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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.

Websites:

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

Thai Flags on Procession

Every year, on the eve of Vesak Bucha Day*, thousands of Thais make a 13km trek to the top of Doi Suthep (Suthep Mountain), the tallest mountain in the general vicinity of Chiang Mai, arriving at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep to pay respects to the relic of the Buddha housed there, and to circumabulate the chedi three times and make merit for their families and friends. Established over 700 years ago, the temple is one of the holiest and revered Buddhist temples in all of Thailand. Also tied up in this tradition is a procession honoring the great Kruba Sriwichai, a monk who, over 70 years ago, traveled on foot all over Northern Thailand refurbishing temples and breathing new life to Buddhism in Lanna.

The last couple of months have been strange in Thailand, due to peaceful protests turned violent in Bangkok, the imminent dispersal of the protesters by the Thai army, and the resulting backlash in northern provinces, as unsettled UDD supporters set fire to tires and government buildings and closed off public areas. These retaliatory protests lasted no longer than one day, and soon a curfew was instituted to prevent large gatherings of people in public. As I write, we are still under a limited curfew, 12am-4am, but it should soon be lifted.

Last week, Brooke and I were told by friends that the annual pilgrimage up Doi Suthep was planned for Thursday evening, May 27th, and would last all through the night. After a period of uncertainty due to the curfew, we learned that the government removed the curfew for that night to allow the tradition to proceed. So Brooke and I invited several people to join us, but for various reasons (work, other obligations, dislike of walking) it turned out to be just the two of us as we set our sights on reaching the top.

Pants Rolled Up with No Shame

9pm. After over an hour sitting in traffic and trying to find parking, we started our walk from the Dunkin’ Donuts on Canal Road, about 3km from the official starting point just next to the Chiang Mai Zoo. We set off wearing our white pilgrim’s clothes and sandals, Brooke having convinced me that the Thai people would not be donning their cross-trainers and dri-fit t-shirts. She was absolutely right. The crowd was an eclectic mix of young and old, some small children with their families, women who appeared to be in their 70s and 80s, young women wearing heels and skirts, monks, and the largest group: university freshmen, for whom this journey is a rite of passage, complete with hazing. Most people wore only flip-flops or sandals, while others sported Converse, Vans, or other non-support fashion shoes. It was rare indeed to see a proper pair of walking or hiking shoes.

What began years ago, I assume, as a quiet affair on the trails of the mountain, has turned into a veritable circus extending the distance of the main paved road, winding it’s way to the near-summit of Doi Suthep. The sides of the road, for many kilometers, are lined with food and drink stalls, selling pad thai, meats, sweets, and lots and lots of cold water. Being a Buddhist holiday, beer and whiskey drinking is not promoted, but we were told that if you asked the drink vendors for beer, you’d receive it. While some college kids were drinking, and some were even drunk, most people stuck to water, because after all, it’s a steep, long hike in the dark, and the temperature at the base of the mountain was over 90 degrees with a lovely stickiness in the air. We began our journey with some egg and rice, pad thai, and plenty of water, eating and drinking as we walked. Our intention was to make the summit, but at the onset we were both tired already.

Pilgrims and a Songthaew

We walked. And walked. And walked. Some people passed us, but mostly we did the passing. We slowed when we tired, and sped up to get away from the groups of freshman boys chanting high-octane military-style songs at top volume. Throughout the trip there were times when we had to weave in and out of stopped traffic, as red songthaews took groups of people to the top or others back down, people on motorbikes sped through pedestrians, and the procession honoring Kruba Sriwichai, complete with several people carrying candles, musicians, flag bearers, trucks with speakers, and the statue of Kruba himself slowly snaked up the hill. There were also periodic stopping points, at roadside temples and scenic viewpoints, where monks were giving dhamma talks, and later in the night people were sleeping on mats there, tucked in for the night. We didn’t stop at any of these places.

Kruba Sriwichai Procession

It was amazing to see how quickly we seemed to rise above the city, as just after 90 minutes or so it seemed that we were incredibly high up, and we could clearly make out the entire outline of the old city moat and the ring roads surrounding the city. About 2 hours in we passed a sign that read “Wat Prathat Doi Suthep: 9km.” Not bad, I thought. Less than 6 miles to go. We walked awhile longer, and at one point we saw what looked like the temple, although it seemed impossible to reach. Soon after this, a fellow walker said we had 2km to go. Our hopes were lifted for a short time, but after 40 more minutes, we approached a sign that said 3km. I guess his estimate was off. Regardless, we trudged on, and the road became steeper. We approached a false ending, an area dedicated to Kruba, where many pilgrims were posing for pictures. No stopping! Brooke was thinking her legs might break in half if she were to stop walking.

12:45am. After 3 hours and 45 minutes, we made it to the base of the infamous 300 steps to the top of Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and the famous golden chedi.

The crowd at the top.

