Sunday, September 6, 2009

USA - training week x 2

Well i have made it to the USA and have managed to make it through my two week training course. It has been completely manic!!! - up at 6am and bed at midnight, training has been going usually from 8am till 9pm. There has been soooo much information to remember that my brain is fried - but i've also had an awesome time.

Our training has been at Creek Runners Lodge, at Big Bear in the San Bernadino Mountains. It's absolutely gorgeous up here.


I've met some amazing people at Big Bear and we've done some pretty ridiculous things, from skits and charades to playing the funniest bonding games (like duck duck goose, and leap frog). We've had dancing nights where Simon taught us to do a bit of partner dancing, we've played basketball, done announcement relays and studied our butts off!!!

Our last night at Big Bear we all went up to Randy's and had dinner before spending an hour or so on a boat on the lake, and then making our way to a local pub.

I made up a bit of a video with all the crazy stuff from our first week.. so i might as well add it on here.


video

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Living It Up on Lindeman

I have just spent a fantastic week away with the family at Club Med Lindeman Island. To explain a little.. Club Med is an all inclusive holiday - you get food, alcohol, accommodation and most activities included in the price... and Lindeman is an exclusive Club Med island in the amazing and beautiful Whitsundays (near the Great Barrier Reef). 

We had Beachfront Rooms - basic and beachy with a huge king sized bed. They were fairly large rooms, nothing too special, but then the only time we were really in them was to sleep or to shower. The only let down was that there were no bed side lights - i know that sounds simple but I didn't realise how much I used them until they weren't there. 
 
The food was absolutely awesome!!! They had a huge buffet serving everything from vegetables and fruit to rice, breads, various meats, hamburgers, chips and every night they had a special themed area as well, such as mexican (tacos and similar food), seafood, and even an Aussie BBQ night. 

The resort is on the side of a huge hill, surrounded by coral reef. Its about 80 steps to get from the pool and beach area to reception, and then a walk up hill to get to the golf course, tennis and archery... lucky for us there is also a minibus that drives up and down the island every 5 minutes so you can guess how I got around :P

The only way is up, yeah - only half of the steps to get to reception.

We went snorkelling during one of our days there. It was a bit of extra money but it was worth it. The first spot we went to was murky and not that great, but the last spot we were at - right near the wharf - had the most beautiful coral and you could see and almost touch most of the fish. 

We went kayaking which I was completely not a fan of on the way over. I couldn't manage to go straight and i was exhausted by the time we got to the island we were kayaking to. Little did I know I had picked an aweful kayak with no stability so whenever the water moved so did I. I managed to find myself a better kayak on the way back (actually Chuck and I really kicked Jenny and Mum off theirs but anyway)...

My favourite thing while I was there was the Trapeze. I managed to get myself up the enormous ladder a couple of days while we were there. It's so high but so worth it - and its actually fairly easy if you listen to what the instructors are telling you and move when they tell you to. They have a Trapeze performance indoors on a Monday night and outdoors on a Wednesday and the professionals were absolutely fantastic. I wish I was that fit and could manage to get myself up tissues and through hoops and swing as ridiculously high as they do. 

video

Club Med is a lot like a modern day version of the Dirty Dancing resort - there's planned activities and performances (none of which you actually have to participate in). Some of them are very lame, but some of them were a lot of fun. Once again, the Trapeze was my favourite, and they also pulled out some really good songs on there Hit Music night. 

We managed to play a hell of a lot of Euka and trivia while we were away.. we watch drunk people and little kids doing karaoke, had fun laughing at the old women doing aqua aerobics, and even joined in on a couple of the pool games such as volleyball and water races. 

Unfortunately I had a little trouble with some of the activities... to cut a long story short I managed to snap my swimmers on the first day I was there, so they were tied together with a bobby pin for the rest of my stay (making physical water activity a little tedious). They sell swimmers at the Club Med Boutique but they were ridiculously expensive and not very appealing. 

That was probably one of the only disadvantages of the island - the price that you pay for anything at the boutique or for some of the activities. The only other downfall is that it is not a place to go during easter unless you have kids and want to get rid of them, and its not the best place to go if you like to venture around, keep occupied and constantly see new things - your on an island with a few walking tracks and thats about it.

I would love to go back and work there! The GO's work long hours but were always happy and easy to get along with. Fun and games was all part of their job (although I can't say I'd be a fan of working with a hundred spoilt kids during the Easter holiday but anyway). So I've eaten way too much food, had way too many ice creams and chocolate sundaes, and done way too little exercise, but I've had a pretty good time...


