Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bangkok. Take Two

It's not even Thanksgiving, but it's Christmas season in Bangkok.

Traffic is Bangkok is like traffic in Manhattan.  

This is my second time in Bangkok for a visa run.  The first was primarily spent either in a hospital bed with my leg elevated or in a hotel bed with my leg elevated.  At least the hotel had mega English cable channels on TV.  On the other hand, the hospital provided 24 hour service for anything I needed from food to bed baths and bed pans.   

This time, I was looking forward to the shopping and dining I missed the first try.  I’ve been to Bangkok twice before these visa runs and know it has a lot to offer.  I was a bit dismayed when I came down with a cold a few days before leaving for Bangkok and then a knuckle on my hand became very swollen and painful.  Damn, is there a Bangkok curse?

I arrived Thursday evening and had a terrific dinner at a Mexican restaurant with one of the guys I teach with.  Food, tequila and conversation were good.  Plus, no talk of work/Mandalay. 

Friday I visited the hospital twice and in between got a two hour massage and ordered some custom silk blouses.  Coming home at six pm from the hospital proved frustrating.  A cab came when called but then demanded double the fare.  Wrong.  Or, perhaps not.  It was Friday night in Bangkok and traffic was gridlocked.  I then waited almost an hour for another taxi. 
I got great care at a good price from compassionate people at Camillian hospital.  But I hope I never go there again.

I saw this sign while sitting in traffic on my way home.  What kind of business has the slogan "If you can do it, you will see the difference!"  A tailor.

I stepped back inside to wait and avoid the mosquitoes, where I ran into an employee who’d been especially helpful during my stay previously.  She not only remembered my name but also the part of town where I’d stayed.  I showed her my appointment slip for the following day and she looked concerned.  I hadn’t really paid attention but she’d noticed that the appointment wasn’t for Saturday, it was for Sunday.

She went to check it out while I kept watch for the taxi.  As luck would have it, the taxi pulled up immediately after she walked off.  I asked him to wait and went running after her.  All this in sign language, of course.  I caught up to her, got a new appointment slip with the correct date and ran back, only to see the taxi taking off.  Damn, he’d seemed to understand and agree.
In front of the hospital.  These guys were great.
I enlisted the help of the orderlies who’d helped me call a taxi so many times.  They ran after the guy, yelling in Thai.    He stopped.  Big sigh of relief.  Then he backed up and parked.  And got out of the car.  The orderlies and I were looking at each other in confusion.  As the driver ran past us I heard an orderly translate one word:  toilet. 

Good thing he used the facilities because once we agreed that I’d pay the meter rate and headed into traffic, it was slow going.  I don’t know why I always forget that traffic on Sukhumvit (and everywhere else in the city) is gridlock on a Friday night.  And Saturday, Sunday, etc.

We got stuck in a real snarl near the Emporium mall.  Ho, ho, ho, all the Thai Buddhists were Christmas shopping.  Towering Christmas trees in front of malls, Christmas carols blaring (in English) and ads for “holiday” specials.   Because of the number of cars trying to exit the mall, traffic was not moving.  At all.  We sat for over 30 minutes when traffic started crawling again. 

Finally, he made a bold move around a bus, raced through an almost red light and there was space ahead.  He floored it and we simultaneously started yelling with excitement.  We made eye contact and laughed out loud.  It was one of those moments I call pearls – a moment of perfect joy.  He didn’t speak English, I don’t speak Thai, I was at least 30 years older and none of that mattered.  We were sharing a small but excellent moment.

On Saturday, instead of heading to Chatuchuk market, as planned, I was headed back to the hospital.  After a blood test, the doctor was concerned that I had a bacterial infection in the bone in my hand.  Or, possibly lupus.  I figured spending a few hours waiting with the dozens of other people to see a doctor were worth it to see a specialist.

It took all morning but I got great news.  Just the gouty arthritis I’ve had before.  It hadn’t bothered me in years but had flared up when I was in the hospital.  A reaction to the trauma of the infection according to the doctor.  i was given drugs and was on my way.  Let the vacation begin.

