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Sad as it is, the time has come for me to return to the United States. The folks at the seed bank and Chiang Mai treated me to farewell dinners, and I said my farewells. I will miss Thailand, and all the people I met there. I learned a lot about seeds, food, agriculture, development, and Southeast Asian culture while I was there. It was a remarkable, interesting place to live and work.

But there is an end to everything. Fortunately, I didn’t have to fly straight back. Instead, I took the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and had a whirlwind two-day tour of Thai art and culture. Here are some photos of the adventure:

Some wilted lotus buds at a shrine in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

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A child looks at some lotus flowers in front of a lovely example of Ficus religiosa, the Bhodi tree, under which the Buddha is said to have received enlightenment.

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Some students taking a tour of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

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A lock in the Grand Palace, bedecked with a small garland of flowers, for reasons mysterious to me.

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A crucifix in the Silpakorn University gallery of sculpture. Behind it, Buddha’s head.

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A profile of Florentine sculptor Silpa Bhirisri (born Corrado Feroci), the namesake of Silpakorn university, and the man most responsible for introducing modern art to Thailand. He was made the King’s official sculptor in 1924, and went on to train most of the prominent artists of Thailand. His motto, “Vita brevis, ars longa” (“Life is short, art is long”–or perhaps, “life is brief, art endures”) adorns the entrance to the university.

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Chinatown at dusk.

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Looking over Salvador Dali’s shoulder at an installation at the Bangkok Museum of Contemporary Art.

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The most striking piece I saw at the MOCA: like many examples of Buddhist art, it contemplates mortality in vivid, if not grotesque, detail. But something about the attention paid to the old man in this painting strikes me as loving. An example, perhaps, of the ethic of compassion in Buddhist thought which, to an outsider like me seems to run counter to the idea of detachment. The artist seems to say that detachment from the self allows compassion for the other–even if all things are as insubstantial as the old man’s grasp on life. But you’re free to draw your own conclusions.

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A silk-weaving loom at the late Jim Thompson’s house. Thompson, like Corrado Feroci, entered Thailand at a pivotal point in its transition to cultural and economic openness. He visited during the Vietnam war (in which he may have participated as a CIA operative), and stayed when the war ended. Thompson played an important part in marketing Thai silk abroad, and assembled a remarkable collection of Thai art and architecture in his home. This brought him a peculiar mixture of respect, gratitude and resentment in Thai society, as described in this article in the Paris Review. He disappeared in 1967 under mysterious circumstances while hiking in Malaysia.

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Artists preparing an installation outside the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre.

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A closer look at an artist at work.

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Culture is a protean thing, and music seems to be among the most adaptable, remixable, recombinable elements in this stew we call the arts. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to see elements of the familiar in a New Year’s Eve church service at a Karen village in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Or maybe I should never stop being surprised. To recreate my moment of recognition, first watch this clip:

Then listen to these songs I recorded in the village where P’Wah (ECHO Asia’s seed bank manager) is from:

Do you hear the resemblance? When I took these videos I didn’t realize that this kind of singing is considered the traditional hymn style of hill-tribe Christians. And yes, Christianity has been among these people for long enough for words like “traditional” to make sense. This next year the Myanmar Baptist Convention will celebrate its 200th anniversary.

According to Rick Burnette, many of the early missionaries to Burma (now Myanmar) hailed from rural Missouri, and they brought with them a form of hymn-singing known as shape-note singing, or the Sacred Harp.  Sacred Harp is a choral tradition that used to be common across the Appalachians and the rural South in America. It was actually the first music to be composed in America.

This video, a trailer for a recent documentary on Sacred Harp, explains the history a bit more:

I fell in love with the sound of this music when I picked up the soundtrack to the above documentary, Awake, My Soul. So to hear a direct descendent of that sound in a remote part of Thailand was a shock, but a delight.

What are we to think of this kind of thing? Is it cultural imperialism? If so, on whose part? By now the Karen have so appropriated this singing into their culture that they consider it theirs–even as the tradition nearly died out in the twentieth century in America. You could read imposition on one side or expropriation on the other, if you were so inclined. But is that the most helpful way to analyze this kind of transmission?

