This gilded red doorway loomed majestically before me when I stepped from a long, meandering jetway into the G Concourse of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport just before midnight on July 10th, 2012. What a glorious sight, soaring up twice as tall as me, placed to greet arriving passengers first thing. I felt perfectly, handsomely welcomed back to Thailand, where I had spent three years as a Peace Corps volunteer, 1975 to 1978. I had returned once, for a 3 month visit in 1989, to research my first cookbook. That first return-visit to Thailand thrilled and delighted me, and I vowed to return soon and often. Instead, 23 more years rolled on by.
Thanks to Friends of Thailand, an organization of returned Peace Corps volunteers and others who love Thailand, I finally returned this month, July of 2012, for celebrations and reunions. The occasion: Peace Corps Thailand’s 50th anniversary, celebrated beautifully through a memorable series of events in Bangkok, July 11 – 18, 2012. So many extraordinary experiences, grand times, amazing sights, precious people, glorious feasts, everyday snacks, insights, memories, and inspirations keep my mind whirring, some ten days since my return home. I’ll be taking it all in and sharing things here for a good while, in small portions. For now, here is an outline of my journey.
A water-taxi pulling away from the dock near The Royal River Hotel on the Chao Phraya River, Thonburi side. This was headquarters for the Friends of Thailand 50th Anniversary Celebrations. In the background is the Krung Thon Bridge, also known as Sapahn Sang Hi.
Kickoff event Wednesday, July 11th, a delightful dinner hosted by Friends of Thailand and Peace Corps Thailand at the Royal River Hotel. Photo collages share images of some of the 5000 Peace Corps volunteers who have served in Thailand over the 50 years since Group #1 arrived in 1962.
A Thai food buffet fueled reunions with old friends and colleagues and meet-ups with new ones, as well as with Peace Corps staff, past and present.
Highlight of a marvellous evening was my joyful reunion with Khun Alisaa, who had just begun working at Peace Corps Thailand when my group, Thai #51, arrived in the spring of 1975. She remains beautiful, delightful, and kind, and she actually remembered nervous me, age 23, from my newbie days, 37 years ago.
Thursday night, July 13, currently-serving Peace Corps volunteers joined us old-timers, Peace Corps staff, and many others for a fantastic reception at the beautiful and inviting United States Embassy Residence, hosted by US Ambassador to Thailand Kristie A. Kenney.
On Friday morning, we were welcomed at the Ministry of Interior of the Kingdom of Thailand, for a magnificent event celebrating the fifty years Thailand has welcomed the US Peace Corps and Peace Corps volunteers. The highlight of this auspicious and memorable gathering was the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
In this photograph from the Ministry of the Interior’s website HERE, Her Royal Highness enjoys visiting the exhibits chronicling Peace Corps’s presence in Thailand, 1962-2012 during this memorable celebratory event.
I loved every minute of this beautiful morning, especially the chance to meet these two wonderful young people, current Peace Corps volunteers, Jeffrey Jackson and Christine Duffy, who are currently serving in Surin province, where I spent my two years, 1975-1978. They are two of the 112 PCV’s currently serving in 47 provinces throughout the Thai kingdom.
We finished this marvellous day with an unforgettable celebration at the lovely headquarters of Peace Corps Thailand, a grand vintage Thai house transformed into a handsome office and home base for all the activities and good work of Peace Corps Thailand. Walking along one of Bangkok’s ultra-busy major thoroughfares,with traffic sounds and bustling daily life, I did not imagine how magically we would be transported from 21st Century Bangkok hustle-bustle to a sweet, welcoming, lovely paradise created by Khun Salinee and the Peace Corps Staff. I’ll never forget coming through the the doors and gateways behind the high thick walls of the compound, to be greeted by Thai music, flowers, smiles, sweets, gifts, and greetings which went on for hours in the dearest way.
Here some members of Peace Corps Thailand staff are posing for a photograph on the flower-lined steps leading up to the house.
The most wonderful and precious part of my Thailand adventures began on Saturday morning, July 14, when I traveled back to my Peace Corps site in Thatum, Surin, to see my students. Much to share on this, over time. My heart is still too full, and the number of people and events too big, for me to do anything more right this minute than to broach the subject, with this photograph. Here I am with some of the many, many students who came to greet me during my short visit — four days in all. These wonderful people were between 11 and 14 years old when I taught them English in 1975. We all remember each other very very well. What a blessing to be able to go back and to find so many of these dear people there, and ready to come greet me and spend time together. (This isn’t even everyone; just the first gathering on the first morning of my visit. Many more pictures and stories to come.) What a blessing; what a gift.
Here, my former student, Ajarn Riat Prombut, who is now an outstanding English teacher in Burirum Province, teaches a short lesson to the students in an elementary school English class led by my new friend, Christine Duffy, currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Surin province. Tuesday morning, July 17th, 2012.
