Chiang Mai: Occupational health, temples, and Nagas

Today was the last site visit of the program. We started the day at Chiang Mai University to meet with the dean of the faculty of nursing before learning about occupational health in Thailand. Afterward, we had the remaining free days to ourselves! We decided to walk around Old Town and see some of the familiar but slightly touristy spots, which was a lot of fun! Crossing the road was essentially a game of timing since none of the cars would stop for the red lights, but we made it to a sidewalk that ran along the moat.


We also visited a few temples along the way. Our first stop was a white temple for locals. The ornate entrance was framed by two white Nagas that looked like they had been carved from the Earth, and the entrance itself had those characteristic vibrant jewel tones and ornate gold detailing that’s present in all of the temples I’ve seen throughout Thailand.


Here are some pictures from other temples along the way –

This is the Watchediluang Varaviharn, located on Phrapokklao Road:


and the Wat Phantao:

All in all, Thailand is beautiful and I love temples!


Chiang Mai: Trekking up the Thai mountainside (Sat. 9.10.16 – Sun. 9.11.16)

Although I’m not the biggest fan of clichés, I think it’s fitting to start this story with one because no amount of storytelling can capture this experience: you had to be there. The weekend was an unparalleled experience, which makes sense because we were a bunch of college kids organizing an on overnight trek in the mountains of Thailand, and none of us knew details beyond that – I think this was a good thing because we were forced to enter the experience without any expectations or preconceived notions. Our tour guide comment that if he was vacationing in Thailand, he would just drink Mai Tais and sunbathe on the beach, but I guess we were in the mood for something more adventurous and memorable. Despite all the tumbling, the rain, and encounters with creepy crawlers and bats, we all made it through together and in one piece. Read on for more specifics:
The day started with with a classic Kamala’s Guesthouse breakfast: fried eggs, toast, and yogurt with sugar, honey, and granola. After that, I switched my phone to airplane mode and all 14 of the program participants and I piled into a van to news to the mountains. After signing our liability waver, we were off. We stopped at a market to grab essentials – for me, that included water, Mexican chili peanuts, and a 15 baht rain poncho that was essentially a purple-colored trash bag. Hey, it’s cheaper than a three dollar poncho from Disneyworld so I’m buying. We later arrived at the mountain and were immediately greeted by two puppies and pad thai, both of which were welcoming as ever. There were a few kids milling around the picnic tables and hugging the dogs, and they were absolutely precious! We got a sneak peak of some rolling green fields, but this was merely a preview to this episode of kids vs. wild (OK it wasn’t that dramatic, but I hadn’t gone hiking in a month so the thought of trekking up this hill in the humidity didn’t seem like a cake walk in this moment). We began our trek up shortly after, which started relatively innocuously with a 15 minute walk along a paved road. When I looked up, tiny colorful bubbles filled the air and landed on my arms. Apparently, you can break the stem or large leaves and form a loop and use it to make your own makeshift bubble wand, and our guide did a little demo for us and offered us stems so we could try ourselves! My attempts were unsuccessful, but someone else brought their own bottle of bubbles and blew them around us for a section of the walk – it was fun to indulge in one of my favorite childhood activities that can make simple moments feel a little bit more whimsical. 

Then, the actual hike began and it consisted of sweltering heat, unpaved roads, and a vertical climb up the mountain. All of the Pacific Northwest Hikes had nothing on this – we were all sweating profusely as our hands clumsily wiped our foreheads and grabbed for water in our bags. We even made fans out of nearby leaves or paper to create a makeshift breeze and provide momentarily relief from the sun’s rays. We encountered earthworms, spiders, frogs, and brightly colored beetles on the way up – after finding a scorpion in my bag in Mae Sot, I’m convinced that I can handle anything. I mostly appreciated their presence and made sure to tread gently to avoid disturbing them, hoping our presence wasn’t intruding on their peaceful existence. We also passed some farmers tending to their land without wavering, and we waved or wai-d on our way up. The paths varied – sometimes, we trekked on gravel roads other times we sloshed throug mud and knee-high grass. In my case, I basically stumbled up the mountain and repeated the mantra “you are stronger than you think” in my head whenever the hill got steeper. I imagined each step bringing me closer to the summit and indulged in the reality of looking down at all the ground I has covered once I finished the hike. The views made the trip worth it; everytime I looked back, the expansive mountains covered every face with full foliage framed by misty clouds.

We made a few stops long the way whenever we encountered an area of flatland so we could replenish lost water and electrolytes and shower in bug spray (or rub banana peels on our fresh bites – apparently this is an effective way to reduce itching) before continuing forward. We also stopped at a bat cave, but I decided not to go in because I had seen enough bats for a lifetime when I was in Australia. I stayed by some rocks at the cave’s opening, and one of the program participants proceeded to tell me a couple of facts about bats that I should share now:

1. Bats are the only mammals to achieve true flight – those flying squirrels are merely gliding from tree to tree, but bats have highly adapted wing structures. Pretty cool, right?

2. Bats have extremely advanced immune systems that are being studied extensively.

3. Bats are the most diverse species in the world!

So, her advice was to avoid bats at all costs, particularly qtheir bite – the more you know! Then, we moved on. Also, side note – I had no idea the sky could go from clear and cloudless to monsoon season in a matter minutes. It was as if we’d angered Poseidon and he was showing us that a little Washington drizzle should bow down to tropical thunderstorms. Halfway through the hike, the torrential downpour began and within two minutes, the dirt road dissolved into mud and I was soaked from head to toe – I would later find the the water soaked all the way through my bag, but my towel saved my clothes and my camera! In the moment, I whipped put my poncho and promptly donned it, adjusting the strings innthe hood so i could cover the bun on top of my head. I proudly marched on looking like a giant Teletubby, but at least I was a dry one! The road became increasingly slippery and the lack of traction in my Nikes became abundantly clear when I has some near wipeouts, but the rain subsided when we finally reached the top. The view overlooked a few red roofs surrounded by wispy trees and feathery palm tree leaves – this village was our home for the night. We walked through the little town and saw a couple of dogs along the way including a little puppy that was open to all of our affection and passed a little food stand that sold candy, biscuits, and chips – our own mountainside version of 7 Eleven!

We arrived at a cozy bungalow lined with mattress pads and neatly folded blankets and pillows. We walk out to the deck to see an expansive view of the mountain from the balcony. We were pleased

I’m to find that our accommodations included a bucket shower, so we were all able to rinse off before enjoying a dinner of chicken curry and rice prepared by the villagers. We all sat at a long table on a balcony of sorts and just chatted and laughed as a big group, which was nice because we rarely get to spend time together other than lecture. It was a reminder of how much I loved the program group. Everyone was willing to support each other when we fell down, both literally and figuratively. As we transversed dirt pathways turned mudslides and scaled the mountainside, we always stopped to let people catch and called out warnings of impending slippery slopes or offered snacks and water during breaks – I only brought two 16 ounce bottles of water so I essentially depended on the goodness of people’s hearts to provide, which they did! So there we were, a group of 14 students with only a vague itinerary for the weekend, but we all jumped in full-force, and I think that’s what made the weekend successful. I took my first bucket shower of the trip, and although I was essentially dousing myself in freezing water in a little shack, it was suprisingly refreshing after four hours of hiking through every terrain and weather condition possible. Afterwards, we all crawled into bed and mostly people were out cold by 8 p.m., myself included. I woke up throughout the night from various fracases ranging from a dog fight to roosters trying to outdo each other with their calls, but I was able to turn over and fall back asleep every time. I was told that there were bats in our room that entered through holes in the ceiling of our lodging, and they were swooping over our faces while we slept. In the morning, we all woke up to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast with butter and marmalade. We were greeted by the friendly village dogs and we packed up all our stuff to make our way back down the mountain. Our downward trek only took about two hours, and we stopped at a waterfall on the way. Just as we arrived at the base of the watering hole, the rainfall began again but nobody seemed to mind. Everyone except a few of us jumped into the water and swam to the base of the waterfall before being jetted away. I decided to stand in the rain poncho-free to soak it all in. Long story short, someone’s glasses were swept away in the eye of the fall. Fast forward to today and he was able to get a replacement pair of glasses and contacts but in the moment, it was crazy. They spent some time trying to dive to the bottom of the watering hole and find them and get a friend’s contacts into his eyes (both of which were unsuccessful), but we finished the rest of the hike by guiding him to a lunch of fried rice and then to the location for rafting. When we arrived at the river, it was clear that this would be brown water rafting, not white water rafting, but I was excited for an adrenaline-inducing experience. After taking off our shoes, we tried on different life vests and helmets for size and listened to a rapid safety briefing from a guide – honestly, it didn’t leave me feeling very secure about the whole situation, but we had some seasoned rafters on the ride so I wasn’t too worries. All of us were a bit nervous about the somewhat deflated lifeboats and thunderous downpour, but we dragged our lifeboats into the water and entered the rapids, and the whole journey was a lot of fun! We got into the groove and peddled in sync while we ducked under branches and dodged rocks, and some of the rapids were strong enough to fill the boat. Some of the views were absolutely majestic with perfectly placed boulders framing wispy clouds over the forest running alongside the river – we even saw an elephant on the way down! We had splashing competitions with other rafts and by the end, we all dismounted the raft and floated along the river so shallow, we could have walked through it. Afterward, we all changed and piled back into the van so we could head home. We were all sweaty and exhausted, and taking a shower in one hotel room was the best feeling ever – I rinsed off all the dirt and soothed my mosquito bites (I’ve stopped counting the new ones), and the we ate dinner at a Burmese restaurant called The Swan. I ordered fried fish with Burmese source, and it was the perfect sweet and sour pairing. Coupled with my passion fruit shake and a few chicken meatballs, the meal was exactly what I needed after the long weekend, and it felt good to fuel up on food that I really enjoyed.

