About Me


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Starting to See Why They Call It 'The Rainy Season'...

Hi everyone! So it's pretty hard to believe that it's been over two weeks since I've left the States...This past week especially has really flown by. I'm getting more and more settled each day, and starting to feel a lot more comfortable getting around the city (until I have to cross the street). Chiang Mai is a pretty unique city in terms of layout and getting around. First of all, there are basically two distinct sections to the city- the old section is a giant square surrounded by a moat, and the newer section is everything outside of and around the moat. There are two roads that circle the inner city, one on the outside of the moat and one on the inside- both are one-way roads, but each go in opposite directions from the other (this setup can sometimes require some pretty roundabout routes to get to a relatively close-by destination. I actually thought that these one-way main roads would help me out when crossing the street (I tend to forget which way to look when people drive on the left hand side of the road), but it turns out that people here yield to pedestrians about as regularly as they yield to red lights (very rarely, even at crosswalks, even at a red light). Like I said last week, I could write forever about some of the maneuvers I've seen on the road, but I don't want to get started right now.

Luckily the public transportation system here is a cheap, fun (and relatively safe) way to get around here. Apparently there are only about fifty metered taxis in the whole city- I've seen maybe one or two maybe one or two around since I’ve been here. The main forms of public transport are tuk-tuks and songthaews. Tuk-tuks are basically three wheeled motorbikes, with the driver up front and room for two passengers in the back seat, named for the noise their motors make. They're a lot of fun but relatively expensive (by Chiang Mai standards...they'll still take you basically anywhere in the city for less than $2 U.S.). The other unique thing about tuk-tuks is that you negotiate the price with the driver before getting in for the ride. This sounds good but can be annoying when drivers will sometimes try to rip off ferrangs (foreigners).

Two quick but related side-note quirks about Chiang Mai: a.) the price for pretty much everything not in a mall is negotiable. They say to start as low as half the asking price for anything you see in the markets, so I'm working on my bargaining-related Thai words/phrases (I've actually got my numbers down pretty well and can say 'Can you make it lower please?'). b.) There is always a different (higher) price for ferrangs. Many people will offer you different prices when bargaining, which I can understand, but there are even different admission prices for things like temples, parks, basically anything that would charge admission. Can you imagine a system like that in the U.S.? If anything we charge lower admission prices for 'ferrangs'- I heard its free admission for ferrangs at the Mexico border...yiiiiikes too political?

Ok sorry for the tangent, but back to getting around. So the other cool option they have here are called songthaews ('theaw' pronounced 'tao' or like 'tow' in 'tower'). The word literally means 'two rows'- basically you sit in sort of a covered bed of a pickup truck, with two rows of benches facing each other along the sides. There are different color songthaews (yellow and white ones operate on a fixed route like a bus) but the best are the red trucks, which operate basically like a taxi- they'll take you anywhere you want, but you'll be generally riding with several other people meaning you'll have to make some other stops before you reach your destination. The upside is that they cost a basically fixed rate of 20 Baht to go anywhere in the city (keep in mind throughout these posts that the exchange rate is $1= 34B, so 20B is less than 60 cents). It's going to be really hard going back to New York and paying close to $10 for a cab ride...

I didn't write anything really about the city itself last week, so before I get to my week I'll just mention a couple more little quirks that I've noticed- there are so many so I'm not going to get to all of them this week, but I'll keep adding them throughout the summer.

One interesting thing is the people's strong desire to be as white as possible (as opposed to the U.S. obsession with tanning). I mentioned the heat last week- it will be over 90 degrees and like 1000% humidity and yet you still see people driving their motor bikes in pants, a jean jacket, gloves, a hat, and a bandana over their face (bank robber style) to protect every inch of themselves from the sun. People walk around with umbrellas not because it's raining but because they want to block the sun (this seems to be fairly common with monks who can't otherwise cover themselves with the extra clothing).

There are stray dogs literally everywhere you look, and yet it's been really interesting to me that you never ever see any of them approach humans, not even just to come say hello (for anyone who's known the dogs I've had, you can see why this would be surprising). Some of them are really gross street dogs, but some of them actually look really cute and it's been tough sometimes resisting the urge to pet some of them. But I've gotten my fill with my new buddies Murphy and Mia, who are owned by one of the directors of Cultural Canvas. Mia is a bit of a psycho, but a sweetheart nevertheless and still just a pup, and Murphy is just the coolest- he's a really chill boxer who just lets Mia jump all over him.

