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34 posts categorized "*Traveling around Thailand"

The Highs (and Lows) About Travel and Teaching

            Without a doubt, Krabi falls somewhere between 1-5 on my own personal list of “most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life.” I spent the weekend there, and it didn’t feel a bit like the Thailand I’ve come to know. Instead, it felt every bit like the Thailand I’d imagined before coming here; the Thailand I’d envisioned when I’d found this Teach Abroad program in the first place. For the first time, Thailand surpassed all my expectations.

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            It also couldn’t have come at a better time. When I write these posts, I try not to include too much of the “bad,” because I don’t want to spend my time focusing on the negative, and plus, being here for such a short period of time, it feels a little silly for me to have any complaints (Like, “you’re complaining? Try being a local here—watching you jet off every weekend to places we’ll never be able to afford to visit; making a higher salary than all of us, because you’re not from here; leaving at the end of this trip to return to a country we’ll most likely never see, because the conversion from baht to U.S. dollar will swallow our savings whole, whereas your savings have quadrupled here in worth.”)  

            At the same time, I think I should at least mention the “bad,” partially for my own memory, and partially because if I don’t, all my high moments will just seem ordinary against the backdrop of other equally-high moments. If anything, everything I say will begin to sound false and fabricated, if all I ever do is cover my sunset/pina-colada moments and fail to record all the many ways this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

            So here it is, a quick run-down: three days before Krabi, I wanted to quit this whole journey. Really. First of all, I’d been sick following my New Years adventures, and there is no lonelier feeling in the world than waking up in a small apartment feeling dizzy and nauseous and realizing, wait a minute, if I want a banana and a piece of toast, I will need to get on my own motorbike and travel to 7-11 in 100 degrees and hope I don’t faint on the ride over, because I have no one here to help me.

            In itself, that isn’t true at all. I could have called my co-workers or the owner of my apartment building and I’m sure they would have been more than happy to help. But I didn’t want to inconvenience someone I didn’t know well, and besides, that wasn’t the part that was making me so sad. It was more that it hit me, all at once, how very on my own I am. When else in my life have I been this alone? I grew up with my family to take care of me, and when I went to college, I was surrounded by people who very quickly became my best friends. I’ve also never lived alone, and that’s a different thing entirely. So it wasn’t until I woke up sick that I realized the gravity of my situation in one panicked-filled instant: I have to take care of myself and figure out how to make myself feel better, because no one else is here to lessen the burden.

            And then, besides being sick (or maybe because of it), I just felt ready to be done. I kept having these thoughts like, “Okay, so I did the whole ‘Eat-Pray-Love,’ thing, and let’s face it… I’m not a 28-year-old divorcee looking to find herself, and this was a silly and way-too-extreme idea to begin with, because I really didn’t need to rip myself away from all my family and all my friends to come explore a foreign country for this amount of time and live in this grungy apartment by myself with one spoon and one cup to my name; I probably should’ve just booked a 10-day vacation instead, and then I should have found a job in Boston or D.C. with friends and family, at the most, only a few hours away.”

            Plus, the time difference is hard, because it means I haven’t talked to some of my family and friends since October 20th when I came here; I’m just on the opposite schedule of everyone else I’ve ever known. Every time I wake up, all of you are going to bed (unless you’re reading this from Thailand, in which case—thank god we wake up at the same time!), and every time I go to sleep, all of you are just beginning your days. So it’s hard not to feel even more isolated, given that I am literally living by a different sun and different moon (I mean, technically I know it’s still the same sun and same moon, but it doesn’t feel the same, when I see them at such drastically different times).

            So that’s the “bad.”

            And then I arrived, Friday night, in Ao Nang in Krabi.

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            My friend Devon and I went to Krabi with her brother, who was here visiting, and his girlfriend and their friend. This, in itself, was a blessing. It was so nice, for a weekend, to travel with three people who were seeing Thailand as I would see it, if I also only had ten days here: they had endless enthusiasm for the novelty of it all, and when they pointed out the oddity of this culture after I’ve learned to ignore or accept it, I could see it for it’s uniqueness all over again. Plus, they had a stricter time-table than I have, so our trip was anything but laid-back (in the best way possible): we fit in bar-hopping, clubbing, snorkeling, speed-boating, sunbathing, eating, socializing, dancing, shopping, and a million other highly-rewarding experiences, while limiting our sleep and down-time because who has time for that?

            As I look back on the weekend, I still think, It has to be one of the best weekends of my life. First, Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, we were picked up at our hostel for a full-day speedboat ride to lagoons, various islands, and snorkeling spots around Krabi. This cost us roughly $90.

            We took a speedboat to our first location, a low-key spot with only a few other boats, where we could jump into the warm light-blue water to snorkel. The fish were outrageously colorful—I mean, even just one fish might be purple and neon green and pink and blue spotted, at all once.

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            Then our tour guide, a guy named Sunny (who spoke English incredibly well), and his boat crew (who could not speak English at all), took us to Maya bay. He offered to take us to the beach where The Beach movie, with Leonardo Dicaprio, was filmed, but since it was 400 baht and literally crawling with tourists with no more than a foot or two free-space in between them, we declined. We stayed in Maya bay (I think), but he took us to a quieter beach he knew of, a small strip of sand maybe 30 feet long with only a few other boats and maybe 20 other tourists, a big improvement. The boat beside us, actually, had three Russian men and 15 Russian models (we assumed the men were paying, since they were older and fatter and the girls were young and stick-thin and spent their time taking hundreds of Victoria Secret Swimsuit-Edition-inspired pictures in the water and on the sand). And then the other boat carried three Americans from Chicago (all average looking, so I’m assuming no one was paying).

            We lay on the sand for an hour and walked around our small secluded/Photo-shoot beach, taking pictures (not quite as impressively as the models) and swimming in the warm, salty Andaman Sea. I did not forget my luck that I was floating in this warm water with the sun beating down while most of my family and friends are freezing back home in Massachusetts. Isolation has its perks.

