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Letter to Ban Phe

Dear Ban Phe;

We’ve had a good two months. From the moment I stepped off the bus, smelled your fishy smell and saw the sad excuse for a public garbage dump on your main road I thought that we might have a problem. However, I quickly got used to the smell of drying fish and learned how to avoid breathing from my nose when I passed the dump.

Fish laid out on the roof of sidecar moto’s to dry out in the sun

The first month brought a lot of fun. Meeting new people and making fast friends, going to class every day and spending a couple weekends on the beautiful shores of Koh Samet. It was a good month spent exploring back streets full of wonderful little shop front restaurants and enjoying the westerner bar, Christie’s.

Lazy days on the beach at Koh Samet

Strings of seashells lining the walkway to the pier

The second month hasn’t been as good as the first, as I watched all my new friends leave, headed home or elsewhere, but it gave me a lot of time to self reflect and enjoy lazy, sun-soaked days. This month saw me get a job, lose a job,** and get offered too many to choose from. I’m happy to say that I’ve now figured out my life and will also be leaving your tourist piers and seashell shops, but not before I buy some of your beautiful seashell jewelry and decorations, my new apartment will bear memories of you.

Throughout these two months I’ve been amazed at how accepting and wonderful your citizens are. They are always willing to help and are genuinely curious about you and your life. I will be sad to say goodbye to all the friends I’ve made here that I’ve only ever been slightly able to communicate with. But to those who have helped me learn the little Thai I know, thank you. I could not have done it without you. Despite you wanting to practice your English, I am grateful for the conversations we had in Thai, ordering and paying for food. It’s a start!

To the staff at Christie’s; you were always a pleasure. I don’t know how you girls make every single customer feel welcome not only in the bar, but in the town. I thank you for taking us newbies under your wing and showing us Beach Bar and for constantly running to 7-11 when Sam requested more Spy Coolers.

As I pack my bags to leave this humid “non-touristy” beach town, with it’s abundance of tourist bars and restaurants. I’m sad to say that I can’t help but think of the negatives: I was just not meant to see the Rayong Aquarium, the only tourist destination aside from Koh Samet, your clinic could use a better doctor, and your beaches could use a full sweep from all the rubbish that has washed up on shore.

I will miss the quiet streets and my even quieter guesthouse, with only the random weekend wedding preventing me from sleeping until the god-awful hour of 11 PM. (How dare they? Don’t they know that some people don’t have lives and that Thai pop makes their ears bleed?) I’ll miss watching sunsets over the main strip. 

Sunset over the main strip leading into town

I will miss the friendly smiles as I walk down the street, from the guy who lives in a shack in the field and takes care of all the puppies, to the staff at Christies and the old woman at Bedrock who is a seriously amazing cook and last but not least, to the staff that work here at Koh Kaew resort. Quiet little Boo and her German boyfriend, Yergan, the new cook, Lot, and the old man who seems to spend his days and nights on the couch viewable from my patio have always been nothing but accommodating and friendly. Welcoming smiles from those that recognize you and are truly happy to see you will be something that I remember fondly about Ban Phe. (And, of course, the smell of squid)

Yours truly,

** I don’t want to focus too much on it, but on getting and (rather quickly) losin) a job here in Ban Phe:

I was ready to settle in, as is evidenced by a previous post deleted in anger. The job itself would have been mediocre, but the staff I worked with would have made it alright and the pay for the work was more than acceptable. However, in true Thailand fashion, things sometimes just don’t work out as well as planned. It’s best to shake my head, say “mai ben raiand move on without (too many) expletives. Lesson learned: approach pilot projects with utmost caution.

I’m glad for it now, as I’m ready to move on and explore a new town and gain a different experience of life here in Thailand.

The joy of motorcycles and scooters in Thailand

In Toronto, I never even considered riding or driving a motorcycle. They scare the crap out of me, and the people that drive them are generally the craziest drivers there are. Here in town, there are still crazy drivers, but it’s the easiest and most common way to get around.

There is the Songthaew, that I’ve ridden to work for 10 Baht, but there are an abundance of taxi motorcycles. Here there are also motorcycle sidecars, which are pretty common, but mostly rented by foreigners or used for deliveries (or to set up a random food stall on the side of the road).

While I haven’t yet driven one because I’m a little scared to try, I have been the passenger many times, since every other teacher here has their own scooter or motorbike. There is just something about not having to worry about the traffic, or other bikes, cars or people, and just enjoying the wind in my hair and tears stinging my eyes.

I was pretty excited to learn how to ride side saddle so that I didn’t have to hike my skirt up to God knows where to climb onto the back of a motor-taxi, but have to remember not to move around too much or risk messing with the centre of balance.

