First Week Teaching Craziness

Whoa Thailand schools are different! I was warned beforehand that you never can know what to expect on the first day, and that was probably the best advice I could have gotten. My agent said that he would email me the weekend before I was supposed to be starting about what to have prepared for the first day. I didn’t know what age group I was supposed to be teaching, what my schedule was or even where the school was! Well, I never ended up getting an email and had no access to a printer or any sort of school supplies so on the first day, Natalie (the other new English teacher) and I showed up at school very confused. We also managed to get very lost on our mopeds for half an hour beforehand but made it to school right on time. The first thing we did was meet with our boss, Kitty, the head English teacher. She handed us a schedule but said it would probably change next week (which it did). I was scheduled to teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade English, which is what I wanted! Then, she took us outside and told us we were going to give a speech to the school, which has around 1500 students. I just talked about how excited I am to be there, my home, hobbies etc. It wasn’t too bad, but I would’ve liked to have at least known more than two minutes in advance that I would be doing that! (side note- we later found out that the speech was taped and was circulating around the town, our landlady showed it to us and she doesn’t even do anything with the school!) We were both then handed whiteboard markers and they sent us both into a room with about 50 crazy second graders. We had zero plan and pretty much no idea what they wanted us to do, it was absolute craziness! We ended up singing a lot of songs and playing silly games, which they really seemed to have fun with. After that hour was over, they brought us along to another class, this time we were a little more prepared but it was still chaotic. After that, we got separated and I went off to teach 5th graders. At this point, I was feeling much better because I kind of knew what to expect and I managed to keep everyone calm and listening, which felt SO good.

View of "Elephant Mountain" from my classroom
View of “Elephant Mountain” from my classroom

At the end of the day I was more exhausted than I thought possible, but I felt very at peace as well. It was definitely a challenge, but one that I am excited to keep working on and mastering. Managing classrooms crowded with 50+ students, no projectors, very limited supplies, and no air conditioning in 90 degree heat is a pretty tall order, but I am learning quickly how to make it work. It helps that my students actually seem to want to learn. I’ve found that the best way to get their attention is to actually stand there saying nothing at all. Just waiting for them to realize they need to be quiet works so well because they actually do want to hear what I have to say. All of the students seem genuinely so excited to meet me and learn from me, which is an incredible feeling.  I kind of felt like a celebrity walking around campus by the end of the day, all of the kids kept on stopping to wai me (which is similar to bowing) and to say hello. My boss and the other teachers were saying that they were so happy to have me there and kept on asking if I liked my apartment and the town.

Thai teachers LOVE taking pictures together
Thai teachers LOVE taking pictures together

By the end of my first week, I can say confidently that this school already feels like a tight knit community. I constantly have students stopping in my office to say hi, or calling my name as they walk by. It is really hard not to smile while walking around with all those happy faces looking up to you. The teaching part has improved exponentially with each day too. It’s amazing what a little preparation can do…

A little note and gift from one of my 5th graders :)
A little note and gift from one of my 5th graders
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A Weekend in Pai

Just got back from the best weekend I’ve had in Thailand so far! We had Friday off from school this week so a big group of teachers and I decided to make the trip up to the little mountain town of Pai. I’d heard from a number of people that Pai is a magical place and that once you get there, you never want to leave. I can now say that this is 100% true! If I did not have to be back for school on Monday I would have stuck around for much longer.

On Thursday afternoon we all boarded a van that took us up one of the scariest roads I have ever been on. The hilly drive to Pai takes about 2.5 hours and is chock full of hairpin turns on super skinny and steep roads. After a nerve-wracking drive we finally got to our hostel and were surprised to find that it was actually a bamboo hut with bunk beds built over a rice field. (I guess that’s what you get when you’re paying just over $5 a night hahaha). It felt like a tree house but was surprisingly very comfortable! Going to sleep hearing the water in the rice field trickle under our hut made it a very peaceful place to sleep as well.

