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.

Do’s and Don’t while visiting Thailand

My friends Kristen and Allison recently came to visit and have come up with some tips and tricks you should know while visiting Thailand, especially with me. Some helpful…some anecdotal…Enjoy!

    1. You think you know heat, you don’t. No need to ever shower.

    2. Do not over estimate what you can handle on the 1-10 Thai Spicy scale

    3. Asking for an extra cot may mean bed to many of you, but if you ask for one in Thailand you will get a crib.

    4. When riding a rowdy elephant don’t assume that he remembers you are on his back and knows he will not fit under a pavilion with you on him. If this does happen, it is great opportunity to practice your limbo skills, but your hat may not make it.

    5. Baby elephants are attracted to printed pants, and they will try to eat them. And you. Additionally, baby elephants also like to cuddle and will try to sit on your lap. They are not light animals.

    6. Tuc-Tuc drivers seem friendly and offer a cheap ride, but make sure that your destination is not an hour long joy-ride for them. Do not give them free rain to choose your destination.

    7. Know that Alicia’s beloved Hong Thong sounds better the night before than it does the day after on the back of a boat that smells like diesel fuel.

    8. If you find yourself dancing in the 100 degree weather, next to fire dancers double dutching flamed ropes, dunking your head in the ocean provides a quick cool off.

    9. Going along with number 6, even if your Chang beer is free it’s also a better idea the night before. And definitely don’t mix the two.

    10. BYOT (toliet paper). Always!

    11. If you order non-thai food, be prepared to wait… awhile.

    a. Also don’t expect to all eat at the same time, meals come out at their leisure.

    12. Overnight trains (and most transportation) also arrives/depart at their own leisure.

    13. On Mondays, we wear yellow. On Tuesdays, we wear purple. On Wednesdays– HAWAIIAN! (shout out to pierce/ryan–loved this).

    14. Save your most luxurious night for the last night, you won’t regret it!

    15. 7-11 are life savers (and air conditioned).

    16. There are SO MANY Buddhas and Temples.

    17. The sun is always lot stronger than you think.

    18. Goodbyes still stink in Thailand.

In conclusion: All you really need to survive in Thailand is a ham and cheese toasty from Seven Eleven. America get on Thailand’s level!

Kristen and Allison are two twenty something girls working in Boston and New York, respectively. They have great sense of style and love to travel. They put up with me for four years of college and visited me on the other side of the world so I think they are pretty great. They are both single so of you are interested, let me know 😉

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Farangin’ Around: CM, Koh Phi Phi & Phuket

As mentioned in my previous post, I have been extremely lucky enough to have many visitors during my time here. The latest addition to my American companions was two of my wonderful friends, Kristen and Allison, my roommates from college.

Kristen and Allison deciding to visit gave me the opportunity to explore this country in a completely different way: the eyes of an American, vacationing,  tourist. Gone were the days of unorganized travel, weary modes of transportation, and haggard hostels. We were going to do this and do it right! The three of us laid out the perfect visitors itinerary for their 2 week trip: Bangkok for a bit, Chiang Mai for some elephants, Phuket and Koh Phi Phi for paradise. The perfect taste of Thailand.

They arrived at midnight on St. Patrick’s Day ready to go after a wonderful flight with a middle school trip from Greenwich, CT. We stayed in Bangkok that night with the idea of walking early to do a tour of Bangkok. Get all the bases covered and over with so we could take our night train to Chiang Mai the next day. With the help of Tong’s Tours we able to explore all the temples and Grand Palace and give the girls a taste of Thailand’s extreme heat. I know I have said it countless times, but it has gotten even hotter than I ever thought possible. I would trade places with Hansel and Gretel any day because at least the oven is a dry heat. In Bangkok, the heat is oppressive (Mom and Dad, you’re just going to love it !) Heat exhaustion aside, we did the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Wat Pho, the Flower Market and Khao San all in a few hours time. It was a tough day but nice to know they had covered it all.

Girls climbing up Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn

Girls climbing up Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn

That evening we took an overnight train to Chiang Mai, one of my favorite places I have visited thus far. Chiang Mai is a quainter, cleaner, bikeable city in northern Thailand that is riddled with temples, tigers and elephants. We had first class sleepers in the overnight train and it was pretty enjoyable. Very Some Like It Hot, ladyboys included. Just kidding, no ladyboys. We left at 6PM on Monday night and were supposed to arrive 8:45AM Tuesday. We got in around 11AM, but considering what travel is like most of the time, I thought that was pretty good. We checked into the hostel I stayed in last time I was here, 60 Blue House, and rented bikes to give the girls a feel for the city. First we went to Dada Kafe though, one of my favorite places, for lunch. Smoothies, salads, sandwiches. The food is fresh and delicious. If you are ever in Chiang Mai you must go. They have avocado and peanut butter. If you have been in Thailand a long time you will appreciate it.

We biked to see the major temples after lunch and the girls decided almost immediately they liked CM better than crazy, crowded BKK.  They even had it in them to do the trek up to Doi Suthep, the famous mountain outside of the city with the temple on top. It’s really gorgeous and you typically get a great view of the city from there, but unfortunately, apparently in the summer months they burn a lot of dried brush and leaves so there was a haze over the city.

