Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan

For the week of Chinese New year, I was lucky enough to retire to Nakhon Sawan for a few days where the celebrations are immense due to a large Chinese population. What I should really say here is that I was lucky enough to have a best friend in Nakhon Sawan named Ronah who was kind enough to organise an English camp that week so I could bunk off school without looking like I was simply skiving to attend a week of festivities (which in fact was exactly the case).

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Soon after arriving in Nakhon Sawan after a long, overnight bus journey we set out to explore. In an afternoon I fell head over heels for the charming, quirky and thoroughly Thai city.  We made our way first through the beautiful (national) park in the centre which was thriving with people playing basketball, volleyball, running, skateboarding, dancing, cycling, rollerblading, tai chi-ing; you name it-ing and they were doing it! We stopped for lunch on the other side of the park at a place called April’s Brasserie. This seemingly quaint but in fact rather giant independent establishment was flawlessly decorated and had a decidedly modern yet cosy feel and contained furnishings straight out of a Laura Ashley catalogue. They serve Thai and western food but are famous for their cakes, pies and deserts and after trying some I can see why. After lunch I went to set up for the English camp the next day at Kiriwon temple school. Residing at the base of the hill which Kiriwon Temple sits atop, the school was a haven of calm away from the bustling streets of Nakhon Sawan. The novice monks greeted us and although we didn’t stay for long, it got me looking forward to teaching them the next day.

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That night we went to China Town to begin our Chinese celebrations. Although I had been made aware that Nakhon Sawan was the home of Chinese New Year celebrations in Thailand, and that it was a basically week long party, I didn’t quite expect what we found on that Tuesday night. The streets were lined with people selling all kinds of goods from Chinese dragon masks to steamed dumplings and above, your path was lit by hundreds of authentic lanterns creating the idyllic Chinese ambiance.

The next day we woke early, keen to get to school and get the camp started; being my first English Camp I was pretty excited. To begin with, there was certainly a feeling of anxiety as to how we should approach tasks such as teaching monks the cha cha slide without seeming disrespectful but soon that worry faded and we could all see that underneath the orange robes and bald heads this was just a group of kids wanting some banter and some fun. Hopping from activity to activity with Ronah checking all was running smoothly gave me a pretty could perspective from which I can conclude my favourite activity was definitely ‘drip drip drop’. This is a variation of ‘duck duck goose’ which had to be adapted because touching another person’s head is so frowned upon in Thailand; let alone a monks head. The game consists of ‘drip drip dripping’ water on each person in the circle until you select your victim who you’ll then ‘drop’ the bowl of water on. You then chase one another round the circle until the ‘dropper’ has either been caught (meaning the ‘dropee’ may get ‘revenge’ on said ‘dropper’ by throwing water on them) or has managed to make it back to the ‘dropee’s’ space in the circle. Now, this game is fun enough with my students at home in Muang; words cannot explain how much infinitely funnier it is watching monks run around in their damp robes doing the same thing. The day was a roaring success (nice work Ronah). My three highlights of the camp were doing the Cha Cha slide with 100 monks, being called one of the boy’s ‘hero’ in his thank you speech during the closing ceremony and being taken up the hill after the camp to Kiriwon Temple to see the panoramic views of the ‘heavenly city’.

That night we headed back out to China town to see what was instore for us. Without really knowing where we were going or what was happening (you can’t get any information about the celebrations in English) we wondered around for long enough to eventually find the crossroads where ‘the show’ was taking place. This turned out to be absolutely incredible and most certainly reinforced my love for the lack of health and safety in Thailand. A team of acrobatics began the street show by piling six sets of five men on top of one another one by one. Never did I think I would witness five men stood on each other’s shoulders twilling around the streets of Nakhon Sawan. Next, there was the lion show where 4 men dressed in their elaborate lion costumes (one man was the head and one man was the bottom) and danced from pole to pole in perfect sync creating the impression of two lions dancing in mid-air. Describing how awesome this was in words is near impossible. After an incredible day and unexpectedly incredible night I really didn’t think the week could get much better but I was wrong.

The next day we went back out to China town as the Thursday is the main day to watch the parade which begins at 6am. Finding the parade was the first task but with the help of Ronah’s Thai mum and her posy spread out around town we eventually found it. The parade’s main aim is to herd the ‘head’ Chinese Dragon around town. The Dragon snakes from street to street and shop to shop, entering all the local businesses it can find which gives them good luck for the New Year. To say thank you, the streets are lined with tables full of offerings to the Dragon and after the Dragon has left their premises, shops light fire crackers to ward off any evil spirts. After following the Dragon for a while we walked ahead to find ‘the show’; all this may sound a bit vague but with no translators around we just had to go with it. The greatest thing happened next. Just as we reached the intersection where ‘the show; would take place we looked up to a balcony looking down at the setup and saw our country rep Nici stood ready and waiting for the dragon to appear. It turns out she knew the owners of the gold shop below who had invited her to watch the show from their balcony and this kindness was then extended to us and we were lucky enough to watch the whole thing from the comfort of their apartment’s balcony. The show was even more unexpected that the one the night before with the dragon being the main attraction.

The next day I went to Ronah’s other school where she teaches anuban (kindergarten) up to M3 (year 10). This being a normal school was something I am more used to however I still had the pleasure of teaching anuban for the first time as I only teach secondary which is M1-M6 (year 8 to year 13). I absolutely loved seeing Ronah’s classes and seeing how other schools work in Thailand. The day was topped off with a perfect Friday night in; cheese, pasta and red wine.

A day in the life of a teacher in Thailand

Exercise

The morning begins at around 6am with a jog around the school campus. My house is onsite, roughly a minute walk from school. To emphasise a previous point I have made that Thai people do not walk anywhere, the residents of the 11 surrounding homes all drive to school. I think the potential for a sustainable lifestyle – living and working in the same place – is far from being fulfilled.

Getting dressed

The next task of the day is getting dressed for school. In Thailand every day of the week has a colour, and most schools try to enforce said colours as a vague uniform code for the teachers. In think this tradition is inspired as it outlaws the colour black and encourages bright colours such as yellow on a Monday and pink on a Tuesday, which in turn encourages a happier employee, in turn encouraging happier students. It works spiffingly in my opinion.  Thursday is however the exception to the rule as Thursday is scout’s day. This means teachers and students alike come dressed in their scout uniforms. Unfortunately I am not yet the proud owner of a uniform so I stick to the closest and happiest colour to beige; yellow. Seeing my elder co-workers dressed in full scout uniform at first seemed outright bizarre, however I am now fond of the tradition.

Assembly

After selecting my attire for the day, usually in accordance with the day’s dress code, I make my way to assembly. This takes place bang on 8am in what you might call the ‘court yard’. The area is a large tarmacked surface doubling as badminton courts and football pitches and surrounded by the ICT block on one side, the athletics track on another, Building 1 on another and finally the auditorium, muay Thai gym and food court on another.  Assembly begins with the Thai National anthem during which all teachers and students must stand straight, hands by their sides, facing the Thai flag (drawn up during the anthem) and supposedly sing. Each day a different student sings the anthem into a microphone presumably for the rest to follow but usually very few people join in. It seems strange to me how comfortable each student is with the possibility of singing in front of 2000 of their peers, however, due to the strict patriotic nature of the procedure I doubt any criticism would be allowed. I mean, I’ve heard some pretty terrible renditions, none of which have been humoured in the slightest by anybody (a part from Tori and I, gradually this has become a sort of internal humour). Next, teachers and pupils alike will turn to face the Buddha shrine and say their morning prayers. Finally, to end the regimented morning routine we will turn back to face the flag and sing the school anthem. The students will then turn in their rows to wye on another and sit down for announcements to be made.

This routine is now so ingrained into me I am somewhat immune to it. However, on reflection I did find it all quite peculiar when I first arrived. I enjoy the respect each student and teacher illustrates every morning for their country, their religion and their school. This respect is not shown unwillingly by any means therefore I find it sets the tone for the rest of the day in a very positive way. Morning announcements are long and tedious and at 8.40am everyone is more than ready to make their way to lessons; I don’t even think the complete ignorance to what anybody is saying is what makes the notices boring to be honest, although it would be nice to be informed once in a while!

