February 22, 2003 - Personal Web Page: Peter O'Brien began a two-year Peace-Corps assignment in January, 2002
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February 22, 2003 - Personal Web Page: Peter O'Brien began a two-year Peace-Corps assignment in January, 2002
Peter O'Brien began a two-year Peace-Corps assignment in January, 2002
Peter O'Brien began a two-year Peace-Corps assignment in January, 2002
Peter's Home Page
(Parked at Barnum of the North website)
Updated Friday, January 03, 2003
Peter O'Brien began a two-year
Peace-Corps assignment in January, 2002.
Click on any picture or link below.
Before the trip
Anan Chem-Chan with his Thai Family
(Anan Chem-Chan has been known by some as Peter O'Brien in certain parts of the western hemisphere.)
Maps of Thailand
December 7, 2002
Thanksgiving, Conferences, etc.
October 28, 2002 - Part 3
The Naga Fireball Festival
October 28, 2002 - Part 2
The Ride from Cha-Am to Naung Kai
October 28, 2002 - Part 1
October 7, 2002
After the Flood
September 21, 2002
More on the Flooding
August 26, 2002
My House has Flooded! Flooding and the Thai Response
August 1, 2002
Emergency Care in Thailand -- A first hand report
July 10, 2002
More about my work
June 30, 2002 Email and Pictures
Globalization and Culture
June 9, 2002 Trip to Chiang Rai
May 19, 2002
Email and Pictures
Citizen Scouts Camp
Album -- May 16
Album contains Citizen Scouts training and "Tamboon" making food offerings to the Monks
May 5, 2002
Email and pictures
Phetchabun -- first week
Album -- May 5
Album contains pictures of Phetchabun
April 27, 2002
April 24, 2002 Email and Pictures
Birthday, Goodbye to Singburi, Bangkok
Album -- April 19, 2002 Album contains pre-service training, home stay family activities, goodbye parties, Bangkok
April 13, 2002
Email and pictures
Last week in Singburi! Major Thai Holiday
Album -- April 11, 2002 Album contains training, vacation and home
Album -- April 4, 2002 Album contains home and teacher practice training
March 30, 2002 Loose ends
March 28, 2002 From Laurie (Peter's sister)
You better Belize it!
Album -- March 27, 2002 Album contains pictures of home, site visit to Phetchabun, a kindergarten graduation and the ambassador to Thailand.
March 28, 2002 Email with Pictures
March 23, 2002 Site visit completed
March 16, 2002 A little more on my family
March 12, 2002 From former Peace Corps
volunteer to Peter
March 10, 2002 Biking & Cave Monastery
Album -- March 10, 2002 Album contains Monk ordination, dancing, parties, tours, and more.
March 6, 2002 From Peter's aunt
to his mom expressing
appreciation for his writing
March 5, 2002 Ayutthaya
February 24, 2002 Can't send from home
February 24, 2002 The monkeys in
Thailand aren't Bhuddist
February 12, 2002 Site Visit
February 5, 2002 start filling out the
Peace Corps paperwork
Album -- February 3, 2002
Album contains pre-Service Training in Thailand
January 31, 2002 Send Away
Album -- January 28, 2002 Album contains staging (preparing for Thailand)
January 27, 2002 I think I've died
and gone to heaven
January 24, 2002 (Before departure)
Web links of possible interest:
http://www.evickerman.com (A Peace Corps Volunteer in the North East of Thailand)
http://www.khaokorhighland.com (The Khao Kaw mountain range that surrounds the capital of Petchabun)
http://www.nakornban.com (The Web site for the city of Petchabun--it's in Thai, however)
Peter O'Brien's mailing address:
Muang Phetchabun Municipality
This page was last updated on Friday, January 03, 2003
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Peter in Thailand
Email From Peter
December 7, 2002
Subject: Conferences, Thanksgiving, etc.
From: "Peter O'Brien" <email@example.com>
Sent: Saturday, December 07, 2002 12:31 AM
Subject: Group email
WRAP-UP OF THE LAST MONTH: CONFERENCES, THANKSGIVING, ETC.
Looking back over my journal it would appear that it has been over a month since I have written anything! The pace of life here has really picked up in the last few months and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down until around the end of January.maybe.
I just returned from about two weeks in Bangkok. One for a medical check-up/All Volunteer Conference, and the other for a workshop geared toward producing a new English language handbook for teachers. One brave PCV has taken it upon herself to produce a teacher's manual/English curriculum for the entire country. It will be complete with pre-made materials, handouts, lesson plans, and a video to guide the teacher through the method of teaching. She started her project over a year ago and has enlisted the help of a team of other PCV's who serve as editors, curriculum writers, a design team, etc. Most recently, she has gotten the support of the Thai Ministry of Education which is funding a series of week-long workshops where PCV's and Thai educators meet together to write a cohesive English language curriculum (with lesson plans) that follows the national benchmarks and is student-centered.
Rebecca and I had both just returned late in the evening from doing an English camp in the mountains with a local secondary school when we got a phone call telling us we needed to be on a bus to Bangkok the next morning. A fax from the National Ministry of Education had arrived at our offices while we were absent, requesting our presence at this workshop. We were both exhausted and a little irked at the short notice. Still, we sucked it up, got a little sleep, packed our bags and jumped on the bus. The whole next week we found ourselves at a beautiful resort an hour outside of Bangkok, locked up in a room writing lesson plans for this teacher's manual. It was like finals week in college all over again. By the end of the week our brains were completely fried and we all ended up having to take work home (that's what I'll be doing this weekend after I finish this entry).
