Friday, May 28, 2010

The way we roll, island style

We went to the busy side of the island yesterday. Although there are a lot more food options (we had pizza at a Mexican place called El Gringo; the place featured a dessert called "trio delight," which consisted of a scoop of one type of ice cream), the trip made us realize we had made the right choice staying on the quiet side of the island. The beach is better and there are a lot fewer people.

We did have fun in town, though. We went to a place featuring "island style" bowling.
The floor was made of cheap laminate wood which had warped in the heat, and the pins were hand set every time by a guy waiting on the end of the lane. It definitely wasn't first-class bowling, but it was fun.

During the lazy days, we've been passing some of the time playing cards.
But the other night, our deck was destroyed when they got left in a puddle of condensation from a beer bottle while we ate. So in town I went in quest of a new deck. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, and card playing isn't very popular. I searched about six mini-marts for cards; prices ranged from $6 to $9 a deck! Finally at the seventh place I found a deck for $3. It constantly amazes me how some things over here can be so much more expensive than back home. (Except for things like cheese; I understand why that's expensive, even though the prices make me sad.)

We have a couple more days on the island, and then I head south to Malaysia. A friend who is already there says alcohol is really expensive (it's a Muslim country), so I'll probably bring a couple of bottles of Thai whiskey across the border with me.

To get to where I'm going, I have a seven-hour boat ride to the mainland, then a nine-hour night train to the border. Then I cross the border and take two buses to the pier, then I get back on a boat to head to Pulau Perhentian Kecil. But then I get to stay in place for several weeks before heading off to a different island on a different continent.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Photos and milestones

I got some photos up from Khao Sok; check them out here.Also, the previous post was the 100th post of this blog, which fired up on July 2, 2008. So the two year anniversary is also coming up. I'm averaging about a post a week over the two years; not too bad considering the giant gaps that occasionally appear in the narrative.

Thanks to all of you out there who are still reading, and hopefully I'll keep traveling to interesting places and keep writing about them. Gracias, grazie, terima kasih, and ขอบคุณ (kap koon kap), everyone.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The hiking sucked, literally, not figuratively

In Battambang, we constantly followed the situation in Bangkok. We had purchased train tickets south from the city, but the civil/political unrest in the city was approaching its crescendo. And the train station was only a kilometer from where the protesters had dug in.

But we decided to take our chances. The bus would enter the north side of the city. We would taxi down to the south side to grab the backup camera to replace the one we had lost, and then into the center of the city to catch our train. We made it out without incident. The next day, the situation in the city climaxed. The protesters left their stronghold and parts of the city burned. We were safely south, but hoping the best for everyone back in the city.

We arrived at Khao Sok national park, which one of our friends had said was his favorite place he had visited in Thailand. We managed to find a reasonably nice and cheap resort ($8 a night and a hot shower!) and spent two days hiking. The first day we did a hike that was about eight kilometers each way. The first six were easy, but the last two heading in were a constant battle against gravity, friction, and leeches. We had to keep pulling the slippery, slimy little things off of our legs and backsides.

The next day we were fairly exhausted, but did test our luck by venturing far beyond a “Do not enter” sign.

We then went to a giant lake that was created to generate hydro power. The guides told us there are villages down at the bottom that were covered over when the lake was created. We stayed in some quite interesting but quite rickety raft houses; I was a little surprised that I never fell through the floor of our bungalow.

The highlight of the trip was a hike in a river that cuts a couple of kilometers through a mountain. We had to wear headlamps to provide light in the complete darkness. We spent most of the time in the mountain in the water, though only a few stretches required swimming. We saw huge numbers of bats and spiders, as well as toads, frogs, crabs, and catfish.

After the park, we climbed aboard a night boat to the island of Koh Tao, about seven hours from the mainland. The boat featured a sleeping space for each passenger, but we were amazed at how narrow they were. Lying on my back, my shoulders were wider than the mattress. Fortunately, it is low season, and the boat was far from full.

I am now typing from the deck of our bungalow, which is also quite cheap ($12 a night) and features a completely unobstructed view of the bay. Sinead will be scuba diving for several days, and other than that it is nothing but relaxing for the next week.

Beer is expensive here, though. Just thought I’d let you know in case you thought my life was completely perfect at the moment.

Angkor what?

After the camp’s closing ceremony, we walked out to the road and flagged down a bus headed towards Bangkok. After one night in the city visiting friends, we headed out to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see the temples of Angkor Wat, the remains of the Hindu and Buddhist influenced Angkorian empire.

Cambodia is similar to Thailand in some ways, but it is also a much poorer and more scarred country. The effects of the Khmer Rouge regime can still be seen. Landmines left behind from the country’s civil war still litter the countryside, and Siem Reap is filled with a generous share of the victims, who have come to the city to seek the charity of the tourists drawn in by the temples.

We spent several days touring the temples. It was an interesting experience: the temples seem almost otherworldly at times. The temples have often served as movie locations when ancient ruins are needed; Tomb Raider had large portions filmed here. (Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures because we managed to misplace the camera in the next town.)

After the temples, we headed to the town of Battambang for a change of pace. Battambang is the country’s second largest “city” with a population of about 100,000 people. The only real city is Phnom Penh, the capital with about four million people. In Battambang, we toured the countryside and also took a cooking course. (The restaurant's name was "Smokin' Pot. From a distance all we could see on the sign was the word "Pot" really big. Somewhat relatedly, they serve "happy soup" there.) Next time you see me, just ask and I’ll whip up Cambodia’s well-known amok curry for you. (Any protein can be substituted for the fish.)

After that, it was back into Thailand.

Some final thoughts on teaching in Thailand

Students in Thailand are fairly different in some ways from students in the States, some good and some bad. For the most part, the students are very well-behaved. Respect is very important in Thai culture, and if a student isn’t behaving properly, we would usually just tell them they were being disrespectful and they would straighten right up.

But the students are also weak.

One day, three of my students weren’t in class. I asked one of the teaching assistants where the students were.

“They’re in the nurses’ room,” he said.

“So they’re sick?” I asked.

“They think they might get sick,” he said.

“So they’re not sick?”

“No, but they might get sick,” he said.

We also had a series of students rolling around in wheelchairs.

“Why is Frank in a wheelchair?”

“She has a fever.” (Yes, Frank is a girl.)

“Why is Jena in a wheelchair?”

“She’s menstruating.”

One day, it was raining lightly in the morning. Our academic building is about 250 meters from the dorms. All of the teachers walked to the academic building. The students refused to walk in the rain, so the teaching assistants had all of the students shuttled to the front of the building in a van so the students wouldn’t get wet.

One of the big events at the end of each camp is the class and teacher performances. For the first camp, the teachers made a version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This featured most of the teachers dressing up as zombies and our math teacher dressing up in drag. (Sorry I couldn't upload the video; the internet here is slow and wouldn't allow it. I might try again later.)

The second camp, we did a mockumentary about Lady Gaga visiting the University. Again, it featured our math teacher in drag.

Overall, the camp experience was worthwhile and interesting. I’ll have to see what my situation is next year; maybe I’ll go back.