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Thailand 2009

a travel blog by lucy3119

I spent a month in Thailand with International Student Volunteers: two weeks was spent volunteering at Moo Baan Dek orphanage in Kanchanaburi district, followed by two weeks' adventure tour around the country.
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Same old country, brand new friends

London, United Kingdom

6:00am. So today the greatest adventure of my life was about to begin, but I wasn't thinking about Thailand...I was preoccupied by the fact that, in less than an hour, a girl who I'd never met (if you don't count chatting on facebook) was going to turn up at my front door so that we could drive to Heathrow airport together. Her name was Lauren, and it was the ultimate coincidence that we'd both happened to have applied to International Student Volunteers' Thailand programme at the same time...and that we lived ten minutes away from each other. We could have passed each other in the street so many times, never realising that the other existed, but now we were about to spend a month together in a foreign country, sharing everything from running jokes and tears to medical details and photographs. Starting with this car journey.

We spent the journey getting to know each other and speculating about the other four British volunteers, who we'd be meeting at the airport. As we all gathered together with our huge backpacks at Terminal 3 and introduced ourselves, we six Brits - Sarah, Andy, Jenny, Julia, Lauren and me - had no idea what lay ahead. I wish I'd known then that the month to come would change my life...maybe I could have prepared a bit better!

To Be Continued (one very VERY long plane journey later...)

Me and Lauren on a longtail boat (first week)

Lauren and I at the Siam Niramit cultural dinner show (last day)

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 7, 2009 from London, United Kingdom
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From Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

We Brits arrived at Bangkok airport around 9am, wondering how we were going to get through another day without crashing out...particularly since the day turned out to be so eventful.

We hardly had time to recover from the flight before we found ourselves making yet more introductions - to the other half of our volunteer group: five Canadians, an American and another Brit. Steve, Jessi, Megan, Maddie, Paige, Callie and Emma respectively. And, of course, to our lovely project leader Claire, a native Thai who lectures at Bangkok university and who would, over the next two weeks, show us the Thailand tourists hardly ever get to see.

The minibus journey to Kanchanaburi gave us our first culture shock - the fearless bikers who weave in and out of traffic with their motorbikes impossibly loaded with everything from planks of wood to small children kept us occupied for some time, while the hair-raising 'exploits' of our driver (overtaking on a bend with a car coming at top speed in the other direction, anyone?) triggered motion sickness all round.

Our first stop in Kanchanaburi was, pedictably, the bridge over the River Kwai, where we had our first taste of the local cuisine and marvelled at the complete lack of health and safety regulations while crossing the bridge and attempting not to fall through one of the gaping holes or get mown down by the train.

Now, for the moment we had been anticipating the most: our arrival at our two-week volunteer project, based at Moo Baan Dek (translated as 'Children's Village School'), a school and community for orphaned, abandoned or unwanted children. Our role at the village would be to teach the kids basic English, play games and generally give these children the love and attention they desperately need. I'll write more about Moo Baan Dek later.

At the entrance to Moo Baan Dek (a little bit sunny...)

The village is built in the jungle - but it has been tamed by volunteer workers over the years and also by the kids themselves, who have quickly taught the more terrifying jungle creatures such as spiders, snakes and scorpions to keep their distance for fear of dissection! The schoolhouses and dormitories are basic but strangely beautiful wooden structures and our volunteer house is no different: the downstairs dining area is open and the bedrooms and bathrooms are functional: our beds were thin mattresses on the floor but we had flushing toilets - the ultimate luxury! The best thing about our house, however, was the fact that it was built on the bank of the River Kwai. The view of the river, jungle and mountains was just incredible, and one I will never forget. Photos (below) just don't do it justice.

So after settling into our house we set out to explore the village. The kids came to greet us right away, mostly to get their hands on our digital cameras! We walked down to a jetty on the river: there is a calm pocket of water where the kids are allowed to swim. Our first day at Moo Baan Dek was truly surreal, but it was about to get even more so...

Exploring the jetty, and first encounter with the kids

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 8, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Demonic cows and curious giraffes

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Our first night in Thailand was...eventful. Highlights included one of a local farmer's cows - which I decided to rename 'Hellcow' - escaping and spending a good half hour circling our house and ringing the VERY loud bell around its neck, followed at 4am by some early-rising rebel playing traditional Thai music at top volume for atleast two hours. Add to that a very hard mattress and a humid night and you have, you guessed it, another 24 hours without sleep to get through.

