Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Thai Style Christmas

This is now the second Christmas in a row that I have celebrated abroad. Last Christmas Eric and I were in Peru actually on Machu Picchu on Christmas day. Peruvians didn't really celebrate Christmas (besides awful fireworks at midnight on Christmas Eve) so we basically skipped Christmas last year. Thais, however, do celebrate Christmas in the only way they know how to celebrate--loud, confusing, hilarious, and gaudy. You might be thinking, "Aren't Thais mostly Buddhist?" Yes, they are almost all Buddhist, but Thailand is a country that loves to celebrate anything so although we still had to go to school on Christmas day it was filled with Christmas festivities. It was awesome.

On Christmas Eve Eric, Anna, and I spent the evening making Peanut Butter Balls for the teachers in our office and anyone else we felt like giving them to. It was a solid night of sugary peanut buttery goodness and we successfully found the necessary ingredients (powdered sugar, peanut butter, butter, chocolate). I was very happy to be able to skype with my wonderful family on my Christmas morning (their Christmas Eve afternoon), which made me a bit sad to be missing our many Christmas Eve and Christmas traditions, but didn't have much time to think about it by the time we got to school. We were hurried to our office to get our Santa hats and were given bags of candy that we were told to hand out to the kids. I was overwhelmed as hundreds of little hands were shoved in my face to get a piece of candy and a few aggressive boys dove their hands in the bag to grab a handful for them and their friends. We eventually figured out that we were supposed to wait and then dramatically throw the candy to all the kids as they played Jingle Bells and took pictures. Unfortunately I don't have this documented, but I'm sure many people at school do.

After candy throwing we went into the auditorium where the students had set up booths the day before for the Christmas festival (which of course they skipped class to do). The kids sold various Thai treats at their booths, Mr Hiroshi, the Japanese teacher, sold kimonos for the kids to dress in, and we did crafts with the kids (we didn't really understand what we were supposed to with at our booth so a lot of students were surprised that we weren't selling anything).

However, before the buying, selling, games, etc, there were some exceptional performances. We were ushered over to the chairs where other teachers were sitting and watched the principal, who was dressed as Santa and who I don't think we have ever met, make a speech in English that Eric wrote.  He is pictured demanding they move the podium up to the stage.

After the welcome speech, groups of students did some overly dramatic Christmas skits and dances.
And what would Christmas be without Gangnam Style? I swear I still hear that song at least 4 times a week and Thailand will probably ride the Gangnam train for another year. These performances also includes a segment where some boys did an actually really awesome robotic hip hop dance wearing batman sweatshirts and creepy white masks. It didn't necessarily scream Christmas to me, but was hilarious none the less.

After the performances, students were free to hang out and buy stuff at the different booths while Miss Christmas was being judged. Thais are really into beauty pageants and some of these pageants come close to matching America's " Toddlers in Tiaras". As expected, the judges chose the tallest and whitest girl wearing the least amount of clothing. Meanwhile, we were crafting it up with some kids making popsicle stick ornaments and paper snow flakes. It is amazing how into arts and crafts some kids here are. Whenever I have an assignment that involves drawing they whip up some amazing piece of art. We had one boy who stayed at the booth making paper snowflakes even after we left.

The Christmas festival ended at noon and we went back to the quiet of our office until they brought out the Christmas cake (topped with butter frosting that I swear was just butter with food dye) and other packaged treats. We gave all of the other teachers the peanut butter balls, which they were grateful for until they bit into them. We thought they would for sure love them since they are so sweet (and delicious), but they all said they were too sweet! Eric, Anna, and I decided it's because Thais don't eat rich food and peanut butter is pretty foreign. Li, the Chinese teacher, and my student/friend Nay, who lived in Norway for a year, said she liked them.

We were supposed to have classes in the afternoon and surprisingly my 7th period class actually did show up, so I taught a New Years lesson where we attempted to write New Year resolutions. My 8th period class, however, did not make an appearance. Instead, the best students in that class came to class to tell me they were having an ice cream party and weren't coming to class, but invited me to come to the ice cream party. An entire class of 50 not showing up for class is all too common for me and I knew there wasn't anything I could do about it, so I went down to where my entire class was hanging out eating Nam Keng Sai--a Thai dessert of shaved ice which the students put syrup, pieces of white bread, and corn flakes in. Bet you never ordered that at your favorite Thai restaurant in the US! I attempted to get them to sing a Christmas song for my family, but they were clearly over it.

