Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Goings On

In our last post, I promised I'd update with pictures of some of the things we've done lately.

Young Conservationists Camp
A few months ago, a PCV colleague at Khon Kaen University and I went to another volunteer's site to participate in a Young Conservationists Camp that her local government office was hosting. There were about 40 high school students who participated, and we went to a national park for the weekend. The national park staff were fantastic, leading the students in songs and games, and talking to them about the importance of maintaining the forest, the national parks, and the environment. They talked a lot about illegal logging of teak and rosewood, which is currently the most expensive wood in the world, and in high demand in China, apparently. It's a rapidly disappearing species because of the profit it draws, and this national park is home to many hundred or more year old trees, which are more or less always in danger from those who come under cover of night to get as much precious wood as they can. On the road leading away from the community, there's a checkpoint where people are apprehended nearly everyday trying to sneak truckloads of the wood out of the protected area.

To the left, I'm with the director of the national park, and we are planting a rosewood sapling. It was one of about 50 that got planted that day. The kids worked in groups to clear the ground and plant these trees, early on the second day of the camp. After planting the trees, we conducted a buat bpa or forest ordination, in which a monk came and performed an ordination ritual for the trees. The ordination is a kind of transmutation ceremony, one which transforms the trees into pra or monks.

Below, the monk and the park director tie monk's robes around the trunk of a rosewood tree. Together, the group of students and park staff ordained (and thus protect) around 15 trees.

This very Thai conservationist technique takes advantage of the deeply held Buddhist beliefs of most of the Thai population - no Thai Buddhist would dare to cut down a monk. 

UPDATE: March 2, 2015: I just came across this video (thanks to a fellow PCV) that helps to explain the work this monk is doing: and the thinking behind it.

Meechai's Bamboo School Comes to KKU
Some time after the ordination of the trees, I was lucky to be able to attend a presentation at the university by Meechai Viravaidya, who is somewhat of a legend in Thailand (and in public health circles) for his extremely successful campaigns to make condoms and birth control available to women and families throughout rural Thailand.
Me with Mot, a senior, who wants to study in Germany.

His efforts are credited for helping to reduce the birthrate among Thai families from around 7 to around 2, in just over a generation. Now, after a varied and impressive career that has included the establishment of several resorts in his "Cabbages and Condoms" chain, he runs a school which is partly funded by proceeds from Cabbages and Condoms enterprises. He came to KKU to present about his school, where a lot of the focus is on teaching the students entrepreneurial and business skills, and where, in order to do so, the students take a lot of the responsibility of running the school - right down to interviewing prospective teachers!

When I tried to talk to him after his talk, he politely waved me off and told me to talk to his students instead. "They run the school," he said. Their English was excellent, too.

ASEAN is coming!
Getting ready for the opening of the AEC, or ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Community, which is set for next year, is a big focus of many organizations in Thailand. Somehow I ended up attending this ASEAN day, sponsored by the international college at the university, and got to see some performances by a few of the international students who attend KKU.

On the left: The Burmese women from Myanmar. My friend Rody is on the far right.

Below, Rody, Me, and two of her friends from Myanmar. 

Below are the women from Cambodia. There were also performances by the group of students from Vietnam, and the students also sat on a panel to answer questions about their life in Thailand. Thai students who had studied or done internships abroad as part of their educational requirements also participated in the panel discussion; it is fascinating to see the mix of cultural perspectives, and to imagine the way that this region will change and develop over the decade or so after the AEC actually becomes a reality. 

 For many Thais, the opening of the AEC is scary - work permits and student visas will be easier to obtain, allowing citizens of all ASEAN member countries to attend school and work abroad much more easily than they can now. The working language of ASEAN is English, and that will be a hurdle to overcome in the next several years. Although many signs proclaim that Thailand or various institutions are "ready for ASEAN" there is still a great deal of (warranted) anxiety about what next year will bring.
We spent several days in Khao Yai National Park, where we did a wildlife tour and a "trek" in which we encountered enough creatures to make it a worthwhile getaway. 



Sweaty travelers


On the home front
And now, for several weeks, we have been laying low at home. Our most exciting adventures usually involve the song taew, or pick up truck with two benches in the back, so I thought I'd get a picture of that in here.

Song Taew: Our Chariot
Market day
And it's always a good day when we come home with peanuts and coconut oil from the local market.

Wan Kru (Teacher's Day)
Laying low doesn't always mean skipping out on cultural activities. Just last week was the annual Wan Kru, or Teacher's Day. Teachers are afforded extremely high respect in Thai culture, and students honor their teachers by presenting them gifts of jasmine garlands or other intricate symbolic offerings made from flowers and banana leaves, much like the kratongs that are made on Loy Kratong.

For this teacher's day, the students worked in groups based on their majors to create the offerings for the teachers. This one, below, by the Construction Management students, was particularly endearing.

And of course, since I am kind of like a teacher, even though I'm totally not a teacher, I was given this hilarious robe to wear to participate in the ceremony, which involved twenty instructors sitting in chairs on a stage while various representatives from the student body came up and offered the aforementioned kratongs to us, kneeling and then prostrating themselves before in a display of total deference that is definitely somewhat unnerving, but also a radical illustration of just how important teachers are considered to be here.

 Even our dean, whose mentor was a former dean at the college who stays on in a Professor Emeritus capacity, later knelt before him and presented him with a small garland of jasmine, and wai-ed to him in a gesture of deep respect.

The gown, for the record, is like a very fine mesh, and the sleeves were at least 3 inches past my fingertips, hence the odd posture. It's a good thing I wore heels that day, or I don't know what would have happened!
I'll leave it at that, with this especially awkward picture of me.

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