Thursday, December 25, 2014

Visa Run: Bangkok to Laos

I've been in Thailand for about two months now, which means I had to find a way to extend my 30-day tourist visa. And just like most other expats, I had to make a "visa run" in order to remain in the country (legally, at least). I felt more at ease using a service to do this, so I chose Thai Visa Service. The cost was very low, especially considering they included some meals, the hotel, transportation, and visa fees. I would definitely recommend them if you are making the same journey!

I had the pleasure of spending the majority of three days in one of these bad boys. The van seats about 12 passengers, and it was as comfortable as a van crowded with strangers can be. I rode from Nakhon Sawan to Bangkok (about 4 hours), then from Bangkok to the Laos/Thai border (about 9 hours). Then I took a bus into Laos. And I did it all over again after being in Laos for 24 hours!
Victory Monument!
I got dropped off here in Bangkok, and thought it was a nice view.
So I took a picture.
The journey from Thailand to Laos and back again was pretty straightforward. The visa service took care of everything, so I just did whatever they told me. First, we had to cross the Thai border. You go to the visa counter, and they put a departure stamp in your passport. After this, we handed our passports and paperwork to the man who was in charge from the visa service. We crossed over to the Laos visa border. We had to wait about an hour and a half here for them to process and stamp our passports. After this, we took a bus over the friendship bridge and into Vientiane. We had to go to the Thai embassy to give them our passports and paperwork to get our visas to return to Thailand. This took the longest, so we waited a few hours for our number to be called. When they called our number, we handed our documents over so they could process them overnight. After all of that, we went to the hotel. We crossed the border when it opened at 6 am, but did not get to the hotel until about noon. The whole morning was spent simply waiting for the next step.

After that, I hung out at the hotel with new friends. We went into the city and got some dinner and a few pints before heading back to the hotel. We left promptly at noon the next day to make the journey back. I was in Laos for a total of about 24 hours, so there was no time to get out and explore at all. But Laos is the 15th country I have been to, so that's something to celebrate!

Crowd waiting to cross from Thailand into Laos at about 5 am.

Our hotel.

A beautiful Christmas tree--made of beer bottles and plastic bottles.
Perhaps a new form of recycling?

On the grounds of the hotel.

Buddha guarding the staircase.

Skyline at night in Vientiane, Laos.

Night market in Vientiane, Laos.

I got to try some Laotian beer. It was pretty tasty!
It was all for this one little sticker in my passport!

Merry Christmas from Thailand

I know that back home, Christmas has just barely kicked off. But I live in the future (13 hours ahead of Wisco, to be exact), so my holiday has already almost finished! And in case you were wondering, the temperature got up to about 87 degrees! Definitely not a white Christmas...

 The entire day has been filled with an outpouring of love, and I must admit it's been pretty great. Thailand is primarily a Buddhist country, so they do not typically celebrate Christmas. Our school has a special English program (called MEP, which simply stands for Mini English Program), though, so we got to celebrate anyway! There are two sides to our school--there is MEP, which is basically a private school that focuses on learning English; and there is the public side, that has only one English class per week. The kids on the MEP side put on a show for the non-MEP students for Christmas every year.

First, I woke up to see a bunch of pictures from people at the Courthouse Pub wishing me a merry Christmas! Even though I keep going back and leaving, they still do sweet things like this for me. I definitely felt the love! I included a few so that everyone could see.

And then I was greeted by these lovely people at work:

The Thai teachers were definitely in the holiday spirit!

Everyone was already full of Christmas cheer and happy wishes. Every morning we have an assembly, and this time two Santas showed up to join us. After the assembly, everyone got ready for the Christmas show. Each grade put on a special performance. I teach grade 4, and they performed the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas".

Our school is quite large. The entire Christmas show was performed twice during the day because all of the students could not fit into the auditorium. Here's the audience just from the morning show!
All of the important people at school kicking things off.
A chorus from grades 5 & 6 sang some Christmas tunes.
This is one of the adorable kindy classes.
Some non-MEP dancers. They were excellent!
Some grade 4 students reciting the poem.

Grade 4!

Grades 5 and 6 combined to put on a play about the Grinch. It was fantastic, and the kids absolutely loved it. It definitely put people in a Christmas mood!

