Archive | January, 2015

Christmas Holidays

12 Jan

Christmas had sprung itself upon us in Thailand in the absence of many of the normal signs that it is imminent. The weather was sunny everyday and still regularly surpassing 30 degrees. The days weren’t drawing in, and the smell of smoke in the cold evenings was thousands of miles away. There was however an explosion of tinsel and Christmas lights around the school. Assumption College don’t tend to do things half heartedly, and their budget for decorations was clearly a large one! Every classroom had its own tree decorated with tinsel, lights and baubles with real presents placed underneath; a Secret Santa for the children. There were also hundreds of lights around the school buildings, a nativity set and a huge Thai flag made from thousands of fairy lights.

It was always going to be a different experience, spending Christmas away from my family; but it was not my first Christmas away from home. I also like to think that it will only make me enjoy and appreciate my next one with family even more. We spent Tuesday 23rd December in school, but only to wander around our classes wishing the students a happy Christmas, handing out treats and joining in some of the games. The students had an entire day of food, drink and activities in their classrooms. I don’t know quite how much KFC was ordered to our school that day, but it would probably have fed the entire city of Nakhon Ratchasima for most of the holidays. I know people sometimes question the point of having a school day if there are no lessons, but there was such a great atmosphere around the campus and we were able to bond with students in such a way that I think a similar day would benefit any school.

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Pictures: Just some of the KFC ordered on the last day of term. Foreign teachers playing a slightly inappropriate game with Primary students.

On Christmas Eve we were back in at Assumption, but only to attend a Christmas party. Again, the school went ‘all out’, with no expense spared on the food or prizes they gave away. The food wasn’t all to our Western tastes, but one course in particular was ‘alloy mak’ (delicious). It was some kind of enormous bird, possibly a goose or a giant duck, which had been spit roasting for the previous few hours! The entertainment for the evening was a mixture of incessant and frankly unpleasant Karaoke, staff dances and prize draws. The standout performances would have to be the foreign teachers’ dance and the Assumption Rap, performed by our IT teacher, Saroj.

The raffle was definitely the focal point of the evening. Names were drawn out at random throughout the evening, winning prizes of cash, gold or other luxury goods. For several hours we sat there, patiently waiting our moment of good fortune that never came. By the end of the evening I was fairly fed up, and convinced none of the British teaches were in the draw. To finish the evening a ‘jackpot prize’ was announced, with one final name being pulled from the hat. The resident MC sufficiently built up the tension for a good ten minutes before the prize was driven around the corner; yes that’s right, our school was giving away a brand new car!? Needless to say I didn’t win, but I was given a gift set containing a personalised watch (with my name and photo on the face), an ornamental mug and 1000 Thai Baht.

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Pictures: Seafood platter and spit roasted fowl at the Christmas party. The car is the jackpot prize in the staff raffle.

Christmas day was a very quiet affair for me. Nearly all the foreign teachers had jetted out of Korat as fast as they possibly could (can’t blame them), and I was left without much to do. All the British teachers had headed down South to Phuket, but as I had been already, I decided to meet them several days later in Koh Samui. Those few days were all in all pretty boring, made worse by the fact it was Christmas and Boxing Day. I enjoyed Skyping home and talking to the family, but apart from that, I could find nothing to do! In the end I couldn’t bear another day on my own so decided to head down to the islands a day early.

It was such a spontaneous decision; I threw some clothes in a bag and headed to the bus station and within half an hour of deciding to leave I was sitting on a bus to Bangkok. I had nothing to do on the journey except close my eyes or read my book. Time seemed to drag and the four hour journey to Bangkok felt like double that. I eventually arrived at the bus terminal where I had to change buses to get to Khoasan road. I’m sure this wasn’t far in terms of miles, but crawling through the Bangkok traffic, another hour drifted slowly by. By this time I was getting impatient by the slow progress because I was eager to get down South, but also because I knew I was looking at 20 hours+ of travelling. Once I arrived at Khoasan Road, the backpacker area of Bangkok, I headed to the nearest travel agent and asked to get on the next bus to Koh Phangnam. My heart sank when they told me the buses were all full, and I’d have to wait till tomorrow evening for a bus. I begrudgingly agreed to pay double the price to take a night train, until they tried to book me a ticket, and discovered that too, was fully booked. I had no other option; I was officially stuck in Bangkok for 22 hours.

When I first realised I was stranded, I was slightly deflated, but I quickly decided I might as well enjoy the city; so I booked into a room and headed out for some street food. I soon met another lone traveller, a hippy from California, who so far hadn’t escaped the clutch of the Khoason area. We spent the evening going ‘walkabout’ and checking out the notorious night life. The next day I spent far too much money on the market stalls buying knockoff goods. I also bumped into a couple of English girls who got us lost before eating Phad Thai for just 30 Baht (about 65p). Before long it was time to take my bus to Samui, so I headed to the pickup point.

