Discovering Angkor

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On my first full day in Siem Reap, I headed to the world famous Angkor Wat and spent the day exploring the ancient ruins and temples. This region of Cambodia known as Angkor was once the seat of the Khmer Empire, a Hindu kingdom that ruled from the 9th to 15th centuries. The Khmer kings were known by many powerful names like “god-king”, “lion-man”, and universal monarchs. The architecture that was constructed during under Khmer rule are sprawling and magnificent; fit for nothing less than a “god-king”.

Because of the sheer size and number of archeological sights to visit at Angkor, you need to start your day with the sun in order to fit it all in and not faint from heat exhaustion. Located about 15 minutes outside of Siem Reap town, the temples are best reached by hired tuk-tuk driver who will be your personal driver all day for about $15 USD.

I headed out at seven a.m. and was happy to see that the day was hazy but not rainy, ideal weather for exploring outdoor temples in the heat. After purchasing a ticket and temple pass for $20 USD, the first and most anticipated stop is the principal temple of the region, Angkor Wat. Built around 1113, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most famous religious monuments in the world, not to mention the largest religious structure in the world.

Approaching the temple is like approaching the Eiffel Tower. You crane your neck to see it as you’re turning the corner, but nothing can prepare you for the actual sight. This temple is absolutely massive, it’s surrounded by walls on all sides as well as a giant moat and was once enclosed by another outer wall that occupied a space of 203 acres. Talk about massive!

Because of my early arrival at the temple, I was able to explore the grounds mostly alone. It’s easy to get lost in there, the hallways that encompass the central tower go on forever; I must’ve only seen about 50% of the temple in two hours. The imposing structure is built of sandstone and is a classical example of Khmer architecture. Towers are shaped like lotus buds, bas-reliefs cover the walls depicting ancient scenes, with vaulted archways similar to ones used in Gothic structures.

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There are many other sights to visit within the Angkor grounds, and it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring. Ta Phrom is a smaller temple, yet it is still large and sprawling. Dense jungle has grown around and literally through this temple fusing the natural and the man made. There are literally huge trees that have engulfed parts of the temple walls and grown upward towards the jungle canopy.

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You can walk amongst the ruins here and get lost in the maze of corridors that sometimes end abruptly from the roof caving in.  I loved the ruined feel of this sight and how it’s located deep in the jungle. Walking through it made me feel like I was the first person to explore the temple, just like Indiana Jones. Ta Phrom made its big screen debut in 2001’s “Tomb Raider” film starring Angelina Jolie, which is how it’s known today.

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Another well known sight is Angkor Thom, which was one of my favorites. It was the capital city during reign of King Jayavaman. The temple that lies at the center of this sight is known as Bayon Temple.  Because of my late morning timing at this temple, it was literally mobbed with tourists who arrived by the busload. I tried to ignore the hordes of people but it soon became overwhelming as I could hardly take two steps and not bump into someone. The most unique feature of the Bayon are the  200 “face towers” that are located on the top level. These massive stone faces silently watch over the 1 million tourists that visit Angkor every year.

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I really liked the details that are present at the Bayon Temple. The walls are carved with historical scenes from ancient Angkor, from battles to everyday life in the city.

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After wandering through the temples for the better part of the day, it was safe to say I was templed out, hungry, and dehydrated. The skies turned dark around the fourth or fifth temple, so I decided to call it a day and head to the nearest restaurant. The temple tour finished with a fruit shake and famous Cambodian curry fish amok, which was served in a large coconut.

I would love to see Angkor again in my lifetime, it’s almost too much to internalize in a single trip. What I would love most is to visit with my Dad, who is a history buff and was most excited for me to see the temples. If you are ever in Southeast Asia, take the time to go to Siem Reap and visit the Angkor Temples, I don’t think there is anything like it in the world… and you can fulfill your childhood dream of pretending to be Indiana Jones for one day.

 

The Reality of Living Overseas (what movies don’t tell you)

This week marks four months living overseas in Thailand. The time is flying by, and pretty soon I will have one semester of teaching English under my belt. About a year ago, my mind started floating around wanting to travel, to experience the unknown, and start living life to the fullest. Research led to finding that teaching English overseas was a realistic way to see the world, and I applied with 100% enthusiasm and excitement for this next chapter in my life.

I was inspired by other young people that took the leap and moved into a foreign country to work as a teacher. It was reading their blogs and that led me to apply and make the leap for myself, and that’s what I hope to pay forward to at least one person with this website. I thought I knew a lot about Thailand before I got here. But you can’t experience a culture from reading a book or a blog. Nothing can prepare you for the emotional roller coaster that living and working overseas entails.

