Professional in Pink, Motorcycles and Running Water: Day 4 at Sukothai Technical College.

If you have ever tried riding a motorcycle wearing a skirt with very little give you will know that it results in well…indecency. For this reason, Mrs. Chan (who I now know… after weeks…as Tanawan) lent me a pair of ¾ lycras and even a ¾ length dress to cover my poor derriere for modesty’s sake again, though it was appropriately adorned with patterns of chaba (hibiscus) flowers. What a palaver.

Professional in PInk. Teacher Chaba, Mr. Chan and Teacher Falong (Mr. Nick)

Professional in PInk.
Teacher Chaba, Mr. Chan and Teacher Falong (Mr. Nick)

This morning was spent in the staffroom of Sukothai Technical College eating, being amused by the matching work uniforms of all of the staff (bright pink, floral shirts- one of the maths teachers was kind enough to lend me one so I didn’t stand out too much), practicing Thai, letter writing and of course munching leftovers. Notice: no teaching. Most of the English teachers have disappeared off the face of the planet… well, at least Sukothai… today. Dr. Suwat is at a meeting in Phitsanulok, Mr. Chan is in Chiang Mai, and Lek is busy with family things the list continues.

Getting started...

Getting started…

At around 1pm we were whisked off to the Chan residence with Mr. Chan, who doesn’t smile in photos in order that he doesn’t look too handsome. He has lent Nick (who has a full and valid driving license) a motorcycle… freedom. This means not having to rely on lifts to go anywhere/ everywhere and being able to explore much more independently. First stop was the post office where I encountered a member of staff who seemed much more interested in the film that was playing behind me than weighing my letters to send off the UK. In fact, when I requested stamps (as opposed to a specially generated exact weight sticker) he looked genuinely appalled.

The Temple beside Sukothai Historical Park.

The Temple beside Sukothai Historical Park.

Next stop was… yet again Sukothai Historical Park (at least the 4th time now), but we didn’t actually go into the park. There is a temple nearby the entrance, which is surrounded by a lake. The locals looked on amused as we sat in direct, scorching sunlight with our freshly sliced, juicy, watermelon. I really appreciate living in the tropics, if only briefly, for the dramatic skies, palm trees and amazing nature. Today was no exception; the catfish in the lake were hungry, but not tricked up to the surface by small stones and the beautiful sky reflected the surroundings above them like a sheet. On the island is one large temple, a couple of smaller ones, a small shrine containing Buddha’s footprint (which is rather large) and a mid sized open sided building made out of wood, bamboo and thatched leaves, which offered some protection from the hot, mid afternoon sun.

The View from the Sheltered Hut.

The View from the Sheltered Hut.

Closed!

Closed!

Going to the public pool in Sukothai near the bus station has become a bit of an afternoon fix. Many of the houses surrounding the college have had no running water for almost 2 weeks, so a dip in a refreshingly cool pool and a shower afterwards are welcomed with open arms. On arrival we were met by a large ‘closed’ sign, which enticed us into speak to the owner who said it wouldn’t be open again until tomorrow morning because it was being cleaned. The water was still and lovely, tempting, but it was not the time unfortunately. Ice tea, however, provided a distraction. Though the ice tea place that we had initially been planning to go to was closed it led us into the jaws, rather the entrance of Sukothai Buddha Park which is situated right beside the river. It is very impressive with lots of beautiful flowers, a couple of small temples and an enormous, rather unusual one which provides shelter for a number of large, golden statues of Buddha in various positions; sitting, standing, lying and (being Sukothai) walking.

Sukothai Buddha Park

Sukothai Buddha Park

A small ice tea joint provided us with a refreshing drink, a little wooden bench that became a prime spot to watch the world go by. Pick up trucks filled with novices in their orange gowns, songtaos (minibuses with no windows) ferrying large numbers of children back from a long day at school, a large farang man on a Harley Davidson who looked rather out of place, children walking by holding the finger of an older relative, cars with blacked out windows concealing mysteries within. As the blanket of night slowly descended we headed home.

Tropical Nature.

Tropical Nature.

“Do you hear that?” punctuated by whoops from downstairs indicated a dramatic change of some sort. I listened intently and heard the faint trickle of running water. The possibilities. Showers, washing dishes… cooking, all sorts. This was to be the first meal I had cooked all week; partly because of the generosity of the other teachers but also because cooking with dirty pots and pans (and no water) can prove to be rather un-delightful. Even spreading butter with a knife that hasn’t been touched in a while can result in an ant filled piece of bread. After a quick jaunt on the motorcycle to Big C (a nearby supermarket) dinner preparations were well underway. Fresh egg noodles with pumpkin, broccoli, carrot, peanuts and onions as well as black pepper and soy sauce seasoning. It was rather satisfying to have a home cooked meal, in truth I rather enjoy the taste of my own cooking, there is some comfort in knowing that I have chosen everything that goes into it. Aroy Mak Mak (very tasty indeed).

The End Result... Amazing.

The End Result… Amazing.

“Oh, is this a Chinese Temple?”: Bicycle Rides, Circle Dancing and a ‘Student Night’ Out.

