Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Winter Wonderland

The bite of the cold hurt as I scurried along the jet bridge into the Saskatoon John G. Diefenbaker International Airport. With a 24-hour flight behind me and needing a breath of fresh air, I figured I was prepared to face the Canadian winter. Wearing flip-flops, tights and a t-shirt, I emerged into the bone-chilling, nostril freezing, insanity of -28 degrees C. Having arrived from Hat Yai, Thailand where the annual average temperature is 30 degrees C, it is needless to say I was seriously unprepared. Even after putting on sweatpants, socks, mittens, a jacket and a toque, I wasn't sure that my blood would remain unfrozen in my veins. Slightly comforted by blasting hot air but more so by the company of my sister and friends, the icy roads of a Winter Wonderland unwound before us.

Buckingham Palace, St. Walburg SK

Within the next couple of months I will celebrate 2 years in Thailand. Late last summer I relocated back to Hat Yai; Thailand's 3rd largest city. The streets of Hat Yai are narrow, hard to manoeuvre a motorcycle down and yet an organized chaos. As early as 4 AM, vendors open their stalls selling anything from fresh fruits and fire-roasted chestnuts to cheap T-shirts and sun hats. This first shift of vendors closes as the first shops open around 10 AM. The afternoon, evening and late night are also time slots for vendors, all of whom can efficiently set-up/take-down as the shifts change. Freshness, ease, and availability of food and services makes living downtown convenient. This is not always the case, especially when the local village shops close at 8 PM and you live 26 km from town. "The Boonies!"

Having become comfortable living within Thai culture, lifestyle and with using the language, the paradoxes I found in Canada were numerous and often funny. Take this one for instance... My first night in Canada, I walk into a downstairs washroom and am immediately puzzled; something feels so wrong under my feet. As I look down, I cannot help the laughter that escapes in the quiet house. There is carpet on the floor, covering every square inch of space between the bathtub and toilet. Now maybe this doesn't seem too strange (it is a typically unused bathroom, winters are cold, etc) but to me, I was in shock. Thai styles bathrooms are NOT designed to be kept dry. Instead, they function as a multi-purpose room for showering, washing laundry and doing dishes. As I stifle my chuckles and proceed to wash my face (being ever so careful to not get water on the carpet) I can't help but be thankful I don't have to deal with soggy socks after using my functional washroom.

Teaching has quickly become a passion of mine since living in Thailand. I am currently operating an English Language Center and can proudly say I have 16 regular students. The kids range in age from 3-14 and make a total of 8 classes I see throughout the week. On top of that I freelance work for a couple of other Language Schools, again typically working with small groups of young students. When I initially began teaching in Thailand it was to classes of 50 students, once a week for 50 minutes. It is an entirely different atmosphere when teaching in a regular school; one where I felt that my impact was minimal. I wanted to get better at teaching. I wanted to have freedom in topics and structure of a typical lesson plan. Most of all,  I want to make a positive difference. It is great fortune to have a job where you see progress in the people you are working with every day. Don't get me wrong though, there are days when they only want to look at the koy fish or draw a picture. The relationship that a teacher has with a student is extremely important in the acquisition of the language, and I have worked on improving my Thai for communication with students and their parents. It has come to a point in my current situation that I feel as if I am making a positive change and that is not something that one can take for granted.

"Education is the most important weapon which you can use to change the world"
                                                                                                        Nelson Mandela

Having returned to Canada 7 times in as many years, I have met some amazing people along the way. My immersion into the Thai culture has brought with it many concerned and caring hearts Then, there are the fellow wanderers, likewise displaced from their home (be it short or long term). I have friends who have become a part of my family and I, theirs. For the experiences and stories we have all shared over our journeys, I thank you. For the new times that lay ahead, may our paths cross again. 

Despite being thousands of miles from each other, my blood family and I share a special bond that is irreplaceable. There have been extended periods of time with little to no communication, yet the bonds are stronger and continuing to mature. Something very special was the recognition in my nieces eyes when they realized I was in the same country as them. Days of quality time with Ava (6) and Khloe (3) were filled with crafts, puzzles, baking and of course, lots of snow! As the warmth of the wood stove filled the house, a glutinous amount of hors d'oeuvres covered the table and loved ones were around, I felt at home. 

