Pattaya International Fireworks Festival 2014

I just have to interrupt my three-part series about Thai music to report one of the coolest things I’ve seen since I’ve moved here.

The Pattaya International Fireworks Festival is an annual two-night competition between pyrotechnics teams from around the world. This year, four teams competed, hailing from Spain, England, Germany, and Italy. Each team has an honorary Thai celebrity as the team captain. On the first night, each team performs their uniquely styled display, with short intermissions between each. The second night features a 45-minute non-stop display, a joint performance by all teams.

In addition to fireworks, which are of course the main attraction, there are hundreds of shops plying local wares, food stalls with every kind of food imaginable, live music and dancing, and photo-op stalls featuring fountains, fake rain, or a surfboard riding a fake wave.

I have to admit that on the first night I had no clue what was going on. So I simply sat on a chair on the beach holding my girlfriend and just enjoying the impressive displays. The photos and videos below are samples of what I saw that night.

But it wasn’t until the second night, by which team I had researched the festival, that I really appreciated the art form that fireworks can be. When in the hands of true artist masters, the inky black sky becomes a canvas onto which blazing beauty is burned. Or better yet, I like to think of these displays as an explosive tapestry woven by the modern masters of an ancient art. In short, the display on Saturday night was much more impressive, carrying with it not only an awesome power latent in any fireworks display, but a graceful form, with ebbs and flows of intensity, color, and force.

Anyway, I’ll shut up now and let the pictures and videos speak for themselves, as much as they can. I was so dazzled by the second night’s superior display, that I didn’t take video or photo. So please imagine these images twice as dazzling to get the idea.

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Thai Music, Part 1: Classical Thai Ensembles

Every evening I “enjoy” an accidental mash-up of Thai music blaring from the cheap speaker systems of my neighbors, whether they are venders at the nearby market or the chap living in the house below. In this mix are a myriad of Thai folk and pop songs. On the street, the thump of club music fades in and out, tracing the approach and distancing of passing cars and trucks. The appliance store across the street pumps all known forms of dance music. 

This overstimulation of music has led me to research the history and variety of Thai music. Hopefully you’ll indulge me as I report my findings in this three-part article, starting with Classical Thai music, moving to Thai folk, then Western-influenced Thai music.

Thai Classical Music

As with any chronicle of music, it’s easiest to start with the earliest-known forms of the genre. And in order to understand that—at least in this case—a knowledge of Thailand’s history is useful. In brief, many trade routes running between India and China coursed through Thailand. The result is a remarkable blend of Indian and Chinese culture. This is not limited just to music. One can notice these influences in traditional costumes, customs, and cuisine, as well as artwork and architecture.

This brings us to Thai Classical music. In the courts of Central Thailand about 800 years ago, ensembles and repertoires began to develop. Deeply influenced not only by Chinese and Indian culture, but also the Khmer people, these ensembles featured compositions that were anonymous and passed on through an oral tradition. It was only until Bangkok’s modern period that individual composers started getting credit, and the tunes started getting codified.

Although there are different ensembles of Thai classical music, they’re all marked with some of the same conventions. For example, similar to American folk music and Dixieland jazz, the approach to individual parts is a kind of improvisation based around lines of harmony or melody (called “paths” in Thai music). But instead of the Western music scale, comprised of 7 tones in a sequence of whole steps and half steps within an octave, the Thai music scale is tempered. The scale also features 7 tones, but the intervals between each within an octave are equal. This creates an otherworldly sound for Western ears. Rhythmically, the music is upside-down—while Western music usually places emphasis on the first beat of a measure, Thai music places it on the last.

If you didn’t understand a word of that, don’t worry. Examples are coming!

The Three Types of Thai Classical Ensembles:

Piphat is the most common and iconic. It features percussion instruments like gongs and drums, the Thai flute (pi), and different variations of melodic percussion, such as tuned horizontal gong-chimes known as khong wong lek and khong wong yai and xylophones.

Krueang sai is similar to the piphat ensemble, except that it features a string section instead of a Thai flute. Instruments include a high-pitched lute-like saw duang, lower pitched saw u, the jakhe, and a Chinese dulcimer. Krueang sai originated in indoor instrumental concerts and stick-puppet theatre.