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            Then Sunny brought out some fruit, rice, vegetable stir-fry, chicken wings, and curry that he’d prepared personally for us. He kept us well fed and well hydrated during the day with a cooler in the back of the boat. He even risked his life cutting the fruit with a very large knife while our boat slammed up and down at high speed on the waves.

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            After we ate, Sunny began telling me a little bit about his life here. Krabi, he explained, wasn’t always this tourist hot-spot. When he was younger he went out on the ocean every day with his father, a fisherman, to catch fish which they could trade in their village for other things they needed, like rice and clothing. “It’s not like that anymore,” he said, smiling, “I can’t trade my fish for anything anymore. Everything is too expensive now to do that.”

            I asked him if he still fishes, and he said, “Only if the tourists want to, but most of them don’t. Sometimes people from China or Japan want to fish, and then I fish with them.”

            Hearing that most of his day was crafted for the whim of a tourist, I said, “When you were younger, was Krabi like this? Filled with tourists, I mean?”

            “No,” he shook his head, smiling. “When I was younger it wasn’t like this. I used to go out on the boat with my dad. We would sometimes come to these beaches together. He doesn’t come out here much anymore—he’s weaker now. A couple years ago I stopped being a fisherman, and now I do this, because this is where the money is. In the last twenty years, I’ve had to learn a lot of English… I try to learn one word a day. My English isn’t that good. But I need to know it.”

            Doing my own research, I’ve read that there were 336,000 foreigners and 54,000 GIs here in Thailand during the peak of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, around the late 1960s. In 2015 alone, there were over 29 million international guests. Assuming Sunny is in his 50s, this makes sense. He most likely grew up during the initial tourism boom in the 1960s, when Thailand became a destination for R & R visits of American GIs:

These visits were significant not only in terms of the increase in numbers of foreign visitors, but also as a principal factor of change of the touristic image of Thailand, and of the kinds of tourists which began to be attracted to the country from the mid-1960s onward. 
In the past, the image of Thailand in the eyes of Western visitors was that of an exotic, enchanted kingdom in the Orient. The arrival of American servicemen on R & R visits, compounded by the stationing of about 40,000 U.S. military personnel in bases in Thailand, shifted the emphasis in the tourist sector from sightseeing of cultural attractions, reflecting the earlier image, to more mundane pursuits, primarily sex and recreational activities. (http://thaiworld.50webs.com/travel.html).

            Although the Vietnam War is a big factor, tourism also boomed in Thailand during the 1960s and 70s due to the “rising standard of living, more people acquiring more free time, and improvements in technology, making it possible to travel further, faster, cheaper and in greater numbers… Thailand was one of the first players in Asia to capitalize on this then-new trend”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourism_in_Thailand).

            Today, tourism accounts for 10% of Thailand’s GDP and supports 2.2 million jobs, with around 30 million people visiting each year. I assume, on the basis of my own guess for Sunny’s age, that this is why things looked so different for him when he was young; but this is my own assumption.

            After lunch, Sunny cleaned up our dishes and trash and said, “Okay, now I will take you to Phi Phi Don. You can stay for an hour there.” Phi Phi Don is one of the more popular tourist-destinations in Krabi. I hadn’t done much research prior to visiting Krabi, so I only knew this from Devon’s brother, who was surprised upon arriving that the beach was “less packed” than he’d expected, although it was still well populated with people sunbathing and drinking and swimming, as well as shops and restaurants and resorts which are, apparently, at least $100 per night and out of our price range (to put this in perspective, we paid $60 for an entire weekend in our hostel).

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            My group agreed that they were slightly unimpressed with this beach, after all the hype. We preferred the more private beach we’d been taken to earlier. We also greatly preferred the lagoon Sunny took us to after Phi Phi Don. The lagoon was light blue and surrounded on three sides by high limestone rock and dark green trees; a few other boats were anchored in the lagoon, and people were casually jumping off the sides of their boats, like we were, and floating in the lagoon. There was a light mist coming off of the water (I still can’t believe how blue the water was). Floating in the water and looking up at these limestone “walls” had to be one of my favorite highlights of the weekend.

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            Then Sunny took us to another area, Bamboo island, although we never stepped foot on the island. We jumped off the side of the boat and then snorkeled for another hour. He came with us and pointed to little reefs filled with Nemo look-a-likes, all identical to Nemo and coming out of the coral and going back into hiding just like Nemo does in the movie (I didn’t know they do that in real life!). There were so many different kinds of fish here, so I just spent the hour with my head underwater, watching them all in their quiet little paradise.

            Afterwards, Sunny drove us past a cave called Viking cave with egg nests that are apparently sold to eat in places around Thailand and Asia (side note: bird saliva is also sold and eaten in Asia, because it has health/spiritual benefits). Then he took us near Chicken Head Island so we could take some pictures. We drove back to dock the boat around 4 p.m. We showered quickly and ate dinner on Ao Nang beach, only 100 feet or so from our hostel, to watch the sunset. Then we walked around and went to some low-key bars before falling asleep around midnight.

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            The next morning, we got breakfast at Café 8.98 (I googled “Breakfast in Krabi” and it was the first result with 5 stars. The website said, “New York in Thailand.” It was delicious. I had an avocado and blueberry smoothie—I didn’t know they had avocado in Thailand!—and an omelet with real cheese and real tomatoes and no rice).

            Then we took a long-tail boat to Railay beach. The boat gets its name from the engine-design—a long wooden stick hanging off the back with a motor attached to the end, which the boat driver has to navigate by pushing the motor to one side or the other depending on which direction he wants to turn us, all the while carefully balancing on the opposite side so as not to fall into the water. It cost us about 200 baht, or $6, round-trip.

