Treasuring the simple things in life

I peeled back the skin of the banana. While the top was slightly bruised, I broke it off easily and threw it away. Then I took my first bite. It was just how I remembered bananas tasting – sweet and delicious. It reminded me how good banana smoothies were on a hot summers day. Not only that, but it also reminded me how much I used to eat bananas back home before the price rose to $14 a kilo (after cyclone Yasi tore its way through North Queensland where many of the banana crops are).

I used to make banana cakes with cream cheese frosting, eat bananas with my cereal and even with ice cream for dessert. Who would have thought a person could be so obsessed over one kind of fruit? All I knew was that I would have to make the most of it while I was here. A bunch of bananas in Thailand cost as little as 5 baht (about 16 cents) and the reality was that once I returned to Australia, bananas could still be about $7 a kilo – too expensive to have with breakfast every morning.

The house I stayed at in Chiang Saen was on the edge of a river surrounded by various fruit trees and chilli bushes. Every time I stared at the river I would feel  an overwhelming sense of peace and when a slight breeze blew, the current would reveal itself and small ripples would form on the surface. Other days the river was calm and the only ripples visible would be when the occasional fish jumped. But one of the most spectacular moments was an incredible sunset I experienced. As I sat on the verandah and watched the sun go down, I was mesmerised by the colours that danced across the night sky. I had finally learnt to enjoy one of the many simple things in life.

Treasuring one of the simple things in life - beautiful sunset on the river in Chiang Saen

During the day as we drove through villages and passed countless numbers of houses and schools, it occurred to me that many people had probably never travelled before. Most may have never ventured further than their own village or nearest city, let alone overseas. While some of Thailand’s population is quite well off, many are poor and work tireless days and hours as farmers under the scorching sun. Looking back on my experiences so far, it made me think that being a tuk tuk driver may not be such a bad job after all…

When I saw people working on farms or selling their goods at the market, I often wondered whether they were people who had dreams? Dreams of a better life, a life that didn’t involve working in the sun or having the same routine day after day. Then again, how many of us in the west follow the same routine on a daily basis? We wake up, we go to work, we come home and we go to sleep. It really got me thinking… Do we ever take time to stop, rest and treasure the simple things in life?

When was the last time you treasured the warmth of the sun on your skin?

And while I’m sure some of these people do have dreams, many of them try to wash them away or toss them aside knowing such an idea is close to impossible. We often say in the west that if you’re not happy with what you do, then change it. And we are fortunate enough to quit our jobs and move on to something that brings us joy and fulfillment. But for the Thai people this is rarely an option and sadly for many it never will be. So let me ask you this. What is your dream?

         “Dreams are free, so free your dreams.”- Astrid Alauda

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ANGKOR WHAT?!

After a night of very little sleep, one would normally find it difficult to wake from their slumber. But not I. I show no sign of grogginess or tiredness, just a build up of pure excitement and anticipation knowing that today, a dream will become a reality.

It’s 4am and pitch black. I dress quickly and make my way outside to meet the others. The air is crisp, cold and bites at my skin. Many have not woken from their slumber and peer at me through drowsy eyes while releasing enormous yawns.

We pile into tuk tuks and begin the journey. We pass other vehicles also making their way to the same destination. When we finally get there, we purchase our tickets for US$20 which includes our photo. For many it’s far too early to have their picture taken.

Darkness surrounds us, people turn on their flashlights and mobile phones to light the path. We walk in silence and hushed whispers. The walk seems long and before I know it, the group separates. I perch myself on a sandstone monument, an ancient ruin, waiting, waiting. The air is still and dense and people start to crowd around me. I begin to feel nauseous.

Time passes slowly, then quickly. Then I see it, subtle hints of colour. Purple, pink and orange until it finally turns a golden yellow. Sunrise over Angkor Wat – simple and magical and while the colours aren’t quite as vibrant as I’d expected, it’s still magnificent in all its beauty. A sight so amazing, everything and everyone around me disappears.