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I’m loving Thailand, but like with any loving relationship there are arguments and struggles and some days where you just don’t feel like trying. These days for me usually come around the end of a work week, when I’m straining my voice to control thirty 3 year old Thai kids from starting their own rodeo in my classroom because their fear mongering Thai teacher has left the room for one minute. My students are extremely cute and they’re good kids, but being outnumbered 30 to 1 sometimes takes its toll on your psyche. It’s the weekend that always, always restores my spirit and recharges my batteries.

The aim of this post to is address the things that no one really tells you before moving abroad. Let’s face it, Hollywood has romanticized this idea time and time again: the movie’s protagonist moves abroad to somewhere super romantic  and finds not only themselves in the process but a sexy, foreign lover to travel the world with and feed each other cheese and wine. This couldn’t be further from reality. Movies and TV not only make this all seem fantastic, but they also make it seem effortless and easy. You rarely hear about the hard times; the obstacles that every expatriate has to face with living abroad.

Let’s face it, growing up isn’t easy. There are bills, taxes, medical insurance, losing that teenage metabolism you once had, and the dreaded 2 day hangover that sometimes engulfs your entire weekend. Combine that with living in a country where you don’t speak the native language, where many of the customs seem, well, foreign, and you’re bound to have a few bad days here and there.

For all you people out there that believe moving overseas is a fantasy life where I’m sipping on cocktails on a exotic Thai beach all the time, you couldn’t be more wrong (okay, that does happen sometimes). I work at a job that is most days a combination of confusing and stressful, and sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice to pack up my life and move across the world.

The squat toilet: a reality. Thankfully, not in my apartment.

Reality. Thankfully, not in my home or work

From figuring out Visa regulations to trying to find a skin lotion that doesn’t whiten your skin, nothing is simple or familiar when you’re transitioning abroad. Most of the time the situation becomes a funny story, like the many times I’ve almost peed myself on a bus or minivan ride, not being able to tell the driver to pull over (not like they would anyway) because I’m wedged, literally,  in the back of a van amongst 15 other humans who don’t speak a lick of English. But sometimes, and hopefully only sometimes, it’s not so easy to let the cultural differences roll off your back. Standards are no longer considered standards, many times they’re even non existent. Things that would make the average uptight American’s eyes bulge happen constantly overseas.

Piling your entire family on a motorbike (including an infant) with no helmets in sight and dodging city traffic will always seem ludicrous to me. I will never understand the purpose in poking someone else’s belly fat only to remind the owner that it exists and exclaiming, “Oh, fat!” with a big smile. I will definitely never consider pure mayonnaise to be a yummy condiment for anything besides a cold cut sandwich, and I will probably always do a double take at a man taking a piss on a city wall in plain sight of passersby.

Learning a foreign language is hard. Learning Thai language is really hard . I haven’t committed to finding a tutor to learn because of this reason. Most English speakers can’t even produce some of the phonetics with their mouths. You have to retrain your tongue to make entirely new guttural sounds.  In the same respect, it’s difficult for Thai people to pronounce the “L” and “R” sounds of English. I do know that if I want to master the language I have to find someone who is willing to teach me on a intensive level. I’m not going to learn a new language just by walking through the dalat (market). My intention from here on out is to make more of an effort in learning Thai.

It’s the struggles that make it all worth it. You wouldn’t be able to grow if you didn’t have to endure the shit that life throws at you. That beautiful beach or cave temple you traveled to see is that much better when you had to suffer quietly on an anxiety inducing bus ride in a monsoon. Some of the best memories I have backpacking in Europe with my sister were from the times when things went wrong, when one of us (cough cough not me) fell flat on our face racing for a train, or when we had no idea if we would ever see America again while aboard a rather suspicious overnight ferry to Greece.

Travel changes you. I’ve never heard anyone say they regretted traveling, most of the time they regret not going. It’s something that everyone thinks they can’t afford. Find a means if it’s what you want to do, and just do it. Find a job, a volunteer opportunity, crash on a couch, sell your belongings, just GO. Your life will be better for it. Living abroad continues to challenge me, for better or worse, and it’s an experience unlike anything I would find sitting on my couch. I can’t lie though, I do miss my couch most days.

also a reality in Thailand

also a reality in Thailand

Breathe. Smile. Do some yoga. Have a drink. Vent about the weird cultural differences with your friends. It’s all a part of the adventure. I haven’t wanted to pack up my bags at all, not even once, not even when I’m feeling my grumpiest or hungriest for a burrito or fresh coffee. This experience is molding me into a more responsible, respectful, and grateful human being. I can take the bad with the good; it offers insight and if nothing else, it can prompt a lengthy blog post.

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Blow Out Candles Once Again

It’s amazing how you can feel so loved by your family even when you’re 9,000 miles away. This week I celebrated my 26th birthday here in Thailand, and I was sung to literally morning, noon, and night! During the morning assembly before school started, my entire school sang “Happy Birthday” in Thai and English. The Thai teachers signed a card for me, and I felt truly like a part of a big Thai family. However, just because it was my birthday didn’t mean I was exempt from the daily embarrassing dance routine.

