Today's Stamp: “…I’m extra special…” in Thailand: Chiang Mai part 1
Thus far (as of January 2019), I've spent time only in 4 countries in Southeast Asia, and I have to say, in Chiang Mai Thailand I have noticed more travelers of African descent than in any of the other three. I do not know why this is, though I venture to guess a couple of the following reasons. Thailand has been on the radar for several people fromm the States for many years now, perhaps due to the influence of the multitude of American soldiers who passed through there around the time of the Vietnam/American* war. The number of Americans (and particularly African Americans) there in the military was quite high around the time of the Vietnam/American war. Short to follow, many of them came back with Thai wives, therefore bridging the gap so to speak, and potentially making Thailand appear closer to home than some other SE Asian countries. In some cases, the military men (particularly those of African American descent), stayed in Thailand after the War. In a Washington Post article I found from 1988, it mentions a multitude of reason some troops stayed behind but shared one story of an African American Soldier simply stating how much more accepted he felt and how much better he felt he was treated by Thai people in general than (white) people in his home country. I recall my father* telling me he wanted to stay in Germany because he was treated like a human being by the Germans, so much better than he had ever been treated by (white) folks in the States. I’ll provide a link to that Washington Post article but fare warning, it’s from 1988. Some of how it’s written is definitely a sign of the times. It makes mention of women in what I would consider a derogatory manner and seems to make light of male behavior I personally see at grotesque. It’s hammering in stereotypes of men and women in a manner less accepted (thank God than) in today’s times. See 1988 Washington Post article here
NOTE: As previously stated in earlier posts: none of my posts are lessons in history. I will include some references to articles pertaining to subject matter mentioned here, though I welcome you to do your own research, dig deeper learn more. These posts are an account of experiences, both mine and of those whom I meet. I encourage you You (the reader) to contribute to your own experience/s. I also invite you to contribute your experience/s and opinions in the comments section below each post. Some of them (your experiences) may vary widely and opinions differ greatly. Many of the experiences and opinions expressed in these accounts are quite personal, and do not claim to be the same opinions or experiences of ALL. The commentary here is about observation and aimed at igniting conversation, not closing it. I am not here to tell anyone how to feel, or how to react to one's own experience.
While in Chiang Mai, I met an Afro-Canadian* couple who had been traveling all around the country, and though they witnessed less travelers of African descent than they would have liked to see, they did state they saw more than in other areas/countries in their travels. Janine shared with me she had been traveling before whereas Lyndon was new to the world of travel. One thing resonating with Linden was seeing an entire group of young black guys traveling together. Based on Lyndon’s (happy) surprise, it seems to demonstrate the mentality that ‘blacks’ (primarily black westerners) do not consider extensive travel to be a priority. My commentary does not mean to state most black westerners have little to no interest in travel, but instead what I am sharing is up until today’s times, it has either not been a priority or seen as much more of a luxury rather than a form of furthering education. Janine commented that she felt a bit ‘Extra Special’ because of the way she was received by some of the (local) people she met in Thailand. She was happily surprised at how excited some people were to share their knowledge of black western culture and how much it meant to them (Play video interview below).
I admit, I am coming from a ‘Gen Xers’ point of view, and think those older and even much younger than I (identifying as Millennials) recognize it’s a ‘thing’ to see westerners of African descent on the travel circuit in large numbers or numbers at least even comparable to their counterparts of european descent. This brings me back to a couple of experiences the first of which is shared with you in this blog post about my 1st time in Jamaica. The other was more recently while riding a motorbike in Peliatan village, Bali meeting Aaron, an Afro-Italian* from Parma. We were so excited to see each other we stopped to have lunch and chat in depth about being brown/black travelers (in 2017). He shared his story with me about being Italian, his mother tongue being Italian, and yet somehow not feeling accepted as Italian even though he holds an Italian passport and was born and raised Parma. He shared with me what his experiences have been (as a black traveler) both at home and abroad. I’ll have more on his story in a blog post to come (play Aaron’s interview below).
