Thursday, January 29, 2009

Speeches: Part Deux

It's that time again: Speech Week. That special time of year when my 320 sophomore students are required to give me speeches in English, a time that is perhaps just as painful for me as it is for them. You may recall reading about my kids' speeches in November 2007, when I nearly dashed my brains out with a hammer to end the tedium.

This time, though, I'm not writing to complain. I'm writing to share a rare gem.

Generally speaking, it's been my experience that Japanese students show an astonishing lack of creativity. Creative thinking is simply not expected of them in the classroom. Indeed, if they're asked to do a task without a clear black-and-white answer, they seem paralyzed, unsure what to do.

Once in a while, though, one of my students surprises me. This is one of those times.

Earlier this term, the kids had to choose a topic from a list and write a speech. This particular boy chose the topic, "What I would do if I were rich." Here's his original speech before I corrected it. He gave it this morning.

What I would do if I were rich
I have a dream. My dream is take a bath of cola because I want to feel sparkling. It is easy for me to try it. But I don't have enough money. 1.5 litres is about 200 yen, and the bath is about 180 litres. Then I calculated this. I need cola 120 and I need 24000 yen to take this bath. And when I am taking this bath, I want to enter a lot of lemonades, and carbonic acid will more intense. I want to enjoy it. Maybe, it will looks like bubble bath. If I were rich, I want to try it. Thank you.

I was absolutely delighted! Such a welcome surprise after losing count of the number of dull speeches I'd heard about the wonders of baseball club or the beautiful sea in Okinawa. This is quite possibly the most creative thing any of my students has ever done. I heaped praised on the boy in class and plan to publish his work in the English newspaper that I started with the English club last year.

I'll share just one more that tickled me. This one is from one of the few students who took the liberty of making up his own topic. I think this boy is already well prepared for the "real world," don't you?

Things that I have always in my mind
There are many kinds of issues in the world. In such a society, I have some things that I have always in my mind to survive. First of all, it is to put up with. I think that we had better put up with, or our minds won't get stronger and we can't get happiness and success. For example, I put up with eat and drink. I almost drink cold water as a drink because there is little tea in my house. I also make it a rule to put up with meal a little. Why don't you try to "put up with" me at any cost?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Our big fat Thai vacation

A temple in Bangkok

As promised, here are the tales of adventure from our Christmas vacation to Thailand. One thing's clear about the trip: there's way more to tell than I ought to write. So I'll give you the abridged version here, and the rest of the nitty gritty, well, you'll just have to buy me a beer someday if you want to pick my brain further. (For anyone planning a vacation there, I'd be happy to offer you pointers.)

We were lucky to be able to take the vacation at all after political unrest caused the Bangkok airport to close for a week in early December. Anti-government protesters stormed the airport the day after the travel agency issued our non-refundable tickets. How's that for Murphy's Law? Always the worrier, I had asked the travel agent before purchasing the tickets about getting some kind of travel insurance so we could get a refund if there were a military coup or some other disaster. He acted confused and said there was no such thing and told us not to worry because any disturbances that do happen tend to be around the Government House, not near the big tourist attractions, so we wouldn't be affected. If something did happen and the flight was canceled, then we'd get a refund, he said.

And so, of course, protesters stormed the airport and flights were canceled for weeks. Our schools kept warning us that perhaps it wasn't the best idea to take the trip. But as far as we were concerned, unless someone gave us our money back, we were going. Luckily, the protests ended, the airport reopened and flights resumed about a week before we left, so our plans weren't ruined.

First, the overview. The grand adventure started Friday, Dec. 19 when we flew from Hiroshima to Bangkok and continued a leisurely two and a half weeks til we returned on a red-eye flight Monday, Jan. 5. We spent time in four locations during that time: Bangkok and Ayutthaya (a town just north of Bangkok), and Koh Samui and Koh Tao, two islands off Thailand's southeast coast.

Here's a map to give you a better idea where we were.


View Larger Map

We stayed in Bangkok five nights in a hotel on Khao San Road, the famous backpackers haven. Khao San was crazy — a short, tourist-packed road lined with seedy hotels and an abundance of street vendors selling all sorts of food and wares (and of course, plenty of touts).