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my puffy hair; a testament to the humidity

 

At lunch, all the foreign teachers (my homegirls) came over to my office where I was given an Angry Birds cake and sung to again by the teachers including the school director. My friends gave me a loaf of Italian bread, olives, and a bottle of Cabernet; an Italian girl’s dream, basically.

bread is not a staple of Thai cuisine, making this a GREAT gift!

bread is not a staple of Thai cuisine, making this a GREAT gift!

Both of my parents sent me large boxes from home, filled with goodies like Cheez-its, photos, balloons, a new Neti pot (my sinuses are thankful!), Starbuck’s Via coffee, and Velveeta mac and cheese. I also received a food basket from my mom and sisters who know how much I love food. Apparently they ordered a “gourmet” gift basket, which consisted of delicious cookies, crackers, cheese, and “gourmet” Pringles, French’s mustard, and Kraft singles. I think my co-teacher saw all the food I was gifted and was suddenly nervous I would inflate into a Violet Beauregarde sized farang. I assured her I wouldn’t eat it all at once, even though as soon as I got home from school I tore open some crackers and cheese and went to town! That night all my ladies met at Lebanese restaurant Beirut in Bangkok. We shared giant plates of falafel, hummus, tabouleh, and pita until we were groaning with delight.

My apartment now is filled with so much cheese and various carriers for said cheese, and I couldn’t be happier! I plan to pop the bottle of wine this weekend in Kanchanaburi while relaxing on the shores of the River Kwai and wondering how I got to be 26 years old all of a sudden.

Turning a year older always slightly shocks me but fills me with excitement. This past year was mostly spent at a dead end job working from home; pretty much wasting away on the internet for countless hours. I was still happy, but I knew that something had to change fast or else I would turn into someone that never changes out of their pajamas and has read virtually every article on Buzzfeed. Teaching abroad became a curiosity, a possibility, and ultimately my reality. This experience has opened up so many proverbial doors, and I can’t wait to see what this next year has to offer. I will be in Thailand until at least March, and then the world is ripe for the picking.

To everyone who made me feel special on my birthday, thank you! I love you all to Thailand and back. 26 is going to kick ass, I will be sure of that.

Provincial Phrapradaeng

I realize that many of these posts have been focused on traveling around Thailand, but there’s a lot to be said about where I live in work when I’m not traveling. I consider myself very lucky to have been placed in Phrapradaeng, which is basically a suburb of Bangkok. There’s a definite small town feel walking the streets, and I am usually running into people I know from school or locals and we exchange a smile and a wai. I can buy anything I need or want in town, either from the little shops, Tesco (grocery store), or street stalls.The side streets are designated for either produce, fish, or meat stalls. It’s like a giant farmer’s market within the town, which is a common characteristic of Thailand found throughout the country. It’s interesting coming from America, a place that I thought was obsessed with shopping. Turns out, Americans got nothin’ on the Thais! Thai people find their little space on the street and will set up shop selling just about anything; everywhere. Checking out the market is one of my favorite things to do, there’s always something to buy or look at.

My apartment building is a non-descript four-story building that sits back on a quiet soi (side street). The building is home to all Thai people, except for us  five foreign teachers. There are some families that live in the small one room apartments, but you would never know it by the constant quietness in the hallways. My apartment reminds me of a college dorm complete with white cement walls, twin beds, a wardrobe, small fridge, and a vanity. To our shock, we found TVs in all of our apartments upon moving in. There’s an endless amount of Thai channels and luckily 2 English speaking channels. The Universal channel. We’ve become a little too familiar with the handful of shoes on this channel than we’d probably like to admit.

I have a small balcony that faces that loudest high school in the history of the world, where they love to use a megaphone as a means for everything. The alley between my building and the school is cluttered with some trash, but is mostly a thick mess of palms and mango trees. The other day I watched a large monitor lizard slyly slink his way through the alley, a subtle note that I am indeed living in a tropical country. We live about a 5 minutes walk from school and about 10 minutes from the main area in town. I pass the beautiful temple of Wat Songtham everyday and sometimes there are festivals going on in the yard. They range from religious to downright ridiculous, but there’s always good food and people watching.

night festival at Wat Songtham

outdoor sink

 

I wake for school a various times each days, depending on the rain that morning. If it’s sunny, the students are gathered in the school’s courtyard to pray to the Buddha statue, sing the National Anthem and a Thai “Happy Birthday to You” to whichever student is celebrating on that particular day. Next on the list is a funny song that everyone, myself included, is required to dance along to. I like to think of it as the Thai Macarena, with some simple moves that are hilarious at 8 am when executed by 500 kindergartners.

