I heeded the siren’s call of Bangkok twice this spring: both for medical reasons and just for fun. Many international teachers, including the Dents, visit Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok for their annual check-ups and other health concerns. In fact, Tony and I were just there in November. When I heard a group of friends were planning a medical weekend at the end of February, I jumped on board. I spent two weeks with this group in Washington, D.C., last May, waiting for our new Indian visas so we could return to Delhi. The experience was stressful but bonding. How could I resist a get-away to relive those memories and create new ones? There was plenty of street food, shopping and laughter. Three big reasons to visit Bangkok. And so, I did it again at the end of April. This time, a different group of ladies was celebrating the impending nuptials of of our friend, Kathryn. I arrived a day early to visit Bumrungrad. Three doctors, two ultrasounds, an X-ray and an MRI later, I found out some good news but also some bad news: I probably need foot surgery. Rats! When the rest of the ladies showed up, we crashed at a cute little guesthouse and ate our way through the city. A fun night of bachelorette party silliness and dancing was followed by two hours of pampering at the Health Land spa (oh, yeah, we did that the day before, too). Man, I love this city.
BKK Visit 1 – streetfood breakfast. I wanted to cry from joy.
BKK Visit 1 – Karen catches a motorcycle taxi to the hospital.
BKK Visit 2 – Ready to hit the town in our matching tank tops spray painted with Kathryn’s initials in English and Hindi.
This blogpost is about a month overdue, but here you go.
When Tony informed me he had registered for an education conference in Bangkok the first weekend in October, I said, “I’m tagging along.” We took advantage of the 4-day holiday at school to visit Bumrungrad International Hospital for our annual check-ups, and then Tony spent his days learning about technology integration while I got massages, shopped, walked around Bangkok and caught up with a friend. Here is a quick run-down of Bangkok moments that made me smile:
* We celebrated our 22nd anniversary with dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Soul Food.
I’m embarrassed to admit our eagerness to visit this restaurant stemmed in part from knowing an excellent pet store is next door. Our babies needed some toys! Guess where we spent more money: the pet store or the restaurant? Here’s a hint.
* While getting a facial at the Divana Spa, the music made me giggle. The instrumental mix included “Flight of the Bumblebees,” a marching band standard I couldn’t name, “Let Him Live” from Les Miserables, and a few Katy Perry songs..
* There’s something so alluring about a blank notebook, but like icing on the cake, Thai notebooks often feature gobbledy-gook English blurbs on the cover. Irresistible!
* My friend and teaching mentor, Miriam, met me for lunch at Central Chidlom mall. This is no ordinary food court. The Food Loft features an open kitchen concept with a plethora of delicious options in a hipster setting. Perfect for hanging out for a long chat, which we did. Our “lunch” lasted for four hours!
* Having a discussion about menopause feels awkward enough. Add to the mix an older Thai gynecologist with limited English. She dropped all her ending sounds and dragged out the long vowels in a high-pitched nasally drone – but with a lovely smile on her face. She discouraged the use of hormones and told me I could control the symptoms with some lifestyle changes. It sounded like this. “Heah in da Eee, we yoo naycha hawmohhh. We exa-sighhh. We ee vegtabohh rainbohhh. Seven cuh-law of vegtabohhh.” (Here in the East, we use natural hormones. We exercise. We eat vegetable rainbow. Seven colors of vegtables.) Fortunately, I saw a second doctor who said, “Yeah, I’m on this hormone, too. If you run out, write me an email and I’ll have the pharmacy send you some refills.” Whew.
For the last week of our semester break, Tony and I flew from Korea to Thailand. We decided to splurge on a luxury resort on the island of Koh Chang, which is located southeast of the mainland. On this map, our hotel’s pin is letter A.
If you check out our hotel’s website, you’ll think “Nirvana” was an appropriate name. Well, let’s just say it should have been called “Not Nirvana.” It may have been luxurious at one time, but alas, those days are over. No worries. Thailand is always amazing, and our week was filled with sunshine, great food, fresh air and stunning scenery. Other than one crappy day of killer seasickness – or a mild flu? – we had a great time.
