Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cambodian Adventure Day Four - Bonne Annee 2009

As an Anglo Saxon growing up on the East Coast of America, my initial concept of a 'colony' was really positive. I was proud that New Jersey was one of the original 13 colonies, and like most kids, enjoyed Thanksgiving celebrations centered around pilgrims and all that jazz. It was only as I got older (much older) that I began to realize that new colonies were generally someone else's home country already. This was my first real experience in a colonized country and it's so hard for me to express how it felt.

Now, Cambodian history is long & complicated to say the least, and I'm in no real position to take sides. But the fact is, after numerous wars with both Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia became a protectorate of France from about 1863 to 1945. On the one hand, from the perspective of someone who's lived in a non-colonized Asian country for the last four months, it was comforting to go someplace where English was widely spoken, and foreign food was available (Baguettes! Cheese! Baguettes and cheese everywhere!) But on the other hand, it just felt wrong - do Khmer people even like baguettes?

Unfortunately the nature of our trip made it impossible for me to find the answer to that question. After factoring in transportation time, we had barely four days to explore the country. And in that time we wanted to fit in some major sight seeing, a little cultural education, and naturally some relaxation. Oh... and of course, find a way to celebrate the New Year as well. We were, perhaps, overly ambitious.

After waking up in the brothel and taking our respective long & wasteful hot showers, we decided to go get some breakfast and then see the sights of the city. We found a trendy looking, (EXPENSIVE) restaurant recommended in the guide book and had omelets and toast. I took the sausage from Bunny the vegetarian's plate... but after one bite regretted it. I can't say with any certainty what it was... but it didn't taste like any sausage I'd ever had.

From breakfast we headed to the Royal Palace. It was gorgeous, but not especially blog friendly... pictures were not allowed inside the Throne Room or the Silver Pagoda, and many other areas of the palace were off limits. Again, years of civil war & the Khmer Rouge had taken their toll, and even in the buildings I could explore, very few Cambodian treasures remain. I didn't see anything worth particular notice (lots of Buddha statues, etc), but walking around the grounds & looking at the beautiful buildings was a nice way to spend the morning.

The Royal Palace

Next we headed to the Russian Market to do some shopping. I have no idea why it's called the Russian Market, it was just another street market, although this one was primarily under a roof if not technically 'indoors'. I only bought three scarves (which I'm fairly sure I could find in Bangkok anyway), a few children's books in both Khmer & English, and a ton of post cards... I'm such a sucker for post cards. I keep literally half of the ones I buy. We followed up our shopping trip with a couple of hours at a riverside cafe sharing a cheese plate and writing post cards. Properly rested and relaxed, we decided to do what we'd been dreading and hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. After quite a drive around the city we were surprised, but somewhat relieved to find ourselves mistakenly dropped off at the National Museum instead. We took it as a sign and decided to view some ancient sculptures rather than exploring the depths of evil that humans are capable of. It was, after all, New Year's Eve.

Purchasing the ticket, however, was a third-world adventure in and of itself. Check it out people! They were doing construction on the roof of the ticket booth - right overhead - but the ticket window was open and the attendant ushered me under to buy my ticket. Yeah... not something that would happen in the US.

Note the proximity of the welding torch to the ticket counter.

The museum was nice, and a good place to learn more about the different stories and symbols of Hinduism (is that even a word?) and Buddhism. I was excited to recognize Garudas (the bird like guardian), the Naga, Krishna, Hanuman, and of course the Buddha. Although, often it was a statue of a king in a pose similar to the Buddha... so who knows if I'll ever get all sorted out. Again... no pictures were allowed inside, but I did get this picture of the beautiful garden courtyard.

Bobby and Bunny in the background pouring over the guidebook.

We rounded out 2008 with a trip to the trendiest if not the ONLY vegan restaurant in Phnom Penh for a scrumptious feast, then headed back to the riverside to... in theory... go bar hopping. We started at the Foreign Correspondents Club. It was nice, but again, so strongly colonial / ex-pat focused, that it was difficult to really enjoy it. We left after one drink.

Drinks at the FCC

But when we left the bar it started raining and... have I mentioned the monsoons in SE Asia? We were drenched before we even crossed the street. Nevertheless we headed a few blocks down and into ... I can't even remember the name of the bar now. But we stayed there freezing and drinking sub-standard cocktails (mine had fruit juice and ice, and I'm fairly certain it caused the current state of my intestinal tract) to usher in the New Year. They had a C-grade Katoey (lady-boy) show, which was fun if extraordinarily cheesy, then as the time approached a bunch of people just started counting down. Cheers! That was it. It was far from my most exciting New Year's... but it's the first one I rang in while in a foreign country! Still a bit wet and chilled we called an end to the evening a short time later and headed back to our brothel... assuring our tuk-tuk driver once again that *yes* we really did want to go there. They say that however you ring in the New Year will have an effect on the rest of the year... but in this case, I hope it's not quite true.

Happy New Year Everyone!

CAG: Code Sweet Chili Sauce

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cambodian Adventure Day Three: Angkor Wat to Phnom Penh

Day three started early... EARLY! Angkor Wat at dawn is supposed to be one of those transcendent experiences that make life worth living... or something like that. So we got to bed early the night before and all set our cell phone alarms for 4:15am. We stumbled out of bed, made some attempt at washing, then dressed and headed out the door by 4:30am. Our tuk-tuk driver was waiting.... in the rain. Isn't this supposed to be the dry season? Ugh. The rain was absolutely bucketing down, as it tends to do here in monsoon country. He said we should wait until about 5am and go then. Sunrise was at around 6am, so we had time. We were NOT pleased about having to get up so early only to be told to go back to bed, but there wasn't much we could do about it. At 5am we rolled back out of bed and fortunately the rain had stopped. We piled into the tuk-tuk and took a very chilly ride out to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat on a cool grey morning

To be honest... it wasn't really worth the early start. It was cool and wet and crowded; and the clouds made for a very unspectacular sunrise. But on the flip side, it was good to get an early start on the day as we would be heading down to Phnom Penh in the afternoon. (I was right about the whole trip being tourist friendly. Our hotel arranged both the Angkor Wat tuk-tuk ride - $12/day, and the bus down to Phenom Penh - $8 per person.) And it was nice to do all our climbing around before the heat of the day would make us a sweaty stinky mess.

Just wandering around the ruins.

Angkor was more restricted than the previous temples we'd visited, which was comforting. The bas reliefs were roped off, and there were wooden steps built over the stone steps. There were also signs warning tourists not to sit on the Naga railing along the entry way. The most impressive feature of Angkor Wat, in relation to the other ruins, was it's size... it's just gigantic with four concentric areas symbolizing the four eras of creation in Hindu ideology. As we walked towards the center of the complex we were going back in time to the beginning of the cosmos. Well, in theory anyway. As with many of the temples I felt very much as though I were too ignorant to really enjoy it. But we did our best, reading out the descriptions of the bas reliefs as we walked past them...and occasionally reading one that actually pertained to the wall we were looking at!

Bunny and Bobby looking ancient and ruined.

After Angkor Wat we went to Bayon, which ended up being my favorite. It's one of the smaller temples, but by far the most unique. Although all the temples are made from sandstone, this temple looked darker and more blue/green. Maybe it was the overcast sky... but it was just really cool.

Bayon Temple

There were tons of doors and windows and each of the towers had four huge faces carved into them looking in each of the four cardinal directions. So you'd be walking around and look through a window and see faces looking back at you. You don't have to understand the symbolism to appreciate it as just awesome.

a lovely purple flower sprouting up from the ruins

Serene faces everywhere we looked - awesome

After these two show-stoppers, we were ready to go back to the hotel to pack everything up and wait for the bus to the capitol. This was an experience itself. First we were picked up by this tiny rickety looking mosquito filled bus and driven all over town picking up other people. We were really very worried that we were about to spend 6 hours on this tiny thing and I briefly wished we'd splurged for the $12 bus. But eventually it became clear that it was only the bus to pick up passengers & take us to the bus depot... then we'd take a big modern air conditioned bus for the real trip.