morning school line up

morning school line up

I share an office with three Thai teachers who are always bringing in treats, both Western and Thai, and sharing them with me. It’s usually a delicious exotic fruit like rambutan or mangosteen, sometimes it’s little cakes or candies. Today’s office treat is some sort of seed that pops out of an over sized green pod. My class schedule is spaced out, leaving me 2 hours for lunch everyday. I walk over to the primary school and eat their delicious soup for 20 baht, it’s the same everyday but I haven’t tired of it yet.

my school lunch for less than $1

my school lunch for less than $1

My students are bursting with energy every time I see them. If I don’t have a particular activity or game planned, it means 40 five year olds running around screaming and knocking each other over. My lessons are simple and always include a physical game, song, or drawing activity. I reinforce the English lessons they learn in their regular classes, attempting to inject a little creativity and fun into their day. This week we are learning animals, but the kids already know the names of many animals in English. That makes it easier on me, so I gave them an assignment to draw their favorite animal. They wrote the sentence, “My favorite animal is a….”. Their drawings are creative and some are really talented! Their handwriting is superb, I think it’s because Thai writing is so intricate and beautiful that when they write in English it comes with ease.

drawing our favorite animals

drawing our favorite animals

one of my K3 classes

I laugh a ton in my classes. Some days the kids don’t want to listen and then we end up sitting in silence with their hands over their mouths (a Thai method, not mine) until they are ready to learn. My students are still young and innocent for the most part, they love to run up and hug me, and five highs are their favorite. I recently started teaching an extra 2 hour class on Saturday mornings and it’s simply hilarious. It’s more of a summer camp feel than school. This past Saturday started with the teachers all wearing cardboard chicken hats and dancing to the chicken dance. I teach two 30 minute classes which are hardly enough time to play one game, so it’s not a lot of pressure for me to come up with a sixth day of lessons. I like to spend the extra time with the Thai teachers on this day, it makes me feel more like I’m part of the staff since they welcome me into all of their photo ops.

always a humbling experience at school

always a humbling experience at school

Amnuayvidhya School is a great place to work. Everyone is friendly and the kids are respectful and cute as hell. It definitely doesn’t feel like work most of the time. Our school has been run by a family for the past thirty years, and the adult grandchildren now hold positions as Director and Head of English Department. We were recently invited on a weekend trip with the family go to down to Hua Hin in September. It’s definitely going to be an interesting weekend; I’m looking forward to traveling with Thais and experiencing what they do on a holiday weekend. The fact that they invited the us foreign teachers means a lot to me.

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practicing our shapes

practicing our shapes

Pi Chompoo, my amazing and crazy co-teacher

Pi Chompoo, my amazing and crazy co-teacher

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The weeknights in Phrapradaeng are quiet and relaxing. I try to spend a few hours in my office after school doing work so I won’t go home and take a long nap (tough life, huh?) The rainy season has officially made its way to the Bangkok area, and the daily spurt of rain has turned into downpours that last hours. The rainy season will last until November. Here’s to hoping that our area won’t flood… that much. Bangkok is accessible by one of the city buses that parks just around the corner, and we go often for shopping, mainly, and Western food. However, we are still removed from the hectic life of the city and our town sees basically zero foreigners. I really couldn’t be happier with my little life here in Phrapradaeng.

Getting My Sea Legs

 

Tanote Bay from the boat

Tanote Bay from the boat

Our long awaited holiday on Koh Tao came and went in the blink of an eye. I was looking forward to the weekend more than I can say, five days off work on a new island and the best part of all; getting my SCUBA diving certification. I had never even snorkeled in my life, and swimming in the open ocean water has always freaked me out but I wanted and needed to conquer a new skill, hoping that I was going to love it immediately. Getting your open water dive certification here in Thailand is significantly cheaper than in the US, so it made sense just to go for the full certification with the expectation of enjoying it and then being able to dive anywhere in the world in the future.

I chose to travel to Koh Tao for the weekend of Buddhist Lent (two days off school plus another I requested) mainly to go diving at a place that a friend from home had worked at and highly recommended. We booked an overnight 8 hour bus ride plus a 2 hour boat that left Thursday evening. The trip was luckily uneventful except for the viewing of Jack and the Beanstalk twice over on the bus that kept me from sleeping as soundly as I would have liked. We arrived on Koh Tao Friday morning around 10 am, and were met by two of Taylor’s friends who have been teaching in China and also came to Koh Tao for to dive for the weekend. From the pier, we all squeezed into a songthaew in usual Thai fashion and were whisked down the island to our little corner of paradise.

