Heather's Thairy

Heather's journey to Bangkok, Thailand: a year of adventure!

Monday, April 30, 2007

That's All She Wrote

Today was the last day of my year long contract at Lertlah. The very last day of employment here in Thailand...it's sort of weird, the end of an era, and I'm not sure that the situation has really impacted yet.
Tomorrow Andrea arrives and Wednesday we start our SE Asia tour: Cambodia, Vietnam, Krabi, Kanchanaburi and Chiang Mai. I will definitely post more about those places but it might not be for a very long time: we have a pretty tight schedule and I fly back to Canada on June 8th. I might not be able to put anything together until after then.
I suppose that after I get to Canada and I put up those last few posts about Andy and I traveling, that will be it for the epic journey that has been "Heather's Thairy". My Thailand time is finished: I am moving home, and starting new things.
It has been wonderful. I'm not sure how easily all this will be left behind.
I'll deal with that in a month and a half. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy some incredible times with a good friend in some great new places!!!

Until next time (and of those there are exceedingly few...),

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Bit Hard to Swallow

Our second field trip and the last day of camp was spent at Coke World, which is a lengthy drive (over an hour) from the school. We packed into vans and a bus and headed out pretty early...for some reason we idled in the parking lot for a good twenty minutes before leaving, and we ended up arriving at Coke World about an hour behind schedule. This turned out to not be a big deal, as the "educational" facilities there are not extensive and we managed to LEAVE over an hour early, as well.
When I found out that we would be visiting Coke World for our field trip, something that is intended to be educational and enriching for the students, I was fairly...apprehensive. I wasn't sure what the kids would get out of touring around a major corporate conglomerate; would they learn what it takes to monopolize a market? Would they learn about the "health benefits" of Coke products?

Afterwards, though, I was less disgusted than I thought I would be. Actually, I wasn't that offended by the place at all. Coke World is located at the region manufacturing plant, and is a small part of the complex. It features a sort of museum and an activity area. The information provided, though all in Thai so I'm not 100% sure I got an accurate picture, was matter-of-fact and not as promotional as I thought it would be. The kids enjoyed the activities, even though they were not really related to coke at all. They only drank one half-cup of soda, towards the end of the day, and they didn't all leave with caffeine hangovers or sugar shakes...or marching in unison chanting Coke slogans.

No, the worst part of it was the fountain pop being served in disposable plastic cups, which, for all I know, are all recycled after the fact. It was sort of interesting to see the machinery that is involved in creating and bottling soda products, and though the whole of Coke World was somewhat bizarre and contrived, it wasn't nearly as self-celebratory as I thought it would be.
I thought it was sort of funny, though predicatable, that there were no nutritional facts posted anywhere...but at least there weren't posters of Coke being a "good part of this balanced breakfast!" or anything like that.
It was a long way to go for something that I think was entirely forgettable, but we all made it and the kids were entertained.

Until next time,

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Koh Chang

We got a week off for the Songkran holiday, and Stephanie and I decided that it would be a good time to try and see some more of Thailand. Our initial plan had been to take a train or bus to Sukhothai, where there are extensive ruins, but when we got around to trying to book transportation we found that everything had filled up and we weren't able to make it out there. We spent that weekend in Bangkok and still managed to get to Koh Chang for six nights.
Koh Chang is Thailand's second largest island, located in the East. Despite its size it is not very populous and has not been overdeveloped. It is about a five and a half hour bus ride to Trat and then a half hour ferry to get to the island, and after a slight hiccup where I had to visit the hospital we found ourselves on Koh Chang, headed to White Sands beach.

White Sands is the most touristy beach on the island, and it is also the longest beach there. Our first night we stayed at a rather dingy place which we promptly left in the morning after discovering that the water ran brown. It was fine for one night but eventually we would need to shower, so we found another (much nicer) place up the road.

