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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Dream days to nightmare nights…

After I got home and cleansed myself from my cycle tour on Saturday, I explored George Town in the dying hours of light. It was a beautiful, beautiful evening and the light was that of a poetically, ambiguous sky. I wandered around Armenian Street, browsing through the market which had popped up there, and got my first henna tattoo!

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As the girl deftly patterned my skin with the thick reddish brown goo, I closed my eyes and surrendered to the world around me- the mix of languages filling my ears, the smells of the street food wafting around me- still not appealing to my rebellious stomach-, the damp heat and the cool breeze from the port brushing my unruly hair from about my face. I heard children laughing, the call to prayer, street vendors calling, live music from a nearby busker… it was a cacophony of easy, unassuming joy.

After getting my henna and nearly smudging it off immediately (thankfully I remembered just before ruining it completely), I walked around, snapping pics of the famous street art scattered around and perusing some little museums which were housed in coffee shops offering a break from the chaos of the market laden streets.

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Still not hungry, I stopped for a tea at one of these coffee houses and pulled out my guide to the George Town festival. There was a show on at an art space a few doors down from my Airbnb, starting in about half an hour. Excellent. I called them, asking them to put aside a ticket for me, and meandered back to Lebuh Malayu to see some local drama.

The play was a one woman show centred on a woman writing a letter to her daughter on the eve of her wedding. It was performed in Chinese with surtitles presented on a screen behind the actress. It was a really interesting piece, filled with insights about the cultural differences between the Chinese and Malaysian cultures, expectations on Chinese women when they are married and especially during pregnancy and childbirth, and then generally, on expectations for women in general. The actress was excellent and I really enjoyed the show. By the time it finished, I was well and truly ready for bed and made my way back home, filled to the brim with deep thoughts (and no dinner.)

I awoke the next morning hungry. I was excited but didn’t want to push it so I thought I’d wait for a while, set myself up for success and go hire a bike from a little shop near me (stop laughing at me for hiring a bike the day after an all day bike tour). The bike was a bit of a shock to the system after the incredible bikes I’d ridden on the Matahari tour but it did the job fine. I cycled around, taking pictures in the early morning sun, getting snaps of the graffiti minus the tourists who are much better at sleeping in than I am. But I was on a mission. Breakfast time. I cycled to Little India (also the home of more amazing street art) and settled on a little outdoor roti, chai and dosa/tosai spot which was filled with chatting Indian men. A good sign which I did well to heed. I had an egg dosa which was served with a sambal and some soupy curry to dip it in. It was delicious, not greasy and the perfect thing to fill me up for the day ahead. I then rode to the wet market, got my fill of utter madness and crowds for the day and experienced a slice of the ancient/modern contrast Penang has come to embody in my mind.

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I rode down to Beach St where another market was taking place- it was kind of small but in it I saw something I never had- a massage being given with giant knives. I had to get one- event just for 10 minutes. It felt strange, although that’s perhaps because I knew about the knives… it was nice nonetheless. There were also some flashmobs going on which was pretty cool and some cool market stalls. I had some nutmeg juice, bought a pair of leggings (which I would later come to love more than anything in the world) and stumbled upon a church service but it was already half way through.

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I then hopped on my bike to go and visit my mum’s old home- I’ve already waxed lyrical about this in another post, but the ride itself was quite lovely. The traffic in Penang is much less intimidating than CM and I was able to ride along the coast for a while which was absolutely stunning.

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After visiting the old RAAF bungalows, I rode back, aiming to make it to the hipster artists market. I got a little bit lost (predictably) but eventually made it there and was glad I did. There was more amazing street art, cool live music, some awesome local craft, a few baked goods to sample and I got to chat with a lovely lady who remembered the days when the RAAF was in town. She was about my mum’s age so I’d like to imagine they would have been friends.

I stayed at the market for a while before eventually riding home, checking out more street art on the way before going to Little India and settling on a vego place called Woodlands. I had a tali plate and a salty lassi- both fabulous. Honestly, the Indian food is so good in Penang and much less oily than the Malay food, it was all I wanted to eat. I sat and read in Woodlands for a while before heading back outside, only to find that the sun which had scorched my skin all morning has now clouded over and the rainy season was about to live up to its name. I pedalled hard to my bike rental place, said goodbye to my little fixie and proceeded to walk around the rest of the city, finding the last of the street art pieces on foot. Soon, the downpour became too much so I went back to my airbnb, picked up my backpack and found a cafe to sit, read and people watch in, as I finished up my time in beautiful Penang.

