Friday, December 30, 2011

Rewind: Christmas in Laos

Christmas 2010, Win and I were given an incredible, unexpected gift: a week off from teaching, contingent on our doing a “visa run” to Laos. Your typical visa run involves going to a Thai consulate in another country with a massive envelope of paperwork (Laos, apparently on best consular terms with Thailand, is the country of choice among teachers), waiting x number of days, and going back to Thailand with a Non-Immigrant B visa in-hand. However, having decided to get yearlong multiple entry visas, our visa run was a cake walk: leave Thailand, see another country, come back to Thailand and get a new 3-month entry stamp. So to Laos we went.

Twelve hours on a train, an hour waiting around at the border crossing, and a single sign telling drivers to start driving on the right, and we were in Laos. Flat, dry, and rundown, Laos’ capital city of Vientiane made for a lackluster first impression. Buildings, storefronts, even the stray cats, everything was sparse, dismal.

Aside from the presence of a bowling alley and the city signage having French flair – a trait that carried over to street, restaurant, and hotel names – Vientiane was very much like a small Thai city. The manner and language were similar; the architecture and tuk-tuk drivers much the same; there were the same orange-robed monks, the same women hiding from the sun beneath umbrellas, the same stray dogs rummaging through garbage. We navigated the city on foot, walked its streets, saw its museums. We ate its food, drank its beer, and spent its devalued kip (worth so little, I was withdrawing a million kip from ATMs the whole time, which was bizarrely satisfying in its own right).

After a day and a half, in what would turn out to be a moment of poorly executed planning, we boarded a bus to head into the heart of northern Laos.

Having been told that there wasn’t a bus leaving for Luang Prabang until evening, we were surprised when the ticket seller told us a bus would be leaving at 4 pm. As we stowed our backpacks and climbed aboard, it seemed a positive turn of events, catching a bus right as we arrived at the station. As the passengers were finding seats, the driver and some helpful hands started filling the aisle with packages, copious amounts of luggage, bags of rice, and all manner of freight, including three pieces of PVC piping, a foot in diameter and at least 12-feet long. In order to reach our seats, we now had to clamber and balance our way over piping, walking along armrests at times.

And so we set out, luggage shifting precariously in the aisle, Lao karaoke blaring and crackling from the speakers. Up and around steep, jutting hills, through luscious jungle foliage, encroaching thick and dark along the roadside, pushing its way toward the bus windows. As mid-afternoon gave way to evening, we passed through meager villages, clusters of single-room homes, many without furniture or front doors. The countryside wore its poverty openly. Bonfires served as stoves, simple elevated bamboo platforms as beds, possessions were few. Late into the night, long after the small village clusters went to sleep, the bus lumbered jerkily along half-finished roads, karaoke still blaring.

After twelve cramped hours, we arrived in Luang Prabang at 4 am. The whole town, all guesthouses and hotels, was sound asleep. We tried knocking on doors, calling phones, checking to see if anything was unlocked, all to no avail. So, we sat down somewhere well-lit to read and nap and waited for Luang Prabang to rub the sleep from its eyes.

Ill-timed though it may have been, our 4 am arrival had two unexpected benefits. First, as the sun started to peek over the mountains and the town stirred to life, we got to start our day off with fresh fruit-filled crepes, a treat one would be hard-pressed to find in Thailand. Also, we got to witness Luang Prabang’s famed procession of monks, numbering into the hundreds, lining the streets every morning bowl-in-hand, going from storefront to doorway, collecting alms, something many tourists wake early to see.

After schlepping around and scoffing at prices (“Only 40 US dollars a night”), we finally found a place to bed down for several days. It was a dank little hole of a room next to the guesthouse kitchen, but it was affordable. Luckily, as we discovered after napping well into the day, Luang Prabang was a lovely town, giving us little reason to spend excess time in our room.

Nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, The Unesco World Heritage city of Luang Prabang sits high above the flowing waters on its hilltop peninsula. It was my first tryst with a World Heritage City, a first fling that would, unbeknownst to me at the time, turn into a travel love affair.

