Bangkok from a room with a view

Jonathan and I decided to treat ourselves to a little bit of luxury this weekend in Bangkok. We’ve been in and out of Thailand’s capital a few times now, once for visa purposes and a couple times to catch a film and grab a nice meal. And while it’s perfect for a cultural Thai experience, it’s also a very modern city with very modern amenities. And after living in a relatively small Thai town for two months now, it was appealing to book a night at a fancy hotel and live in the lap of luxury.

Park Plaza BangkokTea and coffee with a view

Our hotel was beautiful, with a fantastic roof-top pool, the most comfortable bed ever, terry cloth robes, and a TV with tons of English channels. We were out and about quite a bit, but the hotel was fun enough to enjoy on it’s own right.

DSCN0329Jonathan at lunch

Our most interesting destination of the visit was a place called Terminal 21. Basically, it’s a 9-story mega shopping mall that’s modeled so that each level mimics a specific city or region of the world. Like many of the giant city malls in Bangkok, it has tons of shopping, restaurants, a movie theater, a full-size fitness center, and probably more that we didn’t stumble upon.

terminal21 mallThe winding escalators of Terminal 21 in Bangkok

Terminal 21 is actually really cute, in a Disney-like alternate reality sort of way. When you walk into the building, a Thai man wearing a captains uniform salutes you as you go through fake security checks. Each floor then has “gates” that tell you what country you’re about to enter. Every staff member had to dress in the apparel of the country, and tons of artistic representations of landmarks (like the Golden Gate Bridge or London buses) were scattered around each floor. It actually wasn’t kitschy at all, just rather creative. We had a blast.

bangkokcolleenOur weekend was relaxed, which is all you can ask for in such a booming city. Bangkok has a lot to offer in terms of Thai culture, but sometimes it’s alright to dwell among the modern comforts.

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Memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence)

After graduating with a four-year college major in the art of readings books (a.k.a. an English major), it’s been refreshing to find that my reading life is no longer dictated by a syllabus. Over the course of a few years, I’ve been encompassed by Victorian novels and poetry and King Arthur and Jane Austen and Shakespeare and very little nonfiction.

So what have I been drawn to in the 6 months since graduating college? Memoirs.

I don’t think I realized the beauty of a memoir until I was loaned a copy of Tina Fey’s Bossypants when I studied abroad in London two years ago. It was humorous, insightful, and quite easy to connect with, even though I have very little in common with Tina herself (besides an absolute adoration for the woman). I then got sucked into the genre of female comedy writers’ memoirs. It’s turned into something of a guilty pleasure, since the books were told in a way that is self-deprecating, hilarious, and ultimately ends in the success the women have found in the comedy world and beyond.

Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Chelsea Handler, and Hilary Winston all cracked me up

After making the rounds with the comediennes, I’ve come across a few more serious memoirs by other women that aren’t as famous, but arguably admirable. My two favorites have been Azir Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. While neither women have much in common (one’s a literature professor in Iran and the other a lost 20-something who went for a long hike in the 1990’s), both used literature as a focal point for describing what they were going through at the time of their life.

Nafisi writes about teaching a secret course on western literature to a group of women in Iran. It’s beautifully written, insightful, and centers each section of the book around the particular novel being read in the group. I learned more about Iran from this book that I have from any political news report.

Wild, on the other hand, follows a woman who chooses to do a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in hopes of dealing with the circumstances of her mother’s death, her divorce, and substance abuse– despite being an inexperienced hiker. I read this book on my flight to Thailand, and I found myself identifying with Strayed’s need to travel in order to look at her life objectively and make future decisions. I highly recommend the book.

So after taking stock of all the memoirs I’ve read in the past 6 months, I’ve asked myself why I’ve unintentionally read so many in such a short amount of time. I truthfully think, like many people, I find there is a lot to be gained from other people’s experiences. All six of these writers have experienced life and found success, and in a not-so-unique way of many recent college graduates, I’m looking at the next step for myself. I know generally what I want to do after I return from Thailand, but I also don’t. I’m afraid of making the wrong decision and getting stuck in a rut of a career I don’t love. I’m stalling on indecision at (what feels like) a crucial time in my life.