The bus depot was one of those places you just wouldn't believe if you'd never been to a third world country. There were a couple of buildings that looked more like rows of garages than anything else, and in the center was just a big ol' dirt lot dotted with garbage and puddles from the morning's rain. The little bus let us off at our 'office' and we waited around on plastic chairs. There were snack shacks and peddlers wandering around offering "Nice cold drink lady?" but everything was severely over priced. $1 for a can of Coke is a bit high in the US, but out here it was just insane. Yeah, it's an import item, but even a small bag of nuts was $1- in Rayong it would be a third of that price. And again, I'm not getting paid in dollars, I'm getting paid in baht, and little splurges like that add up! So we went snack-less. Actually, one of the smarter things I did on this trip was to bring a bunch of individually wrapped packages of crackers, and a bit bag of cashews. They came in handy more than once.

slowly but surely mastering the art of kinnearing

The bus ride itself was a good experience. I highly recommend it as a way to see a lot of a country very quickly. Obviously it would be more interesting to take your time and actually get to visit the villages you pass along the way... but it's better than flying and missing it all completely. Oh, but the bathroom situation... not good. I got confused in my last post... this was actually the trip with the scary bus bathroom & at least one squat toilet too horrible to mention. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and it you just deal with it. Handi-wipes & packs of tissues are two more essential items for third world travel!

For the first part of the trip the sun was very hot beaming through my window, even with working A/C, so I kept the curtains closed. I used the time to read through Bunny's guide book and get up to speed with Cambodian history. I'm still not completely clear on how everything happened, but in 1975 the Khmer Rouge, a communist revolutionary group, took over the capitol Phnom Penh and forced all of the citizens out into the fields for a grand agricultural experiment. They wanted to return to a purer, more self-sufficient society, but in the process killed millions of their own people, through forced labor, starvation and "purges" of the unpatriotic. I won't go into detail here, but here's the wikipedia article on it.

Just reading the basics gave me a much greater appreciation for the people of Cambodia, and a bit more forgiving of the scamming & overcharging I encountered at each turn. One disturbing trend I noticed was that the average age in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh was about 25 or so, there really weren't a lot of older people... it was a frightening glimpse at the aftermath of a genocide. It's just so overwhelming to look at people and know that anyone over my age would have lived through that nightmare. But I also saw that the people were waking up from that nightmare.

As we drove through the country I saw hundreds of small family farms. Each seemed to have a pond / reservoir in the front of their home, and some assortment of animals or garden. There were chickens, ducks, pigs, cows, horses (ponies actually), dogs and the ever useful water buffalo. There were rice fields and coconut trees, and most homes had big stacks of hay piled up. But there were also schools and towns and shops, and even a long stretch of artists carving Buddha statues out of stone. I didn't get many pictures (I was in a moving vehicle after all), but I can tell you I saw life. I saw families, and children. Chicks and piglets and even a few calves. The people are undoubtedly poor... but they did not appear to be destitute. I almost wished I had more time to spend there, actually talking to people outside the tourist industry - to find out how their lives really are these days. Almost. Based on my current state, I don't think I'm quite cut out to be a traveler!

I've not, however, mastered the art of taking pictures from moving vehicles

We arrived in Phnom Pehn in the evening and were immediately welcomed by the standard greetings "Hello tuk-tuk!" and "Tuk-tuk lady?" We walked a bit away from the crowd of tuk-tuk drivers to find someone slightly less aggressive and told him where we were staying. We questioned whether he knew where the hotel was (the guidebook warned that a lot of drivers will tell you they know where a place is, but in reality have no clue), but he assured us. Over the course of the ride he asked us why we weren't staying downtown by all the other tourist places. We thought he was just trying to get us to stay at his buddy's hotel...and were insistent that we had a reservation and were sticking to it. As he dropped us off outside the Sakora hotel he gave us one last warning... "This hotel... sometimes they do massages upstairs." which, in SE Asia is a thinly veiled code for prostitution. We still weren't sure if he had our best interests in mind, so we agreed that he could wait for us while we went in and looked at the room for ourselves.

Well, sure enough, it was a brothel. There were several young women seated on a couch in the lobby waiting for 'a friend'. But the staff was friendly enough and the room was probably the nicest room I'd stayed in since coming to Thailand. Everything was clean, the beds were comfortable, the bathroom was huge - had a hot shower AND, unbelievably, a bath tub. We went downstairs told the tuk-tuk driver that we were staying, but he could drive us to dinner if he wanted to wait while we checked in. Later, when we came back for the night there was a photo album of the women on the reception desk, and again a different combination of women waiting on the couch by the elevator. They seemed friendly enough, and one even hailed the elevator for us. Of course, as soon as the elevator door closed we busted up into hysterical tears and laughter. It had been a long LONG day... temples at dawn to a brothel at dusk. It certainly is an adventure.

CAG: Code Sweet Chili Sauce

PS - did you really think I would leave without a decent picture of Angkor Wat? ;)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Cambodian Adventure Day Two - a crash course in Khmer culture

First, a confession; before coming to Thailand I wouldn't have been able to find Cambodia on a map... well, I'm sure I could eventually.... but not quickly. I had some vague negative associations with it, and knew only that the Khmer Rouge - whatever it was - was bad. I had seen pictures of Angkor Wat but had no idea where it was. So you could say that my knowledge of Cambodia was lacking.

Thanks to my friends Google & Wikipedia, I was slightly more informed by the time I got here. For one thing, Angkor Wat is just the biggest and most famous of the temples in the area. The Angkor Temples were constructed between the 8th and 13the centuries - the glory days of the Angkor kingdom. The initial temple was built to honor the Hindu god Vishnu, but also as a show of the King's might. Subsequent kings built bigger and more elaborate temples.

We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us on the big tour the first day. We saw at least half a dozen temples. Unfortunately, there wasn't much in the way of plaques or pamphlets to guide us, and we were too cheap to hire a tour guide. We had a guide book... but it didn't have pictures, so if we accidentally skipped a page we'd end up reading something about an entirely different temple. So much for the educational experience. From a purely aesthetic perspective though, the temples were absolutely gorgeous, the amount of detailed carving was impressive. And I did start to learn a bit about the Hindu characters.

Pre Rup

This is one of the older temples, and the first one we visited. It had a lot of stairs... lots and lots and lots of stairs.

The Bridge of Victory

Here we have a bridge depicting "Churning the Sea of Milk" a Hindu story. The guys on the left are the angels (Devas) and the guys on the right are the demons (Asuras). They're each holding onto the Naga... a multi headed serpent.

the Naga

a Deva

the Asuras

They each hold onto the Naga and pull it back and forth through the ocean over a thousand years. They churn the ocean and produce the elixir of immortality. (I'm sure you Freudians out there can have a field day with this one!) This story is depicted again and again in the temples, in bas reliefs and, as here, on bridges. So it was nice to have a general idea of what was going on.

After the decline of the Angkor empire, the jungle overtook the temples and they lay undisturbed until the 1800s. Some of the trees had so incorporated themselves into the structure of the temples that removing them would cause even more damage to the ruins... so they just let them grow.

All of the temples were really different. I just loved this one... there were four outer pools (a couple were nearly dried up - it's the beginning of the dry season here), but the central pool was full enough to keep us away from the central structure here.

Preah Neak Pean

One of the things I found most amazing was that we could just wander everywhere. Nothing was roped off, there were no signs saying 'don't touch'. The tourist in me was delighted, we climbed all over everything and got to look in every nook and cranny... but the watcher of PBS specials in me knew that my very presence there was contributing to the further decay of the ruins. A conundrum indeed. I do hope that in the future they take some steps to protect against further damage.

an Apsara

The earlier temples have your basic statues and decorative flourishes, but the later ones have much more detailed carvings. One of the more common carvings is the Apsara, or heavenly female dancer. They were everywhere, on several different temples and in many different poses. I really liked them.

These are... Hindu acetics maybe? At some point one of the kings was Buddhist, and so introduced the religion to the kingdom... in his temple he added a lot of images of the meditating Buddha. But subsequent kings reverted to Hinduism, and the Buddha statues were altered or defiled.

Ancient Khmer culture is such an interesting blend of Hindu and Buddhist images. Later sculptures show Buddha meditating under the hood of the Naga. And many of the Deva statues have the calm, compassionate expression of the Buddha. As someone raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it was all a little confusing, so many stories I'd never read, so many gods & demons, so many other characters. By the end I could identify the Garuda (bird like defenders) Krishna (the god with many arms) and Hanuman (the monkey god)... but somehow neglected to get pictures of them! I feel like I took a ton of pictures, but there was just so much to see, there was no way to capture it all.