Roaming around town, the architecture is awash in French colonial remnants; beautiful balconies, wooden shuttered windows, massive homes mixed in with smaller, more Southeast Asian structures. Cafes, baguettes, creperies, Luang Prabang embraced its heritage as part of the French colony Indochine, using it as a tourist selling point surely, but also full of genuine relics of its past.

French remains Laos’ dominant second language (though it is being steadily overtaken by English), and to hear the Laos (plural of Lao, referring to the people of Laos) speak French was a surreal experience. There was none of the harsh, nasally, pretentious quality that you get when listening to French or other Europeans speak; instead, the words were tranquil, a calm, steady flow, all rounded edges and curved letters. It was delightful to listen to, as if the Laos spoke French as it was intended, a beautiful, delicate language.

Mixed in with its French heritage, an abundance of Buddhist temples stood their ground, solidly announcing Luang Prabang’s Buddhism. Although, with the highest number of Buddhist monks per capita (a statistic I might be making up, but there were certainly an impressive number of monks), the predominance of Buddhism in the area announces itself. Everywhere we walked, groupings of orange-robed monks, from small male children to wrinkled elderly men, meandered along the streets. In all of Thailand, never had I seen so many monks, especially child monks, all in one place.

Despite the attempts around town to appear more festive, garland and lights and trees appearing in large numbers, it wasn’t a particularly Christmasy Christmas. And, with near-tropical temperatures, it certainly wasn’t a white Christmas (although I don’t know that Southeast Asians would know what to do with themselves if it ever did snow).

In fact, we spent Christmas Day flying back to Bangkok through Luang Prabang’s ‘International Airport’ (a building so small it resembled a bus station more than an airport). The flight was my Christmas present to us, a way of avoiding 24 hours on buses and trains. Buying airline tickets also gave us time enough to spend three days soaking in Luang Prabang: enjoying its dichotomous culture, eating French, Lao, and French-Lao food (I even ate some buffalo), and most of all, just relaxing, reading, and relaxing some more. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Why of the Wai

The wai (pronounced ‘y’), a little bow of the head with your hands in prayer-position, is the traditional Thai greeting and parting gesture. We Americans have the wave, in all its variations and incarnations; well, the Thais wai.

Socially-nuanced, wai etiquette is complex. It affects how low you bow your head, who wais first, and whether you wai back at all. The lower one’s social position, the more respectful the wai; we’re talking about full-on, touch your hands to your face, thumbs-to-nose, fingers-to-forehead, deep bow wai-ing. Equals can bow lightly, hands more chest-height. The lower position person always wais first, and I’m pretty sure that you aren’t supposed to return the wai of a waiter or service person at all. Luckily, the etiquette is very forgiving for foreigners.
All complexities aside, I really enjoy the wai. It might be my years of practicing yoga and all the associations with the gesture itself, but I truly enjoy living in a country with such a nice greeting. I find it calming, peaceful, and somehow delicate. Less frantic than our wave, the wai takes a little extra time and effort, a mini pause. It is a brief moment acknowledging another individual.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Frying Frenzy

My students love to try to share their food with me. Unfortunately, many of their food choices make me sick to even think about eating. Uncooked ramen noodles, french fries with a quarter inch layer of salt, weird fried crackers that taste like fish, gross jelly candy that has to be sucked from its plastic container. Many classes start with me saying repeatedly in Thai, “No thanks, I’m full, I already ate” just to avoid having to put unclassifiable foods in my mouth.

