Farewell Wangsaipoon: Theft, Thanks and The Trip Back to Bangkok

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Goodbye Teacher Charlie

Typing whilst in a fast moving, jolting minibus is probably not the best idea I have ever had. However, I’m going to be on the road for a few hours so I might as well utilise them wisely. English teachers surround me and we are all en route to Bangkok to the Ambassador Hotel for our farewell conference/ meeting with all of the other English Teaching Assistants, many of their mentors, the British Council and the Thai Ministry for Education. I’m very pleased that we are having some kind of a climax of our trip where we can see each other again and exchange stories and experiences face to face, as well as having the chance to nip to the incredible day markets and night markets in the capital itself to pick up a few things to take back to what is sunny England today (26 degrees Celsius I hear… the verdict for Sunday isn’t so promising, but I mustn’t complain).

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A ladder. Shortest to Tallest.
Teacher Joy, Teacher Frenelly, Teacher Charlie

Goodbye Teacher Joy, I say as I drop her off at 7/Eleven on my bicycle. Well, actually Teacher Oh’s bicycle, but during my stay I have had full use of it. She knows that I’m going to write about it on my blog and suggests what the line will be, “As usual, I dropped Joy off at the main road.” What a sweetie. Teacher Joy, I know you will be reading this, thank you for being a wonderful housemate for all the time that you have actually been at home and not off gallivanting in Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos.

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My name is Teacher Charlie

As I went up to the counter to pay for my breakfast I felt the blood rushing (at least slightly faster than usual) to my head. I was almost penniless. This came as a shock to me as I had been paid half a month’s wages just two days ago and my biggest purchases were cha yen (Thai iced tea- 40p), two sliced mangoes (30p) and a loaf of bread (40p), so not the most extravagant shopping trips. I moved away from the counter and walked to the side of the 7/Eleven, which is always blissfully air-conditioned (occasionally a stand alone reason for visiting the shop), and thought through the last day and what could have happened. After school yesterday when I had been sitting with two of my rather lovely students chatting away some of the older girls who I don’t know hijacked our little ‘picnic of words’ to get a picture with me. They were quite cold in their mannerisms and very quickly shifted off on their motorcycles. At this point my bag had been in the basket of my (or Teacher Oh’s) bike just a meter or two away, but out of sight. I imagine that one of their friends took the money while they distracted me with the photo taking. This was a fairly unsettling realisation to have just an hour before my last day of school, that I had been robbed by students… not just an unknown, faceless character on a bike (like in Bangkok). Although I can see a little poetry in being robbed on my second day in Thailand and on my second last day I was a little miffed. However, after interrogating some of the students and having a policeman into the school the director agreed to reimburse me the amount of money which had been stolen… a huge relief I’m sure you’ll agree.

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Thank goodness I don’t mind public speaking.

‘Chan pasa Thai dai…’. ‘Chan poot thai dai’… then, finally ‘Chan poot pasa thai dai lek noi’, I managed to spit the words out. During assembly this morning I had to give a speech to the whole school, what has become a fairly rare occurrence, but this time it was marking the end of my time here (or should I say there, as I get further and further away from the school and closer to Bangkok?). I have no issue standing in front of hundreds of people speaking; in fact I rather enjoy it. That said it is much easier when expressing myself in English. I was lucky enough to have Teacher Tim to translate for me so the students could actually understand the sentiment of what I had to say. Teacher Frenelly took a few shots and managed to capture some (at least slightly) entertaining gesticulations of mine as I spoke to the students.

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The School

As my first class of the day, Grade 5/2, filed into my classroom I was suddenly aware that this was my last day as Teacher Charlie (or even Teacher Chaba) of the English Department at Anubanwangsaipoon, Wangsaipoon Sub district, Phichit, Thailand! I also realised that I know all of their names, their faces, and to a reasonable degree their capabilities and most importantly to me their characters. Although they gel together as a group they are all such individuals and I sometimes enjoy just sitting at the front of the classroom looking over them from my ‘teacher platform’, observing how they operate, how they interact with each other. I’m definitely going to miss being around such curious, cheeky, funny and affectionate young’uns. They sprung to their feet and chanted with their usual enthusiasm and volume:

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Students: “Good Morning Teeechaa Chaahhlleee.”

Teacher Charlie: “Good morning students. How are you?” (Chirpily)

Students: “I am fine thank you, and you???” (With an endearing inflection at the end of the sentence)

Teacher Charlie: “I am very well thank you. As you know, today is my last day… so, what do you want to do?”

Students: “Play game!!! We love games!!!”