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            In the airport on the way to Krabi we met a fellow American backpacker named Brenden who told us, “Don’t just go to Railay… there’s a cooler beach called Ton Sai right on the other side. Walk all the way to the end of Railay and find a path through the jungle to the other side. It’s much less populated and so beautiful; plus, you can rock-climb there.”

            “Oh! Can anyone rock climb? Like, could I?” I asked him, picturing Dick’s Sporting Goods’ man-made 10-foot rock-climbing wall.

            He shrugged, putting way too much faith in my athletic abilities, and said, “You might be able to. It’s tough, but maybe.”

            So as soon as we set foot on Railay, Devon and I led the group to the left side of the beach to find this hidden path. We finally located it—around the corner of a cliff, just a short path through the waist-high ocean. A few shirtless rock-climbers with ropes tied around their waists verified for me that, if we walked the path, we’d find a beach on the other side.

            The path in itself is a great deterrence for less-motivated tourists. It was difficult and steep and sometimes terrifying, especially in my Jack Roger sandals. There was a rope we needed to hold onto just to keep from falling, and by the time we reached the other side, we were dripping in sweat.

            Once we touched foot on the other side, I saw immediately that my friend Brenden had generously overestimated my previous rock-climbing experience (which consists of a few experiences tackling the man-made wall in Dicks Sporting Goods and struggling, with my limited arm strength, to pull myself up the 10-feet to the top, at which point you hit a bell for succeeding in the ‘feat’).

            Apparently, rock climbing at Railay beach is a very popular activity for well-seasoned rock climbers around the world who don’t mind risking their lives. The people who were rock-climbing had “Rock-Climbing in Thailand” travel books on their towels and were climbing hundreds of feet in the area, looking for places to put their hands and feet on real rock—there were no red and green plastic “rocks” sticking out of the limestone for them, like what I’d expected—these people weren’t messing around.

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            We spent the day on the beach here. Right behind us we had a jungle with palm trees and wild monkeys with white-rimmed eyes and slightly crazed expressions. A little to the left, we had two limestone rocks with a wild green mess of trees and bushes in between. As the tide went out, many of the old boats became locked on shore, sunken into the sand.

I can’t think of a more beautiful view, in all my time in Thailand; it’s hard to think of many more beautiful views, actually, in all my life.

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            The tide was out around 5 p.m., so we were able to wade back over the rocks and through the ocean to Railay beach (the tide was so low, actually, that I said to Devon nervously—“is this low tide or the beginning of a tsunami?”)

            I took hundreds of pictures over the weekend (the views were too beautiful to resist), but I put my phone away for an hour so I could enjoy the sunset with Devon as we sat on the sand in the water, which was up to our necks and still not cooling us off enough. I could’ve sat there for longer, but the last boat back was at 6.

            When we docked back at Ao Nang, we ran to 7-11 and grabbed bottles of wine (300 baht for a full bottle--$9; or less than $1 for two mini bottles, which I bought), which we carried with us back to Ao Nang beach to watch the end of the sunset. Then we got Mexican food for dinner and asked our waitress if there were any clubs in the area or, at the very least, places open past midnight.

            “Go to the Burger King down the street and take a right,” she instructed. “Chang bar.” We’d already heard about this bar, because it was really the only place open past midnight. So we ventured there and had an incredibly fun last night, playing pool with boys from Switzerland and dancing with Argentinians to American music and watching Lady Boys parade around the street and boys in wheelchairs spinning sticks on fire in the air. We had so much fun that we didn’t leave Chang until 4 in the morning.

            The next morning we shopped around and returned to Café 8.98 before leaving this little piece of heaven. I boarded a plane to return to Sakon Nakhon, which was hard to do. Part of me wished I was travelling like Devon’s brother, his girlfriend, and their friend—short-term and filling my days with only the best parts of Thailand, the parts that look like the travel brochures and the Google images. But I know my time will come soon enough, and I will have more of it, courtesy of the money I’m saving up working here first. Beginning in March, I can travel to see only the best places.

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            Plus, there’s something to be said for this kind of “travel.” Some days, when I'm feeling especially homesick and wishing I was home, and even (at my lowest points), regretting my decision to come here, I think of the alternative: imagine if, all my life, I’d never lived in Sakon Nakhon and had never met students like Oom and Fluke and Folk, their eyes bright every Monday morning when I walk into the classroom, always eager to offer me half of their morning breakfast and intensely interested in my weekend travels because they want to learn about the places in their country they might never see; imagine if I’d never met my travel friends, who are sharing all of these highs and lows with me; and imagine if, all my life, I’d never felt this kind of loneliness, this kind of sadness, that, by contrast, make weekend trips to Krabi feel like a unique kind of euphoria, because I’d gone a little while without it.

        Never in my life will I regret giving myself the opportunity to live alone in a foreign country; but I know, without a doubt, that I would have had plenty of regrets if I'd chosen not to teach in Thailand because I was afraid. 

17 Again

There are a lot of perks that come with teaching in Thailand: bonding with students over shared pop culture interests; living here long enough to become skilled at using public transportation; applying knowledge of the Thai language in order to have a conversation… even if it is only a 3 sentence exchange. Yet, living in Thailand can be just as challenging as it is rewarding. I came into this semester doing my best to expect the unexpected. Easier said than done. Dealing with education reform, overcoming the language barrier and adjusting to Thai food preferences (not spicy usually still means at least a little spicy) have all pushed me to grow in more ways than I could have predicted. Instead of dwelling on the things that frustrate me, I am focusing on 17 things that are bringing me joy so far in 2017.

1. Live musicGoing to college in Austin, Texas made me quite the live music enthusiast. I’ve been on the lookout for a fun concert since I arrived in Thailand and I finally found it! On a recent trip to Bangkok, a friend spontaneously brought me to a showcase of different Thai bands. It was the perfect night: new friends, great jams and even the chance to meet the lead singer from one of the performances!

1The lead singer of my new favorite band Summer Stop! During the performance, he even gave a shout out to the "farang" (foreigners) in the crowd and sang a couple of pop songs in English! Click photo to enlarge. 

