Sunday, July 24, 2011

Service with a side of Sanuk!


As part of our curriculum while studying in Thailand, we were required to do 6-8 hours of service learning around Chiang Mai.  This allowed us to give back to city we were calling home for 8 weeks as well as interact with the Thai people on a deeper level.  I decided to break my service learning experience into two parts: Monk chat and helping to teach English to students at Chiang Mai University. I’ve already talked a lot about the monk chats so I will focus on the English class.

When I first heard about teaching English as a service learning project I was a little bit hesitant.  First of all, I don’t have any qualifications to take on such a task.  Speaking English and teaching English are two very different things and, though I greatly admire teachers, I’ve never had the desire to be one.  But, in the spirit of trying new things in a new place, I decided to give it a whirl and, for the record, I’m glad that I did.
First we meet Jaah-Jah (I’m pretty sure I’m not spelling that correctly) one of the English teachers at CMU.  She’s a petite and lively Thai woman with short hair (a bit uncommon) and a big smile (not at all uncommon).  She speaks English very well with a mild accent and a lot of enthusiasm.  As Jaah-Jah leads us into the classroom I feel almost as if I’ve traveled back in time a bit.  The desks are small, wooden, and uncomfortable, there isn’t any air conditioning and the students are all in their uniforms.  The uniforms make the school seem very strict and stuffy to me but I soon learn that the classes are anything but.  We take our seats along with a handful of Thai students but when the class starts at 11:00 the room is still very empty.  Embarrassed, Jaah-Jah explains that they will surely come but probably 5-10 minutes late.  Sure enough, as the class went on the students trickled in and we all introduced ourselves by stating our name and major. 

We soon broke off into groups to get to know one another and, though they were shy at first, the questions and chatting soon came to a full sprint and the classroom became deafeningly loud. Over the next few weeks we helped them with their lessons and with their first presentation where they had to tell a story about an event that happened to them. This was an interesting experience! We got to watch most of the students tell their stories (complete with a microphone hooked up to a karaoke machine).  The stories ranged from ghost stories to lessons learned from strangers, first loves, and illegal activities. To be honest, I expected the students to be shy about getting up in front of the class and speaking.  I know a few of them were very nervous but you would have never known it. The stories were so honest, funny, and some were even embarrassing but they all got up there and told their story in English without using notes.  I have to tell you, it was a blast! Almost every story had us laughing and it made me wonder if American students would have been so willing to put themselves out there.  This is just another great example of how the Thai people incorporate sanuk  (fun) into every aspect of their lives.

I learned some great things from working with the Thai students who were so eager to learn English. My biggest lesson by far was to (again) relax and have fun no matter what you are doing.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

My favorite place


As a sort of farewell to Chiang Mai, we were asked by our Adjarns to visit our favorite spot in our home away from home one last time.  I’ve had some wonderful times here and seen some of the most beautiful sights of my life while living in Thailand but my favorite place in Chiang Mai is Wat Suan Dok which I visited around 15 times.

Wat Suan Dok is a beautiful temple located about 15 minutes (walking) away from our hostel.  It is home to a bell shaped chedi built in Sri Lankan style that stands approximately 48 meters high. Though Wat Suan Dok has a pretty normal temple, elaborately dressed in gold and silver, it also has something I haven’t seen at any other temple.  Outside of the temple are white washed mausoleums arranged in a beautiful garden area that house the cremated remains of the royal family of Chiang Mai.

Wat Suan Dok is also where I attend the monk chats every week. To me, there is something magical about this temple. The street it’s on is very loud and busy but when I step through the gate somehow the noise goes away and I enter into a quiet, peaceful area.  Since it is home to many of the monks studying at the University, there are always monks walking around and going to class.  Novice monks sweep the sidewalks and feed the temple dogs.  The temple dogs are always around taking afternoon naps on the steps of the temple, at the base of the chedi or under a tree. Of course, since I am a woman, the monks don’t really interact with me when I’m walking around but that all changes when I enter the monk chat building.

