Sleeping with Strangers

(A Collection of Short Stories)

(From my Trip to Cambodia)

In the Siem Reap Hostel

Why must people always pretend like packing is such a laborious, time-consuming task? We ask each other “have you packed yet?!”, as if setting aside a significant chunk of time to assemble our belongings is paramount to leaving for one’s trip. We ask each other “what are you packing?!”, as if bringing the wrong number of t-shirts or bras is going to spoil our whole vacation. Packing for a short trip never takes me more than 30 minutes. And yet when it comes time for me to sort out my belongings for a weeklong or weekend getaway, I am inevitably duped by all the hype around packing.

Which is why, with my 5-day trip to Cambodia looming overhead, I convinced myself that it was necessary to set my alarm for 5:30 am on Thursday morning, the day of my departure. Though I had already packed most of my clothing and gear the night before (“Of course I’ve packed! 4 t-shirts, 1 bra and 3 sports bras!”), I was concerned because really the whole process had only taken me 20 minutes, including the time I’d spent creating a packing playlist in anticipation of the big event. I must have forgotten some things. So I sprung out of bed at 5:31am on Thursday, already feeling crunched for time. Within 5 minutes my backpack was zipped, buckled, and cinched. I spent the next three hours performing my morning routine in super slow motion until I could finally leave for my 9:00am class.

Which is why, after attending 2 classes, rushing home to grab my bags, traveling to the airport, boarding our flight to Siem Reap, procuring a Cambodian visa, and checking into my hostel at 10:30pm that evening, I was understandably quite exhausted. It’s highly abnormal for me to begin my day before the sun is up, and obviously this kind of fissure in anyone’s routine could have serious repercussions. Now that I’m thinking about it, there is probably some kind of proven neurological process that disrupts the chemicals in one’s brain if they have a weird morning.

Which is why, when I barged into the bunkroom of The Siem Reap Hostel (despite what you’re about to read, I really would recommend it!) at 10:30pm, it seemed like a brilliant idea to flick on the light switch and throw open the curtain to our sleeping quarters. My friends tried in vain to stop me, but I was probably just too fatigued from the whole packing debacle to pay any heed to their insistence that “people are definitely sleeping in there!” Instead I proclaimed “why would backpackers be sleeping at this time of night?!” and decided it was best to take matters into my own hands. So I turned on the lights and confidently hoisted my backpack into the bunkroom. At the same time, what looked like 25 robots (but was probably 5 humans) shot up from their beds and squinted at me, hardening their gaze until it was apparent that they were summoning lasers to shoot out of their eyes and kill me. I yelped “Sorry!!! So Sorry!! My Bad!!!” turned off the light, and scampered into the hallway.

For the next few hours I felt uneasy roaming around Siem Reap’s “Pub Street”, convinced that one of the robots was going to defect from their bed and come find me at a bar. Luckily I was able to ditch my paranoia for a bit in order to dance on a table with a Cambodian man wearing a cowboy hat and a shirt that read “Kiss me I’m Irish”. When I tiptoed back into the bunkroom that evening, I didn’t even use the flashlight app on my phone for fear that the robots would recognize my freckles glowing in the dark as I ascended bunk number 11. Perhaps my poor capacity for spatial awareness in the pitch black and also my bad luck in getting assigned a top bunk can account for what happened next.

After being told at least 27 horror stories about people being robbed in Cambodia in the week prior to my departure, I decided that I would lug my giant backpack onto my bunk, where I could sleep with it safely resting on my feet. Silently, I settled into bunk 11 and laid rigid on my back for the next 20 minutes, listening to the curious sounds of robots breathing, until it seemed safe to shift into a more comfortable sleeping position. It was then, at approximately 2:00am, that my right foot nudged the backpack, propelling it off the bed and onto the hostel floor with a deafening thud.

The robots were stirring. I saw my life flash before my eyes. And then – I listened as the robot in bunk 9 claimed responsibility for the thud. It seemed that in a fit of sleepy confusion she thought it was actually her bag that had fallen. Consequently, she erupted in a stream of British expletives and then profuse apologies, all the while requesting that someone hand up her bag. I let the entire ordeal unfold without breathing a word, even though I knew it was going to be impossible to find her bag on the ground, because I am a terrible person who is scared of robots.