Also, this was the first time I’ve spent Sept. 11 in another country. I wonder what’s going on at home and if kids are standing up in their seats in front of American flags murmuring the pledge of allegiance wondering if “One Nation Under God'” includes them, thinking about all the times their so-called liberties have been neglected instead of protected. I won’t pretend that I understand everything about this issue because I have a lot to learn but in light of the recent news about Olympians not placing their hand over their heart and whatnot, I just wonder if everyone is genuinely standing behind all the nationalism that emerges during this time. It can be easier sometimes to just go with the motions, to recite those familiar words because that’s what you’ve been taught, but maybe it’s a good thing that people are questioning the validity of those oaths and whether they’re actually cashing in on the freedom they’re promised. America, a nation where we’re ostensibly vote and speak and lean freely but when groups stand out because they’re not respected and want to reclaim those rights, everyone becomes angry. Take Black Lives Matter, a movement stepping out against the broken justice system and a cry that black lives matter too in response to police brutality. It’s not an attack or attempt to lessen the lives of any other group ( Of course every life matters), but people don’t understand that. And correct me if I’m wrong in misunderstanding any of this, but this is a movement where people are simply trying to access the rights afforded to them as members of this country, and they’ve been met with oppression. And now, the cameras are here to capture the injustices they face for the world to see. What does Sept. 11 mean to you? I’m a Muslim, so I’ve always seen it as the day when anti-Muslim rhetoric got a lot more public – and more acceptable. I’m just tired of scanning news briefings looking for the words “terrorist attack connection to Islam” and scrolling past Facebook comment feeds that’ll make general claims about an entire religious group based on the actions of people that don’t represent the majority of peace-loving Muslims. The kindest, most selfless person I’ve ever known is my grandma, and she raised me to care for others deeply and has always wanted the best for everyone. She will stay up for hours praying for every significant person in her life, and she’s the reason that I can identify as a “good person.” These values stem from her strong faith – why isn’t Islam represented by people and stories like this instead of its typical association with terrorism and bombings?

I guess I’ve been exhausted about all of this for a while, so I wanted to share – thanks for taking the time to read this far. If I had a cookie, I’d give it to you 🙂 stay tuned for more Thailand updates!

Chiang Mai: Harm reduction, piggy banks, and homemade Pad Thai (Fri., 9.9.16)

We started the day at a substance abuse lecture – the professors at this site visited us with beautiful jasmine flower garlands before we entered a I guess the Thai hospitality never ceases! The healthcare professionals leading this substance abuse program focus on improving health for the target population by prioritizing the holistic care of the patients. This effort involves the work of collaborative teams that are responsible for eight villages in a sub-district, which encompasses three primary schools, two secondary schools, and one technical college. Common diagnoses include cardiac disease, hypertension, lung disease, and gout. The shift in health habits such as increased driving has increased the incidence of some of these diseases, but substance abuse is one of the most prevalent health problems. It influences other health conditions like mental illness or suicidal ideation. Alcohol dependence is diagnosed based on an audit created by the World Health Organization, which asks questions about substance use, drinking frequency, and amount consumed per week; these responses are converted to a number score. A score over 20 indicates chronic alcohol use e.g. drinking every day in large quantities. There is a five week, two-step assistive program focused on reducing alcohol consumption and ultimately stopping it, and the program begins after a patient leaves the hospital. One of the criteria for the program is voluntary participation by the patient and consent from the family to support the individual, particularly with symptom management. Each person can set their own goal for reduction, which gives them greater flexibility to break it down into feasible steps. Participants develop skills like adaptive thinking or alcohol refusal – for example, they practice reciting specific reasons that they cannot drink e.g. “I cannot drink alcohol because of my medications.” By going through this roleplay with their nurses, patients know what to say when they’re offered. The program focuses on mobilizing the whole community in helping the 22 patients with alcohol dependence (an audit score over 20) meet their goals. This way, they don’t have to overcome their addiction on their own. In America, a lot of people face this issue on their own, and there’s a common image of alcoholics who drink in solitude. In Thailand, substance abuse is a public issue, and the solution comes from this shared support system. In the context of this program, the goal is reduce someone’s status as alcohol dependence to a lower score audit. I think this way is more effective because it parallels harm reduction programs in the U.S. that invite people to drink in a less harmful way, not just quit cold turkey and avoid sharing their struggle with others. One of the program participants commented that they tried to quit altogether on their own but experienced harsh withdrawal symptoms; switching the focus to reduction seems to be a more sustainable approach for him.

During the lecture, they brought in two people who had previously been diagnosed with alcohol dependence disorder but overcame it through participation in the program. One person said that he started drinking when he was a soldier, mostly in social situations since it was a societal norm. He was told that he was addicted and since then, he’s been working on reducing his consumption in an effort to quit, but he says he needs time. There are programs akin to Alcoholics Anonymous, but they are adapted to the predominantly Buddhist population in Thailand. Since we don’t have a national religion In America, it can be difficult to leverage common cultural values in a country that’s so diverse.

Both of the men were incredibly humble and stated that the only challenge to quitting alcohol is in your own head – there’s nothing difficult about the program itself. To keep going, they think of their loved ones who care for them and focus on prioritizing their own health. They voiced that their family and friends are supportive of their choice to quit, although some people still invite them to go out. Ultimately, people participate in this program for themselves and for the people who love them like their children. The presenters commented that the nurses who perform home visits treat patients like their family and prioritize their well-being; in exchange for this care, some patients may feel a desire to stop drinking as a way to pay back the good they’re receiving. Some of the nurses may contact their employers to solicit their support. I guess the personal stakes are higher if there’s a person checking up on you and inquiring about a condition that becomes a significant part, maybe even a struggle, of your everyday life. I wonder if this is more powerful than a desire to quit for yourself. Maybe it gives you something to live for, knowing that someone wants you to succeed and keeps supporting you during those tough days. There are also programs specifically for relapse patients. They distribute booklets for the patients and personnel as well as a notebook that the nurses can bring to each visit. Other support mechanisms include medication support, crisis management, and counseling. The staff also supports people in their holistic well-being by helping them find job opportunities or housing. I thought back to Jason Kilmer’s lecture on Alcohol and Other Drugs during resident adviser training. These programs involve reduction and prevention, but some of the same principles apply.

Afterward, we went to visit a few patient homes to hear from patients firsthand. Each patient discussed their experience in the program and how their family members have responded. It became clear that alcohol dependence isn’t an individual problem – it bleeds into every other aspect of life from home to work; one person’s daughter talked about how her father used to drink alcohol like water. She responded by ignoring him because she was so frustrated and angry, and all he offered were empty promises to quit that weren’t fulfilled. When she got into a prestigious school, the father wanted to stop drinking as a present to her but he couldn’t do it. We could tell that there was some resentment and bitterness from the daughter, but she must have some hope because she’s still supporting him despite it all. She hasn’t give up on him even though he’s been drinking her whole life, but I’m happy to report that he’s been sober for the last six months. He believes he can keep it up and attributes his current success to the high quality care of the nurses. So, what happens to the battle of the bottle that feels like it can never be won? Maybe there’s a chance here. The nurses emphasized that the patient believed in himself, but he needed his family to believe in him too. I hope with all my being that he’ll be able to keep to up. Additionally, when patients relapse, they are more likely to overcome their addiction with each successive effort. So even if he falls down seven times, he’ll stand up and be stronger than before. We visited another person who focused on harm reduction, and he even brought out his piggy bank where he kept the money he saved from purchasing less alcohol.

For lunch, we had our very first round of khao soi, a noodle and coconut curry dish that’s a popular street dish in Northern Thailand. The dish was pretty spicy but mostly flavorful, probably the most depth of flavor I’ve had in a noodle dish thus far. The shop was owned by a current program participant who is working on reducing his own alcohol consumption and ultimately quitting. It’s cool to see that he is making a life for himself and sharing the food of his people with travelers like us – his struggle with addiction doesn’t define him.

Post-lunch, we headed to the Center for Thai Traditional and Complementary Medicine (TTCM), which offers both traditional Thai medicine and modern medicine to approximately 60 to 70 patients a day. Modern medicine includes general health checks-ups whereas Thai medicine includes alternative treatment options like massages with herbal compression treatment, all of which are supported by the Thai health policy. Traditional Chinese medicine encompasses acupuncture, cupping, and Chinese herbal medicine, and we saw a few demos of each! As a non-profit center, the TTCM provides free services for monks every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The Center also conducts research about the efficacy of its services, and they also offer short course training as part of their teaching and learning arm. We toured the pristine white grounds and each wing of the Center as well as the herb garden used to grow ingredients for medicine and treatments sold in the gift shop or used on patients. I love the concept of integrated medicine because it leverages the benefits of each kind of therapy to help patients live their best lives. Some other people noted that some insurance plans in America cover these kinds of treatments, and some had even help their parents with acupuncture. I’ve only gotten a massage once, and I’ll admit that it was pretty relaxing so I’d be open to trying something like that more regularly! I’ve always believed that people should do what’s best for them, and I’m glad that the Thai health system supports this as well with universal healthcare coverage.