The world of culture is full of such exchanges. For example, what are we to make of the fact that the traditional repertoire of shashmakhon, a Persian musical style, would have been lost to the world during the Soviet period if not for its appropriation by Bukharan jews? Or how about Brian Eno’s claim that Arabic singing gave birth to nearly everything, via trade routes, slave ships and Irish immigration? A claim which I heard, by the way, from Ezra Koenig’s blog, who’s been guilty of/celebrated for a good bit of cultural appropriation himself.

My conclusion: people share music. And they steal it, and force it on others, and trade it about while doing all sorts of horrible things to each other. But as a rule, something like this doesn’t stick unless it resonates. And the Sacred Harp must have resonated with the hill-tribes of Burma and Thailand because they’re still singing it, 200 years later. Maybe the mountain people of Missouri and the mountain people of Thailand connected culturally on a level a city kid like me can’t quite understand. Or maybe it’s because Sacred Harp singing was designed to be easy to teach and easy to pass on. I don’t know. But regardless, I think it’s a beautiful thing.

Someone should get an Appalachia-Southeast Asia hymn singing convention together. Call it Hill-tribes and Hill-billies Hymn Sing. You heard it here first.

DSC07504Hot season is moving on and there are more and more mangoes in the market! Our mangoes here in the North are still little inch-long green babies, but I bought some today to get me primed for the season.

Mango, (mamuang in Thai, Mangifera indica to botanists) is native to Southeast Asia. In addition to the ripe fruit like the ones I brought home, there is a cultivar picked green and served with chili sauce. It’s a wonderfully intense mix of sour and spicy. A real treat.

Mango is botanically related to cashew, which, if you see it on the tree looks like a little mango with a cashew hanging on to the bottom. It’s also, strangely enough, related to poison ivy, and its sap contains the same toxin, so people who are highly allergic to poison ivy are generally also allergic to mango.

DSC07499Above is another mango relative: the gandaria, or plum mango. When I saw it in the market I mistook it for a tiny mango cultivar, but it is a different species in the same family (Bouea macrophylla). It does have the consistency of a plum, with a flavor that reminded me of nectarines and loquats.

Photo from wikipedia

Another new fruit I tried recently (but forgot to take a picture of myself) is the star apple (Chrysophyllum cainito). As fruit geeks can probably tell by looking at the seeds, it’s a member of the Sapotaceae family, relative to sapodilla and mamey sapote. Poetry geeks (yes I’m both of these) might recognize the name from Derek Walcott’s poem and collection, The Star-Apple Kingdom.

Star apple’s white flesh has a creamy texture, with more gelatinous flesh clinging around the seeds. It has a sweet, clear flavor like a pear.

My recent reading has led me through sort of a triptych of perspectives on Thailand and forest ecology, starting with the overview A Land on Fire by James Fahn, moving on to Thai Forestry: A Critical History by Ann Danaiya Usher, and finishing (sort of) with Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers by Tim Forsyth and Andrew Walker.

Forest Guardians may be the most thought-provoking and disruptive of the three. It’s central point is that no field of knowledge, not excluding ecology, is untouched by discrimination against the powerless.

Its thesis is that narratives of ecological degradation in Thailand are significantly influenced by entrenched attitudes about the hill tribe peoples, particularly the Karen and Hmong. These attitudes encourage the majority culture to uncritically accept inaccurate portrayals of upland ecology which place the blame for environmental decline on the least powerful people in the nation: marginalized hill tribe populations.

Central among the environmental narratives that Forsyth and Walker interrogate is the idea that upland forests are essential for the water supply in the lowland watersheds. According to this narrative, uplands deforestation has led to decreased rainfall and lower stream-flow in the valleys. Cut down the forest, destroy the water cycle–so goes the conventional story.

