During the last half of my school's spring break, Emilia and I visited Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In a nutshell, Ho Chi Minh has been one of my favorite cities I've ever visited. Maybe that had something to do with staying at Ms. Yang's Homestay. Emilia and I made the decision not to stay in a hostel, but rather stay with at a highly rated homestay. By highly rated, I mean it has 5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor, which I have never seen before. As Emilia and I walked through the doors of Ms. Yang's place, we quickly realized why her homestay had received so many exuberant ratings. She jumped out of her chair from behind her desk and ran over to us like we were long lost friends she hadn't seen in years. On her chalkboard in the main room it read, "We do love here, We do hugs here...etc," and we immediately relished in our decision to stay there for the next 4 days. Ms. Yang was beyond helpful: she gave us a map of the city, circled all of the main attractions, gave us tips on where to get the best Pho, and much more. Every morning when we would come down the stairs, Ms. Yang would get up from her desk, give us a hug and ask us where we were going to go that day. When we would arrive home, she again would greet us with a huge smile and ask us all about our experiences. Ms. Yang was a GEM, but she largely represents the demure of the Vietnamese people. They are, for the most part, extremely kind, especially to foreigners. Being an American, I was hesitant to visit Vietnam. I expected at least some discrimination, maybe even hostility, towards my nationality, and I can honestly say I experienced nothing even close to that. The closest form of discrimination I experienced was while buying goods--whether they be souvenirs or food from a street cart. The vendors in the city recognize that you don't belong and will charge you triple the cost of the item. Coming from Bangkok, I was well-versed in the art of haggling, but I was not expecting to have to fight for a fair price for my food. In Thailand, a fruit cart is going to be between 15 and 20 baht no matter where you go. In Saigon, Banh Bao (a steamed dumpling usually filled with pork and quail eggs, aka MY FAV) would be locally priced at 8,000 to 12,000 dong, but they would charge you 18,000 to 20,000 dong. At one point, I asked for Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) and when the vendor tried to charge me extra, I told him he could either take the price I was willing to pay (it was posted on the outside of the cart that the sandwich should be 15,000, he was asking for 25,000), or I would walk away and he will have just made a sandwich for no one. I happily walked away with my sandwich. If there is one thing I am tired of doing, it's bargaining. Though I love getting a good deal at a market, like my four panel art piece that the vendor asked 2.5 million dong for but I got for 300,000 dong, I can't wait to come back to a country where I can just walk up to a food truck, and their not going to apply the foreigner fee to my food.

For our first full day, Emilia and I visited the War Remnants Museum. We happened to be visiting Vietnam right before its 40 year celebration of the end of the Vietnam War, and consequently, much of our trip was dedicated to learning the Vietnamese side of the story. Before I begin to describe the contents of the War Remnants Museum, I would like to preface the following graphic content. The War Remnants Museum was not a particularly cheery place, but I believe it is a place that every American, and moreover, every person should visit at some point in their life. Was it slanted with Vietnamese propaganda? Absolutely. But the US government purports their own propaganda on the subject. I was raised in a school system that didn't even get to the Vietnam War. My AP US History teacher held an after-school session to teach us as much as he could in 2 hours because he wasn't allotted enough time during the year to get to it. But I digress. I have uploaded photos of my trip to my April photo album, and I encourage you to look through them after reading. The first thing we saw was some of the US weaponry and wartime machinery used during the war. Among the bomber planes, helicopters, and tanks, there were also flame throwers (range: 133m) and long-range ground missile launchers. Then, we walked over to a restoration of an old prison of war camp. Inside, there were shocking tales of prison mutilation, torture, and brutal killings committed by South Vietnamese "puppet" soldiers, who were trained by French and U.S. military officials. One horrible method of punishment was known as the tiger cages. These cages were about 1.5m in length and 40cm in height and completely inclosed in barbed wire. A prisoner, and in some cases more than one prisoner, would be forced to stay in them for days with little to no food or water. The prison camp was lined not only with placards dedicated to these gruesome recollections, but also with quotes from the international community. All of the walls were covered with important international voices pointing to war crimes being committed in Vietnam, they all called for the US Government to end the war, and some even bluntly referred to it as a genocide of the Vietnamese people.

This was all before we had even gotten into the main building.

Finally entering the building, we followed the suggested route through the museum, taking our time to read every inch of information offered. Some rooms were filled with details on the weapons, others on the stories of the Viet Cong. One of my favorites was the collection of photos from the wartime reporters. There were photographers from every inch of the world: the US, Australia, Japan, and many Europeans. Almost every reporter died in action. The trickiness and danger of reporting on the war was that every inch of the country was a battlefield. The Viet Cong were fighting using guerrilla warfare tactics, so soldiers and reporters could be walking through a rice paddy or the jungle or even near their own bases, and the Viet Cong might have either attacked them or set up traps or land mines for them. All of the photos told a very personal story of the Vietnamese people, the US soldiers, and even the reporters out in the field. Fear and anguish did not discriminate. You could look at one photo of a US field medic desperately attempting to save a soldiers life while suffering from a head wound of his own, and then to a photo of a young Vietnamese mother pulling her children across a river to escape the fighting. Both photos would fill me with complex grief I had never experienced before. My own knowledge of the Vietnam War, of course coming from a US perspective, would compete with these juxtaposing photos. I would look at one soldier and wonder, "Was he a draftee? Was he able to make it home alive, to ever hug his parents again?" and then I would look at that family, thinking, "Was she able to escape to safety? Were the Viet Cong able to save and hide her and her family?" The entire photo collection was tragic and uplifting and brutal and beautiful all at once. I learned more from the candid emotion portrayed in each photograph than I ever could have from any book.

