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…)

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.

Back home: the return to Wang Sai Phun and an ETA dinner.

Locator map of Phichit Province, Thailand

Locator map of Phichit Province, Thailand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was no escaping loud Thai music and announcements early in the morning in Sukothai. However, they did begin that bit later than they do in Wang Sai Phun.

On the walk to the bus station down the busy, dusty dual carriageway I got two large blisters and by walking fast made the bus to Phitsanulok. I had been told that they left on the hour. It left at 10 to, so it was basically perfect time. It left as soon as I sat down. The whole journey was actually relatively smooth. The connecting bus was waiting at the station, I hoped on and it too left within 5 minutes of boarding. I was pleased, but not appreciative enough. I have since seen that this is not commonplace, and is indeed something that happens once in a full moon (note the purposeful adaption of the expression).

I managed to make it back to school in time for the first class after lunch and taught three in a row until school finished. So far I’m enjoying the teaching and have liked the challenge of surprising the students into doing lots of work. I’ve found that unexpectedly getting them to stand up, sit down, spin around, run (carefully) around the room or having an impromptu game of Simon Says or rendition of ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ never goes a miss.

Today was the first day in Wang Sai Phun that I have experienced real tropical rain. I thought that it would never end and despite living a 2 minute walk away from the exit of the staffroom I waited it out in order not to get totally drenched before going out in the evening.

Mam, the pastoral care officer appointed by the British Council in the ‘North’ of Thailand organised a meal for the English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) from in and around Phichit province, including someone who is working in Petchabun and Phitsanulok as well. Our mentors were also invited along to share some food, company and stories of our first week.

The journey to Phichit was dramatic. The picture shows the sky before we entered the storm, the perpetual black cloud that we are living in.storm

The meal was delicious and bountiful. There was more food than I had seen in a long time, and rather than feeling still hungry at the end I was full and satisfied after having eaten nice vegetarian curry (if somewhat spicy), rice and lots of fruit. It felt fantastic to be able to speak English with native speakers without having to simplify or gesticulate wildly in order to be understood. I sat next to another ETA who has been, by the sounds of it, having an incredibly difficult week; apparently the hardest week of his life. Being bitten by his mentor’s ‘friendly’ dog and having to go to hospital was one of many stories that had made up his week. Another ETA who was sitting opposite me had lived in four different places, with four different sets of Thai people within the space of one week and was feeling incredibly unsettled, unsurprisingly really. Emotions were running high and the atmosphere was a little frantic and disjointed as the ETAs sat in the middle talking English very quickly and, in some cases, madly whilst many of the Thai mentors were more sidelined (in terms of their seating position at the table) and being a little quieter. That said, I was really glad that we had the meal together; it was lovely to see the other ETAs again as they were going through similar things, could speak amazing English and we had all been in the same group for our orientation in Bangkok so already knew each other a little. Those guys seemed like a network of friends.

Teacher Frenelly sent me a text, which I received on the way home saying that my room was probably flooded from the storm. As we don’t have windows it can sometimes be quite impossible to stop rain from getting into our wooden house. As I had locked my room and she didn’t have a key there was nothing she could do to help. I came home expecting there to be water all over my floor from the monsoon… I found soy sauce everywhere because the bottle opened itself in my cupboard.Image

Chiang Mai- Temple Tour…

Tuk-tuk waiting for passengers in Chiang Mai

Tuk-tuk waiting for passengers in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a very beautiful city in the north of Thailand. There used to be a restaurant in Haymarket (Edinburgh) called Chiang Mai and until I met 26 other young people who were going away with Project Trust to Thailand I didn’t realise that it was a place, let a lone where it was exactly. I now know that it takes 6 hours from Sukothai (but longer from Phitsanulok or Sak Lek- stations closer to my place). It was less than a pound an hour for the journey.

During the bus ride the landscape changed gradually from fairly flat plains and rice paddies to mountainous regions covered in tropical jungles. I particularly remember a steep climb that the bus struggled with as we approached Chiang Mai. I am very pleased to note that since coming to Thailand I have started to read again. Nick leant me a couple of novels and on the bus I devoured ‘The End of the Affair’ by Graham Greene. It was very satisfying.

