Life in Bangkok

Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
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Sunday, September 5, 2004

Hi - Sorry I have not written a travel log for so long and I have also not written emails to all the people I would really like to. Lots has been happening since I last wrote a log - I cannot remember most things now, but I will try to summarise.

I had 10 Australian volunteers come to Thailand. They travelled with me for 2 weeks and saw some of Thailand. They did some practice teaching to the novices and monks in Mae Rim (near Chiang Mai). They travelled to visit some villages in around the Khun Yuom area. We were the first white people to go into one village (the village where Phra Boun Savat is now working). That was such a beautiful place. They also had some time on Ko Samet (an island). After all that, 2 of them went to India and 3 went to Vietnam. 5 stayed in Thailand. All are to spend 3 months doing volunteer teaching. 2 I sent to a small village in Mae Hong Son and 3 to a village in Chaiyaphum. I am their in-country contact in Thailand and I have been doing lots of work to try to look after them and help them.

At the end of that travelling time I went back to the Kindergarten to teach again. At first it was a bit of a shock to be back in Bangkok and working Monday to Friday, 8 - 4 again. But I am back in the swing of it now. I am starting to very much like many of my kids in the class and I like the other Thai teachers and sometimes I like teaching and sometimes I don't (much more often I like it). But I think in the long term I cannot keep doing a Monday to Friday type job. I want to do something more interesting, but also I want occasionally to have some more time to do other things.

What's been happening at the Kindergarten?

Nothing exciting. I have been collecting papaya most days from the school's trees as the Thai teachers want to take them home to make papaya salad.

The other day after lunch there was also a funny sight. We got back from the lunch hall and teacher Oil asked Gemmy to come to her. She then proceeded to remove about 5 bananas from Gemmy's pockets (These kids are small - only 4 years old and they don't have big pockets). Then she called for Bam Bam to come over and she removed another 5 or 6 bananas. After the kids went to have their afternoon nap we ate some of the smuggled bananas - very nice. It was a funny sight to see them coming out of the little kids pockets - but I suppose you had to be there.

Oh also the other day I was teaching the kids about the letter M. After they had completed saying M and some M words and writing M and colouring in an M picture, I thought it would be good for them to get out of the classroom and go and see my motorcycle. I got them out and the ones that could say motorcycle, I picked up and let them sit on it. As I was doing this Teacher Pom said I should take them for a ride. I said, no I couldn't, I'd get in trouble. She said I could. I said no, the Principal wouldn't like it. She said it was OK. I said no, I don't think I am allowed. Teacher Pom said I would be allowed. I was not convinced, so I decided to ignore her and keep talking to the children and hope she'd forget the idea. After another couple of minutes, teacher Pom again said I should take the kids for a ride. I said No, I'll get in trouble. She said it was OK. etc, etc. Eventually I decided that maybe it would be allowed. Teacher Pom has been working at this school for a few years and she knows more about what is acceptable in Thailand and not acceptable. Hmmmm, you are sure? I said. Yes, sure she said. OK. So we loaded the kids onto my bike, two at a time and I took them for a quick ride around the car park. Just as I was finishing with the last kid, the Deputy Principal came out and I got in trouble for taking the kids for a ride.
Then later that afternoon, Pom suggested that we should order pizza. 2 of the kids were leaving that day as they were changing schools, so it seemed like a good idea for a going away party to give the kids pizza. It was almost pay day also, so I could afford it. We did that and I got a phone call to come and see the Principal and Deputy. I also got into trouble for giving the kids pizza. Supposedly it is unfair to the kids in other classes that don't get pizza or something. Whatever. Oh well, that was a fun day for the kids anyway and I think they liked it and will remember it.

Incidentally, I am still very much enjoying riding my motorcycle. It is such a good way to get around. I can fill up my motorcycle with petrol for about 50 Baht (less than Australian $2) and I do that about once or twice a week

What else? I have broken up with Kanjana. Hmmm, difficult decision - she is very very nice and a great person but I was feeling that my life with her wasn't really my life. Hmmm, I really don't know how to explain - but I think it was correct decision. We are still very good friends and I see her most days as her work is very close to where I live.
Hmmm, I want to be able to explain that more, but I find it difficult to explain my feelings. I very much like and admire Kanjana. She is a wonderful person and very talented and also very caring to me, but I just wasn't really quite happy and I wasn't being me or doing what I wanted to do. Although I really do like her, I feel it is not a good idea for me to spend my life with her. I had been thinking this for a long time and it was in my head everyday for months, but I finally decided to do something about it. Difficult, but good to finally do it. Anyway enough on that.

Two days after I broke up with her, she got news from the bank that they would be taking her house and she would have to get out. She works very hard as I have mentioned, but she has no money. The house was a house that she'd brought with her previous husband and her, her mum and her kids live in it. She had not been paying for it as she didn't have the money and even if she did, she would have been paying for something that her husband would end up owning half of, even though he never paid. She has been living in fear of being evicted for quite a while.

