30 December 2007

Splashy Samui

Well, there is something I need to admit to you all. Here I am in Thailand, with the opportunity to explore all the best of Asia right at my feet, and our trip to Koh Samui can be summed up in just three things. Laying at the beach, eating at ridiculously delicious (and oh, maybe a bit pricey!) restaurants and cruising around on motorbikes. Yes, people - that sums up the four glorious days Eric and I spent on the splashy island of Koh Samui, located right in the Gulf of Thailand. The beach view from right outside our bungalow if you will...

Another good sign of a stellar vacation is when you arrive to Promtsuk Buri (our resort on Koh Samui, which we totally recommend!) to check into your bungalow, and even though you paid for a seaview bungalow, the resort upgrades you to beachfront. Oh yeah, that happened to us! The portly man at the front desk oh so nicely asked us, "Can we move you to beachfront? Is that okay?" We took one look at each other, smiled to ourselves and replied, "Yes sir, that is just fine. I think beachfront will be okay." However, okay was definitely the understatement of the year! Take a look at the view from literally right outside our bungalow door!

So, like I said, I could tell you I got cultural and explored the islands' many wats (temples), but let's be real, all we did is park ourselves on the white sand and enjoy the turquiose waters of Thongtakian Bay. The first day, after enjoying a lovely afternoon of doing just that, we thought we might treat ourselves to a luxurious dinner. Now, for someone who really hasn't been to a plethora of nice resorts and resorts, I could really get used to this lifestyle! After consulting the handy dandy Samui Dining Guide, we headed to Cliff Bar & Grill and ate a seriously scrumptious Mediterranean meal of bruschetta, sun dried tomato & salami salad, vegetable risotto, fine Italian red wine and of course, a chocolate brownie ice cream dessert! Like I said, a girl can get used to this!

The second day was full of more laying, frolicking in the salty waters of the Gulf of Thailand and oh yeah, a 1-hour long coconut oil massage! Did I mention that massage took place under a big leafy palm tree right on the beach? That hour was probably one of the most glorious of the trip - head, neck, shoulders, legs, arms and yes, even butt. The massage took care of it all and for only 250 baht (8$)! Later that night, after having enjoyed the high life for two days, we headed to Tamarind Restaurant for the most delicious meal of the entire trip. I could go on and on about the mouthwatering meal (avocado salad with fettucini & peanut sauce, anybody?) but the real treat here was - brace yourselves - the sushi of sticky rice and mango, rolled in cinnamon, sugar and sesame seeds, dipped in a caramel sauce. I do not have the words to explain it. The best dessert I have EVER had, hands down!

We decided it might be best on day three to give our delicate skin a break from the incessant UV radiation we had been exposing to it the past few days and rented a motorbike! The next two days, we cruised around the island like pros (Eric drove of course! We all know me & motorbikes - do you remember what happened in Laos anyone?) and got to see all of the island outside our bay, which was great! We also happened upon a cute Fisherman's Village in Bo Phut - known for being more of a bohemian hipster beach area - and discovered Tandoor Taj Indian Restaurant, our dinner destination for the last two nights!

Indian happens to be my favorite cuisine, but this time, I introduced Eric to the wonderful world of curries, naan and Tandoor oven cooked foods! Dee-lish! Eric's favorite was the Shrimp Curry (which was one of the best curries I have had!) and Butter Naan (a flatbread), while my fave was the Aloo Baigain (potatoes & eggplant in Indian spices) and Roti (whole-wheat flatbread). Here is Eric and I cruisin' around Samui!

Unfortunately, the beach laying, food eating and moped cruising must come to an end. Last night, we left sunny Koh Samui to head back to Bangkok because it's New Year's Eve today in Bangkok baby! Eric and I are spending New Year's instyle in downtown Bangkok at a swanky hotel along the Chao Priya River - woohoo! It's been an awesome vacation to have him here, and I can't wait for the craziness of New Year's to begin! We hope all your holidays were merry and here's wishing you all an early Happy New Year's! To 2008!

26 December 2007

Charming Chiang Mai

You just know a vacation's gonna be good when you can order room service-style two Thai masseuses straight to your hotel room for a glorious 1-hour long Thai massage and then two days later, while in the midst of the Thai jungle, be snotted on by one ginormous elephant! That is just one little sliver of our 3-day trek through the rolling hillsides and lush villages of Chiang Dao - 2 hours outside of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand's largest city. Eric and I arrived to Chiang Mai (population: 200,000) Sunday afternoon after a short 50-minute plane ride from bustling Bangkok.

After such a tough journey, we decided that we totally deserved those 1-hour Thai massages, which we squeezed in (quite frankly, there was no other option) right before we headed off to a traditional Khantoke dinner, highlighting the food and culture of northern Thailand. The dinner was absolutely amazing! Held at the cultural center, there were hundreds of people sitting on brightly colored carpeting on the floor, feasting on the best Khantoke food. Braised pork, deep-fried bananas (umm...yummy!), sauteed veggies, sticky rice (a must-have food!) and an assortment of local cuisine. Topped off with performances by traditional Thai dancers and swordsmen (yes, I said swordsmen!), it just couldn't get any better!

With our tummies full (and grumbling for more!), Eric and I headed off the next morning for day 1 of the trek through Chiang Dao. Our guide Abe (pronounced Ah-bay) met us at 9am, and we set out for the jungles of Thailand! First things first however - Abe being the supreme guide he is, made a couple stops along the way to the trek. We made a pit stop for lunch at a local cafe (menu: veggies, spicy pork and fresh pineapple) before venturing into the limestone caves of Chiang Dao. The caves were awesome - filled with Buddha statues and cultural artifacts, they were quite a sight!

However, Abe wasn't done yet. As we continued to the jumping off point of our trek, we stopped at two ramshackle huts on the side of the road. Much to my surprise, the first hut was filled with 5 or 6 ladies, all running around machinery and boiling pots making rice noodles! Yes, we got to see exactly how rice noodles are made, which is much more of a job than I would have ever thought. These ladies produce over 600 pounds of rice noodles a day! Props to ya ladies!

After the rice noodles, we continued on our way with Abe, who is definitely the strong silent type. He doesn't say much, but when he does talk, you better listen because it is always well worth it. About 15 minutes before our trek, the van pulled over the side of the road once more...this time to see the old traditional way of making sticky rice. Made with black beans, this sticky rice is boiled inside of bamboo over a fire until it is cooked. Then, you peel the bamboo off except for the tiniest thin layer then feast on the goodness!

