. I found a seafood restaurant with a perfect view. I ordered blue crab, and watched as the chef walked down to the dock and pulled the crab out of a net in the ocean. I think it’s safe to say it was the most delicious crab I’ve ever eaten, and one of the most peaceful nights spent watching the sun set.

Although my time in Koh Yao Noi was brief, it was just the type of relaxation I needed after a crazy couple of weeks of teaching kindergarten. I am so incredibly spoiled to have paradise in my backyard.

 

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Week 2 of Kindergarten

I’m starting to get into the swing of things, and  now time is flying by.

Working at the school hardly feels like work. The teachers at the school are all wonderful, and make for great company throughout the day. The English department has teachers from all over- the U.S., South Africa, Scotland, England, Ireland, Australia, and of course Thailand. Everyone brings their own slang and dialects, and I can’t imagine how my vocabulary will change over the next year. So far, I’ve caught myself using the words “mates” “keen” and “proper” in ways that I hadn’t before I had arrived. To my students I am supposed to use the word “trainers” for tennis shoes, but I don’t think that word will stick with me. Same with “jumper” for sweater. I won’t be calling it that when I get home.

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This is Paeng. She is the sweetest little girl in my class. Always well behaved, and she’s crazy smart. She’s a little doll.

The students have really started to adjust to me, and I’m impressed at how quickly they’ve done it. The construction at the school has me shouting out my lessons, but the kids are still managing to pay attention. The construction outside of our classroom is set to last at least another two months, which nobody is too excited about. It is rumored that the whole Kathu District is supposed to be without power for the next 2 weeks. That should be interesting. Hopefully it will give us a break from the construction!

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but our classroom is open-air. So far it hasn’t been too hot, but we’re technically not in the hot season yet. If 87 degrees is not considered the hot season, I’m curious to see what is. I like the open air room, as we have some critters that come and go as they please. These are including, but not limited to: dragonflies, giant bees, birds, lizards, and dogs. It’s hard to keep the kids under control when a critter enters the room. The other day a giant bee flew into the classroom, and my attention span matched that of my students.

The Thai teacher in my classroom, Fee, is awesome and we get along great. She is always willing to step in when I need help, but she keeps her distance otherwise. She is 7 months pregnant, so she’s training a new teacher to take over for when she’s on maternity leave. Here’s the depressing part:

The principle told Fee that she is to keep her pregnancy a secret. She is single, and a Muslim, so the pregnancy is frowned upon. Fee has been wearing giant if dresses, but compared to her small frame you can definitely tell she’s not just gaining weight. I’ve heard that she won’t be on maternity leave for long, because once the baby is born she has to give it to her parents to raise because she doesn’t have a partner.

She is always smiling though. Thai people, I tell you what.

It’s crazy to think that I’ve only been teaching for two weeks, but I’ve been affected as a person. Something about guidingimage 30 five-year-olds makes you feel like you should be a better human being. It’s like having 30 mirrors staring back at me. I so badly want to be a positive role model for them. The picture on the right is from our P.E. class on Wednesday. I HATED P.E. growing up. I’ve always wished I were more enthusiastic about physical activity. I guess now I’m going to have to learn!

On Friday I received the great news that my work permit was finally processed. I  found out a little more about what the holdup was. The school I’m teaching at has a contract with an “English Language Provider” so a company that is paid to help staff teachers at schools around the island. The company is basically HR for the school’s English programs. They are in charge of processing all of my paperwork as it relates to the work permit and teaching license. The school signs a yearly contract with the provider, and usually it is a smooth process. Well, this year the guy at the very top of the organization died. His replacement came in and wanted to review every last detail of the contract with the school. Neither the school nor the company knew with 100% certainty that the contract was going to go through. Apparently the entire English department had their jobs on the line. I was still on vacation when this was going on, so I had no idea.  It usually takes about 1 week to process a work permit, and mine took about 6 weeks. Now I can leave the country and re-enter on a Non-Immigrant B Visa.

I was talking to my supervisor about when I could leave the school to do my visa run. On Friday, December 4th, normal classes are cancelled and the students come to school for Father’s Day activities. I’m not sure if I’ve previously mentioned, but Father’s Day is always on the king’s birthday. I’m under the impression that it’s less about biological fathers and more about the king. There are shirts everywhere that say “I love Dad” and have a picture of the king on them.