2. Cliff jumping: Talk about an adrenaline rush. During my New Years trip to Chiang Mai, I visited the “Grand Canyon.” After some coaxing from friends, I decided to take the plunge and jumped off the 24-foot cliff! Following a solid couple of seconds of free fall (an eternity when you’re in the air) I hit the water. Once the initial shock wore off, I swam to safety and lived to tell the tale… to my parents… after the fact.
 
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The Thai Grand Canyon runs the U.S. some serious competition! Click photo to enlarge.
 
3. Wat Chedi Luang: While in the Old City of Chiang Mai, I walked to a nearby Buddhist temple. Wat Chedi Luang is a remarkable 600 years old. Thanks in part to a restoration project, the base of the stupa (a mound-like structure that holds sacred Buddhist relics) displays 5 elephants made of brick and stucco. I was awestruck by these structures, and they certainly made Wat Chedi Luang one of the most stunning temples I’ve seen so far.
 

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The 5 elephants surrounding the temple were the highlight of my visit! Click photo to enlarge.
 
4. Tex-Mex: But maybe “Thai-Mex” is a more accurate description. Regardless, finding Mexican food in Chiang Mai was a great way to kick off the New Year… although it still can’t compete with Qdoba. (Sorry Chipotle fans!)
 
5. Dragon fruit smoothies: Especially when they are 25 baht (about 70 cents)!!!
 
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Smoothies are now my preferred after school snack and sipping them in the park make them taste even better! Click photo to enlarge.
 
6. Doi Suthep: The view from the temple atop of the Suthep Mountain was spectacular, and well earned after the 300 stairs it took to get there!

4A bird's eye view of Chiang Mai. Click photo to enlarge.

7. Friendship bracelets: Purchased shortly after the hike up Doi Suthep, they’re still special even if they fell off most of our wrists soon after buying them.
 
8. Rainbow unicorn party: My favorite after-school English class for 4-year-olds had a belated-New Years party equipped with an inflatable unicorn, balloons and temporary tattoos. Everything was rainbow, even down to the food (red and green apples, orange slices, corn, blueberries and of course multi-colored M&M’s). Still up for debate who had more fun at the party – the kids or me!

5Just a few of the many rainbow-colored decorations. Click photo to enlarge.

9. Gift exchanges: The pure joy that radiates through a classroom full of 6th graders trading New Years gifts is indescribable. It made my heart so happy to witness all of it!

6My sweet students Gong and Tonkla took a lot of pride in receiving the same Eeyore stuffed animal during the gift exchange. Their happiness was contagious! Click photo to enlarge.

10. Muay Thai: I have a newfound respect for boxers after witnessing my first Muay Thai fight earlier this month. The rounds passed quickly (before it got too graphic!) and I learned that men and women come from all around the world to compete.

7Moments before the fight began! Click photo to enlarge.

11. Three-day weekends: I’m really looking forward to the upcoming break in honor of Teachers Day, during which I plan to travel to a province in west Thailand and explore a seven-tiered waterfall! Fingers crossed no face plants are in my future.

12. Birthday bash in Bangkok: I have less than 2 weeks to continue “feelin’ 22” as Taylor Swift would say. While this will be my first birthday outside of Texas, I’m so excited to ring in my 23rdyear surrounded by my friends in Bangkok at the end of January.

13. Tutoring time: Every Wednesday I tutor two adorable sisters. Together we laugh through the lessons as we talk about the highlights of our days and play games in English.

8A selfie with the sweetest sisters, and no - they aren't twins! Click photo to enlarge.

14. Sports Day: This week at school there’s been less teaching and more playing as the students take part in Sports Day (which is actually 3 days long… don’t ask, I can’t explain it). Volleyball, basketball, soccer and badminton tournaments have been taking place all across campus in place of regularly scheduled classes. Though it is throwing a wrench in my lesson plans, it’s been entertaining to watch my students excel as cheerleaders, athletes and coaches.

15. Cotton candy clouds: The sunsets in Thailand really never get old.

10The view from my apartment is surreal! Click photo to enlarge.

16. Sundays at the movies: I mentioned in my last blog post that I spent Christmas Day at the movies. Lo and behold my friends and I found ourselves back there again last weekend. There’s something comforting about sprawling out in a recliner on a Sunday afternoon in a theatre. It truly makes me feel not so far from home!

17. To be determined…As cheesy as it may sound, I’m looking forward to recounting all of the wonderful reasons I have to be happy that haven’t even happened yet! 2017 is just getting started and a lot of exciting events are on the horizon. This year my goals include globetrotting, learning everyday and connecting with people from around the world. Only time will tell what adventures are in store. I can only hope they will bring me as much joy as everything I’ve experienced already!

Bryna also blogs about her Teach Abroad journey at http://lifeofbryna.blogspot.com

New Years: A Time for Friends and Spontaneous Adventures

While Christmas is not celebrated by most in Thailand, New Years is full of festivities.  In Chanthaburi where I teach, there is a big New Years market where people from all over the Chanthaburi province come and sell goods such as furniture, plants, clothes, and food.  For about a week this market went on, and it was constantly bustling with people, filled with aromas, and with the sounds of live music that went on until late at night.  

For New Years I went to Chiang Mai again, which was really fun.  I met up with some friends I met at orientation, and we had a great time exploring the city, eating delicious food, and bringing in the New Year by releasing paper lanterns into the sky and dancing the night away.  Chiang Mai is definitely one of my favorite places I've been in Thailand thus far.  There is a lot to do and see, but the city is pretty relaxed and not far from many natural attractions.  