After Abe gave us our cultural dose of the day, Eric and I finally headed off to what we have been looking forward to for months...trekking through the jungles and hillsides of northern Thailand baby! Armed like true American travelers in our North Face and cargo pants, we started in a small village of a small hilltribe where we stocked up on water, prepared our gear then headed off into the great unknown. Now, if I had known the great unknown looked like this, I would have gone much sooner!

Abe, Eric, our porter (a.k.a the guy who carries all the stuff and the guy who I am still unsure what his name was) and I started the day hiking through all the green vegetation and grasslands. People, this landscape is straight out of a movie. A really, really, really good movie at that. It is so picturesque but more importantly, so peaceful. The only sounds to be heard are birds chirping, grass swaying, and if you listen really closely, you can even hear the local music of the hill tribes!

Abe was so intelligent, always pointing out plants, fruits, vegetables - you name it! I think I tried just about all of it - papaya, tamarind, olives, flowers & plants (one of which Abe made me eat supposedly has a cocaine-like effect on a person!). Every so often, we would stop and rest to take in the breathtaking scenery and also do the ol' "pop & squat" to pee of course! After hiking for several hours on day 1, we stopped at the village of the Palong people. The Palong are actually refugees from Burma who fled to Thailand to escape violence in the country.

That night, the villagers lit a bonfire and so instead of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, our Christmas consisted of peanuts roasting on an open fire! We spent the night in another bamboo hut, curled up in sleeping bags and wondering just how lucky we are to have gotten to spend Christmas with the Karen village, eating delicious food all in the company of good people! The children performed some beautiful songs and dances for us, and at the end, we even got to join in!

After our overnight stay with the Palong (in which yes, we stayed in a bamboo hut on wooden floors with bug netting above our faces!), Abe made us breakfast and yummy tea. He is quite a talented cook with such limited resources (but don't tell his wife that!). Walking sticks in hand, we continued to traverse the hillsides, hiking up and down and getting an amazing glimpse into real rural life. Families harvesting beans, collecting fruit, playing with children - you really get to see it all. We also got to hike real elephant trails, where you can see the destruction first-hand of these massive beasts making their way through the wild.

The weather was a bit cool, which is ironic because the Thai people are not accustomed to the cold at all. Our porter was quite cold a lot of the trek, since it does actually get quite chilly during the nights and early mornings. One of my favorite moments was when Abe asked him if he was cold. He nodded his head yes, and Abe asked him, "Didn't your wife give you warmth?" Smiling, he replied, "She was cold too."

We traversed the countryside for a couple hours in the morning before stopping near a stream for lunch. Little did I know what was in store! Listen to this - Abe (in all his glory) rigged up the awesomest cooking contraption ever, MacGyver style! After starting the fire, he cut down bamboo and along with our porter's stellar whittling skills, cooked our lunch inside two huge bamboo shoots! He filled two bamboo stalks with water, set them in the fire and waited for the water to boil. Then he threw in cabbage, tomatoes, eggs and noodles - creating (no lie) one of the most delicious meals of the trip! Letting it all boil, he then made a feeding trough to poor the soup into, and well, I think the picture says it all!

He also made pork on the fire, wrapping them in banana leaves to cook on the fire. Dee-lish! After lunch, we cleaned it all up and headed back out to possibly the part of the trip I have been looking forward to...the elephant ride! As we were walking, out of nowhere appears the most ginormous elephant I have ever seen! Complete with gorgeous ivory tusks and grayish leather skin, he was seriously like 15 feet tall. We looked over at Abe, and he said, "This is your elephant!"

With the help of Abe and the elephant's owner, we hopped on his huge back and swayed side to side for the next hour, all on the back of an elephant! Eric and I were all excited, riding on the back of the elephant when out of the blue, the elephant gave it a big sneeze, sending elephant snot flying through the air and directly into our faces! For the next hour and a half, we dodged boogers right and left, but ultimately, the elephant won that battle. Our elephant ever so graciously lowered himself down to let us off, I mistakenly misjudged the height and thinking I was nimble, decided to take it upon myself to hop off the beast myself. Big mistake! I jumped down about 10 feet, lost my balance, stuttered backwards and landed square on my right butt cheek! The porter pointed and laughed - which he had every reason to do because my butt still hurts today!

Our elephant ride let us off in the village of the Karen people - where our porter actually happened to live! A small, quaint place of about 150 people, this village was my favorite! We lulled the afternoon away, chatting with Abe and our porter (via Abe's translating) on the front stoop of one of the villager's bamboo huts. Their houses, which are on stilts to avoid bugs and other pests, were sporadically set up along one main drag - roosters, pigs, dogs and animals roam all around the village. Some of the village boys were even running around, trying to slingshot a rooster!

Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, this girl had to go pee. Eric and I entered the pitch blackness and groggily, I popped a squat to take care of some things when out of nowhere, a wild boar ran right past me at a zillion miles an hour! Completely freaked out, I hurried to pop a squat again when another rodent zipped past my feet as I ran with my pants down to my ankles through the middle of the Karen village! Luckily, no tribal people were out (that could have made for quite the cultural clash!), and I quickly peed in the safety of the moonlight before hurriedly going back to bed!

Today ended our 3-day trek, but no worries, we still went out with a bang! We finished our hiking with some breathtaking views to the scenery before heading down to the Ping River, where we got to take an hour long bamboo raft down the river! I let Eric do the steering and maneuvering for us (that's just one of the perks of traveling with a man!) as we glided peacefully down the river to end our great adventure. After 8 hours of hiking, 15 miles of land covered, 4 different tribal villages, numerous bottles of water and tons of good stories later, we arrived back to Chiang Mai today in desperate need to a shower! So, to save you some time (I didn't realize just how long this post got!), I wish you all a very Merry Belated Christmas, and I hope this finds you healthy, happy and safe this holiday season. I miss you all very much - lots of love from halfway across the world to you all!

22 December 2007

Dandy December Days

Okay...does anybody know where the past week of my life went, because I have no recollection of it whatsoever! Between cheesy Christmas shows, last minute trip planning, intensifying marathon training and oh yeah, a 23rd birthday (yikes!), this girl has been one busy lady! No lie! The good news? Vacation has arrived, and today, we are heading off to Chiang Mai to hang out with elephants! Never thought I would hear those words come out of my mouth!

Before I do that however, my little kiddies of Sarasas Witaed Saimai Bilingual School would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! The school had a huge Christmas show (complete with completely new, outfitted stage decorations) on Friday, where all the classes dressed in their holiday best and belted the best tunes of the season! My little ones sang "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and were the cutest ones for sure! Here is Attakan (a.k.a. the compulsive pelvic thruster) as St. Nicholas himself!

