I am studying for the semester in Khon Kaen, a small city in the northeast of Thailand . The course focuses on the human perspective on development and the environment. Over the next few months I will learn about development and environmental issues within a human rights framework through a combination of classroom discussions and practical, hands-on experience; involving several homestays in various communities throughout Thailand. Today is the 30th, the program formally started on the 21st and I have not had a free moment. The program said it would be intense and so far my days have been divided by intensive Thai Language immersion and cultural orientation.
After meeting the 26 other students in Bangkok we spent a couple nights getting oriented and then took off to a resort in Isaan (Northeast) for 5 days of Thai class and various other orientation activities. The resort was small, rustic, and situated on the banks of a picturesque river, complete with waterfalls and tributaries. In the morning we would start with 4 hours of language, a short break for lunch, and then the rest of the day was spent prepping the courses and attempting to teach us the do's and donts of thai culture. Various discussions were also scheduled during the meals where we would talk about readings that were assigned, the themes of which frequently revolved around globalization as well as education. These readings were a little lengthy and we had very little free time as it was. The group however is quite strong and motivated, we all want to be here and are enjoying the challenging material and demanding hours.
The Thai classes are extremely challenging. For 4 hours everyday we are not allowed to speak any english, even to ask a question. I am really enjoying the classes, I can say my name, where I am from and a few other simple phrases and questions. I am proud of the little Thai I know because it does not come easy. The language is tonal and difficult to pronounce correctly, "ma" can mean mother, dog, or cat depending the intonation.
After 5 days in the mountains we headed to Nong Jahn a small community based in a national park for the first of many home-stays. The people of this community are subsistence farmers and live nearly entirely off the forest and the animals and vegetables they raise or grow. We had the privilege of staying with these people for 2 days and a night and learn about their community and the challenges of such a society. Various laws passed by the Thai government have subjected these people to various evictions and restrictive laws over the past 60 years. They have been forced to leave, allowed to return, then restricted from hunting on the land, evicted again and finally allowed to return. The laws are designed to protect the land, but the people of Nong Jahn have little to no impact on the land they live their simple yet full lives on. The little electricity they use comes from solar panels and all their water is collected rain. We were split into pairs and assigned a family to spend the night. My friend Jon and I were assigned to a family of about 5 members. Their house was of simple construction, bamboo on stilts with a thatch roof. A covered porch on the front was the dining room and the guest room. When Jon and I both arrived at our house it was late in the afternoon, Thailand is hot and I was very sweaty, my "Paw" looked at us, then pointed to some large buckets of water off to the side of the house and said "Ab naam" (bathe). It is common for Thais to bathe quite frequently, it is HOT and even they find the heat oppresive at times. We had received a brief oral lesson in this fact and how we were to bathe in the Thai fashion. The custom is to don nothing but a sarong wrapped around your waiste, then dump the cold water over us with a small bucket, lather, and rinse. I now prefer this method of bathing, it feels great in the afternoon and wakes you right up in the morhing.
I felt a little awkward just because of the language barrier but our family like most Thai people were very warm and just laughed along with us. After our Ab naam I felt amazing, we dressed and then were taken to the towns simple gathering hall for dinner and a discussion. Dinner was delicious and spicy, we all sat on the floor in rows, the room was illuminated by long thin candles stuck securely to the floor with hot wax. After dinner we had the opportunity to speak to the community members with Ajaan John (Teacher John) as our interpreter. We asked questions regarding their social structure, their struggle for land rights, health and educational issues. It was inspiring and enlightening, I wish I could have spent more time with these people, they seem so happy and I really respect their lifestyle. Their lives are simple but far from easy, they work all day farming and maintaining the village. Also their children are beautiful and so well behaved. I believe its because their senses are not constantly assaulted by tv and pop culture, they dont have the need to be constantly entertained. We all had a great time playing with them, chasing after them and picking them up. My little sister Mew was about 8 years old and perfect. Before the town meeting we ran around and played together, but as soon as the meeting started she sat obediently in my lap and fell asleep. Having worked with many children at that age range in the States I can appreciate how well-behaved she and the rest of her friends are.
After the meeting we went back to our small house and settled under a mosquito net suspended in the porch where we slept for the night. It was only 9pm, and still very hot, but I fell asleep promptly and slept greatl. Language barriers can be exhausting, and so is sweating all day.
In the morning my family served us sticky rice and some spicy chicken with green beans. I still maintain that this was the best meal I have had in Thailand. After we ate our host father took us to the local Wat or temple. Some of the group had arrived before us and had offered alms to the monks in the morning. I had wanted to do this but it was difficult to express this desire to my host father for obvious language related reasons. But I still got to see the Wat and the monks so all was not lost. After that it was time to pack up and leave for Khon Kaen. I said goodbye to my host family and tried to pantimime that I would like to come back and see them soon.
The ride was only about an hour and a half long. We had an orientation and then recieved our keys and met our roommates. My roommates name is Oak and he speaks very little english. I had requested a roommate that didn't speak much english thinking that it would force me to learn more Thai. As a result my roommate and I just don't communicate that much, but we seem to like each other and get along pretty well despite the language barrier. Hes very easy to get along with and plus I wont be around too often this semester. I am here for 2 more days and then I leave for another homestay.