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One Part Chiles, Two Parts Kindness

When I told people I was moving to Thailand, a common reaction (after the confused surprise) was, “You are going to eat such good food over there!” Let me just say: Thailand has not disappointed. There is so much good food here—but there’s one catch that I forgot to think about: in a land where you do not know the local cuisine, and you hardly know the language, how do you order the good food?

Some restaurants offer an English menu and others offer a menu in Thai that includes a few photos, so you can point to what you want from a limited selection. Often, however, there is an exclusively Thai menu and you resort to ordering one of your go-to dishes—for me, Tom Yum Kung or Pad See Ew.  I will say that when I first got here, I was really hesitant to order the Thai dishes that Americans over-generalize as Thai food: Pad Thai, Fried Rice, and what have you. While I still stand by this, I would like to note that the Pad Thai here is a holy creation that American Pad Thai hardly does justice to. So yeah, sometimes I order Pad Thai: sue me.

However, on the days that I am able to try new things, I am consistently shocked by the complex flavors and heat that traditional Thai dishes pack. I’ve gained an appreciation for new dishes that were previously unknown to me: Som Tam, for example, is a spicy papaya salad native to Isaan (northeastern Thailand, where I live), that, for 25 baht, is made to order right in front of you on the street. I was lucky enough to learn how to make this dish at the home of a sweet and hospitable Thai teacher. 

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AB49E759-0F88-41E7-BA8E-5E7BF5A086D6Sweet Teacher Goy preparing the ingredients for Som Tam.

2EB2F716-3D48-41A0-8E12-69D38D5AA7E8Mashing up that papaya salad.

Another result of the struggle to order new foods at restaurants is my food kick habit; when I find something I like, I get these little food kicks, and for about a week straight I obsessively eat this new food every day. In my defense, it’s usually a combination of equal parts loving the food itself and loving the Thai people who make it.

Last month, my favorite spot was a little open air restaurant run by the kindest Thai couple. I still go there often, but for about 2 weeks straight I went there nearly every day for lunch or dinner or both. When there, you are literally sitting in the house of the husband and wife who run the shop, as you are in many restaurants in Thailand. Their washing machine is setup in the back, and laundry hangs to divide the restaurant from the home; a TV in situated in a corner of the restaurant, and the owners sit back there and watch game shows at night, occasionally getting up when customers wander in for dinner. Sometimes one of them is reading the paper, or checking emails. They remind me of my parents with their shows that they watch and the time that they spend together in the evenings. The only difference is that their kitchen is open for business until they decide to close up shop and go to bed.

The first time I went there, I ordered Pad See Ew; the next day when I returned, when taking my order the man eagerly asked, “Same same?” My heart melted; he remembered my order. Since going so many times, I have tried a variety of things on their menu. The husband makes my favorite Pad Thai in Surin, but Pad See Ew is still my go-to. Every time I pass the restaurant without stopping to eat, he gives an energetic wave and friendly smile from where he stands behind his grill. The wife only refers to me as, “Teacha,” and treats me with the utmost respect. One time, in another part of town, she rode past me on her motorbike; upon recognizing who I was, she stopped, waited for me to catch up, and then offered me a ride. I frequent their shop often—the food is great, but these two kind souls make the experience.

This week, I’m on a “pick up food from the market” kick, specifically the vegetables and soups from a woman at one food stand in particular. She sits behind her table that holds the day’s prepared meals: plastic bags (there is no shortage of plastic bags in Thailand), each filled with something different—fried pork, cooked vegetables, krapow moo (which is basically minced pork cooked with basil and chiles and other seasonings), clear soups and red soups and white soups. On any given day, there are 8-10 options to pick from, all pre-bagged and ready to go. I can get a meal for two (which I proceed to eat in its entirety on my own, because your girl’s gotta eat) for just under a dollar.

The woman herself is older, and speaks no English; a 2- or 3-year-old child is sometimes with her, sitting on the table with the food, giggling and chattering, taking money from customers and diligently picking out the coins the old woman instructs her to hand back for change. Each day, the woman suggests something new for me to try, assuring, “mai ped,”—not spicy—because she sees my skin tone and knows I’m a wimp. Sometimes I take her up on her suggestion; other times I grab my veggies and rice as a comforting safe option, and then select something new to try from one of the other food stalls. I have no idea what I got last night—a common phenomenon. It appeared to be banana that had been marinating in some sort of sweet, red juice, served with mild coconut milk on the side. Whatever it was, it was delicious. Tonight, I found a woman serving chicken satay! I got a hefty bag of skewered chicken, served with another bag of cucumbers, onions, and green chiles, and a third bag of peanut sauce; like I said, there’s no shortage of plastic bags in Thailand.

From the sister-duo that tells me how beautiful I am every time I come in for lunch, to the kabob-man who always insists I sit on a fold-out chair he has next to his stand while I wait for my order, there are a handful of big-hearted individuals all over town who are responsible for keeping me well-fed. I used to feel a little weird about frequenting the same places day after day, but I realized it’s normal for a girl who has no kitchen. The smile of recognition I get when I arrive at one of my favorite spots makes the food taste better anyways.

60CE0B06-9935-4C42-AD15-9E2444E64A5EDat Tuesday chicken satay bag. Mm. 

Easy as Pai

It has now officially been over a month since I visited Pai back in December, so clearly this blog post is coming later than planned. This last month has been busy, stressful, wonderful, and eye-opening. However, just thinking about writing this blog and all the others I've neglected to keep up with has me wanting to throw my laptop out the window. Dramatic enough?