Wattana took us out to dinner for Christmas where we had some awesome Thai food including wild rice (so rare here) and some delicious fried fish. Although I missed me family a lot, this was definitely a Christmas I will remember! [videos to come]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On Tuesdays We Wear Pink

Practically every Tuesday Eric has to hear Anna and I quote Mean Girls and not understand what we are talking about. If you don't know what I am talking about, please follow the link to the beloved Youtube.

Colors are a big deal in Thailand and each day of the week has a color. Thais know the day of the week they are born on and its coinciding color because that color will be good luck for them. Tuesdays are pink the students wear pink polos (and pretty awful blue sweat pants) to honor the king (although the king was born on a Monday, so maybe it isn't really to honor--not sure, this is one of the many things I don't really understand).

In this picture all 2,500 students are lined up for the morning assembly honoring the king.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Railay Weekend with 3/5 of the Vukicevich's

Eric and I had our first visitors to Thailand who are actually still here with us! Eric's mom, Eileen, and his sister, Lauren, got to Bangkok Wednesday night and we met them Thursday afternoon. We were both able to get our classes covered on Friday (thanks Anna!) so we had yet another three day weekend! Pictured below is our welcome to Thailand fruit basket.

We flew out of Don Meung Airport in Bangkok Thursday afternoon and had the incredibly pleasant  11/2 hour flight to Krabi (which would've taken 10-12 hours by bus or train). Flying is awesome AND we ate our first real sandwiches in over two months (thank you globalization for giving me Subway in Thailand) AND AND (a doubley excited and) Eileen and Lauren brought me home made chocolate chip cookies from my sister! I was really looking forward to these and they definitely delivered.

Anyway, we landed in Krabi when it was still light out, which was great! One of the many great things about traveling with parents is that they like to spend the extra $6 to make things convenient. Eileen had booked a hotel on Railay and transportation to it from the airport. We were picked up at the airport from a very friendly driver happy to practice his english. He dropped us off at the pier where a long boat took us to Railay. THEN a water tractor-taxi picked us up from the long boat so we didn't have to walk through the stretch of shallow murky water. Finally, the tractor-taxi took us to a golf cart that drove us up the hill to our hotel. One thing I enjoy doing when I travel is counting my modes of transportation. I have found myself doing this and getting really excited anytime it is more than like 3 different types of transportation. So, we left school Thursday morning by a truck, took a van to Bangkok, a plane to Krabi, a SUV taxi to the pier, a long boat to Railay, a water tractor-taxi, and a golf cart. Seven modes!

Our hotel room was very nice and a huge change from the hostels Eric and I have been staying at or camping last weekend. This is the view from our hotel room where we could also watch people rock climb. In the morning we headed down to one of the beaches. Unfortunately it wasn't really beach weather (and actually we never really experienced real beach weather unfortunately), but we swam nonetheless. We then explored Railay with its really amazing landscape, crazy caves, and stalagmites and stalactites. There was a lookout spot that we rock, rope, and root climbed our way up to in the somewhat muddy clay. It was a really nice view of Railay and was a nice little exercise.

 After climbing we decided to rent kayaks, which was probably my favorite part of the weekend. We kayaked under rock overhangs and into tunnels (AKA Eric forced me against my will to kayak into a dark tunnel). We watched as the rain came in and it started pouring on us as we padelled to an overhanging cliff to take cover. The rain cleared and we watched a beautiful sunset on the beach until another rain cloud came in and we scurried to a little non-resort restaurant (which unfortunately is rare on Railay) and ate dinner as the rain poured around us. 

The next morning we signed up for a 4 Island Boat Trip to see some of the small islands around Railay. Turns out every yucky European and Thai thought this was a good idea too and this was our first island stop. Eric and I should have known, but it did get better at our next stop where we snorkeled (for my first time!), saw some really cool fish, and where it was less crowded (and the lame people on our boat stayed in the longtail). It was a nice little touristy thing to do, but unfortunately Eric started feeling a bit sick at the last island. When we got back to Railay, Eric and Lauren headed back to the hotel while Eileen and I spent a little more time on the beach before another rain storm hit and watched people like this:

I used to hate hearing that statistic of how few Americans travel and thought it was embarrassing. I am now very grateful that Americans that look (and act) like this stay within our borders.

I won't go into details about Saturday night as Saturday evening to Sunday morning Eric, Lauren, and I took turns have "stomach issues," which is a nice way to say we were either throwing up or having diarrhea. I will remain mysterious and leave it up to you which it was. If I go to Railay again, I will definitely want to do some rock climbing, which is what it is really known for.

