Friday, February 22, 2013

Last Days of Teaching and Some Reflection

Today was the last day of school for us English teachers (we don't have to be here for finals week next week), which marks the end of my high school teaching career. Teaching was a great experience and I vividly remember the feeling of anxiety I experienced sitting at my computer at home thinking about what it would be like teaching a class of 50 Thai high school students (850 students in all). I have gotten to know some of my students well and have grown to love them all (well almost all). It took me some time to figure out how to teach certain classes, but I do feel like I figured it out and now some of the classes I dreaded going to the first month here have become my favorite classes with some of my most loving and passionate (which meant loud and obnoxious at first) students.

One of my favorite senior classes
The past two weeks have been busy as my seniors came in to get help on projects for their other english class, turned in optional creative projects for my class, and as I got my finals and grades together. I was incredibly impressed with many of my seniors creative projects (although there were many many other projects that were just recipe books plagerized from the internet). The only requirement was that they had to use english (written or oral) and it was awesome seeing what they came up with. I had a tie for first place. Two girls made a DIY book (with a focus on reusing things from my Reduce, Reuse, Recycle lesson) and another two girls wrote a magic cookbook with silly recipes including "crocodile heads and spit from an ugly girl" which they presented to me by singing and acting. Other students wrote and illustrated stories, comics, made photo journals, music videos, cooking videos, and more. The Thai education system really lacks creativity and the other teachers don't seem to do anything to stop the students from copying homework and exams and plagerizing from the internet, but in reality the students are incredibly creative and just need to be encouraged to think creatively and for themselves. I was so grateful for this realization and love my students for proving that they are better than many teachers give them credit for.

Adorable freshmen
After the students finished their final exam (an incredibly easy 10 question test) they had free time, which became photo shoot time in a lot of my classes. Thais love taking pictures of each other and of themselves and most of my students have smart phones or super nice cameras. It was hilarious posing with my students especially with the hilarious boys that constantly tell me they love me. My students made me feel really great and touched this week with their "I love you"s and "I will miss you." It makes me feel like I actually did a good job teaching them and/or that they enjoyed coming to my class even if it was just to be entertained by my shananigans (they seriously make me feel like I am funny enough to pursue stand up comedy). A few girls in my smartest freshman class were adorable and after asking to take pictures with me whispered to me and got the courage to ask for a hug. I then had a small line of girls hugging me and the happiness it brought me tells me I am probably a better fit for primary school.

Our teaching situation hasn't been close to ideal: classes are huge, there is incredible lack of communication and organization, we are underemployed and spend way to much time just sitting in our office, the grades in our class do not effect the students, and most things are just for appearances. I don't think I would recommend Thailand to people interested in teaching abroad (mostly because countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos need us more from what I know) and the city I live in is not what I expected when I imagined myself teaching in Thailand. That being said, I do not regret teaching here. I think I have reached some students (and that is worth it to me even if it is just a handful of students), I have developed a few relationships that I hope will last the rest of my life, and I have learned more about myself and how I respond to negative situations. My underemployment has motivated me to learn about things that interest me in my free time and I am looking forward to working hard at my future job (although I do not know what it will be).

I have been teaching for about four months and now I have four more months of some amazing travel opportunities ahead of me. This weekend Eric and I will head north to Chiang Mai to meet my cousin and spend 2-3 weeks in that region. We actually have to come back to Suphan for 1-2 weeks to teach the science and math teachers english (a very silly and pointless little project) and then my mom is coming to visit for 3 weeks! After my mom leaves, Eric and I will work our way across Laos, down the coast of Vietnam, take a quick trip to Cambodia, spend 2 weeks in Sri Lanka, and I will end my travels spending a month with my sister, Mollie, in Nepal! My travel plans are loosely based around Room to Read as they work in every country I just listed (besides Thailand). My hope is to visit regions that they work in (although I can't just drop in on their schools) and plan on doing an official school tour in Nepal. I will continue to fundraise for my Run Vietnam for Literacy campaign and hope that by the time I get home my friends, family, and I will have raised enough money to build a library (in turn changing the lives of thousands of kids) in one of the countries I visited. The work I have been doing for Room to Read has definitely kept me engaged and excited about life when things got a little stagnant here and I am so greatful for my growing passion for the organization.