Breakfast

Lessons are meant to start just after 8.40, and assembly is meant to finish bang on 8.40, however there is always time to eat in Thailand. It is one of the highlights of my mornings, walking into the office to see what my (amazing) head of English has cooked that morning (she wakes up at 4am everyday to cook for the monks and the office). A typical breakfast for the office is kratip (wicker box) of sticky rice and some sort of condiment. The condiment can range from muu dad diaw (fried pork – my favourite) to an interesting yet delicious combination of sour mango and spicy tuna. I am always surprised by how normal it is for a handful of sticky rice paired with mango and tuna is now an ordinary breakfast. Array wa?

Teaching

Every week I teach 20, 50 minute lessons to M2 (year 9), M5 (year 12) and M6 (year 13). This is a fairly hectic schedule, especially in comparison to the other teachers in the English department who teach between 3 and 8 lessons per week, however, a busy volunteer is a happy volunteer. My lessons usually follow the typical structure of PPP (presentation, practise, production). I start lessons with a recap of last lesson or a quick activity to introduce the topic (if it is a new one) and end the lesson with a game, always. I have only sat down in one lesson, ever (not going to lie, I pride myself on this) and I never keep the students writing for longer than few minutes. It’s incredible how quickly a students attention can be lost and the only way to keep a full class of 30-40 kid’s attention is to have them on their toes the whole time. This works for me because I teach conversational English so I need them to speak as much as possible, however it does get quite draining!

My favourite lessons are vocab lessons where I simply introduce the vocab. Drilling can get boring but games are also far more interesting. For example, my favourite game to play is board splat noughts and crosses with vocab flashcards. Play any game where you turn your students against one another (in a healthy manner) and you get a seriously hilarious game. Competition fuels even my most reluctant students to participate.

My favourite classes are those with the naughty but nice cheeky boys in them. I like having banter with the cheeky students but still managing to get them to do good work. Some classes can take the cheek a little too far though, for example, one group of year 9 boys convinced me the word for ‘tear out’ was the word for ‘sex’ in Thai (they are very similar). Despite leading to a lot of entertainment of their behalf and eventually my behalf, it was slightly embarrassing when I initially realised. I’ve certainly become very accustomed to the newfound sexual drive my year 9 boys have clearly just discovered. I remember the days of exercise books being filled with genitalia and the hot topic of conversation being who is going out with who, so I let it slide, it’s just very interesting to me to see than hormones can override even the most respectful of cultures. In all honesty, I do not like the suck up M5 girls who want to be by best friend by showing me how good their English is at the expense of the rest of the class speaking. I appreciate their keenness, but it’s annoying when you need the whole class to learn. I hate myself for being that typical young female teacher who secretly favours all the boys and their banter over the clever girls… but they make me laugh! I’m such a banter whore right? In my defense, you’re never going to have a girl student walk into a lesson and perform a full song, guitar and all, serenading you in Thai (well, this is Thailand I suppose) so what the hell? I don’t care if I fit the stereotype!.

The language barrier has been almost no trouble at all. Getting my message across using purely English is easy when you break it down into simple, repetitive phrases. Disciplining people would be difficult but I tend not to have to do it. I’ve got a good enough relationship now with the students to just let my facial expression and tone of voice portray when they have pushed it too far. The only difficulty I would say I have had with the language barrier is the odd occasion when a naughty but not so nice M2 boy decides to use my non-speaking of Thai to his advantage by (presumably) saying rude things to me which make the rest of the class laugh and waiting for my reaction. I have now learnt the best way to respond is with an incredibly fast spiel in English which not even a native would be able to understand. I secretly love the look of confusion and then annoyance on their faces when they realise I’ve beaten them at their own game.

My favourite students are the ones who know how to have banter and know how to work hard. I have some amazing boys and amazing girls in M5 who I have spend loads of time with out the class room and I have just fallen in love with them. The girls teach me all these Thai dances and make me listen to Thai music and the boys try and fail to get me to play football with them, settling for an excitable spectator. I’ve managed to draw a line between being their teacher and being their friend but it’s nice to have got to know them on a more personal level which then makes teaching them all the better. I’m allowed to have a handshake with my M2 boys, and know all the sluttiest M5 girls, I just don’t want to see them smoking and drinking on a Friday night (apparently this does happen?!).

Lunch

Lunch is always a delightful affair which could be likened to an elaborate banquet in England, entirely contradicting my belief that a sandwich is sufficient for lunch. Inhabitants of the English office will join each other around the table and every day the spread varies, but almost always it will contain the famous Isan dish ‘somtom’.

The evening 

Due to a lack of TV and WiFi in my house, my evening consists usually of writing, reading or lesson planning. A trip to 7/eleven is sometimes necessary if we are low on snacks, on nice evenings when football practice is on we may go out onto the stands to watch and if we haven’t eaten enough that day we may venture into Muang Sam Sip (my town) for some street food. Due to there being no street lamps, I tend to stay inside after dark and consequently, I find myself falling asleep very early. Down time is no bad thing though, after all, I spend my day dealing with people (and running around like a lunatic) so a break from that and some time to myself is most welcomed.

A fortnight of new experiences

Police teaching session

Walking into a room crammed full of about 50 Thai police men in full uniforms looking expectant but not all that accommodating (if I’m honest) was definitely not a situation I had planned on finding myself in this year. Despite feeling a little bit intimidated, my ‘smile a wye, boys’ attitude kicked in we got started with the English session. With only a microphone (no whiteboard, pens, paper or resources of any sort) and three hours to fill I began the morning slightly uncertainly to say the least. However, winging it has become an excellent skill of mine therefore within minutes we had the room laughing and smiling and speaking at least some English. It’s amazing how animated hard-faced police officers become when you treat them like kids back at school, even if they are over the age of 60! One thing my inter-feminist had to take with a pinch of salt was the infatuation they all seemed to have with mine and Tori’s relationship status; ‘focus Dais and take it as a compliment’ I thought. Besides, it may have been piss annoying but they all spoke at least some English that day (even if it was the word ‘boyfriend’).

Giving blood

Giving blood in England does not seem like all that common a pursuit, however, in Thailand it is a regular and popular pastime. For example, a teacher at my school called Pi Art who can’t be a day over 30 (then again you never actually know with Thai men) has given blood 38 times and was hoping to reach 50 so he would be rewarded with the honour of meeting the Thai prince.  The Red Cross had set up their mobile facilities in the auditorium and it was absolutely packed when I got there with students over the age of 17 and most of the teachers. The process was quick and easy and I will certainly be doing it more frequently from now on. However, I doubt that in England I would win a free T-shirt afterwards like I did last week!

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Teacher’s day

National Teacher’s Day is celebrated throughout Thailand on the 16th of January and for my celebrations, three secondary schools joined together for an awards ceremony on Saturday morning. The celebration turned out to be a simple prize giving ceremony preceded by a visit from some monks from the local temple who did some chants and prayers before the awards were given out. The head monk from the local temple (he sounds and looks a lot like Bane from Batman) blessed the crowd in the usual way by splashing water on us whilst we prayed. Unlike you might expect, they really don’t hold back with the water; a blessing is actually just a soaking and you have to make sure to sit with your head very low to avoid a face full of water.

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School trip

On Sunday the 17th Tori and I were invited on a school trip ‘to a temple’. Of course this sounded like fun but after seeing hundreds of other temples in Thailand I was not amazingly thrilled by the idea, especially on a Sunday. However, as always things had not been accurately explained to us and the day turned into so much more than just a visit to a temple. If you ever get a chance to go on a school trip in Thailand, do it. It is honestly the best thing ever. Mostly, this is because of the karaoke buses which are hired to drive you about all day. I never expected my opinion on Thai music to change so drastically. I could compare my opinion of it four months ago to the opinion I have of Ann Coulter; phenomenally annoying. However, I have to admit, now I have a real fondness of Thai music therefore a day of hopping from location to location sound tracked by relentless Thai karaoke was actually so much fun.