We began the last ascent, shoulder to shoulder and one slow step at a time. As we peered into the rising crowd, the bobbing of heads from left to right and up and down was a bit too much for us to handle, so we opted to turn back, heading instead directly to the nearest foot massage chair, as there were hundreds. I’ve never had a better foot massage than this 1am, one hour long affair that allowed me to drift in and out of sleep as I watched thousands of people pass by in both directions. I briefly thought I might attempt to make the summit once again, but instead I remembered how we had walked those 300 steps at least once per day for 10 days during our summer 2009 meditation retreat. I wasn’t missing anything except a large crowd and possibly some claustrophobia.

The much-needed foot massage!

2am. The next portion of our trip, the descent, began as an uncertain walk, not knowing whether we’d be able to find a ride. I was determined to get into a song thaew, but if that didn’t happen I was ready to ask any passing pickup truck if they had room for two more. After about 30 minutes, we were able to step onto the back of a packed song thaew; I stood on the back, holding on to the rail, while a nice college boy gave up his seat on the bench for Brooke. There were 12 people inside, 2 of us on the back, and 2 more sitting on the luggage rack up top. This turned out to be a slow, car exhaust filled affair, but it was better than walking. After passing the last trickles of groups still climbing, resting groups smoking on the guardrails, and monks and laypeople alike sleeping under the stars, we were dropped in front of the Kruba temple. We walked another 15 minutes to the car, arriving home at 4am, finishing our 8 hour religious work day. Two days later, we think our legs have recovered, but we are both glad to have had the experience.

It turns out a couple of our friends made the climb too, but we never saw them. My deepest congratulations go out to all who made the journey, especially those who went on foot, including several hundred monks. I also send out my best wishes for those on the cleanup crew, as I’ve never seen so many discarded plastic bottles in my life.

*Vesak Bucha Day (Visakha Bucha in Thai) is the date of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha, said to have happened all on the same date. It is celebrated on the full moon night in May.

Songkran Crowd in Chiang Mai

As I drove down the hill on Thursday, the last day of the holiday celebrating the Thai Lunar New Year and the beginning of the planting season, I got a small taste of what was to come. Every so often, a family would be standing on the side of the road with buckets of water, hoses, water guns, or all of the above, ready to douse motorbike riders and cars alike. I had my windshield washed a few times, which I much prefer to getting soaked with icy water while driving a bike.

I parked in the Nimmanhaemin area of the city, met up with some friends, and walked over toward the older mall in Chiang Mai, Central Kad Suan Kaew. Adam gave me a water gun that didn’t have much power, so my first battle, with a 7-year old girl, was a losing one, as I asked to fill my gun with water from her pool, she said “No!” and then soaked me, unarmed and defenseless. As we walked on, more people lined the roads, engaged in water combat with pedestrians and pickup trucks filled with people, armed to the teeth. Then the main event came into view. Imagine the largest music festival you’ve ever been to with stage after stage of live music, dancing, DJs lining both sides of the street all the way down to the old city moat, and further. Standing on elevated platforms with high-powered super soakers, young Thais drench the crowds, and they love it. Now imagine everyone, young and old, has a water supply of some sort – guns, buckets, hoses, ice – and motorbikes, cars and pickup trucks are allowed to slowly move through the crowds of people, picking and choosing their battles as they please, or getting soaked when they least expect it. Add to this cheap beer, stall after stall of street food, and hot, hot sun. This is Songkran in Chiang Mai.  This goes on for 4 days.

Dave, Adam, Yuki and me - purchasing my water gun

I did my part, and I did my best. I picked up a water gun and a plastic pouch to protect my phone and wallet, joined my friends, and went to work. After about 3 hours of soaking, music, dancing, and eating, I’d had enough; however, the folks I came with were just getting started, so I left alone. As I walked back, I was soaked a few more times, but at a slower pace, and I was also simply sprinkled with water by some older Thais, who were taking a more traditional approach to the holiday. I was just getting dry as I was heading to the car, when one final reveler tried to soak me from the 7th floor of an apartment building. It was kind of weird, because I was clearly trying to get dry, and she was by herself, so I wasn’t sure what she’d get out of dropping water on me when I was well away from the action. She missed me, but I heard water hit the roof as I pulled away. The mountain road back to school was busier on the way back, so I got a few more car washes, and got stuck momentarily behind a slowly-moving procession of people dancing along as they brought their donations to the local temple.

Me, Yuki, Jess, Dave

In the evening, up at school, my friend Paddy came over and said the best part of Songkran, in his opinion, was walking into the local village to chat with the Thais and enjoy the festive atmosphere after the sun goes down. So he, his brother and me took a walk, got wet again (this time from hoses), shared drinks with the locals, danced to Thai music, and followed everyone into the temple for one final merit-making ceremony. It was amazing to see all of these wet people, some who’d had too much to drink, wander into the temple, remove their shoes, make offerings to the monks and listen to a short talk, then head back out to party. Soon after the temple visit, most folks piled into their pickup trucks and returned home, having celebrated harder than they had since this time last year, but I could still hear the music pumping for another couple of hours. Some parties die hard.