Me and Gib, my TA (teaching assistant).
Jan and I, another TA at school

I LOVED her costume!
Grade 4 and I. They did a great job, and I'm so proud of them! They're a bunch of fun kids, and I'm lucky to be their teacher.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Loy Krathong

Last week was Loy Krathong, a Buddhist festival that takes place on the first full moon during the twelfth month of the traditional Thai calendar. It is celebrated in parts of Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, and Burma. During the festival, people release paper lanterns, light fireworks, and float little rafts (named krathongs) on the river. Some people release turtles or eels, which they could buy from little stands by the riverbank of the Chao Praya River. The festival in Nakhon Sawan is quite small. In the picture to the left, you can definitely see several lanterns, but this is nothing compared to the celebration that happens in Chiang Mai (a city a few hours to the north of where I live). Some people believe it celebrates the water goddess, Mae Kongkha.

During the festival, people release paper lanterns into the sky. The lanterns are made from super thin paper, usually rice paper, over a frame made from bamboo or wire. In order for these to gain height, people place kerosene-soaked toilet paper into a holder at the bottom. They light it, then wait while hot air fills the lantern. If a person lets it go too early, it usually crashes into a nearby spectator instead of soaring into the sky. I almost got lit on fire this way at one point, but luckily escaped unscathed.

Beautiful full moon in the background.

People making sure their baskets are filled with enough hot air.
I'm pretty sure one of these was the one that almost took me down!
This one is NOT my picture.
It's from the celebration in Chiang Mai.
Like I said, the one I saw in Nakhon Sawan was quite tame compared to this!

In the picture to the left, Matt and Nici are lighting incense on a variation of a small raft. Traditionally, these are made from banana trees that have been chopped into thick chunks. They are typically decorated with incense, candles, lotus flowers, and sometimes money. Ours are made from bread so that they can provide a safe meal for the fish and turtles.

As people release their floating decoration into the river, they make a wish. The release of lanterns and floating decorations are meant to symbolize getting rid of bad luck, having a fresh start to the next year, and sending love to the Buddha.

There were a bunch of young kids in the river (around 10) that helped the little wreaths out into the middle of the river so they did not get stuck by the river banks.

Some people had pretty elaborate decorations to float.
Take a look at these!

Probably my favorite picture from the night.
It looks like the lanterns are heading to the moon!

Welcome to Thailand

Hey everyone! For those that don't know, I recently moved to Thailand. I've been here since October 28th, and the last three weeks have absolutely flown by. Although I've left behind some absolutely amazing people and memories, I've met many lovely new people.

The climate here has been quite different from what I am used to. It snowed this past week in Wisconsin, yet here in Thailand it has been in the upper-80's. When I first arrived, the humidity was much higher, but I am getting used to the warmth and sunlight of beautiful Thailand.

When I first arrived, I stayed in a hotel for the first few nights. Luckily for me, there were lots of great views of the surrounding city from the hotel. It was a bit daunting at first to find places to eat or get coffee, but I discovered a few gems. There was an unfortunate misunderstanding which resulted in a disgusting apple/coffee shake. But hey, this isn't the first time I've been given something unexpected at a restaurant

Take a look at the views!

Hopefully you can see some of the Buddhist monuments that Nakhon Sawan is famous for in the picture. There is a temple on top of the hill, and a giant sitting Buddha about halfway up the hill. I love how this picture turned out!

Many of the surrounding buildings had tin roofs. This isn't a typical feature of homes in America, so I thought I'd post a view. The sound when it is raining is pretty great too!
One of the best things about Thailand is the food. There are tons of little vendors that sell fresh fruit. Their wares are typically on display, and when you choose one, they will cut it up and stick it in a bag with a stick so that you can eat it immediately. Delicious!

Chinese kale dish.

Vegetarian cashew/tofu dish.

Myself, Ruth, Matt, Jay, and Nici.

Here's a picture of myself and my AMAZING coworkers at one of the best restaurants in Nakhon Sawan. They've been super helpful with showing me around, helping me learn how to order food, and bringing me to good food places. I'm grateful I have already met such wonderful people here!

Street food abounds!

The custom here is for people to go out for food. In fact, most apartments and houses do not even have a kitchen. I looked at about half a dozen apartments before I settled on one, and none of them had a kitchen. Only two had a mini-fridge. It's too hot to cook at home, so there are tons of street food restaurants that are just plastic tables and chairs around a small cart.