Let’s be honest. I am not an expert when it comes to child care. I am a childless, sibling-less child. In fact, one of my last babysitting experiences included me duct taping a baseball glove to a broom as I rubbed my eight year old client to sleep while I focused on the A-Team on TV.
Despite these challenges, I ended up volunteering at an orphanage in Kathu, a town located inland on the lush green island of Phuket. It is twenty minute drive to the beach. The home cares for nearly 50 children from the age of two to six. Ten of these children sleep at the facility. The children here are under privileged, lower income.
While I enjoy nothing more than drinking a cold beer at dusk on the beach, a true travel experience includes cultural immersion. But cultural immersion is typically not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the infamous Bangla Street in Patong Beach. From what I have calculated this is the highest per capita person to bar ratio of anywhere I have traveled.
One of the best opportunities to interface with real people is to volunteer. That is why I am spending three days a week at the orphanage. The staff includes three caring Thai women: Noi, Pepsi, and Mee. And they are a commendable group. As you can imagine, overseeing 50 rambunctious children can be overwhelming and exhausting. As with any foreign travels, there are always cultural differences, sometimes nuances, sometimes vast. Volunteering you get to witness some of these first hand. This is an overview of a typical day.
The children who sleep at the house are roused, fed, and changed. Before 9 am, parents drive up on their motor-bikes and lift and place their children into the courtyard. A long, waist-high, peeling white gate contains the children in the home. The building is nestled in between a hairdresser and a residence.
The motor-bike is the ubiquitous mode of transportation in Thailand. It is a cross between a moped and a motorcycle. A handful of children break into tears and clasp the gate like prison bars as their parents drive away. The children slip off their flip flops and place them in the back of the house. Their backpack with a clean set of clothes is set in a shelf.
Shortly after nine, the children are gathered and lined up in the white tiled general purpose room. After much effort, rough lines are formed. The children clasp their hands together and are led in prayer to the King of Thailand as they wai (prayer-like gesture with palms together while bowing). The King of Thailand, the longest serving monarch in the world, is held in near God-like status. In fact, Thailand’s penal code includes lese-majesty (injured majesty). Simply put, if you verbally insult the king you may be sent to prison. One example is Harry Nicolaides from Melbourne, Australia, who was arrested at Bangkok’s international airport and charged with lese-majesty, for an offending passage in his self-published book Verisimilitude. His book sold less than 10 copies. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to three years in prison but was then pardoned by the king, released, and deported.
After prayer, we sing songs about a family of bunnies and a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. After a month, I find myself singing the songs later in the day. They are kind of catchy. Well, more humming then singing since I only catch about 2% of the Thai words. Next is a quick English lesson. Learning by rote, we practice the alphabet, numbers, the months, and sometimes colors, animals, or fruit. I even noticed one of my favorite kids, Chirley, occasionally singing Jingle Bells.
Mid-morning differs with random projects. For example on Valentine’s Day, the children colored 40 plus hearts (jai) out of construction paper. The children are spread across the floor, colored pencils gripped in their fist. Depending on the age, their work product differs significantly. The younger children, happily color outside of the lines. The older kids create a pleasant pattern of colors.
The kids refer to me as Liang Yai (Big Monkey), my Thai nickname. They enjoy a number of activities with me. Some of these activities include being chased by pee dip (zombie), climbing on me, sitting on me, jumping on me, kicking and punching me, being fed by me, pointing at objects for me to retrieve, giving me multiple high fives, and tons of other stuff. It is quite common for five children to being using me as a piece of furniture. That includes, one kid sitting on my shoulders, two on my lap, and another two, placed on my calves. Two are crying, one is laughing, one is smiling, and the last is alternately picking and kissing my toes.
Lunch is served at eleven in the morning, which is consumed on the floor in the front covered courtyard of the home. The children are spread and seated on the floor in 6 rows, with the oldest children in the rear. Two large pots are brought out from the kitchen. A scoop of rice and a ladle of noodles or some other nourishment is plopped into the bowls. The food is disbursed to the hungry children and quickly consumed. The closer the row is to the front the greater the chance that the majority of the food will end up on the child verse their stomachs. The youngest row need help feeding themselves. (I typically end up feeding Fa, a high-maintenance two year old princess). Quite often the food drops out of her mouth and ends up on the floor. It is quickly retrieved and placed back in her mouth.