On my way back home I took the overnight train from Chiang Mai, which got me into Bangkok early Monday morning.  Initially I thought I would grab breakfast and maybe walk around Bangkok for a while, but it was still so early, and Bangkok is so big that I did not know where to start.  I asked someone at the train station if he had any recommendations of places to go, and he suggested Ayutthaya.  Ayutthaya is the old capital of Thailand, and is a place I had been wanting to visit anyways, so I took his suggestion and went to Ayutthaya!  Ayuthaya is is about two hours by train from Bangkok, and costed just 20 baht ($0.56)!  When I arrived I got lunch and then found a hostel with an open bed.  The hostel I stayed at is called Allsum Hostel, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone traveling to Ayutthaya!  It is very nice and not expensive either.  Oh my, I am so glad I took this impromptu trip!  Ayutthaya is so beautiful and rich with history.  There are so many ruins to explore, which is especially nice if you rent a bike for the day since the sites are somewhat spread out.  

Here is an anecdote from my travels in Ayuthaya:

I am walking around one of the ruins, and approach one large structure timidly, because I am not sure if I am allowed to climb up or not.  A group of monks walk up from the other side, and encourage me to come up as well.  When I get up we greet each other, and then the monks ask to take pictures with me.  First, each monk takes out their iPad, and takes an individual photo with me, and then we take a couple of group pictures.  And the whole while I am just laughing, because yet again my preconceived notions of monks is different than reality.  Yes, some monks have iPads and like to take pictures with farangs, some may friend you on Facebook, and just in general they are a lot more approachable to everyday people than I thought they would be.  I've had some very normal conversations with monks since I've been in Thailand, which I really did not expect.  Of course, it is important to always be respectful around monks as they are highly revered in Thai society.  Some may just surprise you with their willingness to talk to you.  If you do get the opportunity to speak to a monk, definitely do.  Its a great way to learn more about their lives, and about buddhism in general.  

Well that is it for now!  Much love and courage to do something you've never done before!

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Bold is Gold

After I studied abroad in 2014 I thought my life was over. Done were the days of spontaneous weekend trips, meeting new friends from all over the world and being a person first, student second. Soon after I went back home to Texas, I turned 21. It was at this point I had an epiphany: the reason my life was so fun abroad was because I made it that way. All I had to do was make conscience decisions to live my life in an exciting way. And so, I did. I traveled to Budapest; I developed my public speaking and event management skills; I became comfortable doing things alone. 

If 2015 was the year of introspection, 2016 was the year of boldness. By the time I turned 22, I could make a strong argument that teaching in Thailand would be a good fit for me. After my annual identity crisis (“People expect things out of 22 year olds!”) I submitted my teaching application. Of course, the golden question every second semester college senior is asked always came my way. “What are you doing after graduation?” For a long time, I couldn’t give a definitive answer. I stuck to “I plan to teach in Thailand.” Key word: plan. It wasn’t until April that I got my acceptance letter and could finally start planning for post-grad life. In May I graduated, a process that was entirely more emotional than I could have ever imagined. I spent most of June and July completing my Austin bucket list before moving back to Dallas in the fall. August and September included trips across the US to visit friends and family before departing for Thailand in October. In the weeks leading up to my departure date, I anxiously made lists, lesson plans and travel goals. Then, in November I adjusted to my new normals and began to thrive in Chachoengsao. So far, December has been one of the most fulfilling times I’ve ever experienced. I found my work-life balance. I connected with fellow teachers and travellers. I made bold decisions. It’s safe to say I can still make a convincing argument that teaching in Thailand is the right job for me.

In between teaching and tutoring, I find time to travel. I spent the past two weekends in Bangkok, a city I am really warming up to. I realized that Bangkok reminds me a lot of New York City: jam-packed public transportation, incredible shopping, booming nightlife and historical landmarks mixed in throughout the modern day urbanization. Once I could accept Bangkok for what it was, I started to love it that much more.

Two weeks ago I took a river taxi to visit Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn. Although the temple is currently under renovation, my friends and I made the most of it by walking around the perimeter. The view from the top was well worth it!

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At Wat Arun, the landscape is beautiful. Landmarks such as the Rama VII bridge are easy to spot. Click photo to enlarge.

When we were finished walking around the temple, we shopped at the neighboring market (yes, elephant pants were purchased) before boarding the river taxi again. After a weekend filled with massages, street food and tuk tuk rides it was time to head back to Chachoengsao for school.

During the week I am expanding my tutoring network. I value the connections I can make with kids outside of the classroom as a native English speaker. Our current focus is common greetings and “get to know you” questions. The potential of the students I tutor is great and I’m excited to track their progress. I hope to make them more comfortable and confident speaking English.

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Tutoring time was a great success! Click photo to enlarge.

When I’m not FaceTiming my dog, I go on evening runs at the local park (and I have the bug bites to prove it). The sunsets never get old and I love truly feeling like a part of the Chachoengsao community.

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The view from the local park always leaves me awe-struck. Click photo to enlarge.

Last weekend’s trip to Bangkok was one of my favorites so far! I put my paycheck to good use at JJ market, one of the largest markets in the world. It’s impossible to even conquer the whole vicinity in just a day, so I’m looking forward to going back...once I get paid again. Instead of heading back home first thing Sunday morning, my friends and I played all day in Bangkok. Best. Decision. Ever. After a cab ride to a nearby mall, we had a Western-style lunch (finally got my mashed potato fix!) and treated ourselves to a movie before heading to the bus terminal. I couldn’t help but laugh that even halfway across the world, I still found myself at a movie theater on Christmas day.

This week at school my students are taking their midterms before we break for the New Year holiday. My M1 (6th grade) students took their exam first and every single one of them passed! I totally had a proud mama moment when I heard the news. Together, we ended the year with a big accomplishment. In addition to M1, I also teach English for Tourism to a group of M3 (8th grade) students. I recently asked them to write a paragraph about their ideal workplace. As I was grading their submissions, I came across a sweet note from one of my students. File under: highlight of my day.

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I completely melted at this response. Click photo to enlarge.

I also got to visit my favorite group of 4-year-olds at their after-school English class this week. Together we did arts and crafts, danced the hokey pokey and played with Snapchat filters, a pastime that is appealing to all age brackets and cultures.

