Bangkok in Rainy Season

For nearly six months of the year, from May through October, Thailand experiences the monsoon season. It has its own rhythms, its own challenges and its own joys.

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Much of the time, rainy season days are humid in the morning as the pavement dries out after overnight rain. The skies are mostly blue and the fresh air provides no filter to the sunlight, which bakes anyone unfortunately enough to be outside the shade like ants under the magnifying glass of a cruel, petulant child.

As the day progresses, cumulonimbus clouds build like fluffy albino cotton candy reaching into the stratosphere. They darken over the afternoon, their shade growing ever more menacing. Often, one half of the sky will still be sunny and blue while the other half will be an advancing, sheer wall of dark grey.

Once the wind picks up, you know that it is just a matter of minutes – at most a half-hour – before the rain starts to fall. Often, this happens in a fierce opening of the heavens, fire hoses turned on full force, a deluge turning roads to canals and canals to lakes. The torrent can just as rapidly cease, leaving the temperatures considerably cooler and, if the clouds vanish, the stars clearly visible even in a city with so much light pollution.

Sometimes, though, the rain stays around at varying degrees of intensity, snarling traffic, stranding pedestrians and leaving behind flooded sois (alleys) that take hours to drain. Thankfully, this does not happen too often and when it does, you just alter your plans and either stay in (if you were caught at home) or stay out (if you had not yet made it home).

Patience is called for.

The joy of rainy reason comes in the moderately cooler weather – each degree of reduction is appreciated – and the breezes. This year, while our rainfall has been heavy, there has been minimal flooding. The greatest joy of rainy season is the cool season that follows it, though.

Thai street food: khanom tang taek

There was a time when I wrote a lot more about Thai street food. In the years since I had to stop working from home and started getting a real job, I’ve had a lot less time to write – but rest assured I haven’t stopped enjoying Thai street food! In the past few months, I’ve discovered a tasty treat that I had not encountered in more than ten years here: a snack named after a broken barrel.

Called “khanom tang taek” this snack is basically a pancake cooked in a deep pan, filled with shredded fresh coconut, black sesame seeds and sugar.

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Baked until crisp, it is folded in half (the breaking of the “barrel”) and served while still warm.

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It isn’t the fastest treat to make, perhaps one of the reasons you see so few street vendors making it. But the flavor and texture and wonderful and I count myself lucky to have a vendor who is regularly found at lunchtime across the street from my office.

 

Dinner at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Bangkok

Joël Robuchon is one of the most successful chefs in the world, with a chain of eponymous restaurants in major cities around the globe. Last month, I had the opportunity to dine at the Bangkok branch of his “L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon” chain, literally the artist’s workshop of Joël Robuchon. It is widely considered Bangkok’s finest restaurant and I could see how that argument is made.

Let me share a bit about the experience, which was exquisite. I’ll preface this by sharing that four friends of ours generously gave us a certificate for the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairing, so we did not pay for this meal out of pocket. Additionally, Tawn knows the executive chef here in Bangkok, so let him know we would be coming, ensuring particularly attentive service. That said, I believe that this is a fantastic experience for anyone and a good value for the money, for an extremely special occasion.

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The restaurant is located a few floors up in the Mahanakorn Cube, a small shopping complex adjacent to the construction site for what will soon be one of tallest and most spectacular buildings on the Bangkok skyline. As you enter, you step into a small, darkly lit but richly decorated sitting room and are greeting by polite staff.

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The entire room is laid out as a long counter seating perhaps 30 people. There is a small private function room in the back. The layout is evocative of a sushi bar and thus the diners’ attention is drawn towards the kitchen and service staff. This reinforces the idea that the restaurant is an artist’s workshop: you are hear to observe the craft.

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We were seated at the middle of the counter with a direct view of the main cooking station. This also allowed us additional attention and interaction with the chef as well as the rest of the staff. There is a very good ambiance and you can tell that while the team takes their work seriously, they have fun and enjoy working with each other.

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The amuse bouche, a pairing of crisp and soft quinoa and a mouse with smoked piquillo peppers. Interesting pairing of textures and flavors just to whet the appetite.

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The breads are baked in-house by their pastry chef and the large bread bowl is refreshed throughout the meal, not that you particularly need to fill up on bread.

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Such is the attention to detail that the design of some of the rolls match the bread plates.

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Le caviar imperial de sologne – a surprise of Sologne Imperial caviar served on a lobster broth gelee with dainty dots of cauliflower puree. The flavors were very clean and the detailing was meticulous.

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Underneath the caviar is a thin disk of crab meat. And that is a flake of edible gold leaf in the middle. This was a good example of where beautifully balanced flavors and technique are amplified by the thoughtful presentation.

