Friday, June 26, 2009

Big Apple

I’ve been writing a lot more recently and I’ve really enjoyed that. I have continued to journal since coming back to the US, but it hasn’t taken up the same amount of my time and energy that it did before. My blog, and this is one reason for the resurrection, suffered the most and until yesterdays post hadn’t been touched since April, 2008. This misses my trip to Cambodia and my return home not to mention the past year. Again, this is what I’m trying to remedy the next month or so.

My first morning in NY was uneventful. I spent the morning taking care of business and catching up on sleep. My meeting was at 12 uptown at Columbia so I made sure to give myself plenty of time to get there. I grabbed my copy of Rolling Stone magazine and grabbed a seat on the subway and was on my way. I arrive with plenty of time to spare and so I found a quaint little coffee shop nearby and indulged in a croissant and a cup-a-joe. The wondrous thing that is summer vacation is often enjoyed most in these simple moments. The moments between “planned” events. The time that otherwise would have been spent fretting over things undone or things needing your attention. Rarely is the simple fact that you are early and have nothing to do mean it is time to grab a coffee and read. Unencumbered by the stress of life and work, I enjoyed that coffee and damned if it wasn’t a great cup.

Once the clock stuck twelve I was sitting outside the office of the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. I sat down with the program director and spent about an hour chatting with her before I headed over to one of their classrooms and sat in on a class. The program is intense. It’s a three semester program and is very rigorous. It’s designed to prepare the students for careers in public policy and is focused on environmental policy. In many ways the program is a great fit – it combines environmental science with economics and international studies. My background and interests seems to dovetail perfectly with the program and the director herself said that I’m am ideal candidate. But I have my hesitations. I sat in on the class and one of the students was a prick. Very arrogant and cocky, he told me off as I explained to the girl he was sitting next to who I was and what it was I was doing. The professor, on the other hand, was very nice. The material was, while being a bit mundane and not very challenging, was interesting. The class focused on memo writing at first and ended with a look at a case study examining the emergence of environmental policy and coordinated governmental action to address environmental problems in the Pacific Northwest. So, while I’m glad I went, I think that visit left me with more questions than answers. While I was there I also went to the School of Journalism and spoke with them briefly about their dual degree program in Journalism and Environmental Science. I hadn’t thought about going this route, but think that it could be interesting.

After grabbing something to eat from a street vendor, I headed to the Guggenheim. I had never been and was excited to simply see the building. As I walked in I noticed that the exhibit was a showcase of Frank Lloyd Wright and his work, who, if you didn’t know, designed the Guggenheim itself. I’ve always loved his work and have several books of his work. The exhibit was fantastic as was the building. The spiral concept was evident in several of his earlier works, none of which actually ever came to fruition. He had this great design which played off of his love of the automobile which was essentially a ramp up and a ramp down spiraling around a half sphere which was an planetarium. It was such a cool concept. The Guggenheim is essential this inverted and for people not cars. There were also the “great” works there. There were some paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt, Pissarro, Monet etc. I looked, but with the exception of some of the more contemporary stuff, was more interesting in the Wright designs.

I then began the trek back to the hotel. I walked from 86th all the way down to 42nd via Rockefeller Center. It was a great walk – stimulating, great for people watching, and cool (rain clouds were moving in). I saluted Liz Lemon as I passed by 30 Rock and headed off to grab a beer and do some writing. Now, there is nothing much of note to speak of, save the fact that after six years and all my laptop and I have been through, I finally split something on it. I was sitting at the table and had just taken the first sip of my beer and sure enough I knocked the table and a good bit of beer splashed onto the keyboard. I sopped it up and did my best to clean it up and for all my efforts I was rewarded. The computer still works. The only residual effect is that the keys in that corner are a bit sticky underneath. All’s well that ends well.

And then the fun started. I ended up meeting my good friend Alex later that night and went out to drinks just around the corner from the hotel. It was great to see him and chat. It’s interesting to think that there are quite a few people out there who are in similar positions in life to me. We had a great heart-to-heart over a few beers. One fun fact though – he works in DUMBO. Now, this is an actual place and is an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Coolest thing ever. I wish I worked in DUMBO.

The following day I went to the Museum of Natural History and wasn’t even able to see all of the first floor. They had a great exhibit on trees, more specifically tree rings and age, which included information about the reasons rings grew faster or slower. And I know that Peter is shaking his head and calling me an ecologist now, and while I’m okay with that, this was a really cool exhibit. I also ended up spending a good bit of time in the section on gems and minerals, fascinated by the crystals and the structure of the exhibit. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to change up my curriculum and think themes are the way to go and I got the feeling that crystals could provide a neat theme for one of my thematic units. I took notes on the exhibit. It was cool. I’m cool. And then I hoped the bus to New Jersey. Over and out.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Resurrection

As the relative calm of summer vacation sets in, I find myself saddled with time and energy that had previously been required for other more productive tasks. The past year stretches our behind me. The collection of experiences, events, lessons and moments seems to exceed in quantity the fixed amount of time that is bottled into any given year. Despite my own failure to grasp the passing of time with any measurable success, I am going to try to organize these thoughts back into my blog which, for so long, had gone neglected. This is, in parts, a way for me to reflect on the past year. This year has brought with it so many changes and personal mountains to climb, as well as many success and moments to be catalogued. These next few entries will also document my return to Thailand and my travels throughout this very special country as I visit old friends and favorite places. I will also be sojourning to northern Vietnam in an effort to balance old and new and will share my experiences there. Finally, I will try to utilize this forum and opportunity to attempt to bring closure to this blog, and in doing so, bring a degree of closure to my tenure teaching abroad in Thailand.


And so it begins. The end of the year came not too long ago. As with most charter schools our year is one of extended length. The days are longer and the students spend more days in our presence that other students their age. Wrapping up the year, we host the Summer Bash, an event organized by the homeowners association on the last day of school. As I sit atop a platform suspended over a tub of water, the Summer Bash is cancelled due to rain and lighting. But this was not before one lucky student, on his first ball – one of three chances – hit the target sending me rear-end-first into the tub of cool water. Needless to say, I had no need for an umbrella as the rain started falling. And so it was, as I walked dripping wet – drenched from head to toe – that I parted ways with the students and colleagues that I had spent the past year with. In many ways, this dunk tank is an apt metaphor for my time spent teaching in Colorado this past year. As I sat atop the platform, I had thoughts of regret. Had I made the right choice? There was risk involved, but it made the people in my life happy and satisfied their wishes. Was it what I wanted? And the thrill of falling was obviously there – the suspense and the not knowing what was going to happen was exhilarating. There was a complete release of expectations and I simply allowed myself to experience the moment, however fleeting. This was followed closely by the enveloping water. It surrounded me and took over – it dominated all my senses and left me wishing for what I had only just had. Then the moments spent sitting atop the platform, freezing and wet, pondering the future. What will come next? Will the thrill outweigh the costs? There is the feeling that you don’t have control of your future and what happens next. And I feel I need to end this metaphor before it becomes too cheesy and I stretch the situation more than I already have. I’ll touch on these thoughts later, but for now I’ll focus in on the adventures that followed, and have preceded this moment.


After a few busy days in Denver, I boarded a United Airlines flight to New York City. I was going to New York under the guise of visiting Columbia University. I had seen and researched several interesting programs they offered and I wanted to try to get a better feel for the school and the programs. Not less significantly, I wanted to try to assess my own desire to go back to school. For sometime now, that has been the next step. When I left Thailand my “excuse” was simple – I was going to return home to spend time with my family and go back to graduate school. I took the GRE and had done some research. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was simply looking at schools as a way to move forward without actually having to make any decisions. I’ll be the first to admit that the concept of going back to school leaves little to chance. There is little risk in that. It’s a safe choice. And it’s a choice that would be respected by those in my life. In all honesty, this thought of going back to school is only in my head because when I told my Thai acquaintances the “real” reason I was going back to school, they couldn’t understand me. My reasons were vague. They were obtuse. I was looking for something that was hard to verbalize. And that’s a difficult concept to explain in English much less Thai. So, I changed my strategy. I told them I was going to get a Master’s degree. No one questioned my motives. No one tried to convince me otherwise. Some offered to set me up with their daughters and friends so that I would stay and students told me that they wanted me to stay, but they all understood. They just didn’t want me to go.


