Thursday, January 29, 2009

faliz ano nuevo

The drums started early, distant but loud. Soon it seemed as though they were surrounding us with what sounded like a steady mantra chanted over loudspeaker and the sound of crackers, like paper tearing amplified a million times, something ominous was moving through Mae Sot. It felt like some Beatles "Tomorrow never knows" scene and so early in the morning, such confusing realities are difficult to awaken into. I knew that we had to go, Danielle had already left for beakfast, so I packed Abacus into her pram, confused that I wasn't ignoring her morning loud talking. We followed the sound of the drums, like the lost children of Hamlein. We could see the trail of smoke of where they had already been and soon we were amongst the prosession of booming drums and crashing symbols and the spark pierced smoke of firecrackers, whose noise tore holes through everything else. Men in faint olive coloured Chairman Mao style suits with blue medical masks led the yellow t-shirted youth through the town, some who played on mobile drums, some who led and carried a giant dragon, snaking through the streets, some pasting up new gold on red Chinese scripts on the threshold of the stores, some setting off the crackers which hung from the shop awnings, almost to the ground, while a short buddha with a large mask danced through the stores, chasing away the evil spirits within, using his red fan and a lion faced dragon sidekick. As they moved down the street, the police stopped all the traffic at an intersection, while the Buddha and his dragon danced at the crossroads, in a playful game of submission. All the time the drums kept a steady rhythm and the mantra spoke out from a flatbed truck and the crackers boomed and ripped themselves to shreds, as well as the air around them. And about this time I looked down at abacus and saw she was screaming, I hadn't realised how loud it was until I noticed i couldn't hear her at all. I ran to take refuge down a side street and waited for the prosession to pass us, like frightened evil spirits. As they moved on, we came back out, but the crackers weren't done yet and Abacus face once again burst into silent scream, so we retreated again. A nice old Chinese man came up and put some cotton wool in her ears and we left through the residual smoke, through the shopowners sweeping up the red scraps of cracker paper, back to the guest house, with a feeling that we'd experienced something truely ceremonial. The people embracing their costumes in distorted movements which abandoned their semblance to human form,  the totality of the towns involvement, it reminded me of some medieval village and I knew instantly that Chinese New year was my favourite holiday, it felt like something had happened, that we were prepared for a new year.
Later, after Abacus was calm, we went to the cafe to chillax, she was almost asleep, but the parrade was far from over, it was now coming back from the opposite way it had been moving when we had fled. We hid inside the cafe, but the giant dragon rested outside its doors and then the Buddha and his smaller dragon came inside to rid the evil spirits, we hoped they didn't notice us, the cowering spectres in human form. And then they let off crackers outside the door. The thin glass was not enough to keep the sound from unsettling Abacus, who might never get used to the sound. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

broken spirit houses

A quiet moment, as a women kneeled before a tree, one hand held open palmed in front of her nose to center herself, in a one handed prayer. With her other hand, she poured water from a bottle, onto the roots of the tree. The carboot salespeople chatted amongst themselves, not many customers today and later, they would all gather together to push start one of their mobile stores, it finally spluttering to a start, in a cloud of thick black smoke, "Kup Kun Kaaaaaaa", as she sped away. It dawned on me that there is only a week and a half left and I got those pangs of not having done enough here, even though we are looking forward to returning home, this has been a realy important journey for us. 

This morning, on our usual shortcut through the police station, we saw a cop with his eyes closed and his head resting in his hands, while an M16 sat in front of him on the table. It reminded me of something a friend had said, about the banality of adventurous work in exotic places, it all turns to routine in the end. So too does the deadly weapon lose its power in the face of ubiquity, the job its importance to the human who only wants to sleep. Even though the examples of its tyranny populate the streets of Mae Sot, the beggar on crutches, pleading for food or money, with the burn marks crawling down his arm to your shiney pitifull coins. Oneday our friend was walking passed the police station and some cops pointed their guns at her for a laugh, hohoho the banality of power is the most dangerous of all. 

There have been a few articles about Burma in the paper, mainly about the Rohingya boat people, how the Thai General said "the accusations of mistreatment are so baseless there's no need for an investigation". Did you know the U.N requested to speak to the 130 odd boat people who had just been detained by the Thai Navy? This was after the others they'd sent back to sea with no motors, food or water had washed up in other countries with their stories of abuse, less about 700. The goverenment could not get any information from it's millitary - because of course the millitary backed the governments appointment - when the U.N finally received an answer, it was this, "They've gone." Towed out to sea and left to die like the others perhaps? But yesterday I read the kind of article you want to read. It was not about any breaking story, no sensationalist expose. It was a new years article about the lumbering giant of a story that is Burma, nothing new to report, "So far, so bad", was the quote, an article printed so that no one would forget about Burma. And I looked at NewZealand news sites and saw the top stories were, Man dead after being caught in machine, Cricket players may not be fit to play, Australian model receives apology over sex slur, and on and on and on. As I walked home passed the detention centre today, and saw the families sitting along the outside of the cage, talking to those inside, accepting the normality of their situation, any veneer of romanticism fell away and all I could think was, "It's shit here." It is, but everyone smiles through it, it's just the banal workings of everyday life. A spirit house is a letterbox sized house, which sits on a post outside a Thai house, the idea being that the spirits would rather live in the elaborate miniature than haunt the persons home. On a piece of vacant land opposite the detention center, where a goatherd takes his goats everyday, there are a bunch of broken spirit houses lying amongst the rubbish and leaves and dirt, I think of the visitors of the inmates, who come here to leave offerings and prayers to these replica ruins, as tending to the broken spirits of the detention center.


Yesterday was a very productive one for Abacus. She's rolling over and over now and looking when you call to her, sometimes. I dropped a facecloth on her face, mainly as a joke and she removed it promptly with her hand, which I didn't even know she could do, I kept doing it and she used both hands until she became bored with the game and started sucking her thumb through the facecloth. She's pretty far from sitting up still but we're really happy with the progess she's made, particularly with her vocalisations, which she has a wide range of now. She's also outgrown most of her clothes and is pretty smiley and happy.

Monday, January 26, 2009

po po

Imagine if a bus full of migrant school students were going on a field trip to a pagoda and along the way they were pulled over by the police for no reason, other than that they were Burmese. Imagine then that the police check their ID papers and ignore their pleas that they are students in Mae Sot and take them back to the police station. Then imagine that, while the class was sitting at the police station, waiting for their headmaster to come with the 10,000 baht bribe to have them released, their teacher walked passed with her 7 month old baby and partner, as they always use the police station as a shortcut. The trio were completely oblivious to the students situation and wouldn't find out until the teacher was told by her giggling excited students on monday, "We saw you yesterday from the police station! But we couldn't call out to you because of the police officer, hehehehe!"

