Month 4 (December) The Kings Birthday, School Trip, Christmas and Holidays
December brought a sudden cold chill through Phana as we also approach winter. This chill of course is probably still a very hot day for me back home in Scotland but not now that I am acclimatised. For the whole of this month both Kevin and I had sore throats and terrible coughs which is one thing i never thought would happen in a tropical country! I began the month by cracking out our houses Christmas decorations and went into festive mode with cheesy Christmas songs and Santa hats. This gave me a great opportunity to bring a tradition into teaching as since nearly all Thais are Buddhist they do not celebrate Christmas. The iconic Christmas items were recognised by all of the kids and also led to other topics that could be utilised too such as colours, shapes and numbers.
The 5th of December is Thailands Kings Birthday and is a massive deal as he is the ruler much like the Queen for Britain but it is taken much more seriously. All the schools were closed on this day and many businesses did the same. Throughout Thailand photos of the King can be seen absolutely everywhere and at schools each morning they raise the flag, sing the anthem and pray for the King. We had been invited to celebrate his birthday by our employer, The Tessoban (local council). We dressed very smart as requested and headed to the town hall where all the employees of the Tessoban were dressed and waiting in their government uniform. The event involved the usual prayers from monks and singing as well paying our respects to the King by signing our name in book. This lasted about an hour and a half and then we had the day off until later in the afternoon when we could join in a procession. Kevin and I were lucky enough to be flag bearers as we marched through the streets of Phana finishing outside the district office where again there was respects paid, prayers and to round it all of some fireworks. It was a great insight into the respect the King is given and we were surprised as nearly all the locals in Phana were at the final ceremony, a mere 2000 people!
The following week one of the schools we teach at asked us to join them on a school trip to the city of Mukdahan. This was our first experience of the dreaded karaoke bus we had been told about by other volunteers. A double decker bus with loud Thai pop music, disco lights, dancing and 60 screaming 8 and 9 year olds. Extremely amusing to begin with but after half an hour migraines begin to set in while attempting to catch up on sleep lost due to an early morning start! We visited the friendship bridge connecting Laos and Thailand, a large Buddha statue and temples, viewing tower in Mukdahan city and finally a national park. The best part of the trip however was spending time with the kids and getting to know them better outside of a teaching environment. The following weekend Kevin and I (with a lot of help from my dad) booked travel arrangements for our summer holidays which caused great excitement as in March we shall be heading to Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam!
On Christmas Eve I taught my classes for the day how to make Christmas cards with a English greeting inside that they could give to their families the following day. The kids had great fun drawing, coloring, folding and sticking to make some pretty amazing cards given their age. I even received a few extra ones that they had made that read I love my teacher on the inside. A very happy teacher left school at the end of the day. One of the teachers at the local high school then phoned us and asked if we wanted to go and help set up for their Christmas party the next day. We of course obliged and were given creative control which led to us creating the cheesiest Christmas stage Thailand has ever seen.
Christmas Day arrived which was very surreal as it was my first Christmas without my family and not celebrated in Scotland. I was a little sad but I knew that today was going to be great fun. The last door of my advent calendar was opened along with the box my family had sent to me. The day before when setting up the stage we had been asked if we wanted to be Santa Claus at the high school so we suited up (literally) and went for a festive morning at the school. We were rode in on the back of motorbikes before throwing out sweets to the pupils and got to watch their talent show. The pupils really seemed to enjoy our enthusiasm and presence but we had to leave early as we had some cooking to do. Lawrence, Pensri and the volunteers at the monkey forest were having a Christmas meal/party and everyone had to contribute so Kevin and I spent the afternoon preparing and cooking a traditional Colombian (Kevin and his family are Colombian) rice dish in our house. We all then had a massive Christmas feast. It was not quite traditional dishes but it left us all thoroughly stuffed nonetheless! The evening was spent playing card games and finally I skyped home to my family to watch them open the presents I had sent them. An unorthodox but highly enjoyable Christmas that I will never forget!
Boxing Day saw Kevin and I pack our rucksacks once more as it commenced the beginning of our Christmas holidays. Our first stop was the city of Nongbuadaeng which was around 8 hours from Phana. This was home to two other Project Trust volunteers (and close friends) Annalise and Hollie. They had invited us to go and visit their project and help them with their Christmas and New Year celebrations they had planned at their school. We got to meet their host family, teachers and pupils and it was great to see how they were getting on and how each PT project differs from our own experience. Naturally we were Santa Claus yet again which we had no problems with and we participated in games and songs before a party for the teachers at night.
The following day we left for Bangkok. Our original plan had been to visit Laos but we found out two days before that the border was closed so a quick reschedule of plans and we were in the capital for our holidays instead! On the days leading up to New Year we visited all the tourist spots we had not seen on arriving in Bangkok. This included The Grand Palace, various famous Wats (temples) and The Golden Mount. We were staying on the equally famous Khao San Road so we could see Bangkoks infamous nightlife. We had a very surreal encounter one day however as driving in the back of a taxi I somehow managed to spot a girl wearing the PT T-shirt walking by so we stopped the taxi and ran after them to find out more. It turns out that it was a pairing of volunteers who are based in Malaysia and were in Bangkok on holiday like us. One of them had even been on Kevins selection course. It is a small world indeed!
Perhaps the greatest moment of my time here occurred on New Years Eve. We had spent the day wandering the streets taking photos and Kevin told me he had an early birthday present lined up for me this evening so excitement was high. In the evening we got a taxi to the centre of Bangkok where Kevin suddenly stopped walking and asked if I wanted a coffee. I turn around and who is sitting outside Starbucks but my mum, dad and two sisters! The shock and happiness of this moment was surreal as I had had no inkling of this visit, however according to everyone present my shocked face was picture perfect. It turns out that they had planned this trip even before I had left the country and my entire family, friends and other Thai volunteers had known but kept me in the dark. What a job they did as well as I had absolutely no knowledge of this surprise (which is firmly placed first in my list of surprises!). It was an amazing moment getting to see and speak to my family properly for the first time in 4 months and tears may have been shed! Not a bad way to end the month and the roller coaster of a year that has been 2013.