Khao San Road when it's not busy

It was like a cross between the county fair, a flea market and a university's main drag of pubs. You've got bars pouring out thumpy music (one bar played the same "Rage Against the Machine" CD on repeat the entire five days we were there), and on the street you've got old Thai ladies wearing Indian feather hats wandering around hawking wooden frog mementos and cheap bead necklaces. On the last day we were there, they started piping loud, creepy Christmas songs all sung in the same pitch by the same children's choir over the loud speakers up and down the street, so we'd be sitting in a restaurant listening to that music melt together with Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" from the bar. When I say "creepy" Christmas music, imagine a very young children's choir singing songs strange for children to sing, like "Last Christmas (I Gave You My Heart)." Khao San was an interesting experience, but the novelty wore off after two days.

Five days was really far too long to see Bangkok, but originally we hadn't planned to be there so long. We had hoped to take a tour to Angkor Wat in Cambodia for a few days during that time, but, long story short, we didn't go because that little side trip just would have been too expensive. We made the most of our time in Bangkok though, hitting several famous temples, the world-famous weekend market, Chinatown, Patpong (the red light district), and even hopping on a long-tail boat for an exhilarating ride to visit a pottery village on the little island of Ko Kret (which, as it turned out, was an island of people living in squalor).

On Christmas Eve we boarded a train headed north to Ayutthaya, a ride that was supposed to take 1.5-hours but inexplicably took twice as long, causing Joe and I to worry we'd missed our stop and were well on our way to Chiang Mai, eight hours to the north. Turns out the trains in Thailand just really don't run on time. About Ayutthaya: it was Thailand's capital hundreds of years ago and is now famous for the ancient ruins scattered throughout the city, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. After dropping our stuff at a guesthouse, we rented horribly rickety old bicycles and went cycling all over town, taking in the sights lit up by flood lights at night. We explored some more on Christmas day, riding up to the town's elephant park to play with the elephants.

Having taken in all the sights after a couple days, we headed back to Bangkok and holed up in a hotel before our flight the next morning to Koh Samui, one of Thailand's several famous beach areas. We spent four days in a hotel off Chaweng Beach, a 4-mile stretch of soft, fine sand that is the island's most famous and developed beach. During the short time it wasn't raining or threatening rain, we enjoyed the beach as well as an elephant ride.

The last — and best — destination was Koh Tao, a very chill little island where lots of people go to scuba dive and snorkel. Stormy seas had our ferry there pitching to and fro, resulting in a giant puke fest. Luckily, Joe and I held on to our breakfast, and once we arrived things looked up immediately. The resort where we stayed, Ban's, was immaculately landscaped, and the atmosphere along the beach was so festive and relaxed — a long line of tiki-type bars and restaurants built right on the beach with plenty of lanterns and Christmas lights. It really felt like a movie set. I immediately wished we'd come several days sooner.

Every place we went in Thailand sees a lot of tourists, so speaking English wasn't a problem. Taxi drivers and market vendors didn't usually understand English, but we still managed to communicate without much difficulty. So that was nice.

Also, Thailand was gloriously cheap! Our hotels generally ran us around $20 or $25 per night for perfectly acceptable accommodations with air conditioning. The most we paid was $60 a night, and those rooms were pretty nice!

With that overview, I'll get on to more of the details. The trip definitely had its ups and downs, but it was all part of the adventure. I'm very glad we went and I feel very fortunate. That said, I thought I'd present the Top Ten highlights — and lowlights — of the trip.

First, the highlights:

1.) Definitely the temples!
The temples in Bangkok alone made the entire trip worth it. I was absolutely blown away. I knew they'd be architecturally different from Japan's temples, but I was unprepared for just how opulent they would be. Everything covered in gold, mirrored tile and rhinestones. And I mean everything — every inch of these temples was covered. I'm sure I walked around these temple grounds with my mouth hanging open the whole time. Just absolutely stunning. The camera could not do it justice. We visited numerous temples but my favorites were the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Temple of the Dawn. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha absolutely glimmered with all the gold and had very interesting shiny tile-covered sculptures of men/beast creatures. And we were actually able to climb the steep and perilous stairs up the Temple of the Dawn, with its flowered tile ornaments reminding me of a giant, ancient wedding cake.

Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)

Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)

2.) The food
No doubt about it: Thai food is AWESOME. I knew I was in for some culinary delights when even the meal served on the flight to Bangkok was delicious. Bangkok Air introduced me to green curry, and it remained one of my favorite dishes while we were there. Joe and I also took a shine to the Pad Thai and the rice porridge with bananas in it. The best part: it was so cheap! You could buy delicious and healthy meals off road-side vendors for 30 Baht — around 90 cents. You can't beat that. Eating in restaurants was a little more expensive, but still only around $3 to $5 for a meal.

3.) The coconut shakes
I damn near overdosed on coconut shakes while I was there. They were just so good. Coconut milk blended with crushed ice, a nice blend of cool light sweetness. For 30-60 Baht ($1 - 1.80), they were pretty easy on the pocketbook as well. Some of them even came in the coconut shell itself, which made for a truly tropical experience I found hard to resist. Joe's never been a big fan of coconut so he nursed an addiction to the banana shakes instead. Fruit was pretty plentiful in Thailand, though we were rather paranoid about eating it because we saw a lot of it sitting on ice and we were worried about ingesting Thai water. (More on that later.)

4.) The massages. Oh yes, the massages.
For around 300 Baht ($9) you could get a one-hour full-body Swedish oil massage or any other number of massages or spa treatments. Armed with this knowledge I went in with full intentions of getting a massage everyday, though that didn't quite work out as they sometimes left me pretty sore afterward even though I drank lots of water. Still, I managed to fit in one Thai massage, three Swedish massages and one foot massage over the course of the trip. You can't walk three feet in Thailand without passing a massage parlor (parlor? Is that the right word? It feels somehow dirty to say that...). The parlors are basically large rooms with lots of mats laid out on the floor where tourists come in and lay down in rows. So it's not as professional as a professional massage back home, where they'd have a real massage table and low lighting and soft music and scented oils and all that jazz... but for $9 I ain't gonna complain. The last massage I got was one of the best I've ever had. This is probably the thing I'll miss most about Thailand. I do have to say though, that I always felt oddly guilty getting those massages. It's strange sitting in an easy chair in a row of other tourists who paid next to nothing to have some poor woman wash and rub their feet. Like it's some kind of massage sweat shop. For some reason it made me think of that Biblical story where the woman pours perfume on Jesus' feet. Oh and for the record, I never experienced any "funny business" in the massage parlors, and neither did Joe, though I know he was hoping to be offered a "happy ending" just so he could have a good scandalous story to tell everyone (not that he would have accepted that offer. He says.).

5.) Chatuchak Weekend Market
This is Bangkok's biggest and most famous market. Thirty-five acres, 15,000 stalls in what was essentially the biggest flea market I have ever seen, a place where you could quite literally wander all day without ever seeing the same shops twice. Shopping for baby bunnies? They had 'em. Sun dresses? Check. Cheap watches? Only two million of them. There was everything, from giant scrap-metal R2D2 sculptures to dog clothes shops with T-shirts reading "My Boss is Gay." While I can't say I cared for the bargaining process required to buy every little last item, I still came away with a number of cool gifts and souvenirs, my favorites being a burgundy wall hanging with sequined elephants and a pair of heavy gargoyle book ends, which I then had to carefully haul around Thailand for the remainder of the trip (not my smartest move.) I don't regret it, though.

6.) The ruins
I imagined that the temples in Ayutthaya once looked as magnificent as the ones in Bangkok do today, but now they are crumbling to the ground. It's crazy to think that they have just been left to disintegrate. At night, the ruins took on a spooky aura under the floodlights.
Some of the ruins in Ayutthaya

7.) Cavorting with elephants
Ayutthaya's other attraction was its royal elephant kraal, home to about 90 elephants. As you may know, elephants are the national symbol of Thailand, having played important roles in the country's history for transportation and during times of war. When we first rode up on our bicycles, we saw mother elephants with baby elephants inside a large enclosure made up of enormous wooden posts. To our surprise, the baby elephants were small enough to walk out right between the posts! Guess that enclosure wasn't very effective, but it seemed the babies weren't about to venture too far away from mama anyway. The mamas didn't seem to mind letting one baby pose with Joe for a glamour shot (and sniff his shorts with a gunky trunk, leaving a nice gooey brown spot.)

