Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I've met nearly everybody on this trip.  I've met the French, English, Spanish, Estonians, and other random Europeans.  I've met people from Taiwan, Macau, South Korea, and so forth.  I've even met stateless people, like the Shans.  But today I'm going to write about one indivdual who isn't even human.  His name is Gershom, and he's a four month old Oriental kitten.

There are thousands of stray "Soi" cats and dogs here in Chiang Mai (Soi is Thai for alley, and strays are called Soi cats).  There aren't many animal shelters, and there aren't many laws regarding pet ownership.  So one day when I was walking out by an abandoned factory, I heard a meow.  I figured it was just another stray, but I called to it anyways.  Much to my surprise the little guy jumped into my arms.  Being the sucker I am, I couldn't put him down and walk off.  So I took him to my apartment.  Besides, it was real obvious that this cat was too little to be on his own.

Anybody who knows me knows I love animals.  My family has taken in numerous cats and dogs over the years.  I myself have rescued a number of strays.  Of the two cats I live with in my apartment in America, one I rescued from among the reeds by an abandoned one-room schoolhouse.  I named him Moses, cause it sounded appropreiate.  He needed a compaion, so I adopted a shelter cat, and to be funny named her Zipporah, the wife of Moses.  In the Bible, Gershom is the son of Moses and Zipporah, so it was only fitting.  And besides, he reminds me a lot of my two cats.

Thai cats are renowned throughout the world.  Everybody knows of the Siamese cat.  An Oriental cat is
like a Siamese, but it comes in more variety of colors.  Orientals are known for being very vocal, affectionate, demanding, and possessive of their owners.

Everyday when I came home, Gershom would yell at me with his loud, droning, "Meeeeeeeeeeeew."  Whenever I'd go to sleep, he was always by my head.  Though because he was young and teething, he'd always wake me up in the middle of the night by biting me non-stop.  He played with everything, and made a real mess of my apartment.

Sadly, I'm not able to take him to America.  My airplane doesn't allow animals under six months, and I don't have the money to pay to put him in quarantine.  So I gave him to my friend Pan, who in turn gave him to one of her workers who is a middle aged woman who lives alone.  Seeing how they both have feisty personalities, I have no doubt they've probably killed each other by now.

One of the possibilities I did find was one of the few animals sanctuaries in Chiang Mai.  It's run by a Western woman.  It seems like a neat place, and the woman there is trying to get laws passed that would protect animals.  I wish her nothing but the best.

While it was sad to see him go, it was fun having him for eleven nights.  I'm glad I was able to take a stray animal and give him a chance to live a better life.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Jim Thompson

Going off from my last two posts about Bangkok and America, I'd like to share with everybody the story of another great American.  This man is named Jim Thompson.

Jim Thompson is proof that the only stories that make the press in America are bad ones.  We like to talk about people who start wars and go about doing random acts of terrorism, but we never talk about people who do good things.  Jim Thompson is a great man who has been sadly forgotten by Americans.

When David and I arrived in Bangkok, on our map we saw a landmark marked, "Jim Thompson's House."  We both scratched our heads and wondered, "Um, who?"  So we had to check it out.

Jim Thompson was a former CIA opperative who was active in Thailand.  He fell in love with the country and later left the CIA and relocated permanetly to Bangkok.  At that time Thailand was very modernized, and many traditional customs had been nearly forgotten.  Of those were traditional Thai houses and the silk industry.  Jim Thompson successfully revived both of those traditions.

Jim Thompson was not only interested in Thai houses and the silk trade, but also was an avid collector of Thai art.  Today his house and art collection is maintained by the Jim Thompson Foundation.  He is a local legend for the Thai people.

Sadly, in 1967 Jim Thompson dissappeared in a trek in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.  Nobody knows what happened to him.  Some people think he died there, while others think he faked his death and went into hiding.  Jim Thompson is something of a Thai version of Elvis Pressley.

As Americans, we need to talk more about people like Jim Thompson.  We talk too much about the bad things, like all the nations we've conquered, and forget the good stuff.  I'm not saying we try to use the good stuff to cover up the bad, I'm just saying we need to look at things from a balanced perspective.  Seeing somebody like Jim Thompson makes me proud to be an American.  It shows that deep down we're not really about imperialism, but about kindness and friendship.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The American Post

So I wanted to do a post on the Fourth of July about America, but as it turned out I wasn't able to.  So instead of doing a late Fourth of July post, I decided to wait until another great American anniversary.  Today marks the 85th birthday of one of my favorite actors, Harry Dean Stanton.

Since movies are an art form invented by Americans, it's only fitting to look to an actor or actress as representing what America is all about.  Having appeared in over 100 movies and 50 television episodes, Harry Dean Stanton has done it all.  From portraying a hardened automobine repossessor in Alex Cox's Repo Man to a clean-cut police investigator in John Carpenter's Christine, and from a charismatic prophet of a fundamentalist Mormon sect in HBO's Big Love to a blind bankrobbing mole in the CGI film Rango, there's little this guy hasn't done.  His wide range of characters is a reflection of the diversity of the American people.  He's an Everyman, and shows that even the minor characters can play a big part in life--and there's nothing more American than that.  Mister Stanton is good friends with Bob Dylan, and he and Jack Nicholson once were roommates when both were young and struggling actors.  He's a genuine American in the finest sense.

Everywhere I go people are asking me all about America.  Almost always I tell them, "If you want to see a movie that truly captures the American spirit, go no further than Paris, Texas."  Which stars... well you know who.

In the movie, we see the main character, Travis, on a journey looking for his estranged wife and child, and ultimately his own identity.  It's something I can relate to out here in Thailand, because I too an on a journey of self-discovery.