Our home away from home. I know, it LOOKS like Nirvana. Just trust me.
This is the railing from which a monkey tried to steal my bikini top. It’s also the railing where a monkey picked bugs off another monkey while straddling Tony’s shirt that was drying there. Ewww! We didn’t want to sit out here because of all the nasty monkeys.
Tony rented a scooter to shuttle us around the island. We’ve done that before in other parts of Thailand, but Koh Chang presented bigger challenges. It was way hillier with hairpin curves, poorly maintained roads and lots of seemingly drunken backpackers trying out scooters for the first time. After two years with only a motorbike for transportation when we lived in Laos, Tony became an expert scooter driver, and I felt safe the whole time.
Twice, we scootered north to Kai Bae Beach. The first time, we just played in the water, watched tourists frolicking with baby elephants and hung out in the shade of a big palm tree.
The second time, we rented a kayak and rowed to a smaller island, where we swam, played cards and enjoyed the serenity.
We kept returning to Buddha View Restaurant in Bang Bao, a short walk or ride from our hotel. Delicious Thai food and lovely views! One time, we sat at a table with the floor cut out, so our legs dangled over the water.
Poor Tony. While putting his shoes on at the restaurant entrance, he bent over and dropped his reading glasses in the sea. For the rest of our trip, he had to jack up his kindle font to read his book.
The restaurant was part of the “fisherman’s village,” which was one of the attractions for me when I was booking our hotel. However, it’s really a collection of touristy shops and restaurants and the launching point for all the dive boats. Ah well, it was still interesting and offered some nice photo opps.
One evening, we watched the sunset from our hotel’s Rock Walk makeshift bar. Very romantic.
Well, that’s it. Back to reality tomorrow! It’s always hard to leave Thailand, even when Nirvana is Not Nirvana.
“I feel kind of blech-y,” I said to Tony Tuesday morning. “I can’t really put my finger on it, but I just don’t feel right.”
I didn’t have a stuffy head or that ubiquitous Delhi cough. I didn’t feel nauseous or suffer any other symptoms of food poisoning. I just felt blech-y. Oh well. It was our scuba day, so suck it up, buttercup.
Dive Adventure sent a pick-up truck taxi to collect us at our hotel. After picking out shorty wetsuits and fins, we walked down the pier to the boat and settled in for our cruise to the dive site. Our divemaster, Özay, was Turkish, so we chatted about living in Istanbul, diving in the Mediterranean and the chaos of Turkish politics. We were very impressed with Özay and the rest of the Dive Adventure crew. They seemed to care about safety and ocean conservation, values that are sometimes missing with other dive shops.
The first stop was a wreck, but only divers with their Advanced Open Water certification were qualified to explore the deep. A risk taker on land, I play it safe in the ocean, so we chose to snorkel around the wreck site while more experienced divers explored the sunken boat. Tony swam down to touch the mast, but that was the highlight of our snorkeling experience.
Climbing back aboard the dive boat, I felt extremely queasy. I stumbled to the bow, poured myself a cup of cold water and sat down to get my bearings. Prone to motion sickness, I know the drill. Stare out at the horizon, stay hydrated, don’t let the rolling boat mess with your head. But the weird thing was the boat wasn’t rolling. The clear turquoise sea was still and smooth as glass. I leaned over the railing and projectile puked up all my breakfast. Nice.
Soon, the boat was back on the move. We reached our destination in just a few minutes, but I was barely able to stand. Tony hooked up my gear, and I just had to trust that he knew what he was doing. “Please don’t let me die down there,” I said weakly.
At the last minute, we spotted a tube of toothpaste and recalled advice from our last dive experience when I had struggled to keep my mask from fogging up. Tony handed me the toothpaste, and I squeezed a blob into my mask, smushed it around and rinsed it in the seawater. A terrible dive buddy, I only half-heartedly toothpasted Tony’s mask, and then checked his weights, BCD and air before letting him jump in. I quickly goose-stepped in after him. Once in the water, I felt a bit better.
