seminar: Thailand days 5~6

I’m sitting in the last row of a bus bound for Bangkok. As I scarf down my coconut yogurt and “Mexican BBQ” flavored banana chips, I’m reflecting on the events of our quick trip up to Isaan to see our friends Cori and Jupp and the community they’ve established there. I guess ‘quick’ is a pretty relative term. Indeed, this bus ride, and the one we took just two nights ago, is six hours long.

But I can’t complain anymore because sitting in the last row has given me room to stretch out my legs. I’m also glad that I’m no longer sitting next to the middle-aged guy who was beside me for the first half of the voyage. He was nice and courteous of my space, but he was creeping me out the way he used his grotesquely long pinky nail to pick boogers from his nose and continually pick at scabs on his wrist and blemishes on his face and chest! Yuck!

After spending five days in the roaring, fast-paced, consumer-driven metropolis of Bangkok, it was quite refreshing to step off the bus and smell fresh air and hear nothing but the occasional motorbike wiz past. It’s always a shock to me how differently people live out in the country than in cities. The first bit of news our friends told us was about how a man in the next town over had recently let loose tigers because he didn’t want the police to confiscate them. Some reports said there were 19 tigers, others said 11. Whichever one was the case, I was pretty sure to lock our bedroom door that night!

Cori and Jupp were living in Bangkok a few years ago when we met them, working with an organization Jessie and I spent some time volunteering at. Through a series of events they were renting a large house in the eastern part of Bangkok where they lived in community and had welcomed two teenaged girls to live with them; teenagers who were considered to be from at risk households.  Since that time they have moved to the rural area where we visited them on this trip. Part of their motivation for moving was to initiate community development projects in the area and to provide a more stable living environment to their community which has now grown to include eleven teen girls!

As we waited for the girls to get home from school, Cori took us out to see their farming field. On the way we walked along narrow ridges that sectioned off large rice paddies with skinny green shoots popping up through the muddy stagnant ponds. She spoke about the satisfaction of working a long, hard day in the dirt and how the girls were learning about the benefits of having a good work ethic. I loved hearing her excitement about getting them involved. Their land was pushing up sugar cane that rivaled all the other plots around.

Back at the house the girls arrived and hurriedly showered before starting their chores. One of the girls I’d met from before was sitting at the table with her texts, ready to study, but instead of looking at her books she was staring out the window at the beautiful sunset filtering through the clouds and falling over the distant hills. I sat down across from her and started asking her questions about her day. Pretty soon I discovered that her favorite subject was English. So we looked together at a book that had both Thai and English vocabulary in it and taught each other the correct pronunciation of several pages of words. The other girls grew interested and soon I found myself surrounded by girls who were laughing at how hard it is for them to say “difficult” and how hard it is for me to say “ngeeng.”

At some point in the evening, as we sat on pillows in the living room and talked about the hardships and rewards of country living, a chicken scuttled past me with one of the girls in hot pursuit. And it reconfirmed for me that despite my love of the city, I really do enjoy country life, regardless of the chilling bucket showers and hordes of mosquitos that drive us to sleep under nets and all the other crazy things it involves.



seminar: Thailand days 3~4

Jessie and I have been continually wavering for the past five days between a sense of calmness and majorly freaking out! As many of you know, we’re seriously considering moving to Thailand in 2014. So this two week stint in Thailand is primarily a fact-finding mission as well as a time to visit good friends. On Tuesday we stopped by one of the organizations we’ve previously volunteered with and hope to stay connected with next year. It was great to catch up with the director and hear some of the plans for the near future and ways we might be able to contribute.

We also had dinner with a friend who’s been living in Bangkok for the past three years. She had some really valuable information as far as cost-of-living goes here. Apartment costs seem to be encouragingly affordable although electricity costs can add up and as anyone who has spent time in Thailand year round will know, there are times when air conditioning is really, really nice to have! Luckily, transportation and food are very cheap here. Our friend has been juicing for a while and she told us about a nearby market where we can get baskets full of vegetables for about 30 cents. If we move to Bangkok we’re definitely going to bring a juicer and an espresso maker!

Yesterday I met with the associate dean of English education at Assumption University. After a year of teaching elementary students in Korea, I’ve realized how completely burned out on the young’uns I am. So I’m hoping to get a job as a university professor in the English Language department. From our conversation it sounds like he’s interested in bringing me on some time next year. The job sounds like it could be fun and is a decent salary for Thailand. Also, we have a friend who worked there in the past and recommended it to us. However, there is a big downside. The campus where I’d be teaching is quite far out of the city, which would give Jessie a long commute to the volunteer organization. If we live there we’d most likely have to buy a motorbike, and I’d be a nervous wreck knowing she was driving in Bangkok traffic twice a day.

Jessie met with another dean about the Master of Science in Counseling Psychology program. She is on the fence about pursuing a masters degree in counseling, but if she is to do it anywhere she wants to do it cheaply.

