The Thailand Experience

This summer I had the opportunity to go to Thailand to work on a feature length documentary. Its taken me some time to process, and I still don’t think I can wrap up my thoughts about the experience in a nice bow, and say “this is how it was”. I went into it VERY excited. It was my first feature for theatrical release, and it was Thailand for fucks sake. In the end it was very hard. No two ways about it.

Physically it was possibly the most taxing shoot I’ve ever done. The jungle isn’t kind to your gear, and the jungle doesn’t care how much you sweat. The jungle is not a hospitable place for carrying around 40 lbs of gear for 6-12 hours a day. Not to mention I’m not the spring chicken I was when I was doing audio on other tough shoots. Don’t want to whine like a bitch, but; this was no vacation.  Just saying.

Mentally it was tough as well. For reasons I’ll get into later, I ended up missing my family very much. We were isolated by jungle, language and culture. Although I honestly loved the little mat and mosquito net caccoon we slept in at night, I’d be lying if I said the heat and animals skittering about in my room didn’t keep me up on a handful of nights. Being in love with a girl on the other side of the world didn’t help, of course. But I digress.

By far and away, the people we met in Thailand were the touchstone. The famed Thailand hospitality is a fact, and we received it in spades. Don’t know how much I can talk about the film itself, but we were shooting in a remote school for children with rough pasts. The children were my inspiration. After anything a tough work day could dole out, all one had to do was sit back and appreciate the smiles on these kids faces. “Shit, I didn’t have enough mics for the scene today”…cry me a river; this beautiful young soul is thriving after narrowly avoiding a life of slavery, homelessness, or worse.

The teachers were another reality check. Many of them are alumni of the school, and their patience and strength to not only teach the students, but basically raise them as well was in itself a feat I only wish I could attain. Superwomen. As the presence of these weird people with cameras became a daily sighting, the teachers and students opened up more and more. Although most of the time tools of communication were mere gestures and smiles, I miss them and hope to go back one day to say “hello”.

At the risk of being redundant the local crew were also awesome. At times our ambassadors, life savers, tour guides, and uncannily able to have something we needed personally or gear wise before we even knew we needed it. And as for the USA crew, I’d say after being work friends before the trip, we reached some sort of bond that only comes from the ups and downs of city-slickers living in the jungle for a month and a half.  You’re with these people up to 18 hours a day, sleeping for 6 and doing it all over again.  It wasn’t all unicorns and glitter every second, but after time the bullshit sinks to the bottom.

Anyway, thats about as much as a bow I can wrap it all in. We had some amazingly unique moments through the trip, here are a few. ***Pardon my Thai mispronunciations ***Not sure about confidentiality regarding the film so most names changed or removed

July 1, 2014 NYC > Abu Dhabi
Holy fucking shit. We made it by the skin of our teeth, but here we are on a plane from JFK to Abu Dhabi with service to Bangkok. Fucking ABU DHABI!! …Well in reality we’ll only be in the airport for about an hour, but stoked none-the-less. Hopefully have a tea or some other “local” thing. Already, on the plane everything is new and wonderful to me! Signs in Arabic! An amazing and exotic menu (a menu in coach is just exotic enough). I’m this excited for the first 12 hour leg of the flight, let alone what adventure and life experiences lie ahead in the jungles of Thailand. the crew is small and dope. We’re all pretty excited for whatever the hell is about to happen. Its a complete turn around in orientation for me.  Epic fish-out-of-water experience to come!!

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07.04 Lunch at Likit Ka-Ya
Side of the road outside Bangkok. The first days have reminded me have CRAZY Bangkok is. Rarely in this part of the world, but its like the future and past have combined and stacked itself on top of it self to the heavens. Creating a complete lack of knowing what to expect next for this faraang (thai for ‘gringo’)! Love it.

This place is known for its BBQ chicken. Didn’t even know that was in the already impressive arsenal of Thai cooking.

–  Tom Saap- Chicken. Spicy, sweet&sour soup.

–  Papaya salad. Legit. Spicy, pungent, woof. Have some tastebuds to develop.

–  Fried chicken and coconut nuggets (?)

–  Also chicken neck. Fried.

Awesome.

thai bbq chicken

papaya salad

coconut chicken

chicken neck

07.06 Into the Jungle
Left Bangkok today, and spending our first night of many here at <The Village>. We arrived at sunset, and although it was beautiful (the sun dipping under the jungle covered mountains hovering over the River Kwai), I barely got a chance to get a lay of the land. We are 3 hours outside of Bangkok in the province Kanchanaburi.

