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By this Author: chb00001

Family Time - Part Two

Sodsai Farm, Khun Yuam - Thailand


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Life on Sodsai Farm quickly becomes routine. Yann and Piak both take off within a couple of days, leaving us quite alone with our new family. Each morning we drag ourselves out of bed an hour before sunrise to help Pap with the task of inseminating the packed sawdust bags from the day before. By this point the compact cakes have spent the night in a steamer; dark, wet and warm being the optimum conditions for baby mushrooms to grow. By the time D and I make it down to the shed Pap has usually beaten us to it. Having arrived 30 minutes prior he wastes no time and gets straight to work, expeditiously transplanting around 400 bags from the steamer to the dim nursery. He sits on an upturned crate completely surrounded by the mushroom cakes, which I now notice bear a huge resemblance to hundreds of delicious haggis. My tummy rumbles at the thought but I cast the feeling aside knowing that morning rice will not be served for, at least, another two hours. I head instead for the pile of already inseminated cakes and start organising them in straight lines against the grey, concrete walls.

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Early mornings in these mountains are a blunt reminder of what it is to feel cold. C-O-L-D. This four letter word immediately transforms from distant, empty concept to instantly recognisable sensation, one I know only too well. I snuggle deeper into my black fleece. Pap, in his woolly hat, evidently feels the effects of these low temperatures more than we do. His hat will remain glued to his head until we are finished inseminating, at which point, he will light a fire outside to warm us, while we wait for tea to brew and the rest of the family to rise. Until then, we continue with the task at hand. My body does not function well at this hour. Still half asleep, I much prefer handling the warm cakes than the fiddly task of unplugging the cottonwool and tipping the precious mushroom spores inside. The spores, which look like half-popped popcorn kernels, are extremely delicate and easily susceptible to contamination. The metal rod, as well as your hands, have to be completely disinfected before making contact. Even the tiniest particle of external bacteria can spoil the whole cake, causing the entire contents to turn black. I go back and forth to the wall, holding three bags at a time. The shed, lit by a single, dangling light bulb propped up on a bamboo cane, casts dark shadows into the corners where I scurry robotically, to and fro. This farm has some of the biggest spiders I have seen so far in Thailand, I am careful not to let my hands linger anywhere too long. They quite likely look far more menacing than they actually are but 6am is not the time for a full investigation. It is not just the spiders that come in huge proportions out here. With a warmer climate everything seems to grow to ridiculous proportions: cockroaches, millipedes, fireflies, lizards, mosquitos. The latter being the only one to really cause problems, most notably in the bathroom.

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Before leaving for Asia I knew very little about the life of a mosquito. I knew that they seemed to be more attracted to my blood than most of my friends and that sharing a room with just one of these tiny insects was enough to literally have me up all night, searching my room in a fatigued craze, only to be consoled by the evidence of a dead body. Come to think of it, the mosquito is probably the only living being I actively seek out and kill, usually feeling little, if not any remorse once the deed is done. At least in Europe, apart from being a pain in the butt, mosquitos are as dangerous as a stubbed toe. Out here things are a little different. In my months spent in Thailand I have learnt that there are many different types of mosquito. I am, for instance, more likely to catch Malaria at night while Dengue strikes during the day. I know that the mosquito that carries the Dengue virus is the same mosquito that can carry Zika (double the fun!) and, that this particular mosquito is not solid black in colour but stripy, like a zebra. Not only is Sodsai Farm home to a million of these giant, stripy blood-suckers but the bathroom seems to be their very first encounter with planet Earth.

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The simple wash room on the farm is enclosed by four peach, concrete walls. As well as a pale blue squat toilet, it contains three built in brick basins. These basins always contain water, the largest being probably big enough to hold a small Shetland pony. A red, plastic bowl bobs along on the surface and is what we use to scoop out the water when we take a shower. Like other small, winged insects, mosquitos begin their life in water. The ideal conditions are stagnant pools of fresh, clean water and right now I am standing in front of the largest mosquito nursery I have ever seen. When I stare hard into the deep, murky water I can see little, stripy bodies gently floating as if suspended in space. These lifeless babies are, however, not yet an issue for me. I am far more concerned with their elder siblings, the ones currently flying around the room, looking for their first meal. Me. It is in this room that I must stand each day: butt naked. By now, I have almost perfected the art of the Sodsai Farm shower. It all beings with a beautifully choreographed dance. Almost as soon as I lock the door I jump rhythmically from one foot to the other. I thresh about at the air around me, flailing my arms out to the sides like a novice skydiver. Anything to keep from standing still for more than three seconds, this generally prevents any mosquitos from landing on my wet skin. At times, it feels both exhausting and extreme. I am positive neither Kita nor Pap perform this intricate dance when they wash each evening. Others have also informed me that the odds of actually catching any illnesses during the dry season are slim but, having read the symptoms, I dare not chance it. Despite the struggle that is washing, I do not find myself despising the shower room, nor its particular ecosystem. It is, in fact, within these same four walls that I come face to face with my very first tokay. It is love at first sight.

An extremely shy and illusive creature, the tokay is not always easy to spot. Odds are though, if you have been to this part of the world, you will have already been in the presence of one. Just as in New York, where you are never too far from a rat, in Southeast Asia you are almost always near a tokay. It is entirely plausible that you have never physically laid eyes on the creature, you will, however, most definitely have heard its call. D and I mistake this unique song for that of a bird for around two months. Our curiosity eventually getting the better of us, we turn to our good friend google for help. The fact that we have nothing to distinguish this bird, except from a strange noise (which I have now learnt to imitate pretty convincingly, by the way!), makes for rather a vague google search. One I am almost sure no direct response will yield from. Apparently “strange repetitive bird noise night Thailand” are exactly the words google needs to identify the mystical animal we are seeking: the tokay. Not at all a bird but a gecko!

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Geckos are omnipresent in Thailand. No room is complete without a timid, brown, mosquito-muncher hiding in the corner. Tokay’s are to your average gecko what peacocks are to the common, brown hen. The google search takes place just before our arrival to Sodsai Farm and I am unbelievably relieved to have already seen a picture of one framed by a computer screen before meeting the real deal a week later. Although harmless, its particular colouring definitely triggers the ‘poisonous creature’ alarm-bell in your head. The first encounter takes place just as I am about to pull down my underwear to do my business. My concentration fixed on resisting the regular mosquito attack, it takes me a few moments to notice that today there is a new addition to the room. I instantly freeze as my gaze locks with pair of unblinking, yellow eyes. The reptile clings to the vertical wall directly in front of me, and just as its cousin the gecko does when disturbed, it stays perfectly still. Its almost endearing to think that the tokay is probably under the pretence that if it stays still long enough it will blend into the plain wall beneath. Not an easy feat when your knobbly skin is an unreal turquoise blue, your covered in red spots, not to mention that you are not six centimetres long but a whopping 30. The tokay sort of half reminds me of a real life Pokemon, and kind of like an oversized dog who, completely unaware of its bulky dimensions, still tries to squeeze onto its owners lap as it did when it was a pup. I would love to report that I am calm and collected throughout the whole incident but in truth, a strange yelp escapes my lips before my brain works out what it is I am even looking at. I slowly crab-walk my way sideways out the door to get D and my camera, my need for the toilet quite gone. This is not the last time we see one of these beautiful creatures and catching sight of one never gets boring. Just like witnessing the flash of a shooting star, or winter’s first snow flakes fall; coming face to face with a tokay never ceases to generate a pure rush of childish excitement. I try to share these magical moments with Sodsai, the little toothless boy, who I can report is warming up to us now a few days have passed. Once he spots the tokay his first reaction is to throw a handful of rocks at the wall before running off. I quickly make a mental note that tokay’s are not his thing.

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Sodsai is a curious little character. Having been inspired by the birth of their first son, Kita and Pap have named Sodsai Farm after him. The name Sodsai has several meanings including: ‘stability’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘order’. A thoughtful name for both the farm and their son but at the tender age six, Sodsai is none of these things. A remarkably serious child, he talks as little as he eats and can usually be found playing alone, making mud-cakes or filling baby Bang’s bath full of water and bubbles. He is an absolute mummy’s boy but its plain that the arrival of a new baby has been difficult for him to accept. Now, unlike before, he has to learn to share attention. As is common for any first born child, this can sometimes lead him to express his frustration by deliberately taunting and teasing little Bang who, of course, remains innocently oblivious to the shift his birth has caused in the dynamics of the family. Bang is tough and, try as he may, Sodsai never succeeds in upsetting his little brother. Instead Bang follows him around in absolute awe, his little legs, grey with dust as he crawls desperately, trying to keep up with his number one idol. It is the school holidays right now so Sodsai’s afternoons are filled with endless games and who better a playmate than his best friend Meow (the cat), who tolerates the brothers with extreme patience. When you first meet Sodsai, he can come across as a little boisterous in his games, he often deliberately causes havoc on the farm, but there is also an acutely sensitive side to his personality. I have witnessed him sit motionless for hours, drawing and colouring. In fact, one of the first things you will notice when you squeeze past the muddy, white truck parked at the entrance, is the dinosaur doodle on the passenger door. This just ‘appeared’ there one afternoon. “He’s an artist”, I am told. I sure wish my Dad would have let me express myself in permanent marker on the car door when I was six. My other favourite Sodsai expression is an enormous elephant painted on the wall in the house where we sleep; unlike Scottish children, who draw sheep, Thai kids prefer to paint elephants. Figures. As the days go by I tune in more to his artistic side whereas D manages to bond with him by throwing him around. Sword fighting with sticks and water fights with the hose are some of Sodsai’s favourite activities. We try hard to give him lots of attention when he allows us because, between everything that his parents need to get done on the farm each day, plus the attention the baby demands… well, all this can be pretty hard to understand when you are just six years old. Sometimes he lets us into his games but only if his back-up best friend is otherwise occupied. This position having been appointed to his trusty Grandfather.

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There is nothing more heartwarming than seeing parents interact with the newest additions to their family. I am smothered by my own broody desires as I watch Pap and KIta play with Bang. I had never, however, realised that there is something equally special in watching a grandfather play with his grandson. As I have already mentioned, Grandfather is the quietest of the bunch. He smokes and he works. However, when Sodsai decides its time to play, an enchanting transformation assumes Grandfather. A mischievous gleam appears in he eye, and he plainly revels in giving the boy a taste of his own medicine. Sodsai likes to play rough and his Grandfather is a worthy opponent. Grandfather is not shy to play fight or even sneak up behind the child to catch him, unaware, with a face full of water from the garden hose. Sodsai evidently adores his grandfather, his wild shrieks of excitement can be heard throughout the whole farm. Seeing them together, its difficult not to laugh along, but at the same time the scene really makes me miss my own grandparents. Or the idea of them anyway.

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Being raised in a different country to all my extended family naturally came with some benefits, for example: I was aware almost from birth that the world extended far beyond the fields surrounding my village. I knew that, although the people where I was born did certain things one way, I never had to feel limited to this because, in other distant places, I had seen things done in quite a different way. Of course, I was also lucky enough to be given the chance to kick-start my life bilingual but still, at times like these I am quietly jealous of the bond before me; one I never got the chance to have. Grandparents spending quality time with their grandchildren is not an uncommon sight in Thailand. As families usually live near each other the grandparents are often entrusted with the role of caretakers for the little ones while the parents go out to work. You see the two together on scooters, going to the market, preparing lunch, cleaning the house, visiting temples. It is sort of a give and take as once the kids are a little older it then falls onto them to help look after their, vey much respected, elders. And so the cycle goes on. Most families are large and close, thus creating a guaranteed lifetime of support. I am certain that Thailand is far from being the only country with this ‘system’ in place but as it is such a prominent part of life here, I thought it worth noting. For Sodsai, his grandfather is a godsend, because the kind of rough play he delights in is something only baby Bang will likely join him with, once he is old enough to fight back. His father Pap, for example, is such a peaceful and gentle soul that I cannot even imagine him grabbing the boys skinny ankles and hanging him upsized down. Tender Pap is far more likely to be found singing to his kids than swinging them around.

Initially Pap is an absolute mystery to us as, unlike Kita who knows a couple of useful survival words in English, Pap knows almost none. This does not prevent him from chatting away to us and, after some time, I learn just to parrot the Thai words right back at him. This makes him laugh. Better described as a guffaw, Pap’s laugh erupts from the depths of his stomach like a volcano. This particular volcano erupts several times a day bringing with it an aftershock of contagious laughter leaving onlookers in fits of giggles . Even without words we are able to learn a great deal about this father of two. Number 1. He has the most beautiful singing voice in Thailand. In many other families the women are left to care for the babies but Pap and Kita share the work. Feeding Bang his milk is almost always Pap’s job and the baby will not settle down completely if his bottle does not come accompanied by his father’s special song. As we get on with our daily chores: collecting sawdust, layering in rice husks to the pile, mixing the heap, packing or compressing the bags, collecting the mushrooms; we are frequently accompanied by the melodic and soothing voice of Pap, singing a bewitching, traditional Thai song to Bang. I do not know the meaning behind the lyrics but I soon learn the tune and hum along with him while I work. The end of the singing marks the end of the bottle, a sleeping baby, and usually a sleeping Dad. These quality moments with baby Bang are never skipped, and Pap still manages to acquire time to do the necessary mushroom work, plus all the odd jobs around the farm: fixing the sheds, mixing cement, building walls. He rises the earliest and is generally the last to retire from his duties at night. Just watching him is exhausting. Yet, somehow he succeeds to do all of this with a smile, steady patience and complete tranquility. Regardless of the fact our conversations are limited, we do not need words to recognise a kind heart when we meet one.

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Physically Pap looks older than Kita, though being Asian his face does not give away his 50+ years. Nor does his body for that matter. Like most Thai people, he much prefers squatting on his haunches to sitting on a chair. When he does opt for higher ground, he will cross his legs in front of him, clearly more comfortable that way. I would still regard myself as somewhat flexible for a person of 27, whose regular stretching routine is non-existent, but the older generation here really show me up. It seems silly that from age 11 we are no longer encouraged to sit on the ground at school but move instead to ‘respectable’ chairs. Our knees and back are undoubtedly the first to deteriorate from this adjustment. We should technically be bendier than Pap, who is 20 years our elder, but our joints are stiff from lack of use. Poor D cannot sit cross legged at all, even at the monastery, when meditating, he would have to take a chair. Here on the farm D chooses to fold his legs, sitting to one side which makes Kita laugh, “like tiger!”, she says as she describes, for her, his odd choice of position. But Pap outshines us all. The secret behind his preference of sitting crosslegged and constant peaceful aura makes its revelation to us on day five: Pap used to be a monk.

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As surprising as a past life spent as a monk sounds to our Western ears, spending a stint in a monastery is very common here. So common that almost every man I meet has been a monk at one point or another. A book I read in the monastery said that by their late 20s, the monastic experiences of a Thai man will usually total at two. The first when the boys are young, at around eight years old. In Thai tradition the young boys are sent to stay in the monastery as novice monks for one month. Here, they are expected to learn self discipline and meditation. This is a huge honour for the family, one that also brings the parents great merit. Merit being kind of like ‘brownie points’ you collect throughout your lifetime by performing good deeds. Eventually these build up and go on to improve your Karma (the energy stream that determines your next life). This still goes on today, although some children attend for less time than was expected in the past. Each region has a slight different twist and here, near the boarder of Myanmar, the little boys spend the two days prior to their enrolment receiving the upmost of royal treatment. Dressed in golden headdresses and lavish clothes, a family member will carry the youngster on their shoulders so that during the 48 hours, their little feet never touch the ground. Someone else will be in charge of holding a golden parasol, generating constant shade from the hot sun. The rest of the family dances along behind forming a grand entourage which includes an entire band (one for each child). Traditional tunes accompany the boy as he is proudly paraded through the village for the full two days. The idea behind this is that the children reenact the lavish life of The Buddha (formerly Prince Siddhartha), before he dropped it all to pave the way to enlightenment. In Khun Yuam, this festival is called Sangalong, and our time on the farm falls exactly on these dates. We are lucky enough to witness the boys; first as princes, and then as little novice monks. We watch as they are carried to the last stop, the temple. The excitement in their eyes replaced by anxiety as their hair is shaved off and their beautiful garments exchanged for plain robes. A few begin to shed a tear as the party dies down, and the reality of leaving their parents suddenly hits them. For many this is the first time they will sleep apart from their family.

