Chiang Rai-nbow City

This post is long overdue! I’ve been pretty slack on blogging- it’s been busy and I rarely take my laptop home with me after work. Either I have something on in the evening or I want a quiet night in- laptop isn’t really needed for that… so the blogging has suffered a bit.

Time to catch up a bit!

In early October, there was a Buddhist holiday which coincided with a long weekend and so, Lisa, the amazing CEO of Thai Freedom House decided to take the staff on a trip to Chiang Rai and invited me to come along for the ride! And what a ride it was! I’m so grateful that I was able to go on this getaway, Chiang Rai was amazing and it was so lovely to get to know Lisa and some of the staff/students of the cafe better.

We hired a car, and started the long drive to Chiang Rai, stopping along the way to have coffee at the famous NGO Cabbages and Condoms which provides sexual health education to Thai people, gives out contraception and encourages safer sexual practices- especially in high risk places. Their cafe/hostel was super cute, lush and green- especially considering it was just off the highway, but the true drawcard was the creative and… appropriate decorations! Amongst the giant statues of condoms and posters with clever slogans, there was also this well dressed young lady-

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Not sure if I’ll buying the dress, but I certainly admire her ingenuity. While there I grabbed a postcard, resisting the condom related merchandise which I’m sure have made excellent souvenirs for people the world over.

We continued on, dropping our stuff at our super cute hostel called “Breakfast in the Garden” which did indeed, serve breakfast in their cute little garden, before picking up a student of ours who has now gone on to study English for International Communication at Chiang Rai University- one of the best unis in Thailand- and certainly the most beautiful! Sadly, she has to pay international student rates (much more expensive than Thai nationals) and freshmen cannot work through the term, meaning she needs to rely on donations and support from Lisa and TFH to pay for her accommodation and tuition. If you’d like to donate and support her education, please visit our website (thaifreedomhouse.org and note what the donation is for (Shan Student University Fund). It was so special to see her passion for her education and the joy she has in studying. She showed us around the university (which was SO beautiful) and the pride she had in it was really lovely to experience- I’m grateful I got to meet and spend time with this vibrant woman and I pray she can continue studying to achieve her dreams of setting up an NGO in her home town so children can receive the opportunities she has had.

Once we had taken a tour around the uni, we all hopped in the car and visited the spectacular White Temple or Wat Rong Khun which is the creation of a Thai artist and is like no other temple I’ve ever seen before. It’s entirely white, covered in glass which seems to be constantly being cleaned or replaced, and extremely ornate. Surrounding the temple itself are beautiful gardens and then, in distinct contrast, the lake of hell which thousands of hands are reaching out from. Hanging from the trees around the temple are the heads of various famous characters and people including, but not limited to Gollum, Hellboy and random old people (they’re probably people, I just don’t recognise them…).

 

The interior of temple is just as fascinating as the outside- inside is a beautiful mural which covers the entire room, starting from the back which depicts a hellish sort of state of modern society, littered with illustrations of pop culture figures- featuring Harry Potter and Voldemort, Darth Vader, Superman, Batman, Micheal Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and so many more- it became a sort of game to find all the different references as you moved around the walls. Remember, it is a place of worship so it’s best to stay reverent and not squeal when you find something- keep it to an awed “ooh…”

As you move toward the front of the temple, closer to the Buddha the picture moves to one of a heavenly paradise- I assuming a state of nirvana- which was so intricate, colourful and beautiful! You’re not allowed to take pictures inside the temple itself, so spend sometime soaking up the images and the selfie stick free atmosphere… because it’s the only place in Chiang Rai which you won’t see one!

After checking out the White Temple we headed back to the hostel, driving around the city to check out the layout of the land before having dinner and having an early night after our looooong day.

The next day we woke up to pouring rain- which thankfully abated after breakfast (but not before we had to get an uber about 500m because of the random torrential downpour which we were blessed with! Today was to be spent at the Black House and Blue Temple- it seems everything in Chiang Rai is named after a colour of the rainbow, although not entirely unjustifiably!

The Black House is an art installation which is set over a large property comprised of about 30 or so different buildings, built in traditional Thai Lanna style, but with non-traditional interior design. The Black House is a shrine to the darker side of humanity with the idea that by revealing the dark side, we can stop fearing it. Cue lots of bones, vulnerability, death, phallic imagery, and decay. It’s a fascinating place to walk around and explore and by this stage, we were blessed with bright sunshine- it would have been creepy in the gloom of the morning… but also miserably wet. Most of the installation is outside, making me exceptionally glad for the sunshine!

After lunch and exploring, we moved onto the stunning Blue Temple which is newly built and painted with the most incredible blue iridescent paint which, in the light of the sunset, was absolutely phenomenal to behold. Definitely worth a visit!! We also popped into a super cute little cafe that was styled just like a British Tea House and was perched upon the river. It was clearly a popular place and like everywhere in Chiang Rai, a selfie hub!!

On our final day, we visited the most amazing tea farm, perched on undulating green hills, with a beautiful blue backdrop. The kiosk was perched on top of these hills and had the most beautiful views- we sat outside and had a picnic, watching the tourists come and go, taking lots of selfies and doing some of the most hilarious poses. It was wonderfully entertaining.

After this, it was time to say goodbye and start the drive home, but on the way our interest was peaked by an interesting looking roadside temple which had menacing sculptures of mystical beasts eating people guarding its doors. Undettered (mostly) we drove in and hoped for the best. Somehow we stumbled into a HUGE and beautiful temple complex with so many different monuments to different Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses, all who are responsible for different aspects of ones life. It was a truly Thai experience- Lisa and I were the only white people I saw there- everyone else was Thai but we were all in states of awe over this pristine, brand new, vibrant theme park of eastern religion. Honestly, it felt like being in Disney land (Buddhaland) if you will- it was a total hit on the senses… overwhelming, especially after a weekend full of intense sensory experiences from the food, to the stories, to the scenery, and the COLOURS.