But the hydrology is more complicated than that. Though lowlands areas have experienced water shortages in the past few decades, and though forests are certainly important for water cycles worldwide, the facts are that Thailand’s rainfall is linked to broader weather patterns, most likely unlinked to local forestation levels. And dry season stream-flow shows an at best ambiguous relationship to upland forest cover in most trials.

A more unbiased assessment would seem to indicate that the cause of recent water shortages has much more to do with downstream water demand than upstream water supply. During the same period that deforestation occurred in Thailand (mostly due to government-sanctioned logging, not hill tribe agriculture, by the way), there was also a great increase in dry-season cropping–farmers planting a second crop of rice or corn using irrigation during the dry season. This intensification seems to be the most likely cause for water shortages, not the upland shifting agriculture that lowland farmers typically blame.

Forsyth and Walker explore these power dynamics through other environmental narratives as well, analyzing popular conceptions of erosion, chemical use and biodiversity. In each of them, their point is not to deny the existence of environmental degradation, but to reveal how power dynamics and ethnic profiling have led to false conclusions about the extent and cause of environmental problems.

They argue that popular images of the Karen people romanticize them as “forest guardians” living in unsullied commune with nature–much as North Americans tend to romanticize Native American tribes. This romanticized vision implicitly removes them from the rights and concerns reserved for the modernizing majority population. Meanwhile the Hmong are demonized as “forest destroyers” because of their association with opium production and pioneer agriculture (clearing virgin forest).

Both of these profiles justify political marginalization for the hill tribe peoples. Neither the guardians or destroyers are offered the same economic rights as the majority population, and neither are fully consulted in the process of defining the ecological challenges of the upland environment.

Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers is a powerful reminder that injustice can be found in all human endeavors–including environmental protection. The message I came away with is that we can not take conventional wisdom for granted–in any field–without seeking the perspective of the more marginalized and powerless people involved.

Greetings to all and a belated happy New Year! Welcome to the year 2556. I’m not writing to you from the future, that’s the official date according to the Thai solar calendar. The great reformist King Chulalungkorn moved the Kingdom away from the lunar calendar in 1888, but instead of adopting the AD/BC split he decreed that year 0 was the date of the death of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

Despite the numbering system, my New Year passed with little mention of Buddha. I spent the holidays in the seed bank manager’s village, a Karen village populated almost entirely by Christians. The Karen were some of the most enthusiastic converts to Christianity in the region, with about 15% professing Christianity today. They are spread across Northern Thailand and Burma, where they–like many other minority groups–have faced intermittent conflict with the Burmese military regime.

DSC07406Here the villagers are crowded in the space beneath the church. They had a service lasting for five hours, from 7 until midnight. It was more like an open-mic night than a service though. There was far more singing and dancing than preaching.

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The next day everyone came back for another service and a communal meal. Then people brought fruit, vegetables and bags of rice as offerings. Everyone gathered around and bid for the offered items, with the money going to the church. I bought a yam.

DSC07438Later Pi Wah taught me how to make a stew out of my purple yam (dioscorea alata for you plant nerds).

Note: In Thailand you usually precede someone’s name with a term of respect. I call Wah, the seed bank manager, “Pi Wah,” which means “older sister Wah.”

In addition to the new year, we celebrated the building of Pi Wah’s new house:

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Everyone gathered in the main room for a dedication/prayer service. And of course there was more food afterword.

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Pi Wah’s family made huge vats of noodles to put in a dish called Khanom Chin, or literally, “Chinese sweet.” It greatly resembles a Tajik dish called laghmon, and the reference to China makes me think they might be related. Noodles would have entered Tajikistan from China as well. It’s hard to say, but food has a way of connecting cultures just as often as it distinguishes them.

After all the celebrating it was time for the long ride back to Chiang Mai in the back of a pick-up, and then finally back to the seed bank. What a holiday! Now back to work.

 

 

(image from barnesandnoble.com)

With its large industrial sector and growing urban middle-class, Thailand has been hailed as one of the development successes of Southeast Asia. As you can see from this graph, its GDP has increased by a factor of 8 over the past half-century.