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Now, flash forward twenty years. The now young men again return to the monastery, only this time for as long as they feel is right for them. I have met certain individuals who spent as little as a month others for a number of years. Nobody is forced and I really get the impression that there is a strong sense of desire and duty behind their decision to join. The fact that almost everyone has been a monk, or knows someone who is or was a monk, means that the entire community can relate and respect with what goes on in the temple, insuring the two worlds remain well connected. It is now virtually a rite of passage for a young man, with many not even considering marriage or parenthood without having participated. When I explain to Kita that where I am from, it is not so uncommon for young men to start a family she seems shocked, her eyes wide: “Too young. Need calm first.” She says this clasping her hands in her lap (the universal sign for meditation) before adding, “Baby after” I think a lot can be said for this; spending time getting to know your inner most self before bringing forth another life into this world. The time they spend meditating will perhaps never bring them enlightenment but surely a crash course in inner-peace and patience is never a bad thing before raising the next generation. In Pap, this past monastic experience is ever present in the serene husband and father he has become today. Humans, however, are all quite diverse and what works for some does not necessarily work for others. Life as a monk is not suited to everyone, nor is it expected to be, so you are completely free to leave whenever you choose. Unlike a ‘drop out’ monk in the Christian world, who is usually regarded as having failed the cause somehow, Buddhists will always view those who wholly give themselves to the life and teachings of The Buddha with deep respect, regardless of the length of their stay. We find out from Kita that Pap’s monastery stay lasted for almost a decade! This sounds like an awfully large chunk of life to me and it must show in my wide eyes as her next reaction is to giggle, her hand landing on my shoulder. Kita’s English is limited and our Thai almost non-existent. Somehow this rarely poses a problem during our stay, where conversations are plentiful.

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We have been sitting together on the ground in the yard for a couple of hours now, absentmindedly tying up compressed sawdust bags. D is scribbling in a black note book, Kita peering eagerly over his shoulder. If Kita were to be in an English class she would be in beginners, learning vocabulary enough to allow for simple conversations about “my town”, greetings or how to ask for directions. Her natural curiosity pushes her way further than her language abilities allow. Right now D is explaining the UK minimum wage, the average rent in Edinburgh and what a ‘customer development executive’ is. Naturally words fail. Almost every sentence has to be acted out, drawn or squiggled in the dust, until we see comprehension shine from her eyes. At which point she will respond in broken Thai-glish and the roles reverse, now its our turn to guess. We learn a surprising amount about each other this way: our past, our studies, our families, the differences between our worlds, our dreams. Kita is keen to learn and quizzes us on everything. Her memory for new words is incredible and it is not long before vast improvements can be seen in her English. Kita never tires. Throughout the day she points at many things: table, bathroom, window, pillow, spider; repeating the word in English and then in Thai until my little notebook is filled with new sounds that slowly start to imprint themselves in my mind. I must admit that I do feel a little sad that this intense Thai language course did not take place earlier on in our trip. While the tonal part of the language is almost as impossible to grasp as our early morning starts, I soon come to realise that the grammar is more-or-less doable. Unlike the languages I am used to learning, where verb conjugations play a crucial role in making yourself understood, Thai is all about pronunciation and vocabulary. The most repeated phrase I hear besides ‘Mai cow Jai’ (I don’t understand) is ‘Gen Kaow’, literally translating as ‘eat rice’. Kita yells this out before meal times and seeing as it is pretty much rice three times a day, it is quick to stick in our minds. The most useful phrase I learn is pronounced ‘Chan eem’ meaning : I am full. Without this they would never stop feeding me rice.

As always, my mind drifts from rice to bread, and from bread to cheese: Goats cheese, Feta cheese, Parmesan, Mozzarella, Raclette, Cancoillotte, Roquefort. Applewood Smoked Cheddar… mmmm. I miss cheese. A sudden whoop delivers me from my daydream and I look up just in time to catch baby Bang taking a wobbly step towards Kita before losing his balance. He lands on the ground with a gentle bump, Kita and Pap cheer wildly and Bang giggles back in that adorable way only babies know how. I wonder how many parents out there miss their babies first steps, forced to leave them each morning with a childminder. There is a beautiful freedom to the life of the children on this farm. The baby, who at ten months would be hawked over in the West, is given plenty of space to crawl around, discover and learn with almost no suffocating attention. Even more importantly, for me anyway, is that Kita and Pap do not have to miss Bang’s milestones, they do not have to choose between work and family, they can make a living surrounded by their loved ones. Something you can only really achieve in the West if you manage to find a job that allows you to work from home or start your own business. I had never considered this option before but my mind opens to new possibilities as I can clearly see the benefits Kita has from watching all of her creations grow before her eyes.

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I admire so much about this young woman. Her ability to gracefully carry family and business together as one, her willingness to always learn more, her ambition, her determination and constant positive attitude. I love her tom-boy style: big t-shirts and short hair, her sassy attitude, independence and warm aura. I love that despite the financial challenges she faces, her dream of an Organic Mushroom business has never faded. You see, while it is undeniable that Pap plays an irreplaceable role within Sodsai farm, this business is 100 percent Kita’s baby. Where her husband brings with him the steady strength of mind and body, Kita carries with her the vital heart and soul. She is the one who has toiled endlessly at university to achieve a degree in sustainable agriculture, juggling a full-time job and her studies to make ends meet. She is constantly experimenting with different ingredients for the sawdust cake, or mixing up variables that will affect the growth and success of the mushrooms. Each batch watched over with the timeless affection and when the time comes to prepare the dry produce for seasoning or packaging, it is again Kita who will take on this role. Her phone never stops ringing. She never stops moving. Even if our stay is only a short one, I am glad to ease her workload, if only by a fraction. It does seem, however, that the hard-work is starting to pay off. Finally, after six years of working hard to establish her name and reputation, the business is due to receive a loan from the bank. This financial aid will be used to buy machines that should help ease the more mundane steps of the process. “Soon, more comfortable… for family”. She gestures around the haphazard yard with its jumble of farm equipment, drying clothes, kids toys and the sawdust pile, the latter of which demands almost as much attention as her boys. Machines and money will not only bring a little ease to the pace of life here but Kita and Pap will also have time to finish their house. For now, it stands neglected: a grey, one bedroom, concrete shell overlooking the yard below. Until then, each tedious step must be completed by hand. This sounds like it could get boring, and it does (a little) but each day on Sodsai farm is as unpredictable as the last. I wake up every morning in my hot pink mosquito net (with matching mattress!) knowing that today I will be bagging sawdust, like every other day, but somehow the day manages to unfold before me, as erratically as the weather in Scotland. These everyday surprises usually begin with a visitor or two.

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Friends and neighbours frequently stop by the farm, appearing openly confused by our presence, they assume we must have gotten lost on our way to Pai. Kita proudly explains the situation, but the concept of our being there to work by choice, for no pay, baffles them even more. Puzzlement mutates into excitement and before we know it we are in the back of their car. We meet grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, temples, hot springs, museums, restaurants and farms. From idyllic mountain villages to getting stuck in with the local garlic harvest. Mr Nice (that is his name!) insists on driving us to his local cock-fighting arena to have our photo taken with his prize winning fighter. A young neighbour, Sigh, invites us to take a mini adventure with her, collecting rice husks for her mum’s garden. Tree lined mountains dominate the sky as we spiral up roads surrounded by fields of lush, green soy. Perched atop the newly filled sacks of husk my hair whips against my face and the warm wind is soft like silk on my skin. Sigh told me earlier that her dream is to be able to travel freely as we do, her brother’s dream is to see the ocean. I guess those living near the ocean probably dream of one day seeing these same mountains. I even met someone last month whose dream it was to be a tour guide. And here I am, living all four in the space of one year. I think this is something worth remembering when our judgement gets clouded. Dreams are everywhere, and each day we are quite likely, unknowingly, living the greatest wishes of another soul. Whether that is moving to an ancient city seeped in history, or enjoying a steaming cup of tea by the stove, in a stone cottage surrounded by tranquil countryside. Maybe it is something as simple as the security of having a full time job, or being able to pop round to your mother’s once a week. It is fair to say that my time here has amounted to more than just solving the mystery of the night time fires and learning how to grow mushrooms.

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While the forest fires still remain a mystery I have discovered something even more valuable. Human connection. Thailand is without a doubt a mesmerising country, from its man-made masterpieces to the natural beauty sculpted by mother nature over eons. The colours, the smells, the music, the sunsets, the flowers, the foods, the adventures. Thailand has more than delivered but it is through this specific local experience that I have found the emotional sentiment to tie it all together. No matter how physically beautiful a country can be, beauty is only beauty in the end. It is pleasing, alluring but it is also superficial and inadequate. Sure, you will undoubtably take some great shots and taste some exotic flavours which, as both a keen photographer and gastronomer has been absolutely enchanting, I cannot deny it, but a nation is made up of so much more than this. The bond I have with this family has personified Thailand for me. I am forever emotionally bound to them and the lessons they have taught me. When I think back on our time out here, Thailand will be far more than a mere mental image for me because now I have the added dimension of love. Not only have I seen Thailand but I have been lucky enough to feel Thailand too; which is an extraordinary feeling, but it also means a deep heart ache for the family we have to leave behind.

Thank you Kita, Pap, Sodsai and Bang! Thank you Thailand.
Next stop: Myanmar.

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Posted by chb00001 01:12 Archived in Thailand Tagged mountains people children travel thailand family farm mushroom community volunteer workaway grandparents maehongson fires Comments (0)

Family Time - Part One

Sodsai Farm, Khun Yuam - Thailand


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Our days in the idyllic mountains of Northern Thailand are coming to a close. We have only time for one more voluntary work placement and this time we choose a mushroom farm. In fact, that is a lie. At this point we have no idea where we are going. After contacting Piak last minute, we try to decipher exactly what it is we will be doing. His profile is a little vague but we are able to gather that the work involves some sort of sustainable agriculture. He mentions a ‘mushroom train’ in his emails and I envision a colossal, red steam train rushing through the mountains topped high with thousands of mushrooms.

During the nights of the dry season the mountains of Thailand come alive with red, hot scars of fire as, for reasons unbeknown to us, the forest is ferociously burned. We hear different rumours here and there, the most common seems to be that this is done so that one type of mushroom (similar in value to the truffle) will grow from the ashes. The smoke from these fires billows into the sky, thick and solid, blocking the sun from view. I have even been told that this smog reaches as far as Malaysia during the burning season. Having heard this particular fun-fact on the grapevine, I am not entirely sure of its validity but I do know, however, that the fires happen, the landscape suffers and somewhere in the middle of it all, mushrooms grow. Perhaps we will be working with these mushrooms on the mushroom train. I hope so. Having borne witness to the scorched land and to so many of these night-time blazes, I am immensely curious to find out more. Piak has given us the name of the town we need to get to and, despite receiving no response to the numerous texts and emails we have sent him the past few days, we decide to make ur way out there. With our thumbs held high, we are ready to hitch a ride.

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Hitchhiking is by far the fastest, most convenient, economic and enjoyable way to travel in Thailand. This is the land ruled by the Toyota pick-up truck so odds are someone out there will have space for you and your ruck-sack in the back. On the plus side you ride outside in the fresh air, so getting car-sick is out of the question. We do use the train for longer distances but for anything else, we hitch. The longest we have ever waited for a ride is 20 minutes. The shortest, 30 seconds. The fact that you are a foreigner means that the curious and kindhearted Thai are more than happy to pick you up. “Welcome to Thailand”, they say. We have been given snacks to nibble on in the back, invited to visit favourite temples and sample organic tea. We squeeze into cars overflowing with bags upon bags of white decorative birds or with baskets filled with pungent, fresh fish from the market. On one occasion, we are taken back to the drivers house to meet his sister (an archaeologist and an artist!) and other times no communication is passed except a gesture towards the back of the car and a smile upon our arrival.

This particular morning we are armed with a small sign written in Thai, on the off chance our driver does not speak English. We take it in turns to hold the sign while the other stands in the shade. The sun is high in the sky and this particular morning the air is thicker than it should be. After around ten minutes an old truck pulls over and the driver winds down his window giving us a timid grin. It becomes apparent that our Thai sign was a good move. English is not this guys forte. As we both squeeze into the passenger seat we are given a a gracious nod. Our driver adjusts his navy cap in the rear view mirror before taking off, down the road. Some form of conversation is attempted but we do not get passed pointing towards him saying, “You from, Mae Hong Son?” The man smiles. He fiddles around with the mp3 player and Justin Bieber’s voice instantly fills the truck. The driver turns to us again, his eyebrows raised high as though waiting for our approval. Although Justin is probably not exactly the soundtrack I would have chosen for this particular road trip I give him the thumbs up and start singing, “and I was like baby, baby, baby, oooh” to show my gratitude. Once the Justin singalong has passed the driver reaches into his pocket, pulls out his phone and makes a call. I ease into my half-a-seat and concentrate on the curvy road ahead, grateful that our destination is not much more than an hour away.

Mid-call the driver vigorously hands the receiver to D, who is sitting closest to the driver’s seat. “For me?” The man nods. D takes the phone and says: “hello”…”how are you?” ...”Brazil, yes. Football, that’s right”… “What do we want? We want to go to Khun Yuam” … “How did we meet your friend? Oh, we just got in his car. We’re hitch-hiking, you know?”… “No, we don’t pay. No…”.

Sometimes the concept of hitch-hiking is lost on drivers who have never heard of it before. Some will drive you to the bus station or even hand you money for a ticket, assuming you have none of your own. Usually you can explain and in the instance that the driver really has no English, he will phone a friend. This is not the first time we have had a phone thrust in our faces. Saying that, most of the people who pick up hitchers in these parts do so specifically to practise their English and most, if not all, want to add you on Facebook. A short drive later we are waving goodbye to our new Facebook friend as we stand deserted in the tiny bus station. Step one: get to Khun Yuam. Complete. Step two: find your host… Not so simple.

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Piak’s not here”. replies Yann fervently as we enquire as to our host’s whereabouts. We have managed to make it to Sodsai Farm (pronounced sauce-aye) but we have still not managed to make contact with our host. Yann is from France, also volunteering here but only for one more day. He is tall, blond and as broad as a door. I always wonder how tall people withstand travelling around a continent clearly not designed for them. How do they find clothes that fit? Or shoes for that matter. How do they cope for hours crammed into tiny mini-vans and buses? The beds are shorter here, door frames are lower and legroom on planes is non-existent. I left Scotland as one of the shortest in my group of friends, here I am deemed tall. I am, however, still fortunate enough to slip comfortably into the Thai world. The worst of my troubles is remembering that I am no longer a size S but an XL when it comes to shopping for shorts in the market. I cannot imagine how the Thai world must look and feel to someone as tall as Yann.

Right now his height is even more exaggerated as he is standing next to a Thai man who looks to me to be in his 60s. He stares up at us suspiciously, sucking intently on a wooden pipe. “He’ll be back later on with the family”. My heart soars, “Oh, wonderful! A whole family. Does he have any children?” I ask but I have already worked out the answer. The evidence is everywhere: an inflatable, yellow deer-like-creature in the corner, a home-made bamboo playpen with matching bamboo crib. A colouring book abandoned amongst empty milk cartons and bright candy wrappers. I love children. I would say that I am far more fond of children than mushrooms, so this is definitely a bonus for me. In my own experience, when you spend time living with a family you have never met before, the children will usually be the first to take you under their wing and make you feel at home.

