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