Munich: The Beer Capital of the World, Apparently

As our bus lumbered south towards Munich, I was pleasantly surprised to see the gray, overcast weather give way to snow-covered landscape. Although the weather was warmer as expected, I didn’t foresee snow being a part of the equation. The farther south we drove from Berlin, the more interesting the landscape became. Flat, undeveloped land slowly became hillier, and dotted with villages and estates.

It was immediately clear that Munich was much smaller than Berlin. In Munich, all of the metro, bus, and trains are centralized around a main station that was only a five-minute walk from our hostel, making it incredibly easy to get around. In Berlin on the other hand, there are several different major transportation hubs scattered throughout the center so that it sometimes took around an hour to navigate between them.

After arriving at our hostel, we decided to go to a brewery. Since Munich proclaims itself the “beer capital of the world”, I had very high expectations. In addition, the breweries in Poland had impressed me so much that my expectations for German beer became further elevated as a result.

After inquiring at the front desk of our hostel, we got a fairly comprehensive list of breweries to check out. On the first night we decided to head to a microbrewery called Giesinger Brau, which our hostel receptionist had proclaimed as having the best beer in Munich.

After taking the metro and wandering through a mostly vacant area, we found Giesinger Brau. Unfortunately, their kitchen was already closed, but we decided to have some beers anyway. Before we ordered we were approached by a very inebriated German woman who swore to us that this was the best beer in Munich, which seemed like another great sign.

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Microbrewery we visited the first night

We ordered a flight (a small sampling of five beers), before ordering individual pints. The beer was fine, but nothing remarkable or interesting. I was honestly very disappointed; if this was supposed to be the best beer in Munich, then what were the other breweries like? After several beers, we got a quick bite before heading back to the hostel.

The next day we headed to Neuschwanstein Castle. Being a two-hour train ride away, we woke up fairly early and groggily got onto the train. The ride was very nice and relaxing, and as we came closer to the Bavarian Alps it began to snow.

The train unloaded everyone in a town a few miles from the castle, so we all piled onto buses to be dropped off at a village near the base of the castle. As the bus approached the village, Neuschwanstein became visible – looming over everything amid snow-dusted mountains. In many ways, the first sight of the castle was the most breathtaking, as it looked exactly like a scene out of a snow globe.

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Neuschwanstein with the Alps backdrop

After we were dropped off in the village we piled into an enormous line to buy entry tickets. I had not realized that the Hohenschwangau Castle was also within sight of the village, along with a museum about former Bavarian Kings. Nonetheless, we decided to simply buy tickets for Neuschwanstein, as the others did not seem interesting enough to justify the elevated price.

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Hohenschwangau Castle
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Lake at the base of Neuschwanstein

After waiting in line for an hour, we finally got our tickets. Unfortunately, the soonest entry time to the castle was at 4 PM, and it was only noon. Wet and cold from standing in line for an hour in the snow, I was less-than-happy with the news. To kill the time, we wandered around the small village, which was predictably full of overpriced restaurants and stores with touristy trinkets, before finding a bratwurst stand.

We somehow managed to pass the rest of the time by walking around the whole area and checking out the outside of Hohenschwangau Castle. As our entry time approached, we hiked up the hill to the castle and queued for our tour.

The closer we came to the castle, the less impressive it looked. Although it is definitely beautiful architecturally, it is much different than I had expected. It looks and feels very new, and given its completion in the late 19th century, it feels much more like a mansion or palace designed to resemble a castle, than an actual castle. Nothing about it felt rugged or militaristic to me, and its fairy-tale like atmosphere made it feel much more like the fantasy of an eccentric millionaire than a medieval castle.

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It was snowing fairly heavily at this point

The interior was even more bizarre and fantastical. King Ludwig II, the king who built the castle, was obsessed with the composer Richard Wagner, so many of the rooms were painted with murals depicting various scenes from Wagner’s operas. I had heard the interior of the castle was less-than-impressive, and I certainly agreed.

After finishing the tour, we quickly scurried back towards the bus and then onto the train, happy to be getting out of the snow and returning to Munich.

That night we decided to go to the Paulaner brewery. Again, the brewery was interestingly situated in an otherwise vacant part of town.

Built in the traditional beer hall style, it was nearly empty when we entered. We received a very cool reception, as several of the waiters clearly saw us yet made no move in our direction. I finally flagged a waiter down, who seemed immediately resentful.

As we were being seated, he handed us menus and said something about the food. I immediately explained that we were only ordering drinks, which immediately caused him to pull the menus away. I asked for a drink menu, which he scoffed at and replied, “We serve beer. Normal types of beer”.

To recap, this brewery was almost empty, our waiter seemed angry with us for no reason, and he had no menu explaining the beer selection (did I say this was a brewery?). Looking back, I should’ve just taken the obvious hints and left, but we were already there so we decided to order beers anyway.

As we talked and drank, I put the moody waiter out of my mind, which wasn’t too hard as he didn’t return to attend to us. Finally, he returned some time later to give us our check. He turned to me and asked if he could ask me a question. It’s never a good thing when something wants to “ask you a question”, but I thought for a second that maybe I had misread him, and he was making a last, futile attempt to be friendly.

He asked where I was from. His (somewhat clever, extremely passive-aggressive), follow-up was, “They tip in California don’t they?”. Wow… even in the U.S. where we always tip, I have never had someone ask so bluntly for a tip. On top of that, this was literally the worst service I have ever had. Even if I had been in California I would not have tipped him, or would have given him the absolute minimum tip and then notified the manager. Needless to say, I didn’t tip him, but proceeded to get out of there as quickly as possible before he tried to shank me in the parking lot.

Still somewhat frazzled the next day, we decided to take another free tour. Perhaps my expectations were too high given how much I had enjoyed the alternative tour in Berlin, but I was excited for the tour of Munich. I even explained to our guide my interesting tipping experience before the tour, looking for reassurance that I had been in the right (she concurred that I was).

However, I felt a creeping anxiety as she began explaining that although the tour was free, we basically had to tip. Uh oh, is this some form of weird déjà vu? She had literally just told me that in Europe tipping was not “a thing”, and this was nonetheless a “free” tour. I understand the point, if a free tour is very interesting and informative, I will gladly tip (as I did after the alternative tour in Berlin), but I do not see tipping as an obligation (otherwise why advertise it as a ‘free’ tour?).

I nipped my concerns away, and decided to enjoy the tour. Most of the city had been predictably destroyed during WWII, and then rebuilt to replicate its historical style. We walked around the center very quickly as it only covered a small area, and saw the famous cuckoo clock in the new City Hall which was comically out of tune.

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New City Hall
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The Cuckoo Clock. Longest half-minute of my life.

The tour itself was decent; our guide tried a little too hard to be funny and oversold her jokes, making it obvious she said the same spiels every time but at least she was trying to make it enjoyable.

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Sign commemorating the Beer Purity Law

However, the end of the tour was amazingly awkward. Our guide made a horrible joke that most of us did not even realize was a joke, then remarked about the lack of laughter and that the tour was over.

She asked for tips, and it was clear looking at the group that all tips were given begrudgingly. I realized I only had big bills, so I asked Ben if I could unofficially split his tip. He had a €5 note which I thought was a reasonable tip between the two of us. The tour had not been too long, and I felt like we were tipping more out of obligation than because we enjoyed the tour. As Ben gave the guide our tip, she gave us a dirty look, confirming my initial suspicions.

Again, I felt frazzled by the weird reception to tipping. My concept of tipping in Europe is normally very clear; tipping is not a normal custom, so I do not feel obligated to tip unless I receive good service. That being said, I have still tipped at a number of different places, so it was bizarre to encounter this forceful push to tip even for poor or abysmal service that I have only ever encountered in Munich.

Nonetheless, being our last night in Munich, we decided to go to Hofbrauhaus (HB). Hofbrauhaus is easily the most-trafficked beer hall in Munich, and I was hoping to have a better experience there than at the previous places we had visited.

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the Hofbrauhaus beer hall

Thankfully, I actually enjoyed the HB beer hall. Our waiter was surprisingly nice and helpful despite the crowded atmosphere, and we promptly received giant liter mugs of beer.

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Liters of beer
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In awe of my giant mug of beer

It was interesting to see the various giant platters of Bavarian food rotating around the hall, but having already eaten we simply watched the plates go by. Thinking back on the horrible service we had received, I made a note of giving our waiter a generous tip as he managed to be attentive and friendly even given the large crowd.

After a few beers, we left and headed towards another beer hall that served beer brewed at a nearby monastery. Fortunately, this brewery ended up being my favorite in Munich by a long-shot.

The brewery, Kloser Andechs (Andechs Abbey), had been brewing beer since 1455. Their wheat beer was particularly delicious, and was the only great beer I had in Germany.

Given its history and current status as “beer capital of the world”, Munich left something to be desired. I find that self-proclaimed title disingenuous at best, especially given the complete lack of variation in beers due to the city’s old, archaic beer purity law. In my opinion, a much better title for the city would be the “historic beer capital of the world”.

The beer issue aside, the sights outside of Munich seem very beautiful, but the city was a bit disappointing.

Altogether, the trip was much different than I had been expecting. Since it was primarily my idea to go to Germany, I had high expectations for Germany, but basically no expectations for Poland.

Because of this, Poland completely surprised me and I really enjoyed everything about it. Its history was very rich and interesting, the food was somewhat unique, and the beer was great. Even though the people were generally unfriendly, I could usually laugh it off as it was mostly the “don’t talk to me” unfriendliness (rather than direct rudeness, like we experienced in Munich).

In contrast, Germany was pretty disappointing. While I enjoyed some things, like the alternative tour in Berlin and some of the breweries, the cities lacked charm and the sites didn’t impress me as much I had been expecting. While I did encounter some very rude, horrid people, I also encountered many very nice, incredibly helpful people.

Looking forward, I feel satisfied with what I saw in Germany and can say that I don’t feel any need to return anytime soon. I am also satisfied with what I saw in Poland, but enjoyed it so much that I could visit again.

For me, this trip also reasserted the importance of having a good travel companion. Besides the numerous, obvious advantages of traveling with someone, a good travel companion encourages you to see places you wouldn’t have wanted to on your own, to try different foods, to do different things, and to venture outside of your comfort zone. I have been lucky to find such a great travel companion in Ben, as he has certainly added many different layers and insights to my travels.

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Berlin: New Year’s and the Alternative Scene

After our stressful ordeal at the Wrocław bus station, we arrived into Berlin around midnight and managed to check into our Airbnb without any problems. Our apartment was actually very nice and spacious. Since we were staying in Berlin over New Year’s, hostels turned out to be very expensive (mostly over €100 a night), so staying in our apartment was actually the cheaper option. We were in a quieter part of former East Berlin, in Neukölln, but had quick access to the metro and could easily venture into the city.

