Tuesday, December 20, 2011


As previously mentioned, I was definitely not ready to leave India and no other place had clearly called out to me as a next destination, so it was with a fairly glum spirit that I flew from Kolkatta on the very last day of my visa to Bangkok, the capitol of Thailand. I mainly came here because A.) it was a very cheap flight, B.) I had some contacts in the northeast of the country who were working on community rights for mining-affected areas, and C.) I had read that there was at least some amount of work happening around small-scale gasification plants in rural areas.

I somewhat purposely didn't read up on Thailand or try to find out very much about what it was like before going. I thought that it would be better to just immerse myself in the place and learn as I went rather than have preconceived notions, although I later realized that subconsciously I had assumed that it was a "developing" country in a somewhat similar condition as India. Not at all. If entering Delhi had overwhelmed me with the chaos and insanity of a megacity that thought it was a ramshackle village, Bangkok underwhelmed me with a sea of bland new modern construction and efficient, comfortable transportation systems. I didn't realize how much I loved the total craziness of India (including the ultra-competitive rush to get on the general class trains) til I had to sit through an hour of air conditioned bus rides with the same obnoxious Thai commercials playing on nice new TVs over and over and over and over.

I spent a couple of days in the city to give it a chance, but Bangkok found no place in my heart. Yes there were some big Buddhist monuments that were nice to look at and maybe I missed the more interesting parts (supposedly there's a floating market that's pretty sweet), but I just couldn't get over the huge fancy shopping malls, blandness of the residential areas (I Couchsurfed with a local Thai person), and the caliber of Western tourists the place attracts. Certainly it's no good to judge people you haven't met, but I had zero desire to interact with 99% of the Westerners I saw walking around in this place. Let's just say the city's reputation as the world capitol of prostitution and partying brings a certain element of grossness that I hadn't encountered so far on the trip; my 30 minutes or so on Khao San road were probably the most obnoxious minutes of the past year.

Luckily I was able to escape before too long, but I consistently got sticker shock from the price of bus tickets after the super cheap rides in the last country. Of course India didn't have double-decker AC buses with video games built into the seat and robot-looking bus attendants (yes, just like flight attendants), but I didn't actually need any of that. As I came into Khon Kaen, the small city where my contacts were based, I came to realize that this is in fact a quite "developed" country with more similarities to Europe than India. This was another very bland modern city, though without the intensity of slutty consumerism I'd experienced in Bangkok. Unfortunately the nasty cold that Deepa's mother had cured me of was coming back with a vengeance, and I was also realizing that I was not a huge fan of on-the-ground Thai food. I love Thai restaurants in the US, but it seemed like almost everything here was some combination of oily/slimy, containing lots of pork, over-fried, and generally not too appetizing. I already missed those huge mounds of steamed rice and lentil soup I'd gotten so used to.

However this was largely made up for by the generosity and helpfulness of my contacts at CIEE/Engage, a student-based effort to connect study abroad stints with real-world insights into globalization and community empowerment. These folks had actually come to my neck of the woods in Floyd County, Kentucky and written up a human rights assessment dealing with the abuses of extractive industry there which was directly compared with similar communities near the Thai border with Laos in the Loei region. I would be going to these places along with an American guy (Sam) who helped coordinate the student program and a Thai fellow (P'Kovit) who mainly worked as a community organizer.

We spent about a week hanging out in Na Nong Baan, Naan Jon, and a few other locales in the area. These were fairly remote rural villages, but for the most part they had much more modern construction and the residents were a lot more likely to own cars or trucks than in the villages I'd been to in India. The exception was Naan Jon which was in one of the most "undeveloped" parts of Thailand; it was no coincidence that the people were the friendliest here as well. There was quite a bit of mining for precious metals (copper, gold, silver, etc) in these otherworldly looking mountains. In general the place seemed like something out of Avatar, complete with huge weird insects, highly poisonous critters, and other rainforesty weirdness. We spent time with a family that had been fighting to expose the intense poisoning of their village's water supply due to cyanide runoff from a nearby gold mine that looked like a mountaintop removal operation, and were taken by some other villagers to a site that they were fighting to save from strip mining for copper.

These were definitely serious issues that were being faced by communities here, especially the amount of human damage already caused by cyanide poisoning in Na Nong Baan. The scale of destruction was quite a bit smaller than what we face back home since it takes much longer to mine a much smaller area for gold or copper, but the effect on the local population was at least as direct. Of course nothing can compare to the outright warfare happening in Jharkhand and other parts of India over communities affected by mining, but that makes the suffering in these and other areas no less real. It was a pretty surreal moment when I went to a community organizing meeting and saw a Thai woman in a KFTC "Save the Mountains" shirt; I guess somebody had brought it back from Floyd county and it ended up in a random Thai village!

