Irony in the Land of the Lady Boy

Chinese Word of the Day: 可尊敬
(kě zūn jìng) respectable

As Ruth said, the world is logical, just not logic I agree with.

Picture:  David dressed like a Burmese gentleman.  In Bankgkok, Thailand, this shows disrespect?

I’ve quite taken to the way men dress in Burma, in a long garment called a lungee (sp?).  It’s very comfortable in the heat and humidity of Thailand compared to my usual trousers.  I do not feel the least bit less awesomely manly in it, no more than I feel feminine wearing a kilt. But apparently it’s disrespectful of me to wear it.  This morning I was refused admission to the Grand Palace because I wasn’t wearing long pants.  The women enforcing this rule told me there were long pants in the office that I could wear for free (shades of “As Good as it Gets”), but adamantly refused to let me in wearing the clothing of a Burmese MAN.  This in the land of the celebrated “lady boys”.  Maybe if I were short and looked Burmese I would have been allowed to enter.
It seems to me that respect should go two ways.  I’d like Thailand to show people respect for their individuality if they demand respect in return. But I’m glad I saved the 500 baht they charge to see their Grand Palace, which I can get along just fine without ever seeing.  Covers my Starbucks habit for the day. 🙂

Sometimes I think I’ve been away from home too long.


Naam’s friend Jim, whose Whispering Seed foundation is doing incredible work with sustainable development and child rescue in Thailand and Myanmar, gave us a lift from our guest house to the bus stop in his classic Land Rover.  I’ve finally met “Jungle Jim”, or the next generation thereof.

Picture:  Naam's friend Jim gave us a ride to the bus in Sangklaburi.

On Friday we said a tearful farewell to Naam and her children and caught the bus for Bangkok.  Our first hotel was a disappointment.  It felt just a little too far down the star rating system, with water leaking down a wall right on to an electrical plug and fee wifi that didn’t work.  We spent one night there.  Ruth’s mom, Pat, had come down with the same kind of traveller’s sickness I’d had in Sangklaburi, spending the night honking up anything she had eaten during the day.  The next morning I made my way to Starbucks and found Baan Chart right next door.  So we dragged our suitcases through the narrow streets and moved in.  What a wonderful difference.  A lot more money, but I can afford it for three nights.  My treat as a birthday present for Pat.

Siam Niramit Culture Show

Ruth found this elephant to feed and photograph at the courtyard of Siam Niramit, a huge tourist attraction with a stage that is in the Guinness Book of World Records, though they never mention for what reason.

Picture:  Ruth feeds her photo subject, the elephant.  Bangkok, Thailand

Last night, Pat treated us all to a dinner and show at Siam Niramit, a culture show presented on a huge stage, complete with real live elephants, goats, chickens, and hundreds of real live people.

Picture: recreation of a traditional Thai village at Siam Niramit, Bangkok, Thailand

As tourist traps go, the attached traditional village display is not bad, and the show itself is spectacular, with truly mystifying set changes that include a disappearing and reappearing river that a performer can actually swim in. The buffet dinner that was included in the price of the ticket Pat bought was also not bad.

Gotta Hate Being a Tourist

The sour note of the evening came after the show.  Taxi drivers in Bangkok simply refuse to use their meter.  They want a flat rate, usually more than double what the meter will show.  We got in the taxi after the show.  Our driver drove far enough that there were no other taxis around, then demanded a flat rate for the trip back to our hotel.  We refused.  So we sat there arguing for ten minutes.  Our driver had demanded 200 baht.  Finally he spat out, “Okay.  You be very happy.  Fifty baht. (less than half what the meter would show)”, started driving, then went into a rant about how the “stupid government” hadn’t increased the meter rates for thirty years.  We told him to take that up with his government and leave us out of it.  But I felt like a jerk for the whole ride.

Picture: Cab driver's license, Bangkok, Thailand

I took a picture of our driver’s ID from the back seat as insurance against finding ourselves in an industrial park with no taxis for miles around.  But after he calmed down he drove us straight to our hotel.
What am I doing, arguing about 200 baht (about $7 CDN) with a cab driver trying to make a living? When we got to our hotel, I gave him a hundred and fifty baht, and told him he’d have had the two hundred if he’d turned on his meter.

Pat said the cab driver argument ruined her evening, but I think she’d recovered by the time she’d soaked up a street side massage.

