Posts Tagged ‘Burma’

First week at Tomato Village School

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

(Written Monday 9th evening)

So we’ve just completed our first week at the Tomato Village School, time flies, can’t believe it’s been a week already! When we first arrived, albeit after a long journey, we both felt a bit jet lagged and as if we had landed in a new country. It is much cooler up here and you need to wear an extra layer in the evening. The village is situated in the mountainous area, north west of Mae Hong Son, about 2000+ meters up. The windy road up here climbs swiftly and is pretty steep – be great fun to cycle down, not so sure about the journey back up!



We are living with Benjamin and his family, and the two school classrooms are built on his land, along with the volunteers accommodation. We are on a hillside, so the bigger classroom is at the top, our hut in the middle, along side Ben’s house and then the smaller classroom is at the bottom. There is a path that runs up, but it is quite muddy and slippery. I managed to slip quite badly a few days ago, despite stepping carefully like a granny.

Benjamin runs the school with is son in law Ten, who is the assistant teacher. Benjamin is originally from Burma but left the country many years ago when ‘things got too bad’.

He has many stories to tell us about Burma and we are close to the largest refugee camp where more than 25,000 Burmese refugees live (there are 5 large camps a long the border with Thailand).

We will hopefully be able to share some of these stories with you and maybe even arrange a visit to the camp, although we need to speak with the UN first.

Our accommodation is comfortable, we have our own room/building with a bed and mattress, bedding and a mosquito net. There is electricity and we have a power socket in our room. There is also a good mobile phone (and therefore internet) signal, apart from when it is raining! There is a toilet across the path and we can use the shower in the family bathroom or have a bucket wash…big trough of water with scoop, you pour water over yourselves and wash. The water is pretty cold! We have blankets on our bed as it’s cold at night. Despite the cool temperature there are still plenty of mosquitoes up here, as well as moths, spiders, little beetles, cockroaches and various other visitors. We are both enjoying the cooler climate though – it’s a nice change after many many months of heat.

Our roomBenjamin is also providing all of our meals, cooking for us at lunch and dinner time. The food has been great and it’s interesting to see what people eat on an every day basis, even is if ours is a less spicy version! Rice features heavily of course, but we have had curry, sweet and sour stir-fry with pork and fresh pineapple, spicy pork meatballs, soups, fish, sweet honey sausage, bananas, jackfruit, pineapple, sticky rice, cakes biscuits, plus copious amount of sweet black tea and fresh coffee! So we are being looked after very well and Benjamin is a great host who takes a lot of care to make sure we are happy.

Chris and Ben ‘drive the train’ together (smoking cigars from Burma) over coffee and interesting chats.

The English lesson take place in the evening 6-8pm. The children go to school during the day and then come up to Ben’s place in the evening. Many arrive early, well before 6pm to play and eat snacks, greeting us with ‘Good evening teacher!’.

Class B

The youngest children are about 6 years old and the eldest 15 years old. There are 60 students, split into 3 classes, A, B and C. Early on Chris opted to teach Class A – advanced, which suited me fine as I prefer working with younger kids, so I take B class (mon, wed, fri) and C class (tues and thurs). After a couple of evening teaching with Benjamin and Ten, we began to teach on our own. Ben could se early on that Chris is a natural teacher, with plenty of patience, oodles of enthusiasm and good crowd control.

I chose to draw on my creative skills, making flash cards and wall charts, bringing out my colouring pencils and coloured chalk to brighten things up  a little. Ten was pleased with my first lesson and said that i seemed to know what i wad doing, had a good plan and it was if i had come form teacher training college! Delighted with such positive feedback I was happy to teach alone.

My classroom is quite small and i have limited room to manoeuvre – 4 desks, 4 benches, 22 kids and a blackboard. The electricity is good and we have lighting, however the electric cuts off occasionally  and we have car batteries for back up, and candles. So far it has cut out twice but only for a short period. The kids always cheer loudly when it comes back on.

Top Classroom at break time

Top Classroom at break time

Chris teaches in the top classroom up the hill, which is more spacious. He teaches Class A – 22 kids, older and more advanced.Many of the kids have to travel form their high schools, which are further away, so they often don’t arrive until after 6pm. It’s a long old day for them and they come every night to learn English!

The kids are great, very friendly, keen to learn, well behaved and polite with a good attitude. They seem pleased to have us here. Overall we are impressed with the level of English being taught here, considering the remote location and resources.

