The Bangkok Protests – A Firsthand Account

I arrived into Bangkok from Bali only to be greeted by social unrest.  The red shirts had been protesting the government for a few weeks now and were now taking over the city.  All of the malls were closed.  Streets were blocked.  They were causing the city of Bangkok to go a little slower than usual. 

I was staying with my friend in the Sukumvit area between the Phloen Chit and Nana stations.  I didn’t really have any trouble getting over there, but I noticed the sea of red shirts on the streets and the barriers that had been haphazardly placed along the roads.  We successfully avoided the mayhem on Friday, but during a quick run to Subway for lunch, we were thrown into the middle of it all.

The police closing in on the Red Shirts

The Subway is located right next to the Nana station, right where a group of redshirts had blockaded the road.  We were just minding our own business, ordering our footlongs, when we looked out the window and saw lines of policemen marching towards the protesters.  It was an insane sight.  They were all in unison, full gear, shields ready.

The doors to the Subway were quickly barricaded and the Open sign was changed to close.  Worried we were going to miss the action, we scarfed down our sandwiches and headed outside, only to watch the tail-ends of the policemen go.  Well that was quick!

A group of Red Shirts heading over to the Phloen Chit Station

That was only the beginning.

We hung around there for awhile, listening to the cheering and laughter, and then decided to head down to the Phloen Chit station to follow the crowds of redshirts on motorcycles and in the backs of trucks.

That’s when it got good. 

The police side of the stand-off

We arrived at the station to witness a standoff between the protesters and a slew of police.  There was about 10 meters between the two, a few cameramen and journalists in the middle, and redshirts lining the streets.  It was a crazy feeling being right in the middle of the warring entities!  The police were standing their ground and the redshirts were posted right across from them, but there wasn’t much animosity in the air.  People were laughing and goofing around.  We also found this again with the police when we moved further down the street.  They were lounging about, playing cards, texting, napping, and chatting away.  There was no sense of urgency and no inclination of violence. 

The Red Shirt side of the barricade

There were negotiations going on between the lines and a man came on a loudspeaker, spoke for awhile in Thai and we started hearing cheering.  A few moments later, large trucks split the lines and whisked away the police forces. 

A retreat!

Laying down, texting, chatting are just a few of the relaxing activities the police did during the stand-off

It was such a cool sight watching the red shirts scream and hoot as they watched the police trucks retreating.  The policemen were smiling and laughing as well (probably happy that they didn’t have to sit there much longer!) and I actually caught a red shirt handing a red bandana to a policeman in the truck (the name watermelon is given to army and policemen who are secretly supporting the red shirt cause, green on the outside, red on the inside).

A woman handing out drinks to the thirsty policemen

After the retreat, we decided to head home, only to hear of violence erupting on Khao San Road only hours later.  We were shocked.  We had felt no sense of danger whatsoever, but that is the scary thing about protests, they can take an ugly turn within moments (maybe we shouldn’t have hung around so long!).

An Ascent into Darkness – Climbing Mt. Batur

One of the must do activities, or so I’ve heard, in Bali is to climb one of the few volcanoes.  And when you do this climb is quite different than any other hike you have done before. 

You begin your ascent at 4 AM in the morning.  Yes, you are in complete darkness, with no promise of light until you are at the top.  This is no easy feat.

Especially since I haven’t worked out in almost a year (thank you Southeast Asia!).

My friend Stephanie and I began our trip to Mount Batur (there are also a few other volcanoes, but this one seems to be the more popular one, I think its because its an “easier” climb and its shorter than the others) at 2 AM from Kuta Beach.  We attempted to nap on the way up to the volcano, but struggled to gain some extra shut eye before our adventure up the mountain.

We arrived at the base and met our guide, Pon, who ended up being the best guide ever, but more on that later.  For awhile, it was pretty flat.  We had no idea what the terrain looked like around us or ahead of us. 

And then we hit the mountain…

We made it!

I felt like I was going straight up…all the time…with no end.  Holding the extremely small flashlight I was given, I carefully maneuvered the rocks and hoped that I didn’t fall, which I didn’t, but definitely came close once or twice!  It felt so great to be breaking a sweat (well, Southeast Asia makes me sweat all the time, but this sweat wasn’t from heat!), but I had to put the hood up on my sweatshirt because the breeze was making me cold.  I had to take many breaks and after a great deal of huffing and puffing, we made it to the top and we were the first ones there! 

With our awesome guide

We felt extremely accomplished and it had only taken us a little over an hour when it is supposed to take an hour and a half or so.  We soon were freezing because our completely sweat drenched bodies were now feeling the cold of the mountain top and we were eager for the sun to rise.  Our adrenaline must have kicked in as well because we were soon laughing and making jokes and might have been “those girls” at the top, but we didn’t care, we just climbed a volcano!

