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, September 29, 2010

September in Siam

So. . . maybe this once a month blog thing isn't the greatest idea. There is simply too much that happens in a month to A) remember and B) summarize in a single blog entry that will keep people's attention. I'll be keeping it up for at least one more month however, as with October comes our MONTH-LONG TREK THROUGH VIETNAM, CAMBODIA, AND LAO! Hopefully I'll be keeping some sort of journal or something for this, though, as there will be way too much happening to try and remember afterwards.

But with two days left before our trek begins, it seems necessary to look back and remember my September in Siam (I stole this from Beth, but as I clearly started the alliteration theme two months ago, there's no way I can stop now). Undoubtedly the biggest weekend we had was our trip to Ayuthaya - which is pretty much as Thailand as we've gotten so far. That Saturday, we had accepted the invitation of some of the younger Thai teachers to go out for dinner and drinks. None of us were quite sure what was happening or where we were going, but the Thai teachers drove their own cars so we didn't have to worry about it. After maybe an hour drive south of Bangkok, we pulled into a dirt parking lot next to a river, walked across the dock into a tiny boat (which I had to finagle myself into as I am twice the size of a normal Thai person) and proceeded to drive for about half an hour to a restaurant in the middle of the ocean. Now this is not entirely true - There are some sort of scattered marshlands that dot the landscape from the shore to the restaurant, but it remains inaccessible except by boat and as you can tell by this photo that I didn't take (as I forgot my camera), it was awesome. We sat at the furthest table out, eating incredible seafood surrounded by the calm sea. That was for the first hour or so. Then it started torrentially downpouring. This was actually pretty cool, too. They lowered protective covering so we wouldn't get wet and we just continued to eat crabs, oysters, various fish, crab fried rice that was absolutely delicious, and some more I'm sure I forgot and drink Thai whiskey while the storm raged around us. After the storm ended, we headed back to shore and ended up going out afterwards for a while to an area that was almost completely Thai - which was pretty interesting. It's not every day when you're the only white people for miles.
(not my picture - unless that is my name in Thai on the bottom)

The next morning after struggling through the waking up process, we found a cheap minibus and headed out to Ayuthaya. Quick history lesson: until the 13th century, Southeast Asia was dominated by the Khmer Empire (what is now Cambodia) - Their capital and "base of operations" was Angkor, where I will be visiting in a few short days. However, after they dissolved in the 13th century, in the area that would come to be known as Siam, several city-states rose to power (think Renaissance-era Italy). The first of these was Sukothai, which is commonly considered the first "capital city" of Thailand. However, a century later, Ayuthaya rose to power as Sukothai's power waned, and they held sway over the region until the late 18th century, when the Burmese sacked the city in a wave of destruction. King Thaksin then moved the capital to Thonburi, the city directly west across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok (it's incredibly close, our school is on the Chao Phraya and I can see Thonburi from my window right now). As legend has it, he went mad and was executed, although "legend" may just be a way of obscuring what really happened. So General Chakri took control and moved the capital across the river to Bangkok, where his dynasty of Kings began. Chakri is considered King Rama I of Siam, and the current King is King Rama IX. Siam wasn't renamed "Thailand" until 1939.

For those who skipped over that last paragraph, Ayuthaya is a bunch of old ruins, and it was honestly really cool to visit such an historic, neat place. Also, they filmed scenes from Mortal Kombat there. (Click here and start watching at about 7:00 to see several temples from Ayuthaya in short succession.) We rented bikes for the day and biked around to the different important temples, which were strangely interspersed around a modern town. It really threw me for a loop, as I was expecting us to enter a legit "park" and wander around an ancient, preserved city. This was not the case. Bicycling through the town, we would see a 7/11, a mall, then some ancient ruins, then maybe another 7/11. It was kind of unfortunate, but not surprising. We also managed to pass some more elephants. Well I could babble on longer but why don't I just show you some awesome pictures?

Hmm, what else happened in September. . . something of significance is that my tutoree's mother (the one who is batshit insane) took me on not one, but two dinner cruises on the Chao Phraya River. First, my co-teacher showed the brochure to me and begged me to go, because Suwarat had invited both me and my co-teacher and my co-teacher really wanted to go on a dinner cruise. So I relented. Hey, it seemed pretty cool, too. However, Suwarat was unable to get reservations on the Grand Chao Phraya Cruise. Disappointment. So instead of making reservations for the next weekend, or booking us a different cruise, SHE DOES BOTH! Since I had already said yes to dinner, she wasn't about to cancel or postpone. So she steals me for two Friday nights. Tricky woman. She really is nuts. For my October trip, she gave me A GIANT BAG OF SOAP, which I preceded to hand out to whoever would answer their door in John Mary. I feel like I may be using capital letters too much in this post, but I really feel its the only way to express how crazy she is. Because there was no school on Tuesday and Thursday this week, she wanted me to tutor her kid after school on Saturday, so she CALLED ME FOURTEEN TIMES IN A ROW! My only hope that this is just her and not all Thai people is that my co-teacher is equally plagued by her ridiculousness. I recently asked her what would be the best way to tell Suwarat that I don't think it's appropriate for me to hang out with the family outside of tutoring hours, and my co-teacher simply said "Oh, there's no stopping Suwarat. She will never stop." Shit. Well, besides her, the cruises were pretty cool. Went up and down the Chao Phraya. Ate good food. One played Thai music and was all Thai people. The other played Western music and was mostly rich foreigners. It was interesting to see the other group of tourists to Thailand. Living so near Khao San, we've pretty much only seen the backpacker culture so far. Yet Bangkok is also famous for catering to wealthy businessmen and their spoiled wives, who don't seem to venture outside the downtown hub of expensive restaurants/rooftop bars and upper class shopping. If you couldn't tell, I'm not too keen on these types of tourists, but it was certainly interesting to see them for the first time.

During September, we also took a trip to our housekeeper's house for her birthday. We all love Nuan. She is extremely friendly, helpful, and always brightens our day with her smiles and laughs. Apparently, the other "janitorial" staff resent her because they perceive her job as easier, and hate that she gets to interact and make friends with the foreign teachers. Even our boss is jealous of Nuan because, well honestly, we like Nuan more. It is awfully odd to see this type of petty jealousy between school employees, but I would absolutely side with Nuan any day of the week. She's worked diligently on her English for the last couple years and is one of the few workers who can even converse with us and thus is the only one qualified to hold the job she does. Anyways, we all took Taxis out to her house, which is about 45 minutes west of Bangkok out in the countryside, and had a wonderful meal and played some games and hung out for a while. It was pretty neat to once again, be in a place that has almost remained untouched by foreigners. Also, we kinda get treated like celebrities in these places so there's an added bonus.

(picture courtesy of Beth)

So these were pretty much the extent of my September activities. I also grew a mustache. It was mostly a joke because Thai people are so indirect yet appearance-orientated, just to see how they would react to a ridiculous Super Troopers-'stache. I don't think they got the joke. Suwarat hated it, though. So there's that. A lot of time was spent NOT doing things so there would be money in the bank for October. Which there is. So I'm pretty happy with my September. Expect a much more exciting post next month.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Testosterone & Tigers - Thailand in August

I certainly did not plan to name two separate blog posts "Estrogen & Elephants" and "Testerone & Tigers," but after the way our trip earlier this month went, it's only right. You see, we lucked upon another 4-day weekend, and for some reason only about 4 of us wanted to do any traveling (I say "about" because some situations led to people getting stuck in the city who would have traveled otherwise). So while I was the only guy on my Chiang Mai excursion, this weekend, dudes were in the majority. We decided to visit Kanchanaburi, a small frontier town about 3 hours northeast of Bangkok. We all said straightaway we wanted this to be a more relaxed, laidback weekend - and so it was. We caught a cab and told him to head to "Sai Tai Mai" - the southern bus terminal. We thought he understood, and we said "sai tai mai" about 12 different ways to get the point across. Well we drove about a block and a half before he turned off down a side street that we all knew dead ended at the Chao Phraya River. What could this mean? We were all intrigued (to say the least) with his decision making. He pulled up to a couple tuk tuk drivers and we realize he has no idea where he's taking us. Well after about 10 seconds of discussion with the tuk-tuk drivers (who are generally more adept at dealing with foreigners), the tuk tuk driver turned to our cab driver and told him we wanted to go to "Sai Tai Mai," exactly what he told him earlier. "Ooooohhhh, Sai Tai Mai!!! Oh ya ya ya." This is not the first time this has happened. You can pronounce a word completely correctly but say it with the wrong inflection and the Thais have NO idea what you're talking about. It's a little flabbergasting. It's like saying elePHANT instead of ELephant and getting blank stares. It's these things that make learning the language seem a vain task. Anyways, it took us a while to get to the bus station and a little longer to get to Kanchanaburi, as it was the Queen's Birthday aka Mother's Day aka a national holiday. Good thing we were in no rush. We made it to the bus station, which had about eight 7-11's inside. No joke. There were at least two on each floor. We caught a bus for insanely cheap and listened for the next 3 hours to an overexcited American girl who had just graduated talk her friend's ear off about the most banal, trivial details of her collegiate life in the most obnoxiously loud voice possible. Actually she talked for about 2 hours straight and then apparently just fell asleep, probably mid-sentence, probably because she talked herself into exhaustion or because she suddenly ran out of ex-boyfriends/psychology classes/phobias/pseudo-intellectual musings about music and art, and we had an hour of peace and quiet.