After our meetings we slumped into a large booth in the central hallway of the campus. The conversation that ensued was simultaneously full of hope and concern. Can we make this work? Will we be lonely living so close to the city yet still pretty far out? Is it going to make us miserable having to spend our days in completely different realms and being on completely different pages from each other? Should I work a normal, steady job where I know I’ll get a sufficient monthly paycheck or should I use this time to pursue several of the location independent, self-employed ideas I’ve been preparing this past year?

I can tell it’s going to take many long conversations until we arrive at a decision. Luckily, time is the one thing we have plenty of right at this moment.


seminar: Thailand day 2

Yesterday we spent the day shopping and eating. Jessie’s been concerned for quite a while that we don’t have very appropriate clothes for traveling in India, especially since we’ll be in the fairly conservative northern half of the country. Luckily, we’re finding that unlike our first time in Thailand three years ago, many of the clothes merchants in the area we like to stay are now stocking larger sizes to accommodate taller and bigger foreigners. So we each picked up two pairs of slacks and a shirt. Our slacks have Thai elephants and patterns on them, which is a bit silly but I think we’ll be able to pull them off. At the very least they are made from super thin material so they’ll keep the hot Indian sun from burning us while allowing a great deal of air circulation!

As we shopped around we were so confident because we’ve learned how to dicker down the prices from past times. Pants that started at a price of 280 baht (about $9) were bagged and handed over to us for only 200 baht (a $3 savings). That’s one thing we’ve definitely learned about clothes shopping in Thailand: you can expect to pay about 1/3 less than the quoted price if you stick to your guns. We’ve also learned that if you walk a mere block outside of the foreign districts you can get a metered taxi instead of trying to agree on a price with the driver, which is never fun. For example, just today we hailed a taxi to take us clear across the city. He said “300 baht” so we started to walk away. “Okay, okay! Meter!” he called after us, so we got in. The half-hour ride ended up costing us only 140 baht.

However, some things you don’t dicker over, like restaurant prices and convenience store items. So when we walked into the pharmacy to pick up a few ORC packets (for electrolyte rehydration) and the lady told me they were 90 baht each, I quickly handed over 270 baht for three packets. The price seemed a bit steep to me: I thought that they’d been cheaper when we bought them before, but since we hadn’t been in Thailand for over a year I didn’t trust myself to be remembering that correctly. I was also confused. For some reason I was thinking that 90 baht was equal to $1 instead of $3. It’s hard keeping all these different exchange rates separate in my head sometimes!

After we stepped out of the pharmacy Jessie said that she thought the price was pretty high, but I explained it away. A few hours later we walked into a 7-11 to buy some water and they had the exact same packets at the checkout counter for 6 baht a piece. That’s right…six! Not only had the pharmacy woman overcharged me 84 baht, but she’d sold three packets to me. So basically I got ripped off for about $8.50 by a pharmacist. I never expected that!

This isn’t the first time I’ve been had, and with all the travel we do I’m sure it won’t be the last. The nice thing about being cheated in South East Asia is that the amount is always pretty miniscule. So I’ve decided not to get too upset over it (or let Jessie’s occasional teasing get to me, haha)! I’m treating it as an important reminder that I have to be on guard, especially in the places I’m most comfortable with, while on the road. But if at any time you find yourself strolling along Soi Rambuttri in Bangkok in the future, steer clear of Rama Pharmacy. They stink!

Photo Jul 24, 1 11 06 AM

seminar: Thailand day 1

Well, we’ve finally arrived in Thailand! After a solid year of working at the English Village in Seoul, it’s finally time to relax and unwind. We stayed up pretty late saying goodbye to friends, packing and emptying our apartment our last night in Korea. With only an hour of sleep we dragged ourselves to the airport. Both of us had upset stomachs and were feeling subpar.

Luckily, I’m tall. I try to use this fact to my advantage whenever I fly. I smile at the person working the check-in counter and ask for an exit row because I have long legs. So far it’s worked every time! Our 5 hour flight wasn’t so bad because we had plenty of space to stretch our legs!

In the past three years Jessie and I have spent a considerable amount of time in Thailand, but somehow I’d forgotten the extreme contrasts you encounter in Bangkok. On the metro from the airport to our hotel we witnessed row after row of pristine condos set in manicured, palm tree-lined lanes. Tall fences marked the boundaries of these subdivisions, while just over the fences were tracts of land with dilapidated, burned out old housing blocks and lean-tos where dirty children squatted to play in the dirt. The stark contrast of mere inches separating big money and no money is confounding.

We checked into our room on Soi Rambuttri in the backpackers area of the city and tried to decide what to do with our new freedom. After a short rest we hit the streets. The backpackers area is a small network of streets and alleys in western Bangkok that are packed with hotels, restaurants and street merchants. You literally can’t walk more than ten steps without seeing a clothes stall, food vendor or massage booth. As we checked out all the old (and a few new) places we came upon a large group of Korean children waiting in front of their hotel. As we walked by, several of them called out “Oh! Handsome boy!” Jessie and I had to laugh. We’d just traveled a thousand miles and yet we still couldn’t escape Korea!

We ate dinner at our favorite restaurant. Ethos serves fresh vegetarian and vegan food along with the most unique smoothies in the area. Of course, our first meal had to be a red curry and pad thai! We greedily devoured the vibrant flavored dishes and washed them down with a tamarind coconut shake and a masala chai smoothie.