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We navigated the Chiang Mai traffic, arriving home in the early evening. I was planning to see a film with friends after getting home if I made it in time… and I did… but I didn’t see the film. After such a hectic few days, I truly relished the early night, market food and bed which awaited me.

I had an incredible time in Chiang Rai and am so thankful that I was able to go with the team from FBC. Massive thank you to Lisa for giving me the opportunity to go and truly feel like a member of the Free Bird family.

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Why would you do that?

It was around April when a girl at my gym asked me this question. She asked it with absolute shock, disbelief, and a hint of scorn. I had clearly, in her eyes, made a stupid decision- one that I would regret, sooner probably, rather than later. And fair enough, quitting your extremely stable, reasonably well paying job at a lovely school with wonderful teachers, understanding leadership and seriously great students does sound pretty extreme… but, to be honest, extreme was what I was going for.

6 months ago, I waved goodbye to freezing cold Melbourne, Australia- home of my heart and soul- and moved to the hot, wet embrace of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had all sorts of reasons for doing so- I needed to get out of my comfort zone, test my ability to trust God, give myself a chance to heal from my clean eating and exercise obsession, do something different, get out of Melbourne winter… the list goes on. But one of the most important driving factors which forced me to buy an (initially) one way ticket to Thailand was my passion for refugees.

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This is not the blog post for discussing the human rights abuses my government is currently committing in my name- if you want to talk with me about that, we can do so at another time- but their actions, or sometimes lack thereof, made me want to do something real related to the refugee crisis. I’ve always donated food and money to local refugee organisations, participated in online and physical protests, incorporated refugee narratives into my classes (in a remarkably unbiased manner, I’m proud to say), and voted with my feet and money by visiting and using organisations, enterprises, restaurants, businesses etc which support, educate and employ refugees who come to my beloved nation. I’ve tried to make them feel welcome, even when media rhetoric spews out bile indicating that they are not.

But it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something long term, sustainable and helpful- and I still want to do this when I get home. Combine this passion with all my other reasons for flying the nest, and you come to the answer to the above question:

I couldn’t NOT do it.

But the story started much earlier than that encounter, obviously, and even earlier than I’m going to go into here (again, not the purpose of this piece), but my journey tangibly began when I first started researching what was then a mere pipe dream. I spent hours, stolen in between feverish marking, exam supervising (sorry…), workouts, brunch dates, and episodes of Masterchef and Doctor Who, googling the different opportunities there were to teach English in Thailand.

Spoiler alert: There are LOTS.

Many of them are paid jobs in either local or international schools, some of them place you as a live in tutor in a (very) rich family, some of them are more like an agency which sets you up as a substitute teacher in different schools. I decided I didn’t want a paid position- it wasn’t my purpose in coming to Thailand.

So, I narrowed my search: “volunteer English teaching in Thailand”.

Again, lots of results. All over the country. Lots of very short term placements came up, with beautifully curated websites with lots of pictures of happy children being hugged by happier westerners. These looked promising… but as I looked more into it, delving into google to try to find blogs about the experiences of people on these programs, I started to realise that these were also not the sort of organisations I wanted to support. They were often quite new, geared toward people with no teaching experience who they expected (it seemed from blog posts) to come up with lessons on the spot with no training, resulting in a lot of games being played and not a lot of learning. They were geared toward one or two week placements… not something long term like what I wanted.

So I thought about what I really wanted, where I wanted to go, prayed a lot, and found myself googling:

“volunteer english teaching + chiang mai + refugees”

And there it was. Maybe 5th or 6th on the first page of results:

“Thai Freedom House: No one is free while others are oppressed”

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I clicked. I read. I knew, instantly, this was going to be the place for me.

The volunteer information listed on the website was detailed and thorough- there was clearly a precedent for long term volunteers, and they weren’t going to mess around with just anyone. You could tell that this was a place that valued commitment and was not just a halfway house for privileged white travelers (of which I am totally one) to get their happy snaps with kids before moving on to the next party. This was a place that had existed for 12 years (10 years when I first started researching it) and was clearly doing incredible work. They also had a vegetarian (now vegan) healthy cafe and didn’t just teach English, but provided a space for Burmese (specifically but not exclusively; Shan or Tai Yai) refugees to call their own, feel safe and express themselves authentically. They  provided art, Thai, Burmese, and Shan classes so students of all ages could be creative, exist more harmoniously in the place they were currently living, be able to communicate with government officials if they ever returned to Burma, and most importantly- stay connected with their heritage and learn their mother tongue. They also had Shan dance and cultural classes. I knew I wanted to be a part of this experience.

I favourited the page, downloaded the application, and set myself a date in about 6 months for when I would complete it- roughly a year before I was intending to depart.

That date came quickly and I sent off my application. Emails to and from Lisa Nesser (the founder of Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe) followed and we finally decided on a start date- 6 months later than I initially intended- but which ended up being perfect as it meant I was absent for the low, smokey season, but present in the busy lead up to the dry, high season. I will forever be grateful to Lisa for looking out for me in my planning.

In that time, I bought my tickets, roughly planned the other parts of my travel which I’m doing post-placement, wrapped up my school year, started another couple of jobs to tide me over and provide me with a bit more spending money, and paid my dues to TFH. I decided that I would go with the option to be hosted by them, meaning that I paid a flat rate and they would provide me with accommodation, lunch every work day, the placement, a bike, a sim card on arrival, in country orientation, pick up from the airport/train/bus station, some Thai language materials and other handy bits and pieces. I’m so glad I did this- my apartment is awesome, close to everything, has a beautiful view and I didn’t have to think about it at all, so good for me, as you sure as hell know I would over think it in a major way.

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I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous when I was arriving in Chiang Mai, as I knew Lisa was still in the States herself (our skype interview had taken place the week prior) and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really needn’t have worried. I was met by one of the past students and then staff of Thai Freedom House who is now studying at university in Chiang Mai! He took me first to my apartment, then took me to Free Bird Cafe where I met the staff of the cafe- all of whom welcomed me warmly and made me feel part of the Freedom House Family immediately. I was given a tour of the market, shown where a chemist, post office, and 7/11 was, along with some Thai lessons and a lesson on Thai culture and etiquette.

