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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Me with the other judges
Me with the other judges

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

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

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

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

The Beginning of the Second Semester & Loi Krathong

The second semester is already more than a third over with, and is going by faster every day. After returning from Japan, I only had a day to settle in back home before starting classes again and time has gone by quickly ever since.

That Sunday night, before the start of the semester, Ben and I received over schedules via email. To our surprise, they were nothing like what we had expected, which to be fair was what we had been explicitly told our schedules would be. We were both very angry as we had had a meeting the end of last semester where we supposedly planned our schedules for this semester, and voiced our concerns over which classes we did and did not want to teach.

Long story short, while last semester I taught seventh and eighth graders, this semester half of my schedule was switched with Ben’s, so I now teach seventh and ninth graders (and Ben teaches the eighth graders). While I was not a huge fan of all the eighth grade classes I taught last semester, I felt like I was finally getting a rapport with all of my classes and understanding their strengths and weaknesses in English.

However, all that time spent getting to know and understand those students was basically thrown out the window, and instead I had to relearn names, and start anew with seven classes of students that I had never taught before. On top of that, I wasn’t sure what material Ben had taught the ninth graders last semester, so I had no idea where I should start and what material to avoid.

Still, while the semester got off to a rocky start because of the schedule change, it actually ended up working out fine, and I am enjoying my schedule this semester more than my old schedule. I still don’t know the ninth grade students that well, but as a whole they seem much more respectful and obedient than eighth graders. I am also a lot more confident leading a class, and a lot more used to how the students behave (and misbehave) in class.

Although my co-teachers said that would help plan much more this semester, they have taken the same backseat and been pretty much as useless as last semester. It would be nice to have more help but frankly I didn’t believe they would step up anyway, so it hasn’t been too frustrating or surprising.

The first two weeks actually went by quickly anyway because we had shortened classes due to preparation for sports day. Since I had heard Sports day was the biggest event of the year at the school, I was expecting a fun day of sporting competitions and interesting events. However, it was somewhat disappointing as it really only consisted of track and field events, ninety percent of which were just running.

It was still entertaining to see and the students were certainly passionate about training for it by running and preparing special cheers. All of the students and teachers were also divided into colored teams (orange, yellow, red, green, blue, purple), and I was on the orange team. At the end of the day, there was a relay race between all of the teachers which Ben’s team dominated (my team got second-to-last).

On a different note, last Thursday was Loi Krathong. Loi Krathong, meaning ‘floating lotus’, is a holiday that pays tribute to the rivers of Thailand. On this day, people all over Thailand make krathongs out of banana leaves, and then light candles in them and float them down rivers. People also light lanterns that are then floated up into the sky.

At school, each class made their own lanterns which were basically giant cubes made of pieces of tissue paper taped or glued together. Some of the more talented classes made designs on their lanterns or beautiful patterns using the tissue paper. At the end of the school day, everyone gathered on the field as each class first filled their lantern with air, and then lit some kind of burning fuse before floating the lantern away.

The students with their lanterns for Loi Krathong
The students with their lanterns for Loi Krathong

It was somewhat terrifying to see some of the students wielding the large torches, but surprisingly nothing went wrong and no one was burned or harassed by the torch-wielders. It was actually very cool to see the giant lanterns float up into the sky; some of the lanterns floated up a few hundred feet before tumbling back down, but others rose up to great heights and continued floating upwards off into the distance (where I’m sure they landed in rice fields and started small fires).

Lighting the lanterns
Lighting the lanterns

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That night there was also a large celebration by the river. Ben and I went and met our friends Nam and Tham at the festival. We first watched from a bridge above the river as people lit the candles on their krathongs and floated them down the river. Although it was peaceful to watch the candle-lit krathongs float down the river, the serenity was somewhat ruined by loud bangs and flashes of people lighting and throwing fireworks everywhere. At one point, someone put a firework on the other side of the bridge which shot out rockets in every direction. One of the rockets literally flew at Ben and I, and we had to duck in order to narrowly dodge being hit by the rocket. After that encounter, we decided to retreat towards the festival grounds.

Our friend Tham was selling food from a stand, so we went and hung out at his stand for a while. He was nice enough to give us free food; he was serving yam moo yor, or pork sausage salad. It was pretty good, and spicy, although I am not a huge fan of that style of dish (cold pork sausage with tomatoes and lettuce and spicy dressing).

After eating, we watched part of a krathong competition in which judges were picking the best krathong out of several beautiful constructions. Ben and I thought the clear winner was a krathong shaped like a dragon’s head, which showed originality and creativity, and was flawlessly executed, but the judges ended up picking a different one that I found rather unimpressive.

The Dragon-shaped krathong
The Dragon-shaped krathong

After the competition, I ran into several of my students who wanted to float a krathong down the river with Ben and I. The students were very nice and bought each of us a krathong, so we went down to the river and floated our first krathongs. Floating the krathongs symbolizes two different things. It symbolizes freeing yourself of negative energies and bad feelings, as well as a wish for your future. I wished for a pleasant second semester in Thailand as I placed the krathong in the river and watched it float away.

About to float our krathongs with students, low quality iphone pic
About to float our krathongs with students, low quality iphone pic

After that, the students also bought a lantern which we lit together before letting it float upwards. It was awesome to have that experience with the students, and I wish that I was able to spend more time with students outside of school. Although most days many of the bad students I teach leave me frustrated and tired, it is the experiences with the good students that really stick with me and will be the experiences I remember. Already, experiencing Loi Krathong with my students has made up for any negative feelings I had about my schedule or bad students starting the semester, and I really feel like this semester will be much better and less stressful.

Students lighting the lantern
Students lighting the lantern

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Releasing the lantern
Releasing the lantern

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After saying goodbye to the students, we went back to Tham’s food stand, where we hung out for a while. Before we went home, we floated another krathong with Nam and Tham, and then released several more lanterns into the night sky. I really enjoyed Loi Krathong overall. I respect the purpose of the holiday, and found it very peaceful and spiritual, the fireworks notwithstanding.

Lighting Lanterns with Belle, Tham, Nam, and Ben.
Lighting Lanterns with Belle, Tham, Nam, and Ben.
Nam, Belle and I about to release our lantern
Nam, Belle and I about to release our lantern

On a random note, last Monday I helped with an event near Tha Wang Pha for a group of visiting diplomats. For some reason unknown to me, a large group of diplomats from a bunch of different countries (including Russia, Vietnam, Israel, Bhutan, Cuba, Germany, etc.), had a multi-day trip in the Nan Province through the Diplomatic Corps.

For part of their trip, they came and saw a nearby temple, Wat Nong Bua. Ben and I, along with several teachers and students, were guides at the temple, where we talked about aspects of the Thai Lue culture (the local Northern culture), as well as local crafts and customs. There were five different stations: about Pandan juice, fresh water seaweed, rattan crafts and furniture, silver jewelry, and local fabrics. I was at the rattan crafts and furniture station along with several students. It turned out to be somewhat pointless for me to be there, as no one wanted information about rattan crafts but it was interesting to see the diplomats and ask them about their perceptions about Nan. I still don’t understand why their trip was just in Nan but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Japanese Cuisine – A Taste of Heaven

I decided to make a post dedicated solely to the food I ate in Japan for several reasons. I found myself trying to remember in detail, the flavors and textures of the food I ate, and as I wrote more and more, it became a little much to add to my other posts about my trip. I also really enjoy reading others’ blog posts about food they eat in other countries. It seems to be one of the most interesting ways to gain insights and knowledge into another culture.

I definitely plan on posting about Thai food eventually as well, although I am currently accumulating more pictures and still finding my favorite foods, so that is still a work in progress. Still, Japanese food has always held a special place in my belly, from it’s fresh and delicious sushi to its fried tempura, cucumber salads, and rice bowls. It is simply amazing.

One interesting thing about Japanese restaurants is that many have displays of fake food outside their restaurants to show potential patrons what dishes are available to order. While at first this was a bizarre oddity to me, I eventually  grew to appreciate it as I couldn’t read their Japanese menus, so it allowed me to figure out what types of food each restaurant served.

Fake food
Fake food display

I ordered my first meal in Osaka from a vending machine. Outside of a small restaurant, several vending machines displayed pictures among a multitude of Japanese characters apparently explaining what the dishes were.

Ordering my first meal from a vending machine
Ordering my first meal from a vending machine

Fortunately, William and Thomas were able to read many Japanese characters (because they have the same meaning as Chinese characters although they are pronounced differently), so we knew vaguely what each dish entailed. I ordered a tofu dish which was surprisingly cheap (about $5), and grabbed my ticket before going inside. It was my first experience of Japanese dining, which although at first was different and almost bizarre, but soon became normal and had me wondering why we don’t have similar efficiencies in American restaurants (there were jugs of water on every table, chopsticks and other eating accessories already arranged and ready, and machines of every shape and size cooking and preparing food in the kitchen next to us). Everything was so systemized and orderly that it seemed more like a small food factory churning out rice bowls than a restaurant.

The meal was also very good – tofu with a rich brown sauce over rice upon which I heaped piles of pickled ginger (a common condiment in Japan) until I felt satisfied.

First meal
First meal

My meal that night was also a form of Japanese fast food at the chain restaurant Yoshinoya. Yoshinoya serves fairly typical Japanese fast food, mostly rice bowls and other basic dishes. I ordered a dish of beef simmering over vegetables with sides of rice (of course) and miso soup. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the pitchers at the table contained chilled green tea rather than water (another commonality of many Japanese restaurants), something that I found very refreshing and different. My meal was good, and although not spectacular, markedly better than American fast food (and again not that expensive either at around $5).

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The next day we ate lunch at another Japanese fast food restaurant called Sukiya. I ordered a rice bowl with beef, slathered with some sort of mayonnaise and roe sauce. Although maybe not the most appetizing looking bowl of food, the rich sauce was delicious and contrasted well with the mounds of pickled ginger I heaped into the bowl.

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That night, I tried my first bowl of ramen. Having wanted ramen from the start, I was surprised at how hard it was to find a ramen restaurant. I had assumed that ramen shops would be as plentiful as Starbucks are in the U.S., but they turned out to be much more elusive.

After talking to a helpful man on the street, we were directed to our first ramen place. I ordered ramen with seaweed and an egg. While it was a tasty bowl of soup, I was somewhat nonplussed and had the feeling that there was better ramen to be found (and I was right)

First bowl of ramen
First bowl of ramen

The next day, we spontaneously decided to eat lunch while in an underground mall. At first, we passed an okonomiyaki place that looked interesting but after walking around we found a ramen place that had a line out the door (always a good sign). We decided to wait in line for ramen, and as an old man left the restaurant he told us “Oishi” (delicious) and pointed at the restaurant. The smells started drifting out of the restaurant and my mouth started watering uncontrollably.

All of the ramen dishes could either be ordered with a soy-based broth or a miso-based broth. I decided to order the ‘hat-trick’ ramen with a miso broth (ramen with pork, gyoza, and kimchi). The ramen was absolutely phenomenal. I took a sip of the broth and felt the rich, silky miso flavor flow over my tongue. As I mixed the soup together, the kimchi added a little bit of spicy tartness which added more layers to the miso broth. The gyoza were amazing; they were easily the best gyoza I have ever had. There were cooked to a crisp without tasting overly-fried, and had a smoky taste from the sesame oil. The hard-boiled egg was my favorite part of the soup. It was also cooked in sesame oil and tasted smoky and smooth; it was easily the best hard-boiled egg I have ever had. As I finished licking out every crevice of my bowl, I decided to make note of the place so that we could come back again. The restaurant was a chain within Osaka, so I noted that there were several other locations to go to in the future.

