Friday, September 30, 2011

Bangkok Retrospective

So here we are, one year after our arrival in Bangkok, back in the same airport, waiting to fly to Sri Lanka. It has been a very long year, full of airports, trains, buses and tuk-tuks. We have lived in two parts of Thailand, taught a combined 3,000 students, and traveled to seven other countries. Considering the Rachel I was on our first weekend in Thailand, I have to say I am proud of how far I’ve come.

To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. First arriving in Bangkok, the heat and humidity was stifling, my hair, skin and lungs tested as soon as we left the airport doors swished open, dumping us into Bangkok. Win, having lived in India for a year and traveled to Thailand before, knew what to expect. Although, his go-to Indian-accented English and desire to argue over every price were the extreme counterpoint to my helpless befuddlement.

The sheer number of people was mind-boggling. The traffic was congested, intermixed with neon cabs, driving on the left side of the road, and bobbing, weaving and swerving, rules of the road ignored. The streets, jammed full of people and various stands, most often reeked of garbage. And I was under constant attack, my stomach by the food and water, my legs and arms by an endless army of mosquitoes. It took a while for me to settle in, and even longer for my body to adjust.

Today, I am far better at traveling in a number of ways. I trust that a cab might take the roundabout way, but they will probably get us where we are going (and if not, we aren’t really obligated to pay). I am alright playing the occasional game of menu roulette, just pointing at a menu item and hoping for the best, all the while knowing I am bound to eat frog one of these days. Haggling over prices is a sort of game, not a source of stress. And I am slowly adapting my Western mentalities to the Thai ‘sabai-sabai’ attitude. I still have a way to go before becoming Thai-style laid back, but my immune system has stepped it up a notch, and my outlook isn’t far behind. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Markets of Thailand: Floating Market

Thailand’s most popular floating market, Damneon Saduak, is in Ratchaburi province, roughly an hour plus from where we lived last semester. A floating market, is exactly the same as many street markets in terms of goods and wares for sale, just instead of walking you are in a boat, so there is the added danger of capsizing. This token difference turns Damneon Saduak into a giant tourist magnet. 

Due to the throngs of tourists, Damneon Saduak can be incredibly expensive. As is the case with many tourist areas in Thailand (and, honestly, everywhere in the world), the locals view it as a lucrative opportunity for overcharging foreigners. From the bus ride to renting a boat and someone to control the boat to buying anything vendors are selling, everything is a chance to rip off a tourist, tacking on anywhere from 20 to 400 baht more than the price should be. We were lucky enough to be traveling with P’Gee (our Thai mother), so we had to deal with less of the hassle. One of her former students was even a police officer at the market, so our boat ride (normally the most expensive part) was on the house.

Two types of boats cruise the river: longtail boats with their lawnmower engines extended dangerously far into the water and clouds of putrid black smoke; and slow boats, equally long, but motorless (so without the speed, but also the noise, sounds, and danger) and relying instead on a Thai to paddle down the river. The whole river is such a traffic jam that speed matters very little anyhow, so we opted for a quiet, leisurely ride in one of the slow boats.  

Amid the chaos, shop owners wield a long stick outfitted with a hook to catch their prey. Show any interest and your boat will be singled out. The shopkeeper uses the hook to pull the boat over to the riverside stand and hold it captive while he or she tries to sell things for hiked up prices. 

By mid-morning, as the sun starts to hover overhead, the floating market heats up considerably. As sun protection, many of the boats keep a full stock of big floppy hats. And as you float up and down the river, there is no shortage of cold beer, water or chilled fruit. Boats bump and knock together, jolting tourists and vendors alike, as everyone jostles to inch forward. 

While there were a couple of shady, quiet stretches of water away from the crowd, our overall impression wasn't entirely positive. Hectic, frenzied and expensive, not to mention inconveniently located, Damneon Saduak isn’t somewhere I would choose to go again. But, thanks to the presence of an experienced Thai who kept the swindlers at bay, it wasn’t the worst day trip.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ceiling Dwellers

When we first arrived in Thailand, I was amazed by the number of geckos that climb over every nighttime surface. They are everywhere, in homes, restaurants, hotels. But for the Thais, geckos are as commonplace as pigeons or crickets in other parts of the world. They are, in fact, a welcome guest, as they dine on mosquitoes and other irksome bugs. It was months before I realized that many of the creaking and chirping sounds around the house came not from birds or bugs, but it turns out, they were just the gecko symphony.

There are two types of geckos in Thailand. The first, and far more common, of the two is simply called the House Gecko. A plain name for a plain character. House geckos range in color from off-white to pinkish grey or pale brown and reach maybe three or four inches in length. Mostly nocturnal, they congregate around outdoor lights, simply because that is where they find their meals. On any given evening, anywhere outdoors in Thailand, you are almost guaranteed to see a handful of these little guys.

