Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Paid Holiday and a New Class

My school year ended in March, followed by a 4 week summer course in which I got new, very young students, most who would later be in my class for the year. My holiday started with saying goodbye to my awesome roommate because she was headed home to Canada- crazy how everyone is always coming and going around here. Then I headed out with some teachers to Chiang Mai up north for the Thai New Year celebration, Songkran.

Songkran is a celebration of new beginnings and a fresh start and falls at the end of the hot dry season. The Thais pour flower water on Buddha statues in honor of this which turned into throwing water on each other, which turned into the world’s biggest water fight. Up until about 70 years ago, their calendar year changed over during this time in April but they have since correlated their Buddhist calendar year to change over on January 1 instead, though the festivities remain at the traditional time in April. Since the celebration originated in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is the where the biggest festivities take place. It was such an amazing event to be a part of and the Thais are very willing to let everyone share in there celebration.

Since the holiday is nationwide, most of the teachers I know from Phuket and Bangkok were there, yet remarkably when I looked around, the majority of the crowds were Thai. Chiang Mai is a perfect city for this particular event because the main area is the old city, about 2 square kilometers surrounded by a moat. The streets around the moat become a sort of parade of trucks and tuk-tuks full of people with water guns and buckets of water to throw at everyone on the sidewalks. The people on the sidewalks have water guns and buckets attached to a string, which they throw into the moat to fetch water to throw, a skill that is quickly acquired after joining the festivities. There are radio station booths with hoses and people selling giant blocks of ice on the sidewalks for the people in the trucks to buy. In the trucks there are garbage cans full of water as a refill for their other tools, so they put the ice in there. Since the novelty of getting anyone wet is lost, since everyone is soaked, you gotta get em with ice water to really shock them.
This fight takes mercy on no one, old and young people alike, and even the cops are getting soaked. The water from the moat isn’t exactly clean, nor do recreational activities normally take place in it but during this week, loads of people are swimming. Thais are known to swim fully clothed at the beach, not so much as a conservative thing, its just the norm, so during this traditional festival it is best to cover up a bit and not wear see through clothes. The official celebration is 3 days but in Chiang Mai it starts a couple days early. We spent a week there, mostly just joining in the festivities since there was no hope of arriving anywhere dry. Transportation is tuk-tuks and people loved to walk right up to the passengers and drench them.
We were able to see some temples including the beautiful Doi Suthep on top of a big hill, though the view was a bit obstructed by haze from the annual fires meant to cleanse the hillsides. We also visited a tiger zoo where we were able to pet some trained, not drugged, tigers, including some newborns.
When Songkran was over, a few of us took a 3 day trek in the mountains. Always hearing that the North was mountainous, it was a bit of shock to actually see the mountains as they weren’t anything like the Sierras and they were scorching hot! The first day we drove up into the mountains (in a tuk-tuk!) and stopped along the way to ride elephants. We got to see a clumsy newborn elephant! We hiked for a couple hours that afternoon with our trekking guide, a guy from one of the nearby hill tribes who spoke good English and had answers to all our questions. As we neared the hill-tribe village where we would be spending the night, we stopped to bathe in the river so as to arrive clean and fresh.

The tribe spoke their own language so any Thai that we knew unfortunately didn’t help us to communicate with them. We mostly just smiled and thanked them profusely. They cooked us a delicious dinner with delicious vegetarian dishes. After the meal our guide took us to visit with some locals in their house. The houses consisted of two huts, one for sleeping and one for cooking, though some family members slept in the kitchen huts. They gave us tea and we asked all the questions we could think of, communicating through our guide. There was an older couple we directed most of our questions to and they were absolutely brilliant. We asked how old they were and they told us to guess and then they also tried to guess our ages. The wife said she wished she could talk to us and if she could, she would have us all laughing. She actually ended up saying some things that when translated to us made everyone laugh, which just goes to show that humor can be shared among people with such different backgrounds. When they asked where we were all from, one person asked, “Which country do you like the best?!” and she said something along the lines of “we are all part of the same country.” This exchange was so interesting to me because I feel like it is very characteristic for a Westerner to ask who is the best and for the villager to respond that way.
The next day we hiked six hours in the heat, arriving at our next “camp” in time to bathe in the river before it got dark. Our guide and some villagers made us dinner. The villagers have houses scattered throughout the hillsides so there always seemed to be some people nearby. When we woke up they were tying together bamboo rafts for us. The river was very low since it was the end of dry season but we still attempted to raft on it. The guides had to keep dragging us over rocks that we got stopped on and sometimes we just got off the raft and helped carry it along. On the drive back to Chiang Mai, we stopped at a gorgeous waterfall for a nice swim which finished off the awesome trip. Oh and apparently awesome is a very American thing to say, haha.
slow boat on Mekong River

We headed to Laos the following day on the famous slow boat journey on the Mekong River. The long wooden boat isn’t by any means comfortable but the scenery is beautiful and makes for a nice alternative to a 20 hour van ride on bumpy windy roads. The boat travels one day, stops in a small Lao town where everyone gets hostels for the night, then travels a second day, arriving in Luang Prabang by dinner.

The feeling of Laos was very different than Thailand. It is a very poor communist country. One thing that we all noticed was that the locals were always littering! A Lao woman on the boat kept tossing all her garbage into the river, even splashing us sometimes! Lao towns are small, mostly on the Mekong or Namsong river, and have a French influence leftover from the French rule which ended over 50 years ago. This really just meant that there were lots of bakeries, a few Lao people who can speak French, and every restaurant and food stand has baguettes. In Luang Prabang, we enjoyed eating traditional Lao food (similar to Thai food), cruising around town on bicycles, a very good night market where we all bought some artwork, and a hike and swim around an amazing waterfall that was so blue it looked fake.
Our next stop was Vang Vieng, which so recently became a cool place for young backpackers, there isn’t even much about it in Lonely Planet! The scenery is gorgeous because not only is there a river, the town is also surrounded by giant limestone Karst mountains. Tourism has sprouted recently in Vang Vieng because they designated a stretch of the river for floating in tubes and lined the river with bars. The bars have lots of rope swings and entertainment; people really don’t spend that much time tubing. In fact, you can just go hang out at the bar all day swimming and playing and not even rent a tube. We were in Vang Vieng a week so we went to the river 3 times. 

 We also rented bicycles and rode to some caves, went to a lagoon, and stayed up late at outdoor bonfire bars meeting people from around the world, and even someone whose father grew up on the same street as me. We also kept seeing our friends from Phuket in all these towns and after the slow boat ride, we realized we were on the same track as several backpackers because we kept seeing all the same groups several times a day in every town. Laos was beautiful and extremely fun but there certainly was a seperation of Lao people and backpackers, as opposed to Thailand where the locals make friends with foreigners.
I am back into my normal schedule now of full-time work and yoga which feels great. My new class seems so young! They learn very quickly though. These multi-lingual kids never cease to amaze me. My students are mostly half Thai but their backgrounds also include Italian, German, Japanese, Indian, Swedish, and British. Two and a half is a crazy age but I already love them. I’m still very attached to my students from last term though and cannot believe how big and grown up they seem now. Luckily almost all of them still go to the school so I can still hug them and wave to them and tell them how big they’re getting! The first week, a few of them were even begging to come back to Pre-K with Teacher Andy!

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