The group reunites for breakfast and afterwards we make our way towards the ancient temple. Excitement builds inside of me and suddenly I feel like a child again as if it’s all a dream. I am surrounded by the most exquisite Khmer architecture entwined amongst Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

I rub my hand over the weathering sandstone and pinch myself to see if this moment is real and it is. None of this is a dream. I am at Angkor Wat.


The ins, outs and things in between…WTT – Welcome To Thailand

Khao San Road by night – one of Bangkok’s main tourist hubs

Bangkok City

Could possibly be known as one of the cities in the world that never sleeps or if it does, only in the ‘wee’ hours of the morning. Best word to describe this place – HUMID! And I’m guessing that it’s like that most of the year, not just October. Forget showering because as soon as you step outside, you can feel the tiny beads of sweat slowly building on your forehead and before you know it, your armpits are sticky and tiny drops are running down your back. It’s also impossible to count the number of 7Elevens on two hands within a 500 metre walking distance. WTT – ‘Welcome to Thailand’.

Smog and the roaring engines of tuk tuks are common in this bustling city – everything fast – go, go, go! Scooters and motorcycles swerve in and out of traffic making sure they push their way to the front of traffic lights ensuring they get a decent head start. However, I still fail to understand this concept as cars quickly overtake them once the light turns green. I call this part of the story ‘Bangkok City’ for a reason, as it’s the phrase printed on singlets that every second vendor sells. Either that or Singha Lager’ or ‘Heineken’. Beer labels are printed on singlets, simple as that. Just like how every Aussie who has been to Bali wears a ‘Bintang’ singlet – it’s fast become an Asian trademark. But hey, WTT.

Marble Temple, Bangkok

While in BC, be prepared to temple hop until you drop (literally). Either you’ll exhaust yourself from the heat or the walking or in my case, both. While each temple is unique in it’s own way, once you’ve seen a few, enthusiasm tends to disintegrate. After all, there are only so many photos one can take. The best piece of advice I can give to the gents is that when temple spotting be sure to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off while for the ladies, remember to cover the knees and shoulders. If you remember these simple things, you’re all good. WTT.

It didn’t take me long to realise pedestrian crossings in Thailand have no meaning, but don’t worry; I didn’t learn that through a near death experience, just careful observation. When you’re crossing roads in Bangkok you’ll look right, then left and right again before thinking silently to yourself, “I’m going to be waiting a while…” And although traffic going out of the city can be horrendous, at worst it’s quite astounding the infrequent honking of car horns. Thai people have an incredible patience with one another, particularly when it comes to driving. It’s almost like they can anticipate the other vehicles next move which explains why indicators are rarely used. Maybe they just aren’t needed. WTT.

Chiang Mai & Chiang Saem

Bamboo bridge and lily ponds, Chiang Saen

The further north you move in Thailand, it quickly becomes apparent that the English language is spoken less here than in the south. But it doesn’t matter because its beauty and hospitality quickly make up for that. The countryside is breathtaking – green and refreshing. Just looking at it revitalises the soul and brings a sense of peace and calm. Lush rice fields surrounded by a backdrop of sweeping mountains that seem never ending. Pure beauty. There is no wondering why the people here are so content. They are simple people, living simple lives but they couldn’t be happier. I have learnt to treasure the small and humble things in life, like the power of a smile. Whether it’s a smile from a stranger, a child or friend, a smile brings warmth and is radiant in its own way. What if us in the West, took a few minutes each day to stop, quiet ourselves and learn to take pleasure in the simple things in life. It might just change our perspective on a few things…

Rice and strawberry fields, Chiang Mai

While there is a phenomenal amount of landmass, nothing can surpass the power of the mighty Mekong River. It still amazes me how three countries – Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma) are separated by this one body of water and together form the famous ‘Golden Triangle’. The Loi Krathong Festival celebrates the spirit of the river and rightly so. It’s only after you gently place a lotus gra` tong on to the water that you completely comprehend the intensity of the river and its supremacy. Its rapid currents would surely engulf anything that touches its surface. Hence why life jackets are compulsory when boarding one of the many boats that glide along this extravagant mass of water. WTT.

