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04/27/2014

A Colorful Movement, Lizzy Peake

 

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Sabina Shah, Red Shirt leader and radio host.

The current political situation in Thailand features two main groups: the Red Shirts, who are pro-government, and the Yellow Shirts, who want a new form of government. The Northeast region of Thailand is predominantly composed of people who identify with the Red Shirt movement. Red Shirts are often stereotyped as the poorer, rural population composed of many farmers and those with less education than the middle to upper class urban elites stereotyped as the Yellow Shirts. But the Red Shirt movement is so much more complex and diverse than simply the poor Isaan farmer with little education that supports Thaksin, Thailand’s former Prime Minister.

Within Unit 5, which focused on democracy and politics in Thailand, we had the opportunity to speak with many different people from all walks of life that identify as Red Shirts.

Sabinah Shah, or Jo, is a Red Shirt leader and radio show host, discussing politics. She considers democracy as the “voice of the people…everyone must be equal…everyone must be under the same standards of laws.” Along with equality in democracy, she believes every person should have one vote, “no matter how rich you are.” Active at protests and a leader at the recent Red Shirt rally in Bangkok on April 5th and 6th, she says that protests “are not a fun thing…[they are] risky, but people come out to protect their rights.”

Sohm Sang, 56, is an avid protector of rights; he is a security guard for the Red Shirt movement. Like Jo, he went to the rally in Bangkok in April to “protect the Red Shirts.” He considers the future generation in his political ideology, saying how “we have to fight for future generations…to be able to live their life.” For Sohm, democracy “means equality…we are the same; we are not being oppressed.” He also feels that the voices of the lower class are “not being heard,” and that if the Red Shirt movement fails, then “the poor will continue being oppressed.” Though he is a security guard, he does not carry weapons, but only “a flashlight.” Despite being weaponless, he says, “I am never scared because my heart wants to fight for righteousness.”

Senator Wan sides with the Red Shirts in part because he views the Red Shirts as “doing things according to law…[while] the Yellow Shirts are breaking the law.” He does not readily define democracy, instead saying that it “cannot be define yet; every person has their own [definition].” He does say that for a democracy there needs to be “majority votes,” and “if there is no election, it is not fair and democratic.” In addition to elections and majority votes, Senator Wan think there needs to be a reformed Constitution that “should respond to everyone’s needs in society.”

It has been a fascinating journey through this Unit, speaking to radio show hosts, security guards, senators, academics, and a myriad of other people about the Red Shirt movement in Thailand. It has been especially enlightening to see through the stereotype that all Red Shirts are rural farmers, and add dimension, perspective, and complexity to the Red Shirt movement. Democracy and equality have come up again and again, but different people focus on different tactics and goals for their movement, or just have an interesting opinion to offer. All these people identify as Red Shirts, but hold different perspectives within the movement. Some consider the Constitution, others use radio as an outreach and education tool, others want to fight for justice. The Red Shirt movement, instead of simply “red, ” seems more a rich array of colors, each adding vibrancy to the movement. 

Democracy for Thailand? ... It’s complicated, Shelby Kaplan

The time period and topic selection for Unit 5 of our program could not have come at a better time in Thailand’s political history.  After much discussion about our group interests and feasibility, we decided that we would pursue democracy and development of Thailand.  Throughout all of our previous units we heard about the frustrations and struggles that villagers, NGOs and government officials all face while trying to pursue or protest various developmental projects without an existing, functional government in Thailand.  Red and yellow shirts have taken turns protesting the current political situation and national tension has now led to murmurs of civil war.

We had gained brief insight into the complexity of the political situation from attending and interviewing voters at the February election that was recently nullified by the constitutional court, exchanging with red shirt villagers during community stays, and from our security updates with Ajaan Dave.  After hearing multiple times that we may have to pack our bags and escape to Laos when civil war breaks out, we decided that we should take it upon ourselves to become more educated about what is shaping and breaking the country we have been studying in for three months.

My big introduction to the messiness of the red and yellow shirt conflict was at a meeting that I attended in Bangkok for an organization called P’move or People’s Movement for a Just Society, whose main purpose is to unite and fight for the rights of the poor in Thailand.  This meeting was very important for the existence of their movement as the organization is composed of both red and yellow shirts.  If they would be able to persevere through their political differences for the greater good and common goals of their movement, it could potentially serve as a model of democracy for the rest of the country.  The outcome of the meeting was not what I expected at all though.  No solid decisions were made about any of the topics that were supposed to be covered at the meeting, including structure and leadership.  This was an eye opener to the fact that this complicated issue has gone so far that it is going to take a lot of work and healing to achieve democracy in Thailand when a once united movement is struggling to maintain itself.  Despite my disappointment from the outcome of the meeting one of the main speakers of unit 5, Ajaan Sulak, believes that the movements of the poor could lead to democracy in Thailand.

Throughout the unit itself our group was able to exchange with a vast array of stakeholders directly and indirectly involved in the current political turmoil of Thailand.  We had the opportunity to meet with common red and yellow shirts, a senator, radio show host, militant, small business owner, NGO and a journalist.  I feel so fortunate that we gained so many different perspectives; because I am now able to see one of the biggest issues of Thailand’s democracy…everyone has their own definition of democracy.

Below are the definitions of democracy that I compiled from the exchanges:

-cannot be defined.  Everyone has their own definition.  There are two parts: majority votes.  If there is no election, not a democratic system

-voice of the people, everyone has to be equal and under same standard of law.  Have free and fair elections and everyone has to accept the laws and regulations

-freedom, justice, equality, government from elections

-everyone has a voice

-doesn’t just mean that majority rules.  Having Dama, reasoning, and cause.  Can be achieved by ridding of the Thaksin system

-freedoms to do things as long as it doesn’t infringe on other people’s rights

-freedom of expressing whatever you think without being an enemy and politicians can safely campaign where they want.  The proper election system would be run politely, not harmed by opponent, all policies laid out, and no interference.

Group Cooperation and National Democracy, Maren Meyers

Red Shirt Rally

After our four main units (agriculture, land rights, dams and mines) came to an end, our group of sixteen development and globalization students had the opportunity to decide on  topic of our own, self-directed unit. The ultimate purpose of this unit is to delve into a subject that surfaced over the semester that peaked interest but where there wasn’t room to deeply investigate.

As we brainstormed ideas in a session planned by our fantastic unit 5 facilitators, the group spat out ideas and discussed interest levels in topics ranging from gender and equality, animal rights, environmental health to government. However, we ultimately decided on the topic of democracy through a process of consensus—a process that we have become very familiar with as we teach each other and guide ourselves through this educational process. Group consensus has become a tool that our group depends on to make major decisions in terms of future actions. One of the main challenges and learning experiences of this whole program stems from the fact that we must operate as a cohesive unit in order to agree upon and reach goals. These goals are set to ensure we learn as much as we can content-wise before delving into our unit topics in a more real-life, people to people exchange setting as well as while we are on site during the field portion of the unit.

The consensus decisions surrounding Unit 5 were largely based on our experiences, or lack thereof, with the political crisis that has been developing throughout the country over the past few months. Throughout the whole semester, the political situation here in Thailand has been something continually intertwined with our focus topics and, as a result, has been ever present in the back of our minds. From regular security updates from our program director Ajaan Dave to meetings called to review of emergency action plans in case of a military coup to the farmers and villagers who vent to us about how they have been harmed by ex-Prime Minister Thaksin’s supposed populist policies, the situation has been something that we have gained unique details on but never fully comprehended.

Thus, when it became apparent that we have the most resources and the highest quality connections to pursue a politically-based topic, at least when compared to the other topics that had originally sparked our interest, it became easy for the group to reach a unanimous decision to investigate democracy in Thailand.

