Sunset at Amphawa

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A week ago we had two pairs of visitors, one on their final day in Thailand after a month-long vacation and another on their first day in Thailand on the start of a multi-week vacation.  While the two pairs had never met, I rented a van and driver, bundled them all in, and took them down on a Friday night to the floating market in Amphawa, a town about 90 minutes southwest of Bangkok.

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I’ve been to Amphawa many times but on each visit I discover something new or, at least, a new way to approach it.  As such, I feel like I’m refining this “tour”, if you will.  Each subsequent guest gets a better experience.  For example, I have decided that Fridays are a much better day to go than Saturday or Sunday because the market is much less crowded.

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I’ve also decided that it is best to hire a boat and visit several of the temples along the river in the hour or so before sunset.  This way you get few tourists but lots of interesting “golden” light.  This temple, which has been abandoned to the forest, is at Bang Gung (literally, “Area of the Shrimp”) and while I’ve visited here on bicycle before, I didn’t realize it was an easy walk from the river.  Add that to future itineraries.

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Riding a long-tail boat down the Mae Khlong River just after sunset it a breathtaking experience.  The sky is so beautiful and the water is so calm.  Afterwards we explored the floating market, ate lots of tasty, fresh, and inexpensive seafood and other treats before heading back to Bangkok.

Previous entries about trips to the market:
October 2010 – A trip to the market finds is nearly flooded.
June 2010 – A grade school friend and his children visit on a “top secret” assignment.
January 2010 – a trip to the market with a Xangan from London.
December 2007 – An early trip there with an American friend and his mother.

 

The Flooding of Amphawa

While some guests were in town, we took a trip to Amphawa, a town in Thailand’s smallest province, Samut Songkhram, to visit the weekend evening floating market that is there.  We arrived late afternoon and had no trouble hiring a long-tail boat and heading out on a tour of the khlongs, or canals, of the province. 

For those of you who have never been, here is a three-minute video with commentary to give you a sense of what such a boat ride is like.

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Above, a flower vendor about to set out for the market.

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One of the buildings at Wat (temple) Chulamanee.  This building, interestingly enough, was not the main Buddha image hall.  Instead, it was a recently built building that houses the remains of the temple’s former head monk, who was apparently highly revered.

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Inside the building there is an altar like display, a wax effigy of the monk, and his mummified body in a glass coffin.  Uncommon as in Buddhism bodies are normally cremated, but I’ve seen this a few times before.

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Wat Bang Khae Noi, another temple on the western shore of the Mae Khlong River.  This one has beautiful teak carvings on the interior walls depicting the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives.

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A new, more modern arrangement of statues at the temple, overlooking the river.  The kneeling figures are not Buddhas but are disciples, praying to the Buddha image in the center.  On the right is the depiction of a Buddhist angel.  This display wasn’t here last time I was at this temple a year or so ago.

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Bruce and Howie enjoying their ride along the river.

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Sunset along the Mae Khlong River.  (Note that this is not the same as the Ma Kong River, which runs between Thailand and Laos and Thailand and Cambodia.

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The flooding in Samut Songkhram province has been very severe.  They had just experienced three days of heavy storms and the water level was very high.  To get an idea of just how high, notice that in the picture above, the customers at the floating food stalls are sitting on benches that go down one or two steps.  Compare that to the picture below, taken in July, when there were at least ten or twelve steps above the water, consistent with where I’ve seen it on all my previous visits.

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Top Secret Assignment Day 4

Agents E and C continued with their last major assignment, a reconnaissance mission to scope out the markets and wildlife of central Thailand.  Their destination: the Samphran Elephant Grounds and Amphawa Floating Market.

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We drove about an hour west of Bangkok to Nakhon Pathom province, home of the Samphran Elephant Ground and Zoo, a popular sightseeing stop both for foreign visitors as well as Thais.  I guess we could invite the animal rights experts to debate the merits of this type of attraction, in which elephants and other animals are on display and put through their paces in shows.  The upside is that it gives people a chance to interact with and, hopefully, appreciate these creatures and why it is important that their habitats be preserved.

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Agents E and C didn’t have any particular assignments at this first stop, other than to feed the elephants.  It is easy to be awed by how strong and how smart these animals are.  They are also very playful.  One of the adults liked dancing in her pen to the rhythm of the music playing from the magic show in the nearby stadium.  She was doing this on her own, with no guidance from her mahout, or trainer.

