The Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej

This year has been a rough year in terms of losing beloved icons. 

Think of the celebrities who passed away this year. Now concentrate on the one you loved and will miss the most.

Remember how you felt in the moment you learned he/she died. Remember both the personal feeling of loss, as well as the intellectual grief that saw the vacuum they left.

Now imagine that you were raised from the time you could speak to say that person’s name with reverence. Imagine that from the time you first packed your vinyl Mario Bros or Disney Princess backpack and headed off to school, you were taught that this person was akin to a parent. In fact, this person was greater than a parent. A parent is a mere human, but this person is like a god—benevolent and dedicated to your well-being. You have never bought or sold anything with handling images of this person. Every week at school, you sing a song written by and dedicated to that person, and rise for that same song before every movie you watch in theatres. Imagine that this person is the very fabric of your society, the very definition of your culture, and the very center of your nation’s stability and order.

This is the connection most Thais feel towards the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

It took me some time to appreciate and sympathize with this depth of feeling. The disconnect I felt with Thai grief was due in part to the fact that I’ve never felt a great loss at the passing of any famous stranger. Moreover, I had allowed myself to read the unofficial history of his life—which includes the forbidden criticisms of his legacy. It’s hard to appreciate a man’s accomplishments when you learn of his secret frustrations.

I first learned of the king’s passing while on a short return visit to the U.S. I remember being unsurprised, as there were prior reports of failing health, but still gasping at the implications. In my mind, it felt like Yeats’s “Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The political implications of Thailand’s stabilizing father passing on were not lost on me.

Where I was taken aback was in Thailand’s extreme response. Thailand’s response to tragedy is always a bit less than measured. And from my understanding from abroad, it seemed Thailand was overreacting. Bars were closed, costing people like my girlfriend precious income. Celebration of any kind was forbidden; so public music was unofficially banned. The people, Thais and foreigners alike, were urged not to wear bright colors. Anyone criticizing the king was violently dragged to their knees before his portrait and coerced into apologies and respect.

 I scoffed. I raged.

Then I flew back.

As I flew, I pondered the king’s impact on the lives of his subjects. I pondered their abject loyalty and devotion. Suddenly I started to understand.

To help me make that leap to empathize with Thai people who would insist that the world stop rotating for a year just so that they can process their grief, I thought of a world leader that I greatly revere: President Obama. 

Before you scoff, let me justify my choice. Overall, I am proud of his accomplishments as president. He doesn’t represent the radical shift to the left that my fellow progressives had hoped for, but he possesses, at the very least, an intellectual poise and personal charisma that strong leaders are made of. In many ways, he’s analogous to the late king in that very fact—he has a cult of personality that numbs many valid criticisms. Intellectually, I’m unsatisfied with his presidency, but emotionally, I just fucking love the guy. Some would point out the blood on his hands. I’m quick to wave it away and ask what world leader doesn’t have blood on his hands. I’m quick to wave it away and ask what world leader doesn’t have blood on his hands. Had Obama died tragically (but not assassinated—that’s quite a different scenario), I’m sure the grief and loss I’d feel would be akin to what Thais feel now.

When I returned, there was a noticeably different atmosphere in Thailand. It was quiet. The nights were darker. A great majority of people carried on with their lives, but more calmly and wearing black. And it all seemed…appropriate. After all, their father, their demi-god, their second Buddha, their caretaker, their center, their leader, their light, their constant, and, most crucially, their hope: these had all left them in the passing of one figure.

Mourning the king isn’t just about mourning a celebrity. It isn’t about mourning a political figure, either. And it isn’t simply about mourning a beloved father. Thailand now mourns the loss of perhaps its greatest stabilizing force during the 20th century, the one constant through seven decades of military coupes and constant constitutional reconstruction. The king modernized his country and prioritized sustainable development before it was ever a buzzword. He believed that his reign represented the truest form of democracy, elevated above any parliament or senate, because he was the greatest power of Thailand with an ear bent toward the will of his subjects. His seemingly endless royal projects testify to his responsiveness to Thailand’s multifarious needs. 

In effect, Thailand mourns the death of a benevolent god, the essence of their national identity.

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A Tale of Two Cities, Part 2

The following is a continuation of my lengthy comparison of Chiang Mai and Pattaya. Newcomers, see Part 1.

 

7-Elevens versus Temples

Once upon a time, Chiang Mai and Pattaya met together for a few drinks. After getting will lubricated with liquor, Chiang Mai lost a bit of her usual class and accused Pattaya of being a bit slut. She added, “I mean, you don’t even have but—what?—four temples? I’ve got hundreds of temples. So there!”

