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Weekend Trips: The Difference Between Planned and Unplanned Adventures

First of all, let me just explain why I’ve been a bit behind with my blogging.

        I am currently uploading a new version of Adobe because I am trying to find “Educational TV Shows for ESL Little Kids that Teach Prepositions.” Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot. I might have found one good TV show (to be determined), but my Adobe player is out of date. I’m also cutting up pictures of little animals for a 3-7 year old group I’ll be tutoring starting tomorrow for extra cash (and because it sounded too cute to pass up—although 3-7 sounds like a ridiculous age gap, which makes me nervous).

            Meanwhile, I’ve spent today grading tests, creating new tests (midterms are coming up!), creating projects, realizing over and over again how many different ways I’ve secretly been messing up my grading system (and then thinking—screw it, nothing I can do about it now), and trying not to rip my hair out every time a student wants to just sit and chat while I’m trying my absolute hardest just to make sure, at the very minimum, I have a lesson prepared 3 seconds before I enter the classroom.

            Along with all this, I’ve been lugging my suitcase to school with me on Fridays so that, at exactly 4:29, I can run out the door to catch the next bus/plane/van going towards whichever town I’ve chosen as my next vacation destination, arranging meet-ups with friends, and figuring out how to do the reverse-trip back on Sunday so I can wake up bright and early Monday morning and start all over again.

            I’m not complaining. It’s certainly not a bad lifestyle—I mean yes, it’s challenging, but it also means I get to have amazing weekend experiences, and if in exchange I have to feel a little exhausted and frustrated, I’ll take it any day.

            I mostly say all this just to explain why I’ve had such a difficult time finding a chance to blog. But I’m putting aside my TV show hunt for the moment (and thinking maybe I’ll just have them color instead), to write about my last two weekends.

            We had two three-day weekends in a row because it is Thailand and they love any excuse to go home and sleep. I mean, technically, they were both holiday weekends. But when I asked the students what they do on these holidays, they said, exasperated, “Nothing, teacher. Nothing. Really, nothing.”

 “Do you hang out with your family—maybe have a family dinner, at least?” I asked.

“No.”

“Do you go to temple? Is it a religious holiday?”

“No.”

“Does anyone in the entire country do anything, even if you don’t?”

“Not really.”

Regardless, I was ready to celebrate.

Kohn Kaen

            Friday, immediately after school (two weekends ago), Devon and I took a bus to Koen Kaen. Koen Kaen is a great city in the Northeast. It’s excitingly urban for our region—it has a mall with The Body Shop and Aunt Annies, a few Western restaurants (yes, the taco shells are so crunchy you might break a tooth, and the breakfast is still waffles with ice cream and condensed milk and fruit syrup on top, but still), a temple that is 9-stories high, and a very expansive Saturday night market with literally everything you can think of—delicious food (they had gyros! That means bread people!), animals for sale (goats, different types of dogs, cats in outfits, bunnies in outfits, birds, etc.), clothing, Kylie Jenner lip kits, English-language books, caricature artists, bags, Ray Bans, Nike sneakers (the brand items I just listed are cheap and fake rip offs, but they really do look the same)… the list goes on.

            Saturday we did exactly all of these things. We woke up and found ourselves a “Western” breakfast, which, to the Thais, means the sweetest and most high-calorie dessert you can think of (start with a waffle or a pancake, add scoops of ice cream, drizzle with condensed milk and chocolate sauce, add honey on the side, put some ‘natural’ fruit on top, and you might be getting close to what Thai’s think we want in the morning). After eating, we made our way to this 9-story temple. It was beautiful and elaborate and shiny and expansive, as they all are, with a great view of the lake and the tops of buildings.IMG_9050

            At the peak, we asked a monk to take a selfie with us (is that allowed?). His name is Novice. I know this because, after we spoke for a few minutes, he said, “Can I have your Line and Facebook account?” Line is, well, essentially my phone number. A few minutes before, we’d been contemplating whether or not it was appropriate to take a picture with a monk, and now here we were, getting hit on by one.

            “Sure!” I agreed quickly because I felt it was probably very bad karma to refuse.

