travel

What I miss most about Bangkok

Even though I am happy to be back home and even though I now have a deeper appreciation for Cape Town, there are things that I miss about living in Bangkok.

I miss the fruit, on every corner, everywhere and the fact that it is so cheap. The fruit there for some reason tastes so much better than the fruit here. Mangoes are sweeter and juicer.

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I miss the availability and options of public transport. A cab at 3 in the morning? No problem. The Skytrain runs until midnight and is always clean. Buses that costs only a few cents to get all the way to the other side of the city. Motorbike taxis that zip through traffic to get you somewhere quickly. The Chao Praya Express boat if you want to get around the city on water. Never  having to take tuk-tuks because they are such a tourist rip off and knowing how to get around using all the other options.

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The friendly people, more importantly, the friendly Muslim neighbourhood I lived in. Becoming regulars at the restaurants and with the street vendors and having them keep my favourite things aside for me.

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Malls!! They are simply amazing. Which is surprising because I despise malls and avoid them like the plague. From major fashion designers to quirky little boutique stores they have everything and the aircon is pure bliss.

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Free WiFi everywhere and I mean everywhere, even at temples. My YouTube addiction was activated in Thailand and now that I am back home the price of data bundles absolutely kill me.

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7 Eleven – perhaps a weird thing to add but 7 Elevens here are something else. They sell everything from make-up to painkillers, DVDs to pre-packaged hard-boiled eggs, stationery and quick meals for one. They also don’t have insane mark-up and are sometimes even cheaper than supermarkets.

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There are so many more little things that I miss that I cannot even think of now and of course there are many things that I do not miss. One thing that I do know is that I do not regret a second of it all and would love to go back one day.

 

 

 

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travel

Teaching at an International School in Thailand

The contrast between teaching at a Thai government school and an International school in Thailand is stark.  It’s like day and night, black and white, yes it’s that different from each other. After tiring of teaching English in rural Thailand I was craving for the bright city lights and decided to head to Bangkok. After weeks of job hunting I managed to get a job teaching English at the Everclever summer camp at Wells International School along Sukhumvit Road.

I ended up teaching two 1 hour lessons daily and then accompanying my class to Gym, Art, Performing arts and Readers Theater. I had 10 students in my class, only three of which were local Thais, the rest were from Japan, Russia and Taiwan. The great thing about teaching at an international school is that the entire curriculum is in English so my students could already speak English well. I was able to teach Grammar something not entirely possible at a Thai school, where I would usually only teach 8 new words per lesson.  Apart from being able to teach Grammar I also taught them many games which took up half of all the lessons. I dredged up a few long forgotten games that I used to play as a child.

I was also fortunate to be able to participate in all the additional activities on offer to the students. At no cost to myself I was lucky to attend movie nights, visit temples, go on canal cruises, a weekend away in Kanchanaburi where we went to the Tiger Temple and Erawan waterfalls.  We also went to Kidzania, Dusit Zoo, Science center, Bangkok parks, Siam Niramet cultural show and I enjoyed every minute of it. This and the fact that the other teachers were American and all over the world meant that I was not the only English-speaking teacher made my time at the school memorable. When I was asked to stay on for longer because they extended summer camp I jumped at the opportunity and was sad when it finally all came to an end.

With my return flight date confirmed I knew I was going to miss this school and my students very much. I was happy when they asked me when I would return to Bangkok as they would love to offer me a full-time teaching position. Will I go back? Definitely. When? Right now I don’t know but I like that I have options and this time I will be more prepared and do things differently.

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travel

Call the Fire Department! It’s Songkran

Songkran festival is celebrated every year between 13 – 16 April in Thailand to usher in the New Year. In recent years the dates have been fixed to fall over the weekend.  Songkran happens during the hottest time of the year, perfect timing for a water festival. Initially a time to pay respect to your elders but gently pouring water on them it has now evolved into massive water fights on the streets with parts of the city cordoned off. The throwing of the water on passerby’s are meant to be cleansing, a washing away of the bad and blessing you for the new year. Some Thais may also smear a paste/talc mixture onto your face.

