Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ko Pha-Ngan, Songkran, Surat Thani

In formulating, planning, and daydreaming about my adventures in Thailand, I consciously made a mental list of different things that I wanted to do, accomplish, and develop. I would call this past weekend an ideal one, as it was spent “doing” many things that I have been wishing to do. I danced on the beach, sang on the beach, did yoga on the beach, snorkeled, swam in the waves (again), kayaked, and best of all—went on the craziest jungle hike of my life.

Faren and I had a long weekend to get away, as it was the Buddhist New Year. In Thailand, the people call it “Songkran” and celebrate it with huge water wars on about every street in the country. Having the chance to celebrate Songkran in Thailand is very special. The term "water fight" used to make me think of small water pistols, super soakers, and maybe some water balloons. But after experiencing a Songkran water fight, this term has a whole new meaning. Whole cities are involved in the fun. Families and friends cram as many people as possible into the back of pick-up trucks, cruising around town armed with gallons of water, using every kind of means to douse the passengers in the next car and the passerby’s on the sidewalk. Others will set up camp on the street with a bucket the size of a walk-in closet. Some have hoses, some have guns. To add to the madness, everyone throws talcum powder around, smearing it all over their cheeks like war paint. In essence, Songkran was the biggest party I have ever attended.

It was a difficult decision of where to spend the holiday weekend. Bangkok is known for the craziness and utter chaos (in a good way) on the New Year, and to make the city even more enticing, we could have tagged along with three of our friends from Surat, who were driving up and staying in a house. And these guys really know how to have a good time. However, Faren and I, being the cautious women that we are, researched safety threats. Since there was heightened security in Bangkok for Songkran, we decided to stick with our original plan and retreat to our favorite island in the whole world, Ko Phangan. Thankfully, Bangkok survived the past week with no instances of bombs or notable shootings (which is more than I can say for my own country).

Upon disembarking the ferry and embarking upon Ko Phangan, Faren and I ran for the nearest tuk-tuk (technically a Song-thaew, which I explained in the previous post, but everyone refers to them as tuk-tuks in this region). We could see the full-blown water fight was just meters away in the small village of Thongsala, and we wanted to avoid the buckets of water from stragglers as much as possible while we still had our backpacks. This attempt was in vain. Riding through the streets, the tuk-tuk and all of its passengers were drenched with buckets, hoses, and waterguns. I felt like I was thrown into some kind of jovial war without any form of self-defense. It is known by all Thai people and most of the farrang that if you are going to venture outside on Songkran, even if for just a moment, anything you don’t want soaking wet should be kept at home. So, I had safely tucked away my camera, phone, and iPod in a plastic bag. And before we had made it to the safety of our hotel, in the spirit of the holiday, the rain came down. Sheets of tropical rain with no warning. If you think for one moment that this sounds cold, don’t. Of course, dripping clothing is not too comfortable. But the heat is so intense that, apart from the initial surprise from a bucket of water and a torrent of rain, everyone is happy to be drenched in water.

The first night on Ko Phangan we spent at Haad Rin, dancing and drinking on the beach. Late into the night, there were still some people on the hunt with waterguns and buckets in hand. After applying a little bit of makeup for the first time in days, we ventured out onto the little dirt street in search of a happening bar. Within 2 minutes, I was squirted right in the face by a boy with a supersoaker-like water gun. Figures. Faren and I had a few other moments where we were forced to run the other direction to avoid the streams of water quickly approaching. After taking refuge in a bar, we befriended some nice Irish folk and spent the rest of the night drinking and dancing on the beach with our new buddies.

