Rice Farming on a School Trip

Two days ago, four of us teachers went on a school trip to a farm called Ban Kru Thani, an hour or so outside of Bangkok. Two teachers were already there, having been selected for the overnight camp, but myself and one other went for the day. By 7am we were on a bus full of children on the way to the farm.

Firstly, we were asked to entertain the students on the bus. Begrudgingly – we both tend to suffer from travel sickness and were a bit apprehensive about standing and entertaining on a moving vehicle – we took it in turns to teach new vocabulary (words that might be useful on a farm) and indicate how they were to fill in their worksheets. To be completely honest, that was a challenge in itself. Does anybody know the difference between a sickle and a scythe? Neither did I. 

When we arrived, we met the others, played a few games in English and sang some songs to get everyone excited for the day ahead. Even in the shade at 8.30am it was extremely hot and it dawned on us quite how hot it was going to be out in the sun all day. We were encouraged to take off our shoes in order to really experience the farm how it’s experienced everyday by Thai farmers. As nice as that sounded at the time, we all regretted having left our shoes behind when we realised how hot the floor was under our feet!

Once we had split the group into smaller and more manageable teams, we then went to pay our respects to Buddha and the farm. Not really understanding what we were doing or why, we followed the farmers to a room containing a shrine and paid our respects, after which we listened to a talk about the history of the farm and architecture of the building. Of course this talk was in Thai, and we understood very little! So many times as an English teacher have I been thrown into a situation with almost no knowledge of what’s happening or why, and this was another one of those times.

Shortly after, each group was taken to a different area of the farm where we all took part in different tasks, and then moved onto the next. We rode in a tractor, rode a cart pulled by a buffalo, collected eggs, climbed a tree on a bamboo ladder, sat on a buffalo, helped to prepare a rice dessert, fed some fish, kayaked a little (very difficult to do when the students on your boat don’t understand the difference between left and right – I lost count of how many times we crashed into the bushes!), shimmied across the bamboo bridge suspended across the lake (it’s not an exaggeration when I say it was like a bamboo tightrope that was so hot to stand on it hurt the underside of your feet), and finally helped prepare the omelette for lunch. 

We all sat down in our groups to enjoy our traditional Thai lunch. Again we paid our respects, and tucked in. There was Thai omelette, chicken and pork, soup, som tam (spicy papaya salad with prawns), green curry with chicken, and of course lots and lots of rice. 

Next we were told to change into the clothes we were happy to get dirty and make our way over to the rice fields. We were to plant rice in the mud. Slowly my students and I – all aged between 6 and 11 – waded into the thigh-deep water to find that we sunk to our knees in slimy mud! Some of my students were holding onto me for support, though that made it harder for me not to fall over! Once we were all over the initial shock of the mud, we had a great time – splashing around in the water and painting each other with the mud. After, we got hosed down and it felt like it was songkran festival all over again! We all had a great laugh but were very happy when we were told it was time to shower. We all queued up for our showers – I didn’t know it took little girls so long to shower! – and waited our turns.  What a relief it was to finally wash all of the mud off! 

Once we were all clean and changed, we were served some Thai desserts – banana fritters, and an ice puppy-esque, grape flavoured treat. Finally, it was the last activity of the day – thanking the staff at the farm, and giving out the rewards. We awarded 5 students special prizes for participation and excellent use of English during the day. Some students told us their favourite parts of the day, and then we were ready to get back on the bus and go home to Bangkok. 

Finally back in Bangkok, we went out for a well-deserved pizza, followed by an inevitable early night!

Being Cool

Pressure to conform to societal expectations is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Here are my thoughts and experiences.  

I’m not going to lie, my job is really cool. I’m an English teacher and I live in Bangkok, Thailand. That’s pretty cool! How many other people have an outdoor pool in their apartment block? Or the ability to go to a beautiful beach just a couple of hours away? Or to eat street food every night? Admit it – it is a cool job. 

However, sometimes I think the job is cooler than me. I have done so many cool things, and seen so many amazing places here in Thailand. Though despite this, I often find myself feeling pressured to be cooler and do more cool things; not by my friends at home, but by others here. Because, let’s face it, they’re cooler than me. And for the most part – I don’t care. I really don’t. I’d rather do what I enjoy than what is cool. But sometimes I let it get to me. 

In Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, us farangs (foreigners in Thai) are often found drinking. Now I understand that for most westerners Bangkok is a holiday destination, and people want to get drunk and party when they’re on holiday. This image of drunk foreigners has, in many minds, become synonymous with farangs in Bangkok. Many of my western friends here enjoy this aspect of Bangkok, and why wouldn’t they? Everybody likes to party! But not everybody likes to party as much as others. I’ve found in Bangkok – what with all of the cheap alcohol and the lax age restrictions – it’s so easy to go on a cheap night out and get very, very drunk.  

I don’t like it. 

