Category Archives: 2019 Thailand Learning Abroad Blog

The Mighty Mae Kong River

“If things continue the way they have been, by 2040, 97% of the original biodiversity within the Mekong River will be lost.”

Niwat Roykaew – Local Advocate and Director of Chiang Khong Mekong School for Local Knowledge

Winding almost 3,000 miles, the Mekong (Mae Kong) River spans through the countries of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Mekong River, known for its rich and essential biodiversity, provides livelihoods for more than 60 million people (Lovgren, 2018). Social and economic development in the Mekong Region is posing major threats to the conservation of the river. In this post we will discuss some of the main pressing threats to the Mekong River that we learned through articles and the organizations we encountered while in Thailand. The Mekong River has been changed by the increasing level of development of unsustainable infrastructure and high rates of pollution, directly impacting the fish biodiversity, livelihoods, and human health in the regions.

Environmental Infrastructure

With 11 major dams already developed along the Mekong river, there are plans for future dam development, some already being constructed. Mr. Niwat Roykaew, local activist and the director of Chiang Khong Mekong School on Local Knowledge, discussed the many environmental issues associated with the development of large infrastructure in the Mekong.

Image courtesy of Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) of Thailand.

China is causing disastrous conditions for the countries downstream, dam construction has already caused downstream impacts, especially in the Thai-Lao border where communities have been suffering from the changing water levels. Mr. Niwat Roykaew also stated that China will close their dams when they need water and open them when they have too much, resulting in the downstream countries to experience major drought and then flooding, drastically changing the waters flow rate and limiting the amount of nutrient rich sediment that is crucial to maintain biodiversity.

Effects of Fish Biodiversity

Around the globe, it is known that dams negatively impact fish populations due to the disruption they have on spawning. The Mekong River is no exception and is now experiencing the side effects of having dams in place. Perhaps the most iconic fish in the Mekong river, the Mekong giant catfish, is a perfect example of the effect’s dams are having on migratory fish. Before the construction of dams began in the 1990’s, annual catch rates for the Mekong giant catfish hovered around 70 fish. This number steadily declined over the next decade leading to four years between 2000 and 2006 with no Mekong giant Catfish being reported (Hogan, 2013). It is now illegal to fish for the Mekong giant catfish as it is a protected species and is listed as a critically endangered species as well. Mr. Niwat Roykaew stated that if nothing changes in the Mekong River, then by 2040 97% of the biodiversity in the river will be lost. Local communities and their fisherman will be left to deal with the fallout.        

Fishing not only provides food for villages located on the Mekong river, but is an important source of income for many families. The total economic value of the Mekong river is estimated to be between $5.6 and $9.4 billion per year (Morton & Olson, 2018). The economic boost that fishing and the industries that compliment it provide should be incentive enough to attempt to save this habitat. Fisherman around the globe have suffered because of the impact dams have had on their fisheries. The Columbia river, whose first dam was completed in 1933, is a clear example of this pattern. In 1940, commercial harvest for salmon was 15 thousand metric tons. This number has decreased to around two thousand metric tons in 2010. The Columbia river houses, 15 mainstream dams and an extensive network of hatcheries is being used in order to help maintain salmon populations (Environmental Management, 2010). Right now, there are a very limited number of hatcheries supporting the Mekong. The livelihood of fisherman on the Mekong is being challenged at the moment. Local representatives from the Hill Tribe Development Foundation (HADF) told of fisherman villages that are now abandoned along the shores of the Mekong river because there were no longer fishable populations left in those areas. Dams are interrupting the equilibrium of the Mekong river which in turn affects the local fisherman that rely on this fishery.

Environmental Public Health

The issues stated before directly impact the health of the individuals within the Mekong River area. With contaminated water, fish become contaminated, providing another route of harmful exposure to local people. According to Niwat Roykaew of the Chiang Khong Mekong School for Local Knowledge, local fish are also being forced to span in new areas due to the changes the damns have enacted, heightening the possibility of contamination. Fish and aquaculture in the Mekong Delta is one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world. This has made the fish both a large part of the income of locals, but a staple in local foods as well.

Traditional Hill Tribe dish made from local fish, garlic, cilantro and chili peppers.

Metals have been found to be the leading cause of concern in cultivated Mekong fish. Studies have shown that zinc, arsenic and copper are the most concentrated metals in the fish, followed by cadmium and lead. Daily intakes of these metals range up to 50 mg/(kg day) while the average recommended amount is 12 mg (Chanpiwat et al. 2016). The hazard quotient for zinc in the Mekong River ranges from 50-120 HQ, meaning that there is an increased likelihood of health risks that are highly expected. These include low copper levels, low immunity and low levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Overexposure to copper metals has produced liver and kidney damage along with a decrease in fetal growth (Agency for Toxic Substances, 2004).

