Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

I was looking through some old photos from my semester in Chaiyaphum, and I came across one that just had to go up on the blog. And I realized that I have never properly addressed the subject of ladyboys.

The well-dressed individuals in this photo are ladyboys.

They may be dressed better than most of the girls in the auditorium that day, and they definitely have more makeup on, but they are boys. They are students from a high school a few blocks from the school I used to teach in, and they are two of the many ladyboys you are bound to run into if you ever visit Chaiyaphum, Thailand.

Ladyboys are men who dress like women. Some stick to basic make-up (like the gentlemen on the left in the blue shirt), and others go all-out with make-up, wigs, and party dresses (like our friends above). Still others have surgical procedures to make it official.

It’s not unlike the transgender community in America, really. The difference is, in Thailand, it’s really not that uncommon for a boy to decide to be a ladyboy.

Every school has at least a few, including the primary schools. I may have been the only teacher in Chaiyaphum without a ladyboy in my class, which probably had something to do with the fact that all of my students were girls.

There are enough ladyboys in the schools of Thailand that English teachers have developed classroom strategies based on their ladyboy students. At our week-long training session in Bangkok before my fellow TEFLers and I were dispatched to schools in various corners of Thailand, someone from the human resources department of our new employer, the Media Kids placement agency, gave us a surprisingly useful piece of advice.

“Use your ladyboys,” she said.

She then went on to explain why ladyboys tend to be an English teacher’s favorite students.

Not unlike Chinese students, most Thai students are shy. They aren’t very confident speaking in English, and they get very embarrassed when you ask them to stand up in front of 45 classmates and say something in English.

Ladyboys are not shy.

They are confident enough to put on copious amounts of eye makeup, dress like a woman, and spend the rest of their day walking, talking, and acting like a woman. They don’t do all of this to avoid attracting attention. So when their teacher decides to turn the attention of the entire class on just one student, a ladyboy feels right at home.

So if you ever find yourself teaching an English class in Thailand, just look for the student who has way too much eye-shadow on and seems unusually proud of the fact that she’s a girl. Chances are, she isn’t.

And she’s the one you want to call on first.


Read Full Post »


The little boy I’m doing homework with is Fah. He’s learning the Thai alphabet by writing the letters 50 or so times each in his notebook, so I decided to do a couple to help out.

His brother’s name is Fuck. His full name is something in Thai that I couldn’t begin to pronounce or remember, but his English nickname is Fuck.

Every child in Chaiyaphum is given a nickname in English, which is very convenient when they go to school and learn English from a foreign teacher like me. The trouble is, many of the parents who give out these nicknames don’t seem to understand what the names actually mean.

So all over Thailand there are people walking around with names like Porn (our security guard at Satrichaiyaphum High), Beer (a fairly popular name at school), Bum (also fairly popular), and Fuck (Fah’s brother is not the only Fuck I’ve met). Other teachers tell me they have students with even more explicit nicknames, including Tittyporn and Pregoporn.

It’s good for a chuckle from time to time, but I often find myself intentionally mispronouncing people’s names to avoid addressing 12-year-olds who may or may not know what their names mean, by their unfortunate monikers.

Anyone know what Mike means in Thai?

Read Full Post »

Make that 100 days

In my last post, I mentioned that music has been banned throughout Thailand since the death of the King’s sister on Jan. 1.

I mentioned this because I truly could not imagine something like this happening in the States or in any other Western nation. If our president was assassinated, you could play any song you like at the bar the next night. And if his sister died of cancer, many Americans would not even hear about it.

Can you imagine what would have to happen before every bar in a major American city agreed to stop playing music for more than two weeks?

How about three months?

Here in Chaiyaphum, the city appears to have decided that 15 days was not sufficient to pay its respect to the late Princess. The city has extended its period of mourning to the full 100 days that will be observed by the royal family. The initial mourning period ended on the 16th, but the full mourning period will last more than three months.

That means us teachers are expected to wear black to work for the full 100 days (teachers are considered government employees, since we work for public schools). It also means there may be no music played at the city’s annual festival, which was already pushed back to the 17th so it would not take place during the initial period of mourning.

At the time of the Princess’s death, the government declared a national mourning period would be in effect for 15 days, during which time all government officials and state employees will wear black clothing and flags will fly at half-mast.

Apparently, the interior ministry also asked businesses to “refrain from entertainment activities” during the national mourning period. I’m not sure what else falls under the mourning ban, but live music was among the “entertainment activities” that businesses have dutifully refrained from for the past two-plus weeks, at least here in Chaiyaphum.

There is an annual festival here that was scheduled to begin shortly after the mourning period began. It was pushed back to the 17th, the day after the 15-day mourning period ended. The festival has been on for four days now, and it will continue until the 25th. But it now appears it will do so without music.

