Not sure what program is right for you? Click Here
CIEE

© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Study Abroad in

Back to Program Back to Blog Home

03/19/2014

Failed Attempts to Form a Fist for Justice, Sarah Kaufman

For the past couple of weeks, my classmates and I learned about water management and dams in Thailand’s Northeastern region of Isaan. We focused on the Pak Mun Dam, a controversial dam completed in 1994 that has caused villagers in the surrounding area hardships for the past twenty years. Out of these adversities, groups opposing the Pak Mun Dam have formed a movement. Over the years, these opposition groups went from working together towards a common goal, to having separate goals and accusing each other of corruption.  

As we learned from local villagers and witnessed first hand, the Pak Mun Dam took away the livelihoods of those who live along the Mun River, where the dam is located. Most villagers along the river relied mainly on fishing to bring in their main income. When the dam was built, fish could no longer swim upstream; upstream fishermen could no longer make money to support their families. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) compensated local villagers at the time of the dam’s construction, accounting for flooding and relocation, but did not compensate for loss of livelihood. Group opposing the dam have risen from this loss of livelihood; the groups’ goals are ways to compensate for this loss, whether it’s through money or other compromises.

We spoke to two opposition groups, the Thai Baan Center and Somkiat Singhakham, or Paw (father) Somkiat. The Thai Baan Center is the largest of the opposition groups. The Center consists of three parts- a co-op to promote new careers for members, a local radio station, and the local knowledge center. The local knowledge center features a museum of the history of fishing in the area and a place for seminars and conferences. The Thai Baan center has a strong movement against the dam. Their main goals are to open the gates of the dam for 5 years and for villagers to receive 20 years worth of compensation for the loss of livelihood. The Center states that they believe there are no better alternatives.  

The village we stayed in, Khan Puai, sides with the Thai Baan Center. Villagers want EGAT to pay compensation for the loss of livelihood, which the Center offers as one of its goals. In addition, some villagers want EGAT to support their children’s educations; with the loss of livelihood came the lack of money to pay for village children’s schooling. Khan Puai villagers cited that they believe the Thai Baan Center will bring compensation faster than any of the other opposition groups.

Paw Somkiat supports different end goals. His main goal is to permanently open the dam gates. He hopes that this will return the livelihoods of the local villagers, as well as restore the area’s ecosystem. Another goal that his followers have set is each household obtaining 15 rais (around 6 acres) of land for agriculture or other uses. Paw Somkiat himself does not support this idea, but his followers feel strongly positive towards it.

Paw Somkiat was once a member of the Thai Baan Center, but left to form his own group after he felt the Thai Baan leaders were corrupt. He claims there was a lack of transparency in the finances of the Thai Baan Center and that leaders of the group acted more like commanders. He stated that the leaders did not truly listen to their group members. He also explained that throughout the years, EGAT has bribed 8 opposition leaders. Years ago, when the Thai Baan Center had more support, it was exposed that a couple of leaders accepted bribes. This tore Thai Baan members apart, forming the 5 opposition groups that exist today.

Both Paw Somkiat and the Thai Baan Center stated that the movement would be much stronger if all five opposition groups worked together towards a common goal. Paw Somkiat cited the idea of the movement as a fist; all the groups working together would form a fist, which would effectively knock down the dam gates. At the moment, the five groups are spread out, like fingertips. Each fingertip knocking at the dam gates is not nearly as strong or effective as the force of a full fist. However, both groups also stated that it would be impossible for all the opposition groups to work together. There has been years of each opposition group attacking each other for differences in opinion. This pushes opposition leaders away from each other, further weakening the movement. The Thai Baan Center stated that the government uses this fact to their advantage.

In our exchange with Paw Somkiat, he explained that the dam destroyed local culture. One major aspect of the local culture that existed before the dam was the general attitude of villagers helping each other. Neighbors would share items from their gardens and other items, forming a strong community. When the dam was built and villagers lost their livelihood, they could not afford to give others their precious goods. It seems that this loss of cooperation and sharing has strongly affected the movement against the dam. Paw Somkiat also stated that development makes people selfish. This idea seems reflected in villagers’ behavior. Villagers are now pitted against each other due to opposing ideas of compensation. The five opposition groups have been fighting against the Pak Mun Dam for twenty years; seeing the way the groups act towards each other makes me believe that it will be at least another twenty years before they see any progress towards any of their goals.

2014Spring_Sarah K.

Opposition groups to the Pak Mun Dam have been unsuccessful at decommissioning the dam due lack of centralization.

Failed Attempts to Form a Fist for Justice, Sarah Kaufman

For the past couple of weeks, my classmates and I learned about water management and dams in Thailand’s Northeastern region of Isaan. We focused on the Pak Mun Dam, a controversial dam completed in 1994 that has caused villagers in the surrounding area hardships for the past twenty years. Out of these adversities, groups opposing the Pak Mun Dam have formed a movement. Over the years, these opposition groups went from working together towards a common goal, to having separate goals and accusing each other of corruption.  

As we learned from local villagers and witnessed first hand, the Pak Mun Dam took away the livelihoods of those who live along the Mun River, where the dam is located. Most villagers along the river relied mainly on fishing to bring in their main income. When the dam was built, fish could no longer swim upstream; upstream fishermen could no longer make money to support their families. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) compensated local villagers at the time of the dam’s construction, accounting for flooding and relocation, but did not compensate for loss of livelihood. Group opposing the dam have risen from this loss of livelihood; the groups’ goals are ways to compensate for this loss, whether it’s through money or other compromises.

We spoke to two opposition groups, the Thai Baan Center and Somkiat Singhakham, or Paw (father) Somkiat. The Thai Baan Center is the largest of the opposition groups. The Center consists of three parts- a co-op to promote new careers for members, a local radio station, and the local knowledge center. The local knowledge center features a museum of the history of fishing in the area and a place for seminars and conferences. The Thai Baan center has a strong movement against the dam. Their main goals are to open the gates of the dam for 5 years and for villagers to receive 20 years worth of compensation for the loss of livelihood. The Center states that they believe there are no better alternatives.  

The village we stayed in, Khan Puai, sides with the Thai Baan Center. Villagers want EGAT to pay compensation for the loss of livelihood, which the Center offers as one of its goals. In addition, some villagers want EGAT to support their children’s educations; with the loss of livelihood came the lack of money to pay for village children’s schooling. Khan Puai villagers cited that they believe the Thai Baan Center will bring compensation faster than any of the other opposition groups.

Paw Somkiat supports different end goals. His main goal is to permanently open the dam gates. He hopes that this will return the livelihoods of the local villagers, as well as restore the area’s ecosystem. Another goal that his followers have set is each household obtaining 15 rais (around 6 acres) of land for agriculture or other uses. Paw Somkiat himself does not support this idea, but his followers feel strongly positive towards it.

Paw Somkiat was once a member of the Thai Baan Center, but left to form his own group after he felt the Thai Baan leaders were corrupt. He claims there was a lack of transparency in the finances of the Thai Baan Center and that leaders of the group acted more like commanders. He stated that the leaders did not truly listen to their group members. He also explained that throughout the years, EGAT has bribed 8 opposition leaders. Years ago, when the Thai Baan Center had more support, it was exposed that a couple of leaders accepted bribes. This tore Thai Baan members apart, forming the 5 opposition groups that exist today.

Both Paw Somkiat and the Thai Baan Center stated that the movement would be much stronger if all five opposition groups worked together towards a common goal. Paw Somkiat cited the idea of the movement as a fist; all the groups working together would form a fist, which would effectively knock down the dam gates. At the moment, the five groups are spread out, like fingertips. Each fingertip knocking at the dam gates is not nearly as strong or effective as the force of a full fist. However, both groups also stated that it would be impossible for all the opposition groups to work together. There has been years of each opposition group attacking each other for differences in opinion. This pushes opposition leaders away from each other, further weakening the movement. The Thai Baan Center stated that the government uses this fact to their advantage.

In our exchange with Paw Somkiat, he explained that the dam destroyed local culture. One major aspect of the local culture that existed before the dam was the general attitude of villagers helping each other. Neighbors would share items from their gardens and other items, forming a strong community. When the dam was built and villagers lost their livelihood, they could not afford to give others their precious goods. It seems that this loss of cooperation and sharing has strongly affected the movement against the dam. Paw Somkiat also stated that development makes people selfish. This idea seems reflected in villagers’ behavior. Villagers are now pitted against each other due to opposing ideas of compensation. The five opposition groups have been fighting against the Pak Mun Dam for twenty years; seeing the way the groups act towards each other makes me believe that it will be at least another twenty years before they see any progress towards any of their goals.

2014Spring_Sarah K.

Opposition groups to the Pak Mun Dam have been unsuccessful at decommissioning the dam due lack of centralization.

03/11/2014

Koh Saen Community, Apisra Srivanichraper

February 27, 2014 The temple was packed: Bespectacled adults in traditional white jackets with local designs, mothers with their babies, a tiny grandma or two, a man in his dusty work gear were there to exchange with we unconventional American study abroad students.

By exchange, this meant a back and forth mixture of introductions, speeches, and two way questions and answers posed by students and villagers alike, via translator. 

2014Spring_AnnieBlog

Three different villagers introduce themselves to exchange with American CIEE students

What were we doing there? We CIEE students based out of Khon Kaen, the Northeast hub of Thailand, were studying land rights in the nearby province of Chaiyaphum. For this particular exchange, we were at this temple to hear about the Kon Saen villagers’ fight to prevent the construction of a rubber processing factory.

It wasn’t the factory itself they were protesting, but the location. Their main concern was that where the factory was going to be built would contaminate the ground water.

Unknown to the company, the villagers had taken it into their own hands to visit three other rubber factories, such as ones in next door provinces Udon Thani and Nongkai. They saw firsthand how the water was contaminated, smelled the bad odor permeating through the air, and listened to the locals talk about the increase of acid rain and how they wished they could change their current situation.

The Kon Saen villagers had not always been against the rubber factory.

Initially, most of the Kon Saen villagers wanted it- the company pitched itself as something that would bring development to Kon Saen, make Kon Saen a tourist destination, increase the rubber prices, and contribute to the community through Corporate Social Responsibility to events such as local temple festivals.

2014Spring_annie1

Khon Saen loves Khon Saen group

However, the rubber company failed to mention any negative effects, or what they would do to address them. Incorrect information was also perpetuated about how a rubber factory would increase the rubber prices: As recent problems in Thailand’s South indicate, in how rubber farmers demanded that the government pay them more than the low world market price, like how the government did with the rice scheme, the company’s marketing was misleading. (For more information, see http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324463604579040673367795400). 

An investigation by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand in 2013 has halted, for now, the rubber company’s process to build in Kon Saen because of this failure to disclose information about potentially harmful effects.

This isn’t the first time that the yet-to-be-built factory has had its location protested.

The factory was actually supposed to be built in Loei province, where Chaiyaphum’s current governor had been governor previously. But when the people in that area protested, the factory’s location changed to where its potential location is set on now: Kon Saen, Chaiyapum.

Kon Saen villagers worry this halt won’t last forever, though. Chaiyapum’s governor has expressed that he wants the rubber factory in Kon Saen. Word is that he owns thousands of rai, with rubber trees on it (1 acre is about 2.5 rai). Other political influences reportedly want to see this happen as well.

For the rubber factory to be built, it must be approved at 3 levels: The Head of the Industrial Department must sign a permit, the Governor of Chaiyaphum province has to initiate contact with all the villagers to register their opinions, and the TAO (Tambon Administration Organization, the subdistrict government level) should register their opinions. Right now, one more step needs to be approved by the Ministry. But given the current political instability, many processes are up in the air.

Despite this, what have the villagers done, and what are they doing now, are to halt the construction of the rubber factory?  

When people in the community realized that the negative effects outweighed the potential benefits, they arranged a meeting with the TAO to cancel the villagers’ previous approval. But with no acknowledgement from the TAO, the villagers set out to educate everyone themselves, through meetings, protests, the newspaper, and Facebook.

These meetings included seeing the headperson of different villages and getting them to gather the community together to spread the word about the negative effects. The protests have happened at every level: Local, provincial, and national. They have connected with NGOs to help them fight the construction of this factory, like “P’ Pramote,” a local expert who helps navigate the uncertainty of laws and helps people know their rights. The youth are also actively involved, helping in the protests, to spread the word by mouth and on Facebook. One of the middle-school aged girls spoke about how she had contributed to her community’s fight in such ways.

What do they protest? On the basis that it is an inappropriate use of land. Most Kon-Saen-ians at the exchange seemed to advocate that the government set up rubber zone areas, and let villagers know in these areas how they can be involved in what is going on.

The exchange closed with a local elder who surprised us with a speech in English, who was also a teacher from the University of Life. This is a system created for people who wanted to continue their education at a higher level, as an alternative classroom in the community that shares not only lots of local knowledge, but gives you the tools to be able to have enough to eat within your own hometown.

This exchange left me humbled and amazed at how actively involved and passionate this community was about not having the rubber processing factory. It also made me reflect on how lucky I was to live in a country where things like a Health, Environment, Social, and Air Impact Assessments must be done when a factory wants to build somewhere. While the United States’ laws are far from perfect, and there have been injustices from things such as fracking or other companies, I wished the Kon Saen community the best of luck in their fight. But I’m glad that at the end of this program, I can fly home where I don’t have to worry about my governor having a secret agenda that could poison my resources. 

Phu Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctury, Jessica Infante

During our second unit, CIEE students had the opportunity to explore land rights from the perspective of both villagers and government officials. By the end of the unit, it became clear that there is a large disparity in communication between villagers and government bodies. For example, one clear illustration occurred during the 1990’s; the military forcefully removed individuals from forest reserve areas after purposefully advocating for settlement of the area as an anti-communist measure in the 1970’s.

The exchange with the PhuPhaDaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, a forest protection unit, is also a strong portrayal of the communication gap between villagers and the government. Tremendous controversy surrounds PhuPhaDaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. The government has claimed ownership of land that has been used by villagers for the purposes of their livelihood. The government states that villagers are not able to prove legal ownership of the land on which they reside. As result, villagers are displaced and experience negative impacts with regard to their farming land and source of income. The head of the Wildlife Sanctuary argued that the way in which villagers choose to express themselves follows a more aggressive approach. In that, the government believes that villagers are taking an accusatory tone towards the government as oppose to communicating their concerns calmly. Additionally, villagers are orally demanding land as oppose to scientifically proving that they have ownership to land.

Conversely, villagers argue that there is not sufficient opportunity or platforms to express their thoughts on current land right practices. There is very little transparency in the dialogue between the government and villagers. It is not clear among villagers how land ownership should be proven to the government. There have been many situations in which villagers hand their documentation of land ownership to government officials with the intention of proving ownership. Unfortunately, the documentation is either never returned or deemed invalid.

According to the Wildlife Sanctuary official, villagers must use satellite photos to demonstrate that they own land. However, the satellite photo initiative began in 1977, and therefore, there is no other accepted method of proving that a villager resided on the land prior to that year. Villagers from HuoyRahong, a village that has struggled with land ownership due to preservation initiatives by the government, express that no one receives notifications from the district office regarding land ownership. Furthermore, the current head does not demonstrate interest in collaborating with villagers to tackle land right issues. The head of the Wildlife Sanctuary even admitted that no conclusion was reached between the government and villagers regarding the use of satellite photos.

 

There are many sources of frustration among the villagers, but at the core is partly insufficient communication. The government should be explicit as a way to improve transparency but also to create validity. The disparity in communication brings to light the question of who is held accountable. If villagers express that they are not properly informed and government bodies argue that villagers are resistant to government law, where can the gap in communication be identified? The gap in communication can also be viewed in the framework of unethical practices. In that, the villagers are held liable for not acting according to the law due to discrepancies, but government officials are not always penalized for their practices that differ from the law.  

 

2014Spring_Jessicablog

While the PhuPhaDaeng Wildlife Sanctuary is presented as a preservation unit for the welfare of Thailand, it is also another representation of the scarce dialogue between government bodies and villagers.

 

Student Video on Unit 1: Food and Agriculture

 

Produced by: Allie Quintano and Dani Corona 

03/04/2014

Snails, Emma Arnold

I’ve had my fair share of unfamiliar food on homestays. I have gnawed chicken feet, chewed on small and bony fish, eaten unidentifiable vegetables, even tried soup garnished with ant eggs. So last week, when I found myself faced with the prospect of snails for dinner, I was not fazed.

