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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Thai Tidbits

I thought I should do a quick little post. I haven’t done anything “special” recently- I’m going to Pai this weekend which will warrant a blog post soon- but every day is filled with something cool! Here are 5 little things which have happened in the last MONTH I’ve been here which aren’t particularly of note but which characterise my time in Chiang Mai.

  1. I finally decided that I needed to wax my hippy-vegan-femme-tacular legs (they were starting to bother me a little bit, but to be honest, I never felt particularly self conscious about the hair. A nice change from home when a tiny bit of stubble caused me to wear tights on beautiful days…) and so went into a little salon that looked clean and reasonably priced… I managed to convey I wanted a half leg wax and so the lady motioned for me to sit on the low couch and stick my leg out. In the main shop. Just in the open. Now, I’m assuming (hoping) it would have been different for a full wax or God forbid, a brazilian, but for a half leg it was fine, if not a little amusing. I was given a free bottle of water and LOTS of compliments that I was “SO WHITE”. It was the smoothest and most pain free wax I’ve ever had so will be back next time.
  2. There are plenty of Facebook expat groups which people update pretty regularly with questions, local events, services, recommendations for cafes, inane banter, bitcoin advice and requests for meetups! I love these groups because it means I have a social life and it keeps me up to date with what’s on around town, even if I can’t go this particular week- it’s pretty likely that it will be on again. In one of these groups, a man (who I later learn is SPOILER ALERT lovely) posted asking for volunteers for a special kind of Thai massage as he is currently training and needs to practice on people as much as possible. This sounded a) amazing [yay! Free!] but b) suss as hell. So, I messaged him and asked:
    Where is the massage located?
    What parts of the body are massaged? and
    What would I be wearing?
    He responded quickly that it was in a public temple training school, it was full body apart from the normal areas avoided in FBM and that I would be fisherman pants and a loose top. I quickly responded that I would LOVE to be a guinea pig for this massage practice and I WAS NOT disappointed. Simon was LOVELY and I’ll definitely be back to help him out again. I know it’s a sacrifice and even I’m shocked at how altruistic I am, but sometimes you just have to give back.
  3. During my cooking class, we went to a market (like most classes) and the lady took us to a stall with- according to her- over 50 kinds of garlic. It was all I could do not to just DIE in happiness. The love that Thai’s have for garlic in their food knows no bounds and one of my favourite things is the regularity of getting raw slices of garlic on the side to add to my curry or soup or stir fry. Honestly, SO delicious. Speaking of delicious things, one of my most favourite street food snacks has become whole roasted sweet potato- cooked over the grill. A bag of them will set you back 20baht or so and it’s literally just sweet potato. Makes a nice change of carb from rice- though I do love that too.
  4. I did a boxing class recently which  was SUPER awesome and I need to go back (I literally have something on every night this week which means I can’t do this week) but I was struck (heh) by how different it was from boxing back home… mainly in the physicality of the instructor! I don’t think I’ve ever been slapped so much. “Power from HERE (slaps thigh) and  HERE (slaps shoulder)” “Hands Up! (lightly hits me on the JAW!)” It was definitely an experience and one which taught me to a) loosen up- (I never felt unsafe or anything! It was just the style of teaching) and b) keep my guard up!
  5. I know I keep posting about this but OMG the rain. Rainy season is not a misnomer in any way. It rains at least once a day and  when it rains, it pours. It can be beautiful in the morning and then pour in the afternoon, or vice versa, or just threaten all day, or something else entirely. I’ve become better at bringing my gorman around with me everywhere but I’ve also just started to embrace it at times. It does sometimes suck when you’re on the bike, at night, though. Not a fan of riding in the dark and the rain. It makes me feel like my travel insurance is being voided, haha. But if you stay in because of the rain then you’re not going to get anything done so you just need to BE PREPARED and also, be prepared to change your plans- something I’m learning to accept 🙂

There’s lots more of course, from my tutoring of the chef at Free Bird Cafe to my adventures in trying to find sugar free bread to becoming lost almost every Sunday morning getting to church, to my weekly runs which have been different every week so far, to my daily workouts/sweatfests, to my attendance at zumba/aerobics thing… every day is slightly different and it’s been so wonderful to have a casual routine but to also have let go of control and instead just trusted that I’m going to be ok, whatever happens.

Cool things coming up:

  • I’m going to Pai this weekend (literally the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done) for the Jazz festival!
  • I have a church BBQ on Friday night
  • My visa run to Penang in September! I’ve booked a food tour for my first night there and a cycle tour for the Saturday. I CANNOT wait. It looks so beautiful.
  • think I’m going to go trekking in Doi Inthanon in August… it depends how many people I can recruit.
  • Class starting on the 4th of September!!