The beach, though sometimes crowded, was peaceful and clean and a great place to watch the sunset. I spent many hours lying on the beach reading...we also enjoyed some fantastic dinners there (superb barbecue!) and the water was nice and clear for swimming.
Stephanie signed up for the three-day PADI open water dive certification course, and I joined her on the second day for some snorkeling. We were told that it was underwater cleanup day, which we weren't really informed about until it actually occurred. Koh Chang organizes an underwater cleanup date periodically (this was the third such date) where dive centers from around the island get together and dive for garbage around the island and the national marine park. This sounds like a wonderful idea, and in theory, it is.

In practice, I was a little less enthusiastic about the whole procedure. First, we drove out on the boat for about three hours to get to our designated clean up site. Trying not to think about the gas usage, I stayed aboard the boat at first while most of the others got into their gear and dove down for trash. Soon people began surfacing with armloads of garbage, mostly abandoned or lost fishing equipment. There were about 8 other people on the boat with me, all wearing staff shirts, but none of them did anything at first so I went over and hauled the garbage onto the boat. I was looked at as if I was crazy when I asked what to do with the stuff; turns out that I was meant to simply throw it on the deck. I complied, and then noticed that much of what was being brought up was covered in sea creatures. I asked if we shouldn't perhaps be more careful about what we were pulling out of the ocean, and was again treated like a mental patient. I began to throw little animals back into the water, disgusted by this point...the final straw was when one "staff member" dangled a sea slug in my face and asked "Do you want to eat it?"
No, I do not want to eat the sea slug that has been unceremoniously uprooted from its underwater home by this haphazard "cleanup".
I donned my snorkel gear and left the boat with the intent of scouring the shore for uninhabited waste. The snorkeling was excellent; no garbage in sight. I returned to the boat about a half hour later with one piece of garbage (animal-free) to more stares and stunned silence.

Ignoring the people on deck, I went upstairs to change and discovered that three of the "staff" had collected large pieces of live coral as souvenirs.
Later, the entire crew of about 40 people enjoyed a lunch from styrofoam containers.
We then drove the three hours back, the divers toasting a victory of about a half deck-load of garbage collected.

Now, I hate to be so negative about the whole thing, but it seems to me that the whole thing was just ever so slightly hypocritical.
My time spent on White Sands, besides the clean-up fiasco, was quite relaxing and nice, though, and for our last night we decided to head to another of Koh Chang's many beaches. Our intent was to visit Lonely Beach, having heard many recommendations of its views and vibe. When we arrived, though, we decided that we weren't interested in staying in the party area and continued on to Bailan.
I'm really glad that we did: though Bailan is not a sandy beach (it was rocky and the tide goes very far out, exposing pointy plants and more rocks), the guesthouse we stayed at was brand new and gorgeous and had the most wonderful staff I've met to date. It was so isolated, peaceful and relaxing and was the perfect end to our trip.

Until next time,

Saturday, April 21, 2007


In April, Thailand celebrates Songkran. This is the Thai new year and water festival. It is a several-day event where the entire country participates in a mass water fight, dressed in colourful flowered shirts and having a great time.
We had a day of Songkran festivities at school last week on Thursday; it was a fun, busy day with traditional ceremonies and a big water fight at the end.

Here's me in my swell Songkran shirt (with Ryan being creepy in the background). Don't worry I didn't pay any money for that hideous thing, I salvaged it from the trash. Ha ha.

Ryan's shirt was equally...nice.

Offerings were given to monks and their apprentices (boys who are training to be monks) who came to visit the school. One of the monks was a former teacher at Lertlah, and several of the apprentices were students.

White powder is applied to the face, either haphazardly or in pretty designs. One of the Thai staff used a comb to make beautiful starburst patterns on people's faces.

There was a water-pouring ceremony where senior staff members had water poured over them by other staff members and by the students.