I spent the next 2 hours in that restless state somewhere between sleep and crippling anxiety (you know the one!). It was a major relief to hear the chime of my alarm at 4:30 am, at which time I happily vacated bunk 11 and dragged my unruly backpack into the hallway with me. Despite my lack of sleep, I was eager to prepare for a day of sightseeing around the temples of Angkor, beginning with a sunrise viewing of Angkor Wat. Now my only problem was that I hadn’t packed enough temple-appropriate clothing. I had to borrow Molly’s t-shirt, which I immediately soaked through with sweat, leaving her white t-shirt-less for the remainder of the trip. Packing can be such a pain.IMG_3659 IMG_3685 IMG_3684 IMG_3690 IMG_3705 IMG_3718 IMG_3719 IMG_3734 IMG_3756 IMG_3770 IMG_3791 IMG_3803 IMG_3775 IMG_3814 IMG_4635

 On the Night Bus

Recently, I read a book about people who live inside whales. The premise was that all kinds of whales (including, inexplicably, orca whales, which we all know are technically dolphins) actually contain mechanical vessels instead of internal organs. Of course I wholly bought into this work of fiction, even going so far as to re-examine my own iPhoto images of Orcas in the San Juan Islands from two summers ago with a newly skeptical eye. Thus, lying atop a cold, hard surface on Friday night, rocking violently back and forth as water pounded against the windowpane next to me, it was not difficult to imagine that I was trying to fall sleep inside of a whale.

I had boarded the 12-hour “sleeper bus” from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville earlier that evening keen on finally getting some shut eye after two long sleepless days. Touring the largest religious monument in the world during Cambodia’s “hot” season had left me spiritually fulfilled, of course, but physically drained. My friends and I had already experienced our fair share of daytime and overnight bus rides this semester, and like seasoned bussers we arrived at the bus stop armed with makeshift pillows, fully charged i-pods, and motion sickness pills. Veterans though we were, none of us could have predicted what happened next.

The first sign that something was different arose as we handed our tickets to a man standing next to the steering wheel. In exchange for our ticket, the man handed each of us a plastic bag and gestured toward our feet. I should have known then, because who ever heard of taking off your shoes while boarding a bus? But I’ve never been very good at picking up on signs, and besides, I’ve been asked to take my shoes off in loads of places in Thailand. I just figured that since Cambodia is a Buddhist country too, it would have its own set of practices and policies associated with feet (the lowest, rudest, dirtiest part of the body) too.

Clutching my shoes in their little pink plastic bag, I filed onto the bus behind Zoe, who now seemed strangely panicky. As my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I began to realize that the bus was filled with tiny bunk beds. This was exciting! I would have my own bed! On a bus! Then I looked to my left, and noticed that two larger men were sitting across from one another in the same tiny bed. This seemed like a weird choice, but I figured they were probably about to play cards, because that’s what people do on night buses right?

As I scanned the aisle for what I thought was my seat number, but now realized was actually my bed number, it occurred to me that each bunk was labeled with not just one but two different numbers. And then I understood why Zoe was now gesturing wildly at the bus attendant and why those two men had been sitting atop the same bed. It appeared that tonight, we were sleeping with strangers.

Because there were five of us traveling together, it happened that only one (the only boy) would eventually be volunteered to share his less-than-twin size bed with a stranger. I settled into my cozy spot between a metal railing and Molly, and fell asleep immediately. When I woke up three hours later, Molly dragged me out into the Cambodian darkness so we could use the toilets at rest stop that might have also been a brothel. It was there that she informed me we were on a “harrowing journey”. I hadn’t noticed this fact, because I was sleeping.

Despite being awakened to the harrowing nature of our bus, I was still able to sleep, albeit fitfully, for the remainder of the journey. It began to storm in Cambodia that night, so I witnessed rain for my second time in Southeast Asia. I also experienced the odd sensation of being cold, owing to the extreme gusts of air conditioning being funneled onto my feet. And amid all these anomalies in weather patterns, there was a great deal of tipping and bumping and crunching against fatally unpaved roads. So yes, periodically I would wake up and feel like I was inside of a whale, but don’t we all feel that way sometimes?

At the Beach

As a child, I hated the beach. As an adult, I am learning not to hate the beach. Last weekend I spent two days in Southern Cambodia, learning not to hate the beach. The first day I was quite nervous about whether I would last for 2 whole days on the beach, but I pretended not to be. Instead, I mimicked the actions of people who seem to love the beach. I applied my SPF 50 sunscreen and promptly lay down, facing the sun, on a chair. Then I went swimming. Then I returned to my chair. Then I went for a walk. Then I went swimming. Then I had to sit in the shade for the rest of the day because I think I had heat stroke.

