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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads

THAILAND--Part Seven

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NORTHERN THAILAND: Chiang Mai (continued)

Past Doi Suthep, I headed out into the countryside. To this point, I feel this website is VERY unbalanced, because you've probably gotten the impression that most Thai people live in cities. Actually, even with a tremendous amount of industrialization going on in the country and people moving into the cities to take the resulting jobs, over 80% of Thai people live in the country and depend on agriculture. And, the number one crop is RICE (as it is in all of Southeast Asia). Here in the north, where the terrain isn't good for wet rice fields, the farmers use a dry-field cultivation method to grow glutinous (sticky) rice. They also grow some vegetables for their own use (which is called subsistence farming), or fruits to sell at markets (in what is called cash-crop farming).

In the central part of Thailand, the flat, fertile plains and abundant supplies of water are perfect for wet-field cultivation of rice. The situation is helped out even further by an almost perfect climate for growing rice (warm all year round, with lots of rain), the way Thai farmers work with each other to harvest their fields, and the excellent irrigation systems these farmers have built over the years. Conditions are so good, as a matter of fact, that Thailand is the world's number one exporter of rice. All this began in the Ayutthaya period, when the Thai began importing a type of rice from India that they found grew extremely well (and FAST) in the swamps around the Chao Phraya river. They grew so much rice, in fact, that they were able to start exporting a great deal of what they grew -- enough, in fact, to pay for great public works and to give the people the leisure time they needed to develop the city into a great cultural center.
Here's an example of another crop grown in the north, onions. These women are harvesting a huge crop by hand -- you can bet it's hard work! (Where are the men?)

In a small village outside Chiang Mai, I came across a pottery-making area. Ceramics work is one of Thailand's areas of strength, going back hundreds of years to the Ayutthaya period. Most of the technology was brought from China, and while only some of the work in Thailand measures up to the standards set by the great Chinese potters, most of it is still very fine. Here, a potter is throwing a huge traditional-style pot that will sit outside someone's house in order to store water.

After the piece is completed to his satisfaction, it will be baked in this kiln -- which looks to me like it must have been here for hundreds of years! (I'm sure it hasn't, but the style is the same as that used for centuries.)

Back in the city, I excitedly prepared for my day at Prince Royal College, a private school I had arranged to visit. The headmaster, Attan Pong, was a very interesting man in his own right, and we had a great discussion upon my arrival. (Read my interview with Attan Pong.) But I was really anxious to get in to meet some students. I headed for the classrooms as soon as we were done speaking. One of the first things I saw was this shoe rack, indicating to me that I'd have to remove my shoes before entering the classroom, like everyone else. One thing I didn't expect to see were the food stands set up all over the campus; I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, though, knowing the Thai love of food.

My visit to the class, unfortunately, wasn't as great as I'd hoped, mostly because the students were shy to talk in English to a stranger, even with their teacher translating. It was an eighth-grade class, meaning there were no girls, and the fifty (!) boys stayed together in one class while their teachers rotated in to teach them. I did manage to find out that nobody had a girlfriend (at least, no one would say so); they have about four hours of homework every night; their aspirations range from becoming engineers to architects to kick-boxers; and their heroes range from Superman to their mothers and fathers to Michael Owens and Michael Jordan. When I asked what they wanted to tell you about Thailand, they said: we smile a lot ("Land of Smile", remember?); we have great arts and handicrafts; we have cool festivals like Loy Kratong and Songkran. They came up with a few questions for you, too: How do you celebrate Christmas? What do you know about Thailand? Do you want to visit Thailand? What's a famous food from where you live? Something tells me their questions would get better and they'd be willing to talk more if they were talking directly to YOU -- and that IS possible! If you would like to write to students at Prince Royal College, just e-mail me.

Fortunately, one of the students in the class named Sak (he's the second one from the right) came up to me after the class and volunteered to an interview in a more "informal setting". Sak was born in Singapore, and as a result speaks fluent English. I told him if he could find three or four friends to come along, I'd treat them to lunch anywhere they wanted to go -- and this was their choice, back at the mall. (Not many Thais are Christian, but there were Christmas decorations up all over the mall, and Christmas carols up constantly on the loudspeakers -- even though it was already after Christmas!) From the left, their names are May, Mac, Pok, Sak and Aum; except for Aum, whose ancestry is northern Thai back at least three generations, they all have at least one Chinese parent or grandparent, but their names give you a hint of their desire to be considered Thai rather even than "Chinese-Thai." I guess this pressure of assimilation is great everywhere. We had a really interesting interview (check it out), and they came up with a lot of questions.

After leaving the boys, I wandered around the mall and found another spirit house. If you look at it carefully, you will see that it's covered with offerings of food, flowers, candles and incense, all of which make the spirit house a better place for the spirits to live than in the shops around it. The inside has small figures that represent the building's guardian spirits.

Part 8, Hill Tribes around Chiang Mai

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