How to Make the Best of a Professional Development Day

FYI- even in a foreign country, it is impossible to escape the dreaded professional development days. And so, a few Fridays ago, I found myself waking up at 3am (*sob*) to set out for Bangkok with my fellow Thai and Filipino co-teachers.

Our PD consisted of touring a very high-end urban school. This school was HUGE and situated within a college campus. The youngest grade level consisted of 18-month olds. And so, it is possible for a student to enter the school before their second birthday and stay on campus until their early to mid-twenties. Scary thought.

Since I am teaching Kindergarten though, my tour centered around the lower grades of the school. I can’t really go into too much details about the tour as it was all in Thai (hmmmm, who could have seen that one coming?), but peering into the classrooms reminded me of kindergarten classrooms back in the United States: 20-something kids in each class, class aids, centers, tables and chairs. Ahhh the luxuries I’ll never take for granted again…

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Anyway, after the tour we got lunch and then had to gather in a conference room for some type of presentation. Again, I’m not too sure what it was about because everything was in Thai. So, I spent over an hour practicing my Thai characters and sight words. It was a very productive ending to the PD day. Afterwards, I was given the option to either head back to Chonburi with the other Filipino teachers or venture off on my own (Jessica wasn’t with me because she was on vacation- I take back what I said, there is a way to escape a professional development day).

Since I had gotten a free ride into Bangkok and it was a Friday afternoon, I was not going to miss the opportunity to go exploring! So off I trekked for some solo activities.

First up, I went to the Jim Thompson House and Museum.

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For some background info… Jim Thompson was an American from Delaware who joined the US army during WWII. He became stationed in Bangkok after the war, fell in love with Thailand, and decided to revive the world’s love of Thai silk. Thompson became one of the most famous Americans living in Thailand and decorated his house with cultural pieces to wow his many guests. Unfortunately, in 1967, Thompson went to Malaysia and disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to him.

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The house tour was pretty cool and I recommend it for those visiting Bangkok (no indoor pictures allowed- sorry!).

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The making of silk

Afterwards, I trekked over to my hostel where I made it inside just before a rainstorm broke out. Not wanting to sit inside all night, I decided to go to the Jim Thompson café that ended up conveniently being down the street.

Too bad it was closed.

Instead, I wandered around and came across a cat café. Yup, a café where you can enjoy a mango and sticky rice parfait AND play/chill with adorable cats.

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Lucky kitty

I find it a bit concerning that I spent a Friday night by myself playing with cats. Hopefully this is not a preview of my life 15 years from now…

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Eventually I did leave though because my throat, eyes, and nose became super irritated. After 5 months having no contact with cats, I had forgotten that I’m allergic to them. Whoops. Whatever, it was all worth the runny nose.

The following morning, I took a stroll through Lumpini Park, which is Bangkok’s version of New York’s central park.

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Large monitor lizards are also known for strolling about too. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any reptiles.

Not to worry though! My next stop was the Snake Farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute. This organization, run by the Thai Red Cross Society, specializes in extraction and research of snake venoms and vaccines.

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So, I got to enjoy some air condition as I toured the building and learned more about snakes than I ever thought possible. And good news guys! If you ever get bitten by a poisonous snake, I now know exactly how to treat it.

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Parts of the museum had a very mad-scientist vibe to it

Afterwards, I was invited to a snake show where I got to see a bunch of snakes up close and personal.

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I even got to hold one in the end!

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Professional snake trainer in the making

So that, my friends, is how to salvage a PD day: get your hands on some silk, cats, and snakes.

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The Teachaaa Life

As my first semester teaching in Thailand wraps up, I figured I’m way overdue for posting about my experiences in the Thai classroom so far.

Where even to begin? It’s hard to describe the classroom as many things in the Thai education system are contradictory.

First things first, I am absolutely in love with all of my 44 little kindergarteners.

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Our classy class picture

They have stolen my heart (along with my sanity, mind you), with their “good morning, Teachaaa Deanna” and “thank you, Teachaaa Deanna.” Even though they have little knowledge of the English language, they shower me with hugs and kisses, look for my reaction when they lose their first tooth, and demand that I scowl any student who accidentally bumps into them. In other words, they act as any 5/6-year-old from the States would act.

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At the same time, they are so much more mature than students back home. Thai students are expected from a young age to be very independent. Here, students are sometimes left unattended at the lunch table or in the classroom. I panicked the first time I walked into my classroom to see that no adults were in the room with them. Back home, this is a BIG no-no. But here, nobody cares because Thai children are expected to not (totally) lose their heads the second they are left alone.

Likewise, Thai students are expected to be tough. No coddling here. There’s also no nurse’s office here either. So if a child throws-up during the morning ceremony (unfortunately, a pretty common occurrence), he/she is expected to clean themselves up and get back to class. If they feel REALLY bad, they’re allowed to take out their bed and rest in the corner of the classroom while the rest of the class just moves around them. It’s a wonder as to why our whole school hasn’t been quarantined yet. On the plus side, I’m going to have a super awesome immune system when I get back home.

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I’ve also found that Thai students (across all grade levels) are more advanced in their studies than the equivalent grade level back in the States. For instance, my students know how to identify, write, and say all the 44 Thai consonant characters PLUS the 26 alphabet letters and their corresponding sounds. They also know their English sight words, can solve basic addition and subtraction problems, count to 100 in Thai and English, and have begun to blend simple sounds together to form words. I’m not saying that kindergarteners back home can’t do this too. I’m just saying that the expectations here are more rigorous.

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Me and my boys!

Don’t get me wrong though, Thai classrooms have not killed the imagination and spirit of their students. Not by a long shot. Thai kids in general are little balls of energy who MUST see the fun in an activity in order to stay engaged and learn. Otherwise, they are rolling on the floor (literally), wrestling each other, and talking loudly during teaching time.

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Activities like this are required to keep these kiddos listening

Prior to teaching here, I joked that teaching in Thailand would be a breeze compared to my other teaching experiences. The worst thing that might happen is a student dropping a pencil on the ground.

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Don’t let them trick you with their white outfits and innocent peace signs

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Many Thai students do not have the motivation to learn. This is largely due to the fact that the Thai education system does not allow teachers to fail their students; teachers have to provide retesting until a student passes. And so, there’s no fear of failing or being held back to keep a student from messing around during a lesson. Instead, Thai teachers will resort to physical punishments to keep their students in check.

But didn’t I just say that my Thai students are more advanced than students back home? And here’s where things get contradictory and blurry. I have these smart students with little desire to pay attention and learn. I have an education system that demands perfection, yet does not know how to address any situation that is less-than-perfect. The paradoxes here are mind-blowing.

So enough ranting. All education systems have their flaws. In the end, it’s how a teacher rolls with the “punches and throws” that matter.

Let me just reiterate really quickly: managing students with very little knowledge of English is, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done while in the classroom.

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Me and my girls!

But if at first you do not succeed, you got to try, try, and try again! For instance, back home when I wanted my classes’ attention, I’d say “Peanut butter!” My students knew to respond with “Jelly!” and get quiet. Day 1 in my Thai class, I wanted to establish the same drill using “Chicka Chicka, Boom Boom” (Thai people don’t know what peanut butter is, so “peanut butter and jelly” was out). My students quickly latched on to the idea of responding to my “Chicka Chicka” with “Boom Boom.” Problem was, they would begin talking right back up the moment after. No amount of “shhhh!” and quieting gestures would silence them.

Moving on to idea #2: reward system. I made a card for each of my students. If they were “caught being good” by me, they would get a hole punch in their card. 5 hole punches = a prize from my toy chest. Unfortunately, this method was hard to manage with 44 kids. Plus, the hole punch thing just wasn’t grabbing their attention. After a failed trial period, it was back to the drawing board.

