M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo


Parading around town
September 3, 2010, 5:48 am
Filed under: Teaching, Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Last week our school, for some inexplicable reason, decided to have a parade through town. It was sports day at our school, which meant a day full of games and fireworks, and apparently parading. More than likely the parade was a sort of PR/advertising campaign for the school, touting our first class educational credentials in front of the town of Kanchanaburi by twirling batons, wailing on xylophones, and dressing up our kindergartners like drag queens. It was incredibly fun in a bizarre sort of way, and of course I took as many photos as I could to capture the shenanigans. After the parade we converged back at our school and finished the day with T-Pop dance offs (That’s the local bastard variation of K-Pop, which the Thai’s are head-over-heals in love with).

Trust me, this parade would not have gone well anywhere else but Thailand, and in certain parts of the States I could imagine the Westboro Baptist Church picketing it. It’s odd seeing your students dressed like little over-sexed pop stars, let alone witnessing a male student following his lady-boy dreams by wearing stiletto heels and a miniskirt and bra made of newspaper…and nothing else. Enjoy the photos.

-Matt



I left my heart in the jungle

Jennifer and I have recently rediscovered our love of camping and hiking.

Our second camping trip this month took us to another national park in our province, one much closer to home.  The last camping adventure was numbing affair for my saddle (4 hours by motorbike), however this most recent trip was only an hour and a half.  A few small highways due north of town took us to Chaolaem Rattanakasin National Park.  On the way, only 10km out of town, we (I) hit a massive rock with the motorbike and promptly flattened the back tire.  Amazingly only 2 minutes passed before 3 cars in a row stopped to help us, a true testament to the kindness and generosity of Thai people.  We loaded the crippled bike and cargo onto the back of a pick-up, Jennifer climbed into the front and I, brave soul that I am, saddled the bike to hold it steady as we drove to the nearest mechanic.  The total time lost from our trip was only 30 minutes, from flat to fixed.

The highways wound through open plains and flat bottomed valleys, papaya plantations and rows of sugar cane and baby corn.  The last stretch of road took a sharp turn west into the now looming hills and rounded mountains of the park.  The climate changed immediately as we entered the claustrophobic spaces of tropical jungle.  Clouds rolled over our little highway and a misting rain announced our arrival.  We rolled into the park in the afternoon and found a large grove of banyan trees, under which we pitched our tent.  The humidity was maxed out under the lush canopy of the park and mosquitos the size of small birds were hovering menacingly as we raced to set up camp.  After a while we found that a healthy combination of citronella, Deet, and burning incense seemed to keep them quiet.  The humidity, however, was not as easy to get used to.

Our tent is that tiny little blue speck in the bottom left corner.

In total we spent 3 days and 2 nights in the park.  We had planned for another night; however the torrential downpours from the monsoon that occurred twice a day and twice a night soaked most of our clothes by the third day.  In addition, one of the aluminum tent poles broke and the splint I put on it failed after only a day.  Unlike the previous national park we visited, this one had decent trail access to the plethora of waterfalls and caves within its boundaries.  My favorite hike was on a trail that led for nearly 2 kilometers along a stream within a huge cave.  The trail emerged from the other end of the cave into a completely different world.  Enormous prehistoric palms with serrated edges and jagged thorns; vast canopy trees with buttresses splaying grandly across the forest floor; all of them towering over us and instilling a distinct awareness of our feeble stature.   Even the insects seemed to taunt our preconceptions of appropriate size.

The trail continued along the stream and quickly began to climb the valley, passing gushing cascades, waterfalls, and pools in which we bathed.  A wooden staircase formed the trail here, decrepit, slimy, and treacherous in places.  As my legs started to pump battery acid from the ascent, the trail entered a landscape too complex and erratic to describe properly in words.  At first we were squeezed tightly between massive boulders draped in a complicated latticework of roots, after which we emerged underneath a great waterfall, and then followed the trail up and along the back of it before opening the world into some kind of fantastical scene dreamed by Tolkien.  Here at the top of the stream, our dark little canyon continued forward yet the sheer cliffs and crags of the mountain still towered over us.  Then I could see…that the trail and stream actually go right through the mountain under a colossal arch a hundred meters above us.  Bats swooped around in their restless dance below the dripping stalactites and limestone ripples of the impossible architecture.  A small shrine had been erected under the arch next to a small strip of dirt for walking meditation.  Strangely, one of the statues on the shrine was of the Hindu god Ganesh.  On the far side of the arch, through another winding trail of jungle and stream, was a small temple where we stopped and had lunch.

