Hello Again Everyone!

Before I made my way back to the US in April 2012, I brought in the Thai New Year by celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai. I think the best way to describe Songkran is that it’s a huge, city-wide water fight that goes on for 3 days officially, 5 days unofficially to celebrate the Buddhist New Year. It’s absolutely CRAZY and would only ‘make sense’ in Thailand. Chiang Mai is the best place in all of Thailand to celebrate the Thai New Year, so many people – Thai and Westerners alike – flock to Chiang Mai at the beginning of April. During Songkran, the city essentially shuts down and the only place where one sees signs of life is around the moat of the old city. The city of Chiang Mai was originally only the old city (a large, square-shaped city with a network of roads, or sois, weaving throughout the city in no apparent order) but it’s since expanded to be quite the little city with suburbs and everything. A moat as well as large brick walls were originally built around the old city, and the moat as well as parts of the wall, still exist today. So what better place to have a massive water fight than by a moat filled with disgusting water?!

For 3 days everyone goes to the old city armed with water guns and plastic buckets to throw water on everyone and anyone. Many people climb into the back of pick-up trucks with a gigantic barrel of water and drive in incredibly slow traffic around the moat, dumping buckets of water on people who are walking or who are also in trucks. Whenever their barrel gets low, they simply pull over and run down to the moat to fill up again. This moat water is absolutely disgusting but because it’s so hot, it often feels refreshing to get water thrown at you. What doesn’t feel refreshing, though, is when buckets of ICE WATER are dumped down your back or on your head. Many people in these trucks put huge blocks of ice into their barrel which makes the water incredibly cold. Then, as they drive around they take their buckets and dump this freezing water on everyone in sight. So cold! There are tons of food vendors and live bands playing mostly rock or pop music set up all around the moat so it feels like a pool party on a much larger, more insane scale.

I was at first a bit hesitant to take part in Songkran, but then decided “only in Thailand would this happen, so I should just embrace it and enjoy it as a cultural experience.” So my friends and I armed ourselves with water guns and buckets and walked around the old city for 3 days, throwing water as well as getting water thrown on us. For the most part, Thai people were nice and playful with us but I honestly thought it was some people’s objective to find all of the farangs and throw as much ice water on them as possible. Mai bpen rai (no worries), though; it was fun! The water fight in the old city would usually start around 10 or 11 every morning and finish around 5 or 6 every night. However, sometimes people would drive around at night in other areas of the city (where most people live and eat) and throw buckets of water on any dry person they find. There was more than one occasion when my friends and I were walking to dinner when we would be ambushed with ice water from passing trucks. We were warned this would happen, though, so we all bought water-proof bags that were essentially attached to our hip for the 3/5 days of Songkran.

You might be wondering what the purpose of this celebration is or how a New Year’s celebration becomes a city-wide water fight. Well, Songkran originally began when Buddhists would go to the temple at the end of the year to cleanse themselves of all of the bad in the old year and exit the temple purified and refreshed to start the new year. Small bowls of clean water (often with flowers, such as jasmine, in the water to give it a wonderful scent) were gently poured over the head’s of friends and family. This tradition still exists today and one can see many temples filled for 3 days with people practicing this ritual. Somewhere along the way, though, this tradition became more playful and gradually turned into an insane water fight having nothing to do with purification. Chiang Mai, with its large moat, naturally became the Songkran capital of Thailand. To be fair, though, there  were still a few older Thai ladies who would walk along the moat carrying jasmine scented water and would gingerly pour a small cup of it onto our heads and would sweetly wish us a Happy New Year. This definitely made up for 100s of ice water buckets that were dumped over my head. This was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m so glad I played Songkran (len Songkran) as they say in Thai while I was here.

Here are a few pictures I snapped when I was brave enough to take my camera out:

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Part 1: continued, Indonesia

Welcome back for the final installment of my trip: Bali, Indonesia!

Bali is one of the many islands that make up the archipelago (cluster of islands) of Indonesia. Hilary and I flew into Bali from Singapore, and our first stop here was a small beach town named Sanur. When I thought about Bali, images of beautiful beaches immediately came to mind. Upon arriving at the beach, though, I was disappointed to find that Sanur beach did not match those in my imagination. (I believe there are some beaches in Bali that are quite nice, but sadly I was not able to get to these. Plus, I think I’m spoiled by the beaches in Thailand.) The water wasn’t that clear, crystal blue color I was expecting, and the sand was not fine and white. This didn’t stop me, though, from enjoying my beach time. On the first day we were there, I rented a kayak and took it up and down Sanur Beach. Unfortunately, the water was not clear enough for me to see to the bottom but it was still nice to get out on the water. Hilary and I lounged on the beach listening to music and reading books, and also spent some time swimming in our hotel’s pool. The hotel we stayed in was very nice and had a beautiful, lush garden immediately outside our door. After a few conversations in Sanur, Hilary and I decided that we would split up for the rest of our trip. We realized that we wanted to do completely different things and it didn’t make sense to travel together. So, after spending 2 days at the beach I hired a driver to take me to Ubud, Bali. (Hiring drivers is very typical because cheap, public transportation around the island is a bit difficult to come by.)

