Sunday, November 25, 2012

Getting Educated on Educating in Thailand

Usually when I am traveling around Asia, I joke that I am on a "business trip" seeing as how I am a History and Geography teacher, and the travels help me gain a better understanding of both the history and the culture of the places I teach about.  This time, however, my travels really were business.  Around 20 or so teachers from my school and I went to Chiang Mai, Thailand for the International Christian Educators Conference (ICEC), where we were to attend workshops and general assemblies for three days straight to learn about how to be better Christian educators.

This does not mean that I did not find my time to have a little fun and experience the culture, however.  Me and my roommates, James and Jason, purposefully went a day and a half early with that goal in mind.  The very first thing we did was go to the local Night Market and find a place to rent motorbikes.  Surprisingly it didn't take a drivers license, a passport, or really any documentation to rent them; just 2000 Thai Baht (about $80 USD) for a deposit.  All of this despite having never driven a motorbike before and given about as much instruction as "here is how you start, and here is how you stop".  After nearly running straight into a parked van upon existing the rental place, it was virtually smooth sailing after that as we were zooming in and out of traffic at about 35 mph as we cruised around the city.

The next day, already equipped with our motorbikes, we took to the surrounding mountains of Chiang Mai and just meandered through long, empty, steep, and winding roads.  True bliss.  In the mountains we visited a Buddhist temple, ate Pad Thai, and had coffee that was grown and made in this random village we happened to stumble upon.  Once back to our hotel, we took a nap, and then got ready for another adventure that night: spectating some Muay Thai fights.

For those that do not know what Muay Thai is, it can basically be described as an intense version of kick boxing that is extremely popular in Thailand, and is one of the most brutal forms of martial arts in the world.  I have heard rumors of fighters training by kicking metal poles to create micro-fractures in their shins, so that when it heals it would actually make their shins thicker and stronger!  I was excited.  The bout card included 7 fights: one of which was a female fight, one a "special fight", one the main event, and one an international fight with one guy being from France.  It. Was. AWESOME!  The highlight was the "special fight", which turned out to be around 8 aspiring fighters in the ring, all blindfolded, going crazy to the tune of "Gangnam Style".  It was hilarious watching these guys walk around the ring throwing hay-makers at the air, or fighting the corner thinking it was a person.  Most of the fights were really good, with 3 of them ending by way of knockout (two were actually knockouts to the body!).  And that ended our day of fun.

The rest of the trip was spent in and out of different sessions.  Most of the sessions I did not get much out of, with a few even upsetting me, however there were a few that were practical and left the attendees with some good takeaway that will be applicable to the classroom.  The best part of the conference was just meeting tons of other people doing the exact same thing as you from all over Asia.  All in all, a good trip.  Now time to buckle down for the last few weeks of the semester.

 Coffee Shop

 Call of the Wild

 Muay Thai

Lady making soap flowers at the Night Market

Friday, July 13, 2012


So way back to when I first accepted the job here in Singapore, my parents have been planning to come see me this summer.  However, our deal was that I wanted to spend my summer traveling other places and not stuck hosting people in Singapore the whole time, so let's pick a secondary location to meet at.  My parents chose Beijing, China and that suited me just fine.

It was really great to get to see my parents.  Even though I Skype with them fairly regularly, it is not the same as getting to see them, hug them, and spend time with them, so it was a real treat.  As for Beijing, it was really nice getting to see the historical sites like the Summer's Palace, where the emperor would spend his summers to evade the summer heat.  Its grandeur and beauty were impressive as it looked out over a giant lake.  Another highlight from the trip happened randomly while we were just standing in Tianamen Square.  Tianamen Square gained international notoriety after the protests in 1989 (you may have seen the photo of the man standing in front of the tanks). To this day, Tianamen Square remains a popular site for protesters against the Chinese government.  For this reason there are police and military officials EVERYWHERE!  Well our story picks up while we standing in the square, just across from the Forbidden City, when all of a sudden this woman in a wheel chair opens her book bag and all these papers just go flying.  Within seconds there were 5 to 6 officers around snatching up all the papers (including the one under my foot that I had stepped on to prevent from blowing away, and secretly was hoping to keep to have it translated) and wheeling off this old lady and putting her in a van.  I have no idea what those papers said, but I have to assume it was some form of propaganda because she deliberately threw them on the ground.  It was just interesting to witness first hand the tight grip of China's Communist hand, and how quickly they were able to erase this woman's best efforts at "free speech".