...and then there was the water fight!
On Friday, Alisa, Stephanie and I went down to Khao San Road to check out the Songkran action there...it was SO busy and I couldn't believe how many people were around, all joining in the water fight. No pictures from there- I didn't dare risk exposing my camera to the water and the powder!
Songkran is an incredible holiday. It's amazing to see so many people having a great time; it's like there are no strangers and everyone is having one big party. It's almost overwhelming though!
Until next time,

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sing a Song of Singapore

In our second week of camp we had a long weekend on what would be the Easter long weekend at home. We had Friday off so Catherine, Darcy and myself flew out to Singapore early in the morning to stay until Sunday.
Singapore is a very clean, very efficient city- I would have to say that it is without a doubt the most oragnized and tidy city I have ever been in. Singapore is a large city-state, independent but closely linked to neighbouring Malaysia. It has its own currency and government and way of life, and I would be hard pressed to identify the dominant or official language of Singapore- signage was primarily in English with up to five other languages as well.
One of the first places we visited was Chinatown, which is bustling and colourful. We also made it to Little India, which was smaller and had a less (for lack of a better descriptor) welcoming feel, though we had an absolutely fantastic meal there at a vegetarian restaurant.

Singapore is similar to Kuala Lumpur in the amount of extremely tall, extremely new office towers in the skyline. The river is bordered with beautiful, expensive looking buildings.

One of the more interesting buildings we saw during our escapades was the Concert Hall, which looks like a hedgehog, or a durian fruit...
One evening we went to the Singapore Asian History Museum, which is housed in a beautiful old (restored) building and is a very thorough collection on several floors. The special exhibition at the time was Mystery Men, a showcase of artifacts recovered in two digs in China that revealed evidence of a unique society. The exhibition was mostly bronze masks and figures, such as this one pictured on the left- we were allowed to take photos in the museum but not use the flash, so my pictures aren't great. This little guy was pretty cute though...

The symbol of Singapore is the Merlion (half lion, half fish). We found three statues of the merlion- two are on the harbourfront (one is very large and is shown above; the other is smaller and is, I think, intended to allow for people to pose beside it) and one, the largest we saw, is on Sentosa Island (below).

The flower of Singapore, I assume, is the Singapore plumeria. It grows on large, basic-looking trees and has an elegant simplicity that makes it very attractive.

The plumeria comes in several different colours, all of them very beautiful. I particularly like the pink ones with the yellow tinge. I'm not sure if they are like orchids in Thailand, where people have bred hybrids to create new colours, or if they occur in different colours naturally.

Something that I appreciated about Singapore that I had missed in Kuala Lumpur was the attention to keeping the area looking natural and fresh. There are a lot of gardens in and around Singapore and the city is lush and green. It is a nice balance between manmade structures and natural places.

We visited Sentosa Island, which is a developed island accessed via bridge or cable car from Singapore. It is sort of like Singapore's Disneyland- there are many attractions to visit on the island, including beaches, a luge, an observation tower, an aquarium and museums, to name a few. It is a friendly, pretty place that could get very expensive should one spend a lot of time there! Singapore on the whole is sort of like that- it can be quite expensive!

We also visited the Singapore Zoo, which is said to be one of the best in the world. It has an open concept where the animals are in large, natural-looking enclosures that make use of dams or trees to separate them rather than bars or cages. It is set in a very beautiful place and has some really unique animals, including the Proboscis Monkey. The Zoo has the largest collection of these monkeys in the world. The males have very large noses while the females are smaller, though still have protruding noses.

Singapore was a really interesting place- random trivia: you can't chew gum there!- and I had a great time. We did a LOT of stuff in the three days we were there!

Until next time,

Friday, April 13, 2007

Field Trippin'

Lertlah Camp runs for four weeks and during that time, we have two Fridays where we go on field trips. The first Friday of camp we went to Safari World here in Bangkok. I'd never been, and it was yet another unique experience. It is a well-kept, clean place with large animal enclosures and a lot of infrastructure. I was torn about the animal shows, though, especially the orangutan show. It seemed almost hypocritical of me to be watching several orangutans, dressed in ridiculous costumes, being made to perform ridiculous routines, after I had recently visited the rehabilitation center. I wonder about the appropriateness of exploiting one living thing to entertain another...
Anyway, the kids had a great time and it made for an interesting alternate to being in the school for another day of camp.

There is a drive-through Safari Zone where you take your vehicle and go through the animal habitat. There are a LOT of big, scary birds throughout the Safari Zone. I think this is reason enough NOT to exit the car.

