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Battye Family’s Travel Diary

Monday, 29 Jan 2007

Location: Rasi Salai, Thailand

Map We spent seven hours by van traveling from Bangkok to the rural town near Si Saket where we will live with a Thai family and teach English for one month. The driver, reportedly a police officer, drove as if there were no traffic laws. As is understandable, he was anxious to reach the destination and dealt with slow moving vehicles in his path by driving up within centimeters of their bumper and then whipping around them to pass. This often involved moments of driving headlong into cattle trucks and motorcycles that were coming at us from the other direction. We’ve found out that driving in Thailand is an exciting endeavor.

We are in the small town of Rasi Salai. It is in the northeastern part of Thailand close to the borders of both Cambodia and Laos. The town, in fact, has many Laotian people, including our hosts, Pom and Nam. Nam teaches English at the high school where we volunteer and Pom teaches Art in a larger town 40 kilometers away. They have two children, Bai, who is 6, and Riu, who is only one. Nam’s mother, who we call Yai (grandmother,) also lives in the home.
Coming Home
By John

There is only one way to truly begin talking about our homestay and that is to talk about Nam. She is the Thai English teacher and mother of two who volunteered to look after all six of us for one month. In Thai her name means “water”. Her kindness, her endlessly giving nature, and her way of looking at the world are the water that we swim in every day. Nam is infinitely patient, cheerful, and understanding. When we first arrived, we talked about our upcoming month together. She told us that what she wanted most of all was for us to be happy here. She said that she was committed to us as much as she is to her own family, and as far as we are concerned, she has shown it every day. In so many ways, she insists on making us comfortable and always says the same thing, “No problem. It is my pleasure.”

From Nam I have learned what it means to lead a simple and fulfilled life. Her family does not have a lot in terms of creature comforts and not a lot of income, yet she focuses on her gratitude for what she does have. It’s so easy for our families to appreciate doing things together because there are not a million distractions (once you get away from them, they seem so meaningless.) We like playing games like Old Maid and Memory with a deck of cards. We have had groups of 10 or more neighbors laughing and playing together for hours… from Emily’s age on up. People just stop by each night and always feel welcome at Nam’s home. We sing songs and translate them to each other’s language… songs like “Five Little Monkeys.”

Nam is forever bringing new kinds of food and fruit for us to try. Thailand is a paradise for variety (just don’t look for pizza or cheese.) As a shopper at Shaw’s Supermarkets I could think there are only about 10 fruits in the whole world. In Thailand we have discovered at least another twelve-a few of them looking like something you’d never want to put into your mouth…but so delicious. On walks with Nam through the village, she points out plant after plant that we come across-weeds growing at the side of the road. All are used-either as a food, spice or medicinal herb. Often she just reaches up into a tree and says, “Here, try this.”

It is through Nam (and her friends) that we are discovering the magic of day-to-day life in this friendly culture. The people of this village and the relationships we’ve formed are by far the most important things we will take with us.
In Thailand it is common for children to call other women who are close family friends, “mother”. Jennifer and Emily treat Nam as mother #2, which speaks to how lucky we were to end up with her as our hostess…a situation that truly allows us to feel at home here.

Nam’s home shares the street with storefronts, other small homes, and market stalls. Nam has lived here all her life. Her sisters and grandmother live close by and she sees them everyday. The front room in her home is half garage and half living room. The room where we sleep has a corrugated metal roof, cement walls, and shiny tile on the floor. The eaves are open to the air, as are windows and doors in the house. The effect is open and tropical. This brings an ever-changing assortment of visitors to the rooms-spiders, mosquitos, small pale lizards, cockroaches, and an endless train of ants. They form a long line that stretches from the corner of the room to the roof. We are learning to do as the Thai people do, to co-exist with the other creatures that call this house home. A large bed is on the floor with mosquito net draped over it. The net has a two-fold benefit: it keeps us from the biting insects and shields our bed from the lizard droppings that fall during the night. From the bed, we hear the sounds of nature-dogs barking, cats fighting, and roosters crowing (travel tip: bring earplugs as roosters do not crow only once and they start long before daybreak.) Despite the noise and because of our commitment to roll with whatever happens, we fall into bed exhausted but excited and happy, not to rise until dawn.
Our laundry is picked up each day and returned the next. Every item is pressed and for this service for the entire month we will pay 300 Baht per person (or less than $10.) This service, which at first seemed a luxury, has become a necessity as we often spend ten hours a day at school.
On our first day at Sompoi School, we arrive in time for the daily morning assembly. The students are lined up 600 strong, in 8 very long rows. After watching them do their pledge and sing the national anthem, we realize we are the subject of this meeting and we are asked to make a short speech to introduce ourselves. Several times the students clap for us… John introduced me as his beautiful wife in Thai. There were lots of claps. In fact any time we try to speak Thai it usually elicits warm smiles and laughter.
Once in the classroom, Jennifer took to teaching right away and begs to be allowed to teach every class, even helping other teachers at the school. She is confident as she stands alone in front of a class of 40 high school students and teaches them, in English, how to tell time (a skill I wasn’t sure she had completely mastered.)
The setting is very rural. When I look out the windows of the classroom, I see the river winding through the countryside with water buffalo grazing alongside and farmers tending the onion fields. It is a cold day for Thailand, perhaps 68 degrees, and the students have on ski caps and big padded coats. The classroom is open to the air and the wind bangs the shutters as we teach. When we first enter in the morning, we shoo the birds out of the windows and greet the lizards that like to eat the marker ink during the night.
Most of the students at the school come from farming families from the village. Many houses have dirt floors and no walls. The families work very hard to provide their children with uniforms and shoes for school and are proud when they do well and create opportunities for themselves. Most of the children say they want to be doctors, nurses, and teachers when they grow up. The teachers are some of the highest paid people in the village, with average salaries of 12,000-15,000 Baht per month (roughly $400-500.)
We take all of the kids with us each day-the older kids to teach and Emily to play around us and amuse herself. We travel home in a truck that Nam borrowed to cart us around (she normally rides her motorbike to school.) The kids ride in the back of the pickup, which they love. Transportation has been such an adventure in Thailand. I don’t know if I will ever be satisfied to ride around in a Honda minivan again! We feel so very fortunate to have the opportunity to be guests in this Thai village…to be a part of the lives of these inspiring students and to be welcomed into Nam’s house and feel at home.
Living in a Thai Home
By Chris Battye