For the past week I had the pleasure of living with a family in the village of Kudchun in northeastern Thailand. The family I stayed with were subsistence organic farmers, and for the most part what was produced on their farm was what they ate.

Every day around midafternoon, our host mother would start to prepare a feast of a dinner for the family. Generally, preparation and cooking took hours. Even more impressively, she did it all in an outdoor kitchen that amounted to little more than a small shack on a raised platform. Everything was cooked over a wood fire in heavy metal pots and pans. Her cutting board was a smoothed slice of tree stump, her spices hung in small plastic bags from the rafters, and the entire place was frequently overrun with groups of the incredibly free-range farm chickens.

This particular afternoon, I wandered over to the kitchen to find my host mother, Ma Maow, whacking at something with a large metal cleaver. Unsure what she was doing, I pointed at what was on the cutting board and asked in Thai; “What is this?”

She responded; “huay taak”. I looked closer. Huay taak. Snails.

To be perfectly honest, the prospect of eating snails for dinner was rather exciting. Watching my host mother hack them in half with her cleaver was impressive. As they went into a pot with all sorts of vegetables, fish balls, and noodles, it smelled delicious. So when we sat down to eat, I was disappointed to find that my bowl of soup was markedly snail-less.

My disappointment, however, was incredibly short lived. No more than minutes after I had dug into my soup (which was even more delicious than it smelled) Maa Maow returned with another platter of food. And in the center of the tray was the largest bowl of snails I had ever seen in my life. Admittedly, it was the first bowl of snails I had seen in my life. But this does not discount the fact that it was nothing short of monumental. 

Noticing my wide eyes and following my gaze, my host father plucked a snail from the bowl and pointed at it with raised eyebrows. I nodded vigorously. He handed me a toothpick.

“How…?” I started to say in Thai.

He laughed, and grabbed a snail himself. In less than half a second he had pried the insides out, popped it into his mouth, and smiled. “A roi”, he said, delicious.

Three minutes later, I managed to wrestle the snail out of its shell.

Here’s the deal with boiled snails; they are small. They are ridiculously chewy. They taste exactly how one would expect a snail to taste. Not great, not bad, just… snaily. I was quite pleased that I was able to chew and swallow my first snail, but was by no means in any hurry to repeat the experience.

My host father had different plans. He plucked my toothpick up off the table and proceeded to start prying snails out of their shells and handing them to me in quick succession.

As a student on homestays, one quickly learns that it is important to find the delicate balance between appeasing your host family and acting in your own interest. Often, one will do something a little outside of their comfort zone for the sake of not offending their host family.

And so that night, sitting out with my host family surrounded by the farm chickens and the warm night air, I ate more snails than I ever wish to consume again. As I popped each additional one in my mouth promising myself that it would be my last, I could not help but smile. Not only was I able to push myself to do something that I would never do in a more familiar context, but I was willing to keep eating snails with my host family because this was something that was special to them and they wanted to share with me. And I, as their guest, was happy to oblige.  

2014Spring_EmmaBlogPic

02/27/2014

2014 Spring DG & PH Newsletter

6a010536fa9ded970b017c3887e04f970b

Letter From the Editing Team,

 It’s hard to believe it, but the CIEE Spring 2014 program has been in Khon Kaen for almost a month now! Below, you will find a collection of stories that we hope will give you some insight into our daily life here in Northeast Thailand. So far, we have experienced our first homestays, visited the zoo, gotten lost, and consumed a lot of khao niao (sticky rice). The language barrier has presented many challenges, but we have also had many moments of understanding. Spring 2014 has only just begun, and we look forward to learning even more about this place and about each other in the weeks to come. We hope you enjoy reading about the adventures of our first few weeks in Thailand!

 Sincerely,

 The Spring 2014 Editing Team 

 

Table of Contents

How do I cross the street?, Gen Eng-Surowiec

 

Sticky Rice, Holden Bussey

 

Exchange during Homestay, Allie Quintano

 

A Tragic Crack, Laura Franke 

 

The Story of Thepharak 1, Dani Corona

 

Thai Time, Liz Hart

 

Khon Kaen: An American Girl’s Paradise, Mary Clare Rosemeyer

 

Day One: Wandering in the Jungle,  Yuki Wiland

 

A Hero is Rendered, Sophie Westover 

 

Always Order A Surprise, Sarah Burke

 

Markets: The Nucleus of the City, Maren Meyers

 

To Drink or Not to Drink: That is the Question, Madi Kenzie

 

Eating Worms: No Longer Just a Way to Impress your Friends in Kindergarten, Sam Baker

 

Must Love Dogs , Kathryn Black

 

 

Adjusting to Life in the Mitraphap Slum Community, Hailey Pizzutello

 

Chan gin jay: Being Vegan in Thailand, Sarah Kaufman 

 

Lost at dusk in a foreign city, Sophie Salas

 

Preventing and Dealing with Homesickness, Jessica Infante

 

Four Months, One Suitcase: Packing for A Semester Abroad, Alex King

 

Eating Methods: The Fork and Spoon, the Chopsticks, and the Hands, Annie Srivanich-Raper

 

Exercising in Khon Kaen, Emily Strome

 

Little Creatures Be Bugging, Annie Zhang

 

Temples, Mahider Mekonnen

 

Tackling the Thai Bathroom: A Westerner’s Guide, Sara Diaz

 

A Guide to Songthaew Travel, Sarah Hinde

 

Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge,  Kelly Parrell

 

The Hunt For Cheese, Alice Chen

 

Live Music in Khon Kaen, Mike Fisch

 

Homestay, Lizzy Peake 

 

Being Farang, Katrina Harrington

 

Follow the Stream, Lucy Yang 

 

The Non-traditional Study Abroad Experience, Cara Reaume

 

S“thai”le, Ellen Swain

 

Election Day, Shelby Kaplan

 

When you don’t have enough words, Emma Arnold

 

 

How do I cross the street?, Gen Eng-Surowiec

I am riding in a tuk tuk, a three wheeled open taxi, when the driver stops at a red light. He looks to the left at the motorcyclist beside us, honks, and yells something along the lines of,  “Move over I want to get by!” The motorcyclist pulls around the car ahead of him, and our driver weaves between the same two cars and passes a third one. Now, instead of being behind three cars at a red light, we are the first car. In my experience thus far, this is the nature of traffic in Thailand. It consists of rapid and violent honking and slaloming through traffic. It is always moving, and there are always vehicles on the road. If I were to describe it in one word, it would be hazardous.

In terms of rules, well, there seem to be no rules, and the lines on the road seem more like decoration than a way to actually establish driving lanes.  There have been many times when the cars simply drive on top of the line separating the two lanes. As a visitor, new to the area and customs, traffic is frightening. Contrary to what you might think, it is actually larger cars that get the right of way. If you are in a truck, mai pen rai, no worries, you will be safe every time. A car is the next in line and then the motorcycle, the most common mode of transportation. As a pedestrian, you sink to the bottom of the right-of-way chain. Therefore, I recommend a helmet or some sort of protection before crossing the street. If there is one thing I have learned about traffic it is that it is unpredictable, chaotic, and stops for no one. When another vehicle or object is in the driver’s way, vehicles honk and swerve around it. They don’t stop for pedestrians. Rather, pedestrians are supposed to be wary of oncoming cars and motorcycles. So it is best, when walking, or more frequently, sprinting, across the street, to look both ways and commit to a decision. Thus far, I must say that crossing the street is the most life-threatening event I have encountered here in Thailand. Getting across safely can take up to 10 minutes. I never took the time to appreciate the ease of an everyday activity such as crossing the street, in the United States. 

GEN

Traffic, Mai pen rai. No worries?

 

Sticky Rice, Holden Bussey

Many aspects of Thai culture can be confusing for a first-time visitor. After six months in Chang Mai, another region of Thailand, I felt I was beginning to get a handle on the intricacies of this nation. This was until I came to Isaan and realized that Northeast Thailand shares little resemblance to the North, South, or Bangkok. While the climate is the most noticeable difference, my first meal proved to likewise provide a bit of culture shock.

We were served family-style, which I’m all about, yet there was a clear absence of personal plates and silverware. The table was instead dominated by small, finely woven baskets, which opened to reveal the treasure I have come to know as khao niao. Sticky rice. It serves both as a utensil and a popular side dish of this region.

Eating it requires some skill in itself. The locals toy with a small amount of it in their right hand, forming a ball before either dipping or artfully scooping up their main dish. Here, playing with your food is not discouraged but instead necessary for most dining experiences.

While eating it is an endeavor, the real nuance comes in the preparation of khao niao. During our stay in a slum village, I was able to observe my host-father, Paw Ti, make it nightly and was even allowed to do it myself on our last night. Before any of the real intrigue can begin, the rice must be soaked in water for at least an hour. Khao niao is not only served in baskets, but also steamed in them as well. A cone shaped container is softly coated in water and massaged before the rice can be added, followed by more water around the edges to ensure no side sticking. Once settled, the basket is then placed over boiling water and covered.

Now, Paw Ti chose not to gauge cooking time in minutes, but rather by how many shots we would take between starting something and achieving the perfect doneness. I would say it took roughly twenty minutes—or two shots each, complete with attempts and sometimes even success at communicating in a Thai/Isaan/hand gesture dialect—before the rice reached the ideal level of clinging together and being cooked through.

The basket is then removed from the heat and shaken, so that the mass is rotated, molded by each side forming a pyramid. Paw Ti did this expertly and added lovely high-pitched sound effects—really forging a personal connection to the dish. It is then transferred to the smaller baskets for service. Whether eaten immediately or taken out for a day’s work—as is customary to provide energy for a grueling day of farming—the lidded baskets serve as the ideal vesicle for sticky rice.

While khao niao may seem a little odd at first, just dive in. Not only is it delicious, but enjoying meals in this communal fashion helps break down barriers and puts everyone at ease. When there is a language barrier, sharing of other things—whether culture, food, or whiskey—brings people together.

Photo-2

Issan lies in the in the sticky rice "belt" stretching through Laos into southern China

 

Exchange during Homestay, Allie Quintano

Homestays are a great opportunity for us to gain a unique perspective on the issues that the community faces. Not only do we get to live with host families that take us in as their own children, but we also have a more formal exchange with a translator. During this exchange, members of our host families, as well as leaders of the community, gather with a translator and us, creating a space that breaks the language barrier for both groups to exchange more in-depth ideas. Exchanges are purely student run, leaving the door wide open for us to use the space in whatever way we feel is best.

 For our first exchange, we entered the community center and arranged chairs into a circle. As people began to filter in, the students sat on one half of the circle and the community members on the other half, with the translator in the circle in between a student and community member. Some children sat on a couch behind the circle of chairs, and some of the younger ones sat with their mom or dad in the circle. Throughout the exchange it was not uncommon for a community member to dismiss himself for a short time.

We went into the exchange unprepared as a group, but with some individual questions in mind. While the lack of organization slowed the flow down, it also allowed for the conversation to be pretty organic. We began with one student giving a brief introduction to open the space, thanking them all for letting us into their community and talking with us. Following this, each student introduced herself individually in Thai, and then each community member said his or her name and how long he or she has lived there. After these introductions, one student began conversation by asking a question to the community members. The translator then translated what was said to the community members, and then they would begin to respond, sometimes all at once, and sometimes everyone would look to one person. Then, the translator translated back to us.

The exchange continued in this question and answer format, from the students to the community members. We asked if they had questions for us, but they made it clear that they wanted us to ask all of our questions first before they asked any. Some example questions we asked include: “How does your community set an example for other communities?”, “How do you want the government to treat your community?” and “What do you want for your family?” The students tried to keep the questions on one topic at a time and were able to dynamically think of follow-up questions on the spot. Sometimes, community members would talk amongst themselves when discussing a response and then come to an agreement.

As our questions rounded down, community members asked us a few questions about how we were feeling about their community. We closed out the session by thanking them all again, and then gathered together for pictures. The exchange was a fun way to get to know the issues these people face, and it brought us all closer together. 

Allie

The exchange night allows everyone to come together and bond as one community.

 

A Tragic Crack, Laura Franke  

I smiled shyly and uttered one of the few Thai words I can say with complete confidence and ease, “Sawa—dee—Kah!” My meh (mother), a petite young woman with waist-length black hair, greeted me with beaming eyes, almost as if I was some long lost relative returning from afar. Lucy (my CIEE sister for the week) and I stepped inside and were immediately ushered to a small, red coffee table piled high with plates of rice and steaming vegetables. As two other children ran into the room (later introduced as our nung chai/younger brother and nung saow/younger sister), our meh gestured to the small plastic stools surrounding the coffee table, muttered a few seconds of Thai, which we decoded as pertaining to the act of eating, so we sat ourselves down on the stools. I scooted closer to the coffee table and CRACK! Before I knew it, I was laying on the ground, face in full flame and Mr. Plastic stool tragically cracked in half beside me. Oh those first impressions…

The first memory of my homestay in the urban slum community of Lao Nadee may have been an embarrassing one but it by no means influenced the rest of my three-day stay. In fact, in a way, it almost helped to shape a bond with the family even quicker, because instead of taking offense to a stranger breaking their chair, the family playfully laughed at my clumsiness and offered up a seat next to my younger siblings on a wooden bench. They then dubbed this my permanent seat at mealtime for the rest of the visit, and weren’t shy in giving me a hard time about “breaking” the wooden bench.

Even after just one night, a broken stool, and many failed language attempts (Lucy and I tried so hard), I was overcome with gratitude for the warmth, sincerity and unbelievable hospitality that this family exuded on all levels. They fed us endless amounts of food, arranged the kids’ bed for Lucy and me to sleep on, and even sent us off in the morning with bagged snacks and drinks for lunch. Lucy and I may have felt like foreigners and intruders on their daily life, but they treated us as if we were their own, and were excited to guide us into their world as well as learn more about ours. On the second night, Lucy and I shared pictures from home and taught our sister/neighborhood friends the cup rhythm and song from Pitch Perfect.  This communal way of life is much different from what I grew up with. Where the houses in my neighborhood at home are separate and concrete, here homes are fluid and open to everyone at all hours of the day. Tight-knit communal bonds are apparent in America but they don’t grow overnight in the same way that they do in Thailand, especially in small communities such as Lao Nadee. It was a privilege to have a glimpse at this different way of life and I look forward to learning and growing more in future homestays and community visits!

Laura

Our younger sister, Smile, with one of the family’s 10 cats!

 

The Story of Thepharak 1, Dani Corona

Palm Titch, 19, wants to learn a language spoken 8000 miles away from her home.

“If I can go to a university, I will study German,” she shares shyly.

As a resident of Thepharak 1, a small slum neighborhood in the center of Khon Kaen, Thailand, it would seem Titch’s desire to speak Deutsch (German) is a little out of place. However, in the wake of industrialism currently hitting her northeastern region, multilingualism may mean opportunity.

“If I learn German I could work for multiple foreign companies, serving as a translator when businesses attempt to come here.”

While incoming European investors may offer Titch a chance to pursue her love of languages, the same investors may challenge her rights to the very land she lives on. Thepharak 1, one of many communities living alongside Khon Kaen’s main railroad tracks, has been fighting to remain on the land they have dwelled in for over 30 years.

The slum emerged back around the 1980s, when Thailand was on the brink of change. Facing border disagreements with three of its neighbors—Myanmar (then Burma), Laos, and Cambodia—the Thai government incentivized peace by agreeing to allow outside investors. This initiation of multinational development caused the Thai region of Isaan, typically agricultural, to welcome its own wave of industrialization. Farmers sold their properties with pressure from investors, holding expectations of better careers in cities like Khon Kaen. Instead, many families who ventured to Khon Kaen found the workplace crowded with other migrants, and were forced to settle in slums next to the sides of the railroad.

Over the decades the slum Thepharak 1 has grown to hold over 130 households. While its members sustain themselves with blue-collar work, they have built a strong community of familial love, shared struggles, and solidarity against the State Railways of Thailand (SRT), the legal owner of their land. A block from Thepharak 1, it takes only a few steps past the SRT tracks to move from the wooden-tin homes of slums to the shiny façade of the new Central Plaza Mall. After much debate between slum communities and the government, the forests behind the slums were lost in the construction of the shopping complex. The houses, for the time being, have been spared.

