The Beginning of Buddhist Lent & Sukhothai

Last weekend was a four day weekend because of the start of Buddhist lent. Devout Buddhists and monks observe this period by praying at temples consistently for three months. This period is also marking by the lighting of large candles which are supposed to burn for the three month period. To celebrate the beginning of Buddhist lent, every school in Thailand has its own parade to present candles to local monks and commemorate the start of the holiday.

For the last couple weeks, I had seen students on campus making giant candles. The candles were about five feet tall and almost a foot thick. Although it kind of seemed overly elaborate to me, many of the students spent what had to be countless hours carving beautiful designs into the candles such as dragons or flowers. I was surprised at how intricate and detailed the designs on the candles were, if only students dedicated themselves the same way to their classes, they might actually learn once in a while.

One of the candles for Buddhist lent
One of the candles for Buddhist lent

But anyway, the parade last Thursday started after lunch. Since the school is mostly outdoors with no indoor hallways, I stood with some other teachers near one of the main buildings in anticipation of the coming parade. The parade exceeded my expectations and was much more of a San Franciscan eccentric, burlesque event than I was expecting. Students of all ages came by dressed in colorful costumes celebrating Thailand’s culture as well as its place among the ASEAN nations. Other students dressed in raver-like outfits with neon wigs and bizarre clothes, some even sported Obama masks or Miss Thailand outfits. After the parade ended, there was an assembly in which the giant candles were presented to monks from different temples. I was disappointed to learn that the candles wouldn’t be lit until they were safely transported to their respective temples, so it was somewhat anti-climactic.

Some students in the parade
Some students in the parade

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Kru Noi, Ben and I with some Mattayohm 6/1 students
Kru Noi, Ben and I with some Mattayohm 6/1 students

The next day was the start of the four-day weekend. So Ben and I decided to go to Sukhothai. Sukhothai, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the site of the ruins of the ancient capital of the Sukhothai Empire (one of several previous empires that spanned Thailand). The ruins are located in the province of Sukhothai, in the capital city sharing the same name as the province. Sukhothai province is nearly in the center of Thailand, southwest of Nan.

One of the teachers was driving to Phitsanulok, another province, for the weekend and offered to drop us off on the way so we wouldn’t have to take the bus all the way to Sukhothai. Phitsanulok is slightly southeast of Sukhothai, so we opted to be dropped off in Uttaradit (east of Sukhothai) in order to take the bus to Sukhothai from there. The car ride to Uttaradit was exhausting. Having slept an insufficient amount the night before, and sitting on the back bench of a truck, it was hard to rest during the mostly windy car ride. However, it was still preferable to taking the bus (and cheaper), and the teacher even bought us breakfast on the way there.

After being dropped off in Uttaradit, we bought a bus ticket to Sukhothai and waited for our bus. Eventually, we were directed to our large two-story bus. Being unsure of how to proceed, I started going up the stairs to the second story before being awkwardly ushered back to the first floor. This would not have been a problem except that the people behind me were crowding me closely, I was wearing my large 75L backpacking backpack, and the people behind me seemed confused and/or wary of letting me back down. As I squeezed my way into the first floor, it turned out the lady who had ushered me there was just another passenger, and the “seats” she had referenced were nothing more than a ledge facing backwards and the aisle between seats. The awkward hilarity of the situation, combined with the stone-faced stares and silences of the other passengers, caused me to start laughing uncontrollably, and I was unable to stop after I saw Ben being ushered in as well to sit on the floor. As the other passengers looked on with distaste, I was finally able to stop laughing and prepare for the (thankfully) short bus trip to Sukhothai.

Upon arriving at the bus station in Sukhothai, we were immediately approached by a man offering us a place to stay at his guesthouse. A guesthouse in Thailand is a cheap form of accommodation, basically a hostel. Although he was a little overbearing, following me as I went to the bathroom, I had read about his guesthouse in a travel book and thus ended up agreeing to check it out. For only 175 baht each a night ($5.44), Ben and I were able to rent a room with air conditioning (an absolute must). The guesthouse was pretty basic; there was a bathroom for both rooms on our floor (although there was no one staying in the other room, so it was just ours), and the bathroom had no plumbing (a toilet that you dump water in to vacuum flush – common in Thailand, and a basin for a sink that simply slowed the backflow of water onto the bathroom floor). There were a bunch of other farangs staying at the guesthouse, which seemed to somewhat validate our choice of accommodation.

After checking in at the guesthouse, it was late afternoon, so we simply decided to explore the city and see the ruins the next day. The city of Sukhothai is split into the new city (the modern part of the city), and the old city (the ruins and the area around the ruins). The new city was pretty unremarkable and unimpressive, but it had a number of street food stands that had menus with English so Ben and I could actually know what food we were consuming for once. After eating at a street food stand, we walked around more of the city before retiring for the night.