Anyhow, the normal classes are cancelled on Friday, and then Monday is the official observance of the holiday, so schools are cancelled. I’ll have to leave Wednesday night in order to have 2 business days to process the paperwork. I am going to get to have a 5 day weekend to leave the country and get everything taken care of. I got really excited, because I heard that the Thai embassy in Singapore is really nice and efficient, and I wanted to go because, well, it’s a weekend trip to Singapore. I started looking into flights ($45 round trip, at that), when one of the teachers told me to make sure the paperwork wasn’t written for a specific embassy. Sure enough, we asked the secretary and she said it’s all addressed to the embassy in Penang, Malaysia. I was a little bummed, but it’s still a new place. I’m going to try to get my paperwork done quickly so then I can hop on a plane to Singapore for the 3 day weekend. Wow, I’m so spoiled. I’m just going to “hop on down to Singapore.”

Speaking of spoiled…

With another long and exhausting week of school finished, I decided to get out of the city and head over to the island of Koh Yao Noi for the weekend. My experience on the island was amazing, and it will definitely require its own blog post (coming soon!)

Here’s a fun fact to leave you with:

My school is a Buddhist school, so the kids say a prayer at assembly every morning. There are 2 kids in my class who aren’t Buddhist, so they just stand with their hands at their sides. Every Thursday, everyone wears white because the school goes vegetarian. Pretty cool!

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Teaching Kindergarten in Thailand- Week 1

Well I’ve officially survived my first week of teaching kindergarten, and boy was it a crazy week.

Banmaireab school is a government primary school that offers bilingual classes starting at the kindergarten level and going up through 6th grade. I’m not too sure how the structure of it is all setup, but I know that parents can select from three different programs to place their kids in- either 100% of the classes taught in Thai, the majority of the classes taught in Thai with a couple of English classes per week, or 60% of the classes taught in English every day. I know that there is a cost difference between them all, but I was told that our English Programme (yes, it’s spelled correctly) costs the most. It costs about 25% of the cost of sending a child to an international bilingual school. The class size is maxed out at 30 for the kindergarten, but there is a huge waiting list.   As a kindergarten teacher, I am teaching three hours of English to the same 30 students every day. The class is Kindergarten 2, so the kids are all either 6 six years old, or 5 turning 6 during the year. There is a Thai teacher in my class who has a desk in the room, and she is available to help me if necessary.

I had been into the school two times before the school started. At the very end of September I was able to sit in on three classes and observe a little bit of the procedures, but it definitely wasn’t enough. October is vacation month for the teachers and students, so I wasn’t able to do anything inside the school as far as planning goes. Before the break I was given a lesson plan for my first week of teaching and a list of my students’ names. That was it. I felt pretty unprepared going into it all, but the best way to learn how to swim is to be pushed into the water, right?

The first day of school was overwhelming, to say the least. It was basically like, “Okay, you have your lesson plan. Have fun!” I didn’t know anything about basic procedures. Even something as small as letting the kids go to the bathroom. They’re 5 and 6 years old. Am I allowed to tell them no? Can they hold it if I tell them no? Are they manipulating me when they all ask to go at the same time?

Same with going to their backpacks. Some of them walked up and got their supplies from their backpacks. Did they all have those supplies? Am I supposed to always let them use their own? Which supplies do we need for this lesson? Where are they? Oh no. That kid is upset because I told him no. Did the last teacher allow him to do that? I don’t want him to hate me.

Also the same with their level of English. That kid is giving me a blank stare. Does he understand me? Am I talking too fast? Did I use the right language? Does he know how to construct a sentence in English? Is he pretending like he doesn’t understand?

I didn’t realize until midway through the class that I was teaching in front of the class with my shoes on. In kindergarten, everyone is supposed to take their shoes off before they enter the classroom. I had so many things going through my mind, and I completely forgot to take them off. I felt embarrassed. image

When I was about to finish the first class, I went to get the kids’ attention. I said, “Everybody stop what you’re doing and look at me!” I got nothing in return. Everybody went about their business and was acting like I didn’t even exist. I said, “Okay everyone, it’s time to clean up!” Everyone started cleaning, but nobody really stopped talking to listen to me. I felt disrespected and hopeless. I left the class, and I cried a little bit.