I did capture this little guy though, actually probably a female. Another group of tourists was feeding it bananas. Officially, I'm opposed to this. But again, the tourist in me just thought it was cute.

I don't get to see a lot of monkeys in my day to day existence!
After all the sight seeing we went to downtown Siem Reap - to the designated tourist zone I guess. There were all these 5 star looking foreign restaurants. We chose an Indian restaurant and had a vegetarian feast. It was cheap by American standards, $3.50 for an entree. But we're not making dollars... we're making Baht, so it was quite a splurge.
In fact, everything in Cambodia was more expensive than in Thailand. Mostly this was because we only went to touristy places... but honestly there weren't that many other places to go. There was street food obviously, and dingy hole in the wall noodle shops. But there were no like middle class Khmer family restaurants. Everywhere we went in Cambodia there was a distinct sense of 'tourists' vs 'Cambodians'. Foreign tourists visit Angkor Wat, Cambodians work there. At the 4 star restaurants, the customers are foreign, the waiters are Cambodian. To some degree, I guess that's what you get when you go on vacation in a foreign country... but it's so different from what I'm experiencing in Thailand.
In Thailand there seems to be a wider range of wealth. Yes, there are poor and even homeless people in Rayong, but most people are middle or working class. People have factory jobs, or own a restaurant (or both), people shop in the street markets, but also the supermarket and the mall. And there are some really big fancy houses on my street, with substantial yards... in the US these places would cost easily $500,000+ . Whatever style of restaurant I go to, be it a street stall, or a mid range Thai place, a Western chain like KFC, or even the high end resort type places like Pattaya Tower... there are always Thai people there in addition to farangs. When we go to Ko Samet, there are often more Thai tourists (mostly from Bangkok) than there are farang.
One of the major differences is that Thailand has always been an independent country, and with the exception of occasional invasions by Myanmar and Cambodia, has never been conquered or colonized. Meanwhile, Cambodia has been in a tug of war between Thailand and Vietnam throughout most of it's history. It's been under the control of the French and the Japanese, and was bombed to pieces by the US during the Vietnam War. Add to this the Khmer Rouge revolution & civil war, and it's just a sad sad history. You just can't escape the colonial feeling, French architecture, French on signs, baguettes & cigarettes on street carts, the fact that nearly everyone I encountered spoke better English than my students. There seems to be nothing left of the Angkorian glory days.
The Cambodia I was inhabiting felt like it was designed for me the foreigner and not for the people who actually live there. On the one hand, it was nice because we were vacationing and didn't have much time to really explore the culture... but on the other hand I felt kind of sad and uncomfortable about it. But then, back to the nice guest house with hot showers, clean toilet and soft beds... it was hard to feel bad about anything.
CAG - Code Sweet Chili Sauce

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cambodian Adventure Day One - getting there

Oh Dear Lord! When I said I wanted more adventure in my life, I think I should have been a bit more specific. Getting from Rayong, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia involved no less than:

2 Songthaews (we missed our stop and had to get back on going the opposite direction)

See how happy Bunny is... we have no idea what we're getting into!

a mini-van to Bangkok (zooming along at something close to light speed)

the BTS sky train

an opalescent nail-polish pink meter taxi

a 'good god why doesn't my air conditioning work I may actually die of heat stroke' bus to Aranyapatet (Thai side of the border)

the nastiest ever bus toilet - the door wouldn't shut & the overly full flushing bucket kept splashing on the floor

while we're at it - two squat toilets too horrid to describe

an over priced tuk tuk to the Cambodian Embassy (for an overpriced visa)

Thai passport control

a walk across the 'friendship bridge' over not a river but oceans of plastic bags & garbage

Cambodian passport control

A taxi. The taxi from hell.

Another tuk tuk

Walking into Poipet, Cambodia was overwhelming. It was the dirtiest and dustiest place I've ever been. There were tons of people crossing from one side to the other (we were the only tourists there) and another ton waiting on the other side, and we were immediately set upon by people offering us a taxi into Siem Reap. We'd read in the guidebook that we should expect to pay around $40 US* for the 3 hour ride. The first few taxi drivers offered us a ride for $45 & up. We kept saying "no thanks, no thanks, we want to walk"* but they simply didn't leave us alone. One guy followed us the entire way across the bridge and even waited while we went through passport control. It was annoying in the extreme. We were eager to get someplace where we could see a few different taxis so we could pick the least aggressive one... no such luck. They kept telling us they had the 'last taxi'... which was odd because there were about five of them saying this.

A short way into the city there was an old dusty bus and it felt like everyone in the vicinity was ushering us onto it. There was a sign that said "Bus to transportation terminal" or something like that, and really we didn't know what else to do, so we got on. So did like four of the taxi drivers. It was one of those moments where we just looked at each other like "What just happened?" We don't know these people, we don't know where this bus is going, what the hell is going on here? They were making friendly small talk in English and we tried to just go along with it. A few miles down the dirt road (absolute clouds of brown dust everywhere) they pulled over into the parking lot of a large new-looking building. There was nothing else in the immediate area, and the sign said "Transportation Terminal".

We might have relaxed at this point... after all we had wanted to get to the transportation hub. The problem was, the hub wasn't exactly humming. It was empty, no people, no furniture, no signs, no nothing, no garbage even. There was *one* taxi in the gravel parking lot and aside from a few people outside huddled around it, no one, NO ONE in the building. I asked where the toilet was, eager for just five minutes away from these guys so we could get our collective heads together. Naturally, there were only squat toilets available. =/ We kind of freaked out for a while but eventually realized there wasn't much we could do... we needed to take a taxi into Siem Reap and they really did have the only taxi available.

Back outside, they told us the taxi ride would be $60... nice change up from the $45 they'd been offering back at the border. The three of us just turned around and walked. It was too much. We'd been harassed from the border, taken to an abandoned building and more or less bullied into a taxi. But then, where exactly were we going to walk to? Dusk was falling at this time and it was a good couple of miles back to the border. So when the taxi guys started chasing us again offering us a 'discount' we turned around and took it. We even talked them back down to $40. Of course then half the guys started asking for a tip... which, obviously, we did not give. We all climbed into the back, refusing the offer to have our belongings put in the trunk, or to let one of us sit in the back. I wasn't about to trust these people any farther than I had to. Which was still much farther than I would have liked.

On this three hour taxi ride from hell, I had a lot of time to ponder the nature of fear. I was terrified... absolutely terrified. The road was only partially paved. At times it was at least a pressed & smoothed dirt/gravel road that was merely bumpy and uncomfortable to ride on, but at times it was incredibly rough and we were tossed about like a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. I huddled close to Bobby and tried not to freak out. Because up to this point nothing bad had actually happened to us. I mean, from another perspective, you could say these guys eagerly greeted us at the boarder and ushered us effortlessly to the last taxi available, saving us from having to spend the night in town. But in my mind, their aggressiveness, our unfamiliarity with the situation, the strangeness of being in a new country (a country with a horrifyingly gruesome recent past), the deep deep darkness, and our inability to choose among different options just had my guard all the way up.

But still, I was uninjured, no one had threatened me, I was just in a really really uncomfortable situation. I tried to comfort myself with the mantra "At this moment I am safe." which at least for a few seconds would distract me from my terror. But in addition to the road being inconsistently paved, there were several small bridges under construction along the way. Each bridge-in-progress involved a backwards 'C' shaped detour*, off the road into a gully, and back steeply up and out of the gully & back onto the road. The first time he veered off the road, I made peace with my maker because I was certain he was going to pull off the road and kill us all. Of course he didn't, but once that thought entered my mind, I simply couldn't get it out. He made a couple cell phone calls, and at each one I was sure he was telling his accomplices to meet him at location X with shot guns & shovels to hide our bodies.

Again, I was aware that the fear was only mental... but it was real nonetheless. I kept my mantra going, and when Bunny started chattering inanely I joined in fully, even playing her favorite game - 20 questions (both general & Harry Potter versions) - a few times. The road was sporadically populated and when I saw other people walking or biking around I felt minutely better... if they were unafraid, maybe it really was safe. Of course as we passed one woman running down a lane with a flash light Bunny suggested she might be a ghost thus negating any comfort she'd provided with her babbling.

