Pah Leurat - Saturday, July 10
Every year I intend to have time to upload photos and post blog entries at least every few days. Most years I start off pretty well, as I did this year with daily messages from Bangkok and Chiang Mai. After we get busy here in Pah Leurat, some years I manage to follow through better than others, depending largely on how much time I end up spending with the group during their mornings of teaching and afternoons of lesson planning. The way it works out, sometimes I'm needed more than others and sometimes I simply enjoy watching.
This year there has been some of both, and the upshot is that while I've had little time for the blog I did get to see a lot of good teaching and now have quite a few photos to share. At this point I doubt I'll get the chance to edit and upload many, if any, until after the Inside Thailand kids are back home in America, but as soon as I can I will.
Today is Saturday and tonight, after two weeks of making friends in this community, there will be a huge thank you party in anticipation of our Monday night departure.
Today the American kids all slept in, and then after brunch helped their Thai peers blow up balloons for tonight's party. We're expecting a crowd of at least sixty or seventy, so Boosaba and her team have been cooking and setting up since 6:00 this morning. It's another very hot day and she looked like she wanted to join in the boys' water fight — but not before she's finished astounding us all with yet another glorious feast.
This afternoon Boosaba's brother and I took the kids across the "Indiana Jones" suspension bridge about five miles downstream from here. It's strong enough for a light motorcycle, but it's rickety and sways a lot which makes crossing the river feel like an adventure.
During Inside Thailand's early years this bridge was the only way to cross this river, other than a canoe or a three-hour road trip. Now we can drive our truck across a concrete bridge right here in Pah Leurat — a dramatic change which is slowly bringing the long-isolated communities across the river into the motorized and electrified modern era.
Pah Leurat - Friday, July 9
This morning the boys all got up early to give alms to the monks. "Early" is a relative term. Most people here start their days at 5:00, about a half-hour before dawn. The monks normally make their rounds between 6:00 and 6:30, concurrent with school bus departures and farmers heading out to their fields. Today the monks did not arrive until 6:45 because the abbot had tripped over a dog and broken its leg.
Thai temples serve as drop-off points for unwanted pets, and Buddhism teaches that attachments are the root of all suffering. Westerners sometimes get the notion that this means Asians do not value intimacy, but I can guarantee you that the abbot cares deeply about "his" dogs and was acutely feeling that pain of attachment today!
After breakfast (which Boosaba serves to our group every day at 7:00), Benyapa and I spent most of this morning, our next to last teaching in Pah Leurat, observing and photographing Willem and Bowen's outrageous lessons for grades 7 through 9, which included an imaginatively choreographed and vigorously animated presentation of American street slang. It was hilarious, and so over the top that the Thai students were not, at first, quite sure what to make of it. In the end they all knew it was a lesson they'd never forget, and perhaps the best time they'll ever have in a classroom. A new standard has been set!
After school, Aiden meditated with a monk while the others practiced bamboo basket weaving with Benyapa's grandmother and a few of her contemporaries. Bowen hung in there the longest and after four hours I think ended up with four or more finished baskets. These would sell for 1 baht (currently about 3 cents US) each, so Willem joked, "If college doesn't work out..."
I laughed because it was a good joke, but reflecting on it now I see the unimaginable differences in the options available to our young guests and their hosts. I believe very strongly in noblese oblige, passing the ladder back down, paying it forward, and all that, and I hope that their time here will have reenforced those instincts in each of our Inside Thailand alums.
Uttaradit - Thursday, July 8
Today we taught at Doi Ta Sao, a small elementary school of sixty-two students within the provincial capital of Uttaradit. The families whose children attend Doi Ta Sao are even poorer than the poorest in any of the rural villages we've seen. They are landless, nearly homeless, and often jobless. Some of their children have learning disabilities, a few are autistic, and some are so very bright that against all odds they graduate from sixth grade here to the finest secondary schools in the province.
We went there because one of my dearest friends, Ajarn Surapon, is the new headmaster. Seventeen years ago, when I taught full-time in Pah Leurat, Surapon was the assistant headmaster here. He is one of the most dedicated and most intellectually curious educators I've ever known anywhere and it was like coming home to work with him again, even if only for one day.