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We started the day with a visit to Don Trat which is a temple in the middle of an island on Moon River built to honour a very important monk. The temple itself was very beautiful, as was the island it was on. You had to get a boat across the river to access the island and walk through the dense jungle to find the temple. Something I’ve noticed about temples in Thailand is that the trees and animals residing in them are always extremely beautiful.

Next we went to Wat Tham Khuha Sawan which is a collection of temples honouring another famous monk and it is also a great view point for the famous ‘two-coloured river’ where the Mekong meets the Moon River creating a river that is half blue-half brown. There is a beautiful, intricately built white tower you can climb up to get the best view or you can venture lower into the cave where the monk is buried and on the way, see the elephant statue with multi-coloured, sacred ribbons draped over its trunk. You can also ring the 93 bells surrounding one of the temples which, although slightly laborious, is meant to give you good luck.

Next we went to Wat Phu Prao which is arguably the most beautiful temple I’ve ever been to in Thailand, not only because of its mosaic clad exterior and golden interior, but also its hill top location offering stunning views of the surrounding flood plain of the epic Mekong.

Next we went to Pattaya Noi which is a lake-side (I say ‘lake’ but Sirindhorn is nicknamed ‘the Isan sea, so that might be an understatement) collection of floating wooden huts with restaurants offering food and drinks. Additionally there are activities available such as water skiing and banana boating. This was the best end to the day and an awesomely relaxing place to hang out which I shall definitely be going back to at some point (not least so I can enjoy the day with a few changs). I definitely did not think my first time on a banana boat would be on a Thai school trip with my students.

Cosmos Fields

The Wednesday after the school trip we had our next outing to the near flower farm nick-named ‘cosmos fields’ which is essentially just a nice spot for a photo and/or a Bear Grylls style piss take video (that just me?). I also found myself three happy hats to wear (all at once) whilst walking through the farm so as you can imagine I had a great time. I think I have stumbled across an incredible technique to instil happiness upon somebody. I’ve now tested this theory on four subjects each resulting in solid proof for my hypothesis predicting a positive correlation between happiness and wearing hats; the more stupid the hat, the better.

Scout camp

From Thursday through to Saturday we had our annual scout camp at school. This turned out to be an absolutely awesome three days of camping, cooking, activities, dancing and neon face paint. The highlights of the camp were the night-time adventure walk where we climbed up ropes in the pitch black (safe-guarding? Nah) and the closing ceremony which involved performances (from myself) and a lot of Thai music and dancing. I feel really pleased to have seen my students properly fend for themselves as I feel it’s upped my respect for some of my more challenging M2 students. They might behave like little shits in lessons but to see their focus and skill when cooking a genuinely delicious dinner for their group gave me a new sense of appreciation for them. I certainly thought back to my friends at home who I could not imagine being quite as skilled with a knife, a fire pit and a load of chicken feet (sorry guys).

One Thai dish I experienced at the scout camp was one which sounds and looks less than appetizing. I’m not sure what the Thai name is for the dish but for now lets just call it a ‘cold salad’. To make this ‘cold salad’, you begin by chopping raw snails into small cubes, you then leave the snails in a bowl on the floor of a forested area for roughly 30 minutes. This allows red ants access to the snails (which you want). When the raw snails are writhing with red ants, you return to the kitchen and mash the snails and live red ants with your hands (a mans jobs apparently due to all the unpleasant biting which occurs). You then add garlic, mint, chilies and some other herbs and hey presto! You have your ‘cold salad’! After some hefty persuasion, I eventually took a bite and you know what, not bad.

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Staff visit

Because I am volunteering with a charity, I have a visit part way through my time in Thailand to check my project is going well. This turned out to be far less formal than anticipated and it was actually just really cool to see some faces from Project Trust and hang out with fellow farangs for an evening. I also had my first taste of Korean BBQ which is an awesome experience; you are given a BBQ for the centre of the table where you grill your own meat and fish and boil your own broth. We also had an unexpected visit on Sunday to a beautiful temple just up the road from me which I never knew was there. Unfortunately though, Dave saw this as the perfect location to take some promo videos of Tori and I for PT; film is certainly not the medium through which I am best at creatively expressing myself. Here I would like to quote Dave, my country desk officer and relay a thought-provoking anecdote he told us from his time volunteering in Vanuatu; “a popular greeting on the island would be to ask where somebody is going, the one response I recall was from a lone man who replied, ‘nowhere, I am just following the road’”. Without getting too deep and metaphorical, the story resonated with me and I thought it was really lovely.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of meeting the famous ‘Lawrence’ who is a fellow falang living in the nearby town of Phana where I know some other volunteers. They had mentioned him quite a lot and he sounded very interesting. He is the author of several books about this region of Thailand so when I met him I inquired about said novels and he was kind enough to give me of copy of his most famous book about ‘The Emerald Triangle’ which is the nickname given to the area where Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam meet, inside which Ubon Ratchathani resides. In the first page he summarised precisely what I have been thinking recently about Isaan. He stated that tourism in this region is not scant because it is not a wonderful area, it is scant because there is very little to offer in the way of attractions targeted at tourists. This epitomises exactly what I have been discovering in recent months. I have seen so many brilliant places and done so many marvellous things but I have seen very few tourists along the way. Despite the attractions I have seen being no different from those in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, they seem to go completely without reference in guidebooks about Thailand and S E Asia. However, without sounding too selfish, I am delighted every time I arrive at a beautiful landmark free from swarms of Chinese and American tourists. For me, Isan has a unique charm. Living here has allowed me to experience Thailand in a way I never would have been able to if I had come backpacking for a few months to the region as I no doubt would have listened to the guide books claiming there is ‘nothing worth seeing’ here. This unspoiled, authentic region of Thailand deserves better press, but in many ways I’m secretly glad it doesn’t get it. I’m thrilled to be so secluded as maybe it is the isolation from tourism of this region which makes it so special.

Top 11 things I’ve learnt to live without in Thailand

Now it has to be said, whilst I have been living a modest day-to day life, I most certainly do not live in squalor and the last thing I can claim after only 4 months of this slightly less luxurious lifestyle is any sort of moral supremacy over the rest of the western world. After all, I come from an incredibly comfortable, middle-class background which I will be more than happy to return to after this year and perhaps I will do so without an ounce of guilt.

Disclaimer over. Let’s begin.

  1. A toilet.

I miss the toilet being a sort of limbo of ultimate privacy and comfort where nobody can disturb you in your time of need. A squat doesn’t really do the job unfortunately. However, I have concluded that trains and buses are similar to toilets in their strange detachment from real life (is it just me who can make sense of this?) and I spend a load of time on then so my zen time is, in fact, evened out.

  1. A washing machine.

Hans Rosling told me the washing machine was magic; I now fully appreciate the accuracy of his statement. All praise the washing machine. How much time I waste scrubbing at grease stains, lathering my dry skin with cocoa butter and painfully removing pathetically weak hang nails?! Woe is me! Well, actually, I could not be happier that now I appreciate a washing machine as luxury and not an essential.

  1. A T.V.

What a waste of time! What a waste of life! (She says until she happily returns to her Come Dine With Me marathons fuelled by endless cups of tea). But seriously, this is something I am so thankful to be without. I would have missed out on so many great experiences and so many great books if I had a TV. It amazes me how a race of intelligent human beings (myself included) can spend so much time lazing on a sofa engaging in an activity which benefits them in no way at all.

  1. Mirrors bigger than the palm of my hand.

Surely just the fact that this makes an appearance disproves any notion that I have become less superficial or materialistic? Well, you may be right. But regardless of how shallow I may have once been (or may still be) I am certain that this lack of mirrors has made me a much happier and less image-conscious person.

  1. A bed.

I think I have realised that beds are nothing more than aesthetically pleasing. All you actually need is the mattress. Surely the bed just incurs the extra cost of the bedside table anyway to get everything up to the same height?

  1. A kitchen.

However much I miss my kitchen at home, with its endless shelves of herbs and spices, its two ovens and hob, its microwave, its toaster, its quooker tap, its fridge, its freezer, its well-stocked vegetable draws and fruit bowl… ok so actually there is no resolve to this one and it hasn’t actually sharpened my moral compass in any way whatsoever being without a kitchen. To be honest I bloody miss my kitchen.

