Published: November 14th 2006November 14th 2006
Six days with real meaning
A - I've always liked to think of myself as the adventurous, worldly, sophisticated cousin in the Reynolds mob of 19 cousins (my dad is one of seven). But then I catch up with my cousin Ang who is only a year older than me, and I realise that she outdoes me completely. Ang is pretty amazing really. She moved to Japan when she was in her early twenties, and lived there for a while and now speaks fluent Japanese. She then went to live in the UK for a couple of years. Then it was off to Sydney. And now... now she lives in Thailand and has been for almost two years. And speaks pretty good Thai from what we can tell. Whereas before she did all sorts of hospitality and corporate type jobs, now she's the sponsorship manager for Mercy International. What that means in practice is that she lives in the city of Khon Kaen in the north of Thailand, works at an orphanage for kids who are HIV positive and is a part-time surrogate parent to forty kids. And she doesn't get paid.
We caught up with Ang in February
when we were both in New Zealand. Thailand had always been on our itinerary and Ang invited us to come and spend some time helping out at Mercy. We had pretty much no idea what to expect. We knew we'd be working with HIV children, but that was about all. Both of us decided to prepare ourselves for the worst and assume we would be cleaning toilets for a week. The reality was so much different.
D - Wow. We've used so many superlatives during our trip, yet none of them come close to describing the feelings of the experience of staying at Khon Kaen. As Abbie said, we expected to be cleaning toilets or painting fences, and maybe catching brief glimpses of the children. I was put on 'bike repair' duty - nine bikes all with no brakes and some with no pedals, punctures, buckled wheels etc. I managed to get seven of them working, all with at least one brake! Abbie was on christmas decoration duty followed by laundry, and when you consider that that is laundry duty for 40 children (sheets, towels, school uniforms, P.E. kits and normal clothes!), this is no mean feat.
nothing could have prepared us for the hours we'd spend with the children. This experience was amazing; playing, talking (pidgin english/thai! Thankfully, OK translates into any language!!!), eating and more playing. The kids are wonderful. Once home from school and after their chores, its playtime - and they play hard, too (as Abbie learnt first hand when she got a 'black eye' from knocking heads with, ironically, Noc!). There are almost 40 children at the orphanage, from the ages of four to fifteen, so having these kids wanting piggy backs, horse rides, games of football/volleyball/badminton all the time is tiring but huge fun. And they loved our camera - so many of the photos on the blog were taken by the kids!
What we found most touching, after we'd been there for a day or so, was having a child (or sometimes three or four) come over and give us a hug, or simply sit down with us and chat away. The language barrier was always going to be difficult, but it wasn't as big a problem as it could have been. I guess the languages of play and love are universal. And the most shocking realisation of all,
after our time at Khon Kaen, is that we probably got more from our experience with the children than they did with us.
After five happy days with the children in Khon Kaen, we spent just over a day at House of Mercy's original orphanage in Phetchabun. Here the orphanage has been operating for 20 years, and 4 years ago they set up a school for children who might not otherwise have been able to attend. There are about 80 orphans in the orphanage and the school now has over 600 pupils. What was incredible was that Phetchabun is no metropolis. Almost all of these children live in small villages in the district, so they get to travel to and from school on the school bus, or Song tauw. This is simply a pick-up truck with a pre-fabricated 'cage' attached to the rear. The great thing about these is that it is easy to get over 30 children in the back. We joined in on one of the runs one afternoon and had 35 kids in the back with us, and several more in the cab (check out the photos).
It really is great to see the work
that is being done by House of Mercy. I'd never considered what missionary work would look like. The differences being made to these little peoples lives is amazing. Simply put: many of them wouldn't be alive today without House of Mercy.
This experience really touched us - humbled us, even. So much so that we couldn't leave without sponsoring a child ourselves - On.
A - I felt so privileged to spend time with these amazing kids. Some of their stories are heart wrenching. For the HIV positive kids, we would hear stories of parents who are still active sex workers with full blown AIDS, or children who had had both parents die of AIDS, or elderly grandparents who could no longer manage. In Phetchabun, we heard stories about kids who had both parents in jail because they'd been arrested in drugs busts. There were even kids born in jail. Some kids were at Phetchabun because their parents had split up and then remarried and the new partners didn't want the burden of the kids from the first marriage. It's really horrible hearing these sorts of stories when the kids are so beautiful, and so full of love,
Toomtam playing marbles
I should mention that these kids whipped us at marbles. And chequers and badminton and football...
energy, humour and pretty large doses of naughtiness on occasion.
For these reasons we were full of awe for the work that Mercy International is doing, and what Ang has given up to move to Thailand to do this work. We were enormously grateful to be given the opportunity to spend only six measly days, working not very hard, and experiencing what goes on here. We started out wanting to do a bit of volunteer work to give our long holiday a dose of meaning. In the end I think we felt like we got so much more from the experience that the small amount that we gave.
If anyone would like to get involved with the great work that Mercy International is doing, either through sponsorship (and all the gorgeous children you see in the photos on the blog need sponsors), or by volunteering, contact Angela directly on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Briefly in Bangkok - sucking the heads
We stopped briefly in Bangkok on our way in from Cambodia. It was all very straightforward getting from Battambang to the border. But then we ended up having to hang around at the border for about three hours waiting
for the bus. And the reason for this long delay was that we were waiting for people on the bus from Siem Reap. They'd been pulled out of puddles by tractors, had a couple of flat tyres, etc, etc. It felt like we'd missed out on the adventure, but we were also pretty grateful not to have been on the bus.
Once in Bangkok we didn't do too much. We stayed near Kao San Road which is the real backpackers district. It didn't feel very authentic and we didn't like Bangkok much for that reason. Our highlights were catching up with Ryan, Edy, Jane and Clare. We had a great meal with them, sharing enormous river prawns. Edy, who is a Italian south Londoner (you have to hear the accent to understand) had already impressed us in Mui Ne with her request 'if you're not going to suck the heads can I have them?' so the night became famous for everyone 'sucking the heads' and drinking too much beer Chang.
Where to next
We're writing this from an internet cafe on Hat Raileh beach near Krabi in south Thailand. It's the monsoon time of the day so
we're using this as an excuse to avoid getting wet. We'll be here, having a holiday until about the 20th. Then we head for Malaysia. The exciting news is that thanks to the advice of Huw Saunders (Abbie's work colleague) we are catching a freighter from Kuala Lumpur to Perth on the 29th of November, arriving on 5 December hopefully. Then, fingers crossed, we hope to catch the Indian Pacific train from Perth to Sydney the next day.
There are more photos below