A Return to Thailand

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After a very long hiatus from my blog, I return again, this time anticipating a visit to paradisiacal Southeast Asia for another trip to Thailand. As with the 2012 visit, I will have six graduates from Finger Lakes Community College’s Therapeutic Massage and Integrated Health Care Program accompanying me on this adventure. We depart in less than two months.

This past winter has been a turbulent season of brutally chilling conditions, even for those of us used to a more hyperborean region. My black winter coat ended most days with an ashen layer of smutty salt from my car. Since my last post, I’ve experienced an unexpected family death and witnessed heartbreaking grief, learned of loved ones who have been diagnosed with chronic illnesses, and watched friends endure some up -heaving life changes. I admit, the Chinese year of the Water Snake was not one I was sad to see end. But, at the dawning of this 2014 Chinese Year of the Wood Horse, I look forward to predictions of adventure and fast victories. It is said to be a great year for travel – and the more off-beat and exotic, the better.  Although there may be places more uncommonly visited than Thailand, there are few I’ve been to that are more exotic. So, the Horse Year seems a suitable one for me to pack my bags again and embark on that twenty-eight hour flight to the Eastern hemisphere.

As I reflect on these past few months, I’ve strived to lighten my heavier than usual spirits by drawing on some of the Buddhist teachings I’ve gathered from various books and journals. I enjoy exploring these teachings as a path to learning what I can attain through these sometimes more painful life experiences. Perhaps things don’t really get solved, but rather, need to fall apart to allow room for what we don’t know. We can shut down and feel resentment, or we can breathe through the trembling quality that groundlessness brings, and remember that this isn’t the end of the story. We don’t know what is possible on this adventure. We can call it good or call it bad, but in reality, we really don’t know. We can retreat from the uncertainty and become crippled by it, or we can let in room for the unknown and experience the growth that the wisdom we may gain from our experiences can bring.

Truth be told, I consider myself a terrible Buddhist, and in fact, I don’t tend to label myself in a distinct category in general. I often fervidly hang on to things I love or that bring me comfort, …my favorite dish, a bookmark someone gave me fifteen years ago, the hand-made cards given to me by my second grade classmates when I had my tonsils removed, …my favorite chair. I recall words people have spoken to me, both kind and harsh, both recently and from long ago past. They stamp on my memory as if I could push a button and instantly replay the moment. And, like many of us humans, I wish to count on things in life as a means to fulfill my hunger for security. But, when things don’t always resolve as I expect, or when I’m reminded that things as we know them today don’t last forever in the same form, it is then that some of the most basic Buddhist foundations become my teachers.Buddha quote

The first noble truth in Buddhism teaches that suffering is inevitable in the human experience if we believe that things last forever and don’t change. Perhaps the contradiction in this, in part, is that it is in our human nature to become emotionally attached to things, or else this wouldn’t be such a challenging task to accomplish. Emotions often contradict reason. Yet, we can use this as a tool to step outside of our internal chaos and remember that when it feels like the rug has been pulled out and we have nowhere to land, that life, really, is always in transition. We can make the choice, if we want, to embrace life as a friend, even when it is uncomfortable and we want to run away. Every day we can choose to either open up or to shut down. Opening up will most often invite in possibility. Buddhism holds many teachings that I feel I have the most to learn from in my life to help me, both as a means to become a better person, and also to cope with the transient nature of life more peacefully. So, no matter how unevolved, from a Buddhist standpoint, that I may be in my actions, I still consider Buddhism to be one of my greatest allies in guiding me towards transformation.

This is one of the many reasons I enjoy visiting Thailand so much. Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist culture. Nearly 95% of its people are practicing Buddhist of the Theravada sect, which is the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism.  On nearly every street in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second oldest city, one will see ornamented yet simple Buddhist temples, called ‘wats.’  Monks stroll along the streets, or ‘sois,’ alongside pedestrians and merchants in their orange robes and sandals. The cultural attitude in Thailand is easy going and docile. One of the most commonly used phrases is ‘mai pen rai,’ which can be translated as meaning ‘no worries,’ ‘no problem,’ or ‘it’s okay.’ A deeper meaning of this phrase, however (as I’ve been told) is to let go, or let it be, and that in this way, everything will always be okay.  This saying represents so much of what being in Thailand means to me. When I’m in Thailand, I immediately feel more relaxed, I take life as it comes, and I fret about the future much less. I feel the peaceful energy of the Thai people around me. I slow down. I remember to breathe in the moment and appreciate life’s smallest of pleasures….flower offerings at temples, a smile from a stranger, or the delightful aroma of coconut and mango tingling my nostrils as I pass a fruit shake stand. I may end my day with a relaxing foot massage, or start my day with a walk to my favorite morning market for coffee and little Thai treats.  Yes…it’s been two years, but my memories of Thailand are never buried too deeply.

One of my favorite things, though, about going on these trips is witnessing others as they take in and transition to the charming and easy pace of the Thai lifestyle. Indeed, it is contagious. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will be posting here more frequently, and introduce our massage program graduates who will be accompanying me on this summer’s trip. Now that I have broken my long lapse from here, I hope you’ll come back and visit often. As I prepare for this journey East, I’ll be here writing, teaching classes, giving Thai massages, practicing yoga, and hanging out with my adorable cats, Rumi and Simone.

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Until next time,

La Gorn Kah (goodbye)

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Thai Institute of Healing Arts: “Little Thailand” in the USA

“Sab-bay Sat-ta Sukhitaa Hontu” – Or, “May all beings be Happy.”