Blending in with the locals at Wat Doi Suthep

Blending in with the locals at Wat Doi Suthep

That evening we went to Dash! restaurant and met the lovely owner, Noi, who lived in Seattle for 9 years. Having been to Seattle for the first time just a couple years ago, we enthusiastically struck up conversation. She was a sweetheart who really cared for her food and customers and everything was great. She even set us up with a good taxi driver that wouldn’t rip us off to the airport.  Highly recommend

On our second day in Chiang Mai Kristen and Smalls decided to go to Patara Elephant Farm, which has excellent reviews and is supposed to be an amazing experience. Having already ridden elephants I decided not to go and after hearing their stories, kind of regret it. Patara is different than the normal elephant experiences. Where you get on a chair on their backs and a Thai person sits on their head and steers them around for about 30 minutes. Patara is all about elephant conservation and education. The girls were in a group of 6, each was assigned their elephant for the day. The elephants weren’t contained or chained. Before meeting the elephants they were told how to tell if an elephant is healthy and the issues with animal tourism in Thailand and the elephant issues in South East Asia.  There was a lot of information but from what I gathered from the girls is an elephant is healthy if they sweat from their toes and you squeeze their poop and water comes out or something. They checked both things on their elephants. Then rode them bareback while giving their own verbal directions in Thai. Then bathed them. All in all sounded really cool.

I instead did the complete OPPOSITE and went to the Tiger Kingdom, a tiger petting zoo of sorts outside of the city. I had heard many different opinions on the place and had read many different reviews but decided I wanted to check it out myself. At the Tiger Kingdom you can choose what age tigers you want to hang out with and take pictures with for about 15 minutes. It’s pretty expensive for Thai standards and obviously geared to tourists but for some may be worth the experience. I opted to spend 15 minutes with baby tigers (age 3-4 months) and I had to pay for a photographer since I went alone. Now, full disclosure, I am no animal activitist. At all. I have a fur coat (it’s vintage so it’s not that bad, calm down PETA). But there was something strange about this experience that unnerved me. They say they don’t drug the tigers and they may not. They are around humans all day and raised that way and are generally sleepy animals. However they kept saying “they’re just like your average house cat, sleeping and being lazy and can’t be bothered!”. Come on, if I were to poke and prod my house cat and lay on it and pull it’s tail while it was sleeping, it would probably claw my face off. These tigers didn’t budge. There were a few that were up and I got some pictures with, but most of my photos were taken with eerily sleeping tigers as the Thai photographer told me to do things with it. Anyway, to each their own, but I wouldn’t tell anyone it was a must see attraction. I did get some cool pictures though.

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The following day we did a cooking class, Asia Scenic, which was a lot of fun and really cool. We each got to pick 3 things to make, an appetizer, stir fry and curry. I kind of wished I had done one of these when I first got here so I knew what I have been eating for the last few months! It all makes sense now! The spices, flavors, chills, it was really cool. Food was delicious as well. Highly recommend.

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After Chiang Mai we headed south for some beach time! We went to probably the most popular places in Thailand after Bangkok, Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. Phuket is the largest island in Thailand and has a huge tourist population and Koh Phi Phi is famous because that’s the area the movie The Beach was filmed and it is a gorgeous island. Pictures do not do it justice. I don’t want to bore you with the amazing beaches, food, cocktails, and coconuts. I will just tell you we had a great time and it was so nice to feel like I was on a real vacation. I understand what all of the hype is about and why these places are so popular- really, truly paradise on earth. Especially Phi Phi. In Phi Phi we stayed at Paradise Pearl Bungalows, a nice little resort on the quieter beach, Long Beach. Food was good and reasonable, rooms were fine. It’s a decent price for how touristy it is there. In Phuket we stayed in the area of Surin Beach, which is a little away from Pathong, where the craziness is and has some great beaches and restaurants and a cool beach club called, Catch. We stayed in a nice little place called Pen Villa. I would recommend either to anyone making the journey.

Koh Phi Phi Long Tail Boat

Koh Phi Phi Long Tail Boat

After being beach bums we flew back to Bangkok via Air Asia (one of the few seamless journeys to date!) and decided to treat ourselves (as if we hadn’t been all week) to a one night stay at lebua at State Tower, the hotel made famous for where Hangover II had been filmed, at the Sky Bar restaurant. It was a gorgeous hotel and we found a deal to stay in a suite and it was awesome. It was really reasonable for US standards. That same hotel in Manhattan would be like $500 a night. It was the perfect ending to our vacation.

Last night at Sky Bar!

Last night at Sky Bar!

On the last day we traveled around to get Allison and Kristen some last minute souvenirs and introduce them to the glorious mall culture of Bangkok. They were thoroughly impressed with Siam Center and all it has to offer, specifically, it’s air conditioning. In the evening we unfortunately had to say our goodbyes, I had to catch the last bus back to good old Chonburi. Each of my visitors has had a different trip, experience, and journey. From my brother and our college backpacking, to Dylon and our mix of Thai town and Thai tourism and travel, to the girls and our perfect little Thai vacation. However, the goodbyes never get easier. Each time I see someone I love leave and a part of me is silently screaming “Take me with you!”.

