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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Epilogue: In Search of Chiang Mai

Written by: Dr Yeoh Seng Guan.

The deadly resolution of the prolonged street protests in downtown Bangkok by the “red shirts” in late May caught worldwide media attention. Its immediate relevance for this year’s cohort of student travelers was that the annual study trip faced the likely prospect of cancellation because of security concerns. But information from various sources based in Chiang Mai assured us that the troubles were parochially confined to the capital city of Bangkok, situated some 700 kms to the south.

And so the trip proceeded safely as planned albeit with some minor hiccups along the way. Some of the many learning/talking points are faithfully chronicled in this blog before you. A few entries give a glimpse of the range of human concerns being compassionately tackled by various civil society groups based in this ancient northern bustling city situated close to the borders of Burma, Laos and Cambodia. They dig below the tourist gloss of Chiang Mai to reveal some of the forces that had caused many to flock to this city in search of a better life and to escape political oppression. Others provide investigative and impressionistic forays into aspects of urban Thai culture this past eventful week, the World Cup Finals notwithstanding.

As in the years before, a trip of this nature is not conceivable in the absence of the guidance and goodwill of a number of key individuals and civil society organizations. First and foremost, my gratitude goes to Dr Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, the Director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Social Development (RCSD), Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, for kindly agreeing to be the host institute and for providing various suggestions on possible input sessions early on.

Ms Kanchana (RCSD) helped to source out our able and hardworking student guides and tackled last minute logistical challenges efficiently. Ms Amema Saeju (Mimi) was instrumental in making contacts with the community leaders of the Attaqwa Mosque whereas Ms Busarin and Mr Ton similarly paved the way for us to meet with the other civil society groups.

Our accommodation in Chiang Mai this year was truly exceptional! Ms Sunanta Thakas (Sin), the proprietor of Yourhouse Guesthouse, not only looked to everyone’s needs with great care but her extensive contacts in the business lighten considerably our organizational worries.

Last but not least, our four student guides for this year - Ms Jamjuree Janjorn, Ms Jutha Srivatananukulkit, Ms Penkwun Chumpukum and Mr Kitikhun Suja – shouldered the heavy responsibilities thrust upon them with cool grace and humour, and in this way has continued the singular tradition of student guides extraordinaire.

Of the six study trips organized thus far, this is the bumper year in terms of the number of countries represented by the student travelers – Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Once again, I am happy to note that, on balance, this cohort was able to rise to the challenge of negotiating a steep learning curve in an unfamiliar environment with much enthusiasm and flexibility. They were joined by veterans of previous study trips and former student guides from the Philippines, giving this particular trip a special aura in terms of networking opportunities.

For me the central lesson of this year’s study trip to Chiang Mai can be epitomized in an imagery used by Gabfai, one of the groups visited. Learning to listen intently to others, especially the marginalized in society, is akin to unfurling one’s clenched fists and letting go with what we are familiar with. Without this mindful disposition, one cannot get to the heart of the matter but remains in a state of aggressive denial. For this cohort, I hope this trip will be remembered in this manner for years to come.

In-formation at Wat U-Mong

Closing Entry by the Editor-in-Chief

Written by: Nadiah Ahmad.

Chiang Mai posed for many of us an opportunity to get away from the familiar and learn about, what seemed like, an unknown and mysterious backyard. Thailand, a country situated just above Malaysia, was a place many only associated with Bangkok and Phuket, and so the location was in itself enticing.

When I signed up for the trip, I did not know anyone in Monash beyond my ridiculously tiny social network. Many of the travellers were already acquainted with each other, having shared classes or similar social groups. When I was given the task of chief editor I shuddered at the notion of organizing a bunch of art students who, by definition, should not be prone to the notions of organization and deadlines – I, for one, still struggle with them. But having said that, I was pleasantly surprised at the work ethic that came with each team, and so felt assured of the workload given to us.