A Thai friend of mine summed up Songkran in this way: “I love it. Thai people just let loose, and they don’t care about anything, and everyone is happy, for four straight days. It just feels really good.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songkran

Lion's Head Mountain

Flying with Air Asia is cheap, but its not without fault, namely , they will not check bags to a final destination. Passengers traveling internationally through a major hub like Bangkok need to collect their checked baggage, pass though immigration, recheck the baggage, and pass through immigration again.  We had less than two hours between landing from Vietnam and having to depart for Taiwan, so we were obviously rushed. We did make it to our gate with about 15 minutes to spare, so all was well, but I wouldn’t recommend that kind of connection.

But enough about flying. We arrived in Taipei at about 6:30pm, and were greeted by Brooke’s fellow PhD colleague from ASU, Seth, and his two-year old boy Ashmore. Seth lives in Taichung, Taiwan’s fourth largest city, with his Taiwanese wife Jennifer. We took the High Speed Rail from Taipei to Taichung, a trip that only takes 38 minutes. This same trip by car takes between 1 ½ and 2 hours! This was our first indication of what to expect in this modern Asian country claimed by China as the Republic of China and known in the international sporting world as Chinese Taipei. Interestingly, we learned that although China claims that Taiwan is not a sovereign country, Chinese citizens need a visa to travel to Taiwan, and Taiwanese need a visa to travel to China! But lucky for us, Americans do not need a visa to spend 30 days in Taiwan.

2nd Tallest Building in the World - Taipei 101

We spent the next week exploring the modern wonders of Taiwan while also getting a chance to take in some Buddhist and Daoist culture, and enjoy a lot of local food. On the modern side, we shopped at the futuristic malls of Taichung, ate at Gordon Biersch Brewery (also found in Tempe, Arizona!) and Chili’s, and explored the new and old of Taipei. The train system in Taipei is outstanding, with ultra clean stations and trains, well-marked signs in Chinese and even colloquial English (“Put your ticket into the machine, walk through, take it out the other side and off you go!”) We toured the world’s second tallest building, Tapei 101, for a terrific view of the city and the mountains beyond, and saw an amazing example of modern architecture and engineering. Taipei is also ahead of the game on the public transportation front. In addition to the excellent train systems, they have a public bicycle rental program where a rider can collect a bicycle from a kiosk in any major business area and drop it off at any other station. All you need is a member card that you add value to at one of their many machines, then you swipe it like a credit card, and “off you go!”

Rental Bikes

Aside from the modern, we certainly experienced a lot of local culture. We spent two nights In Beitou, an old Japanese area of Taipei, populated with hotels featuring hot water baths supplied by natural hot water springs. These springs are a result of the fact that Taiwan is located on the edge of the Ring of Fire, and that decades ago when the Japanese occupied Taiwan, they brought with them their skill with utilizing hot spring water to feed baths, both public and private. In Japanese this type of spring-fed bath is called an onsen, and Brooke and I were happy to be back in the onsens after having experienced them in Japan back in 2002-2003. Hot springs weren’t the only bit of culture. We also toured several Daoist and Buddhist temples, from Taipei and Taichung in the north and central to Kaoshiung in the south. Temple highlights included Foguangshan in Kaoshiung, a sprawling complex built on the side of a hill, a Mazu temple in Lakung where we happened upon a very special, raucous ceremony, which Seth joked he had prearranged for our visit, and the Dharma Drum Mountain temple where we were able to join a weekly meditation sitting, thanks to Seth’s fluency in Mandarin Chinese. In fact, we have Seth and Jennifer to thank for much of what we were able to do, because aside from the major chain restaurants and top tourist attractions, not much English was spoken throughout the country.

Daoist Festivity

Chinese and Taiwanese food and drink were a highlight as well, as Brooke enjoyed the local delicacy “Stinky Tofu”, sesame noodles, and an abundance of tea options, both iced and hot. I also liked the teas and noodles, but could do without the stinky tofu. The most memorable lunch was had in a town called Tainan on the way to the south. We dubbed it “cockroach lunch” because as we sat down to eat our noodles, the ladies in the shop began to scream. Apparently the nearby business had sprayed for cockroaches so the arthropods were running and flying for their lives, causing the ladies to stomp, shoe, and sweep the bugs into the gutter near our table. Seth helped a bit too, but Brooke and I stayed out of it for the most part, until they tried to climb our legs. This went on for at least 15 minutes and I’m sure continued after we left. Anyway, the food was good and the unexpected entertainment was priceless.

The best part of this trip was the generosity of our hosts, who welcomed us into their guest room, fed us, gave us coffee, and went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed the best Taiwan had to offer, traditional and modern, day and night.