Posted by: gloowhyinthai | August 17, 2012

Food Guide to the Average Chiang Mai Restaurant

A little lesson in Ahan Thai – Thai Food

This is dedicated to the Thai-illiterate and the gastronomically-dissatisfied; for every insatiable soul who picks sadly at their fried rice and pad Thai at every meal.

Let me first acknowledge that this is hardly all there is;  there are a million and one websites you can find outlining the wider variety treats to be tried – this is limited to my local lunch menu. I’m making guide this for the incoming volunteer, based on the menu at the shop around the corner from BEAM (on See Ping Mueang Soi 4, next to the D-Milk!). But you can apply it to any and every 25-30 baht restaurant you visit – you can likely get all of these anywhere.  So forgive my transliterations, and let’s proceed.

The #1 perk of reading Thai: I can order anything! Not that I always know what I’m going to get…

When the woman making food asks you “Ow ah-rai ka?” เอาอะไรคะ (Want + What = What do you want?)….

Anything that’s not noodles or a yam ยำ (salad) will be served lad khao ราดข้าว (over rice)

First, choose your dish:

menu, column one:

 Khao Pad ข้าวผัด – Fried Rice (literally: rice + stir fry)

Khao Dtom ข้าวต้ม – Rice Soup (Gruel); more watery and less savory than Jok โจ๊ก (Jok is my favorite sick food!) 

 Khao Kai Jeeow ข้าวไข่เจียว – Rice with an Egg Omelet on top (literally: rice + egg + fry in oil/make omelet)

 Pad Pak Ruam ผัดผักรวม – Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables (literally: stir fry + vegetables + mix)

Pad Grapow ผัดกะเพรา – Stir-Fried with Basil and Chilies; best with a fried egg on top! (literally: stir fry + basil)

 Pad Pak Boong ผัดผักบุ้ง – Stir-Fried Morning Glory (also known as Water Cress, also known as the most delicious vegetable ever)

 Pad Kana ผัดคะน้า – Stir-Fried Chinese Kale, usually with oyster sauce/ Namman Hoy น้ำมันหอย (popular with Mu Grawb – as seen here)

Pad Dawk-ga-lam ผัดดอกกะหล่ำ – Stir Fried Cauliflower, usually with oyster sauce (and other veggies too!)

 Pad Breeow Wan ผัดเปรี้ยวหวาน – Stir Fry in tangy red Sweet and Sour Sauce (literally: stir fry + sour + sweet)

menu, column two:

 Pad Prik Sohd ผัดพริกสด – Stir Fry with Fresh Chili, served with bell peppers, and onions (literally: stir fry + chili + fresh)

Pad Prik Gaeng ผัดพริกแกง – Stir Fry with Chili and Red Curry Paste, with long beans and eggplant

 Pad Prik Pow ผัดพริกเผา – Stir Fry with Roasted Chili Paste with Tamarind (spicier and delicious!)

 Pad Penang ผัดพะแนง – Stir Fry with Penang Curry, a sweeter, milder curry with coconut milk

Pad Pong Ga-ree ผัดผงกะหรี่ – Stir Fry with Yellow Curry Powder, a sweeter, Indian-based curry

Pad King ผัดขิง – Stir Fry with Ginger, especially yummy for an upset tummy!

Pad Kee Mao ผัดขี้เมา – Stir Fry with Chili and Basil (literally: stir fry + drunk! – this spicy dish is known to cure a hangover)

Pad Naem Sai Kai ผัดแหนมใส่ไข่ – Stir Fried Fermented Raw Pork Sausage (aaaah-mazing) and Egg

Pad Hed Fang ผัดเห็ดฟาง – Stir Fried Straw Mushrooms

menu, column three:

Pad Mama ผัดมาม่า – Stir Fried Mama Instant Noodles (Ramen style)

Pad Thai ผัดไทย – Stir Fried Thin Noodles, usually served with ground peanuts, bean sprouts, and tiny dried shrimp

Pad Woon Sen ผัดวุ้นเส้น – Stir Fried Glass/Cellophane Noodles (made out of mung bean)

Pad See-Ew ผัดซีอิ๊ว – Stir Fried Thick Noodles with Soy Sauce (the Chinese version of Pad Thai…that Thai people actually eat!)

 Rad Na ราดหน้า – Thick Noodles in an Egg Gravy (made from cornstarch or tapioca) with Chinese Kale

Suki สุกี้ – Boiled Vegetables and Glass Noodles with sweet and spicy Sukiyaki sauce (Thai hot pot), can be served dry แห้ง (Suki-Haeng) or in soup น้ำ (Suki-Nam)

Mu/Neua/Gai Nam Dtohk น้ำตก – Spicy Pork/Beef/Chicken Salad, sliced in juicy strips (literally: meat + waterfall), very similar to Larb ลาบ, just not minced

Dtom Jeud ต้มจืด – Plain, clear soup (literally: boil + tasteless)

Dtom Yam ต้มยำ – Spicy, clear soup made with lemongrass (best with shrimp!)

menu, column four:

Yam Ruam Mid ยำรวมมิตร – Spicy Mixed Seafood Salad

 Yam Woon Sen ยำวุ้นเส้น – Spicy Glass Noodle Salad with minced pork หมูสับ (mu-sap) or mixed seafood ทะเล (ta-lay)

Yam Naem ยำแหนม – Spicy Salad with Fermented Raw Pork Sausage

Yam Moo Yaw ยำหมูยอ – Spicy Salad with Vietnamese Sausage 

Yam Mama ยำมาม่า – Spicy Salad with Mama Noodles

 Yam Kai Yeeow Maa ยำไข่เยี่ยวม้า – Spicy Salad with “Century Eggs” or “Horse Piss Eggs” (literally: salad + egg + urine + horse)

Som Tam ส้มตำ – Spicy Raw Papaya Salad, pounded with chili, lime, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, dried shrimp, long beans, tomato

Dtam Ma-muang ตำมะม่วง – Spicy Raw Mango Salad, similar to Som Tam – lots of varieties in these, look them up!

Dtam Dtaeng ตำแตง – Spicy Cucumber Salad, again a Som Tam variant – these have all the Thai flavors: sweet, sour, spicy, salty

Then, choose your meat (or lack thereof):

Gai ไก่ – Chicken

Neua เนื้อ – Beef, but also used as the word for all meat in general

Mu หมู – Pork

Mu Grawb หมูกรอบ – Fried Crispy Pork (lots of crispy fat!)

Blah Meug ปลาหมึก – Squid

Gung กุ้ง – Shrimp

Pak Ruam ผักรวม – Mixed Veggies

Ta-Lay ทะเล – Seafood

Mai Sai Neua ไม่ใส่เนื้อ – Without Meat (literally: no + put in + meat)

Jay เจ – Vegetarian or Vegan (if you order a dish jay, it can mean without egg or strong flavors like chili and garlic)

And the extras:

Want a slightly larger portion? Ask for it Pee-sed พิเศษ (Special – XL size) for 35 baht – otherwise, it will be Tamadaw  ธรรมดา (Regular) for 30 baht.

w/ Kai Dow ไข่ดาว (Fried Egg): +5 baht: if you want the yolk cooked through, say “kai dow sook”; for runny yolk, say “mai sook” ไม่สุก (not cooked)

If you’re on the go:

Glap Bahn ลานบ้าน – Take Away (literally: go back + home)

Sai Toong ใส่ถุง – Put in a bag (literally: put in + bag)

Sai Glong ใส่กล่อง – Put in a box (literally: put in + box)

If you’re eating in – experiment with condiments:

Sawd Sriracha ซอสศรีราชา – Sweet Chili Pepper Sauce (Thai ketchup) – not pictured

Nam Blah น้ำปลา – Fish Sauce in the bottle

Prik Nam Blah พริกน้ำปลา – Peppers/Chilies in Fish Sauce

Prik Nam Som พริกน้ำส้ม – Peppers/Chilies in Vinegar

Prik Bpohn พริกป่น – Chili Flakes

Nam Dtahn น้ำตาล – Sugar

…and help yourself to some free water! (side note: I hate when places make you buy a bottle of water! Thankfully, most have a cooler and ice chest where you can help yourself)


“Gep Dtang, ka!” เก็บตังค์ค่ะ – literally: collect the money (I hear this used most often)

“Check Bin, duay ka!” เช็คบิลด้วยค่ะ –check-bill, please! (duay is used to soften a request)

“Tow rai, ka?” เท่าไหร่คะ – literally: How much?

Okay!! Are you hungry yet? Most of the pictures with rice are my actual lunches from the past week or so – they may look similar, but they taste quite differently – and all ah-roy mak อร่อยมาก (very delicious)!

I hope this helps those in Chiang Mai. (And family at home…I hope you enjoyed seeing what I eat for lunch!)

Posted by: gloowhyinthai | May 21, 2012

Bike Troubles and Fireflies

I learned a new word today: หิ่งห้อย (hing-haawy) – firefly.

When I was quizzed on it a few minutes later,  I was nervous to respond – I knew that one wrong slip-of-the-tone would result in embarrassing myself; haawy, with a falling tone, was the second half of firefly, but with a rising tone, I was saying oyster – slang for vagina.  So tricky you are, Thai.

