A Christmas Story (and New Years too)

Christmas Day

Not sure how Christmas was already a month ago, but here I am! Somewhat early on in teaching we found out we had to work on Christmas Day. This was a pretty big bummer to me as I had heard from other teachers on our program that they had the day or even the whole week off from work. I guess this is one of things that comes with being pretty far North away from any major city. A few weeks before Christmas our principal asked me and the two other foreign teachers at my school (they’re from the Philippines) if we could plan Christmas games, dances and activities for Christmas afternoon. When she first asked this I was kind of confused, what does that even mean? That isn’t how we celebrate Christmas at home! Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I already knew I would be pretty homesick, so to be honest I was not really into the idea of playing “Christmas games” all afternoon. While there can be a disconnect at home between the religious holiday of Christmas and the traditions we use to celebrate it, the disconnect is about ten-fold here. We’re in a largely Buddhist country, yet they want to celebrate this Christian holiday?? While it is weird and definitely confused me, I just decided to embrace it and roll along with it. The week before Christmas, Teacher Sweet, Teacher Jo and I sat down to try to plan out the afternoon. We decided we would do caroling of some sort, play freeze dance with Christmas songs, and play a “banana eating game” (run by Teacher Jo) that they play in the Philippines. We also had to choreograph a dance, so we chose to do it to Feliz Navidad. Easy, fun, upbeat.

Fast forward to Christmas Day…Teacher Jo could not make it to school because of visa issues in Chiang Mai, and half of our 6 dancers were home sick. No more banana game. Also, Teacher Jo was also meant to M.C the whole afternoon with one of the Thai teachers (Teacher Wi) translating for her. So naturally, that morning they told me I would be MCing the whole shindig, complete with a Christmas “blessing/story” and all. Feeling a tad overwhelmed, I just took a deep breath and tried to laugh it off knowing that it would be a huge relief once it was all over. Since our dancers were absent, Sweet and I also decided we would have to substitute in the dance for them. While I do love to get down on a dance floor, dancing in front of my 300+ students and all of the teachers in school is absolutely not my idea of fun. But for your viewing pleasure, here’s a quick clip…

After the dance, I finished up MCing, and to my surprise I had a bit more fun than I expected. It was still completely ridiculous but I did enjoy myself a bit. They also had one of the teachers dress up like Santa Claus and throw little toys and trinkets to the kids and they went absolutely bonkers. All in all, it was okay.

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Me and my homeroom cuties

Emma and I decided that in an effort to have a little bit more of a special dinner, after the gym (never thought I’d be working out on Christmas), we would get dinner at this restaurant/club-like place in our town called December 17. I would say this experience was akin to that of the family in A Christmas Story when they go to the Chinese restaurant for Christmas Dinner. When we walked in, the waitresses were all dressed in short, scandalous Santa costumes and we quickly learned that almost no one spoke English. In the beginning they were playing some slow Christmas music over the stereo but it quickly changed to straight up sad music which was killing me on the inside. They ended up forgetting my meal, and then when it finally came they forgot to bring rice with the curry. Oyyyyyy. When we finally went to pay, they had charged us for peanuts, ice for the beer, our meals, extra for the rice and some random other charges. I tried explaining that they had forgotten my meal but it was pretty pointless and then they just kept apologizing for the peanuts which was really the least of our problems. Looking back on it, it was pretty comical but at the time I was definitely just wanting to be home eating Grandma’s Christmas shrimp, yummy vegetables and baked brie. The blaring stereos, Christmas costumes and strobe lights were a little much for me.

