So Thai

NINE things that are indeed, very Thai.

  1. Durian
  2. Tuuk Tuuk
  3. Muay Thai
  4. Spirit Houses
  5. The Wai
  6. Night Markets
  7. Buddhist Monks
  8. Bagged Food
  9. Images of the King      (I chose nine things because the number 9 is lucky according to Thai superstition, and it is an important number in Thai culture. Many Thai people continue to show reverence for Rama 9, the late King Bumibol Adulyadej by wearing a thai number 9 on their clothing.)
    Thai numbers – 9 is on the bottom right and looks like an elephant.

    I continued to take Thai language lessons all the way until the day before my flight. I’m very grateful to my 3 Thai teachers: Kruu Simon, Ajaan Lah and Kruu Kaan. Each one of them helped me tremendously on this journey.

    Post-Program Reflections

    Through Thai language I am able to grasp better understanding about Thai thinking and ways of operating. Memories resurface from my childhood and now make more sense.

    Surprisingly, I met the language goals I set for myself before starting off on this trip. My language learning went through many stages during the trip. At times it was easy, fun, dizzying, rigorous and tough. I did not expect the rollercoaster range of emotions that go with language learning and living independently in another country for a length of time. Two months is short, yet Thai time is very different than American time, for sure.

    One thing I have brought back as a result of this experience, is the idea of “Mai Bpen Rai.” It’s a phrase that is similar to ‘sabai sabai’ and loosely, it means never mind, no problem, it’s OKThat’s something I repeat internally to myself, in or out of Thailand. Like many other things, language learning is a life-practice, and this mantra allows me to accept the process. I apply it to many aspects of my life, and it expands my heart.

    Where do I go from here? Well, I continue to study Thai. I watch videos, do exercises in my workbooks, and am setting up weekly Skype lessons. (I actually feel a bit of withdrawal!) I remain connected to the dear friends and professional contacts that I’ve made. I anticipate returning in the near future. This experience has helped me on my way towards building an exchange program between Thailand and the US.

วิถีชีวิต Ways of Life

Wat Rajamontean, two blocks from my apartment.

In Thailand, I became increasingly aware of the ways of life I had grown accustomed to in the states. I looked for some of the same creature comforts in Chiang Mai. The fact is, this approach of seeing and wanting things the way I am used to, is not a healthy way of living in another country. The more I was able to let go of these expectations, my experiences became much more interesting, rich and unique. Rather than comparing things or analyzing them, I started accepting that “this is how it’s done here…” (it is also interesting to understand why)

Many travelers, including myself, get too much information online about what to see and do, and how to act in other countries. After weeks of “trying on” behaviors that people had schooled me on, or learning from books and online forums, I realized that none of these were my own approach. As a newcomer to this area, I decided to take advantage (mindfully) of the fact that I don’t know all of the social norms. If I did something wrong, I learned from it. I made a conscious effort to let go of social insecurities or fears about how to act.

For example, I was unsure about social etiquette regarding monks. I visited many temples and regularly encountered monks. I had read that females are forbidden to initiate contact with monks. I made friends with an older Thai woman who introduced me to 6 young monks. They were all learning English and were eager to speak with me, but very shy. I was very nervous to talk with them too, and also to say things incorrectly, or disrespectfully in Thai. I soon realized that we were sharing the same fears. It was a great experience to exchange words and ideas with them. It simply required a courageous act to get it going. (I am now friends with a monk on the Line app!) 

I also began to see the clashes of old conventional thinking and new waves of thought. This is a common subject of conversation with Thais from all walks of life. We are all trying to adjust to change and deal with differences. I thought about what makes New York City such a great place, and it’s the cultural diversity. I think the same holds true for Chiang Mai. I was able to sample Chiang Mai’s culture here and now, yet simultaneously, I was adding to its cultural flavor as well.

Local artist drew my portrait!

I attended an Arts Symposium at Chiang Mai University which included panel discussions led by Asian art curators. I visited nearby exhibitions and artist residency programs and connected with local artists. One of the reasons I chose to study in Chiang Mai is to build an arts exchange program between Thailand and the USA. It was particularly interesting to learn about the diverse perspectives on the shifting and potential arts scene in the region.

Other social meetings, food adventures and indulgences:

  • Ate Thai ice cream at the Night Bazaar! It was made by mashing fresh fruit and cream on a cold metal slab. The frozen cream is spread out and then rolled up, looking like a bouquet of roses when put into a cup. Then it’s piled with whipped cream, nuts, and other delicious toppings of your choosing!
  • Took 2 Thai cooking classes and OMG I made curry from scratch! My green and masaman curries were out of this world! Also learned how to make my favorite Thai dish – Som Tum, green papaya salad. (pix below)
  • New fruit adventures trying snake fruit, long kong, sugar apple, and wood apple! Oh, and a green orange too!
  • Got a traditional Thai massage at an Ex-Prisoners Women’s facility. They help train women inmates and ex-prisoners to make a living and to reintegrate into society.
  • Attended my 3rd meeting of the Lanna Toastmasters, a group for people to practice their Thai public speaking. It is mainly attended by native speakers, but I have been encouraged to get up to the podium and make a speech someday:)

Gilded Surroundings

My first month in Chiang Mai, I had an apartment on Nimmanhaemin Road, which is a great location to access cafes, shops, malls, transport, etc. The area is known for the droves of digital nomads, hipsters, and yes, sigh, shopping tourists. I was craving a place with a little more authentic Thai flavor so I moved to the old city. Now, I live next door to a wat (temple) that is surrounded by golden horses. The monks’ morning bells are my free alarm clock.

I’ve rented a bicycle for the month and life is so much more joyous! Sometimes I can’t believe the busy roads and chaotic streets I ride through. It is terrifying and exhilarating all at once! The thing is, the traffic is actually very relaxed. People don’t move hastily or aggressively. Red lights and street lanes are suggestions. The driving is creative and fluid. It feels as though I am floating down a river filled with motorcycles, songtaews, cars and other bikes. The invisible space bubble I am accustomed to is no longer. One must bobble, weave and expect the unexpected at every moment, and be completely present (and calm) while doing this. My bright pink helmet and neon yellow bag also help me to be more visible.

My uncle recently had his 90th birthday! I rented a car with Laos, my partner, and we took a day trip north to visit my uncle and cousin. It was my first international driving experience! I could read only some signs and did not have wifi or GPS – but I had a good feeling (and an excellent co-pilot!) and we just went with it. After only one U-turn (missed a turn due to construction) and we made it! We were so happy to spend a few hours together and enjoy fishball noodle soup and then eat some local sweet snacks.
This past weekend was Asahna Bucha Day วันอาสาฬหบูชา and Kao Phan Sa วันเข้าพรรษา, Thai holidays. They fall on the full moon of the eighth lunar month. I made my first offering to a monk at Wat Phan On. It is a small quiet temple with a peaceful atmosphere and a lovely golden chedi. I chose my sangkataan – a basket containing everyday items like soap, toothpaste, and balms to donate to the monks. I went inside and kneeled down before a monk and said a few sentences in Thai. He asked me a few questions and we had a short conversation (mostly in Thai!). He said he had lived at that wat for 21 years. He sprinkled aromatic water over my head while chanting blessings. It was a very moving experience. When I walked out onto the street, it felt as though all strangers had smiling faces and everything moved in slow motion.
The following morning I awoke at 5:30am to do a dak bat offering at a wat near my new apartment. Many people were dressed in beautiful bright colored silks and carrying bags of food and rice to feed the monks for the special holiday. I sat down beside 2 women in front of a monk and and they showed me what to do. I poured water from a decorative container into a silver bowl while meditating as the monk chanted blessings. Then the water in the bowl is poured outside onto the earth.

Other highlights and new discoveries of the week:

  • Trying new fresh fruits!!! —> Mangostein (not at all like a mango!), guava, passionfruit, white dragon fruit —> all delicious!
  • I bought some peanuts from a little girl with big eyes. The following day, I brought them to school for a snack after class and was disheartened when I cracked one open and the nuts inside were black. I opened another. Same. With a sour face, I asked my teacher about it. She laughed and said “gin daai!” Meaning “Eat can!” I love these fresh peanuts. They are black or white or grey inside the shell, and a little bit wet. So very good!
  • Watched a Thai movie with English subtitles. Before the previews, everybody must stand up to respect the King while the national song plays. Images of the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Aka Rama X) are displayed in gilded frames amidst a luminous dawn. 
  • In honor of the late King Bhumibol, I made paper flowers for the upcoming Royal Cremation Ceremony taking place this year October 25-29. Flower-making hubs can be found throughout Thailand. I made the daffodil, which was His Majesty King Bhumibol’s favorite flower. He often presented this flower to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, when they stayed in Switzerland.