There were many jaw-dropping, tear-provoking exhibits, but all hailed in comparison to the room dedicated to the disastrous effects of Agent Orange on the country and people of Vietnam. Between the photos debilitated and deformed men, women and children, stories of hopeful Agent Orange victims seeking compensation or at least recognition from the US Government, and the monstrous-looking preserved aborted fetuses, it is safe to say that the Agent Orange exhibit was the most eye-opening of all the rooms in the museum. Agent Orange, known as dioxin, still affects Vietnam to this day. The problem with the chemical pesticide, used to wither millions of acres of jungle in an attempt to smoke out Viet Cong hiding places, is that once a person has been exposed, dioxin chemically mutates the DNA of its victim. Therefore, as the exposed person goes on to have children, they pass down the mutant gene to their children, and if their children are lucky enough to survive and have kids of their own, they will pass it down to their children. Estimates of three to four generations must pass before the gene is not prominent enough to be selected for, with conservative estimates at five to six generations. And it is not just Vietnamese who suffered from dioxin poisoning. The room also displayed stories of US soldiers fighting to gain recognition and compensation by the US Government for having poisoned them and their family for generations to come. While the US Government eventually conceded to some reparations for the soldiers, no money or support will pass on to their children. No money at all is being given to the Vietnamese. I read a letter from a young Vietnamese girl to Pres. Obama, pleading for some aid. She explained how hopeful she was when she read about the love he has for his daughters, and how he wants ever child in the world to have the same opportunities to grow and thrive. She, too, wanted to have opportunities to make a life for herself, but her affliction left her with stumps for legs making it difficult for her to work. Guess what though? She does work. This young girl has figured out a way to make use of what she does have, and generates an income for herself. She received no letter in response.

After the War Remnants Museum, Emilia and I wanted to learn even more about the Vietnamese side of the war. So on the next day, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels. On our way to the tunnels, our tour guide explained that he was not there to give us the Vietnamese side nor the American side of the story, he was there to present us with the facts of what we were about to see. Throughout the whole trip, he really was unbiased and straightforward. Our guide told us that 60,000 Vietnamese helped to dig the 121 km (75m) system of tunnels. The first thing we saw when we visited was the traps the Viet Cong set. In the town of Cu Chi, the Americans were fighting mostly villagers, not trained soldiers. The villagers used their knowledge of setting animal traps to catch soldiers instead of wildlife. As disturbing as it was for me to see their tools and methods of trapping victims (see photos for some examples), I couldn't help but be impressed with their ingenuity. The Viet Cong didn't have well-trained soldiers, so they used traps and tunnels and other guerrilla warfare techniques to allow every fighter to have a remarkably better chance at survival. Young girls and boys fought in the Cu Chi tunnels, firing from sniper holes in the ground only to dive back under, run over to another sniper hole 50m away, and confuse the US soldiers where they were being attacked from. They didn't have bombs either, so they pilfered dud US bombs to create their own. We also got to walk through the tunnels, which were 120cm tall (I'm about 160cm tall to give you some perspective) and about 60cm across. They set up entire rooms underground: kitchens, bedrooms, nurseries, medic rooms. They would only surface at night, to attend to their rice paddies and what was left of their other crops under the cover of darkness. Some children born in the Cu Chi Tunnels during the war, never saw light until the war was over. At the end of the trip, we were taken to watch a 15 min. video on the fighting in Cu Chi. This was my first experience with heavy handed propaganda. Some of the phraseology was so harsh towards the Americans that I had to stop myself from tearing up as they explained how proud they were of having killed and trapped the young American men, most of whom didn't want to be there in the first place. Then we were back on the bus to go home.

You may be wondering at this point, "But Emma, you said that Vietnam was one of your most favorite places that you visited? Seems like it was pretty depressing." Well, that's true, but being depressed for a few days was part of why I loved it there so much. The knowledge and perspective I ascertained in just 5 short days was overwhelming; I truly walked away a changed person. In fact, Emilia and I were lucky to walk away alive because trying to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh could be an X-Games event. I live in Bangkok, where crossing the street is a bit testy at times, but Ho Chi Minh is a whole other ballgame. Fortunately, the vast majority of drivers are on motorbikes, making maneuverability a key component to how traffic and pedestrians can coexist successfully. While they do have traffic lights and such, that doesn't mean people stop when the light turns red. This creates what I can only describe as "weaving traffic," where motorbikes are weaving in and out of cars and other motorbikes through the middle of an intersection. The only way you are going to get to the other side of the street is if you pray to your God of choice, and take a step forward on to the road with your hand held in a Heisman position--except instead of stiff-arming an 250+ football player, your head on with a 50km motorbike. The motorbike will zoom around you as long as you confidently keep striding across the road, but confidence is key. You basically need to display with body language in a split second whether you are going to let the motorbike go to the front or back of you and STICK TO YOUR CHOICE. After surviving unscathed, Emilia and I definitely earned out Girl Scout badge in crossing the street, and have determined that Ho Chi Minh is the world unfriendliest place for drunk people walking home at night (needing to be alert is a must if you want to live).

