Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Into the Village

The next week and half we spent in Phaitone (Pie-tone) near Phrae (I can't for the life of me get the tone right, but it sounds like a cross between Pray and Pruh) with Liz the Peace Corps volunteer, volunteering, shopping, getting Thai-napped and kicking it village-style.

After another overnight bus from Luang Prabang to the border, getting back across the border, getting to Chiang Rai, then to Phrae, and THEN to Phaitone, we were beat, so the first day or so was pretty low-key. On Thursday, I inhaled some much-missed Pad Thai and orange Fanta (I might be a little addicted to both) and on Friday we chilled, organized, and were once again Thai-napped by the adorable Ba Pat! Ba Pat took us to her house to get her nephew, Bom, who is a 19-year-old university student studying English, home for the weekend, who naturally had to practice on the THREE farangs. Bom, who we had met on the bus to Phrae by chance, is adorable too, and we had so much fun with them!
We went to a random agricultural university to look at the buildings and at their recent environmental efforts--using corn husks as fuel--and I taught Bom a few words in English. After that, we went to my soon-to-be favorite restaurant in the area, Kuma Garden. There, we were introduced to papaya salad (technically we had already tried it, but this was the first time we LIKED it), Thai fried chicken (nothing like ours, but amazing), cocoa yen (basically iced Ovaltine, a staple here) and some other dishes including another favorite, Cashew Nut Chicken. It was a wonderful evening, laughing, eating, and we left more in love with Ba Pat and Bom than ever! (And I fell in love with the puppies that were living at the restaurant, of course). They eventually dropped us off at the bus station, where we saw for the first time the Thai national sport--it sort of looks like volleyball, but you can't use your hands, and the ball is a small ball made out of a holey basket (does that make any sense?). I also unfortunately spilled my water in the lap of a fellow bus rider (shocking, I know) but we made it in one piece, and proceeded to rest up for another Thai-napping the following day!
The next full-day Thai-napping was rather exhausting. We got up early to catch the first bus, couldn't take it as it was too full, and relied on my now expert hitchhiking skills to get us a ride into Phrae (don't worry, Mom, Liz knew the drivers, and I didn't have to show ANY leg). The little family crammed us into the truck, got us water at a stop (GENEROUS) and I'm afraid we traumatized the little boy, who refused to talk or unglue his gaze from the window pane.
After perusing the shops (we do a lot of that on this trip) we met up with Ba Pat, her sister, and Bom at Tesco Lotus, a store sort of like Walmart. After being persuaded to buy coconut yogurt over plain, then being persuaded to put it back as it wouldn't last in the car, we all climbed in to visit what Liz termed the "LSD Wat." On the way, of course we had to stop and visit some local teak woodcarvers and sample some deep-fried bananas (ding ding ding!! don't worry, we got a recipe!).
As for the wat...quite a wat it was! Colorful, crazy, Buddha statues and dragon statues and little mirrors and gongs to ring and good luck to acquire...and of course, we had the best guides ever in our little Ba Pat and Bom.
After the wat, we said a sad farewell to Bom--he was going back to university--and we were unceremoniously switched to another Thai-napper, a crazy teacher Liz knows in Phrae. She had us take pictures with her all of her Saturday-school students, and we went off to dinner, listening to her outrageous music and laughter.
The restaurant was right on a pond--you could even fish for your dinner, if you wished! It also had it's own karaoke bar, another Thai obsession I'm told (in which we did not partake, although Crazy Teacher could have with her endless consumption of whiskey sodas). It was another Thai-style dinner, full of mysterious dishes and surf-and-turfing. None of these dishes caught my fancy as much as Kuma Garden, but hey, they were okay, and the fish was VERY fresh!

The next day was somewhat of a milestone for me--I took my first bucket shower! And not out of necessity; it turns out Liz's little roommate Lyette (yet another adorable Thai person) has hot water in her bathroom, so I had used that our first night. I used it because it was a million degrees, I was sweating, and it sounded great. And great it was, even though I let out an involuntary and embarrassingly feminine squeal (well, Court screamed and had me running to the door to make sure she wasn't getting attacked by the giant spider who is a resident of Liz's bathroom fan) as the first bucket full of freezing water cascaded over my head. I can see, though, how it could get old (shaving my legs was an experience I would like to avoid) and taking one in the freezing mornings, ouch! We also made pancakes on Sunday, and we watched as Liz's neighbors watched her, mesmerized, as she ate three whole pancakes. They have an obsession with food and fat and think Western food immediately makes you chubby--they won't even have a bite of peanut butter, but they inhale rice by the gallons!!