Chiang Mai, Thailand is amazing! Not only for it’s surrounding natural beauty, but it’s overwhelmingly rich culture. It’s a very modern hustle and bustle city yet has managed to keep it’s deep spiritual roots alive. I started out by staying in Old City district, so was able to get around on foot to many of the temples and historic sites. One of my favorites things to do is find a great espresso and potentially meeting people to engage in a nice conversation or two. I happened upon a cafe and Thai massage place set up to help transition women in prison to be released back in society. The Chiang Mai Woman Correctional Institution Vocational Training Center, as it was labeled, was a delightful place to take a rest for coffee, tea and a snack. Behind me was the entrance to the Massage center, where if you showed up early enough in the morning, could book a massage by one of the inmates in training. This is a job training & rehabilitation program for women prisoners getting ready to be released. This way once released, These women have an opportunity for a job right out of prison and therefore an easier time acclimating back into society. I tried to find out about a men’s program but was told by people at the center an attempt at this program for men was initiated but did not go as well and therefore terminated. Unfortunately I got to the center a bit too late to get an appointment for that day, so I set off onto my original mission of checking out some temples and having a great day walking around Old City.
I first came upon Wat Phra Singh, about a 10 minute walk from the Woman prisoners rehabilitation program center. This is where I met Lyndon & Janine, who I spoke of earlier in this post. Often times when carrying my enormous bag of camera equipment, I automatically think I will be stopped or questioned when entering a place or even flagged for entering with all my gear. TBH* I don’t know where I got that from except perhaps growing up near a massive Military base (now *MDL) and often being questioned or flagged for having a camera. Here, in Chiang Mai I had no issues with all my gear, and in fact I was welcomed to enter the temple during a meditation and shoot, of course so long as I did not cause and disruption. As in all places (except those commercial-museums and so forth) in SE Asia, I took my shoes off at the door. I was able to walk in and join the meditation, not that I had any training or real knowledge mind you of what was being chanted, said or any protocol, but simply welcomed in to join. Below is a short audio clip of that experience). One of the things I truly enjoyed when visiting many of these (Buddhist) temples, is how very much alive everything is. These might be tourist attractions for travelers, however it’s very much an alive place of worship, much like when one visits the Vatican especially if on any given Sunday. It’s not a ‘museum’, nor mere memory of something long gone, not a piece of architecture meant to be doted upon for it’s physical beauty alone, but meant as a peaceful place of meditation, very much alive. I suppose we have those in the states as well, any given Cathedral (St Patrick’s in New York for example) or even any Synagogue or Mosque, but somehow seemingly more unique. Perhaps my perception is only coming from the fact it’s my first time being there, and to some extent the history of some of these temples predating the birth of the nation from which I came.
Thailand, never having been colonized by the Europeans (unlike many of it’s neighbors), has kept it’s language, it’s script and it’s long standing buddhist faith and traditions without ‘pollution’ if you will of European influence. By that I do not mean to state European culture to be in a negative sense, I am merely stating Thailand has been able to keep closer to its roots possibly more so than in some other areas of the region where Western, Arabic and Persian cultures influenced greatly both language and faith.
Continuing on my temple walk, I read about (in lonely planet) Monk Chat, where you can go under the shade and have a conversation with Monks. The program is meant to help monks practice their English, all while connecting people of different language and cultural backgrounds. I decided to take a stroll not far from Wat Phra Singh to Wat Chedi Luang, where I could enjoy the beauty of yet another magnificent temple then take a rest under a shady tree to enjoy a long Chat with Monks. THIS IS WHY ONE TRAVELS. Travel should not be limited to seeing beautiful places, or checking off bucket list items, but as well or perhaps even instead, a chance to expand upons one’s knowledge of other cultures*. I sat at an empty table wearing a sarong to cover my shoulders. Across from me were a group of very young Buddhist monks, not yet engaged in dialog with anyone so I asked if they would mind my recording out conversation. Graciously they said yes, and so we began. I asked them a series of questions, and it became apparent that some of what I was asking may have been a bit involved (language wise), so although the sign said ‘English only spoken here” under the tent, I did refer to google translate, to the rescue. I found out many of them were originally from Myanmar, and many quite young (17-22). We mostly discussed meditation and other aspects of Buddhism as they express it. I did record the conversation though it is rather ‘choppy’ being they were struggling for the words in English to convey their meaning. Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel to see the interview once edited.