Chalok Ban Kao

Chalok Ban Kao

Alvaro Diving and Babaloo Bar

Alvaro Diving and Babaloo Bar

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funky hut wall drawings

funky hut wall drawings

Koh Tao (Thai for “turtle island”) is a small island that has been taken over by the world of SCUBA diving. It is the #2 location in the entire world for annual dive certifications (after Cairns, Australia). Dive shops line the shores and divers fills the water eager to experience their next underwater adventure. A large chunk of Koh Tao’s west coast is taken up by the most popular beach, Sairee, which is filled with overpriced restaurants and foreigners toting buckets overflowing with cheap liquor and various neon colored straws.

When we arrived at Alvaro Diving, we were happy to find that we were far away from all the madness that takes place around Sairee, the wildest thing happening on our beach was a game of beach football between various Europeans. Everything about this place was laidback. The dive shop and next door bar, Babaloo, were seemingly decorated by the same set designer as “Gilligan’s Island”, and it fit the scene perfectly.

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After checking into our quaint bungalow (fitted with a mosquito net and a hammock on the porch), we got right into the nitty gritty of our diving certification. After deciding which path to take, PADI or SSI (the two schools of diving, think Pepsi vs. Coke), we immediately started a theory class where we got to know the equipment that would enable us to breathe underwater. A typical dive course takes about 3-4 days, and involves dive theory (all the scientific aspects and safety), a corny video, chapters to read and related questions to answer, a final exam, and obviously, the diving!

All this new information was a bit daunting at first. These people were serious about the safety of their sport, if anything at all is not perfect leading up to a dive, you don’t dive. After an hour or so lesson on dive depths, nitrogen levels, buoyancy compensators, hydrostatic tests, and safety protocol, we were dismissed to return bright and early the next morning for our very first confined water skill test and dive.

a very serious dive theory clas

a very serious dive theory class

The next morning we were shipped out to the dive boat. It was a rocky, anxious start waiting in the bay for the boat to fill up. The boat took us to a nearby beach and we were briefed by our lovely Spanish instructor, Judith, about what we were about to do. After a short pep talk, we were loading up our gear and checking with our buddies to make sure everything was in working order. One graceless step slash jump off the ladder and I was anxiously ready to begin. The next couple hours were spent in shallow water practicing underwater skills. They include things like, clearing water from your mask, removing and replacing the mask while underwater, sharing oxygen with your buddy in case an emergency arises, removing your equipment, emergency ascends, and learning all the communicative hand signals that exist between divers.

After we practiced the skills and I swallowed a couple mouthfuls of water, Judith told us we were ready for our first dive. I definitely didn’t feel ready, but I suppose I was because once we were gliding through the shallow reef checking out the underwater world, I felt at ease and confident in my new environment.

Seafarer packed with divers

Seafarer packed with divers

It’s funny how many pounds of equipment you can have on but still feel weightless under the water. The sea is silent except for the bubbles of your own exhalation and the sporadic clinking of your instructor trying to regain your attention. Once we ascended to the surface, we all laughed a lot and cheered at our success… My overall confidence level shot up a few notches and I was already in love with diving. Thank you, Jacques Cousteau!

Over the next three days, we underwent three more dives, going deeper with each one. Our final dive was at a depth of 18 meters (60 feet!), and it definitely had the grand finale feel. We dove for about 45 minutes in an exquisite reef that surrounds Shark Island. The name comes from the fact that the small island resembles a dorsal fin; no sharks are typically found here but instead a beautiful, lively reef encircles the island below the water.

The current was strong on the way down, and I felt like a fly in the wind as I grasped onto the boat’s line while descending. The minutes fly by when you’re diving, and before we knew it we had to ascend because 45 minutes had past and we were reaching our residual dive time and needed to get back to the surface. We saw so many things on the final dive, the life literally blooming from the reef 18 meters below sapphire blue seawater. Some of the things we saw were, large sea urchins, triggerfish, sailfish, a stingray, harlequin sweetlips fish, bat fish, butterfly fish, giant clams, and many, many kinds of coral. Diving injects you with the energy of what you just experienced, but it also kicks your ass physically. My legs were sore from kicking with the fins and my whole body was exhausted from the days on the boat and in the water, and obviously from wearing about 50 pounds of gear on my back. A dark storm started to roll in over the water as we loaded back onto the boat,making the ride back to shore a wet and windy one. It was the first time I had been really COLD in Thailand since being here almost three months. Regardless, we were now certified SSI Open Water Divers!!!!!!! I felt absolutely awesome. Not to mention, diving with one of your good friends is in itself amazing and lent to many underwater jokes that almost made us lose our regulators from laughing too much.

Certified, YEAH!

Certified, YEAH!

Our last night on Koh Tao was just as great as the rest of the trip. A large group of us went to nearby Buddha View Restaurant and gorged ourselves on a delicious BBQ dinner. I had a huge swordfish steak, grilled corn, and fresh juice, all for under 200 baht. Later, we spent time at the Babaloo Bar next to Alvaro, sharing beers and stories and a thoughtful game of questions with some of our fellow travelers. The next morning, our time on Koh Tao sadly had come to an end. We said our goodbyes to our new friends at Alvaro and to the beautiful beach.