There are children, yeah. Two boys, I’m not good with ages. One’s about this high…” he holds his hand around 1.20m off the ground, …“and the other one can’t walk yet”. I am elated! Surprise baby fun. Yann tells us that the baby cried in fright when it met him. Possibly because he is the first heavily bearded, white human the child had ever seen. Compared to the average Western man I have noticed that Asians have very little body hair so I am hoping that, despite my own fair skin, my smooth chops might win the little guy’s trust. “They’re not Piak’s kids though, this isn’t his house. The farm belongs to Kita, the mum. I think they’re family friends or something”. Wait, What? This is all news to us. We were pretty sure we would be staying at the hosts house. The confusion must show on our faces as Yann quickly adds: “Oh, I was the same. It actually took me around a week before I managed to contact Piak. A bit of a slippery character to get a hold of. Seems like a really busy guy.” Yann explains to us that Piak’s wife is out of town, building herself a house in the mountains (as you do). As he is not staying at his own house he thought it best for the volunteers to come here to this farm instead. “I am the first one to come here to this farm, you two will be the second. They’ve never had foreigners living in their house so it is all as new to them as it is to us. So far, so good” he then hesitantly adds… “they don’t really speak any English though.

I recognise a hint of loneliness behind this last remark which I can totally understand. For lone travellers these isolated volunteer experiences can be so rewarding but not without their challenges. Luckily, I always have D, so hearing this does not put me off at all. Instead we sit down together with a coffee and let Yann tell us everything he knows about this placement. The family perhaps speaks no English but Yann certainly does and over the next few hours we allow him to release all his pent-up conversation in our direction. For him, we are the brief moment of companionship he has been recently missing and, luckily for us, Yann is an English speaking fountain of Sodsai-farm knowledge. Everything that has probably taken him days to puzzle over and piece together is directly handed to us on a plate within the space of a couple of hours. Thank you Yann.

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As we wait for the family to arrive we join the local man, who I have now discovered is Grandfather. He is crouched on a small stool, packing what looks like sawdust into transparent plastic bags. We are outside but protected from the hot sun with a high, corrugated-iron roof, heavily decorated with cobwebs and sleepy geckos. Tall beams support the roof and are home, not only to termites, but to pots, pans, a white plastic clock and various other tools hanging on rusty nails, embedded in the wood. I will soon learn that this outdoor, flat area is the main hub of the home. There are dusty, coloured plastic crates scattered around us. Some are already full of the sawdust bags others are empty. Yann has flipped one upsized down and takes a seat before beginning with the sawdust scooping. I opt for a tiny wooden stool, probably only 15cm from the ground. We all sit around the massive pile as though we are warming ourselves around a camp-fire. Using little scoops that have been resourcefully cut out of old plastic containers, we start filling bags. Yann shows us how to make sure the bag is full enough before skilfully placing a plastic ring around the top and twisting a red elastic band to secure it tight. Whoever is behind Thai elastic-band distribution must be a millionaire.

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In this country we are served almost everything edible in a clear plastic bag fastened with a small elastic band. The bag is sealed in such a way that the whole thing becomes a turgid sphere; full of air, veggies, stew, soup, salad, juice. You name it, they bag it. This also means that when we travel we are always sure to find a useful elastic somewhere in our rucksack. You would be surprised how often the necessity arises. This family is no exception, there are tiny, red elastic bands strewn all over the concrete floor as well as what seems to be fluffy multi-coloured cotton-wool. We use this at the last step, to plug the top of the filled bag. We have been stuffing sawdust into bags for an hour but the pile hardly looks like it has diminished at all. I proudly place my finished bags into a broken, blue crate while taking a break to observe a confident, little lizard creep-up on an unsuspecting fly. Grandfather also appears to decide its time for a rest. He reaches to the leather holster tied round his waist and readies his pipe for a smoke. He has not muttered a word to us so far. I am pretty sure he speaks no English but I get the feeling his silence is not due to a lack of language skills, nor is he being rude. This is just the way he is. Regardless of his lack of interest in us, I secretly find myself hoping my own hard-work is gaining his approval.

Filling and sealing a bag sounds pretty simple but I realise quickly that my own attempts are not quite making the grade. In my peripheral vision I spot Grandfather re-sealing every single one of my bags. If he is annoyed with the added work I am causing he does not show it. Unlike me, Grandfather works fluidly and quickly. His bare feet are half buried in the sawdust; dark, worn and wide. Really wide. I can only assume this comes from wearing flip-flops and walking around barefoot everyday his entire life. My feet have been cooped up in protective socks and shoes making the soles soft and sensitive to the tiniest grain of sawdust underfoot. The majority of Thai people I have seen really use their feet, not just to hold them up or for balance but also to feel their environment. In the same way I do with the palms of my hands. Before they can even walk their feet are already feeling their way around, exploring the ground beneath their skin. As toddlers their soles get thicker, harder and their feet grow and adapt with the rest of their body. Muscles and bones grow stronger with age, it only makes sense that our feet are also designed to do this. Of course, it is far too cold where I come from to possibly compare my feet to this mature man, that is ridiculous. Still, I now find myself peering down, considering for the first time my own feet, and their under-developed appearance.

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The tranquility that has settled in around us is suddenly blown away by the slam of a car door and some rhythmic, dragging and pounding. I puzzle over what it could be but the sounds are completely unidentifiable to my ear. Looking up I see the inflatable deer come plummeting down the drive, a skinny boy bouncing atop. Up and down with each leap. Clearly pleased to be out of the confines of the car, he races down the steep slope that leads to the area where we have been working. His eyes are wide-set and his head looks far too big for his tiny body, I feel sure it could fall off at the next bounce. Dusty, bare feet pound the ground sending clouds of earth into the air around him. He is clearly in another world, chasing some magical creature, sadly invisible to my adult eyes. He stops abruptly, probably sensing our eyes intruding his game, and as he looks up I notice that his four front teeth are missing. I can almost see his brain calculating these new strangers sitting in his yard. The calculation is not a long one. Within five seconds he dismounts his deer and stomps past us all. Fixing his eyes straight ahead, he pretends not to have seen us and ninja leaps onto some potato-sacks stuffed with sawdust. I have spent time with enough kids to instantly recognise shy when I see it, so we just play along and avert our eyes instead to the four people who have suddenly appeared before us.

The smaller of the two men springs forward energetically and introduces himself as Piak. Finally we have found him! We are equal in height and his thick, dark hair reaches his shoulders. “Ah, you made it my friends!”, he exclaims, shaking our hands vigorously. I can tell in an instant that this man has as much energy as the timid, little boy. “Have you eaten already? Come, let’s eat! This here is Pap & this is Kita.” I peer behind him at the remaining people and take an instant liking to them. A tall man in a grey tank-top, with a lean but muscular body stands on the right. His short black hair is almost as dark as his skin, a stark contrast to his ivory teeth. His eyes smile down on us before his mouth does and in his arms squirms a chubby little baby, around ten months old. He bears very little resemblance to his skinny brother. Beautiful almond eyes give us a confused stare before his father tickles his protruding tummy which sets him off in giggles. He kicks out his strong legs and reaches out for the woman beside him who scoops him up and places him on her hip. I look up at her and find myself staring into the same almond eyes as the baby. All of Kita’s features are soft and warm. “Bang. My baby. Bang”. Naturally, I immediately think of ‘BammBamm’, the kid from the Flintstones. “A-Baaaang-Kok!” croons Pap a couple of times causing baby Bang to erupt into fits of giggles. She puts him down on the floor and lets him explore the dusty yard. I feel a firm hand on my arm and with a gentle tug she invites me to sit down on the ground beside her. Yann was right. Apart from Piak, the family’s English is pretty limited. We take it in turns to smile and laugh at our inability to communicate verbally. Kita’s eyes sparkle with curiosity and excitement and even though she cannot express it in words, it is plain to see that she is unquestionably thrilled to have us in her house.

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... to be continued...

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Posted by chb00001 01:52 Archived in Thailand Tagged mountains children travel thailand monk family farm mushroom volunteer workaway helpx grandparents fires Comments (0)

Inner Silence

Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery, Northern Thailand


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Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right. I pick my feet up and carefully place them down between two ginormous leaves. The earth beneath me is cracked and dry. I try my best to avoid the foliage, walking as silently as my shadow. A bead of sweat prickles on my forehead, threatening to cascade down and impair my vision. It literally takes every inch of my self control not to brush it away. I am supposed to ignore the torments. Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right. I echo this over and over in my head desperately hoping that the more I say it the less hot my body will feel. The flies return.

These tiny winged insects seem to revel in the moisture and heat radiating from the left side of my face. They buzz at such an unbelievably, irritating pitch, practically roaring in my eardrums. Each time they try to land on my face they make unwelcome contact with my ear, my cheek or my glasses. Clasping my hands tight in front of me I bring my mind back to: Left, Right, Left, Right, Left Right. My foot makes abrupt contact with something unnatural and I realise I have stepped on the back of a flip flop. The Japanese girl in front of me retains her poise and continues forward, elegant in her movement. That is now the third time I stand on her. She is surly internally loathing the fact that I am the one behind her today. What can you expect? They are all walking so painfully slow! It takes all my strength just to walk at this pace let alone the fact that I am supposed to be meditating at the same time. We have been told to keep our vision at a 45 degree angle, towards the ground ahead of us. “Block out everything going on around you. Concentrate on the movement of the legs. For those who are new, repeat only: 'Left, Right, Left, Right' ” . It is not that I am not trying but somehow the ability to shut out the surrounding world comes to me as naturally as it would a five year old child. Every now and then I break the instruction and steal a look around. I doubt anyone is paying attention. The ones who can already do walking mediation are in their own world and the newbies, like me, are all dealing with their own problems: flies, leaves, rocks, tree-roots, sweat and whatever other distractions that have managed to monopolise their untrained minds.

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We are walking through the most beautiful forest. The path is flanked on one side with a wall of rock. Trees somehow manage to flourish in the terrain; growing between, below, on top and sometimes right through the middle of the massive boulders. On the other side is a steep drop coated in a mass of green. Enormous clumps of wild bamboo grow in irregular clusters. They resemble the chives that grew in my garden as a little girl and suddenly I am Charlotte in Wonderland, dwarfed by their impossible size. Dappled light from the sun seeps its way down through the canopy above, leaving streams of gold in its wake. We follow the path as it twists and turns, taking us over giant tree roots and in-between massive rocks. We have passed at least three sizeable crevices fitted with mosquito-nets and bamboo mats. One of these caves is literally ten metres above us, accessed only by a tall, handmade bamboo ladder. Clearly some favourite spots for the monks to hang when they are not spending their time teaching us. It is around this time that I notice how long it has been since I was in control of my mind. Back I go to: Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right. Wow, it is super hot. Everyone else looks so calm and peaceful! The only view ahead of me is the Japanese girl. I really like her scarf. Such a beautiful pale yellow and she has matched it perfectly with her skin tone. Oops… Mind is thinking, Mind is thinking. Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right.

Up ahead there appears to be some sort of silent commotion. I am humoured as one girl, just a few people in front, starts pointing vigorously at a nearby tree trunk while still trying to maintain her tranquil composure. We all struggle to remain with our own peaceful exteriors intact, while half straining our eyes upwards to see what on earth could be so important. Within seconds I am no longer straining my eyes but craning my neck. A snake! I slow down to an even more unimaginable slow walk to insure maximum viewing of this bright green creature. So far I have seen huge spiders and scorpions but this is my first wild snake sighting in Thailand. We have seen many empty, dry skins and a few dead ones by the roadside but nothing living. So, as you can imagine, I am not about to miss this one, not even for meditation. The snake is maybe around a meter long, slender and slithering skywards at one hell of a speed. It stops abruptly, turns its head and peers down at us. For a split second I swear I see confusion and fear flash in its eyes before it turns back, racing up the tree. I can not imagine what we must look like from up there. Not too welcoming, that is for sure! Forty people all dressed head to toe in white, slowly pacing along in a straight line headed by three monks. If I were to have accidentally stumbled upon this parade myself, I would assume that these were the grounds of a mental hospital or some strange cult. This entire event takes place in a matter of seconds and it is not long before my own flip-flops are getting stepped on by the person behind me. Time to plod on. Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right.

If my mind were maybe 30% concentrated before, it has now gone completely haywire. Controlling it at this second is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. The monks call this fidgety state of mind Monkey Mind as the mind swings erratically from one thought to another. The mind is thinking. The mind is thinking. Thinking about the snake. Thinking about all the other possible creatures I may stand on by accident. Thinking about that awesome shaped tree in front of me and how I would have liked to climb it as a child. Maybe even now. Except trees in this country are full of lizards, ants, spiders and everything in between. I am thinking about how much life there is around me in this forest, right this second. An entire ecosystem which our strange, zombie conga-line seems to currently be a part of. The noise of the insects is almost deafening and I start contemplating the different ways in which I will use to later describe them in my letters. It is not easy! Apart from the usual hiss of cicadas, this particular forest includes an entire host of curious acoustics. Some sound like the noise a balloon makes when you blow it up and stretch the mouth piece, slowly and very squeakily releasing the trapped air inside. Others can only be described as chattering teeth. Not real teeth but those wind up toys with the lips and little feet. That, once wound, hop and chatter rapidly at the same time. Imagine one thousand balloons and one thousand pairs of teeth. So loud! It is no surprise I cannot hold my mind still. We eventually make it back to the outdoor meditation area where we sit down feeling “calm” after our jaunt in the forest. I find my indigo cushion and prepare myself for (you have probably guessed) some more meditation.

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You may be asking why I would subject myself to such torture. To be honest at that point I was probably asking myself the very same thing. Scheduled meditation over three times a day. Chanting in the ancient and incomprehensible language of Pali before bed each night. Bed being a yoga mat in a large shared dorm. Separate dorms for men and women; so far from the comfort of D most of the time. No eating past 12pm. No excessive talking, no singing, no dancing, no public displays of affection, no beatification of the body, no playing cards… Why am I here? People all over the world enrol in mediation retreats each day, I assume all for entirely different reasons. Most of us are searching for something, I guess. Answers? Inner Peace? Outer Peace? For me it seems like a must do when spending so long in South East Asia.

Made up of predominantly Buddhist countries, I really want to understand the people around me. Why they do the things they do, are the way they are. There is only so much you can get by visiting places as a tourist and even living with locals is only scratching the surface. What I personally find fascinating is discovering each person’s, or peoples’, own distinct philosophy. How does the way they think differ from my own? What is the meaning of life for them? What do they believe will happen after death? What can I take away from all of this? I must make it clear that I am absolutely not here to convert to Buddhism! I just want to get a deeper feel for the place and its people. Lucky for me Buddhism is extremely open spiritually. Whatever race or religion you may be, you will not be turned away if you desire to take some quiet time out of your busy life to reconnect with what Buddhist call, the True Self.

Thailand offers a host of these retreats all over the country. We hear of 10 day intense, silent retreats which seem to work very well for 50% of people but not at all for others. One girl I meet recounts being locked in her room, almost forced to meditate at certain times; which made her internally rebel against the whole system. With so many different ways to learn and be taught, thoroughly researching what you think will work best for you is a must. In the end we choose Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery in the north which comes highly recommended to us by a friend we have previously met whilst teaching. This particular friend has been on many spiritual journeys throughout the country, stopping off only at monasteries so we figure she has a pretty good idea of where is a good place to begin for a complete novice.

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After our time at the Happy Healing Home I will admit, walking along the long path to the monastery, I am far more nervous than I usually would be. Since our first exposure to the world of mindful-living-backed-by-rules did not go so well it seems almost silly to be heading straight into another bubble whose main focus is mindfulness surrounded by more rules. I hate that I will not get to sleep next to D. At least at the HHH we had the comfort and familiarity in each other at the end of each day. We share soap and toothpaste, how on earth will we share in separate dorms?! We also have not had time to buy the white clothes we are expected to wear during our time in the monastery and I panic we will be the only ones. I am sure you will recognise these comments for what the are: trivial angst felt by a compulsive worrier. D’s main concern is the lack of food past 12pm. These problems dissolve into nothing once we are eagerly greeted by Sue. Ah Sue! A petite frame topped with a radiant smile, beaming up at us like a full moon. For me Sue is the heart and soul of Wat Tam Wua. From what I can gather at first, she is the monastery’s receptionist. After a few days, however, we get the impression that she does a lot of the general organising too. Were Sue to leave, I am pretty sure the monastery would have a hard time running quite as smoothly as it currently does.