The rest of the week went by pretty quickly, and on Friday we had a New Years celebration at school. Everyone in the school brought in a small gift that cost around 50 baht, and each gift got numbered and put into the auditorium. At the end of the day, each class went up and one by one picked a number. The oldest students would then retrieve the gifts and everyone would have a fun surprise to open up! I bought a small box of chocolate and some Pocky and my gift was a box of chocolate covered wafers (which I’m keeping in my desk for when my students are extra good). After school was over, we did the same with all of the teachers, but the budget was 250 Baht each. We did the same thing where we numbered the gifts and then picked a number. I was hoping to get one of these giant pillows since my bed is huge and pretty boring, and luckily I got a huge spiderman pillow!! It’s pretty intense but has been really sweet to have. I’ll be sad to part ways with it when I move out of my apartment. Also, just picture me riding home on my small bike with this huge pillow stuffed half in my basket and half falling out (lol).

On Saturday afternoon, we got the direct bus from our town to Chiang Mai to celebrate New Years!! Our bus ride was a little longer than usual due to lots of traffic in Chiang Mai but nevertheless we got there safe and sound. On the bus, I watched Everest and I rate it 10/10. Might’ve shed a few tears but a great story and beautiful film. Once we got there, we had the rest of the day to chill so we walked around and explored some temples that we hadn’t seen yet. One of the coolest parts about Chiang Mai is that within the old city, there are beautiful, old temples everywhere. Any direction you walk, you’ll come across a different temple. The old city is also totally walkable, which is super nice after a long bus ride. That night for dinner, we met up with Garrett and Katrina, a couple from our town, for dinner at “Miguels”. A restaurant recommended to us by some friends and from our  trusty pal, Trip Advisor. It was soooooo yummy. I honestly miss Mexican food more than any other food (I think). Will definitely be making the trip to Burlington for El Gato and seeking out some new Mexican spots in New York if anyone wants to join!

New Years Eve

The next day we wanted to do something outdoors and fun so we decided to try to head to Doi Inthanon, one of the national parks in Chiang Mai, and also the tallest spot in Thailand. We had to ask around a fair amount, and ended up paying a little bit of a steep price, but were able to get a songthaew to take us there and back for the day. It was pretty far outside the city, but worth it to get some fresh air and be able to hike something! When we got there, we had to hire a local guide to take us through the trail for 200 baht. Paying these guides helps them to support their families, local business and to protect the nature in the park. Our guides name was Yong Yeung and although he spoke no English, we exchanged smiles and I was able to ask him his name and tell him how beautiful the park was.

Quick lesson:

Khun chu arai kha? – What is your name?

Suay- Beautiful

The “hike” was pretty short but it was lovely to get outside and be able to feel away from a city and in nature for once. The trail we hiked was called the Mae Pan trail. It was super super foggy, but I found the fog to be amazing anyways. From the top, we could see the two temples at the top of the mountain, and afterwards we were able to grab a shuttle to see the temples themselves. The two chedis are on the main road to the summit of Doi Inthanon. One is called Naphamethinidon, meaning ‘by the strength of the land and air’, and the other is called Naphaphonphumisiri, meaning ‘being the strength of the air and the grace of the land’. These temples were built to honour the 60th birthday anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1987, and the 60th birthday anniversary of Queen Sirikit in 1992. They were really beautiful and it felt pretty special to be able to go here.

After we saw the chedis, we headed up to the tippy top to the famous sign that designates the highest point in Thailand. After a quick snapshot, we headed back to our songthaew to start the trip back to Chiang Mai. It’s always a treat getting to catch the sunset in a songthaew, and this was our last sunset of 2017.