Özay, Tony and I, and three other divers let the air out of our BCDs and slowly sank down to explore the Hin Rap Koh Chang reef. A fairly shallow dive, the visibility was fantastic (and my mask stayed perfectly clear the whole time!). We didn’t see any big or unusual sea life, but I often found myself completely surrounded, morphing into the cloud of tiny rainbow fish. Swimming around the coral reef felt magical, but I couldn’t shake my blechy-ness.
Unfortunately, we had to get back on the boat. I wriggled out of my gear and crumpled on a bench. Tony dismantled everything, rinsed our masks and re-connected our BCDs to new tanks in preparation for the next dive. The boat crew set up a Thai buffet, but I could barely choke down a few bites of plain rice. Fortunately, we soon reached our next dive site: Hin Riha Thek, which translates to “broken boat reef”. The rock barely jutted out from the water. We could see how easily a boat might crash into it.
Özay led the pack with Tony and me right behind him. The water was so murky we could barely see him. I thought my mask was fogging up, but when I pulled it off to clean it, I realized the toothpaste was still working. So it wasn’t the most scenic dive ever. My favorite sight was a shallow barrel coral, pale purple with a scalloped top. Inside several bright orange fish darted about. White coral snaked from the sand into the barrel like tubing. For a moment, it tricked my woozy mind into thinking it was a typical fishpond like people keep in their backyards. I had a little underwater laugh when I snapped out of it.
Back on the boat, I barfed up the rice.
I slumped at the back of the boat, too humiliated to socialize, for the trip back to shore. After disembarking, getting Özay to stamp my dive log, and bidding farewell to our fellow divers, we popped into 7-11 to get Gatorade and some M&Ms and then walked the short distance back to our hotel. Although I felt sure the motion sickness would abate quickly, I assured Tony I was done for the day. I showered and rolled into bed; he took the scooter and zipped off to get some dinner. While he was gone, the Gatorade and M&Ms made an encore appearance. Let’s just say the motion sickness did NOT abate quickly. I slept – fitfully – for almost 20 hours, completely losing one whole day of my holiday.
I’m still not sure whether I was sick when I got on the boat, or if the boat made me sick. Regardless, I’m not ready to give up scuba diving, but maybe I’ll search for a resort with a house reef – and skip the boat ride – for our next vacation.
In the last five weeks, I spent only one weekend in New Delhi. Finally, a few moments to process. So much has happened in such a short amount of time, personally and professionally. Here’s the scoop in chronological order:
Maldives – Nothing soothes my soul like a little time by the sea. Tony and I escaped for a week in Paradise for Spring Break. See my post about our relaxing vacation – Maldives Diary.
Thailand – As an EAL (English as an Additional Language) specialist, I co-teach in grade-level classrooms, usually during the literacy block. The workshop model at our school draws heavily on resources from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. For years, I’ve heard teachers rave about the Teachers College summer institutes, but I’ve never had an opportunity to go. Unable to get to the mountain, I brought the mountain to me! Well, the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools brought the “mountain” to its Spring Educators Conference, and I was lucky to land a coveted spot in The Writing Project’s Foundation Course. I can see the eyerolls and exaggerated snoring sounds, but seriously, I was like a kid in a candy store. Top-notch instruction with immediate take-aways. That’s the kind of stuff teachers drool over. Another perk was networking and sharing ideas with educators from other international schools.
After 12 years overseas, it would be impossible to attend an international teachers conference and not see friends from my past – thank goodness! This conference was no different; I ran into people from our days in Istanbul, Shanghai and Vientiane.
Oman – As arguably the least-sporty coach at our school, I gave a pathetically weepy speech at the Season 3 Awards Ceremony last week. For some reason, the Forensics Team (debate, public speaking and drama) gets recognized alongside softball, baseball, badminton and track-and-field athletes. Maybe the “real” coaches found me a bit overdramatic, but that’s what we forensics geeks love. As one of four coaches who traveled with the team to Muscat, Oman, in mid-April, I felt overwhelmed with pride for their accomplishments at the tournament. See details at O, Man! Forensics and Fun in Muscat.
Nepal – With the end of the school year in sight, I joined four other ladies for a weekend get-away to Kathmandu to recharge our batteries and enjoy some quality time with two friends moving back to the States. Check out that post at Kathmandu – Ladies Weekend.
India – This is such a busy and emotional time in the life of a teacher abroad. Report cards, placement decisions for next year, language testing, farewell parties for friends moving on, big changes.
Looking back to May 2012, I can say our first year in India was hard, possibly the hardest first year we’ve had anywhere. As Bob Hetzel, our departing school director, is fond of saying, “Whatever is true about India, the opposite is also true.” That makes it particularly difficult to learn the ropes and settle in to this city that defies all western logic. By the end of our first year, we were feeling marginally better about our decision to move here but still overwhelmingly frustrated. Then a departing teacher, who spent five years in New Delhi, shared this snippet of wisdom: “Your second year will be exponentially better. And your third year will be exponentially better than your second year. And so on. You won’t believe it!” He was right.
Year two really WAS exponentially better than year one. Not perfect, but much much better. Despite the daily head-slapping confusion of living in a developing country, we also experience daily revelations. I cautiously look forward to an exponentially better year three. As we add two new members to our household, New Delhi is finally starting to feel like home.
Introducing Ella and Khushi.
I always hate the last night of a vacation. I’m not one of those people who says, “Well, it’s been fun, but I’m ready to get home!” However, last night was our last night in Phuket, and it was dreamy.
Tony and I spent the evening at Mom Tri’s Boathouse, a gorgeous resort on Kata Beach. We arrived in time to enjoy both Happy Hour and the sunset – two more of my favorite things!
After watching the sky turn from blue to pink to black (while I nursed a chili-and-ginger-infused Siam Sunray and Tony enjoyed a cold Heineken), we moved from the lounge to our table on the beachside deck. Our appetizer of scallops layered with a thin crispy crepe was scrumptious; the bread basket was full of flavorful sticks, chips and rolls; and even the butter tasted better than usual. I devoured the grilled king prawns topped with crushed garlic, while Tony gobbled up a pork chop. Ice cream, mango and sticky rice with coconut milk for dessert. Yum!
Every hour is Happy Hour when you’ve got your sweetie, a cocktail and a seaside sunset.
This week in Phuket, the weather has been a bit indecisive. A few minutes of rain, a few hours of sunshine. A few hours of rain, a few minutes of sunshine. Only Wednesday brought torrential rains, and lucky for us, we missed most of it. You don’t notice the weather when you’re 20 meters under the sea. Scuba day!
The hourlong boat ride to the dive site was wetter and cooler than usual, but at least we didn’t have to worry about sunburn, right?
We did two dives at Koh Racha Yai with our guide, Khob. While the weather on land was gray and dreary, the underwater scenery was breathtaking. Tony and I couldn’t believe how many different types of fish we saw.
* A school of juvenile barracuda surrounded us before swimming away.
* Several moray eels poked their big heads out of the coral and flashed their creepy grins.
* An old wreck created a colorful hangout for all sorts of creatures.
* A big cuttlefish undulated next to us for a few minutes like a sheet flapping in the breeze.
* Feathery-looking brown-and-white striped lionfish lounged in the coral.
* Two small blue-spotted rays drifted on the sandy bottom.
* Clownfish and other small colorful fish darted in and out of the waving anemone.
Actually, as I started to write some highlights I realized that the whole experience was one big highlight after another! It’s hard to pick out the best parts. I also need to take a course in identifying marine life. In the meantime, I like checking out the Fish/Coral Information page on the Thailand Divers website.
Maybe it’s my mom’s influence; she really is a home-decorating guru. But I am a sucker for the small touches that make a space particularly special. This week, we’re staying at Sawasdee Village Resort in Phuket, Thailand. Normally this place would be way out of our price range, but (a) it’s the off-season, and (b) we paid for it with air miles.
What a treat!
Phuket (pronounced “Poo-ket”) is an island, connected to the rest of Thailand by a bridge.
When we vacationed here five years ago, it was recuperating from the devastating tsunami of 2004. Today we hardly recognize it. Towering resorts have burst out of the beaches, and the formerly quiet streets are now bustling with bars, restaurants, shops, massage salons, and other tourist attractions. We’re staying at one of the less lively beaches, but it’s still much more developed than we remembered. We’re lucky to have the best of both worlds: We can entertain ourselves on the “strip,” but then we can step into our private oasis.
Meandering on the stone paths through the hotel grounds, we often stop and listen to the peaceful Thai music piped in to the gardens, accented by the chorus of fountains, frogs and birds. Narrow canals filled with koi fish and water lilies weave alongside the paths. Plants with leaves broader than my armspan and trees dripping with fruit and flowers create the illusion of being far out of town. Nearly hidden in the foliage, traditional statuary, small lamps and carved wooden benches add to the delight. Occasionally, we stumble upon a woman carved in stone with a real orchid tucked behind one ear or an elephant statue draped with a colorful silk sash.
Let’s talk about the pool. There’s so much to appreciate. First, the whole pool is shallow. That means you can walk the length of it, which is nice, but it also discourages children and drunken men from annoying the rest of us with loud “Cannonball!”-style maneuvers. One end of the pool features less than a foot of water with gentle bubble jets on the bottom, so you can actually recline and get a little water massage on your back. A fountain rains across the width of the pool, creating a natural sense of privacy at either end. The pool bar is recessed, so you can stand waist-deep or sit on the stools with your feet in the water while sipping a frosty tropical treat out of a pineapple. Elephant fountains line the far end of the pool, emitting arching streams of water, while a massive overturned jar at the center creates a refreshing waterfall. The pool curves into romantic nooks with recessed spots for lounging in the shade of the frangiapani trees.
For a different style of water fun, the beach is a 15-minute walk away (or a short ride on the hotel’s free shuttle bus). Powdery pale sand and the warm turquoise sea: possibly my favorite combination on earth. There is little competition for the lounge chairs and umbrellas at this time of year, and although some rain falls each day, we still have hours of sunny perfect weather to enjoy seaside relaxation.
At the moment, I’m sitting in the guest lounge, a glass-enclosed pagoda with tile floors, intricate carved woodwork, elegant Thai ornamentation and relaxing views of the hotel grounds. A drizzly morning is the perfect time to reflect on how lucky we are to experience this elegance and tranquility.
After Saturday night’s Loi Ga Thong adventure, I had mixed feelings about venturing back in to town for the boat racing on Sunday. I hated to be the kind of expat who sits in her comfy air-conditioned house, cut off from the culture of her host country. That was me at this time last year. But I also hated the thought of fighting the crowds for a glimpse of the river, even though I knew a few ladies who would be competing.
Around 7 a.m. Tony and I rode into town for breakfast. After eating, we tentatively walked toward the river and found it relatively deserted so early in the morning. We discovered the tiered concrete observation area, where people were just beginning to gather. We watched a few races, unsure if they were officially part of the competition or merely warming up for the real events. I decided I had fulfilled my vow to watch the races in person and happily headed home before the crowds got unnerving.
Back at the house, I turned on the computer to upload photos and do a little blogging. I figured I should also print off our e-tickets and hotel reservation for our trip to Phuket, Thailand, the next day.
When I opened the email with our hotel reservation, I looked at the check-in date and then looked at today’s date on my laptop. They were the same. That meant our flight was today. TODAY. Panic set in. Deep inhale. Deep exhale. I frantically looked for our e-ticket. Anxiety made me stupid, and our slow internet connection only exacerbated my desperation. Did I make the reservation through my Yahoo account or my school email account? I toggled back and forth between the two tabs, tapping my finger on the table uncontrollably as the blue bar crept slowly across the screen indicating the pages might open eventually.
When I finally found the e-ticket, I froze. I had been certain that we were flying on Monday, but the e-ticket showed our flight was at 4:55 p.m. Sunday. Again, TODAY. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if we were flying from Vientiane, but I had saved big bucks by booking our ticket out of Udon Thani, Thailand. The Friendship Bridge to Thailand is just 19 kilometers from our house, and Udon Thani is only one hour from there. Kham, a kind Lao guy who works in the IT Department at school, had agreed to drive us there TOMORROW.
Tony came down the stairs just as I was processing the realization that we had to leave ASAP. He turned right around and went upstairs to pack. I alternated between calm problem-solving mode and absolute panic.
I tried to call Kham but got no answer. I then called another teacher for suggestions and found out that we could catch an airport taxi at the bridge, but first we had to GET to the bridge. I ran outside and scanned the street, but there were none of the usual parked tuk-tuks. I found a card for a driver who had taken me to the Vientiane airport in the past. He said he was unavailable, but his friend could drive us to the Udon Thani airport for 2,500 Thai Baht, almost $100. What else could I do? So I arranged for him to pick us up in 20 minutes.
I ran around the house like a maniac, shoving armfuls of underwear in a duffel, putting dirty dishes in the sink, hanging wet laundry on the line, standing dumbly in the bathroom with no memory of how to pack a toiletry bag. I accomplished very little.
Finally, Kham returned my call. “I’m such an idiot!” I cried. “Our flight is today, not tomorrow!”
“It’s OK,” he said. “I’m free. I can be there in 30 minutes.” Is he awesome, or what? I called to cancel the taxi and then tried to calm down enough to pack. I didn’t really succeed in getting calm, but I did manage to pack with some sense of logic.
Tony and I both felt terribly uncomfortable asking Kham for a ride in the first place. He’s a lovely guy, but we don’t know him very well. I have met his Thai wife, and I knew they frequently crossed the border to Udon Thani, her hometown. So I had said to Kham, “IF you’re going to Udon ANYWAY on Monday, can we catch a ride to the airport?” I emphasized that I didn’t want him to make a special trip for us, but he insisted that it wouldn’t be a problem. And now here we were, asking him to drop everything and take us on short notice.
Nearly an hour passed, and there was still no sight of Kham. When I called him, he confirmed what we had suspected. The festival had created a traffic nightmare. By now, there was no guarantee we would make it to the airport on time. We couldn’t predict how long it would take to cross the border. I’ve gotten through in a few minutes on my bike, but I’ve also waited for two hours when I rode in a van with other teachers.
Fortunately, Kham was an old hand at the border and even knew many of the immigration officials on both sides of the bridge. We had to stop twice – leaving Laos and entering Thailand – but both times, he pulled right up to the front of the line, took our passports and paperwork and returned shortly with the stamps. He could sense my anxiety, and he kept saying, “There is a lot of time. Don’t worry!”
Sure enough, we made it to Udon Thani with time for a quick lunch at McDonald’s. He dropped us at the airport and even came in to make sure everything was OK. It was. And it still is. Thanks to Kham, we are in paradise for the next few days, and we can relax at last.
What a busy week! The weekend’s already here, and I still haven’t posted anything from LAST weekend.
Last Sunday, I cycled to Thailand with a group to cheer for a few Team Dai members who were participating in a triathlon. The Thai-Lao border is only 16 kilometers from my house in Vientiane. At the border crossing, we filled out customs paperwork, got our passports stamped and pedaled across the Friendship Bridge, which spans the Mekong River. On the other side, we filled out more paperwork to enter Thailand and got another passport stamp.
We could see the triathlon venue from the bridge, so we cycled along till we found the transition staging area. From there, we watched our friends swim by in the strong Mekong current. We cheered loud enough that Eelco actually stopped, looked up and waved! He competed in the race with his son JJ, along with another father-son team, Maurice Sr. and Jr. When they got out of the water and jumped on their bikes, we hollered some more, and Eelco’s wife Nicolette actually stopped them for a quick chat.
Standing on the banks of the Mekong in Thailand, we looked across at Laos and down at our friends swimming in the triathlon.
Maurice and Maurice pull their bikes out of the transition area.
Eelco comes out with a borrowed helmet. He and JJ had forgotten theirs and almost got disqualified. Luckily our friends were standing by with their own bike helmets!
Nicolette has a quick chat with her two boys before they tackle the cycling leg of the race.
After the competitors took off on their bikes, we cheerleaders walked the short distance to Mut Mee Guesthouse for a nice breakfast and later cycled back to Laos. How often can you ride your bike to another country and be home in time for lunch?