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.