Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Daily Life - Mornings 2

After sai baht (sai baht is when you tak baht and the monks binta baht), Thip is busy preparing food to take with her for the monks for jahn hahn. I used to go to the temple every morning, but several things are going on that have caused me to change this cycle.

First and foremost is the heat in the afternoons, coupled with my need for regular and sizeable computer time. I need a good three hours daily for my writing, video projects, information gathering and staying in contact with loved ones. Additionally, I have recently gotten back into multiplayer gaming and the game console (Playstation 3) heats up as much, if not more, than my laptop. Back when I was going to the temple every morning, it would already be so hot outside by the time I got back home, that I could only access my computer for an hour at most without the risk of overheating. Of course, it’s no longer the hot or rainy season, but the same rules apply -- literally -- to lesser degree.

Thip says we need air conditioning. What does she know? Hah! Yes, she’s right, of course; at least air conditioning in one room that has a ceiling. We’ll get there; maybe next year.

Another thing is… I was not enjoying the banter the village women would get into when eating, after the jahn hahn ceremony. Not that I could understand what they were saying exactly, but, you know, you can pick up on a vibe without having to know the verbage. Thip explained that they just like to talk about other people and she doesn’t enjoy it either. I can imagine what they have to say about us when we’re not around (you DO know we are a favorite topic of conversation in the village, don’t you?). Anyway, what I do in situations that make me feel uncomfortable is just to remove myself.

Back in the Monsoon Season, on rainy days, I ended up going to jahn hahn anyway because my tuk-tuk has a roof and Thip’s “motosai” (motorcycle – Honda 110i, red) does not. Because rainy days are cooler, I could still get in some decent computer time when I got back home. Now that it is the cool season (November-January), I can work on the computer all morning long, no problem.

The third and final reason for cutting back on jahn hahn and Buddhist ceremonies in general, is that I’m undergoing somewhat of a religious transformation. It was prompted by my writing about my “stripped-down Buddhism” and later realizing that although these guidelines and beliefs have served me well over the past decades, my spiritual code has transformed into something a little different, while still retaining some elements of the old. I’ll hafta write about this at a later date to fully explain myself.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Daily Life - Mornings 1

I am often struck by the differences of my life in the Isaan (“Retired Writer”) compared to the lives I’ve lived in the United States (lifeguard, disc jockey, park ranger, radio station manager, student advisor, radio engineer, freelance writer, cataloger, surfer). I want to share these “Random Thoughts on Daily Life” with you in no particular order, although I’ll try to write chronologically, from beginning of day to end. In a way, this is a follow-up to posts that I’ve written about my morningsafternoons, evenings and what constitutes an average day, more or less. Family is particularly interested in this stuff, so the rest of you please bear with me and my details.

I am still a late sleeper by village standards. The cocks need to have been crowing for at least an hour before I even think about getting up. My wife is usually up before me, preparing sticky rice (khao nio) for sai baht and the rest of the day; in addition to doing hand laundry which I later hang up. She wakes me by 5:15am, knowing it’ll take me another half hour to raise my bod off the floor mats. In my defense, I must say I’ve taken to doing a little bit of yoga before rising, to stretch particularly my back, leg and hip muscles. Most mornings I miss my good friend Pahwet or his wife herding their seven cows out to pasture. I hope to eventually get going in the mornings a little sooner to at least wave greetings.

It’s not like I can’t do it. I remember one of my most productive periods writing about the history of surfing (LEGENDARY SURFERS). I used to get up at 4am and loved it. Ground my own coffee Italian style; no one awake to interrupt me and so quiet. Ah, no roosters back then in Santa Barbara – at least none that I heard.

I finally have my morning ab-nam (shower) down to a fine art and get it and my shaving out of the way in enough time to sai baht (tak baht). Of course, I still check my corners and shake out my towel before every use.

One of the reasons I don’t get up before the sun is that the nyoong (mosquitoes) don’t leave the house until our star shines on the house. BTW, I have a new weapon in my counter-attack against the nyoong. I don’t know what they call it in Thai, but it’s like an electric tennis racket, battery powered. I use it to clear inside the mosquito net when going to bed and in the bathroom in the evenings, night time and early mornings – zap! ZAP! Occasionally, I’ll take it with me when I sit outside at night drinking a beer or two. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re still in the morning, right?

Thip now fixes me iced coffee, as I’m usually already in a light sweat by 6:15am, despite it not being the hot season anymore and I just took a shower (buckets of water over the head have been replaced by a real shower with hot water, even! My Wife assures me it’s cold overnights and in the morning. Yes, I have to agree. I used to sleep with only my briefs on and nothing over me. Now I cuddle closer and sometimes borrow parts of her comforter…

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Saturday, December 1, 2012


After a half year of having our bicycles be our major source of transpo, we’ve added two others. The first is a samlaw (aka tuk-tuk). Wikipedia calls them motorized rickshaws and I guess that’s about the best two-word description. Our other addition is a motorcycle for Thip, but let me tell you about my tuk-tuk, first.