That night, with sore muscles and a thirst unquenchable, we found a small shelter near our campsite with a bamboo platform.  Here we took shelter as another monsoon downpour soaked our peaceful glade.  Fortunately we planned ahead and carried with us a bag of freshly purchased beer and our travel game of Yahtzee.  A group of Thai travelers with a similar idea for shelter and fun joined us and the night transformed into a loud and hysterical session of Thai/English butchery and drinking games.  They drank us under the table with modesty.  When we were forced to drink by some roll of the dice, we’d take a swig; however, when it was their turn, down went cups of whiskey soda and whole liters of cheap beer.  A few of them succumbed to a kind of liquid self-destruction, and then the night was over.

Our last day was spent hiking trails in search of waterfalls and a fabled 20 meter waterslide called the Slider Waterfall.  We followed a few trails and blundered through signs written in Thai script, crossing our fingers that we took the right turn in the fork.  After 3 or 4 kilometers and peaking anxieties, the falls were before us.   A series of cascades tumbled down into pools at various levels of smoothly rolling granite, forming a continuous slide to a final drop and plunge at the bottom.  I could hardly contain the childlike giddiness that bubbled over as I stared out at the waterslide.  After scouting the route from top to bottom, then methodically testing each section like the adept scientist that I am, I calculated the risk of fatal concussion or mangled body to be slightly less than the perceived reward.  For some reason Jennifer refused to act as guinea pig for the full test run, so I volunteered.  Doing as I heard the locals do, I wedged myself into the slide at the top, damming the water and filling the pool behind me.  Then, just as the water was about to top over my body, I sat up and let the pool drain in a big rush.  I pushed off and rode the great flood, careening down the slick granite and through the turns.  I flew through the air off a lip in the rock, landing on my back with legs splayed in all directions like some kind of apprehensive break-dancer.  No time for dancing though, as my body was hurled again off the last ledge and into the deep pool below.  The process was repeated a dozen times with subtle variations, some of the more daring ones leading to painful scrapes and bruises.  Mostly though, the water and rock took us where it wanted and laughed at our petty attempts at acrobatics.

As the sky darkened and threatened more storms, we put our clothes on and turned back the way we came.  Our time was up:  the tent was in a sad shape, our clothes stinky and molding, and we were tired.  Completely satiated with our long weekend, we packed and left.  The winds whipped up as we broke camp and agreed with us that it was time to go.

***Reminder: Click on any of the images in these blog posts to view a larger and higher resolution version.  Highly recommended 😉



Camping near Burma

This is the time of year where the normal plethora of Thai holidays seems to thin out and the weeks seem to drag on.  You can feel it at school, the tension between admin and teachers building with little annoyances like when to turn on the AC in the teacher’s lounge.  Everyone seems noticeably more tired and irritable.  I guess you get used to a holiday every week in Thailand, but unfortunately most of the first academic semester is void of them.  So thank Buddha for this past long weekend, Asalha Bucha day, which marks Buddha’s first sermon in Deer Park and the beginning of Buddhist “lent”.

Jennifer and I have been antsy to do some camping in Thailand, and after doing some research on nearby National Parks in our province, we picked one and committed.  The only caveat: it’s 200km away, we don’t have a car, and it’s the monsoon season.  I’m not one to worry over petty minutiae, the solution was simple: Strap as much gear as possible to Jennifer’s back and call it a motorbike road trip!  The destination: Thom Pha Phum National park, in the misty and mountainous rainforest along the Burmese border.

