Sunday, December 5, 2010

*Nimmanhaemin Arts Promenade 2010*

*A version of this entry appears in Shatter Magazine for ethical travel. See Taking a NAP in Chiang Mai for my published article!
Since 1999, the Annual NAP Fair takes place off a main street outside the old city in Chiang Mai. Nimmanhaemin Road, Soi 1 is a charming lane lined with art galleries, home decor shops, clothing boutiques and the occasional cafe. The avenue itself is an intimate and fun social scene, whose smaller streets branch out lazily, flowering with all sorts of colorful little restaurants, bars, clubs, cafes, ice cream parlors, inns, and usually with a construction site or two anticipating the latest new establishment. One reaches all these places by bicycle, motorbike, or an easy stroll. Not coincidentally, Nimman. Ave. (as the name is abbreviated) is also the location of my apartment. Especially in the evening, the nearby fair is beautifully welcoming, warmly lit from above by large paper lanterns in the shape of toy elephants, giraffes, and birds. Just beneath them, a sweeping length of voluminous fabric decorates the night sky with a shallow swag. Walking through, visitors are met with delicious scents wafting from a fresh-flower trellis, soaps and sweets in equally pleasing presentation. Opening on the King's birthday, the fair engages people in the national holiday with wax candles distributed by brightly make-upped girls in traditional Thai costume. Similarly garbed dancers perform in a makeshift theatre to a soundtrack of gamelan music, the brass orchestra of Southeast Asia. Though not without the ubiquitous presence of Elle: Decor and Martha Stewart: Thailand in stands for the distribution of these two widely known decoration and crafts magazines, the NAP fair focuses on local talent. Handmade, one of a kind and gorgeous or adorable works of art (as the case may be for the large number of toy dolls), all sit on display for ogling, photo-happy passersby and customers, including young metropolitan Bangkokians and their families who made the trek north for the NAP festival and to enjoy all Chiang Mai has to offer. During this special week artists, artisans, and shop owners crowd the street with temporary booths, where as usual a considerable outpouring of hilltribe fabrics unique to northern Thailand find their way. An insider now, I know these same brightly patterned cloths can be found most of the time and for cheaper prices in the smaller markets. I'm volunteering for Studio Naenna Textile Gallery for a few evenings of the fair. It's fun to chat with everyone and help guests try on our silk and cotton scarves. The temporary stands cozy up to the usual establishments, whose doors are swung open and welcoming everyone to have a peek at their wares. We invite people to take pictures of the displays and it's just like anywhere else where you see people taking silly pictures with cameras! I can't stop looking at everything and it's overwhelming! A scrumptuous bag of Irish baked goods here, a gingerly placed arrangement of handmade Japanese ceramics there, a sinfully soft handwoven cotton shawl to the left, a set of silk floor cushions to the right. I want to try everything. I fell in love with an acrylic based dyptich of a Wororot Market scene by a Thai artist. Too late though, since it sold at that point for 400,000 THB. Featuring contemporary genre scenes in cartoonish characters from the most typical "Thai" market I've been to in Chiang Mai. Sino-French pop and sharply contrasting Americana inspired sculpture and textiles are attractive now, especially quilts and floral patterns like multi-colored french toile. Though Thailand has gained a penchant for materialism especially in the abundance of fake couture, the NAP fair demonstrates how Chiang Mai fashion and creativity treads a line between brand names and homegrown crafts. The colors and lines are modern and there's a sense of humor in so much of the design- it's fresh! The global variety you can find in a city as laid back, unassuming, and neighborhoody as Chiang Mai is pleasing. There is something for everyone at NAP, which continues across the main street into an open parking lot called the Think Park, usually harbored by a single cafe. This week instead numerous food stalls hug an area of bistro tables and chairs shadowed by sunbrellas in the daylight and overlooked by a musical performance at night. Enjoy gelato, pizza, or a bowl of kow soi, the delicious northern Thai dish. Made with yellow curry, dry yellow noodles, and your choice of chicken, beef, pork, or tofu, one can add any combination of the following condiments at hand at all times; a squirt of lime, a dash of chili-pepper, and spoonfuls of hot pepper sauce, brown sugar, and fish oil. These are essential ingredients on the Thai dining table that I've come to take for granted. Definitely not on the menu at home! In addition to the aforementioned arts and dishes, other things you won't find at most arts fairs but are here in Chiang Mai: A gallery of clever, elephant inspired caricatures and sculptures promoting elephant protection, hilltribe purses and bags with red pom poms and bright patterns, and contemporary paintings including anger-infused depictions of yellow shirts and red shirts representing the present political power struggle in Thailand and in Chiang Mai, referred to by some as "red-shirt country." These paintings play quite a different tone than the rest of the fair, and are surprising to me in a city where people are known to actively repress emotions of discontent most of the time. My favorite booth here isn't selling much, but is advertising educational programs instead. The Sangdee Art Gallery is a thriving community art space cum late-night live music and bar scene cum contemporary art gallery. Love it! Not too surprisingly, there is a Pennsylvania connection. ;) A Lancaster native is gallery director! And other members are bi-continental travelers from NYC too. Invited me to party the first night, drinks on the house!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Colors at the Studio