Let me start by saying that Pai is a MAGICAL hippy-town that everyone has to visit if they're going to be in Thailand for an extended period of time. I had heard of and seen pictures of it before coming to teach here, so I knew it was going to be up at the top of my bucket list. My school had finals at the end of December, which we had to attend to help proctor for the tests. Luckily, we only had to proctor for three days out of the week, so I took off Monday the 25th, as it was also Christmas, and Tuesday the 26th to have a nice 4 day weekend.

The only way to get there is by flying North to Chiang Mai and then taking a three hour bus or van even farther North to Pai. The plan was for me to meet Emily, Laura, and Amy, who is another teacher at their school from OEG, in Chiang Mai on Saturday morning. I was flying out of Don Mueang on Friday night and had booked a hostel about 5-10 minutes from the airport. The three of them had a work party on Friday, so they were flying out of BKK super early Saturday morning. My flight was supposed to leave around 10:30 pm and get in around 11:30, but it ended up being delayed and I didn't get to Chiang Mai until after midnight.

The hostel I booked was supposed to be open 24 hours, but when I arrived it was totally closed. Like lights off, door locked, not a soul in sight. Thank god my taxi driver gave a shit about my well-being rather than just driving off and leaving me stranded. He so graciously helped me to knock on the door and even call the hostel. Turns out See Hostel in Chiang Mai is NOT open 24 hours. I reluctantly got back into the taxi and returned to the airport. Dejected, I asked the airport workers if there were any other 24 hour hostels...they laughed at me and said "no, but you can sleep over there" as they pointed to some extremely uncomfortable looking airport chairs. There were about 10 other people who were doing the same thing as me, and man we were a sad looking bunch.

It happened to be super cold in Chiang Mai that night, and of course I didn't bring anything thicker than a flannel. I ended up having to cover myself with a dress, put on my leggings, jeans, and flowy pants, and curl up on some chairs for the next 7 hours until my friends arrived. I was also getting through a really bad cold, so basically my night blew. To make matters worse, when Laura and Emily got to BKK, they said that Laura's flight had been booked for the night before (even though she clearly bought the same flight as Emily). She then had to go to DMK and wait a couple hours for the next flight out. This meant Laura was 0-2 for flights out of BKK (lol refer back to my Krabi blog...). Mai pen rai amiright?

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my sad sad sad bed for the night

Around 7:30, Emily, Amy, and I eventually got to the Chiang Mai bus station and got tickets for a 9:30 am van. Another thing you should know about Pai is that the roads to get there are extremely winding. You're basically constantly taking huge turns left and right up a mountain the whole way there. And if you get car-sick, I HIGHLY suggest taking some Dramamine. I was sitting in the very front seat of the van and, after one Dramamine, I can honestly say that I enjoyed the ride. It was really interesting to see drivers expertly curve around the mountain road and zoom past people going too slow. The views weren't terrible either.

When we finally got there, I immediately could tell that Pai was the absolute cutest little town. We walked along the main "walking street" that had tons of adorable shops and plenty of cafes offering avocado toast. We took a songthaew to our hostel, Deejai Backpackers, which was about 10ish minutes out of town. The hostel overlooked a rice farm and had a great view of the mountains and a really cool vibe with outdoor seating, hammocks, and music.

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That first day we just chilled at the hostel, headed into town for dinner, and made our way down the walking street to check out all the night vendors. The next day we got breakfast at the most amazing vegetarian/vegan restaurant right next to our hostel called Earth Tone. They had amazing smoothie bowls, guacamole, waffles, and so much more. This would be our first of many visits (no shame).

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IMG_1725~aesthetics~

Since everything in Pai is kind of spread out, renting motorbikes is the best option to get around. If you book a tour, then that can cover a lot of ground, but we wanted to see things on our own. So we rented two for the day through the hostel for 300 baht per bike. If anyone remembers reading about my experience riding around the Green Lung in Bangkok, you'd know that bikes are not my specialty (https://danielleinthailandblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/06/boats-bikes-and-bangkok/). So imagine my shock when I realized that there was no way in hell I was going to be able to drive a motorbike (like no shit). So Emily drove with Laura and Amy drove me, and our first stop was a hot spring about 15 minutes away in a resort. There are a couple hot springs in Pai, but they were each about 20-30 minutes away and harder to get to due to our inexperience on motorbikes. Our goal was really to just avoid dying. On our way there we passed some rescued elephants, and saw one being taken for a casual stroll down the street. It was a nice sneak peek of the elephants we would be visiting the following week in Chiang Mai! (Didn't love that the guy was riding it, but at least it was getting some exercise).

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After the hot spring, we went back to the hostel and prepared to get back on the bikes and drive to Pai Canyon for the sunset, which wasn't too far away. We wanted some time to explore and walk around the canyon before sunset, so we went around 3:00 pm. This was another landmark that I had heard plenty about before, and it definitely didn't disappoint! And for future reference, the dirt on the paths is super slippery, so definitely wear some footwear that has traction! Or even go barefoot.

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That night we had dinner on the walking street, and then it was early to bed for us because the next morning we were planning on waking up around 5 am to go to the Yun Lai Viewpoint to see the sunrise!

Yun Lai was about a 20-30 minute motorbike ride away in a Chinese village. Amy was going on a tour during the day that would take her to the viewpoint so she didn't come with us. And since neither Laura nor myself could drive the motorbike, Emily agreed to drive all three of us there. We grabbed some blankets, made sure no one was going to fall off, and made our way in the dark to the viewpoint. Fitting three grown women onto a motorbike was probably the most Thai thing we've ever done (apologies to Emily).

Once we got to the village, we noticed that there were a ton of other vans and songthaews taking tour groups up to the top of the hill. We sped past them and attempted to go up the very steep roads to get there. Unfortunately, a car came down the narrow road at the same time as us, so we had to pull to the side and stop, and with the weight of all three of us on the bike...we tipped over. Thankfully we weren't moving when it happened! So instead we decided to park the bike and walk the rest of the way up.