  1. Hot showers.

There is positively no need for them here and therefore I can’t say I’ve missed them at all. Once you get past the first 30 seconds of shock it’s actually very pleasant and the only way to properly cool down.

  1. My car and other people’s cars.

Walking, cycling and using public transport is very easy in Thailand. I live in Isan which is mostly flat and using buses for 15-20 hour journeys is just the norm here. But I do have days where I would love to walk 10 steps out my front door and hop into good old Ferris the Fiesta and pop down to Tesco Express for some milk.

9. Dairy

Dairy farms don’t exist in abundance in Thailand therefore neither does proper milk nor cheese. I have to say, I miss good old cups of PG tips with a splash of skimmed milk but it’s probably done my health a world of good to be without cheese, plus, there’s no marmite to pair it with anyway!

  1. A schedule.

There is simply no point making plans in Thailand. Being late is not even a thing, you simply just arrive when you wish. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I have tried, I have struggled endlessly to adopt a similar attitude. Mum and dad simply raised me too well, I just can’t be late!

  1. Privacy

My life in Thailand could well be described as a constant inquisition. Where are you going? Have you eaten? What are you doing now? How much do you weigh? Where do you come from? Where did you go? Do you like Thailand? Why do you like Thailand? Who are you teaching? What are you teaching them? I was expecting to give up privacy in my life but I anticipated this being a physical sense of privacy, not a personal sense of privacy. My British politeness has been totally eradicated by this full on, honest culture and for the most part I am happy to have shaken this ‘beat around the bush’ trait.

Even though I may not continue every aspect of my basic way of life when I return home in August, I am so happy to have experienced it for this year. You really don’t understand the value (or the utter pointlessness) of something until it’s gone.

A month of celebrations

The Kings Birthday and ‘Bike for Dad’

On the 5th of December Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand celebrated his birthday which in Thailand doubles as father’s day. Being a brit who is unable to tell you even one line of ‘God save the queen’, it was initially very difficult to grasp the concept of the monarchy in Thailand and the true devotion Thais have to their King; particularly the current one. However, after living among Thai people for so long I can now say I honestly share their love for the monarchy and I believe it is this devoutness which serves to unite people in Thailand in such a powerful, unique way.

My school celebrated the King’s Birthday on the Friday and not knowing what to expect made the day all the more amazing. We started the morning with a Buddhist ceremony at school which included offering food to monks followed by a series of prayers and chants which despite being very cool I have to say I did not understand a word of. We then had a concert for the rest of the morning with loads of performances from traditional Thai dances to performances of the latest Thai pop songs (which I am slowly starting to like, it certainly wasn’t an instant love affair that’s for sure). This was definitely the best Thai event I’ve been too yet because this time the performers were actually my students so I felt really proud (cringey I know).

To exhibit their commitment for the King, on the 11th of December throughout Thailand ‘Bike for Dad’ took place. This was a sort of cycling marathon to honour the King and I was lucky enough to be in Bangkok for the biggest ‘Bike for Dad’event in the country with hundreds of thousands of participants. It seems impossible to imagine the dizzyingly fast pace of Bangkok slowing, let alone coming to a standstill, but low and behold the tuk tuks and taxis took a well-deserved break, the call of commerce was silenced and the hustle and bustle of those on their way to and from places of work was replaced by supportive crowds of family and friends cheering on the cyclists. What amazed me was that these cyclists had no numbers and would be given no time or place, they simply cycled through sheer admiration and dedication for their King. Well, all those except a few farang who I think were under the impression they were cycling for their actual dad and so didn’t see much issue with a few changs along the way; not something the King would have been quite so approving of. (I’m aware I have no right to criticise having not actually participated!)

The King Monk’s funeral

The hierarchy of respect in Thailand is another thing to get used too. For example, standing in a bus station a few weeks ago (a position in find myself in frequently nowadays) the national anthem sounded and so everybody stood to attention. Hands by our sides we listened to the familiar tune ring out, but then in the corner of my eye I noticed the glimmer of some orange robes, looking over I saw that said orange robes remained crinkled in the lap of a monk who had stayed seated. This moment seemed distinctly peculiar to me; witnessing a person sitting during the anthem was a first. But then it occurred to me that monks are indeed deserving of the utmost respect in Thailand – exceeding beyond respect for the King. Therefore this means it is not required of them to stand when the anthem sounds.

This anecdote serves to lead me into the next event of December; The King Monks funeral. The late Supreme Patriarch died at age 100 in 2013 and on the 14th of December 2015, two years later (in line with Buddhist custom) a funeral was held to commemorate him. I attended a small ceremony in Muang Sam Sip district whilst the main funeral took place in Bangkok where the patriarch’s remains were carried through the streets of the capital on a carriage. Unfortunately the whole of the ceremony was in Thai and with no translator the most I can relay to you is that half way through the ceremony a cat climbed on a sacred monument in the temple and it was highly entertaining watching a novice monk trying to get it down; being a newbie to the wonderful (and yet slightly monotonous and extremely long) Buddhist prayer chants I’ve learnt to find humour in the little things.

Christmas

And so, 2015 was officially the first year I spent Christmas away from home! Fortunately, with plenty of other farang volunteers in close proximity it wasn’t too painful of an experience after all. On Christmas Eve I decided not to watch the usual family Christmas movie (Miracle on 34th street) and instead watch Love Actually; I figured it wouldn’t be right unless I was sat with the rest of the family eating honey roast ham and drinking red wine. However, due to no Wi-Fi at home and a crappy download we only managed to watch half the film; and I mean we literally watched the top half of Love Actually. Christmas morning felt like any other school morning if I’m honest. I would love to say I opened my shutters to 15 inches of glistening, untouched white snow and a phone call to let me know school was cancelled but I suspect even Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny couldn’t have managed that. Instead I opened my present (from myself lol), put on my tinsel, Santa hat and Christmas pudding glasses (thanks Dad) and went to assembly to excitedly rant to 2000 Thai students about what Christmas Day entails in England; can’t say any of them looked terribly enthusiastic considering they can’t actually speak much (if any) English. For once though I ignored this slight issue of our language barrier and let myself be the babbling, bumbling buffoon (or should I say buffalo?) of a farang… after all, ‘if you can’t say it on Christmas, when can you say it hey?’

That weekend I went up to Kutchum, a town about 2 hours north of me to celebrate Christmas with some other Thai volunteers. It ended up being one of the best Christmas’ I’ve ever had and impressively, between a few of us we managed to cook a full Christmas dinner for 12 in just one electric wok; I got my pigs in blankets after all! By the end of this year I swear I’ll be able to cook bloody macaroons in a damned electric wok.

New Year

New Year in Thailand is far bigger than I had ever imagined and in fact turned out to be a full week of celebrations. Monday, Tuesday Wednesday of ‘new year’ week were my school’s Sports Week and on the Wednesday we had a new year parade. After months of dread over being dressed up as a Thai princess for the parade, it actually turned out to be arguably the best hour I’ve had in Thailand so far.

Call me uptight, call me unappreciative, call me whatever you wish but I had been far from looking forward to somebody pulling at my hair, caking me in makeup and putting me in a stiff Thai dress only to be paraded around the town in the hot sun for hours with a thousand and one photos taken of me looking like a lime coloured manikin who had accidentally been left in a kiln for 2 days.

Turns out my pessimistic speculation could not have been further from reality; it was literally the BEST THING EVER. ‘You know what’, I thought, ‘F*** it, I am a princess and I should have a thousand and one photos taken of me because I’m absolutely FAB – U – LOUS’ (okay so I look like a lime green, deranged whale wearing an ironic comedy crown in 90% of said photos but I felt a million dollars ok). The atmosphere was immense, why don’t we do parades every day?! There were hundreds of us all dressed in green, blue, red or yellow to show support for our teams marching, twirling, dancing through the streets and what made it SO great was my M6 boys playing traditional Isaan music the whole way and absolutely (it has to be said) going in; it’s like I’ve found an 18 year old Thai male’s equivalent to pills and house music at Sankeys… tough one deciding which is cooler right? I never thought I could enjoy traditional music so much, it was just SO MUCH fun you actually can’t not move your feet to that music. Isan has it all; somtam and traditional music seems like all I’ll ever need to be happy now.

After the parade we spent the rest of the day watching sporting events, eating and having pictures taken. They even incorporated theatre/cheerleading performances and dances into the day (all of which were insanely good) so those students who don’t like sport can still contribute to their team efforts. I loved the fact that EVERYBODY got involved. My M5 and M6 boys played in the futsal (mini football), football and badminton games one after the other and some were even in the dances later on as well. For me this just epitomises the difference in attitude here in Thailand. In England I feel like after year 9 it becomes uncool to try, but here it’s the exact opposite. The cool kids are the ones that get most involved with school life; I doubt they are reading this right now but special mention here goes to my students Pekky and Tee, I actually love you.

That night I travelled to Ko Chang where I celebrated New Year on the Thursday night with thousands of other westerners and despite this beach retreat being a welcomed rest, it’s safe to say no New Year celebration will ever compare to sports week at Muang Samsip Amphawan Wittaya School.

 

 

 

The food of the Thais

Having lived in Thailand for over 3 months now I have become very accustomed to the culture which in a lot of cases revolves predominantly around food. The vibrancy of Thai cuisine with its different smells, tastes and colours never fails to excite me and deepen my fascination and love for this unique country. Intricacy is the word that springs to mind when I think about Thai food, as does an appreciation for the skill that is required to create a harmonious dish. Thai chefs, whether that be a mother, a daughter, a market seller or a head chef in a top Bangkok restaurant all act as conductors, orchestrating 20 or 30 ingredients to produce an ensemble; a melodic balance of wan (sweet), phet (spicy), preaw (sour) and chim (sweet). Last week, I acted as a judge in a cooking competition for my M2 students and the variation in standard was immense; creating the perfect Thai dish truly is an art.

Thai food itself is not where my infatuation with Thai cuisine ends. It is the way in which it is prepared, served and eaten which adds to the overall eating experience in Thailand. In many cases, food will be prepared on the floor using back-to-basics methods and tools. I love this cross-legged preparation mostly because of its more inviting and communal feel as opposed to a single chef slaving over a hot stove. Another thing I’ve come to adore is the absolute, unshakable rule that Thai food is for sharing. When explaining how in England, we order separate meals to devour individually, people are very surprised. It’s one cultural norm I’d love to take home with me but I suspect putting our chicken ceaser, Hawaiian pizza, carbonara, sirloin steak and seabass in the centre of the table to share would look slightly unconventional to the other diners in Bella Italia.

Here are some of my favourite Thai dishes;

Som Tam (papaya salad)

Considering I live in Issan, it should come as no surprise that som tam is my number one favourite Thai dish as it originated in this region and is considered the most popular food amongst Issan people. I first realised the importance of som tam to Issan people after a picked up a friend of a friend from the airport and the first thing we did was stop off to eat som tam; ‘When Issan people go on holiday, the first thing we do when we return is eat som tam!’. This spicy, flavoursome salad can be constructed in various ways however the typical som tam will contain green papaya, carrots, tomatoes, coriander, basil, and peanuts with a dressing of garlic, limes, fish sauce, sugar, shrimp paste and a hella lot of chillies. The main body of the salad can be changed for example to green mango or long beans and long rice noodles called ‘ka pom’ can be added but as long as the same dressing is used it is still regarded as good old som tam.

Naem khao (fermented pork rice salad)

This is a bit of a random one but nevertheless a delicious one. Naem khao is a salad originating in Laos and it is made with deep-fried rice balls,  fermented pork sausage called som moo, chopped peanuts, coconut, shallots, mint, coriander, lime juice and fish sauce. Although this is not a common Thai dish, it is certainly one of the most delicious I have tasted thus far.

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Tom yam 

This is a very popular spicy and sour Thai soup usually made with shrimp cooked in an aromatic broth of herbs and spices. It is normally served with rice and can be made with other meats such as beef and chicken. This hearty, hot soup certainly warms your cockles and it feels to me like the Thai equivalent of Nigella’s Jewish Penicillin (chicken broth). Tom yam days are good days.

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Khanom Thuay 

Thai sweets are absolutely delicious (arguably too delicious) but are very different from the average packet of haribo you might treat yourself too in the UK. Most Thai sweets include sweet sticky rice, coconut, jelly or tropical fruit; very few (if any) additives or preservatives are added. Khanom thuay is no different. This is a coconut milk custard made in bite sized bowls and is wonderfully gooey and sweet.

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Coconut 

Of course coconut is not specific to Thailand but it has to be included in this list because of the amount I consume living here! Coconut is versatile to say the least. It can be sweet and savoury, paired with fruit in desserts, used with rice as an accompaniment to a meal or act as the base to a traditional Thai green curry. However, my favourite way to eat coconut is in its simplest form. There is no greater treat than watching a coconut seller slice the top off a coconut, slip a straw inside and hand it over. Not only is this distinctive fruit a refreshing drink, it also acts as a snack as you can peel the strips of milky white flesh from the inside after you have quenched your thirst. Mother Nature did well with her coconuts.

Gluai (Banana)

 You might be thinking as with coconuts, that bananas cannot be classed as specific to Thailand but indeed I think they can. Not the actual banana, but the wide-ranging variation of bananas in this country is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Not only can they be all kinds of shapes, sizes and colours, they can also taste entirely different depending on which kind you decide on. Some are sweet and soft, some are hard and sour but one thing’s for sure; they are all a thousand times better than those ones sitting on the fruit aisle in Tesco express back home. Additionally, Thai people can pair bananas with all sorts of things to change their taste. For example, pair a banana with sticky rice and coconut milk, wrap it in a leaf and steam it and you have an incredible dessert. Additionally, put your banana on a stick and grill it and you have a slightly blackened piece of heaven (add toffee source and you’ve revolutionised the banana business forever).

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Khao phat gai or khao phat muu (chicken fried rice or pork fried rice) 

This may seem like an exceedingly simple dish but its name is deceptive. Usually each version of khao phat will contain 10-15 ingredients and it certainly requires the skill of a Thai cook to get this dish perfect.  An easy one to order though if you’re not looking for anything too exotic (or if the menu is entirely in Thai and you have no clue what anything means – this is a fail safe I promise).

 Sai Krok (Issan fermented Sausage) 

Just some bloody good sausage.

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Pla Pao (Thai grilled fish) 

Although initially rather intimidating, this is a delicacy in Issan and one that I’m glad I gave a shot. It is now one of my favourites and whenever this is served up I am very happy. It takes some skill to not constantly end up with a mouth full of bone but it’s definitely worth the effort. The only quarm is ever had with pla pao was when a fellow diner assured me that there was a positive correlation between the number of fish brains you ate and your IQ. I’m sure you can imagine this didn’t end well for me.

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Moo dad diew (Thai pork jerky)

This is an absolute favourite of mine for two reasons; one, because it is incredibly tasty and two, because it cured me of my irrational aversion to pork in Thailand. Moo dad diew is slices of pork which are marinated in garlic and soy/fish sauce then laid in the sun for a few hours before being grilled or fried. Finally I understood that all this meat lying around was due to a dehydration process taking place and not a death wish! 

There are many many more Thai dishes and foods which I have grown incredibly fond of and however much I would love to brag some more about my consistent access to (in my opinion) the world’s greatest cuisine, I suspect listing every delicious Thai food would be  a tad excessive. The one piece of advice I would give to tourists is DON’T JUST ORDER PAD FREAKING THAI! Don’t get me wrong, pad thai is really nice but there is SO much to try and if you’re scared to order something whether that be due to pronunciation or ingredients, don’t be. Some of the nicest things I’ve eaten were things I almost certainly would not have tried if explained prior to consumption. Even some good old non mai shouldn’t be avoided, we force feed geese so we can pay stupid amounts to eat their enlarged livers so I can’t understand what’s wrong with a deep fried woodworm.

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A backpacker’s guide to a weekend in Bangkok

For those travellers looking for a ‘weekend in Bangkok’ itinerary I thought I could be of hand. If you’re searching for a touch a culture combined with whole lot of letting your hair down all on a budget this is the perfect place to be.