Finally, the Mahori ensemble was traditionally played by women in courts in Central Thailand and Cambodia. Because of its feminine ties, the ensemble typically features smaller instruments, softer sounds, and a vocalist, around whom most pieces are centered. It’s worth noting that mahori is a strongly Cambodian style of music, but plays a significant role in the history of Thai music. The following is actually an example of a Khmer (Cambodian) mahori ensemble (I think).

That concludes the classical portion. In the next article, I’ll give examples of Thai folk music.

BTS Skytrain

Advertisements blare loudly over the train speaker system. Bright colors flash across the train TVs, with dorky Thai voices playfully peddling sausages at 7-Eleven or games on the Line phone app. We passengers are like a shipment of beef across a continent slapping into each other mindlessly in the chill of the train’s air conditioning. Brakes inefficiently check the speed of the barreling train, and in unison the mass of passengers are jolted forward and to the side. The lights flicker out for a moment, and the train’s momentum slows. The advertisements blink off, and upon their return light floods the train again and the train speeds up.

This is my morning commute from Metro Park Sathorn to International House Bangkok. I am at the moment making bodily contact with at least three other people, and we’re all furiously battering our smartphones with our thumbs, keeping ourselves distracted from the uncomfortable proximity of humans. I wearily clutch the cold metal pole to keep my balance at every jive, chuck, and dive of the train.

For the first time in my life, I am a minority. I look around the train, and not a single person looks anything like me. No pinkish pale skin, no natural light brown hair, no blue eyes. I think of the stereotypical images of Westerners in Japan towering over the Japanese throng, but this is not true in my case. Thai people are as various in height as Americans.

I’m surprisingly unnoticed despite my uniqueness. Westerners are no strangers in Thailand. And they – or at least the money they bring with them – are almost always warmly welcomed. However, I am a teacher in training, and they have sniffed this out, thanks to my pressed shirt, tie, dress trousers, and, most importantly, my backpack. So they are mostly indifferent to my presence. Children are curious. Some of the women look mildly interested. But mostly, I am inconsequential.

It hasn’t taken me long to learn the ropes. I get on at the second-to-last stop on the line, when the train is still fairly empty. All the seats are occupied, but plenty of standing room abounds. By the third stop, however, I am not only crowded, but have been pushed away from the doors. My first trip on the BTS Skytrain left me in panic at this phenomenon. How would I get to the doors when we arrived at my stop? I quickly learned, however, to allow myself to get sucked up into the strong current of exiting passengers. Without hardly any effort, I am poured out onto the platform and still following the current down the stairs and through the turnstiles.

International House is easy to get to after leaving Sala Daeng station. The BTS Skytrain, as its name implies, is elevated. Sala Daeng has several Skybridges. I take bridge 2 to the third floor of Silom 64, and the elevator to the seventh floor.

The elevator, it must be said, is impossibly slow. In the morning, only one of the two lifts actually operates. And it will only go up once it’s reached the bottom-most floor, and down when it’s reached the topmost floor. Essentially, ascending the 4 floors adds about 5 minutes to my commute.

Once I am there, I am frantically slipping my shoes off in front of a large glass window. I woke up 15 minutes late this morning, which caused me to miss the 8 am shuttle bus to the train station. The next one didn’t leave until 8:30, which means I’m now arriving at 9:10. I’m 10 minutes late for class. I push through the glass doors and mutter Sawadee krap, to the staff as I scamper past the big silver International House logo in my socks. Bare left. Room 14 on the right. They’ve already begun their first pair work. I walk in to the stares of 11 classmates and a CELTA trainer, and slip into the lone empty chair between Richard from Hong Kong and Tall Nick from Australia.

Week 3 of 4 and my first tardy arrival. Not too shabby.

Crazy Kate

This kind of shit only happens in books. Last week during assembly, one of the Thai teachers announced a singing competition. Being the nationalists Thai people are, the students were being encouraged to compete in singing “Phleng Chat Thai,” the Thai national anthem. I immediately thought of Katie.

