One year ago.

thailand

One year ago today I embarked on the journey of a lifetime. To leave my family, friends and job in NYC to teach English to 4th graders on the other side of the world, in Thailand.  Although it was unconventional, had nothing to do with my career, and it meant traveling alone to a very, very far away place, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I truly believe it was one of the best learning and life experiences I have had thus far.  Since returning and deciding what is next on my life agenda, I sometimes forget the lessons and richness of the experience. However, on an interview yesterday, I was asked an interesting question. “What was the most important thing you learned during your time in Thailand? What surprised you?” I was honestly caught off guard. During my interviews I am very rarely asked a serious question about my time in Thailand. Mostly people are curious, ask me how I got there, but never what I did once I was there. Let alone what I learned.  The main focus is usually around my relevant experience prior to Thailand, in marketing, which obviously is most practical.  So I had to pause and think.  And then it all just came to me and began rolling off my tongue before I could stop it.  Reflecting on it more now, on the anniversary of my departure, this is what I learned.

Not everything is always as it seems.

I have found most of my life I usually have preconceived notions of how things will go. Expectations, either high or low, usually mapped out in my brain before visiting somewhere new, meeting new people, visiting somewhere or even when I went off to college. I have a picture or map, planned out in my mind. Probably because of my constant need to plan and organize things. Well, that road map, picture, and idea of what my life would be like in Thailand was quickly thrown out the window. Nothing could have prepared me for the people, places or things I did and learned while there. It is the type of place that really takes all of your preconceived notions and turns them upside down, but in the most wonderful way. Whether it was my day-to-day life, teaching the kids, traveling, or the friends I made,  I always pleasantly (and sometimes not to pleasantly) surprised by the outcome. And for someone like myself, who relishes in control, productivity, and a sense of “how things should be” it was an eye opening and really helped me to let my guard down, not jump to conclusions, and take things as they come.

Slow down and let go.

It is very difficult, especially in your day to day life in the US, to just stop for a second and really take in what’s around you. I have always  struggled with that.  There is always something to do, somewhere to go, someone to see, something to buy, somewhere to eat, or another activity to keep your days, weeks and months chugging along. In Southeast Asia it is very, very different. There isn’t a sense of urgency. Besides the traffic. Especially while traveling. It is perfectly acceptable to let days roll by while you enjoy your surroundings. Coming from a family and culture where there is a need to get the most of your time and experience anywhere, see the most things, take the most pictures, meet as many people as possible, that was difficult. But I quickly learned there wasn’t always a set schedule for the bus, and the trains rarely left on time, and you will get there when you get there. This forced me, whether I wanted to or not, to learn how to let things go, slow down (mostly because at times even if I wanted to get somewhere there were 5 obstacles in my way) and just enjoy the scenery.

To be fearful is not a weakness but an opportunity.

My time in Thailand and Southeast Asia came with a lot of uncertainty and at times, fear. Not the dangerous fear, the kind where your life is at stake. But the fear of the unknown. Before going to Thailand I had never taught. And suddenly I was a teacher. To 105 fourth grade students. With not a whole lot of guidance on how to do so. It was terrifying. But you take it day by day. You mess up. Sometimes you get it right. And it gets easier.  The students, teachers, and friends make it easier. And the students at the end of the day, don’t know you’re afraid. All they want to do is love you and learn from you and their open-hearted acceptance makes you become a better teacher than you thought you could be.  To do things that scare you will help you learn more than you could imagine. As long as it’s safe of course.

Before Thailand I had never really traveled alone, besides on business. But that didn’t really count. I had the opportunity for a few short trips to stake out on my own and enjoy the solitude and anxiety that it can bring. And it was wonderful. Although it can be intimidating and even scary, especially for a young woman, if you are smart and smile you would be amazed at the people and places you will see and meet along the way. Traveling alone opens up a whole different door and road for experiencing things differently.  I believe forces you to meet people and be more open to experiences you may not be open to if you were with a group of friends. On those short solo trips I met many strangers with amazing stories from around the world, I was approached by locals to dance in the park, to offer advice, and hear their stories. I was able to map out my day as I saw fit and see what I wanted to see.  What it scary? Yes. Intimidating? Definetely.  But boy was it worth it.