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Lovely Wee Class

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What a Wee Sweetie.

As such we all bounded across the school grounds to the activity hall to play a few last games of ‘What’s the time Mr. Wolf’ and Simon Says. At one point Teacher Tim came over to discuss the ‘stealing’ incident and told me that they were interrogating the older kids and a policeman had been called in. While we were talking my class who were assembled behind me in the formation for Mr. Wolf rearranged themselves into a sitting circle, picked a ‘chooser’ and started playing Duck, Duck, Goose without any kind of directions being given to them. I was very proud of them.

Initially the plan had been for Teacher Tim to drive Teacher Frenelly and I to Phitsanulok at about 5pm (before dark) and sit in her brother’s house until about 12pm in time to get the bus at 12.30am, which would result in us pulling into Bangkok at 5.30am (or later knowing Thai buses) with no-where to sleep. I’ll be honest; this didn’t sound appealing so I tried to engineer the situation to be more pleasant. After convincing my mentor to phone a friend of mine’s mentor it was agreed that we would leave at 1pm and meet them in Phichit Town and transfer into their minibus and spend the night in Bangkok. What a relief, in one way, but I needed to pack!

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The Time has Come

I dashed around frantically trying to pack my life into a small bag, and after an hour or so of hot running around and listening to Kate Nash (or all people) to calm myself down my room was ready. It looked bare, especially as Teacher Frenelly had stripped the bed first thing in order to wash the bed clothes soon enough for them to dry by night time. When I leave I get the feeling that a lot of things will change. The English Department will go from having three teachers, to two; Teacher Frenelly will move into the house under Teacher Tim; Teacher Kan will move into our house; it even sounded like Teacher Joy may not stay on the school grounds of Anubanwangsaipoon anymore. In some ways I’m glad that the packing (and even the leaving) was such as rush as it meant that I had less time to process it, believe it and get upset about it.

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My Last Class.

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Some of my Boys.

My afternoon classes were not to have a teacher, when they thought they would. Thankfully I had time to head up to my classroom for one last time and say goodbye to one group of students who were incredibly sweet and at the last minute cut me up little white hearts writing their names and little messages on them, the girls coming up one by one to the front of the class and sticking little love heart stickers on my dress looking up at me admiringly and even nostalgically for they knew that I wouldn’t be standing there tomorrow. Even the boys, who seem to make a special effort to annoy me, walked up meekly to hug me. I found myself standing in the corridor surrounded by my favourite little people hugging me from all directions; it was rather lovely actually.

And suddenly it was time to go. I felt like a celebrity when I rolled down the tinted electric window and waved out of the open space to my students as they ran along beside the car. And suddenly we had pulled out of the school grounds, out of Wangsaipoon and were driving down the open road en route to Bangkok. I don’t remember the journey taking such a short time before, but we were in the capital in time for dinner. After checking into a hotel that wasn’t too far from Khao San Road we found somewhere, after a bit of searching, where they served some vegetarian dishes. Typically I managed to eat a chili during the meal and become flustered, all to the entertainment of my teachers/friends and even the minibus driver.

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Khao San Road

I have never got a taxi for such a short distance in my life. We were confronted with about 6 hellish lanes of traffic that seemed impossible to cross and Dr. Suwat matter of factly hailed a taxi to literally take us to the other side of the road! It cost very little and just meant that we went down the road and turned at a roundabout when so that we were on the right side of the road, but I was thoroughly entertained. The scene was quite magical with fairy lights lining all of the trees and brightening the skyline. We lounged in a park just before a large and beautiful Temple that was closed for the night and in Thai style took a couple of pictures, and the others took a couple of selfies. In the distance, behind the court building, I could see a storm brewing with flashes of lighting illuminating dark clouds with white and purple forks, sheets of lightning (or faalep) filling the sky.

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Pancakes (cheese… and then cinnamon) ensued and then a trip to a really amazing jazz bar filled the rest of the evening. The jazz flowed so naturally and I found myself in a very cool (I can’t use another adjective) jazz bar, which was fairly small and filled with jazzy Thais. By the window the band were installed; a double bassist, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a singer and a saxophonist who casually joined in part way through and they performed wonderful, very soulful and spontaneous songs with such energy and passion. It was a pleasure to share a room with them.

That’s enough for now, but all I can say is I had an amazing ‘second’ last day in Thailand and I am so grateful to everyone at Anubanwangsaipoon for their hospitality, encouragement, humour and… food!

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My First Day Back at Anubanwangsaipoon in… a while! ( I haven’t had classes here for 11 days.)

