Spring Break Memories

This past spring break was really a collection of separate memories and locations, haphazardly thrown together into one fun (?) break. Friday, my friend and I took an overnight bus from our home base of Khon Kaen to Bangkok, arriving at 5am. We walked around Khao San road, which was still full of drunken European and American backpackers and still-hopeful prostitutes to get us interested despite the late/early hour.

We weren’t.


Wat Pho; all those colors are different colored tiles.

We watched the sun rise, visited Wat Pho, walked into the Grand Palace, explored Chinatown, then took a late night flight Saturday to Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the famous Angkor Wat and thousand year old temples. We spent Sunday exploring the main temples, and finished with watching the sun set over Angkor Wat. Fun fact: the huge temple complex used to house a city of one million people at the same time London housed 15,000.


Angkor Wat


The decorative arch over one of the gates.


Guideless, mapless exploring yields interesting finds.

The next day, we got up at 4am to catch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.


Beautiful sunrises in breathtaking places.

While in Cambodia, we also ventured to the Killing Fields monument left from the Khmer Rouge legacy and a land mine museum. What really struck me was the presence of the genocide still felt by the people; our guide kept talking about it, and there were frequent amputee street bands with signs saying they were land mine victims in need of aid. The genocide and Pul Pot’s legacy is still very much a part of the living history in Cambodia. Everywhere there are signs and pamphlets, ensuring through education and constant reminders that the genocide is not forgotten, but that something like the genocide will not happen again.

Then, like the haphazard spring break the week was, we headed to Bangkok for one full day of Songkran, which is my idea of heaven on earth. Songkran is the Thai New Year, and is celebrated by throwing water at each other to wash away last years’ misfortunes. And in most cases, it wasn’t a gentle purification ceremony. On Silom Road, there were probably over 3,000 people, mainly Thais but a few tourists with mega super soaker water guns that I know didn’t exist in my childhood but really wish they had. So of course I joined in the fray, buying water pistols and refills of water and splashing people from age 3 or 4 to around 95. The best were the older Thai grandmothers; they would beckon you closer and, as it is incredibly rude to disobey a grandmother, we would cautiously venture near only to have them dump giant buckets of ice water all over you with toothless glee.


Ready for round 3 of battle: It is important to note that I was having such a fun time and smiling and laughing so much I swallowed a lot of water.

The next day, we headed to Koh Chang island where we planned to do a kayaking trip, hike up a mountain and snorkel. None of those things happened. Within two days of arrival, my friend fell off the back of a tree swing and cut her head open on a rock, requiring 5 stitches but thankfully no concussion. And interestingly, it was me begging her to lie on the beach with me and rest. Remember that water I swallowed in Bangkok? That caused horrific food poisoning where I also had a fever and sore throat, so the four days on the beach I mainly slept and lay there, eating 5 crackers and a mango during the course of the time there. But the recovery location was beautiful, and I discovered many things about myself. Namely, I am quite queasy when I’m the only one around to change my friends bandages. Apparently doctor genes do not run in the family (sorry Mom!).


The view from one of my sedentary recuperating locations.

Then, with me still not eating (day five) and my friend feeling brief but strong bouts of nausea, we traveled for 18 hours to eventually return to Khon Kaen, where I checked into a hospital for an IV, medicine and real care. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Overall it was an awesome spring break where I met really cool people and saw beautiful things. But honestly, it didn’t feel like a comprehensive week with overarching themes or ideas or even passport stamps. Each different location brings with it different feelings and memories, from the childlike joy of Bangkok’s Songkran to the wonderment of Angkor temples to the sheer relief of my final throw up session at 3am.

I Rapped About Aaron Burr To a Thai Audience

For those of you who have not had the misfortune to hear me sing, let me describe my vocal “talent”. I’m usually off-key, and I have a hard time keeping the beat. To give you a more tangible description, think about how a tomcat perched on the fencepost sings at the moon. It’s soulful and from the heart, but also painfully awkward and cringe-worthy.