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Favorite filter with my favorite boy. Click photo to enlarge.

This weekend I will travel to Chiang Mai, a large city in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is known for its mountains, cooler weather and weekend bazaars. I am looking forward to exploring a part of Thailand that is uncharted territory for me. Perhaps that’s what 2017 will be all about: exploring the unknown. Cheers to the New Year from my time zone to yours!

Bryna also blogs about her Teach Abroad journey at http://lifeofbryna.blogspot.com

A Weekend In Bangkok

What do you do when you have a long weekend in Thailand?  You travel of course!  Thankfully, travel is actually quite inexpensive here, which is great.  While I had my program orientation in Bangkok, I honestly did not see a ton since we were kept pretty busy the whole time, and because I was just so tired with the major time change.  So I thought now was the time to explore some of Bangkok!  

It was a great weekend too!  I stayed at the Bewel Hostel which was nice, and quite close to attractions like Khaosan Road and the Grand Palace.  The first day I did some solo travel and explored some sights like the Big Buddha, the Marble Temple, and the Golden Mountain.  Initially I did some exploring on foot, which Thai people think I'm crazy for instead of just taking a tuk-tuk or a taxi, but then I hopped in a tuk-tuk since it was raining, and the driver took me to different sites and waited until I was ready to go to the next place.  This was quite convenient and quite cheap, since Bangkok is a pretty big city.  

A tip for any newcomers or people thinking of coming to Thailand: don't be afraid to negotiate prices!  Oftentimes taxi drivers in major tourist destinations will double or triple the price for you just because they see you are foreign, so ask for the meter in taxis, or negotiate with tuk-tuk and songthaew drivers.  

On my first night I met up with my friend Hannah that I met at my orientation, and we got some delicious Mexican food (hey, you've got to get it while you can)!

The next day a visited the National Museum and the Grand Palace, which was quite a spectacle.  You have to pay a hefty entry fee of 500 baht, but it is definitely worth it!  Everything glistened with perfection.  Make sure to dress appropriately as well!  You can rent clothes at the palace if you need to, but to avoid this make sure your shoulders and knees are covered.  

This same night I went out for food and drinks with my friend Hannah and a few new friends, which was quite fun!  Bangkok has definitely got down nightlife and delicious food!  

On my last day, Hannah and I went walking to find the Anata Samakhom Throne Hall, which took some trial and error to get to, but it was definitely worth the visit!  It has a beautiful and intricate museum inside, filled with historic artifacts, magnificent paintings, and detailed embroidered pieces.  

Overall, it was a lovely weekend!

 

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Solo Travel in Koh Chang

Two weekends ago I decided to take a solo trip to Koh Chang.  My whole trip was actually quite unplanned.  Koh Chang is an island off of the Trat province, which is just an hour away from where I live in Chanthaburi.  I decided to take a day trip and to explore Trat and Koh Chang which is just a short ferry ride away, but I brought extra clothes in case I wanted to stay the night. 

And I must say, this trip was so wonderful!  Initially I had my inhibitions of solo traveling in Thailand, not because of the safety, but rather just because of the quite real language barrier.  Some of the songthaew (taxi) drivers in my town speak as much English as a speak Thai, which is not a lot!   I had fears of getting lost in the middle of nowhere, you know, classic traveling worries.  But I got over these petty fears and decided to take a short trip!  From Chanthaburi I took a minivan to Trat, which took about one hour, and then I took a 30-minute ferry over to Koh Chang.  Solo traveling in general is always such a rewarding experience!  You do exactly what you want and go wherever your heart takes you.  On the ferry ride over, I just felt so alive, with all the time to take in my surroundings and contemplate my time in Thailand Thus far.  

Koh Chang is a very beautiful island.  There are several different beaches on the island, and the island itself is densely forested with with some waterfalls to see as well.  I decided to go to White Sand Beach.  When I arrived I went on search for accommodation, since I figured it would be worthwhile to stay the night.  I would actually recommend more than one night, maybe two or three.  I would also recommend booking accommodation before you arrive, because Koh Chang is actually a popular destination on the east coast of Thailand, and there was not too much available when I arrived.  Despite this, I still loved figuring everything out as I went along, and not having a set plan.  I found a simple place to stay called The Fisherman Hill Resort for 600 baht, which is pretty standard for Koh Chang, just a three minute walk away from the beach.  

All I really did on my short getaway was swim in the beautiful, clear ocean, indulge in a good book, and eat delicious food.  It was perfect.  

The only downfall to my trip was when I was trying to get back to my town, as everything took a lot longer than I thought it would.  I waited for a whole hour for the right type of songthaew to arrive to take me to the pier, and once I was on the ferry I waited another hour or so before it actually left, so when I got back to the mainland I missed the last bus back to my town.  I ended up getting pretty ripped off to make my way home, but even that could not ruin my great weekend.  

I would definitely recommend Koh Chang to any travelers in Thailand!  It is a beautiful place that is popular but not overrun with tourists, where you can have a nice peaceful weekend to yourself or enjoy the nightlife if that is more your scene.  
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Snakes, Gibbons & Elephants… Oh My

 

This weekend we almost got pummeled by a herd of wild elephants! ​​​​​Watch the video here!

…I’m getting ahead of myself. This weekend was another three day weekend. We took a 4 hour bus ride to Pak Chong, and from there rode in the back of a truck to Khao Yai National Park

A friend recommended Greenleaf Guesthouse, so we booked a room for two nights and a full day tour of the park for Saturday. 


Normally we are so not the type of people who take guided tours, but after extensive research we realized that the park was absolutely massive, and seeing it all would involve A) renting a motorbike, which we’re still scared to do, or B) a lot of hitch hiking, which we’re clearly not opposed to, but we were kind of on a time crunch. 