"Oh, is this a Chinese Temple?"

“Oh, is this a Chinese Temple?”

Washing up out the kitchen window.

Washing up out the kitchen window.

A dose of French toast, cha yen (Thai iced tea) and lounging in the ‘gangster’ shelter just by my bedroom window where the ‘cool kids’ usually hang out was a good way to start the day. This was further improved with a reasonably long cycle ride/ rather unsuccessful mission in photography. As it turns out taking pictures while sitting on the back seat of a semi-fast moving bicycle is not the best way to capture the natural beauty of Wangsaipoon and its surrounds. I was very excited (to the point of suddenly and unexpectedly slamming on the shoddy breaks of my bike) to see glimpses of bright blue from a tree on the edge of a small, stagnant body of water. It was far away, but caught my eye and when I trained my camera in I saw a very small, quite impressive looking blue bird. Though the picture does not do it justice I’m glad I managed to capture it at all. I pedaled my ‘vehicle’ as far as the little shelter from the sun where I finished reading “Stoner” a couple of weeks ago. It was just as beautiful as I remembered despite the weather being distinctly greyer, one could say that this added to the atmosphere and made the field, with the rolling hills in the distance, even more scenic. As did a solo field walker who gave us a familiar nod.

There are about 8 buses that go from Wangsaipoon to Phitsanulok over the course of a day. By the time I looked at my watch it was 1.40pm, which meant there would be no way of catching the 2pm bus unless it was late. It is consistently at least 15 minutes late but I got the feeling that ‘sod’s law’ would intervene, the bus would come on time, and we would miss it. As such the only option was to wait to get the next bus at 3.30pm, much to the surprise of Doi and Ally. It appears that our plans were much too loose; Doi quizzed me as to whether it is normal in my country to be so vague as suggesting meeting up at the weekend with no set time, or even day. Meeting up this weekend got narrowed down to Saturday, then Saturday afternoon and finally 5pm (when it turned out that the 3.30pm bus was the only option).

At the Side of the Road.

At the Side of the Road.

The Vehicle... and the Initial Passenger.

The Vehicle… and the Initial Passenger.

In the Temple.

In the Temple.

By the time we got to Wang Thong it was about 5pm. We piled straight into the truck and headed across to the temple. It transpired that it was closing at 5.30pm so it became a bit of a flying visit. Ally, the Texan girl on a Rotary Exchange Programme, exclaimed about 10 minutes in, “Oh, is this a Chinese Temple?” Doi, Nick and I couldn’t help but mock her gently; there were copious red Chinese lanterns, Chinese characters, Chinese Statues etc. Bless her. This was definitely one of my favourite temples so far, partly because it is located on the top of a hill meaning that the views are pretty amazing. We could see as far as Wangsaipoon in one direction, and if we had arrived earlier we would have been able to look down onto Phitsanulok. There was also a garden full of fake flowers, decorated benches with love hearts and large photo frames to appease many a Thai’s need for taking plentiful photos. I realised that I had actually seen photos from this garden as Teacher Tim and Teacher Frenelly visited a few weeks ago. My camera ran out of battery just as I had taken the last picture of the view. What a lucky person I can be sometimes.

The View.

The View.

Thai towns seem to be reasonably suited to vegetarians and Doi took all of us to a ‘Jay’ (V) restaurant. I was surprised to find a packet of ‘crispy Jew’s ears’ (mushrooms) and was distinctly un-adventurous in my choice of dish: roasted cashews with rice, whereas Nick and Doi had something much more exciting. Ali, however, had already eaten (and proceeded to laugh at Nick and I for our lack of spice tolerance.

Male Bonding.

Male Bonding.

Despite having visited Phitsanulok a fair number of times I had never visited the ‘Walking Street’ night market. It takes place every Saturday and the stalls take up a large long stretch of road beside the river. As with the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok there were live animals for sale; puppies, kittens, but also some eels/ other fish in plastic bags filled with water. The highlight of this trip, however, was the ‘circle dancing’. Doi had quite casually mentioned earlier on that there would be a ‘circle of old people doing traditional dancing’. We walked right to the end of the street and installed ourselves on the top row of the metal seating waiting for the action to begin. There were lots of Thai women (mostly round middle, aging, quite eccentric) wearing matching pink and white polkadot skirts, white frilly shirts, huge brightly coloured flowers in their hair and white sock/ white canvas shoe combinations. They all assembled in a big circle at 8.45pm and each of them were taken as partners by random people from the crowd who had to pay 5 baht (about 10 p) to be part of the festivities. There were lots of different rounds, the first one being traditional that dancing. They also had calypso, salsa and various other types of dancing that basically involved shaking a bit of booty. Doi told us that this kind of dancing was only for ladies and lady boys, not for men (his excuse for not dancing… at least until the last round). However Nick (male, not lady boy), Ally and I were fairly quick to ‘book ourselves a dance partner’. Mine was quite a short, plump woman of about 50 years old with an enormous, illuminating smile. I rather loved following along with the steps and got so into it that this rather effeminate little boy in the crowd would fan me madly to cool me down as I danced on by him.