We got there with pretty much a free day to just walk around the town, so we found a hotel to stay at and dropped down our stuff. They only had two rooms left, and one of them was a little more expensive with a riverside view, hot shower, and AC - Max and I took one glance and decided to shell out the extra cash for it. It was worth it, especially because it had a second floor loft/roof where you could sit up, have a few drinks, and watch the river. After planning out the rest of our trip, we tried to find the recommended museum in town to give us a little history of the place before we went out visiting. This was more difficult than the map made it seem, but we got there 20 minutes before it closed and gave the exhibits a quick once over.

For those who aren't WWII buffs, one of Japan's campaigns during the war was the capture of Rangoon, a seaport in Burma that, if captured, would cut off supply lines to China and other Allied countries in the East, among other strategic gains. Well, with the help of Thailand (who were indeed Axis, who wouldve thought), this was accomplished. Now they needed some way to transport supplies in between countries, and laid upon the building of a Thai-Burmese railroad. To do this they brought in tons and tons of Asian labourers who were promised good wages and decent conditions, along with as many POWs as the Japs saw fit. Well, to put it plainly, the Axis were filthy liars. Surprise surprise. Conditions were terrible, there was no pay, and over 100,000 workers died working on the railway. About 90,000 were the Asian labourers (from Burma and Malaysia, mostly) and the rest were POWs who either died on the job, were murdered after the Japanese realized they were losing the war, or were killed by Allied bombs dropped to destroy the railway. The situation was described in the fictional novel "The Bridge on the River Kwai," (pronounced Kway, not Kwi, Its not "Bridge on the River Buffalo") which later was turned into a more famous film of the same name, which I'm sure you've heard of. Turns out after the film came out, tourists flocking to Thailand started asking where this bridge was. Unfortunately, no such bridge existed over the Kwai River. This part was fictional. So, to appease the tourists, they found a different bridge that was part of the railway, which had also been bombed during the war and rebuilt, and simply renamed the river underneath it. So the Mae Klong became the Kwai and all was good.

So as far the War stuff went, we saw the Museum and accompanying cemetery, went on 2-hour hike through "Hellfire Pass," an area of the railway that has been turned into a hiking path, took a train ride over part of the railway that has been rebuilt for local use, and went to see the bridge itself. While most of the locations were really interesting and respectful, this part was kind of depressing. The bridge is infested with street vendors and there are so many tourists (many many of them Asian) flocking the bridge and walking back and forth on it and taking pictures with funny faces and all. It's a little disgusting. Some vendor was blaring Lady GaGa or Madonna or something. I saw an Asian tourist taking photos on the bridge, striking silly/seductive poses and all. Meanwhile, I'm trying to think how many people died in this useless endeavor, building the "Death Railway," which only even ran for a short time before it was destroyed. Would you strike that pose at Auschwitz, Asian tourist lady? Not saying you have to be solemn at the bridge, but have a little respect. You aren't at the world's largest ball of twine, you're at the site of a massacre, the remains of an historical tragedy.

