Greetings once again! I apologize for the huge gap in my writings, but it wasn’t for lack of things to write about. I simply didn’t get enough time on a computer to write much of anything, and every time I did, there was no internet. But here I am writing to you from a new location. I was sad to leave my most gorgeous place in the village, my friend Sanit, and a place I felt was home, but it was definitely time to move on. Although my family says they’ll miss me, I will not miss their bathroom facilities. In my month plus in Thailand thus far, I have learned many things, and I’ve decided to compile everything and present it to you all. I hope you learn everything you might want to know if you were planning a visit, so let’s start.
Lessons I’ve Learned
1. Never Wear Your Dress Pants On A School Day.
Because there’s always a chance that after school, you might be brought to the aftermath of a wedding ceremony in a house laden with pig parts. Sanit, my friend the English teacher, wanted to bring me to a wedding. On a…Thursday? Ok, well of course I wanted to see it…but the ceremony had happened that morning since Hilltribe Bride Bi-Weeklyreported that Thursday morning weddings are the new fad, so we just went to say hello or something. There weren’t many people when we got there. Just a few men hacking a huge pig apart. There was blood spattered all over the floor of the house, and when my foot felt something warm on bottom, I knew I had stepped on it. What can you do. So we sat down and Sanit blabbed with the villagers. We never saw the bride or groom. They kept stacking pig parts around us. It was a very, very big pig. The jaw itself was quite large. The house was extremely dark, but not dark enough to block my view of the fairly gross elders. Old men ate around us. Several had nasty growths on their bellies and faces. They stuck their utensils in everyone’s food. All around, a great experience. We finally left. When I stood up to go and brushed myself off, I discovered that I had sat on pork and had it all over the seat of my pants. Lovely.
2. Never Think That After the Pig Parts Soiree Your Evening is Over.
Because there’s a darn good chance that you’ll be whisked away in your porky pants to meditate at a Buddhist temple with really, really chatty nuns. Sanit wanted me to try meditation. Given my ADD-like, unable-to-relax nature, I was game to try it. Unfortunately they were in the middle of chanting when we arrived. For an hour. Not calming songs like that of Gregorian Chant, but nasal-y “singing” on only 4 separate notes. It was pretty much like hearing fingernails scraping a chalkboard for 60 minutes straight, but with 4 different variations of aural agony. Then we meditated. I thought about food a lot but tried to keep a clear mind. After the meditation, I was excited to change and eat dinner. But oh no, the nuns turned to Sanit and started chatting…and chatting…and chatting. For an hour. The first 10 minutes was filled with, “?????????????????? ??????????????? ?????????????????????????????????? AMER-I-GAH ????????????????????? ??????????????? HAHAHAHA!”
Then they blabbed in Thai a lot more. Meditation is not my thing.
3. The Plant You Pick On The Side Of The Road May Be Your Favorite Meal
Seriously, my third day in the village I was already dying because every meal tasted the same. I made it a month with the help of a plant I was taught to find in the wild. Called “Gua Tho-long,*” it is a plant that grows up to 15’ tall, with huge green leaves and white flowers at the top. You pick certain leaves, and, along with a different plant’s green “berries,” boil it all, then squeeze out the bitterness, then chop and re-cook with seasoning. It is served dry and is pretty much the only dish that’s not swimming in water. And it’s DELICIOUS. I couldn’t believe it the first time it was cooked. I had picked these huge leaves and had this delicious breakfast the next morning. Once my family heard it was my favorite, they made it about twice a week. They don’t get bored with things since boredom is basically a way of life there, so they didn’t mind having something once a week, twice a week, or three times a day. I know what you’re asking. “Ms. Cooper, would you actually elect to have this dish if you weren’t stuck in the hilltribes?” Well that’s like asking if I’d kill one of my children to save another. You can’t answer that until you’re in the situation. My comparison is not extreme. Really, though, the chances of this plant starting to grow in America are rare to none, so I think that until one of those days comes, I’ll just have to eat pasta.
*This could be spelled any way you like since the word is Lawa (tribal) and has never been written in Lawa, Thai, or English. There is therefore is no actual correct or incorrect spelling.”