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Some of the Girls from Grade 4.

Today was my first day of teaching at Anubanwangsaipoon since last Thursday. Somehow without actually taking any holiday I haven’t taught a class here for 11 days, which seems rather ludicrous really. At least I can reconcile it by remembering that I was at Sukothai Technical College all of last week doing something or another either in the staffroom or helping teach classes with some of the other teachers.

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Lunch Time Antics.

I had classes four classes today so four hours of solo teaching, except my 2.30-3.30pm class began at 2.55pm when the students finally turned up. For the first time ever I tried playing buzz with them and to begin with it was rather infuriating as they all got everything wrong and couldn’t get past two… but when they understood it was actually really fun.

I forgot to mention that in Phitsanulok I had purchased two black contact lenses and this morning felt rather in the mood to try them out. After breaking the lid of the first one rendering it un-openable I moved onto the second and proceeded to put it in. I was sure that this would be a surprise for my students and rather fancied seeing looks of shock as they walked into the room and realise my eyes were different colours.

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Never Again.

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Some of the little laddies.

Lunch was delicious: vegetable fried rice (and lots of it). I was pleased to be back amongst the teachers and especially so when they started taking the mick out of me for my uniform, admittedly playfully, suggesting that my shirt made me look like a grandmother. I feel accepted when they talk to me, even when they say things like this!

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The Lunch Time Crew.

One thing that struck me as peculiar at school today was the haircuts that many of the high school boys were supporting. It consisted of fairly thick black hair with large shave marks round the sides. Hair regulation seems to be quite a big thing here and I imagine that one of the teachers, to make the point that their haircuts were unacceptable, just grabbed a pair of electric hair clippers (more like a sheerer) and whacked rather uneven and unattractive hunks out… a clear encouragement for them to get the rest shaved off too. I managed to get a couple of vague pictures, but the boys were a bit embarrassed and not proud of their new hairstyles.

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The New Haircuts… I must say the heaped piles of black hair in front of the school were a little disconcerting.

In the afternoon Nick arrived and we had leftovers from lunch before heading to the staffroom to start preparing for English camp tomorrow. We came up with a power point presentation with various nursery rhymes, games such as ‘What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?’ and ‘Stick in the Mud’ as well as ‘Body Part to the Floor’. The activities are going to take place in the large hall outside, rather than in my classroom so much preparation is required, there will literally be hundreds of students.

Teacher Tim had invited us along with some of the other teachers out for dinner in Phichit which I was definitely keen on. However, by not realizing that there was no signal in the staffroom we missed out on that opportunity. A dragon fruit, some French toast and some peanut biscuits had to do the job. At around 11.30pm it transpired that doing the English Camp tomorrow is too soon, despite our initial agreement, so it will have to wait until Wednesday. I rather hope it goes well.

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This took a surprisingly long time.

Excuse the short entry, I thought I’d try it out but not sure it works for me… please comment with your opinions. I personally think this may be a little stark and misses out a lot of the humour and little details of the day that make it special.

Finishing Touches, Farewells and Fine Food (‘Street Food’ Without the Street)

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Tanawan, Chaba, Jook and her Little Boy.

“Hello, Charot… Sorry! Have I woken you up?” I hear Tanawan say down the phone. At this point I realise that I have absolutely no idea what time it is. She explains that it is 11am and my dress is ready, the dressmaker wants me to come and try it on to make sure that it fits ok. I can’t believe it; I haven’t slept in that late in over 2 months. Within 30 minutes of opening my eyes I am standing in the bathroom trying on my dress. It is enormous and hangs like a sack… this is very disappointing. I had even had dress related dreams, except in my dream my grandmother had made me a beautiful floor length dress that fitted perfectly, the only problem with it was the Christmas patterns. I figured that I might as well ask if the tailor could take it in, that is what a fitting is for after all, so she took my measurements again saying I had lost weight (5 inches) since last time… 3 days ago. Maybe it was just difficult to measure over a baggy T-shirt. She zoomed off on her motorcycle to return within an hour or two.

Thai people seem to be very big on food culture. Tanawan took Nick and I for lunch, Khing didn’t come with us as he had been to the hospital with a fever last night and was lying like a patient in the living room of their house. We had Chinese noodles with herbs; there were 5 small noodle nests that were multi-coloured like pasta (orange, white, green, yellow and even blue!). We were also treated to a plate of scrumptious (Tanawan’s word, not mine) Pad Thai which was slightly browned from having been in the hot pan for a little too long, my favourite. We also had some ridiculously sweet, bright green guava juice… I must say I’m rather looking forward to a Rubicon when I go back to London.

