Chiang Mai and Wai Kru Day

Last weekend I went to Chiang Mai with Ben. After trying and failing to get a bus ticket the week before because we waited too long, we bought our bus tickets on Wednesday this past week and prepared to leave for Chiang Mai on Friday night.

Chiang Mai is around 233 miles away (by car) but getting there takes 5-7 hours by bus because of the indirect route and the frequent stops for dropping off passengers and oddly enough, packages. Our bus was leaving Tha Wang Pha at 9:30 PM on Friday night so we got a ride to the bus station from Kru Noi, and waited for the bus to arrive. The bus was actually very timely, arriving right at 9:30 pm. It had very few seats considering how large it looked from the outside, making it more understandable that the tickets sell out every week by Thursday or Friday. The buses have a VIP section (equivalent to first class) with large leather seats and spacious leg room, and a section for the commonwealth which was where we were seated as we didn’t want to spend the extra money. It was somewhat comical as the already limited leg room of our seats was demolished by our large backpacking backpacks that could not fit in the overhead compartment, so we just tried to jam our legs into any available crevices. I was worried that the bus would not have a bathroom but it turned out it did, so I was able to relax even with the lack of leg room. There was also a stewardess who passed out water and snacks (sesame biscuits) at the beginning of the trip, which was nice. I was able to sleep for most of the trip even with the lack of space because I was very tired.

We arrived in Chiang Mai at about 3:30 AM. Some of the Thai teachers had told us that we could sleep at the bus station until sunrise (about 6 AM), their reasoning partly because of the curfew still in effect from the coup and partly because we had no hotel or place to go that night. When we arrived to the bus station, we were nonplussed by the seating that we could supposedly sleep on, which consisted of individual but connected plastic chairs with outside ridges that dug into my back like sharpened cafeteria trays when I tried to lay down. I still managed to sleep a little bit which was fortunate because there was nothing to do at the bus station (everything was closed) and Ben and I were too tired to be able to form complete sentences. I experienced the first difference between city life and rural life as I noticed the bathrooms were controlled by some sort of urination mafia that was charging 3 baht for each use (only a small fee but paying for bathrooms in foreign countries has always seemed like a bad idea/scam to me). Ben used the bathroom first and although he paid 5 baht, the bouncer only gave him 2 satang back (100 satang = 1 baht) instead of 2 baht. I found this somewhat hilarious that they tried to be sly enough to scam him using a similar amount of change but it was still annoying, so I made sure to pay with the exact change when I used the bathroom.

When it was finally light enough for us to leave the bus station (about 7 AM), I tried to call a friend of one of the Thai teachers who had supposedly volunteered (or more likely been forced to volunteer) to give us a ride to our hotel. It was a very awkward phone conversation; I’m sure I woke him up, he seemed to not know who we were or be very excited to give us a ride, and his broken English and my nonexistent Thai didn’t really help. He said something like “let me… let me…” and hung up, so I took that as a no. It wasn’t a problem though, as there were plenty of songtaews (red pickup trucks with benches in the back that serve as taxis within Chiang Mai) waiting for customers in the parking lot. We had been  told to negotiate the prices beforehand, but after the driver offered us what sounded like a reasonable price, we were too tired to try and negotiate and just accepted.

A songtaew
A songtaew
Ben in the back of our songtaew
Ben in the back of our songtaew

Our hotel, the New Mitrapap Hotel (new friendship hotel), had been booked by one of the Thai teachers and turned out to be pretty nice for only 250 baht each (about $7.70, it would have been $4.62 a night but we wanted A/C). Although we got there at about 7:45 AM, we were given our room key immediately so we just went up to our room, cranked the A/C and slept until about 11:30 AM. Since we weren’t going to be in Chiang Mai for very long we figured we wouldn’t stress about seeing everything and rather just take it easy and spend more time at a couple of attractions.

Our hotel was near the central city, so we decided to head in that direction in order to take a songtaew to Doi Suthep (Doi means mountain, this is a mountain west of Chiang Mai with a temple on top). We stopped at a pad thai restaurant along the way where I bought a delicious plate of drunken noodles for 35 baht ($1.08). Walking through Chiang Mai was cool, I saw a lot of interesting graffiti and stores that I normally would take for granted, but now appreciate because of the lack of them in Tha Wang Pha (i.e. bookstores that sell English books – these don’t exist in Tha Wang Pha and I have yet to see one in Nan), as well as more artesian and hipster stores that only exist in larger cities. There was also a lot of very cool graffiti; I love seeing graffiti in different cities, the urban environment can be an interesting canvas for creative street artists. It was also shocking and almost unsettling to see numerous farangs (European and American foreigners like ourselves) throughout the city as we are basically the only farangs in Tha Wang Pha.

