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Paradigm Shift

And then she said, “food land and hospital for the villagers”

I was in Surin, Thailand, helping out as a facilitator for an English and Environment camp organised by Dekrakpha, a NGO(Non-Governmental Organisation) whose cause is forest conservation. Rin, who uttered the above line that blew me away, works as an activist trying to solve the problems of overflooding caused by dams.

My group comprised a good mix of individuals. Some of my team mates were English and Communication students at Ubon University and signed up for this camp because they wanted to practice their English. Others might not be able to speak English fluently. However, since they were working in various NGOs, they had a profound understanding of the environmental issues in their country, which we hoped to tap upon.

We were in the midst of an activity which required our participants to imagine them as members of a village intent on settling down in a forested area. They would then need to brainstorm how they would want to develop this plot of land. We distributed sheets of paper to our groups so that they could crystallise their discussion points and reflect their ideas on their sheet.

engrossed in discussion

Now, being an urban kid, I had a slightly different view of forests. I learnt about the value of forests during my geography lessons but I kinda arrogantly dismissed it as paying lip service. I thought it a harsh foregone conclusion that forests must give way to industrialization if people wish to lead a better life. Who would be silly enough to reject the appeals of material comforts?

Evidently, this was not a view shared by my Thai friends as they didn’t even seem to consider the option of demolishing the entire forest to make way for their needs. There was an unspoken unanimous agreement that they would only demolish the land area they would need to build their homes and farm land. In fact, Pi Jeab, who incidentally owns a Master degree in Agriculture, explicitly suggested that the community keep the north-west portion of the forest intact because it would protect the village from the seasonal monsoon winds, which blow from that particular direction.

Perhaps, it isn’t too hard to withstand the lure of urbanization because as Rin astutely pointed out, the forest is a treasure chest of food and medicine. Nonetheless, I was impressed with how they didn’t disdainfully disregard the forest as a primitive, unsophisticated source. Instead of blindly pandering towards modern remedies, I sensed their grounded attitude as they understood the value of medicinal herbs and appreciated how its importance doesn’t just diminish with the emergence of new technologies. That was something that touched me.

crystallization of various talents!

Observing them excitedly mark out their prospective homes on the “map”, I also noticed their reverence for the forest. They drew a spirit house on the edge of the forest and explained to me how the guardian spirits inside would protect the forest and the village inhabitants. Again, this was an unanimous decision as no one questioned the need for this spirit house. It was simply something that had to be constructed.

This was yet another refreshing perspective because my Thai friends exhibited a desire of paying tribute and showing gratitude towards their provider. This was humility and maturity at its best. Most people would have unrestrainedly exploited whatever they desired and taken their blessings for granted. Some might even justify their greed by thinking that the forest owes them.

I didn’t know what I would expect from this activity. But I certainly didn’t expect my Thai friends to display such a fierce conviction to preserve the forest and its advantages to mankind. Without this activity, I would never have felt the co-dependent relationship they share with nature, their love for land and their commitment to managing their forest resources responsibly. These were valuable insights an urban dweller like me would never have fathomed on my own.

I felt privileged to partake, albeit briefly, in their world and hoped that someday, I might develop this deep, abiding love for land too.

love showcase

we were greenhouse students
lucky enough to
have spent three weeks
with the personable Thais

heads bowed and hands clasped,
the villagers formed
a tight circle around us
their mouths moving in sync
with the priest
chanting prayers for us

praying that we return home safely
praying for longevity and marital bliss,
with kids to brighten our days

self-conscious laughter
stirred from our silent homage
perhaps we were amused
at their casual connection
of a good life with marriage
perhaps we felt uneasy
thinking about grown-up stuff
who knows how life would treat us?

after prayers,
they never ceased
tying yellow strings around
our waists for a long time
[for good luck, we heard]
we kept smiling hard,
as if cheerful mugs
could somehow convey
our swirling gratitude inside

their simple gestures
tanscended all barriers
their sincerity humbled us
their generosity
left me so bloated
on the balance scale of give-and-take
that I ached for
my lack of vision
in showing my love

Witnessing a 40-yr-old tradition up Wat Doi Suthep

I visited Wat Doi Suthep on the morning of 18th June, which was a Saturday. On my songtaew ride up the mountains, I was pleasantly surprised to see thongs of Chiangmai University students trekking upwards by walking on the drain beside the road. Apparently, I was fortunate enough to witness a time-honoured tradition in which incoming freshmen trek to Wat Doi Suthep as part of their orientation to varsity life! The students were boisterous and in high spirits. It was awesome seeing them trudge up the mountains, holding hands or placing arms around one another and shouting cheers. Their energy and excitement was infectious. I would have alighted from my taxi and joined in their rousing parade if I weren’t afraid of being perceived as a weirdo. Haha.