After weeks of intense choreography sessions, voice lessons and performance practice (okay...maybe not so much on the first two...), my grade 1C students wore their red Santa hats with pride and danced their little hearts out on stage. Ms. Chartnapa (my adorable Thai teacher) and I were very proud of them for managing to actually stand in one place, sing and do all the moves after all those weeks of practice! I mean, they are just 1st graders! Here is the front row crew of Thanawat, Aan, Chotiros, Patharapol and Nattaporn.

I do have to make one side note...I am loving the whole teacher thing if for no other reason than for all the Christmas and birthday gifts from my students! Purses, scarves, candy, jewelry boxes, bags and trinkets - I got them all! The parents of these students are no dummies - they surely know the way to get this teacher to give all their children A's!

After the Christmas show on Friday, which happened to also be this girl's 23rd birthday (which in the words of Jessica Simpson, is like halfway to 30!), I got the most lovely surprise! Joanne, Suzi, Lauren and Thomas (along with others) planned a little birthday dinner and get-together at a local bar/restaurant to celebrate the big 2-3! It was my first ever surprise party! Woohoo!

Complete with yummy food, some birthday drinks, a bunch of Sarasas teachers and of course, one deliciously scrumptious chocolate cake (with an Oreo crust, may I add! Thank you once again Miss Joanne!), I had so much fun! So many teachers showed up, may of whom I was totally not expecting to, some with gifts even, that made it the most wonderful birthday halfway across the world! The bar/restaurant even had karaoke, which you know I happen to love! Cher's "Believe" anyone?

So between my birthday also being the last day before Christmas break, one would think the day could not get any better. But then, you might just be wrong. After celebrating, I then headed off to Thailand's Suvarnhbumi Airport to pick up Eric - a very special visitor who I will be traipsing, trekking and tailgating it around Thailand with for the next 12 days! After a brief 24 hours of flying, he arrived safely (complete with loads of goodies from home!) and being the notorious tour guide I am, wasted no time in getting this kid right into Central Bangkok!

Tuk-tuk rides, Chatuchak Market shopping excursions and ventures to the top of Thailand's tallest tower later, I like to think this kid had a pretty good first day here! The weather is being extra hot and steamy - a nice break from the brittle cold of Wisconsin I hope! Unfortunately, I don't want to make Eric spend too much time of his holiday while I update my blog, so I will give you lots more fun details on the adventure later. We have about 20 minutes before we need to pack up, head to the airport and fly off to that jungle! Bon voyage!

15 December 2007

Thai Christmas Fever

For a predominantly Buddhist country, the Thais sure love their Christmas! Yesterday, we ventured into Bangkok for a bit of last minute Christmas shopping, movie watching and eating (or gorging) a nice Christmas dinner. We were greeted with 50-ft. Christmas trees, Mariah Carey Christmas tunes and Christmas lights of all colors and shapes twinkling brightly all around central Bangkok! There were even a group of carolers singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in front of a large 100-ft. tree in one of Bangkok's biggest malls, Central World. Now, if it hadn't been 85 degrees, I might have felt right back at home in the U.S.A.!

You can also definitely tell it is tourist season in Thailand - foreigners crowd the night markets, all of the bajillion malls and can be seen everywhere around the city! They are moving in on my territory! Last night, a Swedish lady tried to swipe a pair of Chanel sunglasses (let's be real, they were fake) from me to buy, but no worries, I swept in and made the purchase before she could do it! Of course, more tourists means more people which means only one thing in Bangkok...more traffic! The already notorious traffic drives me absolutely insane - I do NOT have one ounce of patience for it at all!

First stop of the day was Chatuchak Market - Lauren and I just had to show Thomas the glory and craziness that is Chatuchak (I dare anybody to find a bigger market in the world)! We browsed there for an hour before we bargained a tuk-tuk driver (I am getting way too good at bargaining!) to bring us into central Bangkok where we saw the Bhutanese film, "The Golden Cup." The film was fascinating! Not because it was good but because it reveals the socio-political situation of the country. It is only the second movie ever made and released from Bhutan - a notoriously private country that did not have television or Internet until 1999.

Made all on a hand-held video camera, the story was of a woman who inherited an evil curse from her descendants - which forced her to poison people and kill them in order to stay alive. She fell in love with a man who got her pregnant, then was forced to leave her because his parents threatened to disown him if he married the "poison giver." So, he left her and soon after, she sought revenge on him by cursing all his children with his new wife. But hold on...she is not as evil as she may seem! She gave away her child (so she wouldn't inherit the curse) and in the end, killed herself and her family so that the curse would end and nobody would have die anymore! I quite enjoyed the film, especially with its ridiculously cheesy special effects!

After the busy day, we headed off to the Windsor Hotel, where some of the staff gathered for a nice Christmas buffet dinner. Oh, what I wouldn't give to stay in a fancy hotel for just one night! The food, service and everything! It was nice to have a good, hearty meal (well, if you count a whole plate of desserts - chocolate pudding, carrot cake, cheesecake, bread pudding - part of a hearty meal) and lots of fun! Now, with a full belly intact, I am going to go run 2 hours and 20 minutes today! Yikes!

This week should be a fun week - lots of Christmas fun going on around the school, and my very special visitor in coming on Friday, so I am, needless to say, very, very excited! I also started tutoring last week, which went very well, and even received my first teacher gift, this cat purse from Thidarach in my class! I have to say, the reason I put a picture of it on the blog is because this is seriously in-style Thai fashion. Hilarious, I know. Happy last minute Christmas shopping, stay safe in all that snow and I wish you all an excellent week!

12 December 2007

Kickin' Ko Samet

Are there any words needed for this? Clear turquoise water, soft white sand and a seaside restaurant ready to provide you with whatever food at your every whim (soft shell crab curry anyone?), all without a 1st grader in sight! Ummm...yes please! That was my long weekend - lounging at Sametville Resort (complete with a private beach!) on lovely Koh Samet island. This is why everyone comes to Thailand people - the beaches are unlike any I have ever seen. Can you blame a girl for not wanting to leave this place with its perfectly sunny 80 degree weather to go back to Saimai and teach 34 1st graders? I think not!

Since Monday was Constitution Day (I will be honest - I have no idea what that means!) and a day off of school, we packed our brightly colored beach bags, threw on our best swimsuits and headed out in the wee early hours Saturday morning to enjoy the long weekend off. Koh Samet is just a couple hours from Bangkok - so six of us packed into Suzi's boyfriend's Toyota Corolla (yes, six of us!) and drove about 3 hours to Ban Phe, where we caught the 40-minute ferry to our private beach resort! The front of the ferry clearly called for some Titanic-like movie re-creations (before the captain yelled at me in Thai to get off)...