Rant aside, we also found plenty of time for non-WWII related activities, most prominently the visiting of a "Tiger Temple." Apparently, at this certain monastery many years ago, the monks started taking in hurt animals to heal them. The animals then grew fond of the monks and began flocking to the monastery to take up residence on the grounds, and the place became an animal sanctuary. The villagers began to hear about the monastery as well, and when one villager came across a baby tiger who had escaped from its poachers (unfortunately not before getting injected with the preservative formalin in order to be stuffed), they brought it to the monks who attempted to save its life but were too late. However, more and more tigers ended up at the sanctuary and now that is what the place is known for. Now, they open the sanctuary for a short period each day to allow visitors to come in (for a steep fee), pet the tigers and see the rest of the animals. Now, many people wonder how this is possible. The tigers are serene and calm around humans, so they must be on drugs! Well, after seeing and petting the tigers myself, I can say I think this theory is a little off. They chain the tigers down for only a few hours at midday, right after they exercise and eat lunch. The tigers aren't on drugs, they are just in food comas. Plus, they are nocturnal animals, and normally sleep about 16-20 hours during the day. Nobody likes to see animals in chains getting forced to follow human orders, but do these tigers really have it that bad? They stay in a peaceful animal sanctuary free from poachers, get free food and all they have to do is stay in one place for a few hours while they take their daily nap and receive numerous belly rubs as an added bonus? What part of this angers conservationists? It seems to me like these monks have done a good service preserving an endangered animal. I REST MY CASE.

Oh yeah. And we got to play with baby tigers. Whaat?

We also found time to visit two waterfalls. One of them (Sai Yok Noi) is a popular hangout for Thai families on weekends but not much to see for tourists. We also only stopped there because we had some extra time and our sungtao driver that we rented for the day thought we might enjoy the sight. Although it wasn't that cool, it was really nice of our driver. The other waterfall we saw was the famous one in the area called the "7-tiered waterfall" in Erawan National Park. As you might have guessed, the waterfall sloped down a mountain with 7 different falls on the way down. Some of the waterfalls were really cool, and some weren't. One of them had a nice rock slide which dumped you into a really deep part of the water. Unfortunately, if you slid down the wrong way, you would fall into sharp rocks. One of our friends who went a few months earlier actually did this and was rushed to the hospital. On our trip, Kit came dangerously close as well but managed to stand up mid-slide and run over to the deep end. Pretty slick move. Saved her own life. The other interesting thing about the waterfalls was that there were large fish in each pond that would nibble on your feet as you swam. These fish were quite larger than the ones that are used specifically to eat off dead skin in foot massage parlors, and definitely not as pleasant. The key was just to keep moving so the fish couldn't catch up. Standing still is just asking for it.

That's pretty much most of the weekend right there. We also saw some monkeys in the wild. One was definitely jerking off when we walked by and he got all pissy and started hissing and screaming at us. I guess this is the monkey equivalent of yelling "SHUT THE DOOR WHAT DID I TELL YOU ABOUT KNOCKING FIRST?" We ate the best pizza we've found in Thailand. We met a racist Belgian. We played a 3-hour game of Cut throat. We drank some brews in a bar made from bamboo that looked like a set piece from the Swiss Family Robinson. We talked to a Mynah Bird that would say Thai phrases like "Mai Kow Jai," "Korp Kun Kup," and "Sawadeekaap!" We played with elephants for a few minutes. It was a good weekend.

Guess I should recap some other events of late as well, if I still have your attention. We took one weekend to visit Jim Thompson's house. He was an American businessman who made it rich in Thailand by revitalizing the silk industry in the 50's and 60's. His silks were made famous in America after being used in "The King and I." Then one day, he up and disappeared. No one knows what happened, but he went for a walk and never came back. Some have crazy theories involving communists, rival silk magnates, and tigers. But likely he was just hit by a truck driver who hid his body.

We also went to a Thai art gallery, which was mostly unimpressive, except for a couple of outstanding galleries. In particular, there was a floor dedicated to photographs taken all around Thailand - and there were some really amazing shots. The next floor up was an exhibit entitled "Imagine Peace," which I thought was a neat way for local artists to express their feelings about the state of affairs in the troubled country. That was until I realized that the exhibit was a government-appointed project and that all the exhibits were essentially pro-government and anti-red/yellow shirt. I had forgotten that "peace" and "freedom" don't always go hand in hand. For some countries, "peace" means complete government control and censorship. I suppose there is some sort of strained "peace" that exists when the government controls the press and stifles any opposition, but it's not a nice thought.