Today at the station there was a mobile store selling police equipment. I'm wondering if anyone can buy it, or if you have to be an officer. They've got some cool looking stuff, I would get a helmet and a stab vest and some mirror shiney shoes. I also wonder whether the police have to buy their equipment out of their own pocket. Danielle attended a lecture by the former head of the UN Convention Against Corruption, where she learned that police in Mexico have to rent their equipment - their guns and cars - before entering a lottery to find out where they will patrol that night. Of course the only way they can make the money back, lost on their equipment, is to use the equpiment to extort money from civilians - a lot of the time these are westerners - who of course have more money, but Mexicans are of course the more numerous targets. I don't know if it is the same in Thailand, but the police store semed to suggest it. It's that environment which makes corruption inevitable. So a van load of Burmese students, from a well off school - byMae Sot standards, would be a windfall for the Mae Sot Pirates - I mean, police. 

Not that the Thai Police ever extort money from westerers, that I've heard. Except, in the southern island of Kho Pan Ngan, where we stayed two years ago. Every full moon, stupid westerners flock there for the "Full Moon Party" (A western invention), and every month the police set up road blocks to search for drugs, collecting massive fines from the tourists. Which seems fair enough, drugs are illegal. Except that at the place where we stayed, marijuana was ubiquitous, we found out it was dealt by the owner of the resort. One time the chief of police turned up to the resort - he was the owners husband. So. Maybe, the stuff is dealt, with connection to the police, the police confiscate it, fine and deport the westerner who possessed it, and put it back into circulation. There's something in there, about moon cycles and weed circulation.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

back log = blog

On Friday night, coming home from dinner I saw what I thought was a giant bat fly in front of a street light, then I realised it was more like an owl. But then, eerily, a few meters later we found a tiny bat crawling on the road - an absolute coincidence, I'd never seen a bat nor an owl here before. It was though I had imagined it intp existence, or rather, mistakeningly identified it into existence. It seemed to be injured and I tried to get a photo, but it was too dark and then suddenly its boney body crawled along and it flew away into the night. 
On saturday a girl offered to babysit abacus for a couple of hours. The only problem was she lived a lot further away than we'd thought. We walked for almost half an hour under an exaustingly hot sun, which evaporated any energy we might have had to use for our time alone. By the time we got home again we fell asleep and woke up with just enough time to get back to pick her up. We hoped to find a tuk tuk but they were all full, so in desperation we managed to thumb a ride on the back of a pick up. Luckily we got a tuktuk back, there was no way we would have walked. Danielle was too exhausted to teach the little boy english, so - i guess ironically - we played badminton with him. He loves badminton and is really competitive.
We were awoken at about 4 or 5 this morning by fireworks, for chinese new year apparently. We heard it'll be even earlier tomorrow, at least it'll be the end of the drumming practice in the evenings - unless they start the next day for next years cellebration, which judging by their dedication and discipline, wouldn't surprise me. We had brunch this morning with a doctor who we've seen around a lot. She's probably the coolest person we've met here and we had lots to talk about. She works at the mallaria clinics and works around the poorer communities. We talked about the competitive nature of medicine and of how it ends up leaving you flat and unfullfilled, that the payoff from working to years training is not an equal exchange rate (she's happy though, now, doing this kind of work). She also solved a mystery from the night before, when we were walking hom we came across a burmese mother and her infant son, danielle held the son and noticed he had no nappy under his pants. But the doctor told us they don't use nappies and often in the clinics, the mothers will use their sarongs to catch the urine from the babies, or just hold them over the floor to pee. They don't see urine as dirty because it is ubiquitous.
The fireworks have continued all day, but they're not at all spectacular, just loud crackers, like tomthumbs, loud noises are used to ward of evil spirits for the new years. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

There's no pedestrian crossings, there's a couple of zebra crossings here and there but they're just meaningless stripes across the road, they may even be zebras, who made the death wish to get to the other side. So when you're waiting for the steady stream of traffic to end, the last thing you want is for the last car to go slowly because they're looking at Abacus and saying "Baby!" to you out the window, allowing the distant cars behind it to catch up. Gah!

Abacus, I think, has finally cracked the whole reaching and grabbing thing. I did a lot of practice with her today and she's pretty much mastered the left hand and is getting the hang of the right hand too. 

Danielle's student, the one she found at a local restaurant, is making such awesome progress. He can read now, and put a jumbled sentence into order, and recognise words. He really loves it too, he's an eager student who never wants class to end. We really want for him to go to a school because he is so bright, but the cafe owner tells us he doesn't want to go to school, that he wants to work and make money. In a way though, what 12 year old wouldn't want to be grown up? Can the adults in his world really charge him with the responsibility of his future, it seems a little manipulative to me, to say "It's his choice, what can we do?". But that is just a cultural difference, there are a set of morals which are not wrong so much as part of a world completely removed for our own, and the cafe owners may very well be trying to do what's best for him. Today Danielle is going to ask him about it through an interpretor, who is a friend of ours.

Yesterday we went to watch the chinese drummers, which pound and crash through the evening air every night. I anticipated seeing about a hundred Chinese people with a hundred drums and cymbols, but we found only a single drummer, who was surrounded by four other people holding cymbols, they were all about 12. I can't believe the sound they produce.

Today we walked in search of the swimming pool. Such tasks are never as easy as you think. It was really hot today, the type of heat that makes you dizzy and drains your energy. The shade, if you could find it, seemed to reduce the temperature by 10 degrees. We knew the pool was somewhere off the main road, we asked directions, with Danielle pantomiming swimming by using freestyle arm movements. They pointed us down into the maze of suburbia, whose concrete walls only add to the ominous labyrinthine feel. We came across dogs which we chased off with sticks, we now have two sticks in the pram, after finding ourselves stickless when faced by a racist dog on our way to Burma, I want a long one, that I can keep sheathed on the side of the pram. One of the dogs charged us, but it was merely trying to get passed to bark at us from behind, in a calculated bullrushian move. We weaved through the meandering streets, where behind the gates of the suburban houses we saw the wooden dome baskets, which house prize roosters. But the maze spat us back out on the main street, with no sign of a pool so, defeated, we returned home.