Your comments make my day, so please leave one. 🙂


Thailand Part 2

Chinese Word of the Day: 裙
(qún)  skirt

At the Edge of the Jungle

Sangkhlaburi was, until about twenty years ago, only accessible by a long river journey or several days on an elephant. Now it is crowded with NGO’s and the main business here seems to be refugee rescue.  There are a number of orphanages, schools, and clinics and the town is crowded with foreigners from all over the world.  We have been meeting very interesting people, such as Paula in the picture below.

Picture: Paula in Sangkhlaburi, ThailandPaula spent twenty years making movies for Jacques Cousteau.  After that she was one of the first to negotiate an energy deal with China.  A woman of substance, to put it mildly.

We also met Valerie, an elderly woman who is from England but who lived and worked in America and Africa.  She’s now in Sangkhlaburi as a volunteer with the dog rescue centre.

Picture: Valerie, a volunteer with the dog rescue in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand And then there’s Jimmy…Picture:  Jimmy, owner of the eponymous Jimmy's, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandJimmy has a bar in Kanchanaburi and a bookstore/restaurant here in Sangkhlaburi, the best place in town for lunch or dinner.  We eat at Jimmy’s every day.

Jimmy first came to Thailand during the Vietnam war and never quite managed to leave.  He’s a bird and animal lover with a very easy going attitude toward life here, but he’s had a tough time over the past few years.  A rather unsavoury man he evicted from his bar expressed his displeasure by attempting to murder him.  In a sneak attack, the creep hit Jimmy on the back of the head with a baseball bat, and Jimmy spent a couple of years recovering from a brain aneurism.  Aside from his personal story, Jimmy is a wealth of information about the local conditions and situations.

Most of the stories we hear are not so violent or dramatic.  Many of the visitors are young volunters, like Katarina from Portugal.  Katarina works with Children of the Forest teaching acrobatics and art.

Picture:  Katarina, volunteer from Portugal in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand

Children of the Forest

Speaking of Children of the Forest, they are the organization that supports Naam and her home for children.  We met the father and mother of Naam’s original partner, Daniel, who was a founder of the organization, on our first night in Sangkhlaburi.  They invited us out for a tour of the school.

Picture, classroom at Children of the Forest, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandPicture: Tom and child at Children of the Forest school, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandTom gave us a tour of the Children of the Forest school and home for the refugee children.  It’s a well run and orderly place, with children who obviously love their care givers.  It’s not at all what one thinks of when picturing an orphanage and refugee camp.Picture: sorting through the snacks at Children of the Forest, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandTom’s wife, Linda, and the school principle organize the snacks for the children at Children of the Forest school.

Picture: I was adopted by this little guy for the duration of my visit.  Children of the Forest, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandThis boy adopted me for our entire tour of the school.  Impossible to ignore, if I let go of his hand he was hanging onto my legs, so I soon gave up and gave him the attention he so obviously craved.

Picture:  Sorting a donation from Bangkok universdity students.  Children of the Forest, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandUniversity students in Bangkok sent up a donation of clothing and supplies, which the staff and volunteers of Children of the Forest are sorting for distribution.  What isn’t used directly at the school and home will be sent out to the surrounding villages.

Picture: A student at Children of the Forest, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandI need no excuse for including a closer picture of this little girl, a study of composure in a world of pain and loss.

Picture: A student at Children of the Forest, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandPicture:  The main assemply building, one of Naam's designs, at Children of the Forest, Sangkhlaburi, Thailand

This is under the roof of the main assembly building at Children of the Forest, one of Naam’s building designs.  It is multi-purpose, an assembly hall, dining hall, performance auditorium, and playground.

Going Native

The Burmese men here wear a long skirt that can instantly convert into a pair of shorts.

Picture: David goes Burmese, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandIt’s just a simple tube, tied at the waist, and I find it incredibly comfortable in the heat and humidity, compared to my normal khaki trousers.  The only problem is the complete lack of pockets, hence the backpack.

Picture: Ruth samples the home made icecream in the Sangkhlaburi night market, ThailandOnce a week, on Saturday evenings, there’s a night market in the town.  Local musicians show off their talents.  Exotic local street food becomes available, including very tasty home made ice cream with a unique addition of sticky rice and fresh coconut.

Party Boat Time

On Saturday, Naam rented one of the party boats so she could give her kids a day on the lake for swimming, lunch and dinner.