We started a day later than we had hoped due to a birthday party and a long night of drinking and dancing, so on Sunday we made our getaway.  The ride was long, at least 4 hours on a little 125cc motorbike/scooter with far too much gear hanging off it.  The last 50km were stunningly beautiful; a slow, steep, and winding paved road that delved deep into the thick of it, sporadically gaining a vantage of the dark green expanses.  The weather changed dramatically as we climbed the foothills, the temperature dropping from 35C to 20C and the weather from partly cloudy to misting rain as we entered the clouds.  At least a couple times the rain came down too hard to ride and we pulled into coffee houses or shelters along the way.  We were prepared for the rain, but not for the cold.  One measly little blanket and a sarong was our bedding for the duration.

Leaving the park fully loaded

The National Park is huge but access is very limited due to the rugged nature of the terrain and flora.  There is the one paved road that runs through only a small part of it, and many more miles of 4×4 and high clearance roads, but even those are nearly inaccessible due to the rain and mud of the season.  We camped in a small wooded area on a ridge that had been cleared and some areas leveled for tents.  The view on this knoll was spectacular, sweeping north into the lush mountains of Burma and East to the massive Khao Lem reservoir.  After we arrived, I explored the campground the get the lay of the land…this is my camping tradition.  1) Do a preliminary scan and select the best spot for the tent taking into consideration view, shelter from weather, and access to water or wood, in that order.  2) Set up the tent but hold off unpacking  the rest of my stuff until I 3) Do a thorough survey of the entire campground and surrounding area.  During step 3 of my OCD camping routine, I was dive-bombed by a huge bird, the Thai name sounding something like “nooh nguuak”, or a Giant Hornbill.  This bird was in fact very large, and the sound of the wind rushing through its feathers as it dives inches above your head resembles jet fighter.  I wasn’t expecting it, so yes I screamed like a girl and jumped.

The massive Hornbill that haunted our campsite

The next few days we explored by motorbike as much as we could of the surrounding area, and when we found roads impassable by mud or rocks we just got off and hiked.  One highlight was a beautiful waterfall at the end of a long and windy dirt road turned mud luge.  We had to walk this.  By the end our boots were soiled and our legs were sore, but the waterfall was stunning and worth it, even for the leeches.  After a short swim and photo shoot in front of the falls, the ensuing foul weather chased us back up the ridge to our motorbike.  Later we ventured into the tiny village of Pilok, basically the end of the road.  On the other side of Pilok and a mountain ridge was Burma.  After exploring the sleepy little village and having a hot meal at a streetside restaurant, we scooted closer to the border.  Our curiosity was piqued about where exactly Burma was, if there was a fence or wall or whatever, and how difficult would it be to cross the border.  After getting lost on some tiny winding roads, we eventually steered our motorbike to an overlook where two flags, Thai and Burmese, stood side by side.  The clouds had closed in at this point, and the view from the overlook was into a wall of mist.  The clouds parted for only quick a moment, revealing an immense expanse of mountainous rainforest and nothing else.  Just visible below the overlook was a large natural gas pipeline from Burma going right through the mountains into Thailand.  We walked a little further and found the border gate into Burma, a crappy gravel road in Thailand fading to a worn dirt footpath in Burma.  A Thai border guard gestured us to follow him across the border, and dammit I couldn’t say no!  So we ducked under a fence and around some razor wire into Burma, legality unknown, and walked down a path to another vantage point.  A hundred meters was enough for me without a Visa, so after a few photos the guard escorted us back to Thailand.

But a glimpse of Burma and the gas pipelines.

The nights were all very rainy, as were parts of the day, but we didn’t let it rain on our parade.  The tent and rainfly did their job, as did our ponchos and boots, so we stayed dry.  It was a beautiful few days camping in the cool misty jungle near Burma, and as we returned to lower elevations the weather dried off and warmed up.  I’ll never forget the sounds at night as we were camping.  You could stand out on an observation platform near our tent at night and look out over the jungle and mountains and valleys, and just listen to the wild and bizarre symphony of sounds echoing forth.  I could only imagine the sources of the noises, the myriad of creatures playing, hunting, and communicating in their way.  If you looked long enough and adjusted your eyes, sometimes you could see short pulses of blue-green light as bioluminescent insects danced in the night sky.