That decision proved wise when we received our schedule for the unit. We had the enormous privilege of speaking to very opinionated individuals from both the red and yellow shirt perspective—both sides of the political divide. We have gained insights from renowned activist and Sulak Sivaraksa to every day small business owners. This multifaceted investigation of the political situation has allowed us to evaluate both the current developmental status of Thailand as well as to investigate the current democratic status of our own country. While a solution to the problems seems out of reach at this point, there is immense value in exploring the options of improving democracy and questions the supposed ideal systems of democracy other places in the world. All of the knowledge gained would not have been possible if it were not for the ability of our group to utilize tools of cooperation and work toward a common goal of self-information. 

04/17/2014

Mining's Impact on Two Communities, Dani Corona

In our third video, Allie Quintano and I consider mining's impact on two communities, the complexities that surround it, and what it means to take a side on an issue.

Take a look! 

 

Singing for Peace, Ellen Swain

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What can someone do to gain the attention of others? Sing. Better yet, get a whole group of people to sing and that will attract even more attention. But for the ultimate attention-grabbing tactic, try to collect a group of singers who are all young children.

Na Nong Bong, a community in Loei province of northeast Thailand, have done just this; and they certainly have gained attention. On a unit trip to the community and a nearby village, called U’Moong, experiencing the same issues as Na Nong Bong, the students of the CIEE Khon Kaen Globalization and Development program, were able to witness the practice behind the singing and the impact that the singing had on others.

Na Nong Bong is in a battle against gold mines being build in and around their community. The people of the village have experienced social and health impacts, such as confirmed cyanide poisoning. Their struggle with the mining company has been ongoing for the past nine years but they continue to fight back, upping the intensity and power of their tactics.

One of the most interesting methods they have utilized is protest songs. The lyrics are written by a female citizen of Na Nong Bong who is also the director of the singing groups.  All of the lyrics are anti-mine, talking about the effects of the mines on the people and how the mining company does not seem to care about the people. The  lyrics are then set to the rhythm of catchy tunes, played on guitars by young university students from by Loei province and Khon Kaen, a nearby province in Northeast Thailand. 

But the most fascinating aspect of the singing method is that the singers are all young children of the village. We were able to watch the children perform on our homestay visit, as some of the people of Na Nong Bong and many of the children travelled to U’Moong to perform for us and the U’Moong villagers.  I would estimate that the average child in the singing group is around 9 years old, with a wide range between the youngest and the oldest. All of the children dress in green shirts to show that they are neither Red Shirts or Yellow Shirts, two common political groups in Thailand; the green signifies that this is a separate issue.

 After settling into their assigned positions, approximately thirty children sang for a large group of people in U’Moong. The straight rows and columns of the performers shows that this is an established and organized form of protest. Although I cannot speak Thai and therefore was unable to understand the lyrics, the CIEE translators told us students that the lyrics involve protesting statements towards the mining companies and call for people to join the movement. It was so captivating and powerful to watch the children passionately sing these songs.

One of the reasons I believe this method is so powerful is that it touches people’s emotional sides. It makes witnesses realize that these children are suffering the consequences from the greedy mining companies, who are only looking to gain a profit. Also, with the clever lyrics and simple melodies, watchers can easily sing along to join the movement.

After watching the children rehearse their singing, many of us headed down to a local town center to watch the children sing and march. They took their assigned formations and began marching down the narrow streets, past shops and shoppers. Adults and CIEE students handed out pamphlets as people moved closer to investigate the marching crowd. It was a powerful and exciting event in which to be a participant.

Hopefully other movements, such as U’Moong, can learn from Na Nong Bong’s inspiring and effective methods. It is a unique way to capture the attention of others, and allows community members of all age ranges to engage in the battle with the mining company. I will remember the sight of those children marching through the town forever.

A Day In The Forest, Katrina Harrington

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During my 4th Unit on Mining I stayed in U-Moong village, a village split into thirds on the issue of mining.  There is a mine in their village that is contaminating their water supply and possibly damaging other parts of their land.  I stayed with a family of Mango farmers, my host Mom and Dad worked in their mango forest and their 13 year old daughter took care of their 3 year old son while they worked.  We took their old tractor up to their forest early in the morning and it was such a beautiful trek up the mountain.  The weather got fairly hot, but in the morning it was cool and serene.  When I was visiting, we spent one of our days on a bamboo matt, shaded by trees watching our parents work in the forest.  I had ate a lot of Isaan food during the day with my host siblings, played games, took naps, and talked with them.   The weather was hot but the shade of the trees kept us cool.  It was such a wonderful day, it felt nice to not have any plans and just watch my host parents as they worked.  It was so interesting for me to watch, because I had never seen a mango farm, or what goes into having one.   I was really grateful they took me to the forest, because usually the kids stay home.  The weather got fairly hot, but luckily in the morning hours it was cool and serene.  We finished our day by having a cook out with some other families in the near by forests.  I was amazed by the food they cooked, and how they cooked it all.  There was fish, vegetables, and mango of course.  My host Mom found some bamboo, cut it in half and placed the three fish in between the bamboo, she then tied the bamboo together with bamboo scraps.  My host father made a fire and they put the bamboo with fish over the fire.  The other families that showed up made another fire as well, the spent a lot of time trying to get the fire just right to roast the vegetables.  All of the food tasted so delicious.  I was very impressed by how it was all prepared and cooked.  We had sticky rice, fruit, and noodles to accompany the fish and vegetables.  It was so wonderful sitting with my host family having dinner, as well as the other people who came and joined us.  There was such a lovely sense of community and a lot of laughs shared.  After our dinner, we got on the tractor and headed home as the sun was setting.  I couldn’t have imagined a better day with my host family; I was able to see what they do for work, their community network, their culture, and the love they have for their own family and village.  It was a great opportunity for me to get to know them, more so than I have in other homestays.  While on other homestays I always have a wonderful time, but my families will take days off work or do some fun activity, which is great, I just don’t get to see a glimpse of their everyday life, this time I was able to.  I will remember my day in the forest forever!

Mining A Universal Conflict, Alice Chen

For Unit 4, we delved into the topic of mining and natural resources. We drove up north to Loei Province and visited two mountain communities right near the Laos border. The two villages, Na Nong Bong and U-moong are both being threatened by gold and iron mining respectively. In Na Nong Bong, their movement is in full-fledge with leaders, support, and programs. For example, when we went, they were one month into their “Kids Singing for Peace” project, and we were fortunate enough to sing with them in downtown Chiang Khan. U-Moong, however, is a much different story. This village is very much in the infant stages of their movement. Because, this community has not received any widespread impacts from the iron mine (unlike Na Nong Bong who have experienced water contamination and major health problems), they seemed to be having trouble getting villagers on the anti-mining side. The other groups, neutral and pro-mining, have yet to be directly impacted by the mines. As a result, U-Moong’s movement has been considerably slowed down as they try to establish a powerful following among the villagers.

The whole time we were on this unit learning about the issues and social movements of these two communities I just could not help but think how similar the situation was for these two communities and the mining communities back in America. Most people affected by mining tend to be poorer or are in rural areas. You could even argue that the marginalized groups in society always seem to get the brunt of it. Many mining communities also have issues with groundwater contamination, waste-dam breaks, and air pollution. At the same time, these same communities might depend on the mine for jobs as other opportunities are few and far between. Thus, a lot of times, communities run into conflicts on what they think would be best or they are already in such a low state that they do not know what to do.

In U-Moong, Doungta Nakrayrai, a papaya farmer, explains some of the issues that have arisen since PTK constructed the iron mine in 2006. She says that crop production has decreased by 30%, which she attributes to the contaminated water. The water pollution has also impacted their personal eating habits. “We can’t even find enough food to eat. We don’t dare eat the fish and frogs from the stream; we don’t dare eat those things.” Furthermore, the explosion from the mines can blast rocks into the village, putting holes into their rooftops.