It is also known for this penis- cave shrine:

We flew back to Bangkok Sunday afternoon and made it on the last bus to Suphan just in time. Even with the rain and not feeling well, it was a great weekend and we are currently hosting Eileen and Lauren at hotel Yu Dee Mi Suk (our apartment) and taking them to school today!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Camping in Erawan National Park

I spent another weekend in paradise, but this paradise was surrounded by mountains, tropical forests, and gorgeous waterfalls. We had another three day weekend and Eric and I spent our first weekend going somewhere just the two of us, which was a good thing since our tent proved to be for 1 1/2 people! We invested a whopping 400 bath ($12) in a tent and headed off Saturday morning for a weekend in Kanchanaburi, a neighboring province to Suphanburi.

We had a false start Friday night where, unfortunately, we learned that buses to Kanchanaburi stop running at 5 (we got there at 5:30). We were told that they start running early in the morning and leave every half hour. Saturday morning we got to the bus station at 8:20 thinking we had perfectly timed it to catch the 8:30 bus. We got on the bus and at...9:25 we were off! (turns out when they say buses leave every half hour they mean when the bus fills up) The ride was a bit painfully long, but luckily (meaning unluckily) they started blasting some beautiful (meaning awful) Thai music the last hour of the 3 hour bus ride to Kanchanaburi city. Erawan National Park is another 2 hour bus ride from Kanchanaburi city so we ate some lunch at the bus station and hopped on another bus. This ride was much more enjoyable as we drove to and through the mountains, along rivers and beautiful country roads. We were also fortunate enough to stop half an hour in to pick up an entire freshly roasted pig (head, tail and all) in a  a bag to later drop off at a resort outside the national park.

We got to the camping area of the national park, set up our tent near the river, and headed out to see the lower sections on Erawan water falls before they closed. Erawan Waterfall is very well known i Thailand and did not disappoint. On Saturday we were only able to see the first two levels of the seven level falls, but were still very impressed with the bright blue water and surrounding scenery. Eric went for a swim with the Thai kids and adults (who were fully clothed) and the Europeans (who I wish were fully clothed). We then walked to the little town outside of the park to eat some dinner that was cheaper than what was sold within the park and watch some kids fly kites. When we got back to the camp site we made friends with a couple from Belgium that are vacationing in Thailand for 7 weeks.
The river next to our campsite.

Level 2
After a night with very little sleep (due to our lack of sleeping pads, partying Thais, howeling dogs, and noisy birds) we got up and woke our Belgium friends up in order to be the first ones to get to the top of the falls, which opened at 8. It was an amazing little hike and we were more and more in awe of the beauty of the 7 waterfalls which each step. The falls were so beautiful and perfect it seemed like they had to be fake, but it turns out natural beauty really does trump any artificial beauty. We saw one other group (a family of Thais) on the way up and that was it. We had each section to ourselves to photograph and appreciate. At the top, we swam in the cool water and let the fish nibble on our toes.
Level 1
Level 2 (with the lack of sleep showing on our faces)

Level 3

Level 4

Level 5
Level 6
Level 7

Fish nibbling my toes!
I was very grateful we were able to enjoy the falls alone for a while because a little after we got to the top more and more tourists and Thais started showing up and by the time we got back down to levels 1-3, there were huge crowds swimming, picnicing, and enjoying the falls in a much less serene way. We had some lunch and read under a gazebo next to the river and said goodbye to our Belgium friends. Eric and I then went on a hike on a "nature interpretive trail." The trail eventually led to a very nice lookout point and Eric may or may not have seen a cougar or some other large animal (we weren't sure, but there was definitely some movement in the trees). We finished the day with another swim in the falls and a delicious dinner near the campsite.

Eric's Jungle Trek Part 2

View from the end of our little hike.
We rented sleeping pads so the evening was a little more enjoyable and we spent Monday morning getting breakfast and reading on the river. At noon we got on the bus and made the journey (which was a little faster this time) back to Suphan. I was so refreshing to get away from cities and relax in nature. I am still recovering from two somewhat sleepness nights, but will be ready for another adventure to paradise starting Thursday when Eric's mom and sister get here!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My First Island Trip: Ko Samet

To continue with the more exciting part of last weekend after English I really feel like I am in Thailand.

