Sunday, March 30, 2014

Golden Triangle Excursion

Ok, I suppose being a blogger is not my calling.  My apologies for delays in posting. Time seems to pass too quickly.  Here we are at the end of March!  I wanted to briefly show my trip to the Golden Triangle, a lovely (and warm!) weekend to the border of Thailand! A large group of us went along with some of our teachers who guided us and provided history lectures throughout the trip.  The Golden Triangle is where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet along the Mekong River.  The area has a large history of producing opium, but today produces tea!  Along the way, we stopped in Chiang Rai, to visit Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, a relatively new temple (1997) created by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.  The temple was amazing, it had so much detail in the art from passing through a bridge over hell to the mural inside the temple which included many familiar popular characters painted on the back, including Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley!  Not something I see in most temples!  There was a gallery of some of his impressive work within the same complex.


After a quick lunch we were off to an NGO called The Sold Project. An organization dedicated to helping prevent children from entering the prostitution industry. We learned about what a typical day at the center was like, and what services they offer, such as mentoring, education for children on a variety of topics and providing scholarships for children to attend school.  They are also involved with each child in their home life and offer a safe, fun place for the children to hang out at after school.  I was moved by their passion for helping children - it is clearly a wonderful organization.

I must admit that one of my favorite parts about the trip included the hours spent driving to our destinations.  However, some of my peers do not share the same sentiment.  Many people had motion sickness as the drive was up and down over hills and hills of countryside.  I do not get motion sickness and enjoyed the winding empty roads.  It was nice to stop and stretch our legs though!  We made a stop to some of the barracks of Khun Sa, a Burmese warlord who formed his own army and headed the largest opium production in the world from the 1970s to the 1990s.  It was definitely  interesting to learn about the history in this area while being there! We made a visit to the Hall of Opium which is a $5 Million dollar museum about the history of opium and narcotics to present day.  It was very sad to see how narcotics have ripped through the lives of so many people throughout the years and I found myself very emotional. We ended the day at a tea plantation that was once an opium plantation.  Opium is not grown nearly as much in the area, instead tea has become a product that is distributed throughout the world.  We were able to have a taste of different teas and take in the breathtaking views while reflecting on the history of the region.

We made it to the Golden Triangle! Had my first view of the Mekong River and bordering countries! We stopped by a temple, settled into our hotel and made our way by boat to Laos, for a quick visit to a market.  There was no official border to pass, so although I can say I have technically been to Laos, I do not have a stamp in my passport.  I hope to make a trip back to Laos before I leave though.  I do have a stamp in my passport from Burma, also known as Myanmar.  I crossed for about two hours, to visit a few breathtaking temples and to get a new visa stamp. Burma surprisingly had a different feel from Thailand even though I was only a few minutes away.  In my classes we have been learning about the history of Burma, the Saffron Revolution and how Burma is beginning to open up to relationships around the world.  It would be incredible to visit Yangoon and the temples in Burma. I really enjoyed the Mekong River, and we learned about the dams scheduled to be built (mostly by China, who is not apart of the Mekong River Commission) and the impact dams have on the river ecology as well as the local economies who depend on a healthy Mekong.  It is truly a beautiful area and I hope to visit again before I leave Southeast Asia!


Thailand from Laos
Entering Burma!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Busy in Chiang Mai

Thailand has sure kept me busy in the past few weeks!  It is hard to believe it is March.  Each day brings a new adventure, whether we are traveling out to the city for a field trip for a class or finding a new street vendor or restaurant for dinner.  And of course... doing homework - lots of reading and now due dates for papers and midterms are due. Luckily I have a large selection of coffee shops to study in, which all include A/C, Free WiFi and cool drinks of Iced Lattes, Thai Iced Tea and fruit smoothies!!

School is in full swing and each of my classes bring an exciting part of the experience.  In my Buddhism class we are learning about the history as well as present life and the differences and similarities of Buddhism in surrounding countries.  We took a trip for Buddhism to a local temple which had cave temples for worship and a large Chedi on top of the caves.  We also examined many pieces of art which I enjoyed as each piece depicted a different story and symbolic meaning, and they were also painted directly onto the walls of the building!  It has been great to learn things in class and then go see them in real life. There is so much art incorporated into Thai culture, the structure of the temples are beautiful and then the murals and intricate details inside are absolutely stunning!  We have also taken another trip to town for my International Relations class where we visited the Burma Study Center.  A center with a library of books on the history of Burma as well as present day material.  The center helps Burmese students learn English and prepare for exams, as well as offer an array of resources which have made a huge impact in their lives.

