Biking Ayutthaya – A Photo Essay

Dave and I spent a couple days biking around the ruins in Ayutthaya, Thailand in January. Here are some of my favorite photos from our schvitzy adventures there. Read more

Noodle Panic

pad thai noodle panic

Noodle Panic [nood-l pan-ik]

noun

A sudden overwhelming fear or anxiety that emerges right before one leaves Thailand due to the belief that such delicious dishes might not be had again for a very long time. This results in behavior that includes irrational purchasing of any and all food that passes by or that the sufferer comes across. When such attacks of Noodle Panic arise, it is best for the sufferer to be supervised by a loved one and for their wallet to be looked after. Symptoms include: an inability to keep conversation, darting eyes, perspiration, shortness of breath, a slight dizzy feeling, trembling, and the desire to spend an unlimited amount of money on food.

Origin: The first case was diagnosed on a night train on February 12, 2012 by David Domagalski. While attempting to play cards, his usually sane girlfriend, was overcome with anxiety due to the fact that she was unsure when she would ever eat such delicious Thai food in Thailand again. This resulted in a very distracted card game as countless vendors walked the train car aisle selling noodles, snacks, and beverages. Despite her lack of hunger due to an impulsive Pad Siew purchase earlier that day, she repeatedly asked David if she should buy things, to which he smartly replied no. If the person suffering from a Noodle Panic attack is encouraged, an entire budget can be blown and more food than they can eat will be bought.

The Royal Pavilion

Dave and I spent six hours walking around the Royal Flora Expo in Chiang Mai. In the evening, while Dave was getting artsy with his DSLR, I played around with the burst mode on my camera. What I ended up with was a really neat collage and a very short time lapse.  Please click on the picture to experience the full-size image.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0PWdYwfaL8]

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My 6 Cardinal Rules for Living in the Tropics and Having to Coexist with Bugs

I started this post while I was living on Koh Tao last year. Today I dug it out of my computer and finished it. I left the intro alone even though I no longer live on Koh Tao.

I don’t like spiders. I know they are the good guys for the most part, but they are creepy. In my defense, I do have a somewhat legitimate reason to be wary of them, my house growing up was filled with spiders that used to bite me in my sleep. I guess it’s not just the bed bugs you’ve got to worry about. So this morning, when I was tying the bikini string around my neck and noticed a spider crawling on my top, I naturally freaked. I let out a pitiful squeal, hit my chest and sent the spider flying to the ground. I used to be a spider killer, but Dave has taught me otherwise, so in his honor I gently swept it outside to live with its spider friends in the outside world on Koh Tao in Thailand, where it belongs.

This entire scenario could have been avoided had I not broken Rule #1 of my six cardinal rules for living in the tropics and having to coexist with creepy crawlers. Read more

Getting Paid While Traveling: The Low Down on Teaching English Abroad

Please visit How To Travel For Free (or pretty damn near it!) to read my post comparing my experiences in Thailand and Korea. While you’re there take a look around. They’ve got great tips on traveling cheaply on their blog. They also sell an e-book if you want to know more.

Teaching English Abroad: Getting Started

My favorite way to travel is to stay in one place for an extended period of time so I can fully immerse myself in the country I am visiting. If you don’t have a large sum of money saved up, then the only way to really travel this way is by getting a job in the country you are interested in. Lucky for us native English speakers, English teachers are in demand in many exciting parts of the world.

There are several things you must have before you are ready to teach abroad. Most organizations and people looking for English teachers want a person with a university diploma. Most of the time it doesn’t matter what you major was, they just want to know that you went to school and got a degree. Your chances of getting a competitive job are usually greater if you received a degree in education or English, but it’s typically not a requirement.

The most debated question is whether or not you need TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification to be hired. I really hate wasting money and so I’ve debated whether or not I need to invest in this certification over and over again. The first time I was looking for teaching jobs, I was bombarded by advertisements attempting to persuade me to invest in their certification program. I quickly found out that I could get hired just by being a native speaker and by having a degree from an American university.

