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Battye Family’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 10 Feb 2007

Location: Rasi Salai, Thailand

MapSOMPOI-NOT YOUR AVERAGE HIGH SCHOOL

As we drive into the school in the morning, students turn and wai to us (the small bow with hands held in the lotus position) and call out, “Good morning, teacher!” Welcome to high school in Thailand, where we can lead the whole class in singing, “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and encounter not one single eye roll or snicker of distain. The children all wear uniforms, a different one for each day of the week. On this day it is starched white sailor blouses for the girls with blue pleated skirts. Everyone is well-scrubbed, fresh-faced, and smiling. My fears about being eaten alive by adolescents float right out the window.

Perhaps the best English student at Sompoi High School is called Wah Wah. He is a self-proclaimed “lady boy,” one of many at the school. We’ve learned that the term means just what it implies, boys who were born male but have the heart and disposition of a female. The ladyboys at Sompoi wear barrettes in their hair and make-up and simply are who they are, without fear of being targeted by others with less accepting attitudes. All of this allows Wah Wah to be respected for his humor, his intelligence, and his undeniable sense of style. His outgoing and fun-loving nature has brought so much fun to our time here. In one of his first conversations with me, Wah Wah bent in close, as if sharing a secret. “Miss Sue-san?” “Yes, Wah Wah?” “Do you like to wear the perfume?” I wasn’t sure how to answer…”Well, yes, sometimes…” I could tell Wah Wah was looking for a little more enthusiasm from me. “Oh, because Miss Dom, the last teacher, she didn’t like the perfume. It made her do this.” He mimed a large, but ever so graceful, sneeze. I wasn’t sure how to break it to Wah Wah that the type of person who volunteers to teach in rural Thailand and perhaps eat cockroaches and crickets is not usually the same type of person who spends a lot of time at the Macy’s perfume counter. Wah Wah went on, waxing poetic about Nina Ricci and Tommy Girl and all his favorite scents. Meeting him provided the impetus for great conversation within our family on the value of being a person who can gracefully and enthusiastically accept, and embrace, differences in others. Perhaps I only know a little about tolerance in Thailand, but something about the whole interaction left me feeling that this country had it right, letting young people be who they are without judgement.

Wah Wah has decided that we all need Thai nicknames. Traditionally in a family, the parents give the child a name and a nickname. The child can change his or her name later if they don’t like it, but the nickname is theirs forever. It is a special, and very personal, gift. Wah Wah spent a couple of days pondering which were the most suitable names for us. Ultimately he decided that John is “Tong” which means gold and Chris is “Thong nam,” or source of water (not to be confused with “hawng nam” which means bathroom.) Timmy is “Aek” or number one, Jennifer is “Fa” or sky blue, Emily is “Phi” and although we’re not sure what that means, we’re sure it must be something nice. I am “Pi” which is a lacquered stick that women use to hold their hair in place. At first I was a little disappointed to be named after a hair accessory. After all, couldn’t I be “lotus flower” or “dappled sunshine” or something? Once Wah Wah explained that “Pin” is the name for a fine lady, I felt a little better about the whole thing.

Jennifer has been just such an inspiring teacher. At the start of each class, she stands in front of the students-14, 15, and 16 year olds. They stand and face her and say, in unison, “Good morning, teacher.” She replies, “Good morning students. How are you today?” They say, “Fine, thank you, and you?” She replies, “I’m FAN-TAS-TIC!” She is teaching them the difference between being fine and being very good and being fantastic. We all are on a mission to move them from the response they’ve memorized to answering the question and having a conversation.

AFTER SCHOOL…THAI-STYLE

After school, John and the boys practice football (soccer) with the male teachers in preparation for the big Teacher’s Day game against a neighboring school. Emily and I sit in the grass eating mango and sampling “elephant tea.” This Thai dessert is made of tapioca, coconut milk, and, oddly enough, black tea jello. Jennifer practices soccer with the daughter of Pi Piggy, one of the kids’ favorite teachers. She has been so welcoming to us and so helpful (she teaches English in the school) and it is her husband who teaches the boys to play Takraw after school. Her daughter is called Pure and she is eight. She and Jennifer look like they could kick the soccer ball back and forth to each other all night but are forced to stop when we need to leave to attend our first Thai birthday party.

