The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in Vietnam

vietnam lanterns mid-autumn festival

Lanterns are a big part of the mid-autumn celebrations (picture by David Emrich for Unsplash).

Today, my Google Doodle honours the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated throughout parts of East Asia, which is also known as the Moon Festival (or Tết Trung Thu, here in Vietnam).

vietnam mid autumn festival

Traditionally, it was the celebration and feast to bless autumn’s harvest. (It’s still way too hot to feel like autumn in my books, but apparently that’s the season we’re in!) Today, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival the most significant one after the Vietnamese New Year, and it takes place when the moon’s the brightest in the year.

The build-up to today, the official day of the Moon Fest, has been thrilling, with the sounds of drums and cymbals going at night as troupes of dancers rehearse their Lion Dances. The dance is believed to drive out bad luck and bring good fortune. Toy shops are festooned with pretty star-shaped lanterns and fluffy dragon, unicorn and lion heads.

Apparently, “the Mid-autumn festival activities were cast on the shell of Ngoc Lu bronze drums. The Vietnamese bronze drums were used as the significant symbols for power and wealth throughout many generations of the ancient Viet tribes dating back to the Bronze Age in Southeast Asia”.

The festival is known as the children’s festival as farm workers would reconnect with their little ones in the middle of the long harvest season. Ever since, it has been a time for family reunions and delighting kids with things like new clothes, colourful lantern marches, and lion and dragon dances.

It’s been great being a teacher, as I’ve gotten closer to celebrations than I would’ve if I’d come as a solo woman traveller or digital nomad. We had a Lion Dance crew come perform for my class of 6-year-olds last week, and just this morning I was woken with a BLAST when dancers and drummers literally used our front doorstep as the stage for performing for the kindergarten opposite our house.

Our landlady observes all the Vietnamese Buddhist rituals, coming to clean and pray twice a month on the moon’s auspicious days. As she swept this morning, she told us of her childhood, when the family would gather to gaze at the moon at midnight. She told us the legend of how the man (and his tree, as you can see the black spot [‘tree’] on it on this day) came to be there, up so high.

Tonight I shall gaze at that man in the moon and ask him a question or two. (Hopefully, I’ll find a mooncake to nibble and some cassia wine to sip.)

For now, here are a couple shots from the Lion Dances seen so far…

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

lion dance vietnam haiphong

The troupe outside our language centre, with my little ones reaching out to touch their fluffy manes.

lion dance vietnam haiphong

Taken from my living room: Dancers perform for the kindy kids opposite.

 

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From War to Peace: A review of The Napalm Girl’s memoir, Fire Road

 

Fire road napalm girl Vietnam War memoir

The cover of Fire Road, the memoir by Phan Thị Kim Phúc.

When I was getting ready to move to Vietnam, I did what I try to do before going to a new country: Research through books, series and films. With Vietnam, though, most material is (understandably) usually about the Vietnam War.

And what image or person is more representative of the tragedy and insanity of that war than “The Napalm Girl”, Phan Thị Kim Phúc?

My sister handed me her copy of Kim’s memoir Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace, co-written with Ashley Wiersma, which tells her story beyond the horrific image burned into collective memory. I thought: Do I really want to read about this? Another part of me knew I had to. (Also, I enjoy a good Triumph Over Tragedy story.)

On 8 June 1972, Kim and her community got caught in the crossfire between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldiers when an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places forced them to flee their village, Trang Bang, along the strategic Route 1 she refers to as Fire Road.

At nine years old, Kim was pictured running down the road, screaming, with third-degree burns over her body in a photo that some say had a major role in ending the Vietnam War. Nick Ut, who took her to the hospital later, won a Pulitzer for the shot that became part of photojournalism history.

The Napalm Girl by Nick Ut Vietnam War photojournalism

THAT image, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Kim was thought dead. But she survived, and spent 14 months in intensive recovery from the third-degree burns. Here’s the book’s blurb:

Get out! Run! We must leave this place! They are going to destroy this whole place! Go, children, run first! Go now!

