M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo


An Inappropriate Catholic School Party
January 31, 2010, 1:15 pm
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , ,

Our school’s Christmas party turned out to be a fascinating glimpse into Thai culture.  I didn’t have high expectations to be honest…the idea of eating dinner on our assembly grounds with all the administration and faculty sounded a little dry.  How wrong I was.  First I found myself recruited into a dance routine featuring some of the foreign teachers in the school.  This included wearing a massive flower necklace and wearing Hawaiian themed clothing, all of which enhanced (I hope) our poorly choreographed dance number in front of everyone.  I barely knew anyone at the school at this point and embarrassing myself seemed like a great way to break the ice.  Following our act were a number of dances involving cross-dressing, pelvic-thrusting teachers.  The theme of sexuality and general silliness was constant through the night.  Eventually it was karaoke…one Thai-pop song after another and dancing was unavoidable.  By the end of the night I had danced with my boss, her assistant, and a number of other people I didn’t even know.

After the dancing came the raffle.  Thai parties always seem to involve giving away prizes, and big ones at that.  They were giving away TV’s, rocking chairs, microwaves, pillows, even cans of corn.  I ended up winning a pillow and a crock pot, a pretty good haul I think.  The party was a blast, not dry or boring or like anything I could have predicted.  Bizarre might be a good word to describe it.  Bizarre to see the father/priest of the school transformed into a game show host throwing prizes into the crowd.  Bizarre to see the normally very quiet Thai teachers dressed as the opposite sex, shimmying around the stage like an over-sexed pop band.  Life at school is as you would expect: you work, teach students, keep your head above the bureaucracy, and respect the hierarchy within the school.  Off the clock it’s an entirely different world…

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Birthday Cruise
January 31, 2010, 12:38 pm
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Not exactly a current event, but a memorable day nonetheless….and worth documenting:

Jennifer’s birthday, on December 16, sadly fell on a workday.  However since I didn’t have an official job yet I pulled some things together and we ended up having a good time that evening.  While Jennifer was at school dealing with disruptive Thai students and rapidly going insane, I ran around town trying to arrange a little surprise.  First stop the liquor store, where I wrangled up a bottle of red wine.  Next stop the supermarket, where imported dark chocolate was to be had.  After that, a quick flyby of the fruit market for some fresh strawberries just in season and a bouquet of flowers.  A phone call to my landlord, who is also the owner of our favorite restaurant in Kanchanaburi, and I reserved us a table and a cake.  Finally a stop at tour outfit by the river where I reserved a tandem kayak.

A platter of strawberries...mmmm

Surprisingly everything came together perfectly.  I picked Jennifer up at work on my motorbike and zipped back home at full speed for a quick stop to change out of work clothes.  Everything already packed, I threw our bags on the motorbike and tore through town for our 4:30 date with the kayak shop.  There we were driven up river about 10 kilometers with the kayak and dropped off to paddle our own way back.  The trip was beautiful, a mellow paddle downstream with a bottle of Austrailian wine, 2 camp cups, and a bag of strawberries and chocolate.  We watched the sun set over the river and had river boats and floating discos waving to us as they passed.  Soon it was dark and we floated on only by the light of the moon and houseboat lights.  Bats swooped over the water in front of our kayak and fish jumped in little splashes all around.  Soon we pulled into town and had a lovely meal of Italian pizza, lasagna, birthday cake, beer (or wine…can’t remember).  All things considered, it turned out a very lovely night.

Wine on the River Kwai



The Death Railway, Elephants, and Finding Work

Jolly Frog Guest House, base of operations for our Kanchanaburi explorations, turned out to be a lovely place.  The rooms were simple little cubes with bucket toilets and cold showers, but the grounds were nice.  The rooms all faced out to a cool green garden with hammocks, loungers, and a beautiful view onto the river.  Every night a gorgeous sunset reflected off the river and clouds and made the whole place glow a shade of pink and purple.  A set of stairs lead down from the garden onto a pontoon floating in the river with tables, chairs, and more loungers; a perfect place to bring a beer and watch the long-tail boats and floating discos go by.  The food was good as well, with a kitchen that served everything from hamburgers to Tom Kha Gai (Chicken Coconut Soup), and thankfully at backpacker prices.