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Executive chef Olivier Limousin and his staff playfully presents the next course. He is a bon vivant and gracious host.

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La truffe noire – the black truffle. A poached egg with black truffle, perched atop a cake of risotto with shaved parmigiano reggiano cheese. A nice combination and another artful presentation, although I would argue the risotto was a tad under-seasoned.

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Le foie gras de canard – pan fried duck liver, roasted tangerine with chopped rosemary and a mango sauce. This was a very simple pairing, proving that simple flavors, executed well, can be amazing.

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Close-up detail of the cross-hatches on the surface of the foie gras, letting the fat render beautifully. Coarse salt and chives were the perfect addition to the rich main ingredient.

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Roasted artichoke on a thin puree of artichoke, served with chickpeas cappuccino scented with tumeric. This was a dish that surprised on two counts: not only was the dish itself very unctuous, but it was beautifully paired with a wine that made a beautiful transformation after a bite of the dish. Artichoke is usually kills most wines.

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The fish course was a black cod, marinated with miso served with a pumpkin veloute with chestnut and black truffle.

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Close-up of the fish, you can see how the scales appear to have been fried and turned into crunchy bits, which were distracting. I loved the flavor of this dish, particularly the broth. I didn’t identify it as a pumpkin veloute with chestnut and black truffle. It seemed much more like a butter and orange sauce, but maybe my palette was off.

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There was a dish of lamb chops with mashed potato that was exquisitely prepared. It is such a simple, rustic dish and yet so satisfying to eat.

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Likewise, the confit of Challans duck with potato mousse and black truffles with a parmesan crisp. It was beautiful to look at and satisfying to eat. I should mention that the lamb chops above and the duck confit were an either/or option: Tawn ordered one and I ordered the other, although we shared the dishes.

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A look at the confit duck hidden buried under the potatoes.

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A view of the “sushi” display cases along the counter: this one decorated in a wintry scene with powdered sugar and vanilla beans.

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The parade of desserts began with a gelee of Japanese Amaou strawberries with pink Champagne granite and meringue.

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A deconstructed picture so you can see the gelee and granite below the meringue.

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Then, in a Japanese black lacquered bowl, they served a gelee made from the Japanese soft drink Calpis (vaguely like a yogurt) covered with supreme of lychee, a raspberry coulis and a delicate flower meringue filled with raspberry.

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This photo shows more about the structure of the dessert, although it doesn’t do it justice. Very tasty treat.

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A few petits-fours were served, filling us beyond the bursting point.

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After we had called for the check, yet another dessert arrived, a chocolate and raspberry mouse, with a candle – a treat from the chef to celebrate our anniversary, which was the reason for the meal.

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The dainty little doily is edible.

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The staff took a picture of us at the end of the meal, looking much too bloated, I suspect!

Overall, it was a tremendous treat and at nearly four hours, quite an adventure. As for the question of value, this will always be a matter of opinion. The seven-course menu is 7,500 baht with a supplement of 4,000 baht for wine pairings. (A five-course option is 5,000 with 3,000 for the wine.) It is safe to say this is the most expensive meal we’ve ever eaten!

The decor, ambiance, hospitality, service, wine pairing, plating, flavor, technique and experience were all remarkable. For a very special occasion, it is an extravagant treat and you get you money’s worth. For less special occasions, there are thankfully less expensive lunch sets and there is also an a la carte menu.

As to the question of whether L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is the best restaurant in Bangkok, I would say it is. You may or may not be able to afford it and you may or may not find it worth spending the money on, but the overall experience is better than anything else in town.

 

Thinglish: Level Up

Level_Up“Thinglish” is a portmanteau of “Thai” and “English”, describing the odd mixture of languages that you encounter as an expat here. One of the words that keeps catching my ear is “level up” which, the more I think about it, is quite an elegant word.

The meaning, as you might expect, is the same as the cumbersome “increase the level of” as in, “We need to increase the level of skill in their leadership capability.” But that is an awkward phrasing. My colleagues will instead say something like, “We need to level up their leadership capability skills.”

Before writing this post, I did some research and learned that “level up” is actually a gaming term, meaning “To progress to the next level of player character abilities, often by acquiring experience points in role-playing games.” Which, come to think of it, does sound a bit like the leadership development we do!

There is no shortage of opportunities to re-learn the English language when you live in a country where it isn’t the primary language. But that’s a good thing: it keeps your mind elastic!