Loi Krathong Festival, Chiang Saen

From my experiences thus far however, I would have to say that food is one of the greatest loves of the Thai people. It is the one thing that can be shared and satisfies not only the stomach but also the soul. I had every intention of losing weight before embarking on this journey by telling myself I would be eating rice and vegetables and walking everywhere as exercise. Looking back, that was an overly optimistic thought. Everything delicious is cooked in oil including my all time favourites – pad thai and banana roti pancakes. It’s a tragedy but hey, WTT!

I know people often warn you about eating off the street and while you do need to careful (to an extent), street food is the best – authentic, mouth watering and cheap! Also, after spending some time in a traditional Thai home with my friend’s mum, I haven’t gone hungry for a second. A massive bowl of rice, 2-3 times per day = a carb overload and certainly not helping with the weight loss program. On top of that I have tried a vast array of different fruits that I can’t remember the names of but they have been edible and most of them quite tasty. WTT.

Banana roti pancakes

Aside from the natural beauty Thailand has to offer and it’s many edible delicacies, there is the not so beautiful art of mastering the squat toilet. Whether you like it or not, if travelling up to Northern Thailand, there is no way of avoiding the dreaded squat toilet. And I admit, some people’s fears and phobias of this are far worse than others. Obviously for Thais, using a squat toilet is second nature but to Westerners, it’s as foreign as can be. The taller you are, the more awkward it is and the one note I can confidently make is that it requires balance. Western toilets are a luxury and when you do come across one in Thailand, it’s five star indulgence! WTT. I have made some interesting observations along the way like the patriotism of the Thai people although patriotism seems like an understatement. Almost ever house you pass in the north has the Thai flag out the front. Some look new, the colours vibrant and alive while others appear tattered and slightly faded – weathered from years in the sun. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention their beloved King whose face can be seen in every home, shop, market and hotel in Thailand. While I don’t know much about him apart from the fact that he is a good man, I can see it in his eyes. His face is gentle and kind, a true father to his people.

One of many monuments of the Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej

Apart from the Kings picture, I have additionally lost count of the number of dogs and cats that roam the streets in the heat of the day and take late night strolls under the milky moonlight. Many of the dogs have inbuilt road sense, although there have been the odd one or two who have sniffed death. WTT.

I have also learnt that every village has its own temple and school. With a population that is about 95 per-cent Buddhist, it’s no surprise students are taught the practices of Buddhism from a young age. I often wonder to myself, how many of them will grow up to become monks or practicing Buddhists who regularly attend temple. And part of my heart sinks knowing these children have not been taught about their true creator; the creator of the heavens and the earth. But my hope and prayer is that one day they will.

Germany’s nervous wait

The following article was written for the 2011 Brisbane Model United Nations conference. Please note that the situation described is factual and not based on true events.

New H1N1 virus threatens aviation industry

A 20 year old Caucasian male has collapsed in the departure lounge of Germany’s Frankfurt International Airport displaying flu like symptoms.

According to post 2009 H1N1 protocol, the man (who remains unidentified), has been administered an experimental anti-viral based on the corresponding vaccine.

The man, who remains stable and in quarantine began showing symptoms an hour prior to being hospitalized and reportedly passed out after being stopped by security.

It is unknown whether the patient’s passing out was caused by his symptoms or whether he simply fainted.

Blood samples and symptoms similar to H1N1 indicate it to be an air-born pathogen with a contagious incubation time of 12 hours.

While it has been six hours since the time of his delayed flight, it is unknown how long he had been at the airport prior to the delay.