Aaaaaannnddd so. many. regrets. It was the steepest hill I have ever walked up. We really had no other choice because the bike definitely wouldn't have made it with all three of us, but I seriously have never felt so out of shape in my life. Damn you pad thai.

Once at the top, we waited with a large group of other tourists as the fog spread over the mountains and the sun eventually rose. It was such a cool experience getting there when it was still pitch black out. Even though you're with a bunch of other people, it wasn't hard to feel serene and at peace up there. Yun Lai is definitely worth the early wake up call.

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^ the struggle of pushing the bike back up the hill


Afterwards, we got breakfast (Earth Tone again obviously), walked up to see a White Buddha statue, and saw more touristy things around town. Today also happened to be Christmas, but because we had a jam packed schedule of activities I honestly forgot about it for most of the day. Every so often another tourist would walk by and say "Merry Christmas" to us, and I'd have the same reaction every time, which was generally something like "oh shit, yeah Merry Christmas..."

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Before dinner that night, we met another girl named Amy who was staying in my room at the hostel. She was solo traveling so I invited her to dinner and we all went to this amazing restaurant that someone had recommended called Pens Kitchen. We ordered family-style and everything was amazing! I highly recommend their Khao Soi, which is a Northern yellow curry dish with noodles. I had never heard of it before, as I don't live up North, but I quickly became obsessed with it. Literally, I wouldn't shut up about the amazingness that is Khao Soi to Kaitlin and Kat and anyone else who would listen to me when I went back home to Saraburi. It is that delicious.

The next day I headed into town and got on my 11:00 am van to make the three hour journey back to Chiang Mai. From there I flew to Bangkok and had to wait for a 10:15 pm train outside of Don Mueang airport to go back to Saraburi. Overall I was traveling for about 11 hours. Because I live so far away, going to Pai definitely required a long weekend. But it was totally worth it.

The town itself feels so quaint and it has the cutest stores, the nicest people, and there are so many beautiful things to see, and we didn't even get to all of it. Added bonus, avocados are EVERYWHERE, unlike the rest of Thailand. If you want to go to Pai and see as many things as possible, I suggest getting a motorbike or doing a tour. The tours were only about 500 baht and brought you to a ton of different places.

Our hostel ended up being really cool and chill, but it was out of town which was a bit inconvenient. So, next time I would probably stay at a different hostel that's a shorter walk to town. And I really do hope there is a next time!

Make sure to check out my personal blog for more posts. Next up is Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi, and Khao Yai National Park!

https://danielleinthailandblog.wordpress.com

 

Courtney's View #8: Teacha Try!

Just when I thought my students had enough of me, they eagerly presented me with a bag of mysterious pods...

"Teacha try, Teacha try!", Eye, You, March, Kempow, and Pooh Bear cried. 

I proceeded with apprehension because I had just taught a rather dry grammar point. Pooh Bear cracked open a pod to reveal a sticky brown protrusion, that looked rather turd-ish. 

I pinched off a gooey bit of the mystery-pod-innard and did not fail to notice that Eye and Kempow had whipped out their phones to snap a quick video. All five girls were giggling going on cackling. I consumed the pod-goo anyway and instead of dying, my tongue was blasted with a fit of tangy and sweet flavors. "Makhon Teachah Makhon!", March said. "Makhon is awesome!", I replied.

Later I discovered that Makhon is Tamarind, a thing I had only ever seen accompanying the desciption of ritzy salad dressings...

Tamarind aside, it was just really nice to sit in those cramped wooden desks and be a student to my students.

Below: Tamarind!

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Courtney's View #7: Jokes & Quotes

I have a page in my journal just for jokes that seem to be common amongst my fellow staff! Anthropological work. Farangs, feel free to add to my cache with any local humor trends you've noticed!

1.) Man or woman typically being introduced, good-naturedly cracks a joke to break the ice. While pointing at many people, the person says, "He is my wife, she is my wife, he is also my wife....", until the laughter drowns he or she out. :)

2.) In a similar vein, my male coworkers like to point at each other saying, "He is having a baby."

3.) One of my coworkers gets called "Superstar" a lot, to everyone's immense delight. On a side note, I think this coworker is real close to achieving Nirvana; he is so chill, always calm, always more than kind. Anyway, at the flagpole ceremony each morning, someone will usually walk up to him, slap a chummy hand on his back and say, "He is superstar." Heads explode. I solemnly agree!

4.) When I do games that involve teams in class, students like to name the other team "Buffalo". The class erupts in cackles every time. I always thought Buffalo was a cool team name. But I recently found out it is a way to call someone superbly stupid. Oops!

5.)  I have a Polish coworker. Every time the weather gets cold enough that she wears a jacket, the other teachers endlessly make fun of her for being simultaneously cold and Polish. "Why you wear this?? You Polish!!!! hehehehehe" 

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I partly wanted to write about the above, so that I could write about what I'm about to write about...

Another of my fellow teachers is the most classic British chap you could imagine. A real countryman, like on a PBS drama. He's awesome. If I was going to make a Thai joke list, I had to make a British slang list...

My future job is to be a translator of British to American.

1.) Cigarette = Stick of nonesense

2.) Whiskey = Glass of madness

3.) "You're a Lazarus!!" = A person who has recovered from being ill.

4.) "Did you hear any joy?" = Did you receive any good news?

5.) Faffing about = Frivolously fussing around, not getting much done. Context: Whatever is trying to be done is probably pointless anyway.

6.) "Let's have a good nose bag." = Let's eat some food.

