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Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

 

 

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TEFL in Thailand- Rants and Realities

 

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

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

All of this makes my head spin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you say “white privilege” in Thai?

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

It just doesn’t feel right.

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

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

Sheesh. This post has gotten deep. Oops.

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

The plan is:

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

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

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

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

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Expat Life in Phuket

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

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

Here’s what I love about life in Thailand:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of motorbikes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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Happy New Year from Chiang Mai!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday!!!

 

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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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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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