My final notes – from the land down under

I can’t believe the day is almost here. I fly to London tomorrow. Naturally I’m now reflecting a lot on the absolutely epic three months I’ve just had, and how they’ve affected my head, heart and soul.

Firstly I appreciate more than ever before that I have amazing friends and family back home. Being miles away from familiar faces can be hard at times, so I’ve enjoyed every WhatsApp message and call received. And thank goodness for WhatsApp! Back in the Jurassic period before good smart phones and Wi-Fi it was bloody hard to stay in touch across seas. I got pretty homesick when I was in New Hampshire for three months, despite being only a six hour flight from home. I am hugely grateful for everyone who dropped a message, made a call, liked my Facebook posts and of course… read this blog. You are awesome and I can’t wait to catch up with you!

Secondly, I have met some incredible people on my travels. I could not have asked for a better TEFL partner, travel companion and roomie for the best part of eight weeks. I am devastated that the Atlantic Ocean lies between us and that teleportation hasn’t been invented yet. The wonderful staff and students at my school in Thailand will always have a place in my heart. I hope that someday I can visit. When that day comes I’ll ring ahead and make sure the canteen stocks enough fried eggs to satisfy my addiction. Thailand does awesome fried eggs! To my fellow TEFL-ers, you were an absolute pleasure to discover Thailand with. I have so many fond memories. One highlight has to be my birthday bash in Kanchanaburi. Singing and dancing to the Lion King, in the coolest bar in town, was the best way to turn 27.

Alongside the teaching, another transformational experience was the return to the backpacking and hostel life. My perspective on life’s wonders, problems and priorities has changed significantly after meeting so many wonderful people in Kanch, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. After years of a decent salary and getting used to the ‘finer things in life’, hostel life opened it’s arms and gave me an unexpectedly warm and tight hug. Meeting people from across the globe and from all walks of life taught me a vast amount. I’ve realised that it’s easy to share a bathroom and bedroom with strangers. Because with this comes awe-inspiring stories, learning about different cultures and careers, and of course making new friends. If any of you fellow hostel dwellers are reading this, thank you for opening up my eyes and making my travels in Thailand some of the best times of my life.

To the friends who hosted me and Tom on our travels, and showed us the wonders of your neighbourhood and ‘back gardens’ we can’t express our gratitude enough. Being far from home can be a little exhausting at times and the world can feel like a terribly big place. But your generosity, kindness and friendly faces made it feel a little smaller and a lot easier. I hope that our visit can be just the first, not the last.

I can’t lie, as I think about heading back to the UK I cry a little inside… I have taken to the travelling life like a fish to water. More so than I imagined! Plus the last two weeks in Australia have been beyond my wildest dreams. I have become rather attached to this country of friendly chatter, stunning beaches and amusing slang.

I’ve seen the Sydney Opera house – something I learned about at the age of 7 when playing a computer game called World Explorer. I remember having to work out how to fly around the world and get stamps in my “virtual passport”. I’m pretty sure I still have the passport my Dad printed out for me when I finished the game! Anyway back then the idea of travelling to Australia was ludicrous. But here I am in the land of kangaroos, sunshine and much needed eskies – and I don’t want to leave!

I’ve also held a koala, seen a monstrous crocodile, bushwalked through the mountains, snorkelled among tropical fish, chatted with friends around a beach bonfire, and discovered that Sydney has some of the best ‘secret bars’ – we almost missed them they were hidden so well! It pains me to have fallen for a place so far away from the UK. But who knows, perhaps living in the land down under is my next adventure…

On the other side of things, I am super excited to see my mother in the arrivals hall at Heathrow this Sunday. And I look forward to being home for my Dad’s birthday, where we’ll hopefully be in the great outdoors on a country walk. I just need to learn how to wrap up warm again! I also can’t wait to grab a beer with amazing friends over the coming weeks. At least in the British climate there’s no chance of my beer becoming warm before I finish it! Finally, I look forward to carrying on with the life I have been blessed with. The last few months have changed my perspective somewhat on my priorities over the next few years. I look forward to pursuing the things that truly make me happy. And learning to cope better with the things that don’t. When you see how beautiful the world is, and experience the kindness of people around it, it helps you appreciate what really matters. Suddenly the reasons you flew away in the first place seem a lot more trivial.