Another issues, the anti-mining villagers currently face is money and trying to get other villagers (neutral and pro-mining) to join their movement. Some people do actually benefit; the mine gives them jobs, constructs temples, and fixes roads. The trouble is trying to get villagers to listen to their side, especially when the mining company, PTK, has money.  As Surat Kumraitong, another villager impacted by the mining, explains, “Other groups will not listen to us, they are more wealthy. If you are a rich person and a poor person came up to tell you things would you listen? The answer is no.”

I think this is very indicative of miming movements in America as well.  One example that immediately comes to mind is the battle for Coal River Mountain in West Virginia (documentary The Last Mountain). Some community members and environmental activists have teamed up to fight Massey Energy on mountaintop coal removal. Mountaintop removal is essentially using explosives to flatten mountains for easier access to coal. The downsides to this method are the destruction of the ecosystem, the filling of nearby streams and valleys with rubble from the blast, and altering water resource pathways and pollution. But on the flip side (I cannot remember the name, but another documentary from CNN) showed how some community members really needed the jobs that the coalmine would potentially give.

So the communities near Coal River Mountain are to an extent facing very similar challenges to Na Nong Bong and U-Moong. I think we are getting this wonderful opportunity to see first hand these issues and to learn so much about the villager’s struggles and fights. But I also think it is time for us to put it on a global scale, and see how these issues that we are studying, like mining, occurs universally. It is going to be hard for us, after seeing all these issues in Thailand, to just leave these people and go home, but we do not necessarily have to leave the issues. What we are doing here, we can do in America. We can and need to join these fights. 

03/30/2014

Pak Mun Dam Trade Offs, Holden Bussey

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Some of the Mun’s former fish species can only be found in the Thai Baan Center Museum

In development there are always trade-offs. The need for increased power generation to support a modernizing society is a reality faced by every developing nation around the world. For much of the globe, the 21st century was the ‘century of dams’, leading to hydropower providing 1/5th of the world’s energy[1]. Much of Southeast Asia was a little late to the party however, with dams currently being planned all over the Mekong sub-region. Over the past week we were able to study the Pak Mun dam, which over the past 20 years has drawn intense criticism both from local residents and the international community.

While originally planned under the Electricity Development Project by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the dam has not lived up to its initial expectations of power generation. Currently producing 84 MW, a far cry from its stated 136 MW capacity[2], the dam is viewed by many to be an abject failure[3]. The Pak Mun dam is continuously described as ‘run-of-the-river’, though upon our arrival it was very clear that this river was not running anywhere. With the gates closed 8 months out of the year, the Mun River is effectively turned into a reservoir, altering the natural ecosystem and drastically impacted the lifestyles of villagers[4].

In Thai, “Meh Mun” or Mun River, means “Mother of inheritance” and for generations, this river has supplied villagers with not only food, but fostered a way of life. Staying in Khan Puay village, 5 km upstream from the dam, the impacts of the dam are seen everywhere. No longer can they rely on fishing to support them. No longer can they farm on the nutrient rich flood plain in the dry season – for with the dam, seasonality is controlled by EGAT. No longer do they trade with neighboring farming communities – fish for vegetables. No longer can they pass their knowledge and craft onto younger generations, leading them to seek labor outside the community, eroding family structures. As my host mother put it, “The dam changed our way of life – it changed everything.”

In our discussion with EGAT’s head of public relations, he described a “brother-sister” relationship between EGAT and villagers, and spoke glowingly of the efforts EGAT has taken to compensate the villagers for their lost livelihood. The villagers, on the other hand, describe EGAT in a more villainous role, as they claim EGAT’s efforts have simply paint a pretty picture to hide the truth of the dam.

EGAT has also taken a decided turn in how they represent the dam. The first benefit listed on our glitzy brochure situated at each student’s seat was ‘Irrigation’; as the dam claims to supply water to 150 km up the river. While I’ll get to the trouble with that in a moment, it was laughable to me that the next benefit was ‘Fishery’. The dam managed in just a few years to destroy one of Thailand’s most abundant freshwater fisheries[1], yet EGAT’s claim to fame is a Breeding Center spawning saltwater shrimp that cannot breed in the freshwater that villagers have said they have not seen or caught since the first year of the project. In fact, even ‘Tourism’ – the beauty of the dam attracting more visitors than the stretch of rapids bordering a National park – was listed before ‘Power Generation’[2]. This echoed the TAO’s (Local Government) engineer’s statement that the dam “helps stabilize the electricity supply of the Northeast”[3].

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One of the most devastating impacts of the dam has been loss of wetlands, which are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems of the planet.

In terms of irrigation, there have indeed been 61 irrigation pumps constructed along the Mun River[4]. Though EGAT didn’t pay a penny for them, as the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) built the facilities. Upon completion however, the RID dumped the complicated pumps on the TAO and have no management strategy for them. In Kuhn Puay’s district, of the 5 pumps installed, 2 are currently functioning[5]. The agricultural land around the river is not fertile to begin with. A lack of water in the dry season and every farmer that invested in the planting of second season rice, which is under 20% of farmers in the district will lose their entire crop and a huge financial hit[6]. At this time, 65% of Isaan’s rice farmers are in debt, many relying on each crop for survival[7].

The TAO openly admitted they don’t have the equipment or budget to maintain the pumps. The irrigation system in Kuan Puay, which has been broken for years, cost a reported 31 Million baht ($330,000)[8]. Like many projects in Thailand, corruption has been suggested. However, the real trickiness of the dam – at least in the mind of a local NGO P’Pat – is that a trough has been dug in the riverbank to get to it, meaning it can only operate with the high water level provided by the dam. This is further influencing the gates being shut, despite a strong local opposition and an agreement with the previous government to have the gates open for 5 years[9].

The governmental break down is one of the biggest obstacles surrounding the dam. While nothing substantial can happen until a new government is in power, the different governmental bodies that are involved in the project – EGAT, the RID and the TAO – have acted as individual entities with little to no collaboration between them. This has resulted in the irrigation system being inconsistent and poorly managed, and overall missing the mark of compensating for the villagers lost livelihoods from fishing.

EGAT puts a great deal of effort into maintain a good image, yet after talking with villagers and understanding in more detail how this dam has affected them, its impossible to believe the benefits outweigh the costs. Development projects always involve trade offs, but in this instance the desire to develop blindly has resulted in a great deal of capital invested in a project that is hurting the environment, the people and not providing the intended benefits.



[1] “Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams” Zed Books in assoc. with International Rivers, London 2001

[2] “Pak Mun Dam” Public Relations Division, Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, November 2006

[3] CIEE Exchange with Taoban Administrative Organization

[4] CIEE Exchange with P’Pat, Local NGO

[5] CIEE Exchange with Taoban Administrative Organization

[6] CIEE Exchange with Taoban Administrative Organization

[7] “Fairtrade FAQs” Transfair USA

[8] CIEE Exchange with P’Pat, Local NGO

[9] “Lessons Overlooked” Engage 2004



[1] “Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams” Zed Books in assoc. with International Rivers, London 2001

[2] “Lessons Overlooked” Engage, 2004

[3] “Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams” Zed Books in assoc. with International Rivers, London 2001

[4] “Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams” Zed Books in assoc. with International Rivers, London 2001

 

03/28/2014

D&G Newsletter 2

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Letter from the Editors

On Monday we enter the tenth week of our program--unbelievable! We’ve had innumerable adventures so far, visiting communities in Baw Gaew fighting for their land rights against a eucalyptus plantation company, the community of Khon Saan protesting the establishment of a rubber factory, and Huay Rahong contesting the borders of their land with a Wildlife Sanctuary. We’ve seen the mountains of Laos from Thailand and jumped in the Mun River in Ubon Ratchathani upstream of the controversial Pak Mun Dam. We’ve had the opportunity to speak everyone from the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) to organizations protesting the Pak Mun Dam to villagers of Khan Puai living with the impacts from the Pak Mun Dam. All in addition to encountering our various adventures around our home base, Khon Kaen.

