As my father steered our Isuzu truck down the winding mountain roads of North Eastern Thailand, I reflected on the last six weeks our family spent in the village. My family moved temporarily into a remote Khmu community so that my parents could finish a research project. The Khmu people are a tribal group that live in Northern Thailand and Laos. The lives of the Khmu are deeply connected to the rice farming cycle and animistic religious rituals. This ethnic people group revolves around religious rituals and a farming lifestyle. During my time in the Khmu village I had many crazy, memorable, and new experiences.
Since my brother, sister and I were the only farang, or white kids, in the area we had to think of creative ways to entertain ourselves. There was no Internet in the run down town house we stayed in, so the option of Face-book and YouTube browsing was eliminated. Instead of spending our time on the computer we played outside. For example, the three of us often went swimming in the nearby stream, which we later found out was contaminated with dangerous pesticides. We were quite disappointed, because that was our favorite activity. We also roamed around the rural town observing village life, and chasing chickens. Women washed clothes, grandmothers watched small children, and trucks carrying farmers climbed up the precipitous dirt road. After our walk around the town, if we were really bored, we resorted to going to the small open-air shop to get ice-cream. The icy popsicles we bought were refreshing and cooled us off from the hot and humid climate. Sometimes early in the afternoon we meandered up the hill to a soccer field that was turned into a place where buffaloes could lazily graze. My older brother and I played imaginary games and had sword fights with bamboo sticks. Later in the day, when the Thai children were dismissed from school, my siblings and I would play soccer with them. Everybody ran around barefoot even though the field was riddled with thorns. All the elementary kids would crowd around the goal and act as a collective goalie, laughing and rolling on the ground when the ball was kicked toward the goal. One of the regulars on the soccer field was a young adult who had a deformity. He was a dwarf. In Thai his nickname was Pi Yai which means Mr. Big. It was neat to see that everyone interacted with him like he was perfectly normal. Across the soccer field I watched in awe as Thai men and boys played thakraw, a game played with a wicker ball and a volleyball net. The boys used their feet to kick the ball over the net, and as they did so a sharp “whack” could be heard. Obviously, we found ways to have a blast without electronics in this new environment. In addition, my siblings and I spent a lot of time together which strengthened bond between us.
A new place always comes with new experiences. One of the new adventures my family encountered was trying new food. In this Khmu village the staple food was sticky rice. Sticky rice for breakfast, sticky rice for lunch, and sticky rice for dinner. Along with sticky rice there was an assortment of soups and spicy dips. It was not customary for everyone to have their own plate, but because the Khmu people knew we were foreigners they gave us plates to use. The normal approach to eating was to grab a hunk of sticky rice, roll it around in one’s palm till it became a ball, then use the thumb to dip it in a sauce. This is done with only one hand. It took me some time to master the art.
In the house we lived in there were no cooking supplies or appliances available (except for a small camp stove we brought with us) so my parents hired a young woman to prepare our dinner meals. Our meals would come in four mystery aluminum containers. Each night we would unveil the food by cautiously lifting the lids to see what was on the menu for that evening. Common dishes that were made for us were fried eggs, spicy mashed eggplant, various colorful curries, fried rice and of course Jasmine rice or sticky rice. One day we were eating lunch at the church and my dad dipped his ball of sticky rice into an unknown soup and fetched out a rat paw. I didn’t venture to try that particular soup.
Our housing in the village was an adventure in itself. We stayed in an old, two story cement house. The second floor contained two small rooms that were our main living quarters. We all slept in tents to keep out the critters and creepy crawlies. Speaking of critters, on the ground floor we had two house guests, spotted lizards. These lizards, called Thukai in Thai, can be up to approximately a foot long. People say that Thukais have a ferocious bite and never let go of their victim. Every evening our downstairs guest bid us good-night with his usual echoing “Thuakai” call. (The name of the lizard comes from the sound it makes.) As my brother and sister and I lay in our tent at night we usually counted the number of times he ‘spoke’ because it was said that if the lizard called seven times it was good luck. I was intimidated by this creature, but by the end of my family’s stay in the village we managed to tolerate one another.
One of the challenges I had to deal with was the language gap between myself and the local people. Although they were Khmu many spoke Thai. I had been in Thailand for ten years, but I was still not fluent in the Thai language. There were times when it was quite difficult trying to communicate with my foreign friends. For instance, one day I was playing with girls around my age and they were trying to ask me a simple question. I didn’t understand what they were saying, even though they had repeated the question many times. So the two girls tried a new technique. They bent down, looked me in the eye and spoke very slowly in Thai. To their dismay I still didn’t understand what they were trying to say. Then we all gave up and just laughed.
I am very thankful for the cultural experiences I had when I was in the village. I learned and tried so many new things and I will remember those days for the rest of my life. So, don’t be afraid to try and accept different things, even if it means living out in a remote village away from everything familiar. In the long run, those new and sometimes difficult experiences will be remembered with gratefulness in your heart and a smile on your face.