Monday was our day of volunteering in Liz's Monday/Wednesday school (she teaches at two, if you hadn't guessed). It started out interesting, as Ba Pat and Liz gleefully announced we had to introduce ourselves to the entire school over the loudspeaker. After sending the students into guffaws when I announced my Thai name, Macgaw (still not sure why--maybe I just have a hilarious face) we went around to the classrooms, teaching kids a song from Girl Scout camp (no, I haven't forgotten those, they are imbedded in my brain) called Bananas of the Universe Unite! and sort of feeling like show monkeys.
The Thai schools are very different from American--all students wear uniforms, they all have to have the same haircuts, the students have to clean up after themselves and the teachers (no janitors) and the organization pretty much ends there. But still, even though I'm not sure how much teaching I did, and how much the students learned from me or really from anyone at that school, everyone is really nice, and most of the teachers really care about their students.
We were treated to lunch there, and I discovered my favorite Thai dessert: pumpkin chopped into a coconut-sugar sauce. It sounds weird, but it's amazing! I have that recipe too :).
The next day, we went to Liz's other school, which seemed more organized, and a little more fun. We learned the Loy Krathong dance (for the upcoming lantern/river festival) and song, and taught the kids the words in music. We also taught the kids about Christmas, which was pretty cute. One kid wanted to put his stocking up tonight to see if Santa would come, and others looked at me like I was insane as I tried to describe Santa's mode of transportation (a flying sleigh pulled by flying deer DOES sound a little crazy, doesn't it?).
After lunch, and after a few other lessons in being stalked by the paparazzi--at one point kids were hiding under cars to look at us, and all the 8th grade boys were comparing their biceps and sneaking peeks at us, and many kids came up just to stare, to ask questions in the few words of English they know, or just to wave and smile, we went on an impromptu field trip with Liz, her co-teacher and some girl students to look for this old man who makes traditional rice baskets. We observed him skillfully make a basket which would have taken me three days minimum, and enjoyed the Thai-style field trip: kids all over the place, taking the long way around, picking flowers, cartwheels in the road, no parental permission, and eventually winding our way back to the school in the blazing heat.
That evening, we made spaghetti with Liz and her neighbors, which almost tasted like spaghetti from home and was a fun, hilarious time spent dancing and singing and chasing the cute kittens around (yes, I'm obsessed with the animals here, ha).
Wednesday, we gave Liz a break and didn't go to school with her in the morning, although we were invited over as honored guests (they even had food brought in from a restaurant) to eat lunch with the principal. More interesting food, some delicious, some weird, all of which I had never tried before. The fish was not so good, but some asparagus/mystery meat thing was quite delicious!
That afternoon, we learned how to make fried bananas, bid Ba Pat a tearful farewell (don't worry, we are already plotting on how to best bring her to America) and spent some time with a villager who is German. As one of the only farangs in town, he was excited to have farang visitors, and we had a little kanom (snack) fest in his little garden.
Thursday, Court and I headed in Phrae to learn how to use the traditional indigo dye. It was fascinating to be taken behind a normal shopfront to tubs of homemade indigo dye in the yard. We dyed handkerchiefs and shirts (and I dyed part of one of my shoes) and played with their adorable puppy, Sugar. We also learned about the organic fabric and all the details of the business for Court's job back home, which is in fair trade. The organizer of the little business, yet another adorable and generous Thai lady, drove us everywhere and provided us with cookies and water. The day also included a visit to the post office and a quest for coconut milk to make the pumpkin dessert I spoke of, which, despite the overflowing of the pot of sticky coconut milk all over the floor, was a success!!
That evening, Megan, another Peace Corps friend that we also love, arrived, as we were all heading to Chiang Mai on Friday for Loy Krathong!! We had a great time at the little restaurant eating Pad Thai and embarrassing the locals (at one point, Megan tried on a policeman's force ring, and the look he gave her was hysterically horrified). Megan also introduced us to Glee, and brought Oreos, so we had a fun little girl night--a good predecessor to the amazing weekend to follow!
But, more on that later, it's dinner time for me!! xoxo