Anyway, coming back to the point. I landed in LaGuardia Airport at about 10pm. My parents had kindly offered to put me up in the Westin in Times Square for my birthday so I had a destination. I simply had to get there. After all, how hard could navigating NYC be? I hopped a shuttle bus that took me into the city and dropped me off at Grand Central Station. GCS is about six blocks from Times Square so I decided to hoof it. And you have to love NYC because a teacher from Colorado can walk down 42nd with his backpacking bag on his back and another smaller bag on his chest and not be looked at twice. That is until I stroll in the front door of the Westin. The journey was uneventful- a few wrong turns and a few ponderous looks in several directions and at several street signs. Nothing out of the ordinary. A point of note – while walking I walked under a banner on the street which was a part of the marketing campaign for Times Square. It said “Welcome” in Thai. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Thai language it reads like this “ยินดีต้อนรับ”. And without delay or hesitation I strolled into the Westin. Now, I’ve had this experience before (Cambodia and Brunei) and I cherish the moments. Here I come walking through the door of a fancy hotel – my bags on my shoulders and a grin on my face more often than not streaming with sweat and I tell them I’m here to check in. More likely than not, this is all in my head and they don’t take a second glance at me. But I like the contradiction of images. It amuses me.


And I’m going to stop there. My battery is dying, but I’ll be back. And now I know the exact situation of the reference. I hadn’t seen The Terminator until this trip. If ever I decide to drive a car into a building, I’ll walk in and say, “I’ll be back” before I do.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Soutern Thailand and Indonesia Pictures

Here are the pictures from my trip to southern Thailand and Indonesia.

Enjoy!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Large Lakes and the Trans-Sumatran Highway Epic

Arriving in Medan was uneventful. I was on the overnight bus from Banda Aceh and as such arrived early in the morning. I found a ride into town and a room quickly and was ready for the day. I spent the day mostly just wandering around town and catching up with emails and such. One of the more interesting happenings of the day was when I strolled up to the Northern Sumatra Military Museum. I had seen it on the map and had wandered over there. Much to my dismay, it was closed. However, there was a guard at the gate. I told him that I had walked all the way out here just to come see the museum. He apparently took pity on me and quickly offered to give me a private tour of the museum. He ran off to get some keys and we walked around the museum with him unlocking and locking different doors as we passed from one room to another. Along with opening doors he gave me some information about the displays in his best English. Unfortunately his best English was hard to understand and I missed most of what he said. But the thought was appreciated. After we had gone through the whole museum, we stood at the entrance and I thanked him for the tour. I was about to walk away and he put out his had to shake mine. I did. I pull my hand away and he had slipped a 20,000 rupiah note into my hand and began to walk away. I stood there very confused. Of all the things which could have precipitated at that moment, this was not one I could have predicted. I had expected him to ask for money – a fee for letting me in and giving me a tour which I would assume would go straight into his pocket. But that wasn’t asked for nor even alluded to. Instead he slips me money. And 20,000 rupiah is a good bit of money as well. You can buy a nice lunch for 10,000 rupiah. Not knowing what to do and him having gone off back into the back of the museum, I simply walked away. Nothing much else of note happened that day.

The following morning I was up at the crack of dawn and caught the bus to Parapet, the town closest to Lake Toba. Lake Toba is a huge volcanic lake and is the largest lake in SE Asia. About four hours from Medan, this bus ride was uneventful. Coming around a corner, we were given our first glimpse of the lake and the imposing volcanic mountains surrounding this body of freshwater. The bus slowly wound its way down to the edge of the lake and parked right across from the pier so it was simply a short 100m walk from the bus to the waiting ferry. Shortly after I boarded, it began to pour. Passengers clamored aboard but workers and locals continued to carry on as if nothing happened, now only slightly inhibited by the plastic rain coats that they threw on with the first drops. Crossing the lake was uneventful. Arriving in the midst of a downpour creates problems and makes finding a place to stay quite hard. After a very wet motorcycle ride, I arrived at a guest house and made myself comfortable and had lunch while I waited for the rain to stop to go off in search of a place to stay. The food was amazing. I had a freshly caught fish from the lake smothered in a spicy sauce with an avocado salad and all the while the rain fell. I was quite content. Venturing out after the rain stopped I followed a small ring road around the peninsula. The island is rather large, but this small peninsular sticks out towards Parapet and that’s where many of the guest houses and hotels are located. As I walked, the town felt abandoned – there weren’t many people out and about. I attributed that to the rain at first, but that judgment soon proved wrong. I found a nice place to stay right on the northern tip of the peninsula which offered lake front views for 180 degrees. A walked around the rest of the peninsula and dinner rounded out the evening.

The following day I rented a motorbike and took off to try to see more of the island. There is a road which circles the island along the coast and passes by several sights of interest and has good views. So I hit the road. I stopped at an old village which still had the old batak houses (the traditional house) as well as many different rock carvings and statues. Here they had preserved the “courtroom” where thieves and criminals were brought and guilt determined. Should they be declared guilty, there was also an execution rock around back were death sentences were carried out. Along the road there were many rice fields and other fields. In Thailand, there are spirit houses placed near the rice fields where offerings can be made. It’s come out of the animist tradition. In Indonesia, the animist tradition was blended with the influx of Christian missionaries and there what can only be described as spirit houses that look like small churches in the fields here. The further south you go in Sumatra, the more Christian it becomes. Aceh is very Muslim and Parapet and Toba are almost all Christian.

This conversion to Christianity was a result of Dutch missionaries coming to Indonesia in the 19th and 20th centuries. They established themselves here and began converting the locals. One man I talked to reinforced my previously held views on missionaries. As he talked about his culture and heritage, specifically about their previously held animistic beliefs (many of which have been blended into a local form of Christianity), he was very critical of his ancestors and their beliefs. He spoke in way which to me seemed to be so influenced and dictated by missionaries. I’m having a hard time articulating this conversation at the moment. But he dismissed what his ancestors believed as magic and claimed that the magic was gone. I’m sorry this is so poorly worded but to me reinforced my dislike of the whole concept of missionaries.

Coming back to Tuk Tuk, the name of the peninsula, I dropped the motorbike off and took off for another evening stroll around. This time it wasn’t raining and the town was equally as deserted. The infrastructure here could (and did) support a large number of tourists. But as tourism has declined in Indonesia (for many reasons, many of which are supported by false claims) these hotels and restaurants are left empty. My usual method of determining where to eat – by finding a place with many people – was ineffective as in every restaurant there were only a small number (if any) of people. My business was welcome and I had my run of the island.

The next chapter of this story is an epic journey. From Lake Toba, I had to make my way down towards Bukitinggi and eventually Padang. I was flying out of Padang to head back to Lampang to teach summer school. Before hoping on the boat to cross back to the mainland, I reserved my bus ticket. I would leave Parapet at 4:30 and 14 hours later arrive in Bukitinggi. I got on the ferry at 3pm. I didn’t stop traveling until 4:45 the following day as I crawled into a hotel in Bukitinggi. Arriving at the bus station, I met several guys who had been there for a few hours already waiting for their bus that had yet to arrive. It was now several hours late and proved to be an ill omen for me. 4:30 came and went and there was no bus. There were about seven of us waiting for the bus, three people for the early bus and four for my bus. At about 7:30, the early bus arrived. It was supposed to arrive at about 1:00. Ours didn’t arrive until an hour later. We were overjoyed upon its arrival but that joy was soon swept out the door and replaced with disbelief. The bus we had been waiting five hours for was full. There were no seats on this bus. Our reservations hadn’t been passed on to the right person and so all the seats in Medan were sold. After another hour of heated discussion between the bus operator and the folks working at the bus station, a solution was presented. They would put several people on seats in the aisle. Three of us would sit on a bench against the back wall. These were normal seats but couldn’t recline. The last person, me, would be on a makeshift bench squeezed between the last row of seats and the toilet. Hard wooden benches and a back that was vertical. I was given a pillow to make things easier. We finally left and were settling in when we stopped again. After being on the road for about five minutes we stopped to eat dinner. Eventually we did move on but it wasn’t until about 10:30 that we actually started to make some progress. Between the pillow I was given, my own travel pillow and my rain jacket, I was able to make my seat somewhat comfortable and got some sleep. But at about 3am I was woken up and told to get off the bus. Bleary eyed I looked around and everyone else was filing off the bus. I grabbed my rain jacket and followed suit. Stepping out of the bus I realized what was happening and hopped back on the bus to grab my camera. We had stopped at the base of a hill. All night we’d be rocked back and forth along the Trans-Sumatran Highway which in places in barely more than a dirt road and at its best a windy and narrow road. At this point, the road was dirt – clay would be a more accurate term – and was riddled with potholes and rocks. Looking ahead of me was a truck halfway up the hill with more lights up top of the hill. Looking back was a line of headlights stretching as far as I could see. Walking up the muddy slope to the top of the hill we passed by several men kneeling in front of the truck. They were attaching a cable to the truck which in turn was attached to a winch which would pull the truck up the hill. Once this was accomplished, our bus was up. As it revved the engines and roared up the hill it was bounced back and forth over the rocks and bumps tilting precariously to one side and then the other. Eventually it reached its limit and stopped. Cables attached and winch straining under the weight and our bus was dragged up the hill. We happily climbed aboard and continued our way along the Trans-Sumatran Highway which continued to be dirt and bumpy for several more hours preventing sleep.

