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.)

 

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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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Random happenings in Chiang Mai

I feel quite settled into my new normal now.

For those of you who know me, you know I struggle massively with FOMO- fear of missing out. I want to do and experience everything. I want to go to every event, every exhibition, every gathering… but I’m also acutely aware that I can tire myself out by doing this… and I’m also prone to not wanting to be around people. It’s hard balance to figure out… especially when you’re in a place as magical as Chiang Mai. It does, at times, feel like a minute spent in my apartment is a minute I could be exploring, wasted.

But being here for 6 months, becoming part of this culture, is definitely freeing. It’s not like when I was in New York and waking up at 5:30 every morning and sleeping after midnight every night was normal and indeed, I would argue, necessary. It’s imperative that I get good sleep here because if I don’t my students and my volunteering work will suffer. That is not ok.

So, I’ve settled in. I’ve started to be ok with chilling out in my apartment and reading some nights. I’ve been going to bed nice and early and waking up early so I can get my workouts in before it gets too hot.

There are still things I want to do- the cabaret show, watching a boxing match, doing boxing classes, doing a few yoga classes, going to the elephant nature park, visiting the sticky waterfalls, going to Pai for a weekend, cycling to Huey Tung Tao Lake… but I have a long time here! I can do these things I just need to pace myself.

And honestly, just walking and cycling around this city is so magical the FOMO isn’t hitting me too hard.

On Sunday, for instance, as I rode home (in the rain I’ve just come to expect) I noticed a marching band on parade on the main street behind me. It seriously reminded me of a similar occurrence in NOLA, but with less glitter and more monks. I didn’t linger for this one though- my desire to stay dry and get my new yoga mat and lunch box home was a little too strong (again- self care progress!).

And, while on my weekly (when I’m in town/not otherwise occupied) hike up Doi Suthep we happened across a large group of university students who were also hiking up but had stopped to paint each others faces?? and were singing what sounded like a classic camp song, but in Thai.

 

Last evening, on my walk home, I stumbled across a stadium which was filled with people running around a track, a bunch of soccer players training, a muay thai boxing area, ladies dancing with umbrellas and MOST IMPORTANTLY, what appeared to be a join in zumba/aerobics class. I’m going that way again tonight to see if I can join in.

On my morning runs, I’ve noticed intricacies of the moat walls which I’ve missed while in songtaews or walking purposely, too focused to be looking at the scenery- which is all I do while running because you know, distraction is important when running.

I’ve started attending weekly Documentary Screenings at a cafe across the city and occasionally attending their Monday Night Movie night too. I’ve met some really interesting people through that and I’ve learnt loads too. Plus, the food at the cafe is delicious and super healthy.

I’ve found a couple of amazing markets very close to me, one of which has two huge salad bars where I can raw and steamed veggies, grains and beans for 10baht for 100g. I’ve learnt how to say “no sugar” when ordering fruit shakes and som tam. I’ve found super cheap fruit being sold in front of houses with no signage or any indication of a shop even existing.

I’ve visited two churches and while I liked both I think I’ll be attending the second, simply because it’s closer and therefore more sustainable- I can EASILY ride there and it’s very local. It’s also an earlier service which works for me and allows me to do more during the day.

At work, I’ve been developing a curriculum which can either be followed as is or deconstructed as teachers need it to be. I’ve just finished the intermediate class and tagged it for easy access. Next will be the beginner class which I’m a little nervous about because I have a tendency to pitch up (as seen in my overly ambitious plans for my work with Enrichment students during the first half of the year) and these students wouldn’t benefit from that at all. It will definitely be a challenge and one which I’m excited to take on. There is a wealth of resources available online and I’ll be tapping into those to get ideas before writing my own lesson plans.

At 1pm each day, we break for lunch which the kitchen staff prepare for us. It’s always DELICIOUS and I’ve tried things that I haven’t seen on any menu. It’s always fresh, healthy and super, super delicious. A favourite has been the mustard greens soup, the burmese paste (made with tomato, onion, chilli, peanuts, parsley… lots of delicious things!), the tea leaf salad… honestly just everything is so good.

I’ve also started learning Thai… slowly. I’m still very slow and I need to put some real study into the notes I’m taking but I feel like I’m making some progress. I know some words but I’d like to be able to hold a brief conversation with my uber driver or sticky rice vendor before I leave at the end of year.

Workout wise, I’ve put together a pretty good flow- Saturday (unless I have other plans) is a hike, Tuesday is a run, and then the rest of the week is an at home workout with my new yoga mat (thanks Daiso!), resistance band and my newly acquired fan (trying not to use my air con to save TFH money and also save the environment). I also did a workout with a friend I made at the girls nomad group which meets as the cafe Wednesday lunch  times! As much as I love working out by myself, it’s definitely a lot more fun with a friend and I really enjoyed our time together.

Speaking of friends, it’s been remarkably easy to make them. I’ve had a few dinners out with some girls, and the people I hike with are great value. I’m hoping to go out with one of the ladies in that group who’s been in town for a while soon so she can show me one of her favourite cafes/restaurants- which doesn’t have an English menu (basically a massive win in my book). Like I said, I’ve done a workout with one of the ladies in the group and went for a run with another, finishing with a market breakfast which was super delicious and resulted in a ridiculous amount of leftovers! But, it’s also been great to become (even more) comfortable in my own company. It’s a lot more acceptable  here to be by yourself and people no longer comment how brave I am to come over here alone- I’m just another nomad here… not a working digital nomad, but a nomad none the less. This is nice.

I’ve done some seriously cool stuff while here- I’ve been to the Lanna Fest which was a big cultural expo in International Exhibition and Cultural Centre which housed so many incredible stalls I didn’t get a chance to see them all. It was a little hard at times because it was CLEARLY a Thai event and as a farang, I struggled to communicate at times, but it was awesome anyway! I even got to taste some foods that I hadn’t wanted to buy a full one of because it didn’t really appeal which was very exciting.

I’ve also visited a variety of markets, one of them was an organic farmer’s market which is just around the corner and open on Sundays! I don’t anticipate my Melbourne ritual of Market-Church-Chill to be changing any time soon. While there, I got to experience my first “freeze frame” anthem play. At first I didn’t realise what the loud speaker was saying but it suddenly became clear when the chords started blaring and literally everyone in the market (99% Thai) stopped whatever they were doing and stood at attention. I had forgotten how respectful people in this country are toward their national anthem and their (royal) leaders in general. Different to say the least.

I’ve also been to the Saturday Walking Street… Sunday is next on the list… and the Night Bazaar. On Friday, I’m planning on heading to the Friday morning market which is  predominantly Chinese-Muslim and has some regional specialties that are very hard to find elsewhere. And then on Friday night is our graduation night for the last term!! I’m so looking forward to seeing the students in their traditional dress, being celebrated for their achievements.

Saturday is also something I’m REALLY looking forward to- a cooking class! I’ve missed cooking a lot since being here- though less than I thought I would- maybe because the food is just SO damn good- and I’m really looking forward to getting back in front of a wok. The class I’ve chosen is the Thai Akha Cooking Class which not only teaches you the usual things but also teaches you three Akha (a hill tribe in Northern Thailand) dishes. I’m really looking forward to learning the difference between this region and culture and “normal” Thai food.

I’ve also organised a little day trip for myself for Monday (as we have the day off) up to Chiang Dao caves. I’ll be taking the local bus and then exploring the town when I get there! I’m so looking forward to it and it should be a real test of my adventurous, independent spirit.

Keen!

Hoping you’re all well, surviving the freezing cold, and embracing the Melbourne vibes which I actually am missing a bit.

Love you all lots,

Amy xx