wander process


Goodbye, Nongkhai!

I’m sad to have to do this, but I feel like it’s part of an inevitable journey. Tonight, I’ll be boarding a train that will drop me off in Bangkok at about 6:30 tomorrow morning.

It’s been a fantastic summer. Sure there have been ups and downs, like any two-month period of time, but I much prefer weaving my bike between tuk-tuks and grilled banana carts, trying countless new fruits, and spending time with adorable children over faxing papers for the State of Illinois.

There’s quite a difference between Bangkok and Nongkhai, Nongkhai’s a relaxed, riverside town (explained to me as “the South” of Thailand, even though it’s in the Northeast) while Bangkok is a whole lot of hustle and bustle. But I’m up for the challenge.

Working with Isara has been great though. I’ve been able to teach English (and somewhat improve my nonexistent English-teaching skills over the course of two months), donate helmets, help bring about environmental awareness, and at least learn more about the bureaucracy that plagues developing nations (to say nothing of our own).

I’ve also tried so many new foods, become aware of a new culture so different from my own (I’m still working on my wai), and I’ve made new friends. People around town, unaffiliated with Isara even recognize me. My favorite dessert here – roti, a Carnation condensed milk-drenched version of Indian bread, has become almost a staple in my diet, and the lady who makes the roti, Mai, even knows me. We all joke that I’m in love with her because her roti is so amazing. I went last night to get my last roti, and she said that she’d make me a special something, since it was my last night here. She made me my favorite (and she knew what it was without even asking!), roti with sliced banana inside, and gave it to me for free. I got a picture with her, her husband, and her adorable, babbling 3 year-old daughter, Amina to commemorate the countless minutes I spent patiently and eagerly awaiting my hot, delicious roti at her cartside.

But I digress.

This has summer has been unlike any summer for me (although that’s something that you could have easily guessed on your own), and I’m truly thankful to Ming and Kirk at Isara for letting me help them this summer.

I’m not sure how often you’ll see updates from me for the next two weeks, but hopefully you’ll be able to see my tweets – @jordanhw.
I’ll be in Bangkok for a day before I journey to Cambodia, where I’ll spend n undecided amount of time, before returning to Bangkok on a bus, exiting that bus, and going directly to another bus, bound for Krabi, in southern Thailand. Seriously, just google Krabi.

So with that being said, sawadee kaa, Nongkhai! (“Sawadee” functions like “aloha” – meaning both “hello” and “goobye”.) You’ll always be in my hua chai and I’ll miss you!


Chirp, Chirp!

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything, so here’s a little something to tide you all over until I bid Nongkhai a fond farewell (via the blog).

There’s a Sunday market here in Nongkhai that is HUGE. The whole town comes out to peruse everything from shoes to scorpions. There’s lots of interesting food to be found there.

market Thailand Nongkhai

Some favorites from the Sunday market:

-Donuts. There are some jelly-filled ones that put American ones to shame. There are also butter-filled ones that give donuts a bad name. I’ve tried both.

-Corn. This has come up as a topic of conversation many a time with friends and family back home – and yes, corn is very much a dessert food here. At the market, I tried what was basically very buttery corn in a small cup, topped with jelly (much like the jelly in aforementioned donuts). My diet isn’t really used to that much butter (anymore), but I could still manage a few bites.

-Crickets. When there were four volunteers at Isara (myself, Dagny, and the Jens – two girls from Seattle), we all went to the Sunday market together and I told myself that I was going to eat a bug. So Ming was kind enough to find us a stand with plump and crispy crickets. We didn’t want to go for the small bugs – it was a go big or go home situation. Ming purchased about 10 baht worth of crickets and they were scooped into a plastic bag and sprayed with soy sauce for taste.

eating crickets in Thailand

Ming, myself, Dagny, and Jen B. – before the big chowdown.
Note how perky I look!

I have never been one to school my facial expressions. My mom likes to comment that it’s one of my biggest downfalls. In the case of the cricket, I was similarly unable to conceal what I was thinking when I had a giant cricket in my mouth.

