Tag Archives: Thailand

Koh Mak, Sabai Sabai

bending palm
Wake up to the stifling heat under my mosquito net.  Flip flops on, eat some fruit and yogurt and watch the small sand crabs sketch temporary patterns in the surf.  Towel down, read on the beach.  Quick swim, unsuccessfully try to get a shot of the silvery needle-nosed fish with the underwater camera.  Walk to the only road for a Thai lunch.  Back to the beach.  Shower, walk in the surf at sunset.  Settle in with a pina colada as the sky above the tilting palms morphs from yellow, to orange, to pink, to purple, and finally a starry sapphire.

This tourist-brochure cliche description is a fairly accurate summary of four days spent on the island Koh Mak in December.  After spending 2 years in Southeast Asia, but no time at one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations, the southern Thai islands, I figured it was time to see what all this fuss about sand and sunsets was about.
diving in!
I spent a very commercial Christmas in Bangkok, where holiday spirit is injected into a country that mostly doesn’t celebrate the holiday, in the form of giant over the top glittering decorations in malls, for cosmopolitan Thai shoppers to take Instagram photos (Bangkok is the most Instagrammed place, really).  After we had our fill of the city life, my friend Ilse and I hopped on a bus south, to the seaside city of Trat.  We had opted to check out one of the eastern islands on the Cambodian side of Thailand, rather than the most popular and hard-partying islands of the southern peninsula.

Trat was just a stopover on the way to our island of choice, but turned out to be a surprisingly charming little city itself.  Many middle-sized Thai cities seem to be the same, and I expected another Udon Thani or Phitsanulok, but Trat had a quaintness to it.  In the small area of friendly guesthouses, there were a network of petite thoroughfares, almost remniscent of Europe, with low buildings and roads friendly only for pedestrians and motorbike traffic.  As we whiled away the night wandering these routes and reading guidebooks over pineapple fruit shakes in an agreeable restaurant, I almost wished we had more time to hang out in Trat.
koh mak
But the island was calling, and one choppy and hair-tangling boat ride later, we were lugging our bags onto the dock on Koh Mak. This tiny little plus-sign-shaped island is over-shadowed by its bigger and more famous brother, Koh Chang, which was precisely one reason why we chose it…a small population (only about 400), a small number of tourists, a small island, a massive amount of time for relaxing.

We stayed in a minimalist cabin consisting only of a bed with a mosquito net just a few meters walking from the beach, so most of our time was aptly spent outdoors.  The beaches were not crowded at all, and it was easy to stake out a place in the shade of a palm tree for the day.  We ate all our meals in and by the beach, got massages on the beach, the sound of the calm surf was the soundtrack to the visit (minus the hours between 9-2 every night when the resort reggae bar’s music went into full swing).

Finger pointing the way to a truly weird sculpture garden.

Finger pointing the way to a truly weird sculpture garden.

We left the water’s edge for only one afternoon, when we rented a motorbike to drive around the interior of the island for a few hours.  Passing through small rubber plantations, and the island’s few villages was interesting, but with a total area of only 16 square kilometers (only about 6 square miles), all roads eventually led back the beach.  This biking excursion brought us to the one truly bizarre experience on the island, stumbling upon a strange, surrealist, pornographic statue garden in a local artist’s public backyard.  While gingerly walking along the concrete path, gawking at the statues I got a sudden, unpleasant surprise when one began “urinating” on me.  Out of nowhere, hot, foul-smelling water (from stagnating in the heat…I assume) began spraying out of the crotch of the nearest statue directly on me.  I was lucky enough to have just turned my camera away, but we made a quick exit nonetheless, a bit spooked by the whole concrete garden experience.

nemo and friends
Although the naughty sculptures and days spent on the sand were certainly enjoyable, the true highlight of Koh Mak was my first scuba diving trip.  One of the original reasons we chose the island was because of its good reputation for snorkeling, but after hearing the dive instructors scoff as we reserved a snorkeling trip, we quickly were convinced to go for the “Discover SCUBA” trip instead.  And there was absolutely no comparison.  Once I got the hang of breathing underwater (which I feel is less a technical skill than the ability to calm your brain’s natural instinct to panic when underwater too long, unnaturally breathing thin air), we were off to another surreal environment, where we got up close and personal with clownfish, and anemones, and spindly coral.  Shifting schools of silvery fish drifted like clouds, and 15 meters down it was hard to tell how far we had actually come from the surface.
spotted ray

the depths

(All dive photos are courtesy of dive photographer, Wes Pryor).