This feeling of family only increased when Lisa arrived. She and I sat down together to first discuss the goals of the organisation, the history of both TFH and Burma’s issues with its ethnic minorities, and her personal history which led her to this point. This orientation was so appreciated, important and worthwhile; it placed me in a headspace of respect for the work of TFH and made me place immense importance on what I do here.

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As we talked, we sorted out what needs TFH had and what I could do to meet those needs. We decided that I would work on developing a 12 week curriculum for the beginner and intermediate English classes, along with a partnering curriculum for students looking to go into further study- known as “The Pathways” curriculum. I would also help with the Hospitality Training program as both a tutor for the cafe’s amazing waitress, and a contributor to lesson plans, activities and resources. In addition to this, I would also be teaching English one night a week to a class of students ranging from 8 to adults. My hours would be 10-2 on Monday and Friday, 10-8 on Tuesday and 10-6 on Wednesday and Thursday. I would have a lunch break at 1 where I would receive the lunch the chef made for me (best. part. of. the. day) and could grab a tea in the morning when I came in.

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This structure and the obvious needs I would be fulfilling warmed my heart and continues to do so today. Lisa is so encouraging and direct about her expectations that I was always sure of what I would be doing and how it would be used- there was never a point where I felt like I was doing busy work- every thing- whether it be a lesson plan or finding the right picture for a flashcard- had a purpose and a point and this became a trend as I started completing tasks and still is, even now, with less than a week left. My time is valued by Lisa and by our students, and because of that, it’s extremely easy to value theirs and live up to the expectations set by Lisa’s example.

While my days are structured and consistent, they’re also varied and exciting! On Mondays, I teach and chat to our server about the different things she needs to know as a waitress. I’ve even had to teach some very basic maths (bye, bye comfort zone!)! After class, we have lunch together as a family- a highlight of my week, one which really emphasises the power of this organisation and the way it empowers those who pass through its doors.

Tuesday nights, I get to spend my evening with a group of crazy kids who love John Cena, Harry Potter and GOT7 and who are SO eager to learn that they come to TFH after already spending the day at school.

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Wednesdays, I get to host a lunch which invites the women of Chiang Mai- every nationality, creed, colour, religion, class, career- to meet new people, make new friends and connect in a city which could be quite isolating if you let it. I’ve met so many people through this lunch and I’m so grateful for the chance to host it and help other women find their tribe-for-a-time.

My days are never dull, never boring, never repetitive (except for that stage when I was making flashcards…) and most importantly, never worthless. I know, for certain, that the work I do here has lasting consequences, lasting impact and lasting worth.

 

Thank you to Lisa for making me feel so at home in this place and giving me so much responsibility. You are an inspiration to all who meet you and to many more who never will. Thank you for the hope that you spread, the education you freely provide (and not only to the students, but to all those who come to Free Bird Cafe), and the example that your life displays that one person can choose to make a difference- regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

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If you’re considering volunteering in Chiang Mai- or anywhere, really- I urge you to find a place that will make you feel the same way. Not just for a moment, but for good.

Because that’s why we do it- that’s “why I would do that” random girl from gym…

For good.

(And if you are coming to Chiang Mai, come and visit Free Bird Cafe. If you’re looking to volunteer somewhere and want a truly worthwhile, work based volunteer placement, check out Thai Freedom House.)

 

Cycles of Life – Penang P2

After my ill fated but still highly recommended food tour, I fell into a total food coma, hoping to wake up hungry before my long awaited cycling tour the next day.

While I did wake up with plenty of time for a street food breakfast, my stomach was having none of it. I wasn’t hungry at all and the smells I experienced as I wandered around, trying fruitlessly to work up some sort of grumbling in my stomach just made me feel slightly nauseous. Super annoying on any day, but on the day of a cycling trip? Downright disruptive! Anyway, I wandered, empty handed and empty stomached back to my Airbnb to await my pick up by Matahari Cycles. They were on time, the van was super comfortable and I actually really enjoyed being one of the first pick ups as it meant I got to see some of the other areas of Penang- and see how the other half travel!! The hotel that we stopped at first was like something out of Getaway or Luxury Escapes and while I do love my flashpacker lifestyle, there were certainly some hints of envy tugging at my heart.

It also gave me a hint to the route I could take to my mum’s old house and I got extremely excited as we passed by the old swimming pools she used to train at. It seemed relatively easy to find and navigate to, so I knew I would find it the next day.

Eventually, we had picked everyone up and were soon winding our away around the hills of Penang, avoiding the cyclists for whom this must have been a regular pilgrimage. I became very glad that we were being driven for this section as it went on for quite a while. We soon arrived at a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere really, on the other side of Penang Island. We seemed to be in a different world entirely than that of Georgetown and its heritage listed street art. This was proper, rural living- a world away from the city life I was so used to. I love nature and so was thrilled by the opportunity to escape.

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It wasn’t a total escape, however… there was still a 7/11 and so, even though I wasn’t hungry I knew I needed to eat something or my body just wouldn’t do well on the ride. Dried chickpeas were my friend for the morning. We met up with our awesome guides and after receiving the run down on the bikes (amazing, Giant brand, mountain bikes with everything a girl could want except a padded seat) which had been set for our heights which we had sent through earlier. It was so smooth, organised and it filled me with confidence for the rest of the day.

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The ride itself was incredible, we rode through the back streets of villages, past schools (closed for the holiday), farms and canals; through palm plantations, mangroves and over rice paddies. The riding was mostly flat and therefore really easy, although riding through the rice fields was mildly terrifying and a few people did fall- they weren’t hurt and Matahari dealt with it fine- but still, if you’re not confident on a bike- take the longer way around (which they did tell us to do!).