 

The Walking Street, Phitsanulok

The Walking Street, Phitsanulok

dancers

Some of the Dancers

Next up we had to drop Ally off home (because she has a traditional, very protective host mother- and she is only 17) before heading off to Doi’s ‘quartier’. He showed us a little bit of the nightlife right beside his university. Living in such a small place as Wangsaipoon (an entirely different story from London, but still) I was amazed by the bright lights, the loud music, the large number of young people/ people my age and by the short clothes all the girls were wearing… including me actually. It was more like something out of a film than something that was real. As soon as we arrived we were beckoned over by a group of Thai students who gave us whiskey and introduced themselves. Slightly embarrassingly Doi lent me some of his sexy (I imagine) Thai girlfriend’s clothes because the wardrobe that I had available to me in my rucksack consisted only of two obscenely long teacher skirts and two ¾ length work shirts. As such I turned up, shyly, in a white playsuit adorned with black lace. Though I don’t like to admit it I felt like a bit of a ‘sexy mamma’ and didn’t actually want to give it back to him at the end of the night. Nick was also encouraged to change from what is actually his favourite shirt to one of Doi’s oversized stripy shirts (it was big on Nick, and Doi is a lot smaller than him, so that was a little odd.) What I didn’t mention before was that Doi had brought me 5 outfits to choose from, which was incredibly sweet of him.

Doi and I.

Doi and I.

I would agree with people who say that the best way to get to know a place is with the local people! I feel so privileged.

Drugs Awareness Day, Flat Tyres and a Firefly just beyond the kitchen window.

A captive audience.

A captive audience

“Teacher very cute” my students exclaim through my classroom door, this never ceases to make me smile. “Students very cute” I respond before continuing with my paper work in my free periods. This time is also interspersed by a small group of boys running in with a plastic gecko, which they hold up to me to try and incite fear. I play along, how terrifying to be confronting by a troop of joyful 10 year olds and a reptile made of plastic.

Just beside the school.

Just beside the school.

Yesterday grade 4 was troublesome, to the point that I wanted to walk out and leave them to it. I wanted to avoid a repeat of this at all costs. As a remedy to this today I figured it might be worth using their energy in a positive way as opposed to hitting each other and getting little (no) work done. As such I encouraged all of the students to get out of their seats and to troop into the corridor. All looking surprisingly sheepish, they cautiously exited the classroom and assembled just outside the door, curious as to what was going to happen. First off we played follow the leader, an old favourite, except this time I remained the leader and the students shadowed me in single file. We ran up and down the hall way- forwards, backwards, spinning, hands in the air, crawling… and this turned out to be rather vigorous exercise in the heat of 34 odd degrees Celsius. Afterwards they had to ask each other simple questions and respond to those of their friends as well as lining up in mixed pairs in set grid lines in order to shout out the names of the months in unison which proved to be an entertaining test of teamwork. Heads down thumbs up followed, except I realised that I couldn’t remember the rules so I just got two students to go around pressing the thumbs of some of their fellow students, except they pressed everyone’s thumbs. This went down a treat and they loved it and were all desperate to be thumb pressers; I guess that will have to wait until next time.

Moving my bed.

Moving my bed.

Tidying my house/ gutting my room of various things that had been chewed up by rats (e.g. milk cartons that had been in the bin, but had been torn to shreds) and just general dirt took up a fair bit of time in between classes today. I also decided to move my bed away from the window both to prevent mosquitoes and to have a view out of the windows rather than having them behind my head. Moving the bed proved to be actually impossible alone so I beckoned some students in from the ‘stolen bus seats shelter’ to help/ do it. About six 15 year-old boys piled in wearing navy shorts with knee-high socks (mostly with holes in the toes and the heels) and white shirts. I directed them and they obligingly lifted the ridiculously heavy bed, placing it in the exact spot required with only a little wear and tear to the plastic lino beneath. Thinking back to when I was at school I would have been very surprised to be invited into the bedroom, with a group of friends, to move their furniture… like seeing how the ‘other side’ (teachers, older people, opposite sex…) live.

An unexpected letter from South Africa.

An unexpected letter from South Africa.

Lunch was large and tasty; so large, in fact, that there was enough to take some home for dinner (saves time on cooking). I was also delivered a surprise letter from one of my best friends who is currently in South Africa working in an orphanage for a month (her only month of holiday from her nursing degree!). I stashed it to read later, to savour every word. It transpired that there were no classes this afternoon, when usually there would have been two. Instead there was an unknown (to me at least) afternoon of activities. This didn’t start until 1pm, I realised this when I got to the hall at 12.30pm to find it empty. A quick Skype chat with my mother sounded like a perfect way to spend my time before the activities but the connection was being slow and we didn’t manage to connect until a couple of minutes before 1pm. Almost as soon as I had started speaking to her I heard the school’s marching band playing ‘Oh When the Saints Go Marching In’ as they paraded across the school grounds, out the gate, doubled back on themselves and proceeded back to the activity hall. The chat was brief and entertaining, I managed to justify it in my head as educational. A number of the students, maybe 5, gathered round and listened intently as I spoke quickly in a Scottish accent. They seemed amazed when my mother put her webcam on and they could see her in person, live, and hear her talking directly to them. I introduced them all and they had a rather charming conversation before all being photographed together (my mother on the screen of course). After saying our goodbyes we trekked across to the hall to join in with the activities, only half an hour late.

