Sunday, March 16, 2014

Who Are All These People?

To bridge our transition from Thailand to Laos, it’s worth discussing our attempts to learn about the distinctions between nationality, ethnicity, and clan in southeast Asia—distinctions which are quite alive in 2014. We’ve written already about our weekend in a Karen village, and the inhabitants of that village, with whom we toiled and ate lunch for six weeks. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Many self-identifying ethnic groups coexist in Thailand and Laos, including the Karen, Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Khmu, Tai Dam, Tai Lü, Mien (also called Yao), and others. These communities exist across political borders and have spent the last few hundred years migrating to escape political oppression. In this blog, often we’ll say, “a friendly Thai man,” or “a teenage Lao girl”—but in reality many of these people might correct us, saying, “I am Akha”, “I am Hmong”, etc.

What we do know about this subject, in addition to what we’ve absorbed from talking to individuals, we’ve learned largely from several nonprofit educational centers.

Back when we were in Chiang Mai, we made a trip to the Tribal Museum, founded in 2002 and built north of the city, in the middle of a lake. A smiling Thai woman greeted us in English and asked us to change from our outdoor shoes into indoor flip-flops provided by the museum. In the stairwell up to the first exhibit, an animatronic mannequin of a young woman in Akha dress welcomed us with limbs that moved on their own, accompanied by flashing background lights and a recorded speech in Akha. Winding our way through a series of rooms, we examined generous displays of the distinctive clothing, musical instruments, tools, houses, baskets, and so on of eight ethnic minorities currently living in northern Thailand. We saw handmade crossbows, knives, and mousetraps (like the freshly made Karen one in Baan Hoi Hoi), some truly impressive weaving and stitching work, a giant calendar comparing typical village work and celebrations for each ethnic group during any given month, and even a replica of the sacred door-sized gateway that guards the threshold of every Akha village.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Layers of Luang Prabang

We spent eight nights in Luang Prabang, a very tourist-friendly colonial town situated at the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Here are Steppil's impressions of the setting.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Getting to Laos: How to Avoid the Engine Room

Hi, faithful readers. Because we have to leave Thailand periodically according to our visas, the plan all along has been to travel as tourists in neighboring SE Asian countries between our different WWOOF Thailand locations. In the chronology of the blog, therefore, here begins our three-week trip to Laos. (Although really these events occurred at the beginning of February.)

To get there, we took a two-day ride on a “slow boat” eastward along the lush Mekong River—from the Lao-Thai border to the central town of Luang Prabang. Step had read about the slow boat ride in blogs online, and Pilncertainly had no objection. It’s not necessary, of course, and it’s a little more expensive than taking ground transport, which also stretches to two days. Ours was not a luxury cruise, though if you have hundreds of dollars to spare, you can read about that option in the Wall Street Journal.

The slow boat is, of course, cheaper, non-life-threatening, and substantially less destructive to the ecosystem than the whining, thrashing speedboat in which you can tear through the otherwise tranquil Mekong. Please don’t take the speedboat. You might die.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Finding an Old City in the New City

Exactly thirty years ago, in 1984, a lost city was rediscovered beneath Chiang Mai. It all began when some residents in a suburb of Chiang Mai found some ancient Buddhist tablets next to a temple. Abandoned to floodwaters and hundreds of years of silt, Wiang Kum Kam was held to be a myth….until archaeologists realized people were living right on top of it!!!

In 1286, King Mangrai built Wiang Kum Kam on the banks of the Ping River, to be to capital of his new Lanna Kingdom. But the rainy season was not kind to Wiang Kum Kam, and just ten years later, the King relocated the capital to the opposite shore, and the new city of Chiang Mai—which, hey hey, means new city in Thai—superseded its older brother.

Pil and I scooted out there one day in January during the dry season to avoid the flood. The ruins of Wiang Kum Kam are now (metaphorically) buried in the heart of a quiet suburb to the southeast. There are landmark signs pointing you in the right direction, but we got a little lost anyway, and made our way into the first complex of ruins via the backdoor of a temple (at the insistence of a monk). We had read that you can hire a horse carriage for a palfry penny, but there were none to be seen—just a few quiet noodle stalls also selling knick-knacks, and a lone group of Thai tourists.

Friday, March 7, 2014

On Doi Suthep; or: Gold and Elephants

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or Doi Suthep for short, is one of the most hallowed places in Northern Thailand, built in 1383 under the auspices of King Keu Naone and his elephant. As the story goes, said elephant was carrying a sacred Buddha relic on his back, and the royal party was following behind, with the intention of building a temple on the spot where the holy elephant stopped. Well, he made it all the way to the top of the mountain, then keeled over and died. Thus the temple was built right there. It's less than an hour away by motorbike, and those switchback turns are fun!

Another fun fact: when I tell people my name is Step, it is pronounced a lot more like Suthep than the part of a staircase, so the mountain and I feel much affinity towards one another.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wats the Big Deal?

Dog days at the dog wat, Wat Ketkaram.

There are a few things that Southeast Asia has in spades: chilies, bananas, stray dogs, smiles, and temples. In the past three months, we’ve stepped barefoot into more Buddhist temples than we have in our entire lives. In fact, we went from zero to fifty-odd in the span of a few weeks, and we knew virtually nothing about temple architecture or practice before we arrived. We had a lot of learning to do, and luckily we were able to participate in a full moon ceremony in Mae Mut to see what active temple life is like. But there are still hundreds of details and intricacies—the symbolism of certain architectural flourishes, mysterious numbered boxes stuffed with paper like mail slots, the meaning behind poured water—that we’re still trying to unpack. Thus we preface this post with the warning that we are not experts, have probably gotten things wrong, and could have learned a lot more had we not been petting so many temple dogs.

Each temple has its own flavor, and sometimes even its own zodiac animal theme, but common to all of them is the sense of it being a living space. What felt really special to us about all of these wats was how there were so many people there simply to worship. Even at Doi Suthep, which is crawling with multinational tourist bugs, including ourselves, there were Chiang Mai University graduates in their robes, walking circles around the chedi for merit, giggling girls shaking out fortune sticks, people bowing their heads for a monk's blessing. Even at Chiang Mai’s so-called Silver Wat, which is lit up in rotating neons at night, there are monks engaging in nightly “monk chats,” where visitors are invited to chat with disciples about the way of the Buddha. We sat in on one of these and found it interesting, if a little difficult due to language difficulties. (This was before we learned any decent amount of Thai.)

The ordination hall at Wat Ket