The next day, we ventured from the South end of the island to a secluded beach on the North end, aptly named Coconut Beach. Coconut Beach is one of those rare places where holiday makers will come for a day or two, and subsequently cannot help but extend their trip for weeks. We witnessed this happen to almost all of the people whom we met. On the surface, it does not seem like there is a whole lot going on. But somehow, mysteriously enough, you can never get bored. Faren and I originally planned to come for one night, but stayed for the rest of our long weekend, a total of three nights. In order to get there, you have to travel quite a distance on a rocky, hilly, dirt road. The water is clear and the white-sand beach is lined with palm trees and hammocks. To add to the enchanting atmosphere, the Thai people who ran our hotel (actually just a group of bungalows on the beach, above picture shows where we eat all our meals at the hotel) showed us the “true” Thai hospitality for which Thailand is famous. For those three days, it felt like we were in our own little colony on the beach. Everyone staying in those bungalows got to know one another. We shared stories of our travels with people from England and Australia. We sang along to the guitar with people from Sweden and Austria. We ate with the Thais and the Canadians. It was perfect.

Coconut Beach is also home to the most creative and charming bar I’ve ever seen, built right into the rocks on the beach (see picture at right). It was very small and lit with strings of lights (picture below) until the power was shut off every night at midnight, at which point candle light illuminated the area. This was a place for gathering, drinking, talking, singing, and star gazing.

Nearby to Coconut Beach is a getaway that is reachable “only” by boat. It is called Bottle Beach. Faren and I decided that we would use our hotel’s kayak to get there. Armed with a real kayak paddle and a canoe paddle, we launched the boat with quite difficulty (I guess we aren’t as strong as we’d like to think) and were off. Immediately, we knew that the wind was going to be a problem. We were paddling against a very strong current. But this did not deter us for a moment. Along the way, we found some great snorkeling. My years of boating experience came to use when I was able to securely tie off our canoe to a seemingly impossible rocky cliff, and we leisurely snorkeled without fear of losing the kayak and having to swim back to Coconut Beach. Once our noses were completely filled with salt water (this is the problem with cheap snorkels), we continued on our journey, only to find that the current had become stronger. But, we kept paddling! We still made fairly good distance, and after an hour with no Bottle Beach in site, we were desperate. Faren jumped out of the kayak and tried to help my paddling by giving it a hard shove every few minutes. This lasted for about 15 or 20 minutes. We kept looking to the next bend in the coast, and hoping that our destination would come in sight once we rounded that corner. Eventually, tired and hungry, we had to give up. So instead, we both laid down across the kayak and let the current carry us all the way back to Coconut Beach. Although we did not get to see Bottle Beach that day, we did have a fun adventure, see some great snorkeling, and get in a good arm workout!

Longing for a good hike, Faren and I decided to try to reach Bottle Beach once again. Most tourists will simply take a longboat, but we were determined to get there on our own. Despite warnings of the difficulty and length of the hike, and the opinions of others that we should not try to hike to Bottle Beach at all, we were not dissuaded. This turned out to be a very good thing, as it was the best, wildest, most difficult and most fun hike that either Faren or I have ever been on. We scaled rocks above the rocky shoreline, we climbed on the rocky shoreline itself, we slid down hills, we used tree roots for footing when climbing up the walls of the jungle, we got attacked and bitten by big red ants, we even got lost from the trail. All in the sweltering heat of midday. The trail was not really even a trail at all. At times it was almost impossible to know which direction we were to go next, and the only thing that made it possible was the bottles marking the way. At (almost) every twist and turn there was some kind of empty water bottle securely stuck on a tree branch, pointing us in the right direction. As we downed every last drop from the water bottles in our daypack, we contributed to the effort. I found myself wandering whether the name, “Bottle Beach,” or the trail markers came first.