The beautiful sunrise

Soon enough, the sun peeked out from behind the mountains, and although it was quite cloudy, it was still definitely worth it.  We enjoyed the sunrise and then took a quick walk around the crater, but didn’t get too close because a Swedish man had fallen in only a few days earlier.  I’m not exactly sure how he fell in, he had to have been doing something pretty stupid to lose his balance, but who knows (the Grand Canyon has roughly 10 photography related deaths a year so I’m not entirely surprised)!

The peaceful scenery

On the way down (which sometimes is harder than the way up!), it was really fun to actually see what we missed in the morning!  The mountainside was covered in black lava rocks from previous eruptions, (oh and by the way this volcano is still active, yeah it could have blown at any second) and the views were amazing!

Our guide apparently loved us as well and gave us our very own Mt. Batur Trekking Guide shirts!!  You can’t buy those!  We were ecstatic!!

Climbing Mt. Batur at night has been one of my favorite activities yet on my travels! 

The amazing view!

Riding Giants – Learning How to Surf in Bali

 I’m from California.  Meaning its pretty much implied that I know how to surf.

Well I don’t.

The surfboard looks like its going to knock me over, which it did, multiple times...

I’ve tried to learn multiple times, but my stubbornness and fear of being underwater stood in my way.  Plus the water in California is freezing and the waves are slightly out of my range.

Thus, I made it my mission to finally stand up on a surfboard in Bali.

My friend Stephanie, who was only a little bit more experienced than I, and I rented a board for the day on Kuta Beach.  She set out first because my nerves were getting the best of me and came back twenty minutes later after being ruled by the small waves, which didn’t give me much confidence.

Paddling out only to get rocked moments later

I paddled out, trying to remember what I had been taught six years earlier.  Well, it didn’t work because I completely wiped out over and over and over again.  Discouraged, I waded out of the water only to find that one of the fins had come off!  There is no way that it should have fallen off that fast!

I grabbed the guy that had sold us the board and brought him over to see the damage.  I told him that it should not have fallen off after twenty minutes in the water and he just kept saying, “I see you.  I see you.  You in the water.  You cannot stand up.  You just fall.  You cannot stand up!”  I told him that I was aware I could not stand up, but he still repeated, “You in the water!  You cannot stand up!  You need lessons!  I show you!”

I'm almost standing! I'm pretty sure I got there and then plummetted promptly

I ignored him, he eventually walked away, and we were stuck with a board with only one fin, which didn’t really bother us because we couldn’t stand up anyways.

But we pressed on.

And later that day, after an incident of my shoulder sublexing yet again, I am pleased to say I stood up…for about 2 seconds.  But nonetheless, I stood up and a couple days later when we rented a board again, it became a little bit easier.  And by a little bit, I mean I still wiped out 75% of the time. 

I'm so excited that I stood up for the first time!

Actually, make that 85%, but I was ok with that.

I conquered the waves of Bali!  Now onto the icy waters of the Pacific.

Crossing the Cambodian Border: Do I need to tip you too?

The border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia from Trat (Hat Lek) to Koh Kong (Cham Yeam) is a little bit of a pain in the butt, but I hear you get less hassled than the Poipet border and no one (that I know of) tried to pickpocket me or break into my backpack or luggage.  I chose to go this out of the way border because 1) I wanted to see a little bit of the south before I ventured onto Siem Reap or Phnom Penh and 2) I didn’t want to follow the stream of Khao San Road travelers going through Poipet straight to Siem Reap. 

My journey began with leaving my beloved town of Lang Suan on a bus headed for Bangkok.  As soon as I alighted the bus at the Southern Bus Terminal after a seven hour ride, I was inundated with taxi drivers looking for their next victim.  I was somehow swept away by one of them and his “caddy,” which I wasn’t aware I was paying for her services until I was demanded 100 baht at the taxi.  I had originally asked for the meter and as the taxi driver began to pull out of the driveway I reminded him of this fact.  When I refused to pay him 500 baht for the 30 km to the Northern Bus Terminal, he did a quick U-turn and made me get out of the car.

I piled all my stuff into a driver that agreed to put on the meter and 155 baht later (I was feeling smug that it was so much less than the 500 the previous driver was demanding), I arrived at the Northern Bus Terminal with the mission to buy a bus ticket to Trat. 