The orangutan show is a spectacle that made me uncomfortable. Orangutans are SO close to being human...and really, is it okay to use ANY living thing, regardless of how human they are or aren't, for entertainment?
We also watched the dophin and beluga show and the sea lion show. I think that the animals are well-treated and loved by their handlers, and they seem happy, but again, I was torn. It's hard to judge the happiness of a creature in such a situation. Would they be "happier" being wild? Being left alone?

The animals in both shows did amazing things and I found myself enjoying it...I don't understand enough about the workings of zoos and animal shows to judge them, really, and perhaps the most important thing about the day was the kids had a great time.

Until next time,

Vacation Days 16-17: Kuala Lumpur

Whenever I hear the name "Kuala Lumpur" I always think about koala bears lounging around with umbrella drinks in their paws. Well, that's not exactly what Kuala Lumpur is like: there are no koalas and I didn't have a single umbrella drink. However, it is an interesting place with lots to see and do!
We stayed at a fairly awful hostel (four beds in a closet-sized room with no window, dirty front entry, weeeeeeird people hanging around and sleeping in chairs...) for 12 ringitt per night- can't complain about the price, that's only $4. It was also in a pretty convenient location for touring around the city; it was very close to an MRT station, a major bus stop and within walking distance of a lot of attractions.

Kuala Lumpur is clean and modern, to the point of feeling almost sterile. A lot of attention has been paid to making the city attractive and futuristic, including the building of the tallest twin towers in the world, the Petronas Towers.

We visited the towers, Chinatown, took a walking tour around our area to see some of the architecture of KL, wandered around one of the many very comprehensive malls, saw the National History Museum and traveled just outside the city to see Batu Caves.

The towers have a connecting bridge that can be visited during certain hours of the day; admission is free but a limited number of tickets are given out so you have to go, claim your spot and then return at your designated time. It's a unique experience: before going up the 42 floors in the incredibly rapid elevator, you watch a sort of propaganda video for Petronas, which tells all about how wonderful the company is as well as some information about the construction of the towers themselves. There is also a small museum to look through.

When you reach the bridge, you are supervised by a staff member for the ten minute allowance each group gets up there. The view is probably spectacular on a clear day, but it was hazy and rainy and less impressive than I think it might have been otherwise. It was still pretty neat, looking way down at the streets below, knowing that in a little while I would be standing down there looking up!

Inside the towers are mostly offices, as well as a theatre and concert hall and a HUGE, expensive mall. While in Thailand and Bali you might find "Loo-ee Vutton" or "Prayduh", in this mall you get the real deal. Kuala Lumpur was not so much the land of lounging koalas as it was the land of sprawling malls. It had a GREAT food court, though- huge portions of all different kinds of delicious looking food at really reasonable prices.

Chinatown is not that big; at night, there is a great market that opens up on the streets. We had a really good meal there one night and Alisa had her very first egg tart!

There are a lot of really impressive buildings around KL, most within walking distance of each other.

Also close to our place was the National History Museum, which was really comprehensive and well-organized. Malaysia has had an incredibly interesting history and I was surprised, first at how little I know about it, and also at how bloody it has been.
Batu Caves are about a half hour drive from the bus stations within KL- they are amazing, this sudden mountain of limestone that juts out of the landscape and houses some amazing caverns. They are a pilgrimage site for the Hindu people of Malaysia and are accessed up a large flight of stairs. I had been told that the stairs are pretty daunting but, after having summited Mt. Kinabalu, I laughed in the face of these mere 200-odd stairs!

At Batu we had one of the most amazing meals- we couldn't understand the menu so we randomly ordered a couple things and ended up paying less than a dollar each for four different kinds of toothsome, delicious sauces and flatbreads to eat them with. Later, back in KL, Alisa and I found another restaurant that served similar food at even better prices. I could get very used to paying thirty cents for a fantastic lunch!
We flew back to Bangkok, thoroughly satisfied with more than two weeks spent discovering new and amazing things!

Until next time,