Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Mountain

            From July 7th – July 14th, Zack and I attended our Peace Corps “Reconnect” training in Chai Nat (a province in central Thailand). This was a time for all of group 125 to reflect on our first three months at site and share our experiences with one another. There were many opportunities for us to discuss our successes and struggles so far and offer advice as well as received advice from one another, which was wonderful.
Receiving even more (much-needed) language training!
Note the look of confusion on my face...haha
Click HERE for the album of the volunteer training that Peace Corps Thailand posted on their Facebook page.

The wat that we decided to climb to is
on the top of the mountain to the right.
Click HERE for all of the pictures that go along with this post.

            On the Sunday after the training, Zack and I decided to climb to the top of a nearby mountain to check out the wat (temple) at the top. Walking along the side of the highway (good sidewalks are nonexistent here), the sun beat down from above and traffic flew past us. Eventually, we decided to cross a bridge to walk along a smaller soi (side street) running along the other side of a small stream. It was much better at first and seemed much safer until we started to encounter dogs.
            I don’t think I’ve shared yet that the relationship between humans and dogs in Thailand is much different than what I’m used to in the United States. Dogs roam the streets in packs. There is no such thing (as far as I can tell) as animal control. Sometimes they are really comfortable around people and just blend in, but often they can be extremely territorial and aggressive. Two volunteers in our groups have already suffered dog bites due to dogs chasing them on their bikes. We learned strategies for dealing with these types of dogs during PST, but it’s still really hard to get used to this dynamic, especially since I was a huge animal lover and advocate in the United States. It’s not to say that I don’t still love animals, but it’s hard to feel warm fuzzies for an animal that is snapping at your heels as you bike or baring it’s teeth as it slowly stalks towards you.
            Fatefully, this is exactly what ended up happening. We backed away from one dog shouting “Bpai!” (“Go!”) just as another one approached us. Deciding that we couldn’t safely go back the way we came, we crossed a rickety bamboo bridge that was rigged up nearby in order to get to the other side of the stream (the side opposite the dogs). Luckily bamboo is extremely strong, but it was definitely a balancing act. (I feel like I should insert a shout-out here reassuring our mothers that we DO try to make the very best/safest choices that we can J ) Once we crossed back over the river, we resumed our journey walking along the side of the highway.
            Eventually we came to a turnoff on the road that seemed to head in the direction of the wat. As we began walking down that road, an older woman called to us, asking where we were going. “Bpai nai ka?” We stopped and chatted for a little bit. She showed us which direction we needed to go in order to visit the bird park (a famous attraction in Chai Nat.) We explained that we were actually interested in visiting the wat. She pointed out some cement stairs across the street, cracked and covered in moss, leading up the side of the mountain. She made sure to tell us though that climbing to the top would be very tiring and that there was a road that went around the back. We assured her that we wanted the exercise then thanked her before heading to the stairs.
            Along the initial climb to the first tier, we observed spirit houses of all different shapes, sizes and colors embedded into the side of the hill. There were also many small shacks, some with bright orange monks’ robes, barely visible, hanging within them. Once we reached the top of the first tier, we passed by a monk and wai-ed (with our hands pressed together, thumbs touching between our eyebrows, the appropriate way to wai to a monk.) We then headed towards a huge golden Buddha image that towered over us. Another dog approached as I tried to take a picture, but this one was only curious and not aggressive, thank goodness.
It seems like usually the dogs at the wat are a little more laid back, probably because people come and go regularly. There are many dogs at the wats because often times they will be left there as puppies by people who don’t want them or will find their way to a wat because they receive some care there. I have been told that the monks will not let the animals go hungry and definitely will not kill them. This seems to align with what I have observed. Again, the relationship with dogs here is completely different than what I’m used to.
Stairs made their way up the entire mountainside.
Back to our adventure…after taking a couple of pictures we proceeded further into the area. It seemed pretty abandoned, but a nun gestured for us to continue exploring. We couldn’t find the way to continue up the mountain at the wat at the very top, so she ended up calling us over. After asking us if we could speak any Thai, she proceeded to tell us which way to go while leading us in the right direction. I explained that we didn’t want to bother anyone, and she responded that there wasn’t anybody at all at the wat up top and that it was okay for us to continue. We resumed our hike, heading up more concrete stairs.
Thankfully, the stairs led into a dense forest, which created a wonderful shaded canopy above us, allowing us much-needed respite from the sun. Even with the shade though, the many, many steps struck us as extremely daunting. Several times we were tempted to give up as the sweat trickled down our faces and soaked through our clothing, as our hearts pounded within our chests. What we wouldn’t have given for even a hint of a breeze! Just when we thought we couldn’t continue any further, the forbidding steps transformed into a gently sloped concrete trail.
Naturally, the nun had been completely right. There wasn’t a single other person at the top. Zack and I explored the wat and enjoyed the amazing view with only the company of the birds and a small family of cats. The kittens were terrified of me, but the mother cat meowed at me gently as I spoke to her. I’ve leaned towards becoming more of a “cat person” rather than a “dog person” since coming here. Cats who don’t like you just run away, while dogs are much less predictable.

After the long strenuous journey to the top, Zack and I took in the view for a little bit before heading back down, rubber legs and all! We stopped that the ran-a-haan (restaurant) of the woman who had initially pointed out the trail to us and discussed how she was right about the hike being very tiring. We then ordered two plates of pad-see-eew without meat or MSG, with vegetables and eggs. She joked that her food was much more delicious than the food in Chaiyaphum (the province that we live in).  Feeling full and a little bit recovered from our hike, we made our way back down the highway, being really careful to avoid dogs...

I'm not really sure how I ended up in this picture,
but here are most of the TCCS Thai counterparts!
following our week of training was a counterpart conference to help us work more effectively with our counterparts. Click  HERE for another one of Peace Corps Thailand's albums.

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