I never knew about this festival until I decided to move to Thailand and I am glad to have had the opportunity to celebrate it this year in Bangkok. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I headed out to Silom Road Sunday evening, maybe a couple of kids squirting me with some water guns. Having low or zero expectations usually means you end up having a great time and in this case I have to agree. It was way more than a few kids with water guns, it seems the whole city came out to play. Apart from water gun fights there were also people on every second block with hose pipes and barrels of water. On every other block there trucks from the fire department hosing people with fire department issue hoses, that is huge ass hoses people, the stream of water is so powerful you have to close your eyes and walk blindly until you and passed the trucks. Then there are the people selling water for festival goers to fill up their water guns, they also join in and throw ice-cold water at passerby’s.

There is no way you can walk away from Silom Road dry, you will be soaked, if you clothing isn’t chaffing you by the end of the evening you doing it wrong. Every couple of minutes you will have talc mixture smeared onto your face (gently, might I add) which will get into your eyes and it will burn, but don’t worry it’s harmless. Never in my life have I experienced anything even close to this but I am so glad that I got to be part of an amazing celebration.

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Images:

http://samuiontour.com/About-Samui/News/koh-samui-songkran-festival-2012.html

http://apinyasomya.exteen.com/20090409/songkran-festival

http://www.zimbio.com/Thailand/articles/vZYFEwzatVK/Songkran+Festival+Canberra+Songkran+Festival

 

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adventures, travel

How I almost wasn’t let back into Thailand

When my 3 month tourist visa was about to expire I started preparing for my first visa run. Visa runs are a necessary evil and can be a lot of fun. Basically until you have a work permit or student visa secured you need to leave Thailand every 3 months by crossing the border into one of the neighbouring countries, applying for your visa at the Thai embassy and heading back into Thailand. In theory, sounds easy enough, right? Well let’s see I forgot to pack a few essentials which in retrospect I should have taken as a sign of things to come. Things I forgot to pack: my toothbrush and toothpaste, clean underwear and my camera. I mean how could I forget my camera when I knew I was going to visit a new country? No toothbrush or underwear are minor problems.

I was initially going to do my visa run with the help of an agency but he called me on the morning of the trip and told me that unfortunately he will no longer be able to take me. He said that I can collect my deposit and that the reason that he was no longer to help me was that his drivers have had problems in the past with bringing ‘black’ people to the border and not being able to have visas processed for them. Discrimination based on my skin colour? I  must say I am getting more than just a little tired of this. He advised me to do a visa run on my own to Malaysia as I wouldn’t have any problems at that particular border. So that’s what I did, I bought a second class sleeper train ticket from Bangkok to Hat Yai. The journey took 15 hours most of which was through the night but let me tell you it is not easy sleeping on a train. When I arrived in Hat Yai I bought a ticket for the minivan to Penang, Georgetown in Malaysia. The minivan left about one hour after I arrived in Hat Yai and so the four-hour journey to Malaysia began. By pure chance fellow friends from my TEFL class were also in Hat Yai and on the same minivan that was taking me to Malaysia.

Once I got to the Sadao border and got my passport ready to be processed and check out of Thailand. All nationalities except those from African countries get to queue as per normal. If you’re from an African country like me, you have to go to the office and get your passport stamped there. I did feel welcome this was the first thing I felt when entering the office. When the immigration officer eventually waltzed in he treated us all with thinly veiled disdain and contempt. The whole process took longer than it should have and I did not relish the thought that I was coming back this way to get into Thailand once I have my new visa. Once on the other side I had to get my passport stamped with a Malaysian tourist visa which went much quicker. Now I could finally relax a bit and just enjoy the ride. After the minivan dropped me at Banana Guesthouse where I would be staying for the next two days, I booked in, left my bag in the room and headed across the road to Banana Tours to start my visa application. The visa application took less than ten minutes and the agent said I would get my passport and visa the next day.