My favorite bowl of ramen
My favorite bowl of ramen

That night we decided to eat in the neighborhood by our hotel (Shinsekai). After exploring the options, we settled upon a place largely because it was crowded with people. This restaurant sold kushikatsu, which basically means things fried on a stick and dipped in sauce. What we realized after entering the shop and ordering, what that this type of food (like a lot of food in Osaka), was mainly meant to be eaten while drinking, and was not typical dinner fare. We ordered pints of the delicious Asahi lager, and waited for our food to come.

Although the food was not bad, it basically just tasted like the sauce that we dipped it in. Wisely, we had only ordered a small platter of fried things to share, so we decided that we would head somewhere else afterwards to finish up our meal.

Kushikatsu
Kushikatsu

After leaving the kushikatsu place, we walked to a nearby place serving takoyaki, or little dumplings traditionally filled with octopus batter. We ordered two different types of takoyaki (traditional, and takoyaki with scallions and citrus sauce) from a vending machine, before showing our tickets to the chef. I watched in fascination as the chef twirled and spun the takoyaki balls in their grill plate, until they were cooked to perfection. They were then drenched in condiments and sauces before served to us.

Making takoyaki
Making takoyaki

Careful not to burn myself, I let the takoyaki cool before trying them. While saucy and zesty on the outside, the interior was gooey and rich, with bits of octopus. I particularly enjoyed the traditional takoyaki, which were covered with the classic sauce which is kind of like a thicker and sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce. Overall, I enjoyed the takoyaki much more than the kushikatsu, and was pleased with our meal for the night.

Traditional Takoyaki
Traditional Takoyaki
Takoyaki with citrus sauce and onions next to the traditional version
Takoyaki with citrus sauce and scallions next to the traditional version

The next day in Nara, we went to a restaurant recommended by a woman near the train station. The restaurant turned out to serve sushi made with only preserved fish that was wrapped in persimmon leaves (known as Kakinohasushi, a Nara specialty). Not knowing what to expect, I was astounded by how delicious the sushi was.

We shared a large platter of several vegetable sushi’s as well as mackerel, trout, and salmon. Each piece of sushi was perfectly prepared, and the wasabi accompanying the sushi was also very pungent and delicious (perhaps the first real wasabi I had ever tasted). The sushi was so flawless that I did not dip any of it in soy sauce, as it seemed to have enough flavor to stand on its own (with a touch of wasabi that is). This was easily my favorite meal of the whole trip, maybe in part because I had no idea what to expect of sushi with preserved fish.

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Kakinohasushi

That night, back in Osaka, we decided to have okonomiyaki for dinner. Okonomiyaki is similar to a savory pancake made with flour, shredded yam, eggs, cabbage as well as other ingredients of your choosing. I ordered mine with octopus and sweet potato.

The okonomiyaki was prepared on a grill in the middle of the table, so it was interesting to see the waitress whisk together the dough, before laying it on the grill and flipping it until it was seared to perfection. Our okonomiyaki were then slathered with mustard, mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce.

Making our okonomiyaki
Making our okonomiyaki

Although they looked huge and filling, it was actually a lot lighter than I was expecting. I really enjoyed the sweet potato in mine, although would probably get it with pork instead of octopus as the octopus added nothing expect a chewy texture. Overall it was fairly delicious, although a bit weird and not quite as filling or as satisfying of a dinner as I was expecting.

finished okonomiyaki
finished okonomiyaki

The next day for lunch we headed to the ramen place that Taka had recommended. This place was special in that it made its own unique broths (different than the soy and miso broths that we had tried before). I got a bowl with a mix of the two broths (one was light and creamy, the other darker and more potent) as well as marbled pork. The broth was very good, and the pork was amazing. Although the pork was more marbled with fat than I was used to, it melted in my mouth and was delicious. While not as delicious as the ramen in the subway station, this ended up being my second favorite bowl of ramen.

My second favorite bowl of ramen
My second favorite bowl of ramen

After meeting Natsu in Kyoto the following day, we had ozobonsai for lunch. Ozobonsai means “little dishes made by Mom”, and thus is a platter of many small dishes as well as one entrée. I got pork katsu on my platter. Although the meal was good, I had no idea what many of the small dishes were, although they all resembled vegetables and starches of some kind.

Ozobonsai - Something on this platter gave me an allergic reaction
Ozobonsai – Something on this platter gave me an allergic reaction

Strangely enough, after the meal I felt a lot of heat rushing to my face and had a minor allergic reaction to the food. My face turned red, as well as my arms and legs, and I felt sort of feverish for the next couple hours. While I felt better by the evening, it was somewhat unsettling, as I have never had an allergic reaction to anything I have eaten, and I am not sure what it was in the meal that gave me the reaction. I decided to avoid eating ozobonsai for the rest of the trip, and fortunately never had another allergic reaction to anything I ate.

For dinner that night, Natsu took us to a popular ramen place in Kyoto. Ironically, this ramen place was next to another popular ramen place, and both restaurants had lines out the door.

This place only served ramen in a soy sauce broth, which sounded good to me since I had yet to try that type of broth. The ramen was also normally served with a raw egg, which I contemplated trying but then declined. The bowl was filled to the brim with noodles and pork, and consequently was the only bowl of ramen on the trip that I was unable to finish. Although it was delicious, it was simply a huge amount of food and after eating a considerable amount, I accepted defeat and laid down my chopsticks.

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The only bowl of ramen I was unable to finish

By this point, having tried many different types of ramen, I was beginning to feel like a ramen connoisseur, and was able to determine which flavors I preferred in my ramen (miso broth rather than soy broth, extra kim-chi to add spicy and tangy flavor, and pork with some glistening, marbled fat).

After meeting Natsu and Taka the next day, we decided to try soba (wheat noodles). The restaurant even served a soba tea, which tasted of wheat and was delicious. I got a large platter with sushi, hot soba noodles in soup, eggplant with miso sauce (light and dark misos), and mochi dessert. My favorite part was actually probably the eggplant with miso sauce which was rich and tangy, although the sushi was good and the soba was good as well. While I have had mochi in the U.S., the mochi dessert here was much softer and covered in some sort of powdered sugar. I actually did not really enjoy the mochi, as I just found the texture too bizarre and it had little flavor other than a slight sweetness.

Hot soba soup with nabasushi
Hot soba soup with nabasushi

That night we ate yakitori, which consists of lots of little grilled dishes. At the beginning of the meal, we also all ordered pints of Asahi lager ‘superchilled’ (served at -2 celsius). The beer was incredibly refreshing, and went down quick as a result.

The restaurant was mainly known for it’s homemade sake. I had only had sake once before in Davis, and I did not particularly enjoy it. However, I dutifully agreed to try it again here since it was their specialty and was pleasantly surprised. Served cold, it had a delicate tart, rice flavor that was actually very refreshing. I enjoyed it very much, and ended up having several glasses throughout the night.

The food was also great too. We began ordering grilled dishes of meats such as pork, chicken livers, chicken breasts, chicken hearts, as well as scallops covered in bacon, and eggplant slathered with miso. I particularly enjoyed the scallops covered in bacon, which were absolutely exquisite. We kept eating and eating, little bites of fried dumplings with potatoes, salads with chicken, and finally a rice soup with pickled plums (which was tart, delicate, and phenomenal). Overall, the meal was fantastic, and I probably could have continued drinking the sweet glasses of sake for several more hours, but we decided to head back.

Yakitori with superchilled beer
Yakitori with superchilled beer

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Me, William, Thomas, Taka, and Natsu eating yakitori
Me, William, Thomas, Taka, and Natsu eating yakitori

Our final day in Kyoto, we settled on sashimi for lunch. We again went to a place recommended by Taka, and were not disappointed. I ordered a platter of nigiri with the usual delights (eel, salmon, tuna, tofu, squid, shrimp and salmon roe), as well as a bowl of hot soba noodles. The nigiri was very good, although I have had better nigiri in the U.S.

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That night we again decided to have ramen. The place we went to had a fascinating atmosphere; it had individual stalls for each patron, and small windows into the kitchen partially covered by bamboo screens, so that you could not see the cooks and they could not see you. After delivering your ramen, the cooks would lower your screen for your privacy, and if you wanted something else such as extra noodles, you could simply write that on a slip before pressing a button to get their attention.

In short, it was a very efficient enterprise where one could enjoy themselves in individualized privacy, without really interacting with anyone, including the employees (a very Japanese experience). The ramen itself was good too. To order, I filled out a card where I indicated how strong I wanted the broth to be, how soft or firm I wanted my noodles, how spicy I wanted the broth to be as well as additional items I wished to add to the ramen.

The ramen I got was sufficiently spicy, and the broth strong like I requested, but after having tasted many bowls of ramen I didn’t think it was fabulous. It was certainly an experience eating at the restaurant though, and while I am not obsessed with privacy, I certainly was fascinated with the idea behind giving individual’s a way to order food without having to have any interactions with people whatsoever.

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Being my final day in Japan, the next day I again decided to have ramen for lunch (notice a pattern?). We went to another place recommended by Taka. Again at this place we ordered and paid at a vending machine, before handing our tickets to the chef. This place also had free kim-chi and rice, so I loaded a bowl with a large bundle of kim-chi and sat down.

After receiving my ramen, I mixed in the kim-chi and chowed down. The ramen was good, although nowhere near as good as some of the others I had tasted. Still, it was nice to wash it down with the potent, free kim-chi which was definitely a nice touch.

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That night was my final meal in Japan. Taka and Natsu agreed to meet us in Osaka, and we decided to have sashimi for dinner. After running into Taka, we headed to the restaurant where Natsu and Taka’s wife were meeting us later. We began with a pint of Asahi (of course), before ordering some sashimi. The sashimi was amazingly beautiful, and delicious as well. I particularly enjoyed the bonito on our first platter. Eventually Natsu and Taka’s wife arrived, and we began ordering more courses of food. I finally tried uni (sea urchin) which was very interesting, with a shellfish like flavor, and toro (fatty tuna) which was wonderful and very delicate. We also had waygu beef, which we seared ourselves at our table, and sukiyaki, in which I found myself dipping thin slices of beef in raw egg (very delicious although very different than the sukiyaki I had eaten in Thailand). To wash down the bounty of delicious food, I had several glasses of sake, including a small bottle sparkling sake.

Sashimi platter
Sashimi platter
Salmon roe and uni
Salmon roe and uni
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The waiter told us all to awkwardly hunch over, not sure why

It was a fantastic meal to finish the trip, with so many exquisite delights that I had never eaten packed into several short hours.

I miss the food in Japan already (especially the ramen), as good food is easy to find wherever you are, and delicious food is also often not as expensive as I had expected (for example, the sushi I had in Nara only was about $10). While I have not been able to give Thai food as fair of a shake as Japanese food (since I have not been able to explore all of the food options of a city like Bangkok or Chiang Mai), I believe that I prefer Japanese food overall, for all of its varied dishes, clean flavors, and exquisite preparations.

