“Farangsgiving”, Doi Samer Dao & A Competition in Phrae

The last few weeks since my previous post have been somewhat of a grueling stretch, but I am finally one week away from seeing Mom and Dad again, and enjoying a week-long vacation.

Towards the end of November, as Thanksgiving approached, I became more and more depressed at the idea of missing my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving is awesome not just because of the amazing, gluttonous spirit of it but also because I always get to see and enjoy the company of extended family as well as recount the past events of the year in a way that feels very genuine and not contrived (especially compared to the spirit of other holidays).

So the thought of missing Thanksgiving made me somewhat depressed, but luckily enough I did not end up missing it. About a week before it, I ran into one of the only other farangs in Tha Wang Pha, Dawn. I last saw Dawn in June, when I met her and her family, who tutor some of the students at my school as well as work in the nearby area. They are a very nice family involved with missionary work of some kind in the area, and I had not heard from them since our last meeting. After catching up, Dawn invited Ben and I to have Thanksgiving at her house with a gathering that she said would be around thirty people. I eagerly accepted and was very excited that I would be able to celebrate Thanksgiving, even if it was without my family.

Being unable to cook at our apartments or buy most Western ingredients, Ben and I were unsure what we would be able to bring to the meal. Fortunately, Dawn assured us that the food would be taken care of and simply asked us to bring juice and sparkling water. We arrived that Saturday (November 30th, a few days after the actual Thursday Thanksgiving day) to their house which is in a village a few kilometers outside Tha Wang Pha. Other people trickled in throughout the afternoon, and we began meeting more and more farangs from around Thailand. Although some of the other people there were from Nan, most of the people lived in other provinces and some had even driven ten or more hours to get to the gathering.

Rob (Dawn’s husband), also encouraged us to try the hors d’oeuvres, so we eagerly took up his suggestion. Having not had access to real Western food since I left the U.S. in May, it was somewhat mind-blowing to be exposed to so much of it at one time. There were different types of cheeses and hummus, which almost made me weep with gratitude. The cheese spreads in particular tasted amazing to me, I am not sure if it was because they were actually good or if just the familiar feeling of eating cheese was that comforting.

Since I had not eaten much that day to that point, I had to stop myself from gorging early and thus carefully stopped myself from eating pounds of the delicious cheese.

Eventually everyone arrived, and the gathering had amassed to twenty-one people. Everyone other than Ben and I knew each other from the missionary work they were doing throughout the country, and although it was not something I would ever do, I found a lot of their work interesting. Most of the adults (there were also eight kids) spoke Thai fluently, and seemed to be settled in Thailand for at least the next couple years. Many of the different families lived in remote hill-tribe communities, and either spoke or were learning the hill-tribe languages which were often very different from Thai. While all of the families were originally from the U.S., they all came from various places including California, the Midwest, as well as the South.

Everyone was very nice and interested to learn how Ben and I found teaching English in Thailand. Since many of the adults were involved in some form of education, they understood our frustrations and challenges within the Thai education system, and were very sympathetic to our complaints.

I enjoyed meeting all of the other people and hearing their stories, but I was primarily there to gorge myself with food, and gorge I did. Although there was no turkey (turkey in Thailand is very expensive, and I have never been a huge fan of turkey anyways), there were several different chickens, two types of mashed potatoes, different stuffings, rolls of different shapes, textures and sizes, different vegetable dishes, and a salad (although no sweet potatoes, somewhat disappointingly). For dessert there was also three pumpkin pies, an apple pie, and a pecan pie that I was particularly delighted to see.

Since I was particularly hungry, as I began to eat I had a hard time stopping to talk or breathe. While the food was certainly good, it was not the best Thanksgiving food I have ever had, although I devoured and enjoyed it potentially more than any Thanksgiving I have had in the past. Again, I think the shock of all of the Western food after its absence the last several months made the meal that much more delectable. Overall, I had two platefuls of food followed by three slices of pie (pumpkin, apple, and pecan) for dessert, and probably could have eaten more, but didn’t want to shock my system into oblivion.

After the meal, there was a white elephant gift exchange that they insisted Ben and I take part in, even though we did not bring presents. In all fairness, they had told us about the white elephant exchange when we were invited, but neither of us could find a very good gift in Tha Wang Pha, and we didn’t really have time to shop around anywhere else.

