Category Archives: Thai Culture

Last stop, Thailand

It was time to return. I packed my bags with only the essentials: clothes, a minimalist assortment of toiletries, cameras, an array of iDevices for the 21st century traveler, and of course, stickers. Lots of them. After bouncing around East Asia on a few dreadful layovers, thanks to my stubbornness to book the cheapest flight available, I landed in Bangkok around 11:00pm last Thursday. The next day I caught a flight up to Nakhon Phanom. That was one leg of the journey I was okay throwing out any preoccupation with cost. I was ready to leave behind the ultra-tourism of Central Thailand for the laid-back Northwest as fast as I could. The pull I felt to return to the place I called home for a year was indescribable. At 8:00pm on Friday I landed in NKP and was received by Pi Med and Pi Ponchai, two of my closest contacts in Thailand, who brought me back to Pla Pak as their house guest.

The next five days that followed have been a whirlwind of joyful reunions, delicious food and valiant attempts at conversation. I plunged head-first, as I did three years ago, into this beautiful, hospitable, mesmerizing place I’ve held so close ever since leaving. I’ve surfaced, with a few mosquito bites, a renewed appreciation for shower heads and enough happiness to last another year or two until my next visit. There are no words to explain the emotions I felt seeing my students again and greeting the teachers with whom I grew closest.

The familiarity of this place is overwhelming, though much has changed: new schools have been built, roads paved and shops opened. There is no longer aerobic [read “Arabic”] dance in the village center and I do not recognize the students in the three youngest grades at Pla Pak Noi and Wang Yang schools. The main road through town seems busier than I remembered and Wi-Fi is now abundant. Perhaps the greatest change, however is the bathroom makeover in my old teacher housing. This year’s WorldTeach volunteers have the luxury of a Western toilet and a hot water heater for the shower! I’m not jealous, really. I think bucket showers and that squat toilet made me a better person. That’s what I’m telling myself.

I met the new WorldTeach volunteer who is now at Pla Pak Noi and it is reassuring to know that the students I once taught are in exceptional hands. I found remnants of some of my old teaching tools in her classroom, which made me smile. One of the most intriguing and rewarding parts of my trip thus far has been the reclamation of the Thai language (as I understood it). I would say I retained about 20% of my vocabulary, and after five days of submersion, I’ve landed myself back at month seven in my language development. The most amusing parts of this linguistic journey have been the moments when, in Thai conversation, I understand that I’m about to do something (eat dinner) with someone (teachers), though I inconveniently miss important words that tell me the when, where and how. In moments like these, out of sheer habit after playing this game for a year, I of course say yes to it all and just wait for life to take hold. Eventually I am sitting down to a delicious Korean barbecue with people I’ve come to love, laughing at bad jokes over beer with ice. During these moments, two polar opposite thoughts dance across my mind: How did I do this for an entire year? and Why did I ever leave?

My time in Pla Pak has come to an end. Tomorrow I leave for Mukdahan, where I will rendezvous with a good friend and travel to one of the last corners of Isaan we have yet to see, Ubon Ratchathani. I’ve fallen in love all over again with the Isaan region of Thailand. After seeing the slow but gratifying work of building community in Detroit through growing food, I am more deeply moved by this agrarian society than ever before. Life revolves around what can be grown at any time of the year and routine is married to the sun and season. It’s a wonderful reminder for what life could (should?) look like back home.



Thailand Tribute #6: Mai pen rai

Monks walking along the Maekong River in Mukdahan

Today I pay my respects to the backbone of Thai culture and its easy-going, no conflict, all smiles attitude which is summarized in one, simple phrase: mai pen rai. It seems to be an appropriate response for most situations here, as its meaning varies depending on the context. It is much easier to illustrate the utility of this phrase via scenarios, so let me paint a few pictures of when it would be an appropriate response: You are given a gift and say thank you. Mai pen rai. You are late and apologize for your tardiness. Mai pen rai. The neighbor dog jumps on you with muddy paws and stains another white shirt. Mai pen rai. A student’s backpack starts on fire during class. Mai pen rai. You are preoccupied with schedules and worry over future-oriented thoughts. Mai pen rai. You are given a three minute notice that the school is being fumigated and students are running away wildly as poisonous gases are billowing out of a leaf blower by a man wearing nothing but a surgical mask. Mai pen rai.

