Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Land Of No Laws

It is official. I have lasted a whole month in Thailand. Time is already feeling like it is flying by, and in order for me to remember this place, I have been writing down random things that I learn or see. Here are a few I wanted to share:

1. Thailand is a lawless land. "There are rules but there are no laws." I figured this out very, very quickly.
        Drink on the street.
        Drive on the wrong side of the road if and when all is clear. Or maybe even when all is not clear.
        Nurses wear gloves? Why would they do such a thing?
        Pile a family of 4 onto a motor bike and don't have anyone wear a helmet. Not even the four-year old.
        Overcharge the farangs (foreigners, aka me) for anything and everything, and take advantage of them whenever possible.

2. Ordering food can be difficult.  There is a lot of pointing involved in that, while hoping that what you end up with tastes good. Luckily it always is great and I don't think I've had a bad meal since I've been here. Except the time I was told that I was eating blood and I did not know I was eating blood. Stearing clear of that from now on. A couple of important words to know, mainly the only couple that I have mastered because they are staples:
        Goong- Shrimp
        Guy- Chicken
At our market, we are branching out and going for new things all the time. I love dinner time and I am obsessed with the food here. Pad thai, papaya salad, and seafood everywhere you look.
Pad thai, dinner at least two nights a week. My favorite!

3. I strip out of my work clothes as soon as my feet hit my bedroom door everyday and put on shorts and a tank top. My air conditioning goes on as soon as I can find the remote. The past two days have been the most brutal since I have arrived. Extremely humid, as if I was in Orlando in July. But it is almost December. The confusion for me is never ending because how on earth could it be this hot in December?! The Thai people still think it's cold and my students wear zip ups in class all of the time. I should send them to New York where it is the opposite extreme! My mom just told me that they have a 2 hour delay today! As hot as it is here I cannot say it enough.. I am happy to skip winter this year!

4. In order to show respect here, we wai (pronounced as the letter, y) instead of shake hands. This means that I put my hands together and bow my head to people higher up than me, and also to Thai teachers. There are different ways to wai, depending on the status of the person, but I have yet to become an expert on that. Honestly, I get so many new cultural things thrown at me a day that I may never get the wai down pat.

5. 7-11. The other day my coworker was telling me how to get a bus that is close to the 7-11. I assumed she meant my 7-11 but then realized that she could be talking about any six between my house and hers, which is only a 15 minute walk. 7-11 is found on no lie, every three blocks. In Laos, it was almost unsettling that there was no 7-11 to be found. We buy alcohol there (liquor too), 'top up' our cell phones when we run out of minutes, buy any kind of strange packaged food that can be heated up there, and can find any other random thing you can squeeze into a tiny corner store. I just had my first 2 am toastie experience last weekend, and I hate to say that it will not be my last. Oh, and 7-11 is open 24 hours so I really can't go wrong. Wow, never thought I would choose 7-11 to be one of the things to rave about in Thailand.
A typical Thai 7-11

6. Holidays. We obviously do not have Thanksgiving off, but I also have the displeasure of working on Christmas this year. Working on Christmas and the weather will be 95 degrees. I can't imagine it actually feeling like Christmas, but the other foreign teachers and I will cross that bridge when we get there.
The reason we have to work.. The majority of the Thai population is Buddhist. They may have adopted some of our holiday traditions here and there, but Christmas is not recognized as a national holiday. Guess what we will be doing all day on December 25th? Chirstmas activities of course! I'll be looking to Pinterest for a make-your-own-snow activity. BUT, the English teachers do get to put on a Christmas Show. We were told that we did not have to choose a Christmas song, actually maybe we were encouraged not to. So, what else did my team and I choose for our second graders? The uber-famous American rock song that will forever be the song that is okay to scream at the top of your lungs while out at a bar, no matter if you are 22 or 42.. Don't Stop Believing of course!! Amelia, Sydney, and I are currently working on choreography with the kids. Videos will follow after the show next month because who would not want to see 30 Thai kids rocking out to Journey?!