These were the final shouts nine year-old Kim Phuc heard before her world dissolved into flames − before napalm bombs fell from the sky, burning away her clothing and searing deep into her skin. It’s a moment forever captured, an iconic image that has come to define the horror and violence of the Vietnam War. Kim was left for dead in a morgue; no one expected her to survive the attack. Napalm meant fire, and fire meant death.

Against all odds, Kim lived − but her journey toward healing was only beginning. When the napalm bombs dropped, everything Kim knew and relied on exploded along with them: her home, her country’s freedom, her childhood innocence and happiness. The coming years would be marked by excruciating treatments for her burns and unrelenting physical pain throughout her body, which were constant reminders of that terrible day. Kim survived the pain of her body ablaze, but how could she possibly survive the pain of her devastated soul?

Fire Road is the true story of how she found the answer in a God who suffered Himself; a Savior who truly understood and cared about the depths of her pain. Fire Road is a story of horror and hope, a harrowing tale of a life changed in an instant − and the power and resilience that can only be found in the power of God’s mercy and love.

From the get-go, given the subtitle and her many references to God and Jesus Christ, it’s clear the book will be about faith. And, really, given what this woman has had to live through and with, it’s no wonder.

How can you watch your family members and community die, survive being horrifically burnt, become the ultimate anti-war ‘poster child’, a puppet in your country’s propaganda machine, live with constant physical pain and NOT turn to faith?

This is not to say Kim wasn’t raised religiously to begin with. For me, some of the most fascinating early parts of the book were all about the CaoDai beliefs and rituals of her childhood.

In a feature for Christianity Today in which Kim tells of her coming to the Christian faith, she explains:

“Cao Dai is universalist in nature. According to a description on CaoDai.org, it recognises all religions as having ‘one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness,’ or pretty much any other deity you could imagine. ‘You are god, and god is you’ − we had this mantra ingrained in us. We were equal-opportunity worshipers, giving every god a shot.

Looking back, I see my family’s religion as something of a charm bracelet slung around my wrist, each dangling bauble representing yet another possibility of divine assistance. When troubles came along − and every day, it seemed, they did −I was encouraged to rub those charms in hopes that help would arrive.

For years, I prayed to the gods of Cao Dai for healing and peace. But as one prayer after another went unanswered, it became clear that either they were non-existent or they did not care to lend a hand.”

I also enjoyed Kim’s recounting of her mother’s infamous noodle shop, which the state eventually took over. I think of this aspect of her family’s past often here in Vietnam, when I see little girls helping their moms at its many street stalls and home ‘restaurants’.

Vietnam street food noodle shop Fire Road

An excerpt from the book, mentioning Kim’s mother’s noodle shop.

The book also spent some time revealing aspects of Kim’s story that many may not be aware of. (I certainly wasn’t.)

For instance, I didn’t know…

…that it wasn’t the Americans who dropped the bomb that burned Kim. Apparently, it was dropped “by a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot flying a propeller-driven, American-made A-1 Skyraider. The attack was an attempt to roust North Vietnamese units from positions near Trang Bang. The forces engaged there in early June 1972 were all Vietnamese.”

… about the effect of napalm on the body. The ‘sticky fire’ adheres to skin like tar, making it hard for doctors to treat wounds. Trying to wipe it off only causes it to spread; and only smothering it (excruciating pain) removes it. It continues to burn the body if exposed to oxygen, too. Horrific.

“Napalm can generate temperatures of 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Phúc, having sustained third-degree burns to half her body, was not expected to live.”
http://www.earth.com

Kim had to undergo many operations after the attack, and was still undergoing treatments in her 50s. So that day caused her physical suffering that lasted her whole life.

that Kim then became a keg in the country’s propaganda machine, having to attend frequent conferences and media briefings to say what she was told to say. All this time away from her studies (and life) squashed Kim’s dreams of becoming a doctor.

The many synchronicities in Kim’s story gave me goosebumps, and hats off to her for making so many friends (and meeting important people) along the way. I admired the guts it took for her to defect and make a new life in a colder clime.

Above all, the book makes you think about what’s needed for healing from trauma and tragedy, both literally and figuratively. It’s about the power of faith − for overcoming debilitating emotions, like fear and rage; for forgiveness (“love your enemy”, as the Bible says); and even for bringing a family together again.

kim phuc napalm girl scars

Kim holding her first-born son when he was an infant. Motherhood gave her healing.

