We arrived at the Chiang Mai airport on January 9th and our lives took a turn for the unexpected. Stepping off the plane was one of those “one small step for man” experiences, but that step got turned into a toe stub (for me at least) when I was sent to the back of the passport line because I had slept through the previous flight and hadn’t received the required paperwork for arrival and departure. I sheepishly filled out the paperwork and arrived at the baggage claim about ten minutes behind the rest of the group.
Once we had retrieved our luggage from the baggage claim (or filed “lost luggage” complaints as in the case of yours truly) we stepped outside and found ourselves staring at the back of three identical, red trucks. These, we found out, were (and are) taxi/bus hybrids driven and owned by locals. They are named “rot-dengs,” and can be flagged (palm-downwards) during any day or evening in the streets of Chiang Mai. As we soon found out, traffic in Chang Mai is a hairy institution. Imagine a swarming ant hill, and then take away the ants’ sense of order, neatness, and concern for each other’s safety, and you have some idea of what it appears to be from the back of a “rot-deng.”
After spending the night at the Sinthana Resort Hotel, we visited an authentic Thai buffet, the world’s largest jewelry store, a silk factory and silk store, an umbrella painter’s market, and a lacquerware factory and store. In the jewelry story, we learned about the history and processes of producing authentic and extravagant jewelry and explored and shopped among some of the world’s most jewelry displays. The silk store was also wonderful. Besides getting to see how silk is made (no common opportunity) we shopped among some of the finest silk in the world. The umbrella painter’s market and lacquerware factory offered similar learning and shopping opportunities. For example, several students and Ajarn Mike had unique pictures and phrases painted on practically anything (besides skin) that would absorb ink, including camera cases, shoes, and a traditional form of Thai apparel called “elephant pants.”
The next morning, we rode elephants. After driving up into the mountains above Chiang Mai, we visited a village that trains elephants to do everything from carry humans to kick soccer balls or paint pictures. We lurched along on the backs of elephants through a river and the village itself before finally returning to the camp. It was a wonderful experience, except for the few of us who are prone to motion sickness. Those few got several “experiences” for the price of one. Afterwards, we observed a wonderful elephant performance, featuring afore-mentioned painting and soccer-playing elephants, among other things, and rounded off the experience by rafting down the river and then eating at the buffet in the village.
Monday was our orientation day at Chiang Mai University. We spent the morning taking care of logistics for our separate schools and learning about Thai culture. The afternoon was lighter, allowing us to continue recovering from the massive jet lag (about half of us were consistently waking up at three in the morning and twiddling our thumbs till dawn). Tuesday and Wednesday, however, were busier, with 3 ½ straight hours of introduction to the Thai language each morning and introduction to possible internships during the afternoon. There are four possible internships for SST students to choose this year. The Buddhist University and San Sri School allow SST students to assist professors and teachers as native English speakers and assistants. RICD is an diagnostic center that works with disabled persons. SST students will mostly be working with a drama therapy program at RICD. An internship at San Sai hospital gives students the opportunity to experience the medical profession in a unique hands-on manner.
On Wednesday evening, we dressed in traditional Thai clothing and attended a Khantok dinner, which is a traditional Thai meal and party. This particular dinner featured traditional Thai food (of course) set at long tables sunk low into the ground, so that the diners could comfortably sit on cushions at the floor level with their feet in the trench underneath the table. During the meal, traditional Thai dancers and musicians performed for us. These dances included representatives from different tribes in Thai culture who dressed in tribe specific colors and costumes. At the end of the performances, we were given the opportunity to learn a traditional Thai dance. Several students seized this opportunity by the horns and performed beautifully. I also seized the opportunity by something, but given the questionable aesthetics of the result, I’m not sure what. Moving on.
Thursday and Friday had the same basic schedule as Monday through Wednesday. We sat in Thai language classes in the morning and interned during the afternoon. On Saturday, however, we hiked up a mountain above Chiang Mai to visit a famous Buddhist temple, Doi Suthep. The hike was fairly steep, yet we traveled through and beside beautiful scenery and stopped half-way up the mountain to rest and learn at a smaller, quieter, and less touristy temple that is primarily used for meditation. At Doi Suthep, Ajarn Add taught us the history of the Buddha and we explored and shopped in the surrounding market. Later on that day, we experienced our first (for many of us) thai massage. I don’t remember much of it. I was asleep. I do remember that the masseuse had hands from heaven and kept waking me up so that I would turn over. I’m not exactly Thai size. (Yes, I say that proudly. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been a big person. So just let me have this one, ‘kay?) That evening, we finished up the day by celebrating Ajarn Mike’s 21st birthday! Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blixen were all in attendance. Rudolph, however, was off somewhere trying to discover Namaste with Frosty. Regardless, we have all embraced Ajarn Mike’s teaching to “Risk for the butterfly;” to leave our comfort zones and step out into the unknown to find and experience things that most people can only dream of and become all that we can be.
This week’s blog post was written by Kyle Benson, pictured above, senior Sociology major at Covenant College in Chatanooga, TN. To view more pictures from our first week in Thailand please click on the following link: Sa-wat-dii-khrap from Thailand!