Friday, February 27, 2009

Reality bites.

Our section on the Thai economy this week included a showing of Behind the Smile, a documentary describing working conditions in factories and at construction sites near Bangkok. Thirty years ago, more than 70% of Thai people were farmers, but things have changed since the country's recent industrial revolution. While farming is still a way of life for many Thais, some villagers are forced to take jobs in urban areas if they fall into debt (a reality for many these days because of modern farming techniques). The film showed the construction site of a high-rise luxury hotel where workers live on site in camps built by the company. The housing consists of one 4 meter by 4 meter room for each family, no clean drinking water, and little security. The workers are never quite sure that they will be paid on time and are given no safety equipment for their jobs-- no hardhats, nothing to protect the lungs from particulate matter, no protective gear of any kind. Most people in the camps intend to stay until they save enough money to return to the village. Recently, however, the influx of Burmese refugees has created an underclass of migrant workers who take these jobs.

What struck me the most when watching the film was that I see this situation every day on my walk home from the bus stop. As I round the last curve on my street, there is a walled area with a cleaners' shop and the bare bones of a building under construction. During my first week I noticed a couple of small, raised bamboo platforms huddled against one of the walls of the compound covered in torn blue tarps. I initially assumed that they were makeshift sheds for the workers' tools, but it soon became clear that 5 or 6 men were actually living in these shelters (each one maybe 10 by 10 feet). Within a week, women joined them-- wives, I assume-- and the area has slowly come to resemble more of a home. A fire pit was added outside the shacks and then a table lashed together from bamboo poles appeared. Today a bamboo clothes line went up. Now, when I walk by around 6p.m. there are about twelve people-- the men washing up with pak-kauw-mas wrapped around their waists and the women squatting around the fire to cook. My host mom confirmed that they are Burmese immigrants.

Walking by in my University student uniform is difficult. Only about 10% of Thai people go to college, and the uniform is usually a source of pride for those lucky enough to wear it. For me, though, as the heads of the construction workers and their wives turn to watch me walk by, it seems a cruel display of power and priviledge. I haven't quite come to terms with living so comfortably literally a stones throw from their poverty. Do they discuss that discrepancy amongst themselves, I wonder?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Strangling Fig

See that tree being slowly strangled by that other tree? This is how my brain felt today after learning the rules for tone markers in Thai class.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Welcome to the Future!

In Thailand it is currently the year 2552. The western calendar is based on the life of Jesus Christ, but the Thai calendar is based on the life of Buddha. Ben asked Ajaan Danai whether that makes farang centenarians in Thai years, at which there was laughter. Age is super important in Thai social hierarchy, and it is acceptable to refer to people simply as Pi (older) or Nong (younger) rather than by their name. In this culture, a person's relationship to you is more important than an individual name. If we were over 500 years old in Thai years, would that imply that we could technically refer to Ajaan Danai as Nong?

When speaking Thai language, ending consonants are not stressed. Today while learning the Thai pronunciation of "Bangkok," I had this feeling that the ending was melting on my tongue as if I were eating a wafer with an initial strong flavor and then a sudden evaporation. Pronounced in Thai, the name of the country's capital sounds more like behn kah. It turns out that Bangkok is really the name of the district, and the short name of the capital city is Grung Teb (the long name is ridiculously long... it may one of the longest place names in the world), which means City of Angels. Bangkok is still considered the mecca of ethnic Thai culture, though cities like Chiang Mai are rapidly growing and building cultural reputations of their own.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Thai countryside has really great roads, which is not surprising because northern Thailand has been in a development boom for the past eight years and infrastructure like roads is #1 on the region's to-do list. According to my instructors, in 2000 few of the suburbs and none of the highways in Chiang Mai existed. This seems strange to a visitor today because on the surface it all seems so profuse and established. That there was nothing but rice paddies near the ISDSI office several years ago is difficult to imagine. Now, the office is located on a busy superhighway near the center of town.