Nara & Kyoto

Nara

After spending several days in Osaka, we decided to go to the nearby city of Nara. Nara was the capital of Japan for a brief period (710-784), and is full of ancient temples and shrines. I had also heard that it was a very walkable city, and that it could be seen in one or two days.

We took the JR train to Nara, which only took about forty-five minutes. After arriving in Nara, we headed to Nara Park, which is where most of the main temples and attractions of the city are. As we began walking through the city I liked it immediately; it was very clean and chic, full of interesting stores and restaurants. Just before entering the park we passed by a serene pond with views of several temples in the distance, it was very peaceful.

Immediately upon entering the park I began to see deer. One of the ‘attractions’ of Nara are the deer, which I had heard were plentiful in the park. Although I have obviously seen deer before, I have never been somewhere where they are so unfazed, and unintimidated by people. Of course, this could be because of the numerous stands selling deer cookies to feed the deer with, but it was still surprising to see deer calmly walking around and harassing people for food. Some of the smarter deer just waited right next the vendors selling deer cookies, although others were content surrounding and head-butting people with cookies until they were fed.

Deer everywhere
Deer everywhere

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Deer waiting by the deer cookie stall
Deer waiting by the deer cookie stall

On our way to Todaji Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), William decided to buy some cookies and feed the deer which was an amusing sight. He gave me a cookie to feed them with which I quickly surrendered before the small gathering of deer grew impatient.

William feeding the deer
William feeding the deer

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The first temple we saw, Todaji Temple, was also the most impressive and probably my favorite temple I saw in Japan. It is actually the largest wooden building in the world, although it is much smaller than it was originally. On the roof it is decorated with two fish tails to prevent it from burning down, although it actually suffered that fate twice.

Todaji Temple
Todaji Temple

Inside there was a large Buddha, as well as several other statues of what I assumed were important figures. One of the most interesting parts of the temple was a wooden column with a small hole through its base. Apparently if children climb through the hole they gain intelligence from Buddha, and so there was a long line of children waiting to go through the column.

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Children being pushed through the column to gain intelligence
Children being pushed through the column to gain intelligence

After seeing Todaji Temple, we continued on through the park where we saw several more Buddhist temples and a Shinto shrine. Towards the end of the day we decided to relax next to a pond in the park, where occasional cranes floated on the otherwise unmolested waters.

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Overall, Nara was my favorite city we visited in Japan because it was full of temples that were within walking distance of each other. It was also very clean and beautifully laid out, a complete contrast from the cities and towns of Thailand.

Kyoto

That weekend, we headed to Kyoto to meet Natsu and explore the city. Again, we took the JR train to Kyoto, which only took about an hour. The Kyoto train station was incredibly immense and busy, and also interestingly enough, one of the most modern train stations I had been in. Walking out of the station we were greeted by the Kyoto Tower, another large modern architectural structure that I later decided was a bizarre outlier to overall historical atmosphere of the city.

Kyoto Train Station
Kyoto Train Station

Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera, another World Heritage Site and perhaps the most famous temple in Kyoto. As we were taking the bus to the temple, it was immediate how large and spread out Kyoto was. Unlike Nara, which is easily walkable, Kyoto has an incredibly complex bus and subway system that one has to use to efficiently explore the city. As it was, it took us about forty minutes to take the bus from the station to the temple on the eastern side of the city.

Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizu-dera

Unfortunately, one of the main halls of the temple was being renovated, so we were somewhat limited in what we could see. However, we were still able to see the view of the city, as the temple is built on one of the hillsides that surround the valley the city is in. The temple was also very crowded, as it was approaching the peak tourist season of fall (probably in November sometime when the leaves are changing colors).

After Kiyomizu-dera, we headed to the Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the silver pavilion. Although the temple is not actually covered in silver, or silver in any way really, it was still beautiful. The temple was surrounded by a very beautiful garden with miniature streams and islands as well as moss and zen gardens combed to perfection. The temple was built by a shogun as his personal villa, and the main pavilion is actually the tea house where he had tea.

Silver Pavilion
Silver Pavilion
Zen garden at the Silver Pavilion
Zen garden at the Silver Pavilion

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Behind the temple was a path leading up the hill which offered a nice view of the temple, before we headed back down and out of the grounds.

After the silver pavilion, we headed to a nearby shrine. Although in my head I had pictured temples as being large buildings and shrines as smaller buildings, this was not the case. While some of the temples were indeed large, the shrines were often just as large if not larger making me somewhat confused as to what created the distinctions between temples and shrines.

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Nearby shrine

The next day we headed back to Kyoto to again meet Natsu as well as Taka. We started the day off by heading to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the most visited attraction in Kyoto. When I googled pictures of Kyoto before visiting, many of the pictures that came up were the numerous, orange arches that line the path of the Fushimi Inari shrine.

Fushimi Inari
Fushimi Inari

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Consequently, the main sight at the shrine is the long path lined with orange arches, which only lead to small pavilions. Interestingly enough, each of the arches bore the name of a company or benefactor to the shrine. However, the path was furiously lined with the arches, so any new companies or individuals looking to donate and put their name on an arch would not have an easy time finding an open spot.

The path up the mountain continued for several kilometers, so after walking through many of the arches, we decided we had seen enough and headed back down.

We next went to the Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion. This temple is actually covered in gold, so the name actually does apply to the structure. This temple was also the retirement villa of a shogun, and is also surrounded with beautiful gardens like the silver temple. It was very beautiful, although I preferred the restrained elegance of the silver pavilion over the somewhat gaudy exterior of the golden pavilion.

Golden Pavilion
Golden Pavilion

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On our last day in Kyoto we decided to see some of the lesser known temples, and explore more of the city. The first temple we saw, the Nanzenji temple, turned out to be my favorite temple in Kyoto. While the other temples were certainly impressive, they were also overcrowded with tourists. By contrast, the Nanzenji temple had almost no tourists, giving it a very relaxed vibe. The grounds were also immense, and as we explored them I was surprised to see a large aqueduct spanning the grounds.

Nanzenji Temple
Nanzenji Temple
Aqueduct at Nanzenji Temple
Aqueduct at Nanzenji Temple

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As we walked to the aqueduct, we found a path on top of it, where we were able to ascend the mountain to a small park that overlooked the city. On the way back down, we found a few smaller temples free of tourists that we explored before leaving the temple grounds.

Path on top of the aqueduct
Path on top of the aqueduct
Park near Nanzenji Temple
Park near Nanzenji Temple

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Our final stop in Kyoto was Nijo-jo Castle. Although not much of a castle compared to the one in Osaka, Nijo-jo was interesting nonetheless. The main wooden building had a nightingale floor, meaning that there was a constant stream of squeaks and chirps erupting from all angles of the building as we and other tourists walked through the building. Although this was designed to prevent assassins (as one cannot walk through the building silently), I could not imagine having to hear the constant high-pitched noises all day.

Nijo-jo Castle
Nijo-jo Castle
Gate at Nijo-jo Castle
Gate at Nijo-jo Castle

The castle also had a large expanse of grounds, with several ponds and gardens.

Gardens at Nijo-jo Castle
Gardens around Nijo-jo Castle

Overall, Kyoto was a very beautiful city with dozens of temples and historical sites that we only saw a fraction of. I enjoyed the city immensely, although it took very long to explore with the bus system (especially compared to the expedient metro system in Osaka).

Osaka – “Japan’s Kitchen”

Osaka was my hub during my two-week trip to Japan. Rather than staying in multiple cities, William, Thomas, and I decided to just stay in Osaka and travel to other places by train.

My flight to Osaka from Bangkok was scheduled to arrive at 11:50 PM, but because public transportation at that hour was closed for the night, I had just planned to spend the night at the airport and then take the train to my hotel in the morning.

As I laid down on a row of seats in the entrance area, it appeared that many other people had the same idea as me, as several other businessman were stretched out on nearby benches next to piles of luggage. Fortunately, the night went by fairly quickly, and before I knew it, the morning rolled around. I first decided to exchange my money at the airport as I had heard that Japan was a mostly cash-based country, and I had no yen.  Exchanging all of my baht to yen at the airport turned out to be a bad decision, as the exchange rate was so bad that I probably lost about $80 in the transaction. I was pretty angry at myself, but being early in the morning without having had a proper night’s sleep, I was sort of delirious and unable to weight my options critically. Nonetheless, I gathered my money and made for the train station.

The train station was very conveniently connected to the airport, and I knew that there were several different lines I could take to my hotel, one of the reasons I had decided to stay there. I ended up taking the JR line, as I thought it would be the fastest and easiest to figure out. After finally figuring out where to catch the right train, I piled my stuff onto the train and sat down.

Almost immediately, it became apparent to me how different Japan would be from Thailand. Every time we came to a stop, a bunch of well-dressed businessmen and women got on the train quickly, and sat down. Although that may not sound unusual, the speed and efficiency from their movements was quite different from anything I had seen in Thailand, where people operate at their own relaxed pace and the concept of efficiency has no meaning.

As more and more people piled onto the train, it dawned on me that I was becoming more and more trapped away from the exit door. I realized that if I did not take action soon, I might not be able to maneuver my massive backpacks through the mass of people and exit in the short time of the stop. Fortunately, at the stop before mine, a lot of people exited the train and I took the opportunity to get up and place myself by the door. I managed to escape without incident, and after exiting the station took a few moments to take in the neighborhood where I would be staying.

I had been warned by my friend Taka that the neighborhood around the hotel wasn’t the greatest, although it turned out to be fine (to the south the neighborhood got somewhat sketchy but the area I was in was fine). I walked a short distance before finding my hotel, which was only about a three minute walk from the station.

The hotel also exceeded my expectations. Being a very modern, advanced country, I had expected things in Japan to be similar prices to the United States. However, I was able to find a hotel for only $24 a night, ludicrously cheap by American standards. The hotel was actually pretty decent too. I had my own room with A/C, the staff had both a fluent English speaker and a fluent Mandarin speaker (convenient for my friends from Taiwan), and even had a Japanese style spa (a hot tub and sauna) for the guests. Admittedly, my room was very small and there were only shared bathrooms and showers, but for the price I was paying it was certainly better than I was expecting. The area around the hotel was surprisingly nice too. I had picked the hotel because it was located near several major subway and JR stops, although I expected it to be a somewhat sketchy area after talking to Taka. It turned out to be fine though, and I was actually within a one minute walk of the Shinsekai neighborhood (meaning ‘New World’), which had walking streets filled with restaurants and bars. I was also located very close to the massive Spa World, which was a behemoth sized building filled with different style onsens (spas), water slides, pools and a gym – although I never ventured inside.

Shinsekai, the neighborhood near my hotel
Shinsekai, the neighborhood near my hotel

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Shinsekai at night
Shinsekai at night

The first few days in the city, William, Thomas, and I walked around and explored various neighborhoods. Shinsekai was full of interesting small restaurants selling foods like takoyaki, okonomiyaki, kushikatsu and of course, sashimi, as well as small bars in which patrons drank while standing, starting at early hours of the day.