Picture: Party barge, Sangkhlaburi, Thailand.Naam’s kids spent the entire day frolicking like so many happy otters, and I heard not one angry word, not one complaint or dispute. They were noisy beyond belief, but all the screaming and shouting was happy fun.  It just didn’t seem natural.

Picture: Long tailed bot tows our barge to the mooring.  Sangkhlaburi, ThailandThe longtail boat towed us out to our mooring, and that’s where we sat for the day.

Picture: ready to cook on the barge, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandThe house mother cooked up delicious food for both lunch and dinner, deep fried chicken with rice and vegetables for lunch and a veggies and eggs noodle dish with rice for supper.  You would have thought she was working out of a well equipped kitchen.

Picture:  these kids need life jackets the way a fish needs a bicycle.  Party boat time for Naam's house.  Sangkhlaburi, ThailandThe life jackets were more toys than safety equipment.  These kids know how to swim.

Picture: Ruth floats with the kids. Sangkhlaburi, Thailand

Picture: Naam on the party boat.  Sangkhlaburi, ThailandMy problem with the party boat was getting back on board from the water.  Initially I called for help and Ruth came to try to pull me back on deck.  When that didn’t work we enlisted Yod, the young and muscular house father, but he was also unable to lift my bulk out of the water.  Finally I noticed a rope and by making a loop to stand in was able to wiggle and squirm back onto the deck in a most ungainly manner.  It was a good thing there was a rope available or I’d still be in the water.   That effort left me with sore chest shoulder, arm and back muscles for days.  I really must get into weight training again.  I’ve allowed myself to fall apart.  Time to take fitness seriously.

Picture:  One of Naam's girls.  Sangkhlaburi, ThailandThere’s always more to say and show, but I find working on this little travelling machine, with unreliable Internet access, tedious in the extreme.  For now, just know that it is a privilege to be welcomed into Naam’s family.

The Graph Cafe

For the past couple of weeks, the Graph Cafe has been a second home for me in the morning.  There’s free wifi so I can work with email or these updates, and very often somebody we’ve met will also be having their morning coffee there.

Tee, the owner manager of the Graph Cafe, has gone on holidays for our last week in Sangkhlaburi, which is very upsetting  because he made the best lattes in town and I really miss them.

Picture: Tee, owner manager of the Graph Cafe, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandMore soon.  Your comments are always welcome.


The Man in China in Thailand

Chinese Word of the Day:孤儿院
(gū’éryuàn) Orphanage.

We, Ruth, her mother, Pat, and I, flew out of Pudong on January 30 after a rather uncomfortable bus ride to the airport.  It was an unseasonably warm day, with a high of 16, meaning we only needed to pack winter coats in case it’s cold again when we return to China.  A pleasant enough flight later and we landed in Bangkok. We stayed one night at a hotel near the airport (thanks Tom for the recommendation).

Bascklit Picture: Pat and David waiting for lunch at a restaurant by the river in Bangkok.Next morning we had a wonderful brunch beside the river, and hired a taxi to take us to Kanchanaburi, leaving around one o’clock and arriving at Sam’s House by four.

taxiThis was our bright and shiny taxi to Kanchanaburi, about three and a half hours.  It didn’t cost much more than the price of three bus tickets, and was certainly a lot more comfortable. Pat is not driving.  They drive on the “wrong” side of the road in Thailand, on the left.

Picture: This is a fake cop car, sort of. Real cop but off duty with his car tricked out for escort duty.Our driver told us that this cop car ahead of us is a fake.  Well, sort of a fake.  It’s owned by a police officer, but it’s a private car tricked out like a police car so that the cop can make big bucks when off duty providing an escort fo VIP bigwigs.  He could tell by the license place, he told us. Our driver spoke good English as was almost like a tour guide for our trip to Kanchanburi.  I kept his card and we hope to see him again when we return to Bangkok.

Our ultimate destination was Sangkhlaburi in the highlands, near the Myanmar (formerly Burma) border, but we learned that the buses would only run into the mountains during daylight hours.
We decided to have a day in Kanchanaburi, take a tour, check out a waterfall, visit the Death Railway museum, ride an elephant, slide down a river on a bamboo raft, ride a section of the death railway still in daily operation, and visit the Bridge on the River Kwai for a dinner of street food that evening. That would make it a full day.

