Friday, July 07, 2017

Travel to Thailand...(Part 2)

I have been meaning to get to the rest of our trip to Bangkok but have been so busy since we arrived home that it's been hard to find more than a few minutes at a time between other things to think through everything and get it all down. I have been typing a bit at a time and here it is....

Monday morning after breakfast, Father Joe took us on a tour of the Mercy Centre and told us all the wonderful things they are doing to help where they can in all aspects of life for their neighbors. Everything from providing work to disabled neighbors, meals to families with no money for food, law services, a woman's group with a thrift store, kindergartens for slums throughout Bangkok, etc... We peeked into classrooms where children were busy. Some children worked on donated computers playing English learning games, little ones played with toys, and others sat in a circle around their teacher learning. Many of them peeked at us, waving and smiling. 

I was impressed with their attention to their teachers and their focus to task from the youngest (2.5 year olds) to the oldest (6 year olds). We were taken across the street to the Janusz Korczak School where children who have recently arrived in Thailand with their parents from other countries or spent too much time on the streets so were not quite ready to go to the public or international schools were taught to read and write Thai and English. 

That afternoon, we took a walk with Ploy and Manow (beautiful young women who were often our guides in the city). They practiced their English with us and told us stories of everyday life in Bangkok. They walked us to a 7-11 so I could get a SIM card for my phone. Later, we were driven into the city to meet with Mick and his friend, Roy, also a new visitor to Thailand. 

The drive was an experience. The streets in the slum are very narrow, hardly wider than a driveway but with cars and motorcycles (lots of motorcycles) moving in both directions between people and dogs. Street vendors lined both sides of these "streets" with each located outside its owner's makeshift "house," usually 2 or 3, rarely 4 walls of found materials with a corrugated metal roof but almost always with a small beautifully decorated "temple" for their ancestors outside. 

Motorcycles are very popular in Bangkok. They get through traffic easily by zipping between cars until they are in front of the cars at a light. Many of the motorcycles are taxis themselves and sometimes an entire family will be on one with someone driving, a child in front, and someone (or two) else behind… often no helmets. 

Mick walked us to a delicious Thai restaurant where we tried numerous delicacies I hope to get to eat again someday. Often in Bangkok, Haley and I felt like we were on one of those reality TV shows where someone, in our case usually Mick or Ratana, gives you little bits of information but you don't know which will be helpful to make it to the next level. During dinner, Mick gave Haley and I the Thai phrases for "turn right, turn left, and go straight. Haley typed the phrases into her phone in case we needed them later.

After dinner, we walked around the streets of Bangkok with educational commentary by Mick. We stopped for awhile in an Australian bar where we listened to a Filipino cover band...Bangkok is an experience unlike anything we've ever experienced. Walking back to the main road to hail a cab, Mick bought us some fruit called durian saying we had to try it. We stuck it in the refrigerator planning to eat it at breakfast the next morning.

The first couple nights, Mick hailed the cab for us and talked with the driver to tell him where to take us Usually he told us to get in the back of the cab prior to telling the driver where to take us because taxi drivers in most parts of the city try to avoid driving in the Klong Toey slums...the streets are narrow, they think it is unsafe, and it's a little bit out of the way where they generally aren't going to get a fare out. Almost every night it took us 2-3 cabs before one agreed to take us. A taxi ride cost us, at most, 150 baht (which is about $5...very inexpensive) and usually 45-100 baht which was like nothing so I tipped the taxi drivers well who agreed to drive us. Once in a cab, I would bring up the Mercy Centre on GoogleMaps so I could make sure we were going the right way and that night, wouldn't you know, the taxi driver went right past the small street into the Klong Toey slums. He knew no English and was unable to read my Google map, so Haley and I used out recently gained knowledge of Thai directional phrases to get him back to where we needed to be then through the slum to the Mercy Centre. (Thanks to Mick, we made it!)

Tuesday morning after breakfast Father Joe walked with us to the kindergarten and into a large room. Children filed in and quietly sat on the floor. Father Joe introduced Haley and had them repeat her name then Haley played them some Irish music, sang simple songs, and taught them a song. They were eager to learn and enthusiastic. After the "lesson" they gathered around Haley trying to touch her hair, get a high five or fist bump, or give her a smile.