I told him about meeting Hatai, and while Surapon's cheeks remained dry his eyes were on the verge of brimming over. I had brought a few pictures and copies of The Cantaloupe Star, so we spent several happy moments remembering our years together and the wonderful kids who were our students then. Of course Hatai and I will invite Surapon to join us for our little reunion!
When we were done teaching, Surapon's teachers presented us with the feast they had prepared, which was probably the most wonderful meal we've had all summer. That's really saying something, as Boosaba is a world-class Thai cook and Inside Thailand never cuts corners on food, at home or in restaurants, but this lunch that Surapon treated us to was truly spectacular. It was humbling, too, given the desperate straits of his students, and because with my understanding of the school's budget I knew that Surapon had paid for it all from his own pocket.
Pah Leurat - Wednesday, July 7
Today the girls got up early to give alms to the monks. Then after breakfast we taught at Pah Tao Pattana, a wonderful small school across the river where I chanced to meet an old student. She's 31 now and has a two-year-old daughter, the same age Benyapa was when I taught Hatai. It was a wonderful and very emotional experience for both of us.
We hugged and hugged — very rare in Thai culture — and both shed tears of joy over and over as we reminisced about the good times we'd shared in the classroom, at English Club in the school library, working on our newspaper, going on excursions in the same old Isuzu pickup I still drive today, and just hanging out at our house or in the river.
Hatai was one of a dozen of my most dedicated English learners, and she says at least three others are now working nearby. She will round them all up for a reunion as soon as my family and I return from the island.
Very touching, and very rewarding, to realize that I had meant so much to those girls, and maybe equally touching for her to realize that she and her friends had meant so much to me.
For Benyapa it was a special moment to hear Hatai reminiscing about all the same stories she's heard me tell over and over. Hatai's recollections and even her words were nearly identical to mine. Sigh. My eyes moisten again just writing this. In a word, all sweet.
Sukhothai - Saturday July 3
Today we took seventy-four passengers — Inside Thailand 2010 plus one other adult and sixty-four Thai kids in grades 3 through 9 — on a three-hour bus trip to Sukhothai. We picnicked together, then rented bikes and explored the 700-year-old ruins of Thailand's original capital. More about that later, but for now I just want to point you to this summer's first few pictures.
Marina is the only American included in this first set, and this is because she has, by the un-luck of the draw, been underrepresented in the pix I've shot to date in the classrooms. I will work on correcting that this week, and also on posting pix of everyone from other days and other destinations.
Sukhothai is always a special day. Even though it's usually the hottest and always the longest of Inside Thailand's day trips, it's always the one I look forward to most. I've chosen to share these twelve pix first because several of them are of this year's 9th graders.
When we lived here from 1992 through 1994, I taught grades 7-9 full-time. 9th is the highest grade in our village school, and for village kids whose parents cannot afford to send them to high school it marks the end of their formal education and the beginning of their working lives. Our trip to Sukhothai is their one big outing, in many ways far more significant than a senior class trip in America, so I'm feeling somewhat emotional as I honor these wonderful kids by sharing their photos with you.
Rest assured that I have many exciting pix of your own kids too, and hope to get some of those posted as this week rolls along.
Lampang & Pah Leurat - Friday, June 25
Early Friday morning we loaded our bags and boarded our minivan for the four-hour drive to Pah Leurat. Shortly after 9:00 we arrived at the Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang and, while I savored a cappuccino with my friend Richard Lair, Boosaba led the group to the pond where the animals were about to enjoy their morning baths.
Richard and I caught up with them at the performance center where the elephants demonstrated their strength and agility as well as their ingenuity in art and music. Richard arranged a private photo-shoot, and after the group had all ridden elephants he took us to visit two elephant babies. We spent some time there, playing with the babies and chatting with Richard, who then joined us for a wonderful lunch at the Reuan Pai restaurant in Hang Chat (ร้านเรือนไผ่ อำเภอห้างฉัตร จ.ลำปาง).