Idea #3: stickers. Works about 50% of the time. I would like to move away from material rewards though (especially ones that need constant replenishing…)

Ironically, I found my best way of managing the volume of my class by accident. I was having trouble learning my students’ long and tongue-tying names. Feeling guilty about always pointing to a student and saying “you,” I got a bunch of popsicle sticks and wrote a student’s class number on each one. Whenever I want a student to give an answer, I pick a popsicle stick.

Pretty random procedure, right? Except for some reason, my kids think that what they’re doing at the moment will determine whether their popsicle stick is selected or not.

Now, all I have to do is shake my popsicle stick container to get my students to settle down. Many of them sit, cross their legs, close their eyes, and start to silently move their lips. Whether they are praying to be called on or not, I don’t know. All I know is that the talking stops because they all want to know who’s going to be IT and possibly traumatized by being asked “What day of the week is it?” by me.

My other way of controlling the class is through singing. I taught my students the “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” song and they are all obsessed with it. All I have to do is begin singing the song and my students stop what they are doing to perform the hand motions. This works on even the “bad boys” in the class.

So, what does an average school day look like for me? Every morning, I walk the 20 minutes to school with Jessica, my fellow CIEE/OEG coworker. We both wear all-black dresses every day as Thai people are in a 1-year mourning period over their late King. We arrive at school at 7:30am and sign in with the school’s fingerprint scanner.

Every other Monday though, I arrive at school 30 minutes early for Gate Duty. This duty requires me (you guessed it) to stand by the entrance gate and have all the students wai (pressing hands together as if in prayer and bowing) into my open palm. Aside from still being half asleep, it’s pretty cute to see all the kids get dropped off by their parents on motorbikes.

At 7:50, our day begins with the morning ceremony. This is probably the most torturous part of the day. Everyone is required to stand under the school pavilion for roughly 20 minutes for prayer, chants, speeches, and songs. Since Chonburi is a coastal city, it gets very hot and humid. Thus, students and teachers are sweating like crazy the whole time. On the plus side, I get myself a daily detox.

Next, we climb the stairs to our classrooms, take off our shoes, get our students their water, have them settle on the floor (we have no desks and chairs), and then begin our teaching. My student teacher and I alternate teaching blocks. In the morning, I teach a phonics block and a block on whatever the topic of the week is.

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Everyday I make my kids tell me what month we’re in and the days of the week (in complete sentences, of course). I reckon they have it down now!

On Tuesdays, I leave my students to teach in another classroom for 45 minutes. When it’s not my teaching block, I assist my Thai co-teacher and student teacher with managing the students.

For lunch, I am required to prepare the food bowls and serve my students extra helpings of food. Thai lunches consist of either rice or noodles paired with some sort of meat. Not going to lie, I sometimes want to eat what my students eat for lunch.

Next, it’s nap time. Meaning lunch/prep time for me. Jessica and I either eat at the school canteen or venture outside of school to our favorite noodle soup place. We stumbled upon this family-owned place by accident and it is definitely a hidden gem! Since Jessica is vegetarian, we don’t mess with trying new dishes in case there’s meat in it (many Thai people do not understand the concept of a vegetarian/vegan). Instead, the grandmother/shop owner has her son/cook make us the same noodle-poached-egg dish each time.

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Only 86 cents for a huge bowl. I can eat this stuff for days…

We don’t even have to order or say anything when we walk in; they just automatically make it for us.

For the rest of nap time, I run around doing random prep work or preparing my students for upcoming English activities. As for English activities, so far I have…

1. Coached a Grade 5 student in correctly pronouncing and memorizing various speeches for English competitions.

2. Coached one of my kindergarteners in correctly pronouncing and memorizing a Mother’s Day speech. The student I coached for this competition so happened to be my favorite student, Patchara. For over a month, I had to wake poor Patchara up early and practice his speech. This was very difficult to do as this kid loves his naps. Even after I dragged him into the hall with me, getting him to memorize a speech while he was still half-asleep was brutal for both of us. I kept thinking how I would feel if I was 5 years old and a foreign teacher woke me up early from nap every day to sit outside in the heat and memorize words to a speech in a language that was unfamiliar to me. I have to say, Patchara handled the situation a lot better than I would at 5.

After a month and a half of this, Patchara had to stand in front of a room of teachers and deliver the speech. He ended up being the most cheerful and energetic student up on stage and flew through his lines. Of course, I recorded the whole speech and every time I watch it, I feel like a proud mama. After the competition, Patchara ran up to me, tears in his eyes, and hugged me. Too cute!

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Happy Patchara

3. Coached two of my students in a “crossword puzzle” game board competition. Don’t ask me the specifics because I never learned them myself. That’s Thailand for you!

4. Coached a handful of my students in learning the lines to a Little Red Riding Hood play that I wrote. This play required some intense practicing and we actually just performed it yesterday for the whole kindergarten building and parents. I feel like a proud mama for this event too, so picture time!

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The cast and I before showtime.

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Hanging with the star of the show

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Those eyes…

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We had butterfly princesses in our version of Little Red

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…and monkeys

Alright, back to my school schedule now… So after nap/prep/coaching, my kids wake up for specials and then I teach for one more block. Usually, I use this block for hands-on crafts, games, and demonstrations.

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Sing-toe (lions) out of hearts

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Teaching about family. Note: Patchara draws me a Spiderman on every assignment he hands in.

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The topic of the week was “rice,” so of course I had them make paper sushi!

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Learning about fruits by making shish kabobs

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I’m the person responsible for introducing “Green Eggs and Ham” to Thai children. After this activity, I was asked if green eggs and ham are a type of “American food.” I believe I responded with an “ummm yes?” Sorry for the new American staple guys…

 

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In case you haven’t picked up on it yet… I do a lot of food-related activities with my kids.

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And so far, they have enjoyed every bite of it!

Every other Friday, I participate in “English Fun Friday.” This rivals the morning ceremony for “the most torturous part of the day.” Once again, I’m back at the outside pavilion, where the foreign teachers and I have 3 classes rotate between us. I teach each class for 20 minutes. Since most of the other kindergarten classes are not used to seeing a white foreigner, many of them will just give me blank stares, regardless if I speak to them in English or Thai.

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Me as I realize that none of the kids have any idea what I’m asking.

So how do I get them to respond? I go all out with the dramatics and act like a crazy person. I give out a ton of high-fives, and “way to go’s!”

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I feel like such a motivational speaker

The kids may not fully grasp what I was teaching them by the end of the 20 minutes, but I do get some hugs.

At 4pm, it’s finally time for Jessica and I to walk home and prepare for the next day (and mayyybbbeeee watch some Netflix).

Over the Mountain and Through the Jungle to the Phuket Beaches we go!

Yes, I realize that it’s been a while since my last post. Sorry about that. The main reason for the delay is that (drum roll, please) I’ve been busy with a second job! That’s right people, in addition to working as a full-time ESL teacher in Thailand, I now work as a part-time online ESL teacher for Chinese students. So far, I love what I’ve been doing! Plus, I’ve picked up some pretty useful ESL tricks that I now use on my Thai students.

I’m seriously considering going back to school for a Master’s in ESL when I get home. I’m really enjoying teaching and making English fun for kids. Plus, I feel that I can relate to my students as I’ve slowly been learning how to speak/read/write in Thai. As I teach my students a new vocabulary word, I often ask for the word in “pa-sa Thai” so that I can learn something new as well. It keeps me grounded and prevented me from getting frustrated with my students for not knowing the English word for mango and coconut because hey- I didn’t know the Thai words for them myself!