Let me take you back to this afternoon, because my new word comes with its own novella. And when you’re still wondering 1000-2000 words in how I learned the word for firefly, happily remind yourself that I’m writing my first blog post in over a year and a half. And enjoy it. Hopefully more will be coming.

As we started the trip to my favorite waterfall, my disposition was as gloomy as the overcast sky above us. We had just finished brunch, over-indulging in mounds of vegetarian goodness at the buffet at Khun Churn, and I had a million reasons in my mind why I didn’t feel like making the hour-and-a-half drive north of town. After crooning with my colleagues, students, and friends at a particularly questionable karaoke/brothel until 3am, I was still beyond tired, despite waking up at noon. This, combined with a belly full of food, a sunless sky, and a few hours of lesson planning looming ahead of me, wasn’t compelling me to spend the day at a waterfall I’ve been to a dozen times before.

But it was the last day in Chiang Mai for Jenny, my former-VIA friend who agreed to an island rendezvous on Koh Lipe the week before, and the last weekend for Anna, a volunteer at a Shan NGO who happened to go to high school with my best friend from college. Both of these ladies are a blast, so it’s hard to turn down a last chance to hang out with either for a while. Plus, it is my favorite waterfall, and it’s a great one to visit with people who have never been there. Nam Dtohk Bua Tong or the golden flower waterfall – increasingly known among new expats, much to my dismay, as “Sticky Falls” – gushes from a calcium-rich spring that flows down three tiers against a mountainside; as the minerals settle, it calcifies everything in its path – soil, fallen leaves, tree trunks – enveloping it all into a bulbous terrain of smooth limestone. Smooth, but not slippery; the rocks have unbelievable traction, allowing you to run barefoot through the rushing water and clamber up and down vertical mounds of rock with surreal ease. Lush emerald moss grows where the crystal clear water parts, even along the edge of the falls, sprouting magically through the rock the way you imagined a Chia Pet would before you pulled out the instructions and realized you were just smearing goopy seeds on terracotta. With all the green and moss and encrusted roots and trunks and leaves (some still green, naturally leading me to wonder just how long I’d have to sit in these waters until I resembled the Nome King in Return to Oz:, it’s all of my childhood notions of fairy worlds and Neverland come to life. Plus, it’s fun to watch newcomers refuse to trust their toes as they tread timidly through the first tier.

Bua Tong Waterfalls

So off we went, with Jenny behind me on my bike and Anna behind Travis on his. The ride out is something special, too; as you ride past Mae Jo and the highway turns into a simple two-lane road, the shops give way to open fields, rice paddies and mountains on every side. There was a surprising treat waiting for us when we arrived late in the afternoon: a camera crew was set up around a dramatic set for the finish line of a race, and we found out it was a TV commercial being shot. A shampoo commercial. It was really interesting to see a big-scale Thai production being carried out – tons of trucks were parked around that brought scaffolding and generators and lights and equipment; but in true makeshift Thai style, the TV monitors were sitting in wheel chairs. It seemed to be a pair of British men working as director and DP, they were friendly enough when we stopped to watch them go through several takes of a green-screened hand sweeping back the lustrous black hair of a loog-kreung (half-child, or more accurately, half-Thai-half-fahrang) model to make it swish dramatically to emphasize its shine. “One more time,” the director decided, “that one wasn’t fulfilling.” The story boards were pinned up in front of them, and as we remarked that this was quite an extensive shoot and asked what the commercial entailed, they said “It’s a TV commercial. Don’t read too much into it.” (Powerful stuff, here, shampoo. It can make or break relationships, as evident here, note the fulfilling swish: We saw them again after our climb, with two actresses running a snippet of the race in front of Nam Phu Chet Si, or the fountain of seven colors (perhaps earlier in the day – by 5:30pm I could count only four). We watched them shoot their final scene and joined their celebratory cheer when they wrapped up, and headed back to our bikes.

I should mention now that my bike has been having trouble for a while. It turns off whenever I’m not accelerating, a quirk I’ve gotten so accustomed to that I can effortlessly restart it while the bike’s still moving. But since I returned from my travels (a whirlwind week in Cambodia and a quick peek at Thai Muslim culture and island life down south) it has been randomly refusing to start. It may just not like Jenny, as she has been witness to each incident. The first time, I walked it to the nearest open mechanic and he tut-tutted and remarked, as far as I could gather, that the battery was bad and there may or may not be something wrong with the carburetor.

I was at a loss for words, not particularly because he only spoke Thai and my vehicle vocabulary is pretty underwhelming – my knowledge of motorbike-upkeep is lacking in any language, and when he said “ca-buh-lay-dtuh” my thoughts travelled immediately to here:!quotes/. (Snicker all you want, this movie will remained nestled in my heart among painful middle school memories, from dressing as a trio of shiny, slutty, sixth-grade “Josie and the Pussycats” with Sabrina and Erin for Halloween, to actually dying my hair a terrible shade of red and using much too much hair wax to recreate that piece-y, hyper-flipped bob Rachael Leigh Cook wore so well.) Anyway, I retorted that I bought the battery at that very shop just a few months before…when I discovered that – surprise! – 6 weeks of neglect is enough for your bike to have hurt feelings and refuse to start out of spite. This seemed to be enough of an argument to keep from having to buy a new battery; he charged the current one for ten minutes and we were on our way. 50 baht.

The next morning, it started when I drove out to the main street to grab breakfast with Jenny, but refused to start after we ate. As it was my first morning back to school in two weeks, I luckily planned to be at school a good bit earlier than I needed to be. This time was instead spent pulling my bike back to the new makeshift repair shop on my street and watching in horror as the young mechanic began immediately unscrewing bolts in the body and pulling her apart, piece by piece. After I realized this was an extensive operation, I told him I’d pick it up the next morning and drove my old roommate’s bicycle to school. When I picked it up, he turned it on demonstratively and showed me a little bolt that he replaced. Whatever, it worked for the rest of the week. 160 baht.

Now, as it was on the cusp of sundown and we were wet and tired and ready to end our waterfall frolicking, my petulant bike decided it was a good time for outburst number three. Travis and I fiddled with her for a few minutes, watching knowingly as the production crew packed up that there was no room in their trucks for a broken-down bike and a pair of wet fahrang. Just at that moment, a gaggle of happy, toweled-off, slightly buzzed Thai men, their wives, and a couple of winding-down children headed past us toward their cars. The pitiful sputtering of my bike led them to offer a few sidelong glances and shouts of suggestions – “kick suh-tart!” “choke” “mai mee fuel” “battery mod” – and I offered in my limited Thai that kick-starting wasn’t doing it, neither was fiddling with the choke, and there was a bit of gas left in the tank…though the battery may very well be dead.

Intrigued, they came over to see for themselves, played with it a couple times, and decided it was, in fact, hopeless. They conferred between themselves. Do you live inside the city, one guy asked. I nodded, and they pointed to their cars. “Oh,” I said to my friends, “I guess they can jumpstart it.” So we followed them as they rolled my bike to the back of a pickup, and then watched without much surprise but great amusement as they proceeded to lift my bike into the back of the truck. As soon as my bike started stalling, I assumed that this would be the best course of action – find someone to give us and my bike a lift back to the city. But I also was sorting out a plan for when we found ourselves completely alone, without anyone around to take us back. I suppose we would go to the snack shop in the parking lot and try to explain our situation and hope someone could call someone – a mechanic to fix the bike or a songtaow to drive us home. Worst case scenario, we would leave the bike and struggle to find a way home (not many sontaows cruising for passengers this far outside of the city), and I’d have to come back later in the week to deal with my bike – and bring a mechanic? It was one of those situations where if things hadn’t worked out as well as they did, I’m not sure what the best solution would have been.

One guy spoke English, which was a relief, as my comprehension tends to dwindle as my concern rises. “Today is holiday, so not many repair shops open. Also very late.” I concurred. They said they’d take us – and motioned to a second truck, where they were happy to cart Travis’ bike as well. We explained that his bike was fine, and Anna could go back to the city with him – something that seemed to strike them as odd, that two of our friends (and perhaps, the only man) would separate from us and make the journey back alone. But they understood, linguistically if not culturally, and ushered Jenny and I into the back of the pickup with one of the men and my bike.

We only drove for a few minutes until we realized the ropes weren’t tied securely enough around the handles of the bike, so the guy tapped on the rear window for the driver to pull over and readjust. Good timing, as the man was just starting to ask questions about the NGO where I said I worked – questions to which I always give intentionally vague answers, as you never know who would be pleased and who would be peeved to find out I’m teaching migrant workers from Burma. I typically say it’s an NGO that helps people without money go to university – there’s truth to that.

As they readjusted, one of the friends driving another car stopped behind us, got out and offered for us to sit in his backseat. We happily obliged, as the idea of braving the wind as night fell, with wet bathing suits and little leg room crammed against my bike, was not too appealing. He was also the one who spoke a little English. So we got in and started off toward home in our caravan of four vehicles: the truck holding my bike, another truck driven by a Buddha-bellied man wearing only a towel, a car with an English-speaking man and his wife and the pair of helpless fahrang girls (us!), and a car full of chatty children. I’d later receive a text after passing Travis and Anna, “We just passed your truck and didn’t see you?” We debated sending back “They took the bike!” but reassured them that we were safe instead.

