Archive for September, 2010

Trekking with Ben & Ten – Northern Thailand

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

In addition to our mini projects for the school, we spent many hours talking with Ben over cups of sweet black tea. Ben worked for several years as a trekking guide when he first came here from Burma. His son in law, Ten has a trekking Guide Licence and together they were hoping to take people trekking.

Northern Thailand is famous for its green mountains and trekking, in fact many people leave the beaches of the south, purely to come trekking in the mountains.

Being 33km from Mae Hong Son, nearest town, and having the school to run, locating a trekking or tour guide office in Mae Hong Son is not really viable, at least not for now. So after going trekking with Ben and his family, we decided that one way we could help them was to build a website for them.

Chris worked with Ben on costs and overheads for treks over 1-5 days for 1-6 people. Working out prices for food, transport, accommodation, equipment etc eventually drawing up a spreadsheet with a full breakdown. Meanwhile I came up with the design for the site and started working on the site structure. We had many photos form the weekend and after sitting with the maps of the area, we managed to work out the various routes and villages for each trek.

We also talked to Ben and Ten about running it like a business and putting money aside for equipment and future investment. Living here is very much hand to mouth, so our suggestion to do this may have been a little alien, however we hope they understood the concept at least.

So with pages designed, maps re-drawn, content written and the site built, we were ready to go. Obviously a website alone is not enough, so we are printing 1/3 A4 leaflets to put in all the guesthouses, bars and restaurants in Mae Hong Son. This will tell people about Ten and Ben Trekking and hopefully bring in the customers.

website homepage

I painted a sign (rather roughly on a piece of wood with poster paints!! – heavily varnished to protect from the rain), to hand outside Ben’s place.
Sign for Ten and Ben Trekking

Chris set up an email account for them and a Facebook page, so now we jusy need to see if it takes off. If it turns into a successful business, it will provide their family with a sustainable income for the future.

Please visit the website:

There is a Facebook page you can Like

Please forward to any friends who are visiting Thailand

See photos of our trekking weekend – where we made a bamboo platform to sleep on in the jungle, collected mushrooms form the forest floor, at and drank form bamboo cups and plates, all made on arrival… Oh and we saw a snake!

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Travelling Two to give anyone the chance to win a spot on Icebreaker’s Test Team

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Win a spot on Icebreaker’s Test Team with a contest from the Travelling Two your chance to win awesome Icebreaker merino wool cycling clothing, from their new 2011 range! Have have some Icbreaker kit and love it how about you? Contest winners announced Ocober 8th so write in here

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Let there be light… and books!

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

You’ll notice that we’ve been a bit slack on the old blog writing front. With good reason however. We’ve been pretty busy, concentrating all our efforts on various projects for the Tomato Village School and working with Ben.

The village has only had main electricity for a couple of years and during heavy rains, or thunderstorms, both of which are frequent, the power goes out. Sometimes for a few minutes, often for hours. We teach in the evening, so as back up we have car batteries that power 12 volt strip lights. The ‘emergency’ lighting is also backed up with candles. The top classroom only has one working light and the smaller bottom classroom has only one too. After 2 days of long power cuts and teaching in very dim light, Chris decided to take this on as a project and improve the situation before we left.

After measuring and looking at the ‘interesting’ wiring, Ben and Chris went shopping in Mae Hong Son ( 33km away, down a steep, winding mountain road, about 1.5hrs drive). Never one to do things by halves, Chris arrived back armed with 6 new strip lights, bulbs, switches and yellow plastic piping, with corner bits. Chris then spent several hours over the next few days, re-wiring, fitting new lights, testing, covering the wiring with pipes to protect them from the rats ( those crazy rats seem to like chewing the wires). Finally he hooked everything up to the battery in such a way that rather than having to mess about with jump leads in the pitch black, you can simply flick a switch!

Switch for lights

I was very impressed ‘how did you know what to do, where did you learn to do all that?’, Chris’s modest reply was a shrug of the shoulders.

Emergency lights

In the bottom classroom ( my classroom) Chris also fitted a second light there and another switch. Now when the power cuts happen, there is instant light!

Chris wiring bottom classroom

Meanwhile, I decided that the lack of books and opportunity for reading was something to look at. Reading can extend your vocabulary, teach you about sentence structure and grammar, as well as being entertaining. We found a small selection of story books in Ben’s house, but they were not being used. At the back of my classroom is a second room, built to be volunteers accommodation, however it is currently not in use and remains an empty shell.

I felt that it would be a good space to use… in my mind I had a picture of my junior school classroom, with the carpet area where we would sit for a story before home time. It was a comfortable, quiet area, with lots of books around us… the land of Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Please Mrs Butler!

So off to Mae Hong Son once more. At the market, I found a fabric shop, run by two sisters, one of whom speaks good English. Although, on my first visit she was lying on the floor having a Thai massage, tucked away behind rolls of fabric at the back of the shop. I had a random conversation with her as she lay there, trying to explain that I wanted to make cushions. I left happy with a colourful floor mat with elephants on, 4 metres of fabric and a big bag of stuffing. I set about making some cushions by hand, which was fun,although by cushion 5 you start to wonder if it was a good idea!