That's about all I can squeeze out of my brain at the moment. I'm onto grading and brainstorming for Father's Day/the King's Birthday, which is December 5th for them!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Loi Krathong

You might think after the debacle that was Laos, I would give up on buses for a little while.  Instead, I hopped right back on one a short 4 days later.  Another 15 hour bus ride.  Let me just say, I keep living and I keep learning.  This trip, I learned never to take the economy bus again.  No toilet, no blankets, and worst of all, zero leg room.  Easy ride for all of the tiny Asians.  Not so comfortable for us tall Americans.  It felt as if my ankles would snap or my knee caps might fall off.  Never again.

Amelia and I went to Chiang Mai this weekend.  Chiang Mai is almost as far up north in Thailand as you can get.  The last three hours of the drive, I was holding onto the seat for dear life.  If I could pick out the most winding road I have ever seen, this would be it.  It felt as if the bus driver was going 100 mph around the mountainous turns.  All that came between me and the jungle tree tops was a very tiny guardrail.  Pretty view, but I saw my life flash before my eyes at least twice.  Finally, I felt my body stop tensing once my feet touched  the ground, knowing there was a good reason that I decided it was necessary to travel all the way up to Chiang Mai on this certain weekend.

The weekend of November 16th was Loi Krathong, or more commonly known to us as Lantern Festival.  Loi Krathong is a ceremony in Thailand that connects multiple beliefs, mainly Buddhism and Hinduism.  It takes place every year on the full moon in November and the lanterns and floats are the largest part of the ceremony.  This is something that I had seen pictures of many times and always thought the photographs were beautiful, but never knew much about it.  When I realized that this festival was held in Thailand, I decided it was a must, as this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, we tried to figure out all of the details, since scheduling was difficult to find online.  Scheduling happened to be difficult to come by once we were there as well.  Everyone we talked to, Thai or tourist, gave us different dates, different times, different locations, and all we wanted to do was see the lanterns!  Eventually, we got ahold of some coworkers staying at a hostel down the street and they confirmed that the lantern ceremony that we had specifically gone to Chiang Mai for would luckily be that night.  Their hostel was running a few songtaos to the festival for only 150 Baht, which was the best price we had gotten all day.

We took the songtao through heavy traffic to Mae Jo University, where the festival was being held.  When we got to the entrance, there were so many signs.  No alcohol.  No food.  No bare knees/shoulders.  No fireworks.  No lanterns.  Wait, no lanterns?!  Thank goodness Amelia read ahead of time that lanterns bought outside the festival were not allowed, or else we would have been scammed by the hundreds of people selling them right next to the gate.  We followed the mass of people, bought our lanterns inside, then ran to quickly find a spot to sit.

Before the actual ceremony, we had a “practice run.”  Someone who spoke English was there to let us know how to bow the correct way, what to say, how to light the lantern, and when to light the lantern.  After the directions were given, we had about an hour of a Buddhist ceremony.  We were surrounded by lots of people who had a deep connection of some sort to Loi Krathong.  We were facing a stage filled with monks in bright orange.  We had a cloudless sky with lanterns being set off here and there from outside of the ceremony.  Now, I may be one of the least religious people you know (whether you know it or not), but there was something about this ceremony leading up to releasing the lanterns.  Peaceful. Quiet.  Spiritual.  Calming.  These four words may sound silly coming from a non-religious person, but I think that this may have been the first time I have ever felt these things all at once, and I have a feeling it may never happen again.  I don’t mind that this was probably my biggest moment of spirituality, because it was one of the most amazing and unreal experiences that I have had to date.

