In December 2010, Brooke, Jillian and I took our first trip to Indonesia. We flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and Bangkok to Denpasar, Bali. We stayed with friends in Sanur, touring the traffic-choked, beachy island like so many people before us. After about two weeks of sunny mornings, afternoon rain, temples, museums, art, and beaches, we flew to Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural hub and polar opposite to the overcrowded, well-trodden paths of Bali.

We did not have high expectations of Yogyakarta, but were excited to see the sights with our Indonesian friend and guide, Samsul, whom we had met in Arizona. We arrived on New Year’s Eve, amidst another downpour, and spent the evening with Samsul at the Via Via Café, a place that would become our respite from the rain for the next several days.

As 2011 literally stormed in, Samsul took us to the two principal  sights of Yogyakarta; Borobudor Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Indonesia, and Prambanan Temple, a huge Hindu complex devoted to the Hindu trinity. During the afternoon, we had planned to explore the slopes of Mt. Merapi, the infamous volcano which had erupted twice in late 2010. But the torrential rains proved too strong and we forced to abandon this plan. We did, however, catch a glimpse of one major effect of the eruptions – miles of cold lava flows bursting over the banks of the river. Cold lava is the sand and rock that flows down the river after being washed down the mountain by heavy rains.

That evening, we wanted to learn more about Mt. Merapi and how people deal with these massive eruptions, so went to our new favorite spot, the Via Via Café, to peruse their travel options. Via Via’s tourism packages stand apart from the typical offerings with their focus on locally-led, small tours utilizing public transportation, bicycles or the tourist‘s own two feet. The three of us chose the walking tour of the river led by a local resident. This would turn out to be the highlight of our time in Yogyakarta.

At 3pm the next afternoon, in the throes of the daily afternoon storm, we arrived at Via Via to meet our guide, a young woman with terrific English. She provided us with ponchos, informed us that we would get wet, and we were on our way. We ventured to the riverside, a short walk from the Café, and our first sight was an immediate reminder of the intense power of volcanoes. The river was flowing rapidly and dangerously close to the top of the man-made walls, and several villagers were busy shoveling cold lava into the back of a pickup truck. Men and boys of all ages filled up one truck within a couple of hours, and they would sell the sand to construction companies for about $100US per load, quite a profit for these local people who lived near or below the poverty line. Since the eruptions, the level of the river had risen dramatically due to vast amounts of cold lava settling on the bottom, and now every time it rains there is a good chance of flooding.



As we strolled the riverside, the rain subsided and we met several locals who were happy to share their snacks with us, answer any questions and pose happily for photos. Our guide taught us about the daily lives of these people, many of whom had been her neighbors for more than two decades, and the continuing improvements to sanitation, safety and health of the local people. Recycling initiatives, clean water projects and free or low-cost clinical care are just a few of the improvements the local community and government were implementing to better the lives of the riverside residents. It was a personal, informative tour that we  wouldn’t soon forget.

Indonesia is a vast archipelago with innumerable places to visit, both cultural and natural. Yogyakarta is not on the radar of most travelers who prefer the beaches of Bali, but I would gladly recommend adding Yogya and the tourism options offered by Via Via Café to anyone seeking alternatives to the ordinary options organized by typical travel agencies. Just bring a poncho.

cloud cover over Yangon

A rainy, misty morning welcomed us to Myanmar as we landed at the Yangon International Airport. Collected by a plump taxi-driver wearing traditional longyi and a button-down shirt, we rode in his mid-80s Toyota, typical transport for Burma, for nearly one hour in morning traffic to reach the Beautyland II hotel downtown. On the way the driver pointed out many sites such as Yangon University, Shwedagon Pagoda, and former government buildings imploring us “no photo here, be careful.”