Vanilla Home Cafe

About two years ago, I asked Jarrett Wrisley, the American food writer and proprietor of Soulfood Mahanakorn and two other restaurants in Bangkok, what he thought the next food trend would be here in the City of Angels. His response: home style Thai food cooked by locals with really good quality ingredients and refined technique.

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He was spot on. In 2014, we started to see more and more restaurants here in Bangkok that serve what you might call “Grandma’s food” – dishes that you rarely see most Thai restaurants serve, especially outside of Thailand. There are many places that are doing this trend well, and in this entry I visit Vanilla Home Cafe.

Located in the basement of the recently remodeled Silom Complex, Vanilla Home Cafe comes from the same family-run business that owns the S&P chain of eateries. Interestingly, some of the “Grandma’s food” menu items from Home Cafe are making their way onto the S&P menu, which I count as a good thing.

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Appetizer of Gratong Tong – crispy golden cups with minced chicken and sweet corn. This isn’t the rarest of dishes but is one that be a candidate for the endangered list. Crispy cups with a chicken and corn relish. What’s not to like?

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Yam som-oh – pomelo salad with a dressing of lime, palm sugar, fish sauce, shallots, and chilies. This is also pretty common. The “yam” style salad can be made with countless ingredients but the pomelo version is one of my favorites. Perfect balance of flavors and not too sweet.

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Naamprik mamuang gunghaengbon plaasalidpuu – green mango chilli relish with crispy fish. The “naamprik” is really the dish that set this “Grandma’s food” trend in motion. There are many different versions of this dip, all of which are served with blanched vegetables and other condiments. Some are fiery, others not so much. This version with green mangos has a really nice balance of flavors. Spicy, but with just a small amount with some veggies to cool the fire, it is fantastic and fantastically healthful.

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Gaeng kuahaed paw – Earthstar mushroom curry, a forest mushroom in a rich curry that isn’t as spicy as you might expect. Served with an interesting local green that has the same effect as asparagus on your urine’s smell.

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Kaijiaw gapraw muusap – minced pork with chili and basil omelet. Probably the most common dish but a classic that grandma would be remiss not to serve!

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Muutod plaakhem – deep fried pork patty with salted fish. Yes, at first you think it is just a pork patty. And then you taste the salted fish. And the chilies. And the shallots. And the lime. And the coriander. Wow, there is a lot of flavor going on here!

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Plaahaeng taengmo naamkaengsai – crazy obscure dessert. Perfectly ripe watermelon served over crushed ice with dried fish. Yes, you read that right. Think of it this way: you know how sweet watermelon and salty feta cheese is all the rage these days? This is the non-dairy version of that flavor combination.

Location: Basement of Silom Complex, adjacent to Saladaeng BTS station in Bangkok.

 

Questions About Visiting Bangkok

A friend is visiting from Japan. And like the countless friends and friends-of-friends and colleagues-of-friends (and so on) that visit each year, he asked for some suggestions of what to see, where to eat, and where to sleep. Having been asked that question countless times before, I sent the PDF lists I have.

It occurred to me that I should be using this website for that purpose. After all, it is much easier to keep the pages updated and much easier for people to check in instead of passing around a PDF that is likely to be out-of-date the minute it is received.

Walking Map of Central Rattanakosin

So this evening I took some time to transfer those lists to the website. This all-purpose page may be of interest to you or someone you know. It has links to a page showing all the must-see sights in Bangkok for a first-time visitor; many of the recommended restaurants; and many of the recommended hotels at different price points.

One of these days, I will create a page showing the “hidden gems” of Bangkok – the things you should do if you have already seen the main attractions or want a different perspective on life here.

So please feel free to visit these pages, provide your comments and feedback, and share them with friends, friends-of-friends, and so on.

Office of Snacks

One of the things that has been a bit of a challenge working in a Thai office for my first time, is to get used to the sheer volume of snack foods that are around. Yes, I know that all offices have their share of snack foods, but it seems to reach new extremes here in Thailand.

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Conference tables are for snacks, not people.

Each business unit, department, or cluster of desks has a stash of snack foods, not including the fresh fruit and perishable snack items bought daily by my colleagues. And what makes it even worse is that most of these people are skinny to the point of looking malnourished.

After the first few weeks, I started to buck the trend and avoid the snacks. My trick is to eat a bit extra at lunch so that the munchies don’t come calling in the middle of the afternoon. But then my colleagues look at my lunch tray with two dishes on it and express dismay that I’m eating so much food!

 

Plane Spotting at Don Mueang Airport

It has been a while since I’ve shared some aviation porn, so thought I would post pictures from my trip to Mae Sot, Thailand last December. I flew from Don Mueang Airport (DMK) in Bangkok, the older of the city’s two airports.

