So this past friday was the Vesak, which is a Buddhist holiday celebrating the life and death of the Buddha. Apparently, this is the most important day of the year for Buddhists, and on this day all the Wats (temples) are open to the public and free to visit. Most all of us decided to use this time to visit Wat Benchamabophit (or Ben Wat) which is simply the closest nearby temple. It's still quite a walk, however, and while asking for directions halfway there, a couple of tuk-tuks (basically a rickshaw connected to a motorbike) pulled up and offered to drive us to 3 different wats for 20 baht a person. Despite this sounding very much like a scam, everyone except for me and one other fellow teacher decided to take them up for it. Unfortunately for them, it was a scam, and the tuk-tuk drivers drove them around to commissioned gem shops and kicked some of them out when they didn't buy anything. We all ended up at the same place, though, and they only lost 20 baht each, so it wasn't too bad. The wat was pretty cool, though - there wasn't a ceremony or anything going on but we all went inside and sat down for a few minutes, contemplating the Buddha. Or something like that. There were a couple monks chilling outside, talking on microphones and laughing to each other. Sounded like they were doing some sort of Buddhist stand-up routine. I can't be certain. There were tons of foreigners visiting this wat though, so street vendors and peddlers surrounded this place, and it seemed more like a tourist trap than a serious celebration of the Buddha's birth, lifetime, and death.
When we got back, we decided to spend the rest of the weekend visiting Ko Samet, which is an island in the south of Thailand (ko means island). A couple people left friday night, but five of us decided to do something around Bangkok for the night and then head down Saturday morning. Unfortunately, it didn't really work out like that. Instead, we all fell asleep for like 5 hours. This has happened several times already - I think it is a mixture of our sleep schedule still adjusting and the intense heat, but we have all taken way more naps than usual, often when we are trying to make plans. Anyway, we wake up Saturday morning and take a taxi to the bus station for a 3-hour bus ride to a 45-minute ferry to get to the island. Then on the island, we all pile into the backs of these green pickup tricks that look they are straight out of Jurassic Park as they whiz down the muddy dirt roads to get to the beaches.
This may be a good time to talk a little about how absolutely ridiculous drivers are in Thailand. I'm pretty sure there are no traffic cops, because traffic rules feel a little more like guidelines here. The lanes mean absolutely nothing - they seem to be markers for about how many cars should be able to fit across the street, but thats about it. We passed another car in the same lane in our taxi. The same lane. And there are thousands of Thais on motorbikes just weaving in and out traffic without any helmets or protection. While in NZ I picked up driving on the left pretty quickly and it wasn't really a problem whatsoever, I don't think I would ever attempt anything of the sort here. Somehow it all works out without an overabundance of traffic collisions, but I honestly don't know how. I wouldn't last 5 minutes trying to drive around this city.
Back to Ko Samet. It started raining literally as soon as we got on the beach, but it only lasted about five minutes. I think that's mostly how the rain is going to be here, with flash storms of heavy rain occurring occasionally but never lasting long. As soon as it ended, we got to experience the pristine white sand beaches and the beautiful, warm, yet incredibly dead-sea-salty ocean. Bars and restaurants line the coast so a drink or snack is never far away, and we immediately also found lodging in an area filled with tiny two-person bungalows for rent. The bungalows were pretty neat - they were on stilts and the beds were covered in mosquito nets, so it felt tropical and exotic. Unfortunately, we discovered that the "mattress" was in fact just an elevated deck of wood, but it was nothing a couple beers wouldn't solve.
Speaking of beers, that's how we spent the evening. This led directly to my poor decision of the night, which was to take a midnight swim with all my clothes on, effectively ruining my newly bought cell phone and my camera (alas, there shall be no pictures from my first days in Thailand, but such is life). Good thing I have the address for a good Electronics shop in the area. Also managed to lose a pair of sandals and sunglasses. Oh well. Welcome to Thailand, I guess. At least I didn't go home with a kathoey (although I definitely saw one at the beach - he/she had long hair, implants, and a voice deeper than mine).
But the weekend ended and my first real day of teaching came around. I ended up switching back to my original schedule after the teacher I first switched with (Greg, a non-Loyolan) had some sort of crisis and realized he couldn't work with kids this young. So I'm now officially teaching social studies to 1st and 2nd graders once again. Which I realized after today might be quite an endeavor. These kids are absolutely out of control. The language barrier doesn't really seem to be the problem - some teachers teach mostly in Thai and others mostly in English but I'm there mostly for having a proper knowledge of the English language and as a disciplinarian. The real problem is that these teachers have classes of about 30 kids and they have no control over any of them. The kids talk and talk throughout the class, run around, fight each other, sleep, play with my tie when I'm not looking, and basically do anything but pay attention. If one of my elementary school teachers had to deal with these groups of kids, I think they would have a heart attack. Something that was mentioned about this was that Thais are very concerned with protecting their own image (or "saving face") so if they have a special needs child they will enroll him in regular school instead of giving him the help he needs because they don't want to publicly admit that their child has a problem. Not that I think my kids are special needs, but if any of them are, there's no way I'd be able to tell. They are all off the walls at all times. This idea of "saving face" though also just applies to any situation of likely embarrassment a Thai might be in - for example, if you ask a Thai for directions and they don't know, they will often just make the directions up. It's not trying to be cruel by any means, they just don't want to look stupid or uninformed.
So after a full day of trying my hardest to make kids focus, we met to go over our period eight assignments. Basically, period 8 is an extra class at the end of the day for kids who want (or whose parents want them to have) some extra help in English. I'm splitting a group of kids with my friend Lisa, so we'll teach every other day, but today we both met together to introduce ourselves and have a first lesson. Of course, we had no idea this was happening today and had nothing planned. Which might not have mattered, because this group of kids was so wild and out of control that we couldn't get their attention anyways. Somehow we managed to have them all tell us their name, favorite food and color, and something interesting about themselves, and also make nametags. God knows what we'll do with the rest of the week. Or the year. There's no lesson plan or anything for 8th period. We're doomed.