Hello! I’m Chris Foley and I live in Jacksonville, Florida. I am 16 years old, but I will be graduating a year early from Bartram Trail High School this semester. I was born in a suburb of New York City called Goshen, New York, and moved to Jacksonville in 2005. Although I left behind my dad, my little brother, and many other relatives, Florida has finally become a place that I can truthfully call home.
I live here in Jacksonville with my mom, step-dad, and our dog Finny (the favorite child). My sister, Brianna, lives a few minutes away at the beach. A normal day in my house consists of my mom doing yoga and my step-dad working on a new painting, while Finny chews all of our shoes.
I love to travel, meet new people, play many instruments, and collect records. Among my favorite types of music are jazz, soul, folk, and hip-hop. I am very excited to go overseas and discover new types of music and new cultures. I also enjoy biking, skateboarding, soccer, and anything else outdoors.
After seeing a few friends of mine experience an exchange I am very excited to embark upon my own. Thanks to everyone who worked hard to make this happen!
August 19 Journal
Today is the two-week point of my life here in Thailand. The last two weeks have been very exciting, eventful, and confusing. I landed in Bangkok, a day later than expected, and I didn’t know what to expect. I went to get my bags and Alina (Outbound to Thailand) came along because her connecting flight to Phuket was not until the next morning. We soon found out that our baggage was still in Tokyo, but we couldn’t be mad because the Thai Airways man we spoke with was just too nice to us. We went to search for my second host family, who had offered to come and pick me up. When we found them, they put a flower necklace around my neck (I don’t know the name of this yet, but I’ve seen so many of them) and gave both Alina and me a rose. It was impossible for us to explain Alina’s situation to them in Thai. Eventually, they understood what the situation was, except for Alina’s problem. I said goodbye to her and left with my second host family, without any bags. On the ride from Bangkok to Ban Chang, we had confusing conversations. We went to eat somewhere (at 1 AM) and then went to their home. As much as I wanted to see everything and chat, I was tired and I went to sleep.
In the morning, we ate rice and meat (breakfast here is usually leftovers from dinner the night before). My first host dad came to pick me up and we went down the road to my new home. Later on, I met my host mom and host brother, Pon. I have another host brother who I haven’t met yet because he is in Canada for summer camp until next week. We went out to eat quite often when I first arrived. I ate some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had. My host mom and dad were surprised that a “farang” can like so many Thai foods and fruits. They told me I must have been a Thai person in another lifetime. So on my first day in my new home, my host dad took me sightseeing around Ban Chang and to the beaches nearby. Everything was very beautiful. At night we went out to a restaurant on the beach, literally. After we ate, I was taken back to my second host family because O was leaving for Orlando the next morning. At their house, I met many of O’s friends and we played ping-pong and “poking” (a type of poker that I’ve never played). I made many friends on this night. We stayed up all night because O’s flight didn’t leave until 6 AM. I’m sure this didn’t help my jet lag situation too much, but I got my bags back from the airport! We said goodbye to O, took some pictures, and then left. On the way back, around 7, we all woke up in the van because we stopped to eat some heavy food for breakfast. Soon I was back at my first host house and I slept for a long time.
The next few days were spent adapting to my new life. I got to know my host family and I really like them! Anytime I have a problem, they are always there to help. My host dad speaks English, which is good because I can ask him how to say anything in Thai and he tells me what is in all the food we eat. My host mom and host brother, Pon, are both learning English (they’re pretty good!) so sometimes we speak English and sometimes Thai. In the end, we both get better at the language we are trying to learn. Pon always likes to play games and ride bikes, which is fine with me because that reminds me of my little brother back in the U.S.
Two days after my arrival it was my birthday. My host parents knew this and they planned for us to go to Pattaya for dinner. My family does not make a big deal out of birthdays, which made me feel better because my host mom’s birthday was three days after mine and I was worried about what to do. We ate dinner, saw some sights in Pattaya, then went home. It was a very nice night.
Before I knew it, I was in school. Thai high schools started about 2 or 3 months ago so I had to start right away. I was delighted to find that the same friends I made at O’s house were in my classroom. When I walked in, the room exploded with noise. Everyone was excited and wanted to talk to me. Everyone came up to me and tried to speak English. They told me their names, but I forgot them just as soon as they told me. It was not stressful or overwhelming, just fun. My classroom here is very different from the classes in the U.S.A. There are hardly any dull moments. We joke around, sing and play songs with a guitar, and play football in the back of the class. Of course, these are all when the teachers are not in the room. Teachers switch from classroom to classroom here, rather than the students. Many teachers in my school teach in English because they are foreigners who came here to do so. I talked to all of these teachers, but it makes me bored because I want to be able to speak to the Thai teachers. All in all, I love my school. Now I know almost everyone’s nickname and my friends speak to me in Thai. I play basketball after school, and everyone asks me to dunk. My school is for kids of all ages. Everyday a little boy will come up to me and wave to me or shake my hand, or I will hear someone yell out “Kiss-toh-fer.” Everyone knows me, but I don’t know them, so I just smile and wave.
After my first day, a group of girls asked me if I wanted to go to some temples in Rayong over the weekend. So I got to go to many beautiful temples and we had a great time. My new friends told me that they are happy when I smile and they hoped I had a good time. Many times they would ask me, “Are you boring?” I haven’t been bored since I arrived here!
