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…)

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Bangkok. ‘Around the world in 80 days’ and ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’, eat your heart out!

Wangsaipoon and Bangkok are not comparable; they are totally different worlds.

In one Bangkok day I do more than I could in a Wangsaipoon week. I enjoy the contrast of city and country. Although I can appreciate the hustle and bustle for the weekend I know that if I lived here the novelty of navigating the buses, the motorcycle taxis, the train lines, sky-high buildings, sky-high prices, farang everywhere would ware off.

Oil, a fascinating young woman who works for the British Council, suggested that Frances and I visit Terminal 21. It was only a walk and a train away and when we arrived we were not too surprised to see that it looked and was set out like an airport terminal (the clue is in the name). Each floor was done in the theme of world cities. ‘Around the world in 80 days’ eat your heart out; we went around the world in less than an hour; to Paris, Istanbul, Tokyo, San Francisco, London etc.…all over the place. Even the bathrooms fitted in with the theme and all of the floors supported ‘Japanese style’ loos with various functions, including heated seats. Needless to say people were so comfortable that a queue developed fairly quickly. The views were also amazing. I was particularly amused, being a ‘Londoner’ to see what was picked out. There were road signs to various sights, a red telephone box (which was bigger than life) and a mock tube train with a ‘Bakerloo line’ sign. If the only qualm I have is that the colour above this sign was blue (Piccadilly line colour), rather than brown, I think it is safe to say that they did a pretty good job.

Cycling through San Francisco!

Cycling through San Francisco!

Lumpini the lizard.

Lumpini the lizard.

After a quick waffle on the run Frances and I boarded the train to Lumpini Park. This is where I was robbed on the second day, but today I had quite a different experience. It took us a while to navigate our way from Lumpini station past the police station and an extremely long, uninterrupted (by doors) gate. On entry to the park we were ‘inspected’ by some guards. Lumpini Park is enormous and green with lakes, aerobic areas, a food stall section, and lots of trees and surrounded by tall Bangkok-ian buildings. From a distance it appeared as if there was a large market on, but on closer inspection there were lots of little tents, lots of little children in pyjamas and stalls selling very specific items (such as body lotion… I’m still not sure why). Many of the people had been camping out for a large, peaceful protest. A friendly Thai lady saw our slightly lost faces and explained that there were there to fight against corruption in the government. There were queues at various tables beside the action and the stage. We decided to hop into one of them and learnt that they were free food and drink stalls. So, whoever said there is no such thing as a free lunch… We were given a plastic bag full of ice and extremely sweet, dark green liquid; a little pot with porridge, rice, sugar, water and condensed milk and a deep fried desert that was covered in a mixture of crushed sugar and sesame seeds. What a treat.

Lunch.

Lunch.

Tom, an English artist, has lived in Bangkok for 3.5 years. He is a friend of Frances’ big brother; they went to school together when they were younger. Frances met him for the first time on her first day of her Thailand trip, but because of the family connection they seemed to have an instant bond. We were so lucky to get shown around by a ‘local’. First off we took the metro to a station called Hua Lampong, which marks the end of the line. We walked for about 10 minutes to take a look at the hostel where Frances stayed on her first night. It was nestled at the end of an incredible street filled with real people working in tailor shops, sitting outside with their families, tending to crying babies; the brightly coloured washing brightening up the fairly drab flats and buildings covered with corrugated iron. So, we saw that even within Bangkok there are different worlds. Sukhomvit, the area where we were staying, is both a business district and apparently one of the largest ‘adult playgrounds’ in Asia.

Holy Tree.

Holy Tree.

We all exchanged looks across a busy road, and about 3 minutes later, when the traffic cleared for a few seconds, we were able to scamper across to the other side in time to meet Tom. He took us on a personalized tour of the little streets surrounding his studio, past engine sheds, old men playing checkers, old women complimenting our modest clothing in Thai (which Tom translated for us), boarded up buildings, Chinese pagodas, and the river. He took us to a concrete platform right by the river’s edge, which he had tracked down purposefully after spying it from a boat when numerous locals practiced yoga and aerobics in unison. I didn’t mention earlier but today was the queen’s birthday, and therefore a national holiday in Thailand which doubles up as mother’s day. We saw numerous little groups of mothers with their children of diverse ages. I accidentally became a temporary personal photographer for one such group who got me to snap them in various poses with quite different backgrounds while Tom and Frances waited in the shade for me.

China Town.

China Town.

