e enjte, 28 qershor 2007

Last day at primary school....

What to do with all those pens we (well .... me) collect at those conferences? Give them to school children in Thailand!

While at the ASDC Conference this year, my supervisor Nellie almost died when she saw me collecting what seemed like hundreds of pens from the various trade booths. However... as I collected all those pens... all the while embarrassing Nellie....I knew what I planned to do! So the last day of my teaching at the primary school, I put all the pens in a bag and allowed the students to reach in and pull out a pen. What fun they had pulling out a pen and then checking with their school mates to see what they'd gotten!

My final day of teaching at the school just happened to coincide with the national "Respect Teachers' Day." During the ceremony on this day, school children make beautiful flower arrangements that they then present to their teachers. Sitting in rows before their teachers in an outdoor assembly hall, the students walk on their knees, holding their precious flower bouquets, to the front of the hall. Once in front of their teacher, the students lay their body down on the floor to receive a blessing. Upon arising, they present the flowers to the teacher, then return to their sitting area... again... walking on their knees. A very moving ceremony.

Once the formal ceremony was over... some of the students I'd taught, presented me with their own special flower gifts. In addition to lots of flowers, many of the students presented me with notes hand written notes... in Thai!

e mërkurë, 13 qershor 2007

2006 Flashback! Opportunity knocking a second time.... quit Rialto Unifed and teach at That Phanom University!

In July of 2006 I had the rare opportunity to teach English at the new Buddhist University next to Wat Phra That Phanom... a temple that is the "Spiritual Center" of Northeastern Thailand.

In the 200 foot tall pagoda that dominates the skyline of this tiny rural town situated on the banks of the Mekong River, is enshrined the collarbone of the Buddha that was brought here just eight years after the Buddha's death.

Recently I spoke with Phra Mahan Wannachai, the Director of the Buddhist University at That Phanom. He told me he would still like me to teach the newly created Master's class in Buddhism at his University.

Begin teaching when you ask? Tomorrow if I listened to Phra Mahan Wannachai!

I still have very fond memories of teaching the monks at this University last year!

So I have to ask myself.... how often does opportunity knock? Are the doors indeed opening to a new teaching opportunity for me?

e hënë, 11 qershor 2007

Snacking on "jumping" shrimp near the mighty Mekong River

A pleasant Sunday afternoon luncheon on the banks of the steamy Mekong River.... nothing like it! Mr. Elvis and his family entertained me with a very special luncheon... which included an unusual treat! No... it was not raw duck blood! Nor was it boiled beetles! It was not even dried buffalo skin! No... this time it was....

"Jumping" Shrimp! A bowl of live "jumping" shrimp was brought to our table... along with the ingredients to be added.... spicy hot cayenne pepper... lime juice... chopped onion and herbs.... which Mr. Elvis added to the lively "jumping" shrimp. I quickly noted that neither his wife nor his son nor his daughter were eating the shrimp however!

How were they you ask? Not bad! Sort of like eating a crunchy, and very fresh shrimp cocktail! They were so fresh, they were still "jumping" when I popped a spoon full of them into my mouth!

Silent retreat.... means no emails!

I forgot to note.... this will be a "silent" meditation retreat.... hard to imagine my being silent for that long.... especially when it comes to emails and Blog messages. But it is true... no Blog postings and no email messages for a while.

Guess this period of silence is a small price to pay for my becoming..... well...


Next stop... Wat Kow Tham Meditation Center ... on an island paradise!

Couple more days of teaching at Nong Phue Primary School and I'm off to the Bay of Thailand for a ten day meditation retreat at Wat Kow Tham on the island of Koh Phangan.The islands are suppose to be beautiful! This will be my first time to this part of Thailand.

To get to the island.... I'll catch an early morning flight from Udon Thani (about 50 kilometers from Nongkhai) to Bangkok's old airport. I'll then grab a taxi to the new airport... and hopefully there will not be a lot of traffic that day.

Bangkok Airways, which has a monopoly on travel to Koh Samui, will take me to this island paradise. Once on Koh Samui, I'll find some transportation to the ferry to the smaller island of Koh Phangan. Once on Koh Phangan... I'll see what transportation is available for me to get to the meditation center.

