Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Hiking Ben Macdui, Scotland

Most photos by @amirulashrafpj the amazing, as usual.

So what do you do when your Friday lectures got cancelled, and you have an empty weekend ahead of you, and you're in beautiful Scotland.

For my friends and I, we bought train tickets from Edinburgh to Aviemore, camped through a sub-zero night at Cairngorm National Park, witnessed the Aurora, woke up to snow and hiked to the peak of Ben Macdui, the second tallest peak in the UK.

Spontaneity at its best
It was certainly one of the most memorable trip I've ever had so far, despite the severe lack of proper planning. We didn't have any concrete plans on where and how we're going to get to Ben Macdui, so we ended up forking out extra unnecessary spending on a map and compass which costs us more than £30 (The ranger literally flipped when he found out we didn't have a plan, and he forced us to buy these from the shop). Our taxi driver as well, who drove us from the train station to the start point , was rather concerned when she heard about our, uhm, "plans" - she gave us her contact details and urged us to call her if any mishap occurs.
But all in all, it has been a truly great trip. Here are some general information which I wish I'd known before hiking Ben Macdui:
Photos taken seconds apart, from different angles. 

What to Bring:

- Tent
- Sleeping Bag, the ones that can withstand sub-zero temperature!
- Waterproof & warm clothing
- Waterproof shoes
- Food
- Whiskey (good for keeping you warm at night)
- Map (ensure that you laminate it!)
- Compass

Drinking water made up a large proportion of our bag's weight. However, we were told that once we are far enough from the start point, water from the loch (Scottish word for lake) is safe to be consumed, without treating it.

Getting to CairnGorm National Park from Edinburgh

If you have a car then it'll be pretty straightforward - just google map it.

If you're like us, who is out searching for the more economical (because if you're below 25 you have to fork out extra for motor insurance!) and non-car-rental-method, then this might be helpful.

View from the train

 You have to first travel to Aviemore - there are a few train and bus services from Edinburgh daily.
Bus tickets are much cheaper, (Megabus offers the best deals!) especially when booked in advanced . If you're lucky, you can score yourself a free ticket or tickets for £1!

Train tickets will cost a little more, but you get to walk around and stretch your legs, enjoy beautiful scenery on the way. You can opt for open end tickets too, where you travel dates are flexible as long as it is within one month, if I am not mistaken.

Tips: Get a 16-25 Railcard! 16-25 Railcard holder are entitled to a 1/3 discount off the original price of the ticket.

We bought our open-end return tickets for £50.40 (before railcard discount)

You can get much cheaper rates if you book your tickets early. We bought our tickets on the day of departure so it is on the higher end.

Getting from Aviemore to CairnGorm Mountain Range

You can get there by bus or by taxi. Bus would definitely be a cheaper option - Look out for Bus 31, it runs from Aviemore train station to CairnGorm. Take note that the bus service is not frequent on weekdays. The three of us waited for about half an hour at the bus station, only to find out that there wasn't any bus services available for the next two hours. The taxi fare costed about £15, which was shared among the three of us - not too bad on my opinion.

Bus schedule available here.

The Hike

Make sure you get yourself a map before hitting the roads, as there are many paths and it may be confusing, especially when it is misty.
The hike was relatively easy - there wasn't much steep escalation and the route was marked so you wouldn't get lost easily, unless there is a lot of mist you'll loose your sense of direction. It was a little slippery at times as we hiked through the rain, but nothing too challenging.

Do get a pair of waterproof shoes. One of my biggest regret was hiking with a regular pair of trail running shoes - once or twice we walked into streams/puddle of water without realizing it! It was so cold, I couldn't feel my toes at all!

It is possible to hike from the start point to the peak, and return to the start point in one day, but because we arrived at Cairngorm at late afternoon, we figure that it would be safer if we camp a night near the peak, and continue on the next day. We set our tents hastily at a relatively flat surface, close to a loch, before the rain gets too heavy.

There are many trails that leads to the peak of Ben Macdui - the one we took (CairnGorm Ski Center - Ben Macdui) was apparently one of the easier trail.