A fair amount of my time at the orphanage is spent sweeping. As you might know in many Asian countries, shoes or in South East Asia, flip flops are not worn indoors. As you enter a home or sometimes even a business, you place your footwear outside of the building. You enter the home barefoot. And at the orphanage everything is done on the hard tiled floor – that includes eating, sleeping, coloring, lessons, or watching TV. There is a scarcity of furniture – chairs or desk. Since so much activity takes place on the floor it is imperative that the surfaces are as clean as possible. Hence, my multiple sweepings and moppings of the floor. I wonder what the local Thais think as they pass this giant white farang (foreigner) bent over at a right angle sweeping the floors in their neighborhood. Occasionally, a smiling Thai on a motor-bike slowed down and informed me that I was doing a good job! If you have traveled, you are aware that any broom or mop in a developing country is half the length of one back in the states. Noi, one of the caretakers, laughingly promised me she would buy me a broom with a long handle so I wanted to have to bend over.
After the children place their dirty bowls in a giant tub, they then follow up their meals with a cup of water. A giant silver canister rests in the corner of the covered courtyard. The children line up to drink nam (water). The fifty some children do not have their own cups, but share several communal cups and pass them among themselves.
It is now shower time, which I do not participate in. No one wants to see a creepy old guy showering three year olds. Typically, this is the time I mop down the floors and head down to the local “Starbucks” for my 66 cent cham-a-now. The Starbucks is a cart owned by a local Thai couple that rests in front of their home. Cham-a-now is a delicious home-brewed ice-tea made with fresh limes. Poom yakdai see cham-a-now (I want 4 ice-teas) I blurt out in my awful, toneless Thai. I then typically comment how hot (lawn mak mak) the weather is and how delicious (arroi mak mak) their drinks are in Thai to make some small talk.
After lunch, the children are lined up and in small groups and are herded to the back of the house. The back of the home like the front is also a semi-enclosed courtyard. There is an open stall with a hose. The kids are placed in the stall, soaped and watered down. Their teeth are also brushed. The toothbrushes are labeled by their nicknames. After they are toweled off, a fresh set of clothes is placed on the child.
After lunch and their early afternoon shower, it is now nap time. Five thin blankets are spread across the white tiled floor in the front part of the house. Several fans are positioned around the children to combat the tropical heat. Fifty panda adorned pillows accompany the blankets, alternating in pastel pink and blue. The children are paraded out in small groups caked in baby powder after their showers and a fresh change of clothes. The staff lays the children down for their 2-3 hour nap.
After about 30 minutes the majority of these hyper-active children drift off to the sleep. The staff repeatedly orders non (sleep). Of course, there are always a couple of kids who are not cooperative. They fall into one of two groups. The uncontrollable crying group and the feisty smack-my-sleeping neighbor type.
This is where Thai child caring comes to play. Noi and Pepsi settle into the mosh pit of children and attempt to comfort or cajole the children who fall into one of the two groups. Mee is cleaning up in the kitchen. Often a high piercing verbal warning is issued. The Thai language reminds me of many Vietnamese war movies. Every time I hear Noi, Pepsi, or Mee yelp out a shrill order, I immediately picture a film where a Viet Cong soldier is yelling orders at their American POW. There are 50 kids spread across the floor with only a couple of outliers not sleeping. The teachers are oblivious to waking the majority of sleeping children by letting out a sharp tonal tongue lashing. But what do I know? Eventually, all the children all nod off to sleep. It is now time for the staff to eat.
Noi, Pepsi, Moo and I gather at one of the desks and eat our lunch. The fans rhythmically pulsate, cooling the room while we eat and the kids are stretched out sleeping. We spend time learning about each other’s lives.
Three o’clock rolls around. The kids lazily awake. Their panda pillows are gathered and placed in a closet in the back. The blankets are folded and placed in the same closet. Juice boxes and snacks are handed out. The kids greedily stretch out their hands. I sweep the floors a couple more times.
Motor-bikes pull up. Parents hop off their bikes. Children sprint to the gate, giant grins, and hands extended out. The kids gather their flip flops and backpacks. The kids wai and thank Noi, Pepsi, Moo, and I before they leave.
Read about my experience of volunteering in the slums of Bangkok