I know it sounds cliche but I cannot help but believe it to be so true, do something that scares you. 

In conclusion…

I cannot be grateful enough for my time in Southeast Asia and the people and experiences that came with it. There was such a richness around the whole experience and it is safe to say I have left a piece of my heart in all of the places I visited, with my students and with all the people I met along the way.  And one last thing I learned that I never thought I would truly understand – the importance of packing light. You would be amazed at how far you can go without everything you own.  Take that as you will.

Family Matters: BKK, Ayutthaya, Railay Beach

April 4-13, 2013

Everyone knows Thailand is a hot place. A hot, humid, place. I was fortunate enough to spend most of my time there during “winter”. Which means the kids wear sweatshirts because its 80-90 degrees with a lower dew point as compared to 100 degrees and 100% humidity.  For those who are unfamiliar, there are three seasons in Thailand: Summer, Winter, Rainy. In central Thailand winter is usually like December-January/February and starting in March the summer creeps up on you. Then I think around May is when rainy season starts and goes until what in America we consider Fall. Rainy season however is really just spouts of heavy, monsoon like rain about once a day. It’s not like Seattle where its misty and rainy a lot. It rains really hard for like an hour then stops.

My Dad snapped this shot in Railay

My Dad snapped this shot in Railay

Okay enough Thailand Weather 101- back to the real purpose of this post: my parents visiting in the height of Thai summer. There is nothing else in the world that will test the love and dedication of a family like 100 degrees in a hot, smelly, humid city that you are expected to tour around. That’s the definition of a mother/father’s love. So I was truly lucky to have my parents come visit me during one of Thailand’s hottest months: April. Because they were only going to be there for about 10 days I knew I had to keep the schedule packed for my curious/wanderlusting father, while balancing the sanity and enjoyment of my mother. And I had to ensure they didn’t die of heatstroke. I was ready for the challenge.

Being my parents were part of my final tour, I had gotten most of my Thai travel ninja skills down. I had tested tours, all modes of transportation, seen many places and heard from my other well traveled friends the places that I must see before leaving Thailand or dying. So I decided to keep it simple: Bangkok for a day of adjustment, Ayutthaya because I hadn’t been there yet and to see Thailand’s previous capital, back to Bangkok for a tour and then down south to a place I had heard marvelous things about, Railay Beach in Krabi. It was jammed, it was packed, but I knew my parents could handle it. Plus they owed me for 25 years of dragging me through hell and high water on our family “vacations” (aka boot camps through Gettysburg reinactments, Disney World, Bermuda, and god knows where else).

Being I am pretty sure I have a slight case of OCD and really thoroughly enjoy planning and traveling I put together the below itinerary/schedule to keep us on the same page and on track. I am sharing this in hopes it may help someone else looking to travel for a shorter time period to Thailand and in the off chance they would like to hire me as their personal guide/trip planner. I am available.

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The bread and butter. Please, hold your applause.

So now that the cats out of the bag- that I am crazy- and you know almost every detail of my trip, let me review the highlights and put some color around this crazy table.

As I think I may have mentioned, it was hot. When it is hot in Thailand it is super important you get an early start on your day, wear dry fit clothing, and bring a lot of money for water. My parents packed perfectly. Loose, North Face, quick dry shirts, comfortable shorts and shoes. They were ready. And excited. One of the most exciting things was to hear my mom keep saying “I can’t believe I am here! Who would have thought I would ever go to THAILAND in my life?!?! At 60! This is incredible!” Sharing those experiences with friends and family is really what makes traveling so great.