They are impressive not only for their ability to get into your home, no matter how well-sealed (although, aside from the droppings, no one faults a houseguest who eats pests), but also for their mind-blowing climbing techniques. Rather than any type of suction, microscopic hairs on the toes of a gecko actually wiggle their way in between the molecules of the climbing surface, allowing them to climb basically any surface, at any angle. The gecko’s toes bend in a specific manner that allows it to detach, re-attach, and move, all at incredible speeds. This is the stuff of science fiction.

This astounding feat looks all the more remarkable when accomplished by the second gecko variety here in Thailand: the Tokay. Tokay geckos are one of the largest gecko varieties in the world. Green-tinted grey with vibrant, knobby orange, red or yellow spots, tokays can grow to be up to a foot and a half long. They eat much larger pests like cockroaches and, if hearsay is to be believed, rats. Tokays are named for their distinctive tok-tok-tokay sound. The Thais believe that hearing their call as you leave your home is a bad omen – the longer the call, the more ominous – and will change plans based on a tokay’s vocal stylings.

Recently, as we came home from a hearty meal and a handful of beers, we had the pleasure of discovering a tokay, which had taken up residence in our home, chasing a cockroach across our living room wall. This went very far in explaining the not-so-small piles of gecko poo in our spare bathroom. In the process of trying to move it outdoors, we learned several interesting things about geckos. When angry and threatened, they open up their mouth, revealing their red and black throat, and make hissing sounds. Also, when blinded by a camera flash they become disoriented and stop moving, thus allowing you to take more pictures. We learned later (thanks Wikipedia) that, despite having no teeth, if they bite you they will refuse to let go, sometimes for hours. Luckily, he was too flash-dazed to see us. After chasing it round and round the living room with a pot and a dustpan, we managed to chase it into a box and release it outside.

We may not want them in our house all the time (although at any time we probably have at least three indoors), but all in all, no matter the size, geckos are not bad critters to have around. They serenade us. They devour pesky insects. And they are pretty astounding little climbers.

Thai Fruit: Mangosteen

It is official: I have a favorite tropical fruit. Mangosteen. Unassuming from the outside, incredible on the inside, mangosteen is, next to pineapple, the best fruit I’ve had. Possibly, ever.

Deep, dusty purple topped with a hat of bright green leaves, mangosteen fits in a loosely closed hand. Eating it causes a bit of a mess, as you typically use both your thumbs, pressing into the middle of the bottom, to pry open the inedible outside. In the process, both your thumbs, thumbnails included, end up temporarily stained bright magenta.

Inside, a delicious treasure is revealed. Small white sections of succulent, sweet and tangy fruit await. The soft, juicy sections include one much larger chunk, which holds the pit. The Thais even spend time sucking the fruit off of the pit section, and I appreciate their tenacity. It is definitely worth enjoying every last bit of a mangosteen. 

Furry Additions

Fish and bunnies aside, we have been very strong in our resolve about not getting pets while in Thailand. (To properly read that sentence, ‘we’ is pronounced ‘Win’ and ‘significant pets’ refers specifically to cats.) We don't want to get attached when our living situation is temporary. Our defenses, however, have been breached. We’ve thrown in the towel. Our white flag is a-wavin’ and I blame it on a bunch of elementary kids.

Sometime in July a lovely stray cat -- white with big, round patches of pale orange and grey -- took up residence in the pratom 5 and 6 (elementary) building on our campus. Shortly thereafter, we discovered that the very friendly stray cat was also very pregnant. Between students and teachers, when Mama Cat gave birth the kittens were moved to a safe place in the music room on the first floor. Mama Cat was free to come and go, students fed and watered her, and the kittens slept nestled away in a box (unless interrupted by screaming children or music class).

Unfortunately, two of the three kittens have died. The remaining kitten is tiny and frail, and the incessant attention from students is almost certainly not a health-positive situation (who knows where those hands have been?).

We tried to be stoic. We tried to be rational. We are going on vacation for a month, and we are leaving Thailand in the spring. But how can you look a kitten in the face and still say no? The kitten, with black-on-white, symmetrical inkblot coloring across its back, curled up in Mama’s protection, just washed away all rational arguments against taking them home. Someone has to feed our fish and water our plants while we’re gone, what’s the big deal if they feed the cats too?

The Thai teachers wasted no time once they saw the chink in our armor. Upon first sighting, Mama was wrangled by fifth graders and Baby put back safely in its box. An army of students trekked them across campus to our office, where they caused a stir with the high school kids. So, both Mama Cat and Baby Cat are in for some foreigner TLC.

