Back in the USA

May 30, 2012

I am back in the U.S. and it feels surreal to think that I just spent five months living in Bangkok.  After my traveling this year, it scares me a bit how easily I move between locations and stages of life–since August 28th when I left my hometown for my first travel experience my schedule has been: Boston, Amsterdam, Kenya, Tanzania, Kenya, Amsterdam, Germany, Amsterdam, Boston, Thailand, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Thailand, India, Thailand, London, Brussels, London, Boston, and soon onto DC.  I haven’t had the “ah ha, I was in Thailand” moment, which I think will come once I start going through all of my pictures.

After leaving Bangkok I spent a week and a half traveling in London and Belgium visiting my family.  I had my “oh my gosh  I’m not in Bangkok anymore” moment, when I got caught at Buckingham Palace in the freezing cold, in the midst of a ceremony practice for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  Red coats, black fuzzy hats and all, I was surely not in Bangkok anymore.

Throughout this time, however, and since catching up with friends at home, I am constantly asked “so how has this year, or this semester changed you?”  I can’t put it into grand and poetic terms, so I will keep it simple:

1.  I got home, and was embarrassed and appalled at how many clothes I had in my closet. So I cleaned out the whole thing and since then have given two bags of clothes to Goodwill.

2.  Before this year, I had every intention of moving to London after graduation to pursue some sort of career there.  Now I think more likely that I would move to Bangkok or somewhere in Africa.

3.  I want to learn: read books, travel, talk to people as much as I can to learn as many different things as possible.

4.  I will never ever complain that 85 degree weather in Massachusetts is “hot.”

5.  “May pen ray” is my new favorite motto.  It’s the Thai version of “hakuna matata,” meaning no worries, take it easy, everything is okay, no sweat.  It is Thailand’s slogan, and truly governs the Thai lifestyle.  And despite being extremely organized, and a very Type A personality, this is something I have really embodied this year. Just go with the flow.  It doesn’t matter. No worries. Take it easy. Adapt to the situation. Love every minute of it.  Don’t think too too much about “what if.”  Just relax, and enjoy it.

I just hope once I am back in the grind at Richmond, or even working on my internship this summer, that I can continue to keep “may pen ray” in mind. It really is a great way of living!


Leaving Bangkok

May 21, 2012

I am writing now sitting at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, waiting to board my flight to London.  I have finished my exams, I have said my “see you soon’s” I have done the absolute impossible (only thanks to my fantastic roommate) and have fit 5 months worth of purchases and clothing into only one checked bag (I am not pleased with my airline about this), and I took my last look at the beautiful Bangkok skyline from my bedroom window.

Yesterday and today, ironically, I had the best Thai food of this entire semester, food which I will definitely miss.  I am off to London now to spend a week traveling within Europe to visit family, and while I cannot WAIT to see my family, I am absolutely sad that I am already leaving Bangkok.  It is an incredible city that very quickly came to feel like home, and I could have easily continued on living here without hesitation.  It is very rare that a city can offer so much, from incredible food and cheap amenities, to fantastic weather and the kindest people you will ever encounter.  It will certainly be interesting, after this year of travel, to go back to the “real world.”

Once I am home back in US I will do one last blog post on how the readjusting is going.  Until then, for those who have never been to Thailand before, I highly recommend researching how you could make a trip to Thailand possible. Thailand has everything to offer, and is absolutely worth the trip half way around the world!

Bangkok to INDIA!

May 16, 2012

I just came back from some of the most incredible five days of my life.  I have had a pretty fantastic year filled with travel – by the time I land back in the U.S. on May 22 I will have conquered eleven countries on four different continents in nine months.  And still this past week was one of the most life-changing and memorable weeks of my entire adventure.

I was given the opportunity to visit Kolkata with a friend of mine who lives in Bangkok, and who has family friends who live and work in Kolkata.  I am in the middle of finals, so the decision to go was really because I was eager to visit the non-profit organizations that our hosts work for, and despite all my travels, India was still a country that made me a bit nervous about traveling to.  So all the more reason to go!  It’s funny though, because most people don’t go to Kolkata as a final destination.  So when I mentioned that I was traveling to India, specifically Kolkata, most people asked, but where are you really going?  And exactly as I was warned Kolkata itself is a dirty, dilapidated city, that is plagued with poverty; it is inescapable.  The thing is though, that once you see past the poverty, the dirt, and the grime, there is so much to discover in Kolkata, and so much hidden beauty.  I could write pages about how amazing the trip was, but I will summarize my trip into two parts: the high and the low.