The highlights of the day were the stops we made- first, an unplanned one at a local Mosque where they were marking a Holy Day which marks the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son and the mercy of God in providing a lamb instead. Vegans or vegos may want to stop reading now as the way they marked this particular day was by slaughtering livestock and dividing the meat into three portions- one as a sacrifice to Allah, one to give to the poor and one to feed themselves. We were lucky enough to see the portioning process and be invited to learn more about it, take photos etc. It was incredible to see and I felt really lucky to experience it.

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The next was a planned stop at a local goat farm where we got to try goat’s milk ice cream (which my stomach actually totally appreciated by this stage), pat adorable goats and also learn about some of the local farming methods and plants they cultivated in the area, such as rubber.

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Our next stop was tea and kaya toast (and curry puffs) at a local fishing village. Again, my stomach appreciated these tasty treats (though I don’t think I’ll be indulging in kaya much in the future- it was very sweet and I was grateful for the blandness of the toast itself to balance it out). We also saw how the fishermen sorted their “subcatch” from the nets. While a catch might be mainly large fish, the nets also pick up much smaller fish- destined for pet food or those fish ball things depending on quality-, prawns and other crustaceans and, I was pleased to see not too much, litter. So, these men and women would squat down and pick out the debris and subcatch from their nets, separating and sorting it as they went. It was a long process and by the time we were there at around 11, they were almost finished, starting the job in the wee hours of the morning.

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We cycled for another hour and a half or so before we came to our lunch spot- overlooking rice fields which stretched out to the horizon was a little bamboo hut- loaded with, glasses of nutmeg juice, bowls of laksa and plates of fresh fruit. It was a welcome sight and a beautiful one, at that. I could only eat a few mouthfuls of laksa- I think partly due to the fishy-ness of the dish of which I’m not a fan, and also because of my stomach issues that day. I think I was still full from my toast- ridiculously. The fruit and nutmeg juice was very welcome, however, and I felt ready to take on the final stage.

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Now, I had booked “The Twist”- an optional ending to the tour which was billed as a challenging climb. I’m fine with climbs as long as I have gears but I realised on the tour that this wasn’t a road climb, it was a mountain bike climb on very rough tracks which often got quite skinny and were always extremely bumpy. I’m certainly no wimp, but I’ve never mountain biked before and I was also very aware of the fact that what climbs up must also climb down. One of the guys in our group had done this ride in reverse and said the climb required you to carry your bike part of the way and there were sections that he had to focus entirely on controlling his bike so he didn’t fall.

And he was experienced.

Scared for my limbs, I spoke to our guide and he suggested that we turn it into a hike for me and the other girl who was now having second thoughts. Our reverse ride friend was fine to ride himself and we would meet him on the other side. I was overjoyed and excited. I love, love, love hiking and was totally pumped to be able to incorporate my two great loves on one trip.

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I’ve never been so thankful in all my life- the climb was steep, yes, but more than that, it was treacherous. AND the views were magnificent- something I wouldn’t have seen if I had been on my bike as I would have been staring at the track in front of me the entire time.

This section of the tour was cool too- we stopped in front of cacao tree (as in CHOCOLATE) and there was a ripe pod which our guide picked and beat open for us to taste. Cacao fruit is DELICIOUS- similar to mangosteen in texture and taste- and not at all like I was envisaging.

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The climb ended and we started heading down and it’s then that I really became grateful- this wouldn’t have been any fun for nervous little me. Plus, the other girl and I were chatting away about all sorts of things which again, would NOT have happened had we been on bikes. I feel like my vocab would have been limited to grunting, swallowed screams and muttered unmentionables as I toppled over on what I’m sure would have been regular occasions.

When we reached the bottom, we were both so glad that we hadn’t skipped “The Twist” entirely- the views of the beaches were stunning during the hike, but the beach itself was so chilled out. There was a hammock, a restaurant with drinks waiting for us and a plate of noodles too. I had a few mouthfuls but again, my stomach betrayed me and resisted the deliciousness despite the amount of energy I had exerted that day.

After relaxing at the beach for a while, Matahari drove us home again, dropping me at my door where I looked forward to scrubbing myself clean in my lovely shower before exploring Georgetown and its festival! The day was already so great that I was a little skeptical that it could get much better.

I can’t emphasise enough how excellently run and organised Matahari was and I HIGHLY recommend them to anyone who likes cycling. It’s such a great way to see Penang and you really do get off the tourist track. I can’t encourage you enough to give them go if you’re heading to Malaysia- it was an incredible day.

 

Revisiting a shared memory…

I’ve never been to Malaysia before. I’ve never even had a layover there. I’ve never had reason to use my tiny amount of Bahasa Indonesian which is leftover from years 3-8 and so very similar to Bahasa Malay…

But sometimes I feel like I have.

Not so much because so many of my closest friends have their ancestral roots in Malaysia and so when they travel to visit their families I see lots of photos and hear lots of tales of the malls of KL and the splashes of the theme park there.

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More because of my own family history. Despite the fact that I am as white bread as they come, I have my own roots laid down in Malaysian soil. My granddad was in the RAAF and as you may be aware, there is an Australian Air Force base situated in Penang which he was stationed at for about 2 and a half years. My grandmother, mother and two uncles joined him and lived there, in the humidity and the heat and exotic haze- a family of five forever intertwined with the cultural heritage of that tiny island which is already so culturally diverse.

So, when I set foot there and hopped on a bus across the island- I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner, but more like someone who was returning to a dream. I’d heard so much about this place of fresh seafood straight from street vendors who didn’t just pass on their wares, but also the dirtiest words of their language to my infant uncle; this land of Chinese Swimming Clubs and monsoonal rains; this land of murtabak and chilli and curries and the call to prayer. I was prepared for the experience of revisiting this new/old place to feel strange but I don’t think I was quite as prepared as I originally thought.