After the first hour I did try to convince myself that if he'd wanted to rob & kill us it would have been more efficient to do so closer to town (you know, why waste all that gas)... but it just didn't stop the terror. The problem was, the ride was too long. About 2 hours and 50 minutes too long in my mind. And every time he pulled off the road onto a detour, I was sure again that we'd be dead at worst, or at best robbed and stranded. I took some of my cash out of my wallet and stuck it deep in my backpack.... just in case. But nothing, nothing was shaking the terror from my little brain.

Finally, FINALLY we pulled into Siem Reap and I started to relax, just a bit. As we drove we passed huge shiny-new high end tourist resorts that made the city look more like LA than Cambodia. It was really unbelievable. Once we got to a fairly busy road, the taxi driver just pulled over. We paid him the $40 and started hiking away. Naturally, he'd dropped us off near his 'buddy' the tuk-tuk driver... but we were having none of it. Comforted by urban lights and noise and busyness we headed for the nearest well lit restaurant.

Interestingly it was a Japanese place, and although we weren't in the mood for dinner, they let us sit down and have some Iced Tea while we sorted ourselves out and tried to call our hostel. They even brought us nice cool handiwipes to clean the dirt and stress of the day off of us. It was the first time since we'd gotten off the bus in Aranyapatet some 4 or 5 hours earlier that I felt like we had any sort of control over what was happening. In a few minutes a tuk tuk from the hostel arrived to transport us to our temporary home. It was only after we were safely locked in our room that I could finally relax. Our room was clean, the beds were comfy and the bathroom had not only a western toilet but a HOT shower as well. I enjoyed my first hot shower since September and collapsed into bed, relieved to be done with Day One of this crazy Cambodian adventure.

*Cambodia was a surreal blend of third world poverty and American style comforts. The people involved in the tourist industry speak English remarkably well (especially considering it was in my lifetime that people were murdered for speaking a foreign language) and signs are in a mix of Khmer, English and occasionally French. They also drive on the right side of the road, and use the dollar for all but the smallest of transactions. The ATM gives you US dollars, and you'll might change back in a mix of dollars and riel (4,000 riel to the dollar)... the math was most disturbing. The main streets of both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh were overrun with foreign restaurants, Italian, American, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Spanish, even Mexican. But it was always evident that the wealth and western style comforts were a mix of foreign investments and foreign colonization.... I saw no sign of true Cambodian wealth, or even a thriving middle class. But I'll have more to say about that later.

Cambodian Advisory Guide for the day - Code Durian... this day made me want to go back to the US more than anything I've experienced thus far.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Plan

Bunny, Bobby & I are heading to Cambodia for New Years. The original plan was to go to Chiang Mai - but the busses were booked and at the time the airport was closed (as far as we knew - indefinitely). So somehow the plan evolved to going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. Much of the 'detail' work was conducted in an internet cafe surrounded by kids playing online war games. We planned this trip entirely without the aide of a guidebook and with only moderate amounts of help from people who'd actually *been* to Cambodia. To say we're freaked out would be an understatement of grand proportions. When we've told our students they reply only "dangerous" or make a face and shake their heads. I emailed one of the guys from the CELTA course and he said "it had a squalid shittiness about it." So yeah... sounds fun!

But Angkor Wat is supposed to be one of those things you should see before you die... and we're here so... why the heck not! We leave for Bangkok first thing in the morning. From Bangkok we'll take a bus to the border with Cambodia. From the border we'll......... um....... somehow find transportation to Siem Reap, where we have a hostel reserved for two nights. Hopefully we'll actually get to see Angkor Wat. It's the number one tourist draw, so I imagine it'll be pretty farang friendly.

From Angkor Wat / Siem Reap, we'll....... um.... somehow find transportation to Phnom Penh - the Capitol of Cambodia where we have another hostel reserved for two or three nights. This is where we'll spend New Year's Eve. We're hoping to just find some fellow travelers to hang out with. We've gotten mixed responses about what there is to do in Phnom Penh - one guy said it was boring and the only thing to do is go roller skating in the mall. But the other guy said it was raging parties every night. Something in the middle is what we're looking for, but who knows.

After New Year's we'll actually fly back to Bangkok (that flight is our big splurge of the trip - we figure we'll be tired of being on ground transportation by then). And from Bangkok we're meeting up with a French-Vietnamese guy Bunny & Bobby met on Koh Samet. Mexican food is on the agenda... but beyond that we'll just be hanging out that day, and the next day we'll go to Ayuttaya (just an hour north of Bangkok)... the site of some pretty fantastic Thai ruins. Then, if we have air in our lungs and strength in our legs we'll hop on yet another bus back to Rayong... to be home on the 4th, and teaching again on the 5th.

Insane? Absolutely. Dangerous? Probably. Exciting? A little bit. But we're totally going to do it and just see what happens. Wish me luck!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Boxing Day

I hope you're all enjoying your holiday festivities. Christmas was just surreal, we went through the motions as well as we could, but it just wasn't the same as being back home. (still no camera though, it hasn't recovered from it's sandy romp on Koh Samet)

Bunny & Bobby's parents had sent them a bunch of presents. Bobby drew a picture of a Christmas tree and put it up next to the closet and we all piled presents underneath. I tried to hang my stocking but the @$%^@%^ hooks you can get here don't hold up crap so my stocking just ended up in the pile. We opened presents. Bobby got a couple of books - which is exciting for all of us - especially the Cambodian guide book. Bunny got a water heater - again, a great gift for everyone. They got me a neck pillow for the bus ride - it's awesome, it looks like a donut with pink frosting on top. I love it.

They also got me a bag with some beautiful beautiful Engrish on it: First off there's a picture of something that looks vaguely like a llama sitting in an egg carton, then the text - LOVE DWARF BEAR. Well, I like egg fries, but I'm not an egg. Oh my god, anybody who can pick me up from this egg basket?! Which, when said with enough feeling is another good all purpose exclamation. The bag I got for Bobby had similar Engrish phrases on it - it's done up like a bag of candy and says: I'm in the mood for deliciousness. Rich fresh odors! Not quite as amusing, but highly appropriate nonetheless, I gave Bunny a t-shirt with the Thai alphabet on it. I plan on getting one for myself too before I leave.

Presents opened and chocolate consumed, we met up with Jed and went to Starbucks. It was all decked out just like a store back home, playing the same Bing Crosby Christmas music. It was 80 degrees outside, but I still had a hot chocolate with whipped cream. Then we bummed around the mall for a while and went to lunch at a nice Sushi restaurant. Bobby had to get to class at 3pm, but Bunny and I didn't start until 6 so we went home. I just lounged around and was about to get ready for work at about 4pm when I got a call from the school. My only class for the day had canceled. I was a tad irritated because I think they canceled the day before but I just wasn't notified. In any case just threw on my swimsuit, grabbed my beach bag and headed out to Ban Phe.

It was warm, but it had gotten really cloudy and grey, so it wasn't exactly perfect beach weather, but I did swim around for a bit. You know, just so I could say I went swimming on Christmas. ;) Then back in town Bunny, Bobby, Jed & his girlfriend, our head teacher, and two other farang guys we know.... uh... Click and Klack all met for dinner. Oh, and when I swung by the school I had mail! It was a very cute, and vaguely cannibalistic 'cat eating gingerbread kittens' Christmas card from Indigo Mouse. =) We went to the German restaurant, ate nummy nummy western food and drank a few bottles of wine. It was good.

I really can't complain ... but somehow it didn't feel the way Christmas 'should' feel. I really wish there weren't so much hype and expectation heaped on that holiday. It's like - if you don't have a Rockwellesque family or snow on the ground it ends up feeling a bit disappointing. Maybe it's just the family thing. As messed up as my family is, I guess I still kind of want to be with them over the holidays, enjoying our traditions and watching my niece and nephews open their presents. Even if my horrible sister is there, she's *my* horrible sister, you know? I don't know, maybe that's just the stage 2 culture shock talking.

My classes for today were also canceled, so in theory I have the day off. But I need to go to Immigration to get the second half of my non-B visa authorized. B, B & I also need to get reentry visas for our trip to Cambodia. If we don't, when we cross back into Thailand our non-B visas will revert to tourist visas, and that would be a mess and probably involve even more hanging out at the Immigration office and more filling out forms and paying fees etc etc. So better to do it right before we leave.

I hope those of you in the NW are enjoying your winter wonderland. Bundle up and have another egg-nog for me. =)

TAG: Sweet Chili Sauce

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Airing of Grievances

Two years ago, I was on the Holiday Party committee at work. We had meetings and discussed themes (we decided on snowflakes and blue & silver color scheme). Jobs were assigned, catering was ordered, furniture was rented, etc. And on the day of, the committee spent hours and hours putting up decorations and making everything look just so.

