Hello! I’m a bit behind my posting schedule because last week I was on a homestay in a Northern Hill Tribe Village- it was a great experience and I had a lot to write about! Before leaving for the village, my group and I also went to visit Chiang Rai, another prominent city in the North. I’ve split this post up into two parts: Chiang Rai and my most recent homestay. I also have tons of photos from this week, so be sure to check them out here!
I’ve heard a lot of good things about the city of Chiang Rai since arriving in Thailand so we decided to go see it for ourselves. We left the dorms very early in the morning on a Saturday- getting onto the bus was a breeze. The bus ride was okay, I slept a lot of the way. After about three hours, we were in Chiang Rai. We stayed in a hostel downtown – on the walk there, we stopped for lunch and checked out some other storefronts as it wasn’t time to check in yet. After checking in, our first stop was the Blue Temple or Wat Rong Suea Ten. This is a famous, more modern temple known the main color of the temple being a deep blue. It was so beautiful to see up close – the details were gorgeous, the statues around the temple were lovely, and because it was finished in 2016 (in contrast to many temples that are hundreds of years old), it had a very unique “vibe” to it. After walking around the area, taking some pictures, and enjoying some coconut ice cream, we went to the Chiang Rai Beach. Chiang Rai Beach is on the Kok River near the outskirts of the city. It was a beautiful, well conserved natural area with a nice river bank. We were some of the only people there when we went which was cool. We swam and sun bathed for a few hours – close to dinner time, we regrouped at our hostel and then went to the Chiang Rai Walking Street Market. There was lots of great street food as well as other vendors. Walking around the market felt endless so after a bit we went back to our hostel – they had live music performances all night.
On Sunday, we decided to spend a lot of time visiting the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, another famous temple in Chiang Rai. After checking out of the hostel and eating a yummy (American style) breakfast, we caught a bus to the temple. Riding this bus was an interesting experience for sure. For only 20 B (less than $1), we got to ride to the temple. The bus rode up and down a specific road, when we approached someone on the side of the road, the driver would pick them up if they wanted – there weren’t any bus stops. The man sitting next to be at first realized that he was on the wrong bus so he just got off the bus when we were at a stoplight on the highway. It was pretty funny to me but maybe it was a “you had to be there” kind of moment. Anyways, I liked the bus ride, but the White Temple was definitely the highlight of the day! It was stunning . Breathtaking. Gorgeous. Essentially all of the temple and its surroundings are white- the white contrasted beautifully against the bright blue sky and reflective materials made the details shimmer in the sun. We walked around for hours trying to take it all in. There were a lot of tourists there but it was still a very sacred feeling space. I was very impressed. Like the Blue Temple, the White Temple is also more modern, built in 1997. There were very modern aspects to the temple – pop culture references around the campus and the paintings on the inside of the temple included objects like oxygen masks, telephones, and TVs. It was very interesting. We had to leave eventually so we could catch our bus back to Chiang Mai. We caught the same bus I described back to the bus station and walked around a bit more until we caught the bus back. It was a great excursion, and we made it back to Chiang Mai in time to pack for our homestay!
Homestay at PhaMon Village
First, here’s some context. On this study abroad program, we have block classes. After one block, or three weeks, we stay in a village for one week that connects to themes we’ve been learning about in our classes. The village stays provide great immersion with Thai language and different cultures. This time we stayed at PhaMon Village, a Karen Hill Tribe in the mountains. The Karen people are one of the groups Indigenous to Thailand – they speak the Karen language and Thai, and their culture is in many ways different from Thai culture. At this village, we learned about community based tourism (CBT), different aspects of Karen culture, land rights issues Hill Tribe communities face, and growing rice and food access. Here’s what we did!