On the second day, I was sunburnt, and my gig was up. I announced to my group of friends that I needed to do an activity. I could no longer pretend to be someone I am not. I am not a low-key, relaxed person who enjoys finding sand between her toes weeks after being at the beach. I hate finding sand between my toes. It grosses me out. So my friend Jack handed me a little flyer he had received from man earlier that morning which read (something like) “Boat Trip! $10! Meet at some bar down the road! At 10am!” The rest of my group was rather indifferent about doing an activity, as most seemed content to remain on the beautiful, clean, crowd-less beach where we were staying in a cute hostel called Wish You Were Here (again, I would totally recommend it!)

At 9:58am I marched down the beach to find the man with the flyers. He was right where he said he would be, at the bar, drinking at 9:59am. Beside him was another man, an activity-seeker just like me. He and I waited and chatted while the flyer guy professed to “making calls” and “checking with the boat captain” and finally, asking if we could wait until tomorrow. Neither of us could wait until tomorrow! I had to go back to school! Jackson (my new Australian friend) was going to another island! Finally, I gave up on the boat trip and retreated to my chair on the beach. Since I had no more patience for learning not to hate the beach, I dragged my chair under an umbrella and started doing my homework. That made me feel better.

Just as I was getting into my article about the AIDs crisis in Thailand, a very large shadow was cast over my chair. I looked up to see Jackson (he’s pretty tall), who informed me that he hadn’t given up on finding an activity, and in fact, had already paid for a boat to take him and two other guys to an island for the day. They were leaving now, and would my friends and I like to come with for free? I leaped off my chair and ran into the ocean. Then I had to turn around because I was running toward the wrong boat.

I had a glorious day on Koh Ta Kiev with friends old and new. There were only a couple of boats anchored near the island, and very few people on the shore. I marveled at the beauty of the thick jungle beyond the sand and the warmth of the turquoise waters. We truly had our own slice of paradise for the day, and for the first time in my life I didn’t have to pretend like I was enjoying it. I loved that beach, and I loved that my pursuit for an activity had paid off. The moral of this story is that you should always be yourself.IMG_3852 IMG_3835 IMG_3880 IMG_3871 IMG_3945 IMG_3950 IMG_3966 IMG_3980 IMG_3993 IMG_4682


Civil War in Thailand

If you are looking for a comprehensive briefing of the current political situation in this country, which is indeed teetering on the brink of a small-scale civil war, you came to the wrong place! I am not planning to write about the impending results of Prime Minister Yingluck’s hearing with the anti-corruption committee, nor am I planning to write about the very real possibility of violence if and when the “Red Shirt” government supporters flock to Bangkok to defend their Prime Minister. Instead, I plan to write about my own internal war. A civil war, if you will. With Loneliness. But first, a little inspiration…

Quotes by Notable People About Loneliness

“I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude” – Henry David Thoreau

“People think being alone makes you lonely, but I don’t think that’s true. Being surrounded by the wrong people is the loneliest thing in the world” – Kim Culbertson (I don’t know who she is either)

“All great and precious things are lonely” – John Steinbeck

“Traveling alone was the best decision I ever made… wandering along the path of this spiritual journey… exploring on my own schedule… I love yoga and meditation…” – Every backpacker at every bar in Southeast Asia

Quote by Me About Loneliness

“Sometimes being alone and loneliness are actually the exact same thing and everything is terrible” – Ally Friedman

History & Background of the Ally v. Loneliness Civil War circa 2014 CE

I don’t often mention the challenges of studying abroad on this blog, and if I do say something about struggling, it is usually sandwiched between a few chipper sentences about “learning experiences!” and “personal growth!” For example, in my recent post “A Day in the Life of Me”, I noted that, “I am usually in charge of entertaining myself when I’m not on campus. I have decided this is good for me”.

If I was really being honest with myself on February 26, 2014, I might have written something more like: “I am always in charge of entertaining myself during the awful, interminable hours when I’m not on campus. This has been an excruciatingly lonely experience. I know it’s supposed to be good for me, but I actually think I am going crazy”. I would have mentioned that most of my friends on the program are on very different schedules from me, and that my Thai friends mysteriously appear only at nighttime. I would have mentioned that I’m totally unaccustomed to having “me” time, and that it makes me feel listless and unfulfilled instead of unfettered and free.

I can wax poetic about the merits of “getting to know myself” just as well as the next study abroad-er, but I think that would only detract from the real issue at hand. So let’s not sugarcoat this: it sucks to be lonely in a faraway country. Even when you’re really, really dedicated to inventing activities to occupy your time, and even when you pride yourself on your friend-making abilities, the loneliness will persist. People on the street will be alarmed by your friendliness more often than not, and if you can finagle someone random into a conversation it will only last for a maximum of three minutes until their English skills run out.