While looking for a job in South Korea this summer, I was told by a recruiter that the job market is very competitive right now and that my chances were significantly better if I completed an online certification course. The online courses run about $200 or more and the classroom courses can run a lot more than that. One of my travel buddies told me that the online courses are pretty much worthless, and for the most part, employers know that. I chose not to take the course and I still got some really great job offers. So in my opinion, the certification programs are fine if you have time and money to spend, but if you don’t, you will still be able to find a good job without it.

When applying for English teaching jobs, it is important to put every single teaching experience on your resume. I used to teach figure skating to children and adults, and although that has nothing to do with teaching English, it still shows that I am capable of explaining concepts to a class and keeping a group of children under control. Think of every single teaching or tutoring experience you’ve had and share them with your prospective school.

Since you’ve decided you are ready for a job teaching abroad you most likely have a region already in mind. If you don’t, start making a list of your top picks for countries or cities you’d like to work in. It is perfectly okay to choose a region based on wanting to travel around it. When I went to Thailand to teach English, I chose it because I knew I wanted to be in Southeast Asia and it was central to all of the other countries I wanted to visit. It wasn’t until I got there that I realized that I wanted to learn about Thai language and Thai cooking.

The next part of the search is to determine whether you are a city person or whether you could handle living in the countryside. This might be a tough question for some of you. I used to think that I could be happy anywhere. Turns out that that’s not true for me. I now know that I need a good group of fellow foreigner friends around to keep my spirits up. At the same time though, I don’t like to live in areas that are flooded with foreigners because these areas are very touristy and the native culture tends to get lost. So I like to live in large cities because you can find almost anything you need there, whether it be other foreigners or native culture. Large cities also tend to be good jumping off points for other adventures. I know people who have been perfectly content living and teaching in the boonies, I just have figured out over time that I am not one of them.

Once you’ve figured out all of those important details, you then need to start looking for employment. This requires a lot of searching and patience. I will talk about the process of looking for a teaching job in my next post.

This post was written for www.diwyy.com.

Not Another Pad Thai

I’ve noticed that foreigners in Thailand get stuck in a rut when it comes to food. I can’t help but roll my eyes every time someone orders another Pad Thai. I’ve eaten with people who ask for Pad Thai for lunch, dinner, and then lunch again the next day. I find this sad and absurd because Pad Thai is usually cooked poorly where tourists eat. No one should eat the same thing over and over again while traveling because there are so many other yummy dishes out there waiting to be tried. Part of the problem is that people just don’t know what to order, so here’s a few dishes you can eat, other than Pad Thai, while in Thailand or at a Thai restaurant at home.

Som Tum

Som Tum is one of the most popular dishes in Thailand. I have yet to meet a Thai person who isn’t obsessed with this dish. Som Tum is made with shredded green papaya, garlic, chili peppers, fish sauce, sugar, dried shrimp, tomatoes, and long beans. All of these ingredients are put in a mortar and pounded a few times with a pestle to release the juices, and then served with a side of sticky rice.

I prefer Som Tum Thai which is sweet, has peanuts, and isn’t very fishy. If you don’t mind a fishy flavor you should give the Som Tum Blah a try. This version is very popular and has tiny crabs and more fish sauce in it. Som Tum is sold in restaurants and by street vendors, so you can pretty much pick some up everywhere. This dish is an absolute must while in Thailand. If you are afraid of spicy foods, just remember to ask for only one or two chili peppers.

Tom Yum Goong

This is the most famous Thai soup. If you get into a conversation about Thai food with a Thai person, they are inevitably going to ask if you’ve tried Tom Yum Goong. So try it!

Tom Yum Goong is a hot, spicy, and sour orange soup. The base is a stock flavored with lemongrass, kaffir limes, fish sauce, and chili peppers. Inside the soup you will find prawns (goong) and mushrooms. You don’t have to love this soup, but since it is such a staple in Thai cuisine, you at least have to taste it once.

Pad Siew

This is my alternative to Pad Thai. It is my favorite noodle dish in Thailand. Pad Siew is made with flat wide noodles, a soy based sauce, and broccoli. I think chicken goes best with this dish, but pork or tofu are usually options as well. I always introduce new comers to Thai cuisine to Pad Siew, and have yet to get a bad review of it. If you are craving noodles, try this instead of Pad Thai. Please!!