(data from Wolfram Alpha)

But this growth has not been without its costs. James David Fahn’s A Land On Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom is a partial account of the environmental costs entailed by Thailand’s rapid industrialization, drawn from Fahn’s reporting with The Nation, a Bangkok-based newspaper.

From dying coral to disappearing mangroves, mercury contamination to carbon emissions, Fahn provides vivid descriptions of a multitude of environmental dangers and crises. A Land On Fire is a great read, punctuated as it is by first-person stories the authors quest for “the scoop” in the midst of military coups, border conflicts with Burma and refugee crises. I certainly recommend it.

But Fahn does more than provide tales of journalistic derring-do. The book uses the individual environmental issues to ask a few fundamental questions about the development process: How can we balance economic growth with resource conservation? How can we achieve development that is both sustainable and equitable? What is the balance between national sovereignty and environmental protection when certain resources and pollutants cross national boundaries? These are questions that the emerging economies have to ask as they propel themselves onto the global economic stage.

Fahn repeatedly refers to what is called the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” as he explores the environmental consequences of development.

According to the theory depicted by the Kuznets curve, the early stages of economic growth are nearly always associated with increasing environmental degradation, but once per capita income reaches a certain level societies begin demanding cleaner technology and holding industry more accountable for pollution.

Graphs like the one above make this process seem inevitable, but Fahn argues that it is possible–at least in theory–to plow a shortcut through the Kuznets Curve by using technology already developed in wealthier economies to prevent pollution and degradation in the emerging economies. However, this requires the transfer of expensive technology, which incurs costs that emerging industries may not be willing to pay. Also, in countries without democratic institutions or lively civil societies the demand for cleaner and more efficient technology may not be heard.

The upshot of this is that emerging nations like Thailand face a host of challenges as they try to conserve resources, clean up pollution and engage regionally to prevent cross-border damage. The picture Fahn paints is one of mixed success. Thailand is particularly hampered by political corruption, which prevents civil society groups from effectively lobbying for environmental protection.

This difficulty is vividly illustrated by the debate over deforestation, where entrenched political elites have historically encouraged unsustainable clear-cutting by well-connected timber firms. Now as environmental lobbies are finding their voice indiginous peoples living in protected forest areas are caught between preservationist groups on the one hand–who would rather move people out of the forest entirely–and timber firms on the other–who have historically destroyed local livelihoods by destroying forests. It is a difficult dilemma where the most powerless people have the most to lose, and corruption tends to ensure that the powerful get their way.

Environmental degradation and deforestation are major themes here, so I’m sure I’ll be reading and thinking more about these issues during my time in Thailand. Stay tuned!

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Merry Christmas from Northern Thailand! It’s been more than a week now since I arrived at the ECHO Asia Seedbank. I came by car, but a select few of my coworkers walked the hundred miles from Chiang Mai. That’s the gang, finally arriving.

Since getting here I’ve started work on some work-related projects, but this is the holidays, so the big theme has been celebrating Christmas, hill-tribe style. Most of the villages in this area are populated by ethnic minorities. So far I have come into contact with Karen, Palaung and Lahu people, and have had the opportunity to hear bits of their language both in conversation and in song. Many villages in these groups are Christian, so they have been celebrating Christmas.

DSC07299Above, a Lahu woman teaches my fellow farang (foreigners) how to shape pounded rice dough into patties.

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At a Palaung village the people gathered for a celebration sponsored by ECHO’s partner, UHDP. There were games, including the race on bamboo stilts pictured above. And in the evening, music and dancing:

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This is a particularly exciting year for the Palaung. This year the New Testament has been published in their language for the first time, decades after the people of this village accepted Christianity.

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UHDP had their own Christmas celebration as well, and the ECHO staff joined right in. That’s the Christmas tree and stage there, where many a musical performance occured, late into the night. And here are the ECHO interns, roasting some freshly-slaughtered meat on the grill:

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It’s been a wonderful time up here in the hills. In particular, seeing Christmas celebrated in multiple languages and cultures was an amazing privilege. I’m grateful to be here. I can tell already it will be a good six months.