A civil war might be a dramatic metaphor for my situation (i.e. privileged girl studying abroad who is spending more time by herself than she is used to) but then again it might be totally accurate. After all, the unity of my most inner being is at stake here: Do I like myself? Do I want to spend time by myself? Do other people want to spend time with me? Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? Is this outfit stupid or cool? These are the questions I have been forced to face in each and every battle of my civil war.

An Un-Chronological Timeline of Battles in my Civil War

Battle of Chiang Mai University Swimming Pool: Typically, this battle-site has been a great place to frequent by myself. I can swim laps in a beautiful, clean, Olympic sized pool and check out the cool back tattoos on all the ex-pat swimmers. Sometimes if I can think of a clever enough conversation starter the other swimmers will even chat with me!

On a recent Thursday, I happened to be the only swimmer in the pool. And although I have never once seen a lifeguard at any pool in Thailand ever, it appeared that a young man had taken it upon himself to assume a kind of life-guarding role. This, despite the fact that I had just explained to him that I was captain of my swim team in high school in Seattle but now I’m in University and I really am a student at CMU even though I know I don’t look like it and so please, please just give me the student discount!

After a few more minutes of discussion, in which this man informed me that he would like to meet later and practice his English, he eventually gave me the student discount, and proceeded to stand on the pool deck for the next 20 minutes and begin our English practice early. This “practice” consisted of the man shouting, whenever I came up for air, a few different variations of “WHY YOU ALONE?!” and “YOU HAVE NO FRIEND?!” and “IS FRIEND MEETING YOU LATER?!” and also “YOU HAVE BOYFRIEND?!”

I began to panic about getting enough air, and also getting enough friends. The 50 meter pool started to feel even more enormous than usual, and even though I was the only one swimming somehow the surface was choppy and I found myself sputtering and choking on chlorine. The man seemed to tire of this amusing “English practice” eventually, leaving me to battle my loneliness in a vast, empty sea of chemicals and water and thoughts about dying alone.

Battle of My Sickbed: I will spare you the details of my nastier bouts with various physical ailments here. Needless to say that being feverish and nauseous and homesick in 100 degree weather is a battle that no soldier should ever underestimate.

Battle of Khelang Street: Within the 30 minute walk to class one morning I managed to convince myself that the knot in my neck was in fact a malignant tumor and after hiding this information from friends rather easily for the past week due to my solitary schedule I was doomed forever and also that I deserved this fate because really I had lost all communication skills and become a hermit. Upon seeing Pegeen and Olivia later that morning, I promptly burst into tears and after confessing my wrongdoings I was able to massage the knot out of my neck in about 15 minutes.

Battle of The Floor in My Room: Indeed, this has been a battleground in a number of my internal wars. Any friend of mine knows to proceed with caution if they enter my bedroom to find me lying on the floor on my back listening to the Indigo Girls (in any country).

Battle of Lampang: This totally wasn’t a battle at all; I just needed an excuse to post some cute pictures of the weekend I spent in my roommate’s hometown. We visited a market, a temple, Few’s grandmother’s house, Few’s boyfriend’s house, and an elephant conservation center. It was an absolute joy to be invited home to meet the family of my Thai BFF, and even more joyous to be booked solid and busy for a whole entire weekend! Few’s sister and father both speak excellent English, and the rest of the family seemed to find me entertaining nonetheless. Although I am not improving at Thai, I think I am improving at knowing when to insert my best Thai phrases (Cute! What is it! Calm down! Hurry!) for optimal hilarity effect.IMG_3589 IMG_3591 IMG_3604 IMG_3623 IMG_3630 IMG_3637 IMG_3640


A Letter to the Editor

Idk how to tell you this but… your A-Z of opium has no Y… unless you did that on purpose because the word was ‘while’ in which case that is pretty cool.  Jeff Crocker, Moscow, ID

Note: The author did not, in fact, intentionally omit the “Y” from her post “Opium from A to Z”. It would seem that she temporarily forgot the alphabet.

Opium from A to Z

Before moving to Thailand, I had never ingested opium in any form other than a poppy seed bagel. Now, I find that opium is constantly on my mind. I live in a perpetual state of need, in which my thoughts are totally consumed by opium in all its forms. This need (to learn more about how opium has irrevocably shaped the history of Thailand and its neighbors) has stemmed entirely from a recent 4-day excursion to Chiang Rai province. For the past week I did nothing but eat, breathe, sleep, discuss, read about, listen to lectures on, and visit historic places related to opium. The only thing I didn’t do was smoke or inject opium! This is because it is a dangerous, illegal drug. But opium wasn’t always illegal in Thailand…

Actually, opium was a legal drug for around 100 years in Siam, until it was out lawed by the Thai government sometime in the mid 20th century. This is a fact I learned from an exhibit in the Hall of Opium, titled “Opium in Siam”. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures in the Hall of Opium, which is really a shame because the museum boasts a very impressive amalgamation of multi-media displays and also some deeply disturbing representations of drug addicts through the ages.