At the hotel, more men in traditional longyi skirts greeted us with big smiles and tremendous hospitality. The rooms were sparse and simple, yet expensive compared to Thai standards, but the friendliness of the all-male staff made up for this. We spent 5 nights here and the staff helped us with advice on how to avoid being cheated by the streetside money changers as well as arranging a tour of nearby historical site, Bago, and cooking us daily breakfast.

novice nuns collecting alms

One week is too short to take in all that Burma has on display, but it’s long enough to get a sense of place if you are willing to stay local. Myanmar, known by many as Burma, has been under the rule of a dictatorial military junta for many years, and even though there is an “election” coming up in November, it doesn’t seem as if the government will change hands anytime soon. Brooke and I wrestled with this problem a bit but finally decided it’s better to go than not. We were really glad that we did. Not only were the Buddhist temples astonishingly beautiful and very different from Thai temples, but the people were beautiful as well. Once they overcame their initial shyness, they were very happy to speak with us about all manners of life from learning English to traditional Burmese makeup, weather, food, American pop music and even disenchantment with the government.

English class in Yangon

Throughout the week we visited the main temples with images of the Buddha seated, standing and reclining, as well as many with neon lights flashing behind his head. We bargained for jade at the black market, sampled local food, viewed the city from the 20th floor of the Sakura Tower, enjoyed tea Burmese style with another American, splurged for high tea at the Strand Hotel (an impressive British colonial hangout), walked the uneven streets, drank the local beers, jogged around Kandawgyi Lake, visited three meditation centers, and got lost on more than one occasion. But the highlight of this trip for me was the people themselves.

At Shwedagon Paya on our second day, we met a monk. Ashin wanted to practice English with us, so we chatted for a few minutes on the steps. After telling him where we were headed next, he said he’d come along to help. So the three of us walked to a lovely lakeside restaurant, then Ashin helped us find two bookstores, and after he asked us if we would mind going to his English language school to be introduced to his classmates, friends and teachers. This was an English school like no other. Picture a large room with several benches laid out, enough to hold a few hundred students. There are 2 open walls, and attached to a third wall is a bustling tea shop filled with students hanging around before or after class. When we showed up with the monk, we were treated like royalty. The girls immediately put traditional Burmese makeup, tanaka, on Brooke’s face and wanted to know all about us. After a couple hours of introducing ourselves and exchanging email addresses with a few students, we went to one last temple for the day. This temple houses a reclining Buddha with open eyes, made of black glass, which seem to stare down anyone who walks in. Brooke found it scary, but I thought it was awesome. We ended our evening with the monk at this point, and we sent him back to his monastery in a taxi.

The next day we me with a lovely student who had attended Payap University in Chiangmai, and she and her aunt prepared were prepared to drive us around to see a few temples and meditation centers. After visiting one temple and having a nice chat, we had the unfortunate bad luck to get in a small car accident where a bus who had crept out too far into an intersection reversed into our car! At this point, we were excused by our hosts as they said it would take most of the day to sort this out. Brooke and I felt awful that this had to happen to them while they were taking us around, and we hope that the bus owner agreed to pay for the damages. We were just getting acquainted with these two lovely locals and I hope we can meet again sometime.

On Saturday, Ashin and company invited us back to the English Language School as they were celebrating the Full Moon Festival with a concert to honor their “great and wonderful teacher.” We arrived to the sight of our smiling monk friend who ushered us into the teashop and gave us tea and a light lunch. The benches had been removed from the English classroom and there were a couple hundred anxious fans waiting for the music to begin. A 16-year old English student decorated both of our faces with tanaka and another young girl showed us the proper way to eat watermelon seeds. Soon enough, the sounds of Joe Satriani, a famous American guitar player, resounded from the stage. A young bunch of talented Burmese were kicking off the show with a song by one of my favorite musicians! I would have expected Hotel California or Scorpions but never Joe Satriani. One by one guest singers joined the stage, all students or friends of students, and excited young people presented them with flowers. We were asked to do the same but kindly refused. It was like a real concert without the actual professional musicians, and they were all really good!

temple in Bago

After a couple hours at the concert, we went to visit Inya Lake, the home of famous democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi who has been under house arrest for two decades. We couldn’t see her house, but Ashin assured us it was there, and we walked back and forth on the beautifully landscaped sidewalk at the lake’s edge, catching glimpses of Burmese lovers as they huddled close on benches and under umbrellas. A few eager students from another English school chatted to us and had a laugh, and many stares rested on our faces. “Look at those two foreigners walking around with the monk!” We rested with another cup of tea, and Ashin expressed his concern over the state of affairs in Burma, then we headed off in separate directions.