7.) "Let's leg it." = Irish Goodbye

8.) Discreetly say, "Do one" while pointing your thumb towards the door. = Irish Goodbye

9.) "Come and play your bagpipes in my class, Teacher Xubin(Chinese teacher)." = "Come and play your traditional Chinese flutes in my class, Teacher Xubin."

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Courtney's View #6: Rock the Lonely Planet Book Often

 

One thing that is enhancing my travel experience is research. I noticed that ignorance can sometimes breed pessimism and confusion. For me, my longterm travel experience has become more fun once I turn an observant and curious eye upon my surroundings. The Lonely Planet book that CIEE gave us all is great place to start! Reading it while you're in the thick of Thailand sheds so much light and gives to-the-point commentary. Re-visiting the information as you're surrounded by it makes everything hop off the page as it dovetails with your own experience. It explains so much of the country's inner-workings. Researching has allowed me to simply observe and identify and understand. Often, things I thought were very strange suddenly make a lot of sense! My people watching game is on fire because of it. I highly recommend the "Understand Thailand" section in the back of Lonely Planet Thailand guide.

Among the fun things you will find:

- No, you're students aren't being mean when they laugh every single class as you butcher their name, they're helping you save face.

- Yes, that kid is named "Phone" after an actual phone.

- No, the students aren't showing zilch initiative because they suck, it's because they're specifically taught to not be assertive in the presence of a Poo Yai (an elder).

- That dump truck is painted crazy awesome to ward of bad luck!

- Thai men can enter a temple (take up robe and bowl) for as short as a week to gain the high respect afforded monks.

 

 

Tangled Dreams and Elephant Love

I kicked off the New Year with amazing people, eating incredible food, and participating in wondrous activities in the city of Chiang Mai, located in northern Thailand. Read on to learn about the city of Chiang Mai, elephants and New Year traditions.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful city rich in history. Founded in 1296, the gate that was built then is still standing today. Brick walls separate the ancient section from the new city and when you walk beyond the walls you can see a change in architecture, and a lack of tourists. The only time I left the Old City was for the Saturday Market and to visit Art in Paradise. There is enough to see in the Old City that if you are there for a few days you might not want to leave.

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            A Christmas party with my department at school on Friday night prevented me from leaving Friday, so instead I woke up early on Saturday and took the first flight out to Chiang Mai. Being the first of my group to arrive at the hostel, I used the time to walk around the Old City a bit, and found a market. Food in the North is slightly different than in other areas of Thailand. It was a lot of fun trying new Northern style dishes and I would get them again, if I could ever remember their names.

            Once everyone arrived, we spent a lot of time exploring the area. There are numerous Buddhist temples to see, and well worth the trip. We visited several, but I’ll talk about three: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phan Tao, and Wat Phra Sing. Each is beautiful in its own way, and each has a distinctive style.

  • Wat Chedi Luang has three temples on its grounds: one modern, one ancient, and one that I thought was just breathtaking. The ancient temple, Wat Chedi Luang, is made of stone. The one that appears more modern, and which is also the first one you see, is called Wat Ho Tham. The breathtaking one is Wat Sukmin. You would never know there were three temples if you didn’t walk around Wat Ho Tham. This “3-in-1” temple site is well worth a visit – you can even chat with a monk and learn more about the Buddhist religion and the lifestyle of a monk.

IMG_2795Wat Chedi Luang
IMG_2795Wat Sukmin
IMG_2795 Wat Ho Tham

  • A few steps down the road from Wat Chedi Luang is Wat Phan Tao, a temple made entirely of teakwood. This is the first temple I’ve seen that isn’t stone or modern materials. The teakwood temple was marvelous and is still in use today so I was able to walk into this beautiful place. Behind the temple there were monks hanging lanterns in the trees and around the golden section for New Year’s Eve. These are at midnight to welcome in the New Year!

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  • Wat Phra Sing is one of the most famous temples in Chiang Mai. Many celebrations are held there, inspirational quotes are hung, and a beautiful Buddha, which legend says was brought there from Sri Lanka, gazes peacefully around.

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The grounds around these temples are breathtaking, the amount of gold, impressive, and the markets bursting with delicious foods and interesting pieces, including wallets made of leaves. I’d recommend visiting Chiang Mai just for those reasons, but the area is also known for its elephant sanctuary.

I went with the company Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and they were amazing! 10/10 – I’m not being paid in any way, but I’d recommend them to anyone. They picked us up at our hostel, took us to the sanctuary, gave us shirts for when we saw the elephants (so our clothing wouldn’t get dirty), provided lunch, gave us snacks to feed to the elephants, and even gave us gifts (purses) that we saw in the markets. The employees were super helpful, engaging, fun, and informative. Elephants are my spirit animals and I was never happier than when I was spending time with them. We were able to pet and feed them –the mother elephant even began to hoard the bananas because she received so many. The baby, Nala, was my favorite elephant because she was only a few months old, super playful, and did what ever she wanted. At one point she just stayed underneath the hose head and let the water run underneath her. The two-year old was acting like a normal two year-old and breaking things so he could play with them. He broke the trap and started swinging it around (check out the video, below).

The elephant sanctuary has been my favorite experience so far – and I don’t think much will top it. I fed these majestic creatures, bathed them, and even rolled around with them in the mud. The mud baths were so much fun – I was able to throw mud around and not get in trouble! It was so amazing and I can’t wait until I can play with the elephants again – totally going to be going to the same sanctuary in April.

 

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            That night was New Year’s Eve and Chiang Mai is famous for its floating lanterns. My friends and I all made promises for the New Year and released our lanterns together. I sang songs from Tangled as I sent my wishes and promises into the night sky. This was an amazing experience because I was able to start the New Year off in a way I’ve never done before. The year has started off really well thanks to those wishes!

