Sunday, June 30, 2013

Room to Read School Visit in Nepal

My fundraising work for Room to Read culminated in a school site visit in the wonderful country of Nepal last week. I am proud to report that the organization I have been independently working for and supporting is just as amazing as I have thought (and even more so now that I have had the chance to learn more about them in the country their work started in)! My sister, Mollie, and I had already been traveling in Nepal for almost a month and seeing all of the great aspects of Nepal while also seeing the reasons why Room to Read’s presence is so needed there.
We met Rishi, a writer and photographer for Room to Read Nepal, at their office in Kathmandu and were soon off in a jeep to a school about an hour from the city. Rishi was awesome and answered all of our questions as we drilled him about Room to Read’s work in Nepal, its monitoring process, and actual effectiveness. As we steadily drove up into the hills, I could see how much of a challenge getting to school could be for kids living only an hour from Kathmandu. Their homes and school were set in a beautiful, but remote, setting and some of the students walk up to 2 hours to get to school.

Mollie and I both expected to just peak in at a school in session and were not ready for the overwhelmingly beautiful welcome we received. All of the students (ages 4 to 12) were lined up to “Namaste” us and give us bouquets of flowers or put garlands around our necks. We were overjoyed!
We then met with the principle, librarian, and teachers who were clearly proud of their school and excited to show us their work. The school was established in 1985 (without Room to Read), but they were lacking teaching materials and sought out Room to Read’s assistance. Room to Read established a library program at the school last year and now each classroom has its own corner library, stocked with Room to Read published books in Nepalese, to put the books at the students’ fingertips. In addition, they provide teacher and librarian training to help teachers teach in a more engaging and interactive way instead of lecturing to these small children the way the government traditionally trains them to.

We were led into the bigger classroom that all the students were gathered in to display their literary talents and welcome us with a song. Each Friday, they have library activities and they gave us an example of what these activities included. Children recited poems they had memorized, stories and essays they had written, and one girl listed off over 40 book titles and authors that she had read that semester! All of the students came from farming families who were in a lower caste and their stories and poems reflected on tragic, yet common, problems in their lives, such as poverty and kids being tricked into sex trafficking. However, they all focused on the difference an education can make and their gratefulness for the resources Room to Read helped provide by working with their community.

On our way back to Kathmandu with Rishi, he explained the importance of partnering with the government and communities instead of simply going in and building a school. Room to Read Nepal is constantly lobbying the government to use Room to Read’s educational model by showing the government the results from their research and monitoring (Room to Read actively works with a school for 3 years and then phases out so the school becomes self sufficient-allowing Room to Read to focus on more projects. 98% of the schools that they phased out of are still going strong). Their goal is not to have Room to Read schools and libraries all over the country, but to raise the standards of education in the country and give the government an effective model to use.

Mollie and I left Rishi incredibly pleased with Room to Read as an organization and were so grateful to have been able to see their work first hand. Of the countries I traveled in, Nepal has the greatest need and I am happy to put the funds I have raised to Room to Read Nepal. Please support my work and passion by investing in global literacy and help me establish a library (books, learning games, furniture, and librarian training included) in Nepal!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mom Comes to Thailand Part 3: Chiang Dao, Tathon, Mae Salong, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai

We arrived in Chiang Mai on a Wednesday morning and completely bypassed the smoky, trafficy city by taking a taxi straight from the airport to the bus station and then a 2 hour bus ride to Chiang Dao. Chiang Dao was one of mine and Eric’s favorite places during our motorbike trip and we were looking forward to going back. Although it was smokier than it was a month before, it was still the same beautiful and relaxing place. We stayed at Malee’s again, but this time opted for a bit of a nicer bungalow (well my mom and I did, while Eric camped in his tent on the lawn). We took advantage of the pool again and returned to Nest for another wonderful California style meal. There is a pretty large monastery up the road from Malee’s, which we had seen parts of our first time in Chiang Dao when we did our hike around the monastery’s perimeter. This time we checked out the whole thing, which was amazing! It was set into a small mountain so the main area where the monks pray, chant, meditate, etc was actually in a small cave. It was very beautiful and what I would picture when I think of a monastery. There was another the other direction, which also had a cave prayer area so we were overall very impressed with Chiang Dao’s wats.
Monastery in Chiang Dao

