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Thailand: How I remember (2004)

Published: 2011-01-08 23:23:00
Category: memory Tags: Thailand

Note: After writing the previous recollection of my Thailand trip, I found on my computer the following essay, which was apparently written not long after coming home. It is an enlightening comparison which also illuminates how memory works and how values shift.

Some time in 2003, my college pastor Sean told me in confidence that he has considering taking about 10 from our group on an international missions trip. He said he was looking into somewhere in central or south America, with El Salvador being a strong candidate. A few months later, our trip to Bangkok, Thailand was scheduled.

After an application process, our team was selected. Sean and Krisnee would be our leaders. The rest of the team would consist of Tim, Melissa A, Melissa S, Jenny G, Jennifer L, Bickey, Adam, and myself. I was excited right off the bat, knowing everyone on the team well except the Jennys, who I got to know very well on the trip.

The trip required preparation. We read Culture Shock Thailand, studied scripture, and met weekly to rehearse skits and do other planning. On top of that, we had to get passports (which took me a while), get immunized, and come up with the \$1,700.

Through a combination of letter writing, Krispy-Kreme fundraisers, and busing tables at Eatza-Pizza, we all got our money in on time, amazingly. All that was left was to wait, and to grow more and more excited.

We departed on June 30 on Northwest Airlines flight 5 to Tokyo. This was my first experience flying overseas. The jet-lag, in either direction, was deadly. I was so confused by that long, long day (the sun was up for about 30 hours for us). By the time we got to Bangkok, thanks to the date line, it was almost July 2.

On the plane is where we began the obsession with Spiderman Uno. We would play “killer Uno” rules with novelty Spiderman decks. This game was played continually on our trip and given to the Thais, where it is a popular to this day. We now own 5 Spiderman Uno decks (ed. note: My wife and I now have two of these in our possession.).

When we arrived in Bangkok, it was nearly midnight. Still, it was hot and sticky. We met our hosts, Pastor Kelly Hillenbrand and some other Thai members of his staff. They escorted us through the confusion and to the van which would ferry us to the Hotel Alexander.

Our rooms were quite nice, on the 12th floor. It was about as good as a modest Hilton, yet was cheaper than a Motel 6. An American dollar goes a long way in Thailand. Most anything was cheap for us, except for imported goods, which were about the same price as home. Indeed, even my Nikes, which were made in the country, were no cheaper.

We didn't have much time to enjoy our beds, as we had to wake up early the next morning to get oriented to the city and our task. When we reached Good News Study Center / Church, Nave, a young Thai woman, explained our Friday. We were to head to the Free Speech Area of Ramkhamhaeng University, which has about 400,000 students. There we would act as magnets which would attract Thai students to come to Good News' freshman orientation camp: Friends' Story Freshy Camp.

We were taught how to greet (sawadee crap for men), and learned a few phrases in Thai. Mostly we stood there with smiles to attract young people so that our Thai interpreters could invite them to the camp. The day was quite successful in that we signed up most of the people we needed to.

That night we had our first real taste of Thai food. It was delicious. Of all the meals I ate there, I think the Pad Thai from the street vendor was the best. I tried a number of different dishes, including one so spicy it made my nose run. Overall, the food was one of the best parts of the trip, though we ate American from time to time.

The following day, Saturday, was one of the best of the trip. We got to tour Bangkok. This all started with a very interesting ride on a canal boat. In Thailand, there is no government-run transit, so the boat and bus companies are competing on the canals and streets for fares. As a result, the boats didn't always pull to a complete stop when the came up to the dock, resulting in a number of close calls for people jumping on and off. Don't fall in, we were warned, unless you want to go to the hospital.

The canal boat ride was fun in one sense. It was adventurous and new to us. However, I was saddened by what I saw along the canals. With the exception of a few Royal Palaces, the canals are mostly bordered by slums. Worse poverty than could ever have been seen in Portland was all around us. Thailand has a true free market economy, which has allowed it to escape from the Asian financial crisis which started there in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, a true capitalist economy is very hard on the people. I was deeply saddened.

Next we got to ride on funny three wheeled vehicles called Tuk-Tuks. They serve as taxis all over Bangkok. We crammed three or four people in each and sped towards the Grand Palace. To us, traffic seemed crazy in Bangkok. The lanes are more like guidelines, cutting people off is a common practice, and the speedy mopeds are always too close for comfort. Yet we learned that the Thai system had a flow to it, and that people were not mad per se. The crazy streets did not cause that many more accidents than in the US. One of my best memories of Thailand is having 9 people in the bed of a light truck and giving high-fives to passing motorcyclists.

Next we got to head to the Grand Palace, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Here we saw awesome artistry and architecture, beautiful murals, and the sacred Emerald Buddah, whom you were not allowed to point your feet at, out of respect.

At this point in the trip, I realized that we were taking thousands of photos. I wondered why we needed all those photos. Why can't we just trust our memories? A sadness came over me as I realized that we, as humans, had marginalized our ability to remember things with technology. I wondered what else about ourselves we had marginalized.

We ate at a swank bistro which reminded me of NW 23rd in Portland. Then we went on a river-boat tour. I got to see the vast expanse of Bangkok, which has around 12 million people residing there. The urban chic of high rise buildings was met with the peasants, selling seafood from their boats. I saw a number of Buddhist monks in their orange robes.

