Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Life on Phuket

Life on Phuket is a combination of teaching, learning, and playing. Monday through Friday, I teach. On the weekends, I play on one of the many beautiful beaches of Phuket. And every day of the week, I am learning. According to an old adage, “you learn something new every day.” But for this particular episode of my life, I find this adage to be a gross understatement. In truth, every day seems to bring a brand new book of knowledge.

Faren and I have absolutely been noticing the benefits of living and working in a foreign country rather than being another tourist or backpacker. First of all, we have a lot more interactions with a broad range of Thai people in their normal routine of work and play. I am in constant interaction with Thai teachers and Thai students. We have ventured into popular Thai hang-out spots, surrendering to conspicuous stares and a night reduced to socializing in (very) broken English. We have discovered the cheapest places to buy produce, and by now, the vendors know to give us the Thai price as opposed to the inflated farrang price. I’ve noticed that the more I frequent a certain fruit or vegetable stand, the more likely the vendor is to throw in basil or another mango at no extra charge.

When we first arrived in Phuket Town, we could barely walk one block without Thai men shouting at us “where you from?” “hello!” “where do you go?” “tuk-tuk?” or “taxi?” After a few weeks, they began to realize we were not the average farrang tourist, we were here to stay. So, most of the “where you from?” and “where do you go?” slowly subsided. We have become just another facet in our neighborhood—like the old women wrapped in sarongs who people-watch all day long, the overheated dogs and cats sprawled out on the sidewalk, the group of old men playing cards, the children on their bicycles—and the stares have lessened. In the more touristy areas of town, we are always offered a tuk-tuk or taxi, but not at the same frequency as just a few weeks ago.

One reason why our neighbors have become accustomed to me and Faren is because we insist on walking just about everywhere in town. I walk to and from my school, which takes me about 45 minutes. One day, during a particularly long walk home (my “shortcuts” led me into winding back roads), I came upon a realization. Since I walk, I see at least a hundred times more of the town and its culture. You miss so much when you are speeding by on a motorbike. Thai towns are not like neat, organized Western cities that are perfectly mapped-out and separated into commercialized areas and residential neighborhoods. Not at all. Everything is squished together as much as is humanly possible. No map is comprehensive, which does not matter as Thai people never use maps. Sidewalks are a luxury. Giant holes in the ground are the norm. People serve food from their living rooms. Shop-owners eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner behind the counter, in between transactions. The kids watch TV while the parents cut hair. And as a pedestrian, you get to see all of this. Now, on my walk to school, I recognize the man reading the newspaper in his tiny restaurant and the police officer who helps the school children cross the street. Street vendors greet me with a smile. Motortaxi drivers shout hello as I walk past—most of the regulars have learned that I don’t want a ride. I even witness the morning prayers of Thais who have fallen to their knees on the pavement as they are blessed by Buddhist Monks dressed in deep orange robes. It’s always the same faces, the same dogs, the same crooked sidewalks that become an obstacle course for me. Everyday. A lot of people—both farrang and Thai—think I am slightly crazy, weird, or both because I walk such a long distance to and from school. They must not know what I am seeing and what they are missing.
Lucy Meets the Governor

I arrived at school one Monday morning to be informed that I, along with four other teachers from the Multi-Language Program, was scheduled to meet the Governor of the Phuket province. It is not unusual for the school to interrupt classes with something or another—whether it is by taking the teacher away to meet an important official or pulling students out for sports day practice, “soldier” (boys only, and I really know no details), boy scouts, girl scouts, English-speaking competitions, or to fulfill some other special duty. So, I was not surprised by this sudden change in my day. However, I WAS surprised that they were taking us to meet the Governor of the province, and not an official from the Department of Education, or something like this.