The party is for one of the teachers, Alan, and is held at the school in an open pavilion on the grounds. Rush mats cover the floor and people take off their shoes and sit on the mats, circling around small charcoal cookers. The fuel burns underneath and on top is a lid shaped like the tool you would use to juice an orange. The space at the edges is for cooking vegetables in broth while squid and pork grill at the center. Timmy is our chef, turning the meat with his chopsticks until it is just right. Also laid out are platters of fruit and Som Tam or spicy papaya salad (REALLY spicy!) The music starts up and people alternate between singing (karaoke!) and dancing. The lovely and super-friendly Pi Toy teaches us to dance, Thai-style, and we all venture on stage to massacre some songs in English-“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen ( a horrible choice,) “Supertrooper” which allows Jennifer to shine, and “Mama Mia.” The fact that John is the only man present who isn’t drinking whiskey is noted, and admired, by the female teachers. They notice how he makes his family more important than anything and never fail to smile and laugh when they see him being silly with the girls. It begins to be clear that we are teaching more than English, we are exchanging cultures and perhaps showing a different version of “family.”

We’ve come during the month when all of Thailand celebrates Teacher’s Day and, as teachers of English, we are invited to be a part of the festivities. Early in the morning the whole town turns out in the village center to give food to the monks. It is they who were, and still are, the most honored of Thailand’s teachers. As the only foreigners, we are asked to speak to the crowd. This has happened often enough that we now know the drill-just when you least expect it (when you are focused on being relaxed and friendly amidst all the people staring and pointing at you,) someone will thrust a microphone in your face and ask you to comment, “How do you like Thailand?/this town?/this soccer match?/the local specialty? After the ceremony with the monks and the speech, we gather at the school with hundreds of teachers from all over the district. There are speeches (not by us, thank goodness,) songs, prayers, and awards. Afterwards, everyone hops on their motorbikes and head to the sports fields. The teachers at our school have been practicing for weeks in preparation for the soccer match and now ask me to join the team, despite my insistence that I may not really prove much of an asset. The day is in the 90’s (I’m told that Bangkok, Thailand is the second hottest place on earth.) I am determined to make a good name for American women in terms of sport, despite my rusty skills, and have Timmy give me a 30 second refresher on rules and strategy. After that, I run my heart out and managed to finish the game without any blatant blunders. My hamstrings, alarmed at this sudden call to action, refuse to work properly for three days afterwards. In the afternoon, we head across town so John can help the men’s team on the field. Each school has a tent set up next to the field with drinks and chairs or mats and a sound system. Lest you be envisioning a boom box, let me tell you that the Thai people seem to like their music loud. Each tent holds the type of sound system I would expect to see at a Rolling Stones concert-speakers the size of refrigerators are stacked on top of one another. The music blasts and people are dancing and having a great time. Each tent has different music playing and as there are many of them situated close together, the effect gives me a great opportunity to teach the kids the definition of the word “cacophony.” At the men’s soccer match, John is thrilled to connect with the ball and help his teammates, especially given the skill of the Thai players.


The following weekend we are given the opportunity to attend the Scout Weekend campfire at school. Scouting is huge in this part of Thailand-all of the children participate and this was to be their big weekend. Tents made of bamboo poles, mats, tarps, and tree branches cover the edges of the school soccer field. In the center the students are in a circle, all 600 of them, singing and dancing and taking turns doing skits for each other. (The subject of one of the skits turns out to be John!) One small group finishes their skit by grabbing people from the audience and forming a congo line that dances past all the other students. We are asked to dance and despite Chris and Tim’s silent pleas for mercy, we all join the line. I am near the end of the congo train, the perfect vantage point to watch the girls and ladyboys pushing each other out of the way so they can get closer to Chris and Tim. Wanna be a rock star? Come to rural Thailand!