Exploring further, we discovered a lot more elephants and people on the other end of the kraal. We enjoyed watching employees feed the elephants bananas and pineapples. Petting them, I was sort of surprised to discover that the hair sticking out of their leathery skin was stiff and wiry. At one point, we got quite a fright when we heard a herd of baby elephants suddenly trumpet and begin stampeding toward us. I scrambled out of the way before I got trampled. Joe and I also enjoyed a half-hour elephant ride during our stay in Koh Samui, another memorable experience. They rig up a wooden bench seat on the elephant's back for you to sit on while the Thai "driver" sits directly behind the elephant's head, steering the beast by pushing behind its ears with his feet. If the elephant got out of line and tried to lumber over somewhere he wasn't supposed to go, or stopped to rest for a little too long, the driver would give him a good hard poke behind the ear with a very sharp tool that looked like a miniature sickle. I felt a little sorry for him. The ride was fun, very bumpy. We even got a little wet when the elephant stopped for a drink at a stream and decided to spray water back on himself.

Joe, me & Twinkles the elephant in Koh Samui

8.) Riding in a long-tail boat
Probably the biggest rush of the trip was our ride in a long-tail boat on Bangkok's Chao Phraya River. Toward the end of our stay in Bangkok we we were sick of the city and wanted to get away to someplace more peaceful, so we decided to take a jaunt over to Ko Kret, a little river island famous for its pottery village. Now, the river is teeming with barges, ferries and a variety of other boats, including many long-tails, which look like really long canoes with a pointy nose. Each boat is powered by what appears to be an exhaust-belching modified car engine attached to a long pole with a propeller at the end. These boats serve as taxis to take small groups of people to locations beyond the reach of the ferries, and we needed to take one to get to Ko Kret. After taking the ferry to the last stop, we got off and found one lone long-tail driver at the dock, a somewhat portly old guy with leathery skin, a straggly beard, red eyes and half his teeth. After bargaining down the price of the trip, we climbed into his small boat and set off with exhilarating speed. The boat sat very low in the water and I imagined it felt much like an innertube ride behind a speed boat. Quickly, I covered my camera with my shirt, shoved my sunglasses on my face, and, after the first surprise splash of water on my lips, clamped my hands over my grinning mouth. For some reason I thought about the Seinfeld episode where Kramer takes up swimming in the horribly polluted East River, and I wondered which river was worse.

A long-tail boat. Ours was much smaller.

9.) Scuba diving
I got my open-water SCUBA certification in Koh Tao at Ban's Diving Resort. It was awesome! I was gung-ho (though admittedly nervous) about this, but Joe opted to save himself the stress and spent the days with his nose in a book on dry land, so I did it on my own. It was a 3.5-day course, which seems like a lot of time to dedicate to class on a vacation, but for $280, this course is one of the cheapest in the world. The course consisted of several hours in the classroom, practice learning various skills in the pool and then four different dives in the ocean off the coast of Koh Tao. Conditions weren't the best — it was gloomy and rainy the entire week we were on the beaches — and my first ocean dive did not start off well. The seas were choppy and there was a strong surface current. As soon as we started to descend, my mask filled with water and I couldn't get it to clear, which caused some momentary panic. (First ocean dive, sinking, blind: not good!) After my excellent Welsh diving instructor, Jiles, got me straightened out on the surface, we went back down and the dives just got better from there. The visibility was rather crappy due to the stormy weather churning up the seas, but it was still a blast. I got to see some bright blue fish, a neat black and white sea slug and these colorful creatures living in the holes in the coral called Christmas tree worms. When you get too close to them they become alarmed and in an instant they suck completely back into the coral and disappear. They were really cool. Now that I've got my certification, I'm really excited about going other places and diving some more. Only problem is, there are way more awesome dive sites in Japan and Southeast Asia than I have time to see!