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Our Airbnb apartment

The next day was New Year’s Eve, so we weren’t sure how many places would be open and simply decided to walk around and explore. Although I knew Berlin had been fairly destroyed during WWII, I was surprised by how different it felt from other Western European cities I had already seen. While it did have some of the European charm, it felt more subdued, and sterile as well. The gloomy, overcast weather didn’t help either, but in a lot of ways Berlin was less inviting than I had been expecting.

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Nonetheless, it was still interesting to walk around and explore. Unfortunately, one reality that the trip was quickly making clear was that I had not packed adequate clothing for the cold weather. To be fair, I had packed all of my winter clothing, but realized that my real cold weather clothing that I had relied on during Colorado winters was idly hanging in my closet in California. I tried to push the numbingly cold weather out of my mind, but found myself craving the advanced floor heating system that lay dormant in our apartment every time we wandered the streets.

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Horrible picture of Brandenburg Gate

Still, it was interesting to explore the city. Berlin definitely felt much larger than Madrid; the center of the city seemed to cover an incredibly expansive area that was well connected by public transport, but still took a while to navigate. After walking around most of the city, we decided to prepare for that night (New Year’s), and bought some beers from a grocery store.

Although I had been initially planning on celebrating the night with my friend Maria, she was out of town unexpectedly, so Ben and I were on our own. In addition, while my initial enthusiasm about New Year’s was high, the weather quickly became colder, making the realities of the situation come into clearer focus.

I knew that the most popular spot to ring in New Year’s was on the massive grass field behind the Brandenburg Gate. I briefly considered heading over that way, but realized I would be fighting endless crowds and increasingly cold weather, and nixed the idea. I also thought about going to a nearby bar to celebrate, but decided against that after realizing there weren’t any interesting bars near our apartment and that it had begun to rain as we were finishing dinner. Since we already had beer in the apartment, we ended up just going back and ringing in the New Year with wheat beers and stand-up comedy.

The next day we decided to do a walking tour of the city. Although we had already seen most of the main sights, we heard about an “Alternative” walking tour which promised to go to graffiti spots, squat areas, and interesting places that were important during the Cold War. Having always had a fascination with graffiti and knowing that Berlin had some of the most interesting graffiti in the world, I was very interesting in seeing the most famous graffiti and interested to learn more about the history of the city during the Cold War.

To begin the tour, we congregated at the base of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz and were introduced to our guide. Although my guide had been living in Berlin for about twenty years, he was actually from San Francisco. We headed by the metro to our first spot, a former train repair station that had been abandoned before being reclaimed by squatters, skaters, and now by cafes and other semi-legit businesses that pop-up in the space.

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The tour was altogether very interesting, but I was literally freezing my face off the whole time. The cold was so intense that our guide suggested that we stop in several different cafes and shops just to escape the frigid weather for a few minutes. I had no qualms about ending the tour if the cold became too intense, as it was free, but found it so interesting that I willed myself to tough it out.

It was certainly worth it; besides learning about the inspiration behind many different pieces of graffiti, we also talked about important spots in both East and West Berlin, saw spots where people made the desperate attempt to cross the wall, and ended the tour at the wall itself. One of my favorite neighborhoods we saw was Kreuzberg, in former West Berlin. Kreuzberg grew from a small, insignificant neighborhood in West Berlin to the center of the “alternative”, hipster, and rap scenes today.

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Astronaut representing the Cold War in Kreuzberg (former West Berlin)

It was also interesting to learn that the wall was built to follow old zoning maps of the city. This meant that the wall was far from straight; there were some sections that curved far more than others. This also meant that although it was suicide to cross the wall at most spots, there were actually spots where the “no man’s land” in between the wall was out of sight of soldiers, giving more of a chance for a safe crossing.

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The Western side of the wall
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The Eastern side of the wall – fenced off for some reason

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The tour was fantastic overall. Although I had felt less than enamored by the city of Berlin, the alternative tour greatly increased my appreciation and understanding of what the city had been through, and its evolution towards the future.

After giving our guide a tip, we quickly scurried back to the apartment to soak up some heat. I took a shower and finally felt the chill in my bones start to lessen, and ease into full body warmth. I was silently grateful to be living in Spain rather than Germany, as I knew even the coldest days in Madrid were nothing in comparison.

After a quick kebab dinner, our cheap standby, we headed to a bar that I found intriguing. The bar was chemistry and laboratory themed, so all of the drinks were served in test tubes and beakers. I was also intrigued by their homemade absinthe, which I ended up ordering while Ben got an intense Bloody Mary.

I was somewhat at a loss at the correct way of pouring the absinthe; I was served the absinthe in a glass with the customary “spoon” and sugar cube on top with a glass of water on the side. I figured I was supposed to somehow dilute the sugar with the water into the absinthe, but when I poured water onto the sugar cube it instantly dissolved completely into the absinthe which didn’t seem like the intended idea. I downed the absinthe shortly after, which tasted like black licorice combined with rubbing alcohol, and we headed back.

The next day we hurried to catch the bus to Munich. Although I really enjoyed the alternative tour in Berlin, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down by the city. In part, I knew that I had enjoyed Poland so much that I had very high expectations for Germany, but I also realized that New Year’s had been lackluster and the city less enthralling than I had hoped.

Still, I had fairly high hopes for Munich. The city seemed to have more going on culturally, it was situated near the Bavarian Alps, and of course, Neuschwanstein Castle was only a short distance away. To my surprise, the weather was also forecasted to be warmer than Berlin, so I packed my bags onto the bus, happy to be escaping the cold, infinite gray expanse of Berlin.

Wrocław: A Vibrant, Up-and-Coming City

Our next stop was the city of Wrocław (pronounced “Frot-slav”), Poland. It is the biggest city in Western Poland and located conveniently between Krakow and Berlin. However, Wrocław greatly exceeded my expectations and ended up being one of my favorite stops of the trip.

After saying goodbye to the other travelers at our hostel, Ben and I caught our train. Fortunately, the train ride was only three hours so it did not eat up the entire day. Although we got into town in the late afternoon, it was already dark (it got dark around 4:30 pm).

We made our way to our hostel, before setting out into town. Wrocław is situated beautifully on the River Oder, and has many different islands. One of the islands holds only a large park which is used for festivals and concerts during the summer.

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The University at night

Wrocław also immediately felt much different than Krakow. Krakow seemed to get many more tourists, and was centralized around its old town. Wrocław, on the other hand, didn’t get many tourists, had a younger, more vibrant population (because of several local universities), and while still easily walkable, had more interesting sights around the city. Overall, I found the city much more interesting and full of character than Krakow.

One interesting aspect of Wrocław was the numerous (exceeding 300) small dwarf sculptures strewn through the city. The dwarfs pay homage to a Polish anti-communist movement started in Wrocław called the “Orange Alternative”. During this time, the police painted over many anti-communist slogans throughout the city. After these areas were painted over by police, different anti-communist figures painted dwarfs on the covered spots, continuing the protest in a whimsical fashion and indirectly continuing the anti-communist sentiment.

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During my time in Wrocław, it was fun to find the dwarves scattered everywhere, many times cleverly arranged to mimic and poke fun at the city around them. They also undeniably added to the city’s character, which was quite charming overall.

On our first night, we crossed the river and walked through the university to the Market Square and old town. The Market Square was surprisingly huge, and covered with lingering Christmas decorations and a giant stage constructed for their coming New Year’s celebration.

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Market Square

Throughout the city, there are many cheap restaurants called ‘milk bars’ that are basically cafeterias serving cheap, hearty food. Although I was initially hoping for something out of Clockwork Orange, the milk bar we tried the first night was very good, and was a great way to get cheap Polish food.

We really only had one full day in the city, so the next day we just decided to take it easy and meander around. Since there weren’t a ton of sights to see, we just figured we would explore the city and make a leisurely loop past some of the more prominent landmarks. We basically made our way across the city to a few different cathedrals, one of which we ascended for a nice view of the city.

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Wrocław from above

One of the more interesting sights in the city was definitely the Racławice Panorama. The panorama is basically a giant 360-degree circular painting depicting the Battle of Racławice, in which Polish soldiers defeated the larger Russian army. We were given audio guides describing the various people and events depicted in the painting, so we walked slowly around the circle while the audio guide explained what was happening.

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Racławice Panorama from outside

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After seeing the panorama, we walked around more of the city before stopping in a brewery right in the Market Square. While not quite as good as C.K. Browar in Krakow, we still had a few tasty beers before calling it a night.

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Oldest Island of the city

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The next day we packed up, and headed to the bus station to go to Berlin. Despite the incredibly frigid weather, there was nowhere we could wait for the bus inside, so we just stood shivering in the wind. The time of our buses’ departure came and passed, and we became nervous without any sight of our DB Bahn bus (many buses from other companies came and went).

I also became somewhat panicked, as I figured that there wouldn’t likely be anyone nearby who could speak English to help us out. I flagged down a security guard and showed him my ticket, which caused him to vigorously shake his head and point at his watch before striding away. While I met a few nice Polish people, they generally seemed to get immediately frustrated and impatient with any interaction, and rarely wanted to help.

As more and more time passed, it became clear that we had somehow missed our bus, and I was going insane in the freezing weather. Finally, we found a woman and two other men who were in the same situation as us. Luckily, the woman spoke Polish (although she was Finnish), and talked to the security guard again to figure out what had happened.

In the end, it turned out that our bus company (DB Bahn), collaborated with a Polish bus company to use a different company’s bus for this journey. While it said nothing of this on our ticket or reservation (and we used the same bus company to get into Poland without this occurring), they apparently made an announcement in Polish and German at the station. Out of thirty-two booked passengers, seven missed the bus but apparently it was still our fault.

I was pretty pissed off; after taking buses all throughout southeast Asia I figured it would be much easier to travel around Europe, but apparently that isn’t always the case.

Fortunately, we were lucky to have run into the Finnish woman, as she also needed to get back to Berlin the next day. After we confirmed that there were no other buses to Berlin that day, we headed to the train station. With her help, we were eventually able to procure train tickets to make it to Berlin just before New Year’s Eve.

Thankful to have made it out of the city, I was still pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Wrocław and Poland overall. Although the people were generally unfriendly and it was always freezing, the sights and history of Poland are interesting enough that I could visit again.

Krakow: A Look into the Past

For our trip over the winter break, Ben and I decided to go to Germany and Poland. Although our first stop was Krakow, we flew in and out of Berlin because it was much cheaper.