And in front of the school and in the cafeteria, stands cater to the students’ every whim. My least favorite is the vats of boiling oil filled with a mixture of mystery meats, similar to hot dogs and baloney (as if they weren’t unhealthy enough when microwaved or boiled). Skewered and tossed into a plastic bag with sauce – sweet chili sauce, ketchup, or (gag) mayonnaise, your choice – these fried meats are then devoured right off the stick.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the students who partake in all the fried foods. Win and another co-worker, Stephen, have taken to eating massive amounts of fried chicken and baloney during snack breaks (the school has two, aside from lunch). It has gotten to the point that these lunch ladies not only brag about the foreign teachers buying their fried meats, but also about the frequency with which the two of them show up. On the bright side, Win and Stephen don’t attempt to force-share their food with me. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

For Love of the King

Today, December 5th, is Thailand’s Fathers’ Day. In America, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day are randomly assigned Sundays on the Calendar. Here in Thailand, on the other hand, much more significance is assigned to these holidays; Mothers’ Day is the Queen’s birthday, and Fathers’ Day is the birthday of His Majesty, King Rama IX. Not only is today a celebration of one’s own father, but also a celebration in honor of the King. 

The Thais, without exception, love their King. Pictures of the King are proudly on display everywhere you look, pictures adorn walls in nearly every home and restaurant, clocks and calendars feature the likeness of His Majesty, and in every Thai city billboard-size pictures stand at street corners. While we Americans have money featuring a variety of past U.S. presidents, King Rama IX is on every Thai coin and bill. Once a week, many people nationwide wear yellow, pink or purple to honor the King (although, following the red shirt-yellow shirt debacle, yellow tends not to be the color of choice). The Thai monarchy is incredibly revered and beloved, and it shows. 

The love of the Thais for their King is not only genuine, but also well deserved. Reigning since 1946, King Rama IX is the world’s longest reigning monarch. Born in Massachusetts, educated in America and Switzerland, and an accomplished jazz musician to boot, the King has done much good for the people of Thailand. No matter what the political situation in Thailand, the general Thai populace is united by their love of the King.

Despite the fact that the Thai monarchy is supposed to be divorced from politics, the opinion of the King holds heavy sway; he has authorized numerous coups, overseen umpteen constitutions, and dozens of changes of Prime Minister. In the early 90s, he oversaw the change to democracy. He changed the country to what he dubbed a “sufficiency economy” enabling the Thais to develop a self-sufficient system, better agricultural practices, and more environmentally friendly methods. Because of King Rama IX, Thailand is much better situated to become a legitimate first world country.

It is no big surprise that Fathers’ Day is a pretty big deal in Thailand. The Friday before Fathers’ Day was filled with ceremonies, songs, and assemblies for the students; today, parades, participants all in pink, marched along the streets; fireworks filled the night sky; and somewhere in town a ceremony took place, a candlelight vigil of sorts, with songs written by the King himself, as well as prayers and more fireworks. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Team Spirit

After a month of preparation – practice, tournaments, sweat, injuries, construction, choreography, and three weeks of half-days of class – C.V.K. was ready for Sports Day. And they were gonna do it right. The students were split into five color-specific teams, spread over the entire age range of the school: red, blue, green, white, and yellow, representing pre-K through high school seniors. And, Sports “Day” was really two days made up of all sorts of (very) different events.

Day One:

The full-sized football (yes, I do mean soccer) field was divided widthwise, allowing four games to be played simultaneously. In one game, the sixth graders, decked out in fancy gear, played an intense game of soccer. They played like their legos depended on it, the whole weight of their color resting on their shoulders.

At the same time, three games of handball were occurring. As an American, I had never seen handball before; seemingly handball is just soccer for those who prefer throwing and bouncing instead of kicking (with a little bit of monkey-in-the-middle mixed in for good measure). It also uses basketball rules, preventing players from simply grabbing the ball and running. With three games being played at once, balls were flying into other games, evoking a sense of pure chaos for spectators.

Practiced during the class-less, lawless afternoons preceding Sports Day, but seemingly absent from the festivities (and surely deserving of mention) was Chairball. Resembling short-range basketball, chairball has one big twist. The traditional basketball hoop is replaced by a team member standing on a chair, holding a laundry basket over his or her head. Clearly, they can do their best to assist their team by moving to catch the ball, but they face much more pressure than a stoic, metal basketball hoop has ever known. Popular with the elementary school kids, chairball is far more entertaining than your typical basketball game.