Of course I like to go out. And of course I like to drink sometimes. What I don’t like, is the constant pressure to take advantage of being in a country where alcohol is so cheap and readily available to foreigners. Many bars here run ‘ladies’ nights’ where women drink for free, or at a hugely discounted rate. As a woman, I’m finally the gender benefiting more from something – I get to drink a lot and save money. Though even despite this supposed benefit, I rarely feel like the ‘winner’. I just feel an enormous amount of pressure to drink until I can no longer stand. I often go to these events with both male and female friends and I often feel pressured by both. My girl friends are encouraging me to take advantage of the fact that, for once, we are the gender to be envied. My boy friends are laughing at me for drinking less than them when they have to pay. That’s pressure from both sides to drink more than I want to. And it’s not something I enjoy. 

I admit, I do succumb to the pressure more often than I’d like.  Though I don’t often get blind drunk, I do find myself drinking beer and wishing I had water. Other times, I find the strength to ignore the pressures and I enjoy whatever drink I want at whatever pace I am happy with. Though I am sometimes aware of being a little judged by it, I find that I feel much better about myself. 

On a different note, I am a self-confessed nerd. In my spare time, I’m an avid reader, and I spend a lot of time reading about and watching videos about my favourite fandoms. (Quiz me on Harry Potter, I dare you.) I’m a history nerd too. You can often find me googling historical events or people, just because I’m interested. My favourite things to listen to on my way to work are podcasts of book reviews and different interpretations of historical events. I’m an outspoken feminist and rarely back down from a debate. These are things that I enjoy, and things I feel strongly about. They’re not the coolest hobbies, but I enjoy them. However, I sometimes find myself, not denying these things, but being selective in what I admit to. And I often ask myself, why? People don’t care as much as I sometimes think they do, and I know that. To be honest, the reason I’m writing this is because I’m much better at being myself now, rather than hiding parts that weren’t ‘cool’. 

I really do enjoy being in Thailand and I have some great friends here. I have done and seen some amazing things in the last eight months and I’m excited for the next few too. 

This is me saying I’m not the coolest person in the world. But I’m a happy one. 

The Smells of Bangkok

Bangkok is a strange and wonderful city. There is so much here to see and do and experience. And smell. 

Firstly, one of Bangkok’s most frequented spots is the Chao Phraya river. The Chao Phraya flows through the centre of Bangkok and has been hugely important to trade in Thailand. It has been an important transport route for decades as there are many canals that stem from the river, most of which are frequented by river boat taxis. However, the thing about this river that stands out to me, is the everpresent smell of fish. Despite recent pollution, this river is home to many species of fish and therefore provides an income for many locals; seafood. By any river in Thailand you will find a seafood restaurant, be it on the street or inside. It is easy to become enticed by the aroma of the freshly cooked fish. 

Speaking more broadly, wherever you are in Bangkok there is no doubt you will be close to a huge variety of street food. In order to avoid the stifling heat, many street food vendors come out in the evening (though a large number of stalls do uncompromisingly come out in the morning and stay well into the night) and walking down a crowded street full of street food vendors after the sun has gone down is one of my favourite things to do in Bangkok. Walking down one street you can smell fried chicken, fried squid, fried fish, seafood pad Thai (sweet noodles), meat kebabs, fried rice, spicy soups, mango sticky rice, exotic fruits and innumerable other delicious foods. 

Which leads me onto the smelliest of all the street foods, Thailand’s infamous durian. If you are unfamiliar with durian, it is a fruit available in many Asian countries, but has become a symbol of Thailand and Thai culture. It is a large fruit with spikes like a pineapple. To be eaten, it has to be chopped open, and the insides scooped out. Durian can be found on most streets, especially when it is in season, and you know durian is being sold on a street before you even step onto that street. If you have ever once smelt a durian you’ll remember it. In many hotels, shopping centres and taxis are signs specifically banning durian from being eaten. Do you know of any other fruits that aren’t allowed in hotels purely because of how smelly they are? I didn’t think so. The smell to me, though everyone has a different theory, is that of onion, wine, and gone-off custard. 

A similarly bed smell that is seemingly unavoidable in the city is, unfortunately, that of sewage and rubbish. This nasty odour is particularly prevalent in the rainy season though it is certainly not exclusive to this time of year. One minute you can be enjoying the sweet smell of mango sticky rice, and the wind changes and you’re left with something rather pungent. The streets of Bangkok, despite the continuous and uncompromising  presence of street food, rarely have bins. Instead, rubbish gets left on the side of the streets, and is taken away at night. It is not uncommon to see rats and cockroaches rummaging through, looking for their dinner. The city could smell so much better if only there were more bins around. With lids!

Finally, one of my favourite aromas I’ve come to associate with Bangkok, and Thailand more broadly speaking, is incense. Buddhism is the major religion here in Thailand, and incense is often used at ceremonies and during prayers. Walking down many streets you could stumble upon a shrine, and often there’s the smell of incense burning or of it having recently been burned. In temples there are incense sticks available to burn (often requiring a small donation) during prayer, not dissimilar to candles in churches in western Christian culture. 

So there you have it. My thoughts on the smells of Bangkok. Though some of the smells I mentioned are less than desirable (to say the least), the huge variety and persistence of the smells of Bangkok are an integral part of the complex make up this strange and wonderful city. 

Thanks.

Claire