After returning to the hotel, I wrote for a bit before heading out for the Thai cooking class at Madam Thai Cookery School, which was just around the corner from our hotel. The owner and instructor, affectionately known as Madam, owned a Thai restaurant for 22 years before retiring. She said that she missed cooking so she started offering this cooking class for people around the world to come in and learn her secrets, and she’s been fearlessly teaching people how to prepare five course Thai meals for the last two years – and she’s really good at it! I’m still trying to find a passion like that – a job that I’m genuinely excited to clock in for every day. I think human centered design and engineering might be the perfect combination of technical communication, robust coding and website design skills, and user-centered work that I want in my future career.

Our menu selection for the evening included papaya salad, pad Thai (hopefully that’s not a surprise at this point), massaman curry (per our teacher’s recommendation that this was the most complicated curry option), chicken and coconut milk soup, and sticky rice with mangos for dessert (even the temptation of a dessert couldn’t get me to choose the banana dessert options). When we entered the shop, we were immediately greeted with warm smiles, and the ingredients to prepare our first course were already set up at a long table. We all put on aprons and marched to our stations, which included a cutting board, knife, and a mortar and pestle – when in Thailand, do as the Thai do! Before we started slicing and dicing anything, the chef introduced us to all the herbs and spices we’d be working with. We started by smelling everything from lemongrass and cilantro to three different types of ginger. I learned that kaffir limes have 2 leaves that are attached at each stem, but regular limes just have one eat – who knows, maybe this will be a good fun fact for dinner parties or my next trip to the grocery store when I want to replicate these dishes. She let us take in the aroma of every item and explained its use in Thai cooking; I felt like she was my mother, trying to pass on the legacy of her food and culture. Although my mother is one of the most talented cooks I know – you haven’t had dessert until your tried her pumpkin slice cake with Ghirardelli white chocolate glaze – I never took the time to learn the tricks of her trade, and I regret that now. I’ll never be able to perfectly recreate her famous barley soup or veggie stir fry, but I’m going to start trying this year. Also, Rataouille taught me that anyone can cook so I’ll hold on to that advice. The stakes are even higher for me because I’ll have to cook for myself for the first time ever since I’m no longer leaning in a free meal plan or leftovers from my mother’s bulk cooking. But Madam made cooking seem pretty straightforward, maybe even simple as long as you use high quality ingredients and do your prep in advance. She always took the time to praise us when we did well and was actively involved in the cooking process by providing tips about how to break a garlic bundle or smash and twist the ingredients of curry. For the first dish, we used our mortar and pestle to mash up a medley of papaya, carrots, tomatoes, chilis, and peanuts. Although I’m not usually a fan of the dish, this one was the perfect marriage of salty, sour, spicy, and sweet, which are all flavor elements of a successful Thai dish. I know it’s true that food tastes better when you’re hungry (years of fasting for Ramadan taught me that much), but that must be compounded when you prepare food with your own hands (and on your own time). I’ve never made something from scratch before, no exaggeration, and being able to use fresh ingredients and mix it all myself made the appetizer course significantly more rewarding and delicious – I think my apartmentmates are in for a treat when I get back!

We moved on to Pad Thai and ran through the Chopped 101 skill set like crushing garlic, julienning the tofu and green onion, and preparing the sauce with coconut sugar, hoisin, and soy sauce. We went on to prepare every course, and we were able to evoke the depth of flavors found at restaurants like Indochine and Thaiger Room. It was really empowering to get behind a wok and actually cook food for myself, and I think I’m ready to take it on as a regularly during junior year. My favorite part of the meal was the mango sticky rice, but mostly the mango portion. My dad always gets honey mangos shipped from Toronto and Pakistan and eats them by the pound, and this dessert reminded me of him because I always ask him to cut some for me when I’m home . These mangos were more tart than sweet (which is the way I prefer them), and the smell of the turmeric powder used for the rice reminded me of the smell of my grandma’s home. It’s always nice when I get glimpses of home and my family while I’m here. And to top it off, we stopped at a Starbucks on our way back, and I walked around the establishment and pretended that I was within walking distance of the Space Needle and my favorite creperie in Pike Place Market. The bakery section offered some tried and true items like blueberry muffins and croissants as well as Thailand specialties like green tea cake with red bean paste as well as chocolate waffles. It was nice to see a piece of my favorite city and even if I’m only one week from going back, I think about Seattle every day – I guess growing up in one state for 19 years has finally caught up with me. We bought some elephant pants on the way home, and I’m excited to rock them during the rest of the trip and back in the states. And now, I’m back in the hotel and I’m getting ready for a day of nature exploring in Chiang Mai. Stay tuned for our overnight adventure in the Thai wilderness!

Chiang Mai: Mountain temples, pillars, and stairs to enlightenment (Thurs., 9.8.16)

Today was a relatively chill day – I started my morning off with fried eggs, pineapple, toast, and an iced latte (served up in an adorable mason jar!) to make sure I stayed awake the whole day. We spent the morning going over an orientation for the remainder of the program and listened to a short presentation about medical tourism in Thailand. The medical tourism industry in Thailand is only second to Singapore and the cost of a flight, hotel stay, and procedure can exceed the price of just a medical procedure itself in America. The website for the Thai tourism industry even markets a trip there as an opportunity to take a vacation and come back appearing refreshed and more youthful afterward.

After driving up a windy road on a skinny mountain path, we arrived at the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the many sacred temples for Thai people and the holiest in northern Thailand. The Doi Suthep mountain is 3,542 feet above sea level with view overlooking the whole city, and they say you can see the glimmer of gold amid the green foliage of the mountains. The temple’s construction began in 1386 and was completed within a few years from anywhere in Chiang Mai. 

The path to the temple begins with 300 stairs lined by ornate Naga creatures, which are underwater creatures from Buddhist mythology. The journey to the top symbolizes the path to reach enlightenment like the holy Buddha. After climbing the stairs, I decided to grab a cookies and cream ice cream cone before continuing any further, and it was a satisfying classic and welcome treat. Afterward, we headed to the upper terrace, which contained a complex of shrines, bells, and Buddha statues. We all removed our shoes before entering and once we passed through the main area, we were greeted by a visual field full of ornate gold structures whose extravagance surpassed all of the temples we saw on the way up the mountain. Some people were walking around the base of the middle structures holding lotus blossoms or other offerings, which is a ritual for good luck and protection. 

I roamed the pavilion and observed the ancient relics and pagodas and peered through doorways to see peopl kneeling in front of large Buddha shrines or seeing monks walks by in their signature orange garb. I bet these temple offer such a powerful spiritual experience for them but I’m just there to capture the beauty of their place of worship in pictures as an outsider looking in. I’ve always been interested in Buddhism and its central motto: the root of suffering is attachment. And when we can let to of our desires, we can find fulfillment through a sense of peace, not physical things.

We exited the temple and walked the grounds, mostly taking panoramic pictures next to various buildings or with the view of Chiang Mai in the background. At one point, I lost half of the group so I decided to climb to the top of a lookout point and ran into some people from the program. We took turns taking pictures with each other at some point, we got our whole group together again!  We practiced some of our signature moves like the lotus, where we framed our face with our hands.

We all took group poses with a few different flavors of poses ranging from awkward family portraits to fierce smizes behind pillars. I really enjoyed taking pictures as a large group (we even got a selfie together!), and I’m glad that we could convene before making our way back to buses. 

When we returned to our drop-off point to meet the driver, I took pictures of the flag garlands that hung over the road. The violet and yellow hues reminded me of the colors from “Tangled,” one of my all-time favorite movies. 

I love little details like that; it adds so much vibrancy and character to a city. Before we made our way down the windy path, I grabbed some passion fruit juice for the road, which packed a punch of set and sour flavor with interesting texture from the seeds.Once we returned back to the hotel, I had dinner and fell asleep for the night. Chiang Mai has made a lovely impression on me thus far, and I’m excited to keep learning about it!

Sakon Nakon (Tues. 9.6.16 – Wed. 9.7.16)

We woke up at 6:30 a.m. for the ever-so-familiar breakfast of fried rice, Indian donuts, and soup. We made sure to fuel up because afterwards, we piled into vans and tracks and headed to the forest to build a dam and plant trees to support the farming and agricultural industry of the province. I rode in the back of a pickup truck with a few other people and watched the countryside roll by with the impending storm clouds overhead and without the obstruction of windows. I could see rice paddies dotted with small huts and farmers with their straw hats and squinted eyes that gazed up as we drove by. These plots transitioned out of sight and we began driving through forests with scraggly trees that reminded me of Washington – the only things missing were evergreen trees and lulling rain. The road was a bit bumpy from the gravel and puddles from the previous night’s downpour, but it was somewhat liberating to observe Thailand from an encumbered vantage point. We headed up a hill, and I immediately gasped at the view, an expansive field and a lake surrounded by lush grass. We dismounted the truck and were immediately greeted by policeman, military personnel, teachers, and students who were involved in this dam-building project. Everyone arrived to help because it was a community-wide event to support the village’s agricultural development of the area and prevent soil erosion. The king created this effort so the community could be more self-sufficient.