The samlaw is, in my opinion, the best all-purpose vehicle for the Thai countryside. Of course, all Thai’s will tell you a truck is better, but then you have to deal with the payments and maintenance. I bought our tuk-tuk (samlaw) for about $400 USD and had it fixed up for an additional $100 USD. So, for about $500 USD, I have a vehicle that I can drive on the country roads (and even on the shoulder of the highways, though I shy away from that as much as I can), that can transport stuff and people, and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance or gas (benzin).

OK, so I never go over about 20 Km/hour and it’s funky, but I’m not in a hurry and I don’t care what people think about me all that much. Our villagers are sure that I should be driving a new 4WD truck… Been there, done that. No need to do again… Ah, no money to do again!

Initially, I got psyched out of riding my tuk-tuk cuz I had problems reaching the motorcycle gears with my left foot and the roof was too low. These vehicles are made, after all, for Asians, not Falangs. The vehicle sat in our front yard for a couple of months gathering village gossip as I debated what to do. Finally, I decided to learn how to drive it despite its small size and make my own compromises to get it done. This mostly amounts to me having to almost stand-up to shift gears... but I’ve learned how to do it and now do it well.

I think I am the only Westerner who drives a samlaw in our area of the province. Haven’t seen any falang in Nong Bua driving one, that’s for sure. In contrast, in the province of Udon Thani, quite a number of falang have tuk-tuk’s and even customize them to be top-of-the-line.

Now, on to the better vehicle: Thip’s Honda Wave 110i

It’s brand new and, really, THEE perfect vehicle for country roads if you don't want to transport much. Of course, Thai’s will tell you a 4WD truck is much better, but… You Know…

I believe this is Thip’s first owned vehicle in Thailand and second in her entire life. Her first vehicle was Taz’s surf wagon, back in Santa Barbara, which she bought with her own money.

It took her a while to learn to drive and operate the motosai, even though she’s ridden motorcycles many times before. The weight of the Honda is what throws her off, but in my mind, that just points to its sturdiness. I love to ride it on the back country roads, on occasion, and Thip, of course, is stoked. She still lets me know she wants a car, but really, the motosai fits her needs far better.

I don’t think we’ll get a car or truck, much to the disappointment of our village. I have the samlaw, Thip’s got her motosai and when we need to go on long range trips, we take songthaws and buses. They’re cheap, reliable and social!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Xayabuli Dam Detail

Another educational video on the situation of the Mekong at Xayabuli:


Amazon of Asia

More about daming the Mekong:


Love Shack II

Due to donating our upper farm land to our local temple for a chedi, we needed to build a new bungalow to house workers during inclement weather and... well, I needed a "writer's retreat", so here are some pics of my new local hangout, on the upper portion of our largest rice farm:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


When we got back from Lao, we got into a summer-long process of home improvements:

Hong Nam is Thai for bathroom. We have completed our remodel here in the Thai countryside. After toughing it out for a half a year, living like a Khon Thai, we decided on a better way... I found out that my decades-long dream of a 3-speed toilet is now a reality and worked the math to discover it is actually better than throwing buckets full of water down a gravity-flow toilet. Duh... Nice to have a sink and hot water, too!

Image #1: Shot taken Fall of 2011, when Thip first moved in and got help from her brother Pawt in cleaning the place up... bathroom on left, closet/washing room right (where Pawt is) and kitchen further right (out of frame). Living room in foreground:

Images Following: The Makeover of the bathroom:

After it was all done with, I wondered at how I went so long without hot water, a seat to poop through and a  room where I didn't have to check the corners to make sure there were no creatures lurking...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Xayabuli Dam

Before we leave Laos, I want to tell you about one thing I discovered after our trip. But, before that, I want to remind you... You're probably wondering why, if this is a blog about The Isaan, I'm spending so much time on Laos, Lao and the pathet Lao...

It is as I wrote earlier in 2012: Isaan people are ethnically the same as the lowland Lao. One of my dreams is to see families from across the border someday get in touch with one another. I mean, there's no coincidence that a town in Lao is named after my wife's family name...

Back to Lao...

Little did I know that when we visited Pak Lai in May 2012, we were in an area whose ecosystem is in great danger from daming.

Upriver from Pak Lai, the Xayabuli Dam is a hydroelectric dam currently under construction on the Lower Mekong River, approximately 30 kilometres (19 miles) east of the town/city of Xayabuli (aka Xayaburi, Sainyabuli). The main purposed of the dam is to produce hydroelectric power for internal and external purposes. Construction briefly began and was suspended in early 2012 but is purported to again be underway. The project is surrounded in controversy due complaints from downstream riparians and environmentalists who fear that implementation of the dam would put an end to the world’s largest freshwater fishery.