One of the things I think about everyday out here is what does it mean to be American?  My buddy from England, David, told me that most of the Americans he's met talk about this vacuum in their lives, of not knowing what it means to be American.  We've been taught at a young age that America is a land of immigrants, and all are welcome.  We're taught that all the things we enjoy, like apple pie, automobiles, fireworks, and firearms, are all imported from somewhere else in the world.  (Hell, even my favorite movie was made by a German!)  We're told that what history we have is shallow compared to other countries, and worse yet it's not hard to look at our history and find that we were making life a lot more difficult for another group of people.

So something I've been thinking of almost everyday out here is what does it mean to be American, and how can I be proud of it?
Thailand is a great place to reflect upon American identity, because Thailand is America's oldest Asian ally.  For over 200 years the two countries have been friends.  In the early 18th century, King Rama III became increasingly concerned with the British and French colonialism in Southeast Asia.  He feared the day would come when they'd try to take Thailand.  So in order to keep Thailand free, the king decided he needed a powerful ally.  He reached out to the United States.

With our help, Thailand became one of the few nations in the world to successfully resist colonialism.  It's something that makes me real proud.  We didn't reach out to these people because we wanted their oil, we didn't reach out to them because we feared they had weapons of mass destruction, we didn't try to enslave them, and we didn't outsouce all our factories over there.  We recognized the value of the Thai people's plea to stand up as a soverign nation.  Again, it's not hard to look at U.S. history and find numerous things that are appalling--but here's one thing we got right!

As the old saying goes, we're our own worst critic.  We Americans don't give ourselves credit for the great things we've done in the world.  Everywhere I go people are telling me how great America is and how much they want to visit it.  People are always telling me about the time they went to New York, or how much they want to see Bob Dylan in concert, or how beautiful American women are.  In the eyes of the Thai people, America still is a magical fantasy land where everyday is like waking up in Disneyland and all your dreams can come true.

Sure, things are a complete mess right now.  Whether you're a conservative or a liberal, you're probably scratching you're head and wondering how we managed to mess up so badly.  Yes, things are real rough, but the good news is the fundamental values of American society, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are something that have inspired people halfway across the world, and so we should be proud of that.

The big problem from the way I see it is we've lost sight in what our country is all about.  We're too wrapped up in all the negative things and don't look at the good.  We take for granted the liberties that America was founded on--liberties that some people only wish they had.

So I say, be proud America!  We've given the world something great to believe in.  We only need to find the courage to believe in it ourselves.

Though while I'm trying to focus on the good things, there is one negative that needs to be changed.  Everywhere I go, the stereotype of Americans is that they're insular.  We're seen by many as the global leader, so it's truly appalling that less than 25% of U.S. citizens hold a passport.  Heck, I remember once going to a liquor store and trying to use my passport as I.D., and the woman behind the counter looked at me funny and asked, "What is this?"

We need to be more globally minded in America.  I'm ashamed that everywhere I go most people were starting to learn a second language in grade school, while I'm struggling to learn at 23.  We should be teaching our kids Chinese and Arabic beginning in kindergarten.

Every now and then I've been watching the news and hearing all about the debt ceiling debates.  I don't think people in America understand how much influence we have on the world.  Barack Obama and John Boehner are arguably the two most powerful politicians in the world, but do either of them think about how their policies are going to affect my Burmese friends who sell fried pork on the streetside until 4am?  Arguably all six billion (or however many it is now) people in the world are affected when we hold elections, but only a small sliver of those people get to vote--and even smaller actually do vote.

That all said, I'm looking forward to going back to America.  Being here has really helped me discover my identity as an American, and I'm looking forward to falling in love with America all over again.  I'm looking forward to studying all the great American works of art, everything from the movies of John Wayne to the novels of Thomas Pynchon and the music of Neil Young.  (Okay, so Neil Young is Canadian, but same difference!)

Before I head out on my next trip to Thailand in 2013 (Yes, I'm already telling people I'm coming back in two years.) I'm looking forward to taking the opportunity to explore more of America.

To tie everything altoghether, go see either Paris, Texas or Repo Man.  Go on, humor me!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Bangkok Post

The title needs an explanation, as probably nobody will catch the pun.  "The Bangkok Post" is a Thai newspaper printed in English that I purchase every now and then.  So I figured it was only fitting to have it as the blog title.

So on the Fourth of July, when Americans were celebrating Independence Day, I found myself in Pan's Kitchen eating lunch with noneother than an Englishman.  He said to me, "Happy Independence Day.  We didn't want you anyways."

Coincidentually, his name is David, which is my middle name, and his middle name is Charles, which is... well you know.  David just finished a year studying in Bejing and was heading down to Southeast Asia before heading back to England.  When we met, he said he was going to Bangkok, and I asked to tag along.  I said I could help him with the language.  So next thing I know I'm on a train to Bangkok.

I had never been there before, but I had heard stories.  Bangkok is glorified in movies such as "The Hangover II" as being some big and dangerous destination.  The reputation is about half right.  It was a surprise leaving Chiang Mai, where everybody is friendly and willing to help you out, to Bangkok where people were less friendly.

As soon as David and I got off the train, we became surrounded by people trying to sell us rides in taxis, people trying to sell t-shirts, food, and everything.  We made a joke about it after awhile.  We'd keep individual score as to how many times somebody tried to sell us a custom-made suit, a tattoo, or admission to a "ping pong show."

We did meet some really nice people.  Every morning David and I would eat street food from a vendor outside our guest house.  We'd get rice, a meat and vegetable curry, and a pork patty and sausage for close to a dollar.  I'd be able to practice my Thai with them, and they'd shower me with compliments.

One of the must-see places for me was the Royal Palace.  I told David, "I'm not leaving until I see it!"  As the King is one of my heroes, I had to see it.  Though the day we went there the palace was closed because the royal family and Prime Minister-Elect Yingluck Shinawatra were in there praying.  It was amazing to see a living piece of history and know history is still being made there today.  I felt honored.