These were the final words that we chanted every morning as we began our day with our morning Wai Khru at the Thai Institute of Healing Arts. “Wai Khru” means “Respect for the Teacher.” In Thailand, this morning chant or prayer is often performed daily in schools as a ritual to pay respect and homage to the student’s teachers as a method of offering gratitude for sharing their knowledge and wisdom.

This past week, I returned to the Thai Institute of Healing Arts to intern an Intermediate Thai Massage course as part of the school’s Thai Massage Teacher Training Program.  Although I have visited this eminent school for Traditional Thai medicine in the past, it has been over a year since I have attended a class. Having been nostalgic for Thailand ever since I’ve returned to the states several months ago, being in this space felt delightfully familiar. As I passed by the spirit house at the school’s entryway, the aromas of tamarind and turmeric filled my nostrils, and the faces of the Jivaka and Buddha statues appeared to humbly acknowledge my presence. The warm greetings and hugs from familiar friends of my previous classes reminded me why I keep returning to this special place, even if circumstances have kept us departed for many months.

The Thai Institute of Healing Arts was founded by David Roylance in 2003. David’s Thai massage practice began in 2003 in the humble abode of his living room in Ashburn, Virginia. Since it’s beginnings, the school has flourished to an alluring and sizable space in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia.

 

In this space, David has overseen thousands of students learn the art of Traditional Thai Massage and Traditional Thai Medicine. His teachers include several doctors of traditional Thai medicine, master teachers of traditional Thai massage and Thai herbal medicine, Thai folk medicine doctors, and master Thai Theravada Buddhist monks. Authentic Thai massage is steeped in Thai Buddhist teachings and traditional Thai Animist rituals. David is committed to teaching Thai massage authentically by weaving in Thai cultural rituals, the history of Thai medicine, and Buddhist practices into each lesson that he introduces in his school. He has personally visited over 150 Theravada Buddhist temples in both Thailand and the United States, and his knowledge of Buddhist rituals is intricately interlaced in all of the classes taught at the school.

David is also joined at the school by his wife, Sararut (“Sara”) Roylance.  Sara is a Senior Instructor at the Thai Institute, and is also the Director of Charitable Projects and the Director of Therapeutics at the school. She has over 3,000 hours of extensive training in traditional Thai healing, and is currently a Traditional Thai Doctoral Candidate (Mo Boran) and a Doctor of Massage (Mo Nuat) in Thailand. Her training began informally with her mother at the young age of nine in her remote home village, Udonthani. In her later teen years she continued to study Thai massage in a village outside of the northern Thai city, Chiang Mai, and included extensive study of Thai herbal medicine into her practice. She went on to study with numerous Thai masters of traditional medicine and Thai massage. Her studies have also included training in midwifery and post -natal care. The extensive contributions Sara offers in her teachings at the school give students the opportunity to have a deeply genuine Thai experience.

One of the primary goals of the institute is to honor the gift the Thai people have given to the west through their healing arts by teaching them as it is practiced traditionally in Thailand.  Many western massage modalities focus exclusively on knowledge of the physical body as a mechanical mechanism for practicing body work. Thai massage, however, is based not only on the physiology of the human body, but also on the subtle flow of energy in the body (called “lom”), and the practice of loving-kindness from the heart, known by the Thais as “metta.” Thailand is also a Theravada Buddhist country, and the philosophical and spiritual beliefs of the culture profoundly affect the practice of Thai bodywork and medicine. Additionally, the culture has many practices rooted in Animism, and students are educated about these customs as well.

So… How is a Thai massage given?

 

Traditionally, a client receives a session on a futon mat on the floor and remains fully clothed in loose, flexible clothing. Oils are not typically used, although some forms of massage include herbal compresses and herbal salves.  A Thai massage session (Nuad Phaen Boran) includes deep pressure point work, energy channel (sen line) work, massage, and deep stretches that resemble many that are practiced in yoga. The client remains relaxed and passive throughout most of the session, and the results often include a deep state of relaxation, increased flexibility and mobility in the joints and connective tissue in the body, and a heightened state of mind-body connection. If you have never tried one, I highly recommend broadening your bodywork experience to try one. For me, it is the most opening and liberating form of bodywork I’ve ever experienced.

 

 

 

 

 

Words do not provide enough credence to describe the commendable experience I had in last week’s Intermediate course. The experience is much like the Dao (a Chinese concept, yes, but it seems fitting here). It cannot be described through words, but rather, must be directly experienced. However, I will attempt to construe a briefing of the class.

Our class consisted of eighteen students, our teacher David, and a Teaching Assistant, David Nix. We were also honored to receive some teachings from Sararut in the latter portion of the course.  As an intermediate level class, the focus was placed on breaking out of the basic Thai massage routine to learn techniques with the client placed in side lying position, advanced Thai massage stretches (and they were indeed very big, opening stretches!), back walking techniques,  practitioner self care techniques known as Leusii Dat Ton (therapeutic Thai stretching), and Thai herbal compress massage (Luk Pra Kop). Students in class consisted of people from various backgrounds and professions, ranging from massage therapists and acupuncturists to those with professional corporate backgrounds who felt led to different path to study Thai massage.

 

 

Needless to say, we had a great deal of fun absorbing the knowledge David, David, and Sara shared with us. The day we practiced back-walking was an especially convivial class, in my opinion, although every moment was valuable and special. We used walkers to learn this method, which was a new practice for me. My classmate Beth was a very amenable guinea pig that day.

…And so was Jeff. I think Sandra really helped alleviate some of the knots in his back from giving Thai massages himself all day.