After our first couple of evenings teaching, we were both on a high, buzzing with the energy and fun of teaching. We sit with Ben and Ten and have tea or coffee, chatting until it’s time for bed.  The rain arrives in the evening and we snuggle under our blankets, both happy to be here, feeling settled in our peaceful surroundings. We both sleep well.

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Bridge over the River Kwai – 18th July

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

We’re finally leaving Bangkok. Travelling by train (yes to avoid the Bangkok highways and for speed – we need to get to Chiang Mai) from Thonburi Station, Bangkok Noi, we planned to catch the 13.35 to Kanchanaburi, home of the bridge over the River Kwai. As we approached the station, it looked more like a train graveyard than a station, I wad doubtful that trains ever left here! However as we got closer, we saw a platform and people waiting, so that was a step in the right direction. The train was at 13.55 and cost 100 Baht each, plus 180 for the two bikes.

At thonburi station

Already engrossed in my book...

So off we go, with a few snacks from the roadside stall in hand, at a slow pace. It’s a 3rd class train so I’m not expecting it to fly, but this is a little slow. Ah well relax and enjoy the journey. We are due to arrive at 16.20. After 45mins, the train stops and sits, then after lots of loud jolting and banging of metal, the train begins to go backwards! Not so good. We end up back where we started an hour ago, at Thonburi station! Hmmn cue Thomas the tank engine music. It appears that the engine train is ‘bloken’. A new engine,that Chris now nicknames Thomas, arrives and after more banging and jolting we set off again. Only now we are going really really fast, should… er… a train go this fast??


Stopped again. The main in uniform is on his walkie talkie, strolling up and down the platform outside. There isn’t much in the way of information round here, so no one has much idea what’s happening. Chris informs me that it might be a box junction and that because the train is now running late, we may have to wait for another train to pass. I have no idea how he knows this.  Now resigned to a long journey I open my book, the excellent A short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson and lose myself in the rather entertaining world of the sub-atomic, particles with strange names that only exist theoretically ( no one has actually seen one) oh and Flash Gordon. Chris meanwhile is writing an article on choosing a touring bike, on our laptop. A few minutes later a train comes from the opposite direction, passes us and we set off again. Needless to say, I now know what a box junction is.

So our 2 and 3/4 hr journey turns into 5 hrs and we arrive in Kanchanaburi about 7pm, both feeling weary and slightly bewildered – where exactly did the day go?  We load the bikes and head straight to the town to find a guesthouse and some food. We end up going to the main drag to No Name bar, with the rather charming slogan of ‘get shitfaced on a shoestring’ – primarily because they serve bangers and mash. Anyone who knows me well, probably knows that I love mash potato. Thai food doesn’t really feature potato very heavily, so I had to seize the opportunity. It was very good and came with fried onions and gravy! We ended up having a couple of beers and talking till late about the planets, chance, fate, witchcraft, how unlikely it is that we should even exist at all, how lucky… all the usual topics you might expect in an evening down the pub, ha ha!

Next day, a scorcher even by Thai standards – 36 degrees at 11am – we head to the Railway Museum to learn more about the story behind Kanchanaburi and the bridge. It’s air-conditioned, 100 Baht to get in and free tea/coffee at the end. It was well worth the entry fee and an excellent place to start. The exhibition is very well presented and helps to re-create the conditions that the POWs were living and working in. It also explains the Japanese involvement in WWII and their prolific advancement through SE Asia. The well known film concentrates on the bridge and depicts British POWs, however the Japanese project here was on a much bigger scale. The men were building a railway from Thailand to Burma, cutting through the mountains and building several bridges, and they were not just British. Prisoners from Australia, Holland and America were there too, plus of course the Thai people, Burmese, Malays and Indian workers (mostly drafted by force) who often get forgotten. They were subject to horrific conditions; near starvation, dysentery from unclean water supplies, disease from mosquitoes, injuries and sickness sustained from working, the heat and the brutality. It was truly horrendous and 100,000 men died in 3 years at various camps along the railway. One board explained that ‘food rations were withheld from those who were sick to encourage them to return to work’. Most of these men were dying or seriously ill, many due to lack of food and nutrients ( medics prescribed marmite as medicine)! Shocking.


I found it a very moving exhibition and made me very glad (selfishly) that both my brother and partner  – both of a similar age to many of the men who died here – were not alive during WWII.  I know that my Grandad was in Burma during the war, however I know nothing of his time there or the horrors he may have encountered.