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Originally reopened as a domestic-only airport, DMK was served primarily by Nok Air and Orient Thai airlines. For some sections of the city, it is more easily accessible than the new airport, although from where I live, it is equally far.

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“Nok” means “bird” in Thai and this airline (with its colorful Boeing 737s) flies domestic routes and is half-owned by THAI Airways International, the country’s flag carrier.

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Airports of Thailand, the organization that runs the major airports, eventually decided to open DMK for international traffic, too, as a reliever to the newer airport, Suvarnabhumi, which despite opening just over seven years ago, long ago reached its design capacity. With that, Air Asia relocated its operations to DMK.

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Nok and Air Asia (which actually is a conglomeration of separate airlines operating under a common brand name) now provide the majority of service to DMK and Nok has recently added a limited number of international destinations.

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One very recent addition to Thailand’s crowded “low cost carrier” scene is Thai Lion Air. Just in the same way that Air Asia is a group of separate but related airlines, Thai Lion Air is the second affiliate for Indonesia-based Lion Air. They are operating brand new Boeing B737-900ER “extended range” aircraft and flying to Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur internationally and Chiang Mai domestically. Their plan is to expand rapidly, which should provide the traveling public with downwards pressure on already low ticket prices.

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My flight was on a “Nok Mini” Saab 340. While branded as Nok Air, these mini flights are operated by Siam General Aviation. Some people don’t enjoy flying turboprops, I think they are fun and feel more like the “good old days” of early aviation. The plane is actually very stable and given that the flights are usually no longer than an hour, the seats are comfortable enough. The only challenge is the lavatory, which is tiny!

P1280066DMK is also the repository for a variety of oddball aircraft and airlines. Here is a row of airplanes in various stages of their lives. The Orient Thai B747-300 in the front and their Boeing 767 just beyond may still be used for some charter flights in the middle east, but the THAI Airways jets to the right have been pulled from service and are awaiting either buyers or scrapping. On the distance on the left are two City Airways Boeing 737s, part of an obscure charter airline that mostly runs flights to China.

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Another Boeing 737 operating under the City Airways name, although I’m sure many people would recognize the US Airways color scheme that still covers the plane. The interesting thing to notice is that on the very rear of the tail, the flag on the US Airways’ logo has not been painted over. This is because it lies on the rudder, the movable fin that controls the aircraft’s yaw. It is so finely balanced that adding a layer of paint over the logo would throw it out of balance, so a slap-dash paint job cannot be done.

P1280072A shot of the cockpit of my Saab 340 upon arrival at Mae Sot airport.

P1280074And a final shot on the tarmac at Mae Sot, of the Nok Mini Saab 340 against the setting Winter sun. Hope you enjoyed the photos. Food will return soon!

 

Lunch at Quince Bangkok

Recently, I stopped by Quince restaurant in Bangkok for a weekday lunch, a long-overdue chance to revisit a restaurant that features thoughtful food in a pleasant space. Tucked behind a furniture shop on Sukhumvit Road, Quince has gone through at least two chefs in about eighteen months. Originally helmed by Jess Barnes, now at the excellent Opposite Mess Hall, the menu at Quince continues to impress.

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This being lunch and dining with only one other person, I didn’t get a chance to try a broad selection. This special, a beetroot risotto with asparagus, parsley, and feta, was nicely composed and properly cooked. I would have preferred the beetroot to have been diced and folded in at the last moment instead of being pureed into the dish, but you have to admit that the scarlet color is striking.

P1280677From the regular menu, the ricotta gnocchi with zucchini, green pea, lemon, mint, and chili was nicely executed, bright flavors with good attention to the vegetables not being overcooked.

The interior of the restaurant continues to be one of my favorite in Bangkok – lots of light without being overly bright, different rooms have different types of energy. It is an especially good place for lunch or brunch, simply because it isn’t as crowded. I look forward to another return visit soon.

Christmas in Mae Sot

With just a few days left before I begin my new job, I took the opportunity to join a group of friends from Project LOVE Asia for four nights of volunteering in Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Myanmar border. Our job was to help bring Christmas to the children at the Heavenly Home orphanage and the young adults at the Love & Care learning center.

Let me share some pictures and some brief notes about the experience.

Day 1

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The first day, we went to a “day care” that is run by the orphanage. Located a few miles away in the midst of rice paddies, the structure is just a shack and a broad roof over a packed-dirt floor. Volunteers provide free lunch and basic education for the children of itinerant farmers and laborers four days a week.

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Our group of volunteers (who are not the normal day-to-day volunteers at the day care) played games with the children and then before lunch, gave them a lesson in proper hand-washing technique including teaching them the “hand washing song”.