In our car, we chatted as we drove back toward the city and found out that they actually were going to Mae Jo, a good 20 minutes before the city. At this point, we weren’t sure what the plan was, but not too long after, all four cars pulled over. “There’s a repair shop back there.” We turn around and are barely out of the car before hearing that the mechanic has gone to Mae Rim. We all pile back in and continue on, until we reach a big market. “We will get food, okay? Another repair shop is a few kilometers down the road.” Relieved that they weren’t letting us hinder their plans for the journey home, Jenny and I also walked the aisles of the market and found some fresh spring rolls to eat – now? In the car? At the next repair shop? We hardly knew.

We were feeling a bit greng-jai by this point, which literally means “fear-heart”, but is really about feeling reluctant to impose upon others – this entire crew of ten or so family and friends were on the hunt for a repair shop for these two girls they happened to pass after a day relaxing and picnicking by the waterfall. But, as our driver said earlier, the people of Chiang Mai – more so than Bangkok, he insisted – were nam-jai (water-heart), meaning that people are happy to go out of their way and extend hospitality to strangers. This is so true, and something that has kept me humble and sane during all of my time spent here. The kindness and consideration I witness in strangers day after day compels me to be a kinder, more helpful person. If you see someone struggling with a broken-down car on the side of the road, most people would drive by, satiating their conscience with reasons of being too busy or tired or assure themselves that they are acting cautiously, or that no one would stop for them. And with that mindset, I don’t think many people would stop for them. But there’s an energy here of selflessness that overwhelms everyday life. Of course, more intimate relationships are another matter; there certainly are selfish people and those who act solely for their own gain when dealing with friends and colleagues. But the general kindness and thoughtfulness of strangers has proven to triumph time and time again.

When we reached the second repair shop, everyone got out of their cars to make sure my bike was properly looked after, and to stretch their legs and poke around. The man wearing only the towel tinkered with different things in the shop, and some of the men walked out to the field beside us. “Hing-haawy!” one of the men exclaimed, and others came over to see. Jenny and I joined and peered out into the darkness to see the twinkling of lightning bugs. “What are they called in English?” “Fireflies!” offered Jenny. “Lightning bugs!” I retorted. Yet another one of the endless list of incongruities found in the English language – those little regional differences that make reading a passage on the GED just that much more confusing for my students. The guys seemed really pleased, and our driver, Nui, explained, “The city has too much light, too many buildings, to see hing-haawy. I haven’t seen any in four or five years.” He watched as another one of the men called for his children to come over. One of the wives went out with them as they watched nervously, afraid to touch them. They were satisfied when their mom caught one for them, and they huddled around her on the edge of the field. “Kuy hen mai?” the little girl asked the young boys. “Mai kuy hen!” they all declared; none of them had ever seen fireflies before. They had their mom catch one or two more and put them in a bag to take home. A new treasure they never knew existed.

As I sat with the kids picking the stunned fireflies they had caught from the grass, my engine revved triumphantly and Nui called out, “Hannah, finished!” I came over and the mechanic held up two metal rings. Apparently my bike is falling apart, piece by piece. I paid and said an endless round of thankyou’s and goodbye’s, exchanged numbers with Nui – who by then had already invited us to drink with them in Mae Jo, but we politely declined as I had yet to do any of my work and Jenny was heading out in the morning – and watched them all pile into their cars and trucks and drive away. 100 baht.

The last of this $9.74 I’ve spent this week trying to fix my bike was undoubtedly the most valuable. Jenny and I talked on the way home about how cool it was how their kindness and selflessness was rewarded so quickly. Instead of taking us begrudgingly and trying to brush us off as soon as possible, our misfortune was an opportunity to extend their adventure. No one seemed to mind towing us along, and the pleasure brought by getting a rare glimpse of fireflies and the chance to befriend and help a stranger seemed to outweigh any of the inconvenience or time wasted on their journey home after a long day. We discussed how the children, who I’m sure were tired by the end of the day and had little interest or sympathy for the two white girls with the broken-down bike, not only got to see the magic of lightning bugs for the first time (and will soon, I imagine, discover the fun of writing with their butts – or just the sad truth that lightning bugs don’t survive long in plastic bags). They also witnessed their parents and their parents’ friends doing something completely selfless, and whether it crosses their mind how nice it was of their parents and their friends to help us, it will certainly be imprinted in their upbringing, and they, no doubt, will grow up to become just as nam-jai as the great role models they have around them.

It’s amazing how a grumpy morning and a broken-down bike can become a recipe for a perfect day.

Posted by: gloowhyinthai | October 11, 2010

Things I’ve done BESIDES teaching recently…

  • Did my first visa run, making the trek up to the border town of Mae Sai.  The cross over into Tachilek, Myanmar was pretty painless (if you know me at all, you know I was stressing not knowing what to expect), in and out in under an hour for just $10 USD (a “clean, crisp” ten dollar bill, to be exact – for which I had to go to several banks to find).  Just after crossing into Burma, there is a huge market filled with any and every knockoff you could possibly want.  My favorite item was the faux-Louis Vuitton trashcan – the true sign of luxury!  I picked up some beautiful fabric which I’ll use for….who knows…one day…!!  Right now, they are adorning our painfully sallow walls.
  • Used the commercial sewing machines in the tailoring workshop at my school.  Those puppies move quickly!!  I just made some minor repairs to the straps on a dress I made before I came out, and reinforced the seams of the incredibly (regrettably) cheap sheets I bought to use when my main set are being laundered.  Not the cleanest stitches I’ve ever made, but hey – it had been a few months since I was peddling away, and these were a whole new breed of machine for me!  Now that I’ve had my first taste, I can’t wait to start asking the tailoring teacher to help me improve my construction skills.
  • Threw an impromptu house party which was supposed to be a ten person potluck…and ended up being a thirty person shindig.  Lots of fun, a good mix of friends and friends of friends (and friends of friend’s friends…and everyone who was at the bar where one friend was, including the bartender).  I made a feta-watermelon-honey-basil salad after having lots of leftover feta from dinner during the week – pita with homemade tzatziki sauce, sautéed tomatoes, spinach and feta (thanks to one of the dearest friends I’ve made here, Arianna, for her impromptu visit and her Greek expertise in the kitchen).  Ying loves to cook and did not disappoint with her spread: pineapple fried rice, Burmese fermented tea leaf salad with sticky rice, deliciously spicy guacamole, and some yellow curry with chicken.  Yum!
  • Decorated the house with the few postcards I brought from home and posters I’ve acquired since I’ve returned.  Even more exciting:  I found I can draw on the walls with the oil pastels I bought when I first arrived.  It washes off pretty easily (and hopefully…it still will after being there for a few months…!), so now I’ll just have to try not to go overboard…yeah, right.
  • Visited the Chiang Mai Art Center for World Animal Day, which may have been more appropriately titled “Northern-Thailand-Specific Animal Day” – as luck would have it, I was with my new friends from (you can discover their whole dillyo on their site – I met them through my brother’s friend who happens to be one of the producers/cameramen for the show) who were interested in volunteering with animals, and this event was basically information booths for any and every animal-related volunteer program.  I ran into one of my old professors, an incredible woman named Otome, who volunteers for the Lanna Dog Rescue center, and hopefully my friends will stop in there from time to time to give a hand.  I told her I would help – I couldn’t say no to her! – but I think she could tell I’m not much of a pet person, because she told me that there is an opportunity to help sell trinkets and give information at Walking Street on Sundays.  As it so happens, one of my secret desires is to set up shop selling things on Walking Street, so I would totally be down.  I want to paint faces there…so maybe this is my way in, on behalf of Lanna Dog Rescue?  That would be so much fun!
  • Drove to the top of Doi Suthep (Suthep mountain, which is just down the street from me and home to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple) on my motorbike (a little rough on my automatic, but she made it!) to visit a cave-dwelling monk.  He is living there, in the jungle, for the duration of Buddhist lent, walking down to the temple area and nearby market to collect alms and food every couple of days (this means he frequently goes days without meals, but he insisted that it was easy to do so as long as his focus was on meditation and prayer).  After we chatted with him for a little while, we ventured past the cave and into the jungle at dusk, but didn’t get too far because, well, after dusk it was the jungle…at night.  No thanks!
  • Visited the JetSetZero crew’s house just outside Saraphi, a twenty minute ride outside of the city, and spent a long portion of the night talking to their sweet neighbor, Pla, an older woman who drives a tuk-tuk in the city.  I’ve already decided I’ll hire her when my mama and Madlenka come out, because I loved how much history she was eager to share about every temple and city we mentioned in passing during our chat.  She is a very knowledgeable woman who I can’t wait to introduce to my family; I know the experience will be much richer than if I simply caught a songthaew by my house.
  • Visited a Karen village (pronounced ka-REN rather than KAR-en) a few hours south of the city, by far the most exhilarating time I’ve had since I’ve been back – but this deserves its own separate post.