The next day we went to old Sukhothai to check out the ruins. Old Sukhothai is about fourteen kilometers from the new city, so it is pretty close. We had heard that there was a 100 baht entrance fee, but we somehow managed to get in without paying (we weren’t trying to do this, it was just very unclear where we were supposed to pay and no one stopped us).

There was a decent amount of other tourists among the ruins of the old city, but it was still pretty amazing. I have seen ruins before, but I have never been to the ruins of a complete ancient city. There were lots of partially destroyed temples, large Buddha statues, stupas and figures scattered around a large area so we were able to walk around most of the city, but also find quieter areas that were not crowded with tourists.

Me by some of the ruins in old Sukhothai
Me by some of the ruins in old Sukhothai

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It was blistering hot, and I was wearing my backpacking backpack with all of my stuff because I was too paranoid to leave it at the guesthouse, so I was sweating, a lot…

sweating a lot in Sukhothai
sweating a lot in Sukhothai

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We stopped in the middle of the day and ate lunch at a small shack within the park where I got som tam (papaya salad – one of my favorite Thai dishes) for 35 baht ($1.08 – a pretty normal price for street food).

Later in the day we went to go see a big Buddha statue at Wat Sri Chum slightly outside the park, where we again somehow avoided a 100 baht fee (not on purpose – I swear!). The big Buddha was very cool; it was posed in a defensive stance against Mara (I believe), so one of its hands was resting on its knee and it had very long fingers. The big Buddha is located within a fairly small room of an outdoor temple, so everyone was very quiet which gave it a much more spiritual feel.

Wat Sri Chum
Wat Sri Chum

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After Wat Sri Chum we tried to find another big Buddha outside the old city but got confused by our horribly inaccurate map and decided to call it a day.

On a random note, since it was the start of Buddhist lent stores were not selling alcohol to my dissatisfaction. Fortunately our hotel was stocked with beer (hotels could still sell beer), and thus I was able to enjoy a refreshing beer at the end of the day anyway.

The next day we decided to find the second big Buddha, and explore more of the surrounding area of the old city. While driving on the road we thought the next Buddha was on, I saw a statue on top of a nearby hill. That statue turned out to be the other big Buddha, which we arrived at shortly after seeing it. There was a cool walk up the small hill on what appeared to be an ancient staircase before getting up to the Buddha.

Stairs up to the second big buddha
Stairs up to the second big buddha

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After seeing the Buddha, we continued on to a series of other ruin sites located around the old city. It was really cool to see these sites, as they were located in more lush, overgrown areas and there were no other tourists there to spoil their serene settings. Near one of the ruin sites I was approached by two incredibly skinny stray dogs that obviously wanted food. Feeling bad, I fed them the rest of my bananas and went on my way. It was bizarre because shortly after leaving them, we noticed a bunch of other identical looking stray dogs in the area – they must have all come from the same litter. This was also in a fairly remote area near the ruins but not near much civilization, so it was sad to see them clearly struggling to find adequate food.

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More ruins around Sukhothai

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We continued on to more ruin sites before eventually calling it a day and returning to our guesthouse. As we walked around for dinner we stumbled on the night market which was very lively with many vendors selling different food items, clothing, and jewelry. Very surprisingly, we also ran into two other teachers from our program (OEG), that were teaching in Tak (a province west of Sukhothai, bordering Myanmar). It was great to catch up with them and hear how their experience was going. Talking to them also renewed my interest in visiting Myanmar, as they were talking about the border cities. However, they were only in Sukhothai for the day, so we parted ways shortly after wishing each other good luck.

After walking the night market, we settled down at a street food stall, where I got pad sii ew for 40 baht ($1.24). It was far from the best pad sii ew dish I have had, but it still hit the spot. After eating, we returned to the guesthouse for the night.

Pad sii ew bought at a street food stall
Pad sii ew bought at a street food stall

The next day we were taking the bus from Sukhothai to Nan at 3 pm, so we had a decent amount of time to kill before going to the bus station. The owner of the guesthouse was nice enough to let us stay and use the internet at the guesthouse, so we started planning for our trip this coming weekend to Krabi. One of the employees gave us a ride to the bus station before 3, and helped us find where to buy a ticket. I was sort of annoyed to find out that although the bus was supposedly coming at 3, we couldn’t buy our ticket until 3. I have no idea why policies like this would ever exist, but I have learned to try not to understand the ‘logic’ behind it or get frustrated so I simply sat down and waited. At 3, we bought the tickets for the bus which was 30 minutes late anyway so it all worked out.