On Monday morning we left our dorms at Payap and traveled to PhaMon village. PhaMon is inside of Doi Inthanon National Park – I don’t want to over-simplify it, but basically the people lived there before the national park was established. Upon making it a park, the Thai government allowed them to stay there under certain conditions. I was a little surprised to learn that there are many communities living in national parks – this was a very interesting concept for me to see. Anyways, we stopped at one of the waterfalls at the national parks for lunch. It was a very rainy day but it was still beautiful and exciting. Once we got to the village, we went to the house of the leader of the village CBT program to learn more about community based tourism. CBT is a less invasive, more sustainable, community controlled type of tourism. It focuses on mutual learning and the income made from it goes to community development. While learning about CBT, we also got to roast coffee in a few traditional Karen ways and then drink it – it was really cool. Later in the afternoon, we got to meet our host families. My dorm roommate and I lived with the same family. For my host family I had a mom, dad, and two younger brothers ages 10 and 4. They were a great host family. On that first day, our mom gave us Karen nicknames- my roommate Emily was called what translates to “Rainy” and my name translated to “Rainy Flower” because we arrived on a rainy day. We spent the remainder of the day getting settled.
While we were learning about community based tourism, we were also participating a CBT program while we were there. Therefore, each day had a set structure and an intentional agenda. Tuesday was “Family Day” so we spent the day with our host families. Emily and I worked with our family on their tomato farm. Mostly we worked on adding supports to the younger plants – it was more fun than I was expecting and super satisfying whenever we finished tying up a row of plants. Once we got back, we relaxed a bit and helped make dinner. All the food we had in the village was delicious! We went to bed early in the village, around 9 pm when it started to get cold. On Wednesday, we had a busy day of learning. As a whole group, we split into two stations to learn about clothes weaving and bamboo basket weaving. I got to start to weave a scarf using a traditional Karen loom – it took me a long time to get a hang of, but at least me and the Karen woman who was helping me got to laugh a lot. Once I got okay at it, it was a very calming pattern to do. At the bamboo weaving station, we wove baskets out of strips of bamboo. I was already familiar with this type of weaving (though not nearly as skilled as the Karen men that taught us), so what I enjoyed most for this station was seeing how the bamboo is processed into the strips for weaving. After lunch, we learned more about rice. We got to harvest some and process it in the tradition way. This was a machine that resembled a see-saw – when you stepped/jumped on one end, the other end pounded the rice, removing the outer shelling. Afterwards, we cooked the rice we had just processed and another traditional Karen dish for our dinner. That evening we did an activity relating to food access in the village.
On Thursday, we went on a guided hike in the surrounding forest. We had several Karen guides who would stop periodically to explain the uses of various plants in the forest or explain a cultural aspect to the Karen like a story or world view. It was cool to learn on the hike – and we got to see a beautiful waterfall and views of different farms. We ate packed lunches wrapped in banana leaves for lunch and by the end of the hike, we found ourselves back at the village. After the hike, our group had to put together a performance for the “cultural exchange” – we decided to do a dance and lip-sync to the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. It was pretty fun. The following day, Friday, we went to the village school. In the morning, we did activities with the students there who were around 10 years old. We were at stations the kids rotated through. I was at the game station, so I played lots of games that day. It was fun but tiring. The students would often crack up when I spoke which was funny. After hanging out with the students, we went to a meeting with some of the teachers to learn about the school system there and how schools from the city differ from it. I was really interesting. That evening, we had the cultural exchange! First, we watched a few performances from the villagers. My 10 year old host brother did a traditional dance with knives while other kids played instruments. Afterwards, an older man played a guitar like insturment and sang a few beautiful songs. I enjoyed the performances but I was feeling awkward about after seeing their wonderful, culturally important performances, doing a silly dance to a Journey song. I was apprehensive but the villagers loved it – or at least I think they did as they were laughing almost the whole time 🙂
We left PhaMon Village mid morning on Saturday. It was sad to say goodbye to our host family, especially our mom who we spent the most time with. I loved being in the village – it was so beautiful and I got to use lots and lots of Thai. Before the several hour drive back to Chiang Mai, we got to stop at a few popular attractions while we were still in Doi Inthanon National Park. We got to stop at the summit of the highest peak in Thailand and go on a short nature trail there. Afterwards, we checked out the Twin Pagodas and a Mon market before leaving the park. All of these stops were great – I especially enjoyed the nature trail as we got to see a lot of really unique plants that grew at that elevation. By evening, we made it safely back to our dorms! I had a great experience at this homestay, but it was also good to be back.
Thank you for reading this long post! I’ll try to get caught up with the most recent week soon as well. In the meantime, be sure to check out my pictures here!