All I want for Christmas

This Christmas was a first for a lot of things. This was my first Christmas without my family. My first Christmas not to go to Church. My first Christmas not to be cold. My first Christmas out of the country. Well let's be real this was my first Christmas not in Memphis, TN. I have spent the last 23 years doing more or less the exact same thing for Christmas.

Christmas day, wake up (the people in the house has dwindled down in the it is just me and my lovely mother and father--those no count siblings had to up and leave their baby sister). We scurry around, argue, clean the kitchen, pack and then rush out the door to make it to the Newsom's side by 1pm--which always always ends up being 2-3pm and everyone is a bit frustrated, hungry and full of teasing-Christmas cheer.

Then we feast. This is something that has changed--but no matter what, where or how we manage to sit, eat and drink. Post lunch, we exchange presents. This also has developed and changed over the years. Back in the day Nanny's blue couch was piled high with red stockings stuff full of amazing treats and gadgets--my favorite part of Christmas Day.

Then comes the photo, some years we get one, some years we don't. But, thanks to Uncle Bill we most definitely have had a Newsom Family photo the past 5 years. Then the dishes. When we were all still at St. Nick,  many a year we dressed in aprons and hats and passed the fine china from hand to hand until everything was put up and away (and many a years it was just Mom & Sondra...)

The rest of the evening has always changed. Some years a game of spoons, others glued to the TV watching A Christmas story over and over again, others Love Actually and way back in the day back handsprings and cartwheels in the front yard.

Then we sleep and wake and do it all over again. This time we head to Grandma and Granddaddy's for the Wills Family version. This has changed over the years too. A few years back we took home our stockings, started an adult gift exchange (in my mind I'm still too young to be apart of that..) We switched from gifts to baked goods and back to gifts and then back again. Things are always changing.

But some things stay the same: the table get it's extra leafs and we file in sitting in our same seats each year (some due to blind eyes others due to habit) and for the past 4 to 5 years our elbows slightly stick to the table as we collapse into our hands after ice cream and fudge sauce. We have eaten everything from fish tacos to BBQ to Christmas spaghetti. Some years there has been homemade eggnog and others gluten free, dairy free (or whatever the allergy of the year maybe) options.

Even though some years didn't end this way--in my mind the Wills family Christmas always ends in the basement: ping pong, pool, air hockey and broken ceiling tiles. Laughing and playing--then suddenly frozen into shock as the room becomes pitch black. "Helpppp" we all shriek. We wait, our eyes adjust and then just as soon as the lights dimmed, they flicker back on again.

Christmas with family is always full of surprises, fights, laughter, exhaustion and a few tears. But, nothing comes anywhere close to how wonderful our family traditions have become over the years. This year will go down in history as the most bizarre and elaborate Christmas for sure, but it's got nothing on the Wills/Newsom gang.

The day started with an early morning run, because I knew there was no way I would have any time after school. Since our director would be out of town our school decided they had the authority to change Christmas day to December 24th. So we arrive to school decked out in our Christmas gear. Money has been a bit tight this past month, because we had to pay back a few debts (we get paid today so no worries!), but point being we didn't have a lot of extra cash for red&green Christmas attire. So I got creative! I wore a white & black striped shirt and a black shirt and green earrings made out of Christmas bows and a red ribbon in my hair. Of course right as I walked through the door my coordinator says "OH NO, black not a good color for today." UGH what a sour way to start the day. I just smiled and said, "Merry Christmas" with a big smile plastered on my face.

The day continues and the kids are running wild--dress in anything red and green they could find at home. Some in full Santa costumes others in angry bird, hello kity, spiderman or whatever else happened to be red in the closet (spiderman and santa--same same, but different..ha). So flag proceeds as normal except instead of a uniformed student a Santa dressed student raises the Thai flag and wais to Buddha.

We finish flag with Joy to the World and a random preacher shows up and reads an except from the Bible in Thai--I think that is what happened at least but I'm not sure. Then we have poppers, but we pop them at the wrong time and then the director and a few students cut a ribbon that leads into Winter Wonderland: a completely decked out stage set complete with life size igloo, sleigh, snow, polar beers, santa and reindeer. It was quite the scene.

Flag comes to a conclusion and the beauty contest starts. Within minutes one of the kindergarten students throws up on another student and everyone is running around in a tizzy. Mops, towels or cleaning supplies aren't things found in surplus here in Thailand. So some one comes out with tiny box of Kleenex and they wipe up the stage, but don't stop the show for a second. Half the teachers and students are making gagging noises, but thankfully a chain reaction did not start...I was worried there for a bit.

Then we have the dances and the presentations. Pre-K and kindergarten have 3 students from each class (3 classes in each) that dress as Santa, Santee, Reindeer and Angel. They are dressed to impress. They saunter on stage and say their robotic spiel for the judges: "Good Morning. My name is _____. I am in K1/___. I am 4 years old. I am _____ (Santa/Santee/Angel/Reindeer)." Then of course this must be a competition so there are judges and winners.

Then comes the forced dancing portion. Parents are literally mauling the stage with ipads, video cameras and elbows that cut like knifes if you get in front of their view. They jump in at any moment if their kid's hat happens to tilt to the wrong side. The funny thing is that the kids don't look like they are having any fun. The parents barely clap when finished, but pictures galore are snapped at every other moment. As long as their hat stays in place and their make-up isn't smudged the day is considered quite the success.

Then we venture into the classrooms, were parents have out done themselves. They have brought more food than you could ever imagine. Fruits, vegetables, dumplings, pizza, KFC, donuts, boxes and boxes of cakes and cookies, vats of ice cream. This parties put American Christmas parties to shame. I bopped from one room to the other checking out the food selection, but then become entranced by Teacher Som's Mask party. I have no idea why, but each student brought in a mask and suddenly they all changed clothes and they now have on princess type clothing and the masquerade started. We paraded around the school and once again take more photos.

