Monday, June 27, 2011

Fight the Foam

A golden stupa shines in the steam rising from the food carts surrounding it. Hungry shoppers surround the carts, taking hot pad thai, kabobs, and curries away in what look like Styrofoam containers. Plastic cups filled with fresh fruit smoothies, a divine treat for less than a dollar, and bottled water hydrate the starving masses. Hundreds of people, piles of Styrofoam in the trash, plastics galore; an environmental nightmare come true. Or, at least, it was. A banner hangs between trees, illuminated by the waning sunlight: No Foam For Food is printed in big green letters. Below it reads in Thai but a nearby picture, a Styrofoam bowl with a devil's tail and a red X cutting through, says all that’s necessary.

Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Street is one of the city’s premier attractions: from 5 P.M. to around 11 every Sunday, hundreds of local merchants set up shop on Ratchadamnoen Road, bringing hordes of eager shoppers to the old city street. With all the commotion surrounding the market, not to mention the foreigners richly disposal income, local food vendors also set up shop around temple Phun Ohn to feed the masses. Known for the quality of their food and work anywhere mentality, these family stands offer traditional, amazing Thai dishes at unbelievable prices. They also create a tragic amount of trash: local film production and advocacy group Muang Muang discovered that each month, the Walking Street food vendors generate over 24,000 pieces of Styrofoam waste. Calculate the life span of each piece at around five thousand years and you have an event who’s footprint remains on the landscape long after the shoppers have gone home. To reduce this impact, Muang Muang formed an alliance with Wat Phun Ohn and created the No Foam for Food project, a public campaign aimed at eliminating foam waste and implementing a recycling system in the Walking Street food areas. Their action is a stirring example of modern environmentalism in the midst of tradition and tourism.

Not far from the food carts, near the tables and trees guarding them, stands the Walking Street recycling area. As a large fenced box surrounded by bins, all labeled with colorful signs, this area stands in contrast to the laissez – faire attitude much of the city has towards recycling: throw your plastics and cans away, the homeless / destitute will sort it later for money. By making efficient recycling available near the food, No Foam for Food has made the Wat Phun Ohn eating area a mix of ancient and modern. Couple this busy green scene with bio chan - aoy containers, a completely biodegradable styro – substitute now required at the nearby eateries, and you’ve got a temple that has survived the ages surrounded by an enterprise that won’t damage the future.

Muang Muang has their sights set on expanding No Foam for Food to the entire Walking Street. Banners popping up around other eating areas on Ratchadamnoen tell of their ambition and drive. It’s the Walking Street of today, strolling into a greener tomorrow.

*For more information on No Foam for Food check out them out on Facebook or on their website at:

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Timeless Calm

City streets swirl and pulse all around, the circulatory system of a place that never sleeps. In this temple, above the fray, a feeling of peace settles past the food and trinket pushers. Stairs of stone, numerous and strong, are flanked by dragons stretching their spines; pilgrims, both local and foreign, move between these spiritual vanguards. To reach the top is to feel complete in the present, wanting and daydreaming elude those surrounded by immemorial treasures. I can breathe here in this moment; I could live here in this feeling. My mind as clear as the blue sky, my heart as full as the ocean. The result of nothing bought or sold, but temples built from faith, centuries old. They line the path to enlightenment but stop short of giving it away. Only the dedicated can take the final steps on this journey and find the wisdom to rise above the inner battle of the mind.

One could, as many have, write volumes on the temples of Thailand. Even as their plaques preach impermanence, each temple stands boldly against the tides of time. A city, the second largest in a country of sixty four million people, has grown around temples like Wat Umong, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Pra Singh. Neon lights and dance clubs, expats and ladyboys, motorbikes and tuk tuks: modernity didn’t forget Chiang Mai. And yet, these bastions of faith stand no worse for the urban development all around. It’s as if the bustling city of today were always built with the temples in mind: the silence and contemplation they offer is never far when the frantic streets wear one down. In the sanctum of a city’s holiest space, time passes like wind over an open plain. Any mental barriers blocking peace are swept away, things that felt so important and unwieldy throughout the day are revealed utterly inconsequential when one moves inside.

It’s amazing how many things are secretly carried through customs when one goes abroad. Somehow, crossing an ocean isn’t enough to ditch your inadequacies. I naively expected my insecurity, penchant for melodrama, easily broken focus, etc. etc. to melt away as I stepped off the plane. I believed a change of scenery could significantly change the man inside. To improve oneself takes dedication, plain and simple, and no amount of miles or shifted scenes can make it any easier. In the temples, I feel progress though. I feel my mind part like the Red Sea, with the deeper, resplendent parts exposed. If any seismic inner shifts occur on this trip, it will be the result of time in this space. A month has passed here and for all the city and sights still left to see, I want to spend more moments sitting. Breathing. Thinking. Seeing more feels like less when my mind is scattered over the horizon. I want to be here, now. Present moment, wonderful moment.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Volunteer Week Photo Story

The Elephant Nature Park volunteer program is an unforgettable experience I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone traveling in Thailand. Volunteers pay to spend one week at the Park, working in the mornings and afternoon to support their operations and the elephants. Throughout the week, they are given many opportunities to closely interact with the park’s animals as they roam, eat, and bath. To live in this place and be so near to one of Thailand’s most sacred animals is to find a level of nirvana: peace surrounds you in even the most menial tasks. When a large group of international volunteers can shovel elephant shit with smiles on their faces, for the third time, you know their experience has been special. The connection we all shared to the work and to each other by the week's end was electric, and I hope to remain in contact with many of my fellow group members. In lieu of a full - length blog post, I have created a photo story with pics from my week. Each is captioned to provide more information about the work of Elephant Nature Foundation and the Elephant Nature Park volunteer program. Check it out at: