After staying in Kanchanburi and doing home stays, we departed for Bangkok to catch the night train to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. While on the train, we watched the progression of Central to Northern Thailand, past many picturesque villages and got a look at the countryside. 16 hours later, we arrived in Chiang Mai. We settled into our guesthouses and were feeling grateful to have hot water and western style toilets. Compared to Bangkok, Chiang Mai was much smaller, less overwhelming, and considerably more hospitable.
On the first day, we split off into groups and went on a scavenger hunt throughout the old walled city and surrounding area in order to familiarize ourselves with Chiang Mai. We looked at Wat Chedi Luang in the center of town, the four gates to the city, and various other landmarks and sites. Through this activity, we interacted with locals to learn more about the history of Chiang Mai and how to navigate the city. This activity was also a perfect opportunity to practice our Thai in a practical way. Additionally, the scavenger hunt enabled each group to get to know each other better and complete projects as a team.
One of the many temples we visited was Doi Suteph located on the hills of the western side of the city. It overlooked Chiang Mai and gave us a sense of the size of the city. We visited and explored the famous Wararot Market, which is called Kad Luang in Northern Thai, which is filled with exotic foods and handmade crafts. Many merchants were selling food and merchandise specific to Northern Thai culture including Khao Soi, a Northern Thai curry, and vibrant colored clothes. Chiang Mai has many markets that change from day to night, veering from flower markets, the Sunday market, and the Night Bazaar.
Another activity we did in Chiang Mai was conducting brief interviews with various locals in the city. This activity challenged our Thai language skills, which are improving rapidly, and offered a first hand view of the diversity of the Thai people. Additionally we were assigned independent research projects to conduct on our own and then present to the group. We were each allowed to choose our own topics of research based on our whatever we personally interested in finding out in Chiang Mai. Topics ranged from bartering, college student life in Chiang Mai, spirit houses, and lives of expats. We were encouraged to conduct our research by interacting with locals as opposed to using academic literature or the internet.
We were extremely fortunate and thankful to have a guest speaker from the NGO KESAN who talked to us about the current political issues surrounding Burmese refugees along the Thai/Burma border. The displaced Burmese face a number of options if they decide to leave their homes because of ongoing fighting and instability currently happening in their home country. Some choose to stay in Burma and essentially become nomads, moving from place to place, hiding from the authorities, and making ends meet any way they can. Others choose to enter Thailand as migrant workers or seek shelter in refugee camps along the border. There are many political and human rights issues surrounding these populations. Some refugees have been living in the camps for up to 30 years with little to no other option. Many nations are unwilling to accept Burmese refugees into their borders and relocation is becoming less and less common. As a reaction to the recent democratic election in Burma, Thailand is pressuring the refugees to return to Burma and is also cutting the amount of rations given to the camps. Migrant workers face the possibility of being trafficked and becoming part of a massive slave labour population. KESAN works to improve conditions in the camps and to provide aid to people living along the border. The talk was very informative. It helped to prepare us for our upcoming experience along the border.
When we had free time, we were left to our own devices to explore Chiang Mai. This experience helped us to feel more comfortable navigating an unfamiliar city. The group was able to see live music, enjoy a delicious meal of Thai barbecue, and to become more comfortable with each other. Chiang Mai wa sa fun and interesting city, but we are all very excited to continue our adventure in Mae Sot and the Karen villages.
Vivian, Molly, and Tyler
Five days, six planes, three countries, and one twelve hour taxi ride later, we’ve finally made it to Dharamsala. The town is set high in the Himalayan hillside and strung together with colorful prayer flags and beautifully constructed buildings. So far we’ve seen camels, elephants, and some giant monkeys. Today was our first full day here and so far we have experienced the abundant culture, awesome views, and delicious cuisine. Although most of the day was spent in line to get IDs to see the Dalai Lama, we got to see a glimpse of His Holiness and the next three days we get to attend his teachings. We also start our Tibetan language classes tomorrow as well as meeting our home-stay families.
Although we have had an exhausting last few days, we have so many adventures ahead of us and we look forward to sharing them all with you!
Shawn, Vindy and the IVS Team
Tomorrow morning we begin our incredible two-day jeep ride through the Great Himalayan Range. We will be traveling over five mountain passes, with each pass being higher than the previous, and culminating with Taglang La at 17,500 ft – the second highest road pass in the world!
During the journey we will be leaving behind the lush green landscape of Manali, giving way first to the high Tibetan plateau and then eventually the alpine deserts of Ladakh.
Manali has been a wonderful respite; a chance to recover from the plane, train and bus rides…and to fatten up with delicious Tibetan food before heading to the high altitudes. Last night, good friends of ours invited us over to dinner, and with customary Tibetan graciousness, stuffed us with endless servings of mutton stew, curry chicken, vegetables, Tibetan steamed bread and chai tea. We’ve also had the amazing opportunity to take two hikes to two different waterfalls right outside of town, providing an opportunity to move our bodies before we begin the long journey ahead.