My mother on chat with some of my students...

My mother on skype with some of my students…

Games during the activities.

Games during the activities.

Drugs Awareness was the mood of the meeting and the school had invited in a nurse and a policeman to talk to the children and show them a few short videos/ case studies. I would have been interested to understand what they were saying, but didn’t as it was all in rather fast Thai. At one point they had to pray for those who had been affected by drugs. I wrote notes, so from them: “They have closed their eyes, many of them at least. Some pull strained faces, others look at peace, and there are some who squint, opening one eye slyly letting the curiosity of what is going on around them take over while at the same time trying to respect what they have been asked to do, whereas others simply refuse to close their eyes at all. Although they are all technically in the one room for the same thing, the individuals, the pairs, the little groups, are totally distinct, in different worlds: gaggles of older girls leaning on each others’ shoulders, pleating each others’ hair discussing ‘bigger things’; groups of little boys playing rock, paper, scissors; very small girls with dark blue ribbon bows in their hair sitting peacefully focusing on the events in contrast to the older girls with their long hair tied up in complicated and beautiful ways. And suddenly, quiet, full attention. The nurse can hardly believe it. She laughs nervously and it reverberates around the room. The microphone picks it up though she probably didn’t want it to be heard.” That was a little snippet of my ‘live notes’, so to speak. As with most activities the drugs awareness session ended with about an hour of karaoke, which I chose not to partake in, but enjoyed from the distance.

Prayer.

Prayer.

Nick arrived just in time to catch a few of the last students at school. I picked him up from the main road on my bike and lots of people were shouting at us as we rode by; the tire was getting rather flat and that was the reason. We followed where the hands were pointing and stopped at a little place by the side of the road where there was a pump and also Chayut, one of my students. His father pumped up the tires and after wye-ing them all we continued on our way back to Anubanwangsaipoon where a rather odd game of scrabble awaited. No Oxford English Dictionary to hand, lots of different sets of letters mixed into one enormous bag, so a strange occurrence of letters (barely any vowels) or only consonants… not standard rules by any means. Just before six o’clock I ran downstairs to make sure that I didn’t get locked into my classroom AGAIN, as once was enough. I heard keys downstairs, sprinted round the corner and asked the grounds keeper if he could wait. He signaled to me as if to say go to the stairs at the other side of the school while he locked those ones. When I got to the other gates they were also locked and after running back and forth a few times it transpired he had just been waiting at the original set as the first set were locked… Phew.

Taking the session seriously.

Taking the session seriously.

Tonight was the first time I have ever seen a fire fly, glowing on a tree just outside the ‘kitchen’ window. The image sticks in my mind, it was beautiful, just as my day has been. I have added a couple of photographs that I took after school finished when I was feeling particularly arty and making the most of my camera!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Life, Death, Dancing, Dinner and the ‘Bright Lights’ of Phichit.

The morning rain.

The morning rain.

This morning, unlike most, it is raining. It is 10am: two teachers, one of my classes and I are sheltering from the downpour outside: as such it is refreshingly cool. Since the Thai teachers entered, the room has been fairly still and quiet with the students doing homework instead of balancing pens between their lips and noses (with me), dancing or play fighting. I’ve been working here for a while but I’m not sure if I’ve said that I really like the kids. They are (can be) so enthusiastic and entertaining, just quite sweet and innocent. As I’m writing quite a few of them are giving me some eye contact and raising their eyebrows repeatedly and dramatically to make me laugh: needless to say, it’s working.

Group work is something that, in my experience, doesn’t feature heavily as part of the Thai curriculum. I surprised myself when my students arrived and I started writing names on bits of paper, getting designated people to cut them in half, writing instructions on the board and splitting people up into pairs. We were going to play a bit of an elaborate game relating to birthdays that would involve pairs talking to individuals, finding out when their birthday was and writing the sentence ‘His birthday is on…’ or ‘Her birthday is on…’ on the correct section of the paper. A few people were off so there were only 17 and as pairs they were supposed to be competing to get the birthdays down fasted. As it turned out they were too friendly and united for that, all of them queuing up at the board when every pair had finished; all being given little, shiny, red star stickers at once. Then we proceeded outside the classroom during the lesson, which seemed to be a bit of a novelty for them, they handled it well. The next part of the game required all of the students to line up in order of birthdays from January through to December; this provided difficult, but we managed.

Grade 5/2 in order of birthdays.  Left to right: January to December

Grade 5/2 in order of birthdays.
Left to right: January to December.

Often at lunchtime I dash into the kitchen, eat very quickly and dash out again. This is not really the best way to get to know the staff, and usually only happens when my mentor is not there (which is the majority of the time). However, she was there today and I stayed with the other members of staff almost for the whole lunch hour, using a chocolate ice cream as an excuse to stay sitting around with them. I’m going to try and do this more often. Usually I’m not really involved in conversations, but today was a bit of a breakthrough. Even though people were making fun of me for having a big nose (how does she eat an apple or a guava (big round fruit)… her nose must get in the way- I humoured them and said that I chopped the fruit first) I felt included.