Very aware of the settlements next to their tracks, the SRT nevertheless has maintained its own agenda. As Khon Kaen becomes a corporate center of the Northeast, the SRT is increasingly determined to sell its properties and transportation services to boost profit—usually at the risk of pushing slums off its lands. When looking from the business perspective, it is not difficult to see why SRT is pushing for the slums to relocate.

Kovit Boonjear, chairperson of NGO-CORD, a collaborator with slum communities, explains, “When the SRT leases this land—very central to the city—to slum communities, it only receives 7 baht per square meter. Giving the land to investors, however, could bring in 113-plus baht.”

With the potential for such revenue, why has not the SRT already forced the slums to move?

Many slum communities have united into what are known as “networks” to defend their rights as Thai citizens. These networks have acted independently and with nongovernmental organizations such as Boonjear’s to bring their cause to municipal and federal governments through demonstrations and legal efforts.

In the past, when there is a contention for land, the government and the SRT have offered networks two options. Slums may stay and receive funding for basic infrastructure, such as running water and electricity, or migrate outside city limits with an allotment 25-28,000 baht to build each new home. For many communities, the generous down payment is not enough to justify the new neighborhood’s great distance from their central-city jobs.  Eventually, however, they may have no choice.

Despite their strong ties to the slum land, it seems relocation is not a question of if, but when. The Yingluck administration recently proposed constructing the country’s first bullet-train system, a billion-baht effort to unite all of Thailand. In order for this to happen, any slums by the railroads would be swept away to make room for the new tracks and stations.

Fortunately for slums like Thepharak 1, current political unrest may halt these plans. At an exchange with American university students, Thepharak’s leader Pichit and a few fellow community members, including Titch, discuss their shaky future.

“Although we are upset that our country is in such turmoil, it delays the coming of the bullet train that could finally press us off our land. All we can do is watch the next moves of the SRT, and respond accordingly,” Pichit says.

Though not part of a slum network, Thepharak 1 knows it will have to put up a fight, hopefully with the government on their side.

“The success of our community depends on its ability to work with the government,” Pichit continues.

A student asks Thepharak how the neighborhood desires to be treated by the government. Pichit waits thoughtfully as others community members chime in. At last, he answers.

“All we want is for our government to take care of us so we can feel secure about our housing,” he says, pausing with fierce smile. “We want them to come to our doorstep and promise us their dedication to the Thai people.”

IMG_1456

Just beyond the State Railways of Thailand train tracks, slums sit in the shadow of Central Plaza, a mega-mall and symbol of industrialization. 

 

Thai Time, Liz Hart

Languages have never come easy for me. English went all right as far as I remember, but beyond that I’ve always assumed languages are just not my thing. In sixth grade we had to choose the language we would learn for the next six years. After deep thought, I selected Latin because I believed it would broaden my understanding of vocabulary and Latin derivatives. Nah, I actually picked it because I heard my sixth grade mega-crush was going to take it. Needless to say such a motivation was not conducive to me actually learning any Latin at all, not even a little bit. The only phrase I remember (which may or may not be correct) is, “Est necesse hoc?” or “Is this necessary?” So anyways, Latin was a failure, as was a semester in college of Spanish, and about two summer months of Pimsleur’s French language CDs after watching Amelie.

HOWEVER: CIEE’s Thai classes are phenomenal. They are engaging, practical, and effective. Although sessions start off at four hours and are only weaned down a bit in week three to three hour sessions, they ARE NECESSARY. These classes focus on teaching you what you need to know for daily life at a pace that is challenging but not overwhelming. Thai is a tonal language, meaning that a word’s meaning changes depending on the tone used (rising, flat, falling, swooping up, and swooping down) that they are said. Ajaans (teachers) use a listen and repeat method to teach the tones and print out picture flash cards to teach vocab and sentence structure. Lessons focus on topics such as ordering food, shopping, and discussing work, family, and free-time activities.

Typically, a given Thai class will begin by reviewing the previous classes’ vocab with pictures and reviewing sentence structures with round robin questioning and answering. Then new vocab is introduced and we integrate old and new knowledge to form sentences and ask and respond to each other’s questions. Repetition is important in these classes, as practicing speaking the words in the correct tone is the only way to succeed in communicating. The classes can be a bit limiting to different learning styles, but I trust the methodology and appreciate that it is a straightforward approach for the situation we are in (aka: a foreign country in a region where a significantly smaller portion of Thai’s know English compared to in Bangkok). I’ve learned more in the last three weeks than I learned in six years of Latin classes, and it is genuinely useful knowledge.

Plus the Thai ajaans are absolute sweethearts. They are so fun and light-hearted. They run a tight ship and will correct you when you pronounce things poorly (Note: “key” can mean either “ride” or “poop” based on tonal pronunciation). But they also will laugh with you and generally create a focused but enjoyable learning environment. Also, they occasionally bring you treats for break times in class because they know it can be hard. I don’t know about you but I am easily wooed by a chocolate covered donut. I have greatly enjoyed my time spent learning Thai on this program, and I hope that I continue to learn as much as possible in my time here. Donuts aside, Thai classes are so rewarding, and I truly look forward to them every week.

Ajan nidnoi!

Ajaan Nidnoi!

 

Khon Kaen: An American Girl’s Paradise, Mary Clare Rosemeyer

Just before boarding the plane to Thailand, I remember thinking in slight panic that I must be absolutely crazy. How would I live in a country where I did not speak the language, had little understanding of the culture, and without a Starbucks right down the street? All I knew was that I was about to leave my American cuisine, social culture, and beautiful apartment behind to study in the “rural Northeast.” I prepared myself for the possibility of four months with questionable electricity, cold showers, and strange food that my picky palate would deem inedible.

After nearly three weeks of living in Khon Kaen, many of my assumptions have been proven completely wrong. This place, as it turns out, offers an abundance of things that American girls freaking love. For instance, by the end of day one, we discovered a fresh fruit stand just beyond the CIEE office. In addition, I personally discovered that girls just love natural foods and clean eating. And to top it off, it was rumored to be all organically grown! So naturally, the next morning we all showed up to class with a bag of fruit. Sa-pa-rote (pineapple) seemed to be the collective favorite. By day five, we got the hours down for the adorable little coffee and tea stand next to the fresh fruit. The giant English menus displayed on the shutters allow us to order the familiar lattes, Americanos, and cappuccinos that we could not function without.

Our third major discovery, and the one with the most hype, was the mysterious salad bar. We knew it existed, but it never seemed to be open. I finally experienced Go Green restaurant during week two on a day that four other girls and I desperately needed a fresh salad. We were home. The menu and instructions for using the salad bar were all in English. We American girls were the only ones in the entire restaurant. The cashier spoke English, and her boyfriend spoke even better English. In fact, he was not even Thai. For those twenty minutes at Go Green, we were no longer in a country we did not understand and that did not understand us. It was the first time in two weeks that ordering a meal was completely effortless.

While the fruit, coffee, and salad are all wonderful familiarities of home, they are just that. From what I have observed, we American girls are making a sincere effort every day to embrace Thai culture and to follow the example of our Thai peers. While the simplest daily interactions have required an exhausting amount of effort, I can already see areas that are beginning to improve. For instance, we all have tips about the best places to go for certain Thai dishes, how to take the song taew downtown, and where the best vicious-dog-free jogging routes are. While we will continue to gain more confidence and comfort here, there will still be some days that we feel low, frustrated, and homesick. And for that, it is nice to know that we will always have our little “American girl” escapes right down the street. 

  MC

“I’d like an iced mocha caramel soy frappaccino please.”

 

Day One: Wandering in the Jungle,  Yuki Wiland

 The first real day in Thailand was a surprisingly eventful one. After almost everyone arrived in Bangkok around 1 a.m., the plan for later that day was to drive for 3 hours, take a short hike in the jungle, and drive another 3 hours to our orientation resort. Riding in the van was an experience, considering the crazy driving, but all went according to plan. The hike in the jungle, on the other hand, was our first taste of a “study abroad adventure.”

Before we began the hike, the Program Facilitators (a.k.a. P'Facs) described the proposed hike: The hike is short with lots of beautiful scenery and a wooden bridge with a rope rail that we may or may not need to help us walk across. The P’Facs then designated two people to be last in the group so no one would be left behind. Oh the irony. As we were all walking along, everyone was taking pictures and staring in awe at the forest. I started the hike walking in the middle of the group and paused every once in a while for the second half of the group to catch up. With constant picture snapping, I eventually ended up at the second half of the group. Everyone in the last cluster of people were also taking a lot of pictures,  spending a long time looking around, and walking slightly off the trail.

We thought we were keeping up with the others, but eventually someone asked how long it had been since any of us had seen the rest of the people. There was a general “I don't know...” response, so a photo-hiatus/action-shot pictures only was declared so we could catch up. However, we continued to take copious amounts of pictures. The pictures were not taken in an action-shot fashion, causing us to keep our same pace as before. 

After walking around for a while, we came to a fork in the road: one going uphill and one going down. After a short talk, we decided to take the higher path seemed it seemed like less of a turn. After what seemed like 15 minutes, we came to another fork in the road. One appeared to be a slight turn, while the other path looked like it looped back to the first fork. We decided to take the path that looked like would keep going forward. Doubt started to settle in our minds about our choices in paths, since it felt like we had been walking forever without ever seeing the rope bridge mentioned at the start of the hike. A few girls decided to scout the path ahead to look for the bridge so check that we were walking the right way. They could not find it, so the group decided to turn around and investigate the alternate path.

A few funny things: Firstly, we were walking in the right direction before we turned around. Secondly, the only wrong path was to turn around since all paths lead to the same place. Thirdly, we were two minutes away from the bridge before we turned around. After turning around, we walked back to the second split in the path. Two of us walked back to the first break to see if the other path would loop to the second fork.

At this point, I must make it clear that although it may sound like we were lost, we felt neither lost nor scared. We figured that since this was the first day, the hike would likely be idiot-proof and we could just walk back if we did get lost. At the same time, we also recognized that the P'facs were probably freaking out about missing students. We tried to hurry up to relieve their stress, but the walk was so exotic!

So the alternate path at the first fork did indeed lead to the second fork, confirming that we had just turned around for the fun of it. Since we were out of options, we kept walking the original path. We quickly found the bridge and ran into a P'fac a few minutes after that. As expected, she was extremely worried about losing us; but we reassured her that we were never scared and no harm was done. When we rejoined the rest of the group, we had some water, took some pictures, and continued our drive to the resort.

The hike was a great adventure and helped determine my mindset for my abroad experience. Even though I am a little disorientated all the time, I never feel actually lost. The people around me are kind and supportive and also look forward to breaking away for some independent wondering.

IMG_0327

Jungle forest steps: man-made, nature reinforced.

 

A Hero is Rendered, Sophie Westover 

I arrived to my host family’s house in Thepharak, Khon Kaen just minutes before the incident occurred. The mood was light. My six-year-old host “sister” and seven year old “cousin” joyously played in the street. My “aunt” and “older sister” sat joking with one another on a bench, and their two baby chicks chirped sweetly at their feet.

The mood changed in an instant when one of the many stray cats stealthily snuck up on the chicks from behind. No one can really say what exactly happened, but we became aware of the situation when the chicks sweet chirps turned panicked. The cat had snatched the innocent yellow chick off her feet and scampered away with her fragile life between his fangs. My older sister responded to the attack with astounding speed. Before I even knew what was going on my sister was out of her seat, chasing the stray down the street, and pried open the cat’s mouth to release the poor helpless chick from its grasp. My sister held the wounded chick in her hands and, like a protective mother, set out to capture the remaining chick that was nervously running from the site of the attack. I attempted to help but it quickly became clear that I did not have the chick rescuing ability that my older sister possessed, as she scooped the remaining chick up with ease and returned him to the safety of his cage.  

My sister held the wounded chick in her hand as a steady stream of blood trickled onto the street where the children had been happily playing just moments before. The children now shrieked with fright, as did I. I was convinced the chick’s injuries were fatal and we would lose the beloved pet forever. However, the prospect of death never seemed to cross my sister’s mind. She quickly ran into the house to tend to the chicks wounds. The chick had a serious puncture wound on her neck, but thankfully no bones appeared to be broken. My sister first cleaned gently wound with a cotton ball and applied some ointment that resembled iodine. Her medical skills were impressive and soon enough the injured chick was safe and secure in the cage, and the two chicks let out a chirp of relief.

The children and I rendered our older sister a hero; she saved the chick’s life with relative ease and never once panicked or cried like we had. I was so impressed and proud of my older sister, especially since she never lost hope or gave up on the chick’s life. At the same moment that I thought the chick had no chance of survival after the vicious attack, my sister’s mind was thinking of exactly how she was going to save him. The language barrier made it difficult for me to communicate my increased respect for my sister. I speak little to no Thai and she speaks very little English. All I could do was repeatedly wai, (the Thai way of showing respect by bowing slightly with your hands pressed together near your face), smile, and point to the chick and give her a thumb up. I am not sure she understood just how impressed I was with her perseverance and skill, but it may have been one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life. 

Untitled

My host family kept two baby chicks as pets. They were a source of amusement and served as a topic of conversation between me and my host family (considering two of the few words I can say in Thai are “chicken” and “little.”)

 

Always Order A Surprise, Sarah Burke

In Thailand, we CIEE students almost always eat out because it seems to be the easiest and cheapest option. We are surrounded by an abundance of food and drink stands, restaurants, and coffee shops. Of course, this means that we are frequently faced with the difficulties of ordering from menus completely written in Thai. Some places are more challenging than others. At some places I point at a picture on a menu, hoping that the picture is an accurate representation. At other places, I gesture towards different trays of food as my attempt to order. But in the midst of all of these uncertainties, I always try to follow one rule when ordering food in Thailand. I always order what I don’t know. The less I know about the dish, the more likely I am to order it.

In Thai class we have learned a few words related to eating and ordering food. We know a few types of fruit and meat and various ways to prepare a dish like “grilled” or “boiled.” This has been very useful when it comes to figuring out the basic ingredients in a dish, but it definitely has not prepared me for everything I’ve seen on Thai menus. 

Last week, I went with my roommate, Praew, and several other CIEE students and their roommates to Ton Taan Market, a night market in downtown Khon Kaen. The CIEE students took a taxi to get there, which was an accomplishment in itself, and our roommates promised to meet us there soon after. We arrived at the night market fairly hungry so the first order of business was to eat dinner. After strolling around for a while and checking out the different food stands, a few of us settled on a place with a lot of soup options. Unfortunately, we hadn’t met up with our Thai roommates yet, so we were on our own when it came to ordering our food in Thai.

One by one we went to the window and ordered. Mostly, we pointed at a few pictures of food displayed on the sign above us and said, “Thank you” a lot. It was suddenly time for me to place my order, and I hadn’t quite decided yet.

There were a few dishes on the sign that were written in the English alphabet. I went with tom yum goong, because it seemed like the easiest dish for me to pronounce and I at least knew that tom yum meant soup.  I ordered with as much confidence as I could muster. The man taking my order repeated it back to me with a raised eyebrow and a skeptical expression. I nodded, but at that point I began to wonder what exactly “goong” was. A few minutes later I received a bowl of soup with several shrimp in it. These were not exactly the frozen, deveined kind of shrimp I could buy at any grocery store back home. Instead they were whole shrimp, eyes and antennae included. That is how I learned that “goong” means “shrimp.” Despite its intimidating appearance, my dinner was delicious and probably my favorite meal in Thailand so far. I will do my best to continue to follow my rule for the rest of the semester and hopefully I find more great meals (and useful Thai vocabulary) in the near future!

Untitled2

So that’s what goong is…

 

Markets: The Nucleus of the City, Maren Meyers

Thailand’s night markets are legendary and, after my three weeks of novice market navigation, I can confidently attest to their allure. While foreign markets are often criticized for their specialized marketing tactics—that is, vendors deceptively set prices to intentionally milk the wallets of incompetent “farangs”— a practice that I fully intended to face here (and that undoubtedly exists)—the maze of myriad vending tents and the people that occupy them provide a window into daily Thai life and culture. What appear as fascinating anomalies to Northeast Thailand first-timer are in fact complete normality’s.