This newsletter highlights some of our wild, crazy, funny, thought-provoking, heart-warming experiences thus far. Here in Thailand you will encounter many smiles, get the update on precisely how to get coffee, and consider the trend of development in Thailand. You’ll learn quite a bit about the food scene, from picking out meatballs to finding the perfect dessert. You may also consider gender, and how it is configured in the U.S. and in Thailand. Completing this newsletter is a whirlwind of “crazy things” that happen in Thailand that aren’t so “crazy” here, but may be balked at in the U.S.

So many diverse experiences, so many events and ideas to consider! Who knows where our paths will lead us next? Into week ten! 

Best,

The Editing Team

 

Table of Contents

Communicating in the Land of Smiles, Annie Srivanichraper

Thai Coffee Scene, Cara Reaume

Overcoming Arachnophobia, Alice Chen

The Imagery of Development, Holden Bussey

The Photo Phenomenon, Ellen Swain

Khon Kaen Food Stalls, Katrina Harrington

Eating Meatballs at Bus Stops, Sophie Westover

Not Your Average Daytime Soaps, Sarah Kaufman

Comfort Zone Control: Tips to Escape the CIEE Bubble, Shelby Kaplan

Thai Roommate Bonding, Allie Quintano

Bat Cave, Emma Arnold

Equality in Thailand, Maren Meyers

Thai Casual, Sara Diaz

 

Communicating in the Land of Smiles, Annie Srivanichraper

You are chatting with someone, and all the signs of a good conversation are there: a pleasant smile, the attentive head nod, maybe a chuckling laugh or two. The average American might interpret these actions as an affirmation that what is being said is understood and well received. However, in the Land of Smiles, a smile can hold a variety of meanings.

Based on my experiences in Thailand, it is clear Thai culture aims to avoid making the individual feel uncomfortable. Thus, sometimes when speaking with a Thai, you are left not knowing whether something is really okay, if they truly understand, or if they are thinking, “Yes, I know! Just stop already.”

After months in Thailand, I have picked up the Thai habit of respectfully smiling and nodding, when in reality, I could be feeling rather uncomfortable. It is possible that I do not fully understand what the other person is saying, did not receive the answer to the question I was asking, feel weird about asking them to repeat themselves, do not know how to deal with a bad situation, or think, “I get what this person is saying, but I don’t want to interrupt them.” This demonstrates that communication is not always impeded by a language barrier, but by something as simple, or rather as complicated, as a smile. Smiles aren’t the only barrier to communication, though.

Throughout the past two units of CIEE’s Development and Globalization program, it has struck me how difficulties in communication are also illustrated in the relationships between villagers and government bodies. This past unit on dams, water, and energy included a village that has lost their livelihood due to the construction of dams, an electricity generating authority in support of the dams, and five different opposition groups against the dam. In our land rights units, there was a communication barrier between villagers and the Head of the Wildlife Sanctuary, who felt that villagers took an accusatory tone during talks. In each of these units, there is potential for all groups to work together. However, they have not managed to do so. Is it an issue of pride, arrogance, or disdain?

This lack of communication and compromise is not unique to Thailand; It is an issue that takes place in America as well. I would like to think that it is so much better, but in reality, it is perhaps just as bad. Americans watched in dismay, as they wondered why Congress could not come to an agreement during the government shut down, and while determining the national budget. How can America hope to be taken seriously when our own lawmakers cannot come together to make a decision? Sometimes we may want think that the American government is free of these complexities and is arguably superior, but is it really?

Don’t get me wrong; I love my country.  I critique it because it saddens me to see our nation have so much trouble due to insufficient communication and lack of ownership across parties. The same issue plagues Thailand in varying degrees.

Why should different stakeholders try to find some common ground and look at it from the other perspective, despite the possible losses? Because in the end, even in Thailand, we have the same desire: we want the best for our countries as a whole.

  Annie_Communication in the Land of Smiles

While it looks pretty, a smile can confuse and impede the veracity of communication.

 

Thai Coffee Scene, Cara Reaume

As someone who can only function in the morning once the caffeine from a cup o’ joe has entered my bloodstream, I was mildly concerned coming to Thailand. The potentially limited availability had me worried. I didn’t really have any basis for assuming that Thailand was devoid of coffee. I was just aware of how comfortable I had grown with two coffee makers in my house combined with shops on almost every corner of my college town. This abundance of coffee was a constant source of comfort. I also knew that Thailand was a developing country. What if they hadn’t discovered the joys of java yet? This kept me up at night, but boy was I wrong!

I was greeted in Thailand with an immense range of coffee types from which to choose. Pretty much every coffee shop has the basics: black, latte, mocha, cappuccino and espresso. Most places then have liquid ‘chocolate’, a variety of smoothies and teas and different flavored milks (hazelnut, strawberry, oreo) – this is something I have yet to explore, but feel that, as a frequent inhabitant of coffee shops, I must soon try. In almost every coffee establishment, each type of coffee comes in three options for your taste buds’ pleasure – rohn (hot), yen (cold, or iced) and baan (frappe), getting more expensive, respectively. Prices for a coffee generally range from 30-60 baht ($1-$2), which by American standards is very reasonable, though the quantity of coffee received here is much smaller. I’d estimate that it’s about ¾ of a ‘small’ at an average coffee shop back home. However, it is interesting to note that the average price for a meal at one of the many food stands I frequently visit is 35 baht. So, a cup of coffee is equal to or more expensive than a meal. Worth it.

There is definitely an array of atmospheres to choose from when pondering which coffee establishment to support. On one end of the spectrum are tiny stands on the side of the street that offer the added fun of keeping one eye on the road to avoid getting hit by passing motorcyclists. One stand I enjoy serves coffee in a bag, which, not uncommon in Thailand, involves the precious liquid being wrapped in plastic, then paper, then plastic again. This ensures minimal leakage and maximal landfill supply. Then, there are little ‘huts’ of coffee, which look like a small box surrounded by stools. One of my favorite spots, Finview Coffee, is a slightly bigger wooden box with a few tables inside – a cozy nook, though the lack of air conditioning prevents long-term studying. There are also average sized coffee shops that are charming, independently owned and usually conducive to doing homework that requires mild concentration. Warning: on certain occasions, any and all coffee shops mentioned may spontaneously begin to play loud, obnoxious, pop tunes. Think One Direction, Taylor Swift, and The Like. When either this or the other strange music genre comes on – covers of Christmas songs by Thai singers – your cue to get your coffee in a to-go cup and get out has arrived.

A strange characteristic of Thai coffee shops is the ambiguous and volatile opening/closing times. Often, a sign outlining operating hours is posted, but hardly adhered to. A shop might open at 10 am one day and 1 pm the next. Others have no set hours at all. One thing for certain is that no local coffee shops open earlier than 9 a.m., or even usually 10 a.m.  Alas, in the early mornings I struggle.  However, the wait till mid-morning is worth it, as Thai coffee is hardly ever bad. It’s not relatively good either, but at least it’s consistent – in taste and most definitely in sweetness. Thais love wan (sweet), and unless you specifically ask for no sugar, you can expect to be flooded with spoonfuls in every drink.

Cara_Thai Coffee Scene

 My drink of choice as I write this newsletter, an espresso baan for 45 baht.

 

Overcoming Arachnophobia, Alice Chen

Spiders are quite literally one the most scariest things on the planet. They have eight legs, two fangs, and a vicious attitude. They hide in the dark corners of your house, crawling out when you least expect it. Their tiny bodies and long legs lurk in the darkness waiting to sink their fangs into your skin. Still not convinced? Well consider this: the brown button spider, found in many parts of the world, will literally eat whole snakes. WHOLE SNAKES!!!