Sai Yok Waterfall without tourists

For about 12 days we stayed here exploring the area.  Mostly we ventured out on our own, renting a motorbike in town and stumbling through new and interesting parts of town.  I don’t really fancy the package tours that so many tourists opt to join, however we broke down eventually and joined a daytrip that explored half a dozen of the major tourist spots in the area.  About 8 of us jumped into a minivan in the morning and drove off to Sai Yok waterfall, a very beautiful (and popular) cascade with swimming about 30km out of town.  Next we drove to the “Death Railway” memorial, set near one of the old prison camps along the railroad.  The spot was called Hellfire Pass, one of the more notorious camps with a grizzly history.  Summarizing briefly:

During WW2 Japan, occupying much of SE Asia at the time, needed to build a railway from Thailand to Burma to resupply it’s forces in India and other areas.  They used prisoners of war as laborers, mostly Dutch, Australian, and British, as well as a million or more conscripted laborers from occupied SE Asian countries.    Much of the route that wasn’t already built was very remote and inaccessible to heavy equipment, so these prisoners had to work with incredibly primitive tools to build the rails.  In addition to the difficulties of the terrain and lack of equipment, the Japanese army treated the prisoners as if they were already sentenced to death…a relic of the Samurai code that still dictated much of the Japanese army’s behavior.  A lot of prisoners died to build the railway, to say the least.  Hellfire pass was a particularly difficult section of blasting and digging, and the memorial there is especially poignant.

Overlooking the valley along the Death Railway

After walking along the old rail bed for a few kilometers and visiting a particularly depressing museum, we got back in the van and headed farther into the country.  We stopped at a hill-tribe village, although really not a tribe at all but rather a minority nomadic people that live between Thailand and Burma.  Here we went riding on elephants through the woods along some old trails and jeep roads, eventually looping back to where we started. Riding on the back of an elephant is bizarre, although I’ve very little experience riding on the back of anything.  There is a platform strapped to the back of the elephant with hand rails for riders, but Jennifer convinced me to ride on the neck of the elephant.  Apparently elephants are hairy…hair like little bristles of a comb.  I sat on this elephant’s neck, with my legs hanging down behind its giant ears (which flap like wings), and held on for dear life.  The fall from the top of an elephant is akin to falling off the roof of a building…a building that could then step on you as it walks by.  The ride was fun though, and if you’re sitting on the platform it’s actually quite comfortable.  The big loping steps of an elephant are more bearable than a horse’s crotch-numbing trot.

Next the tour dropped us off at a cave-temple with some impressive gold-leafed Buddhas inside.  The cave itself was decent, but the location was more impressive.  Set into the side of a cliff right along the River Kwai, the cave is accessible only by walking along the railway trestles that hang precariously over the river 50 meters below.  Here we caught the train, still operating on this stretch of the death railway, all the way back to Kanchanaburi to finish the day…a beautiful ride along the river and cliffs and through the countryside.

Trestle over the River Kwai

Funds were getting to a critical point at this time, so employment quickly became priority one.  During all this sightseeing of Kanchanaburi, we were also chasing down a few prospects for teaching positions at local schools.  In fact Stuart, the shady proprietor, connected us with one of his English teacher friends, who in turn connected us with a school that might be hiring.  After one interview we were called back for another the next day, this time with the big boss in charge of 6 different schools.  The second interview was bizarre, and a bit intimidating, but we came away from it with a job.  Jennifer was offered a full time position immediately, even though there were no official openings.  Young, female, native-speakers are a hot commodity in Thailand since most of the farang (Thai for foreigners) are 50-something retired alcoholic geezers.  The school offered me a full-time position at the start of the next term, although it turned out to be a lot sooner after one of the teachers pulled a runner over Christmas holiday.