In the past several weeks, I've also managed to visit "Little India," which amounted to passing fabric store after fabric store after fabric store, buying a couple classic Bollywood films, and eating some amazing Indian food; see Bangkok's flower market which spanned several blocks and is exactly what you think it is; and travel several times down the Chao Phraya River on cheap boat rides. It's been a pretty good month, and school is going swimmingly as well. I'm sure my next blog entry will be a little shorter as we enter the rainiest month of the year, but I'll definitely try to update once more before the big October break.

UPDATE: Almost immediately after posting, I realized I forgot something pretty cool. In my previous post, I mentioned that we failed to find Chinatown, but by the time of this blog, we successfully FOUND IT! It was definitely pretty China-ey, and we just wandered around till we forgot which Asian country we were in. Then I ate a bird's nest. Well, in a soup. You see, there's a specific type of sparrow in South Asia/China that makes a nest for itself each day out of its own spit. These are found high up cave walls and are very dangerous to collect, but are harvested by gutsy workers and are made into a delicious soup that is considered a delicacy in the area. We bought and shared a cheaper grade soup, which was still delicious. I think, however, that it is a delicacy more for the mystique behind the food than the taste. Like caviar. Or Shark Fin Soup, the other delicacy in Chinatown. I don't think I'll try that one, though. Something about that doesn't seem right.

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!

Monday, June 28, 2010

First Full Month at St Gabes/Hua Hin/Muay Thai - Now with pictures!

So it's been a couple weeks, guess I should update the blog. I'm realizing how great of a way this is to simply write down and catalogue my experience - not just for others, but for myself. I didn't write down anything in New Zealand. Maybe I should go back and revisit my experience there at some point soon before I start forgetting names and places.

I have to start this blog out with a little rant about St Gabes, just because there's been a growing sense of disillusionment with what this job really is. Something that attracted me to the teaching position was the service aspect - that I would be out in the world making some sort of difference. At least that seemed to be an important part of the job for the Loyola priests. Unfortunately, this really isn't the case. St Gabe's is a private school. Most of these kids' parents are rich Thai yuppies. The motto of the school is "Nobody is left behind," but the vast majority of kids aren't the ones getting left behind. Also, if this motto sounds scarily similar to the Bush-era policy of lower standards known as "No Child Left Behind," you are sadly right. None of the kids fail. It's not allowed. I can't give out grades lower than a B-. Granted, this is only first grade, but according to others the low standards continue as they grow older. A good number of the kids understand this, too. Their parents simply give the school too much money for them to fail out. Not my typical idea of service. If only I would have known I'd be working at a prep school. Oh well, I still love my first graders and they certainly are still innocent enough for me to get too mad at the corrupt system.

I ended up switching a couple of my classes with another Loyola teacher today, who wasn't having too good a time with the Thai 2nd grade Social Studies teacher, Mr Pot. I actually don't mind him, its just that he's been teaching for thirty years and isn't too keen on sharing teaching duties with young Americans, especially women. I'm fine with it because it means less work for me to do, but I can see how frustrating it might be, especially for an education major. Today Mr Pot did an exercise with the kids and I read the answers in English. He then spent the rest of the period grading their work while I played around, making jokes with the kids. I can do that for nine months. No lesson planning, no grading, no worries. It also varies my days a little more. Teaching the same lesson over and over again each day gets old fast.

We have also decided to start planning monthly what we do for 8th period, which is already making the job less stressful. Zach, who I share the class with, and I have decided to make July "America Month" in honor of July 4th. What better way to introduce the kids to a new culture? We're gonna do a lot of basic history stuff and then move onto some more fun stuff, like American music and sports. Maybe have them do a project or something. I'm already relieved that we have a basic plan down so that I don't have to worry each day about what I'm doing later.

Funny story to relate. I taught "camp" for second grade last week, which is essentially just switching up subjects and doing something different for a few days. I did third grade camp a little while ago for Social Studies, but for second grade camp I got PE. We played "chairball," which is somewhat like basketball (actually closer to netball if you've ever seen it) but instead of hoops there are two kids standing on chairs holding baskets. The kids can't move when they have the ball but can pass it down the court and try to shoot in the basket. It was a pretty cool break from teaching for a few days, but the story doesn't really have to do with it. You see, after lunch, the high schoolers have the gym for some sort of mass meeting time - they squeeze hundreds of kids in there and they all sit down and I literally have no idea what they do but it must be some sort of mini-lecture or something. Anyways, I was waiting outside the gym with a class of second graders until they all filed out, but there were still four or five high schoolers standing outside the door laughing. I look inside and there's one kid sitting cross-legged in the middle of the gym, head drooped down, fast asleep in an empty gym. The gym teacher does not let the boys wake him up, however. Instead, he has the second graders enter the gym completely quietly and then sics around fifteen of them on the poor kid. So, waking up to tons of little kids yelling and running circles around him, the high schooler sheepishly runs out of the gym.