Emilia and I had a wonderful time in Ho Chi Minh, and every day was truly an adventure. Before I scare you off from every visiting, I will leave you with some unbeatable pros of Vietnam. 1. Pho - aka Vietnamese beef noodle soup available EVERYWHERE, small sizes ranging from $1, large sizes ranging to about $3 (large is large, like fill up a college boy large). 2. Banh Mi and Banh Bao - also available everywhere, the Vietnamese sandwich and dumpling carts were unbeatably my favorite: filled with pork, pickled veggies and lots of sauce in the case of the sandwiches or stuffed full of pork and quail eggs in the dumplings. If your lucky, you may even stumble upon a cart that also provides Baby Bell spreadable cheese for your sandwich. 3. Bakeries, Bakeries, oh my Bakeries - due to the, *ahem*, French influence on Vietnamese culture, there are plenty of bakeries to fill you yearning appetite for hearty breads and delicious baked delicacies. 4. COFFEE - if you are already a coffee buff, you know that Vietnam has some excellent coffee. Tried and true, their coffee was delicious, but because your in SE Asia if you don't want it loaded with sugar, you must request NOTHING ADDED so they don't inundate the flavor with condensed milk and spoons full of sugar. 5. Night Market - though small in comparison to the grand Chatuchak of Bangkok, the night market in Ho Chi Minh does offer incredible deals if you know how to bargain. I was able to walk away with great stuff and only spent about $20 total. I cannot wait to go back to visit the rest of Vietnam. I will definitely return to Ho Chi Minh and stay with Ms. Yang again, but after all that I've learned, I feel I am ready to see and explore the North next time.
On April 10th, Emilia and I headed to the northern province of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The trip did not get off to a great start. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the coming week (the 13th through the 15th) was the Thai New Year, also called Songkran. Songkran is a countrywide water festival, where the entire population of Thailand shuts down to run through the streets with water guns, super soakers, buckets, hoses and the like to soak others and bring them good luck in the new year. The 13th through the 17th was our school's spring break. Chiang Mai happens to be one of the most popular destinations to spend Songkran in Thailand. I went to the train station on Thursday (the day before we were supposed to leave) and before I entered the station a lady, sporting an official-looking Thai Tourism badge, approached me and asked me where I was headed. I explained that I was headed to Chiang Mai and that I needed two tickets. She told me that I could go try to get tickets, but that likely everything would be booked, and in that case, she suggested I come back and find her so that she could help me get a bus. I thanked her, but told her I would try my luck with the train tickets, and walked into the train station. When I finally got up to the counter the lady behind the window bluntly said that every train was booked, every day, at every time. She told me that the only chance I would have at getting transportation to Chiang Mai would be to try to find a bus that wasn't full yet. I was so nervous that Emilia and I would have no luck finding transportation! On my way out of the train station, the Thai Tourism woman flagged me down and asked if I was able to find tickets. I told her that I wasn't, and she said to follow her to a tour station where I could get tickets. I entered the tour building and was sat in front of a very nice young woman who spoke perfect English. She explained that finding a bus would be difficult at such late notice, but that she would make a few calls and see what she could do. After about 15 minutes, she came back over to where I was sitting and said that she found two roundtrip tickets to Chiang Mai, but the best price she could get was ฿5,580. I didn't know what to do; I had to leave the next day. That was slightly more than what I was going to pay for roundtrip 1st class train tickets, but the 1st class train is LOADS better than any bus. In retrospect, I should have consulted Emilia first. However, I was feeling extremely desperate at the time, and so of course, after a short self-deliberation, I decided I would just buy the tickets for the peace of mind. That was ฿2,790/person a total of around $86 roundtrip to Chiang Mai. We got on the very crowded bus the next night and headed up north. Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, we found out that roundtrip bus tickets were going for ฿1200, even if you booked day of. DANG IT! I was completely scammed by those women, who very clearly preyed on me as a young white girl obviously not aware of how easy it could of been to find tickets anywhere else for a much better price. If there is one thing that I have still not gotten very used to in Thailand, it is the fact that no one is actually trying to help you find a good deal. You have to know what a good deal is and you have to fight and barter until you get it. Water under the bridge now, and lesson well learned. We got there, and from then on, we had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Starting on Saturday, Emilia and I took it slow. We went to lunch at Feung Fah (our soon-to-be favorite breakfast spot in Chiang Mai) and eventually headed to the Thai Silk village. On our way back, we realized the water wars were warming up. People had already started lining the streets with hoses, buckets, and water guns. We got sprayed a few times while in the back of our tuk-tuk traveling to and from the Thai Silk village, and began to get really excited about the festival to come. On Sunday, we decided we wanted to rent motorbikes and head up to Doi Suthep, a beautiful temple up in the "mountains" near Chiang Mai (I put mountains in quotations to emphasize that their more like very ambitious hills). I had been there the previous weekend with my parents; however, Emilia really wanted to visit for sentimental reasons since her mother had been there about 25 years prior. We went to the motorbike rental, and I was pumped. Round two with motorbikes! Unfortunately, Emilia was not as stoked. She is not as comfortable on bikes and was a little scared, but definitely willing to try. The lady renting the bikes out explained that we needed to be extra careful: the traffic would be really hectic this weekend, and people will throw water at you while you are driving. No matter. Honestly, the prospect of having people shoot me occasionally with those little water guns, like what had happened yesterday in the tuk-tuk, excited me. We handed over the money for the bikes, and pulled over to the side to do a little practice. Emilia felt ready to leave, and we headed off down the street. About 10m down the street as we approached a stoplight, I hear Emilia crash behind me. The woman came running down, and was very worried. Emilia was shaken by it, but got right back up and steadied her bike. Emilia was fine, expect her knee was scraped pretty badly. We gave that motorbike back, and Emilia agreed just to be on the back of mine. We headed up to Doi Suthep. On our way back, we had just reached the edge of the Old City when I began to fully understand the immensity of what the rental lady was trying to explain to us about the traffic and the water. Unlike the prior day, now the streets were completely lined with people throwing water, the traffic was bumper to bumper, and there were even people in the back of the truck beds dumping water on passerby's as they were stuck in traffic. After what had happened to Emilia in the morning, I didn't want to admit that I was a little nervous about trying to negotiate the traffic. It was only the second time I had ever driven a motorbike, and this time, not only did I have another person on the back of my bike, which makes balancing a little trickier, I also was facing people who were actively trying to distract and disorient me. We passed in between cars and mostly just followed other Thais (Rule #1: When in doubt, follow the Thais). We made it safely back through the traffic, but were absolutely DRENCHED by the time we reached our street. As we turned onto small street close to our hostel, two gentlemen walked directly in front of our path, and told us, "Stop, stop, stop." They proceeded to dump three ice cold buckets over our heads and sent us on our way with a cheery, "Happy Songkran!" Despite the slight terror I had experienced just prior, we did make it back to our hostel alive and well.