After spending the night in Berlin, we took a bus to Krakow on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, we made our first of several miscues on this trip when we mistakenly assumed our bus’s departure was later than it turned out to be, forcing us to take a later bus. Nevertheless, it all worked out and the bus took about eight hours over the gentle rolling landscapes of Germany and Poland.

Although we arrived around six in the evening, it was already very dark as there was much less sunlight than in Spain. As we attempted to navigate to our hostel, we met a young guy from Dubai named Rumi who joined us, as he was also looking for a place to stay.

I liked our hostel immediately; they gave us hot spiced wine when we arrived, and invited us to join in a traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal. It turns out that Christmas Eve is a more important holiday than Christmas Day in Poland, so most people were celebrating with their families and having traditional dinners. This also meant that we arrived in Krakow having not eaten since breakfast, and basically everything was closed. Although we had been invited to have some of the leftover food from the Christmas Eve meal at the hostel, we were not sure how much would be left so we set out to try and find something.

We ended up stopping at the first open place we passed which served doner kebab. Having eaten doner kebab all over Spain, we were intrigued to taste the Polish take on the readily available dish. We were appalled quickly to learn that the Polish interpretation of kebab included pickles and gloopy, vaguely-flavored sauces. Still, it was nice to put something in our groaning stomachs.

Since the next day was Christmas, we figured almost nothing would be open and decided to just take a free walking tour of the Jewish quarter. After breakfast at our hostel, we headed over to old town where the tour group was meeting.

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We walked around old town for a bit, and grabbed another mediocre kebab before going to the tour group meeting point.

During the tour we walked to the Jewish quarter, saw some of the oldest synagogues in Krakow, and even saw a few places that were used to film the movie Schindler’s List. Although there are not many Jews living in Krakow today, there used to be a large Jewish population as evidenced by the nine synagogues and fairly large Jewish quarter. The tour ended outside of Oscar Schindler’s factory, which has been converted into a museum.

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The first Synagogue in Krakow
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The house where Helena Rubinstein was born

After the tour, we walked back to the old town. There was a traditional Christmas market set up in the market square, which we meandered through before heading to a nearby bar. Since we were not yet hungry, we decided to get drinks and relax for a while.

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Old Town at night

I ordered a hot spiced beer, while Ben got a hot spiced wine. Not really knowing what to expect, I was surprised that my hot beer was actually somewhat good. It tasted just like a hot lager with a few sweet spices thrown in. However, about three-quarters of the way through I threw in the towel after deciding the sweetness was a bit much. Still, I was surprised that a hot beer was nowhere near as horrible tasting as I had expected.

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Hot, spiced beer

 

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Making pierogies
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Baklava and Polish desserts

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After leaving the bar, we went to a traditional Polish restaurant. Although it looked great, my pork cutlet dish turned out to be fairly blasé.

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Port cutlets with rubbery green things

The next day, we had booked tickets to see Auschwitz Birkenau. Being one of the primary things to see outside of Krakow, we decided to see Auschwitz first to get the depressing sight out of the way. After an hour and a half bus ride, we arrived outside Auschwitz.

Although the sky was clear and blue, it was very cold and windy. We signed up for an English tour, and waited for the tour to start.

The former concentration camp consists of three different sites: Auschwitz I, Birkenau (or Auschwitz II), and Auschwitz III. The main bulk of the tour was within Auschwitz I. For the last hour of our tour, we took a short bus to Birkenau, where the tour finished.

It was pretty surreal walking through the camp. Almost immediately after starting the tour, we walked under the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” sign (‘Work sets you free’). Within the buildings were different exhibits with documents and pictures from the camp, but no audio or video recordings.

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As the tour continued, our guide explained how there was an ongoing discourse about the best way to provide and present information within Auschwitz. It seemed that the main idea behind the Auschwitz museum at present was to display everything as it is, avoiding any reconstruction or interactive exhibits.

While I understood the motivations behind keeping the camp as original as possible, I almost felt like the experience was too muted. It was chilling seeing the collections of hair, glasses and shoes, but I did not feel as emotionally affected as I had when visiting the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. For me, the main thing missing in the Auschwitz museum was some kind of movies or audio recordings. Maybe if I had not already visited the museum in Jerusalem I would have felt differently, but I expected to be as emotionally drained if not more.

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Still, it was definitely worthwhile to see the camp. After the bulk of the tour in Auschwitz I, we finished up in Birkenau. While originally much larger, Birkenau is now mostly destroyed, and almost all that is left of the camp are lone brick chimneys and blown-up ruins of crematoriums. It was a little bizarre to me that there was a town visible from Birkenau, so that some of the houses faced the old camp. I don’t know how someone could enjoy living somewhere where a bleak reminder of the area’s ugly history is just a glance out the window.

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Birkenau

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Nevertheless, I was glad that I was able to see the former concentration camp, and looked forward to the next few days, which I figured would be more uplifting.

Our final day in Krakow, we decided to see the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Just outside Krakow, the mine operated for over seven hundred years. During its long history, the miners dug out many different interesting passages and chambers including a large church, several chapels, and an underground lake. Today, the mine is used for many different events besides tourism, including concerts and health clinics. Although our tour lasted over three hours, we saw less than one percent of the total mine, which is clearly immense.

The mine was incredibly interesting, and it was amazing the numerous rooms and sculptures carved out of salt. While the guide encouraged us to lick the walls several times to taste the salt, I decided to abstain and took pictures instead.

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Statue of an old Polish king inside the mine

In a few chambers, there were even large chandeliers made of salt as well as engravings and reliefs. There was also a restaurant and several gift shops several hundred feet underground.

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Church inside the mine
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Basically Moria

While we descended around eight hundred steps during the tour, we took a lift back up to avoid the arduous climb. The salt mine was so unique and interesting, it lifted our spirits after the day at Auschwitz and was a nice end to our time in Krakow.

That night we went to a local brewery called C.K. Browar. I had read about the brewery serving unpasteurized, unfiltered beer and became curious. The brewery was also underground and carved in the traditional cave-like Polish style giving it an interesting ambiance.

I was shocked at how delicious the beer was; it was actually the first time I enjoyed drinking a wheat beer. I don’t know if it was the lack of pasteurization or just how it was brewed, but it had very strong flavors that Ben and I both enjoyed. After tasting the selection of beers, we headed back to the hostel and got ready to leave for Wroclaw in the morning.

Overall, Krakow was a very interesting, charming city that I enjoyed much more than I had expected. While there were several times I was less than enthralled with the Polish people we met, I loved exploring the city and seeing the interesting places a short trip away as well.

 

A Peak into Lush Northwestern Galicia

“Para noble nacimiento hay en España tres partes, Galicia, Vizcaya, Asturias, o ya montañas se llamen.”

“To noble birth ensure three parts of Spain over all, Galicia, Biscay, and Asture, the highlands them we call.” – Lope de Vega

From my limited knowledge of Spain, the country seems to be divisible into three general geographical regions: the South, including Andalucía, Caceres, Murcia and Valencia; the center/northeast with Madrid, Toledo, Barcelona; and the northwest with the Basque country, Asturias and Galicia. Since I had already visited the south (Granada), as well as the northeast (Barcelona), I really wanted to venture to the northwest (specifically the province of Galicia, directly north of Portugal), which I heard was much more like Ireland (green and rainy), than the rest of Spain.

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For a long weekend at the beginning of December, I thus decided to go to Santiago de Compostela, within Galicia. The city is best known as being the end of the famous Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), the religious pilgrimage from the south of France through the North of Spain. It’s official end is at the shrine of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where St James was supposedly buried in the ninth century.

camino map

Galicia is also interesting in that it has its own local language, Gallego, which is basically a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. Because of this, many of the buildings, signs, roads, etc. are labelled in both Spanish and Gallego (or just Gallego), which can be a little confusing but interesting at the same time.

Ben and I primarily wanted to go to Santiago to explore the province of Galicia itself, and foray through its rugged terrain.

Being in the farthest northwestern corner of the country, there are not a lot of convenient travel options to get up to Galicia. Since the bus ride was an unforgiving eight hours, I decided to try my luck with www.blablacar.com, a Spanish rideshare website. I actually used another website previously, www.amovens.com, to snag a ride up to Barcelona, which worked out perfectly.

Blablacar is pretty easy and convenient to use. You simply plug in your desired destination and day of departure, and it shows you a list of drivers going there that day. Many of them even have reviews and information about their car (i.e. how big your luggage can be). I learned that the drive to Santiago was roughly five hours, and the prices were about the same as the cost of the bus ride.

Ben and I met our driver Victor, in the northwestern part of Madrid, Moncloa, close to the A6 freeway which goes to Galicia. I was surprised to see Victor had a new BMW M3, so I figured we would probably haul ass. After short introductions, we threw our bags in the trunk and packed in for the trip.

While Victor seemed like a decent driver overall, he was an interesting character and seemed to rant about unrelated subjects in heavily accented Spanish.

The trip was mostly uneventful, at least when I wasn’t clinging on for dear life and cringing at the frightening speeds we were reaching (I looked once and saw we were going 175 kph, and decided not to check again). As we neared Galicia, we became enveloped in a thick fog that combined with the night sky made it hard to see anything around us, so it kind of felt like we were flying through the clouds, and when we were dropped off in Santiago, I felt like I could have been anywhere.

We walked to our hostel which turned out to be more like an inn, than a hostel. Situated in the historic old town, Casa Felisa was a restaurant and tavern on the ground floor, and a hostel/hotel on the upper floors. It definitely added to the old feel that I got when walking through the old city on our way there.

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Streets of the old city outside our hostel

After depositing our stuff, we decided to grab some dinner. Since Galicia is well known for its seafood, I wanted to try Pulpo á feira (which literally translates to “Fair-style Octopus”), which was recommended to me by some of my Spanish co-workers.

Pulpo á feira is boiled octopus, with paprika, salt and olive oil. Many restaurants in Santiago are actually “pulperias”, or restaurants specializing in ‘pulpo’ (octopus). We found a small pulperia near our hotel and decided to try it out.

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Pulpo á feira. Notice the wine served in bowls.

Although it is a very simple dish, I was blown away by the soft and tender octopus and the bite that the combination of salt and paprika gave the dish. I have had octopus before, but never in such large, rich chunks. It was easily my favorite dish that I have had yet in Spain, and I vowed to eat it again before leaving Galicia (although I can find it in Madrid, it is not as fresh and high quality as in Galicia). Interestingly, many restaurants including this one also served their wine in large, stone bowls, keeping with the traditional vibe of the city.

After the delicious meal, we strolled around the city a bit before heading back to our hotel.

The next day, we decided to sign up for a tour of Galicia. I really wanted to see the landscape around Galicia, and rather than paying for a rental car we booked a tour. The tour included several locations through Galicia along the Costa da Morte, or ‘Coast of Death’ because of the large number of shipwrecks along its rocky coast.