I’ve been to so many places in the past two weeks. I went to Pattaya one more time (for my host-mom’s birthday), Bang Na on Thai Mother’s Day/ The Queen’s Birthday (a quiet town north of here), the beach near Koh Samet (very beautiful!), and Bangkok (a very fun weekend!). I can’t wait to see more!
November 17 Journal
Well it’s been almost three months since my last journal. My life has changed so much in those last three months. I wasn’t looking forward to writing this journal, but I want to let everyone know what’s been going on.
First, the bad news. Everything about my exchange seemed to be working out perfectly. My first host family was awesome and I was glad to be in Thailand. On September 17, 2008, my father passed away. The morning that I found out was the worst, weirdest day of my exchange. I felt like I was still asleep and I just needed to wake up for real this time. I realized it was all true and I wanted to instantly transport home. My mom set up a flight for the next day. The day that I had to spend in Thailand before I left felt like an eternity. My host family was very supportive, and whatever they could think of doing for me, they did. I asked to go buy presents for my mom, my brother, and my sister because I didn’t know what else to do. The next night I left for the airport at 2 AM and flew out of Bangkok at 6 AM. Then I was alone. For 30 hours I thought. I tried to make sense of everything, but then it would become overwhelming and I had to stop. I cried so much when I found out in Thailand. The strange thing is, I hardly cried, or felt any emotion, on the way back to the U.S.A. I was numb to everything, and the jetlag made my mind even fuzzier when I arrived in NY. I was met by my sister, my aunt, and her kids. I expected to cry a lot when I saw my sister, but we were excited to see each other, so it was blocked out for the moment.
I am not going to explain how my father died or what happened within the time that I was in NY. All I will say is that there was a wake, a funeral, and all my family came together to support each other. If I didn’t have such a big family, I might have decided to stay in NY to be with my brother. So I decided that I would come back to Thailand. On the same day, my sister flew back down to Florida and I flew out to Thailand. At a time like that, you are never sure what the right thing to do is or how to act. It is the most difficult thing that anyone can ever go through. My dad was my best friend and I will never stop missing him. With that said, know that in every day in Thailand since then, I think of him.
Life here is very busy. When I got back I hung out with some friends in my town and played basketball with my friend Atom at the local park almost every night. In October, I went to Chantaburi for the inbound camp at Jaolao Beach Resort. I went three days early to stay with some of my inbound friends there because my host family was going away that week. At Jaolao, I got to meet everyone. It was instantly a good time, as it mostly is with exchange students. The camp was 5 days long and was a mix of volunteer work (beach clean-up, paint a fence, etc.) and relaxation.
After the camp, I went to Pattaya twice to travel with my friend Adrian from Mexico and his host family. The first time we went to Apmpawah, a place famous for its floating market in the canal. We went to four temples by boat, which would’ve been more fun if it wasn’t raining the whole time. Regardless of the rain, it was good to see this aspect of Thailand. A few days after this trip, I was invited to travel with them again. This time we went to Koh Laan, a nice island off the coast of Pattaya. It was a more relaxing trip; we were either on the beach or eating the whole time. We stayed for two days then took the ferry back to Pattaya and I went home.
I changed host families shortly after I got home from Pattaya. I liked my first host family a lot and they had done so much for me. I was sad to say goodbye to them, although I knew I would see them again. My new family is great. I now live about 5 km from where I used to live. My host father is a doctor and my host mother used to be a nurse, but now she stays home to take care of the boys. I have three younger host brothers here. Their names are Bink (14), Boom (11), and Book (9). My host parents can both speak English, but I asked my host mom to speak to me in Thai. She asked me to speak English with Bink because he wants to practice. My two other brothers don’t understand when I speak English, so I speak Thai. Weekdays with this family are usually filled with school and either tennis (for Bink) or swimming (for Boom and Book). It works out well because I play basketball in the same place where Boom and Book swim, so we can go together. On the weekends, Bink and my host mom always go to Bangkok so Bink can practice tennis. Last weekend I went with them. I got to see the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace in Bangkok. We stayed at my host grandmother’s house. It is always filled with people, so I never really know who is related to my host family and who actually lives there. The next day I went to Jatujak market (a huge market in Bangkok) with my new host cousin, Poom. He was an exchange student in Kentucky two years ago.
This week was a busy one. On Monday and Tuesday I played on the school basketball team for the first time. After school on Monday, the coach taught me all the plays, which is difficult to remember in itself, let alone in Thai. We played at a park in Rayong, which I’d never seen before, called “Suan see muang” (purple garden). They had an announcer and every time I went for a lay-up or took a shot, he would say “Kiss-Toh-Fer!” We lost both games, but I was just happy to play and that I could understand the coach in Thai.