Later, we met Mick and Roy to go to Mick's friend, May's graduation from college which involved another crazy drive through Bangkok in a taxi. Roy pointed out the telephone/electric lines where  We met with her and her family for lunch in the college cafeteria (our colleges and universities should take some lessons from them on how to feed people…the food was delicious and inexpensive) then Roy took photos of the graduate with her family and friends. After the graduation, we went back to Mick’s apartment so he and Haley could rehearse for the next night’s gig at the Irish Ambassador’s residence.
Dinner that evening was at Dosa King, our new favorite vegetarian Indian restaurant. Oh goodness, Haley would crave food from Dosa King for the rest of the trip. 

Walking through the streets of Bangkok, every once in awhile, I would catch a whiff of a horrid nauseating smell that I attributed to sewer or something else really gross. When we got back to our hotel late at night, one of us opened our refrigerator to grab a bottle of water and that same smell hit us both immediately...the durian!! We had forgotten to take it to breakfast. Ugh!!! I packaged it up, wrapping it tightly into 2 plastic bags and we disposed of it but the smell lingered in the apartment and especially in the refrigerator.


Wednesday morning after breakfast, Father Joe sent us to the Janusz Korczak School to teach. Haley played them some tunes. She gave them each a friendship bracelet we had made prior to the trip then she and I each took a table, handed out the materials, and taught the kids how to make friendship bracelets for themselves. They were fast learners! It was a lot of fun and the kids enjoyed their newly made bracelets. Two boys at my table finished their bracelets quickly so together worked on the demo one I had started then gave it to me. 

For lunch, Ploy and Manow took us into the city in a taxi to a huge mall so we could experience shopping and eating lunch in a Thai food court. Haley and I had our first dish of mango and sticky rice...and it was all downhill from there because we then purchased the delicious dish for dessert whenever we could find it. We had fun window shopping with the girls and learning about Thai life and culture from them. We ate dinner with Father Joe and Ratana that evening and went to bed early.

Thursday morning we accompanied Father Joe to the Slaughterhouse slum area which made the Klong Toey slum seem "nice." The "streets" here were more like paths and still there were motorcycles (though no cars could fit), people, dogs, game cocks with chicks, and vendors selling food and wares. People smiled, bowed, and spoke to Father Joe and us as we made our way to the kindergarten. The homes were up on posts and the canal brought plastic trash up underneath but the people kept their homes as clean as they could. 

We heard singing as we neared the school. Children stood in a circle around teachers singing a song in English about greeting and telling someone your name. Smaller children sat on the floor in a sectioned off area coloring on paper and another group wrote letters while standing at long tables. 

After the school, Father Joe continued our tour of the area with a walk along the canal, which was probably some of the dirtiest water I have ever seen with so much plastic garbage, where he showed us a recently built cement barrier between the homes, a very narrow path, and the canal. He said children had fallen into the canal so the cement wall was built by the government. He showed us the old slaughterhouse that had been closed to make room for a semi truck parking area. The smell of slaughtered animals still hung in the air and rotted out homes that once housed the Christian immigrants who once worked slaughtering animals each night lined the walkways.

We then drove to a small temple. The beauty of the temples is astounding. Brilliant colors, design, and detail on every building. Father Joe took us to the river where we fed the fish. I have never seen so many fish in one spot at one time. They swam over each other in a huge swarm trying to get the pieces of bread Haley dropped into the water.

We drove back to the Centre where Ploy and Manow walked us to a local street vendor who had a small outdoor restaurant set up behind the Mercy Centre. We ate some delicious vegetarian fried rice...two plates full for the equivalent of less than $1. Then we walked to the main street to hail a cab for the short ride to another shopping area...sort of like our Walmart. We picked up a few things to help get rid of the lingering durian smell (baking soda for the refrigerator and air freshener for the room), shopped around, then stopped in a Starbucks and treated the girls to frappuccinos.

