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Wintertime in Thailand is the dry season the cool season; a time when the earth sleeps, or rather snoozes. I say snoozes because the land does not go into a dead sleep. Snow does not blanket the land here; instead, life continues to flourish with the sprouting of soybeans. But not rice, it needs water, lots of water. So, the rice fields lie fallow in patchworks of burnt beiges. There are coconut palms, banana trees, tamarind trees that maintain their verdant splendor year round however, today the earth snoozes lazily in muted colors.

Three NGO workers and I, the volunteer nurse, are preparing to drive up to an orphanage on the Thai Burma border. Our pick up truck is loaded down with needed ‘stuff’ for the 41 orphaned children, a mix of Lahu, Shan, Karenni, Thai and any other child whose parents are too poor to keep. Huge sacks of rice, aluminum dinner trays with their accompanying stainless steel cups clanging away in boxes make their presence known. Packed also are soap, oil, salt, sardines, noodles, and of course a sack of MSG. The monk has requested coffee, so we buy coffee. “Once he asked for cigarettes!”

I purchase two plastic horses, with wheels. They sit perilously amidst the sacks of rice and bags of donated clothing. We then cover everything with a silver tarp. The horses are safe, the truck is heavy, and we are off.

These three young men travel long distances regularly to serve, accompany, and plead the cause of the voiceless. It is an arduous 4-hour drive over two mountain ranges, past two military checkpoints and three police checkpoints. Our mobile phones lose signals. The asphalt road changes into red baked gutted clay paths. We change gears into four-wheel drive mode, ford a small river, and then plunge head long into tall grasses. Our truck groans, I’m told that the horses are too heavy. Laughter accompanies us as we drive into an open compound, the orphanage grounds. It is a part of Thailand that many tourists do not see, do not know about; it is where poverty abounds.

Children at a border orphanage

Only a handful of children greet us, their eyes widen at the sight of the plastic horses and their excitement envelopes us like cool mountain breezes. The orange robed monk (a Burmese Karenni man) speaks to us with a fondness about ‘his’ children who are currently in the jungle collecting lizards, crickets, scorpions, frogs, and other edible insects to eat. He proudly tells us that they are “smart little hunters.” Their knowledge comes from living close to the earth.

As the truck is unloaded, I dig around for happiness in my pack sack: balloons and stars floating in a bottle of clear nail polish. The youngest of the children are frightened of me, the farang, but balloons create miracles at dissolving fear and nail polish with stars lures the children towards me like a magnet.

As they crowd around, I am cocooned by their scent of wood smoke, an earthy smell. Their hushed tones speak a language I am not familiar with, but I am familiar with the giggles, snorts, and laughter, which bubble around me holding promise of more to come. I cannot speak to them; instead, I sing as I apply polish and stars to tiny dirt encrusted fingernails.

If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands, cha cha cha. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands, tshoo tshoo tshoo. If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it, if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands, cha cha cha, tshoo, tshoo, tshoo, poop, poop pee doo, la la de daaa…”

My song echoes in silence….then the bubbles rise…giggle, giggle, giggle. I hear a tiny voice stutter, “te, te,” like a butterfly struggling out of its cocoon then finally a “tenk you” is born.

The monk, with his orange robes flowing around him seems to float towards me; it gives him a dream like dignified quality. We know each other from previous trips, he speaks English very well, and I enjoy the conversations we have; today is no different, we are destined to have another meaningful dialogue.

The nurse in me tells him, “You look very healthy. You have a nice color.” A curiously embarrassed look comes over his face as his color flushes from a nice tan to a reddish tan. He blushes and begins fretfully to describe his day, and the routine of the orphanage. I’ve heard this story umpteen times and am not interested. I’m curious about him.

This orange robed man is the primary care giver and worries over his 41 children. Will they have caught enough, lizards, crickets, scorpions, and frogs today? Will they go hungry?

One of his charges, a young girl is watching us from a safe distance. Concerned, he tells me that she doesn’t want to eat and has stomach aches. The nurse in me asks if the stomachaches come monthly, because of her period.

Silence.

“Period” I say, “when the woman has blood come every month. Does her pain happen then?”

Hot silence.

The monk, much like a fish on a hook, jerks away, throws his hands up into the sky, and turns a beet red.

“I do not talk about things like that,” he proclaims as he begins to twitch with arms outstretched as if possessed by a spirit that is being exorcised, “things like that….no , no, I do not speak.” I’m plunged back into the Stone Age.

According to the Theravada Buddhist tradition, a man may make merit by becoming a monk for a few months and strive for enlightenment, but this is impossible for a woman. A woman is considered unclean, even the orange robe of a monk must not touch her, and if it does, the monk must undergo a ceremonious cleansing process. Instead, she is encouraged to make merit by helping out her family. If she does well in this life, earns money for her family, she can, conceivably, be reborn as a man in the next life. Perhaps even as a Burmese Karenni monk smoking and drinking coffee on the Thai Burma border.

“How long have you been in the Sangha (monkood)?”

“Ten years.”

“Before you went into the monk hood, before in your other life, did you have a wife, did you have children?”

WRONG question, from red he turns into a vibrant vermillion and walks away, I follow, like a puppy. His arms outstretched to the mountains, he exclaims whilst twisting. “No, no, I do not think about that, I do not speak about that …no , no, no.” The jugular vein in his neck is taut. He continues, “I only worship the Buddha, I only meditate.”

There is a sourness in the pit of my stomach. I feel terrible about my numerous faux pax and apologize.

The time has come for us to leave and I dash off to visit the closest available bathroom in preparation for the long journey back home to Chiang Mai.

Driving away from the compound, the young men tell me that I committed a terrible crime. Wracking my brains, I try to think of what it was; surely, they did not hear my conversations with the monk.

“You used the monk’s toilet!” They laugh softly. “We tried to warn you but you were too quick. You used the monk’s toilet.” The final faux pas.

A roar of laughter explodes in the cab. It was an honest faux pas.

Trees rise high along the highway as it unfurls towards Chiang Mai. A setting sun filters through the flowing branches and speckles the road in evening shadows. My mobile phone rings.

“Meet you at Kad Suan Kaew for some New York Steak?” My husband suggests.

“What a splendid idea, about 7 pm. See you there.”

I place the phone back in my pack and close my eyes as visions of roasted, lizards, crickets, scorpions and frogs dance in my head.


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