Our spot on the river complete with papaya tree and pineapple bushes
After two nights in Chiang Dao, we headed out to our next stop a couple hours north in Tathon. Tathon is a small town on the Mekok River and is really close to Burma/Myanmar. We stayed at an awesome place (Areeya Puree) on the river, which had a big enough pool to swim laps and cheap rooms! We spent a lot of time relaxing next to the pool or river, swimming, and reading. We also walked up to another wat/monastery, but this one was much more stereotypical tacky than the ones in Chiang Dao. The views at the top were still beautiful regardless of all the smoke and we were looking out at Burma. We went on a walk up the river our second day in Tathon and am pretty sure we actually walked to the border, which we didn’t realize until we read how close Tathon was to the border. After two nights in Tathon, we moved on to Mae Salong, but fortunately were able to leave our big bags at Areeya Puree since we were going to stay another night in Tathon between Mae Salong and Chiang Rai.

Smoky Mae Salong
Mae Salong, which is not so elegantly called the “Tourist Village” on signs, was once a big poppy/opium growing area and is set along the ridges of some mountains at around 4,000 ft. When the Thai government started to cracked down on the drug trade, it switched farmers from opium to tea. So the main street of the town that winds along the ridge is lined with tea shops where you can just barely show any interest in what they have and they are handing you little cups of tea samples. Over the two days that we stayed in Mae Salong we probably tried twenty different teas and many of them over and over. We made sure to spread out our tea purchases so we wouldn’t feel bad tasting and not buying anything. There are a few different hill tribes around Mae Salong and they definitely got in on the Tourist Village. The road was lined with women with their stalls of colorful purses, clothing, hats, belts, and jewelry. Unfortunately some of the women became a bit aggressive with their selling, which made my mom and I a little scared to even look, but of course we did and of course we made our purchases. Besides tea tasting and shopping, there isn’t much to do in Mae Salong. The first day we walked the 714 steps to a wat of some sort, which gave us a good view of the smoky town and the second day we walked around a tea field a bit outside of the main part of town. It is amazing how removed Mae Salong feels from “civilization” just because it is off the main road half an hour, but Tuesday morning we got on a song taew and were lounging by our pool in Tathon within an hour and a half.
Tea Tasting
We left Tathon Wednesday for Chiang Rai, but we went in style! After a bit of confusion about arranging our transportation, we set off down the Mekok River by long tail boat. It was a bit expensive (1,500 baht), but really worth it. It was really fun motoring down the river making a great breeze and seeing the beautiful scenery go by. There were a lot of kids swimming around almost the entire way to Chiang Rai (2 ½ hours) as well as men fishing and people from the small towns on the river enjoying themselves. They dropped us off in a somewhat random part of Chiang Rai a little outside of the city, but within walking distance so we eventually found our way to the Garden House guesthouse we stayed at our last time in Chiang Rai.

Our first day and a half in Chiang Rai was pretty much all about the markets and we thoroughly supported the Chiang Rai economy. They have a night bazaar, which is more of a tourist attraction, but also a relatively large morning market that sells all types of food, clothing, cooking tools, etc. When we needed a shopping break, we went to Wat Pra Kaew where the Emerald Buddha was discovered before it was eventually moved to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It is the most sacred Buddha image in Thailand, but it is actually made of jade, not emerald. Eric couldn’t quite hang with my mom and I as we continued to shop and we took advantage of his absence by eating all the Thailand treats we love instead of real meals. This included mango and sticky rice, banana rotis, coconut ice cream, kanom kruk (another coconut treat), and Thai tea.