I had a fitting for my blouses on Saturday afternoon, spent some time on the internet and then met more co-workers for dinner.  At the same Mexican restaurant.  It was a fun evening with lots of laughs, although we had to consciously keep moving the conversation away from work.

Sunday morning I planned to leave really early for the Chatuchuck market, which opens at 6:00 a.m.  My body disagreed and I didn’t get up until 7:00 a.m.  After a quick shower and easy Skytrain ride, I arrived at the market around 8:15.  Good thing I didn’t get there earlier, since many of the vendors were just opening for business.

I spent about four hours at the market.  It’s big, but not as huge as I’d expected.  Most stalls are under roof and it’s a maze to get through.  Both junk and treasures, depending upon your perspective. 

It’s the kind of market I love to explore.   I know many people think it’s intimidating to travel alone, but this market is an example of why I love it.  I went at my own pace, stopping at what interested me and passing by things that didn’t.  I can’t imagine doing a market like this as part of a tour.  I had a small bottle of orange juice which I saw being squeezed.  I passed by all the food stalls, reluctantly.  I was more focused on shopping than eating.
It was early when I got to the market and the crowds hadn't arrived.  They were in full force by the time I left.

Hungry for a little Turkish food?  Bangkok (and the market) has it all.

And lots of tempting beverages.

Maua ili i le marketi!  Looks just like the fans I used everyday in Samoa.  One was my first purchase of the day.  $1 USD.

Tired of the market?  Grab some food from one of the dozens of food vendors on the street and rent a mat from a guy so you can enjoy a picnic in Chatuchuk Park, next to the market.

Have you ever shopped so much that you couldn’t remember every thing you bought?  That was my day.  It was fun to unload my backpack and rediscover my treasures.  A wallet.  Two muscle shirts for new grandsons of friends.  Bath salt scrub stuff to make my showers in Mandalay luxurious.  A blouse.  Two pairs of sandals.  Three DVDs which I'm sure are not black market.  Two silk pillow coverings for a friend who visited Thailand with me in 2003.  A silk hanging for my apartment in Mandalay.  A hand made paper hanging for my apartment.  Vegetable seeds and a jigsaw puzzle for my kids.  Cool hair clips for my assistant teachers.

All that loot for less than $100.  My kind of shopping.  Even after realizing that I got ripped off on the shoes.  If I’d bought the exact same thing on the street outside the market, I would have saved about ½.  But then again, I only paid $12, so was able to get over it quickly.

By the time I got back to my hotel I was sweaty, tired and getting hungry.  But happy.  After a bit of a rest and checking the internet, I headed out to find a late lunch.  I headed toward a nearby Chinese restaurant where I’d seen duck hanging out front.

There were few other customers there at 2:30 p.m. and I was offered a large table.  I relaxed and ordered honey roasted duck, stir fried morning glory with oyster sauce and rice.  And a Singha beer.  They didn’t blink that a woman alone was ordering a beer and brought it immediately, icy cold with a frosted mug.  Moments later the food began to arrive.  It was really good and I ate more than I should have.  All of that deliciousness was less than $15, USD.

With a full belly and a bit of a buzz (it was a large beer), I headed to the massage place near my hotel.  I left my shoes outside and settled in for two hours of bliss.  One hour of foot/leg massage, followed by an hour of Thai massage.  The Thai massage was a bit different than usual, with less stretching and pulling and more pressing and rubbing.  She found the knots in my shoulders and worked on those before taking care of the rest of me.  Here's a travel tip.  Do NOT wear a new pair of sandals to get a massage, after having a large beer.  I left my shoes outside, with all the others.  Between my relaxed state and the new shoes, took me a minute to find them.

I was planning to meet my school friends for a movie and dinner but the massage went a bit longer than scheduled (and I was not about to complain), so headed to a nearby food court.  I was still full from the large lunch so snagged a fresh cheese naan and mango and sticky rice for my dinner. 

