Meet the Travelers Part IV: Adam

*This post was originally published on May 26th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

“I decided to travel to Thailand because I really want to broaden my horizons, both in the massage profession and culturally. I knew that I’d never have this opportunity again while I am this young.”
Driven, approachable, and trustworthy are words that are often used to describe Adam Szczupakowski , a twenty-year old from Spencerport, New York.  As a very recent graduate in the 2012 class in Finger Lakes Community College’s Therapeutic Massage and Integrated Health Care Program, Adam knew from the start that he wanted to further his education after receiving his AAS degree. “I always knew that I wanted to work with people in the health profession in some way. Physical Therapy is my long-term career goal.” He stated that his grades in the sciences, such as Kinesiology and Myology, came very easily to him, and that he has found his primary strength lies in his understanding of the muscles and their relationship kinesthetically to the human body. He also is easily able to detect trigger points and “knots” in the muscles that can sometimes cause pain and impair mobilization in the body.
This coming fall semester, Adam will be starting a six-year commitment in SUNY Brockport’s Doctorate of Physical Therapy Program. Indeed, he is quite ambitious! He has also been going to the YMCA for several years, and upon receiving his New York State Massage Therapist License, he will apply at the local “Y” to seek employment. He aspires to work as a massage therapist and personal trainer as a means to support himself financially during his long journey toward his doctorate. A career as a massage therapist will be a valuable stepping stone to enable Adam to complete his education.
When asked what aspect of Thai culture intrigues him most, Adam shared that he is looking forward to seeing the architecture of the region. “I’ve always loved the architecture and natural beauty that I’ve seen in photos of Southeast Asia. It will be great to see the temples and building of the regions we will visit.” This will also be Adam’s first venture overseas, other than visiting Canada. “In a little nervous,” he said, “but I’m also really excited. I like exploring new horizons and learning new things related to my field.”
For the past two years, Adam has also been the only male in his massage therapy class at the college, and now, as we get ready to depart for Thailand, he will once again be our token guy. After growing up in a household with two older brothers, this has been quite a switch for him. He said that throughout the program, though, that it has been a good experience and that “over time, the women in the program have become my pals, just like my guy friends are.”
Another one of Adam’s great passions is baseball. At a young age, he began playing the sport with his brothers and loved it, stating that he especially enjoyed the competitiveness of the sport, and also how it helped him gain confidence in gaining leadership abilities. He played on FLCC’s baseball team, The Lakers, during his entire two-year span at the college, and intends to continue playing in the future as one of his favorite hobbies. When the autumn wanes and baseball season ends, though,  and western New York is engulfed in heaps of arctic snow, Adam shifts to his favorite winter athletic pastime – snowboarding.
Adam’s fondest life memories, though, are of spending time with his parents and brothers at the family’s cottage in the 1,000 Islands. When he meditates, Adam always goes to this cottage in his mind. –and this special meditation will undoubtedly come in as quite useful during the 26-hour flight he is about to take….in only two more days.

Meet the Travelers Part III: Breeanna

*This post was originally published on May 20th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

Giving massages is not a new idea for Breeanna Verna, a flaxen-haired and determined nineteen-year-old from Farmingville, New York in Long Island. “I remember when I was about six years old I went to visit my family in Spain, and I would massage my sisters and cousins for some Euro so I could buy some candy. For some reason, I always liked spas and loved giving massages.” By the time Bree was ten years old, she and her cousins would pretend they owned a massage business, and would give out “coupons” for their pretend business. As she grew up, Breeanna never lost sight of her passion for massage therapy and bodywork.

 

She describes her first experience starting the Massage Program at Finger Lakes Community College as being challenging in the beginning. Being only seventeen years old and fresh out of high school, she initially “came into the program feeling intimidated by some of the science classes, especially the Anatomy and Physiology classes.” To her amazement, however, she fell in love with the subject, and was especially surprised by how much she enjoyed learning the sciences. In fact, now she intends to take this path into science to a deeper level. This coming fall, Bree will be attending SUNY Oneonta to receive a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. She is considering taking her education even further to eventually receive a Master’s degree in the subject area as well. Her long-term dream is to own her own multi-faceted wellness center that would include nutrition counseling, a spa that offers massage therapy and various other body work modalities, and a fitness center.

 

Breeanna is far from being a novice in the area of health and fitness as well. She is currently a Certified Zumba Instructor and teaches classes at the Canandaigua YMCA. Additionally, she was also a competitive figure skater for over nine years, and endured many injuries in her young life practicing this art. “I’ve broken both legs before, and I have had many other injuries over the years. I still practice skating as a hobby, but gave up competing. I love teaching zumba because it uses some of the same skills, but feels more safe than figure skating.”

 

When asked what interested her in traveling to Thailand, Breeanna responded “studying Thai massage to learn new and different massage skills from another culture and bringing back these skills to market my business is appealing to me. The cultural enrichment experience is a big plus, too. I’m also excited to meet the Thai people and see how they live.”  Furthermore, she is also excited about the food. Bree loves to cook and is looking forward to trying various Thai cuisine and taking the cooking class at the Thai Farm Cooking School during her travels. She also has a great passion for fashion and shopping, and intends to delight in exploring Thailand’s huge open markets. Considering the number of retail opportunities and markets there are in Chiang Mai alone, I think Bree will not be shortchanged in this area! Traveling overseas is definitely not a new experience for her. Being born as the youngest of three children in a Spanish-Italian American family, Bree has made numerous trips to Europe during her life, especially to Spain, where she speaks the language fluently. However, this will be her first experience venturing into Asia.

 

After finishing her classes and studying, for exams, Breeanna can often be found practicing and teaching zumba, working out, or cooking delicious and exotic cuisine. She also has an eye for fashion and has taken classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology while in high school. Something tells me she will feel quite at home in the large metropolis of Bangkok, which will be our first stop in Thailand in just a few days.  She has lived quite a full and adventurous life during her nineteen years, and after traveling to Thailand, Breeanna will have yet another adventure to add to her list of accomplishments.

 

 

 

 

Meet the Travelers Part II: Chelsey

*This post was originally published on May 18th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

When the opportunity to travel to Thailand was first announced in the beginning of the spring semester, Chelsey Black was the first to respond. “If given the opportunity, I’d travel almost anywhere,” she said with enthusiasm and a glint of excitement in her eyes. Indeed it is exciting, as the time for departure is drawing near. The group will be taking flight to Thailand in only ten days.

