It's crazy to think that I'm entering the final stretch of my time in Thailand. After several months of adventure and exploration, there are only 4 and a half weeks left of school. There's one big journey between me and finals: a trip to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. I'm very excited for this journey, and history should be a big part of the experience.
Myanmar's two names speak to the nation's diverse heritage: over 100 different peoples live in the country. The largest group, the Bamar, gives the country one of its names. Myanmar has been populated for thousands of years, and a number of empires called the region home. The Burmese were once a dangerous force in Southeast Asia, and they destroyed one of Thailand's great kingdoms, Ayutthaya, several hundred years ago. In 1824, the British conquered and colonized the region. For the next 120 years, they ruled over Myanmar, despite the sometimes violent protests of local people. In 1948, after the horrors of World War II, Burma gained its independence.
However, less than fifteen years later, the Burmese military staged a coup. For the next fifty years, democracy was virtually dead in Burma: generals ruled over all aspects of the society, and the country became one of the poorest in the world. In 1990, after years of protest and thousands of civilian deaths, the country held its first election. The National League for Democracy, lead by Nobel-Prize winning Aung San Suu Kyi, won 80% of the seats in Parliament. However, the military refused to turn power over, and ruled until 2011.
In the last five years, the government has changed slightly, opening up space for more democratic processes. Yet, the generals have also developed a plan for 'disciplined democracy,' one that guarantees the military 25% of the seats in parliament, no matter what happens. This week, the country held elections and, once again, Aung San Suu Kyi's government won a large majority of seats. Time will tell how these events affect Myanmar's society. In the meantime, foreigners have been allowed to visit the country for the first time ever. I'm interested in seeing what this almost untouched land is like.
I just returned from an amazing adventure: a week spent in Japan. My journey took me to the capital, Tokyo, where I spent three days visiting temples, parks, and interesting parts of the city. Japan is a very modern nation, with highly planned and regimented cities that offer a sense of peace and order not found in Western metropolises. In addition to Tokyo, I traveled to Kyoto, the nation's ancient capital, and explored the region, camping by a small town near a great lake. On the final day, I woke up with the sun and hitch hiked back to Tokyo. The Japanese people I met along the way were extremely friendly and accommodating, and I think that I could spend some years living there.
While Japan's present is interesting, the country's history is almost incredible. While the islands that make up Japan have been settled for tens of thousands of years, they have remained relatively isolated for much of this time. For example, during the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, a rule that lasted for over 260 years, foreigners were only allowed to trade with Japan in one port, and very few received imperial support. However, that all changed in 1853, when an American commodore named Matthew Perry sailed to Japan with heavily armed ships. He ignored the emperor's requests and demanded that Japan open up a trading relationship with America.
This event was met with alarm throughout Japan. Many Japanese people at the time believed that the emperor was a god, so it was almost unbelievable that a man like Perry might ignore the emperor. Within the span of fifty years, Japan became a highly advanced modern nation, one that had a complex system of railroads and telegraphs, highly respected medical and scientific institutions, and a powerful navy. Along with this quick rise to power, the Japanese developed a highly imperialistic form of nationalism, one that lead to aggression and war. During World War II, the Japanese sided with the Axis powers, and fought viciously until the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Then, after the war, America restructured Japan again, this time finding a way to instill values of peace and productivity in the nation. Now, many of the world's cars and electronics come from Japanese companies. This roller-coaster ride would have been impossible for anyone to imagine just 150 years ago.
Over the past 8 weeks, I've been contributing to an organization that aids refugees as an intern. I've learned a lot on the job, which also includes a writing position. I've been researching and writing about different human rights issues in South East Asia. Most recently, my focus as been on land grabbing, which is when large companies, some of them government-owned, take land away from local people to start planting crops that they can sell to people all over the world, like rubber, which people use for tires. It's interesting to see how the things that people in the West buy affect the poor all over the world.
Another interesting issue that I've encountered has been the struggle for independence in Southern Cameroon. Cameroon has a complex colonial history; it was, at different points, controlled by British, French, and German powers. Thus, different parts of the country speak different languages, and at the end of colonialism, no one was entirely sure how Cameroon would be organized. The process of independence began in the 1950s, and in 1959, Southern Cameroons effected the first democratic transfer of power in 20th century Africa. Eventually, the UN gave the people who live in Cameroon several options, including unification with Nigeria or joining the French and English speaking parts of the country together into Cameroon. When the country was formed, the government of Cameroon was a federal government, composed of two states – one, the French-speaking 'La Republique du Cameroun,' and the other, 'Southern Cameroons.'
For the first several years, these two states coexisted on equal terms, and, while they still experienced problems, they had a functioning democracy. However, in 1972, the leader of La Republique du Cameroun announced a 'unitary government,' in which South Cameroons could not keep its own legal traditions. Since then, people in South Cameroons have reported many abuses on the part of government officials, and they have few opportunities to change their nation, as many political parties are outlawed. Members of the Southern Cameroons National Council are regularly arrested for holding meetings, and some have been tortured and killed. Today, Southern Cameroon holds a place on the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation.
I've been visiting a political refugee from Cameroon for some time now – he went through some horrible things in his home country when he spoke out against oppression. Meeting with him has been fascinating and inspiring, and also sad – I still know very little about Cameroon, and there must be many other places like it in the world.
Thailand's Government and History
One of the most interesting things about Thailand is its government. Unlike many Western countries, Thailand has never been a full democracy. There is a long history of authoritarian rule here (authoritarian is when one person, or a group of people, have much more power than everyone else – they author the laws, and enforce them as well), and in the last few years, rising tensions between different groups of people have resulted in violence. Now, a military government has stepped in to stabilize the country, although many are worried that they will stay for much longer than is necessary. Just last week, Thailand's constitutional drafting committee rejected its own draft – the 20th try at a Thai constitution – and it'll be about two years before the next public election.
Here, if you criticize the King and Queen, even past kings and queens, you can get sent to prison for 20 or 30 years. Other restrictions on free speech make press coverage of certain issues dangerous. As a Westerner, I have my own views of these laws. But I've also had some interesting conversations with educated Thais who like it this way.
"I prefer an authoritarian form of government," one of my schoolmates told me over dinner a few nights ago. "I think it's important for people to have an example to look up to, and in America, where you have all this freedom, people still just want more and more. So I don't think that's any better."
My first thought at hearing this was, "Wow, your education system did a good job." The history that Thai students are taught in school is all about the greatness of Thailand's kings, and it tells students about all the ways in which they protected the nation from its evil neighbors. People learn, from an early age, that without the King and Queen, who they call "Dad and Mom," society would fall apart.
My second thought was, "Wow, my education system did a good job." In America, our national history also tells a certain story. In schools, we pledge allegiance to the flag, and many of us are taught to associate America with virtue ("a shining city on a hill"). At the same time, our policies during the Cold War strengthened Thailand's military as the nation further restricted free speech, labeling any criticism of human rights abuses as "Bolshevik propaganda" and throwing people into jail - or worse.
So while I believe that people deserve to have a say in the way that they're governed, it's difficult to say that my friend is wrong. She was just learning history.
The Ancient City and Religious Art
This weekend, I chose to stay in Bangkok, as I had a meeting for an internship I'm pursuing here. I won't talk about it too much now, but it includes visiting refugees from Pakistan, Cameroon, and Vietnam at a detention center, basically a prison, where many live for as much as 2 years without gaining an interview. The day after my meeting, I went to a historical park called Muang Boran, or The Ancient City. It's a massive complex, spanning 240 acres, and inside there are miniatures of monuments from throughout Thailand – in fact, the entire park is a to-scale model of the kingdom.
The monuments, while miniatures of the originals, were still huge, with many towering at least 50 feet high. Some of them housed beautiful artworks, mother-of-pearl thrones, and Buddha statues. A river ran through the entire park, complete with its own floating market. It was a surreal experience, made more so by the slight rain that showered down as my friend and I biked through the city. This experience brought up some interesting thoughts.
Muang Boran was founded by a man who wanted to educate Thai people about their heritage. He thought that building a historic park that showcased the wonder of Thailand's monuments would inspire people with respect for their own culture. The park is also open to foreigners, and like many attractions in Thailand, it costs twice as much to go if you're not a local. The park took years to complete; the details on many of the buildings required the work of skilled craftsmen, and the architect, Lek Viriyaphant, visited many of the 116 monuments himself to ensure that the replicas were accurate, while experts from the National Museum helped as well.
During my time at the park, I had lots of time to think about the importance of religious art. In Thailand, religious symbols are everywhere. Museums like Muang Boran are often filled with Buddha statues and other sacred objects. My question is, what makes something holy? Is a replica of a religious statue just as sacred as the original? Every Thai person that I've seen at a museum has reacted to the statues around them as if they were the originals: they often get down on their knees, light incense, and maintain silence. On the other hand, these statues are housed in a museum that's open to non-Buddhists, like me, who treat them like artwork. My friend Tessa said that objects like Buddha statues are important because of the intention with which they were built, and that she has more respect for the originals than a replica on display. I think I agree with her, but it's a tricky issue, especially since the locals seem to respect the object itself, regardless of the situation.
The Death Railway
Last weekend, I journeyed to the Kanchanaburi province with my French friend Leo. As soon as we got to town, we rented motorbikes and took off on a 90-minute ride to the Erawan Waterfall, one of Thailand's most beautiful natural destinations. The falls are seven stories high, and the water is perfectly clear. Fish swim around under giant trees where monkeys play, rockslides abound, and the whole scene is one of peace – except that the lower four levels are filled with tourists and a snack bar waits at the bottom. In addition to Erawan, we rode through rural areas, visiting caves, temples, and a great historic city built by the Khmer Empire in the 12th century.
Towards the end of our journey, we stopped along the famous Death Railway. This railroad runs from Thailand to Burma, or Myanmar, and it earned its name during World War II. Thailand fought on the side of the Japanese, who had grand plans to dominate Asia. The Japanese forced 200,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 POWs, or prisoners of war, to complete the railroad in just a year and a half, despite engineers' predications that it would take four or five to construct. The railway was built so quickly because the Japanese forced workers to build in horrible conditions. We now think that about 100,000 Asian civilians and 16,000 prisoners of war died during the construction of the railway.
POWs were forced to live in bamboo huts, where they had little to no food and often suffered from terrible diseases. Cruel punishments were normal for those who refused to work, and many awful stories survive from those days. Leo and I visited a small museum commemorating the railroad. The museum was interesting, but it only spoke of the prisoners of war, not the civilians. We also visited the memorial cemetery, located right in the center of Kanchanaburi. Each gravestone was inscribed with the dates of the soldiers' birth and death, their name, and an epitaph (some words to dedicate the burial). Some were as young as 20 or 21, and many epitaphs read "we're proud of you, son." It was a heavy experience.
There are some strange things about the modern-day memorial sites. If you want to walk on the actual railway, you can – and you'll be surrounded by dozens of people. The path to the railway is lined with 20 or 30 vendors, selling all sorts of souvenirs, ice cream treats, and even clothing. In the museum, there is no mention of Thailand's actions during the war – we even heard a tour guide explaining that Thailand was forced to fight on the side of Japan, which simply isn't true. And, there is almost no mention of the deaths of the forced civilian laborers, even though 100,000 of them passed away building the railway. Many visitors come to the area just because a Hollywood movie, "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," is loosely based on the region's history during the War. So, this weekend gave me lots to think about.