Buffalos are a crucial component of rice production in Thailand, where opium is also produced. Last week I ran and jumped onto the rear of a buffalo, and never got around to blogging about it.IMG_3208

At the same “Buffalo Training Camp”, I also plowed some swamp via buffalo and planted green clumps of grass that supposedly turn into rice even if you are a novice but eager-to-learn farmer like me.IMG_3220IMG_3224

Chiang Rai is both a city and a province in Northern Thailand, and is considered to have been the hub of opium trade and production in the region.

Despite not being allowed to take pictures in the Hall of Opium, I took this picture.IMG_3400These were the first real, live poppies I saw in Chiang Rai and so I felt compelled to snap a photograph whilst the museum guard was thoroughly confused by me asking him a question about how to use the “zoom” feature on my own camera.

Ethnic minorities have played a major role in the development of opium commerce in Southeast Asia. The drug trade benefitted hill tribe peoples, who grew opium near their mountain homes until government intervention and crop substitution projects left them penniless and even more politically marginalized.

First up on our excursion (where we learned a lot about opium!) was the “White Temple”, or Wat Rong Khun, located somewhere near the city of Chiang Rai.IMG_3244

Golden Triangle: where Thailand, Burma, and Laos intersect via two rivers. Behind this sign you can see all three countries! There is opium in all three countries!IMG_3386

Hands at the entrance to the White Temple (presumably grasping for more opium).IMG_3248 IMG_3251 IMG_3252

I climbed on top of these elephants with Pegeen somewhere very close to the Golden Triangle and we screamed “OPIUM!!!!!” at the top of our lungs. Part of this story is a lie.IMG_3423

Just so you know, an opium pipe should be cleaned after 4 or 5 hits.

Kostipat is the last name of the artist who designed the White Temple. His first name is Chalermchai. From what I can gather, Kostipat’s work has generated a lot of controversy in Thailand due to its mixture of traditional Buddhist imagery with more bizarre, contemporary subjects like Star Wars and Osama Bin Laden (both of which are depicted on the interior of the White Temple). Naturally, Pegeen is a huge fan.IMG_3275

Lots of poppy fields have been replaced by tea plantations in Northern Thailand. As you can imagine, tea is not as lucrative of a crop as opium.  Farmers are annoyed.IMG_3314IMG_3342 IMG_3310

Mae Salong is a village in the precise location of “way up in the mountains” that has been deeply influenced by opium, and also China. This is because it is also located very close to the Chinese border. We saw many Chinese characters, drank Oolong tea, and also a woman in the market said “Ni Hao” to me.IMG_3280

Nalgenes might be a good way to store a small amount of opium. I realized this when I accidentally left my nalgene water bottle on the counter of the immigration checkpoint at the border between Thailand and Myanmar on Saturday. I couldn’t believe that of all places I had left my water bottle in a brutal military state! I thought I would never get it back! Then my friend Christina found it and brought it to me. I have been blessedly hydrated ever since.

Opium is very addictive.

Pagodas like this one were maybe built by drug money! Specifically, opium money. After settling into our hotel in Mae Salong, a group of us hiked up almost 800 steps to watch the sun set from this pagoda.IMG_3350 IMG_3351

Quintessential border sign pertaining to opium.IMG_3585

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. used heroin.

Saturday morning I spent some quality time in Burma. If you are confused about why I am referring to Myanmar as “Burma”, it is because I care about human rights. The current regime in Myanmar does not care about human rights. Certainly, the border town of Tachileik is not the #1 tourist attraction of Burma, but still I was thrilled to catch a quick glimpse of the country I have been learning so much about. I was also pleased to be visiting the homeland of my students, most of who hail from Shan State in Burma. A number of contemporary issues in Thailand and Burma are intertwined, and the opium trade is certainly no exception to this trend.

This is the entrance to a temple I saw in Burma. It is beautiful like a field of opium poppies!IMG_3544

Umbrellas are forced upon tourists by adorable Burmese children at this replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Tachileik. I think this umbrella is the color of opium.IMG_3490 IMG_3475

Very few people sell opium in public.

