In early February, Rebecca went to Hong Kong for professional development, learning more about Advanced Placement Statistics. Then, at the end of February, during the Tet Holiday, we went to Chiang Mai, Thailand. In Chiang Mai, we got to see a night safari, make elephant poo paper, ride on songthaews, and go to the highest point in Thailand. There were markets and some of the best food in Southeast Asia. Also, Rebecca joined me on a charity trip to people throughout the Go Vap part of Ho Chi Minh City and to several orphanages, to provide food, and other supplies.
In March, we explored Ho Chi Minh City, nearly every weekend going to a different corner of the city. There were cafes, temples, and culture. Rebecca was nominated for the Secondary Teacher of Excellence award, given to the top teacher for the company that we worked for. She would find out that she was the first runner up, which is prestigious given the volume of teachers nominated for the award. Robyn came to visit for her spring break in March. We took a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels via boat, and went on a Vespa city tour. Between the boat and the motos, we were able to showcase HCMC rather well.
With Tet holiday landing in February, the traditional March spring break was pushed into April, so we left for Hoi An, Viet Nam for the holiday. The UNESCO heritage city of Hoi An is a fantastic place to be transported to the past. We went throughout the city walking, rode bikes through the countryside, went to An Bang beach, visited Marble Mountain, and canoed for several miles around the area. Hoi An is a special place, and very memorable. Rebecca traveled with other ladies for a weekend in Bangkok in April, making lots of time for shopping!
Rebecca went to Singapore in May, the prize for her placing in the Secondary Teacher of Excellence. She was joined by Jessica and Elizabeth, for a fun weekend away. In late May, we traveled by bus to Mui Ne, Vietnam for a weekend on the beach. It was a great way to wind down the year, and hit the Viet Nam beach once more before our departure from Ho Chi Minh City. May also meant our shipment to Abu Dhabi was departing, which called for numerous hours of packing and preparing.
In the closing days of the school year, I had the opportunity to travel with students to the Hang En Cave in central Viet Nam, the 2nd largest cave in the world. After hiking out to the cave, we were able to spend the night in the cave, an amazing experience. School in Viet Nam was completed in mid June, and we had a couple of days to decompress at Riverside in Ho Chi Minh City and say goodbye to our expat family, before making our trip home through Narita, Japan. In 2014, we had the opportunity to spend the day in Narita, so we knew the spots that we wanted to go, and immediately went to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. After the flight across the Pacific, we landed in Denver, to spend our extended summer break in Colorado.
Before we knew it, summer was over and it was time to head to beautiful Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. On August 6, we left DIA in Denver for Chicago with 9 checked bags, hockey sticks, and 8 carry on bags and Rebecca’s mom en route to Abu Dhabi. We landed in Abu Dhabi in the early afternoon, where we were met by several people from the school, to take us to our apartment one block away from the Abu Dhabi Corniche and the beach. The time change take time to adjust to, but we were quickly off to explore the city. In August, we were able to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, went to an overnight stay in the desert, including a camel ride, and visited Dubai for the first time.
In September, we spent time getting our house to feel like a home, and seeing other parts of the city. The weather was starting to cool down at that point, and we were able to spend long stints outside. We arranged for a purchase of a car at the end of September, a Mitsubishi Pajero. Owen and Oliver both settled in school, with Owen in first grade and Oliver in a preschool program. They both transitioned really well and enjoy their “Abu Dhabi School”. At the end of the month, we went on a day trip to Dubai, visiting the local market, some of the souks, and the mall.
Rebecca went to the Blue Souk in Sharjah, north of Dubai, in October with a group to shop for carpets. The market was full of historical carpets, all handmade, and she was given tips of things to look for to determine if a carpet is worth what the vendor claims it is. With the weather becoming really comfortable in October, we drove to the desert to let the boys play in the sand. We spent the afternoon with sand toys, soccer balls, and were able to capture some amazing photos.
In November, we went to Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates for the weekend to see the second largest city in the Abu Dhabi emirate. Al Ain is an oasis city, and reminded us in some ways of Da Lat in Viet Nam. We went to the zoo, drove up the Jabel Hafeet, went to the Al Jahili fort, and spent lots of time swimming at the hotel. In the early part of November, I was with a group of students that qualified for the international competition of the World Robotics Organization, which was held in Doha, Qatar. Rebecca left with a student group to go to Pondicherry, India, for service with Habitat for Humanity; however, the trip was hindered with one of the most destructive rainstorms anywhere in the world for 2015. Rebecca was fortunate to be able to get home when she did, as the airport and many of the roads were closed due to the storm.
The weekend was incredible, and the only regret we had was that we hadn't done it sooner! We would have planned another one had we known how much fun this would be!!!
This past week two other teachers and I had the pleasure of chaperoning 27 juniors on a week long field trip to Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. The area was gorgeous, and we got to do some pretty incredible things. Some of our students had never been on a hike before, and it was well worth the trip to see them enjoying some time outdoors. They were able to experience kayaking, rock climbing, zip-lining, hiking, swimming under a waterfall, sleeping in a dorm, and even volunteering at an elephant conservation center.
