Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
92Trip End Jan 01, 2014
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On Tuesday, I arranged for us to go and visit the Father Ray Foundation, which has set up various projects in and around Pattaya primarily aimed at helping the numerous needy children. We met with Ron Small, an American engineer who retired at around 30 years of age (therefore stealing my now failed life plan), who has been helping out with the project since he first came to Pattaya 25 years ago and met Father Ray Brennan - a catholic priest originally from Chicago. By that time, Father Ray had set up Pattaya Orphanage, the story going that a Walking Street prostitute had dropped a baby resulting from an encounter with a US marine on the steps of the church and Father Ray had realised that there must be countless of other unwanted babies as a by-product of the sex trade here.
The first site we visited with Ron was the headquarters of the Father Ray Foundation - it was a large and tranquil site near the centre of Pattaya, with a number of large buildings, together with garden areas and a lake. As well as playing home to the administrative centre, the site included a handicapped school - primarily equipping young handicapped people with computer skills to enhance their employment opportunities in the future. The most successful tale being of a young man found 18 years ago, who had gone on to win the Bangkok wheelchair marathon, get a good job with IBM and is likely to be elected to the Thailand Senate soon. There was a also a day nursery - most of the children there were the offspring of the many migrant contractors who come to Pattaya and work for a pittance in the still booming construction industry and need someone to look after their children as they and their wives seek to scratch out a living - and a home for "stateless people", generally elderly refugees from Burma who do not have passports and are therefore unable to return to their native land.
Our second stop was a walk of around 500 metres down the road - the Pattaya Orphanage, Father Ray's first project. We were greeted by a cheerful and slightly odd young chap with a bowl haircut of shiny black hair, and a garish pink t-shirt, who would act as our guide for the morning. We had taken a range of gifts - mainly colouring in books, plastecine, and other toys - for the kids and he was very keen to snap us with the toys. Our first stop was the baby's ward, where orphans between 6 and 18 months are kept in cots. There were around 20 abandoned infants in the room, which had an unmistakable whiff of stale wee and poo. A couple of the children were suffering from chicken pox so we nervously prodded at them, showing more affection towards those who were not afflicted
The third stop was a 15 minute car drive away - to the Children's Village near Siam Lake. This was a really impressive set up. It had been set up as a small village, with a number of pleasant modern houses, like a new build estate set in walled grounds. Each house had a "mother" (a paid member of staff) and an auntie (an assistant) and housed between five and eight children, normally of similar ages, who would grow up together. Our tour guide for the Village was a young lady without toes, and only two fingers on one of her hands (possibly a thalidomide) with a lovely disposition. Inside each house was a large living room, with dining table, sofas, and a modern TV. The walls were adorned with pictures of the "family", and off each living room was a large well equipped kitchen and the mother's bedroom. There were two bedrooms for the children, one for the boys and one for the girls, in each case with bunk beds, and - in the houses we toured - immaculately tidy. The children are all taken to school at 6am each morning and return at 4:30pm every evening, after which they eat and then help with chores, play before being put to bed at around 8pm. The Children's Village concept is one which has been copied from the successful SOS Children's Villages and seems a hugely positive way of helping these kids and giving them a sense of "normality" and a chance to build a good life, in a world which would otherwise offer anything but for them.
There is one black footnote in all of this. A small amount of Google-based digging on the founder Father Raymond Brennan (who died in 2003) reveals that he was subject of a story in the Sunday People in the UK a few years ago alleging that certain inappropriate things were taking place with the children and one can only hope that there is no truth in that (the Foundation strongly refuted the claims). What is not in doubt is that the institutions which remain as Father Ray's legacy are positive and much needed in this of all places in Thailand...