Ubud was a wonderful place to visit and most of my fond memories of Bali come from my time spent here. Fun fact, Ubud is where Julia Roberts’ character in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book/movie Eat, Pray, Love finds love. While I did not fall in love with a man in Ubud, I did fall in love with something else: Balinese food! This leads me to my first highlight:

A Balinese cooking class: After my first few days in Bali, I realized I loved eating Balinese food, so I decided to take a cooking class to learn how to make it for myself at home. I ended up being in a small class with a couple from Holland, which was nice for all of us because it meant we got to eat more food! First, our teacher/cook took us to a local market to show us the ingredients with which we’d be cooking. I realized that Indonesia and Thailand share a lot of the same fruits and vegetables, so it was fun to find similarities between the markets in Bali with those in Thailand. After our tour, we went to the small cooking school where we made Balinese sauce (spicy peppers, onions, garlic, lemon and a few other ingredients) which we added to all of our other dishes. These included spiced rice, Pepes (chicken or fish, coated in Balinese sauce, wrapped in banana leaves, steamed and then grilled), ground chicken kebabs with peanut sauce, and Balinese pancakes (similar to crepes made with rice flour, filled with butter and palm sugar). Yum! Everything was unbelievably delicious!

A bike tour: I wanted to take a trip outside of Ubud, which is pretty touristy, to see the villages and rice paddies in Bali so I decided what better way to do this than to ride a bicycle through it! I found a tour company who picked me up at my hotel with a group of other tourists and took us about an hour away from Ubud to the countryside. The group I ended up joining was an extended family celebrating their father’s/grandfather’s 60th birthday, but they quickly welcomed me in. Our first stop was at a coffee plantation where we got to sample some Balinese coffee as well as ginger tea, lemon tea, and hot chocolate. Then, they took us to a town (via van) called Kintamani which overlooks Mount Batur, an active volcano, with a beautiful lake at the foot of it. Here we ate breakfast at a restaurant which overlooks the volcano and the lake. The views were stunning! (see pictures below) After breakfast, our bike tour began. The trail we took was a small paved road which meandered through a number of small villages. As we rode through them, many children came running out of the houses shouting hello and giving us high-fives as we biked by. We also rode through some beautiful rice paddies, many with multiple terraces. It was one of those trips where every single site I saw seemed to come straight from a calendar. After our bike tour, we had a delicious Balinese lunch at the owner of the bike company’s house.

Homestay: In Ubud, it is very common for tourists to stay in a family’s house rather than in a hotel. It is incredibly cheap (mine were $12 and $11/night) and it gives you a glimpse into what it’s like to live in Bali. I decided to try this out so I stayed in 2 different homestays, one for one night and the second for 2 nights. Both places I stayed were very nice as were the families who hosted me. For the most part, the families keep to themselves; your interactions with them are when you’re walking through their house to your room and then in the morning when they bring you a delicious breakfast of eggs and local fruit. The families I stayed with spoke little to no English but they were all very welcoming. I think the best part of the homestay was seeing where local families live/what their houses are like. Most families have a large courtyard with many small buildings built around this courtyard. The buildings house the kitchen, the bathroom, various bedrooms/living rooms for children and parents as well as the family temple, all scattered around the courtyard. Each small build essentially serves one purpose. It is very common for extended family to live together so most of these housing complexes are quite large and often have empty bedrooms if their children aren’t married yet. (When the children do marry, the males will move their wife/children into these empty bedrooms.) When Ubud became a popular tourist destination the locals started opening their houses up, allowing tourists to stay in their extra bedroom all the while providing a small income for these families/giving them a use for their empty bedrooms. Most of the buildings are made with brick and the insides often have wood floors. The courtyard is full of flowers, trees and other lush vegetation. My rooms in both of my homestays were toward the back of the courtyard and had a bedroom, bathroom and small balcony. They were clean and comfortable to stay in, although the latter was a bit nicer. I really enjoyed how I could walk through the courtyard as I was coming and going and see children running around the courtyard, people watching TV, the elders sitting outside or praying at their temple. It was a nice cultural experience! (My last 2 nights I stayed in a nice resort with a HUGE, luxurious room, an infinity pool overlooking a rice field, and exceptional service – so 2 very different lodging experiences.)