Oh…and remember Katie Star from our Thailand trip last June? Well, she was in the class with me as well. She even had an opportunity to practice some of her new Thai stretches on Khru David. I found her in the moment here:

Perhaps the greatest part of the class for me was having the opportunity to reconnect with my past classmates from two years ago, and also meet so many new Thai practitioners. Eighteen is a larger number than the typical Thai massages I’ve taken in the past. We only spent five days together (and very full days, I may add), but by the end of the week, I felt like I was in a room of familiar friends.

The Wai Khru and the ritualistic closing ceremony at the end with our teacher David rounded the experience to a rich and fruitful completion.

This is far from the end for me. As a Teacher Trainee, I will be revisiting the Thai Institute many times to take more internships, exams, and partake in assistant teaching. I will also be attending the school’s Thai Massage Community Gathering in August as well. I have a feeling I will be reuniting with many of those from my recent class then. I hope to see you there, too. The Thai Massage Gathering is free and open to the public, so perhaps you may join us!

Oh…and the other reason why I will never really be at an end is because I will always need more practice, and people to practice on. I didn’t think I’d be purchasing a walker already at this stage in my life, but I cannot think of a better reason (health-wise) to need one. I also never thought I’d be so excited to start using one. I plan to get many years of use out of the one I buy.

So, until next time, Saw-a-dee-kah, my friends!

For more information about the Thai Institute of Healing Arts, visit:

www.thai-institute.com

To book a Thai massage appointment with Amy (in the Rochester, New York area) visit:

www.handsthathealmassageandwellness.com

Or e-mail Amy at amywarcup@yahoo.com, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook for more blog updates

 

Reflecting on past years: My Previous Travels

 

As we begin 2013, I have found my spirit creeping into a melancholy place.  Amongst many things, I realize that it has been almost seven months since I’ve traveled overseas.  Perhaps I should attribute my gypsy spirit to my Hungarian ancestry. – Or, maybe the frosty guise of the earth in Western New York’s wintry spell, exposed beneath a lid of bleak grey sky, has led me to a despondent state. Winter is a time of hibernation and rest, which gives way for self-reflection and contemplation. This is a subtle gift of sorts.  If approached with perspicacity, it can open one to growth in previously unforeseeable ways, as the chill of winter inevitably transforms into the newness of spring.

Gratefulness has always been a powerful concept for me.  My emotions have never been shielded beneath a very thick barrier. When feelings are present, be it anger, hurt, joy, or any number of fleeting thoughts, my eyes will almost immediately disclose them, and my urge is to express them, even though I often cannot, nor, perhaps, should I.  Gratefulness is what grounds me most during these moments. It reminds me that the simple joys of being alive, such as my health, my loyal and beautiful friends, and the experiences I’ve been bestowed with in my life are gifts. Gratefulness takes my focus away from my yearnings, my perception of life’s losses and what is lacking, and shifts my awareness to a place of abundance and contentment. This may only last a few moments. I may need to remind myself to revisit this place often, but every moment of peace creates a glimpse of a potential opportunity, so, I frequent there whenever I can.

In celebration of the New Year, I have unearthed some of my old photos from my previous travels, which I share here with you.  Indeed, I have had some amazing life experiences, and there are bound to be many, many more to come. Perhaps next time, I will even see you somewhere along my journey.

2004 – I traveled to Lhasa, Tibet, Chengdu, China, and Qing Chen Shan, China. This trip was planned through Rebecca Kali, a Qigong Master and owner of the Dao of Well-Being. I will never forget the magical Tibetan landscape, or the smiling faces of the people. Although eight years ago feels like a lifetime, almost, I recall these moments as if I was just there. Rebecca creates the opportunity for people to visit this exotic, and not often traveled to place. For more information about Rebecca’s amazing journeys, visit her website at: www.dao-of-well-being.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2006 – During this year, I took a group of Massage students and graduates from FLCC’s Therapeutic massage program to Hangzhou, China to study TuiNa massage in a hospital environment. We also traveled to Beijing to visit the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and we spent a couple of days in the majestic Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan).  I traveled to these same locations in 2005 with one of my then graduate professors, Darlene Easton, and a group of her Acupuncture students from New York Chiropractic College. Most of these photos are from the 2006 trip that I took with my massage students and graduates:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2011-2012 – Of course, I’ve shared many photos of my visit to perhaps my favorite destination of all: Thailand. One place I visited last June that I did not mention, however, is a beautiful resort northwest of Chiang Mai in a town named Maerwin. The name of this destination spa is Panviman Chiang Mai Resort, and it is absolutely breathtaking. I traveled here with the group of FLCC graduates who were in Thailand with me in 2012. The owner/administrator of the SVG Thai Massage Training Center, Parawat Poungpiam, designed this breathtaking resort. If you have the amazing opportunity to visit Thailand, I highly recommend taking the trip north to experience this place. For more information, visit the website at www.panviman.com.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Their Own Words: Chelsey, Kate, and Emily

*This post was originally published on August 4th, 2012

Upon our return home, I asked the travelers if they would like to share some of their reflections of their experiences in Thailand. The following are commentaries from Chelsey, Kate, and Emily.

Chelsey:

My fondest memories are hard to say. Honestly, every moment of the trip was so positive and memorable. I’ll fondly remember the sense of adventure and lack of planning required of me to have an amazing day there.

The biggest challenge was saying good-bye! I thought it was rather easy to be there. Also, finding that there is a limitation to the degree of spicy-ness I can handle.

I will remember most the power of a smile, putting others first and not sweating the small stuff.

