Monday, April 13, 2015

The Origins of the Greatest Waterfight on Earth

Today is the first day of Songkran, the Thai New Year.  It runs from the 13th to the 15th of April every year.  There are many traditions associated with Songkran, such as the parading of Buddha images, spectators throw scented water over the images.  This takes place on the 13th.  The next day people take buckets of sand to the temples and build and decorate sand chedis.  (All year every time you go to temple you carry away grains of sand on your sandals, once a year you take some back.)  And on the 15th people people go to see their elders, grandparents in particular and pay respect to them by pouring lustral water over their hands.


Oh, and then there is the other thing, the water fights.  Many people claim that in the halcyon days of yore Songkran was a peaceful time in which Thais would sprinkle a few drops of water on the shoulder or back of the neck of their friends and neighbors.  There was none of this roughhousing and endless silliness that we have to put up with today.  Well, it ain't exactly so.  While the scene in Chiang Mai has gotten a bit over-the-top with the super soakers and the barrels of ice water in the backs of pickup trucks, and the whole thing lasting five days, Songkran never was an afternoon picnic in the garden with watercress sandwiches.

I'm going to tell you the true origins of water fighting during Songkran.  About a thousand years ago in Sukhothai on the first day of Songkran Nong Nut found a coconut shell.  He ran down to the stream and filled it with water.  He then dumped it on his sister, Nong Nuey's head.  It was on between the two of them and it quickly spread to the rest of the village.  It's been on ever since.

As you can see in these vintage photos people have been throwing water and getting soaked for a long time.

Another myth about Songkran is that it was ruined when foreigners started coming to Thailand.  That's a canard.  Foreigners certainly haven't improved Songkran, particularly here in Chiang Mai, but we have amply evidence from recent history that Thais are perfectly capable of ruining Thailand without any outside help whatsoever.

Thais still do the traditional things at Songkran, sand chedis, paying respect to elders, etc., but they also play water with abandon.  So, whether you love it or grit your teeth and bear it, maintain your jai yen and remember that it will be over in a couple of days.

Friday, January 9, 2015

I Love Prachuap

I love Prachuap Khiri Khan.  Yes, it’s true.  I’m in love with this little coastal town on the Gulf of Thailand.  In fact, I don’t understand why more foreigners haven’t fallen for its charms.  Most guidebooks describe it as a stopover on the way from Bangkok to the way to Samui or Phuket, but dismiss it as worth perhaps a one day stop.

So why do I love Prachuap?  The most obvious is the sea front location.  It faces the Gulf of Thailand and is known as the City of Three Bays.  Ao Prachuap (Prachuap Bay) is central, Ao Noi is to the north, and Ao Manao, the most beautiful, is to the south.  High headlands separate the bays.  This time I booked late so I couldn’t get a sea view from my hotel room, but last time I could watch the sunrise over Prachuap Bay from my balcony.  It’s a great way to start the day.

Prachuap is also a small town.  The tambon (sub-district) has 30,000 people but it feels smaller than that.  The “downtown” area, facing the bay is low rise, with few buildings more than three stories.  The streets are wide and the traffic is light.  It makes getting around very easy and it’s a great change from fighting the traffic and fumes of Chiang Mai.  

One of the best things to do in Prachuap is to go swimming at Ao Manao.  This curved protected bay is under the jurisdiction of the Royal Thai Air Force, inside the Wing 5 base.  There is free access to most parts of the base, including the swimming beach, the headland that is the home of the spectacled languor monkeys, and the historical park, with vintage aircraft on display.  The swimming area is shaded by casuarina trees, and there are lounge chairs for rent, as well as food stalls and toilet areas with showers.  It’s a place you can spend all day.  Take a good book, plop yourself down, go for the occasional dip, and your day is made.   That’s definitely my favorite way to spend time in Prachuap.
Spectacled Languors at Ao Manao

More cute monkeys

Historical aircraft at Wing 5

If you love seafood, this is the place for you.  There are several fishing fleets working out of the towns and villages along the bays, so the catch of the day really is the catch of the day.  The seafood is really fresh and much cheaper than in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.  If you can go to one of the restaurants that caters to locals rather than tourists, you will save money.  Of course, you also need to speak Thai to do that.  