Crazy Kate, they called her. Her parents are Swiss, and she looks every bit as European as they do—pale skin, blond hair, blue eyes. But despite her Swiss heritage, every morning she would belt out “Phleng Chat Thai” during assembly. I can thank her for my ability to hum the anthem on command. I can’t very well thank the school band, since the only instrument playing the melody is a xylophone, drowned out by clashing cymbals and bashing drums. Apparently this school can only afford a percussion section. Anyway, thanks to Katie, I now know the Thai national anthem.

In the teacher’s lounge, we started discussing the competition. Mostly mocking it. What students would be that interested in competing over singing the national anthem? “Katie would do it,” someone quipped.

Everyone laughed. “God, I hear her singing it every morning,” I said. People chuckled. “No seriously, she practically screams it from literally right behind me.”

“How is she these days?” Fred asked, looking at Mickey, the director of studies.

“She hasn’t had an episode for about a year now,” he answered.

“Episode?” I asked.

“She’s a bit crazy, that one. She’s been known to bite people.”

“Seriously?” I chuckled.

“I’m afraid so,” Mickey said.

“Eugene wouldn’t even go near her, did you notice that?” asked Roy, another teacher.

“Haha! Yes!” said Mickey. He looked at me, “Last year Eugene was the student body president. Whenever he saw Katie coming down the hallway toward him, he’d turn around and run the other way.”

Everyone laughed.

“So don’t stand too close to her in the morning,” Fred joked.

This concerned me a bit. Katie was in my homeroom class. If she had an episode, I’d be responsible for dealing with it. I’d have to call the hospital if someone were injured. I’d have to call her parents. I’d have to monitor her medication. “But she’s better now,” I asked.

“Yes, she spent some time in Singapore sorting out her medication. Since she’s been back she’s acted rather normal,” said Mickey.

“Is it true she bit Matthew, too?” Fred asked with a grin on his face. Matthew was the head of English studies.

“Haha! Yes I nearly forgot about that!” Mickey replied. Mickey turned to me, “Matthew used to teach Secondary 1 and 2, back when Katie was Secondary 1. She got herself into a tuft with another girl for some reason. Matt tried to break them up and she bit him on the finger. He’s still got the scar to prove it! Haha! Crazy Kate!”

More laughter.

“But she’s under control now,” I reiterated.

“Look, you’ve got him all scared now, Mickey!” said Roy.

Laughing, Mickey put out his hands and waved him in a calming manner, “Not to worry, not to worry. She’s got her meds sorted out and she’s been acting fine now.” Mickey paused to think for a moment. “Though she has been on edge lately, I’ll be honest.”

The bell rang. I needed to run to my next class. The Secondary 2B Remedial English. God, they were exhausting!

I hadn’t thought too much about Katie’s behavior until today. Normally, when I come to homeroom, she’s cheerful. “Good morning, sir,” she always says.

This morning we didn’t have homeroom. The Thai P.E. teacher led marching practice for Sports Day this Friday. If this morning was any indication of how Sports Day would go, I can only expect disorganized chaos on Friday. Having skipped homeroom, I had to check in with my students during free time. So far I had five students unaccounted for.

I ran into Katie in the hallway on the way to report the absences. “Good morning, Katie. Have you seen Marcus today?”

She looked at me startled. She stared at me a moment, then asked, “Why?”

“He wasn’t in assembly this morning.”

“Oh…no, I haven’t seen him.”

I decided to disregard the issue of Katie’s potential unstableness for the time being. She seemed off, but then again I don’t really know any of these students very well. Besides, we all have our off days.

The students of Secondary 2B Remedial English were better behaved than normal today. But that isn’t saying much. The fact that they were all there, and that some weren’t skiving off, was already an improvement. And I was trying a new strategy: work together to improve. I basically set the class up so that they were largely accountable to each other through games and, although I don’t normally condone this, corporal punishment. So they were starting to cooperate and help each other out.

Thirteen is an awkward age. And I’m the only teacher with enough youthful energy to deal with the pandemonium that can be a Secondary 2 classroom, much less a classroom full entirely of delinquent 13-year-olds. But today they were quite well behaved, all things considered. In fact there was only one odd disturbance, besides the usual mundane disciplinary issues one can always expect with such a group.