And throughout the palace grounds there were all these elaborate paintings on the walls depicting battles with monsters.  I have no idea what they're about, but they sure caught my attention.  I can't grow tired of looking at them.

I especially love the last one.  The monster rises up and becomes the temple!  Salvador Dali would have loved these paintings.  As soon as I get back to America I'm going to do some deep research on Thai are and try to figure out what these are all about.

We used a lot of public transportation in Bangkok, but one we used the most were boats.  For about forty cents you can buy a boat ticket that'll take you either up or down the Chao Phraya River.  Every time the boat approached a dock there would be a guy blowing a loud whistle.  By the end David and I should have found a good audiologist.

Every night David and I would have deep talks about things ranging from politics, our countries, to books and movies.  David was the first person the whole trip that I met whose first language is English, so it was weird to be talking in English again.

By the end of our four days in Bangkok, David and I parted ways.  David headed out to Malaysia, and I headed back to Chiang Mai.  Hearing David talk all about Bejing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and London made me want to go visit them badly.  Hopefully when the times comes for me to go to either China or the U.K. he'll be around to give me a tour.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Khao Soi

Now doesn't that look delicious?  Noodles with yellow curry, pickled cabbage and shallots, with chicken and topped with pork rinds and lime.  Yum yum!

This is my absolute favorite lunch.  About once or twice a week I get it for a little under a dollar at my favorite restaurant.

Flashback to Sukhothai/mid June: I had just parted ways with my French frends and had gone back on the bus to Chiang Mai.  It's 3 in the afternoon and I'm hungry.  Back then I only knew the names of five or so Thai dishes, and those were all I ate because I was so determined to order my food in Thai.

So I walk into this restaurant and say, "Mee Khao Soi mai kap?" which means, "Do you have Khao Soi?"  The woman who runs the place says, "Khun phut Thai geng!" which means, "You speak Thai well!"  This is a standard reply from any Thai person to  foreigner who says a word or two in Thai.

Because nobody was there and because the restauranty owner is so extroverted she can't go two minutes without talking to somebody, she pulls up a chair and talks to me.  We speak in both Thai and English, and I go through the basics about who I am and where I'm from, and what I'm studying.  She told me her name is Pan, and she is fifty-two years old and divorced with one son about my age.  She's in the process of selling her home, car, and everything she owns to pay for her son to go to Australia and work on his Ph.D.

There are some people I meet that leave me thinking, "Watch out for this person!  They're going to have a big impact on your life!"  Pan was one of those people.  I left the restaurant and thanked her.  Next thing I know I'm back at my apartment complex and I bump into her.  Turns out we live in the same place!

So I go back the next day and ask if she has my favorite curry dish, Kaeng Matsaman.  As Kaeng Matsaman is a southern Thai dish and I'm stuck in northern Thailand, I've had no luck finding a place that serves it.  Though Pan, being the nice person she is (and wanting my money at the same time) she said, "Tommorow I make Kaeng Matsaman just for you!"

So anytime I want a certain Thai dish made, I go to her and she'll make it for me.  Being the nice guy I am, I let her keep the change.  After all, what's a dollar to someone like me?  But to someone like Pan, it means a whole lot.

Another important thing is that Pan is nearly fluent in English.  Every day at lunch I practice Thai and she practices English.  She's helped me out by letting me borrow a workbook she once used when she was teaching foreigners how to speak Thai.

I am grateful for Pan, becuse if it wasn't for her I have no idea how I would have come so far on learning Thai.  When I first met her I only knew a couple words and phrases, but now I've been able to have conversations (even if they're basic) with Thai people.  Not only that, but she's introduced me to some great food that I know I'll be cooking for friends in the future.

Just the other day I was at Pan's Kitchen and I told her, "I'm thinking of going to Bangkok soon."  As I'm sitting down and eating my Khao Soi, another forienger comes in.  He's by himself, so I said hello and invited him to my table.  His name is David.  Coincidentially David was heading out to Bangkok that afternoon.  So Pan comes over and says to me, "If you want to go to Bangkok, you go together."

And that's the beginning of the next jouney I'll talk about.  To be continued...

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Alright, so I said earlier I wouldn't talk about Thai politics--but I'm going to anyways.  I find the whole process so fascinating and I would like to share.

I'd like to start off by talking about which political candidate I support in the upcoming polls: Nobody.  I am neither for or against any candidate or party.  I don't live here in Thailand permanently, and therefore I don't feel I have a right to a political opinion.  I'm not the one who has to live with the benefits and consequences this upcoming election will bring.

It bothers me to no end how Americans (and people from other countries) have strong opinions on how another country should run things.  My belief is: Unless you live in that country and know the culture and language, you have no right to an opinion on how they operate.  It scares me to death how people will watch a thirty minute news program or read a five hundred word article and then think they know everything they need to know to make a serious judgment call that affects the lives of thousands.

That being said, back to the subject at hand:

When I first arrived here back in June, it didn't take long before I ran into a political sign.  All of Thailand is littered with them!  I knew going into this trip that it would be during the election.  I knew ahead of time about the two main parties and their candidates for prime minister, so it was little surprise to me.

A little bit of background: The incumbent prime minister is Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party.  On all the political signs around Thailand, Abhisit's all bear the number 10.  Here is a picture:

The woman with him is (I'm guessing) the parliamentry candidate.  As I've moved out of Chiang Mai and to other cities, I've noticed the woman on the poster changes to some other person.  The same is true for the political posters for Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister candidate for the Puea Thai Party.  Her posters are all red and all have a number one on them.  Her posters look like this:

This is the first time a woman has a serious chance at becoming prime minister.  It is interesting to note that from my district in Chiang Mai, both of the member of Parliament candidates are women.

