It’s Christmas Time in (and out of) the City

Similar to the United States, it’s been “Christmas Time” in the Czech Republic for the last month and a half now. True, there’s not the same level of craziness as you come by in the States- houses aren’t decorated roof-to-basement in lights and there’s not as big of a “shop till you drop” atmosphere here. However, signs of the approaching holiday comes out earlier in the Czech Republic as there’s no “roadblock” (aka- Thanksgiving) keeping the Christmas spirit at bay until mid/end of November.

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No complaints here though. As someone who relishes the holidays, I’ve enjoyed the decorated malls and shops, Czech hot chocolate, and the Christmas tree stand that has popped up across the street from my flat.

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Czech hot chocolate is a delicious and dangerous concoction- with more chocolate than liquid, it’s like drinking chocolate fondue. Again, no complaints.

But lets rewind back to the start of the holiday season (for Americans, anyway). Obviously, Thanksgiving is not celebrated in the Czech Republic. (Interestingly enough, Black Friday is…). Rather than ignoring Thanksgiving, though, I took this as an opportunity to discuss America’s history of Thanksgiving and current traditions with my students. And of course, introduce food-related vocabulary. I had my students ‘research’ foods typically eaten on Thanksgiving and create their own “Thanksgiving Menus.” It was funny to answer questions about stuffing and pumpkin soup.

Note for future lesson planning- talking about food is always a good idea.

After teaching about Thanksgiving all week, I was properly hungry for a Thanksgiving feast. Fortunately for me, I was blessed with 2 Thanksgiving dinners- a vegan one with my friends on Thursday night and a traditional Thanksgiving one thrown by our CIEE coordinators that Friday.

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CIEE Staff and Teachers

The following Saturday (December 1st), a few of my friends and I got together to go to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Old Town Square. A Christmas market place had been constructed in the square and vendors were selling drinks, snacks and crafts. The place was a little too packed for my liking, but with hot apple cider and mulled wine in hand, we endured. And, of  course, it was worth it once the Christmas tree was lit.

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Another thing that has popped up all around Prague are Christmas markets. Most of the markets sell the same things, but it’s still nice to visit them to “get into the Christmas spirit” and pick up some traditional Czech food.

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Christmas market at Náměstí Míru

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Christmas market at Anděl

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Christmas market at Prague Castle

In addition to Christmas markets around Prague, my school had a Christmas Market where students baked food and sold handmade crafts to teachers and parents. Some of my students even constructed a “vending machine” that released muffins.

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All of a sudden, all my students knew enough English to ask me to visit their booths and buy something from them. Fortunately/unfortunately, I was able to use the fact that I’m a teacher to explain why I can’t buy something from all of them. I did buy a candle though and splurged on some sushi that my students were assembling and wrapping (not exactly Czech or Christmas-y, but who can say no to sushi?)

As with Thanksgiving, I have also been having English conversations with my 4th and 5th grade students about Christmas. I’ve had them tell me about Czech Christmas traditions and compare them to American Christmas traditions. Here’s what I’ve learned from my students:

  1. Santa does not visit the Czech Republic. Instead, children get and open their presents from Ježíšek (baby Jesus) on December 24th.
  2. A traditional Czech Christmas dinner consists of carp fish and potato salad and kánočka (a braided sweet bread) and cukroví (sugar cookies) for dessert.
  3. Some families buy their carp fish alive and keep it for a day or two in their bathtubs. This is an older tradition though and some of my students didn’t even know what I was talking about when I asked.
  4. Originating from a Pagan belief, people are not supposed to eat meat on Christmas Eve until dinner time. To keep kids from snitching, they are told that if they wait to eat meat, they might see a “Golden Pig”
  5. Some people hollow out walnuts and make a boat with the shell. They then light a candle in it and put it in water to see how it floats. How your walnut boat fares determines what the next year will bring you.
  6. Some families heat chunks of lead and then quickly place the metal liquid in water. You then are supposed to predict your future by examining the design that is made after the metal re-hardens.
  7. Some families cut apples in half horizontally. If the core makes a star, you have good luck. If it makes a cross, you’re in bad luck

To see what these Czech traditions and more look like, check out my favorite Czech YouTuber: The Honest Guide

With my first grade students, I did a letter exchange with one of my teacher friend’s classes back in the United States. My students got super excited at the idea of exchanging letters with American children and had fun drawing Christmas pictures (we can’t really write in English yet in 1st grade). They also thought the English names of the students they were assigned to were hilarious. Fortunately we got the Christmas letters from my teacher friend just this week. We read the letters to my students and they went crazy to hear phrases they could understand (“My favorite color is…” ; “I am _____ years old”).

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Some of my students posing with their American Christmas cards.

Another way I got into the Christmas spirit this year was by taking a day trip to Český Krumlov.

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Český Krumlov

Located 2 hours south of Prague, Český Krumlov is a picturesque town taken directly from a storybook. So much so, that it is actually a Unesco World Heritage Site. While high season is during the summer, I wanted to go during December to see the village decorated like a holiday Christmas card.

Two fellow CIEE participants, Elisabeth and Keenan, accompanied me for this trip. We left Prague early on Saturday morning by bus and arrived in Český Krumlov at 10am. Luckily, the entire town in easily accessible by foot. And I wouldn’t recommend visiting any other way- Český Krumlov’s cobblestoned streets are meant to be viewed and admired.

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While I think the town would have looked especially cute with a fresh layer of snow on the ground, I was thankful that we didn’t get any while there- I’m not one who enjoys walking on snowy/slippery roads. The beginning of the day was actually sunny:

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As it was off-season, some of the main sights were closed for winter (giving me an excuse to go back and visit later next year). This, however, was a good thing because I didn’t feel any sense of urgency to explore and visit everything in one day.

In fact, after grabbing some coffee in a café, Elisabeth, Keenan, and I spent most of the day walking around on foot.

We visited some shops:

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The amount of puppets was plentiful

Checked out the small, but beautiful Church of St Vitus:

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And also stumbled upon yet another Christmas Market in the Town Square where the three of us split a large serving of freshly made fries and potato wedges.

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Next, we headed up to the Castle Tower where, after climbing many steps, you are rewarded with 360 degree views of Český Krumlov.

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Český Krumlov cut into two by the Vltava River

We then headed over to Český Krumlov’s Renaissance castle. Unfortunately, the inside of the castle is closed during winter months. However, we were still able to check out the castle grounds, which gives you even more great views of the town.

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Again, while Český Krumlov might be ideal to visit in the summer, it was still well worth the visit in winter to get in the Christmas mood.

For Christmas and New Years this year, I will be in Italy. My next blog post will be all about my adventures there. In the meantime, I hope everyone has an amazing Christmas/New Years. See you in 2019!

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Birthday Travels Year II- Amsterdam

I have to say, I’ve been very spoiled during the month of October for the last two years. Last year, I woke up on my birthday in a resort on one of the most beautiful islands in Thailand (Railay Beach). This year, I spent my 26th in Amsterdam with my sister, Jac, and her boyfriend, Michael.

While the weather and sights were at the opposite end of the spectrum this year, my birthday was once again absolutely amazing and full of unique experiences.

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Admittedly, the start of the weekend was a bit rocky from my own doing; since I am a rather cheap person, I decided to take an overnight bus from Prague to Amsterdam right from school. At the time of booking online, it seemed like a good idea- I could save some money and I was used to taking overnight buses in Thailand.

However, I failed to take into account that I would be stuck in my teacher’s clothing for a 14-hour solo bus ride. With no leg room. Without any Wifi (read- without Netflix). And with a chatty person sitting next to me. And I forgot to bring a book. It was a verrrrryyyyy long night.

At 5:30am the next morning, the bus dropped us sleep-deprived people off at a random bus station on the outskirts of Amsterdam. With no WiFi, I had no clue what to do from here. Thankfully, I had become friends with my chatty neighbor, Raj, on the bus at this point and just followed him to figure out how to get to the center of town.

Unfortunately, to get to said center, I had to wait outside in a long line for a transportation pass from the only functioning ticket machine. I immediately lost the feeling of my toes, ears, and nose from the blasts of icy wind. However, I did meet another new friend, Olia, from the Ukraine.

After navigating the underground (incorrectly- we were supposed to take the train instead of the metro), we made it to the Amsterdam Centraal Station. Which, by the way, is a gorgeous building for the amount of chaos that goes through here on the daily:

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We arrived here before dawn though, so it was pitch black and all of Amsterdam was still sleeping.