Observed normality #1:

Bags. Bags everywhere. Plastic, paper, large, small, bags being carried, bags littering the ground, bags on display, everything is in a bag. The vast majority of market food is served in what I took to be pet store fish bags. The first time I walked through the campus night market, it took me a solid few minutes to realize that they were selling soups, salads, and drinks, not little pet fish. The bags are filled, then masterfully inflated and twisted, and displayed for passers-by to purchase. Often, your dinner is placed in a plastic pet-fish bag and then another grocery store style bag for transport. If one orders a bottle of water, that bottle is also bagged.

Observed normality #2:

Bugs are friends and food. While nearly every food item for sale seems new and strange (except for Pad Thai of course) there are a few that stand out above the rest, namely silk worms, crickets, and gizzard skewers. Although off-putting at first to someone who grew up accustomed to the processed and sterilized meat of the US, these eats are enjoyed by locals on a regular basis and, once you get passed the legs, eyes, and texture, actually taste quite alright.

Intermingled with completely new sights and smells, however, are ones that are also very familiar. For example, one might find a Krispy Kreme doughnut stand next to a skewered fish-ball stand, or a New York Yankees t-shirt for sale next to a Thai soccer jersey.

Perhaps it is because we are navigating a new space or we are adapting to live in a country that holds few day-to-day similarities to the American fundamental we have natural grown so deeply accustomed to, but the newness of our daily predicament allows a new level of perspective unachievable by locals who walk in a state of constant comfort. The strangeness of every sight, sound, general assault to the senses is experienced, not just noticed. Pause to think beyond the novelty of the situation, it seems that between the lines of the logistical organization of the market, a uniquely beautiful and human-constructed physical environment, exists insights into this region’s economic and social structure. The nature of its occupants—students, families, friends, skilled workers, vendors, and everything in between—comprise a fundamentally expressive community. They form a nucleus for the province’s societal demands.

While we are just beginning to understand the complexities that occurred, and continue to occur, to conceive such an inimitable place, I see it as a manifestation of globalization and am excited to gain a deeper understanding of this temporary home.

Ton Tan

An overall view of Ton Tan night market

 

 To Drink or Not to Drink: That is the Question, Madi Kenzie

Before coming to Thailand, I knew the culture was going to be a struggle to get right. I was fully prepared to end up accidentally offending half of the population of Thailand while trying to determine the appropriate time to Wai (bow in respect), if it was insulting to touch someone’s head, and what to do with my feet. However, the one activity I didn’t expect to have a problem with was drinking. Between knowing the drinking age is only 19 and watching the ridiculousness that was Hangover 2, I figured in Thailand almost anything goes! I found out very quickly, however, that this was not the case.

The first incident occurred only a few days into the semester while trying to meet and hopefully befriend the people I was to spend the next four months with. And what better approach to making the awkward first few days easier than grabbing a few beers together! Of course, the choice of locale for our festivities was the giant colorful structure with plenty of chairs and benches for everyone to gather around and play a few drinking games. There just happened to be numerous statutes of Buddha stationed in various spots around this playground-like building that we, in our newcomer state, accepted as an obvious choice for interior decoration in Thailand. The evening was happily spent drinking beers and having a good time in what we later discovered was a Buddhist temple. Offense was surely felt by many, and our apologies spewed forth in regret. Lesson one: do not drink in a Buddhist temple.

Despite our resolve, another incident occurred only a few days after moving into our apartments at Khon Kaen University. The consensus was that no one really felt like going to a bar, and we knew not to seek out the nearest temple to enjoy the evening, so we decided to take advantage of the nice patio area near the front lobby. After all, it seemed like a perfectly designated area to gather with friends and perhaps share a beer. Alas, we were informed quite quickly that our noisy behavior and drinking was not in fact acceptable. More offense was given, and apologies ensued. Lesson two: do not drink at the apartments.

Not only did we struggle as a group to drink in the proper establishments, but even when we were in a bar (which is, in fact, an acceptable locale) there are some standards for how to consume a beer. Unlike the United States where people tend to wander around carrying and drinking their beverages, it is far more acceptable in Thailand to only drink while seated at a table in the bar. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, rather more of a social guideline. Guideline one: remain seated while drinking.

Drinking is not where I predicted I would cause the most offense as a foreigner in Thailand, but that is how my experience has turned out thus far. Luckily, if you embrace your mistakes and apologize, forgiveness is usually granted. That being said, I still hope that these are the end of our drinking misadventures.

Untitled5

Temples are very prevalent across Thailand due to the fact a surprising 95% of the population is Buddhist

 

Eating Worms: No Longer Just a Way to Impress your Friends in Kindergarten, Sam Baker

Froot Loops® are known to contain a certain chemical dye, known as carmine, or E140. This chemical is safe to eat, completely non-toxic, and 100% natural. It is the dye that gives red Froot Loops, red lipstick, red pills, and sausages their distinctive, alluring red color. Recently, however, some people have been getting upset about the addition of this food dye. While some people are genuinely allergic to the additive, others are turned off by the source of the brilliant red dye- a small beetle known as a cochineal. A BEETLE- a dirty little insect that is probably crawling on some dried animal droppings right now! Who would ever want to eat that? The thought is strange at best, and an insult to the culinary art at worst. Americans like their food to be delicious (salty, fatty, and full of sugar), but also bug free. Bugs simply do not factor into the modern American diet. “Why eat these worms when we have all of this wonderful beef roaming 'round our fields?”, some may ask. To them, I have an answer. Yes, beef is good (it’s also hard to find in Thailand, so far), but so are silkworms. Fried silkworms are the answer to an inebriated college student with a discerning palate and a keen sense of adventure. These earthy snacks are crunchy, smooth, salty, and savory- a foodies' dream. They are also widely available: between every bar on a street descriptively titled “bar street”, food stands take up every available nook to peddle their delicious snacks. Some may sell chicken skewers, noodles, drinks, or meatballs, but some sell silkworms. They are usually about 20 Baht for a plate, and always made fresh. The tale of how the simple silkworm ends up fried in soy sauce and sold on the street is actually a testament to the Thai attitude of the practicality of everything: Khon Kaen province is known for its silk. This silk is produced from glands within silkworms, which are utilized until they can produce no more silk. At this point, I have extrapolated, some of these worms end up in the hands of locals with a good eye for business investment. These roadside chefs will stock up on bugs by the kilogram, with a hot pot of boiling soy sauce and spices at the ready. Upon request by a character with questionable judgement (your's truly), the vendor will fry up fifty or so worms in the pot. Within a minute, the customer leaves with a hot plate of fried silkworms, content with his decision and good taste. He may eat the bug one by one, or he may, in a most ungentlemanly way, shove three or four into his mouth that may or may not be accompanied by a deep swig of Chang Beer. This kind-hearted fellow may offer some of his friends some of his treat, and they may or may not accept, based on their attitudes towards our invertebrate allies. In my experience, they generally say no. While I respect their decision, I think trying unorthodox foods is a valuable part of any kind of cultural exchange. While we may never truly integrate ourselves as Thais, the least we can say is that we shared a couple worms with new friends in a new place. 

Photo-1

A satisfying, high protein snack!

 

Must Love Dogs , Kathryn Black

Based on the little bit of Thailand that I have seen, I would guess there is a 1:1 ratio of dogs to humans. I spent my first day in Thailand walking around the outskirts of Bangkok where I observed numerous dogs wandering the streets, taking naps in the middle of less traveled roads, and scavenging through garbage. The problem is deciding whether I should pet them or run away from them. Like all dogs, the Thailand canines I have encountered are sweet and lovable. These street dogs range from golden retrievers, to beagles, to greyhounds, to mutts. While they look cute and approachable, do they have rabies? Do they have parasites? Are they aggressive? Is it worth it? These are questions every dog lover must ask when visiting Thailand. 

Back in Ohio, I have an eight-year-old golden retriever named Willie May. Since arriving in Thailand, I have been going through dog withdrawal. I want to pet and kiss every dog I see, but I know that isn’t always the best idea. It isn’t clear whether or not the majority of the dogs have owners who let them wander about the city, or the dogs are ownerless and survive on handouts and scavenging. Most appear to be mangy and unhealthy, and sometimes unfriendly. For example, there is a field behind our dorm where a couple of people go for runs in the mornings. Runs have occasionally been cut short due to a notorious scary looking dog pack.

Overall, however, people on our program have not had any major issues with these dogs. Many, in fact, will even pet the occasional puppy. In the end, everyone must choose how to interact with the dog population of Thailand.

Dog

Constantly graced by the presence of strays

 

Adjusting to Life in the Mitraphap Slum Community, Hailey Pizzutello

Adjusting to life in a homestay can be difficult, but if you give it a proper chance the experience can be extremely rewarding. For our first homestay we were situated in the railroad slum community of Mitraphap within the city of Khon Kaen.  In my experience, the first day is the hardest, but after the initial awkwardness wears off an incredible bond forms.  First and foremost, staying in an urban slum is a very different experience than most American students are used to, devoid of many of the comforts they are accustomed to, such as running water or western toilets.   Apart from the living conditions, the language barrier can pose a significant challenge and create an ample amount of tension or awkwardness.  For me, I felt shy using the minimal amount of Thai that I knew, but once I began to engage with the children, it became easier for me to interact with my host mother and I felt more comfortable in their community. 

By the second night, my roommate and I had tackled the bucket showers and squat toilets, and survived the numerous mosquitoes that buzzed around our house and bedroom. As we began to adjust to life in an urban slum, we had an interesting encounter with a “maeng-mum (spider) of a Godzilla-sized proportion (in comparison to anything we had ever experienced before).   We were setting up the dinner tables, which were folded up and put away except for mealtimes, when we spotted a gigantic spider resting on the back.  My roommate promptly dropped the table, screamed, “SPIDER!”, and in a matter of seconds had jumped on top of the bench across the room.  While I seemingly remained calm, I was just as freaked out and was all too happy to join my roommate on top of the bench.  In the end, both of us were standing on the furniture screaming “spider, spider, spider!” loud enough for the entire community to hear. While this wasn’t our finest moment, our reaction helped bring us even closer to our host family and the rest of the community.  For the remainder of our time there, all the kids enjoyed scaring us (or trying to) with the thought of giant spiders, and our host brother even brought out a fake cockroach to try and elicit another shockingly embarrassing reaction. 

By the end of our three nights in the Mitraphap slum community, we had formed an amazing bond with our host mae (mother), host siblings, and the rest of the children in the community.  While we definitely did not enjoy seeing the spider, but after that experience we were able to be downright silly with all the kids.  They taught us a game called “chang, chang, chang” and taught me the fruit dance.  Oh, and of course we took tons of ‘selfies’.  Moral of the story is, if you throw yourself into the experience, no matter how awkward, uncomfortable or scary the experience might be, you can end up with a lasting bond, wonderful memories, and a hilarious story to bring home. 

Newsletter1
 

The rewards of stepping out of your comfort zone and living with a host family

 

Chan gin jay: Being Vegan in Thailand, Sarah Kaufman 

One of my first thoughts when going anywhere, whether it’s out to dinner with friends or making travel plans, is “will there be things I can eat there?” I am vegan, and have been for over two years. Over the past two years, I have learned what food is readily available for me to eat. At home and at school, I’ve gotten comfortable knowing which restaurants have vegan options. Coming to study abroad in Thailand, I knew one of my biggest struggles would be finding food I could eat with all of the nutrients I need to keep myself healthy.

One of our first lessons in Thai class was how to order food. Chan gin jay (I eat vegetarian) and mai sai kai (don’t add eggs) immediately became staples in my Thai vocabulary. When ordering food, I often feel like I get puzzled looks, and believe that food vendors see me as the strange farang (foreigner) who doesn’t want meat or eggs. Vegetarianism seems to be recognized here, but not eating eggs doesn’t quite fit into the culture where eggs are used in most dishes. It was difficult explaining to my new Thai roommate what I could and couldn’t eat. I told her, “No meat, no eggs, no milk, no butter, no fish, and no fish sauce.” I understand that this is something I will continuously have to explain while I’m in this country (and even in the U.S.).

CIEE Khon Kaen Development & Globalization heavily incorporates homestays and community stays into the program. One of the things I was most worried about was if my homestay families would be able to feed me. On the one homestay we have gone on so far, my homestay mother was told that I could only eat pad pak (stir-fried vegetables) with no fish sauce. Surprisingly, she did not question this and served me a different stir-fried vegetable dish at every meal- including breakfast; they were some of the most delicious vegetable dishes I have had in Thailand. However, it made me wonder if stir-fried vegetables were giving me all the nutrients I need.

Every couple of days I take a trip down the street to 7-11 and purchase myself some soymilk and peanuts. Other than my dwindling supply of protein bars, this seems to be my biggest source of protein. While many Thai restaurants in the U.S. serve tofu with vegetarian dishes, I have had difficulty finding restaurants or vendors here that have tofu. Every weekend when I Skype with my parents, I get concerned nags from my mother, asking if I’m getting enough protein. I assure her that I believe I am, but the truth is, I’m not exactly sure if this is the case, so I decided to do some research. Rice is a staple with almost any non-soup dish that I’ve gotten; according to Google, 1 cup of white rice has about 4 grams of protein and 1 cup of sticky rice has 3.5 grams of protein per cup. Glass noodles have a meager .2 grams of protein per cup, while rice noodles have 1.6 grams of protein per cup. I am now more confident that I am definitely getting at least a little protein in my diet here.

I realize that most of this article sounds negative; my food experience here in Thailand has definitely not been negative. I have easily found an array of options at food vendors and restaurants around the CIEE classrooms, all of which are delicious. I go about my day having difficulty picking what I want to eat at each meal, only because I’ve loved everything I’ve eaten and I can’t choose what I want to eat again. Now that I know I have a fair share of options, I just need to do a little more research on protein content to help me pick the food with the most nutrients for me. I am looking forward to the new delicious, vegan dishes that I will discover throughout the rest of the semester.

Untitled

Eating vegan when sharing food with others can sometimes be a hassle 

 

Lost at dusk in a foreign city, Sophie Salas

When you move to a foreign country, you’re bound to get lost. It’ll probably happen more than once. The first time I got lost was my second day in Khon Kaen. I, along with three other CIEE students and our roommates,  walked to what the University calls a “lake,” but is really a man-made puddle.

After running a few laps around the tiny lake, two of the girls were going with their roommates to the university’s agricultural fair, but my friend Sarah and I wanted to go back to the apartments. After being given what seemed like basic, foolproof instructions, we headed back to the apartments. It was about 6:30pm and just starting to get dark. I confidence left feeling confident and proud of how well I knew the area in just 48 hours. Those feelings vanished, however, we came to the first intersection. We stood there looking left and right. I tried to remember the directions. Right by the soccer fields, I think? Maybe that was only if we were coming from a different direction;, is it left?

            “I’m pretty sure it’s right,” I said and we walked a few paces in that direction.

            “Wait… maybe it was left?” Sarah suggested.

We turned and walked in that direction. Second-guessing ourselves again, we turned and walked back to the intersection. We kept looking up and down the street hoping for a revelation. Panic started to set in. We were lost without phones (due to the fact we’d just been running and my overconfidence) in an unknown city with extremely limited knowledge of Thai. Had I been asked what fruit I like or what state I was from, I would’ve been golden. But directions—that was a whole new ballgame.

What if we literally can’t get back? How could we call CIEE? If we could find a taxi I wouldn’t even know what to tell the driver! I tried to stay calm and think through our options. Just then an old man who we’d seen at the puddle walked up to the intersection. He immediately identified us as lost farangs (which is what foreigners are called in Thailand)and offered his help. While he didn’t speak much English, we attempted to ask him for directions. The only landmark we knew near our apartments was the Complex—I knew we could find our way back from there.

He said something in Thai that we clearly didn’t comprehend, then motioned for us to follow him. Sarah and I both looked at each other, wondering if this old man was our new best friend, or if we were about to become the stars of a dateline story? We decided to follow him, and he led us to a bus stop—THE RED LINE! I remembered from our morning “Life at KKU” session that the red line was our key to getting home.

