Tuesday, October 6, 2009

It's been a while since I last wrote to you guys -- about 3 weeks. I hope you all are doing well. A lot has happened in the past 3 weeks. I will do my best to pick up exactly where I left off. My second week in Thailand was both much more of a sobering and enlightening experience. We started off the week by visiting a giant Buddha statue which was located about 20 minutes from where I am staying. The statue was not only a place of worship for many Thai's, but it also proved to be a favorite spot for wasps to build nests. I don't think I've ever seen bigger wasps nests before in my life. And again, for those of you who know me well know that this was not okay with me. But I sucked it up and went to the highest viewing point as well as the heart of the wasp zone. Three people in my group were stung when we were up there, but in the words of my wise and late grandmother, "It's good the bee stung you and not any of us."

Me standing near the Buddha statue/bee-haven

We woke up at 4:30 am one morning to walk into the local village we live near. Once we were all there, we waited for the monks to come by us where we then preceded to offer them food. Luckily, after that we were able to go back to bed. Later, three monks came to our house and conducted an interview for about 45 minutes. It was all being translated but it was still very insightful to hear about their lives and what they do on a day to day basis. I was most impressed by the fact that they showed little to no emotion at all. Even when a few of the questions that were posed to them seemed quite comical, they didn't even show hints of smiling or smirking. If I were to ever become a monk, I think this might be one of the hardest parts. One of the monks that came had been a monk for nearly 30 years. I couldn't even imagine. They wake up every morning around 3 am to begin chanting and meditating. They then go around the village to collect food. Once they have gathered the food they sit down for breakfast. In between breakfast and lunch (which is 5 am - 11 am) the monks meditate and chant. From noon until the following morning, the monks do not eat a single grain of food. The only things they consume are liquids. The rest of the day is dedicated to chanting and more meditating. During the interview with the monks, little did I realize that in a few days I would be sharing a temple with them for a night of sleep...

The bar across the street from where I live. It is where we go to have a few drinks at night, and also where rats go to hang out too, apparently. I wish I was kidding.

During my second week in Thailand we spent a day and a night with monks in a Buddhist temple. As anticipated, this was one of the most unique experiences I have ever encountered. We arrived at the temple around 5 pm. Upon arrival, we walked around the small complex and quickly realized how bored ordinary civilians can become in a Buddhist temple (especially a temple in the Middle of Nowhere, Thailand). We had to change out of our normal clothes and into an all white wardrobe. We then sat down inside the open area of the temple (also our sleeping coordinates for the night) and had a thorough informational session with one of the monks who lived at the temple. The monk explained his reasons for becoming a monk and what entails in the life of a monk. We then proceeded to meditate with them (or attempt to) and chant with them. Around 9 pm, we eventually realized we really are in a Buddhist temple and no, we cannot sneak off to a bar and have a few drinks as we were so accustomed to doing at night. So we did as the monks do around 9 pm--we went to bed, on a hard concrete floor with virtually nothing between us and the unforgiving floor. It was a great experience sleeping in the Buddhist temple, albeit it was also a rough night of sleep. The dogs woke me up around 2 am with their howling. The roosters woke me up around 3:30 am, and then finally the monks woke us all up with their giant gong at 4:30 am. Upon waking up quite ceremoniously, we went straight into meditating and chanting once again. From there, we left the temple and walked into the village to collect food for the monks to eat from the locals. The reason locals give the monks the little food they have is because it is the Buddhist belief that the food they give to the monks will be the same food the locals will be able to eat on the path to heaven or hell once they have passed away. Pretty interesting to think about when it's not 4:30 in the morning.
After walking around the village, we came back to the temple and ate breakfast and lunch with the monks. Towards the end of our stay, two of our group members decided to shave there heads in a "monk style". We then got back into our bus, left the temple and went back to Singburi. Once I got home, I took a much needed shower and a much needed nap.

Henry standing by our "beds" which would resemble those of a 5-star hotel back in the US.

Posing for a photo with a monk.