Pattaya replied, “Yeah, well for every temple you’ve got, I’ve got a 7-Eleven, a Family Mart, and a Tesco Express!”

“Impossible!” said Chiang Mai. “I’ve got hundreds of temples—more than anyone could possibly visit in a year. If a person were to feel truly pious, they could literally visit a different one every week!”

“Well,” retorted Pattaya, “At least none of my residents need to go more than fifty meters to buy a pack of smokes, a bottle of Chang, and a condom!”

“You are a slut!”

“And you’re a prude, holier-than-thou bitch!”

Pattaya grabbed Chiang Mai’s hair and shit got real.

They haven’t spoken to each other since.

thailand-chiang-mai-rachadamnoen-road-7-eleven-13-09-2011

In summary, whereas in Pattaya 7-Eleven puts Starbucks to shame with their proliferation, in Chiang Mai they’re quite a bit rarer. In fact, you might just pass 30 temples before you arrive at the nearest 7-Eleven. And if you don’t feel like doing that, try the neighbor. She’s converted the front half of her ground-level apartment into a little, humble convenience store.

 

Central Festival

As one might expect in a city entirely centered around its nightlife, daytime boredom is a real struggle in Pattaya. As a result, many residents become quite familiar with the seven-and-a-half level shopping mall known as Central Festival.

There you have a whole array of international clothing stores—the kinds of places that make their clothing in sweat shops in the neighboring countries for pennies a day, then ship them to Hong Kong, then import them into Thailand with duty taxes.

But if you’re not into buying a dress or a pair of jeans at three times the price of what you’d find in the local markets (but at twice the quality, it must be said), you can eat at one of the dozens of overpriced Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and American chain restaurants. Most people go there for SF Cinema City, which is arguably the best cinema in town.

However, the real attraction is the many retirees walking hand-in-hand with their granddaughters’ Thai peers. Ogle the beautiful, tanned, skinny Thai girls, then look at their senile boyfriend and lose the sushi you downed only moments earlier.

Central Festival isn’t unique to Pattaya. It’s sort of like Westfield shopping malls (for you SoCal residents). And so there’s one in Chiang Mai, too. It’s older and smaller, but it still features the same international chain stores and restaurants, and it still has a state-of-the-art cinema on the top floor.

The one palpable distinction between Central Festival Pattaya and Central Festival Chiang Mai is the demographic. In Chiang Mai, malls feel like malls in America: hundreds of teenagers wandering its floors aimlessly in the rare escape from home and school that it affords them. There aren’t addled pensioners twitching in the arms of their juvenile partners. Only innocent mallrats killing time and not finishing the homework assignment I gave them two weeks ago.

 

Traffic

Sorry, Chiang Mai residents, but I scoff at your complaints about traffic and the driving habits of people in Chiang Mai. Pattaya is far worse, with hundreds of drunk tourists who think they can manage a motorcycle even though they’ve never driven one before, thousands of impatient migrants from rural areas who haven’t adapted their driving habits to urban traffic, and probably millions of coach buses caterpillaring down every street and soi to show their Chinese riders the not-so-interesting part of Thailand.

Trust me: Chiang Mai is civilized compared to Pattaya.

 

Cafes/Beer bars

You really can’t drive anywhere in Pattaya without passing a pinkly lit open-air beer bar stacked with ladies who couldn’t get a job at the gogo bars. You can’t walk any of Pattaya’s broken sidewalks without hearing “Welcoooooooome!” or a deep-voiced “Sawadee ka!”

You really can’t drive anywhere in Chiang Mai without passing a cutely decorated café that serves subpar coffee and features overpriced Thai food and half-assed Western food.

However, the cafes do find ways to distinguish themselves, and every now and then I find one worth visiting routinely. That’s a lot more than I can say of the beer bars in Pattaya.

 

Friendliness of Locals

Probably the most useful generalization about these two cities goes like this: while Chiang Mai is everyone’s city, Pattaya is nobody’s.

And here’s what I mean by that:

Nobody is really from Pattaya. It’s a city full of people who have migrated there seeking the rich opportunities that sex tourism offers to people who are poorly educated. As a result, nobody really feels responsible for the city. Nobody seems to regard themselves as the city’s caretakers or stewards. And so it sags in near dilapidation. At the same time, visitors receive only a superficial welcome. There’s no pride in Pattaya, so why wash your greetings an enthusiasm for its culture?

Meanwhile, many Thais living in Chiang Mai are from Chiang Mai. They’ll be the first to brag that theirs is the best city in Thailand. And because they’re proud, they warmly welcome visitors. They usually want people to experience that special feeling that most visitors get when they come here. Chiang Mai has a character that usually stamps fondness in people’s hearts, and engraves itself strongly in their memories.

 

Food

It’s not that Pattaya has bad food, nor is it that Chiang Mai necessarily has the best food in Thailand. It’s just easier to find what you want in Chiang Mai. Moreover, because Pattaya is nobody’s home, restaurants often close during holidays because their owners go back to their little villages hundreds of kilometers away.

Here’s another way to look at it. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a turkey dinner in Thailand. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a Cubano sandwich in Thailand. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a proper burrito in Thailand. And until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had to scour the streets looking for decent Massaman or Panang curry.

The only downside to Chiang Mai’s food scene is that it can make a fella go broke real fast.  Finding those cheap Thai restaurants for locals only has proven to be difficult since my arrival here. But time should remedy that.

Oh, and seafood…I miss fresh seafood.

Chapter 2: A Tale of Two Cities

What crawls out of a slimy slum into the cultural mecca of Northern Thailand? Well, me, as it happens. If you’ve followed my adventures closely, you’d know that my experience in Thailand, though marked with marvels at many turns, has reeked of the ripe ribaldry of my fossil fellows. The giant brothel that is Pattaya is now my past, and I have finally arrived and settled in one of Thailand’s most charming cities—Chiang Mai.

Now that I’ve taken some time off from writing and immersed myself in this new life, I’m ready to continue reporting my experiences to anyone who’ll suffer through my amateur prose. However, I think for this new chapter, I’ll skip the Lonely-Planet-esque overview of Chiang Mai. That’s been done to death. Moreover, I sense that my readership will start to include fellow residents of Chiang Mai, so I don’t think I’ll bore them with descriptions they already know.

Instead, I thought I’d do a contrast, albeit an unfair one. It’s a bit like comparing the bastards in “Game of Thrones”: totally obvious but fun nonetheless. By the time I finished it, I had written 2700+ words, and since the internet seems to think that’s too many for you to read, I broke it into three smaller pieces. The following is part 1.

 

Walking Streets

walking_street_pattaya

On a semi-regular basis, I used to haunt the inglorious neon lights that washed the throng of curious pleasure-seekers in a hellish hue of reddish pink. I used to walk the gauntlet of gogo bar hostesses and street advertisers shouting their rudimentary welcomes and enticements, shoving their laminated menus of ping pong shows and short-time sex in my face as I dodged drunken tourists gazing everywhere but directly in front of them. I used to go there simply because that was where my girlfriend and her friends liked to go to let off steam, and where the best clubs in Pattaya could be found.

It was Walking Street—the most famous street in Sextown. Though it was a mess of every shade of prostitution, it was also a place where adults could have fun and drink the sun into rising.

Chiang Mai’s Walking Street is a different place. Every Sunday around 4 pm, Ratchadamnoen Road closes to Sunday Walking Street Chiang Mai, Thailandvehicles, and creates a 1.5-km stretch of shops and food stalls. When you enter Sunday Night Walking Street from Tha Phae Gate on the east side of the moat, you can stare down the makeshift market until it disappears into a haze of forever. One is hard pressed to visit every shop in every nook, cranny, and alley. Even the numerous temples along that run open their grounds to vendors. Street performers and small bands huddle in the center of the street-come-walkway and fill the market with an assortment of sounds ranging from traditional Thai music to bluesy folk rock. My favorite is a band comprised of all blind men singing original, Beatlesque compositions in both Thai and English.

And whereas most touristy locales feature twenty shops with the same twenty trinkets, Sunday Night Walking Street features vendors plying truly unique, often handcrafted items: purses made of hemp, leather patchwork vests and bags, screen-printed t-shirts designed by the vendor herself, and more. It’s an artisan’s community with items you seldom want to pass up because you may never see them anywhere else.

The difference between these Walking Streets is stark: while one exploits human sexuality and debauchery, the other celebrates human creativity.

 

Loi Kroh is Mini Pattaya

Stemming from the southbound road that borders the eastern moat is Loi Kroh, a one-way street that connects the moat to the famous Night Bazaar. The first time I drove down this road, things felt simultaneously strange and familiar. There were many open-air bars with girls dressed in short, tight dresses standing on the sidewalk watching hopefully as I passed them by. There was also a complex of cubical-sized bars each with its own pool table, with even more Thai woman looking bored as they sat at tables in front of each one. There was even a few gogo bars and massage parlors with girls wearing the not-so-typical masseuse attire.

I had stumbled upon the one pseudo red light district in Chiang Mai, and my first thought was That’s weird. The gravity of that thought and everything it implied suddenly hit me. I had left a city where all of this was normal. And I was now in a city where it was zoned in and isolated, so as not to smear the rest of the city’s reputation.

 

Party till Tomorrow

It all depends on how you define “tomorrow.” If you mean that you want to party until the sun comes up, go to Pattaya. If you’re content with calling it quits when the clock strikes midnight, marking the technical beginning of the next calendar day, then stay in Chiang Mai.

Despite nationwide laws to close at 2am, many clubs in Pattaya don’t start chasing out their clientele until the first dim rays of sunrise hit their doors. In puritanical Chiang Mai, however, bars must close at midnight, and only a few rebels remain secretly open through the infant hours of the morning.

Happy Birthday to ME!

November 2015.

Despite my beard and stubborn little gut, there’s still an 8-year-old boy inside me that once a year wants to jump on the nearest table, put on a paper-coned hat, and shout, “It’s my birthday! What’d you get me?”

But my learned social composure and 32-year-old crow’s feet always keep me from making a scene. Luckily for the little despondent birthday boy inside, however, Thai people have cultivated a more subtle way to get attention.

“Anyone want pizza for lunch?” I blurted in the teacher’s lounge moments before morning assembly. A ripple of excitement flittered across the faces of a few of my fellows. B-r-r-r-r-ring! There was the bell that regulated the lives of student and teacher alike.

As the students lined up outside sucking in the moistening morning air, I gazed around in wonderment at how unremarkable the day would be. The sun wasn’t any brighter or dimmer. The students weren’t any more or less chipper. The sky was the same shade of pale blue with the same brownish overlays of pollution wafting here and there.

Thump! Thump! Thump! The bass drum counted in the national anthem. The flag-pulley’s irregular squeaks struck a dissonant harmony with the patriotic chimes of the xylophone no differently than any other morning. The tatters of the flag sighed apathetically in the light morning breeze.

On my last birthday, I had only been living in Thailand for a couple months, so it was the usual celebration—out to a bar for the night with any old acquaintance who could make it. The difference was that my acquaintances were new, not old, and there was actually cake. The Thais aren’t shy about carrying a cake into a bar and asking the service staff to help with cutting and plating. In a way, last year’s birthday was an official welcome to the Land of Smiles—a welcome to a foreigner using universal elements of birthday partying.

This year, my birthday landed in the middle of the workweek. That meant that I had to teach classes and get on with life as if nothing special was going on. It also meant I wasn’t going out partying that night or doing anything extravagant.

It’s only fitting, I told myself. Thirty-two is an unremarkable age. Tuesday is an unremarkable day of the week. Why should anyone make a fuss? I certainly wasn’t going to. Propriety had long taught me not to make a fuss, even on my birthday. However, honesty reminded me that I craved the attention.

So I went about it the Thai way. I ordered two large pizzas from my favorite pizza place. As the lunch hour neared its closing, my treat had finally arrived.

I carried the two giant boxes proudly through the canteen, feeling the heat of the students’ glares almost as viscerally as from the bottom of the pizza. As I crossed paths with students stumbling about as they’re wont to do during free periods, I had to stifle my laughter at how stunned and confused they were when they eyed my lunch. I became aware of a slowly rising mob of zombies salivating for the spoils of ambush. Don’t look back, I told myself.

I entered the teacher’s room, the beam of my smile lighting my way. “Oh, Lord,” uttered one British teacher.

The aromas of freshly baked dough and tomato sauce comingled and filled the room, betraying to all within nose-shot what repast we teachers were enjoying. I opened the box and felt a burst of steam flow through my face. My colleagues stood nearby, perplexed at what to do next. “Help yourselves,” I said.

They reached in and tried to manage the greasy cheesiness without the aid of plate, napkin, or fork. Eventually I brought A4 paper in from my classroom to serve as impromptu plates. And we all ate in satisfied silence. Compliments were given to the pizza restaurant, inspiring recommendations and a rough description of its location.

But in ten short minutes the tyrannical bell rang, and I left two largely uneaten pizzas on my desk in the staff room and proceeded to my next class. On my brief shuffle from staff room to classroom, rumors of “pizza” were being whispered among the students. They gazed at me with curiosity and supplication. A change was gradually infecting the students—some primal parasite prodding their mouths to water and their gait to limp. Pizzaaaa.