When the ceremony ended, it was time to light the lanterns.  Lighting one lantern was a three person job.  Amelia, Lorna (a new friend from the UK who we adopted for the weekend), and I went at the first one.  More difficult than you would think!! I held onto the first lantern that we lit and let it go with the wave of other lanterns floating toward the sky.  I will never ever see anything like this again in my life, unless I happen to go back for another Loi Krathong.  Here I am four days later getting emotional just thinking about it.  It is hard to explain exactly how I felt throughout this night, but I know that when I was surrounded by a sky filled with lanterns, I was giddy.  Happy.  Joyous even?!  Smiling from ear to ear and on a high for the rest of the night.  Maybe even the whole next day.
As if the weekend couldn’t get any better, I took the VIP bus home.  V.  I.  P.  I walked on and almost cried when we sat in our seats.  I had so much room for my legs that I could stretch them all the way with no difficulty.  The seats reclined practically to a bed, which you would think may be annoying when the person in front of you reclines, but not on the VIP bus!! Room for all! This was great for sleeping since we took yet again another overnight bus.  I got a warm blanket.  I got a water bottle.  I got a bag of chips.  I got a bag of cookies.  There was a toilet.  Not a squatter.  An actual clean toilet.  We stopped twice and got complimentary dinner both times.  We arrived to Chon Buri at the correct time.  I know how I’m traveling from now on!

This weekend was probably one of the best I will come by in Thailand.  Not only was the Lantern Festival absolutely breathtaking, but Chiang Mai is such an amazing city.  It has lots of tourists because there are a lot of jungle activities to do up there, so there are people who I can communicate with easily.  The food was really great.  I had my first ever banana pancake.  I had no idea what Jack Johnson was making such a fuss about all these years!!  To die for.  There is also great shopping in Chiang Mai.  I was slightly on a budget this trip, but will be diving right in next time I head back there, which happens to be soon because there are also elephants in Chiang Mai.  Yes I came to Thailand to teach, but another big seller for me was that I could adopt an elephant for a day, and I will be doing so in three weeks!!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


What trip should have looked like:
Leave for Laos on 8:40 pm bus from Chon Buri Wednesday. Arive 11 hours later, around 8 am in Nong Khai, Thailand on Thursday morning. Take tuk tuk to border, cross over Friendship Bridge into Laos, take 45 min tuk tuk to Thai Embassy in Vientiane, Laos. Arrive at embassy by 10 am, with plenty of time to drop off visa paperwork by 12pm. Sight see in the capital of Vientiane, stay over at cheap hostel. Pick up visa Friday afternoon, take overnight bus back home and lesson plan the rest of the weekend.

What actually happened on trip:
Amelia, Matt, and I got on our overnight bus with plenty of time to spare. It was roomy and cool with AC, and we got water and some food. At what I think to be around 12 am, I woke up and we were at a dead stop. I looked out the window to find that we were stopped in the street, along with every car around us. Our bus driver was outside smoking a cigarette and hanging out with what I assume to be other drivers stuck in the traffic jam. Immediately some swear words ran through my head as I'm thinking, we're not going to make it on time. I was extremely tired though, so I drifted back to sleep. Maybe two hours later I woke again. Still stopped. This had to be some kind of sick joke. I looked across the bus in alarm at Amelia and Matt, but they were both sleeping. Knowing we wouldn't make it to the embassy on time (by 12 pm), but also knowing I could do nothing about it, I went back to sleep.

We eventually started moving and we took a pit stop at a rest area at 7:30 am. This is when Amelia and I finally talked, looked at our location on our phones, and muttered a few more swear words. We weren't even halfway there yet. Now a million things were going through our heads and we began to brainstorm. Our only hope was that we could both drop off our paperwork and pick up our visas on Friday (which was a high hope, visa applications are never processed same day).

Around 2:45 pm on Thursday, we finally made it to Nong Khai, where we needed to be taken to the border. We grabbed a tuk tuk, but the man tried to scam us by taking us to a place where we could pay for our Laos visa. Laos visa?! We didn't need one of those, so we demanded he take us straight to the border, where he proceeded to overcharge us for our ride. At the border, we showed our passports and they let us in with no problems. We boarded the bus to cross the Friendship Bridge, and when we got into Laos, we realized that we actually DID have to get a visa. And pay for it. Which we hadn't factored into our budget for the weekend. It was only $35, but that is 1,500 Baht in Thailand. A large expense that we knew nothing about.

