Keep the culture alive

Hill Tribes Museum, Chiang Rai, Thailand

This insightful museum in downtown Chiang Rai gives a great overview of the diverse cultures who inhabit the northern mountains of Thailand. These groups (including the Hmong, Karen, Akha, Lisu, Mien and Lahu) have migrated south from China, Laos and Myanmar. A slide show and artifacts introduce the traditional dress, jewelry, crafts, and spiritual beliefs of these people.

Comparing traditional dress of the hill tribe people of northern Thailand.

The visit to the museum and our homestay in an Akha village in the hills the following day, brought up many discussions about migration and sustainably:

  1. What are some of the reasons these groups migrated into Thailand?
  2. How is their lifestyle different from ours?
  3. What are challenges they face balancing their culture and traditions with the modern world?

Flavors of Thailand

On postcards sent to friends and family from Thailand, the most common phrase we write is “the food is amazing!” The tropical, fresh ingredients delight us every meal. Basil, mango, peanuts, chilis, cashews, fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, egg, nutmeg, cumin, pineapple, rice and noodles in different combinations. Add fish sauce to make it salty, vinegar for sour, chili for spicy and sugar (the kids favorite) for extra sweetness, plus peanuts for crunch.

Mango sticky rice with coconut milk is a favorite!

Reflecting on our culinary experiences, our discussions have included:

  1. What are your favorite tastes from Thai cooking?
  2. What are the most basic ingredients of the Thai food we eat each day?
  3. How do these ingredients relate to the region and climate here in Southeast Asia?
Sweet, sour, and spicy –
you choose how to flavor your Thai meal.

Dam caves and limestone towers

Cheow Lan Lake, Khao Sok, Thailand

We spent the day kayaking, spelunking, hiking and swimming among the towering limestone cliffs and rainforest-covered islands in Cheow Lan Lake inside Khao Sok National Park. The caves hosted several species of spiders, their cricket prey and small, insectivorous bats. The guide explained that the valley was dammed in 1987; the hydropower from the man-made lake now supplies energy to 5 Thai provinces. But with this development came consequences for the native species who lived in this 180 million year old rainforest valley.

Dramatic scenery of limestone pillars.
Man-made islands of ancient rainforest.

We discussed conservation and ecology issues associated with the dam:

  1. What is habitat fragmentation and how does damming this valley affect the birds, elephants, monkeys and tigers who call this rainforest home?
  2. How is hydropower a sustainable energy source? How does it compare with other forms of energy production?
  3. Whay happens to dammed lakes/reservoirs over time with the effects of erosion?
These limestone pillars were made by corals
millions of years ago.

Cicada squeals and sound

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

We first explored this rainforest jungle at dusk. We observed monkeys in the trees, a stick bug crossing the trail and immense crisscrossing bundles of bamboo above and around us. But the most memorable and intense part of our evening hike was the screeching hum of cicadas. As we walked down the trail, the shrill insect calls would shift – sometimes bearable, the next moment so harsh we had to cover our ears. We compared the cicadas’ vibrating wing songs to familiar sounds: a table saw, car alarm, metal on a chalkboard, an airhorn, the squeal of deflating a latex balloon, the propeller of a RC model airplane. When we recorded short clips and played them back, we could detect the differences in pitches.

Male cicadas vibrate their wings up to 400 times per second to produce their mating sound.

Our hike inspired speculation about the mating songs of these crazy loud insects and discussion about properties of sound waves:

  1. Why do you think the cicadas pitches vary? (Hint: there are around 2,500 different species in the park.)
  2. What unit do we use to measure sound volume? How loud do you think these insects are and what does their volume compare to?
  3. What is the relationship between frequency and wavelength of a sound wave?

Diving a coral reef

White Rock, Koh Tao, Thailand

Our 12-year-old completed an Open Water certification, experiencing the magical world of diving in a healthy coral reef with a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). Diving combines the amazing physical sensation of horizontal hovering – moving up and down with an inhale or exhale – and flying, as you glide forward or backward with a flick of a flipper or wave of the hand. With sun penetrating to depth, rainbow colors of corals, fish and anemones are a textural and visual sensations. Marine critters interact: aggressive triggerfish, shy blue spotted rays, mellow grouper, showy Christmas tree worms and elusive but dramatic nudibranchs.

The magical world of a healthy coral reef.

We discussed the ecology and conservation issues of this amazing and threatened ecosystem:

  1. What is the basis of the food chain in a coral reef ecosystem?
  2. Which species are the main grazers, herbivores and predators?
  3. What is coral bleaching? What causes it to happen?
Completing a SCUBA certification requires an understanding of physics, physiology, chemistry and math. The program is challenging and rewarding – an ideal example of experience-based learning.

Beachcombing and sand study

Ao Manau, Gulf of Thailand

The first time exploring the tideline in a new part of the world is always exciting. Our first Thai beach was 4 hours by train south of Bangkok – the lovely Ao Manao near Prachuam Khiri Kahn. Whelks and cone shells decorated the shore. Delicate spiral shells inspired stringing bracelets with needle and thread. We found a jelly and a couple of fish washed up.

Exploring the beach with an observant eye inspired speculation and discussion about the sand and the underwater landscape:

Never bored when there’s a beach to explore.
  1. What is the sand like (color, texture)? How is it different from sand at another beach you know?
  2. What do you think is the origin of the sand (ex. lava, riverbed eroding, coral reef, sandstone)?
  3. From looking at the critters along the tideline, what is the underwater landscape (i.e. rocky, sandy, coral reef, etc.)?

The king, Buddha and gold

Grand Palace Bangkok, Thailand

Exploring the brilliant temples and statues inside the Grand Palace walls

Commisioned in 1782 by the first Thai monarch, Rama I, the colorful and ornate roofs and chedi (aka stupa) lure us into the walled complex of the Grand Palace. We visited the emerald Buddha, gawked at the towering ogres guarding the temple and followed the story of the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic) on the 178 section mural bordering the compound. We also toured past the Chakri Maha Prasat Hall built by king Rama V as the royal residence.

Our visit to this historical wang (Thai for palace) lead to a discussion of the monarchy and goverment in Thailand:

  1. Who is the current king and what role does he play in the governing of Thailand?
  2. What other countries have a monarchy?
  3. How do you feel about religion being part of the government?
Giant yaksha guard the temple compound

Gongs, candles and karma

Golden Mount, Bangkok, Thailand

Sounding the gong over Bangkok

Exploring Wat Saket – the temple of the Golden Mount – provided a stimulating opportunity to understand the Thai Buddhist traditions. We climbed the spiraling stairs 80 meters high, under ancient, lush trees, passing landscaped waterfalls and statued shrines. A gentle chanting of a monk through the speakers guided our ascent as a light breeze cooled us. Along the way, we rang bells for good luck. Striking the towering gongs sent deep resonating tones through the air. We observed Thai Buddhists making offerings of lotus buds and flower garlands to the golden Buddha statues and lighting incense and candles for wish fulfillment.

This visit provided a great platform for discussing:

  1. What are some similarities of the Buddhist tradition to other religions we have observed from home?
  2. How are the Thai Buddhist practices different from religions we know well?
  3. What is karma and how does it relate to the Buddhist belief of rebirth?