 

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            Monday was spent within the Art of Paradise Museum, which is an illusion museum. I fell off cliffs, became a mermaid, hung out with pandas, and drank cola with polar bears. This was my first illusion museum and I had a lot of fun being in these art pieces. It was so different than going to an art museum because instead of enjoying the art I was the art. It was a new way to look at and experience artwork. I finally got time to relax Monday afternoon and stayed at the hostel, reading in the hammock and playing with their cats.

 

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            The night markets were some of the busiest I have ever seen. They have Saturday Night Markets and Sunday Night Markets every weekend. As it was a holiday weekend the Sunday Night Market was open on Monday night as well, and they were crowded. The food was amazing: everything was very fresh and I was able to try new foods and some homemade Thai wine. The goods sold were similar to what I have seen before mixed in with many new items as well. Most of those were made out of wood or handmade jewelry. If I wasn’t flying home I would have purchased more, but I didn’t want to break any thing.

            Chiang Mai is beautiful and I can’t wait to go back again in April for Songkran, the Thai New Year’s Festival.

Thai time, all the time.

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I’m officially an expat, now what?

   Life in Thailand so far has felt a lot like an intricate cha-cha.  Take two steps forward, three steps back, actually take a seat and watch the professionals do it. Some of it has been very frustrating because in this dance, you can’t control many aspects of your immediate reality. I’m learning patience and trying to develop that go with-the-flow attitude that I was so sure I had when I came to Thailand, I was wrong. I am living in this space that is not quite a traveler but definitely not a local and I’m desperately trying to find out what that means. Although some of the experiences have felt like sandpaper to my face, living here has many upsides that I hold on tight to until everything else falls into place. 

Which brings me to a list of important lessons I’ve learned...the hard way.

1. Patience is a virtue. The most important of all lessons I am trying to master. In Thailand there is a lot of waiting. You might wait for the bus to leave on time, or not. Or you may wait for the one truck in town that drives to the beach, it might come that day, or not. Wait for things to be ready, wait for the answers to questions you feel like are very important. There has been times that I have been told to wait and I didn’t even know what exactly I was waiting for. Things move in  retrograde here compared to my pre-programmed fast moving cultural mind-set, and I will not have a choice other than to develop patience. 

2. Develop ninja like reflexes. So far I have almost been attacked by a rat taking out the trash, saw a scorpion emerge from the depths of my sink drain and got bitten by a fish in the ocean. I  encountered countless packs of disgruntled stray dogs, had to matrix dodge a flying ocean fish (look it up, they have wings), cohabited with a few lizard, and killed endless armies of ants, spiders and cockroaches. I have also had encounters with many well-trained monkeys, like the one seen chilling like Bob Dylan, below. Most recently, I have even seen a large snake randomly fall off the roof at my school. After being extracted from the large bush, it took five workers and countless garden tools to finally kill the thing. Who knew snakes kept going for it after being cut in half like some sort of magic trick? Many species of plants and animals look like they came straight out of the Mesozoic era, and lurk around with no shame.  All of these examples, and many more have taught me to always have my game face on. Nature is much closer to humans here than it is in the United States and it is definitely something to get used to.
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3. Brutal honesty is always the best policy, in Thailand. At any given time it will be made known to you if perhaps you aren’t having the best hair day, if you do not carry a small Asian like body frame, or if your outfit for the day lacked good judgement. In Thailand, it is not an insult to tell people about their appearance, it is just said as a fact. Swallowing pride, getting used to brutal honesty, and rolling with the brass-knuckle covered punches, is all part of the process. I don’t know if a little kid, telling you your hair looks, ‘very messed up,’ will ever be an easy pill to take. 

4. Live outside of your comfort zone. There is a big difference between trying things that are new and eating, sleeping and breathing things that are out of your comfort zone. Living in Thailand takes you from dipping your toes into new things to throwing you into the deep end and hoping you come back up for air. Ending up in one of the biggest red light districts in Thailand on accident, buying a bus ticket to the wrong place due to communication errors, or eating food that I have no idea what it contains are all examples of living this new level of discomfort. It’s worth it and I am growing and finding my way through each experience, but much like residual sand stuck in your bathing suit, it isn’t the most comfortable of all things.

5. Building community is key. I have only been in Thailand for about 2 and a half months. I now have what the young kids call, "my people." I have met both local Thais, vagabond-wanderlust seeking travelers and everyone in between. The community of people here has most definitely propelled me forward and make it easier to build a life in this new place. 
 Let me just tell you if by chance you end up on Khaosan Road on New Years Eve with thousands of other people packed together like sardines, you are going to thank some higher power, that you have friends to hold on to in the crowd, and laugh about it when it's over. Having people around that know what you are going through and will band together to help you get through the ups and the downs may be the only way I make it out of here all in one piece.
IMG_1800This is an ancient Buddist tradition that is even more magical in real life than in the picture. I don't know how many trees are here, wrapping around each other and growing together, but it is a pretty cool sight to see. 

6. Failure to communicate is a real problem. Communicating with people in the USA has been difficult to say the least. I feel like I am solving a difficult math equation, trying to convert military Time back 14 hours to the United States. Then finding windows of time when each participant is available to speak. Let alone finding a phone plan that lets you call abroad. Shout out to my family for helping me figure it all out. This double life thing is complicated, but I get by with a little help from my friends, family and basically everyone I know. When I say little, I mean the largest quantity of assistance at all times, possible. Communication between locals and foreigners is also difficult. Finding yourself in that no-mans land between spoken languages. That area where there are no words in either language that both parties can exchange for any type of mutual understanding. Although my communication style usually entails delivering my best charades performances, I am usually met with confusion or a smile and nod. In the instances that I am asking a yes or no question, there is a 50% chance that I get the answer that I need. Needless to say, learning the basics in Thai has been crucial in getting by here. I hope to learn more but there are some sounds in Thai that just haven't found a way of being formed in my mouth/ vocal cords. 