Heading back to reality we decided to spend a couple of hours on Hamilton Island before flying back to Sydney. I love this island - especially down near the Marina - there's plenty of little food and coffee shops and boutiques, its relaxed and beautiful. We hired ourselves buggys and rove around the island. There's an absolutely beautiful view from up at one of the lookouts, and the island is divided into two areas - the Marina, and the Beach. The beach side had the more expensive, larger scale hotels and resorts, although I still would have preferred the quieter areas if we stayed there. There was plenty to see and do (although all of it was really expensive) but I'd love to go back there one day if I had the money. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bangkok sightseeing

My first full day in Bangkok I went on a River Kwai and Tiger Temple Tour. Its was amazing!! (to say the least). Golden Dragon Coaches took us on the tour and their coach was so nice and the tour guide was fantastic - she had a sense of humour and everything. The tour went via the Katchanaburi War Memorial, then via the Bridge over the River Kwai. We took a longtail boat up the River to the War Museum (don't sit in the back of the boat - i learnt the hard way and got saturated). After the Museum we had lunch at J.R River Restaurant - a beautiful wooden structure that sat out over the water.
From here we went to the Tiger Temple for an hour and a half. The tigers were gorgeous and absolutely beautiful!!! I had pictures taken with the tiger in my lap (for an extra cost) and they turned out amazing!! They were so gorgeous but it definitely would have been better if there were less people there.

I really wanted to visit the Grand Palace but wasn't sure about the best way to get there - so I ended up catching the skyrail to the Boat dock and bought a river taxi pass. It let me travel on most of the river taxi's from 9am to 5pm during the day and it only cost $6. I ended up spending most of my morning on the water cause it was so much cooler and it was nice to just look at the boats on the river and the temples and buildings that we cruised past. The taxi went past most of the main temples near the river, as well as the Museum, China town and the Grand Palace.

Everything within the Grand Palace grounds was gorgeous and immaculate. Most of the temples that I had seen in Chiang Mai/Rai were beautiful from far away but were a bit rough round the edges up close, but these temples and buildings were beautiful - every piece of glass on the buildings was polished to a tea and the whole place shone. I didn't end up having enough money to pay for a tour (either in person or by a recording), but looking back now I wish that I had paid for one because I think I would have got a lot more out of the grounds. It almost got to the stage where everything started to look the same.

Later that night I decided I wanted to go to the top of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel (right next to the Indra Regent), and get the most gorgeous view of the city. I went up just before sundown and went right up to the revolving deck on the 80-something floor. It was rattly and basic but it was the most AMAZING view and it gave you a real sense of just how big Bangkok is - i couldn't see the edge of the city. I went down a few levels to the Baiyoke Skybar for my complimentary drink and wished I'd had some company because it was the coolest place and i could have chilled out there all night - but i didn't. I dragged myself back up to the deck after sunset to take some more photos and see the city lights, but didn't stay long because the moths at the top were crazy and it was like i was being swamped by them.

The only other place I would really recommend going in Bangkok would be Lumphini Park. The huge park has a lake in the middle where you can hire paddleboats. I think i sat in the park for a good 3 hours on Sunday. Every Sunday they have a free concert and music in the park and so I saw the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra play for free. The music was fantastic but it was such a strange thing to leave it and walk through the park and see people jogging and doing dance lessons and aerobics - not something that you'd often see in Australia.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Bangkok - crazy, bustling, hectic, hot Bangkok

It's time for me to leave the daily meals, beautiful country, and the friendly, amazing and inspiring people of Mirror. It's time for me to adventure on to Thailand's capital Bangkok. Before I even leave Mirror I'm a bit 'iffy' about heading back there. I wasn't the biggest fan for the first night that I stayed there, and I have heard mixed reviews since. All i know is that I have to go there with my eyes and mind wide open to the mix of culture, poverty, cleanliness and attitude of the city. 

Bangkok is nothing like I've ever seen before. What can I say - its crazy. It probably doesn't seem that big to people who come from large overseas cities, but for an Aussie, this is massive !

I'm staying back at the Indra Regent Hotel for a couple of nights before heading back to Australia. I have a few plans while I'm here - Grand Palace and Tiger Temple are high on the list, but besides that its just me, my map and a few days of exploration.


EXPLORING THE AREA AROUND THE HOTEL

The area around the Indra is one of the main shopping districts in Bangkok. 

First stop is Central World - 7 floors of expensive sports, tech, fashion and home decor. 

