Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Relaxation and new experiences!

Tuesday was so relaxing! We were given the afternoon off so Laura and I went to At Ease to get Thai massages after lunch. It was not like a typical Swedish massage, instead the Thai ladies stretch your body in weird (but good) ways while at the same time massaging out every knot. It was incredible and the better part was that it only cost 350 Baht, which is about $11! Extremely inexpensive for how much they pamper you!! When we got the Thai massage, we were given fisherman-like pants and a baggie shirt to wear, instead of our uniform. They make you wear these throughout the entire massage, which at first I thought would be really strange, but then when they started the massage I quickly learned why they were essential. First, they start by washing your feet with lime and flower petal water…then the hour-long massage begins. When you finish they serve you hot ginger tea and cookies. I definitely plan to do this again. J

After our massages, Laura and I walked around the block and came across a place called, Your Hair where we decided to get our hair washed and blow-dried for only 100 Baht, which is just over $3. And to top it off, you get a 30 minute head massage! It was the first time my hair was worn down since I have left for Thailand. I think both of these events will be repeated in the future, maybe after one of the expedition courses.

Thailand has a large population of girly-boys and I recently had my first encounter with one. Here in Thailand they are called a “toot” which originated from the older movie Tootsie, which I found to be a little humorous. Every year in one of Thailand’s papers there is a picture and article about the “Toot of the Year.” The toot that I talked to was very nice and her voice was what gave her away. It is still pretty foreign to me but it was a really interesting experience.

The past few days I have been super frustrated with my Thai class, but today it was so much better. And now my goal is to start forming complete and logical sentences… which means I have to practice and review a lot. In our Foundations class in the afternoon we went to Wat Suan Dok and listened to a senior monk discuss Buddhism. Before the talk we ate at an incredible VEGETARIAN restaurant; a huge break from pork, which is usually served at every meal. We had some kind of mushroom fritter, a stir-fried veggie and tofu dish, spring rolls, a red curry dish and a few others. It was maak aloi (very delicious). After all of that food, each of us got fruit smoothies that were made with real fruit!

My Mae (mom) today after dinner that she is looking forward to me cooking American food… haha, what is American food? Burger and Fries, pizza, hot dogs?!? I have no idea what I am going to make, especially when I only have a wok to use. It will be interesting and I will keep you updated on how it turns out.

I am attempting to put a slideshow of pictures in this blog, but I don’t know how successful I will be. Anyways, I hope you all are doing well. Thanks for taking your time to read my blogs!

ally j

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


One week of foundations completed… and overall this week has been pretty incredible. We were put into our permanent Thai class groups and worked rigorously on the Thai alphabet. I got so frustrated and it wasn’t sticking. It is so different from learning a language like Spanish or French because both use a similar alphabet to English. Thai is based off of a Sanskrit-type alphabet. My homework has consisted of a lot of memorization of each letter and all of the rules that go into forming words PLUS learning new phrases and words in THAI.

Our foundations course is taught by Dr. Christina Fink. She is so knowledgeable about Thai culture . The course is focused on providing information about Thailand that will enhance our experience here now and during our other courses. Some of the topics we discussed this week were Gender and society, Rip Roy (the idea of being appropriate in who you bow to, the length of your skirt, the things you say, showing affection, etc), and then we spent two days on Education in Thailand. Thursday we visited two schools in Chiang Mai, first we visited CMIS (Chiang Mai International School) and then PRC (The Prince Royal’s College). Both schools are private Christian based K-12 schools, but they are very different. CMIS has about 400 students total and teaches mainly in English with no uniform requirement (one of the only schools like this) and PRC is 54 acres big and has 6,000 students. About 99% of the students at PRC are Thai and everyone wears a uniform; it also has a bilingual section of the school where students learn in English, but otherwise in the rest of the school English is taught as a normal subject like science or math.

My homestay is still going very well. I am almost getting to the point where I can walk home from my bus stop. Usually, I call as soon as I get off the bus and tell them in my broken thai that I am walking home and that I really enjoy it and they usually say ok and agree. But then a few minutes later, my Paw will show up on his motorcycle/moped and drive me the last 200 ft or my Mae will walk and meet me on the road and then walk me the rest of the way home. haha, I think they are still very protective over me.

One night our neighborhood had a parade around 8:00 pm that went to the Wat (Buddhist Temple) down the road from our house. The parade consisted of shooting off fireworks in the street, playing loud music, and lots of bright lights... it was really cool to watch, but kind of scary. The party lasted into late in the night and I definitely fell asleep to "Apple Bottom Jeans."