Interestingly, when I asked her about how many other people in her street were under threat of eviction, she said about half. People are poor here and they don't earn a lot. It doesn't take much of a change in circumstances for people to be beyond their means. Luckily banks here are pretty slow at evicting people. Particularly in the far outer suburbs where Kanjana lives.

I want to explain more about poverty in this log. It is constantly visible here. I can see it is one of the main causes of suffering in the world. But I think it is often not really understood by many people - particularly the people with the ability to alleviate it. Also visible is the extreme waste of money that is spent on things such as the invasion of Iraq or just on affluent people driving around in luxury cars.

Anyway more on that in a minute. I have helped Kanjana look for a place to live and we have found one and we are getting a joint loan so as she can get a new house. She could not get a loan by herself, but as I have a decent salary, the bank will give it to her with my help. They have covered most of the cost, but she still needs a little more. Also, I have been helping her to budget and to see if she can afford to live somewhere new. I think, finally we have come up with some solutions that will make everything possible for her, but only just. It seems a bit unfair, that such an intelligent, hard working woman has so much trouble. But, I think we have sorted things out so as she can look after herself and family in the future.

News in Thailand:

News recently has been about the Olympics. Thailand did pretty well, the best it has done before.

There was the news that the Prime Minister had decided to allow field trials of GM food. This was very disappointing news as it had obviously been forced on Thailand by the USA. There were a lot of protests and complaints (although nothing like the anti - war rallies I saw in Australia) and this week the decision has cancelled (at least for now). Why did I originally find this news so disappointing? Hmmm, Thailand is a farming country. Still the majority of its population are farmers. Thai farmers are very successful and in fact the recent archaeological evidence shows that human "civilisations" probably first occurred in the area on the Thai / Laos border, due to the successful farming of rice (ie. Not in the Middle East as previously thought by English historians). Mainly the Thai farmers do a good job and despite some strong competition from Vietnam, Thai rice exports are one of this countries major income earners. The King of Thailand has been working hard to develop better farming ideas and practices to make the farmers' lives easier and the farms more productive. A lot of Thailand's market buys from Thailand, as it is safe and organic. If the GM produce were to take over from the current crops, Thai farmers would lose markets and would become reliant on buying seeds from the USA. Amazing concept since it is here that so much of the world's food originated from. The Thai farmers did not get a say in the decision. It just makes no sense for Thailand and was a strong indication that Thailand has lost much of its freedom to the USA. Very sad. It was very good therefore to see that in the end (at least for now) the farmers and people of Thailand still do have a lot of control about what happens in their country. YAY!

Other interesting news was that a halfway house for elephants has been set up just outside Bangkok. A couple of years ago, the Thai government made it illegal for elephants to come into the capital city. The Thai people very much love and respect elephants and they felt it was cruel for them to be brought in to the noisy, crowded, polluted city. I stopped seeing elephants in Bangkok, which was once a common site. Over the last year though I have seen quite a few elephants back in Bangkok. The news this week was that the government was no longer going to accept this law being broken. Many of the owners of these elephants have been arrested and the elephants sent to this new halfway house. It seems that I will again stop seeing elephants walking around the Thai capital.

Hmmm, OK poverty. One thing that annoys me is that much of the poverty in the world seems unnecessary. There is more than enough wealth in the world for people to share it. However I think often the people with money cannot understand about not having money. They have never had that experience. I remember, a while ago, a friend of mine who had grown up in a reasonably wealthy but hard working family, expressing the view that poverty was a choice that poor people make. He felt that people could work hard and could get a good education and make money. This is occasionally true for some people, however for the vast majority of people on the planet, things are not quite that simple.

This is an email that I got from my friend Vicky. She is a Philippino. She is also very intelligent and hard working. She has worked all over the world, in Thailand, the Middle East and in Europe. She has picked up many languages and has always been able to find a niche for herself, until recently:

"Hi;Paul.
Thank you for yur e-mail it's nice to hear from you again,
i'm here still in philippines i can't find a job or work rigth now
because i'm very sick i need to haave a surgery for my stomach
i have this kind of meat inside they call mass i been drinkig my
medicine almost two month now but this time i'm run out of
money to buy almost one week from now because i can't afford
to buy anymore very expensive in one week i spend 3,000bath
i'm saving this money for my surgery i have money with rigth now but still
not enough to pay,you know paul every day i feel pain but i just egnore
and everymorning i wake up i have bruce but i'm o.k i just sad my self
because i was born with the por family what can i do,i feel sory my self.
will take care.
miss you.
vicky."

Hmmm, what else has been happening? I am slowly getting fit and going to the park most days. I have started learning Yoga. I met Khun Guitar on the train to Chiang Mai in June. She was taking her 14 year old son, Boss, to be a Monk. This is his 3rd time as a Monk and he will be one for 3 months. Thai boys traditionally spend some of their life as a Buddhist Monk (novice). Anyway, Guitar is a Yoga instructor and so I am swapping English lessons for Yoga lessons

Honesty in Thailand.