 The people of Prachup claim to have the most beautiful city pillar in Thailand.  I haven't seen every city pillar in Thailand, but I am not about to disagree with their assessment.  It is lovely.

City Pillar
There are a lot of other activities in town, such as the weekend walking street market along the seawall.  It is a great place to watch people, and to chow down on local Thai snacks.  
Walking Street on Friday Evening

 Waghor Aquarium is about 12 kilometers south of town.  It’s not great, but it’s a good way to spend an hour or two on a hot afternoon (it is quite cool and dark inside.)  It is also cheap, only 30 baht for foreigners.  If you go be sure to take the beach road, not the Phetkasem highway.  The beach road winds through the picturesque village of Khlong Wan and along miles of unspoiled beach.  It’s a great ride.

Waghor Aquarium
You can also climb Mirror Mountain (Khao Chong Krajok), at the south end of town.  It has 396 steps leading to the summit, with spectacular views of the three bays, and the town.  I still haven’t climbed it.  Both times I’ve been there the weather has taken a turn for the worse at the times I had set aside to climb it.  Try to avoid the monkeys here.  These are macaques, not the cute languor monkeys of Ao Manao.  They are quite aggressive, and will beg or steal any food you have.  They will also steal your camera, or keys or purse, if you give them a chance.  They also bite, so keep the kids away from them.
Khao Chong Krajok

Nasty Macaque

Now the disclaimer.  If you are looking for fine dining, boutique shopping, and discotheques or beer bars, Prachuap isn’t the place for you.  Let me recommend Hua Hin, 90 kilometers to the north.  It has all of those things, along with cinemas, shopping malls and golf courses.  The downside is that it is filled ancient vacationing Scandinavians and Germans, and the beach is really ugly.  It's lacking in character.  But if you go to Hua Hin, and get tired of it, drop on down to Prachuap for a day or two. 

So, I love Prachuap for its laid back character, the beautiful beach, and the relaxing ambiance, with a lot of activities to do and places to see.  Now that I’ve told you about it, I’m trusting to your discretion.  Let’s keep this little secret, and hope that Prachuap stays largely untouched by the development that is happening to the north.  We’ll just keep this one for ourselves. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Toning and Firming the Brain

Last week I blogged about learn to read and write Thai.  That got me thinking about the whole process of learning a new language and how it affects the brain.  So this week I am writing about the effects of second language learning on brain structure and function.

When I was young (lo, these many moons ago) we were told that the brain stopped growing by around fourteen or fifteen and pretty much didn’t change after that, except by disease, accident, or the decline of aging.  We were also told that no new brain cells were formed after that time.  Now we have learned that the brain is much more plastic and malleable, that lifetime learning changes the brain, both physically and in terms of function.

First let’s look at the physical changes to the brain from learning a second language.  In a Swedish study at UmeĆ„ University of military recruits studying Arabic, Russian or Dari, MRI scans showed that specific parts of the brain associated with language learning became larger after 13 months of study.  Specifically, the hippocampus and superior temporal gyrus grew larger.  (I used to think that the hippocampus was where undergraduate hippopotami hung out at the uni, but I recently learned that it is brain region smack dab in the middle of the medial temporal lobe.)  Also, students who learned more quickly showed greater changes in growth of these brain structures.

Furthermore, a McGill University study of people who learned a second language as adults showed that their left inferior frontal cortex became thicker, indicating an increase in neurons and their associated blood vessels in that region. 