Pad Gapow

This is a spicy dish so beware. Pad Gapow is made with chicken, basil, chili peppers, sugar, garlic, and fish sauce. It is typically served with rice and is one of the only spicy dishes I consistently order. I recommend getting a beer with this one; it tends to thwart the burning sensation a bit.

Pad Pak Boong Fai Dang

I never knew I could love a vegetable dish so much until I tasted Pad Pak Boong. This dish translates directly to Fried Vegetable Morning Glory Fire Red. You are guessing correctly if you think it might be a bit spicy. Pad Pak Boong doesn’t always have to have the fai dang (red fire) in it, and it probably won’t if you are a foreigner ordering it. Thai people know that our tolerance for spicy peppers is far below theirs, but let your server know if you want it spicy or not, just in case.

Morning glory is also known as water spinach for us. It isn’t wide spread here in the United States, but is wildly popular in Asia. I miss it greatly when I return home, so while I’m in Thailand I order this whenever I can. The morning glory in this dish is stir fried in a brown soy based sauce, which I recommend eating with some sticky rice to soak up the delicious sauce.

There you have it: five alternatives to eating Pad Thai! After trying these dishes you probably won’t want to go back to eating Pad Thai. Happy Travels!

This post was written for www.diwyy.com.

The Lone Traveler

My first five months in Thailand were spent working with a small organization. I didn’t leave home with anyone else, but I felt like I had security going to Thailand with a job already lined up. It was the perfect way to travel to another country without really having to do it alone or with my own money. Over my Christmas break, I traveled down to Koh Samui to visit a friend and on my bus journey I met a girl who was backpacking alone for a year. I was in complete awe of her. I asked her question after question trying to figure out how this girl was able to do it alone. Aren’t you scared? Do you get lonely? What does your family think? Is your mother okay with this?

Now that I think back on that conversation, it seems rather silly of me to be so in awe of her since I was technically traveling alone already, I just hadn’t realized it yet. A few months after talking to this lone backpacker, I would make the decision to backpack through Asia alone and it felt like such a huge deal. Making the decision to travel alone was probably more difficult than the actual act of backpacking alone.

I had originally intended to travel with a friend after my contract was finished because the idea of traveling solo as a very petite girl didn’t sound like a smart idea. But while we were planning where to go and what to see I realized that our travel styles were completely different. We were both agreeing to do things we didn’t want to do.

My travel style was a little more spontaneous and less about seeing the sights you are supposed to see. I am really uncomfortable in crowds with loads of other tourists, so I tend to stay away from the popular destinations. I like to show up somewhere, eat with the locals, and rely on the small tips I pick up from other backpackers along the way. Not only is this style of travel cheaper, but it also lets me peer into how the country really works. Compromising on something so personal and wonderful felt silly. So after a long hard think, I decided I had to just do it alone. If I wanted to travel my way, then there was no other way than to do it by myself.

Once I made the decision to travel alone, I got the same questions I had asked the girl I met on the bus. It was funny to find myself responding to the same inquiries I had had just a few months earlier. I told everyone not to worry, but was still secretly not entirely convinced that I was capable of pulling it off. I thought I could probably do it since I’d survived five months in Thailand already, but then again backpacking and living in an apartment abroad are two different animals.

Choosing to backpack all by my lonesome was not an easy choice, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. It wasn’t dangerous or scary in the least bit. Now I tell everyone I know that they should travel alone at least once in their lifetime. Most travelers are not just in search of beautiful places, good food, and interesting cultures; they are also looking to learn. They want to educate themselves about the rest of the world and at the same time they are looking to learn about themselves. There is no better way to get to know yourself than putting on a backpack and sending yourself out into the world unaccompanied. When you are on your own, you have no one to listen to but your own thoughts. You see sides of yourself that are usually hiding below the surface, sides that you love and sides that you want to work on.

