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.

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!

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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)!

Chasing Waterfalls

After celebrating the New Year in Hua Hin, the rest of my January passed pretty quietly. Mostly because 1) I’m saving money for my after-semester travels 2) almost all the places I really want to go to in Thailand and around requires more travel time than a 2-day weekend allows.

However, last weekend I did decide to do a solo trip to Kanchanaburi for the sole purpose of chasing the Erawan Waterfalls.

Aside from Bangkok, Kanchanaburi was the first place I went to in Thailand with my orientation group (you can read about that trip here). During that trip, I was worried about how I would navigate my way through Thailand on my own. Nine months later, I’ve finally got it down (mostly). I reckon I’ve come full circle. Proud?

To get to Kanchanaburi, I left on Friday with Jessica. Jessica was going to Ayutthaya that weekend, but since we both had to pass through Bangkok to get to our destinations, we decided to go together to grab some Mexican.

The next morning, I woke up at 4:30 to catch a 5:45am van to Kanchanaburi. Why so early? Because once in Kanchanaburi I would have to catch a bus for a 1.5-hour ride to the waterfalls. Since Erawan National Park closes at 4, I wanted to make sure I got there in time to make it to the top of the waterfalls.

With traffic, a van to Kanchanaburi usually takes 3 hours. However, I forgot to factor in that we were leaving before the sun rises. Meaning, we got there in half that time. Nice!

From there, I was able to catch the first bus to the waterfalls.

Some more information about Erawan Waterfalls… the Falls are located inside Erawan National Park and require a short walk from the entrance to get to the base. There are 7 official tier levels to the Waterfall- all requiring an upward hike to get to. The higher the level, the more intense the hike becomes. In total, it’s about a 2km climb to the top.

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The first 3 levels were easy to get to. In fact, it was more of following a concrete path than a climb. There were lots of people of all ages (both Thai and foreigners) at the first three waterfalls. Still, it didn’t subtract from the view.

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Level 1- Hlai Khuen Rung

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Level 2- Pha Namtok

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After level 3, some older people and families with young children began turning back because the path was now more vertical and required some careful footing. Privately, I was happy for less people because I wanted to enjoy my surroundings without excess noise. Plus, I’m impatient when it comes to waiting for people to move (a trait I need to work on).

From level 4 and beyond, people began jumping into the waters for a cool-down. The day, luckily, was overcast so I felt no need to jump in yet.

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Level 4- Oke Nang Peesau. People use the large smooth rocks as water slides!

By far, the most popular waterfall tier was level 5. With multiple pools of water, people were just sitting and relaxing.

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Level 5- Buea Mai Long

Tip for anyone planning to go to Erawan- just because there are only 7 “official” levels doesn’t mean there aren’t other waterfalls in between. Since nobody stopped to visit these, I got my most tranquil (and magical pics) “off the beaten path:”

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Levels 6 and 7 required some intense climbing to get to. The path also became less distinct and I sometimes had to forge my own path. Just when I thought I was going the wrong way and getting lost, I would spot a set of old rickety stairs (which were honestly more scarier to climb than the rocks and tree logs) to lead me in the right direction.

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Level 6- Dong Prucksa

Finally though, I made it to the 7th level! Not going to lie though, it was less impressive than I thought it would be in terms of cascading water. But the water did have this pretty blue glow to it.

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Level 7- Phu Phu Erawan

Several people were swimming at this level, but I quickly pulled my feet out after 2 minutes once a school of large fish began nipping at and trying to suck on my feet’s dead skin.

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I’ll pass on the fish pedicure this time…

After a mini-celebration of, “Hey, I made it to the top in one piece!” I began my descent down.

Since moving to Thailand, I have been hiking steep inclines a lot more than I ever expected. So far, I can concluded one sure thing: the hike down is always harder for me than the hike up. Mostly because I always feel like I’m about to pitch forward and roll down the mountain.

And sure enough, I experienced a fall as I went down a set of stairs from Level 7 to Level 6 (told you they were rickety). On the plus side, I didn’t pitch forward and bust my head open. Instead, I slipped backward (wet leaves on the stairs…), landed on my rear and slid down 10 stairs. Ouch x 10.

Miraculously, nobody heard or saw me fall down (for once, thank goodness people are self-absorbed in taking group selfies) and I was able to slowly get up and limp on over to the nearest rock to inspect the damage. Once I was sure I had no broken wrists, fingers, or rear I continued on down to the lower levels.