The look on my face isn’t really about the taste. It tasty mostly like crunchy soy sauce – mostly what one might expect. The look on my face is from me thinking about the fact that I actually have a bug in my mouth.

eating crickets in Thailand

This is nothing new to Ming, and Dagny and Jen appear to be honestly mulling over the flavors tickling their taste buds.

Me, however, I’m just thinking “CRICKET. IN. MY. MOUTH. JUST. KEEP. CHEWING.”

All of that being said, I would probably eat one again. The first cricket probably needs a fair chance to redeem himself.

We took one of the leftover crickets (and there were many) back to the Isara Learning Center, where we put it on top of Kirk’s jar of peanut butter to freak him out. Our little trick worked, but then Nok, one of the college students that’s always around came up and asked if she could eat it.

And we let her.


Feeling Laos-y

I’ve been in Thailand for about 7 weeks now (and the immanence of the end of my stay is beginning to crash down upon me!), and I was itching to go out and travel for a little bit before the end of my stay in Nongkhai. Dagny and I had made plans to check out Nam Nao National Park, which is probably 4-5 away, but we eventually nixed the idea because switching public buses all the time seemed complicated and tiring. We then decided to go to Laos, which is really only a five minute tuk-tuk ride and a one hour wait in immigration away from us. Nongkhai, Thailand is home to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, the largest point of travel between Thailand and Laos. Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is about a 30-minute cab ride away.

So off to Laos we went, with plans to visit both Vang Vieng, a little mountain town about 4 hours away from Vientiane with outdoorsy stuff to do, and then back to Vientiane, where we would see what Laos’s finest had to offer to us.

We set off on Friday morning with the intention of catching a bus to Vang Vieng as soon as possible. We made it through immigration and received our visas for Laos. We then took a can straight to the Thai embassy (where Dagny had to do some visa stuff) and then to the bus station. The bus station doesn’t really look like the bus station of an national capital — but then again, Vientiane wouldn’t strike many people as a capital of a country (it’s population is only about 200,000). There were a few buses, and us being two of the relatively few white people around, the Lao people knew that we were bound for either Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng. We were pointed in the right direction and grabbed ourselves some sticky rice (with a little difficulty — my Thai is sufficient enough to find myself sticky rice in Nongkhai, but despite the similarities in Thai and Lao languages, I had to resort to pointing and gestures to get sticky rice in the bus station). We hadn’t exchanged any money, so this was my first experience with kip, the Lao currency. Not that I’ve had much experience with foreign currency, but kip is pretty silly. There are no coins and the smallest denomination that I saw was a 500 kip bill. Most snacky-things that you could eat would run about 10,000 kip, with the meals running about 30,000-40,000 kip. Nothing makes you feel like you’re going through your money more than spending money in denominations of tens of thousands.

The bus ride to Vang Vieng was scheduled to take 3 hours, but like many other schedules in Southeast Asia, it was more than a little off, and we got into Vang Vieng in about 4.5 hours. We dealt with leaky ceilings, coughing babies (H1N1 paranoia is high right now), constant stops of riders being dropped in their respective home villages along the way to Vang Vieng, and hairpin turns around the limestone mountains of northern Laos. Dagny and I, plus a couple of Colombians and an Australian girl (all of whom we would end up caving and tubing with later) were dropped off at the bus station outside the town. As soon as we found ourselves in Vang Vieng proper, we knew that we had made some sort of tourist’s mistake.

Now I knew that Vang Vieng was a popular spot for backpackers, but I couldn’t quite believe that I would be in a small town in a relatively small, landlocked, poverty-stricken, communist nation and find myself among hundreds of other Westerners. It felt like there were more white people than Lao people in the town. We had begun to feel a little silly about deciding to spend the weekend in a town known for its debauchery (and beautiful mountains), but felt a little better when we got a room with two beds in a guest house for about $4 a night. We went out to explore the town, and found lots of bars (many offering “happy” or “special” options for those who couldn’t already get enough of the Beer Lao that spilled out of every corner of the town), lots of restaurants offering Western food, many of which had episodes of Friends and Family Guy playing on constant repeat (which got to be pretty weird).

