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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

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