About an hour later I was back at the base of the waterfall and ready to take a bus back to Kanchanaburi town and check in at my hostel. After a very necessary shower, I decided to replenish my day’s calorie deficiency at Do Love Farm Café. IMG_3719

I had one of my favorite Thai dishes, Som Tam, surrounded by strips of sushi salmon.

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Followed by dessert.

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Yes please to the charcoal waffle with mangos and ice cream on top ❤

Let’s just say I really needed that replenishing after chasing waterfalls 😉

New Years on the West Side

The transition from 2017 to 2018 was full of happy endings and bright beginnings. But before I get into what I did travel-wise, I have some exciting news to share!

This coming August, I’ll be leaving home to teach abroad again! This time in the Czech Republic! As I was with Thailand, I’m sorting through many emotions. On the one hand, I’m sad that I’ll have to leave Thailand in April now- Thailand has truly become my home. I’m even more sad that I’ll be heading back to the United States only to say goodbye to my family and friends again after a few short months. However, I am incredibly happy that I will be able to continue my travels and immerse myself in a totally new culture and lifestyle. Guess it’s time to brush up on my Czech.

I’ll update y’all with more details about the Czech Republic as I get my teaching placement!

Anyway, back to my New Year’s weekend travels! Since this was to be my last long weekend while teaching, I wanted to go somewhere that I wouldn’t be able to tackle on a regular 2-day weekend. Originally, we had planned to celebrate the New Year in Malaysia, but after our recent Cambodia trip, we were a little short on funds.

Instead, I suggested that we head on over to the Gulf of Thailand’s West Side (we live on the East Side) to check out one of Thailand’s most famous caves: Phraya Nakhon. This was another image of Thailand that I had seen plastered over the internet. Yet, this cave is often overlooked by most travelers because of its remote location and the intense hike required to get there.

Saturday morning, I took an early bus into Bangkok where I met up with Marie and Cicely. From there we caught a van at Sai Tai (the Southern Bus Station) that was headed towards Pranburi (the province our cave was located in). But of course, we were headed to a more rural area, so we then had to take another van to reach where we were staying at.

It was a day of traveling.

By the time we finished checking in to our hotel- which was a bit of a nightmare due to a language miscommunication that resulted in the manager wanting to overcharge us- we were ready to grab some dinner across the street at the beach.

Now, for being an area so difficult to get to, I was surprised by the number of people there for the holiday weekend. People- both Thai and foreigners- were relaxing under the palm trees, grabbing 25 baht (76 cent) smoothies, or jogging across the beach (overachievers).

The place we ended up eating at seated us right on the beach in comfy wicker chairs. I had a grilled pork medallion (I had missed the taste of grilled food) and mussels, which were both heaven!

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The next morning, we woke up early to watch the last sunrise of 2017:

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Starting the last of 2017 on a good note

Afterwards, we grabbed fruit shakes for breakfast and hopped on our songthaew, which would take us to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park. Here, we were dropped off at the base of the mini-mountains we had to climb.

The hike itself was very scenic:

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But, I was quickly out of breath from such a vertical climb.

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Who said you had to wait for the New Year to get into shape?

And to make myself feel more out of shape, all the optional tour guides for the hike ended up being 9-year olds who made those steep slopes seem like child’s play.

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These kids are going to be so in-shape for the rest of their lives.

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I wanted to stop for pictures partially for the view and partially so that I could catch my breath.

Two mountains later, we were at the entrance to our destination: IMG_3089 As we descended into the cave, the air became a lot cooler and sounds from the forest seemed to go on mute. Suddenly, I felt so small compared to my limestone surroundings.

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The first cavern we were in had its own mini forest in the center, with light streaming in from the opening above. After we crossed a dark foot bridge, we entered into the second cavern. This one holds the golden pavilion/temple for which the the cave is famous for.

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It was just one of those views that you didn’t want to turn away from.

Eventually though, we did have to leave because our songthaew driver had only given us a certain amount of time to explore.

Rather than returning to our hotel (which we were kinda bitter towards), we had our driver take us North towards Hua Hin. Hua Hin is a very popular get-away destination for Thai people. We figured there would be more festivities here that would help us ring in the New Year in a fun way.