10.) New Year's Eve
Ban's held the most amazing New Year's Eve bash, complete with a huge free buffet and live entertainment on the beach. Joe and I sat on a big rock on the beach, ate and sucked down some beers while we enjoyed a very talented guy playing acoustic guitar and singing American hits. Down the beach, we watched performers twirl flaming batons. Wandering vendors sold special balloons with torches in the bottom that would float up and up and up into the sky til they became big orange stars that the wind sent drifting through the constellations. After dinner we enjoyed walking along the roadway lined with beach bars and soaking up the atmosphere with all the happy music and lanterns and Christmas lights. By midnight we'd grabbed a seat on the deck at a neighboring beach bar and watched the fireworks over the beach, and enjoyed the flaming "Happy New Year" signs each establishment lit on the beach. It was a hell of a way to ring in the new year.

So with all that said, you must be thinking Thailand's paradise on earth, right? Wellll... it wasn't all peaches and cream. Now the not-so-nice stuff:

1.) The pollution
Bangkok was a cesspool. Riding the bus from the airport to our hotel, I looked out over a valley of buildings and saw them sitting in a cloud of yellow smog. And that's where we were headed. We got used to sucking a lot of exhaust. After a couple days in Bangkok, I blew my nose and the snot was black. Gross!

2.) The touts and scammers
They were everywhere. EVERYWHERE. These people are constantly trying to offer you taxi or tuk-tuk rides, sell you cheap suits or other crap and just generally trying to scam you at every turn. The airport was crawling with them as soon as we exited baggage claim. They act helpful at first, asking you if you need help, asking where you're headed. Joe would politely say we were looking for the bus ticket counter. One lady, in an effort to steer us toward a taxi, warned us there was a horrible traffic jam and the bus would take hours, but that a taxi could make it through to our location faster a different way. Of course they quote you prices much higher than the bus, knowing you are ignorant about how much things should cost. We ignored all the people saying such things and made it to the bus, which smoothly took us to our hotel with, surprise, no traffic jam in sight. This was our first experience with the touts, and it didn't get any better from there. You couldn't walk three feet without being pestered by someone on the street. Joe especially came to hate them as they took to calling out after him "Hey big man!" or "Hey boss!", sometimes even going so far as to step in his path or grab his arm. We just wanted to be left alone. Even being aware of the many scams out there, we still lost some money on the trip. It was usually just small cash, but it still left a bad taste in our mouths. In one instance, for example, a street vendor quoted us one price for a meal, the same price as all the other vendors. Just to be sure, we confirmed the price he was quoting was for both of us. After eating, we went to pay and he doubled the price. We protested, but ended up paying it — really, what could we do? It's not worth it to risk having such a small transaction blow up when we're foreigners in a strange place. In Koh Samui, we got scammed on the elephant ride. Before the ride started, a professional photographer asked people if they wanted him to take their picture on the elephant for $6 for a nice big glossy print. We declined because it was too much in our opinion. Then during the elephant ride our driver stopped at one point, when no one else was around, tied the elephant to a tree and informed us, "I'll take your picture now," using our own personal camera. I thought that was nice of him. Only after he'd handed back our cameras and we were continuing on with the ride did he inform us his generosity cost 200 baht ($6). Then we're in a situation of just coughing it up or causing a sticky confrontation. Another time we got the help of a policeman to get into a taxi that wouldn't be a scam, and, despite showing him the address of our location written in Thai, he still took us to a different hotel (they get kickbacks for this) and charged us again to take us to the place we originally wanted to go. These were rather minor things, yes, but still. For each instance like this in which we did lose money, there were 100 other scams we avoided. The entire trip, I never shook the paranoia that people were trying to take our money. Sometimes literally — everywhere we went there were signs warning about pick pockets.

3.) Chinatown
Bangkok's Chinatown was insane. Even though the sidewalks and alleyways were totally jammed with people, motorcyclists still constantly pushed their way through (more unavoidable sucking of exhaust). It was dirty and exhausting. The streets fit the stereotypical image in my head of Bangkok, full of noise, traffic, exhaust, the streets lined with decrepit buildings. Not everything about Chinatown was bad — I did enjoy seeing the fish and duck vendors in some areas that were less crowded — but overall I just couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.
Chinatown market

Taxis, tuk-tuks and decrepit buildings in Chinatown

4.) Patpong, Bangkok's red light district
It sucked, big-time. If you want to know why, you'll have to ask me over a beer. That's all I'm going to say.

