Written and designed by Lee En Tong (19-U2)
Photos provided by Lee En Tong (19-U2)
Country roads, take me home
To the place, I belong
Mr Pomelo, our friendly tour guide from Northern Thailand, always sang his own rendition of John Denver’s most famous song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” on all of our bus rides around the fascinating city of Chiang Mai.
Despite being less famous than Bangkok, Chiang Mai surprised me in so many ways that I did not expect. Needless to say, as the days went by during our 7D6N service learning and cultural trip, Mr Pomelo’s song really started to grow on me.
We kicked off our trip with a visit to Doi Inthanon, which is famous for being the highest point in Thailand. As we were 2565m above sea level, the temperature was much lower than the city but despite that, there were certainly no complaints about the cool weather for us Singaporeans as we excitedly threw on our sweaters and took in the fresh, crisp mountain air.
We continued to make our way down a maze of boardwalks in the midst of the dense and luscious forest. Having been cooped up indoors completing assignments for the past one year, these moments gave me a sense of liberation and vulnerability as I was reminded of how small and insignificant we are compared to the vast expanse of nature. These feelings continued to linger as we made our way to Wachirathan Waterfalls.
As I took in the spectacular view of the King and Queen’s Chedis, set against the backdrop of mountain ranges that seem to go on and on, it also struck me how significant the Thai King is in unifying the country. I would read about it in the news, but being physically at the Chedis and soaking in the air of solemnity there truly made those words come alive for me.
We also visited Doi Suthep, a temple in the mountains. As we stepped into the temple barefooted, we were greeted by the gilded pagoda that shone elegantly against the hues of blue and pink in the sky brought about by the evening sunset. The scent of incense floated around the temple grounds and believers quietly made their way to pray. Orange robed monks sat at corners of the temple, chanting. The same air of solemnity of respect could be felt here. During our nightly introspection, we came to the conclusion that because Buddhism is deeply ingrained into the Thai national identity, it has shaped the lives and habits of the Thai people who display warm hospitality, friendliness, politeness and gratitude to all. We also learnt that their religion plays a huge role in policy making in Thailand through various case studies of the political system and their religious council.
Most of us have not interacted with monks before as we hardly cross paths with these somewhat mysterious, elusive figures. However, we were given the opportunity to find out about their lives at a sheltered monk chat at the corner of Chedi Luong in Chiang Mai Old City. What surprised me the most was the fact that the monks were multilingual! The monk that we spoke to was perfectly fluent in English, Mandarin, Thai and other languages used in his religious studies. Through our interactions, we discovered more about his life before and after being a monk. It was later revealed by Mr Pomelo that it is compulsory for all boys in Thailand to become monks at some point in their lives and that monks are revered and hold noble positions in Thai society. Monks are even exempted from military conscription!
Let’s move on to the next highlight of our trip, the all-important national symbol of Thailand: Elephants, also known as Chang in Thai.
The elephant print can be found on beer bottles and super touristy elephant pants most cringey tourists (like ourselves ahem) don when they return from the land of smiles. Thai kids even learn an elephant song that goes a little like this:
“Chang chang chang chang chang…”
We sang this song on our bus rides, during our meal breaks and introspection to prepare for our song performance to the kids at Ban Noi School. Up till now, it’s still stuck in my head.
Beyond all this, Thailand is also home to elephant parks. However, we did not ride elephants at the park that we visited. I’ve seen photos of people riding elephants on Instagram and honestly, it really did seem fun at first. Little did I realise how grim this tourist activity is – baby elephants are forcibly separated from their mothers, isolated in unspeakably inhumane conditions and tortured to break their spirit. Wild elephants won’t let people ride on them, hence, they are tortured as a way to tame them.