In front of Temple of Dawn

In front of Temple of Dawn

One our first day in BKK we did the usual sights, on our own: Wat Arun, Reclining Buddha, took a walk through the flower market, where my dad made us stop every two seconds to video tape or take a picture, we took the river ferry and I introduced them to the wonderful Bangkok sky train system. From there we went to another sight I had yet to see- the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American who moved to Thailand in the 1950’s and 1960’s and put Thailand on the map in the west for their silk. And he is also famous for vanishing during his career, no one knows what happened to him. His home and collections have been preserved in Bangkok and you get to do a brief tour of his house, which is in the famous Teak style. It is absolutely beautiful and definetely worth checking out, he has a cool story. My mom really enjoyed it.

Silk at Jim Thompsons House

Silk at Jim Thompsons House

The next day we were off to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Bangkok. I decided it would be nice to take a train, something different and scenic. As is customary with Thai transporation, it was about an hour late. Maybe more. My dad was not pleased. However, we got there, stayed at one of the most highly recommended guest houses in town: Promtong Mansion. The woman who owns it is so sweet and helpful and will help you book anything. It was a great place for a short stay. We did make the mistake of the first day renting bicycles, in the heat, and I am pretty sure we almost died. During our trip we were each given the opportunity to have a breakdown or just not have a good day, I think that was my Dad’s. We didn’t really know where we were going except to see a lot of ruins and temples, it was SO hot (he had been the one months prior to address the issues that could arises with coming in April, I assured him it couldn’t get THAT much hotter. I was wrong.) So our bike ride enjoyment was short lived.

Typical.

Typical.

That evening we did do a little river tour though, on this little wood boat, which I was sure we would sink, and that was a kind of cool tour that was really cheap, like $6 a person for a couple hours. You stopped at 3 or 4 temples on the river and saw a “mini Angkor Wat” at sunset. It was a bit hazy so no real sunset but it was still something different and a bit cooler.

Mini Angkor on our river trip

Mini Angkor on our river trip

The next day we did a decided to do a tour of a really big Wat/ruins that were pretty cool and check out the Floating Market. It was a good day, not being on a bike at noon was a good choice. The temple was really cool, my dad took some really good pictures of some little boy monks and got to get his meditation on. The floating market was a bit kitschy but fun and we were able to start picking up some souveniors for friends back home. The piece de resistance was two fold: the live performance/enactment of battle of what I think was the Burmese and Thai’s and the fish spa.  My mom and I didn’t stick around too long for the enactment, it was very loud, crowded and violent. And one of the soldiers kept trying to scare me, it was weird. That’s what caused us to wander to the fish spa. Which is where you sit on bench, stick your feet in a bucket of water filled with those little “doctor fish” and they seize your feet and eat the dead skin.

Fish spa!

Fish spa!

It was SO weird. I shrieked when I put my feet in and they swarmed. But it doesn’t hurt and is relatively harmless, just tickle. It’s worth a try. While waiting for my dad we sat their looking for him and trying not to squirm. He found us and obviously wanted to try. He then struck up what felt like a 5 hour conversation with the owner, an Englishman who had retired and moved to Thailand and opened this with his Thai wife. Dad got his information incase he decides fish spas were always his life long dream and opens one in NJ.

At the end of our exciting day in Ayutthaya we opted to take my old faithful form of transport back to BKK: a minivan. It was good for my parents to experience my preferred mode of transportation and the love/hate relationship we had developed. It was a breeze, we made it back lickety-split and settled into U-Place, a recently opened guest house/serviced apartment I found during my research. It had a pool, clean beds and fit the bill because it was near Khao San Road, which I was eager to show them. We went for a swim, hung out, and then walked down to Khao San Road, which as usual, was pulsing. It was pretty hot that night though and waiting on my dad to video everything he saw got a bit annoying after a while so we didn’t last long. Plus we had an early tour with Tours with Tong and our trusty guide Gin. Which was fantastic. Again a long day and a bunch of things to see, she took them to the Grand Palace while I waited in a coffee shop and then we went to the Marble Temple and Chinatown. Both of which I hadn’t really seen yet. Her English was great, she was funny and got my parents. And took us everywhere we needed to be before our flight to Krabi that evening. At the last temple we went to, the Marble Temple (I think), we were fortunate enough to see a young monk being ordained. Which I had never seen before. He was dressed in white and his friends and family were there to see it all go down. At the beginning of the ceremony, he stands on the front steps of the temple and throws blessed 10 Baht coins to everyone. That was really cool because we were there for it. The crowd scrambled for the coins as Gin explained the customs to us and a nice Thai gentleman handed us some of the coins he had picked up. It was a very special right place/right time moment that I am glad I got to experience.