We found a place where could kind of sit and eat cabana-style and we got some food. We ran into the Australian girl from our bus, Annika, who I offered to come and eat with us. Annika then became our new friend. She mention that she found a tour offering caving in the morning and tubing in the afternoon. I originally kind of balked at the idea of finding a group to do stuff with, but it turned out to be a pretty good idea. We met a lot of different people.

vang vieng nokeo

We walked around for the rest of the afternoon and happened upon a temple where there was a group of kids, all practicing praying. It was really cute, and one of the few redeeming qualities of Vang Vieng (outside of the scenery).

vang vieng temple

Bright and early Saturday morning, we were picked up from our guest house and we set out for caving in the morning. To make a long story short, we walked maybe a kilometer or so out to the cave, which turned out to be simply a little opening on a mountainside, covered partly by the river:

vang vieng cave

Here’s a little taste of the view from the walk to the cave:

vang vieng cave rice paddy

vang vieng mountains

vang vieng limestone

And right outside the cave, these little boys were swimming and jumping into the water:

vang vieng cave boys

In this cave, we swam through water so deep we couldn’t touch the bottom with our toes, crawled through mud six inches deep, walked across gravel with our bare feet, bumped our heads, scraped our knees and had, all in all, a pretty amazing time.

Our knees, after crawling around in the cave all morning:

vang vieng cave knees

Meanwhile, my Chaco tan lines are worsening:

chaco tan vang vieng

We then went tubing in the afternoon, which was more or less all-out bacchanalia. Not really my cup of tea, but it was fun for the afternoon. We basically had to tube from bar to bar down the river, where people could order anything from Beer Lao to giant Mekong Buckets of cocktails, to “happy” pizza and “special” tea. There were also swings, all about two stories (or more?) high that you could jump off of and land in the river, where someone would throw you an inner tube and pull you to the side. This, I did twice, and it was pretty fun. Here’s one of me at the very middle of my swing ride. Don’t worry — I didn’t let go until it swung up to the top again, at its highest point.

vang vieng swing

I was pretty tired after being outside, on the move, all day, but Dagny and I had made plans to grab some supper with our new friends, Annika, from Australia and Katrina, from Scotland (who I don’t have a picture of). We ate at the same restaurant that we went to the night before and had some wonderful barbecued vegetables. (Side note: Thai food is wonderful, but there’s not really a lot of vegetables, so these vegetable skewers really hit the spot). They wanted to go to one of the island bars, and we didn’t have much else to do, so we went along.

At the bar, I spent most of the time with Annika, talking to an extremely inebriated and high Northern Irish guy named Ollie (and a second year law student, no less), who made it a point to repeatedly say “Tomorrow is the biggest march of our lives!”. He kept on calling me a Canadian, despite the fact that every time that he asked me where I was from, I told him Illinois. The multiple bars along the river, he informed me, weren’t enough for his Irish tastes. Dagny, meanwhile, was stuck listening to some first-year med student (also Irish) who said something a little like this:

Irish Guy: “Life just goes so fast, you know? How old are you?”

Dagny: “I’m 26.”

IG: “So you know what I mean. Life just goes so fast! I mean, I’m 20, but I feel like it wasn’t that long ago when I was 16!”

D: “Yep.”

IG: “Sorry, I didn’t mean to get all deep on you.”

So with that, we decided that there were only so many deep conversations we could have and only so many times that I could inform people that I was, in fact, an Illinoisan, not a Canadian. We left and tried to get sleep for our kayaking trip back to Vientiane the next day.

Kayaking was probably my favorite part of the entire trip. We went down the Mae Nam Lik, and everyone involved got pretty sunburned. I went with a guide, which came in handy when we went through rapids, but my guide was in the habit of splashing people kayaking by us and splashing me. At least he kept me on my toes.

mae nam lik kayak

We stopped and were able to eat lunch on a bunch of rocks on the riverbed, which was really nice. After kayaking, they dropped us off at a place where we could shower off, change clothes, and make ourselves more presentable for our arrival in Vientiane.