When we learnt about it during introspection, the glitzy, Instagramable elephant riding picture in everyone’s mind absolutely shattered. Fortunately, the elephant park that we had visited did not conduct elephant rides. Instead, we got to feed elephants, young and old, with bananas, sugar cane and tamarind balls (specially prepared for the ‘ah ma elephant’ that garnered everyone’s attention). The main highlight of this visit was the washing of elephants. Some got to scrub the elephants and for all of us who didn’t, there was a surprise in store. Who knew that the elephants were going to secretly stage an ambush? They had us cornered. One particular elephant (BonBon?) stuck his trunk into the muddy elephant bath water for a suspiciously long time. I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say we left the park covered in muddy water the elephants bathed in and may have had their Number 2 in (go check out @eunoiago.chiangmai for videos!). We had a great time and so did the elephants..
While all of the places we had visited were enjoyable, there was one place that we visited that left many of us feeling quite dejected, the Long Neck Village.
In order to fully understand what we were going to experience, we examined several articles that questioned how ethical it was to visit the Long Neck Village. The tribes that live there are not just limited to the Karen tribe. While the tribes differed in the clothes they wore, they all had something in common – they were all being objectified when their villages was turned into a tourist attraction. The work they do in these villages is their livelihood. As a group, we faced a moral dilemma. If we visit, will we be the ones objectifying these tribes? Will this then prolong their objectification as the tribes maintain status quo? On the other hand, if we do not visit, they will have no source of income. If business declines, travel firms will lose interest. How else can we help them?
We went to the village with the expectation of having meaningful conversations with the villagers to find out about their lives and show that there are people who do care for them. Despite the villagers’ ability to speak English and Mandarin, our attempts to have conversations about their lives were limited as many of the villagers could only hold conversations about the prices of the goods. For many of us, this was truly a low point during the trip as we did not know how we could help.
However, all hope was not lost. One of the teachers, Ms Iris, discovered and contacted Mr Lee Ayu, the co-founder of Akha Ama Coffee, a company that involves Akha families growing coffee beans as a means of income for them to improve their quality of life for e.g. improved educational outcomes. His story of working hard as a minority to receive an education, improving his tribe’s life through this business, empowering tribes and the brand being recognised internationally is an inspiring one. This was a great learning experience for all of us as Mr Lee Ayu decided to take action and be a changemaker himself, rather than wait for change to come.
Besides the cultural component of this trip, the service learning was the heart of it all. We taught English to the children at Ban Noi Primary School. Initially, some of us faced obstacles such as language barriers, mischievous children and difficulty in retaining their attention and desire to learn. Unabated by these challenges, we persisted, experimenting with creative ways to teach them and tried our best to learn basic Thai phrases, supporting one another. Some were fast learners while others were a little slower, so we also had to learn to adjust the lesson pace and content according to every child’s needs. Making all the children feel that they matter was really important as some of the children were less participative and sat aside during the games. I’m particularly thankful that all of us recognised this and looked out for every child, whether or not we were familiar with them. For many of us, the children’s break times were our favourite moments as the kids would come running to us to play. Their energy to play and interact is something that I wish I still had but for now, I’ll stick to caffeine.
Making krathongs during cross culture exchange at Ban Noi primary school and playing at Baan Pan Tan primary school
All in all, I felt that I’ve learnt a lot from the children at Ban Noi Primary School which cannot be explained in one article. The children were willing and eager to listen, learn and give selflessly. They displayed gratitude towards us through handmade thank you notes, hugs and words of appreciation. They also gave thanks for the food they received at every meal. I too, am reminded that the lessons we learn are not just from those who are older than us, but also from those who are younger and see the world through a different lens.
All these lessons and complexities can only be best explained by being physically there rather than in words. My hope is that all of us will apply all these invaluable learning points back here in Singapore and serve the communities here or even abroad.
This trip has been an eye-opening and enjoyable one which would not have been possible without our experienced tour guides, Mr Pomelo and Mr Brown, and amazing teachers, Mr Alvin Toh, Mr Gabriel Woon, Ms Iris Lee and Ms Nadira! A huge thank you to Group 2 as well for the great company, meals and bus ride to Doi Inthanon!
*Writer’s note: There are some places that we visited that were not included in this article such as the Kantoke Dinner and our brief visit to Baan Pan Tan Primary School where the students who went to Chiang Mai last year taught at.
Painting work by students from Eunoia GO Chiang Mai 2018 at Baan Pan Tan Primary School