The low point of the trip was the morning of Day 3.  We had just come from an incredible (and very early) morning visit to the Mother House, where Mother Teresa lived, died, and from where she did her incredible work.  Learning about her story, seeing pictures and reading quotes which give a glimpse into her life was truly incredible.  She started the organization the Missionaries of Charity. By bringing a focus to the poor and destitute in Kolkata she did something that no one in his or her time had braved to do.

Afterward we went to visit a temple in Kolkata, home to the goddess Kali, who symbolizes war, death, and destruction.  She is also the god associated with Kolkata.  From the moment we started walking to the temple, I didn’t have a good feeling.  There were people everywhere screaming at us, trying to get us to go this way or that way.  It was mass chaos, and there was a frantic and frightening energy.  We walked through the gate past a few guards with huge guns.  As we walked in one man warned us, quite bizarrely “Just do this one thing for me, go in and don’t involve anyone else in your experience.  And do not take off your shoes.”  Well we noticed that everyone waiting in line had no shoes on.  We circled the temple to get an understanding of our surroundings and where we should line up, and passed people who looked half-dead, lying on the floors everywhere. It was overwhelming.

We finally decided to take off our shoes, but knew to carry them in because if we left them outside they would be gone by the time we came back.  But as soon as we touched our shoes a woman came over screaming and frantic telling us “No! no! no!”  She truly looked insane, and would not let us pass.  After much confusion and anxiety, us three girls finally decided to leave.  We walked away – I was in the worst mood and just didn’t know what to make of the whole experience.  Depressing? Sad? Frightening? Unnerving? Disturbing? There was something.  That night when talking to our host, she explained that the temple is known for its heavy and dark atmosphere, and that they usually warn people about going there.  As recently as November, a child sacrifice of an eleven year old, was reported at that temple.  That was definitely my low.

I have two highs.  The first was our visit on Day 4 to an organization called Freeset. Freeset works by building relationships with women in the red light district Sonagachi (home to 10,000 women who work in prostitution).  Just as a comparison, 20% of users in Thai red light districts are foreign and only .01% in Kolkata, so 80% of users are local in Thailand and 99.9% in Kolkata.

while in Thailand 80% of customers in red light districts are natives, in Kolkata 99.9% are natives.  This leads to a huge stigma of women working the line.  As a result, women who would want to leave sex work, find it difficult to find work elsewhere.  So freeset provides employment for women who are coming out of prostitution or trafficking.  Freeset makes bags out of jute (typical of India).  The company actually gets 90% of its profit by filling custom orders; for example, to many grocery stores, including Whole Foods.  So next time you are at a Whole Foods check the bags there, and see whether they have a small Freeset label.

Our visit started with Freeset’s devotion time.  The organization is Christian based, and at the beginning of each morning all the women and staff come together and have worship time. It was in Bengali so of course I didn’t understand anything; but it was a beautiful and touching moment.  All of these women, dressed in their incredibly beautiful saris, surrounded by the employees who care so much about them and their children, joining together before the start of the day.  Throughout our tour we saw over and over again just how happy the women are there, but also how dedicated and down to earth the staff are.  It is incredible to see an organization that really is just as amazing as it sounds on paper.  Even more impressive is that Freeset is a business and fully sustainable.

The second high of the week was talking with, and spending time with our hosts.  They are a young couple both working with human trafficking organizations.  They are well-educated, intellectual, fun, relaxed, down-to-earth, and have created a life in Kolkata doing this incredible work.  As someone who is completely unsure of what to do in the future, it was incredible to see such an example of a couple who are individually pursing their passions.  They took the time to talk to us about their work, and to give us advice for the future, and helped us to see a different side of Kolkata.  The week also included a bit of sight seeing, and observing the many sights to see in Kolkata – when you look beyond the intense pollution, you notice incredible european style buildings, and beautiful colors all around the city. The whole week was really an incredible way to end my semester in Asia!