As far as non-school stuff goes, 2 weekends ago we headed down to Hua Hin beach about 2-3 hours south of Bangkok for a Jazz festival. We took the train down, which was probably a mistake, because it ended up taking like 5 hours - but we filled the time with rum. Next thing I know, I wake up Saturday morning on our hotel floor with a bad hangover. However, a day lazing around on the beach was a pretty good cure. As far as the actual jazz went, I was a little disappointed. I'm a big fan of the genre, from ragtime to swing to bebop/hard bop/cool/avant garde/fusion - its all good in my book. The festival was 100% acid jazz though, which basically means its not actually jazz at all, but more funk/r&b/soul. The headliners were "Incognito," a group who was apparently pretty big in the 80's with their hit "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing," but I just wasn't feeling it at all.
Last weekend was uneventful. Some people went on trips but a few of us decided we were going to stay around and explore Bangkok, which didn't really end up happening. We tried to watch the All Blacks game at a bar on Saturday, but when we got there, they suddenly claimed to not have advertised the game - then claimed the game was the next day - and then said the satellite from Australia was broken. Oh well. That's Thailand for ya. We then got lazy and didn't explore the city after all. It's okay, there's still time.

Our lack of motivation over the weekend was made up for on Wednesday, when our supervisor gave me and Zach two free tickets to a Muay Thai boxing match. The only problem was that the tickets clearly said "Thai only" on them. So she gave us her brother's business card to show the guards at the gate. Apparently, her brother holds an important position in the Royal Thai Army. However, we got to the gate and they still refused us entry. So we called our supervisor back and she gave us her brother's number. We called her brother and gave the phone to the guard. To make a long story short, the VIP section of Lumpinee Stadium is pretty nice. We had a nice view of the match (I've got a couple videos up on Facebook) and didn't have to battle the frantic gamblers in the cheap seats. It was definitely a cool experience, and I'm sure I'll go back a few more times before leaving.

I finally put up a bunch of pictures on Facebook, so check those out if you use it. I'm thinking about getting a flickr account, so maybe I'll have a link there in a bit if I decide to. Tomorrow I'm going out to dinner with my tutoree's family so that should be pretty cool. Then we're probably going to do something for the 4th over the weekend - apparently there are some cookouts/parties for American expats so we might hit some of those up. I'll let y'all know what happens - I'm sure I'll have something to write about.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Settling In

So I guess it's about time for another blog update. No big adventures yet since the last update. A lot of time has been spent just getting used to the new schedule as teachers. I'm definitely starting to love my first and second graders. There's a clear learning curve for English, however. I'm giving the kids speaking quizzes made up of simple questions (1. What is your name, 2. What month were you born, 3. How old are you, etc.) Most of the kids understand question one, thankfully. Question 2, however, is the defining moment for most of the kids' understanding of English. If they know what month they were born in English, 9 times out of 10 they'll get every other question right. If they don't know, most likely they aren't going to know any other answer on the quiz.

As a quick side note, I've been grading some pictures the kids drew of their families. Underneath is the phrase "I love _________________ because _____________." Most of the kids just copy whatever the teacher wrote on the board, which was usually "I love my mother and father because they are kind." Two stand-outs however: "I love my father because he is my hero" (wow. . . how about that for heart melter?) and "I love my parents because they give me money" (not quite a heart melter, but at least he's honest)

I also managed to nab a tutoring job for two kids twice a week. So on wednesdays and thursdays i'll be staying after 8th period for another hour and end up getting home around six pm, but i'll be making an extra 1200 baht a week. This may be a frustrating job though, as the two kids seem to have very different problems. One kid clearly is actually quite bright, but it's evident that his family speaks no English and he also has some sort of hyperactive disorder as i have to tell him to sit down every 30 seconds to keep him paying attention. He can read English words very well though, and I think he more needs a clear understanding of what the Thai meanings of English words are. The other kid, I'm quite lost on. When he sees the written English text, he can answer my questions easily. When I speak verbally and take the written words away, he's completely lost. Even when I repeat words out loud, he loses comprehension: (CLASS ... class ... CLASS ... crass ... CLASS ... cass ... CLASS ... cat ...) I still don't know how he ended up on "cat." I'll ask him a question and tell him the answer, which he will repeat several times, then I'll ask the same question again and he'll have no idea. I really hope I can make progress with his listening comprehension, as I'm actually getting paid by the parents for this. I also got another offer to tutor once a week on tuesdays, 2 girls and a boy, which should be interesting as St Gabe's is an all-boys school and I haven't had any experience teaching girls.

