A Quick Note on the Coup & Weekends in Nan

As many of you probably have heard by now, there has officially been a military coup in Thailand. Protests have been escalating the last seven months, and in an apparent attempt to distill the tension and violence, the military has seized power and declared a coup. The Yellow Shirts (anti-government protesters) have been scaling up protests against the government because they see the window to change the government and rewrite the constitution closing as the King’s health declines (he is 86; the Royal family in Thailand are largely figureheads but are very revered by absolutely everyone). The King will likely be replaced by his son, the crown prince, who is nowhere near as popular nationwide and thus the Yellow Shirts want to change the government before the King is succeeded by his son (to emphasize how revered the King is, one of the teachers who has been here a year already told me that the last time there was a military coup, the King officially spoke in favor of one side and the military immediately lifted the coup). The North of Thailand is the hotbed for the Red Shirts (pro-government activists) and there is talk that they may attempt to mobilize to prevent the passing of a new constitution, but all the political protests and demonstrations will likely stay concentrated in Bangkok, or at the very least in the big cities (and thus not affect me, I am in a very rural province in a small town).

While it is serious and I am trying not to underestimate the gravity of the political situation, if there is one place to be during a coup, it is Thailand. Things still feel incredibly safe here and the area I am in is relatively untouched by the coup, although school was cancelled nationwide on Friday and there is a temporary military-ordered curfew (10 pm – 5 am). There were military forces in the city of Nan over the weekend, but all across the country Thai people are taking selfies with military servicemen, and the general mood is unconcerned and not threatened by the presence of the military. In fact, while Ben and I were relaxing at the tourist center in Nan (waiting to meet our friends), some Thai people started talking to us before saying, “You follow us” (more of a command than a question). We shrugged our shoulders and followed them across the street to the military’s LAV parked next to one of the wats. They told us to take pictures with them in the front and back of the military LAV, as we are random farangs (foreigners) and I guess it’s normal to take pictures with farangs in front of the military’s occupying forces.

Taking pictures in front an LAV with a random Thai person.
Taking pictures in front an LAV with two teachers from Nan (Tricia and Jessica) and a random Thai person

Speaking of Nan, I have gone to the city (Nan is the name of the province and also the name of the capital city of the province) the last two weekends.

Map of the Nan Province. I live in Tha Wang Pha (part of the Tha Wang Pha district).
Map of the Nan Province. I live in Tha Wang Pha (part of the Tha Wang Pha district).

While I like Tha Wang Pha a lot, it is relatively dead during the weekends as most of the teachers and store owners live in neighboring cities and go home for the weekend, leaving Tha Wang Pha a ghost town. Last weekend I went into Nan on Saturday to help Kru Noi, one of my coordinators, with an English class she was teaching at the Nan Technical College. The students in her class had never spoken to or heard a native English speaker, so I was there to have a basic conversation with them, and help them in any way possible. While it was fun to meet the college students and nice to be able to help out, the lack of caffeine coursing through my body made it hard to get through the relatively long class (10 am – 3 pm, with a lunch break at noon). After the class, we went to Tesco which is basically a store that sells everything that exists, and I bought some much needed clothing and supplies for my apartment. We ended the day with a very good meal at a restaurant on one of the banks of the Nan River. While the river is fairly low and brown right now (because it is right before the start of the rainy season), it was really cool to see people rowing longboats down the river and a couple fishermen harvesting fish from the river. The meal was also divine. To reward us for helping out during her class, Kru Noi paid for the excellent meal. Among other things, we had an interesting variation of som tam (usually a spicy salad made with green papaya, this one had watermelon, pineapple, and other fruits), fish cakes, mixed vegetables in oyster sauce, a seafood curry-like dish and some other dishes I can’t remember. We ate Thai style, so we shared all of the dishes. The meal was excellent and a great way to finish off the day before we headed back to Tha Wang Pha.