The next few days, we just walked around the city with water guns, getting soaked, soaking others and shouting, "Sawadee Phi Mai!" (Happy New Year). AirAsia, CocaCola, and few other big businesses sponsored huge stages that were decked out with hoses and freebees that they threw out into the crowd. By our last day, my birthday, we were kind of over we soaked every time we tried to walk down the street. But we still had a great time overall. Shout out to Feung Fah for being the best breakfast spot in all of Chiang Mai, and serving us avocado, which I had been missing dearly.

It was so nice having my parents in Thailand visiting. They arrived late in March and were able to stay for 2 weeks. The beginning of our time together featured adventuring around Bangkok, which was fun for my mom, but noticably less exciting for my dad. Granted, Bangkok definitely is an acquired taste for most. We were in Bangkok for the first three days that they were here, visiting Chatuchuk on the third day. Chatuchuk is a massive market, similar to the likes of Saturday Market in Portland but 3 times as big and 10 times as crowded. Luckily, we arrived right as it was opening around 8am, so we largely beat the crowd. My mom and I shopped until our arms were completely full of bags and fully exercised our bargaining skills. We found everything we were looking for, including granite mortars and pestles and other odds and ends only a place like Chatuchuk could offer. 
Then later that night, we were off to Chiang Mai. We took the train, and arrived around 9am the next day. As we were pulling into the station, my father's attention was turned to the window, gasping. He looked over at my mom and I, and said, "don't look." Of course, I couldn't help myself, but to come over and do just that. Strewn across the road was a person, a woman I think, who had recently just been hit by car. A man was stooped over the body praying and sobbing. I felt so ashamed for looking, but couldn't look away from the tragic scene. People were gathered around; everyone in the train starred quietly. My heart goes out to whosever family this person belonged to. It was a pretty tramatic start to an overwhelming positive experience in Chiang Mai.
We checked into our hotel, and were very pleased with our suite. The hotel was lovely, our suite was quite spacious and our beds even had comfy pillows (a rarity in Thailand trust me)! They would bring breakfast to our room every morning, and my dad was hard pressed to believe we had to eventually go back to Bangkok. Our first few days in Chiang Mai were spent exploring the Old City. First, all three of us walked around the town breifly, then my mom and I walked to all of the temples, then we walked to dinner, and after dinner, my dad and I walked all through the Sunday Night Market. On that first day, I walked a total of 15 miles, which I was able to calculate thanks to my iPhone Health app. The next day, we decided we had had enough of walking and rented 2 motorbikes. I had never driven a motorbike before, but hey, when in Thailand, do as the Thais do, am I right? Well, turns out motorbikes are pretty fast and it's a little intimidating getting on them for the first time ever. I drove around the parking lot of our hotel and became a little nervous of whether I was ready to go out on the main roads. I ended up chickening out, and asked my mom if she would drive it instead. Turns out my mom was a little more nervous then I was. After positioning herself on the bike, she quickly gased-panicked-kept gassing-and skidded out. Don't worry she was fine, no major injuries, but she did acquire some pretty heavily scraped up limbs. I ran over and helped pull the bike off of her. My dad at this point is minorly freaking out, asking, "Are we gonna be able to do this?" I jumped back on the bike, drove around the parking lot a little more, and decided then and there that there was no way I would be falling off of this bike. Plus, I was in a tank top and shorts, so my self-preservation instincts were on high alert. I convinced my parents that I could do it, and off we went. After an initial jolt of nerves as we pulled on to the main road, I rather enjoyed motorbiking! We drove over to the Thai Silk Village, where my mom and I stocked up on Thai Silk goods. Then we headed back to our hotel, met up with my dad, who had decided he wanted to drive around instead of shop for Thai silk, and motorbiked to lunch. At this point, I was feeling pretty confident on my new ride, and felt really Thai as I cruised in between cars at stop lights to get to the front of the line. We went from lunch up to Doi Suthep, a temple located about 25km away from the center of the Old City. The ride was simply amazing--full of winding turns and stunning aerial views of the city. We parked our bikes and began our ascent, climbing a copious amount of stairs. The temple was very charming, with monks of all ages chanting and walking around the temple. They even let us write good luck messages and our family name on a Chedi wrap, which will be on display for the rest of the year. Our return to Chiang Mai was just as fun going down the winding road as it was going up, only slightly more chilly. It was night time after all, and I was still cruising around in my tank top and shorts. 
The next morning, we were picked up by our tour guide to go on a mountain biking tour around the national park. Mountain biking was so much fun! Strenuous for sure, but nevertheless, tons of fun. At one point, we were told that there was going to be a steep hill coming up, and that anyone who made it to the top without walking would earn themselves a Coke as a trophy. We were in a tour group of about 10, ranging around the age of my parents to just older than me. My dad was the only one who made it up the hill without stopping to walk. WHAT A BEAST. We stopped several times along the way to look at local coffee, strawberry and other types of farms. When we finally got to the final flat paved road, my mom and I were biking beside each other in the front of the pack, trailing only our guide and one young woman from Spain. My mom whispers to me that as Team USA we needed to take gold and silver, so for the last stretch, we sprint-pedaled and beat the Spaniard. USA! USA! My mom got gold, and I got silver. By the end of the trip, I realized that this mountain biking excurtion had really proven that my parents were in better shape than me... We ate lunch around a beautiful lake and my dad recieved his trophy Coke can. Then, we were taken back to the bike shop to start the second half of our adventure. 
The next part of our tour included driving out to a rural village in the mountains, where we stayed at a homestay with Ms. Poog and her family. She had a cat that was really friendly; I greatly enjoyed snuggling it even though it kneaded its claws into my bare legs. She cooked us dinner and then three women came to give us Thai massages, which were greatly appreciated after our morning workout. The next morning, Poog made us a delicious breakfast and then we were off to start our zip lining tour through the jungle! I strongly recommend the Flight of the Gibbon to anyone who finds themselves in Chiang Mai. We had a blast zooming through the canopy of the jungle on the 17 different zip lines, crossing rope bridges and climbing up nets. There was one zip line where they attached the line to your back and you were expected to superman jump off the platform. My dad was the last to go, and my mom and I joked with the guide on the our side that he looked a little nervous. He took him a moment to courageously dive (partially) head-first off the platform and be carried to the other side. 
Chiang Mai was a stupendous adventure. We filled our time so thoroughly that it went by way too fast! All of the sudden we were back on the train, and headed back to Bangkok. 
We spent the night in Bangkok and then headed to Koh Phra Thong island in southern Thailand the next morning. Unlike many of the other islands in and around Thailand, Koh Phra Thong is one of the last non-touristy destinations. It's remote. Remote may not even cover how deserted this island is. I'm hesitant to even mention it because it was such a lovely, quiet, charming, peaceful, eco-friendly place. We had whole beaches almost entirely to ourselves. Little to no boat traffic. And no trash, except for trash that was brought ashore from the ocean after high tide. The woman running the place we were staying was incredibly kind, and the cook at one of the two restaurants available to us made the best Thai seafood I have ever eaten (and ever expect to eat) in my life. Her cooking was simply unbeatable, full of complex flavors and delicate preparation. After four days of lounging about, it was very sad leaving Koh Phra Thong on Monday morning.
My parents left on Wednesday, April 8th back for Portland. It was heart wrenching to watch them leave. I loved having them here and adored being able to share such unique experiences with them. As of today, I (only) have 6 more weeks left in Thailand, but the highlight of my whole trip will surely be the two weeks my parents were here.