Sue beckons us to take a seat while we sign in with our names, passport numbers and so on. Meanwhile, she runs through the daily timetable and rules of the place. It is understood that the majority of the monastic community is not Thai nor do they come from a Buddhist background so some basic monastery dos and don’ts kick start the conversation: 1. When meditating the men sit first, nearest the monks and the women behind. 2. When addressing a monk be sure that you are at a lower level than him. 3. Make sure you respect the monks when talking to them; put your hands in prayer position. 4. A woman may never be alone with a monk and if she does have a question, make sure it is asked with other people around. 5. Never point the soles of your feet at the Buddha statue. (This one sounds odd to me at first… like when would you ever go around pointing your feet at the Buddha statue. However, after my first few attempts at sitting meditation my legs scream out to be stretched which, of course, would mean pointing the soles of my feet at the Buddha statue. I quickly learn to whip around and stretch my legs with my back facing Buddha). 6. Show respect to the textbook you are each given. It contains the word of Buddha so the book must not be discarded on the floor, nor may you step over it. Sue takes us through these rules with such a gentle nature that despite the lengthy list of restrictions we never feel overwhelmed.

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You can tell in seconds that this woman is unconditionally devoted to her job, the monastery, its monks and Buddha. Her eyes glow with excitement as she takes us through everything and I wonder how many times she has already gone over this exact same speech. I do not think repetition bothers her though. She is interested to know how we heard about the place as in recent years it has become increasingly popular with foreigners, mainly Germans and Americans. I can see pride in her eyes as we recount how we heard about the monastery through word of mouth. Her expression turns suddenly grave as the Korean girl beside me expresses that she only has time to stay for a few days. “This not good”, she mutters. “Not enough time. Maybe take three days for mind to calm down. You not notice many change in three days. Minimum five days is best. three weeks, three months! Long time is best”. She invites time for questions and we tentatively ask about the no eating rule. “Ah, so hard for foreigner!” A smile returning. She then goes on to explain that in Buddhism there are eight precepts; guidelines designed to help cultivate a pure mind. Of these eight, your average Thai Buddhist should follow the first five daily:

1. I will abstain from being harmful to living beings
2. I will abstain from stealing
3. I will not commit adultery
4. I will abstain from uttering lies
5. I will refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness

6. I will abstain from eating after noon time.
7. I will abstain from listening or playing music, songs, wearing flowers, jewellery and other ornaments
8. I will refrain from lying or seating on high and luxurious places

Monks and those laymen living within the monastery (like us) are advised to follow the full eight. This helps them to further train their mind, by indulging less in what is deemed useless and distracting in the quest for enlightenment. Sue explains to us that the monastery also understands that us foreigners do not necessarily come from a background where following just the first five is the norm. We are asked simply to try our best and of course Sue does highly encourage us not to eat past 12pm but she also tactfully points to a small shop just on the edge of the grounds where we can find snacks if our stomachs so desire them. “Just no eating in middle of monastery grounds please.” She then adds, “Here, no one force you do anything. I not gonna come in room and drag you to meditation. But you should! So good for the heart. I see many, many foreigner come here. Walk in first day look scared. Walk out after one week and smile. So happy inside. Mediation make happy like that”. Her energy is contagious. She points to a basket in front of us full of laminated badges with the words “Silent and Happy”. We are informed that at some other monasteries the silent rule will be forced upon you where as here it is each layman’s individual choice, but by wearing the badge others around you will see and respect your wishes. She giggles before adding, “this good for foreigner to wear badge. Foreigner always talk too much. You no talking you making better meditation”. Our heads packed with all this new information, we follow Sue outside to get kitted out with our white attire.

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Despite appearing to be a super rigid environment at first glance, I find the rules easy enough to follow. Mainly because each one makes sense to me. Like Sue said, the silence is never imposed but idle chitchat is minimised and voices generally kept low. In the beginning I feel so awkward. In the West we have this unwritten rule that requires one to make instant verbal communication when meeting new people. My cultural background means I automatically feel the need to entertain those who I share company with but here, I do not have to. Any social anxiety I harbour upon entering disappears in a matter of days. In no time at all I am able to sit comfortably with the others in silence enjoying their presence, giving myself a chance to observe and feel the unspoken energy between us. After I lose my initial desire to seek comfort in mulling over my thoughts and issues on the techniques of meditation with the person next to me, I actually come to realise that, as a complete novice, these comparisons are more of a distraction than a benefit. Although the monks do serve as guides in teaching us the most efficient ways to manoeuvre our way through this peculiar new procedure, meditation is a journey that each individual has to take alone. It is completely within you. It just takes a lot of persistent practice! Which is actually not so daunting when, not only does your schedule call for this practice every few hours, but nature herself almost does too.

Wat Tam Wua is so far lost in the boondocks that it is easy to forget the ‘outside’ (as we call it) exists. Large bulbous rock formations encircle the monastery and although, to be classed as mountains would be an exaggeration, their extremely close proximity means they dominate the horizon from every possible angle. It is natural to feel untroubled, like birds, half hidden in a giant nest. The grounds themselves evoke calm. Enveloped in a green tranquility, softened even more by an abundance of yellow and pink blossom, finding a peaceful spot to just be is effortless. There is so much space to walk and breathe that regardless of our numbers I almost always find myself in a quiet spot, alone . Each bush, tree, pond and lawn is immaculately kept by the monks and a dedicated troop of Thai locals who come in each day to help with the general maintenance. We are also expected to put in an hour's work minimum per day. The idea being that doing good deeds for others not only helps you collect good Karma, but also produces a calm mind for meditation. The work can include helping in the kitchen, feeding the fish or raking fallen leaves. I usually rake but my skills are pitiful next to the Thai ladies who can clear a lawn in seconds. They seem undeterred by the wind that undoes their neat piles almost as instantly as they are formed. Between work, meditation and enjoying the peaceful surroundings I still seem to find time to relax in my dorm.

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The dorm and separation from D was one of my initial worries but, to be honest, I find the accommodation ideal. The separation from him makes it even easier to remain silent; which I am sure keeps me far less distracted. Precept number 8 states that we must ‘refrain from lying or seating on high and luxurious places’ so my bed is a mat on the floor with some blankets. I spent most of my summer holidays as a child being ferried around Western Europe in a tent. I have spent a night camping on a field laden with sharp flint so, for me, this is more than comfortable. In fact, I feel like a princess as I enjoy my first warm shower in three weeks! My down-time in the dorm is spent devouring book after book. The monastery has a library housing a whole host of literature regarding Buddhism and meditation. I am able to not only fully immerse myself practically each day but also mentally. By reading, I bring together everything I am learning and it also helps clarify things that I maybe do not understand 100% when it is explained by the monks. This is not to say that they are bad teachers or that their English is poor. In reality their level of English is impressive, which is probably why so many foreigners make their way to this particular monastery. Some things, however, do not translate exactly how I think they intend them to. This is not an issue particular to these monks but one faced by translators daily. Some words, when directly translated, just do not have the same meaning, strength or connotations in another language. Being able to read books written in English for English speakers at the end of the day really helps clear-up some of these misunderstandings. The most common being a word constantly used in Buddhism: suffering.

To suffer in English is a word with strong associations. It evokes with it feelings of extreme physical of psychological pain and hardship. The monks repeatedly refer to our constant suffering as humans and in the beginning I cannot relate in the slightest. I am on the adventure of a lifetime. Stress from my job does not hold a space in my head because I do not have one. I have no mortgage to worry about, no bills to pay, no terminal diseases, no children, my parents are both alive and healthy, I was given the chance to go to university, I have never gone hungry, I have always had a roof over my head, I have never even broken a bone in my body. I have seen so many beautiful places and been loved by so many wonderful people … I actually feel extremely fortunate. Far removed from the connotations the word 'suffering' brings to my mind. However, after researching a little I come to realise that although the ‘suffering’ Buddha is referring to does include all these things, it is also so much more than this. It would be better translated as ’dissatisfaction’, something I can admit to feeling. A lot.

We are constantly dissatisfied. Whether it be about our past choices or our present situations. What’s next? Am I doing the right thing? We desire so many things, and living in such a consumerist society only highlights this even more. We want a better car, better clothes, a better job, a better phone, better opportunities. We wish we were taller, thinner, prettier, smarter. We worry about what others think of us and we constantly compare our lives to theirs. We rightfully worry when we discover an unidentified lump under our skin but it gets even more trivial than this. There are also the tiny, niggly thoughts that become such a constant presence in our minds that we barely even notice them at all: I’m too hot. I’m too cold. My back hurts. I’m hungry. I feel bloated. My arm is itchy. I have a headache. We are always suffering. For Buddhists its even worse, because they believe in re-birth. So not only does this suffering follow you in this life but it will in the next, and the next, and the next. For all eternity. The only way out of the cycle (samsara) is to become enlightened and the only way to do that is to meditate.

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Before arriving here I had dabbled in meditation but I always assumed it was ‘thinking about nothing’. It is pretty much impossible to think about nothing. The mind is designed to think so trying to shut it out is like programming a car to dance the tango before taking off for a whirl in outer space. After everything I have learnt this week I would now define meditation, not as emptying the mind, but rather as 'taking a back seat and watching what goes on'. Getting to know how the mind works and just spending some time paying attention to it. We spend so much time lost in conjured thoughts and ideas but most of us are not really aware of where they come from, nor does it ever occur to us to look. This is explained to us using the image of the cinema. At the cinema everyone sits and stares, absorbed by the story unfolding on the screen. Very few of us bother to turn round at look at the projector, the actual object creating the moving pictures. The monks often use simple images like this to convey their ideas in digestible pieces.

One monk uses the universal mobile phone to transmit the message of attachment. When your happiness derives from attaching yourself to impermanent things, the pleasure you feel will be short lived and will inevitably bring with it the opposite too: suffering. This is impossible to avoid. He whips out his phone and has us imagine it is an iPhone 7. As the funniest monk he is probably my favourite. I am sure he is in his early twenties but his energy is that of a wise, old soul. “This is the new iPhone 7. Day you buy it, take it home. You feeling so happy. You show your friends and they all say “Wow, new iPhone 7!" You spend many time admiring your phone but then one day your friend come to house and show you his… new iPhone 8!” The phone that once brought you so much happiness will bring you sadness because now you wish you had the upgrade. Of course this is a small example but the theory works on almost anything because everything is impermanent. This is just the nature of our world. People you love will die. Objects you obsess over will break or go out of fashion. Your youthful body will wrinkle and sag. People you trusted will break your heart. All the things that can bring you momentary pleasure will ultimately bring you disappointment and suffering. Being two ends of the same feeling it is impossible to have one without the other. The monk clarifies with yet another example. “You meet a man. You really like him and you think one day I marry this man. I have my children with him. This make me happy”, and there is no denying that children will make you happy. But you will spend a huge proportion of your adult life worrying about these children. Ask any mother. I doubt that you will find many who do not spend hours physically aching over the love they feel for their little ones. But by unknowingly defining ourselves by our ownership of almost everything; from our body, to our kids, to our thoughts, the inevitable suffering that follows becomes ‘mine’ too.

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All of this sounds quite depressing but Buddhist will tell you that in actual fact Buddhism is far more realistic than pessimistic. The idea is not to become a recluse; blocking out the pleasure to in turn block out the suffering. It is not about never allowing yourself to love thus never experiencing the hurt. It is more about accepting the true nature of how the world and your mind works. Being able to enjoy what you have, when you have it, without gripping on possessively to something you can never hope to control. If you are able to let go of the attachment you can in turn let go of the suffering.

We begin by changing the way we address ourselves during our meditation practice. Dropping the use of the terms 'I' and 'my'. When I sit with sweat dripping down my back instead of thinking “I am hot”, I say: “the body is hot”. If suddenly a breeze picks up, delicately cooling and caressing my skin, I do not allow myself to revel in the sensation but think instead: “The body feels cool”. If I were to get lost in that pleasure it would immediately be replaced by desire as, once the breeze is gone, I would yearn for its swift return. I begin to become aware of the beauty of impermanence. Pleasure is not permanent but then, neither is suffering. Yes, ‘the back’ may be sore from sitting in the same position for 40 minutes but the feeling will not stay forever. Everything will arise and fall, emotions and sensations included. We are taught specific techniques to use to calm our minds. If the nose is itchy I must resist the urge to itch straight away, without thinking, as I usually would. This would not be mindful. I should be completely aware of everything going on inside and out. Having spent the past 27 years jumping around, carelessly from one thought to another, it feels almost impossible to catch and still my concentration. I have never asked it to do this before so naturally it resits. The monks compare our minds to toddlers, urging us to be gentle and patient with them. Thankfully, just like with a small child, I have mental games (objects), to use as a distraction.

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The first and most common object is breathing. I concentrate on the feeling my breath makes between my top lip and nose, each time I exhale. Or on the rise and fall of my abdomen. When I notice my mind begin to wander I start counting my breathes. One to ten and then back to one. Of course, in the beginning I get as for as three before I am thinking about lunch but then I bring my mind back and start counting from one again. We are told never to get frustrated with our minds for straying like this as the mind is behaving the way a mind should. “Don’t get annoyed and push thoughts away, catch the mind. say ‘mind is thinking’ and mindful come back. Next time mindful come back faster”. He is right. The first few times I think constantly and it takes me ages to even realise my mind is thinking. This does not last long. Very quickly I begin to notice the mind thinking faster than before. It is not that I have less thoughts but now, maybe within just a few seconds, I can catch the thought before it takes over and bring my mind back to concentration. However, it is not long before I start to encounter a problem with my counting game. The mind is bored. I need more games. I count, I breathe deeply, I breathe normally, I spend time feeling each tiny sensation all over the body, I label my thoughts (anger, past, ego, impatience), I internally chant “Bud doh” like the monks, I say “in, out, in, out”. When I feel my mind begin to wander I quickly swap for a different game and succeed in holding it still that bit longer. 30 minutes sitting meditation starts to seem like five minutes and within three days I manage to sit for 50 minutes without moving a muscle.

Meditation is possible in any position. One could technically meditate 24/7. We are taught to meditate standing, sitting, walking and lying down. Lying down makes is almost impossible not to fall asleep, Standing I enjoy, but for only for a short while. Walking, as you read at the beginning, is far too distracting. Each position calls for different techniques and objects. Sitting quickly becomes my favourite. I am amazed by how fast my mind catches on to this new training. Just like a toddler, the mind is a sponge. I have bad sittings and great ones. Sometimes the toddler sleeps other times it throws its toys in my face. Sometimes I want to throw the toys in the corner, get up and leave. But the trick is to just calmly start over, again, and again. Soon I get to know the mind a little better. I am able to find what techniques work best for me, what position is most comfortable for the body and which toys pacify the mind the most.

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Once the mind has calmed a little I switch to my object of choice, ‘the five senses’. I watch the light dance through my eyelids forming shapes and colours behind my eyes. I listen to the insects and birds, I feel the wind, I smell the sweet pollen. Even the sweat rolling down my stomach hardly bothers me anymore. Instead, I use it as an object to distract the mind from wandering. By observing both the mind and the body in this way, you become aware of them as separate entities; both desiring and suffering simultaneously. Then you weirdly become aware of a third entity, the observer. I jump from the body to the mind checking up on them both. I observe the silence in the middle, and just when I can feel the mind unable to keep quiet a second more, I praise it with a game of counting. I can no longer feel my legs and I begin to notice that the more time I sit perfectly still, the less I can actually feel the body. It genuinely does not feel like it belongs to me at all. I know that my right hand is on top of my left but it is as if they have fused together. Everything but the mind has gone numb. I sit in a serene bliss, observing this peculiar sensation. I have never felt this before and then, with no warning at all, my stomach somersaults. The same way it does when you miss a step on the stairs. I regain myself quickly, not allowing this interruption to throw my concentration. I just watch. Then it happens again. It is at this point that the monk calls the end of the meditation and I reluctantly peel open my eyes. He ushers us round for questions and I find myself hearing him describe the exact ‘falling’ sensation I have just experienced. He states that this is the mind moving into a deeper state of concentration but, having never done it before, it panics. Hence the lunge in my stomach. This is probably my biggest breakthrough in my seven days here! Afterwards I keep trying to claw my way back to that feeling, but now that I know what I am looking for, it actually becomes even more difficult. It is like a blind spot in my mind, just when I am close enough to touch it, it disappears.