Today, Kim is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and she has a foundation to help other children of war. Her story is a generous gift she has given the world. It is a truly inspiring one of resilience, forgiveness, gratitude and grace. I’ll end with Kim’s words:

“We are all walking one fire road or another, be it paved by relational upheaval or financial upheaval, physical or emotional or the general inconveniences of life,” Kim says. “But when you and I come along with a posture of peace, or with gentle and kind words, or with an offer of prayer or a hug, or with anything that looks and acts like Jesus, it is as if we have used a fire extinguisher − the flames that burned hot settle down.”

To hear Kim speak about the book, watch this clip from Tyndale House Publishers.

napalm girl Adel Abdessemed

When it comes to the Vietnam War, Kim’s story is part of the popular imagination. The haunting image of her running away, naked and burnt, was made into a sculpture by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed.

 

Birdhouse in my soul

I was walking past the pet shop on the way home from school, when I saw a toddler trying to get my attention. The snotty little boy was holding a bottle, pointing; his adorable brown eyes eager for me to see what he was clearly so enjoying seeing.

I followed his gaze to the birds and the fish, and started ‘talking’ to him. Noting his grandfather’s approving smile from the shop next door prompted me to take the boy’s lead. Of course, he spoke no English (and, at his age, likely barely any Thai). But he clearly wanted to communicate about the colours and movements surrounding him. Bless.

petshop

We walked the shop, and I got down to his level to ‘ohh‘ and ‘ahh‘, and point out this fish, that fish. We were babbling away, sharing the uplifting feelings that animal encounters can bring. I love how, as a toddler, all sounds are new to him. It doesn’t matter that I am English. He knows no difference yet. He is too young to laugh at me, or exclaim ‘farang!’ [foreigner] to get his family’s approval.

When it was time to go, I waved and said goodbye. His grandfather was now outside the shop entrance, smiling from where he’d been watching us. (Don’t say I don’t do my part to try improve community-foreigner relations, he he.)

Truth is, I’ve had so many moments like this on the walk home. No matter my mood or energy level, there’ll be some encounter with a Thai child that buoys my spirits. I wonder whether I should be teaching toddlers, instead of high school kids? I also wonder whether the early experience of being one of twins, using the crytophasia ‘non-speak’ secret language that twin toddlers use, has helped me access that age, in which sounds can mean so many things, as they’re not yet defined by one language group’s rules and codes…

Anyway, thanks, kid. You won’t remember it, but I certainly will 🙂

Cats of Thailand: The False Friend

grumpy cat
After I took this pic at a dress shop at Lonely Beach, Koh Chang, I did something I never do – asked if I could touch him.

I’d been admiring an olive-green slinky number for a couple days, and was about to ask “Tao rai?” [How much?], when I saw this comfy beaut. Normally, I go ahead and touch the goods. But something told me to get permission first…

Good thing I did.

The owner said: “No, he bite. People say, ‘Oh, I have many cats.’ He don’ care. He bite evelyone.”

Of course, then he rolled onto his back, making his large furry belly look all inviting. Not this time, kits…
#CatInstinctStrongWithThisOne

PS. I did not buy the dress.

Some street scenes from Chiang Mai, Thailand’s chic, cosmopolitan #DigitalNomad city

“Do you ever get to a city and immediately think, I want to live here?”

This question, along with “Do you ever get to a city and instantly hate it?”, is frequently posted in some of the travel groups I’m part of on Facebook.

Tha Pae Gate

Big girl + little girl = captivating scene near the Tha Pae Gate, on Chiang Mai’s moat.

In the case of Chiang Mai, it was the former for me. I could say it began the moment I stepped off the overnight bus, when I saw I had two lovely Tinder matches, while deciding how to head where next. This is no big deal for some, but for me teaching in rural Thailand for three months, the Tinder pickings have been slim.

The feeling certainly grew as we took our Grab taxi to the old town, and I spotted so many cute cafes, and more men – and trees! (Isaan is the dry part of Thailand so I have been longing for greenery).