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Despite having cut out any and all partying for the past two months whilst living at my school (where I am proud to say I am the perfect role model), it doesn’t mean I haven’t still got it in me to have a little fun. What I think I’m trying to say is this guide is definitely not a reflection of my life in Thailand! I also cannot claim to be the most accurate source of information on Bangkok after only a few trips but I can assure you I am very well read on the city.

Accommodation

If you are a traveller looking to meet people I would strongly suggest staying at Nappark Hostel. The slight extra cost (440 baht/night) is worth it for the location (right near Koh San Road), facilities and most of all the good time you are guaranteed to have. The downstairs area is relaxed and incredibly social with giant leather floor mats acting as the main ‘chill-out’ (/pre-drinking) area. There are also computers provided for laptop-less people but you’ll most likely be distracted by an interesting conversation occurring behind you that you want to get in on. Almost everyone you meet will be a solo traveller and therefore keen to meet others and I didn’t come across a single person who didn’t have some kind of a story (or who didn’t want to tell it).

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However, if you are looking for more of a quiet and less intensely social experience I would suggest the New Siam Guesthouse III. This is a similar price to Nappark (online it says it is more but we just walked in and got a double room for 420 baht each/night). This is in a slightly more relaxed area still very close to Koh San Road and in fact, nearer to the river. It is also surrounded by quirky restaurants, less packed than those at the other end of Rambuttri road parallel to Koh San and Thanon Tani Road.

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Travel

Don Mueang Airport to Koh San Road: It is suggested that you get a van or bus costing about 400 baht for this journey, however, you are far better off getting the 59 bus which takes longer at peak times (2 hours) but costs only 23 baht (and that’s when there is a bus director which might not always be the case). When you exit the airport from the arrivals area, turn right and walk about 100m, then veer to the left hand side of the carpark continuing on the path for about 20m until you arrive at the main road where the bus stop is just to your left.  The stop you want for Koh San Road is the one after Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road (you’re best just asking the director when to get off though).

Taxis: They are relatively cheap especially when shared, however, be sure to ask for the metre and try to speak in Thai. For example, ‘chan ca bai Democracy Monument’ means ‘I will go to Democracy Monument’.

The Sky Train: I have never actually used the Sky Train, however, it is supposed to be a good experience as well as a good way to get around. Keep in mind that there is no stop in walking distance of Koh San Road though.

Taxi boats: These run frequently throughout the day and without the congestion of Bangkok roads, they are a great way to get around. Phra Athit is the stop nearest to Koh San and can get you up and down the river for a very low (or none existent) fare whilst providing spectacular views of Wat Arun and Bangkok’s many sky scrapers and river side bars/restaurants. Avoid the tourist boats though and just get the ordinary express boats to save money.

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Itinerary (Friday night – Monday morning)

Friday night:

After your journey to Bangkok (long or short) I’m sure you will be dying for a chang and some street food. Assuming that you are staying in the vicinity of Koh San Road, I would first head to the street food market at the end of Soi Rambuttri where traditional Thai food is sold at modest prices in comparison to the restaurants only 10 metres up the road.

Next I would suggest pacing yourself. Don’t hit Koh San road before 10pm or 11pm because you may be disappointed by the lack of people. If you are staying at Nappark (as I suggested earlier) I would 100% pre drink with the inevitable crowd that will have gathered there. Not only are the drinks cheap, the atmosphere is buzzing and if you need a group to go out with it’s a good place to start.

For your first night on Koh San, the best thing to do is start at the KFC end and work your way down. There’s a variety of music and people therefore you’ll definitely find whatever you’re looking for. There are a few clubs on Koh San for later on (1am-2am). I would suggest ‘The Club’ or ‘Lava Club’ both of which are easy to find with their bright neon signs.

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Saturday:

If it is your first time in Bangkok, I would suggest spending your first day exploring that Grand Palace. You can catch an express boat form the Phra Athit boat stop and get off at the Tha Chang stop. The Palace is absolutely beautiful and a must see tourist attraction in Bangkok. Make sure to cover your shoulders and knees and wear sun-cream as there is very little shade! You can get street food right next to Tha Chang Boat station so you can combine lunch with your trip out.

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In the afternoon, I would suggest a trip to the Koh San Palace Hotel rooftop pool. Don’t expect anything too spectacular in terms of the pool itself but the views are wonderful and you get a free drink with your 200 baht entry fee. A great enclave just off Koh San Road.

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Saturday Night:

If you want to venture slightly further afield for your evening, I would suggest getting yourself to China town. Once again you can get a taxi or an express boat and once you arrive head to Yaowarat Road which is a great location for street food and there are also some drinking spots. For example, the rotating China Princess Hotel Rooftop Bar.

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It is almost inevitable that you will want another night out on Koh San, however, if you fancy something a bit less grimy but still cheap, you can check out Route 66 Club which is only a cheap taxi away from Koh San.

Sunday:

On Sunday I would start your day with breakfast at Madame Musur. No doubt you will be in need of something very chill to cure your double hangover and this place has the perfect vibe. It is only a short walk from Koh San and a very welcomed retreat from the tourist packed roads. Definitely get the Khao Soi which is a must-try Northern Thai dish.

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Next, I would head to the Chatuchak Market. This epic weekend market sells everything from coconut ice cream to Thai silk pillow cases.  Give yourself the time to meander through the passages and open roads because I can guarantee whatever you’re looking for, you will find it eventually. This is a fairly long taxi ride from Koh San (30-40 mins) but very worth the trip.

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Sunday Night:

For those leaving early Monday morning rather than late Sunday night, I would suggest treating yourself to a nice meal along the river. If you go at sunset to Samsara (make sure to book) you can expect a modestly priced meal combined with a beautiful view and a much needed rest from Bangkok’s hectic streets.

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Bangkok is not for the faint-hearted. I’d never expect myself to be overwhelmed by a city no matter how big but on my most recent trip to Bangkok, after a few months living the quiet life, I was left looking like a deer in the headlights initially. However, the best advice I can give is just see where the wind takes you. Don’t plan too much and don’t worry if indeed you don’t plan at all, there will always be an idea thrown your way or somebody else to tag along with. The only thing I can guarantee is that whatever plan you do have with definitely go awry. Tee, my pen rai.

Loi Krathong and Pha Taem

On the 25th of November, Loi Krathong was celebrated throughout Thailand, and Ubon Ratchathani was no different. The festival happens every year on the night of the full moon of the 12th Lunar month and its purpose is to honour Buddha and give thanks and respect to the Goddess of water; Phra Mae Khongkha. When I asked my host why I was releasing my Krathong into the water she told me it was an offering to the mother of the water and I should ask her to forgive my sins and in return for my offering, grant me a wish. It is also thought that your worries, sins and anger float away with your Krathong, allowing you to start a new life. Fitting.

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In the afternoon I sat with some other teachers and Tori and we made our krathongs. Here is a guide on how to make a very simple krathong; I’ll show you later how elaborate they can be.

  • Peel banana leaves into rectangle shapes about 10cm by 20cm.
  • Use two to make paper airplanes and twist one into a cone
  • Fit the cone inside the two airplanes and staple
  • Pin these round the banana tree cylinder base
  • Decorate with flowers, 3 incense sticks and 1 candle

In the evening we rode in the back of a fellow teacher’s truck into Ubon for the Loi Krathong ceremony. Only in Thailand is it normal for 6 teenagers to get in the back of a teacher’s truck; no doubt safeguarding/Health and Safety laws in the UK would take issue with this.  On arrival to the riverside we were immediately surrounded by hundreds of other people crowding next to Mun river to send off their krathongs. There were also hundreds of people selling their krathongs which were all beautiful and made my slightly dishevelled krathong feel very inferior. I made my wish before I floated mine away and I’m not sure if it works like a birthday wish or not but just in case I won’t tell you what it was. Let’s just say I hope (on the condition that the water mother actually answers my prayer), her powers are not made redundant when I cross the border to go home next year!