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The best way to teach ESL? Hands-on experiments!

Anyway, I plan to write a very extensive post regarding my time teaching in Thailand within the next few weeks, so enough about teaching for now. Instead, let’s talk travel.

On Labor Day weekend, I found myself on the Thai beaches that grace travel magazine covers. We’re talking Phuket- the top go-to tourist place in Thailand and epitome of white sand and blue waters.

Since we’re still in Thailand’s rainy season though, the number of tourists in Phuket is at its minimum. We also went on a random weekend instead of a holiday weekend. This meant that I got a roundtrip flight ticket for $36, as opposed to the hundreds of dollars it can be during peak season.

So come Friday night, Marie and I arrived in Bangkok, ate some expensive airport food, and then laid across semi-comfortable chairs for an overnight sleepover at the airport.

Bright and early Saturday morning, we were on a plane to Phuket! Since we had less than 48 hours to spend in paradise, we stuck to the mainland, as opposed to ferrying on over to the smaller islands (I’ll be doing this in October when my sister comes to visit!). After dropping our stuff off at our hotel, we hustled on out to find ourselves a beach to soak up some vitamin D.

We had two “close-by” options: Freedom Beach or Patong Beach. I had read somewhere online (so you all know how legit we’re talking) that Freedom Beach is a MUST to visit. It’s a more remote beach that requires a bit of hiking to get to. And according to my trusty ol’ Google Maps, it was only a 34-minute walk away. Sounded more than do-able. Plus, “Freedom Beach” had a very patriotic ring to it (it was Labor Day weekend, mind you).

So off we went! Unfortunately, “ol’ trusty” led us up a steep mini-mountain that cut through some Thai backyards. Mmmm, maybe I should have read more into the words “remote” and “hiking required.” I started having flashbacks to my hiking experience from Phetchabun (good lord, no!). All I kept thinking was, at least we eventually have to go DOWN to get to the beach.

But then, we meet an angel in the form of an older Thai man named Yew. Yew is probably one of the best Thai English speakers I’ve heard since I’ve been here. He’s a retired police officer, meaning he’s probably dealt with his fair share of foreign tourists who have drank a littttle too much while enjoying the beach scene. Needless to say, he’s had plenty of opportunities to practice speaking English.

Yew was very surprised to see us hiking up his road as most people who go to Freedom Beach usually go in a truck. He offered to give us a ride the rest of the way up for 100 baht, which we gladly accepted.

So up the mountain we went, eating Thai bananas that Yew picked from his tree for us. Once Yew found out that we were Americans teaching English in Thailand, he got super excited and started telling us a bunch of facts about America, like where Ohio (Marie’s home state) and New Jersey (my home state) are located. He kept telling us that it is his dream to travel to the U.S and he asked if we knew how to sing some American songs, including the Eagles’ Hotel California (we would not sing for him, but no worries- he sang for us).

At the top of the mountain, we thanked Yew for the lift and he responded that it’s the least he could do for us since we were teaching Thai children English. My heart melted.

Yew dropped us off and told us that since Freedom Beach is privately owned, we’d have to pay an entry fee of 200 baht each (the online site failed to mention this :/).

And here is where things turned really sketchy and, quite frankly, scary. Remember when I made the obvious observation that, “eventually we have to go DOWN to get to the beach.” Well folks, it was time to go down. Straight down a rocky “path” (for lack of a better word) and through a jungle.

We were not hiking. We were pretty much rock climbing in flip-flops. For a part of our obstacle course, someone had created a loose rope railing attached to some trees. I was quite terrified and the only thing keeping me from turning back was the fact that I wasn’t sure whether I could climb back up after exhausting myself on the way down so far.

Suddenly I understood why it was called “Freedom Beach”; no invading army would waste their time and resources to climb up and then down this mountain to capture this beach.

Somehow though, we made it!

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And no surprise, Freedom Beach was pretty free of tourists. Marie and I enjoyed a few hours of laying out directly on the sand (no beach chairs or towels in sight!) I would have loved to venture deep into the water, but the waves were pretty strong and big. I didn’t want Marie to have to play lifeguard rescue for me.

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Oh, and of course we took some pictures!

As much as Freedom Beach was beautiful and quiet, I do enjoy a good beach chair and a little bit of people watching. So off we trekked back up the jungle again. This journey was just as difficult, but I’ll spare you the details. We stopped back at Yew’s house again, where we were treated to more bananas and Yew telling us about a bunch of running and swimming competitions he’s been in. He even brought out his 7th place trophy to show us! He then gave us another lift back to our hotel.

So would I recommend Freedom Beach? Probably not. Unless you’re a professional rock climber. Do I regret the experience? Not at all! It’s a story to tell and I met the next up and coming Eagles singer.

Instead of passing out on our bed when we got back, we changed, brushed the jungle leaves from our hair and headed back out (we were on a tight time table). This time we went to Patong Beach, which is the total opposite of Freedom Beach; There were Chinese and Russian tourists everywhere, food vendors, and places to get massages, jet skis, and go parasailing. Marie and I rented some beach chairs and laid out for another dosage of Vitamin D.

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That night, we grabbed dinner at a fancy place with swinging chairs and then headed out to Patong’s wild Walking Street.

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Swing #1

However, I think our trek through the jungle finally caught up with us and we both just grabbed some ice cream sundaes and headed back to our hotel to sleep.

The next day, we didn’t mess around with venturing to new beaches and just stayed on Patong.

Thai people selling an abundance of merchandise kept approaching us. I kept telling them “Mai ow, ka. Cop-coon ka, (which translates into “I don’t want, thank you.”) Every single time, the sales person would get a look of complete surprise and bust out laughing; they are not used to white foreigners speaking back to them in Thai and they think it’s the strangest/funniest thing when someone does. One guy kept coming back to try to sell me a candle just to hear me speak Thai again.

The rest of the day was spent sipping down papaya shakes and playing in the waves. Marie and I watched as one of the younger Thai salesmen ditched his job for a bit to teach his younger brother to surf. It was so cute to watch!

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Swing #2

Grudgingly, we left the beach at 4pm, packed up, and called Yew, who had agreed to take us to the airport for a cheap price. We landed in Bangkok at midnight, bringing the close to our active, yet lazy Labor Day weekend.

A Departure from Reality…

From living in Thailand, you quickly realize that there’s a solid line separating expectation from reality. My hometown here is a prime example. No, I do not ride to school on an elephant, tan and surrounded by lush green trees. Instead I sweat it out by walking on the cracked-open pavements, breathing through my mouth to avoid the smells of sewage and rotten who-knows-what. And that tan? It’s not worth enduring the heat for.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some nice parts to living where I do- easy access to Bangkok and Pattaya being a main one. Plus, every so often you do find a hidden gem:

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Ok, so the rooftop pool is not in my city, but it’s in the next town over. Close enough.

Come the weekend though, I am fortunate enough to be able to travel, depart from reality, and enter that world of expectations. These past 2 weekends, I have lived in what you would expect to stumble upon at every street corner in Thailand (oh, how I wish). First up…

Koh Samet:

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An island of both private and party beaches, all connected by brick roads and tropical footpaths.

My departure from reality went pretty smooth for this trip. I hopped on a van at 7 in the morning and (probably because I was the only foreigner) got to ride shotgun the entire way down the gulf coast. The van driver was super nice to me (again, foreigner perks) and blasted the air condition, bought me water, and switched the radio from Thai to American music. I kind of felt bad for the other passengers who were clearly cramped and sweating behind me. At one point, the driver waved at me to get my attention.