There didn’t seem to be a whole slew of rules and regulations there, but the Thai people didn’t live in chaotic, crime ridden streets from what I could see. The perfect metaphor of their culture is the traffic and driving there! There seemed to not be any rules or heavy law enforcement, and yet there were few accidents. They always seemed to be conscious of others, regardless of the seemingly dangerous traffic, from a New Yorker’s view.  It had reiterated my belief that in order to have a safer, more orderly culture we as people must take it upon ourselves to be law abiding citizens and respect others out of principal instead of force. We should not expect the government, religions and laws to force us to be good people.

Kate:

My fondest memories of visiting Thailand were eating the delicious food we made under the supervision of our wonderful teacher, Thurian, dancing until 3am in Bangkok, and  enjoying days spent with our teachers, Rose and Paul, during our Thai Massage classes. I also remember fondly spending time with the gentle and beautiful rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, having the honor of experiencing a day with Mr. PP and Nuy at the magnificent Panviman Resort Spa, and looking out at the Bangkok city lights on top of a 7 floor building with my friend Tay.

 

My Biggest challenges were traveling for 26 hours, and working hard for my two Thai Massage exams after being sick and missing two full days of classes.

 

I remember most the watermelon and cantaloupe smoothies, which were so delicious! I recall the peacefulness, friendliness and positive attitudes of the Thai people, and the amazing markets every night, …the hot weather!

How did Thailand changed me/my worldview?

I appreciate other cultures and what they have to offer even more so than before. Overall I have returned feeling centered and balanced. I am more patient with myself, others and my thoughts. I am humbled, while caring less for material objects and more for the relationships I share.

 

Emily:

Humans, on an individual level, have always captured my interests… from the science and mysteries behind every little cell and how they all function, to the personalities, the mind, the soul, the emotions, the energy vibrations and the “I” of each human being. Now, placing all of these important yet complex parts that create a single individual alongside of other human individuals overwhelms me with interest. This interest, with the beautiful individuals and absolutely amazing relationships between them, is where my fondest memories have stemmed from while living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Before this trip, I really had not known any of my companions very well. But as one of my professors,  Dr. Miller, once told me, “The best way to get to know someone is by traveling across the country with them.” Being that this trip was not just across the country but on the other side of the world, I made some of the strongest connections that I have ever made throughout my life thus far. I got to know so much more about the group, which instantly created a bond. For example, I found out that the avid baseball player, Adam, loves orchestral performances and theatre. Although, being across the world and rooming with someone brings even closer bonds, to the point when walking in on my roommate dancing to Latino music in just her Sublime t-shirt and underwear didn’t take me by surprise.

We were a diverse group, all having different backgrounds, some of us raised in the city and others in the smallest of towns. We all had different expectations, goals and reasons for why we were really attending this trip. But all of us, aside from Amy, shared one common situation: traveling to Thailand for the very first time. This is where I not only experienced great memories, but also my biggest challenges.

At the beginning of the trip we attempted to stay together as a group while we roamed the streets and markets of Bangkok and took luxury Mercedes vans to tourist attractions outside of the city of Chiang Mai. As the days were sluggishly sinking into memories, we slowly began to distinguish interests and what we each wanted to do while we were not in class. While shopping at the markets, I would become antsy if I was with another person. I could not seem to stick with a person or group because I always had my mind set on two things, finding the stand with the freshest fruit shakes and a stand that sold ukuleles. I always told whomever I was with that I was going to run ahead to explore the stands and that they could find me when they heard the sweet sounds of a ukulele. But the markets were busy and in the back of my mind I knew that I wasn’t going to see my partner(s) for the rest of the night. Though not admitting it, I was excited by this.

Soon, there came a point in the trip when I was very frustrated with others and their interests or lack of interests. I was becoming uneasy with the fact that I hadn’t felt like I was really experiencing the culture of the Land of Smiles. I realized that I was creating a scapegoat on the others for my uneasiness. I knew this was wrong. I stepped back and just realized again why I love humans; because of our individualities and how we all are complex, different and wonderful in our own ways. I knew I could not hold in such frustration nor can I put it on anyone else. So one night, I left the hotel by myself and just walked, without a map, without a plan, without many baht and with an empty stomach. This night, this walk away from the frustrations and fears that were holding me back, turned into the most significant night I experienced on this trip.

 

I walked on main streets and side streets and streets that weren’t streets to find some food. I found plenty of food but I kept searching for something more. I finally encountered a fruit shake stand and a charcoal grill with meat cooking. It was late, there were a handful of people that looked my age, and without hesitation I stopped I smiled and said, “tao rai kaa” and pointed to the grill. They didn’t understand. I wasn’t speaking confidently because I couldn’t remember if what I said meant, “How much?” After some more gesticulating and vocal attempts, another man my age came out, got by with some English and I finally understood that the meat being grilled wasn’t for sale, but I was more than welcome to sit down and eat with them. The moment I sat down and purchased a shake and took a bite of the unknown slab of meat, from these unknown people, sitting on the side of an unknown street, allowed me to digest the fact that I had overcome my personal fear of the unknown. From then on the night became a charade of getting to know each other, with cheers and extreme enthusiasm about taking turns on Youtube playing an array of music. This is the night I have remembered the most.