Posted by: gloowhyinthai | October 11, 2010

No Money, No Honey

I’ve just realized that all of my most recent friends are short-term travelers, here only for a few months, and once they are on their way I will be left to find new friends in their place.  There’s something attractive about these short-term friends – for some reason, I find it a lot less intimidating to ask them to explore new places with me, whereas with the expats and Thais I meet here, I tend to assume that most of them have already moved beyond this phase of finding a niche within the city.  I’m hesitant to initiate plans with people who have been living here for some time, paranoid that they won’t have any interest because they are already into their routine, that they know all the bars and which ones they prefer, or they have closer friends with whom they’d rather go on trips.  So I feel silly asking them to try out a bar I haven’t tried yet or venture out of the city for the weekend.  The novelty is still there, however, with the short-termers, and that hesitation is gone because I know they are just as eager to explore as many new places as they can while they are here.  As I type this, I know it’s silly, but in any case, my newest friends, for one reason or another, are all leaving in December, so I have a few months to get some fun trips in with a group who’s always down for an adventure.


One of these friends is from the current Thai and Southeast Asian Studies Program at Payap, where I did my study abroad.  I ran into the director of the program at a friend’s brunch, and he invited me along on one of their field trips for a class that wasn’t offered during my semester: Gender Identity, Sexuality and Transformation in Thai Society.  Basically, we toured all that Chiang Mai’s sex industry has to offer.  Be it a sexpat, a whorist, or a Japanese businessman, there are many-a-male who come to Thailand solely for its sex tourism.  While Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok are the hotspots for such activity, offering a much wider range of girls and venues, Chiang Mai has a modest selection of places – enough to entertain for a short visit, or so I’ve been told.  I jumped at the chance to tag along to a long list of places to which I knew I’d never venture on my own – plus, I couldn’t ask for a more amusing circumstance for meeting the new batch of Thai Studies students!


The first stop was Loi Kroh, a seedy road a short walk down from the old city’s central tourist area surrounding Thapae Gate.  Loi Kroh is densely packed with twenty or so “girly bars”, each touting its own pack of cute, provocatively dressed, bored looking girls.  We came pretty early, so most of the bars were void of men.  As if functioning on motion detectors, the girls sprung into animation with each passerby, calling out to invite them in for a drink.  Of course, the girl beckons, but the costumer pays – for their own drink as well as the lady’s.   A group of Thai Studies girls chose a bar at random (they all seem pretty much the same, and I suppose if we aren’t looking for a lady in particular then the joints are interchangeable), ordered a round of drinks for ourselves and watched a couple of the girls chat up the few men in the bar.  We weren’t sure how to proceed, and realized we probably should have sat with a few fellas to entice the girls to sit with us.  Eventually we invited a girl to sit with us and one of the cooler girls of the group bought her a beer.  I knew the most Thai out of anyone, and the girl did not know much English, so we didn’t get very far in our conversation beyond where she was from (she said Chiang Mai, though I realized that Burmese girls probably wouldn’t reveal their real origin and other girls might not either) and that she has been working there every day for a year.  A few of the girls in the group were hungry so one of the bar girls sweetly offered to bring us a menu and order us food from a restaurant down the street, and we offered her some of our pizza when it finally arrived.  While we were there, there wasn’t much action, but from my understanding the girls can be taken out of the bar for a “short time” or a “long time” for a range of fees – bar fine not included.


Next up was Spotlight, a go-go bar just around the corner from Loi Kroh that sits on the main road.  Walking inside, we are met with a stage equipped with three poles and six or seven bored girls wearing tiny red bikinis, dancing much more lazily than provocatively, locking eyes only with themselves in the mirror-paneled wall across the bar.  This is as naked as these girls get on stage, but for 1000 baht (plus the bar fine) a girl can be taken out for two hours, or all night for just 500 baht more.  It is more often the girls who are waiting their turn to dance that are able to secure clients, fawning over the plethora of Japanese and Korean businessmen who buy their drinks.  A sign next to the stage advertises ping-pong balls, but only after eleven o’clock – it’s only eight, so we don’t get to witness what I imagine would have been a disturbingly memorable experience.


From there we head to another round of girly bars, this time in the Chiang Mai Entertainment Center, a big warehouse with rows of little bars with only one or two girls sitting in front of each.  It seems to be much slower here and the girls, if possible, seem even less enthusiastic.  We pass one bar with a little girl being helped with a coloring activity book by one of the bar’s hostesses – who knows if this is the girl’s mother or if the girl sells flowers like the rest of the kids wandering in and out of the bars here.  This is a normal occurrence for more touristy areas in Chiang Mai, and often the most sobering aspect of my weekends – by one or two in the morning, I can’t help but buy a garland of jasmine or orchids when I know it might allow this little kid to get to bed a few minutes earlier.  Often the parents are close by, watching but rarely selling anything themselves, as their children make much for appealing vendors to drunk tourists.  The “entertainment” at this venue is not the ladies but, much to my delight, Muay Thai – my first experience with Thai boxing, though I know the fights here are hardly close to the real deal.  Wimpy, staged, or whatever – it was still fun to watch.


After the fight, we set off for a little karaoke.  Karaoke is a big deal in Thailand, and there are many types – individual booths, rowdy bars with serious performers (this isn’t your drunken American karaoke bar – a lot of singers sit down to serenade on the more somber performances, while the up-tempo songs are practically a cabaret), and the private-room karaoke bars, either for large parties or a private party with a lady of your choosing.  Obviously, we visited a “sexy karaoke” bar, with uniformed girls sitting patiently outside the club and horrendously overpriced drinks on the inside.  I don’t know what kind of pep talk was given to this group of Thai Studies students, but most of them refused to buy a drink and left this place pretty quickly.  I was a little disappointed – I do love to sing! – and I didn’t think it would have killed them to all at least split a drink (we were told at least half of the room had to buy drinks or we couldn’t stay).  As we were leaving, all of the women were called into the front room and were being given a stern lecture about something or another, and a lone little girl in a princess costume sat impatiently on the end, occasionally being hushed by one of the women.  It is hard not to wonder how aware this little girl is of the services that go on here.


Around ten we make it to Sayuri Massage, where discretion is certainly not the name of the game.  This place predominately caters to Thai clientele, and the group’s professor has to go in first to make sure they will allow Western women to enter.  We are told that we can sit in the bar area but aren’t allowed to go to the back, where a group of fifteen numbered girls sit silently on display in a glass room as men walk up, point to the girl they want, and take them to a private room on another floor of the building.  After a night of gawking, it finally registered that our presence (white girls) was degrading for the girls here, and suddenly I was quite happy that our tour was almost over.  This place was pretty gross, though there were girls singing and dancing (badly) in the bar area which was entertaining for a minute or two.  This was such a strange outing because while we were drinking and socializing, it was impossible to forget that we were a very rare breed of patron for these places, one who just comes to observe and absorb.


The final place we visited was a little different from the rest.  With a name like Adam’s Apple, you can guess that the costumer base varies a bit from the previous establishments on the tour.  After the tame go-go bar, I wasn’t expecting too much from a male strip club.  Upon entering, it was similar enough to Spotlight – a selection of Thai men were in their skivvies, watching themselves in the mirror as they did the same bored gyrating as the women.  They were on a catwalk, however – a hint that this was going to be a show, and the next couple of acts did not disappoint.  Once all the men walked backstage, sets of two or three would perform a number in ridiculously silly costumes (my favorite was the pharaohs), with kathoey (lady-boy) acts in between.  At one point, they were dancing to Taylor Swift (I wonder if she knows her songs are used in drag shows in Thailand?), and most were fun and silly, but one kathoey act was quite creepy.  She was wearing a mask that looked like it was taken from Saw, miming and dancing in a thong that showed she was still very, very much a man.


After a couple of these numbers, I was a little taken aback when the next guy to walk out on the stage was wearing nothing but an opera mask and long black cape.  I was cracking up because the song chosen for this number was the Diva song in The Fifth Element, and the whole thing was just very bizarre.  Before we left, I joined a friend in the smoking room while she smoked a cigarette and was followed by three performers to whom I tried to talk a little Thai, but sadly the questions I wanted to ask were beyond the scope of my vocabulary.  Most of the patrons in the bar were older Thai men, but when I asked if many girls come I was told by one of the dancers that there are a lot of fahrang women.  He couldn’t understand my pigeon Thai as I tried to ask if they were usually older women or if it was girls my age, but in general I know that the male sex industry here and elsewhere is funded by a lot of older British women.  The boys we talked to were 18, 19 and 25, but I could tell that some of the boys were definitely underage.  Still, I think if any of my girlfriends visit me, I will take them here, just because it is really too much to pass up – AND they handed out a free shot of tequila and lots of paper cones of popcorn.  Like a big, seedy, gay circus!


Overall, quite a successful field trip, exposing me to a lot of places I probably would have never made it to otherwise.  It was funny being with a group of study-abroad students now that I wasn’t “one of them” – it’s a very particular group dynamic and mindset that comes from balancing your time between studying and soaking up as much of a new culture as possible, embracing the insta-friends you’ve been paired with for a couple of months…but not having enough loyalty to them to keep from freely speaking your mind (both to their face and behind their backs).  Can’t say I miss it!  I do, however, miss the people in my group very much (individually…or in small groups – it was always such a headache when everyone was together!), and there are countless times during my days here where I look around, searching for the girls with whom I had shared my previous Thai explorations.  I was so over school by the time I graduated, though, it’s been refreshing to be on my own and not part of a group.  Though a partner in crime would be nice!