The Night

Surviving the night was on my opinion, the toughest part of our hike. The temperature fell below zero, my coat was wet, we didn't have a sleeping mat so we could feel the cold from the ground. Our sleeping bag was only suffice to withstand as low as 0 degree Celsius. The whole night I kept dreaming that I walked into Tesco with broken down heater.
The aurora we saw, through the lens of the camera. At around 8ish-pm, a friend unzipped the tent, and claimed that he saw the auroras. At that time we couldn't really tell whether it was the Aurora - we saw some speck of greens but it was hard to tell from our naked eyes. But it wasn't long before we decided to zip up the tent because it was way too cold. Only when we checked the photos the next day we realized it really was the aurora!
Our tent, under a full arch rainbow
We were told by some hikers and also our taxi driver that there are bothies (a building which is left unlock, open for the public to use/spend the night. Usually does not comes with basic necessity - no tap, no sink, no lights) for hikers to spend a night in but we did not come across any during our hike. Again, the lack of planning :P

Here is a map listing out all the bothies for public use in the UK, and some general etiquette for using a bothy .

The Peak

At the peak of Ben Macdui - unfortunately it was really misty so we couldn't really see anything! 
Unlike Rinjani (Read about my experience hiking Rinjani here!), the hike up from our camp was rather anti-climatic. It was a misty morning with flurries, and our visibility was probably less than 5m.

The Duration

.....we definitely completed the return trail + camp in less than 24 hours, but I can't put an exact number or range to it, as we stopped numerous times, and went a little off track at times for photos.
Colour-coordinated as The Powerpuff Girls. Look closely and you an see that it is raining behind us! 
Looking back now, it was still one of the most memorable trip I've ever had. When will my next hike be, I wonder.

More useful info for Ben Macdui,

Monday, 18 December 2017

Experience: Direct 8 Hours Bus from Sangkhlaburi -> Bangkok

I took a 8 hour direct bus from Sangkhlaburi, a Thai bordering town bordering with Myanmar, renowned for its wooden bridge, to Bangkok, during my recent Thailand trip in October. To travel to Sangkhlaburi, most travel forums and blogs would recommend travelers to take a train/bus to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok, then proceed to travel by mini van to Sangkhlaburi from Kanchanaburi. 
The famous wooden Mon Bridge of Sangkhlaburi (On the right) , the longest wooden bridge in Thailand

Same goes for the Sangkhlaburi-Bangkok leg, most travelers would opt to break their journey into two parts, Sangkhlaburi-Kanchanaburi, then Kanchanaburi-Bangkok, rather than taking the direct bus, due to the daunting travelling time.
My experience taking the 8 hours direct bus was a rather positive one - contrary to what most travel forums would recommend, I'd opt to take the direct bus instead. I've tried taking the train then mini van from Bangkok-Kanchanaburi-Sangkhlaburi, and the direct Sangkhlaburi-Bangkok direct bus. 

I'd choose the direct bus as the tickets are cheaper, and you get a more comfortable ride compared to taking a mini van, where the leg space (despite me being only about 162cm, the leg space was horrible) and luggage storage is really limited! If the mini van is full, the driver might charge you extra for luggage too. 

The ticket price for the direct bus was 271 Baht, meals and snacks were included in that price, and there were plenty of leg room :D 

The Journey

There was only one direct bus service on the day I traveled. The bus departs at 8.30am

According to google, the journey from Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal to Sangkhlaburi takes approximately 5 hours without any stops, using the toll road. 

The bus journey takes about 7-8 hours (including rest stops), depending on traffic condition. The bus will be going down a hilly, steep road during the first four hours from Sangkhlaburi - hence the bus will be moving very slooooooooooowly (think the sloth from Zootopia) at the first leg of the journey.

The bus stops at a few other stations around Bangkok as well, but it terminates at Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal. Unfortunately, I did not take note of the name of the stations the bus stopped at in Bangkok. 

The Cost

The tickets cost 271 Baht, meals and snacks included in that price! 

Where to Buy Tickets

We got our tickets at the small counter, located just right next to Aroma Coffee, diagonally opposite of 7-Eleven. 

You can buy the ticket on the day of travel itself. During peak season (I traveled during peak season!) , you can pre-book your tickets up to one day in advance. However, you have to pay for the tickets upon booking, but ticket collection is only on the day of travel.

The Luggage
Plenty of luggage storage space available at the luggage compartment. Did not heard of any restriction of luggage size during my travel. However, if the bus is packed the storage space might be limited.

The Seatings
The seats were nice and comfy, and fully reclinable, which was a HUGE bonus on my opinion.
The leg space is probably around 30-31 inches, which is sufficient to do some simple stretches!