Balls of spun yarn in the garden.
Silk scarf I stlyed and photographed for the gallery.
Praying mantis on my hat after harvesting organic indigo.
Bundled indigo one day after soaking in water to extract the color.
Indigo dye paste in the later stages of production.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Pai is Falling in LOVE"

Pai is a backpackers town for expats, tourists, Bangkokians and local Pai people. My teacher friends and I had a mini-vacation there, where my private, dark wood cabin boasted a panoramic view of rice paddies tapering off at distant green mountains and a mud hut-like tile bathroom. Pai's laid back cafes, bars and restaurants in combination with the beauty of the natural landscape, hot springs and an elephant camp just a short motorcycle ride away contribute to the town's hippy-like vibe that can be romantic. If not for the excessive self-promotion of this famously chill backpackers town, I would have forgotten where I was and relaxed entirely! However, I remained a bit in shock by a tsunami of souvenirs with text proclaiming Pai's amazingness. There was a moment when I couldn't see anything in the market that didn't say "PAI! PAI! PAI!" "Love in Pai" "Pai is Love" "I Survived the Ride to Pai" "Pai is For Lovers" "Pai Love You" etc. Shopping for souvenirs in Pai is like witnessing a town make love to itself on every street corner and then buying a piece of the PAI love fest to take home. It was a bit awkward. I felt like I should have spent more time there to justify buying a keychain! =) However, I can enjoy myself in most places where there are people in good spirits, and I found the market experience entertaining. Souvenirs are often funny things anyway.

Yummy Brunch in Pai Beneath a Children's Art Exhibit

Selling kids' artwork or hosting a "coffee shop" art exhibition are fun ways for mom & pop places to charm and engage customers. At a cafe In Madison, WI I remember an attractive photograph series featuring fair trade coffee bean factory workers somewhere in a third world country. A previous Starbucks junkie, I'm thinking more critically about the role that coffee shop exhibits could play in supporting artists, pleasing consumers, and at times, in promoting human rights. For some reason, I didn't expect to see a kid's exhibit in Pai. I thought of how many unattended children I see working in the streets in cities here. They approach me with eyes glazed over in restaurants to sell flower garlands, even late into the evening. I don't know where the little painters work who colored these small canvases, but I imagine it's a safer place. The responsibility of being an informed consumer is on my mind these days. By the way, Thailand offers a never ending variety of fruits and veggies for the not-so-strict vegetarian too. Our brunch here was delicious and fresh. There is a cozy second floor up a short ladder. I'd recommend it for your next visit.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Studio Naenna & Weavers for the Environment

Making the most of a precious opportunity often necessitates changing hats several times a day. Recent weeks keep me busy volunteering alongside Jenny Willett, a professional knitter from London and Ms. Lamorna Cheesman, the director of Studio Naenna. Working as a textile stylist, photographer, and writer for their new website, I also consult for them to actively market and advertise their products. Despite a decrease in sales since 9/11, Studio Naenna enjoys an international reputation for luxurious, high quality silk and cotton garments and accessories for men and women, textile furnishings, and art. Much of its inventory is masterfully handwoven by experts who are proud of their work and have earned a better life for themselves and their families in it. While learning about dye-production, dyeing, weaving and designing first hand, we gain insight into the local community and the functions of a small, family-run business with respect for fair trade ethics and the environment. As part of our volunteer work, we intend to diversify the product line. I've introduced the gallery to a few vehicles for web-advertising through social media sites in order to reach younger customers and more of the studio's mature and discerning clientele (mostly western expats and Japanese tourists). This is critical since Weavers for the Environment rely on Studio Naenna to sell their work. I am enthusiastic to conduct interviews with the weavers and research more about textile & trade history while I assist in planning and curating an exhibition of the founder's's antique collection at the gallery. This week, Jenny and I attempt to set a new standard for commercial textile photography and utilize photoshop for careful editing. We're learning to distinguish fibers, dyes, and motifs just by looking and to the touch.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cottage Industry Appeal & a Young Businesswoman in Phrae