After squeezing one too many people in our minivan back to Vientiane, we made it back to the tourist center of the town, which happens to be a rather unimpressive fountain. We found a guesthouse that was almost all of the way full, but we booked the last two beds available in a dormitory room.

I ended up sleeping between a dour Canadian man with the bushiest beard and no mustache who refused to return to Ottowa because “It’s too cold there” and an elf-like Israeli dude from Haifa who kept on making me pretend to dunk a basketball (for fairly obvious reasons, I guess) and kept on snorting like Steve Urkel (because I told him I was from Illinois, then I had to explain that Chicago was in Illinois too. He turned out to be a pretty big fan of Family Matters, though neither of us could remember the theme song.)

Long story short – you are sure to meet some characters while traveling.

So Vientiane was nice, but we were pretty tired from adventuring/traveling that we weren’t able to do a whole lot in Vientiane. It was a nice little city, as far as third-world Communist country capitals go.


We wandered around long enough to see Patouxay, a giant arch mirrored after the Arc de Triomphe, but never finished. A description on the arch described it as a “giant concrete monster.” It wasn’t bad at all though. It had a pretty ceiling, ice cream, and a puppy inside, which is all a place needs for me to like it.


patouxay ceiling

View opposite Patouxay:

road by patouxay

We also found the Golden Stupa, the national symbol of Laos:

golden stupa

And with that, we left Laos (after a quick stop at the Thai embassy).

From this trip, I have learned that:
– Tuk-tuk drivers will always try to rip you off. You just have to act like you done something a million times and act offended at the prices that they offer.
– The people that you meet while traveling can be amusing. There’s lots to learn about other places, based on where other people have traveled.
– Sometimes scenery can be enough to sustain an otherwise ridiculous and random party-hole in Communist Laos.


Volunteering Gets Heated

Through an interesting turn of events, I appear to have been kind of fired from my volunteer teaching job. I can’t say that I was entirely shocked, but I can definitely say that the “cancellation” of my volunteering was in no way justified.

I went in yesterday with Dagny to teach just one class. I was hoping for a better experience than Dagny and I had had the last time that we had gone to her class, when she left us alone with her kids for roughly two hours. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that she only threw the third grade book at me, expecting me to teach a lesson on “How many?” while she sat in the back of the class and translated what I asked her to translate. So I wasn’t exactly just assisting her, like I was originally supposed to do, but she was still in the room with me. I felt like we had struck a mutually satisfactory compromise. I taught my little heart out and walked away feeling pretty satisfied about how the day went and hopeful for the next day.

But larger forces were at hand. Namely, politics. Kirk had gone in earlier that day to talk to the teacher. He asked her to please not leave the classroom, to ask her to help me help her by being there, to ask her to utilize my offering to help her as a volunteer by not disrespecting me and her students by leaving me alone with them. And it sounded like the talk went pretty well, but she revealed a piece of information to Kirk that helps put my frustrations with he into context. This teacher is retiring in two months. So it didn’t really matter who talked to her, she just wasn’t going to care.

While the talk with Kirk earlier that morning might have been helpful for me later that day when I was teaching, it certainly wasn’t appreciated by the teacher. She had to actually do things in class, instead of watching t.v. and answering her cell phone. So things boiled down to her early retirement and her wanting an easy two months of teaching, instead of doing a lot of work in the classroom while I was volunteering. Because she wanted things to be easy for herself, she didn’t want me around anymore. So as quickly as my teaching at Tesebahn 2 started, it ended, with the teacher “cancelling” our arrangements for me to help her.

The volunteering there was certainly frustrating, so I can’t say I’m entirely sad that I’m not welcome back there again. But I’ll miss the little bits or fun that we had in the classroom, when the teacher would actually help me with translating and I could joke around with the kids, the free lunches (more noodles than I could imagine!), and mostly, I’ll miss the time that I got to spend with the kids. They were really sweet and I wish that I could’ve at least been given the chance to invite them to Isara to study English after school. Then I could have seen them again.