We took these really great roads to the Huey Tueng Tao Reservoir for a swim assessment and the start to our weekend retreat. One of our instructors calls it the "murky hole," but we jumped in anyway (squeamishly) to swim a few hundred meters and tread water for 15 minutes. After we all successfully completed the assessment and spent a blissful hour hijacking paddle boards from each other, lunch was served on raised bamboo platforms where you sit cross-legged and barefoot. The first dish was dancing shrimp, called that because they are alive when eaten! I let them jump around in my mouth before chomping down, just to get spooked. They were surprisingly sweet and in some tasty sauce. There was much screaming from several girls because the shrimp had an unnerving habit of making strong, desperate twitches in an attempt to flee their certain doom. Evidently the shrimp would rather die on the bamboo mats than between the molars of an anxious student. We also ate a fish, eyeballs and all, that was placed on the table still simmering in a spicy soup. The other dishes were crispy fried shrimp, pan-fried pork with roasted garlic and spices, and the northern Thai delicacy papaya salad (shredded green papaya, coconut milk, crushed chilli pepper, lime, tomato, and some other stuff). These dishes were eaten with regular white rice or northern Thai sticky rice, which is rolled into little balls with the right hand and dipped into the communal dishes shared in the middle of the table. Sticky rice is considered less classy than non-glutinous white rice, but I think it is tastier... and finger food is almost always more fun to eat!

Our next destination was Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, so we piled back in the vans and were on our way. We moved into the bunkhouses in mid-afternoon and spent some time exploring the stream that separated the kitchen pavillion from the bunkhouses. I was sitting on a nice round boulder writing in my journal when I saw Jeremy jump up from his perch further down the stream and announce that he might be sitting near a nest of bees. "Oh no," he said, "now I have a bee in my pocket!" We all laughed as he danced around on a rock in the middle of the stream, shook his pants leg, and whimpered. Quite entertaining. We took a brief trip to Mok Fah waterfall, about a seven minute walk from our camp. After seeing how incredibly awesome it was, most of us agreed to spend the whole next afternoon playing in it. That night we went through a training on risk management and decision making to prepare us for the expedition courses later in the semester. A bonfire topped it all off. Here's what I wrote in my journal after coming in for the night: "Those of us that stayed longest at the campfire just straggled in. I spread the coals in the fire pit and just stood watching it twinkle in the settling darkness (one of my favorite things in life is to watch those coals twinkle and glow!). This was after a night of other favorite things-- stargazing, a campfire, singing, and laughing/talking with really great people. I was grinning uncontrollably most of the time."

The hardest thing about being on retreat was forgetting that I was in Thailand and should maintain the same level of cultural sensitivity that I do with my host family. We were pretty much sequestered away among Americans (except for our Thai instructors) for the weekend and it seemed gruelling to keep up that heightened sense of self-awareness and the new habits I've learned in order to show my respect for Thai people and their culture. Shamefully, I made no attempt this weekend to practice the language or even consider whether my actions were offensive. I was frustrated because I will never become an "insider," no matter how much I immerse myself in the culture. I had to forcibly remind myself that I am not here to become an insider, but rather to develop an understanding (albeit brief and introductory) of Thai society and some of the environmental problems people are facing-- most of which are global problems that affect me as well.

Just as we had decided, on the second day all 17 of us spent the afternoon at the waterfall. After a morning session about safety/first aid, we donned our rash guards and board shorts and headed over to Mok Fah Falls. There were three streams of water cascading down a cliff face that zigzaged with little alcoves and gashes. Plants of all kinds had colonized these natural shelves and they fluttered back and forth from the spray of the falls. Right now is the dry season, but the pool at the base of the falls was still deep enough to sit in and be up to your neck, and of course the falls would soak you in an instant. I romped in the water a bit and then sat by the side of the pool to watch everyone play frisbee (there were lots of fancy jumps because the water would break any fall). When I was sitting on the side of the pool I happened to look down and notice that the sand was full of little gold flecks and when you stirred up the water they all jumped up to glisten and sparkle in the sun. Then I noticed that the edge of the pool was lined with flowers I assume were dislodged from trees above the waterfall. Between these gorgeous red flowers floating around, the sparkling sand, and the rainbows in the mist of the falls, it was a pretty magical afternoon. On my way back to camp I let Mark's two young daughters lead me on a downstream trek, which was super fun but a little slippery.