Beyond a few wats, there are hardly enough attractions in Phrae to bring in foreign tourists. However, a nearby museum and the town's sleepy cottage industry draw textile enthusiasts from elsewhere in Thailand and abroad. My favorite memory of our visit was the climb driving up a mountain in Long. Looking out the back of our truck, we passed dewey jungle foliage and fluorescent green rice paddies spotted with bamboo shelters. Our destination was a weaving pavilion filled with about five looms and women in their late 40s to 60s each working on something different. Ever smiling, they patiently answered my questions and made conversation in Thai. They invited me to try a hand at a few passes of the weft. Considering it takes them about 2 days to weave a skirt, they laughed at my joking remark that it would take me two months at the rate I was going. The best chance encounter of our Phrae road trip was with a special young woman at her whitewashed shop on a main street where most of the stores display indigo-dyed shirts, skirts, and pants in every shade of blue waving in the breeze outside their entrances. In the window, a loom demonstrates the creative process by which the store's inventory is produced. Several stylish pieces caught our eye. After inviting us to dye a few handkerchiefs with indigo in the dye vats out back, we spoke more with the young store owner/designer and her older sister who helps run the shop and make things to order. They hope to inspire appreciation for hand weaving among young people and kids. Having studied in Bangkok, she felt that Phrae would always be home, and the right place to eventually raise a family and continue her business. It will be exciting to interview her again in the near future. Also, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that another of her sisters is a Thai Fulbrighter currently spending a year in the Midwest United States. Small world.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sip a Fruit Smoothie & Read City Life Online

The internet junkie or remote worker finds Chiang Mai a dream! I LOVE all the free wifi in every freshly-themed and designed cafe here- especially Iberry, Milk Garden, and Pai yai nay. Cafes here are open, airy spaces full of spirited and colorful vitality in the decor, rich drinks and desserts, and smiley, catering salespeople (mostly youthful, sweetly naive CMU students), and plenty of cozy couches to sink into. Makes my runs to Starbucks haven in NYC look desperate. As if to make itself look worse, the Starbucks here is the only place (with Wawee Coffee) where the wifi isn't free.

Speaking of internet surfing, I check every day. Started by a British consul, the site provides great information for residents here for any period of time to appreciate more about life and living in Chiang Mai. In addition to being the region's no. one stop for happenings, classifieds, current attractions, weather, and real news, City Life provides an easy introduction to all things Chiang Mai. Learn more from In-depth articles and interviews revealing unique and fascinating aspects of local culture and society. Topics vary greatly from batik textile classes, local archeological findings, and university issues to lady boys, dating, Thais abroad, NGO's, and active expat communities.

Taking my time in getting to know Chiang Mai has been a critical step in my Fulbright experience. I hope to delve deeply into my work here, which is a challenge because my plans keep changing shape. I feel welcome and inspired (when I'm not down for the count after having eaten the wrong thing for lunch!)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

If I'm a "Farang" then...

Farang = Thai word for foreigner. "Funny, awkward, sweaty. Likely a sucker for overpriced services and unwanted solicitations but hey, no worries. We're glad you're here for tourism. Holy Buddha, look at her white skin."

This is what I humorously imagine most Thai people think of foreigners like myself upon first glance. Well, not the last part for everyone. I hope to imagine something else in the future. Right or wrong, from what I hear this impression is about accurate. Farang is a loosely used term for any kind of westernized foreign resident in Thailand. However, there are a few very different reasons why foreigners find themselves in Thailand for an extended stay beyond their vacation or honeymoon. For brevity, one large group includes exchange students, english teachers, and researchers (myself included) who are interested in learning about Thai culture. We come here to work, study, and enjoy Thailand for a period of time anywhere from one month to several years, while some of us stay for life. On the other hand, an inordinate number of legit and illegit NGOs entice foreign volunteers and/or self-proclaimed do-gooder missionary types here to make a difference where needed OR to misguidedly "save" others. The best of these do exceptional work and increase mutual understanding for the better. The worst of these manipulate the system and destroy native cultures in the process.
In contrast to that group of foreigners who are mostly young people, a group of more mature expats bring more by way of commerce and live very contentedly in Thailand. They include businessmen, couples, and retirees. Getting more from their foreign incomes and pensions, they afford a more care free way of life on "Thai time" and while paying for things in baht instead of dollars, euro, or pounds. Active and financially stable, this group of farang supports local economies, the arts, and their communities considerably. Thirdly in my very abbreviated list of stereotypical farang are men- young and old- here to find true love and make an honest living OR, to put it bluntly, in order satiate a desire/perversion with a fleeting pleasure in Thailand's rampant sex industry. Arguably, both these situations involve extreme risks for foreign men in Thailand. I hear from the men firsthand about the very real pleasures and pains of getting involved with Thai women and their families. Overhearing the conversation of an 80+ year old american billionaire retired here at 30 chatting about the kind of girl he'd "like to have next" at a family cafe, viewing pairs of teen boys with men my grandfather's age filling the chairs at Sunday brunch, not to mention hearing about the accepted infidelity that occurs more frequently I'm told, all could blur any ol' catholic school girl's vision. But when I find myself jumping to conclusions, I attempt to remember that no culture is exempt from the narrow perspective of outsiders, like the unlucky subject of a photograph taken from the wrong angle. It's good to remember something positive when the negatives pile up. For example, there are definitely those things I appreciate about Chiang Mai culture, let's say, than NYC culture. No one throws you the finger for not crossing at the stoplight, honking is minimal, and patient customer service is a given. =) These generalizations aren't fair to everyone, but my awareness of them gives me an understanding of what goes on around me for now.