After a small breakfast of coffee and tarta de Santiago, a local sweet almond cake, we were picked up by our tour company. We were then deposited onto our tour bus, and set off for our first destination.

One thing I really liked about the tour was that the guide talked via loudspeaker about the attractions while we were on the bus, and then let us wander around the actual sites unbothered. Although his explanations were only in Spanish, I found his accent easy to understand so I could tune in to what he was saying when I wanted, and zone out when I wasn’t interested.

Our first stop was a small medieval village called Ponte Maceira, a site along the Camino de Santiago known for its old stone bridge. Built in the thirteenth century, the stone bridge was very pretty and definitely added to the medieval feel of the village. I was blown away by the lush, green vegetation and really felt like I was in Ireland, not in Spain.

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Ponte Maceira
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Stone bridge to Ponte Maceira

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After strolling around the village and exploring an old mill on the river we set off to our next destination.

Our next stop was a viewpoint overlooking one of the biggest beaches in Galicia, although the cloudy weather made the view a little less interesting than it would be normally.

We next stopped by the Cascada del Ézaro (Ezaro waterfall). It was a short walk out to the waterfall where I had fun scrambling over rocks to get the best picture.

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Cascada de Ézaro

Our last stop before lunch was Finisterre, literally ‘The End of the World’. Finisterre is also the last stop of another religious pilgrimage that starts in Santiago de Compostela. Although it is not actually the farthest western point in Spain as it claims, it is the more easily accessible than the actual westernmost point slightly further north. I could see why it was the end of a religious pilgrimage, as the rugged, primal landscape with sun rays piercing the clouds really felt raw and powerful.

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Finisterre

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There were a few goats sunning on the rocks below us, also enjoying the rugged beauty.

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After Finisterre, we stopped for lunch on the way to our next destination. Since lunch was included in the price of the tour, I was expecting something mediocre. However, when we stopped at a cute, old restaurant, I was intrigued.

To start off we had our choice of water, wine, or beer to drink, which they were refilling in copious amounts along with seafood paella and bread. The paella was loaded with squid, shrimps, and other seafood and was much tastier than I was expecting. At this point, I was starving and didn’t actually realize we were having a multi-course meal so I let out a sort of muted cry when they took our giant pan of paella away.

However, a waitress came around and took orders for a main course, and I simply poured another glass of wine and waited. The main course was a great filet of some white fish, with potatoes and vegetables. Although not the most exotic of dishes, it was also delicious and very rich.

Finally, they brought our dessert, some sort of tiramisu-like cake, that was light and fluffy. Altogether, we were eating very slowly for about two hours, talking and drinking wine in the quaint restaurant. I like the Spanish method of tourism, see some sights and then dine and relax for a while before doing anything else. But all good things must come to an end, so we eventually set off for our last stops.

Our next stop was a church called the Santuario da Virxe da Barca outside the small town of Muxía. Built mostly of stone, the church almost appeared to be a natural extension of the rocky landscape. Walking on the hills above the church, I ran into an interesting sculpture which I learned later is a memorial for an oil spill in 2002 from the Prestige oil tanker. The oil spill is actually the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history and severely harmed the fishing industry, the most important source of economic revenue in the area. That being said, the area seems to have at least somewhat recovered, from my limited observations.

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Santuario da Virxe da Barca

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Our last stop was at a large, ancient granary used to store corn in front of an old monastery. We pulled in front of a decrepit looking monastery that resembled more of a crack house than a religious structure, with clothing and random objects strewn through the overgrown yard. We meandered around the strange monastery for a few minutes, before taking pictures of the also unimpressive granary and shuffling back to the bus.

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Old corn granary
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The strange monastery

All in all, it was a great way to see the countryside of Galicia. In my opinion, Galicia is easily the most beautiful part of Spain I have visited. I am definitely glad I splurged for the tour to see the countryside, as it is not easy to explore outside the cities without a car.

The next day we decided to simply explore Santiago. After a western breakfast of scrambled eggs with mushrooms, we headed to the Cathedral, the main sight of Santiago (basically the only sight). Unfortunately, the front of the cathedral was under heavy construction, so the façade was marred by scaffolding and metal barriers.

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Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

However, entering the cathedral was free, to my surprise. Although it appeared massive from the outside, it did not feel so large once inside as it is shaped like a cross, rather than one massive hall (i.e. St. Peter’s Basilica). There was a large model of the nativity scene which we saw before walking down the main hall. The main hall was very interesting, as it’s mostly stone construction makes it feel somewhat austere until you see the giant gilded sculpture on the altar. I was very impressed by the large organ pipes, and wished I could have played the machine powering those behemoths. We strolled around the cathedral for a little longer, before leaving.

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Inside the cathedral

The old city of Santiago definitely felt very medieval with its thin winding streets and uniform stonework as far as the eye can see. It was also a little dismal and depressing with the grey, cloudy weather hovering over the grey, stone streets but still was interesting to explore. Because it started raining fairly heavily, we headed back early to rest in our hostel until the evening.

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Around Santiago
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The cathedral from behind

As it was our last evening in Santiago, I decided to eat pulpo á feira one last time. We finally settled on a restaurant where I ordered the Galician standard, while Ben ordered spinach croquettes. The pulpo was very delicious and tender again, although not quite as good as the dish I ordered on the first night.

After the meal, we walked around for a little bit before getting a few glasses of wine, and heading back to our hostel.

The next day, we met our outgoing Blablacar driver Fon near the cathedral, before heading back to Madrid.

Overall, the trip to Galicia was great to see the countryside and the different culture, and sights that Northern Spain has to offer. Although the most popular places to visit are in Southern Spain, I think Northern Spain is very beautiful, and its history and culture are fascinating as well. I hope to return to see the province of Asturias, as well as the neighboring Basque country, but might splurge for a rental car if that is the case.

Still, now I feel like I have already checked off the main places I want to see in Spain, although I’m always ready for more!

 

 

A Taste of Andalucía: Granada and the Alhambra

“Si peregrinas por el mundo, nota, y exprime de las notas la experiencia.”

“If you wander through the world, note, and from the notes extract experience” – Joaquin Setanti

Caught up in the day-to-day rhythm of teaching, I sometimes forget that I am in Europe, and have the opportunity to see so many beautiful places. Living in Madrid is great, but I can become consumed by the city and forget to get out and explore.

Thus finding myself more than a month through the school year without having ventured outside of the city, I realized I had to go somewhere. As soon as a teacher at my school in Colmenar de Oreja mentioned a long weekend at the end of October, I knew I had to seize the opportunity and travel.

After a little research, I decided to head south to the province of Andalucía, to the city of Granada. Primarily known for the massive fortress the Alhambra, Granada is also a bastion of Moorish influence and Arabic culture, something I was very excited to experience.

Being the main attraction in the city, I actually had to reserve tickets for the Alhambra in advance, and barely found an available time.

I took the bus with Ben to Granada, as there is no direct train connection, and the bus was only fifteen euros. The bus was quite nice; we had our own miniature TV screens like on most airlines, helping pass the time. The first few hours outside of Madrid were quite blasé; the landscape was a parched brown that reminded me of an even drier version of the drought-starved Northern California landscape. However, the dry hills eventually gave way to lush mountains and rocky crags as we crossed into Andalucía.

Although the bus station was in an unremarkable part of Granada, our taxi soon took us into the Albayzín, an older, Arabic part of the city where our hostel was. Since the streets in this neighborhood were old and narrow, our taxi had to drop us off several streets away from our hostel so that we could navigate the rest of the way through the tight, winding streets on our own.

Immediately it was evident that Granada felt far different from Madrid. The city was built on several rolling hills, making its way up and down the steep inclines. The winding streets of the Albayzín neighborhood were stacked with buildings of mixed Spanish and Arabic architectural influences, and there were numerous Moroccan and middle eastern restaurants, as well as shops selling teas, lamps, and Moroccan goods. I almost felt in a different country, and the Arabic feel definitely increased my desire to eventually make it to Northern Africa.

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Arriving late afternoon, we had no strict plans for the day, and decided to simply walk up the Albayzín neighborhood to a higher neighborhood known as the Sacromonte. As we made our way up the hill we were flanked by the giant Alhambra, atop a hill to our right. Most of the city is overshadowed by the fortress, which sits on a large hill in front of the frequently snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains. Slowly ascending, we passed many more Arabic stores and restaurants, as well as people eating and drinking in the streets, as is common in Spain.

Walking up the Albayzín
Walking up the Albayzín
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Random church
Kitty with the edge of Alhambra atop the hill
Kitty with the edge of Alhambra atop the hill

Eventually, we entered the Sacromonte. The Sacromonte is another old neighborhood, built completely of white stone buildings atop a hill, giving it an almost Greek feel. The neighborhood is particularly famous for its flamenco shows, which are normally in small caves carved into the hillside. As we walked higher into the neighborhood, we got better views of the city, as well as the massive Alhambra to our right.

The Sacromonte
The Sacromonte
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The Alhambra in the evening

With daylight fading, we made our way back down to the Albayzín to get dinner. I wanted to try a local restaurant known for its paella, as I had yet to try the Spanish standard. I got a seafood paella, while Ben got a pork and mushroom paella, which were both rich and delicious. We both agreed that it was the best Spanish food we had eaten to that point, although I hadn’t really been eating out too often in a failing attempt to save money.

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Since our tickets for the Alhambra were not until Monday, we had the next day to explore the city. Not really having a specific destination in mind, we walked around the city, seeing several different cathedrals and churches.

Basilica de San Juan de Dios
Basilica de San Juan de Dios
Strolling around
Strolling around

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Granada definitely feels much smaller than Madrid, as we managed to walk around almost all of the city center, and see the majority of the sights by late afternoon of our second day in the city. Having walked around most of the day on wearied legs, we decided to go to an Arabic bath that night to get a massage.

Although nowhere near as cheap as Thailand, we found a place near our hostel that offered a circuit of several baths and a steam room, as well as a massage for forty euros. We circled through a large hot tub, cold bath, and steam room for about sixty minutes before the attendants called us for massages. After the day of walking and the relaxing hot tub and steam room, I almost fell asleep during the massage. After they finished, we were left to enjoy some fruit and tea, before we showered and left.

At this point, it was late evening, so we decided to go get some tapas. We went to an area of the city with several wine bars, where you simply order a drink and receive a free tapa. We ventured from bar to bar, ordering a drink and sampling their tapas, but were cut short by a rainstorm that drenched us after five seconds outside. Still hungry, we ran back to our neighborhood, and grabbed doner kebabs before calling it a night.