The daming of the Mekong is a hot political topic in this part of the world. By that, I mean that all the governments bordering the Mekong are in contention over their share of harnessing the river for hydroelectric use. By and large, the people in those countries could care less – even the ones who live along the Mekong and depend on it for their livelihood – except that they certainly like the electricity that’s generated by the dams.

No Mekong-border country is really against daming, per se, despite studies indicating enormous environmental consequences. They just want their fair share of the energy.

In August 2013, I updated my information and links to other information about the Xayabuli dam. Please visit: http://the-isaan.blogspot.com/2013/08/lao-trip-47.html

For more about damming the lower Mekong River, please go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mekong_River_Basin_Hydropower

Interestingly, I found out that back in our village in the Isaan, we get most of our electricity from the second phase of the Nam Ngum dam, within Lao.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lao Trip 1.4

Next morning, I gave the Mekong alongside Pak Lai a last look.

Our tuk-tuk arrived ahead of time and got us back to the Pak Lai bus station where we had begun our time in this town three days before.

Once on the bus and rolling, we discovered we were on a lesser-known bus route on roads that don’t even appear on maps. You can only see them if you ride them or if you zoom in on them using satellite photos or Google Earth.

Amazingly, not only did this Pak Lai to Vientiane ride feature a ferry ride across the Mekong, but took us through pristine Sayabuli province mountains and, later, right along the Mekong, opposite Thailand.

It was a very memorable bus ride; certainly my best one ever. By the end of the ride, our faces had a fine cake of red dust sprayed on them and we were in the Lao capital of Vientiane which I will have more to write about in subsequent visits. Right now, we’re itching to get back to The Isaan…

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Secret War, part 3

The last part of the 3-part series on "The Secret War in Laos," which took place during the 1960s and continued on up to the mid-1970s.

Keith Quincy wrote the best retrospective look at this struggle, in my opinion. More information about his book can be found HERE.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Lao Trip 1.3

[Continuing excerpts from my travelog, from our trip into Xayabuli province, Lao, May 2012 - look on the map I keep posted at the top of the sidebar and you can see the route we took from Nong Bua Lamphu to Pak Lai.]

On Day 3 and only our second full day in the town, I was beginning to lose Thip. She was getting bored with sleepy Pak Lai. Not me. I loved it and could have stayed several more days, for sure. Well, I knew we needed to find the market where they sold clothes and this we set out to do.

Up on the main highway that the town is built along, we stopped in for some food and beer. The owner was really friendly – the first Lao we had found to be such, so far. Not that any Lao we had come into contact with were unfriendly. They were just all a little stand-offish. I attribute it as scars from the Indochina War, what we Americans call “the Vietnam War” and what some have termed the “Lao Civil War.” The general personality differences between the Lao in Laos and the Lao in the Isaan made me appreciate our people – who are very friendly and a bit shy – even more.

Our friendly Lao woman directed us to the clothes market, later, and her directions proved accurate. There was a whole complex of shops set-up that we had missed yesterday. Nothing indigenous for sale, just stuff from Thailand, mostly…

On the way back from shopping, Thip arranged a tuk-tuk pick-up for tomorrow morning from a guy who I guess looked trustworthy to her. Then, we went down to the floating restaurant furthest from our guesthouse. We had some food, but it wasn’t that great. The Beer Lao’s were better.

I just loved being on the Mekong like that; watching river life outside the restaurant. Seeing Thiphawan was tired, I encouraged her to go back to the guesthouse and get some rest; I’d just hang.

After Thip left, the daylight slowly faded and the karaoke scene at the restaurant – more a bar, really – started to gear up. Well, I wasn’t really into that unless there were some cute girls to watch – which there weren’t. So, I went over to check the scene out at the other floating restaurant/bar closer to our guesthouse.

The scene at the second floater was dead, dead, dead; just perfect for my mellow mood this night. I had the place to myself, as far as customers went. The guy running the karaoke machine must have been pretty cool, cuz he played a bunch of “Songs of Life” music, including Pongsit and Carabao. I had a couple of Beer Lao’s here, just letting my mind wander…

Here I was travelling the haunts of my fictional hero Rick, the retired CIA operative (from my first and second screenplays written in 2008 and 2009). And here I was at last in Laos, after so many years wondering what it would be like… It struck me there in that floating bar on the Mekong that this would be the high point of the trip. Thip wanted to go to Vientienne and I just don’t have fun in any city. Santa Barbara and Nong Bua Lamphu are about as big as I can handle…

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Secret War, part 2

The Laotian Civil War (1953-75) was a fight between the Communist Pathet Lao, often North Vietnamese of Lao ancestry, and the Royal Lao Government in which both the political rightists and leftists received heavy external support for a proxy war from the global Cold War superpowers. Here's part 2 of 3:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lao Trip 1.2

… We found the Seng Cha Leun Guesthouse, next to the Kam Koung Restaurant a bit by accident, but it fit all my criteria: rooms with a view of the Mekong for under 500 baht/day (350 to be exact) and quiet. There were probably 8-to-10 rooms for rent and the first night, we had the place to ourselves.