Then back to the classroom for the gift exchange and the Thai version of Rockin around the Xmas Tree. This is where Gangman style starts to blare (it as already been blasting from the second floor--3-5 grade classrooms for a few hours now) and we dance around the tree and play a version of musical chairs.

For my students the party comes to an end with a gift exchange. They then passed out in their Santa suits and sleep the rest of the day. But, for 1st-6th grade the party continues for the remainder of the day. Every single classroom had Gangman style on repeat and they danced, their bodies possessed by sugar. 

Now that is just the description of the day before Christmas. If you can only imagine, the festivities have continued throughout the week and last night was the teacher New Years Party. The party requires a whole post on its own. We decided that if you aren't okay with getting on stage to sing karaoke and/or wearing a full face of make up--you will not survive in this country.

Mrs. Doubtfire Drinks Sippy Wine

Preface on title:
Our last songtoa ride in Hua Hin was shared with my new role model: Mrs. Doubtfire. She was actually nothing like the real Mrs. Doubtfire except for the fact that she spoke Britishly! Ever since her husband's retirement, they have spent three months in Hua Hin for Holiday. Other times of the year she spends at her cottage in Ireland, which she noted as her favorite travel spot. She has done quite a bit of traveling. She worked for her no-count husband for many years, but was never paid. She therefore insisted he pay for her travel every year with her friends! She was dainty, proper and everything you'd expect. But instead of at tea, we met on the back of a songtoa while profusely sweating and ingesting diesel fumes. She of course could have quickly wiped her brow, lifted her pinky finger and have been ready for afternoon tea in Wimbledon.

This weekend I went on my first small group excursion. Big groups are a lot of fun and as we have found out on past trips, they can help you bargain when purchasing beach sarongs or orchestrating mass transit via truck beds. But, small groups are amazing for travel. Less opinions, less chaos and most importantly less hormones. I think everyone would agree traveling with large groups of girls can be amazingly exhausting.

So back to this weekend. Alicia and I headed out directly from school. I sent my laptop, a New Years gift form a student and my real life home with Alex and we hit the door running-- determined to catch the last bus for Hua Hin.

As a side-note let me start with: we absolutely positively never travel the same way twice. This isn't by any means on purpose. You would think our travel would become more efficient with time. We'd figure out the tricks of the locals and travel like the speed of light. Travel here is cheap and rather easy but I wouldn't call it efficient.

Father you would have had a heart attack with how round about we went just to get out of our own city. When I know we are backtracking you know things are bad.

We do finally arrive and sit in more traffic so we get off at the first sky train exit we can find and zoom over to victory monument where our more experienced travel friend has been waiting for about an hour. She ushers us quickly to the ticket table we purchase and hop on the van. But the way vans work is they don't leave until they fill up. So we wait some more. I'm okay by this point though because we know we will make it to Hua Hin tonight! Success! (Just a few moments of panic-- "passports, who has the passports?")

We arrive and are dropped off at a crazy night market. We have finally learned the importance of printing your hotel's address in Thai, so we luckily are some what prepared. Of course the first 3 drivers we show the address to, squint, talk in fast Thai, run the through the streets asking others and then tell us "cannot."

Eventually we find a woman who says okay. She folds up her taxi sign and takes us down a side street and say "okay, okay" and points to an unmarked Honda civic. We pile in shaking or heads and smiling. You just never know what type of transportation you will score in Thailand.

We arrive at our all inclusive top of the line villa for the weekend around 11pm. Let me back up a little: Jess (aka experienced travel friend) is one of Alicia's friends from home and will be heading home soon. She is the one that researched and planned a lot of the weekend. In the midst of hostel searching one her friends suggested we just stay with her and her parents for the weekend. They rented a villa close to the beach for the weekend and had two extra bedrooms.

Contrary to what some may think. The most enticing part of the proposition was the concept of parents. We've all been a bit homesick since this will be all of our first Christmases without our families. And the thought of parents made us all jump for joy! And boy did they spoil us rotten! They fed us like kings, told us stories about the good ole days and treated us to what we all anticipated being our biggest expense of the weekend-- the vineyard: a wine tasting and an elephant ride. Without a doubt Kate's parents made the weekend a perfect way to start the holiday season! (And don't worry mom a thank you note is in process an departing gifts were already exchanged! You raised a proper southern belle)

The way I was lured into this trip was by the simple word "wine." There is little to no wine in Thailand and something I miss wholeheartedly. The weekend was planned around a vineyard visit where you could purchase a package to try three different wines paired with three different tapas, try their signature grape juice (sippy wine) and trek through the quiet vineyard perched on top of an elephant.

I didn't even think twice before quickly agreeing to tag along for the weekend. I ended up being uncharacteristically busy last week and didn't have a chance to do much or any research about what the weekend had in store. I knew we would have wine, eat good food and stay in a villa with someone's patents I didn't know and there was promise of American magazines and chocolate.

While packing I thought "hmm I should probably throw in a bathing suit, you just never know." Well it is a very good thing because it turns out Hua hin is oh so much more than a vineyard. It is an adorable beach city filled with cafes, wine bars, night markets and seafood restaurants.

The beach was adorable and just steps away from our fully furnished villa. We rented chairs and umbrellas, ordered coconut watermelon shakes, added a little Thai rum and did mermaid dives in the water until mid afternoon. Then we showered and climbed into a van for a 35 minute ride to the vineyard.

The air changed from hot humid to pleasantly breezy. And the landscape from sandy beaches to lush green vineyards.

The vineyard just celebrated its 10th anniversary and is still trying to somewhat establish itself. The wine was drinkable but not the highlight of the vineyard experience nor did it rank in the top 3 highlights.