Collecting food with the monks in the village. Roughly 4:45 am.

And again.

The cart was filled and became very heavy towards the end, which is coincidentally when I got stuck pushing it....

My friend from England getting his head shaved like a monk, by a monk.

Chris from Germany and Chris from England with there new haircuts.

One of the most sobering moments of my entire life occurred during my second week in Thailand. We went to volunteer at an orphanage about 30 minutes outside of Singburi. The orphanage was run by monks who brought the children in off of the streets from some of the poorest parts of the country (mainly in the northern regions). After walking around the orphanage, I realized a number of things. First, I realized little children (4-7 year olds) are happy no matter what circumstance they are in. I stood and watched little orphaned Thai children running, jumping and laughing without a care in the world. It reminded me of my little cousins back home. I couldn't believe how similar the children were to my own family, however there surroundings were utterly different in almost every way imaginable.
The sleeping and showering conditions were very tough to witness. When I walked into the boys sleeping arrangements I immediately started sweating profusely -- and that was without 90 boys in there running around and trying to sleep. I cannot imagine how hot it gets when it is filled beyond capacity. Each bed, which was about the size of a twin sized bed, was for 3 boys. The room in between the beds was nearly non-existent. I couldn't stomach standing in there for more than 15 minutes, let alone trying to sleep there every night. For as long as I live, I don't think I will have the audacity to complain about my sleeping arrangements after witnessing where these children have to sleep.
I left the orphanage very depressed. However, I learned so much about how fortunate I am back home. These children have nothing, not a bed to call there own nor a mother or father to seek advice and receive love from. Nevertheless, they seemed so incredibly happy with the little they had -- it was truly an image I will never forget for the rest of my life.

My little friend from the orphanage.

We went to Bangkok two weekends in a row. Both weekend trips into the capital we went with the city bus which took about 2 hours to get from Singburi into downtown Bangkok. The fare was 117 baht which equates to about 3.50 USD. When we got into the city, we found our hotel, dropped off our luggage and hit the town. Our first stop was the famous Khaosan Road where tourists come from all over the globe to buy cheap goods from Bangkok. After about an hour of walking down Khaosan I learned a few valuable lessons.

1. Never buy anything from Khaosan Road.
2. Never stop and/or show any attention street vendors who are trying to sell you anything from cheap suits to cheap women.
3. Keep a steady pace, and don't stop to look at anything because you will be attacked like prey.
4. The most important rule. Don't buy anything from Khaosan Road.

In all seriousness, Khaosan Road is a place one should visit in Bangkok, but it is also a place one should be very weary and on alert at all times. To sum it up bluntly, it's a tourist trap. On Khaosan Road I bought a deck of cards from a man who spoke good English only to later realize it wasn't a full deck. When I went back to confront the man to give me a full deck he coincidentally didn't know how to speak any English. I then gave him a piece of my mind, which I will not quote myself here because I know my mother is reading this blog.

In Bangkok a few of us found that there were many places to receive Thai massages. We walked into one massage parlor and asked for an hour and a half massage. After about 20 minutes of intense haggling, we successfully were able to bring down the price from 250 to 230, a whooping total of about 60 cents. Evidently my bargaining skills still need some fine tuning. Nevertheless, this 230 baht ( 7 dollar ) Thai massage was one of the best decisions of my life! I had heard that Thai massages were both cheap and relaxing and I was not disappointed. After a nice long massage, I was able to forget the stresses of Khaosan Road and find a new place in Bangkok to discover. As I walked the streets of Bangkok I witnessed the beauty and repulse within the capital city. It amazes me that I could walk down a street and to my left stands a beautiful, gold plated Buddhist temple and to my right stands a prostitute commenting on my Barack Obama shirt while trying to start a conversation with me. There are only a few things that sadden me more than when a female has to become a woman of the town.

We went out every night we stayed in Bangkok. One of the nights we went to a club that was creatively named The Club. There was a group of about 12 of us that strolled into The Club where we were hit with loud techno/trance music. We ended up having a great time and didn't find our way back to our hotel until around 5 in the morning.

