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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ain't No Party Like a Village Party...

'Cuz a village party don't stop. You might be thinking, what exactly is a village party? Simply put, it's a party in the village. "The Village" is a street in Suphan where my friend Alex lives in an apartment among the locals, some of whom are teachers, parents and students of Sa-nguan Ying School. I was invited to the village party last weekend on account of one of my former students being accepted to a very prestigious school in Bangkok.  Most students I teach in M.3 (9th grade) are hopeful that when they finish the year they will be accepted to a school in Bangkok, which offers some of the best and highest achieving schools in Thailand.

The people of the village, as with most people I've met in Thailand, sure know how to throw a party.  There are 5 key ingredients for every gathering with Thai people and this party had it all:
  • Friends: Everyone is invited - friends, families, adorable children, and in this case, all of the farang in Suphan.  It was so great to be able to hang out with the families that live in the village and they were so friendly and welcoming. 
  • Food: It's no surprise that one of the first phrases most people living in Thailand learn is "Gin khao yung?" or "Have you eaten yet?" because food is an essential part of Thai living - and of course the food here is so spectacular even if you have already eaten you usually say no.  The village party featured an overflowing table with a feast of som tom, sticky rice, stir-fried pork with holy basil, and many more delicious Thai goodies. As soon as we arrived we were handed a plate of rice and a fork and spoon and invited to dig in, which we obviously did! 
  • Drinks: No party with the locals is complete without Thai whiskey and soda water (though it's not exactly my style).  One of the more impressive drinkers at this party was a young mother of 4 who out-drank everyone in the village.  I started to get scared of her when she would fill up my drink, clink my glass and then promptly down hers while I futilely attempted to drink my Singha - and she wouldn't leave until my glass was empty!  She also did this while rocking one of her small children... definitely a champ. 
  • Karaoke: Obviously! Karaoke had already begun when I arrived and it was going all night: solos, duets, group dances, Ronan Keating songs, Thai beats, etc. who needs a DJ when you can choose and sing all of the songs by yourself?
  • Dancing: Of course, with the karaoke comes the dancing... the main show on this night was a 3 year old boy who jumped for about an hour straight to Thai pop songs. The ladies of the village also impressed with their jazzercise and traditional Thai inspired moves while I showed off my J-Lo moves (kidding!...kinda). 
Here's a few pics and a video of the night. Enjoy! 

The champ herself forcing Nell to down her Singha

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Masia: Towers, Cliffs, Sunsets and Burqas

The final leg of my 2 months of free-wheeling across Asia was a stop in Malaysia.  We had a hard time leaving Bali, especially since we got picked up from our homestay at 5am, yikes, and I fell down a pretty steep and rain-soaked staircase that left me with a very sore and very purple back - awesome!

The first stop was a long layover in Kuala Lumpur that allowed us just enough time to head into the city, take a photo with the famous Petronas Twin Towers, eat some delicious roti canai (a curry crepe concoction), stroll through the market, and check out the architecture on some of the city's large mosques.
Petronas Towers in KL
After that it was back to the airport where we hopped on a flight bound for the island of Langkawi. Langkawi is actually so close to Thailand that if you look across the ocean from certain points on the island you can see it. In terms of landscape it closely resembles much of the islands in Thailand with its large limestone cliffs, bright blue water and beautiful sunsets - but the culture was definitely very different.
Langkawi is kind of an exception in Malaysia because the government granted it tax-free status in an attempt to lure tourists, and it's clearly in the early days of figuring out what type of tourists it wants to attract and how to entertain them, but we had a good few days on the beach.  It was really interesting to be in a Muslim country and see women on the beach in a full burqa - swimming, strolling, and even parasailing! Definitely easy to feel under dressed in a bathing suit when most of the locals are completely covered. Nell and I spent one day on a private beach when we unintentionally took a cab up to explore the island's northern beaches and got dropped off at the most exclusive hotel, the Tanjung Rhu Resort.  Luckily, it was low season so the resort was pretty much deserted and the staff were nice enough to not kick us out of their private beach.

