So last I left off, we were at the tail end of orientation, happily dancing the night away on a floating barge with disco ball and strobe lights (as one does). The next day we set off for Bangkok and three hours later we arrived at the hotel to meet our coordinators. And then in a blink we were all off our separate ways. I was ready to get to my town and finally see my school. I was ready to unpack and stop living out of a suitcase. But I'm not sure I was ready to leave my little Western, American cocoon, to leave the other participants and the OEG staff and the safety of hotels. To be honest it was really, really hard. I almost feel like there were two stages to arriving in Thailand, the first stage where I stayed in a hotel and was fed constantly and had satellite television and kids my age who spoke English. And then there was the second, much more overwhelming and scary phase, where I rode in a van across the river from Bangkok and was deposited in an apartment in a strange town with no other foreigners in sight.
My first night was hard. I had travelled approximately thrity minutes from the hotel in Bangkok but I felt a million miles farther away from home than I had felt my whole first week in Thailand. The full weight of being in a foreign country hit me. It's easy when you're in a hotel to cling on to the trappings of home, especially if it's a hotel with American Idol on the television and wireless internet and french toast for breakfast. But the second I got to my apartment that was all gone. I was really in Thailand, really thousands of miles away from Virginia and my family and my friends. And I was sad and I might have cried a little bit (I could lie and say that nothing fazed me in the slightest but I'm trying to be honest in this blog), but once I sort of got through all that, I realized that I didn't come to Thailand to have everything be like home. I came to Thailand because I wanted different and new and strange. And so I dried my eyes, took a deep breath, and really looked at my new home for the next five months.
So the apartment. It's basic. It's not a hut. There aren't elephants ambling past (oh how I wish there were though). I have running water. I have AC. I have a Western style toilet (i.e. not a squatter-which is not uncommon in this part of the world). I even have a television (with nine channels all in Thai-so clearly I'll get a lot of use out of it). I have a nice refrigerator which I have already stocked with bottled water, milk and singha beer (you know, the essentials). I'm on the second floor of a building run by a very nice man who handed me my key along with a roll of toilet paper (Thai people are always giving westerners toilet paper, for them it's not essential, but I think they know that us Americans are very attached to our bathroom paper products) and two bottles of water. It's nothing fancy but compared to what I had prepared myself for, it's downright modern (when I first decided to come to Thailand I literally had images of me in a grass hut with a mosquito net over my bed). There are some strange facets to the place. My sink for instance is outside on a tiny balcony. The balcony faces a huge building that is under construction and so I do not go onto my balcony a lot because there seem to always be a huge number of Thai construction workers staring back at me when I do. My shower and my toilet are pretty much in the same space, so every time I take a shower my toilet gets a nice rinse. I'm definitely not living in luxury, but I think compared to what most Thai teachers can afford on their salaries my digs are pretty darn fancy. And I keep reminding myself that when I go home and start looking for an apartment, I'm not going to be too choosy. Anywhere with an indoor sink for example will seem extravagant.
The town. Pra Pradaeng is for all extents and purposes a suburb of Bangkok. If Bangkok were Manhattan then I'm in Brooklyn. It's not quite as fast paced in this town as in the city. There aren't any skyscrapers or mega malls (I will write another time about these ginormous malls they have in Bangkok, like take the biggest American mall and put it on steroids), but it's still very much urban. The town sits right across the river from Bangkok, under a huge suspension bridge. When I first saw the bridge my immediate thought was of Charleston. Any suspension bridge maks me think of Charleston, and this one looks very much like my beloved Ravenal bridge. I look out my apartment window here and see the bridge, those enormous beams soaring through the sky, and in a small, strange way it brings me a sliver of home. About five minutes away from my apartment there is an enormous market, full of shops and vendors. The market is about as far as I've gotten in terms of exploring Pra Pradaeng, but the market alone would take forever to truly know. In the evenings it turns into this bustling, chaotic frenzy. I think a lot of people in the town get their dinners or dinner ingredients from the market and you'll see people loaded down with bags containing meat or fish or rice, weaving their ways through the food stalls. There are vendors selling souvenirs and clothes. There are 7-Elevens galore (they're everywhere in Thailand), Western style coffee shops next to family owned restaurants where nothing on the menu is in any kind of English. I've only tried one food stall. My coordinator, Pi Tuk (more on her later) took me there my first night and told me how to order paad thai with fresh shrimp. For 30 baht (about one US dollar) I can go to this stall and get a large order of paad thai with shrimp along with a two heaping sides of sprouts and green onions. It is very easy and very cheap to at well in Thailand.
There's a really pretty walkway that runs along the river, a perfect spot to read or sit or run (if I were the sort of person that did such a crazy thing). There are restaurants right on the river (really just big stoves and then a cluster of super low tables that you sit at without chairs). There are pretty much no other Westners (or at least none that I've seen). There's a famous floating market somewhere near me that I'm assuming draws in a lot of tourists, but at least in the center of the town where I am, it's pretty much all locals (and me of course). It's strange to feel like the only foreigner but I really don't even get that many stares. People smile and are friendly and helpful. The paad thai vendor in particular seemed thrilled that I chose his stall for my first Pra Pradaeng dinner. There's a little supermarket where I can get bread and water and even peanut butter (!).
And that's my town, or at least what I've learned of it so far (which I'm sure is only a fraction of what there is to know). Before I came here I didn't want to be anywhere near Bangkok. I was sure I would hate the city. But I was actually enormously relieved when Pra Pradaeng ended up being so close. For one I'm really close to 4 other Teach in Thailand program participants which gives me an enormous sense of comfort. It will be really easy for us to get together on weekends to hang out in the city or travel. But most surpisingly of all, being close to Bangkok comforts me. It's the last thing in the world I would have expected, but I think I really like Bangkok. It's big and chaotic and loud and crazy, but there's something there that's already gotten to me, something that keeps me wanting to go back for more.
My next post I'll fill you in on my school and the staff of the school, in particular my wonderful coordinator Pi Tuk who is like my Thai mom, and after tomorrow I'll be able to fill you in on my first day teaching (eek!).