When asked what I wanted to do in Canada I replied "I want to sit on a couch wearing sweatpants and watch football." Indeed, one Sunday morning my friends and I peeled ourselves from sleeping position to lounging and watched football all afternoon. Until recently, I have not had a refrigerator in any of my apartments and the convenience of cold pizza, beer and multiple channels in English, all playing sports, made for a perfect Football Sunday. To top it all off, that night the four of us attended an Oilers vs. Rangers hockey game. 'Nose Bleed Seats' took on an all new perspective as I squinted to find the dash of the black puck across the ice. The cold of the ice hung in the air as we celebrated our Sunday Funday. To the ladies, thank you for an amazing weekend!

As the crisp morning temperature dropped below 30 degrees C, I once again found myself scurrying between doors, backpack in tow. Four weeks in Canada recharged my battery and only deepened my gratitude to have come from such an amazing country. With 12,228 km of flying ahead (Saskatoon-Bangkok), I hunkered down on the plane and began the unthawing process. It wasn't until two days after arrival that I had re-adjusted and could once again feel 'hot'. As the new year approached, I was taking in the view of 2014's last minutes. It should be mentioned the view was from the 35th floor penthouse, overlooking the Chao Praya River in Bangkok. Party boats cruised the length of the river and short bursts of pre-midnight fireworks lit the city skyline. The clock struck and the close crackle of fireworks ignited the sky as sounds of celebration rose from the onlookers. This New Year there is much to feel great fortune for... May 2015 be filled with happiness, compassion, good health and peace.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Let's Get Reel

The following album link is a collection of my top 33 photographs from over the years. With new opportunities arising, I am on the search for my Top 10 photos and who better than family and friends to help me decide! Arranged into abstract, nature, animals, Buddhist images and landscapes, hopefully there will be some that catch your eye! Please take the time to look through them all and if you have feeling towards 10, great!! Even if you only like 2 for 33 please let me know those 2! You can comment on the photos, email me what you think, skype me, anything to pass on your rankings. 

I sincerely hope this message finds everyone well, wherever that may be in this world! For many it has been some time without communication but now is a chance to see what I have been up to. Feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested and of course if you are interested in buying a print, let me know. Please help me out on this new, exciting adventure that I am taking!

Thank you in advance, I hope you enjoy where my eyes have seen. 
Let's Get Reel. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Thailand Travels

Thailand ("The Land of Smiles") is located on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Bordered to the north by Laos, Burma and Cambodia and Malaysia to the south, Thailand offers a central location with diverse geography. A stunning coastline lies to the west of the country where warm, clear waters lap onto the white sands beaches or crash onto the massive limestone formations. Shallower waters from the Gulf of Thailand support immense coral reefs, lining the east coast. Typically divided into five regions (South, Central, North, North East, and East) Thailand exhibits everything from blissful, secluded, serenity on a white-sand beach to intense, massive, buzzing cities and mountains covered with dense jungle foliage....

It is not often that we get the time to get out and "explore our own backyards". When was the last time you took a road trip within your own province/state to somewhere you have never been before, just to go? What about your entire country?! Relatively speaking this differs greatly (seeing as how Thailand can fit into Canada 19 times!) but overall, an opportunity to do some backyard exploring is a great way to appreciate the land where we wake everyday. Having recently celebrated a one year stay in Thailand combined with 39 days of  travelling, I have been fortunate enough to do some exploring and get to know Thailand, my current backyard...

Generalizations about each region are often made and sometimes, are even true! South Thailand is generally considered a slow, laid back, beach-bum lifestyle. With hundreds of islands along both coastlines with white sands, paradise blue waters and lush green vegetation, this generalization is often accurate. The islands have adapted quickly to tourism and now offer anything from world-renowned SCUBA sites to serene, picturesque beaches to extreme rock climbing routes to full-moon parties. Famous islands like Koh Tao (for diving), Koh Phangan (full-moon party & yoga) are easily accessible and during high season are often crowded with faces from around the world. What I discovered instead was a primitive, fresh island, easily taking rank in my Top 3 Thailand Destinations!

Have you ever discovered a place that you want to share with the world, yet you are hesitant to tell anyone about? Well, writing about this island in Phang Nga province feels like giving away one of my biggest secrets...  Instead, a nights experience through my eyes.