The sleek restaurant was the only building that graced the skyline. The rest of the landscape was filled mountains and rows of plump juicy grapes. It was amazing how quiet and peaceful it felt. We felt like royalty. Being waited on hand and foot and present with five star looking tapas. I wouldn't say they were all 5 star tasting--the first was a mayonnaise-y crab salad but it had fresh crisp apples chopped through out and a fresh sprig of basil and it did actually go quite well with the white wine they served (my fave wine of the three). For the second everyone else was given three slices of cheese drizzled with orange and vanilla infused olive oil, garlic and salt and pepper-- it looked divine. They gave me a poached shrimp salad with fresh pomegranate seeds. It was okay. The last was really different and amazing. Smoked duck on a homemade crispy corn chip which sat on top of a shredded carrot mango salad all mixed with a spicy sriracha type sauce. The flavor and texture combo = perfection. The last two wines aren't even worth mentioning...

The ride back to town we all still had grumbling stomachs because our America sized stomachs were not satisfied. We stopped at a restaurant our driver recommended and shared a few dishes family style. We were not disappointed. I've had some great green curry since I've been in Thailand but this ranked #1.

The night ended with 2 large chocolate bars, a big bag of peanut m&ms and the bold idea to awake for sunrise. We woke early, jumped in our prearranged songtoa which drove us up chopstick mountain (also called monkey mountain-- should have been clue #1...)

We rounded the corner as the sky began to lighten to see a sea of beady red eyes staring back at us-- a mix of mange-ifed cats, dogs, and my least favorite thailand creature: monkeys. We should have known at this point this was a bad idea. But, we were already up and thought why not.

We bravely walked forward, darted around, saw a few view points and decided it was time to head back to town before the sun even fully colored the sky.

Unfortunately, our songtoa driver did not wait for us-- so we started walking. We decided it might be kind of nice to just go ahead and walk all the way into town anyway. We walked about 10k and arrived at a German bakery (our planned breakfast destination) just in time for opening.

It was a perfect breakfast. An omelette filled with big slices if onions, potatoes and bacon and freshly baked breads. I was one happy girl!

The rest of the morning was finished off with one last beach nap, one more mermaid dive and one more watermelon shake. Perfect ending to a perfect weekend-- that is until I got stuck in the worst mini van seat for the trip home. Beaming hot sun, freon low ac, little to no shocks and smashed between a baby and a Thai woman was really how the weekend ended. But the first ending sounds much more picturesque and blog worthy.

Loi Krathong

So I feel like it is/was a rush to get this next blog post typed up and published. If it wasn't complete by Tuesday night then low and behold it is already the next Thai holiday (yes, Thai people find a reason to celebrate anything and everything and call it a holiday...) Obviously it is Friday, so I didn't get it done before Father's Day (aka King's Bday & Wednesday) or Sports Day (Thursday).

The most important thing to talk about is Loy Krathong. I'm sure most of you have seen pictures. I had a lot of confused messages/inquiries on what the heck was going on and why I was dressed up like lace clown person.

Well let me reiterate that I never ever have any idea what is going on until it is already happening or most of the time I find out about a week later what happened the week before and then sort of have an ahh hah moment --"Oh that is why we all got up in middle of class and went outside and marched around the school 2 times. But, yet of course we must practice for sports day."

Well so I did technically already know about this holiday. We learned all about it during orientation, but we were told it was in the middle of November. After doing a bit of research I found out that Loi or Loy Krathong falls on whatever day there is a full moon in the last lunar month of the year. So it is always different. This year it happened to fall on Wednesday, November 28th.

We were randomly asked to participate in a parade and to dress in traditional Thai clothing. We went and had our dress fitting in a humongous dress up closet. It actually wasn't a closet at all--it was much larger than an of my thai classrooms and housed hundreds of traditional Thai costumes. All the costumes represent different different costumes--some for Thai royalty, some for southern region, some the northern region, some from different time periods and so on. I was told my dress was what the princess wears. Oh very appropriate for me (well actually the queen would have been more fitting, but I guess I'll settle for the princess).

So I thought we were just going to just dress up at 4pm for the parade, but of course one of my other teacher friends called the night before around 11pm and said we need to arrive at school at 7am to dress for the morning assembly. Of course we go early and are handed the bags of clothes and told to dress ourselves. This is insane all the "pants" consist of are a huge pieces of fabric that you wrap around yourself until it somehow transforms into a pair of pants.

Thankfully another teacher saw our distress and graciously helped us get dressed. So we just stood like statues at the morning assembly while they say a lot of stuff in Thai. Then the students sing Loi Krathong in both Thai and in English. And then they made us dance around the whole courtyard doing the traditional Thai dance --which we have no idea how to do.

After many pictures and traditional Thai games and many "I love you Teachaas" and "Beautiful Teachaaa" we changed back into normal clothes to teach for the rest of the day. The students and teachers did have a different sparkle in their eyes though when they looked at me. For some reason Thai people really like to see farangs dressed in the traditional clothing.

Then at 3pm (they asked us to arrive at 12...insane that we would need that much time to get ready and we said no we have to teach--teaching is what we came here for right?) we went back to the costume closet to be dressed officially this time. They dressed us, did our hair and then Teacher A (very fashionable lady boy) did our makeup. It was so cute. She spent what felt like hours just penciling and "fixing" my eyebrows. The final touch was a little extra white powder and baby powder to make me even whiter than I already am--very Thai style.

It had been monsoon-ing all day so we weren't sure if the parade would even happen. But all the Thai teachers reassured us that they would not cancel the parade. There is only one day that Loi Krathong can be and it will be today. So we left in the school van and they dropped us off with all the other 5th grade students that had the "honor" of being in the parade and handed us all matching umbrella. The street was lined with costumed teeth-chattering, wet children. But, don't think for a minute they weren't dressed to the nines: full hair and make-up and standing up right holding their krathongs. The whole scene reminded me a lot of a Mardi Gras parade. People proud of their roots and deep cultural history, not ashamed in the least to march through the streets singing, dancing and wearing hair pieces heavier than full bowl of mash potatoes (ha..that's pretty heavy!)