What follows is about Burma and students and stuff, so if you're not into that sort of thing...also it is only what I've heard through various sources since arriving here, I don't have evidence, direct quotes or facts. 
So listen, the Burma thing is not so clear cut, there isn't just a government against its people. Burma is a united country of states, each distinguished by its specific ethnicity. If you meet someone you suspect is from Burma, you shouldn't say, "Are you Burmese?", because the Burmese are just one ethnic group within Burma. The sad thing is, that the Government is ethnically Burmese, which creates  tension between the Burmese and the other ethnicities. If you ask a Karen person if they're Burmese, they could be pretty offended. 
You see the students in Mae Sot, they're here to better their lives, most want to go on to university and with their knowledge transition Burma toward democracy. But these tensions run between the ethnicities. And it goes both ways, a lot of Burmese feel guilt for what's happened, and a lot of students have an abyss of hatred for the Burmese, who's people may well have exterminated their loved ones. The most successful insurgency is the KNU (Karen National Union), the Karen, who have never identified as being part of Burma, were promised a separate Karen nation when the British ceded rule. Since the SPDC took control, that idea was quashed and they have faced systematic genocide. If they were succesful in ousting the current regime would they take retribution upon the Burmese? It may seem cynical, but the seeds are visible. But listen, there are both Christian and Buddhist Karen (and others). And as the government is Buddhist they formed an alliance with the Buddhist Karen fighters to get information on the Christian Karen fighters, in return for the Buddhist Karens saftey (which, like the Grand Mufti's alliance with the nazis, could only be a reprieve, until there are no christian Karen left). 
And the students can be naive, but it's not their fault. They have been deprived of basic human rights, lived in fear of pogroms and had no freedom of speech nor exercise in critical thought. But when confronted with homosexuality, half a class laughed hysterically,while the other half wanted to kill them. And so where do human rights stand? And the kids, they have stories of child abuse at the hands of their fathers. Their fathers, who are mostly members of the democracy party, inflicted lessons on them, which sometimes took two dozen stitches to close, they smile or laugh and say "I'll never do that again." They talk fondly of it. They respect their elders through fear, "It's normal!", they smile cheerfully. While their imprisoned Prime Minister's primary message of "freedom from fear", is about as symbolic as Christs teachings to the warring Catholics and Protestants. If their idea of respect is fear, then why not respect their government? It is surely one of the most feared in the world. And what brand of democracy is in store for Burma, if their abusive fathers ever win power ? But this is just the state of everything, the world I mean, try and keep all the dimensions of the problem in your head, when you're trying to argue a point and your brain will implode. All I can say is that doing something here is better than doing nothing, the other concepts will hopefully follow, but isn't that just neocolonialism? I must have missed a dimension. The Burmese want external help to do things their way and the outside wants to help only if they can do it with western ideas. No liberal westerner would want to teach a class of westerners who hate gay people, or would stand by and listen to a student sanction their parents abuse, but here those ideas are tollerated as an essentially intricate part of the chaos. When you hear the stories they've written, of jailed parents, of people lost to the cyclone, or simply into the blackhole of Burma, how can any of your ideas make sense? And spare a thought too, for the teacher marking those stories who has to say "Well, actually, it should be 'My entire family was killed by Nargis', not 'My entire family is killed..." "Instead of, 'I hope I can seeing father again', try 'I hope I can see my father again'. Or, when going through names of occupations, when a child student asks "What job title is given to someone who steals people to sell them for money?" "A human traffiker.", "What is someone who asks for money on the street?" "A beggar." Such questions are banal to these children by the ubiquity of their exemplars.
But still, doing something is better than doing nothing. It has to be. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


The heat has seeped back into the days. In fact, when we went to Myawaddy, which always seems hotter than Mae Sot, probably because of the large concentration of concrete and lack of awnings on the buildngs, and the fact that we usually arrive around lunch time when the sun shines at an angle perpendicular to the buildings, concentrating its full beam on us, like ants beneath a magnifying glass. We were baking, sweating, we had abacus dressed in just a onesy with her arms and legs bare. We got those condescending stares from the locals and then one smiled and pointed at Abacus, hugging himself in the universal pantomime for, "Freezing". Everyone around us was wearing thick jackets, some even had towels wrapped around their heads to keep the warmth from escaping.  

Abacus is desperate to crawl, she digs her feet into what ever surface she's on, bringing them right up under her belly, kicking back and forth on the spot. She's also grown a bit more hair, I know it's "a lot" more hair, but it's still so sparse it's hard to justify using the words. It's still so fine it changes colour under different light, but we think it might be blonde with a hint of red, sorry Abacus, I take full responsibility for the red contribution.  

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Burma II

We made our second trip to Burma yesterday. This time we tried to stay a bit longer than 10 minutes. We went down to a restaurant by the river that we'd seen from the bridge, along the way I helped some poor kid who was trying to push one of those garbage carts up onto a footpath, we both gave it a huge shove and it got up, I can't believe how heavy they are, then I watched him disappear beneath the bridge, bouncing the ton weight over the uneven surface.  We changed some money along the way, on the street, the burmese currency is mainly traded on the blackmarket (which is essentially means on desks set up outside on the main street). We had no idea what the exchange rate was, but we got 3200 Kyat (pronounced Jah) for 100baht. Aparently the worst places to go to exchange money is a government bank, apparently they maintain the exchange rate to the dollar is 6kyat, if this were the case, I imagine it would be the most expensive standard of living in the world. When we got to the restaurant we didn't see much but an outside bar, all we wanted to do was sample some genuine Burmese tea, which is made with condensed milk (Carnation - the best known condensed milk brand - advertises in Thailand and Burma as being specifically for tea). They didn't seem to have tea on the menu, but they told us they did. A moment later they arrived with two cups of Burmese tea and a huge pot of green tea. The Burmese tea was like drinking caramel and it was nice to have the green tea as a cleanser. We sat for a while, watching the Burmese catch the tube, the inner tube that is, to and from Thailand, the river is so shallow that one tube driver just walked them accross, even the natural marker between the two countries is a facade, Abacus was off somewhere with a Burmese woman, she's had so many weird interactions here. When we left we noticed a cafe down the street with cups and pots suspiciously like the ones we'd just been served, they must have just gone down the road to get it. We still had a couple of thousand Kyat left so we bought some Burmese cakes, which tasted like deep fried donuts, one with strawberry filling tasted acidic, we ended up giving them to a homeless woman halfway along the friendship bridge on the way back, the second homeless person we gave a 1000 kyat, and same to the third just to get rid of it, they seemed pretty surprised. These last two beggars, this is not to be mean, but we couldn't tell if they were man or woman, so skinny, darkened and wizened from the sun, their eyes so sunken, sitting slumped beneath a pile of towels and rags, poverty stripping them of any semblance of themselves.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Today the manager of the NGO where Danielle teaches english (to the Thai workers), took us to see where they make lunches and uniforms for migrant schools around Mae Sot. The location was pretty secret and I wasn't allowed to take photos, but it is a legitimate NGO with logoed cars, so I am allowed to write about them. 
Inside the building is where Burmese and Thais sew the school uniforms on industrial sewing machines. The uniforms are perfectly made, with the collared shirts monogrammed with the initials of the school on one side and the name of the NGO on the other. Abacus had just fallen asleep a minute before we were to leave and after all our wanting her to sleep, she found herself awakened to be handed around the burmese sewers (people who sew, not sewers where ninja turtles live), but she seemed really happy. They also sew backpacks for the students, which are waterproofed to accommodate the rainy season. At this point it seemed like a good little operation, but then we saw the whiteboard. 
Written on the board were the names of the schools and then the amount of breakfasts, lunches and dinners required. For the 7 schools they provide for, there were over 1200 students, suddenly the operation seemed impossibly efficient. In one room of the kitchen, there were three giant rice cookers and sacks of rice stacked at the end of the room. In the next room were the pots, strainers and pestle and mortar, that looked as though giants used them. Outside were the gas cookers over which, cooked giant vats of curry. There was what looked like a silo that sat above a cooker, one of the chefs (there are 6 kitchen staff and six sewing staff), pulled a rope which hoisted up the 6 foot tall missile shaped casing, inside was where they inserted a shelf, which held 5 huge basins of rice, beneath it sat a vat of water which steams enough rice for 1200 hungry students. They'd also constructed a water purifying system, which meant they could provide all of the schools with clean drinking water. Out the back was a section of land where they were beginning to build houses to grow mushrooms, at the moment there were only the shelves on which the mushrooms would grow. We sampled some of the curry bubbling in the vat, breaking through the layer of oil on top to sample the broth beneath, it was filled with large bits of fish and vegetables and was almost restaurant quality, it would be poured into large bags, inside garbage cans and transported by vans to the schools around town. It was hard to believe how few people it took to feed 1200 people, 7 days a week. Eveything about the site was clean, the sewing room was meticulously organised as was the kitchen and the grounds outside. Everything was ingeniously designed and the staff seemed happy and relaxed, unlike restaurants where I've worked, trying to feed lunch to maybe 200 people max. 
I started working on a new website, for one of the migrant schools, I have to design something that has already been built, which is a bit limiting, and the design is quite restrained by the way in which its been built, but I'll see what I can do.
Tomorrow we go to Burma. We're not looking forward to it. It's just annoying and boring - sounds a little ironic I know. 