At 9 am, the director of the school, the teachers, and several school administrators (or maybe they were just Thai teachers, I’m not really sure) loaded into a giant van that took us to the Governor’s office. The five teachers included an Australian, a Phillipine, two Chinese, and myself. They filed all of us, including the administrators, into the Governor’s office. There was the usual wai’s (the Thai greeting, you put your palms together in a praying position in front of your face and bow your head) and sa wa dee’s (hello! in Thai). We were all herded into the office and seated on pale yellow couches and chairs in the large, fancy room. The Director of the school and the Governor proceeded to converse about the program, the teachers, the students, and who knows what else. She showed him some photographs and introduced every foreign teacher. Needless to say, these activities all took place in Thai. It was easy to discern when the Director was talking about me or one of the other teachers, and sometimes the Governor would pause and ask us questions in English. As we were leaving, we took a big group picture with the Governor—I really need to find the Thai person who took that photo so I can get a copy! Simeon (the Phillipino), Peta (the Australian), and I couldn’t resist but run back into the Governor’s office after the group had exited, and ask him for his signature. Surprisingly, this was Simeon’s idea, but Peta and I were equally enthusiastic. I’m not sure if an autograph is something on which the Thai’s place any value, but we are “farrang,” which automatically gives us an excuse for our strange requests. In any event, the Governor was happy to oblige us and seemed pretty flattered, and even the Director gave us a big smile and a thumbs up.

Teacher Day

One of the neatest cultural experiences I have had at my school was Teacher Day, which took place on June 14th. I was unsure of what to expect, except for that I would receive a lot of flowers. All of the students and teachers gathered in the assembly hall. The assembly hall is light, open, and airy, with incredibly high ceilings. The stage at the front of the great room more or less resembles an alter. The largest object is a giant statue of the ‘Princess mother,’ since Chalermprakiat School was funded and donated to Phuket by the Princess’s mother. (I am not really sure what this means, or why she is called the Princess’s mother rather than the King’s mother. The Thai’s do not know either.) A mass of flowers sits before the statue, and to the left is a smaller statue of Buddha, with additional offerings of flowers sitting at his feet. The stage is also adorned with the Thai national flag, other flags whose significance remains a mystery to me, and of course, a picture of the His Majesty, the King.

For the Teacher Day ceremony, a small band of students in the back of the hall played music on various nontraditional instruments that appeared to be made of bamboo. Whatever they were, the music sounded beautiful. Two rows of chairs for the teachers were arranged in front of the stage, facing the students who were seated on the ground. A black leather couch was situated in the middle of the front row of chairs, where the Director of the school sat, along with three other individuals. Every child grasped a small bouquet of flowers and various objects—roses and carnations, along with incense and candles. Some held larger and carefully crafted arrangements. The ceremony began with talking, praying, and a lot of singing. An older female student led the entire student body in a few pretty tunes. I only wish I could have understood the meaning behind these songs. For all I know, they could be about Buddha, the school, the King, or the country.

The first students who lined up for the flower procession were those with the more elaborate flower arrangements. Two by two (one boy, one girl), they approached the Director and the other adults on the black leather couch. When they were about 10 feet in front of the couch, they dropped to their knees and walked on their knees the remaining distance to the couch. First, they put their flower arrangements aside and wai’d until their heads were nearly touching the ground. The people on the couch wai’d in return. Then, they handed one bouquet to the Director and one to the woman on her right, and wai’d again. Their wai was returned once again. The flower arrangement was passed to the left and placed upon a table. The next two students stepped forward and repeated the process. This continued for at least a half hour.

Next, the students with the smaller bouquets approached the two rows of teachers (where I was seated) and repeated a similar procedure, walking on their knees, wai-ing to the teachers in unison, and presenting flowers. The ritual concluded with a speech by the Director and special presents awarded to a few students who had won an essay contest on the subject of teachers. I was quite curious about what the Director was saying, as she was talking for quite a while. But my questions were dismissed by my Thai counterparts with a few words of broken English. All I could glean is that she was reiterating a speech the King had recently made regarding education.

And if you are wondering about what happened to all of the flowers—as much as I wanted to beautify my desk with an obscene amount of flowers—most of them were offered to Buddha.

New Passions and Discoveries

Alternative (particularly naturopathic) medicine is one of those things in which I have been very interested for a while, without knowing much about the subject. While in Thailand, I have devoured any book or booklet that I can get my hands on regarding alternative, naturopathic, and homeopathic medicines and holistic healing. As I acquire more knowledge on these subjects, the hungrier I am to learn more and more. All of the ideas and theories make so much sense, and continue to increasingly add up as I persist in my studies.