Germany could have a potential outbreak on its hands, one comparable to or ultimately worse than what the world witnessed during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Frankfurt International Airport services up to 400,000 passengers each day with the most international destinations worldwide.

H1N1, more commonly referred to as ‘swine flu’ is known to spread the same way as the seasonal flu – through coughing, sneezing, talking and touching of infected surfaces.

From 2009 to 2010, the aviation industry implemented tough measures, issuing airport security staff with guidelines on how to test for possible swine flu.

To aid in dealing with the crisis, various government websites were also established.

Many of these websites contained information such as pandemic influenza planning checklists plus guidance on how to conduct proper cleaning within the airline and travel industry.

However, following the swine flu outbreak, airlines suffered severe losses with many people too afraid to travel both domestically and internationally.

The pandemic hit the aviation industry so hard that worldwide airline losses were predicted to total an astounding $9 billion.

At the time, IATA Chief Executive Officer, Giovanni Bisignani announced, “This is the most difficult situation that the industry has faced. Our future depends on a drastic reshaping by partners, governments and industry.”

During the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic, the aviation industry including international travel and trade were greatly affected as it was not prepared for such an extreme international public health emergency.

In such health crises, the International Health Regulations (IHR) is used as a vital mechanism in fighting against the spread of infectious diseases, including air-born pathogens.

As an international legal agreement, the IHR binds 194 countries worldwide including all Member states of WHO.

It aims to assist the international community by preventing and responding to severe public health risks while increasing global public health security.

In accordance with the IHR, contracting states should not interrupt air transport services for health reasons.

In May 2010, the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) stated, “Contracting states should first consult with the WHO and health authorities of the State of occurrence of the disease before taking any decision as to the suspension of air transport services.”

Given the size of Frankfurt’s International Airport, a viral outbreak in such a location raises serious concerns both for Germany and the aviation industry.

The possibility of the patient exposing an unknown number of travelers to the disease is likely and could be detrimental if not dealt with swiftly and appropriately.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) phases of infection, areas it did infect were no where near as extreme as previous pandemics.

Significant improvements in personal hygiene, sanitation and advancements in general public health have minimized the frequency of pandemics.

Now more than ever, influenza outbreaks have become the key focus of major public health organizations.

In 2010, following the H1N1 outbreak, WHO Director-General, Margaret Chan stated, “Pandemics, like the viruses that cause them, are unpredictable and prone to deliver surprises. No two pandemics are ever alike.”

World Health Organization, Director General, Margaret Chan (Copyright Laurent Gillieron/Keystone/Associated Press 2010)

It is clear Germany will need to take stringent action to minimize the effects of this unknown disease.

United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, emphasized how the H1N1 outbreak was a strong reminder of just how interconnected countries are and that global solidarity was the only way to confront the virus.

“A threat to one country is a threat to all, requiring a collective global response,” Mr. Ban said.

“Our watchword in potential health crises, now and in the future, must be solidarity — a global solidarity.”

While Germany was well prepared and took appropriate measures with the swine flu pandemic in 2009, it is hoped it will now implement these same extensive practices should another outbreak arise from this situation.

Worst case scenario could see the aviation industry take another hard hit and Germany on the brink of global threat.

Only time will tell.

Slow and steady wins the race

WHO delegates and Directors, Michael Nowland & Lauren Griffin

WHO reaches final resolution first

Right from beginning of this morning’s proceedings, delegates of the World Health Organization were keen to get things underway.

The topic of pharmaceutical companies came into discussion however ended up as a controversial topic with the delegate for Australia pointing out that the use of pharmaceutical companies in developing countries would lead to corruption and bribing.

It was also argued to what extent vaccines could be developed within these pharmaceutical companies.

The WHO was also graced with the presence of China and a delegate who represented the so called ‘African Union’.  Before long it was a case of developing nations against developed nations.

After what felt like a drawn out process of draft resolution after draft resolution a final resolution was passed with Pakistan the only one to vote against the resolution with the UK abstaining.

