Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Goodbye Thailand

I have five days left before I leave Thailand. I’m sad, but I’m also excited. I’ve changed quite a bit (I can only imagine what a mission does for people). I’m confident and not as afraid of the world as I’ve been before. My testimony has grown as I’ve learned (or at least scratched the surface of) how the gospel fits into the global spectrum. I’ve stopped obsessing about the future. I’ve learned the value of throwing plans out the window to instead sit and talk with a stranger or to see what’s over the huge bridge I pass everyday.

My friends and I were talking about how it’s going to be weird to text again. I cut into the conversation to point out the benefits of texting and I started to present an argument that I had used several times back home, and one I had completely agreed with, before realizing how absolutely ridiculous it sounded. “Texting is good because sometimes you just need a quick piece of information from someone and you don’t want to have to go through social obligations of saying “Hello” and “How are you doing?”

Ludicrous. The words sounded absolutely ludicrous as I spoke them because here in Thailand the point of life is not the little piece of information…the point of life IS the social "obligation." It's all about the short phone call that ends up being three hours long because your friend needs to work through her break up, or the two minute grocery trip that turns into an hour chat when you realize that the clerk behind the counter has a super interesting life. It's about giving your seat to the grandma, not because you're a gentleman or a girlscout and that's what you do, but because the grandma needs a place to sit. I don’t want to go back because I am just starting to get it! I’m starting to understand what life is really about and I’m afraid that when I go back I’ll slide back into my obsession with accomplishment and forget to balance it with sincere fulfillment. I’m afraid I’ll let my to-do list become my life again instead of using it as a tool within my life. My life is about people, self-development, and God and I’m afraid that I will forget that when I go back home!

…Ha… Except that I guess I’ve forgotten that home is also my life. Thailand has been a great experience, but what I’ve learned here is useless unless I can learn how to implement and internalize it back in the USA. Even though Southeast Asia has amazing qualities, and their social structure is much more conducive towards relaxation and human interaction, America has incredible characteristics as well that help faciliate real relationships and happiness. At times, running away from home may be necessary; it's helped me step back and closely examine myself and where I've come from. But the real challenge, and I guess the whole point of life, is learning to muster the strength and humility required to go back—and not just to go back, but to go back and make it work, to encompass the strengths from both worlds for the purpose of creating a beautiful life, and to do it with the people I love.

Meditation Retreat

Jessica and I decided to go on a two day Buddhist meditation retreat. We met at a Buddhist monk university with a bunch of other backpackers. The retreat is a free service provided for tourists. First we were introduced to Buddhism. A monk explained that Buddhism is not a religion, but a way of life. Everyone can be a Buddhist as long as they follow the precepts of Buddhism which include spreading loving-kindness to the world, enriching and developing your soul through deep introspection and self-mastery, and discovering the path that leads to a balanced life.

After the introduction they drove us up to an incredibly well-kept campus complete with dorms, a large meditation hall, and a dining hall. Once we got there we were asked to change into all white, and then to refrain from speaking the rest of the day. It was so peaceful. Granted it did kind of look like we belonged to an insane asylum as we wondered around the yard, but the silence and the white really set a tone of respect and reverence.

We met in the meditation hall and sat on mats listening to the Buddhist monks in front as they explained different techniques. Their purpose was very clear. They weren’t hoping to convert us to their doctrine; they were only offering ways to exercise the mind in hopes that it would help us attain peace. “You (westerners in general) eat food and exercise in order to strengthen your body, but you don’t take the time to feed and exercise your mind.”

I always thought that meditation was this practice where you fell into intense concentration about deep and complex issues and some meditation techniques may facilitate that, but what we were taught was that meditation focuses on simplicity rather than the complex. Our monk used the term, “monkey mind” to describe the way our thoughts constantly jump around all over the place and he taught that meditation practices are simple exercises used to gain control over our mind. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant until we started the meditation.

The first technique we learned was walking meditation. We stood and started chanting “standing, standing, standing, intending to walk.” Then we would slowly lift our right foot move it a step in front of us, and then gently set it down while chanting “right (lift the right foot) go (move it forward) thus (set it down).” And then we would switch to the left foot. We did it forever! (okay, it was like 15 minutes, but it felt like forever). The whole point was to focus on, and only on, our movement. Anytime our minds wondered we were told to acknowledge the thought, figure out (I'm second from the left) why we were thinking it, and then to gently focus back on our movement. It was incredible. I had no idea how much my mind jumps around! It was so hard to live in the present moment. I was in the present, but my mind was jumping from first grade when I slid on the sidewalk, to high school graduation when I was trying to decide if I should take a picture with Jon Daniels, to 6th grade when the missionaries came over. I was thinking about everything I had to do the next day, everything that had happened the day before. I was imagining conversations that had never happened, and situations that probably never would happen. Heck, I was writing this blog in my head! What was interesting to note was how many times certain thoughts kept coming up. “Okay, I’m thinking this…I’m thinking it again…and again, hmmm.” Very insightful and so dang hard! I found that the meditation which included simple physical movement was easier for me, but Jessica did really well with meditation that focused on sound, and other people did well when theu just focused on breathing.