Perhaps the biggest let down of the trip for me was the Forbidden City.  The fact that during the imperial times nobody was allowed in that part of the city makes it an intriguing site, but once inside it is a little boring.  I mean the architecture was beautiful, but it looked like all the other temples we had already seen.  Its size was very impressive, but as you walked through the compound everything started to look the same.  It is still a must-see due to its historical value alone, it just didn't live up to its hype.

Other sights we visited were the Temple of Heaven, Birds Nest Stadium and Olympic Park, the Silk Market, where I taught my parents how to bargain, and the Drum and Bell towers where we just barely were able to catch a spectacular drum performance (the towers used to be used to keep time). But the REASON we were in Beijing, the main event, the headliner was the Great Wall of China.  One of the most recognizable structures in the world and certainly one of the grandest, it is something most people aspire to visiting in their lifetime, and we were getting to do just that.  Now the weather we were experiencing had been crappy to put it nicely.  Dreary haze covered the sky with a blanket of foggy grey.  Not the most picturesque setting, but we had to make the best with what we were given.  Now, I had heard from friends that much of the wall that tourists see today was part of a massive restoration project by the government in the 1980's, and in some locations was not even built in its original location! (Why not just build a wall in America, call it the Great Wall and save money on airfare right?)  To avoid seeing a replica, I looked into the different places where you can tour the wall to find an authentic one.  The trouble was that the more authentic the wall, the more difficult it was to access.  Luckily we were able to discover one place where there had been minor restorations done to the original wall, and still had a chair lift to the wall to prevent my parents from having to hike to the top.  Being in the high elevation certainly didn't help with the visibility issues, but it was still impossible to escape the giddy feeling I got from standing on such a significant piece of world history!  The part of the wall we were standing on was built during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century.  That is before America was even on the map (unless the Native Americans or Mesoamericans had maps...).  

However, I was still disappointed that we went on such a crummy day and did not get any good pictures, so we decided to try again on another day.  This time I found a tour that allows you to hike from Jinshanling to Simitai, about 7 km (4.5 miles), on the wall, and the latter sections have remained completely untainted by restoration.  So I went for a solo day hike along a 700 year old structure on what just so happened to be a day with the most beautiful weather.  It was completely blissful, as the wall was vacant of the crowds and I could just be alone in my thoughts (which tended to be imagining I was a Chinese soldier having to ward off a Mongol invasion).  The hike was strenuous, and got harder as it went along, but totally worth it.

Having satisfied our Great Wall expectations we were all set to leave, but having a late flight, decided to catch an acrobatic show before we left.  The things these people did were incredible.  Extreme feats of strength, balance, flexibility, and danger.  At a few points, I was almost certain I was about to witness a death.  Luckily I didn't and it made for a great ending to a fantastic trip.

The Protester

Drum Tower

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Traveling Through 'Nam

After our pampering in Denang, it was time to resume our travels.  James and his friend only had a few more days till they had to leave so we took off for Hanoi in the northern part of Vietnam, also the capital.

Hanoi itself was rather uninteresting.  You can spend a few hours waiting to look at Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body through a class if you wish (I did not), visit a few pagodas, and that is about it.  However, Hanoi serves as the launching point for many tours to Halong Bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.  Here you can see literally thousands of stone islands jutting out of the water in various different shapes.  Everyone we talked to suggested taking one of the multi-day tours where you actually stay on the islands, however we had not allotted our time accordingly and only had time for the single day tour.  In hindsight, I wish we had planned for more time there because for the single day tour you spend more time on the bus traveling to the bay than you actually spend on the bay itself, but I am at least thankful that we still got to see it because it is truly beautiful.  We had the misfortune of going on an overcast and slightly rainy day, but it was still beautiful nonetheless.  The next day we all went our separate ways: James' friend to China, James back to Singapore, and me down to Ho Chi Minh to do some solo traveling.

The reason for me heading to Ho Chi Minh City was to go on a few tours that I had heard about and sounded interesting, but I was also just looking forward to traveling on my own.   The first day in HCM I just wanted to get settled in and go explore the district surrounding where I was staying.  It is often times the random things that you get to experience that you do not plan for that turn into some of the most enjoyable parts of your trip, and this was certainly the case for me.  While I was walking through a park next to my hostel, I was approached by a few college age students and asked if I would mind talking a few minutes with them because they wanted to practice their English.  Seeing as I had no plans for this first day, I obliged.  As I talked with the students, whose English fluency varied across the board, the group soon grew to around 15 to 20 different students and I ended up talking to them for around two hours.  And then came a really cool opportunity.  Before leaving, one of the guys in the group offered to show me around the city the next day on his motorbike.  What better way to see the city, right?  The funny part is that while I was waiting in the same park the next day to meet this new friend, I was approached by ANOTHER group of students that wanted to practice their English.  When my friend with the motorbike showed up, I mentioned to the new group that we were just going to be going around the city to a few places and asked if they would care to join, not really expecting them to be so whimsical, but they jumped at the opportunity.  A day that I previously had NO plans for had quickly turned into an amazing and adventurous day.  With the group we went to the War Museum (which was VERY propagandist towards Americans and a little awkward being the lone American in a group of Vietnamese), to a nearby street vendor that they frequent, and they even showed me their university where I got to go in, meet people and help a group of students make paper sunflowers to be given to children with cancer.  All of this spawned from being willing to take some time and have a chat with a group of complete strangers, and the friendliness and hospitality of the Vietnamese people is beyond anything I have experienced anywhere else in the world (Yes, it puts “Southern hospitality” to shame).