We finally found our way to Chinatown and walked around the streets looking for a nice place to settle and have lunch. We found a great Chinese restaurant and paid a good amount (about 10 dollars each) to have an amazing Chinese lunch.

Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand.

For the past two weeks Henry and I have been teaching at a school in Singburi. We teach a class of 6 and 7 year olds. The kids in the class are very quiet and most of them are enthusiastic about learning. The work day is from 8:30 am until 3:30 pm, however we are not teaching that entire time. I am planning on teaching at this school in Singburi for about 6 weeks, where I will then relocate in the northern regions of the country and teach in some of the poorest areas of Thailand. The school I am currently teaching at is well financed by the Thai government. The classrooms are furnished with air conditioning and a computer. However, it is very different from classrooms back home. The kids are much more wild then I remember kids being back home. The difference is that when the authority (teachers) yell at them to sit still, they do in fact sit still very quickly, unlike kids back in the states. I think part of the reason is because teachers here are in fact allowed to hit children in the hands with rulers. To give you another idea of how different things are over here, I will provide a sample of some of my students names. They are as followed:
Copter (short for Helicopter, obviously)

Again, I wish I was kidding, but yes these are their names that their parent's gave them... I have many more humorous stories from within the classroom, but that will be for another time because my fingers hurt from typing so much, I think I'm going to go get a Thai massage now.

I miss you all and I hope you all are doing well. Please email me if you have any news from back home or if you just want to say hello!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The adventure begins...

I finally landed in Bangkok around 11 am local time. I was drained from all of the traveling but luckily I still had 3 more hours until I reached my temporary place of residence. After an hour taxi ride into Bangkok (costing roughly 8.50 USD), I hoped in a bus that took me two hours North to the city of Singburi. Upon arriving in Singburi, I was picked up in another taxi which was drastically different than the one I rode into Bangkok. This one was a truck converted into a taxi with open seating in the back and enough room to uncomfortably seat 1 to 15 people (pictured at the bottom of the post). I finally arrived to my 'Eco House', about 30 miles outside of Singburi and 35 hours away from little old Worthington, Ohio.

The Eco House I am staying in is located in a very remote and rural part of central Thailand. When I go on walks around my house I am the center of all the locals attention. Little children laugh at me or simple look at me with a tongue gaping stare, dogs bark and chase me, chickens and roosters scatter from the sound of my foot steps, bulls begin slowly walking towards me in efforts to make sure I do not intrude on their space and the local men and women look at me with a bit of confusion but nevertheless seem very friendly. I don't think I will ever get over the poverty I see all around me. Living in small shacks by a neighboring river is very common to see in central Thailand. Nevertheless the locals seem completely content with their lives. I suppose the Buddhist belief that extinguishing all desires means to be freed from the illusion of false happiness is put to the test everyday in these small villages.

I am sharing a dormitory style house with about 17 other people from all different parts of the world, but mainly Europe. We are all here for different reasons, but mine is unique in 2 ways: I am the only one teaching and I am staying in Thailand the longest. The rest of them are either heading on to different countries in Southeast Asia or flying back home to their native country.