Home in Thailand
July 19, 2010, 1:49 pm
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , ,

Bungalow and our modest little yard

My bungalow in Thailand.  Located on the outskirts of the (small) city of Kanchanaburi, our property is about 5 acres with some random houses and structures scattered throughout.  There are three bungalows in total, all built in the same concrete style and painted different Easter egg colors.  The other two are occupied by fellow teachers Robin, Kevin and his girlfriend Bo.  We have somewhere between 3 and 6 dogs that call the property home, several of which I documented earlier in my blog post about puppies.  The mother and the two remaining puppies that didn’t find homes elsewhere are adorable, constantly playing in the tall grass and rolling around carelessly.  We feed them scraps occasionally, although they seem to have the whole neighborhood figured out and are keen to do their errands every morning and evening.

Jennifer and I put a fair amount of elbow grease into our little yard.  Before me moved in it was a fair sized sand pit, yet now we have grass, beauganvillas, a couple palms, flowers,  banana trees, papaya trees, orchids, and a giant leafy rain forest plant of some sort.  Inside our bungalow is very basic,  a large studio room and a big bathroom.  The warm weather makes living inside pretty much unnecessary, except as an escape from the bugs when they come at certain hours of the night.  Our living room is our patio, which is probably 75% of the total square footage of the bungalow.  We have couches, hammocks, a pot full of fish, and an outdoor kitchen and dining room all  in the fresh air.  The only annoyance might be the recent onslaught of creepy crawlies due to the start of the monsoon season, or perhaps the hordes of mosquitos that descend on us at dusk.  We burn incense and spray a bit of citronella to keep the skeeters at bay, but when the big spiders and scorpions come out I just grab my camera and take photos.

The hammocks. Our bedroom on the hottest nights.

Life is good.  We’re happy to have this lifestyle with the open space and quiet.  We don’t have to take the motorbike far to find our amenities, a 7-11 is only 3 blocks away.  At night all you can hear is frogs, crickets, and other animal sounds of origins unknown.  There is the occasional party or festival, in fact Thais will find nearly any occasion to rent out enormous sound systems and multicolored florescent lighting to line the street with…and these parties go well into the night.  We tend to drink ourselves to sleep these nights.

Swirling clouds above our bungalow...the monsoon season has begun.



Another adventure to the South
July 2, 2010, 3:44 am
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , , ,

Updates have been sparse recently, and I think this is largely due to my reluctance to write long travel accounts.  I enjoy writing but perhaps I get more pleasure from taking and sharing my photos.  The prospect of trying to write a concise and complete account of my trips as a sort of online journal is daunting for me.  I guess this is why I don’t keep a real journal of anything in my life.  So from now on I think I’ll try a slightly different approach to this blog.  I’ll be more vague and try to let the pictures do most of the talking.  Inevitably I’ll leave something out, some amazing moment that my photos didn’t capture.  I’ll try to give some context and miscellaneous detail, but not a thorough account.  Hopefully the combination of writing and photos will give you a sense of being there, or at least a sense of something.

-Matt

Over the 2 week break between summer school and the next school year, Jennifer and I went back down south to the Andaman sea for some beach time.  This time we ventured to Ranong Province, one of my favorite provinces in Thailand.   I’ll leave out specific names of places to avoid the extra attention, but of course if I know you personally and you ask, I’ll tell.  We visited several small and relatively unpopulated islands along the coast, either camping or staying in bungalows that didn’t cost more than $6 a night.