And here I am. My last night in my apartment in good old Chonburi. I have done 20 tons of smelly laundry from 12 days of travel and  compartmentalized my extra belongings to pass on to the next Teacha fortunate enough to have this experience. Tomorrow, Holy Saturday, I will go to Bangkok to meet my friend Esther and her mother for an Easter Vigil in Bangkok and an early birthday celebration for Esther and bunk with them until I leave early Sunday morning for Cambodia. As Easter Sunday rises I will be flying across borders for my first visit outside of the country in 5 months, which is pretty crazy. I will be lucky enough to have a very special Easter watching the sunset over Angkor Wat and share the experience with my former boss and his lovely wife. It should make for a memorable holiday.

I can’t wait for Cambodia but I think I am even more excited for what comes after, MY PARENTS. This has probably been the longest I have gone in my life without seeing either of them. This time of transitioning and packing up and leaving is very surreal, strange and unnerving, and makes me quite homesick, but knowing I will see them oh-so-soon is helping get me through.

Then I think about finishing off the trip with my father in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, one of the craziest, most overwhelming places on earth and that little voice says “Take me with you!” all over again.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Easter weekend and has had a wonderfully unleavened Passover! Mazel!

P.S. After reading Dylon’s wonderful post about his journey here, Kristen and Allison have decided they want to contribute as well. They were fearful their writing styles would not be snuff or that they would not be as witty as me (I am very witty), so they decided to take a different approach, “Do’s and Don’ts of traveling in Thailand” or something along those lines. Stay tuned. Kristen and Smalls now that I have written this there is no backing out now, give the people what they want!

Wish lanterns on the beach!

Wish lanterns on the beach!

Thailand: What to know before you go.

I have been extremely fortunate to have many visitors during my time here in Thailand. So many that you would think I was teaching in Texas as opposed to on the other side of the world. I can’t get this many people to hang out with me when I am in America, but I move to 8,000 miles away and I am as popular as can be. I have realized it may have something to do with this amazing country I am living in. Thailand has become a global hot spot. So hot in fact, it was featured on The Bachelor season finale. Watch out Southeast Asia. You have arrived.

As The Bachelor season finale aired my friends were messaging me, “They’re in Thailand! They’re in Thailand!”. “Where?” I would ask. The response was overwhelmingly, “I told you, Thailand?” As people come to visit me and Thailand becomes increasingly more popular back West, I have realized something. Like myself, before coming here, most people know nothing about this amazing place. Being that my time here is quickly coming to a close, I would like to recap some hard and fast facts about this incredible, booming country. Allow me to introduce, Amazing Thailand.

Size does matter.

For starters, Thailand is roughly the size of Texas. Which means it’s a lot bigger and harder to get around than I had originally anticipated. Before I came here I had visions of me frolicking all over the place, beach one day, mountains the other, hop over the border to Cambodia, maybe a weekend trip to Vietnam. That is not how things work here. Ignorance is bliss.

Map of Thailand. It's bigger than ya think.

Map of Thailand. It’s bigger than ya think.

Getting around this country is easy yet extremely difficult. Flying is cheap, trains are cheap, vans and buses are cheap. Almost everywhere is connected by many forms of transportation. However, getting almost everywhere takes forever and a day it feels like. As recounted in my previous blog posts. I still don’t understand exactly why. But no trip is ever the same and it is rarely seamless. And because the country is bigger than anticipated, if you visit for 2 weeks, you will only touch the surface. The most popular destinations are Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. As you can see above, one is north, one is in the middle and one is south. Chiang Mai is a 12 hour bus or train from BKK as is Phuket. Or an hour flight. Hell, I’ve been here 4 months and feel like I have barely touched the surface. I will leave this place not seeing every place I would have liked but I have come to terms with it. This country has so much to offer and so much beauty just seeing a fraction of it was worth it. And better than nothing!

Boom, boom, boom.

Goes the economy. Thailand is growing. Fast. After devastating flooding in 2011 that really put a damper on development (no pun intended) Thailand is back on it’s feet and running, no, sprinting ahead. This article on CNN Money really paints the picture in big, smart, financial terms better than I can (Marketing major, remember?).  Apparently the government reported GDP grew almost 19% year over year. If I remember anything from Econ, it’s that GDP is important. And it stands for Gross Domestic Product. Look at me Mom and Dad! That Bachelor’s sure was worth it!

You can see it everywhere, the growth. The move from street meat to restaurants, lots of plastic bags, processed foods, lots of construction. Lots of growth. Yet, still the slow adaption of toilet paper. And cheese. Two necessities in any developed country.