Happy Australia Day!!!

TTYL
Jenny x

Advertisements

Hong Kong Highlights

After a romantic film-like reunion with Tom Imeson at Hong Kong airport, we began our adventures together… JOKES it was a sweaty and confusing ten minutes of coordinating our whereabouts after venturing to different arrival halls…

Stop 1 – Hong Kong

Hong Kong is truly awesome! The trip started off particularly well when we were reminded that the hotel we’d booked resembled a palace – a palace that serves peanut butter on French Toast for breakfast! And we were located near the cool area of Soho, jam packed with cool bars not too dissimilar to our very own London Soho. 

On our first full day we ventured to Lantau island to visit the Tian Tan Buddha. Unfortunately we made the mistake of thinking our arrival at 10:30am would beat the queues to the cable car that takes tourists to the Buddha. It was horrendous – the queues snaked across roads, along walkways and up stairs. It was going to be a two hour wait! Undeterred we sought out Wi-Fi in Starbucks and furiously Googled other ways to get to the Buddha. We found a great article with details of a walk to the top. Two hours later we were laughing after ascending a beautiful trail through the Lantau country park, past stunning waterfalls and monasteries hidden away in the hills.

If you have the energy and don’t want to fork out for a fast track cable car ticket, or join a horrendous queue, take the local bus 34 to Shek Mun Kap village and take the trail from there. It was the best decision of the day! The Buddha was an incredible sight but it was swamped with tourists. The peaceful hike to reach it definitely made it worth it. And we got the cable car back down – which by the way is an incredible piece of engineering – and the queue was just 20 minutes!

The following day we decided to fall in line to get the tram up to Victoria Peak. Although a long wait it was pretty cool riding on the steepest tram railway I’ve ever seen. The views from the Peak were amazing too. Our mornings in Hong Kong definitely seemed clearer and less misty than our late afternoons, so it was worth getting up early to experience the brilliantly clear skyline. And in true Tom and Jenny style we decided that queuing for the tram down was a waste of time. We found the trail down the Peak which wonderfully led us into the city’s botanical gardens and Hong Kong Park – both beautifully landscaped and worth a visit!

That evening we ventured across to the community of Sai Kung where we received the warmest of welcomes from Tom’s Aunt and her family and friends. I was awe struck on discovering the view from our bedroom – a vast stretch of shimmering water peppered with small islands. I could feel this place getting under my skin! We then welcomed in the new year in the heart of the Sai Kung community. It was great to speak to many Brits who have made a home on the other side of the world. And I could see how easy it might be in the right circumstances. 

To blast away the fuzzy head from the night before, Tom and I took a kayak out with his cousin to explore the beautiful bay. Making our way between the islands in the afternoon mist was a treat. It would have been so peaceful but we spent a lot of time singing songs with Tom’s six year old cousin! 

I was sad to be leaving after just four days. A week would have been a more suitable amount of time. There is so much to see and do across Hong Kong’s various islands and communities. We only scratched the surface. Tom’s Aunt, Uncle and cousin were the most amazing hosts. I sincerely hope to venture out here again. Perhaps when Asia calls to me for another trip I will make Hong Kong a stop-off point on route or on the way home. It’s too good to miss out on. After an emotional departure from the parts of Thailand I’ve grown to love, it’s been very uplifting to discover another part of Asia that whispers in my ear, “see you again soon”.

Notes from the Northern lands

Chiang Mai is one cool city. Thanks to a recommendation I have ended up staying in an awesome hostel called Green Sleep. The place is clean, green and very friendly  – which pretty much sums up Chiang Mai as a place!

I arrived here on the morning of the 24th after boarding a sleeper train in Bangkok. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it turns out that sleeper trains are the way to travel – Thailand anyway! My travel companion, Heidi and I were settled in by our carriage steward. She had a good sense of humour and made us feel comfortable. After transforming our seats to beds we tucked ourselves in for a night on the train. Surprisingly I found it very easy to rest. The rocking movement of the train was pretty soothing – I felt like a baby being rocked to sleep in a cot! We awoke to our host serving us breakfast in bed, then spent a while gazing out the window at the beautiful northern Thailand landscape. It was quite a world away from Bangkok! 