The way my mind jumps around isn’t always a bad thing, however, I realized how I’ve let myself become a slave to these thoughts. I worry about things that I have absolutely no control over, I freak out about something that hasn’t happened, I let thoughts get in the way of the things I really want to accomplish. I have a great imagination, but it has been a curse as well as a blessing because I haven’t been able to control when and where I let my mind wonder. I keep thinking about how good this would be for people who are addicted to pornography. Pornography is a huge problem at BYU and all I could think about is how much suffering could be eased if we all practiced simple exercises everyday that strengthened our ability to control where our thoughts run off to. I never realized the benefit of meditation. It's not a hokey religious practice that wastes time, but it's a valuable, practical exercise that could help us take a little bit more control of our lives.

Thai Cooking Class

I love the food in Thailand. It is so delicious, cheap, and there are street vendors selling it to you every 5 meters. Some of my favorite foods here are rice sausages, juicy fried chicken and fish, roti and bananas, the pancake man’s fortune cookie batter fried on a skillet to make a tortilla shape, folded, and then stuffed with blueberry filling, bananas, and chocolate, mangos and sticky rice, gyotza (fried potstickers), Masaba (roti filled with dry yellow curry), cantalope boba drinks with tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup, fried bananas, pad thai, khao soi, sticky rice and meat with chili sauce, skewers of pork, pineapple, and peppers, spring rolls, waffles shaped like fish filled with strawberry, chocolate, coconut, or blueberry filling, mango cheese cake, coconut crackers, little coconut cakes, fried dough balls dipped in yummy sauce, real fruit shakes, Ovaltine drinks (I’m totally serious), pancakes with egg in the batter, chicken with cashews, tomato macaroni like you’ve never had it before…the list could go on and on. This food is everywhere you go! And you can usually get any item for about 30 cents.

So this was a long introduction, but my point is…I’ve gained 10 pounds. Okay, that’s not my point, but I thought I’d throw that out there anyways. My point is that I am going to be really sad to leave all this food so I decided to take a Thai cooking class. Me and my friend Dani spent a day learning how to cook six Thai dishes. We were picked up in the morning and taken to the local market to buy ingredients (Thai’s normally go to the market everyday to pick up the ingredients for their meals that day. They hardly have any food in their cupboards). Then we went to a women’s house. Outside of her home under a tin roof were about twenty gas burning stoves (Thai don’t use ovens), a bunch of counters, mats to sit on while you pound curry, and some sinks. It was a great outdoor kitchen. We learned how to make Masiyana, yellow, and green curry, sweet and sour chicken, pad thai (noodles with sauce, peanuts, lime, bean sprouts, and egg), chicken cashew nut stuff, Som Tum (papaya salad), Khoa soi (noodles in coconut soup—a northern thai specialty), ground chicken with basil leaves (“A Thai’s favorite dish”), mangos and sticky rice, steamed banana cake, and some other stuff. We ate all the food we made, it was ridiculous and I could hardly move when I got home that night. She gave us a cookbook so when I get home, I am going to start cooking Thai food. Yay!


“You and me have seen everything to see. From BANGKOK to Calgary.” Okay, I haven’t been to Calgary yet, but I can at least sing the first part of the song. Yes I went to Bangkok. Jessica and I had a little mix up with our tickets so I arrived in Bangkok by myself a day early. I got to the airport at one in the morning so I slept on the airports plastic benches until that morning. It was my job to find the train station, buy tickets back to Chiang Mai, and find a place to stay. I figured out how to use the local buses because I didn’t want to pay tons of money to take taxis everywhere (okay the most expensive ride is $15, but I’m spoiled here), I wanted a less touristy experience, and I felt safer riding around the city with a big group of locals. Whelp, I did it! I spent a day going all over Bangkok by myself and it was great. I was really impressed with myself. If you would have asked me to go to Bangkok by myself at the beginning of this summer I would have laughed in your face, but today I feel more confident in my ability to evaluate and maintain my personal safety. I feel confident in my ability to take care of myself even though in a place as foreign as Bangkok. I would have rather been with someone, but circumstance didn’t allow it so I dealt with it. Those who know me well will know this was a big accomplishment. My other friends came the next day. We stayed on Khao San Road; it’s this famous-touristy-backpacker-market-haven road. It was fun and I found a sticky rice and mango vendor so I was happy. We went to the huge shopping malls, the Chatuchuk market (largest outdoor market in the world…that’s their claim anyways), rode on boats through the disgusting river, rode the sky train, visited the Grand Palace, and the Royal Wat, saw a HUGE, I’m talking big, reclining Buddha, and did it all for under $30…food included. Bangkok was great but after two days I was ready to go back home to Chiang Mai. I’m partial because I lived in Chiang Mai the longest, but I think it’s prettier and has a more peaceful feel to it than Bangkok and Phuket. I took a 13 hour sleeper train up from Bangkok and I am now back to my home. Unfortunately I will be leaving in less than a week.


