One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thailand Trip: River Relaxation

The next section of my trip was a short 3 day tour in the jungles north of Bangkok on the River Kwai.  I was picked up from my hotel early Friday morning and driven 3 hours north of the city.  Our tour started by visiting the famous bridge over the River Kwai, which is actually a movie.  I had never heard of this bridge or the rail road prior to visiting the museum that explained in depth what had occurred here.  I’ll give a short explanation to those, like myself, who are unknowing. 

This picture is of the bridge over the River Kwai and two South African guys, Sibou and Doriaux (I'm taking a stab at the spelling), who were on my tour.  The tour guide didn't do a very good job taking this picture, but I still really like it.

The famous bridge over the River Kwai

A long tailed boat ride down the river to the River Kwai Jungle Raft Hotel

During WWII, the allies imposed an embargo on the Japanese.  So in order for the Japanese to still have access to necessary war time supplies they forced thousands of British, Australian, and American POWs into labor camps for the construction of a railroad through Thailand and Burma.  The conditions in which the POWs worked were unthinkable.  Thousands died from starvation, malnutrition, infection, exhaustion, and disease.  The RR was completed in something like 17 months. 

We visited one of the worst sections of the RR called the Hell Fire Pass.  POWs had to drill (by hand: chisel and hammer) into the deepest and longest section of rock on the railway.  The Japanese were anxious to have the RR finished and ordered a “Speedo” period in which quotas were increased from .5 cubic meters to 3 cubic meters of excavation per POW.  They had to keep working until they reached their quota each day.  This often meant working long into the night.  The way the torch light hit the gaunt faces and skeleton like frames of the POWs working at night gave the Hell Fire Pass its name.  What is really quite devastating is that today only a small section of the railroad is functional.  The majority of the RR line has been stripped of all RR remnants.  It was all for nothing… 

The Hell Fire Pass:  You can see the rock on either side that the POWs had to chisel and blast through.  You can also see that the railroad just ends. 

After a very sad, but enlightening tour through the history of the railroad, we took a 45 minute long tailed boat ride down the river to the River Kwai Jungle Raft Hotel.  I would seriously recommend anyone going to Thailand to stay at this hotel.  It was such an exotic and unique experience, so beautiful and relaxing. 
First, it’s a raft; there is no getting around that point.  To give you an idea, the wakes from passing long tail boats caused the hotel to bob in the water.  You could jump in the water from your room’s pier, float to the end of the raft hotel, get out, run down to the other end, and do it again. It was fun! 

Breakfast at the Raft Hotel

I was camped out right here most of the weekend... reading, writing, napping, swimming = bliss

My room: that's mosquito netting over the bed

So the bathroom.. this was interesting. I'm pretty sure that all of the water came from the river. The toilet was a self flusher. That rectangular box to the right of the toilet was filled with water and had a dipper in it.

This is the hall to my room. My room was the raft on the end. The rooms are on the right, the river (obviously) on the left

The hanging flower planters were pretty, but I think this was more for practicality's sake.  As I said, the raft hotel swayed with the wakes and currents in the river and so did these planters.

Raft Hotel:  taken from the reception desk; it's a view into the dining room

Each two rooms shared a pier. This was the point were you could jump into the river and float down to the end of the raft hotel.

It’s located in the middle of the Thai jungle and completely secluded.  At night I saw the most stars in the sky than I’ve ever seen.  You can’t hear any noise besides the murmuring of the river’s current and occasionally of the Mon women coming by to water the plants or fill your lantern. That’s right, your lantern. There’s no electricity, which made getting ready for bed at night a challenge. 

This whole hotel is owned and operated by the local Mon Tribe.  They have a village that is a little hike from the hotel.  Sam, our guide, took us to visit the village on Saturday morning.  They have a school, a temple, monuments, and …an elephant camp! (I fed and pet them! though... no elephant riding for me. I decided not to. It seemed like a little bit of scam to me, plus I had gotten an up close encounter already).

Mon Tribal School. Kids go to Thai school 5 days a week and to the Mon school 2 days a week to preserve their culture and language.

Mon School

Mon Pagoda. Everything here was made by hand by the Mon Tribe Village.

Mon Village

Feeding the elephants sugar cane. They have quite a sweet tooth

Mon Village elephant camp

Mon Village: statues by the river

I woke up to a rooster calling one morning, but what got me out of bed in a hurry was a sound that was a mix between a semi hitting his brakes and a trumpet.  I knew it had to be an elephant!  Sure enough, it was! Two Mon people had ridden elephants down to the river for some water and a bath.  They were RIGHT outside my window.  I saw them down at the river every morning and every evening.  Their presence was always made known by that same call.  When I heard it, I simply moved myself from my hammock to the back porch and watched until the elephants were done bathing.  It was so amusing to watch them too.  They played in the water by completely submerging themselves and bobbing back up, spraying water from their trunks.  If those weren’t displays of elephant ecstasy, I don’t know what is. 