Temples, Museums and Shows: Ubud is a great place to visit if you want to learn about the culture of Bali. First, the temples there are stunning. Most Indonesians practice a form of Hinduism with traces of animism and even some magic. The temples are similar to houses in that they are all built open-air style (pura) with a wall surrounding the complex and various courtyards and compounds built within the complex. They are all built of brick (often a red color) and all of them have an intricately decorated brick gates throughout the courtyards. Most have pagoda-like tiered towers, shrines and pavilions all serving different purposes. One thing I noticed about many temples was that tourists are often not welcome inside, and if they are, they must follow a strict dress code of wearing long skirts to cover their legs and shirts that cover your shoulders. I was a bit put-off by this, but then I grew to appreciate it because it demonstrated how their religion is not a show for tourists but rather, it is something they take seriously and want to keep preserved and pristine. Another thing I enjoyed about Ubud was its art and art museums. Many artists live in Ubud and have shops where you can watch them work/purchase some of their work. Paintings, wood carvings and traditional Balinese intricate sketches of everyday life are the most common art forms. I spent almost an entire day shopping in Ubud, buying various wood carvings, paintings, jewelry and other local crafts. I also went to a Balinese art museum filled with both modern and ancient Balinese art. The one thing I noticed throughout all of the artwork was that it was themed around Hinduism or around everyday life. Balinese believe that there must be a balance between good and evil in the world (every object has a spirit, good or evil) so much of the artwork depicted the artists’ attempts to demonstrate that balance.  Finally, there are many cultural shows put on by locals every evening throughout Ubud for tourists to attend at a small fee. On my first night I attended a traditional Balinese dance telling a Hindu story of various mythical creatures in a battle of good (a lion or Barong) against evil (a witch). The most striking thing about this dance was how the dancers incorporated facial and eye expressions to tell their story. Their eyes were almost a bit creepy in the sense that they were always open very wide and the dances would blink them in sync with the music. The other cultural show I saw was a shadow puppet play. A white canvas screen with a candle burning behind it illuminated the various outlines of the puppets. The puppeteer told an ancient Hindu story (of good against evil) in Balinese (the audience was given a description in English of the story) in both song or speech. This was very entertaining to watch as well as beautiful.

Rice paddy walk: Another fun thing I did was take a rice-paddy walk with a girl I met named Brittany. One morning we got up early and set off on a marked trail through some rice fields just outside of Ubud. At first we started walking on the terraces along the paddies, but soon realized, after Brittany fell into a paddy (full of water) that it would be best to stick to the dirt trail. 🙂 The views here were gorgeous: blue sky, bright green rice paddies with the sun reflecting off the water in each of the paddies. Truly breathtaking! On our walk back through the fields, we happened upon an organic, self-sustaining restaurant where Brittany ate the best meal both of us had had in months!

Tourism: Overall, I LOVED Bali. My one complaint about it, though, is that it is quickly being overrun by tourism. There are some things that are still well-preserved, such as the temples and art, but much of Bali/Ubud has been tainted by tourism and money. The minute you walk out onto the street you are literally accosted by men yelling “Taxi! Transport!” in your face. Even if you say no they follow you and say “OK, tomorrow! Taxi! Transport!” It’s hard to take in the scenery when there’s so many people yelling at you! Even when I was biking through the rural villages, most of the children seemed to expect to see foreigners biking through their neighborhood and seemed to make a game out of how many high-fives they could get. It wasn’t bad being greeted by these children but I began to feel sorry that these foreigners came parading through their villages everyday as if their town was on display. There are also a ton of foreigners who live in Ubud. Because of them there are tons of western restaurants overrunning the mom and pop shops, yoga studios on every corner and a sense that they run the town, rather than the natives. Also, the people who travel to Bali are a certain type. Most are couples or families with lots of money who stay in very comfortable accommodation. Many couples are on their honeymoon, and I often encountered groups of ladies in their 60s or so on a “Girl’s Trip to Bali” type experience. I’ll leave you with one funny story that appropriately sums up this latter group of travelers: I was in a bathroom at a restaurant washing my hands next to 2 older women from the U.S. As we all finished washing our hands, we looked around for a paper towel or something to dry our hands with. The paper towel dispenser was empty, so upon seeing this I just air-dried my hands and suggested that they do the same. The 2 women looked at each other, then back at me, and then one said, “What a cultural experience!!! They must air-dry their hands over here!!!”

Here are lots of pictures! Enjoy!

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Part 1 continued: Singapore

Ok I hope everyone has their Singapore Sling and is ready to keep reading!