Olia was just visiting Amsterdam for the day, but she was nice enough to keep me company as she waited for stores to open up and I waited for my sister’s plane to arrive. We talked about traveling (obviously) and how people from different cultures regard each other. Meeting two new people from totally different backgrounds, yet with similar mindsets, was a nice way to begin my birthday.

Around noon, my sister and I finally found each other (it was rather difficult as the station was large and we both had limited WiFi access). After figuring out how to stow away our luggage and grabbing a bite to eat, we were ready to explore Amsterdam!

In my opinion, the best way to see a new city is just to walk around and take in the surrounding sights.

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Very easy to do in Amsterdam with its intricate network of canals, cookie-cutter brick houses, cheese museums, bikers, and people enjoying the benefits of legal “coffeeshops” everywhere.

We did, however, sign up for an hour boat tour of the canals. IMG_3345

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Totally recommend doing. For me, it was a way to learn some history and see the city from a new perspective (literally). For Michael, this was a way to catch up on his zzzzz’s. To each their own.

Afterwards, we hauled our belongings to our Airbnb and I was finally able to change out of my teaching clothes. Later that night, we ate at a very traditional Dutch place for dinner. No pictures though because we were too hangry at that point.

The next day, we went to the Rijksmuseum to view some art and check out the library:

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We then stumbled upon this famous sign:

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People were clambering all over the letters and I half expected (maybe hoped?) to see someone fall. You could just feel the tension as everyone not-so-subtly tried to push people out of their photo backgrounds.

After stopping at an open market and replenishing with street food, we then headed over to the Van Gogh Museum.

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Now, my favorite Van Gogh painting is Starry Night (I know, very unoriginal). I was looking forward to seeing the painting and picking up socks with the Starry Night design on them, which would inevitably be at the gift shop. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve wanted these socks for years. Perfect time to get them!

Well, as it turns out, the Starry Night painting is not in the Van Gogh Museum. In fact, it’s not even in Van Gogh’s home country. Rather, it’s all the way in… the MoMA in New York City. No socks for me.

Cool. So I was 3 hours away from this painting for most of my life… too bad I live 4,000 some miles away now…

We didn’t stay out late while in Amsterdam. Mostly because the temperatures dropped very low at night and the wind was that piercing cold that you associate with the dead of winter. In a way, this was okay because on Day 3 we woke up early for the part of Amsterdam that I was looking forward to the most:

A visit to the Anne Frank house.

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The Anne Frank House

Like many people, I have read The Diary of Anne Frank. In fact, I’ve read her diary multiple times. Each time I’ve read it, I imagined the Secret Annex to look a certain way. Walking through it for real then was a mind-numbing experience. The rooms were much more dark and small than I had imagined. To see all the artifacts- from Anne’s playing marbles to her photographs still hung on her walls- was chilling.

Visiting the Anne Frank house was probably the most meaningful part of the trip for me.

After, the 3 of us had breakfast at a pancake house nearby (none of us got pancakes though) and then walked over to the cheese museum where I had my second breakfast of free cheese samples. It was heaven.

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Seriously, if you are in Amsterdam, do NOT miss going to a cheese museum.

After, the rest of the day was spent walking along the canals, drinking at cafés, shopping, and going to the flower market:

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The Christmas decorations come out even before Halloween in Amsterdam

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This is how these Dutch people stay fit after eating all that cheese

Before returning to Prague though, I had to do one more thing that you simply have to do when in the Netherlands- eat a Dutch Pancake.

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Mind you, this was a big Dutch Pancake on a big plate

I blame the lighting for why this doesn’t look as appetizing as it was delicious.

And, like every good trip, it comes to an end too soon. The next morning, I took a 1.5 hour flight back to Prague.

Please note for a future reference:

Bus ride + 14 hours = miserable Deanna     Plane ride + 1.5 hours = happy Deanna

The next day, Jac and Michael flew into Prague too so that I could show them my neck of the woods for a few days.

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Thanks for the amazing birthday weekend, guys!

D-enna in Vienna

Time for another long overdue post! This time on last month’s trip to Austria. More specifically, Vienna.

Admittedly, I did not know much about Austria prior to the trip. Nor did I do a whole lot of research beforehand. The only visualization I had of the country was Julie Andrews singing “The Hills Are Alive” in the Sound of Music. And the setting for that movie wasn’t even in Vienna.

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Not a green rolling hill in sight

What I did know about Vienna was that it was a mere 4.5 hour train ride from Prague. Perfect for my first weekend trip outside the Czech Republic.

That Friday, I met my friends (Olivia, Stevie, and Kelsey) at the train station directly from school. Everything went smoothly enough- we boarded on time and enjoyed snacks and movies as our train moved along the countryside. As someone who never takes trains (especially along the countryside), I felt a little like I was on the Hogwarts Express.

We arrived in Vienna late in the evening and immediately wanted to get to our hostel to put our stuff down and get some sleep. Problem was, our train stop ended up not being where we thought it was. And so, instead of a 5 minute walk to our hostel, we were closer to an hour’s walk. After wandering around trying (and failing) to figure out the metro/train stops, we caved and called an Uber to take us to our place. Awww well.

Our hostel ended up being a pretty nice place with a location that placed us between all the sites we wanted to see in the next three days. Since there were 4 of us, we got a room all to ourselves.

Day 1 started with Vienna’s well-known coffee and breakfast at a Austrian café where our waiter actually ended up being Czech. And here I could have used my limited Czech as opposed to my severely limited German the whole time…

After, we took a 30 minute walk on over to the Saturday morning flea market.

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The flea market was huge! Unlike the Saturday morning market I’m used  to in the Czech Republic, this market was loaded with antiques, clothes, paintings, jewelry, and knick-knacks. Towards the end, the flea market converted into a food market, where slices of dried mango and falafel were generously given out for free.

Next, we walked over to the Danube River for a 1-hour cruise that we had booked online. After much backtracking along the river (the struggles of traveling in a foreign country with poor English instructions), we finally found our boat. However, we got a very strange look from the man in charge of giving us our tickets. Turns out, we had accidentally booked tickets for a cruise in October 2019. So, we were a year early for our cruise. Oops. After some pleading and nervous laughter, we got the man to smile and he allowed us on for the day’s cruise.

The anxiety of missing our boat (while at the same time being too early for it) quickly dissipated as we settled into prime seats at the front of the boat and soaked in the sun (it was a warm day for October).

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The tour may have been in German, but we still got to enjoy the nature views, as well as graffiti done by local artists.

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After the cruise, we stopped for a scoop (or two) of ice cream and then set out for a long walk to the Belvedere art museum.

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In case you haven’t caught on yet, the theme of our trip was walking long distances.

From the street entrance, the Belvedere appears nothing special- just a simple courtyard. Walk through the first building and into the next open area though and you are treated to a spacious private garden.

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The Belvedere has a range of art that spans over several centuries. Perhaps one of the most popular pieces featured there is Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. 

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After a few hours of walking around the Belvedere, it was time for more walking! This time to an Italian restaurant to enjoy an outside meal across the street from this sight:

IMG_3015 After carb-loading, we regained enough energy to then check out some of Vienna’s nightlife.

Day 2 began with another yummy breakfast, this time at a vegan place called Deli Bluem (definitely recommended if visiting Vienna). We then walked on over to the Leopold Museum to check out more art work. I was excited to see Klimt’s Death and Life here, a painting I have always been fascinated by:

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As this is not an art blog, I’ll spare you my analytical thoughts about the painting 🙂

At the Leopold, we said goodbye to Kelsey, who had to go back to school on Monday. Olivia, Stevie and I then headed to the quirky Hundertwasserhaus. Along the way though, our past day and a half of walking finally caught up to us and we decided to lay out in a park where I may or may not have dozed off for a bit.

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Tanning time

Eventually, we did make it to the Hundertwasserhaus, which was the attraction I wanted to see the most in Vienna.

IMG_3044The Hundertwasserhaus is a bright expressionist landmark that stands out from the many white imperial-style buildings throughout Vienna. The building consists of actual apartments and offices with trees and bushes randomly jutting out. It also has a café attached to it, where I was able to try Vienna’s famous apfelstrudel (apple strudel) and sachertorte (chocolate torte).

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Next, we went to Prater Park to ride the ferris wheel and get a view of the whole city.

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The ferris wheel carts were a little too crowded for my liking, but still worth checking out.