Brooke and I returned to Thailand with a new understanding of Burma, happy to have met such lovely people but concerned about the future. Will there be positive change in this place? I don’t claim to be a social activist and certainly understand less than many about Burma, but this trip has inspired me to think more critically about travel and its implications for the local people, and travelers’ responsibilities in the countries we visit. As well, I’ve been encouraged to interact more with the locals and to stray further afield from the tourist path. I never know what kind of people I may meet and what stories I’ll be able to tell.

quiet couple

As always, enjoy more photos here.

Reunite with White!

On July 9th, 2010, Brooke and I departed for our long anticipated trip to Australia! We were going to spend time with Brooke’s sister Jillian as she settled into her new home to begin a PhD program at the University of Adelaide. But first we traveled through Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia. Although much cheaper than other airlines, Air Asia has funky scheduling forcing one night-stopovers en route to Melbourne. We stayed one night in the Little India area of Kuala Lumpur, taking in the Petronas Towers and doing a little local sightseeing. The next morning we went for a run at a park near the Towers, which was a modern rubber running path circling some small lakes. It was an excellent find and not busy at 6am. Our hotel room at the Citin Masjid Jamek was clean and comfortable but super small, and the hotel itself was hidden behind the market in Little India, but a good place for a night or two to explore the area easily. But this trip was all about the Southern Hemisphere, so we didn’t worry too much about the accommodations in KL.

relaxed by the river in Melbourne

After a long wait to check-in at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport Low Cost Carrier Terminal, (KLIA-LCCT), we embarked on an 8+ hour flight to Melbourne. Arriving at nearly midnight, we were met by a good friend from our Japan teaching days, Eric and his lovely wife Sachie. They were excellent hosts putting us up in their extra bedroom near the Central Business District, preparing delicious Japanese food and showing us around town. Each morning that we stayed in Melbourne I ran around the Botanic Gardens, a wildly popular area for local runners, joggers and walkers. With its rolling hills, wide paths and cool weather the park and the river paths nearby felt like Boston in October. We also toured the city on foot and tram, caught an Australian Rules Football game, and visited a few pubs in the evening. Eric and Sachie then treated us to a brunch at a fantastic winery in the Yarra Valley and took us to a second winery for a tasting. We also met up with friends from Thailand who hail from Melbourne, and visited Kellie’s parents in Ballarat, where Kellie made two desserts and a rice dish for us, and Brooke received some quality rabbit petting time. So lucky!

4 of us in the Yarra Valley

Aussie Footy

After three nights in Melbourne, we packed our bags into a tiny Hyundai Getz and headed for Adelaide. The 10 hour trip to Adelaide was a beautiful green drive complete with endless miles of farmland, sheep, and magnificent trees with root systems that are visible above the ground. We arrived in Adelaide in the early evening and set up camp in a small dorm room in the Royal Adelaide Hospital which would be our home for the next 7 nights. Two single beds were a bit cozy for three adults, but we managed until Jillian was able to find her own place. This hospital residence was a strange place, as many residents, mostly Asian, lived there for extended periods, so they bought their own refrigerators, locked them, and stored them in the common kitchen. Each evening one woman would occupy the whole kitchen and throw dirty looks our way when we’d come in to use the microwave or wash a dish. After we moved into Jillian’s new place, a three story town home near the Central Market, we were able to do a little more cooking. Well, Jillian did some more cooking for us, although I did cut vegetables on more than one occasion.

fun with friends in Melbourne

We stayed in Adelaide for just over two weeks, spending our days working in the library or planning excursions. Each morning we went running either in the Botanic Gardens or along the Torrens River Path. This path runs mostly uninterrupted from the Adelaide Hills east of Adelaide all the way to Port Adelaide in the west. It would have been unfortunate not to take advantage of this amazing resource, so we also hired free bicycles one day to see how far we could go on the path. Except for a couple of rainy days, the weather was almost perfect for running.