Mama Cat is a bundle of purring and affection, despite being a stray cat. Baby Cat is possibly the most precious fuzz puff I have seen; too young to have developed proper motor function, it bobs and weaves after our feet, the tiniest of obstacles or disruptions sending it tumbling. Real names are still to come, but I am anticipating cat cuddles with the greatest of joy and the biggest of smiles.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Duties of an Ajarn

In Thailand, being a teacher (“ajarn” in Thai) is a position deserving of respect. On the respect totem pole, only monks and the king are higher. There is even a national holiday for paying respect to teachers, during which every student makes a bouquet and must wai (bow), forehead to the floor, and present it to their teachers. On a regular basis, students are always supposed to be, literally, lower than teachers, so they duck when we walk past. They also crawl up to Thai teachers’ desks on their knees. And, although being a foreign teacher will certainly diminish the amount of respect we receive in actuality, it in no way lessens the cultural expectations imposed on us. This can be an intimidating situation to walk into as a foreigner. 

Having no official rulebook, we are just left blindly feeling our way through the cultural differences. And, from what we can figure out, the rules make no sense. We have been scolded for: wearing non-collared shirts, wearing flipflops, drinking directly out of a big water bottle at morning flag raising ceremony, eating while standing, not using a straw, eating while walking, eating popsicles, not eating food that was offered to us. The list goes on and includes, primarily, things that we see Thai teachers doing on a regular basis. 

The list of don’ts also extends to any personal life you may have in public. What you wear, what you do, what you eat, can all potentially be witnessed by an unseen student, or worse, parent. My piercings are a disruption in almost every class, and if I wear my hair up I can be sure that the constellation tattoo on my neck will serve as a major distraction. Bumping into students on the weekends while wearing my nose ring and potentially showing bits of my shoulder tattoo pumps fodder into the gossip mill. And, as it isn’t naturally occurring in Thailand, cleavage is a big no-no. 

We gain a bit of celebrity. Thais know where we teach. In Ratchaburi, our laundry ladies tracked down where we lived when they ruined some of our clothes. The director of our current school called us on the guesthouse phone one morning, without our telling him where we were staying. Word gets around. We stand out. Drinking beer? Smoking cigarettes? We do it at home or where there are only adults: bars, not restaurants. 

Luckily, in more-touristy Chiang Rai, we stand out less than we did last term. And the school seems a bit more lax overall. But, we still are expected to finish our afternoon popsicles before going back to school, and the students do freak out a little bit when we crouch down to their level.

Monday, September 5, 2011


I’m not very girly. I barely wear any makeup. I only own a smattering of jewelry.  I don’t drool over purses or shoes. I hardly ever manage to do more with my hair than letting it air-dry. But, I love wearing pretty dresses.

I love the light, feminine feel of a dress. I adore how wearing something nice can make ordinary days feel like some sort of occasion. In tropical heat, a dress is an elegant, airy solution to temperature control (read: sweat prevention). Pants are stifling; shorts are uncomfortable and not very attractive; skirts I wear to school five days a week. I, quite simply, would be happy only wearing dresses.

Since coming to Southeast Asia, my dress wardrobe has expanded over and over again. Patterns, colors, and cut vary, but not my clothing choices. It’s all dresses for me. I can admit when I have a problem. And I do not, thanks to the baht and Thai cost of living. A dress here, reasonable and purchased at a street market or from a small local shop, runs me the equivalent of six to ten US dollars. Spending Thai baht makes an otherwise dangerously expensive shopping habit into something relatively manageable.

However, I recently spent an obscene amount on a dress. This dress, beckoning to me from its mannequin, had caught my attention every time we drove past a certain store front. It was like nothing I have seen in Thailand, in terms of both cut and material. Made from imported blue and pale silver-purple Nepalese silk, the two-sided wraparound dress can be worn six ways. I was in love. At 950 baht (just under thirty dollars), the price was five times higher than my normal dress purchases. But how often do you fall in love? So, I bought it, regret-free.

Lucky for me, that expense was a rarity in this country. I just have to stick to my regular 200 baht dresses for a bit to stay within a reasonable dress budget. That is, until next month when I will most likely go buy a vibrant yellow-orange dress from the same store. I just can’t help myself.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thai Fruit: Rambutan

Recently I have been getting massages from a lady who used to work in the fruit market, so I have been receiving proper Thai fruit lessons on a regular basis. Every time I show up, she has a bowl of fruit and a willingness to share. Two of the things I enjoy most about Thailand are massages and trying all of the silly-looking fruits, so this is a lovely arrangement.

Rambutan is one of the more impressive looking fruits. Rich, deep red and pale yellow with fuzzy green fur sticking out in all directions. It is flamboyant and flashy. Inside sweet, opaque-white fruit flesh waits to be devoured.

The work involved in pulling them apart and prying the fruit and pit apart is a bit much. And I always end up getting some of the pit with the fruit, which I then have to eat to avoid being rude. But, rambutan is one of the better snacks I have discovered here, and is well worth the work involved, as well as a little pit.