As I drifted off, I noticed that we had come to a stop but since I was finally asleep I was uninterested. As the day broke, I woke up to realize that we were still stopped. Climbing out of the bus and walking down along the road I realized what was keeping us. During the night, two landslides had slide across the road. The first was the smaller of the two but as the rain continued to fall it washed the slippery clay across the road causing a bus to slide off the road into the ditch, partially blocking the road. The second slide came after and was larger and blocked the other part of the road slightly behind the now stuck bus. Eventually things were maneuvered in such a way that we could pass and did. The line of trucks, cars and buses stretched for kilometers. Many of the trucks were loaded down with oil palm fruits.

Eventually we arrived in Bukitinggi. There wasn’t any other hindrance (other that the nature of the road) and we made decent time. Overall it took about 25 hours to make that 500ish km journey, a distance comparable to Bangkok-Lampang. But that journey takes only 8-9 hours.

As a result of the delay I only had a day in Bukitinggi so I was confined to just walking around town. It was a beautiful little town nestled in the mountains surrounded by active volcanoes. It was occupied during WWII and there were some old Japanese caves nearby which I explored as well as several markets and mosques. But pretty much I just recovered from my journey. The following day, in the afternoon, I headed to Padang. I spent the evening there and was off to Kuala Lumpur the next morning. I had to stay in KL for a day to catch my flight to Chiang Mai the following morning. It was good to be back in KL. I really enjoyed my time there. I treated myself to some good food and took in the Petronas Towers again as well as a movie and an art gallery. Then the flight to CM and the bus ride to Lampang and I was home again.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Banda Aceh

After a few days on Pulau Weh, I made my way back to Banda Aceh. I arrived in the evening after having taken the afternoon ferry back. I quickly went into town and found a place to stay and got rid of my bag. I had a few hours of light left so I went out to explore a little and get my bearings. I spent about an hour walking around the area near the hotel. One of the things I enjoy about new cities is period of exploration or getting my bearings. Whenever I arrive in a new city, I always like to take big blocks of the city and walk them – essentially walking in a big square. It helps me to gain a better perspective of where I am in the city, the size of the city and gives me landmarks to help me navigate over the following days when I’m sure to wander off in search of things and inevitably get a little turned around. Plus it’s a great way to see the city – simply walking around. I passed by some busy markets, one of which was a fish market which in the evening after the afternoon heat didn’t smell too pleasant. Near the river I found a project sponsored by USAID and some incredible views upriver of the main mosque in town. The sky turned menacing and black and the wind picked up so I started to work my way back passing some pool halls whose location I mentally noted so I could return later or the following day. As I walked back, the pangs of hunger which are so common after these long walks returned, I began looking for a food stall – my only criteria being that they have large avocados. I found one, sat down and was immediately engaged in conversation by a young man sitting at the next table. Now this wasn’t extraordinary – in Indonesia, much more so than Thailand, foreigners are fairly rare. The national greeting for foreigners in Indonesia is, “Hello, Mister”! It’s shouted indiscriminately and often. You’ll hear it from, at times, every warm body you pass by on the streets. It’s charming at first, but as the daily grind wears on you this inevitably changes. However, this man’s English and the quality of his thought took me by surprise. Rex owned the shop next door and quickly became one of the more interesting people I’ve met traveling. Over the next few hours we sat there chatting, interrupted only by the need for him to take care of the occasional customer. Originally from Banda Aceh and having lived there all his life and having learned English and spent a good deal of time with foreign aid agencies had a unique perspective on many of the “issues” in Banda Aceh. Banda Aceh is known for its longstanding history of natural disasters, the Boxing Day Tsunami in particular, and its desire for independence from Indonesia.

My first exposure to Banda Aceh came as I was whisked from the bus station to the ferry terminal on the back of a motorcycle on my way to Pulau Weh. We wound our way through villages - each house identical to the others - which had been built by aid agencies after the tsunami destroyed the previous village. Villages which prior to the tsunami were made up of a diverse collection of houses established over many years and whose boundaries often paralleled family lines where now distinguished only by the different aid agencies which built and designed them. The villages quickly gave way to the sea and the shore. We wound along the shore for several kilometers. Looking over my left shoulder towards the ocean, one could only attempt to imagine what others would have been looking at as the huge wave raced towards shored. The shore line was denuded. Even after four years it looked unnaturally bare and featureless. There were a few pockets where some vestiges of life had sprung up along the shore. Buildings were rebuilt, ports and docks refashioned and reopened and these pockets bustled. But they were still dominated by the landscape and barren terrain that lay between them. As I slowly absorbed these powerful images, the landscape which had dominated my vision slowly gave way to another now ubiquitous feature of Banda Aceh – construction.

Passing through those coastal regions twice (on the way to and from the ferry) gave me a limited, but powerful visual understanding of how the tsunami impacted the town. Talking with Rex, and then traveling with him to a few other places, added a more personal understanding to that visual experience. Rex was in Banda Aceh the day the tsunami hit and has been actively involved with the reconstruction of the city. Off and on over the last four years, he’s worked with different aid organizations and rebuilt his own business. He’s been a translator, a guide and a teacher all in addition to running and managing his shop. Rex describes the events and the tsunami and despite the clarity and power of his descriptions my attempts to visualize them fail. The power of this wave defies comprehension. I tell Rex this. Minutes later we are standing at the base of a large ship. Easily 30m tall and 60m long, this massive bulk of steel and iron now sits three kilometers inland -then ocean isn’t even in sight. Originally two kilometers out to sea, this mass was lifted out of the ocean and carried five kilometers to its final resting spot right in the heart of a small village. The village has now been rebuilt, but the ship remains. A small handwritten message has been inscribed on the side of the ship with the date 24-12-2004. The conversation gives way to absolute awe and disbelief but soon we’re driving through many of the new villages built by the aid agencies. They have been hastily built and are all identical – one village, one design. Inconsistencies between villages has resulted in a lot of conflict as one family is given a house with certain specs only to learn that another family is given a different house in a different village which has better specs. Some villages sit empty or unfinished. We headed towards the shore and towards one of the mass graves that were constructed immediately after the tsunami. I wasn’t sure about going. Had I been alone I probably wouldn’t have gone. However, Rex wanted to take me and so we went. It was very simple. A large grassy area surrounded by a small fence with each post carrying one of the many names of Allah in Arabic. They are constructing something in the shell of the old hospital which stands behind the site. The road that passes in front in under construction as is most of the surrounding area. Traffic rumbles by bumping along the dirt road. We join the steady march of cars passing this lone green patch of land and meander along the coast. Our last stop is at a small house which during the tsunami was given an unwelcome addition. A large fishing boat ended up on top of the house with the lower walls remaining intact. Now the house still stands with this boat perched on top. The government had provided funds to turn the house into a museum/memorial of sorts and the house and boat have been stabilized and other work is currently being done. Like matchsticks, these boats were picked up and flung across the city. One ended up here. Another landed in front of Rex’s shop and countless others were found throughout the city. Most have long since been taken apart. Rex tells me about the boat in front of his shop. Casually he mentions that that boat and the area around his shop were cleaned up by a group of Israeli soldiers. That stuck me as interesting. I probed him further and he came back quickly saying that after the tsunami everyone forgot about politics. They welcomed anyone who would come to help. But, he adds, that attitude quickly faded. His frustrations with the government in Jakarta finally surface. The government began to place tremendous restrictions on the movement of aid workers confining them to certain areas. In the case of the Israeli soldiers, eventually they were forced to go home, he claims. Aid was mostly restricted to Banda Aceh. Many of the villages and towns on the west coast are still in shambles. And slowly he transitions into his obviously previously delivered laundry list of grievances with the Indonesian government. He makes no effort to hide the fact that he desires independence, but accepts the fact that achieving that would be difficult. Money, not culture, lies at the heart of his grievances. Corruption, favoritism and bureaucracy top this list. Ironically, those are same criticisms which are listed to me by a woman from Medan as she complains about Aceh and her frustrations with them. I spent several days talking to Rex and others in Medan and still lack a clear picture of the roots of the conflict and its issues, but I’ve at least been given an introduction to it. These few days gave me lots to think about and process, but they have been rewarding. I’m glad I endured the 24 hour return trip to travel to the northernmost tip of this island.

