My name is Tyler and this is my blog. I had nothing better to do after graduating college, so I decided to fly to Thailand to teach first-grade social studies for a year or so. These are my adventures.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Estrogen and Elephants" - July in Thailand

With my recent excursion to Chiang Mai, I can no longer procrastinate writing my latest addition to the Blogosphere. This was our first extended weekend at the school, so everybody kind of split up and went in different directions - some down to Phuket and Rayleigh in Southern Thailand, some up to Chang Rai, and myself along with a few others to Chang Mai. Chang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand next to Bangkok, but there is a massive population gap from 1st place to 2nd. Just imagine if New York City was the biggest city in the US and the 2nd biggest city was Fargo, North Dakota. Chang Mai seems almost more like a college town, but it's a leap off point for tourist treks and adventure activities in the jungle, which is what we were up there for. Unfortunately, we didn't get train tickets in advance, which was dumb because it was a holiday weekend and all train tickets to Chang Mai were sold out for the entire weekend. So we end up having to buy more expensive bus tickets, which was more uncomfortable and ended up leaking AC water all over two of my friends who eventually slept on the floor of the bus because their seats were soaking wet. But finally we get there and meet up with our tour guide for our 3-day trek. Cue Jungle Joe (given name: Sawat). 14 year trek veteran, accomplished chef (he cooked all of our meals for us - they were delicious), devout Buddhist, interested in hairy women, veritable singer (Take Me Home (Country Road) and Leaving On A Jet Plane were two favorites - I tried to request Sunshine on my Shoulders and Annie's Song but he didn't seem to understand), Burt Reynolds lookalike, doctor. . . basically the modern day Thai Renaissance Man. He even claimed to have rehabilitated an entire Burmese village from their opium addiction. Paired with his trusty (and by trusty I mean constantly drunk off moonshine) sidekick and food-carrier Boom (Boon? I can't be sure), they were the best comic duo since Abbott and Costello, with such memorable one-liners as "FUCKING BOOM!" and "No dinner tonight. . . That old bastard Boom went off to die somewhere. . ."
The first two days spent trekking we shared with a nice Dutch family with three boys, who probably wouldn't have survived the straight-uphill mud climb we faced after their departure. The young boys did well walking through the jungle though, and the older ones spoke English quite well. The first day was pretty much all hiking, after a long drive in a sungtop - which is simply a pick-up truck converted into a passenger van and the main form of transportation in Chang Mai. We eventually got to the first village, home to a tribe of the Lahu people - an ethnic group found all over South Asia. This particular group were Burmese refugees whose main source of income and sustenance comes from tourists visiting their village and buying souvenirs and food. I ended up buying an elephant necklace from a young girl for 500 baht, which is insanely overpriced but there was literally no way I could barter or refuse to buy something from her. Piece of advice - don't look into their sad little eyes. They sucker you in with the whole I'm-a-starving-tribe-child thing, and it works really damn well.

Day two was the exciting day. After an excellent breakfast, our elephants arrived at the village and we hopped on two to an elephant to take a nice 2-hour stroll through the jungle. Our elephant (which Kristine affectionately named Wrinkles) was actually named Mae Lae, and being a girl elephant she had to make constant stops, holding up the elephants behind us. I probably didn't get to interact with the elephants as much as I might have wanted, but surely in the country where the elephant is the national animal, there will be a time and a place. After the elephant ride, however, we packed up our stuff and headed down the Tang River on a raft made entirely of sticks of bamboo. This was probably my favorite part of the trip, as I stood in the back of the raft and steered as per Joe's directions through various rapids and currents. No life preservers, no helmets, just five of us standing on bamboo hurtling downriver. Joe assured us there were no snakes or piranhas, but he said we might run into some crocodiles. Fortunately we didn't, but we did slam headlong three times into large rocks, throwing everyone on the raft
several feet forwards. Once was on purpose, once wasn't, and once was when Shimmy was driving and managed to hit the only visible rock on that entire area of river. Nobody fell out though, and I have to say it was an awesome time. After lunch, we said goodbye to the folks from da Nederlands and walked straight up a dirt road (scratch that, it torrentially downpoured during lunch, it was a mud road) to the top of a mountain to the second village. These villagers were of the Karen people, another group from Burma taking refuge in Thailand after years of civil strife in their home country. Their village was absolutely beautiful though, resting at the top of a mountain overlooking the Chang Mai province, the lights of the city barely visible in the distance but overshadowed by massive rolling waves of green hills punctuated by the clay-brown dirt roads of the hill tribes - faint smoke rising from bamboo huts on adjacent hills and rows of produce (mainly corn and rice) plummeting down the slopes, blending in with the green of the jungle. This was the view from our hut.