Day 1 in Chiang Mai involved a trip up the mountain to Doi Suthep temple. It was a steep road to the temple and we were rewarded with good views of Chiang Mai. The temple itself I would sum up as ‘a massive amount of bling’. The golden structure blinded me in the sunlight! In the hot weather it seemed that an ice cream was needed. Feeling in an experimental mood I thought to try a local ice cream made with Taro, after enjoying a lot of Taro bread back in my school town. Turns out it was a big mistake – it was grim. It’s fair to say I’ve experimented a little less with food in the following days. 

Day 2 was Christmas Day! And due to the temperature being a lot milder than the UK, it made sense to kick off the day with some exercise in the park. I needed to build my appetite for Christmas Day lunch! Turns out I had the same idea as many of the community. I felt such a buzz working out amongst the many Thai locals and foreigners who were either travelling like me or had made their home here. I noticed a group of Americans congregating for some kind of coffee morning. We wished each other Merry Christmas and I left the park feeling the festive cheer. At lunchtime, I headed to a place appropriately named The Pub with my fellow travellers, Heidi and Nikki. It was such a good find! Walking in to the cosy bar, decorated with Christmas decorations, I felt like I was receiving a warm hug from Santa Claus. The lunch did not disappoint. Sitting in the pub, wearing a Santa hat and sharing the special day with two very special ladies – how could I not feel very happy and content!

That evening the staff team at the hostel put on an awesome Christmas party. There was free Thai food, drinks and lot of very cheery travellers. After making a few calls to England to speak with greatly missed loved ones, it was the perfect ending to the day. 

Day 3 and the Chiang Mai magic continued. After a 2.5 hour drive into the mountains and jungle, we arrived at the village of the Karen Hill Tribe and the home of three incredible elephants. The minute we arrived the villagers introduced us to our animal friends for the day. We acquainted ourselves over a meal of bananas and a fun dip in the river – where the elephants proceeded to soak us with their trunks/hoses! We trekked to a beautiful waterfall and after lunch we went swimming. Playing with the elephants in the waterfall was an ‘out of this world’ experience. Something I never ever imagined I would do. And the Karen Hill Tribe were amazing hosts. They ensured an incredibly special time with the majestic animals. It was explained that elephants in Thailand are under threat from poachers who want their ivory, as well as cruel people who want to work them and make them carry tourists. The Karen people want to save elephants from terrible fates. The money we paid for the experience was fully invested back into securing the future of the village and increasing their elephant population. As I took my final glance at the ‘mummy’ elephant – the most beautiful and gracious animal I have set eyes on – I was filled with love for the people who keep her and her offspring safe. If any of you reading this plan to travel to Chiang Mai, please support the Karen Hill tribe and their enterprise, Elephants at Home. I promise that your day with the elephants will be beyond your wildest dreams.


Day 4 and I am reflecting on the last few days whilst tucking into freshly baked bread and coffee from a hill tribe. Tomorrow I leave this northern haven to spend one last night in Bangkok. Bright and early on Friday 29th I fly to Hong Kong. There I will be united with my best friend and I can’t wait for another month of adventures with him!

TTYL 

Jenny x

Life is a beach (right now)

Life is a beach. At least for the next few days. Koh Samet is a beautiful island and provides a perfect end to the teaching internship with i-to-i TEFL. I am already enjoying the head space. It’s rare to wake up in the morning and have nothing on my agenda except relaxation on one of the many sandy beaches.

Casting my mind back to last Thursday and Friday, when I said farewells to my school, I feel sadness wash over me. The teachers gave us an incredibly special send off, starting with Thai hot pot dinner on Thursday night. Around 12 teachers crammed in a school truck and we were taken to a large town nearby. The food was absolutely delicious. One thing I noted about Thai people once more was that they ensure no shortage of food! I was completely full after the first 10 plates of meat and fish had been cooked in the hot pot. When round two of dishes were placed in front of me I told them I was sufficiently full. But they wouldn’t take it! Two hot pots later I rolled into bed feeling very much grateful for my time at Prathandongrungwittayakarn school.