Plus the hostel we booked ended up being AMAZING! Prime location, hot showers with shower curtains, comfy beds, a lounge area, a rooftop view, and free snacks and refreshments all day. The best hostel I’ve been in yet.

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I totally recommend The Moon Hostel Huahin if you ever decide to visit Hua Hin!

By some miracle, we still had energy after our morning hike and took a quick look at the beach before grabbing Greek food for dinner. While eating, we ended up having a conversation with a guy from China named Young. He talked to us about coding (I think he was trying to get us to change our career paths) and how he was in Thailand for a solo vacation. We got Young’s contact info so that we could meet up with him later that night.

We then hit up the Night Market, where we all went in on some candles and earrings to get a discount price. Finally, we went back to our hostel for a mini-rest and prepare for New Years Eve.

While getting ready, we met another guy from China who was also doing some solo traveling throughout Thailand. So again, we offered someone to come out with us. When we asked for this guy’s name, he said it was too long in Chinese and just to call him Chicken or Drake. Chicken it was then.

So off we went to Hua Hin’s walking street. At one of the places we went, they had glow-in-the-dark body paint, which we were able to use for free.

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From left to right: Cicely, myself, Marie, Chicken, and Young

The rest of the night went by really quick. As it got close to midnight, we ran out onto the walking street, where people were spraying strangers with silly string. We each grabbed cans ourselves and joined in the war.

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Unfortunately, someone sprayed Marie right in the eyes before midnight. So, I spent the last seconds of 2017 and first seconds of 2018 trying to help Marie get the gunk out of her eyes. Awww well. The whole night ended up being super fun anyway.

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Plus, we still got to see fireworks!

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2017 has definitely been my favorite year. With still the rest of my time in Thailand and the Czech Republic coming up, I can’t wait to see what 2018 brings!

Having Myself a Merry Little (Thai) Christmas

We are currently in the dead of winter here in Thailand with temperatures dropping to a blistering 70 degrees on some days. Now doesn’t that make you just want to turn on the fire place, drink some hot chocolate, and snuggle underneath a blanket?

No?

Me neither.

But to all Thai people, we may as well be heading into a scene from The Day After Tomorrow.

I arrived at school the first day of the Thai winter in my typical short-sleeved dress, noting that for once I wasn’t sweating to death. Suddenly I was surrounded by a sea of jackets, hats, scarves, and gloves. No exaggeration, some kids looked like Alphie’s little brother from A Christmas Story:

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Some days he even sports thick leggings too!

And if the students were being dramatic, it was nothing compared to some of the Thai teachers. One was literally hugging herself to a pillar (still not sure how much heat that generates) and was breathing hot air into her hands while shivering. Let me repeat. It was 70 degrees.

After 7 months of dealing with Thai teachers laughing and mockingly asking me, “Teachaaaaa, are you hot?” I was ready for a little bit of revenge and had fun going up to Thai teachers and asking “Teacher, are you cold??? Where I’m from, this is warm!”

So what do you know? I had myself not-too-hot weather for Christmas. A little Christmas miracle in itself.

To answer a common question I’ve been getting: Thai people only celebrate Christmas to an extent. Since 95% of Thai people are Buddhist, they don’t follow any religious aspect of the holiday. They do, however, recognize the holiday’s significance to a large portion of the world and will decorate streets and malls, sell cookies, and play Christmas music in stores.

The best comparison I can give is St. Patrick’s Day in the United States; even if you’re not Irish, you can pretend and indulge in corned beef and drinking festivities. So, even though Thai people don’t take off from school and work on Christmas, they since party it up!

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Our classroom decorated for Christmas!

Now, not being home for Christmas was a bit depressing for me. One second I was blasting holiday music, while the next I wanted to listen to anything but. Honestly, it wasn’t bad until I saw pictures from friends and family back home. Curse social media.

Since I knew I couldn’t have my traditional Christmas, I decided to get away from it all by waking up early and going on a solo biking trip! The place I went, Bang Krachao, is nicknamed the “Green Lung” of Bangkok as it is located in the city, yet remains separated from the craziness and smog. To get to this little oasis, you have to hop on a ferry that costs 4 baht ( 1 US cent). 10 minutes later, you enter a world of lush green and friendly locals. You can’t hear ANYTHING from the mainland and you completely forget that you’re even in Bangkok.

I rented a bike for the whole day for 50 baht ($1.50) and was on my way!