5.) The wild dogs
Thailand has a problem with feral dogs roaming the streets. In Bangkok, we saw them here and there, but in Ayutthaya I think they might have outnumbered people. The city was absolutely overrun by them. Now, the dogs were well-behaved; they generally ignored people altogether — only once was I worried about being attacked. But while we rode our bicycles around Ayutthaya at night, more than once I nearly ran over a wild dog sprawled across the sidewalk in the dark, and I'd hate to think about what kind of injuries I might have sustained had that actually happened. Not only that, but all the dogs were totally flea-ridden, constantly scratching themselves. I tried to avoid them as much as possible. Some of the dogs I think belonged to the business owners and hung around all day on the front step, or in one dog's case, right in the middle of the road. All the cars just drove around it. Other dogs were not so lucky. I saw one that I couldn't believe was still alive, as it had lost half its fur and every bone was protruding from its starving body. Just really, really sad. In Koh Tao, the dogs seem to coexist peacefully with the island's people, wandering in and out of open-air beach restaurants undisturbed. Once, a large yellow dog came wandering in and plopped himself down right under our table at Ban's restaurant and refused to leave even after I gave him some serious shoves with my foot. Normally I wouldn't mind sharing space with animals since I love animals, but I saw those dogs constantly scratching fleas and absolutely did not want them cuddling up with my legs. One of the waiters had to come by and basically yell and kick the dog to make him move. The dogs also crapped on the beach. They don't show that in the picturesque brochures of Thailand, I can assure you.

It's a dog's life in Koh Tao.

6.) The Norwegian assholes next door
Our first night in Koh Tao, we shared a balcony with our neighbors in the hotel. I needed to get up at 6:30 a.m. the next morning to make it to my scuba diving lesson at 7:30 a.m. At around 3 a.m., the neighbors returned from wherever they'd been out drinking themselves into oblivion and woke us up yelling and slamming doors. After laying awake for quite some time I fell back asleep only to be woken again at 4 a.m. when they decided to hang out on the balcony to drink some more and talk. That's when I put in my ear plugs and eventually made it back to sleep again. Then at 5 we woke to screaming right outside our door as their partying had apparently degenerated into a drunken fight. Joe got up and went outside to confront them, which immediately stopped the noise — for about five minutes. Needless to say, I didn't get any more sleep that night. The thing that really sucked was that we complained to the front desk the next morning and got moved away from the room (which otherwise I was perfectly happy and comfortable with) and placed in a new room that had just been renovated (yay!) and had a rock-hard bed (no!). After another fitful night of sleep in the horrid bed, we asked to switch again to a more expensive room, which made me feel like a prissy princess, which I'm not. None were available, however, so we were stuck with the cement bed for a second night until a better room finally opened up. The third room, at least, was quite nice. Anyway, my first impression of Norwegians is that they're jerks.

7.) Joe almost broke his arm.
It rained quite a bit in Koh Tao and there wasn't a proper rail on the stairs leading up to our hotel room on the third floor. The rail was a wide slab of cement covered in latex paint, impossible to grab and very slick when wet. So Joe tripped on the top step, which was taller than the rest, and with no proper railing to steady himself, fell down the stairs, crushing his left arm. He ended up with swelling and a hideous red bruise running from his wrist to his elbow that looked like an abrasion but wasn't. The next day nearly his entire lower arm turned black (as well as his butt!). I was worried he might have broken it, but he insisted it didn't feel broken. Thank God. Still, it took a full three weeks for the bruising to disappear, and even now it still hurts him a bit.