The next day, I went back to Nan with two other teachers, Kru Gai and Kru Aw. I had told them I wanted to buy a guitar in Nan, and Kru Aw played guitar also so she was willing to give assistance on where to buy a good guitar. Needless to say, it was awesome that I was able to go to the guitar store with them, as they negotiated 3000 baht off the sticker price (about $92.19)! I also made sure to buy a nice guitar, as the saying “you get what you pay for” is very true with guitars. I am very satisfied with my guitar; it is a ‘Saga’ guitar (a brand I had never heard of), and is acoustic-electric so I can play it through an amp if I want to piss off my neighbors. After buying the guitar, Kru Gai and Kru Aw had to attend a teaching conference, so they left me to my own devices in the downtown area near one of the main wats (temples), Wat Phumin.

Wat Phumin - The main Wat in the city of Nan.
Wat Phumin – The main Wat in the city of Nan.

There are other Americans teaching in Nan, but I did not have any of their phone numbers so I figured I would just explore the city and visit several of the wats. After looking through Wat Phumin, I started heading towards Wat Ming Muang. On the way to the second wat, I saw all of the American teachers in Nan eating at a restaurant, and ended up joining them for lunch. It was good to see the four girls from my orientation who are teaching in Nan (Katy, Aubrey, Jessica, and Hannah). I also met two other American girls who had been teaching in Nan for a year already, Tricia and Abbie. It was interesting to see how they liked their schools, and how their first week of teaching went. I also really enjoyed the restaurant. The owner reserves a table for teachers only which is cool, but is actually about to close the restaurant for a month as she is vacationing in Iran for a month interestingly enough (she is very intrigued by the historical sites). After eating lunch, I had to meet the Thai teachers so I said goodbye to the girls from Nan and met the teachers for a ride back. Before we left Nan, we stopped at a fresh market (equivalent to a farmer’s market) where I bought mangoes (the yellow ones are my favorite) and oranges (although they are green on the outside, like the oranges in Brazil). Kru Gai was also very generous and bought me a bunch of lychees and some corn. It was great to get another free ride to Nan, and I was really glad I bought the guitar with people who could speak and negotiate prices in Thai.

Because of the military coup, school was cancelled yesterday (Friday), and so I was able to catch another ride to Nan with one of the thai teachers, Kru Chin. He lives in Wiang Sa (south of Nan), but was kind enough to drop me and Ben off in Nan. We explored several of the wats, my favorite being Wat Ming Muang because of its beautiful white exterior.

Wat Ming Muang - Hard to capture in one picture.
Wat Ming Muang – Hard to capture in one picture.
Wat Sripunton
Wat Sripunton
Wat Mongkol - I talked to a friendly monk inside.
Wat Mongkol – I talked to a friendly monk inside.

After exploring the wats, we met the girls and went back to their place, where we hung out and spent the night. The girls who teach at Srisawat in Nan have a very nice house, an actual real house that isn’t infested with bugs compared to my one room apartment (which is still fine, I have plenty of gecko roommates to help out with the bug problem). We had great pad thai for dinner for only 35 baht (~$1.08).

We took the bus back to Tha Wang Pha this morning. The bus was only 35 baht (~$1.08) and took about an hour (the drive takes about 35-40 minutes). Although I was somewhat terrified to try out the bus on the windy, mountainous roads, the driver ended up being a fairly chill guy who drove safely for the most part. The only mishap on the ride was when the driver accidentally hit another car in Nan while trying to back up the bus to pick up a passenger but it was no big deal, mai pen rae (no worries).

After getting back to Tha Wang Pha, Ben and I stopped at a coffee & smoothie shop where I got an oreo milkshake for 40 baht (~$1.23). The shop had a deck with outside seating that overlooked the Nan river, so it was very beautiful and a welcomed respite from the intense heat.

The rest of the day I napped and played guitar while putting off the inevitable lesson planning. For dinner, we stopped at a local noodle place and had great spicy gwieetiyao (glass noodle soup with spicy pork & pork meatballs), before our inevitable stop at 7-11 (basically our kitchen). We encountered yet another form of Thai kindness tonight as an owner of a hardware store fixed the handlebars of Ben’s bike before refusing any sort of monetary compensation. It is really overwhelming how generous people are here, and how much they will go out of their way to help anyone out (more on this later).