When we successfully got off the bus at the complex and were walking back to the apartments, Sarah said, “When I get back to the states, I’m going to have to do a hundred good deeds.” I couldn’t agree more. If that old man hadn’t offered us his help, who knows how long it would’ve taken us to find our way back. Instead of writing off travelers as confused tourists, I will pass on the generosity and help a fellow farang out.

Untitled7

The sight of the haven that was the complex melted away my trepidation and flooded my body with relief

 

 

Preventing and Dealing with Homesickness, Jessica Infante

Experiencing some degree of homesickness is inevitable. The following is a quick guide on how to minimize homesickness, assuming you are traveling without friends or family. The most promising steps you can take to avoid homesickness occur both before and during your trip.

It is important to ask yourself why you have chosen to spend a semester, or even a full school year, away from what is familiar. Are you someone who has experience going abroad, loves it and is looking for another opportunity to travel? Are you the opposite, in that you have little to no experience traveling but are looking to venture out? Or are you burnt out and looking for a change of people and scenery? It is important to ask yourself this question because it determines how you should prepare for your trip. Individuals who answer yes to the last two questions are more likely to experience homesickness than someone who has chosen to go abroad for the former reason.

Let us start with individuals who have plenty of experience going abroad alone. No advice that I offer can be better than your own experiences. You know what is tried and true, how to say your goodbyes and navigate through new crowds. It is possible that you have not been away for an extended period of time. However, the first couple of weeks are the toughest, and your experience with traveling abroad will certainly aid you in getting through those first few weeks with ease. By the time you experience homesickness, you will most likely have to comfort of knowing that your flight home is right around the corner!

Anyone who has never been away from friends and family is naturally going to experience homesickness. Of course, spend as much as possible with those you are going to miss, but most importantly determine how you will be communicating. Some of my favorite apps include Whatsapp,Viber and GroupMe, all applications that can be used free of charge with wifi. However, in order to reduce homesickness, cautiously go about contacting people back home. It is simple to fall into the habit of using your friends as a safety blanket in order to avoid interacting with individuals on your program. While you may really miss your friends, I strongly encourage that you put a cap on the amount of time you speak with them. Conversations with friends should be reminders of how much you support each other’s endeavors, not about the party you are missing this weekend. You cannot expect to form friends abroad if you are viciously latching onto what or who is back home.

If you are someone who has chosen to go abroad because of strained relationships, you run the highest risk of not necessarily being homesick but rather feeling that you abruptly left home. It is favorable to think that if you physically remove yourself from a setting, the situation will not follow and will dissipate. However, study abroad is highly conducive to self-reflection. There are going to be instances where you will find yourself reflecting on your life at home. With that, you may encounter a few “What if…”s and possibly start to wish you left home on different terms. Leave on the best terms possible. Do not grudgingly board your flight. Tie up any loose ends! You are choosing to go abroad for your benefit, so do not allow yourself to be weighed down by factors at home. Study abroad is meant to be an experience that benefits you. How so? Well, that is for you to find out!

Which leads me my next point: the best way to thrive while studying abroad, with minimal homesickness, is to remain open-minded and optimistic. Therefore, select a program where those two characteristics are engrained into its framework and culture. One of my favorite traits about Khon Kaen CIEE is how its participants approach their stay abroad with a genuine desire to learn more about their peers and eagerly welcoming new experiences. 

There is something so great about being able to start fresh; you get to tell your own story! But the biggest mistake you can make as a student abroad is to allow someone else to tell your story because you were not willing or comfortable enough to form experiences with your peers. Blindly entering a setting is challenging, but you cannot approach novelty with resistance. Every second that you are not enjoying yourself, you are thinking of what you could be doing back home.

This article is not to say that homesickness can be limited to these three forms. You can experience it in any combination of contexts. It is most important to remember that study abroad is ultimately for your benefit. While homesickness is bound to occur, it is not a feeling that should be a norm during your time away. Behave in a way that allows you to thrive in a new environment!

Untitled

While the Khon Kaen CIEE students are all in a new environment, they do not allow homesickness to disrupt their experience abroad. They approach their stay with open-mindedness and a genuine desire to get to know their peers

 

Four Months, One Suitcase: Packing for A Semester Abroad, Alex King

My name is Alex and I am a chronic over-packer.

Due to this, before my semester abroad in Thailand I made sure to do someresearch on how to create the perfect packing list. I looked at guidebooks, travel blogs, recommended packing lists, and even weather forecasts in order to prepare for the next four months. Despite my over-packing tendencies, I was able to fit everything into my trusty blue suitcase, my backpack and a purse. However, just because I fit everything, it by no means suggests that I was successful in creating the perfect suitcase.

I luckily had already learned some valuable packing tips and tricks from my last semester abroad. First, toiletries can be found anywhere Therefore, I found ditching them or simply buying travel size shampoo, conditioner, and body wash saved precious pounds.  Second, it is important to be aware of the nature of the program. For instance, ask whether you need to have more formal attire, or if can you hang out in yoga pants and a t-shirt every day. Personally, I have found that a balance of both is best, rather than an excess of one or another. Third, make sure to bring some of your favorite things from home – when the homesickness hits, you will be grateful that you did! (I always love to have a pillowcase, my pillowpet, pictures, and my favorite American snacks). Last but definitely not least, I would recommend packing at least a day or two in advance and weighing your bag before you get to the airport. It can save last minute panic over forgotten items or the crisis of an overweight bag at check-in.

Despite my multiple preparations prior to the semester, my three weeks here have proven that my list was far from perfect. As usual, my packing ratios were far off: too many pants, too few short sleeves, too many jackets, etc. Finding a balance is by far one of the most difficult aspects of packing. However, no worries - you can always buy clothes there. From what I have seen, clothes here (especially from the night markets) are cheaper, and often better suited for the climate. Aslo, remember to pack bug spray (and lots of it). It was one of the items that I thought I would be able to find here, so I tossed  in order to lighten my suitcase. Unfortunately, the bug spray here is difficult to find as well as expensive. Lastly, it is a cultural norm in Thailand to remove one’s shoes when entering many buildings (temples, homes, classrooms, etc.) so I recommend shoes that slip easily on or off. However, it is often inappropriate to wear shoes without back straps, so make sure to bring shoes that have them.

These are just some of the tips and tricks for packing that I have learned along the way. Keep in mind that packing is just one part of the adventure called traveling. There is no right or wrong way to pack, and I have found that I am happiest when I simply pack what feels right.

Untitled
 

"I enjoy the preparatory elements of travel- packing my bags and choosing my outfits- but my favorite part is getting there." - Dominic Monaghan

 

Eating Methods: The Fork and Spoon, the Chopsticks, and the Hands, Annie Srivanich-Raper

Thailand is known for its wonderful plethora of delicious food. Thai food is characterized bye interesting textures, the unexpected combinations of flavors for foreigners, such as sweet, salty, and and spicy,  its freshness, and so much more.

The other fun part of eating such yummy new food is that you can eat it in several ways! Instead of using one fork for the entire meal like we often do in the West, in Thailandthe tool you use to eat here depends onwhat region you are in and what type of food you are eating.

This means instead of  using only a fork, a fork and a spoon will often be used during your meal time-- the spoon in your dominant hand, the fork in your other, so that it’s easier to scoop up all those rice grains, scrumptious sauces, and the main dish.

If you’re eating a soup dish like guay theow, which has noodles, meat, and a savory and spicy-if-you-want-it-broth, chopsticks and a special soup spoon are used. The chopsticks can be used by your dominant hand to lift and twirl the noodles, while the soup spoon can scoop up the meat and veggies. If so desired, you can skip the whole intermediate soup spoon process, and bring the chopsticks directly to your mouth, alternating with sips of broth.

If you’re eating sticky rice, known as khao neow, a popular northeast style of rice, you may be using your hands.  When I was with family in Nan, a northern province, sticky rice was the main source of carbohydrate and was servedin a traditional woven bamboo basket. To eat it, you picked it up with your fingers and rolled it into a little ball or flattened it using your thumb, your index, and your middle finger. In my case, I ended up using the entirety of my hand and fingers. You then used the rice and your fingers as tools to scoop up other desired foods and sauces to plop them all into your mouth at once.

Thailand introduces a variety of eating methods, which makes knowing how to say, “How do I eat this?” in Thai can come in handy.

Untitled4

Feasting before an  exchange with community members at New Nongwaeng, a railroad village in Khon Kaen. 

 

 Exercising in Khon Kaen, Emily Strome

During our first day of orientation, we were informed that Thailand is not a pedestrian friendly country. In terms of commuting, pedestrians get the short end of the stick. Initially, this was concerning because some of us were looking forward to going on daily runs. Upon arriving in Khon Kaen, however, we found that there several great options for off-road running. For instance, there are agricultural fields with dirt paths adjacent to our dorms, there is a pond (plastic pond) with a pave path that is not available to motor vehicles, as well as other sporadic paved pathways along roads and around campus.

The most scenic area for running is around the agricultural fields. There are dirt roads that network through large parcels of land. I have not yet had a problem with any farmers but running with a few rocks in each hand is a good idea. Of course these rocks are not to throw at any farmers, but rather for warning off stray dogs. These dogs often venture in packs and will try to intimidate you. If you encounter them, just take a moment out of your run to throw a few rocks, restock your supply, and then you can get back to your workout.

Plastic Pond also provides a nice setting for running. The pond is approximately a quarter mile from the dorms. There is a paved pathway around the pond, and also a beaten path inside of the paved one that offers a softer footing. A lap around the pond is maybe a quarter of a mile. Around the path are three workout areas. These workout areas are very common throughout Khon Kaen. They have been described as “adult playgrounds” by students who use them. They are comprised of simple machines that allow you to perform various leg, arm, and ab exercises, all with your own body weight.

Khon Kaen University (KKU) also offers a four story gym for its students. The KKU gym consists of a weight room, swimming pool, basketball court (indoors), volleyball court (also indoors), and an aerobic room. Classes are also available to students with a KKU Gym membership. Memberships are reasonably priced and fairly easy to obtain. These classes range from aerobic/dance classes to yoga and more.

Around the KKU campus there are many volleyball, soccer, and tennis courts. Down the street from our dorm there is also a basketball court. All of these are open to the public. Locals play soccer on the courts or on nearby grass fields adjacent to the KKU gym. Participating in a game is a matter of introducing yourself and gesturing that you would like to play. You may get turned away, but you also might get to play some soccer in Thailand.

For the student athlete looking to study abroad or the active person concerned with maintaining their workout regimen, you can feel confident coming to Khon Kaen because exercise is nothing unusual here. There are many options around the community that allow for a variety of workouts and routines.

  Untitled9

Adult Playground located near Plastic Pond

 

Little Creatures Be Bugging, Annie Zhang

Little Creatures. You cannot escape them.

I’m talking lizards, mosquitos, and spiders.

Every time I open the bathroom door, I scan the walls from the ceiling to the floor looking for the lizard that occasionally resurfaces. This lizard is a stealthy creature. The first time I saw the lizard in the bathroom, I was standing half dressed as my eyes lazily scanned the wall and stopped suddenly on the green reptile a couple of feet above my head. Naturally I screamed and ran out of the bathroom making incoherent statements to my roommate. Eventually, the lizard slid its way into a crack in the bathroom wall, and was gone for the time being. While it does like to make reappearances every now and then, I am getting better at having a reptile as a shower buddy.

Aside from the bathroom, lizards can be seen throughout the apartment complex. While they have been called cute, I beg to differ. But they are harmless and scurry from any sudden movements. Just make sure to check the ceiling occasionally if you do not want a lizard chilling on your head. Unfortunately, that happened at my homestay where I was sitting next to the village headperson and a lizard from the ceiling fell onto his head. Needless to say there was a freak out session.    

In addition to a shower buddy, I also had a sleeping buddy for a night that went by the name, Spider. Unbeknownst to me, the spider had invited itself into my bed leaving me with nine bites in the morning.  Thanks, Spider.

And then there are the mosquitos. The pesky buddies that never seems to leave you alone. Such tiny creatures have to ability to drive an individual to engage in uncontrollable scratching sessions. At a homestay, if an individual is without a mosquito net in a room swarmed with mosquitos, the technique is to cover oneself entirely. It’s all about the technique. Elaborate measures must be taken to avoid mosquito bites; this includes mummifying the face by using a scarf (but make sure to make a slit for the nose to breathe) and tucking pants into socks. These are all necessary procedures to minimize bites. Additionally, insect repellent, bug bite treatment, and Benadryl are essential for an individual that attracts mosquitos.

These little creatures can be irritating, especially for individuals mildly allergic to them. You cannot escape them. But you can prevent and treat, which means packing bug repellent, Benadryl, and your choice of hydrocortisone, calamine lotion, or Tiger Balm. A side mini advertisement for Tiger Balm - it saves lives. Although you might be frequently smearing lotion or ointment on yourself, the bites are nothing compared to Thailand’s abundant offerings. I say more little creatures if it means more Thailand.

2014-01-27 22.58.38

Fact. Tiger Balm Saves Lives.

 

Temples, Mahider Mekonnen

When one hears of Thailand, there are a variety of images that come to mind. For me, blue beaches, clear white sand, coconuts, friendly people, monks, and complex Buddhist temples appear in my head. So far in my journey of living in Khon Kean, Thailand, I have discovered places that have challenged my visual outlook and my understanding of structure.

Thus far, the temples (or called “wat” in Thai) have particularly caught my attention. The majority of people in Thailand are Buddhists, and there is an obvious presence of places of worship for the Buddhist community. My main interest is in the power and structural beauty that such places of worship hold. After visiting a couple of temples in Khon Kean, one automatically recognizes the power that the temples hold. Whether one looks at them from the outside or from the inside, the complexity and beauty of the worship place is apparent to the visitor.

For this newsletter I will focus on one of the temples that I visited and that I was surprised by. The first temple is the “Wat Nong Waeng”, a famous temple in Khon Kean. The temple stands 9 floors high in a triangular or pyramid-like shape. The narrow top of the temple holds a figure that seems to be made from gold or a gold colored figure. Each floor of the temple has a balcony with a gold metal ledge that is decorated by intricate network of repetitious shapes. The background wall of the balcony has a clear white wall that goes around the temple and consists of square shaped windows that are painted around.

From the inside, the temple is as magnificent, if not more, breathtaking than the view from the outside. The first or bottom floor looks more like a grand hall with divided corners for worship and one particular corner to sale goods such as souvenirs and worship materials. Another great aspect of the temple is that one is able to climb to view every level of the temple by taking narrow and uneven shaped staircases. Furthermore, each level of the temple depicts varying aspects of the Thai culture, tradition and history of the temple, Buddhism, and monks. There are not only art works but I saw ancient books, scripts, pictures, household materials (such as cups and plates), clothing, tools and the like. My favorite artwork was the paintings that went around the ceiling of the interior wall on the lower floors that depict the everyday life of a Thai village family and community. The paintings were large, clear, and told a story in a beautiful form.

Overall, visiting the Nong Waeng Temple in Khon Kean was an amazing experience that I hold dearly in my heart and that I will keep in my memory to share the experience with my family and friends.

1012037_676701605734691_1653068785_n

Wat Nong Waeng

 

Tackling the Thai Bathroom: A Westerner’s Guide, Sara Diaz

There exists a phenomenon called “Instinct Blindness.”  The basic principle behind this theory is that, sometimes, there are things that are so automatic and second-nature to a group of individuals that they don’t consider anyone being unaware of how to do it.  Say, for example, how to go to the bathroom.  I’m sure that if any American had a visitor from some far away land, they would not walk them through the process of sitting on a toilet, flushing, etc.  Nor would it cross their mind to explain how to use a standard shower.  Never again will I take these seemingly self-explanatory activities for granted.  

85% of the bathrooms I have seen in Thailand have borne little to no resemblance to any bathroom I’ve graced with my presence in America.  However, I am here to provide an in-depth explanation for the different kinds of bathrooms you may encounter in Thailand, as well as detailed how-to’s for the different actions you will attempt to perform in them. 