We started by planting 100 trees, and my friend and I affectionately named the ones we planted like they were our own. We were sure to stick to fitting T names like Terrance or Teagan, and within a few minutes, everyone had planted every tree in the forest. Of course, an outing in Thailand wouldn’t be complete without a photoshoot along the way, so we probably took 50 pictures before arriving at the dam sight. When we reached the dam location, we formed an assembly line and passed rocks down to the bank until it was sufficiently sturdy. There were students from the school helping as well, mostly the seventh to ninth graders. Afterward, we had a water break and headed back to the village where we ate lunch. Then, we all headed to our respective classrooms to teach English. I was a bit nervous because I wanted to strike the right balance of engaging the students in activities that would benefit their learning, but I didn’t know their baseline of knowledge and comfort level with us. We started by having everyone sit in a circle and gave the first person a water bottle. The person who was “it” would stand up and tell us their name and favorite animal, and then they had to act it out before passing the bottle to someone else. I think they liked the activity because they all had to practice their English in front of each other, and they made each other laugh with their impressions of animals ranging from cats and dogs to horses and whales – my personal favorite was the teacher’s declaration that she loves giraffes because she’s so short herself. Afterward, we played some childhood classics like Heads Up 7-Up, Shipwreck, and ended with an ultimate rock paper scissors tournament. As the class progressed, the students became more comfortable with speaking English and asking questions of us and each other. After a few rounds of Heads Up 7-Up, the students were responded to people’s guesses with full phrases like “I think it was Boom or “it was not me” with a convincing head shake or look of surprise when someone suspected them as the picker. Contrastingly, correct guesses were met with a roaring round of applause from the room. The final rock paper scissors tournament was also quite competitive, and the kids had their game faces on as they hammered their final blow in battle. After we finished, all of the students thanked us and called us teachers, which made me really happy. Although I was really nervous about this activity, it was a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and teach something I knew really well a my first language! I hope I’ll be able to connect with other students and peers in my future work as a tutor and maybe as an academic adviser one day.

After school was out for the day, all the program participants and I practiced our choreography for the final performance. In light of the recent rainstorms and the fact that the lyrics are pretty catchy, we decided to craft a performance around the song Umbrella by Rihanna, followed by The Cha Cha Slide since the song literally maps out all the moves for you – foolproof, right? We all used the colorful umbrellas from our homestay families and created some choreography for the first part of the dance but mostly planned to freestyle and add our own spin to the moves.
In preparation for the final celebration and ceremony, my homestay buddy and I headed to our neighbor’s house for hair and makeup. I thought we were just doing a simple hairstyle with one or two braids but when I got there, 3 of the girls were ready with 3 high buns adorned with fake flowers that reminded me of the updos I wore for ballet and tap recitals – I guess we were going the full nine yards for this event. My short hair was thrown into a gravity-defying bun on top of my head with the help of hairspray akin to glue and a couple of bobby pins. Afterward, I put on my traditional outfit, a black shirt and skirt combo with red trim and a pearl necklace for some pizzazz.
We headed to the event and started off with the biggest meal of the homestay – chicken, stir fry, soup, dragonfruit, fried rice, curry, and roasted nuts, and everything was delicious! Afterward, all the UW students were invited to the front of the room where the monk and head of the village recited Buddhist prayers for our health and safety. Then, the teachers and elders of the community performed the sai sin and sacred white thread ceremony for us; for this practice, a person strings a white thread around our wrists and express their well-wishes for our educational and personal endeavors. By the end of it all, everyone had 15+ bracelets on their wrists that were given by homestay families, monks, teachers, and leaders of the village. Once this ceremony finished, we headed onstage and performed our dance to Umbrella, which included freestyle segments and clips that I didn’t expect, which is probably apparent in the replay footage where I’m shaking my head and trying to duck for cover to avoid the camera. Also, I have no idea what way you’re supposed to after each segment of the Cha Cha Slide, but I played it off and smiled the whole time. At least I knew what to do when the singer proclaimed, “everybody clap your hands!”
The final performances ended with an open dance floor where the DJ played the same beat at different tempos, and we danced with host families, teachers, and the students from our classrooms. Everyone twisted and turned the night away, and some of the younger girls had more moves than I ever would! It was a blast to have everyone in the program and the community in one place to celebrate each other’s presence. Everyone had school and work the next day, but they stuck it out until 10 p.m. When the party was called to an end.

We headed home, and our homestay home surprised me with a plush Winnie the Pooh blanket. Side note – I really love blankets and I keep every one I’ve ever gotten in my room. You can find me parading around the house with one wrapped around me at all times so I can stay warm when my mom doesn’t turn up the heat past 63 degrees. 

Overall, the homestay experience wasn’t what I expected, but it was the best way to learn about Thai culture. I’m glad that I got to go into it without any expectations because it allowed me to experience everything for it is

The following morning, the head of the village thanked us for coming and choosing to return after each year brings pride to everyone. They hadn’t always been open to hosting farang, or foreigners, but they’ve warmed up to us and hope that we continue to come back and help the Thai people learn from American culture. Everyone was so gracious and kind, and it was a testament to Thai hospitality. It’s hard to grasp unless you experience it, but it’s defined by selfless love and generosity, and I’m so lucky that these people opened their hearts and families for us. One little girl even gave her well-loved Pink Stitch to one of our girls as a goodbye present. The schoolyard was packed with school kids who gave us garlands with paper birds to put around our necks so we could remember them. I think saying goodbye to the kids was the hardest goodbye yet, but we all agreed that it was one of the most meaningful parts of the trip.

Before getting on the plane, we decided to stop at a restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, we got so lost that we didn’t get there until 3 p.m. – I can’t tell you many specifics about the food because I basically inhaled it, but our choices included fried fruit salad (yes, you read that correctly), fried fish, chicken stir-fry, and vegetables. Everything was incredibly flavorful and even though I was practically bursting at the seams from fullness, I was the first to raise my hand at the offer of dessert. My friends did a three way split between mango, hazelnut, and macadamia brittle ice cream (which I grabbed after mistaking it for coconut ice cream), and these flavors were so delicious that I was momentarily transported back to my trip in Italy, where we ate quality gelatoevery day. The meal left my completely stuffed, and I got a lot of podcast recommendations from another participant – if you’re reading this, check out “The Buried Bodies Case” on Radiolab!

Then, we headed to the airport and jetted off to Chiang Mai. We piled into two vans and arrived at the Kamala Guesthouse, our lodging for the remainder of the trip. It’s crazy to think that we’re on the last leg of the trip – stay tuned for a recount of the last 10 days of Thailand 2016!

Sakon Nakon: Monk offerings, meditation, and monsoon season (Mon., 9.5.16)

We started the day bright and early with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call so we could get dressed for the temple to offer food to the monks at a local temple. I woke up and donned my starched white blouse and long skirt, and our host mom gave us baskets filled with offerings like sticky rice and banana breakfast cakes. We headed to the street and met up without neighbors, who were dressed in identical outfits! We all paraded over the temple with colorful umbrellas to take shelter from the steady downpour overhead. The rain started off as a drizzle akin to the dull sprinkle that’s common in Washington, but it pounded harder as we continued our walk, and the street began to flood by the time we arrived at the base of the temple entrance. I didn’t think much of it and left my sandals at the bottom of the stairs (we’ll come back to this tidbit later) and when I entered, I was greeted by a room full of community members each bearing baskets. At the temple, we bowed 3 times to emerald studded Buddha shrine surrounded by delicate blooms and offerings from the community that stood proudly at the front of the room. It’s always interesting to see other places of worship, particularly because Islam prohibits iconography so you’ll never find pictures of prophets or depictions of God inside a mosque. Instead, the architecture style uses intricate patterns and archways, more of an architectural masterpiece than a place with pretty pictures. I think this is why I’ve always loved exploring different religious institutions like churches; my upbringing in Christian and Catholic schools certainly plays a role, but I enjoy looking at all the paintings of Jesus and various scenes from the Bible like the Pentecost or the Last Supper, trying to play a matching game with the pictures and the stories I learned in class and the depictions in front of me. Regardless of the religious denomination, places of worship bring me a sense of peace. I’m more attune to my senses and more grateful for everything that I have; it centers me in a way that no other arena in my life really does, other than writing. I think I struggle more with the ritual aspect of religion because it seems less genuine to me. I’d rather pray or believe on my own terms or in a way that makes sense for my life – for me, that’s praying before I go to bed and asking for the safety and happiness of the significant people in my life and trying to help people feel like they belong – I just try to do my best with the skill set I’ve been given by working for The Daily and sharing their stories, supporting people in the writing process as a tutor, and offering advice based on my own story of exploration. Do you what you can, with what you have, where you are.
We all lined up in neat little rows and offered whatever was in our serving bowls to the temple monks, which ranged from biscuits to mounds of sticky rice. Afterward, the monks put all of these gifts into cauldrons big enough to cast a spell in Hocus Pocus, and we were all invited to pick 2 items to keep (my insatiable sweet tooth took over and I chose chocolate wafers and banana bread to accompany my breakfast). This act was indicative of the monk’s compassion and desire to give back to the community. I think that Thai generosity is selfless and pure because it’s not about being kind because of obligation. It’s just a principle of the thing – the Thai people have welcomed us foreigners like we are any other villagers coming home, and they let us insert ourselves into their homes and family dinner with remarkable ease because that’s what people do. During the service, the rain became substantially more powerful with water flow so strong, it whisked away people’s shoes by the pair. We waded in ankle deep water playing Where’s Waldo with our sandals before marching over to the school for breakfast – all of this and it was only 7:15 in the morning!

