Christmas & New Year’s Vacation

Since the first half of the semester became kind of a slog, I was lucky enough to get a vacation last week in which I met Mom & Dad so that we could celebrate Christmas and New Year’s together. It was great timing; I got to see my folks for the holidays as well as break up the semester.

My vacation started on the Friday after Christmas, so I decided to take the bus to Bangkok on Thursday night (and arrive early Friday morning). Having ridden the bus to Bangkok several times, I was pretty familiar with the process but didn’t want to take anything for granted so I tried to plan out everything as much as possible.

My parents booked a hotel by the river, and I had printed out a map from the hotel website that had the address written in English and Thai to give to a taxi bringing me to the hotel. However, I wasn’t too confident that my map and directions would help, as I have done the same thing in the past with different hotels, only to have the taxi drivers ask me numerous questions, get lost, and seem perplexed by the maps. I don’t know if Bangkok is just a very sprawling, chaotic city, or if the cab drivers are just incompetent overall, but it never seems like they know how to get anywhere, even when you provide them with a map and/or an address.

Nonetheless, I finally managed to arrive at the hotel around six A.M. and shortly after passed out in my luxurious bed. The hotel was absolutely fantastic; it was right on the river so there were great views, I had a giant suite all to myself, the service was great, and the breakfast buffet was absolutely amazing. After not being able to find American breakfasts anywhere, I found myself with unlimited access to fresh breads, cheese, eggs, bacon, fresh fruit, yogurt, pastries, and real coffee. I found it hard to stop myself, and always felt tempted to keep going back for more and more food to stuff myself to oblivion.

The view from my room in Bangkok
The view from my room in Bangkok

The hotel also had a pool and a gym which I enjoyed using as well. Again, although I wouldn’t necessarily be too overjoyed by those facilities at American hotels, the lack of them in Tha Wang Pha really made me miss having them available.

Details of the hotel aside, it was also great to see my parents. Although we have been skyping on a regular basis, it had been eight months since I had seen them, so it was great to be reunited. I was curious to see how they would enjoy traveling in Thailand, and I wanted to see some new sights with them as well.

We took it easy the first few days in Bangkok because Mom was recovering from food poisoning the previous week. I didn’t mind that at all as I had seen pretty much all of the main sights already and thus didn’t have pressing concerns to go anywhere in particular.

On Friday, we decided to check out nearby Lumpini Park, which is known for its population of monitor lizards. The park itself was pretty nice – a serene green patch in the urban jungle of Bangkok, but it was truly bizarre to see giant monitor lizards swimming through the pond or lazing in the sun right next to the pedestrian paths. They were clearly used to the presence of people, as they didn’t bother to move or even seem to notice the onlookers snapping pictures as they laid in the grass.

The next day we made our way over to Chinatown, which I had never visited. We first saw a temple with a large golden Buddha which was impressive, albeit a touch gaudy.

After the temple, we walked through the streets of Chinatown which were extremely dirty and crowded with people. I saw a bunch of vendors selling fruit at the mouth of several walking markets. The markets, while interesting, were so crowded with people that we were pushed like salmon upstream through the constant mass of people and trinkets. It also seemed like you had seen the whole market after walking about one hundred meters, because all of the stands sold the same things (for the same prices).

After squeezing our way out of the walking streets, we migrated over to the flower market. The flower market was much cleaner (still in Chinatown), and much less crowded, making it more enjoyable overall (even though I wasn’t interested in buying anything). It was also much more expansive than I was expecting, and the vendors actually seemed to sell different, unique flowers and bouquets.

Since our hotel was right on the river, we decided to take the river ferry back. After waiting a few minutes on the pier, an extraordinarily crowded ferry arrived and I expected a lot of people to disembark so that we could get on. To my dismay, only about five people got off, and the boat crew simply packed everyone already on the boat further in so that we and other people could get on and further overcrowd the ferry (because that’s never dangerous right?).