So Saturday morning we woke up at the crack of dawn and ate some toast and coffee at the guesthouse canteen. Then we hopped in the back of a truck-turned-songteow and headed to Khao Yai. 

It was the first time we’d been cold since getting to Thailand back in October! It was a refreshing kind of cold, though, and I didn’t even care too much that I didn’t bring more than a flannel. 

Our guide’s name was Lek, and he was so knowledgeable and amazing. Our first stop was at a sweet view point, where we got to soak in nature a bit, and also watch monkeys steal food from other cars! 

Then we went trekking (which, I found out, is hiking but without following a trail) in search of gibbons and other wildlife. Lek pulled out all these weird but effective animal-tracking techniques… like snapping three times and then listening to the wind. At one point he stuck his hand into the hollow of a tree, whistled, and then led us to a rare species of spider. We weren’t sure what he was doing half the time, but his English was great and he pointed out so much wildlife that we definitely wouldn’t have seen without him, and he told us all about it. 


We saw monkeys and gibbons and learned about their different calls. About an hour into our trek, Lek stopped dead in his tracks (something he did every time he sensed something around us), told us he found something green, and asked us if we were ready. Then he snapped his fingers and pointed to a pit viper. Supposedly, this kind of snake is one of the most poisonous in the world, and if a green one bites you, you have 12 hours to get to a hospital before you die. Fearless Lek took my camera and snapped this close-up! 


We saw so many weird plants. Some of them we even tasted… like Bread Fruit, which numbs your mouth for 15 minutes! 


One common theme during our trek was trees wrapping around other trees. I was so mesmerized by these! 


Lots and lots of towering fig trees loomed above us. I’m allergic, but couldn’t help but climb on them (and then use a ton of hand sanitizer). 

By the way, those nerdy white things on our legs are leech socks. We put them over our regular socks and pants since land leeches (and ticks!) are apparently a thing here. 


We even got to see a few waterfalls… 


After a full day of hiking and trekking, we piled back onto the truck, began the drive back to the guesthouse, and that’s where we ran into the wild elephants. They were angry- kicking and charging at the car ahead of us. We were really scared… not an emotion I thought I’d feel while encountering wild elephants for the first time! Eventually we sped around them, drove home, and watched the sunset as we shivered in the back of the truck. 

When we got back to Greenleaf, we had an amazing dinner, and hit the hay. 


We also spent some time planning out our winter break, which we’re spending in Chiang Mai & Pai. The cold was a good indicator of what the weather will be like up there! 

Next stop: A chill weekend in Bangkok to prepare for our Northern Thailand adventures!

4 ways to budget for mid- and post-semester travel

There aren’t many jobs that allow you to earn money while traveling, but fortunately teaching English in Thailand is exactly that. Most ESL teachers find the idea attractive because they have the opportunity to see new parts of the world without going completely broke.

While that’s the goal, actually maintaining a supply of cash to live comfortably and still travel regularly takes a bit of self-control and effort. Here are four ways I was able to afford mid- and post-semester adventures without making many daily sacrifices.

1. Actively save money
When I decided to travel at the end of the semester with a fellow American teacher, we counted how many weeks there were between our last day of school and when we were expected to be home for Thanksgiving. Because we only had five weeks but a long list of places to visit, we decided to save more than 30-percent of our monthly teaching salary for the trip. We were flying between countries instead of taking buses so we could see more and save travel days, but decided it was worth spending extra money. If you have more time, go the traditional backpacker route and city hop via night buses.

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I found this interesting depiction of Buddhist Hell in my hometown.

2. Balance weekend vacations and staycations
A choice that allowed me to actually save that portion of my teaching salary was staying in my hometown some weekends. While it would have been awesome (though probably exhausting) to travel every Friday and Sunday, I wanted to have money to see more of Southeast Asia when school ended. My city, Chonburi, wasn’t a bad place to hang out on the weekends because there are beaches nearby, a few malls and good places to eat. I imagine a rural town would be more boring, but you can be creative with entertainment! Get some other teachers together for movie night with Netflix and microwave popcorn or find a craft store and work on a little art project for fun.

3. Seek out extra savings
One of the best ways to save money while traveling is opting for less comfortable and/or convenient transportation options. Instead of paying over 1,000 baht for a flight, you can spend a few hundred for a night bus. Bumping along Thailand’s underdeveloped roads isn’t exactly comfy and it takes much longer to get to the destination, but it’s worth the savings if you’re truly dedicated to having money for post-semester travels.

You can also use the Internet to find sweet deals, whether you’re looking for budget hostels, flight discounts or promo codes for websites like Hotwire.com. Take the time to explore your options before you book anything to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your baht.

Finally, keep frivolous shopping and Western food indulgences to a minimum. It’s tempting to embrace Thai fashion and load up on relatively cheap clothes at markets because, I mean, less than $10 for a dress?? However, you probably don’t actually need all of those clothes and the purchases add up quickly.

I didn’t really take my own advice much when it came to eating Thai food instead of Western food. My friend and I would splurge on pizza instead of spending less than 50 baht for Thai food quite often, but I really love pizza so I couldn’t control myself, honestly.

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I saved some travel money for a mid-semester 5-day trip in Northern Thailand.

 

4. Pick up side jobs
Depending on which part of the country you live in, it’s often quite easy to find students who want extra tutoring lessons after school or on weekends. Because I lived in a decent-sized city, there were tons of tutoring centers that had regular staff. However, small towns with fewer foreign residents offer many opportunities for ESL teachers to make extra cash.

Although it varies based on the number of students per lesson, the length of the sessions and the type of material you cover, you can earn several hundred baht in a few short hours. I worked two hours each week with one 22-year-old student and was paid 700 baht. If you live close to Bangkok and are willing to commute, you can find work in the city and make much more money.


Having enough money to see Thailand and beyond may require you to keep track of your budget and forgo weekly trips to the bars on Khao San Road, but the hard work balances out when you’re enjoying beautiful waterfalls and historic temples around Southeast Asia.