The weekend was everything I needed...and so much more! Along with Suzi, Por (her boyfriend), Joanne, Lauren and Thomas (a new teacher at Sarasas straight up from Brooklyn, NY), I literally spent the entire 3-day weekend lying my formerly pale self on the beach, interspersing the hours with dips into the crystal clear salty water (which, let me say, did wonders for my hair) and lazy walks on the beach, topped off with lots of beachside eating and even a 14-mile marathon training run around the island! It was absolutely glorious (well, except for the bajillion hills on the island - my butt is still sore)!

Many of you may know that one of the very few foods I hate is seafood, but this weekend I became a seafood lover! No lie! Let me tell you, soft shell crab curry may sound absolutely revolting (it did to me initially!), but it is hands-down one of the best dishes I have had in Thailand. But not only did I eat soft shell crab, squid & basil with jasmine rice and lots of shrimp, but I even went fishing along the rocky bays and caught a squid! Here is Thomas, Lauren and I lounging beachside on the giant swing!

The resort was filled with people from all over the world - including a group of 6 overweight (I am being kind here...) men sporting banana hammocks, better known as the Speedo! They were lots of fun and from Europe of course - one even called me madame! We also met a half-Thai, half-Indian friend. Her name was Cherry, and she was 5 years old but very mature for her age. The stars numbered in the thousands at night, the bugs were out in full force (I have NEVER had such bug-bitten legs!) and like I said, the food was delish! Not to mention...the gorgeous sunrise sitting perfectly on the Gulf of Thailand, seen from a mere 10 feet outside our 2-bedroom villa!

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and so we reluctantly left Koh Samet Monday morning to head back for the school week ahead. But...seeing as Pattaya was conveniently right on the way home (remember? The land of ladyboys and go-go bars?), we thought it would only be right to show Thomas the sleaze and cheese that is Pattaya. The best part? I finally got to quell my craving for Indian food - we had lunch at Ali Baba Restaurant, and I had Baingain Bharta - an eggplant curry, which went perfectly with a big slice of garlic naan!

Now, I am back in good ol' Saimai and counting down the days until my next vacation, which is in 9 days! Starting tomorrow, I am also going to tutor Pavin, one of my students and a pelvic-thrusting addict, for a couple hours a week, so I am excited about that too! I forecast some shopping in my future this weekend along with a Christmas party or two and possibly a Bhutanese movie - should be a good one! Take care everyone (especially with all that snow falling in the Midwest), eat lots of Christmas cookies for me and celebrate the season, while I indulge myself in American Christmas music from abroad!

06 December 2007

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

That's how I'll be skedaddling around Thailand for the next 2 months! A plane trip up north to Chiang Mai and down south to Ko Samui, then a 7-hour train northeast to Khon Kaen in January to run the big marathon, and finally, an old-fashioned road trip to Ko Samet this weekend to bask in the glorious weather. Oh my!

Like I promised, life has kicked up a notch - starting with a weekend trip to the land of ladyboys, Russian tourists and the Gulf of Thailand - Pattaya! Last weekend, a bunch of us teacher folk headed 2 hours east to the oceanside town of Pattaya - or what I like to refer to as Crazy Uncle Chuck (C.U.C.). The thing is...nobody likes to admit they are related to C.U.C. - much in the same way tourists often don't like to admit they've been to Pattaya. However, deep down, one kind of secretly enjoys the sleaze, craziness and fun that is both C.U.C. and Pattaya. Me included!

My dear Nesrine's brother-in-law opened a fusion Thai-Russian-European restaurant (if you are wondering what that means, I am still unsure myself) there, and we were VIPs on the guest list! Let me say, I could totally get used to the VIP lifestyle, where the free food and drinks flow steadily right in this girl's direction! We had lots of fun strolling around the go-go bars, running into Russian tourists (they all come here, I swear!) and eating, all in good company of course! On our way to Pattaya in one of Thailand's bajillion minibuses, we stopped at a good ol' truck stop in the middle of nowhere where - well, I think the picture says it all!

We returned to Bangkok late Saturday night, and you could feel something special in the air - King fever of course! Yesterday, December 5, was Big K's big 8-0 - so you can imagine the fanaticism of the Thai people when it comes to celebrating the King's birthday!

The school put together another ceremony (complete with another whole background for the stage) full of ornately corny staging, singing and skits - featuring moi once again. Sarasas Witaed Saimai students descended on the school's canteen Monday morning to engage in almost 2 hours of singing King songs, holding (and swaying) King pictures and watching poorly practiced skits featuring their English teachers - all in the color yellow of course! I kid you not - there were even girls crying as the King songs were sung. For what reason? Your guess is as good as mine. Lauren has some great photos - so I will try to put one of those up soon!

Yesterday, on the King's actual birthday, I dressed myself in my best yellow shirt (which also happens to be my only yellow shirt) and got ready to do what Asian nations seem to do best - shop! We went to a huge exhibition called "Made in Thailand," where you guessed it, all the products are made in Thailand! They had row after row of food, housewares, scarves, clothes - everything a girl could want and more - including Starbucks Coffee (don't ask me why that was there!). After beginning our day of shopping, we stopped for a late lunch at a delicious Thai restaurant where I had some vegetable & shrimp rice cooked in a pineapple! Delish!

Then we headed to Siam Paragon (a.k.a. the nicest mall ever) and MBK (the best bargain mall) for more shopping, where I preceded to start checking off my list of Christmas presents for family and friends! Then unfortunately, we all remembered that we had to teach the next day, so we headed back around dinnertime to Saimai, where I blissfully fell into bed after a loaded day of shopping, shopping and more shopping!

Soooo...I am going to leave you with a parting picture of me and the King (which is actually a ginormous King memorial outside Siam Paragon) celebrating the day off from school yesterday!

30 November 2007

December Begins...

This is going to be short but effective - I got paid yesterday! Please let the trumpets roar, the bells ring, let people shout and cheer because December is going to be a busy one now that this girl is rich with baht! Today, we are heading off to Pattaya for the day. Now, if you think Bangkok is the sex capitol of the world (which it is, no doubt about that), you haven't been to Pattaya because apparently this beach town is the crown jewel of it all! Nesrine's brother-in-law has the grand opening of his new restaurant there tonight and yours truly is on the V.I.P. list!