Food & Rest Stops

We stopped once for a brief toilet break, and another time (15 minutes) for lunch. Do take note that there are toilets in the bus as well. But it was nice to stretch our legs!

You are not allowed to bring hot food on board the bus. I had two packets of noodles, given by my home stay host but the driver did not allow me to bring it up the bus :( The kind ticket lady negotiated with the driver and the driver allowed us to bring our packets of noodles along - but it had to be placed in the luggage compartment. Dry snacks like cereal, crisps and nuts are fine though.

Two hours into the journey, the co-driver started the distribution of snack packs, which came as a pleasant surprise to me.
The snack pack consisted of a cupcake, instant coffee & creamer, and a nice paper cup with handler. The distribution of the coffee & cup baffled me as there wasn't any hot water supply on board nor during lunch time.

After the snacks distribution, the co-driver took our orders for lunch in the bus. A kind lady next to me translated what was on the menu for lunch, as the co-driver couldn't really speak English. Vegetarian options are available from what I know. These are the food item available according to the kind lady:

- Basil Pork and white rice
- Basil Pork and white rice with egg
- Fried Rice

The bus stopped at Renu Restaurant for lunch at about 12.30pm (approx 4.5 hours into the journey)
View from Renu Restaurant
The food was pre-prepared, on the table ready for us to gobble down, to ensure no further delay of the journey.

The remaining few hours of the journey was rather monotonous because there wasn't anymore food distribution. The bus stopped at a few different stations in Bangkok, before terminating at the Northern Bus Terminal.

Overall, I'd really highly recommend taking the direct bus from Sangkhlaburi to Bangkok. For more info on other mini bus/vans services to get to Bangkok from Sangkhlaburi, you can refer to this website for more info :)

Sunday, 17 December 2017

KemSkorlah 2017: Cringy Scrump-tee-ious

Time flies when you're having a good time - this resonates with me so well it is electrifying.

I've just completed my seven weeks Pre-Service-Programme (PSP) with Teach For Malaysia (TFM). As cliché as it sounds, but it seems like it was only yesterday that we started the programme!
Class photo with the students of 4 Coconut and my two colabs, Hisyam and Hazwani

Our training was carried out in two phases - the first phase, Akademi, our theoretical training part, was held at Kuala Lumpur for four weeks. The second phase was our three weeks teacher practicum training, KemSkorlah, carried out at Johor. KemSkorlah was the highlight of my PSP journey as it was where we get our hands dirty, and apply the skills and knowledge we have been equipped during Akademi, on real students. Just a little background info, KemSkorlah is a holiday English camp, and students' participation are entirely optional.

I can still vividly remember the trains of thoughts I had prior to KemSkorlah: -
Are the kids going to love me? 
Will the students think that I am lame?
Can I really teach? 
Are the students being forced to join KemSkorlah? What if they all just want to go home and sleep? It is their holidays after all.
How is the students' English proficiency? Should I lower my expectation?
What is going to be served for lunch in the school canteen?

These questions and self-doubts floated in my head as if it was a song playing on auto-loop. Luckily for me, the students assigned to my class were the sweetest and dedicated bunch - most of them opted to join KemSkorlah even though they were having their school holidays. They have a strong desire to learn, and are willing to wake up early on a school holiday just to attend this English camp. Something which I am not willing do if I am still a student. And oh, lunch at the school canteen was really decent too.
The three teachers of 4 Coconuts

Being a total novice in teaching, I'd say things went on smoothly - attributed to the fact that the students we got were really cooperative (but mischievous at times too, I must add on!).

On the first day of class, I asked a few students for their names. A boy cheekily covered his name tag with both his hands, and was reluctant to share his name (in an impish manner). Infected by the cheekiness, I labelled him as Coconut1, and his other friend as Coconut2, and gave myself the nickname 'BOSS'. And boy, these nicknames became really sticky among the more mischievous boys throughout KemSkorlah. "Teacher! Coconut1 is late!", "Boss, I don't understand this question!"...Boss this boss that...which sometimes makes me feel like someone working in a mamak. Reminder to self to pick a better nickname the next time I enter a school.

Syok Sendiri

Things went smoothly for week one, except for a few hiccups on the first day where we severely went over time. We missed a full one-hour lesson on day one because of time-mismanagement. Thanks to my colabs, we rectified the problem by assigning time keepers, and found our footing after one or two days.