The food here is definitely one of my favorite aspects of Thailand. Wednesday night was the first night I had Pad Thai, which is kind of crazy because I assumed, before I came here, that I would be eating Pad Thai all the time. However, my parents are still all about introducing me to all different dishes of Thailand. Some other ISDSI students said that they unknowingly ate ant eggs!! AHHH! That freaks me out a little bit and so far I haven’t been served them… but I do scrutinize my food before I put it in my mouth. One morning our Thai classes were a little different. We went to a market and bought a bunch of food ingredients (using our Thai speaking skills) and then we came back to school and cooked four different Thai meals. I wish I could tell you what they were called… but ate each dish for lunch and everything was spicy and so delicious. Two ingredients I have never eaten so much of…. Pork, Eggs, and Garlic. In the application for this program, everyone was required to sign a sheet that said that we would not be vegans or vegetarians while we were in Thailand. This is for two reasons, first, it could offend our homestay families if we decline food that is offered and second, it would make eating a balanced diet very difficult here. People here put pork in everything, seriously, I have had it for every meal, and somehow Thai people never seem to get sick of it. Me, on the other hand, have started to really appreciate chicken more. I asked one of my instructors why pork is so common in dishes here and he said that it is not because it is the cheapest meat (chicken I guess is) but because it is thought of as like higher class…which I am still confused about. The other ingredient is eggs… some of you may already know how cooked eggs seem to upset my stomach, so this has been a challenge. They didn’t really warn us about how many eggs you may consume here, but I think they maybe should have.

This past weekend we had a retreat to Mork-Fa Waterfall. We started our Friday by going to a reservoir to do our swim assessment. It consisted of swimming to a buoy 150 meters off shore and swim back and then treading water for 15 minutes straight. It turned out to be really fun, despite the murky gross water and the lack of good goggles and swim caps. We hung out at the reservoir for a good three hours. For lunch we had a kind of fish soup, deep fried shrimp, a pork dish, spicy papaya salad and goong deep bin (raw, alive shrimp)… ahhhhhh! it was crazy! They gave us a bowl with a lid on it and said to shake it up (to mix the spices with the shrimp) and then when we took off the lid a couple would jump out! Even when you held them in your hand they would squirm around, worse yet when you put them in your mouth if you didn’t chew fast enough you could feel them moving around. I honestly don’t know if I will eat them again, but they were tasty, it’s just the idea of eating something still alive and moving ugh. haha.

After lunch, we rode in pimped out vans that had mirrors on the walls and ceilings and played “50 Best Dance Songs” which included “Toxic” “Bye, Bye, Bye” and “I’m too Sexy”…we had a dance party and it was hilarious. Our sweet rides took us to Mork-Fa National Park where we ended up camping out for the rest of the weekend. We rented out the long house cabins and the kitchen/picnic area. The weekend was chill and relaxed. It was a nice break from the city life and it was a good way to get to know the other students in the program (17 total, 9 from Calvin and the rest from various schools). We swam in the waterfall, hiked a lot, and hung out. I learned how to cook some more Thai dishes and became pretty good at making and flipping a kai-jiao (Thai Omelet) in a wok. Thai Omelets are a lot more difficult to make than an American style omelet because it is flat and cooked in a wok and not folded and cooked in a skillet.

When we arrived back into the city we (Johnathan and I) waited at school for two hours until his parents picked us up. We had to make some errands around the city before we went home, but the errands took a long time and the next thing we know we are parked in front of a restaurant. I got kind of worried because my parents weren’t answering their phones and I assumed they probably were going to have dinner for me when I got home. When I was dropped off at home, as I had assumed my mother had dinner ready. I felt bad and got a little frustrated once again with miscommunication. I am still trying to get used to the Thai traditions and customs… it is definitely going to take some time, especially trying to understand little things like where and who to eat dinner with. Anyways, I appreciate all of your prayers and support. I hope you all are doing well!

ally j

p.s. I am trying really hard to add pictures... but it seems to not be working. Pretty soon I will add pictures.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The First Week

I have been with my host family for one whole week. It is crazy to think about how different my thoughts are since last week. I was so anxious last week about so much, like when to take a shower, how to eat, what is rip roy (appropriate) and what is not. And right now, I can honestly say that I am comfortable. I am comfortable using eastern-style toilets, I am comfortable eating with a spoon, I am completely comfortable with my new home and parents, and I am loving the city. Seriously, I am so blessed to be placed in this host family. My Mae is hilarious and loves to make jokes and my Paw laughs all the time, so even though I don’t understand what they are saying to each other, I thoroughly enjoy listening to them converse and giggle. I also know a lot more Thai, which helps for meal conversations to not be so long and quiet.