Another exciting and interesting aspect of their development is this new fancy acronym I learned about when I got here: ASEAN. ASEAN stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It’s a really smart move that I think Singapore came up with? Not sure. I just know Singapore is the future and anything they say goes. As per usual, I will copy and paste an excerpt from Wikipedia to give an overview of ASEAN.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations[5] (ASEAN pron.: /ˈɑːsi.ɑːn/ ah-see-ahn,[6] rarely /ˈɑːzi.ɑːn/ ah-zee-ahn)[7][8] is a geo-political and economic organization of ten countries located in Southeast Asia, which was formed on 8 August 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.[9] Since then, membership has expanded to include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Its aims include accelerating economic growth, social progress, cultural development among its members, protection of regional peace and stability, and opportunities for member countries to discuss differences peacefully.[10]
ASEAN covers a land area of 4.46 million km², which is 3% of the total land area of Earth, and has a population of approximately 600 million people, which is 8.8% of the world’s population. The sea area of ASEAN is about three times larger than its land counterpart. In 2011, its combined nominal GDP had grown to US$ 2 trillion.[11] If ASEAN were a single entity, it would rank as the ninth largest economy in the world.

I always ask teachers and other Thai people what they think of ASEAN, what it means to them, to try and get a better perspective on it.

Some things I have learned:

  1. It’s kind of like the EU
  2. It will really kick off in 2015 from what I understand, like certain rules will be in place and official by then. You hear many things like “By 2015…” around here. Like everyone needs to be good at English by then or something. It’s the official language.
  3. The only “rules” I’ve heard of is that all students will be on the same school calendar starting in 2015 and they will folow Singapore’s calendar. School will start in June instead of May. Making it easier for students to go to schools in other countries in ASEAN.
  4. Like the EU, if you are a citizen of an ASEAN country, you will no longer need a visa to travel from country to country.
  5. It makes trade and development easier. Like a Thai teacher friend explained that her boyfriend is an Engineer and his company was able to go bid and win a huge project in Laos because of ASEAN. There is probably more to this but having economic discussions in broken English is difficult.
  6. No one I have asked has been able to confirm if there is going to be a currency like the Euro, but I imagine someday there will be?
  7. I obviously need to do more research.
ASEAN Member Countries. I think.

ASEAN Member Countries. I think.

ASEAN is all the rage here. School talks about it a lot. And the kids dress up like it A LOT. Mostly the kindergarten. I had to judge a Mr. & Mrs. ASEAN 2012 competition. It looked like a Thai version of Toddlers in Tiaras. But it’s impressive because most of these 5 year olds can tell you all the countries in ASEAN and I cannot.

Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

Back to the basics. Water. You cannot drink the tap water in Thailand. I have heard mixed reviews as to why this is. Somewhere along the way I heard it’s not the bacteria etc. that you encounter in places like Mexico and India, but more the fact that there are too many toxins or chemicals in it and that’s why even locals can’t drink it? Not really sure. Either way, no one drinks it. However it’s fine for bathing, washing dishes, food, and brushing your teeth. I have ingested some I am sure this way and I am fine.

So everyone drinks bottled water and makes ice out of filtered water. Any water and ice you are served in restaurants is made from filtered water and is safe. Which is why you always have to pay for ice, always, which is annoying. And no free refills. I miss that a lot. I like to drink a lot of water at meals.

But water is cheap and abundant. They have water filter machines everywhere that you can fill up a large water bottle with for 1 baht. Like they have one in my apartment building. I refill tons of water bottles and am good to go.

Sample water station

Sample water station

Thank heaven for 7-11.

7-11 rules Thailand with an iron fist. It has anything and everything you could ever want and is on every corner. It becomes any foreigners best friend while traveling. If you are too scared to try the food here (don’t be) or just want a Thai beer (do be), 7-11 is your godsend. I have encountered so many different packaged goods and snacks here. Some very interesting. From crab and mayo filled buns to a red bean roll, you’ll find something to satisfy your craving. There’s also obviously normal food. And cup of noodles. And microwavable dumplings. Never thought 7-11 would be my late night spot but when in a pinch, it does the trick. And you can get minutes for your cell phone here. And I think pay bills? It’s an oasis with AC in a lawless land.

This is not my local 7-11. I googled 7-11 Thailand and had about a million hits.

This is not my local 7-11. I googled 7-11 Thailand and had about a million hits.

And the knife ran away with the spoon.

But apparently the spoon came back and the knife stayed far, far away. People in Thailand do not use knives. That was an interesting adjustment. You only get a fork and a spoon when you eat out here. And the spoon is your fork. I think it’s considered rude to use the fork to put food in your mouth. You are to use the fork for cutting and moving around the food onto your spoon and you put your spoon in your mouth. Being that you eat a lot of rice here, it actually works out well, like a shovel. I read somewhere that if you use your fork for food here, it would be like trying to eat with your knife in America. I don’t think it’s that extreme. I use my fork a lot by habit and don’t really get weird looks. So many farang (foreigners) have infiltrated this country they are used to it and some places give you knives. Mostly western places.

Anyway it was interesting to get used to just having those utensils. But it works. All the kids at school had to bring their own spoon and fork to school for lunch. And they wash it everyday and keep it in their backpack. That was interesting. Going to school and not being able to eat because I didn’t have my own utensils. But they sell them in pairs at 7-11 for like 20 baht. 7-11, saves the day. Again.

It should be noted you get chopsticks when you eat noodles and soup.

Typical Thai place setting. Except that napkin would never be there. EVER.

Typical Thai place setting. Except that napkin would never be there. EVER.