Picture: the tour started with a waterfall slightly crowded with Russian tourists.After the waterfall we were taken to the Death Railway museum.  You could read about it.  Prisoners of War and Asian labourers were imported to build the railroad that would connect Japanese troops in Burma with their supply lines in Thailand.  Unbelievable suffering and a horrible death toll, with 10,000 prisoners of war and 90,000 imported Asian labourers dieing during the construction.

Picture: Tour lunch.  Good enough.

Picture: Pat and Ruth enjoy the lunch provided by our tour.They have a slick setup for getting tourists on and off of elephants with little trouble.

Picture: Ruth boards an elephant, the easy way.I don’t think I’ll ever ride an elephant again.  This was the second time for me, and the experience is much more attractive as a fantasy than as a reality.  Maybe it’s that rope under the poor beast’s tail that turns me off.  I have empathy for elephants.

Below is the start of our trail ride.  Note the satellite dish in the background.  The jungle isn’t what it used to be.Pictture: The beginning of the elephant ride.  Note the satellite dish in the background.Picture: Ruth's elephant wanders along the stream.Our elephants wandered through the jungle, pausing occasionally to eat some of the vegetation.  They made a stop in a swimming hole in the stream, but we hadn’t signed up to wash them so they continued on the the site of the raft excursion.  I didn’t get to see it, but apparently the elephant I was riding was a male.  He took the thigh high, to an elephant, water as an opportunity to wash his manly bits and I’m told that an elephant penis is a thing of wonder when air drying after a rinse.

You’ve got to hand it to Pat.  At seventy-three years of young she’s up for anything, as long as it doesn’t involve too much walking.  But even then, she generally game.  When I think about the fact that she gets around on two artificial knees, I’m yet again glad we live in this time of medical marvels.

Picture: ya gotta hand it to Pat.  She's game for just about anything. Here she is being helped onto the bamboo raft.Pat may be a good sport, but she did not appreciate being asked to turn to the camera.  I was lucky the splashing was more a threat than an act of annoyance.

Picture: Pat on the bamboo raft, not please by being asked to turn for the camera.  She splashed me.

Picture: Boys hawl the rafts back upstream for the next customers.We were wondering how the rafts got back up stream, but the mystery was quickly solved.  These boys drag them back, wading through the shallow water.  Tourism brings a lot of employment to Thailand.

Picture: on board the train taking us back to Kanchanaburi, letting us off at the famous bridge over the River Kwai.The tour price was 850 Baht per person, less than thirty dollars.  It packed a lot into a single day for that price, which included all transportation, fees, lunch, and tickets, with everything scheduled like clock work.  A good deal.

Picture: The famous BriThe bridge over the River Kwai is now a great place to eat street food, including some of the best durian we’ve eaten in years.  Our tour took us back to our guest house, but after a short rest we hired a motorcycle taxi with sidecar to take us back to the bridge for dinner.  That ride was 60 Baht.  After eating we found a taxi to take us back to the hotel, but the price had risen to 150 Baht.  We told the taxi pimp we would walk.  He snorted a warning that our destination was a whole 2 kilometres away, as if that’s a long walk after dinner.  We laughed at him and set off.  Less than two blocks later I spotted a taxi parked beside a restaurant with the driver having dinner with his family.  He was only too happy to give us a ride for the going rate, 20 Baht per person.

Next morning we were up in time for a breakfast at Sam’s House before climbing into the taxi/truck, a Songthaew, to the bus station.

Pictre: Our taxi to the Kanchanaburi bus station.Picture: Ruth and Pat in the Kanchanaburi bus station. Thailand.The Sangkhlaburi bus ride was very pleasant, air conditioned and with great views of the winding mountain road and scenery.  We were met by our friend and our real destination, Naam.

Picture: this is Naam, our friend and host in Sankhlaburi, Thailand.Naam has twenty-one children under her care, boys and girls ranging in age from seven to eighteen, in a house she runs supported by the organization she helped get started, Children of the Forest.

Picture: Just a sample of Naam's children, beautiful kids all.Baan Maa Naam (Mother Naam’s House) was not what I expected.  Somehow I had visions of a Dickensian world with miserably unhappy children creating a chaotic and ugly environment for a stressed and overworked caregiver.  Nothing could be further from the reality.  Naam has created an island of serenity in a sea of problems.  Her children are happy.  They play together, laugh a lot, and seem to be having a lot of fun.