Tui sings Pizza Hutt song

Abacus woke up at 3:30 and never really went to sleep, so I took her for a walk really early and as we passed the police station they were raising the flag while the national anthem played all the motorcycle cops wore their helmets and it reminded me of a scene from THX1138. Thai cops looks as though they've studied every cheesy American cop show, they all wear sunglasses and have this bad ass look about them. later in the afternoon I would see one of them outside the detenion center waving a wad of 100Baht notes in a burmese guys face while patting his back pocket. Abacus finally went to sleep at around 7:30 just as we arived at a coffee shop, the one where al the Americans and Christians hang out. When we went on the cafe computer, Danielle noticed the most visited sites on Crome were; CNN, CNN international and . . . FOX NEWS!!! It was pretty pathetic. So then we decided to look at TV3 news for a laugh and, true to form, found a whole bunch of animal stories on the front page, like "Cat reunited with owner thanks to microchipping" and "Tui sings Pizza Hutt song", it was a good to see New Zealand is still occupied with the pressing issues.
We went for a walk to breakfast and along the way stopped to look for pants for Abacus. We got two pairs and a pair of cute shoes for like $16 new zealand. While we painfully tried to ask "What age child would wear this size shoe" (such a simple sentence is painfully hard to describe without words), Abacus started to wake up. A young homeless burmese boy, who sniffed in vain at the thick snot in his nose, stood over her with concern, pointing at her hat, which had fallen over her eyes. We gave him five baht, In most countries it seems counterproductive to give money to homeless people, knowing it won't solve the problems within their country which lead to such destitution, especialy when they flock to westerners, knowing their own country people won't help them. But Burmese barely even have a country, how many people could even locate it on a map? It's a black hole that has swallowed its inhabitants and now sits ominously in covert silence. There are barefoot kids with sun darkened faces who pick up garbage, they're happy, they run and play with each other in the streets, excitedly looking for plastic bottles to fill their wooden carts. They'll come up to the window of the Starbuckian westerner  patronised cafe and knock, miming eating with either broad smiles or contrived pitiful faces, the people inside ignore them, even though they're probably in Mae Sot to help refugees and even though most of them are uber christian. I like to get up and go to the door and give them what ever coins I have, while it won't change anything in their lives it'll make today a little easier. Later on we would see that little boy trailing behind his older sister who was holding their younger sibling, while their mother, walking ahead of them, held a new born. They would stay here collecting money until they're rounded up in a police pick up truck, like the one I would see later in the afternoon, which was watched from afar by another mother, who's son peeked out from beneath a blanket under which he hid, the mother watched as if to see anyone she knew amongst the newly collected illegal migrants, the boys eyes looked filled with fear. How are the lives of so many, so completely destroyed by so few and for what ? 
Abacus had a crazy sleepless day with a lot of loud scream talking. 
Danielle had a good day, finally having her contributions recognised positively by a superior, putting to rest the uneasieness she's felt since the personal attack in her first week, even finding out her assailant is not regarded in the best light around town. They really like what Danielle's been doing, it's so good for her to hear.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Just so you know what Thailand thinks of migrants - news article

a weird ad in a newspaper

The country of the NGO

Sorry for the lack of blog. I've been trying to get a couple of websites up to date, I really want to have accomplished something before I leave here. I went to a cafe this morning to work and when I arrived there were two guys talking about a documentary they were working on, from what I eavesdropped - which isn't hard with film people because they talk so loud so that everyone knows they are film people - the film was about the migrant schools, they were looking for some "new angle" on the story. After they left another even louder film maker came in, he oozed LA all over the cafe, he was making a film about a "shoe drop", where shoes donated from around the world are "dropped" on the refugee camps and he wanted to film the shoes journey, he too was looking for a "new angle". And I got this idea that had been gestating for sometime without me knowing, that there is something artificial, something constructed about Mae Sot. 

Mae Sot is nothing. It's a tiny agricultural border town with no attractions. A spanish couple we talked to, told us that 20 years ago when they were last here, there was nothing. You could hire a motorbike and in 5 minutes be in the country, you could ride out to the camps and talk to the refugees. Now the city has three 7/11's and 5 or 6 western restaraunts a Tescos and a Dunkin' Donuts and entrance to the Refugee Camps is strictly limited. What was the catalyst for change in Mae Sot ? NGO's.

Mae Sot is like an island of the NGO, but not quite an island, its more like an annexed colony. I kind of think of it as being like a war fought between two countries in a country neutral to the war. The problem is in Burma, the NGO's are mainly western and they meet in a backwater town in Thailand, which reeps the benefits; they get cheap Burmese labour to work in their restaurants and Guest Houses, whose major customers are NGO's. 

There seems something almost unhealthy about a culture of NGOism, when it is isolated from the rest of society. As Danielle put it, when we arrive back in New Zealand and people ask what we did last summer, they would probably find it kind of honourable (not that that's why we did it), but, when it becomes normative to be a volunteer, it breeds ungratefulness amongst the community. When everyone is volunteering, it becomes not a question of whether you volunteer, but how MUCH much you volunteer - and if it isn't enough, you're treated as though you don't volunteer at all. Or even worse, in that people who are here only on holiday (of any dubious nature) are treated completey indifferently,where as if you don't volunteer enough, you are treated rudely and almost pariahed. The thing about a lot of NGO workers is that, a lot of them are here because they never really figured out what to do in life and are here, in some capacity, to define themselves. Maybe this is why they become so totalitarian about it, they're defending their one definition of self against the great void of being ordinary, of not counting. But the saddest part is that it is the people they are trying to help who are missing out. They love pretty much anyone who gives up there time to come and help them. And the film makers come and make their ready made films, on the wrong side of the border, with hardly anyone making the death defying journey across the Moei river to film beneath the fog, where we really need them. And everyone lives in this strange artificial environment. I think there is a story about our time here and for me it's about the NGO community. 