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Finally the day arrives. It is our turn to leave Wat Tam Wua and I am excited to see the outside world! It is as though eons have passed since our arrival. My last meditation goes really well despite my anxiety after having been stung by a bee, mid-meditation, the day before. The monk’s final talk is about our thoughts, and not allowing them to determine who we are. How we should learn to not feed our negative emotions, for example: laziness. He uses him own life as a model. Recounting that, as a student, he was unable to rise at 4am to practise chanting. “If you allow lazy to enter mind day one, it even stronger next day. You make it harder for yourself”. Seven days in this monastery has left me feeling strong and powerful and I vow that I will not allow lazy to enter my mind, I will keep practising everything I have learnt each day… or try, at least.

Leaving our last class, I am suddenly saddened by the fact that I will not see these monks anymore. We have come to grow so fond of them all and their individual quirks. The young one, the question-time one, the elderly one who never speaks, the serious one who never smiles, the jolly one who always smiles. I feel so privileged to have been able to learn in this warm and open environment, directly from these dedicated people. As tourists, we see monks all the time, but I would never have an opportunity to gain this much without visiting a monastery; and in English too! I walk back to my dorm for the last time in my white clothes. I feel simultaneously heavy and light. Happy and sad. It is as though I have been given a boost of serotonin causing me to feel, not overly ecstatic, but cozy and content. Balanced in the moment. I do not even feel like talking to D. My mind is buzzing with energy, but even the idea of striking up a conversation takes up too much of my strength. Besides, what would I say that could possibly sum up everything coursing through my body this second? Not wishing to break the spell, we walk down the path, side by side. Neither of us uttering a word.

I am so impressed with how much I have achieved in only one week. Can you believe, one German girl has been here eight months and counting? I think I would miss dinner too much to stay that long. For me, one week has been prefect. Not only have I been able to unearth all the random information regarding the monks I was curious to know; why they are bald? Why their robes are the colour they are? Do they have to be vegetarian? The difference between a Forest Monk and a City Monk. etc. I have learnt the importance of understanding the difference between pleasure and happiness. I have also discovered a lot about ‘myself’. Myself. Charlotte. This abstract concept that encompasses so much more than the never ending prattle going on in my head. I no longer define the voice inside my head as the voice of reason. This is but a tiny piece of the puzzle. I am the body; which will, completely unattended (and quite magically), grow, breathe and heal. I am the mind; imagining endless possibilities and impossible dreams. I am also pulsing energy. Energy that is constantly in interaction with the elements of the world around me. I am the noise. I am the silence.

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Posted by chb00001 09:54 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand monk meditation retreat wat_tam_wua forest_monastery maehongson Comments (3)

The Simple Life

Northern Thailand.


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Happy Healing Home: This is a place to learn and experience Lanna-culture, Buddhism and old knowledge that is close to be forgotten…
... In daily life the volunteers can learn about organic gardening, taking care the animals (chicken, pigs, buffalos, fish, etc.) and plants, building with natural materials, Lanna-cooking and Lanna-culture.”

We read these words months before even leaving Scotland. Work in a rural smallholding while receiving life lessons from a man who has spent 16 years as a monk in a monastery. What more could you want! Definitely one of the hosts we are most looking forward to meeting. Surely all our questions on Buddhism and the life of a Monk will finally be answered. Okay, so we have to pay 200 Baht a day (£4) but this includes accommodation, 3 meals and 24hour learning so we have no qualms with coughing up the money. It still works out cheaper than if we were to be freely roaming around the country and after one week relaxing in the beautiful Chiang Mai, we are both feeling more than ready to leave behind the cushy city life. The old town, a walled square, is filled with historic temples but it us also teeming with tourists. Quite a shock after our month in the school. Travel agencies litter the streets, giant posters advertise elephant riding and the controversial visits to the hill-tribes. Naturally we would love to see both but not knowing how reputable the companies are we decide to wait until we have researched a little more. Strolling the streets of Chiang Mai we are overwhelmed by signs in English advertising Happy-Hour, burritos, pizzas and burgers. It has not been quite long enough for us to feel the need to eat western food quite yet so we spend most of our time seeking out and devouring Thai food. Chiang Mai does not disappoint. I personally revel in the fact that I am now one of many western women in the city and finally release my shoulders to the elements.

Before coming here I had read that Thai people were conservative and to me that meant: wear a decent length skirt, minimise cleavage, etc. It had not occurred to me that my shoulders would now be viewed as the sexiest part of my body. Of course when entering a temple I naturally cover myself but this view stems out with the temple into normal life for most Thai women. In Bangkok you would never notice, it being such a cosmopolitan city, but this changes the second we enter rural Thailand. For the first time in my life, I become extremely self-conscious of my shoulders.

Thais will never tell you you are offending them, they are far too polite. They have no issue, however, in staring. When you can feel the heat of (what feels like) a thousand eyes boring into your naked flesh you quickly learn to adapt. What really surprises me, though, is it seems to be acceptable to wear the tiniest of shorts, so long as you have your shoulders hidden. The total opposite of where I come from. Basically, when they see a girl walking down the street with a sleeveless top on, it is the equivalent of us seeing a girl walking down the street with a teeny, tiny mini skirt on. This goes for swimming too. I have packed 3 bikinis but so far I have been asked to wear both shorts and t-shirt while swimming in waterfalls and swimming pools with local people (this is not at all the case in major tourist areas). I curse myself for not having researched this properly before coming out here, leaving behind my denim shorts in favour of long skirts while abandoning my long sleeved tops for sleeveless. Luckily this is the land of cheap clothes so a delightful stroll through the night bazaar of Chiang Mai is able to solve my dilemma. Although the majority of the Thai women in Chiang Mai also cover their shoulders they seem completely desensitised to the fashion sense of western woman, having been brought up with hordes of us milling around the city. So, even though I detest to potentially offend any locals, I liberate my shoulders and allow them to finally see some sun, knowing that this kind of behaviour is only going to be acceptable in areas where the locals are accustomed to western tourists. Right… enough shoulder chat! Let me get back to the story.

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So we have been in Chiang Mai for a week. Returning to the modern world of hot showers and western toilets after our month in the countryside. Despite the fact that Chiang Mai is known as the “Rose of the North” (which in rustic beauty it absolutely is) it is not long before we grow tired of being seen as rich westerners looking only to spend, spend, spend. Tuctuc and songtaews incessantly honk at us to the point of irritation and walking around the old town you quickly get the feeling that this part of the city has lost part of its former magic to be transformed into a Thai-Disneyland for Western and Chinese tourists. Filled with souvenirs and clothes that have a Thai feel but have clearly been made with nothing more than tourists in mind. I am not, unfortunately, immune to tourist-desires. I, like any one in this city, see and want most things. Compared to home everything is ridiculously cheap but we are not here for a holiday thus have a tight budget and literally no space in our luggage. Besides, we still have so many more countries to visit! Time to escape the City of Desire. Two weeks lost in the mountains sounds like paradise.

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Turns out we are not the only ones with this idea. The tiny, yellow bus to the Happy Healing Home (HHH) contains four backpackers from Poland whom we quickly befriend. They too share similar thoughts on Chiang Mai and are excited to be leaving the city. The three hours to the HHH are spent swapping stories and tips for future travels in Thailand as well as covering all worldly aspects: religion, sports, music, politics, global-warming, and life goals. Pleased to have found like-minded people D and the Polish begin talking about the destination that awaits us at the end of the journey. What kind of gardening will we be doing in this season? Will there be many other volunteers there? The Polish heard about the HHH through an Austrian they met travelling and were told the food was amazing. All of us are dying to meet the host, Jim. I try to join in but by this point I am beyond listening. My old friend travel-sickness has arrived and opening my mouth may induce a bus full of vomit covered Poles. Not the best way to charm new friends. I concentrate on the road and pray we arrive soon.

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As we ascend into the mountains the bus twists and turns throwing us from one side to the other. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. Great mountains covered in waves of dense forest, comprising of a mix of gigantic bamboo and tropical vines coiling around thick trunks of tall deciduous trees. Their leaves turning different shades of yellow and red as we enter deeper into the blistering dry season. It may not have rained in months but I am blown away by how green everything is, unable to even imagine the strength the green would be were it the rainy season! When my churned stomach can really take no more the bus comes to a stop in what I can only describe as the-middle-of-nowhere. The bus driver starts unloading our backpacks from the top of the bus before dumping them on the ground and driving off. Looking around at our surroundings we see that we are on a road bordered with garlic fields and the remains of paddy fields. A dusty trail stems from the road and leads upwards before veering left round a giant, rocky boulder. Assuming that this must be the track to the HHH we heave our bags on before excitedly starting along the earthy path, sure that surges of both happiness and healing will hit us in less than a few minutes.

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What does hit us are the prefect ingredients for a happy healing experience. The HHH is swarming with chickens, chicks, and virile cockerels. There are about ten bamboo huts scattered around the edge of the land built by, and now housing volunteers. In the centre of it all, a dry garden (that would probably contain an abundance of veggies were the rain here) with papaya and banana trees sprouting haphazardly here and there. I make the acquaintance of one over friendly pig, an adorable mama and baby buffalo as well as two little ginger KITTENS! A large, open wooden structure acts as a communal area where volunteers hang-out during free time, prepare and eat dinner and where a bamboo library is being built. There are outdoor toilets and showers (back to cold showers for us) and one wonderful invention includes a coconut shell with drilled holes over a high tap to aid the water to fall in a shower like manner. Luxury! The HHH is not immaculately spotless, but the dirt that is present is of the natural, unavoidable kind. Just exactly what you would expect of a place living so close to nature. I am actually surprised by how well the place is kept; uncluttered and orderly. For the first time in Thailand we see that there is a recycling system in place. Waste is organised and reused if possible and water never wasted, but always given to the plants or animals once we have finished with it. There is even compost! We use barely no electricity, everything is cooked outdoors on an open fire and we rise and fall with the sun, making the need for light (other than a personal torch) completely unnecessary. So yes, all the perfect ingredients for a happy stay except we are unable to shake off the feeling that there is something terribly important missing in this recipe.

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Individual experiences of the exact same place will always yield completely different results. Many variables can drastically change one person's view over another’s. For me, first impressions are one of the most important factors in any new situation. I once read that we subconsciously decide our first impressions of a new place or person within seven seconds of meeting them. We then spend the rest of our time mentally finding evidence to support our already established view. I have no idea wether there is any firm truth in this statement but after having read it I I have begun to notice that, for me anyway, it is not that far off. While I will always try and see things impartially my first impression of anything will weigh heavily on my finally decision, sometimes proving almost impossible to change once I have settled. The HHH was to be of no exception. As we enter the smallholding with our new Polish friends we are “greeted” with apathetic glances from the other volunteers who are lounging around the common area. We smile broadly with a cheerful “Hello!”. Some people reply, but nobody bothers to get up and truly acknowledge us. Okay, we think, it is the hottest part of the day and these people have probably been working hard all morning. Not really sure what to do with our bags we put them down out of the way and take a seat on one of the benches that line the long, low, wooden dinner table. There is an eerie silence between the other volunteers which causes us newbies to whisper to each other lest we break the peace. More volunteers come and go, some introduce themselves. We jump at the chance for human contact in this suddenly peculiar environment but we do not get much further than names and countries of origin. Eventually a German guy comes over to greet us and hands us a book to read, emphasising the importance of reading it through before settling in.

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We carefully read through the handwritten pages. It has clearly been made by former volunteers and opens with “Welcome Pinaan”. Pinaan is how we should now refer to each other at the HHH. Our host is Pinaan Jim, I am now Pinaan Charlotte. I am still not entirely sure of the exact meaning of the word but from what I gather it means something like I-acknowledge-you-as-a-fellow-human-being. The rest of the book outlines the HHH project itself, things to do here, past big projects conducted by the volunteers, tips on what to do to help out around the home and unfinished projects left by volunteers who left before terminating. We read comments from past visitors who talk about their wonderful time spent here and our confidence is restored. It is insisted we pay very close attention to one particular page of the book: Happy Healing Home rules. These include things such as: always being kind towards each other, no drugs and no alcohol. No use of vulgar language which is then oddly followed by what I think is meant to say “no sexual relations between volunteers”, but actually says ”No fucking your brothers or sisters”. No talking about home, past, family, travelling or just talking in general as it is a mindful home and these kinds of conversations are poisonous to anyone trying to be mindful. Suddenly the lack of acknowledgment and chat from the other volunteers starts to make sense. They are not trying to be rude, they are all just following this page of rules.

While I am most certainly here to learn, and my intentions do not include messing with the already set dynamics of the group, I would disagree to which the extent of the no talking rule exists. Especially in a place that “welcomes” new volunteers every single day. Mindful is being present in the moment. I do not believe that that includes ignoring those around you. It does not take much to make eye-contact, acknowledge and smile at people who clearly look uncomfortable. Especially when the likelihood is that they too felt exactly like us not even a week before. All around the settled volunteers go about their chores, chopping wood, constructing things, cooking, washing-up and we awkwardly sit there lost and confused. When we ask around at what we can do to help we are given a general response of “anything you like”. Not the most helpful answer. It seems that nobody wants the task of helping the new people settle in. We wonder around, searching for a job that needs little instruction, determined to help out lest we be considered idle. Not easy when you are new and have absolutely no clue as to what needs to be or can be done. Pinaan Jim, the famous host, eventually appears seeking out each new-comer, asking our names and where we are from. He is a short man in his early-fifties with shoulder length greying hair tied back with a green scrunchy. As he shakes our hands his deep, basset hound eyes meet ours and I feel relieved that finally the host himself will give us some sort of guidance. Alas, we receive no more interaction from Pinaan Jim until maybe a few hours later when it seems deemed a correct time for us to be shown our wooden huts.

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As dinner time approaches, vegetables are chopped, the table wiped down and set. We take a back seat and watch the operation, preferring not to get in the way. We see that each setting has a bowl and spoon. Piles of food are placed on banana leaves and in bowls down the middle of the table, four people to each “mountain”. This is what the layout of food is called. In silence we sit down in front of a bowl and spoon and finally a hushed voice by my ear explains the table etiquette of the HHH. That we should help ourselves to the food with our right hand, spooning what we want into our bowls but never moving the mountains closer to ourselves (as we would in the West). Such a gesture implies ownership of the bowl and the idea is that everything we have here we share. I quietly respond with a “Thank you for telling us”, genuinely pleased at this considerate gesture. My last wish is to unknowingly break any more rules. The owner of the voice, a tall, tattooed Austrian, stands and begins digging around in a large container that holds a massive quantity of sticky rice. He makes a ball of it in his hands, passes it down the line of seated volunteers until it reaches the last 4 people who place the ball of rice in the empty bowl that forms part of the 'mountain range' in the middle of them. This continues until the whole table has rice, at which point Pinaan Jim addresses the table:

All lovely Pinaan,
Please go to the mountain 
and eat a lot
.
Have a long life.
and Namaste.

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We reply with a mumbled “Namaste” and dig in. The food is delicious! So many strong and unidentifiable flavours. I taste vegetables cooked in ways I had never experienced and the sticky rice is by ar the best we have tried in Thailand. The ever present silence still hangs over the group as the food is quickly devoured. The table disperses and some volunteers begin to do the washing-up while others roll an after dinner cigarette. The rest move off to the common area to read, relax and talk. We try to help clear up but it becomes evident that our lack of knowledge as to where things go makes us slow and useless. Anyway, we are around 17 volunteers so there really are too many cooks. We collect our books and join those in the common area.