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Since I entered the island from the Bang Na Pier side, I was located away from the free scenic park. This meant that I was passing the homes of locals and that no fellow bikers were around me for the first hour. Which ended up being a good thing since the biking roads were raised, narrow, and sometimes had no railings.

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Not really sure what would have happened if I had veered a bit to the right…

I hate to sound so reliant on technology, but thank goodness for GoogleMaps, because the Thai map I was given (NOT drawn to any scale by the way) was not cutting it. Eventually I found Bang Krachao’s Floating Market and walked around for a bit. It was filled with fruit stands for the locals, crafts, clothes, pets, and food.

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Not really a “floating market,” but I guess being located by water makes it so?

I would have totally pigged out on some snacks if I wasn’t saving my appetite for the most popular resort and restaurant on the island, The Bangkok Tree House.

Afterwards, I used GoogleMaps to bike myself to the island’s free park. On the way, I passed several temples, which is what you do in Thailand.

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The park ended up being GORGEOUS.

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I stumbled upon a place where you could buy bread for 10 baht and feed huge fish. Best 10 baht spend ever! The fish would stick their heads right out of the water and open their mouths to wait for the food drop.

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I could have biked around the park all day. The only thing that stressed me out was my phone quickly draining of battery and that my backup charger conveniently stopped working for this trip. I panicked because I had no clue how to get back to where I started without the map!

Luckily, I hauled it and made it to the Bangkok Tree House with 4% left on my phone.

I had first heard of the Bangkok Tree House, and Bang Krachao for that matter, before leaving for Thailand from this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb-lSj3AzD4&t=8s. It was too expensive to actually stay at the Bangkok Treehouse, but I could afford lunch and the spectacular seating:

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At this point, I was all biked out and headed back to the mainland to check into my hostel and go see the movie, Wonder (it was in English, which was a treat!). Afterwards, I was feeling more in the traditional Christmas spirit and decided to check out the city’s Christmas lights. I was not disappointed.

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The next day, I had to head back home because I had school that Monday (Christmas Day). At first, I was kinda bitter that we had to go, but it ended up being a super fun day and it kept me from wallowing in self-pity.

Because there was dancing involved, Jessica and I were required to wear particular outfits:

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Don’t we look like a pair of stunners

One of the activities we were responsible for was leading students from our grades in a Christmas dance. After 2 weeks of dance practice, I was so proud of how my students performed! Can add dance teacher to the resume list now…

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My dancers from my homeroom

And of course, foreign teachers had to perform their own holiday dance too:

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I suggested that we do the Jingle Bell Rock dance from Mean Girls. Clearly, I was outnumbered.

There was also a fashion/holiday spirit competition I was thrown into last second with my student teacher.

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I think I prevented us from winning…

After the festivities, my class retreated to our classroom to eat food for the rest of the day. Had no idea such little mouths could eat so much.

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That night, my fellow teacher friends and I went out to celebrate Christmas at a local restaurant. I’m blessed to have a group of such amazing people to keep the holidays bright for me.

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Family photo

The rest of the week was spent teaching Christmas-related topics such as…

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Pinning the Clothing on the Snowman

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Creating our own “Class Snowman.” Ok, so the idea of wrapping a student in toilet paper didn’t quite translate well. Whatever, we all got a laugh out of it (minus the student we wrapped).

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Christmas craft!

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And you all know I had to have my kids make no-bake Christmas cookies!

The other night, my school had a New Years party after school hours.

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How long does it take you to notice? A Thai teacher must have made the sign…

A lot of it was in Thai, but there was a buffet and dancing that made up for it.

When I got home, I finally opened my Christmas gifts I had accumulated throughout the week. I got a lot of food (even peanut butter snacks!), so clearly my kids and their parents know me well.

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Cambodia for the Weekend

Last Monday, Thai people celebrated Constitution Day to commemorate Thailand’s adoption of a constitutional monarchy. This meant a day off from school!

Since we’ve wanted to hit up different countries in Southeast Asia while here, Marie, Cicely, Jessica, and I decided to spend our 3-day weekend in Cambodia! Specifically, to visit the country’s most well-known structure- Angkor Wat.

Back in the United States, it would not be physically possible to drive to either Canada or Mexico from New Jersey over a 3-day weekend. Thanks to Thailand’s small size though, the idea of spending a weekend in a different country is definitely doable.