Of the two major parties, both of them have another unique campaign method.  Each has trucks that drive around the city and blast out loud political speeches and pop songs.  I can only imagine what this would be like in America if Barack Obama or Newt Gingrich did the same thing.

There are a number of other candidates running, but much like Pat Buchannan in America, none of them have a serious chance.  There are at least 34 candidates total.

One of the minor candidates always makes me laugh.  He's a very irate looking fellow with a nasty scowl on his face complete with bulging eyes and a ferocious underbite and sweat dripping down his face.  One of my Thai friends says she's scared of him.  I don't know who he is, so I call him the Angry Guy.  Here is what his campaign posters look like:

I stumbled upon a political event for the Angry Guy and was quite surprised at what I saw.  In the middle of the mall there was a tarped off section and a white robot was on display.  People were throwing red and blue paint at the robot while a machine blared a political speech.  Everyone stopped and stared.  I have never seen anything like it.

There also is a very active "Vote No" (or "none of the above") campaign.  They have a number of posters depicting the main two political parties as monsters, wild beasts, and even the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.  They hold several concerts and events throughout the city.  Here is what their political posters look like:

On this last one, it is interesting to note who the two figures are.  On the right we have Abhisit, but on the left we have not Yingluck Shinawatra but Thaksin Shinawatra, her older brother.  Thaksin was Thailand's prime minister from 2001 to 2006.  He holds the title of being the one and only prime minister who was elected and served a full term.  He was ousted during his second term in a military coup and has been in exile ever since.  Many people feel that Yingluck is a stand-in for her popular yet controversial brother.

I think a "None of the Above" option is really needed in America.  It would certainly get more disillusioned people to vote, and when you have a recount election like in 2000 or in Minnesota in 2008 you don't have people's ballots being thrown out because they didn't fill in a circle for every office.

Things since the last coup have been rough.  Before I came to Thailand the first time in 2009, weeks before the airport in Bangkok was seized and shut down by a massive group of protesters.  Last year a group of protesters were attacked by armed soldiers leaving some 90 people dead.  Before I came back to Thailand, an attempted assassination was made on  member of parliament.

We see around the world in places like Thailand, the Middle East, Wisconsin, and many other places much political upheaval.  My theory is we're seeing a global political restructiring.  We're seeing old power systems being challenged from people all over the political spectrum.  What these old power systems will be replaced with, I don't know.  Whether it's for the good or the better, I don't know.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


American father's day and Thai father's day are two different days.  Thai father's day is on October 23, on the anniversary of the death of Chulalongkorn the Great--one of the most respected Thai kings.

So when I showed up to Talaat Romsak and said that today was father's day, Khun Mae said, "Ah!  Father in America birthday!"  Nope, not quite Khun Mae.  Fortunately the Japanese food stall behind us knew what I was trying to explain, and then I pulled out my gidt for Khun Pa: a bottle of Singha beer.

Singha beer is brewed by the Boon Rawd Brewery.  It is significant for many reasons.  Unlike many breweries in third world nations, Boon Rawd is not owned by a larger western corporation.  Boon Rawd is owned by Thais and their products are made affordable for Thai people.

This is especially significant since Boon Rawd also is one of the major distributors of bottled water throughout the country.  Much like the rest of the third world, the water that comes out of the faucet is far from safe to drink.

I remember back at United being at the presentation by the global justice group that went to Chiapas, Mexico, and they said there were many problems with Coca Cola controlling the bottled water market, forcing the people to pay huge prices or else drink the tap water.  I am glad to say this is far from the case in Thailand.

Thailand has a number of breweries and soft drink distributors that easily rival big western companies.  Coca Cola products are common, but are secondary to Thai products.  Pepsi barely has presence in the country.

In Thailand there are a number of western businesses--KFC, Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts, and more--that have come in and charge higher prices for their food.  Though while this is the case for food, on the beverage side western corporations don't stand a chance against Thai products.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Flower Child

As much as I love Thailand and think it's a beautiful place, it's also a real sad and lonely place.  I met a new friend named Sam, who is here with a group of other American Christians from the Washington State area.  We went out and visited the Naam Tok (a different one) and Sam was telling me about the work he's doing with the kids n the slums.

As we were driving, a boy came out with flowers in his hand and a sad expression on his face.  He walked up and down the middle of the bust highway intersection, and tried to sell his flowers to anybody--though nobody was buying.  Then Sam said, "I know that boy."

He explained to me and everyone that the boy ws forced to sell flowers all day long on the highway, and if he didn't maker enough money his parents would beat him senseless.  He told this story right when the boy came to our car, and tapped on the window.

I've never felt so powerless.  What was I to do?  Was I to ignore him, or was I to buy his flowers and legitimize the abuse his parents subject him to?  It seemed no matter what choice I made was wrong for the boy.

I've never known a life like that boy's.  Sad thing is most of the world lives in conditions similar to him and not to me.

I see the boy as a call to action.  He's the poser child for what's wrong in the world.  I'm not going to feel guilty that I was born in middle class America and he wasn't.  Instead I'm going to take full advantage of the privleges granted to me to help build a new world where children aren't beaten by their parents if they don't risk their lives to sell flowers on a highway.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sukhothai: The Dawn of Happiness

Parlez vous Francais?

I had always wanted to go see Sukhothai, the ancient capital of Thailand.  So I told Khun Mae, "I might go to Sukothai next week."  Of course, with my poor understanding of Thai, and her poor understanding of English, she understood it that going to Sukhothai was a done deal.  So before I had a chance to settle into Chiang Mai and my new apartment, I headed down to the bus station to buy a ticket five hours across the country.