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A "Lake," Elephants, and the Mekong

After bidding Liz and her village goodbye-for-now, Court and I headed across the country towards the Burma border to Mae Hong Son, to be followed by Pai and a short sojourn into Laos to renew our visas (I've quickly discovered that visas are the BANE of my existence). We stopped over for a few uneventful hours in Chiang Mai and discovered our careful plans of NOT catching the local bus and GETTING the neat little vans were thwarted, and sure enough, we got on an overnight bus that resembled a school bus, rather than the "classy" ones with seats that only recline at an awkward angle and the A/C is fully blasting you in the face all night (yes, the school bus was worse).
The night was...long. Thankfully, it was dark, so we only felt the 1800-some(no joke!) turns that the mountainous road to Mae Hong Son is famous for, rather than saw them with our terrified faces.
We did get there in one piece, and even got a little bit of sleep, but were again slightly dismayed when we were dropped off at the worst hour of the day: 4 a.m. Nothing is open, no one was awake expect our tuk-tuk driver who dropped us off in front of a closed hostal. Luckily, being bright resourceful young women, we made good use of our time by wandering the streets, peeing in the lawn of what possibly was an official building (when nature calls...) and outrunning the local dog pack.
We also found the famed lake of Mae Hong Son which is, well, kindly, a "lake" as it's smaller than our neighbor's glorified pond. But, at least it was pretty and provided some seating to a couple of freezing girls! :)
Mae Hong Son was spent walking around, getting lost, discovering the glories of the Asian night market (oh boy!) and planning our trip to Pai, where we headed the next day. This bus station was a little more successful: we snagged one of the neat little vans and met an original hippie who introduced us to his pal in Pai.
Pai immediately struck me as a fun little hippie town, full of tourists--we even spotted our first fellow Americans, a couple of drunk boys trying to beat up a scarecrow, so proud--and full of fabulous, if pricey, shopping. We were still naive little travellers and got sucked into too many pairs of fisherman pants, but it was fun nonetheless.
Our first day in Pai, we also had our first encounter with the art of Thai massage. Let me just say, it was...interesting. We picked a random shop on the street, and immediately it was different from the massages I'd gotten in America--no music, no quiet atmosphere, and we changed into clothes they provided (although I convinced my cousin we both needed to keep our shirts off and get under the blankets, which resulted in hilarity from both of our massueses...whoops). They also BEND you around and crack your back and push painful veins (mine shoved her fingers in my armpits for the longest, most painful ten seconds of my life) but we felt pretty dang good, and sore, afterwards. And don't worry, they definitely were NOT "happy ending"massages. :)
Pai was also the sight of one of our most epic adventures yet--elephant riding!!!!!!
Take a moment for !!!!
I love those elephants. I pretty much filled up a memory card on my camera with elephants. If you saw them, you could not blame me!
We started out fairly early for Thom's Elephant Camp, meeting two pairs of German/Swiss girls traveling the world, and proceeded to meet our lovely elephants. Ours, a subdued little girl, was named Bom Pen, which means...well, our guide didn't know, but we still loved her!
The elephant guides are like acrobats, leaping up and down and climbing up the trunk, while I could barely swing my leg across, my thigh-area is still sore, and I was clinging for dear life to the rope/elephant head to avoid falling...and it's pretty far, cause elephants are, you guessed it, TALL!
The ride was nice, through the beautiful hills around Pai, and just as I was getting really sore, we came to a river and swam with our elephants! It was so fun, they clearly love the water and were splashing us and each other, and one even rolled over, dislodging his riders and leaving them hanging on to avoid getting rushed down the river (and even though I loved this part, another part of me remembered how all the pipes in Liz's village dump right into the creek). After a little while longer with our Bom Pen, we utilizied the camp's hot springs. Mmmm sooo good...especially after we discovered we'd been sitting in the cold pool for ages and found the nice surprise of the hot pool, three inches away.
After another trip around Pai's night market, we hit the road the next day, bound for LAOS!!!
The scenery on the way to Chiang Khong (the border town) via Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai was quite beautimous. Lots of curves, hills, mountains, mist...then rice and corn. One thing I noticed on the bus was this young woman, probably younger than my ripe old 23, cuddling her little baby, who was seriously adorable. The Thais, I have observed, really love their kids. Everyone dotes on the children, and we have seen fewer children working than I noticed in countries like Peru. We have also seen so many kids with dads, even being taken to work with their dads, and I find this heartwarming, too.
Enough random information, or else this blog, like the other one, will never end!!
It was a long day to Chiang Khong, where we were thankfully met by another Peace Corps friend of Liz's, another Josh. Josh gave us a taste of some Northern Thai curry (delicious and spicy) and gave us a tour of his town, where we got our first glimpse of the MEKONG and LAOS, right there, right across the river!!
The rest of the night involved drinking at a bicycle-themed bar with an Ethiopian and a Swiss, a couple of guy travelers, and then a cold night on Josh's floor, all before crossing the border the next day.
Once again demonstrating the ridiculous generosity of the Thais, Josh's neighbor/landlord dropped us off personally at the border with fruit and smiles.
So we began our first border crossing...we hopped into a little boat, zoomed across the river, filled out paperwork for awhile, got our passports stamped, and got completely ripped off for an evening ticket to Luang Prabang. (Border towns are expensive--even my pomegranate was twice as much! Pshaw).
Another looooooong night bus later, 15 hours complete with flat tires, pit stops on the side of the road, and views of villages with one T.V. (although it was kind of cool to see the entire village crowded around a T.V. cheering and laughing) we arrived in the French colonial city of Luang Prabang!
Luang Prabang is one of the prettiest cities we have seen so far. Giant wats everywhere, surrounded by two rivers--one of them the Mekong--and filled with crepes. I was a pretty happy camper for the few days we were there!
They also have an incredible Hmong Night Market. I've been interested in the Hmongs ever since reading "A Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," and it was great to buy some of their handicrafts.
Laos went by in a whirl of monks, crepes, baguettes, shopping, interesting Lao food, including some kind of "river vegetable"and lots of lemongrass, Beerlao by the Mekong at sunset, and walking a lot. It was a fun little trip, but it was also good to be back at Liz's village, which now felt almost like home! :)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