The next morning, we gathered our stuff, checked out of our hostel, and made our way to the Alhambra. Although originally constructed in the ninth century, the fortress came to resemble its modern layout in the fourteenth century when a Moorish emir built an additional palace and walls. Interestingly, it became abandoned for several hundred years, even becoming home to transients before being restored in the nineteenth century and becoming one of Spain’s most famous attractions.

Sitting atop a large hill, we were sweaty and weary long before finishing the ascent to the entrance. What was unclear to me having only seen it from a distance was that the Alhambra almost resembles a walled town with several different structures and palaces throughout the giant complex, the primary attraction being the Palacios Nazaríes, or the Nasrid Palaces.

We first made our way into the Nasrid Palaces, which were ornamented with many intricate Arabic arches, as well as complicated arabesques throughout the hallways and ceilings. The patios through the palaces gleamed with white stones and clear fountains that gave everything a very serene feel despite the large crowd of people moving throughout.

The Nasrid Palace
The Nasrid Palace

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Arabesques
Arabesques

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We took our time ambling through the different buildings, occasionally glancing out over the city, before exiting the palace. After, we made our way to the other most famous part of the fortress, the Generalife Palace.

Generalife Palace
Generalife Palace
Gardens near Generalife Palace
Gardens near Generalife Palace

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Situated all the way across the complex, we walked through courtyards and gardens for about twenty minutes before arriving at the gleaming white palace. Although not as impressive as the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife Palace was surrounded by beautiful gardens, and contained more arches and intricate rooms.

Inside Generalife
Inside Generalife

After the Generalife Palace, we explored several more buildings within the complex, including the Palace of Charles V which has an interesting circular patio, before making our way out.

Patio inside Palace of Charles V
Patio inside Palace of Charles V

Having only a short time to kill before our bus back to Madrid, we made a last stop in the Albayzín for some kebabs, before going to the bus station and catching our ride home.

Although we only spent a short weekend in Granada, it was great to get out of Madrid and see more of Spain. The Alhambra alone was easily worth the weekend trip, and the small size of the city made it easy to explore within only a few days. I love the Arabic influence found in Andalucía, but also appreciate Madrid even more now, as it is so large and full of things to do that I still feel that I have plenty of the city to explore and get to know.

The trip also increased my appetite to see more of Spain, and I would next like to go up North to see Galicia or the Basque country, which is known to be lush and green. It is fantastic being in the center of the country, as I am not too far from anything, and plan to jet off as much as possible to other destinations.

The Start of a New Chapter: Working as an Auxiliar de Conversacion in Madrid

It feels surreal to sit here, in my apartment in my new home of Madrid, and contemplate the whirlwind that has been the start of my new life. I am beginning a year working as an ‘auxiliar de conversacion’, or North-American Language & Cultural Assistant in Spain (an English Language Assistant).

Looking out over Madrid
Looking out over Madrid
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace

After teaching English for a year in Thailand, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to teach English again, or live abroad another year. The challenges of living somewhere foreign and teaching English were often so overwhelming that I wasn’t sure I would enjoy doing it again. However, I am more than glad that I ultimately shelved those thoughts, and am absolutely ecstatic about the coming year, already loving the experience so far. I still have yet to really explore all of the sights in Madrid, but I know I have plenty of time and it has been quite busy just settling in.

Two weeks into the school year, I can already say that this job is incredibly easy, and enjoyable for the most part. In all of my classes, I am the language assistant, and basically play the role of the native speaker, doing whatever the Spanish teacher sees fit. This is optimal for me; I am not certified or qualified to be a teacher, and so I should not be left to teach alone as I was in Thailand. That being said, I try and offer lesson suggestions or ideas or just help in the classroom whenever possible, and do not simply sit back on cruise control.

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At a park near the Royal Palace

Initially, arriving and settling in was very difficult. I managed to get sick right before leaving California, and took some time to recover while at my hostel here in Madrid. I had planned on living in the hostel for a couple days before finding an apartment, expecting a smooth transition. However, the housing market in Madrid is incredibly competitive, and a lot of times I would follow up on internet listings only to find that rooms had already been rented, or contracts already signed before I could show up for my scheduled appointment.

While I grew frustrated with being stuck in a hostel, I soon found someone to share in my frustration as another auxiliar (in my same program) checked into my room. Kristen, another American, also taught English in South Korea for six years so while we could both vent our frustrations over the apartment hunt, we also shared somewhat similar experiences living and teaching in Asia. We quickly became friends, and checked in with each other every day about work, and the continuing apartment hunt.

I was also lucky when two other Americans checked into our room (with a total of four beds), and we all became good friends. While I have stayed in many different hostels, I have never become so close with my roommates as I did at this one. I went out with them many different times, and got to know them much better than I anticipated. Although I was eager to move into an apartment, I was surprised at how connected I had become to my roommates, and was sad to leave them behind.

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Nonetheless, I still had an apartment to find. Continuing the apartment search, I was still in awe of how competitive the market was. After finding an apartment that I loved, I was a bit saddened when the owner told me he was ‘interviewing’ viable candidates, and that he would contact me if I got the apartment (I didn’t). However, I kept looking, and tried to be as indiscriminate as possible in my search.

Finally, I found an apartment that I was very excited about. Located in the Huertas neighborhood, also known as the Literary quarter (with the former homes of many famous Spanish writers including Cervantes), the apartment was literally in the most prime location of the city (still in the city center). I tried not to get too excited or invested in the apartment, as I figured it most likely wouldn’t work out. However, after seeing it, the owner (who spoke both English and Spanish, a major plus in my book), assured me that I didn’t have to decide right then. Realizing the realities of the market however, I did decide right then and jumped on the apartment. The only unfortunate aspect, however, was that I was unable to move in for a few days, and my hostel was fully booked over the weekend. I became a little panicked after looking on Hostelworld and realizing that literally everything in the city (under 100 euros a night) was booked. I didn’t see October as prime tourist season in Madrid, but kicked myself for not making a longer reservation in advance. Fortunately, I found plenty of viable options on Airbnb, and managed to book a room in an apartment for the weekend.

Graffiti near my hostel
Graffiti near my hostel
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There is literally graffiti everywhere here
Roughly translates to:
Roughly translates to: “Every law is an instrument of power to control, let no law or thing gag you”

So, after saying goodbye to my new friends, I set out for my Airbnb. Primarily looking for a cheaper option, my Airbnb room was in a neighborhood in the Northern part of the city (while my hostel was right in the center). I took a taxi there and was soon greeted by the small señora, Maria, who owned the apartment.

I took to Maria and the apartment right away, as she seemed to take me in like I was her child. A few nights before, I became sick after eating some questionable tacos, and so my stomach was still very weak and in recovery mode. After learning this, Maria insisted on making me tea and food, and inquired about my health at least every ten minutes.

I basically spent the weekend at the apartment lying in bed and fighting off Maria’s constant attempts to make me something, or take care of me. While it was very nice and charming, it did become a bit overbearing. At one point, I was attempting to simply heat up a premade soup in the microwave, but was intercepted by Maria, who somehow heard my rustling and insisted on taking over the microwave duties. Normally I would have been charmed by this, but wanting a place to live rather than being on vacation, I just wanted to be at my apartment so I could have my own space, and take care of myself. Nonetheless, the weekend went by smoothly, and as I was leaving Maria offered to teach me how to cook classic Spanish dishes in the future like tortilla Española (a giant omelet made with eggs and potato), or cocido madrileño (a chickpea stew with pork).

City Hall
City Hall

Finally, I arrived at my new apartment, breathing in a sigh of relief. Having been here almost a week, my love of the apartment and the surrounding neighborhood has grown immensely. Within steps of my buildings entrance, there is a metro stop, numerous restaurants, pharmacies, banks, theatres, bars, and interesting stores.

I also live right on the border of a neighborhood called ‘Lavapies’, an upcoming area known for its population of immigrants. In Lavapies, there are cheaper bars, many different ethnic restaurants, interesting theatres, and a fantastic supermarket called Carrefour. Currently, there is also a food festival called ‘Tapapies’ in which tons of different restaurants create a signature tapa, while musicians and street performers delight pedestrians with their entertainment.

In Retiro Park, the biggest park in Madrid
In Retiro Park, the biggest park in Madrid
Retiro Park
Retiro Park
Lake in Retiro Park
Lake in Retiro Park

I am still getting to know the surrounding neighborhood, but am very happy with what I have seen so far.

On the other side of things, my job is also going well. I actually teach at two different secondary schools, both far outside of Madrid (so I commute by bus to both schools). On Mondays & Wednesdays, I teach at the SIES Carpe Diem in Colmenar de Oreja, and on Tuesdays & Thursdays I teach at the IES Nuestra Señora de Lepanto in Villarejo de Salvanés (so yes, no work on Fridays – what?!?). My contract only lets me teach sixteen hours per week, so I am teaching eight hours at each school and roughly four hours each day.

At first, I was a little annoyed that I was placed at two different schools (which is not common), but now I actually think it has its advantages. Working at each school is incredibly different, and each have their own different positives (and negatives, although they are pretty minor). I also am getting to know two different groups of students, and the two different faculties. I am getting a broader perspective of the Spanish education system, as schools can differ (and mine certainly do) widely in how they teach students, as well as the general school atmosphere.

SIES Carpe Diem in Colmenar de Oreja, is more or less a standard secondary school. My students range in ages from twelve to sixteen (after which they go to bachillerato at a different school), and also range in abilities from little English to fairly decent English. The students at this school are pretty charming, and at their worst seem to be a little crazy in class, but never disrespectful. I work with three other English teachers, all of whom speak perfect English, and whom all teach English differently (which I don’t mind, as I am doing different things in each of their classrooms).

The classes average about twenty-five students. The school itself is tiny, and has only three-hundred students. There is a small cafeteria that I visit every day to eat breakfast, and chat with the employees Ismail and Ana, who are incredibly nice and friendly. The pueblo (the town) itself is tiny, and frankly somewhat ugly. While it does have stone streets and buildings, it is not as charming as the other pueblos around, and there seems to be nothing to do. When the students at the school asked me where I lived (before I had an apartment), I asked them if I should live in Colmenar to which they all resoundingly said, “NO!”. Now, having some familiarity with the pueblo, I definitely agree with their sentiment, and prefer my commute over the boring life of the town.

My other school, IES Nuestra Señora de Lepanto in Villarejo de Salvanés, is actually a vocational school built inside a centuries-old stone church. The building is beautiful inside and out, and one of the teachers told me that it would be hard to find another public school in Spain built within such a beautiful building. However, this school has no cafeteria, only a small coffee machine, so I have to walk outside of school to grab breakfast. The pueblo is also pretty charming, and has a small public square where the bus drops me off, as well as a fairly large castle that is still a puzzling sight.

