Learning to learn in Chiang Rai

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels

One advantage of having no hot water in my cement cell at the low cost Tharn Thong Hotel was that the cold shower early morning brought me to alert consciousness quickly.  As I walked out my door, an older guy with a motor bike seemed to be expecting me.  We were at the bus station in five minutes.

The bus ride to Chiang Rai would take only two hours, and the cost was just 45 baht.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that this rot may did not have a bathroom.  A lot of us old geezers have what’s called OAB, ie over active bladder, so a bus trip for even two hours can be anxiety raising.  I looked around and saw that I was the only farang on the bus.  “Great,” I thought.  “Whose idea was it to go on this trip alone?”

I can’t read Thai, but every few kilometers on the highways there are signs telling drivers how much further they have to go to the towns ahead.  I knew that Chiang Rai was only 104 km from Phayao, so by seeing which signs were decreasing in distance at the rate of about 25 km per half hour, I could tell where I was.

The pressure started building at about the one hour mark.  “What would the Buddha say,” I thought.  “I know.  Breathing.  That’s it.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Pay attention to your breathing and not to your bladder.”

It helped.  It really did, but mitigating a problem is not the same as eliminating (pun intended) it.  I wish I could have explained to the driver my predicament earlier in the game and maybe he would’ve stopped at a gas station or something like that, but my Thai vocabulary just wasn’t up to such a sophisticated task.  With only 20 km to go, I knew I was going to either embarrass myself or explode, so I said to the driver, “Hawng Nam (bathroom).” 

The guy looked at me as if to say, “We’re almost there.”

I shrugged. 

So he pulled over to the side of the road.  Thankfully, we were in the country.  I climbed down the steps and did my business right along side the bus.  My cheeks were red and hot as I returned to my seat, but everyone averted their eyes and acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.  Shame is a big deal in Thailand, and since most Thais are very good hearted, shaming someone is one of the last things they want to do.  There are some parts of Thai culture I just love.

The next twenty minutes were uneventful, and when I got off the bus in what is the northernmost town of any size in Thailand, I looked for transportation.  I knew right away that Chiang Rai was a “big town” (62,000 actually) because there were both tuk tuks and sawng tae ous waiting for passengers at the station.  The tuk tuk driver charged me 60 baht for the ten minute ride to the City Home Guesthouse.  I didn’t feel like bargaining with the guy, since I didn’t know how far away it was.

The City Home charged 200 baht ($7) a night.  The good news was that there was a window in my room and a hot shower.  The bad news was that the shower was down the hall.  I was fine with the trade offs.

After getting settled in, I was ready for some exploring.  I made a deal with a tuk tuk driver waiting on the street outside the guesthouse to take me to the hill tribe museum and two wats and then drop me off at a coffee house called Doi Chang I had read about in my guide book.  We agreed on the price of 400 baht and away we went.

The hill tribe museum was very interesting.  I had been in Hmong villages several times and had visited the Lahu Bible School outside of Chiang Mai three times, but I hadn’t realized there were so many tribes living in the mountains of Northern Thailand as well as in Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam.

Seven major tribes—Karen, Hmong, Yao, Lisu, Lahu, Lawa and Akha—lived around Chiang Rai, and as many more could be found in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Once again my picture of the real Thailand was broadened.  Ethnic Thais include about 80% of the country’s 64 million citizens.  About 14% are ethnic Chinese with the next biggest group consisting of all of the tribal people.

Next on my introductory tour of Chiang Rai were Wat Phra Kaeo and Wat Singh.  As far as I was concerned, the only interesting thing about the wats was the extensive use of teak in some of the wihans and kutis.  Otherwise I reacted with a feeling of “been there, done that.”

My tuk tuk driver dropped me off finally at the Doi Chang coffee house, which turned out to be the most beautiful coffee shop I’d ever visited.  Beautiful, of course, is not a word typically used to describe a coffee shop, but this one was.  Just to enter the place, I had to walk through a shaded stone garden with ferns, flowers and a little waterfall.  On the inside beautiful art hung on the walls and beautiful pastry was displayed in cases under the counter.