But to be honest, I was primed for this ‘love at first sight’.

A close friend spoke highly of it, saying his fancy-sounding Italian mamma talked dreamily of retiring there. And it’s a hot spot among the global #DigitalNomad community, of which I hope to be part of (someday soon?).

Anyway. It didn’t disappoint.

Apart from my self-confessed bias, several of the other foreign English teachers who came to Thailand with the same agency as me had the same feeling. Unlike Bangkok or Pattaya, which can turn some (including me) right off, Chiang Mai is a heart-stealer of note.

Here are some pics I took while walking around, all starry-eyed and full of that hope-filled energy only a truly promising strong first attraction delivers.

(I’ll be posting more on what I’ve gleaned on the city’s #DigitalNomad scene, and what to do there if you’re just passing through, soon.)

Chiang Mai cafe

Asian Art Deco: A cute cafe (and English signage, rare in my Thai experience so far) on Ratchapakhinai Road in the Old City.

Kad Klang Wiang chiang mai

Tempting streetside seating at the Kad Klang Wiang foodie/shopping square in the Old City.

mango Thailand

When it comes to tourist pics, this mango place is ripe for the picking 🙂

asian beauty

Glamour pusses take a break to post those all-important status updates 😉

John's Place chiang mai

John’s Place, beside the east side of the Old City’s moat. Go here for nice views of the NYE Lantern Festival goings on.

wat temple chiang mai thailand

Ah, the temples you see, just walking around at night … peeping at monks going about their daily business.

thai monks morning alms round

Speaking of monks … they’re an everyday sight in Thailand, but I can’t get used to it. It was beautiful to be up early and hear their chants as they walked the streets on their morning rounds collecting alms. They do this every day, barefoot, no matter the weather. Read more at: http://www.thaibuddhist.com/monks-on-their-alms-round/

Wat Phan On temple walking street chiang mai thailand

This little lane in the Wat Phan On temple provided brief respite from the crowds of the Sunday evening walking street market. I saw women circling the temple’s Golden Pagoda, carrying flowers; heard the bells being rung; saw delicious food; and bought colourful earrings here.

capervan thailand

Cocktail, anyone? No, but I do WANT THIS DISCO CAMPERVAN REAL BAD!

wall art graffiti thailand

Hello Kitty wall art on one of the little lanes I liked.

urban hanging garden

Lush hanging garden that fills me with a good kind of envy…

scooter thailand

White respite.

massage chiang mai

A welcoming entrance to one of the many massage parlours in the city.

 

 

Two months of teaching in Thailand: Some thoughts…

I’ve been teaching English in Thailand for two months now, and it’s been three months since I left my friends, life and (dis)comfort zone in Cape Town.

It feels far longer.

Nong Bua Daeng Hae Krathup festival
The high street of Nongbuadaeng was festooned with decorations from the October Hae Krathup Tradition festival, which I missed by days (dammit!).

I’d never been to Asia before, and when you do full-on cultural immersion − when nearly every sight, sound, smell and taste is fresh (well, not literally − some are anything but…), and you can almost physically feel your perceptions shift around every street corner − even 15 minutes of a day stretches into something memorable. Seeing the world through new eyes engages your full attention, which slows down time.

I see a lot of adorable Thai toddlers here; they make my insides gooey. They’ve also made me reflect on cognitive learning … on how the familiar becomes familiar so early; on the joy and wonder of experiencing things for the first time.

But newness isn’t always easy. Especially when you’re 40, and frequently fearful.

Back home, I’m often the youngest among friends; unmarried, childless, still “a maiden” in many ways. Not here, among teenage students and other foreign English teachers so fresh out of school, they may as well be taking a gap year. And while home (Cape Town) can be a playground for skateboarding Peter Pans and festival-hopping party girls to say things like “age is just a number,” being a middle-aged (!!!) teacher among twenty-somethings in a conservative, small SoutheastAsian town means you’re forced to confront your chronological age – or, at least, traditional (and possibly small-minded) perceptions on it almost daily.