On Friday morning we decided to check out the Black House (Baan Daum), which we had heard about from our friends. Eric and I visited the White Temple last time we were in Chiang Rai, which most people see with the Black House. They are both made by artists, but Eric and I thought the White Temple was pretty weird and touristy and were expecting somewhat the same of the Black House only in the opposite color. It turns out the Black House is beautiful and awesome! It was definitely dark (besides the color) since it is decorated with a lot of skulls, animals skins, etc., but was on such a beautiful piece of property and all of the art was really interesting. After the Black House we went to the Hill tribe Museum and learned a lot about the hill tribes in and around Thailand. There are tons of tours here where you go to a tribe’s village (especially the Karen Longneck tribe) and Eric and I never wanted to go. I am really grateful we didn’t because we really got an idea of how much the people are being exploited, especially the Karen tribes. 

We heard music outside of the museum and conveniently walked out to find that the start of Song Kran parade was beginning! Song Kran (Thai New Year, which is actually a Buddhist celebration so it is celebrated anywhere there are a lot of Buddhists) is officially April 13-16, but Chiang Rai began celebrating on the 12th. Although it is a religious holiday, it has developed to become a nation wide water fight (and actually we got hit with water for the first time on Tuesday). We walked around for the rest of the day getting hit by buckets of water, by water guns, and other gently sprinkling water on our shoulders.

Mom at the Khao Soi place next to our hotel (very typical restaurant setting)
We left Chiang Rai Saturday morning for Chiang Mai, which is probably tied with Bangkok as the most popular place to celebrate Song Kran. We arrived at our hotel and were happy to find that we were staying on the river, next to a Khao Soi restaurant, down the street from the start of the Chiang Mai Song Kran parade, and a few minutes from the night market! We enjoyed another parade where we were splashed with more water (and tricked into paying to be blessed with some mud stuff and a flower necklace) and watched Thais splash scented water on all of the Buddha images in the parade. 

Our last afternoon and evening together in Thailand was spent walking around and getting soaked, hanging out next to the pool at our hotel, eating some of our favorite foods (whole salted fish, pad see ew, mango and sticky rice, and 7-11 ice creams), and shopping around at the night market. My mom flies home tomorrow and Eric and I are will be in Laos tomorrow night! It has been a great last couple weeks in Thailand and I am so happy I was able to see and do so much. At some point I will write a more conclusive post, but am handing my computer over to my mom so I will not be updating my blog quite so often. Happy Song Kran everyone!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mom Comes to Thailand Part 2: Bangkok and Ayutthaya

Very hot at the Grand Palace

The second phase of my mom’s visit was all about sight seeing after almost a week of relaxing on an island. We took an overnight bus from Ranong back to Bangkok where we parted ways with Eric for a few hours. He went on to Ayutthaya to reserve us a guesthouse and we went on to the Grand Palace. A trip to the Grand Palace was part of our orientation when we first got to Thailand and both Eric and I tried to convince my mom that she really didn’t need to see it, but she was persistent and eventually I stopped fighting it. It costs 500 baht each to go to the Grand Palace (which is a lot to me) and it is definitely a hot experience, but I actually really enjoyed my second trip there! My mom and I didn’t take a guided tour, so we were free to walk around the palace area at our leisure, which is what I think made it better than my first experience. It is definitely an impressive complex and we both really enjoyed the museum for the Queen’s project, which showcases her dresses and gives information about her initiatives to employ Thai women as weavers, embroiders, etc.

After about 3 hours at the Grand Palace, we walked down the street to Wat Po, which is famous for a really big lounging Buddha. After spending so much time at the Grand Palace, I wasn’t that impressed with Wat Po. The lounging Buddha is huge, but it seems like more of a tourist attraction and I don’t really know what the actual significance of it is besides just being a very large Buddha (but that is enough to make something noteworthy in Thailand). We were pretty exhausted after our touring (which was on top of an overnight bus ride), so we headed back to the bus station to get to Ayutthaya.