Next weekend, I am headed off to Ko Samet - one of Thailand's many, many gorgeous islands then it will be lots of cheesy Christmas shows at school (complete with lots of singing Christmas carols!) and Christmas shopping, then 2 weeks off over Christmas where I will be headed to Chiang Mai in the north to go elephant trekking, Ko Samui in the south for more sun and finally back to Bangkok for New Year's!

I am following through on my promise - my life will get a lot more interesting! I will post lots of goodies from Pattaya and stuff later this week! Hope all is well with everyone, and enjoy the snow for me while I bathe in the sunny 80 degree weather here! A special shout-out to my Grandma - I am praying for you G'ma and love you very much!

25 November 2007

Loy Krathong

What a week of craziness - beauty pageants, theatre performances, teaching, immigration runs, the works. Not to mention, my first Thai holiday, Loy Krathong! Held every November under the full moon, Loy Krathong is a beautiful tradition dating back to the Sukhothai period. Children, parents and people of all ages apologize to the water gods for treating the rivers, canals and lakes poorly while asking for good luck in the coming year. Literally meaning "float" (loy) and "lotus-shaped boat" (krathong), Thai people offer their forgiveness by floating lotus-shaped boats lighted with candles along waterways. Needless to say, it was one of the most beautiful, lovely sights!

Suzi, Lauren, Nesrine and I headed to the local temple where all the Saimai residents were out and about, krathongs in hand! Food stands selling everything from dumplings to good ol' meat on a stick lined the streets, loudspeakers had someone jabbering away in Thai (I have no idea what was said there!) and stands selling krathongs made from flowers, bread or anything biodegradable (the Thais are very conscious of global warming) makes this one of the happiest holidays in here.

I had to get myself my own krathong, which cost me nothing (only 20 baht = 60 cents) so I could apologize to the water gods myself, seeing as I am going to be a resident of here for another 4 months! A proper krathong has 4 parts - the boat, incense sticks, at least one candle and a coin (usually 1 or 5 baht - the water gods can clearly be bought with money). Here is me floating my krathong along the canal!

However, the best part about Loy Krathong is not the boats or the meat on a stick or even the fried bananas (which are delish - you must try!). The best part about Loy Krathong is the week's festivities leading up to the holiday, which at Sarasas Witaed Saimai School includes kindergarten beauty pageants, dance competitions (including a teacher skit featuring moi) and an all-school beauty pageant. Oh yes, let the good times roll!

The week started off like any other although Loy Krathong fever was in the air. Walking around school, I caught peeks of On (a Thai teacher who is fabulously gay) teaching kindergarteners how to walk in high heels about 10 sizes too big for them, young girls practicing their singing for another upcoming competition and girls trying on their beautiful Thai silk outfits for the pageant. (***Note: These Thai silk dresses and skirts are absolutely gorgeous!) I just knew I was going to like Loy Krathong.

Finally, Friday hit - the big day. Unfortunately, the school also decided Friday would a good day to ship me off to the Ministry of Labour (to pick up my work permit) then shuffle me over to Immigration, where I had to update my visa status. So, needless to say, I was a bit crushed because I missed most of the Loy Krathong activities. However, I arrived back at school just after lunchtime to catch the results of the all-school beauty pageant for grades 1-3! Yes! Dolled in their Thai silk, ornate headdresses and slathered with make-up, these girls looked like little dolls up onstage. Take a look for yourself!

Pimmada (the little girl who I hang out with on Wednesday nights) won 3rd runner-up, then Pichada (the girl who's mom picks us up to bring us to school every morning) won the entire thing, so my girls did me proud! They were so cute!

On Friday night, I also performed in a small teacher skit at a local university which was holding a dance competition for Loy Krathong. So, right smack dab in the middle of beautiful Thai dancing as well as more modern dancing (just like out of a U.S. dance recital), I performed a small skit about Loy Krathong in front of hundreds of people! The funny part is it was more of a advertisement for the school more than anything else, but I think I definitely got my big break. The scouts are calling me non-stop now - Hollywood here I come!

Okay, maybe not, but the good news is that even though I won't be starring in any major movies anytime soon, I get paid on Friday, and I got my 12 mile run out of the way this morning. So, things are looking up regardless. My life is going get a lot more interesting on the blog once I get paid, promise! Alright, well time to head out but I hope all is well back home and take care everyone. Happy Loy Krathong!

16 November 2007

This and That

This post is deservedly called "This and That," because I have a great collection of tidbits from this past week! Again, the weeks seem to be flying right by me! The kiddies - although wildy rambunctious and raucous, not to mention the fact they love to hear the sound of their own voices way too much - make for some great stories.

However, first, me and my great spur of the moment ideas have decided to run a marathon. Yes, run 26.2 miles for no apparent reason other that to put my body under stress and pain like it has never before felt. The Khon Kaen Marathon (http://www.khonkaenmarathon.com/) is apparently "the greatest marathon of Thailand." So on January 27th, you can find me in northeastern Thailand running my little heart out! It's something I have wanted to do, so I figured, why not in Thailand? It makes for a much better story!

Another funny tidbit...this week the students of grade 1C had a spelling test on "Animals." Pet animals and farm animals to be exact. Well, #4 was the word horse. Little Supicha (seen here in possibly one of the cutest pictures ever) racked her brain for the spelling, and instead of h-o-r-s-e, came up with w-h-o-r-e-s. Yes, whores. But with a face like this, who really cares?

Another funny side note...I have slowly but surely been discovering all my student's "nicknames" or "English names" (refer to previous post for explanation). I am going to prove to you all how much the Thais (and myself included) love 7-11. I kid you not, there is one every 50 feet and am convinced the only reason 7-11 as a business is still afloat is because of Thailand. In addition to that, parents even name their children after the convenience store here! It is true, Attakan's (my little pelvic thruster) nickname is Seven.

Here is just a nice little shot I took from the top floor of the school - which looks out over a series of beautiful, green rice paddies to southwest. If you keep going this way, eventually you will run into the heart of downtown Bangkok!

Other shenanigans from the week? Well, this week in English we are working on "Clothes," and one of the vocabulary words is underwear. With each vocab word, I had the students point to someone with that article of clothing on. We got to underwear and to hopefully avoid a compromising scene, I said (with an air of firmness), "Now, don't show me your underwear!" Clearly, I should have known better because before I knew it, half the boys in my class were already prancing around the classroom, showing off their Superman and Batman underwear. I didn't know what to do, so I laughed and prayed nobody from administration would walk by at that moment. Which, thank the Lord, they didn't!

Other than that, it is the same ol', same ol' in the classroom - mass chaos, pelvic thrusting, lots of talking and me, hoping that at least one child in my class is learning something. Anything. Unfortunately, Lauren and I are still living on a budget, although last night I accidentally blew about half my week's budget at Big C - the Thai equivalent of Target. It's the things like Big C that make you feel right at home.