In Northern Thailand, deep river valleys cut through densely forested mountains, eventually opening onto foothills and finally, flat plains. Single roads mold to the mountainsides, making for steep, twisting rides leading to waterfalls surrounded by smooth, warm rocks. Although the landscape is tremendously pleasing, it is the people of this region that hold something special. Generally considered rugged, intense people of the jungle, a certain hardship shows through their creativity. In the foothills traditional tribes such as the Karen or Hmong still remain nearly self-sustainable even with the daily "hill tribe visits" departing from the cities. Cities such as Mae Rim, Chang Mai and Pai are home to some incredibly talented artists. Maybe it's the air up there(!) but I found myself constantly surrounded by people who loved to create, share and who oozed inspiration. From some of the most heartfelt people met to this day, a great lesson was learnt:

Art is only the search, it is not the final form.

Chang Mai, the largest city in the north (2nd overall) is home to some of Thailand's biggest festival celebrations. One festival in particular, Songkhran, draws thousands of people from not only Thailand but around the world to the city. Songkhran (literally "astrological passage") is held in April every year and marks the beginning of the New Year. Traditionally, water was used to cleanse images of Buddha and was then poured over elderly or family members to pay respect and to bring good fortune. This tradition still occurs in most homes as well as a trip to the temple but a main activity now is a wet, action-packed, full power three day water fight!

 A canal about 6 m across surrounds the entire Chang Mai Old City and is the hub, the heartbeat of these celebrations. Pick-up trucks crammed with +13 beaming smiles, 6 water guns, 11 buckets and gallons of ice cold water move at a snail's pace along the canal, soaking any passersby. On foot, warriors set off hoping to surprise those who ride with a shot from behind. On massive stages competing companies show off with booming music, flying foam and continuous entertainment. Each day after 7 pm the water throwing commences allowing for a dry dinner and evening out. During the night many water waging warriors make it out onto common grounds where the music and dancing fade away into the morning light....

Often overlooked and highly underrated, Sukhothai Province also ranks on my Top 3 Thailand Destinations! Founded in the 13th century, Sukhothai ("Dawn of Happiness) is the first independent Thai Kingdom from the Khmer Reign.  The overlap in styles is evident in the architecture of the wats (temples) and the written Thai script, still in use today. Loaded with history and ancient ruins with easy access by bicycle, this quiet province is fit for a trip back in time.

Old Sukhothai- Contained within this UNESCO World Heritage Site are a total of 193 ruins including the remains of a royal palace and 26 temples. A slow, two-wheeled roll paired with a blazing April sun make for a quaint afternoon exploring this park. During the 1960's maintenance and restorations began and are evident in the well-kept lawns, flourishing ponds and flower-filled trees. From 40 m tall to hardly a rubble remaining, the Buddha images reflect deep compassion and knowledge.

Si Satchanali National Park Away from the city of Sukhothai exists another, even more remarkable escape. Steep, flanking mountains surround the luscious green grass and weather-worn ruins, enclosing within the space a calm, ancient energy. The rich forest muffles the already quiet sounds and the seeming isolation is peaceful. Bare dirt paths lead the way to dominating ruins, each of which demands a certain respect.

"The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign lands."- G.K. Chesterton
 Often the hardest part of a journey is to step outside one's door and take the first step. The world of traveling brings with it a rush of different foods, people, traditions and landscapes that flood onto the path you walk along. One of the greatest rewards is being able to experience these things as if it is the first time as to not take anything familiars for granted. With travels, the realization of how small of a place you occupy in the world generates modesty and respect. This short adventure in Thailand, my backyard, has reminded me that the world we live in is full of beauty, inspiration and adventure. These adventures are endless if saught upon with open hearts and seeing eyes. Life begins when you step off the trail and create a path....

Friday, 14 March 2014

Hong Kong

A combination of deep Chinese traditions, new age technologies, millions of hustling and bustling people and soaring towers, Hong Kong is an eccentric and lively city. The city is indeed an island located to the south of mainland China, surrounded by the Pearl River Delta and South China Sea and consisting of many districts both within the city itself and smaller surrounding islands. After being colonized by the British first then occupied by the Japanese, China regained sovereignty thereby deeming the island "China's first Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China", giving it political independence from China ("one country, two systems"). This passing back and forth between ruling countries created a unique infusion of cultures and ideals making this where East meets West!

View of skyline from across Victoria Harbor.

