People of Thailand

IMG_0858Amerti- Akha Hill Tribe

As our vans pulled into the Akha Village, there were a dozen kids playing badminton, soccer and tag in the street. Bopping around the more organized sports were three younger boys, running in nomadic patterns, occasionally getting in the way of the older kids. After unloading our belongings and getting settled into our host houses, a few of us went to go play with the children. Amerti, a little boy of around four years with gapped teeth, was running back and forth with two friends singing the ABCs. Knowing bits of english is rare in the hill tribe villages, and very few even speak Thai. Since Amerti goes to one of the Royal Project schools, he is learning Thai and English. We became fast friends, after I shyly asked “Khoon Chue Aryai kha?” which means “what is your name?” in Thai. I made him repeat it multiple times throughout the night, which he quickly became annoyed of. Amerti clung to my back, hand, and even feet for the rest of the night. When we went and changed into the traditional Akha clothing for a dancing ceremony, he sat on my host families bed and waited while I got dressed.

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Fon- Chiang Mai

It is rare to see Fon without her surgical mask on and cooking utensils in hand. Her brother, gang gang is the social host of the family. Her alley-side restaurant, Penny’s, is a huge hit among the study abroad students, the walls clad in home-made posters filled with love from past guests. After getting Fon away from her cooking for a bit, I learned that I was talking to a fellow cat lover. Her restaurant was inspired by her cat Penny, who recently did not return home after a day of exploring. Fon hasn’t lost hope, though, and awaits the homecoming of her beloved feline.

 

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Ms. Premruedee Kullasu- Chiang Mai

This culture conscious crafter opened a business to help teach foreigners the crafts of Thailand. She believes that arts and crafts are not just about the final project, but about the history and culture that each craft contains. Ms. Premruedee wanted to open her house to travelers in order to teach them what life is like for a Thai citizen. When visiting her, we learned about rice farming, cooking, crafting, and even natural tie-dye or Thai-dye, if you were looking to be punny.

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Sara- Chiang Rai

The word “Suay” or “beautiful” applies to few people the way it does Sara. She is a lotus blossom, strong and resilient in her beauty. I have never seen Sara outside of her school uniform, since she is always coming from work or some school function, even though it is summer break. For many women, wearing a school uniform makes them look infantile and childish, but Sara wears the white and black combo like an elegant CEO. Like a lotus blossom, Sara has grown and blossomed through adversity. At the age of six, Sara began living in an orphanage in Chiang Mai. This new home christened her with the name “Sara,” which she believes signified the renaming of a new life. Throughout school Sara was bullied for her American name and for being Chinese instead of Thai. Despite these struggles, Sara grew up to be one of the most hard working and intelligent women I know. While in the Orphanage she learned english from the American volunteers that came to visit, and now speaks english so well that I first thought she was a study abroad student like myself. Even though she has only finished one year of college, she has gone to speak at the Young Speakers Contest in Singapore, and placed fifth out of 23 universities and 13 states.

 

Sanctuary

The circus is magical, the sand pit low lit with flashing lights that add to the mystery. The tightrope and trapeze performers test the limits of mortality, the clowns bring humor and terror, the tigers come with teeth bared and roaring, while the elephants lumber around with a keeper at their side. With headdresses of jewels and feathers, it is hard to imagine that a creature that looks so much like royalty is actually a slave. The circus is not magic, but a trick, and one that breaks the spirit, mind, and body of an animal that has similar feelings and emotions as humans.

Before entering the spotlight, young elephants are trained to obey the hook and the hand.

In Thailand, elephants have endured a long history of abuse for the tourism industry. Split between circuses, elephant rides, street begging, painting, and elephant breeding, there are very few wild elephants left.

Like humans, elephants grow strong bonds with their family and herd members. The first thing poachers do is separate the young elephant from it’s herd, usually using tranquilizer darts. After this tragic separation, the circus training begins.

Tied between four trees, rope cuts into the elephant’s neck, ears, ankles and trunk. Since many elephants are taken during a time of rapid growth, these ropes become embedded in the elephant’s skin as it grows. Over a period of up to three weeks, the trainer, or mahout, “breaks” the elephant by adding weight to it’s back, making it walk in continuous circles around trees, and many other methodical actions. The mahout uses chains, hooks, nails, and even fire to condition the elephant to obey his orders. One of goals in this practice is to make the elephant forget it ever had a family or a life in the wild. The elephants are hardly given water or food, and become incredibly malnourished during this training process.

The elephant is watched continuously during this time period, given no chances to commit suicide by stepping on its own trunk and cutting off its air supply.

Once they begin their circus career, the abuse is not left behind in the jungle. Elephant trainers use hooks and nails hidden inside their hands to lead the elephant through their routines.

Elephant cruelty is still a problem in Thailand and around the world, but elephant sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers are working to change this problem.

After having one experience with the elephants in Thailand previously, I was morally conflicted about visiting one of these sanctuaries. The last elephant we saw while trekking through the jungle was clearly still enslaved. She had a chain around her ankle, and the mahout carried a sling shot to keep her in line.