The following morning we took part in a leaving ceremony at our final school assembly. The Director presented us with traditional Thai clothes as a parting gift, and we had many photos taken with students and teachers. After a last few hugs and selfies, we departed from the Greenhouse which had become home. We were waved off by our wonderful teacher friends.

A last night in Kanchanaburi provided a perfect way to celebrate the end of the programme and spend a last few hours with fellow interns who were returning home instead of heading to Koh Samet. Once more we descended on Chill Out Bar which seemed fitting as it had been a huge part of my Kanchanaburi experience. 

The next day 22 of us packed our bags and made the journey to Koh Samet. After six hours on a bus it was amazing to feel the sea breeze on my face as we were ferried to our resort on the island. A highlight was the realisation that our ferry could not take us all the way in to the bay. We had a thrilling transfer to a tiny boat, leaving our bags behind with the hope that they would not end up at the bottom of the sea. The resort turned out to be everything I’d hoped for. Right on the beach. At night the waves crashed against the nearby rocks, composing the perfect lullaby to send me to sleep.

This morning I watched the sun rise. It was utterly beautiful. As I sat on the decking looking out to the sea and sun, accompanied by five teaching friends, I felt very lucky. Lucky to be witnessing such a beautiful moment and grateful that for the first time in a long time I had no worries on mind. If this trip has taught me anything it’s that I was stressed out back home. The crowds, the commute, the negative news constantly sensationalised by the media. It had got to breaking point. Although a tiny part of me fears the return to the big smoke, I now know what my priorities are for the next few years – Thailand has given me a great amount of time to reflect on these. Thailand has also made me feel so grateful for what the Western world gives me. And more than anything Thailand has given me memories that I will treasure forever. Memories that I will conjure up the second my old nemesis of rush hour anxiety strikes. So if you see me on the tube, with my eyes closed and a smile on my face, I’m picturing this sunrise and I am invincible.

One more week for Teacher Jenny

I can’t believe it but I’m just five days  away from the end of this teaching internship.  The weeks have literally flown by and I’m experiencing very mixed emotions about my departure from the town of Phra Thaen.

I started writing this post yesterday whilst sat next to a gorgeous pool in a Kanchanaburi hotel. But I had to give up because sleep was calling to me. A bar here in the town hosted a belated birthday party for me the night before. I had spent a couple evenings at the bar in previous weeks and became acquainted with the lovely owners. When I mentioned my birthday was coming up they kindly offered to throw a party – and what an awesome night it was! Who knew that the marking of my 27th year would be such a special one. They put up balloons and signs. I even had a cake, candles and everyone singing Happy Birthday. I was joined at the party by a wonderful group of teaching friends, who didn’t fail to make it an epic night. 

Another memory I will treasure is a spontaneous trip to the town of Tha Ruea. On Wednesday afternoon, Teacher Natalie and I were hijacked by our older students. They insisted that we join them at The Ruea market where they planned to play music and sing to fundraise for a good cause. We piled into a truck and arrived at the bustling market 20 minutes later. The students set up their sound equipment and started to sing Thai songs. Then they handed the microphones to me and Natalie and we took the opportunity to sing Zombie (The Cranberries) and the classic What’s Up. Although I naturally felt responsible for the safety of our students, I couldn’t help sensing they were looking out for us the whole time! We had so much fun, the students raised a tonne of money  and I arrived back at school buzzing.

My fellow interns, the Thai teachers, the students and the kind community of Kanchanaburi have made this internship an unforgettable experience. Under different circumstances it could be easy to grow roots here and settle. Thailand is a beautiful country. But without immersing myself into a small town, the school life and the culture, it could have been just another beautiful country. Thanks to a special Thai community and the good company of my fellow interns, this place has felt more like a home. I must give a massive shout out to Teacher Natalie who has been an absolute hero of a housemate and co-teacher. I am so grateful for her friendship and for her being at my side through everything. We have had so much fun. I’ll never forget the time we armed ourselves with scissors and mosquito spray to defend ourselves against a totally non existent intruder!