After lunch I had two classes back to back. In the first one I was leading a game of hang man based on the vocabulary that the students were learning but after being warned a number of times I had to cut the game short, though I felt a bit guilty for the kids who were behaving. The class involved a number of confiscations, a number of alterations to the seating plan (including moving one boy to an entirely different classroom) and when said boy was playing up another boy who is a bit of a lad but always finishes his work and more offered to hit him for me. Though this entertained me, I was clearly bound to refuse politely. In the second class the students didn’t turn up until 15-20 minutes after the classes. Well, most of them didn’t, two girls appeared on time and we started the class without the others! One of the girls offered me a Barbie as a present and somebody whipped a sheet of stickers out of their wallet. My first sheet of red star stickers from Bangkok went missing and I am entirely certain that they were the same ones… a little weird, but I know that she didn’t steal them.

Outside the staffroom with some of the grade 4s.

Outside the staffroom with some of the grade 4s.

Thursday straight after school tends to be a time when students like to stay behind in my class and complete homework, or at least expect to be entertained by their farang teacher. I stepped up to the bar and showed them a couple of Bollywood videos on my lap top before putting on some Justin Timberlake and choreographing/ teaching quite a simple routine to a few of them while the others watched on amazed. Being in 35 degree heat, in a small class room full of students and wearing (overly) modest clothing results in a little/ a lot of overheating. My floor length skirt proved to be dangerous when I did dramatic spins and fell over… Oom, one of the students who was copying each and every move of mine, fell over dramatically also. I couldn’t help but laugh. Justin Timberlake ‘Cry Me a River’ was the song that we danced to and I think the moves weren’t bad.

When the dancing became (far) too hot and sweaty we stopped and I became a student, they became my teachers. I had to sit at their desks, whereas they stood up beside the board and taught me various Thai words and phrases for use in the classroom by acting things out. For example, two boys started mock fighting and the girl holding the pen shouted ‘ham-len’ and they broke up the fight. Then they started again and I had to instruct them to stop, they looked so proud of me. It was actually very handy, they may regret teaching me those things when (and not if) I use them tomorrow!

The staff room provided a haven of some sort again and I was able to sit down and write a letter to my great aunt, the poet, who I haven’t put pen to paper for since I lived in Mauritius. An evening of no set plans awaited me until Teacher Tim called me up and asked me if I wanted to go to Sak Lek market. I almost jumped out of my seat to go and meet her immediately; this opportunity doesn’t come up every day. Six of us piled into her car and had a bit of a hilarious drive there. The market in Sak Lek surrounds the temple near the bus station and sells all sorts from pumpkins, to whitening skin cream, to chopped pigs ears to pots and pans. I acquired a towel (finally, after being here since 12 July), some mango and sticky rice, some fresh corn and a whole pumpkin (these are not available in Wangsaipoon); the grand total coming to well under £3! I have got so used to the prices here, when I go back to London I am certain that I will be horrified and not want to buy anything.

As we hopped back into the car we (Frenelly and I) were told that when we got home we had to put on black or white clothes to go to the temple… for a funeral. This was all communicated very unceremoniously. When we got back we had 10 minutes to get ready, I had to borrow clothes from two fairly little Philipino women because Thursday is my clothes washing day and they were all absolutely drenched. We then piled into the director’s car and drove for what I think must have been an hour and a half, I slept most of the way in a state of mild confusion. The hot evening spilled into the car when we opened the doors, the air-conditioned air quickly escaping as we walked towards the temple. It was busy inside with lots of people standing, sitting on red and blue plastic chairs or sitting on the floor. Most people had their hands in a prayer position and their heads bowed facing a line of (I think) eight cross-legged monks. The ceremony lasted for about an hour and consisted of prayer, members of family and friends offering lotus flowers to the monk, individuals taking incense and praying to something that looked like a coffin, but I don’t think it can have been because it was so brightly coloured and lit up. Most people seemed fairly jovial, including the widow (a teacher at school) and I only saw a few small tears shed. Afterwards the smell of boiled meat filled the space and schoolgirls handed out bowls of noodles, stew and cups of cold water to the guests. Then everybody dispersed and that was that.

We piled back into the car and immediately fell asleep, only to wake up to the ‘bright lights’ of Phichit town. The director got out and we followed him, somewhat blindly, to a restaurant across the road from the parking spot and sat down to eat. The waiter, on my telling him in Thai that I am a vegetarian, suggested that I could have chicken or pork. I laughed, thinking he was joking (so many people do), but no, he was being serious. Thankfully Teacher Tim was next to me and came to the rescue by ordering nuts and broccoli. After about an hour of eating, drinking, glimpsing a Thai film on the TV in the background and listening to ‘English’ music we shot off, returning in convoy to Wangsaipoon.

Some days very little happens except in my imagination, but today was most definitely not one of those days!