But books, as always, have been a place of sanctuary and salvage. It connects me to home and carries me away. I find pleasure in a well-written sentence or perfectly structured story. It’s an addiction I don’t mind having. I know that my love for the unknown that I’ve garnered from books has lead me to be brave enough to move to Thailand.

And who knows, maybe what I read will point me where to go next.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead” -Graham Greene

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View from above

Here’s a quick photo update of a beautiful view from our roof top in Lopburi, Thailand.

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Thoughts on seasons

I miss Fall.

Not just the season itself, but the crisp weather and crunchy leaves and pumpkin flavored products. I miss that feeling that summertime has faded, leaving that academic air of new school years and scarves and warm mugs of tea. Lately, I’ve been envious of my friends who have been attending Halloween parties, football games, and the NC State Fair. And with just a few weeks till Thanksgiving, I realize how soon the holidays will be upon us. I can’t help but miss that.

With friends at the NC State fair last year

When Jonathan and I arrived in Thailand, we were told that we were just a month away from “Thai Winter”. We took this as a positive sign, seeing the on-coming winter as a reprieve from the humidity, hot temperatures, and the habit of taking multiple showers a day to wash off the day’s sweat (lovely image, I know). But the mark of Thai winter has come and gone, and the weather is about the same.

Average temperatures in Thailand

It’s both a blessing and a bit disappointment to live in a country with warm, sunny temperatures all year long. I can maintain a tan and wear summery dresses at any point of the year. But it’s difficult to appreciate the year-long summery weather without experiencing the cold as well.

A few of my Thai friends have admitted that they’ve never left Thailand before, or been anywhere besides Southeast Asia. With temperatures that almost never drop below 70 and often soar over 100, I find it amazing that they’ve never seen snow or needed to bundle up to walk outside. In fact, many of my co-workers wear cardigans on days when it’s 80 degrees outside, commenting on what a cool day it is. It frankly amazes me that we experience temperatures in such different ways.

But there are different seasonal marks here which I haven’t been able to appreciate yet. I’ve been told about April’s Songkran festival, also known as Thai New Years, that marks the beginning of the rainy season. Songkran — which means “a move or change” in Sanskrit– involves traditions of throwing water and spraying water guns to celebrate the on-coming rain. New year resolutions are made, as are preparations for the searing heat of April. In many ways, this period is Thai “Fall” in the sense that a new season is approaching and changes are made. Thailand is introducing me to new seasons, which I look forward to appreciating more as my time here progresses.

Songkran celebrations in Chiang Mai, Thailand (source)

“Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.”  – Charles Dickens

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Getting used to it

One of my first lessons I had to teach as an English teacher trainee was about the difference between “I’m getting used to ___” and “I am used to___.” It’s simplistic in itself (one is a process and the other a completed action), and yet there’s such a grey area as to when you are fully used to something. In terms of myself and Thai culture, I’d say I’m just about used to it… sort of.

Jonathan and I are just a couple days away from celebrating our first month in Thailand (woo!). It’s a bit hard to believe, frankly. Everything has gone from overwhelming to a life of new routines and expectations. Here are a few of the things we’re basically used to now.

1) You see that pickup truck over there? Yes, that’s the bus.

A sawngthew in action

One of the oddest new additions to my lifestyle in the past month has been a new form of transportation– the songthaew (pronounced “song taw”). Long gone are to the good old days with my lovely Honda Civic. I now get around town on a pick up truck with benches on the inside of the truck bed. If you see one going by in Thailand, raise your hand and the driver will pull over to where you’re standing. Jump on board, hang on for dear life, and pay a mere 8 baht (about 25 cents) to ride anywhere in the city. Luckily, they’re frequent, relatively safe, and a lot of fun when you’ve gotten over the absurdity of the situation.