On the other hand, the end of the teaching means a lot of exciting adventures are getting closer. I’m super excited for relaxing on the beaches of Koh Samet with my teaching pals. Followed by a journey north to hugely positively reviewed Chiang Mai for Christmas week. And then most of all I can’t wait for a special reunion in Hong Kong airport arrivals with my BBFF Tom Imeson. Yes it could be easy to pick up a teaching job here, and I hope some of my fellow interns do just that. But for me, my heart is back in the UK – residing at a certain house in suburban Colliers Wood, in what I imagine is currently an untidy and unclean bedroom populated by a unwashed male. But you know what they say “home is where the heart is”.

Weekend highlights so far

“What do you like to do in your free time?” I ask my students this question as Natalie, (my fellow intern at school), and I teach them about hobbies. I tell them that in my free time I like to play the ukulele and Teacher Natalie likes to play volleyball. Unfortunately they are not quite at the level where I can tell them what I did at the weekend, but I am pleased to be able to enlighten you as the blog reader. And if you ever find yourself in central Thailand I hope it might be useful!

Kanchanaburi – a town full of history and beautiful surroundings

On my first and second weekend after commencing teaching, I found myself in the city of Kanchanaburi. It is the provincial city and mostly known for being the site of the famous bridge over the river Kwai – part of the Death Railway built by prisoners of war in WWII to provide the Japanese army with a route into Burma (now Myanmar). The historical sites in the town are definitely worth checking out. But if you have a day I recommend hiring a ride to take you further out to see Hell Fire pass – a section of Death Railway that resulted in a vast number of deaths during construction. Closer to Kanchanaburi, you can also stop at part of the railway that is still in use. You can walk along the railway to get amazing views, but listen out for the train. I found myself having to dive for cover when it came along the track! Nah just kidding… the train deliberately moves at snail pace at this point to allow tourists to find a safe space.

Another day trip I recommend is to Erawan. This beautiful national park is the site of a vast waterfall. The park is divided into 7 tiers, with waterfalls and pools at each tier. After the 5th tier I found myself clambering up through the waterfall itself to reach the top. I got pretty muddy but it was totally worth it! And after the trek down I went swimming in the 1st tier pools.

Aside from the historical sites and national parks, Kanchanaburi has everything you need for the weekend. When I needed a break from sightseeing, I found myself paying 100 baht to use the beautiful swimming pool at a local hotel. A wonderful way of keeping cool in the 35 degree temperatures of this “cool season”. I then followed my session relaxing by the pool with a Thai massage. This was a strange experience but totally worth trying. The masseuse did a great job of working the knots out of my back and bending me in every direction possible!

Bangkok – the beating heart of Thailand

On my third weekend I found myself in the capital. The sour stench of the city smacked me in the face the minute I left the air conditioned mini bus. But before long I found myself liking the place. I strolled across Pinklao bridge and took in the incredible sight of the city sprawling to the horizon in all directions. It’s a wonderfully weird mish mash of beautiful, old temples and modern architecture between some less slightly buildings. I found I had picked an awesome hostel where people weren’t shy to give me hugs and show me great places to eat and drink. Bangkok is a big city that can seem confusing, unorganised and unfriendly if you don’t find yourself staying the right place. If you are travelling solo or in a small group, I do recommend staying in a large, sociable hostel. And you don’t need to be on the Khao San Road to find a good atmosphere.

Speaking of which, the Khao San Road was exactly how I imagined it – buzzing with people, clubs and market traders. The temples were absolutely the most amazing things I’d set my eyes on. Wat Pho and Wat Arun are stunning and must take high priority on your list if you ever visit!

Another highlight was joining a Muay Thai boxing training session at a nearby gym. I was the only beginner but everyone made me feel welcome. I had the opportunity to train one-to-one with the gym owner, a former top fighter, three times in the main ring. The rest of the time I practiced technique and learned what I could from the others at the gym. Many were training for upcoming fights. Afterwards I was sweaty and sore but absolutely buzzing!

After two busy days I was pleased to discover one of the shopping malls. I had no regrets tucking into a Subway and watching Thor: Ragnorak. It’s a fantastic city but I needed the ‘down-time’.