My 8th period class (the one I teach by myself) went a little better this week. I'm switching days now with another teacher, so I'm only doing twice a week, which is just sooo much better. The other teacher came back after his first day with the kids, though, and just said to me "Man those kids are shitheads...." It's true. They are shitheads. Actually only a few of them are, but when you have a few of them in a class of only 15, it spreads like wildfire. It's really just a question of what activities we can find that will keep them distracted from being wild and hyper long enough to get something accomplished. I'm currently going through as many kids activities I can think of: 7-up, bingo, word searches, a more-PC version of hangman, mad libs. . . SUGGESTIONS ARE WELCOME.

SO I mostly resort to yelling at the top of my lungs and smacking my hand against the desk to get them to shut up. May be a little meaner then the "cool" teacher I envisioned I'd be, but at least I'm easier on the kids than the Thai teachers are. I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but there are still some teaching methods utilized here that wouldn't quite be kosher in the US anymore, mostly involving rulers. It's actually kind of difficult to get used to, but then again, sometimes I feel like pulling out my own ruler. Not to smack them of course. Just to make them think I might. Speak softly and carry a big stick, eh.

On the brighter side, we did do some traveling around Bangkok, visiting the Chatuchak Weekend Market, the largest market in Thailand and possibly the world. We went with a group of about half guys and half girls, and as we expected, the girls lost us within the first five minutes. It was insane though, just the range of goods and sheer immensity of the market. I doubt we even saw 10% of the market in the couple hours we spent there. Bought a Singha Beer shirt, the local Thai beer I've decided is the best of the lot (it's quite an unremarkable lot). We passed through the pet section, which was probably about the size of ten pet stores solely of the cutest baby kittens and puppies youd ever see crammed into tiny cages. There were some snakes and crocodiles for sale too. That would have been a surprise to bring back to our housing. Also, apparently this market is supposed to be one of the top places to work on bartering skills, but we all failed incredibly. "How much for the sunglasses?" "100 baht." "No no, way too much, how about 50?" "No. It's 100 baht." "Yeah okay."

This past weekend, we really didn't do much, just stayed around Bangkok and watched the football (translation: soccer) matches. Saturday night the US played England and you better have watched it. As a quick side note, if you aren't at all interested in football, that's quite alright. But at least recognize that a) this is one of the few truly global events connecting the people of our planet, more so than the extremely specialized, often expensive to learn and train events of the Olympics. Football is the one sport that anyone, rich or poor, can play, and as such it's the most popular sport in the world. B) This world cup is the first to be held in Africa, bringing international attention to the struggling continent. If you don't like the sport, at least understand and respect its significance instead of offhandedly saying things like "Who cares about the World Cup?" only affirming the stereotype of Americans as uninformed, chauvinistic isolationists.

Enough ranting. The US-England game was fun to watch, but the backpacker bar we went to was filled with pickpockets and cute, overly friendly Thai girls who clearly worked for the bar in order to reap a little additional profit. They also played dance music the entire night, which was distracting. Not that I'd care much to hear the commentators, because it's all in Thai, but I'd much rather watch football in a nice pub, sitting around a table with some friends and brews.

We also checked out the Dusit Zoo this weekend, which was pretty interesting. Lots of Southeast Asian animals that are mostly similar to animals in American zoos, but just a little different.

