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Battye Family’s Travel Diary

Monday, 01 Jan 2007

Location: Thailand

Hello Everyone! We were wondering why we weren't getting any messages and just figured out how to access them on the site. They are all posted and we've replied to as many as possible...feel free to read them now that we've figured out how it works. And keep writing, we love to hear from friends and family. For the new friends we've met on our travels (and you know who you are) we're totally honored that you are here. In most cases, like Dale and Willie and Patrick and Astrid and Peter, we have more pictures than we posted and will happily send them along when we return home. Hopefully it will be a fun blast from the past to see them in the spring. Pull up a chair and a cup of tea because this journal entry contains lots of material covering our fantastic experiences as we headed out of Bangkok...

On Christmas Eve day we decided not to head to Kanchanaburi but to book passage on a rice barge instead. We left Bangkok early in the morning and headed north on the Chao Phraya River. The farther north we traveled, the more beautiful and rural the scenery became…small teak huts along the shoreline, banana trees everywhere, children waving from the banks of the river. We saw fisherman casting their nets from small boats that appeared to be carved by hand. Women washed their hair, leaning over and pouring pots of river water to rinse out the suds. It was our family and only three other passengers-Dale, a 46 year old man from London, and a quietly pleasant German couple named Gerhardt and Marion. The boat was beautifully rustic-an old barge made entirely of teak wood. John dubbed it “The Wise Eyed Boat” in honor of the two eyes painted on the bow and immediately it felt like home. Read one of our favorite children’s stories, Ping, and you will know exactly what this barge looked like.

Our first stop was at the village of the Mon people. Jennifer and Emily squealed with excitement as they bought two tiny turtles that they were to set free in the river near the temple. Buddhists believe that by setting a living thing free you bring great good fortune to yourself. We bought a strand of woven flowers that Jennifer carried back to the barge and presented to the Captain. He helped her use them to decorate the boat’s spirit house. Every house and business we have visited in Thailand has such a house which helps keep the spirits happy. Each day, the business and home owners bring offerings of food and water and flowers for the spirits and place them inside the house. Back in the narrow alleys of the village, Emily walked directly into the path of an oncoming bicycle. Willie, our guide, responded to her bloody nose and banged up cheek with his first aid kit. Willie has a mantra for us, “Sabai, sabai” (Take it easy.) When Emily cries, it disrupts sabai, sabai and he resorts to all sorts of antics to get her to stop. Back on the barge, we sat on the open deck and played games with Dale who acted as if he would like nothing better than to play Jenga and chess with the kids. Below deck was our sleeping area, 12 bunks and a toilet and cold shower. It was perfect.

We stopped at a temple where open billed storks from Siberia and China spend the winter-thousands of them nested in the trees, flying off into the rice fields to dine on sweet, fat snails. There were bikes on board the barge and we took them on land to explore small villages and farms. Jennifer rode behind Willie on his bike, clutching the bike frame for support. Emily rode in our kid-carrying backpack, hoisted high on John’s shoulders. At one of our rest stops, Timmy played ball with a local boy using strips of bamboo bent and shaped into a sphere. We biked on past fields and farmers’ homes, at one point having to stop to let a man leading three water buffalo pass by. One farm had two elephants grazing in the field behind the house. A loudspeaker blared from a mobile market truck that rolled past with packages of cucumbers and bok choy swinging from the sides and the driver announcing what was for sale. As dusk fell, we passed under a tree covered with giant fruit bats. Our water stop brought us to a little store where the owner sat on the ground out front putting together small toy bombs. Chris sat down and helped the man make some, chatting all the while. We think it makes for an interesting cultural experience to have our children playing with gunpowder.

Chris is absolutely fearless about jumping right into local life-talking with everyone and bargaining in the markets (his best strategy is to have only so much money with him…”Tao rai?” (How much?) “Jet sip” (70 Baht) He then empties his pockets and shows he only has “Haa sip” (50 Baht.) It works out just about every time for him. Bargaining is the way of life here in the markets and I, admittedly, am the absolute worst at it. When the salesperson tells me the price of the shirt I am holding is the equivalent of $1.50, I meekly ask to pay just a dollar. When the salesperson shakes her head no, I just hand over the full amount and consider it a bargain at any price. Since the Thai people value cleverness in general and shrewdness in bargaining, I’m better off letting Chris do my shopping for me.