Elephants frolicking

My last day on the River Kwai Raft Hotel started at an easy pace (which could describe my whole time spent there.  It was a nice change from Bangkok).  I had time after breakfast to hike around the Mon Village. A map showed promise of cliffs and a Buddha statue on the outskirts of the village. The hike out was different from other hikes I’ve experienced.  The forest was primarily bamboo and teak and the vegetation was thick and green and lush. 

At 11am I packed my things into the long tailed boat and road out of the jungle.  Those boats had to be a favorite.  You practically sit on the floor of the boat, which rides low in the water. The speed and the mist from the spray felt great. 

I was joined with a larger group for the rest of the tour that day, but I seemed to “talk” the most to 2 older Dutch sisters from Switzerland.  They had difficulty because the guides all spoke in English.  I, being the only native speaker, became their intermediary for the guide.  Not that I speak Dutch at all, but if there’s one thing I’ve gotten good at teaching ESL, it’s eliminating unnecessary words – in essence, I speak darn good broken English. (hah!) Sure, this is not an ideal way to teach proper English, but for the means of simply communicating a point, it works like a charm.  We had lunch at a nice little Thai restaurant by the river and concluded our tour with a train ride through the country side. 

Train ride: This mountain is called "Sleeping Woman" in Thai. Can you see her?

Train Ride on the small section of the RR that is still functional

When all but I had been dropped off, I asked my tour guide about the social and political climate in Thailand after last summer’s turmoil that left 2000 injured and 100 dead.  As it were, our guide had been a member of the uprising and had the scar from a gunshot wound to prove it.  The scar was a HUGE gash in the center of this man’s gut.  He was lucky to be alive!  I asked him how he felt after such an event.  What he said (more or less and in broken English) was that he was so happy (And was he! He was one of the happiest men I’ve ever met).  He said that it felt like death, but because he survived, he could not allow himself to harbor feelings of vengeance because “how would that make my mind feel?”  In essence, I think what he was saying was that when someone injures you, it can really inflict 2 pains—one, a direct, physical pain, and the other an emotional pain.  While the first injury may or may not be within your control, the second injury is within your grasp to nullify.  He said, “You don’t have to forget, you can still know the truth in your heart.”  

Thailand Trip to be continued in blog 3....

Friday, January 28, 2011

Thailand: Part One: Bustling Bangkok

Back from Thailand! And a what a wonderful trip it was! I flew back to Korea yesterday and was greeted with snow on the ground. This feels wrong. My bathing suit is still wet.. my back pack is rubbing my sunburn.. (Mom, I swear, I wore sun screen. One of my parents' mutual soap boxes: wearing sunscreen. I like to tell this story because I think it's so darn funny.  My beautiful, and yet very fare skinned red-headed sister was made to wear a hat and shirt IN the public pool when we went swimming as kids.  She was easy to spot. I can still see her jumping into the pool, one hand on her red 101 Dalmatians hat, the other on her nose.)  SO why, oh why am I in freezing weather and not still wearing my flip flops and reading on the beach?  It was undeniably hard to get on the plane leaving from Phuket, knowing that in 24 hours time I would be 2300 miles away from this paradise.

It seems to me that every country has it's own pull for visitors-- something that can, if not make you fall in love with it, then certainly entice you to do so.  That pull is particular to each wandering traveler.  The key: allowing yourself to experience it.  So easily we (myself included) slip into a tendency of simply sight-seeing for the sake of having said that we've seen it.  It's easy to miss the essence of a country and its culture and really the people that make a country what it is because we have a list of destinations that need tending.  I had a friend wisely advise me to really "experience" Thailand.  That became my goal. There were times, as I'm about to explain, where I slipped away and when I did I tried to slow it down. 

My trip preceded in three segments. Part One: Bustling Bangkok.

I guess I should actually start with the flight down, which was longer than expected. In total, it was about 6 hours in flight time, but I spent 7 hours in the Beijing airport.  That was a long connection in a fairly empty airport.  It was made easier by an acquaintance that I made with a fellow English teacher, Norma Jean.  I suppose after 7 hours she became something more than an acquaintance.  Conversation wandered from our families, to traveling abroad, to future plans, etc as we watched planes land and take off from the runway.

I got in late to my hotel the first night, slept in the next morning, and made day one designated to seeing 3 major temples and had no real plans for day 2 in Bangkok.  I didn't want to fit too much into a single day, so I planned on seeing the 3 big ones: The Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha (they are in one complex, and while you can take pictures within the Grand Palace, you can't take pictures of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (also known as the Reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  Wat in Thai signifies any place of worship.  Thailand is a strongly Buddhist country, in fact, I saw countless monks walking down the street.

