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Monday, January 31, 2011

The New Normal

The first semester is winding down and as I'm preparing to say farewell to my first batch of students (sad!), I've been super busy with grading and testing, so my apologies for the lack of posts! I think I've also hit a bit of teacher burn out, I'm in desperate need of a little break, some long-term traveling, and some visitors (my sister and college BFF) - can't wait! I hit a low last week when only 3 out of my 17 9th grade students turned in a project they had been given 8 days to complete, (it only involved writing 2 paragraphs!) I was so frustrated I actually walked out of class.  I think the message was well received though, I received an apology letter and the late homework at the end of the day with the students literally bowing to me as they placed it on my desk.  Although, to be fair, the bow in Thailand (wai) is just a normal part of culture so I shouldn't feel too special I suppose.

Speaking of "normal" and Thailand, I thought I'd shed some light on the "new normal" that is my every day life.  Three and a half months in, few things in Thailand phase me as they once did, I've come to accept them as my new life, but upon reflection they are actually pretty odd. Here are a few...

Sidewalks do not exist. There is no such thing as sidewalks in Thailand, the word for sidewalk in Thai is the same as street, and apparently that applies to how they should be used - when walking down a sidewalk I'll often have to avoid motorbikes cruising down the block, avoiding the perfectly good road that's right next to me.  I also have to avoid overflowing "restaurants," trash bins, phone booths (they actually still get used here!), stray dogs, dried fish vendors, roosters, etc. I used to love taking long, meandering walks but with the lack of space to do it, I've put those on hold until I'm back stateside. Sidewalks and streets: same same, but different.

5 Star restaurants have a whole different vibe.  I'm quite certain that the best Pad Thai in the world is produced daily by my local street vendor affectionately known to the farang as "Pad Thai Lady." It is unbelievably good, made fresh right before my eyes, and costs about 80 cents for the meal.  She also makes several other delicious dishes that I've come to adore: phat grapow gai, pad see ew, khao phat gai, the list goes on. The building itself, however, is nothing like any place I've ever eaten, or will ever eat in the States due to health codes.  There is a cat that frequently jumps from table to table, a swarm of flies and mosquitoes (most restaurants in the Soup actually provide customers with bug spray at the table), no front door, no clean water, and twice this week mid-meal a man on a motorcycle drove into the restaurant and parked his bike next to our table. This spot is no exception, this is what most eating establishments in Thailand (especially outside of the big cities) look like, but when the food is this delicious, it just doesn't matter.

A good night's sleep is a thing of the past. After a long day of teaching and fighting off the 90 degree temperatures that keep creeping higher, some days I long for a comfy night snuggled in my bed.  Alas, that will have to be a dream deferred, and reality is harsh.  Each night before I get in bed I first cautiously scout for bed-bugs, mosquitoes and geckos that might try to hide under my covers - trust me, they do.  On a quick count today, I woke up this morning with 26 red, itchy bites (really - jing jing!).  I sleep on a rock of a mattress-- there is zero give to this baby, when I flop down I can literally bounce right back up. There is also a mysterious smell that lives in the pipes of all the apartments in our building, I don't understand it, and I've tried everything to get rid of it, but some mornings it's so bad it actually wakes me from my sleep when it seeps into the room.  Good day, sunshine.

Squat toilets. I don't even know how to describe this experience.  Whenever I enter a public restroom I immediately check to see if there might (please!) be a Western style toilet, but all too often they do not exist.  Bathrooms in Thailand have a bring your own toilet paper, bring your own soap kind of deal, and they usually cost a few baht to enjoy.  Once you enter you are greeted by a hole in the ground contraption that involves some interesting strategy.  These toilets don't feature that state of the art invention called a flush so there will be a bucket of water sitting next to the toilet with a bowl that you fill and then dump into the hole until you think it's sufficient.  All I can say is...yikes daddy. Thank goodness for a steady supply of Charmin' to go t.p. and scented hand sanitizer that never leave my purse.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Field Trip!