After Ubon, we were taken to another ceremony out of town. It was another ‘Katina’ type ceremony with lots of performers and people watching only this time, there was also an award ceremony for the prize winners of the Krathong competition and a Thai beauty pageant called a “Nopphamat Queen Contest”. The beauty pageant was nothing short of bizarre. Ten girls (one of whom was one of my most tom boyish students) dressed up in Thai dress and one by one performed their talents in front of a panel of judges. There was dancing, singing and musical instruments. Despite a beautiful rendition of ‘I will always love you’ by my student, she did not win, but in my (bias) opinion, her ‘English speaker friendly’ performance was a lot better than the traditional Thai dancing which although beautiful, is very ‘bua’ after a while. Overall Loi Krathong was a great day and I’m very happy to say I have celebrated my first festival in Thailand.

Not only was I able to experience my first Thai festival last week, I also had my first day trip to another province. On Sunday I went with some other volunteers and our hosts to Pha Taem and Sam Phan Bok. Sam Phan Bok is advertised as a must-see tourist attraction near Ubon Ratchathani and now I can see why, similarly, Pha Taem is a national park on the border of Laos and Thailand and therefore sometimes included on backpacking routes through South East Asia.

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Sam Phan Bok was truly the most incredible natural phenomena I have ever seen and it was so worth the two hour journey. When we arrived I could see why it was called Sam Phan Bok (in Thai this mean 3000 holes). All I could see ahead was thousands of holes, some small some huge, filled with water from the epic Mekong which winds through the wondrous geographical structure. It was unclear what process has led to the erosion of the canyon but what I gathered from my host in broken English was that the water whirls and somehow drills into the sandstone which over millions of years has created 3000 holes (thereabouts anyway, nobody in their right mind would have actually taken the time to count them.) We were able to get a long boat up the Mekong river which was so cool not only because of how impressive the river is (it runs through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) but also because it acts as a border between Laos and Thailand meaning on my left was Laos and my right Thailand.

Next, we went to Pha Taem National Park which offers loads of  beautiful attractions to see (so it should though considering they charge farangs 400 baht and Thai people 40 baht even if you do have a work permit!). The first is the awe-inspiring view looking once again over the incredible Mekong. We were unfortunate in the sense that we didn’t see the first sunrise in Thailand which occurs at this spot, but it was absolutely breath-taking none the less. Next we went along the trail below the rock face which was actually awesome. It’s amazing to walk under the overhang where millions of years ago, the water once eroded the rock and yet the river now runs hundreds of metres below you. Next we went to see the mushroom rocks which were groovy (I haven’t used that word since I was about 10 I am becoming an absolute loser); I love a bit of glacial action even if the mystery of it all has been spoiled by A Level geography. Finally we went to Soi Sawan waterfall which was unfortunately a slight let down as there had not been enough rain to make it deep enough to swim (which was so needed after a long hot day trekking around) but it was still beautiful. Overall I had the best day and even though my project is unreal, it’s made me very excited for all the travelling I have planned. Also, I’m not a hippy yet, but nature is truly magnificent.

The Two Month Milestone

To begin with, I’d like to relay an anecdote which humoured and comforted me greatly. Last week, one of the teachers at my school told me about a time on a school trip when he shared a room with a gay male student. When the student asked him if he was getting dressed, he mistook this for him asking if he was gay, so replied uncomfortably that he was not. Only much later (after an awkward few nights) did he realise his error.  ‘Toot’ in Thai means ‘to dress’ and ‘choot’ means ‘to be gay’. I took such great comfort in this story because I realised even Thais make mistakes with their language. Frequently I have said ‘death’ rather than ‘ok’ (both are ‘dai’ in Thai language but with different tones) and I no longer take directions as truth after finding out ‘glai’ means ‘near’ AND ‘far’ (different tones for both). I’m slowly realising how absolutely impossible oriental languages are and why nobody seems to understand me. However, I have also found my favourite word; boring. In Thai this is ‘bua’ and the more intently you say it, the more bored you are.

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At the start of last week I went for a cycle around school but I ended up going slightly further afield where I stumbled across some water storage pools hidden in amongst the rice patties. This is now where I run too every morning because there is a beautiful view of the sunrise. I’ve finally discovered the only incentive in existence to get me out of bed in the morning in order to exercise; the sunrise. I love the fact that it changes every day. Some days, you can only see a faded orange sky on the horizon until the sun disappears beyond the opaque grey cloud , but the next day the sky with be unscathed by even a single cloud. However intensely pretentious this may sound, I feel like this is a great metaphor for life; no two days are the same, so if you’re struck with bad luck on one day you can be certain the next will be brighter.

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One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot and trying to understand is why the level of English at this school is so low.  It’s a well-resourced government school in a relatively big town and yet the English is, in need of improvement to say the least. (The picture below sums up the level of English pretty well). The reasons I’ve come up with are; the teaching, the climate, the region and the culture.

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Inspirational quote at school

The teaching here is… very different to the UK. For example, as I am writing this the head of English is sat behind me having a nap on her desk while her class is doing silent work in the classroom next door. It’s not so much the lack of supervision that impacts the learning as such but more the ‘silent work’ part. As a conversational English teacher, it is my job to keep the students talking for the whole of their 50 minute lesson, but for some of them it is genuinely the first time they have said these words out loud. If I write the sentences or vocab on the board they understand, but up until that point they have absolutely no idea what I’m going on about. Even though students have been learning English since they were 4, they are still relatively poor at speaking the language because they have been taught it formulaically; like maths or science. Not only does this instil the idea that they cannot make mistakes it is also missing the fundamental part of learning a language; if you say ‘I go station’ instead of ‘I need to go to the station’ you will still be understood and that is what’s important, not the correctness of what you say.

The climate is also a major influence on teaching (obviously this is not specific to English). The heat makes us lazy and it makes it very difficult for us to concentrate. When a class of 40 M2 (year 9) students arrive at my lesson after lunch and are largely unresponsive (and if they do speak up they are poorly behaved) I have to take a step back and put myself in their shoes. I remind myself that they are most likely dehydrated and seriously in need of a nap after spending a lunch time sat in, or playing in the beating hot sun. If I find it difficult to teach in the heat, it’s got to be just as hard for the students to learn.

The regional aspect of my explanation is referring to the isolation of where I live and work. The Isaan region (as shown below on a tourist map) is incredibly ‘off the beaten track’ (the word ‘Isaan’ has a red line underneath right now) therefore the exposure to native English speakers, whether that be physical or simply on the radio and TV, is minimal, eliminating a major aid to learning. To be honest though, I wouldn’t change the authentic ‘Thai’ feel of Isaan for anything.

The culture is the last reason I have come up with to explain the low level of English. Thai people are very afraid of getting things wrong. This means that when I ask a pair to stand up and perform their conversation to the rest of the class this task is far more daunting than I can understand. Bringing Thai students out of their shells and willing them to make mistakes is a lot more difficult than I first anticipated (but certainly not impossible).

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Marking student’s work has been providing me with some entertainment over the past few weeks, usually due to the sexual references they unknowingly write. For example, ‘I like dogging’ (I gave it a tick). However, nothing will be quite as great as drilling food vocab and getting my M2 students to scream sausages at the top of their lungs.

Since I began teaching I have had a growing sense of empathy for teachers. The main thing I have come to understand is that everything teachers ever do (good ones anyway) is to help you and therefore when people don’t appreciate it, it’s an absolute slap in the face. I’ve also realised year 9 is the threshold; after this most students begin to appreciate your time and effort but before this they just think they are literally to cool for school and believe that to try is to admit that they care which is to give up their ‘don’t give a f***’ attitude (which is just oh so cool when you are 14). The year 10 upwards students are absolutely great though, for example, on Friday evening I was sat writing a letter on the stands next to the athletics track and some pupils I teach brought me over a cup of coke and some pumpkin seeds. Oh so different to the warm cans of fosters I would have been drinking in parks on Friday nights when I was their age.

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After 5 weeks of thinking my nickname meant ‘chubby cheeks’ I have found out that in nickname terms, it does in fact mean beautiful face. I am absolutely over the moon. Additionally, I found out there is a Thai pop-star with the same name. When googling her, I realised just how accurate my host had been when choosing my name. The similarity truly is uncanny.