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We finished the day by eating at an Asian restaurant and walking another 1.5 hours to get back to our hostel (we were determined to keep our anti-public transportation streak going).

Day 3- After breakfast at another café we decided to head to one of Vienna’s most popular attractions: the Schönbrunn Palace. Since we were leaving Vienna that day, we didn’t actually have time to tour inside the palace. Rather, we just circled around to the back of the building and into the gardens.

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By far, the Schönbrunn Palace was my favorite part of my trip. We climbed up the garden hill that not only overlooked the palace, but also all of Vienna.

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It was another beautiful day with the weather being warm, but not sweating hot. We laid out right on the hill and all I kept thinking was how fortunate I was to experience this on what otherwise would be a typical Monday morning back home. It was the perfect way to end our trip.

The best piece of advice I could give to anyone wanting to visit Vienna is to simply walk everywhere you want to go. Over the course of 2.5 days, we walked 30 miles. Totally worth it with all the sights we stumbled upon:

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Thanks for the memories, Vienna!

Bones, Bones, More Bones… and Bobsledding

A few weeks back, there was a national holiday in the Czech Republic. This meant that all schools were closed on Friday! Wanting to take advantage of our long weekend, my friend, Hailey and I decided to take a train ride to Kutná Hora.

Kutná Hora is a common day trip for people who want an escape from Prague. The town is most (in)famous for Sedlec Ossuary- which is more commonly referred to as “The Bone Church.”

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Short history lesson: In the 1278, Henry the abbot was sent on a mission to the Holy Land. He returned with a jar of earth from the location where Jesus Christ was crucified in Jerusalem. He supposedly spread this dirt all over the cemetery. Soon, people throughout Europe began requesting that they and their dead relatives be buried there.

Fast-forward to Europe’s Black Plague. Sick and dying people from all around travelled to Sedlec so that they can be buried there. As you can imagine, the cemetery soon became packed with bodies.

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In the 1400s, the ossuary was constructed to hold dug-up skeletons. However, it wasn’t until 1870 that Frantisek Rint, a Czech woodcarver, was hired to arrange the bones in a more pleasing manner. Rint went above and beyond as he used the skeletons of 40,000 people to create art.

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Such as this skeleton chandelier

IMG_2636 Admittedly, Sedlec Ossuary was the main reason Hailey and I went to Kutná Hora. After a 30 minute walk from the train station, we arrived at a small church at the edge of town. After walking around the cemetery and waiting in line for a bit, we entered the church and were soon surrounded by 600+ year-old skeletons.

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My brain really had trouble processing that these were real human remains.

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A unique way to leave a signature…

After visiting the bone church, we really didn’t have concrete plans for the rest of the day. We strolled back to the main part of town, grabbed pizza for lunch, and walked the streets. The town itself was very cute and reminded me of something from a fairytale.

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Online, I had found that Kuntá Hora had a small chocolate museum that gave out free samples of interesting-flavored chocolate bars. So me being me, I had to visit.

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And very small it was. We walked into the ‘museum’ which was just big enough to fit 3 people. After a 2 minute circle around the museum, we were ready to try out some chocolate (I sampled some very tasty goat milk chocolate)!

And of course, chocolate just puts me in the mood for…

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more chocolate 🙂

Next, we headed to St. Barbara’s Cathedral.

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Another brief history lesson: Kutná Hora was originally a silver miner’s town and place of much wealth in the Czech Republic. Therefore, it seemed fitting that a church be built to honor St. Barbara- a patron saint of miners. Construction of the church began in 1388 and still has not been completed today.

IMG_2719This huge cathedral is one of the most famous Gothic churches in Central Europe and is a UNESCO world heritage site.

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And rightfully so. With it’s spacious halls and detailed designs, it’s a place that people of all religions can appreciate.

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Shhhh! It’s actually wooded angels painted to look like gold

After a day of checking out historic sights (and chocolate), Hailey and I decided to end our day by doing something a bit more quirky- bobsledding!

Turns out, there is a small amusement park with a bobsledding course at just the edge of town. You get to go on two courses that takes you through the woods and gives you a view of the town for a cheap price. Not to mention, the chance to act like a kid for 15 minutes 🙂

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After, we grabbed some drinks and sat on a patio to simply relax and enjoy the warm weather.

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Unfortunately, I killed a bit of the tranquil vibe when I realized that our train to get back to Prague was not just around the corner, but rather a 30+ minute walk across town. Cue fast-paced walking and illegal (?) jaywalking to make it to the correct train station in time. Luckily, our train ended up being 5 minutes late, so we were able to make it on time.

Overall, Kutná Hora was a great place to explore without an overkill of tourists. I got my fill of creepy bones, chocolate, and bobsledding all in one day 🙂

1 Month Czech-In

Sorry, couldn’t resist the corny pun title…

Anyway, it’s hard for me to believe, but I’ve been living in the Czech Republic for a month now. Orientation seems like forever ago and I’m already into Week 4 of teaching.

But before we talk about school, let’s talk about where I’m living.

If I may say so myself, the apartment my roommates and I found in Prague is pretty sweet. It’s located close to the center of everything, but far enough away from the crazy touristy areas. A tram and metro stop are situated literally at our doorstep. Very convenient for the rainy and snowy weather to come. We’re also right alongside the Vltava River. This means…

-We’re super close to the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market:

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-I can have my morning coffee with swans:

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-I’m a short walk from dinner on the river:

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-I’m not too far from Prague’s famous Charles Bridge:

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I recommend visiting early in the morning though, to avoid the crowds

-Or the Instagram-famous Dancing House:

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The Dancing House has a rooftop café/bar with 360 views

-Views of Prague Castle:

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-Riverside concerts:

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-And paddle boating!

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Yeah, I’m pretty happy with the location. The apartment we’re in consists of 2 bedrooms. However, we converted the living room into my bedroom. This means that an expensive 2-person apartment becomes a bit cheaper and doable split between 3 people.

Since I’m saving up money to travel to other countries, I haven’t been doing as much traveling as I did in Thailand. Instead, I’ve been tutoring through VIPKID, checking out local events and exploring the streets for the quirkiness that is Prague.

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So switching topics to work… I am teaching grades 1-5 at Da Vinci School, a school about an hour’s commute outside of Prague. Since CIEE only offers part time work in the Czech Republic, I don’t have to go to school on Mondays and I arrive late or leave early on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (to earn enough to live in Prague, I use my time off to tutor either online or in person).

I absolutely love my school! The philosophy of the school is very liberal. Students are given choices and can even opt out of completing assignments if they don’t feel up to it. While this could result in chaos, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that my students haven’t abused this freedom and are often willing to participate in my classes. The school is also significantly more relaxed than schools back in the U.S. Students can be left unattended in classrooms, teachers are called by their first names, there’s no dress code (for teachers or students), and there’s less political correctness in general. The day before the students arrived, the teachers even had a “new teacher initiation” where everyone drank champagne out in the school gardens.

And don’t even get me started on the food and drinks. Students and teachers can have unlimited breakfast, coffee/tea, snacks, and lunch for 30 czk ($1.38) a day. At lunch, salad and a homemade soup are always provided. Main courses have ranged from enchiladas to broiled fish and roasted potatoes. I’m in heaven.

The school itself is even architecturally different than typical schools:

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See more pictures and a virtual tour of my school here!

There’s a maximum of 18 students per grade (the school is from kindergarten to 13th grade), so class sizes are small. Since classes are split for language class, I only teach a maximum of 9 students at a time. This is a far cry from the 45 kindergarteners I was in charge of in Thailand. Needless to say, managing classes have been pretty easy for me.

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Practicing numbers, colors, and alphabet words with my 2nd graders

The tricky part is coming up with activities that all students can participate in. My students’ English abilities range from only knowing how to say “hello” to being bilingual and completely fluent. Differentiated instruction is key here.

For grades 1-3, I have a co-worker in the room with me to ensure that students understand what I am saying. For 4th and 5th grade, I am by myself with the students. Each teaching block in 1.5 hours, which, admittedly, is sometimes a difficult amount of time to plan for.

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“Brain Breaks” to switch up the monotony is essential. My favorites so far have been English Jenga and a Boy v. Girl Categories game

Overall, I am very happy with my school and working situation. I think it’s going to be a good year.

Czech Newbie

Dobrý den! Annnnd I’m back!

As you might recall, halfway through my time in Thailand, I came to the conclusion that I was not ready to settle back down in the U.S yet. And so, after a few months’ hiatus, I am once again living and working abroad. This time in the Czech Republic!