Near Shinsekai was the neighborhood Nipponbashi, or Den-Den Town. I had read that Den-Den Town was a great place to find otaku items (manga, toys, video games), and it did not disappoint. There was an insane amount of toy stores, manga shops, and video game parlors along the streets. Every store seemed to have multiple floors stocked with every sort of toy, manga, or video game imaginable. After coming from Northern Thailand, where it is nearly impossible to find anything I need, it was overwhelming to be shopping in these massive stores that had endless supplies of things I didn’t need or even know existed. I also was excited to find the first of many music stores with a large amount of pianos that I could actually play (in Thailand, it is hard enough to find a piano store and harder still to find one where they actually let you play their pianos).

So many vending machines everywhere
So many vending machines everywhere

The next place we explored was the neighborhood of Dotonburi, which was located near the city center and was supposedly the foodie district of Osaka. Dotonburi also flanks the river, and contains the glico sign, which for some unknown reason is one of the most famous attractions in Osaka. The sign was also comically enough being renovated during our trip, so we were instead treated to the image of a woman posed in the same fashion.

The famous Glico sign under construction
The famous Glico sign under construction
Dotonburi at night
Dotonburi at night

Dotonburi was also located near some of the biggest shopping streets in Osaka. I was unprepared for the massive, pedestrian walking streets that stretch on endlessly and branch off in multiple directions. However, as massive as the walking streets were, they all seemed to be overcrowded with masses of people walking, shopping, or just exploring as we were. We seemed to find continuous amounts of massive malls, multiple storied department stores (often as large as eight floors), huge clothing stores, and other shops that catered to every shopping need possible. It was almost disbelieving to me that as many shops and stores as they were, there were even more people and customers to fill them. As much of a consumer culture as we have in America, I have never seen such a large area devoted to and filled with shoppers.

Shopping Street in Dotonburi
Shopping Street in Dotonburi

As I alluded to earlier, there were also music shops, a lot of music shops. I was stunned to find beautiful piano shops and guitar shops with endless selections of instruments. I even found a Yamaha store with multiple floors including a floor for digital pianos and a separate floor for acoustic pianos. After going roughly five months without being able to find or play a piano in Thailand, I was now finding about three to four piano stores a day in Osaka and endless amounts of pianos that I could actually play. I regretted that I had not brought any music on my trip, as I soon found myself unable to remember many of the piano pieces that had once come easily to my fingertips.

I was also amused by the sight of the massive, neon pachinko parlors that flashed their presence every several hundred meters on the walking streets. Having never seen pachinko machines before, it was bizarre to see the parlors packed with usually old Japanese people chain-smoking cigarettes and maneuvering their pachinko balls with nonplussed expressions on their faces. While I became more used to these establishments’ presence all over the city, it became somewhat depressing to see people playing the machines at all hours of the day, whittling their money away on what seemed to me like a nonsensical, boring game.

Pachinko
Pachinko

Later on in the week, we decided to go see Osaka Castle. Although located near the middle of the city, the castle is in a large park filled with Japanese Maples, Gingko, and Cherry trees that gave it a very serene and escapist feel. Some people were jogging or exercising in the park, while many others were drawing and painting the castle from the different angles we were walking around among.

Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle

The castle was quite picturesque, peeking through the trees and towering over a large moat, but I had a feeling that it would look that much more beautiful as the leaves turned yellow and copper in the coming weeks and the cherry trees bloomed their pink flowers of winter.

the front of the castle
the front of the castle

Part of the reason the castle was so beautiful was actually because it had been rebuilt and renovated fairly recently. Having burned down several times over the several hundred years of its existence, the Osaka Castle we saw and toured was not exactly an ancient monument. However, it was still cool to see, and the view from the top was great.

After seeing Osaka Castle, we decided to head over to the Umeda Sky Building to get a good view of Osaka at night. The sky building is one of the coolest skyscapers I have seen, architecturally speaking. It consists of two skyscrapers with a ‘floating’ observatory and gardens connecting the buildings at the top floors.

Umeda Sky Building
Umeda Sky Building

We took the elevator to near the top and then rode an escalator before entering the observatory. The observatory consists of two floors. The first floor has floor-to-ceiling glass windows on all of the walls as well as a bar with seats overlooking the city. The second floor was open to the elements, and had black lights everywhere that lit up planetary shapes on the walkways and around the top. The view from the top was amazing; I was very glad we came at night as I could see Osaka’s expanse stretch out in all directions, with lights illuminating and intensifying every detail.

View from the Umeda Sky Building at night
View from the Umeda Sky Building at night

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After walking around the top, Thomas suggested that we grab a beer at the bar below which I readily agreed to. The bar had a surprisingly good selection of beers from around the world, and after buying a stout from Sri Lanka, I settled down next to one of the glass walls and relaxed as I enjoyed the view. It was a great end to the day and the beer wasn’t too bad either.

The next day we decided to see a couple temples and shrines in Osaka. After eating breakfast and drinking some instant coffee at the hotel, we headed out to see the nearby Shitennoji Temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. On the way there we walked by another temple so we decided to check it out. It was pretty crowded with people praying and burning incense, as well as camera crews and security for some kind of religious event. There was also a Buddha that was apparently made from the ashes of dead people, although it looked fairly unimpressive to me.

Entrance to the temple
Entrance to the temple
Temple near my hotel
Temple near my hotel

After making our way out of that temple we walked to Shitennoji temple. While it was still within the metropolitan of Osaka, as soon as we entered the temple complex it seemed to be a lot more quiet and serene than in the surrounding city streets. As you enter most Japanese temples, there are wells with large dipping spoons that you are supposed to use to wash your hands and face. We walked towards the temple but decided not to go in after we realized there was a 300 yen entrance fee (about three dollars), so we just strolled around the complex and took pictures from afar.

Entrance to Shitennoji Temple
Entrance to Shitennoji Temple
Place to wash your hands and face before entering the temple
Place to wash your hands and face before entering the temple

Later that day we headed towards Sumiyoshi Taisha, a Shinto shrine. One of the best sites at the shrine was the Sorihashi Bridge, which arched gracefully across a small canal. We wandered around the grounds of the shrine for a bit before heading to our next destination, the tower of the sun.

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Sorihashi Bridge at Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine

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The tower of the sun is part of Expo Park which was built for the Expo of 1970, the first World’s fair in Japan. The sun tower is right at the entrance to the park and visible from the highway because it is so massive. I found it somewhat unsightly and ugly, although that was what I was expecting after seeing it in pictures. After checking it out, we walked through the rest of the park which was pretty, although mainly known as a place to see cherry blossoms during the winter season.

Tower of the Sun
Tower of the Sun

Having seen most all of the city in several days, we decided to go to Universal Studios Osaka for a day. Although I figured most of the rides and attractions would be in Japanese, I was still curious to see Harry Potter Land and Universal Studios itself (I have never been to Universal Studios in the U.S.).

We arrived early to the park, as we had heard that they opened it early and to get the most we could out of the day there. Unfortunately, several other thousand people had the same idea as us, so when they opened the gates early, we still had to enter behind masses of people. We decided to head for Harry Potter Land first, as it was the area we all really wanted to see.

Although it was labeled as ‘Hogsmeade’, it was really more of a mix between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley because it had stores and shops from both areas. Although overrun by people, it was pretty cool, and I really enjoyed the butterbeer (I got the frozen kind which was kind of like a butterscotch slushie with butterscotch foam).

Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade
Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade

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Hogwarts
Hogwarts
Frozen Butterbeer
Frozen Butterbeer

The rest of the park was interesting; there was an area designed like Hollywood, an area like San Francisco, as well as a Jurassic Park area and a Jaws area. Many of the rides were only in Japanese so I had no idea what was going on, but it was fun nonetheless.

Leaving Osaka and Japan was bittersweet. I was sad to part from William and Thomas, my companions for the whole trip, as well as Natsu and Taka, who managed to meet us even on their busy schedules. I knew I would also miss Japanese food, and the incredible organization and efficiency of the Japanese society and culture. However, I was also excited to start the second semester and return to Thailand. While there were certainly aspects of Japan I preferred, I was excited to get back to Thailand’s relaxed vibe and enjoy more four-dollar massages.

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Abeno Harukas, the tallest building in Japan
Abeno Harukas, the tallest building in Japan

Bangkok – The Beginning & End of my Semester Break

For my two week holiday break between semesters, I decided to go to Japan. Before I left for Thailand, I made several friends at the International House in Davis, William and Thomas (brothers from Taiwan), and Natsu and Taka (two lawyers from Japan). I decided to visit Osaka, Japan to see Natsu and Taka (who both live near/in Osaka) and travel with William and Thomas. Also near Osaka are Kyoto and Nara, two ancient cities (both formerly having been capitals of Japan) full of UNESCO world heritage sites, so I figured that I would have plenty to see without going to Tokyo (which is somewhat far away from Osaka and also more expensive).

To save money while travelling, I thus decided to take the bus to Bangkok and then fly from there to Osaka. While Ben decided to go to Indonesia for his vacation, we both made the bus trip down to Bangkok together so we could start our journeys together on a more familiar path.

The bus to Bangkok left at 6 PM, so Ben and I hastily ate an early, light meal so that we would not be so hungry on the bus (although I did bring a lot of snacks). We got driven to the bus station by Kru Kai (the head of the English department), and although she had to leave, two of the students stayed with us to help us find which bus was ours and see us off. It was pretty hilarious as the students explained to us in detail everything we needed to know about the bus trip. Finally, they helped us find the correct bus (about four buses bound for Bangkok arrived at once), and we boarded the bus.

On the longer bus rides through Thailand, there is always a steward/stewardess that passes out refreshments. On this trip, we received a free bottle of water, juice box of green tea, and a box of sweets (two pieces of cake and cookies). Around midnight, the bus stopped for twenty minutes in Phitsanulok (a province in central Thailand), and we were able to help ourselves to a free, buffet style meal of rice and assorted dishes that all tasted like bland forms of starch. I filled myself up nonetheless, and then put on my eyeshade and attempted to pass out for the rest of the ride.

Upon arriving in Bangkok at 4 AM, we found ourselves outside in pouring rain in the hazy darkness of the outskirts of the city. Tired and flustered, we let ourselves get talked into a taxi ride by a nearby man which turned out to be a mistake as we got absurdly ripped off, but at least we arrived at the city center intact.

I was staying at a hostel along Sukhumvit Road, a popular destination for expats and tourists. By the time we arrived at my hostel, it was still early in the morning, so we found a coffee shop to relax in for a while. Still having more time to kill after rejuvenating ourselves with muffins and caffeine, we decided to go see Wat Arun.

I had heard that Wat Arun was one of the most impressive temples in Bangkok, arguably more impressive than the overcrowded Royal Palace. To get there, we took the BTS (a skytrain – kind of like a monorail), and then a river ferry. As we approached the wat from across the river it did look beautiful and impressive.

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Wat Arun

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The wat is covered with broken pieces of pottery and glass and seemed to shimmer in the sun as we approached. As we got off the ferry however, the heat permeating from the asphalt made me start sweating profusely, and made the area around the temple feel like a boiling mess of tourists. The wat was still interesting to see up close, although not as impressive as it had seemed from afar. I was able to climb the steep steps up to the top of the temple, from which I had a decent view of the river and the city.