Fun fact: Apparently when you spend substantial time on a boat one develops their sea legs. It’s defined as the ability to walk steadily on a boat as its rocking back and forth. It also refers to the sensation of STILL being on a rocky boat when you’re back on land and it can last for a few days. The next day during school lunch, we all laughingly admitted that we had sea legs to some degree. I felt fine when I was moving and teaching, but sitting at my desk led me to feel dizzy and out of control of the world around me. It took about 3 days to feel normal again, it’s a hilarious but really uncomfortable sensation to experience especially when you’re at work. (This is why people used to think pirates and sailors were always drunk because they were always seen swaying even when on land.)

Diving on Koh Tao got me incredibly excited for heading even further south and discovering the all islands and dive sights along the way. Koh Tao was gorgeous and full of life, both above and below the water. I highly recommend Alvaro Diving, a professional yet laid back establishment that caters to a ridiculous amount of languages and skill sets. It’s a more intimate feel than the larger dive shops and I received top notch instruction the entire time. So, thanks Collette for pointing me there! I would recommend heading to that area of the island even if you’re not diving at all, since it’s away from all the shitty tourist spots on Koh Tao and offers a true beach party vibe.

weirdos at Babaloo

weirdos at Babaloo

cha yens and French toast with a view

cha yens and French toast with a view

 

Kapow Koh Tao! getting pumped up

Chalok Ban Kao

Chalok Ban Kao

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juice, eggs, fish, veggies!

juice, eggs, fish, veggies!

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Chalok Ban Kao Panorama

Chalok Ban Kao Panorama

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Judith and her new divers!

Judith and her new divers!

 

Working Towards Happiness (In the Land of Smiles, ironically)

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.-Dalai Lama

It’s my favorite time of year back in the U.S. Summer at the Jersey shore means there’s always something to do. The weather is beautiful. People are happy and active, and there is always something to see, somewhere to take your bike for a ride. It also means that music festivals are happening all up and down the East Coast, where I’ve had many of my best memories as an adult. For someone as fest-obsessed as I am, seeing these going on all over social media is giving me a big case of homesickness. There aren’t many things in life that make me happier to be alive than going a music festival or a weekend of Phish shows. Not only are you experiencing a ridiculous amount of music jam-packed (pun definitely intended) into one weekend, you see old friends and make new ones, camp out in a dusty field somewhere in the middle of nowhere, party like the world is coming to an end, and you can dress like a skunk without judgment. To add to the little bout of blues I am dealing with, Fourth of July came and went, disguised as any other Thursday. It was spent with us American teachers sitting in a work permit office for most of the day (Imagine sitting in the DMV but no one speaks English)… definitely not ideal.

Being so far away from my friends during this time of year is pretty hard, but I’m trying to find outlets for these feelings to turn them positive. I’ve registered on meetup.com with various groups around Bangkok to meet some new people and fully enjoy what this giant city has to offer. One of the groups brought me to discover Bangkok Farmers Market, which I am planning on volunteering at later this month. I would love to meet people who are interested in food and health and can show me how to survive and thrive in this land of rice and mystery meats.Speaking of food, (which I do pretty much constantly, my friends here were quick to point out) Bangkok is hosting a free food festival this coming Sunday. You get to taste bites of various vendors concoctions for FREE, with all donations go to charity. Sounding much more like my beloved NYC, I’m pretty excited about this being that there will be international food served and the proud chefs standing by to chat with. I hope both the food festival and the farmers market bring me closer to the food community out here.

My focus during my time here is to remain healthy and happy while working and traveling. Food is synonymous with Thailand, but it’s very different from in the US and it can be hard to always have balanced nutrition here. Thais love sugar and it comes with or on everything. The (instant) coffee is really only made with 11% coffee; 56% of each serving is pure sugar. Fresh fruit is easy to find here from a street stall but it usually comes with a tiny bag of sugar and salt for dipping. 7-11’s are the most popular convenience store in the country, making it way too convenient to grab chips or candy or soda, consuming mire sugar and avoiding all nutrients whatsoever. It’s been a struggle for me to make sure I’m having fruit, vegetables and protein, especially since I don’t eat meat. Luckily, 7-11 stores sell “All You Need” juice similar Naked Juices back in the States. They’re delicious and all natural. My organs are thanking me right now.

Regardless of all these tiny obstacles, it all comes down to just making smart choices for myself. I’m most definitely not complaining, but I am aware that any life is not perfect.

Even some of the most beautiful places in the world still have rainy days.