Following the curriculum workshop, we had a much needed week to relax and play in Bangkok. Technically, we were there for our six-month medical check-up and for a PCV planned "All Volunteer Conference." But there seemed to be an awful lot of free time worked into the schedule. I used it to get to know the city a little better in preparation for my parent's visit in January. I want to make sure the trip goes smoothly and that we get good fares on everything, so I went around checking out the sites and prices for tourist attractions. I also got a chance to see the new Harry Potter-a must see, and to go out to dinner at an all-vegetarian Japanese Restaurant-I was in heaven. The "All Volunteer Conference" included a talk by a representative of Amnesty International, a showcase of Volunteer work at site, a talk on the history of Bangkok through the eyes of foreigners in the last 100 years, and a presentation by a woman from a Hill Tribe in the far north of Thailand, and a discussion on "Peace" and what it has to do with the Peace Corps led by the current Country Director. It was really refreshing to get a larger picture on my work here, and to see what some other Volunteers are doing at site.
Thanksgiving fell on the first day of the conference and we all celebrated it at the Peace Corps Country
Director's house. Our guest of honor was the current U.S. Ambassador to Thailand who is a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Thailand. He served in one of the first groups here, working as an English teacher in a school close to Bangkok. He has fond memories of his service in the Peace Corps and thus keeps in rather close touch with us. We had our official PCV "swearing-in" ceremony at his house in
April and he has invited us to Thanksgiving at his house next year. The weather was too hot for it to feel like Thanksgiving, but the company was wonderful and the food delicious. The highlight of the evening was our "talent show." One woman shared a "slide show" presentation on the history of her area, which she is working on with her students-awesome! We had a handful of singers, a couple comedians taking their
crack at some of the idiosyncrasies in Thai culture, and then..an open mic. We ran our of talent but had plenty of night left to burn! For the next hour people pushed each other onto the stage to make impromptu comments or to sing some random song that had some special meaning for them. There was an incredible feeling of family in the air as people in our group shared their lives with us and opened themselves up to us. One Volunteer told us about how in her family, on Thanksgiving they always listened to "Alice's Restaurant" in the car on the way to dinner. She struggled to remember the story and we encouraged
her with cheers and laughs, followed by a whole group sing-a-long to what we could all remember of the song "Alice's Restaurant." I can't think of a better way to spend a Thanksgiving away from home, family, and country.
After our conference I dragged five PCV friends back to my site with me to help put on an English Camp at the primary school I work at. The school put us all up in a hotel room for the two nights that we were all there together and threw a special dinner party for us complete with a traditional Thai music and dance performance put on by the students at the school. My friends in Petchaboon definitely know how to welcome guests, bowling over my PCV friends with their hospitality and friendliness. We, the PCVs could not escape the party without at least one Madonna song, a little Thai dancing (or our best imitation of it), and a round of Karaoke in Thai (thank goodness for my new DVD player-I've been practicing at my house in self-defence).
THE KING'S BIRTHDAY
A couple days ago the Thais celebrated the King's Birthday. The King remains to be probably the most
powerful figure in Thailand in terms of holding the country together morally and spiritually. He is revered and adored by the Thais. Technically, if I understand the government structure of Thailand correctly, it is not the King but the Prime Minister and Parliament that controls the direction of the country. The Thais have a government structure similar to England's. The King, however, holds the respect of the people of the country, so when he makes a suggestion on the direction the country should go in, people listen. He also uses his wealth and power to fund hundreds of different development projects to move the country forward. I too am in awe when I hear about the things the King does.
This year the King celebrated his 75th(?) birthday. In commemoration of the day, all government workers
wore their best uniforms during the day, marched in a parade in the evening, and participated in a candle-lighting ceremony for the King. Across the nation, everyone lit their candles and sang the King's song (a song in reverence to the King) at exactly the same time: 7pm. It is amazing to see the devotion the Thai people have to their King and the special way with which they handle any subject dealing with royalty. There is actually a whole different language for speaking about the King and his family. The King does not "gin kao" (eat rice) like the rest of the country, he "sawoei" (dines?). The King does not "bai" (go) somewhere, he "sa-det" (?). The King does not "naun laap" (sleep), but "?-can't remember." The words for relationships in the royal family are all different (e.g. brother, sister, aunt, cousin) which may be similar to Duke, Baron, Prince, Princess, etc. Either way, I often wonder what the effects are on the culture and psychology of the people, having this whole different way of addressing and speaking about the royal family. Absolutely fascinating!
Oh, Petchaboon did one more thing in commemoration of the King's birthday (of course there's a special word the King's birthday too, you can't say "wan geurt" (birthday) and you can't say you "cha-lawng" (celebrate it either). Tessaban 1 school (the primary school) had set up a giant outdoor kickboxing "muiy Thai" stadium and as the main event the governor of the province took on a former kickboxing champion.
The evening began (after the candle lighting ceremony) with really young six and seven year olds punching each other out and towards the end included former international kick-boxing champions duking it out in a demonstration match. These guys being in their 60's, it was all in good fun and play and there were no real serious punches or kicks thrown. The governor of this province was at one time an internationally ranked kickboxer, which was a surprise to me and seeing him in the ring made for some great entertainment for the evening. For those of you Californians, can you see Gray Davis getting in the ring to take on Mike Tyson or Hollifield?!
SERIOUS BUDDHISTS IN THAILAND
I was asked recently if I had met any serious practicing Buddhists since being to Thailand and what that looks like. I've talked about religion before, but perhaps never really gone that deeply into the personal beliefs and practices of individuals. It's a big subject to tackle, so I will just give my personal observations as an intro to the topic and keep adding to it as new things come. From what I can tell, there are all about as many different sects of Buddhism as there are of Christianity, but there doesn't seem to be that much in-fighting amongst them. Depending on your level of commitment, there seems to always be a place for you. On one end of the scale you see monks hanging out in shopping malls, riding on the back of motorcycles, handling money, and smoking cigarettes. Granted, many of these monks are probably just every day males doing their month or two in the wat to earn merit for their parents, but it certainly makes the religion look awfully loose and relaxed. On the other end of the scale you have monks who don't touch money, walk everywhere (and barefoot I might add), do not sit or lie down on anything soft (they sleep on a straw mat on a wooden floor), and eat a strict vegan diet. There are monks who live in the forest, some who wander the country on their own, and others who live smack in the middle of cities.
I've talked to students who had to do a one-week retreat of complete silence at a monastery as part of their major. I've talked to people who meditate religiously every day and give food to the monks on an almost daily basis. I've also talked to people who have no interest in talking about the subject whatsoever. I have yet to meet anyone, however, who does not use at least some Buddhist language in trying to make sense of their daily experience. There's a lot of talk about reincarnation and a sense that I am where I am because of what I've done before and that we are all on different levels. If I want to upgrade myself, then I need to do good now, rather than be jealous of what someone else has achieved. This, I think, is a very healthy concept, because it puts the responsibility on the individual to live a good life in order to progress in life, rather than wasting time comparing lots all the time and complaining about injustice and the rich. This is of course still present in Thai culture, but not to the same extent as in the States.
I am asked often by Thais what I think about the concept of reincarnation. We all ask ourselves questions about what happens after death, the Thais just come at it from a different angle. It is obvious many people are searching for answers, wondering whether to believe the teachings of the Buddha or not. The Buddha taught that we each have to take responsibility for ourselves and our own salvation. We each have to discover truth for ourselves and that we must test the truth of his words through our own experience. This is kind of refreshing as it leaves each person to mind his own business and lead his life as he sees fit, without the judgment of others. Thais seem to be very non-judgmental when it comes to evaluating who is a good Buddhist and who a bad Buddhist. They don't seem to pay attention to who spends more time at the wat, who meditates and who doesn't, how much money one person gives vs. another, etc. It frees people to live their lives according to their convictions and personal experience rather than some prescribed formula handed down from some ancient book.
I see less preaching and proselytizing here.okay, I haven't seen any at all, actually. When people are describing a new acquaintance to me they don't say he's a really good Buddhist or a bad Buddhist; instead
they say "he has a good habits-or ways of living-and she has bad habits." Religion doesn't even seem to
enter into it. It's very down to earth. Of course there is plenty of corruption and blind faith in the Buddhism I have encountered here in Thailand, just like in any other religion in any other place on Earth. There are also a lot of deeply religious people, however, striving to work out their salvation, the mystery of life. Just being here, observing and being a part of this different orientation towards life, I feel like my sense of the universe, of what is, is expanding. I am grateful to be here, to share in the lives of the people here in my community and all over Thailand. It is without a doubt changing the way I see myself and the world around me-more on that another time though.
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Peter in Thailand
Email From Peter
October 28, 2002
Part 1 - Bangkok, Cha-Am
Subject Pete #24- Pt. 1: Bangkok, Cha-Am
Date Mon, 28 Oct 2002 06:05:19 -0800 (PST)
From "Peter O'Brien" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I've been home for three days now after two weeks plus on the road. I'm in the middle of the "catching up and settling back in" process right now. There's a pile of mail on my desk, letters to write, projects with teachers that were put on hold while I was gone, a stack of papers, pamphlets, books, etc. to look over, and general personal business to attend to (bills, cleaning house, shopping for necessities, etc.). Very disappointing to discover that after traveling halfway around the world and into a developing country, bills, mail, and all the other busy-ness of daily life is still very much a reality of daily life. Still, it feels good to be back in my own home and back to work.
INTERNET CONFERENCE IN BANGKOK
The first stop on my wild tour of Thailand was the all-too-frequented Bangkok. A workshop on integrating computers into the classroom was being held at King Mongkut's University. The workshop was sponsored by Richard Boyum, the Regional English Language Officer for SE Asia, stationed at the United States Embassy in Bangkok. The Peace Corps Country Director put me in touch with Richard at the end of training and we have been communicating off and on for some time now about how he might be able to help me out. Attending this workshop was supposed to help me and the other attending teachers understand a particular online resource where teachers and students work together across borders to produce a wide assortment of different "projects."
The workshop went exceptionally slow because the web pages we were trying to access downloaded over the course of many minutes rather than seconds. As I'm already taking an online course on how to use the program they were presenting, I felt like a lot of the information was old news and review for me. Still, it was nice to see King Mongkut's University and meet the various teachers working on this project. Richard has selected 30 teachers from about 10 top-notch schools in the Bangkok area to start piloting this program. My school is considered the "wild card" in the bunch as it is out of the central Thailand region and the teaching staff is not of the same caliber as these Bangkok folks. Give me a few months and I'll give an update on whether or not I was able to make use of the material from this conference or not. At this point there are too many factors and variables to know what will come out on the other end.
A LOOK AT LIFE IN THE FOREIGN SERVICE
Over the course of the conference, I had the opportunity to get to know Richard Boyum a little better. On the final day of the conference he threw a little celebration party at his house. As I was looking for a place to stay for the next couple nights, Richard offered to put me up. He lives in a beautiful condominium in the heart of Bangkok. Being with Richard for those few days was a really nice opportunity to open my eyes to the possibilities of working overseas and what the lifestyle is like. Before becoming the Regional English Language Officer, Richard served as a PCV in Senegal where he taught EFL. His time in the Peace Corps inspired him to pursue EFL/ESL* as a career and he went on to get his Master's degree in the subject. After receiving his degree he went on to work at the University level before taking the U.S. Foreign Service test. Passing the test, Richard has had the opportunity to work in Washington, D.C., Egypt, and now all over South-East Asia (Laos, Burma, Cambodia, Nepal, etc.).
Richard told all kinds of fun adventure stories about getting privileged tours of rarely seen places in Egypt and South-East Asia and he showed me his photo album from his Peace Corps days. He has his own maid and cook (on request only), and the condominium comes fully equipped with exercise gym, trainer, herbal sauna, herbal steam room, hot tub, pool, etc. When I email Richard he always
*EFL=English as a foreign language/ESL=English as a second language
seems to be on his way out of the country for a conference in Vietnam or Laos, etc. Very soon he will be taking some vacation time in Australia with his live-in partner of many years. I couldn't help but be a little awed and inspired by some of this. Definitely a very adventurous and exotic life. Is it for me? I haven't decided yet, but it's really neat to see and think of the possibilities!
DISAPPOINTED BY THE VEGGIE FESTIVAL IN BANGKOK
While I was in Bangkok, the annual Vegetarian Festival was in full swing. It's a ten-day festival that is Chinese in origin, if I'm not mistaken. People are supposed to swear off meat and any food ingredients that have strong effects on the body (garlic, onions, coffee, tea, etc.) for ten days. Based in a particular sect of Buddhism-again, this is if I understand correctly-it is a sort of spiritual/bodily cleansing ritual. The first few day of the festival I was still in Petchabun, and was excitedly going all around town looking for the best vegetarian food. I spent some time helping in the kitchen and the main veggie restaurant in town, and frequented the two Chinese Culture and Society Centers in town, where they were observing the festival. Overall I was pretty disappointed with everything I saw. It seemed to me that there were only about ten or fifteen different dishes that were cycling through, and most of them were cooked in way too much oil. I thought going to Bangkok would be much better, as there is a huge Chinatown there.
The day before the computer conference started I raced down to Bangkok to check out the offerings in Chinatown. I made it to Bangkok around 4:00 p.m., checked into the hotel and headed off to Chinatown for dinner. That evening I strolled down the main drag of Chinatown, and on a subsequent evening checked out all the back alleys, determined to find some new exciting dishes. People had been telling me about this festival for months, so I was full of anticipation. Indeed, Chinatown and much of Bangkok was rife with little yellow "Jay" flags signaling the observance of the Vegetarian Festival. The food, however, was lacking in originality and overflowing in oil and grease. Everything seemed to be comprised of either flour or tofu and was deep-fried. I was thinking people would be "eating their veggies" for a change and really trying to be "pure." Instead, it seemed everyone was substituting sugary-but meatless-sweets and fried goods for all the "impure" meat products they usually ate. It seemed to me that many had lost sight of the purpose, which was quite disappointing.
I'm not certain what I will do next year, when the festival rolls around again, but I do know that I won't be making any plans to head off to Bangkok.
PEACE CORPS CONFERENCE ON THE BEACH (CHA-AM, PETCHABURI)
After the conference in Bangkok and my two days' stay with Richard Boyum, I was off to the South of Thailand for a Peace Corps conference. This conference was for all new volunteers and was meant to be an opportunity or us to get some more language instruction, learn some new skills (grant-writing), and to check -in with our progress to date. Most volunteers in my group are feeling pretty good about their work at site, so saw this conference as a much needed "R&R" trip. It was nice to see all my friends from training, and to see a little bit of the beach (my first time to the beach since I've been to Thailand).
I devoured the language sessions and enjoyed catching up with our instructors from training in Singburi. Trying not to stereotype and over-generalize too much, these [instructors] are much different from most Thais I interact with daily. They are all very well educated and worldly, as most of them have had significant experience working with foreigners. They have high ideals, values, and a vision for the world. I have met with different levels of these things among my friends and acquaintances in Petchabun, but this young group of Thai language teachers were all solidly committed and aware. A very refreshing experience! I think what most impressed me was that they still seemed to be able to understand and preserve their Thai-ness. The way they joked, the way they cared for each other, and their manners, were all definitely Thai. It was a nice fusion of the best things of all cultures. Being with them was a good model for what international interaction should be.
Our hotel was located just off the beach, and like most beach towns, there was a main road that ran along the coastline, where all kinds of vendors were selling their wares to tourists. The majority of the people in Cha-Am were Thai. I've been told the foreign scene lies a little further down the coastline at Hua Hin. As a result, the atmosphere was more distinctly Thai than Western, but still had a definite tourist trap, beach bum feel to it. We were told to be careful about getting in the water, as there are many jellyfish this time of year. Sure enough, on several different walks along the beach, I came across hundreds of them washed ashore or being tossed around in the waves. I was not about to ruin my beach time by getting stung by a jellyfish so I retreated to higher ground. The Thais, on the other hand, were either much braver or more ignorant than I. They could be soon riding the famous "banana boats" up and down the coastline-giant banana-shaped inflatable rafts that are towed by a jet ski for a mere 1,000 baht per half hour ($25). Other Thais who weren't willing to risk getting into the water could be scene relaxing underneath beach umbrellas, snacking on various seafood delectables, or taking a horseback ride on the beach (remind me to talk about the cowboy scene in Thailand some time).
One evening, a friend and I rented bikes and went for a ride out to a little peninsula. We ran into some other friends who had rented horses with the same intent. When we had reached our destination, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the whole city off in the distance and all lit up (the sun was just setting). Meanwhile, right in front of us the ocean tides rushed in and crashed against the shoreline. A very peaceful and pleasant evening, and definitely one of the highlights of my time in Cha-Am.
I'm trying to think of a possible beach in the States where it is possible to get the same degree of service as I found here in Cha-Am. For lunch one day we decided to eat on the beach. We rented beach chairs and umbrellas (already set up and ready for us), and a woman from one of the nearby restaurants came to take our order. Obviously, she specialized in seafood and I quickly discovered veggies were virtually non-existent in her kitchen (does sea urchin count as a veggie?). After debating for some time with this woman and explaining that three out four of her customers would be eating vegetarian she said she would go in search for vegetables from a friends' restaurant (I love how the Thais team up and share to help each other like this!). As we sat waiting for our food, maybe a dozen different salespeople came by with their yokes and baskets, bearing freshly cut fruits, freshly caught sea food, hand-woven silks, souvenir items, various dessert items, freshly bottled coffee and orange juice-the farmer came in person to represent and give samples of his product, etc. We didn't have to go to the market, the market came to us! Tell me where in the States you can find this level of service and convenience? Everything we could possibly want came right to our table without us having to lift a finger!
AEROBICS ON THE BEACH
I think I've mentioned before that Thais have started to catch on to the aerobics craze. In the evenings, in most major towns, you can see aerobics instructors pounding out their dance routines to the rhythm of Thai-style discotheque music. They hold their classes at schools, park facilities, and in the case of Cha-Am, on a giant cement court overlooking the ocean. What a setting! The instructor was perched atop a small bandstand, nestled between two giant crates filled with speakers. She was sporting some very sleek and colorful aerobo-wear, and was of course shouting out instructions to her charges through her little headset mike.
I brought my running shoes and exercise outfit with me, fully intending to keep up my exercise routine while out of town, so it didn't take much convincing on the part of my friends to haul me out to the aerobics court. The class was free (I think the city must pay the instructor) and there must have been well over a hundred attendants-mostly women in their 30s to 40s. We originally found out about the class through some of our language Ajahns, who presumably attend aerobics classes on a fairly regular basis. I went with three other PCV friends-one other guy (Shawn) and two girls. The only other "fahrang" (foreigner) in attendance was a 55+ German guy who had married a Thai and settled down in Cha-Am.
After the session, the aerobics instructor asked all present to sign their names so she could show the city what kind of attendance she had. When our group reached the front of the line, we were asked the usual 20 questions of where are you from, why are you here, etc. by the instructor. She was delighted to discover that we spoke Thai and actually asked Shawn if he would be willing to lead the next day's session. Shawn apparently helps teach aerobics at his site and has a long background in hip-hop and street dancing, so he jumped at the opportunity to get on stage and show off some of his moves. I couldn't help being a little amused by how this kind of stuff always ends up happening when PCV's are around.
As promised, we showed up for the next evening's session and about 15 minutes into the workout the leader explained she was about to hand over the stage to a special visiting dancer from America. Shawn hopped up on the stage and politely "wai"-ed and "sawatdee"'d all in attendance and quickly explained he was a Peace Corps Volunteer and that he lived in the North-East. He started off slowly, but by the end of the session had these 30 and 40-year-old women doing some real wild moves right off of the latest Britney Spears dance video (Okay, so I haven't Britney's latest video but if I did I'll bet they'd be in there. Only in Thailand and only with Peace Corps Volunteers-what a sight! I hope our language Ajahns were not too embarrassed...
To be continued...
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Peter in Thailand
Email From Peter
October 28, 2002
Part 2 - The Ride From Cha-Am to Naung Kai
Peter #24 Pt. 2
THE RIDE FROM CHA-AM TO NAUNG KAI
Right after the conference in Cha-Am was over I grabbed my bags and headed for Bangkok. Paw Aw Boonrasi (my supervisor) and Pi Jane (an English teacher/co-worker) had invited me to meet them in the province of Naung Kai for a special festival. Naung Kai lies in the Northeastern region of Thailand known as E-Saan and borders Laos. Every year they have a giant festival that is based upon some mysterious natural phenomenon (more explanation to come later). The festival is quite famous and attracts hordes of people from all over Thailand.
It only started dawning on me as I was leaving the hotel, that I might have some serious difficulty getting a ticket to get up there.
For the sake of expediency, I took a taxi with two other PCV's racing to get home (Rebecca from Lomsak and another gal named Sara). Split between the three of us it ended up being only a little more expensive than the bus. Out taxi driver was quite an amazing man. He was well-educated and had owned his own car dealership before the economic crisis of the early 90's hit and his business crashed. After his business fell apart, his wife decided he would not be able to support her financially anymore, so she left him. This man now lives alone with his little daughter, but still is not bitter about the whole affair (his wife apparently remarried not long after leaving him). At one point he had put himself through night school in the hopes of becoming a teacher. He had a short career as a soldier early on also. I couldn't help but admire his attitude and determination to come out on top no matter what.
As we talked along the way, the taxi driver made one interesting comment, in particular, that I want to pass along. As a taxi driver, he drives a lot of "fahrang" (foreigners) around. He uses this as an opportunity to practice and improve his English-assuming the foreigners are willing to talk to him. He has been continually surprised to find how many of his foreign passengers are simple laborers back in their home country. How is it, he asks, that people of the same economic level (or lower) than myself are able to travel all the way to my country, sightsee, tour, and live like kings, while I can't even afford the plane ticket to travel, let alone the cost of living and traveling overseas. It doesn't seem fair, he felt. Encounters and conversations like this serve as constant reminders to me of how privileged we are to live in the "developed" world. Being in the midst of it and comparing ourselves to those around us, rather than those of other countries, makes it difficult to get a sense of perspective about what we do have.
As we started getting close to Bangkok the traffic got really bad, and what should have been a two-hour ride turned into a four-hour ride. It was a Saturday and the coming Monday and Tuesday were apparently government holidays. As a result, everyone was trying to go home to see their families. Remember that most people in Bangkok are not from Bangkok, but from some other province. They come to Bangkok as representatives for their families to earn money and take it back home. Whenever they have a chance they go home to breathe in the much more pleasant and homely atmosphere of the countryside lying outside the concrete and asphalt jungle that is Bangkok.
The taxi driver dropped us off at the Southern Bus terminal where we were picked up by Pi Holden, a friend of Rebecca's from her site. Despite his American surname (he actually got the name from an Australian auto manufacturing company) Pi Holden is 100% Thai and is a representative for the "jahngwat" (province) of Petchabun (kind of like a Senator or Congressman, I gather). He threw our bags into his BMW and took Sara to her bus stop. After dropping her off, we tried getting me to the major bus station going to the North. Wow, was that a disaster! It should have been a short few kilometers, but because of traffic we must have been sitting in the car for a good two hours. Once at the bus station we saw people in the parking lot camping out on the lawn--cars swamped the lot, and people moved around the outside terminals like hordes of ants.
The place was so packed we could barely get into the main building. People were sitting on the floor waiting for their bus to leave, others were standing in endless lines trying to buy the last remaining tickets to their destination. I have NEVER seen that bus station so busy! I tried buying a ticket to Naung Kai but every bus company in the entire place was completely sold out. I tried the next closest province, hoping I could get a transfer from there-sold out. Things were looking grim for our hero... I almost just threw my hands up at that point and decided not to go. Partly, I was afraid that there would be so much traffic on the roads that I would never make my destination. And...even if I did make my destination, would there indeed be another bus to take me the rest of the way to Naung Kai. Would it even be possible to get into Naung Kai, or would all the roads be jammed?
As I was going over all this in my head, Pi Holden had taken the initiative to sweet talk one of the ticket-vending ladies, resulting in a "special" opening on a bus going to a "jahngwat" reasonably close to Naung Kai. It would mean that I would have to sit in the seat the bus stewardess usually sits in, and it would still be full price, but, it was better than nothing. I had to decide immediately as the bus was apparently on its way out the gates as we were talking. The lady wasn't lying. I bought the ticket and we raced for the terminal, only to find the bus backing out and the stewardess on the bus refusing to even look at my ticket. "Sorry! The bus is full. You can't get on! Bye!" Pi Holden worked a few more miracles in the next few minutes, desperately talking to some new ticket agents. They agreed to change my ticket and slip me onto yet another overloaded bus. At the time I wasn't really sure if I should thank Holden or curse him for what he was getting me into.
When the bus pulled in they loaded all the regular ticket passengers first, and then looked for anything remaining for me. It was a double-decker bus, with all the passengers riding upstairs and the luggage, stewardesses and bus drivers occupying the downstairs. There were four other Thais all in a similar predicament to myself and we found ourselves seated on two benches with an inch or two of foam cushioning on them. Ordinarily, this was supposed to serve as a cot for the stewardess to rest on. There were no windows downstairs to speak of, making the little cabin frighteningly resemble a prison cell. I thought I was in for a really rough 12-hour ride to my destination-especially considering the traffic around Bangkok and the bus terminal.
I had not had a chance to get anything for dinner and my stomach was grumbling. Pi Holden had managed to pick up a little bag of cut fruit and a sticky-rice dessert for me somewhere between buying the ticket and getting on the bus. I wolfed down the food, awkwardly avoiding the eye contact of the other passengers downstairs. I was too hungry to want to share and was feeling guilty for it. About halfway through my mad feasting, my hunger began to subside sufficiently for me to muster the will to offer up my goodies to the others. I felt relieved when no one took me up on the offer, and returned to my munching feeling gratified that I had at least made the gesture of a willingness to share. It is particularly Thai to share everything-especially food-and also for Thai to eat anything, anywhere, any time, day or not. Thus, I was a little surprised when no one took me up on my offer. Maybe they saw the look of hunger in my eyes and took pity on me, or maybe they were afraid to take food from a foreigner-who knows.
A couple hours into the bus ride the lights went off and I managed to curl up in such a way that I and the other man sharing the cot with me could both lie down and sleep. With no backrest other than the wall, lying down felt much better than sitting up and I was ready for some sleep. And sleep I did! I managed to sleep almost the entire way to "jahngwat" Udon Thani, my destination. I woke up with a smile of refreshment and relief upon discovering that we were close to arrival, I was not hungry, the traffic had not backed up, and I had managed to sleep most of the way there. I called Paw Aw Boonrasi from my cell phone to let her know where I was and she said she wanted to come pick me up herself rather than waiting for me to get a bus transfer. Sure enough, we arrived at the bus station in Udon Thani at almost exactly the same time, and a seamless transfer was made to Naung Kai. Pi Jane's husband was driving the car and he was acting as host for this trip. After dropping me off at the guest-house to get some rest, the Thai crew took off for a day-trip to Laos. They had wanted me to go but I was not able to get government clearance in time. I'm sure there will be another opportunity and it was nice to be quiet after the last twenty-four hours of racing around.
To be continued...
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Peter in Thailand
Email From Peter
October 28, 2002
Part 3 - The Naga Fireball Festival
Peter #24 Pt. 3
THE NAGA FIREBALL FESTIVAL
(The historic folk tale)
There is a Thai movie out right now called "Fifteen nights, month eleven"-directly translated. It is a dramatized version of the festival that I had come to see in Naung Kai-who knows, maybe it will hit the foreign theater houses in the States...? Long ago there were these mysterious half-dragon/half-snake beings living in the Mekong river. They were basically considered to be gods of some sort and had their own kingdom at the bottom of the river. Traditionally, the local Thais would make offerings to the gods in order that the gods would bless their crops with rain and keep the land fertile. However, one year the Buddha himself came to the region and caused a stir. At this point the Buddha was still one or two reincarnations short of actually being the Buddha, but he was noticeably holy and the people of the region were awed and inspired by him. That year they chose to make their offerings to him instead of to the gods, which made the gods very angry. They devastated the land with seven years of drought and people had nothing to eat.
In the seventh year, the Nagas, who were caretakers of man on earth, could not bear to see the gods above torture the people on Earth anymore and decided to take action. They flew up into the heavens and waged war with the gods, only to lose the battle and be sentenced back to the Earth. However, as a reward for their bravery and love for man, the gods changed the shape of the Nagas, giving them a red crown/mane around their heads and special powers. Since that day, on the fifteenth evening of the eleventh month of the Buddhist calendar (this is the day that marks the end of the Buddhist Lent), the Nagas spew fireballs into the air and towards the heavens in some sort of commemoration of the battle long ago.
(Theories-what it seems to be)
To this day no one can quite explain the phenomenon. Almost every year, without fail, what looks like fireballs, do indeed shoot out of the water and into the air. These fireballs glow but do not look like they are actually on or made of fire. They rise up at such a pace that they can't have been shot out of a cannon and disappear as they rise into the skies, not showing any signs of a descent. There are all kinds of theories floating around to explain the phenomenon but no one as yet has been able to prove or disprove the legend. Most of the locals are convinced that the legend is 100% true and this is indeed a natural phenomenon or the Nagas themselves. Some believe gas under the river floats to the surface and somehow ignites, shooting fireballs into the air. After seeing these "fireballs," I'm not really sure who or what to believe.
It had taken us two hours of fighting our way through traffic to get to a site where it would be possible to see the fireballs. A kind local had invited us to join him on his picnic mat on the edge of the river. We sat there with thousands of other Thais, waiting for it to get dark and for the fireballs to come. I couldn't help but be reminded of our own Fourth of July celebrations, people come from all over, having tailgate picnics, barbecues, etc. and in the evening everyone gathering together to wait for darkness and the fireworks.
Around six in the evening, the sun finally went down and a strong breeze picked up, throwing dust into everyone's eyes. Dark thunderclouds loomed ominously overhead. Impatient kids were shooting off bottle rockets and locals were launching their own man-made Naga fireballs which were very much like little hot air balloons. Then, not more than ten minutes after the appointed time of six o'clock, we heard screams and people scrambling to their feet to catch a glimpse of the first fireballs. On the opposite bank of the river, way downstream, I saw a series of about ten reddish-orangish globes/balls rise up into the sky. They reached about 25-30 degrees above the horizon before disappearing into the darkness. Were they a trick with lights? They almost didn't look real to me. There was another roar of excitement in the crowds and everyone turned their heads in the opposite direction to catch another set of fireballs, rising up out of nowhere and disappearing into nothingness.
By this time a few big drops of rain had started falling and everyone could tell a huge downpour was impending. There was a lot of nervous energy in the air as people strained to make the decision to retreat back to their cars, or to try to stick it out through the rain. Many people in attendance, like me, had probably driven for ten plus hours to catch sight of this mysterious phenomenon, and we were all a little hesitant to so quickly abandon ship. Nevertheless, I did have a cell phone and two cameras on me, and Pi Jane had her video camera and digital camera, which none of us wanted to see get wet. Thus, we picked up our things quickly and headed for shelter. It ended up being the best decision as the rains picked up strength. Honestly, I had been much more impressed with all the stories and theoretical hype than I was by actually seeing the fireballs; so, when Pi Jane asked if we were ready to start heading back for our guest house, I did not hesitate to respond in the
THAI LOGIC EXAMINED THROUGH THE LENS OF TRAFFIC
I think we were all a little hopeful that if we left the festival early we would avoid the traffic. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. It took us a good half-hour just to creep out to the main highway and once we reached the highway we were all overwhelmed by the scene: Four lanes of traffic on a two lane road all jammed in solid. After sitting still for half an hour we started thinking that maybe there must be an accident ahead. We told jokes and tried to keep the mood light and happy, especially since no one had eaten anything for dinner and it was now creeping up on 8pm.
Finally, Pi Jane's husband got out of the car and went to find out what was going on. It turned out there was no accident, but that there were too many cars going in the wrong direction and it caused a traffic block-up. Thais' view of driving is a little more organic than ours. It seems to be: if you can drive on it, then do it. On the way into the festival there was very little oncoming traffic, as everyone was going to go see the festival. As a result, many drivers who were not willing to put up with the slow-moving standard lane, decided to use the shoulder and the opposite lane of traffic to get ahead. Any opposing traffic had to use the shoulder on their side of the road to avoid being hit by the cars that were illegally entering their lane. It was a disaster, which eventually resulted in a complete block-up.
I was not all that bothered by the possibility that I might be stuck in the car overnight, and I was not bothered by the fact that I was again very hungry, but what I was bothered by was the Thais' lack of order in their traffic system. The police officers were trying desperately to get at least one lane of traffic flowing freely, but as soon as they managed to get all the cars in a single lane going the same direction, another car going the opposite direction would try to pull into the newly opened lane so he could speed ahead and get home sooner. At least in traffic jam situations in the States we keep to our lanes and when we do change lanes it is into another legitimate lane. The Thais were anywhere and everywhere and in any direction too. People were backing up, parked sideways-it was a nightmare!