The first time you open the door to a “squat toilet,” you may stop short and wonder why and how someone managed to take only the bowl of a toilet and shove it into the ground.  As the name implies, there is also a ridged space on either side of the ground-bowl on which to place your feet when assuming the squat position.  During orientation, you may be told that the key to a squatting pee is to “face forward and sit well.”  This is not nearly enough information.  To execute this pee successfully, the trick is to distribute your weight to the back half of your foot.  It seems counter intuitive since all of one’s initial focus goes towards not falling onto what is imagined to be a urine-coated floor, therefore maintaining balance primarily on the balls of one’s feet.  However, you will find that you are much more likely to hit your mark if you trust yourself and lean back.  The next step is the flush.  There will be some vessel of water nearby.  Take the bowl in the vessel (most likely a bucket), and pour the necessary quantity into the bowl. 

I will assume that you know how to use a standard toilet, and will therefore spare you and move on to the bathing section of this charming essay.  You will most likely encounter either a detachable showerhead, or a water tank with a dog bowl floating in it.  I have found that the most effective way to use the showerhead is to remove it and hold it right up to the relevant body part, followed by turning it off and hanging it up between shower activities (i.e. washing hair, washing body).  This keeps you from completely soaking your entire bathroom, since your shower area will be a corner without any sort of partition protecting the rest of the bathroom from your clumsy showerhead-wielding hands. 

During homestays, you will almost certainly be faced with a water tank.  I am going to be honest with you—I have yet to master this style of bathing, but I have decided that the only solution is to just go for it.  Take that doggy bowl full of freezing water and dump it right on your unprepared head.  I will note that it is vital that you do not do this over the water tank, but rather over the floor so that the water that touches your sweaty body doesn’t go back into the source of clean water.  Also notable: you are not to submerse yourself in the tank. 

As promised, we will now cover wiping.  If there is toilet paper available, there is a 95% chance that the toilet paper is located outside of the bathroom.  In this case, you will be pretty unhappy (and uncomfortable) if you aren’t in a “shake-dry” situation.  Do not forget toilet paper.  In this worst-case scenario, I have yet to encounter a bathroom in Thailand that does not have a butt hose next to the toilet.  This is a hose for cleaning your butt.  Once again, this is not a tool I have mastered.  Curiosity has gotten the best of me only once, and I can’t really imagine getting satisfactorily cleansed by it.  The best advice I can offer you is to BYO toilet paper if necessary. 

  Photo (5)

Luckily, the bathroom in your KKU dorm is equipped with a familiar and easy-to-use toilet.

A Guide to Songthaew Travel, Sarah Hinde

If you love the feeling of wind in your hair, warm sun on your face, and the smell of diesel then you will love the songthaew. Songtaew means “two rows” and is often the size of a truck or bus with seating in the back.  There is room for standing, often with a roof on the top to accommodate the rainy season.  It is a popular form of transport in Thailand and has many uses including public transit around Khon Kaen, school bus for children, and CIEE transport.   The bustling traffic in Thailand can be challenging to get used to, but soon you will find yourself accustomed to the hasty accelerations, bumps, loud horn beeping, and weaving through lanes of traffic.  So embrace the songthaew into your life and start experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells that Thailand has to offer! 

Keeping entertained on the songthaew drive can be challenging as the rides can be long and boring, and the loud sound of the engine and traffic can make conversation difficult.  A common pastime on the songthaew is communal singing.  Classic hits from the nineties are preferred, but other genres are typically tolerated.  A popular playlist includes hit artists such as Michelle Branch, Hilary Duff, and Jewel.  Clapping games are also a good way to pass time and excellent for group unity.  Thailand is dusty during the dry season so it is important to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and a handkerchief over your nose and mouth.  For those with long hair be prepared with a reliable hair fixture.  Uncontrolled hair can lead to bad tangling and on occasion dread locking.  While eating finger food such as fruit or a sandwich is delicious and accessible, hot beverages are highly discouraged as it can lead to permanent tongue burn, scalding, staining, and spilling. It is best to bring a waterbottle to drink on the songthaew to stay hydrated in the warm and dry weather.  

Basic etiquette also exists on a songthaew.  Make sure to give up your seat to women with young children, elderly, or disabled people.  When standing, make sure that you are firmly holding onto something.  If the driver were to quickly stop or hit a bump, you could possibly go flying off to your death. If you are on the public songthaew, make sure to be respectful of others and speak quietly.  When you have reached your destination, press the button, but do not hold it down, as it is very loud and obnoxious.  You pay for the songthaew after you are finished with your ride, so don’t forget.  Generally it costs 10 Baht, so have your money ready and try not to hold up the driver.  Finally, thank your driver for the ride if they delivered you safely to your destination. 

A songthaew is an easy way to get around in Thailand.  The breezy nature helps keep you cool without air-conditioning.  It is an efficient, social, and practical mode of transportation that you will find yourself getting more comfortable with each enjoyable ride. 

  Untitled

The light blue songthaew number 8 takes you on a loop in Khon Kaen from the KKU all the way downtown in an affordable and fairly efficient manner.  

 

Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge,  Kelly Parrell

On Sunday, January 26, 2014, six CIEE girls set out to run the Khon Kaen Marathon Fun Run. Our day started out around 7:00am. We donned our bright yellow race shirts and headed out, attempting to find a song taew (a truck with two rows of seating in the back, a popular form of public transportation)… during a marathon… through the city. Turns out that’s not so simple. Who knew! Having given up on finding a song taew, we started walking toward the Golden Jubilee Convention Hall. The race was scheduled to start at 8:00am and we had doubts of getting there on time. We were walking on the bike path near the Agricultural Fair, not exactly sure we were going in the right direction, when a song taew came up behind us and the driver motioned for us to get in. Like every other song taew ride, we weren’t completely sure where he was taking us. A steady stream of people in yellow shirts gave us confidence that the driver was going in the direction we needed. Upon seeing a sea of kids in yellow running shirts, we rang the bell, hopped off the song taew and walked toward what we assumed to be the starting line.

Having arrived just before 8:00, we were pumped and ready for the race to start any moment. Much to our surprise, instead of starting promptly, the crowd was led in a series of “warm up” and stretching exercises, after which the King’s anthem was played. We were caught off guard by pre-race activities and the Thai time, which meant the race didn’t start until after 8:30am. 

Finally the air horns went off and the race started… kind of. There were so many people at the start, a mix of runners, walkers, and run/walkers. We were all on the same crowded path resulting in a sort of fast walk. This is when the dodging, weaving, dipping, etc. began. After about 200 yards we started to jog a little. The runners were all trying to weave in and out of the walkers to get ahead. Five minutes passed and we dodged our way to the middle of the walking pack… ten minutes and we almost weaved through most of the walkers… 15 minutes and we found more open space and fewer obstacles. All this time we are running between people, around people, dodging young kids who decide to sprint and then stop abruptly. We were constantly being cut off and cutting people off. At the time it was really too amusing to even be stressed! I thought eventually we would reach a point when the weaving would stop, but I proved to be very wrong! Throughout the race, we made split decisions about the path of least resistance to pass another runner. When I reached the finish line, I was slightly confused as to what had just happened, it was definitely the most laid back and unique fun run I have participated in. Although extremely hectic, this race lived up to its name… it was a FUN run! 

Untitled

Proudly displaying our fun run completion medals in front of the KKU flower sign. Left to right: Annie Z, Sohpie S, Alice, Dani, Sarah B, and Kelly 

 

The Hunt For Cheese, Alice Chen

An essential part of visiting Thailand is experiencing its unique foods and tastes. If you had one meal to eat in Isaan, you might want to try a bowl of khao niao (sticky-rice), a plate of som tom (green papaya salad), and blah daek (fermented fish). Or my personal favorites: the yellow curry, phat si io (noodle dish), and don’t get me started on the amazing coconut. The “real Thai” food may be exciting at first, but after one week into the program, people will definitely be wanting food a little closer to home. For many American travelers, cheese is a staple in their diets. So what happens when you decide to live for four months in a country that does not raise diary cows? I’ll tell you what happens…mouth-watering chaos.

Our cravings started after orientation had ended, and we were off to supply our own meals. Talks of peanut butter and cheese were rampant. Luckily, the K mart (not the same chain as in the US) around the corner carries a small jar of Skippy. However, dairy seemed to elude us all. We made attempts to satisfy our hunger, but most were unsuccessful. For example, Dani Corona and I went with our roommates to a Thai movie theater and were absolutely delighted to find cheese popcorn. Our excitement for the snack quickly disappeared after our first bite. The cheese flavor was definitely not what we were expecting. After further inspection, we discovered that the flavor was corn cheese, literally corn flavor and cheese powder mixed together. Fortunately, the caramel popcorn our roommates urged us to also buy saved our Thai movie theatre popcorn experience. There are other cheese items such as cheetos, cheese covered bugles, and pizza, but most of them leave you wanting real cheese even more. Compared to the hard-core cheese enthusiast, many Thai’s are just not used to eating the product. Therefore, if you find a cheese “something” it may not satisfy the craving.

However, I was not to be deterred so easily. Sure my cheese popcorn was disappointingly unsatisfying, but I was positive that I could find block cheese somewhere in Khon Kaen. When my cheese craving became too much to handle, I went to the first person I could think of who would have information on where to find cheese: my roommate. Turns out it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I think she did not understand the fact that I just wanted real, plain, cheese. Most Thai people do not eat straight cheese. It seemed as if we conquered the cultural and language barrier when she suggested we go to central plaza (a mall with clothing stores and restaurants).

Unfortunately, she still misunderstood what I meant when she pointed to a restaurant that sold pizza (it was tempting, but the pizza is not as good as it is in the states), then to an American restaurant that had a poster with a piece of chicken a slice of cheese on it, and a bakery that sold a variety of bread with cheese in it.  We finally decided to go to the supermarket, Tops, that was on the ground floor of the plaza. Imagine my surprise when I found cheese! I bought my favorite, Muenster, grabbed some crackers, and ate the night away in cheese.

So, if you are apprehensive about coming to Thailand because of the lack of cheese, don’t be. Just skip the snacks you would normally buy in America and go straight to the source - buy a block or bag from a large supermarket. It might be one of the most comforting tastes you will have in your journey in Thailand.

Cheese

My various run-ins with cheese in central plaza. I found the most cheese on baked bread items but found full cheese in the supermarket.

 

Live Music in Khon Kaen, Mike Fisch

I’m always delighted to seek out musicians in foreign cities, and it appears that Khon Kaen won’t provide me with any difficulty in accomplishing this task. The first night I went out in Thailand, my fellow program participants and I turned the corner to what’s colloquially referred to as “Bar Street” and were bombarded with garish lights and cacophonous sounds. At street level, the music that bellowed from the numerous open-air bars and clubs blended together - not at all helping the confusion and overstimulation we all felt venturing into the Thailand nightlife. As we reached the scooter-lined, bustling core of the strip, I realized that live bands were performing the music coming from every one of these bars.

In American nightlife, the institution of live bands performing in nightclubs has largely drifted to the margins, at least in relation to an earlier time. Concerts and smaller club shows certainly still permeate, but in my experience, any American would be at best surprised - and at worst, off put - going to a nightclub and finding drums, bass, guitar, and vocals calling at them from the stage. It seems that, in Thailand, live bands are a much larger part of the nightlife culture than I’m used to, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

 And so every night we go out, a cycle of half hour band sets, followed by dance music while the next band sets up has become routine. We’ll hear bands cover a handful of popular American artists, including Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Rihanna… real Grammy circuit stuff. Hearing these hits performed live always gets us Farangs hyped. 

It’s incredibly rewarding, as a musician, to be so consistently exposed to live music; everyone – myself included – loves dance music when they go out, but watching musicians interact with an audience and each other on stage is hard to replicate in any other atmosphere. To that point, I’ve yet to see any of these bands really go for it outwardly, and overly emote the way that Americans would be familiar with at shows. Perhaps that’s just the Thai subtlety imparting itself on the young musicians of this country. But their lack of outward enthusiasm shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of interest or talent: about half of the sets I’ve seen have included a song on which the guitarist absolutely shreds a solo, his facial expression stoic as can be.

Going forward, I’m interested in finding bars with quieter atmospheres, where I can really observe every part of a band’s aesthetic and musical stylings. Overall, though, I love the opportunity I’ve been given to take in so much music while here in Khon Kaen, without even really having to go out of my way. I hope it serves to provide me with a rich context in understanding both the nightlife and musical culture in Thailand.

Newsletter2

Typical night at Bang Bar

 

Homestay, Lizzy Peake                                                                                                          

When I first walked into the Theparak I community for my first homestay, I felt a combination of excitement and nerves. What if I accidentally offended the family? Embarrassed myself? Could not communicate at all? As many Thai classes as I have had so far, my Thai is still less proficient than I would like it to be. My most proficient subject in Thai is food, since it’s pretty necessary to have rudimentary Thai food language skills if one is at all a picky eater.

I was introduced to my host family, at first only my host father, as my host mother was out buying books for my host brother, and my host brother was running around with the neighborhood kids. I was a little intimidated by my host father at first- he was quiet, serene, serious. I waied him (bowed) and greeted him with a “sahwadika!” and he mumbled a greeting in return. He led me to the house in silence, and showed me upstairs to my room. I was surprised to have my own room upstairs, while the rest of the family slept downstairs in one big bed next to the front door. My bed was a square mattress on the floor, with a neatly folded pink flower comforter and teddy bear resting on my pillow. I immediately felt more at ease, seeing this display of hospitality. After I came back downstairs, I awkwardly handed my host father the bag of oranges I had brought the family as a gift, which he accepted. He gestured with his hands to the back of the house, and I was completely puzzled. Seeing my confusion, he made a gesture like he was splashing water on his face, pointing again to the back of the house. The bathroom! I got it!

After I came back outside, I sat with my host father on the table outside the house. We sat in silence, me too timid to say anything. I was, however, approached by some villagers who asked me my name and where I was from in Thai, and I was excited to be able to actually understand what they were saying and reply back in Thai. I met my host mother a bit later, when she came roaring in on her motorbike. We greeted each other and she showed me inside the house. I also met my little host brother, an exceedingly shy seven-year-old boy in a soccer jersey. I tried to chat with him in Thai, asking about his school and family, and telling him about my own family in slightly butchered Thai. My host mother sat me down and began showing me pictures of her family on her cell phone and camera, and I pulled out my cell phone and showed pictures of my own family. Together we pointed, smiled, nodded, mutually appreciating the pictures and learning more about each other, less conversation required.

Later in the evening, my host mother sat down on the floor with my host brother and took out his English homework. He began counting off his numbers: “one…two…three…” and continued to count. I occasionally added some tips on pronunciation, which he quickly took up. I started practicing my Thai numbers: “neung…song…sam…” and he was quick to correct my pronunciation as well. Next we moved on to animals, him rolling his “r’s” on “rrrat,” and having a little trouble with “horse.” He handed me a ruler so I could point to different animals on the page, quizzing him. We both growled for “lion” and flapped arms for “bird.” Despite his initial shyness, I got smiles and giggles by the end of the evening. 

Even though my Thai is minimal and my conversation skills could be greatly improved, my host family and I managed to communicate through smiles, gestures, pictures, and mutual giggles over our language skills. Though not explicitly said, I felt so welcomed and a part of the family, and thrilled to be in the community.

Untitled

My little host brother posing for a picture 

 

Being Farang, Katrina Harrington

I’m not sure if it was just my pure lack of knowledge or complete lack of anything, but I really didn’t think any of what I have experienced would happen here in Thailand.   Prior to being in Thailand, I was conscious that I would stand out in certain instances and that I would be a minority for once in my life.  I am a 5’7, blonde hair, blue eyed, twenty one year old.  I cannot begin to describe how absolutely awkward, terrified, and sometimes violated I feel on a daily basis.  I am a Farang, foreigner in English.  That is who I am, I am not anything else in the eyes of the Thai people.  I am here in Thailand, walking on the wrong side of the road, speaking broken Thai, and too tall for some buildings.  I pay extra for food sometimes, and always too much for taxis, that is what they call “Farang Price”.  At times it can be quite flattering when people want to take my picture, or when little kids smile at the tall foreigner walking by.  It’s not always so flattering when people laugh at everything you do ( I like this better than the staring though).  I’m not sure what I thought my experience would be like here, I definitely didn’t think it would be this challenging to go about my daily life here with out being noticed.  I wanted to be Thai-like, which now I understand is completely impossible.  I am not Thai, I am a Farang and will always be. Although I am aware of the impossibility of blending in, it gives me the incentive and challenge to work harder at learning Thai, especially to become a more efficient orderer at the local food stands, or actually walking on the correct side of the road, there is nothing I can do about my height unfortunately.  Another interesting thing I have encountered is people are constantly asking what country I am from; I assumed it is, and would be blatantly obvious that I was American.  This is even after people have had a conversation with me, sometimes that makes me feel respectable.  A couple of times people have thought I was European which made me feel more respectable because Americans sometimes have a negative reputation abroad.  The great thing about being challenged like this is that I am learning a lot.  I am learning how Westerners are perceived and how appearances matter.  It’s a sad reality but something I am especially grateful to have learned.  I have a better awareness of myself, in real time.  I behave more responsibly and represent myself in the best way I can, it’s always on my mind, how my actions represent not just myself, but the Western world.  My actions have an impact and they matter much more here, then back at home in the United States.

