Chiang Rai, Thailand

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Dear readers, I have a confession to make.  In my last post, I told you that I was done traveling for a while.  Due to unforeseen circumstances, that is undeniably false.  Here I am, back on the road again after less than two weeks.  I know, I got some ‘splaining to do.  I had every intention of staying in Chiang Mai.  I returned there to begin my job search.  I revamped my resume, crafted a few templates for cover letters, and started shooting out applications like my laptop was on fire.  I scoured online job forums like Ajarn and Dave’s ESL Café,  trolled the recruitment pages of schools’ websites for open positions, even cold-emailed schools that weren’t advertising they were hiring.  In a sense, my approach was unconventional.  Every source dishing out advice on finding teaching gigs in Thailand will tell you that it’s a boots-on-the-ground operation.  But being a very shy introvert, the idea of waltzing into places with resumes in hand and demanding to be interviewed on the spot was a hellacious nightmare.  Much to my delight, a day or two after my online application blitz launched, the replies started rolling into my inbox.  Therefore, I must refute this so-called common knowledge that you have to apply in person.  As my old Hebrew school teacher used to say, “Common sense, not stupidity.”  Words to live by, my friends.

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One of the positions I interviewed for via Skype was to teach seventh and eighth grade math.  This may be surprising, especially to those of you who remember me as a salty math-hating high school student who never got past trigonometry.  In the years since, I’ve had a math awakening.  My new mantra is Math Is Beautiful.  The Sierpinski triangle inspired me to create the arts-integrated project in the photo above.  In another unit, my students used linear algebra to evaluate how to set a fair minimum wage.  A big thank you to Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers for providing guidance on how to teach the unit.  Coincidentally, one of the book’s editors, Rico Gutstein, was a frequent customer of mine when I worked for Green Acres Farm at the Evanston Farmers Market.  Anyway, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching middle school math at a private school in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Southern Thailand.  Although it was a tough decision to leave Chiang Mai, I’m excited about this opportunity to teach what I love.  Can’t complain too much about living near the most beautiful beaches in the world, either.  Let me know when you’re coming to visit!

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After accepting the job, two weeks remained until I was due to move down south, so I wanted to take advantage of the little time I had left in Northern Thailand.  This prompted me to plan a trip to the nearby city of Chiang Rai, because one of the must-see landmarks in this region of Thailand is the White Temple.  I boarded the bus on a Saturday afternoon.  The scenic drive through the hills clocked in at about three and a half hours.  Although I’d been staying in guesthouses during most of my travels, this time I opted for a bunk bed in a hostel dorm.  The facilities were modern, clean, and quiet.  There was even a little pool in the courtyard.  Even so, at this point in my life I cannot handle sharing a room with seven other people unless we’re on a silent meditation retreat and they’re not allowed to talk to me.  Maybe it’s time to admit that I’m antisocial and prefer cats over humans.

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#CubsFanAbroad—living on the other side of the world has not stopped me from watching every single Cubs playoff game so far.  When your time zone is twelve hours ahead, there’s no better way to start your morning than an energizing baseball game and a strong cup of coffee.  Thanks to modern technology, I can live stream the broadcast.  It’s a far cry from the old days, when we didn’t know from internet.  I can’t even believe this happened during my lifetime, but on the TV in our old cottage in South Haven, when the picture would turn to static, we’d have to turn a dial to make the antenna on the roof spin around.  It makes me sound like I grew up in the 1950s.  On my computer, the video is clear, but occasionally the wifi connection drops.  Then I just press pause, no big deal.  I watched the Cubs beat the Giants in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at the hostel, then skipped over to the adjacent café, where they were playing John Denver songs while I ate breakfast.  Only in America, as Yogi Berra would say.

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After that, I checked into a guesthouse and flopped onto the bed.  Despite the Cubs’ win and finally getting my own space, I felt myself sliding into a bit of a funk.  I gave myself permission to take the day off.  Sometimes when you’re on the road, even though it seems like a waste of precious time, you just need to chill.  Traveling doesn’t have to be anything more grand than living your normal life in a different place.  Not every moment is dazzling.  I’ve learned from meditation that the more you search for a special feeling from an experience, the more you feel something is missing.  When you become content with the ordinary, you realize how extraordinary it is simply to be here, and that is enough.  The ego struggle falls away.  I think Yogi Berra must have been a meditator.  Check out these pearls of wisdom:  “You can observe a lot by just watching” and “How can you think and hit at the same time?”  Amiright?

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Another recent discovery of mine is that it’s impossible to be in a bad mood in a cat café.  On my way to the night market, my face lit up when Cat ‘n’ A Cup came into view.

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One of my favorite picture books as a kid was Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, and the refrain “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats” kept running through my head.  Hmmm…idea for a cat math lesson percolating…

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The ideal hangout for a solo traveling cat lover, I visited Cat ‘n’ A Cup three times during my three-day trip.  To borrow another Yogi-ism, it was “like déjà vu all over again,” but in a good way.

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You can’t have a Night Bazaar without a traditional Thai dance performance.

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The next morning, I thought about renting a motorbike, but chickened out.  As my grandfather used to say, a chicken ain’t nothin’ but a bird, whatever that means.  Fortunately, I had no trouble flagging down a local bus en route to the White Temple.  The ride cost a mere 20 baht (less than 60 cents).

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And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…the White Temple, officially known as Wat Rong Khun.  It’s even more striking in person.