The view from Wat Arun
The view from Wat Arun
Wat Arun up close
Wat Arun up close

After seeing the temple, we decided to see Wat Pho which was right across the river. Wat Pho is home to a giant reclining Buddha, one of the only poses I had yet to see a Buddha formed in. I was immediately skeptical of the temple as we were forced to pay a high entrance fee (also the foreigners have to pay in different lines than Thai citizens, and I’m guessing are charged higher prices), and as we entered we literally joined a giant mass of tourists swarming to get inside the temple. I did not enjoy Wat Pho at all, as there were so many people in the temple that it was like being a salmon forced upstream. Every time I tried to stop for a picture people would get in the way or step in front of me without any courtesy for picture space, but I still managed to snap some pictures in the elusive seconds in which no one was in front of me. After getting out of the wat I immediately was relieved, and was glad that I had already seen the other notable temples in Bangkok.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Buddha's perfectly symmetrical feet
Buddha’s perfectly symmetrical feet

The rest of the day, Ben and I just walked around and explored the area of our hotel, before we parted ways (Ben was going to the airport and I was staying the night in Bangkok).

After parting, I relaxed in my hostel for a while before setting out to find dinner. I had heard that one of the streets off of Sukhumvit was known for street food, so I decided to walk there from my hostel. It turned out to be a very long walk, but I was able to see a lot more of the Sukhumvit area as a result. Although the area is busy and congested with cars during the day, it seemed to just get crazier at night. Street vendors set up stands all over the sidewalks selling food and fruit, and others even set up sidewalk bars where one could find all sorts of alcohol to drink in the congested atmosphere of the street.

There were also less savory sights, including multitudes of beggars and street children, and prostitutes plying their wares in a less-than-subtle manner. Nonetheless, the city was alive and seemed to resemble the Bangkok that I had read about online and in books.

I finally arrived at Soi 38, and was disappointed to see less food stalls than I was expecting (although still a good amount). I had planned on finding a stall with a long line, and trying it out but none of the stalls seemed to be more popular than the others, and many just had a few customers. I finally picked one, and ordered a familiar dish (guay tiao tom yum – noodle soup with a spicy broth), to see how it compared to the dishes in Nan. The dish was very disappointing; it was just okay and twice the price that I pay in Tha Wang Pha. After finishing it, I retired early to the hostel to sleep and prepare myself for the flight the next day to Osaka.

After arriving back in Bangkok (after my trip to Japan), via Osaka and Kuala Lumpur, I met Ben at a hostel we were both staying at on Sukhumvit Road. We shared stories of our trips (Ben went to Indonesia), and went to a bar to play pool.

The next morning, we decided to get bagels at a nearby shop. Although maybe not the most exotic sounding breakfast, bagels sounded heavenly to us after not having seen them since we left the U.S. The place we found was great; it had tons of different types of shmears and bagel sandwiches. I got an onion bagel with a lox and chives shmear that was absolutely amazing. Bagels are easily one of the foods I miss the most from home.

Our bus wasn’t leaving until the evening, so we had plenty of time to kill. Fortunately, the staff at our hostel let us leave our bags there after we had checked out, so we were free to roam the city unencumbered. We decided to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which is the largest market in Thailand (it covers about thirty-five acres). We were able to take the metro directly there, and stepped out into the blistering sun in the market.

The stalls at the market primarily sold touristy trinkets like t-shirts, carvings, and clothes but there were also tons of food vendors as well. While the main part of the market was composed of stalls along an outdoor street, there were also indoor streets and stalls selling higher priced goods. We mainly explored the stalls on the open street, which still took us several hours to browse through. After we were tired of the market, we headed back to the hostel where we relaxed until going to the bus station and heading home.

Overall it was a great break and vacation in Japan. I really enjoyed seeing a vastly different country in Asia, and trying authentic Japanese food. The only thing I may have done differently in retrospect was plan the trip so that it ended with a few days of beach time, as I did not have that much time to just kick back and relax. Nonetheless, it was a great two weeks and full of experiences I will never forget.

Reflections on the First Semester & Longboat Races

Reflecting on the first semester came out as a large wall of text, so if you just want to see some of my favorite pictures from the semester just scroll to the bottom.

My first semester ever of being a teacher is almost over, with only one week left. It has been frustrating, overwhelming, trying, and disheartening but it has also been hilarious, stimulating, and rewarding. The highs have been high, while the lows have been very low. In short, it has been quite an experience. I don’t know exactly what my expectations of teaching here were prior to this semester but I think I have had moments of both usefulness and uselessness as a teacher. One of the toughest things about teaching middle school students is that during this transitional period of their lives, many of my students do not have the maturity to understand things or the tenacity to commit themselves to things the way that older students might. During numerous periods of frustration, I have had to tell myself that many of the problems I have had with the students are not actually the fault of the students (at least completely). The many problems I have faced have largely been the byproduct of a flawed educational system, and in my periods of frustration during class, I usually remind myself that when the students are acting out or not listening, it is not because they are bad students but is because they don’t have the proper resources and support to help them succeed (especially in my English classes). Many of my students cannot read, speak or understand any English, so how can I expect them to want to listen or pay attention when I am giving any lessons? I can thus sympathize with the students even as I am frustrated with them for talking to their friends, or not listening in class. However, many of the problems would be much more manageable if I had the help and support from a competent Thai co-teacher, which I am supposed to have.

To address this Ben and I told the other Thai English teachers in a meeting a few weeks ago ways in which we thought they could help us so that we in turn could be better teachers for the students. In large part, we told the other teachers that if they just showed up to classes and tried to help us translate when the students don’t understand, we could teach much more effectively than without their help. However, my expectations of their helpfulness aren’t that high, as many of them seem not to care much about teaching and almost all of them are so inept at English that I can’t rely on them to translate anything. Still, having them come to class could help control and calm the students somewhat, as they at least have an older figure that they can relate their confusion to. But alas, I am not trying to fret endlessly, as there were plenty of positives this semester as well as negatives, I just see simple ways to make next semester better for me and the students, so I hope that the Thai teachers can see that too.

On the positive side, as I have gotten to know the students better each week, I have felt more respected inside and outside of class, and there are a few classes of students that I genuinely enjoy seeing and teaching. Seventh graders universally seem to be great kids. They are all very friendly, respectful, and happy at all times. Their only downside is that they can get crazily hyper, and devolve into periods of immaturity that are cringe worthy. Still, they are awesome as a whole, and I wouldn’t mind teaching seventh graders in future years (if I still am a teacher). Eighth graders on the other hand… not the most enjoyable students, to put it mildly. I’ll admit, eighth grade was probably the period in which I was the most obnoxious and rebellious of my young teenage life, so it doesn’t surprise me that eighth graders can be demons from hell. It seems to be an age of incredible angst, anger at everything, obnoxious desires to always be the center of attention, and the dismissal of everything as not worth the effort of engagement. Don’t get me wrong, individually, outside of class, most of the eighth graders are nice enough kids, but in class, surrounded by their classmates they seem to almost all get possessed with an incredible urge to be the most obnoxious, the most petulant or the most defiant person in the room. Two of my classes of eighth graders (I teach seven), are actually good students, but the other five classes seem to have a competition every week of who can be the most excruciating and painful to teach.

Nonetheless, the semester is pretty much over, and I am definitely glad that I will be teaching again next semester. While there have been plenty of trying moments, the experience has been very interesting as a whole, and this semester passed by fairly quickly. I also remind myself that I am here not just to teach, but also to experience a new culture, to travel and to try as many new things as possible and I still feel that there are plenty of things here that I have yet to experience.

During the beginning of this month, there were longboat races all over the province. Longboat races are a tradition in Nan, and the symbol of Muang Nan (Nan city) is also a longboat. For a ten day period, many different merchants and food vendors set up stands on a field by the river, turning the empty field into a state-fairesque event. Merchants sold everything from clothes and pet birds to furniture and electronics while food vendors sold plenty of sweet snacks, noodles, and insects (crickets and some larva type things). There were also some carnival activities like a small ferris wheel and shooting games for prizes. The fair brought a lot more people into Tha Wang Pha, and made the town seem a lot livelier for a brief period.

On one of the weekends of the fair, Ben and I went down to the river to watch the longboat races. Having heard about the longboat races for a long while as the main attraction of Tha Wang Pha, I anticipated the races to be the most exciting and interesting attraction during the year. After about thirty minutes of watching the boat races by the river, burning in the blistering hot sun, I was very nonplussed and unmoved by the event. While it had been interesting to watch the groups of roughly forty to fifty men training by paddling their long canoes up and down the river, the actual races were pretty unexciting and unimpressive. Before the races, I had expected the longboats to race down the river for quite a ways before finishing, but in actuality the boats only raced several hundred meters down the river, so that each race ended in under a minute. Also, when we were watching the race, there was a long delay between each race so that it would be something like thirty to forty minutes between races while we waited aimlessly on the banks of the river, only to see a race that lasted less than a minute.  Finally, the races themselves were hard to be invested in, as one boat would pull into the lead and then hold the lead until the end of the race, so the action was not too gripping or exciting. Still, it was an interesting diversion while it lasted, and it was nice to see the town more lively and busy.

Other than the races, one of the students at school died several weeks ago unexpectedly. She apparently had some sort of immune system deficiency, and after getting sick fell into a coma from which she never recovered. While she was not one of my students, it was still incredibly sad that someone so young died (she was a ninth grader).

Ben and I went with some of the other teachers to the funeral to pay our respects. The funeral was at the girl’s house, and was more of a memorial than a funeral. Her mother and immediate family were inside the house, where a small display had been put together, with pictures of the student and flower arrangements. Outside of the house, several hundred chairs were set up for the guests and refreshments such as tea and cookies were passed out. After the memorial started, all of the teachers were invited to pay our respects inside the house and so as a group, we all went inside and gave our condolences to the girl’s family. It really showed how important the school is to the community here, as the majority of the guests were teachers from the school or students. After others paid their respects, a few monks went inside and led the gathering in prayers. All in all, while it was incredibly sad that the student had died, the memorial was not as somber as funerals in the United States. Thai people do not really show their emotions openly the way that Americans do, so other than the immediate family (who were visibly distraught), not many people appeared too disturbed or depressed. I don’t mean that as a criticism, I am sure that most everybody felt moved in some way by the student’s death, emotions are just displayed much differently here and I am still not used to the ‘saving face’ aspect of the Thai culture in which they have a hard time revealing what they are feeling.

Back on the teaching note, the semester has been quite an experience and I am happy that I will have another semester here to experience more and learn more about Thailand. There certainly have been unpleasant moments, but I feel that the worst is behind me in that I understand much more about teaching, and the Thai culture than I did at the beginning of the semester, and I am more prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Another positive of the next semester is that I will not be teaching the class that I had the most issues with this semester, and will be teaching a class of ninth graders instead (the top class of ninth graders, so hopefully good students). I intend to keep trying to learn Thai, and I hope to be able to read Thai at least somewhat by the end of next semester.

Also, I am very excited to be traveling to Japan in a little over a week. I will be flying and staying in Osaka, where I will be meeting friends I met at the International House in Davis. I plan on seeing Osaka, as well as Kyoto and Nara. Osaka is supposed to be the culinary capital of Japan, so I am excited to eat some great food, as well as see the sights of the area. It will be a nice respite from teaching, and I am really thankful that I have the opportunity to see different parts of Asia that I didn’t imagine seeing a year ago when I was living in Davis. Already I have felt like I can check several things off the bucket list so to speak, such as trying authentic Thai food, becoming scuba certified, riding an elephant, getting a Thai massage, living in a place with very little Western influence, and managing the challenges of a very foreign culture, and I’m sure there are plenty more to come.