Lek, the boatman, spent the evening decorating the barge for Christmas, stringing up silvery garland on every open surface. He told us he had a surprise and then, with a huge grin, produced a small Christmas tree strung with lights. Dusk fell on Christmas Eve as we enjoyed a simple meal of red curry and rice. I had offered to help the cook prepare dinner in the open galley kitchen and she trusted me with the task of cutting up small green eggplant to lace the curry. It provided me with the rare opportunity to know what, exactly, was in the food I was eating. I think I’d be better off telling everyone I am a vegetarian here because the meat just plain scares me. After dinner John brought out some sheet music and convinced our small group to do a Christmas show (sound familiar to anyone?) Willie dressed up as Santa (white washrag over his chin, pillow under his shirt and an enormous red blanket cinched up like a sack. He looked fantastic. John sang “Stille Nacht” and “Oh Tanenbaum” in German with Gerhardt and Marion (who were finally warming to us.) Originally from Barbados, Dale, who calls himself the only black man who can neither sing nor dance, performed an unusual falsetto version of “Away in a Manger” with Timmy and Jennifer, who laughed uncontrollably through the whole thing. Their encore number was the Springsteen version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and, despite the…er…dancing, it brought down the house. Willie joined Chris and I for a rousing and decidedly off-key version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” The whole thing was ridiculous and wonderful and full of Christmas spirit. All the while we sat on the deck with the stars winking above and the coconut trees rusting along the shoreline. The only thing that would have made it perfect is if all of you were there with us. After the songs, and the reward of seeing Gerhardt and Marion actually smiling, John brought everyone together in a circle and each of us took a turn saying what we were grateful for. All of us were there together, passengers and crew, and Willie translated from Thai to English and back again so we could all understand. The evening proved it takes very little time to move from being in a group of strangers to being among friends.

On Christmas morning Santa found us on the rice barge! Santa knew small things would be best both because we can’t carry much and because we are visiting villages where children make do with very little. The kids poured over each little treasure “Ohhh! Silly putty!” They had been having great fun using their Baht to buy little gifts for each other and for the other passengers and crew. They bought their own gift wrap, borrowed a great wad of tape from Lek, and wrapped and labeled each thing themselves. Emily opened her gift from Jennifer-a comb that cost 5 Baht (seven cents.) She carried it everywhere that day insisting her hair was “so, so tangly!” It was the first Christmas I can remember that seemed to be more about giving than about getting. By 8 am it was all cleaned up and we were heading off into the village on our bikes. Emily kept John cool by dribbling blue popsicle down his back as he pedaled and attempted to maintain balance with her bouncing around on his back. We stopped at a small workshop where senior citizens made cereal bars to sell in the market. A beautiful old woman taught Jennifer how to remove the skin from peanuts using a block of wood and a shallow bamboo basket. Emily, who was doted on ceaselessly by the crew, sat in Leks lap eating fistfuls of rice cereal.

Emily and Lek were inseparable. He found out she liked watermelon and sticky rice and cucumbers and scurried off to buy food for her in the markets, picking every single black seed out of the melon before presenting it to her. More than once I found her in the galley kitchen, seated on the counter while Lek and the cook fed her favorite foods, their laughter ringing out when she said, “Korp kuhn ka” (thank you) and gave them a little wai or bow. Even with all the different flavors, her stomach stayed in good shape until the egg incident.

Lek bought a Thai dessert in the market for all of us to try. It was made with hard boiled egg yolks mashed up with cane syrup and some sort of powder and then shaped into balls. He gave the bowl to Emily to pass around. The next day, at a squat toilet in one of the villages, I ran through what she’d eaten in order to understand how she’d gotten her GI system in the state it was in. I remembered the eggs. “I ate them all, Mommy. They were so yummy!” Know this…toilet paper is a luxury that we totally take for granted. I’ve learned it’s not necessary, as are many of the things we have at home. I heard of a Thai monk who said that the reason people like to travel is that everywhere they go, nothing belongs to them. When we are at home, surrounded by our possessions, we are weighted down. This wisdom is helping me to not miss toilet paper.