Enhancing English Skills for Sukothai Entrepreneur Project: tourism, temples and tempura fried corn…

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An hour later than expected a silver minibus picked us up from a bench beside the reflecting pools at Sukothai Technical College. Inside were various members of the ‘Entrepreneurial Project’ donning bright orange teachers and a scattered group of (more than slightly) confused foreigners. The overwhelming feeling was one of vague excitement, overshadowed by curiosity about what on earth had brought us all together.

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Yellow Hats.

Gradually, over the course of a few hours, the yellow capped (literally) farang gang joined together forces as an ‘English machine’. We worked our way round the surrounding tourist attractions (tram tours, ox and cart rides, bicycle trips, market stalls, restaurants, and local businesses (pottery, carpentry…), putting the staff through their paces by asking copious, often quite complicated, questions in order that they could complete their certificate in English for tourism. This is what I gathered anyway. Every step of the way was unexpected and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the ride in a cart behind two oxen; all of the members of the party had to temporarily trade in their bright yellow caps for traditional straw farmer hats, protecting us from the strong sun.

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Ally and Nick.

Our gang was compiled of about 10 Thai people who work with/ run the entrepreneurial project and a number of English speaking foreigners. A 17 year old Texan who arrived in Thailand 9 days ago to do an 11 month high school exchange through the rotary club; a 33 year old Norwhichian sign interpreter; a young couple travelling around Asia who were just about to go back to Luxembourg; a Polish teacher who had done some volunteering in a Thai school and a bit of travelling and a small number of ETAs from the British Council/ Thai Ministry of Education Summer Scheme. At one point during the tour on the bus (which was entirely in Thai), Nick was given a turn of the microphone and a set of headphones. He ended up listening to the recording of the tour in English and trying to quickly repeat the words to form sentences for everybody to hear and understand. It was good while it lasted (at least, it was entertaining) but not very sustainable.

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Nick, the tour guide.

The morning was spent at Sukothai Historical Park (my third visit, but there are always new things to learn). We first took the bus tour in Thai, with the occasional stop to get off and look around (by my request). Next up we travelled by ox and cart, but we didn’t cover much ground too quickly, then bicycle trip and onto lunch. We were sent to a room at the back, which was very sterile and white, closed off with glass doors from the main restaurant. I must have looked like I was struggling to use my chopsticks because one of the guys in orange quite promptly offered me (and only me) a fork! The afternoon, in my opinion, was more interesting because we visited places that I had never been to and got to speak to the owners and staff at local businesses, and even get to see some of them at work; making pottery, carving wood to make cabinets, sculpting mini Ganesh statues… all sorts. We also got to visit some lodges that were for rent and the owner looked surprised when I asked her if it cost the same if four people slept in a double bed as it would for two. We were supposed to ask unexpected questions, but she dealt with it well. The answer was yes this was fine.

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Sculpting Ganesh.

I have taken to introducing myself to Thai people with my Thai name: Chaba (meaning hibiscus) because it is much easier to pronounce. There are no tricky ‘r’s or ‘l’s or hard endings like ‘tte’. It usually makes people laugh, but it is as much for their good as it is for mine. If not I end up being called Sha-lot-ayy. The last activity of the day took place in what seemed to be a primary school, though there were very few children. After more than 40 minutes of sitting around slightly aimlessly and being given little parcels of sweet desserts wrapped in banana leaves and some refreshingly cold chrysanthemum juice, the ceremony began. Official looking people wearing government uniforms arrived, wye-d the audience and were met with applause, before awarding multitudes of certificates to many of the people whose businesses we had visited, along with some others. I will openly admit that at one point I dropped off into a light sleep, just awake enough to hear the ripples of clapping hands and to quickly open my eyes and join back in. I thought that I had gone unnoticed, but one of the orange t-shirted ‘friends’ (rather than staff) pointed this out to the rest of the group. All of the farang gang who remained (the Luxembourgers left after lunch) were awarded with certificates of participation in Thai. Two of the 5 of us were given certificates with no names filled in, and one of us was given a certificate with a rather amusing spelling error (see below).

Fantastic spelling mistake.

Fantastic spelling mistake.

By this point it would have been too late for me to catch the last bus from Phitsanulok to my town/village/subdistrict, as it leaves at 5.30pm. For this reason I was first bundled back into the silver van with some of the others to Phitsanulok. Then two of us were transferred into one of the younger ‘friends’’ trucks to complete the rest of the journey. Doi is a 26-year-old linguistics student at the University of Phitsanulok and lives in Wang Thong. He introduced me to the best roti stand in town (which was incredible), we ploughed our way through the night market and proceeded to eat our ‘street food’ on a concrete ledge by the Nan River, before hitting the road to Wangsaipoon. By this point it was dark and we had to drop the Polish teacher, Jo, in the centre of town. Despite Doi being a fair bit younger than her he insisted that it was his duty, as a man, to look after her. It also transpired that Thai people (according to him at least) only consider people with white skin, yellow hair and big noses to be farang. Other Asians and people who are not of European descent do not seem to count. This was news to me.

Doi and I with hibiscus in the background (Chaba).

Doi and I with hibiscus in the background (Chaba).