We walked the parade and were the only Farangs for miles and definitely the only farangs in the parade. We still aren't really sure why they wanted us in the parade or why they dressed us up. One theory could be to parade around just how many American Teachers we have at our school. But, we were like little local celebrities. Thai people LOVE to take pictures of farangs--no matter what we are doing. Kind of like a lion at the zoo--you have to stop stare and take a picture and sometimes even ask to pose to be in the picture with the lion.

So the rain tapered off and our umbrellas were snatched from us, so everyone could admire our beautiful attire. It really was pretty neat. The streets were lined with our students, parents and the whole city of Chonburi. As we we got closer to our school, I saw two of my favorite students. They were screaming and jumping up and down "Teachha Esther". Warmed my heart. Then we passed our favorite coffee shops and restaurants and they waved and cheer us on as well.

We ended the parade at our running park. The park is not a normal park/track. It is beautiful and I've already come to take it for granted. There is an amazing white temple in the center, a pond, waterfall and tons of green space and trees. So we all marched together and the students released their krathongs into the water.

We were slightly miserable, exhausted, definitely hungry and our feet hurt at this point, but we were bound and determined to release our own krathong. We walked back to school and changed out of what had quickly become the most uncomfortable pair of "pants" and lace top I've ever worn. Grab our backpacks and headed back to the park.

It was hard to decide what kranthong to buy. There were so many: ones made of cabbages, peppers, banana leaves, bread and of course orchids and other beautiful flowers. A little back history on what Loi Krathong is all about:

Original this day signified the day where you were thanking/honoring the Goddess of Water (and apologizing for all the pollution...). Now the day has a even bigger meaning. People make or buy krathongs and each kranthong has a candle and incense. Once the candle is lit it represents the light of Buddha. You then add finger nail clippings or small piece of hair to your krathong. You push the krathong away into the water letting go of hatred, anger, and past negative thoughts (hair and nails representing the not so good parts you need to let go of). Some also had small coins to ensure good fortune for the next year.

The experience of releasing my very own krathong was something I never forget. I was happy we decided to stay in our Chonburi, the place we call home and were surrounded by our new family and friends. As I bent down to release my krathong into the murky, pollution filled pond I heard "Teachhaa." I smiled to myself--I knew this day represented exactly what the next year had in store for me: a day filled with poor communication, swollen tired feet, strangers snapping pictures of me left and right and a park buzzing with thousands pushing away their bad thoughts right along side a constantly confused farang. I couldn't have wished for a better day.

Pick-up Trucks & Monkeys

Monkey Temple

There are so many things I could and should tell you about. I never updated about my trip to Koh Samet, the ASEAN competitions, two field trips, my Thai Thanksgiving (fried chicken, mac n cheese and no bake cheese cake..) or my tutoring gig. But just so I don't bore you too much I'll skip over all of that and dive right into my weekend in Lopburi.

Monkey Street Sign
Lopburi is a city filled with monkeys. They climb through the streets like squirrels. Unlike squirrels-- monkeys don't scurry off when approached by humans. More often than not if you move towards them (and for me this was always by accident..) they jump right on top of you. Luckily zero monkeys jumped on me or anywhere near me, but some of my friends were not so lucky. One of the girls that traveled with us this weekend was bitten on the back of the leg (didn't break the skin..) and one of the guys on his neck (and this monkey did break the skin..he spent the afternoon in the hospital getting rabies shots). I knew about 20 people in the city for the festival and 2/20 were attacked. Knowing this, I'm guessing this happens quite often. I was more than happy to say goodbye to the monkeys when it wast time to leave. The city claims they are "humanized" but I think not so much.

school milk
School Milk
Since we have yet to be paid we have just been taking overnight trips to save money (thank goodness we will finally be paid on Friday at 11am...counting down the hours). Both times that we have taken day trips we wake up and "leave" at 7am. For Koh Samet-- three trips back upstairs for more baht, passports and water bottles and we finally left our apartment by 8:30. This go we didn't have to trek back upstairs for anything, but coordinating songtoa rides, meeting up with other friends and waiting on a bus that wasn't moving, put us leaving Chonburi at 9am. (We now know that the bus leaves at 7:30 and 9 so either get there early or just wait..)

The bus arrived in Bangkok at 11ish and we met up with two other friends at the bus station. Many hand gestures, a few Thai words, lots of English words and a 711 snack stock up later, we climbed into a van for a three hour journey to Lopburi. Vans are a very common (wouldn't say popular, they aren't very fun to ride in) way to travel throughout Thailand. They seat 16 people and make random stops along the way. The absolute worst seats in the van are the back row.  Up until this trip, I had no idea they were the worst seats--I always ended up sitting back there somehow. I wish I'd just never found out about the luxurious seats a few rows up, because now sitting in the back is almost unbearable.

group bar
Lopburi Bar with part of our group
About two hours in, lots of swerving, fast breaking and changing of lanes, it started to down pour (mother please realize there are no seat belts in Thailand and I'm pretty sure the drivers would not understand or appreciate it if I told them I had wait for my mom to come pick me up instead of riding without a seat belt..and since you aren't in this country I think that would be a bit of a challenge...). So the streets start to flood and now we start floating/hydroplaning our way to Lopburi.

We do get there in one piece, but we have no idea how to get from the bus station to our hotel. Bus stations aren't really bus stations or at least not like the bus stations in the US. There aren't any Information Stations or terminals or even buildings. So we ask our van driver. He gets out (he let's use stay in the van which is really nice..) and makes a few calls. Gets back in and through nonverbal communication let's us know he has no idea where this place is.

So we get out. Walk over and immediately a lady from a restaurant comes out and starts pulling stools towards us and says "sit down, sit down!" Then runs in the back and gets her daughter (I guess it was her daughter...?) Our van driver then gets back out and comes over to help again too. Then the daughter and friend come out. She speaks English. We now have a group of 7 farang and 4 locals trying to figure out where we need to go.