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Phitsanulok: “Why you go to there?!”

My friend Caitlin is also in her second PiA year teaching in Nan, northern Thailand.  I last saw her in January when I spent a weekend in Nan.   Last weekend I had two days off for midterm and I attempted to find a way to visit her, but learned that though Nan looks very nearby on a map, it would take forever to go there.  Eventually we realized we would have to meet halfway.

Glamorous downtown P'lok.

To try to make a vaguely relevant comparison, imagine you live in New York City and your friend lives in Princeton.  You decide to meet decide to meet halfway–say in Rahway or Secaucus. Despite being worlds apart, this is not unlike what we did last weekend.  This is how I ended up going to Phitsanulok, Thailand.  It is not insignificant (it was the Thai capital for 25 years in the 15th century, and has one important temple), but no one really goes there.  This does not mean it is a quaint, charming, untouristed town like Nan either.  There are a smattering of sights, but nothing to plan a visit for, only things to do if you happen to find yourself there.  Any tourist who usually finds themself there is stopping over on the way to nearby Sukhothai.  There is no great natural beauty.  Just an average Thai city.  So, the main reaction to this excursion from my students, Caitlin’s Thai friends, and even the man at the bus station was…“Why you go to there!?”

Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat

On the way, I stopped overnight in Udon Thani with my friend Sam, who was on the way to Bangkok.  We only needed a centrally located place to crash for 5-6 hours, so we looked for something cheap.  Turned out to be the worst place I’ve ever stayed.  Half of the rooms had no doorknobs and remained half-open, abandoned.  Mine smelled like a mix of basement and locker room and looked like a mental institution, with tile floors and a bed with a chipped metal frame and stains on the walls.  I had a fitful night’s sleep, filled with nightmares of bedbugs.

Never did figure out what the "surprise" was...

A 7-hour bus ride later, Caitlin and I reunited in Phitsanulok, in our hotel’s restaurant, unambiguously named, “It is A Cake.”  It seems anyone with a dictionary can be a translator in most of Asia, which results in tshirts with sayings like “Fabulous WOW to restore ancient ways” (I own this one, in fact).  Phitsanulok was no exception, with the “Happy toilet” clearly competing directly with the nearby “Clean toilet,” and enticing signs for “solar dried bananas” and a “hygenic park.”

How to describe Phitsanulok?  Not many tourists come so we were often stared at as if people were asking “why are you here??”  Not in a hostile way, nor even a curious one, just simply perplexed.  One small Thai boy scout was so interested at our presence in the night market that he stealthily followed us around for 20 minutes.  The Nan River, which flows through the center of town, was flooded so streetlights and tree tops poked out from its banks, where stairways led straight into the muddy water.  Scores of street dogs curled up to sleep in the most inconvenient locations in the middle of the sidewalks downtown.

The rising waters of the Nan River.

Stairway to muddy water.

But the trip was mostly about catching up, which is what we did, comparing notes about teaching in Laos and Thailand (Caitlin teaches kindergarten and sixth grade English) and the past 8 months since we last saw each other.  A search for something to do on Saturday night resulted in visiting two live music bars.  The first–“Thank You Club”–smelled like a toilet, had an old hippie singing Beatles covers, and an obnoxiously drunk Thai lady named Po who installed herself at our table.  Once we extricated ourselves from her clutches we went to Sanuk Nuek, a much better choice.  There we sat with the house band, who were filled with questions about how Lao is different from Thailand, and the meaning of important English idioms like “bling-bling.”

Pit stop on the way out of town.


On our second day, we rented a motorbike to drive outside the city to check out some waterfalls.  Minus a mildly-worrisome mysterious crunching sound that the bike began to make partway through, it was a smooth ride, and took us to some nice scenery about 30km outside the city.  After the quick visit, Caitlin and I hopped on our respective buses and watched P’lok (as it’s called by those in the know) recede into ever-present dust.  Certainly we’ll see each other again in Asia, and who knows where next?

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Bangkok

The last stop on my two-week southeast Asian tour with my mom was Bangkok.  I had been here before, but it’s a city in which it’s hard to be bored, so we easily spent four days in the city.  While my last visit to BKK was mostly about eating, drinking and art, this time my mom and I slowed down to take in most of the city’s major sights.  Many of the sights are clustered in the old part of the city, along the Chao Praya river, so we set off the first morning on a short walking tour.