We caught the sky-train to a rich downtown area where we found shopping, McDonald's, and Starbucks. We shopped a lot on the trip. Especially for a missions trip. Part of Thai culture is a slower pace of life, so we had the great opportunity to relax more than I would have imagined. At first I felt guilty for it, but then I realized that the American culture is what made me so busy, not any sort of universal work ethic. We shopped, shopped, shopped, and then headed home by cab. My Sprite Ice was shook up and it fuzzed and foamed all over my pants as I was crammed in the back seat of a cab. There was the funniest moment.

Sunday was a joy for me. We got to witness church in three languages. English, Thai, and Burmese. Worshiping in a multicultural environment is awesome. I couldn't get enough. Afterward, we shared a meal with out Thai Christian brethren. I noted that a man carried Bill Clinton's book with his Bible to church. Most Thais, Christians included, had no respect for George W Bush. The day wore on quite nicely as we got to know our Thai friends.

The rest of the week wore on, as we had the opportunity to go back to the school, play basketball with our good friend Bi and some young Thai men. Melissa A, who is quite a good basketball player, embarrassed many of the Thais on the other team. There is nothing quite like playing basketball in an old gym in 100 degree heat. Also that week we had more opportunities to hang out, including going to The Mall, a large shopping mall (even by American standards) near our hotel. Adam got a bucket of KFC which he swears was spicier than anything else he had in Thailand.

When Wednesday night came, it was time for Adam and myself to head up to Freshy Camp early. We, being the large farrang, were selected to help unload and set up. This was an interesting experience because we were separated from out team and go to interact only with Thais. There were some very good English speakers with us, so we were not totally isolated. That night we played cards and enjoyed a meal together. It was awesome.

The camp began the next day. Muaklek was the name of the town where the camp was found, a couple hours outside Bangkok, near the jungle. It was a an old Thai boy-scout camp. Along with the giant Buddha statue, it was an odd place for a Christian camp. They had a pet elephant, ostriches, as well as bunnies, chickens, and pigs. There were funny statues of cowboys, Indians, teepees, and boy-scouts all over the place. The place was also filled with bugs. I got dozens of bites. There were dragonflies, centipedes, millipedes, mosquitoes, and all other forms of bugs. There were also geckos, which were lightning fast, could climb on walls, and made a funny barking sound.

At the camp we ate lots of chicken and rice dishes, played games, heard talks, and hung out with a lot of Thai young people. Their college age students were something more like Jr. Highers socially, due to an aspect of Thai culture. So we were celebrities to them. I signed my name and address many times, and I still receive email from my friends.

I made some great Thai friends at the camp, especially Guy, Andy, and Jeb. There were many others, but these remarkable young people struck me the most. I hear that they are still with Good News. It was a lot of fun to hang out with the Thais. We also met up with a team from Foursquare Missionary School, who were near the end of a 6 week stint. They were burnt out.

We presented our corny skits, one of which was set to the old Michael W Smith hit, Place in this World (ed. note: Ah ha! I knew it was a Michael W. Smith song.). During that skit, I got nailed in the face by a water bottle and hit my head hard on the ground. Wahoo! The final morning of camp, we had a two-hour long goodbye session where I got to shake everyone's hand. It got a little old after a while, but it was fun over all. Then we headed back to Bangkok on luxury buses to finish our trip.

The next day was Sunday again, so we had church and relaxed a bit. Of course, we had to go shopping one more time. So we went the JJ market, a huge spot in downtown Bangkok. There we got some very good buys with our strong American dollars. I had a lot of fun with Max and Guy, who were interpreting and bargaining for us. I really appreciated Max, he was a joy, and he is going on to do great things.

After shopping we headed back to the hotel to relax on our last night there in Thailand. We order a pizza, it came with corn. Our Thai friends hung out with us. I got about three useless hours of sleep before we woke up at 2:00am to get ready to head out to the airport. Those final hours were fun and emotional. I will really miss Wun, Max, Dton, Nave, Bird, Donk, Root, and the rest. They gave me the name Gaow, which means something like “glass” (i.e. the drinking kind). After an emotional farewell, we got back on the planes, more than ready to get home. I couldn't sleep, and missed Kimberly badly.

Today in the Christian church, a missions trip has got to “change your life.” I have heard that testimony from dozens of people how have gone on short-term missions trips. The same was not true for me.

First of all, this was more of an outreach than a missions trip. Our goal was to attract people to Good News, so that the staff could get to know them, and welcome them into Christian discipleship. Not one person was saved, not one person was baptized on our trip. Yet that is not how I count success.

I learned a lot from Pastor Kelly. He is a very intelligent and gifted man, and I can think of no one better to do his job. He taught me that this trip was almost more for our benefit than for his. I learned a lot more about myself, and my role in the church on this trip than I learned about how to preach the gospel. Kelly didn't really need us, that is the great irony of the trip. He was serving us.

This trip will always be in my memory. I am constantly reminded of it. We never stop telling the stories over fries and Royal Burgers at Red Robin. I cannot forget my new friends, and I hope to meet them again one day, one way or another.

I learned that America is not so superior to every other nation. We are rich, but that counts for almost nothing. The world is filled with great people and interesting stories. I cannot be nationalistic any longer. I can no longer say, “I am proud to be an American.” I can say that I am proud to be a member of the human race, as lost and sickly as we are. I can also say that I am proud to be a member of God's family, which reaches all over the world.

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© Nathan D. Smith
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