Monday, December 30, 2013

Vietnamese Fishing Village, Cambodia

While going through some boxes the other day, I came across some digitized photos (originals taken with 100 ASA Kodak film) that I thought I had lost (Yes, I realize that I need to be more systematic in my filing of photographs, so don't get started on that). It was a wonderful trip down memory lane to a trip taken a few years ago to Cambodia, and fun to sort through and pick out some shots for sharing. I decided to concentrate on one aspect of the trip--most people have hundreds of photos of the classic Khmer ruins of Angkor Wat and its marvelous ancient neighbors, as do I--however, the fishing village of Mui Ne not far from Siem Riap was an interesting side trip that offered a glimpse of a way of life that has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

On the huge Tonle Sap lake, which is a widening of the Mekong River not far from Siem Riap, a village of Vietnamese fishermen sits not on the shore near the lake, but actually on the lake. Mui Ne village is one where everyone packs up and moves as the tide rises during the monsoon season so as not to be stranded far offshore, and then back again during the dry season. The Vietnamese are Cambodia's largest minority, and the tradition of floating fishing villages can be traced to the 1700's. Tourists can take a boat tour of the village and an offshore restaurant, which seems to be way out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lapping waves as far as one can see. If you are interested in learning more about the fishing village, tourism, or the Tonle Sap, an Internet search will turn up dozens of sites. 

Photos by the author (2008), all rights reserved. Do not use without permission.
Children all over the world play on whatever type of equipment they can find. In a fishing village it is not surprising that they play in abandoned boats.

Bathing is pretty simple: it's just a splash outside the door.

Returning from the market.

It isn't ipads or TV that piques the curiosity of these boys.

Washing up.

Deliveries and transportation is by boat, deftly moved through the backwater by skilled oarsmen and women.

Even farming is done on the water. Here a villager tends to pigs that are kept in a pen made of tree limbs. 
A typical floating home and its brilliant abstract reflection at Mui Ne in the late afternoon sun.

Relaxing while gently rocking on the waves

Friday, December 6, 2013

Moments in time 2

The second of my posts of random scenes taken as I move through daily life in Thailand (See my first post "Moments in time" from August 6, 2013). Most of these are quick glimpses as I passed by (or as they passed by me). Taken together, they weave an image of the lives of ordinary Thais in what is becoming a more complex society.

Ukelele player in an art studio, Ramkhamhaeng Road

Sometimes trying to solve a problem creates a bigger one.
Near Jatujak 2 market, Minburi.

Monsoon rains come almost daily from May through October. They are warm and heavy, lasting usually only an hour or two, but often bringing flooded roadways. Ramkhamhaeng Road, Saphansung.

Classic Thai sculpture of legendary characters in Thai mythology. Found on the wall in an unused parking lot near a restaurant on Ekamai Road, Wattana.

A woman moves her charcoal grill past street food stalls.
Summakon Village, Saphansung.

Taking a break from selling lottery tickets. Sihaburaniket Road, Minburi.

A lone fishing boat under gathering storm clouds.
Koh Chang (Elephant Island), eastern Thailand.

A knife sharpener carries his whetstone throughout the neighborhood,
seeking customers. Eastern Bangkok.

Clearing storm over Koh Larn (Coral Island) near Pattaya.

Every day, same spot. This woman sells cool drinks on Sukhumvit Road
near the Ekamai bus station.

Gorgeous sunset colors in Summakon Village, Saphansung, eastern Bangkok.
The colors lasted no more than five minutes. iPhone photo.

Traditional wooden shutters, Minburi.

A young girl's special find on the beach. Pu Noi Beach, Dolphin Bay, Pranburi.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Loy Krathong in Thailand: Cultural tradition or environmental problem?

A home made krathong

Loy Krathong ("floating crown") is a traditional Thai (not Buddhist) holiday that falls on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, near the end of the traditional lunar year (but not coinciding with the official calendars). This generally is in November, at the end of the rainy season and the rice harvest. People make elaborate lotus-shaped decorations of banana trunk slices, banana leaves, flowers, incense sticks and candles, then float them on waterways. Many people add a baht coin, and some place clippings of fingernails and hair on the float. It traditionally signifies letting go of negative thoughts, such as anger and hatred; some use it to honor the water goddess, while many use it as one of the year's biggest social events. Thousands are drawn to rivers and canals to not only float krathongs, but to be blessed by monks and to party with friends, or indeed, all of the above.