We arrived inquisitive, though slightly sleepy, at Chiang Mai Airport, and the transportation that greeted us was both unexpected and exciting; pick-up trucks with roofs, and which soon became our main mode of transport around the city, was one of the pivotal settings for the groups of us to get to know each other. It was also a place for Abeer to release her frustrations and boredom by singing the Sesame Street theme song.

Days passed rather slowly for us, early mornings and late nights; when it was three pm, we hoped for it to be six. Even so, each hour we spent, we learnt, laughed and sang. Work was done, though admittedly, not always on time. But the times we shared, we shared willingly. Getting to know one another was part of the incentive and became one of the main reasons we did not want to leave the country. Our student guides assimilated themselves to be one of us; they shared stories and experiences with us and vice versa, and because of that, they have left a lasting impression in our hearts and minds.

There are a couple of things that must be highlighted to single out this trip from others, making it (and this is my biased perspective) the BEST student trip EVER. One of which is, unlike the previous ones, the lack of a definitive setting in which previous travellers saw as mandatory – the cyber cafe. I have heard stories of previous travellers bonding over the brightly lit computer screens at cyber cafes. Though a few of us did do our work as one, most of us (and by the end of it, all of us) were instead stationed within the confines of our rooms or the makeshift studio at the guesthouse to finish our work.

We instead bonded over football, Singha beer, saman, banghra, talks about the trauma of sex shows and Muay Thai, and a group effort to get a couple of travellers emancipated from their denial of mutual infatuation. Considering the circumstances (or lack thereof), the travellers ended up seeing each other as more than just course mates; indeed, we are all now friends.

Another peculiar factor present within our group was the multiplicity of nationalities amongst the travellers. We had Malaysians, Indonesians, a Sri Lankan, an Indian, an Aussie, a Zimbabwean and a Chinese whose eagerness was infectious. It was interesting to see everyone break out of their national shells, and embrace each others’ idiosyncrasies. It was not only a trip to learn about Thai culture, but the culture of our fellow travellers, and most of us gained a plethora of knowledge, not excluding suave dances moves.

Dr. Yeoh, our Pathfinder and head honcho, set out planning this trip for us to learn about the world in ways we could not have in the pages of our course readers. He wanted us to learn by experiencing, by watching and hearing stories of struggles and triumphs. Personally, I think he wanted to reassure us of our ideals, and to hopefully retain them once we are released from the confines of our Monash gates. I wish for his plan to work, for the world is a reality that needs a necessary dose of idealism, which then hopefully this bunch of travellers can provide.

Reflections by Cheah Wui Jia

Written by: Cheah Wui Jia.

Sometimes it seems like heaven is a place on earth.

At the mosque we were visiting, I saw the young girls clad in tudung, running around joyfully, as if there were no such thing as pain in life.

And I took it all in, smiling. It seemed… so pure. I smiled at a young child and she smiled back at me, before running somewhere to hide behind a door. I thought my heart would burst. Dramatic, I know, but me, being the sentimental freak that I am, just cannot help myself. While they scuttled around like little mice playing hide and seek, I understood what purity may possibly mean. Trust. Devoid of fearfulness or presumption. Children love with an innocence that no adult can ever understand. They don’t see the colour of your skin. Or your body shape. Or whether you are doing drugs, or sex work. They just love you if you give them candy. Or make them laugh.

It makes sense. Loving the human being. Imperfect in many ways but, nonetheless, human in every way.
The people that I have met are pure at heart. Strangers I come across in Chiang Mai clasp their hands and say “Sawadika,” with a humility that the world needs most in a contemporary age of despair and disappointment. Institutions of authority have failed us in one way or another. Corrupt organizations, themselves comprising fallen human beings, have swindled away hopes and lives like conscience never existed. We live in a period when truth seems elusive, when motives are incessantly questioned, when ideals evaporate to leave an arid desert where dreams are nothing but mere shiny mirage, when a flurry of ideology seems destined to implode under a heavy weight of contradiction.