One island we stayed on was covered in cashew trees.  The stinky fruit and nuts were everywhere, you could smell the fermenting fruit every time you walked through the forests.  A network of trails crisscrossed the island (no cars!), so to get between bungalows, campsites, and the “town”, you got to walk through beautiful jungle, cashew and rubber plantations.  There was even a German/Thai bakery tucked away in the jungle about 3o minutes walk from our bungalow.  We made a point to go every morning.  The island was home to all sorts of wildlife, including families of monkeys and a large population of hornbills, a bizarre looking bird with a gigantic beak.  We had many of these hornbills living in the jungle next to our bungalow.  Supplies are brought onto the island by small ferry boat, basically just a large long-tail boat.  Ice, beer, fresh produce, meat, etc.  Most bungalows cooked food as well, incredibly delicious and fresh food, and baked their own bread.  Fish came from the beaches and bays around the island; one night we had barracuda, it’s flesh half-way between chicken and tuna (firm yet moist and crumbly).

The hornbill in all its majesty

On another chain of islands, part of a national park, we camped for a while.  We would wake up, snorkel, cook a lunch of ramen noodles on my diesel stove, snorkel some more, read, sleep in the hammock, and perhaps drink warm beer.  A park-run restaurant was a last-resort when we ran out of food, it was overpriced and just plain nasty.  Here we saw large packs of native red-faced macaques swinging through the canopy over our head, and much more wildlife.  I narrowly avoided a moray eel while snorkeling in some shallow sandy water, the same bit of water where we saw at least a dozen baby leopard sharks.  Here we crossed paths with a tour guide who, although we weren’t one of his clients, took us out on his boat for snorkel trips and stayed up late with us drinking cheap beer.  He had connections with the kitchen staff at the restaurant, hauling out cases of beer and huge blocks of ice (worth their weight in gold on the island) after the restaurant shut.  Inevitably he would also bring these pitchers and icebergs with him on the daytime snorkeling trips, passing around the cold and flat beer until we all had our fill.

One moment that I’ll never forget this trip was our discovery of the glowing phosphorescence in the bay around us.  Nobody told us about this.  Jennifer and I were sitting out on the pier looking at the stars on a moonless night after dinner.  Soon the generators from our bungalow turned off (there is no power on the island, only a few generators that run for about 2 hours each night). As it got darker my eyes adjusted, and like a desert sky the stars exploded into our view.  I chucked a small rock into the water and suddenly I’m looking at another field of stars dancing below me.  I walked down the steps and put my hands in the water, startled by the swirling galaxy I created.  I’ve seen phosphorescence only once before in the Puget Sound on a camping trip, however it was faint and nothing like this.  Quickly I ran up the cliffs to our bungalow and grabbed my snorkel and mask.  After a little hesitation imagining stinging jellyfish and sharks just under the black water, I jumped in.  My world exploded in dazzling blue-green light, and as I kicked and paddled the swirling galaxy enveloped me.  For at least an hour we played around like children in the midst of discovery.  Finally after my skin pruned up and sleepiness started overcoming me, I crawled out like a primordial beast, phosphorescence still clinging to my dripping skin like iridescent freckles.

It was hard to adjust back to the pace of our working life after this trip.  Thankfully our students keep us smiling and remind me again of a child’s wonder and excitement, just as we felt swimming in our swirling galaxy.



Too Hot to Think
March 8, 2010, 11:08 am
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , ,

Moving to a tropical climate is more difficult than I had imagined.  I’ve always liked to walk around in shorts and flip flops; while I was at boarding school in New England I had a hard time giving them up and would frequently don them despite the freezing temperatures and snow.  In Thailand, shorts and flip-flops are as ubiquitous as tight jeans and converse in Seattle, which makes me very happy.  Unfortunately though, even in shorts and flip-flops the heat is oppressive.

When I first arrived in Bangkok the heat was intense, but after a week or so I started getting used to it.  I thought I had the heat under control until about a month ago, when temperatures started averaging 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).  The problem with heat like this isn’t the sweating, I’ve gotten used that after only a few weeks in Thailand.  In fact I’ve come to expect that if I make any sort of athletic movement I’ll start sweating profusely.  I’m used to the permanently sweaty upper lip.  In a strange kind of way, I like the sweatiness of everything.  It makes me feel alive, active, like an animal (even if I’m just sweeping the porch).  No the problem is not sweat, but rather the cloud it casts over your mental clarity and calmness.  Perhaps this too is something that one can get used to, but I’ve been struggling with it these last few weeks.