In a nutshell, naturopathic medicine offers solutions to the root of health problems, rather than simply treating the symptoms. The cause must be eradicated in order for the body to be truly healed. The origin of illness can be mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual. Of course, naturopathy is also heavily invested in the conviction that nature holds powerful healing powers and that our bodies have the capacity to be self-healing. It operates using the holistic method, which exists under the belief that treatment for health problems must reach beyond immediate symptoms and treat the entire body, spirit, and mind. The naturopathic physician is expected to educate their patients how to take responsibility for their own health, and encourage them to do so. The fundamental purpose of naturopathic medicine is prevention. Accordingly, “the emphasis is on building health, not fighting illness,” which can be accomplished by developing healthy lifestyles, relationships, and beliefs.

Faren, in her quest to recover better health, has recently visited a holistic healing center focused on detoxification and cleansing by the name of Atsumi Healing Center. She stayed for about 5 days, but found that she was not quite ready for the intensity of that program. After I have finished teaching on Phuket, we plan to visit a center on either the island of Koh Phangan or Koh Samui where there are a few reputable programs, aptly given names such as The Health Oasis and The Sanctuary. Our hope is that we will complete a program, and possibly stay on at the resort for longer in order to learn as much as we can about holistic healing and alternative medicine. Ideally, we could become “interns” and contribute to the center in some way, whether it be through teaching Salsa lessons, French lessons, English lessons, gardening, or even doing dishes.

Meanwhile, we are focused on cleansing our bodies as much as possible so we have begun to prepare all of our own food, we have stopped eating meat, we have abstained from alcohol, sugars, coffee, and all processed foods—and additionally, we are practicing a lot of positive thinking. Some of these changes are likely not intended to be permanent (except for positive thinking!), but since I have learned the detrimental effects these substances have on your health, I find them less desirable and more difficult to ingest.

Increasingly, I have been contemplating the idea of studying naturopathic medicine at a University. I do enjoy self-study immensely, but I also understand the limitations—one can only gain so much from reading a book, and there is so much to learn. Perhaps I may even find my calling and become a naturopathic doctor. So, this is yet another dream of mine and another idea in my arsenal of future plans. Maybe it will remain only a thought in my consciousness. Or maybe not…

Monday, June 11, 2007

Long Overdue Update

I've been away for only about two and a half months and already I have seen more beauty than I knew existed and I have met people that are weirder than I could have ever imagined. In fact, I hope to write a book and/or screenplay one day loosely based on my travels and adventures, even if it is just for me to read :) With each day that passes, my next blog entry becomes more and more difficult to write. Yet I have been so busy and preoccupied that I have not been able to force myself into sitting down and writing down my thoughts. Sure, I have spent many minutes THINKING about what I would like to write about, but this accomplishes very little. So here I am, finally ready to take a stab at briefly summarizing the last several weeks.

Faren and I moved on from Surat Thani and out of the classroom in which we were living around the beginning of May. I found a temporary (this is rare, coveted, and just what I wanted) teaching position in Phuket, filling in for a women on maternity leave. Faren wanted to take some time off to focus on her health, which has not been optimum since before she left for Thailand at the end of January. So, I am now teaching at a public secondary school by the name of Chalermprakiat Somdet Prasrinakarin Phuket School. This is the official name. We call it simply Chalermprakiat School. Although the school is funded by the government, I teach in a special department known as the Multi Language Program, MLP for short. MLP costs a lot of money, 30 thousand baht per term, versus 500 baht per term (basically free) for normal school. It is for this reason that MLP can even afford to hire foreign teachers. I teach 18 hours a week, although I am required to be here Monday through Friday from 7:45 am to 4:30 pm, which is not ideal. About half of the English teaching jobs, and almost all of the jobs at real schools (as opposed to tutor schools) have this requirement for their teachers. I would much rather be able to walk away after my lessons are over and have the rest of my day for myself. On the other hand, I do use a lot of the time for lesson prep, grading homework, and of course, email!

I teach several different levels and subjects—General English, English Reading and Writing, English Listening and Speaking, Health, and (supposedly) eventually an English Drama club that has yet to begin. Basically I am a high school teacher and I have no idea how I managed to pull that one off! The pay is, of course, pretty bad. Faren and I were joking about how we both graduated from university to get paid less than U.S. minimum wage--I make 28,000 thai baht a month which is about $875/month, and that is "working" 40 hours a week! With the housing allowance of 3,000 baht a month provided by the parents’ association, I should get a total of almost $970 per month (I have yet to see one baht of this alleged housing allowance). But the cost of living is low, so it makes sense. One definitely does not come to Thailand to make and save money, but it is a great experience! And more importantly, I feel like I am actually making a difference and touching my students' lives. All I hope is that I can leave them with more knowledge, a better understanding of English, and an overall higher level of comfort with the language. As cliché as it may sound, it is an exceptionally powerful feeling to realize that you have the opportunity to enrich so many young lives.