FEELING AT HOME

I start each day by picking ants out of my underwear. They are everywhere in Thailand and have claimed Nam’s house as their own, having been built, as it was, on a shelf of sand. I pick them off my toothbrush and, now that they’ve discovered the drawer where I keep my clothes, I carefully check each garment before putting it on my body. At this point in our travels, this is not because I don’t like bugs. It is because they hide in the seams and as they are red ants, they are inclined to bite. Generally, we all happily co-exist with the ants, letting them have the run of the place and trying to keep ourselves out of their way. Emily showed me how well she is adopting this philosophy when she found dead ants mixed in with her rice (they crawl into the rice cooker.) She held up her spoon and said, “Mama? Is it O.K. to just eat these dead ants?” I showed her that I was eating mine. She nodded and ate them right up.

Last night, a neighbor brought us a special treat…freshly sautéed crickets! We all tried them (Timmy and I chanted, “This is just a potato chip! This is just a potato chip!” until we’d worked up the courage to pop one in our mouths.) They were salty and crunchy and pretty darn tasty. It was Emily and Jennifer, however, who loved them the most. Emily must have eaten 60 of them before we finally said words we’d never had cause to use before, “Leave some crickets for other people to eat, Emily!”

The very next day we found Pom crouched over a silver bowl in the kitchen. He slowly lifted his hands from the top to reveal three inch grasshoppers, lively ones, scuttling around inside. He showed us how to prepare them-pull off the wings, hold them in a bowl of water, and then sauté in hot oil on the stove with some seasoning (McCormick’s Flying Insect Blend, I think.) They were served up as part of dinner and we all got the chance to try them. I only ate the heads (that’s the best part.)

We like to visit Nam’s grandmother (Yai) at her home a few streets away. On the way, Bai, Nam’s six year old daughter, shows us how to find cocoons on the banana leaves and then pops one, raw, into her mouth. Yai is close to 90 and lives on a banana farm where she also cultivates bean sprouts in large vats under a covered shed. She is spry and beautiful, smiling widely when she sees us and giggling like a schoolgirl when Jennifer and Emily run up and wrap her in hugs. Anytime we visit, she gives us something-sticky rice mixed with coconut, wrapped inside a tube of bamboo and charred in the fire or red heirloom bananas from her farm. In Thailand, the youngest daughter inherits the parents’ home and cares for them as they age. Particularly in rural areas, older people are taken care of at home and it is an honor to serve an elder in this manner. Nursing homes, as such, do exist, but only in the larger cities and towns. The older people we see are at home, helping on the farms in whatever way they can-preparing foods for sale in the market, feeding the chickens, and rocking babies in swings made of wood and cloth.

I am continually amazed with our children’s willingness to be adventurous, not only with eating, but in so many aspects of everyday life here. It is that, along with John’s amazing level of outgoingness, that is making our trip a much richer experience than I had even imagined. John gathers groups of kids in the neighborhood for games of soccer (the term neighborhood seems so ridiculous here…as if there are mailboxes and picket fences. It’s wonderfully different from that, with chicken scratching in the dirt under the houses, skinned ducks hanging in the shopfronts, and farmers passing by, their bicycles loaded down with bags of vegetables to sell in the market.) John keeps pushing for unique experiences (let’s ride a water buffalo!) and speaks better Thai than all of us put together.

Tonight, as we were going to bed, I overheard Jennifer say to John, “You know what, Dad? We have way too much stuff at home. The kids here have fun with rocks and sticks. I think we should get rid of alot of our toys and just keep the really special stuff. We could give it to a charity or something.” This, too, is why we traveled halfway around the world…
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OUR FIRST OVERSEAS ROAD RACE
By John