Richard, who is my age, saw his first elephant at the San Francisco Zoo when he was four. He says he knew right then what he wanted to do with his life, and is now considered the world's foremost expert on Asian elephants. Needless to say, much of our conversation with him was about the mysteries of these enchanting creatures.
After lunch we drove on, three more hours to the southeast, and arrived in Pah Leurat just in time for our first dinner from Boosaba's kitchen. This is home to my family and me. It's where Boosaba and her ancestors were born, and where Benyapa learned to crawl and walk and talk. (Thai is indeed her fist language.) My own rich experiences as a teacher here nearly eighteen years ago were both an epiphany for me and the nexus of Inside Thailand, and all of this is what we've brought our young guests here to share.
We will be very busy every day, but I will try to at least post brief updates or vignettes of our experiences from time to time, and eventually — when I have time — I will post dozens of photos.
Chiang Mai - Thursday, June 24
Today Andrew Forbes and David Henley of the Crescent Press Agency joined us at the Hong Taeo Inn for another memorable lunch of Northern Thai food, and a discussion of Thailand's ancient history and current events. Along the way we talked about the international media, and how badly skewed the perspectives and reporting on some of the recent events here were, even at times from some of the most respected agencies including Reuters, CNN, and the BBC.
Reuters, for example, had reported on May 20 that in Chiang Mai "an annex of the governor's residence was gutted by fire and the provincial administration office was torched." Because that complex (which has not actually been used as the governor's residence for many years) is right next door to our guest house, I asked several people who were here on May 19, and all of them told me that a few firecrackers had singed only a few leaves on a couple of trees.
I then walked around the property searching for any visual evidence of any damage. I saw none, and also confirmed that the "several banks" in the same Reuters story were, in fact, only a single ATM machine, all of which leaves me wondering just how much of what we read about troubles in other parts of the world is either exaggerated or simply inaccurate.
After lunch we stocked up on locally grown coffee beans from the Kasem Store, and a few books from the Suriwong Book Center, before heading out to dinner and a final evening of souvenir shopping at the Night Bazaar.
For the record, we have observed no sense of tension among the Chiang Mai natives other than the dismay among those in the tourist industry which is very obviously still suffering. Our guest house, for example, is barely half full, and the Night Bazaar, which is usually bustling with crowds of farang, feels about as deserted as a fairground on a Monday. The tourists will return, for sure, but we are certainly among the first.
Chiang Mai - Wednesday, June 23
We boarded our train in Bangkok at 7:30 PM and then it RAINED all the way to Chiang Mai! That's 14 hours of rain over a distance of 450 miles, so this enormously welcome event was much more than a localized sprinkle. (It has been so very hot and dry for so long that many major reservoirs are down to dangerously low levels, and throughout the North farmers are prohibited from planting their rice until at least mid-July, with even that date dependent on rainfall accumulations between now and then.)
After checking into the Galare Guest House we went to Heuan Phen, perhaps my favorite restaurant anywhere, for a scrumptious lunch of Northern Thai food. I am very happy to report that everyone in this group is an adventurous eater so they will all be enjoying a broad range of Thailand's regional cuisines.
We followed lunch with a visit to Wat Suan Dok and a two-hour talk with a wonderful monk named พระมาหาบุญช่วย (Phramaha Boonchuay), who is the vice-chancellor of the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai and one of Thailand's most progressive and most socially active monks.
At the same time we met a fine young woman named Samsuda Khem-nguad. Sam is 16 and attends the International School in Chiang Mai where she lives with her parents. She told us about the program she has launched called Strong Will Seed, and invited us to help her sell cards to raise lunch money for underprivileged children in rural Thai schools.
In the evening we dined at the Night Bazaar where we then spent several hours shopping for souvenirs.
On Thursday, our last day in Chiang Mai, we will lunch with journalist/historian Andrew Forbes for a discussion of Thai history and politics, and on Friday, on our way to the village, we will spend the morning with Richard Lair at the Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang.