Next stop, Siam Paragon - yet another enormous shopping complex with a decent and fairly well priced food court. There's a huge array of thai inspired dishes and the Paragon has a fairly unique payment system - you purchase a food court card (similar to a gift or debit card) - you put as much money on it as you want and then everything in the food court is purchased using the card. to get any money back that remains on the card you just have to return it to the main desk. 

The Pratunam markets have a very cool (but dirty) vibe. There's some really cheap items and food available if your willing to barter. The streets of Pratunam come alive at night. The street vendors and stalls creep over the sidewalk and out onto the road, leaving barely a lane for traffic to drive. 


FOOD

There are a couple of places I ate at during my stay. 

The first was an outside area at the Gold Palace Plaza (one block behind the Indra). As far as I know it has no name but its brightly lit and has a huge sign that says "Food". They sell everything from steak to seafood, hamburgers, chips as well as Thai style dishes. 

Across the lane from the Palace Plaza is a cool looking little place called "The Sidewalk" which I decided I'd come back to eat at the following night. I was a little disappointed in the meal - rice and vegetables that didn't have that much flavour, but at least it was still cheap - $2.25 - Bargain!

The final place I ate at was an Indian/Pakistan Restaurant on the backstreet of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel. I kind of stumbled across the place - I was wandering around the streets looking for something different to look at or to eat and I stopped to look at their menu. A friendly stranger walked out of the restaurant as I arrived, said it was the best meal in Bangkok, and so I decided that this would be where i'd eat. I had butter chicken, a butter nan bread and some water. I'm not into spicy food at all and this was making my nose run, but it was still amazing food. I can't recall exactly but I'm sure the restaurant was called 'Al-Dara' (or something similar).


Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saying goodbye in Chiang Rai

After our extremely eventful and amazing few days with the hilltribes, all the volunteers decide to spend the weekend (or at least one night) in Chiang Rai. We're staying at the Mirror Guest House - only $10 per night (200bht), the Guest House was still in its final stages of completion when we stayed there (the opening is the following weekend an unfortunately i'm going to miss the celebrations as i'll be in Bangkok). The Mirror Guest House is one of the best and tidiest guesthouses I've seen in Thailand.

Owned by the Mirror Art Foundation, the guesthouse was built using money that the group has raised. 10% of the accommodation profits will go directly to sponsoring the education of local villagers, as well as assisting in their anti-human-trafficking program. 

It takes about 15-20 minutes to walk from the guesthouse into the bus stop and night bazaar. We're lucky enough to be walking through on a Saturday night, which means that the Saturday Night walking market is in full swing and there are literally blocks and blocks of items for sale, from lamps and sunglasses to modern clothing, accessories and even baby clothes. 

Right alongside the bus-stop and night bazaar there is a huge eating area, where i managed to get myself fried rice with chicken for a whole $1.50. 

In celebration of some of our volunteer group going seperate ways, we decided to let our hair down at the TeePee bar - a tiny little indy/rock inspired bar. It was the most unusual bar I've ever seen - filled with guitars, wigs, rock music, marley momentos, and an eclectic collection of plastic hands, neon skeletons and a hangmans noose as you enter the toilet. They played Cobain and Queen on a music channel and was the furthest thing from Thai culture that i could possibly imagine. 


Just around the corner from the Mirror Guesthouse is the Chian Guesthouse. They have their own restaurant and swimming pool and it makes for a good place to direct tuk tuks and taxis too (it probably didn't help that the Mirror Guest House hadn't even been opened so no one had any idea where it actually was). We had a great meal from there and its a good place if your missing the tastes and texture of Western-style food - i had an authentic schnitzel baguette and it was DELICIOUS!!!

Homestay

A pre-thought for the three days ahead - - - I am really not ready to hike 5km's up hill today!!!

Our homestay, organised through Mirror, allows us to stay with local Thai's in their villages. We eat the same food, sleep in similar beds, help cook and genuinely experience life as it is in a hilltribe. 

MORNING NUMBER 1

Our morning started with a trip into Chiang Rai to see the Emerald Buddha complex - including Wat Phra Kaew, Phra Chedi, Phra Ubosot, Ho Phra Yoke, Hong Luang Saengkaew. Hong Luang Saengkaew, a minature museum filled with century old relics was my favourite building in the complex.