The rest of the weekend I am going to relax and lesson plan at some point. Each day is full of new experiences and great people so it seems like working at the school will never become ‘routine’ in the normal sense of the word.

Until next time, sawatdee khrap!

Start of the Adventure

Hey everyone, what a crazy and busy last two weeks it has been! After saying goodbye to my friends and family (and sadly my digital piano too) in California, I flew via Hong Kong to Bangkok. Upon arriving in Bangkok, I met the first of many kind people who helped me find the address of my hotel even though I did not speak Thai, and they spoke little English. The hotel that I stayed at for orientation, Louis’ Tavern, was not near the center of Bangkok but was very nice and comfortable nonetheless. When I arrived to the hotel, I met my roommate Ben,  the other American teaching at the school I am teaching at in Tha Wang Pha in the Nan province in the North of Thailand. Ben is very nice and easy to get along with. It is great to have another American and friend to experience the next year with in the fairly remote area I am in.

Orientation week was exhausting, informative, and very fun at the same time. Every day we had Thai language classes, teacher training and classes about the process of living and working in Thailand. While we were mostly eating buffet food from the hotel, they were easily the best buffets I have ever eaten and I took it as a great omen for my gastronomic experiences to come. On most nights after our classes, I explored the area around our hotel with friends. My favorite experiences were ordering various street food dishes that were usually unidentifiable to our American palates. One of the nights I ordered a ramenesque dish with various add-ins that turned out to be organs of sorts. The most intriguing ingredient was comprised of dark rectangular shapes that I initially thought were kidneys or liver, but turned out to be chicken blood (actually very tasty). My favorite street food vendor sold coconut ice cream served in a fresh coconut bowl, with pieces of coconut thrown in and coconut milk drizzled over the top for only 20 baht (about $0.61)!

Only 20 baht ($0.61)
Only 20 baht ($0.61)

Sadly I did not have time to see much of Bangkok other than the area around my hotel and the Royal Palace, which was impressive but was also comprised of a lot of full body contact with other sweaty tourists like myself.

During the orientation we drove to Kanchanaburi (about 3 hours from Bangkok) to stay for two days. Kanchanaburi is absolutely amazing; so beautiful and relaxing I am definitely going there again. The hotel we stayed at was right next to the River Kwai and had very beautiful grounds with a huge pool.

Pool at Kanchanaburi Hotel

We visited the historic Bridge Over the River Kwai which was interesting. We also visited an elephant camp where we saw an elephant show, rode the elephants and rafted down the River Kwai (although we all just swam down the river next to the raft). The elephant camp was somewhat questionable in terms of how the elephants were treated but we all decided to just try and enjoy it anyway. The elephants were very cute. During the show the workers asked for volunteers and some brave souls decided to step up to the plate. The elephants spanked the girls that volunteered with their trunks vigorously and slapped the guys in the crotch with their trunks which was amusing but also vicariously painful. After the guys saw the crotch spanking, no other guys volunteered and the workers seemed surprised. Really? At night we ate at a great restaurant boat right on the River Kwai. We saw a bunch of similar restaurant boats being towed down the river and sure enough we pulled off shortly after finishing dinner.

Party Boat on River Kwai

The DJ bumped some bad American music as we cruised down the river but it was still beautiful and the sunset was amazing! It was our last night together as a group so OEG (Overseas Education Group) was trying to pull out all the stops. We were all sad to leave Kanchanaburi but it was great to at least see it for a short time.

My time in Bangkok/Kanchanaburi flew by quickly, and by the time I was just starting to get to know many of the other eighty American and Canadian soon-to-be English teachers, it was time to pack up and set out for the North.