A typical school day is as follows:

5:30 am – wake up and shower (last time I woke up at this time was to open the pool for crazy lap swimmers)

5:50 am – breakfast (varies every morning: sweet rice, clear soup with shrimp, garlic bread haha, or bread with honey…always different and usually always good)

6:15 am – leave for bus stop

6:25 am – catch yellow bus to Arcade (bus terminal) with Jonathan

6:50 am – buy an ice coffee (gaffee yen) for 15 baht which is about $.40 from the little elderly lady

7:00 am – catch white bus to ISDSI

7:20 am – arrive at ISDSI and use the free wi-fi

8:00 am – Intensive thai class starts

12:00 pm – break for lunch (Monday’s eat at school, other days eat somewhere in town)

1:30 pm – Foundations course (starting Monday 2/16)

4-5ish pm – School ends, catch Rot Dang (Red bus that is a converted pick up truck) to Gad Luang (touristy market that is also the yellow bus terminal)

………….. – Take Yellow bus home to Doi Saket

When I get off the bus, I have to call my Paw and he comes and picks me up on his motorcycle/scooter. As soon as I get home, my Mae tells me to take a shower, which I am more than willing to do because of the long hot day at school and the hour of traveling home. After I shower dinner is usually ready and so far, I have not had the same thing twice. She even let me cook two dishes… both with the wok and both a spinach-like dish. They turned out to be delicious, even though I have never seen them before. Usually my parents will continue to put food on my plate until I say “em lao ka” which means “full already.” But then a kanom (dessert) is placed in front of me. The food here is so good and I hope to learn more cooking from my Mae, otherwise I want to sign up to take a Thai cooking class later on in the semester. That would be awesome!! The rest of the night, I do my homework at the kitchen table with my Paw. He is learning English, so helping me study is also practice for him to learn English. My parents are so helpful with my Thai.

From what I have gathered, this month will consist of Monday thru Thursday Thai class in the morning and foundations class in the afternoon. Friday is an adventure day… at least I think it is. This past week was more unique because it was still orientation. Wednesday we had orientation of Chiang Mai. We were sent on a scavenger hunt into the huge market in the middle of the city to use our little bit of Thai to find and buy certain things. Most things we had to buy, we also had to taste. It was crazy having no idea what you were asking for and then the next thing you know the market lady hands you a bag of mealworms!! Then we had to eat them! They were crunchy and ridiculously salty. I ate both a cricket and a huge grasshopper, too! I don’t think I will ever do that again… it was a really strange texture. There are some pictures of us eating them, and I will let you know what blog has them posted. Thursday we had GEAR CHECK DAY. So what that means is that I had to lug my huge suitcase of outdoor gear back to school (on both buses) and have our instructors check off that we had the items. Luckily, I have everything on the list, so I don’t have to worry about going around the city finding various things. After we were checked off in the afternoon, we went to the hospital and received our J-Vac shots. It was probably a crazy sight seeing a bunch of farangs (foreigners) in student uniforms (white shirt and black bottoms) in a waiting room. I am really glad I waited until I got to Thailand to get my shot because it was super inexpensive (like $25) and it was also a cool experience being in their hospital.

Friday was a very exciting day. We did not have any thai classes and we didn’t have to wear our school uniform! Instead, we went rock climbing as a whole group. It was part of our orientation because it helped us to step out of our comfort zone and push ourselves. I am a little scared of heights and when I rock climb my legs sometimes shake, haha… but I climbed a few walls and belayed tons of people. After lunch, we went inside some caves, did some zip-line-type-stuff, and then repelled down inside the cave like 200 feet! It was such a thrill. Everyone at Chiang Mai Rock Climbing was incredibly helpful and definitely made the experience worthwhile. I think I might go rock climbing at their wall later on this semester. The whole day made me pretty tired, so as soon as I finished dinner I went to sleep and I wanted to be well rested to wash all of my clothes by hand the next morning.