I have never participated in such a complicated gift exchange, with people stealing and exchanging different gifts. Originally, I unwrapped what turned out to be several canvas bags and a gecko wall ornament, which I found somewhat interesting, although nothing fantastic. However, someone ended up stealing my gift right before the last present was unwrapped, so I unwrapped the final present which was to be my gift. It turned out to be a giant, seven pound can of refried beans, which was comical, but actually more useful and appealing to me than my previous gift.

The beans had somewhat accidentally gone into the possession of Rob and Dawn, when they had tried to order refried beans via a nearby restaurant, and instead of receiving several cans of refried beans, they received one giant can. One of the families at the meal was even nice enough to offer to send me tortillas to eat with the beans (they actually ended up sending me chips, salsa, and caramel popcorn in addition to the tortillas).

Overall, it was a great way to spend the holiday with interesting, nice expats, and as I went home in a blissful food coma, my desires to be back home were quenched for the moment.

A couple weeks later, I had a three-day weekend because of the Father’s Day holiday (the King’s birthday). Nam invited Ben and I to go camping at Doi Samer Dao, a national park in the southern part of the province.

Eager to get out of Tha Wang Pha, we agreed to go. Although the province is not terribly large, it still was a long drive down to the Na Noi District where the park was located, because of the curvy roads that weave up and down through the mountains. We also made several stops along the way, first stopping at Khun Satang which is a national park with budding strawberry fields, a friend’s house for lunch, and Sao Din Na Noi which is an area with strange dirt pillars created by erosion.

View from Khun Satang
View from Khun Satang
Sao Din
Sao Din Na Noi

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By late afternoon, we finally arrived at Doi Samer Dao. We parked our car at the parking area below the campsite, which was also shared by many different merchant tents selling food and clothing. After unloading our stuff, we were able to jump in the back of a pickup truck driven by a park ranger who took us the rest of the way up the mountain to our campsite.

Unlike American campgrounds, which cover large expanses and provide at least some privacy for each campsite, this was basically just one huge campsite with tents lined up one after the other, like a refugee camp. I was a little stunned at first when I saw how crowded the tents were next to each other, but then I figured it was only for one night, so even if it wasn’t too pleasant it would only be a short stay.

Sunset at Doi Samer Dao and tents packed into the camp
Sunset at Doi Samer Dao and tents packed into the camp

We explored the grounds a little bit before heading down and grabbing something to eat. Nam had more friends arriving that evening, so we headed back to the campsite to wait for them. As her friends arrived, we started burning some charcoal in a clay hot pot to prepare for a meal of shabu shabu that they had brought. I also brought the chips and salsa I received from the American family I received at Thanksgiving, as well as the caramel popcorn for my Thai friends to try.

Overall, it was turning out to be a fun night until a nearby family decided to come talk to Ben and I. They were nice people with young children, but as soon as they saw us they seemed intent on forcing their kids to try and interact with us in English. I would not have minded trying to talk to the kids for a little bit, especially if they were willing, but this being Thailand I knew that the parents were not going to go away quickly and on top of that the kids were none too excited to talk to us.

For the next couple hours, Ben and I basically had to sit there while the parents tried to get their kids to say some phrases or questions over and over, which we had to wait for the kids to say, and then answer. Finally they went back to their tent, five feet away, and we had some time to relax and enjoy the night.

Although the tents were so smashed together, I had no trouble sleeping and woke well rested the next morning as we prepared to head out. Camping in Thailand was an interesting experience and while it was great to get out of Tha Wang Pha, I can’t say I am eager to do it again.

Nonetheless, the last couple weeks went by somewhat monotonously until this past week when we went to a nearby province, Phrae, to be judges in an English competition. In an earlier post last August, I mentioned going to a nearby competition in Pua, where students competed in various English competitions (as well as other subjects). The competition last week was basically the second round, for the best students from the last competition (as well as other competitions in different provinces). Ben and I again had helped some students train for various events, and I was to be a judge for the ‘impromptu speech’ competition (which is really just students reciting memorized speeches on given topics).

On Wednesday, we headed out with a bunch of other teachers and students on a bus to Phrae, about a two-hour drive from Tha Wang Pha. The school bus we rode in had hilariously poor suspension, so we spent the whole ride bouncing up and down in our hard leather seats. In addition, our seats didn’t seem to be properly secured, so whenever the bus suddenly slowed down (which it did with alarming frequency), Ben and I were nearly pitched forward.