Some of the stereotypes about Thailand are true- it's definitely not hard to find a sketchy looking old white guy with a 20 year-old sketchy looking Thai girl on the back of his motorbike. Maybe he thought that her friendly offer for 'good time' meant companionship for a scenic drive through the city?

Apparently Korean pop/Korean boy bands are seriously HUGE here. I know, surprising right? I didn't even think Korean pop was huge in Korea...

There are food vendors literally on every street, on every corner, sometimes along the whole street itself. It seems like there aren't a whole lot of restaurants as we know them in the U.S., but the food from the street vendors is amazing. It's not like New York where all you can get on the street is a pretzel or a hotdog- these people sell every type of (Thai) food you can think of or possibly want, and it's all delicious and fresh. Not really a quirk but one of my favorite things about Chiang Mai- the other night I went out to get dinner and had a full meal from one of the street vendors for 40 Baht (see above conversion). Amazing...

One more funny little development- so I've recently started communicating a lot more with my driver, Ben. He speaks a little more English than I originally thought, and he's been teaching me some new words and phrases in Thai on the rides home from work. I'm not even sure how this started, but recently on every ride home whenever he sees some Thai girl(s) on a motorbike that he likes (which happens quite often), he goes "Ahh suay suay!" and starts hysterically laughing (suay means beautiful). He seriously thinks it's the funniest thing in the world- all I can think of when he does it is the 'shwing shwing' from Wayne's World (Kadden, if you're reading this, you know what I'm talking about). Anyways, he's a crazy cat, but I'm glad I've actually started learning some Thai from him.

Alright so I guess on to my week's activities: So last Sunday, as I mentioned in my last post, I took a trip up to a temple called Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep with three of the other volunteers in the CCT house. Just as a little background info, Chiang Mai is bordered just to the north by a gorgeous mountain range, nothing too huge but literally right next to the city. Doi Suthep is up this mountain a bit, maybe 10 kilometers outside the city (metric system...so exotic).

We got a songthaew to take us up to the base of the temple grounds, where we then climbed an enormous staircase that leads up to the temple itself. Apparently the story with this temple is that back in the 1300s, an elephant was sent out to carry a Buddhist relic to a king in a nearby kingdom (back in the day, each present-day province in Northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai, was its own kingdom). The elephant never made it to the king- it collapsed near the top of the mountain and died. The king saw it as a religious sign and ordered the temple to be built at the site of the elephant's death. Anyways, it's a beautiful temple, and still an active religious site- many people were praying at various Buddhist shrines, and there were little chapel-type rooms where people could be blessed by monks. When the clouds would move out of the way, we got some really spectacular views of Chiang Mai and the surrounding area.

After the temple, we headed a bit further up the mountain to Phu Phing, the Queen's winter palace (with our same songthaew driver- he ended up waiting for us at each of our stops and was basically our group's personal driver for the whole day, all for 150 Baht per person). The palace itself wasn't really anything special- it was pretty but built in the 1970s and basically looked like just a big house, but the grounds were beautiful. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of batteries at this point, so I don't have any pictures, but we basically just walked for a bit through the gardens and other cool areas.

After the palace, we headed back down the mountain a bit to a waterfall that we had heard was really beautiful. When we got to the waterfall (which lived up to the hype) we found out that there was a trail you could take up the mountain to see a series of about nine waterfalls- a total trek of about 9 kilometers to the top. We decided to check it out and started up the nice, well-worn path, with a make-shift hand rail and everything, to the second waterfall level. When we decided to keep going, though, the hand rail soon disappeared and before we knew it we were hiking up a very steep, very slippery 'path' through legit jungle. I'm not kidding you, I felt like I was in 'Nam or something. Even though I was in boat shoes through all of this (fratty) since it was pretty improptu, it was one of the coolest outdoorsy things I've ever done. Every waterfall was absolutely beautiful, and we actually made it pretty far up the mountain before we decided to head back. Unfortunately, like I said, my camera was dead so I don't have pictures right now, but I'm going to try to get the other people I was with to email me some of theirs, and I might even go back one of these days with a full battery to get some pictures of my own- it was that amazing.

Today, Sophia, Hitome and I went out on a little 'river cruise'- basically took a boat ride with and got a little history tour of Chiang Mai. It was a lot of fun, and pretty interesting as well. Suzie and Dermot had their last night in the house last night, which was pretty crazy to think about- I'll miss their crazy Irish accents. Four more volunteers are arriving today- haven't met them yet but I'll have updates next week. Tomorrow, I think Sophia, Hitome and I are going to venture out to some ancient city on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, and maybe do a little bit of exploring from there. I'm looking forward to it, so again next week hopefully I'll have some cool stories/pictures.

