Last week, we did a four day trip on the barge with a class of 21 5th graders from an international school in Cambodia. They flew over on Tuesday morning, and we met them at the airport and drove as a group to the barge. The drive took about half an hour, and by the time we got there, I already had a good idea of who was going to be taking up most of my energy over the next few days.
We did a few new things on this trip that I really enjoyed. First, we visited a new site where we taught the kids about traditional brick making (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts). However, this particular site had a beautiful temple built by a previous king of Thailand. We were allowed to walk around and actually go inside the wat and visit with the resident monk. This temple was unique for several reasons. In particular, it appears from the outside to be a traditional Christian church complete with stained glass and European architecture. On the inside, however, it’s like a traditional Thai temple. From what I understand, this was the King’s and Thailand’s way of saying, “We can build our temples just as well as you can, AND in your style!”. I have a feeling it kind of asserted Thailand’s status as a developed and worldly country, rather than a backwater nation in need of European “civilization”. The temple also hosts a novice dharma school (a school where young boys go to learn about Buddhism and become monks), so the area had many youngsters running around doing chores in their bright orange and yellow robes. Very charming and fascinating to my western eyes. The temple was lovely inside, and the monk was very kind and asked all of us where we were from, especially those of us with very light or very dark skin. He then offered us all a blessing, and somehow knew which kids could use a good thwack on the head with the bundle of sticks he blessed us with.
Thai blessings are given by a monk using a bundle of sticks to flick water from a bowl onto the heads of those receiving the blessing. He speaks in Thai during the short and rather informal ceremony, and those being blessed kneel and hold the wai position (head bowed, hands in a straight-fingered prayer). Afterward, Maura remarked to me how neat it was that the monk was so conversational and relaxed. I agree with her, and have some theories as to why this might be.
In Thailand, most men spend some portion of their lives as monks. Most only do it for a few days to a few weeks, but some dedicate their lives to the role. Often, monks have tattoos all across their upper body, wear glasses, use cell phones, and live fairly regular lives outside of their wats. And, while everyone respects and loves them (they are the only individuals that even the King will bow to), they aren’t superstars in everyday life. Buddhism is such an ingrained part of life in Thailand that I don’t think monks (or nuns, who wear white instead of orange robes) feel that they have to change their behavior or act particularly different from that of an everyday person. Yes, being a monk or nun requires particular behaviors in accordance to their “job” (such as shaving their heads at each full moon), but they are funny, charming, and very friendly people happy to have a conversation with a bunch of kids one minute, and bless them the next. I think that is just so cool! I feel like in the West, we treat people of religious significance with a sort of reverence that separates them from us, and in turn, separates us from our faith in some way. Like it isn’t part of us, but rather something that we have to be part of. This may be how some people view it, and I don’t hold that against them. Personally, I believe that faith should be something that comes from the inside rather than the outside, and I find that to be how Buddhism is largely practiced in Thailand. It is a part of the culture, rather than something you opt-in to. I feel like I’m not doing a very good job describing it, but I find religion in Thailand to be beautiful, non-invasive, and a part of who the Thai people are. I don’t feel that I can say the same for Western society. Then again, to each their own, and my opinions are simply that.
Where was I? Oh, right, our trip! Anyhow, we also visited the small island of Ko Kret, which is about an hour and a half (by boat) north of Bangkok. Way back in the day, the Mon people of what is now Burma took refuge in Thailand to escape the wars that frequented that area (and still do). The then-King of Ayuttuya was a nice guy, so he told the Mon people that they could live on the island of Ko Kret as long as whatever occupations they took up didn’t compete with the Thai people. So, the Mon people began to make and sell pottery, and over time became well known for their exquisite craftstmenship and beautiful designs. We walked the kids around the islands in small subject groups, with each group focusing on observing examples of environment, culture, or economy on Ko Kret. I was with Maura in the environment group, and we saw many awesome examples of how the Ko Kret residents reuse their broken pottery, use natural fertilizers for their tiny “gardens”, and use found materials (aka: trash) to make fences, containers, and walk-ways. For example, one fence we walked beside was made of that cooregated roofing material, and the screws were held in place by “washers” made of old Coke bottle caps. Very creative, cheap, and a good way to keep trash out of the river! Still, even with these measures, the place had refuse heaped everywhere, and I was reminded of how far Thailand still has to go to being more visibly environmentally conscious (not like America is any better, but the point remains).
We also paid a visit to a “bird watching area”, which really turned out to be a strange sort of zoo full of rescued critters that were supposedly being rehabilitated for release at a later date. There were all sorts of beautiful birds, along with a few strange creatures. Apparently Thailand has porcupines, which I was not aware of until we came around the corner and saw a very spikey beast sniffing at his cage. Their quills are HUGE, and if there is anything I’d like to meet on a dark evening less than an Alaskan porcupine, it’s one of these guys. But, with a steel cage between me and the critter, he was pretty cute and seemed happy to have visitors. I even had one of those “seriously?” moments when someone warned me to stay back, or else I would get shot by the porcupine’s quills. I rather incredulously had to explain that porcupines do not have the ability to shoot quills, and even after much insisting on my part, I think some of the kids still didn’t believe me. I tell ya, some people’s kids! Aside from debunking urban myths, I was really impressed by all the exotic birds, especially the Rhinocerous Hornbill. When heads got passed out, this guy really got the short end of the stick. Their beaks are HUGE, and to top it off, their big beak-y protrusions have their own big beaky protrusions! They’re like the Dahl Sheep of the bird family, and could probably win in a head-butting contest. The zoo also had a number of beautiful peacocks, all of whom were very cooperative in showing the kids their beautiful feathery displays as we walked through the area. Very cool.
On the last night, we stopped at a grassy field along the river bank, and the kids all enjoyed a bonfire and roasting marshmallows. Definitely a great time for me, as I grew up doing the very same thing with my family and friends on the beach during the summers. It was fun to teach the kids to roast over the coals rather than the flame, and how NOT to flight magma-like marshmallow goo all over their neighbors when their treat catches on fire. Fun times!
Overall, the trip was fun, if very tiring. It seems that by the end of a trip like this, the kids have picked at my very last nerve and I’m ready to toss them all in the river and yell “Nah nah nah nah!” as we sail away. But, just as they’re about to leave and we’re all trying to hold on to our last strand of patience, they always stand up and thank us in such a sweet manner that I’m in love with them all over again. I hate how kids can do that! One minute, little minions from Hell, and the next, the sweetest angels. Must be a survival tactic. Either way, I was glad to see them go and move on to the well-earned weekend.