I have met a huge number of travellers on my weekends who seem to be having the trip of a lifetime around South East Asia. I wouldn’t swap the teaching for endless travelling right now though. I feel that the time I have spent at school and with the Thai community has made me wiser to this country. In particular, I found Bangkok a lot less overwhelming compared to others. I look forward to the weeks that I will spend on the road after the internship. But right now I am enjoying the sense of belonging to a place in this vast country. I look forward to the Friday feeling and my fun weekends here. But I also enjoy coming back to my lovely housemates and amazing students – it’s pretty much my home from home 😊

Notes from a small Thai town

How I have been getting involved with the local community…

Some tips for anyone who embarks on a similar adventure!

1) You know no-one. Everyone knows you.

There were hundreds of new faces when I arrived at my town and school. Too many to remember. But to the local community I became familiar very quickly. So when ordering food at a restaurant, bartering at the market or buying some sweet Thai snacks from 7/11, I make sure I am respectful. No one wants to be known for being the grumpy and unfriendly foreigner! And making the effort to greet Thai people appropriately and using the language if possible is hugely appreciated. Sometimes I find that if I mention being “Kru” in the local school, I might even get a discount!

2) Remember that the price is good 

On the topic of money, it’s so important to be respectful when you barter or pay for goods and food. DO NOT get confrontational. It makes everyone feel very awkward and it doesn’t do anyone any favours. When buying clothes at markets in the bigger towns and cities it’s worth trying to get a small discount. But the prices in the town I live in for school are so low that I cringe at the thought of asking for a discount. It’s practically 80 pence for dinner and £2 for a t shirt!

3) Try new places and new foods

I understand that after arriving in a new country and having to adjust to a new way of life, some travellers might be tempted to revert to familiar comforts foods e.g. chips and chocolate. But I can’t emphasise enough how yummy Thai food is. I talk to the teachers at the school about where and what they eat. They also very kindly invite me to sample their food. Being adventurous has huge benefits – I discovered my new favourite foods of sweet bread containing shredded coconut, and also banana and coconut cooked in plant leaf. And I LOVE the markets – they are a fantastic place to try new foods in small quantities and for a cheap price.

One word of warning: If your Thai language ability is limited then don’t always expect to get what you think you ordered!

4) Get involved in the local workout spaces e.g. gym, volleyball, Muay Thai

I was pleased to find a park and outdoor gym across the road from my school. The equipment is better than any outdoor gym I’ve seen in England! On my first visit I found myself working out along side half of the town – which is actually really cool! It’s a good opportunity to say hello and have a chat with the locals. I often get laughed at when I get stuck into my HIT routine. And I once had three young children attempt to copy my squat technique. But it’s all amusing and I enjoy feeling like I’m doing what the locals do.

Last week I tried Muay Thai boxing for the first time in a nearby town, along with fellow interns. It was such a good workout! We had an expert trainer and a former fighter coach us one to one. I was pushed to my limits and learned some pretty awesome moves – imagine smashing someone’s head with your elbow or knee… Plus it was free! Again it was great to meet anther group of locals and experience Muay Thai – which seems to be a big part of Thai culture. 

5) Be open to everything and everyone. And go with the flow.

Something I learned in the past week is that it’s sometimes good to not have a plan. After finishing teaching for the day last Wednesday, I learned that my school was closed for the next two days. It was explained to me that many students were travelling to other schools in the province to compete in competitions. Some students were entering cookery competitions. Others were doing sport and decoration making. I was curious to know more but couldn’t find out how to join in. Instead I booked  a hostel in Kanchanaburi for a long weekend. But then I received an unexpected phone call from a former teacher of English at my school. She asked if I would be around the next day to tutor her niece, who was in need of speaking practice before an important exam. I was excited to have been asked and the next morning I spent an hour talking with the niece. On ending our lesson her Aunt invited me to lunch and then to go watch some of the school competition – I leapt at the opportunity! I ended up having a delicious lunch with a lovely Thai family, and then spent a couple of hours observing the cooking and decoration competitions at a nearby school. I was pleased to see students from my own school win one of the competitions! Afterwards I was kindly dropped off at a bus stop and made my way to Kanchanaburi. The whole bus ride I couldn’t help but smile as I reflected on what a wonderful and unexpected day it had been!

The past two weeks have taught me a lot. Particularly that I must keep an open mind, accept how things are in Thailand and that going with the flow is the best way to enjoy my time here. In such a short time I have already fallen in love with so many things about this country. And the Thai people who take care of me make it very special.