8. Holidays aren’t the same when you are away from family and friends. This year was the first year in my entire life that I wasn’t near a single relative or friend during two of the biggest holidays, Christmas and New Years. It was a strange feeling. I ate Chicken and rice, the only Christmas tree I personally had anything to do with was a design in the coffee I bought, and instead of having a white Christmas, I had a tropical drink at one of Bangkok’s infamous sky bars. Thailand doesn’t celebrate Christmas as much as it just decorates for it. In typical Thai fashion everything is decorated in lights, fancy back drops, two story sized blow-up polar bears, but when you aren’t at home in your normal life, it all feels a little tacky and gimmicky. Coming from America were consumerism is off the charts, that is a bold statement. Getting a little perspective never hurts, and I will definitely appreciate the time I have with friends and family in the future.
 
9. Learn how to mix the old with the new. Living in Thailand has been like creating a DJ mash-up remix of an old school jam with all the new things I have seen here. One thing that I have noticed is that in Thai there are many words and phrases for the concept of, "it is ok." Mai Pen Rai, Mai Leo, Sabai Sabai, are all different ways to basically say, "everything little thing is gonna be alright." There are many more words that also share the same meaning, but I am still in the beginner course and haven't gotten there yet. Point being, they don't just have words to say these things, they have so many words to convey this because there is a mindset here to match it. As I have said before, life here can be very frustrating, but if you catch on to the laid back attitude and the slower paced lifestyle, it might ease the pain a bit.
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The ultimate example of Thai time.This is a work truck and a hammock lounge. 
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An activity I did with my students for Father's Day in Thailand. Who wouldn't wear these?


I'm not a blogger so I don't know for sure but I feel like this is part where I tie it all together and add some quote about living and learning. I'm not going to do that, that is what bumper stickers are for. All I know is that I have no idea what I am doing here, I just know that for as long as I am here, the sun will rise again and I will live on to fight giant spiders, another day.
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Christmas and Sports Day

Yikes, it has been quite some time since I last posted a blog! Believe it or not, I actually have a life outside of teaching. Monday - Friday, I am at school from 7:30 - 4:30, then my nights are spent at the gym, doing laundry, showering, and eating dinner. During the weekends, I have been traveling throughout Thailand. The days go by so quickly, which is why finding time to blog has been so hard. Let's see if I can catch you up within the next few blogs! 

Where to start? Christmas! Man, waking up Christmas morning was... STRANGE! There was no snow, no presents, no Christmas tree, and no family. Instead? 81 degrees and a day of work. But I was actually looking forward to it. Christmas had arrived at Satit Bangna, where the whole day was dedicated to celebrating the holiday! The students were greeted by Santa, who was giving out candy, as they entered the gates! Then, the whole school gathered in the courtyard after morning assembly. We danced the Christmas ChaCha, sang some songs, watched some plays, and found out the winners of the Christmas card making competition. 

My Co-teacher Dulce and I spent the prior weeks teaching our P1 students a Christmas song and choreographed a dance to go along with it. They performed in front of the whole school. While some stayed towards the back, the students loved singing and dancing. They even loved the lessons about Christmas. With P2, it was my job to select 6 students to read, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". I was so proud of them. We spent about two weeks learning the story. They too, read to the whole school. Although there was no snow, no presents, or family surrounding me, my students were such a joy to be around! 

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After school, Mandy, Adriana, Shane, and I went to Bangkok for the night. We enjoyed some nice Italian food, wine, beautiful views, and Christmas lights. We took a taxi to the BTS (skytrain) into the city. Our whole way into Bangkok, we blessed other travelers with our beautiful voices caroling the entire way! Some starred, some took pictures, and some even joined in. 

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Sports Day

Sports Day was quite the day at school. For weeks, students spent Friday afternoons meeting with their team and playing/practicing different sports. But Sports Day was the final day of activities. It was a full day event, where students competed against each other for medals. Games included a relay race, a running race, a soccer game, cheerleading competitions, bean bag race, tug of war, etc. It was so fun to watch and see each team cheering on their teammates. Teams included the Yellow Lions (ME! AND WE WON ALL AROUND!), the Blue Sharks, the Red Eagles, and the Purple Monkeys. 

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That'a a wrap! Up next: my week vacation! 

Mai Pen Rai

I am writing to you from a state of week-induced hangover. My recent weekends have been so full of tiring travel and activities that coming down from the emotional high of the excitement, genuinely leaves me feeling like lukewarm death. Nothing indicates a spry and full-of-life 22 year old crossing the decorated threshold into maturity, like being literally hung-over from fun (look away energetic college friends, I don’t want you to see me like this). Here’s what you missed while I’ve been technologically cleansing - procrastinator speak for shirking on my blogging responsibilities. The most aged news is that Emily and I got to meet up with a pack of our orientation friends to attend the E-San music festival in Khon Kaen. Considering the relative geographic isolation of our province, it was to be the first time we were reunited with pals of any sort and we were determined to make the most of it, immediately hopping in a cab upon arrival to take us to the promised land (an actual bar with actual people). Despite being in a province that was relatively more familiar with foreigners, we were greeted by the same local fascination we were used to in Amnatcharoen. At this point I will take a moment to reflect on how lucky I am to have Emily considering my literal paralysis vis-à-vis the art of haggling. Somehow the drivers can always smell my fear, rendering me as useful as a screen door on a submarine.

