Our Stories Journeys Arts Front of Book

Paper Lanterns & Cuffs of White

Story and photo by Mickey Scott

Located in a temple outside of Chiang Mai, the Buddha protects the town's residents.
Located in a temple outside of Chiang Mai, the Buddha protects the town’s residents.

My host father, P’Khom (pronounced: pah kh-home), knotted a white thread around my wrist while reciting a Buddhist prayer. Cradling my alabaster hands in his caramel palms, he repeated his blessing in English:

“May you have good luck… Be safe…We wish you happiness of the world…”

The light of the village’s Buddhist temple was blurred by the humidity of the night. Heavy air licked the faces of visitors unaccustomed to Thailand’s unrelenting wet heat. Broken English laced with the northern Thai dialect of Chiang Mai, Thailand echoed through the already crowded temple, where 34 students and 12 host families sat facing one another. We had gathered here for our final night together, having spent the last four days in constant company; trekking the surrounding hills, walking the length of the Sticky Waterfalls, exploring a temple that was perched on top of a hill, and working alongside one another to construct a small dam.

Much like the twine around my wrist, my stomach knotted with thoughts of my family back in the United States as I looked at the faces of my host family. This moment was so personal to me, and I was sharing it with people I had only known for less than one week. I bit my lip and swallowed my homesickness, but a few tears escaped the corners of my eyes. I had spent only four days in this village, and felt overwhelmed by the hospitality shown to me.

Over those four unforgettable days, my host family had given me a blessing that reached far beyond the temple walls. They gave me a space at their table, refuge under their roof, and the opportunity to help their village by building a much-needed dam. I didn’t speak any Thai at the time, but words were not important: This family, who knew me by nothing more than my first name, accepted me into their home as if I were a long-lost daughter. This was the final day of our homestay in the foothills of Chiang Mai before the academic portion of my Oregon University System International Program began.

I’d always planned on studying abroad during my junior year of college—traveling outside my comfort zone, and even my time zone, promised to be an educational experience in itself.  After researching multiple programs, I chose a corner of the world devoid of English speakers. For five months, I lived abroad in northern Thailand, also known as the “kingdom of a million rice fields”, , intermingling with other students from the United States, Japan, Australia, and Gambia. I attended Payap University, located just outside Chiang Mai’s crowded city streets, and studied in the university’s international college. After three days spent wandering around campus, our program leaders held an orientation to brief us on our Thai home-stay trip. The meeting also doubled as a crash course in Thai, because we were venturing into the hills of Chiang Mai to meet our Thai-speaking host families the very next day. Plans for our excursion were vague. We clamored for concrete details, asking:

Oil candles at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Each visitor pours oil into the candle associated with the Buddha of their birth month to show devotion to their spiritual practice.
Oil candles at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Each visitor pours oil into the candle associated with the Buddha of their birth month to show devotion to their spiritual practice.

“Where are we going?”

“To a village.”

“For how long?”

“Four days.”

“Will our families speak English?”

“No.”

Once I began packing, my mind was consumed by how little I actually knew about my upcoming journey into the depths of Thailand. I would pack one thing one minute, then unpack it the next. In the end, I spent most of the night locked in a staring contest with my backpack, questioning my choices and feeling utterly unprepared.

The hog truck hugged each bend of the two-lane road that unfurled ahead of us, climbing each incline like a charging bull. Our momentum as we drove towards the village caused foliage to blur into splashes of green as our truck raced by jungle, small roadside towns, and rice paddies. We sat shoulder to shoulder in the back of the canopied truck on three rows of unsecured benches. The close-packed bodies felt strangely intimate, considering that I couldn’t even remember the name of the person bumping shoulders with me.

“Mick-ee and Ayako, this is your father, P’Khom,” said P’Gai, one of our teachers, as he read our names off in pairs through his thick Thai accent. We stood awkwardly in a circle around the village’s dirt courtyard, waiting to meet our host.

“Hi, I’m Mickey,” I said with a nervous smile as I took my place next to Ayako, a graduate student from Osaka, Japan. We’d arrived in the afternoon and had gathered a few meters away from the village’s Buddhist temple, where monks clad in orange and burgundy were hard at work restoring the temple’s aging exterior. Farther up the road, the terrain opened up into rice paddy fields that swallowed the plains, lapping at the feet of Chiang Mai’s foothills.

“Me-key? Hello, I am Aya.” Ayako’s smile was inviting, although her Japanese accent stuck to words in ways I wasn’t used to. P’Gai ushered us over to greet our host father, who waited quietly in front of his truck. Aya and I offered our new host father a wai, a traditional Thai greeting, placing our hands in prayer position and bowing our heads slightly to show our respect for P’Khom. After we’d performed the formalities, P’Khom took us to our new home where we were introduced to our host mother, M’Aew, and our nine-year-old brother, Rah-Shean. Before bed, Aya and I taught Rah-Shean how to play memory with the cards I had brought as a gift. At first, Aya and I had difficulty explaining the rules of the card game since our Thai was so limited. Lacking words, we arranged the cards and began to play. Soon enough, Rah-Shean picked up the rules and began matching cards that Aya and I had missed.

On our second to last day, we travelled to a creek that needed to be dammed. We passed buckets of sand and rock hand-to-hand down the line from eight in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. Everyone ached. My arms shivered, drained of strength, but I radiated with the pride that came from knowing that my sore muscles had aided the villagers in irrigating their rice paddy fields.

I felt like I’d been hit by a train when I woke up on our last day; my shoulders ached from the previous day’s labor and random Thai phrases still bounced around in my head. But today, all of our efforts would be celebrated. Once Aya and I emerged from our room, we saw our family busily preparing a money tree, which consisted of tissue paper ribbons wrapped around wooden dowels arranged in branches festooned with Thailand’s currency, the baht. Sitting at the family table, Aya, Rah-Shean, and I folded baht and secured them to sticks, resembling slim branches with protruding notes as leaves. Everyone gathered at our house before parading to the village temple. Then the rain began. It fell in unrelenting sheets, joining in on the chorus of drums and clash of bells that resounded from the parade of families walking to the Buddhist temple.

Before entering, everyone took off their shoes finding a spot on the floor and sitting mermaid style with the bottoms of our feet facing away from the statue of Buddha. … The vivid colors of the temple walls reflected on our faces as a monk flicked holy water over the crowd. Once the monk had finished, our families directed us to sit in two rows in preparation for their own prayer. After P’Khom completed reciting prayers, he tied a piece of white string around our wrists to keep us safe and bring good luck. As I watched Aya receive her prayer, I felt overwhelmed by our host family’s desire to share their culture and beliefs with us along with their acceptance of our unawareness of their way of life. It was as if we were on the opposite side of a wide river—a river that my host family was willing to journey across in order to share their stories and their lessons.

Every family tied a white string onto each of our wrists, leaving us with cuffs of white thread on each arm. The final ritual was to let off floating paper lanterns. The rain had stopped and nightfall inked out any remnants of the sun’s rays. My host father, mother, brother, and sister all held the paper lantern as it began to lightly flutter, resisting our grasp. When it was ready, our mother, M’Aew, told us to let go of it and allow the lantern to rise into the night beyond us, releasing it as if it was the last connection to the lives we had before learning about life in Thailand.

Comments are closed.