I finished my class without episode and reentered the staffroom. My pizza still sat there cooling. I grabbed another piece and chewed while contemplating the acute angles that marked it’s missing pieces. How in the hell was I going to finish this thing? No way was I bringing it home! I’ve become my mother—overzealous in preparation. It didn’t help that the other teachers had already eaten during the lunch hour, before the pizza arrived.

Then it occurred to me—I was in a building full of teenagers, whose appetites miraculously never wane even in spite of gluttonous gorging. I went back to my classroom and announced to the four girls milling about, “If you want a piece of pizza you may help yourselves.”

Beams of light shot from their eyes. “Really?”

“Yes, but keep it amongst yourselves. It’s a secret. I don’t have enough to go around.”

They each grabbed a slice and began chomping down on it. Immediately I realized I had made several mistakes. First, they were already late to class, and I was rewarding their tardiness with pizza. Second, there were teachers on other floors who should have had first dibs. Third, there has never been a time in human history when a teenager has been able to keep pizza a secret. Within minutes, other students were creeping out of their classrooms asking for pizza. I had to tell each student that other teachers needed to have a slice, but when the teachers have finished they could have the leftovers. That promise, however empty, was enough to keep the zombies at bay for another hour.

At afternoon break, I began visiting all the other classrooms. “I have pizza in the staffroom for all teachers, if you want a slice.” The Filipino teachers knew immediately what was up: “Oh, it’s your birthday today?”

One by one, teachers stepped into the staff room to claim their slice. Being walled with windows on all sides, the staffroom was fully visible from outside. Thus, students gathered around the windows peering in, drooling over promised pizza, groaning whenever another teacher entered the staffroom.

I entered the staffroom after making my rounds, passing a panting, murmuring mob of hungry students on my way inside. “Teacher, now?” they inquired.

“Let me make sure every teacher’s had some.”

“OOOOOOHHHH!”

I examined the pizza when I entered. There were 4 slices left, and I had taken a request to bring one up to the head teacher. I grabbed a slice and looked up. Fog waxed and waned on the windows of the staffroom as students smeared themselves against the glass. I couldn’t possibly pass the famished throng unscathed. I darted left where there were fewer of them, and dashed to the nearest staircase. I glanced over my shoulder—they had begun limping my way. I had only speed and wits as my advantage over them.

After delivering the pizza to my boss, I cautiously crept downstairs. They students were still smudged against the windows salivating. I ducked quickly into the staffroom–the only safe haven from the ravenous teenage mob. The pizza had been wholly consumed, with only a mound of cheese and toppings in the middle of each box. I brought the boxes into my classroom, with the undead in tow. “Eat your hearts out,” I said.

Their eyes narrowed. They licked their lips. They stared gluttonously at the boxes. After a momentary pause, they attacked the boxes. Seeing its contents, they slowly looked up from their scavenged scraps as if to say, “That’s it?” But they simultaneously shrugged and tore up chunks of cheese and toppings and devoured them. And like a gust of wind, they were gone.

Only an hour later, when the final bell had rung, did some of the students appear to me, looking human again, and wished me a happy birthday.

Anti-Trafficking and Child Abuse Center (ATCC)

On a very special day—my girlfriend’s birthday—we loaded up her friend’s car with over 30 kg of rice, 12 bottles of cooking oil, 12 bottles of fish sauce, and bulk amounts of laundry detergent, bathroom cleaner, and dish soap. We were headed to donate it to the Anti-Trafficking and Child Abuse Center (ATCC) in Pattaya.

Although the center is about a 30-minute drive outside Pattaya, it took us over an hour to get there. Before we arrived, I didn’t know the name of the place in English. As far as I knew, it was an orphanage like any other. I was led to understand that it had something to do with rescuing children from abusive situations. But that was the extent of it. So as we meandered down side streets, under overpasses, ventured into more rural-looking landscapes, wrestled with Google Maps’s completely useless directions, phoned three different people, and pulled about fifty different U-turns, I couldn’t help wondering why an orphanage would be so hard to find.

The answer became clear when we arrived. Once I understood that most of the 30 children living there were rescued from trafficking, I knew that this place needed to be difficult to reach. All sorts of scary characters—from dangerous mafia bosses to creepy Western pedophiles—could be looking for these kids, some of them even by name. The center not only harbors abused children, but plays a key role in informing and aiding police in arresting the men that would hurt them, as well as the legal proceedings that lead to the child’s deliverance and protection and the criminals’ prosecution.

IMG_3828

But the primary emotion I felt when we drove through the entrance with its quaint, painted wooden sign wasn’t fear or anger. It was relief, enthusiasm, and tear-jerking joy.