Chelsey graduated from Finger Lakes Community College’s Therapeutic Massage and Integrated Health Care Program in the Spring 2010 semester. She currently is employed as a Licensed Massage Therapist at Massage Envy in Pittsford, New York, where she gives an average of about 20 massages per week, often receiving repeat clientele who enjoy her highly skilled bodywork. When she is not busy giving massages, Chelsey has also been attending FLCC to receive her second Associates degree in social sciences, and aspires to use the degree to transfer to a four-year college to receive her Bachelor’s degree in the future.

The health professions had been an interest of Chelsey’s for a few years before starting the massage program at FLCC.  She was introduced to massage therapy and wellness in a program called “New Visions” during high school, and felt confident that massage therapy would be the right field for her. “Once I started the program at FLCC, there was no doubt in my mind that it was the right choice” said Chelsey. Her love for the profession and dedication to her work also enabled Chelsey to complete the program in only three semesters instead of four. This was a very ambitious endeavor, which required her to carry a 20-credit hour load most semesters.  Her passion for learning has not subsided since graduating from the program, either. “I really loved learning shiatsu in the massage program, and I am very interested in learning Thai massage, too. I love to learn and would like to enhance my skills and continue my education in many new massage modalities.”

At twenty-one years of age, Thailand will be Chelsey’s first visit outside of the United States, excluding Canada (a country which is only about 120 miles from our Western New York home). Aside from her enthusiasm about learning Thailand’s traditional massage, Chelsey is also intrigued by the architecture and political history of Thailand. “I am curious about seeing the architecture of the temples, and also how the Thai culture has been affected by being the only Southeast Asian country that has never been colonized. I’m wondering how that has influenced things like the art and buildings in the country.” Clearly, Chelsey has been reading and researching much about the Thai culture prior to departure. She has been inspired in thinking about these topics in part from taking an Art history class recently. In addition to her enthusiasm for seeing the temples, Chelsey is also looking forward to tasting Thailand’s cuisine and visiting the elephants. She will also be joined on this trip by Kate Star and Kaitlyn Osburn, two of her closest friends from her graduating class in the massage program.

Aside from being a highly skilled body worker, Chelsey is also one of FLCC’s greatest “stars” of the college’s renowned Woodsman Team. She has won Most Valuable Player on the women’s team twice in the past two years, and also won first place in the honored Women’s Northeast Stihl Timber Sports Challenge. She attributes her interest in this sport to growing up with her father in the small town of Scio, New York. “My Dad is a logger, and I am the oldest of three girls. Since he had all girls, he took us out with him and put his girls to work.”

Chesley describes herself as being curious, hard-working, and states that she can be very “fiery,” but is also a big dreamer. “I love poetry, art, reading, and hiking out in nature.” Traveling to Thailand has been a dream for Chelsey for the past couple of years, and in just a few days, she will be experiencing this dream firsthand.

 

 

 

 

Meet the Travelers: Part I –Emily

*This post was originally published on May 13th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

“I have been obsessed with Eastern culture and philosophy for a long time. I think the best way to really understand a culture, though, is to be completely immersed in it,” Emily said thoughtfully in her soft-spoken voice, when asked why she chose to travel to Thailand to study Thai massage.

Emily Sokolowski is a 20-year-old sophomore who is currently in Finger Lakes Community College’s Therapeutic Massage and Integrated Health Care Program.  She will be graduating from the college in just a few days with an Associate in Applied Science Degree.

Although Emily had very little exposure to concepts such as massage therapy and natural health while growing up in the small city of Elmira, New York, by the time she was fourteen years old, she became deeply interested in these concepts. She attributes her exposure to these ideas to spending time with her cousins in Woodstock, New York during her teenaged years. “They were really into organic foods and herbs, and natural health is very prevalent in Woodstock in general.” said Emily. “From then on, I was really into organic things and nutrition.”

Emily started college at FLCC with the goal of transferring into a bachelor’s degree program in health and wellness. An Associate’s degree in Therapeutic Massage and Integrated Health Care seemed like a perfect fit for Emily, since she has a great love for learning science, and the massage program  teaches intensive courses in many of the human sciences such as Anatomy, Physiology, Pathology, and Myology.  A degree in Massage Therapy also will allow her to work as a Massage Therapist while continuing her education at a four-year college, and eventually will support her financially while receiving her Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine. She considers learning Thai massage to be a “big plus” to her career as well, not only because it will increase her offerings of modalities in her massage business, but also because of the philosophical concepts she will study that support Thai massage. “I was really into learning Shiatsu in the massage program because there is a whole Eastern philosophy behind the bodywork, and Thai massage will teach me even more about Eastern philosophy and therapies.”

Thailand will be Emily’s first visit to Asia, but it is not her first experience traveling outside of the United States. During her junior year in high school, she visited Costa Rica with her advanced Spanish class. Emily studied Spanish for over six years and aspires to become fluent in the language. Linguistics is another strong interest of hers. In fact, she has found a correlation between studying the sciences and studying foreign languages. “If you can break down a word into parts, you can understand its whole meaning. It’s the same way I learned pathologies in Medical Massage.”

In addition to being a full-time student at Finger Lakes Community College, Emily is also employed in the college’s “Project Success” program as a Student Aide and Teaching Assistant. The program offers support and assistance to first-generation college students and academically challenged students with financial needs.  In the fall, she will be attending Johnson State College in Northern Vermont to receive her Bachelor’s degree in Wellness and Alternative Medicine. Emily aspires to eventually move to Portland, Oregon to receive her Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine.

When Emily is not busy being a full-time student and working at the college, she loves to spend time outdoors in nature kayaking, fishing and camping. She also loves to explore medicinal herbs and make her own formulas for herbal teas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spirit Houses – A Refuge for Phi

*This post was originally published on May 6th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

As I have been busily preparing to depart for Thailand again in three weeks, I have been reflecting on some of the unique aspects of Thailand’s cultural rituals.  It is amazing how removed I have become from most of these practices after being home for only five months, considering how they were such a part of my daily existence while I was in Thailand.

 

One practice that I became accustomed to seeing was the placement of a spirit-house in the front of nearly every business and residence I passed. I encountered dozens of spirit-houses daily, whether I was passing a congested business district in Bangkok, or while wandering down a desolate rural dirt road in central Koh Samui. They were as common as seeing mailboxes in front of homes in the United States. It is a structure that can be seen all over Thailand, as well as in other Southeast Asian countries that hold beliefs in Animism and Theravada Buddhism such as Laos, Burma, and Cambodia.