To end this post, I’m including some of my favorite pictures from the semester. My next entry will be about my hopefully awesome trip to Japan!

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Royal Palace, Bangkok
Royal Palace, Bangkok
Royal Palace, Bangkok
River Kwai
River Kwai, Kanchanaburi
On the River Kwai
On the River Kwai
River Kwai
River Kwai
Sunset on the River Kwai
Sunset on the River Kwai
Around Pua (near Tha Wang Pha)
Around Pua (near Tha Wang Pha)
Me with some M 1/1 students
Me with some M 1/1 students
With M 1/1 Students
With M 1/1 Students
With M 1/1 Students
With M 1/1 Students
Around Tha Wang Pha
Around Tha Wang Pha
Around Tha Wang Pha
Around Tha Wang Pha
Cake my M 1/1 students got me for my birthday
Cake my M 1/1 students got me for my birthday
With some M 1/1 students, the girls must have been feeling shy
With some M 1/1 students, the girls must have been feeling shy
Wat Phumin, in Muang Nan
Wat Phumin, in Muang Nan
Wat Kao Noi, Muang Nan
Wat Kao Noi, Muang Nan
Tard Luang Waterfall
Tard Luang Waterfall
With M 1/2 students
With M 1/2 students
Flower arrangements for Wai Kru Day
Flower arrangements for Wai Kru Day
M 1/1 students presenting their animal project
M 1/1 students presenting their animal project
Tokay gecko compared to normal one in the stairwell of my apartment
Tokay gecko compared to normal one in the stairwell of my apartment
Students during a candle parade for Buddhist Lent
Students during a candle parade for Buddhist Lent
Candle parade for Buddhist Lent
Candle parade for Buddhist Lent
Sukhothai
Sukhothai
Wat Sri Chum, Sukhothai
Wat Sri Chum, Sukhothai
Night Bazaar, Chiang Mai
Night Bazaar, Chiang Mai
Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Graffiti, Chiang Mai
Graffiti, Chiang Mai
Graffiti, Chiang Mai
Graffiti, Chiang Mai
Koh Lanta National Park, Krabi
Koh Lanta National Park, Krabi
Monitor Lizard, Koh Lanta, Krabi
Monitor Lizard, Koh Lanta, Krabi
My favorite coffee shop in Tha Wang Pha. On the Nan River.
My favorite coffee shop in Tha Wang Pha. On the Nan River.

A Competition in Pua and Chiang Mai Round Two

The last couple weeks Ben and I helped train students to prepare for an academic competition in the nearby town of Pua. The competition spanned all of the high school subjects, so while we were helping train students for English events, other students were practicing for math, science, and even ASEAN events. There were several different English events for students of every grade. There were spelling bees, dramatic skits, impromptu speeches, multi-skill competitions and storytelling events.

I mainly helped train students for the dramatic skits, and speeches. Two groups from our school were doing skits. One group was composed of Mattayohm 1-3 students (7th to 9th graders) and the other was Mattayohm 4-6 students (10th to 12th graders). The younger group did a skit that was a riff on Hansel and Gretel while the older group did a skit about vampires. It was fun helping the students with their pronunciation and fluency for the skits. The students clearly enjoyed acting and theater, so it was nice to help improve their English in ways that they actually enjoyed. Both of the skit groups ended up winning the competition in Pua, so they advanced to the second round of the competition which is in Phetchabun (a nearby province) in December (the competition started in the province, then goes to regionals in Phetchabun, and finally to nationals in Bangkok).

I also helped a student practice speeches for the competition. Ben and I actually wrote speeches for the student (as requested by a Thai teacher), which seems unethical (and is) but is not frowned upon here (the amount of plagiarizing and copying/pasting the teachers do here is ungodly). Anyway, although the category was called impromptu speeches, all of the students doing the speeches were meticulously memorizing them beforehand (which is obviously crazy given that they really can’t speak English at all, and don’t learn anything from memorizing a speech). There were two speeches that the student was working on, one about the Thai education system and one about ASEAN (Association of Southeastern Asian Nations). The student really only worked on the speech about education, but I was very impressed by how much her pronunciation and intonation improved over the short period of time I worked with her (two weeks). Her speech ability was better than most of the Thai English teachers (although that isn’t necessarily saying a whole lot), and if she had had more time for preparation I’m sure she would have won (she came in second).

Other than those categories, I helped one student prepare for the spelling bee. He had a list of about two hundred possible words and he managed to learn how to spell all of them by heart before the competition, and won.

During the competition, I was assigned to be a judge for the multi-skills competition. I had no idea what it was comprised of, and it turned out it to have five parts: writing, reading, listening, interviews, and picture dictation. Being a native speaker, the other judges (Thai teachers) asked me to do the speaking for the listening section, interviews and picture dictation section (where I basically read a description of a picture that they were supposed to draw). I was pretty appalled at how badly written the segments that I was reading were. Like most of the TEFL material that the Thai teachers use in school, the English was horrible; there were tons of grammatical mistakes and poorly written/formatted questions and answers. For the listening section, some of the numbers just had multiple choice answers listed, so I basically made up questions on the fly that I thought matched the group of answers (if that sounds ridiculous it’s because it was). I felt bad for the students because the material was so blatantly horrible, how could they be expected to understand material that I was having trouble understanding as a native speaker? During the interview section, some of the students were unable to answer any of the questions I asked them (and I was speaking as slowly and clearly as I possibly could), but I realized that many of the students were from smaller schools in the area that didn’t have any farang teachers, thus they had no exposure to real English (compared to the Pua School at the other end of the spectrum that had four farang teachers; Tha Wang Pha has myself and Ben). Needless to say, I was not a fan of the multi-skills competition at all, and glad that I did not help train any students for it as it was a waste of time anyway.

Most of the students in the English competitions did really well and even if they didn’t win, they came in second or third. It was clear that our school and Pua School had the best students in English by far (although as I said before, it’s not really a level playing field as the other schools didn’t have farang English teachers).

The competition was actually on the Saturday of a four-day weekend for Mother’s Day (celebrated on the Queen’s birthday here), so that night Ben and I decided to take the bus to Chiang Mai for the weekend. Since we saw most of the major tourist attractions in the city on our first visit, I primarily wanted to find a piano store where I could play piano and somewhere where I could purchase other western comforts (good beer) that I could not find in Nan.

Although Chiang Mai is a fairly big city, it was still hard to clearly find piano stores when I was researching online. Because of this, I wasn’t sure where would be the best places to look first, and I was also expecting most of the places I had researched to not work out. Sure enough, after my first whole day of looking around the city, I found two of the places that I had seen online but was not able to play a piano at either of them. Both of them were primarily guitar shops but they both had a couple keyboards that were wrapped up and not available for customers to play. Even the guitars at both shops were behind glass cases and were not available for customers to play (even though they were cheap, crappy guitars for the most part). I have never understood music stores that don’t let prospective customers play the instruments, it strikes me as some weird pretentious store policy and I hope those stores go out of business because of their ridiculous policies.

After the failure of the piano stores, I decided to check out a nearby supermarket that I had found online, Rimping’s. Rimping’s was supposed to be set up like a western grocery store, and carry many western goods. When I got there I was not disappointed. It was the equivalent of a fancy grocery store back in the US. It was well set-up and had high quality products everywhere, even some tasting stations for various foods. Besides having great western products that I had been missing (i.e. Nutella, spaghetti, good beer), it also had an extensive selection of fruits that I had not seen anywhere else in Thailand (peaches, navel & blood oranges, dates, etc.) although they were expensive for the most part.

In the end, I spent the most on various beers to bring back to Nan. While the store had a decent selection of foreign beers, they did not have many American beers and instead had a large selection of Belgian beers (I don’t like Belgian beers that much). I bought seven beers (one for each remaining week of the semester), some Nutella, spaghetti and pasta sauce. While I could have spent a lot more money on various things, I was happy with what I purchased.

After the grocery store, I met back up with Ben and we went to a mall near the airport to see the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”. I have never felt so excited to go to a mall, as bizarre as that felt. The mall was near the airport and was very large and nice (it was 5 floors). The movie showing was at 10 pm, so we had some time to kill beforehand. We explored the mall where I got kimchi curry for dinner (strange but good), and a large Dairy Queen blizzard for dessert (which was amazing). The mall even had a video game station where we paid to play a couple games of Pro Evolution Soccer (similar to FIFA) on a PS3, before the movie. By the time we were heading into the theater, most of the other stores in the mall had closed.

As the movie was starting, there was a somewhat uncomfortable moment. Amid the previews, a segment about the King came on in Thai. All of the rest of the people in the theater stood up during the whole preview in some act of reverence for the King. Ben and I did not know what to do so we simply remained seated, although we hoped that didn’t cause offense in any way. It is interesting that the Thai people can all universally respect one figure (the King), but it is kind of uncomfortable and hard for me to understand as an American, since we have no similar figures in the US.

Other than that awkward moment, it was a lot of fun to see the movie and I really enjoyed it. Although it was a Marvel movie based off a comic book, it was very humorous and didn’t really take itself too seriously which was refreshing. The music was also very good; the main character had several mixtapes of seventies music and I enjoyed all of the songs that they played.

The next day I picked up my search for a playable piano in the city. After figuring out that the first piano ‘store’ I had found on the internet didn’t exist, I proceeded to walk across the city to my next destination. Along the way, I found some cool graffiti spots and interesting stores, like a store selling items made by members of one of the local hill tribes.

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I finally arrived at the piano store, which was full of beautiful upright pianos to my delight. Thinking that I had finally found pianos I could play, I asked the owner if I could play the pianos, showing him my piano music with me (my Elton John book) to let him know that I was serious and not just a random person who wanted to bang on the pianos. To my frustration, he immediately said that I couldn’t play any of the pianos as they were for ‘rent’ or something similar. I was pretty pissed off, as I had been searching for so long, but he gave me directions to somewhere nearby where he claimed I could play pianos in a showroom. As he drew a rough map, I attempted to get him to write the name of the store or street in Thai, so that I could at least show someone if I got lost, but he refused. I was sort of wary, but started walking towards the area he had drawn.

The area he directed me to flanked the university, and was full of cool coffee shops, hip restaurants and swanky bars. I would’ve enjoyed walking through the area more if I wasn’t becoming more and more discouraged that I wouldn’t find my destination. I finally decided to give up, as my rough map started looking more and more inaccurate. As I was walking back towards the main drag, I saw a Thai man with a guitar case. With a last dash of hope, I decided to ask him if he knew of a piano store nearby. He was incredibly helpful, and immediately dedicated himself to trying to decipher my map and figure out where the store was. I told him I had the phone number of the piano store I had just visited, and so after a few calls and conversations in Thai, he figured out where the piano ‘store’ was. It turned out I never would have found it on my own as it wasn’t actually a piano store, it was a large department store with pianos, and it was located in a mall that was hardly nearby (although I did walk there).

As I walked into the store and found the pianos ready to play, I was happy but more relieved that my search was over. The store had a good selection of digital pianos, including some Yamahas that I have been looking into. I pulled out my piano music and played for a while, making sure to try out all of the different models and excited that I was finally in a store without any bs red-tape around their pianos.