It happened when I started writing on the board. We were revising first conditional sentences. While I was writing on the board, I heard the classic Thai “Oo-wee!”—the sound all Thais make when something bad or unfavorable occurs. I turned around and caught Rainbow, the only girl in the class, reaching towards Jay—one of the usual skivers. “Teacher, what’s this?” asked Jay playfully.

I walked over and saw a whitish-grey bunny sitting on his lap, its soft fur sticking up and pulsating with its startled beating heart. “Where did you get that?”

He pointed to Rainbow. Sheepishly she raised her hand and pointed to the side of her desk where she was keeping the bunny.

“Ok. Well, give it back to her, please,” I said.

“Ouch!” He said as the bunny dug its claws into his leg. He handed the bunny back. “Teacher what is it in English?”

“Rabbit,” I said. “Or in this case, ‘bunny,’ since its still a baby.” Never shying from exploiting a learning opportunity, I wrote the word “bunny” on the board. The class repeated it in unison.

“Rainbow, you should put the bunny somewhere safe for today. And please don’t bring it in tomorrow.”

She nodded.

At the end of the lesson, I returned to the teacher’s lounge, where my desk is. Peter arrived not long after. He’s taught the other Secondary 2B English class—the group that’s not so at-risk. “How’d it go today with the buffalo?” he asked.

“Not so well, as usual,” I replied. “I think we need to rethink whether they should be taking the same exam as your class.”

He agreed. So we sat down and started looking at the exam to figure out what we can simplify or cut.

After we had worked for about an hour, Mickey barged into the teacher’s lounge. “You won’t believe what’s happened! Katie’s bit someone again!”

“Christ! What happened?”

“Someone had snuck a rabbit into school today. She was petting it in science class on the fourth floor, then she just switched! She grabs it by the neck and heads for the window. She thrusts the window open and threatens to throw the rabbit out!”

“Is it ok?”

“Yeah, the rabbit’s fine. But Tina and Christine didn’t fare so well. In the process of stopping her and getting the rabbit out her hands, she bit Tina and slugged Christine in the face!”

“Where on earth did they get a rabbit?”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea. Strange isn’t it? Anyway, Christine’s going to have a black eye. Her face is all red around her eyes.”

“Wow! And are they taking Tina to the hospital?”

“No she said she’s fine. But I think she should go. Anyway, Katie’s parents are on their way.”

“Crazy Kate strikes again.”

Needless to say my day got a bit more complicated. And I couldn’t help thinking that the poor thing wouldn’t get to sing the national anthem after all.

Note: the events of the above story are true. It happened just today, actually. But I changed the names of the people Dragnet style. Admittedly, for the purpose of storytelling, there were a few “artist touches.”

Dilemma #1: Asking Refugees to Remember

During teaching practice in the CELTA course, most of my students were international refugees. They included people from Japan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria, China, Somalia, Ivory Coast, and more. If you can think of a political or natural crisis that would have sent people running to Bangkok, the students in my TP (teaching practice) classes have probably been victims of it. They’re wonderful and extraordinary people full of compassion, wit, and hope. And they’re fucking smart! All this despite enduring unthinkable hardships in their home countries, some of them with little hope of ever returning to see their homeland, families, or friends ever again.

Take this one student for example. We’ll call him Maurice since I don’t feel comfortable disclosing his name on the Internet. Maurice is incredibly sharp and witty. His proficiency in English is remarkable given the little amount of time he’s been studying it (a little over a year). And he’s funny! He’s the life of the class. He brings a charming sense of humor and an innate desire to please. He’d like to go to university in the United States to major in math, and if not for a stringent and complicated (not to mention lengthy) immigration process, he could pull it off. With his level of intelligence, I could see him getting into a state university.

But behind his smile, clever wit, and inspiring hope lies the story of a kid stripped from a murdered family. I never inquired the details (I’m always afraid to ask), but Maurice is a victim and survivor of a violent political conflict in West Africa. The circumstances of this violence matter less than the fact that his parents and sisters were all killed, and now he remains in a strange city and may never return to the land where he grew up and formed memories with his deceased family members. What’s absolutely tragic is that we can actually say he was one of the lucky ones. Simply because he lives.