We are in a small town called Rasisalei, which is near the city of Sisaket Province in Northeastern Thailand. The high school we are teaching at is called Sompoi School. The school has 600 students and 3 English teachers (plus the 6 people in our family.) Here is a typical teaching day for us:

•Wake up at 7:00 and have a breakfast of fried chicken, eggs, or rice. Shower.
•Get into the pickup truck (we ride in the back) and drive the daughter of our host family to school. Continue on 20 minutes to Sompoi School.
•Attend the morning line-up on the field and listen to announcements (in Thai) with the all the students. Sing the Thai National Anthem.
•Teach 1 or 2 periods (an hour each) before lunch. Do homework or write between classes.
•Take 30 minutes to eat lunch outdoors in the school cafeteria. Lunch is noodle soup or rice and spicy curry and fruits like sweet mango and papaya.
•Teach 1 or 2 periods until 3:30 when school is over and then hang around school until between 4:30 and 6:00 while helping students prepare for competitions or playing takraw, volleyball or table tennis.
•Drive twenty minutes home in the back of the truck.
•Eat dinner.
•Watch Thai television, play card games, do homework
•Shower and bed at 9:00.

The dinners in our Thai home are traditional Thai food. We eat fried rice, stir-fried meat and vegetables, jelly noodles, Pad Thai, rice soup, sticky rice, fried chicken, fried banana, eggs, and lots of white rice. Thai food is very spicy and you constantly have to ask if a food is “mai pet” (not spicy.) If you are told, “pet” or “pet mak” you are definitely cautioned. However, if they say “pet nit noi” (a little spicy) then it will be okay to eat. Often times “pet nit noi” dishes will still be spicy (by falang standards). The meat is mainly chicken and pork. We never even see beef.
It is extremely impolite to show that you don’t like any food, wherever you are eating. It is also impolite to show dislike of food while observing it in a market. When eating always say the food tastes good (“arroy”) and if you really think its good, say “arroy mak” which means “very delicious”.

The Thai table looks like this; no one has a bowl or plate, everyone has a spoon and chopsticks. The food is on plates all around the table, and if the table is large, the food will be placed in two bowls at each end of the table. People will eat off the plates in the middle of the table. The plates of food should not move from their original places because picking up a plate and bringing it closer to you is the equivalent of saying, “this is all mine”.

In Thailand, respect is very important; people give respect to the king, to the monks, to the Buddha, to the older people, and to each other. The respect for the king is interesting if you consider that Americans elect their leader, yet so many people dislike him, and the King of Thailand is born to the job, but he is loved and respected everywhere. The King of Thailand is the longest serving monarch in the world. He celebrated 60 years this year. Respect for monks is very important to Thai people, every morning monks come around with bowls and people fill them with all sorts of food. This is not considered begging, it is a privilege to feed the monks. Respect for the Buddha is not so unusual because all over the world, people give lots of respect to various deities.

Respect for the older person is an important aspect of Thai culture; to help an older person is a great honor, and the elderly are very well cared for by their family and others. With children, since almost everyone is older than them, they are expected to be the most helpful and respectful. They do any chore assigned to them without complaint or hesitation. The question they ask in their mind is not “Do I want to do this?”
It is “Can I do this?” and if so, then "I will do it.” When referring to an older person they always use P (pronounced pea) before the names (for example, I would be Pea Chris to a Thai younger than me). (nothing to do with the vegetable)

I think the most interesting thing about Thai culture is their respect for one another. In the streets, a friendly “Hello, how are you doing today?” is common among strangers. The Thais also help each other out; in the market, if the bill you give is too large, another storeowner will give smaller bills. If someone is hurt, dozens will rush to their aid. Nam is the youngest of three sisters. One of her sisters, runs her farm, while the other cooks meals for us and watches the baby. I believe that Americans could learn a lot from the helpful and respectful Thai society.