*[A note regarding the title:  “No money, no honey!” is one of my students’ favorite examples of rhyming.  I like to do rhyming exercises with them to better familiarize everyone with word sounds (since English has NO CONSISTENCY in spelling/pronunciation!), and this one comes up every time – and sometimes while we are doing idioms, too.]


Posted by: gloowhyinthai | October 10, 2010

Branching Out

It’s time.  I’m breaking the chain of dry, work-related posts.  Forget I’m even here working – because while I know you’re interested in “what it is” I’m doing here, I realize what’s been missing from my updates is, well, what I’m doing here.  I’ve finally broken out of the monotony of my weekends, usually spent perusing through my roommate’s favorite bars and her friends’ house parties, and have been having some truly exceptional fun.  In my first several weeks, I shadowed my roommate, Ying, quite a bit, making my way through the “young expat community” which consists mostly of NGO workers and/or English teachers.  This is a large but fairly incestuous network, in the sense that everyone knows everyone and each new person I come across seems to fit snugly in the web of friends, roommates and coworkers.  (I say “young” because there is also an extensive retired community in Chiang Mai which has made quite a different footprint in the city.)  Ying is Thai, from a village halfway between here and Bangkok, but she teaches Thai to middle and elementary school kids at an international school just outside the city.  Between this and dancing every chance she gets at a bar that caters to more fahrang (whities) than Thais, she is well integrated into the expat scene.  Not to mention that she speaks English flawlessly, with an American accent most English-speaking Thais would kill for, despite never having studied abroad – which she accredits to her love of watching movies.  As most of Ying’s university friends have left the area since they graduated, her friend base is, surprisingly, almost completely Western – I think I’ve actually hung out with more Thais than she has since I’ve been here!  This has had its advantages and disadvantages – I’ve been introduced to so many people who are here doing the same thing that I am doing, and I’m constantly forming new connections to possible volunteer opportunities and teaching support.  And friendships!  It goes without saying that the kind of person who chooses to stray from the conventional, career-driven path of the West to live abroad is usually quite the colorful character (not to toot my own horn or anything), and I have made some amazingly interesting and inspiring friends since I’ve gotten here.

But the number of expats I’ve met who have been living here for months or years without knowing more than a few phrases in Thai, living snugly within their fahrang bubble, has been both disturbing and discouraging.  I don’t want to be living in Thailand, pretending it is just another typical American city that happens to have exceptional Thai food.  I see teaching here as an opportunity for cultural exchange, using the privilege of happening to be born in an English-speaking country as a passport which enables me to soak up new cultures.  I know there’s a hint of contradiction here, because I am meeting fahrang from all over the world (particularly in the NGO network) whose cultures are entirely different than mine.  But I didn’t come back to Thailand because I loved playing in an international cast of fahrang; I returned because I fell in love with Thai culture and knew that my time studying here only scratched the surface.

Yet despite my intentions, I haven’t delved into my “Thai life” as I ambitiously intended.  I am increasingly frustrated by the minimal impact these past few months have had on my Thai language skills.  I have only myself to blame, for I often don’t make the effort to branch out of my safety net of survival Thai to take the time to expand my vocabulary organically, and I certainly haven’t been taking advantage of the scores of Thai language books that my live-in Thai language teacher has around the house.  —I know what you’re thinking: “What’s that, Hannah?  You live with a Thai teacher?  But you’re complaining that you aren’t learning Thai??”—  Well, Ying was technically supposed to be my language teacher during “orientation” – which, for my fellow VIA volunteer, Jessica, was three weeks of roaming Chiang Mai and learning Thai in the leisurely atmosphere of coffee shops, taking field trips to various markets and temples, while I endured the tedious month-long TEFL course each day from 9-5, often coming home too exhausted to attempt any kind of formal lessons.  Once our schedules coincide, we will set up something a little more official, but for now she has been happy to answer any and every question I have as I faintly attempt to learn on my own.  As of now, I usually catch her coming in the door just as I’m on my way to class, and after our long days of teaching neither of us really feel like having painfully slow conversations in Thai (which are often much more tedious for her, needing to translate anything I don’t understand – and, honestly, who has the energy to say everything twice?).

I’m not saying that I resent the time I’ve spent familiarizing myself with this international scene of expats, because I know that this is a valuable support system in so many ways.  But at this point, three months in, I realize that this is not where I want to spend most of my time.  There is so much more that this city has to offer than fahrang-filled bars playing American dance music, and I need to push myself to experience it.  Plus, let’s face it, after years of blasting Neil Young (I miss you, Katherine), Bobby D and Ween from our townhouse/suite speakers, I just can’t find the appeal of dancing to techno and pop – to me, dancing is fun when you can’t help but dance, and when I don’t like the music, trying to move along to it is a pretty excruciating,  self-conscious form of torture.  Plus, having never lived in a city before, the amount of live music at my fingertips is quite exciting.  There is also a pretty cool film scene I’ve just discovered, with weekly screenings of international films at three different venues, and I’m excited to start frequenting those.  Finally, I’m finding friends (both fahrang and Thai!) who are interested in exploring with me, and I’m only just realizing how accessible outside of the city is – there really is an immeasurable list of possible places for me to explore, and now that I’ve gotten a small taste, I want to get on that – pronto.


Posted by: gloowhyinthai | September 19, 2010

A Post About My Posts

While I’ve (slowly) attempted to explain my role as an educator for migrant workers, I felt it was important to first illustrate their social situation and to provide an understanding of their former system of education.  As you’ve now read, my students have left Burma for a number of reasons, and their range of proficiency, capability and ambition is vastly varied.

<“Uh, what??” >   Let me clarify…

By this I mean that not only does the language level fluctuate greatly from student to student, but the time commitment afforded by each student is hardly uniform – some are absent more than they are present simply because they cannot afford to miss so much work, while others are able to devote more time to studying outside the classroom.  In terms of ambition, the ways in which my students hope to utilize the English language depend on their future goals – or current lack thereof.  When asking about their future plans, my students are often at a loss of words.  They have no concept of what they could be capable of achieving in exchange for a little effort and dedication (okay, a lot of effort and dedication!).  In addition to teaching English, I am also responsible for implementing a new system of learning – without having ever been taught the skills to think critically or create their own solutions to problems, my students have not yet acquired the capacity to dream.  As they gain self-confidence in their English skills and in their own ability to learn, I hope to inspire my students to widen the scope of their possibilities.

The MLC and BEAM are two very different schools.  There is still a lot of tension between these institutions because the latter is the result of a faction between some teachers and funders who had diverging views in the implementation of migrant education.  The truth is, both schools are essential for the migrant community, yet their goals are so dissimilar that they can hardly be considered to be in competition with one another.  The needs of students at the Migrant Learning Center are immediate – the English skills with which I am providing them will be used in their daily life, as many of their jobs involve frequent interaction with tourists and expats.  Others would like to improve their situation by changing professions, hoping to get out of the construction or agricultural industry and obtain a higher paying job in food service, housekeeping, or tourism.  Therefore, the language skills I am teaching at this school are focused more on conversation and fluency, with less emphasis on language theory (learning the names for parts of speech and being able to identify the tenses).

Courses at the MLC run for eight weeks, and there are currently three levels of English: Basic, Beginner and Elementary.  Basic-level students are learning the alphabet and working on pronunciation and expressing basic desires and commands.  By the end of the course, these students should be able to construct a simple sentence.  I am currently teaching the Beginner-level, in which we are working on simple and continuous tenses and how to use each part of speech.  The Elementary-level is working toward complex sentences, perfect tense and fluency, though I haven’t sat in on these classes, taught by the other native English-speaker, Lydia.  Because my commitment is primarily to BEAM, I only teach one class at the MLC three mornings out of the week – though my class meets every day.  I found a girl who took the TEFL course online and was in need of teaching experience, and she has agreed to volunteer on the mornings I teach at BEAM.  Co-teaching has been interesting, and I think actually beneficial to both us as new teachers and for the students – two teachers means double the explanations, twice the amount of vocabulary and hopefully enough variance to keep them engaged.

The Migrant Learning Center also teaches Thai – effectively giving these migrants the tools to better blend into their community.  This is the main goal of the MLC, and it is an important one.  Without these language skills, a migrant’s identity becomes obvious, subjecting them to harassment of all kinds (as I discussed in a previous post).  I may be teaching, but I’m hesitant to say that we provide an education – we are supplying survival skills, from which the migrant community greatly benefits.  The MLC is ever-accommodating, accepting anyone and everyone with open arms (much to the frustration of its teachers, who constantly gain and lose students throughout the duration of the course) – there are even a few Thais who attend as a supplementary language course…I’m not sure my  principal realizes this, and their attendance sort of clashes with the whole notion of providing for the less-fortunate migrant community, but who am I to expose them when they’ve figured out a thrifty way to improve their English?

