24 February 2008

Here, There and (almost) Everywhere

Trivia time! Can anybody name the classic 1957 Oscar-nominated film featuring this infamous (albeit a big ugly) bridge?

If you just happened to say "The Bridge on the River Kwai" - you would be right! On Saturday, Lauren and I skedaddled a couple hours west of Bangkok to the lovely town of Kanchanaburi! (FYI: Our taxi driver on the way to the bus station repeatedly informed us was "Kahn-chahn-ah-bour-eeee!" after Lauren and I apparently butchered the pronounciation in our good ol' Midwestern accents.) We arrived in Kanchanaburi around lunchtime, promptly found the first street food stand and met some new friends - Nut and her 14 year-old daughter Aan. After some delicious cow pad sai pak (aka stir-fried rice with egg and vegetables), we headed on our way with our tuk-tuk driver for the day straight to the bridge!

Actually known in Kanchanaburi as the bridge over the River Kwae (note the spelling difference from the movie), the bridge holds a lot of history from World War II. During the 1940s, Thailand was occupied by the Japanese, who built a railway between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) to make it easier to transport supplies to help them fight the Allies. To set about building this railway, the Japanese forced Allied prisoners of war (mostly from Australia, Britain, Holland and the United States) to build this railway, which became known as the "Death Railway" because over 12,000 POWs died constructing it.

The actual bridge was especially harrowing to build and was the focus of "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which won 7 Oscars. Sooooo...now you have received your history lesson for the day, time to continue on through Kanchanaburi. After Lauren and I walked over the bridge (and just so happen to "walk through" a jewelry market nearby), we headed to the Kanchanburi War Cemetary, which is dedicated to all those involved with the Death Railway. A beautiful, well-kept cemetary, it was very humbling to see all the graves of those soldiers who so bravely gave their lives during WWII.

After the cemetary, we took a quick trip to the Jeath War Museum, which chronicles Thailand's involvement in WWII in some fascinating old photographs. It is an adorable museum located in a U-shaped bamboo hut to commemorate the U-shaped huts the POWs lived in at the Japanese prisoner of war camps in Thailand. Why "Jeath War Museum" you may ask? Well, according to the pamphlet, "death" is too horrific of a word, so they decided to use jeath instead!

Today, after arriving back from Kanchanaburi tonight, it was time to cross more things off of our Thailand to-do list, this time with the help of an old friend! Lauren and I met up with Ted - a fellow traveler I met while in Austria back in August (who just so happens to be from Wisconsin and to have graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the exact same day as myself!) - to head out and cross two very important things off of our list...the floating markets and the Grand Palace! Here is Teddy and I on the long-tail boat, cruising through the canals of the Chao Priya River on our way to the "floating market"!

Unfortunately I say "floating market" because the floating market we were brought to was a bit of a disappointment. Supposedly the floating market is a bustling tour through boats selling a variety of Thai food specialties, souvenirs and trinkets of all sorts. However, this floating market was an ugly green barge in the middle of the canal with about four boats selling food. Soooo, either we got scammed into going to the wrong market or the floating markets are a mysterious Thai tourist attraction that doesn't exist. I am going to go with option #1.

It's a good thing the gang and I can have a good time anywhere, because after the floating market let-down, we took a tuk-tuk to the Grand Palace (Ted's first Bangkok tuk-tuk ride, may I remind you) and on the way, it broke down in the middle of the road! After a good laugh, we hailed another tuk-tuk over to the Grand Palace, perhaps Bangkok's #1 tourist attraction. Here is a pretty flower shot from the inside of the palace - this one's for you Mom, I know you love the flower photos!

The official residence of the king of Thailand from the 18th century to the mid-20th century, the Grand Palace is just that - grand! It is an elegant complex of several buildings which is protected by ornate white walls on all four sides. When the current King Bhumibol began his official reign over 60 years ago, he moved the official residence to Chitlada Palace. Now the Grand Palace serves as a major tourist mecca and provided a nice afternoon stroll for Lauren, Ted and I. Here is Chakri Mahaprasad Hall - the largest of the Grand Palace buildings (and I think the prettiest)!

Starting tomorrow - Exam Week! That's right, just one more week of school before I will re-sign my title as Grade 1 teacher at Sarasas Witaed Saimai. The days are quickly passing, and still, I have so much left to do! Hope you are all staying warm as I fight off the humidity and along with it, some really out-of-control, afro hair!

16 February 2008

To-Do List Time

With less than six weeks to go, there is no time to waste getting all the last minute excursions checked off the Thailand To-Do List. Yesterday, we enjoyed a long, delicious morning of sleeping in, which was much-needed, let me tell you! My grade 1C students open their mouths to talk more and more each day...I never knew such chatter could come from such a cute lil' group of kiddies. Then, Lauren, Thomas and I ventured into Bangkok for a lovely Saturday afternoon tour of Dusit Palace Park alongside our new Dutch friend Derek.

Nestled in northern Bangkok near the King's current residence, Chitlada Palace, Dusit Palace Park is a lovely area filled with beautiful mansions, throne halls, photography exhibitions (featuring photos taken by Big K himself!), elephant museums and much more. First stop of the day - Vimanmek Mansion!

Built in 1900 by H.M. King Rama V, Vimanmek Mansion is the world's largest golden teakwood mansion. Yep, you heard that right! We took a guided tour in "English" - which I put in quotation marks because within the first five minutes, I understood about 10 words of what our guide said then in true Holly style, tuned out and wandered my own way through the beautiful, airy mansion. The mansion was spectacular! Awash in beachy tones of seafoam green, petal pink and sunflower yellow, the mansion had an unexpected European flair, which I loved. Unfortunately no cameras were allowed inside, but here is a lovely exterior shot of a traditional Thai house (built behind the mansion for servants) for your viewing pleasure!

Unfortunately with our late arrival time at Dusit, by the time our tour ended at the Vimanmek Mansion, the park was closing, which meant we couldn't get into Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall - the imposing yet absolutely stunning dome-shaped structure on the grounds. Well...add that one back onto our to-do list. We were able to lollygag about the Dusit grounds though, where we ran into one fierce guard, maybe more imposing than the throne hall.

After Dusit, we headed further into central Bangkok to do what else but....shop! Personal confession: I am the worst budgeter ever. I told myself at the beginning of February, "No shopping!" - I should have known better because I came out with a pair of shoes. Oops!

Later Saturday night, Lauren and I weaved our way through Chinatown to Chalermkrung Royal Theatre - the home of Thai masked dance! Khon is the classic Thai art of masked dance, in which actors/dancers perform the story while narrators are used to project voices for those characters. Tonight's performance was the Ramakien - which is the Thai version of the classic Indian epic, Ramayana. It tells the story of Phra Narai, who was reborn as a human in order to save humans and angels from Tosakanth, the demon king of Longkha city.

Here are some shots I snuck of the performance - they are not the best but if anything else, you can see just how absolutely exquisite the costuming is. This is the scene in which Rama and Tosakanth battle for Longhka at the end of the myth...enjoy!

The performance was ornate, interesting and a good Saturday night excursion! Now it is Sunday once more and just two weeks left of school. Can you believe it? This girl hasn't had a massage in far too long, so the only thing I know I am doing for sure today is treating my feet (and potentially my face or back) to a good ol' Thai massage. Take care everyone and enjoy your Sunday!

14 February 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

Sending you all lots of love, hugs and kisses from Thailand! Happy Valentine's Day from Nathitiek, Chotiros, Pornpawee (aka Pam), Supicha and yours truly! Hope everyone has a love-ly February 14th!

10 February 2008

Ancient Ayutthaya & Lovely Lopburi

With less than 55 days left before the big return stateside (eeks!) and a Thailand to-do list of ike bajillion things, this weekend it was time to take some initiative and start crossing things off that list! Goodbye Bangkok, and hello Ayutthaya! Situated just 45 minutes north of Bangkok (minus the horrendous traffic), Ayutthaya is the former royal capital of Thailand, helping to establish the country as a great empire in SE Asia. Loaded with historic wats, or temples, it is trip back in time as the city is filled with chedis, stupas and Buddhas of all sorts!

Lauren, Thomas and I hopped on a bus early Saturday morning and about 1 1/2 hours later, found ourselves enveloped in the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya. The Siamese royal capital from 1350 to 1767, Thailand's empire was the largest during this period. The Ayutthaya period (as it is known) saw the Thai people conquer present-day Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar - giving the country world recognition before eventually being conquered by the Burmese. Here are some of the ruins at Wat Phra Mahathat - the center of the old sacred city!