 

Spirit-houses are structures that are typically made out of wood, and are crafted in the formation of miniature houses that are believed to serve as homes for spirits who have been disconnected from the spirit world. These spirits are called “phi” by the Thai people. Thais believe the phi may possibly have been displaced as a result of an unexpected, abrupt, or even violent death, which therefore left the spirit to continue to linger on the earth in search of a home. Common locations the phi are believed to dwell are in forests, secluded locations in nature, or around places of former residence or familiarity. Many of these spirits can easily become disrupted if an environment is altered or changed in some manner, such as when a tree is cut down for construction. Additionally, many Thais also believe the tree itself has a spirit, which is connected to Thailand’s ancient pre-Buddhist practice of Animism; the belief that every living aspect in nature is sacred. Animistic beliefs are still prevalent in Thailand today.

 

A Thai person will typically place a spirit-house in an auspicious location in front of or inside of a home or place of business to provide a refuge for the phi.  To keep peace with the phi, the owners will leave daily offerings of food, water, flowers, and other sacred objects near and around the entryway of the spirit-house. It is believed that these offerings will help them to maintain amicable relations with the phi and create a peaceful and auspicious home or business. Failure to acknowledge the phi by providing a spirit-house and giving offerings is thought to cause the phi to become angered and may therefore cause bad luck for the humans, perhaps in the formation of family or marital problems in a place of residence, or financial struggles at a business.

It is important to point out that the Thai people do not consider the phi to be deities, nor are the offerings intended to be a form of worship. The phi are considered to be neither inferior nor superior to humans, but rather are equals who need their own space to dwell in so they don’t wander freely throughout the human’s home or business.  The spirit-house also shows respect for the phi, who may have dwelled in the location first before the humans took over the space. It is considered a way of sharing a space between the living and the spirit world.

 

Some spirit-houses are adorned with an array of colors, flowers, and jewels, while others are very simple. Most will have small figures inside of them of people and animals, which are considered to be the caretakers, or guardians, of the spirit house in which they are placed. Some places will also have two spirit-houses placed side-by-side; one large, and one a smaller version. In this case, the smaller house is erected for the spirit of the place itself, or the “lord of the land,” and the larger house is a home for the gods of the heavens.

If you are interested in reading more about some of Thailand’s spiritual traditions, I recommend The Spiritual Healing Traditions of Thailand by C. Pierce Salguero.

 

I will be revisiting very soon to introduce the students who will be traveling to Thailand with me in my next entry. Stay tuned!

 

Thailand Reflections: Part III – My Fondest Memories

*This post was originally published on February 23rd, 2012

Two and a half months since my return to the United States, I finally am sharing my promised Part III of my Thailand reflections. Although time has passed, my favorite moments of my trip still remain freshly stamped in my mind. Some life experiences happen only once, and are completely unexpected or even unimaginable until experienced. Such is the case with these moments I share here, in no particular order of favoritism. Indeed, they are ones I shall never forget.

  1. Singing Simon and Garfunkel with a Taxi Driver in Bangkok:

My first introduction to Thailand was through a jolly, smiley Thai taxi driver man who appeared to be in his late 50’s or so. Although his English was a bit limited, his friendly nature made for easy communication, as we smiled and laughed at any misunderstood words or incorrect pronunciations. He was quick to share with me how he loves older American music, and proceeded to pop in a CD of Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits. Being that I am a huge fan of this duo, I remember thinking how perfect this was after being on a 30 hour flight. Then, the driver started singing, and he had a beautiful tenor voice. I joined in singing Garfunkel’s harmonies with him. We continued to sing every single song on the CD together during the 45 minute ride from Suvarnabhumi airport to my hotel in the Silom neighborhood of Bangkok. I barely noticed that I was surrounded in the 8-lane traffic of multi-passenger motor bikes and bright pink and yellow sedans.  I was too preoccupied with singing and laughing with my taxi driver. I had enjoyed it so much that I was sad for a moment when we arrived at my hotel, although the sadness soon dissipated when my head hit the pillow. Mr. Taxi Driver received a nice tip from me, though. This was definitely not an average taxi riding experience.

 

  1. Visiting a shaman in Chiang Mai

This is a moment I consider to be a true Thai cultural experience. On my final Friday night in Chiang Mai, I was invited by the school owner to attend “Buddha night” with the staff and several other students from the new branch of the Old Medicine Hospital (now called Thai Massage School). This entailed visiting the private home and temple of a female shaman who took on the identity of a spirit guide, and then led the attendees through a series of Buddhist chants and prayers, followed by individual healings and spiritual readings. Some of the local Thai people who were present took on the characteristics of cranes and other animals during the chanting. This ceremony was a representation of how most Thai people carry not only their Theravada Buddhist beliefs, but also the older practice of Animism, meaning that everything is believed to have a spirit, both before, during, and after the time of death. Some of the attendees were devout believers in these shamanistic practices, and others that came were a bit skeptical. Most of the visitors had an open mind and a willingness to partake in this cultural experience, even if it was perhaps vastly different than what is practiced in their home culture. Personally, I felt honored to be invited to attend this unique spiritual Thai ceremony.  Many western tourists never get to have such an opportunity.

 

  1.  Swimming in the Gulf of Thailand in south Koh Samui

 

I really did pinch myself a couple of times while I swam in the bath-like temperatures of the Gulf every day.  I was on the private beach of south Koh Samui at Samamhita Yoga Thailand, and I really had to convince myself that I was not dreaming. It was a profoundly euphoric experience. At times there was not another human in sight as I looked off at the endless sea surrounding me. As I now reflect on this memory though, sitting below the cold, grey, upstate New York winter sky, I do wonder if perhaps it was a dream after all.

 

  1. Hanging out with an Iranian woman in Bangkok

 

One evening while I was in Bangkok I grew restless and decided to venture solo to the crazy Potpong Night Market, which was just outside of my hotel. I came across a Thai cover band singing “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. Thai men with their long hair, glasses, and instruments sounded exactly like them, and when they saw me smiling, they gestured for me to come have a seat. I couldn’t resist. I had to stop for a while. A few moments later a young woman with long dark hair sat next to me. After about a half hour, it became apparent to me that she was there alone, just as I was. I decided to strike up a conversation. She was very friendly and fun. We ended up hanging out, talking, and dancing to cheesy cover tunes the rest of the night. She shared with me some of her life story – that she is from Iran, where, beneath her hijab, she never shows her face or body to the world, and lives in a society where women have limited career choices and are expected to find a husband and give birth, preferably to sons, who are considered far superior by Iranian law. Her opportunity to travel as she did, and reveal her face and dress up to go out was incredibly rare. Although I am aware of how different some women live in other parts of the world, meeting her and hearing her talk about her life was amazing. What was even more profound, however, was that two women from two very different worlds and limited tools of communication could have so much fun together and feel like they have always been friends.