The adventure continues. (I apologize, this is possibly the longest post ever, so hang tight, and I understand if you just can't make it through!)

After Ko Tao, we grabbed a hostel in Chumphon for the night, planning to meet our friend in the Peace Corps, Liz, and stay with some of her friends in a nearby village.

After a calm night where we ended up passing out at around 8 p.m. (Mr. Jet Lag just wouldn't leave us alone) we got up and met Liz at the (wrong) bus station, but it was soooooooo grand to see her and have someone lead us around who knows the language!! Liz is seriously the most generous person ever!

As are the rest of her PC buddies. We stayed with her friend Josh, outside of the village of Lang Suan (pronounced Longswan) right on the beautiful coast. The first day is a blur--Liz led us to Lang Suan, where biannual boat races were going on, and it was crazy crowds. So loud, so many people, so much color and smells. We stowed our packs in the police station and tried some of Liz's papaya salad (the jury's still out on that one) before meeting Josh and another PCV Leanne to watch some races.

Right about the time the downpour began, we hightailed it into the market tents, and that's the first time I noticed the stares.

Having spent most of our time in well-touristed (that probably isn't a word, but shush) areas, we hadn't had much experience being the animals-in-a-zoo foreigners, aka farangs.

The staring is blatant, little children will be nudged to get their view of the farangs wandering through the market, sampling all the food in sight (which sometimes completely backfires!!). Especially as we were in a group of farangs!

The staring, while obvious, was never what I would call rude. I had one experience in a small village in Peru where I felt totally unwelcome, but everyone here would point and gawk, but also smile.

I guess there's a reason Thailand is called the Land of Many Smiles! :)

It was great having Josh and Liz as tour guides, and urging us to try everything possible. The sweet sticky rice wrapped in some sort of leaf was delicious, as were the pomegranates and many other exotic types of fruit. The worst thing we tried (the worst thing we've tried this entire trip, in my opinion) ended up being eggs from a horseshoe crab. I can't even describe how awful they are, but YUCK. The taste wouldn't go away, even after some pink (insanely sweet strawberry) milk.

