Thursday, July 30, 2009

Check it...

I spent the weekend in Bangkok after my visit to Sangkhlaburi. Was great to finally spend some time in the capital city that I initially bussed right through—enjoy some pics from the trip!

Khao San Road.
A backpackers’ haven. This road is notorious in Bangkok for being a transit point for backpackers traveling in and around Thailand. Situated about 30 kilometers away from Mo Chit bus station, it was a relatively convenient place to check in for my few day stay. The place was more or less what I had imagined—full of dreadlocked hippies and tattooed 20-somethings, Khao San is a dream come true for many wear travelers. For me, it was a chance to unwind, let loose, and indulge in endless people watching. There are several noteworthy bookstores in the area, as well as loads of cheap eats.

Keepin’ it fresh.
For as long as I’m living on this continent, I will continue to give praise to the amazing selection of fresh fruit available here. From the spiky dragonfruits and their sexy shade of pink, to the mangoes so perfect you think they came from Eden itself…the fruit stalls burst with color, texture, and an unbeatable fresh taste.

Ladies Night Out
Going to Bangkok felt like my first time really traveling alone. It was Friday night and the town was hopping. I felt eager to go out and enjoy a different side of the town as nighttime fell, so I ventured off to the first logical place I could think of to do so: the bar. It wasn’t long after I ordered a beer that I meet these girls, Katie and Hannah, both seniors at Manchester University in the UK. We hit it off, and proceeded to experience our Friday night in Khao San as it was meant to be—namely, this included unlimited Song Saem buckets and spring rolls.

Ferry… Bring me to shore!
This was one of the more exciting parts of my trip to Bangkok. On my last day, I took the ferry eastward to check out some of the most famous tourist attractions in the city. For 10 baht (35 cents), this is actually a really good deal and a logical means for transportation. First stop: the Grand Palace!

The following pictures were all taken at the Grand Palace, a complex of several historically significant buildings and temples. The palace was originally built in 1782 for King Rama I. From the 18th century on, it served as the official residency for all of Thailand’s kings. The complex sees thousands of tourists a day, and really is an impressive sight. It’s home to the Emerald Buddha (held inside Wat Phra Kaew) and contains several intricately carved golden towers. It felt really strange for me to be there by myself- nearly everyone seemed to be either on a tour group or with family. As a result, there are several goofy pictures of me standing and posing by myself, taken by one sympathetic, sunburned tourist or another.

Reclining Buddha, or as I prefer to call it, the Lazy Buddha.
My second sightseeing stop involved paying a visit to the infamous Reclining Buddha, house in the Wat Pho temple. The gold plated Buddha is an impressive 46 meters long and 15 meters high. It’s pretty interesting to walk around the entire Buddha, although securing a good viewing point is a challenge. The rest of the temple complex is almost equally noteworthy, having been constructed over 200 years ago and containing more than 1,000 Buddha images in total.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


View of Sangkhlaburi!

David and I. Goofy..

Relaxing at P's on the day we arrived. Tired after 16 hour bus ride (and only two hours of sleep)

Outdoor patio furniture carved out of marble. Nice indeed

Working from an outdoor cafe- break for a photo-op.

Observing an English class with the Mon Women's Organization.

Cottages at our guest house.

P's Guest House! The beautiful, rodeo-style guest house David and I stayed in. All was lovely, minus the shared, squat toilets!

View down to the lake from P's Guest house.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Day in the Life of...

I can never seem to remember whether it’s the dogs barking or my alarm that wakes me up first thing in the morning. Perhaps a combination of both. I’m still tired and within seconds of opening my eyes I reach for my back. It’s sore but I tell myself that I just need a few more days to get used to this whole mat thing. It feels like ages since I last slept on a real mattress, let alone a proper bed! The mat can’t be more than four inches thick. It’s hard and lumpy and forces me to toss and turn every night. I lift up my head and remove the balled up sweatshirt that’s doubled as a makeshift pillow. At least that feels soft…
I leave my bedroom (actually the back storage room of the office) and walk out onto the porch to determine the day’s forecast. Today, the sun glares down at me and I squint hard to return its gaze. The heat doesn’t feel so bad, though, and I smile as a breeze lifts up my hair as I head back inside.
There’s not too much work to be done inside the office today so I decide to go into town. Equipped with my Crayola green, oversized poncho, I hop aboard the Pheasant. The Pheasant is a reckless joy on her own, an old school bicycle with faulty breaks and kickstand—she does the job. The initial part of the journey is a calm one and I smile at the peacefulness of the neighborhood. The “dog gang” is tame as it’s still early morning and they don’t seem to be bothered by anything that passes by them (thank God, because once nighttime falls the dogs evil alias’s will show themselves through sharp fangs and aggressive growls). Kids are playing with sticks and stones in the street while their mothers huddle together on the bale. I bike past and look to both sides as flashes of mountains and green poke out in between houses.
After about five minutes, I’ve reached the main road. Actually it’s called the Asia Highway- the idea being that in the near future it will connect almost all countries in the Asian continent, beginning with Singapore and ending up in Istanbul. While I’m interested in doing this whole route at some point, I don’t have the energy to do so today—I skip out on Istanbul and head to the day market in Mae Sot.
I never seem to tire from my visits to the market. Anyone who’s visited Asia knows about outdoor markets that sell everything from used flip-flops to pig heads. I park my bike outside the market- the alleyway is already too narrow and crowded, bringing a bike along makes for twice as much hassle. I walk up and down the stalls, breathing through my mouth so as to ignore the overwhelming stench of sewage, blood and fresh meat. An old woman tempts me with thin, rectangular waffles sold on wooden skewers—had I not already eaten, I would love to try the breakfast kebab.
The tables display the most fresh and colorful foods imaginable. Pea pods as green as Thailand’s rice fields and stringed sausages that look like oversized, beaded necklaces. Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out by not being a more adventurous carnivore—although this stuff isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, I’m certain the taste must be superior to that of its packaged, factory raised counterpart.
For whatever reason, I’m drawn to the disorganized nature of outdoor market shopping. There are no signs or clean-cut rows, no cashier to ring up your order. It not unheard of to just leave approximate change on the table if the shopkeeper can’t be found…or tell the vendor you’ll pay him back tomorrow. The rain boots are located next to the raw seafood and watches are in between the fried noodles and tub of eels. There might be a method to the madness but I haven’t discovered it yet. As with most things in my life, the personal joy takes place during the exploration…