Most people don’t want to take the leap and travel alone because there is this nasty rumor going around that it’s dangerous. If you make stupid decisions, traveling can be dangerous whether you are alone or with a group of friends. Unless you have a buddy to watch your back, getting black out drunk while backpacking is just asking for trouble. A lot of problems arise from being unaware of what’s going on and there is no better way to dull your senses than a few too many drinks. Staying alert is a good way to stay safe and in possession of those important things like your passport and debit cards. Plus, I like to think that getting hammered is something we can easily do at home, so why travel to another country to do it? If you are truly interested in traveling, then you won’t want to be hungover the next day. A killer hangover is a great way to miss out on the happenings in the city where you’re staying.

One of the other most common worries regarding solo travel is that you will get lonely. This is an easily avoidable problem because you will inevitably meet other travelers along the way and will make friends if you want to. In fact, I have found that when you travel in a group you usually don’t meet as many new people as you do when you travel alone. Being alone makes you more approachable and people are more inclined to talk to you or invite you to join them.

I do have to admit one little downside to being a girl and traveling alone…you are going to have to fend off the men. I never felt sexually threatened, but I became very tired of being asked out and I even became wary of men asking for my hand in marriage! My guide in Tibet was convinced that I was his future wife and it made things a little awkward for me when he wouldn’t accept my refusals. I usually don’t sign up for guided tours, but China requires all foreigners to travel through Tibet with a guide, so I was stuck with him and his declarations of love until I left.

Western women have a somewhat slutty reputation abroad and the men in some of the countries you visit may try to cash in on that. From one girl to another, lets try to turn our reputation around. Tiny shorts, tank tops, and dresses that are a little too revealing are not always appropriate apparel. The first way to getting less unwanted male attention is to cover up. The second is to lie.

When I was single I found myself with an imaginary boyfriend who was always living in the place that I was on my way to. He was an English teacher, we were madly in love, and his name frequently changed to keep things interesting. This story was slightly more believable than when I said I had a boyfriend back home. I have met many girls who travel with a fake wedding ring, but guys who speak good enough English to hit on you have probably already seen that trick. Plus, if you are married and traveling alone, then they usually think something isn’t right in your marriage, giving them permission to continue flirting with you.

My last bit of advice for the lone female traveler is to trust your instinct. Women have incredible gut instincts and the best way to stay out of trouble is to listen to them. If deep down you feel like something or someone is sketchy, then go someplace else.

Taking a trip alone will change your perspective and your life. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. Don’t second guess yourself and go do it! You will thank yourself in the end, I promise!

This post was written for www.diwyy.com.

Tongue-Twisted in Thailand

My father was born and raised in Peru, so you would probably make the incorrect assumption that I can speak some Spanish. I tried, I really did. No matter how many classes I took during middle and high school it just wouldn’t stick. I became discouraged and gave up after the tenth grade. Speaking another language was just not in the cards for me.

By the time I went to teach English in Thailand, I had already been telling myself for six years that English was going to be the only language I would ever be able to communicate with. I had already determined that the foreign language part of my brain was not very active. Before coming to Thailand I learned that Thai has five different tones which means that one word can be said five different ways and each way means something completely different. For someone who couldn’t even learn Spanish and is more than slightly tone deaf, I didn’t see speaking Thai as a skill I would develop any time soon.

So there I was in Khon Kaen, Thailand not speaking a word of Thai other than hello. Khon Kaen is not commonly visited by foreigners, so moving there not knowing anything about Thai was like a Thai person going to Omaha without speaking a word of English. My first few days of work were spent with a Thai teacher making me repeat words over and over again until my tongue felt like it was going to fall out. My face, tongue, and teeth were never in the correct position and therefore consistently produced the wrong sound according to my teacher.

I was afraid to eat alone at restaurants because I might ask for my food to be spicy and accidentally say no duck instead, which would result in me eating a dish that makes me cry and sweat my all of my water weight out, but be duck free. I have a low tolerance for spicy food, so this seemed like a disastrous scenario. Eating in the Issan region of Thailand was dangerous. They frequently say that if it isn’t spicy then it’s not delicious. By frequently I mean about ten times a meal while they are blotting their eyes and foreheads with tiny pink napkins. You can often measure how delicious a meal was by the size of the pile of pink tissues next to their plate. My solution during my first few meals alone was to go to the 7-11 where the food was not spicy and no Thai language skills were necessary.