Here are just a few photos of these temples, but I've uploaded a whole album of Thailand pictures on Flickr. There's a link on the right side of this blog.

This is a Pagoda within the Grand Palace.  I heard from a one of my guides later in the trip that each King adds a new outer layer to the pagoda, making it larger with each new king since King Rama made Bangkok the capital city of Thailand.

I was standing behind the camera view, waiting for this man to finish taking this shot, when he saw that I saw standing there and motioned for me to join him.  I handed the photographer my camera to take a photo with my camera too. I don't know if you can tell in the picture, but he's holding my hand.. haha!

Wat Pho also known as the Reclining Buddha

When I walked into Wat Pho, the first thing I noticed was a tinking sound coming from behind.  It was this. You pay about 1 USD to get a cup full of coins and then put one coin in each bowl as an offering. I did it.. touristy.. I know, but I thought it was cool.

The Grand Palace

This is a picture of Wat Arun, Temple of the Dawn from across the river. The boats are long tail boats,a traditional Thai method of transportation. People used to live just along the river.

Wat Arun: you can climb to nearly the top of this temple, which made it my favorite. It has a really great view from the top, but be careful! These steps are very steep.

Wat Arun

Wat Arun: From the top. I spent about an hour and a half on the top overlooking the city. I met a guy from CA, Mike, a Korean American who had been in the Marines and was now contracted by the government and was on vacation for 3 weeks in Thailand. He had been over most of Bangkok and down to Phuket too so he was able to give me some pointers. 

What made Bangkok really attractive to me were the vibrant colors- not just within the temple complexes, but along the streets.. in the clothing, in the monk's orange robe,  in the tropical flowers, and flower offerings, in the fruit that was displayed by street vendors. 

Oh! The food! I love trying new food and I lOved Thai food, which is quite spicy, but always fresh. You can get some pretty excellent street food for dinner for merely 1 to 3 US dollars.  You can get a more elaborate meal for roughly 7 US dollars. Food is cheap! I tried to stop at places where I saw the most Thais congregated. That was typically a good indicator of the superior places to eat. Some of my favorite foods? Papaya salad (shredded green papaya in a spicy lime dressing served with peanuts, tomatoes, and green beans- sticky rice on the side. It was delicious!), green curry, and, honestly, the fresh mango, pineapple, guava, and watermelon that you could buy cut up in large bags and served with a skewer. On many a hot day, I savagely (and without qualms) devoured a bag of fresh fruit while walking down the street.

I was so entranced by the vivacity of Bangkok that I let myself be pulled by my impulses.  Bangkok had a life about it that I think I could have tried to fight by making a list of things to do and checking them off, but I think that would have only misrepresented a city of it's type and ultimately it would have been to my own disadvantage. So I stopped to eat when I passed food that smelled good. I sat in a meditative yoga position in the shade at Wat Pho for a half hour because it felt right. If something looked interesting, I'd wander towards it with no real agenda. I sat in Lumpini park during sunset, writing and people watching.  I bought a pretty flower offering and wore it as a necklace for a day just because it was pretty. And when I got tired of wandering, I stopped for a Thai massage.

Here is the flower offering that I wore as jewelry for a day. I ended up giving it to my taxi driver at the end of the day. I saw that he had a picture of Buddha on his dashboard and already had one flower offering around his rear view mirror. We had an interesting conversation the the way to the hotel that went like this: Driver: "You have baby?" Me: "No baby. No husband." Driver: "You are young." Me: "Yes. You have children?" Driver: "No. No. No Lady." Me: "No lady! Why?" Driver: "I am young." We both laughed. Driver: "No money, no honey! Good money, good honey! You know?" Me: "haha! Yes, I know" 

This was a sign I saw in the same taxi driver's cab. No Rams? No guns. No sex. No dogs. No alcohol. No bombs. No smoking.  Shoot! my ram had to stay at the hotel

These are some of the colors I was referring to. Those are long tail boats.

This was the spot at Wat Pho where I sat in the shade. It was nice. I'm sure I got looks, but mine were closed.

Suan Park: I spent some time here the first evening.

Thai massages are of a different nature than western massages. Small Thai woman, or in my case, Thai men, who weigh no more than 75 pounds, jump on top of you, twisting your limbs and rubbing sore muscles. It feels great, but there is a degree of pain to every Thai massage. They are also incredibly cheap. One hour costs roughly 7 US dollars, 2 hours costs about 14. 

