I now understand why some people never go to Thailands islands and beaches, why they hop on the first night train to Chiang Mai and beyond. The north is amazing. The most amazing greens carpet every inch of surface. Rather than endless highways and 7-11s there are rice paddies and temples.
Mahidol arranged for us to take a trip up to Nan to stay at a monatery/school that has connections with Mahidol. The school is funded by the princess, that is to say that it is public. They provide boarding to middle-school age girls who may be orphaned or at risk of being trafficked. They are the sweetest people, and very very giggly. I've never heard such a group of people laugh as loud and hard as they did.
Our first day we got in a van with three monks, and two young English teachers (Thai) from nearby towns. They took us to probably 8 to 10 wats that first day, where the experience was overall the same: walk into the main temple, do prostrations, and meet the abbot and have a short conversation with him over cool glasses of water. We also went to an art gallery that displayed art from the Nan region. It was nothing amazing, but it was right on the river, the Nan River, which has flooded recently. It is a smooth, brown, slow river, leaking onto its banks and causing some people to pack up their belongings in preparation for a more threatenting flood.
The people in Nan come from many different hill tribes. We met some girls who were Hmong and Tai-Lue, but most of the girls were from one hill tribe or another. Human traffickers (as well as missionaries) reach these hill tribes faster than nearly anyone, though there are organizations sprining up to help the communities protect themselves against traffickers.
We were treated so kindly by everyone: three hot meals a day, a floor to sleep on in the princess' lavendar room (for when she makes visits), and a bucket for a shower. Aside from the English teachers, no on really spoke much English, and being thrown into the language has been difficult to recall all that I've learned.
As soon as I can get my photos off the camera I'll load them up, but I can tell you some highlights right now:
The novices (monks younger than 20) tend to their own rice paddies at some of these temples, so I got to go explore the rice paddies. It was really nice to walk through rice paddies and see what lives in them (little crabs), how the rice grows (it's gently planted in the soft mud), how farmers move around the fields (there are raised areas for walking on), and what it feels like to let your feet sink into that mud (like velvety deliciousness).
We went to a temple yesterday where there is an brass elephant that will grant wishes. You make a wish and then try to lift it with your ring finger on your right hand (if you're right handed). If you can lift it once, then you try lifting it again. If you can't lift it a second time it means your wish will come true. I was doubtful, obviously, but after paying homage to the triple gem, my parents, my friends, my enemies, and even myself, I decided to try my luck with the elephant. I easily picked it up the first time. No problem. It was easy as pie. The next time I tried I couldn't lift it at all. So strange! I don't normally believe in that kind of stuff but who knows. It didn't work for Kelly--she couldn't lift it all--but it also worked from my friend Thamawat (one of the English teachers) and it gave him goose bumps to think about it.
It was pretty cool. I can't tell you what my wish was. It's against the rules.
Thamawat (chue-len=nickname --Wat) was a novice from the time he was 12 until he was 20, and then he was a monk from the age of 20 to 28. He recently risrobed. It's interesting to listen the interpretations of a layperson like him considering he was on the other side of the curtain for so long. He was very nice about speaking some English with me and also allowing me to fumble through some Thai.
Now I am back in Bangkok after a night bus, waiting around to catch another bus to take me to the airport to take me to Vietnam. The air here is not pleasant. The humidity is pregnant with pollution, rather than pure water. I like Bangkok, but it was nice to be able to breathe for a little while.