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Chiang Mai

So basically, having gone on a certain school-organized overseas program which shares the same acronym as an MMOG with enough players to seriously consider having their own WTC lobby, I’ll be documenting it here. Naturally enough.

What I’ll be posting was mostly written during the flights to the destination and back, as well as while in transit. I intended to write it during the trip itself, but the brilliant plan fell through for various reasons. For example, card games, laziness… mainly bad reasons. But here’s proof for my brillianter-than-brilliant hypothesis: idiot-proof isn’t proof enough for procrastinators.

Before I give in to more off-putting (preposition, and space/hyphen confusion), the writings are below.

24 May, 0825 SG

And we have lift-off!

Sitting in this heat-trap of an aircraft seat, I’m thinking about all the times since my childhood that I’ve flown in an airplane. I’m not keen on air travel now, but I remember the excitement with which I used to greet the prospect of a flight.

I remember once, at a time when I wasn’t 1.8m tall (long time ago), I visited the cockpit on a flight to Australia. I was about four years old then. I remember looking around in wonder at all the red, orange and green lights and switches all around the cockpit. From that less elevated perspective, it seemed like the whole horizon was filled with lights. They weren’t just on one or two panels, but everywhere along the sides and even the ceiling. I can’t recall the words the pilot said, but they were friendly words. I distinctly remember the feeling of trying to find a voice to indistinct questions.

Maybe things haven’t changed that much. I still get that feeling.

We’ve been flying pretty level for a while now, but my head’s still trying to cope with the pressure change. I never got that problem when I was younger, but it’s gotten worse with age. Maybe it means my head doesn’t let things out as easily now. Or maybe it just got bigger.

At the age of seven, also, it was always Coke or apple juice or Sprite. At seventeen, the seasoned traveler asks for water, and more water. Sensible sugarless selection. The mundane mechanics of travel have become familiar over the years, so much so that I almost forget there’s sky outside.

If travel is supposed to ‘broaden the mind’, it’s ironic that there’s less and less wonder with more and more sights-sounds-experiences. Could I go so far as to say even foreignness feels familiar? It could be the feeling when you’re conspicuous in a crowd, and unsurprised. Jaded at seventeen, where to find lost wonder?

I don’t think I’m a cynic, and perhaps ‘jaded’ is too strong a word. I’m not entirely without hope that the experience will be a good one. Deep down, I think there’s a part of me that earnestly and sincerely wishes for an experience that will be remembered with more than grass-is-greener nostalgia. Did I just hope for new-found wonder? I repeat: I don’t think I’m a cynic.

— And I think I’ve realized what it is that changed, between the ages of seven and the age of now. Hope isn’t a lost prospect, but I think I’ve learned to be wary about hoping. Hoping is like giving a part of yourself, and I think over time, I’ve become a more conservative investor, for the most part. Instead of readily trusting in something outside of myself, I’d feel like doing the opposite. It’s like a conditioned reflex.

Where to find lost wonder? (Overseas?) Perhaps being more willing to risk things will make the search lighter. Perhaps, perhaps.

24 May, 2150 Thai

This is the shape of Chiang Mai City, 700 years old. It’s surrounded by a square moat, with gates at the four corners and 2 at the sides. Our hostel is just outside the City.

Chiang Mai isn’t a new city like Bangkok. In many ways it resembles the older parts of Singapore, or Malacca.

With regards to why so many of the stores have Japanese on the signs, it’s because Nippon Express has a factory in a neighboring town, and many of the workers live in Chiang Mai. We’ve just had a dinner and watched a cultural performance at Khun Khontake. Lots of enculturated and amputated performance again, but it wasn’t ghastly. What struck me was the variety of influences from different Asian cultures. As CW informed me, the Thais are somehow related or descended from (sorry if this offends anyone) the Sichuan people. This might explain the heavy Chinese influences, for example the Erhu-like instrument and the style of playing the plucked string instruments with a tremolo, like a Pipa. There was also an instrument related to the Yang Qin, and even Suona, though that may be of Middle Eastern influence in the form of the Zurna. The numerous percussion instruments resembled some Indonesian and Indian instruments. The sword dance was reminiscent of Malay martial arts, but I shan’t comment too much on the dance except to say it seemed graceful and at ease, rather than controlled.

On a more somber note, our PCT faced customs trouble and won’t be joining us!

P.S. Info about Chiang Mai was gained from conversation with Yim, who was always around wherever we went, in that quiet way of his. But he’s very knowledgeable, as I hope this record shows. But it’s probably an insufficient record.