The next day I was set to go on one of my tours to the tunnels of Cu Chi.  These were the tunnels that the Viet Cong used during the American War (Vietnam War for Americans) to move forces incognito and have a secretive, underground, and ever changing base of operations.  These tunnels gave the American soldiers hell as the tunnels would also lead to many different hidden hatch doors in the surrounding area that led to a whack-a-mole style of fighting.  What was so fascinating was learning about and seeing what the life was like for these soldiers underground and learning the measures that they took to avoid discovery by the Americans (they designed their air ventilation shafts to look like termite mounds).  Tourists are allowed to even squeeze into one of the hatch doors, which I am certain would make a claustrophobe out of anybody.  The tour is then culminated with a 200 meter walk through one of the actual tunnels to practice a little historical empathy.  As you walk through completely hunched over, shoulders almost scraping both sides of the walls, fighting for air, and pouring in sweat it is hard to wrap your mind around the fact that these soldiers could spend weeks at a time down in these tunnels and walk many kilometers.  All the history of the experience was really interesting; however, the highlight of the trip came in the middle of the tour at this rest area/gift shop that happened to be next to a shooting range.  Here one could pay to shoot some of the guns that were commonly used in that era.  The three big hitters were the AK57, the M16, and the M60 turret style machine gun.  I went for the M16 machine gun because I wanted to test its accuracy and see if I could hit one of the can targets they had down range, which I did.  The Cu Chi tunnel tour was both historical and testosterone inducing, what more could you ask for.

The following day I went on yet another tour to the Mekong River delta.  I am not a fan of group tours, but in this case it was unavoidable as that is really the only way to see these things, and it worked out well as the tour provided experiences and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.  Now, I have to be a little bit honest here and admit that I really had no idea what to expect on a river delta tour and the main reason for me even going was because the Mekong River delta is one the destinations in our families 501 Places to See Before You Die book and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sign off on another place that nobody in my family has yet.  So I suppose it was more my competitive nature more than interest that motivated this trip, but it turned out to be a fantastic tour.  You start out by getting on a bigger boat and making a couple pit stops in different villages.  First, we stopped at a village that harvests bees and makes their own honey, which they showed us and of course encouraged us to buy.  Next, we went to another village where they make coconut candy, which was interesting to see the process in action and even get to sample some.  After the tourist traps, they then take you in a large canoe style boat for nice peaceful paddle ride through the jungle on one of the Mekong tributaries.  Even though the rain poured down on us, it was still very peaceful to be floating through the jungle.  At the end of the ride you reach the final destination where you get served lunch.  This is where the trip got REAL interesting!  The lunch was a pretty standard chicken, rice, and vegetables…BUT you had the option to pay more and eat a black cobra if you wanted (a local delicacy).  Wanting the full cultural experience and not wanting to pass the opportunity to eat snake, me and two other British guys decided that we would split it.  What they failed to mention until we had already ordered was that they bring the snake to your table first ALIVE!  This drew a big crowd from the other tourist who wanted to watch the decapitation of this snake, and before many cameras the man proceeded to cut the head off with a pair of scissors.  Here is where it really gets bad…they then squeezed the snake’s blood into a glass that was diluted with water.  Apparently drinking the snake’s blood is a sign of true manliness in their culture.  At first I insisted that there was no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that I was drinking that, but the other two English boys were on board and I didn’t want to be the only one to miss out so I toasted to unique cultural experiences and threw back a shot of cobra blood.  The eating of the snake came easy after that.  Following the meal, we were taken back to Ho Chi Minh, and my stay in Vietnam was brought to an end as I flew out the next day.