With the sky darkening, we took our ab-nams (showers) and rested from the trip, enjoying fanned air-conditioning. It was my first time experiencing air-conditioning inside a building since coming to Southeast Asia four months ago. Thip loved it.

Of course, the biggest and best feature was being riverside up on the Pak Lai cliff from the Mekong River. There was absolutely no development visible on the other side of the river, except for tree planting. I had to check myself at first because I’m used to seeing the Mekong with Laos on the other side of it. Now, since the river turns up into Lao, I also got to see Laos on the other side, but was in Lao myself; a little bit of a mind adjustment, as I was subconsciously expecting to see Thailand on the other side!

The electricity in the guesthouse went out soon after nightfall. Hand-rolled candles were given to us by the friendly but thick headed caretaker, who said with some pride that Pak Lai got its electricity from Thailand. Now I was really confused.

Our first full day in Pak Lai, we went to the markets that we could find. There are, I think, four markets spread out about Pak Lai, which itself is a long ribbon of buildings clustered mostly along the highway and the parallel riverbank road.

I went to the Kaysone monument, but it was locked up.

Things didn’t get very interesting until that night when we went to the Kam Koung restaurant, just next to our guesthouse. It is supposed to be the best restaurant on the riverbank road. The food was OK, but we had to wait almost an hour for it, due to two parties that had just come in ahead of us. Of course, the location couldn’t be beat, beside the Mekong and everything around it was now pitch black and you couldn’t see and thing.

This wasn’t anything like tourist season, either. But, I guess by having the reputation as the best restaurant on the riverfront, it’s the place to go for business deals as well as a tourist draw.

Both parties ahead of us were groups doing business. The first group of Lao – furthest away from us – was doing some mining with, I think, some Russians. The second group – at the table next to ours – was being courted by an attractive Thai woman dressed in traditional Lao finery. As Thip explained to me later, she was trying to establish a mutual relationship with some of the locals to buy/sell aphrodisiacs and stay-hard medicine. I could tell the guys at this table were some heavy hitters by the way they strutted their stuff and also by the deference treated them by the Lao from the first table, who came over to greet them upon leaving...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Secret War, part 1

Lao (Laos) is one of the few countries I know a lot about. In fact, I have read and studied more about Lao than I have Thailand, where I currently reside. Travelling in this communist country, I am often reminded of the history of the country during my lifetime, especially the war...

The Laotian Civil War (1953-75) was a fight between the Communist Pathet Lao, often North Vietnamese of Lao ancestry, and the Royal Lao Government in which both the political rightists and leftists received heavy external support for a proxy war from the global Cold War superpowers. Among United States Central Intelligence Agency Special Activities Division US and Hmong veterans of the conflict, it is known as "The Secret War."

Here's part 1 of 3 videos detailing the Laotian Civil War, heavily pro-American. Abrupt end continues in part 2:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lao Trip 1.1

[Excerpts from the journal I kept on my first trip to Lao (Laos), mid-May 2012, part 1]:

Apparently, Thai banks don’t ever carry Lao kip. Thip and I went up to the currency exchange counter at the provincial capital’s biggest bank and were informed, more or less, to this effect. We were told what is in the guidebooks: that, in Lao (Laos), Thai and American currency is accepted same as their own... This I gotta see.

Thip and I are taking a break from the village at a near-perfect time (mid-May, 2012). Thip’s mother, Khun Mae, is stable; I need to leave LOS before my 3-month travel permit expires; and there’s so much needless drama going on with Thip’s family that’s it’s just a pain to be around and within contact range…

Two and a half hours from our village, riding the bus west on Highway 210, we reached Loei (“loy”). Thip and I have passed through this provincial capital a number of times, usually en route to or from Chiang Khan and Khaeng Khut Khu, north of Loei, on the Mekong River. This time, after switching buses, we split off from Highway 201 and got on 2115, which is a really beautiful, slightly mountainous, ride to Tha Li (“tah-lee”).