Over the past 5 weeks, I’ve befriended many of the monks who regularly attend monk chat.  I’m greeted with warm smiles and friendly ‘hellos’ as I sign in and find a seat.  I’ve learned so much from the monks and I tried to make it a point to speak to a different monk every time.  They all have their own unique and interesting thoughts on the world, cultures, and Buddhism.  I’ve chatted with monks from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma covering all sorts of topics including politics, religion, music, art, school, and animism.  Most monks are under the age of 30, full of positive energy, and eager to both teach and learn. 

I decided to spend my last monk chat conversing with my favorite monk, Kwalit (spelled phonetically, not accurately).  Kwalit is a 26 year old monk from Burma and is a 4th year student at the university here.  He started as a novice monk in Burma when he was around 10 or 12 years old and became a full monk at the age of 20.  He is very fluent in English and has a feisty and spirited personality.  When he talks he speaks passionately about subjects using heaping doses of humor and honesty.  I think my favorite thing about Kwalit is that he is always questioning everything and encourages others to do so as well.  Often when I ask him questions, for example ‘Do you think Buddhism is a religion or a way of life?’ he answers me by saying something like ‘What is it to you? I only know what it is for me. For some it is a religion, and for others a way of life. You have to look inside of yourself and ask yourself these questions and find the answer that is true for you’.  I like that he doesn’t claim to have all the answers or that Buddhism is the answer for everyone.  He is big on self reflection and has reminded me a few times that whenever you point your finger at someone or something there is only one finger pointing at them but there are 3 fingers pointing back at you.

I’ve had to keep reminding myself over the weeks that monk chat is a service learning opportunity for us as students and that I should be giving to them as well.  I can only hope that they have gotten as much out of chatting with me as I have with them but somehow I doubt it. 
the gold chedi

Wat Suan Dok at dusk


nap time for temple dogs

Mausoleums
Chatting at Monk Chat

Kwalit (standing)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hidden Behind the Smiles...


It’s no secret anymore.  Thailand has a lot to offer to tourists no matter what they are looking for.  Whether you are looking for beautiful beaches, peaceful and majestic mountains, interesting culture, or temples of all shapes and sizes, Thailand has it…at affordable prices.  Thailand is a top destination for people and families from all over the world looking for a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.

What you may not be aware of is another kind of tourism that Thailand is known for: sex tourism.   It’s easy to overlook or turn a blind eye to it but if you pay attention and look closely, it is there…lurking in bars and motels, and some more blatantly in brothels and massage parlors.  It’s difficult to pin point exactly how much human trafficking, prostitution, child exploitation, and child prostitution goes on in Thailand. It’s not the image Thai tourism wants to portray and they don’t have a box to check on custom forms under ‘What is the reason for your visit?’ that reads “I’m here for the prostitution”.

Now, I don’t mean to bag on Thailand like they are the only offenders.  Unfortunately human trafficking and exploitation happens all around the world, even in America however, since I am currently in Thailand that is where my focus is.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning…

I’ve been living in Thailand for 7 weeks and, though I’d heard the rumors about prostitution and child exploitation, for about 6 weeks I had never really seen anything like it-or so I thought.  As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been reading The Lioness in Bloom (Kepner, 1996) in class and the last two stories we read were focused on the life and role of children in Thailand.  Now, of course these short stories are fictional but they got me to think about how much truth and reality might be hidden in the pages.  One story, A Mote of Dust on the Face of the Earth, tells the story of a girl named Saa who was born into both a loving family and rural poverty.  Against the odds, she had survived her younger years despite extreme poverty, near starvation, and less than sanitary living conditions.  Through it all, she had her friends and family.  One day when Saa was 10, a lady from Bangkok came to the village looking for young girls to take with her back to Bangkok where she would help the girl “find a job so that she would have a chance to make something of herself”.  She promised Saa’s parents that there was a job lined up for her as a waitress and that it was just the start of good things to come for Saa.  Though it broke her parent’s hearts, they needed the money the lady from Bangkok was offering and truly thought that Saa would have a better life in the city.  So, Saa was sold to the lady and she did work for a while as a waitress but it was an extremely abusive situation that left her hardened and in constant survival mode.  Before long she moved on to scams and prostitution, anything to make money and survive.  Her lack of education and positive influence allowed her to think that she was doing very well for herself making money pleasing the “sirs”.  And, as the story ends, she comes full circle and returns to the village only this time she is the lady talking to the parents of a young girl and making promises of a good life in the city.