IES Nuestra Señora de Lepanto
IES Nuestra Señora de Lepanto
Puzzling Castle
Puzzling Castle

Since it is a vocational school, it is also quite different than my other school. My students range from sixteen to twenty-six years old (yes, older than me). The students are all studying various vocations, including office administration, welding, and car mechanics. Many of the students have failed the Spanish equivalent of the GED, and thus are studying their vocation to go directly into that field. Also, their levels of English range from zero English to slightly decent English, so they are definitely much worse than the younger students from the other school. Since the students are also older, my relationship with them is much different, and some of them clearly don’t respect me as much as the younger students would. However, at their worst, they are still not really too bad, and I hope to win over most of them by the end of the year. The school is also very tiny, and has only two hundred students. My classes at this school are generally very small, ranging from ten to twenty students. I primarily teach with one other teacher, although I have two classes with another English teacher.

It has been really interesting to get to know the faculties at each of the schools. I have already gotten into deep political discussions, and learned a lot from various conversations. Spanish people are generally very direct which I like, so no issue seems to be ‘taboo’ to discuss. I feel lucky to have been accepted so quickly into the two different groups, as I am far less qualified or dedicated to teaching than any of them. However, I am very excited for the coming year, and hope to be able to have similarly interesting conversations in Spanish by the end of the year.

Finally, getting to know my new home of Madrid, has been awesome. Although not as beautiful as Paris or Rome, Madrid is still beautiful and full of interesting things to see and do. My favorite thing about Madrid is that it is very livable. Apartments here are fairly cheap, and going out to eat or for a drink is very cheap relative to the United States. Although I haven’t been to any fantastic restaurants yet, I frequently eat out for two to eight euros, and can grab a beer for as little as one euro. Because of the tapas culture, I often order a drink at a bar, only to be pleasantly surprised when the waiter also brings a small plate of food, ‘gratis’ (free of charge).

The public transportation is great, and riding the metro and buses is a breeze. The different neighborhoods all have their own different charm and character, and I still have plenty to explore. I love how Europeans just love to be outside, dining and hanging out in the streets. Madrileños (people from Madrid), also are incredibly friendly, and are encouraging if anything when I converse with them in my horrid Spanish.

I am so excited to finally live in a city and explore all there is to offer. It is also so easy to travel, that I am already planning future trips to Portugal, Morocco, Germany, and the Czech Republic (among others). However, there is also so much to do and see that I don’t feel pressed to leave the city, and know I could spend the year here and still be learning new things by the end of the year.

In short although it has been quite a whirlwind, I am very excited for the year ahead.

Cambodia – Angkor Wat, Siem Reap & Phnom Penh

Right after finishing up the semester in Tha Wang Pha, Ben and I headed to Bangkok to start our trip through Southeast Asia. We planned to stop in Bangkok for a couple days to store some luggage and get Vietnamese visas, since you cannot get them on arrival via bus which is how we planned to enter the country.

Being pretty familiar with Bangkok, we decided to forgo any sightseeing and quickly get things done before heading off on our travels. We also took the opportunity to stuff ourselves with different types of Western and non-Thai foods that we had been missing since the midterm vacation.

Bangkok was muggy and extremely hot as usual, and with all of the running around that we were doing in a short period of time we both started to feel a little sick, but managed to get everything done with only a small hiccup (the Vietnamese visa took two days to process even with ‘express’ service, so we decided to cut a day from our time in Phnom Penh).

So with everything finished, we bought bus tickets to Siem Reap and prepared to finally start our travels.

When we researched buses to Siem Reap, we found lots of stories of tourists getting scammed at the border, typically paying much more than necessary to different ‘agents’ in order to get their Cambodian visas. We even read people jokingly refer to it as ‘Scambodia’ because of the numerous scams. However, one of the bus lines had decent reviews, and was actually run by the Thai government (although that would normally make me wary). We bought tickets for that bus line and caught the early morning bus to Siem Reap.

The bus, while far from the nicest bus we rode in Thailand, was decently comfortable and provided us with coffee and a small snack. The ride to the border was unremarkable – passing what seemed like urban offshoots of Bangkok for a while before countryside with the occasional rice paddy. Soon we approached the border, where we gave our passports to the bus agent (I was wary to do this and asked him about it before hand), with the fee for the Cambodian visa.

After stopping at a nondescript building near the border, the agent returned and gave us our passports with our Cambodian visas. Next, we filed out of the bus and officially stamped out of Thailand. At this point everything was going fairly quickly and I was pleasantly surprised.

However, after exiting the building onto the Cambodian side of the border, I saw no signs eliciting where to go, and instead was greeted by honking motorbikes and trashy casinos. It reminded me a little of the California/Nevada border, just with more rickshaws and street vendors, and made me hope that Cambodia would not be as unpleasant as Nevada.

Soon enough I found a small building with a massive line for people to get stamped into Cambodia. An elderly gentleman in front of me was quite irked by the wait, and soon found an agent who helped him ‘bypass’ the line for the small fee of $10. I was tempted to do the same, but knew that our bus would wait for everyone to get through anyway, so there really was no point.

Finally I got stamped into Cambodia, and made my way back to the bus. As we continued into Cambodia, I noticed we switched sides, and were now driving on the right side of the road (Thailand drives on the left side). We soon left paved roads behind and had rough passage over bumpy dirt roads. I was a little surprised that one of the main highways in the country is still not wholly paved, and it was readily apparent that Cambodia was nowhere near as developed as Thailand. The dirt roads also made for slow going, turning our medium distance journey into a full seven hours.

Eventually, we arrived in Siem Reap outside the bus office (there is no bus station in the city so buses just pick up and drop off passengers at their respective offices). I had arranged for a free pick up via tuk-tuk from our hostel, but soon realized that no one had come, and was unable to use my phone to call them. Fortunately, the bus service offered a free tuk-tuk service to nearby hostels, you just had to vie off the endless offers from the tuk-tuk driver for tours of Angkor Wat and probing questions of what you were doing and seeing the next couple of days.

Our hostel turned out to be very nice, almost more of a hotel than a hostel. It was located in the Wat Bo area, slightly outside the main tourist area, and had a nice outdoor courtyard with a restaurant. It included a free breakfast also, and every morning Ben and I indulged in delicious banana pancakes, something I hadn’t eaten for at least a year.

Something that I soon found interesting about Cambodia was that they preferred using US currency over the Cambodian riel. However, when you paid for something that was say $1.50 with $2, you would get the $0.50 back in the form of riel (in this case 2000 riel, as 4000 riel = 1 USD). I was glad that I didn’t exchange any money for riel before arriving to Cambodia, but I still ended up with thousands of extra, useless riel by the end.

We wanted to hire a guide to show us through the different Angkor ruins (supposedly the best Angkor guides were booked out of a hotel near the ruins), but were just encouraged by our hostel to hire a tuk-tuk tour through them. It was convenient booking a driver through the hostel and definitely cheaper than a real guide, but we definitely could have benefitted from explanations of the various temples.

The first day, we did the ‘small circuit’ of temples, which just meant that we would see a bunch of temples spread over a large area (compared to the ‘big circuit’ which included the most famous temples, but covered a smaller area).

As we drove out to the Angkor ruins, it was cool to see that the ancient city was outside of Siem Reap, composing its own area. I was disappointed when other sites like Ayutthaya and the White Temple in Thailand were smack dab in the middle of everything which I felt killed their ambiance, so it was nice to drive out to the middle of nowhere to the Angkor ruins.

The first temple we arrived at was Preah Khan, which also turned out to be one of my favorites. Preah Khan was a good start to the Angkor ruins because it was large, mostly unrestored, semi-ruinous/overgrown, and also fairly devoid of people. Again, it would have been nice to have a guide to explain the significance of the ruins, as most of the carvings and etchings had little to no significance to our untrained eyes.

Inside Preah Khan
Inside Preah Khan
Inside Preah Khan
Inside Preah Khan

Towards the middle of the temple, a middle-aged guy in a uniform offered to give us an explanation of the temple so I accepted. Annoyingly enough, it turned out to be more of a ploy for money than anything else, as he vaguely explained a few things and sort of rushed us through most of the temple before asking for a large tip, which I grudgingly gave him. Similar ‘guides’ were at many of the other temples, but after that first experience I declined their future advances.

Preah Khan
Preah Khan

After Preah Khan, we saw a very small pagoda situated in a small pond which was rather unimpressive and bizarre. We shrugged our shoulders before moving on.

The next temple we saw was very cool, although similar to Preah Khan (which soon would become a pattern). It was also somewhat overgrown and unrestored, which I definitely prefer over the temples with artificially perfect cross-sections that were glaringly restored.

As the day wore on and the sun became more intense, we became very drained and stopped for lunch outside one of the ruins before continuing on. It was interesting how many people were trying to sell us various trinkets and tourist goods as we wandered from site to site. I was not really surprised that there were so many vendors, I was just curious what kind of business arrangement they had with the historical park in order to be able to sell their goods, as most of them at least seemed to respect the temples and waited until you exited the complexes to bombard you with their goods.

There were a bunch of children selling stuff at the various sites which was both cute and depressing at the same time. Clearly many of them had been coached as to how to approach and talk to tourists which was sad because I wanted to interact with them, but knew that there conversation starters were really just artificial ways to get me sucked in and to buy their stuff.

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Nonetheless, we continued on and saw a few more temples before we finally finished the circuit, exhausted and somewhat temple weary already. Preah Khan had easily been the highlight of the day, so after seeing more and more temples of the same style that were less impressive, we became less and less intrigued, which wasn’t helped by our state of dehydrated, heatstroke delirium.

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After arriving back at our hotel, we rested and showered off our dust-covered bodies before setting out for dinner. Half-starved and impatient, we walked most of the way towards Pub Street (the heart of the tourist area), before stopping at a restaurant just short of the area that overlooked the river. Most of the restaurants in Siem Reap tended to have similar menus, featuring traditional Cambodian dishes (i.e. amok, curries, lok lak) as well as classic Western dishes (i.e. pasta carbonara, hamburgers, pizza).

I ordered fish amok, which is unofficially considered the national dish of Cambodia. The fish is cooked in a sauce of lemongrass, kaffir lime, garlic, shallots, coconut milk, and egg, and served over rice. Although the version I had the first night wasn’t the best version I had, I found the dish kind of disappointing as it was less potent and assertively flavored than Thai cuisine, but more just vaguely flavored by the various ingredients in the sauce.

However, I was very pleased by the prices of the beer in the restaurant as well as throughout Cambodia. The restaurant served draft beer for $0.50 a glass, which turned out to be more expensive than many other places (although still ridiculously cheap). The national beer, Angkor, also turned out to be pretty good and much more drinkable than Thai beer, which didn’t hurt considering I was weary from the heat of the day and ready to parch my thirst with vats of any cold substance.