Yesterday at the park, while I was using the weights that are left outside for everyone to use for free, I saw a 1 Baht coin (Australian $0.04). There were some poor kids playing around not far from the coin, so I picked it up and gave it to them and told them they could have it. They smiled, but checked their pockets to see if it was theirs, and when they counted all their money (they had about 8 Baht) they saw they had all of theirs. They offered to give it back to me. But I wanted them to have it. They were confused. It was not theirs. They put it on the table nest to them in case its owner came back looking for it.

The day before I was at a stall buying oranges. The owner of the stall was not there. So her son tried to figure out how much they cost. He asked a few people and made a phone call and eventually decided that 60 Baht was a fair price (which it is). The next day when I was in another shop, someone came and gave me 10 Baht. The stall owner had come back and they had discovered that she sells the oranges for 50 Baht not 60, so they found me and returned the extra 10. This is not unusual here.

My friend Guitar was telling me about a small boy she saw begging the other day in her local shopping mall. She asked him why he was begging. His father had died and now his mother was working very hard to look after him. He said that many people would not give him money as they may think he will use it to buy drugs. Guitar looked at him, he did not appear to be the affected by drugs or likely to buy drugs. She asked him why he wasn't at school. He said he had no money to go to school. School in Thailand is provided free and this is guaranteed in the Thai constitution. However, travelling to school, uniforms, food at school, books, pens, etc are not free. All that costs money that many people don't have. Guitar asked him to smile as he looked sad. He did and she gave him some money for food and wished him luck. She mentioned to me, that now many people are less inclined to give money as they are trying to save. The cost of petrol has gone up due to the certain matters in the Middle East and so has energy costs. People are feeling these increases. Despite this, I still see many Thai people constantly giving alms to Monks, money to beggars, food to stray cats and dogs.

Later Guitar saw the boy with some food. He was waiting for his mum to finish work and he smiled. She gave him a little more, although she does not have much. Days later, she saw him again. He had some part time work, cleaning things in the mall and was getting paid decent money. Enough to be able to go to school.


Thoughts on education.

The parents of the kids at my school pay a lot of money to send their kids there. But most of that money does not go to the kids education. It goes to profits and on marketing the school so as it can make more profit. It is a private school - a business. However the teachers' wages are a bit better than government schools and the resources we do get are generally a little better than government schools. My 4 year olds are really advanced for their age. I have been teaching them about plants and how they use sun and water. They are learning 2 languages, some of them 3. They already use computers, etc etc. They have so much more opportunity to reach their educational potential than most kids (although they are also missing out on a lot of things that kids in a small village school can learn and develop). But it strikes me that the world could be a far better place if all kids were given the opportunity to reach their potential. Not just selected kids whose parents happen to be rich. All kids should be given as much education as possible. I know about the Defence budget versus the Education budget in Australia, and using that as an example shows me that this is very very possible. All kids could be far better educated and the world could be a far more intelligent, advanced place.




Some thoughts on modernising Thailand.

Hmmm, a few days ago at playtime in school, the kids and I were watering our garden that we have planted. I shook one of the papaya trees and collected 3 large papaya fruits that fell off, as I already mentioned I do that most days. Teacher Oil also showed me some other fruit that was growing on a tree nearby and so I collected some of that and gave it to the kids that wanted it. Thailand has an extraordinary number of fruiting trees and different fruits are available all year around. In Kanjana's small yard for example we collect coconuts and mangoes. From what I understand of Thailand's past, before it became so urbanised (not that long ago) and before so many of the forests were destroyed, fruit was almost everywhere in many parts of Thailand. Kids walking to school wouldn't need to take any food from home as they could just collect it as they went. There was no great need for money. Life was pretty simple and easy. Most Thais grew their own rice and kept chickens etc and for snacks they collected fruits, as they were hungry. Most Thais now even still seem to graze on small snacks all day and not rely so much on 3 main meals. Less and less however, the Thais live like this. Less and less fruit is as easily available and more and more, cash is a necessary part of life to buy food. Farming rice has always been hard work, however it has always been a workload that is shared by everyone in the villages and has been a time for fun and for communities to get together. Fun is an important part of the Thai work ethic. However, now with the foreign intervention in the Thai economy, work is not so much fun. The farming villages have less people to share the workload, as many young people head into the city to try to make cash. In the cities these people end up working just as hard and although they do make cash, they also have to spend a lot to live and they have to go without the community support. Perhaps the work they are doing is a little less physical than the work on the farm, but it is much more mentally stressing and it is not as healthy a lifestyle. As some people in the cities manage to become rich, they seem less interested in sharing their wealth with the farmers. Thailand is becoming more and more westernised. There is more money and the economy is strong. But is this beneficial to most Thais? I suspect a society's wealth has more to do with the health of the environment and the happiness of the people and the strength of community, than it has to do with stock market prices.
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