Traditionally, music is played each night at the nine-day festival, often with a big-name act playing on the final day (I’ve heard Body Slam, one of the top pop bands in Thailand, was supposed to play this year). But so far, the live music has been called off out of respect for the late Princess.

I’m not sure whether the ban will be lifted for the final night of the festival (I’ve heard from some people that it will be, and from others that it won’t), but I’ll keep you posted.

The music ban is not being enforced in tourist areas (I was in Ayuthaya this weekend and one of the bars there had a guy singing terrible American oldies songs and playing an acoustic guitar; I’d imagine the same sort of thing is happening in Bangkok and some of the islands in the South), but at least in the northeastern provinces it’s being taken quite seriously.

Incidentally, this is not the first time the government has banned “entertainment activities” nationwide since I’ve been here. There was an alcohol ban in effect for the weekend before the national elections, presumably to ensure the nation would be sober when votes were cast.

Here in Chaiyaphum, that was extended to include the weekend two weeks prior to the election as well. Bars and restaurants strictly observed the ban, refusing to serve drinks during both weekends. As foreigners, we were able to convince someone to sell us alcohol at a convenience store, but only after we agreed to conceal the bottle in a handbag before leaving the store.

Read Full Post »


Cities, as a general rule, are formed for a reason. A city may form near an important body of water, at the junction of major roads or rail lines, on the outskirts of a larger city that got too crowded or too expensive.

Vang Vieng, Laos, is a different kind of city. As far as I can tell, Vang Vieng is a city that was built on a fun place to get drunk in an inner tube.

Sharon, Adrienne, and I went to Vang Vieng a few weeks ago for that very reason. At least among the 20-something backpacker/English teacher crowd, tubing down the Nam Song River is the main reason to go to Laos. It’s rumored that a fair number of people go to Vang Vieng for a day or two, spend an afternoon on the river, and end up staying for weeks and going through copious amounts of mushrooms (more on that later).

So, with only a three-day weekend to see the entire country, we had a nice lunch in Vientiane (pesto fettuccini and real coffee!) and went straight to Vang Vieng for some tubing.

Two hours or so in Vientiane and the three-hour drive to Vang Vieng were enough to explain why Thais have developed such an arrogant attitude with regard to Laos.

In Thailand, Chaiyaphum is the butt of a lot of jokes. It’s the nation’s poorest province and, to be fair, there’s not a lot here. I live in the provincial capital, which means it’s the largest city in the province, and when I asked my Mathayom 4 students (that’s fourth year of high school, or 15-16 years old) to describe the biggest problems in Chaiyaphum, one of the most popular responses was that a traffic light on the main street shuts off too early at night. Another was that there aren’t enough garbage bins in town.

Here in Chaiyaphum, the butt of the jokes is Laos. If you want to call someone a moron, you either say they’re a buffalo or you say they’re from Laos.

There’s a bar in town that has a few waitresses who come from Laos. The one who usually serves us is Thai, but we tease her by calling her Laos. When I asked my Mathayom 4 classes where they would go if they had a time machine, one student said she would go to Laos in the past, when it was more beautiful there. I asked her why Laos isn’t as beautiful as it used to be, and she said, “Because Laos people aren’t very smart.”

I didn’t understand it before, because to me Thailand is a developing country. I’d heard that Thais are rather arrogant about their status in relation to neighboring Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but I didn’t get it.

I giggled when my Lonely Planet described Thailand as an “economic powerhouse.” After all, this is a place where a taxi means either a pickup truck with bleacher seats bolted to the truck bed (called a songthaew) or a cheap motorbike dragging a three-seat coach (called a tuk-tuk, after the ridiculous sound of its struggling engine). It’s a country where a restaurant often consists of a wok and three plastic tables on a sidewalk. And it’s a country that can ban music for 15 days after the death of the King’s sister and people will actually listen (here in Chaiyaphum, an annual festival was rescheduled to avoid holding a concert within the 15-day national mourning period; can you imagine what it would take to cancel every concert in the United States for 15 days?)

But after seeing Laos, it started to make a lot more sense. Compared to Thailand, Laos was another world. Laos looked more like Africa than it looked like Thailand. It hardly looked Asian. It just looked poor.

I literally could not believe that Vientiane was the capital of a country. It’s barely the size of downtown Bethesda. We got dropped off in the center of town, and three blocks later we were on the outskirts of town.

The city felt a bit like a beach town in autumn. You could tell that there was a city there and it felt like it might have been crowded at some point, but at the moment there was almost no one around.

I must have asked Sharon and Adrienne at least three times if they had ever seen a country small enough for this town to be the nation’s largest city. They hadn’t.