Second stop on the trip was Singapore. My travel companion, Hilary, knew a girl named Fiona who was living and teaching in Singapore. Fiona graciously agreed to host us for the 4 nights we spent there, which was amazing! Up until this point we had been staying in guesthouses, most of which were nice but didn’t have much privacy or much space. Fiona’s apartment, however, was huge and very western! Fiona had an extra bedroom and bathroom for Hilary and I to share, plus she had a nice big living room for us to hang out in.  Now that I think about it, Fiona’s apartment serves as a nice analogy to what Singapore is: it’s huge and very western! This leg of our trip felt like a nice, temporary escape to western civilization. I’d been living in Thailand for 10 months at this point and traveling through Malaysia for about 10 days, so after all of that, Singapore felt like a big, western city, albeit a strange one. For example, chewing gum is illegal in Singapore (it’s too messy and difficult to clean up). Also, jaywalking is illegal; people seriously get tickets for doing it! Anyway, Singapore and all of its first world comforts allowed Hilary and I to catch our breath after traveling through Malaysia.

It was really nice staying with Fiona because she had been living in Singapore for about 4 months at that point. Therefore, she became our unofficial guide to Singapore. Her apartment was about an hour outside of the city/downtown, so every time we went in we either took a taxi or rode the subway (which is very clean and air-conditioned…and you can’t drink water on it, let alone any other food or beverage). The first night we were there, Fiona took us to a Middle Eastern restaurant where we met some of her friends (all teachers at various schools in Singapore). After dinner, they took us to Clarke Quay, a riverside district in Singapore with tons of restaurants, bars and clubs where I had a Singapore Sling (a fancy cocktail that really has nothing to do with Singapore as far as I know). We found a “hoppin'” club 🙂 and danced the night away. It was nice being with Fiona and her friends, because there’s no way Hilary and I could have found that place on our own.

Other highlights in Singapore included a walking tour of “downtown” (it’s hard to describe this area because the entirety of Singapore feels like a downtown area) where I saw the Merlion fountain- the symbol of Singapore (head of a lion, body of a fish), Marina Bay, the Esplanade Theaters, some old colonial churches as well as some government buildings; visiting the Raffles Hotel (named after the man who founded modern-day Singapore), going window shopping along Orchard Row (the street famous for its high end malls), doing some real shopping in some of the less expensive but still glitzy malls, eating more Indian food in Little India, seeing the Hunger Games, walking around CHIJMES, an old convent now converted into an upscale bar and restaurant area (quite beautiful) and going to a modern art museum (there’s a picture below of an exhibit in an old cathedral in which the artist shined lasers at mirrors all around the room, all the while emitting fog to give it a beautiful yet eerie feel).

You might be thinking that my time in Singapore was a bit lacking in cultural experiences. I’d have to agree. Singapore felt like a massive, incredibly clean, concrete jungle. I think because it’s so clean and well-maintained you don’t feel like you’re in a concrete jungle, but it certainly was lacking in character. I spent a fair amount of time in malls simply because EVERYTHING revolves around malls. If you want to go to the grocery store, you go to a mall; if you want to go see a movie, you go to a mall; if you want to get to the subway, you go to a mall; if you need to see a doctor, you go to a mall. Singapore’s culture just seems to be about shopping, eating and drinking in incredibly fancy, cosmopolitan malls and upscale districts. The Singapore dollar is very close to the US dollar, if not a bit more, so in many ways it felt like a trip back to America, despite still being in Asia. That being said, there are some districts, like Little India, where you can still find mom and pop shops right next to some beautiful temples, but you really have to go off the beaten path to find these. All things considered, though, I really enjoyed my time in Singapore. It was a nice respite from traveling and living in Asia and I loved taking part in the Singapore culture of shopping, dining and western-style living!

Here are some pictures of Singapore:

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Stayed tuned for Part 1 continued, continued: Indonesia 🙂

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Thailand, Take Two

Sawadeeka Everyone!!! I can’t believe how much has happened since I last posted in February! Here’s an incredibly brief update: Finished teaching at CMU in March, traveled to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia for 3 weeks, went to a friend’s wedding in Bangkok, “played” Songkran in Chiang Mai at the beginning of April to celebrate the Thai New Year, flew home for a much-needed break in April/May and then boarded a plane on May 31st back to Chiang Mai where I currently am and will be for the next 6 months. Whew! Did you all get that? You’ll be tested on it next week…I’m not kidding…I’m a teacher. 🙂

As you can all see from above, writing one post on everything that’s happened since my last post simply won’t suffice. So, here’s Part 1: Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

I traveled to these three countries (yes, Singapore is a country and a city) over a 3 week period with a friend I met in Chiang Mai, named Hilary. We weren’t these best travel companions, but we made it work, saved some money by sharing rooms and then parted ways in Indonesia toward the end of our trip. No hard feelings; we just realized we wanted to do different things in Indonesia so it was best for us to split up. This trip was awesome; I saw some amazing things, met some really cool people, and ate tons of delicious food along the way! To tell you everything I did on this trip would take forever, so I’ll give you the highlights.