So now that you are in complete terror, let me tell you about my experience with arachnids in Thailand. The hot, dry climate in Isaan is the perfect breeding ground for spiders. These cold-blooded creatures can come out any time of the day and not have to worry about dying or getting blown away. They are literally everywhere, especially daddy long-legs. All I have to do is look in a corner and sure enough there will be a clump of webs with a spider hanging in the middle of them. I don’t cringe as long as they stay in their corners and out of immediate eyesight. Sadly, there is very little I can do about spider behavior. I knew I would have to face them eventually.

My first experience with spiders in Thailand came the first week we moved into our apartments. My lovely roommate wanted to take me to this night market, and I of course agreed. So I grabbed my helmet and jumped on her motorcycle. About halfway through the ride, the side of my forehead started to get itchy, and the itch appeared to be moving across my head. What was this weird phenomenon occurring on my hairline? Well I got my answer soon enough. A spider drops from my helmet onto my face! I think the reason I did not cause a crash was because I was utterly stunned and was only barely able to move my arm to swipe the spider off my nose. This was definitely the closest encounter to a spider I have ever had and would prefer to never have again…ever. Unfortunately, my arachnophobia will soon be challenged again.

My next spider-scarring event came on our last homestay during the water unit. Do not get me wrong; I absolutely loved staying with my family. In fact, this was the hardest homestay family for me to leave, except for the spiders. Many of you have probably read about our journeys of discovering bucket baths and squat toilets, but I am going to add one more piece to the adventure: the accumulation of spiders on the squat toilet. This is probably one of the least pleasant places to have spiders, but there is absolutely no way I could have avoided this situation. So here I am squatting face to face with three massive daddy long-legs as I do my business. Closing my eyes is not an option—what happens if they start to move? I need to be prepared for evasive maneuvers. Thankfully, no spiders dropped on my head this time, but the same cannot be said for my roommate. Cara, I sympathize with your traumatizing experience.

Next week, we will be heading onto our fifth homestay of the trip in Loei Province. Will I encounter spiders? Most definitely. Will I be better prepared for an attack? Probably not. Will I still shriek whenever I see one? Maybe, but I am hoping that these encounters in Thailand will make me immune to my fear when I get back to America. Yeah okay, that’s just wishful thinking.

Alice_Overcoming Arachnophobia

I am too scared to actually take a picture of a spider. Thus, this picture of a Giant Huntsman in Thailand was found on Google. Huntsman spiders or Crane spiders are apparently very common.

 

The Imagery of Development, Holden Bussey

In coming to Thailand, I had visions of white sandy beaches and lush, tropical rainforests. While some areas of the country do mimic this, with the tropics to the south and the rainforests to the north, the natural geography has left Isaan an expansive plateau, with Khon Kaen dropped in the center. Sandwiched between mountains to the west and to the east, Isaan in the dry season is extreme. Neither lush nor green are accurate descriptors of the brown, almost bleak nature of Isaan’s terrain this time of year.

Through our travels to villages around this region, green dots seems to pop up out of nowhere. Irrigation has allowed for rice to be grown in two seasons, instead of the traditional single wet season crop. Rice paddies provide some greenery on the otherwise dry landscape, yet I have started to notice more and more another source of green space. While the paddies retain the picturesque image of the Southeast Asian countryside, a perfectly manicured western landscape seems out of place in this region. The more observant I am, the more I notice this type scenery throughout Isaan.

What I find interesting is that this landscape is not associated with the traditional businesses or attractions it would be in the west. Instead, these perfectly manicured gardens and flowers attract visitors to industrial entities that we would usually want to hide. Power plants, dams, and other industrial facilities are seemingly marketed like they are meant for public amusement. Thailand is by no means trying to hide these examples of development. On the contrary, they are showcasing them to its citizens. They are symbols of the transitions happening in this part of the country.

As Thailand develops, the need for energy is increasing. While Khon Kaen is growing daily, the real demand for energy comes from Bangkok and the industries of the central plains. However, the power is coming from various locations, with Isaan being the perfect setting for power generation. It is not all roses though, as there are an incredible amount of drawbacks for those residing near these power plants.

In this past unit, we studied the enormous impact the Pak Mun Dam has had on the environment and nearby citizens’ way of life – compromising their fisheries and denying them flood plains to farm on. However, upon visiting the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) compound nearby, located on the even larger Siridorn Dam, we were met with sprawling greenery, sprinklers gushing water and, to my shock, a golf course. EGAT is running a full on tourist destination.

This struck a chord with me, as it correlated with a thought I’ve been having about the modernizing of Isaan; The government is attempting to glorify development in order to attract Thai citizens to the built environment that is becoming ever more present in this region. As an outsider, it is bizarre, as these companies impeccable image is masking the reality that with every new power plant or dam, villagers are displaced, livelihoods are lost and the environment is all too often degraded. While many of these consequences are inevitable with development, it feels to me like Thailand is trying to hide this reality from its citizens. While every tourist we encountered at the dam had a beaming smile, I can’t help but think back to the villagers who have had to start anew. While they are still living in the ‘Land of Smiles’, in discussing the dam, their faces are grim.

  Holden_The Imagery of Development

The symbolism of scenery in Isaan extends past the context of agriculture. The landscape is also representative of a facade controversial industrialization. 

 

The Photo Phenomenon, Ellen Swain

We all have that friend who insists on taking photos of everything. Well, during my semester studying abroad in Khon Kaen, Thailand, I feel like I am surrounded a lot of those friends. At almost every event I have attended, I have seen Thai people taking photos of something. This is probably the same as in the United States, but happens more frequently here. Most commonly, the pictures are of food, and I have noticed that it is mostly young people of “Generation Y” that are the photographers. The older generation is apparently pickier in their photo topics. The frequency of photo taking is fascinating and it is all I noticed for the first few weeks of this semester—smart phones, everywhere, taking pictures of everything you can imagine. So just what is it that motivates so many Thai people to take such an abundance of pictures? I won’t lie; I have no idea, but I have theories.

My first theory is that Thai people want to capture their fun activities for future reminiscences. Working all day in the heat is exhausting, and after a long day it’s nice to do something fun with friends and family. And in this modern era, who doesn’t take pictures at fun events?! It’s a great way to document memories and preserve times of laughter. Younger generations seem to share most of these pictures with others through social media. After becoming Facebook “friends” with many Thai people, I have noticed that majority of my newsfeed consists of statuses and pictures in the Thai language. Speaking with my Thai roommate helped me get to the bottom of this notable habit and form my second theory: Thai people want to “show off” to their friends, proving they lead a fun and exciting life. This is not hard to believe, as many of us want a desirable life, and pictures are wonderful proof of that.

My third theory comes from selfies. A “selfie,” in which the photographer is also the subject of the photo, is one of the best ways to upload an intimate, attractive photo of oneself. With social media increasingly present in our daily lives, it is of the utmost importance to create a profile that will represent you in a flattering light. Unfortunately, many people actually judge your character by your social media profile, so it only makes sense to upload the most striking photos of yourself. And who knows your angles better than yourself? A few weeks ago, while innocently waiting for my food at a cafe, I noticed a girl sitting at a nearby table shamelessly taking numerous selfies. She would snap a photo of herself, review her work, and reposition for a new picture. She continued for almost ten minutes. This is very different from American culture where it can be almost embarrassing to snap pictures of yourself, as it seems to imply that you have no one else to take a photo of you.

The popular stereotype of Asians taking many pictures unfortunately has been reinforced during my time in Thailand. However, I thoroughly appreciate the shamelessness these Thai show in their photo taking. Those that like photos embrace it, which is something I can respect. Since it is such an interesting habit, I knew it would be best to try to understand the reasons behind it, hence, my three theories. I can only hope that these theories help other farang (foreigners) understand this fascinating custom found amongst the Thai. And who knows? Maybe there’s an article out there about how Americans don’t take enough pictures.

  Ellen_The Photo Phenomenon

Taking the time to capture an image of what may be perceived as a typical activity is not uncommon. In fact, it is a representation of the strong social media culture. 