The day of the party, one of the committee members brought in two giant plastic blow-up snow-globes and proceeded to set them up. I opposed them vehemently! When was this discussed at the committee? How did tacky red & green suburban lawn decorations fit in with our snowflake theme? Why on god's green earth would anyone buy these things anyway??? I was the vocal minority... the rest of the committee were in the "I don't like them, but I'm too chicken to disagree with anyone out loud." or "I really don't care." camps. I fumed... not so silently.

At the party, after a couple of drinks, I stood looking at the giant snow globe (taller than me); at Santa and his reindeer being showered with a constant storm of styrofoam snow. An Australian came by "You've got to love it, it's so American!" - I died a little inside.

Soon enough the instigator of the snow-globe plan came over and put an arm around my shoulder. "You really hate it don't you?" He said.
"Yes, I really really do. I'm sorry I'm being such a bitch about this."
"That's okay." He said as we continued to stare, mesmerized by the blizzard of styrofoam snow. "In fact... today is Festivus and you're supposed to air your grievances."
"It's what?"
"It's a holiday for the rest of us. The first tradition is the Airing of Grievances where you tell everyone in your life how much they've disappointed you... the second tradition is the Feats of Strength, where you wrestle your host to the ground."
"Really! Then I really genuinely hate this snow globe, and I can't believe you brought it here, completely destroying any attempt to make our party 'elegant' or at least 'not tacky'."
"That's the Spirit!"

And that is how I learned the true meaning of Festivus.

So in the true spirit of the holiday I would like to share with you my Airing of Grievances: Thailand Edition.

1. Humidity - it hasn't been especially warm since I got here, but anytime I walk more than two or three blocks I'm drenched in sweat. My the end of the day I look pathetic and smell atrocious.

2. Pollution - on the ground, in the air, at the beach. There are never enough garbage cans at public places, so trash ends up everywhere. This is a beautiful country, but it would benefit tremendously from a bit of a clean up.

3. The sex industry - personally I'm don't think the words 'sex' and 'industry' should ever go together. It's a tad disturbing to walk down the main street at night and pass prostitute after prostitute, or to see women sitting outside 'massage parlors' and 'karaoke bars' but know that for an extra 1,000 baht they're much more than that. It's even more disturbing to know that the majority of foreign guys who come here have used these services. I try not to judge... it's a whole different culture here. It's unlikely that the world's oldest profession will go out of business any time soon, so I know it's not worth me worrying about. But having sex for money.... ewwwww ewwwww ewwwww!

4. Sidewalks - every trip is an adventure. If there's a uniform sidewalk for a stretch of more than two stores I get excited. Otherwise it's uneven at best, at worst more pot holes and loose concrete than 'side walk'. I think back to life in the US where an uneven crack in the sidewalk was cause for spray paint, a sign and at times caution tape and I just crack up.

5. Wildlife - giant cockroaches that attack you in the shower, rabid dogs that bark all night long or sit staring at you as you eat, frogs that jump out at you as you walk along the street, snakes* of undetermined size and ferocity that lurk in any grassy area, lizards that crawl all over the walls, and the mosquitoes... those annoying and potentially disease carrying mosquitoes that are undeterred by mosquito repellent... all of these irritate and/or terrify me.

6. 'Fast food' English - I teach from 7 different books, and work 6 days a week. My schedule changes constantly. I haven't had two consecutive days off since September. I teach people ages 10 to 50. Every classroom is empty when I get there, and needs to be empty again when I leave - I have only a hanging folder and a plastic shoebox to store my teaching resources. A couple of my classes have text books that are completely inappropriate for their level. You can't fail anyone, ever. The copier is constantly running out of paper. The bathrooms are constantly running out of TP.

7. Squat Toilets

8. Whiskey - it's gross... why does everyone insist on drinking it?

9. Beige cars - a solid 50% of the cars here are beige; another 45% are silver. They all have tinted windows. When I get out of class, I can never identify which car I came in and wander aimlessly until my driver honks at me.

10. Bread - when you can find it - it's never that good.

11. It's just not 'home'. I'm a farang, and even if I became fluent in Thai & married a Thai man and had half-Thai children... I'd still be a farang, an outsider.

12. Squat Toilets - it bears repeating.

Ok... your turn, celebrate the true meaning of Festivus and air your grievances with pride!

*Yesterday both Donny & Big regaled me with stories of snakes falling out of trees; snakes as big around as your leg, snakes that span three hotel rooms in length, and snakes that hang out at the beach. I was *screaming* and seriously (however briefly) seriously considered leaving Thailand. TAG - Code Durian!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Crazy Monkey, Little Crocodile, and Big Egg

Bunny, Bobby and I decided to give ourselves Thai nicknames, Bunny of course is the Crazy Monkey (Ling Ting Tong), Bobby is the Little Crocodile (Jolokay Lek Lek) and I am the Big Egg (Kai Yai). All the more so because I bought a new shirt, it's white and billowy. Anyway, tonight we met up with Donny, and Rod & Tod - his two Thai friends. We explained our nicknames and they were utterly confused. Ling Ting Tong is okay, 'ting tong' isn't a real word... but it gets the point across - maybe like 'coo coo' or something. But unfortunately 'little crocodile' refers to a particular animal that's the worst of the scavangers willing to eat the most disgusting things around... so not exactly a cute name. And of course... Kai Yai turned out to mean "big penis." I knew the omlet - penis translation... but I guess any egg type product has penis connotations. Oh well... it was fun. Bunny kept trying to experiment with the language and the guys were alternating between complete confusion and histerical laughter.

At one point two other friends of Donny's joined us - two American guys he'd met through a teacher who is no longer at the school. Anyway, I really enjoyed talking to them, mostly because I could talk at full speed and actually have a conversation. But it was also a little awkward. I was really excited to get to really talk to someone new - you know full sentences and all. But I didn't want to be rude to our new Thai friends either. I guess it all worked out in the end. Mostly we all just laughed at Bunny as she tried to translate the idea 'size doesn't matter' into Thai. I think she got the words right, but the humor was lost after 10 minutes of translation. Still, it was fun, and I need more fun in my life.

T.A.G: Code Sweet Chili Sauce

Friday, December 19, 2008

Third time's the charm

My two Friday classes were canceled today, and by some bizarre miracle, I found out about it in advance. Friday is Bunny & Bobby's normal day off (mine is Sunday) so we decided to go to Bangkok. Unfortunately Bunny was still feeling sick from the scary veggies and possibly meat she at yesterday so she ended up staying at home. But Bobby and I had a pretty awesome time.

There are ways in which Bobby and I are a lot alike. We're both the quieter friend in the introvert/extrovert dynamic and she tends to appreciate schedules & structure like I do. She is however, a lot more grounded & confident than I was at her age. In any case we had a good time. We had a lot we'd hoped to accomplish, and we had a plan.

1. Buy bus tickets to Cambodia (I still can't quite believe we're actually doing this).
2. See Wat Po
3. Do a little Christmas shopping (my family will be getting their presents sometime in February... if they're lucky!)
4. Attempt to mitigate my horror-hair situation with a slight trim by a qualified hairdresser.
5. Eat western food... a lot of western food.

And we managed to accomplish all of it. We took a mini-van to Bangkok because it's faster than the bus. It was late getting started, and made a lot of stops as we left town, so I'm not sure it was actually quicker. And it was, surprisingly, not as comfortable. We were going along at quite a clip and every little rut or bump in the road felt really exaggerated. In any case, we got there in one piece. And I even struck up a bit of a conversation with one of the other passengers. He spoke a little English so we could actually say a few things to each other. And yes... I told him in Thai that I have two sisters.... and in exchange he told me in English that he likes Action Movies. LOL.

Finding the bus station was a bit complicated, the people we asked all pointed us in the same general direction - but all we saw were city bus stops, so we thought there was some miscommunication. Of course there was, but it was all on our end. We finally found a nice man who spoke English and we figured out that we'd gotten off the sky train a stop too early and would need to take a taxi (or a city bus at the bus stop we'd been directed to) to get there. He even wrote it down for us so we could show the taxi driver. Once there we successfully bought tickets to the Cambodian border for December 28th. Yay!