The drum rehearsals for chinese new year have been going every evening since we moved in. They crash and bang in perfect unison - PERFECT unison - i have no idea why they rehearse so often they could not possibly improve.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Something happened the other day that changed our lives here, we found online settlers! And coupled with skype, it's not only like our settler gaming in new zealand never ended - we now play more than we ever did. I think Abacus might grow up to hate the game which she was named after and computers and probably coffee for that matter. Especially after last night, a couple in their 60's who we met at our last guest house offered to babysit her. They're waiting on their own kids to give them grandchildren - in fact Tom threatened his kids with the anectdote told by a favourite musician of his, he said "I was so sick of waiting for my kids to have children, I married a girl in her 20's and had grandchildren of my own". I think they lavished attention on princess Abacus, reciprocally entertaining each other for just under 2 hours, Abacus was so happy when we came to pick her up, that we knew we had to cut back on computer time.

Sometimes I wish I had a sound camera, some device which takes snap shots of sound. Last night as I lay going to sleep I heard the chaos of the dogs that had gathered for some full moon choir, the cold night air was filled with yelping and barking and even wolf howling, and all of it was echoing off the concrete walled streets and corrogated fences, like some horror movie soundtrack. 

The temperature has dropped significantly over the last few days, it actually feels like Wellington, I'd forgotten what cold felt like, what goosebumps were. Also, there's something a little unnerving about a cop holding an automatic assault rifle, smiling and cooing to your 6 month old daughter.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Last night we were going to dinner, when out of the twilight came a galloping horse and rider. It ran at full speed down the road through the traffic, quickly disappearing into the distance. 

This afternoon we visited a Wat, which is what Thai temples are called, when this Burmese guy came up to me holding a glass of bright green liquid, it looked like dishwashing liquid or antifreeze, he offered it to me in that respectful way of the Burmese, supporting the offering hand with their other hand, how could I refuse. He and Danielle both looked on, in amusement of different sorts, as I smiled my way through the entire cool syrupy beverage, which tasted of bubblegum, I thanked him gratiously of course, jesudembaiday, supporting my extended hand below the elbow with my left hand. Then left with my head swimming in sugar overdose.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

when the fog lifts from Burma and the world is finally able to see inside, if we'll ever see that day, they will be horrified not only of the atrocities that have occured, but by the fact that they didn't know, that while other stories filled the headlines, Burma was no where to be found. When foreign journalists are finally allowed free access to the myriad ethnicities - which ever ones survive the genocide -and bring back the stories of this forgotten country, the world will be disgusted to hear that the Burmese doctors didn't differentiation between HIV and AIDs and that when a person was diagnosed as having it, they were administered an injection and that life was over. 
But for now, the fog remains, and the injections continue. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

a divine fusion

As I lay awake in the dark this morning, holding abacus' dummy in her mouth to keep her asleep, i heard the simultaneous prayers of buddhism and islam, overlayed in a seamless fusion. The deep chanting of the buddhists created a baseline, with the chime of the morning bell keeping rhythm, while the muslim prayer, sung like a heart broken wail, created the melody, their voices blown together by the wind and carried accross the darkness. 

Abacus never did really go back to sleep, it was about 5:45 when she awoke, and she would go on to stay awake until 11:30! Danielle got up early and took her for a walk before breakfast, and I took her for another walk afterwards. I walked down town to where the lady who barbarques chicken all day, stood like a ghostly apparition behind the thick cloud of smoke, which billowed from her fire filled drum, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, just for good measure - it seemed about as useless as trying to drink from a glass while swimming underwater. I went into a magazine store, which sells magazines that deceptively have english covers, but are filled with thai on the inside - while maintaining the english titles for the articles. There were no english covers however, on the large assortment of cock fighting magazines. I looked through some Thai childrens books, I found a beautifully illustrated one about two bulls, I had no idea what was going on, but on the second to last page both bulls were running at each other, while on the last page, both lay dead, with broken bloody horns scattered on the ground, so I don't think I'll get it for abacus. 

Tonight we're going to see Danielles "friends", who have south korean visitors this week, which I'll write about later.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

some delicious thai delicacies

water bugs
cut open toads with flies on
live bewlidered toads
some wierd live baby cat fish things

snakes ?

the incident

So earlier on in the trip Danielle had a terrible incident, but today something happened that at least meant she was not alone. 

So we're a single income family, who spent a huge amount of our savings to volunteer overseas to help refugees. But soon after some initial training, Danielle was given three separate placements, all at different points around the town, which collectively totaled a lot of hours of work a day, not to mention her own paperwork at night. Though she had already committed to all three, she soon felt it was going to be too much. She decided to drop the one place that hadn't started yet and did so amicably, explaining via email that when she said she would do all three, she was not in a position to make an informed decision about the amount of work she could do, as she'd never done that type of thing before. After a week of lesson plans and marking homework she knew three places would be too much. The head of the program was disappointed and felt a bit sick when he read her email, as the place she had dropped was his favourite and its understaffed and underfunded. He felt like he'd promised them something he couldn't deliver and didn't know whether he could work with them again, but ultimately he understood and accepted her position. However, he told her all of this after he'd already informed the place of her turning them down, he didn't even offer to assist her in developing a schedule which might have been accommodating for three places, didn't give her help with lesson plans or how to plan more efficiently - she with no experience. He said he also felt bad because someone else had already pulled out of a school earlier in the week and he thought it was the beginning of things going wrong. The situation then seemed resolved and everyone seemed somewhat happy with the outcome.

But the next day, Danielle was going to the photocopy store to make copies of a test she had written for her students, it was only minutes before her class. Outside the photocopy shop was a fellow NGO worker who was really cold with her, she grudgingly replied hello when greeted but as she was getting on her bike, she turned and unloaded on danielle about dropping the school and went even further to make personal attacks about her character,  she went on and on, screaming a tirade of seething, shaking with anger as she delivered each potent personal word. She even compared her to a former NGO who quit after two weeks, spending the rest of their time in a drunken stupor, someone who led the media to a school, jeopardising its very existence, before going rambo in the jungles of Burma. But Danielle was worse, her assailant said, because he'd had a drinking problem, an excuse. In Thailand it is extremely poor form to lose your temper, especially in public and the locals looked upon the situation with embarassment. What was also bad, is that the NGO attacking her was about to take over as acting head of the program, in the leaders absence. She was the person who Danielle had to report to. All this just minutes before Danielle had to teach a class. She managed to compose herself and work on professionally, though a part of her wanted to leave the country.

Danielle is a junior in the organisation. She didn't understand the gravity of her decision, nor the implications for the program. No one explained this, they just accepted her email without trying to inform or coerce her decision, did not even tell her the decision she made would incite disappointment at all, as far as she knew she had come to volunteer, had saved a long time to do it, knew her limitations and wanted to offer the best that she could. She had no idea the school she chose was one of the most fortunate nor the one she declined one of the poorest - no one told her, they just said they were disappointed, a little sick and then this diatribe of loathing. What hope then, for society, when those who give up their time and money to help people, fight amongst themselves and are so disorganised to not even lead their own. She had a meeting with the program leader that night to discuss her concerns as he was leaving the next day (for holiday in Australia). He confessed that there was a dinner that night, confirming her suspicions, but that she is not invited only because of her family situation and she was definitely not hated by everyone in the program as she feared. But there was nothing really apologetic in his acceptance of her information about the NGO worker, he even said he'd seen her act like that once before, there was no real sense that she would be stepped down or even really reprimanded for her conduct. 