 

Khon Kaen Food Stalls, Katrina Harrington

As a Khon Kaen University study abroad student, I have become enamored with the food stalls here. The food culture here is completely different than that of the United States, which isn’t shocking by any means, but nonetheless it is quite enthralling. From the information I have gathered while I have been living here, no one really cooks or has a full kitchen.  It is cheaper here to grab some food from a stall then buy all the ingredients and make a dish at home, which is shocking for me! Whereas in the United States it would not be financially feasible for me to eat out every meal.

These food stalls are also a little mysterious; they are not open consistently on the same days or times.  Every once in a while I have a day where I go to get food and they are closed for more than one of my meals; I feel pretty defeated on those days! They are also more consistently open later at night, as Thai students enjoy very late meals, and meals to supplement their alcohol after a night out (which I suppose also happens in the U.S).  Hey, that would be great if more food options were open later in the U.S for those party animals.  The food in the food stalls is variable: some have great vegetables and condiments laid out in front to see, although some others look a little bit scary with old, salted meat sitting there for who knows how long.  From my experience, I have had more good food than bad from food stalls, and they are a whole lot faster than a sit-down restaurant.  But it’s always a bummer when you order something that is over salted or under cooked, or just plain awful.

Luckily the awful meals are fewer and far between, but the desert stalls… there you can’t seem to go wrong! I have been pleasantly surprised by the sweets here—they are awesome.  In Khon Kaen there are many stalls and stands that have an array of options and toppings for your dessert or ice cream. Right by our classes there is a donut, crepe, and pastry stand! They are all so delicious and extremely deadly if you are trying to watch your weight!  I try and limit myself to one dessert a week, but lets be honest, that doesn’t happen! Food stalls are a necessity here and way of life, and without them we would all just go hungry!  I definitely miss making my own meals at home, but I know for sure I will miss the convenience and variety of food stalls here in Khon Kaen.

  Katrina_Khon Kaen Food Stalls

11pm and I can get my hands on a customized crepe! 

 

Eating Meat Necklaces at Bus Stops, Sophie Westover

As an American in Thailand you see and taste many strange unusual foods. From roasted cockroaches to unidentifiable fruits, there are many edible treats I had no idea existed before. It’s not that these foods are gross or weird; it is just that they are different. I am sure that a Thai in America would look at some of the foods we eat and think the same thing. A Thai person might look at pickles for instance, or moldy cheese and wonder why in the world anyone would ever put that in his mouth.

I understand that food preferences vary globally, and so I have been open to trying new dishes. One particularly daring day at a bus stop in central Thailand some friends and I decided to go on what we called a “culinary adventure.”We were starved, and had a six-hour bus ride ahead of us but didn’t know when the bus would come so had to get something fast, and since we were all running out of money, cheap. The typical food stalls serving Pad Thai, drunken noodles, and stir-fry were out of the question because you never know how long the cooking of the food will actually take. We surveyed the area and narrowed down our options. Two small food stands remained. One was serving artificially colored meat on sticks, which we ruled out immediately. The other, run by a young man looked more promising.

Dark looking balls of meat were strung together on a long string like Christmas lights over his stall. The only way I can describe how it looked was like a long necklace with large beads. We hesitated for a moment, but our tummies were grumbling. Together the four of us, two of which are vegetarians, decided, “When in Thailand, do as Thais do” and made the decision to go ahead and try these mysterious meat necklaces.

We asked for 20 baht worth (about 70 cents) and got about 10 of these round pieces of meat. The man selling them smiled as he handed us a plastic bag containing a quarter head of raw cabbage, pickled ginger, and cilantro.  Curiously, we all sat down and inspected what we had just bought. The meatballs were about and inch in diameter and looked similar to a sausage. We could tell they would be spicy because of the flecks of red pepper we could see were ground into the meat.

We assumed that the cabbage, cilantro, and ginger were supposed to be eaten with the meat so we each carefully assembled our bites. Leaves of cabbage, then the ginger and cilantro and finally the meatballs. We looked at one another nervously, not knowing what we were about to experience. “One, two, three” we said and unison and took a bite.

Surprisingly they were pretty good. Especially with the ginger and cilantro. They just tasted like sausages. We came to the conclusion that they were ground pork sausages with red pepper and rice. Not bad at all. We each had 2 more.

Sophie_Eating Meat Necklaces at Bus Stops
 

These meatballs are one of the many Thai treats that you may be initially hesitant to try but pleasantly surprised upon doing so! 

 

Not Your Average Daytime Soaps, Sarah Kaufman

One of Thais’ favorite activities is watching soap operas. These dramas, or lahkon, are on the popular television stations at night, unlike the American equivalent, which are on during the afternoon. While I am not an American soap opera expert, it seems that the style of lahkon varies from American soap operas. Thai soaps are one and a half to two hours. Most episodes contain a full story, as opposed to the cliffhangers present in American soaps. I have, however, seen some Thai soap series that do not have a full story for each episode.

The episodes that contain a full story all follow a similar pattern—there is a good guy and a good girl, and the two are in love or fall in love. There is a bad girl who tries to steal the good guy. There are other common themes or characters that I have notices in the episodes that I have watched—comic relief complete with bizarre sound effects, gunfights or knife fights, man-on-man combat, hostage situations, manhandling of women, women being mean to each other, rich families, supernatural beings (ghosts, zombies, vampires, etc.), and complicated romantic relationships. I am not sure what all of these themes say about Thai society, but any or all of these appear in almost every episode that I have seen.

Since most of the lahkon are like television movies, they feature very long introductions. Instead of a simple theme song and opening credits, each show has a five-minute long theme song, complete with opening credits, and a visual summary of essentially the whole show. It is very similar for the end of each show; the same 5-minute theme song plays while a different visual summary of the whole show appears on screen. A list of at least thirty sponsors scrolls across the bottom of the screen while all of this happens.

One of my favorite shows was played every night at my last homestay. The overall idea was people living in a jungle and a good group of people fighting a bad group of people. This show had it all—hostage situations, bad humor, attractive women firing guns alongside attractive men firing guns, zombies, vampires, ghosts, a wizard who could shoot magic out of a dagger, bad wigs, men dressed as women, karate battles, and a man in a gorilla suit (who was supposed to be an actual gorilla in the show). Even though I couldn’t understand what the characters were saying, the overdramatized acting and story line help me decipher what was happening on screen. When something funny happened on screen (signified by a humorous sound effect), I laughed alongside my homestay brothers and grandmother. When a gun battle was happening between the good guys and the bad guys, we all sat and watched intently, waiting to see who would win. Especially at homestays, watching soap operas seems to be a great bonding activity that is not affected by the language barrier.   

  Sarah K_Not Your Average Daytime Soaps

Thai soap operas involve acting that is so overly dramatic it becomes comical. 

 

Comfort Zone Control: Tips to escape the CIEE bubble, Shelby Kaplan

One of the biggest difficulties of our Thailand experience is fully immersing in the culture.  It becomes all too easy to get attached to the group since we spent a significant amount of time working together—whether it is during Thai class, unit facilitation and homestays, or speedy snack breaks between sessions. It takes some definite planning and initiative to actually go out and meet locals. Stepping out of your comfort zone (the CIEE bubble) and introducing yourself to new people can be one of the most terrifying, yet rewarding actions you can take here.  You will make more connections than you could ever imagine, but you have to make that first move and give people a chance.  Even if you feel insecure about speaking Thai or small cultural misunderstandings, people will probably still appreciate that you are trying and are typically interested in getting to know you since you are clearly farang (foreigner).