“Cartoon Network!” He said. Ummmm what?

I turned and looked outside his window and, sure enough, there was a huge Cartoon Network water park! It was bizarre to see a bit of my childhood randomly placed in Thailand. I smiled at him appreciatively and he laughed, clearly happy to have found some common ground between us. When it was time for me to get off the van, he took it upon himself to get off, flag down a songthaew, and talk to the passengers to find someone who could ensure I ended up where I needed to be.

I said it before and I’ll probably say it many more times; Thai people are the sweetest and most generous people I’ve met.

After several more means of transportation, including a speed boat, I was in Koh Samet! I meet up with my friend and fellow CIEE/OEG participant, Natalie, who was vacationing there for the week with her husband.

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Dinner on the beach

My time on the island passed in a blissful blur. My days were spent laying out in the sun (getting a tan was fine now, thanks to the crystal clear water 5 feet away), eating delicious food served right on the beach, getting my hair braided by a native, and laughing at Soda, a dog who lived on the beach and loved going out in the water to swim with visitors. Expectations successfully met.

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If I ever decide to drop off the face of the earth, I’m landing myself on this island. I think I’ll just spend the rest of my life traveling on the trails and selling coconut on the beaches.

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Unfortunately, my expectations were not met on the way home. I felt like I was the subject of a Thai Whisper Down the Lane game; I was passed from one transportation driver to another 8 different times.

Now it’s very hard to describe, but when you don’t speak the native language, you become very reliant on the one person who has a semi-clue of where you want to end up. Forget the fact that you can’t communicate with them and they are probably laughing at you as they share their burden (me) with another Thai person; they know that you’re lost and you just hope that they are kind enough to drag you along with them.

While everyone I glued myself to were super nice and went out of their way to help me, somehow my destination was miscommunicated from one Thai person to another and I ended up on a van going in the complete opposite direction. Expectation of travel time: 3 hours. Reality: 6 hours.

Koh Samet, you should be glad I’m already in love with you.

Next weekend stop:

Ayutthaya

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The ancient capital of Siam  (1350-1767), which now lies in over 400 ruins about 80 kilometers north of Bangkok.  (Pictured: Wat Chaiwattaram)

My trip to Ayutthaya was another quintessential image of the Thailand I had in my mind before coming here.

Marie, Kathleen and I got to Ayutthaya in relevantly quick time in a van that we shared with a live chicken (there’s the quirky reality of Thailand I know!) We checked in, ate an awesome Western-style breakfast at the Malakor Cafe (I recommend), and then set out to do some sight-seeing. But first, we got ourselves bikes (only $1.50 each) to use for the whole day.

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As many of you know I LOVE biking and it’s something I’ve missed doing very much. Instant memories of past summers biking down the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk filled my head…

So it made me almost giddy with happiness to bike around the city to check out various ruins.

Stop 1: Wat Rachaburana 

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Probably had some of the world’s most steepest steps. I had my National Treasure movie moment when we went down into what seemed like a creepy basement in one of the ruins. I broke into sweat just thinking about how easy it would be to slip and break my neck at any moment. At the bottom though, we were treated to a beautiful, ancient wall painting.

Stop 2: Wat Mahathat

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Game of Thrones: the Thai version

IIMG_0748 had been dying to go to this ruin as it’s home to an ancient statue head set in the trees. This is a famous and classic image that I had been seeing for the 2 years leading up to this trip. Another check off the ol’ bucket list.

 

 

Stop 3: Wat Phrasianphet 

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Such plentiful and beautiful structures! Some Thai students didn’t think so though. Instead of taking pictures of the ruins, they asked to take pictures with us. Oh well, we took enough pictures to make up for their lack of interest.

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Stop 4: Wat Lokayasutharam

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A leaning image of buddha!

Stop 5: Wat Chaiwattaram 

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This was definitely the most “magical” ruin we visited. We went just as the sun was setting, so it was less hot and touristy. Needless to say, pictures were taken:

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Fun fact: that archway behind us? Yeah, bats like to stay in it and are easily startled.

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We ended our day by grabbing food and getting cultural at Ayutthaya’s Night Market:

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On the way back to our hostel, we ran into this dog, who I have named Sammy in my head:

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Guarder of the ruins (and traveling companion)

Now, Sammy had found us earlier that day as we rode our bikes down one rode. The poor thing had a limp, but was determined to keep up with us the whole way until we cut through heavy traffic. Later that day, she found us again (mind you, this place is not small by any means) and once again kept us company as we walked around a ruin. So here we were, now at night, and Sammy had randomly found us for a 3rd time! Marie tried to give her some of her waffle, but she ignored it and continued to walk with us for the next 15 minutes, stopping every time we did or when she got too far ahead of us. She just wanted to be around us. I WANTED TO TAKE THIS DOG HOME! Curse airport security.

So there you have it. My time in Thailand has so far been marked by some less than pleasant realities and many more “exceeding expectations” experiences. Two sides to a golden coin.

Oh, A Hiking We Will Go…

The other weekend was another traveling weekend for me. This time we- Marie, Laura, and I- ventured to the boonies of Thailand- ironically named the Phetchabun (Phetch-ah-BOON) Province- to hike and camp. Phetchabun is located smack-dab in the middle of Thailand; a no-man’s land that happens to have incredible mountain scenery and epic temples.

Since this trip was planned on a 3-day weekend, I was excited to peace out of school on Thursday and prepare for an early departure Friday morning. So of course, a Higher-Up Power somewhere beyond decided to test my enthusiasm for this trip and have me scratch my eye with my contact lens.

Friday morning: I wake up to my face soaked wet from my teary eye, which is purple, swollen, and will barely open. Niiicccceeee. Snap decision time! Either 1) travel with half my eye sight or 2) be an adult, go to the doctors to prevent infection, and rest. Tick, tock. Tick, tock!

Navigating blindly into the wild it is!

Saturday was a bit of a blur (pun intended) as there’s quite a bit of transportation required to get to the middle of nowhere. Which was fine by me as I could barely see out my eyes at this point.

To explain to those who have never scratched their eye badly- your eye becomes SUPER sensitive to light. Like, eye instinctively rolling backwards to prevent light from coming in. Fortunately, our traveling day was cloudy and we were in bus with tinted windows for the majority of it. Unfortunately, this was still too much light for me, so I had to keep my eye shut while donning a pair of sunglasses and keeping my hand glued over my eye. Nice look.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination for the night: The Namnao National Park.

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We checked in, were given our tent (the friendly park ranger took one look at my face and went “Oi!”- guess my eye was still looking ugly), and ventured out to find an area to set up camp.

It was at this point I recalled that- oh wait- I’ve never set up an actual tent before. Quite possibly doing so for the first time in the pitch black with only our phone lights to guide us might pose a challenge…

However, that Higher-Up Power from before finally decided to catch us a break. As we randomly held up tent poles, a neighboring camper walked on over. “You need help?” Ummmm, yes please! Immediately, 2 of his buddies came over to help. Meanwhile, another group of Thai neighbors poked their heads out of their tent to see if we needed help too.

God bless Thai people! We now had 5 men with legit flashlights tied to their heads (might as well have been halos) helping us set up camp. And when I say “help,” I mean they did the whole thing while we stood off to the side and tried talking to the women who were also there.

Wishing I had something to thank them with, I said Cop-coon-ka (thank you!) over and over again. To this, they simply replied “mai pen rai” (No worries!). We were safe and sound in our tent 5 minutes before a downpour began.

Thai people are the best.