A motorbike and a house seemed like the next logical step in the equation, so again we asked around the backpacker’s ghetto and we weren’t let down.  A Swiss guy that runs an Italian pizzeria apparently also owns some property south of town with some bungalows, so we got a ride on his 3-wheeled motorcycle (basically a motorbike with a side-car holding 2 little benches to sit on) to check them out.  The property, maybe 7-8 acres, is large and open with a pond in the middle and 3 bungalows around it.  A large house, built in the style of a Thai temple, sits towards the front of the compound and is used as a house for guests and relatives of the Swiss guy, Kinet, and his Thai wife, Thong.  The bungalow we looked at, and soon moved into, was built only 6 months ago and had a great vibe.  The outside is painted a fresh green color and the inside sky blue.  It’s one very large room, a large bathroom, and a very large front porch, all freshly tiled.  We moved in the next day.  Living next to us in the adjacent bungalows are a young tattooed Frenchman and his lovely, albeit quiet Thai wife, and a retired Australian ship’s captain.

The last item, the motorbike, was a breeze to get a hold of.  Kinet and Thong went out of their way to help us get a good deal, and for 15,000 baht (about $450) I bought a second-hand 125cc Honda motorbike.  We’ve been riding her for the last month and she hasn’t let us down yet.  Now with the big 3 accomplished…a job, a home, a ride…the pace of life has settled down a bit.  We’ve slowly been decorating the house, buying this and that to fill the empty space.  Driving is always an adventure here; navigating the chaos of Thai traffic is no easy feat, and a “close call” happens on a regular basis.  Unlike most of the Thais, we do wear our helmets, and with the straps actually connected.

Coming up: A trip to the Andaman Sea for Christmas holiday, the adventures of teaching English in Thailand, and border hopping for visas in Laos.



Waterfalls, Glorious Waterfalls

As our train bound for Kanchanaburi rattled through the Bangkok suburbs and emerged at last into the Thai countryside, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the scenery.  We passed little villages built on stilts and wooden plank walkways to keep above the monsoon floods.  We passed lotus ponds and rice paddies where huge flocks of Asian cranes would erupt and soar alongside the train.  Beautiful white egrets gathered en masse in the small trees surrounding the ponds and lakes, like odd feathery fruit trees.  I turned to Jennifer, sitting across from me also enthralled with the scenery, and said “I’ve got a pretty good feeling about this, like, I think we could live here.”

We pulled into Kanchanaburi through the back door, as trains often seem to do, avoiding the congestion and bustle of the main roads.  We had arranged to stay at a small B&B style place outside of town, a quiet base of operations for exploring the area by motorbike and bicycle.  Stuart, a Canadian burn-out from the 60’s generation, was the proprietor.  Not exactly the savviest host, he was nonetheless a colorful and entertaining character.  We bunked up at his place in an open air bamboo loft and relaxed into a much slower, quieter pace of life since we arrived in Thailand.  Stuart had a couple bicycles and a motorbike on hand so we explored our surroundings dutifully.  An afternoon of peddling took us winding through a couple small villages, through farmland and along the beautiful River Kwai.  At one point we lost ourselves in a university campus, passing dormitories, athletic fields, classrooms and college kids chatting in little groups: A familiar scene yet still strange to see in Thailand.

The following day we opted for motorized transport and extended our exploration much farther up the river valley towards Burma.  We heard of a national park with beautiful waterfalls about 50km up the valley, so we packed our swim suits, towels, and camera and zipped along the highway shoulder at a blistering pace.  Avoiding massive trucks overladen with sugarcane and trying to keep the little put-put engine from overheating, we climbed higher into the hills and into lush jungle and canopy.  The river, on our left for the duration of the drive, was stunningly beautiful.  We watched it as it wound and braided its way through the hills, slicing into banks and then widening again into an immense green plane.  The trees started to lean into the river from the banks as they grew larger, the river now offered only brief snatches of its deep green mystery.  The road became windier and steeper, the temperature cooler, and the clouds more substantial as we climbed into this hill country.  Too soon we arrived at the gate to the park and found the trails to take us to the waterfalls.