Final resting place

The cemetery opposite marks many graves of the men who died here. It is beautifully kept and there were people tending to the plants and grass around the headstones whilst we were there. So far from home, I’d be glad to know that so many people visited and remembered.

At the bridge

From there we cycled to the Bridge, which was a little underwhelming. It isn’t a wooden trestle bridge as seen in the film, in fact it’s concrete and steel. The surrounding area is now filled with restaurants and shops, with lots of people milling around. The river has floating Kareoke bars going up and down. No matter how hard i tried, I couldn’t imagine it as a POW camp.

The railway

As we cycle on, I can’t help thinking that even on the hardest, toughest days that we might have cycling, I’m pretty sure that none of them compare to the days endured by the prisoners of 1940-1943.

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All the way here…

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Leaving Ranong we set off in the rain, donning waterproof trousers for the first time in months, in the hope that my cycling shorts would not get wet (therefore avoiding chafing issues!). Being so hot I decided to roll them up and make them waterproof shorts…

We cycled along, the road was very new and took us up and up a winding route, with the water pouring down the gutters and drains like small rivers as we rode. Reaching the top we then whizzed down the hill and passed a sign saying ‘Scenic Area’ – with the cloud so low and the rain and spray so dense, it was hard to see anything scenic at all, but I’m sure it was a great view! We both enjoy cycling in the rain, it’s very refreshing and quite good fun, not too different from stomping in puddles with wellies on!

We stopped along the road side for a Beng Beng and a cheese sandwich made with the little bread and cheese we had left – felt like old times, cheese sarnies by the side of the road in the pouring rain.

The road continued to go up and down but through very pretty, leafy, lush areas, before we came to Kra Buri. I zoomed ahead and then realised I had lost Chris. I waited for a while then turned the bike around and went back to see if he was ok – probably stopped to chat to someone. But no he had a puncture. After fixing the puncture it was about 4pm, so we went to get a hot meal and come up with a plan. We decided to stay in Kra buri and went to Pannika Resort, which is a small place off the highway with little ‘bungalow’ rooms, that look like gingerbread houses from the outside. The lady who runs it has lots of cycle tourers staying with her, it’s in one of the Dutch guidebooks I think, so she was used to people turning up on bikes and spoke great English, making us feel very welcome.

Chris promptly fell asleep and then later we watched Bridge over the River Kwai on the laptop – we are going to Kanchanaburi, where the bridge was built, Chris had never seen the film so we downloaded it to watch.

Acts of kindness and a disaster

Next day we had breakfast, which ended up being free and the lady gave us a bag of sugared mango strips to take on our journey to Chumpon – so kind!

The road was flat compared to yesterday and we speeded along, once again with the threat of rain. We reached the Kra of Isthmus which is where the border with Burma meets Thailand and you can see Burma across the river. We stopped briefly as it was now raining quite heavily!

The rain cleared however and we stopped to have a small rest near a house. As we were leaving the lady of the house came out and gave us a bag of mangostine fruit, with a smile and then rode off on her scooter. The fruit lasted us days and is similiar to lychees.

We were making good progress, Chris was ahead of me slightly on the fast roads and as i approached an Army checkpoint (for vehicles, drugs testing) I smiled and prepared to carry on through. One of the solider signalled to me to stop and pull over, slightly bewildered I looked around and saw that Chris was already sat with two Army guys  -  they had invited us to join them for coffee! I sat down and had a cup of tea ( not being a big coffee drinker). We chatted to them for 10-15 mins, Chris smoked a cigarette or two with them and we explained about our trip before heading off again. Chris has said how nice the coffee was and before we left, the army man gave us a big bag of coffee to take with us!  What an amzing day this was turning out to be, people everywhere were so friendly and welcoming.