Next up was Wat Po... but first lunch. There was a hoppin little cafe right across from the temple and we were drawn right in by the grammatically correct English on the sign & menu outside. I had a bacon & cheese sandwich, Bobby had the chicken, we both got them on baguettes. It was far from the best sandwich I'd ever had... but it was certainly the best that I'd had since coming to Thailand, so we were pretty happy. I also got up the nerve to talk to a guy who was sitting alone at the next table. It took our entire meal time to do so, but I did. It turned out that he was a Slovakian who'd been living in Australia and was traveling alone. Unfortunately he'd just been to Wat Po & and that was our next stop so it didn't really pan out into any kind of fun day with the strange new boy. Doesn't matter, I was proud of myself for being friendly while sober.

The temple itself was really cool, it's the temple of the reclining Buddha, and when I entered that building - it was overwhelming. The statue is HUGE and incredibly beautiful. Once again though, these temples are treated (by foreigner and some Thais alike) as a tourist destination and not so much a sacred space. Yes, we need to take off our shoes and cover our shoulders... but inside people are just standing around taking pictures and talking. In one of the smaller buildings Bobby & I stopped for a minute just to chill out.

We both knew the rule about the feet being the most 'unclean' part of the body and how you should never point your feet at anyone, and pointing your feet at (or climbing on!!!) any Buddha image was really offensive. So we sat there with our legs to the side, feet pointing backwards - like we've seen other Thais do. There was a farang guy with his Thai girlfriend there and she was telling him not to sit 'indian style' because it was considered rude.... and there was a small group of other farangs taking pictures off to the side. The first couple left... and the second group kept taking all kinds of pictures. At one point, they're all clowning around and the one guy sticks his foot out in the air - pointed at the Buddha. Neither one of us could believe it. It would be like going into a Cathedral and flipping off the crucifix. On the one hand, travelers can be excused for not knowing every cultural rule and more; but on the other hand, if you're in someone else's sacred space... try to act the way you would act in your own sacred space, you know? And when in doubt, do what the locals do.

Oh... and as we were leaving there was a table with all these roof tiles and a box for donations. Basically you pay whatever & you can write a little message on the back of the tile. Then they use them to re tile the roofs. OF COURSE I had to do it. I wrote "Rayong 2008" in Thai and a little message in English. I'm excessively happy about getting to leave my mark and in some small way to become a part of that temple.

Having accomplished the two most primary goals of our trip to the city, we took a taxi over to MBK (the mall I never managed to get to last time) for a couple of hours. We were quite proud of ourselves for not getting scammed and insisting that the driver turn on the meter. The first offer we'd gotten was 400 baht - but with the meter it only cost 91. Not an insignificant difference!

MBK was cool, a less upscale than the other two malls I'd been to. There were TONS of places to buy souvenirs but I showed a lot of restraint; only buying a birthday present for my mom. I'm going to hold off and do the bulk of my souvenir shopping towards the end of my time in Thailand. After shopping for a bit I decided I was ready to brave the hairdresser's again.

This time though, I was prepared. I'd been thinking a lot about exactly what I wanted to have done to mitigate the horror that was my slash & dash mess of a haircut. I told the guy that I only wanted a little bit cut off, cut it straight across the back and just even out the layers along my face. I illustrated how I wanted him to cut it... and even made him stop when he tried to blow dry my hair before cutting it (I don't understand that whole concept!). He did exactly what I wanted him to do. He looked at me like I was a bit of a psycho... but he did it. I'm pretty happy with the hair cut because 1. I managed to tell him what I wanted, 2. he actually did it, 3. I resisted the urge to get the reactionary "just chop it all" haircut and 4. it does actually look a tiny bit better. It's not great, it's still going to need to grow out, but now there's a definite end point to the length of my hair - it's not all different lengths... and he was able to get rid of the funky tail think that was going on. It's still going to take several months to get my hair back to 'normal' but I think the worst of it is over. Of course, after cutting my hair he proceeded to blow it dry & straight... so who knows how it will look tomorrow. But I think it will be okay.

Our final stop of the day was to Charlie Brown's, a Mexican restaurant on Soi 11. OMG... there really aren't words for how good it was. But you know that won't stop me from trying. They brought out chips & salsa right away. I generally prefer pico-de-gallo, but this was pretty good. We both ordered chicken enchiladas, margaritas and a large guacamole. The guacamole was good - made from fresh avocados - but it needed a little help. A squeeze of lime from our drinks and a little salt and it was pretty near perfect. Everything was just so amazing - it was on par with any Tex-Mex food I'd had in California. But we're a long way from Tex. or Mex. here, so it seemed quite magical. I'm sure the margaritas helped too.

All in all, a pretty amazing day. TAG - Code Mango.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Just what I needed...

I'm still kinda wavering in and out of stage two culture shock (I don't understand anything, why doesn't anything work 'right', what the hell am I doing here?). I'm also kinda sorting through issues I brought with me from the States. I knew when I decided to move to Thailand, that a change in location wasn't going to erase a lifetime of experiences... so I'm not exactly surprised. But it is frustrating that I've come all this way and have had so many new experiences and yet still have all the same insecurities I had before. So you know, ups & downs, ups & downs.

I've been taking an in-house training for teaching Young Learners and today was the last day. Obviously it was something I needed, and I did pick up some ideas for games & activities. But it also highlighted exactly *how bad* of a teacher I am in my kid classes. So that was a bit hard to deal with. Today was 'teacher presentation' day and I wasn't prepared. I had picked out a story to present but then spent all night on line and only had the most cursory of lesson plans when I got to class this morning. The first part went well, but it kind of petered out and didn't really have a grammatical focus. And this is my whole problem, I don't have a lot of innate talent in this area, but I'm also not really motivated to work hard and get better at it. ("It's not that I'm lazy, it's a problem of motivation." ;) ). Anyway I still feel like a crappy teacher, but at least I have a couple new things to try.

After the course, Bunny, Bobby and I went to lunch. Bunny's gotten sick from the food at the Dive (the place nearest our school), and we'd eaten at Thai 101 three days in a row, so we decided to go someplace new. We just started walking and found a little food shop on the street and ordered. Bunny's food was not good... just vegetables and it was that bitter green leafy thing they put in everything here. Usually it's okay, but it just wasn't. I had fried vegetables and veggies were a little better, but the pork was weird. Some places have normal raw pork that they stir fry with the vegetables, but some places have this weird oddly crunchy cured pork... and that's what I got. It's kind of like thick cuts of not quite rancid bacon. I don't know how else to describe it. All I can say is that we'll never be eating there again. Oh, and we're pretty sure they put meat in Bunny's fried vegetables because she spent the next couple of hours vomiting.

I went back to the school and spent some time putting together my lessons and then taught two halfway decent classes. I still don't teach anything near what was expected of me on the CELTA course... but both classes are chatty and either at or above the level of the book, so it makes my job easier.

After class Bobby picked up some crackers & soda for Bunny, then we went to dinner. Neither one of us were feeling adventurous so we went to the good ol' B&B. The motherly owner walked over and we said hello. I decided to step up my game a bit, so I asked her "How are you?" and she replied enthusiastically "I'm good!" but then she kept on talking. I caught a bit of her saying "You can speak Thai." to which I said "No no... only a little, only a little." but she just kept on talking... smiling warmly at us. At the first break in her monologue I just gave her a pathetic smile and said "Mai cow jai..." (don't understand) and she laughed and we laughed... and she said a few more things that I have no hope of understanding.

We ordered some food, then lamented the fact that we always end up eating the same thing. We can't read the menus, so the best we can do is ask for the couple of dishes we can pronounce and hope for the best. OH! Important little vocabulary note. We recently learned that the word for "omlette" sounds almost exactly like the word for "penis"... yeah. So when we've been saying proudly to the waitress "I want to eat an omlet" it's quite possible that what we've actually been saying is "I want to perform oral sex." Ya gotta love it.

So yes, we were lamenting the fact that we always end up eating the same thing... and now have to scratch omlettes off the list as well. As we ate our umpteenth plate of stir fried rice, meat & vegetables we talked food. Oh, we rhapsodized about lamb stew, and swapped recipes for Mexican food. I bragged about my roasted vegetable soup, and we compared notes on roasting potatoes. Food has always been important to me, obviously, but it just takes on a whole new significance when you can't really get what you're used to eating. So we were fairly engaged in the conversation, caught somewhere between nostalgia and a wistfull longing. Eventually we finished our dinner and got up to leave. We tried to pay... but the woman wouldn't take our money - she tried to explain something and gestured over to the man at the next table. I thought "are we supposed to pay him???" (I *never* know what's going on here... honestly.) But Bobby was like "Oh - I think he paid for our dinner!" How sweet?! We said "thank you" and he gave a wai so I gave a wai back.