The girl calls the hotel and then a random elderly man shows up and they chat and then the next thing we know, the girl tells us he will take us for 30 baht a piece. She walks us through the rain to his truck. We are saying "thank you thank you thank you"--thinking of course she has already gone over and beyond and she will now go back to the restaurant, for goodness sakes she walked a quarter mile in the rain just to show us to the car. But, no she said "Oh no! I go with you to make sure." So she gets up front and we all crouch in the truck bed which is a cross between a songtao and a truck. We do have a covering and there are benches in the back, but more of a homemade version of a songtao/ghetto version (please note this is truck ride #1 for the weekend and this will become a very popular form of transportation from  here on out.)

truck ride number 1
Pick-up Truck Ride #1
So we sit crouched over, breathing in exhaust in standstill traffic. Finally arrive at our very off the grid hostel/hotel/not sure what you would call it. We say goodbye and pay our new friends. Drop off our bags and head out to explore. We find that we are extremely far from Old Lopburi which is were most of the action for the weekend is happening. We get lost, stop off at the Lopburi Inn and see some friends from orientation. But, I'm super grouchy and need to eat pronto. So we walk and walk and walk and for the first time since I've arrived in Thailand there are not resturants every two feet. There aren't even any food stalls. We just keep passing motorbike shops. Finally after finding a few college students they point us in the right direction and we eat at Grill Guru. It was great! I got a spicy pepper and chicken dish with rice.

By now it is 5 o'clock and we had been hoping to go to the sunflower fields, but realize that isn't going to happen because the sun is setting. So we head into Old Lopburi instead (one songtao ride and about a fifteen minute walk and we are still pretty far from Old Lopburi). We think we can walk there, but we can't, so after a few more stop overs and bumfuzzeled locals whom we've pestered with questions, we get back on the songtao and ride into Old Lopburi. Here we finally see our first monkeys and they are EVERYWHERE.

Man & Monkey
This man has been feeding these monkeys every day for over 20 years.
We hop off the songtoa and stand and stare at an old man as he sits and feeds the monkeys. Within a few minutes a local teacher comes up and tell us all about the monkeys. He is from LA and has been teaching in Lopburi for 3 months. He tells us a good area to hang out in and where to eat. We stop in a restaurant called School Milk. It is really cute, but we aren't hungry so we just get a few beers. We order beers for the table and sit and wait. We notice it is taking a little longer than it should for a few beers. A few minutes later we watch as one of the fifteen waiters walks in with a 711 bag filled with just the number of beers we've ordered. Lesson learned--go to 711 and bring beer to restaurant with from now on (and this is allowed in Thailand as opposed to the US).

So we leave there thinking we will stop by 711 get some snacks and head home to change, but then run into more people. So we sit down at a Chinese food restaurant and order dishes for the table to share. Next thing you know four hours later and I'm still in tennis shoes and it is time to relocated to another bar...oh well. Going out in tennis shoes will just have to do. (one of my fellow teachers did say "I mean I know we are in Thailand and all, but you are in running shoes--is that okay?").

So we head to the next bar, play a few Thai drinking games which boil down to-- a cup and saucer, dice and counting the number of farangs at the table and skipping all the locals--not once did the locals lose/have to drink. The bar was pretty neat though. Most of the restaurants and bars in Thailand are open and then just spill out into the street. I really like that, they just set up tables all up and down the road. Lopburi was also cold in comparison to Chonburi so that was a great relief!

Ten o'clock and one our orientation friends nonchalantly tell us that songtaos stop running at 9pm in Lopburi. At this moment we realize the ride home is going to be an interesting endeavor. Half the group decides it's time to try and get home and the other half goes to hear a local Thai band. Of course I can't resist live music and when in Thailand. Soooo..we venture to yet another bar.

One of the very interesting thing about Thai people is they love to give farangs alcohol. No idea why? But whenever you start talking to any of them the first thing they do is try and hand you their drink. I always responded with "mai ao kah" (no thanks..). But still very bizarre. But all the locals LOVE to talk to you and they love practicing their English and hearing about your life. The night gets later and later and finally we decide it is time to get home too. should we do this? We figure we will have to take a motorbike home (this is the second time this exact same scenario has happened to me..) We get outside and are looking for a motorbike driver to take us home. Immediately one of our Thai friends from earlier says "Oh no, we take you home." And is super insistent. She goes back into the bar to get her brother who is the driver for the night. (literally this is exactly what happened one night in Chonburi. They always tell us motorbike is too dangerous and drop everything they are doing to take us home). I tell her we are staying very far away, but she doesn't care. 

We show her the address in Thai (a word of advice always ask your hotel for the name written in Thai otherwise there is no luck when it comes to getting home..). We drive some strange way, stop twice at a gas station (which I'm pretty sure looking back on it, we are stopping to ask for directions, but I really have no clue.) Finally they decide to call the owner of the hotel to ask for directions (at this point it is really late...but the owner answers..) She answers and gives directions and meets us outside the hotel to make sure we make it in. Extremely nice and hospitable once again. 

So the plan is to awake up and go to the sunflower fields early in the morning before the opening ceremony for the monkeys--which is at 10am. So we wake up and hope that we can bribe a songtao driver to take us to the sunflower fields instead of having to drive all the way back into town. We walk out to the main rode and ask two different songtoa drivers. We show pictures of sunflowers, pull out money, point, smile, laugh...but no luck. We ride a Songtao back into town and stop at the bus station. But of course, no. We need to be at the train station to get a bus to the sunflowers (which makes zero sense).  Now it is getting late and we are grouchy and need food. So okay rethink. Let's get food, go to the monkeys and then go to the sunflowers.