Ajaan Mark brought his family and a bunch of musical instruments on retreat with us. There was a guitar (which Luke played quite beautifully by the campfire), a couple of round cases protecting Irish drums, and a case that was violin-sized, but turned out to be a dulcimer! I was so excited and asked Mark if he would give me lessons this semester. He agreed. Learning to play this instrument has been a dream of mine for quite some time, but now it is actually a reality. It turns out that Mark's family was involved with the dulcimer revival during the 60s-- his cousin Jean Ritchie wrote the books and recorded tapes that everyone learns by. Mark is a really good musician-- he played for a while at our fire the second night and I basically sang beautiful Irish ballads until my voice went out. His daugher Lydia, a second grader, is the cutest kid ever and she introduced us to all her favorite songs, which she then sang at the top of her lungs. I thought I was generally off-key and had a terrible range, but one of the students afterward asked if I had any formal voice training because she said I sounded great... so that was a nice morale booster. It definitely makes me want to sing more.

Before returning to CM on the last day we took a hike with a park ranger who told us all about the trees and the relationship of local people with the forest resources. Doi Suthep-Pui has been a conservation area for about 30 years. Before, it was mostly rice paddies and banana plantations. There are many small villages within the park boundaries and local people are allowed to gather things from the forest for non-commercial use, such as bamboo, mushrooms, bamboo worms, herbs for traditional medicine, etc.

  • Banana trees: Banana trees abound in the park (left over from the plantations), but they do not fare well in the dry season because they have no woody matter.

  • Eucalyptus trees: These were planted when the area became a National Park because they grow fast and could help form a canopy to trap moisture and create a forest-like environment for the reintroduction of other species.

  • Fire: For the farmers of Thailand, fire is used annually to clear chaff in the fields, but annual burns are not neccessarily good for the forest. Hunters often set fires to push game, and gatherers set fires to clear underbrush and create a hospitable habitat for certain types of mushrooms. In the National Park, fire breaks have been created and local villagers are asked to help fight forest fires. In return, park rangers help the communities to decrease the risk of destructive fires in their villages.

  • Bamboo: This plant is important to Thai people in many ways-- it serves as a sturdy building material, provides food, and has been adapted for use in so many ways (cups, spoons, containers, mats, tools). Each clump is one plant, one root system that sends up many shoots. When a bamboo plant is near death, it will first flower and spread its seeds (Big Bang reproduction), then become brittle and decompose. Local people collect "bamboo worms," which are the pupae of a common species of moth. The moths lay their eggs in a lower segment of the bamboo and the worms eat their way up segment by segment. When they are ready to emerge, they climb back down to the segment where they were born and eat through the wall of the bamboo. Local people know when this cycle occurs and make cuts in the bamboo to extract the worms. Sometimes the squirrels get to the worms first, as they are able to climb higher and catch them at an earlier stage.

  • Gooseberries: About the size of a malted milk ball, gooseberries are green and grow on slender understory trees. They are pretty sour, but have a sweet aftertaste. You can buy gooseberry juice in CM City.

  • Spiky tree (didn't write down the name): Local lore says that if a man cheats on his wife he is destined to climb up and down this spiky tree for eternity. Watch out, guys!

  • Mulberry Tree: The bark is stripped off mulberry trees and used to make paper and traditional Thai paper umbrellas.

  • Yang Tree: Also known as the hairy-leafed apitong, the yang tree is everywhere in Thailand (it also the tree in the ISDSI logo).

  • Strangling Fig: Pretty freakin awesome-- look in my Picasa albums for pics-- the strangling fig grows around a host tree and eventually chokes it out.

  • Yung Nong Tree: Many years ago, local people used the poison sap of this tree to tip their hunting tools. The outside of the tree is soft like cork and highly texturized.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Me talk Thai one day...

Last weekend I asked my family if they would only speak Thai to me (they know some English and it makes communication really great, but then I don’t have to rely so much on my Thai). After the first day I was ready to cry. I picked up a bunch of new words and there was one question from mae that I was delighted to find I could understand straight up, but overall it was incredibly frustrating. I’m excited for those revelations of understanding to happen more often. In the meantime, it is a painful conversion.