But out of brokenness and sorrow comes forth a faith that can be purer than gold. Faith is that transcendental signified that we so desperately need, in a world full of flickering simulacra and empty signifiers. Faith is that wall that came crashing down when a crowd that shrieked for joy climbed over its remnants from the East into the West of Germany. Faith is when a woman, shackled under house arrest for 14 years, still possesses a heart that drums to the beats of freedom, because she loves her country too much to sing mournful desert songs. Faith is when we relentlessly decline to have our hope dictated by the shifting conditions of surrounding circumstances that may seem hopelessly negative.

We can choose to turn cynical and hard hearted, deriving certainty from a postmodern form of numbing depression. We can choose to casually shrug, or complain out of bitter resentment and throw our hands up in the air. Nothing is going to work. So why try?

Or we can choose to make a difference, rise to the occasion and believe that we can change things. That we can love, and make purity possible.

The NGOs I have visited demonstrate signs of an unfaltering faith. Caring for refugees who flee from tyranny and oppression, for sex workers who suffer from stigma, for AIDS victims whose lives are dwindling a little each day. In other words, people who have dedicated their lives towards caring for other people who may have to keep looking over their shoulders with a gaze so furtive, clutched by a fear so paralyzing it makes it difficult to breathe easily.

I wish I could describe to you, in words, my study trip at Chiang Mai. But I can’t. This doesn’t stem from a sheer laziness to type out this diary entry, or from the belief in a Lacanian theory that language is hopelessly unreliable. Words just cannot do justice to the study trip. I wish I could taken you by the hand, to urge you to walk with me and absorb the sights, sounds, tastes, feelings that so profoundly, in the words of another diary entry, assailed me, at every phase of the trip. I can only offer you snippets that I hope, paint a picture of Chiang Mai and the people that I encountered.

I will be unapologetically honest now. There were times when I questioned what faith and love really mean. In many ways, my Christian faith was violently at odds with the lifestyle of the homosexual or the sex worker. I knew I had no right to judge anyone either. Smoking, drinking, cursing, and cracking jokes (that made me blush or gulp), were what some of my friends did on a regular basis. Habits like these were something I had to accept, and attempt to overlook. Constantly surrounded by church members, I had been accustomed to the habits of the devout Christian which clearly excluded behavior deemed as worldly or ungodly. But I knew I had to suspend my judgmental tendencies, and accept differences in doctrine (Christianity versus Social Science) that threatened to mar the entire Chiang Mai experience for me. I had to learn to love, over and over again. To unclench my tightly clutched fist, over and over again. I prayed at night, asking God to help me understand and love people better. 

At the ice breakers exercise that kicked off the GABFAI session, I fully understood the entire painful exercise of trying to keep my clenched fists closed (while an annoying opponent tried to pry it open). When Ann asked how clenching one’s fists felt, some of my friends automatically replied “It felt powerful, like I was in control”. For me, before the exercise was over, I already knew its aim deep down in my heart. It is safe to feel as if one is in control. Safe to know that the world is clearly mapped out and highly predictable. But that is not the real world.

I understood what Dr Yeoh meant when he urged us to leave our comfort circle of friends and attempt to spend time with acquaintances beyond our familiar cliques (or “factions”). Judgment barely begins with people on the fringes of society like the prostitute, or the hardcore drug addict, or the homeless refugee. It begins with the people we come into contact with in our daily lives. People whose lives are ordinary, just like ours. If we cannot overcome miniscule differences by loving one another unconditionally, we cannot expect to bridge the larger gaps that divide the centre from the periphery in society.

For the record, the adjective “lame” hardly means Lochna’s sprained ankle. I truly enjoyed the company I had. I felt honoured being there among them.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Journey Across Three Borders

Written by: Eunice Phang.

With my fellow alumnis, I took a day trip to visit the Golden Triangle. Considering it would be a long ride with the total of 600km, with no haste, we headed north of Chiang Mai at 7.15am while other pathfinders were still deep in their sleep. Along the trip we made a few stops, namely Laos, Myanmar and Chiang Rai.