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I’ve now been in Prague for 9 days and have been loving every second of it (minus the time setting up a bank account and apartment searching- that’s just been annoying). Every day has been packed with activities (orientation, exploring, day trips, and nightlife) that I’ve had trouble finding time to write until now. Since my days are blurring together, I’ll just talk about some of the major things thus far:

1) Orientation

Orientation was held for 5 days by Vyšehrad, which is a hilltop viewpoint with a church/castle on top. Nothing like getting whipped into shape with a hill climb on Day 1! There were 24 of us for orientation and I was pleasantly surprised that everyone was super chill, approachable, and clicked right away.

We spent most of orientation in Czech language class 101. So far, Czech has definitely proved to be more difficult to pick up than Thai was. It has a lot of grammar and there’s sounds that I just can’t figure out how to make. Luckily, I’ll be living in Prague, so chances are the people I will be talking to will know some English as well. Still, I’m making it a goal to learn Czech.

Our Czech teacher has been amazing at making our daily 3-hour language class as fun as possible. He started off each class asking what we knew and would like to know. He then would stab the board with his markers while writing essential words and phrases for us to remember (many markers were killed off within the hour). He also had us work in pairs to practice conversation and counting and even took us around the city some days to practice our Czech in everyday situations.

We also did a lot of walking around to adjust to the area and learn the public transportation system. According to my phone, I’m walking an average of 24,000 steps a day, which makes me think a gym might not be a necessary investment.

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Touring the city

It’s also been a pleasant hot here. To many people, the 85 degree weather has been a killer, but compared to Thailand, this weather is perfect.

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Hot days call for water spraying trucks and dancing in the “rain”

In the afternoons, we were broken up into small groups led by Czech college students to run errands and tour the area. One day, our group leader took us to meet her Czech friends and go to Letná Park.

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Letná Park sits atop a hill and oversees much of Prague. The largest statue of Joseph Stalin once stood in this park for all to see, but was removed (via explosives) after his death and as a way to denounce his rule. There’s now a huge metronome as a cover up in its place. Letná Park is a great place to chill and observe the relaxed Czech lifestyle. Many people came along later in the afternoon to chat with friends, drink, and view the city’s rooftops.

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On the last day of orientation, we were treated to a surprise wine-tasting event, complete with cheese, meats, bread, and olives. And I must say, Czech wine is delicious and was the perfect send-off for our new adventure.

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2) Prague in the Early Hours

Stating the obvious, Prague is filled with many beautiful sights. Due to a high population of tourists, the best views are seen early in the morning as the sun is rising and everyone is asleep. It’s one of the reasons why I have been going on walks in the morning (I tried runs, but weak knees quickly reminded me that I am a walker, not a jogger/runner).

So far, I’ve been climbing up a steep hill to reach Prague Castle (FIY- the Czech Republic has lots of castles). As a treat on the way down, I stop at this cute café to order breakfast along with zelený čaj (green tea).

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Gooooood morning, Prague!

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I climbed the steps for the view

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View from Prague Castle. Worth the climb.

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Only some brides getting photos done this early in the morning

3) The John Lennon Wall

I have to mention the John Lennon Wall because it’s such a touristy must-do in Prague. John Lennon was a hero and symbol for peace for many Czechs. After his death, some young Czechs painted an image of John Lennon- along with political graffiti and Beatles lyrics- on a wall. Since Czechoslovakia was a Communist state at the time, a lot of Western music was banned. As such, the wall became a dangerous political statement. In spite of the secret police and multiple whitewashing, the wall continued to show more and more messages and images. Today, the wall is covered with graffiti from locals and tourists.

I went to the wall one evening with 2 other CIEE participants. The wall was a lot smaller than I imagined and there were a lot of young people there taking pictures and playing music. However, I did get to take a picture next to a paraphrased quote from one of my favorite heroes:

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-FDR

Being so close to the Charles Bridge, I’d say the John Lennon is definitely a place to check out.

4) Plzeň

One of the things the Czech Republic is known for is beer. In fact, as a country, Czech people drink the most beer in the world. It’s the basis of many social gatherings and beer costs almost the same as water.

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Czech people know their beer. Therefore, it’s really not surprising that the city of Plzeň is known for its production of Pilsner Urquell lager, which has inspired more than 2/3 of all beers labelled as Pils, Pilsner, or Pilsener. The 2nd largest and 4th most populated city in the Czech Republic, Plzeň was the EU’s choice of ‘Cultural Capital’ in 2015.

It was here that 10 other CIEE participants and I decided to go for our first day trip out of Prague.

To get there, we took a train from Prague’s Main Train Station. The trip was only supposed to take 1.5 hours but, thanks to some technical issues, took closer to 3. Thank goodness for music and window-watching.

Once in Plzeň, we first went to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery for an English tour. We learned about the history of the town of Plzeň, how its beer has contained only 3 of the same ingredients since 1842, and how the factory still makes up to 120,000 bottles per hour. We also toured the factory:

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As well as the cool and damp cellars to have a free beer:

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After we finished at the brewery, we headed to the St. Bartholomew Cathedral to climb the 301 ridiculously steep steps to the top of the church tower. I’m telling you, I’m going to have killer calf muscles at the end of all this walking and step-climbing. Anyway, the view at the top was spectacular- you could see all of Plzeň.

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We also played around a bit with the public art pieces scattered around the city:

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After, we ate at the Beer Factory, where we split some cheese and meat plates and got some traditional Czech meals.

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Meat and potatoes- a quintessential Czech meal

So that’s what I’ve been up to so far! I’ve also been apartment hunting and I’ve visited the school I’ll be teaching at. I’m dedicating my next post to all about that though. Stay tuned!

After School Travels, Part 2

Whelp, this is it. My time in Southeast Asia has come to a bittersweet close. I’m viewing everything as my “last” and can feel my anxiety setting in at the thought of readjusting back home. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to see my family and friends, but doing so means I have to leave behind the family and friends I’ve made this past year.

Just as the thought of living in Thailand had scared me then, the prospect of returning home is equally terrifying now. Thailand has become my comfort zone. I had a job that I loved, my own place, and means to travel wherever and whenever. I adapted to the culture and fashion and even picked up on the Thai language to hold basic conversations. I can hop on the back of a motorbike to speed down a highway, eat with a spoon glued to my right hand and instinctively say “oi!” when startled.

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Nothing like chilling in my room after a long day at work

Unfortunately, the fact that Thailand has become my comfort zone is exactly why I have to leave. I don’t want to get stuck in a rut and I am ready to grow and prepare for a new challenge/adventure. Plus, I want to look back on Thailand and remember it as a place that I wished I had stayed longer in (as opposed to wishing that I could hightail it out of here).

Unlike when leaving the States though, I know that there’s only the slimmest chance that I’ll ever call Thailand my home again. It’s going to be a rough goodbye. I’m afraid that I’ll go home and the past year will suddenly become dream-like to me. That what I’ve learned and the people I’ve met will slowly drift from my mind.

Don’t worry, I’ll spare you from more of my internal conflicts for the moment and turn to a lighter topic- Part 2 of my after school travels!

For this trip, I meet up with Jessica, Marie, Cicely, and Cristin to travel through Northern Vietnam. We had 3 destinations: Hanoi, Sapa, and Halong Bay. Afterwards, we would part ways and I would celebrate the Thai water festival- Songkran- in Bangkok.

PART I- VIETNAM

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Hanoi

The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is a trendy city with a surprising European flare. If not for the super crowded streets and vendors, I would have never guessed that I was in Asia. The cool 70 degree temperatures were also a pleasant respite from the 100 degrees + temperatures in Thailand right now.

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The 6.5 km Mosaic Mural

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Shout out to Cristin for her amazing photography skills (and for letting me borrow some of her pics 🙂 )

Most of our time in Hanoi was dedicated towards taking in the sights, getting manicures and pedicures, and eating an indecent amount of food at cute cafes and restaurants.

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Night 1- Eating summer rolls and seafood soup at Lantern Lounge

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The Note Coffee- A cute and popular cafe plastered in sticky notes from past guests from all around the world.

The Note Coffee also had amazing egg coffee, which is a popular drink in Vietnam. Instead of using dairy, beaten egg white foam is poured into the coffee, creating a drink worthy of seconds (or thirds… maybe fourths). I’m definitely experimenting and replicating this drink when I get home!