The bus back to Nan was about 4 ½ hours. Our driver drove furiously fast, and took the corners as if we were driving an F1 car. It was kind of harrowing to watch through the front windows as our driver passed other buses and cars anywhere possible, including blind corners. The road at the southern part of Nan province is also very windy, and our furious pace through the corners didn’t help settle my stomach. Still, we arrived (alive and unhurt) at Nan at about 8:00, and took the bus back to Tha Wang Pha shortly after. Although the bus and car rides each way were kind of long and windy, it was well worth it to see Sukhothai. I am also glad that I saw Sukhothai before I see Angkor Wat (which I plan to see in the near future), as Angkor Wat should be even more impressive.

Now I am preparing for my trip to Krabi and Koh Lanta this weekend. I will be gone for a whole week so I am very excited to have more vacation time! Until then, sawatdee khrap!

The End of June & July 4th

It has been a while since my last post and although it is already July, June seemed to be one of the longest months ever. After my last trip to Chiang Mai, I have been too exhausted and busy on the weekends to travel and thus have stayed relatively close to the confines of Tha Wang Pha.

Two weeks ago, Ben and I had just ordered food from a noodle shop when I received a call from one of the girls who teaches in Nan. She told me she was actually in Tha Wang Pha with the other teachers from Nan (8 other girls), but that one of the girls had gotten a flat tire on her motorbike and was trying to figure out how to fix it. I wanted to help, but having just ordered our food (with no idea how to tell the kitchen staff to cancel), I had to wait until after we finished eating to try and help. On the way to the gas station they were supposedly at we saw two of the girls struggling to push the motorbike down the road. It turned out that there was a tire place very nearby that was able to give her a new tire free of charge (they actually refused her money when she tried to pay).

The girls had been on their way to a nearby waterfall (Tad Luang Waterfall) and invited us to join them while their tire was being fixed. Having had a strong urge to swim in the humid, sweltering heat since I arrived in Tha Wang Pha, I immediately accepted. The journey to the waterfall took about forty minutes and the final road up to the waterfall had nice views of a nearby valley.

The valley below Tad Luang Waterfall
The valley below Tad Luang Waterfall

From the parking area it was a short, somewhat treacherous hike to the waterfall over dirt, rocks, and small slippery log bridges. The waterfall had several different tiers, with several different waterfalls and corresponding pools on each tier (there were three tiers with their own pools at the section we were at). There was a group of young Thais at one of the pools we were swimming at, also enjoying the cool water of the pools. At first the water felt incredibly cold to my shivering body, but after I dunked myself it just felt amazing. The pools were not very deep- there were only a few spots in each of the pools that were deep enough to not stand up in, but just being able to swim in cold water made me not care. After exploring the middle and top tier of the waterfall, I joined most of the girls at the bottom tier where the Thais were also hanging out.

Tad Luang Waterfall
Tad Luang Waterfall
another shot of Tad Luang Waterfall
another shot of Tad Luang Waterfall

To my chagrin, one of the Thai guys had managed to climb into a small cave right behind the cascade of water pounding into the pool. I immediately wanted to climb in the cave as well, although the only way to get there was by scrambling up slick rocks to its side. Nonetheless, I decided to try, prompting the girls to tell me not to split my head open and die. After getting my footing, I attempted to climb further up the rock only to slip and almost fall. Laughing at the slipperiness of the rocks, I grabbed the rock wall to my side (also slippery) and tried my best to carefully climb up the rocks. As I neared the cave which was very small (the opening being roughly one square meter with water at the bottom), I switched my footing, delicately placing my left foot where my right had been and awkwardly threw my body onto the cave lip. Although it wasn’t very graceful (I probably resembled something like a walrus or seal flopping around on rocks), I managed to slide my body into the water of the cave which was eerily very deep. However, it was instantly worth it as I was able to slide my body over the lip of the cave and let the deluge from the waterfall pound my back like an elemental masseuse. The only way to get out of the cave was to slide down the front of the rocks like a natural waterslide. Seeing the Thai guy do this first, I was fairly certain they were no rocks below, although as I splashed into the water I was relieved to not have hit any foreign objects.

I swam around the pool a bit more, before deciding to go back in the cave a second time. As I once again climbed the side rocks to the cave and attempted to switch my footing, I slipped and thought this is going to hurt as I fell down the rock into the pool. Fortunately, I slid down the rock like it was another natural water slide and slipped into the water without even being hurt from the impact. This made me determined to try the cave ascent one last time, which I victoriously finished by sliding my walrus like body into the deep water of the cave.