Krathongs and Chinese lanterns (Loy Fa) released at a lake in eastern Bangkok. The lantern captured by the tree eventually escaped!
In recent years, it was noted that the floating of so many krathongs, along with the waste generated by the event, has quite a negative impact on the environment. In response to the use of styrofoam for the krathongs that eventually ended up clogging the shores of the Gulf of Thailand, Thais were encouraged to use biodegradable materials, such as banana stems and leaves, as well as making krathongs from bread, which the fish can eat. During last week's festivities, I did not see any styrofoam krathongs, although there may still be some made. However, the krathongs are generally held together by nails or staples, which contribute their own negative impacts on the aquatic life. Some Thais argue that using banana doesn't matter, that the event still pollutes the water with decomposing vegetation, and they thus refuse to participate.

A krathong salesman near a Buddhist wat (temple)
I spent an evening documenting two Loy Krathong events near my home in the eastern suburbs of Bangkok. One was in an upper-middle class development, the other at a large temple complex that straddles a major canal running through Bangkok. The celebrants obviously enjoyed themselves, the pious went through many of the Thai Buddhist rituals, and nearly everyone bought or made krathongs and floated them on the canal. The celebration lasted well past midnight under a bright full moon.

Making sweet treats outside the temple complex

It is considered good luck to place small coins in a series of goblets at a wat.

Even the monks got in on the selling of krathongs

Monks teach and give blessings inside a temple outbuilding

Throngs of people jammed the temple complex and the footbridge spanning the klong (canal) that separates the sister wats.

Hundreds of people take turns floating krathongs on the klong.

In addition to floating krathongs on the water, Chinese lanterns (Loy fa: "float in sky") are also released (directly into the flight path of planes landing at the international airport).

Krathongs on the canal between the two temples

A few boatloads of people intercepted the krathongs looking for any one baht (3 cents) coins that were added.

A monk ties simple blessed string bracelets to celebrants who wear them for good luck until they disintegrate and fall from the wrist.

Sidewalk merchants continue to sell their wares outside the temple until early morning.

After the celebration: the waste and the wasted.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

You know your school is in trouble when...

I have had the privilege of teaching in three top tier international schools (ISBrussels, ASLondon, ISBangkok), all quite different in their orientation due to geography and culture, yet all sharing the same high quality standards for teaching excellence. I have also taught at other international schools that are considered second or third tier (for various reasons), that have excellent faculty, but less than quality (read incompetent, indifferent or clueless) senior administration. Indeed, the one thing I have seen in all of these schools is the consistent high quality of teaching (with admittedly a few exceptions; to this day I do not understand why those were allowed to continue).

Over the course of 40+ years, I have seen schools--both independent and public--struggle, schools prosper, and schools maintain an even keel. There are certain manifestations of such schools, each unique to the situation, yet consistent enough to draw generalities. So, here is my list of characteristics that show a school is in trouble. Does your school exhibit any? Add your own warning signs!

1. Fewer teachers are hired than leave.

2. Positions are eliminated.

3. Successful and/or innovative programs are eliminated.

4. Administrative duties are consolidated.

5. Entry requirements are lowered or eliminated.

6. Parents are asked to pay for supplies.

7. Food prices take large leaps.

8. Unqualified teachers are hired.

9. Half truths and outright lies are part of the recruiting strategy.

10. Nothing in the curriculum is unique, yet the school advertises itself as "innovative".

11. Scores dip, so teachers are pressured to give more homework.

12. Large teacher turnover.

13. Inexperienced (read "cheap") teachers are recruited and experienced (read "expensive") teachers are pressured to leave.

14. The "bottom line" becomes more important than students or teachers.

15. Salary schedules are "adjusted" without prior notice.

16. Faculty do not know the first names of administrators.

17. Administrators do not know the names of the teachers.

18. There is no Q&A section at "faculty" meetings.

19. Policy changes are not announced, or if announced, are done by email.

20. Fewer people make more decisions.

21. The school spends a great deal of money on the fa├žade (new gardens, fresh paint) while at the same time cutting teacher benefits.

22. Teacher bonuses are replaced by random drawings of door prizes at the annual party.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Family farms in Thailand

Rice nearly ready for harvesting.
Thailand is one of the most prolific producers of fresh foods I have seen; despite the country's low average income, people here say that as long as they have rice and fish, no one goes hungry. In a country that receives six months of regular tropical rains, there are two distinct growing seasons, one for crops that thrive in wet soil, and one for those that do well in dry conditions.

I spent a day touring the fields in northeast Thailand (the region known by Thais as "Isan" or "Esan"), where many different crops are grown by families who live in the nearby village. Plots (or "rai") vary in dimensions, depending on the family's total farm size, and on what type of crop is grown. The season was about to change from rainy (June-October) to dry (November-May), so I was fortunate to see the fields in transition. I plan to go back for the rice harvest in November.