A first step to branching out is making yourself approachable. It is great that the CIEE group becomes so close throughout the semester and quickly provides a safe space, but consistently going into public spaces with a large crowd of Americans is hard to manage. It might drive you nuts because we spend the majority of our time together, and could scare locals from trying to meet you.  Try grabbing one to two friends, or maybe a Thai roommate or a Thai peer tutor, to go out with.  Exploring the city in small numbers, especially in small numbers of Americans, creates a less stressful environment.  If you go in small numbers with other CIEE students, Thais are more likely to approach you and you may feel more freedom to approach them.  Also, if you take the time to get to know your Thai roommate and Thai peer tutor they are typically pretty keen and excited to introduce you to their friends.

Once you have made yourself approachable by escaping the constant confinement of the American group, the next step is to continue dialogue and make plans with the new people you have met.  Exchange phone numbers and Facebook names whenever you meet someone new and interesting.  Meet up with said new people for a drink, lunch date, or excursion.  Do not be afraid to choose a relaxing day with your roommate over a small CIEE trip to a tourist trap, or a night on the town with a few new Thai friends (who may not speak much English) over one with the student group.  These times might be overwhelming and different, but very much rewarding as you will develop new friendships, improve your Thai, and really start to feel like you belong.

  Shelby_Comfort Zone Control-Tips to escape the CIEE bubble

One of the best ways to truly grasp the essence of an atmosphere is by venturing outside the classroom and interacting with those most familiar with the culture: locals!  

 

Thai Roommate Bonding, Allie Quintano

One of my favorite parts about the program here is that we are paired with a Thai roommate. The Thai roommates are Khon Kaen University students, and we are matched with them according to a questionnaire we fill out prior to arriving. The questionnaire addresses our interests, hobbies and the level of English we would be comfortable with our roommate knowing. Many of the roommates have been working with CIEE for a while and have had American roommates in past semesters. Because we all live in the same apartment building, I have found a sense of community among all of the Thai and American roommates. Often, American and Thai roommates will be hanging out in the lobby of the apartments doing homework, just talking, and probably on Facebook. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming.

Many of the highlights of my memories so far have been experiences I shared with my roommate, Pailin. The first day I met Pailin, she took me on her motorcycle to the store to purchase any items I needed. That night, she took me to the university night market to eat dinner. I think back to our first day together fondly, because it created the foundation for how we still communicate and interact with each other.

Since then, I have gotten to spend much more time with her and her boyfriend, both them sharing experiences with me and me with them. One night, we three went to a local coffee and dessert shop nearby. We sat at a small table outside and I noticed a box on the empty table next to us. I quickly found out this box contained “Connect Four”, the game where two people compete by trying to be the first to get four of their own colored pieces in a row. We spent the rest of our time taking turns playing and shared a big bowl of some kind of medley of all things scrumptious, along with a piece of toast covered in deliciousness. Occasionally two of us would team up to play against the other, and we would all laugh together when someone made a mistake. I was so happy just to be in Thailand at that moment enjoying this game and dessert with two very special people!

While I greatly value what I am learning through the unique academic experiences here in this program, the times spent bonding with my roommate are invaluable. These moments are what really make this whole experience here in Thailand feel real to me.

  Allie_Thai Roommate Bonding

Time spent with my roommate has led to many unforgettable experiences and opportunities to share our Thai and American cultures.

 

Bat Cave, Emma Arnold

On homestays, oftentimes we are at the whim of our families.

The language barrier is real here. In – community in – province, my lovely host family tried to explain things to me several times before I inevitably nodded and pretended to understand. In the rare occasions when I did understand what they said, I just nodded more vigorously.

Hence, on my last homestay I found myself in the back of a pickup truck, flying down a road surrounded fields of rice, with absolutely no idea where we were going. A couple minutes earlier, myself along with five other students and our host sister had climbed into the back of the truck. After a long day, I was exhausted and quite hungry.

After about a 20 minute ride, we pulled up to a large food market on the side of the road. I was thrilled. In Thailand, big open air market places have some of the most delicious food in the world. Not only do they have practically every type of meat on a stick, but they are also a cornucopia of fresh fruit, smoothies, curries and noodles, and all sorts of sweets. But as I stood to hop out of the truck, my host mother waved her hand at me, telling me to sit.

She ran off, and a couple of minutes later returned with several bags of food. She retreated into the cabin of the truck, leaving us in the back, and we were off again.

When we stopped next, we had arrived at our final destination. The truck pulled into a field at the base of some tremendous rock bluffs, and we hopped out. “Tha kang caow” my host father said pointing, “bat cave”. As my gaze followed his finger, I craned my head backwards until I was looking straight at the largest rock face. There, set in the middle of the rock, hundreds of feet above the ground, was a gaping cave. It looked like a gash in the rock face, narrow with pointed edges.

Our host father motioned for us to follow him, and led us back to the field by the truck. “Giin kaow”, he said, “eat!”. Our host mother had set up a picnic in the field. On top of bamboo mats, a feast was laid out. Elated, we all sat in a circle and ate until we were well beyond full.

Just when I figured our evening was over- ride through the fields, seeing a bat cave, and a delicious picnic dinner- I was surprised yet again. As we were sitting, our host mother suddenly pointed to the sky. I looked up and was met with the most spectacular sight.

At first, I thought a large swarm of bugs was flying overhead. But as my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that the moving black mass was not bugs; it was bats. They streamed across the sky by the thousands, in unison forming a single stream. This stream of bats curved across the sky, slowly stretching from the mouth of the cave across to the edge of the horizon.

We stood and watched for at least 15 minutes, until the stream of bats slowed then ceased.  Then we took a minute more and just stared at the empty sky. And then, we hopped back into the bed of the pickup truck, and zoomed across the rice fields in the dark.

 

Equality in Thailand, Maren Meyers

Very soon after I arrived here in Khon Kaen it became apparent that sexuality plays a very different role in Thai society than in American. Granted, my observations are limited by the short two-month time period we’ve been here and by my status as a foreign outsider, but several first-hand experiences have lead me to believe that people who label themselves outside the heterosexual gender identity are not perceived as abnormal by any means—a phenomenon LGBT community members fight futilely to achieve in other countries.

Within Thailand, one can find many different gender roles, identities, and diverse visual markers of masculinity and femininity, but the first and most obvious example to a foreigner is “Kathoey,” known more commonly as ladyboys. Simplistically put, a ladyboy is a male who dresses and carries out the identity of a woman. In the United States, many would say transgender, however, the term doesn’t completely define who they are.

My first real interaction with ladyboys occurred very early in the program at a popular local bar called Follow, where this third gender makes up a large portion of the staff. Here, at a place where the music is loud and people come to socialize and have a good time, ladyboys not only seem to be taken as completely normal, but almost as lionized members of the social scene; not for their unique sexuality, but for their unique beauty. The refreshing fact that a staff so ladyboy-concentrated attracts the same kind of crowd as any other bar speaks to the acceptance of all genders by all genders.

My second and more insightful interaction with a ladyboy occurred in a small farming community called Baw Kaew—a small protest village in Chaiyaphum Province. I had the privilege of staying the night with a family of four: the mother, P’Rat, and her children comprised of one daughter, one son, and one ladyboy. One would never have guessed she was physiologically a male if it were not for an older neighbor in the tightly knit community who commented on her beauty and brought up the subject unprompted. The nature of the talk wasn’t accusatory or mocking in any way, as I’ve experienced the elderly American generation to be towards the LGBT community in the US. Rather, he simply pointed out a fact we didn’t already know. He was completely okay with who she is and wholly comfortable speaking about it openly, candidly and positively. In my experience back home, discussions surrounding such topics are all too often uncomfortably muttered within families and communities. The acceptance of this pervading demographic of Thai citizens seems to be accepted equally in the city and rural country, whereas in the US many people seek out cities in order find happiness and acceptance among the more socially liberal.

Before coming to Thailand, I did not realize that the country is becoming well known on a global scale for its beautiful ladyboy population and, by extension, it’s reputation positive self-identity and willingness to bend social norms. While my experiences don’t qualify me to speak towards equality on a legal or political level by any means, I feel confident in saying many social communities around the world would benefit by taking a page from Thailand’s book.