Lanterns in a temple courtyard decorated for the beginning of Buddhist Lent.

Along the way, we got way-laid by one of the city’s many infamous scams.  I generally pride myself on deflecting the typical con artists, but sometimes I worry that I’ve become a bit too jaded, automatically shutting down anyone who approaches me in fear of being scammed.  For a moment, we let our guard down and engaged a “nice” passerby in conversation, and before we knew it, a tuk-tuk that was driving us to temples was taking us to fake government travel agencies to try to sell us flights to Phuket.  It was harmless, as Bangkok scams go–they wanted us to buy things, but in no way pressured us, so after politely declining many times, we escaped back to sightseeing–but was a reminder that even when I know better, it’s still entirely possible to get caught off-guard.  The silver lining of our tuk-tuk detour is that we got to see several temples beautifully setting up for the beginning of Buddhist Lent, or khao pansa.

Our sightseeing tour of Bangkok took us to all of the “usual” sights.  We visited Wat Pho, site of the Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha (whose toes are bigger than my body), and the Grand Palace (home of the royal family, and accordingly gilded and polished and impressive).  We took a boat to cross the river and see Wat Arun and a view of the city from the other side.  Perhaps the most surprisingly atmospheric site was Jim Thompson’s house, a restored Thai-style house, art gallery (belonging to the late Jim Thompson–silk mogul AND fellow Princeton alum), and garden, which is incredibly tranquil, despite its location close to the bustling Siam area.

No trip to Bangkok (for me) is complete without spending some time in the commercial overload of Siam Square, so we set aside plenty of time to duck in and out of the malls AND catch the Asian premiere of the final Harry Potter movie while we were there.  Before we knew it, it was time for my mom to fly back to the States (3 weeks in Asia goes by quickly!) and for me to fly back to Vientiane, to face a new term and lots of changes in my life here.

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It’s hard to believe, but I’m currently counting down to the one year anniversary of my arrival in Asia!  In addition to a much-anticipated update on Trivia Night, I’ll be posting some reflections and images of my life here in Vientiane (which I feel as though I’ve been neglecting lately on my blog) in the coming weeks.

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Bangkok Weekend: Too Much, So Much, Very Much

A few weeks ago (actually over a month ago by now), there was a long weekend for international Labor Day, and Alex and I decided to head out of town for the big city–to Bangkok.  I’ve been in and out for flights and layovers many times already, but hadn’t really spent much time actually in the city before.  In general, the weekend wasn’t so much about what Bangkok is, but more about what Vientiane isn’t, as we tried to indulge in anything we can’t get in Laos.  We went to an awesome Mexican restaurant (Charley Brown’s) twice, and to a jazz bar, both of which don’t really exist here.  We went to Siam Paragon, the shopping mecca, dazzling with its modern decor, movie theater, phenomenal food court, and stores with real brands and fixed prices.  After getting used to shopping at Talat Sao, it felt like being rocketed back to America.
Bangkok’s modernity is striking, even coming from the most cosmopolitan city in Laos.  Just a few moments in Siam Square are enough to feel a drastic difference with the countdown traffic lights, fast pink taxis, and concrete overpasses with escalators.  There’s even an Apple store!  We toasted to the glamour of the big city life on the top of the second tallest building in Bangkok, where the Sirocco sky bar and restaurant provided a panorama of the city at night, complete with classy live music, and shockingly low glass walls, separating us from the city below.


View over Bangkok from the Sky Bar.

Bar on top of the city.

The population of the city is larger than the entire country of Laos, so it makes sense that there’s so much more–restaurants, malls, traffic, in-your-face pop culture.  Thai pop culture is exported in mass to Laos, so we’re already rather familiar with it.  It seems like almost everyone in Vientiane (and likely in other more educated cities close to the border) can speak, or at least understand, Thai.  There’s so much more media in Thai, of a higher quality and bigger variety, that Thai pop culture often seems to dwarf, or at least be inseparable from, pop culture in Laos.  And after only a few hours in Bangkok, I too became a hapless victim of Thai pop, becoming mildly obsessed with a very popular Thai tune of the moment:  “Too Much, So Much, Very Much,” the title of which largely sums up the Bangkok experience overall.