School is broken into two parts: four hours of Thai language class in the morning and lectures on Thai society in the afternoon. It’s pretty amazing that after only 16 hours of Thai language class I can already form sentences, ask all of the important questions (and understand the answers), and read many written characters. Never have I been so motivated to learn a language. The intrigue of actually being able to communicate with the people around me has never been so present.

Learning the Thai characters gives me a greater appreciation for the struggle of little kids reading English (or any language for that matter). Here are these arbitrary and ridiculous symbols that are somehow supposed to represent some equally arbitrary and ridiculous sounds

Because Thai is a tonal language, I am often thrown off by the different inflections and intonations. Usually when I think my host sister is being insolent, it turns out that in fact it is the way the words are pronounced. I have been laughed at repeatedly for using the word sawai (beautiful) in the wrong tone. If pronounced in a flat/mid tone, sawai means “unlucky.”

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Starting off, Settling In [Missive 1]

Loved ones,

I had to add in the "missive" part to the subject because my Mammaw, before her death, sent out these wonderful weekly emails keeping everyone abreast of family goings-on. She titled them "Missive 1, 2, etc," and they were often a catalyst for emails back and forth between family members who might not otherwise have talked. She was a master at building community and while I'm only informing you on my singular expriences abroad, I am working toward making myself an agent of better connection between everyone. I won't promise to write weekly. Love you guys, but I could be out eating thom moo instead of shackled to this machine.

If you just can't get enough of the adventures, read more at There will also be pictures on the blog (and of course on Facebook). If you want off of this list just let me know.

Yesterday I rode on the back of a motorcycle for the first time. It was quite something to experience for the first time among the daring drivers on the rutted highways of a developing country! My host family insisted that I ride side-saddle because my school uniform is a skirt, so I had a nice panorama of the blood-red sun rising through thick smog over the fields and marshes north of Chiang Mai. Though, I was too worried that I might die to really think about Thailand's smog problem. After a few times riding with my mae on the motorcycle it was less frightening and I started to enjoy it, especially driving home through the quiet fields late last night. I was coming back late because I was studying the Thai alphabet on the mini-bus (really just a souped up pick-up truck) after school and ended up two villages beyond where my family lives. They are already paranoid that I will be kidnapped and sold to Burma, so it didn't help to have to call and attempt to explain what had happened between my elementary Thai and their pidgin English. All I got was shouting from the other end and then an envoy of motorcycles sent out to find me. Meanwhile, I was walking back toward Chiang Mai along the side of the highway. In Thailand, NO ONE walks. Like, ever. And especially not alone along the highway. In the 15 minutes that I trudged onward, literally 10 different cars stopped to offer me a ride. Because the first car that stopped was full of college-aged males I was not inclined to do this (and the fact that hitchhiking is grounds for dismissal from my program). The whole transportation situation made me realize that the scary back of a motorcycle with people who care about me is better than alone on the side of the highway any day!

We moved in with our Thai families on Saturday afternoon and classes started on Monday. I'm waiting for culture shock to kick in, but things seem to be plugging along just fine so far. Life is certainly different from what I'm used to. For one, I don't think I have ever been so clean in all my life. My host family insists that I take two showers per day, iron everything, and never wear anything twice before washing. So much for my slovenly American ways. Second, I am terrified of unconsciously insulting my family, so I feel more self-aware than usual. Mostly, though, I'm just plumb happy. After only three days of Thai language class, I have retained so much because of my host family. Every night so far, my paw sits with me and pronounces the alphabet (and laughs when I open the preschool workbook we are using to practice writing characters). They spend so much time helping me with Thai language. I can't get enough of the food-- my family makes fun of me because I tell them everything is arroy maa (very delicious). Maybe they think I'm lying. They can't possibly understand how ridiculously wonderful homemade Thai food is in comparison to the Barnard dining hall. It beats all, except perhaps my own mama's cooking. What I love most about this so far is how comfortable I feel despite the inherent discomforts of being in a strange new place. I'm well-rested, well-fed, cared for, inspired, hopeful, and excited to practically and directly apply what I'm learning.

My only complaint is the dearth of chocolate.
Please send!