Puket is an island at the tip of Thailand. It’s definitely not a resort city, but the beaches are gorgeous. Turquoise water, white sand, pineapple and mangos: Can life get better than this? I submit that it cannot. Going there was a perfect break after the two weeks of “go-go-go.” Just a couple friends and I went to Phuket and stayed at a hostel taking day trips out the island’s beaches. Our days were like this: We slept-in, played at the beach all day, went out to eat, came home, and watched movies and talked all night. It’s kinda disgusting how lazy that week was, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it thoroughly. At the hostel we met a bunch of really interesting and cool Europeans. So apparently almost all Europeans take about a year off to travel the world after they graduate either from high school of college. Incredible. They aren’t super rich either. They just spend a year working before hand, and then they use their saved money to backpack across the globe. If they run out of money they go to Australia to work for a bit and then off they go again. These backpackers aren’t bums either. I met a girl who's about to start med school, another guy who's going to law school. Europeans whole social structure supports this yearlong journey. And in Italy during the summer, the entire nation is empty because everyone goes on holiday. One of my Italian friends laughed at me in disbelief when I asked him if he had ever done summer school? “What is summer school? How can you go to class when the schools are shut down?” American’s may have more money because we work an extra year and during the summer, but Europeans seem to have far more interesting lives. However…some of them spend all their time drinking at pubs…not sure why you would pay tons of money to travel the world drunk…but the majority of the people we met stayed sober most of the time. :) Regardless of the Europeans, Phuket was cool.


I didn’t have any idea what to expect from Malaysia. I had never learned about it in school, and I had never watched “Zoolander,” but I ended up being very impressed. It is the second most industrialized nation of Southeast Asia (Singapore is the first). Unfortunately there was some shady dealings and the agency who set up our excursion short changed our Malaysian tour guides. But they were intrigued because they had heard that we were a group of missionaries and they decided figured out a way to show us around the country by cutting their wages from the two-day trip’s expenses. We were grateful for that because we got to do some amazing things. We went to their national palace that acts as their “White House.” We also visited the place where they signed their declaration of independence, and a monument that honored those who had died in the first and second world wars. We went to the Petronas Towers (former tallest buildings in the world, now the tallest twin towers in the world). We went to two HUGE caves. Each rooms inside the caves were as big as a basketball arena. And my favorite thing we did was a night boat ride down a river to watch large glow bugs. They covered the bushes along the banks of the river and looked like sparkling Christmas trees. Instead of eating at fancy restaurants like we had been doing in the previous countries, we ate at local outdoor cafes, which were still delicious. I also loved visting the Muslim mosques. I've been learning quite about Islam and the more I learn the more I realize how similar it is to my personal beliefs. It's unfortunate that most of the western world has a slightly skewed perception about muslims and Islam, at least I did anyways. The majority of muslims are amazing people trying to grow closer to the Lord through a beautiful religion.

Cambodia!!!!!! (part 2)

I don't know whose reading this...but adults should probably read it before they let kids look at it. We took a bus down to Phnom Phen the next day. The country is poverty-stricken. Although it is doing much better today, the wounds beset by the horrific Pol Pot Regime run deep within the people and the countryside. We bought so much stuff that we didn’t really need or want, but we couldn’t help it because we knew that the vendor selling us the fried spiders, or the Thai silk, or the overpriced postcards lived on the edge of desperation.

The first stop we made that day was an old high school used as a torture prison during the Khmer Rouge occupation. We walked through “classrooms” that were empty except for a metal bed frame and huge blown up picture of the dead body found in the room when Vietnam invaded the city over 30 years ago. Outside the school was a large wooden frame where prisoners were hung upside down and lowered into buckets of water. Another building of the school was dedicated to explaining other torture techniques used during the KR occupation. The most profound room had pictures of the faces of all the men, women, and children (some as young as three-years-old) who belonged to the Khmer Rouge and were brought to the prison as suspected spies. The Khmer Rouge was paranoid of mutiny so they became fanatical about finding traitors within their own organization. “Give us names! Give us names!” the torturers demanded so the prisoners gave them random names to stop the pain. Taking the names, the tortures brought in new group of innocent victims who were met with the same fate as those before them. It was a vicious, bloody cycle of paranoia. Out of the hundreds of prisoners who entered, only seven made it out alive.