When it’s 40 degrees out, it’s too hot to think.  My mind fails to make its usual neural connections, like the synapses have been filled with putty and nothing is getting through.  Motivation drops off precipitously, making it difficult to do the simplest things.  It’s difficult to feel calm when your mind and body are reeling from the heat.  Some things are numbed by the heat, others are aggravated.  Eventually the heat will taper off a bit when the monsoon’s start around May.  Hopefully then I’ll regain some of my lost sanity and creative drive.  In the meantime, I’m slowly baking my brain into useless custard under the Thai sun.  I hear in the coming months 45 degrees Celsius is not uncommon.



Down South to the Andaman Sea
February 7, 2010, 4:03 pm
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , ,

Toes in the breeze

One of the advantages of working for a Catholic school in Thailand is that you get both the Thai holidays and the Catholic ones: Christmas, various saint’s days, etc.  Thailand is already generous with its government holidays, so the combination is great.  Days off at Daruna number around 80, not including the three weeks of summer school which are optional for the foreign teachers that have been here for a year.   Christmas break was about 10 days, enough time for a decent trip.  We’ve both been itching to have a beach holiday, something that so many people come to Thailand for but after 3 months we still haven’t done.  Since Jennifer was offered the job before I was, our funds were limited to her first paycheck and some Christmas money from our thoughtful parents 😉 .  This didn’t stop us…we really wanted to go to the beach.  A 12 hour bus trip from Bangkok took us to the southern peninsula of Thailand along the Andaman Sea on the west coast.  Here in Krabi, a bustling little city on the coast, we caught a ferry to the nearby island of Koh Lanta.

Koh Lanta, with a few thousand residents, is a quieter island according to Thai standards.  Some islands here are absolutely crazy with bars, clubs, discos, and beach parties around every corner.  That didn’t really fit the profile for our lazy and relaxing vacation, which is why we picked this island.  The residual stress of work and travel followed us all the way from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok and all the way down to Krabi, but as soon as we stepped onto the little ferry boat we left our worries back on the dock.  The seas here are impossibly blue, as if they are illuminated from above and below.  We certainly weren’t the only tourists here, in fact we chose the busiest time of year to travel, but it never really felt too crowded.  Koh Lanta is fairly large; it would take a full day to explore its roads on a motorbike, with plenty of little backwaters and secluded coves you could never reach by motorbike.  We stayed 5 nights at a small beach resort in a little thatch bungalow with the simplest of amenities within.  A long strip of beach with about a dozen of these little resorts stretched out and served as little highway for foot traffic.  Each resort had its own unique style and restaurant, each as good as the next.

View from our bungalows on Koh Lanta

The next four days was a hazy blur of blissful laziness.  The water was warm and inviting for swimming, which we did several times every day.  The beaches were peppered with interesting and beautiful shells, which I spent countless hours collecting into a bag.  Sleeping in…every day.  Reading the books that we had been too busy to read back home.  Swinging in the hammock, watching the waves roll gently onto the shore.  Drinking buckets…a Thai creation that involves a small plastic pale, a flask of rum, a bottle of Redbull and a bottle of coke: mixed together it becomes a delicious and deadly beverage.

Occasionally we did actually get out of the resort, and one such day trip was to some caves in the interior of the island.  The caves are protected by caretakers and to see them you’re required to go with a guide, and a good idea too because the network of caves is massive and confusing.  A small group of us climbed up a steep trail for about 30 minutes, entering thick rainforest and encountering a giant flying fox and some monkeys

One of the many cave spiders

high up in the trees.  The entrance to the cave was inconspicuous, but after climbing through the small opening the caverns opened up into huge diagonal rooms and slanted hallways.  Flashlights were our only source of light and mine turned out to be nearly out of batteries, so I found myself nearly falling into deep pits and bumping into walls frequently.  Incredibly hot and humid, the caves also offered some other uncomfortable surprises: huge black spiders with legspans of about 10 inches, disconcertingly large bats hanging and screeching from the ceiling, and some kind of cave reptile that I snapped a close-up picture of.  At one point we all had to crawl on our bellies to squeeze through a narrow passage near the exit.  We all emerged from the other end of the cave’s exit completely covered in dirt and filth and sweat, but with huge grins on our faces.