4. Monsters Come In Many Colors, And Even The Most Despised Insects Are Beautiful In Thailand.
Even though I live in the mountainous north and not the tropical south, the insects are still amazing. The moths come in every color of the rainbow. There are lavender ones, yellow ones, blue ones, greenish ones, and more. There are ones that fold their wings to form dart-like arrows, and ones that have what looks like a giant, upwards-sweeping fan. They’re 1cm. long and 4” long. On any given night you can go near a light and find tons of them, and so I just stared one night near a light in back. Yeah, I have the time. One moth had black and white stripes on the top half and was bright orange with white spots on the bottom. Another was grey with metallic silver lining and polka dots. They’re incredible. The spiders are ginormous, with some measuring 5”+. And they’re blue, yellow, red, purple, green, and more. Amazing! The beetles are incredible, and there are insects I never even thought existed. I think American insects need to step it up, seriously. Get some plastic surgery or something.
5. If There Is Electricity, People Will Blast Music From Their Homes.
And no matter where in the world you are, it will always sound like Shakira.
6. The Best Part Of Going Somewhere Is The Ride From My Village To There.
To the villagers, I’m sure the trip to and from “town” is a huge bother, but to me it is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. It puts any scenic route in America to shame. Every time I go on it I notice 20 new things. It’s an hour I love to spend looking out the window, or in many cases, being out in the open air either on the back of a truck or on a moto. There are huge mountains, layers upon layers in the distance, a haunted ghost mountain, animals, traffic congestion (cows), stuck vehicles, people, and beautiful farms galore. There are tree roots a hundred feet long curving down rock faces, shepherds doing nothing about their cows taking up 2/3rds of the road, landslides, parts where the road has disappeared, thunderstorms, and more. Not to mention the mud patch, which is several kilometers of pure mud, not dirt. It takes a good 25 minutes just to do that section.
On one trip back up the mountain to my village, a thunderstorm was just passing. Sanit was driving and I was sitting behind him. We were weaving along the side of a mountain, the rain had stopped a while ago, and there was lightening in the distance. Not just any lightening, but you know that kind they use in the movies where the sky lights up a bit and there’s a distant rumble of thunder? That looks completely fake? That lightening. It was ridiculously beautiful and surreal.
And then there was the ride last week. Sanit and I were just returning from a big overnight village teaching trip, and this is about how the trip went. Remember that it’s not a 1-hour drive, but a trek that you may or may not win without injury to you or your vehicle.
The drive is bad enough during the day. Now try it at night. With pouring rain. In pitch black darkness. And (my worst nightmare) without having had dinner.
Now try it carrying, in total, on a small moto, two people, clothing for 8 days, washed laundry, a sleeping back, a camera, fresh veggies, an additional, unwieldy 10lb. bag of veggies, two folders of government documents, and a box of school supplies. With about 30 pounds of that on my back in my camping pack. With a parka covering half my body and most of my pack, but really protecting nothing.
On a moto meant to carry one or two Thais, not one Thai and a giant American.
This rainy night ride was actually going fine and the rain started to lessen. Basically, I still had a dry patch somewhere on my shorts, which was terrific. Then the rain worsened, and that stuff hurts when you’re riding against it as fast as we were. Then Sanit’s glasses broke. Then he didn’t see the start of the mud patch, so we rushed into in full force. It stoppedus. A huge puddle of mud sprayed all over the two of us. We went through and through, up and down and around huge mudholes. If you’ve ever ridden the Coney Island Cyclone, this mud patch will do about ten times the damage that ride could ever do to your body. We road on with sounds such as, “Reowr, REEEAWR, rawr, roar, uglchchck CRACK!” We hit a rougher rough patch. It’s hard to cross so many deep ditches without injuring the bike in some way. Of course, he didn’t look to see if any part of the bike was missing until 10 minutes later. Whatever it was, it didn’t stop us. All was all right until we hit some flat “smooth” mud and he went all happy-go-lucky, speeding gleefully until I experienced something that felt strangely familiar, that is, driving into the mud full force again and getting showered in mud until we ran into a ditch too deep to painlessly get out. That patch (i.e., many km. of mud and ditches often two feet deep) presented us with the first of many slipping, going backwards, spinning sideways, etc. experiences.