 

 

  1. Attending the Loi Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai

 

On the first full moon of the 12th lunar month the Thai people celebrate one of their most beloved holidays, called Loi Krathong. During this time, tiny little floats made of banana leaves, incense, flowers, and candles are floated on Thailand’s rivers to give thanks for providing life, and to ask for forgiveness for human imperfections on the planet. The festival also includes the launching of illuminated lanterns into the sky. It is considered good luck to have the lantern lit by a monk, and is symbolic of letting go of things that are not necessary and sending prayers and wishes for the future.

I felt so fortunate to be a part of this Thai festival. My friends and I purchased homemade floats from the Thais and launched a lantern at a temple, and watched as our float joined hundreds of others. Later in the evening, the river was completely lit up with the little floats, and the sky was covered with hundreds of twinkling lights. The only challenging aspect was the sound of firecrackers that sparked and cracked continuously throughout the night. Sleeping is not the priority on the evening of Loi Krathong. For me, though, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to partake in such a festival. It was well worth the one night of sleep deprivation.

 

  1. The “milk and cookies” girls in Luang Prabang, Laos

 

As I strolled down lively Sisavangvong Road my first morning in Luang Prabang, I was approached by two girls who appeared to be about 10 or 11 years old or so. They spoke perfect “tourist” English. “Excuse me pretty miss, will you buy us cookies?” one of them asked. The other girl pointed to her head, stating that “cookies good for our growing brains, and we’re hungry.” I speculated that this may be a regular daily occurrence for these girls, – to approach tourists and ask them to buy cookies. So, I teased the girls a little, and told them that cookies have too much sugar and won’t make their brains grow. “Okay, then will you buy us milk?” one asked. Well, I couldn’t say no. They were just so cute and smiley. They led me to the closest little shopping stand (Laos doesn’t have grocery stores, or any franchises to my knowledge).  I bought them milk, and they skipped with excitement. When I took my stroll down the same road the following morning, the girls remembered me, of course, and asked me to buy them milk again. This continued to become my daily morning ritual during my stay in Luang Prabang. I’m sure to these girls I may have been just another easily manipulated tourist who would buy them things. They knew just the right words…calling me ‘pretty miss,’ etc., to win my heart. For me, however, this morning ritual was special. I just loved those silly girls. When I left Luang Prabang, something felt like it was missing from my morning without them.

 

  1. My long conversation with a young waiter in Chiang Rai

One evening, as I was on my way to the Chiang Rai night market, I stopped for dinner at a wood-fire grilled pizza restaurant and ordered a Thai green curry pizza. My dinner was delicious, and this was one of the few places in all of Thailand that I actually had a decent glass of wine (the beer is much better in Thailand).  My favorite part of dinner, though, was the young Thai waiter. Hmmm…well, perhaps that doesn’t sound quite right. Well, yes, I’ll admit, he was cute.  I much more enjoyed our conversation, though. Since the restaurant was slow and I was alone, we talked for quite a while. He shared with me that his biggest dream was to come to America, especially New York.  I tried to explain that Rochester is quite different than New York City, but I don’t think he quite understood. He knew so much about the city and the culture, though, and was familiar with the neighborhoods where Thai people dwell in the Big Apple, and he knew every university. He shared (modestly and with a blush) that he was a straight A student in high school.  Given his impressive use of the English language and his extensive knowledge of American culture and history, I was not surprised. He worked so hard to go to school in either America or England, which is very highly esteemed amongst the Thai people. Apparently, the best and highest-paying jobs in Thailand are given to those who have been college educated overseas. He shared how rarely college scholarships are given because the country only has funding for very few, and that most college students who go overseas have wealthy parents, mostly from the Bangkok area. His parents are merchants who own a small little shop in Chiang Rai. He has never been outside of northern Thailand, and having a job as a waiter at a restaurant that caters to foreigners is considered by the locals to be one of the best. Despite the fact that his dream of foreign education was not fulfilled, he was incredibly cheerful. He smiled, and kept asking me about various American slang terms, and he would then try to mimic an American accent or personality he saw on television. Indeed, he kept me laughing the entire conversation.

 

I never forgot how affected I was by this, though. It reminded me of an earlier conversation I had in Chiang Mai with a young woman who worked as a guest house clerk. When I told her I was leaving for Pai the following day, a town only three hours away, she told me she has always dreamed of going to Pai, but never had the money. My ticket to Pai was only about $10 USD, but for her, this was a huge amount of money to spend. I was profoundly aware of just how much many of us have in our country. A lifestyle that would be considered middle class by our standards is wealth beyond what most Thai people could ever imagine. Yet, the people seem so happy. Most are grateful for little things – a tip of 20 baht, a kind word, or a smile. This is a memory I try to always keep with me, no matter how difficult life can be at times, no matter now grey the upstate New York sky may become, and no matter how tight my budget may seem. I have so much. We have so many opportunities and choices. If I haven’t mentioned it already, this nine-week trip to Thailand was one of my fondest life memories I’ve ever had. As Rumi stated, travel really does bring power and love back into your life. It reminds us how big our planet is, gives us perspective, and allows us to break down the walls of confinement we build around ourselves that limit our capability to open to life’s possibilities. There are always new was to perceive the world. We have the choice to step outside of our self-imposed limitations. Sometimes we need to be reminded of this, though. Travel helps us to remember, if we give ourselves the chance.

Thailand Reflections, Part II: My Biggest Challenges

*This post was originally published on December 23rd, 2011

After sharing my “best of” Thailand list, I feel inclined to also share my biggest challenges, too. Although this list is considerably shorter than my previous one, traveling alone in a foreign country has its inevitable difficulties and annoyances at times. If greeted with humor, however, even these experiences can be remembered with great fondness. So, here are some highlights of my challenges:

Traffic and driving: Okay, well, this is likely no surprise that I listed this first, at least not to anyone who has traveled anywhere in Asia before. There is no denying that many Thai people are crazy drivers, and they will readily admit this with a smile. On my very first taxicab ride in Thailand, which was on my way from the impressive Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok to my hotel, I just stared out the window with a dropped jaw. What did I see? Well, what struck me first were all of the motorbikes. They are one of the primary forms of transportation in Thailand, and although road rules appear to be rather scant in general, they apparently do not apply to motorbikes at all. I watched as they weaved in and out of traffic, venturing on to the opposite side of the road to greet vehicles head-on, only to cut over to the far right hand lane on the other side. Or, perhaps the motorbike driver would decide to just drive on the sidewalk instead. I cannot count how many times I had to jump aside while walking on the sidewalks of Chiang Mai to avoid getting hit by a motorbike. What also struck me about the motorbikes were the passengers. I saw three, four, and once, even five passengers pile up on one motorbike without helmets. Aside from the crazy motorbike driving, there are taxicabs and tuk-tuks driving everywhere, beeping at “farang” in the event that one may need a ride. Also, it is important to be aware that pedestrians do not have the right of way in Thailand. They come in last place, behind bicycles. Basically, the larger the vehicle, the more seniority it has on the road. Crossing the street may feel like a suicide attempt, but never once did I see an accident. The easiest way to cross when new in Thailand is to find some Thai people and mimic whatever they do. I was amazed at how easily I crossed the Chiang Mai streets by the end of my travels. It does take practice, though.
2. Police Whistles: Well, I still haven’t quite figured this out. Whenever there is a situation that involves the need for a police officer, be it a large public event, or anything that involves cars and parking, the police officer blows on his or her whistle constantly –literally. For instance, if several cars need to depart from a parking area after an event, the police officer will blow on the whistle and motion for cars to stop and go. The whistling never stops, the entire time. Sometimes, it will go on for over an hour. Often, I would hear this while sitting in my guesthouse bedroom in Chiang Mai, and wonder, quite annoyed, how much longer I would have to hear the loud blow of the whistle. I can only imagine that it must have been exhausting for the police officer, too. Most people would likely faint at some point. One thing I realized during my last couple of weeks in Thailand was that I barely noticed the police whistles being blown anymore, though. I had assimilated to the sounds and rituals of the culture by then, and this was one of them.

3. Slowing down: Ultimately, this became one of the things I loved most about Thailand, but in the beginning it was difficult. Being a northeastern American, I tend to like to move quickly. Although I love to have my moments in life to meditate and dream, I also love to walk fast, whether I have a destination or not. Thai people, on the other hand, move slowly. The leisurely pace of the Thai people is much more prevalent in the North, but even in Bangkok, people were noticeably less hurried that what I am accustomed to. My first few days in Bangkok, I found myself frequently annoyed when I would get stuck walking behind a large group of Thai people because I had to slow my walking pace down considerably. I would plot avenues to pass them by, or move ahead of them before they could get in front of me. After a few days, however, I had to laugh and ask myself where I was in a hurry to go?… Sightseeing? To eat lunch? To wander and explore new neighborhoods? Hmmm…maybe slowing down wasn’t such a bad idea.

4. Pai at night: I mentioned this in an earlier post about Pai. So, here is this tranquil, picture-perfect dreamy little northern Thai mountain town…a quiet little getaway, right? Well, yes, until about 8:00pm at night, when the karaoke bars, reggae bars, and night clubs open their doors. When that happens, vibrations of tuneless karaoke versions of Wham songs (or maybe John Denver) soar across the Pai hills, reaching even the seemingly most remote little rustic bungalows. The night of the weeks does not seem to matter. I recall a Tuesday evening being the loudest of the week. Thursday night, however, was peaceful and quiet. There were some of those as well, and then, Pai really was a sanctuary. I fell in love with Pai by my fifth day or so…even with the bad karaoke. It really is lovely, and the desserts and chai lattes I enjoyed were my favorite in all of Thailand.

5. Stray dogs: This is something that I found to be sad and unfortunate, not annoying. There were stray dogs walking the streets almost everywhere I visited in Thailand, whether I was down in Koh Samui, in Chiang Mai, or up in Pai. Often, they were larger dogs, as the smaller ones seemed to more often be the domesticated pet of choice. It was clear to me that finding more support to care for these dogs is a need in Thailand, and there are some Thai people who are working very hard to build shelters for them. As of now, however, there is not much support from the government to help fund these shelters. I was struck by how kindly the Thai people treated the strays, though. I saw some leaving food out for them, and I never once saw anyone being cruel to them or abusing them in any way. Being a Buddhist culture, the Thai people place a high emphasis on karma, and taking care of and being kind to all living beings is considered an avenue to good karma and enlightenment. Many strays (cats as well as dogs) lived at the temples, where the monks would feed them and take care of them.

6. Remembering where to put the toilet paper: In most of Thailand, toilet paper should never be thrown in the toilet bowl. Rather, it should be put in the nearby wastebasket. This is customary, as throwing it in the toilet bowl will clog the septic systems. I most certainly respect this practice in Thailand. Unfortunately, though, due to the American habit of throwing it in the toilet bowl, there were many times I unintentionally violated this practice. Habits are really hard to break sometimes, and this one is often instinctual for me. By the time I got home, however, I found myself accidentally doing the opposite, and throwing the paper in the public garbage cans. I’m not quite sure how the American business owners felt about me doing this, however.

6. Language Barrier: This is a challenge that I consider to be one of the joys of foreign travel, even when it becomes difficult. Although it can be humbling, I feel it is good to be reminded that our planet is filled with many varied ways to speak and communicate. A country’s language is often intricately woven into so many of the culture’s customs, practices, and even personality. For instance, Thai is a tonal language, and it tends to sound (in my opinion) a bit “slow and flowing” in comparison to some other tonal languages I’ve heard, such as Chinese, which has a shorter, quicker, more abrupt sound to the unfamiliar ear. I would say these sounds describe the varying energies of these countries. – But, I digress a bit here. Back to the challenge of the language barrier:  my favorite was when I stayed at the Red Rose Hotel in Chiang Rai. As I’ve mentioned before, there was not a single person there who spoke English. This was cause for a few humorous moments. Simple things like asking for a new light bulb and ordering breakfast became a game, as the Thai person and I drew pictures back and forth as our means to communicate. When in doubt in Thailand, however, the best form of communication is always a smile. Thai people love to smile, and if you give one to them, you will inevitably receive some large grins in return. If there is anything that is a universal form of commuication, it is most certainly a smile, and the Land of Smiles is the perfect place to practice it.

Thailand Reflections, Part I: My “Best of” list

*This post was originally published on December 14th, 2011 on amywarcup.com

It is difficult to explain how I have felt upon return to the United States. There is this odd mix I feel of an almost painful nostalgia, confusion over time and space, and relief –that I am healthy, alive, and home in time for the American winter holiday, Christmas. Missing Thanksgiving was odd, but I’m certain being away for Christmas would have been much harder. So, I feel grateful for having this life experience of spending time in Thailand, and am thankful for all of the wonderful people in my life at home. Still, I feel changed forever. I may have left Thailand, but Thailand will never leave me. I excitedly await the opportunity to take students back with me in June, 2012.

Memories of my recent trip haunt me like a shadow. When I least expect it, I will relive an experience as if I’ve never come home. I’ve spent much time thinking about my favorite aspects of this beautiful culture, the biggest challenges I faced, and my fondest and most unforgettable moments. I will share these in three blog posts, beginning with Part I, My “best of” list:

Food: Chiang Mai.