One of the other highlights of the weekend was visiting the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, a modern art gallery and community center of sorts in the Siam area downtown.  Fine arts are something largely lacking in Laos, and something that I’ve really missed.  Sure there are plenty of street artists at the markets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and lots of impressive handicrafts, but non-traditional creative arts hardly exist.  The music scene in Vientiane seems to be picking up, but lots of good bands still play English and Thai covers, and it’s hard for even well-known and talented stars to actually make a career out of music.  There seem to be very little in the way of dramatic arts or visual art that pushes the boundaries of the traditional.  There are lots of reasons that could explain this, from politics, to history, to economics, to name a few, but that could be the subject of a whole separate post, and honestly I still don’t know enough to feel as though I can speak about this as anything but a casual observer.

Colorful ramp in the BACC.

Inside the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.

So the visit to the BACC was like a breath of fresh air.  Here was modern, interesting, Thai art that made a statement, was confusing, had so many different styles and textures and messages…we easily spent the better part of the afternoon exploring.  One of the more interesting temporary exhibits touched on the issues of all of the hydropower dam projects on the Mekong River, which has been major and controversial news here in Laos lately (it even made the New York Times recently, which is unusual).  It’s an issue that affects all of the countries in the region and it was interesting to hear so many critical and questioning local voices expressing themselves creatively.

The tuk-tuks in Bangkok are classier.

Although I certainly enjoyed the indulgences and sensory overload of a weekend in Bangkok, I didn’t feel any regret getting in the overcrowded bus to cross the Friendship Bridge to return to Laos.  Bangkok is fun, but I’d rather be in Vientiane.  It may not have a modern art center (yet), or really good fajitas, but there are still exciting things happening everyday.  Just last night I went to the finals of the Tiger Beer-sponsored Battle of the Bands, where I watched the kids from one of the my favorite sandwich shops (who serve me chicken sandwiches or noodles for lunch by day) rock out to a cheering crowd who were wearing matching tshirts that said BabyRock.  Sure, they sang cover songs, but they put their own twist on them.  Vientiane is changing by the day, and it reminded me how lucky I am to be here for another year.

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The Past 2 Weeks

School has only been in session for two days and already the recent holiday seems like it was ages ago.  It started with a 3-day jaunt to Chiang Mai (which I visited before in January), in northern Thailand, with some of my favorite Aussie coworkers.  They were staying all week, so we had an apartment and sampled the ex-pat life in the neighborhood with another friend living there.  This meant that my time there was mostly spent perusing markets, eating, drinking, and laying by the pool.  Highlights included the Sunday Walking Street, when a downtown street is shut down and turned into a phenomenal handicraft market, and the best mangoes/cashew chicken/noodle soup I’ve ever tasted.  Though it’s embarrassing to admit, we also visited the “Tiger Kingdom,” where you can pet tigers of differing sizes (we chose “smallest” and “largest,” of course).  I won’t attempt to try to defend paying to pet a captive wild animal.  So, I’ll only say–touching a tiger was really cool.  It’s off the bucket list.

Little did I know when I took this that these would be the Most Delicious Mangoes Ever.

Chiang Mai market snacks: pork rinds, sausage, and chili dips.

Tigers sleep up to 18 hours per day.

After the three relaxing days in Thailand, it was time to head off for the main part of my trip–to Myanmar (Burma).  I went there alone for the first few days and later met up with the other Princeton-in-Asia Laos girls when they arrived.  It was: hot, fascinating, fragrant, lively, spiritual, friendly, and one of my favorite places I’ve visited so far.  Look forward to more thoughts from the trip (and Pi Mai Lao!) coming soon.

Now I’m here back in Vientiane, two days into Term 2, 2011.  Though I’ll be very busy with work, like last term, my courses this term are more exciting than ever.  During the day, I’m continuing with the adults’ scholarship prep class, this time focusing on teaching how to write for the IELTS exam (something like the TOEFL in the US).  I have two young learners’ classes: one are 8-15 year-olds who I’ve taught before, and another are 8-11 year-olds who are learning about Fairytales this term.  That’s right: I’ll be reading/acting out/discussing Goldilocks, Cindarella, the Big Bad Wolf, and more with some young Lao children.  I can’t wait.  I’ll also be teaching Professional Writing to advanced students who want to learn how to write proposals and reports in English.  The final class, and the most unique, is a new course that my housemate Alex has been developing, about exploring and reflecting on personal identity through literature.  This will be a new experience for the students on many levels, and I’m excited to share more about this class as it progresses this term.

