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Taking them Home to Thailand

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Photos by Marsha Cork Photos by Marsha Cork

It's like a show that changes every day

Marsha Cork was fortunate enough to be out of Thailand when the latest big anti-government protest occurred last summer, but she says she wasn’t surprised to hear that 30,000 people gathered in Bangkok to stage the biggest protest yet against the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. “They all hate the prime minister,” the Priest River woman said of the Thais.

Marsha was in Bangkok just days before the August demonstrations, which were led by Buddhist monks. Her purpose for being there was to chaperone forty-one American high school students home from the country formerly known as Siam. Cork is the chair leader for the Inland Empire Area Team for American Field Service, a student exchange organization representing Washington east of the Cascades, Idaho north of Grangeville, and the four northeastern counties of Oregon.

As such, Marsha is the Inland Empire representative to the Regional Council and was the most recent winner of the Dorothy Field Award for Volunteer Service to AFS. The honor gave her the expense-paid trip to Thailand to usher home the American students. She was in the country a total of 11 days, which provided the opportunity to do a lot of sightseeing, in company with “Art” and other former Thai exchange students with whom Marsha had become acquainted through her work with AFS in this country.

Currently a student at a Bangkok university, Art was an exchange student to Priest River Lamanna High School during the 2004-05 school year. Marsha, her husband, Tim, and their youngest son were Art’s host family here. Art’s family returned the favor by hosting Marsha in her visit to Thailand, making it possible for her to have a true cultural experience denied to most tourists.

Cork says she found the city’s numerous malls to be much like those at home, “sterile and predictable,” filled with corporate franchises such as Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Dairy Queen. “The stores sell all name-brand stuff that I can go to Spokane and see and are filled with mostly Japanese shoppers, and the vending machines sell Lipton iced tea, Coke and Pepsi,” she said. Consequently, she avoided them as much as possible, but found that they are popular with Thai young people because there are not many other places where they can “hang out” and the malls are air conditioned and comfortable.

“To see the real city, you have to get down on the street and walk on the broken sidewalks with the people going to work, shopping in the tiny, local shops or buying stuff from the street vendors. Who wants to see someone selling a Burger King hamburger when you can see someone with a cart about the size of a card table on the side of a very crowded sidewalk, selling strips of chicken on a stick that they have just cooked in their wok of burning hot oil? Of course, (the streets) are hot, sometimes smelly, and crowded, and I can’t tell you how many times I tripped on the sidewalks... but it is so much fun. I took heaps of photos, but also saw so many things that made me smile that I didn’t take a picture of.”

There was the time she, Art and Pang, another Thai student, were walking along with all of the people one floor above the street. “You don’t see graffiti on the sky train or the walkways. There is a huge penalty and the whole system is spotlessly clean. So, we are walking along with all of these people and I happen to see, on the edge of a little curb by the wall, that someone had drawn a tiny little daisy on a stem with a black marker. It was probably only about four inches high… but for some reason that daisy on the concrete wall with all of the hustle and bustle just made me smile. Crazy, I know, but the whole trip was filled with stuff like that, little and big, that was just so much fun!”

One of Marsha’s proudest accomplishments of the trip was learning to ride the sky train by herself. Art’s family was so afraid she’d get lost on her own that they equipped her with a cell phone so they could find her, she said. “It was a nice security blanket to have.”

One of her favorite cultural experiences was the Thai opera that Art’s parents treated her to on one of her first nights in the capital, preceded by a Thai dinner, a foot massage and a walk-through display of traditional Thai houses and crafts. The opera was “a kind of walk-through of Thai history set to music and dance… a very grand production with real water running across the stage as a river, flying characters, and a cast of over two hundred. At one point, in the grand finale, which was a kind of celebration of happy festivals, two live elephants walked through the audience.

“Now, I am not talking the U.S. version here,” Marsha explained, “which we all know would have meant heaps of space around the elephants and about ten handlers for each and waivers signed by every member of the audience. No, they walked through the middle of a very nice opera house (think Spokane’s, but bigger) and could just fit through the widest aisle in the middle, with people on both sides, people riding all over them, very loud music and dancing going on all over the place. It was quite a finale, to say the least, and a beautiful show.”

Another trip, escorted by Toey, yet another former Thai exchange student, was to the Grand Palace, “the sort of beautiful, huge building that people think of when they think of Thailand. They are all decorated with millions of colorful tiles, lots of gold ones and mirrored ones as well. We saw the Emerald Buddha, which is greatly revered by the Buddhists in Thailand. When you go in to see the Emerald Buddha, you have to take off your shoes, can’t wear any shorts above your knees, and no sleeveless tops.” The restrictions apply to both men and women.

“Also, no cleavage. They have scarves they give the women that have low tops on. The Aussie in front of me had on a really low top and the guard told her to cover up. I think she was a little insulted, but she shouldn’t have been… it’s a respect thing.”

