2018

This time last year, I was freaking out a little bit. I had quit my job, didn’t have anything lined up apart from occasionally CRTing, and I was looking down the barrel of 6 months of no real routine.

I started putting in place things to do on certain days- a faux routine that would see me through these uncertain months before I left for Thailand.

Looking back, it’s clear I wasn’t fully committed to this trusting God with everything- letting go of control- thing I had written so much about.

Fast forward 12 months later and I still don’t have it down pat, but it’s definitely getting easier. I’m getting better, in all sorts of ways.

2018 is another year of change for me- I’m travelling until April, when I arrive in Melbourne with no job but with good friends and connections which will hopefully see my CRTing and tutoring while looking for a new one. 2018 also sees me going to the UK- a choice I made today after seeing cheap flights… clearly some part of me has changed- I’m normally a bit scared to book things on whims, so this is a good step I think! And beyond that, I don’t know what else 2018 will bring.

I’m going to be working my way through a devotional book based on Proverbs- the first two studies have discussed the nature of wisdom- what it is, what it isn’t. Already, I can feel God pushing a theme for my year onto my heart

Wisdom- seeking it out and seeking the one who is and gives all wisdom.

Making wise- though not necessarily cautious or timid- choices

Encouraging others in wisdom

Learning from wise people I come into contact with and learning with them

Spending my time and money wisely- though not with miserly tendencies in either case

Treating my body wisely, exercising well, eating well and listening to what its saying to me

As I walk into 2018, I look forward to seeing what I will learn, how I will grow, what I will gain and what I will lose (rice fat!). I invite you to walk with me- what do you think your theme for the year will be?

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Burmese Days- Part One…

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I was really conflicted about going to Burma at first. Its history of human rights abuse, the ongoing issues with the Rohinga, the lesser known issues with the ongoing civil war between different ethnic groups… there are plenty of reasons to avoid the nation- boycotting it so the government won’t profit from any travel that you do in the area. But there are also so many reasons to visit the country- the people (those who are really suffering, the victims of the government’s choices and rule) benefit from your patronage of their shops, townships and villages, and when you travel to Burma, you have the opportunity to learn about the nation, its tumultuous history and how it has changed, in new and different ways to the learning you can do outside its borders.

Of course, it is all too easy to avoid learning anything about Burmese history while in Burma, I was surprised (although, on reflection, not that surprised) at how hard it was to elicit any discussion from the Burmese people I met about what life used to be like under the junta- responses from text books and newspapers that I could read at home about things that were different now were the norm but I didn’t really get to discuss any serious issues while over there and if you travel there now, unless you try to go somewhere that is banned for tourists, you would have no idea that any human rights abuses were occurring. It would be very easy to go, walk through beautiful scenery, take selfies in front of temples, eat your weight in deep fried food, and remain ignorant of Burma’s past, present or tenuous future.

I personally don’t think this is solely a reason to avoid the country- every nation- my own included- has human rights abuse in its past (and sadly, often present) which it doesn’t talk about. I think one must decide for themselves if they are to travel to “problematic” countries, and how they will do so in the most ethical and mindful way possible, if that is a concern to them (which I think it should be for everyone).

To provide you with a decision re: travel to Burma is not the purpose of this blog, I just wanted to preface my recollections with the reasons behind my choice. At the end, I’ll briefly detail what I did to ensure I felt at peace with my travel decisions and some helpful blogs.

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Burma was always with me when I was in Thailand- in the news, in my work, in my interactions with students, colleagues, friends… it loomed large in my mind and its presence dominated my thoughts.

I knew I was going to be travelling there after I finished my time at Free Bird Café and I was filled with anticipation. I kind of assumed it would just be like Thailand- Chiang Mai, but maybe a bit poorer. The place I came to know was not that of my assumptions- it was vastly foreign and eerily… old. Burma felt like the plane I had flown over in was actually a TARDIS- taking me just outside of my time stream into one which had some bits of the world I’m familiar with- thrust over with no explanation or infrastructure- but still retained the old world of Orwell, military rule, thanaka in equal measures.

When I exited the tiny Yangon airport, I was immediately taken aback by the fact that every taxi driver I saw was wearing the traditional longyi- old, young, some in uniform, some privately owned companies… this wasn’t unique to the airport. 90% of men I saw were in longyis… and looked incredible. Beau, one of the Belgians on my tour, worked in fashion and fell in love with the style- I have to admit, I did too. It was classy and comfortable- able to be easily customised, easy to move and work in, easy to dress up or down. It was fabulous. The women also wore traditional dress more often than not- beautifully tailored in silks, lotus, cotton longyis and strictly structured shirts which elongated and beautified their every move.