In a fit of insanity, Willie decided we should visit the village where they specialize in making knives. Inside a small workshop, an old man was seated by a hot bamboo fire molding knife blades with a hammer and anvil. The boys’ eyes grew round as saucers as we entered the small factory shop. The place was wall to wall with knives and swords of every shape and size. Chris picked up a curved blade, “Look Mom! A rapier!” Lek showed us how the blade is used not for scalping infidels but for harvesting rice in the fields. Also on display were the weapons used when soldiers went into battle on their war elephants. Also that day we saw how people, in small shacks near the markets, hull coconuts and shred the meat to make coconut milk. We came upon a cockfight, much to Willie’s obvious discomfort, and watched during a break in the action as the owners delicately sponged the roosters’ wounds with water as the birds trembled in their arms. Our final stop was the local primary school and as we pedaled into the yard the children yelled, “Farang! Farang!” (Foreigner! Foreigner!) We watched the kids line up for lunch and wash their own dishes after they ate. Jennifer made friends with one of the braver girls and trotted off happily after her. Chris, Tim, and Dale started a great game involving lots of yelling and running and cowboy shoot ‘em up antics. Within minutes a giant pack of kids was chasing them around the schoolyard with great whoops of laughter.

Willie’s final surprise of the day was a visit to an elephant kraal. He taught us the art of feeding an elephant- hold your hand up high, wait for the elephant to raise its trunk and then toss the food into his (very large) mouth. It took me three tries to do it without fearing my whole arm would disappear along with the food. The kids had a great time feeding the mothers and stroking the bristly backs of the babies. Afterward we watched the mahouts (elephant trainers) ride to the river and wash their elephants next to our barge.

Once we docked in Ayuthaya, it was time to say our goodbyes. We’d spent only 3 days together but we felt like we’d been friends forever. We surprised Dale and showed up to see him off at the railway station…the kids have come to adore him and wanted desperately to accompany him on his trip trekking and rafting in the jungle. The jungle, Willie assured us, is no place for three year olds. John found us a perfect little guesthouse in Ayuthaya’s backpacker ghetto and we prepared to settle in for a few days.

Ayutthaya was the ancient capital of Siam. The city once held huge palaces, elaborate temples, and rows and rows of gold and jadeite buddhas. It was an international city, bustling with trade in spices and teak and silk. The city came under attack in 1760 (an unsuccessful attempt) and again in 1767. After over a year of battle, the Burmese fought their way through and poured into Ayutthaya on their war elephants. Within the year they had melted all the gold they could find, ruined the temples, and set the city ablaze. We visited the ruins in the evening when they are lit up and you can see the hint of the spectacular city that once was. At the city’s night market we sampled shrimp with green chilis and chicken satay and pad thai that was cooked in a giant wok as we watched and which is eaten with banana flowers. For dessert we tried some fantastic roasted corn mixed with coconut milk and sugar. Despite a lack of refrigeration and questionable sanitation, the markets are providing our most delicious and exotic meals. Chris met a group of Thai college students and spent a long afternoon talking with them in a storefront using a mixture of English and words from his Thai phrase book. As a footnote, Hello Kitty has a huge following here…I even see many young women dressed like the kitty with lots of polka dots and little bows. The girls are suitably impressed.

We spent a fair amount of time in Ayutthaya attempting to book a room in the mountain village of Sangkhlaburi. It was New Years time and many Thai people were traveling. The village lay on the border with Myanmar and was a bit off the tourist track…perfect! After Ayutthaya with its Dairy Queen, Dunkin Donuts, and pizza restaurant, we wanted to see more of rural Thailand (I’ll admit it, we visited two of those three places…and it tasted great!) We arranged a ride with German backpackers we met at our guesthouse and traveled to Kanchanaburi for 2 hours in a sawngthaew (a pickup truck with bench seats mounted lengthwise in the bed and covered with a metal roof.) Chris and Tim furthered cultural exchange between the American and German people by teaching our new friends Astrid and Patrick how to let someone know the zipper on their pants is undone. According to Patrick, in Germany you would say, “Something smells fishy!” He now knows that 10-13 year olds in the U.S. would quip, “Don’t let the horse out of the barn!” or “Superman is flying low” or “XYZ-Examine your zipper!” Emily and I sat up front with the driver, who entertained us by singing partial verses of John Denver songs. I’ll never again be able to hear “Take me home, country roads” without thinking of him.

