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.