 

I made a handful of friends and memories that night and we continued to make plans to spend more time together during the weekend. The person explaining these plans is named Faq. “Like frequently asked questions,” he would say. Faq spoke English better than I did. He is majoring in tourism and hotel management at Chiang Mai University and has started his own school for teaching English to the Thai people. Faq told me that we would meet in the same spot on Friday night at 9pm. This moment became the first of the few precious moments I received from Faq. I asked him how we will get there, by taxi or by motorbike, and if there would be extra room if I wanted to bring a friend from my group? Faq simply responded along the lines of not to worry, Friday is when we will know. What he said was so simplistic and profound to me. It made me aware of the fact that the smallest things in the future that I am concerned about do not really matter. At this point, I realized that in my life I have a conditioned response to make sure everything is to be understood or clear. I realized that my western ways kept me from feeling the now… be-ing in the now. It happened two more times where I have shown concern or held on and both times, while talking to Faq, he would casually speak words that really helped me experience how wonderful it is to be aware yet detached and truly live in the moment. During these moments I felt like the crown of my head opened and all of the distractions, thoughts, worries and fears from anything and everything in my mind floated away, and everything that I perceived became vivid and outstanding. From then on, my view of the world has changed.

 

“So when you want to become something more than you are, different from what you are, or higher than where you think you are, all that means is that you haven’t discovered where you are, and you are under the illusion that there is somewhere else that you ought to be besides here.”

In Light of Coming Home: Post-Thailand Blues and my Remedies

*This post was originally published on July 16th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

After twenty-six nights, 55 hours of flights and layovers (collectively), about twenty Thai foot massages, and at least fifteen Khao Sois, it hit me….a condition rarely spoken about in depth, but one that is very real: Post-Travel Depression (PTD). Yes, it really does have a formal medical name. I’ve traveled many times in my life to dozens of cities and towns (although I have so many more to explore), but none have left me feeling quite the nostalgia that Chiang Mai has.  Perhaps I should call my condition Post-Thailand Depression.  I could even still call it PTD, although I must admit that this abbreviation insinuates, when spoken aloud, a far more morbid image of disease than simply feeling the blues after an exhilarating world travel experience.

As I awoke my first morning in my bed at home, I wondered for a moment where my mango, dragon fruit and papaya fruit bowl was, realizing that the best solution in that moment was to drive to my local Wegman’s grocery store to make this tropical breakfast myself.  As each piece of mango lavishly delighted my palate, I thought in my self-pity how I was just sitting at my simple glass kitchen table in my relatively uneventful hometown of Rochester, New York.  Gone were the twenty blocks of market stands selling jasmine flowers for offerings, or  hill tribe purses, or obscene t-shirts diagraming Bangkok’s “Ping-Pong show” with the grossly misspelled word “poossee” written beneath it.  All of those fleeting conversations with bizarre strangers, such as the woman from Castile who replaced her hair with peacock feathers, or the ragged charlatan who “owns ten successful software businesses worldwide,” but needed  thirty baht for a taxi because  he forgot his wallet in his guest house…all of those encounters were gone. No more were the dozens of smiling Thai eyes that greeted me daily with an exuberant “tuk-tuk, madame?” …And where were the street vendors selling Pad Thai and fruit shakes? Why couldn’t I walk out my door and walk up the street for a six-dollar massage and pedicure? Why, when I went to the grocery store, wasn’t everyone smiling back at me and saying hello when I looked into their eyes, smiled, and nodded? Rather, people either looked away, or glared briefly with a look that may have said “I don’t know you, you freak.”

Well, perhaps my interpretation was in part because of my 102 (F) degree fever, my jet-lag, and the aggravating charley-horse I had in my left leg. These conditions do not typically invite the most optimistic view of understanding human behavior. Another realization I came upon was that although old friends provide the comforts of familiarity, they did not experience the metamorphosis that had recently occurred in my life. “You’ve just had this amazing life opportunity,” they may say. “What do you have to be depressed about?”  Well, what some may not understand is that the sadness that follows such an amazing life happening does not translate to a lack of gratefulness. Certainly, I have felt gratitude beyond measure after visiting Thailand. Never before have I been so aware of the favorable circumstances in my life that have allowed me such freedom to take this journey.  Nonetheless, the feelings of letting go, of even some mind remorse, remained. So, to cope, I experimented with techniques in my life that helped relieve my post-travel melancholy, and these were some things that helped me move through my blues:

  1. Write it down:  One of the assignments I required of my students during our recent travels was to keep a dated daily journal. My limitations in the assignment were few. I did not care so much how long each entry was written, or how personal they chose to be in sharing; only that they took time to ponder on what they were absorbing in their experiences and that they write it down. The primary purpose of the assignment was not for me or their grades, but rather, for them, so that they have a documentation of their memoirs that they may refer to in the future, or perhaps stumble upon twenty years from now to re-live their experiences. What I realized, however, was that I forgot to do the same for myself. Oh, sure…I often took notes for blog post ideas, or wrote down details of the history of certain temples so I could share this knowledge with the college administration upon my return, but I was not writing my personal experiences. I did not give myself a place to reflect on how I felt as I lived these moments from day to day. – But, writing after returning, I decided, was still not too late. So, I pulled out a blank journal my sister had given me as a gift a couple of years ago, and started writing. Taking what I was feeling out of my mind and onto paper created a tremendous feeling of relief within me. It was almost as if I had taken my heavy backpack off forever to run free of the burden. I could see my experiences from a third-person perspective without fear of judgments or over-analyzing my emotions. They were just there, and nobody else needed to see them but me.  – But, they were mine…my life and reality; something I may choose to reflect upon one day as I reminisce of my past. Thoughts and emotions are powerful, but they are also fleeting from moment to moment. Writing them down is like taking a photograph of a personal experience that is harbored in the mind.