I arrived around lunch time and as usual when arriving in a new city, walked aimlessly around the streets. I knew the river was at one end of my street so I walked down it; pass tea shops, betel nut sellers, books strewn over tarps ranging in subject from fiction to high school chemistry text books, to cookbooks in both Myanmar and English. I may have picked up a Burmese cookbook on day one. I really do have a problem. As I passed through these streets, I never felt unsafe, but I never felt as welcome or comfortable as I do in Chiang Mai. The stench of colonialism is still present in Yangon and the tourists are few and far between. But the stares I received were not hostile, they were curious- if anything. The areas I was walking- first down back streets of the city and then along the river, a seemingly quasi residential spot, were hardly the glittering pagodas and well manicured parks that I was shown on my walking tour the next day. I was seeing the city proper, and I’m glad I did. From the rattan ball bouncing off the skilful feet of young and old men to the cool tamarind juice which quenched my thirst, even to the fight I witnessed as I walked past the ferry to the village not ten minutes away from the modern hustle and bustle I was living amongst- this was a different reality to that which I was used to.

That night, I went to a restaurant which was training young, disenfranchised Burmese people in hospitality skills. The food was delicious, the location hidden away up a flight of steep, steep stairs, and the waiters and waitresses were pleasant, eager to please and eager to learn.

The next day I went across on the ferry to the island village across the river. Again, the boat ride was a portal to the past and the poor- the poverty was shocking and striking when held up against the neighbouring city. The longyis were tattered and the faces were grubby, the children’s hands outstretched, the rickshaw riders and tuk tuk drivers more insistent and intrusive than I’ve ever experienced. I walked for a while along dusty streets before I realised this was one place that I not knowing where I was going was probably a bit of an issue. I hailed down a rickshaw rider (poor lad. Must lose rice fat) and he biked me around the island to the temples- a patch on the pagodas on the mainland- fishing communities, rice growing communities… conversing in few words “picture?”, “you buy?” before taking me back to the ferry where I hid from the touts and the fruit, pickle, betel nut sellers- staring out across the murky water which separated the two pieces of land in so many ways.

That night I met my Stray crew- 3 other travellers and our guide. The whole tour was Belgian and all extremely lovely. We shared BBQ together, trying new and strange things, and at the end of the night I walked back to my hotel with a bag of watermelon and a cup of sugarcane juice, content and excited for the 10 days to come.

Woops. Burma is not Thailand and one can probably not quite trust the watermelon that one sees on the street. Or maybe it was ice. Regardless, I did not feel well the next day and as we walked around one of the biggest pagodas in Burma, snapping photos of gold and jewels, each other and other people taking photos of us- locals amazed by our pale skin and the height of my Belgian companions, I began to feel worse and worse. Luckily, the afternoon was ours to do with what we will- I collapsed onto a bed- praying and messaging prayerful friends to ask them to pray I would feel better by that evening when we were travelling by bus on unknown roads.

By evening, the rest, prayer and lack of food paid off- I was feeling marginally better, ate a few mouthfuls of plain rice and some Burmese yakult, and slept through the evening despite the horrendous roads. Miracle.

That morning we arrived in time for our first Bagan sunrise and high tailed it to an ancient temple to watch the first rays of light break. Even though it was cloudy, it was magical and upon the crumbling chedi I reflected on how blessed and lucky I am to be here. The sky was changing fast and we drove to a few other temples- some more intact than others- before settling down for breakfast where I felt well enough for some toast. The rest of the day we spent scooting around on electronic scooters, checking out the dusty plains of Bagan- temples scattered everywhere and the history nerd in me just wanted to walk into their walls- see those who worshipped, lived amongst and revered these temples, before they were victims of time, war and tourism. I didn’t think about it at the time but if I went again, I’m not sure I would climb the chedis. While they were clearly meant to be climbed, originally, I’m not sure how damaging my footprints were.

I also went walking in this town- exploring the river and the roads- experiencing much more of Bagan than I was intending when I got completely lost with no data, wifi or physical map. It’s not that big of a city and I quickly found a vaguely familiar road, but I discovered a few more backstreets with their cows, goats and children washing in creeks, in amongst the temples I was used to. Sunset saw us back amongst the old temples and it was just as beautiful (more so…) than the rising sun.

Day 2 of Bagan was another sunrise, this time with balloons punctuating the unsure sky. The pictures speak for themselves and a thousand words were spawned in my poets mind, some spewing onto paper- or Instagram caption. We got bikes again, scooting to surrounding villages which specialised in different handicrafts. Our guide knew the families we visited well and set aside my worries of going to “model” villages. These people were craftsmen of the highest quality and it was a pleasure to see them work. After riding through the villages, I suggested a boat ride down the Irrewaddy which took us to another temple, a fisherman’s house on the banks, and allowed us to settle in for a spectacular sunrise over the water- different to anything we’d seen so far.

The next day was a long bus ride- hair raising for many reasons, the bends, break neck speeds, blind over taking, average food at the pit stop… but it took us to Kalaw where it was chilly, rural and most importantly, the starting point for our two day trek which would take us to Inle Lake- the thing I was most looking forward to on my journey through Old Burma…

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.

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.)

 

Do you Tuk Tuk too?

Chiang Mai is filled with cool stuff to do, no matter what you’re into.

There are stunning, flower filled gardens, ornate temples, interesting museums, fabulous food tours and cooking schools, beautiful hiking trails, stunning, ancient ruins, markets galore, malls, river cruises, kayaking, cycling, mountain biking, dirt bike riding, ziplining, volunteer opportunities… the list really is endless, and has something for everyone. I would have said that all bases had been covered and a truly different activity would be impossible to establish.