Another song to help learn Thai! This one is so funny and combines English and Thai, particularly common phrases many “farang” (foreigners) have difficulty saying in Thai.

Surprise Visit + Beauty of the Mundane

A surprise visit from my partner, Laos! We had traditional Lanna style photos taken. So much fun! This week I learned all about foods and flavors. I could read more items on menus and customized my dishes. Laos and I ate delicious khao soi (curry soup), northern minced pork cooked in banana leaves, and spicy chicken bamii noodle salad.

I learned a new phrase  – “Dern chon dern.” It is similar to the expression we have in the states, “Paycheck to paycheck.” I asked 3 different people their opinions on this phrase. All of them agreed that it is somewhat common to go about daily life this way. It is not looked down upon. One person estimated that about 80% of Thailand’s middle class operate in this way. One discussion veered into human rights. We talked about the idea of democracy, and how the meaning of freedom is characterized in Thai and American cultures. Two of the people I talked to said that they believed that women in Thailand  have a better chance at earning more than their male counterparts. I found this all to be very interesting and in alignment with my new favorite word ความคิดเห็น (quam-kit-hen). It means “opinion” and literally translates into “think, see” with the word “quam” turning the verb(s) into a noun.

I discovered more parts of the old city. I visited many lovely wats (temples), but this week I was more allured by everyday architecture and ordinary things I saw on the street. I was inspired by the combinations of colorful kitch, and modernized ancient customs that are around every corner.

Updates this week:

  • Found a new apartment in the old city!
  • Attended a Thai Toastmasters Club meeting and spoke briefly in Thai to an audience. I took on the official job of being the “ahhs, umms and errs” counter and also gave a speech! (spontaneity points LOL!)
  • First time to pay a local fare price for the songtaew!!!! AKA treated like a local!
  • Learning more grammar rules and gaining a better grasp of complex vowels, consonant clusters and tones. Currently reading short stories in Thai.

Chance Encounters + ผลไม้ FRUIT as National Identity

The foul-smelling King of Fruits,
the durian, is in peak season here!

For some, the durian’s pungent odor is fragrant and sweet, but to others, its smell is closer to old gyms socks, turpentine and onions, sewer gas, or rotten cheese. It’s a beautiful, yet mean looking fruit and it is truly tied to Thai identity! 

There is an art to picking a good durian. I often watch people hunting for their perfect durian. Similar to a car accident or NYC breakdancers, it’s hard not to notice the frenzy and excitement that happens around durian stalls. People intensely inspect the stems and character of its outer layer. The spikes are felt for firmness, the skin mustn’t have dark spots, the smell must be sweet… When one knocks on it, the sound must be right. And then, the fruit seller will split it open very carefully. It’s inside flesh must be somewhat firm, not too mushy or yellow.

Finding the perfect (or not-so-perfect) durian can mean love or disgust for this fruit – am I am on the prowl!

Airports, hotels and other public places sometimes ban the fruit because of its strong odor. A Thai scientist has even invented an odorless durian

*This post was inspired by SLA’s community task, to find a food that is unique to Thai national identity.

Quick summary of the week:

  • I was able to read 4 things on the Thai menu and ordered one for lunch!
  • Flipped through a beautiful book on the Ramakien, a mythological epic of higher beings influencing mortal life. (When I was growing up we had a large wall hanging of one of the scenes and I never knew anything about it until now.)

    Rubbings of the Ramakien depictions are no longer permitted.
  • Sat in the front seat of a songtaew (pick-up truck bus) and spoke Thai with the driver who gave me a bracelet for good luck!
  • Double meaning incident – At the stationary store, the checkout cashier asked “Saai toong?” I knew it meant bag, so I said no thanks. I asked her to repeat it because the verb sounded familiar. I had just learned this verb meaning to “put on.” There was a strange look between the 2 checkout cashiers and she repeated the phrase. I then went to my lesson and without mentioning what had just happened, the teacher explained that this phrase can mean “put it in the bag” OR “put on a condom.” Hmmmm.
  • I attended a great international language exchange event and made new friends! Few days later, invited to a house gathering of natives and expats. (Thai, English and French spoken – all my languages!)
  • Reading “Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind” by Carol Hollinger.
  • As the sun was setting, I ate rambutan on my balcony.  The book I am reading (link above) describes เงาะ as “an improbable fruit that tastes like a grape and looks like an aged strawberry equipped with porcupine quills.”