At the grand palace

At the grand palace

At the end of our day, we bid Gin farewell, gathered our things and went to the airport to get an Air Asia flight to Krabi, where we would then take a taxi and a long tail boat to Railay Beach. The place I had been waiting for. A couple of things I learned in my research about Railay for those who are interested in going. For one, it is what some may call a “hidden gem” as far as beaches in Thailand go. As it seems to be the case, when a pretty place is discovered in Southeast Asia, it is immediately seized upon, buildings are built, construction constructed, and little or no city/environmental planning takes place. I can see this happening in Railay. Broken into three sections, West, East, Tonsai, and Phra Nang, there is more and more building there everyday. In fact, on our second day there a huge tanker thing pulled up right smack in the middle of the beach and set up shop for some sort of construction. It’s sad really. Needless to say, as far as Thai vacation spots go, this is still one of the least developed I had seen. It’s quiet, quaint, relaxed and has a charm and character beyond most of the places I have visited in my travels, around the world. It’s a bit of a hike to get there, but if your looking for a relaxing, breathtaking, getaway, GO. And don’t tell anyone. Or else it will get crowded. I should probably delete this post immediately.

View from East Railay viewpoint!

View from East Railay viewpoint!

So as mentioned, to get to Railay can be a bit of a trip. First get to Krabi. Krabi airport or Krabi town. From there, you take a taxi to the pier, I don’t know what it’s called, and then take a longtail boat to either East or West Railay. Probably East Railay because that’s where most the accomodations are. We stayed at Sunrise Tropical, which I do recommend. It’s in a great location and is reasonably priced for a resort. It’s kind of the middle road of accomodations there. It’s a 5-10 minute walk from Phra Nang Cave/Beach and 5 minute walk to West Railay and 5 minute walk all the way to the other end of East Railay where bars and restaurants are. So it’s perfect. They also offered us the option of combined cab/longtail transport for like $15/person and it was totally worth it.

Another note: the tides in Railay are crazy. As I mentioned, most of the building is on East Railay, which is not a beach, but mangroves. The tide goes in and out of here like CRAZY. The best time to arrive is early in the morning or late at night when the tide is in. When the tide goes out, you and your luggage have to walk across the mangroves and sand and dirt to the longtail boat. These people look ridiculous and uncomfortable. At lunch one day my dad aptly noted they looked like refugees. It was true.

Sunset on West Railay. The tide coming back in a bit.

Sunset on West Railay. The tide coming back in a bit.

Okay enough details! Lets get to the good stuff…the beach. Go for the beach. It is so calm and beautiful and the landscape and back drop is insane. Really unlike anywhere I had ever been. Phra Nang Cave and beach is what I think is ranked one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And it is. It’s breathtaking. Whats different about these beaches is that they are not commercialized yet. No chairs, no food stalls or hawkers. Just you, your towel, and the sand thats as fine as confectionary sugar. Which can be annoying because it’s difficult to get off. Vacation problems. There are a few longtail boats that have made themselves snack stands, but since there really isn’t anywhere to get food on Phra Nang beach, its okay, and I think part of the character. You can rent kayaks in West Railay for about $6-7 an hour and kayak from there to Phra Nang and around the krags. My mother and I did that one day and it was really cool.