Unfortunately, Saa’s story is all too common, especially in poor rural areas where the people are easily influenced by promises of a better life for their children than they can give.  Some children and young adults (mostly female) are promised good paying jobs in other countries and cities only to be enslaved in a brothel with no hope of escape. 

I thought that I had only witnessed one form of human exploitation and slavery during my time here.  One day, during lunch at a local restaurant, the group I was with witnessed a young man, probably around the age of 17-20 who was a bus boy at the restaurant, being physically, verbally, and emotionally abused by the restaurant owner.  The owner outright hit, choked, and verbally abused the boy right in front of us.  Though it was a horrible and traumatic experience for us, I can’t even imagine what his daily life is like or what goes on behind closed doors however, the scars on his chest and the look in his eyes told a grim story.  We were left with a sick feeling in our guts and a bothersome question: What do we do?  In America, we would have no problem calling the cops, but here? We didn’t even have the number or any confidence that it would make a difference.  So, we decided to not make the situation worse for the young man at the present moment and we contacted an advocacy group soon after we left.

After that incident, my eyes were opened. I began seeing things all around me. Every day I see children selling flowers up and down the streets who are likely to be punished at the end of the day for not selling all of them.  I’ve seen young Thai women on the arms of older white men looking for ‘some fun’. There are young school age kids who are not in school but are instead working or looking after even younger children while their parents work.  Unfortunately, I know that there are numerous things that I still don’t see at all.

Prostitution is illegal in Thailand but police are often times paid off and the brothels remain open. Unfortunately, there is a market for prostitution and child labor in Thailand.  Child prostitution is a rapidly growing problem in Thailand that involves “perhaps 800,000 children under the age of sixteen, bought and sold for a profit that exceeds that of the drug trade or weapons sales or lotteries or sports gambling” (http://www.thewitness.org/agw/pusurinkham.121901.html). The crime is fueled by weak law enforcement, the Internet, ease of travel, and poverty.

Fortunately, there are non-government organizations (NGO) that make it their mission to fight prostitution and human trafficking but it is an uphill battle.  Also, in response to the growing phenomenon of child sex tourism, intergovernmental organizations, the tourism industry, and governments have begun to address the issue. My hope is that as more light gets shed on this horrific problem it will become less tolerated and, in turn, less profitable for those exploiting innocent people.  If you are interested in joining the fight against human exploitation please visit http://thesoldproject.com/ .

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Meet David Morse


An American looking man of small stature and large personality walked into the lobby to greet us, his guests. He immediately started speaking formal Thai to Ajarn Tony, catching him off guard and leaving me a bit confused.  Who is this guy and what have we come to learn from him?
His name is David Morse and, though he is in his 50’s (I’m guessing) and has already begun to gray around the temples, he moves and speaks with the energy of a man decades younger.  Immediately I see that he is one of those people that can instantly break the ice in any situation with his witty humor leaving you feeling comfortable and at ease.
He has one of the most fascinating lives I’ve ever heard of.  Though he holds an American passport, he hasn’t spent much time there.  He was born in China to Christian missionaries and grew up in the Lisu villages in Burma where his parents and other missionaries worked. After 15 years there, the Burmese government expelled the Morse family from Burma.  They could not leave by traditional means so they trekked across Burma towards India over rough mountainous jungle terrain.  Running out of food and unable to cross into India, they settled in a ‘no-man’s land’ valley around the Burmese/Indian border along with about 1,000 Lisu people.  What they hoped might be a temporary home turned into their home for six years.  Constantly in survival mode, they lived of indigenous plants (mushrooms, leaves, and fermented bamboo shoot) and wild animals such as bear, deer, tiger, and monkey.  They learned from the Lisu what to eat, what to hunt, and how to survive.  About 6 years after they settled in the valley, they were found by the Burmese government, put in jail, and eventually deported back to the United States.
Most people would have stayed in the U.S. and enjoyed the comforts and freedom that we all know and love but not the Morse family.  They felt that their work with the Lisu people was not over so they moved to Thailand to work with a Lisu tribe living there.  This is where you can still find David Morse and most of his family today, almost 40 years later.  Since David counts Lisu and English as native languages, he is working on the written Lisu language.  Currently he is working with Microsoft to add the Lisu language to type script so that the Lisu can write in their own language on the computer and in emails. This has proven to be very difficult but he is determined to make it work.  He feels that the Lisu language is in danger of extinction so keeping the Lisu language alive is very important.  He sees a huge generational gap where the Lisu elders do not know how to read or write but the young children are now going to Thai schools where they are getting an education (in Thai), learning to speak Thai, and even texting in Thai.  If the Lisu language is not preserved, it is easy to see how it might be lost forever in a generation or two.
One of my favorite parts of the visit was when David spoke to us in Lisu a bit which was very interesting.  The Lisu language has 14 tones and is quite musical.  He says that because of this, their ears are very sensitive to tones and they are incredible singers.  All of their stories about their ancestors are also passed down through songs, some lasting all night long.  David has even been working on a new way of writing and reading music.  Talking with David and hearing his incredible stories was an amazing opportunity that I won’t soon forget.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hidden Jewel