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Given that these children mostly speak Burmese or a local dialect based on their ethnic group (mostly Shan or Karen), I’m not sure they learned the song. But hopefully the basic lesson of the importance of good hand-washing was learned.

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This day for lunch, the children had rice with chicken and curry. Most of the time, the orphanage cannot afford to feed them meat so today’s lunch was a special treat. The children’s parents, who are dirt-poor, do not have to pay for this day care. It is provided by donations to the orphanage.

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In the afternoon, after finishing at the day care, our vans drove for nearly an hour over bumpy roads until we arrived at the middle of the provincial dump. There, we met families of illegal immigrants who earn a living sorting through the refuse and selling materials for recycling.

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Their rickety shacks line the roads and their children, who are now able to receive some education thanks to a nearby school recently built by an NGO, were happy to see us and receive some Christmas treats.

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That evening in the guest house while we were debriefing the day, the sound of Christmas carolers filled the air. A group of students from the Love & Care secondary school (which we would visit on Day 3) had come to sing us songs. I felt so bad for them as they had piled in the back of a pickup truck and driven 20 minutes in the chilly weather. It was a lovely surprise, though, and quite festive.

Day 2

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The next day we spent at the Heavenly Home orphanage, playing with the children, organizing games, bathing and feeding them, and singing songs.

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This was a particularly rewarding experience because the children are used to visitors and are very eager to play with them. It wasn’t unusual to have four youngsters balanced on my knees with another two or three trying to climb up.

P1040805The founders of the orphanage, Thantzin and his wife Lily, are a Burmese couple who lived many years in Singapore. Unable to have their own children, they felt called by their faith to help the children of Burmese refugees and migrants in Thailand.

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What started initially as a day care has expanded and they now care for more than 50 children whose parents have given them up as well as another dozen whose parents pick them up each evening.

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While children can stay up to the age of 18, right now they only have children from the age of 3 months up to about 12 years old.

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Our primary mission was to spread the spirit of Christmas so early on the evening of the 23rd, after the children had eaten their dinner and been bathed, dried, and dressed, they lined up for cake. We then went upstairs to sing songs and give gifts.

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The happy family of Heavenly Home orphanage, crowded into the upstairs living area, which is also the girls’ bedroom. It was a chilly evening so everyone was bundled tight, happy at having such a fun evening.

Day 3

Our final full day was spent at Love & Care, a secondary learning center about 15 minutes outside of Mae Sot. Burmese migrants and refugees face a challenge: undocumented in Thailand, they cannot attend local public schools, but they education they may have received in Myanmar isn’t sufficient for meaningful work in Thailand. Love & Care is one of many learning centers (not “schools” as they don’t follow the curriculum of the Thai Ministry of Education) serving this group.

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About 70 students live at the school, which boards all its students. They range in age from about 16-21 and many have already matriculated from secondary school in Myanmar. Love & Care offers grades 10-12 taught in Burmese, English, and Thai.

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While there, I did interviews of several of the students and faculty. Their parents are almost uniformly farmers or laborers and one common thread is that none of them seem to be the oldest child. While I didn’t clarify why this is, I would guess that the oldest child is needed to help on the farm and it is only once you have several children that you can consider sending them for education.

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We played many games with the students, mostly focused on team-building and other types of skills. After the games, we talked a bit about the lessons learned. A common theme among these students is that they came from different tribes – Karen, Shan, etc. – and it was at Love & Care that they first met people different from themselves and learned that people are all basically the same. Perhaps the most important lesson they have learned, considering they come from a place where deep-seeded animosity exists between different ethnic groups.

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In the afternoon, we did an exercise where each student created a dream board, using paper, pens, old magazines, etc. The objective was to illustrate the dream they hold for their future. They then took turns sharing their dreams with each other. Most wanted to be doctors, nurses, teachers, or other professions that would enable them to return to their communities and help others. It is easy to imagine what a powerful impact these young people will have on the future of Myanmar.

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In the evening, about half the children from Heavenly Home joined us and we had a large Christmas show. Different groups of students and children performed, gifts were given, and songs were sung. By the end of the day, many of the students had asked to connect with me on Facebook and I left with many new friends.

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In the days after this trip, I’ve had several people say nice things about how generous I am, how nice it is that I did this trip, etc. In truth, it is the children and students who have been so generous and I have to admit that I’ve taken a great deal from the experience.

Each visit to Mae Sot serves as a reminder that it takes precious little to be happy in life, and that so many people barely have that. Our common humanity binds us and there is great power in showing compassion and sharing love.