Climbing into the caves on Koh Lanta

After 5 days we moved on to quieter neighboring island to the north called Koh Jum, although not without a little hitch.  We were told there were 2 ferries per day that left to this island, so we packed our bags, checked out, and took a taxi to the north ferry docks.  Upon arriving we’re informed that no, there’s just one ferry and it left this morning.  We ended up having to hire a long-tail boat to take us there, just the two of us, for 2,000 baht (about $60).  With our limited budget this came as an unfortunate surprise, but we took it in stride and ended up getting a lovely private boat trip.  On Koh Jum we stayed at the Golden Pearl bungalows on a quiet stretch of beach on the west coast.

The pace of life here was even slower than Koh Lanta.  The island, while quite large and close to the mainland, is not very developed save for a small village to the south and about a dozen little bungalow resorts.  A tiny dirt road circumnavigates most of the island, however much of the interior is too heavily forested to explore.  On Koh Jum our days consisted mostly of swimming the still blue waters on our doorstep and putzing aimlessly along the beach.  I found a pink Frisbee on the beach and thus added an athletic component to our lazy days.  Each night the bar down the beach hosted a fire show, where we spent most of our nights drinking and staring in awe at the twirling ropes of flames.

On our last day we hired a long-tail boat with a bunch of Thai tourists and spent the entire morning and afternoon motoring around the various islands of the Andaman Sea.  Koh Phi Phi, a cluster of impossibly vertical islands with the bluest water I’ve ever seen, was about an hour’s ride from Koh Jum.  Here we stopped for some absolutely incredible snorkeling, then moved on to another island for more snorkeling, and then another.  Our last stop was Bamboo Island, a tiny little island park with white sand beaches and still more snorkeling.  Our fellow Thai passengers were a group of co-workers from a city not so far from Kanchanaburi; we never found out what they did exactly, but they were certainly the gayest group of Thai men I’ve encountered yet.  Perhaps the staff of a fashion magazine or interior decorators?  Barely able to speak a word to each other in a common language, we still managed to gesture and smile and had a great time.  They shared all their food with us, the only two farang on the boat, and kept filling our plates with fruit and the best seafood fried rice I’ve ever had.

Panorama of Koh Jam, Golden Pearl Beach

These encounters with genuine Thai people, not after our custom or money, are always so friendly and jovial.  This country’s largest industry is tourism and so much of its economy revolves around taking money from tourists.  Because of this, many people leave feeling a little betrayed by the locals, like the smiles they saw weren’t genuine because the motive was always money.  If you never leave the beaten path, if you don’t try to mix with the locals and never explore beyond the tourist centers, than you haven’t seen Thailand.  Imagine if all you knew of your own country was from the tourist traps that cater to bus after bus of paying sightseers, such as Times Square, Alcatraz, the strip in Las Vegas, or Disney Land.  Thai’s genuinely do like to smile, and the description of Thailand as the “Land of Smiles” is as accurate now as it ever was.  Walking down the street in my hometown here in Thailand, when I take my eyes off my feet and look up I see an ocean of smiling faces and smiling eyes.  Thai people like to have fun, “sanuk”, and you can see it in their twinkling eyes when you look into them.

Eventually our money ran out and work called.  A ferry ride back to Krabi, another 12 hour bus ride north to Bangkok, and then government bus to Kanchanaburi put us in town Sunday afternoon.  Jennifer’s work week started back up on Monday and of course it was harder than ever to transition into work mode after all the beach bumming.  Over the holiday’s one of the teachers, an American named Raymond, pulled a runner and took everything and left, even the TV in his apartment which wasn’t his.  By Friday I had a job, his job, teaching science and social studies to 1’st, 2’nd, and 3’rd graders…in English of course.  Now both Jennifer and I are happily employed teaching elementary school kids and slowly gaining a semblance of financial security (in Thailand).