As it was, I spent the whole ride jammed into the railing on the side of the boat, continuously deafened by a crewman who felt the need to blow an extremely shrill whistle anytime we started remotely approaching a pier. Despite being sandwiched into sweaty tourists and worrying about the complete disregard for safety precautions, I enjoyed the boat ride and found it very comical. We disembarked with all of the other passengers at the central pier, where we took a much nicer boat directly to our hotel.

Back at our hotel, we settled down for another dinner at the hotel restaurant. Having had access to pretty much nothing but Thai food since May, I unabashedly was on a quest to eat as much Western food as possible during my brief sojourn in Bangkok and thus settled down to a salmon fillet on top of some sort of greenery.

It was heavenly to enjoy a quality piece of fish that actually came with vegetables. One of my least favorite parts of eating only Thai food has been the near complete lack of vegetables in Thai cooking, so whenever I can I try and incorporate them into my diet. Also, while I have eaten good fish in Thailand, it is almost always packed with bones of all shapes and sizes, so that I find myself spending much more time picking bones out of the fish and my teeth, than actually eating the fish. Still, by American standards, the dish wouldn’t have been the most remarkable, but it certainly filled a void in my stomach for properly cooked, delicious fish.

Our final day in Bangkok we took a tour in the nearby town of Amphawa, to see the Maeklong railway market, the floating market and a fisherman village. I was especially excited to see the floating market, as I had heard about it but never seen it in person.

It took about one and a half hours to drive to Amphawa, where we first stopped at the Maeklong railway market. The market is famous because of the Maeklong train that literally runs through the middle of it, although it is also one of the largest seafood markets in Thailand. There were also tons of stalls selling tourist trinkets, but it really was interesting to see all different sorts of seafood for sale including horseshoe crabs and squirming eels. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see a train coming through the market as we had to head to the next destination but it was still very interesting to see all of the different goods being sold.

Horseshoe crabs at the Maeklong Market
Horseshoe crabs at the Maeklong Market
Where the train usually rolls through
Where the train usually rolls through

Our next stop was the Amphawa floating market. This market is famous its canals, along which vendors sell goods to customers floating by on boats. There were also tons of food vendors hawking their wares from bobbing canoes. At first, we walked through the parts of the market on land, which although interesting, were not what we had come to see. Finally, we were able to catch a boat to float down the canals. As it was right around lunch time, our tour guide bought us each a bowl of noodle soup to eat on the boat.

Amphawa Floating Market
Amphawa Floating Market
Floating down the canals
Floating down the canals

Although I wasn’t a big fan of the soup, it was relaxing to eat as we slowly drifted and looked at the various things for sale. We quickly learned that if we pointed at anything or stared too widely, our oarsman would stop our boat so that we could buy something. Towards the end of the boat ride, I was surprised to notice a giant monitor lizard poking half of its body out of the side of the canal, like something out of a Jurassic park ride at Universal Studios. In the end, although I didn’t buy anything at the market, it was really interesting to see its strange, frenetic dynamic.

Why hello
Why hello

Our next stop was a fishing village nearby. After hopping on a boat we cruised up a small inlet into a bay. Unfortunately, it was high tide so we were not able to see the just submerged traps used for catching crabs and other seafood. However, we were able to see several different fishermen retrieving their traps from the water. One of the fishermen caught a couple horseshoe crabs and gave them to me to check out. It was interesting to see how the smaller male horseshoe crab simply clung to the larger female in order to get around. After checking them out and wondering how anyone would find any meat on their plated bodies I put them back in the water.

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As we continued cruising in our boat I noticed a giant bag of bananas which one of the crew had been carefully slicing. Sure enough, we pulled into another inlet where we were soon greeted by a large gang of hungry-looking macaques. We threw them bananas and watched as they ruthlessly beat each other away from the food. I am somewhat scared by monkeys so it was kind of terrifying to see all of the macaques franticly cluster around the boat. Some of them began to get impatient and just swam to the boat to demand bananas. One of the larger ones actually jumped in the boat and began rifling through the bag. Fortunately, our boat driver immediately sped out of the inlet and the macaque quickly grabbed all he could hold before jumping ship. It was hilarious and terrifying at the same time and thank god I am not as appealing as a bag of bananas so he did not harass me. As our boat cruised back to the dock, I was relieved to be away from the starving monkeys unscathed.