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Eventually, I braved the rain, had dinner (Indian again) and caught an uber out to the airport, farewelling this city which had totally seduced me.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. My flight was delayed from Penang, and then as my fb friends will know, I missed my flight from KL to Chiang Mai (not because of the delay but because of a case of mistaken gate identity) which led to me spending over 12 hours in KL airport. I do not recommend this particular travel adventure. Especially not when you have finished your book, your phone is dying fast and you don’t have a Malaysian adapter. I bought a portable charger (excellent device, a must for travelling, especially when using the GPS- it sucks the life out of your phone), a lot of tea and walked around the airport a lot.

It wasn’t the perfect end to my trip BUT my flight back to CM was super smooth, it wasn’t that expensive to change my ticket, and I had no one next to me. I also got a ST driver who was clean cut, honest and nice on the way home, and the sunset when I arrived in CM was stunning.

Travel teaches you a lot and even with the hiccups, I wouldn’t have changed any part of my trip.

Penang- Night One. A foodie tour for someone who doesn’t feel like food.

Visa runs are part of the life of a long term traveler- no one can escape them. I’m particularly fortunate that with my visa all I have to do is leave the country (even for like, 5 minutes) and walk back in and I have another 60 days to my name. But while leaving the country for 5 minutes is convenient, it’s a lot more fun to escape to a neighbouring country for a weekend away! Which is what I did when I went to Penang- and a lot more fun it was! You’ve already read about my love for the place and the memories it sort-of held for me (maybe. If you haven’t, pop back a post and there you’ll find my lyrical waxings on the magic of shared histories.), but in terms of the trip itself, I didn’t go into much detail. SO. That’s what this post (and the next) is for.

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I woke up stupidly early on Friday morning to be greeted by the same lovely uber driver who took me to the bus headquarters to buy my ticket to Mae Sai- once you find a good one, see if they have a card and if there’s anything important you need to, give them a call- who drove me to the airport. The flight there was a noneventful, apart from the fact that despite my quite small amount of breakfast I wasn’t hungry at all throughout the day apart from briefly in BKK where I couldn’t find anything resembling a health food apart from overpriced coconut water which I drank- potentially a bad idea. Once I got into Penang, I made my way to the bus terminal and hopped on a bus for 1.5 ringgit- pro tip, as soon as you get your cash out at the ATM in Malaysia, buy some water so you have some change for the bus- otherwise you’ll have to run back into the airport consequently missing the first bus. The bus ride across the island was interesting- everything seemed really quiet, probably due to the fact that I later learned that I arrived in the middle of an extra long, long weekend- this didn’t affect my travels at all- except that it was exceptionally quiet and exceptionally busy at times when I wasn’t expecting it.

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Anyway, I arrived at the station around 3 and walked the 5 minutes from the shopping centre to my AirBnb where I was met by my lovely mouse of a hostess. Her name was Annabel and she was so, so quiet! Her beautiful heritage house reflected this- very minimalist and seemed almost empty but the minimalism was highly stylised- she was an artist and a pianist, the grand piano acting as an interactive monument in and of itself. I was lucky enough to hear her play when I came home on Friday night. My room was basic but with high ceilings and lourved windows I would soon see on many of the buildings around this awesome town. I dropped my bags and Annabell whispered to me about the George Town Festival which was taking place that weekend- pointing out a few shows which were free or which she thought I might be interested it. She also gave me a few maps showing all the amazing street art and historical spots around GeorgeTown. Gratefully, I deposited these in my bag and headed out into the heat to begin my food tour.

