MY JOURNEY FROM BEING NEHA TO MALI
A week ago, I was sitting on a window seat of Thai Airways, staring outside, clueless and wondering about how my trip to Thailand would turn out to be. For a person who had never traveled abroad all alone by herself, my decision of coming to Thailand was a big one. Despite of all nervousness, I chose to trust Thailand Village Academy, which was going to organize a program for Thai and foreign nationals to explore 22 villages around Thailand.
We left for Chiang Mai from Bangkok to get to Uttaradit a day after the press conference at SC Park Hotel. I didn’t get to see much of Chiang Mai since it was raining, but I could sense the beauty of Chiang Mai in the air. We went to Wat Lok Molee, a temple in Chiang Mai. The chedi of the temple houses the ashes of several kings of Lanna kingdom. The monks were chanting mantras and I instantly thought, ‘Ah, that sounds familiar!’ I came to know that monks here chant in Pali, which is a middle Indo-Aryan liturgical language native to the Indian sub-continent.
In an evening in the home stay, me and my Thai friend were talking about Thai language. We found drastic similarities in pronunciation between Thai alphabets and Nepali alphabets.
Not only alphabets, various words and meanings also sounded similar. For example, the animal Garuda (Sanskrit), a legendary animal creature is a symbol of state insignia here in Thailand. It is called Krut. (pronunciation being a lot similar) Bhoomi (land) is pronounced as Bhoom and it means the same thing. Brahma, the creator god in Hinduism is pronounced as Bhrahm.
LAO WIANG CULTURAL TOURISM COMMUNITY, UTTARADIT
Uttaradit is a 6-hour drive from Chiang Mai. The highway reminded me a lot of where I’ve spent most of my life growing up, the Terai area of Nepal. A feeling of nostalgia swept me over, and I fell asleep for about 1 hour. We drove through the windy roads, through some forests and past small villages. It was nothing like Bangkok or Chiang Mai, two of the biggest cities in Thailand. The air became cleaner and life became simpler.
We arrived at around 5 PM in Lao Wiang Cultural Tourism Community. As soon as I stepped into Ban Hat Song Khwae, I felt safe and secure like I was searching for this all these years and I finally found it. It felt like home. The women of the community welcomed me and my Thai friend by the garland of fresh jasmine flowers and coconut water from freshly cut coconuts. All of them were wearing their traditional clothes and danced to a Lao song. It was extremely overwhelming for me and I was shaking with happiness and tears in my eyes. It was a feeling hard to describe.
Hat Song Khwae village has been home to Lao people for many decades now. The community leader briefed us about how the forefathers of Lao Wiang people had to migrate from Laos to Thailand as prisoners and they were only freed during the reign of Rama V. The Lao Wiang people might have been separated from their original land, but they have embraced Thailand as their own. They feel proud to call Thailand their country. They served us Kanom Sai Sai (a dessert that is made with coconut) and fresh coconut water. Everyone gathered at our home stay to give us welcome dinner. They had cooked food for us and we ate as a family. When I told them I loved the jasmine flowers with which they welcomed us, they named me Mali, which translates to Jasmine in English. Everyone has been calling me Mali since that day and I am elated to get myself a Thai name. I’ve already adapted to the name and if someone says ‘Mali’, I turn around looking for the person who is calling me. It is true but surreal.
On the first day of our stay, we made some Banana Chips, which was extremely fun and enjoyable. I didn’t like Banana Chips, but since I ate Banana Chips mixed with Paprika, I’ve come to love it! Bananas weren’t so important in my life a month ago, but Lao Wiang Community made me change my preference. In the evening, we practiced sewing a kind of a logo of Lao Wiang community (a person carrying a Sarek) in the front of cloth bags for ourselves.
The members of Lao Wiang Community were wearing their traditional dress when they had welcomed us. They were looking so colorful and happy that I was thinking if I could get to try the dress or not. I DID TRY IT! It was a knee-length phaa-sin of different colors, woven from cotton and a pure white top. I didn’t feel comfortable in the dress as I am not used to wearing a wrap, but looking at how happy and thankful people looked, I was so happy. They thought I looked beautiful and were excited beyond words. Looking at them happy just because I tried the traditional dress made me forget about the discomfort.
In the same morning, we went to the Hat Song Khwae temple for the alms giving ceremony. The monks seemed so holy and pure. I could say that by looking at their way of walking. While walking around the community asking for alms, each of their steps are taken peacefully and patiently. They have no hurry to reach anywhere, no reason to be dissatisfied and no attachments with material things whatsoever. Looking at them going around to ask for food was like rose water to my eyes.
Visiting a date palm farm, cooking traditional dish of the community – ‘Aur Buck Ped’, learning how to make Sarek, a kind of a balancing scale made of wood which is very essential to the people of the community, learning how to play the traditional long drum and Thai dance, bamboo planting and propagation and most importantly the farewell given by Lao Wiang Community on the last evening, is absolutely unforgettable in my life.
Humbleness and Humility still rules Lao Wiang Community’s life everyday. It is like a ritual to them. Staying in this community for five days would not have been easier if the community people were not the way they are. Eating food together, joking around, treating tourists like your own family, loving them unconditionally – this is not something which any village or community can pull off easily. I’m proud I got the opportunity to meet such people in my life. Most of the people here in the community can’t speak much good English but I didn’t always need a translator to translate everything. Gestures play a very important role in communicating, showing love, respect and gratitude to others and it took me 22 years of my life to realize that you don’t have to understand each other’s language to be comfortable with each other. Whenever I am alone with a Thai speaking individual here, I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. I try to converse with them as much as I can, try and feel what they feel.
On the fifth evening of our stay, we were given a farewell. It was the most emotional part of my stay here in Lao Wiang Community. I danced wearing a traditional Lao Dress and my Thai friend played the long drum. The Bai Si Sru Kwan ceremony, most popular in Lao culture was performed by an elderly member of the community. He chanted some mantras and wrapped a white protection thread around my wrist. The ceremony can be performed in any occasion – while welcoming the guests or bidding farewell to them, blessing a newly born, etc. They call ‘the soul’ of the person back to their body from wherever they are roaming to establish harmony in the body.
There was food, dancing, music and tears as well in the farewell.
We had a lot of places to visit in these five days. I feel like 5 days aren’t enough for a person to know Lao Wiang Community in Uttaradit but its enough to get attached to the community and its people, which makes it very hard to say goodbyes.
I’ll miss everything of this place, but most importantly, people here have won my heart. I’ll also miss the food, crazy Saleng rides, dancing to a traditional Lao song, but I’ll miss the people of this community the most. They have secured a special place in my heart.
These 5 days with Lao Wiang Cultural Tourism Community in Ban Hat Song Khwae has taught me a lot about human connection, gratitude and humility. I was accepted by the community as one of their own, even without direct verbal communication. The morning we had to leave was very emotional for me.
We have already returned to Bangkok and I miss the community so much that I have started having sensory illusions. While walking or even while sitting on my hotel room alone, I hear someone calling me Mali or Nong Mali. I have a special connection with the name and I’ll cherish the name Mali forever in my life.