Things are finally coming together!

Found a quiet street with beautiful old trees and a great place for coconut milk ice cream. 🙂

I will totally admit that it has not been easy finding all the things I need here! The city has a dizzying assortment of offerings at every turn. I also refuse to pay the 3x or more tourist price! Therefore, I make my life more complicated, but it is through this challenge that I learn the most about Chiang Mai. I am slowly acquiring local secrets! For example, I can get discounted fruit and veggies in the evening! It’s totally fresh, but certain stores need to sell it before closing time! Also, I’ve been learning which markets have the best deals and for what merchandise. I’ve been looking for a small and inexpensive electric fan for my room. I don’t want to run the air conditioner all night because it’s not only wasteful but it will run up my electric bill like crazy! Who knew it would be so hard to find a small electric fan in a hot country?! Well, after days and more hot days of hunting, I have found one and I am basking in the cool air as I type. Ahhhhhh, plus mmmmmmmm, I am eating my discounted mango slices.

Life is ‘sabai sabai’ right now.

This wonderful expression has many connotations, and one needs to truly absorb its array of meanings here in Thailand. It reveals itself in layers, and only if you let it. Sabai Sabai literally means doing well, and since it is said twice it means really doing well, but this is but a fraction of its actual meaning.

Sabai Sabai is an attitude.

It sometimes means relaxed, comfortable, or just plain chill. In some ways it is one’s ultimate acceptance of everything that is and will be….come what may…

Learning thai language requires an understanding of local customs, attitudes and histories. Sabai sabai is essential!

Notes!!! Learning new words for my flashcards!

My classes have been primarily focused on tone. Thai is a tonal language so the way you say the same word makes all the difference. Some classes felt more like singing lessons! Slowly, I am refining my tonal pronunciation. I’m so glad to be here for that reason. It’s so important to speak it and hear it constantly in order to fine tune the ear to the subtlety of tones.

The last few days have been really different. Abstract decorative script has started to become recognizable as sounds and syllables!!! I find myself always trying to read and sound out the words I see on the street.

I’ve been doing all sorts of things to learn thai…sparking conversation with locals, bargaining just to practice, asking directions to places that I’m not going to, watching Thai movies, making flashcards, thai word post-its all over my apartment, online apps, grammar drills, you name it! I just had to share this wonderful, hilarious video of a gal learning through song…

LOL!!!  Instead of LOL in thai – they use 555 because the way you say the number 5 is “haa.”


Tomorrow I will try a local language exchange meetup! Continue reading Things are finally coming together!

ฉันมีบ้านที่เชียงใหม่ – Chan mii baan tii Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, meaning “new city,” is the largest city in Northern Thailand. It has over 300 Buddhist temples. One of the first things I did after sleeping off my jet-lag was find that special temple, that was calling me. I kneeled down and prayed Thai-style, I learned this from my relatives. I donated some baht to go towards monks’ education. This is considered part of the Thai practice of “making merit.” I figured it was a good way to start this journey.

I roamed the old city for hours, got lost, found my bearings, ate all sorts of street food, haggled in thai at the crowded Sunday Market, felt completely blissful, and at times, well, sweaty. Even at night the temps are pushing 90 degrees F and it is rainy season, so the humidity is killer. This morning some streets were flooded. I waded through water above my ankles to get to school. Yes, it was kinda gross, yet I was absurdly excited about it. This is Chiang Mai for real, not the usual tourist visiting experience. I took some video of the flooded areas, but have had some issues with wifi here and will try posting it later. On top of that, my adaptor/converter died ;(  Luckily, I found a small shop that had what I needed to charge my devices, and I made friends with the two gals working there. I was happy to practice my Thai with them and they were happy to practice their English! I plan to visit them again, and chat more as I improve.

Even monks workout, lol.