Khao Yai (Part 1) – Jungle Treks and Waterfalls

Warning, long post ahead, but plenty of pictures to get you through!

Welcome to jungle, we take it day by day...

Welcome to jungle, we take it day by day…

Twisted trees on the forest floor.

Twisty trees on the forest floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the sake of making this post shorter, details about how we got to the park and where we stayed can be found at the end of the next post!

We ate breakfast at Green Leaf Guesthouse (the place we were staying) on Sunday morning and climbed into the back of a truck with a couple from England and two solo backpackers at 8am.

Baby monkey feeding!

Baby monkey feeding!

We left the hotel and journeyed into Khao Yai National Park, where our first stop was a viewpoint that happened to be occupied by a pack of very cheeky monkeys. One stole a whole bag of bananas out of an unguarded truck and climbed to the top of a tree so she wouldn’t have to share. There were baby monkeys playing in trees and clinging to mothers’ bellies, and older monkeys jumping around in the trucks searching for food.

 

Just a little guy...

Just a little guy…

Our next stop was a sudden swerve off the road as Lek, our guide from the guesthouse, leapt from the truck and grabbed a scorpion out of the road and brought it on board. He calmed it down by covering it with his other hand to warm it up, and then let us pet it and touch its stinger. This one, at about 5 inches, was not as big as the giant scorpion species can get, and it had been displaced by the recent rain.

We heard some gibbons in the forest so we pulled over to trek for a little while. We did not find any gibbons, but we did find a hornbill, which our guide located after we heard the sound of its wings as it landed, a sound not unlike a blowtorch or what I imagine a jet pack would sound like.

A very long distance shot of the great hornbill.

Long distance shot of the great hornbill through Lek’s scope.

The great hornbill’s 2-meter wingspan pushes a lot of wind. Daniel got up close and personal with a couple of small leeches that found the half inch of exposed skin on the back of his knees between the leech socks we were wearing and his shorts. The guide told him to think of it as a blood donation – a leech can live 6 months of their year long life span on just one feeding!

Another swerve off the road a little later brought us up close and personal with a long, thin, white whip snake, that our guide somehow saw from the road and distinguished from the vines and branches. He once again leapt off into the brush and managed to grab the snake, so we all took turns holding it. It’s crazy to feel how powerful they are.

Can you find the whip snake? Our guide saw it from the truck while we were driving!

Can you find the whip snake? Our guide saw it from the truck while we were driving!

There it is!

There it is!

 

 

 

 

 

Our next trek brought us quite far

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Water monitor lizard catching some rays!

from the road, and we explored the dense jungle, admiring enormous bugs and twisting trees, reaching up toward the sun as they have done for centuries. We reached a river and walked out across the rocky exposed riverbed, pockmarked by years of fluctuating water levels. We snuck up to snap a few photos of a water monitor lizard sunning itself on the warm rocks, and gaped at a swarm of some of the largest butterflies I’ve ever seen, each delicate and colorful wing seemingly the size of my hand.

 

Look at this ladybug!

Look at this ladybug!

LOOK AT THIS ROLLIE POLLIE!

LOOK AT THIS ROLLIE POLLIE!

 

 

 

 

 

Haew Suwat waterfall!

Haew Suwat waterfall (feat. a rainbow!)

We drove on to the waterfall Haew Suwat, most famously known for Leonardo DiCaprio (or at least his stunt double) leaping from it in the film The Beach. We got up as close as we could, clambering over slippery rocks, laughing as we climbed through the perpetual rainbow created in its spray. It was beautiful.

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Flying lizard!

 

 

 

 

When we got back to the truck, our guide had found and caught a flying lizard for us to admire before he carefully placed it back on the tree, and it virtually disappeared because of its excellent camouflage.

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Can you find the flying lizard?

We got back in the truck and as we drove south, the road seemed to dip into an entirely different microclimate, the air thickening with moisture and the intoxicatingly sweet scent of some unidentified tropical flower. It got wetter and colder, and though it had been all sunny skies where we just came from, it was apparent that rain had fallen recently, as the road was wet. A long, wet drive brought us to the walking path to the uppermost observation point for the tallest waterfall in the park, the stunning 150 meter Haew Narok. We hiked a kilometer from the road to the overlook, crossing several bridges and scaling many steep stairs of questionable reliability.

Empty bridges just feel so artsy...

Empty bridges just feel so artsy…

The stairs leading to the waterfall viewpoint.