  1. Find the Culture at Home:  This option may vary depending on where one lives, of course. Discovering aspect of Thai culture may be easier to discover in New York City or San Francisco than in Lost Creek, West Virginia. Still, even in my relatively smaller city of Rochester, New York, there are some Thai restaurants, places that practice Buddhism (although not Theravada, typically), and there is a little shop up the street from me that is owned by a Thai woman who sells imported goods and jewelry from Thailand. There was great comfort in knowing that I could drive less than ten miles to eat a spicy green curry, or order mango with coconut milk and sticky rice to bring home. Sure, it isn’t the same as walking out the door and finding a mango fruit stand outside of my guesthouse. I knew eventually I’d need to curtail this addiction if I wanted to save money for future travels, but the comfort of eating Thai food those first few days made my cultural transition much smoother. A nice, chilled bottle of Singha didn’t hurt, either. So…what to do if you live in a town that is even smaller and may not have Thai restaurants? I suggest taking a recipe book and trying your hand at making some of these delicious meals yourself. It may be time consuming at first, but once you know a recipe, it will be significantly faster and easier.  This needn’t be just for Thailand withdrawal, either. Every culture has something unique that may be recreated at home.

Talk to Strangers: Of course, some discretion should always be used with this suggestion. After all, Mom and Rick Springfield didn’t grill this advice into our heads without reason. One aspect of traveling that really has struck me, however, is the realization of just how many more strangers I do talk to when I’m not at home. This is especially true when I’ve traveled solo. There is often less fear, somehow. Nobody knows me, the chances of us having some awkward mutual acquaintance, or the risk that the person may have heard of some unsubstantiated gossip about me is almost non-existent. Still, I thought, why is it that we don’t take risks and talk to new people more often? This is especially true for those who live in northeastern United States, like I do. In light of this thought, I strolled up a quaint city street in Rochester one balmy summer afternoon, intending to take food “to go” from one of my favorite sushi restaurants. Instead, however, I decided to dine at a table alone, as I unabashedly did so many times in Chiang Mai.  A nearby woman and I struck up a most engaging conversation about cultural differences, spiritual perspectives, and career changes. On the day that followed, I visited a local gardening shop to purchase day lilies, and talked to a woman about the therapeutic aspects of planting and working with the earth. Perhaps these conversations weren’t quite the same as the ones I had with the fifty year old New Zealander who once lived with aborigine tribes and motor biked across Europe and Asia, but they were still meaningful. They were also conversations I may have never had on an ordinary day if I had not been in my post-Thailand state of withdrawal.

 

  1. Talk to New People About the Experience:  This coincides well with the previous suggestion. I am not insinuating that we shouldn’t talk to our friends about our travels. It is a given that we will share with them, especially the more personal stories. Giving presentations, however, and engaging in discussions with new people that are interested in world travel and culture may give way for a more captive and engaged audience, because they are there to learn about your experience. It also allows you, as the traveler, the opportunity to re-live the journey. When I returned from Thailand last fall, I gave a presentation at FLCC, the community college where I teach. The event was open to the community as well as the college body. A group of retired women came together for a “ladies afternoon” to hear my presentation, since they all shared an interest in travel and culture. They were attentive during the presentation, and afterward asked me several intelligent and thoughtful questions about cultural barriers and differences in world perspectives as a result of varying belief systems. There are only a miniscule number of things that engage my intellect more than these discussions. I realized that sharing with others about our travels is not really just about telling others of our personal experiences. It is an opportunity to seek connection with others and understand the world beyond the confines of our cultural limitations.
  2. Break Away From a Routine..Even Just a Little: When I was in Thailand, I experienced something new daily, even when I had a full-day scheduled of Thai massage training. It may have just been walking down a new Soi (small road) in the morning, or eating a strange piece of cake that looked like a dish sponge and tasted like roses, or trying on a pair of Thai style pants that tie differently than anything I’ve ever worn in America. All of these little novelties stimulate the mind and the senses with the excitement of newness. Coming home to a mundane and familiar routine can be difficult afterward. Even tiny changes, however, can bring back just a trace moving away from feeling as if in a rut. Typically, most mornings, I immediately pour myself a cup of coffee and take a shower. Some mornings, I may do a short yoga practice. I decided to change this routine one morning by taking a walk instead (well…I did still drink my coffee first), and then drove to a local park to meditate in nature for a short bit. Instead of going to my usual yoga classes, I decided to try a few new ones with unfamiliar teachers. I’ve been exploring the possibilities of starting a new hobby. One that has particularly piqued my interest recently is learning how to do Ariel silk dancing. Perhaps one of the Cirque de So Leil dancers can teach me this art.

Ask almost anybody who has traveled extensively. In most cases, unless it was a particularly unpleasant experience, they will tell you that coming home was a bit challenging. Many may speak of having had some degree of PTD. In time, however, we assimilate to our homes again. Humans have an amazing ability of resiliency and adaptability if we are open to change, but bringing back pieces of the culture with us, and integrating it into our lives, make the transitions much easier. It can also create positive changes in who we are and how we choose to lives our daily lives, forever.

Elephant Nature Park

*This post was originally published on June 13th on amywarcup.com

There are certain activities one must never miss out on when visiting Thailand. These include shopping at the night markets, getting inexpensive and skilled Thai massages and spa treatments, visiting the ornate and exotic Buddhist temples, and of course, seeing elephants.

Several options are offered in Chiang Mai to spend time with these magnificent creatures, which have long been considered a symbol for good fortune in Thailand, dating back many years to ancient Siam. Dramatic shows of elephants drawing art with their trunks, performing circus tricks, and throwing and catching balls exist. Hundreds of organizations offer elephant rides through the jungle or even in the cities. There are secrets, however, to the traditions that are performed by villagers and mahouts (meaning elephant owners/trainers) that are not made public to most tourists, or even to many Thai people.

