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!!!


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. 


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)

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.


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. 


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. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chiang Mai Adventures

It worked out that I would only have 1 weekend free while I was at Mirror so I decided that I would explore a bit more of the northern areas and head to Chiang Mai.

One of the other volunteers and I went together. We caught the VIP bus from Chiang Rai which cost a whole $12.50, it took three hours to get there but they fed us water and a bakery snack and the seats were the best - they reclined at least 45 degrees and I could have fit two of me on the seat. The tuk tuk that took us from the bus station to our accommodation was a fun experience - the fresh air in our face and the perfect view of the streets of Chiang Mai. 

We spent two nights at Darat's Guesthouse (located right near Tapae Gate). It was recommended to us by another volunteer - it wasn't the greatest but for $10 for two nights I thought it was perfect. The atmosphere of the city at night is fantastic - we walked past Tapae Gate and around the roads the water separated roads and it was absolutely gorgeous in the night lights. I am totally in love with this area - there are food places everywhere, taverns, lights and music, there's a reggae bar just down the road and it's only a few blocks to the night markets. Darat's have the best breakfast I've ever had - banana pancakes and hot chocolate.

Saturday meant it was time to explore, first visiting the Wats (or at least some of them) located inside Tapae Gate. Chiang Mai has the most wats per square km than any other city in Thailand - so there was definitely plenty to see. My favourite off all was Wat Chedi Lueng. It was enormous and reminded me of the kind of stone structure you would expect to see in somewhere like Rome or Greece. 

It was here in the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang that we found Mr Noi, who offered to be our personal taxi driver for the day. For 500b (approx $25) he would ake us to Wat That Doi Suthep, The Umbrella Factory and then back to Tapae Gate. Little did we know our trip would end up being somewhat of an adventure to WAYYYYY more places than we planned. 

Sticking to the game plan we went to Wat That Doi Suthep ('the wat on the hill'). It's one of the biggest drawcards of visitors to Chiang Mai and for good reason - it is absolutely stunning. Even with the 600 odd steps we had to climb to get to the top, it was everything I imagined it would be - but completely overrun by tourists (not that we minded much). There were people praying, essence burning, photos being snapped, bells being rung and tiny gold bells hung all over the temple grounds.

The start of the steps to Wat That Doi Suthep.

Next stop was the umbrella factory (or at least it was suppose to be) but little did we know that Mr Noi was about to take us coupon collecting. In Thailand many taxi and tuk tuk drivers not only make their wages from their travel fares, but they also receive discount coupons to be used on petrol and food by bringing their travellers to specific shops. We didn't have to buy anything for him to receive the coupons, however it was quite difficult to go into a shop when you really didn't want to spend your money buying anything. Here's where I should mention another thing about Thailand regarding shopping - in western areas we're used to being able to wander aimlessly through shops without being annoyed or pushed to buy anything. In Thailand its COMPLETELY different - as soon as you walk in the door you are bombarded by a salesperson and you can't even glance at an item without them trying to sell it to you and basically pushing you for your money. It's even harder to leave the shop you are visiting because they follow you everywhere and basically are throwing items at you until you have managed to get out the front door.

With that said our next stop actually turned out to be the International Fine Creation Co Factory - a huge jewellery store that took us about 45 minutes to get out of. They showed us the process of making jewellery before taking us into an enormous showroom. They had some gorgeous jewellery there (i'll give them that) but it's not a place that we really wanted to visit and I managed to keep hold of my money. I've now dubbed this experience 'Adventure for Coupon #1".

We did make it to the Umbrella Factory (which was next on our list). We watched the making of the umbrellas, including the enormous detail put into painting them, and then went through to the showroom. Many of the umbrellas and fans weren't as intricate as I expected them to be.. and that was Ticket #2.

To collect Ticket #3 we stopped at a lacquerware workshop and display (where we managed to get out in about 10 minutes - go us!!)

Ticket #4 was right next door at a silk shop, where we managed to get out in 5 minutes.

It was definitely lunch time by then and Mr Noi took us to one of his friend's restaurants. It was probably one of the best meals I had while I was in Thailand - the peanut satay and cherry smoothie were delicious and oh so cheap! (Somehow though I didn't manage to get the actual name of the restaurant)

Our next few stops saw us at a few more silk factories and outlets and we were exhausted. After our days worth of adventure, side tracks and coupon collecting we really did end up having a pretty good time. Mr Noi was a fantastic guide, making hilarious imitations of different accents and telling us all about the Buddhist religion.

We were told that while in Chiang Mai we HAD to visit the Saturday Night Bazaar. It was only a 20 minute walk from Darat's and was absolutely massive - filled with jewellery, clothes, bags, DVD's, silk scarfs and lanterns. 