It’s been a splendid vacation so far.  I’ve been able to Skype with a couple of friends, IM with others and just enjoy a change of scene.  I’ve got two more days before I leave.  I’m planning grocery shopping since I want to bring back “basics” like pickle relish, tortilla chips, refried beans and green chiles.  I also want to hit an area where I hear I can buy the kind of jewelry that will make my assistant teachers very happy.  There will be at least two more massages.  I plan to get a haircut.  I plan to eat Thai food.  And, I’ll be planning my visa run for January.  I’m thinking Kuala Lumpur this time, although staying in Bangkok would work, too.

I love, love, love living only two hours from Bangkok.

Monday, November 4, 2013

On the Road, Again!

I love teaching and living in Mandalay.  One of the reasons is that it's easy and affordable to travel around Asia.  I have two vacation periods coming up.  First, a week off from Nov. 21 - 27, then 2 1/2 weeks off over Christmas/New Year.

I was thinking Malaysia and Cambodia for these dates but my hospital stay in Bangkok put a crimp in my budget.  Plus, it's high season which means prices and crowds will be at their highest.

In November, it's a visa run, which means I have to leave the country so I can get a new visa when I return.  I have to do that every 70 days.  Having my employer pay for me to go to Bangkok every 70 days is a huge perk.

I decided to just stay in Bangkok.  I didn't get to see the stuff I wanted last time, especially Chatuchuk market.  And, I love Thailand and the food in Bangkok.

For Christmas I've been mulling over where to go.  Places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia will be overrun with tourists.  Big cities like Kuala Lumpur will be less impacted by the crowds but do I really just want to pay to spend that long in another big city?

I've decided to do a staycation.  Yes, it's still high season here but that means the weather is the best.  And I don't have to pay for flights.  Or hotel.  I'm planning to spend most of the holiday in Mandalay, and have already gotten a deal from a local taxi driver to act as tour guide.  This will give me a chance to see all the things I've been wanting to, at a leisurely pace.

For the actual Christmas holiday, I'm going to Bagan for three nights.  It's considered second only to Angkor Wat as a place of beauty and religious and historical significance.  It's on the Ayeyarwaddie river, as is Mandalay.  I'm tentatively planning to take a boat up (9 hours) and fly back (19 minutes). 

Next year, I'm planning Malaysia, Cambodia and Nepal.  As I tell my financial planner, I may not have tons of money when I retire, but I'll have some amazing memories.

Daily Schedule for a First Grader

About 1/2 of my kids attend not just a full day of school at Ayeyarwaddy International School, which is based on an American curriculum, they also attend Chinese school.  Here's a typical schedule.

5:00 - Wake up
5:30 - leave for Chinese school.  Sometimes have something to eat in the car
6:00 - Chinese school starts
8:15 - Chinese school ends
8:45 - American school starts
3:30 - American school ends
4:00 - Chinese school starts
6:00 - Chinese school ends
6:30 - Dinner
7:00 - Private teacher for two hours to help with homework
9:00 - Bed

Bed time is varied.  Many of the kids stay up to midnight or later to do homework.  Chinese school focuses on math and Chinese language but covers all subjects.  On Saturdays, they just attend Chinese school.  All day.

This schedule could explain why I have to continually work on keeping students awake in class.  It could also explain yesterday morning.  10 minutes into the day, one of my boys was looking very sad.  I took him outside and asked what was wrong.  His eyes welling with tears, he said plaintively "I wanted to sharpen my pencil but Susie was using the pencil sharpener."

"Why didn't you just wait?"

"She was taking too long!"  That's when the sobs started.

Think you've got stress in your life?

Saturday, November 2, 2013


Halloween may be new to Myanmar but it's a favorite with us American teachers.  I coordinated trick or treating among some of the classes and my kids made skeletons and masks to wear.  It was great fun and a day filled with chaos!

One of the other first grade teachers went all out.  Next year, the challenge is ON!

Teacher Matt's second graders came to trick or treat. 

I gave the kids a choice of 6 different mask templates.  Most chose the vampire mask.

They also voted that I be a vampire.  I made a couple of the tiny Montessori kids cry.

I love you, too, Jack.

This girl added pigtails and bows to her skeleton.

The Montessori babies.  Ages 3-6.  The older ones will be my kids next year.

My kids heading to another class to trick or treat.  I had given up having them in line.  Chaos prevailed but a good time was had by all.