Maren_Equality in Thailand

Sara Diaz and I with Fa, the younger sister of our family in Baw Kaew village.

 

Thai Casual, Sara Diaz

One of the things that I knew I really wanted out of a study abroad experience was to be somewhere completely different than where I was from.  If you are considering studying abroad in Thailand, you probably have a similar goal.  After about the first day in Khon Kaen, I could tell that I would not be disappointed when it came to this matter. After about the second day, I could tell that my expectations would be surpassed.

While the whole “people are people everywhere” mantra is valuable and true, some of what is perfectly commonplace here in Thailand would be pretty high up on the weirdness scale most likely anywhere in America.  Certain things that happen here don’t even cause passers by to bat an eyelash (and after two months here, neither do I), yet they may merit a 911 call in the States.  There are also things that would only elicit a great deal of slack-jawed disbelieving stares.  Regardless, the following is a non-comprehensive list of things that I happen to encounter on a semi-daily basis in Thailand that would basically never happen in America.

Let’s start with the general topic of food. First of all, Thai food is incredible. So cheap, so delicious: a winning combination. However, there are some quarks.  First of all, street food is huge here.  Street food is common in many places in America, but not like this.  Fried bugs are a big thing, and not just for the novelty of eating fried bugs.  A worm and cricket combo platter is the drunchie (drunk munchie) equivalent of fries and McNuggets.  When purchasing these, you have two main options.  The first method is to pick these up from a traditional roadside vendor who will fry them up by the bucketload in a wok. Alternatively, you can grab some grubs from one of the many mobile vendors who drive around on a motorcycle with a pimped out, neon-lighted sidecar blasting strange music-like noises. I am not ashamed to say that I partook once or twice, but as soon as it stopped being funny, I could no longer justify it. To be honest, however, the bugs aren’t even my main food-related concern—the copious amounts of exposed meat, both cooked and uncooked, is. I would by no stretch consider myself to be overly concerned with hygiene. I’m probably not even adequately concerned with hygiene.  When I’m browsing for food in the 100-degree heat, however, and I happen upon a chunk of uncooked meat on a hook, I have a hard time turning off my American incredulity.

 Our next topic will be poorly titled “transportation.” Motorcycles, or “motorcyces” in Thai (which are really just vespas), are the most commonly used modes of transportation around Khon Kaen.  Usually, you will see one or two people to a motorcye, which would not be such a strange sight in America. I would say that at least two or three times a day I see three or four people squished onto one seat.  So far my most impressive sighting is six people to a motorcye.  Having been one passenger of three passengers packed onto one of these seats, I can honestly say that I have no idea how any more butts can possibly fit, yet again and again I see the ingenious peoples of Thailand find a way. Similarly, the song taews (open-air mini-bus; essentially a pickup truck with a metal structure over the backcreating two rows of seats, bars to hold onto, and steps off the back) are always overflowing with people. I saw this quite literally.  During crowded hours, they often give off the impression of bursting with human beings.  People hang off of the back steps just inches from the passing road beneath them, and the only thing keeping them from death is the grip of their sweaty hand. The most striking part about this is that this is public transportation, often provided by the university. My university in America didn’t even let us access our second story balconies in our dorms.

I will close with my favorite example of the topic at hand—fire.  This manifests itself in two main ways. Firstly, everyone burns their trash. Everyone. Everywhere. Whether you are in Khon Kaen city or in a rural village, the smell of burning rubbish is a constant comfort. The second and perhaps most illustrative example of this entire subject is the casual roadside fire. Driving along a highway, you will see fires of considerable size, and they will be, literally, right next to the road. You will probably press your hands and face up against the window and gasp audibly the first few times you see this, only to eventually realize that none of the Thai people you are with seem to even notice. I’ve even witnessed a man drinking a beer on a pile of brush about 20 feet away from the flames. The best explanation I’ve heard for any and all of these occurrences is, “it’s just the way it is.” Roll with it.

Included for your information is a list of other oddities:

·    Dogs everywhere

·    Cats everywhere

·    No sidewalks

·    Unless you specify otherwise, almost every drink comes with about a cup of condensed milk

·    Vendors running to the place next door for change

·    Hours of operation are not really a thing. Sometimes they’re there, sometimes they’re not.

Sara D_Thai Casual

Fried worms on your walk back from the bars is a must-try for every adventurous traveler.

 

03/20/2014

What’s the Catch?, Sara Diaz

One of our recent units in the Development and Globalization program focused on water and dams.  Specifically, we focused on the Pak Mun Dam, a controversial dam on the Mun River, a main tributary to the Mekong.  We spent five days in a village called Khan Puai in Ubon Ratchathani province.  We met with the Energy Generating Authority of Thailand, the local subdistrict governmental office (TAO), villagers, and NGOs. To boil the issue down to a few sentences, the dam, originally intended for electricity generation, has taken away the villagers’ former fishing centered livelihood since fish can no longer swim upstream.  The construction of and flooding caused by the dam also stripped villagers of their land and damaged their homes.  The government is now trying to shift the goal of the dam to providing irrigation for villagers in order to aid them in their transition to an agrarian lifestyle.

EGAT has installed two different kinds of irrigation pumps in communities along the Mun River effected by the dam.  The first is a standard stationary pump.  It is constructed on a platform above the surface of the water, and has a long pipe which brings water from the river and distributes it to the nearby fields.  The second type of pump is a floating pump.  It is build on a platform which rests on the surface of the water, therefor rising and falling with the water level.  There are currently pumps either in construction, already built, or planning to be built along the Mun River.  

In theory, providing irrigation for local villagers seems like an altruistic and socially conscious move by EGAT. But here’s the catch—actually there are a few catches. 

The first catch is that, while providing 61 pumps may seem incredibly generous, this number was arrived at simple by asking communities if they would like pumps or not (61 said yes), and then mandating that these pumps be built, regardless of whether or not they are effective in their location or if they are well managed.

 Catch number two is that, despite the fact that standing pumps cost almost 20 times what floating pumps cost and that the villagers prefer the easier-to-maintain floating pumps, the government is adamant that standing pumps are better.  When standing pumps break, villagers have no idea how to fix them and the government fixes them in “no less than three months” according to a TAO official.  Villagers have a better understanding of floating pumps and find them to be more effective.

Catch number three is that, regardless of the effectiveness of irrigation pumps, most of the land in the effected area is not suitable for farming, and the villagers who inhabit it are not interested in being farmers.  EGAT built a dam that destroyed the livelihood of entire communities without giving them any say in the matter, and essentially decided that these fishless fishermen were to then become farmers.  It was then that they decided, out of the kindness of their hearts, to give them something they never wanted for land that was never meant for that purpose. 

I think we can agree that these are pretty significant catches. 

It seems to me that the problem at the root of this issue is a disconnect between governmental bodies and villagers.  When we went to speak with the TAO, they informed us that, “sometimes, villagers don’t understand what is best for them.”  While the TAO works with villages to create a committee of representative from each village in the sub district,  the people who are formally employed by the TAO are not the same people who are living in these effected communities.  How can they claim to know better when these decisions are not affecting their day-to-day lives?  Both the TAO and EGAT spoke passionately of the countless benefits that the dam brought to local communities.  An official at EGAT even said that their relationship with villagers was like that between “brothers and sisters.”  However, the villagers who we lived with and talked to had nothing to say to this effect.  When asked about benefits of the dam, they said they had seen none.  When asked about their relationship with EGAT, they said there was none. 

For what the opinion of a 20 year old college student is worth, in order to address the needs of the villagers (who are supposedly the intended beneficiaries) there needs to be much more effective communication between villagers and governmental bodies.  Most importantly, the government needs to trust that the villagers at least have the capacity to know what is best for them. 

2014Spring_SaraD

The portion of this stationary pump which connects it to its water source is broken, rendering it completely useless to villagers.