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Walking through Georgetown- with it’s heritage listed status and therefore it’s unchangedness- was like walking through a faded postcard. The houses were colourful, magical… an explosion of nostalgia and history which ticked every box I have. Cycling through the relatively quiet streets- especially on a cool Sunday morning- to explore and discover the street art before the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks descended only enhanced the feeling that I shared more than I knew with this old-new-familiar-foreign place. When I rode through the city to a hipster filled market, I knew that Penang knew me better than I ever thought it could.

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When I booked my flights to Penang, I wanted- more than anything- to visit the house, or at least the area, my family lived in. I love and miss everyone who lived there very much at the moment and my granddad passed away 5 years ago now. I thought by visiting their old neighbourhood, I’d feel their presence so strongly and while I was hoping for this- I didn’t really expect it.

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But when I arrived at the address and the trees were large and the house looked old- foreign- amongst the redone and renovated town houses surrounding it, I could feel the ghosts surrounding me. This was more than I hoped for. This was authentic and this road was the one my uncles and mum walked along everyday on their way to school. This tree which was once small, now shades the window of my mum’s old bedroom. This home housed my Grandma and Granddad, protecting them against the lashings of monsoonal rain- the cool tiles providing some comfort from the tropical heat. My uncle had a paddling pool in the front yard where there is now a motorbike. This house, this place, was a part of my history- despite the fact that my skin was now, after riding there in the hot morning sun, bright red- a feature that belies my EnglishIrishScottish blood.

The illusion of belonging was broken a little when a lady peeked out of the curtains- reminding me that this is not just mine and I am very much an outsider in this street, city, island, country, continent- but belonging is more than skin, it’s more than blood, it’s about where you feel you belong and where the people accept you.

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After my journey to the past, I rode to the aforementioned hipster market and got talking to a lady selling kefir (because of course I did). She asked what I had been doing in Penang and I told her that I had just visited my mother’s old house. She smiled wide and said she remembered fondly the Australian officers who worked in Penang and Butterworth, remembered the makeshift bars and remembered the RAAF school which my mum and uncle attended. She said- honestly and genuinely- that I should bring my mother and grandmother back with me next time, that she would take us to the places they would know, they would remember. She said “welcome back” to me.

Belonging is about how you feel, where you feel accepted, where you feel a part of a shared past.

And Penang- against all odds- held that for me.

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//

Also- I wish Identity and Belonging was still a part of the English curriculum because dayum, sample piece for Mind of a Thief for days…

I’ll post more about what I actually DID in Penang soon. I just felt like writing something other than what would essentially be a review post.

Doi Pui- a day to remember.

There are some days that you’re just not going to forget, no matter how long it’s been since that fateful day and how many bumps on the head you have endured in the passing years. Yesterday was one of those days. As you know if you’ve been following this blog at all, I’m a bit of a fan of hiking and I’ve been loving weekly hikes to various spots in Chiang Mai. I’ve done Doi Suthep a few times, last week was a hike to PhuPing Palace and then yesterday, my walking group and I did the big one- Doi Pui. Over the course of 6 and a half hours, we traversed 16km of jungle terrain, both up and down (mostly up) and saw not only beautiful landscapes, views and villages but we also got to see some 13th century ruins, local farms, and insane trail runners taking part in a 160km “fun” run which lasts for three days.

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The hike, as usual started at 7:30, so I hopped on my bike around 6:45 so I could make it with plenty of time to pop to the market for a carb loading breakfast of plain sticky rice and boiled pumpkin (BEST.) and grab some snacks (almonds, apples and dried mixed fruit) for our epic adventure. I would later regret riding to our start point, but to be honest, it was nice to run the legs through the motions on the way home as a bit of active recovery!

As the clock ticked over to 7:30, our extremely efficient and organised leader hustled all 26 of us onto two songtaews who drove us to Huey Tung Tao Lake where the hike would begin. It started reasonably innocently; a flat field of ripening bananas stretched before us, leading to the base of some… significant… mountains. These were our destination. As we walked toward our start point, we joked about snakes until someone pointed out a, thankfully, headless one on the side of the road.

Right. I would NOT be advertising my Australianness nor would my eyes be straying from the trail too much. That said, I wasn’t overly concerned as our group was huuuuge and with the amount of noise we were making, I’m impressed we saw any wildlife at all. No live snakes materialised through the hike and the only encounter we had with any sort of animal was a leech on someone’s pants, mosquitos for days every time we stopped to wait and the obligatory rivers of ants which crisscrossed along the trail.

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Far too quickly, we reached the trailhead and started our relatively easy ascent to our first stop- the Helipad. This section of the hike was reasonably well marked, steep but smooth, and reasonably easy. For those playing at home, it was about the level of the lyrebird track in the middle… and the view was worth any discomfort. It was beautiful from the helipad and we all enjoyed snapping selfies, sharing our snacks and swapping stories about our backgrounds and what brought us to Chiang Mai. I always love this part of the treks- meeting everyone and hearing their stories. So many different people from different walks of life come to the mountain and trekking binds people together in a way that nothing else seems to. It must be the fact we see each other in all our sweaty glory- any pretence, language barrier or class fades away on the trail. All that matters is that you put one foot in front of the other and keep on walking.

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After a while, everyone started looking much too content and relaxed so our fearless leader prompted us to continue up the trail… and this- he warned us- was the hard part. And the snakiest bit.

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His warning was not unwarranted. BUT our next stop was the hill tribe village which had coffee so many people were definitely spurred on by this promise. It was an extremely steep climb and it was unrelenting. There really was, at many points, no end in sight, and it felt like you were just going to have to climb forever. At this stage, most conversation was at a minimum as we all focused on the path in front of us, the person in front of us, the poisonous snake that COULD be in front of us… But then we reached a ridge and we were suddenly between two valleys, overlooking fields and jungle. The views were unparalleled and completely different to those at the helipad, even within the same hike!