We venture back to School Milk and this time for food. Since I've arrived in Thailand there really isn't a difference between breakfast food, lunch food and dinner food. So I decide to go for the Green Curry at 9am, because it looks like it is full of vegetables. So we sit and wait and once again we notice things are taking awhile and about 20 minutes later we aren't surprised in the least when three of the waiters walk outside and help two of the other staff carry in bags and bags of groceries. Well at least we know it will be fresh. 

The curry was amazing, but in Thailand they don't wait for everything to be ready. They just bring it out as it in shifts. So of course mine arrives last and it is boiling hot. It is full of cauliflower, broccoli, greens, carrots, radishes and more vegetables than I've seen since I've been in Thailand (even more than the vegetarian restaurant I go to every day for lunch!). I try and scarf it down as fast as possible so we can head to the opening ceremony. 
asean monkey
ASEAN Monkeys

We arrive a few minutes late and nothing is really happening. There is a big tarp that is covering something--what I assumed was food. Then (surprise surprise) all of these people start an ASEAN parade. They have flags and are dressed in the traditional clothing from each country. The only difference is now many of them have these creepy monkey masks on. Then (no surprise once again) they all start doing gangnam style. Thai announcers for any type of event are so annoying. They have really high pitch voices and talk really loud. So it sound like this "a;lskjf;askljdf ASEAN a;slfjks;lkdjf;laksj gnangman style a;sldjkfa;slkjdf " repeat 7 million times and throw in a lot of "kahs". 
fruit & monkeys
Thanking Monkeys with a Feast of Fruit

We walk around and the sun is hot. Finally they shoot of this confetti and the remove the tarp to show a huge pit-like area filled with stuffed animal monkeys. SO strange. Then the feeding starts and monkeys are just all over the place. I'm over it and ready to see some sunflowers. 
stuffed animals
Strange Monkey Dolls

So we decide we've seen enough. We walked back to hotel that had sunflowers on the front window--figuring that was a good sign and they'd be able to point us in the right direction. But, they weren't really any help. We walked and stop along the way asking a lot of different people and prices were outrageous, but they all offered to take us in their pick up trucks. (side note--if you would like to get a job in Lopburi buy a pick up truck put in two wooden benches and cover it with a tarp and you will make millions..) We didn't really like the attitudes of any of the people offering so we kept walking, but we were determined. Then here comes Door (at this point I didn't know Door, but for the rest of my Chonburi friends he was a dear old friend). 

Door: Our Personal Chauffeur for the weekend
Their ride home experience from the night before had been similar. They leave the bar and try to find motorbikes, but the owner of the bar refuses to let them go. He tells them "wait wait..I'll call my brother." He calls and wakes up his brother (Door) to bring his truck and take them home. Of course, Door takes them home (Truck ride #2 for most of the group..). So here pops up Door again and he says he will take us for 100 baht a person. That seems like an awful lot, but it is far and we do want to go. We barging a little and end up settling for 80 baht a person (so do the math Door makes 560 baht in less than an hour..this is 160 baht more than I make for tutoring for 1 I said I'm thinking of getting in the pick up truck Lopburi business.)

truck ride # 2
Yellow spinners to match the sunflowers
So we go (and yes mom sorry once seat belts, maybe you shouldn't have read this blog entry..) and it is amazing. Each year all the farmers take turns planting the sunflowers so that there will be sunflowers in bloom for two months. The trip was about 20 minutes away and the temperature dropped about 10 degrees as we entered the countryside. There were mountains in the background and it was kind of sunny kind of cloudy so it was perfect. 

On our journey there and on the trip back we had more people take pictures of us than I've ever had in my life. I'm not even sure why--Thai people ride around in the back of trucks all the time. People flashed their lights, rolled down their windows and would yell "smile" as they took our picture. I'm really not sure what they are going to do with the pictures..maybe upload to facebook with the caption of "Dumb Farangs." Wouldn't be surprised.
sunflower field group
Beautiful Sunflower and the whole group
Well that is the tale of Lopburi. Today we made final plans for three more trips: This weekend Bangkok for Alicia's 25th Birthday, 2nd weekend in December Chaing Mai for Laura's Birthday, and New Years Eve will be spent on Koh Chang Island. I am so excited about all of them and can't even imagine how many crazy and exhausting stories each of the weekends will have! 

Good Morning Gangnam Style Exercise

Lunch Time!
So I’ve talked a little about the morning flag ceremony. I get to school between 7:15-7:45. I have a feeling as the semester goes on I will get here closer to 7:45. During that time I print, make copies/do anything else I need to do for my lesson plan that day. The kids trickle into the classroom, stopping by my desk one by one to say “Good Morning Teachaa Esther.” Then a song comes on over the overhead speaker (there are speakers everywhere in Thailand--it is said that you could be walking down the street and suddenly the anthem will play and you must stop immediately.) At this point the students know to get into a line and they start the “Line, Line, Line.” “Stay, Stay, Stay” process.

Then we head out into the heat--which is hot again. The boys and girls separate: girls in one straight line in the front and boys one straight line in the back. Sweat trickles down their powdery white faces and the squirm and squint as the ceremony begins. Five 6th graders stand in the middle with a microphone and they lead the ceremony as the flag reaches the top: lots of “kraps” and bowing and sometimes the band plays and sometimes not. Then they normally (aka the last week it has been something different every day and I never have any clue what is coming next) march up to the main stage and pass off the mic to someone high up in the ranks and then they talk and talk and talk, more kraps/kahs and bowing and then suddenly we head back inside.