The plan for today is up in the air - probably going to the pool (free!) and getting myself a proper tan, since I am in 90 degree weather in the middle of November! This girl needs to start taking full advantage! We also need to pay our electric bill, which you can do at 7-11 (I tell you, you can do anything at 7-11 in this country!), and I have a big 11-mile run tomorrow to rest up for! Unfortunately, nothing super exciting for you all, but I will leave you with Pam and I - making the face that we always make toward one another. Enjoy!

10 November 2007

Veggin' Out

I am going to have to apologize to you all beforehand - I have gotten pretty good at making this whole Thailand experience look like an adventure, which it has been, don't get me wrong people. But this weekend, well...I don't think any amount of exaggeration would be able to make it seem interesting, haha! It was one of those weekends which confirmed that no, I am not on a perpetual, 7-month vacation here, and yes, I do work and live here. Key words being work and live.

Friday night we headed to go to Central Ram Inthra - one of a million shopping malls in the Bangkok area - to see "The Playbook," (the new movie with The Rock) only to find that it was only in Thai - not English. Slight problem. Then, instead of shopping, I spent over an hour browsing Boots - the British pharmacy which has transplanted itself in Thailand!

Yesterday, I bummed around Saimai - went for a run, did laundry, hung out by the pool for a couple hours, went for a pedicure (you are never too poor for a 100 baht=3$ pedi!) then walked around Wongsakorn Market, which is the biggest market in Saimai. Here is a lovely shot of my main market's entrance!

The best part of the day was definitely our Thai feast! Us young, female teachers - Suzi, Joanne, Lauren and I - went to Suzi's house, ordered a plethora of dishes from the local restaurant and stuffed our faces with all the deliciousness, including my favorite - Som Tum Polaimai! It is fruit (guava, pineapple, pears, grapes) and vegetables (green beans, tomatos, carrots) in a slightly spicy sauce - the BEST! We also had suki and Som Tum (spicy papaya salad), along with other soups, noodles dishes, fried fish and of course, rice and khai dao (fried egg)! Oh man...now this is good Thai cooking!

After dinner - fully stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey - I was actually pretty tired. I think all this teaching, running around and flitting about from here to there caught up with me, because I slept for like 12 hours last night! Now, I am ready and rarin' to go - although, I think it might be another veg out day in Saimai. Oh well, we are probably going to need all the energy we can get for the kiddies this week. As for next weekend, Lauren and I are thinking Buddhist meditation retreat...going to see if I can make it happen!

08 November 2007

Classroom Craziness

Oh…the first full week back teaching after break is coming to a close. Thank the Lord! I started off so patient with the children – lovingly guiding them to the correct answers on worksheets, giving them praise for coloring jobs well done and overall, boosting their self-esteem so they could feel good about their English skills. Then, I lost my patience. It is nowhere to be found at the moment. here are the little rascals actually behaving in the classroom, in somewhat of a rare moment.

My kiddies in grade 1C are still rambunctious, but the good news is that this semester, I lost two of my most out-of-control boys, so the class has quieted down a bit. And I mean, a bit. I also started teaching after-school, which is pretty much one hour from 3:30 – 4:30pm where you babysit the children until school is out. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I have six girls, and they are so much fun!

Pornpawee is my fave – she is short, chubby and just about the sweetest little girl in the world. In Thailand, children are given their Thai names by a Buddhist monk when they are born (in other words, Pornpawee’s parents are not to blame for their daughter’s name). Their parents give them a nickname or English name, which is used by family and friends. Well, I asked little Pornpawee what her nickname was and she said quite simply, “Pam.” Yes, her English name is Pam, and she is totally, 100% a Pam. Little Pammy is the one in the bottom right hand corner.

Also this week, I have had Attakan singing Maroon 5’s song, “This Love” all week on top of Pavin drawing suicidal people jumping from buildings into cars (We are in our environments unit, and he was asked to draw a city environment. That’s what he came up with). Today, I wore a white, flowy dress, and now all the girl’s in my class are coming up to me, rubbing my stomach and saying “Baby! Baby!” Yes, my students think I am pregnant. Great ego boost for me.

An even bigger ego-boost happened today at lunch. I was walking from the canteen to get lunch from the teacher’s lunchroom. The Thai gym teacher, Chanon, happens to teach gym between those two areas, and he was teaching grade 7 boys soccer. Well, as I was walking, the ball came towards me so I thought, “Hey! Let’s show these boys that the cool American teacher can play soccer too.” So, I went to kick the ball, completely slipped on my gold ballet flats, was hurtled into the air and landed smack dab on my right elbow. Not only did I flash 10 grade 7 boys in the process (remember the white, flowy dress?), but now I have an elbow the size of a tennis ball. No joke. Friday cannot come soon enough.

Now, I have one more class left before the end of the day, then after-school class, a little Internet and then off to the gym tonight, although no lifting with the injured elbow! Hope all is well back home! Sawatdee kah!

03 November 2007

Moopin' Around

We are back, back again in Bangkok...but this time, with a visitor! Our dear friend Steve-O - who we acquainted ourselves with on the long, treacherous lurching bus ride through Laos - happened to swing by this crazy metropolis before he leaves back to England today, so we were able to reunite with our British mate! Since Steve had yet to properly see Bangkok, it was only natural that Lauren and I bring him to only the best sights. Clearly, our first stop was crazy Chatuchak Market!

Now...if you look closely at this picture (I guess you don't need to look close because it is pretty obvious) you will see a lovely mural of the King Rama IX plastered on the side of the building! One of my favorite things in Thailand is that a majority - and I definitely mean more than half - of the buildings here have ginormous King murals on multiple sides of their building. This one happens to be in Queen Sirikit Park, which is situated just outside the chaotic consumerism that is Chatuchak Weekend Market!

Another note...the King is currently in poor health - I mean, the man is going to be 80 years old this December for heaven's sake (which is a national holiday and a vacation day for moi!). Let's hope for a quick recovery because supposedly, this country is going to descend into widespread craziness if he passes away! You can also get jailed for saying anything bad about the royal family, so I am going to refrain from telling more. As much as I would love to spend seven years in Thai jail, I am going to keep quiet! King Rama IX is not only the world's longest reigning monarch (take that Queen Lizzie!), but he has done loads of community development work. One example, he is helping out poor hill tribes earn money by promoting local artisan crafts. What a King!