            Many of you, if we are friends on Facebook, have probably since gotten a friend request from him. It seems he wants to expand his social media circle—sorry about that.

            A few minutes after I left the temple, I got a couple of messages in a row from him (which seems common for some of the Thai people I’ve met here… they aren’t bothered if you answer or not, they will just keep sending you new messages on top of the old). His messages were: “Hello, do you remember me. I’m Novice. Good night. Have a good dream. Bye bye.”

            I said, “Yes, I remember you! Thanks for the chat today.”

            He said, “Never mind.” (We think he thinks this means, “You’re welcome.”)

            Then, long story short, after a few more messages he sent me a very eerie-sounding voice message via Facebook of himself saying, “Helllooooo, Caroline… I would like you to explain to me the difference between the U.S. education system and Thailand. Please tell me immediately.” He said these words slowly, stretching out the “hello” for so long that his voice withered off at the end. Then he sent me a bunch of pictures of himself giving a speech for a university class he’s taking and said, “Excuse me! Where are the pictures of us!”

            I’ve decided I am willing to take whatever bad karma I might receive for not responding to him.

            After the temple, we went to this big mall and then travelled to the night market. Here, I spent about 1,000 baht ($30… not a lot, until you think about how the cost of my plane ticket was also 1,000 baht). I bought a delicious chicken gyro wrap for dinner, mango sticky-rice for dessert, a light blue dyed shirt that looks ridiculous on me, a cute tank top-short combo (made of the same fabric) that looked trendy on the manikin but also looks ridiculous on me, two English-language books, a bag, and some white sneakers I plan on ruining at New Years.

            We had a lot of fun walking around and returned to our hostel exhausted.

            The next morning, we got ourselves up by 7 a.m. and made our way to 7-11, where we picked up breakfast, and then ventured to the bus station.

            The thing is, I’d been told by a friend I work with, Teacher Ying, as well as a few of my students, that there is this beautiful hiking mountain in Petchabun. They showed me a few pictures, first of themselves at the top of a mountain, watching the sunrise, and then of this huge five-headed Buddha statue, overlooking these very Swiss-looking fields. The region is even considered “The Swiss Alps of Thailand.” I couldn’t wait. I even wanted to leave on Saturday, but my friends convinced me to stay in Kohn Kean Saturday night for the night markets. Seriously, this was the one trip to which I was so looking forward. I just imagined myself hiking to these stunning peaks and overlooking views so beautiful that I would be overcome, all at once, with the deepest love and admiration for Thailand that I’ve felt so far.

            After one 3-hour bus ride to Lom Sok, where we’d been told we’d find a connecting bus to Petchabun, I stood at the bus terminal and showed them my Google-translated sentence: “Petchabun National Park. We want to hike.”

            “Hike?” They repeated, clearly barely understanding the meaning of the word, yet slowly shaking their heads. “No. You drive. Cannot hike.”

            “We don’t want to drive,” we tried to explain. “We want to hike.” Why, I began thinking nervously, do they think we need to drive to the top?

            “National park,” I repeated, and they nodded slowly. “Okay, bus 11.”

            We got on this bus and started winding our way up a mountain, moving slowly because the turns were sharp. I’d pulled my GPS up on my phone, and it said we were still 45-minutes away from the national park when the bus pulled over to the side and the lady pointed to us. “Farang (foreigners), off.”

            Off? We were literally halfway up a mountain, surrounded by absolutely nothing of importance, stopped in front of a wooden bench that was meant to constitute as a bus stop. And we were 45-minutes from where we wanted to go.

            And yet, the bus was headed in the wrong direction. What were we supposed to say, “No, can you actually take a left here and take us to the national park—we understand you don’t speak English and we don’t speak Thai, but regardless, we refuse to get off”? So, we got off.

            At this point it was almost 2 p.m. We were starving and so frustrated. We’d been travelling since 8 and had originally assumed we’d be hiking by noon. Instead, it felt like we’d just been wasting the whole day. We tried to ask a few different people how exactly we were supposed to get to the national park, and of course, we got plenty of different answers (take a taxi for 1,000 baht; take a bus; you’re already here.)