The stairs leading to the waterfall overlook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also passed many interesting plants and bugs, including a tiny spider that was weaving the biggest web I had ever seen. This little fingernail sized guy was making quick progress on his ambitious web – must have been 2-3 meters across. Unfortunately on our return journey, he looked all forlorn in the corner of his web, gazing with anguish at his lost productivity in the form of a gaping hole in his silken masterpiece, probably due to an inconsiderate bird. Okay, I’m anthropomorphizing, but still, I thought it looked sad.

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Haew Narok waterfall (feat. some pretty flowers)!

Anyway, yes, the waterfall. Only the first stretch (about 50-60m) was visible to us, and our guide told us that after the rainy season, the lower viewpoints were closed off, due to rockslides and unsafe conditions. Stunning waterfall. Why are waterfalls so beautiful? It’s just falling water. This one didn’t even have any playful rainbows dancing through the spray at the bottom. Maybe something about the power of it, the water pounding away at solid rock for so many years, carving this immovable substance into an advantageous form… I don’t know what it is, but something about waterfalls just takes the breath away.

We drove back from the waterfall slowly, hugging the edges of the road, peering into the dense trees and brush, hoping for a glimpse of a wild elephant. After creeping along for most of the return journey, we were brought to a halt by a long line of cars stopped on the road. Our guide popped his head out of the window and turned back to us excitedly, “big animal on road!” he chirped, and before he could even fully get back into the car, our driver took off down the wrong side of the road cutting in front of the line of vehicles to bring the line of wild elephants into view.

Lelophant buttz!

Lelophant buttz!

It was a group of 15-20 mothers and children, crossing the road. They had apparently been there for quite some time, because as we were watching, an official park vehicle came to try to clear the road. Flashing lights and revving engine attempting to bully the pack off the road. One elephant reached into the truck’s window with her trunk, but eventually the road was cleared to let the flow of traffic continue. The elephants watched, indifferent, from the side of the road, as engines restarted and these strange metallic animals roared past them. That was the full day tour, and I will post another blog about the half day, but I will leave you with this video taken of that herd of elephants shortly after we left them, terrorizing a man on a motorcycle. Our guide showed it to us at breakfast the following morning.

 

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The Final Week of Training

On the bus to Khao Yai. After one of the most exhausting weeks in recent memory, we have left the sanctuary of the JL Bangkok, and we are onto the next adventure. The three week course with American TESOL Institute was intensive and actually prepared me for the coming semester more that I thought would be possible in such a short time. This last week, Tuesday through Friday, was all practice teaching at school nearby. This meant that each day after class we were given a time slot, an age group, and a topic, and we had to plan our lessons accordingly. In the morning, dressed in our “teacher clothes” (skirts and blouses for the ladies, suit pants and nice shirts for the boys), we would board buses that would take us to our classes for the day, and we would observe the other trainees in our groups, writing out feedback for later. Once everyone had taught, we would get back on the buses, go back to the hotel, and lesson plan for the next day. It was exhausting, but also rewarding and it gave me a much better idea of what I’m getting myself into.

Tuesday I was with the wee ones – a class of twelve 2 and 3 year olds. Tara and I were paired up which was good, because at that age you’re really mostly babysitting in English, not teaching it. However, we put up a noble fight to teach them a few fruits, and I was rewarded by the sound of a tiny voice at recess after our class calling out “mango mango mango!” from the playground. Even at that age however, it was incredible to see the beginnings of comprehension.

Wednesday I was paired with Tiffany, and we taught a more extensive lesson about world travel to some hyper-intelligent 8 year olds at an international school. They had a really astounding grasp on the English language, and they were all so excited to learn. A few girls kept their hands up for the entirety of class, even when we weren’t asking questions, because in case we did, they wanted to be the first ones to answer. We were asked by a good chunk of the class at the end if we would come back and teach them every day.

"Teaching" hyper intelligent 8 year olds.

“Teaching” hyper intelligent 8 year olds.

Thursday I was with Tara again as we took on some older students – 15 to 17 year olds. The school was a vocational school for 7 Eleven workers, and we were meant to go over some listening and speaking skills in the context of apologizing. This was a little harder lesson to get through, because these high schoolers were very much beginners with the English language. Though it was very clear they wanted to learn – wrinkled brows, diligent note taking, and silently shaping each words after we said it – it was still very difficult for them to comprehend very much of the lesson. Knowing this was important for planning the lesson the following day.

7 Eleven vocational school selfie!

7 Eleven vocational school selfie!

Friday we were at a different 7 Eleven school, with about the same age group and comprehension level, but I was teaching on my own for the first time! I went over reading skills in the context of advertising, and I felt very good about how the lesson went over. I had to adapt to the class a lot, having them repeat words more often, and going to each group to make sure they could read their answers aloud, but by the end of the class, I felt like I had maybe made a little difference, though I don’t know how much of the lesson the students retained. Either way, I feel much more prepared to take on my high schoolers in a couple weeks!