What is the first thing you think of when you hear “Thailand?”

May 7, 2012

Some of you may have thought Bangkok, Buddhism, amazing food, “The Land of Smiles,” or beautiful beaches.  But for a lot of people, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Thailand is prostitution and sex tourism.  Thailand is known as the sex tourism capital of the world, home to some of the largest red light districts in the world, and an immense industry that thrives off of tourists who come to Thailand specifically for sex.  Bangkok is the epicenter of this tourism.  So living here and having a roommate who is passionate about working against human trafficking and sexual exploitation, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot – and also see a lot – regarding this topic.

To begin, I have seen signs of sex tourism everywhere; in fact it’s difficult to avoid, and something that all of us exchange students have become accustomed to seeing, though it may not have been obvious at first.  Whether it’s walking on the street, walking past a bar, or in a hotel, signs of sex tourism are everywhere.  It is so common here, that any foreign male with a Thai woman immediately sends off signals in my mind.  I know it’s not a fair judgment to make, but nonetheless it has become second nature.  Without even thinking, I look for signs of the relationship between the foreigner and Thai:  in a transaction situation the man and woman will not be talking at all; they are not affectionate toward each other, and clearly have difficulty communicating.  Sometimes you see the women being treated poorly – being ordered around by the male she is with.  In the US we often think of sex work as a one-time transaction, and while those situations do exist here, the tourism surrounding sex is much more developed here.  There are particular streets in Bangkok, which contain concentrations of bars where women dance, strip or are simply there to try and get a man to buy her a drink with the hopes of something more later in the evening.  These women are sometimes there by their own free will, or sometimes have been trafficked there from other countries.

You know you are in one of those areas when you walk past a bar that is filled with Thai women, and foreign men, each paired up together drinking and talking.  But sometimes these transactions aren’t just one time.  Some men who are in Thailand for a longer period of time will hire a Thai woman to stay with him for the duration of his stay, whether that be one week or one month.  Therefore, you don’t see these signs only in the red light districts of Bangkok, but you also see them at hotels on vacation, on the BTS, in restaurants and while traveling.  Many of the Thai women working in Bangkok come from the Northeastern province of Thailand called Issan, which is the poorest province in the country.  Girls are sent to Bangkok with the hopes of finding a job and making a lot of money to send back to her parents.  Some families know what awaits their daughter, though most do not.  Sadly, part of the reason that girls are sent to work actually reflects the Buddhist religion in Thailand.  Children are expected, through their good deeds, to gain karma for their parents’ afterlife.  Most boys do this by doing small stint as a monk, and girls are expected to do this by earning money.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a fantastic organization in Bangkok that works in one of the red light districts.  They essentially employ women who have chosen to leave sex work to make various handy crafts, though their main focus is jewelry.  The organization’s primary mode of operation is to build relationships with women.  The organization does not force anything on the women, but simply creates relationships based on trust by talking with the women in the bars, and letting the women know that they are a constant resource if they ever do want help leaving the business.  The problem is that women working in the sex industry make approximately twice as much as they would working for this non-profit organization (of course this varies depending on what type of work the women are doing in sex work).  The fact is that this type of work will always pay more than work outside the industry.

I have to say though one of the most interesting and awful things I learned through my visit with the organization is that most of the bars located on the particular street that they work on, are owned by foreigners, particularly Americans.  In fact, for 60% of male foreigners entering Thailand through the airport, sex tourism will be a part of their visit to Thailand, according to one statistic.  This is absolutely not just a “Thai” problem, but an international problem.

The Finer Things in Thai Life

April 30, 2012

Thai people like to enjoy the finer things in life–those things come cheaper here than in the US, and after reflecting on the whole semester, I have realized that those small things that make life just a little bit more comfortable, really are available everywhere-and its difficult not to get hooked.  It is guaranteed that when you look around walking on the street, most people you see have some drink, some plastic bag, some coffee drink, or some food in hand.  Some of the most delicious food I have ever had in my life is at your fingertips on the streets at any time of night, clothing stalls fill the markets and streets all around the city providing cheap and very stylish clothing (which for the most part none of us foreigners fit into because Thais are tiny), and there is always some shake, or some delicious drink available within minutes.