After finally whittling the reluctant cab driver down to a reasonable price, we victoriously crowded into the back seat. The cab driver, assuming we couldn’t understand his local jargon, watched us like a popular tween watching her instagram likes compiling. He muttered incessantly owning his interest even after we politely requested he stop. Emily, in the front seat, jumped into action, insisting (in broken, nonsensical Thai) that he keep his eyes forward. This unlikely hero, standing at a menacing 5 foot 2 and wearing a fun n’ flirty romper as opposed to the conventional armor, repeatedly threatened to pay the driver less than the pre-established price, he contemptuously agreed. Like my first graders goldfish-like attention span, this resolution lasted all but seconds before the harassment commenced again. In this moment, Emily’s skin took on a green-ish hue. Her balled up fists ballooned to the size of basketballs. She howled and beat on her chest while unmistakable fireballs of threats poured from her eyes as she prepared to hulk smash the peevish grin directly off that man’s face. Or at least, the fear emanating from every inch of the man’s body indicated that this was how he perceived Emily’s Mama Bear mode. The delicious silence for the rest of the car ride, ashamed on his part, smug on ours, was a firm reminder that Emily is the fighter you want in your corner in roughly every unsavory situation ever. We proceeded to have an awesome evening catching up with our estranged pals and thrashing our limbs about to the cacophony of confusing Thai rap.

The next morning as we were getting ready for the festival, we realized that no one actually knew the genre of the event. One girl had heard reggae, another had heard country, a third yet had jumped to the conclusion that the festival would showcase electronic music. This misinformed state is highly representative of my entire existence in Thailand. I have used the “Mai pen rai” lifestyle (a Thai axiom literally translating to ‘whatever will be will be’ and manifested as go with the flow) as an excuse to be an ignorant American and deceivingly dressing it up as adaptability. In our eagerness, we showed up to the festival many hours premature. Determined to make the hours productive, we took the time to explore the campgrounds, the vendor stalls, and the venue itself to deduce what type of music the festival would display. After hours of exploring, the jury was still out. The decorations gave off decidedly Woodstock-y vibes which was overall conflicting with the Native American headdresses and confederate flags adorning the sea of tents; oh Thailand – you’re so cute when you don’t get it at all.  The butchered lyrics of expired American one hit-wonders crooned in jagged Thai drawl floated on the warm wind from the sperm stage. This is not hyperbolic. In a misguided attempt to be edgy, or youthful, or mysterious (all conjecture, I actually have know idea what motivations drive one to make sperm thematic) the stage was adorned with goliath paper mache swimmers looking down on us like ethereal higher powers of fecundity. I caught myself thinking that the incongruity of the decorations seemed to fit perfectly with the other arbitrariness of the festival – a thought that was interrupted by a family of neon painted elephants meandering by. The astonished public stopped for an onslaught of pictures, of the wild and unnatural white people of course, not the humdrum two-ton mammals. The rest of the event was spent enjoying the relaxed vibes, and socializing with some of the local bands playing the event.

The following weekend we relegated our exploration to more local areas as our lady gang of Thai co-teachers invited Emily and I to venture to Surin with them for the day. According to our ‘deny no authentic experiences’ mantra, we hopped into the truck bed at 6am where we were to be assaulted by gale-force winds for the next three hours. The initial purpose of the day-trip was for the co-teachers to sign up for the teacher test. It is incredibly difficult for co-teachers to become subject teachers in Thailand. That day we journeyed 250 kilometers simply for them to register for a test that 300 hopefuls, our friends included, would later take only to yield a dissatisfying result for a confounding 298 of them. What a staggering statistic: from the initial scoring, only two co-teachers will evade disappointment and be awarded teacher status. The two selected will have less than a week to pack up their belongings, move to a new government-selected location, and enter a binding contract performing duties they’ve never executed. The only commitment I have ever made that approaches that level of solemn obligation was purchasing a Proactive subscription in my oily youth. I can only hope that the commitment results in less dry skin and scarring for our impressive friend who placed among the top two selects!

After the registration process we found a local restaurant where, as is customary, we took off our shoes and settled into a seated position on the floor. Emily and I love spending time with our Thai friends because we are undoubtedly on the benefiting end of this parasitic relationship. While they squirm under the smothering and unfamiliar starring we tend to elicit, we get to coast on autopilot through basic interactions that are normally very taxing for us as non-Thai speakers. We eat like kings when we are with them! By eat like kings, I mean we get to actually decide what we want to order before shooting in the dark and pointing at random words on an indecipherable menu. Thailand has decidedly made me a simple girl with simple needs. I happily munch on the flying ants and silkworms they order as appetizers (while our friends thoughtlessly crush their buggy victims between their chopsticks and wave them around in our faces saying “Ooooooh, monsters”) to earn my meal of delicious local favorites. I live for the tableside conversations we muddle through while sideswiping language barriers and hurdling over narrowly-missed cultural divergences. For your reference, please enjoy this example of a genuine interaction we fought through:

Emily: (posing a theoretically easily-understood question to the table) Do you like vegetables?

Co-teacher: I like Cuba.

Emily: (rolling with the punches) Why do you like Cuba?

Co-teacher: Delicious!

Emily: (emitting brain smoke as she tries to connect non-existent dots) Oh you mean cucumbers?

Co-teacher: Yes, teacher!

Emily: (pushing on, encouraged by this conversational break-through) Do you like Spinach?

Co-teacher: No, I like Germany.