Across the street from Wat Phra Mahathat is Wat Ratburana, which boasts one of the best preserved prangs (the tall, intricate structure I am standing on below) in Ayutthaya. This beautiful wat was built by one of the 15th century kings for his two brothers, who died battling each other in hopes for the elusive throne! So much history here, it's amazing!

Battling the increasing heat and humidity (I know it's snowing back home, but the heat isn't all fun and games!), we spent Saturday walking around the various historical parks and enjoying the crumbling ruins of Ayutthaya. Naturally, all that walking made us hungry so we stopped for a lazy (albeit delicious) late afternoon lunch at a corner restaurant (som tam, or spicy papaya salad for this girl!). Quite honestly, once you've seen a few wats and ruins here, a few wats and ruins there, they all start to look like one another...but, that didn't stop us!

One of Ayutthaya's most famous ruins is Wat Phra Si Sanphet! These three bell-shaped chedis are an example of quintessential Ayutthaya architecture and up close, are extremely elegant! Built in the late 14th century, it was used for royal ceremonies and even has one of the largest Buddha's in Thailand, just a one minute walk away! This was probably one of my favorite wats from the weekend - there's just something about it!

After spending the day exploring Ayutthaya, we then hopped on an open-air train and enjoyed a nice breeze as we headed farther north two hours to Lopburi. A cute little town with a Bohemian flair, Lopburi is also full of ancient ruins from its days as an important administrative center in Thailand (I hope the history lessons aren't boring you all too much!). Upon arriving, a large Thai man advertising a taxi called us over, wanting our Western business. We told him "Nett Hotel," where we planned on staying, and he agreed. Then he motioned us over, not to a convential taxi or even a tuk-tuk, but instead into the back of his Toyota pick-up truck! We said, why the hell not? So...here we are enjoying a joy ride through Lopburi, thanks to our "taxi driver"!

After a light dinner at our guesthouse, we retreated off to bed, ready to get up early and explore the place! First stop of Sunday - Phra Narai Ratchaniwet! The former royal palace is a wonderful collection of ancient ruins, artifact galleries and even a cute little museum! The gang (and by gang, I mean Lauren and Thomas) and I browsed, walked, perused and explored our way around the grounds, which was used as the second capital of Thailand by Ayutthaya's King Narai. Since many of the wats and ruins lack informational signs on them, the museum was nice to browse and get the chance to learn a bit about Thailand's history. Nerds, I know!

The lovely thing about Lopburi is not only that it is a quaint little place (maybe a bit rundown), but that it is notorious for the hoards of monkeys which have invaded many of its ruins. Yes, I said monkeys! Prang Sam Yot (below) is notorious for the notorious (and by notorious, I mean slightly confrontational) monkeys hanging around the place. Climbing on tourists with food, scaling the 50-ft. prang, fighting with each others - I am not going to lie, I was totally scared of the monkeys!

So there you have it everyone, your history lesson for the day! Although a girl can shop with the best of them in Bangkok, she can also temple-see with the best of them in Ayutthaya and Lopburi as well! It was definitely nice to get away from bustling Bangkok for the weekend, and enjoy some relaxation (except for the monkeys - they totally sent my blood pressure soaring) by exploring a bit of Thai history. Lauren, Thomas and I had fun as usual (usually making fun of each other), and unfortunately, now it is Sunday again and school as normal tomorrow. Hopefully there will be more checking off the Thailand to-do list soon! Take care everyone!

07 February 2008

Sports Day (well, kind of...)

I say "well, kind of.." because in Thailand, the idea of "Sports Day" doesn't actually involve sports whatsoever. They should really call it, oh I don't know... "Provocative Dance Day," or maybe "Make-as-much-noise-as-you-can Day" because that's more what it was like around Sarasas on Sunday morning! Yes, that's right! I had to get my butt out of bed at 7:30am for Sarasas Witaed Saimai School's 2nd Annual Sports Day!

Dividing the school into four teams (Gold - my team!, Amethyst, Sapphire and Emerald), we spent the morning groggily cheering on a slew of young girls performing choreographed dances to trendy Thai songs, watching as different grade levels played a variety of games (NOT sports, just to clarify) and listening to a cacophony of screaming, yelling and cheering. Here is a group of Gold gals showing off their best (and winning the gold medal for "Best Dancing")!