The next day Danielle received an appologetic email from her assailant. It was a complete 180 from her screaming marathon the day before, saying that she respected danielle, knew she was committed to the program and she sited stress as the cause for her hostility. We put her down as just being completely unhinged. Later in the day we went to a coffeeshop, it was the first time we'd been there, it was down the far end of town, it seemed like the most unlikely place we would meet her, not that she had even been a factor in our desicion to go there, but there she was. We all smiled awkwardly at each other at first, then, just before we left, Danielle went to her to acknowledge atleast that she had received her email, she told her she didn't know yet how to respond to it or how she felt about it. The girl said "I'm sorry", shaking her head with a nervous smile, as though apologising for taking a coke out of the fridge that didn't belong to her, or some other minor intrusion into someones personal sphere. Since then things have been amicable when we've met, it's a small town, you run into the same people everywhere, because of course everyone eats out, she's even asked if she could sit at our table one time, how could we refuse ?

Today however, we ran into this australian girl who danielle trained with, she's a really lovely person who we run into often. Danielle asked "How are you?", "Not so good" came the reply. She was leaving on a bus to Bangkok, she had "problems" with the program, trying to remain as diplomatically aloof as she could, but after a bit of mutual digging, they found they shared the same problem. The organisation had booked her at three separate schools, one with an age group she was not qualified to teach, one that was 10km out of town and then, when she pulled out of a school for obvious reasons, a certain worker screamed insults at her down the phone, and not only did she scream at her too, she also made the same 180 degree apology - she's completely toys in the attic crazy. This girl too had no real income, she too had come this great distance at great cost to herself, only to be treated as though she were the most selfish, dispicable person in the world. And suddenly, Danielle wasn't alone, and neither was the other girl, they both found solidarity and were united in knowing it was not their fault - not they ever thought it was. The girl is going to return again, to teach on her own, going directly through the school, without the inept programme interferring, turning what should be a rewarding experience into a drama. The worst part is, Danielle and this other girl are really good teachers, with friendly personalities that would be an asset to this kind of work and this terrible person, who is obviously completely socially retarded, is driving them away.

If you're thinking of volunteering I would suggest doing an ESL course at home and then coming on your own, don't  go through organisations, its very easy to find places in need once you get here.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

20 minutes in burma

This morning we made the trip to burma to have our visas extended by 2 weeks. We walked to the outskirts of town to catch a saung thau ( a roofed pick up truck, which serves as a bus ), abacus was asleep by the time one came along that would take us to the border, it only cost 15baht, which is less than a dollar. It dropped us near the immigration booths at the entrance to the friendship bridge, which connects the two countries over the Moei river. The wierdest part of the bridge is that in Thailand they drive on the left, while in Burma they drive on the right and I'm not sure at which point they cross over, I wanted it to be the middle of the bridge. Leaving wasn't hard, we just filled out a departure card and walked over the pedestrian part of the bridge. Below the bridge, on the Thai side, we saw two shacks made from sacks and tarpaulin draped over some sticks. A mother held her naked baby outside, while the father used a red plastic bucket to pour water over it,  the baby screamed the same way abacus does taking a bath lately. Along the river, people use giant innertubes to cross from one side of the river to the other, to illegally leave and enter each country, but there is no one to stop them, no one really cares, in fact it seemed like the concrete footpath on the thai side of the river was designed specifically for them. The bridge descended into the bustling streets of Myawaddy. We were ushered towards an arrivals office and while the Thais and Burmese lined up outside to talk through the familiar little windows, we were taken inside, to the insidiously smiling immigration guards, who all smelled of stale tobacco and whose teeth were stained with beetle nut, so familiar amongst the burmese population. And were they as creepy as I thought ? Had i coloured them in with my previously learned knowledge of Burma ? They charged 500 baht each for our passport "processing", about $25 each, which was expected. Then they retained our passports to be returned on our departure.

Burma is surprisingly distinctly different from Thailand, even this border town, which is about as representative of greater Burma as Tiajuana is of mexico, but even the smell, of possibly cardamon mixed with some other familiar scent, was so reminiscent of India. Then a bicycle taxi driver who cycled beside us, refusing to accept our nothankyou's, was an almost carbon copy of a guy in Agra, but not quite as annoying. The heat was baking by now, and a dog whose furless skin clung to its shaking bones, looked as though it had crawled its way out of the pet cemetary, the walking dead. The streets were busy and full of people, the one thing separating it from being a complete facsimilie of India being the presence of women on the street. We walked to find a tea shop, though we were still overly-full from breakfast. We walked passed tables stacked tall with Burmese currency, organised into large bricks. There was nothing really to do, nothing much to see, we abandoned finding the tea shop and decided to go back, our time in Burma equating to about 20 minutes. We went to retrieve our passports. The immigration officers smiled and thanked us, they knew why we'd come and why we'd left so soon, there was no questioning, all truth exposed and unspoken. We returned over the bridge, filled in arrival cards, which I realised we didn't need for Burma, nor departure cards, just cash. 

We found a saung thau, there were two people waiting inside, by the time we left it was full to capacity, with three guys hanging off the back. We tried to have Abacus become friends with the burmese 10 month old boy beside her, they held hands and abacus squeezed his hand and wouldn't let it go. We were dropped at the central bus station, our first point of arrival in Mae Sot, but now we knew our way out of it. We walked through the huge market area of town, which we'd never been to before. Meat was left sitting outside for sale, pigs snouts and skin, baskets of shrimp buzzing with flies, a huge basket of water beetles, net bags of huge live toads, stacked on top of each other, tubs of water snakes and eels slithering over each other. The warm air smelled of meat and the maze of stalls seemed endless, but finally it led us back to the main street. 

left overs

not a lot happened yesterday. we were exhausted from the lack of sleep. and when night came i was so exhausted i couldn't sleep, while abacus slept soundly.

Danielles tutoring session went well, she wants to bring the kid back to new zealand to study, but Burma doesn't issue passports to its citizens, except for ones with expirey dates as long as the persons applied for time. And these are only issued in special circumstances and they don't come cheap. But maybe there are other ways to help.

It's been a while since the racist dogs have bothered us, but a couple of days ago, one called the others to attention and they grouped to form their menacing racist gang, barking at us from accross the street, but fortunately I still had my trusty stick in Abacus pram, which I held at my side, it kept them at bay.

Also the elephant is still around, maybe it's always been around. We see it in odd places with its three human companions, it hangs out as though it is one of the guys. They more i see it the worse I feel for it. 

Burmese seem obsessed with nose bridges, when ever they see Abacus, they tell us to pinch her nose bridge - or lack of one - so that she will have a good nose, another tip is to push on the soft pallette, which somehow pops out the nose bridge. We've tried to explain her trisomy to people, danielles friends understand, as she had them read an article on it, but even when we've shown others online photos of asian kids with trisomy 21, they still don't understand and just pantomime once more, pinching the nose bridge. 