To this day, none of us are sure if we were discussing vegetables or geography. Luckily, we know that we always have a banter contingency plan in the form of John Cena. John Cena, if you’re reading this, you should move to Thailand, like, yesterday and reap the rewards of local obsession. Age and gender does not discriminate on this point. Our girly co-teachers, elderly Thai classroom attendants and students alike all converge on their pious devotion to John Cena. Students who could not mutter a single word of English despite intense teacher assistance can be heard gallivanting around at recess yelling, “YOU CAN’T SEE ME”. I don’t get it, I honestly don’t, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to a dialogue that both involved parties can understand. Keep doing what you’re doing out there beefcake!

The day took a sobering turn at the elephant enclosure we understood to be an ethical sanctuary but in actuality was a cruel, monetarily driven training facility. We decided against lingering and supporting the operation and settled for night market exploration instead. Riding around in that truck bed exchanging American and Thai music, discussing language, and sharing experiences with our indigenous friends is a memory I will treasure forever. Cherished friendships formed under impossible circumstance and the supplementary commentary on human kindness and acceptance that accompanies them are the most beautiful gifts Thailand has given me.

Until next time!

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Goodmorning, Teachaa

After talking broadly about the trips I have taken, I thought I would use this post to chronicle a glimpse of what I experience on the day-to-day, specifically each morning at school. Typically, I arrive around 7:50 when the teacher on side gate duty is impatiently holding the gate open for the last students sprinting to make it, and myself. I slide in and wai: “Sawadee ka,” I say in greeting, “Hello! Kap khun ka for holding the gate.” My Thai sucks. It’s usually a mix of Thai and English, with most Thai phrases being repeated quickly in English (sawadee-ka-hello), almost in apology for how attrociaous I sound. She smiles curtly as she locks the gate, dooming all latecomers to the extra block’s walk to the front gate. 

I drop off my bag in my office, slip into my school shoes, sign in, and head to the huge, covered, outdoor gathering area where the 3000+ students already stand in neat rows, taking attendance and chattering. I am an advisor for Mathayom 5 (the age equivalent of Juniors in high school), but due to the fact that mai kow jai—I don’t understand—Thai or anything that is going on,  I mostly just stand there and look pretty. Occasionally, Cream—the class leader—runs up to me with papers written completely in Thai, hands them to me, and points to lines for me to sign. I dutifully initial, and hand them back to her; nothing bad has come of this strategy yet. 

I scan the rows for the M5 teachers I recognize so that I know where to stand today. I’m in my own world and remember —shit—I almost forgot my manners. Wai, wai, wai, as I pass Thai teachers; some wai back; other, older ones, simply nod in my direction. I’m still not confident I completely understand the whole waiing concept. The wai itself is a slight bow with the hands together; it is a greeting, a show of respect. The subordinate initiates the wai with the superior, and the superior (or equal) then returns the wai. Students wai teachers all day long, and that is usually accepted with a nod of acknowledgement from the teacher or, if you’re bridging cultures like me, a smile and a loud “hello.” While the student-teacher power dynamic is pretty straightforward, superiority is not always black and white. For example, in the school setting, elder teachers are definitely superior, as are those who hold a higher position than myself (how would I know what someone’s postition is? Answer: I wouldn’t). But riddle me this: what do you do when faced with someone who is older than you, but in a lower position?

For example, there is a custodian who works in our building; she is not old, but she is definitely older than me. One of the first days, I hit her with a wai and a, “Sawadee ka.” She giggled—ok so maybe I wasn’t supposed to wai her? I thought—but she returned the greeting and seemed pleased, the pressed-lip grin remaining on her face and she returned to sweeping. I guessed that not everyone at the school showed her the same respect because a custodian job is held to be lower than the highly regarded teacher position. Whatever—I’m barely a teacher—I wai her every morning , and she always giggles quietly but wais back, appearing to secretly enjoy it.

Anyways, I don’t make it through the morning without waiing at least 30 people. Once I spot where M5 has decided to line up that day, I stand nearby and observe, as some Thai teacher barks loudly on the microphone. I never have any idea what he’s saying, but it never sounds very positive—until occasionally the whole place bursts into laughter, and then I’m confused.  When it is time for the flag ceremony to begin, the barking on the microphone stops abruptly and the students stand at attention, facing the flag. The national anthem is sung, the voices of 3,500 students and teachers harmonizing, accompanied by the band. When it is over, everyone turns in unison 90 degrees to the left—we are now facing the Spirit House and Buddhist alter and it is time for prayer. After prayer, everyone turns again, another 90 degrees to the left, facing an image of the King. The song of the royal family plays, some words are said, and then there is a rustle of noise as the men bow and the women curtsey. 

More than likely, at some point during this ceremony my co-teacher, another M5 advisor— Rassarin—has snuck up beside me. She stands about a head shorter than I and, in her limited English, speaks to me fondly in a tone one might use on their 2-year-old; she affectionately addresses me as baby. When the ceremony ends, we engage in some only moderately uncomfortable routine small talk, Rassarin never abandoning her sugary tone. We comment on the weather and discuss our weekends—“What did you do this weekend?” I ask on Mondays. “Oh, I sleep!” or “What are you doing this weekend?” I ask on Fridays. “Oh, I sleep!”—and ending with, “Nice day, baby!” when she decides that the pleasantries are over and bids me adieu, marching into the throng of students to fulfill what I assume are the duties of 2 advisors by herself.

And then I slip away, retreating back to the safety of the EP building to settle into my office and wait for first period to start. Depending on the number and sorts of activities taking place where the students remain at the assembly, first period might start on time at 8:20; it might start late, around 8:40; students might roll in from assembly at 9:05, 5 minutes before the period ends. Today only two students showed up to first period, with 15 minutes left until the bell; I found out during second period that all afternoon classes would be cancelled. When these things happen—and they happen often—there is no point in getting frustrated—I guess I’ll push today’s lessons to tomorrow.

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