Vietnam was truly one of my favorite places I have visited thus far, and most of that is due to the people.  Yes, there are many neat things to see and do there, but I have seen and done far greater things in my opinion than what I saw and did in Vietnam.  It is the people and their friendliness that makes this trip stand out to me.  Prior to going to Vietnam I was curious as to how my interactions with the Vietnamese would be, being that the war between America and Vietnam is still fresh in both nations histories (I even told people I was Canadian for the first part of the trip).  I was pleasantly surprised to find all remnants of animosity from the war days are practically extinct.  If Vietnam is not very high on your “Countries to Visit” list, then I suggest that you bump it up a few notches.

 Which One is Not Like the Others?

 My New Friends

 Making Paper Sunflowers

 A Tight Fit


 Cu Chi Tunnel

 Honey Bees

 A Float Through the Jungle

The Execution

 Not your average Bloody Mary


 Snake Curry

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sitting on a Gold Mine

With our first stop in Vietnam, we were actually treated to quite an amazing opportunity.  One of the parents of my student owns a gold mine in Vietnam and offered to fly us there to see it if we wanted.  HECK YA!

It is crazy how this opportunity even came up.  Me and James were talking about our plans in Vietnam at our end-of-the-year faculty brunch (literally 2 days before we flew out) because we still had no set plans yet.  No idea where we were going to go, for how many days, how we were going to get there, NOTHING.  As we were discussing this at our table at the brunch, it just so happened we were sitting next to this parent of one of my students, who also serves on our school board and whose wife teaches at the school.  While we were discussing is when he offered us this amazing opportunity.  We didn't think twice and immediately accepted.

As promised, Phillip flew us to Denang where his mine is located and even put us up in an apartment he has there for workers to come get out of the mines from time to time.  Phillip is one of the most interesting men I have ever met in my life and has had so many cool experiences, including traveling around the world with the president of Mexico, and it is evident the Lord has blessed him with money and Phillip continually tries to find ways to give back and glorify God with this blessing.  Truly an inspirational man, and he completely spoiled us for the three days we were with him.

When the day came to actually visit the mine we had to get a really early start and left our apartment at 4:30 am.  Reason being is that it took a while to get to the mine and we had to be done with our tour before the daily dynamite explosions at 4 pm.  I think the drive to the mine was possibly the best part.  First we took an extremely bumpy and winding road just to get to the base camp for the mountain, and I have a sneaking suspicion our driver was trying to set a new personal record time trial based on the way he was driving.  Once we got to the base camp feeling a bit rattled and nauseous it was time for the fun part.  To take us to the top of the mountain, since there were no roads, they hired these drivers on Russian motorcycles from the '60s.  It really was an exciting fun ride, but there were definitely times where I thought "I hope we don't die".  We climbed 60 degree inclines of jagged rocks, crossed rivers 3 to 4 feet deep, and all on a tiny old motorcycle.  No matter how I try to describe the difficulty and ridiculousness of this ride, it will just not do it justice, but I want to know who was the person that said, "yep, I believe we could get a motorcycle up this thing!"

When we eventually got to the mine we were greeted by the security guards who are trained and experienced Muay Thai fighters, a.k.a. people you don't want to mess with.  They then introduced us to man in charge of operations for the mine who was going to act as our tour guide.  First they explained the gold extraction process, or how they get the gold from the rocks.  The gold in this mine does not come in nugget size pieces, it actually comes in fine micro-particles that located within pieces of pyrite (or fool's gold).  To get to the gold they first have to mine rocks from the mountain, which is done through dynamite and jack-hammers.  The rocks are then brought to the "crusher" which turns the boulder sized rocks into pebbles.  Once they become pebbles they are put into another crusher which pulverizes the pebbles into sand.  In its sand form, the gold extraction process can then take place.  They fill a new pit every day with sand and pump cyanide into the pit to be filtered through the sand and they repeat this process a few times.  The cyanide is acting as a chemical to break off any other minerals attached to the gold and should leave pure gold particles in the sand.  After the cyanide bath, they then pump zinc into the pit which has magnetic properties with gold and will attach itself to the gold.  All that is left after that is to filter out the zinc/gold, burn off the zinc, and then they are left with pure gold.  Pretty interesting.

After the tour of the extraction process we got to tour the actual mine.  The mine was exactly as I had anticipated; cramped, dark, and damp.  One of the geographers went with us and kept pointing out the many different gold veins that were running through the mountain.  After about thirty minutes or so in the mine, one of the Filipino miners came to us and began pointing to his watch and saying "boom boom".  That was all he had to say, and we were B-lining it out of the mine before the daily dynamite explosions started going off.

Before we had to make the equally scary decent back down the mountain on our Cold War era motorbikes, the miners cooked a delicious Vietnamese lunch for us.  My favorite part of traveling is getting local experiences that aren't built up for tourist and seeing things others don't get to see.  This is what made this visit to the mine extra special and such unique experience.

