Chinese Word of the Day:孤儿院
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).
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
They have a slick setup for getting tourists on and off of elephants with little trouble.
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.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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
I have other pictures of this food lineup, with the children grinning and mugging for the camera. But I liked this one better.
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.
Ruth 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.
And what child can resist a digital camera?
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.
Sunday afternoon we walked with the children to the nearby swimming hole in the lake.
It 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.
Naam, who holds a masters in architecture, designed the home that is being built to house her growing family.
Hopefully they will be able to move in this March, before the rainy season. The children will get space to play.
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.