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On Friday morning we woke up and really got to see our surroundings for the first time. The views of the mountains were awe inspring. It felt wonderful to be out of the craziness of the Chiang Mai and unwind a bit. Although the climate is pretty much the exact opposite, the rolling green mountains reminded me a lot of Vermont. The whole town of Pai actually had a very hippie feel to it as well, full of yoga studios, vegetarian restaurants and cute coffee shops. It is pretty westernized but after three weeks in Thailand it was nice to have a little taste of home again!

We got a bit of a late start because the previous night ran pretty late but we decided to rent motorbikes to explore the town. It was terrifying at first because last time I rode a motorbike I got a pretty nasty burn from the exhaust pipe. However, my friend Kirsten was an awesome driver so I didn’t need to worry at all. Although they are not the safest, motorbikes really are the best way to get around most of Thailand. Thai people start riding motorbikes at very young ages, I’ve seen moms with newborn babies driving bikes with one hand. I also saw a boy driving one the other day and he didn’t look a day over twelve. Although scary, it really is a ton of fun and so exhilarating driving along the curvy roads and being so close to the landscape!

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On our itinerary that day were two waterfalls and the Pai canyon. The first waterfall we went to was not very steep and its gradual slope was perfect for sliding down. There were also some really cool pools that we could swim in. The second waterfall was really high up and had a huge, deep pool that was perfect for hanging out in on such a hot day. The Pai canyon was equally stunning. I have no idea how it formed but it consists on a sandy rock wall that towers high above the trees. It looked like a really cool hike but after seeing how crumbly and steep it was we made the decision to just observe it from afar…

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The next day we woke up and it was scorching hot so we went to an infinity pool at a circus themed hotel that overlooks the mountains. It was so nice to hang out in the pool, nap in the hammocks and jump on the trampoline. That night most of the other people we came up with decided to leave but my roommate Natalie and I were in love with Pai and wanted just one more night in this magical town! We went to a barbecue hosted by our hostel and had so much fun meeting other travelers from all over the world. There were even a few other teachers there and it was really fun hearing about their experiences so far. We all went out in town together and had a very funny night!

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On Sunday, we reluctantly packed up our bags to head back home. The hilly drive was even more scary on the way back because the seat in front of me was missing a bolt so the guy in that seat was swaying all over the place with each turn. This van even came equipped with barf bags if that tells you anything about the ride…. It was SO worth it though. I have one more week of TESOL classes left in Chiang Mai and then on Friday I move down south to the beach town of Phang Nga where I will be teaching English to primary school students until March. Life is pretty good here in Thailand 🙂

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Day with the Elephants

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Elephant Nature Park, which is located right outside of Chiang Mai. Before I came to Thailand, I had envisioned myself riding on elephants and seeing them do tricks at the infamous elephant shows. However, after my visit to the nature park, I realized how this corrupt vision of elephants is causing many of them very serious harm. The Elephant Nature Park was founded 25 years ago in response to elephant abuse that was and still is rampant all around Thailand.

In the late 1980s logging was banned in Thailand due to environmental concerns, which was a huge step in the right direction for this country. However, one major side effect of this ban was that the thousands of elephants that were used in the logging industry were all of a sudden out of work, and their owners had to do something else with them. Although these elephants were never treated very well in the logging industry, the tourist industry is not a step up for them at all. Elephants are forced to walk down busy city streets everyday where tourists can pay to feed them. They are also outfitted with uncomfortable harnesses so that people can ride on them or are forced to perform tricks for crowds. Many of the elephant owners use violent tactics to train the elephants and also do not feed them nearly enough. All of this abuse causes physical as well as mental problems for the elephants, which are very smart and sensitive animals. This is where the elephant nature park steps in.

The nature park searches all around Thailand for elephants that are being abused so that they can buy them and bring them to this beautiful sanctuary in the mountains. Visiting this place, I could feel such a sense of happiness and hope coming from both the elephants and people who work there. It was amazing to walk around with our guide, Bee, who was able to tell us the individual stories of how the elephants got there. Some elephants arrived with broken hips, others were blinded by their owners, one had even stepped on a land mine and now limped everywhere. Something that really struck me about walking around next to all of the elephants was that they all had such distinct personalities, some were old and calm, happy to eat their sugarcane in happiness. Others were wild, loved running around and messing with us. One of the males even threw dirt up in the air at us because he got sick of us calling his name.

