So the remainder of the orientation in Bangkok kind of resides in my memory as one big, often fun but also often overwhelming (especially since I was sick) ball of blurriness. The people were awesome. The OEG staff (the overseas partner of CIEE which is the organization behind my foray abroad) were incredible. We were taken care of indecently well. As in every two hours on the dot there would be a coffee, tea and pastry/sandwich/treat spread waiting for us, not to mention the huge lunches and breakfasts provided. We had awesome teachers to teach us Thai language and teacher training. One very sweet and very enthusiastic Thai lady was given the daunting task of teaching us about professional standards for 6 hours (something mandated by the Thai Teacher’s Council, which regulates who can get a work permit) and she set about it with incredible aplomb and somehow, miraculously made it not mind-numbingly boring. I am incredibly grateful to the entire staff for making this first week so smooth and for making us feel exactly what we needed to feel our first week in a strange country, namely safe and taken care of. I’ve learned that I really like authority, maybe not the authority that’s mean and bossy, but the authority where you know if you have a problem that someone is there who can take care of it. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I still look for “adults” in scary situations. Despite the fact that I’m 23, I haven’t really shaken the need to locate a “grownup” somewhere and follow their lead. It’s something I’ll have to work on obviously, especially now that I’m a teacher, but for that first week it was exactly what I needed. There were always “adults” around and I always felt like there was a safety net. Without this my first week would have been far more overwhelming and terrifying.
But enough of all of this and on to the fun part, namely our two night venture to Konchanaburi, a province about 3 hours west of Bangkok. We arrived after dark and even without daylight I could tell the hotel was gorgeous, all open air and space and walk ways that were seemingly endless. It’s the low tourist season in Thailand right now (rainy season to be specific but more on that later) and I’m sure this poor hotel staff did not know how to handle our loud and boisterous group as we descended on the “pub”/entertainment area and immediately began requesting Singhas (one of Thailand’s nation beers and so, so delicious, possibly my new favorite beer in fact). After a couple of relaxing hours sipping cool beers in the humid, sticky evening air we were off to bed. And the next morning, well the next morning, I awoke to one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and probably will ever be.It was evident even from the hotel, how beautiful this area was. In the distance small mountains rose into the air. In the foreground lush greenery stole the focus, palm trees and vivid pink flowers, lakes and a fast moving river. A mist hovered over everything, and all of the pollution and smog I had grown accustomed to in Bangkok were gone. The air was clear here and sweet smelling and even though it was still very, very hot, it didn’t feel quite as stifling as it had in the city.After another massive breakfast spread (seriously Denny’s and Shoney’s have nothing on these Thai breakfast buffets) we loaded up onto our bus and headed off to the elephant camp. Now I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this but one of my goals in life, not just this trip, but life in general, has been to ride an elephant. I love elephants. I think they’re beautiful and smart and perfect. I know they trample people now and again and are big enough to squash me without blinking an eye, but I don’t care. In my eyes elephants are noble, glorious beasts. And I’ve always wanted to ride one, not in a zoo or at some weird fair, but in their natural habitat. And so to be able to do this my first week was beyond what I could have hoped for.
The minute we approached the elephant camp I was in heaven. There they were, at least a dozen elephants standing around eating or drinking or you know, doing elephant things. A couple of elephants were in a different area, one with enormous tusks. This, I learned was the designated “photo elephant”, as in take a photo with him and you are expected to make a “cash” donation. Kind of a scam but I thought what the hey. His tusks were really cool and none of the other “free” elephants had tusks like that. And then even cooler, we were given bags of tiny bananas to feed to the elephants. I approached with some trepidation because while I love elephants, the thought of letting one eat out of my hand still kind of freaked me out. But all I had to do was stand there and the elephant easily found the banana, bunched it up in his tusk, and put it into his mouth where it was quickly gobbled away. It was magical, and at this point I hadn’t even gotten on an elephant yet. A few minutes later this was remedied. Elephants are so big we had to go up onto this elevated platform in order to climb on to the two person saddle/bench attached to the elephants back. An elephant driver (?) sat bareback in front of us and we were off. We followed a very steep trail at first and going up was fine, but going down was kind of terrifying. Luckily the bench thing had a seat belt because I’m fairly positive I would have fallen off without it. And it’s a long way down from an elephant’s back. After a few minutes we got to this little village right near the elephant camp on the banks of the Kwai River. It became apparent later this tiny village pretty much lives off of the tourism brought in by the elephants. The houses were very modest and simple, more of huts really, all built up on stilts because of the nearby river. And there were a ton of kids who I’m sure have long since stopped being impressed by the sight of huge lumbering elephants walking past with Westerners clinging on for dear life on their backs. But they did run out to greet us, many of them carrying beautiful pink or white flowers which they adorably handed up to us as we rode by. A couple other people in the group even got these elaborate hats with leaves and flowers which I’m sure took forever to make. We eventually moved past the village and down to the river, where I was 99% sure I would get soaked. But again, elephants=huge. Even though they were half submerged in the river, we were sitting literally high and dry.
When we moved out of the river, something startling happened. Our driver hopped of the elephant. Now I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure elephants are hard to steer unless you know what you’re doing. Plus we were in a very hilly, rocky area, and I really didn’t want to take any chances with the elephant navigation. Just as I was shooting panicked looks at my elephant riding companion, the driver gestured to me, then gestured to the elephants back, as if to say hop on. I looked around and saw that many of my other fellow teachers were also in the same position. And none of them seemed to be in danger of falling off, so I followed suit. And it was awesome. Riding on an elephant in a saddle is really sweet, don’t get me wrong. But to ride one bare back, you actually feel like you’re on an elephant. You can feel this massive animal beneath you, feel how leathery the skin is, and how prickly (I had no idea elephants were so hairy). Every few seconds our elephant flapped his ears back and forth and each ear was big enough to completely cover my leg. I stopped worrying about falling off or our elephant walking right off a cliff. I sat there, on an elephant, amidst this incredible scenery, a huge river and mountains and lush jungle, and I could not have asked for a better moment. It was everything I wished for and more. I can now cross something pretty major off my life to do list. Because elephant riding was seriously right up there with having a successful career and husband and kids.