OK, so what does it mean when certain areas of the brain grow in response to learning a second language?  When you exercise the brain by learning a language you are increasing the connectivity of the brain.  You also grow new neurons (in the hippocampus at least).  In other words, neurons are forming new connections which integrate the brain network.  A better integrated brain transfers information more quickly, is more flexible, and is more efficient at learning.  (From a Penn State University study by Lee, et al.) 

The payoff comes not only from knowing a second language, but from being a smarter and more flexible thinker in all areas.  And even more importantly whether you learned a second language as a child, or later as an adult the improvements in brain function last throughout life.  Dr. Thomas Bak from the University of Edinburgh compared Edinburgh born individuals at age 11 and again in their sixties and seventies.  They had been given IQ tests at age 11.  He retested them over forty years later.  Those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to their baseline testing at age 11 than their monolingual peers. 

Dr. Bak and his Indian colleagues in Hyderabad India studied adults of an average age of 66 who had developed Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.  Those who spoke two or more languages developed dementia four years later than those who were monolingual.  That is an exciting outcome.  It seems that bulking up your brain connectivity early on gives you an edge when neurons start to die in older life.  One interesting note was that the effect was the same in literate and illiterate subjects.  This indicates that the protective effect arises from learning to speak and listen to a second language, not reading and writing.  So my reading and writing course doesn’t directly help me, but as they increase my speaking and listening skills, it does help my brain.

A 2011 Canadian study echoed the findings of the Indian study.  They found that bilingual Canadians developed Alzheimer’s symptoms four to five years later than monolingual Canadians.  Now, it’s probably best not to generalize anything from a study involving Canadians, but it is suggestive. 

I can tell you from experience that living in a foreign country for many years changes you.  It gives you a new perspective and causes you to questions assumptions that you had been totally unaware of.  You become to some degree a different person.  Not necessarily a better or worse person, but certainly a different one.  Learning a second language accentuates that process.  You actually have to learn to think a new way.  I always tell my students, “Anything that can be said in your language can be translated into any other language.”  That is true but the way you go about reaching a certain thought or idea is very different in different languages.

Beyond the immediate practicality and pleasure of learning a second language there are other less obvious benefits.  You become a more flexible and quicker thinker.  Your language abilities in your native language improve.  And because of improved connectivity and efficient functioning of your brain network, you will remain sharper in older life, and you may delay the onset of mental decline by several years.  That is a serendipitous outcome of learning that I would be quite willing to accept.

I think after thinking this over, I’m going to have to raise my rates.  Not only am I a teacher of English as a Second Language, I am a cognitive coach, and medical practitioner, warding off the effects of aging on the brain.  Just by changing my job title I should be able to double my income!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Studying Reading and Writing Thai

One of the things I am doing now is studying reading and writing the Thai language.  I study two hours every morning five days a week, in a group with eight other people.  Our teacher is an older woman (OK, a really old woman) who is definitely Old School about doing things correctly.  We are beyond the point of learning the 44 consonants, twenty-some-odd vowels and assorted additional symbols and making simple words.  We read short stories, critique the grammar, write answers to questions, and constantly learn new vocabulary.

One of the things we all struggle with is using Thai conjunctions.  There are a lot of them, and I still get confused about which one to use.  When we write sentences I often get criticized for using English sentence structures or thought patterns to express things in Thai.  I keep on trying and I do make less mistakes than I did a few weeks ago.

So, why do I bother to learn to read and write Thai?  One reason is that it improves my speaking.  I learn a lot about the underlying grammar from learning proper sentence structure for writing sentences.  This translates in to me speaking more grammatically as well.  Secondly, I am learning a lot of vocabulary.  From practicing spelling Thai words you realize which of them come from the same roots, and which you previously thought were connected, in fact, are not.  Our teacher is quite thorough about teaching the proper meaning of words and how they should be used, rather than the sloppy translations we had assumed before.  Finally studying a language is good practice for the brain.  As you get older, you either stretch your mental capacities and exercise them, or you let your brain get slack and begin to lose capacity.  I want to keep learning new things for as long as I live.

My Thai Homework