I ended up crossing the globe again to teach English for a while; now I’m back. One of the things I wanted to do now that I am was bring this thing back under the fold of jeffchappell.com, for what it is worth. I remember back in the day when switching domains and copying and moving the data was a monumental task of near herculean proportions; now it was a few hours of easiness while I drank decaf cappuccinos in my local.
The only snag was moving my images and that was quickly remedied; I don’t even think I cursed or took anyone’s name in vain. This morning I already found spam sent to blog.jeffchappell.com, and it hasn’t even been 24 hours.
So I spent about a month or so at Isara and Nong Khai, Thailand; I rolled into town near the end of March and stayed there until the end of April. I was just coming off about two weeks in Bangkok and Hua Hin — my first time in Thailand. Prior to that I had just completed my CELTA certification in neighboring Viet Nam, but that’s another story for some other time. Let it suffice to say that I had the basic tools in place, but I still really didn’t know what I was in for; I was still a noob filled with some sort of romantic ideal about what teaching English as a foreign language really means.
Before I get any further, I should give you some idea about the physicality of Nong Khai and where Isara was.
Nong Khai, on the banks of the Mekong — the same river that starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows some 2,700 miles into the South China sea at Sai gon, Viet Nam, where I first saw it — Nong Khai is the eponymous capital of Nong Khai province; the district in which Nong Khai itself resides has about 48,000 people on 12.03 miles of land — thank you Wikipedia. It is pretty small and rural — sort of the Southeast Asian equivalent of Mayberry. Except for little pockets of nightlife here and there, they rolled up the sidewalks at night.
That may sound like a dig, but it isn’t; Nong Khai was rather idyllic, as I recall. It’s a far cry from Bangkok, that’s for sure, and not just the obvious. Isaan culture is the norm here, although I really didn’t understand what it meant just then; not sure I understand it any better now, but what the hell.
Isaan — written variously as Isan, Isarn, Issarn, Issan, Esan, Esarn, or Esaan — occupies all of northeast Thailand. As a culture is it distinct from other parts of Thailand and has more in common with Laos and Khmer Cambodia than anything else, although I didn’t realize that until I was actually living in Thailand for awhile. Much of what I assumed was just Thai culture in general was actually Isaan culture in particular, though.
Take the mor’lam music festival, for one example? Isaan culture. Almost unheard of outside of Isaan — except where large pockets of Isaan folk reside, perhaps — mor’lam is huge in Isaan; every weekend it seems there is one going on nearby. What is it? The nearest thing we have in the West is a rock music festival, but the entertainment, food and drink is purely Isaan — which isn’t akin to anything I can think of, East or West.
And the food! Again, much of what I thought of as Thai was actually Isaan food. Papaya salad — som tam in Thai — is actually tam mak hung in Laos where it originated. Larb is another staple of Isaan, sort of a shredded meat salad and the national dish of Laos. I didn’t know any of this in 2010 and newly arrived in Nong Khai, however; I just new it was fucking kick ass good food — some of the best I had ever had, period — and equal in measure to anything I had had in Chengdu, China.
And of course I can’t mention Isaan without mentioning sticky rice. Love the sticky rice. Could do without the various bugs and insects that are popular in Isaan as a snack, but I admit grasshoppers aren’t too bad as bugs go.
Even the language is different and distinct from Thai; like the food it is closer to Laos. Most people from the Isaan region speak both the official Thai language and regional Isaan.
However I don’t want to get into the … cultural differences, lets say, between central Thailand and the people of Isaan — usually rural folk of either Laotian descent or local hill tribes, or both — just now. I’ll save that for its own post for another time; it is bound to ruffle some feathers, I’ll warrant. But then I digress, as I am wont to do.
Back to Nong Khai and Isara
If you look above at the map of Nong Khai, Isara Foudation’s house was in the northeast corner of the map, a few miles east of downtown. Volunteers who lived on site stayed upstairs; downstairs was the main classroom and computer center, as well as various smaller rooms. In the garage recyclables that Kirk the owner and various volunteers had collected were then sorted. He also kept various bicycles in the garage for volunteers’ use; I remember riding out for breakfast quite often a mile or two west to Mut Mee Guesthouse on the banks of the river.
Out back of the house was a little traditional gazebo-like arrangement, for lack of a better term, complete with a little pond. On the side of the house, just off the classroom and computer center, was a little play area.