What are the chances of living in a small town in Thailand, having a 10K race held in the town, and being free on the day that they have it? We heard about the race, the Rasi Salai Mini Marathon, just two days beforehand. I’m well-versed in how road races operate in America and I was curious and excited about this one. How is it the same? What would be different? A road race…Thai style. Would there even be water? Would I be the only one to show up for the race? Oy, a lovely and friendly 25 year old cousin of Nam’s, told us about the race and guessed that only 50-100 people would run. After all, Rasisali, is a small place. After three weeks I have yet to see a runner. When I run, I draw lots of attention to myself, I think, for two reasons: I am a “Friendly Family man From Faraway” (in other words a farang or foreigner) and simply because I am running. The other day someone called out, “YOU… strong one.” This is a farming town and when people finish a long day’s work, hunched over picking onions in the hot sun, the last thing they would do is go running.
There were three simultaneous events- a 10K, an 8K open only to school age kids and a 3k walk. The events turned out to be more popular than Oy had thought. There were about five hundred runners, most for the 8K. The race registration process consisted of a simple list of names. No registration fee, no t-shirts…blissfully simple. On race morning there was only one pen to sign all the runners in. I don’t know what would have happened if the pen had malfunctioned! In America people would have been going ballistic but here we all just waited and it all worked out fine. We received an official stamp on our hand and were entered.
The starting ceremony took place at the grandstand of the local high school track and soccer field at a little past 6:00 am. It was still dark except for the lighting in the stands. I was impressed that there were more than a dozen town dignitaries seated in the VIP section halfway up the stands. There were a few speeches, the devotions to the extremely popular king, and a song. It was all different than home but it wasn’t until one of the dignitaries rose to his feet and hit a large gong three times to signal we were ready to begin the race that it really hit me how far away we really are.
Timing is a very important part of racing in America. People want it tracked down to the millisecond. The start/finish line looked similar to many I have seen in the states- two pillars supporting a colorful crossbar but I was amused to note what looked to be the race director’s kitchen clock in the middle of the crossbar as the only timepiece I could see. Happily, timing is not that important in Thailand. What place you come in is what’s important.
Susan and Timmy ran together and Chris and I were partners, all doing the 10K (Jenny was doing the 3k with Oy.) Imagine Tom Cruise running through Portsmouth and you get the sense of what it was like for us as the only foreigners. I smiled a ton. I said “sawatdee krup” over and over. I waved to people in cars and truckloads of field workers.
I was thrilled when after the first half mile, a skinny little kid of 10 passed me running barefoot on the pavement with confident strides. I clapped and yelled, “Geng Mak!” (Excellent!) There were, in fact, dozens of kids who ran barefoot or in their socks. There were, in fact, plenty of water stops and also stops which featured mints or fruit. Oddly enough, at the halfway mark, coffee and cotton balls were being passed out. What the heck are you supposed to do with this? I took a whiff. Whew! It was smelling salts (ammonia.) As we ran, we watched the sun rise over the rice fields.
Seventy minutes later, we were greeted with just what I had a hankering for-a baggy of warm soy milk at the finish line! We were invited to please sit down with the other 10k runners. Hungry racers were dishing up bowls of rice and pork soup as a post-race breakfast. Acknowledgement of place is important in Thai races. When we crossed the finish line, those of us who placed in the top 20 in each division were given a little card to wear around our neck. At the ceremony following the race [pretty much after Susan and Timmy came in] we all were called up to the stands to receive a certificate. People approached and asked to have their picture taken with us. The feeling of community was strong. It proved to be yet another fantastic Thailand experience and one which stayed with us. In the week following the race, people would yell “Wing, wing!” as we walked through town. In English, this means, “Run, run!”
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EMILY-VEGETARIAN NO MORE!
By John

It’s true. After three and a half years of a self-selected no-meat diet, what did her in? One day we were simply ravenous at about 6:00 p.m. We were walking through the market in Rasi Salai, where a little food stand was selling thin sliced pork teriyaki on skewers. We bought 14 of them but no one ever suspected Emily would even try one. So far in Thailand, she had maintained her vegetarian tendencies. When we would order fried rice, the boys would hover over Emily’s plate waiting for the little pork bits she would surely cast aside. This time our budding Thai girl said, “Ao moo” (Want pork.) “Sure,” we said with a wink. She devoured a skewer so urgently and completely that we were astonished. Is that our little Emily? After she gulped another one down, we were pretty convinced.
The other thing they were grilling was chicken livers. I am the only person in our family who likes liver (“organ meat,” Susan calls it.) The crispy skewer I saw looked like a liver fantasy come true. I bought one. Heavenly. As I walked along carrying Emily, I thought… I wonder. I offered her a piece of grilled liver thinking that there is no way anyone could make such a complete turnaround so quickly.
Two seconds later, it was gone.
“More?” was all Emily could say.

LANGUAGE MISHAPS
By John

Wah Wah and I were having a very serious conversation about his future. He was graduating in a couple of months and going to the university. His ultimate goal was to be a host/hostess on Thai Airways, a very good job by Thai standards. We spoke about him doing a year in an American university as a way to help him reach that goal.
He said, “It is very difficult to do this. There are no more choc-o-late chips.”
“What?” I said.
“No more choc-o-late chips.”
“No more choc-o-late chips?”
“Yes.”
I scratched my head. I thought, gee, if all you need is some chocolate chips, I can get you that… no, he was being serious. What should I say?
“Choc-o-late chips… like chocolate chip cookies?”
Wah Wah erupted with a huge laugh. “No, no, no… I’m so sorry. Not that word. I mean, what is the word?”
He looked back into his memory for the right word. “Scho-lar-chips!” Another big laugh. We were both rolling on the floor!


Another story has to do with the fact that in the Thai language words have multiple meanings and are differentiated by tone. At Sompoi High School, there are some pigs housed behind the school. They eat all the leftover food and are occasionally slaughtered for party food. There’s one male, a number of females in various stages of pregnancy, and a bunch of piglets. The whole pen area looks to be ingeniously put together with some cement and a bunch of sticks and string. One night the big Daddy pig broke out. Alan, an American volunteer who was at Sompoi before us, went around the school frantically telling everybody, “Yai is loose around the school!” Yai is the word for big pig. He was perplexed that no one was doing anything about it. It turns out that “Yai” also means Grandma and an old lady walking around the school is certainly no cause for alarm!
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HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS FAST IN THAILAND
By Jennifer

If you do not speak someone’s languidge you can just keep smiling and make your experecen on your face say I like you. Will you be my friend. Let’s play together.

Use body signals by puting your hands to your ears and wiggleing them. Your sister or brother will chase you. Invite your friend to play. Kids like to play Old Maid. Before you deal the cards get the old maid and show it and say “Mai Ow!” which is Not Want! After you deal show two matches and point to them. Put them on the table. You can play Pairs, too. Lay all the cards on the table. Pick two up and if they are the same put them on a pile in front of you. If they are not the same put them face down. At the end of the game who over has the most matches wins!

Bai and I play stuffd animals. We play with a chipmunk named Chipy too-too and a ghost named Pooky. We put them on pillows and put blankets on them. Breakfast time for Pooky! Here’s some milk! Bai and I love to coler together. We help each other. Bai draws and I coler. After we have completed a pitcture, we say “Sooai” which is Beautiful!

At the playground you can laugh together. To act like monkeys say “Ling, Ling” and go in the tree and scratch our heads and tumys and make monkey noises and faces. When it is time to go you will have many friends!

If you want to give compliments say, “Dee (good) Dee Mak (very good) Gang Mak (very very good) Korp Kun Ka (thank you) and Mi Pend Li Ka (no problem.)
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CAMBODIA OR BUST

I’d been told that Cambodia makes Thailand look like Shangri-La. I discovered the truth in that statement when we awoke early one weekend morning and drove three hours southwest to Khao Phra Wihan, a Khmer Hindu monument completed in the twelfth century by the same king who constructed Angkor Wat. The ruins straddle the border between Cambodia and Thailand. The rights to the area were granted to Cambodia in 1969 but it wasn’t until a few years ago that it was safe to visit due to the presence of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
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THE KHMER ROUGE
By Chris Battye

