A Young Man Visits a Buddhist Country
by Josh Gerlach

As a young guy growing up in the middle of the United States, I have always been fascinated with different cultures of the world. I have never really studied any ethnic group or country intensively, but I have tried to learn a little about different groups from all over the globe. Prior to my journey to Thailand, I had only learned about other cultures by interacting with people and reading. I had been feeling that I really wanted experience places and situations very different from the Midwest, so I was fortunate to meet Ken and Visakha Kawasaki and to go on a two-week tour along the Thai- Burmese border.

This border tour was my first experience out of North America, and I was able to learn many things about myself, as well as about the situation of refugees from Burma. In retrospect, I realize I did very little reading about Thailand in the days leading up to the journey. I write this only because I found there was no way I could have prepared for most of the experiences I had, anyway. What I most wanted for myself during the trip was to see how I could handle being in places and situations that I had never experienced before

All of us with Bo Gyi (AAPP) in Mae Sot

There were so many new experiences in this two-week period which I will cherish forever, but that others may find culturally shocking. Actually, the first few hours in Thailand might have made a lot of other people upset and wanting to leave. Upon arrival at the Bangkok airport, I was whisked away by a taxi agent to the first available taxi. Maybe that in itself was not such a strange event, but it surprised me because I had not traveled in another country. The fun part came when I got in the taxi. The taxi driver decided to drive as fast as possible and to weave in and out of traffic. I admit I told him to take the fastest way, but I hadn't meant to drive fast! I also felt strange, watching him drive on the left side of the road. I was too excited to notice the scenery in Bangkok. After twenty-seven hours on planes, I couldn't really feel worried about the driver either

.The new experiences I had during the trip in Thailand made me smile more than I ever had before. The first day I stopped to get a Sprite in a store, and the clerk poured it into a plastic bag and gave me a straw to drink it with. I was surprised when she did that, but it made sense for her to keep the bottle.

The traffic throughout Bangkok was always amazing to see, even granting I had never been in a city that large before. Peering out the fire escape towards the street, I noticed that a large percentage of the vehicles were small motorcycles and mopeds. They always seemed to weave between lanes and even to take short cuts on the sidewalk to get through traffic jams. Traffic was always crowded and hectic but fun to be a part of, at least, since I was enjoying the moment and did not witness any accidents.

Lunch at the monastery school in Piang Luang
These Shan children enjoy nutritious meal.

During our travels we visited a refugee clinic and a refugee camp. We also saw another camp from the road and met the staff of another small border clinic. I knew that these were going to be the hardest sights to observe. Nevertheless, I feel that all people are the same and that the different situations in which they live affect the reality of their lives. The in-patient ward of the clinic in Mae Sot was really crowded. Visiting it really showed the harsh reality of the Thai-Burmese border. I could see pain on all the patients' faces. The clinic had its own prosthetics lab, which was heavily used because of all the landmines in the neighboring area. Later in the week we visited a small refugee camp where 4 out of 447 people had artificial limbs. In that small refugee camp, I saw some young men digging for ants'eggs to eat for nourishment. We also drove by a larger refugee camp, which is home to 47,000 people crowded into a narrow five-mile-stretch at the bottom of a mountain. All these sights showed how much work needs to be done to fix the situation.

In-patient ward of Mae Tao Cllinic in Mae Sot
Pre-school in Piang Luang
Mae La Karen Refugee Camp near Mae Sot

The people in Thailand smile often and really well. This actually gave me the greatest culture shock. In the United States we do not trade smiles very often. It was amazing to see kids smiling at all times of the day. I'm used to kids who don't smile except when they get their way or get something they want. I never smiled as much in my life as I did in Thailand. I spent many hours trading smiles with kids, letting them know that everything was okay. The best places to trade smiles were small villages where people lead slower lives. In Sangkhlaburi, there were some young women at the hotel who had captivating smiles. I found myself exchanging smiles with youth at the monasteries and in the streets. An abundance of joyful laughter and playing could be seen at a pre-school and orphanage in Piang Luang. In the United States its common to see little kids arguing and fighting. At the school all the kids were taking turns, laughing a lot, and smiling as they played games. The best thing I learned while in Thailand is the importance of a smile to bring and exert happiness.

The central hall of the school in Piang Luang
Josh donating a pair of slippers to a monk

I also learned that I can go anywhere in the world and be fine mentally because I am certain now that the situation may be different, but people have the same basic needs.
Buddhist Relief Mission Website
Burmese Relief Center--USA Website