This fact is particularly emulated in an area of the city called Siam.  Siam is the hub for shopping in Bangkok, for foreigners and Thais alike.  There are four or five huge malls, some connected, all within a block or two of one another.  Most of the malls contain every chain restaurant and type of food you can imagine, as well as every brand name shop you could imagine.  “The Pride of Bangkok,” as it is literally tag-lined, is Siam Paragon. Paragon boasts fountains, and waterfalls, music, and ushers opening doors for you, as well as some of the most expensive brands available in Thailand.  As soon as you walk into one of Paragon’s eight floors, you just think “glam.” So going to the movies there last week was quite an experience! We went to the 4DX movie theater, a concept that is now all the rage in Asia. The newest movie to come out in 4DX is Titanic, and let me tell you it was a crazy experience! The 4DX experience is just like seeing a movie at universal studios–bursts of air when there were bullets, sprays of water in your face when the ship was going down, seats shaking all over the place, as well as 3D glasses–amazing!  You literally feel like you are in the movie at times.  All the facilities are incredibly clean, and for Thai people it seems that going to see a movie there is really a glamorous event. There is no shortage of expensive food and Thai popcorn flavors, and certainly no shortage of well-dressed Thais.  To give you a better sense of the ambiance there, I would have felt under dressed in jeans!

Another amazing aspect of living in Bangkok is the endless number of food options–literally every type of international food you could imagine can be found here: Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, International, American, French–the list goes on! Often the best part of the dining experience is the view that you have–whether its the skyline of Bangkok, a little side street in which you have found a hidden gem, or a beautiful view over the Chao Phraya river and the surrounding temples.  Thais have become so accustomed to this consumer lifestyle, which is so normal for so many in Thailand, that they don’t realize that this type of accessible luxury isn’t commonplace worldwide, not even in the US.  After almost four months here I have certainly become accustomed to the lifestyle here! I can get an entire mango, or an entire pineapple completely cut and peeled on the street for $1.  I can find any type of smoothie, at any time of day, for less than a dollar. Street food is often better than restaurant food, and there is always something new to try!  I will definitely miss the food here in Thailand! Included are some pictures of my food adventures this week–enjoy!

Happy Thai New Year!

April 23, 2012

This past weekend I celebrated Songkran, the official Thai New Year (Thais observe the Buddhist calendar).  Students were given two days off from school forming a nice four-day weekend, so of course in true exchange-student style, this only meant an opportunity to travel.  The plan had been to go to Laos, but last minute travel changes, and completely sold out tickets for all of the days surrounding Songkran, instead sent me to Koh Tao, a small island off of the east coast of the Thailand.  Songkran is the most important holiday for Thai’s, so most locals leave Bangkok to go back to their “hometown,” wherever that may be.  We were disappointed we weren’t able to go to Laos, but Koh Tao was not a bad second choice!

Songkran itself is often described as one, huge, non-stop waterfight: and that is EXACTLY what it is.  We left from Khao San road on Thursday evening, the night before the official day of celebration.  Khao San is the official backpacker haven, so Thursday night the Songkran festivities had already begun.  We had a short walk on the actual Khao San road, but little did we know what was in store for us: one BIG water fight.  Involving baby powder.  What? Yeah, that’s what we thought too.  But part of the Songkran fun is mixing baby powder with water to create a nice white paste that you smear all over yourself, and strangers.  Let me try and set the scene for you: loud music…waterguns…buckets of water…young Thais and foreigners (but mostly Thais) jumping up and down in the streets throwing water everywhere…store owners and their children outside their shops throwing water on everyone…small children with squirt guns…small plastic pouches around each persons neck protecting valuables…hoards of people running through the streets…I’m walking, I’m hoping that people will take pity on a dry girl clearly prepared for travel, but no luck: squirt gun in the back, slap on the cheek smearing baby powder all over my face, shoved in all directions; no mercy.  Needless to say, in a country where the locals are so kind, normally shy and very conservative, this was a side of Thailand I had never seen before. (and because of the water….sadly I have no pictures of the whole event).