Erawan National Park is a popular attraction for both Thai and foreign tourists alike.  Despite the popularity it’s easy to find your own quiet spot by a waterfall here, as there are seven of them.  Rather, there are seven major waterfalls and dozens of smaller ones between them.  The trail climbs high into the hills, passing one series of cascades after another until you come to the seventh and final cascade.  The majority of visitors stay down at the first couple cascades, so the farther you climb the more seclusion you’re rewarded with.  As I made my way towards the first set of falls I tried to clear my mind of all the waterfalls I’ve seen over the years and the doubts that these wouldn’t compare.  As it turns out I wouldn’t have been disappointed either way.  The falls here are in fact the most beautiful I’ve seen in my life.  As I climbed the trail higher I felt my jaw dropping lower.  Unlike waterfalls I’ve seen before, these ones are created from limestone deposits.  Like stalactites in a cave, the dissolved limestone in the water slowly accumulated in massive cascading formations of solid rock.  The rocks appear as waterfalls in their own way, and combined with the turquoise water flowing over them the picture is surreal.

Determined to obtain a little seclusion, Jennifer and I set our course for the top.  At the bottom we passed a Thai movie set and crew in the midst of filming in the falls.  We stopped and gawked at the scene: A bunch of African’s dressed in loincloths holding spears and bows, faces painted and dancing (or fighting).  As if this place wasn’t surreal enough, we just shook our heads in confusion as we continued up towards the top.  On our way up we passed every imaginable form of waterfall: Fat ones, tall ones, big ones, little ones, round ones, sharp ones, ones stacked on top of each other, and ones hidden under dense canopy.  At the top we were hassled by “fierce monkeys”, as the sign declared.  Unaware that food is forbidden after the second set of falls (for obvious reasons now), we had a group of macaques snarl and lunge after our little packet of crackers.  At one point I even had a monkey jump on my back to get at the cracker I was hiding.  Still I hold a prejudice against macaques because of this, and I’m seriously planning on bringing a sling-shot or a pellet-gun next time I enter “fierce monkey” territory.

Fierce monkey showing his stuff

On our way back down, determined to shake that strange sense of humiliation by monkey, I found a lovely waterfall and went swimming.  Apparently the fish at Erawan like to nibble on your feet (harmless I’m told, they like the dead skin), however I wasn’t aware of this so as I waded into the water and felt little nips and pinches I freaked out and screamed like a girl.  After watching my escapades, it took a good 15 minutes of convincing before Jennifer followed me in.  It was a lovely swim, a big, deep blue pool to paddle in and a huge waterfall to climb behind.  Standing under the waterfall, letting it pound into my head and shoulders with tremendous force, I felt exhilarated and completely aware of how alive I am.  By this time the sun was starting to get low and we still had a good hike and drive ahead of us.  Shivering the whole way back on the motorbike in wet clothes, I still felt alive but not quite as exhilarated any more.

The longer we stayed at Stuart’s place, and the more we talked to him, the shadier he appeared to be.  Besides being the only people staying at his place, which could easily house 20, many other little things started to pile up.  Conversations seemed to steer in the direction of why he can’t enter the US, his connections with Thai mafia, and other topics you don’t want your host to be talking about.  When we mentioned his name to people around town, there seemed to be a unanimous response of an awkward nod and shifty eyes, and something like “yeah he’s interesting…oh yeah I know Stuart, haha…” etc.  The final straw was a night out drinking with him, where he insisted taking us to a girly bar.  After about 30 minutes he disappeared. Waiting for him awkwardly, surrounded by older guys trying to hit on young Thai women, we decided to mosey on down the road to a bar that doesn’t revolve around sex tourism.  We had a good night, met a couple backpackers from Australia and the States, and eventually had to get home.  Stuart’s place was about 15km outside of town, and although he said he would give us a ride home, he was nowhere to be seen.  After trying his phone for a while with no luck, we took a taxi.  Alas, the gate was locked and he never gave us a key, so we had to climb the fence to get in.  Finally settled in and ready for sleep, we hear Stuart pull up in his car, plastered, and with a prostitute in tow.  In the middle of the night we hear some shouting, confusion, a car with a Thai guy pulls up and walks inside Stuart’s, more commotion, and the guy and girl both leave.  The next day, as we’re trying to decide what to do, his caretaker/maid quits without warning.  At this point our unanimous decision is to move to a guest house in town.