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Culture Shock Survival Guide a.k.a. how not to feel like you’re from Mars

‘Farangs’ is what Thais call people from Europe and the U.S (the West) and I actually think this term alone epitomises much of Thai culture; it comes across as rude but it’s actually meant to be friendly. Once you let go of your British politeness and reserved nature, that’s when you’ll learn to love Thai culture.  However, there are also some new manners you have to learn, which is why I thought I’d write this blog post.

Your head and your feet

In Thailand, the head is considered sacred because it is the source intelligence and knowledge and your feet are considered dirty because they touch the ground, particularly the soles. This has led to some social dos and don’ts, most of which I have violated at least once (people tend to forgive the odd mistake, after all, you’re only a farang).

1) Do not go out in the rain: your head is sacred so you can’t have rain falling on it! (This is an absolute bummer if you’re from Manchester and you have to give up your pastime of getting completely soaked in torrential rain for fun).

2) Do not touch anybody else’s head and definitely do not touch a monk’s head.

3) Do not put anything on the floor: I’m very comfortable chucking anything and everything on the floor at home but in Thailand you have to think of all that foot grime you’re rolling your belongings in!

4) Don’t wear shoes in temples, classrooms, people’s homes etc.

6) Do not point your foot at people (this is the equivalent of giving somebody the finger).

7) Do not put your feet on the table.

8) Do not walk over things (especially people).

9) Duck your head when walking past people older or ‘higher’ than you (I love this one, students ducking their head for me makes me feel very important).

Food

Thailand is renowned for its food, and so it should be. The food here is incredible and you never have to eat the same thing twice if you don’t want too. However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind as a farang, particularly if you’re eating at people’s homes and being cooked for by friends rather than eating at restaurants.

1) ‘Phet’ means ‘spicy’: just remember this, it will come in very useful.

2) Not everything in the dish is edible: hopefully you won’t have to learn this the hard way by biting into a whole chilli or a whole cube of ginger (not great when it’s 7am and you’re used to coco pops for your breakfast).

3) If in doubt, DO NOT clarify what you are about to eat: My favourite dish so far has been แหมนคลุก which I found out afterwards (thankfully) was a fermented pork salad. I definitely would not have enjoyed it as much if I had been informed of this prior to eating it. 90% of the time you won’t know what you’re eating but just go with it.

4)   They eat the whole animal: maybe I shouldn’t tell you this after the previous point but that really nice thing you just ate? Yeah, that’s a pig bollock.

5) Do not eat a banana if it’s green (even a green tinge, just don’t do it).

In terms of eating out, here are a few other tips to save you some hassle.

1) When you go to the food court at any mall for the first time, get your food card first: maybe this is just me, but it took me a while to understand that you could only pay with the preloaded cash card.

2) The mystery that is table knives: chopsticks, spoons and forks are the utensils of choice; no table knives in sight (the spork or spife argument has been won).

3) Good restaurant service is not a thing is Thailand, in fact good service does not exist. So get used to it.

Language

Thai language is a very difficult language for foreigners to learn, particularly those from the West. The tones and script are completely new to us and mastering all aspects the language is near impossible (The owner of AUA Language Centre in Chiang Mai said even he is misunderstood much of the time and he has studied Thai for 30 years). Expect that even if you speak Thai to the best of your ability, you won’t be understood, but it’s okay because they absolutely love you for trying. Don’t be put off trying and NEVER feel embarrassed; even if people do laugh at you (it’s a sign of appreciation, that’s what I tell myself anyway).

Appearance

It’s very important to always look smart and well turned out if you want to be respected in Thailand. And girls, no shoulders because after all, they are outrageously sexy and should be saved for special occasions. At first this absolutely infuriated me; why should people judge me on my appearance? What if I can’t afford nice clothes? Surely my clothes shouldn’t have to portray what an intelligent wonderful person I am? If I want to show off my amazing shoulders why shouldn’t I? Then I took off my poker dot bandanna and denim shirt an accepted that ‘no actually, I can’t do it’; however much I want to be respected for my teaching skills, ultimately, my polyester F&F skirt will always be better.

Remember to shower, shower and shower again. Don’t be offended when people remind you that Thais shower twice a day. At first I thought, ‘I’m not incapable, I know how to wash myself’. But they only tell you this because a lot of farangs they see dressed head to toe in elephant print actually do smell (maybe because they vowed never to wash again to ‘help save the planet’ – too bad you destroyed it already by flying 10,000 miles to get here and tell me that). You’ll want to shower that much anyway because you’ll learn a whole new meaning of sweaty when you get here, so it’s cool (well actually it’s f***ing hot).

One bizarre thing I still can’t get my head around because it’s just too ironic for words is the ‘whitening’ thing. Every product you find will contain a whitening agent (to your dismay when you’re half way through scanning your toiletries at Big C) and many women and girls I meet will have the complete opposite of a slag line; a ‘whitening line’ (or so I like to call it) where their face is lighter than their neck. It baffles me how women here try so hard to look like women back at home (pale and freckly) whilst women back at home (me included in this) try desperately to look like women here (bronzed and beautiful). If you added up the money spend on whitening products in the East and the money spent on tanning products in the West I swear you could fundworld peace.

Personal Conduct

To my initial dismay (lol) it is very impolite to ‘lose face’ in Thailand. You basically can’t get angry because it loses you all respect – think like Buddha, act like Buddha… essentially just be Buddha (even when your 30 minutes late for a lesson and your lift to school ‘just needs to grab a coffee’).

Another key to social exception in Thailand, refreshingly, goes against many a belief you may have once had; don’t drink, don’t smoke and don’t do drugs. With Buddhism dominating the country, this is a very important social convention, especially if you are a woman. One of the five main Buddhist principles suggests one does not engage in these activities, so for once it’s the soberest who has the most fun (and gets invited out the most).

The Monarchy

I love the King and you love the king.

When the National anthem plays, stand up, stand still, be silent and face the nearest flag. This will happen in many different places, for example, parks, shopping centre and schools. Additionally, if you go to the cinema, stand up for the King’s song which plays before the movie.

Health and Safety

It doesn’t exist.

Climate

The fact that the seasons are nicknamed hot, hotter and hottest just about sums up HOW HOT it is. It takes a little while but eventually you just get used to always being at least just a little bit sweaty. You might be lucky enough to have air-con, but for most normal people in Thailand that is a luxury reserved for 7/11 and fancy hotels.

Social graces

1) Wying: This is a greeting used by everybody in Thailand where you bow your head and raise your hands into a praying position. The higher the person you’re greeting is above you (whether that be age or position) the higher the wye and you only wye the first time you see someone in a day. If you’re a teacher, don’t wye the students because they will laugh at you.

2) Thais don’t hug or kiss each other as a greeting (instead they wye as spoken about above; don’t try both because it doesn’t work and it’s excessive).

3) Don’t pda.

4) Don’t point or give somebody a thumbs up.

5) Don’t speak about people’s parents: I think this is similar to ‘ya mum’ jokes in England, but basically, don’t mention somebody’s parents in any conversation ever.

6) Don’t call someone a buffalo

Buddhism

Because Buddhism is so seamlessly ingrained into Buddhist culture you could quite easily forget that it’s the source to many customs and traditions. It is very important to keep reminding yourself of the religion though, not only because it’s a wonderful path to follow but also because disrespecting the religion is almost always disrespecting the person you are with. Things to keep in mind are;

1) Women may not touch images of a monk or touch a monk.

2) Women may not give something directly to a monk.

3) Do not wear Buddha as jewellery and do not get Buddha tattoos.

4) Do not put images or statues of Buddha under the stairs.

5) Dress respectfully in temples; women cover shoulders and knees.

Other

There are so many other things to find out about Thai culture, most of which will become the norm to you very quickly. Here are a few;

1) People don’t walk anywhere and will be very surprised when you do.

2) You will learn impeccable balance (squats toilets errrrrrwhere).

3) Geckos and frogs are your friends.

4) 555 is the same at LOL on text (‘ha’ is 5 in Thai).

5) They don’t use Whatsapp they use Line (pronounced ‘li’) and it’s so much better.

6) Days have colours and years have animals: for example, I was born on a Tuesday which is pink and I was born in 1996 which is the year of the rat. I’m a pink rat. Couldn’t get much shitter unless I was pink turd.