After spending some time there we drove over to see the killing fields monument. I was expecting to walk through actual rice fields maintained specifically in remembrance of those who died during the KR occupation. Instead we drove up to a small forest. In front of the forest stood a huge monument filled with the skulls of people who had died at that spot. But where were we? The KR had people working in fields all over the country. What made this spot special? The tour guide motioned us towards a small pavilion, and to our horror we realized that it covered a large sunken cavity in the ground, a mass grave. Men, women, and children who labored in the work camps throughout the region came to this forest for execution. Together they dug a large grave, and then they would kneel at the side of it. A KR officer would knock them unconscious into the graves with the butt of their guns, and then the KR would bury the victims alive. It was awful. We were sick. We had all studied about what had happened in Cambodia, we had read books about it, but it was an entirely different experience to stand face to face with the evidence of its reality. I started walking further down the path to get away from the grave, but right in front of me a few meters away was another one. I walked further down hoping to find some kind of respite, but the path turned and my blood ran cold. Stretched before me was a grassy field covered with dozens of large sunken cavities. A group of students gathered around pieces of clothing that had surfaced during the rain that morning. Teeth, skulls, and bones stuck up through the graves and the heavily beaten path. Silence reigned supreme during those twenty minutes. Some students ducked in a corner to cry, others left the group to sit by themselves and reconcile questions like, “Why?” and “How?” The day before we had witnessed the glorious pinnacle of human creation only to witness the next day the shameful pinnacle of human obliteration.

It’s hard not to lose faith in humanity after seeing something like that. It’s hard not to let fear strangle my expectation, or at least hope, of some kind of mortal peace. I took awhile to write this post because I’m not sure what anyone would get from reading it. But I guess I can tell you how my trip to Cambodia affected me. First I forgot about the whole thing because I didn’t want to deal with it. But after a few days I got jumpy, I found that my thoughts were randomly plagued with scary images, and I became paranoid that something bad might happen. I felt like I was protecting myself by “not letting my guard down”—by facing the fact that bad things happen and they would probably happen to me. But what took me a while to realize was that paranoia and fear were the very elements that caused thing like the Cambodian Killing Fields, and the Jewish Holocaust, and the Rawandan Genocide. Bad things do happen, but I let the possibility of something bad happening cloud the reality of how good still far outweighs the bad. It’s important to learn about the evil of which humans are capable, but we learn it not to let fear overcome our thoughts and actions, but for our thoughts and actions to overcome our fears.

Cambodia!!!!!!! (part 1)

After visiting Ho Chi Min we flew to Siem Reap. That first day was a free day so two other girls and I hired a tuk-tuk and we went exploring around the city. We passed by several markets, a school, a group of young boys playing in a water hole, a group of women riding bikes to work, little girls walking along a canal. One of my favorite places we visited was a Cambodian orphanage. Little kids jumped out to greet us, tease us, and play with us. They spoke English almost fluently. The older students took care of the younger ones while the adult worked. All the children were happy and energetic. We learned that they went to a school run completely off donations and it was an incredible success. I was touched in the thirty minutes we spent with them.

Next, we spent the entire next day visiting the ancient temples of Cambodia. Siem Reap used to house one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world. The temples were…wow. We visited one temple that had large trees growing all over the ancient stone architecture. Huge twisting roots grew through windows, around columns, and over stairs and fountains. It was exactly how you would imagine an ancient ruin to look. I guess they filmed the movie “Tomb Raider” at this temple. There was another fascinating temple called “the face temple”. About a hundred stone men, each with unique faces and clothing, stood out side the gate of the temple holding two large stone serpents (Nagas) The Nagas are supposed to protect the temple from the evils of the outside world. As soon as I walked inside the temple an eerie chill swept over me. Huge faces, the size of a garage door, stared at me from every direction. Every face was unique, magnificent and silhouetted by the soft purple sky at dusk. It was so cool! Finally, we visited the most popular temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the majestic Angkor Wat. It was beautiful. Almost all the walls were covered with intricate stone carvings. According to our tour guide, the stone carvers who worked on the ancient temples were put to death if they made any mistakes on the holy walls. Yikes. I guess the threat worked because I didn’t see any mistakes. Later that night we hiked up to the highest point in the city and sat on the stones of another ancient temple and watched the sunset across the city. It was weird to think how such a powerful kingdom could turn to ruins in only a matter of a few centuries.