After such an awkward ordeal we were relieved to finally be amongst other backpackers in a central location in Kanchanaburi.  It was here at the Jolly Frog guest house we would spend the next 12 days setting our roots in the city.  Soon enough we would have a job offer, a house of our own, and our own means of transportation.



Sleeper Trains & Food Poisoning: A trip to Northern Thailand
January 4, 2010, 8:42 am
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , , ,

First, I’d like to apologize for letting my journals go so long without an update.  Building a nest and settling into a foreign culture is more stressful and difficult that I had imagined, so I’ve had little down-time besides when I’m down on my bed asleep.  I’ll try to get the journals back to present day without leaving out any attention to detail or Thai oddities that happen on a daily basis.  Eventually you might understand through this site what it is like to live here.

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How to Survive a Sleeper Train in Thailand: Leo

We departed Ayutthaya heading north to the hilly regions of Chiang Mai province, part of the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia where the borders of Burma, Thailand, and Laos converge (also the largest opium cultivating region after Afghanistan).  Our train was a second-class sleeper, some cars with air conditioning, some without.  The ride took about 12 hours, most of it spent inebriated or sleeping. However, I somehow woke up at sunrise and watched the lush countryside and jungle start to illuminate with the hazy red light of morning.  The veil of mist that hung low over the fields and trees, combined with the mist that veiled my morning eyes, created a surreal approach to Chiang Mai.  In a couple more hours we arrived at the station and found our way to a guest house, home for the next 9 days.

The city of Chiang Mai is one of the largest in the country, the metropolitan area including about a million people.  The city proper is much smaller, around 150,000, with very few tall buildings, but it definitely still feels like a large city.  Our guest house was nestled into the winding narrow alleys of old-town, an area surrounded by a small moat and holding most of the oldest wats and chedis.  As this area seemed to be the main cultural and tourist hub of the area, we focused our explorations of the city within the moat.  A day’s walk is really all we needed to see what we wanted of the old-town, and because we focused our last 3 days exploring temple after temple after temple in Ayutthaya, we had no problem exploring other things here.   Avoiding being run over by the traffic was our first priority, after that watching out for massive potholes and holes in the sidewalk, then finally dodging the other tourists who all looked and acted like they were being filmed on the Amazing Race.  It only took a day for us to realize that we would be better off exploring the countryside than the city.  The city has a lot to offer: there is in incredible diversity of international foods from burritos to kebab to burgers, bookstores on every block, and bars and venues playing good music.  However our impression after the first day didn’t change after our last: It’s a big, dirty city.

Gold amidst the gray

The next day we rented a motorbike, the first time we dared take to the roads in Thailand on motorized wheels.  That I’m writing this to you means we survived, but I’m not sure how we managed.  Chaos… like riding a bicycle here but much more sobering.  As it turns out I’ve been riding a motorbike for over a month in Thailand as I write this, and I’m loving it. However that first day was akin to the feeling you get in your stomach when you walk into a theme park and you see the rollercoasters towering over you.  I managed to wriggle my way through city traffic without incident until we were on a narrow, two-lane road winding its way up to a mountain temple outside of town.  Tree’s rushing by, the wind blowing through our hair, I’m gunning the throttle and Jennifer’s whooping a yeehaw from the back, we conquered the road from the gravelly shoulder at 15km/h with cars passing, annoyed at the stupid tourists holding up traffic…something like that.  The last steep push to the temple was a hair raiser, but soon we were parked at the door, or rather the bottom of a staircase with at least a thousand more steps to go before the top.