Almost more than riding itself, I love watching Thai people pile their entire families onto a scooter: baby sitting in the baby seat attached to the front behind the handlebars, or squished between mom while dad drives and junior holds onto mom’s back. Or the 6 school kids I’ve seen squished together on one bike.

While it’s nothing like it was in Vietnam, with crazy amounts of everything strapped to the back of the bike, you will often see people strapping down boxes, or more likely stacking them between their legs on a scooter.

It makes me anxious to get out there and learn how to drive one. Just the freedom to drive wherever I want at any time would be beautiful. I wouldn’t have to worry about the street dogs attacking me when I want to head home after dark, and I wouldn’t reconsider going somewhere because it’s such a long, hot walk.

Hmmm… Maybe it’s time to get over my fear?

Teaching Practices

It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve even really thought about my blog. It’s terribly cliché to say that I’ve been a little busy, but I’ve been a little busy.

Starting Monday of last week, we were responsible for creating daily lesson plans for different teaching methods that we’ve been learning and then the next day we have to execute them in front of a class of students.

There are four main methods in the technique that we’ve been learning, called the Communicative Model, and they all focus on teaching communication relevant to the students by setting up the context of the setting with modeling and illustrations, repetition to remember the phrases and then a functional aspect where they would use the language learned in a practical way. When we were taught Korean with this model, the words and symbols made sense without our teacher speaking a word of English, and it really reinforced how effective the method can be.

For the first week, we were in a school and teaching mostly older Prathom students, which is the Primary level age. Since Thailand doesn’t require students to attend school after the age of 14, it’s relatively rare to find a class in a small town or rural village with many students older than this, and any high school level classes (Mathayom) are relatively small, and apparently attendance rates drop as much as 50% after this age.

Looking back, that week was surprisingly painless. The first day was kind of a shock to everyone’s system and I’m pretty sure that we all forgot some part of the method or another and generally felt like we weren’t that effective. However, we learned from our classes and were able to create lessons and materials for the next 3 days with relative ease. Every day was a different class, so the method and the material were all relatively new and the classes were old enough that for the most part they wanted to learn, which made our job even easier. The hardest part for me was really drawing the picture cards, for the most part as long as I can create an accurate cheat sheet that I tape to the board and actually follow, remembering the method isn’t the hard part. Coming up with pictures that stayed in the context of the lesson (what are you afraid of and why) and not having them look like a 3-year-old drew them took way too much time.

After another Saturday night on the Island where I spent way too much money, but had an amazing time dancing with this group of really fun Thai girls who I wish I could have understood more, we got right into our second week of teacher practices.

Teaching lesson #1 Leave your stress at the door:


This week was a little more difficult, and there were times when I would leave the school and want to dig myself a hole in the ground to disappear into. Hearing feedback from the others in the course that I wasn’t the only one who felt their lessons didn’t fully go as planned was a little bit of a relief, but I’ve placed so much on this that failure is not an option. Not only that, but since we could all see the light at the end of the tunnel, the stress of finding a job was really starting to get to me.

I’m sure my friends were worried with all the stressed out and emotional e-mails I sent, followed by “nevermind!” and “Man, I’m a little crazy, right?” But I was a total basket-case and didn’t feel as though I really had anyone to talk to that would ease my mind. (I later learned that sometimes, if you open up and let them, people will surprise you by how supportive they can be.)

Classes were harder because the children were younger, some of them really didn’t want to learn, and some of them were frustrated by how easy some of the dialogues were. Mostly though, it was me not being fully present that may have made my lessons suffer, and I realize now that all of this was for naught, and I should have just let everything go and allowed myself to become completely absorbed in planning and teaching my lesson.

The children were really excited that we were there, and everyday after class they would all run around with notebooks or scraps of paper and have us right our names down, sign our autographs or just joke around with them. My favourite part of going out to that school, though, was watching the kids during morning assembly. We weren’t able to watch the assembly at the first school, but here the children would have morning exercise, dancing and doing exercises to music or busting some serious moves hula hoping.

On the final day, after learning 4 different method types, we were left to our own devices and told to create our own lesson plan, have fun with it, but follow some basic guidelines. This turned out to be the biggest lesson of all, because it’s what every teacher does on their first day in their own classroom, and then has to move up from there. I think that two out of four of us left feeling that they had done a good job and that the students had actually learned something. After discussing with our teacher-observer, pretty much all of us learned that we had made some pretty fatal mistakes.