Thousands of people are exposed to these increased concentrations of metals, leading to many long term health issues and even death. In addition to the dangerous water quality and fish, the number of fish has decreased. This has removed a very important part of the local people’s diet, causing them to turn to other sources of food. With many of these individuals being low income, individuals may begin to turn to cheap, nutrient-empty foods. This includes chips, cookies, fast-food and other snack items that are high in sugar and salt, but low in nutritional values. Food deserts like this are correlated with the rise in obesity, cardiovascular diseases and other health care risks. Overall, there are large health impacts on the local community that are directly caused by the misuse and mistreatment of the Mekong River and its environment.

Future Progress

The Mekong River has been changed by unsustainable infrastructure and pollution, which directly impacts the biodiversity of fish and human health in the region. Organizations such as the Chiang Khong Mekong School on Local Knowledge have focused on educating young people on the history and importance of the Mekong River in their communities. They also have been involved with numerous community-based research efforts which are used on the national and international level to defend and protect the Mekong River. Partnerships with other organizations including the Mekong Youth Assembly, International Accountability Project, The Center for ASEAN Studies, Chiang Mai University and iMekong have broadened the horizons and impact of local communities to enact change (Weerachat, 2016). Outside countries including Australia and the United States have also begun to take notice of the worsening conditions. However, more support, education and resources are needed to change the course of the Mekong River. It is vital to these local communities, the ecosystems in the region and to the countries in which it graces their border.

Authors: Lilly Arvidson, Griffin Conway & Mason Schlief

The Impacts of Education, Policy, and Society on Sexuality

There are four people in our group: Madison Brandt, Pooja Athalye, Rosie Yang, and Mckenna Turner. Our post will be discussing how sexuality is impacted by education, policy, and society in Thailand. More specifically, we will be addressing the issues of sexual education and human trafficking in Thailand. We found these issues to be significant as there is still much work to be done to improve the sexual health and wellbeing of people in Thailand. We will begin by discussing the national framework of sexual education in Thailand. Next, we will move on to discussing how local education is structuring sexual education. Our next section will discuss the background of human trafficking and the various mechanisms Thailand is taking to end of human trafficking. Our last section will cover the effects of human trafficking on survivors such as STD’s and pregnancies, and cover possible ways to reduce the risks of trafficking.

National Sex Education

A sign from the Cabbages and Condoms restaurant advocating for safe sex.

Nationally public policy regarding sexual health and education stemmed from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 90s. The research on the Successes and Challenges of HIV/AIDS Prevention explains that “sexual behaviors have changed significantly, with condom use increasing”; this increase usage happened through promoting condom use in the commercial sex setting government sponsored STD clinics, cooperating with sex establishment owners, sex workers, and clients to use condoms through the “100% condom program”, and supplying “almost 60 million free condoms a year to support this activity”.  We saw this national change impact locals at the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) the restaurant Cabbages and Condoms. PDA is a public benefit organization that strives to promote and provide a good quality of life and equality to poor and underprivileged communities.

The purpose of Cabbages and Condoms was to help promote family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention in Thailand. Cabbages and Condoms initially started as a vegetable stand that gave out contraceptives on the property of PDA’s office and slowly transformed into a health advocacy restaurant enabling Thailand’s community at large to have access to contraceptives in an engaging way. The restaurant had a plaque explaining that through its efforts PDA has “contributed tremendously in lowering the average size of Thai families. The number of children family decreased from 7 in 1974 to 2 at present.” Eating at the restaurant made me feel like it was “ok” to talk about sexual health publicly. The national efforts for HIV/AIDS prevention in the 90s still has an impact today and local efforts to make people aware in Thailand are engaging to the youth while also giving incredibly valuable information. Although there are more establishments in Japan and the UK, I believe that America would benefit significantly from this type of system of sexual health public policy because it not only helps make people more aware, it also helps make sex a palatable topic. Especially in the south, making sex a more palatable topic would benefit the youth significantly and help reduce teen pregnancies and start the conversation about safe-sex practices.

Local Sex Education

A biology classroom at Chiang Dao School. Students here learn about safe sex education when they reach a certain age.