Our main part of the Sunday in Chiang Mai was spent at the Zoo. Compared to an Australian Zoo it wasn't that fantastic and the animals weren't kept in anywhere near as healthy or humane conditions - but we managed to feed giraffes and see all the major animals. The zoo did have a few disadvantages though: 
- Seeing the Pandas, Adventure Park, or the Aquarium were an additional cost.
- The map was complicated and we ended up walking about 4km further than we needed to.
- I felt sorry for some of the monkeys that were kept in dusty cages with no vegetation and hardly any     space. 

I had my first ever Thai massage in Chiang Mai and had no idea that I was that flexible. We finished the day by walking around the Sunday Market (conveniently located right outside Darat's), and then caught the VIP night but back to Chiang Rai.

Chiang Mai has such a fun, relaxed and funky vibe - I would honestly come back to explore more of the city and chill out. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Week in Mae Chan

We have spent the last week in Mae Chan (an hours drive from Mirror, located near the Thai/Burma border). We knew that we were going there for community development work; however what we didn't know was that we we would end up having one of the most fulfilling weeks of our lives (or at least for me anyway).

Before heading out into the hills for homestay we stopped at Mae Chan for lunch and a walk through the markets. I've never seen so many strange looking fruits, live fish waiting to be bought and eaten, and so many bugs (I couldn't bring myself to eat bugs sorry).

We spent the week at a 'homestay' area owned by P'Van. He had a huge area adjacent to his house that had a few different rooms for us to sleep in, as well as a common outside area (where we ate) and a kitchen. We had western toilets (yay), and there was even a gas powered hot shower (which was only hot if you could figure out how to work it). Six of us slept on a huge cement slab which was extremely uncomfortable and freezing cold for the first night. My hip ached and I couldn't get comfortable, but I ended up working out that it was a lot warmer and more comfortable if I slept ON my blankets - so I actually got some sleep for the next five nights.

The first thing we had to do while at Mae Chan was to cement parts of the playground at the childcare centre. This was basically P'Van's 'pet' project. He donated his own money to build the centre and playground and also provides the milk for the kids for the entire year. I absolutely loved doing some physical work and we soon worked out the easiest ways to get things done - like forming bucket production lines and getting all of us to lift the cement tub rather than trying to bucket it all out individually.

All of the cement works were done without the use of machinery (which was definitely an experience). To outline the cement and create a structure for it we used bamboo that we had to chop down, cut, de-branch, and then strip into pieces. We mixed sand, stone and cement mixture by hand rather than in a cement mixer, and we had to transfer everything by bucket. 

We had plenty of chances to play with the kids at the childcare centre. On the Wednesday and Thursday we taught at the school for a couple of hours; making pasta necklaces, colouring pictures and playing Bingo. They all loved the chicken dance and having their photos taken and we're the most gorgeous kids I've ever seen. I even got my butt kicked at table hockey. 

I washed my clothes just once while I was in Mae Chan - it took me about 40 minutes to wash 10 things because all i had was a tiny bucket the size of a saucepan. 

We had the chance to go down into the village and learn how to weave bamboo into baskets. It was definitely a team effort, with a local man helping us out. It probably took us 10 times as long what it would have taken him but we managed it eventually, even with a lack of communication skills. There was the cutest kid that watched us weave. He had the runniest nose, couldn't speak any English or Thai but was amazed by our cameras. I let him push the button on mine a couple of times which was a huge mistake because he became obsessed with the cameras and even tried diving into my bag to get to mine. 

We went on the most amazing drive through the jungle to get firewood and help P'Van lift a huge piece of timber he wanted to use in his house. We stood in the back of the ute and drove down streams and up into the mountains. There was barely a road and the the scenery was amazing. 

Movie nights became a tradition of our Mae Chan stay - all of us crammed into P'Vans house infront of the fire (it was freezing outside and he hadn't yet installed glass windows in his house). We somehow managed to fit 20 of us infront of a laptop and we sorted through P'Vans collectors edition action movies and managed to find something to watch most nights. We also feasted on pineapple cookies and coffee cookies - our one treat that we still talk about now (they were the best cookies in the world).

We managed to get through our concreting and construction duties fairly easily and the dam building that was planned for the end of the week was cancelled as doctors were coming to the village to do dental and medical check ups on all the village people. So for the last couple of days at Mae Chan, P'Van was kind enough to show us a few of the sites. 

The village is just a couple of minutes drive from the most amazing (and only) winery of Mae Chan. The winery (Doi Hom Fha) was so gorgeous, on top of a hill with beautiful views and everything was made in traditional and local wooden materials. Everything was so placid with water running down pots, Bhudda symbols, elephants and the bluest pool I think I've ever seen. I would honestly consider going back there for my honeymoon. 