So, if we weren't screwed enough already by missing the visa drop off time, we were surely screwed now by suddenly having a significantly smaller amount of money. Not knowing exactly what to do, we took the cheapest tuk tuk we could find and went to the embassy. It was 3:40. The Thai Embassy closed at 3:30. Fail. Next, we did the only thing we could do. Asked around for cheap hostels that would maybe fit into our now super-small budget. We had the name for a super cheap hostel. This nice professor at a business school called the number we had for it even though he said he was not familiar with it. No wonder it wasn't familiar. It doesn't exist anymore.

We stumbled upon a nice hotel called the Lao Golden Hotel. We explained our situation and they were very sympathetic. The room he had for us was normally $55 a night, but after our sob story he said he could go down to $45 for the night. Again, this would usually be the cheapest hotel you could find in America, but we literally didn't have enough Baht to afford this. Our last and only option: Charge it. Charge it we did, and charge it unfortunately became the theme for the weekend.

The Lao Golden Hotel was luxury. Something we will probably never ever see again in our stay in Southeast Asia. We showered, got a great sleep, and took full advantage of the complementary breakfast. With many thanks, we made our way to the Thai Embassy. We explained our awful situation again and I cried on command, but we got the answer we were not hoping for. You have to pick up on Monday. Enter some more tears and lots of thoughts of how the hell are we going to survive the weekend!? We had no clothes. We had no money. We had no place to stay. The three of us went to a coffee shop to get on wifi. I cried some more. We waited around to see if we could get an advance in our first paycheck, but the email we were hoping for never came through. Last option: Amelia's Visa and my MasterCard. Amelia, being the well-traveled and level-headed one, took charge, which I will always owe for this trip. She put aside cash for our bus trip back to Chon Buri and for all of the songtao/tuk tuks we would have to take throughout the weekend. We weren't left with too much, so charge, charge we did.

We immediately changed our way of thinking to okay, let's make the best of the weekend. We were in a new country that we knew little about so we set out to explore. We went to two temples and other Buddhist sights. Seeing the temples is something that I never thought would give me that wow moment, but each one was simply breathtaking, and we saw at least five during our stay. After walking around Vientiane for a few hours, we decided it was inevitable. It was time for a beer. We sat. We drank. We fumed. We laughed. We caught up on Instagram and Facebook. We searched for cheap hostels online.

Sihome Backpackers Garden. How we love you so. Their reviews were so recent and so enthusiastic that we decided that this had to be the hostel for us. No wonder the reviews were so recent.. Sihome had only been open for 15 days when we arrived on Friday. Brand new and thriving already. FINALLY something went right! We met the owner Steve, a young German, right when we arrived. We explained our situation yet again, and he immediately said he'd take care of us, and that he did. The rooms were clean, we had air conditioning, and the staff and other guests were extremely friendly. Not bad for my first ever hostel. Later that evening when we were talking to other guests and listening to the awesome music Sihome plays all day everyday, we came across an Australian, Phillip, who happened to be the other owner. He asked what brought us to Laos, and we spilled our story for the fourth and definitely not final time. Phillip told us he had extra women's clothing that he would wash for us and give to us the next day. He also said that we had to go on the waterfall tour that Steve put together on Saturday. Phillip helped us out with that too since we couldn't afford it. We were finally relaxed and ready to enjoy the weekend.

Although the bed in the hostel was harder than mine in Chon Buri and a rooster was crowing at 6:20 am, I still woke up refreshed and ready to go. It actually felt like I was on a small vacation. Amelia,  Matt, and I had our complimentary Western breakfast (eggs, toast, bacon, coffee, banana), which is also something we will not ever again see in Thailand. We got on whatever clothes we could fake as bathing suits, since we didn't bring any, and headed to the tuk tuk with the other guests going to the waterfall and Steve. How I know we were a charity case for the weekend: As we were waiting to get on the back of the tuk tuk, Steve said to me, Can I have your names again? I just have you down as Three Poor People. Nice! Nicknames for the rest of the weekend! 
Tad Xai Waterfall