As a last note, I guess I should mention that I'm actually back home now and am finishing the blog entries. I'll try to get them and the pictures finished and up in the next few days.

Bye!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Post Script and Beach Time

So I was sitting around thinking and I forgot to mention several things from those first few hours in Indonesia. First off is that while on the bus from the port to Medan, Jason and I were chatting and just getting to know each other. I mentioned that I was teaching in northern Thailand and he said, "Are you teaching in Lampang?". That blew me away. While he was traveling in Thailand, he came down to Lampang and actually hung out with Nick, one of the guys I'm teaching with now. This was about 5 years ago, so I wasn't there, but needless to say it was pretty crazy to meet this random guy who hung out with one of my colleagues back in Lampang. The second concerns my trip from the city to the bus station. I rode on a betuk, the Indonesian version of a tuk-tuk. It's essentially a motorcycle with a sidecar. While we were driving the driver asked me different questions about myself - my name, how old I am and where I am from. As soon as I said I was from America, he looked at me (and remember he was also driving on SE Asian streets) and raised his right arm and said "I love Obama!! Do you?". I said I liked him (I think saying otherwise would have endangered my safety) and we chatted a bit more. He told me that he loves Obama because he stayed in Jakarta for a while when he was younger. He said most Indonesians feel the same way. That's especially interesting given the current attitude towards Bush (most disdain him...and for good reason). This conversation was essentially repeated several times as I made my way onto the bus.

And so with those postscripts out of the way I can pick up where I left off the other day. I arrived in the morning and made my way to the port. I thought that there was a ferry at 9:30 so arriving at 8:30 was perfect. It turns out the ferry didn't leave until 11:00, so I had some time to kill. The journey to the ferry terminal was a very interesting one - but one I'll wait to comment on until I cover my return trip. Banda Aceh was devastated by the tsunami in 2004. As I drove to the ferry, we passed straight through the worst hit areas. I'll come back and touch on that later when I talk about my time spent in Banda Aceh. For now, it's the island. While I was waiting for the ferry I grabbed some breakfast at one of the little stalls near the terminal and sat down to read. I didn't get very far. Every so often different people would come up to me and start talking. Most couldn't get further than the simple introductions, but others stayed and chatted for a while. I connected with this group of boys, students, who had come away for a few days. One of them spoke good English and the others just hung around. We got on the ferry and began our two hour trip to the island. We got off only to climb into a minibus which took off (or more accurately, crawled) across the island towards the beaches. We made are way along the coast up and down hills and around pot holes bigger than the road, through packs of dogs, goats and monkeys before coming to rest (an hour later mind you) at the beach. From there it was a short hike along a little pathway to different clusters of bungalows. I found one nestled in the rocks perched right above the water with a hammock swinging from the deck out front. I thought it would do nicely. I spent the rest of the day relaxing and recovering from the long journey here. I ate dinner at a great little place - they had avocados so I was happy. I guess I should describe where I am (or at this point, was). I was on Ipoih Beach on Pulau Weh (Weh Island) which is off the northwest coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Ipoih Beach is a small collection of bungalows and restaurants catering mostly to travelers who come to snorkel and dive. It's very idyllic and peaceful. The road ends at the mosque and the only way to get around is to walk or swim. Over the next few days I started and finished a book, wrote a ton in my journal, went for some walks, and more importantly went for some good swims. The first swim took me along the coast below my bungalow. The coral got better as we went along, but the fish were spectacular the whole way. It was stunning. I've been to some beautiful spots to snorkel and this ranks as one of the best - plus it wasn't very crowded, heck I was the only one in the water. The second journey consisted of me swimming across a little channel between the beach and another small island just offshore. Then I walked across the island and snorkeled back around the island. It was a good four hour trip and was amazing. The coral was stunning - they call it a Sea Garden because of the colors and variety of coral. The fish were spectacular as well. Over the course of the two trips I saw a handful of sea turtles, several octopus (or octopi?), sting rays, lobsters, and the highlight (something I hadn't seen before) - a huge manta ray which let me swim over top him and sort of play a little. It was cool! I went to bed early and woke up early. I read and fell asleep when I was tired. It was a great couple days of relaxation. But eventually I had to leave that oasis and head back into "real" Indonesia. So I packed my things and headed back to Banda Aceh.

But that will have to wait until next time as I've run out of time again. Hope you are well.

Ryan

Thursday, March 20, 2008

It's not the destination, but the journey

Hi again!

Last I left you I was getting ready to embark on an epic journey across oceans and mountains. I have since completed that journey and am able to write about it. I left Penang at 9 in the morning on what I thought would be a 5 hour trip across the Straights of Malacca - it turned out to be more like 8 hours. But that was okay as the ferry had plenty of shoot 'em up movies to keep playing the entire time. It was a bit overwhelming. At first I was excited since they had movies in English, but after the first one, I got a bit bored and would have rather listened to music or read my book but the sound was overpowering. We started with Rambo IV and then went straight into a car racing movie of some sort then actually finished the journey with a flick actually called Shoot 'Em Up. We pulled into the harbor but hadn't reached our destination. While I was forewarned about this next challenge, it added another hour to my journey. When you leave Penang, you purchase a ticket to Medan. That ticket doesn't actually get you to Medan. It gets you to the port closest to Medan, but the port is about an hour from the city. I got off the ferry and proceeded to go through immigration. They hearded all the white people off the boat (there were about 8 of us) and ushered us to a counter which was labeled 'BANK'. Here we forked over our crisp $25US entry/visa fee. They then gave us a nice skip of paper which we carried to the next counter where they processed our visa and stuck it into the passport. Fairly simple. Once we left immigration, however, things got more complicated and we were attacked by the many people trying to get us to go with them somewhere (they really didn't care where). Luckily I had met an America guy, Jason, who had taken the ferry over to Penang a few days earlier to get a new visa. He was traveling around for two months and you can only get a one month visa. He was a really cool guy - a budding evolutionary biologist. So he was able to guide me to the right bus which took us the last little way into Medan. It was also fortuitous since I was then able to leave my bag in his room while we explored the city before my overnight bus to Banda Aceh. My introduction to Indonesia was fantastic. Arriving in Medan, the bus ride, the sights, the sounds, the smells re-ignited a feeling in me that I haven't felt in a while. It was the feeling I had when I rode through the streets of New Delhi in the middle of the night coming from the airport. It was the same feeling I had crossing the border into Honduras on a whim. It was this feeling that comes with entering a new and foreign place. It's hard to describe, but those who have traveled now what I mean. And for me, it's been a while since I've felt that sensation. I've done a lot of traveling but most places I've been too are relatively familiar to Thailand. They challenged me and were fantastic places, but this for whatever reason sparked this feeling. I'm still processing that (I think part of it is the general sense that Indonesia is somewhat forbidden or off limits to Americans) and will get back to you. Walking down the streets of Medan, we were met with such enthusiasm that it was almost as if we were clowns performing. We drew so much attention and the "Hello Mister's" were never ending. Everyone wanted to be our friend, and then take us somewhere. It was quite an experience. We found the requisite ATM and then went to grab dinner. For an introduction to Indonesian fare, I couldn't have asked for a better menu. We ate at a little roadside stand which beckoned us with its mound of fruits in the cart window. Piled high with a wide assortment of fruits and veggies, we answered the call. I had Satay Padang and a chocolate and avocado shake. Satay is found in Thailand (it's marinated meat on a skewer and grilled) but this was served over pressed rice chucks and covered in a peanuty/garlicy sauce that was to die for. The avocado and chocolate shake was one of the most wonderful drinks I've ever had. I would never have guessed that combination would work, oh but it does. My habit of being a food traveler has again pushed itself to the front and I find myself eating more often than not. But I'm okay with that. I then headed to the bus station to catch my overnight bus. From Medan, it's about 12 hours to Banda Aceh. I climbed on board and we took off fairly on schedule. The bus ride was characterized by three things: the freezing temperatures inside, the steadily increasing noise and nuisance created by the trash which was thrown on the floor and then slid around and lastly the incessant moving about in my chair as the bus careening around corners, stopped for passengers along side the road and slammed on the breaks to avoid hitting someone. It was a long night. But I've come somewhat accustomed to rides like that so I was actually able to get some decent sleep despite it all. I think the temperature bothered me the most. I got in early and made my way to the ferry for the short (well, relatively speaking) journey to Pulau Weh, my destination. But that'll have to wait until next time as my time is running out.