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If you ever find yourself in Hanoi, go to the third floor of The Note Coffee, sit at the table by the window, look down, and see if you can find my note!

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And y’all know I was up in that Pho

Since we knew that our Vietnam trip would require a lot of traveling, we used our time in Hanoi to chill. A few of the places we did visit though were Train Street and the Hanoi Bridge. Another shout out to Cristin for her amazing pictures!

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The day before leaving Hanoi, I was able to meet up with Sophia, one of the friends I had made in Pai. Turns out, both of our travel plans were overlapping in Hanoi! We had a few hours to catch up while doing laps around one of the city’s lakes.

IMG_1283 That night, we boarded an overnight train to take us to destination #2- Sapa

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We were a tad wound up after chilling in Hanoi for 3 days

Sapa

Words really cannot be used to describe Sapa. With green rolling hills and valleys, rice fields stretch as far as the eye can see. In the crisp air, you feel a complete sense of serenity and you’re forced to think about how small you and your problems really are in the grand scheme of things.

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My friends and I booked a trek through a company called Sapa Sisters to navigate this dazzling landscape. Our trip was for 2 days and 1 night at a homestay.

Unfortunately, I was a little unprepared for how cold this trek would be. Living in Thailand, I have little need for long sleeves and pants. And my light-as-a-feather green rain jacket was not designed to hold heat whatsoever. Right from the first step of the trek, I was already shivering with chattering teeth.

Luckily (I think?) my friends and I had selected the harder trail to complete. Meaning that after the first 10 minutes, I was too busy watching my footing to pay attention to the cold.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- going down an incline is always harder than going up for me. And the fact that those perfect rice field edges from a distance were not so perfect and very muddy up close only made the trek more challenging as slips were more likely to occur.

Fortunately, some women from the village nearby “happened to be” walking by us and would grab our hands to keep us steady as we navigated the paths.

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The woman who stayed by my side the whole time was named Kuh. Kuh was the oldest person with us, but had a steel grip that kept me from slipping every time. Thank goodness for Kuh.

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Kuh and I!

I’ll spare you the details from the morning trek. All you need to know is that it was tiring, but enjoyable. We were all starving by lunch time.

Before lunch though, my friends and I found out why our village ladies were so keen to follow us all morning. Turns out, they wanted us to by things from them at lunch! I gladly bought some souvenirs from Kuh, but soon after my purchases, I was flooded by older ladies and little girls demanding that I buy something from them too.

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Poor Cicely!

It took quite awhile to get the girls to move away from our table.

For the afternoon trek, we decided to take the easier route, which took us right through the village. Our guide, Mao, even took us to visit her family shop where I got to interact with this little guy:

IMG_1373 Mao told us that even though her village is located in Vietnam, her people have their own language and traditions that they follow. For instance, the women are the ones who are out and about and working while the men stay home to watch the kids and cook!

After our village tour, we arrived at our homestay:

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Front porch views

We spent the rest of the night making friends with our fellow house guests while huddling close to the fireplace for warmth.

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Unfortunately, I ate something that night that gave me food poisoning. Paired with the extreme cold, let’s just say it was a loooooonnnng night for me.

Whatever. Sapa and the people I met there were worth the food poisoning.

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Our motley crew

The next day, we continued our trek around the valley and through a bamboo forest. The forest required very careful footing as the previous day’s rain had created a thick layer of clay mud. Very slippery, thus calling for creative maneuvering to get around.

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We also visited a waterfall where we had some time to chill and take in the sights (it’s hard to view your surroundings when on the move as you have to constantly watch your feet).

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Instead of our older walking partners from the day before, this time we were joined by two young girls. And yes, we accepted their hands when they offered because those paths were slick. So in summary, I had a very old woman and very young girls helping me through the mountains all during our trek… way to represent the fitness of a person in their 20s…

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My helper for Day 2

Our trek ended with a visit to our guide’s family house, where we were treated to a home-cooked lunch before heading back to town. Some more pictures from our trek:

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A van, train and bus ride later, we were at our final destination:

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is Vietnam’s response to Thailand’s Khao Sok and Koh Phi Phi. The large bay is home to hundreds of tree-covered rock formations and cliffs. During periods of overcast skies, it looks like something out of a Jurassic Park movie.

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Luckily, the first day of our boat cruise was sunny and beautiful. We had an upper deck area where we could just lounge and soak in the sun: IMG_1513

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We didn’t have too many people on our party cruise, which ended up being perfect as we got to really talk to the people we were with. We made friends with 2 cousins from Bahrain and a couple from Canada.

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Thanks Cristin!

We spent the day kayaking:

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Another cave!

And returned to our boat to eat and then party on our upper deck.

The next morning, I woke up early to catch the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was an overcast day, so there was no sun to be seen. Still, it was pretty to look around the bay and see dozens of boats in all directions.

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And like all my goodbyes lately, saying farewell to our new friends came too fast and too soon.

Marie had to head back to the mainland to catch a flight. That left Jessica, Cicely, Cristin and I to take a taxi and longtail boat ride to Cat Ba island, where our cruise company told us we would have a relaxing day on our “own private island.”

As we approached Cat Ba, we got excited to see rows of cute bungalows.

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We were ready to live it up like the rich and famous!

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The expectation

Instead, they literally took us back behind the bungalows and next to a washing area, where we were informed that this is where our cruise company had booked us to stay.

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The reality… at least I got a bottom bunk though!

The rest of the day was overcast, so we spent it out on tanning chairs, pretending to get tan while watching a volleyball game that Cristin partook in.

The food that night made up for the lack of sun and accommodations though- a buffet with unlimited oysters and grilled squid!

While night 1 in Halong Bay was definitely more fun, it was nice to just lay around before a big travel day. Indeed, the next day was entirely dedicated to ferrying/busing/taxiing/flying back to Bangkok. Here, I said goodbye to Jessica, Cicely, and Cristin who were leaving for Chiang Mai for Songkran.

PART 2- SONGKRAN

How to describe Songkran…

Crazy.

Chaotic.

Possibly dangerous.

Wet.

A free-for-all.

Exhilarating.

Fun beyond anything else…

The list goes on. You take your pick.

Songkran is the main reason why I have remained in Thailand past the end of my school year. I knew I could not miss out on this quirky holiday.

Songkran is Thailand’s 3-day (sometimes 5-day) water festival to celebrate the Thai New Year. Pretty much what happens is that people neglect work for 3-5 days to go out in the streets and have water gun fights and throw buckets of water at passing people and vehicles. Songkran happens at the most perfect time of year too because Thailand is at its hottest in April, with temperatures well past 100 degrees.

Weeks beforehand, places start selling Songkran shirts (typically bright Hawaiian-like shirts with pineapples and flowers on them), waterproof phone protectors, and water guns.

Chiang Mai is supposedly the best place to go as it becomes a water gun war zone, with people jumping on the back of trucks and songthaews to attack their prey. Since I am catching a flight home to the United States from Bangkok though, I decided to remain in this area for Songkran.

No worries! Bangkok goes crazy for Songkran too! The whole of Silom Road shuts down for this event and the street becomes a battle ground with large containers of water on the side for easy refill.

And Songkran definitely lived up to the hype. People of all ages and ethnicities crowded the streets and all sense of dignity was lost. Thai people, who for the past 12 months have been nothing but polite and reserved, became savages who mercilessly doused their victims. I swear, it was their way of pay back for all the idiotic things they’ve had to put up with from me this past year.

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With my pineapple shirt and water gun, I was all ready to go!

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No one is safe…

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There must have been thousands of people packed on that street…

And this continues nonstop over the course of 3 days, with nights being even crazier than the day!

It is definitely in my top 5 of the most crazy things I’ve ever been a part of. I was soaked with icy water for hours and gladly returned the favor for those who shot at me.

If you ever go to Thailand, make sure you are there for Songkran!

Well, that concludes my last adventure in Thailand! In 15 minutes, I will be on my way to the airport to begin my journey back home to the United States. I am a bundle of nerves.

My time in Thailand has truly been an amazing adventure. I have no regrets. I can even look back at my “bad” moments and laugh and see how they have made me a stronger person.

I would encourage anyone who’s interested to spend some time abroad. You learn, grow, find out that you’re capable of more than you ever expected, and meet amazing people in the process.

And because I am that person, I’ll end this blog with a quote that I have found to be 100% true.

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Thanks for reading! See you all soon! Sawadee ka!

After School Travels, Part 1

With only a few weeks left in Thailand, I’m cramming in places I’ve been meaning to visit, but couldn’t get to over a regular 2-day weekend. I had 3 destinations for Part 1 of my travels: Khao Sok National Park, Koh Samui, and Pai.

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I’m embarrassed to say that my solo trip got off to a bumpy start that was totally my own doing; wanting to eat breakfast with Jessica one last time in Chonburi, I failed to leave at an early enough time to maneuver Bangkok traffic and get to the airport. And so, I arrived at the airport just as they doing final boarding call for my flight. Because I’m in Thailand- the land where every form of transportation runs late and nothing is taken seriously- I was hoping that I’d experience that movie scene where airport staff rushes me through security and the gates are held open for me.

Nope. I missed my flight.

Meaning that I also missed my connecting van ride that would take me to Khao Sok. Frantically, I purchased a new plane ticket for later that day and called my hostel in Khao Sok to set up a private van pickup for that night. Needless to say, my wallet felt a bit lighter and I was annoyed at myself as I sat down to read a book for the next 5 hours…

Eventually though, my plane landed in Suratthani where I met my driver (he was holding a sign with my name on it- so I did get a bit of a “movie moment”). We then drove a couple of hours in the dark to my hostel in Khao Sok.

Khao Sok

Located in Southern Thailand, Khao Sok is one of the world’s oldest rainforests and is populated with a diverse range of animal and plant life. Waking up the next morning, I was treated to a stunning view of my surroundings- high mountains, cliffs, and lush greenery- that I had totally missed in the dark the night before.

While you can spend a good week exploring Khao Sok, I only had a full day to spare before moving on to my next destination. My day, I had decided months before, would be spent out on Cheow Lan Lake. This lake is huge and home to hundreds of jutting rock formations, cliffs, and cute bungalows that you could spend the night or day at.

At 8:30am I was picked up from my hostel in a van (the driver was my driver from the night before- we waved knowingly at each other!). After picking up the rest of my fellow tour participants, we were on our way! In my van, I made friends with an older couple, Kate and Steven, who were from the UK. It was nice to exchange stories and interact with new people who spoke English for a change.

Cheow Lan itself lived up to and went well beyond all my expectations. We spent an hour in our long-tail boat zipping across the lake. As before, pictures are better than words to describe the sights I saw:

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Here, we stopped our boat to take pictures by the 3 limestone rock formations behind me. The trio is a very iconic image of Cheow Lan.

After our long-tail boat tour, we had a delicious lunch and time to chill at some bungalows on the lake.

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Take me back now!

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We also had plenty of time to swim in the lake! And when I say swim, I mean me trying to not drown.

At this point, we were given the option to either kayak or trek through the rainforest and take a bamboo raft to explore Pakarang (Coral) Cave. I decided last second to sign up for the cave.

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Rainforest critter

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Bamboo raft! (Kate and Steven are to the left)

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Cave exploring! My guide found out that I was a teacher in Thailand and referred to me as “Coon kru” for the entire cave trek.

Simply put, the day was perfect from start to finish. Although I hate the idea of ranking places in Thailand (I have loved everywhere I’ve gone!), Khao Sok would be the first place I would recommend to travelers looking to go off the beaten path. The sights here were even more gorgeous than- dare I even say it?- the famous Koh Phi Phi. The fact the Khao Sok is not well known to foreigners is both a tragedy and a blessing. It is a paradise yet to be spoiled by an abundance of outsiders. Totally worth having to pay extra for another flight and van connection.

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I was sad to say goodbye to Kate and Steven, who had acted somewhat as parent figures for me that day. I then treated myself to my favorite meal- som tam (papaya salad) and spent some time exchanging stories with my hostel roommate, Will. However, I had to go to sleep early to recover from the day’s activity and prepare myself for the next leg of my trip.

Koh Samui

In Thai, “Koh” means “island.” And with planning a mini vacation in Thailand, I knew that an island had to be on my itinerary list somewhere. The question was, where to go? Thailand has so many islands, just picking one is a tough- though thoroughly enjoyable- decision-making process. After much research, Koh Samui became the winner simply because 1) it was only a 3-hour trip from Khao Sok with direct transfer options available and 2) it had a beautiful temple that I had seen a picture of months before and couldn’t shake from my head.

To get to Koh Samui, I had to take 2 separate vans and a ferry. The first van dropped me off by myself at what looked like a deserted junk yard in the middle of nowhere. I was told to take a seat under a small pavilion and just wait. Now, if I had been told this 11 months prior, I would have had a mini panic attack. What am I waiting for exactly? Why is there no one else around? How long am I waiting for? Where’s the bathroom? Am I going to be murdered and disposed of in this junk yard??? 

Thankfully, by now I understand that Thailand is truly a land of randomness. You just say “mai pen rai” and trust that everything will work out. And that you won’t be killed in a horror movie-like junk yard. So, I just took out a book and read for 30 minutes and what do you know- another van appeared to take me to the island’s ferry.

I got to my hostel in Koh Samui right at sunset. This hostel was also a breakfast and lunch restaurant that had unfortunately closed for the evening by the time I arrived. So of course I was locked out by the time I got there! Why they would lock up the hostel when I had made a reservation way in advance was beyond me. After making several phone calls, I got in touch with one of the workers who thankfully swung on over to let me in.

I ended up sharing a room with a woman from France for the next 3 days. Since she knew little English, our conversations were limited to “hello!” and “have a good day!” The room we shared was meant for 6 people, but we were the only two staying. Something tells me that this hostel doesn’t see too many guests- which is probably why the owners don’t check to see their reservations and were surprised when I showed up.

Anyway, the first morning, I wanted to check out Wat Plai Laem- the temple I had seen a picture of- before I became a literal beach bum for the next 3 days. My one negative for Koh Samui is that transportation was hard to come by (at least at the section of the island I was on). I had to walk a good 40 minutes by the road before a motorbike driver saw me and gave me a lift the rest of the way to the temple.

On the bright side, the temple complex ended up being just as beautiful as the picture I had seen: IMG_0915

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Lucky for me, I got to the temple at around 8:30am, meaning I was completely by myself and had time to wander around and take nice photos. At exactly at 9am though, several tour buses rolled on in, killing all sense of tranquility and the chance to take any more good pictures.

After my temple seeing, I spent the rest of the day on Maenam Beach. There were a lot of fancy resorts right on the beach and I was surprised by how little people there were. The population consisted of families and older couples. And then me. The sand may have been a little too coarse for my liking, but the water was amazingly refreshing. I spent a relaxing 2 beach days here.

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Maenam Beach- thank you for the peaceful vibes and awesome sunburn!

After quiet days at the beach, I would then catch a motorbike over to Chaweng Beach, which has a reputation for being lively and having a more fun nightlife. A friend from Chonburi, Darlene, happened to be staying at the island the same time I was! It was nice to see a familiar face and have someone to check out Walking Street with. We also met Tim- another traveler from the UK. Since we all like to travel (obviously), we had a lot to talk about over Indian food.

At one point, Darlene and I went to a night hangout place right on the beach to watch a fire show.

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And guess who got picked to be part of the show?

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Don’t I look completely thrilled and confident?

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Still not sure whether I was selected for a fire show or for sacrifice🤔

The man in the Jason-like mask kept whispering at me to look at the camera and smile.

Well sir, I appreciate you wanting to make this a Hallmark moment, but I rather keep an eye on that ball of fire that keeps coming dangerously close to my hair…

Fun, if not rememberable, times.

I said another round of goodbyes to Darlene and Tim (I’m really getting tired of these goodbyes) and I headed back to my hostel.

The next morning, I sweated it out a bit- both literally and figuratively- trying to find some form of transportation back to the pier so I could catch my ferry back to the mainland in time. Of course, nothing was in sight so I had to start walking. I was really starting to panic (flashbacks to missing my flight started occurring) when I finally found a taxi cab to take me the rest of the way. Although I was able to talk the driver down 100 baht, I was still at his mercy and the ride was still ridiculously expensive.

Like I said before- the one negative of Koh Samui is limited and expensive transportation. Awwww well. The important thing is I made my return ferry, bus ride, and flight back to Bangkok. From there, I took an overnight bus to Chiang Mai and then a van ride to…

Pai

I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous to go to Pai by myself. Located in Northern Thailand, Pai is- simply put- the quintessential hippy town for backpackers. With its themed cafés, late-night bars, little shops and countryside excursions, Pai is a haven and place to chill. I’ve heard from countless people that “I only intended to stay 2 days, but ended up staying 2 weeks…”

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And yet, I’ve also heard people complain that they didn’t like Pai because after a while, there was nothing to do there except to chill.