Sound complicated? Well... just a little... but then, this is all part of the adventure!

I'm hoping to find a school or two on one of these islands where I can spend some time teaching too..... Once I've completed my retreat. Just so that you will know that it will not just be all fun in the sun while I'm enjoying paradise!

Musical harmony at Nong Pheu Primary School!

Nothing like a little musical harmony on a hot afternoon in Thailand's Nong Pheu Primary School!

Today's musical theme..... "Row ... row... row your boat!" Wherever I go now at this school, I can hear the students singing this song.

Music is such a great way to have fun and teach English too!

The game...."Hot Potato"... Thai style!

Last week I had the rather unique experience of teaching at Nongkhai's most prestigious high school. With well over 3000 student enrollment, I almost felt as though I was back in Rialto Unified School District! This school boasts of a bi-lingual program that teaches all subjects in English (at a cost to the parents who want their students to participate!) This school also teaches a variety of foreign languages including French, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. It's an amazing school.

The teachers opened their classroom doors and allowed me to teach. I was truly impressed with the students' level of English... whether it be listening comprehension, writing and speaking. I could only wish that I spoke one tenth the amount of Thai these young kids spoke in English!

The last period of the day was devoted to the various clubs on campus. I went to one of the air conditioned rooms where the bi-lingual students attend classes. That day however, the students were playing a game based on the old "Hot Potato" theme. Only this Thai version had a new twist and was a bit messy I must say!

Instead of passing around a potato... the students sat in a circle and passed around containers of talcum powder! While the music played, the students frantically tossed the container on to the next person.

When the music stopped... the students left holding the containers could shake a handful of talcum into their hands.... and then... rush over to another student and smear the powder all over the other student's face!

This process did not go on many times before the air in the room was heavily clouded with fine particles of talcum powder. All was done amidst a great deal of squealing, laughter ... and of course students chasing each other around the room. It was all something of a circus type atmosphere to be sure .... and obviously the kids loved it!

As you might guess.. I quickly found another club to go visit! It was the Vietnamese club and even though I did not understand anything that was said... well, at least I could breath!

e diel, 10 qershor 2007

Ever wonder what the Buddha's bones look like?

One afternoon last week, Mr. Elvis drove to to a famous Buddhist pagoda not far from his school. The white pagoda reaches high into the sky and towers well above the tree line. The blue sky was in such stark contrast to the white pagoda which seemed to touch the clouds!

The blue ceiling.... beautiful.... but it didn't seem to cool down much the inside of the pagoda!

Once inside... was it cool? No... it was still hot! But there on the floor in the center of the pagoda.... yet another smaller pagoda housing the holy relics of Buddha. This smaller golden pagoda was immediately behind the multi-headed Naga that stood guard over the relics.

Ever wonder what Buddha's relics look like? Well here is a photo of the Buddha's bones enshrined in this pagoda

I've never totally understood this whole relic thing ... for people have told me here in Thailand that the cremated bones of someone who has gained "Enlightenment" are different .... they are more like little pearls than bones. And ... from what I've been told... these little pearls from the cremated remains... continue to grow and multiply....

Thai Buddha "Jatukam" Business Frenzy!

Would you spend $30,000 or more for this magical medallion?

Or perhaps this one.......

A medallion, which if you listened to people here in Thailand, will protect you from all sorts of evil and bring you good luck? One could ask the question... what is your life worth? And what would you be willing to do, to protect it? One possible answer is right here in Thailand....

There is an extremely serious buying frenzy going on in all of Thailand, the likes of which have never been seen here. Everyone is trying to buy a "Jatukam Rammathep" medallion amulet. This amulet is suppose to hold mystical powers that will protect the individual wearing it against being killed or injured, including gunshots or knife wounds. It brings all kinds of good fortune too! Supposedly there is a long list of individuals throughout Thailand who have recounted their terrible tales of having been miraculously saved from certain death in a violent car or motorcycle crash due to the fact that they were wearing one of the now famous "Jatukam Rammathep" medallions.