About two weeks into my stay in Thailand I attended a yoga class with a fellow American friend who had lived in Thailand for three years. The class started in the evening before dinner and was fine except for the fact that it was all in Thai. I had been doing yoga for five years already, so I was able to figure out what was going on, but what I couldn’t understand was why the instructor kept talking about rice. Rice (khow) was one of the few vocabulary words I’d managed to absorb at that point and it seemed to me that the instructor said it in every other sentence. I know rice is important in Asian culture, but how the hell does it relate to yoga??

I walked out of the class very hungry and immediately asked my friend why the teacher was so obsessed with food. It turns out that my tone-deaf ears couldn’t pick up the fact that she was using two different tones, neither of which was the right tone for rice. She was actually telling us to inhale and or do something with our knees every time she said it.

The tones are what make Thai difficult to learn. Without them it would actually be an easy language to master since you don’t have to worry about conjugating verbs which was one of the things that made Spanish so difficult for me to grasp. By the time I had properly conjugated the verb I wanted to use, the listener would have already given up on me. One of the most annoying parts about learning Thai though, is that no matter how many times you say the word you want to use, if you don’t say it in the right tone nobody is going to help you out and guess what you are trying to communicate. They will just smile or ignore you.

It used to almost anger me that I was trying so hard and nobody would make even a little bit of effort to think about the context of the conversation and the word that was coming out of my mouth. They would just say they didn’t understand. When somebody tries to speak English I go out of my way to guess what they are trying to say, but nobody would take the effort to do the same with me. I finally came to realize that people who speak tonal languages don’t think about words in the same way that I do. When I hear a word I hear the word and the tone separately. I remember that khow can be used for rice, knee, and inhale and that each have a different tone. A native Thai speaker thinks of each of these words completely separate from each other. So when I would forget the tone that goes with the word I wanted to say and I would naively say the word in five different tones, it just sounded like five different random words to the listener. I suppose if I was having a conversation with a beginner in English and they started listing off five random words in the middle of a sentence I would think they were nuts as well.

While living in Khon Kaen, one of the Thai teachers continuously compared me to her five year old child. She said that I didn’t eat spicy food, I got swarmed by mosquitoes, and my Thai verbal skills were on par or worse than her kid. This comparison bugged me for a while since I was really trying to learn and fit in. Then I started to accept that Thai people are very honest and aren’t overly polite about feelings like we are. I figured this out when one of the teachers singled out the fat kid in class and made him stand up and proceeded to joke about how big he was. A few months later when my very good Thai friend said I looked fat that day, I was a bit appalled but understood that it wasn’t said in a malicious way. In her eyes she was just being observant.

I’ve been practicing and learning Thai for about nine months now and although I feel comfortable with the basics of the language, I still make many mistakes and have to work around my limited vocabulary. When my friend asked where I was going the other day, I nonchalantly said to get a massage. Somehow I managed to screw it up enough that I ended up saying to go get high which confused her and shocked her mother who was standing close by. I had no idea what I’d said and I’m happy they corrected me even though it was embarrassing. Now I have a new vocabulary word. Just yesterday I thought I was saying that a toddler was scared (glooa) and instead the word banana (glooai) kept coming out of my mouth. Nobody corrected me, but the folks around me must have thought I was a very confused farang (foreigner).

I’ve successfully proven myself wrong. I am fully capable of learning another language. My brain wasn’t the problem when I was trying to learn Spanish; the problem was the setting. Some people are textbook and classroom savvy when it comes to learning a language, but immersion is the best way for me. I’m not fluent, but I’m happy just being able to communicate. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll learn Spanish.

If you are traveling to Thailand, here are a few basic phrases that you might need.

Hello: Sawadee ka/kraap*

Thank you: Khap koon ka/kraap*

How much is this?: Tao rai ka/kraap*?

Where is the bathroom?: Hong naam tee nai ka/kraap*?

*Ka and kraap are said at the end of a sentence to be polite. If you are a female you say ka at the end of your sentences and if you are male you say kraap.

