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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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.

Naughty students, new cleaning techniques and timetable problems.

My students have a habit of coming to my classes at the wrong time; they turn up an hour late, an hour early, a day or even a week late… It can be a little hard to keep track of not just who is supposed to be where, but who is actually there or not.

Today I had one of my best classes so far. I split the group of thirty students into two; one group did writing and comprehension activities from their workbooks individually, and the other group gathered round in one corner of the room and we did a bit of reading out loud together and singing as well as answering a couple of simple questions about the texts we had in front of us. This seemed like a much better way of doing things as because the group was that bit smaller it was easier to hold their attention and get them to be responsive as individuals and not just part of a large mass of children. After half an hour we swapped activities, so everybody got to do everything. I felt that it went quite well, and for the first time in a while rather than feeling frustrated felt pleased and excited.

However, the class that followed did not go so well. By the end I was so frustrated, especially by the boys in the back row who were doing no work whatsoever and were disrupting the rest of the class that I wanted to rip up their jotters. A dictionary I lent one of them was handed back to me with no front cover; the culprit had already been moved seats twice so he was well away from his friends, but his big personality managed to find itself all the way to the back with the others. I gently ‘whacked’ him on the head with it in a way I have seen many Thai teachers do; it made the others laugh and didn’t hurt him whatsoever, it was just a way of showing my frustration. Definitely less offensive than ripping up somebody’s jotter.

By the end of the day I was tired, frustrated and hungry and aware of the long unplanned evening that lay ahead. As a remedy I have learnt that rotis with condensed milk from the stand on the main road work a treat. I cycled along and after getting a few vegetables at the market I stopped by the roti stand. Each of them cost 6 Baht (very little) and I skulked off with them to sit on the bench by the post office as not to be spied by any (or not too many) pupils or staff from the school. I live in a comically parochial place and am often gawked at passers by, I usually don’t mind, but sometimes it is hard to maintain a constant and genuine smile at EVERYONE. The rotis did the job and gave me the energy to cycle home and cook up some dinner. I had planned to have aubergine, okra, and onions stirred in with rice and soy sauce- but the rice cooker was occupied with a meat dish so I opted for a sandwich with this mixed vegetable filling which sated me.

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As usual the mosquitoes found me quite attractive and tempting. The feeling was mutual. Sometimes when I get home in the afternoon I retire to my bed for a little nap, but I found that there were more than 8 mosquitoes that had found their way into my ‘safe zone’ inside the net… as had various large bugs and moths. Due to this I decided that it would be best to vacate the building and found peace at a bench by the front of the school where I was able to sit and read in relative peace. A lizard defecated from above and it landed on my phone, as did some kind of bird- but hey, nothing that couldn’t be wiped off. The book will be finished by tomorrow, and then I won’t have to worry about damaging it before returning it to its true owner. Maybe sitting inside is a solution to keeping it in tact. It is working well, so far.

I have discovered a new method of ‘showering’ or more specifically, washing my hair. Rather than chucking a small bowl of water over my head repeatedly to relatively little effect I fill a large red bucket with water and plunge my whole head and neck into it whilst pinching my nose. It’s not the most pleasant way to do it, I’m sure, but it does the trick and leaves no dry patches. Doing this in the evening is advised because in Thailand, rumour has it that if you go out in the morning with wet hair it means you have had sex the night before. Even though this is clearly not true it is quite nice to avoid the sneers or laughter from students and teachers alike by coming into work with dry and clean hair.

Well done if you made it this far, as you can probably tell, today was not so eventful as normal. Maybe tomorrow will have something new in store! Here is hoping.