Breakfast was comprised of classic choices like coffee and fried rice (basically a new food group in my diet at this point) as well as Indian donuts and a delicious barley soup with vegetables. I highly recommend trying Indian donuts with jam or custard – why not make a good thing better? We attended an orientation where we met the headmaster and teachers of the Ban Huai Hip Wattaya Than School and then participated in a sitting, standing, and walking meditation led by a monk at the temple. A few people fell asleep during the process or stifled laughs when the words “I’m walking” were chanted over and over. I focused on acknowledging wandering thoughts rather than trying or push them away. For the most part, I thought about my utmost desire to be an HCDE major and worry about whether I’d achieve the right balance with my fall schedule and personal statement that would come together in a cohesive piece of writing (and, arguably the most high stakes thing I’ve written up until this point) that captured my interest and investment in the program. I know I should’ve tried to empty my mind, but I think these thoughts were beneficial because I wasn’t ruminating or dwelling on the fear that I might not get in. I was just listening consciously to what mattered to me most when I was allowed to think about anything – I hope it’s a sign that this major really is right for me. I thought about Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and his acceptance speech for best music video where he thanked people who had helped him get out of the Compton streets. But Kendrick is different – he wasn’t just trying to “make it out” of a tough city – he rapped about his lived experience seeing AKs and losing family members to gang violence and when people responded to his message, he brought his success back to his home and even thanked the people that raised him there. His music and fame weren’t a means to escape, but a vehicle to highlight his city and bring the victory home to them. And moreover, he’s still humble, despite it all. I wonder if the kids here see their own successes as a win for their entire village, or if they focus on achieving their own goals imagine better lives in bustling cities like Bangkok. It’s a hard decision. I know that I don’t really plan to stay in Federal Way or give back to this specific community even though I have such strong roots there – is that something that should be on my mind? I guess there’s no right answer.

Afterward, we ate lunch and my group of students in seventh to ninth grade made beaded wind chimes, which was made easier though some directions within easy-to-follow images. We did our best to communicate and ask the students’ names or favorite colors, but I could tell that they were somewhat self-conscious of their English. Frankly, I completely understand – I rarely speak Urdu with family friends and when I do, I get teased about my accent. Regardless, we were all trying and sometimes, that’s all you can do. I think they warmed up to us as time progressed, sharing their favorite colors and showing off their colorful drawings. Some of the kids were amazing artists, creating free-handed dragons or monsters, all with a perfect signature displayed proudly on the base of the chimes. Some of the kids abandoned our plain Jane instructions and created intricate toppers out of pipe cleaners or used straw attachments to affix the beaded strings to the paper cup base. I wonder if any of these students were interested in art or design, and if they had the tools and support from their teachers to pursue careers like this.

It can be difficult to maintain their attention, so we tried to use strategies for peer accountability and give each student an opportunity to share their own work. Once we completed the activity, we had each kid stand up and explain their drawings and who they made it for before passing on the prompt, and the microphone, to the next person. I think it’s important for these kids to have ownership of their ideas and share with each other. I still struggle with stage fright, and I confirm that the only way to be better is to keep practicing. I’m glad that I got to work with these kids – it’s a tough age characterized by transition and a lot of hormones, but if you encourage them to try, you can learn about what matters to them. In this village, smarter kids will transfer to different schools after elementary, and I’m curious how that affects the classroom dynamic for the older vs. younger kids. Moreover, I’m guessing these kids haven’t always had it easy, but they were always so respectful. They thanked us and called us their teachers even though we were all pretty close in age, which is something I really admired because I don’t think the U.S. honors the service and role of teachers as much as it should. Also, this was great practice for when I teach a first year interest group (FIG) in the fall – I still struggle to grasp the fact that I’ll be leading a classroom of bright-eyed freshmen, and I hope that I’ll be able to give helpful tools or tidbits that they’ll look back on beyond their fall quarter. I wish I had taken something like a FIG to challenge my naive perception that I would stick to Bioengineering when every fiber of my being knew that I couldn’t pursuit it as a fulfilling career for the rest of my life because the subject has never excited me – I just wanted the job security and maybe some of the prestige. So, I hope to encourage these incoming freshmen to be a little more exploratory and trust their instinct about what they love – it’s important to focus on what you gravitate towards because that’s the work that you find personally meaningful and will keep choosing every day.

We practiced the Thai circle dance for the final ceremony with the villagers as our fearless leaders, never missing a beat. Honestly, I don’t have much rhythm, but it was a lovely way to spend time with my peers after a long day. Our rehearsal was cut short by a village-wide power outage followed by a torrential downpour that made the morning’s rain look like child’s play. I ended up running home to get an umbrella and coming back for my homestay buddy. We decided to shower immediately because we were both soaked, so we headed to our respective stalls with shampoo and body wash in hand. Within two minutes of my shower, I had already lathered up my hair when I began to notice that the water pressure from the shower head seemed to be decreasing. Long story short, the village water is pumped from an underground well so when the power goes out, the water sources are done-zo. I felt so silly for assuming that the water system in Thailand worked the same as that in Washington, but I figured this was just part of studying abroad – sometimes, there are unexpected turns and you have to make do with what you have. Trust me, the laundry fiasco in Khon Kaen taught me that much. I ended up rinsing my hair with water from a bucket used to flush squatty potties and made it out unscathed. We headed to a neighboring house for dinner, which was dimly lit by candles and the guidance of my flashlight app. Everyone was on porch preparing papaya salad using a mortar and pestle while the rain drummed on the roof overhead. We all think sliced the papaya and added the perfect ratio of tomatoes, seeds, nuts, and chilis (only 2 because your home girl can’t always take the heat) before mixing it up. We all talked about what we normally eat for dinner; one person grew up in a Bengali household where she ate rice every day with varying curries, and the food for each day builds on the previous night’s leftovers. Some girls who lived in sorority houses said they often ate chicken since it’s the cheapest meat to cook for a large group of people as well as burgers and pasta. We also talked about how being in Thailand made issues like poverty and the refugee crisis a lot more real. I definitely agree – having issues like running out of hot water from a shower head and running out of clean clothes pale in comparison to the lives of people who are displaced, searching for something that feels like home. Although I’m Pakistani, I think my parents bore all of that burden when they arrived in New York 30 years ago and began building the life they have today. They’ve earned everything they have, and I am blessed to receive the benefits as the first generation in this country. I identify very strongly as American with Pakistani roots, and I’ve realized that my background makes me so much more aware of contemporary issues – and more empathetic to the struggles of other minorities or disadvantaged populations. As a Muslim, I know what it’s like to be in the minority and hide parts of my identity. When people talk about how their friends in humans are scared to go out and that people yell racial slurs at them on the streets, I have an empathetic connection with them, even if my lived experience is specific to my identity as a Pakistani-American Muslim woman. So I’m glad that this trip has been eye-opening for other people who have privilege and may have been removed from these struggles in America, which makes sense because it’s easy to grow upon a bubble if it’s all you’ve ever known.

The power came on during all of this, so we headed inside for some Tom yum soup, fish, and purple rice. We all sat on the floor of their cozy home and just talked about everything from our past relationships and our experience thus far including the amount of times we’ve fallen asleep in lecture during this trip. I’m glad that we had this homestay section of the trip because I got to bond with people that I may not have met otherwise (which is understandable at a 40,000 person school). For dessert, we ate dragon fruit and a warm dessert comprised of the purple sticky rice and a condensed milk glaze (kind of a riff on mango sticky rice) – at this point, I’d eaten rice for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. I guess they don’t call it a dietary staple for nothing! I bought a chocolate and vanilla panda ice cream for dessert before we headed home. After my usual night routine (brushing my teeth, turning on all the fans in the house, and listening to segments of a podcast of choice – this day, it was StoryCorps), I fell asleep. Stay tuned for more adventures in Sakon Nakon!