The “man’s house” is a traditional Thai wooden structure with four rooms on a raised platform (its called Baan Thai aka Thai House for its authenticity). We have thai mats for beds, a dope mosquito tent and a single working fan to combat the heat. This is the kind of place I’d shit a brick about on a journey, but interesting to think that this is where I live now. Not much to do now with the sun down, and no vices allowed, so time to zip into my net with a book, and get to some sleep.

first sunset

baan thai

home sweet home

first dinner in the jungle

07.15 Jungle Nights
Good day today. Work went well, and especially after watching footage its become apparent that we are really doing something good here. Settling into the village routine. Early mornings, early nights, good community, good food. After dark usaully the girls head to the library building for the precious but tenuous wifi signal, while Joe and I fuck around with our cameras or look for snakes or something.

I miss Daniela like crazy, but thanks to a Thai SIM card (when my fucking phone decides it wants to work in this humidity) its easy to get in touch. Although texts and even the scarce video chat kind of just make it worse. I feel like this important part of my life is on hold, and just when it started to take a turn for the real.

It’s 9:30, a late bed time for me now, and the cooling rains over the jungle canopy should make tonight an extra cozy sleep.

my porch at night

waiting for a timelapse

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Lebua Hotel, Bangkok
Our first weekend back to city life we balled out. Sort of. For an affordable $115 we got top floor rooms at the Lebua hotel.  Thank god Joe talked me out of getting a cheap place on Khosan.   Have you seen The Hangover 2?  The scene on the roof is at this hotel.  Its awesome.  We wore robes, ate fancy meals and drank Chang Beer out of wine glasses like rappers.  Plus we slept in beds!  With air conditioning!!!!  BEDS!!!!!

roof bar at lebua

lebua view

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***

7.23.2014
Memere (my grandmother) passed away last night. In a week she went from fine to sick to gone. Been a weird up-and-down week for me. All work bullshit aside, I feel shitty being “stuck” here while my family suffers. In the end theres really no way I could’ve gotten to Memere and the family in time, and what would I really do I guess anyway. My dad, mom, aunts and uncles assure me they’re feeling strong, but damn it feels selfish to be here.

Her last hours on this earth were the two most beautiful days I’ve seen here in Thailand. Blue skies, gorgeous sunsets, starry nights. Even a breeze here and there. I swear its her somehow. Thats how I said goodby from the other side of the planet; looking out into the jungle in a stunning display of natures beauty truly believing she is has a hand in creating it now.

memeres light

Drive to North to the Nan Province

And with all the heaviness after Memere passed, I feel born again here. Like she came across the world to infuse me with positivity. Fuck the small shit. Life is wondrous, and enjoy its blessings. I’m happy to be here in this experience. The kids are amazing, and the intimate view of life here is priceless.

Today we are taking the 6-10 (we shall see…) hour drive to the furthest reaches of the Kingdom; Nan Province.  Even though we’ve had home made thai food for the past 3 weeks, breakfast this morning was another adventure. Roadside, open air restaurant. Rice, spicy chicken curry, pork (I think) sausage, and skewer.  The usual condiments of cilantro, cucumber, fish sauce and more spicy elements. Breakfast of champions.

Lets do this!

interesting breakfast

***
We stopped late at night for dinner in the capitol city of Nan. I have know idea how the superwomen we were following knew all the great places we were taken too, maybe its just luck and new to me, but if you ever find yourself in Nan City go here.

Bahn Baan Bornam
– Translation;  “House by the Pond”
Best Meal I’ve had in Thailand…may have said this before…..

– Fish Cakes (mild, good texture, hint of lemon)
– Tom Yum (perfect balance of sweet and sour, silky, shrimp done to perfection)
– Kung Pow (chinese influence creeping in, but meh)
– Prawn in glass noodles (refined and delicate)

perfect fish cakes

tom yum

glass noodles

exterior

***

Nan Province, Northern Thailand
In Nan Province the light and tranquility was breath taking. We were in a sacred place far away from the melee of vice know to most westerners in the circle of influence near Bangkok. This is where I really started to fully appreciate the beauty of the kingdom.