Learning about advertising!

Learning about advertising!

Which reminds me. Just after my last post I found out about my school placement! Daniel and I have both been placed at Klaeng Wittayasathaworn School in Rayong Province. Ashley is at a different school about 20 minutes away. Rayong Province is about 2 ½ – 3 hours away from Bangkok, Southeast, near the beach. We are very excited. Klaeng is a very small district, so it looks like there will not be a whole lot of night life, but I think I can deal with being a beach bum for the next 5 months.

The Fruitless Search for Sleep

It’s nearing midnight and I’m too excited to sleep. Tomorrow is our first day of practice teaching, in a real classroom, with actual tiny humans. Tara and I have prepared a delightful lesson for our group of three-year-olds (!!!) but I cannot get my brain to stop thinking about every potential failure and also squeeing over how freaking adorable the babies will be. 

I’m nervous, but I’m also very excited about the prospect of teaching. The other day at the mall I had an encounter with a Thai boy that got me very psyched up for teaching. Maura and I were walking in the mall when a small human called out to us: “Hello!” In passing, we responded “Hello!” He persisted, with encouragement from his nearby mother, “What is your name?” Recognizing the format of dialogue we had been learning in class, I stopped, turned around, and approached the child. “My name is LeeAnn,” I responded, “what is your name?” His name was muffled by his shyness and rendered incomprehensible by my lack of knowledge of the Thai language, but I nodded my head, took his tiny hand in mine, shook it, and said “nice to meet you!” He broke out in a grin and said “Nice to meet you too!” “Your English is very good!” I said with a smile. His face widened to produce a grin bigger than I would have thought it capable, his mother beamed, and he chirped “Thank you!”

It was a brief interaction, but the pride that child had regarding his successful communication in English was enough to make me excited to the journey ahead. 

Alright. Back to the fruitless struggle to quiet my brain long enough to fall asleep. 

  Speaking of fruit, here’s a picture of me using an unnecessarily large knife to cut a poster board cutout of some grapes for class tomorrow. 

A Bit of Context From Bangkok

Hello class. Today’s lesson is about context. Say it with me? Context.

We’ve been doing a lot of learning this past week, which I will post about in more detail later, but one of the things that comes up over and over again is the idea of context setting. As English teachers in Thailand, our job is not to cram the heads of Thai children full of English words, but to contextualize the words they know to help them communicate. Of course there are many other parts of being a teacher, but from week one of class, I came away thinking very deeply about context. So here’s some context for you.

We are staying at a hotel in the Ramkhamhaeng area of Bangkok, which is about a half hour away from the downtown area by taxi. Ramkhamhaeng University is about a mile away from us, along with the Sports Authority of Thailand, which is a collection of tracks and stadiums where many sporting events take place. The area in which we are living is not a particularly touristy part of town, so on nights like Friday night when we walk to dinner in a pack of 12, we are rather like a parade.

The routine on weekdays has become pretty regular: wake up, cross Ramkhamhaeng Road from the hotel to buy breakfast from the street vendors (usually fresh fruit and maybe an omelet over rice or some chicken skewers with sticky rice), eat in the room, and sit down in class by 9am. Our Thai instructor, Pak, has told us that Thai time is different, in that most people are late for most things. She goes on to say, however, that she is a bad Thai because she gets very impatient. Therefore, we are all punctual to class so as not to upset Pak, because we love her. There is also a lot to learn and not a very long time in which to learn it. We grab lunch either from street vendors or from one of the two mall food courts nearby. Then back to class until 4(ish) depending on how the lessons are going. In the evenings we usually go to the gym, which is about a mile walk away. Some of us bought weeklong memberships, and on that very first day, we left the gym in the pouring rain. Luckily we got very quickly to a saturation point of wetness and didn’t notice it as much, and it was also still quite warm out. We got back to the hotel a bit soggy, but it was quite an adventure.

In terms of extracurricular activities, we’ve been out in the university area near the hotel, the Sukhumvit area, and to 79 THB movie night at the nearby CinemaPlex to see the The Martian (very good, highly recommend). The evening that we spent in the area by the university made me think about context a bit more outside of the classroom. In the classroom, it’s all about making sure that the students understand the situations in which the things they are learning are applicable. In a bar, with a live band, the stage banter acts as a bridge between songs, contextualizing the thoughts or emotions within the music. However, when that banter is in Thai and you only know colors and how to count to three, that context is pretty consistently lost. Lack of context didn’t stop us from enjoying the music and dancing along in front of the stage, but it did give me the fish out of water experience that I’m sure my future students will experience when exposed to English. Food for thought.

Here’s a video I made! There is no context for anything in this video really…

Unrelated Observations: Thai food tends to be either spicy or very very sweet. The beverages are all enormously sweet and you need to be careful ordering coffee, because even black coffee comes sickly sweet. That doesn’t bother me, as I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but some others in the course are finding it hard to adjust. We saw an instant coffee packet in 7-Eleven that was 53% sugar. How does that even happen?

The Adventure Begins: Taipei International Airport

Time is weird. It’s just after midnight here in Taipei, but it’s morning back home in California. We chased sunsets for 13 hours, watched Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out (yes I cried like a baby on the airplane, fight me), two episodes of HBO’s The Brink, and slept fitfully for several hours. We were excited for our ten hour layover in Taipei, but we didn’t research quite thoroughly enough, so we didn’t realize until we cleared customs that it was actually too late to do anything. Night markets would close before the bus got there, buses to the high speed train had already stopped, and here we are six hours before we are able to check in for our next flight. Alas. We do, however, have free wifi, a duffle full of snacks, a good supply of movies, and a liter of Bailey’s we got duty free at SFO, so who really needs to leave the airport?

My last California sunrise for a while, photo by Daniel.

My last California sunrise for a while, photo by Daniel.

Advice in retrospect: If you’ve got a layover, plan it out. The Taipei International Airport is actually 51km from Taipei, which is about 40 minutes and $40 USD by taxi. The much more affordable bus ticket (~$5 USD) poses the problem of taking about an hour and a half or two hours to get to your destination. The high speed train takes about 20 minutes and is priced somewhere in between, however it is closed between the hours of 23:30 and 07:00. Had we known to power walk there as soon as we cleared customs, we may have made it, but we discovered this fact too late, so here we are. With the prospect of closed night markets, we looked into hostel options, thinking we would take the bus into town and catch a couple hours of shut eye before making our way back to the airport for our 8am flight. However, we soon discovered that most reputable hostels close their front desks by midnight. Alas, once again. Good thing we brought a lot of movies!

Sampling local Taiwanese cuisine in the form of a mediocre pork bun from the airport's 7-eleven. I'll have to come back for a better sample.

Sampling local Taiwanese cuisine in the form of a mediocre pork bun from the airport’s 7-eleven. I’ll have to come back for a better sample.

UPDATE: It’s 03:30 and we finished all the Baileys.

GIsHWheS 2015

In my never ending quest to bring weirdness to the world, I have once again signed up for the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. And let me tell you. It was pretty great. Last year I signed up with a group that was an unofficial offshoot of the VidCon Lonewolves, so we called ourselves the GISHWHES Lonewolves (this was before the new capitalization commandment, forgive me, Misha). This year we had a few returning members, but not enough for a whole team, so we were grouped with some incredible ladies from all over the USA. And so, Team SuperJamWolves was born. And Team SuperJamWolves was amazing this year. I was continually impressed by the dedication of these ladies (and gentleman) and how much wacky weirdness was created in just one week. I’ve put a gallery of some of my team’s items over in the photos tab, which is a bit of a lie because there are also videos. Ah well. You can see that gallery by clicking here..

My friends and family do not understand why I am so obsessed with GIsHWheS, but they put up with the weirdness anyway, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Mom, thanks for taking all those pictures. Daniel, thanks for putting up with my shenanigans, when we could have spent that time playing the Firefly board game instead. Thanks to Susan and Gary for not asking too many questions about all the kale I kept in your fridge. Thanks to Andrea for being down to don a beard and shepherd’s clothes and walk me into Target dressed as a pregnant Mary. Thank you to the Marriott hotel that let me in with my ballgown and kale hat. And a big thanks to Misha and the GIsHWheS team that made this all possible!

Comic Con 2015

It’s been a whirlwind. Two days after getting home from the woods, I drove from the Bay Area down to San Diego for SDCC2015! This was my second year, but it’s no less overwhelming. Just. So many people. It’s baffling. And also incredible. I stayed on the couch of a friend of a friend (shoutout to the lovely Lauren, thank you so much!) and spent the weekend wandering the floor and checking out some amazing panels. I also took pictures of just a small number of the incredible cosplays, some of which are posted over in the photos tab, which you can also see by clicking here.

One of my main takeaways from Comic Con, as well as VidCon (which I attended the last two years) and anywhere there are creative people is that I am not working up to my fullest potential. This is a place where you are surrounded by people that are working toward their dreams, and are finding their passions. It makes me want to do better. It makes me want to turn my ideas into realities. So begins my commitment to myself to write more, and tell more stories. Wish me luck!