My roommate Pingpong and our friend Kie and I met up and headed to the School of International Relations at around 12:30pm on Saturday. On the ninth floor, I followed Kie and Pingpong, who were apparently both singing in what then I concluded was not a concert, but rather an audition for a show put on by the School of International Relations much like American Idol or The Voice (very popular in Thailand).


The registration table. AKA Where It All Began.

At this point, Kie turned to me and says “Paige you should sing too”. Let me remind you: I am a caterwauling tomcat with a big heart.

I backed away like a shying horse, tossing my head and snorting out “no way”. And that’s when friendly, but firm, peer pressuring ensued. Eventually, I agreed to do it. Here’s why: because I don’t want to make a scene, because I am the only white person out of the 50 or 60 people there and that already makes me much-watched and scrutinized, and because Kie said “Paige this is a once in a lifetime opportunity”.

I’ve always secretly wanted to sing into a microphone and be applauded by polite and pitying audiences.

So I agreed. I have to choose two songs to sing, at least one of them in English. Well, choosing English songs was not difficult. What was difficult was choosing songs I actually knew the lyrics to. Or at least, songs I didn’t think the Thai judges would know, so I could BS the lyrics if needed. I settled on “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt, and “Wait for It” from the musical Hamilton.

We all headed to the bathroom to learn our lyrics and panic. My face in this photo pretty much encompasses my feelings. Excitement, severe nerves, and a sort of all-around “who cares, this is for fun!” attitude.


Left, Pingpong, center, me, and Kie on the right.

A while later, they called people into The Room to perform and hooked up a TV to Livestream for those who have not performed yet to watch the competition. That’s when I first see a Thai student sing “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt. “Oooh such a good song. She’s a good singer too!” said Kie. Or, it was something like that. All I recall is my reaction, which was along the lines of “oh shoot wait people here know this song? Know this movie? She’s so good!” I was hoping to pass off my terrible voice on just poor taste in music, a sort of cross-cultural exchange gone sour. But it was too late to switch songs; I had written down my song choices in pen.

On our way to the bathroom again to panic and giggle some more, Kie pulled me into an alcove and said “okay now is our chance; let’s jump out the window”. This was pretty much exactly what I was feeling, but I had already been interviewed by a TV crew about my upcoming performance and people were watching me; I couldn’t jump out the 9-story window unnoticed.

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Left, Kie, and right, Pingpong. Kie really emulates what I feel at this point in the waiting process.

After an hour of watching amazing talented girl after amazing talented guy, it was Kie, Pingpong and I’s turn. We went into the The Room and Pingpong, then Kie, took the stage, singing their songs to an amazed audience. Those two are great singers. Really, really talented. And I went right after them.

Someone handed me a microphone, and I was thinking “oh god wait what songs am I singing again?” The judge politely asks me my name in English, and I reply in Thai, fervently hoping to gain any favor with the crowd. Well, 25 people.

The great part is that this competition is all a capella. Meaning I can end the song whenever I want. The horrible part is that this competition is all a capella. So I can’t get hear the correct pitch or hide behind the music.

I start caterwauling out “When You Believe”, and the judges politely nod, and I gain some confidence. Then my voice cracks and I keel way left of on-pitch, then I veer right and just miss the mark entirely.  I see some girls giggling in the back, and I haven’t even made it to the third verse when I think “eh. They get the idea. On to the next song!” I know I ended halfway through the chorus because the video is online. I will tell the person with the highest bid how to find it

The judge says “Okay. Next song please?” This is when I realize that, without the background music, the entire Hamilton song “Wait For It” is spoken word/rap. So I start rapping about Aaron Burr having an affair with a British officer’s wife in the Revolutionary War. And at this point, what am I asking myself? Am I on-key? Is the audience enjoying this? Am I making weird noises in the microphone? Nope. I’m thinking “oh well thank goodness everyone’s now seriously confused.” Because the first lines are “Theodosia writes me a letter every day / I’m keeping her bed warm while her husband is away/He’s on the British side of Georgia/He’s tryin’ to keep the colonies in line”. Yeah, it barely makes sense even if you know this song is written about a very specific event in America from 200+ years ago.