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. 

Ayutthaya to Zen

Current mindset: teach first, travel second. My number one priority in Thailand is to educate my students. Any travel I get the opportunity to do is an added bonus. These past few weeks have truly epitomized this idea. A friend and I recently joked that it is as if I lead a double life. Monday through Friday I am known as “Teacher Bryna,” a foreign teacher who travels in her free time. Over the weekend, I’m Bryna from Texas, a tourist who happens to also teach English. I am doing my best to accomplish all of my goals, even with the juxtaposition of being both a teacher and a tourist. Since my last post, I’ve been fortunate to experience many different aspects of Thailand. Here’s a look at what I’ve been up to lately, from A to Z.

A is for Ayutthaya ­– Thailand’s capital city until the 18th century when it was sacked by Myanmar (formerly Burma). Once a thriving area filled with temples and a royal palace, all that is left now is ruins. On my recent visit to Ayutthaya I was astounded by the sheer size of what remains. The stupas, or Buddhist shrines used as a place for meditation, will make anyone feel small in comparison. It almost felt eerie being there and imagining what life used to be like!
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Pictured above at the temple Wat Maha That and below at the temple Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya.

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B is for bats – a creature I was horrified of until last weekend when I learned how majestic they really are! During my visit to the province of Pak Chong, I watched in awe as 2 million bats migrated from underground caves into the night sky.

C is for crocodile – one of the many animals I saw up close and personal during my trek through Khao Yai, a national park in Thailand.

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Full disclosure: this picture is zoomed in... I wasn't getting too close to this guy!

D is for dogs – they’re everywhere in Thailand! At school, in the street, on the beach... everywhere!

5Pictured: some of the dogs at my school. Not pictured: literally the dozens of other dogs at my school who roam around like they own the place.

E is for elephant – specifically, the one wild elephant I saw in Khao Yai National Park. My tour guide made sure to emphasize the “wild” part. Though elephants are known as gentle giants, it is still important not to get too close.

F is for face plant – AKA what I thought would happen to me during the entire 3 hour trek in Khao Yai.

G is for Ganesha – a large reclining Ganesha (Hindu deity) is located in my province at Wat Saman Rattanaram. It is said to be the biggest in Thailand, if not the world!

6Wat Saman Rattanaram is so large, I couldn't even capture it all in one picture!

H is for hanging gibbons – not to be confused with monkeys, gibbons are actually apes that live in trees and are known for their hooting. I got the chance to see many gibbons bouncing from tree to tree in Khao Yai.

7This little guy was kind enough to pose for a photo before jumping onto the next tree.

I is for icicle – which is what I thought I would turn into in the 68 degree winter weather in Pak Chong and Khao Yai. To everyone who is living through actual freezing temperatures, I’m sorry.

J is for jam-packed – basically what every single day feels like. During the day, I lesson plan and teach. After school, I tutor conversational English and I travel on all of my days off. As someone who loves being busy, I'm really not complaining!

K is for Khao Yai – where I spent my time off last weekend. Khao Yai is Thailand’s third largest national park, as well as the first area to be established as a national park in Thailand. My weekend was filled with learning more about nature, admiring wildlife and forming special bonds with friends new and old.

8Pre-hike, post-gibbon siting.

L is for lunch crew – which consists of a group of 10th graders I serendipitously started having lunch with every Wednesday. Half of the time is spent with my students asking me questions about America, and the other half is spent with me asking them questions about proper pronunciation in Thai. I'm pretty confident each party thinks they are getting the better end of the deal! I look forward to this lunch every week. It is so rewarding to see them open up to me a little bit at a time in order to practice their conversational English.

M is for midterms – I know now that midterms are just about as fun for teachers to write as they are for students to take.

N is for night swimming – which is what happened last weekend after day 1 of my tour around Khao Yai. The water was pretty frigid (it is winter, after all) but it was refreshing to take a quick dip.

O is for outdoor classes – my latest teaching strategy when the weather is too nice to stay cooped up in a classroom. My students definitely approve.

P is for pad see ew ­– currently my favorite Thai dish.

9Pad See Ew is the opposite of "Ew."

Q is for quitting – which is never an option, especially when it comes to writing 2 exams in 48 hours.

R is for rainbow fish food ­– the multicolored Cheeto-like puffs I used to feed the fish frenzy in the Chao Phraya River in Ayutthaya.

10I'm a fan of anything rainbow... even fish food!

S is for still smiling even with a scorpion spider – on my FACE. Slightly terrifying, kinda felt ticklish, huge adrenaline rush. Trigger warning in case you have arachnophobia.

11Sorry Mom...

T is for trek – 3.8 km in length all throughout Khao Yai National Park. Definitely one of my most cherished experiences in Thailand thus far.

U is for underground caves – the place where I saw many bats, creepy crawlers and Buddha statues! Though it may come as a surprise, many monks actually visit the caves around Khao Yai to meditate.

12One of the Buddhist prayer sites within the cave.

V is for views – specifically from the Pa Deo Dai cliffs in Khao Yai. In a word: breathtaking.

13Holy Khao Yai, isn't Thailand beautiful?!

W is for waterfall ­– which is what I worked towards seeing during the trek through Khao Yai.

14The Haew Suwat waterfall is one of the most popular in the area, and for good reason.

X is for x-rated – monkey behavior, that is. Apparently the monkeys in Khao Yai mate about 20 times a day. No picture included for this letter!

Y is for yai ­– “Khao” translates to mountain and “Yai” translates to big. 

15Khao Yai is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Z is for zen ­­– I found my zen after touring for hours throughout Khao Yai, pulling over to the side of the road and watching the sunset. It was pure bliss.

16Another day in Thailand = another striking sunset.

Thailand has so much to offer and I can’t wait to keep exploring, making memories and immersing myself in this beautiful culture.

Bryna also blogs about her Teach Abroad journey at http://lifeofbryna.blogspot.com

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