Well, I have officially arrived in Bangkok, and have been out and back on my first trip with the Magic Eyes Barge on the Chao Phraya River. But before I get into that, let’s first catch up with my voyage to Thailand.
I left Anchorage, AK on the 11th after many hours of delays in the Anchorage airport. I flew on China Airlines to Taipei, Taiwan. Let me tell you now: if you have never flown China Airlines and have the opportunity to do so, DO IT. Their staff is well trained, polite to a fault, and manage to make a 10-hour flight almost pleasurable. They seem to rejoice in stuffing you with tasty appetizers, full meals, and after meal tea followed by an alcoholic beverage of your choice (free, might I add), and then the opportunity to purchase some cigarettes if one could be so inclined. All in all, pretty lovely, and I didn’t have much to worry about other than squishing the exquisitely tiny Chinese lady sitting next to me. It was especially neat that all of the stewardesses spoke at least three languages (Chinese, English, and some other Asian language). If I wasn’t careful, I might miss the English rendition of whatever was going on, and be left out of the next round of tea.
I arrived in Taipei, and got off the plane very giddy that here I was: in ASIA! How exciting! I found my way through the Taipei airport which more resembled a shopping mall for expensive handbags, wafting perfume, and lots of scotch whiskey. Being suddenly in a foreign country gave me two feelings: slightly taller than usual, and similar to what a five-year old must feel like when they are just on the verge of being able to read, but can’t quite figure it all out and thus must take all their cues from what other people are doing. After years of being rather adept at reading and generally understanding my surroundings (for example, determining where the bathroom is), it was rather disconcerting to suddenly be thrust into a world where I don’t understand absolutely anything. Ack!
In the end, I made it to Bangkok and, being so delayed, I was worried about no one being there to meet me. Luckily, I was approached by Ankit (he had a sign and everything!) who works for many of the land trips put on by the Prem International School. He accompanied me back to my rather quaint apartment, helped me put up my things, and then walked me to the Prem office where the Barge program launches.
I was told to show up at 7:30am the next morning, and he set me loose to go home and crash. I must admit, my first night in Bangkok boarded on the depressing/terrifying/thrilling. I asked myself as I laid in bed listening to the little motor scooters whiz by on the street below, “What the heck am I doing half a world away from everyone I care about, all the places I love, and the language I can speak? What am I DOING?” When I woke up the next morning, however, I was take aback by the starkly different beauty of the city in comparison to the winter beauty of Alaska. Bangkok was much more welcoming in the light of the early morning, and as I walked to the Prem office, I immensely enjoyed taking in the beginnings of my Thai experience. Most of all, I was floored by the amount of food that was for sale along the street. There didn’t seem to be anything fried that one couldn’t buy, and the smells blended not altogether unpleasantly with roaming dogs, endless lines of people walking to work or school, and the ever-present city smog.
My first trip on the Barge began that morning by spotting a five-foot monitor lizard swimming in the canal that butts up against the Prem office. I was met by Stan (Erin Stanley, the trip coordinator) and Pa (Stan’s Thai counterpart), and we went down to the pier to wait for the Barge. Stan speaks and understands fluent Thai and Pa is native Thai, so as they flung long vowels and other Thai sounds back and forth, I listened in quiet confusion hoping to look a little more confident than I felt. Then, the barge arrived, and we boarded and began heading up-river to meet with the Bromsgrove International School class (grade 5) that we would teach and travel with for the next three days. Stan and Pa oriented me to the Barge and the Thai crew, and I began to feel a bit more relaxed after having the lay of the land, and expectations for the first day of the trip. Being on the water also felt more natural, and the barge was a beautiful wooden vessel – well cared for and comfortable for up to 30 people.
After about a half hour of sailing, we docked at the River Condouine and the class arrived. 16 sugar-crazed 5th graders boarded the Barge, and three days of never wanting to be a parent ensued.
Our first day was mostly spent on the river. The program emphasizes conservation, sustainability, and greater awareness of our roles as global citizens. The kids were of a huge racial and language diversity. Between all of us, English (in at least 4 different accents), Thai, Korean, and Chinese were all spoken fluently.