Our last day began similar to our first day being told to give a speech to the entire school minutes before it was speech time. There was a ceremony for the freshmen and seniors (M3 and M6), my students, and I was given a ton of candy and some flowers from my favorite students saying their goodbyes. I am a sucker and saying goodbye usually makes me tear up, which definitely happened when some of my favorite classes and students came to say goodbye. We had a goodbye dinner with the foreign languages department, which was delicious as always (it is great going out to dinner with people that can order more than the same stuff you are used to). We gave another speech to our department and were presented with gifts which we found out were hilarious when we got home. Eric received a tie with pink hearts all over with a matching pocket napkin thing and cufflinks. I received a black clutch purse covered in rhinestones, which would be perfect for any high school prom. Our little party really did make me realize how much I love some of the other teachers and came home only feeling good about my experience teaching.

So with that incredibly long post, I am off for some more extended traveling and will update my blog from time to time!
Goodbye dinner with our department

Sunday, February 17, 2013

300 Peaks Park

We had yet another spectacular camping weekend with Jane and Andrew and it just keeps getting better! All four of us confirmed that National Parks are the best parts of Thailand and should be the main focus of anyone who wants to see beautiful parts of Thailand on a budget without the presense of speedo clad, obese tourists (most of the time, but every once in a while one sneaks into a national park). Jane and Andrew learned about Sam Roi Yot (300 Peaks Park) a few weeks ago and actually went the weekend after the Khao Yai race weekend (while Eric and I rested in Suphan). After staying in Suphan for a weekend, Eric and I were defintely ready for another weekend trip and were stoked when Jane told us how amazing it was and that they wanted to go again. So they picked us up in a slightly improved hooptie Friday after school and we were off!
The park is about 50 km south of Hua Hin, which is probably one of the most horribly touristy beach cities in Thailand. I haven't actually been there, but was appalled when we drove through on our way to the park. Helloooo fat whities! Get me to a national park! It is about 5 hours from Suphan so we didn't get there until 10 when it was sufficiently dark and creepy at the parking area. We pulled up in this abandoned looking neighborhood (which wasn't actually abandoned in daylight) and were greeted by 10 or so of the scraggliest looking and smelling stray dogs I have seen. Jane and Andrew pointed to where we were headed which was up up up into the dark. Luckily they had been there before or this place would have been impossible to find. We hiked the 1 km up and over a hill (pretty much straight up, but with stairs) and descended onto a rare sight--an empty and beautiful beach!

There were some cabins, a restuarant (that was closed that late), nice bathrooms (with toilet paper!), and swept paths. We pitched our tents and walked towards the water contemplating a late night swim. Eric is always enthused about swimming in the ocean so he went for it while the rest of us stood at the edge and contemplated getting bathing suits on. A few minutes after Eric went in (it was shallow for a long time so he had walked out pretty far) we heard a yelp of excitement and Eric called to us to get out there. I assumed he was just enjoying the water (same old), but waded out to him in my t shirt and jean shorts. As I was walking out I noticed there was something different about the water and checked to see if my headlamp was reflecting on the water. It wasn't and as I got out to Eric he splashed some water around to reveal one of the most amazing things I have ever seen and like to describe as shiny horses running on a wave. Whenever we moved the water, it would cause a trail of light making the ocean sparkle. We splashed in the water looking at the different ways we could make the water light up. It was enchanting and my shorts were definitely soaked in momentarily sparkly water by the time we walked out of the water. Look up bioluminescent or phosphoresence to learn what we experienced (although evidently there are a lot of forms of it).