Then we encountered a stuck truck. The driver came over to explain his predicament just as his truck lurched forward by itself. We got off our moto and walked over to help him.
His truck was eight feet away, but it took me 30 seconds to slip ‘n’ slide there. We pushed and with sever squelches in the mud, he was off.
I had to get out and walk because the moto was too weak and stuck to carry us both out of a particularly big hole.
Sanit went riding/slipping up by the side of me, but once he passed I was walking in the dark, sliding along with a huge pack on my back and a sack of veggies.
I found my way back on the bike. We went swerving sideways and then the other sideways. It really wouldn’t be considered a safe ride. The rain started coming down harder.
We reached paved road again.
We reached fog. “Heave left!” I yelled, half joking. It was truly that hard to know where the road was going. Sanit took that to mean that speeding would be a good thing to do.
Although I was enjoying the ride somewhere in my strange mind, I was cold, wet, and sore all over from sitting on part seat and part back bar. I’d never wanted rice so badly.
There was traffic congestion in the middle of the fog.
We got through the fog and reached our village.
We got to my house and I got off the moto, looking ridiculous with mud splattered all over my wet self. It had been a long, tough trip with nearly five hours in total of bumping and balancing in a truck and on a moto.
“Goodnight,” Sanit said. “Goodnight,” I replied, and walked into my house.
There was no rice.
7. If A Snack Here Says “Cream Filled,” Don’t Trust It.
Because they have no idea what it really means, and they’ve proved many times that they can’t write with correct English grammar. I’ve tried three varieties of cream-filled fails. First came the Wafer Fill Chocolate and Milk Cream bar. This was a square of rather dry wafer sticks just bursting with cream. Except the “cream” here was a chocolate-y, chalky, somewhat nasty substance. I felt cheated because of buying this snack, even though it cost me about 15 cents. But they tried. Then there’s Gallame, the sweet that says, “Delicious, Full of Cream, Full of Flavor, Healthy.” It is none of these things. Lastly there was the Milk Cream Filled Corn Snack, which had a slow start and no middle. Literally. The package showed cream just dripping out of the snack, which looked like a larger version of Captain Crunch. It was not good, and not only did it have no milk cream filling, it had no filling at all. It was hollow. Fail on all cream-filled sweets.
8. Realize That If There’s A Wedding One Week, Chances Are There’ll Be A Funeral The Next.
I kid you not. Sanit told me there was a funeral and said he wanted to take me to it. As long as I wasn’t going to offend the locals, I was game. Was it bad that I was hoping there was free food? Ok, I know I’m bad, but come on. You would wish too. So we arrived at the funeral, which was really a two-minute walk away. There were quite a few people, including “mourners,” artists painting messages on big posters, and other villagers. I write mourners in quotes because strangely, everyone was in quite a good mood. Laughing and loud chatting was heard ‘round the house, and when we went up the ladder into the house of the deceased, we came upon more people squished inside, chatting merrily away. Apparently people see death differently here. They tell me that they get over death very quickly and don’t dwell on it. I had seen the man who had died walking around a few days before, and he had only died that morning. Imagine organizing a funeral in less than 12 hours! He unfortunately, bless his soul, died from old age and something having to do with upset stomach and diarrhea. How would YOU like to go out with everyone knowing you needed Pepto-Bismol and a good toilet? Dang. So I totally won with the free food, getting unlimited mini jam biscuits. There was some tribal singing and someone read some passages from some book. I understood none of it, though one of the songs definitely had “Hallelujah” in there. All in all, it was not what I expected, and I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable knowing that people were talking about death by feces at my funeral.
9. If You Feel Like Something Is Crawling On You, You Probably Stepped On An Ant Hill.
And they’ll sting and inject their formic acid into you, which they can do over and over again since their barbless stingers don’t cause them to die after stinging. And even if you don’t feel like something is crawling on you, you still may have gotten a leech, which injects a saliva with anesthetic so that you don’t feel anything until you look down and see blood. Awesome.