Have a wonderful day!

Ryan

Oh! I almost forgot. After we hit the ATM, Marcus, a German guy who was also with us, stopped at McDonald's for a quick burger. He ate it and the then was carrying the wrapper around waiting to find a bin to toss it in. He didn't find one. He brought it with him into the place where we ate dinner and left it on the table as we left. The shop owner came running after us as we left with the wrapper. In Indonesia, any rubbish you carry around with you is something you want to keep because if you didn't want it you simply tossed it aside.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Puppets and Me

Greetings again.

Since leaving Krabi I made my way east (and slightly north) and found myself in the quiet town of Nakorn Si Thammarat. It's one of the bigger cities on the east coast gulf side of Thailand and isn't on most tourists lists of places to go. It was on my list however and for one overriding reason - it's home to one of Thailand's most well-renowned shadow puppet craftsmen and performers. I was introduced to the art of shadow puppets in Malaysia last summer and really enjoyed it. The Malay and Indonesian puppets are similar to the Thai puppets (there are similar characters etc.) but there are different unique features to the Thai puppets, so I wanted to take a look. It was short hop (about 3 hours) from Krabi and was then easily connected to my next destination so I jumped at the chance. I got in late in the evening and one of the people I was traveling with helped me find a place to stay, which was nice. I had a nice big dinner of Thai food, which was a change. For that past few days in Krabi I'd been eating wonderful foreign food. The abundance of choices and the similarity in price to Thai food made it an easy choice. Why pay exorbitant prices for Thai food I can get at home much cheaper and why not eat good foreign food that I can't eat at home? I couldn't come up with an answer so I ate. But it was nice to have Thai food again. The next morning I hit the street running only to run into rain. I holed up in a little coffee shop for a little while and waited for the rain to pass and then went to the Shadow Puppet Museum. I was the only one there so I had the whole place to myself. It's a little family home that's been turned into this museum. They show you a bit of the history of the family and their involvement in making puppets as well as a bit about the history of the art itself but the neatest part was watching them make the puppets and the performance. I spent about an hour and a half talking with the daughter of the puppet maker (Suchart Supin) after walking through the museum. She was really cool and walked me through the whole process. After that I headed off to the National Museum where I walked around for a while. It was...a museum. Then it was a stroll past several of the temples and remnants of the old city walls and whatnot before I hit the Internet to escape the heat of the day. A little net then a little dinner and a surprise on HBO in the form of The DaVinci Code in English rounded out my evening. One of the highlights of this part of the trip was the enthusiasm I was met with when people discovered that I spoke Thai. I don't know what it was about this town, but everyone I met whom I conversed with in Thai was so enthusiastic. The lady at the shadow puppet museum was very happy and excited but all the reactions pale in comparison to the reaction I got from the guy working at the post office. I went to mail a package back to Lampang (I bought some things and they were a bit too large to carry around so I mailed them home). I went up to the counter to mail the package and said in Thai, "I want to send this to Lampang" and the guy just about burst! He immediately reached across the counter grabbing my head and shaking it vigorously while exclaiming, "You can speak Thai! So fantastic!" He continued to this effect for quite some time before starting the normal line of questioning i.e What's your name? Where are you from? Do you have a girlfriend? and so on.
We shook hands about 5 times while I stood there sending my package. It was awesome.

From there I hoped on a little minivan and scooted south to Hat Yai where I changed minivans and headed for Penang, Malaysia. It was a pretty simple trip with the usual antics at the border - lines and stamps and short trips in no mans land in between the border checkpoints. I got to Georgetown, the capital of Penang and found a place to stay. I rode down from Hat Yai with some folks from England so after getting settled and a quick orientation stroll around the city, I met up with them for dinner and drinks. It's been nice to have a few drinks in the evening in Krabi and then again last night. It's been good to have something other than whiskey and water or Leo beer. Last night was Carlsburg, Tiger and even a Guinness Stout.

I spent the day wandering around town. There were a few museums and temples and such to see but mostly just walking around taking it all in. I booked my ferry ticket so I'm all set to head out tomorrow. Tomorrow it's off to Indonesia - I'll arrive in Medan and then hopefully will be on an overnight bus to Aceh where I'll then get on more buses and boats and by the end of the day Sunday (today is Friday) I'll be on the beach on Pulau Weh.

Talk to you later.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Summer Fun

Hi!

My blog has been suffering over the past few months. There is a list the size of a small whale posted to my desktop on my computer listing the different things that I need to write about. I'd like to think that I'll eventually get there. At this point though that's neither here nor there because I've started another adventure which I hope to document as I experience it - it's called Summer Vacation 2008 Part 1 and it started a few days ago.

Classes finished up several weeks ago. The students took finals last week. I spent the beginning of this week grading those finals and submitting grades. Come Wednesday evening, I was finished and ready to go. Thursday morning found me on a bus heading to Bangkok. Once in BKK I took a taxi across the city from the northern bus terminal to the southern bus terminal where I met Yui and a bunch of friends. We got onto the bus and began our 12 hour journey to Krabi. We got in at about 9am and headed straight to the guesthouse. There are 8 of us so were were staying in the National Park bungalow right on the beach. We stayed on Noppharatara Beach, which is just north of Ao Nang (one of the more famous beaches in Krabi). Just about as soon as we had gotten our bags inside, a truck came to pick us up and we headed out to meet the long-tail boat. We were hiring the boat for the day to take us out to several of the closer islands. We ended up going to four different islands by the end of the day. The first island was just a simple little island near several very stunning islands. The views of the cliffs were spectacular. We ate lunch on the beach and played in the water for a bit before jumping back into the boat. We then headed out and around the island towards Chicken Island where the main sight is a rock formation that looks uncannily like a chicken. We moved on and parked offshore another island. We jumped in and the guide started throwing bits of bread into the water which was instantly gobbled up by the hundreds of fish that swarmed towards it. He got his laughs by throwing the pieces of bread close to us and watching our reactions as the fish would poke and ram into us as they tried to eat the bread. There were so many and so thickly packed that I reached out and several time had one or two in my hands for a moment or so. We then swam into shore and hung out on the beach for a while and ended up getting into a sand ball fight - that was fun. Our next destination was one of the most famous sights in Krabi. There are two islands which are connected by a sandbar. At high tide both appear discontinuous however at low tide the sandbar appears and you are able to walk from one island to the other. We timed it so that we were there pretty close to low tide. While the sandbar wasn't exposed, we were able to walk across in about 4-5 inches of water. As we were crossing, it started to rain. We sought refuge in the boat for a while until the rain passed and then headed out to the last island of the day. This island was beautiful, but was unfortunately the home several classy resorts. There was some neat things to see and of course the amazing cliffs that dominate the coastline here were stunning, but the resorts and the people ruined it a little. And with that we headed back to shore where we stumbled onto dry land only to be drenched by a fast-moving rain storm shortly there after. We sought refuge in a restaurant where we ate dinner while we waited for the rain to pass. Then we picked up the obligatory two bags of ice and headed back to the guesthouse for showers and a night of UNO, Go Fish and drinking.