After coming back to our hostel, we decided to do the sunrise tour of the main temples the next day. At 5 AM, we packed into our tuk-tuk, and headed to the main temple, Angkor Wat. As I was pounding coffee along the way, I couldn’t help but notice how many other tourists were also headed to see the sunrise as we passed their small army of tuk-tuks.

The spot everyone went to take sunrise pictures was in front of a lake near the entrance to the main temple. As more and more people arrived, it became very cramped, and I became worried that I would be unable to get a picture of the sunrise without a thousand people in it. Although we arrived at about 5:15, the sun did not actually start rising until about 6:50, after the area was packed with hordes of tourists. I got one half-decent picture of the sunrise before giving up as tons of people started obstructing the view or just blatantly walking into everyone’s frames towards the temple.

Only half-decent sunrise picture
Only half-decent sunrise picture

After taking our crappy sunrise pictures, we headed towards the temple to check it out. Although the main temple was large, it was not quite as interesting to me as some of the temples that we saw the day before because I preferred the temples that were more hidden and partially ruined. The main temple did have large sections of fairly intricate carvings, but as we had no guide we had no idea what the carvings depicted.

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After seeing Angkor Wat, we headed to Bayon temple. Bayon temple was pretty cool as it had tons of different Buddha faces incorporated into stupas. The sun also shone across some of the Buddha faces making them look more pronounced.

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After Bayon temple, we saw a couple more temples before finishing the large circuit, including ‘Ta Prohm’ or the Tomb Raider temple which we thought was overrated and rather unimpressive. Although our second day at Angkor Wat was filled with the more famous temples of the area, we both agreed that we enjoyed the temples we saw on the first day more.

A cool skink on some of the ruins
A cool skink on some of the ruins
Ta Prohm aka 'Tomb Raider Temple'
Ta Prohm aka ‘Tomb Raider Temple’

The final day in Siem Reap we decided to go see Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei was further out of town than the other temples at the Angkor complex, but was renowned for its intricate carvings. Although it was not built by a king, like the Angkor temples, a rich nobleman decided to construct the temple out of a different, higher quality stone (red sandstone) than the Angkor temples, which helped both accentuate and preserve the detailed carvings.

Banteay Srei was easily our favorite of the temples because the carvings were amazingly well preserved. Although the site was very small, we spent a lot of time just looking at all of the small details of each façade, and picking up minute details of the carvings that we couldn’t at the previous temples.

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After seeing that temple, we felt satisfied with all of the different areas of Angkor Wat that we saw, and called it a day.

Since that was our final night in Siem Reap, I wanted to have a memorable dinner. As I was browsing various restaurant guides, I noticed an advertisement for Bug’s Café, a restaurant specializing in insect tapas. Immediately piquing my interest, I told Ben and we decided to give it a shot.

The restaurant was actually a very cool concept. Unlike the street stands selling bugs and insects, Bug’s Café was a high-class introduction to insect cuisine, and the recipes were all designed by the French owner. His goal was to showcase bugs and insects through sophisticated cooking techniques, to show that they could be delicious just like any other ingredients when prepared in the right way. He even sourced his bugs from a local organic farm, to further dispel of the notion of bugs and insects as only being low-class food.

We decided to split a sampler plate, which consisted of two ant spring rolls, an ant pesto pastry, a tarantula samosa, a skewer with a scorpion, tarantula, and water bug, and a cricket & silk worm stir-fry. Everything was very good, especially the cricket & silk worm stir-fry, which was delicious. Overall, the owner did a great job of showcasing how to cook insects, as Ben and I both enjoyed the meal very much and found it to be a great experience.

Bug sampler platter
Bug sampler platter

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The next day we took the bus to Phnom Penh, satisfied with our temple adventures but ready to see something new. The bus ride took about seven hours and was once again slowed down by long sections of unpaved, dirt road along the main highway. We finally arrived in Phnom Penh in the evening, only to be bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers trying to make a quick buck off of naïve tourists.

We managed to find a tuk-tuk driver to take us to our hostel, but he was incredibly aggressive and would not stop asking us our plans for the next couple days, trying to arrange for us to take more rides with him the following days. Fortunately, he finally let us off safe and sound at our hostel, and we prayed to never see him again.

On our first full day in the city, we decided to just explore the city and see some of the sights including the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom. After a leisurely breakfast, we took a tuk-tuk to the Royal Palace, only to be bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers who told us that the Royal Palace was closed for lunchtime and we couldn’t get in. We were somewhat skeptical, as the gates to the palace were open, and we thought that the tuk-tuk drivers were just trying to scam us into riding with them, but then we found a guard who corroborated their remarks.

Frustrated, we walked towards the Sisowath Quay along the river, and followed the river towards Wat Phnom. As we walked, I was surprised to find the city cleaner than most parts of Bangkok, although not exactly pretty. Eventually we made it to Wat Phnom, which was alright, but far from the most interesting or impressive temple we had seen.

Sisowath Quay
Sisowath Quay
Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom

After walking around the temple and taking some pictures we headed towards the nearby Central Market. The Central Market building was incredibly ugly and the market inside was unremarkable. Again, after seeing many markets that all sell the same tourist trinkets, it all starts to look the same so we quickly finished browsing.

The Central Market
The Central Market

Feeling hungry at this point, we stopped for a quick lunch before heading to the Royal Palace. The Royal Palace itself was not the most interesting or impressive place, as it was fairly small and all of the buildings were not very old, having only been built in the 1800s. We quickly walked through the Royal Palace before retiring back to our hotel.

Victory Gate
Victory Gate
Silver Pagoda
Silver Pagoda

The next day, we decided to see the two depressing sites of Phnom Penh, the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S-21). We first made our way to the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh.

One of many killing fields during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Choeung Ek was the site where many of the high-profile prisoners from S-21 were killed, as well as other civilians. There was an in-depth audio tour, explaining the history of both the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields, with various stops throughout the site. It made the area that much more somber, as everyone there was listening to their own audio tour via headphones, so there was no chatter or noise from anyone. There were even interviews with survivors of the killing fields, as well as former guards.

Memorial at Choeung Ek
Memorial at Choeung Ek

Some of the stops were particularly horrifying. One tree was used by guards to smash babies against, and another was used to hang speakers playing music to drown out the screams and wails of prisoners being executed.

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It was really surreal to be in the location where such horrible acts were committed not too long ago. Also, not having known much about the Khmer Rouge before the tour, it was amazing to me how much destruction and horrid acts Pol Pot and his comrades managed to commit in just their short three year reign. I was also surprised that many of the officials of the Khmer Rouge were still on trial in international courts, as it seemed that the amount of evidence and witnesses overwhelmingly implicated their crimes.

After the tour, Ben and I had a quiet lunch before bracing ourselves for the next stop, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Back in downtown Phnom Penh, the museum was actually an old school that was used to imprison some of the highest profile civilians during the Khmer Rouge. It was sad to see the pictures of people being tortured and killed, and after walking through the various buildings I felt very drained.

Tuol Sleng aka S-21
Tuol Sleng aka S-21

Overall, the time I spent in Cambodia was very worthwhile and interesting. While I grew annoyed by the constant scam attempts and aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, I loved exploring the various temples of Angkor Wat, and appreciated learning about the Khmer Rouge, as horrifying as their crimes were.

A Year as an English Teacher in Thailand – Parting Thoughts

It has been more than a week since I left Tha Wang Pha (in the northern Nan province of Thailand), and although I really want to write about my thoughts about the final two months of my experience I have found it hard to sit down and put it in words. Part of the difficulty of writing about my final thoughts was the whirlwind of the last few weeks. The last two weeks of the semester were incredibly busy with finalizing grades, saying goodbyes to students, teachers and friends, and planning the trip that I am now amidst.

Thus, although I find it hard to define my parting thoughts at the present moment, while traveling in Cambodia, I know that the longer I wait to write something, the harder it will become.

Saying goodbye to the students was bittersweet. The days of dealing with frustration at obnoxious, disobedient students already seem unimportant compared to the relationships I made with the nicer kids. Although I am glad that I am finished teaching, I will definitely miss some of the students and their cheerful smiles. It was hard to answer those students when they asked me, “Will you return to Thailand?” or “Why are you leaving?”, but that is just the reality of the situation. I wish it were easier to come back and visit the students but the reality is otherwise.

I will also miss my friends and the teachers, but saying goodbye to them was less difficult. Though I will miss them, it is clear that they understand why I want to move on to something different, and though they jokingly mention seeing me again in Tha Wang Pha, they better understand how difficult it will be for me to return.

I think that in order for me to write anything at all, I need to write my post in a lighter format than usual, just focusing on my favorite and least favorite things and experiences of the last year.

Therefore, my favorite and least favorite things and experiences from the past ten months are as follows (in no particular order).

My favorite things/experiences:

Thai people. Although as a stipulation, I mean this in terms of Thai people’s overall dispositions and meeting people, not in terms of working with them (which is not always so pleasant). Easily the best part of living in Tha Wang Pha was being incorporated into the community and getting to know different individuals throughout the area.  Thai people are definitely some of the friendliest, most generous people that I have encountered. They love to help you out and give you free food or drinks without a second thought. Thailand is called the ‘Land of Smiles’, and certainly everywhere you go you will be greeted by smiling individuals. Thai people like to practice their English when they encounter farangs, or just get to know foreigners and it made me feel bad that I was unable to reciprocate in Thai. Saying goodbye to everyone I met was difficult as I expected, and I will certainly miss a lot of people.

The good students. While being a small minority, the good students are the ones that I will remember. Whether it was passing exchanges, helpful participation and attitudes in the classroom, or just overall friendliness and good humor, I am incredibly grateful for the great students I encountered, and their ability to turn my frustration and weariness into gratification and happiness. As I stated earlier, the less pleasurable experiences that I had with some students already seem insignificant in comparison with the positive experiences and connections that I was able to make with other students. It truly was hard to respond when they would ask me why I was leaving or when I would come back, as I do want to see them in the future and thank them for creating some of the most positive, concrete memories of my year of teaching.

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The low prices. While I knew before coming to Thailand that everything would be cheap by American standards, I think I was unprepared for how truly cheap things are. Especially in the remote north, where I was living, the prices for food, clothing, and massages were just ludicrous. I regularly went out to eat as it was actually cheaper to dine out than to fix myself a meal at my apartment. I would eat out and pay anywhere from 25 baht (about $0.75) to 200 baht (about $6.15), although the overwhelming majority of my meals fell between 30-40 baht (right around one dollar), and I rarely paid over 100 baht unless I was eating Western food or at a buffet.