The first bus for Trat left at 6AM and unfortunately it was 4.  I nestled into an extremely uncomfortable bus station seat and as I watched the Thai man with a combover practically snap his neck while he nodded off, I attempted to finish the nap I had began on the bus.  Two hours later, I was lugging my baggage around trying to find platform 83, which conveniently was not located where I thought it was going to be and after asking a uniformed official at the information desk, who clearly wasn’t qualified for the job, I discovered the bus on my own and was once again on my way.

Now that was the easy part.

I arrived at the Trat bus station and was convinced to take a sawng thaew for 300 baht to the border (apparently there is a minibus for 120 baht, but I was sick of waiting around and decided to just go with the quick shot to the border).  Once to the border, a man grabbed my bags and ushered me through customs.  Of course, after I had received my health inspection, I was ordered to give him a tip, something I found was expected here if someone does even the smallest of duties for you.  I discovered that the station only took baht (1000 to be exact, which does not equal the normal amount of $20 that its supposed to be) and after much frustration I surrendered over the baht.  I was then commanded to give the man who helped me through customs a tip as well.  Seriously?!  Everything I had to tip for today I had not asked for and it was getting on my nerves!

I was being continuously hounded by a private car driver and since no other option for transportation presented itself, I had to take him up on his offer to take me to Krong Koh Kong, buy me a bus ticket for the next day to Sihanoukville, and find me a guesthouse all for 1000 baht.  I kept telling him I’m not stupid and I know that it shouldn’t be that much, but I had to concede in the end. 

He did in fact buy me the bus ticket and found me accommodation at the Koh Kong guesthouse, which was actually pretty good, room was reasonably sized and clean, so he held up his end of the bargain.

I’m just hoping the bus does in fact pick me up at the guesthouse tomorrow!

 

Note: A bus did not come and pick me up the next day.  I had to pile all of my luggage (a slightly oversized carry-on bag, my backpack, and my packed purse) on a motorbike and I wish I had had a picture of this.  I’m sure it looked hilarious, but then again, its probably not a rare sight in these parts!

Ajarn Sandra Lays Down the Law

Every teacher wants to be liked.  They want their students to have fun in their class and want to actually be there.  In Thailand, or at least in Suansriwittaya school, this is especially important.  Students cannot fail in Thailand and this adds a lack of motivation factor to my students.  Also, at my school, the students actually have a say in whether a teacher can continue teaching or not.  They write an evaluation at the end of each school year and can make or break a teacher’s teaching career.  I always thought this was a bit ludicrous, but hey, what isn’t in Thailand.

Thus, teachers, at least the three English teachers at Suansriwittaya, are contestants in a popularity contest.  We do what we can to make our students happy, giving them free time when they “really need it” or conceding to letting them watch Mr. Bean once their work is finished.  We may come off as pushovers, but hey as long as the students are learning some English and are able to listen to us speak, then we’re doing our job.   It hasn’t been a difficult task to keep the students smiling, but thats speaking for the students that actually care and want to be there.

My M1 double lesson class is a different story.

The “double lesson” consists of   M1-3-M1-7.  These are the “special” children and thus know maybe one word of English.  And it’s hard to even tell what that one word is.  I asked one of my students “How are you” yesterday, trust me, as slow as I possibly could, and she couldn’t answer.  She started nervously looking to her friends for the answer.  And this was my smartest girl in the class who always answers questions and finishes worksheets first.  Really?!  How are you?!

Anyways, starting a class out on that foot doomed me for the two hours that loomed ahead of me.  We were discussing family and were going over grandfather, and mother, and uncle, ok you get the point.  They weren’t doing too badly, although great grandfather seemed to baffle them beyond their limits.  I had a wordsearch and a crossword that I wanted them to do and after ten minutes or so they had finished.  With my other Ms, M1 and M2, I had them write two sentences about their mother and two sentences about their father.  I knew two sentences would be a little much for these students, so I asked them to write ONE sentence about their mother or father.  One sentence thats all I ask.  Pretty simple request right.  Definitely not.

After five minutes or so of “working” I noticed that none of them had a single word written.  This wasn’t going to fly with me.  I know they’re a little on the slower side, but I know they’re not that dense.  As easy as it would have been to just let them go about their business, I decided to forego my standing stigma of a pushover and pull out some punishment.

Because the class is almost two hours long, I usually give them a 15-minute break in the middle.  This break is not only for them but it’s really a break from the headache that these little terrors give me.  I threatened that they would not get their break if they did not write their sentence (this gave me a little panic attack inside because that meant that I would have to figure out what I would do with them during that time), and I was going to stand by that.  It took them a few minutes to comprehend this notion, but it finally clicked and they started furiously writing.

Except the four troublemakers in the back.