25 May, 1000 Thai
(Hastily-scribbled notes for the Prostheses Foundation, about our fundraising)

  • Bake sale: cookies, cakes, etc.
  • Sale of soft drinks & snacks at school events
  • WoW shirt
  • Donation collection: Class-to-class, etc.
  • Cheque for 32,000 Baht

25 May, 1600 Thai

17 -0 -9 -0
30 -8 10 -4
20 29 14 -5
32 29 35 -8
36 48 38 -8
54 53 38 11
62 57 38 25
62 65 55 26
62 68 73 30
79 73 73 34
(Me, YJ & Fab, with Andrew Owning. Random vandalisms by Vic on this page and the next.)

26 May

27 May

28 May

29 May

30 May,0700 Thai

As you can see, I’ve been lazy. This book’s stayed snug in my backpack for a few days. But the lack of entries is by no means an indication that the past few days have been uneventful. In fact, they’ve been the opposite.

(We’re waiting for the plane to taxi now, and it won’t be a long flight from CMX to BKK.)

I think I’ll have to restart the timeline from the 25th, although some of what I was up to can be seen from the notes and scribblings, not intended for a record but perhaps revealing in a different way.

On the 25th we visited the Prostheses Foundation. (The plane is taxiing.) Mainly we helped out with some of the tasks that needed to be done. We screwed parts, washed tools, scrubbed plaster-of-paris (CaCO3, calcium carbonate) off parts used to make molds. (We are safely in the air.) There was also the briefing and debriefing. As can be seen from the hastily-scribbled list on the page dated the 25th, I was asked to talk about how we raised our funds before we presented the donation to the foundation. We also heard from the foundation about their work and who they help.

ACE has a DVD of the S3 class that went to the foundation and other places, and I echo the sentiments that one of their students expressed when he was talking about his experience at the foundation. In Singapore, and in the small segment of society we inhabit, the idea of someone losing a limb (in Thailand’s case to land mines at the Burmese border), and then not being able to afford treatment, would never cross our minds.

At the end of the day, during the debrief, I talked about how these prostheses are a concrete example of something that improves ‘quality of life’. To someone who needs the limb, a prostheses opens up a world that was diminished through no choice or fault of his own. In my own experience in geog class in Y3 to Y4, whenever we talked about ‘quality of life’, it was a really fuzzy concept. When we talked about Singapore having a high standard of living, we would agree, and comparison tables of GDP and other statistics would serve to convince me, for as long as the moment that I bothered lasted. In my mind, however, I realized that I didn’t really care to understand, even if I suspected the facts and the connotations. It wasn’t suspicion about us really having a high standard of living or not (although the Government tells us this quite often, and the manner of presentation itself usually spikes paranoia). It was about what it was Not to live where I lived all my life. Even the numerous trips abroad weren’t sufficient to quell that suspicion, because those experiences were mostly controlled and limited to a comfortable level of familiarity. After this service session, this suspicion did not subside, but the question had at least been partially answered. Quality of life could mean a limb, and it could mean other things, but at least I’ve found one of the things I don’t live with, and had the chance to try to (and fail at) understand it.

We visited Le Refuge on the same day. We bought handicraft items and donated some money, but what I would remember most are the people there. We played games for a while, then the girls showed us around the house. Some were initially shy, but reservations were soon dispensed with. Some of my classmates built bridges really quickly. By dinner time, we were talking and joking like old friends. Jea, Sook and Doi (I hope I’ve spelled these right) from Le Refuge were at my table, with Fab, Daryl, Jia, Chaya and YJ. We learnt some games and ‘Seek Ye First’ in Thai, posed for the camera, and got poked. We flew fireworks (lanterns?) after dinner. I liked the design because it was really simple, but the effect they had was still quite awesome.

Maybe because we all knew we wouldn’t have very long, or maybe it was the light of the lanterns in the dark, or the mosquitos and crowding and smoke: but we were pretty hyper. Lots of screams, laughter and scurrying around in the dark. The farewells at the vans were long drawn-out. Photographs and such.

I’m generally impatient with the details after they’re over, but I’ve realized they add up and make the experience what it is. It’s about the people most of all, and it’s because of them I’ll remember so much more. It’s heartening to know that we’ve been a part of the Le Refuge girls’ experience, and we can hope it’ll be as memorable for them as it was for us.

On the third day, class .13 faced up to the anticipated (dreaded?) check-dam building. (Or, “Checking of dams.”) This was a different experience altogether.

Lunch, drinks and Refreshing Towels were available in abundance when we were idle, which wasn’t all that often. The villagers and officials never failed to expressed their appreciation.