Not to be left out, the kindergarten carried on Sports Day activities of its own. The main event: tug-of-war! There might be nothing cuter than eighty toddlers, donning hats made from recycled milk cartons, flower headbands, sequins and makeup, playing a massive game of tug-of-war. Unless of course, after so many games, all that tension and tugging, the rope, pulled taut, snaps directly in the middle, sending each side’s tiny tuggers flying into a flat, domino-ed pile. The way they all bounced up, made of rubber, brushed off their knees and ran to the canteen for lunch, was equally adorable.

Day Two:

Friday was the real deal: official Sports Day. Cheer stands had been constructed. The band and junior band were prepped and ready to play. A parade had been planned: floats built, costumes rented, faces painted, and hair elaborately styled.

The parade was painstakingly elaborate, the student-powered floats massive. Each team color had come up with their own individual theme, ranging from Victorian Era, to traditional Thai, to something showcasing a massive, red demon. Confusing, delightful and bizarre, the students mixed in costumes and props as they saw fit. There were costumes including what I can only assume were colorful condoms, Thai slaves, some gender-swapping prince/princess combos, and hill tribe-themed dancers.

Each team had not only its own parade section, but a cheer stand, with color-coordinated decorations and two sets of cheerleaders, one elementary and one senior high. The choreography, with crowd participation, was impressively mastered, the costumes flashy and loud. It seemed to be more about team spirit, screaming, shouting, glittery team spirit, than about the sporting events themselves.

The events leading up to the grand finale football game were mostly toddler-oriented. There was a relay race in which adults ran while carrying pre-schoolers, a three-legged race where adults were tied to small children, and a big-wheel race that mostly ended with the little kids riding around in circles.

Despite the oddity of all the sporting events, Sports Day was a huge success. Win and I, both on the blue team, represented our color proudly. Blue sunglasses, bubble necklace, dragon crocs, skirt, shoes, earrings, and hats. We rocked blue hard.

Blue vs. Green. Red vs. White. Yellow vs. Blue. Red vs. Yellow. White vs. Green. The whole thing was a chaotic jumble of running, screaming, and pom-poms. It was a high-energy, high-excitement day, but I have absolutely no idea who won any of the games.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Markets of Thailand: Student Market

Like many countries, a vast portion of Thailand’s economy revolves around consumerism. With the abundance of shops, restaurants, markets (street, night, produce, floating), and even stores selling nothing but temple-sized Buddha statues, Thais earn a living (or at least a supplemental income) selling goods to tourists and their fellow Thais.

Since it is such a big part of Thai adulthood, the schools (or at least the two where we have taught) allow students to host a market for their teachers and fellow classmates once a year. Everything is either student-made or student-cooked (possibly student-purchased instead). The kids practice at playing vendors and merchants, and I’m sure they don’t mind missing a half-day of classes.

Last year, while teaching at Benchamarachutit in Ratchaburi, the students had a market with an environmental theme. Old bottles had been turned into lamps, flowers and animals; pictures and decorations were made from re-purposed straws; hats had been made from braided banana leaves and old soda bottles. There was a full traditional Thai band, complete with a massive bamboo organ. And the best part, they were all so excited that foreigners had showed up, they kept giving us things for free, refusing to take our money.

At C.V.K.’s 2011 Student Market, the fare was simple. Students made pressed sandwiches, cookies, cakes, ice cream sundaes, milk shakes, meat on a stick and various fried foods (although the deep frier did require teacher supervision). There were also keychains, bows, comic books, and burned copies of movies.

Over the course of an hour and a half hanging around with my students, I sampled an array of foods, tasty and not-so-great. I was talked into eating something with a consistency somewhere between Jello and gummy bears, full of pieces of corn and topped with coconut, I tipped my older students in (useless) half baht coins, and students kept trying to sell me their used Thai comic books knowing that I can’t read Thai. The highlight: when the kindergarteners were paraded across the street to spend what little baht they had; even the middle-schoolers, so tough, cool and above it all, thought it was adorable.