Food. That was all I could think of next as I haven’t had real food in 24 hours. I went to an Indian restaurant called Al Kapitan which came highly recommended. I ordered the mutton rogan josh with garlic naan but here’s the thing, the meal was just normal.  If you grew up eating curries and biryanis your whole life then any restaurant that offers these meals needs to be out of this world phenomenal and spectacular. I’m not saying the food wasn’t good but I’ve definitely had better from home. I went back the next day to give them another chance but was equally unimpressed with the tandoori chicken, again, not bad but for me just usual stuff that I eat back home. Oh, I forgot to mention I made a new friend on the minivan, a lady from Kenya, who shall now be called Kenya from this point onwards. We decided to share a room to save on costs and she seemed normal enough on the four-hour ride from Thailand to Malaysia. Once in our room though warning bells started going off like the fact that she uses the toilet without closing the bathroom door (even for number 2), she slept in the nude (luckily we had separate beds) and she gave me a blow-by-blow account of her miscarriage she had two weeks ago as well as intimate details about her sex life. Lady I do not know well you for you to divulge any of this. I could not wait for us to part ways.

The next day I decided to explore Georgetown, I bought a postcard and after finding the post office sent it off to my family. Georgetown is a shabby little town that reminded me a lot of home surprisingly enough. Unfortunately I did not have enough time to sightsee as much as I would have liked as I had to head back to collect my passport and new visa and get ready for the minivan back to the Thai border. Kenya kept mentioning that we needed to have either funds or proof of funds once we get to the border. I did not take her seriously as my agent did not advise me that this was a requirement so I tried not to worry too much about it, however there was an impending sense of dread growing in the pit of my stomach.

Once we got to the Thai side of the border all hell broke loose, again all Africans were told to go to the office and yes they did want to see x amount of funds, 20 000 baht to be exact. I did not have this amount of money on me and to complicate matters even further I could not get an ATM bank slip nor would the ATM allow me to withdraw any money. A phone call to my bank back in South Africa did not to sooth my frayed nerves, the call centre agent assured me that my card is not blocked and that I should be able to withdraw cash. That is all good and well for him safely at work but I still could not access my money and I was starting to panic. I was shaking and near to tears and had visions of myself stranded at the border with no money, no visa and sleeping on the streets. Then our minivan driver came up to me and told me if I gave 2000 baht to the border officer they would let me enter Thailand. Me? Bribe a border officer? I don’t think so? I could almost see the headlines. SOUTH AFRICAN TOURIST THROWN INTO THAI PRISON FOR BRIBERY. Luckily my friends and Kenya borrowed me the money and still the official threatened to cancel my visa. Only by the grace of God was my passport stamped and I was allowed to re-enter Thailand. Never in my life was I made to feel like  criminal and never in my life was I treated as if I was less than the dirt on the bottom of the immigration officials shoe. It was a completely harrowing experience and it was hardly comforting to know that I was not singled out and that there were many other South Africans in the same predicament as me.

Due to the 2 hour delay at the border I missed the Hat Yai minivan back to Bangkok and decided to just spend the night in Hat Yai. I took the first minivan back to Bangkok the following morning. I am still in shock over what happened and sadly I will never ever feel the way about Thailand the way I did before all of this happened. What happened to the land of smiles?

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adventures, travel

Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn

Perhaps not as famous as Wat Phra Kaew with its emerald Buddha or Wat Pho with its giant reclining Buddha but it is no less imposing. Situated along the Chao Praya river, from afar it looks like an old water stained temple but close up you can see thousands of pieces of mosaic set into stonework of the temple. Two flights of stairs takes you to the top of the temple which gives you a few of the river and the Grand Palace on the other side of the river. Only on my way back down did I realise how high I climbed and how steep the stairs, and for someone not usually afraid of heights it was a dizzy descent.

DSCF6055 How to get there: From Saphan Taksin BTS skytrain station you can walk over to Sathorn Pier, take the Chao Praya Express boat which costs about 15 baht, get off at Tha Tien Pier and from there you need to take another ferry to get to the other side of the river which costs 3 baht. Entrance fee 100 Baht.