            Finally, we were told to take a songtaew. We decided it sounded like the cheapest and easiest option. We stayed on the side of the road until one pulled up, and then we hopped in the back. We sat on top of large blue bags of rice, laughing because of the absurdity of it all, while two young Thai girls stared at us wide-eyed, probably thinking, Mom, who the hell did you just pick up.

            We drove for a few minutes and began to relax. It was hard not to, in a place like this. There were so many bright green strawberry fields and hills and mountains—it was just beautiful. And then the woman took a sharp left turn and drove us down a dirt road, parked in front of her house (presumably), and turned off the engine. She got out, as did the girls, and they sat around this table outside with a few other women and children. A few men began unloading the rice after we got off, and meanwhile, this gathering of women stared at us as if they’d brought us here just to say, “Look what I found wandering around out there.” One woman literally had a bag of chips.

            At this point, my friends were exasperated. I was too, a little bit. I mean, my god. We just wanted to get to this STUPID national park. What were we doing? Why couldn’t anything just go right, and be easy, for once?

            One of my friends called her Thai coordinator so we could use him as a translator. After a few minutes, we began to understand the story.

            Thai translation-conversations, as a side-note, take forever. I have no idea why. An example might be: I say, “Hello.” And then my translator says, “ehte hwatheh twhhhasgb sad bga beb ehwhq dhhe hasdhe qyleg hdh ahd………” and five full minutes later, my translator will say, “She says ‘hello,’ too.”

            So, after a few minutes, we finally begin to understand that this lady is a “tour” guide (I am sure this is a loose term, generally meaning—“a woman looking for extra cash, who does not know English and has no credentials, but who is willing to drive foreigners around when she finds them on the side of the road”). She is apparently willing to drive us to the top of a mountain, and find us accommodation and dinner, etc., and drive us back to the bus station tomorrow, for 2,000 baht.

            At first, we considered just calling it a day. At 3:30, we honestly said, “Is it too early to go to bed?” We were just so tired of trying to get them to understand us, and all of the miscommunication that led us here in the first place. Then, on top of it all, my friend Marly realized she’d left her wallet on the bus.

            Finally, however, we realized that this was really our only option. I mean, if we said no—then what? Where would we stay? How would we get there? Where the hell WERE we, anyway?

            So we agreed. She drove us, as promised, to this beautiful lookout point. A lot of tents were pitched in the area (although I understood, finally, that this was not a hiking spot—you just drove your car up a road and pitched a tent at the top, there were no hiking options), but, slightly terrified, we kept repeating, “We don’t want tent. We want real bed. No tent. Bed. Go down mountain please.” We were just not interested in any more crazy adventures. We saw a beautiful sunset, ate chicken and vegetables with our quiet Thai “guide,” and then drove back down the mountain. She stopped at some bells so that we could hit them with some wooden sticks (worth the trip right there), and then asked us for 1,000 baht. We grudgingly handed it over, and then she left us at a hostel. We didn’t even mind sharing one King-sized bed between the four of us, even though it meant we slept sideways on the bed.

            And the thing is, maybe this day was a “waste,” and maybe it was “disastrous,” if I want to take the perspective of someone who expected something much, much different. But then, on the other hand—all of this travel is teaching me something about letting go of my expectations. I mean, what if someone told me, “Today, someone you don’t know is going to pick you up around 2 p.m. in a songtaew. Everything you do after 2 will be a surprise—nothing is planned. She will not speak your language. Just go with the flow. Enjoy whatever surprises she wants to throw at you. Laugh with your friends. Trust her.” If I’d heard that, then maybe (apart from Marly’s lost wallet) everything would have felt a little less, well… wrong.

            I mean, yeah, we were “off track.” But what is the problem with what we ended up doing? We saw the sunset. We ate a pretty good dinner. We were safe and together and fell asleep comfortably in something that was not a tent. For some of these trips, I just need to learn how to let go of what I think I “need” to see, and to let the momentum of the trip change course as it needs.  