I ended it about halfway through, again thinking “well, great. They get the idea. Hamilton’s awesome”, and the judge very politely said “well, thank you very much and good luck”. And the audience applauded me off stage!!!! My memory is a blur of shame and adrenaline and happiness, but I know no tomatoes or “boos” were thrown at me. Which, given my vocal “prowess”, is a success.

And while I definitely made a fool of myself today, it was, as Kie said, a “once in a lifetime opportunity”. I got to sing into a microphone to a room full of people too polite to run for the exit, and it was a great way to support my highly talented friends, making them sound even more amazing then they already are. Yes, I took a risk. And did it pay off? Heck yes. I’m definitely NOT going to be asked to participate in the semi-finals, but I had fun and got to laugh at myself and enjoy listening to a lot of highly talented a capella singing.

I Bought the Cheese: Reflections from the Half-way Point

I am a few days past my half-way point in the program, and I finally caved and bought Western food. Cheddar cheese. A whole block of it. I walked 6 miles for it and it was $5USD (unbelievably expensive for Thai prices) and worth every single penny and step.

First off, I want to make it clear that me missing Western food and going to such drastic lengths to find it does not in any way mean I’m sick of Thai food. I don’t think that’s humanly possibly. Admittedly, I do miss knowing what I’m eating. Not in the “hmm, I wonder what spices are in this dish?” As in, “hmm. Am I eating an animal, vegetable or mineral?”. (I ate what turned out to be charcoal bread a few weeks ago). And within the comforts of the familiar, I miss being able to understand conversations I overhear, and on home stay weeks really miss not having to peer into the buckets of water I use to shower to check for mosquito larva and cockroaches.

But those are the little things.

I’m a little over halfway through the program, and that’s amazing part. My time in Thailand has been such an incredible experience where I have been pushed and prodded very far outside my comfort zone.


This picture was on the wall in my first-year section at Whitman, and I’m fully grasping it’s significance.

That “magic” circle in the picture? That’s where I find joy. And self-worth. And understanding of myself, both in the context of my immediate program mates, my friends and family back home, and in the larger context of being an American in a globalizing world. These realizations are why I chose Thailand over Europe, and why I embrace the challenges hurled my way, even if it means not knowing where and with what family I’ll be sleeping with at night.

And, half-way through the semester, I am recognizing just how much I’ve learned and experienced.

I have gotten to further dig into recognizing my own privilege, including experiencing first-hand how privileged I am to not fear the tap water at home and realizing just how lucky I am to have a world of choice in my future, from who I can marry to my future occupations. I have been able to have the most incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I have been welcomed into the homes of people who don’t speak anything even close to my language, and I have made strong, lasting connections and friendships with people across cultures, languages and generations.

If my time in Thailand has taught me anything, it is to trust myself and my abilities. Because out of every scrape and awkward and confusing moment, I have pulled myself out of it. This is not without me leaning heavily on the steady, unwavering support of of my friends and family. But I nonetheless have solved issues on my own two feet. And that has been the best thing about being in Thailand. I was comfortable with myself and who I am when I left America, but after navigating uncomfortable situations and having my identity continually critiqued and questioned by others on my program, as well as by myself, I have come to absolutely love and appreciate myself and my abilities.

And that’s not to say I don’t have flaws and room to improve myself. But that’s the thing. I’ve learned about my flaws, and I’m working on them, and I have full faith in my ability to continually work to improve myself. But not out of self-hatred and a desire to change my very self. No, I continue to push myself out of self-love, because I know I deserve to live in that larger circle of “where the magic happens”, and sometimes it is only I alone that can get myself there.