Post Completion: Thai teacher said--"Teacher, Red" & pointed to the hat..Pretending I don't understand. Not Changing...
But not today! I thought we were lining back up to go inside, but the next thing I know one of the older grades (not sure which one) is spreading out in the main part of the courtyard (this is a big courtyard just so you know..very large enough for probably 125ish of them to spread out in this area). And then, the best part--they place an aerobics platform in the very middle of the courtyard and the PE teacher (in his lovely pink shirt..remember we are all matching again today) jumps up on the platform. Then I hear “teachaa teacchha, no see” and pointing to the kindergarteners and then the bench. “you there, you there.” What...? Confusion? Dumb farang look? Huh? “exercises teacher” So I stood up on the bench, music starts and simple arms stretches begin. Okay, deep breath--same stretches as America. I can do this!
Afternoon Coffee Spot
Coffee Love.
Then imagine Richard Simmons Jane Fonda mix of exercises. Stepping this way and then that and arms over head and I’m so confused..not good at the whole arms and legs at the same time. But I keep it going and the kids are loving it. Polyester starts soaking up the sweat and I keep smiling at the other teachers (which I might add all still have both feet on the ground floor and the farang gets the luxury of dancing on the table) I’m not sure why I didn’t see it coming--but I didn’t. But it came-- “Hey sexy lad--ayy” over the overhead and then the exercise reaches an all time max. Gangnam style here we go. Friday morning 8am I am standing on a park bench doing Gangnam style so my kindergarteners can watch and follow, pink polyester and all. What were you doing at 8am on Friday morning? I’m guessing you probably weren’t dancing on tables for kindergartners....Only in Thailand..Heyyyy sexy laddaay for all the world to hear.

Teacher Esther


So yesterday was day two of teaching. Wednesday was the day we were introduced to all staff. We were warned that there would be a lot of whispering and pointing as we introduced ourselves. My main goal was not to stand out--you don’t want to be too casual, but you also don’t want to be too fancy. Don’t want them to think you are sloppy and don’t care, but you also don’t want to be too beautiful--just like mean girls: fine line between a threat and a loser. Of course, too beautiful is a thing that I often have trouble with-haha (555).

So each teaching day starts with a “clock-in”. I’m in a super high tech school. We come in and using our fingerprint must “clock-in” by 8am. We arrived early on day one & two. Of course we stopped for coffee before school. Dee Cafe my favorite coffee shop states clearing on the window 8am-6pm, but guess what it’s Thailand and that means nothing. No clue what time he opens, but he is always open. I guess the timeframe is just a suggestion.

Sri Racha Beach

So we arrive coffees in hand and I meet 40 of my 120 students in my homeroom for the week. A bit awkward at first, but not really. Kind of shy, but oh man they warm of fast and Tea-chha, Tea-ccha suddenly fills the room. I am attacked with hugs, pulls and questions: some in Thai some in English. They know a lot though and they pick up motions and songs so fast you’d think they were robots.

Each morning when you start it goes: “Good Morning.” “Good Morning, Tea-ccha Esther. How are you?” “Fine, thank you. How are you?” “Fine, thank you.” Then line up and the Thai teacher says “Line, Line, Line” and the students say “Stay, Stay, Stay.” It took me awhile to figure out that was what they were saying, but figured it out today.

Then we head outside into what has turned into a pretty mild week, it has cooled off probably 5-10 degree since we’ve been here. Hope that it stays that way! We all stand at attention while, they raise the flag and then suddenly everyone is singing a Thai song, bowing, praying and all kinds of other things I don’t understand. I just stand there and smile, trying to go unnoticed.


Then we go back into the room. The rooms are so cute and nice and all have AC and they all open into the large courtyard which is where the flag ceremony takes place. Palm trees galore and the whole building is painted purple--the color of the princesses. Then we sit in a row and the students come one by one and wai & hug each of the thai teachers (1 thai teacher & 1 assistant) and then say good morning to me and give me a hug. A bit awkward first day, I had no idea what I was doing and the kids are so used to wai-ing and I wasn’t making them feel all that comfortable with the western introduction--I did much better this morning!

So little after good mornings the kids go into their Thai lessons and I rotate to different rooms between three different K classes. They’ve all already won my heart! I mean I really love so much!

This week was a bit more of a challenge because their were no topics so it was harder to come up with things. But, yesterday I went with introductions and show pictures of family! Then counted people in the family and then had the kids find me in the pictures--very confusing since to Thai three and four year olds, Rebekah, Hannah and I look like the same person and Carrie, Leah and I look like identical twins--so it was a bit of a challenge.

But the kids are SO smart. Today we did Halloween and learned: skeleton, monster, pumpkin and witch. We had motions that went with each and then sang five little pumpkins sitting on a fence. The song was pretty fast, but they got the motions with it. Then we played games where kids had to pick a motion and everyone guessed which one. Worked pretty well and I am getting the hang of what works and doesn’t work pretty fast!

Then we have lunch and it is done family style-ish as well. The kids have a lot of responsibility. They have to pass a box down the middle and the kids take their spoon and fork and then push the box along. Then pass down a pot and they pour in any extra soup they don’t eat. Then pass down fruit and they take one piece of fruit--amazing. This system would never work in USA. One kid would take 5 pieces and one kid would spill all over the place and one kid would forget to pass and then all the kids would be screaming. But here as efficient as an assembly line.

After lunch, we brush teeth, drink water out of silver cups and pull out our silk sleeping pallets with pillows included. They sleep for HOURS! 12-2:30. Lights go out and it is quiet! (maybe you are wondering how these kids stay quiet? -- rubber rulers are involved...) It is nap time now, imagine AC, dark room and I just had a lovely vegetarian pumpkin curry (for less than $1) and now I am sipping on a mocha espresso and it is already Friday--life in Thailand is good!

Post nap time, kids wake up (really whenever the teacher wants them to-- no set time. Then they wash their face and we hand out baby powder and they rub it on their face. So post nap tap everyone’s face becomes splotchy with white powder. I couldn’t figure it out at first, but I looked it up and it does date back to some Thai traditions as well as just acting as cooling agent. Still pretty bizarre in the eyes of a farang.

Polyester Pink Sport's Day Shirts 
Next week we will start storytime. Every afternoon I spent 15 minutes with each class and read then a few pages of a book that has to do with the theme of the week. Next week’s theme is Night and Day. So any creative ESL learning games, comment below and help a sista out!