On our final day we took a two hour trek through the hills to visit the local animal sanctuary. Unfortunately we could only get in to see the birds because the keeper wasn't there. The walk was all up-hill and my knees were aching by the end of it. 

The week we spent in Mae Chan really encompassed everything I dreamed this experience would be. It was a chance for us to help Mirror and the community and to get to know some amazing people from all over the world. 

*   *   *   *   *

The funniest thing about being among people, all of whom could speak English, was the fact that we had more of a fascination with the English language than the Thai. We were more interested in the ways English based countries use different words. Every non-Australian wanted to know what a 'jumper' was, as well as a 'beanie', 'goon', 'doona', 'thongs' and 'pants'. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mirror - First week experiences

I arrived at Mirror on a Wednesday, which means that my first week here is a very short one! This week I've been lucky enough to be one of the first volunteers to arrive so I got thrown straight into duties (not that you can really call them that). A few of us jumped in the back of P'Aye's ute and rode the 30 minute drive up to Phu Koc childcare. The kids here are gorgeous and we spend an hour or so entertaining them. The basic childcare lesson consists of the 'Meditation Song' (a song we would learn to love), outlining of the letter-of-the-day, the alphabet song, a craft activity, a book (if we have one that they haven't read), dances like the chicken dance and hokey pokey, and about 15 minutes to play outside with the kids.

There are around 20 of us volunteering at the moment, a few have or are leaving at the end of this week, others are starting next week. We had orientation this week which pretty much informed us of what we would need to know whilst we were at Mirror, what was expected of us, and we were also given information on the homestay that we will be doing at a later date.

We have started our volunteer week at an interesting time. This weekend many of the Mirror staff are going away for the week to an annual Mirror Conference and so the volunteers and thai interns (L, Kate, Tip and 008) will be heading to Mae Chan on Saturday and will spend a week there doing community development work. When I signed up for Mirror we could either chose to help out with the Community Development program or the Teaching English program. I signed up for Community development, however the two projects have been combined depending on how many volunteers there are and what opportunities are available. Needless to say I am extremely excited about getting to do some physical work whilst I am in this beautiful country.

My first (half) week at Mirror finished with the regular Friday night trip into Chiang Rai. All the volunteers and interns are taken out to a local restaurant for dinner. I had a delicious pork and rice dish paid for by Mirror (even though it was only 30bt it was a bonus). They took us to a local supermarket called Big C's - it's pretty much a mixture of a Westfield and a Big W (if your Australian like me), or a WallMart. Toilet paper was of course high on my priority list and we also needed to buy childcare supplies to take to Mae Chan with us. Finally we were spared about an hour to wander around the Chiang Mai night markets and buy beautiful hill tribe handicrafts and silk products.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Magical Place called Mirror

I reached Chiang Rai by flying from Don Muang airport in Bangkok, where I was met by Thellie and Kate, as well as Tip, Charlene and Louise (two other volunteers starting at the same time).The purpose of my going to Chiang Rai was three fold - 1) I wanted to travel 2) I wanted to volunteer with the Mirror Foundation and help the hill tribe people, and 3) I really just wanted to learn more about myself.

The Mirror Foundation is about a half an hour drive by ute or songthaow from Chiang Rai. The area is so beautiful. I'm living in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by timber and concrete houses. The people are so relaxed and friendly.

We eat together in a tiny little outdoor area where we all sit on mats on a raised concrete floor. The water is cold, there is no toilet paper (you have to buy your own if you want it), my bed is hard and the mattress is only about 3cm thick, we wash our clothes by hand, flush our toilets with buckets, and hang our clothes on a bamboo clothes line - but I love it here. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Arrival in Bangkok

The first day of my adventure to Thailand and I ended up arriving ridiculously early at Sydney airport, got through customs at record speed and had about 2 and a bit hours left to chill out.
I flew with Thai and they were amazing - awesome food, great service and everyone was really nice. I somehow managed to score myself a window seat and complete row to myself so I could spread myself out and relax. 

At Bangkok I stayed at the Indra Regent (which is where I'm booked on my way back through Bangkok as well). It's pretty fancy. I've never been to a hotel where they carry your bags and open doors for you so it was all a little foreign (ha ha ha.. nice pun). The Indra is close to all the shopping and sky train and is really great for me cause I like the security seen as i'm travelling alone. 

My first breakfast in Thailand will be a story that will last forever.. and be laughed at forever. I paid 465bt (which is a TOTAL rip off) for a buffet breakfast. There were no prices displayed so that is what I chose to have and when I got the bill I decided that I was officially going to boycott the hotel all by myself and refuse to buy anything there for the rest of my trip.