Koh Tao (a seven hour bus ride, and a two hour boat ride away) was also crazy the day we arrived, the official Songkran holiday.  Imagine there being no social rules about pouring water onto strangers, or drenching them with a water gun.  Everyone we walked by had a water gun in hand, many of them with a water supply on their back.  It was hilarious.  Those riding on motorbikes, small children, families: no one was spared.  Needless to say after Songkran was over things quieted down a lot –  and from there on we enjoyed an amazingly relaxing weekend: lying on the beach, enjoying the INCREDIBLE views, venturing over to a nearby island with an amazing viewpoint, and snorkeling.  We had delicious meals on the beach, and saw some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen!  Koh Tao is known for its scuba diving, and  while we didn’t have the time or the money to scuba dive, the snorkeling was breathtaking: just two feet off-shore on my first venture into the water and there was a school of about twenty rainbow fish: neon orange, yellow, pink, green, and blue: truly magnificent!

Enjoy the pictures from my trip!

Koh Tao

Samantha in Koh Tao

Cooking with Poo and Thai Massage

April 23, 2012

What a FANTASTIC weekend! I checked two things off my Thai bucket list that I have been wanting to do since arriving in Bangkok: a cooking class, and a Thai massage.

This morning I cooked with Poo and it was fantastic! Poo is an incredible Thai woman living in one of Bangkok’s slums, Khlong Toei.  She was given a microfinance loan through the “Helping Hands” organization, and using that loan she has become incredibly successful operating her cooking school.  The morning started off with a small tour of Klong Toei’s market.  It is an extensive market with everything and anything you could imagine.  We started by going through what Poo called the “Issan” area.  Issan is a Northeastern province in Thailand, and the food there is quite different than the food in Bangkok.  That row of the market has everything and anything strange you could imagine: live frogs, skinned frogs with hearts still beating, an endless assortment of bugs, eels, catfish, cow innards, skinned chickens etc… I did not once breathe in through my nose that entire walk. The rest of the market contained more “normal” items – beef, vegetables, and every possible exotic fruit.  Poo explained that most stall owners start work at 2am, and don’t stop until 6pm, they only way they can scrape by to make a living.  This market is incredibly cheap and has a wide variety of foods.  As a result it is the source of product for many of the street vendors and many of the hotels in Bangkok.  What an experience!


The second portion of the morning was the actual cooking.  The class is not meant to transform you into a Thai chef, but it gives a nice introduction to basic Thai dishes and lets you cook your own portion each time.  We cooked three dishes: Som Tham (papaya salad), Tom Yam (a delicious spicy soup with many different flavors), and Pad Thai.  The food was delicious, and now that we know how easy it is to make these foods it is definitely something I will take back to the US with me.  The only obstacle in the US: trying to find all of the ingredients.  What was most fascinating to me, is realizing what goes into the dishes I have been eating all semester.  For example, one of the strongest flavors in Tom Yam soup, comes from lime leaves.  Before putting the lime leaves into the pot, we broke the leaves apart which emitted the strongest and most delicious smell.  All the taste from this dish comes from breaking a green leaf apart–AMAZING!  Part of the fun of the experience was Poo herself.  She is a hilarious and kind woman, with completely broken English, yet she is sweet, enthusiastic, and eager to share her story, and the story of Klong Toei.  She explained to us that following her great success, she has also seen a change in the people in her community, and deliberately tries to uplift them as well.  For example, some of the ingredients we used to cook were handed to us in small cups made of banana leaves.  Poo said she purchased these from a woman in her community who is very sick and strapped for cash, so she thought she could help her by buying her product.  For each need of her business, Poo employs a member of her community, and tries to evenly distribute where she buys things so that as many people in the community can benefit from her success.  It truly is an incredible project.