Having had a sobering morning, we met with Shelley's parents and their neighbour Steve and his Thai wife Sod (I kid you not) for lunch at a chippy near the large Siam Lake - we opted for Thai cuisine whilst the elders went for battered fish, chips and mushy peas, a treat for Steve's birthday. In the evening we headed into central Pattaya where there was a birthday party for Steve, together with a nice chap called Charlie, who was celebrating his 80th birthday, along with his 30-something Thai girlfreind, who - along with her two young friends - had dressed as a nurse for a birthday treat for Charlie. The other assembled guests were not necessarily those one would choose as ambassadors for the UK - the majority were now retired football hooligans from the "firms" for Cardiff City, Chelsea and West Ham (not a bar in which to get too drunk and cause any trouble). For the most part though, they behaved as gentlemen, only threatening to get out of hand when a long haired Scandanavian chap murdered song after song on the karaoke. It seems that off key music has become their new catalyst for violence. Anyway, a riot was happily averted when Shelley blasted out a few Whitney tribute songs and restored calm. Our night was cut short in any event when Shelley's mum suffered a reaction to Brazilian slimming coffee (?) which resulted in two large pools of vomit being depsoited on the side of the road on the way home...
Yesterday was spent with Shelley and her dad at the "One Million Years Stone Park". The name is a slightly curious choice as the main draw of the park is the hundreds of crocodiles, rather than the stone exhibits (albeit they are impressive in their own right and probably the stuff of wet dreams for geologists). After walking through the stone exhibits and attractively kept gardens, we reached the first large crocodile pit, which boasted some huge beasts in and around a dingy looking pool. I paid 80 Baht (about £1.80) for a large wooden rod, already primed with half a raw chicken which I dangled into the murky pool below. I was expecting a ferocious fight for the meat but as it was my chicken offering was greeted with indifference by the prehistoric beasts. By the time one of the giants went for the meat, I was dripping with sweat and it was sweet mercy when it was finally taken. I have been fishing before and can testify that it was comfortably the most vicious bite I have ever felt, and nearly enough to take the large rod from my hands.
After the feeding pool, it was time for the crocodile show. We sat in a smallish oval shaped auditorium surrounding an oval pool in the centre in which sat a hndful of different sized, inactive crocs. To the strains of the Star Wars theme tune, a charismatic young Thai chap clad in red satin and a head band emerged from one end of the pool and began shouting in Thai and splashing the crocs with water. The show featured him performing various daring feats, including putting his hands in the reptiles open mouths, and pulling them out seconds before they snapped violently shut. The highlights of the show featured him drenching the raised tiled area down the centre of the pool before sprinting and sliding head first down the slide before placing his head in one of the larger crocodile's mouths. To a dull Westerner, my immediate thought was how this young man could procure life insurance and, if so, what the premiums must be (the large scar on the young man's shoulder underlined the perils) - what have I become?
Remarkably it soon transpired that the young crocodile trainer did not have the most dangerous job in the park. A short walk away from the crocdile auditorium was the first of the tiger enclosures. Beside the main compund (in which two large tigers were basking in the sun) were three caes housing more of the magnificent cats. To our amazement, a young Thai chap leisurely entered two of the cages (one housing one beast and the other two) and swept up droppings, seemingly oblivious to the precarious nature of his position. Besides that enclosure, there were three chained animals on plinths with which one could have a picture. Although it is amazing to be able to get so close to such an amazing creature, it is also tremendously sad to see them restrained and with an almost knowing look in their eye asking how their lives have come to this. I know how they feel sometimes! In the next cage were three tigers, two of whom were roaring and play fighting - even from behind the wire of the cage, one could get a sense of the magnificent power of these creatures (even the sweeper did not dare go into this cage). Behind the tigers was a huge lake housing another large number of crocs of various sizes, which the Russians (who almost always dress as if they have just escaped directly from the 1980s) were feeding with chicken, much to their delight. The horses, camels, emus, birds and fish which followed the excitement of some of nature's great beasts were all a slight anti-climax but it was still probably the most enjoyable attraction to date.
As it was Buddha Day yesterday - a bank holiday - we struggled to find anyway open for dinner so settled for a very much non-English speaking local establishment at which we ordered by pointing at various raw ingredients before having a predictably disappointing mish-mash of a meal before heading home at the end of another top notch day...