I really have been slacking at putting photos up. However, I will eventually update my photo album, I PROMISE:)

During the month of February, and part of March, I had the opportunity to teach English at Thep Phrathonpon Primary School north of Bangkok. I was told about the position by my Beginning Thai teacher, Ajaan Nantana, who told me that she had a friend looking for a English teacher. I later met up with Ajaan Nok, Ajaan Nantana's friend, and she explained that I would not have to teach grammar, or rules (or any other complicated, frustrating parts of the English language), rather, I was just there to try to get the kids to talk with me in English and help teach them useful phrases.

I was to teach 3rd through 6th graders, and my schedule worked out so that I was working two hours on Monday and Wednesday, and then four hours on Thursday. During my first few weeks, I played games with the kids. They loved to compete, so I would try to get them to write and read aloud about a variety of topics. However, I began to realize quickly that the kids were primarily dependent on rote memorization. Meaning, they didn't really understand what they were writing or reading about. This became my biggest obstacle while trying to teach.

With the third graders, I often sang songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and the "Hokey Pokey." These definitely helped them learn body parts, and directions. However, I wanted the older kids, particularly the 6th graders, to be able to talk at least in present tense about things around them and what they were doing. I stopped playing games (much to the dismay of the students) and began focusing on a more practical lesson, like having the kids share what they eat and what they do in the summer. While some students, clearly more comfortable forming sentences in English, finished the lesson in 5-10 minutes, I would have to sit with others to help them form just one sentence. Unfortunately, this created a highly conducive environment for lots of talking. Since they would talk in Thai to each other, at times it seemed almost impossible to get them to work independently. (During one of my Thursday's working with 5th and 6th graders, I tried to get them to create scripts and practice saying them with their desk partner. None of the students would do this unless I was standing next to them instructing them to do it.)

I couldn't really blame them for talking, they very obviously had no clue what I was saying most of the time. And when I would come around to each table, the students would at least try to speak with me, which is what I was there to do anyways. The kids, while sometimes slightly uncontrollable, were always extremely sweet, and any frustration I would have due to their inattention to the lesson would quickly melt away when I would talk with them one-on-one or in small groups. On my last day, one student gave me a teddy bear, and another gave me a bracelet.