We woke up Saturday morning to a still empty and beautiful beach and enjoyed some pineapple pancakes before heading out to explore the area. We drove to a hike that Jane and Andrew had done the previous weekend, which gave us an awesome view of the ocean in one direction, the mountains in the opposite direction, and shrimp farms and cannels in between. I say hike for lack of a better word, but pretty much every hike we have been on in Thailand means 200-800 meters of straight up, usually with some type of stair system. So yeah, I definitely got in my stair workout last weekend.

After the viewpoint hike, we followed signs to one of the big caves in the area and did another hike to reach it. I fell in love with caves at summer camp in Colorado  and I have loved "caving" even since then. Caves and waterfalls are probably my two favorite things found in nature and Thailand has an abundance of both! This cave was waaay bigger than the ones in Colorado with crazy stalagtites and stalamites. We explored the cave until our stomachs were growling and drove to a restaurant on the side of the road that a Thai man we ran into recommended.
We ordered all seafood dishes and were not disappointed! Squid with garlic and pepper, fried fish, squid salad, sea food and vegetables, and something else amazing and we were filled up! We ended our day's exploration by putting me behind the steering wheel for the first time in over 4 months, with the steering wheel on the right side of the car, driving on the left side of the road. It was touch and go for a minute, but I got us back to the parking lot in one piece (and we saw trucks full of monks on their cell phones on our way in). We relaxed on the beach for the rest of the day and Eric and Andrew made a bonfire on the beach for our evening activity.

We woke up Sunday morning after being feasted on by mosquitos and I enjoyed a lovely beach run before breakfast. There was another cave near our campsite (that didn't require us to drive) that Jane and Andrew talked up a lot. Eric and I laced up our running shoes for yet another steep uphill hike and left the other two to relax on the beach. We were amazed when we walked into the cave filled with trees and bushes and crazy cave walls, ceilings, floors, etc. Then we realized this wasn't even the cool part of the cave and walked into the main section that houses a beautiful temple (picture at the top of this post). I think magnificent is the best word to describe it. It is gorgeous in photos and it is even better in real life. We took our time soaking in the beauty and exploring the cave. I think it is one of my favorite things I have seen in Thailand yet! More tourists started to find there way to the cave so Eric and I headed out to enjoy a little more beach time before making our way home. I could easily spend a week in the same campsite in Sam Roi Yot exploring the park and hanging out on the beach and am looking forward to going to more national parks the rest of my time here!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Training Race in a Beautiful Place!

I had such a great weekend racing and exploring in one of my new favorite regions of Thailand and I can't wait to tell you about it! Hiroshi, the Japanese teacher at our school, told Eric and I about a race at the beginning of the semester and after seeing that the entry fee for a 10k was only 300 baht ($10) we registered without hesitation. The race was put on by Northface and was part of the Northface 100k series. Our friends, Andrew and Jane, who we camped with the weekend before decided to join us for the trip (but not for the race since registration was closed the week before), making it 100 times more enjoyable with their company and the fact that they were able to rent a car so we had the freedom of our own wheels!

Andrew and Jane picked us up in the Crown (which I should've taken a picture of), which was referred to as the hooptie for the rest of the weekend and we were off! I cannot describe the feeling of freedom that having your own car brings in Thailand, but let's just say it is worth paying twice as much to rent a car over public transportation (although we actually saved money on transportation by renting the car). I was very impressed with Andrew's driving skills considering Thai cars have the steering wheel on the right side and traffic goes the opposite direction from what Americans are used to. Add in some crazy U turns on freeways, trucks flying past stacked 3 times their height, monkeys and stray dogs hanging out in the road, and people crossing right in front of you and you've got a challenge in front of you. However, we made it to our general destination with only a few wrong turns!

Eric and I woke up at pitch dark o'clock (5am) to get to the start of the race, which was at a resort in the beautiful countryside about 30 minutes from where we were staying. Surprisingly we found our way there without making any wrong turns due to the incredibly well marked signs and directions to the resort. It seemed like a lot of the runners (half Thais and half foreingers about) were from Bangkok, which was evident when we drove the hooptie into the parking lot filled with fancy clean cars. I was not expecting such a well organized race since organization, directions, punctuality, etc are scarce in Thailand, but this was probably the most legitimate race I have ever ran! And to top it off, it was the most beautiful race I have ever ran!