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After we got back, we got ready to meet up with our friend Kirsten who was visiting for New Years and a few of her friends in her hostel. First we headed to our favorite restaurant in Chiang Mai, “The Cat House” (has absolutely nothing to do with cats thank goodness, sorry cat lovers). I had a delicious falafel plate and the best cocktails I’ve had in Thailand so far. Will definitely be going back here when I end in Chiang Mai. After, we met up with friends and had a few drinks and got ready to head out to see the lanterns close to midnight. Seeing the lanterns in Chiang Mai was probably one of the most magical things I have ever seen. It is straight off the cover of a Lonely Planet guidebook. It was truly stunning. We bought our own lantern from a lady on the side of the street and headed towards Tha Pae Gate. As we were walking, you could just see hundreds and hundreds of lanterns floating up into the sky. There were also lots of people struggling to light them, and quite a few crashed into trees, powerlines and the river. We were DETERMINED to succeed in lighting our lantern, but as we started, it proved to be more difficult than in looked. Out of nowhere came this somewhat aggressive American woman, as Emma calls her ‘lantern goddess’ and she got us all set and helped us get our lanterns going. She had us get all the way on the ground to allow the hot air to fill up the lantern and then as it filled up we stood up until it felt like the lantern was pulling and then we let it go. It was stressful, but so exciting, and we watched as our little lantern floated up into the sky at midnight full of our wishes for the upcoming year and surrounded by the millions of other wishes being sent into the air that night. It was really amazing and definitely falls into the top 3 moments I have had here in Thailand so far. So happy.

January 1st, 2018

We started the new year off on a beautiful note, by heading to a yoga class. We went to Freedom Yoga, a cute quiet yoga studio right outside the city but still walking distance from our guesthouse. Our class was filled with a lot of other foreigners, but our teacher was this amazing flexible and encouraging Thai woman. She was a beast!! Her body was bending in ways I did not know was possible, but most of our class seemed to be on the same page and giggled as she had us try some crazy poses. Her assists were amazing too. It was so nice to go to a real yoga class, another thing I am definitely missing here in Thailand. I left the studio feeling very content and happy with myself. One of my new year’s resolutions is to be more self-aware and to be happy with myself and not let my brain wander a million different ways. I find myself worrying a lot and yoga really helps me to calm down and recenter myself (as well as do amazing things for my body). After yoga, we walked around a bit more, came across a few more temples, and found ourselves at “A Taste of Heaven”, a popular vegetarian spot. I had Khao Sow, a traditional northern Thai noodle dish that was delicious. We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool, getting pedicures and having yummy fruit smoothies from Khun Kae’s juice bar, a must-go in Chiang Mai. My new year started on a healthy, happy, relaxing note, and I can only hope that my beautiful New Years Eve/ first day of 2018 is a glimpse of what the upcoming year will hold for me.

 

 

Make a plan and hold it lightly

Throughout my time studying social work at UVM, one of my professors always emphasized this idea of making a plan, but holding it lightly. When we were getting ready to head into our internships and meet with clients one on one, she would say “Make a plan but hold it lightly”. If we were preparing for a big assessment or assignment, she would tell us “Make a plan but hold it lightly”.  Since coming to Thailand I’ve been thinking more and more about this little phrase. Do I have a plan in my head of what I would like to accomplish in the next year, and the next 5 years? Yes. But that doesn’t mean I am going to strictly adhere to every single step to reach these goals and deprive myself of spending time with friends, family, traveling and enjoying my life to reach these goals in a set amount of time, no!! I’ve been trying to apply this saying to more of my day to day life, and also in thinking about getting back home and what is to come. For me, it’s another good way of reminding myself to stay in the moment, go with the flow, but at the same time to make goals and motivate myself.

The weekend of Christmas Eve, we had a very exciting plan. We knew Christmas would be a little tough here for us, so we planned on heading to Phu Chi Fah to do a beautiful sunrise hike. This was our second time trying to do Phu Chi Fah. The first time we asked the songthaew drivers in our town how much it would be and they told us an absurd price so we tabled it for another time. This time, we headed to Chiang Rai after school on Friday, 12/22, and planned on getting to the bus station early the next morning to get a ticket for the van ride to Phu Chi Fah. That night, we met up with Emma’s friend from Burlington and her boyfriend for dinner. We went to one of our favs, Chef Sasa, an Italian place in town and chatted about Thailand, the ups and downs of teaching, and new fun places to explore. They had done Phu Chi Fah a few days earlier and warned us that it was cold but beautiful and so worth it. We were so pumped, and that evening we even headed to the market to invest in some gloves to keep us warm on the hike up.