It had its own permanent residents, that pond. And no, I won’t forget the Gecko’s Bark namesakes:The first one is a tokay gecko; this particular one was about a foot long and lived in the eaves of the house. He — probably a he, as they are larger and brighter colored, but I’m no expert — used to hang out and catch bugs attracted by the lights at night.
The others are just standard geckos found everywhere in Southeast Asia, including everywhere that isn’t permanently air conditioned. Jeez, I miss those little guys and their barking.
Nong Khai, despite the fact that it is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is popular with foreigners doing visa runs given its proximity to Laos and Vientiane. I made the visit to Vientiane myself to get my work visa while I was there.
You meet travelers of every stripe while hanging around a Thai embassy is a foreign country like Laos, including there three:
Of coarse I forget what there names are, but I did trade emails with the gentleman of the left. A good guy, he came here on vacation several years before and has been bumming around Southeast Asia ever since. I know what that’s like; it gets under your skin. Of course just then I was still enamored with Thailand and in a hurry to get back … One thing I noticed later, though, while waiting for my visa, was the similarities of the written language of Thailand and Laos; both are based on a Khmer dialect. The above shot, taken with my phone for some reason I forget, was taken in Vientiane — notice the written script? Very similar to Thai writing.
One place in Nong Khai everyone should visit is Sala Keoku. A park containing giant statues made of concrete and influenced by Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, the largest statue is that of a seven-headed snake — as opposed to the more traditional naga, although naga are well represented here — that is six stories tall.
The park is the work of Bunleua Sulilat. Sulilat, a Nong Khai native, was an interesting character; some would call him merely eccentric while others would say he was insane. The mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism he espoused was nonetheless popular around Nong Khai; his followers gave him the title “Luang Pu,” usually reserved for monks. He died in 1996 at age 64, reportedly as the result of a fall from one of his statues. His remains are on display in the third floor of the Sala Keoku pavillion; photography is forbidden.
These photos of Sala Keoku — and some of the others — have appeared on here before; I’ve gathered the best and reprinted them, so to speak, in one place.
Those little dots on the snakes’ heads? Birds. …
Props to Kirk and Ming for taking us for what for them must have been the one hundredth or so visit to Sala Keoku. Let us not forget the many trips into town to go to the night market, Tesco-Lotus, or just picking up tasty Thai food, either.
So that exhausts my meager supply of photos of Nong Khai and Isara. Again, Kirk and Ming were the greatest; they always had time for us volunteers and they offered a professional learning center that was free to everyone who wanted learn, from children to adults. And Isara was truly free for everyone, including us volunteers.
Of my experience teaching there, I taught adults and teenagers, as I was still thinking that children would be more difficult. What I realized later on was that of the three groups, children would not only be the easiest of the three, but also the quickest learners. Teenagers, on the other hand …
Unfortunately I have no photos of students while in Nong Khai, for whatever reason. So I’ll leave you with gravel spreading in the garden …
… and a few shots of Songkran:
Songkran was great fun. Never want to do it again, though. Especially being a foreigner … sabai dee phi mai krab indeed.
So I arrived in Thailand around the middle of March, 2010. I spent several days each in Bangkok and Hua Hin, which is about three hours — by bus at highway speeds — south and a little west of Bangkok, on the northwestern shore of the Gulf of Thailand.
I took a grand total of two pictures during that time.
I know what you are thinking, but there are two reasons behind my lack of photographs. One, I was busy doing touristy things and whatnot, and I didn’t think the world needed yet another shot of a reclining Buddha or a wat. Two, when I do have a camera in tow, I tend to always think in terms of making art, as opposed to snapshots (see no. one), selfies and the like, as I’ve observed many times before.
This not say that I’m any great shakes when it comes to photography, however. But Bangkok and Hua Hin are nothing if not touristy. So …
… It took me a moment to figure out that Hard Freeze Hair Wax was actually just hair gel. Find any one over the age of eighteen without product in their hair of some kind in and around Bangkok on a Saturday night. It’s impossible. Time was I had product in my hair too, but that was twenty-some years ago — and likely Elmer’s Glue.
Even Ronald McDonald offers a you a wai when in Hua Hin — a traditional greeting common throughout Thailand. There must be a million of these on the Internet, but this is the first I heard of it. And that cone of ice cream is nine baht — about a quarter in U.S. dollars.