Brooke, Jillian and I took a wine tour with a company called Groovy Grape, which was a good day overall, even if the wine wasn’t fantastic. Our first stop on the tour was a tourist trap of a place which builds wooden toys. The company wasn’t attracting a lot of visitors, so to remedy this they constructed what they claim is the world’s biggest rocking horse. The irony is it doesn’t actually rock. There is also a small animal sanctuary here where we witnessed a couple of large grey kangaroos having a pretty intense boxing match. After a cup of coffee, a walk around the toy shop, and a couple rounds of roo boxing, we went to the first and biggest of the 4 wineries, Jacob’s Creek. This is a popular, fairly low cost cellar door which has a long history in the Barossa Valley and exports its wines around the world. The tour was informative and the winery beautiful and newly renovated, but the wine itself was mediocre. Our next stop was a boutique winery called Simpatico where we had a good chat with the gentleman there about wines in New York and Arizona and we tried some nice dessert wines. We stopped for lunch in a small town to eat at a local pub, where many people on our tour tried kangaroo meat for the first time. It was a little chewy for my taste, but I’m told it’s very healthy. A Cooper’s Pale Ale completed the meal. Cooper’s and James Boag’s out of Tasmania were my two favorite beer makers in Australia, and it was great to try the different styles since Thai lager beers are all very similar and not as flavorful as beers from other countries. We rounded off the day with two more wineries, but Brooke and Jillian had already thrown in the towel at this stage. None of the wines had impressed them, so rather than continue to be let down, they experimented with hot chocolate drinks instead. The third winery, Jacob’s Creek sister winery, was housed in a cool building like an old castle, and the fourth one, Seppeltsfield, allowed us to taste their premium dessert wines and their two microbrewed beers. The beers weren’t particularly good but the dessert wines were really interesting. They refer to these as fortified wines. In the end, we had a scenic tour of the Adelaide Hills, learned about the wine history of the region, but were not all that impressed with the quality of wines on this tour. Give us Bully Hill on Keuka Lake anytime!

On another day the three of us took the local train out to Port Adelaide to explore the art galleries and life along the port. We found a couple of nice galleries, a tasty but expensive lunch, a beer sampling at the Port Adelaide Hotel, and not much happening by the water. Being winter, we surmised it was low season and may be more exciting when summer comes around., which is January and February in Australia.

beer taps in Port Adelaide

One other highlight of the Adelaide cultural district is free entry to the local museums. There is the South Australia Museum as well as the Art Gallery of South Australia. Brooke and I explored the Gallery together, taking in the paintings and photography exhibits, and then I went to other museum by myself, which turned out to be quite comprehensive and well-designed. It is mostly a natural history museum with several exhibits including whale bones, mammals of the world, giant squid, and a brand new area devoted entirely to the ecosystems, flora and fauna of South Australia.

When we weren’t touring and exploring, we were busy trying to find fairly inexpensive food, which was no easy task. Coming from Thailand, Brooke and I were shocked by the $10 lunches and $3 coffees, not to mention the $17 movies! We did manage to find cheaper eats at the Central Market, Adelaide’s Asian center, and we ultimately discovered coffee deals and Monday night $6 movies.

aboard the Overland

We had to get back to Melbourne for our return flight, and our options included renting a car again, flying, train or bus. We opted for the train which turned out to be a great experience with excellent service and hilarious commentary. The Australians are very proud of their country and rightly so, and we got to see this first hand on the 11 ½ hour train ride from Adelaide to Melbourne, called “The Overland.” We stayed one more night in Melbourne with Eric and Sachie, enjoyed one final round of Sachie’s home cooking, drank some delicious James Boag’s beers, ran in the park one last time, and flew back to Kuala Lumpur. This time we stayed at the Tune Hotel, which, based on its logo and business model (you pay extra for a towel and A/C) is run by the same company that operates Air Asia. Cramped and thrifty, but literally a stone’s throw from the terminal.