Wednesday was a holiday in Thailand called Loy Gratong. It is a celebration on the full moon day in November where everyone makes a “gratong” out of banana tree, banana leaf, flowers, a candle, and incense. At night, people gather at a body of water, light their candles and incense, and float their “gratong.” Some people fly paper or plastic lamps, by lighting a wick on fire under it. It works like a hot air balloon, just without people in it. It’s a very beautiful celebration, with lots of people, music, lights, and food. During the day on Wednesday I was in a competition at school for Mr. and Mrs. Loy Gratong. I had to dress up in traditional Thai costume and wear make up on my face. The costume was shiny gold and I felt like Prince. In the U.S., I would’ve definitely been laughed at, but at my school a lot of people told me I looked handsome. When me and my partner Janny came out, we got the loudest cheers. Janny and I made it into the final 3, which meant that we would have to show some kind of talent. Janny did a Thai dance routine and I played guitar and sang the Loy Gratong song in Thai. I won the prize for “Kwan Jai,” which means something like popular vote, and “Nai Napamahs,” which meant that Janny and I won the contest! It was a good feeling to win and an even better feeling to change out of that costume (it was too hot!). Before I went home, a few of my friends asked me to play and sing the Loy Gratong song for them one more time. Later I went to a “Ngaan Wat” or festival at the temple, for Loy Gratong. It was held near a temple at the beach. There were lights from hundreds of gratongs in the water and lights from the flying lamps above the water. There was a stage with singers and Thai dancers and many food stands. It was a good time; I even saw a few of my friends there.
I am starting to feel more at home in Thailand and less like a tourist. My Thai is coming along well. Now I can read and write, which makes it easier to study. I speak to most of my friends in Thai now, although a lot of them can speak English. Many Thai people are very surprised that I can speak to them in Thai. I can remember when my friends used to tell other people “poot tai mai dai” or “He can’t speak Thai.” Then it changed to “poot tai nit noy” or “he speaks some Thai.” Recently people have told me “poot tai geng!” or “You speak Thai well!” It’s nice to be reminded that you are making progress. Of course, there are still times when I’m completely lost, but I’m confident that I can fill in those gaps by the end of this year. I have a lot of awesome friends here and that’s the main reason I want to keep learning every day.
I have to say thanks to Rotary, not just for making this experience possible, but also for taking care of me during one of the saddest times of my life. The Rotarians I know back at home and the travel agency made it possible for me to go home and be with my family. I want all exchange students to be sure that if anything happens, that support will be there. This exchange has helped me to live with losing my father; I have no doubt about that.
February 14 Journal
This morning I woke up refreshed because for the first time in a long while I’d gotten a long night of sleep. As the “cool” season comes to an end, the weather shifts back to very hot. Students are happy because after the final exams, summer vacation will begin. The mangoes and berries in our back yard are ready to be picked and eaten for dessert. Everyone I come across seems as happy as I am that this time is here.
As for me, I am happy for many reasons. I’m happy because I have all of my friends here in my city and around Thailand. I’m happy to make many new friends every week. I’m happy because I feel at home every time I walk in the door of my house and because I can talk to my mom about anything. I’m happy because I can go swimming at the beach and play basketball every night. I’m happy for the new experiences that present themselves every day.
Although some things have changed here, I always remain very busy. This is not me complaining. This is the best type of being busy that I’ve ever experienced. I am busy enjoying myself. Traveling with friends, going to temples, shopping at markets… even going to school is really entertaining. After this week, we will have a 2 or 3 month vacation. I am excited, but now it will be more difficult to see a lot of my friends. My school is a private school, so many students come from surrounding cities to study there.
Last night I went with all of my friends from my classroom to eat a pork buffet. This is the best place to go eat with a big group of people. You can take any variation of raw pork from the buffet and bring it back to your table to cook it over hot coals. They even had pork heart and stomach, but I guess I wasn’t… in the mood to eat it (I’m afraid to try it : p). I like everyone from my class so much and I’ve gotten to know all of them really well. I don’t have to say goodbye to them yet… but soon they’ll go off to different universities and I’ll stay here.
In December I went with my exchange friends on the first Rotary trip. We went to the Northeast (Isaan) and North of Thailand. In the Northeast we ate a lot of sticky rice and somtam (a spicy papaya salad). We traveled along the Maeklong River, seeing many views of Laos on the other side. During the days we went to see temples, waterfalls, orchid farms, and other cool places. After going up through the northeast, we reached the Golden Triangle. This is the area along the River where Thailand meets Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. Then, we went to a temple (Wat Rong Kuun) in Chiang Rai, which was the most amazing I have seen in Thailand. The outside is filled with statues of Buddha, dragons, skeletons… all completely white. It sparkles in the sun and looks spectacular. Inside the temple is a shrine to Buddha (as in all temples) and murals on all the walls. The murals are so cool because they’re modern art style. There is even one part that depicts the World Trade Center. After visiting this temple, we went on to Chiang Mai.
Staying in Chiang Mai was definitely the best part of the trip. It’s a very nice city, with the excitement of Bangkok, but a lot cleaner and nicer looking. Many Thai people travel to this city during the cool season because this is where the coldest weather in Thailand can be found. We went to markets, the zoo, a mountaintop, a hill-tribe village, a Mexican restaurant, a disco, and stayed in a massive hotel. We even got to ride elephants. We had a Christmas celebration together… Secret Santa and a foreign-style dinner. The gifts we gave to each other were funny… some were nice but most of them were jokes. The time spent with exchange student friends is always fun, no matter where we go. When I got back home I had no time to settle down because we were off to Bangkok for New Years. I counted down the last sixty seconds of 2008 (or 2551 by the Buddhist calendar) with what felt like the rest of everyone in Bangkok in an area called Siam. I realized how difficult it is to count backwards in Thai! In Thailand, a lot of people give presents on New Years… I got a few from friends and family I didn’t miss my familiar traditions during the holidays this year, but I thought about my family a lot. After New Years, we went to Hua Hin, where the King lives during the summer.