Hell, it’s the rainy days that make the sunny ones that much better. Exercising and staying positive for me is the key, and a huge life change like this can easily distract you from staying on top of that. I’m fearing my “honeymoon” phase of living in Thailand is coming to a gradual end, and real life is hitting me in the face. I’m thousands of miles from anything I know to be comfortable, and life here is sometimes stressful and confusing. But at the end of the day, which it is currently, I am still so happy with everything I’ve been offered in my 25 years. I chose to move to Thailand and that choice was thankfully available to me; something I know not everyone can say for themselves. I have found really great friends who I can be myself with and who will listen to me vent, and then drag me to 7-11 for an ice cream and some laughter along the way.

I live in a beautifully strange country where I always am laughing and smiling at my job.

I work with my mind’s eye always on Friday when I head out to a jungle or beach or temple, or just stay home and explore one of the world’s most popular cities. Life is really good; and it’s always better when you feel healthy and are surrounded by great friends.. and sometimes all it takes to take your blues away is a Thai teacher (who I love and refers to me as her second daughter) bringing in ripe mango when it’s not even mango season.

Into the Wild…

Wednesday, June 26th. I was seven weeks into teaching and this particular day of classes was a struggle from start to finish. The middle of the week is usually like that at school. Your weekend high has worn off and the next weekend seems unreachable. It was during this mid-week low that I was told good and bad news. A few students came down with hand, foot, and mouth virus (luckily it’s just an adolescent annoyance and clears up on its own) and school was to be cancelled until Monday. TWO extra days off work!? My tired body was ready for some extra sleep and excited for the extended weekend. So many options with a four day weekend. However, myself and the other new American teachers had to report to the local hospital the next day for a physical exam for our work permits. Turns out this exam was a doctor weighing you and telling you that you are not fat and smiling at you excitedly, taking your blood pressure, and taking a vile of blood to check for syphilis (Syphilis free, folks!)

That took up most of Thursday, and I was unsure of how to extend my weekend since a group of us already had booked two nights near Khao Yai and a full tour of the national park on Saturday. I rang the guesthouse to see if I could hop on a half day tour for Friday evening and start my weekend out of Bangkok as soon as possible.

With the tour secured, I woke up early Friday as usual and hopped on an hour long city bus ride to the northern bus station, Mo Chit. 3 hours and 118 Baht later, I was in Pak Chong, a bustling little valley town just outside the bounds of Khao Yai National Park. I was promptly picked up from the bus stop by Suri, one of the friendly owners of the guest house we were staying at. I arrived at Bobby’s Apartments soon after to find that this cheap cheap guesthouse (200 baht per person for a triple room) was clean, cute, and full of friendly faces. I changed and hopped into the back of a songthaew with two of the friendliest Dutch couples ever in existence and we were off!

I was shocked by the air in Pak Chong, it was so clean you could feel the freshness and it there was no humidity to be found. It literally felt like a different country compared to Bangkok where it’s sweltering and humid all the time and you sweat even when you’re sitting still. Not to mention all the damn pollution near the city and the trash that you see everywhere; compared to that daily imagery, this was HEAVEN. Our first pit stop was a natural spring at the bottom of a mountain where tourists and locals were swimming in the clear blue water. The water was a bit chilly, but I jumped right in and could have stayed there for hours. The water is so clean that local people use a section of it that is restricted from swimmers for drinking water. Our guide was a loud and funny Thai woman who loved cracking jokes at the expense of lady boys and herself (typical Thai self-deprecating humor. I dig it.) After we dried off we were back in the songthaew on our way to the bat caves.

I took this through a hole in a bathroom wall!

mountain spring swimming

Monkey Avenue

Monkey Avenue

It was a cool and clear late afternoon, and we were surrounded by greenery everywhere we looked thanks to Thailand’s rainy season. We were led quickly into a cave opening and with some dinky flashlights we were guided through the habitat of Thailand’s wrinkly-lipped bats. They were mostly sleeping in typical nocturnal style, but were awoken if you whistle loudly or make loud kissing noises with your lips as our guide did often just to get the bats to fly around. There was a shrine inside the cave, not surprisingly. Buddha is everywhere in Thailand, even in the darkest of places. We were then ushered out to the surface again because the bats were making their daily exodus a bit early that day and we needed to catch them in flight! We ran down the road a bit to a break in the mountains where we could witness one of nature’s wonders. 4 MILLION bats leaving their caves at sunset to make their way into the national park for a night of eating and partying; bat style. I felt like I was on the production team of Planet Earth, standing below millions of these bats flying in a smoke-like fashion into the setting sun across the mountains. And this happens every, single, day.

bat exodus

My students coming down with a virus could not have landed on any other weekend (sorry, kids!). After about 40 minutes of this flying mammal frenzy, our evening tour ended and we headed back to the guesthouse. Picture me, in the back of a songtaew fifth wheeling it with two really amazing couples sipping on a Leo beer as we sped back across the highway for dinner. Where else in the world can you drink a beer in the back of a truck as you’re flying down a highway chatting with people from across the world? I was thrilled and I hadn’t even been inside Khao Yai yet, and I still had a 12 hour day tour ahead of me in the morning. To make the day even better, Bobby’s Apartments cooked AMAZING dinner which I enjoyed while talking more with my new Dutch companions and waiting for my friends to arrive from Bangkok.