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Agent C got on well with one of the baby elephants…

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…but I think she got a little “carried away” by the baby’s mother!

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A unintentionally psychedelic photo when I had the wrong setting on the camera and twisted it while taking the picture.

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One of the babies (nine months old, in fact) hoped to borrow my camera.

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Even Tawn got into the act, getting a big hug from one of the elephants.

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In the elephant show, we learned about the history of elephants in Thai culture, including their use in logging, an occupation that is pretty much extinct, leading to the problem of too many elephants and too little designated land where they can roam wild.

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We also learned about elephants’ role as weapons of war, featuring a silly little skit complete with low-tech pyrotechnics to simulate the Thais’ victory over the Burmese.  Actually, at that point in history it would have been the Siamese’s victory.

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The park also featured crocodile pools and a show with two “croc whisperers” who perform all sorts of feats with the large and lazy reptiles.  No doubt the water is kept at a temperature that fosters a sedate mood, lessening the chance that one of the handlers loses a hand…

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…or a head!

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One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Agent E and C’s visit is that it is the small things that really provide young people with the most fun.  A half-hour spent paddling around the lush landscaping in an aged paddle boat provided an adventure for them and a respite for the adults.  The swan looks like it has had some plastic surgery, maybe a beak job.

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After the elephant grounds, we hopped into the car and drove through a small rain storm on our way to the floating market in Amphawa, Samut Songkhram province.  Along the way we stopped at a roadside cafe that I used to frequent in the days when I volunteered as an English teacher in this province, so as to enjoy several types of fried rice.

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Because there were a lot of other events going on this weekend (including World Cup) the market was busy but not overcrowded as sometimes happens.  As the sun was setting, we rented a long-tail boat and took a tour along the canals and river for a chance to see what country like along the water looks like.

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Along the way, we were able to find many trees and bushes along the banks that were full of the fireflies for which this area is famous.

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Back at the market, everything was bustling as people ate dinner and snacked on local specialties, including grilled prawns and squid that are among the freshest you’ll ever eat.

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The bulk of day 4’s assignment was to try new fruits, foods, and desserts, of which the market has plenty.  We went from vendor to vendor, looking at the many different items for sale, trying to guess what they were, and sampling many of them.  Above, Agents E and C, along with their father, try some fresh young coconuts.

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Uncle Tawn picked up several types of fruit for them to try.  By the end of the evening, the agents had fulfilled their assignment and had tasted (although not always enjoyed) many new edible items.

We headed back to Bangkok that evening with full stomachs, heavy eyelids, and many new memories.

 

Riding the Rails to Mae Klong

If you’ve watched the Thailand episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, then you are familiar with the Mae Klong Railway.  This tiny single track line runs from the west side of Bangkok, completely detached from the rest of the State Railway network, to Mae Klong in Samut Songkhram province.  Along the way the line ends on one side of the river in Mahachai in Samut Sakhon province and you have to take a ferry across the river to resume your journey.

Mae Klong Railway Map

A highlight of the journey is the last few hundred meters of the line, which run right through the center of the Mae Klong wet market.  Vendors scurry to pull back their trays, tables, and canopies so the train can pass through.  No sooner has the train passed then the vendors slide everything back out, just like a giant zipper closing along the tracks.

P1020833 The reason I took this journey, besides the fact that I’ve heard about it for several years and been curious to take it, was to evaluate its suitability for some guests who will be arriving in the coming months. 

The terminus of the railway is just a short drive from the Amphawa nighttime floating market, about which I’ve written several times (here and here).  The idea is that I could combine this train ride with a visit to the floating market, and then catch a bus or van back to Bangkok.

Right: Fellow traveler on the Mae Klong line.

For this adventure, I invited Bill, an American who moved here recently.  He’s spent extended periods here before and I know he has a taste of adventure.  In fact, he was here during the September 2006 coup and went out to shoot some great nighttime photos of the tanks.  He seemed well suited for what could potentially end up as a “and how do we get home?” sort of adventure.

If you’d like to just watch the movie version of this entry, the ten-minute video is here:

Otherwise, keep reading!