Reading room

I also managed to source some posters for the walls with ABC, Numbers, flags, animals and a map of Thailand. Next good find was a small wooden shelving unit that I thought would work well as a book case and place to store other teaching resources. To top it off I found some plastic box containers with clip lids to store things ( read: keep them clean from the dust, dirt and damp). It was all coming together quite nicely. I moved all the books I could find down to the ‘reading room’ and looked forward to seeing what the kids made of it all.

booksThere are a few challenges with this whole idea. The children cannot read English well enough yet to sit and read on their own. Some kids are still learning to read in their own language. Some don’t even seem very familiar with books. If they can read the words they may not understand the meaning. To learn to read, you ideally need to sit with an adult who can help you, page by page, line by line. With 22 kids for 2 hrs each evening, it’s not very easy to do this and so reading skills are generally picked up through writing and worksheets, rather than by reading story books.

One idea we had, was to record each of the books onto CD, that way a student could borrow a book and the CD, allowing them to listen and read at the same time. Eventually creating an audio story library. Many families in the village have TVs and CD players, so it could work…As well as this I found a shop selling Thai/English books, with lovely illustrations and fun, easy stories. I bought one set of 16 books for the school.

Finished room

So with some final touches, with kids work on the walls, I showed the room to the children. They were very enthusiastic, both about the books and about having a place to play. Some sat with books and read them during break time, others played dominoes, with me trying to get them to play in English rather than Thai. Some chose to have a pillow fight with the new cushions – I has to set them straight on that one, no play fighting in this room, it’s for sitting quietly!

Students in reading room

The girls in particular like being able to use this space at break time and always asked if they could go in and get the books out (the boys also like to ‘hang out’ in there!). So I am hopeful that over time they will make use of the books and be able to enjoying reading stories in English.

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Ben the rice farmer, Ben the teacher…

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Most of us only have one day job, most of us don’t have to produce our own food. In the west at least.

Ben has a farm about 2km from his house. It is a rice farm, with paddy fields stretching for 500m down the hill. If you are like me, you’ll find yourself drawn by paddy fields, mesmerized by their lush greenness. As you pass by the sea of green, you realise that it is an optical illusion, only revealing itself on closer inspection. Rows and rows of baby rice plants are sat reflecting in water, placed in a seemingly symmetrical fashion, growing and growing, eventually ending up on our plates as fluffy grains of rice.

Ben's Farm - Rice paddy fields

Ben and his family eat rice for every meal. Ben was shocked to hear that at home we only eat rice maybe once or twice a week. He knew that potatoes and wheat are our staple food, however I don’t think he realised just how little rice we eat by comparison. In fact the Thai translation for ‘are you hungry?’, is really ‘eat rice?’. Often Ben is happy to eat just rice and chilli, washed down with black tea.

So the farm feeds the family. Ben, his wife, his grandson and Ten, plus any guests they have staying. I looked around and imagined that the rice here would be enough for 1 or 2 years perhaps. However the rice here is only enough for 7 months of the year, they buy rice for the other 5 months. The rice is harvested once a year, usually in October. After being milled, it is stored in the rice house.

Liz eating freshly picked and cooked cornAs well as rice, the farm has a variety of fruit and vegetables growing: corn, banana plants, chilli plants, tea, herbs, cucumbers, lime, little sour oranges, guava. All are picked, taken home and eaten, or collected to be sold.

Ben, Ten and his wife go to the farm most days to work, often leaving around 7am. The rice fields need constant attention. If it rains very heavily then the walls of the paddy fields can collapse.

The irrigation system allows water from the top to pour down along channels to each paddy, but again during heavy rain the water needs to be diverted away, with the help of miniature makeshift dam walls so that the fields don’t flood. Other threats are pests, insects that strip the rice plants, eating all the goodness away. If the rain doesn’t come then the fields dry up and the plants can die. It all seems like a finely tune balancing act.

makeshift dam

Some of us are farmers, some of us have allotments, but very few of us are responsible for growing our own food and providing for our families in this way. Yet in Thailand and may parts of Asia, subsistence farming is a way of life and an important part of village life. Thailand also supplies rice to many parts of the world, yet at home I believe we have little or no idea about how rice is grown or what is involved, or how it ends up, as if by magic, on our plate. It’s fascinating to see the magic first hand.

Ben explaining to Chris about the Farm

In the evening after a long day at the farm, Ben and Ten spend two hours teaching English to approx 40 students. By 8.30pm they can stop and relax. No more rice, no more kids to teach, for today anyway.

Did you know?
Rice is a staple food for nearly one-half of the world’s population. In 1990, the crop was grown on 145.8 million hectares of land, and production amounted to 518.8 million metric tons of grain (paddy, rough rice). Low in sodium and fat, rice has no cholesterol and is easy to digest. (source: The Cambridge World History of Food)

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One year since we left the UK to go bikeabout

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

One year ago today we flew to NZ to cycle back home, we are still quite far away and our original 15 month trip looks like it is going to be a little longer.
We have been busy in the Tomato village teaching, helping with the school and have been working on something else too (will announce this later).
So we have decided to stay here for a bit longer, another two weeks we reckon.  Hope to get a few blogs out next week about our time here.
When we finish here its back to Chiang Mai, get visa for China. Cycle to Loas boarder, cycle a little bit in Laos whilst making mental note to come back and do properly one day.  Cycle north for  six(ish) months through China across the Gobi Desert into Mongolia. Then turn left until we hit the Black Sea. Find the Danube River cycle up it, not literally of cause, then a short hope into France over the channel and tadaa home.
That’s the latest plan anyway but travel plan are ‘more like guide lines’ so you will have to keep following to find out what we get up to.
If you have not done so already check out our twitter and facebook pages.

Happy Cycling!

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