I have been in Thailand for about a week and I have experienced so many new cultural traditions, one being Buddhism. My parents seem to be strict Buddhists. They have a spirit house outside of our house (because every house is said to have a spirit, so it also needs to have a place to be) and they have a Buddha shrine in the corner of one of the bedrooms. Saturday we went to the city of Lamphur, which is a half hour away from Chiang Mai to a beautiful Buddhist temple. There are a lot of rituals that people do to honor Buddha in the temples, including bowing, chanting, praying, giving flowers, food and money, and lighting a candle. It was here where I found my love for coconut ice cream; it has chunks of coconut in it. In Thailand, Carnation sweet and condensed milk is put on or in everything… for example, gaffee yen (iced coffee) and cha yen (iced tea) both use Carnation as the cream/milk. They also put Carnation on the ice cream J The only thing I have ever used Carnation for was to make Papa’s fudge. On the way home we stopped at a Talaad (market) along side the road. It reminded me of a mix between a Meijer or a Hy-vee and a Haitian market. There was the seafood stand, the dry fish area, the fruits and veggies part, the 10+ different kinds of rice areas, and the clothing section. It was huge! My Mae even bought asparagus, which is my favorite… it will be interesting to see how she cooks it.

The evening we had some lost in translation moments and definitely a lot of confusion, but somehow Mackenzie (ISDSI student from last semester a.k.a. my brother who was visiting for the night) and I ate at both our house (green curry, bamboo stuff, and fried pork… probably my favorite meal yet) and then we went to Johnathan’s house and sang karaoke and ate more food there (shrimp/onion tempura and rice). In the end, the night ended up being a lot of fun! I am really enjoying getting to know my family and looking forward to starting the Foundations course on Monday. Thanks for the emails and facebook messages! I am so blessed to have people supporting me while I am here! Cup Koon Ka (Thank You).

ally j

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

new experiences

The past couple of days have been so busy. On Saturday we went to ISDSI for family orientation and learned all the dos and don’ts for living with a thai family (i.e. proper way of eating with a spoon and a fork, don’t touch people’s head, always take off shoes before entering a house). It was pretty intense, so when my family showed up around 12:30, I was so cautious not to do something wrong. Sure enough I screwed up as soon as we got our lunch; I put the fork in my right hand and the spoon in my left… my Mae (mom, pronounced Maaa) actually held my hands and showed me how to eat… I felt like a two year old. But I guess I am lucky because some other students have yet to be taught proper eating habits by their host parents. While we were at the mall, my parents helped me pick out a cell phone, which was a success. But shortly after, I failed in communicating what I wanted for breakfast. So I ended up with pizza the next morning, haha. My Mae’s goal is to fatten me up; she always talks about how I like to eat fruits and how they don’t have any fat in them. It is interesting how Thai people view body image. It is not a bad thing to be called fat because they think it is healthy. Keep in mind that you can be called fat when you are in excellent shape and not overweight at all.

Sunday was market day. Thais work Monday-Saturday and Sunday is similar to the Sabbath. No one works, everyone goes to the market. My Mae and I went into the city of Chiang Mai (we live in Doi Saket, which is right outside of the city) and ran a bunch of errands. I bought some more shirts for my uniform and was basically clueless about where I was or what we were doing the majority of the time in the city. We stopped for lunch at POP AM, which is a restaurant with Disney pictures everywhere (Jenna V would have loved this place). I got green curry w/ rice and chicken. My Mae and her friend were so surprised that I got that because they were worried about a weak farang’s (foreigner) stomach. But no worries I haven’t had any problems with the food…yet. Later that night, I went to the Walking Street with Johnathan and his host brothers. There are pictures of us on his blog: if you want to check some out. Walking street is a market that only takes place on Sunday nights and it has lots of food, lots of music, and a lot of cool stuff. It doesn’t have nick-nack junk… instead it has some awesome stuff that I would love to decorate my apartment with, if it was easier to ship.

My Paw (Dad) picked me up along side the road and while he was driving home, I realized that I didn’t have my wallet. I started to freak out and tried to explain to my parents (who speak very little English) what had happened. Not knowing any Thai made it a challenge, but after a little bit they understood. We drove back to where he picked me up and there it was laying right next to the road with all of the money still in it. It is amazing how language barriers can be overcome with gestures. When we finally got home, a past ISDSI student was there visiting. Mackenzie was their host son last semester and he is now staying in Thailand until July teaching students English and math. I am a little jealous of his opportunity. He was so helpful translating between my parents and me. It was also very helpful to talk with him about the program and answer other questions that I had. And it was very reassuring to see him converse with my parents because he too started off not knowing any Thai, and now he is able to translate! I am stoked to be able to get that far. Right now my goal is to be able to carry on a full conversation with my Paw because he can only say a few random things in English.