Now the big question.... is this mystical magical medallion for real? Is it Buddhism at its best? Or is it.... as some Thai have now called it.... Buddha Business! In other words, is it true Buddhism.... or some superbly crafted marketing campaign? With sales in Thailand, as well as internationally (e-bay has them for sale!) still soaring and new models of the medallion coming out everyday.... Buddhism or business? Who can tell!

From the business aspect, let me put this whole phenomenon into perspective. These little amulets do not come cheap! They can sell for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. The shopping centers have special shops selling only these medallions. Little shops in the market that traditionally sold only household goods now sell medallions of "Jatukam." Buddhist temples have begun selling them. Some have gone so far as to say that these medallions are a huge bonanza for Buddhist temples. The Bangkok Post over the weekend showed pictures of a couple of monks who flew in an airplane, over the original site of "Jatukam" all the while making a special edition of the medallion in a unique airborne manufacturing session all wrapped in a chanting ceremony! How much will this limited airborne edition sell for? Well... literally the sky appears to have no limits when it comes to placing a unbelievable prices on these medallions!

The medallion was first created by a Thai police officer named Khun Phan Tharak Rajjadel some 20 years ago, in Nakhon Si Thammarat Provence. When originally made, the medallions held little or no value. But when the highly respected developer of the medallion died last at the age of 108 the phenomenon spread nationwide with a frantic rush exploding as everyone raced to buy the original medallions. Thousands of these medallions are now being produced and sold. However, an actual 20 year old original, or authentic medallion can now sell for well over $30,000. Yes you read that right... 30 thousand U.S. Dollars!

The police officer who started this craze with his death, is believed to have had occult powers. Over 200,000 people came to his "Royal Cremation"... which incidentally was a overseen by no one other than the Prince of the Thai Royal Family. People came to the funeral in hopes of obtaining one of the commemorative medallions that were to have been given out at the event. However... the crowd problems at the funeral were so great that the police cancelled the free distribution to the general public and gave the amulet could only be given out to a chosen few!

If you don't want to spend thousands on an authentic medallion... how about some bright "Jatukam" stickers! Available on e-bay for only a few bucks!

Is there more background to this story? Yes... and it is buried in Thailand's history. "Jatukam's" fame seems to go back nearly 1700 years ago when the King of Thailand had conquered Sri Lanka. The king asked that his two sons, Jatukam and Rammathep bring relics or bones of the Buddha from Thailand to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately the ship carrying the two princes and the bones of Buddha went down in a storm.... but guess what! Although everyone else perished in the ship wreck, the two Princes, Jatukam and Rammatep survived. And thus began the tale of protection. A temple was built, in what is now a southern part of Thailand, to hold the holy relics of Buddha. The two princes were well known for having done great earthly and heavenly deeds. When after many centuries when the relics of the Buddha were located at the temple, along with a stone on which the images of the two princes... the local people began praying to the site requesting good luck. With this discovery, the legend of the magical powers of the "Jatukham Rammathep" appears to have begun. The very first medallions were made in 1987, and their purchase remained localized in the province until the police officer died. Then the frantic frenzy, or "Jakukham Fever" began in earnest!

Knowing how I like to buy stuff when I travel.... I bet you have been asking yourself as you read this.... does Leslie have one? And how much did he pay for it? Well just see for yourself in this photo!

Yes.... I do have one! Phra Sanya, a monk friend of mine in Nongkhai gave me a large one shortly after I arrived. So not only was it free, it was blessed by a Buddhist monk and is a special edition... made uniquely for Watt Sisaket - the temple in Nongkhai where I taught English last year.

Now the really big question is..... how many of you want me to order a "Jatukam Ramathep" medallion for you? And perhaps the even bigger question.... how deep is your pocket! For to gain the kind of protection against all kinds of evil just might cost you a pretty penny!

e martë, 5 qershor 2007

Teaching at Nong Phue Primary School in Thailand

Ever learn the song.....?

"Head and shoulders, knees and toes... knees and toes...
Head and shoulders, knees and toes ... knees and toes...
Eyes and mouth and ears and nose...
Head and shoulders, knees and toes!"