But I digress. Back to the many gains of this adventure: So far, the biggest immediate gain has been the sensory stimulation. I see so many intriguing sights just sitting on my veranda here in Nongbuadaeng, in rural NorthEast Thailand. Then there are the festivals and markets and celebrations and rituals. And there have been many buses and budget hotels and markets and minibus trips to other Northern places in-between.

Chinese opera
Chinese-style opera at the carnival that came to town for the week of the 5 December National Holiday, in honour of the birthday of the King of Thailand, Vajiralongkorn (AKA Rama X).

I sometimes wish I we were living in the imagined future, so I could do a quick download of all the daily images and impressions. I’m constantly thinking: I must write this down. I must save this picture. I must remember…

Then, there’s what this place is doing to my long-heavy heart.

The main reason I chose to try out ESL teaching here, over more lucrative places, was because of “the people” everyone raved about. While I’m wary of romanticising “the land of smiles”, I’ve been touched by so many everyday human interactions and treated very well by students, colleagues and town folk. Living so openly within a community (rather than behind high suburban walls, as we are in South Africa) makes you feel part of it, even if you’re just a foreign guest.

Last week, at a temple in Chiang Mai (where some of us teachers went for New Year), I said a prayer of gratitude for all the moments of grace and kindness I’ve been blessed to experience in the last two months – the sweet laughter in class, the generous warmth from the women of Nongbuadaeng, the nourishment of the delicious food. Thanks to my time in Thailand, something inside me must surely be shifting – how can it not?

wat phan tao
The place where I gave thanks: The teak Wat Phan Tao temple, meaning ‘temple of a Thousand Kilns’ (due the fact that it was once used to cast Buddha images for Wat Chedi Luang next door).

Below, some notes on some of the things I miss, and some of the things I’m grateful for.

(More blog posts on teaching and living here to follow!)

WHAT I MISS

Proper conversations with friends. I love nothing better than a good, deep and detailed natter with people who know me. Language barriers reduce conversations to the bare basics here. And getting to know new people, from vastly different backgrounds, takes time and is not without its own challenges.

My car. I asked for a walkable town and I’m glad for it, but a lot of the local sites are only reachable with wheels − and I’m having scooter issues. With my driving phobia history, knowing two young men who died on scooters, and not having insurance to cover scooter accidents, I wasn’t going to hire one. But the three younger English teachers I’m with did and I didn’t want to miss out on outings or be the ‘granny of the group’. (Too late!) I’m still too poep-scared (as we say in South Africa) to ride the damn thing further than our block. But I haven’t given up on slaying the beast just yet … I miss the freedom of being able to go greater distances than my feet will take me.

Nice toilets and showers. Cape Town’s drought toughened me up a little, so I’m used to no baths and treating showers as cleaning necessities rather than languid luxuries. Here, you have to confront non-Western toilets (and ‘the bum gun’), carry toilet paper (which can’t be flushed and must be placed in the waste basket), and showers are those soft-flow hand-held jobbies hung upon the wall. *Sigh* #FirstWorldProblems

Proper cutlery (and such things). No, this isn’t because we’re eating with chopsticks. We aren’t. In Thailand, you eat with a fork (left hand) and spoon (right hand). You use the fork to push food onto the spoon, then spoon the rice into your mouth. (I’m still figuring out if it’s the same for noodle dishes). The cutlery is of a thin metal, the kind you may take camping, so I miss the feel of a heavy knife and fork in hand. Ditto for plates and glasses. At café’s here, it’s all plastic plates and cups. I wasn’t able to find any ceramic plates at the shops for my flat, either. On the plus side, everything has that impermanent/festival/camping feel, which is fun. And there’s less to break.

fork and spoon in Thailand
It took an hour’s bus ride to the nearest city, but I finally found a knife (the type that goes with a fork) among boxes of the spoon & fork combo you quickly get used to eating with in Thailand.

Some food items, like proper coffee, cheese, salt and pepper. Even though coffee is grown here, Thailand isn’t a place (like Greece) where you’ll easily find a good coffee. At the cheap hotels we’ve stayed at, it’s strong and powdery. In the shops, you’ll find instant varieties pre-mixed with milk powder, sugar and even ‘weight-loss’ or ‘skin-tightening’ ingredients. It took me a few weeks to find ground coffee, but I’m still on the hunt for a bodem (using a tea strainer until then). At restaurants and cafes, there’s sugar, chilli and soy sauce on the table. Funny how you quickly miss everyday rituals, like cracking salt and pepper onto your meal before starting.