As we walked away we were like "Should we have gone over to talk to him?"... but there wasn't much beyond "thanks" that we could have said. Neither "I want to swim in the sea." nor "I have two older sisters." seemed appropriate, so we just basked in the glow of his random act of kindness and came home.

TAG: a random act of kindness brought today up from a Fish Sauce kind of day to totally Code Mango!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Never teach kids,

No, never teach anything.

My camera is see-a (broken); and I dropped it off at the computer/technology store. I'm hoping that at some point it will be returned to me - who knows?

I was more successful at the mailboxes etc. type place at Tesco's and managed to buy a bunch of stamps. Yay! Postcards will be sent at some point in the not so distant future.

I'm taking an in-house teacher training course about Young Learners at my school, and I hope it helps me sort out my dreaded Saturday classes. I do want to learn how to teach kids (because I'm stuck with them for the time being), but today just made me feel like a complete failure. The other teachers seem to have a lot of games & activities in their pocket - I feel completely out of my league. I'm in a funk. Ugh... mai sa naam plah.

In other news, Bunny introduced me to Wizard People - a freakin' hillarious voice over of the entire first Harry Potter movie. There are a lot of great one liners like (when Prof. McGonagal transfigures from a cat into a person) "Never pet cats you don't know... no, never pet anything." It's amazingly useful. Poor Bobby ate some bad prawns on Ko Samet and she sent me a text message, "Never eat prawns... no never eat anything."

Ok... that's all I've got going on at the moment. TAG: Fish Sauce

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is it December 12th already?

Are you kidding me? It cannot possibly be time for the four month update.

Learn Thai: I've picked up another 30+ words, bringing my total vocabulary up to around 130. In theory I can string together a few simple sentences, but I don't actually get many chances to practice what little I know. That is, practice in any kind of relevant way. Once I've told everyone that I've got two older sisters - there's not much of a reason to keep saying it. Aside from basic greetings (which I'm getting a lot better at btw), the only things I say with any regularity is "what's that?", "how much?", the name of my apartment building or any other location I want to go to and "here" to tell the driver where to stop.

The other problem I'm having is that half the new words I hear sound exactly like other words I already know. The word for 'tiger' sounds (to me) just like the word for 'beautiful' which sounds just like the word for 'bad luck'. The word for 'month' sounds like 'walk', 'cat' sounds like 'don't want' and on and on. I'm not going to count it as a word learned until I can hear the difference and make a passable attempt at pronouncing it. Aaah the beauty of a tonal language. =/

Quality time at the beach: Check check and double check. I wasn't overly fond of the beach I went to at Pattaya... but then two days later I went to Soun Soon which is my favorite so far. I also spent two overnights at Ko Samet, and thoroughly enjoyed it each time. I assure you, it's not getting old, and I'm not taking it for granted. Getting to hang out at the beach is *why* I'm here, and it really really does make up for the rough parts.

Saving Money: I had about 15,000 Baht (about $400) in the bank when I got paid today, not too shabby.

Losing Weight: Holding more or less steady... I haven't lost any weight since last month. A little too much going out with Bunny & Bobby I think.

Teaching Experience: I've been feeling self conscious about how much time I spent 'planning' lessons (mostly just staring at the book wondering what exactly I'm supposed to be doing) and decided to wing it a little more this month. I don't think my lessons were substantially worse than when I was spending more time on them. Saturdays are still killing me though. Complaining about it isn't helping much. Actually, I'm getting into a bit of a routine with the class that's behind the book - I spend the first half of the class doing review and the second half of the class trying to drag them kicking & screaming (or rather yawning & silent) through the lesson that's vastly too advanced for them.

But the advanced kids, they are bored out of their mind and I just don't know what to do with them. I feel horrible about the whole situation, it's a waste of time for all of us. I've asked about skipping ahead to the next book but they won't let me, they just say to supplement. Well, supplementing a lesson here and there is one thing, trying to create 3 hours worth of lessons from scratch week after week without a real guide ... that's not something I'm at all qualified to do.

I picked up another young student for private lessons and I'm less than thrilled about it, but I'm surviving. He's already at an intermediate level and he's pretty on target with the book, so while it's hardly fun it's not as bad as my Saturday classes. My other classes are going reasonably well. The two General English books I'm using are really good - the grammar for each lesson is presented clearly and there are a lot of activities in the back of the book. In most of my classes I feel like I'm just helping with pronunciation & error correction. No... I do more than that, but when the book is good, my job is not that hard.

Make some friends: Bunny, Bobby & I are continuing to have fun together. I drunk texted Donny from Ko Samet & ran into Marie on the street today. So my little social circle is branching out a little bit.

New Experiences: I'd call being propositioned by a strange Thai man a new experience. ;) In fact staying at an island resort was a new experience too.

Learn to ride a motorbike: Fail fail, epic fail. Still a no go. I started looking into it and I'd need to get a Thai drivers license etc. The thrill of the ride is being thwarted by the dread of paperwork. I'm tempted to scratch this one off my list entirely, but I know this could be a really good thing if I'd just get off my butt and do it.

Overall, it hasn't been all peaches & cream (mangoes & coconut milk?)... but I desperately needed a change in my life, and that is exactly what I've gotten.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Don't put fish sauce on that!

Bunny's a vegetarian, and one of the things she's had to learn to say is "Mai sa naam plah" - "don't put fish sauce on it" because a lot of times they'll make a 'vegetarian' dish with fish sauce, which kinda defeats the purpose - well as far as she's concerned. Yesterday was another mysterious holiday (sometimes it's better not to ask... just enjoy the day off) so the three of us went to Ko Samet. "Don't put fish sauce on it" became the all purpose phrase for the trip.*

The room I'd reserved was not spectacular. In fact, it's right at the bottom of what I would call acceptable lodging. There were other places to stay on the island, but since it was a holiday every place had jacked up the prices and we were being cheap. The room was small, but the bed was clean. The bathroom was the all-in-one shower over the toilet deal I've come to expect from Thailand, but there was no plastic covered TP holder so it had to be stored up high wedged into the towel rack. Also the toilet didn't have a lid so the seat (which was only marginally attached) would get all wet if you showered.... or used the water at all actually, since there was no sink. We had to use the shower to brush our teeth or wash our hands. Ugh. It was on the borderline between 'clean enough' and 'kinda gross'; so like I said, it was right at the bottom of what I'd consider acceptable, and certainly not a place I would recommend to anyone. In fact - in the future, I'd be willing to splurge for a nicer room even if it meant paying for all three of us myself.

But... we didn't go to the island to hang out in the room, we came for the beach. And the beach was phenomenal. I hope you guys aren't getting tired of beach pictures... because every time I go I just want to take pictures... it's so gorgeous I can't help myself. I spent as much time as I could in the water, only coming out to rest and rehydrate, and once to get a pedicure.

Remember, I'm still recovering from a traumatic haircut.

Eventually the sun started heading towards the horizon and tummies started growling, so we went back to the room to shower & get ready for dinner. And by 'get ready for dinner' I mean adding a healthy dose of vodka to some juice boxes so we could save a little money on drinks. We walked along the water down to the next beach and found a nice place for dinner. It's such a treat to get a menu in English, and we had an English speaking waitress to boot. As much as I like going to Ko Samet though, I really couldn't imagine living or working there... I'd go nuts with all the crazy tourists (such as myself).

After dinner we went back to the Ploy Bar which seems to be the most happening place there ... they keep saying that high-season is starting... but once again there really weren't all that many people around, some of the restaurants were positively empty. We watched the fire show... which was awesome. And had some Rhoti...which was almost equally awesome.

From there the night just got weird. I'm apparently far more outgoing when I'm in a group (and exceptionally drunk), and I started chatting randomly with everyone; an Australian banker, two of the tallest Dutch people I've ever seen, a German couple who it turns out spoke far less English than I had assumed, etc. We started talking to a Thai woman from Chiang Mai, and when I said I'd been there she hugged me, then later bought us all a round of tequila shots. Someone else bought a bucket (a kid's pail, filled with a lot of alcohol and, I don't know, soda?) and well... it just got weird.