After the piano store, I headed back to the hotel to meet up with Ben before getting dinner. We decided to get Mexican food, as we would never be able to find it in Nan. The place we went was surprisingly good, although probably more of the Tex-Mex style than authentic Mexican.

After dinner, we walked to a jazz bar nearby that I had found online. Within the old city, the bar was a cool little place where a band was just setting up and getting ready to play. We were lucky to find seats, as the bar soon became very crowded as people packed in before the music started. The band was very good, and it was very refreshing and relaxing to hear good live music. We stayed until the band finished playing, and then headed back to the hotel.

The next morning, we took the bus back to Tha Wang Pha. The seven hour bus ride was not particularly enjoyable, but it was well worth it to escape to the city for the weekend and indulge in some familiar comforts.

Other than the competition and weekend in Chiang Mai, I also helped with an English camp for school administrators in the neighboring province of Phrae. I was happy to help, as I got to miss two days of school and I was getting paid extra on top of that. The first day we met the other teachers who were participating in the camp, and discussed how the camp would be organized. That afternoon, we drove to our hotel in Phrae. I was expecting our hotel to be pretty shabby, but it was actually very nice. We all were given our own rooms, and prepared to meet again for dinner.

Our dinner was also surprisingly very good. We went to a local restaurant where we ordered a bunch of delicious Thai dishes including gang som cha horm tot (sour curry with a stir-fried omelet), which quickly became one of my favorite Thai dishes.

The next morning, I had a delicious complementary American-style breakfast at the hotel before heading to the English camp. For the English camp, we actually only ended up helping out for about an hour. To start out, we introduced ourselves, and one of the Thai teachers quizzed the administrators on the information we had provided. After that, we were split into two groups. I had some packets as example material that the teachers had provided me, but realized I didn’t need it as my group engaged in a lively, interesting discussion in English. The administrators’ English was much better than I was expecting (although they were not close to fluent), and it was refreshing that they actually wanted to talk in English, so I really did not have to do much other than engage them a little bit about their lives and where they had travelled.

After the conversation in groups, we ate lunch and saw some of the historic sites in the city with the administrators, who explained to us their significance in English. It was a very relaxing day, and I was very glad that I was able to participate in the English camp.

On our way back to Tha Wang Pha with one of the Thai teachers, we stopped for pad thai in Nan. Although I am not a huge fan of pad thai, it was some of the best pad thai that I have had in Thailand, and reinforced my view that the food in the cities around Tha Wang Pha is much better than the food in Tha Wang Pha.

Still, it was nice to finally get back to my apartment and peruse the Wi-Fi while procrastinating lesson planning.

This past weekend, Ben and I helped with a couple more English camps in Pua. The first English camp was to help primary school directors (principals) and administrators in the area improve their English. There were three other English speaking foreigners at the camp: two Peace Corps volunteers, and a primary school teacher from India who spoke English fluently. It was interesting to meet the other farangs as there are so few in the area, and it was also interesting to talk to the Peace Corps volunteers about their work in Thailand.

All of the "Trainers" for the English seminar in Pua
All of the “Trainers” for the English seminar in Pua
Casual
Casual

The Peace Corps volunteers mostly train teachers in the area, and help with English camps like the one we were participating in. Their experience definitely helped, as they had lots of ideas for activities and camps for the camp. The other English teacher was also very interesting; he was born in India, but lived in Thailand for a while and went to college in California. He also spoke English like a native speaker.

The camp was decently organized but I did not like it as much as the camp in Phrae. At the camp in Phrae, we basically just had conversations with the attendees; it was very natural and fun. At this camp, the Thai organizers kept jumping in or wanting to do things their way so it sort of just felt like we were there for show, or just to say that there were foreign teachers participating. The directors and administrators were not as good at English as the ones in Phrae, but this English camp also didn’t really force them to talk much, so I don’t think their English improved at all.

Introducing ourselves
Introducing ourselves
With all of the seminar participants
With all of the seminar participants

On Saturday, we were also volun-told that we were helping with an English camp at a primary school near Tha Wang Pha. We got picked up by the school’s director who drove us to the school. As we approached the main building, we saw about eighty kids ages five to eleven sitting and waiting for us. Since we had been told about the camp only the night before, we had no time to prepare anything and of course nothing had been prepared for us either. As we walked up to the kids, the director handed us mics and basically said; “You have three hours, go”.

Without having any time to prepare, I think we did a decent job. We made the kids sing a couple songs, and then played games with them on the grass so that they could run and kill some energy. A bunch of the games we were trying to explain to them didn’t go as we had intended (i.e. red light, green light became anarchic sprinting everywhere), but they killed time which was the point anyway. As we were playing a game where the students would ask a question and then toss the ball to another student so that they could answer, I concluded that many of these young kids were far better at English than my students, as almost none of my students seem to be able to form complete questions or answers.

After we finished, it was a huge relief and I am now determined to tell the organizers at my school that I won’t help with English camps unless we are notified in advance (and hopefully not unless there is material prepared for us also).

The semester is finally wrapping up and I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I am planning to go to Japan in October, so I have been researching places and things to do, and focusing on my upcoming vacation. This semester has certainly had its ups-and-downs, but I am hopeful that next semester will be better and more enjoyable.

Koh Lanta

Last Saturday Ben and I went to Krabi for vacation. This past week was midterms (July 23rd to the 25th), so we had a paid vacation. Since we can’t proctor midterm exams (because we can’t answer the students questions in Thai), we basically had no reason to be present during the midterms and thus had the time off. We decided to then ask for Monday and Tuesday off (July 21st and July 22nd), so we could have the full nine days off.

Krabi is in southern Thailand, on the Andaman Sea side of the peninsula (the west side). I decided to go to Krabi because I had heard that the Andaman Sea had nicer beaches than the Gulf of Thailand, but I wanted to avoid going to Phuket (which I’ve heard is pretty, but overrun with tourists).

Map of Southern Thailand

Thus, last Saturday, Ben and I prepared to catch flights to fly from Nan to Bangkok, and then Bangkok to Krabi. Although each flight was about an hour and a half, there were only a few flights out of Nan each day (we also wanted to use the same airline from Bangkok to Krabi because it was cheapest) so we basically had to spend the whole day travelling (although most of the day just waiting at airports).

Saturday morning, Kru Gai drove us to a bus stop in Tha Wang Pha where we could catch the bus to Nan. She told the driver to drop us off in front of the airport, since the bus passes right by the airport. We got on the bus and took the short ride to the Nan airport (about an hour).

The Nan Airport is interesting. It is the smallest airport I have flown out of (not surprising considering Nan is a city of about 25,000 people), but still nice. It was kind of bizarre though, because as we walked into the airport we had to walk down a long road and it was unclear where the terminal would be. We came to a building that looked like the entrance, but it turned out to be closed. I immediately thought we were screwed, and became frustrated, until some random Thais pointed further down the road while saying something in Thai.

We walked down the road for a while before seeing the terminal. The terminal is actually very new and modern, I was surprised by how clean and spacious it was (especially compared to the bus stations which seem dilapidated and very dirty). The layout of the airport was pretty bizarre though. The long entrance road went by more residential houses than airport-related buildings; I guess most of the employees live as well as work at the airport.

The airport only operates two airlines and has one gate in the terminal. When we entered the terminal we didn’t see anyone else, even employees. We were definitely the only customers there although the employees started coming out of the woodwork eventually. There was one food stand that sold food at reasonable prices; I got a cup of coffee for 15 baht ($0.47).

It was very relaxing to fly rather than take a bus. Everything was spacious and well laid out, compared to the bus stations where we never really know what is going on, when our bus is going to arrive, or where the bus will park.

We had a very long layover in Bangkok, so even with the two short hour and a half flights we didn’t arrive in Krabi until about 7:30. When we arrived at the airport we took a bus into Krabi town (about 45 minutes) to our hostel.

Our hostel was very nice and clean, although it was kind of a party hostel for farangs. It was themed like a school, so all of the rooms were labeled as different subjects, our room being geography. There were ten beds per room (bunk beds), but there were only four other people in our room so it wasn’t too crowded. Each bunk bed had a giant locker under the bed which was really nice in that we could lock all of our stuff in the locker so we didn’t have to carry it around. After checking out our hostel, Ben and I deposited our stuff and walked around town.

Near our hostel there was a walking area with lots of foods and crafts. It was incredibly crowded, but it was cool to see all of the stuff being sold. There were also several different kids break dancing for money which was pretty hilarious. After walking around the market, we headed to a less populous area to find food. At this point, Ben and I have learned that in most places in Thailand, the best place to find food is on the street. Usually there are small carts that double as outdoor kitchens where you can order food, and then sit on the tables they have set up on the sidewalk. The street food is just as good as the food in restaurants, although it is not well presented, and the atmosphere is not always pleasant.

Anyway, we stopped at a street food place where I got kuay tiao sen lak (glass noodle soup with pork). We quickly learned that food in the south of Thailand is about double the price of the food in the north (although still dirt cheap by American standards). After eating, we retired to the hostel, where we relaxed at the rooftop bar before calling it a day.

We had decided to depart for Koh Lanta (a nearby island), the next day. During the high season (January to March), there is a ferry that goes straight from Krabi to Koh Lanta. However, being the low season, we had to take a minibus which drives most of the way to the island, and then takes two car ferries to arrive at the island. We chose to visit Koh Lanta rather than Koh Phi Phi (one of the most famous and beautiful islands in Thailand) because it was known to have a more laid back feel with less tourists, and it is also much bigger so there are more areas and beaches to explore. There are actually two islands named Koh Lanta, Lanta Noi (uninhabited) and Lanta Yai which was where we were staying.

As we neared the islands, we began seeing clusters of mangroves which was cool. I thought the minibus was going to drop us off at the pier, but the driver actually offered to drive us to our hotel. However, I was unable to communicate the name of the hotel to the driver, so I just followed our progress on google maps and had him stop when we were nearby. After getting off the bus, a woman immediately approached and asked us where we were staying, she turned out to be one of the owners of the hotel and thus helped bring us to the hotel.

We had decided to splurge for a nicer hotel (by Thai standards that is, we were paying 380 baht or $11.91 a night each, so still cheap), as we wanted our stay on the island to be as relaxing as possible. The hotel was awesome; it was owned by a Swedish man and his Thai wife that we had met and was just off the main road, although up a hill so it was very quiet. Our room had a clear ocean view as well as a modern bathroom, a kitchen and a balcony. It was also nice to stay somewhere with a Western owner, so there was absolutely no miscommunication.

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What $11.91 a night gets you in Thailand

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After checking into the hotel, we walked across the street down to Phra Ae Beach (also known as Long Beach). It was awesome finally getting to the beach after spending the last couple of months in the far north. The water was really nice, although almost too warm for my liking. There were tons of shells everywhere on the beach too, so I collected some as free souvenirs. I relaxed in the water for a while and then went back to the hotel and showered to prepare for dinner. We found a street place near our hotel, that we ended up eating the majority of our meals at as it was much cheaper than the posh restaurants catering to tourists, and it served up all of the Thai classic dishes we had become used too (e.g. kuay tiao sen lak, pad thai, pad sii ew, suki, ba mii giew mu daeng). After dinner we walked to a nearby bar where we played some pool, also a luxury that I am unable to enjoy in Tha Wang Pha, before going back to bed.