Life in the Soup has settled into a fairly regular routine these days, teach M-F 8-4, tutor or teach a prep course until 6:15 or 7, hope there's a good movie on the lone English TV channel, and then hit the hay.  I've entered serious money saving mode recently since I've started planning my "summer break" (March-May) trips.  So far I've booked flights to Bali (Indonesia), Langkawi (Malaysia) and a school trip to Vietnam.  Hoping to hit up Cambodia, Laos and possibly Hong Kong as well - I need to have pages added to my passport for all of these stamps/visas!  With all these big trips on the horizon, I'll likely be sticking close to home for the next few weeks.  Although, keeping myself entertained in Suphanburi for a whole weekend has proved to be very tough - there's just not that much going on in what we farang lovingly call the "Detroit of Thailand".  

This week I was able to enjoy a midweek reprieve when we took a field trip to Ayutthaya with the M.2 class (8th graders).  They have been studying the city and its history/ruins in their social studies class so they were split into groups and assigned a teacher to show around.  I was so impressed that they memorized everything and their English was so good. It was really nice to have someone explain what I was seeing since last time I was there I relied on the Lonely Planet guidebook for the low down. I also had my third opportunity to ride an elephant (not your average field trip!), although I felt bad for these elephants because Ayutthaya is a flat/hot/dusty city and I think the elephants probably enjoy themselves a little more when they are in their natural element in the forest or by the water.   

It's hard to believe but the first semester is already coming to a close, I'll spend the next few weeks writing exams, filling out behavior reports, and finalizing student grades - which should be an interesting process because although some students have many missing grades, I'm not allowed to fail anyone. I'll have to come up with some sort of crazy way to scale the grades.  It doesn't seem like a very effective practice to let everyone pass, but I guess it's just one of those things I'll never understand about the Thai education system.   

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

9 Lives in Sangkhlaburi

I had initially planned on staying in Suphanburi this past weekend to relax and recover from lots of traveling, but when I found out on Thursday afternoon I had Monday off, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to travel somewhere new.  After Googling "best places for backpackers in Thailand", Nell and I settled on Sangkhlaburi, a city that is in the Kanchanaburi province but way up in the mountains and right on the Thai/Burma border. Perhaps due to the fact that we didn't have time to do much research on our destination, we were slightly unprepared for our trek and didn't know what to expect.  In the midst of this adventure, Nell and I decided that we must have 9 lives...and we went through most of them in rapid succession in our 2 days in Sangkhlaburi.

 Near death experiences in Sangkhlaburi (only slightly exaggerating)...
  • The van ride to get there: I've never had an issue with carsickness until I moved to Thailand.  Maybe that has something to do with my Midwest upbringing and road trips across Missouri/Kansas/Iowa/etc. where it's all flat-land and I entertained myself with games of "guess the crop" with my dad and siblings, but I seem to be unable to handle the crazy way these van drivers move along the roads, along with the quality of the roads and the ways in which they seem to define "hairpin turns."  The ride up to Sangkhla was easily the worst I've ever been on - I was sure I was not going to make it out of the van alive.  There were, of course, no seat belts to be found, so for two hours I was gripping on to the seat back in front of me with both hands to keep from flying back and forth in the van, with my eyes clenched shut, as I prayed and tried to put myself in the best position to survive should the car fly off the cliff and down the ravines.  It was my nightmare, but we made it to the top and back down again two days later.
  • The mosquitoes: Due to the lack of preparation and our quick decision to head to Sangkhla, we didn't even think about malaria pills before we left - and the mosquitoes were vicious! Our hostel was located on a lake, and the first night there I counted 16 new bites.  Luckily, we were smart enough to bring our 100% DEET bug spray - but I'm not sure it made much difference after the fact.  Of course, malaria takes a few days to settle in...so I guess I'll have to keep you updated if I suddenly come down with the disease.
  • Saphan Mon: One of the few tourist attractions in Sangkhla is this bridge, the longest handmade wooden bridge in Thailand.  It looks like it hasn't been touched in centuries, and in many places seems to be totally falling apart. After assurance from a local woman - "Oy, mai pen rai" that we would make it across we bravely and nervously walked across the bridge to take a few photos of the beautiful scenery.  Nell and I gingerly watched each and every step much to the amusement of a child who was jumping across the beams with absolutely no fear.
  • Three Pagodas Pass and Burma/Myanmar border:  On the second day we hopped in a songatow to check out Three Pagodas Pass, a small monument right on the border of the two countries.  At several points along the way we were stopped by border police and asked to show our passports and greeted in the few English words they could say, "Happy New Year" was a popular choice.  At certain points due to lack of signage and our inability to communicate we thought we had crossed the border and might not be allowed to re-enter Thailand.  Thankfully, that was not the case and we were able to check out the Burmese goods on the border and take a few photos before catching the songatow back into town.
  • Canoe ride: Our amazing hostel, P GuestHouse, rented out canoes to its guests, so one morning Nell and I hopped in a canoe and started paddling.  The people of Sangkhla mainly live on houseboats that sit in the lake, and we happened to be in the canoe when everyone else decided it would be a good time to switch up their neighbors and move their houses along the lake, creating some waves that we were sure were going to tip us into the murky lake.  Luckily, we somehow managed to ride out the waves and safely steer our canoe back to the dock without sinking ourselves.