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Having not had lunch, I was expecting to be extremely hungry but I just wasn’t feeling super great (I’m convinced that coconut water was off). Nevertheless, I trotted off to find my guide, Lily and go on my (private) tour! I toured with Delish Asia and they were seriously excellent. Lily not only showed me food, but she also talked to me about the history of Penang and the reasons behind the amazing mix of cultures and cuisines which Malaysia in general, but especially Penang can lay claim to. We tried Char Kuey Teow from the best cart in the city who had a huge line up in front of him, Squid with Morning Glory and a dark soy with sesame seeds, a noodle soup (not laksa…), roasted duck, nutmeg juice, cendol… and that was only in our first stop. I had a bite of everything and already I could feel myself becoming full. This was NOT ok.

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So, we walked for a while, checking out some of the oldest bars and markets in the city, relaxing at a converted shop house and taking happy snaps of the amazing street art. She showed me where the locals drink (aka- where I would NOT be, unless I had a group of friends with me, it was the seediest back alley I’ve seen… and that was literally it, no real inside- just milk crates in front of an open window.) and showed me one of the oldest book shops in the city where I managed to contain myself and not buy anything- thank God for only having carry on luggage! She showed me Harmony Street, where there’s a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Chinese temple, a church and a Buddhist temple all on the one street.

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After a little while, the initial food baby passed by and so we stopped in Little India- what I was most looking forward to. We explored a market, had some masala tea, some ginger tea, dosa (or tosai as it’s known in Penang), some roti chanai and a famed murtabak which my mother had told me so much about. I literally had one bite of the murtabak and just could not do anymore, sadly, but if I had been at full health, than this evening of my holiday would have been the greatest.

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After we finished off, Lily took me to a little coffee shop where she was meeting some friends who had been out (like the rest of Penang- it was SO crazy!) and we chatted a bit about her life as a timeout editor/researcher and now as a tour guide and a writer. I picked up some hot tips about the festival for Saturday night but declined their invitation to join them. I needed to be away from crowds.

 

In an attempt to walk off my food baby and the nausea which was unrelated to the relatively small amount of food I had eaten, I meandered my way through the crowds, down to the harbour, onto a clan jetty and just sat there- listening to the water and the distant sounds of revellers.

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It probably wasn’t my best idea in terms of personal safety- if I had been cornered it was the ocean (where I would have sunk… or that’s about it- but it was so peaceful and serene and I was so out of it that I didn’t even think about the consequences. Soon, I stumbled home, into the shower, onto my very comfy mattress and fell asleep- ready for another early morning tomorrow…

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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.

Recent happenings…

I’m currently on my way to Mae Sai to do a border run, necessary to keep my visa valid. I could have done a 30 day extension in town, but that’s 1900 baht, plus the cost it takes to get there and back (unknown but red trucks aren’t always super honest about places beyond the old city) and it’s super unpredictable in terms of wait time etc. 

I decided instead to just commit to being out for the day, do a border run (the tickets cost less than 500 baht return) to the Burmese border, pay my (hopefully) $10 to go into Burma (or 500baht- but the USD is a bit cheaper… but not always accepted so we’ll see!) have some lunch and a bit of an explore around the border town before hopping back on the bus. Yes, it takes longer but in the end, I think it’ll be a much better experience than sitting in an immigration office surrounded by other expats! Plus the drive is offering up some beautiful views!

Some things which have been happening recently: 