Now onto Nong Khai. It is the difference between night and day, in many significant ways, between Bangkok, situated on the Gulf, and Nong Khai, Thailand some 389 miles to the northeast. On the one hand it’s urban vs. rural, but it’s much more than that. Nong Khai is a center of Isaan culture, which differs considerably from the culture of Bangkok and surrounding environs, which is what most people think of when they think of Thailand.
Look at this picture full size and squint; you can just make out the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in the hazy distance. Across the river and a short tuk-tuk ride away — about 15 miles upriver from the bridge — is Vientiane, capitol of Laos.
Notice the naga designs incorporated into the fence in the above picture? I didn’t either, at first, having just arrived in town near the end of March. But soon I realized naga, or giant serpent-like beings, are everywhere in Nong Khai. Said to be the mythical guardians of the Mekong, not to mention every temple and shrine in the area, a six-story, a seven-headed naga stands guard over Sala Keoku.
The next few shots are of Isara Foundation and its volunteers in action at an English camp. On the left one of the adults you see in first picture is Kirk Gillock, Isara’s founder. Isara operated for more that ten years, running a free English language and computer center in Nong Khai, amongst other community service efforts. One of the best things about volunteering for Isara? It was indeed free to volunteer.The next batch of snapshots are of the kids at Sarnelli House and the volunteers of Isara Foundation, who had come for the afternoon to visit and play with said kids, me included. This was April 10, 2010.This last batch, taken in mid-April, were taken at Ming’s parents’ house. Ming was Kirk’s girlfriend at the time; her parents were watching a little boy — why, I’m afraid I forget — and the current Isara crew came to celebrate his birthday. In the second photo Ming is to the boy’s left; the other two children I believe belong to Ming’s sister.Notice there is no carpet? That’s a Western concept; a typical Thai household doesn’t have one, nor do the Vietnamese and I would guess that is typical throughout Southeast Asia at least (given how warm it is year ’round in most places). Carpets equal dirt magnets, as more than one Thai person pointed out to me. Too true, that.
Finally, here is a banana tree growing on the farm that Ming’s parents own; I had never seen one of course and was duly fascinated.Hard to believe that six months before then, in 2009, I was out of a job with no immediate prospects while my eldest brother and my sister argued incessantly over Dad’s estate, he having died at the end of 2008. Me, I argued incessantly with both of them — at first — that this was indeed pointless, as Dad had already spelled it out in stone, essentially, that everything was to be divided four ways between us kids; Mom, of course, died at the end of 2001.
Furthermore, Dad had told us — well, me at least; I won’t speak for the others — that he wanted us to all get along in the aftermath of his death. He bought it up several times in the year before he died, even though at age 81 his health was stable, as far as anyone knew.
So, with both Mom and Dad gone, no job and no immediate career prospects, at age 41 I packed up, sold out and headed for Viet Nam with no immediate plans to return. Why and how Viet Nam is a story for some other time and some other batch of photos, however.
I started this because, having just found out about Isara having closed its doors last month (which actually happened back in July of 2014 no less), I realized there was little on this site to document my time there. It was only a month, but I consider it a pivotal moment among my more that four years abroad; out of all the places I spent time in between Viet Nam and Thailand, it is the place I remember most fondly — and not with the rose-colored glasses with which I began my teaching career, but the clarity of hindsight. Isara was a big part of that.
More to come. …
Postscript: Sorry, but I’m shit with names, and I’ve forgotten the names of all the volunteers in the pictures. Mai pen rai. Also, these were taken with a Nokia 5800, itself already a couple years old in 2010; they are a bit craptacular, I’m afraid. I do have some shots taken with my old Canon Rebel to come.
Furthermore, some of these pictures have appeared before …
I just wanted to weigh in on three seemingly unrelated topics, Facebook, politics and Nong Khai, Thailand — seemingly unrelated topics because they are, in point of fact, unrelated. So why include them in one post? I’m lazy.
First off, let me clarify my point on last week’s post. While l don’t care about politics anymore, I’m not saying anyone else should or should not care about it, either specifically or in general. That’s strictly up to you and you alone and no one else.
Same goes for Facebook and social networking. If you like it/care about it, more power to you; enjoy it with my blessing, for what little that is worth.