That night we stayed in this apartment/guest house which was super nice. Honestly, best bed/comforter I’ve slept on in 3 whole months. After a beautiful nights sleep, we woke up and headed to the bus station to buy tickets for our adventure. Sadly, they were sold out…already…at 10 AM!! We were super bummed and spent a significant amount of time going back and forth with the ticket man trying to figure out if there was some way we could come back if someone didn’t show but all he could say was that we could buy a ticket for the next morning (which we couldn’t do because of teaching). We sat for a while contemplating our next move and then headed back to our guest house to get our bags before we had to check out. We laid around for a while and I began searching some things on my phone trying to find us somewhere not too far that we could hike and stay overnight. Eventually I came across Mae Salong, a small mountaintop town in Chiang Rai province which promised beautiful views, some hiking and yummy food.

First we decided to get breakfast at Melt in Your Mouth, Chiang Rai and although my

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Weird saucey breakfast

breakfast looked pretty good, it had this weird mayonnaise-like sauce on it which kind of weirded me out. After, in classic Emma and Emily fashion, we decided the cheapest and easiest way to get to Mae Salong would be to get an über. We waited a little for the price to go down, and then plugged in the directions to get to there. We never really know if these drivers know what they are getting themselves into when we head on these long trips, but they pick us up anyway! After some serious twists and turns, and with the help of Dramamine we got there safe and sound. Upon arrival, we got the general direction of the guesthouse we booked earlier on booking.com (always) and headed into the hilly village to find this place. On the way, we passed a 7-11 (always a good sign), and a bunch of different tea shops, and tiny coffee shops too! We found the guesthouse and checked in, and to our surprise it was nice! We had a pretty room with a large balcony and nice view and it was more than enough for just a quick trip.

After being relatively stationary for the day, we wanted to get some fresh air and exercise so we asked the lady at check in how to get to the temple at the top of the mountain, Wat Santikhiri on Doi Mae Salong. She told us we could get a driver or that it would take us about 45 minutes to walk up the road to the temple, and hike up the 900+ steps to the top.

With just enough time to make it for sunset, we sent it up the road by foot and got to the steps. The steps were pretty rough on me, they were so little and I felt like it took a ton of

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Just in time for sunset!

energy, but we made it to the top just as the sun began to set over the beautiful mountains and tea plantations. It was such a treat to breathe some mountain air, hike (even if it was short) and see some of the best views we have seen so far in Thailand!

After dinner we went on a walk through the town again to head back to the restaurant we started off at. Mae Salong actually began as a Yunnanese town and you could definitely still feel the Chinese influence. I don’t know much about Chinese history, but from what I have read, remnants of the Kuomintang (KMT) fled Yunnan after defeat in the Chinese civil war and landed in parts of Northern Thailand, Taiwan, Burma and Laos. The Thai government presented a deal to the KMT that if they helped the Thai fight their own Communist insurgents, they could stay. Over the years, the relationship between the KMT and the Thai government deteriorated but the Chinese influence (food, oolong tea, and architecture) remained. That being said, we ate at the Mae Salong Villa Restaurant which felt like a huge Chinese restaurant we might see back at home.

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Breaking my veggie streak!

Despite almost never eating meat here, I had the Yunnanese braised pork and a steamed bun and it was delicious. Melt in your mouth good (unlike my mayo breakfast). Post dinner we headed back to our cute  hilltop hotel for a good night’s rest in this quiet little town.

 

We woke up the next morning and after asking around, figured out we could grab the local songthaew to a bus back to Chiang Rai for a cheap 100 baht and then got the bus back to our town from there. Although this wasn’t exactly how we had planned to spend our Christmas weekend, it was just what I needed, yummy food, beautiful views, mountains and a new adventure. So, make a plan and hold it lightly. You never know what gems you might come across with an open mind 🙂