Our final days in Southeast Asia are upon us. Chiang Mai University (CMU) and the city of Chiang Mai have been our home away from home for most of the past month. But on Thursday, March 19, the SSU team leaves northern Thailand for a three day journey south, via the historic centres of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, to the frenetic capital city of Bangkok, home to some 10,000,000 people.
By contrast, Chiang Mai has a population of just 300,000. Sometimes referred to as Thailand’s second city, it stretches between mountain ranges across a wide plain in the northwest part of the country. Not far away are Burma and Laos. There is evidence of Chiang Mai’s medieval past in every direction. The “old city” is encircled by the remnants of a defensive wall and a still-intact system of moats. The Ping River flows through the city-centre. The other day a local friend told us that the Ping River is “very rich.” He went on to explain that it was because it had two banks! (an example of Chiang Mai humour.)
Chiang Mai is punctuated by food and craft markets, dominated by dozens of elegant Buddhist temples and “tuk-tuks” and “songthaews” serve as the main modes of public transport–the local taxis. The former is an extended motorcycle that sits 2 or 3 passengers; the latter a small open truck that can sit up to 10 people. The locals appear proud of their identity as Thais. They value the heritage of their exotic city. Close by are herds of Asian elephants, orchid farms and a bounty of tasty tropical fruits including mangoes, pineapple, coconuts, guava and papaya.
But through our classes at CMU and our fieldtrips we have learned that just under the surface, modern Thai society faces serious political and economic strains, issues that North Americans hear little about in the suppertime TV news. In conversation with local people we have discovered much about Thai society. There have been opportunities to talk with Buddhist monks, Thai students, local educators, members of the Christian community of Chiang Mai, and the students’ home-stay families. And no account of Thailand would be complete without mentioning the food. We have been savouring Thai cuisine — duck, catfish, squid, prawn, noodle soups and curries and much more.
Early on in our time here, we discovered the Thai greeting — the “wai.” This is a prayer-like gesture made by a gentle bow of the head and the raising of the hands to the top of one’s chest with fingertips placed under the chin. It serves as a near universal Thai greeting. The “wai” can mean “hello,” “goodbye,” or it can be a sign of respect or gratitude. A traditional Western hand-shake is rare. We have not only learned to practice the Thai greeting, we are also learning to speak the Thai language at CMU. Distinct from the other tongues in Southeast Asia, the Thai language is tonal, with five different tones used — low, middle, high, falling and rising, so that the meaning of a single word can be altered in five different ways. Many in our group are now able to make themselves understood when ordering a meal or when talking to merchants at local markets.
And now as we near our journey’s end, we have much to be thankful for. May there be good endings and good beginnings. Additional prayer requests include:
— God’s provision of safety and good health day by day for each of our students as we prepare to depart for Bangkok and onward to many hours of air travel back to Canada;
— Continued unity within the group as we prepare for the final week of this learning adventure;
— Energy, diligence and inspiration as students work on their final academic assignments;
— And most of all, may we ponder our many experiences in Southeast Asia with discernment inspired by the Holy Three — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
(Gregg Finley for the leaders’ team)