These four boys never do their work.  I mean never.  Barely even a scrawl on their paper.  When I passed by them I noticed a long scribble on one of their papers.  I asked him where his sentence was and he pointed to his scribble.  He was dead serious.  I looked at him and asked him to read it.  Once again, blank stare.  I had to bite my lip to avoid laughing or screaming, I’m not sure which one.

After I had the rest of the students read their sentences outloud, I returned back to the boys and once again, no sentences.  I gave them a sly smile and turned back to the rest of the class and announced break time.  As the four boys started to get up, I whipped around and told them, to sit.  The confused looks on their faces were hilarious.   As the rest of the class filed out of the classro to gossip, get a drink or play ping-pong for their fifteen minutes, the four boys were glued to their chairs completely and utterly confused.

The four of them sat with their eyes glued on me as I played Spider Solitare.  I didn’t even look at them.  I was proud.  Probably a little too proud, but I was so incredibly proud that I had finally laid down the law!  The rest of the class the boys diligently did their work, and I mean they actually did it.  They didn’t goof around and they stayed in their seats for once.

The next class, everyone did their work.

And everyone got their 15 minute break.

Traveling in Thailand – Witnessing a Little Bit of Crazy

As stated in an earlier post, traveling in Thailand is never easy. The buses leave whenever the driver feels like it and I’ve had to get used to waiting when there is no known end in sight. As regular as the bus from Lang Suan to Surat Thani has been, usually leaving between 12:30 and 1, this particular day it was not.

Alan, James, and I were heading down to Krabi (more specifically Ko Jum) for a long weekend and I had told them that the bus usually left on time and was never a hassle. After at least an hour of waiting, we were still waiting.

Waiting at the bus stop proved to be entertaining though. The most notable bystander was a lady that seemed to be a regular. She was muttering to herself and weaving between the chairs and benches. When James got up to throw his beer can away, she grabbed it from his hand and stuffed it in her bag. A few minutes later, she came up to him with a paper (of course completely in Thai) and started pointing and reading it to him. We had absolutely no idea what she was saying and she was just smiling (with a glint of crazy in her eye), pointing and trying to get James to read the paper. Disregarding our looks of confusion, she persisted for a few minutes and then just walked away.

Needless to say, she was a little off her rocker and unfortunately, because we don’t know Thai, we couldn’t figure out exactly how off her rocker she was.

As Thais frequently do, there were a few people sleeping here and there. A lady was sleeping on her fruit cart. The driver, who was soon to be ours, was asleep in a chair. The man in charge of the bus station was sleeping on a table and next to him was a man, presumably to be homeless, sleeping as well.

This picture gives a nice shot of the unbuttoned pants

This man, the homeless one, was wearing no shirt and pants that were about four sizes too big for him, and he must’ve felt that zipping them up would have been way too much effort. He got up a few times to go pee, luckily he went away from the bus stop to do this, but he always came right back to his spot on the table.

The lady came around again for James’ beer can, but because he was not finished he didn’t hand it over. This seemed to tip her craziness up to a different level, because a few minutes later she snapped.

She marched over to the sleeping homeless man and started whacking him with a rolled up newspaper, while screaming and shouting. Alan said he thought she was saying something along the lines of, “Filthy, filthy, filthy.” She whacked him continuously until he got up and chased him around the corner of the building. Still yelling and screaming, she was smacking the rolled up newspaper on the chairs and the walls, and we were even a little nervous she was going to start on us.

She grabbed a broom and started furiously sweeping the area that he had previously been sleeping on, all the while still yelling what we now thought was, “Filthy, filthy, filthy.”

The shirtless man came walking back into where we were sitting and boarded a bus that was set to head to Chumphon in ten or twenty minutes. The lady took note of this, still muttering to herself. Meanwhile, all of us at the bus stop are sitting in awe (us more than the others since we weren’t exactly sure what was going on, but then again, they probably didn’t either).

Her next move was an alarming one.

I don't know what kind of crazy thoughts are in that brain of hers! I'm pretty sure she's muttering to herself in this picture

She went fishing in the trash and retrieved a half-full beer bottle. Wondering what she was going to do with this bottle, we watched her wrap it in newspaper.

“Omg, she’s going to hit that guy with that bottle,” I whispered to James, “What do we do?! Omg, she’s going to beat that guy!” We all started getting a little nervous as we tried not to stare.

With the man still sitting on the bus, she started shouting again. Before I turned my head to see what she was up to, I heard a loud crash. Next to her seat, liquid was seeping onto the concrete. For some reason, she had shattered the bottle on the side of her seat and sent the remnants flying. Needless, to say everyone was a little confused by this and still watched her as she furiously tried to wipe it up.