Unfortunately, not everyone spoke or understood English particularly well, and as the lessons were delivered in English, we had to often rely upon students to translate for their classmates. Most of these kids were 9 and 10 years old, and I was truly impressed at their diversity of language. I’m 22, and sometimes feel like my English isn’t all up to par; to be around students who were so adaptable to linguistic challenges was really impressive. Not so impressive was the behavior of some students, which at times was incredibly frustrating when they refused to even answer to their own names. Still, I feel like the material presented by the program and the diverse staff provided such a high quality educational experience that all of the students left the trip with at least some positive experience.
A note about Thai children thus far: it seems like the boys are treated like little princes for the most part, as they don’t have much regard for adult authority, and don’t take much responsibility for their own actions. The girls, on the other hand, can be prissy little things, always screaming and squealing about nearly everything (dinner time? EEEK! Answer a question? EEEK! Talk to a boy? EEEK!), and seem to have no self-confidence about their ability to independently accomplish tasks. Then again, maybe it’s the age group. It will be interesting to see if my observations hold true to all of the classes we teach, or if these attributes were unique to this particular group of students. Either way, it will be an on-going challenge for me to encourage them out of their safety zones and take on new responsibilities.
During our second day, we visited the city of Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya is an old Thai city that was attacked repeatedly by the Burmese hundreds of years ago, and hosts some incredibly ruins of temples that are still treated as houses of worship.
The Thai word for temple is wat, and the main wat in Ayutthaya is Wat Chai Wattanaram. The wat was simply spectacular, with over 120 images of the Lord Buddha sitting around the main building. When the wat was originally constructed, many of the Buddhas head’s were made entirely of gold, and in present day most Buddhas in Ayutthaya are missing their heads. There are two theories as to why. One theory claims that many of the Buddhas from this time period were covered in gold leaf, and their heads were made entirely of gold. Some Buddhas were even covered in over 170 kilograms of gold (that’s about a 3-inch coating over the entire statue). When the Burmese attacked, they couldn’t be bothered with carting out whole Buddha statues, so they just loped off the heads. The second theory draws upon the Thai belief that the head is the most sacred part of the body, and so the Burmese cut the heads off all the statues to taunt the fleeing Thai. Either way, the Wat Chai Wattanaram is full of many headless Buddhas.
Headless or not, however, the Thai people still “make merit” to the statues on a regular basis. Making merit is an important part of Buddhism that consists of giving offerings in an effort to please Buddha and show one’s devotion to the tenets of Buddhism. I’ll try to remember to make a post on those tenets at a later date. In the meantime, consider making merit an important activity that all Buddhists participate in on a regular basis. Doing so often means burning incense, leaving coins, flowers, or other small gifts in front of images of Buddha. Many of the students on the trip were Buddhist, and it was fascinating to watch them wai (a sort of Thai bow) and kneel before the statues to show their respect.
On the barge, we explored the practice of brick making which is an old and prevalent occupation in Ayutthaya where many of Thailand’s bricks come from. We used a thick, rich clay from the river banks and wooden molds to make our own bricks, and helped the students brainstorm questions about brick making. In between all of our activities both on land and on the barge, we had numerous team-building games and exercises, and the students had journals in which they answered follow-up questions that helped them to synthesize the information gained from the education activities. The kids even get a chance to swim and “canoe” (or at least frantically flail about in large, inflatable kayak-like vessels. I’m not sure swimming the Chao Phraya is that good of an idea with all the non-point source runoff along the banks, but when in Rome…
Though the days were long and at times frustrating, the experience was a very positive one, and I got off the barge today with a much improved outlook on the next six months. I think my stay here in Thailand is going to be absolutely life changing, and will certainly expand my outlook on Asiatic culture. I’m even beginning to pick up some Thai, though I’m still pretty useless when it comes to trying to ask for things in stores. Thankfully, the Thai people are accommodating to a fault, and will find the only other English speaking person in the store if they feel that it will help answer my question.
I’m exhausted, so I’ll wrap it up for tonight. Long story short, I’m having a wonderful time, and am looking forward to a weekend of exploring Bangkok, and perhaps getting my first Thai massage with Stan tomorrow! Thanks for reading!