When I was in Burma I witnessed many more adorable child monks than I have ever seen in Thailand (pictured behind me). I hope child monks don’t do opium.IMG_3557

Xylophones cannot consume opium because they are inanimate objects.

While on a riverboat cruise on the Mekong River, we stopped on a island for a quick visit to Laos. As far as I could tell, the island was created merely for the purpose of selling things to tourists. I decided after spending 45 minutes in Laos that the main difference between Thailand and Laos is that scorpion flavored alcohol is sold in Laos. The island just downstream from Laos, on the other hand, is a common hiding place for tons of opium according to our boat driver.IMG_3407 IMG_3413 IMG_3408

Zoe is my friend who I met in Thailand. She loves opium!IMG_3393

A Day in the Life of Me

Although I would love for my blog readers to think that my life in Thailand is really just a constant stream of fantastic adventures, the reality is that I don’t have that many blog readers. Seriously, my hits lately have been at an all time low. I don’t know if it’s because all my friends are also studying abroad this semester, or if people are more interested in Kenya than in Thailand, or if the general quality of my posts has rapidly deteriorated – but whatever it is, “Go Abroad with Ally” is in a time of crisis!

While I figure out a way to restore my blog to its glory days, which I know thanks to were in April 2013, I suppose I should cater to my current readership in the interim. Though I am not known for possessing particularly strong powers of logic or reasoning, even I can deduce that the (pathetic!) 15 hits a day I am averaging are probably from friends and family who really do love me, care about me, and definitely worry about how I am surviving in a Thai city on a day to day basis. Well, these people plus my astoundingly loyal mystery reader from Switzerland.

In order to appease my abysmally small cadre of readers who I love so much (and yes, this includes you my Swiss angel!) I have decided to generously provide a play by play of what I do on a typical weekday in Chiang Mai. Of course my class schedule changes every day, so I can’t be very precise, but I do have some semblance of a routine here. And here is what this routine includes:

Morning I have been waking up very early in Thailand, which at first I thought was just a symptom of jet lag. But now it has been a month. My new theory is that my body may not want to remain lying atop a bed that is only slightly softer than a block of cement. Adding to this discomfort, I sleep in my sleeping bag because I have now purchased three fitted sheets and still can’t figure out where to buy a suitable top sheet or blanket since all Thai bedding is infuriatingly labeled in Thai. I hate my sleeping bag. I have hated my sleeping bag since I bought it for a kayaking trip in the summer of 2008! It really should not be so surprising that I have transformed into a chipper morning person considering that I spend my nights trapped in a sleeping bag designed for -20°F weather in a country where the temperature is surpassing 100°F faster and faster each day.

Upon rising with the sun, I typically make myself a cup of black coffee. For your information, black coffee was extremely difficult to find in Thailand, as almost all kinds of coffee including the instant variety are already spiked with cream and sugar. Which I do not want. Anyway, I have been very pleased with the Nescafe instant black coffee I discovered shoved in a back shelf at a Western grocery store, although I have reason to suspect it contains some kind of amphetamine. I will not discuss this matter further, due to my Nana’s request that I “please do not blog about everything” this time around.

My apartment building has a small gym downstairs, where I run on the treadmill in the morning. It’s not ideal, but I’ve decided running on the treadmill is preferable to dodging superfast motorcycles and vicious packs of dogs on the mean streets of Chiang Mai. Also I am convinced that I am a significantly faster runner on treadmills that measure my speed in kilometers per hour (as opposed to miles). My Thai treadmill exclusively counts in kmph! I am so athletic here!

Class I am currently taking four classes: Thai Language, Buddhism in Southeast Asia, Institutions of Thai Society, and Human Security in Southeast Asia. All of my classes are taught in the Political Science building at Chiang Mai University, which is approximately 30 minutes walking distance from my apartment.  I enjoy walking into the Poli Sci building each day, because I consider myself a dear friend of the man who stands at the entrance to the building and has a mysterious job that entails guarding a gate that is always open. My friend does not allow me to pass through the (open) gate without verifying that his English is improving and coaxing a few words of Thai out of me. He never assures me that my Thai is improving. I fear that it is not. Like all Thai University students, I am required to wear a uniform. My uniform is made up of a white shirt, black skirt, black shoes, belt, CMU belt buckle, button covers, and weird dangly pins for my collar.

IMG_4392You may have noticed from the picture that I have abandoned all the mandated uniform accessories because I am very rebellious. Clearly I have relaxed since my former uniform days as a young schoolgirl in Australia.