I even had the pleasure of being invited to the 6th grade graduation this week. In Thailand, the hottest months are March and April, so the kids get out of school in mid-March for summer break and return at the beginning of May. During the ceremony for the 6th graders, I felt wholly emerged into a piece of Thai culture that I could have never experienced otherwise. Furthermore, Thep Phrathonpon is a small, intimate school where the students and teachers develop close relationships. After the 6th graders were presented with their certificates of graduation, they presented an offering to the Buddha, and then proceeded to on their knees in a line in front of where the teachers were seated. We each tied white strings around their wrists and wished them good luck. While I couldn't understand what the teachers were saying, I could tell the some students were deeply moved by kind words as they sniffled and teared up. One boy that I had in my class, who was persistently stubborn about joining in on the lesson, was one of the students who seemed to be moved the most, and immediately, I realized how this school offered more than just a primary education. For some of these kids, Thep Phrathonpon was their homebase, a place where they were supported and loved. After all of the students had come down the line, they went back to their seats across from the teachers and sang songs. More students began to cry, which indicated to me that the songs were most likely about moving on to the next step in their lives.

After the whole ceremony, the woman who I was sitting next to asked me if I was going to stay for dinner. Out loud, I politely thanked her for the invitation and graciously accepted; in my head, I was screaming "YYEEEEEEESSSSSSS." The meal consisted of seven courses: small appetizers, fish stomach broth (don't knock it 'til you try it), noodles, yam sam krob (Thai salad, which is not really a salad--mostly various types of fried seafood mixed with peanuts and some veggies on top of lettuce), fried rice, delicious spicy fish, Tom Yum Kung, and then coconut and other fruits for desert. I had so much to eat that at one point had to starkly refuse to have people serve up any more food for me. I literally couldn't eat another bite. Teachers and students were singing and dancing all the while during the dinner. Two students got out their guitars and began singing and playing to a Thai pop song. One teacher placed two buckets in front of each student, and some of the kids threw some change into their buckets. I got out my wallet and gave each student a 20baht note, which received loud cheers and smiles from all of the students and staff. At the end of the night, the students wrangled me into getting up and dancing with them. They taught me dance moves to popular songs, and we all had a blast.

I was so overwhelmed by the amount of love that night. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to work at Thep Phrathonpon, it has truly been a highlight of my study abroad experience in Thailand.

On a side note, I realize I have been lacking at uploading photos to my album, so I have made a commitment to myself to have all of the February and March photos up by the end of next week!

When I first arrived in Bangkok, the cab that drove me to my new home from the airport had a laminated sheet of paper hanging over the back of the passenger seat. On it, were several pictures advertising for popular tourist attractions, a few included: a picture of the Grand Palace, the floating markets, the Tiger Temple, and one of a man whose head was precariously placed inside the jaws of a live crocodile. The photos peaked my interest, particularly since I had just arrived and was feeling a rush of wanting to do everything that I could in my short time here. Most of the photos included on the advertisement were things I have since done, or still very much so plan on doing. A few activities were things that I morally abhor. I had done my research on the Tiger Temple in Bangkok, and other tiger sanctuaries around Thailand, and had come to the conclusion that any place that was willing to exploit tigers for money would not be receiving money from me. Taking a picture with a full grown tiger may be an exciting and popular attraction for some, but I decided that any place willing to allow humans to touch, play with, and pose with tigers could not possibly be keeping the tigers' best interest at heart. Tigers are majestic predators that deserve to prowl in the safety of a sanctuary or freely in the jungle, not be chained to a post for hours with a queue of people waiting for a photo-op. In retrospect, I wish that I had done similar research on the crocodile shows, as well.

On Friday, February 20th, my friend, Emilia, and I were looking for something to do. We were staying in Bangkok for the weekend, and quickly decided that we wanted to find out what the crocodile shows were all about. I googled a place to see these infamous shows, and the World's Largest Crocodile Farm and Zoo in Samutprakarn popped up in the search results. Google reviews gave it 4.1 stars, though I didn't bother to read any of the reviews. We realized we only had a few hours left before the park closed, and because it is quite a ways outside of Bangkok, we decided it was better not to take a taxi. Impatiently, we waited for the only bus that would take us near the farm. By the time the bus picked us up and dropped us off in the right location, the park was only open for another hour. We bought our tickets, and entered the park. The first thing we noticed while walking in were closed souvenir shops containing crocodile skin bags, shoes, vests, and jackets, as well as crocodile skulls. We quickly understood what happened with the dead crocodiles. Little did we know, this was just the beginning of abhorrent things we would witness during our short time in the zoo.

We rounded the corner from the shops, and our hearts sank even further. Five adolescent tigers paced within a concrete cage shaped like a Venn Diagram, no larger than 20 feet in length and 8 or 9 feet at its widest points. The tigers' cage was surrounded by a meek barrier, one which could easily be reached over to touch or prod the animals. The crocodile show was to start in the next 30 minutes, so Emilia and I left the adolescent tigers and went over to where the crocodiles were being held. Three enclosures held approximately 80-100 crocodiles. The first we stumbled upon was a horrifyingly dreary concrete slab surrounded by a 5 foot wide moat that housed all of the younger crocs. The second was a larger enclosure with much more area to swim, and actually included foliage, with a mixture of massive, old crocs and younger, smaller crocs. The third was smaller than the second enclosure, and housed very large, old looking crocs. We were taking photos at the second enclosure, when other park visitors began lining up around the viewing platform around us. From the safety of the viewing platform, they cast lines over the side that had fish attached at the end, and began feeding the crocs. Crocodiles sulked out of the water, waiting to have a fish head come close to their mouths before chomping down with immense and terrifying force. It was here, that Emilia and I saw a very sad looking croc with half its jaw missing and its tongue loosely hanging from the left side of its face. Looking around, we saw more crocs with deformations or sometimes blood coming out of their mouths, though they hadn't received a fish. These was only the first of many diseased and unhealthy creatures we would soon see.