To give you more insight into my life as a teacher, I found this little snippet on the internet about teaching in Asia, specifically China, but it applies to Thailand and likely other countries. It really hit home for me.

“With a flexible approach to life and work and understanding that all plans are potentially tentative, I was able to fully enjoy my time teaching in China.

Foreigners often go to China and expect it to be like the West. It isn’t. Teachers (and workers in general) often do not have the same working hours we have here and there is lots of bureaucratic red tape. But despite the difficulties, it is an unforgettable experience, exposing you to a completely different life and giving you the chance to make lifelong friends and to challenge yourself.”

All things considered, I do like the school, the job, and especially the students. Yes, they can misbehave, be too excitable and rowdy, talk while I am talking, and be nonresponsive. But they can also be very sweet, very quiet, very respectful, and they can even act like perfect angels. When I introduce a game or activity that works well, almost every one comes alive and actively participates. And since I have been here almost a month, the students have adjusted to my expectations. I am quite proud of the fact that I have managed to gain a lot of classroom control and respect, while still earning the fondness of the students. Every time I walk down the hall, I have to constantly be “on” because they always want to say hi and talk to me (well, as much as they can). They call me “Teacher,” sometimes “Teacher Lucy.” It is very endearing.

Aside from my escapades as a junior high/high school teacher, I have had countless moments, both alone and with Faren, when I think to myself, “wow, this experience would make quite an entertaining blog entry.” The cultural experiences and the crazy adventures that I have gotten myself into and out of are enough to write a book, which like I mentioned, I just might do someday. One night during a particularly memorable experience with some particularly memorable people, I could not help but turn to Faren and say, “these people are just like…characters in my book!” This was the only way that I could describe the quirks and eccentric nuances that I saw in our new friends. Their personalities were so distinct and entertaining that it seemed like they had stepped right out of a movie and into my reality. Ever since, we are continually discussing the new characters we have met to add to the list.


Since my last blog entry, Faren and have continued to spend our (often extended) weekends traveling around Thailand. In Krabi, we saw the most gorgeous, untouched islands and turquoise water during an unforgettable 4 island boat tour. We swam through caves, snorkeled with tropical fish, and stood amongst wild monkeys on the beach. Mesmerized by the beauty at the first stop on the tour, we missed the departure of our boat and had to hitch a ride (from another tour boat) to the next island. Needless to say, we were a lot more careful throughout the rest of the tour. Also that weekend, we indulged in Thai oil massages on the beach (this would not be the last time), we explored a new town from one end to the other, and we befriended people from Germany, Costa Rica, Italy, Singapore, Australia, and of course, Thailand.

Koh Tao

I found my favorite Thai island, the neighbor of Koh Phangan (my second favorite), Koh Tao. I could write pages about Koh Tao, and I surely will for my book! At the time I went to Koh Tao, I had just quit my first temporary job in Surat Thani. I ventured out to the island on the night boat on the night of Wednesday, May 2nd (Faren had to teach on Thursday so she followed the next day), and did not leave until the following Monday night. Needless to say, I could have stayed for weeks. I met my first and favorite friends of the long weekend, a young French man, Flavien, and his father, Claude, on the night ferry. Believe it or not, we also shared the night ferry with about 30 caged pigs. Each pig had its own separate cage, with no room to move. Although I was annoyed by the smell, I still had to feel sorry for these poor pigs in captivity. Anyways. Flavien had just spent over a year working in Australia, so his English was great. Claude did not speak a word of English. I was very happy to be forced into practicing my French! Flav and Claude took me under their wing and I spent the next few days snorkeling, swimming, dining, and playing with my new French friends. We were staying at Freedom Beach by the recommendation of someone Flav had met on a bus. I love Freedom Beach. It consists of the bungalows, restaurant, bar, and of course, a very private beach. The restaurant, the bar, and every bungalow are all just feet from the water, and all have a magnificent view. I could not pinpoint exactly what I did to fill up those three days, but I do know that I was always happy, always having fun, always living in the moment yet also looking forward to what was next. It all came down to the people and the scene. Each person I met at Freedom Beach was interesting, worldly, kind, open-minded, intelligent, and so much fun to hang out with. From randomly organized card games on the beach to sunsets at the bar to “Connect-Four” in the restaurant to “Jenga” in the bar to deep conversations to pee-your-pants funny moments to dog-watching on the beach to snorkeling to dancing at dusk with a beer in hand, it could not have been more perfect.
view from my bungalow at Freedom Beach --->