En route, down the dark road, I learnt a bit about Doi’s life and also quite a few new Thai words and phrases. Although sentence structures seem to be very simple (example: Are you hungry? Would be Hiew(hungry) mai(question word)?) some words are extremely difficult to pronounce and can be easily confused with others. Instead of saying ‘my handsome older brother’ (brother can be outside the family- a loose kinship term) one could accidentally, and innocently declare ‘sex, sex’ (two different words for the same act). I do need to be careful with this one, my ‘teacher’ has warned me. The latter of the two is rather unadvisable. Also, instead of asking Doi to turn right I asked him to turn ‘buffalo’, this is just one of these things. In time (hopefully) I will learn. After the long drive, making our way through the closed school gates and keeping the school yard dogs at an arms length he drove back to Wang Thong and I ‘drove’ myself up the stairs and straight to bed!

I think he lives here now..

I think he lives here now..

ASEAN ‘pop up parties’, Outdoor Swimming Pools and Motorcycle Rides… Another Day in Sukothai

This morning the house woke to some commotion outside. There were lots of cars, trucks, and motorcycles by the edges of the football pitch in the school grounds of college. An exploratory adventure was required, so off we went.

The experience of walking into what is usually the canteen was transformed by the presence of multitudes of women dressed in matching shirts, or matching traditional outfits, or other kinds of matching shirts. Men were few and far between and it was clear that the ‘event’ was for and organised by women. From what I gathered this ‘pop up party’ was put together to celebrate ASEAN and to encourage women to get involved in its progression (or something along those lines). It seemed to be a very big deal: there was a section with big boards of information about all of the ASEAN countries with maps and photographs, information about money, climate, politics etc… and a man who seemed to be the official photographer spied out the farang (not too difficult to spot, what with being reasonably tall, and reasonably pasty), proceeding to take pictures of us at EVERY SINGLE board we stopped at. Somehow I doubt that we will get to see the results, maybe that’s for the best though. In Thailand matching outfits seem to be all the rage at big events like this. For example, at my school when we were celebrating mothers’ day, all of the teachers/ members of staff were given matching, fairly fitted, shiny, bright blue blazers made out of the same material but slightly different shapes for men and women.

After a quick iced tea (which is orange with lots of condensed milk- I’ll have to try making some when I get back to the UK) we were picked up from the school gates by Mr. Chan- another English teacher from Sukothai Technical College. As soon as we arrived his wife (and her mature English students) served a delicious, and impossibly enormous, lunch. Almost immediately following on from this, breaking the convention of having a break after eating to let the food ‘sink in’ we piled into the back of the pick up truck to go to the local outdoor swimming pool with Khing- a VERY excited (and reasonably chubby) 10 year old. When I saw the pool I instantly became aware that the pool at my school in miniscule. To do a lap in our circular pool it only takes two strokes of the front crawl. This pool was different though and the space felt even bigger because there were less than 40 of us inside. It was entertainingly like a high school swimming pool due to the ages of the ‘customers’, and their repetitive races and games and ENERGY!

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Quick nap in the back of the pick-up. Swimming is more tiring than I remember.

I get the feeling that many Thai people have different notions of near and far than people who live in the UK. Walking 10 minutes can be considered ‘far’, I guess near would be about 2 minutes. Khing led us to a bar around the corner where we met his father (Mr. Chan). Khing proceeded to eat a whole plate of tempura-fried shrimp as I nibbled on some (deliciously refreshing) cucumber before we headed back to the Chan residence for yet more feeding. This time, for a change, we ordered western food- pizza. Which, to our surprised, was considered to be only a started and so we were given noodles, vegetables, fruit, the full works!

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Khing.

The last time I visited the Chan’s I ‘made a little child cry’ purely by being present. This little ‘faux pas’ has earned me the reputation of being a ‘demon’, in contrast to the ‘angels’ that surround me. Today I was able to somewhat shake off the name, but not entirely. Khing, Nick and I went round to a neighbour’s house to see her and her son (the boy who I supposedly made cry). Although he did avoid eye contact with all of us he did not immediately cry on my arrival; I was doing well. However, after a couple of minutes and an incident, which involved mounting a toy tractor and hitting his head very hard off the tiled floor, the crying began again. Almost being run over by a jeep also featured in this little story, after attempting to play the titanic on a little xylophone we went back to the Chan’s house to sit together and listen to music.

For the first time in my life I tried riding a gearless motorcycle. There were 4 standing unused, three of them complete with a set of keys in the ignition. The Chan’s live right by a golf zone (putting green?!?) and just beyond that lie rice paddies and mountains. Idyllic would describe the area well, on the motorcycle I was able to zoom down the dirt track in time to catch the sun melting like golden honey behind the clouds, the porous mountains absorbing the light. What a luck demon devil.

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Sukothai Historical Park (Take 2), Good Food and a Night on the Mezzanine.

A piece of cake is great way to start the day. Despite having the opportunity to go to the café round the corner from Helen’s in Phitsanulok I have always resisted (for cost reasons usually), but the time had come and I treated myself to a rather small slice of mandarin flavoured (and coloured) sponge cake. The café strikes me as one that would be quite at home in East London; not on a busy street by the river in a fairly sleep town in central Thailand. The chic interior and photography equipment and brick based decoration (see photos) contrasted significantly with the open planned (and reasonably scruffy looking) tire and pipe shop across the road.