Thai-blogs readers who are visiting Chiangmai in June [that’s when a new school term starts, i reckon], must simply ask around for the day of CMU students’ trek to Wat Doi Suthep so that they can bear witness to this joyous and monumental occasion.

*Chiangmai University was established in 1964 and celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Trekking up Wat Doi Suthep is a practice fondly adhered to by every new batch of freshies.

If you are going to Chiangmai

The Monk Chat at Wat Suan Dok is a must-try. Initially, things started off lukewarm for me as I was paired up with monks who aren’t quite adept at speaking English yet. Hence, I spent a lot of time smiling encouragingly at them and thinking of simple conversational phrases so that they could understand me and practice their English.

Fortunately, the system in place was implemented pretty well as they would ensure that at least one senior monk (typically a year 4 English major student at the nearby Buddhist university) would be around to moderate the discussion. It was rather heartwarming to watch the display of camaraderie as the senior monk would patiently act as the go-between and encourage his juniors to speak up.

There was a flurry of exchange of people at my table as some monks had to return to their wats. Things started to pick up when two fresh participants sat down and our conversation somehow digressed to their extra-curricular activity as DJs. Apparently, the Buddhist University had set up their very own radio station to improve their students’ speaking skills and exchange ideas about Buddhism. This radio station was established in early 2005 and its programmes can be broadcast to listeners who live within 15km from Wat Suan Dok!

Intrigued and excited, I asked them if I could have a look around their radio station. They readily obliged and brought me to the building across the room where Monk Chat was held. The DJs on that day welcomed me sincerely and before I knew it, I was declared as their “special guest” for their Easy Talk programme, which was scheduled between 6 to 7pm.

What I found most impressive was that the group of monks assembled before me came from various countries such as Laos, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh and of course, Thailand. Talk about a myriad of nationalities! It was then that I really appreciated how Chiangmai was a centre for aspiring Buddhists from Southeast Asia and beyond.

Because I am currently serving my national service [all singaporean males have to be conscripted into the military forces for two years], the programme started with a lively discussion on whether conscription exists in one’s country. Later on, I was asked to share my thoughts on how to increase the number of believers in Buddhism and about Singapore culture, among other things.

It was initially nerve-wracking for me, for i was afraid of sounding silly on air. But the friendly monks were so enthusiastic about finding out about Singapore that my inhibitions disappeared. I felt proud to be an unofficial ambassador for my nation and have this engaging exhange of ideas. All in all, one of the highlights of my trip.

So, to Thai-blogs readers, ask whether you can drop by the radio station when you are doing the Monk Chat. It will be an experience that you won’t forget.

sawadee krap

I stumbled upon this website by accident when I was doing research for an upcoming trip to Chiangmai. And boy, was I pleasantly surprised to find an outlet in which I may document my growing fascination with Thailand with kindred spirits!

I am Le, a 25-year-old Singaporean male. I’m quite embarrassed to admit this but my first impressions of Thailand were restricted to shopping cheaply, praying at the Four-faced Buddha and catching a Thai Girl show in Bangkok. I love Bangkok for its frenetic energy and vitality but at the same time, I couldn’t (subconsciously) resist not putting myself on a pedestal and snobbing it as a city with no soul.

All this changed when I volunteered to be the co-leader for a community service project in Surin. Along with 20 other Singaporeans, I was to help the villagers of Ban Selangpan construct a library in their primary school.

I remembered reading Touch The Dragon (by Karen Connelly ) in preparation for my trip and thinking to myself how absurd it was that mai pen rai [never mind] came up so frequently as I couldn’t imagine anyone needing to use on a day-to-day basis.

Mai pen rai turned out to be arguably the phrase I used most often throughout my 2-week stay in Ban Selangpan. Coming from a nation where mistakes are never exorcised as they may return to haunt you, it was refreshing to see the Thais shrug off minor irritations with genuine nonchalance and cheerfulness and focus on a more important business of pursuing fun.

I realised that there’s more to Thailand that I have given her credit for. And if i may flatter myself so (hee), since I consider myself as a go-with-the-flow kinda person, I took to the Thais’ obliging mai pen rai nature like a duck to water.

I guess that’s when my love for Thailand was born.

As someone who has been trying to learn about Thai culture ever since he returned to Singapore, I hope that this blog would help me to explore my feelings and conceptualize them into words. To expedite my growth process into a well-informed Thai fanatic. This seems like a brutally honest, introspective, yet non-dysfunctional and safe environment to exchange ideas with fellow-minded bloggers. I can’t wait for the fun to start. *grin*