Bridging Educational Access to Migrants, on the other hand, has a more ambitious goal of providing its students with the tools to obtain a higher education.  The English I teach my students at BEAM is in preparation for GED and TOEFEL exams – the gateway to enrolling in international universities or study-abroad programs.  BEAM offers not only English, but Math, Science and Social Studies as well.  After this initial year, BEAM hopes to eventually conduct all of its classes in English, in consistency with the international standard.  Basically, this is a high school – the only one offered to Burmese migrants.  Word about BEAM spread quickly through the exiled Burmese community, and some of my students literally scaled the walls of refugee camps, forfeiting government protection for the chance to continue their education.  We have just over thirty students, ranging in age mainly from late teens to early thirties, though there is a pair of sisters who are 12 and 14.  While thinking toward the future is more evident in this school than at the MLC, the proficiency level is admittedly still far from being capable of succeeding in an international university.  But BEAM is young and ambitious – as we continue to grow and secure our place in the community, I am confident that we will be better equipped to ultimately reach our goals.

Education is important to these students, and BEAM is currently the only school of its kind – the Thinking Classroom Foundation (the parent organization of the MLC) also runs a Children Learning Center, where children are taught Burmese, Thai, English and Math – but there are limited resources for students who wish to maintain their education beyond primary and intermediate school.  Often this is because migrants need to work to support themselves and their family once they reach this age, providing little time or incentive to continue learning.

There is a second aspect to BEAM – two vocational schools, one in computer programming and one in tailoring.  There are an additional thirty students split between these programs, which teach technical skills to be used to improve their quality of life now.  BEAM will be a two-year program, and next year we will hopefully have a shop available for the tailoring students to apply the skills they’ve learned during the first year to actually run a tailoring business – from which they will also be able to keep some of the profits.  A similar second year is planned for the computer programming students, in which they will seek out freelance programming jobs and receive compensation for their work as they gain the skills needed to successfully work independently.  A new class of academic students will enroll in January, with the current students moving from Pre-Intermediate level to plain ole “Intermediate” – whatever that means.  I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

So, who are my students?

Well, being migrant workers, students at BEAM and the MLC are part of the lowest socioeconomic level in Thailand.  Whether they have lived in Thailand for years or are new arrivals, they are treated as second class people. Most students earn between 3,000THB-7,000THB each month.  Ethnically, the group is less cohesive.

Most (90%) at MLC are Shan (a Tai ethnic group).  I have learned a couple phrases in Shan, though if I pursue a tertiary language here (after English and Thai) it will most likely be Burmese.  It’s amazing, when you take into consideration that each ethnic nationality has its own language and variance in script, you realize how ambitious it is to cater to all of these different people at a single educational institution!  Most students at BEAM, however, completed middle or high school from within Burma, so they all are able to speak Burmese – in addition to their own ethnic language…while learning Thai…AND English…!!!  This is why I am so amazed by my students!

BEAM is 40% Shan, in addition to a mix of Karen (also called Kayin), Kachin, Lisu (a predominantly Christian sub-group of the Kachin ethnic nationality), Kayah (also called Red Karen or Karenni – one subdivision of which is the Kayan…within which a further subgroup is the Kayan Lahwi or Padaung, the tribes famous for the coil of brass rings worn around the women’s necks), Lahu, Chin and Burman.

As you can see, it is a headache to keep all of these ethnicities straight!  To maintain cultural sensitivity when working among so many different nationalities is something I can only hope I am doing and promise to improve by continuing to learn more about each group.

You know what?  Here – educate yo’selves!

I haven’t actually spoken with many of my students about their journey from Burma to Thailand, but the director of VIA is planning a visit in November with a group of university students from Japan, so over the next several weeks we will be anticipating questions that these Japanese students may have, and find the words to share their experiences as migrants.  As I learn their stories, I will use caution and sensitivity in sharing them with all of you, but I know there will certainly be important tales to tell.

Posted by: gloowhyinthai | September 19, 2010

Education in Burma

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory…higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

“Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms…”

“Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

These are quotes taken from the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international document of which Burma has been a signatory since 1948.

Burma is also listed as a supporter of the Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education, which supports education as a universal human right that is important for the attainment of human potential.  This declaration describes “…the importance of the right to education for the enjoyment of all other human rights and the development of human persons.”  It also asserts that education “shall be an instrument of positive social change…it should be relevant to the social, economic, political, and cultural situation of any given country, contribute to the transformation of the status quo towards the full attainment of all rights and freedoms, and be subject to permanent evaluation.”

However, these documents hardly reflect the reality in Burma.  The Human Rights Year Book: Burma, 1999-2000 states that during that academic school year, only 37 percent of children in urban areas finished the fourth grade.  In rural areas, estimates are even more dismal: 22 percent of children will obtain a fourth-grade level education.  This data also estimates that a quarter of all of Burma’s school-age children will never enroll in primary school at all.  Official reports reveal that actual public spending per child has fallen from about 1200 Kyat per child (five to nine years old) in 1990/91 to 100 Kyat per child for the same age group in 1999/2000.  Officially, $1 USD is equal to 6.4 Kyat, but since most of the country’s economy operates within the black market, the actual going rate hovers between 900 and 1400 Kyat to a dollar, translating to mere pennies going toward each child’s education every year.

But attendance and funding are hardly the greatest concern.  The national school curriculum and materials teach propaganda and rote memorization rather than critical thinking skills.  No reference is made to the country’s complex cultural make-up – Burmese is the only language used and ethnic minorities are not represented.  In keeping with the government’s desire to isolate itself from the outside world, the school system is creating an untrusting, guarded population.  Through the media and by re-writing the school history books, children are taught to look upon Thais and other neighboring communities as their enemies and to see the Western world as a threat to Burmese integrity.  For the small percentage who are able to complete their education, the product of this school system is barely capable of succeeding or thinking independently – and this is intentional.  An educated population is an active population, and the government in Burma cannot afford to have citizens who have the means to create change.

While researching the state of education in Burma, I questioned the real relevance of even mentioning Burma’s signature on these declarations and similar documents.  So what if they signed this piece of paper and now they aren’t keeping their word; such behavior is pretty in keeping of a totalitarian military regime – hasn’t it already been thoroughly established that this is a government which is not working on behalf of its people?  I’ve come to realize, however, that this is included not as an illustration of the Junta’s behavior, but to highlight the responsibility of the international community.  If we are engaging this country to participate in these global declarations, then we have a responsibility to its citizens to make sure that this declaration is upheld.  Sadly, these are just some of the many instances in which the global community has failed to hold Burma accountable for the promises its government has made on behalf of its people.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes

but in having new eyes.”

This weekend, I attended a comparative seminar on the transitional experience of the education system in Czechoslovakia and how it may be applicable for the future democratic transition in Burma.  This seminar was hosted by Dr. Thein Lwin, the founder of the Thinking Classroom Foundation (which is made of two components: a Teacher Training Center for Burmese Teachers, and the Migrant Learning Center where I teach English) and presented by People in Need (PIN), a Czech organization that provides relief aid and development assistance, while working to defend human rights and democratic freedom.  Locally, PIN administers social integration programs in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and provides informative and educational activities.  Speakers included Petra Skalická, head of Educational Program Variants of People in Need, and Jaroslav Faltýn, deputy director of the Research Institute of Education in Prague.

Looking at the curriculum reform implemented in the Czech Republic since 1989, the seminar intended to raise awareness about challenges which an education system has to face due to fall of a totalitarian regime.  Not counting the two Czech speakers and their program’s organizer, Lucie Kundra, I was one of four fahrang in attendance – the rest (over forty participants in total) were Burmese teachers, teacher trainers, and administration from schools in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and from within Burma (mostly Yangon), as well as several Burmese activists interested in sustaining democracy through educational reform.

Essentially, the biggest points made during this seminar were to create consistency within the education system, encouraging cooperation and transparency between teachers, administration and the community; student-centered learning focused on critical thinking skills and motivation for self-sufficient learning; and to promote active learning through self-assessment, both in the teacher and student roles.  A model:

OLD: Teacher teaches –> student learns –> teacher assesses student

REFORM: Teacher teaches –> Student learns –> Students self-assess –> Teacher assesses student –> Teachers self-assess

There was a lot of theory discussed in this seminar, but I felt it lacked examples of implementing these methods of reform.  I suppose I was hoping for something more tangible which I could implement in my classroom, but the discussion was much more abstract.  This is understandable, because the idea itself – democratic teaching methods within a free Burma – is still only a hope at this point.  However, the student-centered emphasis is one I must take to heart – as I slowly piece together the ins and outs of teaching, I realize how great the temptation is to dictate and supply all the answers to my own questions.  But it is my job to put a halt to this system and to implement a new method of learning: it is the student who should be producing the answers – and the questions.

It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure that the students are the ones producing their own answers, not just acknowledging the information provided by the teacher.  Through formative assessment, teachers can inspire an attitude of competency within the student, nurturing their creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills.  By involving the learner in setting objectives, planning and assessing their own progress, they take an active role in their own learning.  There was a rhyme mentioned that one teacher repeated to herself after every question she asked her students: “One, two, three, four…got to wait a little more…”  I appreciated this, because at this point in my teaching I am still finding it difficult to remember that I must elicit answers from my students and encourage conversation rather than spend the entire class presenting language structure and vocabulary.

Posted by: gloowhyinthai | August 25, 2010

Let Me Be *Your* Teacher, Too!