The next morning, we intended to get up super early to hike up the mountain and watch the sunrise. The snooze button maaaayyyyy have been hit a few times, but hey, it ended up being a cloudy morning, so no harm done! Eventually we got up and started hiking up the highway. And here is where my second realization hit me: I am not in shape for hiking. And did I feel the burn on those inclines… Still, the end result was totally worth it:

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Really wish photos could capture the beauty of the mountains…

It was one of those moments where I realized how lucky I was to be in Thailand. On top of a mountain. Bright and early on a Saturday morning. I was sad to leave because I knew I would probably never be back.

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Afterwards, we set out to continue our hike and find a cave that was supposedly “nearby.” And of course, to be on the lookout for crossing elephants!

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No luck with the elephants, but we did spot this dangerous fella crossing

After hiking for way too long though, we hitch-hiked a ride from another Thai angel, who let us hop in the back of his truck. After dropping us off, we continued to hike to the cave spot.

Only, we never did find it… turns out we were hiking in the wrong direction. Oops. On the bright side, a 10-mile hike before 10:30am is an awesome way to start the day!

Thankfully, we were able to catch a ride back to our campground from some more nice Thai people. On the way back, they took a detour to show us some sights and what do you know! We were back at the Sunrise Viewpoint. And here I thought I would never see that place again. As we admired the view for a second time, one of the guys we were with ripped off a leaf from a tree and started eating it. He then generously offered some to us.

“Is this okay to eat?” We tried asking him.

“A-roi!” (delicious!) He said as he pointed to a sign written in Thai.

Well, that certainly cleared things up. Still, when someone offers you food in Thailand, you eat the food. Even if it’s a leaf. And what do you know, the leaf tasted exactly how I expected a leaf to taste. I’m still not sure if the guy was being sincere, or just messing with us…

So after eating a leaf, we did some more bus traveling to reach Phetchabun’s famous temples. These temples were at the top of a mountain and surrounded by cute cafés that jutted outwards.

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A café with delicious food and an incredible view. Win-win

The view itself was AMAZING!

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Mountains for miles around and puffy clouds to complete the pictures:

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By far, my favorite temple in Thailand

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Pardon my feet…

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Afterwards, it was time to leave the boonies and head back to civilization. Back in Bangkok, we stayed in a hostel where I got to really look at my eye for the first time. Turns out that I had popped several blood vessels and now had a blood red eye that resembled Natalie Portman’s eyes from The Black Swan.

No worries though. My eye is slowly turning back to normal. I’ve gotten many “Oi-s!” from my students (Thai people say “Oi!,” not “Whoa!”), which is actually kind of funny.

Overall, I give Phetchabun a 5 out of 5. There was a lot of bus travel, I was sore from hiking, and I might have struggled to see at some points, but it was well worth a 3-day weekend trip!

A Touch of White Magic

Before I moved to Thailand, I began messaging with the other girls that I would be living close to in Chonburi City. We talked about flights, luggage, dress codes and-of course- trip ideas! It was then that my friend Marie first mentioned getting Sak Yant tattoos.

A Sak Yant is a sacred tattoo, concocted of secret ink ingredients, that is given and blessed by a monk. The tattoo design itself and where on your body it is placed is also determined by the monk. Each tattoo offers the wearer certain protections and energies, as well as a set of rules to live by. Since the magic of a Sak Yant decreases overtime, the tattooed person can return to the temple to re-empower it and get another Sak Yant.

I was intrigued. The setup for Sak Yant tattoos felt perfect to me; since I could never decide on what to get a tattoo of and where to put it, having someone else- a monk no less- place it seemed like a cool (and admittedly easy) alternative.

You can get a Sak Yant tattoo from various places throughout Thailand. The most well-known and traditional place, however, is at the Buddhist temple, Wat Bang Phra. This temple is located an hour west of Bangkok in the Nakhon Pathom province. Perfect for a weekend trip!

On Friday evening, Marie, Laura, and I cut through Bangkok and took a bus to Nakhorn Pathom. We stayed in a little hut at The Hidden House, a place about 20 minutes from Wat Bang Phra; we wanted to get to the temple bright and early Saturday morning as the tattooing is a first-come-first-serve process.

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Our time at our hut was a little side attraction itself though. We ended up staying in a “Raft Room” that had us floating on top of a river! On Saturday morning, we woke up just before the sun and were treated to a gorgeous sunrise.

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We talked to the owners of the Hidden House for a while, who told us that a lot of travelers stayed in their rooms for the sole purpose of getting Sak Yant tattoos. They also gave us more information on Sak Yants:

Sak Yant tattoos are a type of white magic. Monk Luang Po Pern became the master of Sak Yant tattoos at Wat Bang Phra after leaving for a time to become a hermit and meditate in jungles, graveyards, and ruins. Due to spending years in the jungle, Luang Po Pern developed a connection to jungle animals. And so, Sak Yant tattoos at the Wat Bang Phra temple are believed to contain spirit animals.

Sweet.

Unfortunately, Luang Po Pern passed away in 2004. Still, monks at the temple continue to carry out his work.

Traditionally, Sak Yant tattoos are engraved in the skin with a sharp bamboo rod. However, some monks at the temple now use regular tattoo guns. It just depends which monk is on tattoo duty the day you go.

Surprisingly, I did not feel nervous as we took a Tuk Tuk ride to Wat Bang Phra. We arrived about 30 minutes before the tattooing was to begin and purchased our 75 baht-worth of required donations for the monks (a pack of cigarettes, incense, flowers and 20 baht). The final cost ended up being $2.97. That’s right, people. My first tattoo ended up costing me less than $3.

Then, we entered the tattooing room, where my nerves finally set in. There were about 15 Thai people already in the room. Some of them looked at us curiously as we set down our donations and took our seats on the floor towards the back of the room. And then we waited in dead silence as more and more people entered the room and took their seats. Well after the starting time, the monk finally entered the room and took his seat in front of us.

As if following a script (that foreigners are clearly not given) everyone got to their knees and started bowing to the monk. I think the guy sitting behind me took pity on me because he tapped my shoulder and silently gestured for me to kneel a certain way and hold out my hands. I clumsily followed along.

Without a word, the first person in line approached the monk. He bowed 3 times and turned his back to the monk. Two men who were also in line held his skin tight and the monk began to tattoo.

The monk that day was using a tattoo gun. As much as I had wanted the most authentic experience, I was kind of relieved that I was not going to be repeatedly stabbed by bamboo. I wasn’t sure not how much my nerves could take at this point.

As I watched each person go, I began to feel really out of place (and that’s saying something as I feel out of place on a regular basis in Thailand). Here I was, in a sacred temple in the middle of nowhere. Marie, Laura, and I were the only non-Thai people in the room. Most of the people getting tattoos were older males, many who already had multiple Sak Yant tattoos on their bodies. And then there was me…

And suddenly, it was our turn in line. Marie bravely went first and made the whole thing look like child’s play. And then it was my turn.

My thoughts at the time: How am I supposed to approach this monk without pointing my feet towards him? (In Thailand, you’re not supposed to point your feet towards a monk) Am I going to get in trouble for having my shoulder exposed in a temple? How many times did I just bow again? Wow, there’s a lot of people looking at me right now. This definitely makes the Top 5 on my Craziest Things I’ve Ever Done list…

The whole process took about 5 minutes: 2 guys held my skin tight (monks can’t touch female skin) and I wrapped my arms around the provided pillow. So did getting the tattoo hurt? I guess. I don’t have past tattoo experiences to compare it to. I think I had too much adrenaline going to notice any pain. Plus, it’s not cool to cry in front of 40-some people staring at you hardcore.