After the elephant riding, we were ushered into trucks and driven to a point up the river to go bamboo rafting, which is exactly what it sounds like. Big sticks of bamboo tied together to make a raft. Now this experience would have been cool if I had just sat on the raft the whole time. Again, the scenery could not have been more gorgeous, just the Thailand you picture in your head (or at least I did). So green and tropical and peaceful. I could have happily sat there and enjoyed the view as we drifted quietly down the big river.But then I noticed someone in our group swimming a little ways away (we were on several rafts spaced apart along the river). I was hot and sticky (kind of a constant in Thailand) and the thought of diving into the water sounded perfect. The other people on my raft seconded the idea. Now maybe in another life I would have worried about whether or not the water was sanitary, whether there were crocodiles in this part of Thailand, whether there were water buffalos in this part of Thailand (are those lethal?), whether I would get sucked under by a strong current and drown, even whether I would regret being wet the rest of the day. But this lifetime I didn’t think about any of that. All I thought about was how nice the water looked, how good it would feel, and how I may never again have the chance to swim in the Kwai river with mountains and jungle on either side of me. So I stripped down to my bathing suit and jumped. And it felt as good as I imagined. The current was so fast we barely even had to paddle. We could just tread water and let ourselves be drifted along with the raft. Like the elephant there’s really only one word to describe it, awesome. Rarely in life do we really feel like we’re living in our skin, just utterly present, tied to nothing but our senses and the moment. This was one of those moments. I will always remember it, how good that water felt, how happy I was that I jumped.
After our little river excursion we had lunch in the village by the elephant camp, then it was off to Moon Bak Den, an orphanage not far from there. I was little nervous about this. You think orphanage and you think sad and heartbreaking and kind of horrible. We were going there to teach an English lesson and I really didn’t know what to expect. But turns out I didn’t have to worry about anything. Because the kids there were amazing. Literally the second we walked up to the village (it’s called a children’s village, all of the kids live in houses with adults who act as a family, they literally call them the Thai equivalent to mom or dad-it’s a really beautiful system for these children who have lost or who have been abandoned or abused by their biological families), we were embraced. And I mean literally. Kids jumped onto backs and reached out for hands. Kids smiled huge smiles and could care less that we were foreigners or that we didn’t speak their language. They were incredibly open hearted, far more than kids who have been through what they’ve been through, could ever be expected to be. They bounced and they ran and they exuded energy. I thought this orphanage would be depressing but the place itself was anything but. It was like a big summer camp, set in one of the most beautiful places on earth, right on the Kwai river,on a hilltop overlooking jungle and mountains and water. Walking around, it was hard to imagine a better environment for an orphanage, like if you could come up with the perfect orphanage in your head it would be this. There was an organic garden where the orphanage grew its own food. There were dogs running around and one very scared kitten that was carted around by one kid who had clearly claimed it. There was a big river where we were told the kids played and bathed in every night. There were classrooms and libraries and playgrounds and a basketball court. It was summer camp meets boarding school, but most of all it felt like a home, somewhere these children could feel safe and nurtured and taken care of. And you could see it in their eyes that they did. The fact that they could be so open with us and just immediately launch themselves at us with affection and energy said everything we needed to know. These kids should have been hardened and afraid. And they were the opposite. They were beautiful. Their eyes were full of life and life and excitement. They played games with us and giggled and surrounded us with this whirling mass of energy. And how selfless must the staff of the orphanage be, these men and women who don’t go home at the end of their work days, who are there all the time for these kids, who are all things to them at all times, surrogate families and teachers and guardians and babysitters and traffic cops. I cannot tell you how amazing it was to be in this place for a few hours. It’s so clichéd to say this but it did give me so much perspective. It made me thankful for what I have and it also forced me to acknowledge how little of the material things I surround myself with really matter. Not to get to deep, but well, I can’t help it, going to an orphanage forces you to get a little deep. I’m so happy we were given the opportunity to visit and I firmly hope I can one day go back there.
Our next stop was a trip to the bridge over the river Kwai (like the movie), something of which I didn’t really know the history and which I’m now glad I do (look it up, it’s very interesting and relevant to American history as well as Thai history). And we ended the day with what else, dinner aboard a floating barge that turned into a discotheque (complete with disco ball and strobe light) the second the meal was over. As we floated along the river in the dark and as I bopped along to Thai versions of American favorites (yes, most of the music here has been covered by an accented Thai singer, have no idea why or how this is legal), I couldn’t help but smile, knowing that this experience, that all of my experiences thus far, have been singular and unique. It’s really easy to get stuck in a rut in life, and I think I was starting to get a little rutty before I left, going to the same bars and restaurants, doing the same things. And I really needed something to get me out, an experience that would be truly different, something that I would probably only experience once in a lifetime. Riding an elephant, bamboo rafting, going to that orphanage, yes I might do these things again. I hope I do. But in all honesty they are all probably once in a life time experiences for me. And that’s what I wanted. That’s what I needed.
Again I feel this blog getting to a dangerous length so I will end it here, at the end of orientation in Konchanaburi. Next time I will discuss my apartment (air quotes implied here), my town, my school, and all the kookiness that has come along with all of those things. Miss everyone at home. Be safe and be good.