Here, my former student, Miss Nattayabhorn, poses with me by a portrait of His Royal Highness King Rama IX, in the main hall of Hulaumpong Train Station in Bangkok. I had just arrived on an overnight train from Surin, and she and her lovely daughter came to meet me and see me back to my hotel. It was 5:55 a.m. on Wednesday, July 18th, 2012. That day included an amazing and special tour of the Grand Palace, graciously hosted by RPCV Geoffrey Longfellow; and then a spirited and memorable farewell dinner back at the Royal River Hotel, where many of us RPCV’s who had gathered for the week’s events enjoyed one more feast. A powerful and moving evening of reflections on our time in Thailand, past and present.
On my last day, Thursday, July 19, Miss Nattayabhorn picked me up from my hotel, wrestled my massive suitcase into her car, and drove me up to Ayutthaya Province, north of Bangkok, to visit another former student. While she drove (Don’t worry: The driver is on the righthandside in Thailand; this is my leftside view from the passenger seat, na kha?), I looked up fun things on her i-pad, including a Thai country song I adore, “Clai Bahn”, as classroom favorites “Fly Me To The Moon”, “Muhammad Ali”, and “500 Miles”.
When I looked up from researching songs and such, I realized we were travelling on one of the most beautiful and dazzling bridges in the whole wide world. Okay, I might be wrong; I haven’t actually been on that many bridges, but I can’t imagine this wouldn’t be in the running for most magnificent, with multiple golden spires like this one.
Here I am at my student Ganyaa’s school in Ayutthaya Province, with a charming and dear gathering of students who have just finished playing Thai classical music for our listening pleasure. (Video to come.) Some students are wearing their Girl Guides and Boy Scouts uniforms. To my left is Principal Ganyaa, and to my right is the charming and delightful teacher, Ajarn Preeda. So sorry I do not have a photograph of Ajarn Khwunta, who was visiting the school that day, and kindly took these photographs for me.
Here I am in front of one of the welcoming signs in my honor, with Principal Ganyaa, my former student, and Ajarn Sawang, who teaches Thai classical music to the students each week.
So many moments, both majorly dramatic and everyday ones. How lovely to be riding along the highway, looking out at rice fields and schools and towns and snack stands and daily life. Every moment felt precious and deep and rich and sweet.
An early morning stroll in my town, Thatum, passing a banana tree flanked by two major patches of lemongrass.
It wasn’t a research trip, but culinary treasures found me constantly, including this delightful noodle vendor whose “kwaytiow reua”, boat noodles, were fantastic, even at 3 pm on a steamy-hot afternoon. I wish I had me a bowl right now. Just one of the small reasons to get back over there, not that I don’t have a gracious plenty of irresistible reasons, (dear and beloved people) without even going to the category of Thai food.
My last night, I was welcomed by Ajarn Ruchirek and Ajarn Pallop, friends of Miss Nattayabhorn, who hosted me in their lovely home for a wonderful (and most delicious) farewell dinner and a good night’s rest before my long plane journey. Here are Miss Nattayabhorn and Principal Ganyaa to my left, and Ajarn Ruchirek and Ajarn Pallop to my right.
Back at the airport, on the morning of July 20th, 2012. It’s about 3 a.m. Thai time. People were sleeping; but not Miss Nattyabhorn and her husband, who got up super-early to drive me there and see me off on my journey home.
So many amazing, powerful, hilarious, sweet, rich and indelible memories from a relatively short journey: All of twelve days. So many people, so much generosity and kindness. Details will flow here, over time. For now, I must say that without this good and dear person, Ajarn Riat Prombut, (with his lovely wife Ajarn Ampai), who was my student back in Thatum Surin in the mid 1970’s, this journey would not have happened. Dedicated, energetic, generous, and so very patient (!) and creative in getting me where I wanted to go. Even on the last day, when I wanted to visit PCV Christine Duffy, but forgot to get the address, much less any directions, Ajarn Riat made it happen. Before and during my trip, he planted the seeds, made the connections, arranged and adapted, and created a glorious sweet visit I will never forget.
My plane took off at 5:45 a.m., and my last glimpse of Thailand left me hungry for more. (Delta Airlines Bangkok/Tokyo/Atlanta/RDU). It’s not a matter of whether to go back; it’s only a matter of when. I am working on it. Meantime, so much to remember, contemplate and enjoy, and share here, over time.
Leaving Thailand was difficult and sad. It felt like I had just gotten started on a new chapter, while in the process of revisiting an old chapter; remembering and reflecting while feasting on Thai food and enjoying reunions with so many dear and wonderful people. But how good it felt to come on back home. I missed my family so much. Next time they must come along with me! On my first afternoon back home, the hot (HOT!) summer sky cracked wide open with a thunder and lightning storm of Biblical proportions, the way that North Carolina thunderstorms can do. As the storm was moving out, I ventured out into the front yard and found this double rainbow. It felt personal. Auspicious, appropriate, comforting, sweet. It was and is good to be home, and it’s good to be thinking about my next Thai adventure.