What I had intended to use as merely an introduction for my last post ended up expanding into an entire reflection on my teaching thus far…so allow me to digress.  I’ve left quite a gap in my narrative by jumping from training to my first exam, and there’s still a bit of information I’d like to share with you about the situation concerning the people with whom I am working – Burmese migrants living in Chiang Mai.  After reading this entry, I warn you, you’ll think I am a completely horrible person for adding the stress of going into an exam unprepared to their daily struggles.

There were a lot of questions for me as I was leaving home.  If you’re going to Thailand, why aren’t you teaching English to Thais?  Why is there a significant population of Burmese people living in Chiang Mai?  What is happening in Burma that is causing them to leave?  Why would they need to know English?  Luckily, part of my training requirements was creating a presentation used to enlighten fellow volunteers on a topic related to my post, so allow me to clarify.

There is a huge opportunity for employment in Thai and International schools, teaching English to Thais and students from other nations who are paying for an education.  These students are recognized by the state and granted access to these institutions, both privately and publicly funded, and are defined only by their own ambition in how far they would like to continue their education.  For Burmese people, this is not the case.

“Burmese” refers to both the country’s official language and a person who is a citizen of Burma.  This includes the ethnic minorities living within the country’s borders which currently make up a third of the total population.  The rest of the population is comprised of the majority ethnic group, Bamar (a member of the Bamar group is called a Burman).  The population is divided into seven officially recognized ethnic minority states (Kachin/Jingpo, Kayah/Karenni, Kayin/Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and the second largest, Shan, which makes up almost a tenth of the population) and seven additional regions (Sagaing, Tanintharyi, Bago, Magway, Mandalay, Yangon and Ayeyarwady).  Of course, the ethnic minority situation is much more complicated than this simple division implies.  There are many sub-groups within the ethnic minority cultures that are not represented (the government acknowledges the existence of 135 different ethnic groups, and this is not including the Burmo-Indian or Burmo-Chinese), as well as completely unrelated ethnic groups living within a given state.

Burma, or Myanmar as it has been renamed by its government, was a British colony until 1948.  From the mid-thirties until the end of its colonial rule, Burma was among the wealthiest nations in Southeast Asia (as it was the single largest supplier of rice and teak, as well as major source for oil) and Rangoon was Asia’s most cosmopolitan city, equipped with an excellent academic system under which many of its citizens thrived.  Burman were restricted from joining the military at this time, with colonizers fearing an uprising if the majority ethnic group was given military training.  As a result, the national army was composed of members from the minority ethnic groups, particularly the Mon and Karen, who often received benefits from military enrollment, causing greater strain between the ethnic divisions.

After gaining independence, a democratic republic was established, lasting until General Ne Win led a coup d’état in 1962.  The military junta has held power ever since, effectively reversing Burma’s development in an effort to nationalize the country under a Socialist regime.  In fear of anyone else gaining power, the economic and educational systems were demolished, nearly all outside communication has been cut off, and the Tatmadaw (armed forces) have been sent throughout the countryside to terrorize ethnic minorities and drive them out of their homes (as “Burmanisation” is a goal of the military regime – to rule over “a single Burmese race”).  Victims of the Tatmadaw’s counter-insurgency activities are subjected to forced labor, brutal violence and rape, forced relocation, monetary exploitation and confiscation of their land – including their fields, thus removing their primary source of income.  Burma is now classified as one of the 49 Least Developed Countries in the world.  This combination of internal conflict and lack of economic options in Burma has forced many to flee their beloved country in order to survive.

Migrants usually arrive on foot, sometimes walking for weeks through the jungle until they reach the Thai border.  Many pay large sums of money to cross the border with the help of “agents” who smuggle them through checkpoints, mostly by bribing immigration officials.   Often times, families desperate to lighten their (financial) burden sell their daughters, allowing them to be trafficked to work in brothels, private homes or sweat shops.  Others pay the fee for a day pass to cross the Moei River bridge in Mae Sot or in other border towns like Mae Sai (where the other Thailand VIA Vol is posted!), then do not return, becoming illegal immigrants.  The border gate in Mae Sot is currently closed in an effort to stop this method of border crossing.

Once they arrive, the few options migrants have depend largely on their ethnicity.  There are currently over 185,000 refugees in Thai camps, mostly Karen and Mon (coming largely from the Kayin and Kayah states).  Those staying in the camps are not permitted by Thai authorities to work.  In contrast, there are tens of thousands of Shan immigrants who have been denied refuge at camps, causing them to make up the largest percentage of migrant workers (and as a result, most of my students are Shan).  Overall, there are an estimated 1.5 million Burmese migrant workers living in Thailand – though some figures are double this.  As Thailand becomes more prosperous, Burmese fill the labor shortage – very similar to how Hispanic immigrants fill this shortage in the States.  This leaves migrant workers with jobs labeled as “Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning” – meaning fisheries, manufacturing, domestic and construction work, hotel and restaurant crew, and agricultural laborers.  While many female Burmese migrants live in private homes, cleaning and taking care of children for Thai or foreign nationals, there is a large percentage who are forced to do much worse.  People from Burma make up 80% of migrant workers in Thailand, followed by Lao and Cambodian workers.

From Thailand’s point-of-view, the supply of workers available for the range of unskilled jobs far exceeds the number of jobs offered by Thai employers.  This is one factor which puts the employers in a very strong bargaining position and the workers in a correspondingly vulnerable position.  Nationalistic prejudice against people from Burma pervades the nation; even amongst educated Thais there is much ignorance about the extreme difficulties faced by people in Burma, especially in the non-Burman areas.  Thai media does not mention such things – it is that same deafening silence that keeps most Westerners oblivious to the situation in Burma, and this is one of the main reasons I’m making you suffer through this agonizingly informative post.  So thank you for reading and informing yourselves – and bear with me!

The Royal Thai Government established a registration process to establish legal framework and regularize the flow of migrants, but it is majorly flawed in both policy and implementation.  Migrants are only allowed to work for the employer named on their registration card, in the place and type of work designated on the card.  Obviously, this line of work is not as stable as this system lets on.  If a migrant worker loses his or her job, they became “illegal immigrants” after a period of seven days, subjecting them to arrest, fines, and ultimately deportation.

The system is also riddled with corruption.  While registered workers are theoretically exempt from arrest and deportation by the Thai authorities, those found without a registration card on their person remain vulnerable to arrest.  And if you’re following…migrants aren’t allowed to keep their cards – primarily to keep them from leaving these jobs.  Now, employers can provide them with a copy to tote around…but that doesn’t prevent workers from being arrested.  But really, none of this matters.  One of my students was stopped on his way to school while riding his new motorbike, papers in tow.  The officer asked to see his registration and ownership papers, and said that he would need to confiscate the bike.  My student meekly tried to assure the officer that his papers were genuine and up-to-date, to which the officer responded by ripping up the papers in front of him, dropping them on the ground and asking, “What papers?”

Such occurrences are common in the life of a Burmese migrant worker.  Police in areas of large concentrations of migrants often arrest both registered and unregistered workers, demanding bribes before releasing them.  There also reports that when a worker files the paperwork to start the registration process, Burmese and Thai officials use the address to harass families for additional taxes.  Sadly, more horrific stories are also a big part of the migrant worker experience.  In 2008, fifty-four Burmese died of suffocation while being transported in an enclosed container truck – marking the largest number of deaths of migrant workers recorded in a single incident.  Similar tragedies occur all the time, during transportation between job sites and deportation, as trucks built to comfortably fit twenty are often packed with fifty to a hundred people.

Only recently has the registration included protection for the workers’ families – a huge step forward (if, of course, the validity of the papers were not completely dependant on the mood of the officer on duty).  Since this protection is largely superficial, many families still do not attempt to seek health care or education for fear of deportation.  Often, those who try are still told they are not eligible for these government benefits.  Others, sadly, don’t even realize they have the right to ask.  More substantial forms of identification, such as passports, are largely unattainable for migrants because they cost thousands of dollars to obtain.  Even a Thai work permit, which runs around 3,800 baht ($130), is not something most workers can afford, as most are paid below minimum wage (which itself ranges from 133 baht to 169 baht per day, set by each province; on average, most migrants are paid $2 or $3 a day).  Currently, the simple, temporary identification card is the most feasible option, for which 1.3 million migrants have already registered.  This leaves, according to some estimates, as many as 1.4 million workers vulnerable to deportation as the Royal Thai Government has announced plans to complete “nationality verification” procedures throughout 2010 and into 2011.

In 2004, the Royal Thai Government and the State Peace and Development Council (or SPDC, Myanmar’s military government) signed a Memorandum of Understanding concerning Burmese migrant workers in Thailand.  Besides stipulating time limits on the migrant worker’s residence in Thailand (officially two years, not to exceed four), it also makes specific claims that “Workers are entitled to wage and other benefits due for local workers based on the principles of non-discrimination and equality of sex, race, and religion.”  Naturally, this isn’t just in there for kicks.  The reality is that migrant workers – in every part of the world – are subjected to the worst lack of labor rights, including inadequate pay and healthcare, in addition to living and working conditions that are completely abysmal.  Yet, regardless of the unfairly low wages, horrible working conditions, and the extreme vulnerability to possible arrest and deportation, migrants often feel safer working in Thailand than trying to survive in Burma.