I turned to James and laughed, “You should’ve just given her your beer can man!”

Conquering the Rock in Railay

Krabi was one of my first trips when I arrived in the South. I loved everything about it, especially the opportunities to explore anything and everything under the sun. There are countless day trips available to book at the numerous travel agencies and guesthouses ranging from kayaking around Hong Island to Elephant treking in Khao Sok to day trips exploring the neighboring islands of Krabi.  I, of course, want to do them all, but time permitting I have had to pick and choose the ones that are at the top of my list. 

The first time I was down in Krabi I did the 4 Island tour (Chicken Island, Poda Island, Tup Island, and Phranang Cave, Railay) and the 5 Island tour, which is also known as the Hong Island Tour (and not really 5 islands).  But there were so many more that I wanted to do!

The guide showing me how to tie my knot. By the end of the day, he didn't have to show me anymore!

I had heard so much about rock climbing on Railay Beach and I told myself that I would come back and do that before I left Thailand.  This weekend I had the opportunity to do just that and it was one of the best experiences I have had!

I signed up for the half day trip with King Climbers, which is supposed to be one of the best groups to climb with.  I was advised that the half day was more than enough climbing for someone who doesn’t do it everyday and boy am I glad I only did the half day!  I ended up being completely beat at the end of the day and sore for days after!

This may look like I'm posing, but I can assure you it is "in action"

I also had the option of climbing in the afternoon.  Much much better than the morning session, which required me to wake up at 7 in the morning after a long day/night of traveling!  I immediately took this option and enjoyed my morning of sleeping in and reading by the river.  I was picked up by the King Climbers truck, was taxied over to the Railay Beach peir, and boarded a 15-minute longtail boat ride to Railay.

While getting fitted for my climbing gear, I met a fellow Californian (which NEVER happens.  I not only rarely meet Americans, but I double rarely meet someone from California!), Cat, who had been traveling for a couple months in SE Asia.  She had just gotten engaged in Cambodia and I begged her to tell me the story!  I love hearing engagement stories and hers was a great one!  We instantly became friends and vowed that we would take pictures of each other while we were scaling the rocks.  Our climbing group consisted of two Norwegians, who had never climbed before, two Californians, and a Finnish guy, Peter, who had climbed in the morning session as well. 

I'm pretty sure I'm on the easy part right now, right before I got stuck

We began with one of the easiest climbs and I started out with a bang.  Peter was blaying me and apparently he wasn’t too ready, because I slipped in the first couple seconds (sweaty palms, I was nervous ok!  I haven’t climbed in a long time!) and  plummeted the four feet and came inches from smacking into the ground.

But I got right back up and scaled that rock!  It wasn’t the hardest thing in the world, but it still felt so great to make it up to the top.  I haven’t had a challenge like that in a long time and it felt amazing to be “athletic” again!

The next one was a different story. 

The first part was pretty easy, in the sense that it didn’t take me too long to figure out my next foot or hand hold.  I was using many of the muscles I haven’t used in ages and it felt so great to “feel the burn” for the first time in months! 

But then I reached a sort of “impasse.”  I kept trying to find a foot hold and then a hand hold and then a different foot hold and then a different hand hold, but nothing seemed to be working.  I was only about 6-8 feet away from the top, but I just felt like I couldn’t do it.  My arms started shaking and my legs were barely holding me on the mountain.  I kept slipping and swinging back and forth and finally came to a point where I yelled down indicating that I was finished. 

But they didn’t let me down. 

Thanking everyone after I landed on my "hard" climb

I heard, “JUST RELAX!!” from one of the Norwegians and “YOU CAN DO IT!” from Cat.  “TAKE YOUR TIME” from Peter and “YOU’RE ALMOST THERE!” from the other Norwegian were what I heard right before I decided I was going to make it.  I put all my energy and spirit  into that rock.  I took a deep breath and released all the tension from my shoulders.  I stopped focusing on my quivering arms and just told myself I was going to do it and soon enough I made it to the top.  When I landed on the ground, everyone was cheering and clapping, and through an exhausted inhale I thanked them for getting me to the top.  I couldn’t have done it without the support of four complete strangers. 

And that’s what traveling is all about. 

Making relationships with people from different countries that you’ll probably never see again.  But that doesn’t matter because for those few moments you spend with them, they’re you’re best friend and they’re all you need. 

Rock climbing on Railay Beach was one of the most fun days I have had here.  It truly challenged my mind, my body and my spirit and I have had a huge smile on my face ever since.  I would definitely recommend it and when I make it back to Krabi someday, maybe I’ll do the full day.

Just hanging with my climbing guide (that's Cat in the background)