The next morning we were greeted with another exceedingly gorgeous day. Not a cloud in sight and again NO humidity. I was quickly on the lookout for any schools nearby that I could apply for a position at. (Did I mention that the Khao Yai area hosts Thailand’s wine region? Heaven.) So, we tied on our leech socks and headed out. There are land leeches in this region and you have to wear a pair of extremely sexy socks that tie up around your knees to prevent the little blood suckers from feeding on your supply of fresh blood. The six of us girls were SO ready for a jungle day, we started the morning by having a ridiculous Little Mermaid singalong in the songthaew on our ascent up into the park. Internally, I knew that this day would probably be met with some high altitudes and me having to face my fear of heights (so lame). I was determined not to let it get the best of me and my date with the jungle.

As our songthaew wound further and further up the mountain and deeper into the park, our guide, Ben, was on the lookout (Ace Ventura style: half of his body out of the car window scanning for wildlife). It started with a spider here and there; nothing crazy. But then the branches overhead started swinging and Ben told us excitedly that macaw monkeys were coming out to greet us. It was only about 9 am and we were already seeing families of monkeys in the trees! I’ve only even seen monkeys in zoos, I was so thrilled that I could have cried. It was a good omen and set the mood for the rest of the day.

Ben drove us around various parts of the park all day; we stopped many times to spy on the not so shy monkeys that were hanging out on the road. Apparently they’ve been fed by passing cars so often that they will come right up to your car and stand on their hind legs and beg for food like a dog. It was a weird sight and sad to know that once again humans have altered the ecosystems of this planet by not thinking their actions through. We were then ready to actually venture into the thick forest, as Ben prayed to the spirits of the jungle for good luck. We faithfully followed his lead and for the next few hours we oohed and aahed at all the wonders he pointed out to us that we would have never seen otherwise. Leaves that curl up when you touch them, bugs that coil up into hard balls that look like malt balls, 400 year old fig trees that look like they were drawn out of Fern Gully, bear claw marks on tree trunks, wild pig tracks, and beautiful but scary looking spiders were just some of the memorable sightings.

DSC01587

Ben kept getting calls in on his radio that wild elephants were being seen on the road and we kept missing them by a few minutes, over and over again. The rest of the day included Ben stopping the truck because he spotted a scorpion along the road (seriously what an eye he had!) that was a deep teal and entertained us for a few minutes by advancing at sticks we held and allowing us to admire its poisonous beauty. We trekked through a huge plain with grass almost as tall as me, and ate lunch in a watch tower high above the ground. Ben led us to a cliffside with a view nothing less than spectacular. The sky was so clear and blue, but I had a hard time at first even getting near the edge. My acrophobia was trying to stop me, but eventually I was comfortable enough with my surroundings that I was able to get close enough to take some great photos and let the beauty around me sink in.

I wish I had this view every day

The day was drawing to close, and we were still eager to see elephants that we kept missing along the road. I thought we would see one or two and I would have been utterly and completely satisfied with that. Just as the sun was setting over the mountains, Ben got a call in on his radio. Multiple families of wild elephants were spotted in that same field we had crossed through around lunchtime. Ben sped up the truck and next thing I knew we were full out sprinting about 2 km up a dirt path into the field. When we came to the plateau, there was a good crowd with telephoto lenses directed to the edge of the jungle. Ben handed over his binoculars and what I saw was truly magical. Twenty two wild elephants, from various families, had congregated for a sunset graze. I felt like Roger in 101 Dalmatians when he comes running through the apartment counting the puppies being born. “20… 21… 22. TWENTY TWO!” I’m getting emotional even writing about it. It was unbelievable. Here I was in Thailand at the edge of a rainforest watching a large herd of elephants as the sun was setting over the mountains. There were so many babies! We watched them eat, play, roll around, and just,exist. After about 30 minutes of drooling over the sight in front of us, Ben told us that we had to leave so that the families could cross the fields to their watering hole.

elephant paparazzi

elephant paparazzi

The rest of the night was a blur of exhaustion. Still on a high from the day but physically spent, we all ended up in bed quite early for a Saturday night. Our weekend away in Khao Yai came and went better than I could have imagined it. Perfect weather, perfect tour, amazing luck seeing so many animals, and countless laughs with good friend who were strangers two months ago.

Our lucky guide, Ben!