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Thailand: How I remember (2004)

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.

Published:
Category: memory Tags: Thailand

Once in Thailand (2009)

In the summer of 2004 I embarked on a trip with some friends to Bangkok, Thailand. Apart from a very brief jaunt into Canada, it is still my only international trip. We were sent by our church on a mission trip of sorts, though it didn't really happen as I would have imagined it would.

After learning that I had been selected for the trip, I had to raise a lot of money. I think the total needed was around \$1,400 (or \$1,700?). We sold Krispy Kreme doughnuts by the hundreds of dozen in order to raise funds in addition to our personal solicitations. I came up short and had to put up the last few hundred dollars myself. In addition to the fund raising, we had to train for some short dramatic skits which we were to present while in Thailand. I am pretty sure that one of them was set to the tune of a Michael W. Smith song, but my memory betrays me as to which one.

The flight from Tokyo to Bangkok, at six hours, would have been the longest flight I had ever been on, were it not for the nine hour flight from Portland I had just completed. We arrived in the middle of the night and it was incredibly hot and humid outside. On the drive from the airport to the hotel, we were stopped in a stand-still traffic jam. Our host told us it was probably due to a member of the royal family traversing a highway underpass - in Thailand it is disrespectful to put one's feet over another's head. Checked in. Slept.

The next morning, as we were driving to the church/English-school where we were to work, we spotted one of our team member's sisters, boldly walking unescorted down the streets of Bangkok. She had been in country only about 12 hours longer than us, having arrived for a long term stay.

Our task in Thailand was more promotional than missional. We were to go onto a nearby university campus to promote an English language learning camp for freshmen which the church was putting on. Then, we would go out into the wilds to staff the camp. But before we really got to that, we got to tour Bangkok. That was a lot of fun. It was amazing how American culture had spanned the globe, yet not without being flavored by local custom.

To get to the campus, we rode the bus. Buses in Bangkok are harrowing affairs for those of us used to the comforts of TriMet. They would not always come to a complete halt at stops, which lead to a rather humorous incident where one of our team members was left running on the street with both hands on the door handle until she was able to jump back in.

So we got around to wandering around the campus free speech zone and randomly inviting Thai college students to the camp. The language barrier made for some interesting exchanges. I am not sure how many we recruited as opposed to how many signed up by other means, but we had a healthy-sized group at the camp.

One of the young men we met played basketball. We were able to setup a time to play a pickup game at the college. The teams were our group and our new friend versus a group of young Thai men. They were shocked by the skills of one of our girls, who, though hardly over five feet tall, was able to school the whole lot of them. With much help from our new Thai friend, we were able to win the game, thereby upholding the international stereotype that all Americans are good at basketball.

Much like our own group, the Thai church had a young adult worship service. Much unlike our group, this service was attended by roughly 80% Buddhists. We had other worship opportunities, including their typical Sunday worship service (complete with bilingual sermon), and the installation of a pastor for the Cambodian congregation. It was very nice to experience worldwide Christianity. I was impressed by the diversity yet solidarity of the church across borders.

We got to meet many church goers at various functions, including a potluck. One man came to church with three books under his arm: the Bible, Hillary Clinton's Living History, and Bill Clinton's My Life. We also ate a lot of good food, including some which was far too spicy for me (see below).

We finally got to go to the camp, which as it turns out was a Thai boyscout camp. This camp was also shared with an ROTC program which would shoot off canons early in the morning. I slept through the canon fire - it's a famous story. We had a great time with the Thai students. A lot of Uno was played in addition to many fun camp games, and there was even a dance. We also got to participate in more traditional aspects of Thai culture (see above).

I made a lot of friends, with some of whom I still keep in touch. There is one person I am sure came to faith in Jesus in the immediate aftermath of our trip. I think that makes it worth it. The trip was probably mostly a learning experience for us. I think that is how our host missionary probably saw it. We did learn a lot, and I am still learning from that experience.

After the camp, there was not much left for us to do. So, as had become the custom during our trip when we had free time, our host directed us to go shopping. Giant outdoor markets, "The Mall," and everything in between. We did do an awful lot of shopping in Thailand.

So we finished our trip and came home. In the coming years we were visited by some of the people whom we met over there. Our team has more or less gone its separate ways, with the notable exception of two of the team members marrying each other. I am left with a precious reserve of memories and sentiments about my trip to Thailand.

Note: This article was originally published on another site.

Published:
Category: memory Tags: Thailand

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