Marie and I both received the Hah Taew (Five Lines) Sak Yant. According to “Sak Yant Chiang Mai” (http://www.sakyantchiangmai.com/sak-yant-designs-and-meanings/), the Hah Taew…

“represents 5 yants or magical spells. Each one will be done individually and the following magical spells have been cast to do as described below.

  1. The first row prevents unjust punishment and leans in your favor when the area is grey, cleans out unwanted spirits and protects the place you live in.
  2. The second row reverses and protects against bad horoscope constellations and bad fortune.
  3. The third row protects you from the use of black magic and anyone who tries to put a curse on you.
  4. The fourth row energizes your good luck, success and fortune in your future ambitions and life style.
  5. The fifth row is to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It also is a boost to the fourth row.”

Before leaving Wat Bang Phra, we explored the rest of the temple grounds and stumbled upon Lauang Po Pern’s body, which has been preserved in a glass coffin. Just a tad creepy.

So there you have it. I was touched by white magic and have a bizarre story behind my very first tattoo. All for $2.97…

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When Life Gives You Dried Rice…

Last weekend, Thai people celebrated Asarnha Bucha Day and the start of the Buddhist Lent. This holiday marks the day when Buddha delivered his first sermon in India over 2,500 years ago. A lot of Thai men also enter monkshood on this day and stay in a temple, typically for the next 3 months.

For me, this meant a 4-day weekend and chance to travel to Chiang Mai, the second largest and popular city in Thailand (Bangkok being #1). I was to take a van into Bangkok on Friday, and then catch an 8:20pm overnight bus to Chiang Mai. Once in Chiang Mai, I was going to meet up with some friends and take care of elephants at an elephant sanctuary. However, things did not go exactly according to plan.

First off, Bangkok traffic is the worst. Even though I left straight from school on Friday at 4, we hit heavy traffic. Panicking that Lucy and I would not make it to the overnight bus and be stuck in Bangkok, we jumped on a motorbike to weave through traffic and make it to the bus terminal in time. Unfortunately, our driver weaved a little too intensely, making some very sharp turns and getting too close to other cars. After finally making it to the bus station, I realized that my purse had slipped off during the 20-minute ride. Goodbye wallet, phone, camera, and apartment keys.

Thus began my decent into the stages of grief. Yes, grief. Because as much as I hate to admit it, I am attached to my phone in Thailand. Not because of social media, but because I use it as a survival tool; GoogleMaps and GoogleTranslate are lifesavers here. Being without places you in a very vulnerable position. Let’s just say it was not my finest moment. To top it off, I had to make the quick decision of whether to return home (which I had no clue on how to do at this point) or continue to Chiang Mai without a phone and wallet. Figuring that it’s better to be around other people (and elephants) then to mope by myself for 4 days, we found the overnight bus and I spent a fair amount of time on it making mental lists of what to do and face palming myself on everything from my lack of street smarts to my inability to now complete my hole-punch card for a free coffee.

Thankfully, I have amazing and incredibly caring friends who made sure I did not mope for the weekend and let me borrow their phones to make necessary phone calls. We hit up several of the night markets, which is THE way to go when wanting to get the most for your baht (buck) in Thailand.

Chiang Mai was not at all what I expected it to be. Instead of a city full of high buildings, it resembled more of a hipster resort town full of cute craft shops, dried fruit stores, cafés, and restaurants. The air was fresh and not filled with the exhaust fumes I’m so used to in Bangkok and Chonburi City. If I’m to extend my stay in Thailand, I am definitely transferring to a school in Chiang Mai.

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Fellow songthaew companions

On Sunday, we went to the all-day elephant sanctuary to complete one of the top things on my Thailand Backlist: taking care of elephants. The day started out by taking an hour-long songthaew ride into the mountains. The road was really winding and bumpy with sharp turns (I started having flashbacks to the motorcycle incident), but the people on our songthaew made the ride awesome.

It’s hard to explain, but one of the coolest things about traveling is meeting fellow travelers. You meet people from different countries who have different dialects, traveling plans, experiences, and customs. Yet, you can bond instantly with these people because they are foreigners too and you all made life choices that resulted in being in the same space for a period of time. In my case, being in a crowded songthaew to go see elephants. Call that my second “profound thought” on this blog.

After an hour of trading traveling stories, we arrived at our destination. Photos with captions are better than paragraphs for the following. Shout out to my amazing friends who spared some of their elephant time to take pictures for me!

 

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The workers at the sanctuary had us line up and hold out a banana as a way to greet the elephants. They told us to trick the elephants and hide the rest of the bananas behind our backs.  This trick failed within 2 seconds as the elephants probably have this “trick” played on them multiple times a day.

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Not to mention, their trunks are like super arms.

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Elephant love.

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Elephants eat a LOT of food. This meant that we had to make several hikes up a steep hill to carry corn stalks to them.

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Our coordinator taught us how to make medicine balls for elephants. Ingredients: Lemons, bananas, water, cooked rice, and dried rice- all mashed together. “You see the dried rice and cooked rice,” said our coordinator. “Same, same… but different. We must mix in dried rice to make medicine for elephants.” Moral of the day: when life gives you dried rice, make medicine balls.

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After many feedings, we had to bathe the elephants.

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It was so cute! The elephants LOVED playing in the water and rolling around in the mud and under the waterfall.

To put it simply, my day at the elephant sanctuary was amazing. It turned the dried rice I was given in Bangkok to scrumptious medicine balls (see what I did there? 😉 )

For Monday, we impulsively planned an excursion up Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. For the first time since being in Thailand, I FELT COLD! We were up in the clouds, so we had this swirling, chilling mist around us the whole time. I thought about hot chocolate, something I completely forgot existed at this point.

More photos ensued (another shout out to my friends):

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Feet on the ground, but heads in the clouds

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Visiting the Queen’s monument in the mountains.

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Chasing waterfalls

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As we descended down the mountain, we visited the rural village of Karin. There were cute puppies that came running up to us and licked our faces. Although there’s stray dogs everywhere in Thailand, I have been told countless times not to touch them. I couldn’t resist with these pups.

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Karin farming fields

The next day, my friends had to catch an early flight home, so I had the day to myself in Chiang Mai. Without any means to know where I was going, I wandered around, got a Thai massage, and went to a restaurant where I ordered an extravagant mango and multi-colored sticky rice and an avocado shake (just gotta keep making those medicine balls…). It was nice to be living in the moment.

Returning home to Chonburi went surprisingly smooth. Well, almost. Remember those apartment keys I lost? But that’s a different story… The following day, my super nice landlord, Tip, once again turned my day around 180 by taking me out to buy a new phone. All is well.

 

A Very Thai 4th of July

Before I relay my 4th of July weekend adventures, I feel the need to rewind to the other weekend, which was filled with absolute cuteness. I headed back to Khao Sam Muk (AKA- “Monkey Mountain”) with my friend, Marie, to get up and personal with some wild monkeys. Last time, I drove up the mountain and stayed in the car. This time, we hiked by foot.

After a good 45-minute walk filled with “I think we are going in the right direction?!” we ended up on a deserted road and saw this guy just chilling on the railing:

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By the way, this is not a zoomed-in picture. I literally got this close. Not going to lie, a part of me was terrified that this monkey would go wild and attack me (the though Annnddd this is how I die kept going through my head). But this monkey, and the many, many more we came to see, were actually super calm and polite (you don’t bite the hand that feeds you).

When we finally made it to the top of the mountain, Marie and I bought bananas to feed the monkeys, resulting in these Hallmark pics:

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Totally worth the 8 miles of walking and sunburn. Seeing a monkey at a zoo will never be good enough now.

