Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Dyana comes to Thailand!

For these two weeks, Dyana came to visit! It was really exciting to have someone from home here to visit. It was nice to have a reminder of home, and to have someone around who had known me for more than just a month. While I was in class, she did all her touring around Bangkok, and easily did way more sightseeing here than I’ve done, even a month later.

After I got classes out of the way, I went to Khao Yai National Park with Dyana and a group of friends. Dyana, my friends Mat and Jake, and I left a day later to catch up with our friends. To get there, you take a bus to Pak Chong and then you’re supposed to hire a pick up truck to take you the rest of the way. By the time we were ready to leave, it was too dark out and no one was willing to take us (plus our friends at the camp ground said they were completely unprepared to entertain themselves when it got dark at 7) so we spent the night in this little town. We checked into our hotel and then decided to walk around town, and quickly found out there was absolutely nothing to do there. The foreigner bar that we were directed to as being the “hot spot” of the evening was completely empty. So, we came back to the hotel and ended up watching Godzilla—I had no idea it was such a bad movie?! Then the next morning we pulled ourselves out of bed and made our way to the park around 7.

On our way there, we discovered the pick up truck we hired was not in fact a pick up truck at all, but more of a large tuk-tuk (3 wheel motorcycle-truck) and it barely made us to the gates, let along through the actual hills of the park. So we got stuck paying yet another truck to take us to the actual campgrounds. After that initial hiccup, we found our friends and set up tents at a more happenin camp than they stayed at the night before. Everyone else in the campground was all Thai, and were so excited to see farang (white foreigners) that they were asking to take pictures with us, and offering us glasses of their whiskey (11am—Thai’s LOVE whiskey) After getting settled, we found a trail and starting hiking through the forest. For the most part we hiked along a river looking for any waterfalls. This involved a lot of slipping and climbing up and down rocks, perfect for someone who only brought Vans to Thailand! We stopped at one large waterfall, probably about 30-40 feet tall and a few of the brave ones decided to jump in off a high ledge. I decided to take cool pictures of them using the sequence mode of my camera:

We followed the trail for about another hour, before it spit us out back on a road. From there, we found signs promoting a waterfall, and we went to that, which was a lot more impressive than the one we had been to. Sadly, the waterfalls are only flowing full force during the rainy season, so everything was pretty dried up.

We walked around and sat on the top of the waterfall and hung out there, before deciding to head back to camp. Anticipating our future boredom, I used a notepad to make a deck of cards, and we played a few card games until it got too dark outside. We socialized with a few Thai’s who spoke very little English, but had very good food with them. Then, we decided to go on a “night safari” and – surprise! – we were tricked by false advertising. Although we were promised elephants (and some people actually thought we’d get to ride them) the trip turned out to be just us sitting in the back of a truck while a lady searched the trees and fields for animals with a spotlight. We saw a lot of trees, and a few deers, and that was about it. I guess you can’t expect too much when you only pay 100baht? Meeting Thai people was more fun anyways, so we came back to them and they actually invited us to go with them searching for the big waterfall the next day.

So, come morning, we all piled into a covered truck, with a few of us sitting off the back, and drove about 10 km to the big waterfall. The hike to get there just involved walking down a couple hundred of the smallest, steepest stairs I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the massive waterfall was reduced to a trickle in the dry season, so there wasn’t much to see except an extremely large cliff. It would have been amazing in November though! Luckily, our Thai friends offered to drive us back to Pak Chong to catch our bus. They were really nice, and we exchanged emails and phone numbers in case they ever decided to come to Bangkok. This offer was misinterpreted though (as most things are here) and many of us have received emails and multiple phone calls from them just saying how much they miss us and asking for pictures of all of us. Kind of creepy.

After spending a night catching up on sleep in Bangkok, I took Dyana to Ko Samet so she could get a glimpse of the island life of Thailand. We went during the week, so it was a lot quieter than my last visit to the island. We spent our time lounging on the beach, and during the full day we had on the island, we took a speedboat tour of the smaller islands nearby. We went to 3 different islands that had better snorkeling then Ko Samet, and then got to visit a fish farm on Ko Samet. We had to walk around on really shaky platforms right next to the open nets of some type of sharks and really big fish, so I got a little nervous.