While national policies and ideals are important, the work that really happens and is enforced is within smaller communities like schools. This is where knowledge is practiced and built. Let’s take a look at some information brought by a generalized study on sex education in Thailand from UNICEF. In Thailand, the form of sex education taught is called CSE, otherwise known as Comprehensive Sexual Education. This education focuses on sexuality and relationships, covering topics met by the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education. There are national standards to be met for this, but let’s dive into how it is really being practiced in the schools and what affects the lack of learning in these environments. Within CSE, there are 5 topics covered. First, gender roles within sexuality. More female students were noted in studies to have heard about this, showing the uneven equality amongst genders. While students claimed to know about sex education, self-assessed studies showed that women’s main form of contraception was Plan B, and men were reluctant to wear condoms. This shows the problems within gender roles and the need of this section to be taught. The lack of sex education and the current forms of protection lead to the next topic, which is sexual health, relating to forms of protection for men and women. Then, the rest of the topics include violence, sexual rights, and identity and relationships. Studies show that about half of students find it acceptable for sexual violence to occur when necessary, and teachers focus on sex being a product of marriage. Both of these things lack sexual knowledge and don’t help with safety for when sex does occur. When it comes to the education itself, CSE is provided both separately and integrated within courses. Within a study done finding qualitative data within Thai secondary schools, 3/24 secondary schools taught CSE as integrated instead of separate, not allowing the topic to really be understood and focused on. This may include health education, or even integrated into social sciences or science class. From this, 82.2% of these teachers had a CSE teaching manual, 70.2% had instruction manuals, and 56.4% of the teachers had a written syllabus. Is sex education itself really being focused on (UNICEF, 2016)? When we went to the Chang Dao school, the teacher mentioned that sex Education is important for the older kids. But what about the kids growing up into the generation that is more likely to have sex? How many teachers are teaching the subject separately and truly teaching it? From the studies and information shown, it seems as though teachers have limited information and previous biases about sex that affect the students that have such limited knowledge of sex.

Causes and Mechanisms to End Sex Trafficking

A sign in Laos near a market which is advocating to stop trafficking.

Thailand is a key state which houses the transit, destination, and source of sex trafficking victims. Sex trafficking is fueled by the popularity of the sex tourism industry, which subjugates victims into economic slavery to produce services for sex tourists. Victims do not willingly participate in the sex tourism industry, as most are coerced or deceived by family or friends into believing that they will be participating in legal work but are instead trafficked and subjugated (UN-Act). Marie, a representative from the Child Safe Movement, discussed how children are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation through a pimp, which allows them to control power over the victim. Sexual exploitation of children negatively affects children through the combination of sexual, physical, and mental abuse (Child Safe). Corruption as well as established underground methods to sustain sex tourism continues to make the detection of child sex trafficking much more difficult within the country.

Thailand is finding various ways to stop the trafficking of victims, and these include the use of governmental mechanisms, the installation of trafficking tasks force on law enforcement, and the encouragement of the tourism industry to help identify and end trafficking. Firstly, Thailand has eight governmental anti-trafficking mechanisms, as well as multiple laws since 1996 to combat the trafficking of victims. Some of these include the Anti-Human Trafficking Division (ATHD), the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Committee (ATP Committee), and the Coordinating and Monitoring of Anti-Trafficking in Persons Performance Committee (CMP Committee) (UN-Act). Additionally, Thailand has passed agreements with neighboring countries in the South East Asia region to create tasks forces as well as working with law enforcement agencies to identify and shut down trafficking between border countries (Thailand Law Forum). The tourism industry and tourists are also being called on to help shut down trafficking crimes. Touring groups are becoming trained to identify trafficking when it occurs during tours, and are disengaging in any activities or programs which may have a stake in the sex trafficking industry. Many tourist groups have partnered with organizations such as Child Safe to certify their businesses on the protection, training, and advocacy against sex tourism. Groups such as these are also encouraging tourists to become educated on the sex tourism industry, and how it can impact them. From the Child Safe workshop we participated in, some of these actions can include reporting any incidents of child sex or abuses seen, refraining from sex with minors, and refraining from acting or speaking in sexual manners towards minors including relationships, speech, or images (Child Safe).

The Effects and Risks of Sex Trafficking Victims

The Golden Triangle is the intersection of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Because of this, it was a hotbed for trafficking people into different countries.

When facing the challenge of helping victims of sex trafficking, there are some statistics to keep in mind. In a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health, 89% of those surveyed were under 18 when starting sex work. Furthermore, one-fifth of the respondents became pregnant at some point of being in the sex industry which is three times more likely than those who entered the industry willingly. Those trafficked were also twice as likely to experience violence. Since Thailand leads the region in incidences of HIV, education on this topic could potentially help lessen the lucrative aspect of the sex industry. This puts those trafficked at an increased risk. It’s also important to start including men in the education process. To increase efforts, there could be more done with those undocumented. Young girls from countries like Burma who immigrate to Thailand without documentation are at an increased risk. Sex trafficking is a mulit faceted issue and should be treated as such. Beneficial services may include therapy, childcare, education, and sexual healthcare.

To conclude, the impact of policy, education, and society on sexuality in Thailand is still taking strides to improve the sexual health and wellbeing of the country. Sex education was initiated by the government nationally through the Cabbages and Condoms initiative from the result of the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. The effect of Cabbages and Condoms allowed for a diaglouge to destigmatize sex, and encouraged safe sex practices. Despite this initiative, local sex education is still developing in order to provide better proper sex education in schools. Responses from a UNICEF study show that individuals in Thailand are misinformed about safe sex practices, especially regarding proper use of birth control and sexual violence. Sexual violence and trafficking are also prominent issues in Thailand, with sex trafficking being one of the top types of human trafficking in Thailand. With this in mind, we discussed the initiatives which the government is taking in order to end human trafficking, and then discussed the effects which sex trafficking has on surviviors. WIth this in mind, we were able to identify where the government of Thailand is working to improve policy regarding sexual health, education, and exploitation, yet we have also realize that there is still much work to be done regarding issues of sex education and human trafficking.


….. Cabbages & Condoms Resort and Restaurant ….. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Decker, M. R., McCauley, H. L., Phuengsamran, D., Janyam, S., & Silverman, J. G. (2011, April). Sex trafficking, sexual risk, sexually transmitted infection and reproductive health among female sex workers in Thailand. Retrieved from

Liebolt, C. (2014). The Thai Government’s Response to Human Trafficking: Areas of Strength and Suggestions for Improvement (Part1). Retrieved from

Thailand. (n.d.). Retrieved from

UNICEF, Ministry of Education. “Review of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Thailand” (2016). Retrieved from

Yurtoğlu, N. (2018). Http:// History Studies International Journal of History,10(7), 241-264. doi:10.9737/hist.2018.658

Condoms vs Chlamydia?

Throughout this trip, the restaurant Cabbages and Condoms has resonated the most with me. I never thought I would find something to be so passionate about on this trip and like my choice in the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities it came from the most unassuming place. On our way from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, we were told we would stop at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms. At first thought I thought this was a mistake because of the “Condoms” in the title but when I asked P’Beer, our tour guide, again she said exactly the same thing— Cabbages and Condoms. Growing up in a household that didn’t speak much about sexual health except for the occasional “if you want to succeed a baby wouldn’t help you”, it was surprising to see an eating establishment openly displaying information about sexual health in a country that I thought was extremely conservative; judging by the way I was told to dress for the trip and its militaristic government. 

Information given by restaurant (I wasn’t able to rotate the picture)

The restaurant not only gave me amazing food but also showed me how much the locals, organizations, and the government cared about people’s sexual health; a topic which had always been so taboo even in my conversations in America. Through both the human ecology and social justice lens, I saw just how important sexual health education was in the Thai community. In the 90’s the Thai government created an initiative to decrease the number people infected with HIV/AIDS through giving out 60 million free condoms to Thai citizens.  Cabbages and Condoms came about later thanks to The Population & Community Development Association (PDA) to help rural communities be educated on sexual health while also receiving free contraceptives and delicious food. Through the human ecology lens we see how a national policy affected a community organization to make a change and significantly help with sexual health awareness. With advent of Cabbages and Condoms, PDA was able to help bring down the average from 7 children in a family to 2 children in a family. This changes the notion of large families in rural and poor communities and changes how families interact within human ecology.

Poster at the restaurant (I wasn’t able to rotate it)

As an American, who sees the importance of sexual education in rural and poor communities within America, I am inspired to help these communities through the ingenious use of food much like Cabbages and Condoms. From what I saw, using food to make a taboo subject more “palatable” has made a significant difference and I feel that it would be wise to try and implement it in more communities around my community at home.

Our Natural Environment

The Human Ecology Model (HEM) is based on the interdependence of organisms (individuals/families) and the environmental systems with which they interact. Traveling so far from my home has been an experience that has allowed me to reflect on my life and the little things that I take for granted. In this blog post I am going to address the ways in which I observed human activity working with and against the natural environment while in Thailand. I would like to also address that this is only MY perspective, obtained from my observations of the differences between two very different cultures, the Thai culture and North American Culture. 

I have observed that Thailand seems to incorporate the natural environment into some of their cities. In the states, often you see bulldozers clearing out forested areas to build new infrastructure, but particularly in Chiang Khong, I’ve seen roads that go around a mountain vs directly through and plants and trees between sidewalks. 

Sidewalk in Chiang Mai

We visited some Hill Tribes that gave me an idea of their lifestyles and the values and beliefs that they practice. Many of the Hill Tribes, such as the Huay Kom Nok Karen Village, practice a way of living that protects the natural resources and the overall sustainability of the environment. The Hill Area Community and Development Foundation (HADF) that we spoke with, talked to us about the issue associated with the economic and population growth in Thailand and how this impacts the natural environment. Similar to Thailand, the States also have issues with deforestation, soil erosion, water scarcity and biodiversity. There is a note-able concern of environmental degradation in both countries. Although, I have noticed that there is a lack of environmental effort in Thailand, I think that their efforts are focused more on the high rates of poverty and homelessness within the country. 

Doi Inthanon National Park Hike

As rapid globalization is occurring in Thailand,  it is important to practice sustainable behaviors when interacting with our natural environment, because it affects our lives and many livelihoods. I believe that the many people that are in a position of privilege should practice behaviors that preserve our environment. Understanding the social injustices and the environmental injustices experienced by people in Thailand has allowed me to recognize the privileges that I have and the ways that I am responsible to contribute to the change that is needed. 

The Lives and Dreams of the Hmong In Thailand

Before coming to Thailand, I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect. I’ve seen photos and videos of Hmong villages within my classes, but I only had a small glimpse of what life was like in Thailand for both the Thai and Hmong communities. Coming to Thailand had allowed me to get a deeper understanding of the lives and people in the country. I believe the most influential part of the trip was getting to know the people in the country, and breaking stereotypes which I have had previously before coming to Thailand.

On the first day of the trip, I quickly fell in love with the homey-ness of the shops around the city. Coming from Minnesota where stores are typically large corporations, it was a nice change of scenery to see that there was no pattern to the jumble of shops around Chiang Mai. In addition to the scenery, it was incredible to see the forests of Thailand and how closely it resembled home for me. I could see how the plants which my family grew in my home resembled the plants surrounding the mountains of Thailand such as banana trees, tall plants, and tropical flowers.

The mountains and forests of Thailand were breath-taking.

During our encounters with the ethnic minorities in Thailand, I was surprised to see how many ethnic groups there actually were in Thailand. Going to the ethnic minority museum allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of a large amount of diversity and histories of the people which make up Thailand.

Women from the Yao ethnic group. There are many other ethnic groups in Thailand including the Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu, and Akha.

During the trip, the part which I was most anxious for was meeting the Hmong people in Thailand. Because I am not fluent in the language, I was worried about what they would think of me as I could not communicate well with them. Initially, I did not speak much during the first visit with the Hmong Village. However, as we continued to meet more of the Hmong community, they began speaking with me and teaching me more about their lives in Thailand. This allowed me to feel more comfortable using my language skills to try to speak to them. On our visit to the Chiang Dao School, we interacted with the 9th-grade students of the school and attempted to get to know more about each other through cultural exchange. With the combination of English, Hmong, and picture drawing, we were able to ask questions and learn more about each other.

One of the MC’s during our visit to the CRRU Student Club.

During our time at Laos, we were introduced to a family who worked in the Dauuw Village. We learned more about the owner, and his move from Thailand to Laos to selflessly help the vulnerable populations of the Hmong in Laos. Through their work, they house children without parents, provides childcare and education to the children, houses single mothers, and creates job training for women through their women shelter. Through this, I could see how the family was inspired to use their means to uplift the vulnerable populations of the community, and to give them a chance at life.

Enjoying our time at the Daauw Village

The last way which I saw the dreams of the community was through the Mekong School. We met with Ku-Thi, the founder, who told more about his mission to work with the Hmong people and give them an opportunity to have a voice regarding their home and environment. The work which he did truly inspired me as he and the other Hmong student-researchers worked to collect data and advocate for the dreams of the Hmong people in preserving their homeland against large corporations and environmental destruction. His passion for helping the Hmong, as well as educating the community about the lives of the Hmong truely touched me as the voices of the Hmong often go unnoticed.

Boats of the Mekong River. Many people use these boats to carry goods which will be sold or exported.

Throughout the trip, I have had the privilege to meet many people of the Hmong and Thai community in Thailand, and to see that their dreams were to become educated, encourage others to become educated, to show their cultural pride, to give a voice to their community, and to protect those most vulnerable within the community. This trip was a small glimpse of some of the inspiring individuals in Thailand working to fight for what they believe in, yet it has allowed me to see that the similarities are much greater between us when it comes to the fundamental core of who we are as human beings, and the hopes and dreams that we have for the future.

Multicultural Diversity & Integration in Thailand

Throughout our three weeks in the cities of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Khong in Thailand, we have navigated, discovered, learned, and struggled through the different aspects of what this beautiful country has showed us. There were many hot and humid days as we strolled around the night market or hiked up in the highlands. Because every day was a new learning experience, I tried to absorb all the knowledge by reflecting about the things we did each day. It was difficult because I learned so much in this program, but once I began to observe my surroundings and take the situation as it was, then I became aware of how to navigate various experiences. To me, I was always more interested in learning about the ethnic minority groups in Thailand. As an ethnic minority in the US and then coming as another ethnic minority to Thailand, I wanted to learn about how the ethnic groups particularly the Hmong bring diversity and integrate themselves in the Thai mainstream society.

Look at these cute Hmong kids! They are so amazing and vibrant! They asked me what village I come from, but I told them I come from America. They don’t know where America is. They’re playfully naughty, but that’s how kids are. I miss them already. I still remember their names.

In Chiang Mai, which was the first city we stayed at, if I had to be honest, visiting the Suksasongkroh Chiang Dao Boarding School and Pha Nok Kok Hmong Village was the first day where I became exposed to focusing more on the ethnic groups rather than the Thai community. These experiences were on our first Friday in Thailand and this was the day where I enjoyed the most throughout our first week.  When we visited the Chiang Dao Boarding School, it was the time where students were just returning to school. Traditional Thai schools begin their schooling from May to March and have about 200 days of school (Clark 2014). Another interesting point to make about public Thai education is that students are fully funded by the government of 15 years (Thai PBS 2016). This holds true for the students attending the Chiang Dao Boarding School.

Not taken at the Chiang Dao Boarding Schoo, but this was taken at the Meungkarn Boarding school. 5 students then became to 18 or so students. When you become become popular with the Hmong students.
PC: Acharn Cat

What really attracted my attention and amazed me about this school was that it allows the students to wear their cultural clothing each Friday. This school admits and supports children who mainly come from poor families and the majority if not all come from the 10 ethnic groups in Thailand such as the Karen, Lisu, and Hmong. Before I did not really see and understand what Thailand does to acknowledge their ethnic groups. Of course, we watched a cultural performance and saw cultural clothing at the night market, but these things were not really explained to me. In other words, there was not a conversation about it. However, visiting Chiang Dao or Meungkarn and getting the opportunity to talk with the teachers about how they try to preserve the students’ ethnic identity made me begin to change my perspective of how Thailand lacks to recognize multicultural diversity. In addition, while all the students speak Thai as a common language, the majority if not all speak their own ethnic language. It is like multiple immersion schools put into one which I believe it is wonderful.

The ‘whole’ group picture. In their home, they have about 45 family members. Their home is in the Daauw Vilage. The place we were at was a restaurant and a homestay. This is how they earn income. So happy to hear that tij laug Chan and the adults help children who don’t have parents or have lack of access to resources. It’s a great project and I support it very much.
PC: P’ Beer

There were 3 villages we visited – 2 being Hmong villages and 1 being a Karen village. I have only heard village life in the highlands of Thailand or Laos from our Hmong elders, but to be able to stand on the same landscape as like them has made me reminisce about their experiences. In addition, visiting the villages and learning about their ways of life has made reflect about the different things that my parents may have done during their time in Southeast Asia. When we visited the villages, they had roads leading to them and they were closer to the lowland than I expected. I may be oblivious to how high we were going up and what defines the border between city life and village life, but I did not think there was much of a long-distance travel between the city and the village. I remember clearly from the lady who volunteers as a secretary in the Hill Area Development Foundation mentioned, “When the organization was just starting, my mother and her group would walk up the hills to get the villages because there were no roads. But now there are roads which makes it easier for us to get to the villages.” We are seeing a change because as roads are connecting the city and villages, it gives villagers and Thai locals to get ease of access between the two. In addition, villagers especially children are coming to the village for education, yet they can return to their village in the evening. According to the village leader of the Pha Nok Kok Hmong Village, “If children want to go up higher in their education, then they would have to go to the city.” Most villages would only offer elementary school like the first Hmong village we visited. However, if the village is poor or if children want to attend higher in their education, then they have to go to school in the city.   

From left to right: Zeb, Keeb, Nuj Xwm, Me, & Foos
These were my tablemates for the day. Thanks for welcoming me into your club and school. It really felt like home.

The Hmong Student Club at Chiang Rai Rajabhat University (CRRU) provides a great model to show how an ethnic group creates a space to preserve their ethnic identity, while also being immerse in the Thai mainstream society. This has to be one of my most favorite days out of the 3-week program. From what I know, the club members are majoring in different fields such as Language, Logistics, and Finance, yet they all share one aspect in general which is their sense of pride in their Hmong identity. According to Phiaj who is the student club president, “The Hmong CRRU Student Club educates, preserves, and promotes Hmong culture the campus and public community.” From the pictures they have showed us, I believe they are doing amazing work in both communities especially giving back to the Hmong villages where education is lacking. I remember Paaj Nyiag who is one of the MCs that has told us that their student clubs brings general members to a village and they do a few overnights. While at these villages, they would assist the village by doing projects such as building a house or doing a student exchange with the children. I am happy to have met the Hmong college students and I will never forget about their generosity and hospitality.

As I stand in front of the Mekong River, the river that many of our Hmong families had to swim across to reach Thailand to escape from persecution, I don’t know how to feel. I’m clearly smiling in the picture of course, yet deep down I think back to the stories that our Hmong elders have shared.

While I think that there could be more progress for the Thai government to appreciate multicultural diversity, they are doing better than before. When my parents and other Hmong families escaped to Thailand as refugees, the Hmong were considered as outsiders, but now the Hmong are being integrated in Thai mainstream society. Although more and more especially the younger generation are moving into the city, they still have a sense of pride in their Hmong identity which is done by wearing their Hmong clothing or speaking in Hmong out in public. My time in Thailand has been nothing but fun and learning, and I am thankful to have been given the various opportunities to meet the Hmong in Southeast Asia. I will definitely miss the friends we have met along our journey, but I know it will not be the last time I will see them. I will be coming back for sure to spend more time with them.

Effects of Tourism

For most countries around the world, tourism is welcomed because of the economic effects it can have. I had not thought of the negative side effects that tourism could potentially burden a country and its people with. Before coming to Thailand, I had heard of the sex tourism that takes place in the country. However, I did not realize that trafficking extended so much further beyond just this. After we had our conversation with Friends International much of my previous thoughts on this topic changed. It made me think of the issues surrounding this topic and how there are potential solutions. I am by no means stating that I have the answer to this problem.

             I felt that those of us in the presentation were unaware of both the severity of trafficking and different ways that it transpires. Ignorance on our part and many of the people visiting Thailand is unquestionably contributing to this issue. Simply becoming educated will allow people to take the simple steps like not giving to panhandlers. There are parts of this problem that will be incredibly difficult to take on. Obviously, there is a large demand within Thailand for sex trafficking and that alone makes eradicating it extremely unlikely. As long as this demand continues, then there will be people to fill this need. Nevertheless, individuals can help lessen their impact on trafficking by becoming more knowledgeable about the topic.

Waste Management and Environmental Observations

I’d just like to say that I’ve been loving my time in Thailand so far! I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’ve already learned so much.

One of the major themes of this course is the environment. I’ve always been very invested in sustainability as it’s the reason I went vegetation (minus my flexing on this trip). Throughout my first week and a half here, I’ve noticed both disheartening and promising sustainability practices. For example, I’ve noticed a lot of plastic on the sides of the roads, etc. I think this may be partially due to the large amount of single use plastic in their markets and other areas. On a positive note, I noticed that the Karen man had solar panels on his roof which is very encouraging. Additionally, some of the homes we’ve visited don’t have AC which would go a long way in minimizing a carbon footprint. If people in the US, could live without AC for even a few days of the week, the planet would be much better off. Also, I noticed a zero waste school in Chiang Rai. It would have been very interesting to learn more about their methods.

On our free day, we met two people who’ve traveled around Southeast Asia. They noted that in Vietnam people were burning their trash including batteries. Sustainability starts with education and proper infrastructure which is unfortunately lacking. It seems like there are dedicated people in Thailand who are working to make these changes as the consequences are becoming noticeable in the area. Overall, it seems like they’re taking positive strides but also have much room for improvement. However, the United States also has a lot of room for growth when it comes to sustainability. I hope to make more observations on the topic as I continue on the trip!

Returning “Home”

This is my first time in Thailand, but I’ve heard many stories from my parents and elders who have told me about their experiences living in Thailand. I didn’t hear much of what life was actually like in Thailand because they only told me about being in the refugee camps or escaping from war. In other words, I didn’t get to hear much of the positive aspect, but mostly only that the Hmong were very poor back then. In addition, they were treated as “outsiders” of the country. However, throughout the few days that I’ve been here, I notice that the Thai government recognizes the different ethnic groups such as the Karen, Lisu, and Hmong either living in the highlands or living along with the Thai locals in the lowlands. This is a different perspective that I’m getting compared to what my parents and elders have told me. The ethnic groups may live in villages and struggle from day to day, but at least there is being progress where the Thai government are supporting them in some way.

The day that meant most to me throughout our first week was Friday which is today. In the morning we visited a local school called Chiang Dao School. It is a school that offers 1st-12th grade to students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. A lot of them are poor and they come from the different ethnic groups. Stepping onto the campus grounds – I was just so excited to meet the students especially hearing that there are Hmong students among the student population. I was very interested in hearing how the school supports these students since a lot of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The school helps fully fund the students from when 7 y/o until 15 y/o, but what about the 16-19 y/o then? Well, the school helps find resources for the older students, so that they could keep going to school. For example, they may connect them to organizations where an organization can provide them grants or connect them to jobs where students could work on the weekends while attending school during the week. Throughout the morning, we got to tour the campus and meet the students. I was very happy to see them, but it looked like they were too shy to meet us. I felt that maybe we invaded their space a little, but maybe they were just shy. I hope that we didn’t make them feel that way because I wanted to come in with the intention of being a friend.

Representing our “tsoos tsho Moob” meaning our traditional Hmong clothing. I’m representing mines too. I love it.

In the afternoon, we visited Pha Nok Kok Hmong Village. After the experience at Chiang Dao School, coming in to this village made it felt like I’ve returned “home”. I put myself in the shoes as a Hmong Thai as someone who goes to school during the day and then return to the village in the evening. The most humbling and proud experience in the village was when I helped translate the village chief’s words from Hmong to English to our group. Although I had trouble with trying to translate some of it, I helped translated most of it and I think that is something to still be proud of because not being able to have much opportunities to maintain/learn Hmong, yet still translate most is great. I’m not the best, but at least I’m able to hold on my own well enough to converse with the Hmong Thai community. I didn’t get to have a satisfying experience at the village as I wanted since we were there for a short time and we didn’t get to interacted with villagers as much. Maybe because we came in as tourists instead of travelers. I wanted to come into the village not as a tourist, but someone who’s been gone away from the village for a long time, but then has return to stay with our community. I wanted to push myself out there by trying to interact with as many locals as I could, but then maybe it may seemed like I was doing too much which was I held myself back. I didn’t want to show off in front of others just because I’m Hmong, but I wanted to immerse myself into the community whether if it being helping the young man push the cart up the hill or chatting with the Hmong students about their day at school. I think what we did was okay. Probably because the short amount of time, I didn’t find it as meaningful as I wanted it to be.

While visiting Chiang Dao School in the morning and then Pha Nok Kok Hmong Village in the afternoon, I’ve felt like I “belonged” there. Again, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a Hmong Thai person throughout the day. I’m very happy to hear that our Hmong students are being accepted into the Thai community and that the Thai government are helping them with their education. Also, I’m not one to judge how Hmong Thai should like Hmong Americans, but they have their own ways of living. Therefore, if they so happen to live in a village and try to stay happy as much as they can, then so be it. I support the Hmong Thai community for doing that because it’s definitely not a life that I’m accustomed to. However, the whole day experience made it felt like I’ve returned “home”.

On Your Market, Get Set, Connect!

One of the most prominent things that I have noticed so far while on this study abroad trip is the importance of the local markets in these communities. We have had the opportunity to explore a couple of markets so far and these experiences have really stuck out to me. Back in the United States, farmers markets are a deep tradition in my family and are something that I have always admired and enjoyed. There was even a time in which I attended them weekly, helping my grandparents sell their plants. I fondly remember connecting to other vendors and sharing stories. Here in Thailand, markets provide a variety of important ingredients in Thai’s life. The most obvious is the food, which comes from local farmers stationed throughout the country. Fresh meat including chicken, pork and fish along with a diverse selection of vegetables, fruits and home-cooked meals.

This image is from a local market in Chiang Mai, Thailand and shows the beautiful selection of foods.

Food is a central part of the Thai culture and provides a chance for Thai’s to connect with each other and their families. It also has become an expression of their culture, a true staple of the country. Additionally, the food that is sold at the market is a large, if not only, source of income for many individuals and families. It is crucial for community members to support their neighbors and fellow Thai at these events by stimulating the economy and purchasing their produce at the market.

A local market in Chiang Mai, where local Thai meet to collect fresh produce and can connect with others.

Lastly, the market creates a social environment for locals and visitors alike to connect and share in something. Friends laugh and reminisce, check in on each other’s families and simply make connections to those around them. As someone who is not local, I find the market to be an opportunity for me to peer into the life and culture of the community. In the United States, we have begun to lose touch with events like this and may think lightly of it happening in other countries. I cannot tell you how many people I have interacted with that did not even know what a farmer’s market was. However, the importance of the local markets is vital to understanding other cultures and lifestyles, especially those in Thailand. It can, even if just for a moment, allow you to also be a part of all of it. So get out there, visit a Thai market, and get a taste of Thailand!