Image may contain: sky, cloud, ocean, plant, mountain, tree, outdoor and natureAfter a while, including many false finishes, we reached the hill tribe village were some workers deemed us crazy (we all agreed with them at this point) and we all had some coffee or tea. Some hikers also partook in some Thai energy/electrolyte drinks which they said certainly had an effect on them! The coffee the shops was using is grown in the hilltribes themselves and is apparently, excellent. Some trekkers bought some beans to take back with them. It was really amazing to visit the hill tribes- it wasn’t touristy and there was barely anything catered for “farang”, just the few coffee shops we spread ourselves between. It was clear that these people weren’t being exploited by trekking companies and being “sold” as living monuments but this was just their life and they acknowledged that sometimes, insane hikers would come through and coffee is always a big seller!

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After this, we set off to our highest point- the view point of Doi Pui. Our leader warned us that this part was also extremely steep- but that we wouldn’t notice because of the view. Now, to be fair, I think my legs noticed, but my breath wasn’t just taken away by the hike but by the landscape which stretched out far below me when we reached the top. We were above the clouds and the serenity was overwhelming. It was very peaceful and the mountain vistas were seriously calming. A cool breeze was ever present and all of a sudden, I felt like I could hike for days.

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Luckily, because we still had more to go.

Most of the rest of the way was downhill (not my fave) but this trail offered its own surprises like 13th century ruins and a cute little campsite which seemed to be basically abandoned- not many people came all the way up here. We eventually scrambled down to Phu Ping palace, slipping on muddy slopes and making me extremely glad that we had all agreed to take a songtaew from PP back to our meeting point. I hate down hills and today’s hike only confirmed that they hate me too.

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So, we hopped in the back of our red trucks, trundled down the hill and finally, after 6.5 hours reached our original start point. It was an incredible hike, a beautiful day, and an experience I’ll never forget. Many thanks to our fearless leader, the lovely Aussie I borrowed a long sleeve shirt from when it started to become EXTREMELY chilly and to the whole group who constantly encouraged each other through the hard bits and the easy bits.

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Next week, I’m going on a paid trek to Doi Inthanon and I’ll be honest, it’s going to have to be pretty amazing to beat this one, but I’m sure it’ll be incredible in its own spectacular way.

Missing you all. Will post a general life update soon.

Mwa!

Amy xx

Pai- or ‘A disappointing lack of puns.’

So, I did something that is utterly unlike me last week. I booked a weekend away on a TOTAL whim. I know this is TOTALLY normal for many people and especially backpackers who seem to decide to go to a different country depending on which way the wind is blowing, but for Little Miss Organised, it’s not a common occurrence.

I had some friends who were going to Pai for the Pai Jazz and Blues Festival which was on over the weekend and it was an open invitation… so I decided that I would join in! I booked accommodation at the same hostel they had booked at, without really checking the reviews too much or looking at alternatives. I booked a mini bus up and then basked in what I had just done.

How spontaneous. How very unlike me. How very exciting.
I mean, it’s not like I hired a motorbike to take on the 762 bends on the way to Pai, but EVEN SO, this is big for me.

Anyway, Saturday morning rolls around and it is WET. The day before it had been pouring all day, roads were flooded and the moat was the highest I’d ever seen it. On my way to the church BBQ, I became even more grateful for my amazing little pushbike as I was able to dodge puddles, weave between traffic jams and was one of the first to arrive (though it’s possible this is more to do with the fact that I value punctuality deeply… not something I share with many people living in Thailand. ‘Thai Time’ is definitely a thing and something I’m sloooowly getting used to.

But I digress, the point is, it’s wet and it’s humid. I am doubly pleased I’m on a minivan and not the cheaper but slower and less reliable local bus. I get picked up and taken on a journey which many would call stomach churning but which I didn’t find overly sickening. The views were beautiful, our driver wasn’t a speed demon… even if he did sometimes use his phone on the super tight bends- another reason I was eternally grateful I wasn’t OUTSIDE the minivan on a motorbike.

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Anyway, after the trip, I arrived in Pai and quickly found my way to my hostel, but was stopped by my friends who had traveled up the day before who were just about to head a local hot spring! The timing was perfect! We all hopped into a local songtaew and journeyed back up where I had just come from and found ourselves in this luxurious resort. Now, there are hot springs in nature in Pai but apparently they were closed because of the weather and the amount of water flowing into them. This was the next best thing. It was SO lovely and relaxing. The rain was very light at this stage and the contrast between the cool rain and the heat of the spa was perfect. It was set in lovely surroundings and it was nice to feel wet because I was actually submerged in water.

We spent a few hours at the spa before heading back into town for some lunch. Pai is packed with good food options and I knew it wouldn’t be hard to find something delicious. After dropping my bag off at my hostel (not without trepidation, I’ll admit), my friend Jennifer and I ventured off to find a cafe I’d read about on another blog- but unfortunately it was closed (we checked before leaving, thankfully, as it was about 20 mins away). So instead, we headed to the super cute Art in Chai- who wasn’t serving food anymore BUT a little restaurant next door was! I had a vegetarian “stir curry” which was delicious if not particularly specific and we shared a bowl of beautiful fresh fruit.

Afterwards, we decided to pop next door and get some chai while we read/worked in this beautifully decorated space. The chai was excellent. They ground it themselves upon ordering in their mortar and pestle, and the SMELL was absolutely phenomenal.

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The taste was even better. It made the perfect accompaniment to my book. I’m currently reading The 7 Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman and it is EXCELLENT. Especially now that I’m really INTO it. It certainly doesn’t start slow but the first perspective is written in second person which I ALWAYS find off putting. It’s my least favourite writing style and I find it unsettling- which worked well for this book. The content is unsettling too and I love that the writing matches that. It’s v. good and I highly recommend it.

After Art in Chai closed up, Jen and I decided to wander the streets of Pai to do some shopping. It had stopped raining (briefly) and the walking street was setting up to peddle their wares. There were A LOT of elephant pants and “Love in Pai” tee shirts- but to my Australian and English teacher eyes, a distinct lack of puns!!! If a country town in Australia was called Pai you can BET there would be pie shaped magnets, claims that Pai was “easy as pie” to get to, pie themed t shirts, a pie/Pai recipe book… it would be endless.