After navigating the maze that is Chatuchak Market (which, miracle of miracles, I did not buy one thing at yesterday!), we brought Steve to another Bangkok trademark - Siam Paragon! I think I have mentioned that Paragon is by far the nicest shopping mall I have ever been in - Gucci, Versace, Armani, Dolce and Gabbana - they have it all!

They also happen to have a most delish gourmet food market - which much to my delight, I discovered yesterday! With a large supermarket, bakeries, fruit stands, restaurants and stands selling local delicacies, it is a cross between Whole Foods and Kowalski's. Heaven, I'd say! Littered with free samples, the three of us spent hours browsing everything and got much of our dinner for free! Having a built-in radar for finding sickenly sweet sweets, I discovered the Thai dessert roti. Oh man...after turning the dough so it is literally paper thin, they fold it up into a circle, fry it on a large griddle with butter, then proceed to chop this flaky delight up into pieces, put it in a cute little Tupperware container and drizzle it with milk and sugar. I don't know what else to say but perfecto!

After finally leaving Siam Paragon following our 2-hour eating samples binge, we headed back out to Silom - where we continued the market extravaganza with the night markets! Bootlegged DVD's, designer clothes & purses, lamps, shoes, belts, clothes, food - you name it, they've knocked off the originals! This is a really fun area of the city to browse, not only because of the shopping (I am slowly learning that Asia is one big consumer society!), but because Silom is the area where people go out, party at night and all that jazz.

Which means...knowing Bangkok and the fact it's pretty much the sex capitol of the world, Silom is one of the centers of the sex show industry. Enter the moop. The moop is a new term - coined and hopefully, in the future, trademarked by Steve, Lauren and I - to signify the presence of what they like to call, a ladyboy. Wherever you walk, you are accosted by men offering you invitations to shows featuring scantily clad women - ping pong shows, banana shows, sex shows...I think you get the picture. However, you may find that many of these "women" are not in fact real "women," but instead, ladyboys or more properly speaking, transvestites. So, everytime we saw one, we'd say "Moop!" Now, there are different varying degrees of the moop - dependent upon the degree of the ladyboy - but all you need to know is that the moop looks something like this...

Overall, we clearly had quite a lovely day in Bangkok showing Steve around! Now, it is Sunday once again, and our agenda for today? Maybe a little pool (the rainy season is gone!), a little massage (there is always enough money in the budget for a massage), definitely a work-out, then relax before the school week starts all back over again tomorrow! So far so good at school, here's to another good week with the kiddies!

31 October 2007

Happy Halloween

For the record, yes! The Thais do celebrate Halloween...in fact, I tried to go to the gym on Monday, and after spending the 50 baht I don't have on a taxi ride there, I arrived to find the gym shutdown in honor of a huge Halloween bash there, which even featured one of the trainers, Ice, as DJ Iceman. Oh yeah!

Today was the first day back to school after a wondrous three weeks in Laos and China. The little kiddies arrive tomorrow, and actually, I am a bit excited to get back in a routine - teaching, going to the gym, doing nothing but reading at night. After eating all those Laos French baguettes and Chinese baba, it's probably a good thing! Although, I did receive a nice surprise in the mail, full of Halloween candy, so naturally one has to indulge on Hallow's Eve. If you can't scarf your face full of 20 Rolos, a handful of York Peppermint Patties and a quarter of a Hershey's chocolate bar on Halloween, when can you really do it?

So, I am back to the craziness that is Saimai, getting ready for semester two to start tomorrow. I am already armed with bribing material - candy & stickers - for the children, which I will need as my whole schedule got changed around, which means the lessons I had planned for the week won't work, and I am going to be winging it! This should be interesting!

Hope you all have a shove-your-face-full-of-candy Happy Halloween!

27 October 2007

Tiger Leapin' Gorge-ous!

Ladies and gentlemen, I just got back from the best two-day hike ever! Tiger Leaping Gorge was of course, gorge-ous! (Come on! You saw that one coming!) One of the largest gorges in the world at 16km long, it is tucked right under the monstrous peaks of Haba Shan (a.k.a. Haba Mountain) to the west and Yulong Xueshan (a.k.a. Jade Dragon Mountain) to the east. The scenery is perfection my friends, absolute perfection! Now, I know I have a tendency to gush about everywhere I've traveled (shocker, I know!), but this was honestly one of the most naturally beautiful places I have had the good fortune to see with my own two eyes.

Yesterday morning, I rose bright and early at 7am to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge as fast as I could! Courtesy of Mama, I devoured a delicious breakfast of a ginormous banana pancake (only 3 yuan = 40 cents!) then took the local bus to Qiaotao, where this magnificent gorge begins! I hiked the gorge solo (Lauren headed off to Beijing for a couple of days - yours truly has been looking forward to the gorge for weeks!), starting at about 1pm.

Now, I consider myself to be relatively in shape, but can I tell you, this gorge is a butt-kicker! You may be able to tell that fact by the oh so lovely photo of me profusely sweating and using what energy I had left to smile for it :) There is a tough section of the trek called 28 Bends - well, for the record, there are definitely more than 28 of them, and they are really bendy! The hike takes you on a 900 meter ascent through rocky trails, local villages and wildlife. I even saw a wild boar chilling out on the hillside and chomping away on grass!

The day before I left for the hike however, I met three young, physically fit men who, on the first day, hiked from the beginning of the gorge to the Halfway House (where you stay overnight) in 5 hours. Just for the record, I made in in 4 1/2 hours! Well, I would have made it in 4 1/2 if I hadn't had problems finding the trail twice. So, technically, I guess I made it in five too. Not going to lie, I fully enjoyed hiking solo on the trail - I went my own pace and really became one with nature. And, I only almost fell on my face like four times!

Later on the trail, I met up with a most delightful Australian couple - Greg & Emma - with whom I hiked the last 1 1/2 to the Halfway House. After hanging out alone most of the afternoon, I think I chatted their ears off because they were the first people I talked to all day! So, after the 4 1/2 hours, we stopped to stay overnight at the Halfway, which has the most amazing view of the the mountains and gorge! The hillsides were a deep, lush green up the mountainsides then the vegetation slowly ceased until the peaks turned white, their crevaces and peaks covered in snow! The morning sunrise wasn't so bad either!

After staying the night at Halfway and meeting a new cast of travel characters (including Richard, a native Oregoner who works at the NIH; Tim, an airline pilot from Chicago who flies for the U.S. military; Christian & Petra, a quiet couple from Dusseldorf, Germany and of course, Greg & Emma, who happen to be working and living in Ho Chi Minh City!), we headed out again at 8:30am. Today's hike was far shorter and only a descent...thank you Lord!