Life in Thailand 

 

Follow the Stream, Lucy Yang 

So what is Whiskey road and how did it get its name?

Whiskey road is a strip of bars located near the Kasiansin Apartments. It is called “Whiskey Road” because the bars serve bottles of whiskey, similar to how beer is casually served in the States. The bars on the strip are typically full of outgoing and lively locals who enjoy dancing, hookah and singing. There are also food stands stationed by the entrances of most bars; the vendors mainly sell deep fried fish, pork or imitation crab on kabob skewers with a side of cabbage and/or cucumbers.

After I arrived in Thailand, I overheard some students and faculty talking about Whiskey Road and how fun and interesting it would be.  I was excited to experience the bar scene in Thailand, so some students and I set out on a mission to partake in the wonderful bar culture here. Little did I know that I would have to endure a filthy path full of sewage water and families of cockroaches crossing the road.

At first, the road starts off clear of sewage, water and trash, but about a hundred feet before the bars start to appear, a small river of “poopy” water sneakily covers and gently flows throughout the street. This flow of water has an unbearable stench, consisting of feces and deep fried meatballs from the local shops. The cause of the stench is due to a crack on a sidewalk, which allows sewage water to be released onto the rest of the road. And because the road is slightly downhill, the water travels for quite some distance.

Thai cockroaches are roughly half the size of a Nature Valley granola bar and are capable of flying, though I have not witnessed a soaring cockroach yet. They are sometimes found near the bushy areas which surround the road or sometimes close to the cloudy sewage water. Cockroaches will also cross the street in “families.”

“Dookie river” (as the 2014 CIEE students refer to it), has been a challenge to cross, but it is not impossible to overcome. Also, these obstacles have not prevented 2014 spring semester students from going to Whisky Road. Here are some tips to crossing Dookie River:

Be confident and positive that you will not get an infection from stepping in sewage water.

Do not be afraid of the cockroaches in Thailand, even though they are capable of flying.

Do not wear open-toed shoes.

Walk alongside the stores and hope that the river has not reached that far yet.

Do not run because water will splash everywhere.

Beware of the motorcycles and cars passing by because water might spray at you.

Good luck crossing!

Lucy

That’s not rain water 

 

The Non-traditional Study Abroad Experience, Cara Reaume

The American college student “study abroad” experience connotes certain things – the generalized portrayal is a time during which one might take classes titled “Red Wine & Vespas”, “Photo Posting Methodology to Evoke Maximum fomo from American Friends” and (insert Intro to Local Language here).

In observing friends that have gone and returned, I’ve gleaned that for many it’s a four-month drunken overdose on gelato and stained glass that perceivably grants the right to pretense stories with “When I lived in Europe…” for years to come. A glorious stint when girls take their stilettos to cobblestone streets, snap selfies with the Mona Lisa, and judge the quality of their experience by the number of Instagram-worthy meals consumed.

Of course not all travelers are this obnoxious and culturally oblivious, but from what I’ve witnessed, it’s not hard for American students to fall into the tourism trap on traditional abroad programs. The other students and I in Khon Kaen, Thailand are nowhere near exempt from this, but at the very least are encouraged  to be conscious of assimilation into Thai culture by the program leaders. I’m grateful for discussions on what it means to be a foreigner and the challenges it poses, instead of blindly accepting and feeding on that label.

So far a large difference I perceive between my friends in Europe and I is the apparent disconnect in ‘grunge level’. Daily temperatures in the nineties, rampant mosquitos, and coursework that often leads us into slums and rural areas is starkly contrasted with the lifestyle of those on more traditional abroad programs. While travelers to Italy might methodically choose the outfits they’ll inevitably be photographed 284 times in front of the Trevi fountain in (jeans, scarf and leather jacket ladies, classic never fails), I’m over here like, “Do I have any shirts left without sweat stains?” Though of course, fanciness of attire correlates with fanciness of activity. Sure, Spain’s got the Sagrada Familia, and I’ll award Italy that the Coliseum is mildly fascinating…but comparably we have Poo Row – a street right next to our apartment building that continuously has a stream of questionable fluids (raw sewage?...) running down it that reeks of pure manure. Available for viewing twenty-four hours a day, even when it’s 98 degrees and hasn’t rained in weeks – not to mention viewing/smelling it is free! I’m not aware of many other attractions with such high accessibility. A close second though is the ‘squat toilet’ – a common defecation method in Thai culture that involves standing with one foot on either side of a shallow bowl on the ground, squatting, and transporting the excrements from your body into said bowl by method of sheer free fall. While quite the challenge at first, it becomes fairly fun actually if you make it a game with yourself; I will say my aim has improved exponentially since arrival.

While some may think the rawness of this Thai study abroad experience is far from ideal, what it lacks in luxury, it gains in realness. My guidebook claims that less than one percent of travelers to Thailand even enter the Northeast region where we are, so the likelihood of being targeted by a well-established tourist industry is slim. This isn’t to say us American students will be fully assimilated anytime soon – or ever for that matter, but acknowledging how ‘farang’ are perceived and working to counter the ways in which our experience as residents of Khon Kaen is altered because of that label is a step in the right direction. It’s also pretty neat to be amongst 34 other students who strive for awareness as well. People who likely desire depth of experience and true understanding of culture over tourism. People who would gladly choose street vendors selling fried insects and nine 7/11s within every square mile over ancient cathedrals in the name of authenticity.

Untitled1

Pictured on the left are heart-shaped pizzas my friends enjoyed for dinner in Florence, Italy. Shift to Thailand on the right, and the glimmer in Sam’s eyes says it all: once you go bug, you never go back 

S“thai”le, Ellen Swain

What statement does a headband topped with a giant carrot make? As an American female raised in the sheltered suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I did not possess the cultural capital necessary to properly interpret this fashion signal. I eavesdropped in on the owner’s conversation, though, and I soon discovered that she made the headband herself and felt it indicated intelligence. From that point on I knew I needed to open my mind to a different definition of “fashion.”

Thailand has exposed me to a new world of quirky and fun fashion, one in which I am unable to access at most markets (large events with hundreds of booths with food, clothing, etc...) because I don’t fit into an extra-small. Nevertheless, I’ve witnessed Thailand’s twist on Western styles both on Khon Kaen University’s campus as well as throughout the city.  While most of the fashion I will mention is worn by women, men certainly have their own unique style, as well.

One definite trend here in Thailand is animal images. From large yellow ducks plastered on neon-colored dresses to sweaters embellished with tiny penguins, one can find just about any animal she desires. I have spent many a minute sorting through jewelry piles at night markets and have found earrings adorning everything from dogfaces to llamas. My roommate also owns several pairs of cat-ear headbands that she wears when she’s in the right mood. Equally common on clothes and jewelry are food items, like the pair of big banana earrings that are at so many market booths. With these, as well as with the carrot headband, I’ve come to the conclusion that Khon Kaen fashion is fun, bright, and quirky.

On a different note, I have noticed it’s not completely uncommon to find Thais wearing a t-shirt plastered with nonsense phrases and blatant English obscenities. A fellow CIEE student was greeted by her Thai roommate whose shirt was largely embellished with a vulgar English word starting with the letter “F.” And that’s not the first shirt that I have seen with similar words on it. Perhaps the offensiveness of these words is not understood? It is definitely a possibility. However, it’s also possible that these students are simply adding an edgy vibe into their style. Regardless, I find it humorous and slightly refreshing.

Despite the intense heat found in this Land of Smiles, the people of Khon Kaen have not transitioned into short-shorts and tank tops, like many of us Americans are compelled to do. In fact, I have observed many pairs of jeans and sweaters on sweltering days reaching into the upper 90s. But as CIEE has taught us in cultural lectures, lighter complexions are more desirable in Thailand, meaning that Thai women want to protect their skin from the sun with layers of clothing. They must think Americans are crazy for trying to get tan!

What’s interesting is that the people of Khon Kaen wear highly Westernized clothing with a personal twist while many Americans on this CIEE trip are seeking out traditional Thai clothing at stores. I guess we all have altering views of what is cool, but are similar in that we want something unlike the style of our original homeland. So although Thais and Americans are not the same in culture and style, we aren’t all that different, after all.

Cat_earred_headband

 

Election Day, Shelby Kaplan

 After living in Thailand for three weeks, attending multiple protests in Bangkok and reading various emails from the US embassy about the dangers leading up to the most momentous event of Thailand’s history, Election Day finally arrived. I was filled with questions and mixed emotions about what this means for Thailand’s unity. Will there be a conclusive and enforced result? Will the country divide from rising tensions between political parties? Will the CIEE program have to flee the country to Laos due to a violent uprising? These questions are all still possibilities, but after interviewing some Khon Kaen residents at the election today I have gained more confidence in Thai safety and unity.

My awareness of the election began when I arrived in Bangkok one week before the program start date. When I attended protests in Bangkok they appeared to be so peaceful and filled with pride, although I did not understand a word the speakers were saying. Never did I suspect violence. It was almost as if I was attending a festival. The Asok and Silom protest sites included musical performances, upbeat speakers, cheerful attendees that would blow whistles and clap plastic toy hands as the speakers spoke, and rows upon rows of tents and street artisans and vendors. The day after I left Bangkok, violence broke out at some of the protest sites. I am so glad that I had the chance to participate while the protests were peaceful, but I felt so ignorant for not considering or expecting a negative outcome and for coming into the situation without background knowledge.

Closer to the election I was able to gain a better understanding about the political issues and interests of Thai people during my first homestay in a slum community called Theparak 1and from the program’s Thai History and Politics lecture. Although the history is a bit confusing with its multitude of details, ongoing corruption and disputing parties, I personally experienced a community that is able to set aside their political differences to maintain unity and happiness.

Through these learning opportunities I felt much more prepared going to a voting site on February 2nd.

 On Election Day I met up with a group of D&G students and Ajaan Dave at a voting site where the group set up a video camera and tripod so that we could interview the voters. We literally had to chase the voters down as they were leaving the voting stations and then would politely ask them in Thai if we could interview them. During the few interviews that I conducted

I would start the interview by thanking the interviewees for allowing us to interview them, explaining that we were American students studying at KKU for the semester and wanted to ask

them a few questions about the election. I then proceeded to ask various questions with Ajaan Dave as the translator. My list of questions included: Why did you come out and vote today?

Were you scared to come to the polls or think that there would be obstructions due to the ongoing protests and violence in Bangkok? What do you hope the outcome of the election will be? Do you think your vote matters? Some people suggest splitting the country; do you think that this is a real possibility? What policies do you like about your party’s platform and how do they affect you personally? What do you want to see change in Thailand?

Almost every interviewee told me that they came to vote because it is their right and they were going to exercise it and also believed that every vote matters. The voters were not afraid to attend the election, because Khon Kaen was not facing the same problems and violence as

Bangkok. They did not think that the country will divide because Thailand is too unified for that to occur. A common theme in supported policies was the 30 baht health care plan. I found it interesting that working people made such an effort to get in their vote. I saw voters come in wearing aprons, uniforms, and generally being in a hurry to get back to work (or away from the crazy Americans trying to interview them). Everyone I have spoken to about the election does not have a clue what the outcome will be, but personally witnessing peaceful protests, living in a unified slum community, and interviewing cheerful voters has given me much hope for Thailand.

By interviewing voters at an election site about their thoughts on Thai politics, rights and personal experiences, I better understood the hopes of some Thai people in the NE.

Shelby

 

When you don’t have enough words, Emma Arnold

Last week, I found myself in a curious situation. I was living in a stranger’s home. Eating their food, playing with their children, watching their TV, sleeping in their bed. All this, and we had exchanged no more than 10 words.

This is part of the great adventure of living in a place where English is sparse and English speakers sparser. After two weeks of rather intensive Thai classes, I am now able to communicate the basics: “What is your name?”, “I am hungry”, “Just a little spice please”, and so on. Our Thai Ajaans are wonderful and classes are rigorous. Which is why on my first homestay, with the Nonwang slum community outside of Khon Kaen, I was surprised to find myself rendered completely mute. 

My lovely host family spoke no English, and I was staying with them alone. For the first time in my life I was obligated to find ways to communicate that transcended words. Hence I began the arduous process of building a relationship with a family with whom I could not speak.

Our homestay was three nights long. During the days, we left to go to classes. We returned in the late afternoon to join our families for dinner and settle in for the evening.

On night one, I told my host family my name. I asked theirs (and promptly forgot what they told me). I told them my age, where I was from, and I asked the kids how old they were. I was served plates and plates of food. I told them it was all delicious, and told them when I was full. Then very full. I sat in front of the TV and watched Thai soap operas, which I could not understand. I took a shower, then went to sleep. I spoke no more than five times. That was night one.

On night two, I was determined to add some substance to my relationship with my host family. When I arrived everyone was in front of the house, eating and drinking and generally being merry. It was there that I learned that alcohol is a language learner’s best friend. It slows speech, obliges people to incessantly repeat themselves, and loosens inhibitions. And so there, surrounded by drunk Thai men in Manchester United jerseys, eating the spiciest Tom Yum soup of my life, I had a breakthrough. Suddenly, we were having a conversation. A broken, rambunctious, ridiculous, unimportant conversation. It felt real, and it felt great.

On night three, I came prepared. I brought pictures of my family to share with my host mother. I introduced her to my maa (mom), paw (dad), pi sao (older sister), and neung chai (younger brother). I showed her my three mao (cats), my home, and all the snow in Boston. I brought my Thai books and my seven year old host brother helped me learn the alphabet. We found a ball in the neighbor’s yard and made up a silly game.  My two year old host brother kept bringing me his toys as gifts. I showed him how to click my pen and it was a constant source of wonderment. My host grandma pulled me into a corner and blessed me by tying a string bracelet around my wrist. Night three was the first night that I did not feel like a stranger in their home.  

My first homestay meant a great deal to me, but above all it was a lesson in patience and perseverance. Three nights is a very short time to create a relationship with a family, but it is an incredibly long time to be living in a stranger’s home. Humans forge connections through shared experience. Once I was able to push beyond the language barrier, I was fortunate enough to be able to share a wonderful experience with my host family.

  Untitled

Night two with my host family

 

 

Thinking Local, Cara Reaume

In the past couple of weeks the focus of me and the other CIEE Khon Kaen students has been food and agriculture – topics we’ve explored through numerous lectures, reading materials, and a four-day homestay with families working in the agricultural sector in Yasothon province in Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand. Our group was split down the middle: eight students were taken in by an organic farming village and the other eight by farmers who use conventional practices. And so this organic vs. nonorganic dichotomy rooted our perceptions of the homestays and has served as the starting point for many comparative discussions as we near the end of the unit. For me it resemblances the organic movement back in the United States, the push to buy products stamped with the USDA Organic label and subsequently feel confident in promoting human and environmental health. But after the numerous exchanges we as students have had with farmers, government officials, NGO leaders and community members involved in agriculture, I no longer think the ‘organic’ label is what consumers should consider as the main or sole criterion during their food choices. A different message on how to improve the food system I heard time and time again on the unit trip is best summed up by Kingkorn Narintarakul, a leader of the BioThai Foundation, an organization that researches organic farming practices and advocates for food security, when she said, “We need to decrease the distance between food production and consumers.”

