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Koh Samet: Still my favourite Thai island

SaiKeaw Beach on a weekday

SaiKeaw Beach on a weekday

Despite how many places I’ve been in Thailand, and despite anyone else’s interpretation of favourite, I think that my favourite island will always be Koh Samet. Not only was it my first island away from any of my friends from home, it’s basically where I did my TEFL course. I have so many amazing memories of the island; of what I used to think where the worst bungalows in Thailand at Naga, of the all-night dance parties, of late-night swimming, of partying with Thai’s for the first time, and of course of all the amazing people that I was there with at different times throughout the past year.

During the day on any given weekend the beach can get quite crowded. However, during the week, the place is almost a ghost town. Considering how close it is to Bangkok, many Thai’s and teachers come down for the weekend to let off some steam and get in some beach.

The fire shows are simply amazing, and the bodies on the guys doing the crazy acrobatics and fire throwing make it even more entertaining. I would have to say the fire show at Ploy Bar is, by far, the best I’ve ever seen.

Jep's Restaurant, waiting for our speedboat

Jep’s Restaurant, waiting for our speedboat

The sand is only slightly whiter than I was when I arrived in Thailand, and the waters are almost always calm. Jep’s restaurant and bungalows is always my first choice of places to stay and eat. Their ridiculously extensive menu has very little in the way of disappointment, and I’ve eaten pretty much every meal there every time I’ve been there. It’s also this part of Ao Phai beach, just around the mermaid from SaiKaew, that is my favourite spot to lay out and chill out. It’s significantly less crowded than its neighbour and the chances of seeing Russians in Speedo’s decreases the farther from SaiKaew you get. But you will always see the one we call “leather woman,” who has been on Samet for at least 2 years walking her severely anorexic, brown old self up and down the beach.

UV Paint on the wall in Naga Bar

UV Paint on the wall in Naga Bar

The Lopburi crew went back as a final group trip of the year. It was a chance for us to cram ourselves into a mini-van together and leave our dusty town for some sun, relaxation and crazy nights on the beach. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. While the sun didn’t come out until the day we left, we were all able to get a little too much sun (damn you clouds for making us forget sunscreen!) and a lot of fun in the sea tossing a (Canadian!) football in a circle for hours on end, or lazily floating on the surface of the calm waters.

But by nightfall, we all had our game faces on. Naga Bar ended up being our base and we stayed until the wee hours, when the bar staff

Drinking games turned photo shoot

Drinking games turned photo shoot

shut off the lights and the music and left us to our own devices in the dark. It was at that point that a couple people decided to get into the Muay Thai ring and have a go, having a seriously scary girl-on-girl fight that ended in bruised and damaged faces. Another night, we planted ourselves on the beach in front of Naga Bar to participate in what I could only call a teachers circle of seriously dangerous drinking games. (“Mango, mango, banana, banana,” “I’m commencing a yee-haw to my right,”) As well as card games made up on the spot left us entertained until weirdoes came and stood around us and dogs needed to be buried in the sand. The only thing left was to cover ourselves in UV body paint and dance like idiots until the early hours.

Acting the fool

Acting the fool

Despite my current plans to travel around the South of Thailand, I feel like my teaching career has come full circle in the past year. I started my TEFL on the shores of Ban Phe, and we had our last Lopburi hoorah on the shores of Koh Samet. Considering that it’s my favourite island, I couldn’t be happier.

Random in Rayong

For our long weekend in November, all we wanted was to swim in the ocean. That was literally our only requirement. That’s a good thing, however, because that’s all we got.

We were going to head to Koh Samet, but since we started planning on Wednesday to head off on Saturday, we were going to end up without a place to lay our heads. So we decided to have a truly random, truly Thai long weekend. We booked a hotel on Agoda that was 50% off. The pictures looked ridiculous enough to at least make for a good story. What none of us really realized was that we were booking ourselves into a sex hotel.

Opting to travel on Saturday, we headed to Bangkok for a rip roaring night out on Khao San. Complete with random Thai’s falling in love with me (as usual, what can I say, I’m irresistible) parties in the street, and falling into bed at an ungodly hour of the morning. Leaving Bangkok was hard to say the least, and waiting hours for the bus didn’t make it any better.

Khao San Road at it's finest.

Khao San Road at it’s finest.

Read the rest of this entry

Long Weekend holiday in Hua Hin

After only two weeks in the classroom, we came across one of our first Thai holidays. Unlike the first long weekend during training, where we headed to Koh Samet,

I have yet to find a place that makes me as happy as Koh Samet.

a group of eight Lopburi teachers hired a bus and headed to another spot equidistant to Koh Samet but on the other side of the Gulf, Hua Hin.

The difference in destination between Hua Hin and Koh Samet is almost like night and day. Hua Hin a bustling beach town that caters to the Thai upper class for a weekend away from Bangkok, while Koh Samet is a quiet and secluded little peaceful island, complete with unpaved roads and plenty of off-road exploring options. While Koh Samet is a party town for the young High Society crowd, Hue Hin is basically the business man’s escape. Girly bars lined every street, and girls were cat calling out to the guys in our group, making it hard to find a good place to head out to. Luckily, we were able to shrug that off and hung out as a group at our hotel where we shared four rooms, three of them with an attached balcony.

During the nights, Sangsom was drunk, laughs were had and fights even broke out. (Nothing serious, a girly punch for a grope is fair in my books!) But we wasted the days floating in the water being attacked by water spiders and laying on the beach despite considerably cloudy skies and drizzling rain.

Hua Hin Beach

To be honest, everything about Hua Hin was kind of anti-climactic and very unlike the idea of the beauty of Thailand’s beaches. The sand was beautiful, and the horse riding on the beach was a nice draw for little children (and Eiyra), but the only thing that really stands out in my mind about the entire town is the food. After being in Lopburi for so long, my memories of Western food had diminished. I forgot how good butter chicken was, and eggs and bacon and actual sausage. Just thinking about the amount of amazing Indian food we consumed that night still makes my mouth water.

It was the first weekend that I was actually given a chance to get to know some of the teachers in Lop Buri, and I’m quite excited for more long weekends to come.

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,
Nicole

** 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.

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.