We woke up relatively early our first morning in Ayutthaya to take advantage of the cooler time of day (still probably at least 85 degrees though) and rented bicycles to see the ruins. It was Eric’s and my third trip to Ayutthaya, so we were kind of pros at that point knowing which temples were the coolest and where it was fun to ride bikes. My mom was really into the ruins and we all enjoyed riding bikes around the park areas until we were too tired and hot to see any more. We took advantage of our A/C room in the lovely Baan Lotus guesthouse and didn’t really emerge until dinnertime.

The next morning Eric had to go to Suphanburi to pick up our salary from March, so my mom and I went shopping at the floating market. I had been to this market before, so I knew what to expect, which was a hilarious tourist attraction next to the market including elephant rides, drugged tigers for photo ops, goats and koi fish to bottle feed, among other things that Thais think foreigners will love. The market itself isn’t really a floating market, but has shops set up on a circular pier/dock. We ate some amazing coconut ice cream and did some shopping before watching a very entertaining (and free) show put on my the culture department. Everything was in Thai, but we think they were reenacting some of the battles between the Ayuttayans and Burmese complete with fancy swordplay, fire, and a small child who was killed in the end and dramatically leaped off the stage.

After the market we went on the long boat tour around Ayutthaya, which stops at three different temples (one active one and two with ruins). This was my third time doing the boat tour, but it was still fun and I was finally able to walk around what I think is the coolest ruin in Ayutthaya since the other times I had been they had been working on renovating it. We said goodbye to Ayutthaya for the last time Wednesday morning to take a van to the airport in Bangkok to catch our flight to Chiang Mai and begin the northern leg of our trip. My mom really enjoyed our time in Bangkok and Ayutthaya and I was a little surprised that I had so much fun too considering we did things that I have done before (sometimes multiple times). 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mom Comes to Thailand Part 1: Ko Phayam

Eric and I said our goodbyes to Suphanburi, to our favorite Thai teachers, to Wattana, to Nay, and to our smoothie lady and left for Bangkok on a Friday after finishing our week of tutoring the math and science teachers. My mom’s flight got in at 10 am on March 23rd and we surprisingly didn’t have any problems finding her at the airport! She was alert (impressive after such a long flight), excited to be in Thailand, and came bearing cookies and brownies. We took her to Chatuchak Market so she could be sufficiently overwhelmed with a huge Thai market and do some shopping.

Aow Yai--Our beach in Ko Phayam
We then made our way to the Southern bus terminal, which was much easier to get to than expected so we spent a few hours hanging out at the bus station before boarding our 8:30 pm overnight bus to Ranong. We got to Ranong and took a taxi to the pier at around 5 am and had another 4 or so hours to wait until the ferry left for our destination-Ko Phayam. It was then a 2 hour ferry ride to the island, a 20 minute motor taxi ride to the beach we would stay at (Aow Yai) and some walking from bungalow to bungalow trying to find a good deal. We were hot and exhausted after all the traveling and couldn’t wait to put our backpacks down and jump in the ocean. (By the way, my mom’s modes of transportation count in two days was 9)

Our Bungalow
We went for the cheapest bungalow option, which was a very basic bungalow at Ko Phayam Coconut Resort. We easily slipped into the island lifestyle of waking up and going on a run, walk, or swim, more swimming, breakfast, reading, more swimming, etc. One day we rented a motorbike so we could see the other part main area that people stayed on the island and Eric played taxi driver shuttling my mom and I to the different beaches. The other beach was in a bay as opposed to our long, wide beach (great for running) and was very beautiful. The water was very shallow and Eric and I were able to walk almost all the way to where the bay met the open ocean!

Buffalo Bay before the tide went out
Ko Phayam is way less developed than most islands in Thailand. There is only electricity in the evening and they turn off running water at night (and sometimes at random times during the day). These two aspects of the underdevelopment were a bit inconvenient at times, but it was so nice to be on an island with a huge open beach and very few tourists relative to the rest of Thai islands. The food was still expensive as on all islands, but it was actually really good which isn’t always the case in areas where there are a lot of tourists. Our favorite dish was Burmese pickled tea salad, which I will definitely try to recreate at home. We ate a lot of great seafood every single day, which is always a treat.