There were many other people heading down South, not just to Samui but to all the different islands and cities. I chatted to some other backpackers while we waited for someone to take us to the bus, and met a girl from Hastings, just 10 miles from my hometown! Eventually someone came to pick us up and walk us to our coach, but at the same time I got a phone call. I followed our group without paying much attention to where I was going for several minutes before realising I don’t recognise the group I am with. I quickly run to the front and ask the leader if they are going to Samui, but it turns out I’ve followed a group going to Phuket. I feel a sudden panic, and imagine another night stuck in Bangkok while I miss out on the fun further South. I ran back the way I came, desperately searching for my group, luckily finding them some minutes later. The rest of the journey was straight forward but very long. We drove through the night down to the ferry port where we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere for 4 hours! After an agonising wait another coach picked us up and took us to the ferry. From there it was a 1.5 hour crossing and an hour’s taxi drive to the hostel. I arrived at Samui Hostel around 3pm, tired and extremely hungry but happy to be there!

It was actually really nice to be back in a hostel and able to make friends with whoever you have been chucked in a room with. I met a group of Brazilians, a weird Danish guy and an Irish girl. Soon after my teacher friends arrived from their trip to Phuket and we headed out for food and a much needed beer. That night I played pool with some Arabs, drank Leo on the beach and exchanged stories with the rest of our group. The next day we woke up to beautiful sunshine and quickly headed out to eat a dodgy ‘English’ breakfast. Over breakfast we decided to explore the island by renting motorbikes. Samui Island is very urban and touristic around its circumference, so we wanted to head inland and see some greenery. We were soon riding up steep hills through beautiful forest, with picturesque views of the surrounding island. We noticed signposts for a waterfall and turned off the main road to try and find it. The dirt track we were now riding on was heavily potholed and covered in lose stones, so we drove cautiously and took our time. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough as Natalie, with Aisling riding pillion toppled over on a particularly rough bit of track. I was travelling a little way behind, and just came around a corner to see them sprawled on the floor. Luckily they had only been travelling a few miles an hour, but Aisling had a nasty graze on her thigh and needed to get it cleaned and bandaged. It bought back memories of my friend Nicks accident in Vietnam and reaffirmed how dangerous riding bikes with no protection can be.

Natalie, Aisling and Simon headed off to find a pharmacy while Shubhu, Grace and I continued to the lookout and waterfall. We then went to see Grandfather Rock, which is a giant phallic shaped rock, something that Thai people can’t get enough of. Finally, we headed off to the main waterfall on the island. This was the highlight of the day. The waterfall was impressive just to look at, but as an added bonus you could climb up the adjacent hill with the help of guide ropes. It was a good physical workout and the total lack of health and safety made it an exciting climb.

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Pictures: Grandfather Rock. Waterfall 2 

That evening was New Years Eve so we headed back to the hostel, got changed and headed out. We treated ourselves to an Italian meal costing an extortionate 300 Baht (6 pound), but worth every penny. We then went for a couple of drinks before ending up at Ark Bar, a huge beach bar, to see in the New Year. It was packed full or people and had a great atmosphere. At midnight the island erupted in fireworks, which you could see all along the coast in both directions. The next hour involved a lot of drinking and dancing, but I missed the usual tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne. After a while we headed to a bar down the road. It was here that Simon attempted to impress some locals with his pole dancing skills but ended up falling and knocking his arm, resulting in a huge bruise. We partied for a couple more hours before drifting back to the hostel to sleep after an enjoyable night.

The next morning we unanimously agreed to spend some time relaxing on the beach, catching some rays. Incredibly, this was the first time I’d properly been to the beach since I arrived more than two months ago! It was another really hot day so we spent some time lying in the sun before cooling off in the sea. The waves were fairly big so I attempted to body surf for a while before deciding I was too hungover for all that exertion. I decided to swim back to shore to dry off but found myself fighting a slight rip current, and by the time I got back I was tired from the effort. I didn’t think much of it until several hours later I was on the beach taking photos of Enda and Shubhu getting bashed by the waves. I noticed Enda had an amusing swimming style so took a couple of photos. About 20 seconds later and a strange man is clearly invading Endas personal space, so I keep watching to see what is happening. Seconds later they embrace in a hug. It suddenly dawns on me that Enda hasn’t found a holiday romance, but he was struggling against the same current and needed rescuing! As he stumbled back onto the beach, I ran over to check he was OK and to show him a photo of him drowning.

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Pictures: Enda in the process of drowing, shortly before being rescued by a stranger. Shubhu watches on. Simon making friends with a stray dog on Samui beach

As we are chatting about his near death experience we noticed Simon attempting to swim back to shore in the same spot, only he’s somehow swimming backwards, and at a fair rate of knots. I decide to take more action this time and swim out to check he is OK. As I get close I notice he is in a pretty bad way and has no energy left to swim. I remember being told repeatedly in Australia that the only way to escape a rip is to swim laterally, so I help him stay afloat and we swam to the side. It turns out that only 3 metres away the depth was chest height, so we were quickly back to terraferma. Several hours later, after I left the beach, I heard that several people had to be rescued from the same spot, with one teenage girl being bought back unconscious.

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The next day and it was time to head back to our homes in good old Korat. It was another painfully long journey, this time in a bus with no toilet! Just to make it even worse I was sick moments before we left, and spent the first few hours feeling nauseous. I was really hungry but didn’t want to eat just in case. We left Samui just after midday and ended up back in Korat around 7am! Overall, it was a really fun trip, packed with memorable moments.

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