From here we took a songthaew to a local village where we rode elephants through the streets and into the river. The elephants were beautiful and oh so huge! It was an amazing yet not quite comfortable experience. The only draw back of the experience was that our "driver" used his whip and hook when it wasn't needed and was being unnecessarily cruel to our elephant. (I have been told since that while there are some fantastic elephant tours and safaris, there are also many who treat the elephants in a way that many westerners and animal lovers would find cruel and inhumane)

video

We visited a waterfall near Jalae village, snacked on some amazing sticky rice and chicken before making out way up the steep hills to the village of Yafu. The house I stayed in was beautiful - a wooden hut where we cook, eat and sleep in the same room. The family sleeps in a little room next door. The floor is made of bamboo strips and you can see the ground and the animals wandering beneath. It is considerably cool considering how hot it is outside. 

Our family are semi-welcoming. They don't speak any english but luckily enough we have one of the interns staying with us and she attempts to translate for us. Translating can even be difficult for Thai's, particularly when in hilltribe villages. Each hilltribe usually has its own dialect that differs somewhat from the Thai that is spoken in the cities. 

We were lucky enough to arrive at Yafu on the day that they celebrate Chinese New Year and hence got to participate in the Lahu celebrations. Lahu members dressed in traditional clothing played the drums and danced around a sacrificial area decorated in coloured paper and supporting a pigs head for sacrifice.

MORNING NUMBER 2

We had breakfast with our host family an then said 'Aroingna' and 'Abudja' (delicious and goodbye) before continuing our trek through the mountains to the village of Banapa. 

The 4.5km walk was through forest an along the edges of the mountains. The track was thin, tedious and at times a bit slippery but it was the most beautiful walk I've ever been on. 

A short walk from the Banapa village took us to our lunch spot, where we were cooked rice, meat and eggs. The eggs were boiled in logs of bamboo (filled with water) placed over the fire, while the rice was wrapped in huge banana leaves. 

Banapa would have to be my favourite village so far, particularly because of where I was staying. The lady and her family are so adorably lovely - she gave us bananas, showed us the handicrafts she had made, and pictures of her family and her friends. She had a daughter and the girl next door also spent a lot of time with us. The girls spoke a little english however all our communication with the mother was through gestures and signs. She was was amazingly happy and constantly trying to convey some kind of story or message to us. We had dinner with the three of them and then they dressed us for the Akha ceremony that we would take part in. The Akha traditional costumes are so intricate with beads and feathers and have so many layers, and the girls dressed us with such perfection and pride. By the time i was fully dressed I was wearing the most beautiful beaded head cover, a skirt, jacket, bag, shell belt and shin covers. 
We danced around a fire (well really the dance steps are more like walking in time), and even though the dancing wasn't quite as spectacular as that of the Lahu village, it was much more friendly. 

MORNING NUMBER 3

I attempted to be up on time this morning so that I could help with breakfast preparations - little did I know that they began at about 5:30 in the morning so everything was ready by the time I got there. Our family have been so lovely and I was really disappointed to be leaving. They gave each of us an Akha wristband and some bananas before leaving and some small plastic flowers for our hair.

Staying in the villages, particularly Banapa, has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Week Number Three

Week three was only a short week yet again (little did I know I would never complete a full week of doing 'normal' Mirror activities)

This week I did a couple of ICT classes. The ICT guys work on the Mirror website and programming and are an 'advanced' English class. We spend the whole hour talking about whatever issues or topics that they want to discuss. Topics included gambling (which is illegal in Thailand - even having possession of a deck of cards is considered gambling), the name of dice and cards, gambling games including everything from cock fights to bug fights, cricket races and roulette. Teaching and talking with them made me realise how complicated the English language actually is - there's so many ways to pronounce certain vowels and words and quite often they aren't spelt how they actually sound to non-native speakers. 

Childcare at Jalae was eventful - we got there only to realise it had been cancelled due to Chinese New Year celebrations, so we joined the group at Phu Koc and learnt all about the art of childcare fighting:
1 - Girl is on swing but boys wants to swing on it
2 - Boy grabs swing and stops the girl from having fun
3 - Both are completely still and stare at each other for a bit as if to test the water
4 - Boy thumps girl across the head
5 - Girl tenses and more staring ensues
6 -Finally both lash out at one another until Mirror volunteers intervene

Mid week we are preparing for our hilltribe homestay and I also get a chance to help out in the office and translate some information for the website. Mirror has an awesome little program that enables them to type in Thai words and it translates the meaning of them into English - so basically it was my job to read the already translated Thai and then reword it to make more sense - which was actually harder than I thought. 

Finally this week we have a party, karaoke, dance and fire to farewell the Thai interns that have been with us for the past two weeks (and with Mirror for the past 3 months) - I know that karaoke doesn't sound very Thai but they definitely put their own spin on things.