First stop was the White Temple (Rong Khun Temple) which is said to be a symbol of holiness and purity. The temple is ornamented with white glass as a symbol of Buddha’s wisdom shining all over the earth and the universe. This temple is owned by Chalermchai Khositpipat, a famous artist from Chiang Rai. The artist used his savings from selling painting to build his dream “Art for Land Project” where he used his interpretations of Thai Buddhist art and culture to form the White Temple; it was his way of giving thanks and contributing to his home country. Situated along the highway, it is indeed an opulent sight from a far. Strolling in and around the temple, one would discover that the landscape design of the temple and sculptures had been given underlying Buddhist meanings and values.

As if descended from the heavens, the White Temple

But what I think was the highlight of the temple (and which I found pretty amusing) was the murals in the temple which unfortunately were not allowed to be photographed. Unlike classical Buddhist murals that show the Buddha’s path to enlightenment, these murals portrayed the context of human history; depictions were aided through the use of popular comic characters and weapons of mass destruction. This juxtaposition of modern symbols and discourse against ancient Buddhist story-telling tries to emulate the “reality” of the modern society which would normally be seen as a threat to traditional Buddhist values, or even to the future of humanity. It is very interesting to see characters such as Neo from Matrix, Darth Vader from Star Wars, Marvel heroes such as Spiderman and Batman etc. These post-modern art works requires the viewers own interpretation for the work to be meaningful; to some it might give an impression of the lack of seriousness, but it could also be a reflection of the modern world affected by globalization and capitalism.

Hands that speak of repent? Or of redemption?

After enlightening ourselves with Thai artwork, we made our move on the Mekong to Laos. There, we visited the local bazaar that sold all sorts of trinkets, silk scarves, wooden carvings, and, much to our surprise, COBRA WHISKEY! Obviously a tourist would have a rage with this exotic drink; the whiskey came in a variety of other flavours from Gecko to Scorpiono, there was also a combination of all poisonous reptiles, but this apparentlt reserved only for the brave. However as these whiskeys are known to be somewhat of a traditional aphrodisiac to make men … strong in places unspoken, it then does not take a brave men to drink the whiskey, but a pretty insecure one! Out of curiosity, I sought for a reaction frommy fellow tourists who tried a few sips; unfortunately, the claimed effect was yet to be felt, but they did feel their body heat rise.

Reptile whiskey

Our next stop was to the border of Thailand and Myanmar where a fellow traveler and I were fooled into illegally crossing borders to Myanmar only to be greeted by Burmese officers who extorted 500 baht from us each because we did not have proper visas; the haunting and evil laugh of the lady officer who found amusement in our cross-border misery added insult to injury as we all knew if we did not pay, we would risk becoming border refugees. And so with the last of my Bahts, I bailed us out.

Of awkward borders

Moving on, and never wanting to look back, we headed to the Karen village situated in Northern Thailand to visit the hill tribes. Honestly, the place has become to tourist-like to the point where all the villagers are already dressed up, made up with flower garlands on their hair, ever ready to be photographed. They make a living from selling crafts to tourists, yet most tourists were just snapping photos away as if at a zoo. The village ladies and little girls are indeed very professional and camera sensitive, posing every time they sense a flash with a “botox” smile as a way of initiating the tourist to buy from them. Indeed they were satisfying the tourist gaze in us.

The price of beauty

The most memorable tribe would be those of the long neck Padaung which has garnered lots of interest in anthropology and feminism. The Padaung women are subjected to wear heavy brass rings around their neck, ankles and arms at the age of 5 onwards. According to ancient myth, it is to protect them from tiger attacks. Some say it is their definition of beauty. The reason that these women still practice this traditional culture could be to preserving their cultural identity or to capitalize on their way of living for the tourism industry. In fact, there is much discussion that these “cultural villages” likened to human zoos, where mistreatments are rife as some of the “villagers” are illegal immigrants or refugees. When asked if the process of adorning the brass rings were painful, they all gave a much scripted answer of it being a painless process and that they are used to it. As much as it should be a cultural heritage, deep down I do feel sorry for the girl who carries such physical burden in their daily lives.