It has been a long tradition in many villages for mahouts and elephant trainers to partake in an elephant torture tradition called “The Breaking of the Spirit.”   True to its name, this “ritual” is usually inflicted on baby and young elephants, where they are tortured for days and sometimes even weeks as a means to domesticate these naturally wild animals. Young elephants are commonly forced in confined pens made of wood that are too small for the animal to fit. Once locked in the pen, the elephant is chained and beaten for several consecutive days with large objects and sharp instruments that often stab and severely wound them. Sometimes their feet, eyes and ears are violently punctured, while several of the villagers gang up at once to scream at and beat the helpless baby elephants. Young boys in the villages are often initiated to participate as well, being raised in an environment where this is a regular occurrence. Historically, most of these elephants were later either used as logging workers or for entertainment for tourists. Since logging has been banned in Thailand in 1989, however, most are used in tourism. This brutal ritual of beatings is very common amongst many rural villages in all geographic locations Thailand. Many domesticated elephants that were once used for logging have also been abandoned, leaving them starving, homeless, and unable to adjust to surviving in nature.

There is an option to visiting elephant circus shows and taking rides, however that does not support elephant abuse; the Elephant Nature Park. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused, abandoned, and rescued elephants. The park is located about forty-two miles north of Chiang Mai, providing a scenic, natural, and safe environment for the elephants.  Each elephant at the park has its own personal mahout that is trained to love and care for it humanely.

ENP was established in 1990 by a woman named Sangduen Chailert, nicknamed “Lek.” Lek was born in a remote hill tribe community in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Her grandfather, who was a tribal man, taught her much about the wonders of nature, including elephants. While growing up, her family cared for an elephant and she developed a close bond with the animal. Living in the tribal north of Thailand, she was also exposed to some of the harsh realities of how some other people mistreated their elephants. Lek Chailert made it her life’s mission to care for abused and abandoned elephants.

Most of the elephants at ENP were rescued from areas deep in the jungle. At the park, each elephant’s story is offered so visitors can learn about the elephants who reside there…stories of forced drug addiction by owners to make elephants work around the clock, or some who has survived weeks of starvation alone in the jungle, or of baby elephants that were forcibly separated from their mothers too early. Seeing these elephants roam freely in this northern river valley, however, and appearing so vibrant and healthy, is profoundly uplifting.

Visitors can come to the park for a full day, a week, or several weeks to volunteer at the park and contribute to the elephant’s caretaking. Longer-term volunteers can also learn about elephant conservation projects, herbal medicine, and become a full-time caretaker for an elephant.

Our group came to the park for a day. Our guide, Andy, introduced us to several elephants, and we had the opportunity to feed them, hug them, and later in the afternoon, cool off in the river to bathe them. Currently, the park has 35 elephants that dwell in it as their residence. We also viewed a documentary about the park’s history and some of the realities that many of the elephants survived prior to living at ENP.

Additionally, the ENP also serves as a rescue site for stray dogs and other animals, such as goats. Dozens of friendly rescued dogs meander around the park in search of a starch on the head or table scraps after lunch. For animal lovers, visiting the ENP is a must while visiting Chiang Mai. Clearly, as you can see, we are a group of fervent animal lovers.

 

Chiang Mai – Home in Thailand

*This post was originally published on June 8th, 2012 on amywarcup.com

Three nights in Bangkok passes quickly, but for some, it is just about enough before the crowded streets, sewage odor, and constant, around-the-clock sounds of traffic and club music wears thin. That is when it is time to venture north, where the pace of living is slow and easy, the people are friendly, and faces on the street become familiar after just a few days.

After traveling more than half way around earth just a few days ago, our one-hour flight to the northwest Thai city of Chiang Mai felt like a walk up the street. Everything is different about Chiang Mai, in my opinion, compared to Bangkok. Oh…don’t get me wrong. I have a certain fondness and appreciation for the bizarreness of Thailand’s capital, but Chiang Mai, well…it feels like home to me. It was only six months ago that I left Thailand’s second-largest city, when I staying there for more than five weeks. Bringing six students to this place brought on a mix of elation and anxiety for me. I couldn’t wait to return to these familiar streets where I could eat some Kao Soi, see the smiling faces at the Thai massage school, and have the opportunity to bring people I know with me to experience these, too. On the other hand, I had moments of concern…Would they like it? Would they feel at home here, as I did? After all, this will be our residence for most of our stay on the trip. We will be here for eighteen days. For someone who has never been to Asia before, this may be a long time.

If the greeting at the airport sets the feeling for everyone’s stay, though, I feel quite confident that even the most homesick of the group grow to enjoy Chiang Mai. Typically, our group would be picked up by a driver sent by the hotel. When we arrived in the Chiang Mai airport, however (which is about a thirtieth of the size of Suvarnabhumi airport), we were greeted by the owner of the Thai Massage School Shivagakomarpaj, Mr. Parawat Poungpiam (nicknamed “Mr. PP”), his wife, his administrative assistant, Nuy, and teacher Rose. All of them smiled, took our luggage from our hands, and introduced themselves. I was struck with awe and amazement, as I was not expecting to be greeted by everyone at the school –especially the owner! In his hands, Mr. PP held of bundle of strings of jasmine flowers.  He placed one around my neck, saying “welcome to Chiang Mai,” as his wife took a photo. He proceeded to place flowers around each traveler –Emily, Chelsey, Bree, Katelyn, Adam, and Kate, and welcomed them as well. After this benevolent introduction, I feel confident everyone will be comfortable here.