In the evening, a Mercy Centre van took us, Father Joe, and Ratana to pick up Mick and Roy. The traffic was horrible (motorcycles were driving up on the sidewalk to get through but in the van we were stuck)! It took us an extra two hours to get there then a bit longer to the Irish Ambassador’s residence in the penthouse of a large apartment building. The view of the city was incredible! Mick and Haley played some music for the intimate gathering of people there to celebrate a woman who had started an Irish woman’s group but was transferring away from Thailand.

Haley and Mick playing some tunes...

Mick was determined that we have a tour of some important tourist spots in Bangkok so he sent us with Roy on a tour on Friday. We had to get up very early in the morning to get into the city. We woke Mick and he took us to breakfast then put us all in a van for our tour. They drove us around the city, pointing out important sites and giving us historical background. We ended up at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Palace. 

All I can say is "Wow!" 

I have never seen such intricately designed buildings in so many different styles (Thai, Cambodian, etc...). Building after building filled the grounds, each more beautiful than the next. The guide told us which king had each built and pointed out interesting details. We were allowed into the building housing the Emerald Buddha (after removing our shoes...oh, the piles of shoes!) but only Thai residents were allowed close to him. Outside that building, Thai residents dressed in black lined up under a covered passage of another building and were led through gates to walk across the palace grounds to pay their respects to their beloved King who passed away last October. 

For the end of the tour, we were taken by van through the city and dropped off for a "free drink" at a jewelry factory...our drink meant we had to sit through a silly short movie about the wonders of gems in Thailand and jewelry making. The movie emptied out into a room filled with jewelers plying their craft then from there into a gigantic showroom of very, um, fancy jewelry. Our "family" (Haley, Roy, and I) were given our own "personal assistant" to aid our shopping. She was very nice until we told her we'd like to leave without purchasing anything. Back through the streets to Mick's apartment building then we took a tuk tuk ride to get dinner. If you have never been on a tuk tuk, it's an experience...a motorcycle built for five! Well, probably not five but we stuffed the four of us in. Mick knew to settle on an amount to pay prior to getting in and the driver, just as I read online he'd do, suggested taking us somewhere other than where we wanted to do.

We rode the tuk tuk to the above ground train and took it to the fancy mall for dinner at the food court. (Yes, Haley and I had more mango and sticky rice, of course.) Mick provided our next bit of important information by showing us how to use the train just in case we needed to know. He also got a kick out of our durian story...he might still be laughing about that.

Saturday morning started with Mass. The majority of the children at the Mercy Centre are Buddhist and are allowed to practice the religion of their parents but they are taught to respect all religions and about Jesus so they attend Mass on Saturday mornings. I was struck by the beauty of their voices singing Christian songs during the service. 

After church Haley and I walked over to Father Joe's where Ratana had our daily breakfast of massive amounts of various types of fruit waiting. She then told us the children would like to invite us to see their soccer game so we walked over to the concrete soccer field (think indoor soccer without the soft surface). Some children were playing soccer. Others, some big and some tiny, playing basketball. Some watched the soccer game and others rode bikes or jumped rope, climbed playground equipment, or played in small groups. Haley and I watched a bit then walked back through the buildings to a room where a group of children (some very young) were learning about to prevent transmission. They were playing games to aid the learning. It was a shocking dose of their reality. It seems so safe within the walls of the Mercy Centre but just outside the gates are the slums with the horrors of drug abuse, child abuse, child trafficking, etc... Some of the children have family outside and once they are teens it is even harder to keep them safe. 

Haley was quite taken by this little guy, Tax.

After class, a group of girls invited us to have lunch with them. They led us up to a covered, open area on the second floor where small charcoal cookers were set up. Groups of children sat around each cooker, sometimes with an adult and sometimes with a teen taking charge of the cooking. Broth was heated in a reservoir around the base of the circular cooker then noodles cooked in the broth. Vegetables and meats were spread on top of the raised middle to "grill" and each child used wooden sticks to pick up and turn the cooking foods. After the meal, they had ice-cream. 

We gave out friendship bracelets to the children while they cooked their meals and had a wonderful time talking with them. A group of older boy added their names to Haley's Facebook (easier than trying to type in their language) so they could remain "friends."