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Talking Politics

Welcome to Politics Hour- with your host, Delilah Withers.

On today's show, we'll be taking a look at the socio-political situation of the Republic of Myanmar, or as I still prefer to call it, Burma. To do so, we'll take a closer look at the internal dynamics of Mae Sot, an ethnically diverse town that strattles the Thailand/Burma border.
Before I begin, I'd like to note my Mother's advice, who always warned me not to talk politics with family. With careful defiance, I'd like to disobey her request and proceed with today's story, which I argue is one that needs to be heard.
My mentor in college often made the claim that "politics is personal." As I sit in my new office in Mae Sot, Thailand, this statement rings more true than ever. I arrived in Mae Sot just days ago to undertake my new position as "advocacy and multimedia intern." I'm working for a non-governmental organization here, whose name needs to remain anonymous due to security concerns. With respect to their anonymity, during this program I will refer to them as "ABC." In order to understand the motivations for my being here, and the objective of ABC's work, it's necessary to understand the history of Burma to better grasp today's conflict.
For the last 19 years, Burma has been run by a military dictatorship. The military rulers refer to themselves as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC- quite the perky name for such a brutal force. They have a track record of creating numerous human rights abuses, and violating the welfare of their people by denying them access to quality education, health care services, and decent infrastructure. The government is notoriously oppressive, with countless incidences of violence towards ethnic minorities in particular.
1988 is a year which lives on in the memories of many Burmese; it's the year the largest protests in Burma's history took place. Led by robed Buddhist monks, students, teachers, and professionals filled the streets of Burma's capital and marched for freedom and democracy- ideals that have long since been ingrained in the U.S. constitution and which, in my opinion, have largely been taken for granted. The SPDC has never been sympathetic to such Western systems of government and responded to the protests with armed military force. Thousands of people were gunned down, and thousands more imprisoned.
The SPDC maintains its iron fist throughout Burma, silencing any attempt at a free and democratic country. From an economical standpoint, things remain equally grim. Although rich in natural resources (there's an abundance of rubies, natural gas, coal, petroleum), the SPDC has excluded all types of foreign investment, leaving the once prosperous Burma to become one of the most impoverished countries in the world.
Human rights abuses continue to occur today as the regime tries to dominate the entire country. Thousands of people are fleeing violence and persecution- it's estimated that there are over 600,000 internally displaced persons (people who have fled their homes and are living in camps within Burma), and over a million refugees worldwide, many of whom are ethnic minorities.
So, where do those who manage to escape end up? Well, a first stop for many is the Friendship Bridge. With a name equally as deceiving as the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), the Friendship Bridge is the bridge that connects Burma and Thailand at the border town guessed it, Mae Sot. Mae Sot is home to the largest border crossing between the two countries and sees as many as hundreds of Burmese crossing into Thailand everyday- some of whom are making the legal day-long entry, others whom cross for good in search for work and housing.
I haven't made it to the bridge just yet myself (I plan on going for the festive Saturday market), but from what I've heard, it's notorious for all kinds of smuggling. Drugs, arms, and gems to name a few. Arms are smuggled into Burma to support the military regime and illegal gems are brought from Burma to sell on the black market here in Mae Sot.
Although Mae Sot is technically on the Thai side of the border, the population of the town if overwhelmingly Burmese. It's estimated that 95% of the Burmese here are employed as migrant workers, in factories located in between my office and the central part of town. The doors of the factories are carefully guarded by Thai policemen who are well aware of the situation inside: hundreds of ethnic minorities living, sleeping and working in a cramped space, earning salaries far below the minimum wage. Corruption is rampant here, as policemen are paid off in money or whiskey to look the other way.

A short break...

What do you think so far? I find this place fascinating and am still trying to discover all the intricacies embedded within the diverse cultures here. A glimpse at Mae Sot can leave one puzzled as on the one hand, it feels suffocated by illegal activity, political exiles, refugee camps, and police corruption. A closer look, however, reveals an inspiring movement in the works. There are dozens of small, Burmese-run organizations here, comprised of ethnic minorities who have fled Burma, that are working in the shadows of non-governmental organizations, health care clinics, and schools to establish a free and autonomous Burma. These community based organizations are spurring a pro-democracy movement, and while many such groups are forced to remain anonymous due to security purposes, their work is being heard by others around the globe, making their support network stronger.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because for the next few months, I will be working for "ABC," an organization whose goals are to assist these pro-democratic groups in whatever way possible, in hopes that their voices and story will be heard.

For anyone who is interested in learning more about the situation here, please feel free to email me. Also, take a look at this youtube video, taken by a British journalist who was in Burma during a protest crackdown two years ago:

Thanks for listening everybody. I'm Delilah Withers, signing out.