IMG_4370The amount of time I spend on campus varies from day-to-day. On Mondays and Wednesdays I don’t get home until nearly 6:00pm, but on Thursdays I am done with class at 10:30am! Between classes we usually eat at cheap places on campus and do homework at coffee shops with wifi. Today I went to the post office and walked to an organic vegetable garden off campus that was labeled on one of my Chiang Mai maps. It was underwhelming.

Afternoon I am usually in charge of entertaining myself when I’m not on campus. I have decided this is good for me. Typically I march around the city and do random errands to occupy my time. I spend a lot of time walking into stores and demanding to know whether they carry my pedantic Western needs (i.e. nail polish, oatmeal, multivitamins, black coffee). For the most part, I feel very comfortable navigating the city on my own. I have discovered many cool and interesting places this way, and one of these days I am definitely going to stumble across some multivitamins!

Evenings By dinnertime I am usually elated to be reunited with other humans. My favorite nights are those when my Thai friends invite me to join them for dinner because they always order me something that I know will be delicious and cheap, and I never have to worry about pointing to pictures on menus and crossing my fingers that I didn’t just order pig’s blood soup (this has happened twice now). Usually we eat at street stalls around campus, and if I have to shell out more than $1 for a Thai meal I am outraged.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings I teach English to a class of beginners at the Migrant Learning Center. Most of my students are Burmese migrants, and all of them are wonderful. I will be writing a separate blog post on my teaching experiences at the MLC based on a collection of photos and stories I have been compiling on my twitter account under the hashtag #AllyTeachesEnglish. Given that I have absolutely zero formal training teaching English as a second language, my classes are always an adventure for everyone involved. To say the least.

Here are some pictures from last weekend which prove that my life in Thailand is mostly just a constant stream of fantastic adventures. Some friends and I biked and hiked our way around a beautiful mountain town called Pai.

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23 Steps to A Very Romantic Valentine’s Weekend

IMG_3130Like many young girls (not all, because you never know what someone is really thinking or what gender they identify as) I have always dreamt of a romantic Valentine’s Day getaway with the person I love. In an exciting twist of fate, my college years have recently led me to a very “special someone”, officially ending the impressive streak of Valentine’s Day singlehood that I have upheld since February 14th, 1993.  As February 14th, 2014 approached, I had high expectations for my first V-day in a serious relationship. I was at once anxious and optimistic about what it would mean to celebrate Valentine’s Day across the world. Upon reflection, I simply cannot believe I ever doubted that my other half would let me down!

IMG_2949We didn’t have class on Friday (Valentine’s Day) due to a Buddhist holiday of which I cannot remember the name at this moment, but which I can assure you is very sacred and involves people walking in circles around temples. Pegeen and I had been anticipating this long weekend with excitement and were looking forward to planning a BFF trip to someplace cool in Thailand. We settled on Ayutthaya (don’t worry I hadn’t heard of it until a few weeks ago either) due to it’s coveted #6 status in Lonely Planet: Thailand’s “Top 20 Experiences” and also due to the frequency with which our professors said “Ayutthaya” in all our classes. It sounded very important.

Never mind that our peers and Thai friends asked “But why?” when we informed them of our plans to visit Ayutthaya! Never mind that half the students on our program went to the beach for the weekend! Ayutthaya was the capital of an ancient Siamese kingdom from 1351 until it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. Like I said, very important. And Pegeen and I were determined to have a fun-filled, culturally stimulating, and thoroughly romantic Valentine’s Day weekend in this ancient capital.

We were quite successful. So successful, in fact, that I have listed 23 steps to properly experiencing your own very romantic weekend in Ayutthaya. I have absolutely no doubt that this very special kingdom is going to be flooded with readers come February 14th, 2015!

1. Make sure Valentine’s Day falls somewhere near the weekend you plan to visit Ayutthaya.

2. Take a night bus from Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya. Please note that there is a footrest hidden under your seat. Pull it down immediately and do not waste 5 hours sleeping with your bare feet stuck between the window and the armrest of the stranger sitting in front of you.

3. Don’t panic when the bus drops you off on the side of a highway at 5:30 in the morning. Just get into the mini-van with the first man who offers you a ride!

4. Continue to neglect panicking if your guesthouse is totally shut down when you arrive there at 6:00am. It might feel a bit like breaking and entering (a subjective feeling, really) but don’t be afraid to open the gate and have a seat on the riverside balcony while you wait for someone to discover you.

5. After consulting the map in your Lonely Planet, start walking in the direction of downtown Ayutthaya in search of the famous temple ruins.

6. It’s okay if you can’t find the ruins at first. Just get in the tuk-tuk with the first man who offers you a ride!

7. When you do arrive in the historic park area of Ayutthaya, walk into the big white temple and look up at the enormous golden Buddha.