Friday night, Jessica and I caught a bus into Bangkok and splurged on food at a Mexican restaurant that served nachos with ACTUAL cheese. The things you learn not to take advantage of…

The next day, we meet up with Marie and Cicely to take our 9-hour bus ride to Cambodia. After flying halfway around the world to get to Thailand, a 9-hour drive was really no big deal. It’s also hard to complain when you realize that the bus ride is only costing you $29.

Passing from the Thai to Cambodian border proved to be slightly nerve-wracking. Without getting into too much detail, my work permit in Thailand requires that I get a re-entry permit if I plan on leaving the country. Otherwise, I get in verrrryyyy big trouble with my school. Although Jessica and I had obtained this permit several days beforehand, there’s always the chance that there’s a miscommunication and you’re given the wrong documentation.

Luckily, everything checkout for Jessica and I and we entered Cambodia without a hitch and were able to retake our seats on the bus.

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Since Marie and Cicely got their re-entry permits at the border though, they were required to stand in a much longer line and, despite our pleas, our bus ended up taking off without them!

Fortunately, our bus company has a bus that passes through the boarder every hour or so, so we knew they wouldn’t be stranded. We just had no way of knowing how long it would take to meet back up as our phones stopped working once we crossed the Cambodian border.

The rest of the bus ride passed smoothly. We traveled on a very scenic route.

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Once we arrived in Siem Reap, Jessica and I were surprised with how rural the city was. In fact, I would label Siem Reap as a town rather than a city. Regardless, the place definitely had its own charm as we traveled down roads that alternated between being concrete and dirt in our tuk-tuk.

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After we checked in at our French hostel and were reunited with Marie and Cicely, we went to town to exchange our Thai baht into Cambodia’s currency. Surprisingly, Cambodia uses the American dollar, as well as the Khmer Riel. This meant that for the first time in 7 months, I was using dollars to pay for transportation and food. Like Thailand, prices in Cambodia are super cheap. For instance, you’re able to get a nice restaurant meal for under $5 (and we were in a touristy area, mind you).

A heads up to all my family and friends though- I have become super cheap since living in Thailand. I kept looking at those $5 meals and thinking, wow that’s a really expensive meal. Why? Because I no longer use the American dollar to gauge things pricewise. In my mind, I convert the dollar into the Thai baht to determine its price to me. For instance, when I see something that is $5, I automatically convert that price into baht: $5 = 165 baht. All of a sudden, that $5 meal could pay for 4 nice meals that I would get for myself in Thailand.

Sorry friends and family. Don’t expect me to go out to eat with you anytime soon and not die when I see the bill.

Okay, mini ramble over.

Anyway, the 4 of us went to bed super early that night since we had a 4am wake-up call the next day so that we could see the morning sunrise at Angkor Wat.

A little background on Angkor Wat for those who are unfamiliar (or have no clue) what it is. Angkor Wat, which literally means “Temple City” in Khmer, is the world’s largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the 12th century to mimic Mount Meru (the Hindu’s version of Mt. Olympus) and serve as a possible tomb for King Suryavarman II (he was never actually buried there though). Unlike other monuments in Cambodia, Angkor Wat continues to undergo maintenance. The Khmer people have incredible pride over Angkor Wat and it is even featured on Cambodia’s national flag.

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is very high on the bucket list of many people who decide to visit Cambodia. Needless to say, we were not the only foreigners, shivering slightly, as we walked in the dark through the ruins on a Sunday morning.

Eventually, we found a small open area by the pond and waited as the sky slowly brightened. In my last post, I described how watching the sunrise for the first time over Railey Beach had been an incredible sight. I’m glad my second sunrise in Cambodia was just as magical.

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After our gorgeous sunrise, we explored more of Angkor Wat:

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Receiving a blessed bracelet from a monk

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After a quick breakfast, our sweet tuk-tuk driver, Koy, took us to more of the outlying temples. By now, the temperature was quickly rising and we began breaking into a sweat as we climbed the steep steps of various temples.

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Resting after a climb

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My favorite temple we visited was Ta Prohm. This one had crumbling green ruins everywhere with trees and vines weaving through cracks. There were some very earthy vibes and I think it was the most beautiful temple of the day. Apparently, I’m not alone in my thoughts as this temple was chosen to be featured in Angelina Jolie’s movie, Tomb Raider. 

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“Life finds a way” – Dr. Ian Malcolm

By noon, the four of us were exhausted and ready to go back to our hostel. Koy made stops for us so that we could pick up some refreshments. Along the way, he told us about his adorable sons and how he wants them to get into a good English speaking school.

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Us with Koy

Once we had rejuvenated by the pool, we decide to head back into town and explore Siem Reap’s night life.

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We did some shopping, looked at live tarantulas, grabbed dinner and ice cream and ended the night by watching Titanic at a bar.

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The next day was dedicated to taking our 9-hour bus ride back to Bangkok and then taking another 1.5 hour van ride back to my town.

Aw-koon for the memories, Cambodia!

Birthday Travels

Time for an overdue post on my two weeks of traveling around Thailand with my older sister, Jac! Warning: a very long post with many pictures follows.

In October, Thai students are given time off from school. The allotted time differs from school to school – some teachers will have a whole month off, while others are given 2 weeks or so (my school fell into the 2-week category 😦 ). So, months ago, my sister and I began planning a trip together that would start in mid-October and continue until the 27th (my birthday!). Our destinations were Bangkok –> Chaing Mai –> Krabi.

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Bangkok

To be honest, I was least excited to be spending time in Bangkok. That may be because I already live so close, but Bangkok’s heavy traffic, reliance on the BTS system, and lack of “daylife” can be quite tiring. Especially when you’re on an 11-hour time difference in regards to sleeping. Because of this, my sister and I only planned to spend 3 days in Bangkok.

The first day, we decided to be cultural and check out some of the temples. Since Thai people were in mourning of their late king still, I warned my sister that it was best to wear full black (as not to be disrespectful) and to cover our knees and shoulders (a requirement, anyway, for temple-seeing). Apparently though, many tourists were not aware (or cared) about the king’s passing as I saw lots of colorful wear. So, I sweated it out in all black quite a bit that first day.

Whatever, it was still fine. We first took a boat on the Chao Phraya river in order to get to Wat Pho, home of the famous golden Reclining Buddha. This is Thailand’s largest Buddha statue at 151 feet long and 15 feet tall. Due to the sheer size and surrounding pillars, it’s impossible to get the whole statue in one picture.

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Afterwards, we explored the rest of the temple and had lunch on the Chao Phraya river at a café that offered us a view of Wat Arun (it was also a lazy way to see another temple without figuring out a way to actually get to the temple…)

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That night, my sister and I planned to go to Bangkok’s Sky Bar, which gained fame after being a filming location for The Hangover, Part II. Due to this place’s popularity, there’s a very strict dress code and drinks and food here can be quite expensive (even though we’re talking Thailand here). I kept having to remind myself that I was on vacation- it  was okay to splurge.

Unfortunately, it began to downpour on our way to the Sky Bar. Whelp, that scratched out that plan in an instant. Instead, we retreated to the nearest mall where we ate poke bowls for dinner and called it a night.

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How this Hawaiian meal came to be in Thailand is a miracle beyond me…

The next night, Jac and I found out that there was actually a sky bar right next to our hostel. It might not be THE Sky Bar, but it was also not all the way across town and a million bucks to sit down at. Score! After waiting for another rainstorm to finish, we took an elevator up to the 46th floor of the Cielo Sky Bar and Restaurant. Since we had arrived right after a storm, the sky bar was technically not open yet. However, the sweet staff opened the outside section just for us and we got to have the rooftop to ourselves for a good 15 minutes before other dinner guests began showing up.

It was absolutely breathtaking! You had a 360 view of Bangkok and every so often, a portion of the sky would light up from the storm in the surrounding areas. I didn’t want to look away. Especially because I realized that almost nowhere else (and definitely not in the U.S) could I get this view and drink for a total of only $10.

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The next morning, my sister and I had an early wakeup call in order to catch a van to Damnoen Saduak. This is Bangkok’s most popular floating market. I was a bit weary of this market has it has become known as a tourist trap. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the market wasn’t quite as bad or crowded as I thought it would be. Plus, I got a delicious serving of coconut ice cream in a coconut shell! Overall, I have no regrets and it was a fun experience.

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That night, we packed our bags and took the hour flight to…

Chiang Mai

Everything went smoothly and we arrived at our hostel a little after midnight. Unfortunately, the manager at our hostel forgot we were coming in late and closed up the hostel for the night. After calling the manager several times, I grudgingly suggested that we try the mini-hotel next door for the night and deal with the hostel in the morning. When we entered the hotel though, we found that the guy at the front desk was busy attending to a few Chinese tourists in the lobby, who were ordering the largest and most unnecessary amount of pork from a menu. As we waited for them to finish up (why were they so insistent on this pork?!? The world will never know…) my cell phone rang. Turns out that the manager finally got my message and would be outside the hostel in 2 minutes.  We returned to our hostel to receive hugs from the manager who apologized for leaving early so that he could head out to a show and winded up down the street at a bar. He gave us the keys to our room and said we could check in and pay the next day because he couldn’t think too straight at the moment and wanted to head back down the street… Only in Thailand does this happen.

If you have been following this blog, you might recall that I visited Chiang Mai with my friends back in midsummer to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. It was also while traveling to Chiang Mai that I lost my phone 😦 Luckily, nothing bad happened this time and I enjoyed the “city” just as much as last time.

We went through a bunch of handmade craft stores,  got flesh-eating fish pedicures, and walked through some temples. One of the temples we went to, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, required us to get a ride outside the city and up a mountain.  We then had to climb the world’s longest staircase to get to the top.

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At some points, I thought I was going to die. But, it ended up being worth the view.

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And of course, we had to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary while in Chiang Mai! This time though, we only signed up for a half day, which was fine because I was still exhausted by the end of it. While at the sanctuary, we helped feed the elephants bananas and bamboo, played with the newborn elephant, bathed our elephants in a pond, and gave them mud baths in a mud hole.

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One of the baby elephants we worked with was super playful and “naughty.” He would put his head down and then randomly charge at us. One girl we were with was looking the other way and had her foot run over by him. By the end of the day, her foot was extremely red and becoming more and more swollen as we watched. Take a way- never turn your back on a baby elephant.

After getting back, showering, and taking a nap, we talked to our hostel manager who was more than happy to take us out that night to a Lady Boy show. It was very Las Vegas-like and hilarious to watch.

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Perhaps my favorite thing to do in Chiang Mai this time around was taking a cooking class.

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As some of you might know, cooking is one of my favorite hobbies. Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard to cook in Thailand. And so, I was really pumped to take this class. The place we cooked at was May Kaidee, which was recommended to me by Jessica for making amazing vegetarian options (Jac is a pescitarian). In preparation for this class, Jac and I didn’t eat anything as we knew that there would be a lot of samples to try. What we didn’t realize was that those “sample sizes” were actually a whole large serving each. In total, we each made:

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Tom Yam and Tom Kha Soup

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Green and Yellow Thai Curry

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Som Tam (Papaya Salad)

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Pumpkin Hummus

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Spring Rolls

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Mango and Sticky Rice

(Not pictured: Pad Thai)

Needless to say, Jac and I were covered for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that day.

Krabi

Where to even begin with Krabi? It is a heaven on earth with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.

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My sister and I stayed at Bhu Nga Thani Resort on Railay Beach. Railay Beach arguably has some of the best views in Krabi and it’s a must-go destination. It’s also a paradise for rock climbers, hikers, and kayakers.

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Railay Beach looking to the right

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Railay Beach looking to the left. We watched as two people rock climbed up this baby.

However, you can only get to Railay Beach by taking a longtail boat. Since the longtail boats leave directly from the beach, my sister and I had to roll up our leggings, hold our luggage above our heads, and wade through the water to get to and from the shore. Not fun.

The resort we stayed at was gorgeous. There ended up being a mix up in with the rooms and we ended up in a Honeymoon suite. Whatever, it was worth the stares from staff and honeymooners for this room.

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Jac and I passed our time at Railay laying on the beach and eating som tam (papaya salad) and a variety of local Thai dishes with squid in it.

One day though, we decided to book a tour to Koh Phi Phi. The Phi Phi Islands sit between Krabi and Phuket and is probably the most well-known group of islands in Thailand. Since we were technically in Thailand’s rainy season still (it ended the following week), our tour of Phi Phi was 50% off, which was amazing. AND we ended up having a beautiful day.

First, we were taken to the white sands and clear waters of Bamboo beach:

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We then snorkeled by Khai Island. I’m pretty sure this is the point where I started getting sunburn…

Next, we went to Maya Bay- the famous beach featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie, The Beach. I was a tad disappointed that the place was swimming (literally) with wayyyy too many people and that my man Leo was not around, but at least the sights were still pretty without him.