As you might imagine, it might take a lifetime to visit each and every temple in just a small area let alone those in an entire region. It was shared with me by my friend Larinda (expat in Chiang Mai since 2014) to visit 9 temples, it’s to bring good luck. On my first day I visited 4 temples, 2 of which I shared with you and 2 of which I stopped through on the way back to my hotel. though I love to walk, I also love to ride two wheel vehicles, and knew that would allow for me to see more of the land rather than only the old city or city in general so I picked up a motorbike (scooter) rental at Bamboo Bikes. Phil was wonderful helping me pick out the perfect bike. NOTE: I do have experience driving a scooter/motorbike but I do not have a large motorcycle license in my home country (USA). I do recommend at least having an international drivers license, but depending on which country you are from, also a stamp in that license that states specifically you can operate a motorbike or motorcycle. These scooter are typically 110-150cc, and in many countries you are only legally allowed to drive up to a 50cc motorbike with a regular (car only) drivers license. There are checkpoints by police, and unlike in some countries they are actually ‘legit’ in giving tickets for not riding with helmets, or not riding with the proper license. I was later stopped by the police and proudly presented my IDL*, only to find out I needed an additional stamp that specified motorcycle license as well. They gave me 3 days to either stop riding or procure a motorcycle license. Thankfully, I did not get arrested, but if you are to stay for any length of time in Thailand (more than 3 days of riding a motorbike) then I would recommend either not renting one, showing up with a motorcycle stamp on your IDL or investigating procuring one while in Thailand if there for an extended stay.
Once I had my ride from Bamboo Bikes, I was off into the hills! I drove straight for Doi Sui Thep. It’s a beautiful yet easy ride up the side of a big hill (or small mountain if you will). You can find your way using google maps either by planning your route in advance and memorizing it? Or, I like to take a good look at it in advance, download the route (in case you lose a signal along the way). I typically wear earbuds under my helmet then listen to the directions as I go. TBH* I’m not sure if it’s actually ‘legal’ to wear earbuds while driving, but I’ve never had a problem weather in the states or overseas, and this for me has been crucial in helping me navigate where I’m driving for the 1st time. Doi Sui Thep was nothing short of AMAZING! Do note, there are several steep steps to climb just to get the the base of the temple. So eat your wheaties before going.
All of this site seeing, and I’ve only been in Chiang Mai for 3 days! Three days down and 3 days to go, I found My Beer Friend, a place where I could chill and map out the rest of my days. Typically I resort to Lonely Planet just to get a head start on a direction to go. Once I head out in that direction, I do veer off quite a bit by meeting people along the way, and allowing the day to take you so to speak. Rather than carrying around heavy books, I download them on my phone or tablet. The Samoeng Loop, seemed to be a route calling my name, so the next day I set ou early morning to make the most of the ride, and plenty of time go of course and enjoy whatever came my way. This route is full of it’s own adventures, including seeing elephants walking in the road, meeting an African American motorcyclist fro California midway on my adventure, stopping at waterfalls, and well, it doesn’t end there. So much in fact I’ve decided to make this Chiang Mai (2018) story into two parts, the 2nd which includes a story on Trans Females in Thailand, the interview which you can see here (clink link). Be sure to subscribe, so you can read part two of this Chiang Mai adventure.
*In Vietnam, it’s referred to as ‘The American War’
*My father was in the US Army from 1948-1969 and lived in Germany for 14 of those years. He often said he never wanted to come back to American because he was treated so much better overseas. Much of the mistreatment he encountered while overseas was from racist white American soldiers, who were known to tell German kids the black soldiers were monkeys and had tails.
*I have read that in Canada many people of African Descent do not refer to themselves as ‘African American’, nor African Canadian unless they themselves or their parents are immigrants of a country on the continent of Africa. Not having lived in Canada nor spend en exuberant amount of time there I truly do not know, but though it important enough to address here. If any of your reading this are black Canadians, feel free to write in the comments below
*For example Bahasa Melayu & Bahasa Indonesia (language of the Malay and Language of Indonesia) very much influenced by the Arabic & persian migration to the region but combined with the Portuguese, Dutch & English influence in the region predominantly due to colonization and trade. The script is currently based on a latin alphabet similar to what used in much of western Europe, as opposed to a derivative of the Semitic alphabet (Arabic), Sanskrit (Balinese), Old Khmer (Thai), or kanji (Chinese) etc. The Philippine language and faith show sings of influence from the Bruneian Empire (Islam), and primarily from Spain due to the over Spanish occupation & rule from mis 1500’s until the end of the 19th century (Catholic).
*An example regarding influence of faith, is from the Arabic influence and the spread of Islam. Malaysia and Indonesia are currently officially Muslim countries whereas (depending on what island/region) in Indonesia Animism is arguably the oldest traceable form of faith followed by, Hindu, Buddhism Judaism, Christianity and so forth. In today’s times (2018), many faiths can be found widely practiced in Indonesia: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Roman-Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Indonesia, in 2018, is the most populous Muslim country of the world.
*“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” - Mark Twain