Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Unexpected Border Town

I have always been fascinated by cities and towns that sit on the borders of nations. Although I’d never actually been to such a place, I figured it was reasonable to expect interesting things from a town that straddles two countries. I figured, at the very least, that such a place would feature a mix of two cultures. Two for the price of one. The thrifty Indian in me approved.

But as I said, I had never been to such a place. Few can say they have. For all our globetrotting, we make transitions not from country to country but from airport to airport, station to station. We turn our flip books with great speed, with no time to give each page its due.

In the last month, I have crossed one border and grazed past another. By the time this trip is over I will have crossed two more. But this post is not about the roadside money changers of Padang Besar or the mysterious Urdu speakers of Mae Sot. I have chanced upon something altogether more interesting: a border town where you would least expect it, smack in the middle of a country.

Chiang Mai straddles no borders, but the city is criss-crossed with borders all the same. Here’s the deal: the tourists of Chiang Mai aren’t confined to one farang part of town. Sure, there is Old City with its bike rental shops and espresso-serving cafes, but that is not where the action is. The tourists have long since leaked out of Old Town and invaded the city as a whole. As a result, the streets of the city are homogenous in their confusion. Special Massages are advertised as blatantly as the latest deals in refrigerators. The bustling (and decidedly local) Warorot Market is situated awkwardly on Tha Phae Road, with its art galleries and handicraft stores. Even the wats seem unsure of themselves: some are sober and quiet, while others offer one-on-one English interactions with the monks at select times of the day.

Each such confusion comes with its own border. While the locals and the tourists throng the same streets and see the same signs, they certainly do not respond to what they see similarly. A local knows exactly where on Tha Phae Road to go to buy eggs: she sure isn’t going to get lost and land up at an art gallery! A woman looking to spend a couple of hours studying her copy of Lonely Planet is going to find her way to a quiet bar, and not to a loud stall selling nam soup by the bowl.

A border runs throughout Chiang Mai. It twists around and turns back on itself, cuts through streets and skips over rivers. It tells you where to speak Thai and where you are better off with English. It tells you where the locals pray and where the backpackers drink.
It offers you two cultures, yes. Two for the price of one, yes. But like all borders, it leaves you starkly aware of which side you stand on.

Praak saam ruup

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Monks begging for alms in the morning

In Thai, if you want to put a quantity onto a noun, you need what is called a ‘classifier’. The classifier specifies what is being quantified. For example, to say “we are four students” you must say “rao naksiksa sii khon” which translates literally to “we are students four persons”. In this case, the “persons” is the classifier.
The classifier for monk, or praak, is not the expected “khon” meaning “person”. Instead it is “ruup”means ‘image’ or ‘picture’. Linguistically, therefore, monks are considered to be images or pictures of the Buddha. Their reverent status is literally imbedded in the Thai language.

On our journey thus far, we have had many unique opportunities to become intimately acquainted with the lives of monks. Indeed nearly every night we sleep in a wat, and sometimes we are actually housed in the monks’ quarters. It is somehow remarkable to brush your teeth at a water faucet while a monk takes a shower just next door, or to hang your padded bike shorts on the same line with those saffron robes.
I am amazed by how open and inclusive the monks have been, inviting us into their living spaces, welcoming us to follow them as they take alms, or laying down mats for us to join in their 6 o’clock prayers.

To my knowledge, the life is a monk is usually shrouded by an inaccessible and sacred cloud of mystery. It seems as if we common people are not supposed to imagine monks eating, sleeping, brushing their teeth, or feeling emotions of boredom, discouragement, anger, happiness. We are to regard them as somehow more-than-human, beings that have chosen a path of spiritual enlightenment, humility, denouncement of material possession, etc.

So far on this trip, however, I have had several encounters with monks that have surprised me:
One monk hurried out of bed at 5am to fire a slingshot to scatter a flock of cackling birds.
One monk used his iPad to take a selfie with us.
One monk crouched in some bushes talking on his cellphone.
One monk grabbed Anshuman’s arm, and insisted he take a photo with him.

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Monks who invited us to join them for their morning Alms-run in Songkhla

The most memorable encounter, however, I will recount in more detail:
We arrived in a small village (the name of which I have forgotten) somewhere in the mountains between Mae Sot and Mae Sariang. It had been raining all day, but the clouds finally surrendered when we arrived, so the air was cool and calm. I sat on a wooden porch overlooking the wat’s parking lot. From my position, I could look across the parking lot and see perfectly squarely into the prayer hall. My viewpoint was optimum, one of these rare and special ‘seeing but unseen’ moments.

The clock struck 6:00 and a young monk hurried to the prayer hall, leaning his small body to push open the heavy metal sliding gate. From my seat I could see the brilliant gold of the various statues of the seated Buddha, looming over the small boy.
The monks began to arrive, walking with quick directed steps, as they assumed their seated positions and began their daily prayers and chanting.