The other event of the weekend was getting a Thai Massage: two hours for $12.  Yes, really, it’s that cheap.  But my goodness, that was a massage like nothing I have ever experienced.  First of all, I was in pain the first 45 minutes.  My masseuse literally dug her feet/fingers/hands into ever inch of my leg, almost as if she was trying to separate every muscle fiber.  Because the massage is two hours, the women can thoroughly cover every part of your body.  They also stretch you in every which way which was quite intense, because they completely ignore whether you are flexible or not.  They are also very hands on – you are lying on a mattress, and they sometimes use their whole bodies, for example contorting you around them to stretch you.  Not necessarily relaxing in the same way as a typical massage, but I certainly feel like I had a work out! Our fantastic evening massage ended with some Thai tea, before heading home.  I have to say I feel so content after such a fantastic long weekend.  Yes, some people may complain that Bangkok is crowded, or that the city is too dirty and smells bad, but I love the fact that there is never a dull moment in Bangkok: there is always something new to do, something to learn, and something incredible to experience, and I LOVE it!

Waterfalls and a little bit of history

April 9, 2012

I just got back from an amazing weekend getaway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.  Kanchanaburi is about two hours (by bus) northwest of Bangkok.  The city itself is quite small – it is most frequented by visitors on their way to Erawan Falls, but the city does boast its own attractions– for example, the Bridge over River Kwai, which we visited the morning we arrived.

The bridge was commissioned by the Japanese during World War II in order to secure a better supply route between Thailand and Burma.  The bridge was built by both local Thais and prisoners of war, thousands of whom died during its construction.  The bridge is primarily famous because of the movie “The Bridge over River Kwai.”  There is not much really to see– it is quite literally a bridge over a river–not too thrilling.

The rest of the day we saw two more sites: temple caves and a World War II allied cemetery. The temple was an incredible labyrinth of underground, natural caves–very claustrophobic at some points! Each cave contains a shrine or Buddha.  Near the caves, our tuktuk driver took us to see the most incredible view of Kanchanaburi – the beautiful river surrounded by greenery and mountains on either side.  The natural beauty in Thailand is magnificent, and that was particularly evident this trip.  After spending so much time in a city, it is refreshing to see a more rural side of the country.

Our last stop of the day was to an allied war cemetery, which serves as the resting place for many of the soldiers killed building the bridge.  It was actually quite intense walking around and seeing all the name plaques – reading the quote written on the headstone, each name and nationality engraved, and particularly reading the soldier’s age; most were between 20 and 25, around the same age as I am.  I have to admit after my four months in Thailand I don’t know that much about its role in World War II so this was certainly a glimpse into some of Thailand’s history.

The next day we made the trek to Erawan National Park, located two hours from Kanchanaburi.  We had no idea how incredibly beautiful the national park would be! We literally spent four and a half hours walking along a path through the jungle, passing waterfalls as we went.  There are seven primary waterfalls that make up the national park, though there are small ones spread throughout.  There were tons of people – both international and Thai – and like everyone else, we walked from one waterfall to another and jumped in whenever we couldn’t stand the heat anymore.  It was incredibly beautiful, and so nice and peaceful to spend an afternoon just walking through nature, and enjoying it.

The most intense part of the trek was the 7th waterfall – much less crowded than the others because not as many people make it that far up.  As we approached the waterfall, the friend I was with, Rebecca, pointed out the monkeys overhead.  We had seen signs throughout our trek warning us to be careful of the monkeys because they can be dangerous, but hadn’t actually seen any monkeys until this point.  They were adorable climbing all over the branches, a mother and her babies.  While we were swimming in the waterfall, however, a large monkey got a little too close for comfort and started hissing at anyone who came too close.  It then went over to someone’s backpack, unzipped it, and started pulling out every piece of clothing in there and flinging it to the side.  Just as we were leaving, Rebecca pulled out a bag of peanuts, and within .2 seconds, the monkey was right in front of her, looking threatening as ever, moving exactly as the peanuts moved.  Completely scared, Rebecca just threw the bag of peanuts at the monkey – as we hurried off, we looked back to see the monkey rip the bag of peanuts open, and one by one, pop peanuts into its mouth, as he sat on the ground looking for his next target.

Outside of the Classroom

April 2, 2012

One of the primary reasons I came to Bangkok was to be able to work with Step Ahead, an integrated community development organization that works in many capacities in Thailand.  Step Ahead’s work includes programs in one of the slums in Bangkok, called Khlong Toei.  There, Step Ahead runs a microfinance loan project, organizes sports activities for children, runs health clinics, and much more.  I, however, am primarily working with Step Ahead in a marketing capacity, helping them to market the products of their purse project.