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The longer I stay…

…the more I learn not only about Thais but also about myself. You learn to let go of preconceived notions and to open yourself up to different possibilities.

One of the things that I did not fully understand and that disgusted me was seeing Thai women with foreign men. I thought they were just gold digging opportunists but I was ignorant and if this was only a holiday I would have left Thailand none the wiser. Here’s the deal Thai boy meets Thai girl at varsity, they fall in love and plan to spend the rest of their lives together. After varsity Thai boy no longer wants his Thai girl because she is now considered too old so he trades her in for a younger model. It then becomes difficult for Thai girl to find someone new especially if she has a darker skin colour. The only other choice she now has is to date and marry a foreign man. The added benefit of this is that she has more say about their daily lives as opposed to marrying a Thai man she has much less of a say when it comes to important decisions. Obviously I’m not saying this would be the case for every young Thai couple as that would be generalising as well but the fact remains it is a reality for so many Thai women.

The other thing that I have learnt and this time about myself is that I always seek out the familiar when I am in a foreign place. Familiar things have a soothing and comforting effect on me. I am no stranger to change but that does not always mean I am comfortable with it. Which is why a calm overcame me when I saw my first glimpse of the ocean on my way to Phuket. Having lived in Cape Town and near the coast my entire life I need to know that the ocean is always close by. I feel claustrophobic when I am inland. I also breath a sigh of relief when I see a restaurant or food street vendor that has the Arabic halal sign so I no I don’t need to worry about the food I am eating. In Phuket I saw an abundance of these as well as more Muslim men and women with scarves. Everytime I see one of these cloaked woman I feel that I am not alone or the only Muslim here. A mosque sighting gladdens my heart which is weird because I don’t often go to mosque but I like just knowing it is there.

I’m sure by now most people know that Thailand is the land of smiles but not everyone smiles. The people are are very honest and kind though. When I told Ying the Thai lady at one of my fave restaurants in Phuket that I got ripped off by a taxi driver she apologized on behalf of the scamster. Then there is Mr. Nong who makes an amazing cup of earl grey tea who thanked me for volunteering at Thai schools. I also love how you are able to forget things like sunglasses at a restaurant or coffee shop and a week later you can go back and have it returned to you by the owner. I’m not saying be reckless or careless but the paranoia that is instilled in most South Africans is not needed here.

Let the learning always continue….

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adventures

School is in session

I’m currently staying in a place called Phanom which is an hour away from Surat Thani and 2 hours away from Phuket. There is not much to do here though, it is just one long main road in what seems like the middle of nowhere. I am surrounded by mountain and jungle but at least the mornings are cool and there is always a breeze. The people are so kind and helpful and go out of their way to make sure I am comfortable. I live in a little bungalow not far from the school where I teach and the lady who owns the bunglalows makes the meanest omelette and tuna salad. The only thing that I wish this little place had was public transport. There are no tuk-tuks or song-taews and not even a place to rent a scooter or car which means my movements are pretty limited.

So I started this week and was extremely apprehensive. I mean me, teaching high school kids. What is the world coming to? Thai kids are naughty, friendly and very respectful of teachers. They will wai and lower/make themselves smaller when they walk past a teacher. I was shocked though at the level of English but I suppose living in a more rural and not touristy area the need for speaking English is not as great. I am enjoying it more than I thought I would even though at the end of the school day I am exhausted. I get to school at 7.30 and wait for the school assembly and everyone has to stand up when they sing the national anthem whilst raising the flag. I currently only have 2 classes a day which leaves me with plenty of time to prepare lessons. I’m done at about 15.30 and school finishes at 16.00 with another assembly. I am also nowrunning the English club with a small group of students who want to improve their conversational skills.

Here are some pictures of my students. I asked some of them what they wanted to be when they grow up. The one boy told me he is going to be a woman when he grows up. The acceptance and tolerance of such statements is astounding.

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