This post was originally written for www.diwyy.com. Check it out at http://www.diwyy.com/new-blog/reader-perspective-tongue-twisted-in-thailand/.

I’m Lovin’ It

This one is from the archives. I nearly finished this post over a year ago, but before posting it I came down with extreme food poisoning. I’m nearly positive that my food poisoning didn’t come from this dining experience, but from some bad pork in my dinner later that day. Despite that fact, I never returned to this piece until today because it still made my stomach turn just thinking about the events of that evening. That being said, bon appétit!

There have been several meals throughout my life that I remember vividly and recall with not just a sense of nostalgia, but with a passion for how delicious and perfect they were. The classically perfect Coq au Vin in Paris. The tempura battered and fried cinnamon ice cream drizzled with chocolate and raspberry sauce in San Diego. Kobe beef that melted in my mouth complemented perfectly by thinly sliced crunchy pieces of fried garlic. And lastly, the mind blowing shrimp burger at a McDonalds in Japan.

Which of these doesn’t fit in?

If you know me at all, you know that I’m a bit of a food snob. My mother was a chef and is a fantastic cook, so how could I not grow up to be a food snob?! Seeing an item on my list of most memorable and mouthwatering meals from a fast food chain, especially one like McDonald’s, should baffle you. But I must put this on my list and I’m sure if you would agree if you tried it.

The burger patty was made from whole shrimp, not ground shrimp, which instantly gave it more points, perhaps because you knew you were eating real shrimp, not some fake McDonalds shrimp concoction. The shrimp were arranged into a patty form, which was then battered, rolled in panko and fried. The patty was put between a hamburger bun and we enjoyed it with some classic McDonald’s French fries.

This was consumed after a few drinks, mind you, which may have added to the tastiness of it, but I remember that I couldn’t have been more satisfied with it. Not only that, I was completely fascinated by the fact that something so wonderful came out of a McDonald’s! I have spent my entire life avoiding those golden arches and by chance happened upon what may be one of the best things they’ve ever sold.

Ever since that night, I have always hoped that I might encounter that magical Mickey Dee’s Ebi Fillet-O (AKA shrimp burger) again. I even looked for it during a late night French fries run to a McDonald’s on Koh Samui in Thailand, but it wasn’t there. I had given up hope.

But this past weekend fate tapped me on the shoulder and my dream of eating another shrimp burger without having to go to Japan was renewed! I was sitting on a fairly empty skyline train in Bangkok allowing me to have a perfect view of one of the TVs where a commercial for the new KFC shrimp burger was played. It was a sign. I knew I had to go to a KFC and investigate.

This morning I was told that I didn’t need to come to school, so I went to the mall in hopes of sitting in some air conditioning for a few hours and to eat lunch at KFC. Yes my friends, I sought out a fast food restaurant, a completely uncharacteristic decision.

I strolled up to the KFC timidly, not wanting to commit myself to eating there until I was sure they had my elusive deep fried goodness. Once I found the picture on the Thai menu above the cash register I then had to determine how to order it. I haven’t ordered a burger in Thailand and wasn’t sure what to say, so through a combination of pointing and repeating the word goong (prawn) to the two of the five cashiers, I was able to successfully order my burger. I decided to go all out and order the burger, Pepsi, and fries combo meal, which set me back 95 Baht (~$2.70). When in Rome, right?

It was ready in no time since there were at least fifteen people working in the restaurant, which was about as many customers in the KFC at the time. I went to the ketchup and sweet chili sauce dispenser where there was a girl who pumped some Ketchup for me into a little plastic cup. After giving me my ketchup, she took my tray from me and asked me where I would like to sit. I was shocked, what a luxurious dining experience at KFC! I give the service a 10.

The burger did not qualify as a 10 unfortunately. But I guess when you have such high standards, how could it? The patty was greasier than the one I had in Japan and just didn’t have the same flavor. It just wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. Maybe if I had had a few drinks it would have been better, but I’m pretty convinced that the McDonalds version was superior whether you are drunk or sober. I guess I’ll just have to wait until I go to Japan again to eat my tasty fast food.

Neither of the photos in this post were taken by me. I can’t remember who took them though…