From December 20th to January 6th, I did my first ever week exchange with Sofia, another YES Abroad student living in Nan, a Northern province. On our first weekend, we took a trip to Pua, Nan with her advisor Kru Nong, her family, and some friends in the city.
Travelling & My First Night//
In the morning, I had arranged to go to the bus station in Phitsanulok (the nearest province, an hour and a half away) with Kru Nok after her class had ended. I unexpectedly got a text in the group chat of the foreign teachers that Leo, the German TA, needed a ride to the bus station as well. I quickly arranged it with Kru Nok and her husband and we were all on our way by 11 am. We spent the two hour car ride talking about how we’d changed since the beginning of the year, the differences of our country’s politics and issues, and what we were looking forward to. We had a stop at Café Amazon to get smoothies and a snack from 7/11. The journey seemed shorter with a friend to talk to. When we arrived at the station, his bus came within ten minutes so we gave each other a quick hug and wished each other a happy holidays. My wait was a bit longer, as I had to wait for another hour. After I had settled into my platform, Kru Nok and her husband left quickly to pick their daughter up from school on time. As I hugged Kru Nok goodbye, I was on the verge of tears. I was really going to miss her this holiday season.
My next bus ride was about four hours long and I spent it listening to music or sleeping. Then, I had to make a transfer with the help of some kind strangers to a school bus that would take me to Nan. The night had now turned dark and cold, which I had been warned about before coming to Nan. In Thailand, the weather is pretty unwaveringly hot. Thai people love to joke that there are three seasons: hot, very hot, and very very hot. Way up North, this was far from the truth. I hadn’t quite believed it but the nights proved to be frigid and reminded me of the cold weather I missed from home. I rode through the mountains on an empty school bus for one more hour, listening to Christmas music and texting Sofia eagerly. I got confused about the stops a few times but I eventually saw Sofia and her host mother from the window. As I hopped off the bus, Sofia happily shouted “Kenna!!” and I split second remembered to wai to her host mother before I jumped into her hug. We giggled while hugging for a good minute until her host mother interrupted us. She kindly welcomed me to Nan and told me that Sofia had been looking forward to seeing me. We then went in the car, Sofia and I still giddy with excitement.
We shortly arrived at Nan’s Walking Street, where I had been once before earlier in the year with my host family. We met up with Sofia’s host sister, Baifern, and her friends. We got crepes and smoothies for dinner and sat down for a while. I was a little overwhelmed but was looking forward to getting to know everybody. After eating, our group visited Wat Phumin, the famous wat with the painting of man whispering in the ear of a woman, and a second less popular wat across the street. Nan’s Walking Street is one of my favourites in Thailand, as it is not flooded with tourism but still puts the most beautiful aspects of Nan to the forefront.
Her host mother then picked me, Sofia, Baifern, and Baifern’s friend, Seagram (who was sleeping over), to take us home. The car ride was short and we went past the viewpoint I recognized from my first trip to Nan. Her house was very lovely and reminded me of an American home. I took a nice, warm shower for the first time in a long time and changed into some warm Christmas pajamas. I chatted with Baifern and Seagram while Sofia showered and then we all played ping pong games Sofia’s natural mother sent her. I then caught up with Sofia for a while before going to sleep.
Road Stops to Pua//
The next day, Sofia and I were up early to go on a trip to Pua, Nan with Kru Nong (her advisor), her advisor’s family, and some other local foreigners. We got ready, ate breakfast, and met Kru Nong at school. I met her son, Daniel, for the first time though I knew him from Facetiming him with Kru Nong and Sofia at AFS camps. I also met her husband, Teacher Mark, who is also from England (like my family). We picked up Gonzague, one of Sofia’s classmates from France who I vaguely knew from our AFS north camp. We drove for a little while to go to a coffee shop I had been to on my first trip to Nan. We played a game of I-Spy in the car, which continued while we were sipping our drinks and taking in the gorgeous view of the Nan countryside.
We drove for a bit more, with all of us either chatting or falling asleep. We had lunch at a little restaurant on the side of the road. Sof, Gonzague, Daniel, and I had noodles with the group. We discussed cultural differences, our cities, and governments with the Canadians and Kru Nong’s family. Then, us kids split up to eat ice cream on swinging benches. Daniel and I had an interesting conversation about us both being half-British and what that is like in our respective countries. Daniel is a very mature, sometimes reserved, and smart kid. However, he can also be very silly and fun as proved by our next road trip spot.