I would have been wrong.

Recently, I had the good fortune to win a trip with a newly established tour company:  “The Tuk Tuk Club”. These guys have worked in the industry for years but recently, saw a gap, had a brainwave and made their dream happen. It must have been hard work but it was worth it- their company and brand is exploding and their idea is amazing.

In short, you get to drive your own tuk tuk.

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Yep. One of those little open cab-cum-motorbike things that buzz around SE Asia. You actually get to learn how to drive one and then- once the guides are sure you’re not going to kill yourself or anyone else, tour around the countryside doing loads of super cool activities and seeing in close up the beautiful green vistas of Northern Thailand.

Our day started with a pick up from the centre of town before heading out into the suburbs of Chiang Mai (roughly 1/2-3/4 hr out of town) to meet our very own three wheeled tickets to total bliss. Although, this bliss wouldn’t be immediate. First, we had to learn how to drive these things.

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Anyone with a license can learn, but they are manual (or stick), so it will be easier if you’ve dealt with a clutch before. That said, the guides are super patient and soon, we all got our heads around the idea of accelerating with your right hand, pushing the clutch in with your left food, braking with your right foot and handling the gear stick with your left hand, regardless of where we came from or how long it had been since driving any sort of car.

After our training session, we headed out onto the roads- I was the front of the pack and started the day off with a bang by revving a little too hard and screaming out of the carpark like a bat (or tuk tuk) out of hell, but apart from my over zealous departure- we all handled this step up remarkably well.

Our first stop was two beautiful temples a few minutes away from each other- one of which catered more to the locals and one which was a bit fancier and more spectacular. The first involved a beautiful walk up to a natural cave area where a reclining Buddha lay and a gorgeous view awaited us. We could see the road which we had driven up to reach our spot- which was super cool in and of itself- but more than that, we could see where we were still yet to travel. This route in mind, we scrambled back down to our waiting tuk tuks and got back on the road again.

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This was a much longer journey, winding up and down mountain roads, going round bends and over crests. The road was smooth, easy to drive on and, for someone who hasn’t driven anything other than a pushbike in over 3 months, extremely enjoyable to explore. We drove in convoy at all times and our tuk tuks had been suped up so there was never any doubt that we would be able to reach our ultimate destination.

Soon, we turned off road and our tuk tuks showed how much grunt they actually had as we drove through a village- mud trails and pot holes included- before stopping at the Elephant Sanctuary. I was initially apprehensive when I won the tour as I knew there would be an Elephant Experience and I am morally, ethically and in all other ways opposed to elephant riding or elephants acting in a way which is unnatural for them. Thankfully, I had nothing to fear. This little family run organisation was far removed from the elephant parks who aimed only to entertain tourists. Their focus was on their elephants and what was best for them. While we had lunch, our guide explained that years ago, the existing park which used to be a riding park was bought out by someone else who had explained to the locals how damaging and cruel the practice was and the fact that very few tourists are interested in riding the elephants anymore. Sadly, some still do- and we saw tourists riding elephants later in the day, but this practice is, thankfully, dying out. The locals were a little skeptical but were eventually convinced, stopped any forms of cruelty and transformed their business to a rescue zone. This was particularly obvious with the 4 year old baby elephant who had clearly never been broken- he was too playful for us to go very close to him and the connection with his mahout- or carer- was clearly one of love.

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After lunch, we gave the elephants some of their lunch before walking behind them to the river- we couldn’t walk alongside these creatures as they’re wild animals- especially the baby- and super playful. Once we reached the river, the majesty of elephants came into full view and as we washed them, the game became to dodge their trunks, legs and sometimes bodies as they frolicked- an odd word when considering elephants but strangely appropriate!

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Much too soon, we left the elephants under the capable care of their mahouts before hopping into the back of a ute which took us to another river bank where we boarded some bamboo rafts and in a style reminiscent of the Venetian punters, floated down a meandering river. It was here we saw the riders and the contrast between these beasts of burden and the freed elephants we interacted with was palpable.

After relaxing on the river, we soon found ourselves floating in front of our majestic tuk tuks, patiently waiting for us to continue our journey. We drove back down the mountain, the wind blow drying our hair, the clean air and freedom cleansing any worries we may have had previous to this day of unique adventures.

Eventually, we reached home base, farewelled our noble steeds of tuk tuks and hopped back on the van to go back to the city.

I don’t know about the others but that night, as I walked home after dinner, I definitely looked at the tuk tuk drivers calling out to me in a different way.

‘I could do that! In fact, I did!’

It was such a fab day, filled with awesome people, a super professional tour company and the most unique transport I have ever experienced. I would do it all again in the shift of a gear.

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I won a competition with The Tuk Tuk Club and won a free trip with them so did not pay for this tour (obviously). This review is entirely based on my experiences and in no way reflects the free nature of the tour. Check out their tours- 1 day or 11 day. I’m sure you’ll have a great time. https://www.thetuktukclub.com/

 

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