As we set off I knew i needed to stop somewhere to go to the loo. Public toilets are very uncommon in Thailand, so I usually just dive into the bushes, behind a tree or something. So I said to Chris that I would pull over and go now, but that i would catch him up. After a quick wee I hopped back on the bike and pedalled to catch him up. As I came round the bend in the road I saw an accident up ahead. My first thought was that Chris was involved, and I felt the panic rise in my stomach, however as i got close I saw that it was two vehicles. I looked ahead and couldn’t see Chris ahead of the accident, he must have got further along the road. The two cars (4×4 style) were right across the road, smashed into each other, with glass and debris everywhere. I stopped my bike and got off. As I did the driver of the vehicle most badly damaged, staggered out of his car through the broken windscreen and I saw his face pouring with blood. Chris carries our main first aid kit, but i carry a small one too. I quickly opened my bags and found it, my hands shaking as i did. I wanted to help, and having done two first aid courses I knew the basics, but it’s still the first time I’ve actually had to use it. I found a large swab bandage, good for applying to a wound with pressure to stop the bleeding, but i had no gloves and little else except plasters and wipes. As i turned around i saw that there was a passenger in the car too, the driver opened the door and I saw  a young woman, conscious but she fell forward and was helped out of the car.  I could see she was badly hurt, her head and eye was badly bruised, swollen and bleeding. Several Thai people had stopped by to help and they took her to the back of a pick up truck and lay her down there, with a pillow for her head. I passed the large bandage to one of the people helping and pointed for them to help the woman. But with virtually no Thai language other than words for food and greetings, I wasn’t really able to explain much and there was so much blood – it was hard to tell where her injuries were. The injured man got in beside her, obviously in shock and his nose still pouring with blood.  They lay her on her back and so I gestured for them to turn her on her side into something of a recovery position, and mimed breathing and pointed to her mouth, they turn her on her side but I don’t know if they understood about her airway and to check she was breathing as they travelled. Then before i had chance to do anything they sped off. The nearest hospital was 30km north, same place we were heading, I could only hope they would get there and that she would be ok, hoping that it all looked worse than it was.

The man in the other vehicle was fine and I stopped to ask him if he was hurt, but he motioned that he was ok. His vehicle’s air bag had deployed but the others weren’t so lucky. I cycled away, feeling a bit wobbly myself. The roads here are very good, fast and wide but this road has many sweeping bends. They are blind bends, yet the Thai regularly overtake on a bend, at speed, and I can only think that that is what happen here. I was cautious as i continued and stayed close to  the left side of the hard shoulder, watching the traffic in my mirror constantly. I really wanted to catch up with Chris now, but with stopping to help, he was probably quite ahead of me. With my adrenaline still pumping I pedalled hard, going about 26km an hour,  and caught him up, relieved to see his relaxed, smiling face – he has stopped to wait for me. I told him what had happened and that i was worried that the girl might stop breathing and no-one would know what to do, maybe I could have done more to help, but it all happened so quickly? We stopped for some food and a drink, before continuing so that I could calm down a little.

As we got closer to Chumpon the  roads were straighter and busier and it was like entering a city. At the lights we saw a monkey on the back of a coconut truck, he didn’t look very happy.

As we continued I saw several hospitals and was glad, I knew that the injured couple would be there somewhere, being looked after.

In the hussle and bustle of Chumpon we looked for some accommodation. As we did the heavens opened and we got soaked in under a minute. It sure does rain heavy here! We found accommodation and I was relieved to stop to sleep after such an eventful day!

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Volunteering for Child’s Dream

Friday, July 2nd, 2010
Map of Thailand

Our Location, Northern Thailand

Once we reach Chiang Mai we will travel to Mae Hong Son, an 8 hour bus ride north west, to a village near the Burmese border. We will be living and working in the Tomato Village for 1 month, teaching English and generally making ourselves useful around the place, alongside Benjamin, the founder of the school.

The Tomato Village is a one-hour drive from Mae Hong Son up a very steep, winding road. It is beautifully situated within a couple of kms from the Burmese border, surrounded by scenic mountains.

Many ethnic minorities from Burma call this village their home.  Benjamin left Burma a long time ago to seek refuge in Thailand and has been living here ever since.

Benjamin started to teach English to some local minority children and his small wooden house served as school. In 2004 Child’s Dream built a small school (incl. two toilets) to an accommodate English classes for up to  40 children.

It is important for these minority children to learn English because this enhances their opportunities to find a job or to continue their studies. Being able to speak English is a valuable asset in Thailand, as it not only provides a competitive edge, but also increases the social status of these minority people.

Find out more about the Tomato Village project…

Benjamin with children at school

We will be blogging, filming and photographing our experience here and hope to share the stories of the people who live here, with you at home. It’s a great opportunity for us and we hope we will help the children of the Tomato Village during our stay.

We are cycling to raise money to build a school with Child’s Dream. Please donate as much as you can afford. Our bikeabout trip, and our stay at the Tomato Village is entirely self-funded, so any money you donate will go directly to the charity, it will not cover any of our living costs – it is our choice to be there.

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