On arrival to Chiang Mai Lek had various conversations with various bus/taxi/tuk tuk drivers as Nick and I stood aside wondering what she was negotiating. We ended up jumping into a red vehicle (apparently they are to Chiang Mai what black cabs are to London) that took us into the centre. We were dropped off at one of the city walls where many tourists stopped to take pictures of each other. By this point hunger had got the better of us so we split up in different directions; Nick and Lek to 7/11 for noodles and I managed to acquire some sticky rice, mango and ice cream from a little stall nearby before joining them on a bench which was in the shade.

Not much planning had gone into our trip and it very quickly became a temple tour. Unfortunately I do not know the names of any of them. In my mind, before going to Chiang Mai, I had told myself: no temples. I now realise that this was very closed-minded and by visiting a number of different temples throughout the city I came to appreciate their beauty and peace. I also learnt that the king of Thailand had been a monk when he was younger and it is a rite of passage that many young men undertake here. Lek prayed to Buddha at all the temples, and this time inside the holy buildings (which also seemed to be tourist attractions for Thais and farang alike) provided an opportunity for reflection and even spirituality. I definitely felt connected to something bigger by sitting in these sacred places surrounded by believers.

Before stopping at our last temple we checked into a hostel that backed onto a car park. It was not the most aesthetically pleasing (which doesn’t matter as we were there to sleep) and it cost us each £2. Amazing. There was even air conditioning.

The last temple stop we took was probably the most impressive, but also the busiest. As it is the weekend of Kaw Pan Sa many Buddhists go to the temple to pray and offer candles to the monks. As we were about to leave the pregnant clouds gave birth. We had to move our shoes inside and wait it out. This is what people tend to do, just wait until the rain passes, as it is almost impossible to do anything with it around. It was like a tap we couldn’t turn off but I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and being able to sit and gaze out of the window without being able to see more than 2 metres away because of the thick and heavy drops. The novelty of the tropical rain wore off slightly when hunger called. Lek, Nick and I were very much in the mood for food… immediately.

We took another of these red vehicles (this time joined by two surprisingly sombre Americans) to the food market, which would have been quite a walk. Falling upon a vegetarian stall we ordered various dishes to meet all of our needs and three large, heavily iced orange juices from a charming lady boy. The portions were enormous and I had to take a ‘doggy bag’ away with me.

Night markets are commonplace in big cities (at least) throughout Thailand and Chiang Mai boasted a large and impressive one. Lek bought each of us a little key ring and a phone charm as a reminder of our trip, how sweet of her (and also practical). At one point there was an impressive overload of electricity when there was a ‘Mexican wave’ of bulbs cutting out with explosive noises resounding through the bazaar; quite exciting really.

Food is central to life; it comes up in almost every conversation and almost my entire basic Thai vocabulary during the first week consisted of words for food and relating to its consumption. Rotis were next on the list and were delicious (aroy mak maak in Thai). We sat by the edge of an inky pool in the dark eating them as rats and cockroaches brushed past us. A nearby shrine was inhabited by a rat who sat inside like a deity inhabiting his own temple.

English: The Sunday evening walking street is ...

English: The Sunday evening walking street is a market which is held on Rachadamnoen road, the main road through the old city which leads from Tapae gate to Wat Phra Singh, and its side streets. The products on sale are mainly handicrafts which are made in and around Chiang Mai. Most of the food stalls can be found on adjacent temple grounds. The mountain in the background is Doi Suthep, just west of the city.

En route back to the ‘temple district’ as I like to call it we stopped by a café and had some icy fruit shakes to cool down. Night does not mean cool here, it is just hot as opposed to very hot. Between us we had mango, banana and dragon fruit. We discussed different festivals that we have between Thailand, Scotland, England, and also Canada, where Nick spent his year abroad last year.

By this point after a long day of bus journeys, reading and temple touring it was time to retire for the night, reflecting on what perhaps the next trip to Chiang Mai might entail. Perhaps visiting some elephants, or the surrounding jungle areas… Only time will tell.

The Sukothai Set.

The Soldiers.