What prompted this was a young friend of mine with whom I was making small talk the other day. She was asking whom I might vote for in the upcoming election, Hillary or Trump — she who has a law degree and used to work for Hillary Clinton in the State Department. I hesitated for a moment, then explained briefly how and why that it ultimately matters not.
She immediately launched into the fact that Trump is a horrible racist, misogynist, etc., etc. — all of which I readily agreed to — and stated that if I were a woman, I might feel the same way — to which I also readily agreed.
But I’m not. If things had happened differently, I would be a different person, yes. But I’m the person I am now, for good or ill, and things happened the way that they did. This person just doesn’t give a damn about most things anymore — but that doesn’t mean that no one else should or should not care; it is up to you.
Of course she got me to thinking, though. Trump is an awful human being, or at least he presents himself that way in the media; in the end, who can really know? But I digress. Hillary is considerably less evil, but still, in the end, a politician, and all of them are indeed crooks (thanks, Dad); it’s just a matter of degree.
So, in the end, if I do vote — and it’s a small thing really, even for one who doesn’t care — I’ll probably vote my conscience. Or at least come as close to it as I possibly can. It’s still a political party — i.e., crooks — but the Green Party is in the ballpark when it comes to most issues that I used to care about.
But Don’t You Care About Nong Khai?
I was getting to that. My post a week or two ago about Kirk, Isara and Nong Khai has me feeling nostalgic for days gone by. So I’m going to start posting photos of my times spent in Asia. Some these are reposts; many are new. But even more than that, I think now that enough time has past that I can post about it without a jaundiced eye — or a rose-colored one.
Plus, I finally organized my photo archives, so I can find anything I want quickly. I’ve also got a new tool to work with, now that I more or less said goodbye to Windows and live with Linux: Darktable.
So yeah, I’m going to start of with Nong Khai, Thailand. Here’s one:
While volunteering at Isara in Nong Khai, we had taken an afternoon to visit the kids at Sarnelli House: the wonderful, sweet, playful kids at Sarnelli House; these two are just two among many.
It’s been months since I updated; you’d think a guy who wasn’t working would have more time. I do have a project I’m working on, and I have a ton of photos to edit and post.
But that’s neither here nor there.
I’m here because I just learned that Isara had closed its doors. In 2014. … ?!
Isara Foundation, you may recall, was the non-profit I volunteered for back in March of 2010 for a month. I was checking some links and doing some housekeeping on my professional site today, and came across a blurb about Isara, and decided to look them up; it had obviously been a while since I had visited their site.
They closed in July 2014; I came home after my hemorrhagic stroke is August of that year. If I had only known. Granted, I had other things on my mind, just then, but had I known, I would have made the trip up north to say goodbye one last time.
I’m not sure what happened, and I’ll keep my conjectures to myself. A few pages are still up at the site, and Isara sill has a Facebook page. Kirk, the founder of Isara, still updates occasionally over there; the last update was in April for Songkran, the Thai New Year. As he put it on Facebook in June of that year, Isara was due for a long-term brake:
As some of you already know, this month Isara will be ending our volunteer program. It was a difficult decision to make but necessary in order to prepare for a long-term break in July. I am so proud of the work our 560+ volunteers have done in the last 7 years. Not only did you make a difference to thousands of Thai students but you also made a big difference in my life as well. I will be forever grateful to our volunteers and sponsors, who helped prove that it is possible to have a successful volunteer program that is 100% free. … Thank you for the great lessons and joyous laughter you brought to Isara. Y’all rock!!
I am proud to say I was one of the 560 plus volunteers, and while I taught for a month and looked after their computers, I got so much more than that. After having lived there almost three years total, my feelings about Thailand and teaching are … complex. There is a reason I left — reasons in the plural — only to come back again … and again.
Even now, I get nostalgic sometimes.
But I have nothing but great things to say about Isara, its students, the people of Nong Khai, my fellow volunteers and especially Kirk Gillock; he’s one of the good ones.
I spent the last hour or so looking back through my photos; it’s been a trip down memory lane and a damn good one. Here is Kirk on the left; this picture was taken here at girlfriend Ming’s (also pictured) parents’ house. They were celebrating the birthday of the boy in the middle.
And here is the space behind Isara’s learning center in Nong Khai (in 2010, anyway) in HDR. A tiny bit of paradise, that.