We ended our time at this island by getting a Thai massage on the beach. Thai massages here are amazing, full body massages that take about an hour and involve the masseuse actually moving around your body and stretching you. Thais view massages as a way to stay healthy rather than an indulgence, so a typical hour-long massage only costs about 150Baht, or about $5. Awesome!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Weekend around Bangkok- Jan 18-20

The next week, my roommates and I decided to do some tourist adventures around Bangkok. We spent one day in the Wat (temple) at the Grand Palace, which is indescribably beautiful. The buildings of the temple are so ornate, with every inch covered in either gold or colorful mirrors reflecting the sunlight. These little statues were a really good example of the detail of the buildings, but they're nothing compared to the entire buildings

One of the main attractions of the Wat is the Emerald Buddha. For all the hype that surrounds it, its quite small. It sits on top of a 10 foot tall or so decorated gold structure, and the Emerald Buddha itself is only about 1.5 feet tall. Its kind of like the Mona Lisa of Thailand (I wonder if that’s disrespectful or not?) However, the story surrounding the little statue is pretty impressive. I don’t remember it completely off the top of my head, but its something along the lines of: It was lost/hidden for a very long time, until lightening cracked open pagoda, and the emerald Buddha was sitting inside. Then, everywhere it went it, random miracles followed. It traveled around a little bit more, and finally made its home in Bangkok. Also, at every change of the seasons, it gets to change its clothes! The three seasons here are rainy, cold, and hot (or hot, hot, and hotter…) so he starts in a full shawl, and then takes a little bit off when it gets hotter. Pretty cute!

Because the King’s sister died right before New Years, her body was being displayed at the Grand Palace for 100 days. Although we weren’t wearing appropriate clothes to go in and see her, we were able to experience all the excitement going on outside. Lots of member of the royal family were going in and out of the Palace all the time, so people are always lined up along the road to try to get a glimpse of anyone important.

-- As a side note, one of the most peculiar things about Thailand is their extreme loyalty to the King and his family. There are pictures of the King everywhere…really, everywhere. Along the main road by the Grand Palace there are huge pictures of him doing selfless deeds, like blessing an old man, planting flowers somewhere important, serving in the army, etc. Or just images of him being scholarly and reading, or playing some musical instrument. All of this demonstrates what an amazing person he is, and that all the Thai citizens should respect him. There will be pictures of him in restaurants, or even up next to images of the Buddha in taxis or ferries. When we went to the movie theater, after the trailers everyone had to stand while the national anthem played and the same images from the street popped up in a collage. Probably one of the biggest culture shocks I’ll have when I return in the summer is to not have a familiar face to look at everywhere I go! I guess I’ll just have to buy my own photo of him to bring home and hang up when I return…

Anyways, one of the other interesting occurrences at the Grand Palace was when a tourist tried to run up and take a photo with some Monks. One of the first things we were told at our orientation was that women are never allowed to touch the robes that the monks wear, and are never allowed to pass any thing directly to the monks – it has to either be set down, or passed through the hands of a male. So, when this lady ran up to the monks for a picture (leaving them standing very awkward) a tour guide began screaming at her, ran over and nearly threw her down on the ground in a bow to the monks. I’d always wondered what would happen if you ever talked to a monk or something, and I was lucky to witness someone else making that mistake so I can try extra hard to avoid it!

Later that weekend, the International Program organized a boat tour of a few temples outside of Bangkok (or inside Bangkok? I don’t know…its hard to figure out city lines from a boat) We went to one temple and saw a Buddha, you know, the usual temple things…then we ate lunch on the water and it was the spiciest meal I’ve had in Bangkok so far. We continued on to an island called Koh Kred, where we were dropped off and told we had 2 hours to make our way up the island to the pier where we’d be picked up. We then continued to get completely lost because there were only really 2 streets on the whole island and we managed to turn down the wrong one. We still had a fun time looking around, and got to see all the places where the islands natives create the pottery that they sell in the market. Unfortunately by the time we made it back to the road we were supposed to be on, we only had enough time to grab a quick snack and hop back on the boat.

Ko Samet: Jan 11-13

Our first weekend getaway was to this island, located inside the gulf along the eastern side of Thailand. It’s a very touristy island, and the main beach strip caters to the weekend crowd of University students that come to get away from Bangkok. We organized our trip with about 12 other students from our building, and coincidentally ended up running into several other groups of international students, so it seemed as if our program took over the island.

Our party split up into a couple bungalows, sneaking as many people in so that we could minimize the cost of the room for each person. The bungalows are large with 2 queen beds, but they charge you per person. So, a room for 2 actually means a room for 4 or 5.

We arrived right after sunset, so we spent the night eating on the beach and watching various attractions that happen nightly on the island. This included tourists buying fireworks and setting them off what might be considered dangerously close to everyone. They also sold balloon lanterns where you could write a wish on a balloon with some sort of light contraption attached, and then watch it float away until it disappeared next to the night stars. There was a fire show that would work its way down the beach, performing at the major bars and restaurants. This show involved about 10+ men who had fire batons and fireballs on strings that they would swing around. It was an amazing, indescribable show, which ended with the men standing on each others shoulders and running down the aisles of the beach blankets, so that you could actually feel the heat from the flames. Afterwards, one of the firemen was playing around showing off his baton sticks, and invited our group to go try spinning the batons ourselves. It was really exciting to try

The next day, a few of my friends decided to ride motorbikes around the island to go exploring. After dirtbiking for years, I know my motorskills well enough to decide I would probably run myself off the road within minutes, and opted to hop on the back of a more skilled friends bike instead. The island was mostly one long road with a few outlets leading to beach resorts. We found a more deserted beach where just one hotel was located, and we ate, snorkeled, and lounged on the beach there for the majority of the day.