Oh, the food was amazing everywhere. It is really difficult to pick just one location. If I must, I’d say my favorite restaurants were in Chiang Mai, but that may be in part because I was also there the longest. I strongly feel that one can find good food in Thailand just about anywhere, as long as you enjoy Thai food.

Massage: South Koh Samui.

I had numerous amazing massages everywhere that I visited in Thailand. The best one, though, was given to me by this petite middle-aged Thai woman in a simple little place in south Koh Samui.  I was at my yoga retreat at Samahita, which offered wonderful, but relatively pricey (for Thailand) treatments. Word got around, however, that there was this amazing little woman who gave massages only  about a 20 minute walk “up the street,” and, she charged only 200 baht for 90 minutes (about $7.60 USD). She definitely lived up to her reputation, in my opinion. Although she didn’t speak a word of English, she took one look at me, and knew exactly where my pain was, and her technique was slow and deep, and she used her handmade natural salves and pain relievers, too. ..Just heavenly.

Night Market: Luang Prabang, Laos

Although I loved the Sunday walking market in Chiang Mai and the Friday night market in Bo Phut, there is nothing quite like the nightly market on Sisavangvong Road in Luang Prabang. Just thinking of the handicrafts, food, and exotic clothes at this market makes me long to go back to Laos. Here, one can eat a full plate of delicious Laotian food for only 6,000 Kip, get a large mango or cappuccino muffin at the bakery for dessert along with a delightful cup of fresh ginger tea or rich coffee (or drink a Beer Laos),   purchase a gorgeous hand-woven comforter, find items to decorate the entire house, and find a gift to fit the variety of personalities of every friend back home. The lively bartering and friendly people make this market all the more appealing.

Temples: Tie: Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang

I just couldn’t pick just one place. Both cities have stunning temples, and one could easily spend a couple of days doing nothing other than visiting these lovely Buddhist havens. If you are lucky, as I was a couple of times, you may arrive when the monks are chanting in the temple. If this happens, be sure to stay and listen for a while. It is truly a hauntingly beautiful experience.

Place to Chill Out: Tie: Koh Samui and Pai

Another category in which I could not choose just one – it really depends on your personal preference. If you are looking for a laid-back earthy mountain experience with plenty of both Thai and farang artsy/hippie people, great little cafes and reggae music, plenty of art studios and handicraft shops, and a true nature/jungle experience, go to Pai. Don’t forget your insect repellant.

However, if you are interested in beaches, white sand, gulf water with almost bath-like temperatures, Thai/French-fusion restaurants, and plenty of honeymooning western tourists (unless you venture to the quiet south part of the island), then definitely consider visiting Koh Samui. Also, for scuba diving lovers, take a ferry boat out of BoPhut to nearby island, Koh Tao.

Thai dish: Khao Soy

This one is easy for me. I absolutely fell in love with this Northern/Burmese influenced Thai dish, which combines noodles, a thick, rich coconut curry sauce, exotic mushrooms, greens, and crispy noodles and cream sauce on top. It is typically made with chicken, but Chiang Mai has several restaurants that make this with tofu for vegetarians.

Coffee: Luang Prabang

Yes, I’ve raved about the coffee in Laos plenty. I’ve never had such an exquisite cup of coffee in my life as I had in Luang Prabang. I must give some credit to a place in Pai, however, called Art in Chai. Their coffee is easily nearly as amazing as it was in Laos.

Chai Tea: Art in Chai – Pai, Thailand

Speaking of Art in Chai, I had the most incredible cup of chai tea in my life at this cute little artsy bungalow café in Pai. If you are a chai tea lover and visit Pai, be sure to order a cup. It takes a little while for them to make it, since each cup is made fresh, but it will be well worth the wait.

Night life: Bangkok

Okay, well I must give this amazing metropolis credit. There really is no place else in the world like Bangkok. It is one of the most lively and even bizarre places I’ve ever visited. With the city’s modern rooftop clubs, nightly markets, blocks of restaurants featuring any type of international cuisine imaginable, and hundreds of massage centers and spas on every corner, you could easily keep yourself entertained until the morning hours.

Airline: Bangkok Airways

I flew with a total of six different airlines during this trip alone. Although I’m sure some travelers out there have much more experience with airlines than I do, I do feel my airline flying experience is pretty thorough. That being said, I have never been as impressed with an airline as I have with Bangkok Airways. On a 1-hour flight, they served an entire meal, along with a hot and cold beverage. Before departure, the airline had their own comfortable private lounge with a buffet of delicious free Thai food and free internet access. The plane itself was spotless, including the “hungnam” (restroom).

People watching: Bangkok

Within about ten minutes, one can see monks, call girls, lady boys, stray dogs, tourists of every age from practically every country around the planet, and sometimes even elephants in just one sitting.

Place to make friends: Chiang Mai

Well, of course, this is personal. I believe one can make new friends just about anywhere in Thailand. Most Thai people are generally kind everywhere. For me, I made the most friends in Chiang Mai, but I was also there for five weeks. My suggestion for making friends in Thailand, especially if traveling alone, is to take a class or workshop somewhere. Being at the Old Medicine Hospital for two and a half weeks certainly provided the opportunity to really get to know people, especially since we were learning Thai massage and partnering up with one another. I had a similar experience in my yoga retreats, both in Koh Samui and in Pai. Even the one day workshops can provide the opportunity to meet people. When I visited the Elephant Nature Park, there were two other women in my tour group that day that were traveling solo as well. The three of us hit it off, and I think we had the most fun in our group that day.

Favorite Hang Out: Utopia in Luang Prabang

This amazing bamboo-thatched emporium overlooks the Mekong River, and is the ultimate respite for doing nothing. My first visit here I was drawn to just lay on one of the cushions and just stare off into the Mekong and dream of lazy, sunny Laotian days. The restaurant, which is much more like a retreat center, not only has delicious Laotian food and delectable banana-coffee shakes, but also features live reggae music at night and yoga classes in the morning.

Most stunning sight: Wat Rong Khun aka “The White Temple” in Chiang Rai

The photos say it all. This was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was visiting a real castle. It looked just like a fairytale.

Hotel: Chiang Rai

Well, I loved my guest house that I lived in for a month in Chiang Mai. It felt like home. For pure unique novelty, however, I cannot resist giving the prize in this category to the Red Rose Hotel in Chiang Rai. After all, how often does one get the opportunity to sleep in a cartoony version of a UFO room? I also never slept so well in a hotel before. In fact, I may have slept too well. My first night there I forgot to set my alarm and slept for almost twelve hours.