Bangkok – Tuesday, June 22
For sixteen years Inside Thailand has been visiting the Mercy Center in Klong Toei slum, which includes a kindergarten for slum kids, a hospice for AIDS patients, and an orphanage for HIV-positive children. Mercy Center was begun 40 years ago by a remarkable man named Father Joe Maier, who continues to serve as director of this facility 30 other preschools and kindergartens throughout the city.
Our visits are always at once sobering and inspirational — the latter in large part because the Mercy Center is staffed almost entirely by members of the community it serves and, against all odds, nurtures a profound and pervading sense that life, no matter how brief or difficult, is a cause for celebration.
It is also important to note that while Father Joe himself is a Catholic priest he makes no attempt to convert any of the people he serves from their own native Buddhist and Muslim religions. I am proud to call him a friend.
We are leaving the hotel now, and after dinner at the station we will board our sleeper train for Chiang Mai.
Bangkok – Monday, June 21
This morning began with a ninety-minute visit with พระมหาประสระสมาจาโร (Phramaha Prasarasmajaro), who speaks only a little English but likes to laugh a lot and calls himself "Obama Monk." He began by entertaining questions, the first of which was from Aiden asking the monk's favorite color. Red was the answer which led to a yet another brief discussion of Thailand's color-coded politics. When I asked if he were a Red or a Yellow Shirt, Obama Monk replied that he was somewhere in between — which seemed entirely fitting given his peaceful nature and saffron-colored robes.
We ended up spending the next hour discussing ghosts, which have little to do with Buddhism and a lot to do with animism. This was particularly interesting to me because in 8th grade Benyapa had written an extensive report exploring the relationships between Buddhism, which took root in Thailand roughly a millennium ago, and the animism which preceded any organized religion here by several thousand years. Buddhism and animism still overlap in varying degrees in the minds of most Thais, but this was the most earnestly I'd ever heard an urban monk discuss his own beliefs in spirits and ghosts.
When we left Obama Monk we took a river boat to lunch at a riverside restaurant near the Grand Palace, and from there rode tuk-tuks to Wat Pho – the temple of the reclining Buddha. While we were admiring the sights there, the sweltering heat was suddenly relieved by a cool breeze, followed by a brief rain as we were walking back to the riverboat pier. We arrived back at the hotel drenched (mostly in sweat), for a couple of hours free time before Megan and Matthew came to visit us at the hotel and — extraordinarily graciously — treated us all to dinner.
Bangkok - Sunday, June 20
Thai Air flight 795 from LAX arrived 55 minutes early at 5:45 AM. Everyone excited and happy and only a little dazed. After showers and breakfast at the Bossotel we took the Skytrain to meet Megan and Matthew at Ratchaprasong — the site of the Red Shirts' two-month sit-in which culminated in the May 19 dispersal by armed troops. Most protesters had left peacefully, and many in tears, but a few hard-core militants had stayed and, throughout that night, gone on a rampage of arson, looting, and mayhem.
We visited Ratchaprasong just one day after the one-month anniversary of those awful events, and what we saw there looked very much like life as normal — with a crowded Skytrain, busy streets, and quite a few Sunday shoppers. But we also saw a once elegant fourteen-story mall gutted by fire, the Buddhist temple where six protesters seeking refuge had been shot (no one yet knows by whom), and one bullet hole in the Plexiglass guardrail just a few feet from where we stood on the elevated walkway.
Each sight was profoundly sobering, yet for me it was that one bullet hole that most took my breath away — simply because it was so close, and so immediate, to where we all were standing.
We talked a bit about the specifics of those events, and the political conflicts which had led to such violence, and noted that Thailand is probably the only country in the world where the government would have waited two months to forcibly disperse an occupation of the nation's equivalent to New York's 5th Avenue. Even then, relatively few innocent lives were lost and the strongest movement in the country now appears to be a genuinely grassroots desire for peace and unity.
We'll be talking about all this again and again throughout the month, but moving forward for now we went for drinks and snacks with Matthew and Megan at another mall across the street from the one that was burned. Then we returned to our Bossotel for massages, dinner, a little shopping and an early sleep.