Luckily, the eventful day ahead soon woke us up. On getting up we got our first taste of the Thai rain: it feels great to stand barefoot in the downpour when it's so hot. Our breakfast was an interesting mix of rice and chicken, bread and jam, Thai fruits and chocolate milk, which we would come to both love and hate over the next two weeks.
Our first stop of the day: Kanchanaburi Safari Park where, once again, health and safety regulations went out the window as I was allowed to hold a baby leopard which decided to make a quick snack out of my arm. Ah, bless. The safari tour itself was something else you'd never see in England: the animals, particularly the giraffes and deer, decided they would rather be in the bus with us and the food.

The trip took a bitter turn, however, when we saw painted elephants performing in a show, balancing on impossibly narrow bridges and being forced to stand on two legs. As International Student Volunteers we would later learn the dark, secret side to Thailand's most popular tourist attraction: domesticated elephants are often abused and irreversibly injured as a result of shows such as these. More on elephants later.

Lunch at Tesco Lotus (we sadly caved and bought KFC, eating it with our fingers as we are used to before looking around and realising that in Thailand KFC is eaten with cutlery!) was followed by a trip to Erewan National Park, famous for a seven-level waterfall. Although the lower levels are most popular for swimming, some of us decided to hike up to the top levels. Unfortunately, we discovered that the path was steep and very, very muddy - several falls and broken flip-flops later, we were hiking barefoot and covered in mud. On the way, we found this shrine (see pic) made up of robes tied to a tree. Our swim in the waterfall (to clean and cool off) was cut short by a shoal of hungry fish intent on giving us a full-body massage.

^The whole group at Kanchanaburi Safari Park

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 9, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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The day I discovered I'm worse at art than a six year old

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

We began our first ‘work’ day at Moo Baan Dek with an orientation talk in the school assembly room with the vice principal. Enlightening as it was, our attention was firmly fixed on the progress of a huge tarantula clinging to the ceiling in front of us…sure enough, it soon lost its grip and plummeted to earth as though in slow motion- it was our very own epic introduction to the month of madness that lay ahead.

But, just to prove that I did pay attention that morning despite the efforts of the attention-grabbing arachnid, here’s a bit about the workings of Moo Baan Dek. It was set up in 1979 as an alternative to mainstream Thai education, having seen so many struggling pupils dismissed without attempts by teachers to discover the root of the problem. Moo Baan Dek focuses on vocational subjects such as music and art, which the children can make money from, although they are always encouraged to further themselves academically: one of the older kids we met is planning to go to university next year. The kids aren’t forced to attend lessons: they go because they choose to, they want to learn. Punishments for misbehaviour are decided in a council meeting every Friday, which all the kids attend: they are each given a democratic voice. Punishments are usually just chores such as cleaning or litter picking. Most importantly, however, Moo Baan Dek is not just a school: it is a surrogate family for kids who have none, and the principal Meh Aew (‘Meh’ meaning ‘mother’) is seen by many of the kids as a foster mother. For more info visit the website: http://www.ffc.or.th/mbd/history.html

We took a tour of the school and saw the library, the outdoor dining area where the kids eat all their meals, the art rooms and the gift shop, where the kids get to sell their handiwork to tourists and keep the profits. We joined the kids for some batik painting, where I sat pretending to be creating my own masterpiece while actually letting my little helper do all the tricky parts for me.

How to do batik painting:
1) stretch white fabric tight over a square wooden frame
2) sketch a design, usually floral, onto the fabric using pencil
3) using a special tool, trace the outline in hot wax, then wait to dry
4) when dry, paint canvas: the wax should form the outlines to shapes, and water can be used to blend colours
5) leave to dry, then treat to remove wax and preserve colour
6) the finished product should be a colourful picture with white outlines

The day wasn’t over yet: after being used as human climbing frames by the younger kids for far too long we moved on to the football pitch to challenge the older local boys to a game of football or, as the Canadians would say, soccer.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 10, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Lesson planning and Thai massage

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

First thing today we joined in with the morning activities: after meditation, the children play games and, despite having been up since 5am for chores, they are little balls of energy, fighting for our attention and demanding cuddles and treats. Afterwards, we planned a simple lesson on prepositions (under, over, etc) for Thursday, while trying to fight off yet another child invasion. If I remember rightly, this is the point at which Steve, having surrendered his camera to one of the little terrors, discovered that his photos had been completely deleted. We were a bit more protective of our belongings after that.

In the afternoon we travelled by songthaew (see pic below) into Kanchanaburi town for a Thai massage, discovering that it's not so much relaxing as, well, torture. My particular favourite part was when my masseuse sat me up, grabbed hold of my shoulders and twisted my whole upper body round so that every single bone along my spine cracked.