Songs of the moment: Ultralight Beam by Kanye West and old jams like Drops of Jupiter by Train

Salon Nakon: Scorpions, Sao sin, and an extremely warm welcome (Sun., 9.4.16)

This morning, we left the holy temple after a delicious breakfast of fried rice and tea leaves stuffed in sweet squash purée, which was surprisingly delicious. After loading the vans, we visited the head monk, and he blessed us with holy water using palm fronds before wishing us good luck as we continued our journey in Thailand – he even promised to visit us in Seattle! He gave us each a little blessed Buddha that I’m excited to take home with me! On the way to Sakon Nakon, we stopped at a 7 Eleven and I brought some M&Ms (the tube packaging fooled me into thinking I would get mini M&Ms, but they were delicious nonetheless) and an iced green tea latte with milk, which reminded me of the frothy frappuccinos I used to get with my grandma every summer; we would make the 15 minute trek to the Starbucks on Dash Point Road to order a mocha for her and a light strawberries and cream frappuccino for me. All of the coffee-based drinks in Thailand seem to comprise of condensed milk and sugar and a side of flavoring, but they always satiate my sweet tooth!

Upon arriving at the village for the

Nametags for Sakon Nakon homestay
homestay, we all disembarked the van with our luggage and spent a mere 30 seconds squinting at the sun before we were each greeted with a flower boutonnière (Prom 2k16 probably had nothing on these arrangements, let me tell you) from a village member as well as a nametag with a Thai pronunciation of our first names. The area was set up with dining tables, and the stage at the front of the room proudly displayed a large banner welcoming all of us UW students for the 2016 Exploration Seminar complete with pictures from last year’s group. Members of every family took pictures with us on our way to sit down at tables, which were well-stocked with water and plates, tempting our growling stomachs with the promise of lunch. Lunch was a classic combination of fried rice, veggie curry, chicken, and soup. Afterward, We all stood at the front of the stage and met our host families for the Sakon Nakon stay, and our host mom was a kind old lady that didn’t speak much English, but she hugged us tightly like we were her own daughters. It’s clear that there’s a strong sense of community here; I’ve never seen such solidarity among people for an event just to bring in some foreign visitors; they treated us like we were family members coming home after a long trip? I have never received such a warm welcome in my life, and I love that everyone came together to give us an opportunity to experience Thai culture firsthand.

At the first village, there were elders at the front of the room that were playing music and dancing and before we knew it, we were whisked into our first Thai circle dance of the trip. We all walked around a central altar to Lord Buddha and the elders threw holy water on our heads as we passed by, laughing and radiating joy the whole time. In between our dance routines, villagers offered us drinks that stimulated fertility and good health as well as sticky rice with banana wrapped in leaves. In this way, we were fully immersed in a celebration where our identities, beliefs, and individual religions didn’t matter – we were part of the community.

We visited the next two villages where the locals showed us their artisanal crafts in between dance performances and offerings of fluorescent pink drinks, flower garlands, and artisanal goods. At the Ban Huayheep Village, we received intricately woven flower chains that reminded me of those given to the bride, groom, and their families during traditional Pakistani weddings. Some of the other villagers were weaving embroidered pictures with flowers or paintings using a myriad of threads that differed by the subtlest of cues. Each piece takes hours to create and sells for a few thousand baht; I watched as the women skillfully threaded her needle through the cloth, eyes glancing up only to see the model painting before returning their gaze, brows furrowed in concentration. Other villages created fish and little cranes woven out of blade grass that were perched them on wire rods, wading through the air to mimic the motion of slicing through the water. The villagers gave us one of each item as a gift and welcome to their village. Across the street, women were weaving thread through intricate machines to create silk products, and this demonstration alone was a mere sneak peak into the workload to create a fully embroidered piece. Some of the boys practiced walking on stilts, and we played other local games where we tried to shoot down bottles with homemade pellet guns or launch tops and keep them spinning. All the while, the locals performed traditional Thai dances and offering us water or refills as we traveled through every street of Sakon Nakon.

At one village, we all sat around a colorful leafy centerpiece with sections of white string. Here, the locals performed the sacred white thread ceremony where they take strings of white cotton called sai sin that had been blessed by a Buddhist monk, and the strings provide protection and good health to those who wear them. The white color represents purity in Buddhism, and this string is used in events ranging from weddings to funerals as well as blessing ceremonies to welcome people to their new home. It felt really special to be honored by every member of the village from the teachers and monks to the mothers and fathers – they even gave us boiled eggs to eat after as part of the ritual. I love seeings these bracelets every time I look down at my wrists – it’s a reminder of how blessed I am to be here, and I’m incredibly thankful for everything.

By the end of the day, I collected various flower garlands, a small bouquet of jasmine petals, a fish puppet, a wrist full of well wishes, a stomach full of sticky rice and butterfly pea juice, and, of course, a radiant smile from all of the welcome. We arrived at our homestay house with shiny oakwood floors and windows lined with velvet curtains that gleamed with golden thread and glossy purple feathers. Moreover, there was a flushable toilet and 2 showers – score! After gathering my stuff for a refreshing shower after a night at the temple, I looked down at the bag and saw a scorpion staring up at me with its beady eyes and pointed tail. I immediately screamed and ran away, my brain conjuring up memories of movie scenes portraying scorpions as poisonous fiends like these that could send anyone to the hospital in minutes. Luckily, my host mother saved me and dragged its body with a broom, which was essentially an act of heroism in that moment. After that, we all sat in a circle and our homestay mom asked my friend and I where we were from, what we studied, and our itinerary for the rest of the trip. Although I was slightly distracted by thoughts of scorpions and kept scanning my bags in search of eggs and beetle bodies, I’m glass we were able to talk and share our Thailand adventures thus far. Also, I’ve unpacked everything and performed a sweep of my luggage to confirm that more scorpion babies aren’t out to get me.

We tried on our outfits for dinner for the following morning, which comprised of a starched white blouse and a long black and white skirt that fell to my knees. I’ll be wearing it for a monk offering tomorrow, so stay tuned. The outfit was so conservative, my mother would be somewhere between elated that I embraced the modest look and shocked that I voluntarily put it on. We headed to the neighboring house where a few other program participants were staying. We all sat on a big mat in their living room to eat curry, fish, and rice tinted a light blue from butterfly pea flower. I even tried some crispy fried chicken and realized what I’d been missing my whole life – it was delicious, and I understand why my dad always asked if I’d fancy a bite of Chick Filet for dinner instead of takeout from Indochine in Federal Way. Afterward, we had a mini dance party with Vaay, a 12 year old girl who lived with another homestay. She’s 12 years old and is an incredible hair stylist, loves ice cream as much as I do, dances like nobody is watching, and has the biggest heart. It must be true that love knows no language because we could communicate exclusively through pointing and buzzwords, although she did teach me to how to count to 10 in Thai! It was incredibly liberating to just dance with everyone to some music she pulled up in YouTube and paired with the chocolate fudgesicle I purchased from a nearby convenience store for a mere 10 baht a piece, this was the icing on the cake of a wonderful day. I’m still on the lookout for that coconut ice cream that looks like a stick of butter that we found in the hills of Mae Sot – hopefully Chiang Mai will give me what I need. 

And now we’re home, lying on sheets with little duckies and princess blankets surrounded by every fan in the house to keep cool. It’s good to be here and experiencing Thailand like a local. I’ll keep you posted!

– Aleenah, 9/4/16 11:34 pm

Sakon Nakon: Indigo dyeing, smiling monks, and a dog named Tiger (Sat, 9.3.16)

After a four hour bus drive and a few pit stops featuring unique Lays flavors like seaweed and sweet chili as well as dried chili lemon, we arrived at the Homekramwaree village for lunch. Surprise surprise – I could eat everything on the table! I tried sticky rice for the first time and chowed down on Thai style omelette and a dessert of guava with chili salt, a surprisingly satisfying flavor combination that tickled my tongue. The villages housed 60 members who use indigo dyeing as a supplemental income to farming work. It’s a traditional skill, but the Center itself has been in business for 17 years. Customers from all over Thailand and Laos purchase products, both in-store and online. The majority of the cotton used for weaving is grown in nearby villages. We learned the entire indigo dyeing process from harvesting the plant’s dye (dud you know the color looks green during the pre-processing phase?) so it can be used to weave dye thread for homemade products like scarves, dress, and purses – I even purchased a pencil pouch for the road, which I’m excited to use during the school year to hold my new 7 Eleven fine-point pens. It was awe-inspiring to see the fruit of their work in these intricately woven products that must have taken hours to meticulously create.