Our other nights on Koh Tao were spent in the little party-village of Sairee, and at its polar opposite, Nang Yuan Island—a popular family destination where everything shut down at 9:30 pm. Our experience at Sairee included a crazy rainstorm, dancing on the beach, and a long night post-bar and post-dancing of laughs, guitar music, and a digireedoo. In Sairee, there is a string of bar/dance clubs built right on the beach. The high tide threatens their very existence. If the ocean level were to be raised by just a few feet, these bars would be in deep water. Literally and figuratively. This also makes for a very fun beach dance party that apparently happens every night. On the particular night we visited, there was a huge rainstorm that we watched coming for miles. It was the craziest thing, we could not only hear, but we could SEE the storm coming towards us. Obviously, to hear rolling thunder and see bolts of lightning is not unusual. However, instead of lightning bolts, we could see entire clouds lit up from miles away. It looked like a special effect out of a movie. When the rain set in, the dance party on the beach did not stop, it only got wilder. And there are few things I love more on a hot night in Thailand than dancing in the rain on the beach with the waves rushing up around my ankles.

Koh Nang Yuan, where we spent our last night, is not actually a part of Koh Tao, but is an island of its own. Nang Yuan is gorgeous and uniquely formed by three separate rocky islands that are connected by a double-sided white sand beach, most of which is submerged at high tide. We went there for the beauty, not realizing that it was not exactly our scene. There is one resort that has monopolized the tiny islands, but we decided to splurge and book a room, mostly swayed by the free boat ride to the island that would only be free if we booked (and paid) in advance. In retrospect, this was not the best decision as there was not a whole lot to do and there was not a whole lot of (ok, any) people for us to talk to. The other guests included older European couples and many Asian families. I would have been satisfied with a day trip to enjoy the breathtaking beauty, the astonishing double-sided beaches, the hike with a spectacular viewpoint, and the dazzling clear water for snorkeling. Nevertheless, I did not regret visiting this island and we left with a lot of great photographs and an even greater picture imprinted in our memories.


Another extended trip for Faren and I was to Penang, Malaysia to obtain our Thai visas. You have to be out of the country in order to do this. I got a Non-Immigrant B visa, valid for 90 days, so that I would be legal to work and get a work permit. We had to stay in Malaysia for a few days while our visas were being processed. I knew little about Penang and was pleasantly surprised. Faren and I befriended some very interesting characters to add to our book, including a young Swedish man living on Koh Tao, a nomadic Australian couple, another nomadic couple from Ireland, a professional Malay singer, a few teachers from Krabi, and some very unique Malay people, among others. Faren and I made the most out of just a few days in a brand new country. We went out and enjoyed big city nightlife with the Swedish guy, drank for free at ladies night (who knew “ladies night” means ladies drink for free??), danced (attracting a lot of attention as we were the only white girls in a packed club), won a dance contest (the prize was money!), sang in public for the first time together with the professional singer (after much coaxing, it was very scary for both of us), sang karaoke (once we were broken in by the singer, we couldn’t get enough of the stage), explored Chinatown and Little India (I felt like I was in India. It was a very confusing experience with three foreign countries—Thailand, Malaysia, India—crowding my brain, Faren and I both went into a bit of culture shock), visited Starbucks many times (we miss having one on every corner—very, very, VERY much), found great scenes for some artistic photography (such as the waterfront at sunset, the inside of a fancy hotel we snuck into, and a random beautiful old city wall), and basically got beat up by massage people who were supposedly "helping" us.