All done kenesthetically so that the students use hand movements to point to each part of the body. It's kind of a combination of song aerobics, biology, music and English.... all rolled into one! The primary school students learned it quickly and they love it!

This song seems to be one of my 2007 educational theme as I work with primary school children.

When I began teaching in schools here in Thailand four years ago, Mr. Elvis was an English teacher at Hinngompittayakum High School located about 15 kilometers outside of Nongkhai. Last year Mr. Elvis left teaching to become an administrator, so I am now teaching the students at his school.

There are only about 100 students at this school. After working with high school students, these ones are so little and they are so eager to learn. The 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. class seems to fly by as I use a combination of song, Dolch sight words, colors and numbers.... all with a variety of repetition exercises. We break for an hour lunch and then it's back to teaching again from 13:00 to 15:00. Not my favorite part of the day to teach since the afternoons tend to be very hot!

The school itself is a two story 50 year old wood building. The fans turn lazily overhead, with just enough speed to make me long for the hint of a cool breeze. So by the end of any given lesson, I'm usually drenched in sweat and ready for a shower!

The students were a little frightened of me at first, since I am the first foreign teacher they have ever had. But between the songs, my eating lunch with them, and all the activities in the classroom.... I've now got a parade of little kids behind me wherever I go.... I feel like the Pied Pipper!

Staying in Nongkhai and teaching has also cleared most, if not all, of the Bangkok smog out of my lungs. I'd planned so long to stay in Bangkok and take Thai lessons, but the heavy pollution really got to me this last time. So now here I am... living and teaching on the banks of the Mekong... swimming in the ever present humidity and for all practical purposes.... living like a king!

Sometimes these students just make me laugh!

e hënë, 4 qershor 2007

You've got to be kidding! Go to the Naga's home?

Nervous.... scared..... frightened.... excited.... all of the emotions that were running simultaneously through my entire body as I psychologically prepared myself to once again meet the mighty Mekong river serpent ... known as the Phra Naga. It had been four years since my first encounter with this incredible creature and the thought of yet another "chance" meeting had sent my heart racing.... on the verge my needing to call 911 due to what felt like the onset of a cardiac arrest!

As my heart pounded in my head, my brain flashed back to that unbelievable day in 2004 when I was preparing to leave Nongkhai for the States. The sun was setting as I'd peddled my borrowed bike to the Mekong River to say goodbye to friends. A massive thunderstorm had drenched the area, producing an "end times" type sunset that would have inspired any armature photographer to true greatness! The heat from the setting sun, combined with the recent rains, produced a steamy sauna type atmosphere that had me swimming in my own sweat as I sat on the banks of the Mekong.

Staring across the river to Laos, I'd been suddenly jolted out of my day dream by the violent churning in the middle of the muddy Mekong, a thrashing and churning which had soon turned into a huge eruption as the gigantic river serpent, known as the Phra Naga, had trust its massive colorful head into the night sky. This in and of itself would have been incredible once in a life time experience, had it not been for the creatures changing direction in mid stream, to come racing full speed toward me. As I witnessed this mass of bright red and green muscle move at lightning speed toward me, my only thought was that I'd be crushed to death by its weight should it slide ashore. I was spared the crushing weight of its body however, for the King of the Naga had come to a screeching ha ult right in front of me, only to raise its dragon type head high into the air and drown me with the water flying off its whiskers! An eternity of time had passed through my frazzled brain as I lay immobilized on the cold wet river bank... so frightened by what might happen next that all my muscles became as weak as Minnesota jello. The piecing black eyes... eyes that glowed with centuries of wisdom had held me in a grip .... had bore holes into my very soul. And then, without so much as a sound ... the mythological creature of so many legends, had fallen back into the river.... and disappeared....

Was I ready for another encounter with the King of the River Serpents? With the Phra Naga...? My heart yelled a resounding "YES!" but my mind... more cautious... was back peddling faster than a circus clown on a down sloping high wire tight rope... as it mulled over the prospects of yet another, perhaps more fateful rendezvous...