After some scary instances on the rocky cliffs next to the shore, and finally finding our way back to the bottles, we made it all the way to our destination. Both Faren and I had moments where we could not help but feel as if we were doomed. Either we were going to fall and get banged up pretty badly, we were going to have turn back, or we were going to have to wave our arms wildly at one of the passing longboats full of tourists. There were a few times where we were stuck on the rocky coast and it seemed as if our only way out was to swim, which would have not been good for my camera as it is not waterproof like my cousin’s. But we never had to swim and we never had to seek help from the passing boats. It was quite an accomplishment when we came walking out of the jungle, looked back at the looming mountain behind us, and knowing that we had finally made it. Every person we talked to were in awe that these two girls had just stumbled out of the jungle and onto their beach. Needless to say, we took a longboat to get back to Coconut Beach :)

It was difficult to leave our vacation haven, but both of us had to get back to work on Wednesday. Through networking, I landed a temporary teaching job (which is quite difficult to get since most require you to sign a one-year contract) in Surat Thani and my first day was Wednesday, which was very exciting for me. I have two classes, two hours each, and my students range from ages 6 to 27. Most English teachers in Thailand do not speak any Thai. In this case, my students’ previous teacher is a Native English speaker who grew up in New York, but, he is Thai and he can speak Thai. So, they were a bit nervous to have a non-Thai speaking young white woman as a teacher. All in all, I found my students to be very sweet, I loved teaching them, and I am looking forward to developing relationships with them as they become more comfortable with their “farrang” teacher. And after just one day, I can already see that it will be a very rich and rewarding experience.

In other news, one of my Thai friends helped me to find a used guitar for only 500 baht! (about $15 USD) I had seen plenty of guitars around, but they were always at least 2000-3000 baht, so I was very lucky to have someone native who could take me to the right place and help me get the right price. Not surprisingly, white people are often charged “tourist” prices, unless you can convey to the vendor that you are a poor English teacher—not a tourist. I had originally planned to bring my own guitar on my travels, but at the last second, right before I left for the airport, I decided that it was going to be too heavy to schlep. And since it is a fairly nice guitar, I knew I would have a hard time ditching it if I needed to. Meanwhile, with this $15 used guitar, I won’t mind if I have to leave it somewhere, or better yet, sell it to someone else! I had so little time to play the guitar while in college, which is something that always made me sad. Once upon a time, I took lessons and put so much hard work into learning how to play. I feel like I finally have the opportunity and the time to pursue this passion once again. In fact, another one of my romantic notions for Thailand is that Faren and I will sing while I play the guitar and Faren rocks out on the bongo drums—on the beach, of course :) We have already started singing again (another one of my favorite hobbies that I have neglected for several years now), developing/re-developing our voices, learning words to songs, and dreaming about performing in restaurants and clubs around here.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Pattaya, Surat Thani, Ko Pha-ngan

On my first day in Thailand, I could already see what is obvious to foreigners and natives alike—this place is an incredible country. And like none other. The fact that Thailand is the only nation in Southeast Asia never to be colonized hints at the fierceness of the Thai people and the strength of the Thai culture. Everyday, I thrive off of learning new and different things about the culture, traditions, and customs. Some things seem so backward, and some seem to make so much sense. I am fascinated with the diversity, and although some things can be exasperating, I appreciate all. Each lesson, whether it ends in victory or frustration, adds yet another layer to my experience. I feel accepted and encouraged by the attitude of the Thai people. They are very sweet and loving, particularly when shown kindness and respect (the Golden Rule applied!). Thailand has certainly earned its reputation as the land of smiles.

My journey from Seattle to the other side of the globe was (luckly) pretty uneventful. I did not lose my luggage and my jetlag was pretty typical. I had to fight the headache and nausea for the better part of the trip, but I was also able to get a lot of sleep (without taking any sort of medication!), watch two movies, and even make a new friend. It wasn’t until I was standing in line at Immigration that my heart really started racing because entering Thailand without a visa or a return/onward ticket is a little tricky. I guess I had already worried about it, researched visa options, and mulled over several ideas enough to earn an easy passage into the country, because I was never questioned once about it. And when I was safely through customs, I exhaled, finally realizing that I had actually done it!