The following morning I woke up feeling like I was on vacation. Despite having been on vacation for a day already, it was so long and tiresome and followed a tremendous bus ride that I just felt a bit out of sorts all day. But waking up Saturday morning ushered in those wonderful feelings of serenity and peace. Ah. It was going to be another busy day, but I was ready for it this time. We headed out to meet the boat - today however we were riding on a speed boat and heading out to the more distant islands. After a 40 minute ride which left me wetter than if I'd swam there, we piled out of the boat onto the beach for our first snorkel of the trip. The conditions weren't ideal and the coral wasn't that spectacular, but I was the only one who had snorkeled before so they all loved it. We then headed out to another spot which was significantly better. It was a beautiful little bay surrounded by high cliffs which has a secluded beach on one end. We did a little hiking and headed to the other side of the island before getting back on the boat and snorkeling in the bay. Krabi has many 'famous' sights including James Bond Island (the island from one of the James Bond movies (I can't remember which) and the island that was used in the movie "The Beach". That was where we headed next. Just a quick look around and it was time for lunch. For lunch we went to a restaurant on Phi Phi Don island. The buffet was fantastic and it was wonderful to get my fill of food. One thing I've failed to mention so far is that Krabi and Phi Phi were severely impacted by the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. Phi Phi was the hardest hit place in Thailand and as we approached it, it was easy to see why. The largest concentration of buildings is at the center of the island which sits at the back of a long bay which gets progressively narrower as you move inland. Not only this by the bay is lined with spectacular cliffs - both of which would funnel water straight towards the heart of the island. There are two things that have stuck me - the newness of all of the towns that I've spent time in so far and the ever-present tsunami evacuation route notices. We ate dinner and then walked around the island. Apart from what I mentioned, there was little evidence of the tsunami. But I wonder what the non-touristed areas look like. Of course the tourist destinations are going to get re-built quickly. After Phi Phi island we headed to several more snorkeling destinations before heading home. Oh! The guide who was leading our little trip here eventually started asking about me. I was traveling with a group of 7 Thai people and she got curious and phased the question in such a classic way. She basically asked one of my friends where they brought this foreigner from. They said Lampang. She then replied inquisitively if my plane had crashed in Lampang. Classic. Once she found out I was a teacher she started calling me 'Ajaan'. It was humorous.

After showers we headed out for our seafood dinner. We loaded up on all kinds of seafood - clams, squid, fish, crab etc. and ate until we all nearly burst. It was fantastic. We worked a little bit of it off as we went to buy more ice for our evening festivities. Unfortunately the whiskey ran out early in the evening so we had to start taking shots of whatever we had in the room. We ran out of everything at about 11. But by that point we were half asleep as it was so we happily went to bed.

The following morning we all got up and had breakfast and got ready to head out. Everybody else had to go back to BKK to get back in time for work Monday morning so we had lunch together and then they took off. I moved into another guesthouse and took a nap and relaxed on the beach all afternoon. I had originally planned to leave with them and go to my next destination on Sunday but decided against that. After watching the sunset, I headed off to a great little bar/restaurant and had a Happy Hour cocktail while the sun set and then had their salad bar buffet for dinner (which was amazing! They had baked potatoes!) and another cocktail before calling it a day. Sitting there on the roof of this little bar sipping my gin and tonic watching the sun go down with a great ocean breeze at my back was the ultimate way to relax. As I was sitting there I could feel all the stress and anxiety being blown out to sea. Bliss.

Since I didn't leave Sunday, I planed to leave Monday but seeing as it's Monday and I'm still here, that didn't happen. I just wasn't ready to leave and to travel again so I spent the day here sleeping and reading on the beach. I really didn't do much today other than that. I did get an amazing sandwich from this sandwich shop though. That was the highlight of the day today. I do think I'll head out tomorrow though. My next destination is Nakorn Si Thammarat, which is a city on the Gulf side of Thailand famous for their shadow puppets so I figured I'd check that out. From there, I'll work my way down to Penang, Malaysia where I'll catch the ferry across to Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia where I'll spend about two weeks in Sumatra. I'll be sure to update the blog soon. Hope you all are doing well (if anyone is still reading this).

Ryan

Monday, January 28, 2008

Room with a changing view

One of the perks of living adjacent to a rice field is the constant evolution of the fields and the landscape. It's prime arable land and is utilized. This means that nearly everyday there are happenings and goings on around my house. Over the past few months, there have been lots of changes. I've documented to process of transforming the field into a new rice field, but this time they had something else up their sleeves - they wanted watermelons! So now I live next to an expansive watermelon patch, which is cool. Here are some pictures so you can follow the changes with me. I've also included some pictures and such taken from the house of the surrounding area.

Burning away some of the forest in the mountains near my house at night.

A really cool picture of the moon from my front yard.

The moon looking out from my backyard.

The watermelon field.

The first watermelon I saw in the field.

Three little melons in a row.
Enjoy!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Touching heaven and crossing into Burma

A winters trip up north seemed the perfect thing to do in the days leading up to Christmas. Several of my good friends from Bangkok had time off for the New Years so they decided to road trip up north. It also turned out that I had a three day weekend due to the parliamentary elections, so Boy, Sign and Ploy showed up in Lampang on Saturday evening to pick me up on their way north. The following morning we took off for Chiang Rai at about 8am. On the way, we stopped at Pha Thai Cave, which is about 60km outside of town. It’s actually a place I’ve wanted to go for a long time, but haven’t made the drive out there. We wandered down into the cave with a guide. It was spectacular. It was a huge cave, much bigger that Phra Sabai cave (which is closer to Lampang). We say some amazing stalactites and stalagmites as well as some neat rock formations and several snakes. It was very cool. We continued on traveling through Phayo only stopping to check out the lake for a few minutes (it’s supposed to be the biggest lake in Thailand). We then headed towards Chiang Rai town were we ate lunch and went to Wat Rong Fa. It’s the new white temple in town. I’ve been there twice – I stopped there with Katie and her host family when they took us to Chiang Rai when I was studying here. We stopped there for a bit and walked around. From there we started to drive to Phu Chee Fa. It’s a mountain on the Thailand-Lao border which is topped with a nice point and a cliff which allows you to look out over the surrounding area with stunning 360° views. A somewhat indirect translation of Phu Chee Fa is the mountain where you can touch/reach heaven. We wound our way up through the mountains along these small roads through strings of villages. Many of the villages had painted rocks and the fences along the road yellow and so we were driving through a yellow lined road for multiple kilometers. It actually looked really cool. They had done all of this for the King's birthday which was earlier in the month. We caught our first glimpse of the mountain and leaned out the car to take a picture of it and continued to take pictures the whole way up. We got to the parking lot and began the short walk to the top of the mountain. The views from the top were stunning. We looked down on to these valleys which stretched for kilometers. It was incredibly clear and the sky was a perfect blue. There were a few clouds but that only highlighted the blueness of the sky and the colors on the ground. There were so many colors on the ground – reds, yellows, browns and greens. It’s been a lot like fall here as it’s gotten colder and some of the tree have changed and lost their leaves. It’s quite stunning. I noticed it first in Pai, but it was present to a much greater extent in Chiang Rai. After goofing around on the mountain for a while, we headed out to get to the resort before it got too dark. We hoped back into the car and continued to listen to music, take photos and talk. We rounded one bend and we saw the moon rising over the hills in front of us and had to stop. The moon was full and was huge! It was just coming out from behind the mountains and was right on the horizon and was lit up nicely by the sun setting. We checked into the hotel and went to eat dinner. We stayed at a strawberry farm run by people from Yunnan so our dinner was Yunnanese food, which wasn’t bad.