If you put Vientiane in Thailand, it would hardly be worth talking about. Walking through Vientiane, I felt like I was in Khon Kaen (that’s a fairly small college town in northeast Thailand with a handful of really good restaurants, some pretty cool bars, and a nine-story temple that some might describe as a tourist attraction).

The only real evidence that we were in an important city was the amount of Western food on offer. You can only find Western food in cities that Western people deem worthy of traveling to, which generally means the larger cities or the cities with noteworthy sights and attractions. There was plenty of Western food available in Vientiane, and the small bit of it that we tried was actually quite good.

But comparing Vientiane to Bangkok is a bit like putting Madison, Wisconsin next to Manhattan. There was no traffic in Vientiane. In Bangkok, there are enough taxis to cause their own traffic jams. There must be three Bangkok cab drivers for every resident of Vientiane. Maybe more.

The drive from Vientiane to Vang Vieng was gorgeous. There isn’t enough money in Laos to destroy the scenery, so the entire ride felt like what us Americans would term a ‘scenic drive.’ If this road was in America, it would be in the guidebooks.

And then, all of a sudden, we were in Vang Vieng. The town came out of nowhere. There was absolutely nothing around it, aside from trees, mountains, and the small river that I presume was the reason someone decided to put a backpacker town there.

Vang Vieng is definitely a backpacker town. Aside from the fact that no one would go there unless they planned to spend an afternoon and early evening drinking their way down a river in a plastic inner tube, the entire town consisted of one main road (maybe six blocks long) with nothing on it but Western restaurants (nearly all of which played reruns of Western sitcoms on a constant loop), bars, and little tourist souvenir shops.

Surrounding that road in all directions were tiny hovels that housed the local population, who presumably lived there so they could work in either a Western restaurant, a bar, or a little souvenir shop. The streets leading to those houses weren’t always paved.

Tubing, by the way, was one of the best afternoons I’ve had since coming out here. Just imagine yourself floating down a slow-moving river drinking an organic mojito out of a plastic bag that you just bought at the head of the river from an organic farm that claims the proceeds from their riverside bar goes to the local community (they had a handwritten sign that read, “Drink for the children”).

After floating for about four minutes or so, you reach the next riverside bar, where someone local hands you a piece of bamboo and pulls you to shore so you can buy a drink at his bar. You have a drink, ride the zip line into the water, and jump off a diving platform maybe 15 feet high, before hopping back in your inner tube to drift to the next of 5 bars you will float to that day (all of which have either a zip line, a rope swing, or a diving platform, and many of which will have either a backpacker pouring you free shots, an aging hippie handing you free bananas, or an older local man pouring you more free shots from an unmarked bottle that almost certainly had mushrooms floating in it). Even if you can only stay a few days, it’s well worth the 1,500 baht fee for your Laos entry visa (or $36, if you have US dollars with you).

In addition to its reputation as the drunken tubing capital of Laos, Vang Vieng is also known for its drugs (this is really more of a nationwide thing in Laos, I hear, but its definitely true in Vang Vieng). When you sit down at a place you thought might have good dessert, you will be handed two menus. One lists food, drinks, and desserts, and the other is the drugs menu. Our drugs menu listed prices for three categories of drugs (mushrooms, opium, weed), with a handful of consumption options for each (shake, tea, individual joint, bag, etc.).

This was particularly odd in a town that strictly enforces its 11 pm curfew (there are literally bars in Vang Vieng that boast of the fact that they are permitted to stay open past midnight due to a special arrangement with the police; the entire town is basically dead by 11:30 pm). But I suppose there is little use wondering about the legal reasoning of a country where one of the main tourist attractions involves serving people copious amounts of alcohol while they float down a river in an inner tube.

PS: Life jackets, incidentally, are voluntary on the river. This is true even if you admit to the guy renting inner tubes that you can’t swim, as my Scottish friend Sharon did before declining the offer of a life jacket. A few drinks later, as we were floating drunkenly down the river, she mentioned that she really wished she had taken a life jacket so she could use the rope swing at one of the riverside bars (there are rope swings, zip lines, and diving platforms on offer at all of the riverside bars, which is great fun). She proceeded to use the rope swing anyway, when I offered to tread water in the general area I figured she would land and drag her back to shore after she jumped into the water.

PPS: If someone at a riverside bar offers you “Medicinal Root” and starts pouring you free shots from an unmarked bottle that has lots of grey somethings floating in it, don’t be too drunk to realize that he’s offering you some kind of liquor with mushrooms in it. This is particularly good advice if the man at the last bar on the river repeats the word ‘Happy’ no fewer than seven times while pouring your drinks and laughs when you drunkenly nod to him and say, “Yeah, happy, happy, sabai, sabai…” If you make this mistake, do not be surprised when you somehow lose both of your friends in the few meters of water between the last bar on the river and the end of the line, where a local 12-year-old girl will grab your tube and pull you out of the water.