It was perplexing to arrive from Bangkok to Hong Kong, step off the plane and be cold. With four seasons in a humid subtropical climate, the transition from winter to spring can sometimes be nasty. A cold front with wind moves in from the north bringing with it brisk winds, low, dense fog and rain. This apparently is one of the coldest transition periods that people can remember with fog so low even the skyline view was hidden in the thick moisture. Never before has Canadian blood flowed so thinly, literally unable to recall what real winters are like with all that snow and wind! Apparently cool temperatures of 17 degrees can feel much colder when compared with the typical daily temperatures in Krabi ranging in the balmy 30-36 degrees! Finally after some preparation and layering of clothes, the distinct districts of the city were ready to be explored.

The ease at which these districts can be reached is unsurpassed by other Asian cities traveled thus far. The density of the land forced a well-planned subway system which now covers nearly the entire island. It is estimated that 90% of the population utilizes this efficient public transport as it travels above land and under the harbor. Yes, the subway goes under the Victoria Harbor creating a smooth but noticeable pressure change as you coast in and out from underwater! From Kowloon to Causeway to Central to Lantau, Hong Kong is brimming with skyscrapers, shopping malls, dim sum (traditional Chinese food), people and culture unlike anywhere else in the world.

Causeway Bay 

The most popular night life in Central.

Lantau Island

One particular island district is Lantau which is the largest island belonging to Hong Kong. On Lantau it is possible to take a 5.7 km cable car ride to Ngong Ping Village, located atop a mountain after a 25 minute ride gliding through the sky. The weather may have hindered the views in some sense but it also covered the landscape with a mystical, dense feeling. Atop this mountain rests Tian Tin Buddha Statue which at 34 m tall was the world's largest seated outdoor Buddha until 2007. Sitting atop three layers as well as a lotus flower, this Buddha statue overlooks the entirety of Hong Kong and offers a tranquil place to spend an afternoon.

A visit to Macau, Asia's "Las Vegas" was also made on this trip. You got it; casinos, massive resorts, dancing water shows, flashing lights, all just a short ferry from from Hong Kong. It was quite the experience having been in Vegas before and seeing the similarities. Alas, what an adventure!

View from balcony (Westin Resort)

Driving range (yes onto the water)
Party at night

Peace out Hong Kong!

Friday, 13 December 2013

Koh Haa/Koh Bidha

With a splash back into the waters after nearly 2 years, SCUBA diving this past weekend was refreshing! Just off the coast from Krabi Town in the Andaman Sea is a large island called Koh Lanta which has many dive shops scattered about. The majority of the dives shops will take customers to similar dive sites, some of which are ranked in the top 25 sites in the world! Two of the local islands for diving are Koh Haa and Koh Bidha, both of which offer spectacular sites.

Swim through entrance to cave
Koh Haa Archipelago is a collection of 5 islands ranging from large to small, each with multiple dive sites. Depending on weather conditions the boat master decides what two sites to dive for that day and it seems unlikely that they could choose a bad one. The first site we dove had a cave that you could swim up into and actually surface in the air pocket inside. Hanging from the roof were massive stalactites creating an inverted crown around us. Koh Haa typically has great visibility but with a strong current it went from 10 meters to 0 in less than 2 seconds. Imagine just floating along being able to see all of the stunning coral around you and then all of a sudden, dirty darkness where you cannot even see your own hand! With no option but to keep swimming forward (slowly!) we emerged from this turbid current to see more underwater life.

Lion Fish
Koh Bidha is located north-west of Krabi town (closer to Koh Phi Phi rather than Koh Lanta) and offers a blissful dive spot. Both Koh Bidha Nok and Nai offer extensive coral walls along which you can slowly crawl along and spot a variety of sea life as well as deep caverns which you can cruise above and see what lies at the bottom of the sea! With massive schools of snapper fish, lion fish, moray eels and nudibranches, Koh Bidha offered a great variety of sights to see as well as clear, warm water perfect for diving.

School of Yellow Snapper
There are many different dive shops located at each beach in Koh Lanta but in terms of Ban Saladan I would recommend Go-Dive Lanta. (  They had great, knowledgeable instructors who were always willing to share information to not only make your dives better, but to make you a better diver. If diving in Thailand sparks any interest, make sure to check out these two islands for some spectacular diving!