Health and Wellness

Healthcare is actually pretty great here. It’s socialized and from what I hear you get sick, go to the doctor or hospital and it’s all free and you are taken really great care of. I hear if I go it’s same, same. And there are pharmacies everywhere and you can get like anything you want without a prescription.  The basics like cough medicine, allergy medicine, fever reducers, etc. But then there’s also the big stuff like birth control, pain killers, sleeping pills. I hear you can get it all, without a doctor’s note. And it’s all super cheap. Like a month’s worth of birth control pills is $3. Many girls who come here and stock up on it before going back to America.

The dentist is also really cheap. I had a friend here need to get a root canal. She went to a recommended dentist, that spoke English and I think he fixed her up for the equivalent of $100. My other friend decided to pop into this dentist we pass on the way to school and got a cleaning for 800 baht or less than $30. No appointment necessary. No insurance necessary. Pretty sweet. And no one ever seems to complain about it here. But I heard that our school’s Director needed to get surgery on his lung or something and went to the doctor and the hospital was full. That’s a disadvantage.  Anyway, not about to start that debate. Just giving the facts. If you get sick here, you can get medicine very easily and get well.  There is usually a green cross on the store, thats how you know its a pharmacy.

Pharmacy example courtesy of google

Pharmacy example courtesy of google

Know before you go.

As I have mentioned many a time, paper goods are hard to come by here. Toilet paper, paper towels. Just not a thing of importance. If you come visit Thailand you must pack little packets of tissues. And hand sanitizer. There is very rarely soap as well. Western toilets aren’t really non existant here, you can usually find one and many restaurants have them. However, you will have to use a squatter at one point or another. It’s just part of the program. It’s not that bad. Below is a squatter. That one is bad. They usually aren’t that bad.

Like I said, just pack tissues, hand sanitizer and you will be ready to go. Whenever you have to go. However, this experience has made me want to be a man more than ever.

Not one of the best.

Not one of the best.

Oh and a lot of bathrooms you have to pay for. Public ones. What’s that you say? “Not only do I have to be subjected to squatting over a porcelain hole in the ground without toilet paper, but I have to pay to use it? Blasphemy!” My thoughts exactly. But it’s only like 3-5 baht most places. So get over it.

The people…

Are amazing in Thailand. So, so amazing. Anything you’ve ever heard about them is probably true. This is the land of smiles. People are so helpful and kind and nice and usually smiling. They smile when they don’t understand you, when they are happy for you, when they are sad for you, when they are ripping you off, when they are helping you. It’s just their culture. They are kind and they know it.

I had the opportunity (and it was mandatory) to teach some of the Thai teachers at our school English this week. For a couple hours every morning. I was put with the group that were the Thai English teachers in our school’s regular program. So I didn’t have to teach them English. They knew it. So we chatted and chatted and chatted. About anything and everything. School, children, Thailand, healthcare, ASEAN, their families, favorite things, favorite places. On our third day I was asking them how to get to Si Racha, the city where the immigration office was, because I needed to check in since I have been in the country for more than 90 days. Immediately they were concerned I was going alone without a car. One of the teachers, the one with the best English who I had joked with all week, said she would take me and my friend. No questions asked. No problem. Insisted she would take us. It was so sweet. Made our lives so much easier.

I haven’t been here terribly long but those things tend to happen often. Many times Thai people go out of their way to help you, they are a kind, considerate people. I am not going to say they are all angels sent from heaven like this lady, I have gotten ripped off more times than I can count. But for the most part they are good.

This guy was our waiter on the beach one day. He was a hoot.

This guy was our waiter on the beach one day. He was a hoot.

The bad though however, is equally annoying. You will automatically get ripped off for being white here. Especially in tourist places. Our Thai friends will usually try and call and reserve a cab or car or take care of any transaction for us when they can, because they will most certainly get a better price. That gets tiring a lot. Most taxis will try and charge you a flat rate instead of turning on their meter. A taxi pulls up and you say “Meter?” and they laugh and drive away. Annoying. And they charge you 5 times what it should be. Always, always ask for a lower price. Cut the price in half and negotiate and chances are you are still getting ripped off in most transactions.

Also, although a kind and considerate people, they never, ever, ever, ever, ever, yield for you. If you are crossing the street or their driveway, they expect you to stop always, they will never stop or yield. That’s annoying. I am sick and tired of playing Frogger when crossing the street.

And lastly, sometimes they are line cutters. I have gotten cut in line at 7-11 more times than I can count. And I don’t understand that. Because they are usually so nice. And line cutting is not nice. No matter where in the world you are.

That’s all folks.

I think I covered all of the random bases. That’s all I got on Thailand. The good, the bad, the ugly. I hope this helps anyone coming to visit me or this wonderful place I have been able to call home.  I highly recommend making the journey if you are able to. It may take a while and the heat and travel may take a lot out of you but I promise, it is worth it.

Going here oh, so soon! Can't wait!

Going here oh, so soon! Can’t wait!

School’s Out For Summer…

This is it, the last day of school. I asked the kids if they knew that song, “School’s Out For Summer…” they didn’t.