A few students did drop out a few days later - some due to work commitment, and some, well I don't really know the reason why, which raises a few questions and self-doubt. A new set of questions looped in my head:

Am I challenging my students enough?
Are my classes fun enough? Or do they feel bored?
Are the activities in my class interactive enough?
Wait, or is it way too interactive and my students are tired of "active learning"? Should I do more "chalk-and-talk"
Can all the students follow through what I just said? Are they just pretending to understand whatever I just said?
KemSkorlah is only a three weeks program, are they really learning something? Or are they wasting their time?

And the list goes on and on.

Jogging down memory lane, the perception/image I had of a teacher, as a student, was always a perfect one - a teacher should always know what he or she wants to say. Whatever he or she says is absolute, thou shall not challenge that.

If you've read so far, you must be wondering what is the correlation between "scrump-tee-ious" and this post.

Once in class I made a silly mistake, pronouncing "scrumptious" as "scrump-tee-ious"
Writing about this sends goosebumps all over me!
Perfect depiction of how I felt at that moment

Of course, on the very next day, I openly admitted my mistakes to the class, taught them the correct way of pronouncing it, and apologized to the class. My students shouted, "It's okay teacher thank you teacher!" amidst all the cheeky laughter. Well, that wasn't too bad!

After a few days, I was having a conversation with one student in my class and he said, "Cikgu, I have a fear of speaking on the stage. I am afraid what others think about me....I am afraid of making mistakes."

"Do you remember when was the last time teacher said something wrong or made a mistake in class?" I asked

"Yes yes I know it was...uhhh....it was.....wait let me think for a bit.....tak ingatlah cikgu!"

"So there you have it. You don't remember what mistake was it right?"


"Yes. It does feels like the end of the world when we make mistakes. Our mind will go 'OH NO NOW THEY ARE GOING TO REMEMBER THIS FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIFE AND LAUGH AT ME WHENEVER THEY SEE US' but the actual reality is, people really do not think a lot about us. We think more about our own self."

"One of the biggest and silliest mistake teacher feel like I have done is that time when I pronounced 'scrumptious' as "SCRUMP-TEE-IOUS". I admit, it really felt like the end of the world at that time. But you see, no one really remembers the mistakes you commit for long."

"I understand that this doesn't happen overnight - you won't wake up the next day thinking 'YOU KNOW WHAT I WON'T BE WORRYING WHAT EVERYONE ELSE THINKS ABOUT ME I WILL BE SPEAKING CONFIDENTLY EVERY DAY'. Teacher must admit, even now, I get cold feets when I walk into class, I doubt myself a lot sometimes, worrying if I am a good teacher, whether the students really understand what I just taught...and so on. Teacher just have to constantly remind myself that I am human, and not to be afraid of mistakes - learn from your mistakes, rather than dodging mistakes."

And yes, this is one of those kinds of post with a happy ending because I censored out some other mistakes I made in class but hey focus on learning from mistakes tee-hee. My doubts were cleared during the last few days of KemSkorlah during a diversity lesson, where the summary of the story is as below:

The students were above and beyond sweet. There was one day where I was feeling lethargic, mistakenly called a student "Halim" when in actual fact there isn't even a Halim in class. I openly admitted to my class that I was feeling really tired on that day, and apologize for not being able to deliver a quality lesson. But what happened on that day really was out my expectation. The students were extra cooperative, and one student just took charge controlling the class, signalling and gesturing the students to be quiet when needed. T_T

Of course, I won't expect my two years fellowship to be as smooth sailing. This does not reflect how my two years fellowship journey will go. However, these three weeks of KemSkorlah gave me confidence and a clearer picture of being a teacher. No doubt that I still have a lot of room for improvement to work on. Watching my own teaching videos shed lights on areas of improvement I have that I never ever noticed before, like starting a sentence with "so....." excessively.

Being a teacher is humbling - being a teacher reminded myself that we are all humans - we all make mistakes.  Thinking back about that experience, it was funny how I could give that advice to my student, when I had been suffering from the same self-doubt! With that in mind, I hope this scrump-tee-ious story will serve as a reminder to myself, and also anyone out there, that we are all human :)

Thank you students, for the confidence booster, for teaching me how to be a better teacher, and a better person, and for prepping me to be a teacher.

*Actual conversation may vary as I do not have photographic memory and hey we all make mistakes!

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