Our two and a half week place of residence is at the Baan Thai Resort, just a few miles from the airport, and directly across the street from the Thai massage training center. What sets this hotel apart from so many others is the beauty of the building itself, which is made of 100% pure teakwood, with intricately hand-crafted doors and chairs. From the outside, the place looks quite stunning. Thai gardens and a delightfully inviting pool (especially in the 96 degree weather) surround the traditional Lanna-style northern Thai building. The rooms, however, are a bit simple, with plain wooden walls, a simple thin mattress on the bed, and a shower head and toilet in the bathroom. Once settled in the room, though, I find it has everything I need for a comfortable stay, including plenty of company if I get lonely. Ants greet me at the bathroom sink every morning, geckos look down from the ceiling with wondering eyes, and a bat, which I haven’t quite seen yet, sings me a screechy soprano lullaby at night. Although I was a bit leery of this company at first, we seem to be sharing the space in harmony just fine so far. As for the rest of the group – some have air-conditioners that work better, some have windows and some don’t, but everyone has a bed, toilet, and hot (or at least luke-warm) water. Swimming at the pool is a treat for most of us, too. Everyone took a break that first day to indulge in the pool.

That evening, we all ate together at one of my Chiang Mai favorites, the Blue Diamond, and devoured Thai fruit, noodles, spring rolls, and shots of wheat grass.

I ordered my favorite, of course – Kao Soi. We’ve been separated for six months, after all.

Tomorrow evening we will attend a Buddhist ceremony at Srisupan temple, and Sunday we will partake in an all-day cooking class. Until then, I will be sleeping next to my gecko pals and dreaming of fruit shakes, mangoes and sticky rice in my teakwood little room.

 

 

 

Old Town in the New City

*This post was originally published on October 25th, 2011 on amywarcup.com

After two days of being in Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai, I am experiencing a true taste of the authentic culture and history of this lovely country. Chiang Mai means “New City,” and it is located in the foothills of northern Thailand. The feeling of this city is a drastic contrast to Thailand’s most populous Bangkok. Chiang Mai’s current population lingers around 174,000 people (unlike the near 12 million in Bangkok). Of course, this number does not take into account the estimated two million tourists that meander around the city each year. Even the tourists seem different here, though, giving off a much more “earthy” and laid-back vibe. Overall, my observation during my two days here is that Chiang Mai is a slower-paced city in general. People take their time walking, eating, bringing the bill to the table at the end of a meal, etc. This was definitely not my experience in Bangkok, although I’ve developed a certain fondness for the raw brazenness and energy of Bangkok.

If Bangkok is the most exciting place I’ve visited on this journey so far, and Koh Samui the most scenically beautiful, then Chiang Mai wins for being the most culturally enriching. There is a tremendously broad array of activities one can partake in while visiting this relatively small city. For a spiritual journey, one can spend days visiting Buddhist Wats (temples.) There are 300 temples in Chiang Mai. For the food lover, there are literally dozens of cooking schools one may attend, ranging from one-day courses to week long intensives and more. Elephant and Tiger sanctuaries exist both within the city limits and in the surrounding areas, and luxurious spas, wellness centers and Thai massage abound here. Markets are scattered in every corner for shopping, and the textiles and artwork here is the best I’ve seen since my arrival. Experienced Thailand tourists that I’ve met in Bangkok and Samui cautioned me to wait until visiting Chiang Mai before buying too many gifts, and I’m glad I listened. Hillside tribe handicrafts, bead work, soap carvings, and celadon ceramics are everywhere, and I’ve only begun to explore the city.

 

My stay in Chiang Mai will span a month. My primary goal is to attend the Shivagakormapaj School of Traditional Thai Massage, known as the “Old Medicine Hospital.” I will start classes this Saturday, and will continue with classes daily for the following two and a half weeks. Thai Foot Massage will be my first course, followed by classes in traditional Thai massage techniques. I will also be meeting with administrators at the school to organize the student Thai massage travel course, which is being planned for next summer.

I must admit that it was challenging to pull away from the breathtakingly magnificent beaches and inspiring conversations at Samahita Yoga Thailand in south Samui. People from around the globe seek refuge in this glorious gem. One of my favorite aspects, as I’ve mentioned previously, was talking to the people there. We had an opportunity to break away from the retreat center grounds on our final night to converse informally.

I am making good use of my time this week in Chiang Mai. Choosing the right guesthouse for the student trip next summer is a priority to me, and I’ve spent the past few days visiting a total of 16 guesthouses to date. I am currently staying in the simple but quaint Mountain View Guesthouse, which is located in the north end of “old town.” Though it is lovely here, it is far away from the Old Medicine Hospital, so I am exploring options. Far is relative, however. It only takes about a half hour to reach the south end of town on foot, and tuk-tuks and taxis are everywhere. The task of looking at guest houses has been more difficult than expected, though. Finding that perfect balance between economical and comfortable is a challenge.  Four and five star hotels here can be just as expensive as fancy hotels in the states cost, and offer more amenities than necessary. One could easily stay in Chiang Mai on 10 dollars a night, too, but this will likely mean staying in a next-to-bare un-air-conditioned room without hot water, that may not lock well and possibly even have dirty sheets, as I’ve seen in some. As the cliché states, sometimes you do get what you pay for. The search will likely continue for the duration of my stay.

Tomorrow, however, I shall break from my search to attend an all-day cooking course at the Thai Farm Cooking School. This school is located on a farm in Chiang Mai’s countryside, and includes a tour of their garden to pick the herbal ingredients for the dishes.  So, food shall be the topic of my next post. I recommend ordering take-out from your favorite local Thai restaurant to enjoy while reading. Otherwise, expect to be ravenous afterward.