10. American Kids May Be Disrespectful, But Thai Kids Take Respect To A Whole New Creepy Level.
So the other weekend I had an amazing experience. I was asked to teach at a “camp” in another village. Sanit and I were the esteemed visiting teachers, so we were transported via moto and truck to a village so remote, it took 3 hours of ridiculously bumpy roads to get there. I knew it was a bad start when the conversation went something like this: “Bump, bump, BANG, bump, bumpity, bump…” “Ka-ter-een, after 20km of this good road, we’ll do much more on the bad road…” Yes, the road got so, so much worse. It was fun as long as you don’t mind bumping along on a mountain road that’s much worse than our village mountain one. For three hours! We also drove through a river to get there. I don’t know how their trucks last, but luckily it was a shallow river. The ride is an experience not to be forgotten, and I only hit my head once on the back glass and twice on the guy next to me. Really, though, it was actually fun.
So the most amazing experience was that no foreigner had ever visited this Karen (instead of Lawa) hilltribe village. Do you get what that means? It means that I was the first person ever, from anyone other than Thailand, to visit this place. This also meant that I was probably the tallest to ever step foot there. This means that no one had ever seen or taken real photos of this amazing place, seen the amazing varieties of trees and ferns, met the kids, or anything. This also meant that I was, for most of the kids, the first white person they’d ever seen. You can’t imagine how incredible this was. I can only hope I made a good impression. Some of the kids had been to town before, but since most are from places even further away from civilization, I was the first foreigner they’d ever seen. The kids played it cool, but did they stare when they thought I wasn’t looking! Because their families live so far away on remote farms, these kids actually live at the school, dormitory style. And did I mention that there was no electricity here? It was actually quite depressing even though the kids were extremely happy. They know nothing more, so they deeply enjoy what they have.
Anyhow, the kids were great and actually lived in better facilities than in my village. That is, there were actually buildings made of concrete. The teachers also lived with the students, one teacher in a private room to about 15 students, aged 5-18. This meant that the kids slept on hard concrete floors with only a blanket and a mosquito net covering them. Candles were used in the evening and nighttime. The bathroom was one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen, though I think most of the gunk was just candle wax. It really made me feel terrible, but these people were so kind, happy, and giving, so I acted the same back to them. They were so respectful that it really was creepy. One time, for instance, I needed to go to the bathroom. I went inside to my dormitory, where I was staying with one of the teachers in her room. As usual, the kids fell quiet and stared. The bathroom was being used. No biggie, I walked outside and started going back across the bamboo bridge. “Ka-ter-een, Ka-ter-EEN!” I turned and saw the school’s English teacher running towards me. “They done with bathroom, you use now.” Yes, the girls had yelled to one another that I, the all-important person in this mini-village, had needed to go to the bathroom, and that it needed to be vacated immediately, and then those girls had informed the English teacher, who had come running after me to tell me that it was now free. I felt so, so bad. The kids would bring you food, water for brushing your teeth, anything. They were so willing to help but so, so shy.
I have to talk about the food though. It was INCREDIBLE! I had actual cooking that involved cooking more than one vegetable. They really knew how to cook here, and for each meal all of us teachers would join together and talk, which was great fun even if I only understood about 5% of what went on. Sadly, some of the teachers spoke better English than the English teacher. Not a good sign. The food, man, the food. There would be about 5 main dishes at every meal, and everything I tasted was amazing. Even the most weird-sounding thing, like morning glory greens, was fantastic. They’d actually use this modern method of cooking called mixing several different things together to make a dish, so there were soups, meat dishes, fish dishes, omelets, gravies, noodle dishes, rice dishes, sauces, etc. I stuffed my face at every meal. Of course rice was served with every meal, but it wasn’t the meal, so I didn’t mind. Once, I got super excited because out from the cooking place came…noodles! It was elbow macaroni. Wow, I thought, my day can’t get much better than this. Then I saw that they mixed in things…like baked beans…and weird soy protein strings…and cabbage. Ok, so the pasta was made of rice anyhow, but I tell you, I’d take that wrong dish over my village’s dishes any day. The rest of the food was less odd and was truly great, central-Thai-style cooking. And sometimes they’d even have things like fresh fruit, another modern invention. I ate well here. You can see it in the pictures.Back in teaching, the older kids were having a grand time, though I just don’t have the room to go into detail. They found it fascinating to play the simplest games, and loved any activity we did with them. When I gave out a few postcards from NY as prizes (it was all I had brought with me, unfortunately), the winners all ran up after and asked for my autograph. In broken English, of course. The last day, they all had their pictures taken with me, giggling insanely because they didn’t know how to handle this occurrence. I’m not even going to mention the part where they made me sing and dance in front of them. They were collapsing with laughter, so hey, I did something right, right?