Me being me, just the thought of simply relaxing for 3 days had me feeling antsy and guilty. And- let’s be honest- I’m not the most social human being. Making friends with strangers to then chill with for the next 3 days sounded cumbersome.

There was also the issue of transportation. In Pai, many people rent motorbikes to navigate the winding roads and explore the surrounding areas. For one, I lost my driver’s license in Bangkok many months ago now (not that I think anyone would ask to see it, but still…). Secondly, I became apprehensive after hearing that many people walk around Pai in bandages and wraps. Apparently the hospital in Pai is VERY used to seeing motorbike accidents on the daily. As I have never driven a motorbike- and didn’t want to learn beside other newbies on winding roads- I figured I would be walking some long distances in the next 4 days.

To get to Pai, I took a minivan bright and early Friday morning. As a precautionary measurement I made sure to skip breakfast that morning. Why? Because the 3.5 hour drive to Pai requires 762 hairpin turns. I’ve heard that many people become violently ill on the way up and down the mountains.

Thankfully, I am not one to get carsick and neither were the people who were in the van with me. Which ended up being a really good thing as our driver went crazy fast and veered into the other lane quite often to get us to Pai in 2 hours (1.5 hours ahead of schedule). I swear, the man had a sixth sense of knowing when to veer back into our lane just before an oncoming car crested a hill and zipped past us.

Before I continue with my adventures in Pai, let me just pause and appeal to the foodies out there. Pai has some pretty amazing food. It’s like all the cool smoothie bowls and avocado toasts of Instagram got sucked into this little town. Food-wise, I was in heaven! The only internal dilemma was whether to continue to go to the same eatery, or try a new one at every meal.

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Getting reintroduced to the avocado after being deprived for so long. The reunion was so much sweeter as it was paired with toast @ TTK Restaurant

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Earth Tone Café

 

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This smoothie bowl from Bom Bowls was definitely the best thing I ate

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Om Garden Café– I wanted to eat EVERYTHING!

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system…. anyway. My first day in Pai, I tried out this “relaxing” thing by reading my book in a hammock for most of the day and then moseying through the night and food market later that night. I admit, it was nice to have nothing to do. But, I wasn’t sure if I could do this on repeat for the next 3 days.

Thankfully, I had signed up for a full-day tour the following day. So again, I was picked up at my hostel the next morning and soon got talking to all of my fellow tour-mates for the day. There were people from Germany, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Argentina, and even another American!

It still amazes me every time that so many people from other countries are bilingual (sometimes trilingual) in their native language and English. It makes me feel guilty and jealous that all these people could switch back and forth between conversations in English and another language. I really wish I had paid better attention in Spanish class.

The first place we went to was the White Buddha that overlooked the whole town and required many flights of stairs to get to:

IMG_0944We then went to the Kiu Lom Viewpoint. The problem was, apparently March is the worst month to visit Pai as all the farmers are burning their crops in preparation for the new growing season. Meaning, paired with natural fog, the smoke made it impossible to actually see anything at the viewpoint. After losing interest within the first 30 seconds, we all turned our attention to a 4-seated swing and tried to figure out the puzzle of how to get 4 people on it and swing.

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How many people does it take to get a swing moving? Apparently a lot more than 4 people and with many eyewitnesses to give their 2 cents.

Don’t worry, we got there in the end.

Next up was… another cave!

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Lod Cave

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I think I liked this cave a bit more than the one I visited in Khao Sok because we got to go on a bamboo raft to explore inside the cave. Aside from our lantern, it was completely pitch black. We had bats and monster-sized fish to keep us company though!

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Felt like I was in the cave scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

After having Pad Thai for lunch, we then went to some hot springs to relax for an hour.

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The hot springs weren’t really a cool down from the hot day, but it’s the thought that counts

Next up, Mor Pang Waterfall!

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Hmmmm, something is missing here…

So apparently the crop burning is not the only reason to avoid Pai in March. March is also the middle of Pai’s dry season. Meaning, bone-dry waterfall.

My disappointment was quickly reversed with a visit to Coffee in Love, a cute café perched on a hillside that I’ve wanted to go to even before coming to Thailand!

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Coffee in Love

Aside from the spectacular view, they also had REAL coffee- no instant. And when I asked for not sweet, I actually got a cup of black coffee. Oh, how I have missed my black coffee.

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With coffee in hand, we rushed back to our songthaew to make it in time for our last destination: sunset at the Pai Canyon.

Pai Canyon consists of a series of cliffs with narrow walkways. And no, there were no safeguards or railings. For those of you who were/are into video games, you might recall this mini-game from Mario Party 4:

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All I could think about the whole time…

Sucks for me because I was horrible at this game when I was a kid. And here I was, now having to play it in real life.

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And these cliffs were no 7 footers- if you fell, you would not be in a happy place. Suddenly Pai hospital would have a much larger concern than bruised motorbike newbies.

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Pai Canyon would have no business in being in the United States. I could see too many careless falls and lawsuits occurring.

So why risk going to the Pai Canyon? So you can see the sun set behind the mountains:

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And for the adrenaline rush, of course 🙂

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We’re not going to talk about the fact that I practically crawled to this edge and that I felt light-headed the whole time this picture was being taken.

After our long tour, a few of the people I had met and I decided to met up later that night to explore Pai’s nightlife. One of our stops was at the Edible Jazz Garden Café and Bar. We went there 2 nights in a row to listen to some music. They had an open-mic the second night that some of my friends even participated in!

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So, it turns out that I really loved Pai and became one of those people who wished that they could have stayed longer than they originally planned. My worry of being motorbike-less went unfounded- the whole town was walking distance and everywhere outside of town that I wanted to see I saw on the day tour. I really had a connection to the people I met and felt that I became good friends with them in the short amount of time we were all there.

From my solo traveling, I’ve found that one of the best and worst things about it is the coming and going of people. Even though you’re alone, you’re never really alone. It’s interesting, but when I meet new people here, I never ask for their name (which is what I would typically do back home). Instead, the questions go like this:

  1. Where are you from?
  2. How long have you been traveling?
  3. Where are you going?
  4. Where have you been?

If these questions have been exchanged and there’s still an opportunity to continue the conversation, we might ask each other our names. But I’ve had many conversations where I tell people my life story (why I’m in Thailand, how long I’ve been here, where I’ve been etc.) and have never been asked or have asked for a name.

Maybe this is becoming too deep of a thought, but while it’s fun to meet all these new people from around the world, it gets exhausting to constantly make a friend and tell them goodbye (“have a nice life!”) 24 hours later. I hate it.

Still, I’m thankful for all the incredible people I have met these past 11 days.

So, I’m back in my hometown of Chonburi right now. Next Wednesday, I leave for After School Travels- Part 2: Vietnam. Stay tuned!

And that’s a Wrap!

My time as a foreign teacher in Chonburi, Thailand has come to an end. It feels very surreal that I will be clearing out my desk this week and no students will be there to call out “Teacher!” or ask me “What color do you see?” 5 million times.

I realize that many of my blog posts this year have centered around my travels and weekend outings. However, I feel that they gloss over the main reason as to why I came and have loved my time in Thailand.

My students.

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Throw back to our first class photo!

For the last 10 months, I have been in charge of teaching English to a class of 45 kindergarteners. And I’m not going to lie, not every day was filled with rainbows and sunshine.

They are loud and they are crazy. They run around and sometimes do things that are not acceptable in a classroom- whether that be in America or Thailand. They can be downright frustrating and have tested my patience and ability to keep calm and carry on.

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And yet, I have found that they are sweet and caring. That they want to understand me and for me to understand them. That even though I look and speak so differently from them, they will still run up to me every morning to give me hugs and ask me to play with them.

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These tiny creatures, slowly, but surely have carved a place into my heart. They have made me a better teacher and by far a better person. And for that, I am grateful and blessed to have been their teacher.

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Now, I knew the last day of school with my students would be a rough one. But honestly, I didn’t expect it to be so hard.

The day started with me walking to school extra early because I was assigned gate duty for the last day (lucky me!). And of course, there was a thunderstorm that morning, making the walk not the most pleasant.