 Waiting to cross the river

 The mine


 The "crusher"

 End result

 Cyanide Bath

 Going through the mine

This a point where I felt safe enough to take out my camera

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


It would be a lie if I tried to deny that having 2.5 months of paid vacation every year was one of the best parts of being a teacher.  Living in Southeast Asia makes that benefit even sweeter with it being so easy to travel here.  Taking full advantage of our time, two other teachers at my school (Jason and James), one of their college buddies, and I flew out the morning after our grades were due.  First stop: Cambodia.

Flying into Cambodia we had heard there was not much to see/do there aside from their big hitter, Ankor Wat, in Siem Reap.  However we flew into Phnom Penh and having done my research there was one point of interest there that I wanted to see and was able to talk my comrades into visiting before departing for Siem Reap.  This was the Cheong Ek Killing Fields from the Khmer Rouge days.  The Khmer Rouge was the communist ruling party of Cambodia's not so distant past, and Cheong Ek was their Auschwitz.  Here countless prisoners were executed if they did not seem suitable for the agrarian society the Khmer Rouge was attempting to establish (some were killed for having too soft of hands, a sign you are not cut out for the rough farm work).  I found it extremely interesting from its historical perspective, but also extremely heavy and depressing being exposed to the incredible lack of humanity that went on at this place.  None more indicative of this than the "Killing Tree", a tree that the Khmer Rouge smashed babies against claiming, "if you want to kill the plant, you have to kill it's roots".  The center of the memorial has a 6 story tower that inside contains many of the skulls that have been excavated from the victims, and they are arranged based on their injuries.
Skulls of the victims 

Killing Tree

Bracelets left behind for the children killed 

Collection bin for bones that continue to wash up with the rains 

"Magic Tree": Loudspeakers played music from this tree to drown out the cries of the victims

A bone still in the ground

After our moods had been slightly dampened we booked a taxi to take us 5 hours to Siem Reap.  The only reason anyone goes to Siem Reap is to see the world famous ancient temples of Ankor Wat.  I had always thought that Ankor Wat was just one temple and would just take a few hours to see, but I was way wrong.  Ankor Wat just refers to one of the temples and being the most famous has given its name to the entire complex, but there are in actuality over 50 temples and each one is different from the next.  Every book we had read told us that we could not do it in one day that you need at least two days, but two day passes were the same price as the three day pass so we bought the three day pass.  It was an incredible feeling to just be walking through the jungle and just come up on these magnificent 12th century temples.  Felt like a scene straight out of jungle book.  My favorite temples were probably Ankor Thom, where the narcissistic king had his face carved all over the temple, and Ta Prohm, where nature has run rampant and trees are growing through the temple walls. One of the coolest, and most surprising, aspects of Ankor Wat was the relatively unrestrained access to everything.  Unless it has just been determined unsafe or if they are working on reconstruction, you as the tourist pretty much have free reign to climb, touch, and see every aspect of the temples.

 Sunset at Pre Rup

 Ankor Wat

 Which one is not like the other?


 We rode bikes 10km to Ankor Wat one day

Ta Prohm

Ankor Wat was the highlight of our trip, and now that we had seen as much of it as we could pack in, and had become pretty templed-out by the end of the three days, it was time to take off for our next destination: Vietnam.  Unfortunately, Jason had to leave us for this part of the trip as he had a ticket back to America for the summer.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Telunas Service Trip- Round 2

Ok, so one of the biggest perks of being one of the only single guys at my school is the fact that I keep getting selected to go one the international service trips that our school goes on.  In the Fall you may remember a trip I went on with some Middle School students to Telunas Indonesia and we traveled to a local school on Moro Island to teach an English lesson one day and work on a construction project another day.  Well, the school goes on the same trip in the Spring and I again got to chaperon.

It was essentially the same trip, just with a few other students.  Saturday we did our construction project where we painted their outside fence and also mixed the concrete that went to build the school an outdoor cafeteria area.  Sunday we had the full day to relax and enjoy our stay at Telunas Beach, and then on Monday the students went and taught their English lessons before we headed back to Singapore later Monday afternoon.  It was a great return to such a lovely place.  I really enjoyed experiencing God's beauty, sharing Christ's love with the students in Moro, and watching my own students serve with such a positive attitude.  It was just the trip I needed to help me finish this school year out strong with a smile on my face.

 Somewhere Under the Rainbow

 All on the Bus

 Working Hard

 Rock 'N Roll

 Playing Footie

 Traditional Meal at a Local's Home

 God's Art Work


 Saying Goodbye

 A Couple of the kids

Precious Little Girls