Soon after the arrival of the monks had calmed down, one small boy-monk (probably 9 years old) approached the prayer hall. He walked with even measured, almost marching-steps, turning sharply to enter the front door square on. As he approached the steps, however, he hesitated, his pace slowed. He clasped his hands behind his back and tentatively, slowly, turned away from the prayer hall. He meandered his way, guiltily it seemed, to a nearby tree, and began to play with a low-hanging leaf. He looked at the branch fondly, indulging in this distraction.
After some minutes he quietly approached the prayer hall again, this time, taking a curved path, sneaking in to sit in company with his age-mates.

Soon after, an older monk idled up to the side of the prayer hall. He finished his cigarette before entering, a certain sheepishness in his gait.
Two young monks sprinted up the prayer hall, panting. They consulted each other silently, with gestures, realized they were too late to reasonably join prayers, and ran off again into the larger wat grounds.

Minutes later, I watched, in awe, as two of the young monks inside the prayer hall began to poke and tease each other. They took turns, making sure the senior monks couldn’t see them. One would reach out his arm to jab the other one in the ribs. Seconds later, the jab-victim would respond by sticking his tongue out at the jabber.
This prodding and teasing went on for sometime, all while the senior monks sat diligently, the chanting continued, and the great Buddha towered, golden, his lips curled in serene contentment.

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Standing and Seated Buddhas

I watched all of this from my porch, in awe. I felt somehow astounded at the’ humanness’ of these monks. I could suddenly empathize more deeply than ever before with the complexity of emotions that young (and all) monks must feel at choosing this spiritual path.
Indeed the boy-monk’s hesitation – his choice of the trees over the prayer hall – did not lower him in any way in my eyes. If anything, he became a more accessible and endearing character, and perhaps one even more deserving of respect.

Are these praaks truly images of the Buddha? Do they aspire to be? Or are they merely boys and men who have chosen a path of enlightenment, status, poverty, and indeed inherent contradiction.

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The first Monk Initiation Ceremony we watched

 

And the Mountains Echoed

I pride myself for this fitting title as I finish reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel in my kindle and also as we arrive in Chiang Mai after days of cycling over and around mountains. IMG_5574IMG_5387 Oh yes do the mountains echo. No doubt about that. But they echo weirdly, unlike usual echoes which become softer and smaller. Mountains echo in the opposite direction, bigger than the next, and definitely louder – louder swearing and louder laughs of sadism and disbelief. IMG_5406 Hosseini’s novel is about separation and then reunion of both characters and plot. The stories expand as characters face heart-wrenching separation, and unrealistically reunite through the possibilities of an expanded story. IMG_5342 In these mountains, we saw separation. The separation of people from their land – non-thai-speaking Burmese working in Mae Sot, forever burdened with sending back money to their struggling families in Burma and kilometers spanning a Burmese refugee camp holding who knows how many people.

Burmese refugee camp

Burmese refugee camp

IMG_5353 The separation of countries – a river and a mountain range conveniently separating a land into two governments, two languages, two cultures, and two countries. IMG_5339 The separation from a lack of communication – the Thai and Burmese language, and even the English language, so alien to these mountains. And also, our separation from all civilisation when we were on the mountains, in the clouds, unable to contact family, friends and school for a night. A night for us, but maybe a lifetime for these cloud dwellers.

No idea where we are

No idea where we are

Reunion however, I see, takes place in the fantasies of writers and readers, and the privileges of the tourist. IMG_5455

A Post About Thai Food

I write this sitting in a restaurant in Chiang Mai, eating a bowl of what has been described to me as spicy ramen soup with tonkatsu.

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After almost three weeks in Thailand, I found my first mango sticky rice yesterday in Chiang Mai. What have I been eating? You might ask. I think I can safely say I’ve been eating Thai food. After all, it has all been made by Thai people, ordered in Thai, by roadside stalls, and more or less the same throughout.

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With family and friends, we all know what we mean when we say “let’s go for Thai food” – this includes food such as pad thai, beef noodles, pineapple fried rice, tom yum, pandan chicken, basil minced pork, fried whole fish with mango/papaya salad drizzled in thai spicy sauce, red ruby, mango sticky rice. I think these are more than available in Chiang Mai city, but these are not what I eat everyday. In fact, we eat plain old kway teow soup, khao pad (fried rice), mixed rice, and (fine I admit) some pad thai.

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Is Thai food what the average Thai person eats? If so Thai food is rice, with maybe a fried egg and some vegetable curry.

Is it what foreginers imagine it to be (for we are the only ones who call it thai food)? If so then Thai food is the obvious list above.

Is it what touring cyclists eat? No doubt, this is kway teow soup and fried rice.

Is it what Thai people in the prominent cities (Bangkok, Chiang Mai) eat? If so, then this list is complicated.