One thing I've discovered about Thailand--my sweet tooth has got nothing on theirs. Everything is drenched in sugar. Their chocolate milk is so sweet one sip makes me feel sick--and for those of you who know me and my insatiable sweet tooth, this is quite impressive.

After the market, we had a quiet evening eating Josh's homemade Thai food and wandering up to Lang Suan to visit the 7-11, which is, according to PCV here, Mecca. I didn't get the draw at first, but it does always have A/C and lots of fun little snacks.

Josh's place, in another little village outside of Lang Suan, is this adorable little cottage about three feet away from the beach. It was so nice and peaceful, and he was such a great host! All these people are making me and Court feel soooo welcome.

The next day was a true day of adventure.

Soon after waking up, we headed to this nearby island that apparently in hot season you can walk across the water too, but after the previous day's downpour, this was not an option.

We started the trek down, and were quickly picked up by, of all things, a truck full of crabs!! It was actually really fun, and I only got pinched once (why none of the other five crammed in the back got a pinch is beyond me, but that's just my luck).

It was also my first experience hitchhiking, and now it's one of my favorite ways of travel. I'm not sure if we'll do it without one of our Peace Corps buddies considering our grasp of the language pretty much stops at "pretty," "delicious," "hello," and "thank you." It's still a fun, acceptable mode of transport around here, and I like it!

The rest of the day passed quickly: we hitchhiked a boat to the little deserted island, hung out on the perfect deserted beach, showered, wandered into town for some internet love and delicious seafood fried rice, and planned for our departure the next day.

The next day, we made friends in Chumphon, including a cute old Thai guy named Charlie who showed us around, and a Brit by the name of Dean who was currently almost done with biking from the UK all the way to Singapore (yeah, WOW). We bid a sad farewell to Josh, and waited for our bus, killing time by watching the Joy Luck Club, a great movie that had us all missing our mamas!!

Another night bus (rapidly becoming a main mode of transportation, which are not at all thrilling like the hitchhiking) and we ended up in Bangkok. There, we bid Leanne, and Megan, another PCV, goodbye, and wandered the city for the day. I had some articles to finish up for Outside Bozeman (and somehow, I finished them, even though writing about ice climbing with Boy Scouts while hanging out in an alley sweltering in approximately 100 percent humidity was surreal) and Liz had to visit the Peace Corps Lounge.

The day was nice, we took the Sky Train around which was fun, these boat taxis that I LOVED, I accidentally brushed against a monk and did not get thrown in the water, (and neither did he!) and we had ice cream and visited the giant Chinatown in Bangkok.

That night, we hopped on another bus to Liz's village, which is just outside of Phrae, in northern Thailand.

There, we continued to experience the weird feeling of being farangs, but again, everyone was so friendly about it! We stayed in Liz's house which, despite the bucket shower (yes, you pour the bucket over yourself a few times, and that's it) and the squat toilet is pretty and cute.

We visited the rice paddies, corn fields, and teak forests, visited many of her neighbors and were constantly being given food and smiles and compliments. I had my first Pad Thai which I am now ADDICTED to, got called a doll more than once, and met the students I will be helping out with in a few weeks!


We also met one of Liz's co-teachers--the Peace Corps policy is to have the volunteers help out another teacher, as that is more sustainable than them just coming in, teaching, and leaving. Her co-teacher, Ba Pat, is this adorable little lady who gave us our first experience with "Thai-napping." Thai-napping is when you hop in a car or bus or whatnot and end up going a million more places than bargained for.

For example, Ba Pat kindly agreed to take us into Phrae to shop (which, being obsessed with all things Thai, we could hardly refuse). Before that though, we ended up sightseeing at this nearby cave which has recently been remodeled to look sort of like a discotheque.

The cave was beautiful, but it was quite interesting to see all the work that had been done--very different from the US, where all the caves I've been to have been about leaving-no-trace, not filling it with neon lights to attract tourists.

The end of the cave also had a lovely shrine to Buddha, just like most of the country, so we paid our respects and played a fortune-telling game included in the shrine.

My fortune was...terrible. Ba Pat, amusedly, told me I should just put that one back and forget it. Thankfully, it doesn't seem to be true, because my life certainly does NOT suck!