I went back to the teachers’ office, and my supervisor asked me how it went. I was all flustered and was a little teary. It was lunch time, and I needed to go cool off.

My afternoons at the school are free of classes and open for me to do whatever work I need to. I spent a lot of time talking to Bronwyn, my supervisor, and tried to figure out where I went wrong. Bronwyn is teaching the other Kindergarten 2 class, so our class structure and lesson plans are the exact same. She basically told me that I need to show the students that I can be scary. It was the piece of information that turned my class around. I was caught up in my own head with Thai culture and showing anger. It has been instilled in me that it is inappropriate to show anger in public. Bronwyn told me to forget about that, and said it didn’t apply to the school setting. Most of the Thai teachers will scream into the kids’ faces. I didn’t need to scream, but I had to show that I was angry with the students if they were acting up.

For the rest of the week, I did not smile, and I was not silly. I didn’t ask the kids, I told them. I brought in a ton of stickers, which I handed out to reinforce positive behavior. Once I gave out a sticker to one kid for being quiet, the rest of the kids were trying really hard to impress me, and they followed suit. It worked very well to encourage positive behavior, but the kids were testing my limits. On the 2nd day, the kids were trying to see how much talking they could get away with. The first time they did not listen when I asked them to be quiet, I got scary.  I was stomping around the classroom and yelling. They all got completely silent. It worked.

Keeping the kids quiet is still a challenge, but it’s a whole lot easier now that I’ve showed them a mean side. I have found that praising good behavior is working better than yelling about bad behavior.  Now that I’ve shown them who is in charge, I am more excited about teaching the content. Classroom management is still a huge mind game, though. I feel like I’m trying to train 30 puppies.

Over the past week, I’ve begun to realize that my predecessor left a mess for me to clean up. She had these students for the first half of the year, and she let them get away with a lot more than I will. It’s a big adjustment for myself and the students alike. The teacher, also named Sarah, was a slob. I hate to be so blunt about it, but she was. She left me a mess with the students’ behavior, the classroom itself, and my desk in the teachers’ office. She didn’t bother to decorate the classroom. It was really a halfhearted effort on her part. My desk in the teachers’ office still had leftover food from before the October vacation. She left a stack of paperwork to file, and a mess of junk to sort through. Trying to find a functional marker for the whiteboard in the classroom was even a struggle. She had a pile of 35, THIRTY FIVE, dry markers next to the board. It was pretty clear that I had my work cut out for me. It’s okay though, because I’m a pro at cleaning up messes.

I am extremely fortunate to have a huge availability of resources at the school as far as crafts go. There are cabinets in the teachers’ office that are full of colored paper, glue, markers, glitter, buttons, sequins, etc. If there is a material that I need for a craft, I am able to ask the school to buy it, or I can buy it and they will reimburse me. The possibilities are endless. On Thursday and Friday night I stayed at the school until 8:00pm working on cleaning, organizing, and decorating. I’ve made a little bit of progress, but I have tons of work to do still. Thanks to Pinterest, I have a huge to-do list for my classroom.

Before

The students previously had a system of table teams, where they were rewarded stars (and ultimately a prize) for working together as a team. I wanted to keep the system, but I hated looking at bulletin board that

had the teams on them. I didn’t even use the system for the first week. The teams were monsters, aliens, robots, and dinosaurs. I decided to freshen it up. It took me forever. To give you an idea of where I started, I had to photoshop most of the clip art to make it look like I wanted it to. The deer was originally a quilting pattern, and the owl had a big “O” across one of his feet. I colored everything with colored pencils. I am pretty proud of the transformation! The kids haven’t seen it yet, but I think they’re going to be excited.

The school normally has wifi, but it isn’t working. The school is under construction right

After

After

now, and it’s very frustrating. The playground was closed off last year because it was hazardous, and they decided they weren’t going to fix it because they’re going to construct a new one. As construction normally goes, the process keeps getting delayed. Right now the kids only have a field of grass to play in.

There was a swimming pool to use for P.E., but they have ripped it out and we’re awaiting a new one. Nobody is really sure when it’s going to be completed. During class on Tuesday, they were working on a building right outside of my classroom. The banging was so loud that I had to scream to talk to the students. Bronwyn’s class is right next door, and she was blown away at how loud it was. Luckily, she’s a doer, and went straight to the head of the school and complained. It hasn’t happened again, but we’ll see.