 

The journey to Sukothai was relatively easy and involved getting up early (6am on a Sunday!) I snuck out of Helen’s and headed to the bus station hoping that there would be one at 8.30am.

 

 

On arriving to the bus station at 8.15 I saw that there wouldn’t be another bus to Sukothai for more than an hour. In the moment that felt like a long time, but on reflection it is not really. I met two Thai soldiers (well, I’m not sure I can say met, I tried out my Thai on them to little avail… how I wish to be able to communicate properly in it) and also took their picture for my mentor (who loves men in uniform). The bus was air conditioned and pretty modern with large windows. It took just over an hour and only left about 15 minutes behind schedule. What I realised though, when buying my ticket, was that there are two bus stations in Sukothai; the old and the new. I did not know which one my friend lived closer to and just crossed my fingers (not literally) and hoped for the best.

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Nick (a fellow English Teaching Assistant with the British Council) came to meet me at the bus station, which is about a kilometer away from the school where he has been placed. It sounded like a scary ride there on his little red ladies bike in the midday heat and the busy traffic of the motorway (at least very large and well used road). The walk back wasn’t too scary, just a bit surprising. I had imagined that the school was in a city. On being there I would say that it was just off a busy road near a city. There were quite a few sets of road works on the way meaning we had to cut across the road quite a few times and there were a few injuries. All minor, all Nick’s.

The school grounds of the technical college were very large and by the front gate was a security hut. The numerous bodies of water dotted around the site amazed me. Though it was hot I was not entirely tempted to go for a dip. The accommodation of the different English Teaching Assistants throughout the Thai schools differs enormously. Nick lives alone in a rather large house with two bedrooms. It has a balcony, air conditioning, an electric shower, a fridge, a garage (where he parks his ladies bike) and various other amenities including a stove for cooking and a large desk. Apparently he spent about a page of an email to his parents just describing the accommodation, but I won’t be that precise. It was pleasant, if a little large for one person!

A bouncy young Thai English teacher swung by on her red motorcycle eager for an adventure. Her Thai name is Lek (literally meaning small, which she is). Her given name in Thai literally means teacher, so it seems that she has been appropriately named. The three of us managed to squeeze onto her motorcycle and sped down the highway to Sukothai Historical Park. It was my first time, Nick’s second and Lek’s third. En route we came up with lots of little lists from biggest to smallest, oldest to youngest, most mosquito bites to least, lightest to darkest eye colour (blue, green, brown) etc. There were many tourists at the park, a couple of Europeans but mostly Chinese. We also gandered a couple of Indian tourists who were so intent on getting a good photo of themselves on their motorbikes in front of one of the ruined structures that they took more than 30 minutes.

There are four different kinds of Buddha in Sukothai:

  1. The lying Buddha
  2. The sitting Buddha
  3. The standing Buddha
  4. The walking Buddha (who is particular to this region of Thailand).

We saw a couple of each; some of them were vast and golden, others small and plain in comparison.

Lek is very cheering. She is a 22-year-old English graduate from a big university in Nakhon Sawan. Her skipping around, smiling joyfully and just being very playful endeared me. Unlike most Thai people I have met she was also a lot more physical, in that when we crossed the road she would take me by the arm, or pat me on the back if I made a funny joke. I liked it.  Nick and I had been planning on heading up to Chiang Mai to meet up with a number of the other English Teaching Assistants, however, Lek seemed keen on coming and asked if it was ok. Of course it was, so we planned to head up in the morning.

The sun was setting fast as we left the main bit of the park. It felt like we were in some kind of ancient heaven as the golden dappled light fell through the palms onto small wooden huts and wondrous red stone buildings. The sky that followed this was otherworldly. Unfortunately I couldn’t do it any justice with a photo, but I’ll try and describe it. The moon was perching bold and white in the sky above a grand Buddhist temple. Strange melodies escaping through the windows becoming like mist above the surrounding lake. Immediately following the moon was a palette of bright blue tropical sky. Further away from that were fluffy grey and white clouds that were descending slowly into darkness as the fading sunlight ceased to break through the solid objects blocking it, the horizon. Watermelon is Lek’s favourite fruit; I got lots and the three of us made our way through a whole one before the motorcycle took us off into the warm night.