After arriving to the camp, it was clear that this was a home, and not a prison cell. Mae, our peppy tour guide ran into the banana tree field yelling “Elephants, oh elephants!” After a couple minutes, five hungry elephants came trotting down for lunch time. These elephants had no chains and no hooks keeping them in line, and their mahouts were loving, playful and gentle with them.

The mahouts that were at our sanctuary, and many others, previously practiced the cruel ways of elephant training. Since this was a long standing tradition, these men were raised and trained to treat elephants poorly. When they came to the sanctuary, they received weeks of training to learn humane ways of caring for the elephants. One mahout, who was covered in tattoos and even had tattoo eyeliner, snuggled and kissed the young elephant on the head after giving her a bath.

After feeding the herd three whole laundry baskets of bananas, we headed on a walk to get in their exercise. Even though the walk was short, it took over an hour due to the numerous snack breaks the elephants had to take.

The rest of the trip was spent at the spa, or rather bathing in a gigantic mud pit. The youngest elephant, only two years old, was rowdy throughout the whole endeavour. Crawling under her sister’s legs, burying her head under the water fountain, and rolling around under water, the older elephants hardly had a relaxing day at the spa.

To end the trip we took a bath in the river, where we had a splashing versus spraying match with the elephants.

Despite all of the love and respect that the elephants were showered in today, there was still a sadness looming over the trip. On a property near by, there was a young male elephant chained in a field, continuously rocking back and forth in distress.  

Elephant cruelty is still a major issue in Thailand, and it is important  to visit elephants in a place where they are being treated with love and respect. While these elephants have a loving home, they can never be released back into the jungle due to their injuries and the continuing threat of poachers. Support a great cause, and give your business to elephant rehabilitation centers instead of elephant treks, circuses, and paintings.

#saveelephantfoundation

Mae Sa Mai Village Visit

Win’s life began in a Hmong village, with a soon-to-be mother writhing in pain on a bed of ferns her husband scavenged from the jungle. His first month was spent with his mother in this birth bed, where they gained strength for the life to come. Life in the Hmong villages was in transition when Win was born, and is continuously morphing to this day. At it’s core, Win’s life is similar to the simplistic way it began, but the details surrounding it are hardly recognizable.

When Win was young, he trekked eight hours through the jungle with his father to reach Chiang Mai, and another ten hours back home with dry goods fastened in woven baskets they wore on their backs. This walk was necessary for trade between the village and Chiang Mai city, as well as to acquire goods that could not be found within the village. At this time, the Hmong Village was in its early years of learning new agriculture practices.

After fleeing from China, Laos, and Burma (Current day Myanmar), many of the hill tribe people found refuge in Thailand and entered the Opium trade. Growing Opium poppies and creating the drug for medicinal purposes was one of the few ways the hill tribe families earned money. This did not last long, however, because soon Opium began to be outlawed around the world.

When His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited Win’s village for the first time, he brought with him a wealth of knowledge and a plan for change. Instead of simply outlawing Opium and letting the hill tribe villages starve, the King offered lessons in agriculture. This became known as the Royal Project Foundation, and it helped to diminish Opium farming and deforestation in Thailand.

Like many of the people in Thailand, Win has a passion for learning. His gratitude towards the King and the knowledge he shared is luminous. Win has a similar passion for the environment, and has spent his life learning sustainable practices of agriculture. Before Win was born, many of the hill tribes rotated crop fields and continuously cut down trees. Within Win’s lifetime, a great deal of these lands have been reforested.

Throughout our three hour trek Win showed us the mysteries of the jungle, from poisonous caterpillars to herbal first aid practices. With respect in his voice, he said “come to the jungle for three hours, and I will teach you all there is to know. Go to the city and you will never be able to stop learning.”

Despite his simple life, Win is accepting of progress and technology. He was excited to share that he has had a cell phone for ten years, even if it is a bit cracked. 

Towards the end of the trip we met with the Village Shaman, who is thought to have a connection to the spiritual world. Win explained to us that the Shaman tied the wrists of the King when he came to visit, which is a ceremony used to provide good luck and fortune. This is a great honor, and Win radiated pride when he shared the shaman’s tale.

The spreading of knowledge has given Win and his village a means of living that is less harmful, and more lucrative, than the Opium trade. As a kid, Win had to trek through the jungle to sustain his own life, now he and many others in his village have cars, technology and a knowledge that is helping to sustain the life of our planet.

In closure, Win thanked us for our curiosity and desire to learn, expressing earnest hope that more westerners would come to learn (and teach) in his humble village.

Jungle trek to Mae Maa Nai Karen Village and LaHu Village

 

Like most things, trekking through the Thai jungle for three days was not what I expected. The barrier between my imagination and reality was as impenetrable as always. I pictured something similar to the jungle book, minus the musically inclined bear and the resemblance I had to Mowgli as a child. The Thai jungle has little resemblance to the jungle from the cartoon, and instead was a mix between a deciduous and tropical  forest.

The trip started off on a steep incline, which made me question my decision immediately. The growing ball of fire inside my chest and the ninety three degree heat battled inside my throat, leaving little room for breathing on the battle ground.