One more quick story. I promise then I’m done for the day! Just so much to tell...and it’s only been two days. Yesterday my coordinator said “You be my office 12:30, storytelling competition.” In my mind I thought okay, she will give me details about judging/helping organize a storytelling competition in the future. But no, we arrive and three Thai students sitting meekly in the corner and our coordinator rambles off the criteria. “Mood, Theme, Organization, Interesting, Pronunciation, Morale..this % and that, judge now and winner will be school representative.” Suddenly their fate is left in my hands. I feel so under qualified! Why me? All three students begin the same “Ladies and Gentleman...” So funny to hear them say this. I couldn't tell what the first story was, it was pretty unorganized and it was confusing. The second was better, she did the three little pigs and she had good voices and her pronunciation was great! And then the third student was amazing. I don’t even think a native speaker could have done as well as she did. She told the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes (all of this is memorized too). She used different voices, hand motions and was amazing!

We all agreed she was the obvious winner. Then when we finished (the judges were two other farang teachers), My coordinator said “Esther I think you tutor her, yes?” First day and already taken on extra! Love it! (actually no italics here..) So I’m staying late on a Friday to help this adorable third grader win a storytelling competition. Only in Thailand.

Next post will include my lunch today. I met another Thai teacher and she already invited me to come spend the night at her house and visit the night market close to her house. “Yes come stay and when I need to come here I stay with you?” No shame...then she took me to my coffee shop (my second coffee shop close to school) and she told the owner “She is VIP here, remember her face and this is her order.” (in thai of course..) So cute!


Thailand, Bless her Heart

Untitled So my southern roots have taken me all the way to Thailand and prepared me quite nicely--direct quote “it doesn’t matter how much you teach your students or what you teach them or even the grades they make at the end of the semester (all thai students always pass, no one ever fails)--what really matters is how you present yourself and how much the director likes you.”
Bottom line, bless her heart is not just a southern saying in thai it translates directly to mai pen rai-- aka no worries/we think you are an idiot, we smile and laugh but we are all about “saving face” so we will not embarrass you now, not just yet..maybe later once you are gone-- classic bless your heart style.

We have now met Teacher Becky, Ajarn Prem, the director and all the fellow farang teachers. There are eleven new farang teachers: 5 in the EP (english/most expensive/best program) 5 in the JR (intermediate) and 1 in the Regular program (worst off & free for the students). Our school is very large and very well known for its English Program. There are over 200 teachers total and about 40 farang teachers (not all from the US--it is a mix).

All of the girls from my program are in the EP school--which is great! We have AC, smart boards, powerpoint and tons of parent involvement--which we’ve been told at times can be
overwhelming. As we rode from Bangkok to our city in a small van-- hot, tired and swished together on a bench seat our coordinator Ajarn Prem discussed salary, job descriptions and our fate for the next year.

No contracts, no interviewing, just one look and decisions were made. There was one position open and they needed someone staying for a year to fill the position because it was the most demanding and the teacher stays with one class all day and makes up more lesson plans etc. The other positions were 3rd, 4th, 5th grade and we rotate classes. Prem picked Helen to teach the harder position and increased her salary a good bit. It was an interesting experience, because we really didn’t have much say in the matter. Then the rest of the positions were up for grabs and they told us to just decide amongst ourselves who wanted which class. Very bizarre and very different than what we are accustom to.

The director of the school has been such an interesting component of the last two days. I imagine this is a small scale idea of what Thai royalty is like. He is very important and we must make sure we are polite, wai correctly and smile, nod and kah. Never ever turn your back when he is in the room and just keep smiling even when it’s all in Thai. Prem our coordinator does some of the translating, but he only speaks Thai even though he manages one of the largest english program schools in the region.

But back to my southern rooms--my mother would be proud. I was applauded on the fact that when asked if we had anything else to say or ask the director (as he just kind of awkwardly stood there and like I said he only speaks Thai so we just smile and nod..) I said “thank you for lunch, it was very good.” And immediately, his eyes and the coordinator’s eyes lit up and then we had a 20 minute conversation about traditional thai food. Which was great--except that we are sitting in tiny thai 1st grader chairs (which are half the size of the american 1st grade chairs) and we still have millions of more topics to cover for our training. To insure that I don’t bring myself down again, I’ll just quickly say today was not a good day. I am much more of a do-er and I am so ready to get in the classroom and do. I am so tired of listening and sitting to other’s experiences and other’s suggestions. It has been beneficial, but it is time to TEACH! And thank goodness only 1 more day and we will be teaching.

As of this morning I thought I was teaching 4th grade, but then our coordinator used the My Big Fat Greek Wedding trick and now even though it was our decisions on what grade we will be teaching--I am teaching kindergarten (hmm..not sure how that happened?). Mai pen it up thailand.

So the honeymoon stage has worn off a bit and I’ve had to step back and take a breather. Chonburi is hot and that means you don’t want to be outside walking around any time between 9-5pm and you don’t want to be in your apartment during that time either because that means you need your AC which = a larger/more expensive utility bill. I haven’t had that hard of time adjusting to the physical heat and humidity, but the sun is incredibly hot. It is so much hotter and more powerful than the sun at home.

And I’ve been so hot sleeping at night. I’ve tried my very hardest to just use the AC fan and not use the AC. It does cool off at night (which is surprising, because summer nights in the south often don’t), but I can’t seem to get a good draft in my room so even with the windows open the room is still and hot and I’ve been dying and sweating. So tonight I broke down and turned it on and cranked up the ac--phenomenal sleep finally!! And this is the “cool” season. I thought about opening my door to the porch and hoping that would create some wind flow but then realized that is an easy way for a gecko to get in and these geckos aren’t as friendly as the geico commercials and they are hard to catch once they dart into your room.