But Pai, Thailand?! NOTHING PIE RELATED IN THE MERCH AT ALL.

I was simultaneously proud and disappointed.

After chilling in town for a while, it started to POUR and we decided to head down to one of the jazz venues. The band was excellent and the venue was packed, the rain inhibiting the use of the decent sized deck and forcing diners and jazz lovers to co mingle in uncomfortable proximity. There was a break between two acts so we went back out into walking street- bought an umbrella and grabbed some street food… I chose the highly traditional falafel pita (I knowwww, but it looked SO good. So much fresh veg and damn good looking hummus. It was MASSIVE and she just kept shoving stuff in there. I’m very glad I got it.

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After dinner, we went back to the venue and chilled out with some more jazz, enjoying the mix of the sounds of rain outside and smooth blues inside. The jazz felt as natural as it would at home and it was cool to be surrounded by people of different ethnic backgrounds, all partaking in the universal language- music.

After this we headed back to the hostel to relax before bed. Not a lot of relaxing happened. The hostel was rustic and I’m not going to complain about it because it’s definitely for some people but I did not dig the super-ultra-hippy chillness of it. I’m not a hippy. I don’t like animals sleeping near me. I REALLY don’t like smoking of any kind. Let’s just say it wasn’t for me. I eventually got to sleep around 3am and slept well after that, until I woke with the sunrise and the roosters (I liked that bit) at 6ish. I spent some time in the Word and catching up on the latest sermon from home before making my way out of my cubby house thing and waiting for some of the others to get up so we could grab some brekky.

Breakfast was also incredible… and we may have revisited Art in Chai for a sneaky morning beverage. After we were nourished, we decided to go on a walk up to the White Buddha, passing rice fields and incredible greenery on the way. It was a gorgeous walk and included lots of steps which I appreciated, even though it was meant to be a rest day.DSC02377

We spent a little while up at the White Buddha and chatted to some cute Thai kids who would run up a few steps, then pretend to die with exhaustion, rinse and repeat and I was reminded of the kids who do the same on the 1000 steps. These ones were cuter though because the steps there are WIDE and I wasn’t there for a workout, haha. Also, Thai kids in general are super cute.

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We ventured back down the hill to the cafe (Earth Tone) we had planned to eat at yesterday and I ate delicious fresh veggies dipped in a vegetarian Nam Prik Oong- one of my newly discovered faves here in Northern Thailand. One of my friends had their buddha bowl which looked DIVINE and another one had some of the loveliest fresh spring rolls I’ve ever seen. They were beautiful!! Jennifer and I stayed there while our other friends decided to go somewhere for a different sort of trip and I got through more of my book.

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I was leaving that afternoon and didn’t want to stress out about my bus so I decided around 3 to head back into town, “check out” of the hostel (basically just say I was leaving and ask for my bag) and wander around doing some more shopping. Jennifer joined me and with our powers combined we stumbled upon a local market which I found refreshing after being surrounded by tourists for the whole weekend. Pai is beautiful, yes, but it is catering for western sensibilities more than it is a nice place to get away… for me at least. And this is probably because I was constantly in town etc. When we left town and got into nature, I loved it. While in town, I definitely didn’t hate it but it didn’t quite live up to my, absolutely acknowledged high, expectations.

The bus trip back was even easier than the way up, not stopping at all and after not that long at all, we arrived back in CM, I grabbed a ST and arrived back at home, needing a shower and some water, but feeling otherwise pretty chilled out after an awesome weekend with awesome people.

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I’m very blessed to live in this place and do these things on a total whim. I look forward to bringing this slightly more relaxed Amy home with me… but I will be booking my own accommodation on that journey!

Love you all lots. xx

 

 

Chiang Dao, or “The Day I Spent Emulating The Proclaimers”

I am on a budget- though, if you looked at the amount of money I spend on fruit, you probably wouldn’t get that impression- but I still want to do and see all the amazing things Chiang Mai and its surrounds has to offer, so when I had an extra day in my weekend due to the start of Buddhist Lent, I knew I wanted to make the most of it. After looking at some excellent blogs (like this one and this one) I knew I had found my cheap day out- and cheap it was! Not including food I spent under 500b. With food, it climbed to around 800b. A super budget day out. Now, as the title suggests, I spent A LOT of my day walking, which is partly why it was so cheap, but I actually loved this aspect of my day and while it was tiring and certainly a long day, I got to see parts of Chiang Dao that you never could on a bike- motor or otherwise.

I started my day early and caught the 40b 6am bus from Chang Phuak Station to Chiang Dao. The bus is really comfortable, not air con but with lots of fans on the ceiling which circulate the air so that it’s not stuffy in the slightest. That said, it was 6am and the bus was relatively empty- I had a seat to myself and many passengers were curled up across the 3 (lol) seater benches having a nap. I preferred to stare out the window and take in the changing landscape from city to highway to mountain jungle. It’s a beautiful road and if you can get a window seat, do.

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Once I got to Chiang Dao, I went and found a cute little spot for a traditional Thai brekky. I even got to practice some of my Thai, although I was also immensely grateful when the woman responded to my inquiries in perfect English. She said I was doing well though and everyone smiled when I commented that my food was “aroy makht” (very delicious!).

Full from my delicious larb and mango salad- not som tam but something slightly different- I decided to start my journey to the caves. My new favourite app ever, maps.me took me on a route which can only be described as “off the tourist track”. I was walking along roads which were passing behind local house, local farms, people just living their every day life. It was a fascinating walk and honestly, it was so interesting to see how these wonderful people lived and the lands they survived off. There were fully laden mango and jackfruit trees, bananas and longans drooping over me and SO much corn, EVERYWHERE.