Friendly pets. In Chiang Mai, I asked a #DigitalNomad I’d just met if there was any downside to living in Thailand. “As you’ve probably seen, it’s the attitude towards animals,” she said. It’s true. The many street dogs here are full of mange and on their own mission. The outnumbered cats are skittish and still elusive. As a pet-sitter and animal-lover, I miss animal affection.

Thai dog
A typical Thai dog. He is not as rough-looking as the street dogs, so likely belongs to the shopkeeper family. He will be fed and perhaps get the odd scratch, but he likely won’t be washed, sterilised or cooed over.

A body of water to swim in. In the North, we don’t have the beaches Southern Thailand is known for. While Cape Town’s cold Atlantic sea is hardly inviting, you always know it’s there. When it’s hot here, I crave a body of water to swim in. But the local reservoir is not for swimming, and the nearest pool requires a scooter ride to get to (and is not exactly clean). It’s not surprising that most of the kids here can’t swim. (Again, #FirstWorldProblems).

Articulation skills and the ability to read environment. There’s lots to be said here, in a longer post. But just imagine, for a minute, not being able to read street signs, menus, receipts, SMS messages from your bank or phone provider. I’m used to being literate, and feel pretty ‘lost’ in my surroundings at some point in every day.

WHAT I’M GRATEFUL FOR

Living in a walkable town. During the placement process, the agency asked us for our preferences, and this was one of mine (together with WiFi and a verandah or outside space at home). I’m loving walking through the food market each day, and strolling to the 7/11 at night – pretty much a no-no back in South Africa, as it’s too dangerous to walk alone at night.

Thai market Nongbuadaeng
Markets everywhere! In addition to the daily market, the nightly produce market, the Saturday night market and the 15th of the month big market, there’s the Mon-Wed food market outside the school.

The agency support. I’m told I can earn more through a direct placement and wasn’t too sure about my agency before getting here (I had all kinds of suspicions). But they offer a curriculum, telephone support 24/7 (even for things like translating a Thai text or speaking to a Thai person to organise transport etc.), and the visa support has been a relief.

That I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, yet. (Sorry!) Contrary to what many expect, Thai cuisine isn’t that vegetarian friendly. And ordering veg-only is just another communication complication. I’ve seen the lengthy process of someone trying to explain that no meat should be in the fried rice be served pork fried rice, only to get non-veg food served to them, and have to suck it up and eat plain white rice and sliced cucumber … there seems to be fish sauce, chicken, pork broth or egg in most dishes.

That I was able to buy a new phone. My one had a cracked screen and kept running out of space, even with a new SD card, but new phones were just too expensive to buy back home. I picked up a new Samsung Galaxy J4+ for less than 5000 Baht ($156; R2230) at the Big C in Bangkok, and it’s been essential for life here (with its need to Google translate, use local banking/taxi apps and Google maps).

That I’ve had some teaching experience. While it was part time and at an English creative college, rather than full time at a Thai high school, it made it easier for introverted me to stand in front of many sets of eyes and do all the prep necessary to feel prepared for 50-minute classes.

Feeling part of a community. Note I say feeling over being. We are farangs (foreigners) and get called so daily. We’re just passing through for a season. But after five years of freelancing alone at home, with no family of my own nearby, being a respected member of a community, living close with our neighbours, attending local events and just being part of the daily flow of life has been so good for me on so many levels.

So after that long post, is there anything you want to know about my Thai teaching adventure? Let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you here…

Thai sweets
A sweetie stand on a street in Chaiyaphum, the city an hour or so away from us. Ain’t it PRETTY??

A field trip to Korat in Northeast Thailand

I took advantage of a freebie on a school excursion to (briefly) see the city where the historical Thai cat breed, the Korat, comes from.