After swimming around a little more, we decided to head back. On the drive back, we were starting to near Tha Wang Pha when one of the girls pulled over on the side of the road. Somehow, her tire that had just been replaced went flat again. While it was somewhat comical, we were at a loss whether there would be a place nearby to fix the tire and how long it would take to mend the situation. Luckily enough there was another tire repair shop nearby (nothing short of a miracle as there is hardly ever any kind of store nearby here other than basic shops and restaurants), and the repair took no more than fifteen minutes. Once again, the man repairing the bike refused to take any money, and so we left, hoping that the new tire would hold up.

We all stopped in Tha Wang Pha to eat dinner before wishing goodbye to the girls, they still had about an hour drive to Nan left.

Other than the trip to the waterfall, the last few weeks have mainly been filled with working, eating, and sleeping. A couple weeks ago some of my seventh grade students asked me when my birthday was. Not thinking anything of it, I told them and continued my day. That Friday (June 27th), I was surprised when that same class of students came into the foreign language department office with a cake and sang happy birthday to me. During our earlier conversation the students must have not realized I said my birthday was July and thought I had said June. Nonetheless I was still very moved that the students would do such a nice gesture for me (in the end it’s only the thought that counts anyway), and I was very thankful that at least some of my students like me.

the cake my Mattayohm 1/2 students brought me
the cake my Mattayohm 1/2 students brought me

Since the students delivered the cake early in the morning while I was still half asleep, I was kind of shocked and confused, and thus did not feel like eating any of the cake. I felt bad after the students left, as I probably should have shared the cake with them. To make up for it, I decided to buy them a cake that weekend. I ended up getting them a chocolate cake from a nearby bakery and bringing it into the next class, after thanking them again for the gesture.

Me with some Mattayohm 1/2 students
Me with some Mattayohm 1/2 students
students eating the cake
students eating the cake

On a different note, I am now an official worker in Thailand. A few weeks ago Ben and I went to Nan with our coordinator Kru Rin to pick up our work permits. We got to leave from school after lunch on a Thursday, missing fifth and sixth periods for the day. Needless to say I was not disappointed that I did not have to teach that afternoon. Instead, we stopped at the Employment Office in Nan where we turned in some paperwork and received our work permits. The work permit definitely looks and feels official; it resembles a thinner version of a passport, and is the first step to getting a re-entry permit (allowing me to travel outside of Thailand) as well as assurance that I am now a legal worker in Thailand. After picking up the work permits, we went to Tesco where Ben and I bought a speaker system (both for our apartments and for playing music to our classes). Kru Rin also bought us blizzards from Dairy Queen which was both amazing and also the first food I have had from an American restaurant since I have arrived in Thailand (although that has more or less been purposeful). It was a great end to the day, and much more relaxing than teaching teenage-angst filled students.

Since last Friday was the fourth of July, I wanted to commemorate the holiday in at least some small way. For dinner, Ben and I ate hamburgers at Family Burger, the only ‘American’ restaurant in Tha Wang Pha. I stressed the word American because the restaurant is actually run by a French man and his Thai wife, so the American-ness of its fare is questionable. Also, somewhat ironically, the best hamburgers the restaurant sells are not their beef burgers but rather their pork burgers. I think this is because all forms of beef are harder to find in Thailand and thus the beef sold at restaurants seems to be poorer quality than the pork. After eating the burgers, we went to a nearby bar to watch the France vs. Germany game of the World Cup. While not much of a celebration, it was still a nice day and I didn’t miss much of the American celebration other than the delicious barbecue food.

This weekend will be a long holiday (a four day weekend), and thus Ben and I decided to travel to Sukhothai. Sukhothai, a UNESCO world heritage site, has a historical park that is the site of several ruins of the old capital of the Sukhothai empire. While the ruins attract decent crowds of tourists, it is supposedly large enough that you can find solitude among the old temples and statues. It will be nice to get away and see some more historical sites of Thailand.

Later on, in about two weeks, we will have the whole week off because of midterm exams. Since the midterm exams need to be proctored by a Thai teacher (so that they can answer any questions the students might have), there is basically no reason for Ben and I to be at school. I have no problem with this, as it means that we have the week off to travel and relax. We decided to go to Krabi and some nearby islands (most likely Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta), in the south of Thailand on the Andaman Sea side of the peninsula. I am very excited to relax on the beach, and do some scuba diving. Although it is not necessarily the best time to go (because it is the rainy season), I still think it will be more fun to visit than another destination in the north or Bangkok.

With several trips planned and a bunch of days off, the next few weeks should be a nice change from the grind that was June. It is crazy to think that the semester is just about halfway over but also nice to think that the longest part (without holidays) and hopefully the hardest part, is already over. I think that the trip down south will also help clear my head and be a good start of what should be many more travels to come in the future!