I was traveling alone, but it wasn't long before I met some new friends.  The only other white people crammed into the bus were five French speaking people--two women and three men.  About halfway through I looked up at one of them and said, "Parlez vous Anglais?"  Which is all I know in French.  I struck up a simple conversation with them, nothing too serious.

Though when it came time to get off the bus, I was about to say my goodbye when one of the French guys, Elim, asked where I was staying.  I said, "I have no clue.  Where are you all staying?"  So I asked if I could tag along, and they were cool with it.

In one afternoon we managed to cram in seeing most of the ruins of the ancient Thai capital.  Seeing the ruins were just as great as when I went to Rome and saw the old forum.  My favorite by far was one of the smaller sites, an ancient Khmer temple with three towers.  My friend Elim, the cultured Frenchman he is, was able to name the architecture style and period off the top of his head.

Unlike many ancient Western historical sites, the ruins at Sukhothai still actively attract people for worship.  Being that was the case, I wore a nice longsleeve white Thai shirt and pants, which is typical temple formal wear.

Afterwards the guys and I sat around and we chatted while the girls got ready for dinner.  We talked about our countries.  It surprised me to see how friendly they were, considering the stereotype of French peope is some arrogant cultured snot.  They were from Lyon, and explained that Paris is what gives France a bad name.  As Elim put it, "There's Paris, and then everything else."

Much to my surprise, they had all been to America, and they all loved it.  They said Americans were great people.  Hearing them talk passionately about the shooting range, the steakhouse, Texas, Yosemite National Park--all the things we Americans take for granted or else dismiss as barbric--made me proud to be an American.  I'm happy to know that despite everything going on in the world people still look favorably upon America.

I asked about France's healthcare system, and whether or not they like it.  They said it's great.  I said I wished America was more like France, where we could have healthcare for everyone.  They said they wished France was more like America, where people could carry guns everywhere.

After talking with them, there's a part of me that misses America in a way I didn't expect.  I'm excited to go back and do some serious traveling inside America.  In today's world it's fasionable to think negatively.  Not many people see what's good in life anymore.  There's still so much greatness in America, and I'm looking forward to having a chance to experience it all over again.

They asked about stereotypes of French people, and I said, "Well, you're more cultured, you have better food, you dress better, but you can't fight your own wars."  They laughed.  I asked about American stereotypes, and they said, "Fat, rich people who carry guns everywhere and own three SUV's.  They shoot first and then think."  I laughed, and said, "Well hey, I bought my bus ticket to Sukhothai and didn't have a clue as to where I'd be sleeping.  That's shooting first and thinking later, right?"  We all laughed.

They talked about how much they love western movies.  I told them how my favorite movie of all time is a film called "Paris, Texas."  I explained how it's like the postmodern successor to the western genre.  I went on about how happy I was that a German film director, Wim Wenders, could so accuratley depict the beauty and bleakness of American life.

Seriously, go watch the movie.  It's probably the single greatest film depicting American life ever made.

And of course, I asked the big question, "So why are so many people in France not believers?"  My buddy Emil answered, and to paraphrase him, he said, "We fought a civil war over religion.  Religion opressed us.  It's not that we're not sipritual people, it's that the church brings back bad memories."

Translated, Sukhothai means, "The Dawn of Happiness."  I know now that the next few months will be filled with many happy memories, and I'll keep on meeting many wonderful people.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Naam Tok

Anyone who knows me well enough knows one of my favorite spots in southern Minnesota is Minneopa Falls.  It's a true treasure, and it saddens me that moire people don't know about it and that the waters are polluted.  When I went to Gustavus going to Minneopa was something that happened often in spring semester.  The spring was when the falls were at their peak, cause the snow had all melted and mixed with the fresh rainfall.  It was always a soul cleasing experience to be there.

So it's no surprise one of the first things I do in Chiang Mai is go seek out the Huey Kiaw waterfall, or "Naam Tok" as its said in Thai.  I had been there once before, but I figured with all the fresh monsoon rain the waterfall must be even more impressive.

Huey Kiaw Naam Tok is part of Doi Suthep, a huge mountain with a temple and many other cultural sites.  So no surprise, the trek up the road to the waterfall was filled with people hawking souviniers and sii law drivers trying to get me to pay them to take me to the mountain temple.  I remember saying to one sii law driver, "Mai aw krap," which means, "I don't want, thank you."  He laughed, and corrected my grammar.  What I should have said was, "Mai bai!"  One of the nice things about Thailand is you can disagree with somebody, or not want to buy something, and it's perfectly fine.  No hurt feelings!  They're still polite about it, and don't try to change your mind.

I remember the first time I was at Huey Kiaw Naam Tok it was filled with people all bathing and having fun in the sun.  That was a weekend in the dry season.  On a Thursday in the monsoon season, nearly nobody was around.  I was happy to have peace and quiet to pray and meditate, but sad there weren't more people to enjoy it.

I remember when I finally found a place to sit down, a Thai guy about my age looked up at me and said something.  I didn't know what he had said, so I went down closer.  He said to me, "Come share a beer with me."  So I sat down with him, and he took out a plastic cup, filled it with ice, and poured a glass of beer.

I wish I could remember his name.  What I do remember was he had long black hair with a few strands of gray in it, and wasn't much onder than myself.  He looked a lot like a Thai version of Steve How from Yes, and that made me happy.  We talked for quite awhile, going in between Thai and English.  We talked about school, how peaceful the waterfall was, about Bob Marley, and other things.

Up the waterfall were a bunch of guys in leater jackets and bandannas.  I had passed by them before, and said hello, and they said hello back.  After they left my friend explained to me they were gangsters.  They were the nicest gangsters I had ever met.

Then two of his friends came over.  One was a soldier, and the other was his girlfriend.  It still surprised me how somebody who looked so young could be a soldier.  The girlfriend commented on how small my face looked.  I hadn't heard that one before.