One night while walking back from birthday dessert for a friend at the most luxurious hotel I have ever been to ( we happened to walk right along with the Chiang Mai Flower Festival Parade for a few miles.  It was grand! Floats, marching bands, authentic cultural dresses and lots and lots of flowers!  The entire city suddenly blossoms with arrangements of flowers at every corner during the Flower Festival - a very beautiful occasion. There is always something going on in Chiang Mai and I have picked up a strong sense of community.

On Valentine's Day our group from America set off for a long weekend in Krabi, a delightful break from homework and classes.  Krabi is a destination in Southern Thailand for its stunning beaches and hot tropical weather!  During our stay we spent hours on the beach (mostly in the shade), rock climbing and spent a whole day out on a long tail boat island hopping.  Each stop was a little different, one included a cave temple, another a sandbar, wild monkeys, and snorkeling.  It was lovely to experience Southern Thailand and life on the coast.  The weather was much warmer than Chiang Mai, and each of us left with some sort of sunburn. (But we did apply sunscreen!)  My favorite part was being out on the green water, observing all of the rock formations that jet out of the ocean sporadically.  It was interesting to think about the amount of time it has taken for these formations to form.  Although I am learning I am not a fan of intense heat, I would love to go back to visit Southern Thailand. Beautiful landscape and so much to do!

Long tail boat in Krabi

One of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai has been to visit the temples.  There are over 300 temples in the city and we have visited many for class trips and have had lectures in them about the art of temple structures, depictions of Buddha, as well as how they relate to Buddhism.  You can't go five minutes without seeing a temple and therefore it is easy for me to visit.  Each temple is different in size and includes a variety of sculptures, paintings and beautiful artwork.  It is always a quiet space and you must remove your shoes before entering and wear appropriate attire including covering your shoulders and knees to show respect.  During one class we had the opportunity to go to a Monk chat, which is an open question and answer format with a panel of Buddhist Monks from Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam - all students at the temple we visited.  It was an amazing experience and no questions are off limits, the monks are also encouraged to ask the audience questions!  I am definitely going back with some friends because there was not enough time to ask them everything I wanted to know!

Temple over 600 years old, partly destroyed by an earthquake hundreds of years ago.
There are sculptures of Buddha for every day of the week and are considered when a person is born on a specific day. This one represents Wednesday night and includes a monkey and an elephant making an offering to Buddha.  I enjoy this one because I was born on a Wednesday night!

Large reclined Buddha

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Village Life!

After settling our feet in Chiang Mai and moving into our new homes near campus, we left town to spend four nights and five days with host families in a Northern Thai village.  It was by far one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had!  The village is about two hours north of Chiang Mai and the drive up was beautiful, as we headed out of the city and into rolling mountains.  It was is if you could feel time slowing down.  I had no idea what to expect, but was open for a new experience.  One of the very first things that I realized was that we were headed into farmland - and more specifically - rice!  We had the opportunity to help work in the rice fields and got to get our hands dirty!  It was nice to be out working and we all had our hats on to avoid the hot sun.  We also had many chances to enjoy the fruits of labor as rice is a staple served at every meal!  I did not complain! The food just kept getting better and our lovely host mother (who we called 'mae' for mother) spent hours preparing our meals.

Rice fields and rolling mountains!

While living in the village for a week it was amazing to see how self sustaining the community was and how they all worked together.  Our family had chickens which provided eggs and meat, as well as fish in large cement containers and not too far from our house - pigs!  They also kept frogs, which I did not get the pleasure of trying.  Mae practically spent all day in the kitchen preparing our meals, which I could not thank her enough for.  I offered many times to help and she insisted otherwise.  The houses are closely placed together and none of them have boundary fences therefore anyone can walk through the yard of any house.  The community spirit was unlike any I had seen before.  The calm, friendly demeanor of everyone made me feel like I was part of the family and it was difficult to leave. 
Gai! (chicken)

A hot coal stove for cooking and broom.