The highlight of this foray for me was the time spent in Naan Jon, one of the few remaining villages that doesn't have grid power or running water and still uses mostly traditional natural building techniques. There were quite a few organic farmers here as well using biodynamic fermented concoctions as fertilizers and pesticides, ingredients including waste sugar, cow dung, rotten food scraps, and other yummy things. We went into a truly amazing natural cave complex with bizarre stalactite formations that resembled ice palaces and to the top of the highest mountain around. P'Kovit had taken off at this point but Sam's excellent Thai language skills and preexisting relationship with the community made it all possible, and for this I'm still very grateful (not to mention putting up with me in my head cold-influenced sour mood). The food was a bit different in this part of the country, especially with the very gross fermented fish sauce (apparently a whole fish is ground up, allowed to ferment, and then used to pickle cabbage or whatever. gag) and the less gross but still weird sticky rice. I should also mention my other main observation, that for some reason people really like to sit on very hard tile surfaces. All the time. No cushions whatsoever.

I had been carrying an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach about Deepa during our Loei village foray where I didn't have internet access or phone reception, and when we finally reached back to Khon Kaen and I could call her phone with Skype this feeling was substantiated. It really wouldn't be appropriate to give the details to the WWW via this blog, but basically she had been in the hospital for a very surprising reason and I received a great shock to the system. I can explain in person if I know you and you're interested; I only mention it because my time with her and her family in Sikkim had been a significant part of my trip and this experience largely affected my mood for the rest of the trip (and after).

Without much direction or interest in what would happen next, I visited a small gasification plant in another region in Thailand on my way to Chiang Mai, the main city in the mountainous western region near Burma/Myanmar. The plant was not too different from what I had witnessed in India, and I was a bit frustrated by the fact that I had assumed I would find quite a few installations like this in Thailand but basically all of the places I had emailed (except this one) had never gotten back to me. After some confusion and miscommunication I was given a nice tour by a fellow who spoke pretty good English. This was another Thai surprise; despite being much better off economically than India, barely anyone spoke any language other than Thai and I actually had much more difficulty navigating around in rural areas here. Add to this the fact that Thai is a tonal language, in that the same word can mean something totally different depending on how you say it. I was a much more frustrated traveler here though obviously it would be asinine to think that they should know English just because it would be easier for pouty tourists.

And then on to Chiang Mai. It was pretty, I spent a few days riding around in the mountains on a rented motorbike, went to the Highest Spot in Thailand, almost got in a fight with a cab driver (you're supposed to haggle over the price in India; this guy was about to start a public Muay Thai match!), visited a kind of hippy-dippy organic gardening/natural building/intentional community kind of place (thought it was more of an indigenous seed saving and farmer empowerment project, oh well), met some nice Americans, ate gross food, checked out a big old temple, and was generally a typical tourist. I had prided myself for the vast majority of the trip on how atypical I had been, and that I was a traveler, not a tourist. Not so in Thailand, where the country is tailor-made to suck you into the tourism industry whether you like it or not.

I did manage to get ahold of and visit a pretty awesome organization in the far northwest near the border with Myanmar (Burma) called Upland Holistic Development Project. They primarily work with Burmese refugees who flee to Thailand to escape ethnic persecution in SE Asia's longest running military dictatorship (though apparently as of last year the situation in Burma is starting to get better). These refugees are scarcely tolerated by the Thai government and end up eking by in ramshackle rural slums with little to no support. UHDP, a Christian-based initiative, mainly works with them to establish organic family subsistence gardens and agroforestry approaches to restoring denuded hillsides while also generating cash crops such as coffee, mango, etc. A very nice Thai fellow showed me around the UHDP organic training center and seed saving site, as well as to a nearby "hilltribe" village where they're implementing several of their project aims. We also visited his home which was nicely done up with permaculture gardening all around it, complete with a mix of different kinds of birds to pick off any bugs that might crop up.
And that pretty much wraps it up for Thailand. Once again I had a hard time deciding where to go next, and in this case it would be my last stop since I had just over a month to go before being due back home in the USA. After pondering over which places I had really wanted to go but hadn't been able, would be fairly easy to travel around in and get something out of in a month's time, and would be fairly cheap to fly in and out of on my way back home, I settled on Romania.

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