By this point I have given up on trying to make one-ended conversations with the others, concluding that they are shy and deciding that tomorrow we will all be more familiar with each other. I settle into a corner, my back leaning against the newly constructed bamboo wall, kitten curled up on my lap, and begin reading. I try hard to concentrate on the pages in front of me but my mind wonders constantly to what tomorrow will have in store. That all too familiar tummy-turning feeling of the unknown weighs heavily in the pit of my stomach. The feeling that I always know will be banished within 24 hours but that still appears, without fail, each time I change my surroundings. By 9pm we are curled up inside our patched-up mosquito net (duct-tape is one of the most useful items we have packed), feeling well protected from the noisy, nocturnal life that lies on the other side. Although day one can only be described as strange we recognise that acclimatising here may take a few days, we are willing to give it a chance. We have planned two weeks here, and if we are unable to break a smile from the current volunteers at least we have our new friends, the four Polish travellers.

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The next day begins with a rude awakening (4am) from a very croaky cockerel roosting in a tree right above our hut. For the first time, since our arrival in Bangkok, we feel cold. We curl up deeper into our nest falling in and out of sleep until the ensemble of cockerels becomes too loud to ignore. We have not been told what time we are expected to meet, nor where so we decide to get up just before daybreak and head to the common area. Some volunteers are already up, wrapped in scarves and blankets. Pinaan Jim is there too, sporting a wooly hat and tracksuit bottoms under his shorts. A large pot of coffee brews invitingly on the open fire and we haul our sleepy bodies towards the promise of caffeine. The sky begins to brighten and the trees lining the top of the surrounding mountains look ghost-like in the morning haze. A few volunteers have moved to an open area and begun to stretch. We sit and watch with our coffees, unsure if we are meant to join in or if this is a personal activity. A trickle of the early risers join them until almost everyone is silently, free-styling their yoga moves in what I can now see is clearly a routine activity. Awaiting no invitation or explanation we join the exercise and it is not long before Pinaan Jim is there too, leading the class. He is by far one of the bendiest 50-something year old man I have ever encountered. Able to fold his head to his knees and put his legs behind his head he announces that, “You cannot possibly learn to control the mind if you cannot control the body”. Once I get over my discomfort of looking like a complete idiot I allow myself to become absorbed in the stretching. My cold, stiff body soon warms up. This is absolutely one of the best ways to wake up, and soon becomes my favourite pat of the day here at the HHH. The stretching is followed by walking meditation to the temple, more yoga then sitting meditation. The periods in which we meditate are short and manageable for newbies like us but not much is explained in the way of technique so, although sitting quietly listening to nature is calming, I am not entirely sure what I am meant to be doing. Once our body and mind training is complete we head back home for some well earned breakfast, after which Pinaan Jim announces that we must all head to the neighbouring garlic field to help the Thai workers harvest the garlic.

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From what I understand the HHH’s Buffalo had escaped her leash the day before, deciding that the best way to spend her freedom was by eating and trampling the garlic in the neighbouring field. As an apology, or as a way to avoid paying any fines, Pinaan Jim has promised the owner of the land help in the form of a dozen volunteers to assist in harvesting the crop. I do not mind at all. At least this way I know exactly what my task is and can feel like I am pulling my weight in the group 100 percent. The work is not too tasking. Pull the garlic out, without breaking the stalk and leaving the head in the earth (harder than it sounds) and pilling it up ready to be collected. We work alongside a group of Thai workers who delight at the unusual western company. The sun beats down on us and we are encouraged to take regular water breaks. I can feel my mood lift with the morning dew, enjoying the repetitive work and even beginning to converse with some of the other volunteers. The delectable smell of garlic drifts into my nostrils and above our heads around a hundred dragonflies pirouette through the air. I realise that this exquisite display is due to the fact that we are destroying their home but there is little time to ponder this thought. Soon I am back on my hands and knees ripping garlic from the ground.

My ears prick up when I overhear a group speaking French beside me. So far I have not conversed long enough with anyone to reveal that I too speak French and I am about to join in when what they are saying causes me to halt.

Did you know that the Polish group have gone?”
What? Gone? All of them! When? How?
There is only one bus a day, at 6am and they were here at breakfast?”
I don’t know but they’re gone.”
I’m not really that surprised,” a girl replies with a sneer, “I could tell they weren’t going to last. You know, they’re are certain rules here and they seemed pretty lazy to me.”

Which generates the reply of, “Oh, I didn’t really know them.” This particular volunteer refusing to bite the ‘let’s gossip’ bait, a move I greatly respect but it is too late. The damage is done. My good mood bursts to be replaced with anger. How could these people be so mean? They have made no effort to speak to the Polish. If they had they would know that their visa runs out in a week and they only ever intended to stay a few days. How could they possibly think that they were lazy when they have spent less than 24hours in their company? Perhaps they did not throw themselves into the afternoon’s work the previous day because, just like us, everybody was so vague about the whole thing! I am sickened by the high school mentality that should be far from the “kind” bubble promised by the Happy Healing Rules. Then I wonder, what on earth must they be thinking about us? I decide that it is probably better they do not know I speak French and move on to share with D the news that our friends have moved on. At lunch that day rumours are flying around the group about the Polish and their abrupt departure. Someone even asks Pinaan Jim what has happened to the four new Pinaans to which he replies something about people coming to his home for a holiday and not to work. Everyone laughs at his hilarity and I am reminded of a programme I watched in the UK hosted by Derren Brown regarding herd mentality.

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I am sure that individually these volunteers, just like most humans, are kind, considerate people. The strange, new environment and imposed rules seems to have shifted the balance causing a new sense of confused identity. The place begins to have a cult feel for me. Everyone silently keeping a close watch in their peripheral vision on the doings of the others while acting 100 precent 'mindful' on their own task. I try to smile at people as they walk past but at times I struggle to even make eye-contact. As I remove myself emotionally from everyone I begin to observe the whole affair as though I am watching a documentary. Perhaps the already formed Happy Healing Group felt threatened at our arrival seeing as we made up six new volunteers. They did not know we were not travelling together and usually each day brings one, maximum two new members to the family. Six was perhaps too much of a change for them; us coming across as intimidating to them as we they were to us. Who knows?

I am now positive that were we to have arrived separately from our Polish friends our first experience and impressions would have played out very differently. Luckily this is the sort of place that depends hugely on the current volunteers, and new ones come and go every single day causing a constant change in the atmosphere. We decide that we will take it upon ourselves to welcome the newbies each day, explaining where things go, what to do, what not to do and just insuring that their all important first impressions differ greatly from our own.

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From then on things do get better. We meet and greet many new arrivals and begin to feel more at ease. We grow extremely fond of Pinaan Jim’s brother, wife and uncle who speak little English but still regularly manage to make us smile and laugh. I can feel my body benefit from tuning itself into a sleeping pattern that follows the natural light of each day. It is not that the pace of life slows down here but more that time itself takes on a completely different dimension. Things that occur only the morning before quickly feel as though the have happened at least a few days ago. With little electricity and no electronics we are able to allow ourselves to live fully in each moment. We partake in different activities including clearing an area of the forest, learning which bamboo to use for construction and how to chop it down most effectively. We then use the bamboo to build new paths for the garden. An afternoon is spent shelling and roasting coffee beans, a long fiddly task which will forever make me appreciate the coffee I drink each morning. While each evening a fire is lit near the buffalo mama and her baby, the smoke keeping the mosquitos at bay. I also learn that the white sap from the banana leaf stalk is great to use as as a natural moisturiser for dry hands and that soaking timber in swamp water for months on end will eliminate the chance of a termite infestation. Almost all of this new information, however, we learn from other westerners living at the HHH. This is not to say that I am choosy about where my knowledge comes from but I came here expecting to learn more from Pinaan Jim himself.

I wanted to learn about the Lanna tribal ways and culture. More about the properties of the plants in Pinaan Jim’s garden and surrounding area. Information on his religion and the techniques to meditation. I want to feel like I am really helping the project but most of the time I am busy trying to find something to do that makes me look occupied so that I am not deemed lazy by the others. Which, when you consider the fact that we are paying to be here... it all just begins to feel like a waste of our time. With a little more structure and communication I am sure that this place could be a haven for all. I try to stifle my frustrations knowing that they stem from nothing more than my own expectations. The hardest to accept, however, is the host himself; a man I find myself almost avoiding by the end of my stay.

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When Pinaan Jim makes the odd appearance it is usually to firmly inform us (yes, it is always us) to quit talking and be mindful. We try but we have befriended an Italian and although the other volunteers talk as much as us, as I have discovered with most of my Italian friends, his voice is always the loudest . This is repeated so many times that we begin to loathe the term rather than embrace it as, sadly, the concept and its properties are never explained to us. In many ways I am fascinated by this ex-Monk with a difference. He is a heavy smoker with a self-confident almost arrogant personality who loves nothing more than to indulge in his passion of cock-fighting (which i personally disagree with but culturally accept). His comments, at times, ever so slightly condescending towards westerners:

When people in the West rise in the morning they speak before mind awake. They say “Did you sleep well?” thing like this. We call this bullshit!”.

This is repeated more than once during my time at the HHH, although lost on the none-native English speakers who repeat ‘bullshit’ with his accent thinking they have just learnt a new Thai word: “ah pusheet” they echo as I stifle a giggle. Although I must agree with him. I have noticed that we westerners are more likely to fill awkward silences with pointless words. Even while we think of a response we “erm” and “um” while people here really think before they speak. I just disagree with being told what I do and think is bullshit at six in the morning. These comments seem to go unnoticed by the other volunteers who all love the man. I even hear him being referred to as 'enlightened', which is a little too far for me.

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What I can say is that I hugely admire Pinaan Jim’s determination and achievement in having created the Happy Healing Home eleven years ago. His dream realised way before the help of the internet. He was still able to reach out to the world and allow his reputation, the HHH and the project grow to what it has today. Almost 5000 volunteers have passed through, some staying for a few days others 12 months! The HHH offers so much freedom to those who are skilled and creative enough to use it. For a young engineer or architect this place is a dream. Everyone comes here for different reasons and with different approaches to learning. Many find exactly what they are looking for in both the HHH and in Pinaan Jim. Our own experiences here, for sure, would greatly differ from another’s. Reading the massive amount of positive feedback he receives online, I would even say our own experience was clearly out of the ordinary. Therefore I highly recommend visiting, if you can, and trying it out for yourself. For us, it is time to move on. We will not, however, leave empty-hearted having met many wonderful Pinaans and learnt many new skills. We have had immense time to spend admiring the diversity that is our own species and had time also to realise that we are clearly not ready to fuse farming, meditation and mindfulness all together… yet. One at a time maybe. Next stop: Buddhist Monastery.

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Posted by chb00001 06:53 Archived in Thailand Tagged travel thailand chiangmai jim community volunteer happy_healing_home pinnan Comments (1)

Teaching in Thailand

Ban Ponwadaeng School


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“Volunteers, please come stand here. Introduce yourself to the visitors.” I stand as 60 pairs of eyes turn their gaze my way. My tummy turns and I feel the blood rush to my face. Making my way to the front of the hall I stand in a line with the other four volunteers. Behind us are two very much larger than life pictures of the King and Queen. Ahead of us sit 60 school directors, men and women all dressed in black suits with yellow shirts underneath. It’s 35 degrees. I’m sweating in my t-shirt and skirt and I can see that the heat is also affecting my audience but they seem to ignore it preferring to remain smart in their suits. As we form a line they beam at us, each one pulls out a smart phone and begins energetically snapping pictures. This is what it must be like to be famous! Or just a western person in the middle of a rural village in central Thailand, as we are. Sunnee hands the mic to Yanic and grins. She repeats, “introduce yourself”.

“Sawadee Krup. Hello, my name is Yannick. I am from France and I have been working at the school for almost 2 weeks…” I stop listening desperately raking my brains for some moving speech on how fantastic I think the project is. Nothing. Suddenly Yannick turns and hands me the mic. My palms are sweating and I’m sure everyone can see the mic trembling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m used to public speaking. I’d go as far as to say that I even enjoy it at times but usually I know what I’m going to say. However, in classic Thai spirit, this little speech was flung at us moments before the arrival of these VIPs to the school. We spent the morning watching the whole school, teachers and children alike, dusting, tidying, emptying bins, decorating the hall with gold, pink and sky blue banners, preparing coffee and cakes. The older students are quiet and obedient while the younger ones are excited by the change of energy in the air. Everyone is wearing their Sunday Best. The little girls look gorgeous in Thai traditional skirts decorated with beautiful bright coloured thread their hair in exquisite braids and buns. They sit patiently outside rehearsing their songs, chants and presentations, awaiting their turn to entertain the guests. Making a good impression is always important but here in Asia more so than ever. I don’t know just how important these people are but the way everyone is behaving, they may as well be royalty. Anyway, so here I am mic in hand. Standing tall I smile, hide all signs of nerves. I’m determined to make a good impression on these guests especially after the graciousness we have been shown here.

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“Sawadee Ka, Hello and thank you for coming. My name is Charlotte and I am from Scotland in the UK. I, just like Yanic, came here to this school using the website helpX. I plan to travel for over a year in Asia so I was happy to spend time volunteering along the way. I love working with children. The kids here are so lovely and respectful, such fast learners. I teach Kindergarten and I’m very impressed with how many songs they’ve learnt with me in the short time I’ve been here. As volunteers we are treated so kindly by everyone in the school and the village so it’s also been such a beneficial experience for us.”

I rattle this part off and I can hear my mum inside my head, “talk slower” she says. I know I am talking fast even for native speakers. Then it dawns on me. Most of these people will understand 50% of what I say were I to talk slow. They perhaps understand 20% of what I’m actually saying right now, despite the nods and smiles I’m receiving. I decide to wrap it up, “I think the project at this school is working very well and should be adopted in other schools in Thailand, Thank you, Kapkoon Ka”. It was not the most riveting performance I have ever made but I have made my point. Pleased my moment in the light is over I pass the mic to the next volunteer. We all say similar things and keep it short so as not to bore our guests. D finishes off the speeches with a passionate account of his time in the village. Thanking the guests for coming to our school: “I say our school because that’s how I’ve been made to feel here. At home. And I’m proud to be a part of it”. He passes the mic back to Sunee who adds “Danílo, thank you, you gonna make my cry!” she laughs before turning back to her visitors, confidently chattering away in Thai.

Sunee is a petite, middle-aged woman who exudes both kindness and respect. A person of the sort who radiates warm and wise energy from the second you encounter them. Her husband Sawang (the director of the school), a calming, gracious presence, is the quieter of the two but still shares that same energy. They are humans of the nature to lift your mood just by standing beside you, the ones you secretly wish would just take you home with them and nurture you. Sunee has a fantastic grasp of the English language with a subtle sense of humour, often emanating the most unexpected expressions like “shake a leg!” or “No money, no honey”. Together these two extraordinarily driven people have built the foundations to what is now known as “the first rural bilingual school in Thailand”. On our first day there they share with us their dream; that, if given the chance, all of Thailand could speak English as a second language. Unfortunately it’s not the case, least of all in rural villages like Ban Ponwadaeng. Usually children in larger towns and cities have more opportunities when it comes to education however the provincial setting of this village has been no obstacle with regards to the education of these students.

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The school is separated into two sections. One is a classic Thai primary and the other is the IEP (Intensive English Programme). The children here pay a tiny bit more and receive half their lessons in English, including Art, Maths and Science. English speaking teachers are not easy to come by in rural parts of Thailand so most, if not all, of the English teachers here are from the Philippines. On top of this Sunnee and Sawang have begun the volunteer programme by searching for willing helpers using the internet. They provide a bed and two meals a day in exchange for a few hours of work (and class preparation) per day. They state that they do not require English teachers, nor do they want actual English lessons. We are asked to create fun activities for our classes to ensure the students enjoy their lessons and see the fun they can have using the language. The use of the volunteer, we are told, is more to interact with the children; allowing them to hear different accents, learn about different cultures and build their confidence when talking to foreigners. These are children of parents who spend most of their time working the land. The likelihood is that the majority of them will follow in their parents footsteps and most of them will not see much of the world past their own region. Sunee tells us “the village can’t see the world, so I bring the world to the village!”. And so they have. In the space of only a few years the village has hosted over 100 volunteers from all over the world. Many come from China, as the school also teaches Chinese, others from France, Spain, Austria, Italy, Chile, Germany, USA and now Scotland and Brazil. Their hard work has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the region. During our three and a half weeks here we have visited and been visited by many admirers of the English Programme including the 60 school directors from neighbouring regions, the Mayor of the Phichit Province and the head of the department of Education (possibly for the country?). It is hoped that the IEP will be implemented in at least ten schools in the next year. I can only hope it actually happens. Sunnee and Sawang are the proof that with the correct drive it can absolutely be done.