Once in Kanchanaburi, we lugged our baggage to a shack at the side of the road and had lunch (all 6 of us) for $3.50. A four hour bus ride brought us through the mountains to Sangkhlaburi. The low point of the ride was a program they showed on the bus TV system. We were trapped. The only way to even come close is to liken it to the Donny and Marie Osmond Show except add more screaming, random screeches and lots of wailing by a cast of characters wearing kilts (!?) and suspenders. The high point was the ticket taker on the bus who got the driver to drop us off at the door of our hotel. At the pit stops, Emily showed me how worldly she now is about bathrooms, “Mom, it’s a squatter!”

The hotel was not in the guidebooks and sat inches from the edge of the lake called Kheuan Khao Laem. It was family run and, perhaps because we were their only foreign guests, they’ve adopted us. As we entered the dining room after our arrival, all activity stopped and people turned to stare. We are conscious of the impression we make as farang and try not to provide entertainment. That fell apart when Chris decided to test his manhood with a Thai chili pepper. Our chicken with cashew dish was laced with them and John and I each ate a small piece, thinking it was a carmelized onion. The heat that followed was immense. It was easily the spiciest thing either of us had ever eaten. Chris and Tim, who pride themselves on being spice lovers, lit up. Chris put a three inch long pepper on his fork and with a hearty, “Here goes!” gulped it down. The gyrations and facial contortions that followed (along with wild grabs for water, rice…anything) provided just the sort of floor show the other patrons had been looking for. So much for blending in! Timmy wisely decided that particular Thai chili was pet mak (too spicy!)

As day broke the lake was shrouded in mist. The only sounds were the waves lapping on shore and the steady whap, whap of the two stroke engine that powered a nearby boat-best described as an outrigger canoe with a pagoda perched in the middle. This day we hired Soriya, who works at the hotel, to take us around to the temples and the town’s famous wooden bridge. At lunch time she said, “I save you money” and took us to the temple courtyard. The master monk had died two months earlier, to the great sadness of the Mon villagers. For 100 days the people of the village will prepare and serve meals to all who come. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of soup, rice, vegetables, and fried banana. It seemed a wonderful way to honor a man known for his generosity and kindness.

We arrived in Sangkhlaburi yesterday evening after a bus ride filled with locals- we felt fortunate to have the ticket taker look after us. It is so strange to be communicating with local people who don’t know a shred of English. At the same time it’s a good thing as it generates some of the best experiences. The ticket taker came to me after the bus stopped at Nam Tok and started saying some simple things- I had no idea what he was speaking about- then he pointed to my watch. Does he want to know the time? What is he trying to say? Again, some simple words- then he showed me five fingers. He pointed outside the bus. It was around five o’clock. What did he mean? I didn’t want to shake my head like I understood, because I didn’t. I felt frustrated. Then Susan from behind me said, ”He’s telling you we have five minutes if we want to use the toilets or get something.” Oh, it was that simple. My first thought was, how can I be so numb, to miss that message. I knew it wasn’t our stop… I made a promise to myself right then to learn the lesson from Susan. Let the message in, don’t fight to understand. Step back, “Sabai, sabai,” as they say in Thai. Take it easy.

This morning as we came to breakfast we were met by an old man whose big smile revealed a few missing front teeth. He was not tall or well dressed. He wore a simple cloth shirt and pants, an employee of the hotel? We recognized him from the night before. He came up to Emily and touched her hair, again showing a toothless grin. As he spoke some words, it was clear he had some kind of speech impediment that made him very hard to understand.

I said to myself, this is the time. I am going to communicate with him without language. I learned that his name was Mah. He learned our names, although he could not say them back. I gathered that he was the caretaker of this place. As we finished breakfast he gesticulated insistently that he wanted us to come with him and take our picture. I thought he had a picturesque spot, and he did, it was in front of the hotel. But then he beckoned us to follow him up the road. We had no idea where we were going. But we were excited by not knowing. The air was fresh and invigorating at that time in the morning, the sparkling sun warmed our bodies. The simple road was empty of vehicles.