I was not interested in seeing the huge corporate farms here that have become the norm in the U.S., and threaten the way of life of Thai farmers as well, but instead I wanted to see the traditional farms that sustain families. They remind me of the way farming was done in the States 50-100 years ago (I spent many a wonderful summer on my grandparents' small farm in the midwest 50 years ago), although the farms here tend to be much smaller: most Thai farmers grow more than one crop and supplement their income and diets by raising livestock, green vegetables, chili peppers, bananas and coconuts, most of it next to their homes in the village, but some also in the countryside. 

Rice field boundaries are marked by raised earth, to separate each farmer's field, and also for growing different varieties. The fields contain clay, which helps hold rainwater for the rice to grow for several months.

Bananas grow as clusters, along field borders and in backyards. Water buffalo, the traditional beast of burden in Thailand, graze on non-rice grasses.
Eight of the top ten rice producing countries are in Asia; Thailand ranks #6 (behind China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam). Rice is planted at the beginning of the rainy season (June) and harvested when the dry season begins, from mid-October through November. On small family farms (anywhere from 2-100 rai, [1 acre = 2.5 rai]) no chemicals are used. Rice bought in Bangkok that is from corporate farms has chemical reside from artificial fertilizers and pesticides, as well as being genetically modified; rice from small farms do not. Their fertilizer comes from animal waste. I was told by one farmer, "We don't want chemicals in our rice. Insects don't eat much, so we don't mind sharing if it means no chemicals."

Burlap rice sacks. Each holds 90-100 kilos (200-220 pounds). If held until later in the year when demand drives prices up, quality non-chemical aromatic rice from certain provinces can fetch US$18-20 (600-700 baht) per kilo, about US$8-9 per pound.
Bagged rice is stored in sheds typically located next to the farmers' houses in the village, not in the fields. Farmers hold their stock depending on market prices or sell quickly if in financial need. These are reminiscent of "corn cribs" in America's heartland.

Sugar cane
Another grass crop grown in large quantities is sugar cane. Growing up in Iowa, I saw plenty of another type of grass crop: corn. Rice and sugar cane are harvested in Thailand by hand, cut with a machete. As far as I know there is no equipment designed to harvest them any other way, as they are in water, and not necessarily planted in rows. The sugar cane is sent through a press to extract the sweet liquid, then processed into crystal form, probably very similar to how it is done in more mechanized countries.

Small herds of cattle are tended by one or two farmers, moving them along roadsides to graze. They sometimes overnight in the countryside, or are taken back to the pens near the farmer's house in the village.
Rubber trees

Fresh latex, collected year-round

Rubber farmers often build simple houses in the grove of trees they tend. No electricity; light is by candles, and warmth provided by campfires during the "winter" (November-January).
Thailand is the world's leader in the production of rubber. The trees take 6-7 years before mature enough to produce the latex that is gathered daily. Rubber trees produce latex year-round, so farmers often live in the groves. They usually have a home in the village as well.

"Mahn" (taro)

Small taro tuber

Mahn canes. After harvesting the tubers, the stems are trimmed and those with good nodes for sprouting are stacked to dry.

Large mahn tubers being transported for sale
Many fields are planted with mahn, or Thai sweet potatoes. Known as taro in the west, they are a starchy dietary supplement. Mahn tubers are harvested at the end of the rainy season, and the canes stacked and dried for planting at the start of the dry season. The canes are cut into short sections and simply stuck into the ground where they grow and mature in about 8 months. It takes three people three days to plant 5 rai, or about 2 acres.

Along the roadside between the village and the fields sits a small altar with images of deceased villagers who were successful farmers. People visit this site to pay homage and to bring offerings of food in hopes of a good harvest.

Most village farmers do not have mechanized equipment. A few use modern tractors for leveling fields, hauling soil, and transporting produce to market. I asked if they rented them to other farmers and was told, "No, but if you want it, it's for sale!"

Many people raise pigs in their backyards or in larger enclosures in the field, in concrete or wooden pens shaded by a thatched roof. Piglets cost about US$45 (1,500 baht) each, and in a few months can be sold for as much as US$225 (7,500 baht).
Most farmers sell their produce and meats locally. Here a merchant weighs a chicken that was bought from a local farmer.

At home, farmers spend a great deal of time preparing food that they have harvested, tending livestock and making repairs to pens and enclosures. Here, coconuts are cut open for drinking the sweet liquid, and then the soft meat is scraped out. 

A young woman stir-fries garlic and red onions over a small charcoal cooker. The garlic and onions were chopped on the tree section cutting board next to her.

The garlic and onions are pounded together with dried red chili peppers and made into a paste that is stored and used as a garnish with meals.
Farm life is hard, but I noticed that there never seemed to be any complaints. The life may be simple, but it is less stressful than the hectic pace of life in Bangkok.