This temple was built with an interesting story:  In the late 14’th century, a holy Buddhist relic that was to be enshrined in a temple being built in the area mysteriously duplicated itself.  After seeing this, the monks decided they must find a place for this new relic and build a temple to enshrine it.  They built a portable shrine on the back of an elephant to put the relic, and let the elephant decide.  The elephant wandered around for a long time and eventually climbed to the top of the mountain, circled 3 times, trumpeted 3 times, and died.  This was interpreted as an auspicious sign to build the temple, 3 being a holy Buddhist number.  The view from the top was spectacular, a bird’s-eye perspective of the city and the rivers snaking through the countryside.  Ornate golden statues and a large golden chedi in the middle decorated the temple grounds, fruit trees casting their shade on the tiles and orchids adding even more color to the scene.  We stayed here a while soaking up the view and atmosphere, but the hordes of tourists eventually chased us back down the mountain.

My Wheels in Chiang Mai

The next day we took our motorbike further out into the countryside to the Mae Rim valley, a beautifully lush area with national parks, gardens, elephant camps, coffee plantations and farms.  It took us a satisfyingly long time to get there, where we spent the entire day exploring Queen Sirikit botanical gardens.  Set on and amongst the hills surrounding the valley, the gardens are a combination of meticulously manicured landscapes and wild, untamed jungle.  It feels like a garden and a national park mixed into one.  Here we wandered aimlessly along trails, through waterfalls, into deep dark forest and bright, open flower beds.  I stopped and took far too many photos of interesting flowers and plants, exotic orchids and climbing vines, water lilies and lotus.  Towards the top of the hillside the park operates a compound of glass-houses, each specializing in a particular ecosystem or variety of plant:  Glass-houses for orchids, vines, cacti, carnivorous plants, and everything else under the sun.

Posing in one of the glass-houses

It was up here that I met the two cutest dogs in the world (besides Lain), we (Jennifer) named them Denali and Delilah.  Fuzzy and stubby like a corgi, and scrappy like Benji, they tugged at my heart strings from the start.  Delilah was sniffing out a cat in one of the glass-houses when I snatched a few pets, and after that she was following us all over the gardens.  Her mate (I think) Denali, equally as scrappy/stubby, followed her obediently.  Eventually it was time for us to go and I started formulating a way to take the dogs with me.  Reason took hold and I decided against it, but still to this day I wonder about going back and smuggling them home with me.  The dogs did in fact follow us almost all the way back down to the parking lot, and imagining them chasing our motorbike down the road after us, we decided to ditch them.  They eluded our attempts several times until they caught the scent of a squirrel or some other rodent, at which point we sprinted down the hill before they lost interest.  I still feel like a left a little piece of my heart back there on that hill with them.  Nevertheless, they have a paradise they call home in that garden, and they seemed well fed and taken care of.

Denali & Delilah

The next few days were an unfortunate series food-poisoning related events leading up to our departure.  Jennifer was the first to succumb after eating at a surprisingly nice restaurant.  Whatever it was, it put her down for the next two days during which I was feeding her Thai Gatorade and plain food until she recovered.  After she improved, we hatched a plan to join a 3 day, 2 night trek into the jungle near the Burmese border that the guest house arranged.  Bamboo rafting, mountain biking, elephant riding, sleeping in hammocks, it sounded like a great adventure.  We put down a deposit, packed our bags, went to a logistics meeting for the trip, and were ready to walk out into the heart of darkness.  That night I was smacked down by an immensely unfortunate bout of food-poisoning.  Like Jennifer’s episode, I purged everything in my body and resorted to getting what I needed from Gatorade.  I tried to muster the strength to join the trip up until the last minute, then saw my situation for what it was: lucky to be sick in civilization.  A couple days of cramps, sleeping a lot, and drinking most of my meals, and slowly I recovered, however it took almost a week before I could eat any Thai food.

Corn Flakes & Gin Tonic: Comfort food for dysentery.

So ended our time in the north, defeated by bacteria or a parasite or a virus or whatever it was.  In total we spent 9 days in the North, and decided it was time to continue our explorations further south.  Next stop (and as it happens, last stop) Kanchanaburi, the small river valley city of WW2 infamy and supreme natural beauty.  A sleeper train whisked us away, departing only 6 hours late, back down to Bangkok.  A connecting commuter train clanked its way west of Bangkok towards Burma, into the countryside and a saner pace of life.