All present frustrations aside, being a foreigner and/or American is a positive thing in Thailand. In fact, the word farang could come from the word for Frenchmen or from the word for a piece of fruit-neither being a bad association. Make friends here and be ready for a photo shoot with the whole family-instant celebrity. A good deal of the time Thai people in cities like Bangkok and Chiang mai play American music, watch American movies, and put up signs in English for us and for them to listen/watch/read, to be more western and accidentally, to make us feel at home. Amazingly, I have a handsome, native Thai trainer at the local gym who sings the lyrics to songs by Van Morrison and Britney Spears unabashedly and with a Thai accent. I listen happily as I sweat (from exercise this time) as I dream of fitting into Asian women's sportswear. For now, let it be known that it is possible to be an informed and good-humored farang who can appreciate those parts of my Thai surroundings I'll never wrap my head around.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Friends with Perspective

As many long-term travelers do, I grapple with the new reality of living and working in a place where I don't know all the rules. Speaking the native language is a struggle even after an intensive course at SEASSI. It comes to mind that one of the irreplaceable values of travel is Perspective. Not always easy or pretty, warming up to life abroad means it's time to stretch the mind like an elastic band.

My new Chiang Mai buddy is U.S. Fulbrighter Natalie Jesionka, previous reporter for the United Nations, current professor of international media and journalism at Rutgers and CMU, and founder of the PRIZM PROJECT and Shatter the Looking Glass. In short, Natalie's global perspective encompasses first-hand encounters with human injustices, familiarity with issues of various media outlets distributing world news, and paths forged to bring help to others. On Sunday, together with two female seniors from CMU, we ran a PRIZM retreat at a shelter for trafficked girls ages 6-16. It was emotionally and mentally difficult for me to understand the unfair complexity of their situation and this aspect of culture here, but the experience helped me see a bit into the girls' lives. It was a great day. The CMU girls translated for us when we asked questions to get them thinking: What is beauty? What do you want to be when you grow up and how will you get there? Being polite, they answered. And to the second question: Soldier(s), cop, ballerina, nurse, teacher. We had an inner beauty fashion show with dresses they made and wore. They gave me a few bracelets made during our last activity. Wish I could post pictures of their beautiful faces but safety comes first for the responsible blogger. Pictured above are their telling self portraits.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Familiar Faces, Books, and Silks

An exhibition of Pinaree's opened the museum at the house of Jim Thompson, the American entrepreneur who famously revived the Thai silk industry and whose vibrant life ended abruptly with the unsolved mystery of his disappearance in 1967. Visiting the hodge-podge teak abode staged with treasured objets d'art, I felt at home. In addition to all the time I've spent working in museums, some previous reading helped me know the story and studies from my MA at the BGC, to identify the art. A trip to the gem of a library next door kept me flipping through albums of past exhibitions and seeing photos of Princess Sirindorn. Her role is so important to celebrating Thai art and culture that her birthday is Thai Heritage Conservation Day. HRH recently visited Fulbrighters in the spring of 2010. Also photoed was her friend scholar Dr. Henry Ginsburg on whose collection of SEAn textiles I wrote my thesis. Interning at his mother's gallery with oodles of exquisite and antique costumes and textiles is among my fondest memories of learning in the city. (An evening course at the Met with a curator of Islamic art is up there on the list as well!)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thai Hospitality & Artist Pinaree Sanpitak

Exhibit of Pinaree's famous soft breast sculptures. Not photographed by blog author*

Left JFK for a full day of flying. After such a long trip, my first taste of Thai hospitality was especially unforgettable. I rode to my hostess' via motorsaay taxi. Weaving through traffic and shifting with curves in the road, I felt the wind in my hair and the heat of Bangkok rush behind me.

An afternoon with Jeff and renowned Thai artist Pinaree was a special pleasure. Thanks to Oriana, a friend at West Dean, for introducing us. Lunch filled my tummy with tasty Thai curries, pomelo, bean desserts, and white wine. Pinaree's works-in- progress resemble pieces in her recent show in NYC, except for newer breast stupa-shaped food moulds popular with restaurateurs. There isn't anything like an open air studio populated by canvases, sculptures, and paint tubes to inspire the artist within. Feeling creative gives me hopeful expectations for the busy months ahead.