So I didn't think abacus needed milk in the night, that she was just waking up, so when she woke up at midnight, on cue for her feed, I gave her the dummy and after about 20 minutes or so she was asleep again, then she woke up about 3 hours later. So I tried to do the same again, but she wouldn't go to sleep - though she wasn't crying either, so I decided to just give her a bottle to put her to sleep. This however, didn't put her to sleep, in fact (as danielle put it) it only seemed to give her more energy, so that she was wide awake and talking loudly. The rest of the night was spent trying to keep her quiet until we finally decided to get up at 7:30. We are exhausted. And I feel bad because don't have the energy to play with her when she's smiley and full of energy, if only she could understand the paradox of her actions. 

Friday, January 2, 2009

a knock at the door

There's a young migrant kid who works in a cafe we frequent, waiting tables. They seem so grown up even though they're only a child, it seems more like they're a childish adult, than the other way around, as though their personality has already reached it's maturity. Yesterday morning Danielle offered the Thai owners to teach him english for free. This can sometimes be a sore point for employers we've read, but this morning as we were paying for breakfast they excitedly told us the kid wants to do it and where would be the best place to hold the tutorials?Danielle decided our old guest house was the closest location, so they agreed on that and then we went to ask permission of the guest house manager. 

When the manager saw us, he told us he'd not slept the night before because he was worrying about our motorcycle and that he had sent a tuk tuk driver around to check that it was locked properly, as many things go missing around there. So it was him! We'd thought it was the guy who'd rented it to us who had come to check up on us. He would have paid the tuktuk driver to do it too, which was really nice of him but a little strange too. He said we didn't even have to ask about holding the tutoring sessions there. So it's sorted. 

We were supposed to go swimming but the day was overcast, which we didn't mind, it was a nice change. The temperature only drops to one that is more bearable anyway. We got a burger and spicey thai fries from Daves for lunch, the fries are cooked with chillis and onion, they were ok, and the burger was kind of like a giant meatball in a bun. We slept for a lot of the afternoon. Abacus has been wearing us out still, even though she somewhat better at sleeping than earlier on, she still wakes up really early, and there are still two feeds in the night. We haven't slept properly in 8 months. 

Aferwards, we went on a long walk along the highway and out into the Mae Sot suburbs. The entrance to the suburban street was flanked first by cheap accomodation and then the familiar makeshift wooden shacks with rusted roofs (weird, I thought rooves was a word, like hooves). The shacks were haphazardly scattered over greens grass amongst trees, through which a creek ran. And amongst the fallen tree branches was rubbish that stray dogs picked at, while a woman sat out on her porch, an old woman, cooking something over an open fire, there was something strangey appalachian about the whole scene. The shacks gave way first to abandoned housing and then to the well kept properties of the middle classes. Around the corner there were men working out. There was out door gym equipment, which was housed last time danielle was out this way, but now the housing had gone, leaving the contents exposed, not that people weren't using it, they were doing exercises using their vehicles and a low fence or just running, as though the area itself embodied some power and the gym was merely a shrine to its energy. Our business in the suburbs didn't last long but it was getting late so we walked all the way out to the other end of town for dinner. On the way to the suburbs we'd seen a neglected puppy, shaking feebly by itself, while it's healthy siblings played near their mother. So on the way back Danielle wanted to find it, to maybe help it, but when we got near, the "protective" mother wouldn't let us near it, so we had to abandon any idea of intervention.

Along the way, we ran into a whole lot of people at various points who we'd gotten to know during our short stay in Mae Sot, probably more people than I would run into in Wellington, after living there 4 years. By the time we got home, we'd been out for four hours, of which Abacus had slept about 2. She's been sleeping in our bed lately, as it's easier to keep her asleep, but we trialed her cot again. Soon after we'd gone to sleep, there was a knock at the door, I opened it to an unshaven backpacker who was looking for the reception. Abacus however, woke up after two hours of sleeping, at 3 in the morning, so we decided we would let her cry, as all she wants is to suck on her dummy - which puts her to sleep - which causes her to drop the dummy - which wakes her up. She cried for ages, but we were confident - as everyone incorrectly refers to her as a quiet baby - that no one would be able to hear her, but then came a loud knock on the door. After the owner had told us about the scooter, and closing the door too hard the night before, we really didn't want to be told off about our crying baby, so we ignored the knock and ceded to abacus demands, putting her in bed with us, for one of the worst nights sleeps we'd had in a long time. The next morning though, when i went out, I saw a tent pitched right outside our door, no doubt the backpacker from the night before, and as the knock had been so similar to the one earlier in the night, I figured it was him who had knocked to complain - which was pretty annoying - I wished I had answered the door, what could have happened ? Would he have liked to tell Abacus not to cry ?

Thursday, January 1, 2009


There's a guy with a big magnum PI mostache and inseperable baseball cap at the guest house, with a deep american truck driver accent, who laughs with a sleazy, croaky deep "heh heh heh". It was late afternoon on new years day and he was drunk with a thai local who wanted to enthusiastically wish us happy new year, stumbling up from his seat as though he wanted to hug us all. We told him "It's ok", and he sat down. Later the american came over to where I was sitting with Abacus and asked why we were here and rubbed his fingers together in the universal sign for money, or more correctly, sleazy money, I was confused and answered that we were here on holiday. "Oh yeah, family holiday? Got some business on the side." Rubbing his fingers together once more. It wasn't even a question, more an expectation. I kind of blew him off, though gave up too much when, offended by his remark, I said we were trying to help refugees, remaining as vague as possible, but knowing as soon I said it I shouldn't have. He pushed me further but I evaded the questions, I'm sure he'd be too drunk to remember anyway. But now I kind of wish I'd pushed him further on this business he was talking of, like I could have played along and found out what he was up to. I don't like him at all, he takes young thai women up to his room, there's nothing feminist in Thai prostitution, only a loss of power exploited. He started saying how he remembered when his daughter was abacus age, and how happy abacus seems, and I felt sorry for this girl I had never met. 

Later he was sitting drinking again as we were leaving and he offered by way of apology "All I was trying to say was, you gotta nice family there". 
A stray dog patched with hair between raw scabs of skin, wanders into the detention center compound and sniffs around. It walks along the front of the cage of humans and wanders back out again, free to roam where it pleases. 

we farang

We heard tale of things to do around mae sot and decided to rent a scooter to go 16kms out of town to some thermal hot pools. We went back to Ban Thai, our old guest house to hire the scooter and ran into a friend we'd made while staying there, she had her arm in a sling. Apparently she was riding her bike and a car drove to close to her wedging her between it and a parked car until she had no room and clipped her front wheel, sending her flying onto the pavement. To her surprise the car didn't stop, nor did the passersby really even acknowledge her lying in the mddle of the road, huddled, braced for a following car to hit her, fortunately there were none. It was her second accident on her year long journey, the last being a motorcycle one in uganda, which she still bears the scars of on her other arm. This time it was a hairline fracture, which she had examined, xrayed and given painkillers for, at a cost of $20 in under 30 minutes including waiting time. HAHAHA travel insurance is full of shit - DON'T GET IT! Anyway, there were no motorcycles left for hire and after the accident story we thought it might be some auspicious portent, but we've never been supersticious, so the manager gave us the address of another hire place. 