I don’t have many pictures of the students yet, because I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to be taking them. I just got word that I am able to take as many pictures as I want, and I can also post them online. I’ll make sure to take a lot! My students are super cute. This is Tin Tin (one of my favorites) with his clay chicken. image

I have tons to say, but I won’t bore everyone with all of the details. Here’s a quick little funny story before I go:

On Wednesday, one of my students stood up (when she wasn’t supposed to) and went to her backpack. I sternly said her name, and walked over to find out why. She said, “Teacher. My tooth come out.” and held up a tooth. She asked, “Can I put in my backpack?”  I reacted with excitement, and she shrugged her shoulders. It was just another day to her. I just noticed that she is pictured (above) sitting behind Tin Tin. That’s Opor.

When I asked the other teachers about the teeth, they told me that losing teeth isn’t a big deal here. If the tooth comes from the top row, they will go outside and throw it into the air. If it comes from the bottom, they bury it in the ground.

You learn something new every day.

That’s about all I have for now. Here’s a before/after of my classroom progress. There is so much more to come.

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25 and Feeling Alive

I have to apologize for slacking on the blog lately. Last week I was pretty stuck on what to write about. It’s easy to write out a 2,000 word post after visiting a new city. It’s more challenging to come up with anything to say now that I am adapting, and what was once extraordinary is now becoming normal.

It’s actually hilarious to look at what I consider normal these days. Rats the size of kittens. Geckos larger than rats. Rats, geckos, and kittens existing in a restaurant that received an A+ on their “health inspection.” The fact that McDonald’s delivers.  Watching a family of five fit on a single motorbike. Advertisements for skin bleach. Driving clockwise around a traffic circle. Squid flavored potato chips.  It’s the small things that I’ve started to accept as my reality, but I often forget that all of it was completely mind-blowing two months ago.

My birthday was on Friday, and I had decided to go to the neighboring beach town of Patong to celebrate. Patong is considered the “Las Vegas of Thailand.” Even though it is only 15 minutes to the west of me, I decided to spring for a nice hotel room and stay there (“spring” for a hotel room meaning I spent $30 on a four star hotel). Although the drive is only 15 minutes, it is over a hill that is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Phuket. Instead of driving my bike there, I decided to take a taxi. I felt silly taking a taxi to go stay in a hotel that is 15 minutes from me, but I guess I had just decided it was what I wanted to do for my birthday.

It was a strange feeling to spend the day completely alone. I actually felt very homesick. I tried to make the best of my day though.

I started by going to the beach. It was about a 2 minute walk from my hotel room, which was great. Since I’ve gotten here, imagethe haze from the Indonesian fires has been looming over us. On Friday, the haze cleared for the day and it was the bluest sky I’ve seen since I’ve been in Thailand. A man walked by me with a drink menu, and I bought a cracked open coconut with a straw.I spent a while going back and forth between my beach towel and the water, when I realized I was getting a bit sunburned and wanted to sit in the shade. Because we’re at about 7 degrees above the equator, the sun is crazy strong here. I had applied SPF 50 twice in the hour that I’d been out, and I was still getting pink. I looked for a place to sit in the shade, and as soon as I sat down, I had a man tell me that it was 100 baht to lay my towel where I did. Good ol’ Thailand. Nothing is free for the Westerner.

I ended up leaving and going to a restaurant with a street view. I read somewhere that  Patong has the highest tourist traffic of anywhere in Thailand. I decided to drink a beer and people watch, and I wasn’t disappointed. There were people from all over the world. Even though I was sitting inside of a restaurant, I still had people come up and try to sell me food, bracelets, custom suits, etc. It makes me appreciate living on the other side of the hill, where nobody is trying to sell me anything. I did end up buying a lottery ticket. An old woman convinced me that it was good luck to buy one on your birthday. The drawing for the winning numbers is today, so we’ll see if I won anything!

One of the main reasons I decided to head to the beach town for my birthday was to watch the sunset over the ocean. I googled the best place to watch a sunset in Phuket, and I found a restaurant that was only about a 10 minute drive from where I was staying. It was #1 on a “Top 10 Best Sunsets in Phuket” list, so I was expecting an expensive  and fancy restaurant that would be jam packed full on a Friday. I decided to leave about an hour before the sunset to make sure I had a good seat.