As I mentioned, I made a friend before I even landed in Bangkok! Killing time during my layover in the Taipei airport, I met Casey. We stood to board our plane after a few hours of chatting, and found to our utter surprise, that out of the endless rows of seats on the giant plane, we were seated next to one another! By the time we finally made it to baggage claim in Bangkok, we felt like old friends. I did not really have a plan for my first weekend in Thailand, as the time that I arrived did not make it easy for me to head down to Surat Thani (where I was to join my cousin, Faren, who currently calls Surat Thani “home”) until at least the next day. So Casey (see picture below at left), intriguing me with stories of Thailand’s equivalent to Las Vegas, convinced me to join him in this other “sin city,” aka Pattaya, for at least a night or two. Needless to say, it was very nice to have a travel partner when arriving in such a foreign place for the very first time, particularly since he has been visiting Thailand for years and he really took me under his wing and made sure I had a great time. I can sum up Pattaya by saying, like a stunning sunrise, the city offered a "stimulating" dawn to what has thus far proven to be an exhilarating adventure. Lonely Planet’s description offers an accurate depiction: “A throbbing monument to holiday hedonism, Pattaya whips up a seedy, summer cocktail enjoyed by more than a million visitors per year. More Costa del Bangkok than authentic Thailand, it is a garish, gaudy mix many prefer to avoid…but the city moves to the kind of unashamedly decadent rhythm some may find irresistible…Cutting a crescent around Pattaya Bay, the city’s main beach is a peninsula of basting suntanned flesh, souvenir stalls and sand castles…Pattaya is a late riser and the city really comes to life after dark, when the go go bars glow red and thunderous basslines call night owls to happy hour at a menagerie of dance clubs.”

I did not take any pictures while experiencing the heady nightlife, as I was a bit too overwhelmed to remember I had a camera. But I will include a few photos of the stunning beaches and resorts. While I opted to stay in a midrange, comfortable but reasonable hotel, there were several quite luxurious places of accomodation. As white tourists, Casey and I were able to wander around any hotel without question. The guards lifted the gates with a smile and a salute (literally) when we arrived. One afternoon, we escaped the heat and lazily lounged in a giant, open-air and air conditioned lobby of a resort. Security was actually pretty tight, guards were always present, yet we were never bothered. So if any of you decide to venture to Thailand, remember this tip! If we wanted to, we could have easily spent a day enjoying the outdoor amenities—swimming in the pools under stone waterfalls and lingering next to the man-made lily ponds and palm tree gardens.

Surat Thani

After two days in Pattaya, on Sunday afternoon, I departed for Surat Thani. The journey took about 16 hours and consisted of a sawngthaew – bus – taxi – bus – minivan. A sawnthaew is a small pick-up truck with two rows of bench seats down both sides of the truck bed. I feel like every other car is a sawngthaew, making for cheap and easy transportation widely used by both Thais and “farrang.” (Farrang is a commonly used Thai term for foreigners.) Throughout the trip to Surat Thani, I had to be alert and on my toes at all times. The first leg was Pattaya to Bangkok. I suppose the Pattaya bus station is not frequented by farrang, because everything was in Thai! Most tourists will take a taxi or a shared car/minivan up to Bangkok, but I had gone that route on my way down, and more importantly, I am quite interested in going beyond tourism and experiencing what the Thai people actually do. Not to mention that a bus ticket was about 1/10 of what I would pay to take a taxi by myself! So, like a tried and true backpacker, I went the cheapest possible route. I narrowly boarded the right bus in the nick of time. The last thing I wanted to do was get on the wrong bus and end up 3 hours in the WRONG direction of Thailand. So, after a bit of investigation, I was settled and on my way to the Bangkok Eastern Bus Station. The taxi I took from the bus to the train station in Bangkok deposited me right in front a travel agency. An agent lured me inside by grabbing my bag from the taxi before I had a second to figure out what was going on, so that I had to follow him. I could definitely tell that the taxi driver and the agency had some deal going on (i.e. drop off farrang passengers at their doorstep), but I was not about to bite the bait! I read somewhere to avoid these tourist traps and buy your tickets inside the train station, so as politely as I could, I got out of there as fast as I could, subsequently realizing that I had no idea where the train station was. I happened to walk in the right direction and stumbled upon the train station almost immediately. All night trains were full, which was a bummer because I was hoping to get a sleeper berth and sleep through the 12 hour train ride. But at that point, I was just extremely grateful that I was able to get on the last bus down to Surat Thani.