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This is not to say that every child we encounter here understands perfect English. Far from! What I do notice, however, is the secondary outcome of having a constant flow of westerners in the village; confidence. After meeting numerous other students from neighbouring schools and provinces it is plain that we are fascinating to them, but only from a far. When pushed by their teachers to come and talk to us their fascination transforms to fear and only the bravest step forward to actually interact. The same cannot be said for the pupils of Ban Ponwadaeng. The kids here have no embarrassment or anxiety in addressing us. Not only are these children familiar with sharing their village with westerners but I would go as far as to say that they indulge in our company. It’s impossible to traverse the playground, walk to the shop or even browse the market without the accompaniment of at least four excitable, mini guides.

The gracious hospitality of these young beings immediately sets us at ease. Especially in the first days when, quite frankly, we are left with with far more questions than answers. What’s our timetable? Will we be teaching together? Will we have a Thai teacher with us or will we teach alone? How long are the classes? How large are the classes? We soon learn to give up searching for answers and just go with the flow. Far less stressful and much more fun. Our first few lessons prove impossible to locate. Upon eventually finding the room we peer inside searching for the students. No children. After questioning a passing pupil we discover, what looks like, the younger half of the school sitting together behind the building, cooking food on their own individual clay BBQs.

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Small groups of children occupy the centre making beautiful presentations with fruit. Around the sides children of mixed ages (6-9) are cooking meat over real fire. As we regard this enterprise a small, grubby hand finds my own and I peer down. “Teacher! teacher!” (The title bestowed upon any westerner residing in this village). A tiny toothy girl stands before me in faded tartan uniform and holey socks, proudly presenting a piece of meat. Although I immediately question how thoroughly it’s been cooked by this young chef, I humbly accept the gift. My eyes widen as I see a group of boys cooking over a fire that has been positioned 5cm from the edge of quite a high kerb. The (over)protective instinct in me panics. What if it falls and sprays hot embers all over their bare legs?! I scan the scene for some adult supervision but the teachers are oblivious. Well, oblivious or at complete ease with this insanely, hazardous activity! This would never happen in the UK. Mainly due to paperwork and health and safety but also because I don’t think young children would ever be trusted to do anything like this on their own. As I look around I notice that these children are having fun; chatting, singing and generally behaving like kids. They’re not misbehaving, playing with the food or the fire, nor are they so distracted that they’re forgetting the task at hand. In fact it is all going remarkably well!

Even more impressive than the cooking is the speed in which they tidy up. Again, in the UK the teacher would play a prominent role in helping tidy up such a messy activity, especially one that included red hot burning embers. Not in Thailand. The teacher mediates, makes sure everyone is helping, points out things that are still lying around but it’s clear that this is their mess thus their job to tidy. At one point I see her brandish an 8 inch knife that had been left on the ground, wave it in the air and yell in Thai. Almost immediately a child, no more than seven years old, runs to discharge her of the weapon before disappearing among the frenzy that is “Tidy up Time”. Within five minutes the whole place is empty. Food gone, plates and cutlery cleaned, fires extinguished, mats rolled away, floor swept. Nothing is left but the ever ravenous stray dogs that appear to reside at the school.

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The following weeks prove to be routine. We teach two kindergarten classes each morning, an hour each. All classes in this school last an hour, regardless of the age of the students. Now, if you have ever tried to hold the concentration of a 4 year old you will know that one hour will feel like an eternity, to both them and you! My classes, planned the night before, feel chock-full of activities that would surly last over the hour I am expected to entertain these small beings. Yeah right! Tasks I plan to last 10 minutes only last two and often I reach the end of my class plan a mere 30 minutes into the class. Panic sets in as the children turn their attention from me to each other. Not being able to speak Thai does not help. Somehow I do not think my few words: “hot, cold, hello, goodbye, thank you, a little spicy” will be of any use to me in here. Instead I do the only thing I can do, I sing. Lucky for me previous volunteers seem to have taught a plethora of nursery rhymes. As I start “red and yellow and pink and blue…” it is as though something switches in their heads, they start singing together and, just like that, they’re hypnotised, their gaze returning to mine.

The alternative tool to control ones class in this country comes in the form of a long bamboo stick not too dissimilar to the one used on the monkeys in Lopburi. If the children become too rowdy the teacher is likely to slam the cane down on her desk to shock the class in to silence. On a few occasions we have seen children gently hit on the hands with this cane and I have even been granted permission to hit the children myself with said stick. Fortunately I teach these classes together with D, having two pairs of eyes to manage the class means less chaos and less need for punishment. It also means that we can plan more fun activities that would otherwise be impossible. In Thailand a teacher has much more freedom when it comes to where they teach and we are encouraged to take the kids outside. We spend mornings singing songs, hunting for insects, flying paper aeroplanes, on one occasion we organise a treasure hunt and on another we download some traditional Scottish music to teach them a simple ceilidh dance. On our last day a genuine sadness envelopes me as I try to explain to these young students the concept of “goodbye forever”. Some grasp the idea while others cluelessly jump around chirrping away at us in Thai, eager to begin the next game. As I stare down at our beautiful chaotic class I come to realise how much these little guys, the school and the village have marked me this past month.

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Ban Ponwadaeng, for the record, is not a village in the traditional sense. I would describe it more as two roads forming a T shape lined with a few houses, make shift shops, an internet-cafe (selling ice-cream!), school and small temple. Other houses, farms and hamlets surround the area thus make up the 300 students that attend the school. The school itself consists of a a few different buildings painted sky blue with a football pitch out front surrounded by various trees (coconut, mango, banana). When school ends the boys gather to play football every day, kicking up dust to the point that their feet are no longer visible to onlookers. This dust quickly becomes mixed with smoke due to the small fires lit by villagers and farmers. They regularly burn the fields to make way for new crops, or indeed just fallen leaves they have raked up. The concept of compost has yet to reach this part of the country so anything unnecessary is burned. Each evening, like clockwork, the pink sky becomes hazy with smoke and black ash falls to the ground like snow. The setting sun glows an unreal fluorescent pinky orange, massive on the horizon and the whole village becomes bathed in a soft orange, hazy, smokey, dusty cloud.

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The land itself is extremely flat, surrounded by rice paddies, banana trees and sugar cane fields. Those who work out in the fields are ferried to and fro in pickup trucks each morning and evening, crowded together in the back. To avoid inhaling the dust whipped up by the cars, they each covers their faces with a coloured cloth mask. Everyone sports a different colour often leaving space only for the eyes which they will usually cover with sunglasses giving them a more than sinister appearance. They become known to us as the Ninja-Workers. Joining the Ninja-Workers in passing through the village is a constant flow of humungous trucks pilled high with freshly cut sugar cane. You can always smell the trucks before you see them, the sweet, almost fermented aroma filling the dry, hot air. The only other mode of transport we witness are scooters.

Everyone in rural Thailand rides a scooter. Mothers will ride with their little ones standing on the floor in front or squeezed in between the driver and passanger on the seat. I have seen them carry as many as five people at once and of course nobody wears a helmet. Children as young as ten can be witnessed cruising the roads and many of them will even drive on the school grounds with not so much as a raised eyebrow from the teachers. After asking around for the legal driving age in Thailand I discover that it is 18 years old, even older than the UK or the US. This is cleanly not an implemented law and I am told that if the police were to see them they would probably just reminisce of their own childhood spent doing very much the same thing. Due to its rural location and lack of public transport if one doesn't learn to ride a scooter one doesn’t get very far. Literally. Lucky for me, unable to operate a scooter or a car, our house is within walking distance from the school.

D and I are lucky enough to have our very own small and modest apartment consisting of two rooms, shower room and outdoor stove. Our only furniture; a table and bed. Mosquito-net, fridge and fan the only real gadgets we need. Our bathroom has a squat toilet, tap and bucket which we use to wash and although yes, compared to our lives in the West it is a massive change, within a few days we feel completely at home and in want of nothing more. Before leaving to come travelling many of my friends worded my move as brave but each time we change lifestyle I am almost always struck with how incredibly versatile the human being is. I do not feel brave at all because within 24 hours most changes begin to feel completely normal. Waking up at 5am to the monks chanting in the temple next door becomes part of my daily routine, sleeping on a bed that resembles a large wooden table with a thin mat on top even becomes comfortable after a few nights. Feeding scraps to the cat and dog that seem to have adopted us is so regular that I begin to feel as though they actually are my cat and dog. Working together as a team to cook and wash the dishes outside or even washing our clothes by hand, these all take much longer without the gadgets we are used to but there is something rewarding in the joint effort of doing things the simple way.

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Of all the observations I have remarked upon above however, the primary element of this experience that will be missed by us both is the never ending kindness demonstrated to us by each person we have met here. Be that the students who are always eager to learn and play with us. The teachers, who may not be able to speak English yet shower us with affection in smiles, cookies, coffee and even on one occasion concerndely driving me to the doctor's (and translating for me!) when I lost my voice. The villagers who greet us with smiles each day, feed us our two meals a day and show a genuine worry for us when we are out during the heat of the day. I have even been given an umbrella to use to prevent the sun from browning my skin (which is, of course, is the opposite of what I want). Then finally to Sunee and Sawang, for making us feel more like guests than volunteers. For taking time out of their weekend each week to drive the volunteers around the region to visit beautiful temples, colourful markets and glorious waterfalls. Not ever allowing any of us to so much as pay for our drinks. Now, for what is meant to be a summary of our stay, I appear to have written an essay lengthy enough to be submitted as a university piece… sorry. With that I will stop! Anyone interested in volunteering for this school please contact me and I will send you Sunee’s details. I am positive they would be more than happy to receive you with open arms.

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Posted by chb00001 03:31 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand kindergarten volunteer teach Comments (0)

Ayutthaya & Lopburi

Temple Run.


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Now, as I mentioned previously, we have only one week before we begin our first placement at the school so we had only a few days to enjoy Bangkok. Knowing we’d be back for sure, due to most flights passing through the capital, we were happy to leave the city when the time came. With the promise to see some smaller towns we pack up our bags before beginning our ascent to the north. This particular voyage begins with a pretty interesting train journey. After purchasing our tickets we hop onto the carriage to grab a seat before they’re all gone. This particular carriage houses bench like seating, olive green walls and rotating fans stuck onto the ceiling. They seem a bit pointless when huge open windows accompany each set of benches. We sit down in front of an older Thai lady who smiles at us and removes her feet from the seat to let us sit down. I notice that she’s so tiny her feet don’t touch the floor and gesture that she can put her feet on our chair if she likes. She smiles and nods but doesn’t take us up on the offer. I sit down and peer through the large window. Along the tracks, in front, appears to be an open air hairdressers. Five or so customers sit on plastic coloured chairs that line the edge of the platform. They each bear an apron and a hairdresser who styles, trims and combs away. An elderly man sits on the floor beside them perfectly still, meditating. My attention returns to the inside of the train. Time for some top notch people watching.

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Behind me is a small boy and his grandmother. He’s a pretty wild child, jumping around, head out the window screeching out of pure joy and excitement to be on the train. His grandmother gives him a firm smack hoping to shut him up but he smacks her back and they both fall about the chair laughing. I can tell she was once as wild as him. In front a sign dangles between the luggage racks. it says “Reserved for Monks” and beneath the benches are filled with bald, robbed monks chattering amongst themselves. To my left is a full-figured, barefooted woman. Her face is weather beaten and her mouth houses only one tooth. A constant stream of chat bellows from her mouth (the entire 3 hour journey!) and lands on a gentleman wearing sunglasses in front. I’m not sure if he’s a friend, husband, brother or stranger but he spends the whole time silently receiving each word. Every once in while he nods to show he’s listening. Once again i’m desperately wishing that if I could have only one super power in the world, it would be to understand every single language on the planet. What could she possibly be saying! I feel the engine roar and we begin to move. We bounce up and down on our hard seats while the train finds it’s rhythm, feels more like a tractor than a train. Pleased to have the window seat and I stick my head out the window enjoying the natural fan the wind is providing. The equivalent of the food trolly arrives. A slender woman, hands laden with pre-cut pineapple, cold juice and candy walks through the aisle calling in Thai, her repeated words almost sound like a song. She stops to sell to some customers and moves to one side as another food vendor squeezes past her. This becomes a constant stream and I’m reminded that in Thailand food is consumed little and very, very often. The small Thai lady in front puts down her magazine to buy a bag of snacks. She gets up and hands it to the small wild child who has been dangerously hanging out the open window of the moving train. I’m touched by this random act of kindness. This is a 3rd class carriage and I can tell that the people around me are not affluent yet sharing food and laughter with the strangers around seems common practice. A group of teenage boys in school uniform giggle and share phone screens behind me. They chew on candy sticks and for a second they don’t look too dissimilar to teenage boys in the west… except that these boys are hanging out between the carriages. Like standing out in the open, on the tiny metal platform that joins this carriage to the next. They’re just half a meter from the track below, wind in their hair seemingly unworried that one wrong move could cost them their phones (or their lives!).

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Outside the window it appears that Bangkok never ends! The track doesn’t curve at all. We’re literally on a straight line heading north. According to D’s phone we’re no longer in the city but the buildings and constant construction are endless. An hour into the journey and we’re still passing grey slabs of concrete. Colossal metal frames soon to become immense buildings loom over the tiny workers below. They sport large brimmed hats, their faces wrapped up in material to prevent the dust penetrating their lungs, only their eyes are visible. Every now and then an exquisite gold temple will break through the monotonous building site until eventually the scenery transforms from grey to green. Fields of water with beautiful deep green shoots indicate we’re on farming territory. Rice paddies littered with life. Great, grey storks cool off and feed in the waters while small colourful birds dive into the leaves of the banana trees. I absorb the green, reminded that I’m most definitely not a city person. I have enjoyed the novelty of Bangkok but it is here amongst the natural, bright colours, lack of straight lines and right angles that my body and mind feels most at home. Suddenly a crackling noise coming from the other side of the track meets our ears and smoke erupts through the windows. The passengers, unphased, tuck their noses into their shirts in such a casual way that I immediately realise random field fires are a regular occurance.

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Our next few days are spent exploring the beautiful historical town of Ayutthaya. The present town itself is nothing special. It’s home to many stray dogs however this places enchantment lies in its temples. Unlike the glistening temples of Bangkok most of these have fallen into ruin. They’re white washed walls have gone over time, only the deep red brick below remains. Some are in better condition than others and each has it’s own unique charm. It all has a very Tomb Raider feel. We spend days exploring them all, traveling between each by tuctuc. One of our favourite temples houses a whole host of buddha statues. Some towering meters in the air. What really makes this temple visually spectacular is that each buddha is dressed in a gold sash. Even the huge reclining buddha at the entrance is covered in a massive gold piece of material. We are lucky enough to see an entire family clamber onto the edge, each holding a piece of this golden material and together drag it the entire length of his body. We’re impressed by the sheer size, age and beauty of these buildings and we don’t tire of wandering around the city. Our agenda is pretty much eat, visit temple, eat, visit temple. At dusk we watch the sun illuminate the red brick structures and at night we feast at the night market. Ayutthaya is indeed, a perfectly peaceful escape from the buzz of Bangkok. With only a few days until we begin our first placement we decide to take a day trip to the neighbouring town of Lopburi.

