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Embracing Thailand with “Malee”

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Linda Cotrufello, Peace Corps Mom of Alex Cotrufello, 129 YinD

It is February 20, 2018 and I have been in Thailand for nearly a month. I have 5 more days to enjoy life “Thai style” with my daughter Alex and her extended family and friends. Soon I will travel back to Southern Oregon to revisit my old life but with a new perspective on living.

I love Ashland, Oregon with it’s beautiful snow capped mountains and lovely people. It is a community of 25,000 and for the size, has a thriving culture with everything from a liberal arts university and the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival to organic farming and alternative healing. It offers parks, streams, a ski area, and most who live in the Rogue Valley are enjoying the outdoors regularly. It really is a fairytale town, except for the dreaded winter that can seem to last for almost half the year. It is not a harsh winter like the East Coast where I originated, but it’s unpredictable. Sometimes it feels like spring in January with primroses blooming and pansies smiling, and then days later it’s snowing only to melt by noon.

A long standing dream of mine has been to find time to escape the drudge of winter and land in a warmer, sunnier part of the world. Many times I have traveled to Florida or SW United States to break the spell that wintertime holds over me. Unfortunately, I am not always greeted by beautiful sunny days or warm temperatures. But not in Thailand! Siam seems to be the Land of Eternal Sunshine and Smiles.

On January 23rd I started my trip to visit my daughter Alex, who has been serving with the Peace Corps for over a year now.  When I arrived in Bangkok, she met me at the airport. She wanted to show me her new world and give me a trip to remember for a lifetime.  Alex, or Malee as her community calls her, very carefully planned a vacation “Thai style”. We traveled south on planes, trains, buses, vans & song taews, along with a good deal of walking and carrying backpacks.  We stayed in hotels by bus stations, beautiful resorts by rivers and on stunning island beaches in tents. I experienced many different ecosystems and ways of life in Southern Thailand. Each adventure was unique and special and there was never a dull moment.  We went on boat tours, snorkeled with schools of parrot fish and enjoyed amazing massages and food. It was truly a memorable experience.

Then we went back to Central Thailand to visit Ali’s first host family. Although I loved the south and all of my experiences there, my adventure really became interesting in Singburi. The family arranged for us to be picked up at the Peace Corps office in Bangkok by a friend of the family named Thom. He drove us two and a half hours so we didn’t have to take the train. When we arrived, Pii Gop and Mae, Jambo, Noi and little Khao Sewai all greeted me as if I was their long lost relative. They made the most amazing food and afterward took Ali and I to a local market and festival. They kept buying us drinks and specialty foods so we could experience some unique treats. As if this wasn’t enough, they then took us to Lopburi to tour the monkey temple.  Afterwards more food (of course) and then they paid for our trip back to Bangkok via van.

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I felt so loved and honored by all of their care. I wish that I had more time to spend with them but will always remember our meeting and hold it close to my heart. Truly an unexpected moment in time! It goes to show that hearts connect even when language fails.

Next stop, Bangkok to meet my sister Deb who flew in for our girls adventure. We all took the train to the ancient sacred city of Ayutthaya in Central Thailand.  We toured ruins, temples and saw thousands of Buddhas of all sorts. There were elephants, street food, shops and tuk tuks.

Day after, Chiang Mai to relax at the Chiang Mai Orchid Hotel. Alex was familiar with this area and so Deb and I had a first hand tour of the boutique district with food and shops. We also did a memorable tour at Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary. Wow! What beautiful creatures. Each elephant had a traditional native caregiver that they bonded with. The elephants were so very happy.  

Another great city experience was the endless massage, compliments of my brother-in-law, Tim. He gave my sister Deb $500 to “take us out for dinner”. Little did he know that he funded a whole week of food, massage, and tuk tuks for the three of us. Thanks Tim!

Next, Samoeng…for the Strawberry Festival.  The festival is an annual local event and Alex’s SAO (government office) made a float for the parade. Her co-workers dressed her in a bohemian style costume and she marched with everyone in the parade. Deb and I were very proud to see her so loved by her community. I finally started meeting the people from Alex’s village and seeing the close bonds that she was forming in Mae Sab, a subdistrict outside of Samoeng.

My month in Thailand has been barely enough to glimpse the rich culture and deep undercurrents that have taken millenia to form. There is a deep peace and acceptance in the people that I have had the good fortune to meet. My experience has definitely been out of the ordinary. Guided by Malee, I was privy to experience a very intimate view of the farming community culture.

It is a no frills experience living in the Thai boonies ( I don’t think I’ll ever get used to wet bathrooms, etc.). The people in Mae Sab are kind, generous and curious, despite the meager means by which they afford daily living. Food and friendship are central here. When someone cooks for you they are saying “I love you and want to know you better”. I was well fed daily by one after another of Alex’s close extended family. I was even offered extended stays and a place to build a house. I am truly overwhelmed by the kindness of my daughter’s adopted mothers, fathers and friends. Even the principal of the school calls her “daughter”. They love her as I love her. They offer protection, nurturance and companionship during her stay in Thailand.

I love Thailand with all of it’s mystery, beauty and culture. This has been an exceptional vacation and one I will never forget and always value. With that said, I do miss the luxuries of life at home, so off I’ll go in a few days to return to Oregon with some lovely memories of ancient Siam to warm my heart.

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