As you can see, there are few situations in Thailand where mai pen rai would be an inappropriate response, which is why it is my favorite phrase. It’s my fallback when I don’t have the vocabulary to express what I truly want to say. I often find myself in conversations with co-teachers and community members that have digressed to a series of pantomimes and facial expressions on my end; when my flailing and game of charades is of no help, I try to end the interaction with as much dignity as possible by smiling warmly and uttering mai pen rai. In Monopoly terms, it’s kind of like my “Get out of Jail Free” card.

Yesterday’s post on Thai time cannot go unmentioned when speaking to mai pen rai, as the Thai outlook on time seems to be a direct manifestation of this phrase. I think it is even difficult to distinguish at what point does one end and the other begin, as these two cultural phenomenons are so entangled and at times one in the same, it is perhaps impossible to do so.

Thailand Tribute #7: Thai time

A sign in Bangkok's main train station

I find this picture amusing for several reasons, the least of which not being the fact that Thailand seems to have a lot of clocks in this condition. In general, most of the clocks I’ve seen here seem to be broken, which really isn’t a problem because I have come to realize that daily routines are often based on external cues such as weather rather than a watch. For example, if it is raining when I wake up in the morning, I know that my ride to school will be late because these mornings are ideal for sleeping in and everything seems to move a little slower. There is also an enjoyable amount of irony in the posting of this sign. Though I don’t know how long it was standing (maybe just for the quick repair of the clock…), it happens to be located in the hub of Thailand’s railway system, where timeliness is of the essence.

Even if I were to spend ten years in Thailand, I still don’t think I would fully understand (nor appreciate) Thai time. I believe there are just some innate cultural norms and social cues that nothing short of growing up in Thailand could teach. Schedules don’t seem to exist, and when I ask about them (like when school is closed during the semester), I’m told not to worry; the Thai outlook on schedules is summarized perfectly in the words of Pi Med: “We let you know the day before.” As for social plans like dinner parties, five hours is considered advance notice. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to get a text from Steph during a morning class that a party was being thrown that evening. As for punctuality, here is where Thai time truly becomes perplexing. I’ve found that any pick-up time to go somewhere, for example, should come with a “plus-minus one hour sign” as a footnote. The only exception I have noticed is the school day, which (usually) ends at 4:00pm on the dot, regardless of whether or not work is finished. There are some days I will wait with teachers until the clock strikes four, even though we’ve been sitting around with nothing to do for 20 minutes, while other days I have to drop everything I’m doing because it’s 4:00pm and my ride home is practically backing out of her parking spot without me. This may be a result of teachers working as government employees (as they are required to clock a set amount of hours each week) rather than a larger comment on Thai time, but regardless it’s a fascinating inconsistency in the culture here.

My favorite “plus-minus one hour sign” story (though I wish I had known about this footnote at the time) was the morning I was going on a field trip with Wang Yang School. Kru Khem told me the day before that he would pick me up at 6:00am. I set my alarm for 5:00am just to be safe (perhaps I had an inkling of what to expect) and luckily I took a quick shower, because just after I got out, I heard a truck pull up outside the house, followed by Kru Khem “quietly” shouting up to my window, “Bai-Khao! Bai-Khao!” I scrambled to get dressed, twist up my dripping hair, and gather my things for the day before racing down the stairs so as to avoid making him wait. Then we drove to Wang Yang Village and literally sat in the truck for over an hour while students loaded the buses to begin our trip. I have long since let go of the irritable thoughts that bubbled up inside of me that morning, like how much longer I could have slept in, why Kru Khem disregarded his stated time or even bothered to give me a pick-up time in the first place, etc., in similar situations that have since occurred. Now when I find myself waiting or feeling rushed when the plus-minus sign manifests in a situation, I take a deep breath and occupy myself with what is happening in the moment, because that’s what everyone else around me is doing! I could perhaps summarize my year in Thailand as one incredibly long exercise in patience and mindfulness.

And for that, thank you Thailand.

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