The Buddhists believe in Kharma.  As a Christian, I believe in a practical, not religious, version of Kharma.  If you're a good person, it's going to show.  We're attracted to people with similar facial features to our own.  I'd like to think my friend and I both saw the looks of kindness on our faces, and that's how we knew we'd get along so well.

Unfortunately, we all had to go our seprate ways.  So we had our goodbye, complete with a hug and a photograph, and then left.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Khun Mae le Khun Paa

I want to share a bit about two people I know over in Thailand that I love to no end.  They would be Khun Mae and Khun Paa, my host parents.  They took me in when I first lived in Thailand back in 2009.  They had no children of their own, so in many ways I came to realize that having me (and any other host students) staying with them was the closest they'd have to real children.

They don't speak much Enlgish, and I don't speak much Thai.  In 2009 communication was real rough.  But now I've worked on my Thai a bit and communication is much smoother.  It was funny, the other day I was having a talk with my Khun Mae and it dawned on me how strange it is that she asks me questions in English, and I answer in Thai.

In Thailand, English is something of a status symbol.  Generally the more English you speak means the higher up on the social ladder you are and the more money in your bank account.  In Thailand, a person majors in Enlgish if they want to make heaps of money.  In America, people major in Enlgish and wind up serving latte for life.  Something we take for granted is treated as Gold in another part of the world.

So it works out real well, because I'll help them with their English, and they'll help me with Thai.

I've never known two people who works as hard as Khun Paa and Khun Mae.  Both of them work at Chiang Mai University--Khun Paa in the library, Khun Mae cleaning the dorms--and then after work they have one hour until they go down to Talaat Romsak, a huge nightmarket where people serve all kinds of food.  They work at Talaat Romsak every night, and at the University six days a week.  When I was living with them in 2009, Khun Pa was spending his one day off taking classes for his Master's Degree.  So in reality, these people rarely get a day off.

They are members of the emerging Thai middle class.  They own a home, a car, a truck, a few motorcycles (everybody drives motorcycles in Chiang Mai) and a computer.

When I lived with them, the only time I really spent with them was at Talaat Romsak.  They would pay for whatever food I wanted, and they'd come visit me when business was slow.  The night always ended when Khun Paa ended work at 8 and drove me back to the house.

Now it's much the same--except that I'm paying for my food.  When I first showed up, Khun Mae said how much she missed me, and that she wanted me to come to Talaat Romsak for dinner everynight.  So far I've been pretty faithful.  The nights where I can't go I let her know and when I'll be back.  They enjoy having me there and showing me off to all the other merchants.

Just the other day Khun Paa introduced me to a new bad habit.  He brought over a cut up saugage and some chilli peppers, and he would eat one piece of the sausage and then eat a chilli pepper.  As both Khun Paa and Khun Mae know, I love spicy food.  So today one of the kitchen helpers and Khun Paa decided to give me plenty of sausage and dozens of peppers, just to see if I'd eat them.  I did, ands they kept piling up.  Khun Mae was not too impressed, and she said if I eat anymore I, "Go hospital.  I not visit you."  We all laughed.

Khun Mae has noticed a considerable change in my life since she last saw me.  She's noticed I'm a lot happier.  I'd agree.

The neat thing about it all is thaty they don't have any obligations to me anymore.  They don't need to feed me, they don't need to give me rides to my apartment, they don't need to even talk to me.  But they do, and they do it with love.  In many ways they are like real parents to me, and I hope they see me as a son.

The three of us.

A spicy pork soup Khun Mae made for me.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

One more thing!

One last thing I wanted to add that I forgot in my last post.  Much to my surprise the flight wasn't a trans-Pacific flight, but across the arctic circle to Moscow, Russia.  I didn't know this until I boarded the plane.  I thought, "Great!  Russia!"  Boy, being in thar airport was an experience.  Everybody would bump into you and not apologize.  Outside all of the stores were armed guards watching for thieves.  I felt like I was in a maxiumum security prison.


Greetings everyone from Chiang Mai!  The weather is hot, I'm sweating like a hog, but all is well--for the most part.

So the plane ride proved to be real colorful.  On the way down I met some shady characters. 
The first was a real-estate mogul from Minneapolis who was heading to Honduras, looking to find a place tio permanently settle, because as she saw it America is getting too expensive.  I didn't know whether to feel sorry for her or be upset, because while she talked passionatrely about how for forty years she paid into medicare and social security and now nmo longer believes it'll be availabe, yet she also seemed mostly interestedi n her own well-being and didn't give much to think about how she'd be living in luxury at the expense of the natives.

My next flight heading out from Houston was an adventure.  Next to me was a guy nicknamed "Joe."  Joe was the classic "talker" on airplanes and never could shut up for a minute.  But that was alright, as he was an art teacher and we had much to talk about.  Joe was heading out to the Phillipines to meet up with his mail-order-bride-to-be.  He went on and on about how her family mostly hates her, and didn't seem to know the reason why.  Oddly enough, the other guy next to me (which I never got his name) was also going to the Phillipines, to also go meet up with his mail-order-bride.

In Thailand, the term "Farang" is used to describe foregners.  Usually it is a degogatory term--llowed by a few colorful metaphors.  So on the flight I was forced to associate myself with Farang, and while I appreciated their company, in the back of my head I kept saying, "Lord, please don't let the Thai people think I'm no different from these people."  It was a classic tax collector and the Pharasee conversation.

When I finally arrived, what an adventure!  The sii law (a red truck that drives you everywhere) couldn't find my apartment, and so I happened to meet somebody who offered to give me a ride.  When we made it to the apartment, he told me, "This place is too expensive, why don't you come see where I live?"  So naturally, I went.