After the holidays, I got back into the swing of normal life at home. I was happy to go back to school to see my friends and hear what everyone did during the holiday break. Unlike most schools in Thailand, my school had a Christmas break because it’s a Catholic school. I went to Bangkok two different times… each time to say goodbye to a Brazilian. Two of my exchange friends had to go home because they came half a year earlier than the rest of us. However, we all had a lot of fun together in Bangkok both times. Bangkok is so different from any other city I’ve ever been to. It’s colorful, crowded, old and new at the same time, and exciting. There are taxis of all different colors, tuk-tuks everywhere (3-wheeled motorcycle taxis, which can fit a surprising number of people), food stands everywhere, canals, markets on sidewalks, and many nice malls. Also, you can find foreigners from every ethnicity on Kao San road… a place where many backpackers can be found. It’s a cool road to go to because they always have something interesting, like drum circles or elephants walking down the crowded street.
Last weekend I went to Pattaya, where my friend Adrian lives. Two other exchange student friends came too. Adrian's Rotary club had a bed race and we raced in it! It was so funny because each team decorated their “bed” (most were actually chairs on carts) in a different way. We raced a team of foreigner cross-dressers, a team of proud Irishmen, and so many more. Pattaya has many foreign residents and most of the Rotarians were farang. We didn’t win but it was fun. Afterwards we got to ride go-karts for free! At night, we ate dinner on the deck of a mall, with a nice view of the sea, dotted with the lights from the boats out on the water.
Last Monday, the day of the full moon, there was a Thai Buddhist holiday called Wan Mahka Bucha. I went with Adrian and his host family to a huge temple near Bangkok (I forgot the name but I’m sure it’s the biggest in Thailand). This temple has a stupa made from solid gold. At the bottom of the stupa were hundreds of monks sitting in meditation. Everyone sat next to one of the thousand metal lanterns they had set up on the grounds near the stupa. Many foreigners came to this celebration, even the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka came and made a speech. The monks chanted, and then everyone meditated together for about 15 minutes. Finally the lanterns were lit and fireworks were set off before the Luang Por (Head/ Eldest monk) spoke. A procession of people holding candles walked around the stupa three times. The full moon shone over all of this. It was amazing.
I’ve become used to the things which seemed so foreign and new to me only 5 or 6 months ago. Sometimes I have to stop myself and say like “Wait, there’s an elephant walking past me” or “I’m eating grasshoppers on the beach right now.” I’m still speaking Thai every day and steadily improving. I love to speak to Thai people, I can’t explain it but it’s very different from speaking English. The best thing for me to hear is when people ask me, “How many years have you lived here?”
So, here I am, at the 6 month point in my exchange, and now I know why everyone always says that going home is the curse of this year. I hadn’t thought about it until I had to pick a date to return. In some ways I feel like I’ve just gotten here, and in some ways I feel like I’ve lived here forever. I still have a lot of time left, and there’s still a lot I want to do. So I will continue to make the most of every day, and stay tuned for more. ^ ^
April 28 Journal
Today is a perfect day to write a journal because it is the hottest day of the year in Thailand. Leaving the house doesn’t become appealing until the evening time, in this time of year. As usual, a lot has happened since I last wrote.
At the end of March all of my exchange student friends met again to go on a tour in the south of Thailand. This meant that we would be relaxing on Thailand’s most beautiful beaches, cruising on speedboats to picturesque islands, and snorkeling in the blue waters. However, this also meant that we would have to sit on the bus for hours and hours until we could get to paradise, but the bus rides are always fun when you’re with all of your friends.
Before we knew it, we had arrived in the South. In the South, the food, scenery, accent, and people are quite different from where I live. In Krabi, we went by speedboat to many small islands, where we swam with schools of tropical fish. After going around to about 4 different islands, we were all exhausted and slept on the bus to Pha Nga. In Pha Nga we went on a boat tour in the Bay, where we saw towering limestone cliffs emerging spontaneously out of the water. In some spots, small villages built on stilts were hidden at the base of the formations. We got off the boat at “James Bond Island,” an island where “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed. Here, we had fun taking jumping pictures and James Bond style pictures. From Pha Nga, we got on a ferry boat, for a 4 hour ride to the Similan Islands. This was the best stop on the tour. The water was the clearest and bluest here. When we arrived, we were all pretty tired of sitting on the boat. As soon as the boat anchored, we all started to jump off the boat and swim right away. Most of us swam to the island instead of getting a ride from a smaller boat. None of us wanted to stop swimming, but a storm rolled in so eventually we had to get out.