Cool graffiti in Chiang Mai
Cool graffiti in Chiang Mai
interesting graffiti
More graffiti

chiang mai graffiti 3

 

chiang mai graffiti 4

In the inner city, we called one of the Thai teachers to ask his advice on a good price for the songtaew ride to Doi Suthep. Our negotiation skills were pretty ineffective anyways, so we just let the thai teacher talk to the driver on our phone, but two random old ladies tried to help us negotiate also, which was very nice. The ride to Doi Suthep and back was 225 baht each ($6.93) which was ridiculously cheap given that it was about a 35 minute drive and our driver waited for us while we explored the temple (for an hour) to give us a ride back.

The drive up the mountain was very windy, but it was neat to see the city of Chiang Mai unfold before us and we climbed higher and higher. There was also a small community at the top of the mountain, probably catered to the hordes of tourists passing through but cool nonetheless.

Rather than take a tram up the mountain, we decided to climb the some three hundred stairs to the temple at the top of the mountain.  The temple was pretty; the whole area at the top was paved with marble and the temple was also constructed of marble. The most impressive part to me however, was the view over the city. We could see all of Chiang Mai from our vantage point. We also signed a banner that was to be wrapped around the wat in the future before making our way back down to our waiting songtaew.

Stairs up to the Wat on Doi Suthep
Stairs up to the Wat on Doi Suthep
Chedi (stupa) at Doi Suthep
Chedi (stupa) at Doi Suthep
View from Doi Suthep
View from Doi Suthep
Backside of the Wat on Doi Suthep
Backside of the Wat on Doi Suthep

After seeing Doi Suthep, we headed back to the inner city to walk around and see whatever wats we encountered on our way. We ended up stopping at Wat Phra Singh first, which was a next complex with several different temples on the grounds. After seeing the wats, we stopped and got smoothies at a nearby place on Rachadamnoen Road. I got a passionfruit smoothie with tapioca pearls; the tapioca pearls that they use in Thailand are much better than in the US, they are softer and slightly smaller.

On our walk back to the hotel we saw several more wats, including my favorite in Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang. Chedi Luang was somewhat reminiscent of a Mayan temple with its steep steps and pyramid like exterior. It was also interesting that it was partly ruined; it was damaged in an earthquake in the 1545. As we were leaving the temple we were approached by several high school students who wanted to interview us for a video they were making about learning English. At the end they asked us to write comments about their English; their English was very good but it makes sense being that they go to school in a big city.

Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang

We also saw Wat Bupparam which was pretty with a neat stupa.

Stupa at Wat Bupparam
Stupa at Wat Bupparam

As we were leaving the inner city we saw a cool street artist selling awesome paintings. I really wanted to buy one but was worried about transporting it back to Tha Wang Pha so I decided to hold off.

paintings on Rachadamnoen Street
paintings on Rachadamnoen Street

We ended up walking back to our hotel to shower and rest a bit before heading out to the nearby Night Bazaar and night market.  The night bazaar was pretty cool although very tourist oriented. After walking about a hundred meters we had basically seen the whole night bazaar, as the vendors just sold the same sorts of things. Still, it was neat to check out and Ben and I got some great pad thai from a nearby street vendor. There were also some veterinary students from Ohio State University eating pad thai at the same place, so it was interesting to chat with them.

Night Bazaar
Night Bazaar

night bazaar 2

After eating dinner, we cruised around the night bazaar a little more before heading to the night market. The night market was very cool, it only sold food and fruit but it was neat to see all of the different foods. I still have yet to try durian, which is one of the more expensive fruits in Thailand (it’s about 100 baht per kilo or $3.09). We finally stopped at a nearby bar and played some pool before calling it a night.

The bus back to Tha Wang Pha took about 7 hours, partly because of various stops to let out and pick up passengers, and partly for mysterious stops to drop off “packages”. I have no idea why a passenger bus would also deliver packages, but whatever.

Overall, the trip to Chiang Mai was a great way to spend the weekend, albeit exhausting.