This is but one of the many stories I have come to know of these students. While teaching them, I ran into a bit of a moral dilemma, and even though the moment of crisis has passed, I’m still interested in hearing your opinions on the matter. See, a common practice in language teaching is to personalize the context, input, and language models students receive. We like to draw students into the lesson by asking them to discuss how they feel about something, or to use the language to relate details or stories about their family, or things along those lines. So in essence, we’re asking them to remember and share. We ask them to remember their family, their country, their childhoods, their friends, and much, much more. Keep in mind these are not therapy sessions, but language classes. The purpose is to exercise and practice English.

But whenever I ask my students to remember, I feel guilty. I feel guilty that I’m asking them to remember a country they probably can’t or won’t ever see again. I’m asking them to remember people they’ve may have been separated from – at best by geographical relocation, but more likely by violence.

I’m asking them to reflect on good memories, yes. But do they also feel a pang of sorrow with the happy memories? When they remember the prank they played on their sister, their mother’s birthday party, the football games they played with friends, or whatever else the memory is, do they also mourn the fact that they won’t be making new memories with these people?

So what do you think? Is it good for them to remember? Do they want to remember? Or was I stirring up pain in a smile?


Moving to Thailand. Step 1: Research TEFL Certification Courses

So what exactly does it take to move to Thailand? This begins a series of entries explaining my story of moving to Thailand.

All I knew was that there was a perfect alignment between where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is a huge and growing industry in Asia, and Thailand is no exception. Someone like me, whose major studies at university were in the lingua franca of our time, who had started to build a career as a wordsmith in that language, and who had a long-burning passion for teaching, would find a happy career here.

So I began to research what I needed in Thailand to teach English, both legally and competitively. Here’s the list:

Required by Thai government (for visa purposes):

  • Bachelor’s Degree or higher from internationally accredited university (UC Berkeley…check!)
  • Passport from a native-English-speaking country (U.S. Passport…check!)
  • Native speaker of English (unilingual speaker of English…check!)

Helpful to get a job with most schools:

  • TEFL certification


Damnit, I thought, I need to get a TEFL. For the next month I scoured the Internet looking at the whole array of options. I wanted to know two things: Are all TEFL created equal? Would I be better off completing one in Thailand or at home?

Without boring you with the details of my research, here’s what I discovered. In Thailand, many directors of studies don’t know one TEFL from another, except the one that comes out of Cambridge, a.k.a. the CELTA. The ones that do know better are very picky about it. And outside of Thailand, CELTA is the only one that holds any water. Other companies were offering their own, ranging from online courses (stay away!), to back-alley certificates that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, to more reputable ones like the American TESOL.

Some courses advertise living abroad as the lure for teaching English abroad. I chose to stay away from these because they encourage teaching for the wrong reasons. Others advertised convenience: “Finish your TEFL from the comfort of your own home…or hostel.” These online courses offer no in-class experience, which is ridiculously stupid if you ask me (and most directors of studies agree). But CELTA, and its American counterpart the TESOL, offers not only 120 hours of instruction, but also 6 hours of professional observation and 6 hours of teaching practice. And CELTA is often the only acceptable TEFL among schools middle eastern locations like Dubai.

So CELTA was the clear choice. But where? CELTA courses are offered worldwide. I looked into San Francisco. I thought maybe I can stay in the U.S., get my CELTA, then hunt for jobs abroad and have all the visa stuff straightened out before I even arrive. The cost of the SF CELTA course: $3,200! And it’s a full-time course, meaning I wouldn’t be able to work my awesome day job at GuideSpark. Add to that the cost of living in SF and it begins to look even bleaker. But in Thailand, most courses ranged between $1,600 and $2,400, the higher costs often include room and board. And everyone knows the ridiculously cheap cost of living in Thailand. So the decision was a no-brainer. The only challenge was finding a job while on a tourist visa, but that’s for another entry.

Why Thailand?

I feel it’s important to answer a central question that is often asked of me. People often wonder why I’d undertake the prodigious and colossal task of relocating to another country and live there indefinitely. Anyone who knows me knows the most obvious, and most prominent reason:

I've moved here for love.
I’ve moved here for love.