"Farang" is foreigner

“Farang” is foreigner

As I finish my bowl of ramen I think the same questions can be asked not just for food but for what is Thai? Who are the Thai people and what represents Thailand and its culture?

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Same Same, But Different

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I came to this country with full confidence that this one phrase would save me from being utterly wordless before a local – that is “sawaddee krap”. Honestly, you could survive visiting thailand with just that one phrase; you fly in and fly out with it. I greet everyone with this, and with the expectation of a smile, of recognition, of bridge gap-ing. But this time I fail: He stares at me blinking, mutters something to his fellow men, teeth disfigured to a slush of red and black. He scratches his backside through a longyi, and then his cheek, spreading the iconic traces of thanaka. These are the Burmese people.

Burmese street in Mae Sot

Burmese street in Mae Sot

We are along the border of Thailand and Burma, accessible only after a series of mountains. You’d be surprised that this is Thailand. The contrast is stark, and it is appalling knowing that you have crossed no borders and are very much still in Thailand. The Thailand we were in before does not stray far from one would expect, save for the rurality of some villages which hardly count for surprises. This is a whole different ball game. We didn’t fly from Bangkok to Mae Sot, the effect I see now as so similar to the cleansing glass of cold water served between wine tasting glasses. We had no teleportation of sorts, no “Welcome to Northern Thailand” sign; we simply moved on land, slowly cycling through the same country.

Thai table set-up

Thai table set-up

Burmese table set-up

Burmese table set-up

The same country? Jurong and Changi are in the same country. I’ve lived with that, and I guess I’ve built my understanding of “same country” along those lines. I guess Singapore gives one a sense of “country” that is unlike most places in the world. We are small, so concentrated and so accessible amongst each other. I start to see in us an identity that probably escapes the many countries surrounding us.

Burmese street food

Burmese street food

A Poem for Thailand

I especially love Thailand in the morning.
I say ‘Thailand’ at the risk of sounding reductive. This is about ‘my’ Thailand, the one I have seen, heard, smelt, felt, grown to love.
This poem came to me over the course of a few mornings, cycling through sleepy Thai villages as they yawn and wake to the day.

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Oh Thailand
with your long-billed herons
stand, balance, stock-still
in the wake of the morning –
walk like an Egyptian

with your
squatting women
clean silver water basins
engravings twisted like molten hair

Thailand
with your truck loads of
Burmese and Laotian workers
colorful socks over their faces –
they zip up their moths
and I hope it is just for the Sun

Oh Thailand
with your
cheeky children dressed
as if ready for some Army brigade
popcorn
hanging from their handle bars

Thailand
with your
plump sprouts
who dangle from the seat of Daddy’s motorbike

with your
monks who carry
hand-rolled cigarettes
and sling-shots to scatter
the birds

Thailand
with your
boldly-painted houses
perched squat
pink roof
brick stamped on
electric blue
orange walls
purple trim
all with the grace of
tin-can wind chimes

Thailand
with your colored wars and
tattered flags
proud

with your porches
and
too many bird cages

Why so many bird cages?
Whose song are you catching, Thailand?
What is the tune of your earthen pulse?

I hear your song, I hum along

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The Beauty of Human Emotion

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It’s not hard to feel as if natural beauty rushes down to greet you the moment your tires hit the road. Sunrises peek above the cresting spine of hills, padi root themselves against the tousling wind, and bulls sprawl languorously in the cool mud – all along this gorgeous unfurling road. Having grown up in urban Singapore, I drink it all in.

But I worry about going too fast. I fret about not being present enough, about not looking around with fresh eyes. “Am I just breezing through without fully appreciating all this beauty? Am I becoming jaded?” – it’s this little voice that helps me take the most from the scenery so far. This has been helpful, not doubt, but on one ride I wondered whether this was a bias which left out other types of beauty. Beauty that we often let slip by – too busy or too blind to notice that which is couched in the mundane and ordinary.

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Thailand, you are a land of rolling hills and verdant green; but today I will introduce a wonder closer to home and heart but no less awe-inspiring. Human emotion – in its rich weave of textures and colours – is beautiful.

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Monks that we befriended in Songkhla, Thailand and went alms collecting with.

The classifier for the monks in Thailand is ruup, which means picture. Ruup is used because the monks are the images of Buddha. Beyond the saffron robes and the arms-bowl, it is sometimes hard to imagine the person before, or behind, the image of the Buddha – as a man, a son, a grandson, or as the village boy. These relationships and the emotions invested in them became real for us during the three monk initiation ceremonies that we have been invited to (or at least found ourselves stumbling upon). All three have been slightly different, but each has revealed an intimate slice of the confluence of emotions that spills over on that important day.