Hope you guys are enjoying the blog- if you have any questions about anything, every day life or otherwise, feel free to comment 🙂

Love and miss you all,

Amy xx

 

South East Amy So Far…

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It’s been 5 days that I’ve been in this country and it already feels like I belong here. Yes, I can’t read any signs and I definitely miss the grid system of Lovely Melbourne and I can’t speak the language and I’ve probably been over charged and I’ve probably unwittingly offended people but this place is just beyond what I thought it would be. The spirit of the people is as intense as the damp heat and the sense of possibility is as sweet as the fruit I’ve been eating off street stalls. I know it will be a challenge at times (I’ve just realised my wifi in my apartment only allows one device to be connected at a time which is fine, I just have to get used to it) but it’s hard to get used to for someone who’s used to being connected to everything, all of the time. Other challenges I forsee:

  • Cycling on these roads.

When I went on my cycling tour of Bangkok (post to come) I was struck by how quiet the back streets were… but how narrow and scary they also were. Chiang Mai- as far as I can see doesn’t have the latter issue. The back streets seem nice and wide and easy to get around, but the main streets are just as busy and mildly terrifying, I’m not going to lie. Although, I have mastered (that term has never been used more loosely) merging across a 3 lane road to turn right or do a u-turn. People are actually super tolerant of cyclists so I think I’ll end up ok… it’ll just take some getting used to, I suppose! I’ll come back fearless!

 

  • Managing my thermostat.

I don’t like sleeping with the air conditioner on. At all. But, if I leave my doors open, the carnival/night market across the road is really loud AND I’m paranoid about insects coming in. Not because I’m scared of insects… I’m just scared of the blood borne diseases they carry.

So, I tend to turn the aircon on, wake up freezing, turn it off, wake up boiling, turn it on… and it continues ad nauseum.

 

  • Cold showers.

My ex-personal trainer will be thrilled to know that I’ll be adopting his fat burning recommendation of cold showers while I’m in CM as it seems my shower has two settings- cold and slightly less cold. Which, to be honest, I don’t mind. It’s actually really refreshing and I don’t really want a hot shower at this point in time. But… it’s still a shock to the system, no matter how hot and sweaty you are post in-room workout.

 

  • Making decisions.

For anyone who has ever dined with me, you know decisions are hardly my strong point. It is why I love chef’s menus which don’t give you any choice, combination plates which let you try a little of everything and fro yo bars which let you put as many flavours and toppings into your cup as your heart so desires. It’s why I love HIIT hybrid workouts so I can practice my lifting while also getting my cardio in. It’s why I’m a “plan in advance” person so I can know precisely what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it. This is a bit harder when I purposely did not plan much for this portion of my trip… which means I need to decide what I’m going to do each day. This has been interesting thus far but I’ve sort of settled into a routine-

 

  • Wake up around 6:30
  • Do an in room HIIT workout- either self run or using Fitness Blender
  • Have breakfast (this either involves having some fruit and yoghurt [I found a tiny little fresh yoghurt place that sells tubs of homemade, pro biotic, natural yoghurt w. NO SUGAR! Win!], and vegemite on these cracker things I found which are sort of like saladas OR strolling down to the wet market and getting a traditional Thai breakfast of egg, rice and some sort of stirfried dish.) and do my quiet time.
  • Linger over the beautiful Nancy Chandler map of Chiang Mai and decide what incredible thing I’m going to do this morning.
  • Ride bike/walk in general direction of that thing hoping for the best.
  • Find thing (it’s closed)
  • Ride/walk around aimlessly, taking note of cool looking places to visit. Meander like the locals
  • Head to TFH by 10am if I’m not teaching that night…
  • And to be honest, I’m not sure what I do there. Today is my first day so it’s still v early stages- I’m basically learning where things go.
  • Have a delicious lunch. I’m going to work my way through their menu, it all looks so divine.
  • Back to work…
  • Ride home around 5- if I’m not teaching that night…
  • Chill for a bit while I decide what to do that night… I’m not really a massive party animal so I need to be sure that I get my sleep. I also don’t want to spend loads on red trucks and tuk tuks, so I want to be able to walk/ride to most places myself… but I’m still not very confident on the roads. So… we shall see. I would like to go to documentary screening tonight about the Burmese Civil War which is still affecting many of our students, but I think I’ll take a red truck there as I’m not 100% confident in riding to the location… or rather, riding back in the dark. Most nights I’m envisaging heading over to the night market or one of the many vendors/restaurants in the area, grabbing some food and enjoying it while people watching or reading my book.
  • Have an earlyish night and fight with the air conditioning as to ensure a good nights sleep, ready for another day tomorrow.