For two nights we stayed in tents on Similan. Those were two very uncomfortable nights, but I have no complaints because in the mornings, we woke up to paradise. We also got to go explore the other islands in the archipelago (I think there were 8 in all). On one island, we climbed up to the highest point, to a rock formation that resembles a sailboat. Here we took way too many pictures, probably because we weren’t ready to climb back down after the trek to the top. At the bottom we went snorkeling some more and saw so many cool fish and coral. The rest of the day was spent snorkeling around some of the other islands. On that day I found NEMO!! There were 4 Nemo fish swimming around a big chunk of neon pink coral. Even though it hurt my ears, I swam down many times to get a closer look. On Similan, I got to see giant crabs that live on land, not in the sea. I got to watch the sunset while swimming in a lagoon filled with coral and tiny fish. I got to see more stars in the sky than I have ever seen before in my life. I even saw a shooting star. Needless to say, I enjoyed staying on Similan so much and I would love to go back some day. After Similan, we made our way to Phuket (a 4 hour boat ride back to Pha Nga and a 2 hour bus ride from there). We watched the sunset over the beach when we got to Phuket. While staying there, we went to an aquarium, Central (the big mall, which they have in every big city in Thailand), and the Puket FantaSea show. After Phuket, the rest of the tour was spent on the bus going back home. The tour was very amazing and I will never forget it. Sadly, I had to say goodbye to some exchange friends, who I know I won’t likely meet with again. I won’t soon forget them.
So I headed back home, back to real life… kind of. When I arrived at home, I knew I had to switch families very soon. I took a short trip to Bangkok with my second family, and then it was time to move already. I was sad to say goodbye to my second family… I lived with them for 6 months and felt very close to them, but I know I will see them again often. I knew my third family, the Lee family, before I moved in. They were the ones who picked me up from the airport last August. Of course, last August I couldn’t speak with them because they couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Thai. Well, now they still can’t speak English, but luckily I can speak Thai . They were happy and relieved to see that we could talk together. Their son, O, is an exchange student in Orlando this year. Since I moved in life has been pretty easy at my new home. It’s still summer break for me, so I can relax. My host father sells pork, and takes me to the farms sometimes. It’s not the most exciting thing to do, but the locations are very beautiful. Sometimes, I forget how beautiful my province of Thailand (Rayong) is until I go to the rural parts.
In my new family, I have 2 younger sisters, Aey and Eye. Right now they are studying the summer term at school, but when they are home we play badminton and basketball, or watch Korean TV shows together (Aey likes everything Korean, as do many Thai people). The Lee family is of Chinese ancestry. My new home is full of Chinese things. We also have a lot of animals… 3 dogs (I think), 2 cats, 3 kittens (just born a week ago!), a GIANT fish, some smaller fish, and a turtle. I’ve learned a lot about Chinese culture since moving here. Although both my host mother and father were born in Thailand, they preserve their Chinese background. My family takes a trip to China every year. My host parents can speak some Chinese too.
Last week was Songkran festival in Thailand. This is a 3-day long festival where everyone throws water and puts powder on each other. I decided to go to Bangkok, to a road called “Tanon Kaosan.” This road is known for having a steady flow of tourists and backpackers. I was afraid that it would be all foreigners there on Songkran, but actually it was mostly Thai people. I think all of the foreigners went to other places because of the problem with the Red Shirts protesting in Bangkok. I won’t go into this issue because it would take a long time to explain and maybe I would explain it incorrectly. To make a long story short, right now there are some differing views about the government in Thailand and the Red Shirts want the government to change. But not to worry, because on Tanon Kaosan there was no problems and I had an amazing time during Songkran. I went with two exchange student friends, Jean-Phillipe from Quebec and Adrian from Mexico. For 3 days we went around throwing water, shooting water, playing with powder. We met some friends and made new friends. For those 3 days everyone on Kaosan seemed to be so happy. I can’t think of a better holiday to have in the hottest month of the year. So, the official Songkran came to an end, but I went back home to play one more day with my family. We got in the back of my host dad’s pick-up truck, equipped with 2 giant barrels of water, buckets, and water guns, then drove down the main road, stopping at every big group of people for a quick water fight. Still, I felt I really wasn’t finished with Songkran, so I went to Pattaya to play one more day with Adrian. Some cities like to throw water on later days than the rest, which means I get to play more
Rak tuk khon!
June 25 Journal
Once again, another 2 months have passed by in the blink of an eye and I find myself struggling to remember all that I did in that time. I can start by saying that I'm very happy with my last host family. We speak only in Thai together and that has definitely helped me to top off my language skills. The time I spend with them is always passed very easily. My host mom and host dad work pretty hard during the day, so by the time all there jobs are finished and they get home, we just eat dinner together and relax. Our favorite TV show to watch together is a Korean game show, called X-Man, dubbed in Thai. Sometimes, during the day, they take me and my two younger sisters along with them to check on the farms and the new house they are building in a town called Baan Kaai. I'm happy because we have all grown closer over the short amount of time spent together.
In the past few months I started to go see a bunch of concerts, mostly in Bangkok. The best part is, most of them are free. I've really taken a liking to Thai music, of various types. So far, I've seen some Rock, Indie, Jazz, Reggae, and Ska concerts. The best one was a music festival in Hua Hin called Summerfest. A lot of famous Thai bands played on a stage set up on the beach, to a crowd of thousands of people. Eventually the tide rose and everyone was splashing around, trying to dance in the sea.
My mom and my sister came to visit!
I was a little worried about their visit to Thailand because even the day they came, I had only a vague plan of where I would take them. As soon as I met them in the airport (wearing my student uniform of course :p) I realized it didn't matter because anything we did together would be fun. I took them around Bangkok for a day, showing them the popular temples, Wat Po and Wat Arun. My mom and my sister enjoyed the original Thai massage at Wat Po before taking a ferry across the JaoPraya River to Wat Arun. I was glad that my mom and my sister liked to try all kinds of Thai foods. Thai food is the cheapest food here and, in my opinion, the best.