After several hours in the train station, afraid to eat any of the vendor food for fear of the effects that it would have on my digestive system and wanting to avoid spending more time than absolutely necessary in the dirty bus toilets, I decided to subsist for the rest of the day and night on some “safe” looking crackers. I killed time on a computer in an internet cafĂ©, writing in my journal, and people watching. I have found that I can never get enough of the people-watching in Thailand. So the bus ride was kind of a pain. It was looooong and really uncomfortable (I couldn’t help but wish I had splurged and taken a flight), and whenever the bus stopped I had no idea if I was supposed to get off. Again, the last thing I wanted was to get LOST in the middle of nowhere in Thailand. But, all turned out well, and I arrived in Surat Thani early in the morning. Of course I had no idea where the heck I was and I could see no form of taxi’s, tuk-tuks, or sawngthaews in sight. We had been dropped at something that resembled a tourist office, so I found an elderly employee to help me, and he actually agreed to drive me himself for a good price. Despite being a seemingly lost farrang, he didn’t overcharge me by too much. By this time, Faren had already called me three times, anxiously waiting my arrival on her front step. Faren had supplied me with several pictures to show to a taxi driver, including the address and cross street written out in Thai, a picture of the school, and a map, among other things. Armed with all of this information, the only hint that worked for this man was something kind of funny, and it was exactly as Faren had said. For some reason, the Thai people in Surat Thani do not seem to be familiar with addresses or maps. Luckily, there is a doctor right next door to the school, and if you can say his name (“Mo-Ma-Nid”) with a somewhat correct pronunciation and tones, they understand where you want to go. I had to use this trick again a few days later, and sure enough, it was the only hint that the Sawngthaew drivers seem to know!

All this detail is wearing me out, so don’t expect it for future blog entries =) Of course, I realize that not everyone likes so much detail, but remember that this blog is as much a travel journal for me as a means to keep my family and friends updated. In fact, I cannot possibly find enough time to write down everything that I want to share and remember. There are so many funny, crazy things that happen to Faren and I everyday, and we always talk about how we need to remember to include it in our blogs. But this is easier said than done.

The first week in Surat Thani was spent getting to know the city and acclimating to the extremely HOT temperatures. Now, I know how to cross the street (which was very scary and slightly intimidating at first), avoid the growling stray dogs (also scary and intimidating), and order dinner at the night market. I even know where the cool night spots are, the best place to buy real iced espresso, and where to do laundry. Of course, these things would have taken a lot longer without Faren to show me the ropes. I’ve basically moved in to her little “apartment” at the school, which is actually an unused classroom on the very top floor of the school where she works. It is bright and airy, and although we do not have air conditioning, we have our own bathroom. After a few years of sharing tiny rooms in the sorority, this living situation does not phase me at all. I am really growing to love our little classroom!

(Photo shows night market in Surat Thani where Faren and I dine almost every evening)