The next day we left Bangkok for our first road trip stop, Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was the capital of the Siamese kingdom after Sukhothai (which I visited in June), until 1767. At its height, its population reached almost one million people before it was put to the torch by the Burmese army.

Although I had already seen Sukhothai, which was the previous capital of the Siamese kingdom, I was curious to see how Ayutthaya would compare. While I certainly enjoyed Ayutthaya, I found it much less impressive overall than Sukhothai.

One of the main sights is a Buddha head that has been covered by an overgrown Banyan tree. There was a decent crowd gathered around what turned out to be a small and frankly unimpressive Buddha face that was only somewhat remarkable because of the tree framing it. I found the other ruins in the park much more interesting, although there were less of them than in Sukhothai and they seemed to be in bad condition overall (many of the ruins were tilted or lopsided because of unstable soil).

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However, after seeing the main part of the historical park, we also drive to another ruin site nearby. I found this site impressive as it was fairly immense and seemed to be in much better condition. We took a few pictures before getting back on the road.

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That night, we were staying at a hotel in Kamphaeng Phet, about halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Not being the biggest tourist destination, most of the hotels in Kamphaeng Phet (including ours) were only named in Thai. This turned out to be a big problem for our GPS, which typically responds better to English names and addresses. As we were trying to locate the hotel in the dark of night, we made several wrong turns and loops around the same couple streets, but finally I managed to find the phone number for our hotel and get oral directions to the hotel.

The hotel was very bizarre; it was supposed to be a ranch, and all of the rooms were independent, hand built concrete structures with different themes. Our room was the “Matterhorn” room, although this simply meant there were lots of dwarf sculptures and pictures of dogs on the wall.

Although the room was expensive by Thai standards, the hot water in the showers did not work and the beds were about as comfortable as marble slabs. The next morning, our “American” breakfasts consisted of a cold fried egg, bacon, some sort of bologna-esque meat, fake orange juice and instant coffee. Needless to say, I was not too disappointed when we hit the road to our next destination, Chiang Mai.

Compared to Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a much smaller, cleaner, and more chic city. Although we were staying on a fairly random road, we were still pretty close to the city center which is a testament to how small the city is.

After arriving at our hotel, we decided to go to the center of the city to see a few temples. Although I had seen these temples before, I figured I could show them to Mom and Dad and we could walk around the area and find dinner. Wat Chedi Luang, the main temple I wanted them to see, is not only my favorite temple in Chiang Mai but also one of my favorites in Thailand. Around the temple there were lots of chairs and displays set up to prepare for the coming New Year’s celebrations.

After seeing the temple, we walked through the central city to another famous temple, Wat Phra Kaew. Again there were a lot of decorations for the coming New Year’s holiday, as well as several vendors selling food, clothing, and small goods.

Although we only spent one night in Chiang Mai, it was nice to be back in a city that feels worlds apart from the immense concrete jungle of Bangkok.

The next day, we began the fairly long drive to Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai was the last place in Thailand that I had yet to check off my “to see” list. Besides having interesting temples, Chiang Rai is home to the “Golden Triangle”, or the area where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, famous for the illicit trade of opium.

The drive to Chiang Rai was beautiful, but also very hilly and curvy. As we neared the city we hit a lot of traffic, and thus neared the city at a snail’s pace. Besides being New Year’s Eve, there were several simultaneous festivals happening in Chiang Rai including a Flower Festival and a Tea Festival (although we were unable to attend either).