Finally, after about three hours of almost a complete dead standstill, we started moving a little bit. We started feeling hopeful and good until we hit a crossroads and were forced to take a detour because there was a royal procession of cars up ahead and normal citizens were not allowed to get too close. The police had us taking some wild detour, but they had not prepared any directional signs for how to get back to our guesthouse in the "Amphur Muang" (capital) of Naung Kai.
We weren't the only ones in that situation. A few kilometers up the road, we ran into a bunch of cars pulled off to the side of the road, everyone scratching their heads and trying to find someone who could point them in the right direction. We too pulled over and asked around. It continued like this for about two or three more hours, with us losing the way and then asking for directions, being followed by a caravan of other drivers who were equally confused, and hoping whoever was in front knew where they were going. We drove through little dirt roads in the "Moo Baans" (villages) and very narrow two lanes with nothing but rice fields around. The adventure finally came to an end around 1 or 2 am, six hours or more since our departure from the festival.
AN EXPERIMENT IN DATING
I've had a number of questions about the dating scene here in Thailand and so I am going to relay a recent little story to give you a sense of how things work here. There's a very attractive young woman whom I met at the vegetarian restaurant. I think she's a couple years older than I. I run into her at the restaurant about once every other week or so and we have a meal together. When the big "dunk the monk" (Oom Pra Dam Naam) Festival was on in Petchabun, we sort of mutually decided to go check it out together on one of the five evenings it was on. It was set up along a couple of the main roads, with tons of booths selling everything from candy and treats, fresh fruit, and hand made goods to cheap junk electronics, plastic storage devices, and rip-off clothing. There were a few carnival rides, and booths with carnival games like dart throwing, bingo, and air gun races.
I felt everyone's eyes on me as I walked down the street with my friend, Pi Joom. I ran into a couple of acquaintances from school and introduced them to Pi Joom. Of course I felt a little awkward already, knowing that the older generation, as a whole, does not approve of the idea of dating. I kind of looked at this evening as a little experiment in what the boundaries are for me in terms of dating-how would the people of Petchabun react? I wanted to know how quickly news of my "date" would travel and what people would say about it.
My results returned very quickly, at first in the form of little questions and teasing about who my new girlfriend was, and finally in the form of Paw Aw Boonrasi (my supervisor) asking why everyone was claiming they had seen me with "some woman" at the festival. Paw Aw Boonrasi couldn't believe that I would do such a thing, but I quickly told her that the allegations were correct. I still haven't gotten a really straight answer from her on what she thought about it all. I do know she's afraid that if I date someone here everyone will be jealous of that woman and will not be interested in taking care of me anymore because they'll think it's the job of my "girlfriend."
I don't know who's right and who's wrong, but I do know that I felt exceptionally awkward walking around town with Pi Joom and that was enough to make me not want to repeat the experience again. I've heard of a number of Thai women who have married Thai men and to this day they still won't walk together with their husbands in public for fear of all the judgmental looks they would get. Although this is not nearly as bad as women having to walk around covered completely in sheets and unable to even speak to men, it still is a little too much on the conservative side for me. Is there wisdom in artificially creating a barrier between men and women? It's been an interesting issue to consider, as I can see both methods working side by side here in Thailand. In the cities the youth are very loose and have values very similar to their peers in the States, whereas out in the "Moo Baan"'s and among older people there is still a very traditional and conservative view of marriage and dating.
This past weekend Rebecca threw a Halloween party at her house and invited all interested PCV's to come. It went on for about two days and was a nice chance to catch up with my PCV friends. Among other subjects covered was the marriage relationship in Thailand. It seems all too normal and accepted-really, almost expected-that Thai men will go and visit whore houses, bringing all kinds of STD's back to their poor innocent wives. Many of us feel this is a result of the distance that is forced between men and women. They are not allowed to interact naturally and get to know one another. Thus, marriage is for economic reasons and perhaps when people marry they do not know each other very well. This makes finding satisfaction in marriage very hard, I would imagine, encouraging both husband and wife to search outside the marriage for a sense of completeness. The men turn to drinking and prostitutes and the women to groups of friends and social activities. Again, this is a generalization with plenty of contradictions that I've observed, but it is not without a measure of truth in it.
Rebecca broke her Halloween party into two sessions: one for her students and one for the PCV's. In the afternoon on Saturday she entertained a houseful of Thai kids with the egg toss, limbo, breaking open a pißata, and all kinds of other Western games. Also, with the help of those PCV's who showed up early, and some of her adult Thai friends (e.g. Pi Holden) they created a little haunted room and had kids go through it. For the adults, we had apple bobbing and a pißata. She had plenty of other fun activities planned but they got derailed by all of us just wanting to hang out and goof around. About ten of us all crashed at Rebecca's house and had a nice breakfast and lunch together. My PCV friends are really starting to feel like family. It's really special. I had planned on having a much more solitary experience in the Peace Corps, but I think I like this a whole lot better! This Thursday I go to another Halloween party in "jahngwat" Loei. We will have a Halloween party on Thursday and then go hiking in a national park (located in Loei) from Friday through Sunday. Fun!!!
...I don't know if I've really "worked" a single day this month...hmmm...In a country where life is much more organic and lines are rarely drawn between play and work, home and the office, it's hard to measure or decide what you REALLY are doing and if that's enough...or what you SHOULD be doing. This weekend at the party a PCV reminded us all of something the current Peace Corps director of Thailand had said about working in this country: "If you're the kind of Peace Corps Volunteer that rates your accomplishments in terms of bridges built, wells dug, and new schools built...you better go home now because this country isn't for you..." ....More on that another time....
Wishing all of you my very best,
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Planning to tour the Petchabun area and want to know how I would go about finding a room, small apt, or to rent Thai-style house to rent before arriving?
Is there an English language paper or other on-line way to find out such things?