So as mentioned before, some soi dogs enjoy a gray area; they don’t necessarily have a home, but they do have someone that looks after them — motorbike taxi drivers, various street food vendors, etc. One of the many benefits of being a stray dog in a Buddhist country, I suppose.
I’ve seen this hefty girl on Pattaya Second Road at all hours of the day and night, so I’m assuming she doesn’t have a permanent roof over her head. On the other hand, she has a collar and looks reasonably healthy. And as you can see, she’s not hurting for eats.
I was strolling through an overgrown vacant lot in Pattaya the other day on my way to the Friday afternoon market to buy a shirt — a garish red one, as it turns out — when I spotted this. Not sure what it’s all about, but it struck me as a … er, rather striking image.
And This Really Isn’t a an SEO Worthy Healine (Or Subhead)
But sometimes you just can’t be arsed. Been busy this past week, as I had my third and final test in level one of my Thai language class. This is actually the second time I’ve taken the test. The last time I took it, I got a borderline score; the instructor testing me said that she would pass me so I could move onto level two if I really wanted to, but she advised against it. I decided to give it a few months and try again.
This time, the result was satisfactory; passed with flying colors. Anyway, I neglected ye olde Photo a Day project for the past several days. I’m here to rectify that.
The view as I ascend the escalator to get on the skytrain outside my school in Phloen Chit (in Bangkok) has always struck me for its … perpendicularity, I guess we’ll say. Not sure if that’s a word, but it is now.
Gotta come clean: I actually had to merge two different thresholds to achieve the desired image:
Tomorrow I’ll post the non-threshold version.
Remember the Thai gargoyle? It resides just out of the lower left-hand corner of the frame in this photo.
As noted yesterday, I’m the proud owner of a Portrait Professional license. As noted yesterday, too, I continue to be pleased and impressed with this software. And as promised yesterday, here’s a more in-depth example of what I don’t like about the default settings of Portrait Pro (but again, these can turned off with a simple mouse click) — the changing of the subject’s face and skull shape to bring them more in line with beauty norms.
This of course is an example of the larger conundrum with photography that is practically as old as photography itself. Despite the proverbial saying: “the camera doesn’t lie,” it can be made to do so. Granted it’s much easier here in the digital age, but cameras have been lying and photographers have been tweaking images for the sake of their own artistic vision or a client’s happiness pretty much since a Frenchman developed photochemical photography in the 1820s.
Whether it’s right or wrong, i.e., ethical, to do so … well, we’ll save that hornet’s nest for some other time. Let it suffice to say that in terms of photojournalism, I think it’s wrong. In terms of anything else, I’m firmly in the camp of “it depends.” It depends on the audience, the photographer’s artistic goal (commercial, fine art, etc.) and of course what the client wants (if a client comes into the equation).
Myself, as explained yesterday, I’d like to make my subjects look like they would on a near-perfect day (unless I were publishing a photo in some sort of journalistic context). I remove blemishes and will tweak skin tones, and I’m not above tucking in a chin or slimming a tummy a little bit — but I draw the line at changing the shape of someone’s face/skull (although if a client wanted it done, sure, why not).
Which brings us back to Portrait Professional. It’s default settings change this (straight out of the camera, except for a crop and a conversion to jpeg, but otherwise un-retouched):
Her eyes and lips are bigger, her nose is smaller, and her long face has been contorted into a more traditional oval shape. To my eye, it almost doesn’t even look like the same woman. Aesthetically pleasing, sure (although I would argue not necessarily anymore so than the original image, in terms of the lovely subject). But aesthetics are subjective, at best. And for me and my own photography, this is just a bit too much.
To illustrate it even further, here’s an animated gif with the before and after images (as depicted above):
Fortunately, with one mouse click, you can turn off the facial sculpting features, but keep the skin blemish and tone corrections. And all of these can be tweaked or turned off individually. But the default settings (minus the facial sculpting) are pretty much spot on:
Other than one blemish on her chin and a stray highlight on her cheek, the skin corrections are done. She looks lovely — and more importantly, still like herself. I think I would lessen the corrections done to the skin under her eyes, too, where the correction begins to get into the alien-skin/airbrush territory.
So all done with a few clicks as a plugin in Photoshop. Sharp eyed peeps might also notice that Portrait Pro has also tweaked the general lighting and highlights as well. Like the facial sculpting, you can turn this off with a click before you return to Photoshop.