But at least I’ve learned that I can get pseudo-fired for other people’s unwillingness to assume responsibility in their jobs. I’ll hopefully use the extra time now to check out other schools in the area, from the local college to possibly rural schools, to more English camps. I’m helping out at an English camp on Friday. Dagny and I just randomly met an English teacher at a hotel (at this thinly-veiled ploy to sell English-teaching software disguised as an English camp) and she asked us to help out at her school’s English camp and we were happy to help.

So I’ll be doing that soon, plus Dagny and I plan to venture out into Thailand, about 4-5 hours away to Nam Nao National Park, where we’ll be hiking, exploring more waterfalls and caves, camping, and possibly more! I’ll keep you guys updated.


Daytrippin’ and Water-fallin’

Updates first: Dagny is here, and she’s great! Only a few hours after her overnight train came in from Bangkok, she came along with me to the my afternoon classes at the government school. The teacher saw that there were now two, not one, volunteers, so she seized the opportunity to take advantage of us as quickly as possible. She told us that she had to go the bank. It was imperative, apparently, because she was going to Bangkok this week and she had to get money now, never mind the fact that she had just had a two hour lunch break, the banks were open long after school ended and the banks are open on the weekend too.

So we managed the classes all afternoon, just the two of us, but it was definitely challenging. The class has this sound lab that they can’t use, but they don’t even have a clock! I tried to draw a picture of a cell phone to ask the kids to show us what time it was, but that attempt to find the time only ended in the kids copying my drawing in their notebooks. They will copy anything.

I’ve about had it with the teacher at the government school, so lucky for me, the school was on a holiday all this week to celebrate Buddhist Lent (which was Tuesday).

To take advantage of my day of freedom from the government school, I went with a group of Isara regulars and Ming and Dagny to the far reaches of Nong Khai province, about 200+ kilometers away from the city of Nongkhai. We planned to hike up this mountain, Phu Tok (pronounced “poo talk”) to see a temple carved into the rock high in the mountain. We also wanted to go to a nearby nature reserve, to play in the waterfalls there.

Dagny and I rode most of the way to Phu Tok in the back of a pickup truck, along with a few of the other people going with us. It was fun for awhile, but riding in a pickup truck can quickly become less fun when it begins to rain. And it rained a large part of the way there. But we would not let that ruin our day of adventuring.

Fortunately and unfortunately and unbeknownst to us, a larger force was intent on ruining our day. We got to Phu Tok, and had to park farther away from the mountain because the PRINCESS OF THAILAND had come to visit for the day. This means that everywhere the princess wants to go, no one can go at that time. So we stand around and wait in the nurses tent (about 15 nurses were brought in, should anything happen to the princess) while the princess takes her own sweet time getting to Phu Tok. I was pretty excited, because I had never seen royalty before, but this princess was pretty underwhelming. She was wearing a pink polo shirt, and pink baseball cap, and jeans. So she may be fairly down-to-earth, but she still got the entire mountain to herself. We waited for her to simply walk by, because we were locked inside the premises, but we couldn’t climb the mountain either.

Photography of the princess wasn’t allowed, but they had hung pictures of her all over the area for the occasion of her visit, so I snapped a picture of one to remember my encounter with royalty.

princess of Thailand

The princess walked by, and then we were allowed to leave. We wanted to get some lunch while the princess was up on the mountain. But these bees had been hovering around me and I tried to swat one away from me, only to end up smacking the stinger right into my pinky finger. It was a good thing that we were hanging up in the nurses tent, because I got some pseudo-medical attention quickly. They didn’t have any tweezers (or Band-aids, for that matter) but they gave me some cotton balls soaked in alcohol and some antibiotics, should I have an allergic reaction to the bee sting.