Ko Pha-ngan

Faren and I spent this past weekend (April 6-8) on beautiful Ko Phangan. It was SO incredibly stunning. I am still on a high from the past few days. We spent Friday night in a little bungalow on a beach that could only be reached by boat (a CRAZY boat ride, better than any roller coaster) and after hiking across a rocky seashore and over a rickety wooden bridge. It was very special and tucked away, I felt like we were discovering some secret location, like in the movie, “The Beach.” And I swear that the other tourists on that beach looked just like the people who resided in the secluded island community in the movie. Very cool. But since we were so isolated, we had to share our living space with other creatures. Our frog neighbors were louder than I ever knew a reptile could be, which was pretty entertaining. The first bungalow that we were given was infested with GIANT spiders, so we promptly returned the key and got our money back. We ended up sharing a bungalow with Faren’s friend, Kristen, and her boyfriend Matt, with whom we had met up. There was only one giant spider (that we saw) in their bungalow, plus a cat that seemed to live on our front porch, and would sneak in if we left the doors open. During the night at our secluded beach, Faren, Kristen, Matt and I went to a "jungle party," aptly named by Kristen as it really was an open-air club in the jungle. But this did not mean there was any lack of a dance floor, DJ, huge speakers, black lights, and plenty of alcohol.

On Saturday night we stayed in Hat Rin (not so secluded, but known for its wild nightlife and famous Full-Moon Parties) and partied on the beach. We had less creature-roommates in this hotel. However, we did hear a loud frog noise sounding suspiciously like it was coming from the corner of our room, and in the corner there was a large wardrobe that would make for a great hiding spot. By this time, we were so toughened by the spiders, that instead of freaking out, we were very amused and had a good laugh about it. Somehow, like the bungalow, this room also came with a stray cat sleeping right outside of our door. But this one didn’t try to enter, so it didn’t bother us. I do love cats, but I am very weary of the diseases I am sure many of the stray cats carry. Speaking of stray animals, we had a run-in on Saturday night with a pack of dogs. Faren and I were walking around Hat Rin with our new British friend, Owen, looking for a Reggae bar with a larger than life-size statue of Bob Marley in front (sounds cool, huh? see picture at right). On a quiet street we were accosted by a pack of very scary, growling dogs. The last thing you are supposed to do is RUN, although that is the only thing you want to do. So Faren and I, scared out of our wits, walked as fast as we could without running. Meanwhile, Owen stood up for us and fought off the dogs. He did get bitten, but the dog did not break his skin. Needless to say, we were very thankful. But the experience left me that much more scared of stray dogs. Faren has already been bitten and subsequently gotten a rabies shot, so this is something that I am desperately avoiding.

During the days on Ko Phangan we hiked, explored the towns, slept, and played in the ocean. The waves were huge and SO MUCH FUN. We took some fun pictures/videos of us being slammed by giant waves. Spending so much time on the beach under the strong Southeast Asia sun means that I've had to be really careful to apply and reapply a lot of sunscreen since my skin has not seen UV rays since last August. I am looking forward to becoming browner not only for aesthetic purposes, but also because it is really very high maintenance to not burn when my skin is so fair.

So the weekend was great. I even loved the ferry rides. Faren and I rock out to our iPods, sing, dance, drink beer, and make friends with the Thai people (see picture below). Yesterday we actually had several of them taking pictures with us, like we were some kind of celebrities! We were pretty entertained, and they seemed to be very entertained by us, so it worked out perfectly :) We are heading back over to Ko Phangan on Friday for Songkran, which is the hugely celebrated Thai New Year. I am quite lucky that I happened to be in Thailand for this holiday. There are countless festivals, fairs, and parades this week to celebrate the New Year, and in fact, Faren and I are meeting up with another teacher and his friend tonight at the fair in Surat Thani! I hear there are even bumper cars….

Currently, Faren and I are actively working on plotting our next move. We are staying in Surat Thani while we figure it out, since Faren is already set up with a teaching job and we have this free place to stay. Luckily, she never signed a contract so we are not tied down. The delay is not that we can not both find a job teaching English in the same city—teachers are needed everywhere—the problem is that we are determined to find jobs at a place where we really want to be. Ideally, we would be living on the island of Ko Phangan, but obviously we are not alone in wanting to teach there, so jobs are in higher demand than teachers. Other possibilities include Ko Samui, Krabi, or Phuket. I am looking into getting a temporary teaching position in Surat Thani until we move on, but very short-term work can be hard to find. So, in short, the search for what is next is still in full swing and very inconclusive!