Map of Koh Lanta
Map of Koh Lanta

The next day we decided to check out scuba diving centers. The owner of our hotel had told us that because it was the low season, many of the scuba diving centers would be closed and we there was a chance we would not be able to scuba dive at all. Although a couple places we checked out were closed, we found a place called Scubafish that was open. Scubafish is the highest rated scuba diving center on the island by Lonely Planet, and lived up to its rating.

We decided to do an open-water certification course which is a four-day course with two days of theory and two days of open water dives (four dives in total). Our instructor, Magnus, was Swedish and an interesting guy. He started diving in Sweden, and had lived in Egypt before moving to Thailand. He was very nice and helpful, so it made me feel more comfortable that I would be learning to scuba dive from him. After the first day of theory (which took all-day, about 9 – 4 pm), we practiced a confined water dive which was just scuba diving in a pool. It was nice to test out the equipment before our dives in the ocean but the pool was not very ideal as it was only a couple feet deep and there was no deep end. This made it pretty awkward learning to swim underwater, as I did not have enough space to move around freely and find my buoyancy. The next day we were supposed to dive out in the ocean but the weather was too choppy for the boat to go out, so we completed the theory. After going through the five chapters of the book on open-water diving, we had to take four quizzes and then a final test. Since I had read a bit of the book on my own and talked about most of the rest with Magnus, I found the test pretty easy and was glad to complete the theory behind the course.

The next day the weather was nice enough to dive, and I was excited but a little nervous at the same time. We were picked up at our hotel, and driven to the pier with other scuba-goers where we loaded onto our boat. There were about ten other people diving that day, so there was a decent amount of divers and instructors on the boat. The boat ride was actually pretty choppy, but fortunately I had taken a pill to prevent seasickness so I felt okay. We were also fed a simple breakfast of sandwiches and bananas on the boat. The boat ride was about an hour and a half to our destination, Koh Phi Phi Ley (the island with the “closed-off” beach from the movie The Beach). This island is uninhabited and the area we cruised up to had steep limestone (?) cliffs with cave depressions. The first site we were diving at was an artificial reef which consisted of giant hollow concrete blocks that had been piled into pyramids in order to grow coral and harbor a reef ecosystem. I was excited to finally dive in the ocean, so that I would have enough space to be able to get used to the equipment in the water.

Koh Phi Phi Ley (obviously not my picture)
Koh Phi Phi Ley (obviously not my picture)

Before I had scuba dived, I had heard many people describe the ‘weightlessness’ of scuba diving. What they are describing is finding your neutral buoyancy in the water, or the buoyancy in which you do not sink or float. You achieve neutral buoyancy by inflating or deflating your BCD jacket (buoyancy-control device) in the water. The deeper you are in the water, the more air you need in your jacket since there is more pressure and the air is compressed. As you ascend in the water, the air in your BCD expands also, so you need to slowly deflate your BCD as you ascend so that you do not ascend to the surface too quickly (ascending too quickly increases your risk of getting decompression sickness also, or the bends, which is when there is too much nitrogen in your blood).

The first two dives, I was still learning how to find my neutral buoyancy, which was not easy at first. When you are neutrally buoyant, you theoretically float in one place, but you actually descend as you breathe out and ascend as you breathe in because of the air leaving and entering your lungs. This was also disorienting to me at first, but after a while I started to figure out how I could use my breathing to control where I was swimming in order to swim above the reefs without hitting them.

Thus, even though I was all over the place on my first dive, it was an incredible experience. Magnus had told us hand signals for a lot of different fish that we would see, and it was cool when he would point them out underwater. We saw some Moorish Idols, a Yellow-edged Moray eel, Western Clownfish, a Seal-faced Puffer, a Tall-fin Batfish, Beaked Coralfish and Indian Lionfish among others. I love that when you are scuba diving you feel totally immersed in the underwater environment, and some fish have the curiosity to come up to you and check you out. Seeing schools of fish from below was also very cool.

However, being the first dive, I also had some trouble equalizing my ears as I went deeper underwater and experienced a ‘squeeze’. A squeeze is when the pressure outside your ears (in the water) is more than the pressure in your ear canals, and thus you feel a squeeze in your ears. There are several methods to equalize, but the only one that worked for me was to hold my nose and blow air into the back of my nose. I had a hard time getting a hang of this, and so I experienced some unpleasant pressure, but I also knew that if I ascended a few meters I could lessen the pressure, and Magnus knew we would have trouble equalizing at first, so he was constantly checking and making sure we were okay to keep going.

The second dive was also very cool. We went to another site along Koh Phi Phi Ley, which was a sloped rock wall with a reef on it. I saw a Giant Moray eel, Indian Lionfish, a Squat Lobster, and plenty of Barrel Sponges. I still felt like I was all over the place, but I wasn’t crashing into the bottom as much as I did on the first dive.

After we finished the second dive, we practiced a couple more of the skills we had practiced in the pool. Some of the skills we had to learn for the course were: taking off and putting on our mask underwater, clearing water from our mask underwater, taking out our regulator (breathing apparatus) and finding it underwater, using our buddy’s alternate air source underwater (his second regulator, for situations in which we were low on or out of air), taking off and putting on our weight belts underwater, taking off our scuba equipment and putting it back on underwater and on the surface, and finding our neutral buoyancy underwater. After completing some of the tasks, we got back on the boat and had some delicious Thai food for lunch. We also talked about what fish we had seen underwater, and marked these down in our log books. After the dives my left ear felt very clogged with water, so I was a little worried about the dives the next day, but determined to finish the course at the same time.

The next day, we were fortunate that the weather was calm enough for us to go out diving again. This time we boated out to Koh Haa for our first dive, which was at another reef on a sloping rock wall. On this dive, I started to feel much more comfortable underwater, and I felt like I actually could find my buoyancy and thus was able to swim around near the bottom without hitting anything. At the very beginning of the dive, I saw a cool jellyfish that I made sure to avoid. There was a weak current in the area as well, so we began the dive swimming into the current (so that we could ride the current at the end of the dive). We saw some chromodoris which were very pretty (colorful sea slugs), more Lionfish, a Porcupine Pufferfish, more Moray eels, and a couple Scorpionfish which were very neat as well. We also dived deeper than we had on the first day (down to 18 meters or about 60 feet). As we turned back to ride the current, it was fun to feel myself being propelled pretty fast along the wall, and I actually enjoyed the opportunity learning how to ride the current but also stopping when I wanted to observe something on the reef. I didn’t have many problems equalizing on the dive, so I enjoyed it all and never really felt uncomfortable.

For the next dive, our boat cruised out to what seemed like a random spot in the open ocean, and stopped. While kind of intimidating at first, it was cool as we dived down and saw a cool rock spot with tons of sea life. I really understood what Magnus had said about the hidden beauty of the underwater world, as the spot looked very unremarkable from the surface, but turned out to harbor plenty of cool sea life including some Mantis Shrimp, Scorpionfish and Oriental Sweetlips. This spot had a strong current, so I got more used to dealing with the current underwater. I felt very comfortable with my buoyancy, and felt much more in control than on the first couple dives. Although we didn’t see any leopard sharks (which the spot was known for), I still really enjoyed the dive and felt satisfied that I had finally completed everything I needed for my open water certification.

After finishing diving, Ben and I also checked out Mu Koh Lanta National Park. The National Park is at the southern tip of the island. It was very small, but had a cool lighthouse, tons of monkeys, and even a couple monitor lizards. While Ben and I were taking pictures near the lighthouse, a bunch of monkeys scaled the wall behind us and inadvertently posed in our pictures which was hilarious. I was a little wary of the monkeys though, while we were hiking around the park some of them sort of rushed at me which freaked me out so I warded them off by swinging around my camera and got out of there.  The coolest part of the park was definitely seeing the monitor lizards; we first spotted one swimming across a lagoon and then another roaming up a hill. They are so huge; they even make the Tokay geckos around Nan seem tiny.

Lighthouse at Mu Koh Lanta National Park
Lighthouse at Mu Koh Lanta National Park

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Other than diving, relaxing at the beach, and exploring the national park, we just hung out and got a few massages. I have been getting a massage at least once a week since school has started. In Tha Wang Pha the massages are only 120 baht ($3.73) for an hour, but on Koh Lanta they were 300 baht for an hour ($9.33 – still ridiculously cheap by American standards). Thai massages are generally pleasant and relaxing. They do hit some pressure points and stretch your body in ways that aren’t the most pleasant, but it is one of my favorite ways to de-stress from teaching (or in this case, relaxing on an island).

During our wait at Krabi airport for our flight back, we were in the same terminal as Krabi FC (one of the Thai soccer teams). It was interesting that no one seemed to care in the slightest that the soccer team was there (Thai people do love soccer); I guess it was sort of the way CU students felt about seeing our football team around Boulder (they sucked).

After our long day of traveling, we finally arrived at Nan airport around 9:30 PM (we flew out of Krabi at 12:10). Upon arriving to the airport, we were told by laughing strangers that there were no more buses to Tha Wang Pha, and that we would have to spend the night in Nan or hire a taxi. I was unpleased by our options, but after calling one of the Thai teachers, we found out about a late bus that would take us to Tha Wang Pha. However, even at the bus station the employees seemed to be skeptical of our plan (they seemed to not really know if the bus would come or not), but we decided to wait anyway, as neither of us wanted to rest until we were finally back.

Finally, at 11:45 the bus finally came (we were told it would come at 10:30), and we got back to Tha Wang Pha. It was a long day of travelling, and very relieving to finish it all up that day.

The next day (Sunday) was my birthday, and I basically just took it easy. As a present to myself I got a two-hour massage, and then ate at one of my favorite restaurants in town for dinner. It wasn’t the most memorable of birthdays, but it was nice and relaxing.

The Monday after, my class of Mattayohm 1/1 students (seventh graders) bought me a cake for my birthday. It was very nice of them, and a great way to start my week.

The cake my M 1/1 students bought me
The cake my M 1/1 students bought me
Me and some M 1/1 students
Me and some M 1/1 students

Other than that, there was also a singing competition at the school on Thursday. It was kind of bizarre because one of the Thai teachers was hinting that our classes after lunch would be cancelled but said she was unsure. It turned out that it was ‘implied’ that our classes were cancelled, although never made official. This was another example of bizarre Thai policy that somehow prevented the teachers from being liable for the students during that time (it didn’t make any sense to me either). However, the singing competition was fun to watch. I admired the students who were bold enough to sing in front of the school, and the students in the audience were hilarious too, they were screaming so much it was basically like being at a Beatles concert before they decided to stop touring.

The rest of the week was uneventful, although next week should be nice as Ben and I have been invited to help some of the directors from the province learn English for two days in Phrae. We will be paid extra on top of our teaching salary to miss Tuesday and Wednesday and help the directors. I am looking forward to missing two school days, and it should be interesting to meet some directors from around the area. Sawadee khrap!

The Beginning of Buddhist Lent & Sukhothai

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

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

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

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

Some students in the parade
Some students in the parade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sweating a lot in Sukhothai
sweating a lot in Sukhothai

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

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

Wat Sri Chum
Wat Sri Chum

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

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

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

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

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

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More ruins around Sukhothai

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

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

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

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

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

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