After 1 1/2 hours, we arrived at the end of the gorge, which is also known as the middle rapids. Here lies the infamous Tiger Leaping Stone! Legend has it, a tiger once leapt across the Yangtze River, giving the gorge its name! Well, of course this was a must see, so we hiked the 40 minutes straight down to the beautiful (and treacherous!) rapids, which are located at one of the narrowest and most harrowing parts of the gorge!

Now, I am back at good ol' Mama Naxi's Guesthouse, and as soon as I get done with this post, I am taking the longest hot shower of my life. No joke. I have to say Lijiang is fast rising on my list of favorite places I have been. Unfortunately, I am leaving tomorrow to head back to Bangkok - I think I have teaching job there to get back to or something :)

Before the gorge, Lauren and I dawdled about town and have had quite a few enjoyable cross-cultural Lijiang experiences. (1) I must look like a stranger in a strange land because two people have asked to take their picture with me, three people have made comments about my hair and an unlimited number have pointed and gawked at me. The curly hair gets them every time!

(2) Black Dragon Pool Park is the most serene place in Lijiang, I am positive. Populated with ornate, ancient temples and signs mandating both "No smoking!" and "No spitting!" it is the most lovely place to sit, relax and enjoy a scenic panorama view of Lijiang's mountainous surroundings. (Look for me in the purple!)

(3) The Naxi women here definitely run the show! Today was the first time my bargaining skills failed me when I was unable to negotiate a deal for three colorful scarves. The selling price was 6 yuan each, so of course I offered her 12 yuan for three, but she wouldn't budge. I admired her refusal to budge (since everybody else does!), so of course she got her 18 yuan! Here is a picture of four Naxi women - dressed in their traditional garb - hanging out in Sifang Square, the center of Old Lijiang.

Alright, hope this post wasn't too long for you all! I promise I am wrapping it up now as that hot shower just sounds all too tempting. Sorry if I gushed too long about the gorge (it was seriously, hands-down the best thing I have done so far!), and take care everyone! Off to make the voyage back to Bangkok! Sawatdee kah, once again!

24 October 2007

I Heart Lijiang

After another three hour bus ride from Dali, I really thought our bus luck had turned around. Well, Lauren sat in the back row, scrunched between five people, with a drooling man falling asleep right on her shoulder. Right in front of her, I was squished in my seat because the seat in front of me was broken and only reclined all the way back, right into my lap. Luckily, three hours was nothing (compared with 40!), and once we arrived in Lijiang, it was completely worth it. The old town of Lijiang is the most adorable town ever, I am sure of it!

In 1996, a massive earthquake heavily destroyed the city, killing more than 300 people. The government then invested millions of yuan back into the city, repairing its buildings in the original Naxi style and the roads back in cobblestone. They spent years returning the city to its former glory, and in 1999, Lijiang was rewarded and put on the list for World Heritage sites. Yeah for them!

We started off the day ready and rarin' to go explore this ancient city - which is considered the center of Naxi culture. One of the most fascinating things I learned is the Naxis are a matrilineal society, meaning that - yes, girls! - it's the women who make all the decisions around these parts! They are the ones having torrid love affairs, men court them home at night - they rule this roost! There are about 330,000 Naxi people, including my new friend, Dr. Ho.

As we were about to leave to go explore, we met three lovely men from Israel, who asked us if we wanted to go see Dr. Ho with them. Dr. Ho? Who is this fellow you may ask? Well, sit down my friends and get ready to meet the "World's Most Admired Man." At 85 years young, Dr. Ho is a Naxi physician specializing in treating complicated and chronic ailments, all with Chinese herbs! He has a fully documented case of curing leukemia, all with medicinal herbs. Dr. Ho actually works with the Mayo Clinic in researching herbal treatments for leukemia!

At the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic - located in Baisha, a village just outside Lijiang - Dr. Ho treats everyone who comes in, free of charge. He only takes donations, which go straight to helping the poor who cannot afford treatment. He is an absolute inspiration. His advice for a healthy life? "Be happy," which I think is the best medical advice there is.

His office is a jumble of press clippings, photographs of him with famous people (i.e. Princess Diana, Mao Zedong...) and herbs, of course! His wife served us herbal tea, and he did medical exams on all of us! Unfortunately, everyone had ailments (coughs, stomach problems, etc.), so Dr. Ho concocted mixtures of Chinese herbs to cure them. After asking me if I had a cough (no), PMS (no...I don't think so :) and other symptoms (no), with booming voice, he proclaimed in broken English, "You are healthy!" Which was kind of a disappointment, I wanted special Chinese medicinal herbs from Dr. Ho too!

After our wonderful visit with the famous Dr. Ho, we set about exploring this town, which much to my enjoyment is full of shopping! Yes, I am really getting in trouble here with the shopping habit - my bargaining skills are too good! The rickety cobblestoned streets of Lijiang are filled with tourist shops and cafes, but the best part is that despite the tourists here, you get the feeling that many Naxis and Chinese people actually live here. They populate the fruit and vegetable markets, wander about town picking up their daily food, then head home to the houses which are sprinkled in all tiny alleyways and back streets.

Near the entry to Old Lijiang (which is situated right next to New Lijiang - which looks like any other city), there are two beautiful, large windmills. They propel the hundreds of creeks and streams which also run throughout the city. The best part? If you are lost, all you have to do is find a stream because they all run into Sifang Square, the center of the old city! At the windmills, they also have this lovely collection of wind chimes - which all have positive affirmations and wishes written by visitors on them. Supposedly if you walk under these, putting your arm up to ring the bells, you are blessed with the well wishes written on them! I love it!

We spent the afternoon browsing the endless rows of shops, climbing up and down cobblestone stairs, getting lost in the maze of alleyways and streets, desperately trying to find a toilet (several times) and enjoying more beautiful weather in Lijiang. We climbed up to the Wenjang Temple, where you can get a spectacular view of the city, which is where I am right here!

Today, we are going to venture back out into Lijiang and see more sights (less shopping - funds are running low!) before tomorrow's venture into the great Tiger Leaping Gorge - one of the largest gorges in the world! Back to the streets of Lijiang and Mama Naxi's Guesthouse (where we are staying) - let's just say Mama is quite the character, which means good stories to come for you all! She's a hoot! Take care everyone and have a wonderful day!

P.S. Turns out, the Chinese government caught onto my blog, and I have been blacklisted by the Communists! I am not kidding. Only a few days ago, I could view my blog just fine, but now, I can only post to it but can't see it! I am on President Hu Jintao's watchlist - I am sure of it!