I arrived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, early in January 2015 to work as an intern for the FutureSense Foundation for eight months. Having just finished my undergraduate degree in International Relations in London, I decided to take a year out of university to get some work experience and travel at the same time. Luckily, the FutureSense Foundation offered an internship that suited both these desires simultaneously and a month later I was flying over to sunny Thailand.
For the first few days, I visited the town of Doi Saket, where the volunteer house is situated as well as our partner schools and temples. Doi Saket is an incredible place, small enough to feel relaxed with familiar faces but big enough to have many to visit, from friendly coffee shops to Buddhist temples. My first week in Thailand was incredible, but mostly marked by my trip to a hill-tribe village, which is why I decided to dedicate my first blog entry to it.
On my fourth day in Thailand, I joined one of our partner monks, Phra maha Pong, the Abbott of a temple in Doi Saket, on a two-day trip to visit his hill-tribe village and assist with a donation ceremony there. We left early in the morning, with three songtaos (Thai taxis). In total there was about twenty of us: a dozen monks, mostly novices, ten middle-aged Thai women and myself. The only one who could speak some English was Phra Pong; the two days quickly became challenging yet perhaps more interesting as I had to figure out things by myself and improvise my communication.
Having never met Buddhist novice monks before, I was curious to see how they interacted with each other when not at the temple where I had seen them so far. I used to think of novice monks as very religious and somewhat different to regular teenage boys. Yet, on the way to the hill-tribe, I was surprised to see that they acted like any teenagers would, reading football magazines, joking around, etc. It was also interesting to see how close they were with each other, sleeping and writing on one another. I found this double-sided environment between teenage boyhood and religious life quite fascinating, and how normally they switched to one another.
When we arrived there, everyone helped prepare the bags that would be given the next day at the ceremony. Within an hour, over two hundred bags of supplies were ready for the ceremony. Most of them contained dry food such as crisps, noodles, cereals, etc., while others had hygienic products such as toothbrushes, combs, etc. For dinner, the women and I ate in a separate room from the monks, the main dish was sticky rice eaten with fish, chicken and very spicy vegetables which I did not recognize. When the women were by themselves, the atmosphere became very relaxed, during dinner they passed around cans of beer while wishing “Happy New Year” to each other, burping and laughing loudly. At night, I slept with them inside a large classroom, while the monks stayed in one opposite ours. Before sleeping, all the women stayed up chatting, applying various creams and products and giving each other massages. I thought that except for a few details, this could have been a regular pajama party back in France. I could not communicate much with them yet we laughed a lot, they took good care of me, feeding me as much as possible and making sure I had everything for the night.
In the morning, after waking up at 6:40am I went for a walk around the village with some of my new Thai friends before the ceremony began. Soon after, the Karen people started arriving, most of them dressed in traditional clothing. Non-married girls wore a white dress with a colored ‘net’ on top while married women wore long skirts of different colors with Karen patterns like the ones that can sometimes be found in the markets of Chiang Mai. There were about thirty children, the chief of the village and fifteen other Karen people.
The ceremony started with a speech from Pra-Pong, he addressed them in Karen language, Thai is taught at school yet Karen is the language spoken in the community. After his speech, he introduced me and let me say a few words, which he then translated to them. Then, he did some games that he had organized for the children such as ‘Simon says’ and taught them the numbers from 1 to 10 in Thai, which was a good opportunity for me to learn them. During the games, I was surprised to see that he did not touch the girls’ heads during the games as he did the boys, considering their early age. Then, the women and the monks started giving the donations to the Karen people, taking a few pictures at the same time. After all the bags and other items had been given, the monks and the women started organizing the cars before leaving, I stayed behind a little longer to be with the people and the children, interact with them as I could and take some more pictures.
We then all got in the sungtaos and drove inside the village itself, which I had not yet properly seen. The roads were not paved, the houses very simple and made of wood, all were about a meter high from the ground in case of rain. We went to one of the houses, and met Phra Pong’s parents. His mother was holding her newborn niece in her arms, which the monk touched regardless of the fact that the child was a girl. After this, we went back to the song taos and we were on our way back to Doi Saket. I wished I could have stayed a little longer with the Karen people, but hopefully I will get the occasion to during the next eight months. It was the first time I met people from a community with its culture and traditions largely untouched. Yet, that did not stop them from being very welcoming and making my first few days in Thailand unforgettable.