 

This simple idea provoked me to consider how often I eat something in the U.S. without having the slightest idea of where the ingredients were harvested, by whom, and under what practices – and further, what implications these conditions of production have for my health, human rights of workers, and the wellbeing of the planet. It seems that many (me included) have grown to trust “those” that put food in our supermarkets with unsuspecting complacency. And if perhaps one does begin to question quality, there aren’t many qualms a quick “organic” label slapped on the packaging can’t quiet. Do we all even fully understand what organic really means? And when did we become so comfortable accepting what is socked on the shelves of Kroger without investigating its roots?

 

What I propose is a genuine effort to heed Narintarakul’s message of lessening the gap between sourcing and purchase. I’m not here to bash organic production, but to promote an overall increased awareness of the lifecycle of what we ingest before we ingest it. Managed and capitalized upon by multinational corporations, food often travels across the country and even around the world before it gets to your table. Buying from local food vendors or farmer’s markets infuses money back into the local economy. Because ideally you are buying directly from the source, the lack of a middleman potentially eliminates prices increases. In one exchange, leaders of the local Green Market (an alternative to the traditional market with questionable production practices, it only features vendors who farm organically) beamed as they explained how not involving a middleman allows them to focus solely on health. Buying local also avoids supporting the use of excessive amounts of energy necessary for the large-scale transportation of goods.

 

A valuable yet sometimes overlooked benefit of food sourcing from within one’s community is the creation of strong community ties. The Green Market representatives expressed that direct selling creates a “brothers and sisters” relationship amongst producers and consumers. Boun-soung Ma-kow, regional president of the Alternative Agriculture Network, an organization that unites farmers in Thailand who don’t comply with the modernized and industrial method of agriculture, confirmed this during our exchange. He relayed that while selling at the local market customers frequently ask him whether his produce is safe, since it is harvested devoid of pesticides and fertilizers that some Thais associate with food protection and cleanliness. While according to him it is hard to ensure buyers completely understand his practices, the best way to spread awareness is to “be friends with the consumer group.” Getting to know and choosing to trust those who grow our food sounds a lot more appealing to me than blindly accepting food with a vague past.

 

Of course then after one is aware of the whom and where of the production process, standards most commonly cited as “organic” can be examined and evaluated for each local producer by the consumer. Typically these include the absence of herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified anything. Whereas ambiguity may linger in a conventional grocery store in terms of specifically what practices a sticker or stamp represents, buying straight from the farmer allows the opportunity to inquire directly. If at this stage you’re still into the idea of buying organic, all the power to you! Chances are, many small-scale local farmers you’ll encounter value the environment enough to adhere to USDA Organic standards anyway. Although it may seem as though the endpoint of ‘buying organic food’ can be achieved identically and more easily by swinging by Whole Foods than seeking out a farmer’s market, what I particularly like is the idea of buying local first, then making the decision to go organic or not. I say this because I don’t think that the organic standards are the only ones to which we should hold our food. So much more goes into the production process than just the use or absence of a fertilizer or whether or not it came from a genetically modified seed. It is possible, say, that a product that meets organic certification and is devoid of artificial chemicals is produced by a multinational corporation that exploits workers overseas by robbing them even of minimum wage and of their dignity. Or one that is destroying natural ecosystems to make way for large-scale monocrops that damage soil ecology and increase crop vulnerability to disease. Or perhaps these large-scale businesses are in fact purely ethical and aren’t engaging in any type of destructive practices, but the reality is that there is no way to truly tell.

 

This mindset may come across as being cynically mistrustful, but to me it is simply having agency over knowing what I put into my body. Not to mention it is frequently near impossible to entirely avoid settling for large chain grocery stores. I just hope that in the future the ‘certified organic’ label can be more of an added bonus of buying foods that we have already certified by our own multifaceted standards. That we may think of the implications of supporting differing food producers, and know that each dollar we spend on food is a ‘vote’ for the methods of production it was processed by.

 

CaraBlog

Thailand’s Controversial Rice Pledging System Leaves Farmers in the Dust, Sophie Westover

The Thai government owes the country’s rice farmers nearly 4 billion dollars due to the controversial rice pledging scheme implemented in 2011. The scheme aimed at putting money into the pockets of impoverished Thai farmers who make up 40% of the labor force. The idea was that the government would buy rice from local farmers at almost twice as much as the market price and then withhold the rice from the rest of the world. By doing so, the government thought it could control the global market for rice and push the price up. Once this occurred the government anticipated that it could export the rice abroad and make back the money spent on the rice. This, however, did not occur.

The problem is that the Thai government grossly underestimated the unpredictability of the global market. When global traders caught wind of the Thai governments plan to raise the price of rice, trade deals with Thailand were broken and remade elsewhere. Rice from India, Pakistan, and Vietnam flooded the global market and stabilized the price of rice below the Thai governments expectations.

The Thai government now has thousands of tons of rice sitting in warehouses across the country that is cannot sell (information regarding the exact amount is being with held by the government). The price of this rice is decreasing daily as its’ quality degrades. Thousands of farmers that pledged their rice into the program are waiting for payment, and their patience is running out.

“I went this week to the provincial office to see about my payment” Peng Sangsook, my host grandfather, tells me, “I am number 3,065 in line to get paid.” 2014 is Peng third year participating in the pledging system. Another famer, a woman named Pilaiwan Chaiyalak from Yasothon Province, tells me she too has not been paid. “I do not know what to do” she tells me, “I only can wait in line.”

 The scheme is further exasperated by wide spread corruption. Waana, Peng’s son, is an organic farmer, he tells me how is father, Peng, exploited the pledging system and sold conventionally grown rice to the government that he bought at a low price from a local farmer. When I asked Peng about this he was strategic in his response. “It is illegal to sell rice to the government that you did not grow” he says smirking, “but many people take advantage of the system.”

 “There is corruption at every level”Peng tells me. Government officials, owners of the rice mills, and even the farmers themselves have been reported to take advantage of the scheme. Stories of politicians buying rice from neighboring Laos and Cambodia to sell to the government and profit off of circulate within the media.

The crisis appears unmanageable. On February 18th the National Anti-Corruption Commission summoned Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the implementer of the scheme, to hear two charges of abuse of power by February 27th. Farmers have mobilized in Bangkok to demand payment. The situation appears to escalade daily and greatly contributes to the already volatile political landscape.

The Northeast, where we are, is Thailand’s agricultural hub, and is generally composed of Red Shirts (or Phu Thai Party supporters). Red Shirts are pro-government, Thaksin supporters. One would think that unpaid farmers would be marching in the streets to demand payment from the government and denounce their Red Shirt status. Yet the streets and city center are void of demonstrations. The voices of those unhappy with the current political situation rarely make it to the ears of us CIEE students. When I asked my host mother about her views on the political situation she didn’t take a stance but told me “I just work in my field and often forget.”

 

2014Spring_SophieBlog

Thailand is the third largest rice producer in the world. “Rice is the saving oog the people”says Ubol Yoowah, a local NGO here in Northeast Thailand.  

12/17/2013

A Bangkok Protest Narrative

 

Thailand seems to be plagued by protest after protest nowadays.  We wanted to understand the logistical aspects of one such protest at one particular moment: how do people get there? How can they stay, sometimes for days on end?  In search of answers, we got on a bus in Khon Kaen and headed to Bangkok with 22 Red Shirt protesters to find out.

  DSC_0457

A protest in Bangkok has beckoned Red Shirt activists to join their comrades.  Buses, we understand, are to be provided. Almost upon a whim we got a translator and assembled our team of three student journalists. Equipped with three nights worth of clothes, our notebooks, and only the faintest idea of the endeavor before us, we set out for the Khon Kaen Red Shirt radio station. 

 

The Red Shirts, also referred to as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), supports the current parliamentary majority Pheu Thai party. Opposing them is a group headed by former Democrat Party leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, who is calling for the government to be replaced by an appointed council.

The anti-government protests, attracting hundreds of thousands, began when the government attempted to pass a controversial blanket amnesty bill early in November.  This bill would have exonerated any politically related crimes. What enraged the anti-government protesters is that it would have allowed controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by a coup in 2006 and later convicted of corruption, to return to Thailand with no jail time. The focus of the anti-government protests shifted from anti-amnesty to anti-“Thaksin System”, which includes current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. 

 

The Red Shirt leadership wanted Red Shirt activists to come together as a “show of force” and support for the government.

 

We board a stuffy bus with a lively group of Red Shirts on their way to do just that.  The air is thick with heat and anticipation. The red leather interior not only compliments the clothes of the passengers, but also matches the blaze of excitement in each row. Most on the bus come from a village next to the Ubonrat Dam District in Khon Kaen.  They quickly adopt us into their clan.

 

The man sitting next to us, with eyes crossed and a face creased with wrinkles, attempts to teach us how to read and write in Thai.  Meanwhile, another woman draped entirely in red, shows off a hat she designed for the last protest in 2010.  She explains, amid constant streams of chatter, that she is excited to wear it again. 

 

As the bus rolls away from the radio station at noon, they divulge their ambitions for their government, their uncertainties about the future, and their determination to keep Thailand from falling back into a dictatorship.

 

The ride to Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok is an experience. We stop nearly every hour, on the hour. At first we don’t understand the frequent interruptions, as they slow our progress. But acknowledging that members of the group are over the age of 60, perhaps frequent stops are to be expected.  Most are past their prime, yet there is a youthful spirit on the bus and the energy is infectious.  Sticky rice gets passed around.  Our clan is taking its own food to the protest and is certainly well provisioned.

 

One of the older women on the bus, nicknamed Tonglor, explains “We can’t tell how long we’ll be there. I didn’t bring many clothes; only two shirts. But lots of food.”

 

Our merry seniors sing Red Shirt-inspired folk songs, prompting everyone to join in. We don’t know the song, but we clap along.  

 

The singing goes on and on.  There is an excess of exuberance, but a decided disorderliness to the trip. The plans are constantly changing but people seem unconcerned with the lack of a clear consensus on logistics.

 

After eight hours of driving, our bus finally reaches Bangkok. Jubilance turns into puzzlement. Villagers start making phone calls, unsure of how to get to the stadium.  Hums of voices overlap in a haze of confusion. We are lost.

 

Their mission seemed so clear with Red Shirt media outlets calling villagers to gather, with the radio station as the designated departure point.  But now, without actual instructions on how to get to the protest venue, the driver does not know how to proceed.

After an hour and a half of wandering, at around nine p.m., we finally make it to a crowded market stationed outside the stadium. We are told by our group to get off of the bus so protesters can be counted. Organizers want to have a rough idea of how many Red Shirt protesters there are.

DSC_0611

We are first met with a growing rumble emanating from speakers posted along the walkways.  Police are scattered throughout the masses, prepared to protect protesters and the grounds from outside groups, anti-riot gear at the ready. As we continue toward the vendor area we see a group of them calmly taking a snack break amidst the surrounding bustle.

 

Getting closer to the stadium, there are dozens of white tarp tents tucked snugly against each other on either side of a cement-paved walkway. Teams of people from different provinces are set up underneath.  They offer whatever services they can volunteer to the masses. Smaller individual tents line the ground behind the vendor booths.  Mesh ceilings provide makeshift shelter, making the area appear rooted and lived in. Many of the families and provincial teams have been here for ten days, showing support and offering aid.

Surprised by the sheer amount of food sold, we ask a passionate, middle-aged vendor, Ms. Bet, how she manages to feed so many mouths.  She responds simply, “We share. The people help [each other] and we share everything we have.”

 

The protesters’ communal tendencies are an integral piece of sustaining the rally.  One volunteer security guard, talkative and jolly, Ot Bangabit, explains that the protesters are like a family.  In his eyes, they have to be or their pro-democracy values will be taken advantage of by the opposition.


By this time we have lost our clan.  Luckily, a member of our Khon Kaen group emerges from the hoards of people, and urges us to join the group on the field in the stadium. After giving us a vague location, she disappears back into the fray.

 

Despite our bulging overnight bags, our group is waved right through the metal detectors at the stadium security check without question.

 

Entering the stadium, we are lost again. We are overwhelmed by the size of the place. It is no wonder that it costs over one million baht per day to rent out. Luckily, our confusion, or possibly our foreign appearances, attracts the attention of a protester who offers to show us the way.

 

We snake through the hallways of the stadium.  On the way to the field, we walk through an air-conditioned room where people with mats and blankets sleep.  The coolness of the room is quickly cut by bursts of hot air and booming noise as our guide pushes open the door to the field.

 

Suddenly engulfed in a sea of people, we become increasingly skeptical that we will ever find our clan. Cheering, shouts, and horns emanate from the crowd. The stadium is filled with speakers and jumbotrons.  We are bombarded with blinding lights and deafening noise. Speeches from Red Shirt leaders, politicians and other figures reverberate around the stands. The people shout, waving their noisemakers and banners in the air. The atmosphere is celebratory; communicating “We are RedShirts!”.

 

Feeling barraged, we step out onto the field.  We weave our way past sleeping villagers, careful to dodge the flailing arms of dancing protesters. By some miracle, after searching through the maze of people we find our clan.  Relieved, we set down our bags on their mats.  

 

Looking around, families of all sizes gather around wicker mats, the elderly members of the groups resting on their sides, or sleeping through the ruckus.  A few children sit on their fathers’ shoulders taking in the scene around them.  People in costume stand out in the crowds, dotting the infinite blanket of red; they wear golden vests, light up hats, wigs of all designs and colors, anything that will draw attention. 

 

Anxious to learn more about these people, we go back into the madness in search of answers. Our foreignness affords us the privilege to meander backstage. We are offered snacks while we wait to interview the current speaker, Sutin Klangsaeng, chairman of Mahasarakam Province United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship. As an organizer of the protests and a Red Shirt leader himself, Mr. Sutin can give us information about the inner workings of the protest. He explains that the costs are covered by donations from UDD leaders, members of parliament (MPs), businesspersons, and protesters themselves.

 

There are many organizers from each province, district, sub-district, and village, respectively.  People communicate through social media sites, and other mediums such as radio, TV etc. 

 

The process of getting people there is structured, but the schedule of the rest of night is chaotic. Yet and still, there is some kind of rhythm to it all.  After the backstage interview we are taken to the VIP bathroom.  Met with fans and air conditioners, western toilets, and enclosed showers, this is a luxury in relation to the public facilities.  Adjoining, a locker room where monks sleep on physical therapy tables.

 

Distancing ourselves from the sleepy lull of the locker room, we re-enter into the thick of all of the noise and excitement.  At this point, the speeches subside and are replaced with the calamity of a concert, provided by volunteered musicians. The loudness of the speakers pounds up through the earth, nothing but a thin layer of blanket or newspaper to separate bodies from the ground.

 

The next few hours are a jumbled mess as we slip in and out of consciousness. We often wake up to protesters’ dancing erratically around their slumbering counterparts. There is very little sleep to be had for us in the center of it all, but our clan seems perfectly comfortable. 

 

As one member, Ms. Pan, told us earlier that afternoon “We are easy living people, we can sleep and eat anywhere.”

 

Seemingly five minutes later we are awoken by blaring horns in close proximity, and the voices of our clan members yelling “go home”.  Bolting upright in fear of turmoil in Bangkok, we anxiously look around for signs of panic.  To our surprise, we are met, instead, with monks calmly walking group to group, collecting money.  We slowly gather our belongings and roll up our mats in preparation for the journey back home. 

 

We walk to the buses, reflecting.  All of the enthusiasm for democracy that was so prevalent the night before is now met with a strange stillness. It turns out that the night before, the Red Shirt leaders had decided to push for one huge protest the following Saturday. Our clan was ready to go home for a few nights and then return. So the duration of our trip went from perhaps many nights to a single one.

 

 Boarding the bus, we are all exhausted. As we roll down the seemingly infinite road back to Khon Kaen, we ask Ms. Pan whether the trip was worth it.

 

Without pause she responds, “I know it [might not seem] worth it, but I still have to try. It is better than not doing anything. I don’t want our next generation to have to fight for democracy.” 

  DSC_0773

Two days after our departure, the protest intensified.  Anti-government protesters began to attack buses carrying Red Shirts, injuring some passengers.  They also surrounded the stadium and street violence eventually broke out. Four were killed and dozens were injured.  The Red Shirts were quickly advised by leaders to evacuate the stadium and abandon the protest.