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I can’t be the only farang to mistakenly assume that everything in Thailand is ancient, but of course Thai society continues to build and evolve just like anyplace else.  I was surprised to learn that the White Temple opened its doors to the public in 1997.  Its style is ostentatious, unorthodox, and often downright sacrilegious.  Not that I have a problem with that.  For the record, I’ve never been much into following rules, and religion has never been my cup of tea.  In my view, meditation is a secular practice and a pragmatic art of living.  When I first arrived in Thailand, I had been meditating for two years and expected that visiting temples here would feel momentous.  What I got instead was discomfort and awkwardness, like I was walking into a church where I don’t belong.  There I go again, looking for a special feeling and ending up disappointed.  Now I know better than to chase after the high of transcendence.  To me, temples are beautiful, and that is enough.

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The contrast between religious iconography and pop culture references made me wonder what the White Temple’s founder and designer Chalermchai Kositpipat was trying to communicate.  There’s no hiding that he started his career in the movie industry.

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In college, my art history professor loved Andy Warhol, and through taking his classes, the obsession was transferred to me, too.  So naturally the question I wanted to ask in this scenario was, “Is it fine art, or is it kitsch?”  The answer is never simple.  Kitsch is defined as lowbrow art, often mass-produced, that can be appreciated in an ironic way.  Similar to Warhol, Chalermchai’s background as a commercial artist clearly influenced his kitschy aesthetic.  Many scholars argue that Warhol’s use of imagery from popular media and consumer culture simultaneously glorifies it and subverts its meaning, thereby elevating kitsch into the realm of fine art.  Where it gets even more complicated is that Warhol’s works of art are commodities themselves.  As for Chalermchai, he seems to want to rise above all that:  “I do not accept any monetary donations from sources including government officers, politicians or millionaires.  Money can give the donors power to influence the takers, much like many artist who work as employees.  I, then, need to find fundings to build the temple by myself.”

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I must say “flat out” that I don’t think Chalermchai’s art goes much deeper than its glossy surface.  Maybe Warhol’s doesn’t, either, but at least he’s in on the joke.  Inside the temple, where we weren’t allowed to take pictures, a myriad of film and comic book characters make an appearance on the murals, including Neo from The Matrix.  There are parallels between Neo’s unplugging himself from the illusion of a virtual reality to the Buddha’s awakening, but don’t think about it too hard.  Andy Warhol’s work plays with the ephemeral nature of materialism and fame.  Contrary to this and the Buddhist concept of impermanence, the White Temple attempts to immortalize disposable pop culture figures, as well as the artist himself.  Rather than poking fun at celebrity worship, he indulges in it as the star of his own show.  Warhol did this also, but he was cheeky about it.  It’s not easy to tell if Chalermchai means to be ironic, or if he’s just self-righteous.  It feels less like he’s elevating kitsch to the level of high art and more like he thinks Superman was fully enlightened.  In Warhol’s vision of the universe, everyone’s plastic and gets their fifteen minutes of fame.  In Chalermchai’s, good conquers evil, and movie magic is everlasting nirvana.

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This building, which houses the bathrooms, is called Golden Toilets.  Kitschy enough for ya?

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You may get the impression that I didn’t care for the White Temple.  I actually loved it!  I think it’s one of the most unique places I’ve seen in Southeast Asia.  You just need to have realistic expectations of what it is.

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Back in Chiang Rai proper, the centerpiece of the downtown area is this ornate clock tower, designed by—you guessed it—Chalermchai.  What time is it?  Time to eat again!

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The afternoon was waning, i.e. it was “getting late early” according to Yogi, so I decided to go see the Black House (Baan Dam in Thai).  Not to be outdone by the White Temple’s eccentricity, its collection of bizarre art objects and installations makes the Black House the second most popular site in Chiang Rai.  I was the sole gringa aboard this standing room only bus, which was a genuine certified lechero if I’ve ever seen one.  My brief exchange with the driver led me to believe he understood to drop me off near the Black House.  I hung on for dear life as we lumbered down the highway, stopping it seemed every few meters.  The constant squeaky whirring sound indicated that the old bus was on its last wheels.  Finally, a seat opened up at the very back, but I couldn’t sit there because it was beside two monks, and alas I am female.  A male passenger scooted over to buffer me from the monastics.  At this point, we’d been on the road for close to an hour.  I got the sinking feeling that we’d already passed my destination long ago.  In the rear view mirror, I caught the driver’s eye and made a shrugging gesture.  A few minutes later, he parked the bus and came around to the back door, muttering, “something something something farang something something.”  That’s my name!  He sent me towards another bus heading in the opposite direction.  I was confused until a lady from the bus company grabbed me by the butt with both hands and pushed me up the stairs.  After twenty minutes or so, the bus slowed, and the woman pointed to the entrance of the Black House.  All I could do was tap my watch, which read 5:15, fifteen minutes past closing time.  Here’s another Yogi quote for you:  “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”  True dat, Yogi.

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After the next morning’s baseball game, I had planned to get a ride directly to the Black House and back so as not to patschke around with another local bus escapade.  I had already bought my ticket to go back to Chiang Mai that afternoon, so time was limited.  Things were looking up when ace pitcher Jake Arrieta hit a three-run homer to put the Cubs ahead.  But “it ain’t over till it’s over,” as the classic Yogi saying goes.  Five hours into the game, the score was tied in the thirteenth inning, and the Giants won with a walk-off home run.  Vey iz mir.

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Believe you me, I was none too happy that all this waiting for the game to end left me no time to schlep my tuchus back to the Black House, and the Cubs had bupkis to show for it.  With just a couple of hours to spare, I made a detour to Wat Phra Kaew instead.  Although it bears the same name as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, it is nowhere near as cool.  You win some, you lose some.

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That night, it was home sweet home, but the words CHICAGO, ILLINOIS written on this random bus made me wonder which home I had come home to.  As for how the bus ended up in Chiang Mai, your guess is as good as mine.  All that’s left to say is Go Cubbies!  #FlyTheW


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