I, of course, ordered an iced coffee, and as I looked around I realized that all of the coffee beans that were for sale were not only grown around Chiang Rai but were also fairly traded.  That got my attention, because I had been buying fair trade coffee for our church from Equal Exchange for years.

Since it was getting close to dinner time, I decided to return to Doi Chang the next day and just hang out, write in my journal and buy some of their coffee to take back home with me. 

Not knowing exactly where I was in the city, I flagged down a sawng tae ou and said I wanted to go to the night bazaar.  The driver understood! and I crawled into the back of the pickup.  To my amazement we passed the City Home in just two blocks and just a block and a half after that the driver stopped at the night bazaar.

“The turkey,” I thought for the second time in three days.  “That tuk tuk driver earlier in the day had taken me for a ride, as they say.  He knew the guest house was within walking distance, and he took this ignorant farang to the City Home via the long, long route.” 

That’s a problem with travelers who fear being ugly Americans.  We want so badly not to offend that we’re vulnerable to being taken advantage of. . . . .until we learn the ropes.  It had taken half a day for me to learn this particular rope.  It impressed on me how vulnerable I was and at the same time that I could learn.

That’s a lesson I’ve learned about venturing out in a foreign culture.  You’ll always, to one degree or another, be a learner.  People who’ve lived in Thailand for twenty, thirty years tell me that they do OK, are accepted and even loved as long as they don’t try to be Thai. 

It requires a certain comfort with a relatively high degree of not being in control.  Although I’ve let go of a lot of that desire during my seven trips to Thailand, I recognized that some of it was still there.  That “need” to be on top of things, to know the ropes, to not feel like I’m in fifth grade again and always in the position of being the learner.

In the late 1990s I read a book by Thomas Hawkins entitled The Learning Congregation in which he argues that in a rapidly changing culture, churches don’t just have to learn how the world has changed in order to survive and prosper; they have to learn how to learn, because the world we know is constantly changing.

For an institution which wants to speak with authority, it’s hard to learn this kind of humility.  It was sobering to figure out that one of my personal issues was also a major issue for the institution to which I had devoted my life.

Hawkins compared it to canoeing in whitewater.  To get through a 100 meter stretch of rapids with rocks, huge rooster tails waves and turbulence, a canoeist can’t plot a straight course and hope to survive.  To get through whitewater the two canoeists—who are in the same boat, as it were--have to communicate constantly, change direction frequently and adapt to a new challenge about every five seconds. 

I thought back to those racing shells I had seen move so elegantly and effortlessly up the Wang River when I was in Lampang.  On calm water they can move with grace and dignity, but they wouldn’t get ten meters down a class III rapids.

I never liked the fact that I always felt like a little kid when I was in Thailand, never understanding for sure what was going on and almost always needing some kind of help.  In my better moments I realized that what I was experiencing in an acute way while stumbling around in Thai culture was more or less what almost everyone goes through in this rapidly changing world.

Many of my Thai friends along with books I’ve read have said that one problem with Thai education for the most part is that it is based on the model of the expert teacher lecturing and the student memorizing.  Many Thais know how to play that game in order to get their degree, but the perceptive ones learn what Hawkins was talking about in the rock and roll world of trial and error experience outside the classroom.

I crawled out of the tuk tuk, paid the driver and started to check out the mom and pop noodle stalls at the edge of the night bazaar.  One way you can tell for sure that you are in an authentic Thai restaurant is if there are no menus in English.  Should I take a chance?

I saw some crispy noodles in a plastic container next to the big wok on the propane gas burner which motivated me to take another risk.  In my best Thai I asked if those noodles meant that they served this dish I love called kao soi—coconut curry broth with soft noodles, an assortment of vegetables I never could identify, small pieces of chicken and those crunchy noodles on top. 

They nodded yes.  I sat down on a plastic stool, and in a few minutes I was feasting on kao soi gai and a bottle of Singha beer, all of which cost me $3.

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