We drove about two hours to the countryside of Laos. I mean to the jungle of Laos. Getting to the waterfall was difficult when we reached the national park. The tuk tuk was old. At many hills, we had to get out and walk up so that the tuk tuk could make it without being so back-heavy. The road was dusty. We were all a new shade of red dust by the time we parked and I definitely inhaled a good amount of dirt. We trekked through the bamboo lined jungle. At one point Steve gave a helpful bit of information: If you happen to see a tiger or elephant, don't move. Just stand still. Comforting. The long drive and bit of a walk was well worth it, especially at first glance of the waterfall. No other words to describe it but beautiful and peaceful. I of course was too chicken to jump off of it, but we swam a bunch, had lunch, and relaxed until we decided to take off around 4:30. I can't thank Steve and Phillip enough for letting us join the day trip. It is something I will never forget. Big shout out to them for all of their helpfulness and hospitality. Not that it's likely, but if anyone reading my blog happens to be traveling in Vientiane, look them up. You'll be in for a highly enjoyable stay! Check them out here (shout out to the postcard we left for them!): https://www.facebook.com/BackpackersHostelGarden

I am so happy that we changed our attitudes and took advantage of being in a new place. We met very interesting people from all over the world. We splurged on good food and drinks, knowing that we won't be spoiled like that ever in Thailand (whoops, sorry credit card!). We saw many temples. We fell in love with Vientiane. Vientiane is the capital of Laos. Compared to what I have seen so far in Thailand, Vientiane is not crowded, it is very clean, it has many eclectic restaurants, and the population of people is very diverse. In Chon Buri, the foreign teachers are the only white people in town, aka roughly 15 of us. When we see a white person we immediately wonder what the heck they're doing there. In Vientiane, saying look, white people! got real old real fast. White people were everywhere. German, Australian, French, American, Canadian. You name it! There is also a huge population of expatriates in Laos. Cost of living is cheap and it is a very nice city, so many people end up living there. It is definitely a place that I would visit again, and we may have to cross Vang Vieng, Laos off of our bucket list during our stay in Asia.

Even after all of the frustration and stress, I think we were meant to stay in Laos for the weekend. Although it was definitely much more expensive than what I would have wanted it to be, the experience ended up being something unforgettable. It was a disaster that turned into a blessing and I am almost thankful that our first bus took so stinking long. Here's to hoping my overnight bus trip to and from Chiang Mai this coming weekend for the Lantern Festival goes a bit more smoothly with just as many good memories!

Monday, November 4, 2013


I have 36 children in my classroom.  This is a small class compared to the other teachers who may have 38 or even 40.  You think you have it bad with 26 in America.
My precious little Thai students

Before I got to Thailand, I was under the impression that I would be teaching English.  Reading, writing, grammar, and conversation.  I wasn’t exactly wrong, but why don’t you throw in science and math on top of it as well.  Then try and teach them all together.  Constantly.  To kids who don't know what you are saying half the time.  I teach 2, 3, or 4 periods a day, then the rest of the students’ day is taught in Thai.  It is a little bit overwhelming trying to figure out what we should be teaching, but the first four days really went well.  This was mostly because the first three days were “getting to know you/Halloween” days.  Had that in the bag.

About the school:  Anubanchonburi is the first STEM school to arrive in Thailand, and is considered extremely controversial to many.  STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  This type of school is so controversial, that the United States only has STEM programs, not schools.  It is extremely difficult to find a school in the U.S. teaching STEM K-12.  I am by no means an expert on STEM, so bear with me, but here is a little bit about what I know.  Here in Thailand, I am integrating everything I teach.  All of the subjects I listed that I teach are always building off of one another.  For example, here is a snippet of my plans for this week:

            Our reading unit is called “A Sandwich.”  We will talk about McDonalds and if it is healthy or not, watch a clip from Super Size Me, and experiment with packaged food.  This incorporates most of the elements I teach.. Again, reading, writing, conversation, phonics, and science.  Probably math too if we get into working with the nutrition facts on the back of the packaged food.  The Sandwich unit has a workbook, so there are also reading words, sentences to write, and the connections go all week long. This week will probably be the least interactive week out of the whole term, as I have to travel to Laos for the latter part of the week.