The road from Loei to Tha Li was so scenic, I started expecting Tha Li to be a hidden gem. Although located in a beautiful area, upon arrival it did not appear to me to be other than another dumpy roadside community; the kind you see all over the Thai countryside. What I’ve heard of the development plans for the area is even worse. There may well come a time when we come by this way again and look back fondly on the funkiness of the “old” Tha Li…

At the Thai/Lao border, Thip started to get excited. I had started to notice a new shine in her eyes as we rode Highway 2115 to Tha Li; the country girl in her really starting to come out. At the Nam Heuang border crossing, her eyes and voice of wonder continued to grow, especially when she compared this crossing with the one at Nong Khai. While it’s common to see many westerners at the Nong Khai border crossing and bus loads of people, here on the Thai-Lao Nam Heuang Friendship Bridge, we were the only non-Lao making the crossing and there were only a handful of us…

After doing the paperwork for exiting Thailand and then, on the other side of the bridge, getting a one-month visa for Lao, we took a travel bus to the Kenthao bus station, which wasn’t much more than a petanque court. Petanque is somewhat like botchi ball and is a hold-over from when Laos was colonized by the French. From Kenthao, in the company of some locals getting off along the way, along with a lot of groceries, we traveled by truck bus to Pak Lai northbound on a highway that – for the life of me – I couldn’t find a number for, but there must be.

The road from Kenthao to Pak Lai is beautiful and in good shape. The area reminded Thip of Thailand many years ago. Later, after walking around Pak Lai, we agreed that if you discounted the cars, trucks and motorcycles, Lao could pass for the the Thai countryside as much as 30 years ago, when Thip was 10.

Pak Lai is often spelled “Pak-Lay” – even the town’s own signs that have English translations show this spelling. However, the pronunciation of Pak Lai is “pack-lie” or “pack-L-eye”, not “pack-lay.” It is a relatively small town. I’d guess the population at about 10,000 Laotians. The only reason tourists would come here is as a stopping point between points north (especially Luang Prabang) and Thailand. I later learned that there are caves in the area that attract particularly Japanese tourists. While Thip and I were staying in the town for three full days, we never saw anyone that wasn’t Lao or Thai.

I specifically took us to Pak Lai just to hang out in a lesser-known corner of Lao…

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thung Yai Music

I know this blog is supposed to be about The Isaan, but here's one more short (3:33 minutes) video capturing some of the best moments of our trip through Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, April 2012. This one features a poem written by Ajan Boon Long, our head monk, with music written and performed by Mann:

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Thailand's Role in the Vietnam War"

Hard to believe that Northeast Thailand (the Isaan) was once contested territory between communist insurgents and the Thai government. Below, is "Thailand's Role in the Vietnam War," produced by the ABC television network in the United States, 1967.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I’m not the first expat to write about Thailand and my writing about the northeastern part of this Southeast Asian country is not as good as many. I’ve listed some of the guys writing about the Thai countryside (as well as other useful links) in the sidebar of this blog and I keep the list updated. Included are also forums where most of the expats in Thailand share information and viewpoints, ask each other questions and get help via a communication exchange.

Some of my favorite blogs are:

The forums I like include:

A particularly interesting and diverse forum thread about expat experiences and feelings about living in Thai villages is located here:

“Expat” is short for “expatriat,” a Latin derivative meaning a person who temporarily or permanently resides in another country other than his or her own. Before I became one myself, I had a one-size-fits-all perception of what an expat was – especially a Southeast Asian one. He was grizzled, a Vietnam War vet, single, knew all the best bars, frequented the most earthy of them, knew all the bar girls and frequented only the most fun.

Well, that image might work for one type of expat in the cities, but there are many, many other kinds -- and what about the countryside? It’s very difficult to insert yourself into small communities unless you somehow have an “in” – a job, friends, family, or, more likely for expats in Thailand: a woman. If I’m sounding a bit too sexist, well, I am because whereas you see male expats all over Southeast Asia, I have yet to see a single female expatriate. That’s not to say there aren’t any, it’s just to indicate their numbers are extremely low.

There are a great many different types of expats, both in the cities and in the countryside. The one thing we share in common besides coming from other countries is the loneliness that sometimes comes upon us and that we rarely admit to. It is the loneliness that, in our own separate ways, comes upon us when we miss people or aspects of our former country.

It happens. No matter how grizzled or disaffected an expat may be about his first country; no matter how excited he may be about his second (or third, or…), or how well he knows the language or solid he is with his wife or GF, there comes a time…

… when all us expats face the realization that, like a Rainbow In The Dark, we are unlikely and absolutely... alone.

P.S. For the very best version of "Rainbow In The Dark" go here:  http://youtu.be/LmSt1oEIshE

Friday, August 3, 2012

Gold Buddhas

Back last March, I video recorded the gold melting and casting that took place in our local Forest Temple. I've finally edited it to my satisfaction and it is posted below, at bottom.