Pakistan felt that developing countries needs weren’t met while the UK believed the resolution was not thorough enough.

The final resolution recognized the following:

  • Designates this outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern as per Article 12 of the International Health Regulations, and as such recommends that states mobilize their plans for a Phase 6 response;
  • Encourages the involvement of relevant international and non-government organizations in providing greater access to resources and response programs to countries with a lesser capacity at their request;
  • Strongly recommends that states work with aviation authorities to monitor the spread of the influenza through information gathering measures performed in accordance with Article 23 of the IHR and the stipulations of international human rights law

After what has been an exhausting weekend of debating, crisis updates, working papers and drafting numerous amendments, delegates of the WHO should be very proud of their efforts in achieving a diplomatic resolution to this impending crisis.

H1N1 crisis update

Delegate for Japan, Kate Stevenson

WHO Committee – BrizMUN, April 2011

After the World Health Organization received word that the H1N1 virus had moved to a phase 4, delegate for Pakistan, Manisha Singh reinforced how ‘deeply worried’ Pakistan was and urged Germany to heighten border control in quarantining those with flu like symptoms.

“Pakistan is looking to keep the virus out of its country and South-East Asia region and therefore encourages countries to increase their security to help counteract the situation and slow down the spread of the virus,” Ms Singh said.

Pakistan also made clear that in order to deal with the virus; it required assistance from the developed nations such as Japan.

While delegate for Japan, Kate Stevenson agreed aid needed to be distributed to developing countries, she also made the point that anti-viral stockpiles were not sufficient enough to protect all nations should the event result in a global pandemic.

“We encourage developing states such as Pakistan to undertake measures that do not make them wholly dependent on outside providers and to methods such as airport monitoring,” she said.

WHO to find solution to H1N1 pandemic

Delegate for Denmark, Angie Loi

WHO Committee – BrizMUN, April 2011

With a definite crisis on their hands, the honourable delegates of BrizMUN’s World Health Organization (WHO) gathered this morning to discuss how they planned to deal with the H1N1 virus with a confirmed case in Frankfurt’s International Airport.

During opening position statements, countries outlined their specific concerns and highlighted how the current situation should addressed and dealt with.

Delegate for Denmark, Angie Loi emphasized how a proactive stance in relation to influenza pandemics was needed.  “We require early detection, treatment and isolation if we are to contain the virus to minimize the risk of it spreading,” she said.

France also acknowledged how a multilateral response would help bring about a unified approach.

It was also announced that Japan and the United States heavy financial investment with regards to vaccines has also been extremely valuable.

Delegate for Japan, Kate Stevenson discussed that as Japan was affected by the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, it would do all it could to prevent another outbreak. “We obviously have a reasonable amount of concern,” she said.

Mexico and the United Kingdom raised the issue of public awareness while others acknowledged the impact current European surveillance system is having on the given crisis.

But Germany who made a late entrance was given the opportunity to express its view and stressed that to avoid another pandemic it would remain active and use all available resources to prevent further spread of the virus.

In the first crisis update, it was revealed that 24 cases had been reported in Frankfurt’s International Airport with all displaying the same symptoms as ‘Patient Zero’ (the man who originally contracted H1N1) with the situation declared a phase 4 influenza pandemic.

It was confirmed that ‘Patient Zero’ is a 20 year old student whose parents are poultry farmers and live two hours outside Frankfurt.

The announcement of crisis update two really got discussion rolling after it was announced that 500 more cases had been reported in various other European airports. Patient Zero was also confirmed dead after a cytokine storm took over his body.

Before long, working papers were well and truly underway with some opposition voiced over the use of antiviral drugs in third world countries.

Not all agreed that the public should be notified of the current situation as it was considered unnecessary to raise panic and alarm.

It was reinforced that cooperation was needed between states within the WHO with access to

Delegates of the WHO committee discuss the H1N1 crisis

resources also required to ensure suitable pandemic preparedness.