IMG_3823Human trafficking has been my pet issue since it became personal—my girlfriend was kidnapped and nearly trafficked a couple years ago in Malaysia. Even in her case, where nothing sexual happened to her and she was inexplicably freed, she feels shame, fear, and a trauma with which few can ever empathize. So although I’ve always found human trafficking to be a deeply disturbing issue that defies what one would assume to be our basic moral code, it has become real to me in a way I never imagined.

But in my passion for fighting the atrocity of trafficking people, I haven’t seen the face of its noble adversaries. I’ve been to websites like NotForSale.org. I’ve called the Human Trafficking hotline to find out what avenues victims have for rehabilitation and therapy. I’ve watched documentaries and read articles about the things people are trying to do to combat the issue. But the ATCC is the first encounter I’ve had with people who are actually in the trenches. And that’s why it was so moving for me.

At the bottom of this article is a link to the ATCC’s website. Unfortunately they seem only to accept IMG_3835donations of either $100 or $1000. I’m looking into liaising between them and my friends and family (and potentially other donors). But until I’ve worked out a system for doing this without putting myself or the ATCC at risk of charity fraud, this is your only avenue to help. Hopefully I’ll have something feasible set up soon, at which point I’ll post a follow up with the appropriate information.

Now enough of my own explanations. On their property they have a lot of posters explaining their mission and methods, two of which I’ve rewritten in better English:

“Thailand is one of many famous and popular countries around the world for its tourism industry. Many provinces in Eastern Thailand feature many beautiful beaches and islands. There are many tourists coming to visit this part of Thailand. At the same time, when tourism business booms, these areas are also full of local Thais and people from neighboring countries, who migrate from other parts of Thailand to seek jobs. Pattaya is particularly advanced with its high promotion of tourism, with a large number of entertainment places and activities for both Thai and foreign tourists, and often feature facilities with more advanced communication technology. The economic growth develops so fast in this area, and within specific groups, that other areas and groups cannot compete. These gaps are continuously widening. All sorts of people come to Pattaya to make money, seeking various opportunities—some good and legal, others bad and illegal. Many types of crimes are mushrooming, such as exploitation, fraud, cheating, and luring. The most vulnerable group for being exploited and victimized are the weak and the children. This phenomenon happens in Pattaya as well as in other areas around Pattaya (Region 2 under Thailand’s administratively divided regions under the Thai justice system).

Apart from genuine tourists, this growing concentration of tourism brings in many perpetrators, either living temporarily or permanently in Pattaya. Such people include gangs, pedophiles, child abusers, and other child trafficking rings. Some of these perpetrators are individuals with warrants for arrest, either in Thailand or in their home countries, while others belong to organized crime.

The ATCC has been established in Pattaya in order to deal with the problems of human trafficking as well as child sexual abuse. The Director of the ATCC and his team have been working in Pattaya on child protection, child trafficking, and related for more than 15 years, under different names and umbrellas. The main target group is the vulnerable street kids and children at risk of any forms of exploitation and abuse. Until around the end of 2011, this newly established center has become a part of FACE Foundation, whose objectives, activities, and strategies are similar.

The ATCC aims at providing assistance to victimized children of sexual abuse and those who are victims of trafficking—for example, children for are forced to beg, children in prostitution, and children being coerced or lured into being used sexually by foreigners (the traffickers get more pay from foreigners than from locals).

The main activities, therefore, are two-fold:

  1. Monitoring cases of child sexual abuse in the prosecution process with a concentration on helping the victimized children both in social and legal aspects.
  2. Provide assistance and help for these victimized children and children of other kinds of vulnerability in order to help them develop with life-skill learning and training in our ATCC center. In so doing, these children can remain in the safety and justice of our protection, as well as grow up with qualitative life-skill development, and thus happily reintegrate into their own family, or into normal society. The activities under this project are called ‘Child Protection and Development Life-skill Center’ (CPLC).

Working on these issues, we normally cooperate and coordinate with the government officials—particularly social workers, medical personnel, the police, and prosecutors.

Beyond case work, we also advocate with concerned authorizes at all policy levels—local (Pattaya City), provincial (Chonburi), and national (Thailand). This advocacy work aims to push for changes and improvement of the laws to build and augment legal and social mechanisms and services for the protection and justice the vulnerable target groups.”

You can read about their objectives and methodology in the photos below.

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Methodology

http://www.atcc.or.th/

Thai-Chinese Temple

Hidden down a narrow, curved side street in northern Naklua, behind a neighborhood of collapsing old, dark wooden homes that harken to the pre-modern days of Bangkok, lies a Thai-Chinese merit-making temple. As I have often accompanied my girlfriend on visits to this temple, I’ve become quite familiar with the rituals involved with going there. Add to that the Chinese artistic trappings that sharply distinguish it from a typical Thai temple, and this place becomes a precious gem in my mind.