After our dinner we headed back inside and played cards and drank plum wine. It had just so happened that this was also the night of the first election since the coup and the country was electing their parliament. We sat on the bed and played cards and occasionally watched the results come in. It was a real unique way to spend election night and I enjoyed myself. I was also able to chat with them about the election and pick their brains a little about the election. We both feel the same way towards Samak and all basked in the brilliance of Abhisit’s English abilities (it was flawless – he graduated from Oxford). I remember watching the ticker tape along the bottom looking for Lampang results and being frustrated when it showed that all three constituencies in Lampang voted for PPP and Samak. Bummer. But I guess that’s what I expected to happen. We hung out for a while playing cards and ended up hitting the sack later than we wanted since we were going to get up early the following day to watch the sun rise. We did get up early and drove up to another mountain, one close to the guesthouse and climbed up to see the sun rise. We forgot our flashlights in the room, but the moon was nearly full so we climbed by moonlight. We camped out near this rock outcropping along side this cliff and waited for the sun to come up. We watched as the sky lit up and the colors appeared on the horizon. As the sun came up, we could make out the clouds lying in the valleys in what seemed to be a sea of fog in the valleys. It was incredible. We spent a lot of time there, but then at the convincing of a local guide we headed up to the top of another small hill where we watch the sun come up. We were there for a little while before we actually saw the sun come above the horizon and as it did it lit up the sky with incredible oranges and reds which then blended with the blue of the sky at the boundary of the sky, sun and the blackness of night. It was stunning. We took lots of photos and spent lots of time up top before heading back down to the car to grab breakfast and showers before heading out.


We had a good drive ahead of us through some more mountains and then along the Mekong through Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen on our way to Mae Sai. It was a route that I’d wanted to take for a long time and really enjoyed. The scenery was stunning along the whole route. We got to Mae Sai at about lunch time and had lunch along the small river which separated Thailand from Burma. It was very strange as we were sitting eating lunch we heard Christmas music coming from the Burmese side of the river. Not only was it coming from Burma, but it was coming from the temple just across the river. Strange. I guess I should also mention that this was Christmas Eve day. We then went to find out about crossing over into Burma. This is something that many people will do. Thai’s can cross the border with just a photocopy of their ID card and cross to go shopping. It’s a lot cheaper in Burma so many people do it. Last time I was there with Boy, Sign, Yui and Peck, they crossed over but I stayed behind with Yui since I didn’t think that I could cross. This time we asked more questions and it turned out that I could cross. I got a couple copies of my passport and left them with immigration on the Thai side. They gave me a little scrap piece of paper with a stamp on it an my information. I walked through immigration. I met the gang in the middle of now where i.e. no mans land between Burma and Thailand on this little bridge over the river. We took several pictures of me straddling the middle point of the bridge – half of me in Thailand and half of me in Burma. I crossed over and hit Burmese immigration. I went into a small little room where I gave them the little piece of paper and paid $10. They then gave me another piece of paper and told me to make sure I was back across by 5pm. We were then free to wander around Burma. We didn’t get far from the border and stuck to the markets along the river, but we did some good shopping. I got a lot of DVD’s and some wine for Christmas dinner and the others got DVD’s and shirts and liqueur and the like. We spent about 3 hours in Burma before we had to head back to cross over before 5pm. We headed back. I spoke to the Burmese officials and they took the paper back. Then I spoke to the Thai authorities and they took the piece of paper and gave me my passport back. All told, I ended up leaving a foreign country and entering another without my passport as I had left it in Thailand while I was in Burma. So that’s that.

We then drove back to Lampang and had dinner at the new restaurant, Glimpse, before calling it a night. We caught up again the next day (Christmas Day) and had lunch and coffee before they headed back to BKK and I headed over to Mike’s for Christmas dinner. All in all, it was an amazing trip and I’m so glad I was able to spend that time with them and do the things that we did.

Here are the pictures from the trip. Enjoy

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Would you like some beef and wine before class?

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised any more by the questions that I'm asked over here, but this one surprised me a bit. The week before New Years we had several things on the agenda in terms of celebrations for the New Year but there were no plans (at least to my knowledge) that involved drinking large amounts of wine at school before class. We, the teachers, had arranged to do a gift exchanged amongst ourselves and order pizza on the Friday before the New Year. Classes were canceled in the afternoon so that the students could have their own little parties and hang out before the long weekend. This was our plan - the director of the English Program had other ideas. On Thursday, I don't teach in the morning, but I do have several afternoon classes. I had gone out to get coffee in the morning and read and came back at about 11:00. As I approached the office, I smelled what could only have been bar-b-que but that didn't jive with where I was - there shouldn't be bbq at school. Much to my surprise, I walked into the office and there is our director grilling up some beef with several bottles of wine on his desk. The other teachers wrapped up with their classes and came back to the office and we're told that this is his New Years party for us. So we obligingly started to eat and drink. He had brought a good amount of beef and three bottles of wine. Despite our protestations that we had to teach later in the afternoon, he kept our glasses full and we all enjoyed some good wine and beef. About 50 minutes later, I headed off to class sucking on a mint my director so thoughtfully provided for me. And so that's how I ended up drinking a good bit of wine before class - all in the name of celebrating New Years.

The following we came back to school and had our official party and the students got time in the afternoon for their parties as well. I brought my camera for these festivities and took a few pictures. Here's the album that I made from our New Years parties.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bai Pai Ma

There is this place which has achieved somewhat legendary status among the foreigners living in Thai. I've been told of this place many times by many people. When asked by foreigners and Thais alike if I'd been and upon receiving my answer of "no", I was given the open-mouthed questioning look. If I could read their thoughts it would go something like this, "I can't believe he's lived he for almost two years and hasn't been to Pai!" And most then walk away in disgust. All this being said, I felt like I had to find a way to get myself to Pai. And I did as my post title proclaims (albeit in phonetic Thai, but a proclamation it is nevertheless). About four weeks ago now, we had a holiday. For those of you familiar with the month of December in Thailand, that doesn't come as much of a surprise. It also explains why I haven't written in a while and why I've seemed to gain a few pounds. Anyway, December 10 is Constitution Day in Thailand and unlike last year, the country was actual governed by a constitution (this holiday doesn't actually celebrate just any old constitution, it actually celebrates the day that Thailand first became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, but that's beside the point). It was a Monday and that meant that we had a three day weekend.

Pai is in Mae Hong Son province and is northwest Chiang Mai. It's up in the mountains and is about four hours from Chiang Mai (add another two hours to get from Lampang to Chiang Mai and it's quite the trip). I was able to convince two friends from Chiang Mai (Som and Maew) to come with me. I went to Chiang Mai late Friday evening. I was planing on going earlier in the evening but Mike (another teacher at Bunyawat) made chili. So I stuck around to eat some. I met up with the gang at the bus station and headed up to Pai. The drive is famous for it's curves. Pai is 136 km from Chiang Mai and there are 762 curves along the way. In a bus it takes about four hours. In Pai, we rented a few motorbike and hit the usual spots-a few waterfalls, Pai canyon, the river - and ate a ton of food. More importantly, we took a ton of pictures. In a weekend, we (and by we I mean Som) managed to fill my 2GB memory card. That's about 1400 pictures. Needless to say, my inaugural trip to Pai is well documented. We also did a good bit of shopping as well. I haven't really spent much time talking about what we did partly because I'm a bit daugnted by what I have on my To Write list and partly because the pictures explain most of that. So check out the album below!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Worlds Apart

Christmas in Thailand 2007

It's Christmas time and unfortunately I'm away from home again. But like I did last year, I've decorated a tree and am trying to make this tropical Buddhist home of mine feel a bit more like Christmas. I've gone ahead and posted a picture of my Christmas tree this year along with a photo of the Christmas tree that my family has put up in Colorado. Enjoy and may you all have as many wonderful memories as you put up your tree as I did while listening to Christmas music in 80 degree weather.

Christmas in Colorado 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

7-11

It just came to my attention that there are 4,300 7-11 branches in Thailand. That's a lot of 7-11. It prompted me to look into the company a little more. Worldwide there are 28,123 stores around the globe making it the largest chain store in any category (even more than McDonald's). Thailand's 4,300 stores means that Thailand has the 4th largest number of stores after the Japan, the US and Taiwan. Taiwan has the highest density of 7-11's in the world.

I've mentioned it before and I'll mention it again - 7-11 has been a huge part of my life here in Thailand. Many an adventure has been had in its stores and countless items have been purchased off its shelfs. I'll leave you with a little known fact - 7-11 in Thailand isn't called 7-11. It called Sewen because Thai's have a hard time pronouncing the 'v' sound partly because Thai doesn't have that sound.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Buddha Casting

Thailand is a predominately Buddhist country and as such there are temples nearly everywhere. Having been here for a good bit of time, I've seen my far share of temples. One of the most common sights in the temples are the images of the Buddha. These images occupy a place on honor within the temple as well as many peoples homes. Recently I was able to witness the casting of a Buddha image at a temple in town. The director of the English Program decided to have a Buddha image cast and invited us to the casting.