We finally arrived at our first destination outside the city, the White Temple. I had wanted to see the White Temple since arriving in Thailand because of its gaudy but beautiful white exterior, and eccentric, surrealist elements such as a statue of Predator and a painting of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden riding a rocket.

The White Temple
The White Temple

To my dismay, instead of being situated in a picturesque meadow, the White Temple sat right on a busy road next to a shopping complex. In addition, tons of tourists and police were strewn everywhere across the temple, shopping area and road.

Still, the temple was quite a sight. It was just as eccentric and bizarre as I had been hoping, and its creator had gleefully shown off his taste for the absurd all across the complex in the form of grotesque statues amid overly ornate structures. In one of the gift shops abutting the property, I chuckled at several garishly colorful t-shirts, wondering who would buy one before I saw Dad handing over some baht, clutching one with a bizarre design.

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As we were leaving I reflected that while I was initially disappointed, the White Temple ended up being exactly as I had expected. I didn’t really expect it to be a serene, quiet place like other temples. Rather, I knew it reveled in its absurdity, and the fact that it was just so bizarre and incongruent. Although it was packed with tourists, I found that to be less off-putting than at other traditional temples I saw in Bangkok and Japan, where I was expecting a tranquil area and found a mass of tourists instead.

After the White Temple, we headed off to see the Black House. Also referred to as the Black Temple (although it is not a temple), the Black House refers to an area with forty black structures designed by the artist Thawan Duchanee, although the principal ‘Black House’ is the most prominent, and first sight on the property.

The Black House
The Black House

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The structures all contain the artists’ collections of items including paintings, and animal skeletons. Apparently Duchanee often painted at night, and frequently delved into dark themes in his paintings, probably inspiring the creation of the black houses.

Unfortunately, we arrived just as the area was closed for the day, but we were still able to take pictures from the outside of the main structure, so it was not a total loss.

That night I met up with Ben, who was also travelling in Chiang Rai, to celebrate New Year’s. We shared stories of our vacations to that point (Ben went to Khao Yai National Park), and ate pizza at a disappointingly bad restaurant before heading to the city center to observe the celebrations.

The main street had several stages with obnoxiously bad musical acts and was packed with people and street vendors selling foods and beers. Ben and I made our way to the clock tower (designed by the same guy as the White Temple) in the central area of the road to see if there was anything special going on there. Other than being packed with people drinking and canoodling, there was nothing special going on so we headed down the street to a 7-11 to pick up some beers and prepare for midnight.

Chiang Rai Clock Tower (not my picture)
Chiang Rai Clock Tower (not my picture)

It took us about twenty minutes to move twenty feet down the street as the street was too packed to navigate through. Finally we emerged from the crush and were able to choose from two 7-11s, literally right across from each other on the street. As we headed back to the clock tower, we realized that we were not going to make it back before midnight. Settling for our current, packed location, we counted down to the New Year before joining the crowd shoving its way out.

Walking down a side street to Ben’s hostel, people were strewn everywhere, drinking and celebrating. We had to dodge numerous fireworks as people set off all types in the middle of the street, which were shooting in all directions. Finally, I got out of the crowded zone and made it back to my hotel, unburnt.

Celebrating holidays in Thailand has always felt a bit odd, mostly because it never actually seems to be the real thing. My Fourth of July celebration was practically nonexistent, Halloween was nonexistent, Thanksgiving was fun but random, Christmas was just plain bizarre and now New Year’s just felt off somehow. It wasn’t bad or unenjoyable, I guess it is just that celebrating the holidays for me has become more based on who I celebrate them with than how I celebrate them. I was glad to be able to celebrate New Year’s with Ben, but I think that without being surrounded by my friends back home, it simply felt like a bizarre, crazy night of people partying in Thailand, and didn’t really seem like ushering in the New Year. I’m not trying to sound too depressing, I guess it’s just that there are moments when living in Thailand can really emphasize the disconnect I have from my life back home, and unsurprisingly the holidays are when the disconnect is the most clear. That being said, New Year’s is not one of my favorite holidays anyway, and while this was not the best one I had, it will still probably be one of the most memorable.