Courtney, of course, got a lovely fortune, just like she got the lovely Thai nickname, and gets the lovely pictures taken of her...and no, I'm not bitter at all :). It's kind of funny how, when Thais learn her name, they say, "awww..." (her name is Fondow, which means falling star) and when they hear mine, they laugh. Mine, on the other hand, is pomegranate, or Macgaw (I can barely pronounce it, much less spell it!!).

I do like pomegranates, and they're especially delicious here, and it's better than my first two nicknames, which were Bendy (guess where that came from) and Kanom, which means snack. I also like that Macgaw is in the northern dialect of Thai...taptim is pomegranate in Central Thai, fyi...and for some reasons it sends people into hysterics when they hear Macgaw. Maybe that's just my face, though. :) So far, I have been called beautiful many times, which I'm told is mostly because I'm white, but hey, I ain't gonna fight that. I also have been told I look like a doll (can't decide if that's a good thing), that I'm fat (don't worry, I don't take it to heart--they are TINY here) and also that my nose should be used as a model for plastic surgeons. Suffice to say, I LOVE the Thai people!

Anywho, after the cave, we went a little crazy shopping and eating Pad Thai with Ba Pat and her sister. It was quite the day!!!

Whew, I made it through the first two weeks. Now, Court and I are doing a wee bit of traveling on our own, renewing our visa in Laos, so we can stay in the country longer and volunteer in Liz's school and see Loi Krathong, the lantern festival!

I hope you at least smiled if you have made it this far, cause I sure am!!! :) More to come, if you have the stamina to continue!


p.s. You can find my cousin Courtney's accounts of our travels here!

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Whole New World

This may be one of the most overused quotes in history, but...Todo, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore! And I guess it's used so much because baby, it's true.
Thailand is (apparently I'm quoting old movies) a whole new world, and while we were on the island, we discovered a world within that world. In other words, scuba diving!!!
We stayed at Black Tip Resort, which sounds way fancier than it was, but besides the non-flush toilets and the ants that took over our bungalow on the last night, we still had a bungalow, a perfect view, and a very nice pool that made the heat a little more bearable.
Ko Tao, the island we stayed on, which means Turtle Island, isn't very big, but we managed to find a deserted spot, Tanote Bay, and it was the perfect place to unwind after the chaos and terror (I might be overdramatic, but seriously, it was insane) of Bangkok.

And, to make it even better, I finished my open water certification there!! In the Gulf of Thailand. Hello dreamland.
However, I did learn that conquering my fear of diving in a pool was nothing compared to diving in the ocean. Except for my (most likely irrational) fears about getting the bends, I felt quite comfortable at the bottom of the ocean. So much to SEE! So much completely foreign beautiful stuff to see! It was amazing and one of the best ways possible to start off our trip.
The first day, it was me and my dive master, as I had (another) swim test to ace and a bunch of skills I'd already done in the pool to do under the ocean. Some of them were easy--who knew all those hours in Girl Scouts wandering around meadows with a compass would actually make me semi-proficient--and some, like the mask clearing, were a little more stressful. I had the most trouble with equalizing my ears, which, they don't bother to tell you in the diving books, will likely hurt the first few times no matter what you do. And, my dive master, a fine old gent named John from Britain, informed me that women have more trouble equalizing than men.
Go figure.
Even with the tasks, it was exhilirating and relaxing! I found these awesome little worms, Christmas tree worms, that absolutely delighted me with their colors and their quick retreat when you wave a hand over them (the first time I almost got a heart attack, which sent John into spasms of hilarity).

Day Two, we woke up after a restless night in fear of the encroaching ant army to stormy skies and lightning over the ocean (which for some reason I never knew was possible!!) but the go ahead to dive anyway. My cousin, who's awesome and had already completed her open water certification, came along with us today, and we explored my tantalizing mistress, the sea, further. The day went smoothly, with a small bout of seasickness for my cuz and some further equalization issues for me, but it was just...so...FUN! Even despite the fact that for a week after I was convinced I had the bends. (Yes, I'm a hypochondriac, and yes, I know it's ridiculous, but I had to have ONE flaw, right? ;) ).
I was sad to leave our little island paradise for the rest of the terrifying country...but more adventures awaited us after our last ferry ride:) Which means, you better be at the edge of your seat for more stories!!!! :)