The casting took place at a temple in town. There was a short ceremony before the casting in the temple and then most everyone moved out into the courtyard where the casting would take place. They had set up the molds and were heating the metal when I arrived. In the picture below, you can see the molds in the left part of the picture. The metal is being melted in several different fires/ovens and those are fairly easy to spot (hint - look for the flames).
We arrived to the scene above and then entered the temple for a ceremony. But the ceremony lasted longer than our attention span so we ventured outside to watch what captured our attention which was the incredible bright flames and the steady buzz of activity around the molds and the fires. The kept feeding the fires and stoking them; keeping the metal molten until the ceremony finished.
It came time for the image to be cast so they pulled the bricks down from around the molten metal housed in what was now a glowing container. Using very long poles they exposed the container which was now bright orange.
Very carefully they used this clever little tool to lift the molten metal up out of the fire/oven and proceeded to clean off the outside of the container. These containers didn't have a lid to them and if you remember they just threw charcoal on top of them assuming (and correctly so) that the surface of the molten metal was hot enough to ignite all the charcoal and burn it off.
They transferred the molten metal from the lifting tool/contraption and put it into a tool/contraption more suited for pouring. They carefully lifted the molten metal up onto the platform which surrounded the molds and began to pour the metal into the mold.
The steam which was coming off of the metal as is streamed into the mold was incredible. The color of the metal was also equally amazing. This black and white photo shows the steam a little bit better than the color photos could.
Here's a picture of the molten metal (which I'm assuming to be bronze...I never got confirmation of that, but most of the Buddha images are made from bronze) as it is poured into the mold. This picture doesn't do justice to the color of the metal. But you can still see the oranges and the yellows in the container nonetheless.
While this was all happening, people had gathered around the men working and had run a string through their hands (a common part of Buddhist ceremonies) and held their hands up in a wai while the image was being cast.
And that was that. The image was cast. The image had to sit for a few days before it could be broken out of the mold and then polished and have the finishing touches added to it. The image will stay at the temple for a few days and then it will be taken to my boss's house where he'll keep it or store it until he decides to donate it to a temple.

And that's how Buddha images are made - Thai style.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kingdom of Illusions

I was browsing through a book store in Chiang Mai a few months back and came across a book entitled ‘The Kingdom of Illusions’. It was a book about Thailand and the title stuck a chord with me and I immediately wished that I had thought of that. You see, Thailand, for all intensive purposes and on many levels, is a kingdom of illusions. There is a very high value placed on appearance and one must be conscious of their appearance. This value is reflected in dress, behavior and other aspects of life. In my classes my students often spend more time than their American counterparts adding what I would call finishing touches on their project. The result is something that is often more visually appealing than what their American counterparts might produce. However, often times the quality of the assignment doesn’t mirror the level of quality of the appearance of the project. Some of the most beautiful projects I’ve received are significantly lacking in substance. While the value of appearance is one to be encouraged, it shouldn’t overshadow substance.

Thailand is in the process of recovering from several prolonged years of political confrontation which resulted in a coup and the ensuing political ramifications of that. A constitution has been reinstated and elections are scheduled for December 23 after which a new parliament will be installed. Recently, the Election Commission released a set of rules and regulations for the campaigns leading up to the election. They hope to stamp out the widespread vote buying and other underhanded methods of obtaining votes which is far too common in Thailand. They hope that these rigorous standards will ensure a fair and free election. Several days ago, the last of the candidates registered with the EC and following the closure of the registration they took all of the candidates to Wat Phra Kaew, one of the most sacred and famous temples in Thailand, and had them swear in front of Buddha image that they would follow these rules. The Bangkok Post published a political cartoon the following day which I feel captures my sentiments. It shows the candidates in a boxing arena with a statue of the Buddha in one corner with a politician seated in front of it while whispering out of the corner of his mouth to his followers behind him who are engaged in a tremendous fight to also promise to abide by these rules. The Election Commission and the current government (as well as the candidates themselves) are trying to create this illusion that the election is going to be democratic and fair. I can’t help but think that the lessons and values (related to appearance and substance) which my students have at this age are not much different from those of the politicians. Of course I realize that politicians project images and it is rare to find a politician who consists of much more than an image, but I can’t help but wonder what messages these public ceremonies are sending to the people watching them. I can’t imagine that anyone took them seriously. To those who have already been taught that image trumps substance this only reinforces that message. To those who have lost faith in the government and the candidates this only confirms their fears. And to those who hoped for something different this time around this only shows them that the while the government has changed the substance has remained.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

King's Fashion Trends

Those of you who have been to Thailand know that there are two uberubiquitous sights in Thailand - 7/10 and in recent years the King's Yellow shirt. Many people started to wear the yellow shirts several years ago in honor of the King's 60th Anniversary on the throne which was celebrated in June of 2006. The shirts sported a emblem designed specially for this celebration representing the many aspects of the monarchy. Once the anniversary celebrations were complete, people continued to wear their yellow shirts. Politicians are always sporting one when they make public appearances and the news anchors always have some splash of yellow if not the shirt during their broadcasts. Teachers and other government employees are asked to wear them every Monday and many wear them multiple days throughout the week. To continue honoring the King and his 80th birthday (which is on December 5th), a new logo was designed for the 80th birthday celebrations and people bought even more yellow shirts with the new logo. After nearly a year of wearing a fairly plain yellow shirt with a symbol, many companies began offering more stylized shirt with other designs and patterns in order to spice it up a bit. Nonetheless, there is still an abundance of yellow on every shirt (only now there is a little bit of flair). Over the course of the past year and a half or so I've collected roughly six different versions of the yellow shirt (both 60th anniversary and 80th birthday shirts). Anyway, the point here is that people have become accustomed to wearing these yellow shirts as a external representation of their affection and support for the King.

The King was admitted to the hospital about four weeks ago and upon his admission to the hospital swarms of people flocked to the hospital to sign a guest book set up in the hospital and offer their moral support for the King. Buses and water taxis offered free rides for people going to the hospitals and many international monarchs and diplomats expressed their wishes for a speedy recovery. For nearly three weeks there was a steady flow of people in and out of the hospital. He left the hospital last week. His departure became nothing short of a large celebration and procession. Thousands of people came to the hospital to see him off and it the entire journey home - from the moment he walked out the hospital doors to the moment his car entered the palace grounds - was filmed and broadcast on all channels. After paying respects at statues of his parents in the lobby of the hospital he got in his car. The entire hospital ground was covered with people sporting their yellow shirts. The entire route from hospital to palace was lined with more people. What was interesting (and what has become a little absurd lately) was the countries response to his attire. The day the king left the hospital, he wore a pink collarless shirt and a pink blazer. I've been told that an astrologer reportedly told the king to wear the color typically associated with baby girls and bubble gum because it also symbolizes Mars and would help him gain strength. This sparked an almost fanatic rush by the countries loyal royalists to purchase pink shirts and show their support. Stores reported that their stocks of pink shirts were gone within hours of the kings appearance on TV. Manufacturers promised to increase production and retailers promised to increase their stocks of pink shirts. Several days later, the king returned to the hospital to pay a visit to his older sister who is also in the hospital. This time he was wearing a green blazer with a pink shirt, as green can reportedly bring success for someone like the king, who was born on a Monday. The rush to buy pink shirts was short-lived as people now sought out green shirts. Vendors immediately ordered more green shirts and people headed out to buy them. No more than two days after his appearance in a green shirt, he returned to the hospital for another visit this time wearing a blue shirt. You can guess what happened next. Anyway, I find this to be highly indicative of the typical Thai response to the monarchy. There is a tremendous amount of respect for the king and for the most part that respect is deserved. But much of this respect and admiration is blind and very few understand the relationship which the king has with the country and so many express their (somewhat blind) love by imitating him and expressing this love externally (by wearing the yellow shirt etc.). I've had many people who while claiming to love the king are unable to explain why. And it's not that they can't find the words or reasons, it's that it's not something to be questioned or thought about but simply done. It's a very complex relationship - one which has many different facets and intricacies and one which has been developed for 61 years. What this most recent trip to the hospital and the ensuing fashion trends does indicate though is that there will be a significant amount of change (which will be fiercely resisted) when the king dies. But until then, people will continue to wear these yellow shirts and follow his every move.