Malaysia was my favorite country of the three I visited. I think my favorite part about it was that there are so many different cultures located in this one tiny country; there are the native Malays (many who are Muslim), Chinese, Indian, Baba-Nyonya  (Chinese/Malay), remnants from the colonial era of Portuguese, Dutch and British as well as what is modern-day Malaysia, seen most in Kuala Lumpur. Due to this massive interplay of cultures, I was able to experience a little bit of each as I traveled through this country. Penang was our first stop. Highlights included touring Georgetown and Fort Cornwalis (established during British rule), eating delicious Indian food, visiting a Chinese temple, Hindu temple and a mosque all in the same day, touring Kek Lok Si (the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia), and visiting a well-preserved, incredibly ornate Baba-Nyonya house. Kuala Lumpur was our next stop in Malaysia.  KL is a huge city, and honestly was a bit challenging to navigate at times. Highlights here included visiting Merdeka Square, a large grassy area where Malaysians declared their independence conveniently located next to the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (used to house the Supreme Court), shopping along Petaling Street and Central Market, enjoying a nice western meal in KL’s hip Bukit Bintang district, visiting more beautiful mosques and chinese and hindu temples, eating satay and other Malay street food, taking in KL’s gorgeous skyline by night inside the KL Tower, 1381 ft off the ground and visiting the Twin Petronas Towers and its adjacent mall. Malacca was our final stop in Malaysia, and my favorite by far! Why, you may ask? Because I LOVED learning about the history of this place. The Straits of Malacca were essential to the spice trade (as well as many other goods), and thus were controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British under the British East India Company at one point or another in its history. Now, don’t interpret my fascination with Malacca as a love of colonialism; what I was fascinated with was how you could still witness the remains of all these European colonists on this tiny town yet still see the Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures play a huge part of everyday life! Highlights in Malacca included strolling along the Europeanesque canal which runs through the town, sampling Chinese food on Jonker Street/Chinatown, spending hours upon hours as a sponge absorbing information in Malacca’s plentiful museums, visiting the Portugese A Famosa fort and St. Paul’s Church, the Dutch Christ Church and Stadthuys, riding in a rickshaw decorated with Christmas lights blaring awful 80s music, eating Baba-Nyonya food and going shopping.

Here are a few pictures from Malaysia: I take that back – here are A LOT of pictures from Malaysia.

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I’m afraid my internet’s going to cut out and then I’ll lose my post (gotta love Thailand!) so I’m going to post Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia in 3 parts. So, if you’re still interested, grab a Singapore Sling to sip on and check out my next post!

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Sticky Waterfall and Sticky Rice

Both last weekend and the weekend before some friends and I did some fun things in and around Chiang Mai. The first of these was a trip out to the Buatong Waterfall, or Sticky Waterfall, as it’s more commonly known.  We packed up our backpacks, stopped at a local market for some fruit, fried chicken, and sticky rice, and then hopped on our motorbikes and drove to the falls. It was about an hour and 15-minute long drive, and the scenery on the way was beautiful. We drove through rice fields, trees with blooming flowers, and the mountains of northern Thailand surrounding us. It always amazes me how you can be in a very natural, rural setting by just driving 15-30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. Once we arrived at the waterfall we found a nice spot to sit and enjoy our picnic lunch. After eating we went to see why these falls were called the Sticky Falls, as I’m sure some of you are wondering. The minute we stepped into the water, Matt, a friend from CMU, quickly ran/climbed directly up the waterfall. The reason he could do this was because there is something in the water or rocks (not sure which) that prevents algae from growing on the rocks. Therefore, it is really easy to climb right up the waterfall! The water isn’t moving very fast so it almost feels like your climbing up this huge, natural water slide. The rocks aren’t necessarily sticky; they feel more like sand paper, and it’s pretty easy to get a good grip on them. So, once we got our courage up, myself, Jenny and Hilary (friends I met in Chiang Mai) scurried up the falls as well. The sticky falls have 3 ‘floors,’ and you start at the top on the 1st floor and go down to the third floor. We all spent a few hours climbing up and down these falls. Some parts were honestly a bit scary to climb up and down – about 30 foot verticals at spots- but we all got the hang of it and had a lot of fun. After climbing, we found a spot that was a bit more flat and we actually just laid down on the waterfall. We had no idea that we were going to get as wet as we did so none of us wore bathing suits. If I go a second time, though, I definitely will! The Sticky Falls are so unique because it’s one of the few waterfalls that you can actually interact with instead of just looking at it! There are some pictures at the end of the post (didn’t take many because I was too busy playing 🙂 )