The food might not have been the best, and many of their goods were overpriced (let’s hope that they were raising money for some school function), but it was a nice experience. Not only was it fun to spend time with them outside of class, mixing English, Thai and a boatload of miming to form a conversation, but it was lovely to see some of the quieter kids out in full bloom, vying for the best compliments from Teacher.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In the Presence of Pachyderms

Up close, an elephant is a creature like no other. Gentle eyes the speak of unplumbed emotional depth, stubbly hair across smoky-grey flesh. Riding on the back of an elephant, you tower and lurch, high above the world.

Blessed with remarkably quick wits, we have seen elephants perform incredible feats. Dancing and hoolahooping, painting and playing soccer, even drinking soda through a straw; elephants have a knack for learning. Among Thailand’s hill tribes, a number are native mahouts and elephant herders, holding annual Elephant Roundups, hundreds of elephants displaying their talents.

Small town men will purchase elephants, parading them around town selling sugar cane to pedestrians or people in restaurants in order to feed the elephants (which will then be locked in too-small yards until the next night’s circuit). Standing on the sidewalk, bobbing his or her head along with the music, swaying with a remembered dance, the elephant will wait patiently for another handful of food.

Such treatment isn’t befitting of such elegant giants, but the treatment of elephants seems to be getting ever-better. No longer will you see elephants being exploited thus on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, or anywhere in Bangkok. And many of the formerly mistreated elephants from Bangkok have been sent north, living out their lives in elephant camps and orphanages, given fresh air and open spaces, tromping through jungle rather than city streets, and fed on a regular basis. While many of these places operate as tourist attractions as well, the conditions are kept under closer scrutiny, hopefully providing better quality of life for the liberated pachyderms.

Leathery skin, wrinkles like canyons spreading across their broad backs, bristle-like hair springing up among the cracks and gullies. Ears flap like massive water-soaked flags, slapping their sides as they sway, huge gait, like a minivan on legs. Big, bright, long-lased eyes sparkle with depthless sentience. A curious trunk twists above stray chin whiskers, searching for anything edible. Lumbering, weathered and majestic, elephants have been a magical presence in our travels.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Floating Light

As a lunar holiday, Loy Krathong typically falls sometime in November. Last year, oblivious to the fact that it was a holiday weekend, we went to Surin in northeast Thailand for their annual Elephant Roundup, effectively missing Loy Krathong entirely. This year, we were more prepared.

Loy Krathong is Thailand’s equivalent to a festival of lights. “Loy” means “to float.” And “Krathong” refers to homemade floats that carry a candle. A traditional Krathong is made from a cross-section of banana tree trunk elaborately decorated with strips of banana leaf and the decapitated heads of flowers, painstakingly twisted, twirled, stapled and pinned.

During November’s full moon, the krathongs are taken to the local river and loy-ed. Symbolically, the light from the candle is meant to honor Buddha, and the krathong carries away all grudges, mistakes, and negativity. Loy Krathong is a holiday of letting go, of new beginnings.

Over the years, the holiday has been augmented, and the beloved Thai lanterns (kohms) included. Kohms, made from tissue or rice paper, are like miniaturized hot air balloons, using the heat from a burning ring of oiled paper to lift up and away from earth.

From the banks of Chiang Rai’s Kok River, krathongs drifted downstream, kohms floated off by the hundreds, boyant and glowing. The sky was full of false constellations that shift and change with the wind. Fireworks burst overhead, close enough to rain paper on our shoulders.

As the kohm began to glow brighter, hotter, we shifted our grip from top to bottom. Suddenly, as if of its own accord, the lantern tugged itself free of our fingertips, slipping away to join the school of glowing lantern jellyfish, easing their way heavenward. With it, all mistakes and negative energy, leaving us cleansed.