The past two days have been very similar. We start school at 8:00 am and learn Thai until noon, we then break for lunch until 1:30 pm, which is when we do orientation until 5ish. It is all very exciting. I love the Thai classes. My instructors are phenomenal! I already know every number up to 1 million. I also know enough to barter and introduce myself. It is crazy how after 2 days I already know so much! We started the alphabet today, which is difficult because it is nothing like English. Our homework was to learn how to write our name. I figured it out! It took me awhile and a lot of pronunciation help from my mother. She is so wonderful and always willing to help me with Thai. She speaks slowly and repeats things often. Thai has 5 tones and like 50+ letters in the alphabet. It is tough! One of the vowels I seem to have a lot of trouble (I think a lot of farangs have trouble with it because it is not a normal sound we make in English). So every now and again, my parents will giggle quietly to themselves when I butcher the pronunciation of a letter or word.

I am really excited about getting to know the other people in the course. Everyone seems to be equally as excited about what we are going to learn as I am and everyone seems pretty awesome. Thank you for all of your continual support and love!

ally j

Friday, February 6, 2009


Guess what. It took us a million hours to get here... seriously. We had some delays along the way, spent the night on the Bangkok airport floor, and almost left my bag twice in two different airports. But we made it to Chiang Mai tired, starving, and dehydrated. ISDSI staff picked us up at the airport and took us straight to our hotel place ( It is beautiful and has amazing food. My first meal in Thailand was Fried rice with indian curry and chicken. It was spicy but oh so good. Nothing like any thai resturants in Grand Rapids. It makes me so excited to experience more meals here! We met other ISDSI students from Colorado College and went off into the city to explore. All of us are pretty tired and trying to overcome jet-lag.
Tomorrow we are meeting our host families and having a little host-family orientation. Then we are sent off with our family for the rest of the weekend. Monday we start a whole week of orientation, which includes rock-climbing, intense thai classes, and understanding thai culture.
We would love for you to keep us in your prayers , especially with our host families and the relationships between all of us students. Thanks for your continued support and prayers!

ally j

Monday, February 2, 2009

And so it begins...

Hey everyone!
After much thought and contemplation, I decided to create a blog for while I am away the next four months studying in Thailand. I am studying at the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute (ISDSI), which is located in Chiang Mai. If you would like to read more about the programs I will be doing you can visit
I leave in two days and I still have many things to do... of course, I haven't started packing, but I am in that stage of making piles that eventually end up in my suitcase. The last few days have been rather crazy running around doing errands and saying goodbyes. Right now, I only know one word in Thai, which is Sawadee Ka (hello/welcome/bye)... that will only get me so far, but hopefully Thai will be easy to pick up and understand.
I you would love to hear from you while I am gone! You can email, write, facebook, or skype me...
My address is:

Ally Johnson
PO Box 222
Chiang Mai, 50205
Or... for packages:

Ally Johnson
48/1 Chiang Mai-Lampang Road (Superhighway)
Muang, Chiang Mai, 50300
Here is my itinerary:

Leave Weds, Feb 4, 2009
United 5875
1 hr 6 min 196 miles
Depart: 9:36 am Cedar Rapids, IA (CID)
Arrive: 10:42 am Chicago, IL (ORD)

United 0881 13 hr 5 min 6,274 miles
Depart: 12:00pm Chicago, IL (ORD)
Arrive: (Feb 5th) 4:05 pm Tokyo, Japan (NRT)

United 0891 7 hr 10 min 2,887 miles
Depart: 6:35 pm Tokyo, Japan (NRT)
Arrive: 11:45 pm Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)

Thai Airways 100 1 hr 10 min
Depart: (Feb 6th) 9:20 am Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Arrive: 10:30 am Chiang Mai INTL

Return Friday, June 12, 2009
Thai Airways 117
1 hr 10 min
Depart: 7:15 pm Chiang Mai INTL
Arrive: 8:25 pm Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)

United 0890 6 hr 10 min 2,887 miles
Depart: (June 13th) 6:50 am Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Arrive: 3:00 pm Tokyo, Japan (NRT)

United 0882 11 hr 25 min 6,274 miles
Depart: 4:55 pm Tokyo, Japan (NRT)
Arrive: 2:20 pm Chicago, IL (ORD)

United 5980 1 hr 3 min 196 miles
Depart: 4:55 pm Chicago, IL (ORD)
Arrive: 5:58 pm Cedar Rapids, IA (CID)

I pray that you have a blessed next few months and I will see you in June!

ally j