The second fun thing I did was take a cooking class with Aoife and Chris. We signed up with a company called the Thai Farm Cooking School. We got picked up at our apartments in the morning with 9 other people and we were first brought to a local market. Here our guide taught us about the different ingredients we were going to be cooking with, including fish sauce, oyster sauce, palm sugar and coconut milk. Then we drove out to the company’s organic farm, about 30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. There we were given a tour of the farm and we learned about how other ingredients, such as thai ginseng, galangal, thai eggplants, lemongrass, thai parsley and sweet basil, are grown. After our tour we donned our aprons and got cooking! First we were taught how to make jasmine rice and sticky rice in a bamboo cooker. For those of you who don’t know, sticky rice is very similar to jasmine rice except it is incredibly sticky and a bit drier than jasmine rice. After the rice lesson we got to choose which dishes to prepare, so I choose to make red curry (soup), chicken with basil, chicken in coconut milk soup, pad thai and mango with sticky rice. We learned how to make our own curry paste out of dried chilies, lemongrass and a few other herbs and spices using a mortar and pestle. Once we made our curry, we added it to our soup. This was probably the freshest curry soup I’ve ever eaten. Thai food involves a lot of stir-frying and boiling ingredients together, so it honestly wasn’t hard to make my other dishes like stir-fried chicken and basil and pad thai. That being said, the cooking company made the cooking very easy for us because they had already pre-chopped a lot of the vegetables, herbs and meats. Therefore, I felt like a chef on the Food Network who just dumps the small bowls of pre-measured ingredients into a big dish. It sure makes cooking much easier! After cooking the first few dishes we sat down and enjoyed them for lunch. I ate so much food! It was soooo good if I do say so myself! 🙂 Then we made our dessert of mango and sticky rice, and I ate that too. 🙂 We took our last dish (pad thai) home because we were all too full to eat any more. At the end of the class we were each given a recipe book with clear instructions for how to prepare these dishes, so now I can make thai food for myself (and anyone else 🙂 ) whenever I want! Here are some pictures. Sorry you can’t taste the food but I can guarantee that they are all delicious!

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Teaching Update

Believe it or not, Thursday Feb 23 was my last official day of teaching at CMU! I still remember arriving in Chiang Mai and thinking that the last of class seemed so far away, but now it’s already gone! Looking back, this semester was good, but not quite as good as my first semester, in terms of my students. I had a harder time connecting with some of my students this semester, and I had a couple of really difficult classes with very unmotivated students. I was certainly challenged teaching them, but I think it just got to a point where I had to recognize that there was only so much I could do to help these students. Also, I agreed to teach 7 classes at CMU (in addition to Thai lessons and teaching at Language Corner) and while the workload wasn’t too much to handle, I realized I didn’t have free time for my students. For example, I had numerous classes back-to-back so I didn’t have much time to stay in class and talk to students one-on-one after class. Also last semester I used to meet students outside of class for coffee to practice their conversation skills, but this semester I simply didn’t have time to do it. I guess this was a good learning experience for me because it’s shown me how much I value one-on-one time with my students.

All things considered, though, I did make some good connections with some of my students.  Surprisingly, one class I connected with the most was a night class. (Night classes are notoriously hard to teach because the students’ English skills are incredibly low and they are often not the nicest students.) This class, despite being incredibly low, was great to work with! Many of them put effort into my class and opened up as the semester went on. On the last day of class, one of my students from this class came up to me and said, “Aj Leslie: I wanted to thank you for being my teacher and helping me. Before I took this class I hated English and was afraid to use it. Now, I love English!” It’s always comments like these that make me forget about all the bad stuff. Other nice comments were: “Aj. Leslie. You good teacher! You good teacher!” (maybe not so good if that’s what they’re saying) and “Teacher! I love you!” Saying goodbye to my students is always a bit difficult because I honestly don’t know when I’m going to be able to see them again. However, I have decided to teach another semester at CMU starting in June 2012, so there’s a chance that I’ll have some of my students again or that I will see them around campus. I was able to see a lot of my students from last semester around campus, so I hope this will be true next term as well.

I’ve also had some good students at Language Corner. One in particular is a 24-year-old Korean girl named Yeri. During her winter break in South Korea she came to Thailand to practice her English conversation skills. I worked with her frequently and really enjoyed getting to know her. Because she wanted to practice her conversation skills, we would just sit and talk to each other. Because we are the same age it sometimes felt like I was just talking to a friend. It was crazy to think that we were the same age and really got along well, but that we had two completely different lives. I learned much about Korea from her, including a lot about the education system. I won’t go into details, but their education system is very intense. They are essentially in school or studying from 8am until midnight or 1am! Yeri took me out to a nice dinner right before she left to thank me for working with her. It was completely unnecessary, though, because I enjoyed working with her! It felt like we were 2 friends sharing dinner together, even if one of them could only speak basic English.