Ajan Boon Long’s gold Buddhas melting had to do with a weekend-long event at the temple where gold jewelry was melted down to form high-grade gold Buddhas – the biggest one now sits front and center in our temple. Thai jewelry has a high resale value as very little of it is below 22 karats; 24 being the purest you can get. Fourteen and eighteen karat gold are not even considered by the average Thai – rich and poor alike, mostly because of its far lesser resale value.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Isaan, My Home"

A nice vid romanticizing the Isaan somewhat, but still gives the vibe that remains alive. For instance, Khon Thai gather in the same way but buffaloes have been replaced by "mechanical buffaloes":

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thung Yai 1.6

All this history was unknown to us when we trekked through Thung Yai, as we travelled much in the same way as I imagine Plains Indians in America once travelled at the height of the Horse Culture. That is, few compromises were made when it came to having lots to eat; all ages and both genders worked together; religious rites and observances were frequent; everything we needed we packed with us and few high-tech solutions were employed. Most of all, we were lead by a single man, Ajan Boon Long, who would confer with his fellow monks and rely on the expertise of some others, but who once making a decision, all followed without questioning, doubts or fear.

This was novel travel for me. My fellow villagers didn’t give it a second thought.

I vividly remember the first time I spotted a hoe in the back of the truck I was traveling in. My first thought was: “Isaan farmers just can’t leave their hoes at home.” Well, these Issan farmers showed me much in their capability and problem solving, not only by frequently using their hoes on the worst roads, but fixing rather complicated mechanical breakdowns.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how I had my doubts about going on this trip. Well, those doubts stemmed from what I observed en route to the gates of Thung Yai. What it came down to was that all my fellow travelers were new to me and I really didn’t know Ajan Boon Long all that much and here we were going into one of the most remote areas of Thailand as what appeared to me to be a “rag tag bunch.”

I lacked the trust.

I lacked the faith.

My Thai-Lao wife kept encouraging me just to follow Ajan Boon Long’s leadership and enjoy the ride. Just like each person had their own reasons for going and their own lessons learned, mine was this one. Once I saw how truly capable my friends were days away from any help from anyone else, my trust in them skyrocketed. And once I gave up trying to mentally micro-manage the trip and not be so critical – once I, in essence, just let Ajan Boon Long take me on an adventure of a lifetime… then and only then did I have a great time.

Now that we’re back in our village in Northeastern Thailand (the Isaan), again there’s already talk of next year’s pilgrimage. And, Ajan Boon Long has made it be known: he wants me to go again.

The poem Ajan Boon Long composed about this trip:

“Far, far away,
And even farther still,

Thung Yai is way beyond me now,
But my heart still clings to that special place.

Even when I sleep,
I dream of the land –
Where flowers grow in trees.”

A video that I did not make but gives an accurate audio and visual appreciation for being “Under the Canopy” at Thung Yai:


My free ebook about this trip:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thung Yai 1.5 - Area History

Here I was with Kamattan monks, lay people, novice monks and a few others trekking though an area of Thailand that had only been opened up approximately thirty years ago, after the Thai insurgency had been resolved and the road built to support mining operations in the area. It was this time that Ajan Satien – Ajan Boon Long’s teacher – walked through the forest to provide spiritual guidance to the Karen in the Wahuku area, close to the Burma border.

Paleolithic (2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years before present time), Mesolithic (around 10,000 to 5,000 BC) and Neolithic (5,000 to 3,000 years BCE) stone tools have been found in the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai river valleys. We know for certain that parts of the sanctuary were permanently inhabited by Neolithic man. Since at least 700 years ago, the Dawna-Tenasserim region has been home to Mon and Karen people, but burial grounds in Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary have yet to be systematically researched.[11]

The Thai name "Thung Yai Naresuan" refers to the "big field" (thung yai) or savanna in the centre of the sanctuary and is a reference to King Naresuan. The Siamese ruler based his army in the area to wage war against Burma during his reign of the Ayutthaya Kingdom which lasted from 1590 until his death in 1605.[12]

The Karen people who live in the sanctuary call the savanna pia aethala aethea which can be translated as "place of the knowing sage". It refers to the area as a place where ascetic hermits called aethea have lived and meditated and do so even today. The Karen in Thung Yai regard them as holy men important for their history and identity in Thung Yai and revere them in a specific cult.[13]

Settlement of Karen people in Thung Yai took place during the second half of the 18th century. At that time, due to political and religious persecution in Burma, predominantly Pwo-Karen from the hinterlands of Moulmein and Tavoy migrated into the area northeast of the Three Pagodas Pass, where they received formal settlement rights from the Siamese Governor of Kanchanaburi. Sometime between 1827 and 1839 the Siamese King Rama III established this area as a principality (mueang) and the Karen leader who was governing the principality received the Siamese title of nobility Phra Si Suwannakhiri. During the second half of the 19th century, this Karen-principality at the Burmese border became particularly important for the Siamese King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) in his negotiations with the British colonial power in Burma regarding the demarcation of their western border with Siam.[14]

In the beginning of the 20th century, when the modern Thai nation state was established, the Karen in Thung Yai lost their former status and importance. The change of status meant little change for them during the first half of the 20th century, because external political influences were minimal in Thung Yai and the Karen communities were highly autonomous regarding their internal affairs. This changed in the second half of the 20th century, when the Thai nation state extended its institutions into the peripheral areas and the Karen re-appeared as chao khao or "hill tribes" on the national political agenda, as forest destroyers and illegal immigrants.[15]