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I was lucky to get this shot without a bunch of people in it!

Afterwards, we saw Viking Cave:

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And snorkeled again at Pileh Cove:

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Now, the tour advertised that we would get to see and interact with monkeys on Monkey Beach. Little false advertisement as we were not allowed to get off the boat 😦 In actuality, we just saw one monkey climbing a rock at a distance. Not worth the picture.

The next day, Jac and I decided to rent a kayak and explore the rock formations and surrounding beaches on our own.

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In front of Ko Rang Nok!

As a present to myself, I woke up super early on my birthday and walked onto the beach before the sunrise. I then plopped myself down and watched as the sun slowly began to light up the sky. I don’t think I’ve ever really just sat somewhere to watch the sun come up. To do this for the first time on Railay beach, in Thailand, and on my 25th birthday was a pretty magical event that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Twenty-four was an incredible year- I student taught, graduated college, moved away, began to live on my own, and got my first “big girl” job. I’ve met amazing people, seen unbelievable sights, and gained a deeper perspective on life in general. I can’t wait to see what 25 brings me! (sorry to be corny).

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Anyway, the rest of my birthday consisted of traveling from airport to airport as we made our way back to Bangkok. I didn’t mind though because I considered the past two weeks as my birthday. I said goodbye to my sister and then headed to a hostel before returning home to Chonburi the next day. Shout out to my sister for traveling halfway around the world to spend time with me and make my birthday extra special. Without a doubt, the best birthday present ever.

Loy Kratong

One of the most iconic images of Thailand is a night sky filled with lanterns (if you have no clue what I’m talking about, just look at the picture at the top of this blog). This image also graces the cover of my Lonely Planet travel book, so I’ve been constantly reminded that I NEED to partake in this Thai holiday. And participate I did last Friday (November 3rd).

First off, the name of this holiday is “Loy Kratong” which translates into “Floating a Kratong.” A kratong is a small boat made typically from banana leaves. During this festival, Thai people “float away” their worries on these kratongs and look forward to better days.

So, the festival began that morning, when all the students came to school in traditional Thai clothing. This was both a hilarious and cute sight.

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My students all brought in kratongs, which ranged from being made out of banana leaves to ice cream cones and loaves of bread!

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Loaf of bread kratong

Later that day, we had a mini parade and all of our students released their boats in blown-up pools.

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After school ended, it was my turn! Fortunately, my fellow OEG teachers and I live right next to the beach town BangSaen and were able to send off our troubles into the Gulf of Thailand. For those not so close to water, they can float boats in streams and pools. In Northern Thailand where there is less water period, people fill the night’s sky with lanterns instead.

The only issue with sending off our kratongs was the wind- my candle would not stay lit! After many failed attempts, I sent off my boat without a light (I hope this doesn’t mean bad days are coming for me).

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After dinner though, we saw that the sky was starting to twinkle a little too much to just be stars. We went back to the beach and saw that people were letting off lanterns now! I bought one for 80 baht ($2.50) and after excitingly watching my friends let theirs off, was ready for a second chance of good luck.

So here’s a picture of me super happy and ready to let off my lantern.

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What you don’t see is the fact that after I pushed my lantern up, it started to float back down.

Okay, just not enough hot air yet. I pushed off again. Same issue. Well, third time is a charm. Apparently though, not everyone thought that as at that moment, this old Thai man CAME OUT OF NOWHERE, grabbed my lantern from the sky, threw it on the ground, and stomped the fire out with his foot. With no explanation, he left. My friends and I just stared in amazement, at a loss of what to say, the whole time.

Sir, you quite literally just stomped on my hopes and dreams.

For the rest of my time at the beach, I just looked into the sky filled with lanterns and pretended that one of them was mine.

So far, no incredibly bad incidences have occurred from this mishap and I have concluded that an unlit kratong does in fact bring good luck (or at least counterbalances the bad luck from a stomped on lantern).

UPDATE: 2 weeks after Loy Kratong, my friends and I went back to BangSaen beach and found that they were selling lanterns! Of course, I bought one to try again. I am happy and relieved to say that my second lantern was not tackled down by a random man, but rather floated off into the night. All is well 🙂 )

Next blog post: my 2 weeks of travel with my sister!