The Khmer Rouge was a Communist movement that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. They were lead by the Cambodian guerrilla commander Pol Pot, who came to power after years of guerrilla warfare. While he was in power, the Khmer Rouge government worked to death, killed through starvation, and murdered about 1,700,000 Cambodians, about one-fifth of the country’s entire population.
Cambodia was under French rule from 1863 until 1953, when it was finally granted its independence. At the same time, Communists called Viet Minh were fighting for independence from France in Vietnam. The Viet Minh, with the help of Cambodia, defeated France in 1954. Although Cambodian guerrilla forces and the Viet Minh controlled most of Cambodia at that time, the Geneva Conference gave Cambodia to its monarch, Norodom Sihanouk.
When Sihanouk took over, he began to crack down on his opponents, including the Communists. The Communists were in two groups: the veterans who fought against the French (including former Buddhist monks and their peasant followers) and young radical communists led by Pol Pot. The veterans were the major targets of Sihanouk and he left Pol Pot and his followers alone because they were privileged and French educated. Pol Pot became secretary general of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in 1963, and made an effort to take over Cambodia.
When the Vietnam War started, Sihanouk attempted to keep his country out of it. Pol Pot took advantage of the opening and launched a revolt against Sihanouk in 1967. Sihanouk named the rebels “Khmer Rouge” (French for “Red Khmers”).
In April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge armies took control of Cambodia by taking the capital, Phnom Penh. They sent the 2 million people living there to a life of hard farm labor in the countryside. People from other cities and towns were also sent to farms. The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. During the Khmer Rouge’s 4 year reign, almost 1.7 million Cambodians were killed, particularly minorities, religious persons, intellectuals, and merchants. Millions of other Cambodians were deprived of food, tortured, or sent into forced labor. Of the 425,000 Chinese Cambodians, only half survived. All of the Vietnamese Cambodians were killed. Of the 250,000 Muslim Cambodians, 90,000 were massacred, and the survivors fled. By 1979, 15% of the rural Khmer population and 25% of the city Khmer population had died. The worst massacre happened in 1978 at the Eastern Vietnam border where resistance was strong. At least 250,000 people were killed. Religion in Cambodia was also completely suppressed by the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism especially. The Khmer Rouge also attacked the countries of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos to reclaim territories that were lost many centuries before. The Academy Award winning film “The Killing Fields” is based on the 1975-1978 period in Cambodia and documents the elimination of hundreds of thousands of people.
Part of the Khmer Communists in the East rebelled in May 1978 and fought until a Vietnamese invasion knocked the Khmer Rouge from power. Vietnam installed surviving Khmers who opposed the Khmer Rouge regime at the head of a new government. The Khmer Rouge army retreated to the Thai-Cambodia border and fought guerrilla warfare for twenty years until 1998 when Pol Pot died and the Cambodian government captured the remaining Khmer Rouge troops. The area we visited, Phra Wihan, is on the Thai-Cambodia border and was a hotbed of guerrilla warfare until only very recently. It is for that reason that signs are posted warning of undetonated landmines and the guns are still set up on the hillsides.
Citation: Kiernan, Ben. "Khmer Rouge." Microsoft® Encarta® 2007 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2006. Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2007. © 1993-2006 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
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The Phra Wihan temple had four gates, each one higher up the mountain than the last. It was brutally hot and as we climbed we passed souvenir stalls and water sellers, booths with cigarettes and whiskey for sale, and one tent presided over by a grizzled and tourist-savy man hawking elephant bones, animal horns, and teeth of all shapes and sizes. The people who worked in the stalls lived near the ruins in flimsy huts made of tarps and bamboo. There appeared to be no water and no power. In the final court at the summit of the mountain, was the main prasat tower in which sat a nun all in white with a shaven head. She was dipping a whisk in water, shaking it on people, and giving a blessing for health and happiness. At the door, children begged for coins, “One Baht mister?” “One Baht for me?”

During our visit and shortly after we crossed over the Cambodian border, a young girl, an eight year old postcard seller, followed our group. She was friendly and unobtrusive, breaking her silence only occasionally to tell us details about some relic we were seeing. We asked her about herself and found out she lives there, near the temple, and spends her days trying to sell postcards to tourists. She does not go to school as her family cannot afford to send her and can’t afford to lose the benefit of her income. She stayed with us the entire time we were there, waiting to deliver her sales pitch (“You buy these Madame?”) until the very end. As we walked with her, other children called out, “Hey Mister!” “You take me home to America, Madame?” From another perspective, this girl was more fortunate than many girls from Myanmar (Burma) who are sold, as young as age 10 or 12, into the prostitution industry. Life in Thailand may feel like a whole different ball game than the U.S. but life in some of the neighboring regions is another world entirely.