We left in the morning and made our way back to the city, first stopping at a waterfall to take a dip before moving on. I came close to buying a machete off a tribesman from a hut where we ate lunch, but unfortunately, he had already promised it to someone else. When we made it back, there was some time left in the day to explore the city a little, which proved an uneventful experience. However, we headed over the town's Night Bazaar around 8pm, and this was pretty cool. Tons and tons of street vendors selling clothing, art, jewelry, food, you name it. Bought a Red Bull sleeveless and a new pair of flip flops. Found an internet cafe where you stick your feet in a tank of water and let tiny little fish eat off all your dead skin as you facebook and whatnot - actually felt amazing, and unsurprisingly tickled a bit. Monday was also a Buddhist holiday, so selling beer & liquor was a no-no, but we managed to find an Irish pub that served us "Coke" and "Sprite" as long as we didn't attract attention or cause trouble. Woke up Tuesday for the wonderful bus ride back, watched half of Avatar in Thai until the TV cut out immediately following the tree destruction scene and realized "hey this is probably the most historically accurate place to stop the movie." Finished American Psycho. Disturbing disturbing novel.

Now is where I have to start backtracking. Last week (19th-23rd), the kiddies had midterm exams, so I had a nice break from the routine where I proctored tests MWF and had days off to chill and grade a few papers on T and TH. My kids actually weren't too bad with the cheating - certainly some here and there but I was expecting worse. This poor kid Pran (pronounced "prawn" like the shrimp) is probably the cutest kid I've ever seen but has severe attention problems. After everyone else had finished their tests half an hour early and Pran was still under his desk or running around in circles or staring at the walls, I would have to walk over to him, put my arms around him and force him to look at the test and concentrate. This actually seemed to work and I think he did passably well on the tests, but the poor kid was getting so tired of exams that on Friday he decided to turn away from his test and bite my hand as hard as he could. This was more funny than painful, but it did leave a little mark for a few hours. Er. . . battle scar.

The weekend before, I managed to catch the All Blacks rugby game at a bar on Khao Sahn - the first I've been able to watch since leaving NZ. This was pretty cool - hopefully I can catch a few more games here, or better yet figure out how to watch it back in the States. Last Sunday, the 18th, I met up with Stasia and Shimmy and we visited Wat Pho and Wat Arun - two temples in downtown BKK. The defining part of Wat Pho was definitely the Reclining Buddha - 46m long and 15m high, made of gold and the feet made from mother of pearl. We then hopped a 3 baht ferry across the Chao Phraya River to get to Wat Arun, which I found infinitely cooler - although smaller, this temple was made of 2 or 3 towers surrounding a larger one with narrow stairs leading to its top. From up there we had fantastic views of Bangkok and met some fellow American teachers who were actually teaching in South Korea at the moment. After this excursion we decided to wander and try to find Chinatown, which we didn't, but it still ended up being a pretty cool day.

The couple of weeks before this were characterized by my "Thai family" adopting me as a son. Apparently, Tanakit's mother just thought I was a swell tutor for her son and the parents decided to start inviting me around absolutely everywhere. They first invited me to dinner with my co-teacher and a few of the other parents, and I've been to a few dinners with them since then. This is actually pretty neat, because they know what to order and I don't. Plus, they refuse to let me pay for anything, so that's pretty nice. They also took me to the Grand Palace a few weeks ago, which was a cool experience. The Grand Palace is right next to Wat Pho, but makes Wat Pho look like peasant's quarters. While the King obviously no longer lives here, it is for sure the heaviest-trafficked tourist spot in Bangkok and almost feels like a mini-city when you walk around it. There are just rows and rows of vibrantly colored buildings, temples, sculptures, paintings, and other lavish excesses of wealth. The main Wat inside houses the famed "Emerald Buddha," which at about a foot tall is a little underwhelming, but is a huge historical icon for Thailand. (By the way this picture of the Palace at night is obviously not mine...)

The family also took me one Saturday to a floating market, where cooks prepare a variety of seafood sitting in tiny boats next to the pier for your ordering pleasure, accompanied by some traditional Thai music, of which I picked up a free CD. Later on, they took me to Nakhon Pathom, a town to the West of Bangkok where we visited a giant standing Buddha and ate dinner. The latest (I think, if I understand them correctly), is that they want to take me to Ayuthaya, which are the ruins of a lost city, the first capital of Thailand, back when it was called Siam. While I definitely want to visit this place, I'm starting to get a little overwhelmed by their forwardness and their constant invitations. It sounds terrible to say because they are so nice and generous, but when they call every other day asking if I can come to dinner or go somewhere, it gets to be a bit much. They also don't seem to know what "No" means, and seem really disappointed every time I decline an offer. I don't know enough about Thai culture and how they operate to know what this means or how to handle this situation respectfully, but hopefully I can make it clear that I am solely a teacher/tutor of their child and maybe can be a family friend in that regard but that there also needs to be some space there. Wish me luck getting that across.

Well I think that pretty much covers the last couple of weeks in this country. Foods still delicious. Culture is still a bit strange. Somewhere in there I went to the movies to watch Inception - movies here are in English with Thai subtitles, so thats sweet for us. Also, before each movie begins everyone in the theatre stands up as they play the King's song, which is neat. I think I'm going to start compiling a list of all the backwards/bizarre/funny things about Thailand and hopefully put that up in a blog soon. Hopefully the next post isn't a month away!

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff man! Keep the blog posts coming!! For a minute I thought you got the night shots down with the one of the grand palace :P

    -Greg

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