I cannot believe it’s over. Between the kids taking Thai finals all week, it being the middle of March, and that it is always 90 degrees here, it doesn’t feel like the end of a school year.  Also, the kids don’t seem to be going bonkers like they do in America in June. Mostly because from what I hear they all go to summer schools and study all summer anyway. Craziness. When I asked one girl in my homeroom class what she was going to do this summer she told me she was working at a coffee shop her father’s friend owned. I asked her what she was going to be doing in a coffee shop being that she is only 10 years old. She said she didn’t know, make coffee? I think its just something her parents told her she could do to feel grown up.

Being that I am only here one semester not only is it the end of the year for me but a farewell to the kids as well. So my  Thai teacher and homeroom class decided to throw me a surprise end of year party. It was absolutely adorable. On the second to last day of class I knew something was up. The other classes were having parties and I hadn’t heard one being discussed in our room. I was really busy getting together my gradebooks and compiling these ridiculous character forms the office had us do so I didn’t think much of it.

By the afternoon, I saw food piling up outside our room which confused me. I was sitting in the back of class while the kids took a Thai final and asked one of the girls I tutor, Pimmy, (who’s the same girl who will be “working” at the coffee shop) if we were having a party for the end of the year. Pimmy, is a hoot. She sits in the back next to my desk and we frequently chat and I always ask her whats going on since I never have any idea. When I asked her, she replied “Teacha Monta say I cannot say”. Since I don’t understand the answers the kids give me 9 out of 10 times I asked her what she meant. “Teacha Monta say I cannot tell Teacha Alicia”. That’s when the cat was out of the bag. Poor honest Pimmy blew it. I vacated the premises immediately to finish my gradebooks and prevent another student from telling me what was to come.

A period later Bai Mai, the smartest, sweetest girl in the class comes into the computer lab where I am printing and stapling away. “Teacha Alicia, you come to class please?” I was with two other foreign teachers who joked with her “What about us? Just Teacher Alicia?”. Poor girl looked mortified. I told her I would be there in a minute.

When I got to class the room was set up in two long tables, one for boys, one for girls with a ridiculous spread of food considering we had just eaten lunch. When I walked in Teacher Monta gave the cue and in unison all of my little nuggets said “TEACHA ALICIA WE HAVE SOMETHING TO TELL YOU!”  “Yes?” I said laughing. “TEACHA ALICIA WE LOVE YOU!”. That’s when I almost lost it. It was the cutest, sweetest thing ever.

But it didn’t stop there.

Teacher Monta had had each student cut out a paper pink heart and write something about me. Then they each individually brought it up to me and read it aloud and gave it to me as some song from Glee serenaded us in the background. My heart literally melted. And burst. At the same time. It melted as their sweet little faces came up to me, smiling, excited to read what they wrote. Their short, sweet, broken English messages melted my heart. Then hearing them all reading without hesitation, what they wrote in English, about me and class, with pride, pronouncing everything well and albeit some of it was grammatically incorrect, most of it was outstanding. My heart burst with pride at what they were capable of and it made me realize they may have actually been listening these past 4 months.

The hearts my homeroom made me :)

The hearts my homeroom made me 🙂

From there we feasted and took tons of pictures (my Thai teacher lovesss taking pictures) and listened to music. And ate. And ate. Teacher Monta even had one of the students make a dish I had really liked during our Christmas party because she remembered I liked it. I was literally being killed with kindness. My Thai teacher is an amazing lady who always tries and look out for me. Her class is so well behaved and she is so respected by the students, faculty and parents. She is quiet the lady and it is amazing how someone I can barely communicate with has become someone who really inspired me to be as good a teacher as she is and become a role model.

Teacher Monta and I on the last day

Teacher Monta and I on the last day

Overall, these past four months haven’t been an easy ride by any means. The lack of direction from supervisors, last minute changes all the time, the difference in education system and my lack of teaching experience all contributed to making this job one of the hardest, most frustrating experiences of my life. But the work was also so rewarding. A kid having a break through, doing well on a test, asking me a question or using a big vocabulary word in passing. Those were wins. It was the highest of highs and some pretty low lows. In the beginning I thought I would sink, not swim. I kept telling myself I would just try and get by, this wasn’t my career, and just to get through the weeks and lessons. But you adapt, and build relationships with the kids and the teachers. And it becomes easier. Enjoyable even :). And then there’s moments like yesterday, having all the kids be so excited to surprise me and read what they wrote reminded me why I decided to do this experience and what makes the profession so worth while: the kids. The politics of the school, the paperwork, the headaches, its really all to help make sure these little guys can someday travel to an English speaking country and hold their own. Or meet an American at a bar later in life and tell them they know all the words to “Fifty Nifty United States”. Whichever comes first.  And the fact that they can now tell me something “makes sense” when they had no idea what that meant when I showed up. Or that they can now say they have a new friend in America because of the pen pal program.

All in all, that made it worth it.

Goofing around

Goofing around

Next week I will still be in Chonburi attending meetings, teaching Thai teachers how to teach English (God help me) and packing up my things. Now that I am done teaching I have the opportunity to see a bit more of the country and southeast Asia and have a few more visitors along the way before returning state side. The next month and a half will be crazy but I am excited for it. The agenda is as follows:

March 17-28: My college roommates will visit and we will go to Chiang Mai and then down south to Phuket and Koh Phi Phi.