We were sent off for another hour or two until the dress had been taken in. For the first time I had a go driving a geared motorcycle and if I don’t mind saying so myself it went rather well. The school grounds of Sukothai Technical College provided me with a safe and protected arena to practice and generally just gallivant around, at points getting up to 4th gear. I was pleased to be able to get the engine to start after one attempt of pushing down the lever (excuse my severe lack of technical terms). The thought of whizzing round London on a scooter/ moped is rather tempting, I’m just not how sure how pleasant it would be considering the predominance of precipitation.

The Chan family was no-where to be seen so we dropped in on Jook and her family who directed us back to the Chan residence. As we arrived there for the second time the family pick-up pulled in. I tried on my dress and to my shock and horror I could hardly squeeze in this time, in fact as I tried to pull it on I was sweating profusely (a combination of embarrassment and the heat). Tanawan and Jook had to assist me with the zip but when I managed to squeeze it on properly it fitted like a dream and I felt wonderful. That said Mr. Chan told me that I must lose a kg and have a helper at the ready when I want to wear it out. After taking a few pictures it was time to say goodbye, in a very maintained and dignified way. I was just relieved that I didn’t get too upset. In comparison to leaving Mauritius after 1 year and being able to speak the language properly it wasn’t too bad, phew. We can keep in touch also; I have Tanawan’s business card!

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Tuk Tuks.

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The View from the Bus Window.

The bus from Sukothai to Phitsanulok was reasonably uneventful, except from when a soldier dismounted, proceeded to urinate about a meter away from the door, hopped back on a couple of minutes later and sat down next to me. It took about 30 minutes longer than usual, I’m sure he had something to do with it, he inspired others to also get the bus to stop so they could go to the bathroom. En route I texted Doi (who I met at the entrepreneurial event at Sukothai Historical Park) to see if he wanted to meet up one last time before I head back to the UK. By 5.25pm I had no response and I was 2 minutes away from the bus station frantically zipping up my bag in order to jump off and sprint onto the last Wangsaipoon bus, which leaves at 5.30pm. Literally as we were pulling into the bus station he said he was free so instead of dashing across to get the other bus I strolled casually across to the motorcycle taxi area and got a lift to the train station whilst eating a packet of crips at the same time and preparing my money as shops, markets, people and multitudes of vehicles passed us in my periphery vision.

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Phitsanulok Town Centre.

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Aerobics by the River.

Helen, another ETA, seemed unreachable. It was frustrating being so near her house but not being able to contact her. As I walked across the bridge by her house I glimpsed something rather entertaining; a large group of Thai people dressed up in sports gear doing an outdoor aerobics session led by a woman with a microphone on a stage. Out of the blue Helen called me up and I managed to convince her to come and have dinner with Doi and I. We first stopped off to pick up rotis from the ‘best place in town’ as Helen had never tried any, and then onto a restaurant for dinner. The rotis are large, sweet and filling and I had planned for that to be my meal. Eating it inside the restaurant proved to be no issue so it quickly became ‘street food’ without the street. Helen and Doi had steak, egg, sausages and bacon with chips for dinner… this place specializes in western food apparently. In addition to my roti I had a portion of chips with ketchup and mayonnaise- my first chips since I’ve arrived, and my last (though they were lovely).

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Sorry Doi!

During a quick nip to the Phitsanulok night market that sits on the river bank we bumped into Ricky, another ETA, who looked absolutely stunned to see us and after saying a few things about his project continued on his way; we will see him again on Friday at the meal in Bangkok. I was particularly taken with a key ring stand where one can get them personalized and got a few made for some of the teachers at Anubanwangsaipoon. Almost all of the stalls at the market sell clothes, shoes, accessories, make-up or food, barring one that had knuckle-dusters (which are apparently illegal to use here), machetes and replica guns, so it was not the best place to get gifts to take home. I think we’ll wait until Bangkok for that.

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The River

After Doi gave me a lift home (the last bus left hours ago) I accidentally woke up teacher Frenelly and went in; the extreme heat, the mosquitos, the lizards and the nature sounds, amazed me. After sitting for a while sweating profusely I remembered that there is such a thing as a fan and that it is unwise not to use it! This is useful to note for the future, tomorrow perhaps. I am so used to my bed that I don’t notice anymore that it is so hard that I used to think it felt like wood. How grateful I am that I find it fairly easy to get used to things, especially the ants (that were crawling over my mattress, not too many, but still…)

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!