I’ll continue to work at Language Corner for a few more weeks before I leave for my trips. My CMU students just took their exams so I have over 200 exams to grade, so this will also keep me busy. I’ve found some nice coffee shops to sit at and my friend Aoife and I have made plans to sit together and grade so that we don’t lose our minds! Once I’m done with this, I’m traveling with a friend to Malaysia, Singapore and Bali! I’m super excited for this! Then, I’ll come back to Chiang Mai for Songkran, the big water festival here, and then I’ll fly home for about 6 weeks! I can’t even express how excited I am to go home for a bit! I love Thailand, but living here has made me appreciate how much I like living in the U.S. I really miss my family, too! My sister and I are already planning on how we’re all going to live in the same place “when we grow up” so that we can see each other whenever we want, rather than making skype dates. Once I’ve gotten a good dose of family and America time, I’ll fly back to Chiang Mai and teach again at CMU from June 2012 – October 2012. After that, who knows?

Here are some pictures of my students!

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A Beach Vacation

I’ve just returned, tanned and well-rested, from Phuket! Phuket is Thailand’s largest island located in the Upper Andaman Coast. I took at 5-day trip there to have a beach holiday with my friend Sarah Bosch. (I visited Sarah in South Korea.) Sarah and I stayed at a wonderful condo near Surin Beach, one of Phuket’s nicest beaches. While we weren’t there for super long, we certainly packed our days full of adventures. Here’s a day-by-day recap:

Wednesday: I arrived in Phuket in the early evening and met Sarah at our wonderful and incredibly comfortable condo in Surin. Sarah and I decided to go big and stay at a fancy resort while we were at the beach, so we booked a condo complete with 2 bedrooms, one kitchen, one living room/dining room, and a balcony. Being in such a nice condo was a wonderful break from my crowded one bedroom apartment in Chiang Mai. The condo was owned by a family and had Bed & Breakfast type-vibe, except with a bit more privacy. The service there was amazing and it was in a great location. Upon my arrival, I quickly unpacked and then Sarah and I ventured down to Surin Beach. We took lots of pictures, walked the beach, and played in the waves. Surin Beach is gorgeous! It boasts crystal clear, turquoise water with soft, fine sand. I now understand why everyone raves about the beaches in Thailand. Once the sun had set Sarah and I enjoyed a delicious Thai dinner at a restaurant situated on the beach then got a good night’s rest in our large, luxurious beds!

Thursday – Sarah and I had a lazy morning, ate a nice breakfast at the condo and then returned to Surin Beach. Most of our time at the beach was spent playing and floating in the water. I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful the water was.  Despite being in water that was over 30 feet deep, I still had a clear view all the way down to the ocean floor. The sun pierced through the turquoise water and illuminated the wave-tossed, nearly white sand that gently sloped down into the ocean. The waves at this beach were also fun to play in! We did our fair share of body surfing, and jumped over and under the waves as they rolled toward the shore. I think I probably swallowed at least a liter of salt water from being tossed around by the waves, but it was totally worth it! After spending a full-day at the beach, we had another nice Thai dinner at Bang Tao Beach, which was just a 10 minute walk from our condo. After dinner we came back to our condo to relax, ate ice cream and watched Jane Eyre.

Friday – Phuket has an abundance of tour-packages, which take you all over the islands of the Upper Andaman Coast, so Sarah and I booked 2 tours, the first of which was on Friday.  We woke up early Friday morning, ate a quick breakfast (which the condo graciously served early for us) and got picked up by the tour company’s van. The van then drove us to the pier where we boarded a ferry which carried us to the islands of Ao Nang, part of Krabi. The boat ride was a bit long, but Sarah and I sat on the side of the boat and enjoyed the dramatic scenery as we traversed the Andaman Sea.  This Sea and Phangnga Bay are full of small and large islands, made of towering limestone stacks that jut out of the ocean and remarkable cliff landscapes that line the shores. Once we arrived in Krabi (which is on the eastern Andaman coast (Phuket is on the western coast)) we got off the ferry and boarded a large speedboat. We then spent the morning and afternoon island hopping around Krabi. Our first stop was Talay Waek. This was a narrow, white sandy beach that, when the tide was low (it wasn’t low when we were there), connected Tap Island to Chicken Island. We spent some time exploring the small island, wading in the turquoise water and enjoying the scenery. We then got back on the boat and traveled to Chicken Island, called by this name because the cliffs on the island actually look like a chicken. The boat stopped near the shore and we jumped off the boat into some stunning, bright blue-green water. Here we snorkeled and saw tons of yellow and blue-striped fish. I am not a huge fan of fish and snorkeling, so it took me a while to get the nerve to jump into the ocean. The tour guides on the boat were tossing pieces of bread into the water so that the fish surrounded you as you jumped in. I spoke in Thai to some of the bread-throwers and asked them to hold off on the bread until I jumped in. They consented to my request, but unfortunately, once I jumped in I heard two plops on either side of me. Before I knew it, I was swimming through swarms of fish that were nibbling at the bread that had landed on either side of me! I guess I learned my lesson. After snorkeling we went to Poda Island where we relaxed on the beach, played in the water and marveled at the sheer limestone cliffs. After Poda we went to Railay Beach where we ate a nice Thai lunch that came with the tour. We walked along the beach and waded in the emerald-colored water which surround the beaches of Krabi. After lunch we made one more stop at Phra Nang Cave (translates to outer princess cave because inside there is “a shrine dedicated to the lost spirit of princess Phra Nang, whose ship allegedly sank near the beach in the 4th century BC,” according to my guidebook.) We had some time to explore the cave (it wasn’t a completely enclosed cave) and climb on the slippery rocks.  After this we boarded our speedboat which took us to the ferry, which carried us back to pier on Phuket where we were picked up by a van which then returned us to our condo. Once we were home we ordered dinner via room service (which was free!) and lounged in our condo.