Then it was back to Chiang Mai, feeling good about spending quality time with family and friends, having visited the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, and being able to run on decent running paths in cool weather. Thanks to Jillian, Eric, Sachie, Dave, Kellie and the Oxlade family. Good on ya!

See more photos from Australia and other places here.

Brooke plays in the water

After we returned from Koh Samui and Bangkok, we had about 10 days to while away in Chiang Mai before going to Australia. In addition to various “personal projects” as Brooke likes to call them, we decided we’d see some tourist attractions that we hadn’t been to before.

Our first excursion was a drive to the Mae Sa Waterfall, about an hour’s drive from APIS. The road is full of curves and extremely steep in parts, so when we arrived we both felt a little woozy. After a short walk to the falls, our spirits lifted. The sound and sight of rushing water and the feel of cool breezes seemed to heighten our senses and relieve nausea. Rather than one set of majestic falls, this waterfall area had 10 different levels that could be reached via a footpath to the side, about 1km in length. We explored most of them, stopping for a cool swim and some silly photographs in a few, and simply gazing out at the others. This area is popular with Thais as well, as many people can be seen carrying picnic lunches and setting up mats on the rocks, ready to spend an hour or more in one place. Take note: showing a Thai work permit or other proof of residence in Thailand will get you into the National Park for 20 baht rather than 100.

That evening, we invited our friends Adam, Eva and Jessica to join us for a swim in the school pool followed by dinner at our local favorite, Banpong View Doi, which means “Banpong (the name of our village) Mountain View.” It’s a small outdoor restaurant across the road from the Suan Bua Resort with an interesting menu filled with special treats like fried somtam and an amazing view of the mountains and valleys all around. It was a relaxing way to top off a nice day in the outskirts of Chiang Mai.

View from the temple

Our other tourist destination was the Chiang Mai Night Safari, just off the Canal Road south of the city proper. Our students go here often, but we had never been. We set out in the early afternoon so we could first explore Wat Prathat Doi Kham, a temple located on a mountain top whose notifying feature is a luminous white Buddha gazing serenely from behind the clouds. This Budddha can be seen for miles around, so we felt we needed to see it up close, and the temple itself is just a short drive from the Night Safari road.

Brooke in front of White Buddha

For some strange reason, large statues like the white Buddha seem larger from a distance, so up close it was not as impressive as I’d anticipated. Inside the temple itself there is a golden stupa housing a Buddha relic (a piece of the Buddha’s bones) and there are a series of large gongs of varying sizes which make different sounds when struck. There’s also a tremendous view of Chiang Mai.

We left the Wat and drove to Night Safari. Showing my work permit, we were able to pay the Thai price for admission, 250 baht per person. Regular price is 500 for foreigners. The Night Safari has a walking path around a lake called the Jaguar Trail, where visitors can see various primates playing on small islands, turtles, lemurs, and the famous white tigers, pacing around the compound looking restless and anxious. There are also two “Safari” tours where visitors ride trams through an area which is otherwise off-limits, to catch personal glimpses of large birds, boars, hyenas, giraffes, and other animals from all over the world. The Night Safari offers tours in Thai and English, but the English tours leave later in the evening than the Thai ones. We chose the Thai versions, figuring it would be fun practice, and also because we figured there wasn’t too much new information about these animals that we would be sad about not understanding. The highlight of the trip was scores of baby boars following the tram closely and blocking the way because passengers kept throwing food to them. We had a good laugh. On site there are a couple of nice gift shops and a reasonably priced restaurant. We recommend going after 5pm because the tours don’t begin until around 7. At 8pm there is a cheesy but fun laser-light water show set to music that takes place in the center of the lake. The CM Night Safari is worth a look at least once, especially for families and animal-lovers.