We headed two hours east, back to my city and my first host father took us to stay in a hotel overlooking the beach. That night we ate at a restaurant on the beach... me, my mom, my sister, and all of my three host families throughout this year. It was nice to see all of my host families meet my real family. My mom (the real one) really liked the fried, whole fish we ate, something you don't see much in the states. The next day, my second host mom picked us up from the hotel and brought us to the market under a hospital (I think of it as the secret market), "kao chee jan" (the mountain with the golden Buddha image engraved on it), a vineyard, Wihan Xien (a Chinese temple), and a floating market. These were some of the first places my friends took me to see when I first got here. Next we headed to the island off the coast of my city, called Koh Samed, where we stayed for two nights. Here we got to go swimming, eat a lot, and see a fire show on the beach at night time.
After taking the boat back to the mainland, the plans were pretty much up in the air. We headed back to Bangkok, where my friend Adrian joined us. We searched for a hotel for a long time, until we got lucky and found a really nice one. In this hotel, each room has a different theme, a different design and you can choose which one you like from a catalog. In the lobby they like to play American 80's music which my mom likes to dance to as she walks up the stairs and accidentally hits her head on the ceiling. :p Adrian and I got massages in the hotel while my mom and sister went for pedicures, etc. across the street. Then we enjoyed eating "Thai style" at one of the street vendors. Here you can eat for about a buck each.
Next day was set aside for Jatujak Weekend Market... the biggest market in Southeast Asia (or maybe just in Thailand). At JJ, you can buy pretty much anything, from clothes to pets. It was really crowded and hot as usual, so my mom and sister didn't enjoy it as much as I thought they would. At the hotel, we saw a brochure for a resort in the South and decided to head South next instead of North... my mom liked the idea because it meant less hours on the bus. So the next day we headed to Lumra Resort in Prachuap province. We got off the bus, after about 5 hours, where the resort worker told us to. She told us to wait, that there would be a "car" coming to pick up. Well, I forgot that in Thai the word "rot" can mean either car or motorcycle. Our ride showed up.... a motorcycle with a side cart type thing, which has a bench seat on it. We buzzed through some very quiet roads near the beach until we reached our resort about 15 minutes later. The resort was very... quiet. In fact, I'm sure we were the only guests there. :p I think this was the point where my mom started to lose trust in my trip planning skills.
In the morning, we did some yoga, took a walk on the beach, then hired a guy to take us to see a temple on top of a hill nearby (very nice view) and then to the train station. We took a train that's free for Thai people, only a small fee for foreigners (less than $1 each). On this train there's no air, and just normal seats, nothing special. I enjoyed cruising through the jungle-like landscape, but by the time we reached Chumpon, it was clear my mom didn't enjoy it much at all. Not to mention I didn't have a hotel booked or a plan of how to get to the popular island in that area, Koh Tao. When we got off the train, a lady called us over and solved all of our problems, booked a hotel and tickets for a ferry to Koh Tao. The next day we got on a commercial catamaran and clipped through the waters of the Gulf of Thailand to Koh Tao.
The best part of our stay on this island was snorkeling. My sister and I went exploring for a good beach to snorkel at. Finally we found the best one, with neon colored coral and multicolored fish swimming around it. It was my sister's first time snorkeling and she really liked it, so it was worth the grueling walk back up the side of the mountain. We stayed for two nights on that island then headed back to Bangkok again. Then it was time to say goodbye to my mom and sister... again. We got to sleep a few hours before I sent them to the airport. I hope they go back with a lot of good things to tell their friends about Thailand!
Today is the last day I have to send in this journal because for about the next 11 days, I won't be able to use a computer. Tomorrow, I'll be going to stay at Wat Samnakatorn, a local temple. I will study some prayers in Sanksrit and help out around the temple, until I ordain to become a "Nayne" (a novice monk who is under 20). I'll stay at the temple for 7 or more days and wear the scarlet robes. And yes... that means I'll shave my head and eyebrows too.
So be sure to check my next journal for pictures!
July 21 Journal
A good chunk of my time here in June was spent in one place: the temple. I had told my family that I was interested in becoming a monk for a week or two, and they were more than happy to help me out. I would ordain as a “Nayne,” or novice monk. Once you are 20 years old or older, you can ordain as an actual monk, or “Pra.” A novice monk has just 10 rules and prohibitions to follow, whereas a monk must follow some 273. So one day, we decided to go see the “Luang Por,” or head monk, at the local temple. My host dad asked Luang Por if it was possible for me to ordain in June. Luang Por agreed and said the day to ordain would be on the 13th. However, he asked that I stay at the temple for a week before that date and wear all white clothes. In this stage I was called “Naak,” or someone who is going to ordain in the near future. As a Naak, you must observe the temple lifestyle, study the books of prayers/ chants (called “Suat Mone”), and help with chores around the temple. Normally, novice monks don’t have to go through this stage, but the Luang Por wanted me to get a full experience at the temple. Also, I was the only one ordaining as a novice monk on the 13th.