Saturday: Reflecting on our previous day of touring, I realized that it was a ton of fun but we spent a fair amount of time traveling to our destinations. It was also a very crowded tour with at least 35 people on it, and not much personal attention (with the exception of my terrifying bread and fish incident). Therefore, our second tour day was phenomenal in comparison with our first. We were again picked up in the morning and were brought to the pier. This tour was around Phuket and Phangnga Bay so our travel time was much smaller. Also, our group only had 13 people in it, and had 7 tour guides, so the guide to guest ratio was much better. Therefore, we ended up having an excellent adventure! We boarded a large speedboat which took us to Tam Talu. This huge limestone stack was filled with narrow tunnels and sea caves accessible by canoe. So, from our boat we climbed into sea canoes and were paddled through Bat Cave (a cave full of stalagmites and stalactites as well as lots of sleeping bats). Our tour guide, who spoke very little English, paddled our canoe into this incredibly narrow  passageway in which we had to lay on our backs in the canoe so that we could squeeze under the ceiling. When the tide was low, you could paddle all the way through and reach a lagoon. However, the tide was too high so we couldn’t go all the way. We could tell we were close, though, because the sun illuminated the water in the lagoon, which traveled through the water and gave the cave an eerie lime-green hue. After the Bat Cave we got back on the boat and traveled to Hong Island. This island was a vast network of lagoons and tunnels running underneath the limestone cliffs of the island. Once you got into the lagoons, each place was called a certain room (honeymoon room, for example) because it was like you were traveling through rooms as you moved from room to room (hong means room in Thai). The lagoons were accessible only via canoe, so we were again paddled through these tunnels and lagoons. This was an amazing experience because you couldn’t tell where you were going in the tunnels, but once you made it through the tunnel you all of a sudden found yourself in this gorgeous lagoon with vegetation clad walls. It was stunning. We then returned to our boat and swam in the ocean around our boat. Sarah and I had fun jumping off our boat into the water numerous times. After this we ate lunch on the boat and were entertained and waited on by the tour guides. After lunch we got into longtailed boats and were brought to Panyi Fishing Village. About 120 Muslim families live in this village, which is built on stilts over the water complete with many markets, restaurants and a school for the villagers. You can tell this place exists only for tourists now, but it was still interesting to walk along the pathways above the water and mud and wonder what it was like pre-tourists. After the village the longtailed boats took us to Ko Khao Phing Kan, more popularly known as James Bond Island. The James Bond movie “Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed on this island, making it a huge tourist attraction. We walked around the island and took turns posing like James Bond in front of the famous limestone stack that rises from the shallow waters around it. After James Bond Island we made one final stop at Panak Island. We took our canoes to the shore and then walked through a cave and ended up in a lagoon filled with mangroves. The mangroves were beautiful and the roots were fun to walk through and even sit on. (See my picture below.) After Panak Island we were brought back to the pier via speedboat. On the way back we played Jenga (difficult to play on a moving boat) and Sarah and I took turns standing at the front of the boat and living out our dreams of flying, inspired by Titanic, of course. Once we arrived at the pier we were driven back to our hotel where we got room service again and watched what else but Titanic!

Sunday: I woke up and went for a morning swim at Surin Beach. I decided to swim all the way out to the end of the roped off area to see where the ocean sloped down (staying close to the rope, of course). I swam slowly and looked down through the water at the ocean floor as I went further out and was surprised again at how clear the water was. I reached the end of the roped off area and was surprised to see that the floor just kept sloping gently out. After my swim I returned to the condo, got packed up, and then Sarah and I took at taxi to Phukettown. Here we did some shopping and bought some lovely pearl earrings (Phuket is famous for their pearls). After this we had a nice lunch on the beach and then had to bid adieu to Phuket, and boarded a plane back to Chiang Mai. (Sarah came back to Chiang Mai with me for about a week. We had a ton of fun, but I think I’ll have to save that for another post.)

Our beach trip was so much fun, and was a much-needed break from my normal routine. This trip has definitely made me want to return to the south of Thailand and explore more of the beautiful islands in the Andaman Sea. Below are some pictures from my trip. (There’s more on facebook if you’re interested).

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