2. Perfecting the wai

Ronald’s rocking his wai in Bangkok

In Thailand, there is custom that’s impossible to miss and important to master. With a slight bow of the head and hands held together in a prayer-like position, the wai is a normal greeting in Thailand (see Ronald’s position above). The level you hold your hands is essential, since there is a particular wai for strangers, friends, monks, etc. Also, you  should consult a Thai person to make sure you’re doing your wai in the correct way for your sex (one’s more feminine). I’ve actually found this practice to be a lovely way to greet people, since it seems a bit more personal than a handshake.

3. Here’s your fork and spoon, madam.

What you get a typical Thai restaurant

As a girl raised in the Southern US, it’s no surprise that I was among the many who attended cotillion courses to learn proper etiquette. This included a lesson on how to use all the utensils, big and small, that were positioned meticulously around my dinner plate. When I first got to Thailand, I was a bit perplexed as to why I was never given a knife, even with dishes with thick meat. After a few tries and a lot of observation, I’ve learned that Thai’s prefer to use the fork for scooping food onto the spoon, when it will then be eaten. It’s a bit different than the knife and fork etiquette I was drilled on, but the Thai way has become second nature now.

4. Water. Lots of bottled water.

Our (very bare) fridge

If you look in any tourist book at Thailand, you’ll see grave warnings to travelers about the cleanliness of Thai tap water. “Don’t drink it!” they say. “Beware!” others say. Since Jonathan and I aren’t ones for taking chances on these matters, our life now includes bi-weekly trips to the store for water (which we carry home ourselves, mind you). It’s a bit tiring and obviously not environmentally friendly, but it has to be done. The humidity itself keeps you grabbing for bottle after bottle each day. Never will I take tap water for granted again!

5. Finally, squat toilets.

Photo Courtesy of Thai travel news

We’re quite lucky in the fact that our apartment has a western-style toilet. But venture out into the real world of Thailand, and you might not be so lucky. I can’t say this is my favorite cultural change in my life, but you learn to takes things as they are in Thailand.

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On island time [Koh Chang, Thailand]

If it took you 15 hours to travel to a paradise island on a succession of cramped, smelly busses, minivans and boats, would you do it?

Jonathan and I answered yes to that question last week. Despite a ridiculously long journey to the southern Thai island of Koh Chang, we found it to be worth the stress. It is an unbelievably beautiful place, with 70% of the island covered in untouched rain forests. Most of the hotels and resorts on the island border the white sand beaches along the coasts. The name — Koh Chang — translates to “elephant island” because of the islands shape (elephants aren’t native here, but tourism has lead many companies to ship some in for elephant treks).

Koh Chang, not too far from Cambodia

It’s no exaggeration that it took an extortionate amount of time to reach Koh Chang from Lopburi. We were given explicit directions from a friend of how to get there, what to pay, where to catch busses, etc. It was fun but grueling, since Jonathan and I are both tall with long legs that aren’t meant to fit into seats proportioned for more petite Asians. We essentially fell into our hotel bed from exhaustion when we finally arrived on the island.

Me enjoying the sun and sand on Kai Bae beach

The highlights of our mini vacation mostly centered western food (food glorious foooood). While we both love Thai food and have enjoyed expanding our knowledge of the cuisine, nothing beats a good burger and fries. Or pizza. Or pasta. Give us any of the above and we tend to salivate in a way we never knew we would after living abroad few just a few weeks. At the moment, we predominantly eat Thai food for two meals a day (we eat cereal and drink tea in our apartment).

We stayed in bungalows about a 3 minute walk from the beach

I suppose there isn’t always too much to write about a beach vacation. We mostly relaxed on the shore, went swimming, read books, tried out different western restaurants on the island (I found great coffee, which made me happy. The instant stuff isn’t cutting it). It was beautiful and amazingly cheap for what we were getting. You can’t beat the value in Thailand, I can assure you that.

All in all, it was well worth the effort.

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A Taste of Tropical Paradise

Spent a few gorgeous days on an island called Koh Chang off the coast of Thailand. It’s tropical and warm and lovely. I’ll do a longer update soon. Until then, enjoy this photo I took.

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