While exhausting to be "on duty" from Monday at 5 AM to Friday at 11:00 PM, I would do this trip again in a heartbeat. I had a blast myself, and I learned so much about my students. Quite a valuable experience!
My personal favorite part of the trip was the morning we spent at the Thai Elephant Research and Conservation Fund. We were able to meet some rescued elephants and learn about the work being done by the group to protect wild elephants and ensure better treatment of the animals used for tourist attractions all over Thailand. The kids got to help make elephant dung paper, which os then painted on and sold at gift shops to raise money for the Fund. In addition to meeting a couple of adorable elephants, our group was lucky enough to be there on a day where a local orchestra comprised of children with multiple disabilities was preforming a small concert for the main Bangkok news station. They played a couple traditional Thai songs and part Bach's Canon in D Major. You can read an article about the group here. It was a very moving experience that brought tears to my eyes--and even a few of my students'.
As part of our trip, we got to hike through part of the Khao Yai National Park with an experienced ranger. We were not lucky enough to see any wild mammals (though we did see elephant tracks), but we did get to see some amazing plant life. The middle picture of our group below was taken in front of a tree estimated at 500 years old. We also some some very interesting, very large spiders. Thankfully, no vipers or pythons.
One of my closest friends took the plunge and started teaching internationally this year. Robyn is working in Japan, but was sent to Bangkok for some professional development. Bangkok is a short, cheap flight from HCMC, so I booked a ticket to Thailand for the weekend just so we could go out to dinner. When you live so far away from "home," you will go pretty far for a sense of the familiar.
Flying to Thailand for one night seems a bit ridiculous, but I assure you that is was worth it. There is nothing quite like seeing an old friend to help you let go of all the stresses in life and just enjoy the moment. Seeing Robyn was a breath of fresh air during the time of the school year that tends to be most difficult for expat teachers. The new-school-year buzz has faded, the next holiday is still a month away, and it's a very long time until summer break. Sometimes, a couple days in Bangkok with a good friend is what one needs to stay positive.
I flew out of Saigon on Saturday around lunch time, the flight was supposed to be earlier, but it got delayed by over an hour. I was a little annoyed because I had such little time for exploring Bangkok, but there is no use in getting upset over things you cannot change. I flew with Vietjet which is a budget airline. I choose them because they had the cheapest flight and the best hours for what I wanted. I spent 1.8 million round trip, but I did not check luggage, order food, or select my seat.
We have been to enough new countries now, that Derek and I have a pretty set routine in what to do once a flight lands. After clearing customs and passport control, we always find a sim card kiosk to buy a data plan. I spent about $10 USD for unlimited data for a week. It was the shortest plan they offered, but we have found that it is much easier to navigate a new city with the internet in your pocket.
After I had the sim card, I located transportation. There is a train that runs from the airport all the way to downtown Bangkok for substantially cheaper than a taxi. I only had a backpack and no kids, so this was by far the best option. I had wanted to see the Grand Palace right away, but due to the late flight, that wasn't possible on Saturday afternoon because the Palace closes at 3:30. No worries, I had a back up plan. I went to Wat Pho, home of the giant, gold, resting Buddha instead. He was impressively large and shiny. I took a train and a tuk tuk to get there for a cost of about $10 USD.
I loved the buildings in Wat Pho. They looked like they were assembled using billions of pieces of broken dishes. They were so bright and colorful that I couldn't help but smile as I walked around the grounds. In addition to the colorful tiles, the trim of the buildings was also adorned with hundreds of shiny, mirrored tiles that reflected the sun and made the building sparkle.
At this point, it was time to head to Robyn's hotel to meet up for dinner. I hopped into another tuk tuk to take me to the train station and then took the train to the neighborhood the hotel was in. It the tuk tuk ride took a while due to traffic, but the train ride was quick and air conditioned. The hotel was a couple blocks up the street from the train station down a street clearly marketed towards expats and tourists.
It was so nice to see Robyn, and so good to talk to someone who knows me so well. We went to dinner (at a Mexican restaurant), wandered around a night market, got Thai foot massages, and then went to a wine bar. It was an absolutely wonderful evening.
After we said our goodbyes on Sunday morning, I decided to attempt the Grand Palace again, and I am so glad I did. The grounds were amazing and the palace was lovely.
I absolutely loved how shiny everything was. So much gold and so many colors! I had fun wandering around, avoiding massive tour groups. I got to see the emerald Buddha, but pictures are not allowed within the pagoda. You'll have to excuse the extreme number of selfies, but there was really no other way to get those pictures!
After I finished at the palace, I took a tuk tuk back to the closest train station. There happened to be an art museum there, and since I still had about an hour before I had to goto the airport, I spent my time perusing some Thai art. I was especially fond of the photography exhibit. It was a Sunday morning, so it was nice and quiet in the museum. The last art museum I went to was the one in Saigon, so it was very refreshing to see art treated properly.
I then took the train back to the airport. The transit system was efficient and easy to use. At the airport, I had a pretzel from an Aunt Annie's shop just because it was there, and I can't get that sort of thing in HCMC.
Bangkok was fun, and I will definitely go back. There is SO much to do there! Next time, though, I'll bring my guys. Traveling just isn't the same without my family.