The purse project is located in Pattaya, Thailand, where it is estimated (and this is a low estimation) that 25% of all residents are in some way involved in the sex industry.  Therefore, just by virtue of being born in Pattaya, residents are at risk for sexual exploitation.  Identifying this need, Step Ahead created Itsera, a brand of high-quality handmade bags, made by women in Pattaya.  This project was created as a prevention mechanism; the hope is that by earning a good wage making these bags, the women will be able to avoid the trap of sexual exploitation.

Despite being focused on marketing for Step Ahead, I had the chance to visit Khlong Toei last week.  It was so interesting to see where Step Ahead works, most of all because I spent last semester living and working on the edge of a slum in Kenya.  I could not help but make comparisons between the two in my mind.  To be honest, the slum that we saw here was much more permanent and formal compared to the slum in Kenya.  Most of the slum had paved roads weaving in and out, closed homes with roofs overhead, some people even living in permanent structures, most shacks having electricity and plumbing.  There are even a few small businesses that operate within the slum — for example, we walked by computers and washing machines, which residents can pay to use.  Not to say that Khlong Toei isn’t still very much a slum community, but it was certainly an interesting comparison to Kibera, in Kenya.

During our walk through the slum, we met one of Step Ahead’s clients, a single father with three children.  He has used a microfinance loan that he received from Step Ahead to run a chicken-foot business.  He sells chicken feet, which are a delicacy in Thailand.  School is not in session at the moment, so he and his three children were all sitting around and extracting the bones and nails from the chicken claws with the aim of selling them at the market.  It is refreshing to get a glimpse into the social issues that many Thai people are facing.  After a semester in Kenya where I only studied health and development, I have been craving that knowledge and interaction here.

Earlier this week, I was also able to attend a Needeed event.  Needeed is a new non-profit organization, which seeks to bring together professionals from the expatriate community here in Thailand.  The aim is to have organizations present at monthly meetings and identify volunteer opportunities within that organization. The hope is that expatriates with particular expertise would be able to fulfill those volunteer opportunities.

The meeting was really incredible…after the visiting organization presented, we had a brainstorm session — all 25 attendees.  It was almost magical to watch all of the ideas flying around – not only were there many nationalities in the room (Hungarian, American, Belgian, Australian, French, British), but there were also an incredible variety of different professional backgrounds represented.  There was a woman who had previously been involved in public policy, a nurse specializing in neonatal care, a psychologist doing her masters degree on post-partum depression and PTSD in Congolese refugees, a woman involved in the hospitality business – the list really goes on.  Most of these women are in Thailand because of their husbands’ jobs, and they are all well-educated and have a lot of experience in some professional capacity. Needeed seeks to bring together these untapped talents to make a difference for non-profits.  It truly is incredible to be able to not only experience another “side” of Thailand, but to meet so many fascinating people and explore potential career possibilities at the same time!

Transported back in time…

April 2, 2012

I just came back from the most incredible trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma, but the United States chooses to use the name Burma as a political statement against the current Burmese government).  I have to admit, before arriving in Bangkok I was not at all aware of anything going on in Burma.  Nothing. Nada. Zilch. It was not until a dinner with friends in Bangkok, who are passionate about Burma, that I learned about the fascinating country and its political situation.  When you think of the world’s worst dictators, many of you may think of Kim Jong Il of North Korea, or Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, but did you know that Burma is one of the world’s worst dictatorships, responsible for some of the world’s worst human rights attrocities?  It is only in the past year that Myanmar has been creating better relationships with the West, and that the West has been easing some of the sanctions and boycotts against the country. But as many people told us, though progress undeniably has been made, in reality, things may not be so picture-perfect.