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What should have been- a non-rainy day walking to school

And then, I was informed that I would be making the last morning ceremony speech of the year (we don’t give heads ups here in Thailand). No pressure. Luckily, I’ve become pretty good with thinking on my feet and gave what I hope was a decent goodbye.

From there, the day got more fun. We had a big party in our classroom. And Thai parties are not complete without lots of food to go around.

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Food for days

My students also surprised me with gifts and handmade cards!

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My co-teacher, Teacher Piw, gave me a handmade coin purse and my student teacher, Teacher Palm, gave me a collage of pictures of me teaching. I almost cried then and there. Probably one of the most thoughtful and best gifts I’ve ever received.

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The rest of the day passed with playing games and watching movies (the thunderstorm outside made everything seem peaceful and cozy). I didn’t want the day to end.

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But of course, it had to. Before leaving the classroom, my co-teacher had the students wai to me. They then all said “Thank you Teacher Deanna, beauuuutifullllll” and ran up to hug me. And that’s when I pretty much lost it in terms of emotion. For the next hour, we sat downstairs and my kids slowly got picked up by their parents. It was a long and gut-wrenching hour. Some tearful goodbyes ensued.

Saying goodbye to my students and co-teachers was the hardest thing I’ve done since moving to Thailand. I love and will miss them all terribly.

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Teacher Piw!

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Teacher Palm!

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The final class picture

Riding through Chiang Rai

I’ve had my sights set on Chiang Rai for a very long time. Chiang Rai, the most Northern province of Thailand, is home to Thailand’s (arguably) most famous temple: Wat Rong Khun. Or, more commonly referred to as “The White Temple” for foreigners.

Time has been going by so fast, that I was shocked to discover that I only have a little over 2 months left here before going home. I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t make it to the White Temple before I left. That, and Chiang Rai itself is simply a place you have to check out if you’re in Thailand.

To get to Chiang Rai, I went to the bus station directly from school on Friday to catch a ride into Bangkok. From there, I took the BTS to get to the Mo Chit Northern Bus Terminal. Since I’m trying to keep my spending low, I decided to take an overnight bus rather than to simply fly to Chiang Rai. It ended up being a bit of a long night (the worse being waking up, convinced that I had slept for at least 4 hours… only to see that I’d only slept for 30 minutes).

Eventually though, we made it! I got off the bus and quickly flagged down a taxi tuk tuk to take me to the White Temple for 100 baht.

The White Temple ended up being super crowded, even though I had gotten there 20 minutes after opening time. Still, it was beyond gorgeous.

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So, the story behind the White Temple… back in the 90s, the temple was in a bad state. An artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat decided to buy the whole property, redesign it with his own money, and then open it back up to the public. The temple demonstrates the evils inside people and the path to salvation. The temple is free for Thais, but costs 50 baht for all foreigners.

When you first enter the temple complex, you come across a foot bridge with demonic-like creatures there to welcome you.

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As you cross the footbridge, there are hands reaching out on both sides of you, portraying the souls stuck in Hell.

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That one red fingernail really bothered me for some reason…

After crossing, you come to a larger bridge, guarded by two mythical creatures, that goes over a pond.

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Finally, you are ready to enter the main temple! But no pictures of this because no photography was allowed. At the back of the temple, the walls are a fiery red-orange and shows images of Western culture wrapped in flames. In what can be a very controversial discussion, these include pictures of Michael Jackson, the Twin Towers, Pokemon, Harry Potter, Neo from The Matrix, Spiderman, Hello Kitty, Ninja Turtles, and Freddy Krueger- just to name a few. Google “inside the White Temple” to see exactly what it looks like!

As you move to the front of the temple, the coloring on the walls turn to a gold and you see images of Buddha.

Once you leave the temple building, you can explore more of the complex and even leave your imprint on a Wishing Leaf. These are then hung up for anyone to view and read your wish.

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Towards the exit, there’s also a pretty golden building:

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This ended up being the most fancy bathroom exterior I’ve ever seen. And no, the toilet seats were not made of gold. BUT each stall came with toilet paper, which is a golden find in Thailand itself.

Overall, I felt that the temple was worth the overnight bus ride. It was kind of hard leaving because I knew I’d probably never be back.

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Next, I wanted to head over to Wat Rong Suea Ten (aka: The Blue Temple). Problem was, my transportation options were limited. I eventually found a taxi driver who would take me there and then to my hostel for 500 baht. Knowing that I was in a touristy area and that was a ridiculous price, I argued that he take me there for 400 baht.

“450 baht.”

I tried to maintain my best poker face (kinda hard to look tough in a flower dress). “Mai chai ka, 400 baht…”

He agreed, which meant that I definitely could have asked for a lower price from the beginning. Ahh well, for anyone reading and planning on going, you now know to start the bargaining at 300 baht.

So, the Blue Temple…

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Not going to lie, I think I liked this temple more than the White Temple. A person who’s visiting Thailand for a short time might say otherwise, but from living here for 9 months, I’ve seen A LOT of white and gold temples.

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I found the rich blue colors of this temple refreshing. The inside was also very tranquil. In fact, I just sat down for a bit to enjoy my surroundings and listen to the calming music.

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After zen-ing it out for a bit, I had my driver take me to my hostel so I could check-in. The place I stayed at, Mercy Hostel, ended up being an amazing hostel! There was a large public area where you could play games and pool, watch TV, drink and eat free snacks, and even go swimming. All the people there were incredibly chill and most of them were solo backpackers.

After placing my stuff down, I found I was in a bit of a dilemma of what to do next. While solo traveling has the benefit of being able to do whatever and whenever, it’s pricey because you can’t split costs with anyone. Plus, as a (somewhat) social human, I like sharing experiences with others.

I had already completed what I really wanted to see in Chiang Rai and had spent 500 baht in the process. And it was only 10:30 in the morning…

Just as I was scanning my phone for nearby stuff to do (preferably in walking distance), a guy sat down across from me and asked me where I was from. Turns out, he was from the United States too! His name was Brain and he was a solo backpacker from Colorado who had just arrived in Thailand the other day. After talking for a bit, he asked if I wanted to explore some of the area with him on a motorbike. Ummm yes!

Perhaps back home this would be a bit of an unwise thing to do, but in Thailand it’s not out of the ordinary to make a friend in under 10 minutes. Especially with backpackers. Plus, he drove a motorcycle back home and had a spare helmet. All good to go!

The first place we went…was back to the White Temple! And here I thought I’d never see it again.

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Take 2

Next, Brian had wanted to travel up to Doi Chang. This is considered Thailand’s “Coffee Paradise” and was located about an hour away, high in the mountains. The drive up was the best part. All around us was some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. With the wind from the motorbike keeping me cool, I was totally content with life.

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Unfortunately, pictures don’t do this place justice

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The Doi Chang Viewpoint

As we reached the top of the mountain, I swear the whole area began smelling like coffee. As I did not sleep well on the overnight bus and didn’t want to be kept up for a second night, I didn’t actually get any coffee. A decision that I’m still thoroughly regretting.

On the way up, we had noticed that there seemed to be a lot of fires around, causing the valleys and mountains in the distance to be somewhat smokey. We had been trying to figure out how these fires were occurring. Now, as we rode down the mountain, we heard this roaring sound and saw thick smoke ahead.

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So of course we got off the motorbike to take pictures! Turns out, the fires were naturally occurring and a way that the ecosystem removes dead debris. Little science for you.

An hour later, we were back at the base of the mountain and heading to our last destination for sunset: Singha Park.

Singha is actually the name of a popular beer in Thailand.

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Beer logo

Who would have guessed that a park named after a beer would be so beautiful and full of classy eateries?

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Apparently we went during the park’s Valentine’s celebration!

Brain and I arrived just in time to watch a hot air ballon take off, creating a picture perfect moment:IMG_0328

Since Brain is a photographer, he wanted to get a perfect sunset picture. This required us to drive around the park and literally run across fields to get to this one section of the park in time. We got many confused looks from Thai people, but we made it just as the sun was setting behind the mountains.

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I think Singha Park was my favorite part of the day.

After we got back to the hostel, I said goodbye to Brian, cleaned myself up and then went to the night bazaar, where I got my som tam (papaya salad) and went clothes shopping for some warmer clothes (it actually gets somewhat cold in Northern Thailand!).

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Chiang Rai’s Clock Tower

The next morning, I caught an early flight back to Bangkok and then took a van back to Chonburi. Overall, Chiang Rai ended up being the perfect weekend get-away trip. Totally recommend getting a motorbike though (or making a friend that can ride one)!