So, for the first week, I stayed at the temple, wearing all white, along with about 7 other Naak. I became good friends with all of these guys. We worked together, ate together, and they helped me memorize the part of the “Suat Mone” that I was to recite on ordination day. These guys were all in their twenties, except for one who was older. I learned that it’s tradition for Thai men to ordain as a monk in their twenties. They ordain for their family, but mostly for their mothers. When a mother’s son ordains, it’s believed that she will receive a lot of merit and go to heaven. Most guys ordain for 3 months or longer. To me, this seemed like a long time, especially when you have a job or a family. However, ordaining is a very respectable thing to do in Thailand. Families and bosses alike are glad to make it possible for a young man to ordain.
The first day at the temple, I felt very anxious and had convinced myself by the end of the day that I didn’t want to go through with the ordination. But, I went back the second day and I changed my mind back again. On the second day, I met more people; even found that two of the monks could speak English. I started to see the temple as a different place, a nice place. I realized that no one forces you to do anything while you stay there. My roommate was a 13-year-old novice named Say. He came from Laos about 6 months ago, but already speaks better Thai than I do. He had a head start because Lao is very similar to Thai. Many of the words are the same, but the tones are sometimes different.
I had to memorize about 4 pages in the Suat Mone in about 5 days. The Suat Mone is not in Thai, but in an Indo-Aryan language called Pali (the language of the Buddha), written in Thai characters. The Pali language is one with no written characters, so it must adapt to the language in the region where it’s being studied. Many of the monks were surprised to see that I could read Thai. If I wasn’t able to read it, I don’t think I would’ve been able to memorize it. I knew ordaining would take a lot of language skill and that’s why I waited until the end of my year to do it. So I studied those 4 pages day and night, read the translations in Thai, recited them back to the monks. One monk who helped me the most in memorizing the Suat Mone was nearly blind (he had some peripheral vision) and deaf in one ear. He can recite the entire Suat Mone in order, and knows what material is on which page. He brought out coffee, sugar, and a mug full of hot water every time I came to practice reciting the Suat Mone. It amazed me how well he could maneuver around with just a small amount of vision.
On June 12th, we didn’t have to wake up at 4:30 AM because it was the day for the Naak to get their heads and eyebrows shaved. After eating lunch, the ceremony started. My current host family and my second host mom came to the temple on this day. All of the Naak sat in a row of plastic chairs as people came up and cut off the hair, piece by piece. On this day, anyone is pretty much free to come up and touch your head, something that’s usually frowned upon in Thailand. Of course, they say sorry and “wai” to you after they finish. So, I watched all of my hair pile up in a bowl made from banana leaf, until I sensed I had none left. My host father was the first to cut my hair, then my other host relatives, followed by anyone else who wanted to cut a piece for good luck and merit (a lot of people wanted to cut my hair :p). Then a monk, “Luang Ruung,” came to shave my head first, then my eyebrows. After he finished, they poured water on me and told me to go take a shower. My head burned a little bit… this was the first time I’d ever shaved my head.
But the day didn’t end there. I got dressed in dry, white clothes, covered by a special, fancy shirt, made especially for the Naak. We loaded into the back of pick-up trucks sitting on plastic chairs, holding 3 lotus flowers and 3 incense sticks in our hands. Each truck had somebody holding a large, colorful umbrella to shade the Naak from the hot, afternoon sun. The motorcade was about 6 pick-ups in length. The truck at the front wasn’t full of Naak, but a traditional Thai band, which played loudly as we paraded through the town of Samnakatorn to a temple in Yelah. It wasn’t a far ride, but I felt very special as people stopped what they were doing to get a look at the soon-to-be monks. I heard most people make a comment about the “Pra Farang” (foreign monk)… maybe it’s something they’ve never seen or expected to see.
We arrived at a Chinese temple and proceeded inside. We went through the various rooms of the temple, to “wai” to the shrines inside and pay homage. When we exited the temple, I was surprised to see my best friend, Atom, standing there. He had come home from his university for the weekend, saw the motorcade, and followed it to the temple. We had to get back into the trucks, but Atom said he would follow us back to our temple. So I got back to Wat Samnakatorn and ate my last dinner for 1 week with Atom. That night we had a festival at the temple… people came to dance to their favorite songs like “Jang Si Man Tong Tornnnn!” People like to drink and go have a good time at the temple, which I don’t really understand, but it’s funny anyways. I painted little toy statues for 10 baht each with some fellow novices for most of the night, then went to sleep, to get rested for the long day ahead.
June 13th was the day that I ordained. It started similar to the day before… wake up leisurely, eat breakfast, then get into the pick-up motorcade to ride to Yelah. Only, this time we went to a temple called Wat Suwan Rangsan, nearby the Chinese temple. And, on this day, I got into my host dad’s pick-up truck, not someone else’s. After we parked, I was directed out of the car to follow the other Naak. The others had gotten ahead of me a bit, so this guy who was holding the umbrella was pushing me forward, into the people walking ahead of me. At the same time, two people were holding onto my shirt from the back (it’s a really long, fancy shirt that almost touches the ground). So I was basically being pulled in all directions. I didn’t focus much on that though. I was just trying to take in the whole experience. We were a huge group, parading through the gates of a beautiful temple.