Ben and I met our coordinators Kru Rin and Kru Noi (Kru means teacher in Thai) on the night of May 12th at our hotel. Their instant friendly, easygoing manner eased my nerves, and made me excited to see my new home. Thai people love to take pictures, so we immediately took some pictures with them, and they took several selfies with us in the car ride as well. We were lucky to have a great driver Pee Uan (Pee means brother or sister in Thai; in this case brother), to chaffeur us for the ten hour drive to Tha Wang Pha. Around dinner we stopped at several different roadside stops before Kru Rin and Kru Noi found a restaurant that they approved of, and after ordering several dishes we ate dinner Thai style (akin to family style, everyone shares the dishes). The Thai food here is generally much different than ‘Thai’ food in America. The food here uses less coconut milk (less creamy), and often has different sauces that are more sour or spicy than sauces on American Thai food. After the ten hour drive, we arrived around 4 AM to our apartments in the back of the school in Tha Wang Pha, and slept heavily.

My favorite Thai dishes I have had so far have been panang curry (a red curry usually served with pork), and gwieteeyao (I don’t the English equivalent spelling; a soup with thin rice noodles and different types of proteins i.e. pork, meatballs or tofu and vegetables such as chinese kale).

I started teaching last Wednesday, so it has been just over a week now and I finally somewhat understand my class schedule. I only teach seventh and eighth graders (Mattayohm 1 and 2 – Seventh and Eighth Grade). Students here are grouped into classes by their results on aptitude tests, which I still am unsure how I feel about. Generally, the students in the higher level classes are more tuned into my classes, but not always. It is also sort of interesting because I teach Mattayohm 1/1 and 2/1 three times a week (the best students of seventh and eighth grade), but I only teach all the other students once a week. It sort of makes sense, as Mattayohm 1/1 and 2/1 are the best students, but I also feel like the other students are sort of given up on and I don’t really know how effective aptitude tests are at really judging students true abilities. An interesting fact about the Thai school system is that students can’t fail. This is mind boggling to me as a former student, because it basically means the bad students can blow off their classes and still be assured that they will pass. It also puts more of a burden on teachers in that we have to keep retesting students if they fail the finals or midterms. Personally I think this is a horrible system, I don’t want to fail my students but if some of them are not even trying at all they can just blow my class off and it is on me to make them pass.

Other than the weird grading system, it took me a little bit to get used to my schedule. I am supposed to co-teach my classes with several different Thai teachers but in reality I am the teacher of the classes. For most classes there is no textbook so I have to design the whole curriculum and figure out how I am going to grade the students. In some of my classes the Thai teachers occasionally translate things to the students or keep the students in line, but generally it falls on me to control the students and make sure they at least somewhat understand what’s going on. While it has been a process to gauge the students’ abilities and design my own lessons, I have become more and more comfortable in the classroom and really enjoy the school environment. For the most part, the students are hilarious and it is really encouraging when they respond positively to what I am teaching. There are definitely times when the lessons don’t go well, the students are going crazy, or the students simply sit there with blank stares, but the positive experiences with students make it all seem worth it.

The Thai teachers have also been incredibly welcoming. All of the other teachers in the foreign language department are very friendly, and I have gradually been getting to know them all. I also quickly became friends with two teachers that teach Thai, Kru Chin and Kru Michel. They have helped me learn some Thai words and phrases, and while my Thai is still not good at all, I at least have many different individuals to practice with. Many of the teachers like to practice their English as well, and I am always glad to engage with them if they are interested.

Thai is a very difficult but interesting language. It is very different than any language I have learned before (Spanish and Portuguese) in that they use different tones to signify different meanings, so that one word can have five different meanings if said different ways. I have concentrated on trying to memorize the Thai words first, and then work on my pronunciation later, as trying to learn them both at once is near to impossible. Fortunately, I have plenty of incredibly friendly people to speak Thai with every day so I am hopeful that eventually I will be at least somewhat proficient.

I was lucky to just have an air conditioner installed in my apartment (yay!), and I will be getting wifi soon, so I am looking forward to living in luxury once again.

Tonight I am going out to dinner in Tha Wang Pha with Ben, and then doing some lesson planning for tomorrow although I only have two classes, so I am not too overwhelmed.

Much more information and updates to come but until then sawatdee khrap!