Beverage: Fresh Coconut (with a straw)

Oh, how I love the delightfully sweet beverages in Thailand. There are literally street stands and cafes that sell fruit shakes and lassis everywhere, and they are amazing. The menus for fruit shakes are substantial, too – mango, papaya, pineapple, banana, fresh berries…the list goes on. Laos also had the most delectable Oreo/ banana/coffee shakes. Yes, you read that correctly.  My favorite drink of all, however, is the pure, simple coconut. Women on the streets would set up fruit stands with coconuts, and cut a hole in the top and place in a straw. After drinking the delicious juice, I enjoyed scooping out the coconut meat with a spoon. It almost felt like eating a meal. I must admit that I’m really missing my daily coconut.

Breakfast: Mink’s home cooked breakfasts at the Ing Doi House in Pai

Nobody can cook like Mink, the lady of the house at the Ing Doi House and Yawning Fields bungalows in Pai. Much like Lao Tzu said of the Tao, it just cannot be explained in words, but rather, it must be experienced directly by oneself. Her breakfasts are my favorite.

I could go on here, but I will limit my list, for now. In Part II of my reflections, I will share some of the biggest challenges and annoyances I faced in Thailand. However, even the greatest of challenges could never steer me away from visiting the Land of Smiles again.

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2 Responses to Thailand Reflections, Part I: My “Best of” list
Ali McGhee says:
December 14, 2011 at 5:51 am
This is a great post and something I will keep for if I (*when* I) go to Thailand! I’m totally stealing this idea for a post as well  Happy holidays!
Reply
Brenda Voorhees says:
December 17, 2011 at 8:14 pm
Amy,
Thank you so much for sharing these great stories…..this is the first time I have been able to catch up on your blogs,looking forward to more reading. Welcome Back!

Home

*This post was originally published on December 9th, 2011 on amywarcup.com

As I return to the states, I’m reflecting on the amazing opportunities I’ve had on this journey. I am so grateful to have had this experience, and as I await my return to Thailand with students next June, I will continue to be flooded with memories of the land of smiles. There is still so much to share…so many unexpected and new adventures that happened during my nine weeks that I have yet to write about. There is the day at the Elephant Nature Park, and my immersion into the world of Thai massage at the Old Medicine hospital, and the three days of celebrating Thailand’s most beloved holiday, the Lor Kathong festival. Also, there are Thailand’s cultural rituals, such as the placing of spirit houses outside of homes and businesses, and the immersion of animist beliefs into Theravada Buddhism practices. This blog will not end just because I’ve returned. It will be a continuum of discussions and sharing of Eastern ideas as I live in this western reality.

I awoke from my first sleep at home yesterday, and I did not recognize my own bedroom at first. I thought I was still in my guesthouse room at Mountain View in Chiang Mai. I boarded my fight from New York City to Rochester on my final flight home the day before when, unbeknownst to me, a box I was carrying accidentally bumped an American woman’s leg behind me.  She approached me, demanding an apology for hitting her with my box, which she informed was “larger than I think it is.” I stood there and just stared at her for a moment, completely dumbfounded.  Readjusting to such confrontation and to our much faster paced western lifestyle will take some time after being in a culture that is much more easy going and non-confrontational. I feel there is so much our cultures can learn from one another.

My jet lag is catching up to me. I may very well sleep for twelve hours or so. So, until I return next time with some of my fondest (and most interesting) stories of my travels, I wish you a peaceful night’s sleep. Lah gorn kah.

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One Response to Home
German Thai Massage Fan says:
February 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm
actually, i have seek for info about thai massage in german. but via the german page of the search engine which i am using, i received your page as a result – fortunately  thanks for the really great information about thai massage, especially easy to understand and to read. Best regards from germany.

Chiang Rai: The Modest Gateway to the Golden Triangle

*This post was originally published on December 2nd, 2011 on amywarcup.com

Four nights ago I arrived in the small city of Chiang Rai, which is located in Thailand’s northernmost Chiang Rai Province. The city is not far from the well-known Golden Triangle, which is the meeting point of the Thai, Laos, and Myanmar borders (separated by the Mekong River), and was once home to the world’s largest cultivation of opium. Chiang Rai is about 95 miles north of Chiang Mai and only 70 miles from the Myanmar border, and has a population of approximately 61,500 people (not including tourists).

The three-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai was the most pleasant one I’ve ever had. I rode on the “Green Bus,” which, for only a couple hundred baht included clean and very spacious reclining cushioned seats with a leg lift, air conditioning, and beverages and snack served (free of extra charge). I found myself thinking that Greyhound has quite a long road ahead to come close to this service.

My arrival to Chiang Rai was quite underwhelming, however. I had been told by several other travelers that Chiang Rai is unexciting and lacks the many attractions of Chiang Mai, and also pales in the aesthetic beauty of Pai. I prefer to experience a place firsthand, however, and judge for myself. Unfortunately, I must agree with the opinions of my vagabond friends. Chiang Rai has relatively few restaurants, cafes, and shops, and the night market is fun, but it does not stand out above any of the others I’ve visited. The Hill Tribe crafts sold there are very nice, though. Chiang Rai also is known for growing the best tea and coffee beans in Thailand, too. I have learned from my Thailand travels that tea is a relatively new part of Thai culture in general, and is mainly influenced by the large Chinese population in Thailand. Coffee is actually a larger industry in Thailand, although coffee production has grown in Thailand considerably because of Western tourism.

One of the more exciting aspects of my brief visit to Chiang Rai was the “amusement park hotel” I stayed in, called the Red Rose Hotel. Each of the eighteen rooms at the hotel has a different theme, including the Bakery room, Cartoon room, Telephone room, Thai boxing Room, and UFO room. I chose the UFO room.

Upon entering the windowless room, I almost felt as if I was in a cave. The bed looked like a spaceship, and everything was colored deep blue, dark purple, and black, with an array of planets and stars on the walls, and a ceiling that resembles the roof of the starship on Star wars. Even the furniture and television looked like parts of a spacecraft. This is by far the most outlandishly wacky hotel I’ve ever slept in. What I did not realize before my arrival, however, is that the hotel is about a half-hour walk from the small downtown area, and the rooms lack internet access. The entire staff that worked there barely spoke a word of English.  I was the only Western tourist in sight. My very limited Thai speaking skills were not very helpful, but drawing pictures worked quite well, which ended up being our primary method of communication. The staff seemed a bit perplexed by my two-dimensional drawing of my breakfast choice, though. They handed me rolls of toilet paper instead of giving me fried eggs.