Next, we visited the Arokhayasala Khampramong Temple, which treats cancer patients. The main barrier for cancer treatment is the high cost of care, so one of the main benefits of this place is that everything is free. The monks focus on caring for the whole person, not just their physical symptoms but their mental and spiritual well-being. I like this idea, and I do believe in focusing on improving people’s overall quality life benefits patients as they overcome physical maladies and get older. Here, patients can find community and participate in dance therapy, singing, meditation, and prayer. The temple provides palliative care, a somewhat new concept here that contrasts the traditional use of Western medicine. One case involved a 13 year old boy that came in with a severe case of cancer. They started by offering palliative care but when it became clear that death was at his doorstep, he wanted to die peacefully after recognizing that death is a part of life. He passed with his family and loved ones by his side. Although the temple’s patient survival rate is only 10 percent, it offers a free alternative for people, and maybe restoring some autonomy in people’s lives is the best thing you can do when someone develops a disease like cancer. I guess this is different from our perspective in America, where we belief that everyone wants curative care. But after attending the night festivities and watching these elder cancer patients dance around in a circle, play games with us, and meditate, I think they feel truly alive, and maybe they haven’t felt like that in a while. I won’t pretend that I know the first thing about living with cancer, but these patients seemed genuinely happy and in control of their own destiny. There are patients that decline chemotherapy to come here, which must be a testament to the care and the people that’s available – they were even featured in the Bangkok Post, so I guess my fellow international journalists approve as well.
dsc_2667As always, this place was proof of the Thai people’s generosity. As we walked through the grounds with a smiling monk Dr. Pra Praponpatch as our guide, everyone in the community greeted us with friendly wais. One house even offered us all bananas that were delicious enough to satisfy even my sweet tooth. Some of the elderly patients fell to their knees as if a divine force was among them when the monk passed by as a sign of respect, which seemed like a testament to his healing presence in this place. An old men offered his stomach to the monk, brandishing a battle wound of a scar all the way across his torso that had been neatly stitched like a worn teddy bear whose stuffing had been replaced. As we walked on, the monk would give us some background on each person’s story, how this grandma has been here for three years or a male who drew the most lifelike sketches I’ve ever seen, including one of a medical student who had rotated there. I thought about my own grandma, wondering if she’d prefer it here since there was some community among the inhabitants, and she wouldn’t have to feel lonely even if her body was betraying her. An 18 year old dog named Tiger followed us the whole time. He was incredibly obedient and never barked, letting us pet him as much as our hearts desired. I think his welcoming nature as particularly poignant for all the animal lovers on the trip who missed their furry friends back home. There was a few other animals along the way, mostly spiders the size of tarantulas and a few grasshoppers. Again, we’re learning to live in the tension and recognize that it’s okay be uncomfortable sometimes because it’s a sign of growth.  I wonder if I’d want to stay in a community like this. When death is at your doorstep, what do you really want? Maybe it’s just to die peacefully in a place that feels like home, not some cold hospital bed where a nurse wakes you every 2 hours for vitals. I can definitely understand that desire – I guess we’ll see what I chose when the day comes.

In the evening, we watched some performances by the volunteers here. With faces covered in perfectly placed makeup like lush lips and winged eyeliner, their moves were fluid yet precise, although there were some interruptions from a barking dog that scared a few of them. They also led a circle dance and invited our entire group to join in until everyone was making hand motions and giggling in unison. I think this will always be my favorite moment of the program – Americans, Thai students, cancer patients, volunteers, and nurses all moving together and focusing on the good (and boy was there a lot of it).

Our study abroad group performed a rendition of “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction. Even though we weren’t exactly pitch perfect, we belted the last line of the chorus “you don’t know you’re beautiful / that’s what makes you beautiful” with the utmost confidence that the rest of the lyrics were insignificant at that point. Afterward, we all lied down to meditate, and they even turned off though lights and invited everyone to close their eyes. It reminded me of the examen from high school, which was a daily 3-minute reflection activity where we we asked to think about our daily activities and think about where we saw God, or Jesus, in our lives. More than that, it was an opportunity to be grateful and recognize where we have gone wrong so we could reconcile our relationships with others. Memories from past exercises flowed through the back of my mind, but I tried to focus on clearing out everything as somehow thinking of nothing. I imagined my brain as a large sink drain, slowly being emptied with every breath until I could see the bottom, clear as day. After that, I thought about a couple of things: how I wanted to be a better person, less selfish and more willing to each to people who had cared for me. I wonder if the lack of religious schooling after seven years in such a pivotal time in my development has made me become complacent and weakened my moral compass, simply because I’m finding more and more reasons to just think of my own needs. I guess I’ll just keep working on it. It was nice though to have such a spiritual moment and just breathe deeply. Afterwards, the lights came up we were invited to hug each other, and many people were in tears. It was honestly a beautiful moment – we could hug the patients and each other, maybe for the first time ever even though we’d been in the program for a while. It was like offering a sign of peace at the end of mass, and I think it made everyone glow a little bit brighter. We ended with a chant, proclaiming that we will not die and then humbled ourselves by touching our forehead to the ground to honor Lord Buddha. It was powerful, regardless of your personal religion or beliefs. I think respect is the underpinning value in this community. The kids repose the wishes of the elders and include them in every activity, which was refreshing.

As we stood guard for each other at the showers full of mosquitos and beetles the size of my hand, A few of us chanted mantras about mind over matter, and she commented how lucky we were to be in Thailand. And I agree – I often wonder if I’m in the right place, if the series of forces and accidents and maybe even divine intervention were best for me. But then I have to remember that all of that brought me to these moments and the chance to stay at a temple in Thailand. So, I guess someone is watching over me because this feels right – maybe not easy, but always worth it.

Khon Kaen: Laundry fiascos, brownie sundaes, and finding internal strength (Fri., 9.2.16)

Our first visit of the day was the One Stop Service Center (OSSC), which is located in a district with 168 villages. I’m going to lie, I fell asleep during most of lecture and I may have even hallucinated a little bit to try to stay awake. I recall seeing the Instagram feed fill the wall, butkit was actually just white paint and a red outlet in the corner that momentarily looked like a heart. Forgive me I’d my notes aren’t too detailed – its bad enough that snoozing in class is now affectionately known as “pulling an Aleenah,” so at least the whole ordeal got some laughs from my bobbing head and unsuccessful effort to keep my eyes open.

The OSSC’s target population is mostly sugar cane and rice farmers, and there are many factories nearby. The average annual income is 25,000 baht per year, and the hospital has around 129 beds available because members from surrounding districts will come here to seek services, particularly specialists at the hospital. The workers focus on collaborative work. The nurses are an integral part of the staff and perform home visits, if necessary. If the Center is treating emergency patients, who tend to be more sensitive, the providers need special training to work with this population. Their mission is to provide fast, safe service while maintaining privacy of their information. Patients may include victims of domestic violence. Some people are unfamiliar of their rights, so the provider will check their physical and emotional state first and focus on ensuring their safety. The provider may go on to collect forensic data that can be used in the court. Although the Center focuses on treating women and children, men who have experienced domestic violence can also receive treatment here. The women described a recent heartbreaking case involving a four year old who had been sexually assaulted by a family member without the mother even knowing. The nurse talked about how she maintains internal strength when working on cases like this. She knows how to separate herself from the cases she works on, and she understands that her role is necessary because there are people depending on her to get out of difficult situations and start rebuilding their lives. I imagine it must be particularly traumatizing to see this happen to kids.

In the evening, a few of us decided we need to do laundry so we grabbed our bags and ventured to a laundromat about .7 miles away – bonus, we could have our first experience crossing a major highway in Thailand by foot, and the 7 Eleven was within walking distance from the place so we could keep ourselves entertained. After making the trek in the unforgiving heat and finally arriving, we were greeted by a handwritten sign that the store was closed for who knows how long – the specifics of its comment were fuzzy because none of us can read Thai, and we were going off the fact that a woman with laundry walke up the sign, frowned, and immediately returned to her car and drove away (we probably should have just asked her). We looked at each other and communicated through some kind of mental telepathy that only exists among students who have stumbled across a foreign country as a gaggle of geese: we need ice cream, and fast. We dragged our laundry to the corner location, and I quickly scanned the ice cream freezer until I spotted exactly what I needed: a glorious hybrid of a Drumstick, almond bar, and Kit Kat – I didn’t realize that corporate ice cream manufacturers could make me crave a flavor combination without even tasting it, but the promise sealed in that packaging beckoned to me. It was done, whisked out of the case within 15 seconds of entering the store; my greedy hands pushed open the cooler and grasped for it like a 9 year old reaching for their Baskin Robins order in a tried and true cake cone. I even grabbed some dried mango, my go-to snacked of the trip, although I must say that the chili lemon gives it a run for its money. From what I remember, that Kit Kat cone was everything I needed in that moment, although I can’t recall specific flavor profiles because I inhaled it once I received my receipt. The best part is that section of hardened chocolate at the bottom of the cone that melts in your mouth, the perfect contrast to the crunchy exterior that’s been baked to flaky perfection. Do I sound like I could be on Food Network Star yet? We decided to walk back to the hotel and take taxi and through some hand motions and Google Translate, we found another laundry place and arrived there in one piece. We were thrilled to here that we could do our laundry for 3 baht apiece (washing and drying), so we happily handed over our duffel bags and reusable totes that practically busted at the seams.

‘When can we pick the clothes up?” I asked cheerfully, grateful that we finally found something that worked.

“Tomorrow evening!” the women replied.

I could practically hear the glass shatter in the background – we weren’t getting away with clean laundry this easily. We knew we had to leave the next day at 8 a.m. and there was no way for them to finish our laundry in time, so we were sent packing. We wandered around the nearby street, passing by a street lined with cheap eateries and apartment complexes for college students – it seemed like Khon Kaen’s equivalent to the Ave. All of our phones were on the verge of dying or out of battery, so we didn’t really have a viable plan B. All in all, we were dazed and confused, so trotted along blindly in search of a hotel where we could call a cab and figure out our next move. Suddenly, I looked up from my phone (I was engrossed in episode nine of Serial at the time and was listening to it over speaker phone) to see three washers lining a small room to the left of our path, practically surrounded by a halo from the serendipity of the moment. We all dumped our clothes and powder detergent into the machine and set it for 55 minutes, excited by the prospect of clean clothes and relieved that this machine found us when we needed it most. We walked to a nearby eatery and ordered a warm brownie sundae with cookies and cream ice cream to congratulate ourselves for overcoming our first major hurdle of the trip. We asked for change for our50 baht bill in 5 baht coins so could pay for the drying machine, and the kind waitress took money out of the top jar and open register whenever people made purchases just some could get what we needed, which was an act of kindness we really appreciated after everything that happened. The location was very relaxes and cool, and I’m glad that s writes of unfortunate events grip ought us to a satisfying rest stop although the fun didn’t stop there. Cheers to us for living like locals for a hot second. 