As I left off with my last post, Wattana dropped Eric, Anna, and I off at the bus station to send us on our way to paradise. We had one 1 hour bus ride and then a 2 hour (or so) bus ride which both went smoothly. The second bus dropped us off at the dock to take a boat to Ko Samet (Sidenote: Ko means island and Ao means beach). There is a ferry that is very cheap to take over, but it stops running at 4 and we probably didn't get there until 9, so we decided to take the plunge and pay for the speedboat. Unfortunately we got overcharged/cheated, but we will now know for the future. It is tricky here because in really touristy places they will definitely take advantage of you, but in places like Suphan sometimes they will say something (like a shirt) costs 250 baht and then only charge you 220. So we have just learned to be prepared for when we go to touristy places.

The speedboat only took 10-15 minutes and I was pretty wowed as we approached Ko Samet. It was dark, so I wasn't taking in the beauty, but the crazy party scene that we were quickly approaching. There were fire twirling performances, clubs with dancing, and bar after bar along the beach. We didn't make any reservations, so we got dropped off with these two British guys at the cheapest area of the beach to stay. We checked into our hotel and ventured out to see what was going on. I definitely wasn't in the mood to dance my pants off, but actually had a really fun time walking a long the beach and hanging out at various restaurants/bars. We sat at one at the end of the beach where fewer people had made it to where the waiters were really funny, twirled some fire specially for us, and Anna got hit on by creepy fat men from the Netherlands.

Breakfast on the beach
The next morning we had breakfast practically in the water (high tide was very extreme especially since it was a few days after the full moon) and hung out on the beach and swam. After an hour or so of relaxing, we thought it would be fun to explore a bit and find a little less crazy beach to stay the night on. So, we were off on "Eric's Jungle Trek." I have been on many of these types of adventures before so luckily I was somewhat prepared for what unfolded in the next couple hours.
Eric's Jungle Trek begins
The west side of Ko Samet is lined with beaches, which are separated by some rocks or a little bit of "forest" at times. There was a trail that went through the trees and other times we walked a long the beach or through the different resorts and hotels. We decided that we would walk until we found a cool place to stay Sunday night so we could put our stuff down and keep going. It seemed like each beach or bay we got to was cooler and cooler so it was very difficult to decide to stop to check into a hotel, so we didn't. Nor did we really stop for food (besides Eric getting a coconut, which I was later very jealous of). We did stop for beach swinging/hammocking, swimming, picture taking, etc.

I had read about some really cool beaches at the very south of the island that sounded affordable, so we were motivated to keep going. The beaches in the south definitely got more spread out and we were tiring out a bit (Anna and I were both carrying backpacks and purses, so this was a learning experience to pack less). After walking along rocks for a while without seeing a beach, we finally rounded the corner to see an awesome beach in a gorgeous bay. We celebrated and started thinking about what we would eat when we got there. We were walking through some trees as we got closer and practically stepped on a sleeping security guard. He instantly got on his radio and he explained (mostly in Thai) that it was a private beach and we couldn't go. He led us around the back of the resort where we got some glimpses of how the rich a famous must vacation. I just looked up the resort and here is its website. It costs around 20,000 baht which is almost my entire month's salary (about 700 US dollar a night). Oops!
I took this photo saying "This will be in the blog when I say we finally made it to our beach." I was wrong.
He left us at the road, which we begrudgedly kept trekking down (and when I say down, I mean up, up, and up). I have a tendency to be able to laugh about ridiculous situations very quickly after they happen and often during, which I am sure is annoying for others when the ridiculous isn't over. Case in point, I'm laughing as I look at the uphill road we have to walk up and bust out my camera. Anna: "I swear Bridget if you take a picture of me right now, I am going to kill you." I disobeyed and am still alive (sorry Anna!). It turns out the beach that the resort was on sounds a lot like another beach on the north tip, which was the one that had affordable places to stay.
"Bridget, I'm going to kill you."
We saw a sign for the beach at the south tip of the island, which I had read was a good example of more traditional lifestyle on the island. Unfortunately traditional does not mean hotels for you to stay in and the only place to stay was another out of our league resort. The women gave us a pitty look when they told us the price (which is actually less than $100 US dollars, but too much for our Thai salary) and suggested we go to the beach we originally stayed at to find something affordable. We took advantage of their chairs and ate a popsicle before turning around and walking back.