Even in Vang Vieng, the poverty of Laos is visible. This house was right next to my fairly fancy guesthouse on the main backpacker strip. I took the photo from my balcony.


This is where they drop you off when you suddenly and unexpectedly arrive in Vang Vieng. It looks like an unused airstrip, which it may well be. As you can see, it is located in the middle of a bit of gorgeous, undeveloped nature. Behind the ‘airstrip’ are mountains and a few blocks away is the river.


Read Full Post »

I’m fascinated by the different ways people make money in this country. Almost every day, I seem to notice another bizarre business that someone can apparently make a living in.

There is a guy in Chaiyaphum that sells cowboy hats out of the back of his pickup truck (I have not yet seen a single cowboy hat actually worn or purchased in town, but I guess he has a monopoly), and a team of men who give massages in the men’s bathroom at the town’s only popular live music club (they literally walk up behind you at the urinals and give you a shoulder massage that you didn’t ask for).

The town has no fewer than two dozen fax/copy shops (small storefronts with three xerox machines and a computer) to handle the apparently large quantity of documents that need to be duplicated in a rural town in northeastern Thailand (I have xeroxed a few worksheets for class and sent a fax to my bank back home, but I have trouble imagining that the locals have enough documents to copy to actually keep all these places in business).

My personal favorite, though, is the feather-duster trade that we encountered on a trip to Khon Kaen. We were in town for the somewhat disappointing silk festival (the town is really great, but the silk festival was just another market that sold a bit of silk along with all the usual market fare), when I noticed an unusually large number of men walking through the market carrying dozens of cheap-looking feather-dusters (like the guy in the above photo).

So I did what I always do in these situations, turn to the person standing next to me and ask, “Do you think those guys really spend all day selling feather-dusters?” That was, of course, followed by the usual follow-up: “Are there really that many people in Khon Kaen that need feather-dusters?” And my inevitable third question: “They have to another job, right?”

I can’t answer any of these questions yet, but I suspect one of two things must be the case. The traveling feather-duster salesmen are either selling drugs with a not particularly complex front, or a person can actually feed his family on feather-duster sales.

The latter is still hard for me to believe, even after polishing off a two-egg omelet that cost me 33 cents, but who knows? These businesses may all be fronts for drug-dealing or some other illicit activity, but it just might be possible that a person can actually make a living here selling nothing but feather-dusters.

Read Full Post »

To … you

I’ve received quite a few strange letters and messages since moving to Chaiyaphum and I’ve been frequently propositioned in broken English, so I thought I’d share one particularly amusing episode with all of you.

A few days ago, I went to a Japanese place on the top floor of the multi-story Tesco Lotus complex for lunch with my friend Joel. When Joel’s meal came out, our waiter called my attention to a message someone had scribbled on a napkin and placed on the tray next to Joel’s bowl of soup.

My secret admirer did not know my name, so across the top of the napkin he/she had written, “To … you.” Below that was the following message:

What your name?
Do you have telephone?
I miss you. (This line was written in the left column of the napkin, with the words “very much” crossed out)

The letter was signed, “From cook.”

There were only two cooks working that day (the kitchen is visible in this place) and both were male. But we’re hoping the letter was actually from one of the significantly more attractive servers, who mistakenly used the word ‘cook’ instead of ‘waitress.’

Either way, we resisted temptation and rudely left without leaving my number on the back of the napkin.

Read Full Post »

Last week, we went on a bit of a roadtrip with our friends from Momma’s. About seven of us hopped in the back of Mot’s pickup truck, along with his two sons and two of his friends, for the 30-minute drive to a waterfall just outside town called Tad Fa. The rest followed on motorbikes.

We spent the day lounging on blankets at the top of the falls with two Thai families and nine or ten farang teachers. We had a modest spread of food and the requisite bottle of whiskey and soda water.

We also took part in the local tradition at Tad Fa, sliding down the falls on your back. We haven’t had much rain in a while, so the water was too shallow to get any real speed, but it was a good time despite the bruises.

It was also my first opportunity to see the farms that surround the city here in Chaiyaphum. I had been told that many of the people here are farmers, but I hadn’t actually seen any farms until our drive to the falls. But rest assured, there are indeed farms here and there are small country roads where the traffic yields to cows and chickens.

The trip also offered another glimpse into just how poor this town really is. On the way to the falls, we had to stop at three gas stations before we found one that had any gas left.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »