September 13 Journal
Sawatdee krap! I arrived in Lopburi, Thailand on August 1st. The day before had been a very long one, spent mostly a few miles in the air; thankfully, everything on the flight went smoothly. The jetlag that I experienced wasn’t too severe; the only real symptom I had of it was not being hungry. I hardly ate anything for two days after I got here, and I feel that concerned my host family a bit. But after the third day, I was recovered, and my appetite restored.
My family is one of the wealthier families in Lopburi. They own, and live on, a working saw mill. There are workers that come and go every day, and the front of the house is a store front. There is a guarded gate to enter the house, and guard dogs that they let out every night. There are multiple buildings on the property for the workers to live in, as well as a building that the family’s maid does laundry in. There’s a garden in the back which houses the dogs, as well as the biggest cat fish I have ever seen. I have two sisters who go to college in Bangkok, and one host brother that left two weeks after I got here to go to the U.S. as a RYE student. I was given a Thai name when I got here; it is Jindtanakan, which means Imagine. Most of my friends at school call me Jay, but some call my Lang (short for Falang, which means foreigner), while others call me Yong, which means curly.
Lopburi is one of the oldest cities in Thailand. In the downtown area, you’ll find ruins of temples, and palaces on almost every street corner. There is also a very high monkey population in Lopburi. Wherever you turn, there’s a monkey sitting on the side on the sidewalk, or trying to take whatever things you’re carrying. Elephants are also not a strange sight around town. Sometimes, you’ll see one playing the harmonica for money, while other times, it will just be walking along the road.
Transportation is Lopburi is easy as well. There are things called Sorng Taew, which literally means: two rows. They are pickup trucks with two rows of seats under a roof in the bed. Each one has a different color that goes on a different route, and you pay ฿8 (8 baht), or about 25 cents, to go wherever you need to go.
I started school a week after I got here. My school is massive, and has about 3,600 students. The only real similarity between Thai high school and American high school is that they have classes, and they learn things. My first day of school, I was told to introduce myself in front of everyone. I did it in both English and Thai, and they went crazy when I was finished. Every day at school, everywhere I go, I hear someone calling my name and waving, or someone wants me to kick their soccer ball, or to come sit with them and their friends. One of the stranger things I’ve seen at school was when I was sitting at a table outside talking with my Thai friends. A man who apparently worked at the school came over to a group of boys playing soccer with a stick, made them line up, and began hitting all of them with the stick.
I’ve seen some beautiful places, and temples. The town that I live in used to be the capital of Thailand, and there are a few giant sets of ruins scattered around the town, as well as tiny foundations, and old temples to be found nestled among the buildings in the street. One of the ruins is King Narai’s palace, a past king of Thailand. The ruins are sprawling and vast as they are beautiful. One weekend, I went to Ayuthaya, which is an ancient Thai city with some very unique things, such as the only smiling Buddha, as well as one the biggest Buddhas I have ever seen. It was about three stories tall, golden, and surrounding by thousands of tiny Buddhas on the walls. It was possibly one of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen.
My Thai knowledge and speaking skills are still very basic, but I have already learned a lot. I am capable of having very basic conversations, and I know the entire Thai alphabet, and can read almost anything…it just takes me a little while. The way I learn Thai at school is very laid back. Whenever I don’t have a class, I just go to the teacher’s lounge in the language department, and whichever teacher isn’t doing anything at the time, teaches me Thai.
Everything is ridiculously cheap here. I can buy a shirt that would cost 40 dollars in the U.S. for 4 dollars. One night, I was out with my friends, and we went to a night time noodle stand. Between the three of us, the bill was ฿50, which is a little more than $1. It’s almost shocking how cheap everything is.
All is well, and I look forward with incredible excitement to the months before me. Thailand has exceeded my expectations 100%. I have a great group of friends, a friendly, loving and understanding family, and an open door to the world. I don’t think I could ask for more. Until next time…
December 2 Journal
สวัสดี America! I know that it’s been a while since my last journal was written, and I’ve been fervently reminded of this. There’s a lot to recount, so I best start around where I left off.