We will be out of email contact for the next week. Hope everyone back home is eating as well as we are!
Charlie, Liz and the IVS group
Juley Juley –
We are on the third and final day in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, after an incredible week in the eastern plateau of Changthang where we tented alongside nomads, who gather on the side of Tso Kiagar (Kiagar lake) – at 15,000 ft! – once a year to honor the birthday of the Dalai Lama. Horse racing, traditional Tibetan dancing (most of the people in this remote region are refugees from Tibet), and vistas that seem endless due to the thin dry air were unlike anything in the US. And at night, when temperatures plummet, the stars emerge and the Milky Way seems
close enough to touch!
We are stocking up on many good meals, as Leh is a destination for trekkers from around the world, and have visited various NGOs including those relating to environment, tourism, and women’s empowerment. Tomorrow early we embark on another two-day jeep traverse down the Indus valley, making a sharp right turn and up the Suru River – one of the most spectacular watersheds imaginable, between the Zanskar and Himalaya ranges. This will bring us to the Zanskar valley, where we will be in home stays in small and remote villages, and working on an artificial
glacier project, staying also in monasteries or nunneries, and trekking through rugged terrain.
Everyone is well, acclimatizing to altitude, getting along as a team, and learning so much. Thank you all for your continuing support! We will try emailing from Zanskar when possible.
Charlie and James
Julley and Greetings from Leh!
After a grueling two-day jeep ride through the Great Himalaya range, we have reached Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The trip covered 473km and went over four high-altitude passes, including the Taglang La at 17,582 ft.! There was a dramatic change in ecosystems – from the lush, coniferous forests in Manali to the grass lands of the Tibetan plateau and finally the alpine desert in Leh. We saw the nomadic herders tending their goat and yak herds, wild horses and one student is convinced that she spotted the elusive Himalayan Yeti! The combination of high altitude, long days and rough roads tested us all, but the group dealt with the adversity admirably.
Tomorrow we will be going to the Changtang region to meet the nomadic communities of eastern Ladakh and join them in the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday. We will be out of email and phone contact for one week, and will send another update when we arrive back in Leh.
Charlie and James
Julley, Julley (Ladakhi for hello, please, thank-you) – and Tashi Delek (hello in Tibetan) –
We are back from an incredible week in easternmost Ladakh, Changthang, which is geographicallly and culturally Tibet. We camped for five days on the shores of Tso Kiagar (tso=lake), at 15,000+ feet, pitching our tents alongside those of nomads who had gathered from around the area in honor of the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. needless to say, our time these was unlike anything any of us had previously experienced.
Getting there (and back) meant 7 hours by jeep up the Indus River, through canyons of thousands of feet of orange, purple, red, and brown walls, interspersed by thin green strips of agriculture – the highest in the world – where glacial melt enables irrigated terraces of barley. We were hosted by the teachers of a tiny Tibetan Children’s Village school in Sumdo, serving 37 nomadic children ages 3-7, who stay at the school and occasionally return to their families, where they are able to continue to acquire the skills of herding yaks, sheep, and goats (including those yielding the incredibly soft, and lucrative, pashmina wool). Nomadic headmen provided some of the meals, of mutton stews, milk tea, butter tea (note: not tea, but high-fat drink that provides sustenance in such a high desert environment. One day was taken up by many horse races, with rugs serving as saddles; exciting! Two days saw us at another lake, Tso Moriri, where earth meets the sky. We tested lungs and limbs, climbing to 17,000 ft, with the clear blue lake far below, the crystal blue sky above, and snow-capped peaks all around – including Chinese-controlled Tibet in the distance.
Today we are back in Leh – traffic, tourists, and welcome beds and showers – where we have wonderful hosts at the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, a wooded oasis next to the isthmus. Everyone there, and throughout our journey, has been generous beyond measure. We have also been accompanied by Lotan, whose name means intelligent and kind-hearted, perfect for someone who exemplifies kindness, humor, wisdom, and living simply. He, and so many others teachers (men, women, children, the glory of nature), have been models for each of us – humbling us, and challenging our sense of what is necessity or normal.
Tomorrow, at dawn, we set out for Zanskar (two 10-hr jeep rides), a valley that has been called the last Shangra-la. While there, we will be in homes in remote villages, in monasteries and nunneries, working alongside families – and communicating as best we can: limited common words, as well as through smiles and shared activities. The anthropologist in each of us is sure to continue to thrive. We are also seeing culture change – nomads in yak tents, with a motorcycle outside, for example. So it is possible that internet has already reached Zanskar; if so another communication will be forthcoming during the next two weeks. If not, we will be back in touch after a 6-7 day trek out of the valley, literally over the Himalaya range.
To all, greetings & reminders that each of us keeps different ones of you in our hearts & minds –
James & Charlie (et al.)