This time we brought the front pack to strap abacus into, which worked way better, she was calm while we followed the vague directions of locals that sent us to every cardinal point and then fell asleep as we finally hit the highway, which took us out through the beautiful country side. The green  farmed land stretched all the way to the wall of hills, which cut Thailand off from Burma. The wind was fierce in our faces, but abacus was untouched, snuggled between us. The roads were unexpectedly rough in parts, sometimes disappearing into gravel, forcing traffic to share a single lane. After following the signs onto a dirt road, where some confused locals pointed us back to the main road, we found the ornate entrance brandishing the kings face, typical of thailand. 

We'd expected the sort of thermal parks typical of new zealand or america, where magical hot water gushes out from yellowed mineral stained rocks and flows down forming pools of varying temperature that you can sit in and soak. But what we found was a concrete pad and fountainhead that flowed into a landscaped stream, weaving its way around a huge grass park of shady trees, where thai families picnicked like a thai version of Seurat's Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jette. All around the periphery were food stalls serving chicken barbarqued whole over charcoal, smoke from it drifted throughout the restaurant area we sat in, where rips in the giant faux linoleum sticker stuck to the floor, revealed the precarious platform supporting the weight of the customers over the stream below. At one point there was a loud creaking sound accompaniedby a chorus of whoaaaa, by customers who sounded as though they were on some fun park ride for the 100th time, but nothing came of it. We ate a quarter of a chicken and some rice, our corn never came and our blindly chosen salad was unappetising, so we went to join everyone under the shady trees for a while. There were absolutely no westerners to be seen, so we were the object of interest for many, especially because of abacus. A very interested chubby thai toddler was interested in her and kept walking over on his clumsy trainer legs, but his parents or grandparents kept coming to pull him away. When he finally got to come for a closer inspection, he lifted up abacus skirt, so she kicked him and yelled loudly. Everyone laughed. 

We noticed that the people gathered around the concreted thermal fountain were poking sticks into it, so we went for a closer look and found the sticks had baskets on the end full of hens and quail eggs, that were cooking in the water. Then I relealised the shape of the whole thing was not unlike those cookers in japanese restaurant where you cook your own food. 

There was supposed to be a cave in the area also, but it wasn't sign posted well. We went for a walk around and found a beautiful green lake with a suspension foot bridge that led to a small buddhist temple on the otherside. I was holding abacus as we walked across and continually lost my balance as the bridge seemed to lurch sideways beneath me and then by some wierd illusion continue to travel impossibly on that path. 

We couldn't find the cave - or at least we don't think so - we found some buddha in a human made cave, but surely that wasn't it. We got the scooter and drove further down a dirt road to see if we could find it, but there was nothing out there and no signs anywhere and then abacus was tired, so we decided to head back. She soon fell asleep in the front pack after a bit of initial protest as we drove back through the fresh smelling country side and the quaint little towns.

Later that night there was a knock on our door so soft it sounded like two doors away. The owner had come to tell us that a guy had come around to inspect our scooter and said that we hadn't locked it properly, then when danielle closed the door to get the key and come outside the owner told Danielle she closed the door too hard. Gah. Sometimes Thai people can make you feel like a child, but it's just a cultural difference and we shouldn't be offended. 

happy 2552!

The elephant was still being led through the streets in the morning as we went to breakfast, squealing it's little squeaks as it crossed through the traffic. Danielle had to get to a seamstress by 8, who was going to make her a sarrong to wear at the temple herbal sauna, she charged her all of $2 for the work. The workshop was a cute family shop, with aged and trusty black and gold singer sewing machines. 

We went to Daves Canadian for breakfast. Danielle likes how he is so friendly but completely indifferent to his customers, there's a real feel of a Canadian cabin to the place. We also went back for lunch and this time Dave told us his life story, of how he came to Mae Sot after buying his way out of a contract in a factory firm, which had moved its offices to Singapore. He hated Singapore because of how expensive it was. A clause in his leaving the company meant that he couldn't work for anyone else for three years, so after coming to Mae Sot to see his brother in law, he decided to run a restaurant for those three years because he liked the place, and now, 11 years later he is still here, becoming a celebrity of travel guide books and the restaurant of choice of NGO's, even serving the police as interpreter for the foreigners who get into drunken fights. "With thais or amongst themselves" we asked, noticing how there seems to be an absence of drinking culture among the Thais, and of blood on the streets on saturday mornings, which is so familiar at home. "Sometimes just by themselves", Dave replied, as some of them just ended up breaking furniture and refuse to pay, so Dave has to go visit them and ask "So do you want me to bring you some macaroni or are we going to see how we're going to pay for this table?" He said the town was a lot rougher three years ago, but things are much better now. 

We had a new years party at the european run Thai organisation, Danielle had to bring a gift, as on new years you give gifts. She got one from a store around the corner from us which has year round free gift wrapping outside, so when ever you feel like giving a gift you can just go to the store, danielle got me a toast towel and I got her a hello kitty handbag. At the party there was barbarque food and a noodles stand and a whole bunch of soda, it was very family oriented. When we arrived Danielle had to hand in her gift to which she was given a number, 77, which in Thai is jet sip jet - of the little Thai we know we fortunately know numbers, because when gift time came around they read the numbers out only in Thai (as apart from one other westerner, everyone was Thai or Burmese). When the number was called out, by the enthusiastic MC who  somehow brought the crowd to fits of laughter over the most mundane thing, she had to go up on the stage. Then they called out another number and someone else came on the stage, so the two could exchange gifts. Danielle got a tea cup and saucer set, while the old man got Danielles pink love heart photo frame with clock.

Danielle also got some other gifts as well as a soft toy for Abacus, but as we left the severly G rated event, we saw an old burmese lady pushing her cart of possesions down the street and Danielle gave her the extra gifts, she seemed really appreciative.  

Danielle was going to another new years party at her friends, we didn't want to push it with abacus, so I was to take her home. We walked to get a motorcycle taxi for danielle, they're the guys on the main street wearing purple vests. The guy we found didn't speak a word of english and had an open can of beer in the carry basket on the front of his bike, with a straw in it. But she got to the party safely, where there was plenty of traditional food and a bon fire that they dowsed in petrol and lit with sky rockets. It sounded fun. 

It wasn't Thai new year, but they still celebrate it as though it is, which gives them two new years eves in one year. Their new years is in april and it is currently the year 2552, marked by the birth of buddha.

Our New Years wish was as it is every night, to get a good nights sleep, so we turned down the offers of guest house room parties for the hope of some good sleep. But it wasn't abacus who woke us up, it was the warzone sound of megaton strength fireworks, that seemed to be exploding right over head, lighting the windows in explosions of light. They were relentless - but of all ironies - abacus slept through it. She slept for two four hour sessions, which was awesome. But she still woke up at 6, yelling at us to get up.