Railway Stations

The first challenge is that the train to Mae Klong departs at a tiny neighborhood station in Thonburi, on the west bank of Bangkok’s Chao Praya River instead of at the main Hualamphong Station.  Thankfully, six months ago the BTS Skytrain opened an extension across the river and the current terminus station is at Wongwian Yai, just a fifteen-minute walk (or five-minute taxi ride) from the Wongwian Yai Railway Station.

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You would be forgiven if you miss the station, which is located down the soi (alley) on the left with the small white sign.  In the distance is a large traffic circle, in the center of which is a statue of King Taksin (not the same spelling or pronunciation as the former Prime Minister Thaksin), the only king who ruled Siam from the capital here in Thonburi.  The capital was in Thonburi only 15 years before Taksin’s successor, King Rama I, moved the capital to the east bank where present-day Krungthep (Bangkok) is.

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The train sitting in Wongwian Yai Station with beautiful tropical foliage at the end of the line.

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Like all the terminal stations on the Mae Klong line, Wongwian Yai station is located in the midst of the market area.  Rows of vendors sell all sorts of fresh goods and other vendors sell food and drink to the locals and the commuters.  Despite this being a small, single-track line, it carries a lot of traffic including commuters into the city as well as both shoppers and sellers on their way to and from the market.

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An hour and about eight stops later, we arrived in Mahachai, the local name for the administrative seat of Samut Sakhon province.  Here, too, we found a market surrounding the station.  But in this case it was starting to spill over, with vendors who had to move each hour as the trains arrive and depart.

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Samut Sakhon is mostly a fishing town situated on the Tha Chin Klong River, which opens into the Gulf of Thailand.  There is a large fishing fleet which brings in large catches of many different types of seafood, most prominently the local delicacy plaatoo – mackerel. 

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A short walk from the Mahachai train station is the main ferry pier and next to that is a prominent six- or seven-story seafood restaurant.  My friend Stuart, who has done this trip twice before, suggested a stop here for lunch and since we had about three hours between trains (the trains on the second line run just four times a day versus hourly on the first line), Bill and I decided to try it.

The top several stories are air conditioned but there was a wonderful breeze so we opted to sit in one of the open-air seating areas.  What beautiful weather for enjoying a fresh seafood meal.  Here’s what we had – way too much food for just two people!

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Typical condiments: lime, green onions, cucumber (to cool the spice), fish sauce with chili (small dish) and seafood dipping sauce which is made from tons of chilies, fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar, all blended together.

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Deep fried omelet with crab meat.  Sweet chili dipping sauce.

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Stir-fried mixed vegetables.

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Gaeng Som – orange soup, moderately spicy and made with tamarind paste.

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Closeup of the soup, with shrimp and pieces of omelet made with a strong-flavored green that grows along the river banks.  Has the same effect as asparagus.

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Fried rice with salted fish and crab.

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The big finale were two large grilled river prawns with some of that super-hot dipping sauce from the first picture.  So fresh!

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How fresh, you ask?  Right out of the tank and onto the fire.  Now that’s fresh!

Want to take a guess at the price of the meal?  All that food (plus beer for me) was 1100 baht – about US$34.  And I think about half that price went just for the prawns.  Wow, what a great meal.

After the meal we headed out to find the ferry to the Ban Laem train station on the far side of the river.  It turns out that the main ferry departing from the pier adjacent to the restaurant will drop you on the correct side of the river, but several blocks from the train station.  The ticket attendant indicated that there was another ferry we could take, motioning behind the restaurant.

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Bill and I headed around the building, past a warehouse where fish were being processed, and found this really rickety looking pier with a small ferry docked at it.  We boarded and asked the few people sitting on the ferry if the ferry was going to Ban Laem Railway Station.  They nodded.  I tried to pay my fare and they laughed and said that they were passengers, too.  A few minutes later it became clear who the captain was as he stuck his head into the engine compartment at the rear of the boat to fire up the engine.  His dog, seemingly high on caffeine, was running around the boat like crazy, wrestling with the mooring line.