On our first day here, a donation came in to Naam’s house, with more than she could use.  The balance was loaded into a truck and taken to nearby villages for distribution.   We got to go along, and see the poverty that inflicts this area.

Picture:  Schoolyard in a Burmese village near SangkhlanaburiThis is a schoolyard in a Burmese village near Sangkhlanaburi.

We’ve been in Sangkhlaburi for a week now, and the town has been very welcoming.  We were invited to perform at the local school, and ran through a set of our children’s songs.  That seems to have made us minor celebrities in this small town where the dominant industry appears to be caring for the displaced local children and rescuing the stray dogs.  There are a  lot of foreigners here, many of them paying for the privilege of volunteering and helping out at the NGO establishments.

I don’t mean to sound dismissive about this.  Naam’s children need help.  They are stateless, with neither Myanmar nor Thailand claiming them, or providing them with medical care or educational opportunities.  Some are orphans of conflict and genocide in Burma, with horrific back stories of seeing parents killed. Some are casualties of economic conditions and deserted mothers.

There is something so very wrong with the very concept of “stateless” children.  If a child shows up at school, that child should get an education.  If a child show up at a hospital, that child should get medical care.  But that’s not how the world works just yet.  These children don’t even have birth certificates, and before they get official recognition as people there is a long trail of red tape and bureaucratic hoops to be jumped through.  The headman of their home village must testify to the fact that they were in fact born, even though that seems rather obvious to most people.  Birth mothers and midwives must be documented.  In the meantime they have no future without people like Naam and Children of the Forest.

But also in the meantime, they get to be children.

Picture:  Naam's kids line up for dinner at Baan Maa Naam, Mother Naam's HouseI have other pictures of this food lineup, with the children grinning and mugging for the camera.  But I liked this one better.

Picture: one of Naam's kids expresses his affection for the house father.Naam has several employees at her home that she refers to as house mothers and this young man, the house father.  He always seemed to be smiling and having a good time with the children, who obviously love him.

Picture: Ruth brought her crystal sticks for the kids to play with.  They were a hit. Baan Maa Naam, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandRuth brought three sets of her crystal sticks with her, and they were a big hit with the children, though the boys had to be told that they weren’t martial arts weapons.

Picture: One of Naam's boys tries out the crystal sticks.  Baan Maa Naam, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandAnd what child can resist a digital camera?

Picture:  Kids everywhere love a digital camera.  Baan Maa Naam,  Sangkhlaburiy, ThailandPicture:  My typical view of one of Naam's kids.  Baan Maa Naam, Sangkhlaburi, Thaiiland.This is my very typical view of one of Naam’s kids.  I fall in love with these children, yet I’m being careful not to establish too solid a relationship with any one of them.  They have been abandoned enough.

Naam doesn’t subscribe to the official policy set for caregivers of orphans.  Caregivers are not supposed to love the children in their care, ostensibly because those children will have to leave someday. But how is that different from children in any family?  They all grow up and leave the nest.  Naam’s children are not waiting for adoption.  She is their mother, and they have a permanent home with her.  She gives them love, and it shows.

Picture:  Children at play outside Naam's House, Sangkhlaburi, ThailandSunday afternoon we walked with the children to the nearby swimming hole in the lake.

Picture:  Naam's kids on a Sunday afternoon swim.  Sangkhlaburi, Thailand

Picture:  Naam's kids help each other in and out of the water.  Sangkhlaburi, ThailandIt takes a lot of activity to burn off that child energy.  I was tired just watching them frolic like otters in and out of the water.

Picture: one of Naam's kids gets some air before hitting the water.  Sangkhlaburi, ThailandNaam, who holds a masters in architecture, designed the home that is being built to house her growing family.

Picture: Naam on an inspection tour of the new home for her children, under construction near Sangkhlaburi, Thailand.Hopefully they will be able to move in this March, before the rainy season.  The children will get space to play.Picture: Naam's new home for her children under construction.  Sangkhlaburi, Thailand

As I write this, I’m sitting in the Graph Cafe which has become my home every morning for the best latte in Sangkhlaburi.  We’ve just discovered that the owner is an amateur photography, and we’re already up on his Flickr site, along with a lot of other great pictures from this area.  Check them out.

And please feel free to leave a comment.