I was shaken awake by Sofia as we pulled into the parking lot to a coffee shop and restaurant combination. We climbed out of the car and to my surprise, walked right through the area where all the Thai people were hanging around until we reached a secluded river. We came completely unprepared with no swimsuits. Nevertheless, us kids rolled up our pants and splashed into the stream. The water wasn’t deep, only leaving our knees and below soaked. We hopped from rock to rock on the outskirts of the rushing water, all three of us holding hands with each other and Daniel. Daniel appeared to be in heaven, ecstatic as he zipped between through the muddy stones, while Gonzague struggled to keep up with his little friend. Sofia and I followed behind, chatting with Daniel until we were given the call to come back to the car. We were a little ways away and had to trot through the rocks to get back. I made it about halfway back before stumbling on a particularly mossy spot and falling into the water. Gonzague, Sofia, and Daniel joined in a chorus of laughter which preceded them making fun of me all the way back. I was less joyous as I hadn’t packed enough pants to allow for this loss and I had a scare when I momentarily forgot my phone in the bathroom. However, I found it pretty funny that I made it so close to coming back dry only to fail in the last few minutes. My pants dried slowly in the car but luckily, we had just about reached our destination.
Pua was absolutely gorgeous, a sight not truly captured in photos.
The sun was just beginning to set when we arrived at the empty yellow house that our group of foreigner and Thai friends would be filling for the night. Well, not really us, as Gonzague and Daniel shared a tent on the second floor while Sofia and I shared the neighbouring tent with Arianna. Upon our arrival to the summer-y home, we met Arianna, a lively woman who recently graduated from Harvard. This amazing display of her intelligence instantly left myself and Sofia blown away, but we were even more blindsided by her seemingly instant friendship and kindness. She instantly became a member of our rather small girls’ club, as all the other foreigners on the trip were men. We did introductions, though Sof already knew Arianna fairly well as Arianna teaches at Daniel’s school, where Sofia and Gonzague regularly volunteer. We then wasted no time on small talk before bounding into the open field of sunflowers and crops that surrounded our accommodation. We trampled on a shaky wooden bridge that connected the viewpoints, one being a flagpole in the middle of the field and the other being a tower overlooking the mountains.
The five of us raced each other across the planks, screaming, “The last one here is a rotten egg!”, and fighting to defend our places as unrotten eggs. The bridge could barely hold all of our chaos and you got the impression that at any time, you could slip through the cracks of an unsteady section. We finally caught our breaths at the top of the tower, though I and others had been deigned “rotten eggs” by Daniel. We took silly photos of each other and watched the sun as it peaked and fell behind our house. Daniel said some funny jokes as we passed the camera around, frequently leaving me on the ground rolling with laughter.
We made our way down the tower after about half an hour, only to be greeted warmly with Daniel’s threat of rotten egg titles before racing to get back to the house. A barbecue was already in the works, though this had little appeal to me, a vegetarian. Sofia and I settled for some corn, crunching as we kept talking with our little friend group.
As the night went on, we talked more and more to Kru Nong’s friends and family who hailed from all around the world. We discussed our respective countries and all bonded over friendly games of cards. We went to sleep late, happy and exhausted from the long day.
I was woken up early by the refreshing cold weather and the sound of birds whistling. I found myself alone in the tent and unzipped it to see Sofia and Arianna taking photos of the field and mountains. The mountains were blanketed by a cloud of fog and the yellow flowers seemed to stretch on endlessly. The field seemed to me like a different place than the one we had danced through yesterday, as the barbecue and the orange sun the night before had made me felt particularly in a summer-y mood. It was as though spring had come overnight. The long threads of wheat that marked the area last night now gave way in my mind to the pink, purple, and white flowers on the outskirts. The view was refreshing and soothing, clearing my mind completely.
Us girls walked downstairs for breakfast and were joined by Daniel and Gonzague later before we started packing up. The journey back is usually an hour but Kru Nong had some more stops planned. We headed out by 9 am and drove out of the mountains, blaring the Beatles and other classic Western music. My mother even FaceTimed us, leading us to talk about England. We all sang road trip tunes and navigated the fields of flowers and tricky rocky mountain paths, the sun and wind dancing delicately through open windows. I felt a deep feeling in my heart, that Sofia also later revealed she had too, that this rag-tag group of international friends was really my family. Just a bunch of kiddos far from home enjoying an unusual Christmastime none of us ever expected to have.