It’s not very rare that Chinese culture sits so obscurely among the Thais. A small glance at the ancient history of Thailand informs one that the original Tais were a group that migrated from China. On top of that initial migration, Thailand has had a long history of Chinese immigration. Many Thais can trace in their ancestry a Chinese grandmother or great grandfather. And though Thailand’s attitudes towards Chinese immigrants oscillates between hatred on a level of Nazism (seriously, the Chinese were called “the Jew of Thailand” during that era), and passive tolerance, Chinese culture has always maintained a strongly noticeable influence on Thai culture.

The relationship between Thai and Chinese culture and history is important if one is to understand the rituals of a Thai-Chinese temple. For although the imagery found therein are unequivocally Chinese in nature, the beliefs and customs that revolve around them are suspiciously Thai. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to give you a tour of these images and rituals, and do my best to give a rough summary of their histories and significance. Keep in mind, I’m not expert, but a mere tourist trying to be a journalist.

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Making Merit

The entire purpose of this temple is making merit. Chanted prayers do not occur here. In fact, in the three visits I’ve made, I’ve not once seen a monk. Outside the temple is what I’m fairly certain is a morgue. Parked outside the morgue are many ambulances. Thus, the service that this temple offers to its community is to give the unclaimed deceased a proper dressing and burial. For example, if a man without any living or contactable relatives is killed in a motorbike accident, after some time has passed for relatives or affiliates to come forward to claim the body, he is brought to this temple.

Of course, this admirable service costs money. Luckily, Buddhism has within its core tenets the practice of making merit, which is the accumulation of good deeds and thoughts. Making merit contributes to one’s growth towards spiritual liberation. So when we enter the temple, we’ll donate money. And through such means, their services are rendered.

The counter where we make our donation. The materials for prayer are directly to the right of the counter.
The counter where we make our donation. The materials for prayer are directly to the right of the counter.

After we pay, we’re given a receipt and instructions for prayer. Then we collect the materials of ritual after paying another small donation. These materials include a bottle of oil, a box of candles, and a package of incense.

If it’s not a bad year for our zodiac animal, then we can bypass the shrine downstairs, pictured here, and head upstairs.
If it’s not a bad year for our zodiac animal, then we can bypass the shrine downstairs, pictured here, and head upstairs.

The First Altar

IMG_3736The second floor is mostly a rooftop terrace, except for the shrine to the Buddha. Our first stop is the altar to all Buddhist deities. This simple stone altar, pictured left, features no image of any bodhisattva or Buddha. Here, we light three incense sticks in the lantern, and pray.

It’s unclear to me what exactly prayer is to a Thai Buddhist at a Chinese temple. It seems that devotees pray for just about anything that, say, a Christian would pray for: health, safety, and prosperity for one’s self, one’s family, one’s friends, and one’s community. However, more progressive, or, shall I say, more agnostic, adherents view “prayer” as meditation on the precepts that the Chinese deities represent.

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The lantern where incense is lit and receipts are burned. Burned receipts go into the metal structure to the left.

In either case, we pray with the aroma of incense soothing our nostrils. Then we place the incense in the urn upon the altar.

Next, we burn the receipt verifying our donation. One must not become attached to the monetary value of our devotion.

Then, we pour oil into the lamp—a symbol of filling our future with fuel for prosperity, goodness, and spiritual serenity.

 

The Shrine of Buddha

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Behind the altar is a roofed shrine to Buddha. Inside are a myriad of Buddha images behind glass. This is where the bulk of our prayers take place. We first light the candles in the lantern and place them among the other candles left by other practitioners.

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IMG_3746Then we light 17 incense sticks—three for each of the five urns before the images of the Buddha, and one in each urn on either side of the shrine entrance. We pray. Then we place them where they belong. Finally, we pour oil into the lantern.

Other rituals take place in the shrine. When clerics are present, there are multifarious acts of merit or meditation. The only one I’ve partaken in, which doesn’t require a monk’s assistance or guidance, is a lighthearted sort of lottery. One grabs an emptied bamboo shoot filled with wooden dowels, each with a number on the end inside the shoot. One shakes the bamboo container in an up-and-down motion until one of the dowels frees itself, protruding outward from the rest. This number coincides with one of many pieces of paper that detail a fortune, quite akin to a horoscope. If the fortune describes something lucky, it is kept, and will apply to that month. If it is an unfortunate fortune, it is left at the temple and thereby nullified. It’s important to note here that the Thais see this activity as entirely fun and don’t often take the fortunes to heart.