Photos of My Life in Myanmar

My apartment.  Kitchen is on the right, living area with no furniture straight ahead, bathroom on left and you can see the foot of the bed.

My bedroom.  Shopping today for a lamp.  Can't wait to find some stuff for the walls.

Front door and the kitchen.  No counter space!

They're building this across from the school.  I was told it's a house.  There are 2X4s sticking up everywhere.

Gate and wall just outside my apartment building.  Since the recent bombings they've increased the number of guards.  I feel very, very safe.

My after school club - Cards and Games.  Uno, chess, parcheesi, connect 4 and more.

These are 3rd graders playing chess.  They are trilingual.  They want to go to a University in the United States and become scientists.  They are amazing.

I did a Saturday training session for the school's Montessori teachers on how to teach phonics.  I showed them a kinesthetic way to teach the sounds of the alphabet.  They were making x's.

Their approach to the X.

Phonics Twister, anyone?

After the training, a few of us headed to U Bein Bridge which is a famous landmark near Mandalay.  It was rainy but fun.

One of the teachers and I enjoyed a snack.  This is traditional - whole, unpeeled shrimp deep fried in a batter.  That's deep fried corn underneath.  Very good stuff.

Teacher Kanaki is from Singapore and teaches Montessori pre-school. 

After the prawns we went for a plate of fried whole small fish.  Very much like eating smelt.  All that was missing was a cold beer.

I asked the kids to bring a bag for trick or treating.  Jack brought in a Coach bag.  He's wearing the traditional tanaka on his face - it's decorative, keeps sunburn away and is supposed to be good for the skin.  The majority of people wear it daily.

The stairs to my apartment.  Not sure what they were thinking when they designed the building but when it rains water pours down the slippery stairs.

Birthday gifts.  My assistant teachers brought me roses and the most beautiful handmade purse and change purse.  Made of black velvet and hand beaded.  Made by one of the most famous artisans in Myanmar.  On the right is an eco-mug from one of the kids who found out it was my birthday.

My Idea of Fun

As I said in my last post, I’ve been working a lot and not getting off the school compound often.  But since the school compound houses my apartment building which is home to about 20 other teachers, it’s not lonely.  Actually, it’s very much like living in a coed dorm.  With residents aged 25 – 73.  Most are American but we also have a South African (she just started this week), an Italian, a Singaporean a woman from London and a guy from Wales.  We’re a diverse group, which makes conversations lively and fun.

My typical day starts between 5 and 5:30 a.m.  I get ready for work, which includes packing a lunch since I don’t care for the food provided for us.  Which really says something if you know me, since I’ll eat most anything.  I prefer to take a sandwich or salad and eat and work at my desk during my 30 minute lunch.

I get to school between 6 and 6:30 a.m. and head to reboot the servers to turn on the internet and intranet.  Then down to the second floor where my classroom is.  I do personal internet stuff until about 7:00 a.m. and then get busy creating materials for lessons along with the four weekly tests the kids take.

At 8:00 a.m., my first students arrive.  They want to chat and have me use the computer and Smart Board to play math games with them.  By 8:45 a.m. school has started and the day flies by until 3:30 p.m.  On Thursdays, I host the Card and Games club for grades 1-3 with another teacher and that lasts until 4:30.

I usually head for home (about a 2 minute commute) about 4:00 p.m.  Often other teachers will also be heading back.  Or, we meet in the open area in the apartment building to vent and talk about our days in the classroom before heading to our own apartments.

Many evenings, I just stay in, make dinner, watch tv, read and relax.  Sometimes someone will stop by to chat – for five minutes or a couple of hours.  Sometimes I’m the one dropping in.  It’s not unusual for several people to drop by individually.

My birthday is on Halloween.  I hadn’t mentioned it to many people but said something when I got home that evening.  I was planning a quiet night of Mexican food and tv.  I was in my robe (actually a mu’u mu’u from Samoa – think baggy housedress) and had just finished eating when there was a knock at the door.  It was three of my neighbors, coming to help me celebrate.  They brought wine and one of the guys immediately started stripping and announced he and the other guy (both less than half my age) were my birthday present.