On a different note, this past Thursday was Wai Kru Day (basically teacher appreciation day). All of the classes made flower arrangements for the teachers, which were judged by the teachers to pick winners for each grade. There was also an assembly in which the students read various poems about teachers before presenting the flower arrangements to the teachers. It was cool to see the flower arrangements; some of them were very intricate and beautiful.

flower arrangements on wai kru day
flower arrangements on wai kru day

Other than that it has been a relaxing week and weekend. Since we have been travelling the past few weekends, we just decided to stay here and explore the area around Tha Wang Pha. Tomorrow I may go to Pua, a nearby city to the north, which apparently has great food and even an American restaurant.

Cheers!

Settling In

As of today it has officially been a month since I left California and while it just been four weeks, it feels like a lifetime ago that I flew out of San Francisco because so much has happened since then. After arriving in Tha Wang Pha early Tuesday morning (May 13th, 3 AM), I had to prepare to teach five classes the next day. While it was intense and a little shocking to start so immediately, I think it was best in the long run as there was no time to develop anxiety and overanalyze what I was about to start doing. The first day I also had to introduce myself in front of the whole school (some 1100 students), which was somewhat intimidating. However, the introduction made the next five classes I was about to teach seem a bit less daunting.

Since then, the adjustment to life in Tha Wang Pha has been about as smooth as I could’ve imagined. Thai people are so incredibly generous and kind, it is truly humbling. They love the act of giving and helping others out and they truly seem to be generous and kind with no expectation whatsoever of having anything given back to them in return.

My desk in the Foreign Language Department office (basically the teacher's lounge).
My desk in the Foreign Language Department office (basically the teacher’s lounge).
Sunset over the Nan River in Tha Wang Pha (taken on my iphone so poor quality)
Sunset over the Nan River in Tha Wang Pha (taken on my iphone so poor quality)

Just as examples, a few weeks ago Ben and I went into town to get dinner. On the way we were stopped by one of the teachers, Kru Noi (there are two Kru Nois in the Foreign language department), who invited us into her backyard to pick mangoes and lychee. It was awesome to see her attempt to pick mangoes using a cage contraption made with a giant bamboo pole, although it was very difficult and we both failed to pick mangoes with it. We still were able to pick mangoes that were lower to the ground, and plenty of lychees as well. As we were leaving she recommended a place for us to eat dinner across the street from her house, and insisted on paying for our dinner. I had kuay tiao kah (glass noodles with various types of seafood), as well as kao man gai (chicken and rice) which were delicious. After thanking her and departing, we went to 7-11 and began the ride home. On the way home we ran into one of the guys in the English class we had helped with in Nan named Kamon. He owns a block of businesses in Tha Wang Pha including a bar and an electronics store. We sat down and talked with him, and he insisted on giving us large quantities of alcohol for free, including beer poured over ice which is common here (it is so hot and the beers are only lagers so relatively flavorless anyway). After a couple beers we were ready to leave but he asked us something resembling, “You like hotel?”. After some miscommunication we thought we understood by talking about our last hotel when we were interrupted by the bartender putting a huge mixed drink on the table and saying “Hotel”. It was pretty hilarious but intimidating at the same time because we both had to lesson plan and prepare to teach early the next morning so we cut ourselves off pretty quickly.

Every day there seems to be someone who wants to give you something, or do something nice for you. I have gotten free motorbike rides to the hardware store from helpful strangers, my meal paid for by insisting teachers, assistance in booking a hotel from a Thai teacher to avoid getting charged farang prices, rides from other teachers to buy bus tickets or to Nan, and some sort of free food every day (today one of the teachers gave me some cookies and another teacher gave me an interesting sour grapelike fruit to try during lunch). Even though Thai people are generous without any expectation of reciprocation, I feel so indebted to so many people that it is kind of overwhelming. I am trying to think of creative ways to pay back their kindness, as monetary compensation does not seem to have the same kind of allure here that it does back home.

Changing the subject, last weekend I went back to Nan with Kru Noi and her husband Kru Tang (also a teacher at the school) to help with her English class at the Nan technical college. After struggling through the last class without the assistance of caffeine, I bought two canned coffee drinks and a hot coffee to help myself stay alert during this class. However, she did not need our assistance until the afternoon so Ben and I walked around Nan a bit in the intense heat, before slinking back to the college to get back to the refuge of the air conditioned classroom. In the afternoon we listened to the students read a dialogue about catching a mouse (a joke with double meanings), and graded each of the students on their pronunciation. Thai students learning English have trouble pronouncing certain sounds, so while they could pronounce most of the dialogue very well, other words they struggled to pronounce even after repetition (i.e. oil, trap). I totally understand though, because I can pronounce zero words in Thai correctly, I have just gotten more used to various ways that Thai English speakers commonly make mistakes.