Boy, what a world of a difference!  My new friend--Jakkie--lived in wooden hut with windows dut-taped at the seams, no air conditioning, no bedding, and covered in mold.  The place was 1,500 Baht (about forty-five dollars) a month.  While at first I thought, "What an adventure!)

Then by the time I tried to sleep, I had different thoughts.  Jakkie warned me the place had a mosquito problem and that the local restaurant played loud traditional Thai music until real late at night.  By 9pm I decided, "I can't do this!"  And so I took my stuff and hauled it through nighttime Chiang Mai to a hotel.  If I had done that in any other city I probably would have been mugged and found half alive in an alley the next morning.

Before the night was over, as a last-ditch effort, I decided to go find my Thai host parents.  These two people, Punnee--Khun Mae--and Wichai--Khun Paa--took me in when I lived in Thailand the first time.  Well, things got off to a bad start when the present I got for them--these pomegranate coated pretzels I love to no end--melted in the plane.  I thought, "Great!  I'm now going to look like an ungrateful son!"  I walked down through Chiang Mai University campus to Talaat Romsak where they have their night market with a plan thatr I'd offer 3,ooo Baht per month.

I had eaten at Talaat Romsak every night for every day I lived in Thailand.  The routine was always the same.  Khun Mae brought out the food, and kept bringing more and more out even when I said, "Im leew!" (Not hungry.)  So I came hungry.  Much to my surprise, nothing had changed.  Everything was exactly the same.  Even the people who worked there that I knew were still there.  It's great to know that while so much has changed in my life the past two years that there was one small remote spot in my life that Time didn't mess with.

Khun Paa was the first to greet me, followed by Khun Mae.  Khun Mae saw me and said, "Chang uan!"  Which means literally, Charles fat.  Thai people are more direct than Americans, and while nobody else bothered to comment on the fact my pre-Thailand binge of Buffalo Wild Wings, Popeye's Chicken, and all the other American junk food that I'd be missing out on for three months, was catching up to me, Khun Mae did.  Then she proceeded to make fun of the fact that things with my lasty girlfriend had gone down the sewer drain.  And then when it came time to ask if I could have a place to stay, well she burst out laughing.  I looked to the people at the table next to me--who spoke English and Thai and were helping negotiate the deal--and asked, "I just got dissed big time, didn't I?"  That's my Khun Mae!

I woke up the next morning and left the hotel to try and find an apartment.  Even on a Satuday morning, the offices for all the apartments by the university were open.  I looked at a number of them, but didn't quite like them.  They were all in the 5,000 to 8,500 Baht range, and I thought, "Heck, the apartment I originally booked only cost 6,500 baht a month, and it has a pool!"  So needless to say, that's where I went.

But then when all was said and done and I signed the paperwork (and anyone who knows me knows how much dread paperwork conjures up in me) the woman at the feont desk said, "There are no bedsheets.  You can rent them from us for 500 baht a month."  Now, in America where a milkshake costs five bucks that kind of price for bedsheets would be reasonable, but in a country where I can get lunch of chicken and lime leaf stirt fry for only fifteen baht, I'm not happy.  So I politely said, "I will look around," when in reality I was thinking,  "No way!  Five hundred baht!"

So I headed off to the mall.  Part of the mall has a traditional Thai market, and I met a woman selling beautiful cloththing, and I saw two shirts I really, really liked.  Combined they were six-hundred and forty baht.  In Thailand you can barter with sellers, though if it's a western-style store you can't.  So I wasn't sure, being the woman was in the mall and all.  So I said, "Thaaw ray haa roy bahtmai?"  (This cost five hundred baht?)  The woman's face lit up, and then she said to me, "Hok roy baht, (six hundred baht).  So the deal was done.

Then when I found the store where the bedsheets were sold, I couldn't believe the price!  6,ooo baht for the most basic sheets!  It didn't make sense to me that bedsheets would cost as much as to rent my apartment for one month.  I was left thinking, "What kind of country is this?  I can go to the doctor for six bucks, I can barter down a beautiful silk shirt to about four, but bedsheets cost a whalloping!"  And of course all the western style blackberry phones and iBooks cost way more than what most of the rural poor make in a couple years.  And we think the gap between the rich and the poor is bad in America.

And this is a special occasion, as I've made it back to the printshop I always went to back in 2009 to use a computer with Internet.  The woman who runs the place was still there, and I wasn't sure if she recognised me or not.  Oh well, she'll recognise me when I come in once or twice a week to write in this blog.

Now I'm back off to my apartment.  I'm going to put on one of my nice new Thai shirts and head off to Talaat Romsak, hopefully to get a free meal and convince Khun Mae to take me shopping to find some bedsheets.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Before I Go

I don't think anyone out there knows what a weird week it's been.  With finals over and only eight days until I go on my great adventure, things in the here and now don't feel normal.  Mentally I've checked out and I'm already overseas, but physically I'm still in America.

Around April I remember sitting down to eat some larb I cooked (find recipe here ) and then I imagined myself eating the food in the middle of a crowded night market lined with vendors selling everything from silk scarves to fried fish cakes, and customers clogging up the street and trying to avoid the motorcycles that would honk and cut through traffic.  Sounds and scents I had all but forgotten returned to me.  I realized, "Gee, this is really going to happen––and really soon!"

Now about once every hour I have such an episode.  Though now it's becoming more focused.  Instead of random moments I'm thinking of that first week when I get off the plane, find my apartment, and spend a few days settling in before beginning my work in the prison.  I'm already planning out a weekend trip to Sukothai from June 10th through the 12th.

As for the here and now, I've been spending the week saying goodbye to peeps.  Everybody wants to see me once before I leave, and regrettably I can't get to see everyone.  So for those who I failed to see once more, I'm sorry.

There were so many people and so much i wanted to do before I left, but that won't happen now.  Other than not seeing more peeps one last time, my other big regret is I never finished a novel I began writing last March.  I was hoping to get the thing done, but there are only so many hours in a day.  It'll have to sit at 200 some pages unfinished for at least three months.