I decided that to make my visit to Chiang Rai more worthwhile, I should definitely take trips outside of the main area of town. About eight miles south of Chiang Rai stands the magical Wat Rong Khun, or “White Temple.” This newer temple was just built between 1997 – 2008 by a Thai painter and architect named Chalermchai Kositpipat. From far away, the temple appears to be made of porcelain, but it is actually made of white glass and wood. The white color is intended to represent the Buddha’s purity, and the glass is symbolic of the Buddha’s wisdom shining brightly for the entire world to see. Being in the presence of this temple felt like stepping into a fairytale.

The following day, I booked a 1-day tour package to visit the Wat Jedi Luang, the Golden Triangle, take a river boat ride on the Mekong to see the Laos and Myanmar borders, visit Mae Sai, and end the day with a visit to a hill tribe community. This sounded like a packed itinerary for one day, but still, I looked forward to the adventure. When I was picked up at my hotel, I was surprised to learn that I would be the only tourist for the day. I felt fortunate to have a private driver and tour guide, since I usually am squished in a van filled with about fourteen people for such adventures.

 

 

The first stop of the morning was a visit to Wat Jedi Luang on the drive to the Golden Triangle. The wat is currently under construction after most of it was destroyed during the recent March 2011 earthquake in Myanmar. The inside of the temple remained unharmed, and is home to a pure bronze Buddha and several brass Buddha statues.

Next, the driver took my guide Kwan and I to a lookout point at the Golden Triangle. Geographically, the famous location is rather simple, with some rolling hills and the Mekong River closely separating Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. The entire Golden Triangle is about the size of the state of Nevada. I found myself initially wondering what all the hype around the “Golden Triangle” really entailed, other than the history of opium growing and the meeting of the three states, which is, in fact, rather interesting. It was also very peaceful there that day, as I definitely picked a low-tourist day to visit.

Later I was instructed to put on an oversized farang lifejacket before boarding a small river boat to get a closer look at the three bordering countries via the Mekong River. On the Laos border, there was a large casino built right on the Mekong, with a few hotels surrounding the building. The owners of this particular casino, as well as all of the surrounding businesses are Chinese people who rent the land from Laos. On the Thai border I viewed another newer and slightly smaller casino, which is Thai-owned but inspired by the Chinese. So, this is some of the hype for tourism to the triangle…a gambler’s paradise. My extent of gambling is generally limited to the New York State lottery take five game, though, so I chose to stay on our little boat on the Mekong and look at them from afar.

When the river boat tour concluded, my guide and I got back in the tour van for a 30 mile drive to Mae Sai, a Thai town of about 22,000 people that sits right on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. I was initially excited about visiting this city, imagining some exotic Burmese-inspired ethnic town. The real picture of Mae Sai consisted of dozens of market booths selling dollar-store style Thai, Burmese, and Chinese trinkets for tourists. There is also the bleak and littered bridge to Myanmar, which one can cross for 500 baht (about 16 US dollars) to get a Visa renewal. Being that I was just in Luang Prabang a couple of weeks ago, though, this was not necessary for me. Kwan informed me that most of the people who sign up for the particular day tour I was on do so primarily to renew their Visas. After learning this, I understood why my rather pricey day tour seemed a little uneventful compared to other tours I’ve taken.

Concluding what was seemingly a bit of a bland day tour was a visit to a small hill tribe village in the northern Thai countryside. This was definitely my favorite part of the day.

Hill tribes began their migration into Thailand over 100 years ago. A few are native to Thailand, but most tribes crossed the border from China, Tibet, and Myanmar (Burma). There are seven major tribes that dwell primarily in northern Thailand, consisting of the Karen, Lisu, Akha, Yao, Lahu, Lawa, and Hmong (Meo). Each tribe has its own customs, language, religious beliefs (most based on Animism), style of homes, art, and colorful traditional style of dress.  The primary profession of most of these tribes is farming and craft-making. Traditionally, the most commonly grown crop was opium, until it was banned by the Thai government in 1959. Now, rice and coffee are often being grown in what was once the largest home to this addictive flower. The Hill tribe people are typically some of the poorest in all of Thailand, often lacking most modern amenities, education and medical care. Many welcome foreign visitors into their villages as a means for selling their crafts to make money.

The tribe we visited are Akha people, who are the poorest of all the hill tribes. Akha people are originally from the Tibetan Plateau, and are known as being deeply shamanistic in their spiritual practices, and believe that humans are closely tied spiritually to the land. They also carry many superstitions which dominate some of the practices in their villages. One such superstition is that twins are believed to be evil. Any woman that gives birth to twins must move her family’s home to the lowest elevation of the hill in their community, so that the energy of the twins are below the others and cannot inflict negativity on the rest of the community. Similar practices also occur when babies are born with deformities. They have a fear of water as well, so hygiene is sometimes not practiced very actively. Some of the younger Akha people are converting to Christianity, however, and no longer wear the traditional dress of red and black cotton, beads and silver coins. The primary reason the youth no longer wear the traditional dress is because of the tribe’s poverty. It is cheaper for parents of youth to buy simple market clothes that were made in China than to gather the resources to make their elaborate traditional clothes. The mature generation still holds tightly to wearing their handmade clothes, however.

Upon arriving to the village, my guide and I were immediately greeted by two adult women (one older and in full traditional dress), and two girls, one of which appeared to be about five years old, but my guide informed me that she is really eight. Kwan knew all of the people in this tribe by name, and the girls speak Thai as well as their native Akha language. The older of the two young girls, who was a very small twelve year old, expected a van full of people to get off, and seemed disappointed by my solo tour. I promptly bought one of her handmade bracelets, though, and she changed her mind as she smiled and picked some flowers for me. After buying one of her bracelets, though, I realized then that proper protocol is to buy something from everyone present. The others started almost begging me to buy something they made. So…I also bought a bracelet from the smaller girl, and two handmade Akha dolls from the women. Later, I was approached by an older woman with beautifully stitched handmade pillow covers, and so, of course, I bought one of those, too. She smiled at me, and all of her teeth were gone and her gums were completely blackened. I thought she must be seventy or eighty years old, but she is only in her late fifties.

Akha people often build their homes directly on the ground with low-reaching thatched roofs.

My day concluded as I returned to my cosmic hotel room. I still had plenty of time to visit the Chiang Rai market before leaving the next morning for Chiang Mai…my home in Thailand, for just a few more days of my travels before returning to the United States.

 

 

One Response to Chiang Rai: The Modest Gateway to the Golden Triangle
Deb Simonson says:
December 2, 2011 at 8:33 pm
Amy,
I have learned so much by reading your blog. Thailand is truly a wonderfully adventurous place and you have really brought it to life through your writing. Your attention to all the details, both profound and silly, is a gift to all of us reading and learning from afar. Carry on my friend, and we will see you soon! Love, Deb