I don't feel comfortable going into all the details online... but at one point I was dancing with a Jamacan/Australian (?) guy. Let's just say his behavior was highly correlated with the proximity of the woman he'd come with. When she left to go to the bathroom I got quite a lot of attention. Mai sa naam plah!

We headed inside to the other bar for a while. Hardly anyone was in there, so we rocked out to the Filipino 80s cover band for a bit before braving the beach again. Actually, Bobby (tired of being hit on) went back to our room, and Bunny had lost her shoes at some point and had gone off to look for them. So I was temporarily on my own.

Somehow, and I don't really know how, I ended up at a table with a bunch of Thai people. The guy next to me was telling me it was his family. I'm sure he must have been speaking some English, but I think there was also a fair bit of Thai, and of course the universal language of alcohol. I remember asking everyone's name & telling them how old I thought they were... but getting the numbers wrong saying "12" instead of "22" etc. And then I tried telling them I had two sisters & asking them who was the older sister/older brother etc. One of them was spoon feeding me some kind of noodle soup she was eating and we agreed it was "delicious but a little spicy". Another woman at the table kept trying to say she was the mom but I kept telling her "mai chai" (not correct!). There were almost pictures of the event, but either I'd used up my entire memory card, my batteries were dead, or there's sand in my camera. I'm not sure which one it was, but I got to say "broken" again, and "can not."**

All of this sounds like good clean fun, and it would have been, except eventually the guy next to me became extra friendly and gave me a line I hope never to have to teach my students:

"Have sex with me - five minutes."

The lack of preposition in this sentence leaves it open to a variety of interpretations. Initially I took it as "Have sex with me for five minutes." and just burst out laughing. Come on! I couldn't even get undressed in five minutes. So then he amended his suggestion "Have sex with me - one hour." It occurred to me later that he might mean "in one hour".... but that didn't make the proposition any more appealing.

I should point out here that I did not find the guy even remotely attractive despite my advanced state of intoxication (I don't even know how old he was... but I'm guessing quite a bit older than I am)... so I never entertained the idea of going anywhere with him for five minutes, let alone for an hour. I am however, happy to report that I was able to decline his offer in Thai with a clear but polite "I don't want that, thank you." Ugh.... Mai sa naam plah!

Laying in the sand, looking up at the tree.

Soon enough, Bunny returned from a fruitless search for her shoes, and the rest of the evening was spent nearly passed out in the sand, nearly passed out in the street, and finally nearly passed out on the rock hard bed in our room (the beach was vastly more comfortable). I think I only actually slept for about an hour. They must have put Red Bull or some other energy drink in the buckets because I was really drunk but far too wired to get any kind of rest. Mai sa naam plah!

Bobby and I had to teach today, so we got up early (I was positively coated with sand), ate a solid hangover-breakfast on the beach and headed home. We left Bunny uncomfortably passed out in bed. She later sent us the text message "Never.Drink.Anything!" But I think 'mai sa naam plah' covers it too.

*I've updated my TAG codes to better reflect the kinds of experiences I'm having here. Yesterday was definitely a Code Sweet Chili Sauce kind of day, but today is more of a Code Fish Sauce as I try to recover from it all.

**Of course there's always the indeterminable gap between what I think I'm saying, and what I'm actually saying, and how much of what I think I understand is actually correct. It's entirely possible that I was just asking them not to put fish sauce on me.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Monday Meme

Copied from Zonda

1. WERE YOU NAMED AFTER ANYONE? Not really, but I have a biblical name. So you can say I was named for one of the people in Genesis.

2. WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU CRIED? A couple of days ago.

3. DO YOU LIKE YOUR HANDWRITING? not really, it seems to get a lot messier as I get older.

4. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LUNCH MEAT? Mmmm... My all time favorite sandwich was a Chicken Salad on Hazelnut where I used to work, but I also love salami and roast beef. Hard to pick a favorite.



7. DO YOU USE SARCASM A LOT? Not usually, and I often don't get it when other people are sarcastic. I think I missed out on the sarcasm gene.


9. WOULD YOU BUNGEE JUMP? Interestingly, I had the opportunity to take a zip line down from a 56 story building and it didn't even occur to me to try it. Two of the other people did and really enjoyed it. My gut reaction to bungee jumping is "hell no!" but I think I need a little more adrenaline in my life... so maybe someday.

10. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE CEREAL? I'm not a big fan of cereal, but I like Crispix just as a snack.

11. DO YOU UNTIE YOUR SHOES WHEN YOU TAKE THEM OFF? At present I do not own any shoes that tie.


13. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE ICE CREAM? Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk. But there really hasn't been many flavors that I haven't loved.

14. WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE ABOUT PEOPLE? Friendliness / standoffishness.

15. RED OR PINK? Pink

16. WHAT IS THE LEAST FAVORITE THING ABOUT YOURSELF? Too many to list and they're all equally bad. I don't like how I let myself get out of shape & gain so much weight, the way I'm such a chicken at times, my complete lack of social intelligence, my selfishness, the list goes on.

17. WHO DO YOU MISS THE MOST? This is tough. I don't really miss people as much as I miss the relationships that I had with those people at certain times in my life. You know people grow and change and move away... and I can still see them, but we don't have the connection we used to have, and that's what I really miss.

18. DO YOU WANT EVERYONE TO DO THIS? It's up to you.

19. WHAT COLOR SHOES ARE YOU WEARING? I'm not wearing any shoes, but earlier today I was wearing my cute red flip flops.

20. WHAT WAS THE LAST THING YOU ATE? For breakfast: Pad pak loom mit gai rad cow - fried vegetables and chicken served with steamed rice.

21. WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW? My ceiling fan (which is on too high and I really need to get up and turn it down), someone washing something outside, a bird, traffic.

22. IF YOU WERE A CRAYON, WHAT COLOR WOULD YOU BE? Cerulean blue... like a gentle breeze.

23. FAVORITE SMELLS? The ocean.... flowers... tangerines

24. WHO WAS THE LAST PERSON YOU TALKED TO ON THE PHONE? Bunny - who was two doors down when she called.

25. DO YOU LIKE THE PERSON WHO SENT THIS TO YOU? I cyber-like her, we've never met in person. Weird!

26. FAVORITE SPORTS TO WATCH? Gymnastics, figure skating, almost any olympic event.

27. HAIR COLOR? Brown

28. EYE COLOR? Blue

29. DO YOU WEAR CONTACTS? No can do... I've tried and they all hurt.

30. FAVORITE FOOD? CHEESE! Most bread products, including but not limited to bagels, toast, french bread, olive bread, rosemary bread, garlic bread, foccaccia, english muffins, hazelnut sandwich bread, and breadsticks.

31. SCARY MOVIES OR HAPPY ENDINGS? Gotta have a happy ending.

32. LAST MOVIE YOU WATCHED? Black Sheep - which was far more awesome than I could have expected. Seriously a superior film.

33. WHAT COLOR SHIRT ARE YOU WEARING? Uh.... none. I was wearing a white shirt but I got pad pak loom mit gai rad cow on it so I took it off - let's chalk that one down as the most exotic stain I've gotten on a shirt thus far. ;)


35. HUGS OR KISSES? I'll take whatever I can get. But I do love it when I hug someone good bye and I get a forehead kiss.

36. FAVORITE DESSERT? Cheesecake

37. MOST LIKELY TO RESPOND? surprise me.


39. WHAT BOOK ARE YOU READING NOW? I'm rereading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, but it was tough to concentrate on while I was at the beach.

40. WHAT IS ON YOUR MOUSE PAD? I don't have a mouse pad, I have a touch pad on my laptop. My laptop is on a little bed tray though - with the Thai & English alphabets represented pictoraly.


42. FAVORITE SOUND? heartbeats


44. WHAT IS THE FARTHEST YOU HAVE BEEN FROM HOME? Well, technically I am home right now, but Thailand is the farthest I've ever been from any of my previous homes.

45. DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL TALENT? Not unless you count my complete inability to remember jokes or tell them correctly a talent. It's pretty spectacular.

46. WHERE WERE YOU BORN? Morristown Memorial Hospital - New Jersey.

47. WHOSE ANSWERS ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO GETTING BACK? Bezzie's because she'll probably be a smart-ass about it, and that is why I love her.