I learned a valuable lesson during one said massage. Never open your eyes while getting a Thai massage! It breaks your suspended disbelief.  This small Thai man had positioned my legs into a butterfly position while I was lying down. I felt an uncomfortable about of pain as he was pushing my knees to the floor and I'm sure that I was grimacing.  I heard an "Are you okay, Miss?"  I opened my eyes to find his eyes meeting mine and his body perched on top of mine (mind you, my legs are spread in a butterfly position!) The blatant sexuality that this position evoked made me laugh.  So here I am laughing as this man is on top of me, which, I'm sure made him feel awkward, but the more I tried to stop myself from laughing, the harder I seemed to laugh.  I did regain my focus, but not without a struggle. I did leave feeling rejuvenated and ready for more wandering and exploring in Bangkok city.

Thailand Trip To be continued in blogs 2 and 3...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Amazing Animal Winter Camps

The cupid shuffle video was a preview of the last two weeks at Dun Won Elementary School's English Winter Camp. The first week was spent with about twenty 3rd and 4th graders and with about twenty 5th graders the second week.  I wish that I could spend this kind of time with all of my students.  By the end of the week I could tell that the kids felt a lot more comfortable around me.  Unfortunately, time and money just don't permit it.  Camp required a lot more work and preparation than a normal school day, but it was a lot of fun and I'm really sad to see it go.  I could do those kind of lesson's everyday.

So with winter camp finished I have a lot of free time. I'm among the few teachers that don't have to desk warm during winter vacation.  From now until March 2nd, I will essentially spend one week in school.  I feel really fortunate to not be sitting at my desk, at school, in an empty office, watching movies, but, at the same time, this leaves me far too much time on my hands- a lot of time that I have been asked by my principle to spend in Daejeon (no traveling for me :( .  That is, apart from the 2 weeks of vacation I have coming up.  Not long now until I leave for Thailand!  Sure enough, this week I'm having no trouble filling my time planning for my trip. 

I think the best way to tell you about camp is to show you what came from it.  I "borrowed" the guts (so to speak) of the lesson from another EPIK teacher. I remember the first week of orientation we were encouraged to be "an unrepentant thief" when coming up with lesson plans.  We have this really invaluable site called (waygooken means "foriegner" in Korean... I hear that word a lot.. it's feels like an alias) EPIK teachers share their lessons here.  I have a girl on waygook to thank for the idea of "Amazing Animals Winter Camp."  I used her powerpoint (which was well done) and some of her print offs (Animal Bingo, practice writing sheets, coloring sheets, etc) to make workbooks for the week.  The rest I kind of adapted to suite my style (i.e.  painting, a food craft, making masks for a play, acting in a play, and some games) of course this was broken up by a scavenger hunt, the cupid shuffle, winter Olympics, roasting marshmallows, cutting snow flakes, and much much more.  It was a four day camp: Savanna Animals and Descriptors, Forest Animals and what they Eat, Jungle Animals and Colors, Arctic Animals and Review.

Here are some of the Highlights:

Making Animal Hand Stamps

The 3rd and 4th Graders just made an animal and had to be able to tell me what the name of the animal was in English.

The 5th Graders created a pet that they had to be able to describe to the class: kind of animal, what kind of food it likes/dislikes, it's hobbies, male/female

Day 2: Forest Animals and what they Eat: 3rd and 4th Graders presenting their skit: This is the Wide Mouthed Frog skit. Where essentially the Wide Mouth Frog asks it's forest friends what they like to eat. The punch line of the skit comes when the Frog asks the last animal (Fox, Snake, etc.) what animal they like to eat and he/she answers, "Wide Mouthed Frogs!"

Wide Mouthed Frog Skit
This was a funny one: we placed posted notes on parts of the body. Then music started playing and they jumped around (like they were dancing to the music) and tried to get the posted notes to come off (without using their hands!).  At the end of 30 seconds they named the parts of the body that still had posted notes.

The 5th Graders came up with their English name for the week.


Winter Olympics: This is a traditional Korean game: try to throw small stones into cups

Winter Olympics: Wrestling or Arm Wrestling: as you can see, this little girl is about to wipe out all of the boys in arm wrestling. .. as is par for the course at this age. The girls seem to develop sooner. It was so funny to watch though. 

Jella thought it would be funny to make a game where the kids had to line up their clothes. The team with the longest line, won. It started with just socks and jackets. Then the first brave boy took off his shirt to expose his mickey mouse undershirt (which he received hell for) but then shirts and pants (!) were coming off everywhere!

Pancake animals: I brought in 20 pancakes, the kids brought in fruit, chocolate, crackers, even hard boiled eggs (!) to decorate them to look like animals

Pancake Animal:  I think he told us this was an owl. That's an egg for eyes. Pancake + syrup + eggs = yummy? hmmm... 

Pancake Animal: Bear

Pancake Animal: Mouse

Pancake Animal: Cat

We then sat in a circle with our animals and they told everyone what their pancake animal was and what materials they used to make the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, whiskers, etc.

They made an advertisement for Korean Food: Did you know that Bulgogi is the best dish in the Univers?  (I didn't get to that error in time)