 

The freedom is divine and actually really challenging for me, so it’s been a good learning experience ALREADY, and it’s only week 1! I think it’ll get easier, or just be different, when there’s another volunteer who I might be able to do things with. Someone is starting tomorrow (Friday!)

 

  • Coming home.
    It’s already dawning on me how quickly this year will go and all the things I’ll miss when I’m at home, or even while I’m travelling. I don’t want to dwell on this though as I know this year will be life changing and life at home will be so rewarding when I return and all the more richer for this experience.

 

  • Visas….
    Still scared. Don’t want to think about the border runs I need to do.

I’m certain this list will grow and expand but at the moment, this is it. Which is pretty good, so far I think!

I’ve been so struck while I’ve been here how blessed I am to be able to do what I’m doing. I’ve always known that I’m privileged to do what I’m doing but I really think this trip is such a gift and I thank God every day that I’m able to explore my world so freely, so safely and hopefully, have an impact while I’m doing it.

Thanks for following along and supporting me in your prayers and thoughts. I’ll post more about what I did in BKK soon!

Sawadee Ka!

Boot Camp for Burma!

One of the reasons I started this blog was to get me into the habit of writing regularly. Why did I want to write regularly, you might ask? Well, beyond the obvious benefits of improving my writing flow, fluency and depth, improving my vocabulary, strengthening my voice and developing my online presence; I wanted to start writing on the reg so that I continue this habit when I go to Thailand later this year.

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And later this year is rapidly approaching. Last Friday was the 3 months to go point. That’s less than 90 days. Writing that made my heart skip all sorts of beats. It’s been such a long process and now that departure is getting closer and closer to being here, everything is starting to feel extremely real. I’ve paid for the majority of my trip (the only thing I have to pay for is food, activities and accommodation in the places I choose to “hop off” at during the travel portion of my journey, and my flights home), I know when I’m applying for my visa, I have my cards and phone sorted, my gym membership is set to finish on the day I leave (last minute bootcamp, yes please!) and I’ve started figuring out the points of my journey which I linger over and those which I’ll breeze through. That said, I want this plan to remain flexible enough for unplanned excursions to take place and to allow for locations I never knew about to capture my heart and never let it go.

While all the travel planning is desperately exciting, what I am most looking forward to is my time at Thai Freedom House which will make up the bulk of my trip. The Thai Freedom House is a “non-government, not-for-profit, language and arts community learning center in Northern Thailand dedicated to assisting families and individuals who are refugees from Burma and members of minority groups of Thailand.” They work specifically with these people to ensure that they don’t become victims of exploitation, trafficking, harassment, gang violence, or the poverty cycle. There are plenty of complex reasons behind the mistreatment of Burmese refugees in Thailand and I encourage you to pay the Thai Freedom House website a visit to learn some info about the issues inherent in the refugee/immigration situation.

I have always had a heart for refugees and asylum seekers and the way our own (Australian) government treats these marginalised and often highly damaged people disgusts me. I refuse to sit back and watch and am hoping to one day work more closely with community groups to raise awareness, advocate and educate. My decision to work with such a grassroots group instead of a more well known, “voluntourism” organisation is a part of that process. I want to learn from the people I’m working with, not just provide a few English lessons a week.

I also went with the Thai Freedom House because of their volunteer program and the fact that all the money I spend on said program will go straight to those I’m teaching, not on shiny brochures. It’s transparent and it’s real. It’s also got real needs. Receiving no government funding and only earning money from donations and their on site café and op shop, Thai Freedom House struggles at times to pay rent and ensure the minimal staff receive payment.

This is also the reason I held my “Bootcamp for Burma” earlier this month! I knew I wanted to raise money for TFH and I love fitness so I decided to combine my two passions and run a charity “pay what you feel” boot camp on Labour Day!

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I had about 15 people come along to get their sweat on while simultaneously doing a good deed, as well as multiple other people donate money even though they couldn’t attend due to being away (or not willing to workout- which is FINE!)

It was an incredible session and everyone gave it their all, spurring each other on and encouraging their friends and team mates to push just a bit harder.

Not counting the donations people made directly to TFH online (which I have no way of tracking so THANKYOU if you did!), I raised about $500, all of which is to be donated directly to the organisation.

Thank you so much if you came along and donated, or if you just donated! It was such a great morning and I hope the sore muscles were an acceptable price to pay in exchange for knowing you’ve improved the lives of vulnerable children and families in Thailand.

I’m hoping to do another boot camp session before I go to raise more money for the program so please stay tuned and stay awesome.

Amy xx