Like a sunrise, these emotions are revealed slowly to all those who have the patience to wait and observe. We saw cheery greetings and handshakes from friends and relatives from the village or the next. We saw pats-on-the-back and firm squeezes of the arm with the men, and tittering conversation and excited hugs with the women. We saw the proud 70-year old matriarch commanding the entire production line responsible for lunch. We saw the grandfather receding to the background, slowly sucking on a cigarette deep in thought.

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Production line to keep everyone well fed and happy at the ceremony

 

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Enough food for the entire village: Marcus tries his hand at cooking as Kei creeps behind. Look at the size of that scoop!

 

We were farangs (foreigners) in spandex and sunblock. We were first fed and fussed over in great hospitality. However, when it came to the most intimate moments of the head-shaving, we inadvertently dropped away. We became invisible observers within the entire village now pulled in a tight orbit around the not-yet-bald heads of two initiates.

 

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Girl offers a bar of soap, and lady with the ceremonial bowl of water and flowers looks on as the father begins the shaving.

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The whole scene of the head-shaving. Undoubtedly a whole village affair.

Shaving an initiates head is an operation that requires an entire village. There is a buzz and bustle of activity as everyone tries to help. Some manage to help more than others, and clearly no one is an expert. A man snips away with a pair of scissors ineffectively, only to be joined by another with a razor. The razor is dull; he gets shooed away as the men impatiently shout for more razors. In the interim, women seize this opportunity with ceremonial bowls on hand to sprinkle water and flowers on the initiate’s heads. At this point, a whole pack of fresh razors arrive and the operation continues. The two initiates belong equally to the village, and relatives and friends swarm and rotate between both. A mother blinks away a tear in her eye, dipping her head away from eye contact. She smiles bashfully and shakes her head. A younger sister manages to break an initiate’s concentration long enough to win herself a reassuring smile. The initiate returns to his rites or thoughts, as his hair falls soundlessly into the leaf he carries.

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Mother and son sharing a moment before the shaving begins.

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The finishing touches. Just the sideburns and the eyebrows left.

Like a sunset, these emotions flash for a glorious instant, and then disappear. The outsider, grateful for her momentary invisibility, blends into the moment without disturbing it. She is bombarded with the unadulterated intimacy of a family’s affairs – each unspoken nuance played preciously over one’s face and hands, every person intertwined with every other person in a mutable web of relations.

The initiates, now with shaven heads and eyebrows, wear white and gold robes. They smoke cigarettes while the conversation mills around them. The first part of their initiation is over. They will soon be accompanied in a procession to the temple where they will fully become monks.

It would be foolish for me to believe that I can fully understand or empathise with the whirl of raw emotion on display that day. Travelling makes one acutely aware of the rift that cultural context can present when it goes unappreciated. I found out recently that it is common for men in Thailand to become monks for a few years (either as a probation period for an extended stay, or as a form of devotion), and that becoming a monk is often an intentional decision to achieve merit for one’s parents, especially one’s mother, who cannot become a monk herself.

While I have the benefit of knowing this now, I will still never know exactly what the mother felt as she shed tears that day. Emotion is ephemeral, vastly personal, and impossible to capture or to claim. It probably doesn’t help that as humans we are terrible communicators of emotion too. We communicate emotion clumsily thorough words, actions or images; we use lego blocks of interior experience to construct crude approximations of meaning only to never find out how accurate we actually were.

It’s strange but maybe this is precisely why emotion is beautiful. We will most probably never be fully competent in accessing and communicating emotion, and we are just as likely to forever keep trying. But when emotion is shared in its special, fleeting, dysfunctional way – whether in the village affair of monk-hood, a mother’s tender gaze, a girl’s winning birthday smile, or in a moment of kinship despite being culturally worlds apart – the beauty of emotion offers its magic to you. The beauty of warmth and love of sunsets, serenity and knowing of the oceans, and the beauty of emotion – the ones that bind us all – waving and rippling on the rolling hills, unfurling on this gorgeous road we call life.

All we have to do is to look for it.

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Pi Sao (older sister) Joe and her 9 month old daughter Chong Kuan. Ban Thung Maha, Thailand. Chong Kuan’s eye is swollen because she has a mosquito bite on her eye.

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We celebrated Kung Ten’s (literally dancing shrimp) 15th birthday at Surat Thani, Thailand. We were all honoured to receive t-shirts from her which reads ‘Surat Thani…by Kungten’. Thanks to her, we now have a proper band name and band T-shirt! Watch out for the Suratthanis by the Kungtens / The Dancing Shrimps. What an inquisitive and sweet girl with an amazing voice.

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Our second night at Pi Sao Joe’s and Pi Chai (older brother) Joke’s house. We were invited to stay over at their house when they saw us at their shop and we ended up spending a full day with them and their friends riding horses, catching crabs, picking durians and coconuts, and going to the beach. We cooked this meal together.

 

 

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