After I persuaded Matt to keep his pants on and put his shirt back on, we settled in – they were sitting on the mats on the floor and I was relaxed on my twin bed.  While we were enjoying the wine and conversation there were a couple more knocks on the door.  These folks didn’t know it was my birthday and were just stopping by to say hello.  At 9:00 p.m. I was pooped and thinking about my 5:00 a.m. wake up call.  The group of 8 partiers headed next door to continue the festivities.  It was a fun night and typical of the impromptu gatherings we have.

Yesterday was Saturday.  I got up at my normal time and headed to school to do lesson plans for the upcoming week.  I hoped to be done in a couple of hours but spent more time than expected trying (unsuccessfully) to take care of a finance issue at home and then gossiping with my assistant teachers when they arrived.

I was finished by 10:45, just in time to head back and get cleaned up to go out with one of the other teachers.  We’d planned lunch and a massage.  Things didn’t start well, since I asked the guards to call a taxi to come at 11:30.  There was a communication breakdown and it didn’t happen.  At 11:35 we asked them to call again and they tried but couldn’t seem to find anyone available.  At 12:45 a taxi finally arrived and we headed out to “Wilburs”.  The teachers talked all the time about going to Wilburs, mostly for happy hour.  I’d never gone.

Wilbur is actually the name of the owner of the restaurant, which is called Central Park.  It is small, open air and charming.  Wilbur is Myanmar and used to work at the school.  He wisely recognized that foreign teachers (from our school and others in town) were willing to spend their paychecks on liquor and western food.

The weather in Myanmar has cooled and yesterday was delightful.  Very hot in the sun, but perfect in the shade.  Gretchen and I enjoyed the breeze as we waited for our lunch.  Mine was a cheeseburger and fries.  A bargain at $3 USD and really delicious.  The conversation and ambiance of the place made it even better. 

Travel is my passion and it’s wonderful to work and live with people who share that.  Name a remote city and it’s a safe bet that one of us has been there or knows someone who has.  Gretchen and I were talking about our upcoming travel plans.  She used to live in Malaysia and had the name of the owner of an eco-resort in Sumatra that has great jungle trips.  I plan to do that on a visa run early next year.  We also talked about Guatemala, where I spent three months and she spent three years.

After lunch our driver, who waited patiently for us, took us to GGG for a massage.  He bargained and got us the locals’ rate instead of the typical foreign price by explaining we worked and lived in Mandalay.  We headed into a small room and stretched out on two mattresses where two young Myanmar men went to work to get our kinks out.  Myanmar massages are done full clothed and the ones doing the massaging use their hands, feet and whole bodies for some of the stretching/popping.  It was great.

As we were leaving I pointed out an alley next to the massage place.  I’d read on the internet that two of the best restaurants in town were there.  We headed down to investigate.  The restaurants, one an Indian vegetarian and the other Thai, were across the alley from each other.  Both were upstairs over stores filled with carvings and art work.  While we were poking around one of the men in the family (the stores and restaurants seem to be owned by the same family) started talking with us.  He explained he’d just come back to Mandalay a year or so ago after 40 years living in Manhattan.  An interesting guy and I hope to run into him again when we go back to the stores and restaurants.

On our way back to the school, we stopped at CP, which all the teachers seemed to know about but me.  They sell rotisserie chicken.  $4 USD for ½ a large chicken.  That’s pricey by Myanmar standards but I’ve struggled to find fresh meat here and love rotisserie chicken. 

We got back to school about 4:30 p.m.  It was a great day.  Several teachers were hanging around talking but I excused myself to go in my apartment and chill.  A few hours later, one of my teacher friends stopped by.  We chatted about Peace Corps life (she served in Thailand) and life in general and she left after a couple of hours.