IMG_2956 IMG_2961 IMG_29608. After exiting the temple, take a breath of that fresh Ayutthaya air and listen to the city’s theme song (we think it is titled “Ayutthaya”). This musical masterpiece will undoubtedly be blaring from loudspeakers at every historic site you visit.

9. Great news! You are allowed to freely wander around all the different ruins so you don’t have to worry about scaling any ancient walls.

IMG_297610.  Actually, foreigners have to pay 50 baht to get into most of the ruins. However by using Pegeen’s superior Thai skills and flashing your library card you can successfully convince everyone that you are students at Chiang Mai University and obtain a very discounted rate! If you don’t possess CMU library cards I would highly suggest paying the $1.54 USD to see all this cool stuff.

IMG_2984 IMG_2993 IMG_3028 IMG_3033 IMG_3050 IMG_3068 IMG_307411. Make sure you climb on lots of ancient structures – no one is going to stop you!

IMG_2986 IMG_2998 IMG_3011 IMG_309412. Also don’t miss this Buddha in a tree. Apparently he is a big deal.

IMG_306013. Change into your cutest V-day dresses. Walk down the street for a half an hour until you find that restaurant with the live music recommended in Lonely Planet.

14. Don’t be alarmed if lots of Thai couples are wearing matching shirts at dinner. We think it’s just a weird Valentine’s thing.

15. Venture across the city to the street where all the backpackers are supposed to congregate. It’s okay if it appears that no one cool, hip or young has ever been to Ayutthaya – just enjoy the moment singing along to the awful Karaoke band with your beloved!


17. Be careful when walking home. According to Lonely Planet packs of dogs basically run the streets of Ayutthaya after dark, so it’s best to avoid eye contact with anything furry.

18. When you wake up the next morning, try your hardest not to despair about today being your last in Ayutthaya.

19. Just put on a smile and head to the floating market!

IMG_311620. Here you will see lots of vendors lined up along what is basically a giant rickety boardwalk in an undefined body of water (maybe a river?).

IMG_3126 IMG_3114 IMG_312221. Even though you really, really hate massages you should let your soul mate convince you to get a couples massage because obviously this experience would make a very romantic addition to your very romantic weekend. You will hate massages even more after it’s over, but it will only cost $7 and you will be glad you did it in a few weeks… I can only hope.

22.  What kind of romantic weekend getaway doesn’t end in a proposal????

IMG_312823. Lastly, before you board the train back to Chiang Mai, make sure you know that it is an 11-hour ride that will also be delayed by 2 hours. Also be aware that although it might feel like the train is going to crash at any moment, it probably won’t. But then again there is a reason Thailand no longer sells train tickets online. So maybe take the bus back!

The Rest of My Weekend: A Photo Diary

I know this is very unlike me, but I have a lot of photos from this weekend and would prefer to share these images rather than words. You know what they say… a picture speaks louder when you’re using your mom’s camera (thanks mom!)

15:30 – Arrived at Makhampom art space in Chiang Dao (a few hours north of Chiang Mai). Met with employees of Makhampom International Network, toured the property, and learned about performance art and community development.

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16:00 – Visited two nearby houses, one with a roof made from milk tins! Unclear who lives in these houses or why they are so beautiful.IMG_2717 IMG_2713 IMG_2708

17:30 – Settled into our bungalows and explored The Nest, where we stayed the night in Chiang Dao. IMG_2789 IMG_2783 IMG_2756 IMG_2755

20:30 – Spent evening at Shambala in Your Heart Music and Art Festival. Very interesting scene. I made friends with three men (one from Chiang Mai, one from Chiang Rai, and one from Chiang Dao!) who gave me free beer and a candle. I held the candle too close to a bale of hay… Then I hit the dance floor!IMG_2760 IMG_2773

9:00 – Visited sacred Buddhist temple and caves in Chiang Dao National Park. Wandered through dark, deep underground tunnels and saw many cool statues, carvings, and geologic formations. Very pleased that I always keep my headlamp in the front pocket of my backpack. IMG_2862IMG_2800 IMG_2803 IMG_2804 IMG_2822 IMG_2838 IMG_2841 IMG_2846 IMG_2857


17:00 – Back in Chiang Mai, we attended the annual flower festival where Olivia took many pictures of flowers. She loves flowers. IMG_2875 IMG_2881 IMG_2884 IMG_2886 IMG_2889 IMG_2896 IMG_2918 IMG_289919:00 – As we exited the flower festival I asked a man if I could wear his snake for a few minutes. IMG_2945 IMG_2943 IMG_2946

The end!