Enjoying the 4th with Paul and Adam

One other highlight of this part of the summer was the 4th of July celebration hosted by the Chiang Mai VFW and catered by local western restaurant, The Duke’s. Several thousand Americans, Thais and others showed up to the Chiang Mai Municipal Stadium for a scorcher of a day filled with good company, great food, activities for the kids, live music and, wait for it…good American beer! Samuel Adams and Red Hook, courtesy of the US consulate, were available for sale and went down easily on this hot day. The party was topped off with a short fireworks display, reminding me of those Independence Days of my youth spent on the banks of the Chemung River in Corning, New York. The organizers did a nice job providing a venue where Americans could take pride in their country, thousands of miles from home, and feel connected to Thailand as well.


Photos From Our Summer in Chiang Mai

Doi Suthep – Pui National Park (Waterfalls)

Chiang Mai Night Safari

It’s early August now, and in-service training has just begun. APIS has been on summer holiday for almost eight full weeks, and soon my grade 4 classroom will be filled with new students, fresh from trips to the beaches in the south, Singapore, Hong Kong or further abroad. Before this happens, I want to take some time to reflect on the two months past.

Shortly after school finished in mid-June, I met Brooke in Bangkok for a few days of shopping, movies, food and friends. Then we embarked on a bus journey to Koh Samui via the infamous backpacker area, Kao San Road. Although the bus trip and ferry to Samui cost only 750 baht per person (about $23USD), if you ever intend to travel to the islands via bus, we highly recommend you don’t take this one. There is a complete lack of communication, service and speed. The VIP service, at less than $10 more per person, is smoother, cleaner, and a much better deal. We chose this option for the return trip from Samui and were much happier, as the bus drives directly onto a ferry, passengers are given air-conditioned seats on the boat in a lounge-type setting, and snacks and drinks are provided on the bus, as well as an included dinner stop.

View from Raja Ferry

Koh Samui is known for its beautiful beaches and somewhat pricy resort-style lodging, but we were going there for a completely different experience. Brooke and I registered for a 7-day silent meditation retreat in the tradition of Ajahn Buddadhasa Bhikku from Wat Suan Mokkh, overseen by Ajahn Po. While Brooke has attended several retreats over the past 12 months, I had only attended one retreat previously, so I was looking forward to seeing what progress I could make in my meditation. Brooke has already written about this course in depth on her blog, Wandering Dhamma, so I will focus on my experience here.

We arrived at the center, situated high up on a hill off the beaten path from Lamai Beach, in the early afternoon. The view was unbeatable, with a forest of palm trees leading down to the fishing village at the port of Lamai, and the Gulf of Thailand sparkling in the mid-day sun for as far as we could see. We were 2 out of only 3 registrants at the time, in addition to two volunteers who would assist us and meditate with us throughout the course. Within the first few hours, I had agreed to lead hour long yoga sessions each morning of the course. Later that evening, and into the next day, 5 more students registered, bringing the class total to 8 people. At first, I was a bit reticent to teach the yoga, as it had been almost two years since I had taught, and because I was not quite sure how to modify the teaching style from the powerful vinyasa that I knew for an audience of people who had come to meditate. After all, this was not a yoga retreat.

Dhamma Kitten!

It didn’t take long to become accustomed to the silence, which begun in the evening of the first night, after an introductory meditation session and familiarization with the course guidelines and physical layout of the center. We were encouraged to smile to one another, or to look down if we wished to stay inside ourselves and avoid contact. As the week went on, we grew familiar with the routine: waking at 4:30am to the sound of a large bell, arriving at the meditation hall by 5am to listen to a morning reading, sitting in silent meditation from 5:15-5:45, then practicing yoga from 5:45-6:45. I had a few consistent students, including Brooke and the 2 volunteers, and some others who came in and out as they wished, choosing to follow some of the routine. I was able to vary the routine enough so that students were learning new poses each day, and I could challenge those few students who were ready to push themselves a bit harder and get a bit sweatier. I found that I really enjoyed teaching, although it was odd that I would talk for one hour each day, in the midst of a silent retreat. I was not as interactive as I would have been in a more lively class.