Phra Nang Beach. Looks like a postcard

Phra Nang Beach. Looks like a postcard

As I mentioned in my Mother’s Day post, there are viewpoints you can hike up, one in between East Railay and Phra Nang Beach and one at the end of Phra Nang Beach. We did the latter with my dad. This led to a bat cave. It was pretty cool but also kind of scary. But gave you a cut out view of the beach which was really cool and I have in the gallery below. We also met some rock climbers along the way, this place is HUGE for rock climbing, and you can take classes there. For our 3 days and 4 nights there we went to the beach, explored, kayaked, my dad went scuba diving, we got a massage and did some shopping. As I mentioned, its just a tranquil, beautiful, relaxing place. Oh and on our last day we rented a longtail boat for a few hours to go out to the other islands near by: Chicken and Poda. Which was cool. There was literally  no one on them at the end of the day. Except this little girl. Tell me this isn’t the best picture you’ve ever seen?

She was supervised by parents, I swear.

She was supervised by parents, I swear.

And on our last night we were afforded an incredible sunset. It was really great. I think that was one of my favorite times in Thailand and one of my favorite places in the world. It was just so different, so beautiful, and to share this incredible unheard of place with my parents was really, really cool. They loved it.

We left Railay to venture back to my Thai hometown of Chonburi, just in time for Songkran, the Thai New Year festival. To give you a synopsis and the real information, I googled Songran:

Songkran is a Thai traditional New Year which starts on April 13 every year and lasts for 3 days.  Songkran festival on April 13 is Maha Songkran Day or the day to mark the end of the old year, April 14 is Wan Nao which is the day after and April 15 is Wan Thaloeng Sok which the New Year begins.
Songkran means “movement” or “changing” since according to Thai astrology, the sun will move into a new sign of the Zodiac on this day.  Songkran is also called the “Water Festival”.  Water is believed to flow and wash away all bad omens during this time.  Thus, it is a time for cleaning; houses, villages, temples and spirit houses.

Girl on Songkran. Photocred to my dad

Girl on Songkran. Photocred to my dad

So we went back home for a big water fight. The biggest water fight in the world. I opted for us to stay in Bang Saen, the beach town about 20 minutes down the road from my school because it is a bit more scenic, has more hotel options, and gives a serious comparison to Railay. They loved it. My mom was excited to see where I lived and taught. I think it assured her that I had been safe and sound the past few months. My dad thought it was great because we were hanging with the locals, in the “Seaside Heights of Thailand”. Our first night we had a good dinner, did karaoke with about 4 other Thai people at a bar and tucked in to get ready for the big day.

Songkran festival in Bang Saen. Faceoff

Songkran festival in Bang Saen. Faceoff

Nothing could prepare us for it. Pick up trucks lined the entire street and rolled in along the beachside road with buckets of water and people and water guns. It was nuts! Music blaring, water splashing, kids laughing, older people dancing…interestingly. It was insane. As westerners the Thai people would hesitate but squirt us none the less. And put clay on our faces. Which was actually pretty cool. We ventured down to my town to see a parade rolling on through and I showed them my school, apartment, and where my market was. My market had transformed into a carnival and street fair and my family was very impressed, to say the least. I couldn’t really get them to understand it NEVER looked like that.

The festival was great and I am so glad we got to experience it. My mom left that day, in the nick of time I think, because at night it just got crazy. Besides being a beautiful, fun, different festival, its dangerous. It has become a drinking fest and the Bangkok Post literally does a death count daily of accident and incidents from the drinking and driving. That part was scary. But all in all good.

We were clayed and cleansed by my school in Chonburi

We were clayed and cleansed by my school in Chonburi

And from there my mom went home and my Dad and I went on to Vietnam! It was a whirlwind trip. In about 10 days I did more with them than all of my visitors combined and they were such troopers. I am so lucky to have been able to share Thailand with them and show them the place I had called home for six months. To many more family adventures! Check out the gallery below for more pictures.