The walk took roughly an hour, I would say and before long I found myself at the caves. I actually tried to do a “nature trail” but it was so unmarked that I couldn’t even tell where to go, 5 minutes in and my shins were already plastered in clay from climbing up muddy ascents. I quietly admitted defeat, turned around and to save some face, asked the bemused looking Thai man at the entrance of the caves, where the bathroom was. I quickly realised this probably meant it looked like I had just climbed through the jungle in search of a toilet, but I said it perfectly (for a farang) and he responded in kind.

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Anyway, after I recovered my pride, I ascended into the temple, paid my 40 baht entrance and was struck, as always, by the intricacy and beauty of the carvings, statues and icons which are features of every Buddhist Wat I’ve seen so far. Upon entry into the cave, I paid another 100b for a guide and then 100b as a compulsory tip? which I didn’t mind giving because those lamps are HEAVY and extremely HOT. It’s like, less than $3, who am I to begrudge a volunteer- my lovely lady was also disabled from birth- less than what I would unthinkingly spend on a chai back home? It’s easy to get pissy about being “ripped off” or “paying too much” because you’re a foreigner but honestly, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

The caves themselves were beautiful and eery. I loved being shown all the different cave formations, the guide explaining what they sort of looked like as we went through. There were bats on the cave roof but they didn’t bother me at all and it didn’t smell too bad.

The highlight was actually the unguided section where I was able to sit and reflect on my time in Thailand so far in absolute silence. It was so quiet that my ears were ringing, I could hear every move I made and it was just so… focused.

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After the caves, I made my way (on foot) along the road to the beautiful Wat Tham Pha Plong, taking in the stunning rainforest which surrounded me. The temple itself is set into the limestone caves with a few lookout points and peaks being built into the mountain. Once you get to the temple, it’s an easy climb of about 510 steps (and halfway there’s a rest stop if you need with an encouraging message of “you’ve climbed the hardest  2__ steps, only 3__ [easier!] steps to go!” Super cute!) which is lined in trees and proverbs from the Dharmma. Once again, it strikes me how similar some of these proverbs are to those in the Bible but how they’re all missing that overarching idea of grace- in Buddhism, one is always striving to be better and reach that ultimate place of “oneness”, whereas in my faith, we strive to be better because we’ve already been accepted- it’s a sense of gratefulness and desire to live the way God wants us to which drives our bettering… One thing I’ve always been grateful for, in regards to travel, is how much we can learn about our own selves and our own beliefs when they are placed next to those we do not subscribe to or which are foreign to us.

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Regardless, the temple itself was a stunning piece of architecture and offered beautiful views across the Chiang Dao Valley that I count myself blessed to see. The day was cloudy and drizzling all day but it didn’t dampen the views, my spirits or the beauty of the countryside. If anything, it just made everything seem even more lush!

After this, I’d definitely worked up an appetite and after walking past the beautiful Nest 2 on the way up and reading about how good the food was from every travel blog about Chiang Dao ever, I knew I had to stop there. The blogs did not lie. The service was impeccable; the setting, gorgeous; the food, delicious. I got a coconut (gotta get them electrolytes in) and a stirfried tofu dish which was so flavoursome! It was packed with galangal, lemongrass, mushrooms, greens, kaffir lime leaves, holy basil, and of course, a lot of chilli. It was absolutely divine and made according to my request of “farang spicy”. The hardest thing was choosing what to have! Yes, it’s more expensive than most of the places I eat in CM, but the serving size and the quality of ingredients certainly made up for it.

Feeling full as a coconut (not the one I had just quenched my thirst with), I made my way back into town, the same way I came- or so I thought. My app, which I still love, took me on a slightly different route which led me… DSC02358.JPG

literally into the middle of corn fields. I felt like I was in Fellowship of the Ring as I trekked my way through these fields, not knowing if I was even allowed to be in them. I was also getting worried at this point because all the photos I was taking and the use of my navigation system had worn my phone down to 1%. And I was in the middle of a field. It was a little terrifying. So, I took a lot of glances at my screen, trying to figure out how long it would take to get to where I needed to turn right and left in order to get to the bus station (which, btw, the bus didn’t drop me at in the morning, he just let me off in the centre of town). Halfway, roughly, to the station, the inevitable occurred and my phone died. I was here

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It was a little terrifying but I figured, as long as I followed the path- I’d be ok. And eventually, probably a lot longer than maps.me originally estimated, I got to the “suburbs” of Chiang Dao. Tired, nervous and seriously wanting to get to the bus station I happened upon a man sitting in his open front house, selling knick knacks and drinks. “Bus station?” I queried- not even bothering to try in Thai. “Yes, behind, behind.”

It was literally right behind me. The was just one barbed wire fence between me and the station. It was like the time Mum asked the policemen where Flinders St Station was while standing on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins (disclaimer: this was in our first year of being in Melbourne. Not recently.).

The man looked very amused as I celebrated, “Thank God! How do I…?”

“Tiny gate- just there”

It was not a gate. It was a gap between the barbed wire fence and the wall next door. But it looked like a well worn gap and no one official looking was around so I thanked him- in Thai- and squeezed my way through the gap.

And then the bus arrived. Literally 3 seconds after I did. I have no idea how many busses run from CD to CM in the afternoon but I was so grateful that I was on this one that I almost cried. I paid my 40 baht and hopped on a vastly different bus to the first one I experienced. This one, I was sharing a seat which would have sat 2 people comfortably, with 2 other people. Luckily, these Thai people were stereotypically tiny so we all fit… albeit very tightly.

I suddenly became extremely aware of how muddy I was and how ridiculous I must have looked but to be honest, I was too tired to even care.

That night, I was in bed by 8pm and 100% asleep by 9:30 at the absolute latest.

It was a stunning day and I loved every second of my adventures… especially how cheap it was! It just confirmed to me that you don’t need to spend big bucks to have a good time in Thailand. You just need to be willing to stretch those legs and see the world at a slower pace.

Have a blessed day!

Missing you all lots!

Amy x

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