Finally, it was time for the show. We sat down in a gladiator type arena, hesitantly looking into the pit below. I could never have anticipated the intense pangs of sorrow I felt for the poor crocs forced to participate in the show. The two Thai handlers in the pit dragged them out of the water by their tails, and would prod them on their heads and bodies with sticks to get them to move or do what they wanted. It became clear to Emilia and I why the crocodile shows continue to happen, however, despite the danger to the handlers and the abuse of the crocodiles. The modestly sized crowd threw the handlers close to 1000 baht during the course of the show to get them to do more tricks. Towards the end of the show, the handlers did the crowd-pleasing hands and head inside the croc's mouth. Then, they began collecting all of the money being thrown at them. They proceeded to throw all of the money into the crocodile's mouth. The crowd gasped, and the handlers began shouting things to the crowd in Thai. All the while, the poor crocodile, jaws wide open, is left with cash and coins in its mouth. Slowly, the handlers began retrieving the cash, but not the coins. I assume the coins are left for the crocodiles to swallow.

At the end of the show, Emilia and I were left depressed and ashamed that we had given money to this place. But seeing as the zoo was about to close, we decided to go have a look for ourselves what other animals the park had and their condition. At this point, you can probably imagine that what we saw was not great.

The first corner we rounded led us to cages of chimpanzees. All of the chimps we saw were very clearly diseased, with tumorous-looking butts and patches of hair missing. Their cages had plastic wrappers and bottles in them that the chimps were gnawing on. Next to this, were side-by-side cages, housing one female, and then one female and one male orangutan. The concrete cages were about the size of a two car garage with almost nothing in them. No foliage, no toys, only a trough with water. The two orangutans upon figuring out that we were not going to feed them (both the chimpanzee and orangutan cages were surrounded by a fence that had an opening with a sign that said, "Feed here"), held hands, walked to the back of the cage, and sat down together. Their behavior was so recognizable--so human--Emilia couldn't help but begin crying.

We walked past the orangutans where more monkeys were held in even smaller cages, all just as diseased. Past this were adult tigers, a sign indicating brown bears lived in the enclosure, more small monkeys, very sad and fat raccoons, snakes, lizards, goats, boars, and more. All of the animals lived in tiny cement cages surrounded by their own filth.

Eventually, we arrived at the back of the park. At this time, the park had officially closed, and it seemed like we were the only people left. We were walking down a stretch leading back to the main gate when we saw pictures for the elephant show. The pictures showed us that these poor creatures were forced to balance on tuk-tuks, walk on low-hanging tight ropes and perform other unnatural, circus-like feats. We walked behind the empty arena, and there we saw one old female, two bull elephants, and one elephant around 1-2 years old. All of the elephants were chained to metals posts with about a 3 feet of slack. Seeing as the park had closed, we quickly deduced that the elephants would remain there chained up all night. After watching An Apology to Elephants, I knew exactly what these elephants had gone through in order to get them to perform those horrible tricks, and immediately recognized swaying in one of the elephants. There was grass scattered about in front of the gates were the elephants were being held, and Emilia and I began gathering it up and throwing it into the cages. Unfortunately, we could not get them water, and their water troughs were empty. I gathered some up and threw it into one of the bull elephants cages. He quickly gobbled it all up and started swaying back and forth, staring at me all the while. Sinking to the ground, I broke out into tears. This was exactly how I did not want to encounter my first Asian elephant. They looked straight into Emilia and my eyes, and pulled on the locks on the gates with their trunks as if to show us how to set them free. I pledged to myself that I would somehow get these elephants out of this horrible place, to some a place where they could roam around free. As I was crouched crying my eyes out, the bull elephant in front of me fully extended its body, with its chained leg up in the air, and reached out its trunk through the gate and over to me. I started bawling. I held my hand up to his trunk, and he sniffed and snorted around my palm. He was so obviously intelligent, and so obviously in mental and physical pain. My sunken heart finally broke.

All of the animals in the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo are in need of rescuing. Unfortunately, I have contacted some rescue centers in Thailand, and have received the same response, "We're sorry, but we can't do anything about this." They all suggested that I share my story with my friends and family, and encourage them to share it with their friends and family. It would be a dream come true if this story had enough impact to help all of these animals find a new home. Elephants never forget, and that's why I feel personally obligated to help these elephants especially. I hope that the next time I see my beautiful pachyderm friends, all four of them will be living in a sanctuary far away from the prison they are in now. Sharing is caring, so please care to share. If you know anyone who can get these creatures to a safer, healthier environment or anything I can contact to alert them of the injustices being done to these animals, please let me know.

This last weekend, I was able to visit Kanchanaburi with 11 other international students. Our main drive for wanting to visit was sparked from the beautiful national park containing 7 spectacular waterfalls just an hour north of the city. After almost a full month in Bangkok, being closer to nature and getting some fresh bumped itself to the top of my priority list. We stayed in Sam's House hostel for Friday night and planned on waking up early to hike the falls in the morning.