So I hope these blog entries aren't too long and boring. I want to kind of treat them like mini travel pieces, albeit more personal without that tight, journalistic tone. Hope you all enjoy! PS I promise I'll get some pictures up soon, I just haven't been taking as many as I should, and with one camera down I lost all my early photos. I wanna have some cool ones before I post them!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vesak, Ko Samet, and my first day of class

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.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Arrival in Bangkok

Sawatdee! Welcome everyone to my groan-inducingly titled blog about my Thailand adventures. I have no idea how often I'll update this, probably less and less as time goes by, but at least I can give everyone a good idea what I'm up to here. Left from JFK mid-afternoon on Monday on a fun-tastic 14-hour flight to Hong Kong. This was not nearly as painstaking as my NZ flight was - partially because I've gotten used to it, and partially because it was a few hours shorter. Watched Fantastic Mr Fox, A Serious Man, and The Lovely Bones on the plane ride, which were all films I'd been meaning to see, so it helped the time go by.
Had a couple hours layover in Hong Kong, and then another 3 hours to Bangkok. Since we got in after midnight, the government-imposed curfew thats been going on since the protests ended was in effect, so it was a very quiet and strange trip to St Gabe's. The streets were vacant except for a few taxis and emergency vehicles, and it felt a bit like we were driving into a ghost town. Of course, during the day, Bangkok is absolutely insane, bustling with activity and traffic, but that wasn't our first impression.
Got back to the room, which is actually a quite spacious one-person with its own bathroom. We pay for our own utilities, so I'm trying to use the AC as little as possible, but this can get difficult as it has been 80's/90's/100's outside and super-humid. The last person left a nice standing fan though, so I may not have to use AC at all, which would save me some money.
Of course, everything is ridiculously cheap here. There are about 32 baht in a US dollar, and it is not unusual to get a meal for less than that. Everything I've bought so far has been super cheap in US dollars, but its the food that really makes the difference, because I love food and its normally one of my biggest expenses. We also get free lunch at the school, but if we want something else, we can literally just walk outside to the street and there are just lines and lines of street vendors selling a ton of different foods. There's also a 7/11 right down the street (although its stock of supplies and food is completely different) and a McDonalds across the street. The McDonalds is expensive though, so I'm going to hold off as long as I can. One word of advice from previous students was that you have to start thinking in baht and not in US dollars, because if you think in US currency you'll spend too much and waste all your money, so I have to keep that in mind.
Our first day at St Gabe's was spent mostly doing paperwork. We did take a tour of the school, though, and got to meet our co-teachers and other faculty/administration. They are very gracious to their American teachers and treat us well. One teacher saw our group as we were walking around and pulled us all into her classroom to introduce us to her class, even though none of us were teaching her students. The facilities are pretty insane, with several buildings chock-full with classrooms and gymnasiums. There seems to be a high importance placed on physical fitness here, with mini-gyms, soccer fields, basketballs courts, swimming pools, etc. all over the place. It's also pretty massive for a primary school, but there are about 5500 kids from grades 1-12 (or Primary 1-6 and Montiem 1-6) so its a little different than my primary education. I got my schedule and it had me teaching 22 classes a week, 1st and 2nd grade social studies. When I asked Miss Pat (the foreign teacher coordinator) what exactly 1st grade social studies was, she strongly encouraged me to switch with another American teacher who had arrived two weeks earlier (not through Loyola) who got placed in math unwillingly. So we switched and now I'm a 6th grade math teacher! Time to hone up on my algebra. I'm only teaching 14 classes a week now, which is much less intense, but Miss Pat told me she would have extra work for me in my free time. I still have only briefly met my co-teacher, who is the head of mathematics and supposedly real awesome. We were supposed to sit in classes today, but we spent the morning setting up our Thai bank accounts, so we didn't start until after lunch, and I only teach morning classes.
As far as street life goes, perhaps the biggest difference I have noticed so far may be sanitation and public health. There is trash absolutely everywhere outside, people throw it out wherever, even the pretty canals through the city are grossly littered. There are cockroaches and rats on the streets, as well as tons and tons of stray dogs and cats, which just seem to bum around the town like Baltimore's homeless and crackheads, only they don't bother anyone, they just chill out and do their own thing. Everyone is extremely friendly though, and if you happen to know any Thai at all they will be super impressed and excited that youve already taken more effort to know their culture than the average tourist. They also highly respect teachers, under royalty and clergy, so if we are dressed up or show our School ID they will treat us with much respect.
Tomorrow (Friday) is a super important Buddhist holiday, so we have a three day weekend. Don't know how we're going to spend that time, but someone suggested traveling down to Ko Samet, which is one of Thailand's southern islands with beautiful beaches and sweet tourist activities. Then next week, I should start sitting in on classes and eventually begin to co-teach. Stay tuned!