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The decor. It looks more like East London than Phitsanulok!

Helen and a few of the others had been planning to go through to Sukothai, as was I, so we had decided to join forces. However, just before getting the bus it transpired that Helen’s companions had bailed on her. She had been planning to go to Sukothai Historical Park, and as a history student from Oxford University (!) I didn’t want to deprive her of the experience. As such I offered to accompany her instead, after all it is a very fascinating and beautiful place to spend time. Over the course of our journey on the ‘gangster’ (Helen’s words, not mine) Thai bus we managed to work out a plan with Nick, an ETA who lives in Sukothai. Instead of Helen and I going alone we would meet Nick and Mr. Chan, one of the English teachers from his college, and all go together. The bus ride whizzed by. This was largely due to kipping en route, but somehow I managed to avoid Helen taking any embarrassing sleeping photos of me because my ‘spidey sense’ (or something) woke me up just as she was sneaking her camera out of her bag. Cheeky.

After slipping in some mud, falling up the curb, my bag pulling me face first into the concrete and grazing my arm slightly (only to be laughed at by Nick and Helen- It must have looked funny) we jumped into Mr. Chan’s pick-up truck. We swung by their place and had some corn that had just been picked by Mrs. Chan’s students and got into two separate trucks to go for lunch (the students came too). We arrived at a semi-indoor/semi-outdoor restaurant where we feasted on delicious Thai food including Thai Green Curry, mixed, roasted, cashew nuts and mixed vegetables in a mouthwatering soup. It was lovely to be surrounded by (some of) the Chan family, Mrs. Chan’s mature students who I already knew, and to be between two lovely ETAs- Helen and Nick! The group was extremely pleasant company and we made jokes together almost constantly as we ate. The jokes were interspersed by slow, educational English conversations with the students to allow them to practice in a safe and informal environment.

nick and charBeing foreign English teachers, and being under the wing of Mr. Chan we were allowed to enter the park for free! The perks. Helen, Nick and I were let loose on the park when the others sat in a little restaurant shack together. As it was my second time at the park it felt weirdly homely, especially knowing that I would be back in another two days time. Helen seemed really impressed by the park. We were all slightly/ very taken back by a large group of Southern European tourists who were scantily clad, riding around on bikes, playing loud music and filming themselves dancing around beside various ancient Thai temples and relics; it felt more that a little inappropriate considering the religious surroundings, not to mention multitudes of Buddha statues. When we had exhausted the park for Helen’s 1st, my 2nd and Nick’s 3rd time we headed back to meet the others and were treated to quite unusual ice/jelly/condensed milk/ toukmaria deserts (that looked slightly like pink frog spawn).

 

Khing (a.k.a. “little Chan”) attends Saturday school every week until 4pm. In quite quite succession we headed from the Old City to the new city to meet some of the staff at his school, pick him up, drop Helen at the bus station and nift straight over to Dr Suwat’s. He is another English teacher at Sukothai Technical College who had invited us all over for dinner, and more importantly a long and loud session of Karaoke. I had been warned that Dr. Suwat had a nice dog and a very scary dog. The former amicably pottered up to us to say hello and I heard the latter before I saw him; thankfully he was in a cage. Khing, as a rather sensitive 10-year-old boy, was terrified of the larger and more aggressive dog. Nick and I combined forces so that I would cover both of Khing’s ears and Nick would walk on the right hand side so that he couldn’t see the dog or hear him! It worked surprisingly well.

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The Chans

Dr. Suwat immediately endeared me. He had a winning smile, a strong and friendly handshake and wore a rather snazzy Hawaiian style shirt with quite snug black ¾ length jeans. As many Thai people do he has a covered, open-air kitchen which he had made full use of. There was so much food and it looked incredible, he had also pushed the boat out to make nice vegetarian food as there were two present. We assembled everything on a table on his roof terrace above his house, but almost immediately the afternoon rain started to fall so we had to move it down one level to a slightly lower, covered seating area. I must say I do enjoy keeping the company of this particular 10 year old. He is a hilarious lad and adores both food (probably more than anything in the world) and dancing. Although he appreciates singing he is not a fan of grasping the microphone himself, probably a wise choice as I was electrocuted by it a number of times. In the UK I have only to my memory done Karaoke once, Thailand has multiplied this number dramatically. My repertoire of songs is rapidly expanding, although I can’t quite sing in Thai yet. Luckily Dr. Suwat and the others were amazing and when they sung it was quite charming.

I’ll just say that some of the herbal remedies here are amazingly effective, in fact, unbelievably so. I tried some of Mrs. Chan’s, rubbing a little onto my temples, my forehead and then (regrettably) under each of my eyes. Within a minute my whole face felt cold and was stinging, my eyes watering and the rest of the company laughing slightly madly. I know now not to do this again, unless it is an emergency and I have to be wide awake but do not need the use of my eyes! What a night. It just feels so lovely to have been accepted into the family and social circle of such a lovely Thai family.