We were joined by Nicole, another British volunteer travelling alone who happened to be staying at Moo Baan Dek at the same time as us ISV-ers. Nicole was sharing a House with Tess, an 18-year old Burmese student who had spent a month at the orphanage already and was totally and unconditionally adored by all the kids.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 11, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Mother's Day, Thai style

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Today is Mother's Day, a celebration of the Queen of Thailand and of mothers in general. The problem was, most of the children at Moo Baan Dek either do not have, or do not see, their own mothers. Despite this, a big ceremony is planned each year and the eleven of us ISV-ers were about to experience something that hardly anybody who visits Thailand ever gets to see. It was both heartbreaking and inspiring and it's a day that I'm pretty certain I'll never forget.

The ceremony began with each child writing a note - either addressed to their surrogate mother the principal Meh Aew, or their own absent mothers - and hanging it on the branches of a tree. These would later be read out, sending us volunteers into yet more floods of tears.

This was followed by a play, based on a Thai nursery rhyme about a rabbit who asks the sun to help him sleep, performed by younger and older kids as well as one of the teachers. Our project leader Claire translated the whole thing for us, and told us that they would be going to Bangkok to perform the play at a festival next week.

The most moving part of the ceremony came when one of the girls, aged around fourteen, attempted to read a poem she'd written thanking Meh Aew for everything she has done for her pupils. The girl was so overcome with emotion that she couldn't finish her poem, and that was enough to turn us volunteers into blubbering wrecks, as we realised how much Meh Aew and Moo Baan Dek really mean to children who would otherwise have nothing and no-one.

Finally, each child in turn lined up to pay tribute to Meh Aew, hugging her and bowing to her in the most sincere way. We volunteers also took our turn to thank the principal for all she has done for the children.

That evening, to recover from the emotion of the day, we made a campfire outside our house so that the Canadians could teach the Brits how to make s'mores. Later, some of us lay on the veranda, stared at the stars and listened to the sound of mating gekkos.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on November 30, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Teaching hyperactive children is no picnic

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Our first lesson with the kids went well: nobody died, although I think somebody cried. We used all sorts of increasingly desperate measures to teach the kids their prepositions: "under", "over", "in" and "out". We started off with the tried-and-tested Hokey Kokey (or Hokey Pokey, if you're Canadian) but then gradually descended into ball games, relay races and limbo, although the latter should probably be renamed "several clueless volunteers attempting to stop a seven year old running around poking other children with a big stick".

Later, we took a large songthaew into town with some of the kids and teachers for their daily fruit and veg shop at the local markets: the journey was unbearably hot and cramped and the market itself didn't improve things, the smell of meat and fish was overpowering.

Well, we had to get ill some time.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on November 30, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Doing it for the kids

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Well, today was a relaxed day. In the morning, we tried our hand at bracelet weaving in the school's weaving room (weaving clothes is a skill that could earn some of the kids money later in life)...it's more tiring than it looks and takes forever! Well, for us novices, anyway. In the afternoon we settled down with the kids in the assembly hall to watch 'Slumdog Millionaire'. It was in English, without subtitles, but the kids sat riveted nonetheless. Although the triplets were more interested in examining each others' hair for lice (as Claire, our project leader, forgot to mention, most of the kids have lice, a fact which the Canadians appeared to be disgusted by and the Brits couldn't care less about!)

This is probably a great opportunity to talk more about the kids themselves. Although they appear perfectly happy on the outside, always smiling and playing and desperate for attention, their early childhoods have been anything but happy. As Claire told us the stories of how the children ended up at Moo Baan Dek, we realised how much they have had (and still have) to overcome.

Children at Moo Baan Dek range in age from 3 years old to 6th grade level, although many of the older kids stay on to help out, grateful for the opportunity MBD has given them. 18 year old Toto is one example. When we visited, he'd just been offered a place at university but was staying around to help out at the project over the summer. He tried to scare us volunteers with stories of ghosts haunting our house, so there was no love lost between us and him!

This is one of the seriously mischevious triplets, Mei, Tam and Muay (no, I never could tell them apart, especially since they shared clothes). They lost their home when their mother remarried: their step father didn't want to care for some other man's kids, so the triplets were sent to Moo Baan Dek. Apparently it is common in Thailand for single mothers to have to choose between their children and a new husband, and it is often the husbands who win that battle.

Jop became attached to Steve while we were visiting, and Steve treated him like a little brother. Jop has cataracts in both eyes and there's a good chance that he will some day (sooner, rather than later) go completely blind. While we were there, he was having treatment, but who knows if it will be successful.

This is Mei: she may look like a little angel but her friendship with the Trouble Triplets means she's become just as mischevious as they are. She was given away by her mother, who did not want her. It's incomprehensible to many of us but for the poorest families, an extra mouth to feed is just not welcome.

