Sunday, May 31, 2009

Off to Chiang Mai

Thailand, Day II
jeez we're traveling a lot

We flew up from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, today. Thais like to think of Chiang Mai as the quaint cultural center of Thailand, though apparently it's a more modern metropolitan city than they give it credit for. It is still famous for its great traditional Thai crafts, hopefully I'll be able to head into the city tomorrow afternoon.

The training center is actually situated in a smaller town by the name of Dai Saket (Dai is Thai for mountain) about a half hour away. The area is a big valley, flanked by 6000' mountains covered in dense rainforest, way up in the north of Thailand. We'll be going even farther north next week, up into the jungle by Chiang Rai, on the border with Laos.

The center is actually a christian mission.

I'm glad to get away from the touristyness that is Bangkok. I think it definitely damages some of the cultural attraction. Even from the little I've seen so far the people up here are more like they are "supposed to be" in Thailand: irrepressibly friendly, smiling and welcoming.

A few cultural notes I've been wanting to make:

I see more Thai flags and flags of the King than there are US flags back home. Thais are apparently very patriotic.

Thais have a very strict hierarchy in their relationships. The elderly get a great deal of respect, monks get the most.

Depending upon the hierarchical difference between you and the person you're greeting, your wai changes heights. When greeting a monk Thais will hold their hands up by their forhead and bow low, whereas when greeting younger people they will hold it down by their chest. At first I thought this kindof ran against the whole Buddhist equanimity thing. It seems to work out ok though because they always show so much respect both upward and downward.

I see a whole lot of Johnny Walker ads over here, it makes me wonder about the fifth precept a little.

I start teaching my civil engineering (building bridges with k'nex ;-)) course tomorrow afternoon. We already introduced ourselves at a meeting in the chapel this evening. I'm a little nervous about getting useful information through to my students about a subject I'm barely familiar with myself through a translator in a language I don't know. It's not even Thai. The people we're teaching here are from the northern Lahu hill tribe and speak their own language. The students here are 17 - 30 something, but most of them seem to be about our age, 18-20. Nevertheless we are apparently worthy of great respect. Since we're Americans, teachers, and in the military we get a really high wai when they decide to do it (the wai is a Thai and not a Lahu custom, so they only do it sometimes).

The Lahu tribe is some 74,000 strong in Thailand according to Lonely Planet. They're mostly animist by religion, but a lot of the tribes up here have been converted by christian missionaries (one of which helped standardize a system of writing for the Lahu less than 50 years ago). That is what it is I suppose. Most of them are refugees from Burma where they are often persecuted, and over here it's very difficult for them to gain their citizenship. They live mostly through small-scale agriculture, though the opium trade is still a problem in some parts of rural Thailand. I don't know if the Lahu take part or not. I'll write a lot more about them later on when we actually go up and visit their villages.

That's all for tonight. On a final note, dinner tonight was traditional Thai at a little shack restaurant overlooking a lake nearby. It took a little courage on my part, but it ended up tasting pretty good. Here's a picture:

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thailand, Day I

sa wat dii khrap friends!

We departed for our 25 hours of travel Wednesday morning, and arrived Friday night. The flight to Tokyo from JFK was relaxing, almost enjoyable since we all managed to get upgraded to business class. I watched a couple of great movies and spent a while practicing some vipassana techniques I learned from Gil Fronsdal’s podcasts on the drive down to West Point. I had a near-epiphany moment on that drive, a couple things he said helped me gain a much deeper understanding of the whole practice of mindfulness meditation.

Flying into Tokyo was an experience. We had to fill out a quarantine form, confirming that we didn’t have [animal type here] Flu. The number of people wearing face-masks was a little unnerving, but Doctor Weg seemed to think we probably weren’t going to die. A bunch of inspectors had to come through the plane before we could get off though.

The Engrish to be found over here is hysterical. That quarantine form had a footnote that claimed: “this for protection to you and a family.” And prominently displayed in the terminal of the Tokyo airport was a tech firm ad touting their research of “electronics insurating matierials.” The Engrish jokes went on for the rest of the day.

We got into Bangkok near midnight and went out to find a metered taxi, which involved dodging through a crowd of non-metered taxi and tuk-tuk (Thai rickshaw) drivers who also wanted our business. I immediately noticed the difference in attitudes from my previous experience in India. The Indian cab drivers were prone to grabbing and raised voices to get your attention while their Thai counterparts spoke quietly, bowed, and held smiles on their faces. It’s more pleasant, but also makes it a little harder to have to say mai chai (no) over and over again.

I used the cab ride to the hotel to try out some Thai (MAJ Sowers taught me well). I attempted sa wat dii khrap (hello), sa bai dii reu (how are you), khun cheu a-rai (what’s your name), phom cheu Kris (my name is), maa jaak nai (where are you from), and kawp khun khrap (thank you), and met with mixed success. I had to say most of them repeatedly because my pronunciation was apparently abysmal. This language is hard.

We spent most of Saturday hitting the tourist sites around Bangkok. This city is interesting. I was a little surprised at how clean and organized it is. From what LTC Chapman had told us I was almost expecting something along the lines of Delhi, a hot busy mess of humanity, stray animals and trash. It turns out there is some of that, but Bangkok is as a whole a lot cleaner and more civilized. I suspect it’s largely because we’ve stuck to the touristy areas so far though.

The view from our hotel says volumes. You can see big shiny new high-rise buildings dropped sporadically in the middle of slums.

The Wats (temples) are fascinating. We hit three of them: Wat Phra Kaeo (The Grand Palace), Wat Pho (The Reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun. The palace and temple complex at Wat Phra Kaeo is huge. It contains the Emerald Buddha, a 75 cm tall Buddha statue carved from a single piece of jade that’s apparently been shuffled around the various dynasties in Southeast Asia for over 600 years now. The symbols and art in these Wats are a jumble of gods, demons and stories from Buddhism, Hinduism, and ancient China. The Thai people apparently still revere many of the Hindu gods. My limited reading on Theravada Buddhism had led me to believe that it was more or less ‘pure’ Buddhism, devoid of a lot of the extra dogma that Tibetan Buddhism, for example, is full of. I seem to be wrong about that. Thailand is VERY Buddhist though. 95% of the population is Theravada. Buddha statues hold the most prominent spots in every hotel and business.

It’s apparently illegal to export Buddha statues without a special license, which is very disappointing. I would have liked to bring a few more back with me.

Tonight’s dinner will go down as one of the most bizarre I’ve ever experienced. We were supposed to meet with an old West Point grad, class of ’58 who is now a special advisor to the King. Instead we also met a classmate of his, both of their wives, a third graduate whose year I didn’t catch, and two ’95 grads, now majors in the Thai army. Slowly, over the course of the dinner, we found out that the general’s classmate was the retired minister of defense. His wife, who I was talking to most of the evening had been a senator, president of their committee on education. She incidentally insisted that I, my family, and my fellow cadets were all welcome to visit her on her island home anytime we pleased. We then learned that the third old-grad was the retired “supreme commander” of the Thai military forces (the chief of staff), and had led all of UN security forces in East Timor.

So a casual dinner with an old grad turned into a party with half of the Thai government. We all made sure our wai's (hands held up like in prayer accompanied with a bow) were extra deep when they left.

Tomorrow we fly up to Chiang Mai, where we will be teaching for the next week.