After lunch, we traveled by van then via overhead train with Ratana and Father Joe to the Rhythms of the Earth World Music Festival where the best of the orphanages' dancers and musicians performed their traditional Thai music and dance on stage. Their costumes were fabulous and their program was wonderful done. 

Haley was invited to play a tune at one point then she did some improvisation with Thai musicians she met a couple minutes prior to stepping on stage playing instruments she'd never seen before. We had mango and sticky rice for admission of guilt, maybe. 

Sunday morning, we got up really early, ate breakfast where Ratana gave us our important bit of information for the day (how to say where we needed to be to take the train) then walked out to the main street, hailed a cab completely on our own, navigated the overhead train system (BTS) and made our way to the Chatuchak Market on the complete other side of the city. We walked around the market purchasing souvenirs for family and friends. There is everything and anything you could imagine and even some things you could not possibly imagine at this market!

Roy called about an hour later and I was even able to tell him how to navigate the BTS and get to the market. I also gave him a place to meet us (not an easy feat as I was not exactly sure where we were in the huge market of over 15,000 vendors) but I used my instincts and he did eventually make it to us. We ate Thai food for lunch with him and during lunch showed him our purchases. He liked the wall hangings I had picked out so we decided to try to find that vendor again. Haley and I had been just wandering through the market when we came upon the wall hanging'd have to know this market to understand just how impossible a task this seemed but we managed to do it with a little luck and Haley's wonderful photographic memory.

The three of us then made our way back to the BTS and met Mick near the river to take a boat across to the Oriental Hotel, an absolutely amazingly fancy old hotel! We had a delicious dinner with...yes, the best mango and sticky rice yet for dessert!

On the way back, Mick and Roy needed to get off the BTS at an earlier stop than us, leaving Haley and I to get off the BTS, hail our own cab, and tell the driver where we needed to go. Father Joe had given us our most important bit of information our very first morning at breakfast...a business card with the Mercy Centre name and address in Thai on it. The first cab driver we flagged claimed he could not read the card or speak English. The second could read the card, didn't speak English, and didn't know where to go. I showed him GoogleMaps on my phone and gestured that we could get him there which we then proceeded to do with our Thai phrases.

We learned quite a few important Thai phrases during our trip such as those for hello, thank you, no, yes, a few food items, and our taxi directions. We also learned how to barter at the market.

Monday morning Father Joe had a very nice woman take us via taxi (at first she suggested going by motorcycle but I could not stomach the idea of Haley on one motorcycle and me on another driving through those streets like they do) to another Mercy kindergarten in a slum over near the river and the first temple we had visited to feed the fish. Haley had a lot of fun playing music games, singing songs, and fiddling for the beautiful, enthusiastic kids.

When we got back to the Mercy Centre, Ratana took us on our first songtaew ride...a very small pickup truck with a metal cover and bench seats built in the truck bed. Kind of like this amazing one Father Joe showed us only the one we rode in did not have the lights, sound system, or great colors. It was plain. We took the songtaew to the shopping center for a Japanese food lunch with Ratana.

That afternoon Haley and I made our way via taxi then BTS back to Dosa King, our favorite restaurant in Thailand. Haley had been craving the food since we ate there before. We then made our way back by BTS then taxi. It is so liberating to be able to get around by yourself in a strange city where most people do not speak your language!!

Our final day in Thailand, we ate breakfast with Ratana and Father Joe then met with Roy and Mick at Mick's apartment. Roy is actually makes documentaries and the entire trip he took photos and video of mostly Mick and Haley (but also snuck a little of me when I wasn't looking/dodging him). He was interviewing Mick when we arrived at the apartment then did an interview with Haley. I have no idea his plans for all the footage he shot and the interviews so we will have to wait and see.

We all went back to Dosa King for lunch. The flowers from our mango lassis made lovely earrings for Haley...

That evening we all (Father Joe, Ratana, Mick, Roy, and us, of course) went to an American restaurant where Mick had gotten a few ex-pats together for a small Irish session. The tunes were great fun and it was a fitting end to our adventures in Bangkok!

Haley and Mick enjoying some tunes together. 
Roy shooting more footage at the session.