Out of this greater governmental involvement grew plans to protect the forests and wildlife at the upper Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi river in the mid-1960s. Due to strong logging and mining interests in the area, it was not before 1972 that the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary could be established. For Thung Yai, the resistance was even stronger. However, as fate would have it, in April 1973 a military helicopter crashed near Thung Yai and revealed an illegal hunting party of senior military officers with family members, businessmen, and a film star. This discovered abuse of privilege aroused nationwide public outrage that finally led to the fall of the Thanom-Prapas government, after the uprising of October 14, 1973. After this accident and under a new democratic government, the area finally was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1974.

After the Military had taken over power once again in October 1976, many of the activists of the Thai Democracy Movement fled into peripheral regions of the country, some of them finding refuge among the Karen people in Thung Yai.[16]

During the 1960s, not only timber and ore but also the water of the western forests as potential hydroelectric power resources became of interest for commercial profit and national development. A system of several big dams was planned to produce electricity for the growing urban centres, using the sanctuaries’ watershed. On the Khwae Yai River, the Si Nakharin Dam was finished in 1980 and the Tha Thung Na Dam in 1981, while the Khao Laem Dam (renamed Vajiralongkorn Dam) on the Khwae Noi river south of Thung Yai was completed in 1984. The Nam Choan Dam, the last of the projected dams, was supposed to flood a forest area of about 223 km² within the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. There grew a public debate about the Nam Choan Dam Project that lasted for more than six years, dominating national politics in early 1988 before it was shelved in April that year.

Pointing to the high value of Thung Yai for nature conservation and biodiversity, the opponents on the national and international level had raised the possibility of declaring the area a World Heritage Site. This prestigious option would have been lost with a huge dam and reservoir in the middle of the two wildlife sanctuaries by not meeting the requirements for global heritage status.[17]

After the Nam Choan Dam Project was shelved, the proposal to UNESCO was written by Sueb Nakasatien and Belinda Stewart-Cox, both who had been outspoken opponents of the Nam Choan project. As a result of their work and outrage over the death of Nakasatien, Thung Yai Naresuan and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuarywas declared a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in December 1991. In the nomination, the "outstanding universal value" of the two wildlife sanctuaries is, in first place, justified with their extraordinary high biodiversity due to their unique position at the junction of four biogeographic zones, as well as with its size and "the undisturbed nature of its habitats". [18]

Even though the UNESCO nomination explicitly emphasizes the "undisturbed nature" of the area,[19] and notwithstanding scientific studies supporting traditional settlement and use rights of the Karen people in Thung Yai as well as the sustainability of their traditional land use system and their strong intention to remain in their homeland and to protect it,[20] the Thai government defines the people living in Thung Yai as threats to the sanctuary and continue to pursue their resettlement.

Karen villages in Huai Kha Khaeng were already removed when the wildlife sanctuary was established in 1972. In the late 1970s, the remaining communities in Huai Kha Khaeng had to leave when the Si Nakharin Dam flooded their settlement areas. During the 1980s and early 1990s, villages of the Hmong ethnic minority group were removed from Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan. The resettlement of the remaining Karen in Thung Yai was announced in a management plan for the sanctuary, drafted in the late 1980s, as well as in the proposal for the World Heritage Site. But, when the Thai Royal Forest Department tried to remove them in the early 1990s, it had to reverse the resettlement scheme due to strong public criticism.

Since then, the authorities have used repression, intimidation and terror to convince the Karen to leave their homeland 'voluntarily.' The government has concentrated on restrictions on their traditional land use system which it hopes will eventually cause its breakdown and deprive the Karen of their subsistence.[21]


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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thung Yai 1.4

Each of us bumped, rolled, sloshed, sweated and certainly struggled in this land for our own reasons, learning our own lessons in addition to the ones Ajan Boon Long hoped we’d learn. Many of us travelled for the sheer adventure of it all, secure and in the authority of travelling with Buddhist monks. Some of us travelled out of respect for what Ajan Satien did for the local Karen people. (best known to Westerners as the tribe whose women elongate their necks with a series of metal rings). Some felt reward for helping out the Karen with food, clothes, salt and a change of diet at least for a couple of days.

Travelling as we did with Kammatan Buddhist monks was the most important element of the trip as Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng are wildlife sanctuaries and, as such, protected areas unlike national parks. So, visitors require prior permission to get in. The sanctuary status is important because the designation helps ensure that the area is relatively untouched. Tourism in the area, in fact, is not encouraged. The few hundred visitors that do enter Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng each year usually are members of scientific field study groups. Anyone else wanting to enter should first get consent from the Royal Thai Forestry department.

I don’t know for sure, but my feeling is that if you travel with Buddhist monks in Thailand, you can go just about anywhere in the country and be respected for being in their company – certainly an honor.