Acadia Roher
International Sustainable Development Studies Institute
48/1 Chiang Mai Lampang Road
Muang Chiang Mai 50300

Monday, February 9, 2009

Farang in a rot dang

Rot dangs pass more frequently in Chiang Mai than yellow cabs in New York City. Literally every other vehicle is a bright red pickup truck with a sheltered , open air seating area in back. Some are blinged out with decals and bright pink lights, others old and belching clouds of black exhaust. Unlike yellow cabs, rot dangs do not have the standard fare posted on the side in English and riders are instead to assume that they will pay a flat fare of 15 Baht (~50 cents). I learned this the hard way.

On my second day in CM, I was determined to find a way to walk to the ISDSI office, despite that the address was on “Superhighway.” When, after walking 30 minutes out of Old Town, I found that the road was indeed a superhighway, I thought it more prudent to catch a taxi. I knew I was not far from the office, but I had no idea what a reasonable fare might be.

The first rot dang driver I awkwardly flagged down (certain hand movements are considered offensive) took the card I offered with the Thai address and called the number for directions to ISDSI, nodding at me with a smile. “Kaap,” he said to the person on the other end. “Kaap, kaap.” When he hung up I asked, “the fare?” “100 Baht!” he replied. Quickly working it out in my head, I realized that was nearly $3. Playing dumb, I showed him the 20 Baht in my hand, at which he shook his head and drove off. I wondered what another rot dang driver would charge, so I stopped a second.

Again: phone call, “Kaap, kaap,” nod, smile. The fare? “50 Baht!” Feeling relieved I hadn’t taken the first offer but still somewhat suspicious, I showed the driver 20 Baht. When he turned away to drive off I said, “Ok, 50 Baht” and climbed in back. As the rot dang lurched forward I nearly fell out the back and quickly learned to get a tight grip on the bars overhead.

Once at the office, I got the scoop on the real fare. “Never negotiate,” one of the instructors said, “and always pay after you get out. That way, if they complain you will already be where you want to be.” Oh, what a farang I am!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Setting...

It is easy to get around Chiang Mai without a map. The city is bounded to the east by the Mae Ping River and to the west by imposing mountains dotted with ancient wats (Buddhist temples), one of which requires visitors to climb more than 300 steps. Although I've gazed at these hillside wats from the roof garden of my hotel, I have not yet gathered the courage to climb to them. Instead, I have spent the past couple of days exlploring the sois (back streets) of the central part of town. Old Town, the historic district of CM, is a perfect square surrounded by a moat and the crumbling remains of the ancient city wall. Beyond Old Town, CM ripples outward in surburban rings towards the mountains. Even the highways that circle the city are named "First Ring Road" and "Second Ring Road."

On the banks of the Mae Ping River, the flower weavers and arrangers have set up shop. Walking by this part of the river is particularly blissful, as the scent of so many gorgeous flowers permeates the air and drives away the ubiquitous motorcycle fumes. The area between Old Town and the river is also home to the largest markets and bazaars in town-- block upon sprawling block of dry goods and food vendors. My school nurse warned against eating uncooked foods, including fruit, but the piles of strange and attractive fruits at the market are too tantalizing to pass up!

Friday, February 6, 2009

"The Italy of Asia"

An interesting comparison from James Fahn's book A Land On Fire:

If you've never been to Thailand but happen to be familiar with Europe, think of it as "the Italy of Asia." There are some startling similarities between the two countries, superficial and profound. Like the Italians, Thais are famous for their beauty and elegance, for their delicious cuisine and their insatiable appetite for fun and passion, for the splendor of their ancient traditions and the depth of their corruption, the continual changing of their governments and their disparities in income and power, their religious devotion and reckless debauchery, their grace and glitz, style and squalor, and, of course, their cities' ceaseless traffic jams.

The Situation...

For the next four months, I will be studying sustainable development in Thailand. The ISDSI program involves language study, cultural exchange elements like homestays, and expedition-based courses in which we will immerse ourselves in the culture and ecology of the forested mountains of the Thai-Burmese border, the mangrove swamps and islands of the coastal region, and the Mun and Yom Rivers. My decision to enroll in this particular program stemmed from a need for a more experiential learning experience than Barnard could offer and an interest in the environmental anthropology issues that are the focus of the program.