STEM is hands-on.  Seems to be the complete opposite of what we are in the U.S.  What teacher didn’t go into teaching thinking that they would be able to do projects and exciting activities?!  Steps in the process of teaching STEM are plan, design, label, and build.  Then students should write as often as possible and reflect.  Last week, I showed a powerpoint about Halloween because they don't celebrate Halloween in Thailand.  I then had the students design their own Halloween costume.  We brainstormed materials they could be made out of and then they labeled their costumes with chosen materials.  I never once said that we were going to make these costumes.  I actually didn't plan on making them at all.  The next day though, I had four students bring in their own materials from home to create the costumes.  I was so thrilled.  They have been working like this for 3 years and they are excited to do these types of things!

Even though this sounds wonderful, remember that STEM is controversial.  This is because of testing.  Parents, teachers, and administrators get nervous that the children will not pass the exams.  It happens at home and it happens here too.  In Thailand, there is testing in grades 3 and 6.  How can the children possibly pass when students are constantly doing ‘arts and crafts’?!  It is not just that.  Thailand has indicators, just like the US has standards.  For each grade, we have to teach certain indicators by the end of every term but here, we get some flexibility in when we teach what topics and how we teach them.  It’s a great system if you ask me.  The children have to be taught these indicators and it doesn’t matter the topic.  We are expected to get creative.  If the topic is rain, students can design and build rain gauges, like they did last term with the teacher before me.  That is exciting, fun, and relevant for Thai students, especially during Thailand’s rainy season, which lasts for half a year.  Children are more likely to remember facts about rain if they have done a cool project to go with it than if they are being lectured.  If I never come back home, it will be because I have found a school that lets me teach the way most teachers picture themselves teaching.

Some more about STEM:

How does the United States compare in STEM Education?
-The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the quality of mathematics and science education, and 5th (and declining) in overall global competitiveness
-The United States ranks 27th in developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering
-There are more foreign students studying in U.S. graduate schools than the number of U.S. students and over 2/3 of the engineers who receive Ph.D.’s from United States universities are not United States citizens

About the children:
Like I said, 36 2nd grade Thai students.  36 Thai students who behave better than having 10 American students in one room would.  They behave so well for a couple of reasons.  First is because their parents pay for them to come here.  This ensures a good education and native English speaking teachers who will make sure their children learn English.  Second is because they are disciplined, and I believe they may be scared of that discipline.  I assume they are disciplined at home if they come home with a bad grade, just like they are disciplined at school for various reasons.  The Thai teachers are extremely strict.  When my Thai teacher is in the room while I’m teaching a lesson, my kids are on their best behavior.  Their excellent behavior is something that I don’t think I have ever witnessed before in a classroom, and I enjoy it.

The kids are adorable.  They are so curious about the new Americans in town.  TEACHA TEACHA is what I hear all day long.  Their English is pretty decent already, and I can’t wait to help them learn more.  One thing I love is that they all have nicknames so us Americans can hopefully call them something with no fumble (kidding.. it helps, but it’s just another cultural thing that Thai people do).  Some American-ish nicknames are: Rat, Stamp, Ice, Guy, and Pooh.  There is I-fon (pronounced iPhone) and more Thai names like Yumi, Mew, and Chokun.  They are all just too cute and bring presents all the time.  At the end of the day on my first day of school, one of the girls handed me a plastic bag with a Tweety Bird stuffed animal inside.  She wrote duck and I’m heppy on the outside.  I told her it was very nice and she said ‘For you Teacha, for you’!!  I have zero clue what the significance of the gift was, but I accepted and greatly appreciated it.  These kids will continue to confuse me every day, but each time I find myself at a disconnect with a student, I just laugh.  Our language conflicts are silly, and eventually through large gestures and asking around the room, we’ve always gotten on the same page, and I think it will only get better!