My last journal was in September, not long before my 16th birthday. On my birthday, my host family took me, one of my best YE friends, and other extended family of my family to a restaurant to eat dinner. When we arrived, the restaurant was covered in police, and Thai army personnel. Our initial thought was that something had occurred which would not allow us to eat there. But upon further investigation, we discovered that the princess was coming to eat at the same restaurant! This was very exciting, and every once in a while we were able to sight her just walking to and from the car.
At the end of September, the school semester ended. It would start at the beginning of November again, but this left us exchange students with little to do. Most of my Thai friends went to Bangkok to study for the university, so I couldn’t go places with them. Many days over that break were spent at home, reading books or studying Thai. One day, my host mom took me and one of the other inbounds in Lopburi (Leo, from Brazil) to go to one of the many army bases in Lopburi. My host mother was part of a juvenile justice committee, and they were sponsoring some sort of corrections program for kids at the base. That day, friends and members of the committee were given the chance to zipline on their training equipment. When my turn came around, I ended up doing it wrong and just bouncing up and down in the middle of the line. This was a great source of amusement to a large crowd of spectators and Thai juvenile delinquents, but it was a good time.
Two weeks after that, all the exchange students had an event in Angthong province. It was more or less a handicraft camp for us at one of the local arts schools in Angthong, but proved to be one of my most legitimate Thai experiences thus far. What made it this way was the family that I stayed with. All of the exchange students stayed with different families (I’m still not sure where they found the families, or how they’re connected to Rotary), and every day from Monday to Thursday, our families would take us the school so we could spend the day making crafts, and enjoying the company of the other exchange students. We arrived on a Sunday, and were given our families.
Now, my family in Lopburi is fairly wealthy, and lives in an established, well known part of town, and has a fairly new and very nice house. Relative to my idea of a nice house at the time, the house that I was staying in was the opposite. It was a very, very old, traditional Thai house that stood on stilts. The upstairs was one giant room (save the bathroom) with a TV, two beds and a couple of mats on the floor. The floor was ancient, creaking wood with inch wide gaps between each board. The roof was made of tin, and there was about 6 inches of space between the roof and the wall, so there was no shortage of mosquitoes. Luckily, everyone had mosquito nets, so nobody suffered too much. The downstairs area was the “kitchen” so to speak. It had a large table that the family sat on to eat, a refrigerator, a couple fans to ward away mosquitoes and a TV. Noted, all of these things were outside, the house acting as more of a pavilion with a roof, but no walls.
There were two older women who very much enjoyed feeding me, as well as asking about America. The house was situated in small village that was situated among seemingly endless rice fields. The family consisted of two parents, the two women who enjoyed feeding me (their significance to the family, I may never know), and four girls who I’m not sure how they were related to the family either. Every day, when I would get home from the school activities, they would take me on bike rides to look at temples, or they would go help the host mom work in the market. When the host father found out that I was interested in Buddhism (apparent by the Buddha hanging around my neck), he enjoyed telling me about it, showing me his large collection of Buddhas, and giving me more Buddha necklaces. “To protect from ghosts” they would say. As I got to know this family better, I began to realize that they don’t live in poor conditions, and that all of this is normal life for them. And it became normal life for me, and within two days, it was like I’d been there forever. It’s amazing how these things that would have seemed to disgusting and incredibly foreign to me are now so normal.
At the end of October, we had the Loy Kratong festival, which is a Buddhist celebration of starting new, and bringing good luck. Loy, in Thai means to float, and a kratong is a small vessel made of banana leaves and flowers that are floated down the rivers. This is to symbolize starting new, and getting rid of old grudges and such, as well as bringing good luck. All of the exchange students went to a place called Supanburi for Loy Kratong, and Rotary threw a big party for everyone. We were given kratongs, and floated them all down the river. When everyone let their kratong go, we shot off fireworks, and enjoyed the band and food that Rotary provided for us.
Loy Kratong in Lopburi was luckily two days long, so we could enjoy it in two different provinces. The city closed down the round-a-bout in the middle of town, and provided many shows, and markets for everyone to enjoy. My favorite was the Muay Thai fights, which was some of the best live fighting I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, it is proving incredibly difficult to find a Muay Thai place to practice in Lopburi.
The day after Loy Kratong, school started back up again. The month of November was very uneventful, with school, and pretty much nothing else. But, my Thai has started to improve again (my lack of interacting with my Thai friends in October slowed down its progress slightly). In a conversation with my friend, I described my Thai as “advanced basic”. My ability to read Thai has improved dramatically, and so has my vocabulary. Most of the time, I know the context of the conversation, but half of the time, I’m unable to come up with a response, despite the fact that I understand what is being asked. I still find it incredibly hard to understand students when they talk to each other, because of the speed, and amount of slang they use. TV is also very difficult to understand, but I can participate in a dinner time conversation with my family. I’ve already had a dream and a half in Thai, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, my thoughts will switch over to Thai. Besides that, I’m still learning more and more each day, and it could all only get better.
I’ve already switched to my second family, and I like them very much. They own a Michelin tire store right in the middle of town, so it’s very easy for me to get around. They enjoy traveling, also, so I’ll be able to see lots of Thailand with them.
Until next time….
February 10 Journal
The month of December was relatively mild. I'd switched families, and there was a festival at my school for about two weeks, so there wasn't very much school either. I went to Bangkok to stay with a boy from Mexico so we could go see concerts, and hang out with Bangkok. Life in Bangkok is much different from small town Thailand life, and I prefer the smaller, quiet atmosphere. And for some reason, I find it very difficult to speak Thai in Bangkok, because most people speak English, and when I attempt to speak Thai with them they give me a "What is wrong with you?" look, and continue to speak in English. Though Bangkok is vast, I am very happy that I don't live there, because of these reasons, and because it's incredibly expensive to do anything there.
Christmas and Christmas eve were a lonely couple of days. I had nothing to do, and I wanted to do something to commemorate, so I went to church with my Catholic first host family on Christmas eve, who is also hosting my best friend here, Leo from Brazil. Though I don't usually go to church, it was something on Christmas (despite the fact that it was boring). The next day, I went to a party with my family that was unfortunately a karaoke party (the worst, and most incredibly boring sort, I have decided). Then, I went home and skyped with my family in America for the first time, which was a nice Christmas present. That weekend, I went to Bangkok for four days to see a concert with my friend, and go to a theme park with a couple other YEs. Then, two Mexican boys came to my city, and stayed here for a few days. All of these events were enjoyable, and I was happy to have so much company when school was not in session, and I missed home.
On December 31st, I left with my family for Chiang Rai in the North of Thailand to celebrate New Years. It was a long ten hour drive up, but it was full of scenery, and I was fortunate enough to have the backseat of the rented van to myself. We didn't arrive until late afternoon, but the first place we went was the very famous White Temple. It is a very prime example of Buddhist contemporary art, with depictions of hell, large guardian spirits, and a few other morbid images on the outside of temple that houses the main Buddha image. On the inside, there were classical depictions of Buddhist culture, as well as more modern (and at time random) images, including a picture of Spiderman painted on the inside of the temple wall. It turns out that the artist of this place is a very eccentric man who is a pioneer of Buddhist contemporary art. This temple has been over 30 years in the making, and is still far from finished. It is quite a sight, and the amount of time put into it is very apparent.
That night, we just went back to the hotel, and everybody went to sleep. There was no festivities, or real celebration among my family for the New Year. This greatly saddened me, and I yearned to speak to someone at home. So, after the year turned, I stepped outside into the very cold, very clear night to make a call. The stars were very bright, and the sky was also dotted with Chinese lanterns, set off by people for good luck, or something of the sort. I called one of my best friends in Florida (who was also still in 2009), and I got my friendship fix. I fled the cold mountain air and crawled into bed for the first time in 2010.
On the first day of 2010, it was very cold in the mountains of Thailand. For the first time in a very long time, I had to wear more than one layer of clothing to stay warm. I was informed that the first stop on today's journey would be the golden triangle, which is the river that divides Burma, Thailand and Laos. I fell asleep in the van on the way, but when I woke up, I was greeted by a magnificent sight. From Thailand's last shore, there was a giant golden Buddha sitting on a Chinese style boat. Beside the Buddha, there was a dockyard, and a little market where foreign visitors could come and buy little souvenirs. On Laos's not-so-distant shore, there was a huge red building with a golden dome. I was later informed that this building is the Laotian immigration building. On Burma's shore, there was a huge casino (I found this to be a humorous contrast between countries).
And so, my family and I boarded a little boat which would take us to Laos. We got off the boat onto a very old wooden dock, and made our way up to the mainland via an ancient bamboo bridge that seemed to be unfit for so many people coming to and fro upon it all day. But, we reached Laos without incident, and now there I was, in Laos. The market was more like a collection of little huts in this small area with its wares on old wooden tables. The ground was red dirt (Northern Thailand and the surrounding area reminded me of Georgia in some respects), and there were chickens and dogs roaming about the stalls and trees. There wasn't a whole lot of things here, mainly cheap knock-off clothes, and strange old Laotian traditional items, like knives, and oddly shaped pipes for smoking. Also, snakes in bottles that you could buy "to eat" as my host brother informed me.
From where I stood on the bank of the river, I could see four different countries. With Laos behind me, China to the North, and Thailand and Burma to my right, I realized how much there can be in such a little area to see, and maybe just how big the world is.
We left Laos the same way we arrived, across the rickety bamboo bridge, and down the Mekong river. When we arrived back in Thailand, we spent a couple of hours eating ice cream, and sitting in the area of the large Buddha. At last, it was time to go, so we made our journey through the mountains with Laos and China at our backs, we were now heading to Burma. We drove right up to the border and got out of our van. Thai people only need a "temporary border pass", but I had to get my visa changed so that I could get into Burma. We walked trough the border station, and beneath a sign saying "The Union of Myanmar" in English, and in Burmese. All the people entering were being funneled into another small gate area, the Thai people entering the through the middle, and foreigners entering through a small a smaller passage separated by a small fence. My host sister came with me though, to ensure all went well.
As we walked towards the exit to this entry area, we came across a Burmese soldier. Without saying anything to me, or my host sister, he grabbed my arm a pushed me through a door way into a small room with four other Burmese soldiers stood carrying automatic rifles. They weren't saying anything, just looking at me as if they expected me to do something. All I could muster up was a tentative, and stammered "Yes?". One man sitting at a desk started speaking Burmese, this only increased my confusion. I could hear my host sister speaking in English to the guard outside, and then he opened the door, and handed me 500 baht. Apparently, that's what these people wanted, because when I gave it to the man at the desk, they opened the door and told me to leave.
After this, we entered Burma with no further problems. All the merchants could speak Thai, so there was no communication problem. My family informed me that the gate was to close at around 5:30, so I had to meet them at the gate at 5:00, but now, I was free to wander the streets of Burma as I wished. I walked around, and bought a few movies, but I wasn't very fascinated by this market. Everyone spoke Thai, and most signs were in Thai, so it really was no different from Thailand. I had the urge to see Burma, not Thailand within Burma. So, as I was looking for a way to see other parts of the town that weren't within the market, I saw one of the exchange students in my district (Julia, from Germany) with her family in the market. I found this to be an interesting coincidence, so we hung out in Burma together. Unfortunately, she didn't share my same urge to explore the real Burma, so what I saw of this town was limited, but what I did see was all very different from Thailand. The biggest appeal to coming to this market was how cheap movies are. I bought four, brand new DVDs for 100 baht (about $3). But I think I annoyed the sellers when I only bought 4 DVDs, because all the other Thai people in the store were buying about 30 DVDs at a time (most likely to resell in Thailand).
Finally, it was time to leave Burma and head back to Thailand. Naturally, it was much easier to get out than it was to get in. When we crossed the border again, my family stopped in the large square and decided to do a little bit more shopping. So they told me I could look around for about an hour. At this, I began to find my way through one of the markets. Everything in this one alley I found myself in was so Asian, I felt like I was in a movie. I walked through the alley, and to the foot of a mountain with a large stone staircase going up to the top, with two dragons on either side of the stairs, their open mouths gaping towards the market alley. So, I began up the mountain. The stairs were wide, sometimes requiring two steps just to get over one of the steps. When I arrived at the top, I found a temple, and a few other structures. I took a quick look at the buildings, then found my way to the side of the mountain.
All there was to see from here was Burma, and the town that we had just left. It was a cloudy day, and the sun was just starting to go down over the mountains. The clouds that hugged the mountains cast bright colors over the two countries, and they provided me with quite a sight. I looked down at the country, seeing many small houses built into the side of the mountain, as well as a Spirit Village made up of small white houses and shrines said to harbor the resident spirits. Behind me on the mountain was a giant statue of a scorpion facing Burma, the significance of which I am not sure, but it added to the mystery of the atmosphere. Burma was a mystery to me, and Thailand is as well, and all I wanted to do now was to know the two places like I know myself. I knew then that I was happy, and where I will be happy, with unknown things on either side of me.
The next day, we headed home to Lopburi. I rested for a day, then returned to school. The weekend after, we were informed that we had a Rotary conference in Bangkok, and that we would be required to give a speech in Thai. This greatly stressed out many of the other exchange students, because it was rumored that those who did poorly would be sent home. I knew that this was untrue, but it motivated many to write a very lengthy speech into Thai. When we had the competition, there were a few who had quite obviously put a lot of effort into the speech, and a few who at a glance, hadn't. I didn't prepare a speech, but instead I went to the podium and briefly told of a few of my experiences in Thai, all of which was pulled from the top of my head. There were ten winners, all of which won a Rotary 3350 backpack, and three grand prize winners. I find myself in the backpack winners, but I was not a grand prize winner. This did not bother me so much, because the two winners had not written the speech themselves, but instead used their teachers, and online translators to write their speech, but these two things were not exempt from the conditions of delivery. But, I was untroubled, in fact I was very content with what I had achieved with very little preparation, as well as a few other YE students.
One day, my friend from school took me to a mountain, and told me that there was a temple at the top. I couldn't see it, so I decided to take his word for it. At the foot of the mountain was a very large temple, and he said that there were stairs that would take us to the top. There were stairs indeed, stairs up a very steep slope. It took us about two hours to get to the top, and at times we were climbing the stairs vertically. But when we got to the top, the view was awesome. But the best part was yet to come. On the stairs, there was a handrail going all the way to the top. On the way up, we had bought two plastic sacks that once contained rice or something like that. From the top, we slide on the bags all the way down the mountain. At times it was impossible to slide down (namely, the vertical times), but it was still a very good time.
Over the next couple months, we're going to go on the trips, and I will get to see a lot more of Thailand. School is out now until May, so things will begin to slow down and become more relaxed. I'm the happiest I could be here, and all is going very well.
Until next time
June 14 Journal
The months following my last journal have been eventful for me, as well as the country that I'm in. As you're bound to have heard something about, last month, Thailand experienced some of the worst civil violence in the country's recent history. It had been on and off for a few years, but this year was intended to be one of great importance. While all of this was going on, I received a large amount of concerned messages from concerned people back home who wanted to make sure that I was okay, and far from the violence. I was, at the time, relatively close to it, but never experienced any of it. The closest I ever got to it was driving through Bangkok with my friend's host family on one of the most eventful days, and seeing the plumes of smoke from the bombs and burning buildings that had been set off. Other than this, any violence was very far removed.
The two parties are known as the Red Shirts, and Yellow Shirts. The Red shirts are the poor and uneducated "peasants" of Thailand that make up the working class, and most of them hail from the North-East Isaan area of Thailand (most Thais in my area speak the Isaan language, but are ashamed of it because speaking it puts them in the same rung as the Isaan people). What the Red Shirts want is to be given equal voting rights, and equal class under a more democratic system. The Yellow Shirts, however, disagree. Yellow shirts are the upper class, rich, educated, metropolitan Thais. Most of them actually come from Chinese heritage, and employ the Red Shirts. The Yellow Shirts believe that the Red Shirts should not be given these liberties because they are less educated, therefore, unable to make the proper decision. A large part of the debate is also the two leaders of the parties, Thaksin for the Red Shirts and Abhisit for the Yellow Shirts, but I chose to leave that out of this explanation, because some people try to make the argument all about the two men, when I believe that the real issue is what I just shed light upon.