At the end of the day, we ran into some other students and discovered that a lot of people didn’t have as good of luck on the motorbikes as we did. Two girls ran into a wall because there were two cars trying to pass at the same time, and they got pretty scraped up. The next day one boy even broke his arm and within the next few weeks, his doctor at home determined that the hospital here had set the bone wrong, and he had to be flown home to get it fixed. He’s still there right now, but hopefully will be returning within a few weeks. I managed to leave the island with only a burn on my leg from touching the exhaust pipe…now I have a scar so I’ll always remember my Thailand adventures! (At least its not a tattoo, right dad?)

Overall, the island was a beautiful way to start our “vacation” in Thailand.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Week One in Bangkok

Hello all! Thanks for checking in with me here, hopefully I'll be able to keep this thing pretty updated throughout the semester. These past few days have been really busy, although it seems like I've been here for a month and haven't done anything really.
The plane ride over was a lot more enjoyable than I thought it would be. I sat next to a girl named Lilly from UC Davis, who I'd arranged flights with although we'd never met. Another guy named Peter sat next to us as well, and he was really nice and social. He had just graduated from Chico, and bought a ticket to Thailand with nothing in particular to do. He gave us some travel advice, and we might try to meet up with him if he comes back to Bangkok during his travels.

We arrived into Bangkok on Thursday the 3rd, exchanged some money, and spent a few hours waiting at the passport check, which was unbelievably backed up. Once we got through all that, there was a cab waiting for me from the hotel, so it was a very smooth beginning to the trip.
We stayed at a place called Charlies House, which had actually overbooked (probably on purpose to many more money) so they stuck me with another girl from the program, Alicia from UCLA. A few other people were staying at the hotel, so I hung out with them a lot. A group of us went out to dinner at the food court of the mall (since we weren't feeling adventurous enough to eat at the street stalls) and then we went out to a walking street called Khao Son Road, which is really touristy, full of street vendors and bars.

On Friday we had a long day of orientations, where they each told us the same things over and over and we eventually signed up for classes. I get into everything I had wanted: Thai Economy, Gender Economics, Thai Society and Culture, Thai Foreign Affairs, and Thai Rural Development. The last orientation was just for the UC students, about how we're representing the whole system and how we have to act better than everyone else, which was kind of dumb. On the plus side, the UC Liaison said that he would take us out to dinner every month, starting with a dinner that evening. We each began picking a dish each, and then he just kept ordering dishes throughout the meal until we were all stuffed. Then he had his assistant, Pong, a Thai Thammasat student, take us out to get cell phones so that he could barter and explain everything to us. I stayed at the hotel that night and went to bed early, since it had been such a long day.

On Saturday I went with 2 girls from my hotel, Connie and Alex, to look at an apartment we had heard about, and we loved it so much we checked out of the hotel and moved in there within 3 hours of seeing it. Its called Rattanakosin Condos, and we got a 3 bedroom 3 bathroom penthouse, with a living room and kitchen, and personal roof access. Plus, a lot of the people we hung out with in the hotel decided to live there too (although no one else is in a penthouse like ours!!)

We spent the rest of the weekend getting settled in, lounging by the pool, and hanging out with people from the building. I brought out the catchphrase game, and we played that for awhile. We also went to check out the nightlife on Khao San road. It was very touristy there, but a few streets away we found a really neat bar called Gazebo that had a band of Thais playing English cover songs.

On Monday we went to check out campus and make sure that we could find our way around. A few of us also bought our uniforms, which make me feel like a flight attendant when I wear it. Its not required, but its easy to wear, and international students feel less like tourists when they walk around Bangkok wearing the uniforms.

Tuesday, January 8th, I officially started school. To get to class we can either take a cab if there are a few of us willing to split it (it only costs about 50 cents each) or we can walk for about 15 minutes, and then catch a ferry across the river. Usually we take a cab there and a ferry on the way back with a big group.
Classes are long and haven't gotten too interesting yet, but hopefully the material will get better. None of my classes have homework, and grades are mostly just based on the midterms and finals, with the exception of papers for 2 classes. (20 and 25 pages!!) My classes are mostly international students, with the exception of my Thai Economy class, which has about a 50-50 mix. Although it doesn't seem like I have much class each week, those few days have been very draining, and we all tend to come home and just want to lounge by the pool or watch a movie instead of go out.

more to come later, don't forget to check out pictures at picasaweb.google.com/ksraser