But then I said to myself that no trip to northeastern Thailand would be complete, if the Naga ... that huge beautiful river serpent that dwells in the depths of the Mekong River, were not part of my adventures! Only this time... the proposed meeting place was to go to the Naga's actual home. To actually enter its watery den!

I'd no more than arrived in Nongkhai in early June 2007 when Mr. Elvis, my Thai teacher friend, drove me to Kum Chanode to visit the actual home of THE King of the Naga! This extremely dense forest, several miles from the Mekong River, is believed to be the actual residence of this incredible reptile.

It was a cold (well everything in Thailand is relative!) and rainy the day we drove the 56 kilometers to visit the actual spot where the Phra Naga lives in a vast sub-terrain pool deep under the rice paddies of Udon Thani Provence.

Thankfully the day was overcast, for we had to remove our shoes to walk across the long cement bridge leading into the sacred tropical forest. I say thankfully, since had the sun been shining that day the cement bridge would have been hot enough to fry an egg on... to say nothing about what it would have done to the soles of my tender bare feet. A number of Thai were also making the trek across the bridge to the forest, which appeared as an oasis surrounded by rice fields. It was as if all of us were on the pilgrimage to the site. Everyone whispered in hushed tones.... almost as though they were afraid to awaken the muscular serpent. Onward in silence I walked with Mr. Elvis and his family .... my eyes darting in all directions, trying to take in the tropical vegetation that surrounded us.

We walked about a quarter of a mile before we entered the sacred forest .... an ancient grove of tall trees that for centuries have proven to be the holy sanctuary of the mighty Naga! The sky became darker and darker as we walked further and further into the dense forest. Silence... only silence seemed to engulf us. A light rain began to fall as we approached the colorful Thai Buddhist style temple that seem to stand as a sentinel within the lush vegetation. A few candles were burning in the temple along with long sticks of incense which gave off a sweet aroma that mixed with the earthy smell of the forest.

Together with Mr. Elvis' wife, and children, I too lit a candle as well as a stick on incense, and then knelt down to pay my respects to this folkloric reptile which so dominates every aspect of life in this part of Thailand.

Having paid our respects to the Naga at the temple, we set off to enter the actual Lear of the Naga. The rain continued to fall as we walked along the overgrown path leading to the pool that formed the actual entrance to the Naga's sub-Terran lodging.

A kind of fear gripped my gut and a cold chill ran down my spine as we approached the pool. Would the Naga be there? Would the Naga violently thrust itself straight out of the pond with its massive head drowning me in water as it shot up towards the sky? Would it again stare down at me with those same intensely piercing black eyes I'd first experience with such fear four years ago as I laid immobilised on the banks of the Mekong River? And how would I react this time? Would I again look up in awe at this colorful serpent? Or would I be overcome with fear...? Fear that I might not be as fortunate on my second encounter?

With great trepidation.... I peered down into the pool. The water was murky... quiet... still... silently mirroring back the darkening sky. Nothing stirred the water. The depths of the pond refusing the give any hint as to the where abouts of its ancient inhabitant.

Long I stood there... next to the brightly painted cement that surrounded this pond.. searching... searching..... hoping to get even a slight glimpse of the creature. But no ray of the sun shone through the forest canopy allowing me to peer deeply into the magical pond which, as local folklore has it, is the entrance to a bottomless reservoir...

For the first time in four years, this magnificent creature alluded me.... this year it seemed to be aloof, uninterested.... almost as if it were intentionally hiding from me. With no Naga sighting in view.... I could only dip a wooden gourd into the water in which it lived, pour the water over my hands, and tell myself... the ancient powerful serpent, who for centuries has guarded the bones of Lord Buddha in the Mekong River.... has slithered through this same waters.... the water that I stood pouring over my hands...

My Thailand travels have been so entwined with the Naga ..... I could only ask myself as I stood peering down into the depths of the pond....

"Would I get no closer to the Naga on this trip, than to touch the water, drawn from the depths of its bottomless watery home.... the cool water that was flowing over my trembling hands? Would I have another occasion to meet up with the Naga? Or was this it?"

My question, like that of the Raven in Poe's poem, went unanswered ..... "Nevermore...........?"