The Trip Back//
Our first detour was to the rice fields of Pua. We first walked as a group to the top of the temple area. We took photos of the fields and then Daniel discovered a long blue tube that extended to the bottom of the fields and into the creek area. Kru Nong told us it was for feeding fish so we each got fish food. As we poured the little brown biscuits down, we could just barely spot the fish leaping for them, creating ripples in the water below. Us kids then split up from the adults to explore the downstairs area, comprised of little shady huts looking out into the field, rather than visiting the temple. We rested for a little while under one and complained about the weather for a little bit. Kru Nong met us outside downstairs and we began our drive to the next destination.
We stopped by a cafe that had insane views of the mountains and rice fields. Hardly anyone was there, creating a serene environment. Arianna, Gonzague, Sof, Daniel, and I sat on nets that hung over the edge of the cafe and bean bag chairs. Sofia and I got iced cocoas and listened to music. We stayed there for about half an hour, so Sofia, Arianna, and I talked about how we each came to Thailand while Gonzague and Daniel played games. As we were leaving, I took photos of the family and Gonzague, who climbed ladders to the top of a viewpoint outside the cafe.
We stopped at Baan Huanam Mushroom Farm, where Daniel, Sofia, Gonzague, and I played on a large wooden swing on a hill that hung overlooking the rice fields. When I first sat down, my heart jumped from the shock that I was unprotected and soaring directly above the seemingly limitless greenery and long stream that lay below. While it was good fun, I was content with only swinging for a minute or so before hopping down and back to my rightful place on the safe ground. The group decided to climb down the hill to explore the area below. We trekked up a gravel road surrounded by trees until we reached an empty dam area. Gonzague and Daniel played near the dam while Sofia and I remained on a bridge, waiting for the rest of the group to catch up. Daniel’s uncle finally arrived, giving me quite a fright as he turned around to a massive spider web weaved through the bridge spindles and picked a medium-sized spider straight from it. He offered the creature to me and upon seeing my horror, he smiled and played with it with a carefree ease. He shifted it from hand to hand– even near his own face, occasionally bringing it towards me too, just to see me jump. Gonzague and Daniel returned, just in time for Gonzague to tease me for being afraid. Daniel’s uncle returned the spider to its web and us kids started down the path again, as it started to get hotter. We played “The Show,” by Lenka on repeat and sang along until we returned to where Arianna, Kru Nong, and everybody else was waiting to go.
Next, we went to a textile shop built amidst the rice fields. I had been once before with my host family. Sofia and I split off from the group and walked across wooden bridges, draped with beautiful cloths, in the fields. As Sofia was walking along, she slipped and fell below into mud. I gasped and then asked if she was alright. When she complained and confirmed that all was well, I laughed so hard, as any good friend does in these unfortunate circumstances. I had fallen into the water on the way here and Sof fell into the mud on the way back, which proved our bad luck. However, all hope was not lost, as we were literally at a clothes shop. We rejoined Arianna in the factory area and rummaged through the silky pants, trying to find a substitute to no avail. Sofia cleaned up in the bathroom and we headed to lunch.
Lunch was a stressful experience, not unfamiliar to vegetarians living in southeast Asia. We were eating at a restaurant specializing in duck, which doesn’t bode well for me. Typically in Thailand meals are shared, with dishes in the middle that everyone takes from. However, almost every dish contained duck or fish so I was a little nervous. Arianna ordered some vegetable fried rice and I relaxed more, enjoying the meal until it was revealed we would split the bill. Seeing as I could only eat one of the dishes in the expensive layout that was ordered, I was a bit frustrated to be paying eight times what I normally would be paying for lunch at school. Sofia protested a bit on my behalf but eventually we gave it a “ไม่เป็นไร”, (phonetically: mai bpen rai) which is an extremely common Thai phrase that doesn’t quite translate to English. It roughly means “no worries.” I moved on with the day.
Our last stop was to a stream and waterfall with climbing rocks. Gonzague, Sofia, the group, and I made our way up a leafy gravel path surrounded by large trees. We crossed over a makeshift bridge over a stream and cautiously climbed up the rocks until we got to the waterfall. Sofia and I eventually settled on a rock at the bottom of the waterfall pool, sinking into exhaustion from our many stops and the increasingly hot weather. We left after about half an hour of lounging by the water. It was now the early evening and Sofia, Gonzague, and I slept in the car. We arrived at the school within an hour and thanked Kru Nong and the other foreigners for the lovely trip. Sofia and I were picked up by her host mother and were ready to relax before my first day at Sofia’s school the next day.