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Not too dissimilar to Ayutthaya, Lopburi also has temple ruins scattered around the town but not quite on the same scale as its neighbour. What draws tourists to this quiet town is, however, something far less peaceful. Monkeys. Hundreds and hundreds of them! We step off the train and I’m eager to catch my first glimpse. I’ve read that they’re everywhere so I’m a bit disappointed that I can’t seem to see any on the platform. I’ve come prepared with no glasses (sun or viewing), no bag. Nothing that they can steal or mistake for food. I deliberate whether or not my camera is a good idea and decide on taking it (sorry Dad!). I know how gutted I’ll be if i don’t get a picture of a monkey! We wander down the street a little and it doesn’t take long before i catch a glimpse of my first one. Initially I mistake it for a dog but then I spot another, and another and another. Soon they’re everywhere! We seen to have stumbled upon an area that is a designated feeding zone. They’ve purposefully made these so that the monkeys don’t go hungry thus are less likely to steal from the humans. This feeding zone is located beside small outdoor shops and the poor vendors are at constant war with the thieving animals. They are armed only with long sticks that they proceed to bang on the counter when it all gets too much. The noise causes the cunning creatures to disperse but only for a short while. I spot a tiny baby monkey drinking from a yakult, and capture my first photo.

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Across the road is a large red brick temple that is absolutly teeming with monkeys. This is clearly their home and i’m reminded of the temple in the jungle book! There is a lot of screeching, jumping, grooming, sleeping, humping and general monkey antics going on. Tourists buy food to feed them and boy do they come quick, snatching it right out their hands. I’ve read about this place so I know the monkeys are not shy to jump on you so I’m a bit weary taking pictures incase one creeps up behind me. D watches my back and I see a few tourists whooping with laughter as the animals jump onto them. Some sit contently grooming the humans while others hang off their limbs. You can tell when they’re coming for you as they lock they’re yellow eyes on yours and start walking slowly towards your feet. I decide to be brave and pick up a piece of half eaten corn off the floor, placing it on my head. I crouch down and wait. It doesn’t take long to attract someones attention and within seconds two monkeys fight to sit on my shoulder. The winning one grabs the corn and chills there. I can feel his sodden fur pressed on my face and as much as i’m enjoying the animal interaction, I’m worried it’s wet with pee and that it may bite me. Others start coming towards me and I panic. I’ve had enough. But how on earth do I get the damned thing off now?! I take a step with the monkey chilling on my shoulder. It seems pretty content, i don’t think it’s going anywhere without a nudge. I stride towards the man working in the temple. He too is armed with a long stick and as soon as my companion sees where I’m going he jumps off making a mad dash to the safety of his temple. I’m damp, smelly and covered in brown mud but it was totally worth it! I spend a good few hours taking pictures of the critters. I love the setting. A group of them are lounging on a buddha statue and in the setting sun it’s just beautiful.

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Before heading back on the train we stroll around the town a little. There are monkeys everywhere here too. Crossing the road, jumping in and out the back of pick up trucks. I look up at the facade of the buildings and see it’s crawling with them. They’re jumping around on the electric cables, there own personal play park. Down one ally we spot a scooter with about 7 monkeys draped over it. They begin to fight over the helmet, pulling it apart. Beside this another group are jumping around on a car, bending the wing mirrors. A man appears, yelling and they quickly disperse. The humans yell only once things escalate, most of the time they manage to live in harmony. I see an elderly woman compassionately feeding a few with fruit from a bag and I get the impression that the monkeys are not only tolerated but also respected. It would seem likely that it’s thanks to these little crazy critters that the sleepy town of Lopburi has made it onto the tourist map.

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Posted by chb00001 07:21 Archived in Thailand Tagged temple monkey train thailand ayutthaya lopburi third_class Comments (0)

Bangkok

city life.


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Although we had been warned of the scorching heat that was to greet us in Thailand, especially when arriving from Scottish winter time, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we were not boiling at all. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that i was cold a lot of the time! We both agreed that small bags were more practical than large ones so we carry only 40L backpacks each. Small enough to pass as hand-luggage but big enough to fit our entire lives for the next year and a half. I hadn’t counted that i’d need many (if any) warm clothes for the next year. At night I find myself suddenly very dependent of my only fleece. Naturally it’s far from being ‘cold’. The weather is still warmer than any average Scottish summer but the Thai people are in shock, especially in the evening when the temperature drops. They still frequent the street but they’re bundled up like eskimos; hats, gloves, scarves, blankets, basically anything they can find! The friendly guy working at the reception of our hostel reveals to us that this weather is not normal. That only two days ago it was roasting but this cold snap arrived yesterday and won’t leave for another few days. “One week of winter” he jokes. To be honest D and I are thrilled. This gives us a few days to ease into the hot weather and we thank our lucky stars that we weren’t wandering around in search of our hostel in 30 degree heat.

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As for Bangkok itself, it is far greener than I ever imagined it would be. Riding into the city on the sky train I was struck with just how much foliage there was. Of course human presence is everywhere and giant grey buildings emerge from the ground, stretching out way further than my eye can see. Some are new, others under construction, others lie abandoned. Perhaps abandoned but far from dead. Mother Earth has claimed these forgotten walls. Trees, vines and plants burst from the crumbling bricks. It’s hard to see where exactly the city has overgrown nature and nature the city. Temple roofs twinkle in the distance and the large familiar font of “TESCO” indicates that the western world is deeply intwined here. We’re also welcomed by “Boots” the chemist on Khao san road, a delightful street created, i’m sure, entirely for tourists but fun-none the-less. Here you can buy anything you want. Venders are everywhere selling bbq meet kebabs, fried scorpions if you’re game (i wasn’t… yet), haircuts on the street, braiding, dreading, tattoos, so many beautiful and cheap clothes (that i managed to resist… for now), restaurants, fruit juices squeezed right in front of you, even fresh coconut ice-cream.

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We spend a morning lost in the narrow bustling streets of China town, surrounded by strange cooking ingredients (fresh, dried, pickled, marinated, powdered), most of which i can’t distinguish at all. The odours that meet our noses are sweet, aromatic and unpleasant all at once. We constantly trip over ferrel cats that seem to have claimed Bangkok as their own. By night China town transforms into another place altogether. Tables appear in the middle of the street and the ingredients we looked over this morning are suddenly converted into the most deliciously incredible meals. Smoke bellows into the heavens as we sit watching our food being prepared before spending a good 2 hours devouring it. We’re lucky enough to have our own Thai guides as D gets into contact with two Thai girls (Ace and Wan Wan) who he studied English with in Australia 2011. I’m touched by their kindness as they offer us gifts and constantly buy us random street food until we’re literally about to burst. We try pad thai, fried squid, prawns, sticky rice, fresh coconut water, a delicious ground up dried fish powder, pork, chicken, sweet fried dough balls with condensed milk and, what tasted like, a rice pudding milk shake. They appear to be so pleased that we’re visiting their home country and proud to show us the best it has to offer. We shower them with questions and practise our rough Thai (much to their amusement). I feel so lucky knowing that an evening with these locals has helped enrich our short time in Bangkok! Without their help we’d never be able to ask for, or pick out any of these yummy treats!

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In some ways I find Bangkok exactly as I expected, a bustling, crazy pandemonium. In other ways it has really surprised me. I had been told it would be quite a dirty city but I don’t find it anymore dirty than most other large cities i’ve visited. Perhaps I have low standards! In fact I’m impressed by the clean, open, bright feel of the place. It’s common to see citizens sweeping the pavement outside their houses and we even see official street sweepers constantly cleaning communal areas with bamboo dustpan and brushes. There is definitely a sense of pride deeply felt within the city. It’s also, considering the population, not that loud a city. There are copious cars, scooters, tuctucs, taxis and buses but hardly any honking or blaring at all. I’d say that the drivers definitely have a lot more patience in Thailand than many other cities I’ve been to.

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I find that i’m most visually impressed, however, by a whole walled complex of beautiful temples, wats, statues, stupas, buddhas; the Grand Palace. Each decorated with what seems to be tiny coloured sequence. Gigantic columns of royal blue, emerald green and glittering gold tower over our heads. The whole place looks magical and as the tiny mosaics catch in the light i’m momentarily blinded. It looks as though a giant 6 year old child has dropped her entire craft box on top of this place and I later discover that I’m not far off. I see a Thai woman in full concentration hunched at the base of a column. She seems perfectly undisturbed by the thousands of tourist feet that surround her. She sits quietly working with glue and a box full of tiny blue cut squares which she proceeds to stick in place. one-at-a-time. This place is massive! I can’t believe that everything is hand-stuck. I have only seconds to stare at her in disbelief before the crowds sweep me into their current. We abandon our shoes at the base of some steps, following the lead of the many tourists, and enter one of the majestic buildings. This one houses the famous emerald buddha which sits on a lavish gold chair high up at the far end of the room. Paintings hang all around and as i look up i see that the ceiling is also covered in the tiny coloured squares. How on earth do they get up there! In front of the buddha is a barrier designed to prevent the flocks of onlookers from getting their sweaty, sticky fingers too near. On the other side of this barrier sit three monks dressed in tangerine orange robes, cross legged on the ground meditating. These are this first monks I see meditating in Thailand so I spend a good few minutes taking them in. How can they possible concentrate with all these people behind?! They are still and serene and I think that maybe they don’t hear us at all. Some people nearer the front of the crowd are kneeling and praying to the statue. They bow their heads to the floor then back to prayer position. They do this three times with the swift ease of a lifetime of practice before standing up and zigzagging their way out through the temple towards the crowd of selfie loving tourists.

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Spirituality clearly runs deep here and it takes only one day in the country to be aware of this. One part of the city, near our hostel seems to be dedicated solely to making and selling buddha statues. It’s hard to describe with only words but the statues will spread from the pavement deep into the dark depths of the shops. Maybe a couple of hundred in each. Most of them are gold but some mimic the emerald buddha and others are carved from grey or black stone. They are in different positions, tiny little ornaments to great figurines looming over our heads. It’s a pretty impressive sight and particularly beautiful when the sun begins to set, the warm, rose light reflecting off of their golden heads. I’m startled in one shop when i see a man meditating in the shop window. I walk on by not wanting to stare too much, i’m impressed and think, “Wow, they really can meditate anywhere!”, when I realise the same man is also sitting on the floor in this shop. In fact he seems to have a twin behind wrapped up in a clear plastic bag like an easter egg! On closer inspection I realise that these are also statues! Life like, life sized, almost like Madame Tussaud’s Wax figures of monks meditating in the shade. After passing 25 of these shops in a row we wonder what all these statues could possibly be for. Maybe people save up and buy a massive one for the bottom of their garden? A whole neighbourhood dedicated to religious statues. They can’t possible all be for temples?! Wrong. They are indeed all for temples! After travelling around and seeing the sheer amount of temples this now does make sense. We see three monks with sunglasses clamber into a silver ford and my mind wonders back to the tranquil monks once more.

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There is something simply beautiful and peaceful about the constant presence of monks here in Thailand. In the beginning I’m as curious as a child who can’t stop staring, oblivious of social decorum. As we spend longer in the country we see them everywhere and naturally my burning desire to stare and photograph them wanes. These are, of course, normal people so it’s only natural that we see them on buses, trains, buying coke, hailing taxis, etc. This leads me to regularly consider their lives. I wonder where they live, what they do each day and what they’re thinking. The more I think and see the more confused I become. Before arriving I read that monks can’t touch money but i’ve definitely seen more than one touching bank notes. They have their own seating area in train stations and on trains and as far as i’m aware, they don’t pay to ride them. I’ve also seen one monk at a train station slowly peel the wrapper off of an ice-cream and then throw the wrapper on the ground without a second thought. This was the most shocking for me. I know that littering is not such a big deal on this side of the world but Buddhism is respect and littering is such a basic thing for someone who practices respect daily. I also know that I’m not really meant to go near them, as I’m a woman. This was affirmed for me when I wittnessed a school girl profusely refuse to take a seat in front of a monk on public transport but then I’ve also seen a monk talking to a woman while smoking a giant cigarette. To top it off I’ve even seen some with televisions in their little monk houses. I don’t know why I had such western naivety to assume that all monks would be spiritual, enlightened beings. A Thai friend of D’s later explained to us that there are different types of monks, just like Christians. Some are very strict, living very modestly eating only one meal a day. Some dedicate their lives to teaching and helping others while a minority become monks in search of an easy life where most things are given to them for free. Some may have even been born into a large family, the parents sealing their fate by placing them into a monastery benefiting from one less mouth to feed. These monks will not necessarily grow up to be very spiritual people. This does make sense once I start to see, learn and question things. I don’t think many of these thoughts ever crossed my mind before coming out here. It’s a hard subject to learn about as I don’t speak enough Thai and I feel so uncomfortable going to them to ask. I’ve learnt that the monastery is a place to learn, just like priests in the past would have been there to teach. But i’m a woman and i feel unsure and certain i’m going to offend by accident. Things should become clearer in a few weeks as the organic farm is run by an ex-monk who seems keen to teach about Buddhism and happy to answer questions. It’s still the beginning so I’m sure it’ll all make more sense soon.

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I’ve already learnt so much! How to barter the price down on most items (well… maybe D is better at this than me), how to use chopsticks (almost like a pro) and how to eat spicy(ish) food. I was so worried about food being too spicy over here but so far I’m able to eat most things, usually because I order it using one of my only Thai phrases, pronounced: “Pet ni noi” - “a little spicy”. You have to say it in a very nasal way, as though you’re holding onto your nose while you speak, or they may just start preparing and refuse to make eye contact. I’ve worked out that that usually means “I have no idea what you just said and that makes me feel uncomfortable so i’ll just pretend you didn’t say anything”. If you say it correctly their faces will crack into a wide smile and they’ll usually have a chuckle with the person at the neighbouring stand. When in doubt just smile at people. It is the best form of communication and in Thailand, unlike the UK, if you smile at random people on the street they’ll always flash a smile back. At home in Scotland, unless i’m in my tiny village, you’re likely to get really weird looks if you walk down the street smiling at everyone that goes by. Here people will stare at you, mainly because you look different and they’re curious, but you just need to make eye contact and smile and you’re likely going to be greeted with the same in return. I also learnt fast the distinction between someone starting conversation to make money and someone who just wants a chat.

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On our second day in Bangkok we were stopped by a random man as we wandered through a park. I’d stepped in to feast on the weird squirrels, toads, insects and birds. As we drifted around a smiling Thai man stopped us in our tracks calling, “Hello friends! How are you?”. It’s day two so we’re pretty unsure and our first thoughts are “this guy wants something from us”. I look around, trying to work out who he’s working for but he seems to be alone and relatively harmless. “I’m fine, just having a walk in the park, how are you?”. I can tell he’s pleased we talk back and he starts chattering away, asking us our plans. How long we plan to stay in Bangkok, what we have visited already. We explain that we’ve just arrived and have only a few days here before heading north. We tell him where we’re from, we compliment his English (always) and he looks embarrassed but pleased. He starts to explain that we should go for a trip down the river to see the temples and the buddhas, that it’s not far. Danilo gets out his map and our new friend whips out a pen and starts madly circling all the hot spots we should visit. “Don’t forget, ring bell three times for good luck! Oh, also give flowers to the Buddha!” He even goes on to tell us how much the actual cost is to ensure we’re not over priced, “You pay Thai price! Remember you have Thai friend now, yes!”. We are still taken aback by all this new information and possibly boat trip. We thank him and explain that we’ll look into it tomorrow. He exclaims, “No! Why tomorrow? you go now, it not far. 10 minutes in tuctuc”. He yells something in Thai to a passing tuctuc. It pulls up beside us and the men exchange a few words. Our new friend beams at us, proud of his good deed for the day. There’s nothing left for us to do now but get in the tuctuc. We clamber in, not sure exactly where it’s going to take us, turn back and wave goodbye to our new friend.

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Posted by chb00001 06:47 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand bangkok volunteer arrive Comments (0)

The Arrival

Bangkok: 24/01/16


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Posted by chb00001 06:23 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand bangkok first volunteer workaway helpx impressions Comments (0)

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