But that doesn’t complete the picture. I am constantly pulled between two selves: my logical, rational, contemplative self, and my indulgent, passionate, optimistic self. As you can imagine, making up my mind is therefore quite exhausting. And being a recent divorcee makes me all the more cautious in matters of romance. So moving to Thailand for the sake of a relationship feels more rash to me than it does to others. As luck would have it, other factors led to my decision, and formed an amazingly fortunate alignment of several of my heart’s desires.

Me teaching

The first of these is the desire to teach. When I was a professional musician several years ago, I taught guitar lessons to supplement my income. Before long, the lessons became my primary source of income, as well as primary source of joy. I experienced the delight of those moments when a student “got it.” That sparkle of understanding in a student’s eye is priceless, and worth 6 months of patience achieving. Furthermore, I decided that it didn’t matter that I was teaching music. As long as I was teaching something I knew and felt passionate about, I was happy. This was why I went back to university, and what I kept my eyes on throughout my studies.

Teaching in the United States was definitely a possibility. I spent time learning in detail the process for getting into and completing a California teacher’s certification. But anyone I knew who was already teaching was disillusioned with the profession. And they weren’t anomalous, either. Many teachers change careers within five years of starting. They find the California education system highly unsupportive, under-financed, and unpredictable, the students lazy, rebellious, and overall frustrating to deal with, and the parents enabling, entitled, and irritating. Naturally, one can be faced with these problems anywhere in the world. But there’s an advantage to trying out a new, lower-paid career in a place where the cost of living is so much cheaper. Hence, Thailand.

Banana Island, Trader Joe’s. Notice the green ones are on top. I do things differently.

Second, I’ve always wanted to feel like I was making a difference. Teaching by nature holds this potential. But being among people who know they would benefit exponentially from a good education, who appreciate teachers as sages of knowledge and wisdom, and who have real-world gains of learning my expertise, only amplifies the sense of moral-wholeness that comes with the job. This is an environment I crave. Too long I’ve lined someone else’s pockets with money using my labor, skills, knowledge, and fake smiles. Too long I’ve spent a large portion of my work week toiling for meaningless gains. I wanted have a job where turning a profit, satisfying shareholders, and making customers happy weren’t main aims of the business, or at least not the job. Teaching often avoids these ugly strivings. This is not to say education avoids them; many schools are profit-seeking, board-satisfying, parents-pleasing entities. But even at such institutions, most teachers I’ve known have been able to isolate themselves enough from these mechanizations to still absorb themselves in the empowerment of students. I’m not saying they’re ignorant of or happy about these things, but at least a teacher can focus most of their attention on leaving an impact on their students’ lives.

me with asians

Third, I’ve wanted to live abroad for nearly a decade. Before I went to university, I looked into moving to London. Quite difficult to do with no education and limited resources. I looked into Germany. Similar issue. While at university, I wanted to study abroad for a semester. Being married during my studies impeded that desire. Then, recently divorced, I visited Thailand. Within a week, the energy, warmth, and easy-going nature of Thai people made me feel that I could live here. Then there’s the food, and the temples, and a history that few Americans can comprehend or relate to.

Why live abroad? Those who do it will give many reasons. The reason I’ve wanted to do it, and am enjoying it now, is to grow. I get restless when I’m comfortable. I need a challenge or adventure to excite me, keep my overactive mind busy contemplating the day-to-day. As I’ve discovered, and as this blog hopefully demonstrates, moving to Thailand has stimulated my intellectual, spiritual, and cultural curiosity.

And of course there’s the romantic curiosity. I moved here because I fell in love with a Thai girl. And she’s in love with me. We’re both interested to see how that works out in a real living situation, and not just over routine Skype calls.

For me, moving to Thailand presented an opportunity for all of the aforementioned desires and curiosities to be fulfilled simultaneously. It is a move that my mind and heart have been arching towards for quite some time. It’s not something I simply wanted to do. It was something I needed to do. No matter what happens while I’m here, I know I won’t regret it, because in my short time I’ve already learned so much about myself, about others, about culture, and about the world. Hopefully entries to follow will help share those insights.