I had asked around to the taxi drivers how much it would cost to take me up there, but none of them had heard of the place or knew what it was. They basically told me “sorry, good luck finding your way up there.” I went onto my GrabTaxi app and booked from there. When the taxi driver showed up, he called me to ask where I was. I looked around and didn’t see the traditional metered taxi, and he said, “over here in the black car!” It was the first time I had used the app and not gotten a standard taxi, and I was confused. He was in a brand new shiny black SUV without a meter. When I asked him about the meter, he said, “This isn’t a metered taxi. This is a private car. Did you realize you booked a private car?” Nope. I didn’t.

I had previously been playing around with the app’s “private car” button to see what the price difference would be, and I guess I didn’t switch it off before booking the taxi. The price for the private ride was going to be about $10, so I just shrugged and got in. He said he had no idea where the place was, so I was his navigator on the way up. I guess it was good that I ended up taking an SUV, because the road turned into a steep dirt road, and the place was pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

After getting out of the car, I was amazed to see that there were only about 5 people in the whole place. I went to pay the imagedriver, and he said, “I want to come check this place out. I’ve never been, and it looks really cool. Don’t worry about paying me.” He parked and we walked up and sat at a table overlooking the bay. The view was absolutely incredible. It was quite the romantic setting, and I was dying laughing on the inside that I was sitting with an old Thai dude enjoying dinner and the sunset. He said that he is a tour guide by day, and enjoys practicing his English. He pulled up a TripAdivsor page with his name and picture, regarding him as “one of the best private tourguides in the south of Thailand.” He told me of some places to go explore while I’m here.

The restaurant itself was very simple. There was a bamboo awning over a bar, and a kitchen in the back. All of the tables were strewn about the edge of the hill, with a 180 degree view of the ocean. It was far enough away from the city that the only noises outside of a few faint conversations were jungle critters and some relaxing music. The bathroom was a bamboo shack on stilts, about a 5 minute walk through the jungle. It had a toilet in the middle of the room that faces a large (open) window with a view out into the jungle. I think it’s save to say that it’s the most peaceful bathroom experience I’ve ever had! I hadn’t gone in until after the sun had set, so I wasn’t able to get a picture.

I ended up talking to the owner, who was a really cool guy. He asked how I’d heard about the place, and he said he had no idea it was online as the #1 sunset spot. He told me that he doesn’t want the place to get too busy and crazy, because he likes the peaceful lifestyle. He, his wife, and son live in a house right behind the restaurant. His wife cooks the food, he tends bar, and his son helps out when he needs to. He plays in a pool league in his spare time, so sometimes he closes the restaurant so he can go to tournaments. He said they have hosted a few weddings, but the total capacity of the place is about 200 people. It was the coolest restaurant I’ve been to in Thailand hands down. The price of the food is on par with a “locals” restaurant, with the most expensive entree priced around $5.image

When I decided it was time to leave, the private driver picked up the tab for my drinks and dinner, and offered me a ride back home. I was very taken back by his generosity, but perhaps a little too naive at the same time. He dropped me off back at my place, and asked for my number and wanted to know when he could see me again. Yikes. My 25th birthday is the day I accidentally went on a date with an old Thai man.

Overall, it was a great birthday. It wasn’t anything like I had expected, but that’s pretty much the theme of this experience in Thailand. Everything is unexpected.

Tomorrow is the first day of school for me, and I’m so nervous. Even though the kids are five and six years old, I feel intimidated for my first day. The school was closed over most of the vacation, so I didn’t get a chance to decorate the classroom. I’m also not sure which resources are available to me as far as printing, colored paper, etc. I had two days at the school to see the layout, receive my roster, and look over my lesson plan. I ended up making a sticker chart so I can immediately start with positive reinforcement for good behavior.  The decorations will come soon enough. I feel pretty unprepared, but I’m going in armed with stickers, pencils, and chocolate, so nothing can go wrong, right?

imageI’m sure I’ll have loads to write after the first few days of school, so hopefully I won’t leave you hanging too long for the next post.

Anyhow, that’s about all I have. Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes!!! I miss you all!!!

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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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