After the class, we went to Wat Che Huang and Wat Kao Noi, two temples on opposite sides of Nan that are both on hills. Wat Kao Noi was particularly impressive. There was a set of ~300 stairs leading up to the top but we decided just to drive to the top because it was very hot and I was feeling very dehydrated. Living in the Thai heat can be a constant battle between suffering from dehydration or urination, or as it has seemed lately, a combination of both. I am so excited for the ‘winter’ here, everyone raves about how much better it is to travel when the weather is cooler.

Wat Che Huang
Wat Che Huang
Buddha overlooking Nan; the view from Wat Kao Noi
Buddha overlooking Nan; the view from Wat Kao Noi
Pondering what I'm going to eat for dinner - Wat Kao Noi
Pondering what I’m going to eat for dinner – Wat Kao Noi

Anyway, Wat Kao Noi was awesome. Kru Noi and Kru Tang were also kind enough to buy us coconut water drinks, which actually replenished me a lot more than the water I was drinking. The view was spectacular too, we could see the whole city of Nan as well as the mountains in the background and the hills towards Tha Wang Pha in the North.

After seeing the wats, we made a quick run to Tesco. There always seems to be a hundred things I could buy at Tesco, so I have to stop myself from spending too much. Inside the Tesco there are also several other stores and restaurants; we went to a restaurant called MK Restaurant to eat. MK is a chain across Thailand that serves food sukiyaki style (similar to shabu shabu, or just called hot pot in the United States; you cook your own meat and vegetables in a broth in the center of the table and dip the food in several amazing dipping sauces). It was easily one of the best meals I have had in Thailand. Halfway through the meal a song came on and all of the waiters and waitresses had to dance and sing a song. While it was pretty hilarious one of the waiters looked like he was dying inside the whole time, so I sort of felt bad for laughing at their dance routine. After the dinner we drove back to Tha Wang Pha, and I planned for classes the following week.

Our vegetable assortment at our sukiyaki dinner
Our vegetable assortment at our sukiyaki dinner
Kru Tang flawlessly adding an egg to the suki broth
Kru Tang flawlessly adding an egg to the suki broth
Preparing to cook vegetables in the suki broth
Preparing to cook vegetables in the suki broth

This past Wednesday Ben and I were invited to go to a nearby temple with some of the students. We rode on the back of their motorbikes and it was fun to get to hang out with students in an informal setting outside of school. One of the students, Phillip, is actually really good at speaking English but unfortunately is not either one of our students. It would be really nice to teach students as motivated as he is, so I hope I can teach his class next semester (much older kids – Mattayohm six or twelfth grade; I only teach seventh and eighth graders). The ride out to the wat was very nice, we rode past a lot of corn fields and even had to stop to let a farmer wrangle three giant water buffaloes off of the road. The wat (Wat Nong Bua) was very beautiful and it had a very cool lush tree in front of it. The students showed us around the wat and even convinced the monks to open the wat for us so we could see inside (because it was closed for the day). After seeing the wat we went to a nearby overlook on the Nan river, before heading back into town. It was cool that the students wanted to show us around, I can’t ever imagine wanting to hang out with a teacher when I was in high school but I guess that is just one of the differences between the Thai and American school system.

Wat Nong Bua
Wat Nong Bua
Cool tree outside Wat Nong Bua
Cool tree outside Wat Nong Bua

Last night I ate another hot pot meal with one of the Chinese teachers, Kru Fan, who lives below my apartment. He has taught at the school for three years and is very nice. The menu was all in Thai and so we just negotiated with the waitress to get some pork (muu) and vegetables. Although it was the most expensive meal I have purchased in Tha Wang Pha it was still only 200 baht ($6.14).

Today one of the Thai teachers gave me a bunch of mangoes, so I may have to bring them with me to Chiang Mai this weekend. I am taking the bus there tonight at 9:25 and should get to Chiang Mai around 3-4 AM. It’s not going to be the most restful night but at least I can sleep in the bus station in Chiang Mai until sunrise, and then check into my hotel sometime tomorrow.

More about Chiang Mai to come…