The next stop on our tour was China town proper. I’ll put in a picture to give you a little impression; all I’ll say here is there was a lot of meat! I introduced Frances to the wonders of fresh pomegranate before we were led into the entrance of Tesco Lotus. We didn’t go inside the shop, but instead into a little lift, and up to the 10th

10th floor passing a multiple storey car park en route. What awaited us at the top was actually quite mind blowing. The 10th floor is empty except from a couple of little shops that are in the process of being built. So we had a vast concrete expanse before us, and beyond the walls was Bangkok. High rise buildings, flats, temples, the river, houses, people, and bright umbrellas appearing only momentarily as flashes as their owners scurried through little alleyways. Stunning. After being on the ground for the weekend, in the markets and the red lights district it was very refreshing to be able to just look down on it all from somewhere else.  The monsoon rain changed the atmosphere even further to one of contemplation and we all looked down on the same block of flats wondering who lived inside, wondering what their lives had been like and what stories they had to tell.

 

The view.

The view.

The rain was incredible and unending. When it ceased (a little) we went to get the lift, and I just saw Tom looking in lovingly saying ‘hello there’, imagining it was a lost child, only for a minute later to see it was a dog. Frances was scared, but managed, and I’m sure our laughter helped. We ran out into the middle of the busy road, hopped onto the bus and took it to the studio. It was such a creative space, quite modern and open planned with various desks covered in paint, freshly screen printed t-shirts and bags, quite a few laptops and scanners, drawings, paintings, and… of course… the Artists! The majority of them were gathered at a table on an outside porch, which was covered from the rain, surrounded by flashes of green outside and buildings. They sat playing dominoes, smoking (they must have been) and drinking cider. It was about 30 degrees and humid. One of the women stood out to me in particular. She was Thai with a heart shaped face, thick, dark rimmed glasses, and bleach blonde spikey hair. At various intervals she nipped inside to talk to Tom or Nathan (a Thai/Australian who was working away). They (at least Tom) have an exhibition coming up in a week or so to mark the anniversary of the gallery that they have downstairs and were working away hectically so we dashed off when the rain died down a little. I didn’t mention that Tom has been sleeping (with various friends) at the studio for a few weeks… that’s how busy he has been, so it’s amazing he fitted us into his plans and showed us around.

Two of the artists 'at work'.

Two of the artists ‘at work’.

By the time we left Frances and I were ‘hangry’ (hungry and ‘angry’- more like desperate). She led me to a vegetarian restaurant, which she had been to before and told me that they serve almost any meat dish (including shark fin soup and ducks legs), which looks and tastes the same, but is not made out of meat. It was jam packed when we arrived, but we managed to bag ourselves a small table outside at the end. Many of the things on the menu were either finished or unavailable so in the end we went for a fairly unadventurous ‘vegetable fried rice’ and ‘vegetable noodles’… Maybe next time we can eat a dog?!? (made out of soy).

By the time we got back to Sukhomvit we were tired and craving ice cream. After this ‘need’ was satisfied we proceeded back to our apartment. The sky was like nothing I have ever seen before. We experienced a real tropical lightning storm with sheet lightning illuminating the whole sky and various buildings too. It didn’t start raining for quite a while after the lightning begun. I was stunned and a little too excited to go to sleep, so yet again it became a little bit of a late one. Not too late though, it’s just living in a rural area in central Thailand has changed my standards.

Chiang Mai, take two (and an unexpected trip back to stormy Sukothai)

6am is the new 8am.I regularly wake up at this time; no alarm required. In fact, when the alarm goes off an hour and a half after I have woken up, I feel pleased and productive.

While the others slept I finished my book whilst sitting on a step next to a cat facing the car park. In the morning it is not too hot, it is best to make the most of this time. Chiang Mai is pretty far away from where I live in Thailand: 475km in fact. I knew that I had to plan my transport precisely so with a little help from an Internet café around the corner I found out train and bus times. I was surprised that at 7am on a Tuesday morning the Internet café was full of children (about 10-14 year olds) playing video games.

After feeding the others croissants for a quick and easy breakfast we went on a fairly epic walk to the riverside. En route we passed by an incredible bookshop called ‘Gecko Books’ which sells thousands of used books in European languages, including a fair few classics. I managed to pick up ‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje and also ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf for about £3 in total: not bad really.

For lunch, after being pointed in various (and opposite) directions by different Thai people we found ourselves at an open fronted vegetarian restaurant. Here, rather than every person having their own dish, a selection of different dishes are ordered and people just share and get a taste of everything. We got a vegetable soup, some noodles, pumpkin curry and rice. I particularly enjoyed the pumpkin and have seen it in the market before so will have to cook some for my housemates; a Mauritian specialty.

Lunch at the little vegetarian place.

Lunch at the little vegetarian place.

We got to the bus station about an hour before the bus was set to leave. I thought that this was pretty good form. ‘Full’, ‘Full’, ‘Full’; all of the buses to Sak Lek (which is about 6km from where I live) were packed for the rest of the day because it was a public holiday. Because of this I decided to get the bus back to Sukothai with the others and to get another bus from there to Phitsanulok. It was the only option as the trains wouldn’t arrive into Phichit (30 km from mine) until after midnight, and at this time I couldn’t expect for anyone to come and pick me up… or bear the thought of walking for 6 hours in my own on the dark.