Pumpkin and egg stir-fry from Chiang Mai
Pumpkin and egg stir-fry from Chiang Mai
Som tam (Papaya Salad)
Som tam (Papaya Salad)
Pork and Noodles in a gravy-like sauce. Notice the charming 'tablecloth'.
Pork and Noodles in a gravy-like sauce. Notice the charming ‘tablecloth’.

Although I wasn’t as incredibly stoked by this as I was for the food, the clothing prices were fairly low. I bought new shirts and pants as needed for $5-10 for quality clothes. This was less surprising to me as I knew that Southeast Asia has become sort of a hub for producing cheap textiles.

Finally, the massages were mind-blowingly cheap to me and I indulged frequently as a result. I don’t have a clear idea of how expensive they are in the U.S. (too expensive for me to have looked into such things), but in Thailand they hovered around 100-150 baht an hour (about $3-5 an hour), and occasionally were as ‘expensive’ as 300 baht an hour (around $10). Since there were three masseuses in Tha Wang Pha, I cycled between the different options as I regularly got two massages per week. One of the masseuses also offered foot massages, so I would go to him if I wanted a foot massage and to a different masseuse if I just wanted a regular massage. Admittedly, their massage ‘studios’ were somewhat ghetto and dirty by Western standards, but when you are only paying a couple bucks for an hour massage you really don’t care.

Exploring the country. While almost all of my travelling within Thailand is finished, with the exception of Surat Thani and Koh Pha Ngan in the South, I am very satisfied with what I have seen. From basic research on the country, one can easily learn that the South of Thailand is known for islands and beaches, the center is known for the hub of Bangkok and its surrounding cities, and that the north is known for its agriculture and mountainous areas.

However, it is also very interesting how culturally diverse the different regions of Thailand are. The center of Thailand, around Bangkok, is predictably the most diverse, international and commercially-focused area of the country. Here different cultural influences are immediately apparent, and within Bangkok it is also interesting to see how traditional Thai customs and norms converged and adapted to the modernizing forces of an international city.

In contrast, the north of Thailand (and especially Nan, the province I lived in), is much more traditional culturally. Although Chiang Mai is a fairly big city that attracts a decent amount of tourists, the amount of foreign influence in the north is miniscule in comparison to the center (and the south). I don’t want to say that the north is the more ‘authentic’ Thailand as that just sounds incredibly pretentious and isn’t true in any way, but it is clear that the north of Thailand is a better representation of how cities of just Thai people are developing and modernizing. Some people from the north that I talked to said that northerners were more conservative and traditional, and frankly I am unable to come to my own conclusions (partially because I never lived in the center or south), but it was clear to me that Buddhism, the family, and the community seemed to be the most important aspects of life for northerners.

Finally, the south seemed to have a great deal of Western influence, as well as influence from neighboring countries (i.e. Malaysia and Singapore), that gave it a much different feel than the north or even the center. Admittedly, I have hardly travelled in the south at all so I am not trying to speak too broadly, but this was the only region that I saw the open presence of other religions (i.e. Islam). The people in the south also seemed incredibly laid back, although I don’t know if this is just because of my limited experience on a somewhat touristy island.

Geographically, the different regions of the country provided for great, differing experiences in every place. I loved scuba diving and relaxing on the beaches of the south, exploring the huge urban expanse of Bangkok, swimming in the peaceful River Kwai, observing history firsthand at the ancient cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, seeing the confluence of modernity and ancient culture in Chiang Mai, as well as getting to know the agricultural and rural lifestyle of the people in Nan. While there are always more places to be seen, I am satisfied with how much of the country I was able to see and experience during the past year. I am also incredibly excited to finish my time off in Thailand in the south, hopefully scuba diving with whale sharks and getting invigorating massages on the beach.

Koh Lanta
Koh Lanta
River Kwai
River Kwai
Sukhothai
Sukhothai
Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai
Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai
Around Tha Wang Pha
Around Tha Wang Pha

My least favorite things/experiences:

The language barrier. Obviously, I knew about this from the beginning, but I did not anticipate how vast and challenging it would be to overcome. Initially I viewed Thai as an interesting challenge; I wanted to learn as much as possible and become proficient in the language. However, as more time passed, I became discouraged and disheartened that I would even be able to attain basic proficiency. Saying that Thai is a hard language to learn is an understatement, and I am no better at hearing or understanding different tones than I was in May.

While I picked up some words and phrases and could occasionally understand what people were saying, I found it near impossible to speak Thai. Often I would speak some Thai words or phrases and the listener would either laugh or not realize that I was speaking Thai. Other times I would try and learn Thai words from someone, only to hear them say something slightly different each time they repeated the word. The lack of formal structure and tenses also bothered me, as I felt that learning individual words or phrases really did nothing to enhance my communication skills, as I was still unable to string together what I would consider basic sentences.

The language barrier was obviously even bigger in the classroom. Most of my students never understood what I was saying, and many were not able to read any English. I often tried to use Thai in the classroom, but this often failed too and my efforts were just met with blank stares. I was also initially surprised at how badly the Thai English teacher’s spoke English, but by the end I realized that many of them simply viewed teaching as a secure job and a means to earn a decent salary.

The Thai education system. I could write a long diatribe about the Thai education system but I will keep it short. The Thai education system is broken and a failure at every single level. Although earlier and in other posts I allude to frustrating students, the reality is that the bad students are only one symptom of the horrible education system.

The education system focuses on rote memorization, and encourages students not to think or engage with material. Students simply sit and listen to their teacher (or in reality talk to each other during class and don’t listen), and don’t learn how to think critically. Every time I would ask the students critical thinking questions (assuming I had a teacher translating what I was saying into Thai), the students would simply sit there and wait for me to feed them the answer. They don’t understand that they need to analyze and engage with what they learn in school, they just expect to be fed answers.

The curriculum is garbage and changes almost every year. The other Thai English teachers assigned the students the most pointless and horrible assignments I could imagine. Although the students didn’t understand basic grammar or communication, their assignments often used various complicated forms of grammar, or required them to understand advanced English, and I questioned whether many of the teachers could even complete the assignments they were giving the students.

Students cannot fail, or even be effectively disciplined, and as a result students misbehave, openly cheat, or don’t try at all. In reality, I was confused as to why most students came to school at all, as they could simply stay home and then show up the last few days to take the final exam over and over until they ‘passed’. Cheating was also so much more rampant and obvious than I ever would have expected, that it was really just farcical.

The teachers mostly don’t care about teaching or have given up because of the inadequacies of the system. There were literally some teachers who refused to teach the classes of bad students, and simply sat there while the students did whatever they wanted. Other teachers were clearly more concerned about increasing their salaries through various avenues than providing any sort of education (i.e. writing lesson plans to submit to an education office that would never be used in the classroom).

There is much more of a focus on appearance than on results. Although teachers and administrators were very focused on dressing the part, and making sure that students were in their proper uniforms, they clearly didn’t care about the actual results of the system. Students literally told me that maintaining a cleaned-up appearance was critical to being a good student, but expressed little concern over academic performance. As long as I showed up in professional clothing, I was doing a ‘good job’ even though I became more disheartened every day that I was accomplishing anything.

Finally, the administrators and officials in the Ministry of Education seem to be seriously inept and incompetent. Although I was told many times that officials who had studied in the U.S. and U.K. designed the curriculum and standardized tests, the material was so awful and blatantly unusable that I was aghast. I can’t say I know what is going on in the Ministry of Education but it seemed to me that everyone needed to be fired and replaced with competent individuals.

The weather. Thailand is ridiculously hot. I thought I had experienced heat and humidity before coming to Thailand, but in reality I had not. Summer is literally a boiling hell, and given the general lack of air conditioning or public pools I have no idea how people survive. During the ‘winter’ there were probably two whole weeks of somewhat ‘cold’ weather, before it became hot again and I found myself using A/C at night. I refuse to live another year in such a hot, humid place.

The lack of infrastructure or modern amenities. Again, I should have expected this, but I had no idea how hard it would be to find modern amenities in Thailand. The hardest thing for me to give up was easily playing the piano. I originally tried to bring my digital piano, and when that failed I told myself I would find the occasional piano to play. I didn’t realize that the only pianos I would find in Thailand would be in one store an overnight bus ride away from where I was living.

Other things were equally hard to accept, one being the lack of public pools. During the summer, it was so hot and muggy that I wanted to swim every day. However, there were no pools anywhere in Tha Wang Pha, and the nearest waterfall was about forty minutes away by motorbike (and not great for swimming either), so nearly inaccessible.

Another hard to face reality was the lack of a grocery store. I shopped at a small 7-11 for all of my supplies, and as you can imagine, there’s not a lot of things that a convenience store can carry. Sure, if I wanted to buy junk food, soda, or premade cheeseburgers I was in luck, but if I wanted to buy real food, meat, cheese, cereal, etc. I was out of luck.

The last inconvenience that regularly annoyed me was the lack of diverse food options. Granted, I expected this from the start but I think I at least expected the Thai food options in town to be delicious. Surprisingly, all of the restaurants in Tha Wang Pha were pretty mediocre and I would honestly say that Thai food in Davis, while slightly Americanized, tastes better and is prepared with better ingredients. I really expected to have some great dining experiences in Thailand and memorable meals, but I really can’t think of a single meal that impressed me in any way. In twelve days in Japan I was able to have many more amazing foods than I had the whole year in Thailand.

Anyway, rants and recollections aside, it was quite the year. Although the challenges and negatives were hard to deal with, I never once regretted my decision to teach in Thailand. It certainly taught me a lot about what is important to me, and put in perspective many different things that I took for granted in the past. I am incredibly grateful to all of the people that helped me throughout the year, and to all of the students who I hope to see again someday.

Although I don’t know if I will ever see Tha Wang Pha again, I will always remember the people and places that made my home the past year.

The building that housed the foreign language department
The building that housed the foreign language department
My desk (with the orange bag)
My desk (with the orange bag)
Home sweet home (the building on the left, second floor right door)
Home sweet home (the building on the left, second floor right door)
My sweet ride courtesy of Kru Kai
My sweet ride, courtesy of Kru Kai
With 2/6 students
With 2/6 students
With 3/2
With 3/2

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With 1/1!!!
With 1/1!!!
Saying goodbye at the bus station. From top left: Kru Noi, Kru Kai, Me, Mos, Ben, Kru Noi #2, Kru Rin. From bottom left: Tar, Nam Nan, Poi, Nook
Saying goodbye at the bus station. From top left: Kru Noi, Kru Kai, Me, Mos, Ben, Kru Noi #2, Kru Rin. From bottom left: Tar, Nam Nan, Poi, Nook
With Kru Kai
With Kru Kai
With Apple, her mother, and Ben
With Apple, her mother, and Ben

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.