I suspect that some people think I lead this glamorous, exciting life in Myanmar.  After all, it’s Burma – on the other side of the world.  Actually, my day to day life is very tame.  But, a day of lunch and a massage and a little shopping have a little more spice because all the people we were interacting with are Myanmar.  Some, like the guys at the massage place, spoke no English.  The taxi driver, like most here, was happy to practice his English and told us about his family and his career in the Myanmar army.  And how proud he was that both of his daughters have university degrees.
It’s not the tourist sites or big festivals that make me love living here.  It’s the small daily interactions with people who are curious, respectful and friendly.  That, combined with friends who share a similar lifestyle and mindset along with the creature comforts I have in the city and my apartment make it easy to live here.

Time Flies

Typical Myanmar holiday food - it was a gift from the mom of one of my kids.  Tea leaves (they eat them as salad here), fermented shrimp, peanuts, ginger, garlic  and other goodies.  Tasty.

My birthday treat - local bread, like naan, cheese and green chiles I brought back from Bangkok.  Very tasty.

It seems like just last week that I was writing about my experience in a Bangkok hospital.  But it’s been weeks.  I sound like my grandmother when I describe how time is just flying by.

When I got home, I was still puny and had to keep my leg elevated as much as possible.  Luckily for me I have two amazing assistant teachers who volunteered to be my legs in the classroom.  But if you’ve ever taught, been in a classroom or just know a young child, you’ll know that it’s virtually impossible and very frustrating to teach 28 first graders from a chair.

Since my return, the leg is much better but did require two additional doctors visits.  The first was to a clinic which had patients waiting (patiently) in the street, yard and foyer of the small house which is used as a clinic.  I was given VIP status and immediately given a chair while everyone smiled and nodded.  I smiled and nodded back and waited.  After ten minutes I was with the doctor and his assistant, both of whom spoke English.  Ten minutes later I was out the door with three prescriptions, all for a whopping $11 USD. 

The next time, the clinic was closed so I was taken to the Palace Hospital.  That would have been very intimidating but the school driver snagged someone and explained (apparently) what an important person I was, although I was too stupid to speak Myanmar.  I don’t think he actually said that last part but should have.

I was again given VIP status and after 25 minutes was back in a taxi with 3 more prescriptions.  The price was higher this time, $16, but the doctor spoke better English and also seemed to really get what was happening with the leg and changed the diagnosis from just an infection to something a bit longer lasting.  Seems the Dr. in Bangkok was correct in his initial diagnosis that it was more than just an infection.

The point of all this medical talk is that the unexpected time off work put me behind and I’ve been working overtime to catch up.  Today, November 3, 2013 is my first full day off in 3 weeks.  Which is another reason that so far my sightseeing has been mostly limited to the grocery stores.  There are three of them now, by the way.  Ocean, in Diamond Plaza, the only mall in Mandalay; CitiMart which is in what used to be a mall until all the other stores moved to Diamond Plaza; and a new store whose name I can never remember.  All the stores carry pretty much the same products (although the new store carries only some processed cheese slices rather than the real stuff) and have similar prices.

I have a week off at the end of November for a visa run.  I have to leave the country every 70 days so I can reenter Myanmar to get a new visa.  I opted to just stay in Bangkok.  The school pays for my flight there and since I was sick during the last trip I didn’t get to do the sightseeing and shopping that I wanted.  And, I figured I’d use the over two weeks off over Christmas to visit one or two new countries.

But I couldn’t decide where to go.  Not that there’s a lack of places I can’t wait to visit, but it’s the high season.  That means both crowds and prices are at their peak.  After thinking of how little I’ve seen of Mandalay let alone the rest of Myanmar along with the desire to protect my pocket book and avoid crowds, I’ve decided to stay home for the holidays.

I will likely be the only teacher in the apartment building and I assume the only staff working will be security guards.  That isn’t all bad.  Plus with the money I’ll save on airfare and hotels I’ll be able to take taxis around town and really have time to explore.  I do plan to take the 19 minute (!) flight to Bagan which is second only to Angkor Wat in Cambodia for tourists wanting to visit amazing religious sites in Asia.  I’ve heard nothing but great things about Bagan and look forward to a few days there.

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t have fun here and only slave away at school.  I do have downtime and enjoy it, but between illness and busyness, which makes me tired, I’ve opted to just hang out mostly on the school compound.

Read on in the next post for what the other teachers and I do for entertainment.