**Note** Pictures were taken by Max from Go-Dive Lanta. Thanks Max!
What do you see in the anenome?!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Loi Krathong

Loi Krathong is an annual festival held on the full-moon of the 12th Thai lunar Month (November 17th according to western calendar this year). Three SEA countries celebrate Loi Krathong with the majority of Thailand partaking as well as some people from Burma and Laos in the adapted Buddhist version of the festival. Loi Krathong originated in India where it served as a Brahman festival honoring Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma but was then adapted to worship Buddha's footprint in the Nammathanati River beach, India.

Even with the adaptations to the festival, the preparation for the festivities remains. Loi means to float and Krathong translates loosely into crown or decoration therefore Loi Krathong translates into Floating Crown. Since the tradition began Krathongs (the crowns)  have been made using a banana tree trunk as a round base with elaborately folded banana leaves surrounding the base. Many colorful flowers are then placed about the Krathong with a lotus flower being the original species used.

Once the base and flowers are completed three incense sticks and a candle are placed in the center, allowing the light to venerate Buddha. By cutting some of your hair and fingernails and placing it in the krathong it is said to wash away negative thoughts and small coins are used as an offering to the river spirits. Now that the krathong has been made, the most beautiful part of the ceremony can happen!

Any river will suffice but luckily Loi Krathong 2013 was spent at the Krabi River. All the candles and incense are lit and before each krathong is placed in the water, forgiveness is asked for using, dirtying and drinking water, respect is paid to whomever god you choose and wishes are made for the following year. Finally, as the krathong floats away taking with it all of one's anger, hatred and defilement any last respects are paid and an observation of a beautiful, well lit wish floating away occurs.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Homeland

There I was, North America....

With four weeks off from school while the kids had their mid-year holiday, it seemed due time to return and nourish my roots in a few places. Almost one year to the date I left from Alberta, Canada with a one way ticket to India. It was in India where every aspect of life seemed intense, powerful and full of sensations so much so that I realized Asia has much to offer and a desire to keep exploring it grew.  After India came Nepal for two months where the immense mountains and silence experienced during meditation developed a new strength within. And then Thailand happened. Somehow this amazing opportunity presented itself, providing me a great lifestyle with a job that I enjoy going to everyday, a group of friends who are nothing but supportive/amazing/fun and an appreciation that rises with each waking sun. Even with all fulfilling experiences, there is nothing like where returning to places where your roots have been growing for years. It is in those places that upon return, even if for a short time, a re-charge happens; one that in my case was a great surge of energy to my system after a year of adventures in Asia!

The free state of New Hampshire was my first destination and after 54 hours of travelling, seeing that first license plate stating "Live Free or Die" a welcoming and familiar feeling surged throughout. UNH Homecoming is held in October every year and it is a time for alumni to return and celebrate together while tailgating for a football game among other festivities. With many people and not enough pick-up trucks, the brilliant idea of renting a 10 foot U-Haul seemed it could only bring an epic, legendary kind of day. And that it did... Four years seems like a short time to have developed such deep roots in a place that I entered knowing nothing about but from the people to the bridges, from the ocean to driving down a backroad, New Hampshire will forever be rooted.

Alberta, Canada was the next destination. Although it has now been years since actually living in Canada my roots will forever know their first growth there. My family and a few dear friends remain in this homeland and it was that burst of their energies that made all the hectic hours worth every second! Sunset trap shooting while watching the moon rise nourished some farm roots. Driving along those seemingly endless flat roads reminded me of the beauty of the country; from the freshly harvested fields to skies that light up with different palettes of color depending on the time of the day to a light, crisp snowfall in the early morning. And lastly, seeing the quickly growing faces belonging to the next generations of my family brought warmth to my heart.

 It is fascinating to see how much of a year of growth is physically visible on small children whereas my past year of growth has been very internal. It ha also been over this past year that I realized the importance of knowing where you come from, how you started out and where your interests were focused. It is through recognizing these initial variables that I have been able to now focus on where I want to be living in this world, the person that I am now and how I can focus my energy where I see fit. Knowing that there will always be support and more nourishing of roots that is possible, I can eagerly return to Thailand with this quote, "See the world, come home for love".

Ava Blair (4), Khloe Marie (2)

Also, check out some of the recent pictures (Thailand album) taken from hikes and from our Halloween carnival at school!