Along the way our tour guides used their machetes to cut bamboo hiking sticks for each of us. Because of the morning rain, the brick red dirt was slippery, and the bamboo sticks helped us to scurry up the mountain.

After three hours of hiking up steep inclines and then back down the steep decline, we learned to appreciate the uphill crawl. Walking down the mountains was challenging and painful. By the time we reached the Mae Maa Nai Karen hill tribe village, the tendons in our knees were twitching from the hours of suspension. My friend Emily began to have a gait similar to Gollum, slightly hunched with bent knees and a look of creeping concentration on her face.

Visiting the Karen Tribe village showed me the beauty in the “bare necessities.” There was romance in the candle lit dinner we ate outside, a meal farmed from the fields hidden within the trees and cooked on a fire lit stove. This way of living was sustainable and self sufficient, instead of using plastic baggies or containers to pack the rice for later consumption, they wrapped it in banana leaves. Any leftovers fed the village dogs and pigs.

Sleeping under a mosquito net felt as elegant as staying under a canopy at a five star resort, and the jungle sounds removed the need for a white noise app or fan.

The Karen and Lahu Hill Tribe people were constantly joking and laughing, smiling and singing. They seemed happy and content. Many of the Hill Tribe groups have lived a precarious existence. Since the Hill Tribes are refugees from China, Laos, and Myanmar, their tribes are scattered across the globe. Unfortunately, the Hill Tribe people are considered to be on the lowest rung of the societal Hierarchy in Thailand, making it difficult for the children to get education and for the Hill Tribes to change their social position.

Despite this, the villagers are welcoming, generous, and kind.

On our last day we bamboo rafted down the river with some of the Lahu Village men. They made jokes to us  in english and sang to themselves to pass the time. Their happiness was alluring, and it made me think I could live in the mountains forever.

Despite the charm of the Jungle, there were times I wished I was in my hotel room safe from nature. By the second day my feet and legs felt like they were continuously being swarmed by an army of red ants, I had so many mosquito and spider bites that they seemed to overlap and double in discomfort.

While the mosquito net provided a five star ambiance, the floor felt like a bumpy log. The jungle sang me to sleep with it’s chirping lullaby, but the roosters and early morning dog fights were more startling than any alarm.

I missed the luxury of a toilet and shower, despite my love for stream bathing.

By the end of the trip, I was conflicted on whether I wanted to stay in the jungle and live with the hill tribe people forever (maybe marry one of the jubilant hill tribe men) or be back in the city with running water and cell phone reception.

In the end, I am sitting in bed with wifi and the comfort of air conditioning, but I am still unsure whether that is by choice or whether it is because my Lahu crush is already married.

 

A Wave in the Ocean

Chiang Mai is scattered with temples, which creates a rich religious and spiritual experience for both visitors and citizens. While walking through the Old City, it is hard to walk more than one block without being beckoned by the beauty of a temple.

Coming to Chiang Mai and beginning to study Buddhism has opened my eyes to a religion I knew little about, and the things I thought I knew were wrong. I thought that being a monk was a lifelong commitment to a regimented lifestyle, chastity, seriousness, and orange garb. I’ve learned that monks do live regimented lives, but becoming a monk is not a life long commitment.

While sitting and chatting with two young monks at Wat Phra Singh, I learned that they had wonderful senses of humor and were very similar to other boys my age. We practiced talking in both Thai and English so that we could each teach the other more about our parts of the world. Monks attend college while practicing Buddhism, and the two boys were studying education to become teachers.

Education is highly respected in Thailand, and the majority of citizens enjoy helping to teach their culture to me and to learn about my own in return.

I asked how long they planned to stay robed. One answered, “I am happy now, If ever I become unhappy, then I will leave.”

This philosophy is one that I have come across a great deal while in Thailand. In america, happiness seems to be a thing people are constantly striving for and never fully obtaining. Here in Thailand, most people create their happiness and when they are unhappy, they work to change their situation.

A popular saying in Thai is “Mai pen rai” which means “don’t sweat it” or “it’s alright.” With the impermanent nature of life, this philosophy allows one to accept the constant state of fluctuation. I am beginning to learn that this philosophy comes from Thailand’s deep roots in Buddhism.

Since Buddhists have a deep interconnectivity with the “universe” this fluctuation and constant change is as much a part of them as it is the outside world. My Buddhism professor explained, “we are all waves, each a unique expression in time, but a wave is not separate from the rest of the  ocean.”

During a chanting service in the evening, several stray dogs wandered in and out of the temple, and the monks accepted and enjoyed their presence. When one dog got antsy and started to bark, the monks continued on as if the dog was joining into the chanting himself. If a dog sat next to a monk, he would pet it and continue chanting.

Since Buddhists believe that every being is connected, they gain a greater respect for one another, as well as animals. Thai’s consider their fellow humans part of their family, and this creates a bond between strangers that I never experienced in America.

I have gotten many hugs and kisses on the cheek from Thai people, and everyone is very loving and compassionate. With a whole community willing to help and guide me through my education in Chiang Mai, the limit of opportunities and growth is endless.

I believe that the world could learn a great lesson from the Thai’s, and that the amount of kindness, patience, and acceptance found in this country would make the world a far more peaceful and happy place.