The temple was beautiful, Marsha added, but the Buddha itself was quite small, “I think about three feet tall, but elevated up quite high on a series of intricately decorated platforms. Lots of gold leaf statues surrounding it. Everyone is very quiet in the Buddha’s presence, even if you aren’t a practicing Buddhist. Toey is Muslim, and she explained that since she isn’t very deep in her faith, it was okay for her to be in the presence of the Buddha, but very devout Muslims, like her parents, wouldn’t visit the temple.

“There are no benches in the temple, just a beautiful marble floor. Everyone sits on the floor with their feet pointing away from the Buddha. We also saw the Reclining Buddha, which is huge… about as tall as the front side of our (two-storied) house and two, maybe three times as long. I liked him, he had a fun face.”

Marsha’s tourist guides even saw to it that she had two sightseeing trips outside the city. One was to what Thais call “the ancient city,” over an excellent road system of well-cared for cement. “We walked around the ruins for about an hour with a guide who told us a lot of Thai history. The grounds are really huge and it was amazing to see the work that had gone into building all of it hundreds of years ago… about the 16th century. The fact that some of it is still standing, after being attacked, burned, looted and with the tropical climate, shows how well built it was in the first place.”

Next, Art and Marsha rode an elephant… “through traffic, down the sidewalk, through parking lots. The traffic just flowed along and the elephants plodded along, and I tried not to think about the stories I have seen about elephants going psycho.”

The ride was pleasant enough, but “after the ride, we exited through a gift shop. It was a small shop and everything was elephant-themed, but what surprised me was that most of it was either stuff made out of elephant dung paper or was a picture or a statue of elephants having sex (no, I didn’t buy anything). We were in a completely tourist area with lots of children. We got out of there as fast as we could.

“We then drove to a palace area where kings have lived since the 17th century and had a tour of the grounds… along the lines of English style with lots of green lawn, water features, etc. Many of the buildings also had an English look to them. It was a nice walk, but warm. I learned the importance of an umbrella in sunny weather.” (Art’s mom made her carry one everywhere.)

That day ended with a quick stop at the Sleeping Buddha, another huge, outdoor statue, and then a boat ride on the “River of Kings” (Chao Phraya), which flows through Bangkok.

The second rural tour of Marsha’s visit took her to “the bridge over the river Kwai”… but not the bridge built by prisoners of war. That one was blown up by the prisoners themselves. The tour also visited a cemetery containing the graves of the WWII servicemen who died working on the bridges and roads, and a museum. The highlight was a walk over the rebuilt bridge.

“Try to picture a wooden railroad bridge,” Marsha said. “It is a narrow gauge track. In between the tracks, metal plates have been screwed to the beams and that is what we walked on. I would guess the plates were about eighteen inches wide, with big bolts sticking up about every foot. Watch for the bolts so you don’t trip! You share the metal walkway with people who have walked to the other side of the bridge and are now coming back. If you needed to, you could step over the track with one foot while you passed someone; there were thin boards nailed along the beams on the outside of the tracks.” This was all going on about forty feet above the water, crossing a river about as wide as the Pend Oreille. “There were observation platforms about every fifty feet that you could step off onto and take photos. I have to say, of all the things I did in Thailand, this was the first one that made me start questioning my sanity… but it was fun!”

That day also featured a visit to the Tiger Temple, part open-air zoo and part tiger sanctuary. “We walked through the zoo part, which you actually walk with the animals—lots of tame, wild (de-tusked) boars, and little deer, chickens, peacocks and water buffalo.” The tigers were located in a small, sandy canyon. “The story is that there are monks who hand-feed the tigers special food from when they are born so that they never have meat, so they are not dangerous to humans. At the bottom of the canyon, there are about fifteen tigers chained with collars to trees and rocks. Each of us was taken in by two people. One holds your hand and leads you to each tiger and one takes photos with your camera. All of the tigers are lying down, and we always approached them from behind. I was able to pet each tiger that they took my photo with, and I would say that the food is special in that it contains some sort of drug. Those tigers, although very beautiful, were so high they had no idea that anyone was petting them!”

Eating Thai food was another delightful cultural experience, but her hosts kept running interference, Marsha said. “The Thais are very proud of their spicy, hot food but have convinced themselves it is too hot for people from other countries. They fret if they think you are going to try to eat something spicy, to the point that if you try to order it, they will tell the waitress, in Thai, to make it not spicy for you.” Art’s family was convinced it would kill her, she said.

Of the dishes she tried, she enjoyed the sea bass most, but found pretty much all Thai food tasty. There were two foods she couldn’t force herself to try, however—blood noodles and rat on a stick. “I couldn’t get them past my lips,” Marsha said with a shudder.

She remembers walking down the street from the sky train one day with Art, thinking how much she was completely enjoying the chance to stay in a city she never thought she would ever visit. “I could not imagine living in a city this size for any length of time, but it has been so amazing to stay here and see a tiny little glimpse of how people live here. It is like a show that changes every single day.”

Needless to say, Cork feels herself well recompensed for the years of volunteer service she has put in with AFS and the seven exchange students from other countries she and her family have hosted in America.

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Marylyn Cork

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