Beautiful sunsets every night
Mom shell hunting 

My mom did a great job fitting in with the many 20 somethings traveling in Southeast Asia with her backpack and ability to handle far from glamorous living conditions. She probably could have stayed on Ko Phayam for months spending a few hours each day collecting shells (which ended up being a large tuppleware full for her to carry around the rest of her trip) among the other relaxing beach activities. We were a bit sad to leave Ko Phayam, but after 6 nights it was time to move on to the next leg of our trip.  
The street we called town nearest to our beach where we walked to get good coffee for mom, shop a little, and rent the motor bike.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mae Hong Song Loop Part 5: Doi Inthanon

View from the top of Doi Inthanon
We left Khun Yuam somewhat early Thursday morning to start the drive to Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand and a huge national park. Eric had read really great things about Doi Inthanon and we planned on staying 2 or 3 nights before returning the motorbike in Chiang Mai. Although the drive was just as beautiful as all the other days, the novelty of traveling by motorbike was wearing off for me. It was our third day in a row of driving (we should’ve stayed two nights in Mae Hong Song) and my butt was definitely feeling it.

The road going into the park was exceptionally windy and steep and we spent a lot of time in first gear puttering up the mountain. We saw a sign for a campsite and turned off the main road into the national park to find an amazing, yet empty, campsite. It was a bit too empty and we found only one man working at the information building to have little to no information. We didn’t bring our tent on this trip and learned that you could only rent them at headquarters, which was about 30 km away.
Freezing and bummed about the expensive hike
Before going to headquarters, we drove to the top of the mountain (this is Thailand so of course there is a 

road that goes to the top and not a hiking trail). It was actually freezing at the top so we didn’t spend much time up there. We tried to do a hike that Eric had read about that was near the top and supposedly had great views. Unfortunately it cost 200 baht each to do this hike (paying to do a hike that “requires” a guide-no thank you). This should have been an early sign to us about the type of operation this national park was running. When we finally made it to headquarters, we learned that renting a tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads cost the same as staying in a nice guesthouse, but we paid up since our only other option was a lot more time on the motor bike to get to the nearest town. We then drove over to the campsite to see enough camouflage tents set up to house an army, all of which were empty, so we took our pick. This just made what would have been a kind of disappointing experience a hilarious one that was so stereotypically Thai.

Thing started looking up when we were able to share our silly experience with another random American at the campsite who had just gotten out of a 2 week meditation retreat. The three of us took advantage of the evening by walking to 2 of the few free attractions at the park- a waterfall and a research center/garden. The waterfall was a small hike from the research center, which was more like an immaculately groomed arboretum. We strolled through the gardens and thoroughly enjoyed our evening activity before dinner.

Another strange thing about the park was that there were a few different villages in the area that became the park, but the villagers weren’t kicked out or anything so our campsite was across the street from a village with food stalls, a school, and small grocery store. The people were very friendly, though, and it was convenient having good cheap food so accessible.


So obviously we decided against staying in Doi Inthanon more than one night and parted ways with our new friend Friday morning. She planned on hitch hiking her way to the top of the mountain and we planned on checking out some more waterfalls and a cave. We were hoping for some hikes, but the waterfalls were basically on the side of the main road (but still beautiful) and we never ended up finding the cave. The side of the park that we exited from is very close to a main highway, which was quite a change after over a week of windy country roads and we made our way into the bustling city of Chiang Mai.

It really was an amazing trip and different from anything I have ever done, especially in Thailand. If I were to do it again, I would stay two nights in Mae Hong Song and then go further south to Mae Sariang bypassing Khun Yuam and Doi Inthanon. I would highly recommend Chiang Dao and Pai to anyone traveling in the north of Thailand and Mae Hong Song if you have more time or are on the western border. Traveling by motorbike in those regions allowed me to see what I envisioned when I thought of Thailand before moving here. That is, rural villages, beautiful unscathed mountains (besides the burning), and truly friendly people. Definitely a trip I will remember for the rest of my life!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mae Hong Song Loop Part 4: Khun Yuam (Day 8)

We had a relatively short drive from Mae Hong Song to Khun Yuam (60 km) up and down hills on windy, beautiful roads. We stopped for lunch at the top of one of these roads where this older shirtless man with an adorable/yucky little pot belly served us some rice with fried eggs. His english was actually very impressive for living in almost the middle of no where and he talked to us about where we were headed, villages to stop in, the death of Hugo Chavez, and other socialist ramblings. He was a funny old guy who could have talked our ears off all afternoon if we had let him, but, alas, we had a destination in mind and said our goodbyes promising to return in November.