Being on an annual pilgrimage with Kamattan monks opens the gates to Thung Yai as it would just about anywhere in “The Land of Smiles.” At checkpoints, one of the lay people would present our travel/itinerary and the number in our party, but not much more than that. As a foreigner, I was expecting to have to present a passport and have a list with all our names on it. I never saw such a list and I don’t think we had one.

Kamattan Buddhist monks are different than the more numerous Thai Buddhist monks. I’ve written elsewhere about the differences, here: http://the-isaan.blogspot.com/2012/06/kamattan-and-thai-buddhism.html

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thung Yai 1.3

 … In truth, we did not stop long enough to appreciate but a small fraction of all the flora, fauna and mammals we travelled amongst and certainly saw no tigers. Particularly striking for me were all the trees with flowers growing on numerous branches.

Why were we here? We were on a “forced march” of sorts in order to get to the temple at Washuku in time for the anniversary of our head monk’s mentor Ajan Satien’s passing. Due to some unforeseen delays, we only had three days of hard riding to get in on time, with expected progress points to reach each day no matter if we rolled into camp at midnight – which happened once.

This was the ostensible reason for us to be in Thung Yai, but Ajan Boon Long had other reasons why he takes a different group into this remote area of Western Thailand each year at this time.

As he explained to me after our return to the village, there are actually five reasons for the annual trek thru Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, to Ajan Satien’s temple and chedi erected in his honor. Ajan Boon Long never directly mentioned these to us at any time, but these are certainly things we learned in our own separate ways:

1) To honor and show respect for the work that Ajan Satien did in this remote area; 

2) To develop teamwork and cooperation amongst ourselves; 

3) Learn to overcome obstacles and be good problem solvers; 

4) Develop strength and practice hard work; and 

5) Develop determination by struggle to achieve our goals. 

I’ll add here that the trips also forged a closer bond between those who struggled together. Friendships were strengthened and new ones forged…


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Friday, June 22, 2012

Thung Yai 1.2

Continuing excerpts from my travel journal into Thung Yai...

Thung Yai Naresuan (Thai: เขตรักษาพันธุ์สัตว์ป่าทุ่งใหญ่นเรศวร) is located at the western national border of Thailand to Burma (Myanmar), in the southern area of the Dawna Range. It and the adjacent Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (Thai: เขตรักษาพันธุ์สัตว์ป่าห้วยขาแข้ง) constitute the core area of the Western Forest Complex, totaling about 6,200 square kilometers: the largest conservation area in Mainland Southeast Asia.

Interest in protecting the two areas was sparked when Asiatic Buffalo – extinct in all other forests in Thailand – were found roaming these areas in 1965. A Royal Forest Department exploration team and Thai media people were on their way from southern Huai Kha Khaeng to the Pong Naisor salt lick when they came across a number of wild water buffalos.

Both Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1991, after initially being set aside as protected wildlife sanctuaries in 1974 and 1972. Besides the prestige, the functional importance of such a designation is that UNESCO pays the costs associated with the areas being wildlife sanctuaries as long as Thailand sets aside the land as such. This arrangement is important as there still remains illegal logging and wildlife hunting. Another threat to the sanctuaries is continual agricultural land conversion by displaced tribal communities – mostly Karen and Hmong.

Largely a mountainous wilderness of dry tropical forest, with rivers and streams separating lowlands and valleys, Thung Yai boasts an incredible range of flora and fauna. It is one of the last natural habitats for around 700 tigers (Panthera tigris) and has a wide variety of wildlife. There is little research on the biodiversity in the sanctuaries, but at last count there were 400 species of birds, 96 reptiles, 113 fish and 120 mammals, including leopards, gaur, bear and possibly Javan rhinos. Thirty-four internationally threatened species call Tung Yai home.

I was feeling like a member of an endangered species, myself: Homo Falang. Thais call all Westerners “Falang.” Riding in truck beds most of the time, over one of the most difficult overland routes in all of Thailand, it was rough going for this 63 year-old. Exacerbating the discomfort was the need to double-lock myself with both arms and hands holding onto roll bars horizontally and vertically, to keep from falling out or hitting my head against the roll bars themselves. This meant that my arm muscles were constantly tensed. Worse, I was facing backwards most of the time, so I could not anticipate which way the truck was going to suddenly jerk; up, down, left or right.

The first couple of days travelling from Thung Yai’s southern-most entry point on to the northwest certainly proved my initial misgivings justified. I had almost not gone on this trip. Now, toward the summit of our toughest climb, I was almost wishing I’d stayed at home. Yet, if I had not gone, I would have missed out on experiencing a habitat that few Thais and even fewer Falang got to be part of.

Part 2 of 4 (possibly 5) parts, showing video and still shots of our trip into one of the remotest areas of Thailand, Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, April 2012:

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