We checked in a little before 6 am and were given our nice event shirts (already making the 300 baht worth it) and warmed up around the venue while the 25k runners started their race (the 50 and 100k racers had left much earlier). We were called to the start line a little before 6:30 and the other runners were a hilarious mix of foreigners (probably many of them teachers like us), young Thai runners that actually looked like athletes, and the other Thais who look more like the people I see running in Suphan who probably run 15 minutes miles on average. This included an older woman who ran with her tiny dog on a lease wearing a dress (the dog was wearing a dress, not her). Eric and I were near the front of the start line and speculated whether the group in front of us knew proper running ettiquette when it comes to slow people crowding the start line. We were blessed by a monk before the start and the gun went off! As expected, this group did not know proper ettiquette and started the race at the 15 minute mile pace. We found our way around them and relaxed into a good pace for the two of us.

We ran through farms and beautiful fields at the foot of some small moutains and ran as the sun rose in front of and then over us. Eric and I were amazed by the region and were really grateful for the beauty of the course which started on paved road, then became a dirt road, then some sections of single track (that made us both wish we had mountain bikes here), by some ponds and temples, and back to the resort. The only downside was the smell of burning trash that lingered from the night before. I felt better and better as we ran (Eric feeling the inverse) and had a little bit of competition the last kilometer of the race as another American girl passed by me. Don't worry, I hung with her and then passed her at the end and almost caught up to an energetic Thai guy in front of me! A finisher medal was placed around my neck and I was told that I was an inspiration (Thais really love boosting my ego!) I ran 51 minutes even, which is slower than I wanted, but I was perfectly happy considering how enjoyable the race was (and I beat Eric).

It turned out that both Eric and I got 2nd in our age groups and I got 3rd overall for woman! We were awarded our trophies and laughed at the assembly of the tops of the trophies--Eric's runner had boobs and mine did not. At the finish of the race there were two elephants congratulating finishers, classic Thai dancing done by extremely made up little girls and some Thai drumming from some little Thai boys. It was very cute and what was even better was the amount of free food! They had fried rice, pad thai, tons of fruit, and sports drinks for finishers. We probably didn't earn everything we ate and received, but loaded up nonetheless! Seriously, the best 300 baht I ever spent.

These are Thais favorite poses: "I so cute" and "I smart"
After stuffing ourselves and taking pictures at the finish, we headed back to the hotel to meet Jane and Andrew to continue our adventurous weekend. We drove the hooptie into Khao Yai National Park, which is the biggets national park in Thailand, and set up camp at a very crowded but nice camp site. Eric and I were pretty beat from the early morning and the race so we all did a short (1km) hike to a pretty awesome water fall and just hung out and climbed around for the afternoon. The evening was spent trying to make a fire (Eric and Andrew tried and eventually did make a fire while Jane and I layed around and talked) and fearing the monkeys that were way to used to being fed by humans. The next day we went on a bit of a longer hike where within the first five minutes we saw a sloth bear and huge wild elephant tracks. That was pretty much all the wildlife we saw besides some more monkey (waaaay cooler to see them in the wild than stealing your snacks at your campsite), but there were crazy trees and vines everywhere and it was an amazing hike through the jungle. It ended at an open field with a lookout tower about 1km from the main road so we hung out and then hitched a ride back to the park headquarters where our car was parked.


We drove home back through the hilariously gimmicky area outside of the park that is known as Thailand's little Switzerland. It included hundreds of resorts and silly roadside restaurants or attractions that evidently some tourist are into. It was a really great weekend and the 10k gave me a lot of confidence for my half marathon in May! If you would like to contribute to my Run Vietnam for Literacy campaign in honor of my second place finish, please do so here!