There is no such thing as a warm shower in Thailand, and frankly there is no reason for one. By 7 am, it can get up 90 degrees and is very humid. They say I will get used to the heat, but I'm still not buying it. Since being in Thailand I have seen two python snakes, one of which was in a river about 100 yards from my room. Thailand is a very tropical climate so I better get used to making friends with snakes and spiders and for those of you who know me very well know that most things that move, including my own shadow, make me jump so it should be very interesting. My first week here is an intro week to Thailand. Up to this point we have gone to an Elephant farm and fed the elephants, visited 3 Buddhist temples, spent time in the ancient Thai ruins in the city of Ayutthaya, participated in traditional Thai dancing and music, had dinner on a boat floating down the Lopburi River, visited a monkey temple in Lopburi where we were among thousands of monkeys who could and would very easily jump on your back and try to steal the girls earrings and everyone's bottled waters. The city of Lopburi is flooded with monkeys who cautiously cross the crowded streets by looking both ways to make sure they are not hit by an oncoming motorbike or car rushing by. At red lights it was not unusual to see a monkey jump on top of a car and walk around the roof until the car began to move where then the monkey will proceed to jump off and carry on with his or her business. We visited a school for a day and Henry and I taught a class of 13 and 14 year old students. We didn't know that they were expecting us to teach so we were unprepared but our improvisation turned out to be pretty good. We worked on basic words, which they knew very well so we moved on to some harder sentences. We would ask the students to stand up and tell us what their parent's occupation was, if they had any siblings and how old they were. I was very impressed with their basic understanding of the English language. During their recess I started a game of soccer tennis which proved to be a great time for us and for them.

Over the weekend, we took a trip to Erawan National Park, which is a rain forest about 3 hours away from Singburi. Hiking through the rain forest was absolutely one of the most amazing experiences I have ever witnessed. While hiking through the lush green rain forest we encountered wild monkeys, snakes, spiders as well as 7 majestic waterfalls. The rain forest was filled with limestone, making the water an aesthetic shade of light blue-green. The densely packed mountains surrounding us were marked with different shades of green which were painted on by the intense sun and the clouds above. At the edge of each tiny pond created by the waterfalls, hundreds of fish gathered to feed off of the algae growing on the rocks. When I put my foot in the water, about 4 or 5 fish swam up to my foot and clung on to me by sucking the dead skin off of my foot. It was an extremely strange feeling but you literally cannot set foot into the water without having them come up and suck on your skin. It is not until you swim to the middle of the tiny pond that you will find peace from the hungry fish. We jumped in the water at waterfall #3 and swam about for a while until we were able to reach the waterfall. It was there that we pull ourselves onto a rock while fighting against the falling water from above. When we made it to the top of the protruding rock, we sat behind the waterfall in a tiny, limestone cave. It truly was a sublime experience viewing the world from behind this waterfall. We then went to our "resort hotel" which was located an hour away from the waterfalls. This "resort hotel" was the first decently warm shower I had since being home. The rooms were pretty clean and the accommodations were nice, but the kicker was that it only cost me 6 dollars per night to sleep there. The next day we went on a safari and saw everything from lions and tigers to giraffes and crocodiles. Finally after a long and fun weekend, we made our way back to Singburi for a good nights sleep and thus, concluding my first week in Thailand.

Click on pictures to make them larger.

Outside a Buddhist temple

Playing with elephants

Ancient ruins in Ayutthaya

Dinner on a river boat

The classroom we taught for a day

Erawan National Rain Forest

Mountains in Erawan National Rain Forest

My friends and I under a waterfall

Our taxi

Outskirts of the Monkey Temple

A giraffe entering our safari bus

The Bridge over the River Kwai

Waterfall in Erawan

Local enjoying Erawan, notice the fish that suck your feet

Playing soccer tennis with local students

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Adventure

Greetings! For the next few months I will be teaching English in the land of a thousand smiles, more formally known as Thailand. I will be flying into Thailand on Sunday, September 13th. My route will be from Columbus to Houston, Houston to Los Angeles, LA to Taipei, then finally Taipei to Bangkok...a total of 32 hours traveling from Columbus to Bangkok. During my time in Thailand I know I will face a tremendous amount of happiness and hardship. I will venture to many different parts of Southeast Asia where I will surely be greeted with smiles and unfortunately severe poverty as well. This trip, more than any other, will change and mold my views on life. I am eager to embark on a new journey into a different way of living -- much different from any other I have ever experienced. If you find the time in your busy schedules, please feel free to follow me through my blog in my journey teaching, exploring, living and learning in Southeast Asia! I will talk to you all soon once I have landed in Thailand, la-gon! (goodbye in Thai, also the only phrase I know in the language)

- Nick