This marks the end of the Thai-Laos-Myanmar exploration. An honest review on the trip? Eye opening but not worth the money, it felt a lot like a scripted reality show throughout and even the guide’s jokes appeared rather unnatural. It does give legitimate bragging rights that you have spanned three countries in one day, but I would rather spend on Thai massages. Enough said.

Alumnis and former student guides unite

Cultural Diversity in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Written by: Jamestar Matani Ruwisi.

Thailand’s recorded history dates back 5000 years ago. Thailand has was never been colonized and for this reason the country has never been detached from its culture making it unique. The country’s heritage is emulated on their, palaces, shrines and ancient sites that define exclusive Thai architectural styles and amazing designs and these designs have existed from the period 1782 to present day.

Chiang Mai is located approximately 700 kilometers from Bangkok, it is one of Thailand’s famous and commonly visited provinces. Chiang Mai is an amazing state within Thailand and is one of the most historically significant provinces in Thailand. Chiang Mai accounts for numerous temples and ancient sites; Chiang Mai becomes an important site to experience Thai history in the present.


Chiang Mai has a distinctive unique culture which encapsulates, historical sites, temples, cultural shows and cultural centers, Thai traditional ways of life, museums, theatre and dance festivals, some of the temples include Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Sing and Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Borommathat. Chiang Mai and the entire Thailand population hold a strong culture based on what it means to be an ideal Thai citizen. Chiang Mai’s vibrant culture is one of the key reasons why tourists visit the country. The culture plays a pivotal role on keeping the people together and tourists are mesmerized by the overwhelming state of art performances which are characterized by massive wave of utopian enthusiasms.

Chiang Mai has three dominant religions which encapsulate Buddhist, Christianity and Islam. Buddhism is however the widely practiced religion in Chiang Mai.
Three Kings monument in front of the city’s Museum; commercialism for cultural preservation

The world has become transnational and global movements of people and diffusion of cultural values and the ensuing interdependencies make it necessary to live together regardless of the nature and form of differences and how people respond to them. Mrs. Moi of the Muslim community alluded that diversity exists amongst different religions “In Chiang Mai, all three religions work and leave together in the communities without discrimination”, in other words the people of Chiang Mai have managed to successfully engender peaceful coexistence regardless of differences that exists in religion and this can be acknowledged as a remarkable achievement as religion is usually a factor for fractions in societies. Chiang Mai is also well known for the unique existence of copious tribal people and their villages are frequently visited by tourists; addding to the place’s uniqueness.

Of commemorating the invisible

It also important to note that Chiang Mai’s distinct cultural significance has staged a massive show of prowess on cementing the constant and continuous presence of tourists. This has created a solid platform for constant existence of diversity in Chiang Mai that is people from all walks of life coming to experience the amazing cultural performance of the Thai people. Thailand has a unique hygiene system, shoes are regarded as dirty and it’s unacceptable to wear shoes inside the house. This exercise is also prevalent in some business centers, and in temples.

Chiang Mai has a lot to offer. It is also often referred as the “Rose of the North” due to its compelling sites and views that make it culturally strategic and an economic focal point for tourists across the northern region of Thailand.

Diary Entry: Day 7

Written By: Shafira Sahara.

Do you know how the beginning of something always feels so long and the end always too fast?

Signing up on this latest 'In Search of...' Trip, we were cleverly given seven days to spend in Chiang Mai. Today is day seven. I opened my eyes this morning thinking "where has day one to six gone?"

However I did not think for long. At 11 am we all met at the guest house lobby to have our final practice for the cultural performance. At first, the Saman group started. Our pace was growing faster and faster as our confidence increased. I was smiling proudly until I heard Cici and Bats whacking each other during the windmill segment. Everything is fine though. We knew the consequences when we agree to do this Acehnese dance.