There was a truck shuttle, but we thought it would be too expensive. Fortunately they weren't busy and gave us a ride halfway up the island to a beach we thought was cool the first time around. It was a very fast, bumpy, steep uphill/downhill ride, but it was a great time, beat walking, and we were dropped off right on the beach. The first hotel gave us a price and when we said it was too much and started walking, they dropped down 1/3 of the price--deal! We put down our stuff and walked to this really cool restaurant with the seating areas along a pier that we had eyed 3 hours earlier. It was amazing--great view, great atmosphere, good food. We hung out for almost two hours before going for a late afternoon swim and testing out  my waterproof camera. The beach we stayed out, Ao Thian, had some really cool restaurants and bars, plenty of places for massages, and seemed a like a good balance of fun and family oriented. There were also a few groups of Thai people there and even less foreigners, which I liked. We had a great night hanging out, playing poker using pieces from the top of a bottle for chips, and going for a late night swim.

Practicing our water tricks

Our restaurant on the water
We had an American breakfast in the morning, which wasn't very good, but my watermelon smoothie made up for it. Then we layed out and swam a bit before walking back to where the speedboat dropped us off so we could start the journey home. Walking basically the entire west side of the island was actually really fun, incredibly beautiful, and a great way to see more than the average Ko Samet tourist. Ko Samet is one of the closest islands to Bangkok and supposedly doesn't compare with the beaches down south, but I felt like I was in paradise the entire time. I can't wait to see the ones in the south! But first, Eric and I are going camping in the mountains in Kanchanaburi this weekend, so I can start fulfilling my desire to get outdoors and away from the cities!
Amazing watermelon smoothie (and me and Anna)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

English Camp

Last weekend was a very full weekend so I am dividing my posts in two. A couple weeks ago we told Wattana (our coordinator) that we would help her friend's school with english camp, which is something all schools here do. It actually ended up being a camp for all subjects and we were just running the english station.

The weekend started Saturday at the lovely hour of 5:30 am since Wattana was picking us up at 6 to drive to her friend's school east of Bangkok. In typical Thai fashion, we didn't end up leaving until 6:30. Wattana brought one of my M6 (12th grade) students to help, also. Nay had spent a year going to school in Norway and her english is a lot better than the rest of the students. The drive was almost 3 hours, but it was fun talking to Nay about Norway. She is super cute and very mature since her year in Norway put her behind here so she is actually 19. I'm going to try to start hanging out with her some days after school so I can help her with her english and she can help me with my Thai, so hopefully that will start soon.

We got to the place where the camp was taking place, which was a really cool center for camps and a preschool set in banana farms. They fed us and gave us some coffee and we hung out for a little while. We were then called over to watch the opening ceremony, which I wish I had taken photos of. Thailand is very proud and focused on its involvement in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), so they had the college aged camp leaders dress up in the traditional dress and do a little dance for each country, most were men dressed as women which is always entertaining. They filmed us watching the ceremony, which we soon realized was the reason they wanted us there at 9 am. Turns out we didn't have anything to do for the camp until 1 pm, so Wattana took us to lunch and a temple near by.

Lunch was really cool where they gave everyone a bowl of broth with a couple things in it and then you added your own sprouts, spice, green onion, etc and this little guy cooked up little pockets of whatever you wanted (bamboo, greens, corn, cashews, and some other stuff). Aroi maa kha (very delicious).
Servin it up
After lunch we went over to the temple, which is known for its huge lounging Ganesh. Ganesh is a Hindu god, but evidently is part of Buddhism, as well. I will have to research this overlap at some point. There is a lot of this type of stuff (meaning relatively gawdy and awful attractions) to make more people come to the temple. I would like to think it isn't to make money, but I can't really think of any other reason since people give a lot of money at temples.

I payed my 20 baht to do a little honoring of Buddha with Wattana and Nay to see what you are supposed to do. It is a series of little rituals (which I don't actually support religiously, but will get in on the cultural experience). First you kneel down in front of the whole shabang and pray, then you light a candle and stick it in some wax to keep it standing, next you take your packets of thin gold paper and stick one on each of the statues, and finally you light your incense and stick it in some sand in front of a statue. It was an interesting process and it was nice to have Nay guiding me through the whole thing.

Eric slept while I honored Buddha.

After the temple, we proceeded to get lost driving back to the camp, but eventually found our way. The afternoon was spent playing english games with five groups of twenty kids at a time. It was pretty fun, but definitely tiring, especially after waking up so early. I think the kids were a little scared of us since they don't have foreign english teachers at their school, but we got some groups to loosen up. They fed us again and then Wattana and Nay took us to the bus station so we could start our trek to Ko Samet (post is on the way)!
Playing Mr. Blobby