Here is a person testimony I included in my presentation, the words of an unemployed, 23-year-old Mon goldsmith, as translated by Amnesty International, about his treatment in Thailand:

“…Thai police are a big threat to Burmese workers. Sometimes they abuse their power and harass us even if we have a pass [work permit]. The Burmese sometimes don’t realize their rights so they are mistreated by police. Generally Thai people regard us as garbage. They don’t see Burmese as helping the economy. We are taking jobs which the Thai won’t do. They regard us as troublemakers, never as good friends…I didn’t want to come to Thailand – because I love my country and land – but because of economic mismanagement and poverty and lack of education, especially for rural people – what they want is a better life. But they are being subjected to abuses here.”

I think I’ll stop here.  Really, congratulations if you made it this far without giving up and skimming.  This is a lot of information and while it may seem to be in excess, it really has altered my understanding of my role here, and I want my friends and family to be aware of the challenges and sensitivities involved in teaching Burmese migrants.  I’ll provide some more exciting information – specific to the schools where I’ve been posted – tomorrow…after I grade those exams!

Oh, and hey.  Pictures are coming.  Just hold tight!

Posted by: gloowhyinthai | August 25, 2010

The First Exam: Testing My Teaching Testing Skills (say wha?!)

As I write this post, I am sitting in my classroom, watching my students struggle with their first exam under my tutelage.  My stomach is knotted as tightly as if it were me taking the test.  In fact, I don’t think I ever felt this uneasy going into an exam.

Each and every lost look I catch on my students faces is a not-so-subtle reminder that I am responsible for providing them with the tools to answer these questions, and it is obvious that I have failed.  I can’t beat myself up about it too much – I had only one class with them between the time my principal informed me I needed to make an exam (and hand it in the next day – “It should take them three hours to complete.”) and the actual exam period.  In total, we’ve had only four classes together.  I was still getting my feet wet, figuring out how to navigate through the material – I can absolutely assure you I was NOT teaching with an exam in mind.

So I spent a frantic evening paging through my teacher’s manual – or rather, the four pages we had made it through thus far – racking my brain to figure out What had I taught them so far? How do I translate free-form discussions into a structured exam?  How do I take the phrases we have been using in class discussions (modal phrases, that is) and transform them into questions that evaluate both comprehension and proficiency? I hadn’t been drilling anything into their heads, so how were they supposed to know what would be on the test?  Needless to say, all confidence I’d had in my teaching ability quickly dissipated.

In addition to crafting my first exam, the principal asked me to update the online tutorial page with practice exercises – A-HA!  That’s the answer!  I’ll just put up exercises that are nearly identical to the questions on the test (same format, different details) to familiarize my students with the exam.  Of course, they only had the weekend to practice, and there wasn’t a chance for them to ask questions about the exercises in class, but I was confident that if they used the online site to study, they would be fine for the exam.  I assured them this, emphasizing that the test would be quite daunting if they don’t at least look at the exercises online…  Okay!  Problem solved?  Not exactly.  It seems I should have been a little more authoritative.  Many of them logged on, but less than ten of my thirty students actually attempted the exercises – and the results were pretty uncomforting.  Most first tries landed them between 20 and 40 percent – though they repeated them until the averages reached 80% or higher.  But those who had not practiced, I realized, would not have the luxury of improving their score.  And it was probably the more ambitious students who were taking the time to practice online in the first place!  Is your stomach in knots yet?

While I can appreciate that the trials and tribulations I am facing are normal for a first-time teacher, it is not my lack of ability that disturbs me.  As hard as it is for the demanding, impatient perfectionist within me to accept, I know that the finesse of a great teacher will only come with experience.  My own unrealistic expectations for myself aside, at this moment my heart is with my students.  I fear that I have sent my unsuspecting students, who have seemed to enjoy our time together thus far, completely ill-equipped into a hopeless battle against not only the English language – but much worse – against their own confidence in their ability.  I just don’t want them to be discouraged.  I am eager to talk to them during our next class, to reassure everyone that this first exam is as much a test of my abilities as their teacher as it is a measure of their learning – in fact, probably more so because, honestly, I did not prepare them for this test at all!  Who, reading this now, would be able to take a test based solely on a number of discussions held in a foreign language?

I dread grading these exams, but I know it will give me the tools necessary for renovating my teaching methods.  Teaching blindly without an objective in mind is – go figure! – not the best way to go.  I suppose it is time to start basing my lesson plans on a cumulative curriculum?  Why, I sound more like a teacher already!

Posted by: gloowhyinthai | August 16, 2010

Oh, hi, blog…it’s been awhile…

So, it’s been about a month and a half since my last update.  Yikes.  Officially, I will say that the past six weeks have been insanely jam-packed and I’ve just been too busy living life here that I haven’t had a chance to update this puppy.  There’s truth to that.  But I think we can all concur that, in actuality, I’ve been a productive mix of busy, exhausted, and a little lazy – but the good news is, I promise the silence is now and forever broken!

I am really disappointed in myself for not having updated this during this transitional period, for there has been such an intense wave of emotions and discoveries that have happened the last few weeks, and now I’m afraid they won’t have quite the same pungency writing about them after the fact.  But by golly, I’ll try.  It’s all news to you, right?  (I apologize in advance for any and all Mississippi bayou dialect that I am unable to suppress during this update – I just downloaded Tammy and the Doctor to completely befuddle my Thai roommate and stump her mastery of English, but after each and every viewing there’s always this funny-peculiar feeling gnawin’ at my innards, and I can’t help but speak like I dun’ grew up on the Ellen B!  So, if’n yer willing to be monstrous kind and mighty patient with me, I’ll be muchly beholdin’.)

We all know I wasn’t just in Phnom Penh soaking up the sites.  That’s right; I’m here because I HAVE A JOB!  Sorry, unemployed friends and relatives, but I do.  And I’ve never had anything even resembling a fancy shmancy “job” before (hmmm – Bon Appétit, catering was…fun?  Not really.  But I’d really just consider you a… place of employment), so lucky for me they flew me out to Cambodia first to explain how the whole “job” thing works!

First, we did a pretty basic breakdown on the types of places where we will be posted:  NGOs.  NGOs, or Non-Government Organizations, are institutions making social change in which, each year, profits break even.  There are no shareholders or investors, so the only people profiting from the company are those who are being served.  NGOs fall into two different categories, operational and advocacy; in the first, a service is provided, usually orchestrating projects within a specific community to improve quality of life, whereas the latter is more focused on policy-making and changing public opinion.  The places I am working, BEAM (Bridging Educational Access to Migrants) and the Migrant Learning Center, do a little bit of both.  I’ll be teaching English, providing a free education that is catered to the schedule of migrant workers, but since the Burmese migrant community in Thailand is looked down upon considerably, there is certainly an additional agenda of improving Thai-Burmese relations within Chiang Mai and better integrating the Burmese into the greater community.

My organization, VIA, provides the unique opportunity to be able to volunteer without being completely without funds – that is, for my time spent at my schools, I am rewarded with a small stipend to cover food and housing.  This is purely a subsistence salary, allowing me the unique opportunity (and challenge) to truly live locally – if I want my stipend to last, I can really only afford to eat my meals at food stalls and noodle shops, limit my weekend bar-hopping, and pay out of my own pocket for any threads and trinkets I find along the way.  Fortunately, I would want nothing else.  Don’t misread that – I certainly did not just say “I want for nothing” because, well, the prolific city nightlife and surplus of massage parlors and yoga studios do cause a little pang in my heart – but I am excited to be living simply.  My hope is that not having an excess of funds will provide an opportunity to improve those skills money can’t buy: my sketching, my sewing, my literary repertoire and, of course, my Thai.

Some of the training in Phnom Penh did not directly apply to me, but it opened my eyes to job possibilities in the future, namely the bit on grants.  A whole day was dedicated to understanding the benefits and drawbacks of grants, proposal-writing, budgeting, monitoring and progress-reporting.  There schools where I am working have pretty stable funding, so I will probably not be writing many grant proposals during my time here, but it is going to be a huge aspect of the other volunteers’ responsibilities, so it was interesting to see how it all works.  Plus, I can totally write “attended grant-writing workshop” on my résumé now, right?

While my job at BEAM and the MLC is specifically teaching English, the other volunteers have the slightly more ambiguous title of “English Resourcer”.  What does that mean, exactly?  Besides assisting in writing grant proposals, our volunteers are the go-to person for any questions about the English grammar in a report written by a colleague, as well as the author of many English-language articles and reports.  But why do these companies in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand need their information in English at all?  Because English reigns supreme, of course – but there is a little more to the ER position than being a human dictionary.  There is prestige that comes with employing a foreign staff member, as wrong as it might seem, simply because it says “English-speakers are interested in this company” – surely I nor the rest of my VIA colleagues feel that our mere presence greatly enhances the work being done at our different posts, but we do bring something to the table.  English speakers have access to a whole world of English-language resources – a web of networks and connections that these organizations would not be able to decipher (or even know about) without our help.  As an outsider, and especially being from a different country, we also provide a new perspective and will hopefully be able to manifest new strategies and ideas for making our post as efficient and effective as possible.  Lastly, we are here to fulfill VIA’s mission: to partake in an “innovative experiential learning program” to “promote cross-cultural understanding, build partnerships, and offer transformative experiences” for both the volunteers and the communities we serve.

Yeah…I can do that!

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