Thursday, May 31, 2012

Discovering Thailand

On May 12th, my group headed up to Chiang Mai, Thailand.   Most Thai people use the phrase “land of the free” to express pride in the fact that Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia never colonized by a European power.   But today Thailand has become a European and Western travel zone.  Thailand has become a popular place to visit and is becoming a place for Europeans to retire.  Since the people in Thailand were use to the common tourist, it was nice not to be looked at as the center of attention or get the common the stare.  There were many times I felt accepted and at peace during my stay. 
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, with Bangkok being the first.  During our time in Chiang Mai we were able to explore the local outdoor markets, visit one of the popular Buddhist Temples, learn about the culture, food and some struggling issues. 

The national religion is Theravada Buddhism.  Thai Buddhism ranks one of the highest in the world (according to the census 2000, of 94% of the total population are Buddhist of the Theravada tradition).  Muslims are the second largest religious group in Thailand at about 4.6%.
The Thai culture has been shaped and influenced over the years by the Indian, Lao, Burmese, Cambodian and Chinese cultures.  Bhumibol Adulyadej is the King of Thailand.  He has been serving as king since 1946; he is the world’s longest-serving current head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history.  He is very well respected by his people and just recently celebrated his 84th birthday.  Elephants are looked at a symbol for Thailand, when I asked ‘why’ I was told that during the war, Thai people used Elephants for transportation and during battle.  When I looked it up on ‘Google’, I found this: “Elephants have been revered in Thailand for many centuries. Famous as the strongest beasts of burden, in Thailand they were important in battle, with kings mounted on Elephants fighting the Burmese to defend Thailand on many occasions. They have also been noted for their intelligence, memory and pleasant nature. A Thai legend has it that a marriage is like an elephant-- the husband is the front legs, that choose the direction, the wife the back legs, providing the power!”   I will have to say, I do enjoy legends :).    We also learned that the white elephants (which are not white, but have pale spots on them) are looked at as the highest honors and are only bestowed for the King.   We were able to visit an Elephant Nature Park while in Chiang Mai and I will say their intelligence and artistic abilities did surprise me.

We were also introduced to Thai food, which I loved.  Thai food is a blend of five fundamental tastes: sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty. Some common ingredients used in Thai cuisine include garlic, chillies, lime juice, lemon grass, and fish sauce.  Another popular dish that was usually served with your cuisine was sticky rice.  A popular sweet dish was sticky rice with mango and coconut milk.  I enjoyed the spicy and sour soups as well as the famous ‘Pad Thai’.  For fun I also tried cooked grasshopper and cockroach...surprisingly it wasn't that bad :)

We were able to visit a ‘Life Center’ that helps provide education, a safe living environment and citizenship advocacy for ‘human trafficking and exploitative labor’ in Southeast Asia. This struggle brought anger, frustration and sadness.  At times many of us forget the challenges and issues that still take place in this world.  I think there are times that I forget to tell the story as to why I am here.  My pictures bring joy and peace and let's face it some of you keep asking me when I will get back from my vacation and stop goofying around.  One of the main reasons I am here is to learn, not just about the culture and the food, but the challenges. These challenges help me open up my eyes to reality because as much as I wish the world was about good food and artistic elephants, it’s not.  There are challenges all around the world, and we can’t say that one struggle is worse than the next, but I do want to share a struggle I learned in Thailand and how it relates to my time here in Malaysia.   
This information is wrote directly from the brochure of the ‘Life Center’ we visited, it says: “There are approximately two million tribal people living in Thailand.  Ethnic minorities are not guaranteed legal Thai citizenship.  This lack of status, coupled with a growing decline in their ability to sustain their traditionally nomadic lifestyle, has left tribal people highly exploitation.  Each year, a number of tribal girls leave their homes under false pretenses and end up in exploitative labor situations”.  We learned that there are millions of tribal ethnic groups located in and near Thailand that have no status, it’s like these people do not exist, no country will claim them.  This unknown identification is happening here in Malaysia as well.  Many children struggle with the fact that they were born into this world and they have no birth certification, no…nothing.  With that comes poverty, lack of education and exploitative labor.   These children are working at a young age to save their families from poverty, these children are working at a young age because the schools will not take them, the communities around them will not acknowledge them.  This world still exists today and this is why I am here.  I know I can’t change the world, but I can educate the world, I can tell my stories and try to motivate others to tell theirs.  I might be looked at as just one person, with one small voice, but we all have to start from the beginning and hope for the best and that is what I plan to do.

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