The next day, I rang in the New Year with Mom and Dad by going to the Golden Triangle. Again, the Golden Triangle is the point along the Mekong River where you can see Myanmar and Laos just across the river. Although the opium trade is less prominent than in the past, the area still holds an interesting history of the now diminished illicit trade. Among other things, we saw the Opium Museum, which described the history of opium as well as the history of its production and trade in the area. There were also plenty of stands selling food and tourist goods, as well as a viewpoint that provided a nice vista of the convergence of the Mekong and Ruak River.

Myanmar on the left, Laos on the right
Myanmar on the left, Laos on the right

After seeing the main area, we drove along the Mekong for a while before heading back to our hotel. I finally convinced Mom and Dad to get massages at a nearby place, and enjoyed a foot massage before eating dinner.

Temple along the Mekong
Temple along the Mekong

The next day was our final day together and thus we drove the final leg back to Tha Wang Pha. While the drive was beautiful, it was even windier than the drive to Chiang Rai, and I could do little to stop myself from ping ponging across the back seats. There was again slight confusion in locating Mom and Dad’s hotel as it was labeled in Thai, but fortunately we found it with the aid of directions from locals.

We got into Tha Wang Pha late afternoon, with just enough sunlight left for me to show Mom and Dad the school as well as a brief tour of the town. Finally we had a simple dinner in Pua before parting ways as they had a long drive the next day and would be jettisoning early in the morning.

It was great to see Mom and Dad, and explore some parts of Thailand with them that I had not seen. It was also fortuitous timing; it was not so bad to miss Christmas since I got to see them the next day and I was even able to celebrate New Year’s with Ben in Chiang Rai.

Although it hasn’t exactly been euphoric to return to teaching, I really do have only a short time left (seven weeks). This past Friday was also the second Sports Day of the year, so I went to Nan with some of the teachers to watch some of the students compete in track events against other prominent schools in the province.

At this point, the hardest part about being in Thailand is not the teaching. Although there are times when it is very frustrating, I have become more used to them and better able to deal with the frustrations. The hardest part about being here is easily just living in Tha Wang Pha itself. While it is a quaint town with nice people, there really is absolutely nothing to do here (other than get massages and go to coffee shops), and the isolated location doesn’t help. Most weeks, I am looking forward to the weekend when I will have a respite from teaching, but then when the weekend rolls around I find myself thinking, now what? What is there to do? And the answer really is… nothing. Weekend trips are all but impossible to everywhere but Nan and I have seen and done everything in Nan several times over. So really at this point my biggest enemy has become crippling boredom.

Fortunately there are things I can and have done to mitigate the boredom somewhat.

I am incredibly grateful to now have a kindle, which I use frequently to check out books from the library so that I always have something interesting to read. I also love my guitar, which I play every day (although I still often wish it was a piano).

Recently, I have also started to focus my attention on the future. Although I know I shouldn’t be so obsessed with the future that I am forgetting to appreciate today, it certainly helps to have something to look forward too. I have already begun applying to teaching programs in Spain, where I hope to be next year, and have just started to plan my vacation in March, which is now not so far off.

I think the next couple weeks will be trying, dealing with the immense boredom, but once February rolls around I think the end will feel near enough that my outlook will brighten. Either way, while it will be soon enough that I am embarking on an epic vacation through Southeast Asia, it still is hard to deal with the day-to-day boredom of living somewhere so isolated and uneventful. In many ways writing this blog is cathartic and although it is easy for me to be frustrated by the day-to-day boredom, being able to write about all of the things I have experienced makes me realize how lucky I am and how unique this past year really has been. All of the isolation has been hard, but it has also made me really realize what I have taken for granted in the past, and has given me a new appreciation for many things back home.

Now if you will excuse me I have to find something to do the rest of the day while I sit in my apartment, avoiding the rain.