But the labor was hard, though it wasn’t as torturous as we might have been led to expect. (I circumlocute.) We dug into the dry riverbed to unearth rocks, lifted and shifted buckets of small rocks and individual monsters, mixed cement, cut and aligned bamboo and twined fibers, sweat and sighed. Everyone played a part and put in effort wherever it was needed, and I emphasize: No exceptions.

There was some satisfaction at the end of the day on knowing that the dam we built would serve a lasting purpose, and we could actually see the result when we were done. Although we were slower than the other groups participating, at the end of it, it still felt like it was worth it.

In my usual schedule, there is no place for demanding physical labor. (‘Demanding’ could be relative even then.) In the village, the exertion is necessary and has an immediate effect. In a community like the one we had the opportunity to serve in, I can see how each individual’s efforts and contribution can be so significant, and how much value there is in united effort. To survive, teamwork is not merely a bonus. It’s necessary. Here’s a lesson we’ve heard many, many times over, and here’s a lesson I needed to learn again.

We returned to our hostel early, and after showering, I played a few games of cards.

Games of cards are more than time assassins. They’re opportunities to build Bridges and see sides of people you may not have seen before. For the guys in our school for the past years, playing card games has acquired significance. Andrew tends to speak in the third person. Yang Jian seems to take an inordinate amount of time to decide to play an Ace in a no-trump game. Enough of cards, though.

The fourth day was spent idling in malls. We’d visited the night bazaar the previous night, where I blew about 1k Baht, but (pun!) finished my shopping. I bought: a bag, a shirt, a salt-pepper shaker set, 2 pairs of slippers, on top of a bag I bought at Le Refuge.

The fifth day was back to work. The organization we visited was Freedom Wheelchairs. Donald Willcox from Freedom Wheelchairs shared with us about the people they help, all the way from the briefing room to the parking lot.

Something he emphasized early on was that everyone at the organization had faced difficulties with injuries or disabilities, including his wife Sunan, who had been afflicted with polio as a child. Almost all of the staff had a disability. All of the staff overcame those difficulties, and exceeded expectations of society. They, who were in need, give all they can in their work.

I was moved by Don’s words as he related the experiences of the staff, and what exactly the problems in the country were. We were fortunate to hear from a man who could profoundly empathize with the people of Thailand. Those who are disabled are ostracized and marginalized because others believe they have bad karma, and that they can no longer contribute meaningfully to society. Most of the population is not taught basic safety, and follow procedure, for example putting on a motorcycle helmet, only when it is enforced. ‘Medical’ personnel lack training.

All these things we often take for granted. Although oftentimes the citizens chafe at the conservative (sometimes insensitive or illogical at the lower levels) and top-down government, I’m grateful for the progress that has been made.

Chong Wee described the situation in Thailand thus: “The government doesn’t do anything to help the people who need it, and they and the rest of the people call it Karma.”

The sixth day was the English camp, for which we’d rehearsed for hours and for which the committee put a lot of thought into planning. My biggest takeaway was that I again saw how much I’ve been blessed. The head of English at PRC mentioned that 90% of the world’s knowledge is available only in English. Whether or not this statistic is accurate, I am thankful that English as a language comes effortlessly for me now, and it was natural even when I was younger because of my environment.

And this brings me back to today. We’ll be reaching home soon.

I’ve not done justice to all that’s been done the past week. Many details are lacking, though I included what I felt were relevant, or which seemed to matter, for no particular reason.

As we prepare for landing, I just need to thank God. He’s blessed my life and put me in a privileged position. ‘To whom much has been given, much more shall be required.’ Having experienced so many things and looking at society from a very different perspective, I’m beginning to understand what that could mean: I need to give. At Freedom Wheelchairs, after witnessing the willingness to give and the resilience of people like Mongkok (he’s a cool, smart guy. He learned almost everything he needed on his own, and designed everything he needs to use that enables him to overcome his disability), I again felt that strong urge to do more for others. I think how much and to what extent and in what way are questions I’ll still need to grapple with, and will probably need to for a (very) long time, but I think I’m settled on giving, and giving more.

Getting home will be a relief. I guess I’m quite tired. But at the same time I’m anticipating getting started again with both dread and excitement.

Excitement: My prayer’s been answered, though I won’t claim I had faith all the way. I think my quest for new wonder has succeeded, but it’s not a conclusion. Living life looking for new wonder might be exactly the cure for the despair, despondency and apathy that is the cancer of life.

This was saved shortly after WoW. Marginally edited from the saved text.

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