  • I organised a trip to and hiked through Doi Inthanon national park! It was an adventure from the moment I posted the notice asking if anyone wanted to join, but definitely worth it! In the end there were 7 of us who took the plunge and went on the tour, ably led by our guide “Mr P”. Throughout the trek, he told us about and showed us various herbal medicines, bush tucker (Thai style) and tools which could be found in the jungle. The hike itself was really chilled, gently undulating with some pretty intense downhills at points. There were a few slippages here and there but no one was seriously injured… despite the threat of mudfoot/bootmud/wetboot… all the names we came up with when trying to remember what trench foot was called after falling into a waterfall and soaking our socks and shoes. One highlight of the day was finding out about Mr P’s life- he was a monk for 12 years as a teenager and went into the service because it offered free education, food and accommodation. I found this really interesting and wonder how many monks do the same for the same reasons and if this has ever been a consideration for Christian ministry in the past- particularly in places like Ireland etc. Another highlight was the food. Mr P and our two porters cooked us up a true feast of chicken and tofu roasted over the open fire, sticky rice and the most amazing vegetables which were wrapped in a banana leaf pouch and steamed over the fire also. They were amazing. We ate our fill of this, and beautiful fresh fruit under the canopy of the jungle, waterfall in the background, while sitting on a tarp of banana leaves. It was pretty magical. If you’re ever in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend doing a tour with Pooh’s Eco Trekking. They’re absolutely wonderful. 
  • At work, we’ve farewelled Jack but welcomed a new face to the team! Jing, who used to work in the kitchen is now back in Thailand so her little boy can go to school here! She’s so lovely and it’s been great getting to know her. P ohn, our current chef and my student, will be leaving us soon 😞 but Jing is super great so I’ll recover.
  • I went to an amazing dance performance which I understand less than half of. But it was very cool and I loved seeing the different styles of story telling they utilised 
  • I’ve been tutoring P ohn and Yim for the last two weeks, going over the menu and looking at our vocab words- linking verbs like slicing and dicing to the dishes they’re used in. We’ve also watched some videos which they narrated- naming the ingredients and actions of the chefs. 
  • It’s been really good to start getting to know Yim and P ohn a bit more- Yim showed me a video of her presenting her mum with a Mother’s Day present and P ohn told me how she was spoilt this weekend too. I showed them some pictures of my parents and am reliably informed that I look like them- a cross between, which is a good thing!
  • My bike tyres go flat very quickly which can make it very hard to ride with confidence. 
  • I’ve met some amazing people over here- the latest being a documentary film maker whose new project sounds so amazing I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re seeing it nominated for awards in the very near future
  • Speaking of documentaries, if you haven’t seen “I am not your negro” then you definitely should. Important and beautifully made and devastating film. I wish it weren’t so relevant. 
  • We’ve had some groups come through recently and it’s been cool to meet people who are so invested in helping grassroots organisations like FBC. If you’re coming to Chiang Mai with a school group or similar, please consider booking a visit with us! You get lunch, a talk and a q and a session. I also got to hear Seng Lao’s story for the first time. She’s one of our ex students who then worked in the cafe, kitchen and then in the office while preparing for uni- which is where she is now! The adversity which she has had to overcome makes me feel exceptionally guilty for any complaints I made about my own education experience and her gratitude and maturity are well beyond her years- though she’s lived through more than most of us ever will. 
  • I used this service called wash drop to wash my sheets and it was the greatest thing ever. I love clean sheets. 
  • Waxing is still an adventure every single time.
  • Thai massages are the best way to recover from hiking- but be prepared for tiny ladies to dig their elbows into your calves and hamstrings because they’re “so tight”. 
  • Only seen 4 rats. Heard more but walked into the road to avoid any chance of seeing them. Good life choice. 
  • Booked my River Kwai trip! I finally got the hotels.com issue sorted after a lot of (reasonably) calm but clearly pissed off interactions. I have decided I’m just doing it myself because then I can decide what I want to see and when. Accomodation is all sorted too! I’m staying in a bungalow on the river (not a hostel!)
  • Almost finished creating resources at work! I wish I was able to use existing stuff but I’m much too much of a control freak for that
  • Finally got to talk to my bestie this week. Makes a huge difference, even if it’s just a short burst 🙂 
  • Said goodbye to my new friend Jennifer on Sunday 😦 I’ll miss our foodie adventures and shared outrage over old white men being gross
  • Have slightly fallen in love with 10baht bags of chia seeds, collagen jelly (both with no sugar) filled up with hot soy milk. It’s so lovely- especially after getting caught in the rain! 
  • I’m getting better at avoiding/being prepared for the rain
  • I bought a cactus for my room! Well, it’s a family of cacti. I’ll introduce them soon. 
  • I have a watch tan. 
  • I’m constantly shocked by the smallness of the world. I visited a new church on Sunday (which I think will become my church) and I met a couple there who knows the Conibear family really well and hosts the group from Maranartha which comes everywhere- which I went to a trivia night to support when I was back in Melbourne! This is the second time I’ve met people with intimate connections to students. What even. 
  • It’s hard to update your voting details while overseas. Regardless, I’m trying! Voting is a right people died for and even in a non binding, non compulsory, totally unnecessary plebiscite, I intend to honour the responsibility that it is to vote. 
  • I have two sets of little dumbbells! Along with my TRX and resistance band, they’re making workouts a lot more fun!  
  • I did the fish spa thing. It was very weird and my friend Larissa and I were very giggly the whole time. 