En route to Sukothai I got a phone call from Frenelly, who I live with, asking how I would get home. Without going into too much detail the conversation revealed to me that it was impossible to get home that night; totally impossible. So, the only option was to miss half a day of work travelling back to Wang Sai Phun.

I read ‘The English Patient’ the whole way to Sukothai. As soon as the bus turned round the bend to Sukothai Historical Park we heard the thunder clatter and saw the darkness and the rain, fall like a blanket over the city. Occasionally the sky was lit purple by thunder and it is at times like these when I can see the rainy season is upon us. When we left the bus station, the three of us piling again onto Lek’s motorcycle, the rain wasn’t falling but the sky was sweating and ready to open up.

Stopping by 7 Eleven was perhaps not the best idea considering the weather, but we were hungry and did so anyway. It was here that I discovered Lek is terrified of frogs, there were many enjoying the rain, and I felt childishly amused by her fear (sorry!). The rain fell fast and heavy, unceasing. We waited for over an hour for it to die down a little, but when we left we still got totally drenched. My skin was cold and I felt it through to the bone. I think this may have taught me to carry an umbrella, but I still don’t have one. I saw that one of the neighbours had rigged an umbrella to their bike: see the photo.

Until next time! Image

Phitsanulok

Phitsanulok (pronounced Pis-an-u-loh) is a reasonably sized city in central Thailand. It takes about an hour to drive from my school and en route there are lots of stalls selling fresh banana, green plains and rice paddies as well as the occasional ‘lying Buddha’. My mentor and I visited one such Buddha; it was impressively large.

The train station in Phitsanulok is fairly impressive and an old steam Engine with the number 181 on it stands proudly beside the entrance. I was expecting to see Helen alone(another ETA), but I was also greeted by Caron, Will (Weew), Matt and Tom. All of us had been in the same small group at the orientation in Bangkok so it was great to see a few familiar faces and also to be able to talk very quickly in English without fear of being misunderstood.

We passed our day going between inside and outside attractions. The first attraction was Helen’s apartment. She has a large room in an apartment block with windows, curtains, two beds, a mirror, air conditioning, a flushing toilet and a hot shower; it was unbelievable… After trying some interesting fruits and cakes we took a tuk tuk to a large temple beside the river, which is apparently very famous.

The sky was sweating with humidity and as a result we did too. After taking our shoes off and stashing them in my bag (I’ve heard of shoe thieves) we went inside the temple. There was a very impressive and quite large golden Buddha as well as many other related religious items. As it was the weekend of the festival of Kaw Pan Sa it was very busy both inside and out. There was an interesting mixture of people praying and people posing for photographs; often the two went together.

Trams were something we had been told to investigate. I had imagined traditional trams with overhead wires; what we took was more like a bus in the shape of a tram carriage. As we were about to leave we spotted Jodie, another English teaching assistant, being led by two Thai ladies. She was busy, but we got her number for future reference.

The tram tour was relatively cheap (40Baht for 40 minutes- so just less than £1). I liked being able to sit in the shade with the breeze rushing by as we took in the sights of the city. The tour guide was extremely friendly and smiley, but her English was quite impossible to comprehend. A kind Thai lady who lived in Switzerland offered us up some laminated bits of cards, which had the information about each of the ‘sights of interest’ on it. My favourite part was one of the comments about a king who was “brave, strong and strange”.

After a long walk through town, with a brief cool down in a department store with air conditioning, we went back to Helen’s for a snack. The boys pottered off to find a hostel as there was not enough room for all of us in the apartment.

At around 6pm we headed to the food market where I was overwhelmed by the sights and smells of cooked rats, swarms of live bees, multi-coloured curries, all sorts of fruit and randomly an underwear stand in the thick of it. Dinner was very filling- by the end I was eem mak (VERY FULL!) to the point that I thought I would have to lie down. Eating more than half a pineapple has become a rarity. Although pineapple did make up a large part of my meal, I also had fried sweet corn balls and sweet pancakes with warm green paste in them.

The next stop was the night market which predominantly focuses on clothes, accessories and make up. It was set up just down by the side of the river and took more than an hour to walk up and down. I was impressed by Caron’s bargaining skills and saw that knowing the numbers in Thai well can come in handy. I got two lovely flowing dresses that will be suitable for school for less than £10 for two.

A riverside beverage came next when Helen, Caron and I rejoined with the lads. The mosquitoes weren’t too fierce, but after a while we left because we were just so tired our eyes couldn’t stay open. A friend of mine who I met at a hostel in Bangkok told me about a website called ‘post secrets’ where you can send a postcard with your biggest secret into a special address and the best ones get published online weekly. The first few were entertaining and lighthearted, but as we scrolled down we saw some that were moving and others that were just sad or depressing. This is how our evening ended. It was bliss going to bed without being too hot or being munched by mosquitoes.