When we arrived at the Kanchanaburi bus terminal, we were immediately bombarded by taxi drivers. We've all been in Thailand long enough to know what is and is not a fair price, and the taxi drivers were trying to charge us between ฿100-150 to go about a mile down the road. Ummmm, no. Since none of them would lower their price for us, we decided to take the heel-toe express instead. After a three hour bus ride and a 1.5 mile walk all the way to Sam's House, we were quite hungry. Luckily, Thailand has yet to disappoint in the food department. We had a surplus of delicious options to choose from in Kanchanaburi, and enjoyed very reasonable prices for dinner. On the road to our hostel, there were not only several options for dinner, but also plenty of bars to choose from. After our meal, we were enticed by a sign that said, "Get drunk for ฿10." ฿10 was frighteningly cheap, so ended up at the bar across the street called Drink! Drunk! Dance! What a name. That turned out to be exactly what we did. The bar was small but very open, mostly filled with other travelers, of course, and had fantastically motivating phrases on their wall. We all enjoyed ฿200 buckets (approx. 1L of mixed drink goodness) and even found a wrecking ball to swing from (not a real wrecking ball, obviously). My friend, Emilia, noticed that one of the bar's decorations had distinct potential to be a mock-wrecking ball. They even played the song for us while we were swinging--that's how little they cared that we had just used their bar decoration as a Miley Cyrus song prop.

The next morning, I woke up at 6:10am. My alarm hadn't even gotten a chance to go off yet. I woke up the other lovely ladies staying in our little hostel room. At only ฿250/person a night, Sam's House was a pretty swanky hostel. The bathrooms even came stocked with toilet paper, which is a luxury, I assure you. We walked down the road to a breakfast place that was served Western breakfast (eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee/tea all for ฿70). The management even got us a taxi-truck who drove all 12 of us up to Erawan falls and drive us back. For ฿120/person roundtrip, this offer was pretty much unbeatable. We sleepily got into the back of the taxi-truck, and eventually made it to the base of the hiking trail for the falls. The Thai's take very good care of this national park. You even have to register any water bottles you take in and leave a ฿40 deposit, that they keep if you do not bring your water bottle back down with you. Unfortunately, I still did see the occasional forgotten water bottle on the trail. For the most part, the trail was very well maintained and extremely easy. I reached the 7th water fall in no time, even with dawdling around to taking pictures. The water at some of the falls' was shockingly blue, and the surrounding scenery was remarkably beautiful. I've updated my photo album, so you can check out pictures in the January section. My favorite part was when we finally reached the 7th falls. I was sitting at the base of the falls with my feet in a lower pool, and began to feel fish tickling my feet. They weren't cute little guppies either, some of the fish in the pool were easily 8-10 inches long, though only the smaller 4-5 inch ones seemed to want to feed on sweaty hikers' feet. On Khao San Rd. (a popular destination for partiers and backpackers in Bangkok), people pay to have their feet cleaned by little fishes. Here I was sitting at the base of a breathtaking waterfall in the middle of an outstanding national park getting it done for free. I was not the only person with my feet in this pool, but for whatever reason, the fish seemed to love the taste of my dead skin cells over others. At one point, I had 9 of these unknown fish species nibbling at my toes and the back of my heels. My second favorite part of the trip was playing with my camera's shutter functions. I finally had a purpose for using the 1/4000 shutter speed function! I was able to capture water droplets as they exploded off rocks after reaching the bottom of the falls, along with fun action shots of some of the international students jumping off one of the smaller falls.

This weekend, 30+ of us international students stayed in Ban Phe to beach and party. Our trip began with a 4 hour bus ride from Bangkok to Ban Phe, on which I practiced my mosquito slaying for almost the entire trip. We eventually made it into Ban Phe at around 6pm, just in time for a gorgeous sunset. The houses our group stayed in were right next to the beach, giving all of us a drunken-fool-proof route directly to the ocean at anytime. Unlike Bangkok, Ban Phe was not covered in a thick layer of smog--finally some fresh air! Around 10am on Saturday, we jumped on the local taxis and made our way to the ferry station to head over to Koh Samet, an island not too far off of the coast. Koh Samet ended up costing a more than all of us expected, but we are also very adjusted to the baht now. Between the 120฿ roundtrip ferry ride, the 20฿ entry on to the island, the 30฿ taxi ride to get to the beach, the 40฿ entry into the beach section of the island, and 40฿ rental beach chairs, we all felt like we shelled out a lot of cash just to sit on a beach. In reality, the whole day cost around $8. But like I said, we are so well acclimated to our new currency that we've become quite frugal.

One thing that I will never get used to, but that is all too common every where you go in Thailand, is the trash. Trash. Trash. Trash. Everywhere. I remarked to some of my friends that I bet this island would have been stunning 100 years ago. While it was definitely not the dirtiest beach in Thailand, the sand was still littered with cigarette butts, plastic bottles, and all sorts of forgotten items. I began to think about one study that my dad told me about that estimated that every handful of sand is now 20% or more plastic. But other than that, we all had a fantastic time. We waded in the water (which was quite warm compared to California, and it could have been a jacuzzi compared to the Oregon Coast), built a sand castle, and tanned. The sun absolutely zapped us of energy by the end of the day, so we were very ready to go home by 7pm.

Unfortunately, we did not get our deposit back on the house. But we had a blast. And that's all that mattered. Here's to many more adventures with these lovely folks.


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