Hopefully that’s a bit of an update on life in Chiang Mai! Miss you all- although apparently it was Parent Teacher Interviews recently so… not that much 😂 

Love you! 😘😘

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

‘The Lake House’- A day at Huay Tung Tao Lake

I love a good public holiday and it’s even better that you don’t know that one is coming. It’s like that for all the holidays/special days over here- I’m blisfully ignorant of ANY of them so when one comes up it’s a wonderful surprise.

Last Friday was a brand new holiday in Thailand as it is the birthday of the new King! We had the day off so I decided that I would explore my new home a little bit but also have a bit of a relax and chill out. I’ve been reading a really fantastic book and a public holiday sounded like the perfect time to get some serious page turning in.

I’ve also been reading some blogs about places to visit around Chiang Mai and found a lot of references to a national park about 10km out of town. So, I decided to ride out there and do some relaxing, some exploring and some people watching. According to all the blogs I’d read, not many tourists visited the lake, but loads of Thai families and groups of friends go out there for long picnic lunches. I really enjoy getting off the tourist track, so this sounded perfect- plus 10km isn’t too far on my bike and the track looked reasonably straight forward- an important component to note as I have the WORST sense of direction.

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So, I set off in the morning, after doing an awesome workout with my friend, Sammy, before it got too hot. I had a general idea of where I was going but there were some moments where the map took me on what I’m sure was actually a quicker (and probably more legal than what I thought looked more direct) route but which got me a little lost as the turns escalated and became less obvious. However, I soon got to a really love bike track which took me straight to the well signposted road to the lake. Upon arriving, some lovely Thai ladies waved me through the admission gate, the 50baht fee being waived due to the public holiday. I was NOT expecting this, so was pleasantly surprised as I’m sure you can imagine. This trip, due to my free method of transport and the public holiday, was becoming even cheaper than I imagined.

As I continued riding along the road toward the lake I reached a small crest in the road and suddenly, the lake was in view. Surrounded by mountains and lined by bamboo huts, it was idyllic and an extremely welcome sight after riding through the midday heat. I continued along the road which hugged the lake, cycling slowly, taking in the natural environment- the mountains, the fields, the water and trying to decide where along the lake I would stop for my lunch.

After circumnavigating the lake, I found my way back to a little inlet and I settled at one of the many restaurants lining the lake. There are LOADS of different restaurants but they are kind of a much of a muchness- they all have delicious seafood, noodle and rice dishes so it’s just a matter of choosing which one you want to settle at. I actually have no idea which one I stopped at but it was great. I ordered a seafood salad with an egg and some sticky rice and then found my way over to a floating hut where the lovely ladies brought my food over while I sat and stared at the beautiful scene in front of me.

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Next door to me on one side was a cute couple who were enjoying a romantic lunch and on the other side, an eerily familiar looking bunch of uni students accompanied by a guitar and lots of selfies who could have been my and my friends back home. As I ate my beautiful, fresh lunch, I felt completely relaxed as the sounds of nature, my neighbour’s guitar, and chatter which I could not understand washed over me.

It was the perfect place to just let myself chill and become totally absorbed in my book. Unfortunately, after a few hours, the menacing sounds of thunder broke my reverie and after the last two days of absolute DOWN POURS which were immediately preceded by a similar rumble, I decided I should probably leave straight away lest I get caught cycling through a monsoonal shower- not something I enjoy doing and not something I would wish upon anyone.

Sadly, I said goodbye to my hut, packed my book away in my backpack and cycled back around the lake to the road, along the bike path and along the more direct route to my apartment. Surprisingly, it didn’t rain at all- a dry spell which lasted all weekend and which resulted in some seriously sticky weather. I think I prefer the rain.

Regardless, I had a wonderful day which included so many of my favourite things. I don’t want to recommend you go to the lake if you get the chance because I kind of want it to stay a little hidden away, but that would be selfish of me. Please, visit this place and enjoy the serenity and peace it offers.

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Or go swimming… that’s what the students next to me did.

Love you all

xx