Other heartbreaking stories of the children at Moo Baan Dek include:
- one of the older boys came to the school after his father was murdered in front of him by his mother. When he first arrived, he refused to speak, but has gradually recovered from his childhood ordeal and made many friends. He joined in to play football against us volunteers.
-a little boy, infamous at Moo Baan Dek for having tortured one of the kittens that live at the school, certainly has reason to be volatile. He was abandoned in the jungle as a baby, forced to fend for himself until he was found by a monk. However, the monk could not cope with his behaviour and sent him away to Moo Baan Dek. We hope that one day he will be able to put his past behind him and become the boy he should have been.
-another musically gifted boy had the odds stacked against him from the very start: his mother attempted a DIY abortion which resulted in him being born disfigured and missing a leg. Nonetheless, he is one of the most positive and friendly people at Moo Baan Dek and entertains everyone with his musical performances.

Although these stories are heartbreaking, seeing the children now is truly inspiring: despite the odds, they're making the most of everything they have been given at Moo Baan Dek, and live every day to the full. We were warned that the children would be distrustful of adults as a result of their ordeals, but we found them welcoming, loving and positive. They will never stop inspiring me.

More pics of the kids:

permalink written by  lucy3119 on December 1, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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A very busy day off

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

On our day off from teaching (well, I say teaching, it's really more keep-the-kids-entertained-so-they-don't-resort-to-terrorising-innocent-animals) project leader Claire took us on yet another whirlwind tour of Kanchanaburi district. We began with a very speedy longtail boat ride (they use the propellors from old helicopters, apparently) up the River Kwai to visit a labyrinth of caves, each with its own shrine. Far from being cool below the ground, it was closer to a sauna in temperature, so this part of the day is all a bit of a haze to me now.

Second stop was the war memorial, commemorating those who died in Thailand during WW2 - many of them during the construction the Death Railway that connected Thailand and Burma. The POWS were mainly British, Australian and Dutch: it was odd and moving to see such familiar names all the way out here in Thailand.

The highlight of the day was a visit to a pretty amazing waterfall flowing down over a strange type of rock: we expected it to be smooth and slippery but it was actually rough like sandpaper, so that we could climb all the way to the top and sit under the water flow. It was a much needed chance to cool off and relax. For some reason, at this point we became tourist attractions ourselves, with a group of school kids asking to have their photos taken with us! (See below).

We also stopped off at a pretty awesome site (not sure where exactly) with a fantastic view of the Death Railway carved into the side of the mountains. We walked along the tracks a short way for some amazing photo opportunities.

Then the monsoon began. We'd planned to go into town to finally sample a Chang or four...so that's what we did anyway. We stopped to pick up a very, very drenched Nicole and Tess along the way, extremely grateful for the songthaew that was keeping us dry. We spent the night at Tony's Bar, a little live music venue run by, you guessed it, Tony. We listened to the good old rock classics (and, for some reason, 'Achy Breaky Heart') sung in Thai, only interrupted by a group of very drunk Frenchmen who went and chatted up the Canadians (or was it the other way around?)

When we finally got back to the house, we found the monsoon had knocked the power supply out, which is pretty entertaining when you're drunk.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on December 1, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Hot springs, Hellfire Pass and yet more waterfalls

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

We spent the morning at the Hindad Hot Springs, used mostly by locals for its health benefits. You have to spend a few minutes sitting in the cold River (while trying not to get swept away by the current) and then hop right into the hot (and when they say hot, they mean HOT!) springs. It probably took me about 10 minutes to lower myself into the hot springs the first time. But you get used to it. Sort of.
Towards the end, we met a friendly old woman who offered us coffee powder to rub all over our bodies...apparently it's great for cellulite! Not that I'm trying to find an excuse to post a bikini pic or anything, but we did look pretty funny covered in coffee.

We also visited the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, set up in memory of all the POWS who died during the construction of the Death Railway during WW2. Visitors to the museum should definitely go outside to the balcony, the view is INCREDIBLE! Yet again my camera couldn't capture that scene well enough. I guess I'll just have to go back there some day. The strangest part about visiting local attractions such as museums is that you have to take your shoes off to go inside...there's something so liberating about wandering around museums in bare feet!

Later, some of us ended up back at the Waterfall we visited yesterday (the one with the odd rock), and we had a great time trying to climb as high as we could (well, I couldn't be bothered, so I took the photos). Claire (who gets funnier everyday) took us to some stalls selling snacks: fruit and veg is sliced, fried and then coated in salt or sugar...but be careful or you might end up with salted Banana and sugared taro (a type of potato)...Thai food always seems to involve making sweet things taste saltier, and salty things taste sweeter!

permalink written by  lucy3119 on December 1, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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