Ko Si Chang Island
This past weekend, I left Bangkok for the island of Ko Si Chang, which sits about 40 miles away in the Gulf of Thailand. After a five-hour journey, I arrived at the ferry with minutes to spare. Thailand is still a developing country, and its population has more than doubled over the last 30 years. As a result, traffic is very bad. However, once we got to the ferry, all the road noise melted away.
For thousands of years, Thailand has been a center of trade. Because most of the region's inland areas were heavily forested and filled with tigers, snakes, elephants, and bugs of all kinds, people lived by the ocean. Massive port cities developed, and goods from China, India, and even the Mediterranean came and went. Today, many giant ships use the channel between Ko Si Chang and the mainland as a rest stop. There must have been 50 or 60 within view from the shore. As the ferry wove through giant floating islands of steel, I couldn't help but think of Burning Man, an American festival I'm missing out on this year.
Ko Si Chang is a small island, and not nearly as busy as many of Thailand's attractions. My friends and I were some of the only white people there, which was nice for a change. We rented motorbikes and spent our days hiking, visiting temples, and eating fresh seafood.
Thailand is a Buddhist country, and everywhere you go, you're sure to find beautiful temples and shrines. Buddhism came from India about 2500 years ago. and it is an atheist religion, which means that while Buddhists have their own rituals and beliefs about the world, they do not believe in a god. However, in all other ways, they are very similar to many of the world's great religions. They have monasteries, artworks, and revered texts. They preach about not killing, recognizing the connections between beings, and controlling desire. Buddhism in Thailand is slightly different than other countries. Here, monks can leave monasteries whenever they want to. There is a custom for Thai men to be ordained a monk for 3 months, and live in a monastery, beg for food, and study the Dharma, or Buddhist beliefs. Then, they go back into society.
When you get away from the big cities, Thailand is very peaceful. My time on Ko Si Chang was a welcome relief from life in Bangkok.
Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
I've arrived in Bangkok for the next stage of my 9-month journey. Bangkok is the capital of Thailand, a country in South East Asia that borders Vietnam. Thailand has a very long and proud history, and it's one of the few countries in this part of the world to not be colonized. It is considered to be part of the developing world, which means that the country is growing fast, and that in some areas, like public health, there are still many problems. However, there is also much wealth in Bangkok, and it is a comfortable city by most standards.
The first weekend that I was here, I decided to join some friends from California on a trip to a national park. The park's named is Khao Sam Roi Yot, and it is located right on the coastline. When we arrived at the hotel, I went to swim, only to find hundreds of jellyfish floating through the water! After a few hours, during which we enjoyed fresh, spicy seafood, we got to the national park.
Khao Sam Roi Yot means "mountain with 300 peaks." The landscape is beautiful, with limestone cliffs covered in dense green vegetation, which included some familiar plants, like palm trees and cactuses. The mountains there are limestone, and many years ago, the region was underwater.
One of the most amazing things to see at the national park is the Phraya Nakhon Cave, which is a short walk from one of the park's main beaches. As my friends and I began our climb up to the cave mouth, it started to pour – really pour. Within a few minutes we were completely drenched. Luckily, it was also very warm, maybe 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so the water was enjoyable.
Soon, we found the cave opening, a gaping cavern at least 40 feet high and maybe 60 wide. The cave has two main chambers, and both have large openings in the ceiling, so light streams down and plants can grow within. Looking up as the rain cascaded through the cave opening felt like standing inside of a waterfall.
The main chamber of Phraya Nakhon Cave is special for the Thai people because it has been visited by many kings. Over 100 years ago, a small throne was built inside the cave. Constructed with traditional Thai aesthetics, it looks similar to a shrine or temple.
The cave also has many stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. These are formed when water makes its way through rock and drips down to the floor. As it drips, calcite, a mineral substance in limestone, comes with it, and over thousands of years, a stalagmite forms on the ground. Limestone has these substances because it is made up of the skeletons of coral and other sea creatures, many of them millions of years old.
Adam De Gree
I am a senior in college, studying philosophy, and am visiting family in the Czech Republic and travelling and studying in Europe and Asia.