While the trip had many nervous moments and had me contemplating my time left on earth, it was also a well worth it trip to a place well off the beaten path. I'm tempted to say it was the most beautiful place I've visited so far in Southeast Asia.  I went on my first motorbike ride, sampled some Burmese curry, saw some beautiful sunsets, read my book on a bamboo dock, and bought more bracelets! I don't think I'll be back due to the van ride up - but I'm glad I made the trip and got to experience Sangkhla.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chiang Mai: Wat Up, Wat's Happening

Happy 2554 from Thailand! My trip to the train station last weekend turned out to be a complete success as they had added another train to Chiang Mai leaving that night and there were 2 seats available in the sleeper cars.  I must say, Thailand's trains are actually quite nice, and it was an easy 12 hour overnight trip to the north of Thailand.  Chiang Mai was my favorite spot in Thailand when I first visited in 2004 so I was eager to get back and see it again, and it most certainly did not disappoint.

Some highlights...

  • Khao Soi: This food is a regional speciality in Northern Thailand and Laos, it features egg noodles in coconut milk curry, lime, and other spices.  It is completely delicious and my favorite dish so far in Thailand.
  • Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market: Named one of the world's greatest flea markets, this Sunday night bazaar was seriously overwhelming in size, I spent 3 hours walking up and down streets spending Baht like it was my job, and still didn't see everything.  It's full of handicrafts by the Hmong people, jewelry (I literally bought more than 20 bracelets, mai pen rai), paintings, t-shirts, postcards, wire crafts, teak wood decorations, and so, so much more.  
  • Wats and Monk Chat: Chiang Mai streets are full of Wats (Buddhist temples), they are all so ornate and beautiful, most of them literally sparkle all day long in the sunlight.  Also, due to the many universities in Chiang Mai, including a few that cater to monks, many of the wats feature "monk chat."  Monk chat is an opportunity for the monks to practice their English with foreign tourists and for the tourists to learn more about life as a monk.  We had some great chats with monks from Laos and Cambodia, and it was really interesting to learn more about their daily lives - no meals after lunch - no wonder they are all so thin!
  • Cool weather: I actually felt cold for the first time since arriving in Thailand, at night it would get into the 60's - and it felt freezing to me! I guess I am adjusting to my new climate.
  • Ringing in the New Year 2011/2554: I'm not normally such a fan of New Year's Eve but this was definitely my best one yet.  I loved ringing in a new year in one of my favorite cities in the world.  I rocked a 2011 headband (Thanks Kim for sending!!) and celebrated the countdown with Nell and some fellow backpackers while listening to the live performance of the famous Thai pop group "Potato".  I also had a chance to light a lantern and send it up to the sky with my wishes/resolutions for 2011, number one on the list: Learn Thai! 

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