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7.27 Traditional Northern Thai Dinner  Tha Wang Pha Village

The weekend was filled with quiet moments of reflection in the midst of the work. One of the most special moments was being invited to a traditional Northern Thai dinner. The women from our school had arranged to eat at a local family’s guesthouse. This was the perfect example of the hospitality. Unbenounced to us, they had gathered the ingredients, and set up a family style dinner just at sunset. The women who cooked and served were obviously happy we enjoyed it all, and how could one not, but it was simple and normal in a way. Not a show, just an amazing dinner which happened to be a new experience for us lucky faarangs.

baan nan

host monks

Being that the Nan Province and a lot of Northern Thailand remain tribal and have historically been a crossroads for cultural exchanges with China’s dynasties and the West its a bit different than your everyday Thai delivery service here. We climbed up to a wooden deck in a traditional house (a lot like our house back in <The Village> with some Chinese decorative nuances), and sat on the floor around circular bamboo tables.  Family style, each table was laden with bowls of tasty offerings, and the deliciousness began.


– Tom Yum (ubiquitous, but always a bit different and surprising)
– Chicken Larb (AWESOME ground chicken and interesting spices)
– Fried Chicken Skin
– Salsa called Naam Phrik Noom (absolutely mind blowing)
– All collected for shoving into one’s mouth with pouches of sticky rice

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August 5 (more or less)
The EP of the movie is at on location for the week, and wanting to do someting nice for the village, she asked what a good Friday night dinner would be. Pizza or “Hot Pot” were the options, and Hot Pot was the resounding request. So after we wrapped we joined everyone in the assembly area and laid eyes on the wondrous feast that is “Hot Pot”. I’ve had shabu shabu in Japan, Korean BBQ in NYC, and tailgated all over the States before but this was a unique, special experience that was at the same time fun, humbling, delicious and most of all; filling!

Each house brought their own cooking device (a unique conglomeration of grill, broth boiler, and charcoal stove), and we were provided one from somewhere in the cloud of village hospitality. I’d guess there was 10 separate hot pots on mats or newspaper; each the stronghold of a different house/gender/grade. The charcoal boiled the broth (for noodles, veggies and fish balls), and the dome of exposed metal was also heated to grill an assortment of meat (chicken, crab stick, prawns, pork belly). All flipped, stirred, maintained on the islands of collective diners around each hot pot. It was a party for sure, and mingling among the other groups was encouraged, but (even though we were put to shame by the pre teens all around us) us gringos had a hard enough time figuring out how to keep our pot going…and doing plenty of face stuffing once we got it right…more or less.

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August 12 Thailand’s Mother’s Day
Mother’s Day in Thailand is an important holiday to show one’s thanks to the woman who gave them life and raised them. On one hand it was the last day of shooting, and personally it was a poignant moment to pay my respects to my grandmother.

This moment is a thing that transcends co-worker, or friendship, and is just plain humanity making kindness in a way I never expected.  Pi Kung was our amazing local producer. She was like our mom, style coach and ever the foodie extraordinaire.  Kung, I thanked you a hundred times, but might as well put it in letters here. On Mother’s Day Eve I mentioned in passing to Kung that if possible I’d email her a photo of Memere to be printed at the village’s computer center. All I wanted was a visualization of Memere to hold during a quiet moment in front of the gold Buddha statue behind our Baan Thai. My plan was to wake up at dawn, quietly go to the area, light some incense and pay respects in the place that I saw Memere’s light come to Thailand in the form of sunsets a few weeks back.

With the help of angels anonymous to me in the village Kung procured a framed picture, incense, candles, beautiful flowers, a table, and mat. After lunch that next day she said, “I think its time”. Ever gently, she guided me to the spot in front of the serene golden Buddha.  My emotion swelled as she helped me set up my little altar, and after I melted into a puddle backed off respectfully. Eventually I was able to regain composure and sit for an hour in this awe-inspiring spot to connect with Memere; who was now free. I (naively) never thought she would go away, but know she was out there at in the golden light, swift river, gliding clouds and protective branches hanging over.

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09.18.2014 Brisas Condominios
Over a month later, I sit at our kitchen table in Cancun. Sun just set with the daily array of Caribbean purples, oranges, and tradewinds (Memere!). A world away from my world in NYC and two worlds away from Moo Ban Dek. All in a span of a handful of weeks. It took a while but like I said before the beauty rises and the bullshit sinks, so when I finally sat down in front of the key board to put down the first sentence it all came tumbling out.

I dedicate my contribution to the film to my grandmother, Lucille Jeanne Thibeault Duford.

I am still enjoying her light back on this side of the world.

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