Following the yoga session we had another 30 minute meditation sit, followed by vegetarian breakfast at 7:30. The idea was to eat mindfully while considering each bite of food and maintaining the silence. After breakfast we had free time to rest until 9:30, and from 9:30 until 11:30 we listened to Buddhist talks, did sitting and walking meditation, and then had lunch, the final meal of the day. The afternoon consisted of periods of rest, walking and sitting meditation, talks by monks or other dharma teachers, 5:00 evening tea, rest, and then more meditation from 7-9pm. The main meditation technique at Dipabhavan was to focus on the breath as it enters and exits the nose, or to “chase after” the breath, following it from the time it enters the nose, down into the lungs, until it comes back out. I found the main distraction was thinking about the next day’s yoga class, planning it out while I was trying to focus on the breath. Upon reflection, I shouldn’t have worried about it, since the class evolved naturally as I taught it anyway, and I often did not teach what I had planned. Sleepiness was my second distraction. I found that I was extra sleepy after doing yoga, because I breathe quite deeply encouraging a lot of sweat. Sleepiness makes it difficult to follow the breath carefully.

in the "hot seat" at retreat's conclusion

In the end, I felt calmer and more aware, but I didn’t make any meditation breakthroughs. I think that maybe the 7-day format may be too short for sufficient progress for me, since I was just starting to feel more concentrated by day 5, but then we took a day trip and the rhythm was lost. However, the trip was nice as we traveled to another meditation location on the island which has views of neighboring islands and is at a much higher elevation than Dipabhavan. This place is called Suan Dhamma Bheri, and can be accessed by car if one chooses to go there outside of the retreat to take advantage of the peaceful setting, expansive views and numerous meditation platforms.

The Dipabhavan monthly 7-day retreat in English is a donation-based program, beginning with registration on the 20th of each month. I would recommend this retreat to people with a background in some form of Buddhist meditation who are willing to sit with their thoughts in silence for one week while living in sparse accommodation without air conditioning, hot water, or access to the outside world. It is not the strictest center one might find, but it is also not a spa or a place where one can “forget about one’s worries” and receive advice on how to deal with the stresses of daily life. It is a Buddhist meditation center with an emphasis on the teachings of the Buddha, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment and others. There is one interview with a teacher on day 3 or 4, but the conversation should be limited to meditation technique and progress, nothing more. It is, however, an unbeatable location with a view that calms the heart, especially during the time of a full moon. And if you’re traveling from Bangkok overland, avoid the Kao San Road bus and head straight for the VIP bus to Samui at the Southern Bus Terminal.

our group with a resident monk

See more photos here.

Last Day of Grade 4 at APIS - 2010

Although 2009-2010 was my sixth year of teaching elementary school, it often felt like the first. I moved to a new country, taught in a private school for the first time, lived at a boarding school for the first time, and experienced international school life for the first time. It was and continues to be an interesting time in my life.

enjoying the new "umbrella restuarant" across from school

Let’s reflect. What were the highlights? I could walk from my apartment (the largest Brooke and I have ever had together) to my classroom in just under two minutes at a leisurely pace. This made late morning runs possible, along with early afternoon swims with Brooke. I could carry my coffee along, and pop in at lunch to brew another cup. The campus is beautiful. Set in the mountains of Chiang Mai province, you couldn’t ask for a more idyllic setting. Many of my colleagues lived on campus, making for a nice community feeling, and making pick-up volleyball and tennis matches a common occurrence. Getting someone to head out for a drink at the bamboo or umbrella bars is a breeze – holler up to the window of a friend, saying “See you at the car park in 5!” Ah, the easy life.

goofing around at the staff party - Shangri-La, Chiang Mai

What were some positive experiences professionally? My colleagues were easy to work with, helpful, and fun. The administrative staff truly cared about the students and the teachers. A negative point for next year? Most of the administrative staff is moving on to other schools in other countries, such as Turkey, Austria and Belgium. But I hold out hope that their replacements will be excellent and APIS will continue to progress. Some other highlights were teaching 15 wonderful students from different ethnic backgrounds and finding them to be genuinely interested in learning new things, much like my students in the US. But the nature of international schools and struggling economies will see some of those students heading to other schools next year. This is the way it works – teachers and students come and go with relatively high frequency.