After paying and waiting for the satisfying self-timer to give us the go-ahead , we returned the laundry place, only to find that one of our machines had been reset and needed anther 50 minutes. My friend put her batch into the dryer while we waited for our load to cycle through, and since it only worked for 12 minutes at a time, we planned to come back and reset it. Anything for dry clothes, right? All of were hungry for something substantial at this point, so we venture to a nearby restaurant that was trying its best to front as an American diner with offerings of burgers, Caesar salads, and sides like mashed potatoes and garlic bread coupled with decor like fake grass and pictures of quadruple decker burger patties to woo a wandering American’s stomach – and wallet. We ordered fries, fried rice, and some Thai spaghetti and ate everything within seconds of it arriving at the table. The Thai spaghetti reminded me of my mother’s stir-fry with its chili flavor, tender chicken, and medley of classic vegetables like tomatoes, asparagus, and mushrooms. It was nice to have something reminiscent of home, particularly at the halfway point of the trip. After calling it a night and paying for our meal, we went back to the laundry place and realized that the dryers didn’t actually work. They just offered the allusion of dryness with a perpetual spinning motion but no heat so, at this point, we sorted our damp clothes into bags and piled in a taxi back to the hotel so we could pack for the night.

All in all, it wasn’t our most successful excursion, but when everything went wrong, we managed to keep laughing at ourselves and the situation and then tried something new. I’m glad that we could experience the hospitality of Thai people along the way, whether it was from the new worker at the restaurant who used her tip jar money to give us five baht coins for the laundry machine or the restaurant waitress who gave me a bucket of water from the kitchen so I could rinse my hands when the bathroom tap shut off. We survived with somewhat clean laundry and we didn’t let our frustration damper our mood at any point. Now, every surface if my hotel room is covered in my garments in the hopes that the blasting AC can work its magic. And hey, it’s a funny story, which is the best part about studying abroad. Stay tuned for an update from the temple!

Khon Kaen: Psych wards, gender differences, and crispy waffles (Thurs., 9.1.16)

We started the morning in the Khon Kaen Psychiatric Hospital, which uses a speed satisfaction model. Areas of service include suicide prevention, drug addiction treatment, and alternative medicine.  Its mission is to provide excellent service in psychiatric and mental health, and it offers outpatient services such as diagnoses, psychological tests, and treatment. We walked through the halls of the unit and observed patients through wrought iron bars. Some patients were lying on metal bed frames stripped of sheets, still sleeping soundly or looking up to wave as we passed by. I felt like such an outsider, and it seemed wrong of us to just drop by when it was convenient for us and observe them like some spectacle that we could watch from afar and then be on our merry way. Some of the patients walked by us, offering a handshakes or their name but for the most part, we just walked in a single file line like it was an exhibit with still life statues and displays, a world we could only explore with a curious gaze. As much as I hate to admit it, I was uncomfortable with the situation. I didn’t know what to do, and I felt like we were infringing on their privacy. Who were we, college students dripping with privilege in our veins, to pretend like we could understand the intricate stories of these patients with a 3 hour visit before lunch? I wondered why I was so uncomfortable – maybe it was the sterile nature of the hospital or the feeling of being an outsider. Sure, I had seen episodes of season 2 of American Horror Story, but I couldn’t act like this sensationalized depiction of psychiatric hospitals even deserved a seat at the table compared to the real thing. Again, this was a chance to live in the tension. These were people’s lives, and I know better than most people that there’s a stigma surrounding mental illness and even more around receiving treatment. So I guess the fact that these people were here trying to be the best versions of themselves, and the nurses, doctors, and staff are here to support them counts for something. Maybe it’s not a perfect place, but the fact that it exists means people are overcoming the barriers to treatment and getting the care that they need. 

We also saw the clinic that provides electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a treatment for depression and bipolar disorder. The clinic offers service on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. We saw the electrodes and the nurse explained how they induce a targeted seizure in the patient. Thy typically repeat this procedure a few times although the doctors notice progress within the first few treatments. A lot of people didn’t realize that ECT is still commonly used as a depression treatment, although I can understand the confusion since the concept of sending electricity through someone’s brain sounds more harmful than helpful – I would probably think the same thing if I didn’t get some background on it in Biopsychology this summer. Although we may not use ECT as frequently in the U.S., here’s the thing: it really works. I believe that if something can improve a person’s quality of life and reduce the incidence of negative thoughts or rumination, it’s always worth a try – that’s easier said that done because conversations about mental illness in the U.S. have a negative tone. But I’ve always said that you should do what’s best for you and your well-being, so props to these patients for doing that. Seeing the clinic and the treatments beds in person made all those depression treatments I learned about in Psych 202 more real. These are people’s lives at stake, and these doctors and nurses are making a profound difference in people’s moods and, in general, their everyday lives. 

Later that afternoon, we attended a Gender and Health Lecture, Khon Kaen University. Rather than sitting in a lecture hall (and falling asleep most of the time), this presentation took on a more active learning approach. We started by splitting up into groups with UW students, faculty of nursing at Khon Kaen University, and nursing students from Indonesia. We put our heads together to compare and contrast societal expectations for men and women, particularly the differences across our various nations. We found that men tend to be paid more than women for the same work, and men often receive hold higher status jobs with greater opportunities for mobility.  In the U.S., there’s more of a glass ceiling and women feel like they can break through,  but in Indonesia and Thailand, there seems to be a concrete ceiling.

In general, we found that there are double standards that women are expected to provide for the family and take care of the kids. Women are expected to dress modestly and they are often blamed for giving away too much, whereas men are seen as players and praised for their ability to “get girls.”  Additionally, men are expected to be strong and hold back their emotions, which may contribute to climbing depression rates in men. I wanted to talk more about these of rape culture and the patriarchy, and how women who have sex are called sluts but men are revered as players. Moreover, women are told to watch what they wear to avert the wandering gaze of men and if they dress a certain way, they’re “asking for it.” Like I tell my father, let’s teach our men where to look instead of our women how to dress. It’s about respect for fellow human beings regardless of their exterior – simple as that.

Perhaps people follow social constructs because they want to be accepted by others. We’re currently in a patriarchy, but its important to understand that these issues don’t occur in a vacuum. Sure, a female makes less on the dollar than a male, but a Hispanic woman makes proportionately less, and transgender women experience more violence than the average female. There’s also a layer of privilege that makes the experience of a white Christian male fundamentally different from a Pakistani, Muslim female like myself. And it’s important to recognize the role of every facet of social identity. I’m glad that we had this conversation as a group and leveraged everyone’s varying perspectives; that made the seminar more informed and interesting, to be honest. I was asked to have ownership of my ideas and how they reflect my experience as an American, which was really validating for me. I’m always shared to speak up in class but this time, I felt like I knew what I was talking about and had something unique to share. Moreover, I don’t often get to talk to people about how things are in other countries, so I’m glad that this program gave me this unique opportunity.

img_4696In the evening, we headed to the market next to the university campus. I didn’t think I was hungry until I saw the waffle stand – I immediately gravitated toward the black and white chocolate waffle drizzled with maple syrup for 10 baht aka probably the best 40 cents I ever spent. Then, I grabbed a plate of classic pad Thai, devoid of chili spices but still flavorful and full of texture with the addition of crunchy bean sprouts. We wandered the market and its attempts at creating tumblr-esque tees sporting phrases like “today is my day” and “just breathe.” We got to chitchat with our Thai buddies, and they told us that they usually visit the market for food like sushi and noodles, and most of their closet comes from those street vendors. They’re so sweet! They even tried some fried crickets to help me feel comfortable with taking the plunge and eating one myself, and it essentially tasted like a crunchy potato chip with minimal seasoning. When in Thailand, right? After leaving the market, we headed to 7 Eleven (an essential stop of the night). I bought an orange pen and elephant journal per my Thai friend’s recommendations (update – it’s my favorite pen ever and I think I need to give 7 Eleven and their stationery more credit in the future), and I’m excited to write more and more in the future. I think reflection like this makes my memories a little bit stronger, and I’m excited to look back and see where I’ve been and what mattered to me in these moments when I was sitting in Thailand, probably sitting on my bed wearing elephant pants or basking in the breeze of a nearby fan and indoor air conditioning. 

Also, I just started listening to the podcast Serial, and I’m hooked! If you’re even remotely curious about crime scene investigations and the justice system (which needs some work, not gonna lie), subscribe to it immediately because you won’t regret it. I’m only on episode 2 of season 1 but it’s already getting pretty nuanced. I’m getting pretty sleepy though, so I think I’ll check in tomorrow. Night night! 9/1/16, 10:48 p.m.