Luckily, we made it to Phrae alive, and pulled up to the hotel that the teachers and students were staying at. For some reason, Ben and I were staying at a different hotel (they said it was because we were judges although that did not make a ton of sense to us), so we were driven to our hotel which was quite far away.

Our hotel was actually fairly nice although not located near much of anything, but after dropping us off at about 4 PM, the teachers told us they would see us tomorrow. We had been expecting some kind of dinner with the rest of the school or at least to meet one of the teachers later, so we were somewhat at a loss at what to do the rest of the afternoon/evening (especially since there seemed to be nothing located within walking distance of the hotel).

After talking to the front desk, I decided to inquire about a massage, and the front desk employee managed to find a masseuse who would come to my room so I didn’t have to wander off to try and find her house. I felt a little bad getting a massage in the room because Ben was just trying to rest, but it was also somewhat comical to be massaged on the bed while he was lying on the other side watching TV. The masseuse was also quite good; although she started out very soft, by the end she was stretching my limbs in angles I didn’t know they would go and pressing her rock hard elbows into any and every crease of my back.

After the massage, Ben and I debated about how to proceed with getting dinner. Eventually we decided to call one of the teachers and asked her to take us to an area in town with Western food (for a change). Apparently not remembering our request, she picked us up and then drove to an area in the center of the city cluttered with street food. Although I was disappointed at first, I warmed up to the idea quickly and we eventually settled on a noodles stand.

I ordered a bowl of yen tafo, a noodle soup dish with tofu, fish balls, pork and squid that is a pink color because of the addition of fermented soybean paste. Although small, the soup was actually the best bowl of noodle soup I have had so far in Thailand. The broth had a slightly sweet, essence and the soup was littered with items of various other textures which made it very interesting and enjoyable. After dinner, we got dropped off back at the hotel where we watched the news in Thai before going to sleep.

The next day, we headed to a school in Phrae to judge our events. As I said before, I was judging the impromptu speeches while Ben was judging the ASEAN quiz. As I filed into the classroom where my event was held, I realized it was going to be a long day as there were forty-four students giving speeches and each speech was to be roughly five minutes long, plus there was an hour break for lunch (you do the math).

Watching the speeches was actually somewhat interesting although many of the topics the students had to give speeches on were very stupid (“My Mobile Phone, My Helper”, “The Youth and Rubbish” – I kid you not). However, it was incredibly obvious to me that it was not much of a level playing field. Since this was the second part of the competition, some of the students were from bigger, more populated provinces such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. These students English skills were far and away better than the students from more remote provinces (such as Nan), and frankly better than all of the English teachers at my school. So right away it was clear that some students spoke with ease while others struggled to recite lines from memory that they could never properly pronounce in the first place. Two of the students actually spoke like native speakers, so I wasn’t too surprised when they both admitted that they had lived in the U.S. for several years.

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Me with the other judges
Me with the other judges

As the speeches went on, I started getting called over and over by one of the teachers. I didn’t pick up her calls since I was in the middle of judging, but Ben texted me and told me that the school was trying to leave and wanted me to ‘finish’ soon. I managed to slip out and call the teacher back but I became pretty furious immediately, because I was judging an event (that my school had told me I would judge, I was never given a choice) and thus I had no control at all over when I would finish. After relaying my phone to one of the Thai judges for a conversation in Thai, she assured me that all had been worked out although I wasn’t so sure.

As the last speech finished, I submitted my scores before rushing out to meet Ben only to find out that the school had already left without us, and that we were expected to take the bus back home. I was absolutely furious (and still am) that the school left without us. In addition to helping many of the students prepare for various events, I had not chosen to be a judge at the competition and had just gone along willingly to be helpful. So when we were just left in Phrae to find our way back home (which took two different buses and about four hours – two hours longer than normal), I felt very disrespected by the school.

Over the course of the year, anytime I seem to feel more at home or excited by a school event, the school always seems to do something to yank everything out from under me and remind me how easy it is for them to take advantage of me. The saying “mai pen rai” or “no worries”, has become infuriatingly annoying to me (which teachers say when I air my complaints), because it is not “no problem” for me when I am taken advantage of, with little resources of my own to go off of. It really is not surprising that none of the farang teachers in the past stayed more than one year, as the school doesn’t seem to realize that treating teachers poorly does not encourage loyalty. Although I like some of the teachers and students at the school, I can’t say I will be too sad when the school year ends in two months.

Still, I have only one more week of school and then vacation! It has come none too soon…

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