I, for one, knew half way through the class that what was going on could be defined as a trainwreck. But I continued on, changing my lesson plan slightly so that the students could grasp the meanings and confidence to say the phrases, hoping that something was sticking in their impressionable little minds and that I wasn’t totally wasting their time.

At the end, we joined the two classes and our teacher played a giant group game of Simon Says and then handed the winning student a “Thank You” card that we had written out for all the students. One of the students, my favourite little cutie, (I know, I know, you’re not supposed to pick favourites, but it’s hard!!!) handed out these little coloured origami cats to all of the teachers. It seriously melted my heart and made me want to hug him and steal him and keep him forever.

After tests, course evaluations and handing in our reflective portfolios, complete with our lesson plans, any work or teaching for the course was over. We’ve all received our certificates, and the boys have gotten on buses for their next respective destinations: home to Alaska and traveling around Thailand. I’m super sad to see them go, but I’m going to hang out here in Ban Phe for a little while, but that will be explained in my next entry, once I’ve fully figured out what I’m going to be doing.

Vietnam seems like a distant memory

So I’ve tried to post this blog 3 times by now, and WordPress keeps saving it empty. I’ve revised this entry so many times (considering that I’ve already been here 2 weeks and haven’t updated!) So I’m going to do a chronological entry of the first week and hope to catch up in the near future. Considering how much homework and research I have to do today, I’m going to keep it brief.

The first day:

I’ve arrived in Ban Phe, settled into a hotel with a huge bed, private bathroom and beautiful restaurant. The only downside is that it doesn’t have wifi in the room, and I’ll have to pay for electricity, but I doubt that I’ll be spending that much time in my room at night aside from sleeping and it’ll keep me from being anti-social on the computer. It will also hopefully keep me on my toes to get schoolwork done. It’s time to focus on everything I need to learn.

After walking around town and tasting some random thing that may or may not have been candied fish skin I bought all the necessities that I’ve run out of (shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste.. blahdy blah) I showered, sat down with my book and a beer and just enjoyed the warm Thailand breeze before calling it an early night.

Starting school:

Everyone I’ve met that has recently graduated from the course, has told me to make sure I exercise my hand and wrist, because there is going to be a LOT of writing to do in the near future. I’ve already come across this with the daily portfolio entries, which are a lot like reflective journal entries on activities of the day.

So far, we’ve had a basic lesson in Korean, just to introduce us to the teaching method, and we’ve self-taught ourselves to speak key phrases in Thai. I say self-taught because what we were really doing was going out into Ban Phe and asking random locals how to say certain words or phrases. It reminded me of doing streeters at Humber, because most of the people in local businesses knew what we were doing and had seen it before.

Once we had an 8-line conversation, we had to teach each other our conversations using the same teaching method that we are learning. (Sometimes I think the hardest part of this course will be memorizing the method that we will be using for our practical teaching experience.) That was super stressful because not only did I not memorize my lines, I had to translate one with numbers in the hundreds. Just to say 250 baht, it was like 7 tiny words.

Learning Thai words has been a lot of fun, and the people in my course all get along really well. We’re a small group this time around, with only 4 people, but there’s American Renee, my neighbour and the woman I met during the airport transfer; Australian Sam, who showed up Sunday night using the computer in the restaurant where I’m staying and randomly asked if I was taking the TEFL course; and American Lance who I’m still trying to figure out, but is an Alaskan commercial fisherman.

We’ve been helping each other learn Thai words, and grasp the concept of the varying teaching methods, all the while, as Sam would say, “taking the piss” out of each other.

The rest of the week we actually practiced applying the teaching method to our own concepts and 4-line conversations, and while it’s frustrating trying to remember the order things go in, the actual teaching part of it is something that I can seriously handle. I forgot how much of a quick learner I am and went through one of the practices with only a minor error. I’m quite proud of myself, but we’ll see how things go when we put everything together and aren’t doing just 5 minute clips of an hour-long lesson.

It looks like next week we’ll be doing some more grammar and hopefully resume prep before we head out to a couple schools to create profiles of students, which I imagine would be just talking to them and learning basic things about them. Then the last two weeks it’s going to be practical teaching everyday. That’s 8 in-class lessons in the morning and the afternoon / evening to prepare for the next one.

I can see why the people who graduated most recently spent the entire weekend drinking…

Weekend on Koh Samet:

Just this past weekend, we got to enjoy our time off on the beaches of Koh Samet. We arrived late, as the last ferry was loaded as high as it would go with boxes of beer and water and food, found some bungalows and headed out to dinner and a poi show. Unfortunately I wasn’t very camera savvy in capturing pictures of these guys doing the fire show, but watching about 20 guys doing some serious acrobatics and baton twirling with giant sticks on fire left me with a stupid grin on my face for the better part of an hour. Those guys were amazing!