We were both super tired so we decided we needed to go back and catch up on sleep. But before that we wanted to make sure we were completely relaxed, so we decided to go to our favorite massage booth and get a foot massage. Now, we’ve talked with hundreds of people about Thailand. Some people love it and some people don’t care too much for it. But NO ONE can tell me that it isn’t worth coming here if only just for the massages. For a mere $6.50 per person, Jessie and I had our soles pressed, kneaded and rubbed for an hour. It was absolute bliss! We had to keep hitting each other to make sure we didn’t fall asleep! We staggered back to our room and fell onto our bed in a total state of relaxation. All in all, I’d say it was a very successful first day of our holiday!

Photo Jul 21, 7 00 47 PM

culinary arts 100: Korean dining experience

It’s really been hitting us these past few weeks that soon we’ll be far from Korea. On Monday we officially received our flight reservations from Seoul to Bangkok and then on to New Delhi. So now we’re in a slightly mad frenzy trying to get all the smaller details for our travel plans in order. Two weeks ago we decided to sit down and write a list of all the things we wanted/needed to do before we say our final goodbye to Korea for who knows how long?!

Of course the predominant thing we thought about was food. We want to eat as much Korean food as we can shove in our mouths in the next three weeks. So we put this list together:

– kimchi samgyeopsal
– dulgae sujaebi
shabu shabu
– Korean-style pizza
kimchi jjigae
doenjang jjigae
– yeoltan bulgogi

We’ve been able to cross several items off the list already and have more planned for this week. We’ve also been trying to use up all those ingredients that have been lingering in the backs of our cupboards and fridge, so between these two options we rarely eat in the school cafeteria anymore (which is fine by me because the meals there usually consist of some kind of processed meat, two or three carb-loaded side dishes, soup and rice, and sometimes a vegetable drowned in msg and hot pepper sauce).

Last week we ate one of my favorite meals, kimchi samgyeopsal. When it comes to dining in Korea, samgyeopsal is the quintessential experience every foreigner must have. Samgyeopsal is the Korean version of thick slices of pork belly. It resembles bacon except that it’s cut into about 1/4-inch thick pieces. The meat has three layers of fat and meat in it so it’s exploding with flavor. It’s definitely not healthy, but boy is it good!

This version of samgyeopsal requires a long flat tray. We prep it by rubbing a thick chunk of fat all over the surface. The tray is set at a 30-degree angle so that as the meat cooks on the top half of the plate, the fat runs down and fries the kimchi, bean sprouts and potatoes on the lower half before running off onto the drip pan. I love the way we eat this meal! Several side dishes are brought out that can be combined to make a glorified meat and vegetable sandwich! We pick the meat off the grill with chopsticks and dip it in a salty sauce the consistency of syrup.  Next, we place it onto a lettuce or sesame leaf and top it with grilled garlic, thin-sliced spring onions, fried kimchi, a glob of rice and some pepper paste. By the time I wrap my creation up it’s nearly the size of my fist! It’s pretty much impossible to take a bite out of it without the wrap falling apart in my hands. So I end up cramming the whole thing in my mouth, reveling in the wonderful mixture of flavors as I try not to let any juice squirt through my lips. It’s definitely both fun and delicious!

This meal is made so much better by the fact that we get free  refills of doenjang jjigae, a stew made from fermented soy beans containing large chunks of tofu, onions, zucchini and hot peppers. The soup itself has a tendency to smell a bit stinky because of the fermented beans. Although the description doesn’t make it sound so great, truthfully once you’ve tried it you can’t have enough of it. My mouth is watering right now just writing about it!

After we’ve polished off all the meat, there’s a residue of kimchi and sprouts left on the platter. We’re still a bit hungry so we decide to finish our meal with another Korean staple, bokkeumbap (fried rice). We lure one of the servers over by calling “Yo-gee-oh!” which means “Come here please!” She grabs our soju bottle and pours a bit of it on the grill, scraping off any meat that’s successfully clung to the surface for this long. Then she dumps the leftover kimchi in the middle and empties a bowl of rice on top of it. She mixes the concoction with a bit of soy sauce to spread the ingredients, then forms the mixture into the shape of a heart. Awww! I think she likes us! She spoons mounds of dried salted seaweed over the rice and cracks an egg onto the platter. And with that we’re ready to dive in.

Ten minutes later, with full bellies, we stumble over to the cash register and pay our bill. Everyone smiles and nods at each other in that awkward way where no one really knows if the other person can speak their language, so we just rely on gestures. In Korea it’s customary to be greeted at the door, so it isn’t until one of us grabs the door handle and pulls it open that the whole restaurant staff calls out “Ahn-yeong-hee-kah-say-yo!” which means “Goodbye!”

Outside the night is beginning to fall. But that won’t matter because the bright marquees outside every business in this alley will keep the streets as bright as daylight until sun up. We walk down the center of the street, the occasional motorbike whipping around us, blinking lights beckoning us. Even after years of living here we still feel the sense of wonder of being in such a different place; a place as much our home as it isn’t home.

kimchi samgyeopsal