March 28-30: Return to Chonburi to finishing moving out of my apartment and do some laundry.

March 31: Fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia to meet up with my former boss and his wife and see the infamous Angkor Wat. Photobomb all of their family photos.

April 2: Continue on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on my own to visit the Killing Fields. Maybe by the time I get there I will know how to spell it without googling.

April 4: Fly back to BKK to meet my parents. The Buksar’s take Bangkok!

April 4-13: Travel to Ayutthya and then south to Krabi to escape the heat.

April 13: Drop my mom off at the airport to return to America.

April 14: Fly to Saigon with my dad and do Ho Chi Minh City/Mekong Delta for a few days

April 18: Dad goes back to America (fingers crossed)

April 18-23: I fly north to Hanoi, Vietnam to meet up with friends and visit Haylong Bay.

April 23: Fly back to Bangkok because Delta told me it would be $3000 (basically all the money I’ve made while here) to change my city of departure.

April 24: Fly out of BKK

April 25: Back in the good ole US of A.

This will be the first time since high school, probably, where I haven’t had some sort of job. Since starting college I was always working somehow either lifeguarding, babysitting, camp counseling, internships, work study, etc. Then less than a month after graduation I was working full-time right up until I left to come here. So it will be interesting to not have any work related responsibility to worry about. Just how I am getting from Point A to Point B (which is a job in and of itself here).

Time for the next chapter.

The City of Brotherly Love: Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi, in Thai, roughly translates to the City of Brotherly love. I’m just kidding, it doesn’t at all, it probably doesn’t translate to anything. Kanchanaburi is not by any means, the city of brotherly love. It could probably be described as the city of UNbrotherly love after my bizarre experiences there. However, I shared it with my brother and realized I have yet to write about it and almost 2 weeks later this was the best title I could come up with.

After New Years Ryan and his roommate Pierce ventured to Cambodia to see the infamous Angkor Wat and stay in Siem Reap (cannot wait to visit as it is confirmed it is everything I could hope for and more) while I taught my lovely children. We were reunited the following weekend in Bangkok, where we were able to meet up with my old boss and his wife for dinner. What are the chances! Higher than you would expect, actually, being him and his wife live in Shanghai now. We are Asian neighbors. And we may meet up in Angkor Wat in April. This is all coming full circle!

So we were lucky enough to meet up with my old boss, Anthony and his wife Laura, for the afternoon and an early dinner before the 3 of us and my friends ventured to Kanchanaburi. It was great to catch up, hear about their travels, see more familiar faces on the other side of the world! It also was interesting to talk to someone about teaching who I had worked with previously and who understood what I used to do in real life and for a career. Obviously, you can only explain so much of what your life was like to strangers who have become your close friends here. The girls and I tell stories, share anecdotes and have become extremely close and well versed in each others pre-Thailand lives. However, you can never fully paint the picture. So it was interesting to share my teaching experiences, thoughts and feelings about my new job with someone who understood my old one, as well as managed it. Talking to Laura and Anthony really helped me realize where I struggle with teaching. I have always strived and thrived while planning, managing, executing tasks and seeing a measurable result. That is the work that I find fulfilling and satisfying. When Laura asked me what it was about teaching that I didn’t love, I realized that was it. The structure of the work, the day to day, is just so different from what I had grown accustomed to and what I had become good at in my career. Week to week in teaching yes, I am planning, however, in a completely different way. I am planning the same things over with different material or content every week. And even though I try and get creative with lessons and vary the structure and activities, there isn’t really a sense of accomplishment when its finished. Yes, the kids doing well, having an “Aha!” moment, or a breakthrough is easily one of the most rewarding experiences, but to be honest, those aren’t coming every class period, or everyday for that matter. And that makes it harder. The works isn’t as measurable as I would like it to be, to be honest, as bratty as that may sound. Which I know sounds ridiculous but connecting these dots in my head the other week was an awesome feeling. Its something I think I had known  about myself all along but never really realized. I also honestly thought I would love teaching, had considered doing an alternate route in America at one point. And now I know that I don’t think I would be truly happy. I like working with adults in an office. As boring as that may sound.

This post just took a completely different turn. I am supposed to be talking about traveling with my brother. To Kanchanburi, a city and province west of Bangkok, near Myanmar. Back to the original plan.

We finished dinner and said goodbye (or see you later!) and were off to Kanchanaburi in another minibus to Ryan and Pierce’s chagrin. We arrived too late to get a room at the guesthouse my friends were staying in (Sugar Cane, which they DO NOT recommend) and stayed instead across the street in what felt like a lean-to with some beds. I went down the street to try and book us a tour to Erawan Falls, the main reason we ventured to Kanchanaburi, and met an adorable woman named Toi who had a tour that would take us to the Falls, the Hellfire Pass, some elephants, the Death Railway, and the Bridge over the River Kwai and feed us lunch. And knock off 120 baht a person because there were 5 of us. Sold. If you go to Kanchanaburi look for Toi’s tours.