Life and Culture

The Thai culture is incredibly different, which I believe is hugely due to the fact that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonized by a Western power. After visiting Malaysia, a former colony of Great Britain, I could immediately see the difference that a Western influence brings. In Thailand, some of the weird cultural things they do seem to make sense, while other things are just so backwards that it can be frustrating. To sum it up, I would say that I am just learning A LOT. About everything. I am learning about myself--about who I am and who I want to be--I am learning about what it is like to feel like an outsider. I am learning about other people. On a daily basis, at my school I interact with people from Thailand, England, the Phillipines, China, America, South Africa, Australia, etc etc. On weekends we travel around and meet more nomads from all around the world. There are still very few Americans who will venture to South East Asia, which of course we love, since it means that we can meet more travelers different from ourselves. I did not exactly come to Thailand to meet Americans, otherwise I would have stayed home! However, when I do find the rare American, it is nice. I feel a strong kinship with them. I can see all the ways that we are completely different people, but at the same time, we are also very alike—simply because we were raised in the same culture. It is very cool.

I find it challenging and peculiar to be in a country so unbelievably diverse from your own for extended periods of time. Once in a while, I feel like I am so far out of my element and comfort zone. Most of the time I love having that challenge, but sometimes it can be simply exhausting. Thailand may be known for being a tourist destination, but there are definitely parts where you will find little to no tourists, such as in the town of Surat Thani, where I was a minority in a big way. I had to quickly learn to deal with the constant attention that goes along with being an extreme minority. If I ever did see another white person, chances were good that they were another teacher, and this was usually an arranged social visit. In fact, there is a little makeshift bar next to the river, set up by a young Thai man, Dear, who speaks English well and is a good friend to all of the foreign teachers. He is there almost every night with his shed (literally) of beers and alcohols. A few feet away, the bar patrons sit in a public area of chairs and tables. In Surat, every night that Faren and I were aching for some social interactions, yet had nothing planned, we knew we could go to Dear’s bar to hang out with other English speakers and just…talk. It is a place where everybody knows your name.

Life in Phuket Town is a little different. The island of Phuket is a huge tourist destination, although most tourists stay away from the actual beach-less city of Phuket—where we live. There are, however, many, many beaches and even a few Starbucks just a short bus ride away (ok, short distance-wise, but somehow it takes forever to get there). The biggest downfall is that the bus services stop in the late afternoon, sometimes earlier if you are somewhere more remote, and you have to hire a tuk-tuk or a taxi to get back into Phuket Town. The prices of tuk-tuks and taxis are made for white tourists with their Western money, not for Westerners earning a teacher’s salary in Thai baht. No matter how much Faren and I insist that we are teachers, the only thing the drivers can see is our white skin. When most Thai people (particularly those working in the tourist industry) on Phuket see white skin, you can almost see the dollar signs in their eyes. This is probably one of the biggest cons for teachers in Thailand, and it can almost be disheartening. I think that it does get better with time though. When you first arrive, there are so many daily situations in which you just have no idea what to do. With time and experience, you get used to establishing the price for just about EVERYTHING before you agree to buy it, you get used to riding the bus, ordering food at restaurants, shopping for clothes...just about every normal activity (that you feel like you know so well) has to be tweaked a little bit to adjust for the cultural differences. Very interesting.

22nd Birthday

I was quite nervous that I would become completely and utterly homesick, depressed, and sad on my birthday. Every birthday of my life I have made sure to surround myself with my family and friends. May 28th is a very important day to me (yes, I can admit it). This would be the first birthday without my family and my first birthday away from home. Thanks to Faren, with the help of our new teacher friends, Ed and Michelle, it was not only a fabulous day, but quite a memorable weekend. We met Ed and Michelle the previous week at trivia night at our local Irish pub, O’Malley’s. O’Malley’s is like the Phuket version of Deer’s bar in Surat Thani. Everyone there is English-speaking. It is the only ferrang hangout that I know of in Phuket town. Ed and Michelle are practically strangers themselves. They were both enrolled in a month-long TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and have since been placed at the same school in Phuket.

On the Saturday morning of my birthday weekend, the four of us ventured over on the bus to Patong Beach with the intention of staying in a cheap guesthouse rather than paying a fortune for a taxi driver to take us home at some wee hour in the morning. Patong is the main tourist destination on Phuket and THE place for nightlife on the island. It has a reputation for being seedy and overcrowded. Thai prostitutes and lady-boys are rampant and foreign men often buy their Thai girlfriend-for-a-night in Patong. At the same time, a lot of harmless tourists and families come to Patong for the exciting nightlife, extensive shopping, loads of entertainment, gourmet restaurants, luxurious hotels, and beautiful sunsets. I would probably hate the place during high-season, but the Thai tourist industry has moved into low-season during the last month. Consequently, the whole Patong scene is a lot more laidback, a lot less pricey, and in my opinion, a lot more fun.