On our last night in Langkawi we sampled the nightlife scene, met some locals at a cool reggae bar and ended up randomly meeting some fellow Bostonians- one a '10 BC grad and the other a Southie resident (of course we talked about our beloved and dearly missed Snickerdoodle Iced Coffee from Sidewalk!) It was one of those small world moments, and it was the perfect way to celebrate the end of our summer travels. It's been a fantastic two months on the road, in the air, on the sea - and it's been really hard to readjust and get back into teacher mode. Thank goodness I have some really cute, intelligent, funny and entertaining students!
Malaysia! Country #5

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Paradise Found: Bali & Gili Trawangan

I'm back in Suphan now, currently getting ready to teach my first class which is about to take place, so it's slightly painful to write this blog post about my most recent trip to Indonesia that covered Bali and Gili Trawangan.  Simply put, these two places are paradise.  Bali was everything I had heard about and more, and Gili T (as it is lovingly called) was the most beautiful, relaxing, perfect piece of earth I've ever set foot on.

Nell and I decided early on that we wanted to spend our last two weeks of summer break on a beach doing nothing, and I would have to say our trip was a total success in that regard! I spent 3 of the 7 days in Indonesia in Bali - one night in Kuta, which is really all you need there, and 2 nights in Ubud.  Ubud is definitely the heart of Bali; it's full of culture, its residents wear traditional Balinese dress, the grounds and temples are covered in spirit offerings full of rice, flowers, candy, etc. and the rice terraces are perfectly carved into the hills. We stayed in a homestay there that was really nice and in our budget and spent most of our time walking around the city and soaking it in.  Nell and I attempted to hire a taxi to take us around for the day to see the volcano, the islands famous temples, and the rice terraces - but we only made it to the terrace and a very foggy volcano viewpoint before the rain set in and ended our tourist expedition.  I definitely didn't see all there was to see in Bali, which means I guess I'll have to make a return trip at some point in my lifetime! I think I've found the perfect honeymoon destination...now all I need is a groom : )

In the middle of our time in Bali we took off on a 2 hour speedboat ride to another island in Indonesia, Gili Trawangan.  Gili T is one of three Gili islands off the coast of Lombok.  Gili T was small enough that we could walk around (tip to others: don't go at sunset or you'll wind up feeling your way around the barren part of the island at night using your cell phone as a flashlight and avoiding weird animals - not that I know from experience or anything...) and it was surrounded by water that is of the crystal clear turquoise/teal/blue variety.  There are no cars, no motorbikes, and no dogs allowed on Gili T - the only way to get around is to walk or take a horse and buggy - this only adds to the islands cuteness factor. While on Gili T we spent most of our time on the beach, drinking banana shakes, eating pizza at one of the bean-bag beachside restaurants, watching movies at night projected onto big screens on the sand, and attempting to snorkel (unfortunately we picked a windy day to do this and the water wasn't clear enough to see any of the island's famous sea turtles that live offshore.) I would go back to Gili T in a heartbeat, and I easily could have spent more time there, it was really hard to get back on the boat, but luckily we couldn't be too sad about "going back to Bali."

The only downside about Bali and Gili T is that they are not as cheap as Thailand, actually Thailand is cheaper than any of the other countries I've visited, so by the end of my week my funds were in a bit of a dire situation (I'm living a cash-only existence these days since I don't have a Thai bank account and my school pays in cash) so Nell and I instituted a serious budget.  Of course, the budget made room for some luxuries - like a 2 hour Balinese body scrub and massage - while we sacrificed things like "lunch".  Every Rupiah spent in Bali was well worth it though and I would do it all again if I had the chance to go back- which I hopefully will! Up next: off to Malaysia!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tomb Raiders: Touring Angkor Wat

Emily and I left Chiang Mai on Sunday night to begin an epic trek to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  It started with an overnight bus from CM to Bangkok, on a sofa seat, with 9 other people. It was definitely not the most pleasant bus ride, but we made it to our destination at 4:30 am and were able to quickly hop a bus to the Thailand/Cambodia border at Aranyaphratet/Poi Pet.  Once we arrived at the border we managed to avoid all of the border scams and people trying to sell us Visas for a ridiculous price and quickly found ourselves in Cambodia.  From there it was still a bit of a trek and a lot of confusion to get from the border to Siem Reap but after some negotiating we got a cab to take us the 2.5 hours to the city and we finally made it to our hostel around noon, exhausted and sweaty.

Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples are all absolutely massive, they require scaling a lot of really steep staircases, really good balance, and great effort to stay hydrated - in our 4 days there the temperature hovered around 43-44 degrees Celsius or about 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Here are some of the highlights of our time exploring Siem Reap and Ankgor Wat:

  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat: Yes, it requires an early morning wake up - 4:30am! But at least you can beat the heat! Viewing the sunrise from Angkor Wat you can get a spectacular shot of the pink clouds reflecting off of the small pond on the grounds.  As a bonus, once the sunrise is over many people head back to their hostels so you can roam through the temples and be pretty much on your own.
  • Nice monks: For some reason the monks in Cambodia are so much more friendly than their counterparts in Thailand.  In Thailand I'm often scared to make eye contact with the monks, but in Cambodia they were all so nice and friendly, greeting us with big smiles and happy to talk with us or have their picture snapped. 
  • Siem Reap's Night Market: Emily and I did some serious shopping at the market here, it's full of things you don't really need, but when everything is $1 it's so hard to resist! We also enjoyed some pampering by way of fish pedicures, foot massages, and mani/pedis.  The night market is also surrounded by ridiculously cute streets full of restaurants, shops and bars (including a pub appropriately named "Angkor What?")
  • Trees taking over temples: It's amazing to see the way these huge trees are growing into and around the ancient ruins.  It's mind blowing to think how old these structures are and how they were built long before modern building techniques and tools were introduced.  The trees winding around and growing out of the stones make for some really beautiful sights. 
  • The faces of Bayon Temple: Bayon temple in Angkor Thom was one of my favorite spots, the massive faces that sit at the top of the towers are so fascinating to look at and someone always seems to be looking down on you as you explore.  
  • Tuk-Tuk tours: The best way to navigate the temples - because the complex is massive, the Banteay Sray temple is more than 40 Ks away from the central temples - is to hire a tuk-tuk to bring you from one temple to the next, unless you were feeling spectacularly ambitious on a bicycle.  Emily and I hired a man named Po who was so friendly and literally drove us all across the city for $20 for the day - and we started at 4:30am to head out for sunrise.  He was a true champ, at the end his tuk-tuk was practically falling apart and we had to pull over several times to make sure it wasn't going to self-combust, but luckily all was well and we made it back to the hostel in one piece. 

There is so much more I could say about all of the beautiful and amazingly ornate temples and the city and people of Siem Reap, but this blog post is already far too long and I've got a flight to Bali to catch, so I'll leave you with a link to some more pictures on Facebook if you're interested: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.824462483427.2340862.1606236&l=32bd3b639f

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Up In The Air

I'm not usually the uber-adventurous type - I've never been bungee jumping or skydiving (I blame Reeves and my time in Namibia for that) but on my last day in Chiang Mai I decided to try my hand at abseiling and zip-lining through the forests of northern Thailand. Nell, Emily, Amy and I signed up with Jungle Flight for a 3 hour "treetop eco adventure" in the Doi Langka jungle.

Upon arrival we strapped into our harness and learned which ropes would be responsible for keeping us tethered to the zip line and not dropping 50+ meters into the forest below.  I definitely felt a little bit nervous when we stepped up to the first platform, but upon receiving assurance from our guide, Hero, I strapped on and conquered the first flight flawlessly (if I do say so myself.)

The jungle flight involved 22 zip-lines, some well over 100 meters in length, and 4 abseils - where you're attached to a rope and just do a straight drop unto a platform below. The final abseil was 40 meters to the ground and definitely induced a minor panic - but it was all good and Hero took great care not to drop any of us.
photo courtesy of Nell. 
It was so much fun to try something new, enjoy the beautiful trees and mountains in the distance, and fly through the air.  Once we all relaxed we were able to have a lot of fun with it, letting go and waving our arms and kicking up our feet.  The final flight we were strapped on from our backs instead of on our waist so we were able to fly "superman" style across the jungle - it was a lot of fun but it certainly caused for some awkward pictures with the harness! : )

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