We woke up early to change hostels and take our tour with a few Russains, a French Canadian lady who was taking a sabbatical to travel SE Asia, a young German couple and some other unidentified Westerners.

First stop, the falls. Which were amazing. Erawan Falls are located in Erawan National Park and there are 7 tiers of them. Each more impressive than the last. They were an all natural, beautiful waterpark. Looked like they belonged in Disneyland they were so pretty. Except the waters were filled with those fish that each your dead skin. Definetely NOT Disney.

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The Kanchanaburi Crew

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Greetings from Thailand

Anyway you hike up to all the different levels of the falls and go swimming and try and avoid the fish and slide up and down the rocks. It was really cool. Pretty as a picture.

From there we had lunch and half the tour went to ride elephants, which Ryan and Pierce opted to do and the other half went to the Hellfire Pass museum on the Death Railway, which Esther, Alex and I did because we had already ridden elephants.

The Hellfire Pass museum was really well done, one of the nicest, most concise museums I had been to in Thailand (I’ve only been to two). I think Australia helped to build it because a lot of Australian POW’s lost their lives building the Death Railway, which would help explain why all the English descriptions made sense. Anyway, I had never heard of the Hellfire Pass or knew anything about the Death Railway so the whole thing was really interesting. For those who don’t know was well, Wikipedia strikes again:

Hellfire Pass (Thai: ช่องเขาขาด, known by the Japanese as Konyu Cutting) is the name of a railway cutting on the former “Death Railway” in Thailand which was built with forced labour during the Second World War, in part by Allied prisoners of war. The pass is noted for the harsh conditions and heavy loss of life suffered by its labourers during construction. Hellfire Pass is so called because the sight of emaciated prisoners labouring at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from Hell.[1]

Feel free to read more here.

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Memorial at the museum. Created by an Australian POW that lost his life building the Hellfire Pass

After the Hellfire pass we rendezvoused with the elephant people to go take a ride on the train on the Death Railway. Which was actually pretty cool. I hadn’t been on a train in Thailand yet and it reminded me of my commuting days not so long ago (not). This train didn’t have airconditioning and was even more ghetto then NJ Transit. But we had gotten some snacks and a couple of Leos and had an enjoyable scenic ride through Kanchanaburi countryside.

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Cruising

From there we saw the bridge over the River Kwai (there is a movie if you want to learn more about it) and went home to shower and have a drink while watching sunset at our new guesthouse, Pong Phen, (awesome by the way). That evening we ate a great Thai dinner on the main street of town at Mangosteen Cafe (highly recommend) and then ventured to the local bars. Which then began the strangest night of my life in Thailand to date.

We strolled down to a bar we read about in Lonely Planet called Sugar Member. Which is known for cheap buckets and it’s funny, friendly owner, Sugar. Sugar was a piece of work. Sporting pleather pants and a tank top with a Marijuana leaf on it, she decided we weren’t having a rowdy enough time and wanted to spice things up a bit. She grabbed our group of 5 Americans and a group of 6 or 7 Dutch kids and forced us to play musical chairs. In the middle of the bar. Things heated up real quick. We got about 3 Dutch kids out in the first few rounds. Easy. Then I got out (whoops) and Pierce got out. So now they were almost even. When there were  6 kids left (3 of us, Ryan included and 3 dutch people) Sugar decided to change the rules.

The game became “RUN TO GET MEEEE” instead of musical chairs. Sugar would get on the microphone (even though she was standing in front of us) and scream “run to get meeeeeee” random items you had to get and race back to the bar and grab a chair before everyone else. Things got weird, quickly. The best was “Run to get meeeee….a mans shirt”. Ryan tried to take his off and hand it to her. But she wouldn’t take it, she wanted another man’s shirt. Ryan, embodying the true competitive spirit of Team Buksar, ran into the street, convinced some man who was in the MIDDLE of eating dinner to trade shirts with him. And made it back, first.

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Dedication. “Sir I need your shirt, right away. Sorry to interrupt your dinner. Enjoy”

Needless to say, we didn’t win. Sugar called out a really low, crass “Run to get me…” which i won’t get into. But lets just say Team USA had too much class to succumb to Sugar’s demands. And we came in second. But still got a free whiskey bucket. So thats still a win. Strangest night ever.

The next day we hung at the guesthouse pool until we decided to head back to Chonburi, and Ryan and Pierce joined us to see my city, my school and my kids.

It was hysterical. They were like movie stars. And all the kids wanted to know was how tall they were and how much they weighed. It was too funny. My homeroom class asked them for their autographs and if they could friend them on Facebook. Big shots.

Then they went back to BKK and back to America. I met Ryan for one last drink at Sky Bar in Bangkok and we bid farewell. Next time I see him will be at graduation! And then for the first time in 7 years, I think, we will be back, living under the same room with the parentals. Now thats a scarier thought then playing musical chairs with Sugar again.

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Bangkok from Sky Bar

I am officially half way done with my time here. In less then a month my boyfriend will visit, then I finish teaching, my roommates from college visit, I go to Cambodia, and then my parents come to visit. 3 months left of teaching, trip planning, and traveling! It’s going to fly by.