It was truly a great experience, and so many kids ran to wave goodbye as we…waded across the river. Remember the one we drove through to get here? Well, a huge storm the day before had caused everything to flood, so everything had to be carried across. The moto, my pack, and our supplies were carried across by generous teen boys. It was a sight to behold with the water up to my thighs, I tell you. Not only was the food good, but we were treated with such warmth, kindness, and respect. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
11. They Don’t Hate Dogs Everywhere In Thailand.
They actually fed the dogs at the village mentioned above. Not meat. Not bones. Not dog food, silly. Can you guess what? You know where I’m going. Yes, they fed the dogs rice. White, cooked, leftover rice.
12. Thai Hawker Food Is So Awesome That Before You Know It, You’ve Spent Tons Of Money On Food Ten Dollars.
So it was goodbye to my village and hello to a 5-hour-long un-air conditioned bus to Chiang Mai. Onto the next step of my journey! I arrived and took a tuk-tuk (a small, open-air three-wheeled taxi) to this town I knew nothing of. Of course I didn’t have a map, so I walked around and wonder of wonders, after asking some folks and walking some more, I actually found a place to stay in a very cheap but well-respected guesthouse (hostel). I decided to stay for two nights, and the next day, I rented a bike and road all over town. I tell you, renting that bike for 24 hours was the best $1.20 I ever spent.
I rode all over, turning onto the little streets, finding small markets, turning onto other small streets, grabbing a 50-cent smoothie, etc. etc. I road outside the city castle walls and into the really busy part of Thailand’s second largest city, and there I found a supermarket. While this may not sound exciting to many of you, it was exciting to me because a.) I love food and supermarkets, and b.) I knew it would be a great way to see all the normal, commercial foods and wrong eats. And I tell you, there were so many wrong eats. It was a normal store until you came upon the fish strip snacks, the cuttlefish chips, the floating-things-in-your-drink quencher, the entire pastry section, the “burgers,” and more things that God never intended Thai people to make in hopes of imitating Western food. I just had to get something, so I got an odd drink and a bread loaf. It was so wrong, and sweet with onions and something else, but for some reason I found it delicious. Later on I found a street stall selling ice cream, and it was here that I consumed something neither God nor man ever wanted created: Ice cream served inside bread, with peanuts, red sauce, something sprinkled on, and rice. My friend had warned me about the bread part, but I just couldn’t seem to escape the rice. I don’t know why it was added since it has no taste within the ice cream, but it was edible. Further on I got noodles at a roadside stall, then banana fritters, then about five more dishes. Then I biked further outside the city limits and found the motherload, a huge market with what must have been Chiang Mai’s major wholesale food market, and I only found it because I was biking in some random back alleys. There was every fruit and vegetable you’ve never seen, every cut of meat, all kinds of drinks and dishes, sauces, flopping fish and other creatures, and more. From the looks of everyone there, who looked stunned, I take it that I was one of very, very few foreigners who had every found this place. My day was amazing, and I’d tasted about 20 dishes for about 10 dollars. It was incredible. I was so full that the next morning, I had an upset stomach. I took a bike ride, had a 30-minute chat with a monk by a lovely temple and a pond filled with monster lily pads and tin homes on stilts, then returned the bike. My stomach still hurt, so I walked a different way to my guesthouse, on another tiny back road, and got a smoothie. Then I noticed that this particular hut was serving food, and so I did what anyone else with a tummy ache would do and ordered a spicy green curry. I tell you, that was the best dish I had in all of Chiang Mai.
So, folks, I took a flight from northern Thailand to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I now reside. I have already gone on two trips within Malaysia, but those stories must wait until next time. I am having a wonderful adventure and hope that the fall season is lovely back where you all are. I love hearing from you, so keep those messages coming!
Until next time, and with a full stomach of non-rice edibles,