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Such a surreal experience! I felt like I was in an amusement attraction with mechanical monkeys because surely wild monkeys wouldn’t let you get within an arm span away?!?

So, to this past weekend. I think one of the hardest things about living in Thailand is seeing social media and all the stuff my family and friends are up to back home. Holidays are extra tough, especially because many of the U.S holidays are not celebrated here (yup, I’m sitting at my school desk as you all are posting away). Knowing that this past weekend would be full of 4th of July BBQ pictures, I wanted to travel and distract myself from stuff going on back home.

Friday night, Marie, Lucy and I went back to Pattaya to meet up with some other English teachers and see some sights. Despite my determination to mimic a 4th of July weekend, my food choices that weekend ended up being anything but; we ate Mexican (which ended up being mediocre), Indian (the food was just as I remembered it when I was in India!), and had an English breakfast (getting warmer…). I think my stomach is becoming culturally confused with all of the different cuisines…

Anyway, after settling in to our tiny hotel, we ventured to Pattaya’s Walking Street, which is known for its crazy night life. In one of the buildings we passed, I noticed large tanks filled with tiny fish. For 50 baht ($1.50), you could put your feet in a tank and have the fish eat the dead skin off for 20 minutes. As this was something on my “Thailand Bucket List,” Marie and I raced in and grabbed two seats for the ultimate pedicure.

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So what did it feel like? Like my feet were being tickled to death. It was a struggle to keep my feet inside the tank, and even more so to keep myself from laughing the whole time. Eventually, we got used to the tickling sensation (the key is to not think about the fish attached to your feet) and people-watched the other clients getting their pedicures. One Thai man came in and immediately started laughing the second his feet hit the water. I think he got super embarrassed that he was giggling next to two foreign girls because he left after 2 minutes in the tank. Poor dude, I hope he got a partial refund…

The next day, we spent the morning at Pattaya beach, met up with our fellow traveling companions, and then headed to Pattaya’s Tiger Park. At first, I was a little hesitant to go because some tiger parks in Thailand drug their tigers for the sake of entertainment. However, this tiger park checked out because they treat their animals humanly; the tigers are not drugged or chained, and their teeth and claws have not been removed.

 

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I got the chance to go inside a room and play with some baby tigers. Unfortunately, baby tigers sleep a lot, so it was nap time when we went. By the end of my visit though, my little tiger had woken up and was playing around in the room. So cute!

342641552_IMG_0652Afterwards, we headed over to Pattaya’s famous floating market, where all the stores are built over water and some vendors sell food right out of their boats. I got some good deals on clothes and by some miracle, was not bitten by any mosquitos.

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That night, we returned to Walking Street for some more night life fun, which included watching street performers do some AMAZING dance moves.

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Girls’ night out on Walking Street

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The following day, we decided to take a ferry to Koh Lan Island to spend a day in the sun. This was my first encounter with clear waters and white sand beaches. I didn’t want to leave.

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I mean, would you want to leave?

But, leave I grudging did because the next day was back to school! On Tuesday (July 4th), some of the girls I’m with and I decided to go to the local beach after school and celebrate the holiday as best we could.

Unfortunately, the weather was not agreeing with us and we had to push back our “celebration” to the following day. That’s “Thai time” for you! Instead, Jessica and I celebrated by getting pad see ew:

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4th of July dinner, Part 1

No worries though, the next day we were able to get to the beach and chow down some “American” grub.

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You can take the girl out of the country, but not the country pride out of the girl

Okay, so it was not 100% the hamburger I imagined. But hey, fried egg tastes good paired with beef and mustard. Guess my stomach will continue to be culturally confused…

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4th of July dinner, Part 2 (before I realized I had gotten the Thai version of the American hamburger)

A Bit Of Everything (Minus A Sea Turtle)

Since I’ve been slacking with this blog a bit, let me rewind to catch you up on the big events of the last few weeks.

1. Wai Kru Day

This is pretty much the Thai version of Teacher Appreciation Day held in the United States. Except teachers are highly respected here, so the whole affair is a lot more extensive and extravagant. In Thai, to “wai” someone means to bring your hands together as if in prayer and bow. There’s different types of wai (pronounced as “why”) you do, depending on who you’re talking to. So, wai is a way of showing respect. The word “Kru” means teacher. There you have it: “Respecting Teacher Day.”

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Now, some schools have students “respect their teacher” by giving everyone 1-2 days off from school. Personally, that sounds like the best Teacher Appreciation Day(s) ever. My school, however, holds a ceremony instead. Hey- beggars can’t be choosers. Plus, it was a pretty nice ceremony. Granted, the whole thing was in Thai, but I got the general picture.

After the ceremony, the really cool part of Wai Kru happened. We headed back to our classroom and my Thai teacher brought out three chairs: one for her, one for me, and one for the student teacher.

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Warning: Children are crazier than they appear

Suddenly, all of our kids whisked out flowers and candles that they had brought from home. In groups of three, our students came forward and dropped their gifts into our laps and “wai-ed” into our open palms. At first, I felt a little uncomfortable with having my students bow down to me. But, when in Thailand… Plus, this is an experience that I don’t think will happen too often (read: never) back in American public schools. Might as well enjoy the experience as it lasts. And indeed, 5 minutes after our classroom ceremony, my kids were back to being the little monsters I know and love.

 

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Later that day, my fellow CIEE participant and I got another surprise: school was going to be let out early the next day due to the vital need to spray our school down in mosquito repellent. I’d never been so happy about a herd of mosquitos! Leaving school early on a Friday really makes a difference when it comes to traveling in Thailand; leave early and you can beat the Bangkok traffic, catch a bus/train/plane, and arrive at your weekend destination hours ahead of schedule.

Perhaps slightly overreacting to a 2-hour early dismissal, I made the impulsive decision to leave town for the weekend and head northeast to visit my friends from orientation. Which brings me to my second big event…

2. Roi Et

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Visiting Temple #1- Wat Burapha. Home to the tallest standing Buddha in the giving blessing posture in Thailand

That weekend, my friends were visiting the city of Roi Et. The direct translation of “roi et” is “101.” Supposedly, the city was once guarded by 11 city gates, which was documented as “10-plus-1.” Someone must have misread the ancient writing at some point though, so the city became known as “101.”

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Temple visit #2

So far, my motto in Thailand when it comes to traveling has been “live in the moment and hope for the best.” There’s no such thing as Point A to Point B in Thailand. It’s Point A to Point B to Point C to Point D etc. ect. And don’t you dare think about Point C when you’re still trying to get to Point B. Why? Because that’s how you end up having a mini-mental breakdown. There’s too many independent variables to make any traveling go the way you want it to.

So let’s see, to get from Chonburi City to Roi Et, I took on several means of transportation: motorcycle –> van –> BTS Skytrain –> cutting through a park in the pouring rain –> tuk tuk –> overnight bus –> tuk tuk. About 16 hours after leaving Point A, I finally made it to Point F! But, hey, I am not complaining in the slightest because my weekend in Roi Et ended up being so worth it!

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Temple visit #3. Really trying to mimic these statues for some reason…

I’ve found that the more rural a place you go to in Thailand, the more generous and sweet the people are. Don’t get me wrong, about 99% of Thai people are generous and

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Reliving childhood.

sweet. But in the more out-there areas, Thai people go out of their way to make sure you are comfortable and happy. So after breakfast Saturday morning, the owner of our mini-hotel called in a taxi driver to drive us anywhere we wanted to go all day for 500 baht. Between 4 people, that’s roughly $3.90 per person. Awesome! Our morning was spent shoving GoogleMaps in our taxi driver’s face and asking him to take us to multiple temples (plus a pond to ride swan boats).