On Saturday evening we sat on the beach and witnessed a breathtaking, unbelievably gorgeous sunset while we mixed drinks in bowls (somehow Ed could not find cups), laughed, took photos, and enjoyed each other’s company and conversation. It was perfect. We went out in Patong Beach that night. We danced, gawked at the lady-boys, watched a lady-boy “cabaret” show, laughed at the really drunk Australian men (well, not Ed), tolerated the half-drunk Australian men, and hung out with the cool Australian men. There was a rugby tournament on Phuket, so Patong Beach was crawling with Australian men. Not that I am complaining.

The next day was Sunday and the next day was my birthday. I had already decided to take the day off so I could have a three-day weekend and enjoy my birthday to its fullest. The whole weekend was spent celebrating—there was a lot of dancing. Faren and I bargained at a massage place and got a great deal for a one hour "facial mask massage," a half hour foot massage, and a half hour head massage. After nearly missing the last cheap bus back to Phuket town and being forced to run through the town with our bags, we made it safely back to our little apartment. Faren surprised me with good Chilean wine and good chocolate, both of which are not easy to find in Thailand. Sure, you can find plenty of cheap, sugary, fake chocolate, but not GOOD, real chocolate. So it was a real treat. Wine is especially difficult and expensive in Thailand. And I LOVE wine. I’d been looking forward to my birthday for the sole reason that I was going to treat myself to a glass, but Faren beat me to it, with an entire bottle! We did not come close to drinking half of it, so I am saving the rest for another special occasion.

posing with some lady-boys ---->

While we drank wine and ate chocolate, Faren and I prepared to go dine at a nice restaurant. We rarely have nice dinners on our Thai teachers’ salary, so we were already pretty excited. But we had no idea what an experience it would prove to be. We got all dolled up, which for two young white attractive females in a place like Phuket town (i.e. a place where white women are rare), translates into a whole lot of attention. We were treated like celebrities--even on the walk TO the restaurant. People were stopping, looking, waving excitedly. At the restaurant, we told the waitress it was my birthday. She said she would do something special, but we were still a bit skeptical. We had seen this sort of thing fall through too many times before in Thailand. But, to our surprise, she certainly did do something “special”! They turned off all the lights (mostly lanterns and Christmas-type white lights on trees as we were outside), turned on loud Happy Birthday music on the speakers, and waited just long enough so that the entire restaurant became a little confused. Suddenly, all the waitresses emerged with sparklers and a gigantic fruit plate with candles. It was quite a spectacle! To add to the experience, at least four times through out the night the waitress approached us and told us that a table of people basically "requested our company" and wanted us to come meet them. And of course we did not want to be rude or give ferrang women a bad name, so we spent quite a bit of time speaking broken English with Thai people. We convinced the waitress to sell us wine by the glass after she had insisted they only sell it by the bottle. Then, we proceeded to bargain down the price for two glasses! She told us 150 baht for one glass (about $5) so we offered 200 baht for two glasses, which (to our surprise) worked. Pretty amusing that we negotiated in a nice restaurant (aren’t you proud, mom and dad?). After escaping from the restaurant and managing to only give up our phone number one time, we stopped at a bar on the way home. It was my birthday, after all. Like almost all bars around here, there was live music. The singer sang “Happy Birthday” and dedicated a few other songs to me. We were dancing in front of the stage to a Shakira song when she started singing "I will survive." Faren and I looked at each other and could not contain our excitement about that song since we love to sing it ourselves. The singer caught our enthusiasm and pulled us onstage to sing with her! We were more than a little embarrassed. The funny thing was that we had it in our heads that we were going to sing that night. We just thought it would be at a karaoke bar, not with a full band behind us. I could not have asked for more on my 22nd birthday.

So, that is my update. I have left out way too many things about everything. There is so much more I want to share with my loved-ones and even more I want to record for my own history. These stories will reveal themselves with time. Just wait until I get home. :)