8.) Diarrhea
You're not supposed to drink the water in Thailand, so we were careful about always drinking bottled water. We'd been warned to look out for instances when water might have been added to something we eat or drink. Our travel agent told us he once fell ill after eating salad that had been washed in the water, and one of our friends warned us he got sick after drinking orange juice that had been watered down. You're not even supposed to use it to brush your teeth. Even though we were careful, I still came down with diarrhea and struggled with it for about half the trip (including one morning before scuba diving). Not fun. I don't know what caused it. Maybe the spicy food? Maybe shower water? I remember the first night in Bangkok getting in the shower and realizing after a minute that I was getting water in my mouth. It gave me flashbacks to that "Sex and the City" movie scene where Charlotte swallows water in the shower in Mexico and then craps her pants later. I was horrified. And a day later, the diarrhea started. Who knows what caused it, but it's supposed to be pretty common for travelers to Thailand. Joe never had a problem, luckily.

9.) The lousy weather
You may have noticed that the beaches were not on my list of Top Ten Good Things. There's a reason for that. We had mixed fortunes in regard to the weather. It was sunny and beautiful, hot but not uncomfortably so, the first week in Bangkok and Ayutthaya. Our luck turned the second week, though, when we headed to the beaches. It was raining when we stepped off the plane in Koh Samui, and the weather remained gray and gloomy with periodic rain the rest of the week. Lousy timing. We got about an hour and a half on the beach (under cloudy skies) in Koh Samui before the rain chased us away. And the beach was nice, you know, but it wasn't spectacular. The water wasn't a brilliant turquoise or anything like that. It looked like Lake Erie. I imagine it would have been quite beautiful in the sunshine, but we never saw that. The sand was nice, though.

Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui

10.) Peeing my pants
Yes, that's right. Peeing my pants. All time low of the trip. It happened in Ayutthaya, in the train station right before we left. See, Thai traditional toilets are squat toilets, but they're different from Japan's. They're raised off the ground and they're built with spots for your feet, so you're actually standing on the toilet itself. This poses a problem in that you can't spread your feet wider to get your pants out of the way, and it's harder to squat down as low. In addition, the toilets aren't as long as Japan's. I used these toilets uncomfortably but with success at the Chatuchak Weekend Market (when, yes, I was suffering from diarrhea). In Ayutthaya's train station, however, I wondered if I wasn't standing on the toilet backwards since my face was mashed up against the toilet tank. So I turned around. Half-way through I realized urine was spraying not into the toilet but across the floor. I turned back around and used it the way I had before, only to discover when I stood up that I'd also managed to spray a large amount of urine onto the back of my shorts. Lovely. I stood in disbelief for a while and tried to soak it up with toilet paper, then tried splashing water on it from the sink. Ultimately I slunk back out to the train station's waiting area, where I sat angry and embarrassed and knowing that, later, it would be a funny story. I had one other pair of shorts with me but changing would have meant putting the urine-soaked shorts back in my bag against all the other stuff, not to mention putting clean shorts on my body, which I'd just peed on. Everyone had already seen me in the wet shorts, so the embarrassment was already done. I opted just to keep them on and let them dry on the two-hour train ride back to Bangkok, and just get in the shower as soon as we got to our room. So that was a tough lesson learned — never use the squat toilets backward. Ever.

So that wraps up my Top Ten Thailand lists. Even though there were plenty of things I didn't like about Thailand, none of them outweighed the good stuff. The trip was a real kick. I'm so glad we went! We are really blessed.

To see more pictures, click on the album below. If anyone has any questions about the trip, feel free to ask away.

Thailand

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thailand. Whew!

It's tiring sipping coconut shakes all day, you know.

Well, I've been away far too long and some of you have been asking when I'm going to get around to updating the blog.  Things have indeed gotten quite stagnant on this site lately, though not for lack of things to write about. So many other things have been pulling my attention in a million different directions — planning the trip (not entirely unlike the insanity of planning my wedding), taking the trip, coming back and promptly getting sick, and then worrying obsessively about an 50-minute-long speech/presentation I had volunteered to give during the mid-year JET conference last week.

So now that that's all past, I'm finally sitting down with the laptop to share my experiences and I'm feeling completely overwhelmed! We experienced so much, I feel as though I could fill a book. The trip had its ups and downs but overall it was a total kick and I'm very glad we went. Organizing this all into something coherent and digestible, though, not to mention sorting through the photos and picking the best, is going to take some time. My hope is to post again this week, so please be patient. Tales of adventure are in the making.

In the meantime, to tide you over, here's a picture of an adorable baby elephant I met along the way.

Aw. So cute.