A San Francisco Bay Area native, Praveena loves slam poetry and cold cliffy beaches. Her belief in the power of storytelling feeds her daily practice. She is a maker of higgledy-piggledy to-do lists, vegan cuisine, and the occasional scrapbook.
Thailand’s October sky has been the optimal canvas for atmospheric art: sunrises and sunsets. I have made time for “stillness"— practicing being steady amidst the chaos— during these dates with the sun.
A few memorable meteoritical moments:
From grinning widely on the edge of a song tau to enjoying the breezy quietude in a treehouse lookout point, all of these moments invite two irreplaceable feelings: the wind dancing in my overgrown pixie cut and the gratifying calm that accompanies “stillness.” Pausing to observe, wonder, and marvel has evolved into a habit that also fuels my work. Ryan Holliday writes, "Stillness is that quiet moment when inspiration hits you. It’s what makes room for gratitude and happiness. It’s one of the most powerful forces on earth."
During this first month in Khon Kaen, I have been honing in on learning Thai and building relationships with researchers, artists, and community members.
To ensure my work is rigorous and reflective of local needs, I am working under the guidance of Dr. Kanokwan Manorom (pictured below) who has focused on participatory impact assessment, Mekong river basin and wetlands environmental health, and indigenous knowledge on sustainable resource governance for over two decades. As the Director of the Mekong Sub-region Social Research Center at Ubon Ratchathani University, her broad network of researchers and activists will help me partner with organizations working to improve the health of rights-holders and their ecosystems. I met my "research mom" in person for the first time last week; I took three buses, two pick-up trucks, and a van to Rasi Salai and back. The fragmented journey was well worth the two days and nights I spent with a multidisciplinary team of five researchers and 70 community activists.
Some Quick Context
The Rasi Salai Dam was built in 1992 on the Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong River, and negatively impacted approximately 17,000 people from the districts of Sisaket, Surin, and Roi Et. The project was part of the Khong-Chi-Mun Project, a large-scale irrigation scheme for Northeast Thailand orchestrated by the Thai government and The World Bank. The dam has led to the destruction of natural resources, biodiversity loss, floods, food insecurity, soil and water contamination, and deforestation. Socio-economic impacts include displacement, unemployment, and human rights violations. For instance, parents are forced to migrate to find work, leaving children to live with grandparents and causing a breakup of traditional Isaan homes. The community is keen on documenting these impacts, so the research team is collaborating to produce a comprehensive report for the Royal Irrigation Department that will ultimately lead to compensation and restoration programming for affected villagers.
The technical terms and long hours were, at times, grueling for me and my translator during the internal research meeting. Besides the few tired yawns and stamina challenge, I felt extremely lucky to witness the professors' decades of expertise in wetlands-related research (e.g., water resource management, social development, public health, economics, etc.). Furthermore, my study's timeline aligns well with theirs- a serendipitous discovery that will allow us to share data, contextualize my research findings, and overall add to the depth and breadth of my project. After the internal research meeting, 70 villagers and representatives of 10 major activist groups from Sisaket, Surin, and Roi Et attended a three-hour community meeting. Given my limited social capital and resources, this meeting was invaluable; attendees heard from each lead researcher, asked excellent questions with useful feedback, and expressed their appreciation and buy-in for this applied research initiative.
Another highlight of the month has been connecting with Thai art critic and curator Thanom Chapakdee. He is the founder of Khon Kaen Manifesto, a native of Sisaket Province (where the Rasi Salai Dam is located), and a leading voice in the contemporary art landscape of Isaan. I was humbled (and slightly shocked) when he agreed to be my advisor for the storytelling exhibit portion of my project, as I’ve been following his work from afar for over a year now (read more about his approach to radical, participatory art here: A talk with Thanom Chapakdee, the curator pushing Isaan’s new art movement). I hope to imbibe Thanom’s philosophy of art as democracy to “abandon the palace” of Thai social institutions; in a departure from traditional gallery and museum settings, the traveling exhibit will be displayed in accessible venues that community members determine to be symbolic of local political ecology. This may include a public park, historic neighborhood cafe, or abandoned rice mill.
My days include post-run WhatsApp calls with friends and family back home, caffeinated mornings dedicated to delving into the literature, demanding and entertaining language lessons, and the occasional Taco Tuesday/Thai movie with old and new friends. These routine happenings, sprinkled with "stillness," have made for a month full of rich experiences, reflection, and joy.