The city of Chiang Mai is home to nearly 300 Wats (temples), all with their own unique character and beauty.  I set off today to find a different kind of Wat, a forest Wat called ‘Wat Umong’.  Though Wat Umong is nestled in the forest not far from Chiang Mai University, it feels like you are entering a whole new world. I had an instant feeling of calm and serenity as I started exploring the large complex.  Since we are in the middle of the rainy season, the forest is painted with lush and vibrant shades of green, the air is moist, and the brick walls and walk ways are covered in moss.  The way the sunlight shines through the canopy of trees added a certain magical feeling.

Wat Umong was built by King Mangrai, the first King of Chiang Mai, soon after he built the city of Chiang Mai around 1854 B.E. (Buddhist Era).  It was built so that monks who had already studied the Buddha’s Teachings in the city could then seek peace and solitude in the forest in order to develop the practice of insight meditation.
There are three things that make Wat Umong extremely unique as far as temples are concerned.  The first being the tunnels, built in the late 14th century, which give the Wat its name (“Umong” is the Thai word for tunnel).  The tunnels criss-cross beneath a mound of earth and house many alcoves for lighting candles or placing offerings. Of course there are also many resident Buddha statues scattered throughout.  The tunnels are dark and cool and smell of earth and incense.  They are eerily quiet with faint remnants of the paintings that used to cover the walls and ceilings.  It’s said that the tunnel walls were painted with bush scenes and arranged in the criss-crossed fashion to keep a famous but somewhat nutty monk within the tunnels as he had a history of wandering off into the forest.  

Entrance to the caves

Tunnel by the entrance

Buddha statue at the end of a tunnel

Two ladies and a dog listening to a Monk in the main part of the tunnels
 
 The second unique feature is a curious collection of various pieces of Buddha statues strewn about a mossy field area of the complex.  The head of Buddha statue and the other sandstone pieces were made between 1400 & 1550 AD by craftsmen of Phayao School.  They were collected between 1968 & 1970 from deserted monasteries in the Phayao province by Chao Chun Sirorasa and other faithful people of Wat Umong.  



 The third is the large stone Chedi (sometimes called a Stupa) that stands alone in the highest area of the complex and is accessed by a flight of old, moss covered brick steps.  I believe all Wats have a Chedi and the Chedi is said to house the relic of the Buddha (a piece of remains from the Buddha, perhaps a hair or fingernail).  The Chedi shows its age and the many robes it’s worn which all add to the character.


 
 
If you need a rest from exploring the complex you can have a seat on a bench by the lake or on the small island in the middle of the lake that is reached by a small foot bridge.  Locals come here to feed the birds, fish, and turtles that call the lake and Wat Umong home and to soak up the innate tranquility.  There are also Monks that live on the grounds.


Scattered around the complex are many trees that have been blessed and saved by the Monks through a robe ceremony.  Some have signs with Buddhist exhortations written in Thai and some in English as well.  You may also want to stop in the library, book store, or museum during your visit.

Robed trees

Library

Though there are many Wats in Thailand that are worth seeing, Wat Umong has made it into the top 5 on my list.  So, if you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai and in need of some shade, peace, or an escape from the city, consider stopping by Wat Umong for a truly one of a kind experience.