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It took about ten minutes to slowly chug our way up the river.  The west side of the river at this point is actually a bulbous isthmus, so while it took a lot of time, we weren’t really covering much ground.  Looking at the map later, I think we would have been fine to take the main ferry and then just walk a few blocks to the train station, but no matter.  The view was pleasant.  The tide was out and any number of fishing vessels sat on the mud, their vibrant colors fading in the sun.

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As we pulled up to the pier in Ban Laem, it wasn’t clear how we were going to disembark as the pier was fully out of the water.  The captain nudged the bow of his boat up to the pier and we clambered off over the bow, landing on more rickety wooden decking.  In this picture you can actually see one of the trains at the station, right below the temple’s roof.  Talk about integrated transit – the train line ends right next to the boat pier.

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The hour journey from Ban Laem up to Mae Klong was a lot less comfortable than the first segment from Bangkok.  The tracks seemed less even and we were rocking and rolling.  The train filled as we approached Mae Klong, so there wasn’t any room to spread out.  We were getting tired and weary from the heat and the endless salt evaporation ponds made for monotonous viewing.

As we pulled into Mae Klong, we passed through what seemed to be a forest of canvas as the market vendors’ awnings were pulled back, making walls that nearly blinded us as we rolled through.  From were we were sitting, we couldn’t see the vendors themselves.

Upon our arrival we had one hour before the train – the last train of they day – headed back.  We did a quick walk around downtown Mae Klong, a town I’m actually pretty familiar with as it is the administrative seat of Samut Songkhram, the province in which I spent more than a year volunteering as an English teacher at a small elementary school.

We were back about twenty minutes before departure and had to fight to get some seats.  Everyone wanted to be on the last train of the day, it seemed.  On the way into Mae Klong, I noticed that some other tourists (Thai tourists, though) were at the back of the train taking pictures out the open rear door.  A few minutes before we headed out, I decided to go to the back of the train (which had been the front of the train when we arrived) and see if I could open the door to take pictures of the market as we passed through it.

I couldn’t open the door – it seemed fixed shut – but some of the local ladies sitting at that end of the train engaged me in conversation and told me to go ahead and sit in the engineer’s compartment.  Not sure if I should or not, I decided that “they told me I could” was an adequate excuse and went ahead and sat down.  Carefully holding the camera out the window while looking in the rearview mirror for any obstacles that would slice off my hand, I filmed our trip out of the station and through the market.

It was amazing, watching the vendors push their trays and wares and awnings back in place not two seconds after the train had passed.  As I wrote earlier, it was just like a zipper closing up over the railway tracks.  Next time I take that train I’m going to figure out how to open the door so I can get a good view of it.

The ride home was anticlimactic.  We had seen the landscape before and including the three-hour layover the entire journey had taken more than eight hours.  My conclusion is that doing just the first half of the trip is probably plenty – take the train out to Mahachai for lunch and then take it back.  Samut Songkhram province and the Amphawa floating market is best reached by car or van.

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By the time we made it back to the Wongwian Yai Skytrain station, the sun had set and a beautiful early evening sky glowed above the city.  Another fun and exciting adventure in Thailand.

 

To Amphawa Floating Market with David

Last week I enjoyed a visit from another Xanga friend, David from London.  While he doesn’t post as frequently as he once did, I’ve enjoyed his photos and entries from his travels around the globe and was glad he contacted me in advance of his visit to Thailand – his first return in more than a half-dozen years.

We drove to Samut Songkhram province (the smallest of Thailand’s 76 provinces) to visit the Amphawa nighttime floating market.  I’ve been there and written about my visits many times before.  Each new visit, though, provides some interesting sights I haven’t seen before.  Plus, there’s lots for a photobug like David to shoot.

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Samut Songkhram province is known, among other things, for its sea salt.  Located adjacent to the Gulf of Thailand, the highway through the province is lined with evaporation ponds.  This reminds me a bit of the giant evaporation ponds in the South Bay Area near San Francisco.  While many of those ponds have been returned to marshland as part of environmental protection land-swaps, when I was growing up we would drive past these vast fields of water slowly changing hues as the water evaporated and different algae would flourish.

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While is wasn’t harvest season in most of the ponds, there was one where workers were raking up the salt crystals into small piles and then carting them away.  It is visually interesting to look at.