Monday, May 16, 2011

In the beginning...


So I'm finally getting around to making this thing.  After telling so many people, "You'll need to follow me on my blog!" I decided it was best to actually sit down and create the thing!  So here it is, in all it's glory...

The Back Story:

For those who don't know, I'm Charles.  Back in 2008 I was just like any ordinary college student, and then I found myself wanting to go study abroad for a semester.  To make a long story short, I wanted to go to Italy, but the Italian Embassy fudged up my paperwork, and despite admitting it was completely their fault decided not to give me a visa.  Wanting to salvage my hopes of going overseas, I went down to the Gustavus Adophus study abroad office and asked what my options were.  Basically, I was told, "Well Charles, you can either stay here in Minnesota in the bitter cold, or you can go to Thailand."

So needless to say I took the prize behind door number two.  If only someone had told me what I had signed up for.

Before Thailand, I thought I had everything in life all mapped out.  I was an art history major, and I had this vision that I'd study abroad in Europe, go get advanced degrees in European art history, and ultimately stay in school for so long that one day they'd pay me to get up in front of the class and teach.  It seemed like a brilliant plan––until Thailand.

I spent a good amount of time over in Thailand thinking, "Great!  Now who is going to want to accept me to grad school to study European art?"  It upset me thinking my career could have been over before it had a chance to get off the runway.

Then something wonderful happened.  Part of the study abroad program was an internship component.  Of the options––AIDS orphanage, rural village Bible school, Buddhist temple––I choose the juvenile prison.  Why?  Well, two reasons.  For one, I had done a number of summer art programs for youth, and I thought, "Heck, how different can teaching kids in jail be?"  And second, I thought it would be something I could look back and laugh at.

But then when I went to the prison and saw the looks on the kids faces, and heard their stories, and saw how they lived, it moved my heart in a way nothing had before.  I met eight year olds who were locked away for drugs and theft.  There's nobody alive today that can convince me an eight year old chooses that kind of life out of his own free will.  The way I understood it, while yes the boys had done some awful things, in many cases they were set up for failure.  I went into that prison in the beginning wishing I were anywhere else, but when I left I wished I were nowhere else but there.

And that was when I felt the call to ministry.  I hadn't really been too religious growing up, so it was a surprise to me.  But spending time with those boys and realizing there are many millions more––children and adult––in my own country who need somebody like me.  When I came back from Thailand, I knew what I had to do.  I had to answer God's call; I had to go to seminary.

In the Present:

I'll never forget orientation day at seminary, where in front of all the faculty, staff, and everyone in the incoming junior class, I said my goal was to somehow go back to Thailand and to the prison where I felt the call to ministry.  I sat back down thinking I had just set myself up for failure.  I had no clue where the money would come from.  But with the help of scholarships to pay for all my first-year tuition, shelling out what little savings I had, working my tail off at the local community center, a generous donation from a church in northern Minnesota, it all magically came together.  I still don't believe that somehow I was able to come up for the money to pay for this thing.  I'm surprised I don't have churches and state governments calling me asking for help fixing their budgets!

So in two weeks of writing this I'm about to spend eighty-five days in Southeast Asia, with the bulk of it in Thailand, but also some short excursions to Laos and Cambodia.  I'm going all by myself.  I'm looking forward to all the adventures I'll be having, and all the great people who are about to become my friends.

What's With the Name?

I figure someone will ask me that soon, so I'm taking care of it now.  Thailand has two seasons: the dry season and the rainy season.  The first time I went was during the dry season, and now I'm about to get the opposite.  While the rainy season will surely bring some difficulties, I'm really looking forward to it.  Not many tourists come to Thailand during the rainy season, so I'm excited to see Thailand without its guard up.  It'll be like how after six months a new couple begins to get more relaxed and comfortable, and each person doesn't try as hard to impress the other.  The whole time I was there in 2009 I couldn't help but feel Thailand was putting its best face forward cause everyone knew tourists were everywhere.  I'm looking forward to seeing the real, authentic Thailand that the Thai people see.

So about the name.  Back in August of 2010 I was at a Jon Anderson of Yes solo concert.  After the show I was in the bathroom, and had some trouble getting the automatic sink to work.  The guy next to me pointed and said, "Where the raindrops are."  Sure enough, I put my hands under the drops of water and out came fresh rushing water.  I liked the way those four words sounded, and so I wrote them down.  I at first thought maybe I'd write a novel with that title, but then when I decided I was going to create this blog, I thought, "Hey!  I got a great idea for a name!"

The Purpose of this Blog:

I'm writing all of this as a way to keep in contact with others back in America, and to reflect on my own experience.  It's also a place where I can still communicate in English.  As I found out my first time around, you never know the value of the English language until you meet people who can't speak a word of it.  There's a chance I might go the whole summer without a conversation in English.

I never thought I'd ever make one of these things.  I'm not much of one for technology or social media.  I know too many people who live their lives in front of a computer screen.  Nonetheless, computers and tech are useful tools.  Though I hope this blog can be used as a supplement to face-to-face communication, and not a replacement of.  I look forward to going back to America and having discussions about Thailand in person.

A Note of Caution:

Be respectful.  Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, and the Thai people love their King and royal family.  Failure to be kind when talking about the King and his family can result in imprisonment up to fifteen years.  Please, for my sake, refrain from any disrespectful comments about the monarchy.

This summer will be a delicate time for Thailand as national elections will be held.  While I am sure I'll see much political activity, you will find little posted here.  This is an issue that involves Thai people, and I'm leaving it at that.  If asked questions, I will not answer.  If you really want to know what is going on, you can look at the news.  The news can probably tell you more than I can anyways.