            The next morning essentially made up for the entire “disastrous” experience. She picked us up outside of 7-11 at 7 a.m. We had our “typical” breakfast—corn flake cereal with yogurt for me, egg ham and cheese “toastie” microwaveable sandwiches for my friends—but regardless, she still handed us a large wicker basket filled with steaming hot white rice. “Breakfast,” she said.

            “Oh, uh, no,” I stammered, pointing to our food. “We have breakfast.” She took the basket back to the front seat. We felt slightly guilty for refusing to eat the meal she’d prepared for us, but none of us could consider eating more rice just to satisfy her.

            Then she drove us to the beautiful 5-headed Buddha statue that my students had showed me. And, honestly, it is better than the pictures. First of all, especially in the coolness of early morning and with a light mist covering the fields, the expansive landscape is breathtaking. It is truly just endlessly green fields and light yellow cornfields and oddly shaped mountains and dark green trees—and that’s it. No streets, no houses, no buildings, no smoke. And the statue itself is bigger than I can even conceptualize—the shortest Buddha head was at least 30 feet above me. And the floor below and around the Buddha statue is exquisite—colorful gems and diamonds and stones. There is another nearby temple, which is just as impressive, covered in bright gems and gold pieces. I’ll post pictures, but really, it might not do it justice.

            Then we travelled home. I won’t complain too much, but let’s just say, it was it’s own sweaty kind of hell: 8 hours on a bus, without a bathroom, and without food. It took days to recover.

Pranburi/Kho Sam Roi Yot National Park

            A few weeks ago, Devon and I googled, “Beach Day Trips from Bangkok.” We scrolled through a list of them and landed on one: “a temple in a cave on a beach.” This sounded fascinating, so we planned our trip.

            I didn’t even realize until arriving that this is the same place Jojo and Jordan (from The Bachelor…), spent one of their dates. So, really, you could just watch that episode if you want to know what my experience was like (minus the dating parts).

            Travel was easier this weekend, and really, it was probably just luck that made it that way. We took a 3-hour van to Pranburi, got off at a random bus station that looked just as random and deserted as the one last weekend had looked (resulting in slight PTSD for Devon and I), and then found ourselves a taxi and showed him the address. “Oh, 20 minutes away,” the driver told us. Thank god.

            My friend Gabi joined us, too. It was honestly a perfect weekend, and the best part was that nothing was planned. We arrived at our beautiful hostel, Sweet Honey. They told us we had an entire cottage to ourselves, with a kitchen and a living room. Yes, we were surprised with an unexpected fourth roommate (a nice but absent Yoga-teaching woman), but we couldn’t really complain. The place was empty (why they needed to put us with a stranger, I’m not sure… there really wasn’t a shortage of rooms). But, regardless, the emptiness meant that we were truly VIP guests. They held a cocktail hour just for us three (not sure if the cocktail hour would have happened regardless… we were the only guests), and brought us 2-for-1 drinks and dinner. Then, upon our request, they made multiple batches of popcorn in their popcorn maker, and allowed us to plug our own iPod’s into the speakers to listen to our own choice of music. On the second night, a worker actually surprised us with free mojitos delivered to our room. This hostel was truly fantastic.

            The first day, we took our free bicycles that the hostel provided us and began biking to the “beach.” We quickly figured out that we could not sunbathe on this beach—it was all rocks. Regardless, we weren’t really bothered. It was beautiful and completely empty, besides a few fisherman and townspeople. It was as if the entire ocean—the entire town—was ours.

            We returned to our hostel and requested a taxi to take us to the national park, figuring there’d be more to do there. A songtaew arrived to drive us. We spent the afternoon at the beach there. We had the option to hike to the cave with the temple, but we wanted to save that for the following day since it costs money and it was already 2 p.m. The beach was empty and it was overcast, but it was beautiful. The ocean was light blue and clear, and mountains bordered us from all sides. Besides a stray dog and a random couple, we were the only ones on the sand. We pulled out a book I’d brought with me—Outliers—and my friend read it out loud. We spent our afternoon like this—reading chapters out loud, pausing to discuss, pausing to drink coconut and eat pineapple and mango, pausing to walk the beach, and then reading again, discussing again.
            