The result of keen Bhangra practice for the last two weeks
Afterwards, the Bhangra group practiced. When the Indian music started playing everybody jumped around. It's the first time the Bhangra group had practiced with the music on, so their pace was increasing as well. A fan was highly required then because the weather was burning hot. In fact, some of us actually dominated the fan by sitting right at the front of it. Sweat was dripping like the impending rain.

After the practices, some of us went to lunch. It was quite funny though, because we all went mad about the food. There was a kind of nostalgic taste to the sweet and sour Tom Yam, the deep fried crispy garlic fish and even to the mouth-watering Thai Ice Tea, shanom. It might be the fact that we were extremely hungry; or the fact that this taste would be the last one we have in this beautiful city.

The beauty of the city and the food faded when we got back to our guest house. Reality kicked in. We had tons of work to do. Most of us spent the day working; writing our pieces, editing our videos and choosing photos to go with the articles.

The clock struck six and our lut dengs were ready to take us to our farewell dinner. All of us were dressed more culturally than when we attended the cultural dinner. On the one hand, the Bhangra dancers were wearing long scarves around their necks and everything was very colorful and alive. On the other hand, the Saman dancers were dressed in black shirts and dark pants with colorful sarongs. The leader of the pack, Dr. Yeoh, was wearing a Batik shirt. Although we had rushed to reach our destination in order to welcome our guests, it turned out to be an unspoken rule in Thailand for guests to arrive an hour after the invitation. In complete excitement with pre-performance nerves we waited.

 A collage of people that this year's episode of In Search Of brought together

The guests started to come, one by one. The first to arrive were from EMPOWER--which is understandable since they work just across the street from the restaurant. After that, a steady flow of guests continued to arrive and the show began.

Hosted by our student guide Jutha Srivatananukulkit and our very own Cyren Wong, the programme was packed. It started with a performance from the student guides, a Thai dance. This was followed by an energetic Bhangra performance by Monash students. After that, a series of performances lighted the stage, including a Taylor Swift rendition by Juree, the slapping performance of Saman dance, a lady-boy dance performance by Cyren and Juree and two photo slide presentation by Joe and Dr. Yeoh.

Rapid, intricate movements of Saman

Before the end of the night, Dr. Yeoh grabbed the microphone and went up to the front of the stage. As much as we hoped for him to do a rendition of AC/DC or Simon and Garfunkel, he was there for a speech. He emphasized the importance of opening our hearts and minds, in that it would be the key to our understanding things beyond our comfort zone. He also emphasized the need for us to be careful because these study trips can change our lives.

 Dr. Yeoh switching gear from his usual wittiness to a wise old man

We wrapped up the night with a performance of Dikir Barat, a traditional Malaysian dance. In the dance, everyone sang a couple of verses and chants while we moved in synchronized movements. The air, then and there, felt like it belonged to us. The past seven days that we've spent together seems to have been both long and gone too fast all at the same time. It's long because every day was productive. Even on a free day like day seven, we woke up early for practices and breakfast. But it was also short because there were still places to see, things to do. The days passed-by too fast and we were at the end already.

We came on this trip smuggling different cultural background into one tuk tuk (or maybe more than just one tuk tuk in this case). We met new friends, embraced new cultures and maybe even found a new dance partner. We've eaten worms, gotten sick, did not sleep and made our own experiences. We laughed a lot and cried a bit. Yes, we made our own experiences and loved them.

As we finished the Dikir Barat, we sang the famous song Rasa Sayang. And I really felt it. And I think everyone felt it as well. The love. The Rasa Sayang.

 Weiyan and Sze Jia expressing their Rasa Sayang to our pathfinder

This has been a great trip, overall. Chiang Mai, may your beautiful city and your welcoming people be blessed. We have learned a lot, things that people learn in a lifetime we have learnt in seven days.

Now we go back to our hometowns, with open minds and opened hearts.