It is truly a tragic situation which is tearing the country apart, forcing the Thai soldiers (many of the same rung as the Red Shirts) to kill their own people in a confusing and complicated issue. For the first, and most violent parts of the struggle, all of it was centered in Bangkok. As the conflict drug on, small Red Shirt parties started to pop up in the surrounding provinces of Bangkok. In Lopburi, they would begin to gather at around 9 PM every night in one of the central junctions in town. They would sit there all night, drinking whiskey and watching orators on a projector screen. One night, another exchange student and I walked down to their camp with the intention of trying to buy one of their flags as a souvenir. When I asked a man if I could buy it, he told us that we could have them, and handed us two bamboo sticks with flags waving on them. As we made our way back, a man on a motorcycle followed us, and made us return to the junction. The man who gave them to us had forgotten to warn us about Yellow Shirts (I didn't know that there were any around), so he had us take down the flags and told us to stuff them in our pants. This was my only real face to face interaction with any Red Shirts, and they were all very kind. Mostly all of the host families here (Rotary, in general really) are Yellow Shirts, and it's interesting to get their point of view of the conflict.
Besides the Red Shirt crisis, the months follow my last journal have been rather quiet. The two Rotary Trips took place in March and April, and I switched families in between. My family now is very relaxed, and are very good to me. The Rotary trips were good also. They took place in the North and South of Thailand. The South trip was filled with tropical beaches, snorkeling and boat rides, while the North trip's biggest highlight was Songkran. Songkran is the celebration of the Thai New Year, and is basically a massive water fight. I, and all of the other exchange students woke up early, strapped on our water guns, and took to the Chiang Mai streets. We were splashed, squirted and doused by people riding in truck beds, kids with small buckets and crazy tourist guys. This went on just about all day until we finally were exhausted and collapsed back at the hotel. The rest of the trip consisted of looking at temples, riding elephants, and learning about Northern Thailand's culture, and in the evening we were given the freedom to roam around the area of the hotel as we pleased.
One of my main goals this year was to learn to read and speak Thai. Now, I can proudly say that I am one of the most proficient Thai speakers/readers in my district. Many people refuse to believe that I am not half Thai, and that I spoke very little Thai before coming, and I am frequently complemented on my accent (or lack thereof), and have a Thai phone conversation is incredibly easy, as I do it daily with my friends. This being said, I know that there is still very much to learn. Thai is a vast language, with multiple forms of speaking, and a ridiculous amount of synonyms (the hardest part of the Thai language, I have decided). In my years at home I intend to keep studying Thai, even just a little bit, to learn more and keep up what I already know, so when I return, it will be even better.
Now, 11 months after leaving the US for the first time, I can say that I am a changed person. I'm bilingual, and more confident. I feel I've become more relaxed with things that don't matter as much, and become more serious about things that do. One of the main reasons I think that our parents send us on exchange, as well as one of the main goals of Rotary besides the learning of cultures and having a more worldly understanding, is to learn to be responsible, and perhaps more grown up in a sense. We learn this to use it now, in our adolescence, as well as transferring easier into adult-hood.
But what I've observed is that as I, and the other exchange students that have learned this lesson well also learned another thing: what it means to be young, and how fleeting youth is. Through experiencing what it's like to be an adult and make your own decisions, I feel we learned even more valuable lessons about how young we are, and how to rejoice in the fact that we are still young, with long futures ahead of us. Long futures that will soon become the present, but this is not near as intimidating because we have known what youth is, and that we'll do our best not to waste it on ourselves. This comes hand in hand with the ever present looming mountain of adult-hood that we have also learned a tremendous amount about. And though, now knowing youth, it will be more dearly missed, the realization of how great a thing you have is also realizing that it will one day be gone, and therefore, adult-hood isn't as much as an end, but just another beginning, as is life. Of all the conclusions that one could come to in a year far, far away from home, I believe this is the most important that I have stumbled upon, and it will forever be with me.
Now, as my final weeks in Thailand close in upon me, I can say with no doubt in my mind that I have fallen in love with this country, and its people. And, like so many other exchange students have pledged to do, I will do everything thing in my power to make it back here as soon as I can. Because Thailand is my home now, and I will miss it will all of my heart.