    

            We returned for our cocktail hour, ate some chicken and pasta, and brought bowls of popcorn back to our room for a movie.

    The next morning, we adventured back to the national park. There was a large sign. Beside the Thai words, it said 40 baht. Beside the English words, it said 200.

            “That’s what they do,” Gaby explained to me. “They charge the foreigners more—a lot more—because they can’t even read that it is so much cheaper for anyone from Thailand.”

            We refused to fall for this, and we were ready to “fight” (our plan was to repeat, “we teachers! Not foreigners!” in English until they got frustrated and took the 40). However, as we approached the ticket booth, we saw someone else was already getting yelled at… so we just slipped by them and began hiking, for free, courtesy of some very dumb luck.

            The hike was steep and long. It was mostly rock, with a concrete platform built beside the natural rock as an option to use when passing people, although the concrete made me more nervous because of how steep it felt. About two hours later, we reached the opposite side of the mountain, with a beautiful white “sand” beach (the sand, really, was just millions of tiny pieces of broken shell). The water was clear, light blue, and refreshingly cool. Dark green trees separated the beach from the woods behind it. It reminded me a bit of a hybrid—Florida-beaches, perhaps, beside some Maine-woods.

  

            We hiked into the cave (VERY steep, long, and so tiring that we couldn’t really breathe the entire way up). I got a few glances because of my outfit choice—are those knees? Finally, we descended into this cave. It was incredible—and felt like an adult playground. There are holes at the top of the cave to let light in, which means a lot of natural greenery grows inside the cave. The temple, built by a Thai King (Rama V?), looked from the entrance to the cave like it was glowing. There were little pitch-black sections of the cave you could crouch and enter into, with small Buddha statues and candles set up. There were hills in the cave made of reddish-brown dirt, which, although slippery, we climbed up and down. Truly, it was a place you could get lost inside, a place you could spend hours just circling and exploring.

            After a few hours, we climbed out of the cave and back down to the beach. We were starving, so we were actually grateful (for once!) for fried rice. Then, we SWAM (December 11, 2016—I swam in an ocean! 14 days before Christmas). It was as refreshing as you could imagine, especially after our sweaty, tiring hike. Then we lay on the beach for a while, before climbing over the mountain in time to see the sunrise. We took our motorbikes and cruised around for a bit, down random dirt roads, pulling over every so often to take pictures. And then we journeyed back to our hostel (where we watched The Bachelor episode… you know, to compare). We ate dinner (FYI, burgers taste weird and different here—I wouldn’t necessarily recommend… but banana splits really taste the same anywhere), returned our rented motorbikes (and almost got attacked by a crazed dog on the way home, on our bicycles—I’ve never ridden a bike so fast in my life), and went to bed.

            The next morning, we lay at the pool for a while and then began our long journey back to Sakon Nakhon. We also found Burger King at the airport, and I felt an excitement for food that I haven’t felt in forever.

            This weekend was wonderful. I was lucky, honestly, that I’d experienced the “disastrous” Petchabun weekend right before. By the time this weekend arrived, I was well aware of exactly how vacations in Thailand might go. They might go like this: transportation takes forever, no one speaks your language, Google lies to you, places you think you want to see turn out to be unimpressive, and places you hadn’t planned on seeing turn out to be your favorite. I mean, we didn’t do all that much this weekend—we found some fruit and some drinks, we read a book together, we saw a temple in a cave, we swam at the beach. The difference was simply that we didn’t start this weekend with a hard-and-fast “to-do” list, so we didn’t feel any sense of guilt or regret for changing our minds in the moment. Every minute, we asked ourselves, “Is this what we want to be doing? Is this what we want to do?” We were flexible. And we gave ourselves plenty of time to just read a book on the beach, or watch The Bachelor in our living room, without any of us saying out loud, “Hang on a minute—didn’t Google say we could cliff dive and scuba dive and swim with sharks and ride horses, only a few hours from here? Why are we staying still? Why aren’t we moving?

            What I mean is this: I am learning that if all you do is move, it is really hard for anyone or any place to introduce itself properly to you. 

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