Graffiti in Thailand

Graffiti art

The head of the school’s English Department, Teacher Po, kindly invited me on a field trip with an age group I don’t teach, so yesterday I went along for a day’s break from the small town that is Nongbuadaeng.

I’m loving so many things about this TEFL travel stint, but I’ve yet to slay ‘the dragon’ that is my hired scooter (eye rolls allowed, to a point, on this one – it’s an old fear story), so any chance to see other scenery for a better perspective (and sense of movement) is embraced.

Thai bus

You gotta love Thai buses. I see these Michelin men on many of them…

The great part about my teaching location is that there are a few small Northeastern cities a couple hours (by bus) away, so you can explore a region that isn’t on the typical Thailand Tourism map relatively easily (I say relatively because you always have the language barrier to navigate around bus times, which bus to take etc.).

The field trip was to the city the Thais call Korat, though its actual name is Nakhon Ratchasima (in what’s Thailand’s largest province). As Teacher Po said, “Even the cities here have nicknames,” referring to the fact that Thais commonly go by nicknames. The other foreign teachers here with me for the semester have been before, so I knew it has shopping centres and things Nongbuadaeng lacks, but knew little much else about the place – other than it’s where the famed blue-grey Korat cat, the relative of the Siamese, comes from. (Curious cat fact: The Korats are associated with good luck, so are often given as a gift in pairs to newlyweds here.)

Korat cat

I think the beaut on the right is a Korat. Been on the hunt for one since I arrived in the region. (This one lives on the streets in Nongbuadaeng, though, not Korat itself.)

On the itinerary: Check out the Suan Kaset 100 Rai flower show linked to Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University’s Agricultural Research Center, which is only open at certain times of year; get to the Terminal 21 mall, so the students could do some shopping; then head to a temple.

There wasn’t enough time to get to the temple (sadly!), but we reached the first two stops. I had to laugh at the flowers, though, as they were cosmos, which grow wild on the roadside at autumn time back in South Africa, in the province I grew up in.

(They’re actually something of a family symbol, as I was pictured in them with my twin in proud family pictures. As kids, we liked to do the royal wave from the back seat, pretending the cosmos’ purple blooms were the admiring faces of our populace. And each autumn, when they come out, my photographer Mom drags my Dad out on a drive to find them.)

Cosmos flowers

Cosmos in the foreground.

While the flower display wasn’t large (think two fields), the prettiness was great for taking pics, and it was fun to be among them with the Thai teachers.

Terminal 21 is the second ‘proper mall’ I’ve been so far since here (the other was in Pattaya, some 7 hours’ journey away), and each floor has a different country as a theme. There’s a food court serving all kids of delicious and affordable Thai food. (The Pad Thai was about 35 Baht/$1/R15).

Hello Kitty

Well, Hello Kitty! (And you, massive Christmas tree hiding in plain sight in a mall in a Buddhist country…)

Other than checking out the H&M sale and spending money I wasn’t meant to at my favourite shop here, the Chinese retail chain MINISO, the best part of this stop was the loo experience. I’ve never sat on such a fancy throne, with different bidet options (this angle, that angle, this speed, that temperature … lovely luxury after the non-Western toilet situations you can encounter in public facilities here).

Fancy luxury toilet

Forgive me for I have pictured and posted a toilet. (This from someone who balks at buying toilet paper in bulk!) But some of the squat-toilet scenes I’ve seen here made this seem like it was gilded in gold. Hands-down the best toilet experience, ever.

I bought a big box of Dutch butter biscuits from the fancy farang’ (foreigner) food place for Christmas Day at school, then it was back on the bus to Nongbuadaeng. My best part of the day was the booming beats the kids chose: regional folk-pop music featuring the dialect specific to Esan (or Isan … another thing here is the variant spellings, making Google research tricky even in English). Being around such smiley and wholesome teenagers can be good for the mood, that’s for sure. And I love that they’re loving their own culture so much.

Next weekend, we’re shedding out teacher caps for the long NY weekend to finally get to Chiang Mai. Can’t wait to see the city so many #DigitalNomads rave about.

Will keep you posted…

(Oh, let me not forget the sunflowers 🙂 )

sunflower field

Happy days.

sunflower art

Sunny outlook all round.