As we walked up the hill there was constant communication between us, almost all through gesture, an appreciation of a beautiful roadside flower, noticing a spirit house. We walked only a block and he opened a gate that led into a courtyard. This was cool and unexpected. We saw a boat under repair and a collection of various sized buildings, some were living quarters and another housed some kind of business. The buildings were open on the sides, as many Thai buildings are. We walked into the largest building and saw a craftsman sanding a teakwood kayak. There were kayaks in various stages of completion and levels of design, some with beautiful inlay. Mah was clearly proud and excited about the designs of birds and fish. As we walked around, Mah showed us the steps from beginning to end, all without one word of English. We saw the forms that each long thin strip of teak wood got molded to as they formed the shape of the kayak. We were impressed when we saw the individual steps and how much time would be involved in their making. We couldn’t imagine how much extra energy the inlay with different colors and pieces of wood would take. We found out from the craftsman that these kayaks were destined for Canada. I imagined myself at home, seeing hand crafted teakwood kayaks in a shop and wondering who on earth would take the time to construct a thing so beautiful and labor intensive.

Mah walked back to the hotel with us. We took some photos and went inside. I felt happy and grateful for our new friend. It turned out that we had “spoken” for an a hour and a half that morning and then again later when he joined us for some lunch in our hotel room. I marveled at what grew out of my willingness to meet someone and simply be there in the present with him…to look into his eyes, without language, and see who is there.

Emily was up all night crying and complaining about her ear. In the morning we told Joy, the manager of the hotel, that we would need to see a doctor. As an example of the incredible attention they washed us with throughout our stay, she drove us to the hospital herself and stayed to translate. In the waiting area were two nurses in starched hats and crisp white uniforms. We waited less than 5 minutes and the doctor appeared. She was gentle and warm and examined Emily right there in the waiting area. All the while the nurses looked on and smiled. She prescribed four medications-pain meds, ear drops, antibiotics, and cough syrup. The bill for the whole visit and the pharmacy, which was conveniently on site, was 140 Baht (about 4 dollars.) I told Joy what it would cost for the same thing in the U.S. and she looked at me like I must surely be making it up-surely noone would pay so much to wait and wait in an emergency room.

The highlight of our stay in Sangkhlaburi was our visit one evening to the orphanage they call Baan Unrak. We arrived at 6:00 p.m. after a full day of activity-trekking and swimming in a waterfall, exploring the Myanmar border at Three Pagodas Pass, and seeing the Mon temple market. Perched high on a hillside, we had to cross a long bamboo bridge that despite its100 meter length and simple bamboo and thatch construction, was surprisingly strong and sturdy. We approached the building looking for Dee Dee, the founder and director. She invited us to a simple and tasty vegetarian meal that was followed by a game of keepy uppy with the Battye boys and a group of kids from the orphanage. The strongest player wore a t-shirt that read, “I love crossing guards.” It was great to experience the place as the kids did. We were invited to join them for evening meditation hour as long as we agreed to strict adherence to their rule of being quiet and unobtrusive. Emily is neither of those things, so she and Susan entertained kids downstairs. We checked it out with the older kids several times, “Are you sure you can be still and silent for an hour???” The meditation space was a large, open-air room with simple woven mats scattered about. We started with a repetitive song accompanied, oddly enough, by an electric guitar. There were 30-40 people aged 5-25 seated in the room facing the altar and moving easily with the music. When I closed my eyes I could imagine myself in an African village listening to the community sing together. Dee Dee gently guided children who were misbehaving or being too loud simply by putting her hands on their shoulders. I liked this, it was so respectful, and I tried it with varying success with each of my own kids. During the meditation I found it difficult to still my mind for very long. In Thailand they call it the monkey mind…it wanders off and must be brought back to the breath…in and out. Dee Dee sat motionless in front of me the whole time. There were songs that taught morality and neo-humanism, the belief system they follow. There was a Christian poem on display and a Hindu painting on the walls…the orphanage was non-denominational. A performance of yoga by the orphan kids followed. They twisted their bodies into unimaginable shapes and formed a ten person pyramid. Spontaneous applause erupted several times. When the performance ended and the kids went to bed, Dee Dee stayed with us to answer our questions and tell us about the orphanage while our kids practiced yoga moves in the background. Her story was an incredible one and we left knowing that Baan Unrak would be a fantastic place to volunteer. Interested? Let us know, we have all the contact info and Sangkhlaburi would be a fantastic place to spend some time making a difference.