Visiting the Bodhisattvas

Instead of annoying my fellow “visitor” (reader) with the repetition of the same exact ritual as it occurs at the other four shrines, I’ll here describe it once. Then I’ll give a quick introduction to each deity.

The routine should be familiar by now: light three incense in the bodhisattva’s lantern, pray, place the incense in the bodhisattva’s urn, and then pour oil into the lantern. If a devotee has a special request from that bodhisattva, they may leave a donation in the bodhisattva’s donation box. There’s no illusion about where this donation goes. The deity doesn’t magically collect the money. Instead, the temple clerics collect it and apply it to the maintenance of the temple.

Kuan Yin

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We’ll first visit Kuan Yin. Although Kaun Yin was originally portrayed as a man, now she takes on a female form. There are various legends about her, so I won’t get into them here. She’s called the Goddess of Mercy, and is revered as an Immortal. Her full name means “Observing the Sounds of the World,” and was given to her because of a legend that her head was split into thousands of pieces, and restored as eleven heads, enabling her to have a better purview of the sufferings of the world. This, plus multiple arms created from a similar cause, gives her the unique gift of being able to reach out to the needy in all directions. As you can probably surmise, she represents the embodiment of compassion and kindness. She’s also believed to be the protectorate of women and children, and viewed as the Goddess of Fertility.

Guan Yu

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Next to Kuan Yin is Guan Yu. Guan Yu was a Chinese general serving under warlord Liu Bei in the late Eastern Han dynasty. He’s one of the best-known Chinese historical figures, and as a result much lore has arisen about him. He was deified in the Sui dynasty and is still worshipped today by many Chinese people. He’s an important figure in Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism. As for the latter, he is said to protect the Buddhist dharma—that is, the teachings of Buddha—as well as the monastery and the faith itself. The stories goes that he appeared one night before the Zen master Zhiyi and asked him to teach him about the dharma. After receiving his instruction and devoting himself to the dharma, Guan Yu vowed to be the guardian of temples and the dharma.

Pu-Tai

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Commonly known as the Laughing Buddha, this bodhisattva should be the most familiar. Many people confuse him with the Buddha (as in Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism), but he is not one and the same. He’s based on an eccentric Chinese Zen monk who lived over 1,000 years ago. Because of the monk’s benevolent nature, many people regarded him as an incarnation of the bodhisattva who will be the “Future Buddha.” In China, he is known as the Loving or Friendly One. He has become the deity of contentment abundance. Many people believe that he can bring them financial success. Rubbing his belly is also seen as good luck, bringing wealth, good fortune, and prosperity. Hence his image in many businesses.

 Laozi

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Our last stop before we finish our prayers will be Laozi. It took me quite a bit of work digging up information on this one, as he goes by many different names depending on the culture. He definitely plays a major role in Taoism—the philosophical founder, credited with writing Tao Te Ching, and even revered as one of the highest deities in Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. As Buddhism draws from Taoism, it’s no surprise that he would be an important figure for both. Moreover, some stories hold that Siddhartha Gautama actually studied under him. Laozi is also said to have taught Confucius as well. As you can guess, this would make Laozi a very important figure for Chinese philosophy, pervading many permutations of Chinese thought. Buddhists also believe that Laozi aids Guan Yu in protecting the temple, so the two sit across from each other oftentimes, as is the case at our particular temple.

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And that’s it. After we visit Laozi—the sixth and final altar, we descend the stairs and exit the temple, having made our merit for the day. One last thing to mention is that not all Thai-Chinese temples feature the same images, deities, rituals, or even purpose. What I’ve shown you applies this temple only. You’ll have to discover the others for yourself.

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Notes:

  • As I am no expert in this subject, please forgive me if anything I’ve mentioned is wrong, misleading, or incomplete. If you have a better knowledge and wish to correct or augment my information, please feel free to do so in the comments.
  • I can cite a few of my sources, beyond what I’ve been told about Buddhism by either university professors or my girlfriend. For information on the bodhisattvas, I cross checked Wikipedia articles with religionfacts.com. For a better understanding of the relationship between Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, I consulted the following article: http://www.demystifyingconfucianism.info/confucius-laozi-Daoism-and-Buddhism.
  • Interestingly, the Thai name for Laozi, though difficult to Romanize, yielded search results that were dominated by articles of his deified title in Taoism. So it seems Thais regard him as more than just an important philosophical figure, but as a god.