One thing that all of the elephants at the Nature Park have in common is that they are all visibly very happy to be there. One elephant we were petting broke into a run when it saw a truck coming nearby, our guide explained that it was because that elephant had arrived in a similar truck and was terrified of being taken away from this place. This moment was eye-opening for me because it made me realize how important the work is that the ENP is doing. For an elephant to dread leaving that much showed just how bad the abuse must have been in its previous life.  No animal should have to suffer that much for any reason, least of all tourism.

I feel so lucky to have been able to spend the day with such magnificent creatures. It was inspiring to see how much hard work is going on to help reverse the fate of many elephants in Thailand and I hope to return again soon.  A place like the Elephant Nature Park is a shining example of how tourism can be sustainable, educational and so much fun.

Mai Pen Rai

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta

Hello from Thailand!  Yes, I have decided to start a blog, not something I usually do when I am traveling but I can already tell that writing about my adventures in Thailand will be the best way to share my experiences with everyone back home considering the 11 hour time difference and sketchy wifi that prevails here! It has been about two weeks since I packed up my life and moved to this amazing country and so far I have to say I definitely feel like I have made the right move. This country has not failed to astonish me at almost every turn.

Everything from the people to the food functions in a way that is entirely different than the USA. In my TESOL class the other day, we had a really great conversation about this, and came to the realization that these differences ultimately boil down to a difference in cultural values. In the US and in many western countries, productivity and efficiency are of the utmost importance in almost all aspects of society. In Thailand, the two most important values tend more towards harmony and loyalty. Thais live their lives in a community oriented mindset, every decision they make incorporates the thoughts and feelings of their family and friends, there is nothing they dislike more than interrupting the harmony of their community. This often means that decisions are made at the last minute, and you never really know what is going on until it is happening. As an American used to efficiency and organization, this has been quite the learning experience! I have realized that sometimes the best thing to do is take a step back and acknowledge that I should just take a deep breath and accept uncertainty and embrace whatever happens. Nothing ever works out exactly as you plan for it too, and I am slowly trying to get used to that. The Thais even have a saying for this feeling: Mai Pen Rai, which roughly translates to “whatever will be, will be”. It is the Thai way of maintaining a sense of calm during stressful situations and something I have been actively trying to adopt into my own life.

So moving on… what have I been doing here for the past few weeks?? SO MUCH! Chiang Mai is an incredible city in Northern Thailand. It is nestled in the mountains and full of friendly people, beautiful temples and delicious food!  During my first weekend here, a group of other teachers and I decided to go on a hike. We had a beautiful trail picked out that was supposed to lead us to a waterfall and we were all super excited for it. Well, Thailand had other plans for us! After a confused songtheuw ride  we ended up being dropped off by our poor driver at a completely different location. So we looked at some maps, figured out where we were and ended up by accidentally walking almost 10 miles to a beautiful lake, where we went swimming, saw some beautiful Buddha statues and ate lunch at a cute restaurant where the tables were in little bungalows that were on stilts above the lake. Not exactly what we planned, but still a pretty amazing day!

In the past few weeks I have also visited many ornately decorated temples, including the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a golden temple atop a mountain on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Another day I got to practice the national sport in Thailand: Muay Thai. Muay Thai is similar to American boxing and was surprisingly very fun, even though I am not a huge fan of boxing. Our Muay Thai coaches were very tough on us, making us run sprints and do squats before we even picked up boxing gloves. In the rink, we practiced kicking and punching as hard as we could, which felt so good!

So all in all, Thailand has been pretty amazing so far. There is a lot to get used to, but the more I embrace it, the more I love it. Missing everybody back home so much, please keep in touch! I don’t want this blog to be a one way form of communication, I want to hear from all of you as well 🙂 I promise I will post again soon to update everyone on what I actually came here for in the first place: teaching!

Anna

PS love you and miss you so much Mom, Dad, Abby and Fritz!