The same band from the lead truck was now leading the parade on foot, followed by a group of people dancing traditional Thai dance in front of the Naak. I was told that if you dance at the front in a ceremony like this, you will be reborn as an angel in your next lifetime. When we reached the temple, we paraded around it 3 times (three is a number that you start to see a lot in Buddhism, but I still don’t know the meaning or reason for that). I noticed my Mexican exchange student friend, Adrian, was there with his host family, walking around the temple with us and snapping photos. I was directed to walk up the stairs to the entrance of the temple, people reaching out to touch me as I went up. At the top, I was handed a bowl of Thai 1 baht coins and was told to throw them to the crowd below. So I tossed them, trying to give everyone some and not hit them in the eyes at the same time, but apparently I was giving it too much thought because a man started rushing me to throw them all and move on.
The second I finished, I was pushed to the entrance of the temple, where I saw another Naak being lifted up and told to slap the molding over the door (a pretty tall door). At the same time, a man yelled, “No need to lift them! It’s very dangerous!” Of course, no one listened to this guy and within a few seconds, I too was being lifted up to slap the top, then lowered down inside the temple. I kneeled down and waited for my fellow Naak to make it through the chaotic entrance process. The monks chanted, we were given robes, presented to us by our families, and then we recited the “Suat Mone.” I sensed that many people were watching me closely to see if I could really recite it or not. Next, we were taken behind the big Buddha statue and changed into the saffron robes. After that, we kneeled, as the monks chanted and we were presented with more things... necessities for the temple life, etc. Then I was officially a “Nayne.” As I exited the temple, many people put money into my bag. I took pictures with my host families and Adrian, then my host family drove me back to my temple. To end the ordination ceremony, we went around to many statues of monks and Buddha at my temple, lit 3 incense at each, recited a prayer, then we were done.
After I became a Nayne, things changed a lot. My host family no longer called me by my name; they called me just “Nayne.” I had to call my family “Yohm,” no matter who I was talking to. At the temple, I started to spend more time with my fellow Nayne because the new monks were very busy memorizing chants and who knows what else. An older monk, “Luang Rung,” the same one who shaved my head, began to take me to meditate every evening. Sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes my roommate Say would come along too. We started with sitting meditation, then he taught me walking meditation. He also told me the story of Buddha, telling me a new “chapter” each night. This monk taught me so much about Buddhism and about life in general. Each night, after meditation, we would sit on the floor in his room, watch a concert or movie on DVD, drink coffee, and he would teach me about Buddhism, or tell me some stories form his wild past, depending on his mood. He even had a few ghost stories to tell (real ones). Luang Rung can speak English because he had a wife and a son in New Zealand. We spoke half and half, sometimes in English, sometimes in Thai. It was nice to have someone who spoke fluent English because many of the Thai words about Buddhism were difficult for me to understand. Each night I felt that it got easier to meditate for a long time. Basically, the goal of meditation is to clear your mind and have no thoughts, which is very difficult at first! The monks at my temple knew I would only be there for a short time, so they made sure I got the most out of my time… I’m very thankful for that.
In the mornings, we woke up at 4:30, to the sound of someone pounding the giant bell. As I drifted out of that dreamy daze, me and Say helped each other to put our robes on and went to chant and meditate for a short time. Then we had to split up into a few groups and walk around to different areas to collect food from the “Yohm.” As we walked, we would see someone waiting in the front of their house, with rice and food in a bag. They put the rice in a big metal canister that the monks hold, then take off their shoes, kneel down, and receive a blessing from the monks, and we walk on. We walked a really long way in the mornings, about 5 kilometers and back. When we got back to the temple, some people who help out at the temple every day divided up the food and rice and set it out for the monks and novice monks to eat. The food at the temple was very delicious, and we always had a plethora of Thai fruit and desserts to eat after each meal.
Some days, I went to study with the novice monks, but it usually turned out to be pretty boring for me. Other days, we had a job to do, like dig 3 meter deep holes, which are soon to be part of the foundation for a new building at my temple. The temple life is a nice one, but it’s not necessarily easy. As a novice monk, I slept on a mat on the floor, with no air conditioning. There’s no washing machine, you must wash everything by hand. These conditions didn’t really bother me so much, but before I went to live at the temple, friends and family were sure to remind me of them. It’s a life without too many complications and distractions, which I think is really nice. After just a week, I went up to the Luang Por, he chanted something and I repeated it, and then I was finished as a novice monk. I changed back into my white clothes and said my goodbyes around the temple as I waited for my ride back home. I made many true friends in such a short time at the temple. A part of me feels as though I should’ve stayed for a longer time there, but I was feeling the end of my exchange year creeping up quickly. It’s an experience I’ll always remember. I think I came out of it as a better person, with more understanding.
Of course, when I was finished at the temple, I still had no hair and eyebrows. This meant I had to answer many of the same questions over and over again, like “Why did you want to ordain?” or “What did you get out of your time there?” The first time I was asked, I had to think for quite a while about my answer. I’ve concluded that I ordained because I wanted to see Buddhism in its true form and see what it has to offer me. In doing so, I have realized that it’s a very good philosophy that makes a lot of sense to me. I will continue to meditate because it’s a good exercise for the mind. If my mind is clear, then I will make correct and sensible decisions in my life and that will lead to good experiences.
That’s the end of my ordination story… now I’m back to my “normal” life here. I admit I’m happy that my family is calling me by my name again and I can eat dinner at night :p