We went and dined on som tam (with the less-spicy Thai-style for the white girls), sticky rice, chicken, fried noodles, baby bamboo soup and probably some things that I don’t remember. Here’s one of the unexpected dinner guests that joined us. My leg is to the left.

furry dinner guest

Here’s our entire group, before we started climbing. There’s me, Dagny, Ming, Party, Pop (Party’s sister), Nok (in the sunglasses), Fern, and the two boys in the back are Sam (Nok’s boyfriend) and Bell (our driver for the day and Party’s boyfriend).

group at phu tok

With the princess gone, we were finally allowed to climb the series of stairs, planks, and stones that comprised Phu Tok.

phu tok

The buildings built on the side are temples or monks’ living quarters.
The views from the mountain were incredible! I know people say this stuff all of the time, but the pictures really don’t do it justice.

view from Phu Tok

Here’s a little sample of what we climbed to go up the mountain:

phu tok stairs

(Highly) unflattering picture of myself, Ming, and Dagny, mid-mountain, where Dagny and I were obviously feeling the heat and Ming looks as perky as ever.

group at phu tok

On the “fifth floor” we came to the temple carved into the rock, which was amazing. It was also featured prominently in the latest edition of the Lonely Planet Thailand guide. Hah.

temple at phu tok

We keep climbing, climbing, climbing, and finally we get as far as we can without climbing through actual jungle, with real snakes!

snakes at phu tok

Here’s my sorry, exhausted, and very content face at the top:

me at phu tok

A few more pictures of the views from and of Phu Tok:

view from phu tok

view of phu tok

view of phu tok

view from phu tok

I managed to make my way down all of these rickety flights of stairs, and by the end of it, my legs would shake if I held them straight, but it was amazing! If you ever happen to be in northeastern Thailand, definitely give Phu Tok a visit.

So next on our itinerary were the waterfalls at a nearby nature reserve. I was pretty excited, especially after getting pretty sweaty at Phu Tok, and I was looking forward to playing in the water.

But the Princess struck again! She had been to the waterfalls after Phu Tok, and we had to wait outside at this convenience store on the side of the road for at least an hour for the princess to leave the waterfalls so we could go in. By the end of the day, I was pretty sick of the princess.

The waterfalls were absolutely amazing though! There were a series of three that you could travel to, so we walked the the trail to the last and most beautiful fall. (I think that there were more that were inaccessible).

Here’s a shot of the area right above the first fall.

little Chet Si fall

Second fall, maybe?

chet si

Here’s the final waterfall:

Chet Si Waterfall

Our group (minus Ming) at the final waterfall:

group at waterfall

And they don’t call them waterfalls for nothing. Here is a shot of my backside after my first fall, when I lost my footing on the slippery rock and ended up in the water:

fall at the waterfall

I might’ve fallen again here:

fall at the waterfall

next to chet si

waterfall candid


Here’s a picture, where I have fallen again. I managed to find the only shoulder-deep crack in the water and slip right into it.

fall at waterfall

me at the waterfall

With a day so full of slipping and sliding, my hip was really hurting by the time we had to hike back up to the truck! It’s still a bit sore today, but give it another day and it’ll be fine.

The ride back home was a bit less than fun, since Ming, Dagny, and I were all still wet and riding in the back of the truck. It started raining again, but we took everything in stride and every started to giggle like schoolgirls, making fun of our “first class sleeper” in the back of the truck (by that time, we were all laying down sharing a blanket), and thanking the princess for screwing our day up. But all in all, I had an absolutely wonderful day away from the city of Nongkhai!

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The ILC – A Picture Post

Just some pictures so everyone can see where I’ve been staying and teaching.

Here’s the area in front of the house
front of house

The actual ILC itself

isara playground

isara door 2

Here’s the first room you walk into
Isara entrance

Here’s the original, little classroom, off to the right
isara classroom

Kitchen area, plus the stairs
isara kitchen

New classroom
isara new classroom

isara new classroom

Pier plus the swamp
isara pier

isara swamp

my room
isara room

Friend on the balcony upstairs
isara cat

fun light
isara light