My main reason for coming back to Thailand was to once again put myself into rice-induced agony. How to orchestrate such a masochistic event? By traveling up to a new village in a new province to visit, teach, farm, and explore with the same Thai friend I taught with three years ago. Unfortunately I was delayed when he had a surprise week-long workshop in Bangkok, but it worked out for the best. While he learned modern technology that will never be put to use in the oft-electricity-less remote village schools, I decided to go to Laos to renew my visa. Despite hearing how dull the country was, I met some locals and found it to be poor but charming. It’s like Vietnam but with better food and nicer people—and I didn’t even make that up! I would just love to go back and explore the mountains, but what I did see, I liked. After biking around to my heart’s content, I returned to Bangkok on another [somewhat sketchy but they serve free food so it’s totally worth the risk] overnight bus and really enjoyed my short time exploring another city in Northeast Thailand. After having plans changed three more times, my friend finally finished up his work and we made our way up north. There are a million stories from just those few days, but essentially we made it to Nan Province at 6:15AM. Within hours, I met his family, was offered fresh-cooked frog for breakfast, saw his house, met his neighbors, packed what I could into my backpack and got on a harrowing but gorgeous bike ride up the mountains. We lucked out with it not raining while up and down the precipitously steep roads, and though covered with mud and in some close calls, we pulled into a school full of staring kids at 2:15PM. At 2:18PM, I was teaching. None of the kids had ever seen a foreigner, so for each class, they actually were invited to touch my skin, shake my hand, and ask me questions. I could see the relief in their faces as their own skin stayed dark and mine stayed frighteningly whitish-pink. Anyhow, thus far it’s been more exciting than a roller coaster ride as we’ve been traveling up and down the mountain, going into town, hiking into the jungle, and getting bitten by mosquitoes.
Upon re-entering Thailand and settling down for a bit in this remote village, it dawned on me just how much the city and countryside have changed. I was in this country just three years ago, but immediately I’ve noticed small differences—usually of Western culture corrupting tradition—that have made their way into Thai heritage.
A few examples of change you can truly believe in:
– English is now many places. You can be out in the middle of nowhere, Thailand, and sometimes find menus, companies, or even highway signs labeled in English. Recently this came in handy, as I was finally able to read the English translation of Thai lyrics on the various music videos shown on my bus. One memorable line that really struck me was: Chep-Trong-Ni-Thi-Sai-Ta, Hang-Hoen, Tae-Thoe-Mi-Mai-Po-ae-Khwam-Ket-Moa. I couldn’t agree more.
– Lukewarm water rarely quenches my thirst, so luckily more places carry juice and soda than before—WITH refrigeration! That means that flavor delights such as orange soda are Thai-ized, tasting like an essence of citrus with massive toothpaste and Listerine notes. It’s that awful taste of orange juice drunk after brushing your teeth. Bottled.
– ADD has taken over this place. At least in India they say they’ll do something, and they’ll do it, albeit hours late. Here they make plans, are late, don’t follow them, don’t tell you what’s happening, start things, and abruptly stop while starting something else without warning. When the kids are let out of school at 4PM every day, the teachers gather in the lunch/gym area and fool around. During the time period of about 4:02PM-4:12PM my first day here, they invited me to play some weird game of darts, had already dispersed by the time I walked the 50 feet over, invaded the chicken coop, were laughing, handed me some darts, killed one of the chickens (in my honor, just so you know), started weight-lifting, boxed with the punching bag, played more darts, brought out crab crackers to snack on, etc. Oy.
– There’s actually toilet paper in some places now! Someone high up in government must have read a 20th century Western newspaper or something. Unfortunately the sanitation systems weren’t built to handle tp, so once used, what’s a gal to do? Let your imagination run wild on this one!
– Rice! Remember how I couldn’t stand it last time? Why did I think this time it would be different? Oh, but it is. This variety is sticky rice, and when eating, you pick off a small hunk and idly roll it into a tight ball with one hand, then gnaw off bits of it while eating other eep. It’s actually a whole lot better than regular rice, for I can actually get down three bites per meal before getting bored and almost crying for bread/pasta/pizza/anything else. When regular rice is served, I actually want to sob. Corn that is mushy and gross. Mashed frog with chile. Bitter seedy peas in soup. The food is so bad. It’s just so bad.
– Everything is even more awkward! Despite a greater prevalence of western culture, things are still awkwardly old style. I attended a monk inauguration ceremony. This entailed a whole room full of vegetable cutting women to stop, gawk, ‘n’ hoot. A veritable cheer went up as they all invited me to sit down and prepare food with them. Well, that’s the overarching image, at least. In reality, the women were [99% likely] laughing at me, then touching me, asking if what I was eating was delicious (it wasn’t), and generally making me feel as much like a foreigner as possible. They were actually very kind to me, but man was I the awkward center of attention. Did I mention that I’d just been to the local health clinic because I had a fever and strep throat? Yes, it was a fun monk ceremony.
– Monk ceremony, part II. You know how it always appears that Americans can’t sit still for church, conferences, or formal events, but that foreigners in traditional ceremonies are completely serious and respectful? It just ain’t true! At the recent now-the-monk-can-roam-free ceremony at the neighborhood temple, I saw that people were, in fact, quite listless. Kids poked their mothers. Grandmothers shushed whisperers more loudly than the whisperers whispered. The new monk’s father laughed and smacked our next-door neighbor, an old lady whose arms had grown tired of holding her flower bunch in prayer during the current 10-minute rant. An old man cleaned his right ear with…a toothpick. And I’m quite sure that several of the attending village elders were either dead or asleep.
Tomorrow I teach and then go on another trek down the mountain. What lies ahead? I’ve only got two weeks to go, but it will be an exciting two weeks for sure. Look for another post soon!
(Photos of scenery and temples in Laos, on or near the mighty Mekong; photos of indeterminate food and more in Bangkok.)