Poor guy must have been thinking that he should have charged a higher flat rate. But instead, he was super nice and laughed at all of our requests. After dropping us off at our first temple, he disappeared and returned with a nicer car to drive us around in. Later, he even took us far out of town to visit Temple #4. We must have either bored or exhausted him though because we came out to find that he

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New friends!

was sound asleep in the car waiting for us. Oops. Still, he drove us back to town, took us to a place to eat, and actually came in with us to eat and make sure we got the food we wanted. “Call me and I will drive you to the airport tomorrow!” Taxi driver of the year right there.

After a day of temple roaming, we went out to a night market by the water, where I was able to buy a dress for 30 baht (less than $1) and pig out on crab, fruit and coconut water. Sweet bliss.

Unfortunately, my time in Roi Et went by too fast and much of my Sunday was dedicated to traveling back home. This time, I went from taxi –> airplane –> shuttle bus –> BTS Skytrain –> van –> motorcycle. Only Point A to Point E this time!

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Temple #4. By far my favorite temple. Be on the look out for bee nests though!

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Fellow temple explorers

3. Snorkeling

The following weekend, a few girls and I went to Pattaya. To put it nicely, Pattaya is the “wild child”/ Los Vegas city of Thailand. There’s a lot you can do there, including… all-day snorkeling where “you would be really unlucky to NOT spot a sea turtle.” Since Pattaya is a coastal city, we were able to head out into the Gulf of Thailand on our boat (cleverly named “Nauti-Girl”) and island hop!

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Fellow snorkelers

On our boat with us, we had some Thai people (obviously), Chinese people, Germans, and Russians (hmmm, this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke…). It was really interesting to see how each group of people would talk amongst themselves in their native language. Yet, all instructions were given in English. I then saw the Chinese tourists and Russians talk to each using English. It just seemed really odd. I never thought of English as this second language used to connect people from different backgrounds. It made me realize how much I take for granted my ability to speak English; these people and my students are all learning English as a second language in order to communicate and make it in the business world. Meanwhile, until now, I’ve lived in this bubble where there was no vital need to learn a second language. Call this my profound thought of the day.

Anyway, back to snorkeling… As with Bang Saen, these islands are not the ones featured in Thailand beach ads. Still, they were gorgeous to sail by and go on. Unfortunately, there was a lot of green algae in the water, making cool underwater pictures impossible. However, it was my first time snorkeling and I was satisfied with swimming in warm water and looking at the coral and fish.

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Well, almost completely satisfied. Turns out we are really UNlucky as there were not sea turtles to be found.

However, I did get a second chance to look for turtles this week. Which brings me to…

4. The Khao Open Zoo

This week, my students and I had our first field trip of the year to a local zoo!

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My little nuggets

At first I was a little weary of this trip. For one, 44 students are hard to maintain in a classroom, let alone out in the open at a zoo. I was secretly hoping that the zoo would provide us with those leashes you can attach to kids. Secondly, I had to wear my “sports day” clothing for this trip, which means I was decked out in all black with a collared shirt and sweat pants. The perfect ensemble for a high-90 degree day at the zoo!

But, it actually wasn’t that bad. The majority of my kids were on their best behavior (I think my Thai teacher might have threatened to take away the elephants in Thai) and we were actually in shade for the majority of the day. More pictures below!

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The animals rights person in me knows that riding elephants is wrong. The kid in me took the picture

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Not all penguins live in cold climates. Mind blown.

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Parrot schooling us in math

So, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip at the zoo. Probably more than my kids. Hmmm, I’m apparently unlucky though because I still have yet to see a sea turtle…

To Hell and Back

I’m becoming  more adjusted to life in Thailand. The stares no longer bother me, I’ve started to master the travel system, and I can now do laundry like a pro. The hot and muggy weather is a different story. Honestly, I don’t think the human body is capable of tolerating the heat here.

To help make myself feel more at home, I’ve invested in an electric cooking pot. With super cheap veggies nearby, I’ve been making many stir-fry’s with seafood and chicken. I was able to purchase a whole head of cabbage, cauliflower, 4 eggs, jicama, 3 onions, a bundle of baby bok choy, 2 tomatoes and 1 lb of squid- all for 150 baht ($4.29). And believe it or not, it costs more for me to buy all of these ingredients than to just eat out (about $1 per meal). A foodie’s dream.

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I’m a bird!

I’ve also taken up yoga, as some of you might have seen via Facebook. Sorry about filling your news feeds with pictures by the way. Thai people LOVE taking pictures, so I keep getting tagged. My favorite fitness class I’ve taken so far has been hammock yoga, which I had never even heard of before coming to Thailand. Hammock yoga requires you to lay, stand, or hang upside down from two sets of thick cloths. It’s seriously an hour’s worth of playtime for adults. And a total arm workout; nothing like being terrified of breaking your neck to force you to work those muscles.

 

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Just hanging until someone realizes I’m stuck 🙂

So yoga and cooking are two things I like doing during the week nights to unwind from school. On weekends, I’ve been venturing out more to get a break from city life. The other weekend, I went on my first solo trip to Wang Saen Suk.

Warning: slightly graphic pictures to follow as Wang Saen Suk is actually an outdoor Hell Garden full of statues depicting the Buddhist version of Hell. Being so close by to me, it was a place I felt that I had to go to. Plus, I was kind of fascinated to see what the Thai version of Dante’s Inferno was like.

Getting to the place was easier than I thought it would be. I took a songthaew to the neighboring town and then meekly approached a motorcycle driver to show him a picture of where I wanted to go. My real-life Virgil then zipped me across town (sometimes driving on the wrong side of the road and sidewalks) and down a lonely road to the front of a small temple. Unfortunately, my Virgil did not stay with me, so I had no clue how to leave the Hell Garden when I was finished… ahh well. That’s Thailand for you.

So the front of Wang Saen Suk looks like your average temple in the beginning. Lots of pictures of smiling people, monks, and holy figures. They even have vendors selling small toys and food.

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But as you follow the winding road, you’re greeted with this lovely sight towering over you: Two HUGE statues of a male and female stuck in Hell.

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Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

The Hell Garden is supposed to be used as an instructional tool. In fact, many Thais take their children here to show them why it’s so important to live an honest and good life. Do good and you go to heaven. Deviate and you’re going to be tortured for who knows how long. It’s a scared straight kind of thing.

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I now understand why my students are so hard to discipline. I mean, after seeing this kind of stuff, missing out on playtime is no biggie.

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According to the stone signs throughout the garden, people who enter Hell are transformed into animals based on the crimes they have committed.

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Guess I’m going to Hell as a rabbit for all the times I’ve been jealous of people with motorcycles around here…

I also thought it was funny that there’s a specific animal and torture for the sick people out there who steals someone’s rice. Never come between a Thai person and their rice…

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I take back what I said. I’m no longer a bird.

I’m not posting the real graphic pictures though. Go to Google if interested.

On the bright side, everyone is able to leave the Buddhist Hell. Towards the end of the garden, we see a statue of some unfortunates being rescued by a smiling monk.

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Good times are around the corner. Indeed, I had the option to feed the ducks and turtles as I ascended out of Hell and back into the world of the living.

Unfortunately for me, no “Virgil” was waiting in the world of the living to take me away from Wang Saen Suk. So, a bit of hitch-hiking up an empty road was required before I could truly leave Hell.

Once I finally found and hailed down a motorcycle, I was in need of some coconut water and a beach view.

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Heaven at last!

Next up- my recent trip to Roi Et!