What really sparked my interest in this country, before my visit, was the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, depicted in the recently released film “The Lady.”  Suu Kyi is the leader of Burma’s opposition party.  Her father led Burma to freedom from Britain in 1947, only to be assassinated shortly after, leaving the country in the hands of a dictator.  Though she grew up in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi later married an Englishman and had been living in England with her two children when she became the leader of the opposition party in Burma.  Though she claimed victory in a general election in 1990, the ruling party refused to accept the results and placed her under house arrest, where she spent 15 years, living away from her family in England and therefore sacrificing her life with her children and her husband.   Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 2010, and is a candidate in the Burmese parliamentary election to be held on April 1st.

Needless to say, this country is fascinating, and it is in the midst of one of its most critical times in history, so I definitely had to see this for myself.  On top of that, because Burma has literally been shut off from the world for so many years, we were told it was like going back in time to Asia 100 years ago.  Until recently, the Burmese did not have access to news from outside of Burma (purposefully controlled by the government).  A cell phone there costs around $1000, and the down payment for internet in your home is $2,000.  In most places outside of the capital, a “taxi” is a horse-drawn, or ox-drawn carriage.

Because we spent five very packed days around the country, I will give you the highlights of our trip:

1)     Yangon (formerly Rangoon, and formerly the capital of Myanmar).

There is not much to see in the city.  We spent only a few hours our first day, and a few hours our last day, exploring the Yangon.  Other than the Shwedagon Pagoda, an impressive and revered Buddhist religious symbol, there really wasn’t much to do.  The city is quite run down, and much less developed than Bangkok, understandably so.

2)     Kalaw

Kalaw is an incredible mountain town, which we reached through a 12-hour overnight bus from Yangon.  We arrived at 2am, with no hostel booked, and no plan at all – it didn’t take us long to find the “Winner Hotel,” but the temperature had dropped overnight, so it was freezing.  In Kalaw, we did a trek into the mountains with two tour guides who were both 21 years old, named GuGu and Chaw Su.  We spent the whole day wandering through the mountains – the trek was not difficult, which was fantastic, because it not only gave us a chance to talk with the girls and learn about their lives in Burma, but it also gave our guides a chance to stop and point out different plants and crops along the way.  It is truly incredible what is grown in the mountains there! We saw oranges, pears, raspberries, gooseberries, ginger, cabbage, papaya, banana, pineapple, and much more! We stopped in two villages and two monasteries along the way, each time having a chance to (through our guides) talk with the families we met, sit down for tea, ask them questions, and laugh with them.  It was truly fantastic to be able to talk and interact with native people in a non-touristy setting.

In Kalaw, we also had delicious food – a broad-bean, peanut, tomato, and onion salad, noodle soup, and curry.  While curry in Thailand is coconut milk-based, Burmese curry is largely oil based, so it was interesting to try the different foods.

3)     Inle Lake

Just a two-hour drive from Kalaw, Inle Lake is one of the most popular destinations for tourists.  Similar to Kalaw, the town itself is very small, and very primitive, boasting half-paved, half-mud streets lined with small hostels, small houses, and shacks.  We spent an entire day (8 hours) on a boat ride around Inle Lake.  It was one of those long “typical” Southeast Asian boats, propelled by a motor.  The lake is enormous, so it was a 2-hour boat ride to our first destination.  Throughout the day we made many stops, including: a shop where silk is produced, a shop where cigars are made, a delicious restaurant, a paper making shop, a silversmith, and a few more destinations. Inle Lake is entirely made up of small villages, comprised of houses and buildings, which are on stilts.  Therefore, to get to each new shop, we had to go by boat, which is how locals get around as well.  The post office, for example, is a small house on stilts in the middle of the water.  Surrounding the villages are also endless fields of rice and other crops.  So throughout our day we observed men and women working to harvest and plant their crops.  We were able to stay out on the lake for the sunset, which was absolutely magnificent.

Before our 15-hour bus back to Yangon from Inle Lake, we rented bikes and biked in the area, again surrounded by endless rice fields; I’ll let the pictures do the talking, because it was absolutely breathtaking!  I came back from the weekend completely happy and refreshed; though I was exhausted, it was refreshing to have seen such an untouched nation, and to have been able to experience another country  knowing so much of its history and current political issues.  Even more importantly, we were able to fully interact and speak with locals to hear their perspectives, and those moments are what made the trip so incredible.

Below are some photos from the trip:

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