The weekend basically consisted of fire shows, food, drinks, dancing and lots of beach time. While I didn’t exactly lay myself out in the sun, I was able to enjoy the beach from a lounge chair in the shade where I could happily people watch. (Well, those people that weren’t wearing speedo’s.) We also went on a sunset snorkel, where Sam who’s biggest passion is scuba diving, handed me a sea cucumber after he’d managed to irritate it and it pooped all over my hands. (Of course, it didn’t exactly look like poop as it was white, super sticky and stringy and he told me it was something else…) Then we watched the sunset from a beach and it was seriously the strangest, most beautiful I’ve seen in a while. While the picture does it no justice, the sun itself looks like it’s disappearing into the clouds and never meets the horizon.

I plan to go back before I leave, considering just how close I am, and how little it costs to get there (100 baht for the ferry = approx $3), I could even make a day trip out of it if I didn’t want to dish out the money for a bungalow.

We’ll have to see just how much work we end up getting by the end of this week!

So here’s the big picture:

Just as I predicted these last few weeks have been a whirlwind of research, planning, shopping and hair pulling. I’m over budget and can’t seem to find enough time in the day. So there are some (minor) things that are just not getting done before I leave. Some of them I have to do while I’m away (i.e. refund my return ticket), and some of them are just not going to get done (i.e. getting my scratched glasses lenses replaced).

However, I now have a very flexible plan in place that is going to determine what happens with the next year of my life. I’ve decided to take an in country TEFL course with TEFL International.  This specific company has many different locations that I could have chosen from, including Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand. I could also have chosen to go to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, or even Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I chose to go to Ban Phe for the course staring on January 30 through February 24. 

Why Ban Phe? Well, not only is Ban Phe the organizations head office, but seems to be the most rural in Thailand. The lessons include practical teaching sessions with students from the surrounding village, including children monks. The fact that it’s the most rural is somewhat appealing to me because I don’t want to be distracted by all that there is to see and do in Phuket. I also want to make sure that I’m seriously dedicating my time to everything that I’m going to have to learn and study while I’m there. The course is an intensive 4 week program, and from what I’ve read and heard there is a lot of “take-home” work that I’m going to have to prepare after class. Yes, I can probably do it on the beach, but as far as night life or tourist traps go it sounds like there just isn’t much. From what I’ve read about Ban Phe, the only thing it’s known for is being the place to catch the boat to Koh Samet, (where I may just have to spend weekends). It’s seriously just a village. I hope that I’ll be able to better immerse myself in Thai culture and customs in this small fishing village than I would have in tourist centric Phuket.

Also, I’m kinda hoping that I’ll be able to visit Phuket, and its surrounding beaches, in the weeks before the course that I’m going to be randomly wandering around Thailand.

So here’s the plan: Next Wednesday I’m headed to my grandparents for an early Christmas, driving home on Christmas, then getting on a plane on December 27. New Years on a beach, possibly attending the most epic rave ever… on a beach – The Full Moon Party (I’m either terrified or excited), then recovering on the beach at Kho Phangan for a few days at our resort, which is actually called “The Sanctuary” (scuba diving/snorkeling, sunrise/sunset yoga and plenty of massages will most definitely be a part of those days) then heading to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and then wherever the wind blows. (It all depends on who I feel like joining after Sasha leaves. Tears will ensue at this time.) I just have to make sure to make it to Ban Phe by the 29th for the orientation dinner.

Speaking of goodbyes, I’ve already started and it’s making me seriously emotional. It’s hard to believe that I’m going to be away for a year or more, and not only am I saying goodbye to loved ones, but I’m saying goodbye to my city. Silly things like streetcars, signs in English, the guy at my corner store who makes my coffee before I have to ask, knowing where I’m going without having to think about it, coming home after work to a house full of people. I’m having a lot of “last” days.

In other words, I’m a big sappy mess right now. I saw a friend for the last time before I leave today because she won’t be able to make it to my going away party this weekend, and thank god she is not a sappy person, because otherwise I would have started bawling on the street as I walked away.

It’s worth it though, while I’m both terrified and excited wrapped up in one big ball, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m seriously going to miss my friends and family, my dogs, and the familiarity of home, but like I said when I was planning on going to South Africa, part of living is the anticipation of the unknown. I had written then that I hoped that I would always be living in a constant state of anticipation for the next great thing, and that reminded me that what I’m doing is what I’ve always wanted to do: Live.

As one great friend put it, my friends will still be my friends when I get back.