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Upon arrival to downtown Amphawa, the small town that hosts the successful nighttime Friday-Sunday floating market, we explored one of the nearby temples.  This temple, Wat Amphawan Chetiyaram, was built on the spot where King Rama II was born in 1766.  There is also a nearby park commemorating his birth.

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In and of itself, it is a temple like many others.  But inside the main bot, or chapel, there are some beautifully elaborate (and well-maintained) murals.  These not only depict stories from the Buddha’s life but also feature scenes from the early years of the Chakri Dynasty and life in Krungthep (Bangkok) in the late 1700s.  In fact the mural behind the Buddha statues shows Rattanakosin Island, the “old city” of Krungthep.  Just to the left of the main Buddha image you can see an open field that is still there today, known as Sanam Luang (royal field).  To the right of the Buddha image is the Grand Palace and to the right of that, Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

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Outside the bot we watched a monk tend to the grounds.  In my years here I have never seen a monk use a weed whacker.

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Before the crowds grew heavy and the sun set, we hired a boat and went for a 90-minute tour of the Mae Khlong river (not to be confused with the Mae Kong which borders Laos) and the surrounding canals.  Above, a ferry takes a group of secondary school students home.

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We returned to Amphawa just as the action was picking up.  This market is very popular with Thais, although I am noticing an increased presence of foreigners.  Too many people reading this blog and adding Amphawa to their itinerary, I guess.  (Yeah, right!)  The market has a live announcer and DJ who plays traditional Thai music.  There is also karaoke and this man (#66) was really getting into his song, dancing around as he sang.

Ploy David and I settled down along the footpath and started ordering food from the vendors who are on boats in the canal below.  One of the vendors, a woman selling fruit, cried out upon seeing me, “Teacher Chris!  Teacher Chris!”  Startled, I had to take a second look.  “It’s Ploy’s mother,” she said, referencing one of my birghtest and kindest sixth graders (pictured right) when I volunteered as an English teacher in the nearby village of Bangkhonthinai.

We had a nice chat and I was surprised to hear that Ploy’s already in ninth grade.  Has it been so long already?  I was also very happy to hear that she is continuing to study English and that it is one of her favorite subjects.  When Ploy moved to secondary school (after sixth grade) she achieved the third-highest score on the English proficiency exam in the entire province, something I was very proud of.  The fact that she’s still studying and enjoying it is a good thing.

I asked her mother to send my regards and suggested that Ploy should stay in touch.  After I finished teaching, I continue to occassionally send postcards to my former students, hoping that this will inspire them to be curious about the world and, especially, the world outside their province.  After teaching there for more than a year, I and the friends who helped with the teaching always hoped that at least a few of the students would be inspired by the experience and achieve more than their modest beginnings might otherwise inspire them to.

Anyhow, that was the fun trip to Ampahwa.  It was really nice to spend time with David and to hear his stories and experiences.  Hopefully once he returns to bitterly cold London he’ll post some of the pictures from his trip to Thailand.

 

Another Trip to Amphawa

Sunday morning after a breakfast of homemade buttermilk biscuits and French Press coffee, Tawn, Bob and I set off to Samut Songkhram province, some 90 km southwest of Krungthep, for a visit to Ajarn Yai.

You may recall that Ajarn Yai (literally, “Big Teacher”) is the retired director of the small elementary school where I volunteered as an English teacher back in 2006-2007.  Because she was so welcoming both to me and my family and friends when they visited, I have stayed in touch with her.  Every month or so she calls, eager to tell me that while she was out and about she saw a farang (foreigner) and thought of me.  (The truth is, all of us white people really do look alike!)

One thing she really wants is to take a visit to the United States.  As a young lady, she was accepted to study at a university in Michigan, but her parents felt it was too far to send a woman to study, so she instead attended school locally.  She now has three Master’s Degrees, including one in Special Needs Education, and even in her retirement serves as a mediator for the local courts and also as part of an adult vocational needs training program in this rural province.

She still asks, though, when I’m going to take her to the United States to visit my family.

After a nice seafood lunch at a small, riverside restaurant, we drove to the community of Amphawa, where a popular weekend floating market is located nearby the birthplace of King Rama II.  This market is supposed to be a nighttime market, but due to its popularity, by early afternoon the boats were out and tourists (almost exclusively Thai) were strolling along the crowded sides of the canal.