More about Burma coming soon!

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Chiang Mai

January 11-12: Chiang Mai

The final leg of my journey back to Vientiane was spent in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city.  I stayed in the tourist center of town and explored the plethora of temples and shops on foot.  The usual night market was combined with the final remnants of a holiday market downtown, which offered a dizzying array of handicrafts.  The city seemed to me like a more modern version of Vientiane–like the Lao capital it has lots of trendy Western restaurants, but these are supplemented by chain restaurants and a larger ex-pat community, and more tourist attractions.

One of my favorite Chiang Mai moments was when I walked by a local school soccer match being held on the blacktop next to a major temple.  The stands were filled with monks, watching and cheering intently for their teams.  Although I am used to seeing orange-robed monks in Laos all the time, I still find it charming whenever I see them doing “everyday” things, like texting, or going to 7-11 to get a snack.

Most of my visit to Chiang Mai was spent wandering on my own, soaking in images of the city.

See a gallery of all of the Thailand photos here.

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A Nan Weekend

January 7-10: Nan

My bus from Chiang Rai wound its way through the mountains surrounding Nan, making pit stops along the way so the driver could bargain for rice with farmers on the side of the road.  Finally, I arrived in Nan, the small provincial capital of the Nan province in northern Thailand, and the temporary hometown of my friend Caitlin (better known as CP), who has spent the last year there with PiA teaching kindergarten and sixth grade at a local elementary school.  Nan makes Vientiane seem like quite the bustling capital in contrast–there are few foreigners in Nan, so the PiA girls are novelties all over town, and good Western restaurants with cheese are much harder to come by.

CP and the other Nan girls had quite a weekend in store for me, to prove that even their small town had bundles of excitement to offer.  I stopped by the elementary school, Bandon Sriserm, to pick up my chariot for the weekend–an undersized, unreliable bicycle recently won at a school raffle.  Seeing Caitlin in her element in the schoolyard after work was quite the experience.  I felt as though I was walking down the red carpet with Justin Bieber, or some other teenybopper hero.  CP was literally treated like a rockstar: adorable Thai six-year olds ran from every corner of the playground to desperately reach for a high five, or offer her some token of appreciation, like a half eaten bag of squid chips or twinkies.

The Nan River.

For my first night in town, CP and her roommates had arranged a “Nan Bar Crawl,” which basically entailed a BYOB stopoff to their favorite restaurants/bars to meet Thai friends who communicated with us in a combination of broken English/Thai and lots of smiles.  The “bar crawl” culminated at a visit to the Fifth, the best (of two) nightclubs in town.

Nan's finest entertainment at The Fifth Club.

Given their celebrity farang status in town, the PiA girls were naturally best friends with all of the staff and the band, who basically sang to us for much of the night and came to hang out in between ridiculously costumed sets.

 

On Saturday much was closed in celebration of Children’s Day–just one of many holidays that would be meaningless in the US, but are celebrated with intense fanfare in Asia.  We dodged the gaggles of families and spend a lot of the day eating (including regrettably large rolls of sticky rice), catching up, and reading at a cafe near the Nan River.  Sunday was a day of indulgence: two hour massages and D-Milk, which is an indescribably delicious Thai chain creation.  Imagine frozen, sweetened milk, topped with sugary cereals and mini Oreos.  Basically a hybrid between a heaping bowl of frosted flakes and a frozen yogurt.

Sent from heaven: D-Milk

On the way to D-Milk, the Nan Bike Club (as they call themselves) inadvertantly found itself in the midst of Children’s Day parade.  We turned a corner and suddenly realized we were biking alongside a parade in the opposite direction.  Thai traditional music was blaring from speakers overhead, marching bands were filing past, Thai girls in full makeup and costume shimmied down the street…and four farang girls biked through the middle of it, perhaps attracting more attention than the absurd spectacle we were biking through.

Before my departure on Monday I made a guest appearance at Bandon Sriserm for CP’s sixth grade class.  Her students wrote questions for me during their “daily diary” class opener, and then each stood up one by one in front of the class and interrogated me on things like my favorite Thai food, how Lao students are different from Thai students, the name of my best friends, my favorite color, and what the weather is like in Vientiane.

Bandon Sriserm 6th grade puts on English skits.

I also got the chance to witness the performance of some of their legendary English skits.  Some students went all out with costumes that involved powdering their hair white to enhance their two-line performance as a lost grandmother.

 

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