Although I may joke around about the whole "Sports Day" thing, the kiddies really, really love this day and look forward to it all year. On the day the teams were announced, they came racing into the classroom, out of breath and asking, "Miss Holly! Miss Holly! What color you?" They spend weeks (seriously, weeks!) practicing cheers and games leading up to the big event - the Thais do not take these things lightly! Between eating contests, tire rolling competitions, parent dance-offs, cheering battles and most importantly, the provocative dance-offs, the students love their "Sports Day"! Here is me and one of my grade 1C faves, Aan, who looked absolutely adorable in her traditional Thai dress!

Thankfully, my long six day work week is coming to a close tomorrow now that it is finally Friday! Tomorrow is the last day for school assessments because starting on Monday, the next three weeks will be solely devoted to preparing my little 1st graders for exams! The school year is fast coming to a close...only 16 more days of teaching!

No for sure weekend plans as of yet, but I could possibly be going on a Vipassana weekend meditation retreat or heading just north of Bangkok to Ayutthaya, one of Thailand's ancient capitals, or jaunting into Bangkok for some last sight-seeing and maybe a Thai dance show. Who knows where these unpredictable Thai weekends will take me? I hope you are all staying safe and warm in these crazy snowstorms I am hearing so much about, even halfway across the world!

04 February 2008

Thai Kitchen Cookin'

This weekend, I finally got the chance to do what I have wanted to do since I arrived in Thailand...learn how to whip up some tasty Thai dishes with the best of em'! After hunting around Thailand for a reputable place (a girl has got to learn from the best!), I found Bai Pai Thai Cooking School. On Saturday, Thomas and I headed to this cute lil' cooking school, located in a gorgeous open-air house on a remote back alley in the Yannawa district of Bangkok, near the river. Needless to say, us two crazy kids made for an entertaining time in the kitchen!

We cooked, fried, chopped and ate our Saturday afternoon away, preparing four typical Thai dishes! Bai Pai also taught us Westerners all about key ingredients, techniques and preparation of Thai cuisine. Surprisingly, the dishes were all very easy to make and took 15 minutes or less to cook (which is a huge plus for impatient ol' me!). What I found interesting is that Thai cuisine is made up several basic ingredients, which are used in almost every dish. Thai ingredient staples, you may ask? Fish sauce, palm sugar, soy sauce, garlic and Thai chillies of course!

Before we started cooking, we got a lesson in vegetable carving! Using a flat peeling knife and a sharp rounded knife thing, we made roses out of tomato peels and leaves out of cucumbers. I can't say I was a natural at vegetable carving, but my veggie masterpieces definitely turned out better than Thomas's, haha! He was getting a bit frustrated with the carving process, weren't you Thomas? Check out my intricately designed rose and leaf in the Som Tam picture!

Gai Hor Bai Toey (Chicken in Pandanus Leaf)

Som Tam (Papaya Salad)

Goong Sauce Ma Kham (Prawn in Tamarind Sauce)

Gang Phed Ped Yang (Roasted Duck in Red Curry)

After cooking our little hearts out for almost four hours (and eating all our delicious creations!), we were, needless to say, ready to lay down and beach ourselves like a big whale! I think my favorite dish was either the Som Tam (it's my fave!) or the Gang Phed Ped Yang, which is surprising because I didn't really like red curries before taking the class! This red curry used pineapple in the recipe, which sweetened it up perfectly for my huge sweet tooth! Honestly, I was (and still am) getting pretty sick of Thai food, but this was all really scrumptious!

Now, I am ready to throw a huge Thai-themed party when I get back so I can cook all the yummy recipes! The tough part will be finding some of the ingredients, but I am excited to bring a little Thai cuisine back home to you all (and find a good Asian grocer!). With all my fingers still intact and minimal physical harm after the cooking class, I would say I am well on my way to becoming a chef de cuisine, Thai style of course!

On Sunday, we had the infamous "Sports Day" at school, which meant unfortunately I was at work on a Sunday morning at 8am! However, to see 1st graders shimmying their hearts out, moms dressing up in traditional Thai outfits to earn points for their child's team, listening to a million cheers in Thai and experiencing Thai "sports," it was pretty funny! More Sports Day to come...check for a blog post coming soon!