Mr. Will and Ms. Bee before December break

APIS is an International Baccalaureate (IB) World school, following the Primary Years Programme (PYP) of inquiry-based learning from Kindergarten to Grade 5. Being my first year working with this style of program, there was a lot of planning time with the PYP Coordinator and ESL specialists, but well worth it in the end. Next year, with 5 strongly written units and a sixth which just needs a little tweaking, grade 4 should be a lot of fun with lots of time for writing improved math and language lessons. The grade 3 class coming to me is more diverse than the class I just finished with, so there will be new challenges as well as those interesting students who make the teaching job so fun. One major difference is I will have at least 4 native English speakers in my class, whereas this year I had a grand total of 1, and she was only in Thailand for a couple of months.

exploring the laws of physics

Now, as the second week of summer vacation comes to an end, I’m able to look back on a year filled with highlights, and although there were and continue to be certain struggles, the positives come out on top in the end. We are lucky in that we are allowed six field trips per year, one per unit of inquiry, as well as a 4-day excursion called Classroom Without Walls (see my earlier post). These events really add to the learning environment, allowing students to get out and explore, and to get to know each other in different ways.

I look ahead with optimism for the 2010-2011 school year, another year filled with changes, but with much stability as well. It will be a year where two elementary teachers, myself and the grade 3 teacher, will be the veterans after only year here, where the headmaster and elementary principal will be transitioning from life in Bangladesh to the laid-back lifestyle of Chiang Mai, where Brooke and I will continue to make new friends and connections while improving our Thai skills, and life at APIS will hum along as it has for the past 14 years.

field trip fun

Last year, I posted an article about visiting the Chiang Mai Zoo, and commented on the pandas. Well, it looks like the baby panda is now one year old!

The following article was posted on the website of Chiang Mai Mail, Chiang Mai’s weekly newspaper, Vol. IX, No. 21, Tuesday, May 25-31, 2010.

Get ready! Lhin Ping’s having a birthday party

Lhin Ping will celebrate her first birthday this weekend,
Chiang Mai Zoo makes party preparations.

Jedsadapong Wongkiew

Chiang Mai has reason to celebrate on the 27th of May as the Chiang Mai Zoo announced plans to throw a gala Birthday party for Lhin Ping on her first birthday.

Sophon Damnui, the Director of the Zoological Park Organization said that the day will start with merit making and blessing at 8:09 a.m. and a warm up party at her beautifully decorated new house followed by a Chinese food feast and the presentation of birthday gifts.

There will be a big gathering onstage at 9 a.m. as the assembly, including some Zoo animals, joins in to wish Lhin Ping a happy birthday. Hopefully only the humans will join in the Happy Birthday Song!

There will be a Khantoke feast, the first at 11 a.m. and the second later in the afternoon at 2 p.m.

Lhin Ping Fan Club members are eligible for special packages; Package 1, at 1,000 baht, will allow guests to attend the blessing ceremony for Lhin Ping, enjoy the birthday cake, the Chinese feast, attend wildlife and nature studies, visit the snow dome, aquarium and attend musical, art and culture performances by Lanna artists.

Package 2, at 500 baht, will give the guest the opportunity to sing Happy Birthday to Lhin Ping, enjoy the Chinese feast, and attend musical, art and culture performances.

Baby Panda souvenirs will go on sale at the Zoo and the Lhin Ping Club Card will be launched which allows fan club members special privileges to visit Lhin Ping throughout the year. For more information, please contact by phone at 053 – 893170 and 086 – 7300755