So I'm realizing that I didn't really say much about my organization last week, so here's an overview of what it's all about: Part of what HREIB does is conduct research and documentation about human rights violations in Burma, which it uses to compile reports in order to increase the international community's awareness of these violations. One of these reports is on Children Involved in Armed Conlfict, which a lot of you probably heard me talk about, as its the one that originally caught my attention about this organization. Actually, my supervisor Mike is currently preparing for a trip to New York, where he will be presenting this report's findings to a U.N. commission.

As its name suggests, though, the organization's main focus is on grassroots human rights education for Burmese people, in order to empower individuals and communities with the knowledge and tools needed for social change. The story behind the organization's founding is actually pretty interesting: its founder (a Burmese man) was working on a project related to human rights in Burma one day, when he was approached by another Burmese man and asked "What are human rights?" The simple question made him realize that calls for social change would be futile if the local people do not even know what their rights are. So he established HREIB and has since aimed to 'train the trainers' through workshops and training modules for local Burmese community leaders, so that these local leaders can return to their communities and spread awareness of human rights. Recently the organization has been looking to reach deeper into inner Burma, but this is actually a really dificult and dangerous task (so a lot of their work takes place in refugee camps along the border). A good part of the organization's inner network is actually in prison right now for their afilliation with HREIB, and even my American supervisor can no longer safely go into Burma because they are aware of his affiliation.

This all puts into perspective how brave the people I work with are- there is a whole Burmese staff working in the office, who are risking their liberty to fight for their cause- realistically it would be dangerous for them to even return to Burma to see their families. They're all amazing people and I'm really excited to continue getting to know them this summer. Actually, in the next couple of weeks the office is bringing in a group of Burmese interns to live and train in Chiang Mai at the HREIB office, so I'm excited to meet and interact with that group as well.

Couple of new developments at work this week: First, the third summer intern started in the office- his name is Aaron, another law student from the states and also a very cool guy. Second, I got started on the two main projects that I'll be working on for probably the next few weeks at least (maybe the rest of the summer depending on how in depth they want me to get). The first is working on a plan/proposal for working out a type of exchange program with other human rights institutes and centers (especially at universities) around the world. The idea is to bring in visiting scholars to HREIB to share their expertise and continue their own research, and to bring in visiting students for a sort of interactive study abroad program. The other side of the coin would be to possibly send Burmese students and activists to foreign universities to allow them to train and study to further educate them about human rights. The second project I'll be working on is doing research about the re-integration of trafficked children back into their home communities (looking at case studies, seeing what worked, what didn't, and basically overall experiences I guess). The final product, eventually, will be to put together a educational publication about re-integrating trafficked children, to be used in HREIB's training modules and educational endeavors. I'm really excited about both of these projects and I'm looking forward to making some good progress on each in the next couple of weeks, so I'll keep you updated on how those go.

Again, I still have plenty to say about HREIB, my internship, and Burma in general, but in the meantime keep doing your background reading if you're interested. For a good source of up-to-date happenings in Burma, check out www.irrawaddy.org . Also, here's a link to a report from the Harvard Law Human Rights program that gives a pretty good run-down of the situation: http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/hrp/documents/Crimes-in-Burma.pdf

Sorry, I'm just realizing how long this post has gotten, but hey, as Billy Joel says, I am the entertainer...I'll sign off for now with more info next week. There's some sort of festival apparently going on tonight, which I think I'll check out for a bit. More photo opps hopefully. Anyways, thank you all for the messages/posts- please keep them coming, I love hearing from all of you.

Random closing note for all you Cavaliers reading this- I was sitting last night typing some of this post in my bedroom (where there is no internet access) and my little wireless connection box popped up in the bottom right corner of my screen and said that I was connected to the 'wahoo' network...Despite the signal strength being 'very low', Mr. Jefferson and his University never cease to amaze me...

Law gawn ('see you later'),

PS One last thing- After a whole lot of struggling I've finally gotten a good amount of my pictures up on the web, so check out http://community.webshots.com/user/sas3ef if you're interested. Still not all of my pics (for some reason they were uploading strangely), and titles/captions are forthcoming, but at least its a start. PZ

1 comment:

  1. if anymore Tuk Tuk drivers try to rip you off, tell me about it and I'll handle it.

    and I just checked, there is still free admission for ferrangs at our boarder. I'll keep you updated.