Shortly after lunch we realized that we should have filled up our little gas tank in Mae Hong Song so our drive became a game of how efficient we could be with tucking and shifting into neutral (2 people and a 40 pound backpack on a comically small motor bike trying to tuck down windy roads was probably a hilarious sight to behold). We were very surprised when we made it to the gas station in Khun Yuam and went on to find a place to stay for the night.

Khun Yuam didn't have much to it, but we found a guesthouse appropriately called The Farang Guesthouse (Farang=white foreigner), which was actually pretty nice and we were able to talk down the price by 150 baht (probably because we were the only people staying there). After resting in the heat of the day, we left the guesthouse to check out the town and find food, but there really wasn't anything to see (and not many places to eat for an early dinner). We did surprise some people and chickens walking through their neighborhoods (because we are white and scary and novel).

Khun Yuam was really just a place to stay for the night and not a necessary stop along the drive, but still a nice small town. (I just realized I didn't take any pictures between Mae Hong Song and Khun Yuam or in Khun Yuam, but there were some neat little villages we passed by while we were focused on gas conservation)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mae Hong Song Loop Part 3: Mae Hong Song (Day 7)

We left Pai around 9:30 am Tuesday morning to start our next long drive to Mae Hong Song. We climbed the first of many windy hills and made our way into a cloud that fortunately never unleashed on us. We got to the top of the small mountain and put on more layers, but within five minutes of driving all layered up, we came out of the clouds and descended into a warm and gorgeous little oasis valley. This was a sign of what the rest of our drive would be like and we stopped on the side of the road often to try to capture the scenery on camera. We were so happy for the nights of rain in Pai that completely eliminated the smokey skies and we had nothing but blue skies and pillowy clouds all day.

We planned on going to the Tam Yod cave in Soppong, but they charged 500 baht for the two of us (the equivalent to two extra days in a bungalow) so we passed and continued to enjoy the drive. It is supposed to be a really awesome cave with a rive going through it, so if you ever had the chance to see it and are not traveling on a Thai salary, I would probably do it. We did stop at a much smaller cave on the side of the road (for 20 baht each), which used to house coffins from the ancient Burmese. The tombs that were discovered were over 3,000 years old!

We hadn't heard great things about Mae Hong Song and expected a larger town (since it is the capital city of the Mae Hong Song province) without much going for it in a less beautiful setting than Pai. We were happy to discover that it was a relatively small city (much smaller than Suphanburi), with the perfect amount of tourism and it was in a beautiful setting! The cheap guesthouses are situated around a small manmade lake and we found a great little place for 300 baht (which was originally priced 500 baht). Supposedly it is a great base for doing treks, which I can believe with how beautiful the surrounding area is and it looked way less commercialized and ridiculous than the trekking companies in Chiang Mai.

Because of the long drive and all the stops for taking pictures, we didn't get to Mae Hong Song until 4 or 5, but had enough time to stroll around the little lake, get some Vietnamese noodle soup for a late lunch, and relaxed and read a bit before dark. We went out a little later for dinner and enjoyed the small market on the lake where vendors sold Burmese style clothing, art, and other little things. I bought a very beautifully woven scarf from a really cute and friendly woman that is part of the Karen Hill Tribe (famous for their long neck women) and regret not buying more from her.

I woke up Wednesday morning for a beautiful long run and then we walked up to a temple on the hill to get a great view of the town. We easily could have stayed a few days since the town had such a nice atmosphere, but we decided to continue on our road trip and were on our way by noon.