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The area of the market has been expanded to the north, opening up more space for the overflowing crowds of tourists.  Dozens of weathered buildings have been unshuttered, turned into restaurants, gift shops, homestays and boutiques.  While this is good economically for the town, the crowds threaten to make the quality of life less pleasant and relaxed.  Signs, both in English and Thai, have been put up warning people to be aware of pickpockets.  Amphawa, at least this small section of it, may end up being a victim of its own success.

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The heat was intense and muggy, no rainstorms in sight to offer so relief, so instead we ducked into one of these new cafes and enjoyed a shaved ice dessert.  You could choose three “add-ins” from things like corn, Job’s tears, kidney beans, hearts of palm fruit, etc.  These were topped with a mound of shave ice, a drizzle of flavored sugar syrup and, if you like, sweetened condensed milk.

Cool and sweet and tasty and refreshing…

After a bit more visiting we dropped Ajarn Yai off at her home and headed back up the highway to the Big Mango, glad to be in the air conditioning.

 

DSCF0208 Last August, when I wrapped up my volunteer English teaching at Bangkhonthiinai School in Samut Songkhram province, I provided each of the students with a business card containing my contact information, encouraging them to write.

The next few months were very silent.

Then, Khruu Somchai introduced the sixth graders to the mismatched computers in the school’s computer lab.  Shortly thereafter, I started receiving emails from some of the sixth graders. 

At first, they were in Thai.

พวกเราคิดถึงคุณครูมากๆคะ ถ้ามีโอกาศกรุณาส่งกลับมาด้วยนะคะ (ส่งเป็นภาษาไทยนะคะ)

We miss teacher very much.  If you have an opportunity, please write back. (Write in Thai, please.) 

And other messages like that.

 

Since my computer doesn’t have Thai on it (and since it is my employer’s computer, the Windows disk that I need to install the Thai language capabilities is in Houston, Texas) I have to use a virtual Thai keyboard.  That makes for some really slow typing on my part.

Finally, I sent the following message to the sixth graders:  Translations in italics, below.

ครูหวังว่าหนูจะฝึกหัดเขียนภาษาอังกฤษต่อไปเรื่อยๆ

ถ้าหนูอยากจะฝึกเขียนภาษาอังกฤษ หนูควรจะเขียน e-mail ให้ครูเป็นภาษาอังกฤษ เขียนผิดก็ได้ครูอ่านรู้เรื่อง เหมือนกับเด็กฝึกหัดเดินต้องมีล้มบ้าง แต่ก็จะเดินเก่งได้ในที่สุด  เหมือนกับหนูที่ต้องฝึกเขียนอังกฤษบอยๆ ครูเชื่อว่าหนูจะต้องเก่งแน่นอน

 

So from now on, I will write to you in English.  And you can practice writing English to me, too.

 

Best regards,

 

Teacher Chris

I hope that you will continue practice writing English [after you graduate].  If you want to practice writing English, you should write your emails to me in English.  Even if you write incorrectly I will still understand.  Just like a child practicing walking must sometimes fall but will walk well in the end so, too, you must pracice writing English regularly.  I believe that you will certainly become good [at writing].

 

Of the three sixth graders to whom I sent that message, one has stopped writing, one has continued writing in Thai, and a third – the class president – is actually making an effort to include some English.  Here’s a sample:

how  are you way teacher  com on  school one ครั้ง because we
 go out from
Bang khonteenai school we
คิดถึงคุณครูนะคะอยากให้คุณครูมาเที่ยวที่โรงเรียนบ้างเพราะนักเรียนทุกคนรักคุณครูนะค่ะ
Hataichanok

It is kind of funny how she ran out of English and switched to Thai.  The first Thai word is “time”.  To encourage her, my responses have been a combination of correcting her English, encouraging her (in English) to continue practicing, and then adding a little bit of news in Thai so she doesn’t get overwhelmed by an entire email in English. 

A week ago, my email inbox showed messages from two new students: the fifth graders are now in the computer lab, too!  One of them pre-emptively explained that she wants to write in English but isn’t ready yet.

Curiously, only the girls seem to be interested in writing the emails.  None from the boys.  I sent an email response to the pair of fifth graders and asked whether the boys were scared of computers or the girls are just more clever.  Nothing like a little bit of a rivalry.