It feels absolutely like forever since I published my last post. And, in a lot of ways it has been.
November is typically a very difficult month for exchange students to get through, and I was no exception. I was generally in a bad mood and did not want to do anything. It was not that I necessarily wanted to return to the US at all, I mostly just wanted to curl up into a little ball, eat Thai fried chicken, and sleep.
Thankfully that month passed and December became progressively a lot better. There isn’t a ton to update and frankly I hate that my last two blog posts have started with excuses as to why I published late, but there you are. In exchange sometimes you have got to roll with the emotional punches.
November began pretty low-key. We went back to school, hung out with friends, and started planning for Sports Day. Sports Day is a super popular event in Thai institutions– they have them at all high schools, elementary schools, and universities, as well as at some larger companies and institutions (at the hospital my host mom works at, for example). In English it is called “Sports Day,” but the phrase actually refers to a week where students do not attend classes and instead have a school-wide sports tournament. The final day is the closing ceremony, featuring a large parade, cheer routine, and finals for some of the track competitions.
Sports Day is like nothing we have in the US. It is not only an opportunity to celebrate athleticism in schools, it is also viewed as an opportunity for older students to practice their leadership. As such, students had shortened school days every Wednesday for six weeks before the event, as well as the entire week of the event. Not to mention 2-3 Saturdays and Sundays spent assembling stands and generally preparing. It. Is Big.
I was lucky enough to be put in charge of leading my color in the parade, but the entire experience was completely different from anything I have experienced in the US. It was like a five day long, school-wide pep rally. If you want to get a better idea of what the cheers were like, this is a live stream from my school.
After sports week, I had my first large trip with Rotary. We flew over to the Loei Province in northeast Thailand and we hiked up Phu Kradueng Mountain. It was a 9 km hike to the top with over 1 km in elevation gain, but the hike was definitely worth the pain (and there was a lot of pain). Everyday we hiked between 11-23 km as we traveled to various cliffs and waterfalls around the mountain top. It was beautiful, but me and the other exchange student from Oregon were definitely nostalgic the entire time because the pine trees and long nature walks reminded us a lot of our home state.
After Phu Kradueng I only had only a month back in school before I was reunited with the other exchange students in the north of Thailand. There, we went travelling over the Christmas season with the hope that we could be less homesick, or, at least, homesick together.
We spent the first 3 days in Chiang Rai, right on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The first night we went to a tea mountain, which made me low-key nerd out a tonnnnn. I wanted to buy a ton of tea, but my counselor talked me down to only buying a little at the top of the mountain and buying more at the bottom where it is cheaper. I did, however, get a green tea crepe cake and honey lemon green tea with my friend.
The next day we went to the late queen’s garden and Royal Villa. The entire area was beautiful and incredibly manicured, and we decided to go ziplining over the top of the garden. After that, we went to the Baan Dam (Black House) Museum— a collection of buildings conceived, executed, and furnished by Thailand’s late national artist. He liked to use darker elements such as animal pelts, snake skins, and forboding color schemes.
After that night’s sleep, we went to the White Temple— often considered the antithesis to the Black House. The entire sculpture (I hesitate to call it a temple because it is so unique) is absolutely incredible. I always appreciated pictures of it, but there are plenty of elements that are simply not captured in photographs. For example, the entire sculpture is lined in square pieces of mirror. It is also surrounded by beautiful golden bathrooms that nearly rival the temple in terms of breathtaking architecture. Even inside, there are murals that are surprisingly modern and feature everything from Kung Fu Panda and Michael Jackson to the falling of the twin towers.
Nearby there is a museum filled with all of the works done by Phi Chalermchai Kositpipat (the architect of the White Temple). It is absolutely spectacular as well, and features a rich combination of Thai myths, Thai history, and modern political critiques.
The following day we went over to Chiang Mai and the Doi Inthanon National Park, which has the highest point in Thailand, as well as two pagodas honoring the king and queen, which feature large statues of The Lord Buddha and panels explaining the history of Buddhism.
Then we went to Pai, a tourist city about 100 km away from Chiang Mai. Even though Pai is only 100 km away, it is still an incredibly long journey, as the road between Pai and Chiang Mai curves 762 times.
During our time in Pai, we went to a popular coffee place, went to see a historic bridge (that was kind of freaky because it looked sooo much like Oregon), and visited an old Chinese settlement. The Chinese that had immigrated there fifty years ago and had set up a community that eventually became a center for opiods. Later, when King Rama 9 tried to staunch the industry, they decided to create a tourist center that highlighted their unique blend of Chinese and Thai traditions, as well as provide an alternative income to drugs.
We also visited Wat Nam Hoo (Or Temple with Water in the Head). Inside the temple resides a eons-old Buddha. Decades ago, a monk discovered that there was a cavity in the head that was filled with water. That water was discovered to self-replenish in what is widely viewed as a miracle. The self-replenishing water is now harvested, one teaspoon per month, and used to add holiness to sacred waters.
For dinners, we went to the Pai walking street, which I mention mostly because I was able to find an English used-book store, and it was one of the more exciting moments of my exchange.
The day that we returned to Chiang Mai was also Christmas Day. We all cried (a lot) in the morning, then proceeded to celebrate at night with a group party in a Buddhist country with a Jewish tree.
After I returned, I spent two days in Sattahip, before going to Bangkok with Marine and her host family to ring in the New Year. We all went to Central World Plaza, which is kind of like the Times Square of Thailand, and hence plenty of people, lights, and fireworks.
We also visited the Grand Palace of Thailand together. It was absolutely spectacular, although you will never feel lonely there as you are surrounded by millions of tourists who feel the same.
As of today I have officially been in Thailand for five months, which means my exchange is more or less halfway over (I decide what my return date will be later in the month). I know a lot of exchange students that say “It flew by so quickly” or “I can’t believe it has been 5 months already” but for me that is not the case. When I look back on what I have done and where I have been in the last half-year, I know that I can say my exchange thus far has been as full as I could hope for. Really everything mostly reminds me of something my parents used to tell me all the time, “The days are long, but the year is short.”