Neighbors overlooking the rice fields.
Mu! (pig)

Sunset over the rice fields.
One morning we had the opportunity to participate in a Buddhist ceremony.  We left at 7am piled in the back of pick up trucks to the temple (Wat) a short few miles away.  Although the temperature rises to the 90s midday, the winter months in the mountains bring cool mornings, my guesstimate being 40-50 degrees F.  (I know that is considered a heatwave in my hometown back in Maine, USA about now!) One of the courses I am taking at school is Buddhism and it was great to see first hand some of the traditions and actually participate in making offerings to Buddhist monks.  We brought large bowls filled with food and rice as well as bouquets of flowers with candles and incense in which we piled into heaps of colorful offerings. After placing the offerings on the table we sat in a covered area to hear the monks share (unfortunately I could not understand as they spoke in Thai, but I could pick up on the tones and vibes of the ancient practices).  I was blown away at how much our host mother wanted us be involved and guided us at every step of the way.  My first impressions of Buddhism were all inclusive, community participation and deep tradition and meaning in everything they do.  I am very excited to learn more through the semester and realize how lucky I am to get to experience it first hand here in Thailand!

Breakfast provided after the ceremony.
Wat (temple)

A lesson on homemade shampoo!
Got to take some with me to try!
Towards the end of the week we were able to venture out in the day to learn about organic gardening practices in the area.  First stop was an organic farmer who believes in growing foods free from harmful pesticides.  It was their experience that when growing crops and applying the chemicals, sometimes an order to pickup came before the "ok" time was able to pass on these foods, therefore leaving the farm while still potentially harmful.  Having a clear conscious this farmer was not going to continue with these practices and began to research alternative methods to provide crops that are safe for him to farm as well as for the consumer to have.  While here we helped plant seeds for marigold plants and caught fish in a pond! (without using a single fishing pole!) We cooked the fish in a giant pot of soup with vegetables and spices and munched on sticky rice with banana (becoming a quick favorite of mine!).  We also learned about how farmers are making their own organic fertilizers and had a few demonstrations on their processes.  The farmers were all eager to teach and show us how they work to make better farming - and all with tremendous passion.  At the end of a full day we had the pleasure of heading to a forested park to cool off before we made it back to the village for dinner - - with waterfalls!

Cooking fish soup!
Mixing organic fertilizer!
Flower garden.

Most nights while the last preparations for dinner were taking place, I went out for a bike ride through the streets that wove through the rice fields and connected neighboring villages.  It was hard to imagine at times that I was here, biking through fields surrounded by mountains, palm trees, temples, buffalo and the occasional passing of a fire pit burning.  Oh, and lets not forget the swarms of bugs to pedal through!  I took in every moment, even if I had to ride with my mouth closed.  What a beautiful opportunity to take in Northern Thailand, to experience life a bit slower than back home with the most friendly and hospitable group of people.

At the end of our stay we made a trip to the hot springs.  There were a few containers that held water too hot to touch, instead, they were reserved for boiling eggs.  We all enjoyed boiled eggs for snacks while we waded in larger pools of water that was just bearable to enter.  An interesting way to pass the time - especially in 90 degree weather!
Freshly boiled eggs!
Hot spring.
It was very sad to leave the village, even though we were only there for a relatively short time.  During the stay we broke through language barriers with smiles, hand gestures and searches through Thai-English dictionaries to understand each other.  I was able to see what life is like on literally the other side of the world!  I will always be grateful to my host family and the village for welcoming us with open arms into their homes.  To conclude the stay we had a community dinner, which included another wonderful meal prepared by all of the houses, and a display of authentic Thai dance put on by the young girls in the village as well as the older girls.  They were adorable!  After dinner we had a huge surprise - releasing lanterns!!  I did not think I would get the opportunity to do this in Thailand (which is not the case because I see lanterns flying through the sky every night!), and we sent quite a few floating into the clear night. Amazing.  We also sat by the fire pit and cooked sticky rice!! Which is soaked rice placed in bamboo and cooked on the fireplace (another quick favorite of mine). Then the microphone came out and the entire village sang and danced into the night, all celebrating the wonderful week we shared together.

My host family and two roommates!

End to a wonderful week experiencing village life.