geography 100: train to Bamboo School

For our last portion of traveling in Thailand, we went back to the Bamboo School. The Bamboo School is a refugee home/orphanage close to the Thai-Myanmar border for about 55 children who’ve come over the border and have no one who is able to care for them. We first visited the school in 2010 on some friends’ recommendations, and have been back several times since then. Our last visit we lived there for six months over an 8 month period.

Jessie and I love taking the train out. It leaves early in the morning from Bangkok and arrives about five hours later in a small town called Sai Yok. The train takes quite a bit longer than going by bus or minivan, but it gives us the pleasure of watching the scenery lazily morph from flatlands to mountains. Also, it only costs three dollars. The taxi drops us off at Thonburi Station at 7:20am, half an hour before departure. That gives me plenty of time to walk across the road to the market. I hunt around for the best looking fruit to eat on the train. Finally I arrive at a stand that has racquetball-sized mangosteens. The taut purple flesh conceals within it several small white wedges which are sweeter than cherries. I purchase a kilogram of the fruit for 20 baht, about 65 cents. Next, I find an ice coffee stand. Thais like their coffee so sweet you can barely tell there’s coffee in it at all. I tell the woman to use only a little sugar. She nods and then scoops a teaspoonful of sugar into the bottom of a glass, followed by two ounces of hot coffee and another two ounces of sweetened condensed milk. She mixes up this painfully sweet concoction and pours it over a full cup of ice. Before the lid goes on she grabs a can of sweetened evaporated milk and tops it off. I take a sip and have to strain to keep my eyes from popping out of my head. These drinks also cost 65 cents.

Back at the platform Jessie and I wait patiently for the train, which rarely shows up on time. We spend the 20 minutes of delay watching dogs mark their territory on the station’s support posts. When the train finally arrives, the conductors rush along the outside of the old cars turning around the wooden plaques that read Nam Tok – Thonburi to the flip side, Thonburi – Nam Tok. The train has so much character. It’s open seating, so we board the nearest car and find the most suitable seats. The best seats, we’ve learned, have four requirements: 1) the wooden benches must not be loose or they will fall off their hinges at some point during the trip when the tracks get too bumpy; 2) they must have a window that can be both easily pulled down, to let fresh air into the stiflingly hot carriage, and pushed up, to keep rain out in the case of heavy showers; 3) they must be under a ceiling fan that actually works; and 4) they must be on the left side of the car, because that’s where all the best views of the trip are.

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The train jerks into motion and we crawl across the flat sprawling city extending for many miles outward from Bangkok. After a few moments vEendors begin to walk up and down the center aisle selling ice cold drinks from large pails or rice dishes served in banana leaves or XL size t-shirts that say “I visited River Kwae.” We read books and peer out the window periodically to view the changing landscape.

Train to Sai YokGradually the city becomes country and rice paddies, tapioca and sugar cane claim space for the majority of the plain. Hours later, the train stops to pick up several handfuls of tourists who want to ride it on the famous bridge over the River Kwae in Kanchanaburi. During World War II, POWs from the Allied nations were forced to build these tracks while living in such horrible conditions that the trail is known to this day as The Death Railway. After Kanchanaburi the train begins to follow the wide river. I start to notice mountains in the distance, which grow bigger and more defined every time I look up from my book. We come upon a resort with houses built along both shores of the river. Several huts are actually built over the river and they rise and fall almost imperceptibly with the small ripples in the water.

Tham Krasae Resort

There’s a mountain that rises from the northern bank of the river here, so the raised train tracks were built along its side. The train winds its way around the curvature of the mountain as people stick their heads out the windows to look way down at the river below or wave to others several carriages ahead of theirs. The train stops and almost all of the tourists disembark. That’s how I know our stop is approaching.

Death Bridge

After five hours of shifting from cheek to cheek on the wooden benches, we’re very ready to jump out at our stop and walk across the tracks to a small “downtown” area. Nestled around a tiny central green are an outdoor rice and noodle place, an internet shop, two small convenience stores, two mini market shops, and a brand new steak restaurant (which seems very out of place). I poke around in the shops and buy packets of instant coffee while we wait half an hour for the red songthaew truck to come creeping down the road. I signal the driver to stop. I approach the window and the driver says “Bongti!” to which I nod. Then we climb up the back of the truck and sit on one of the long side benches, backpacks between our legs. The locals stare at us, wondering what these two white people are doing on a truck bound for the border of Burma. As we drive out of town and pass the elephant park, the mountains jut dramatically up out of the earth in seemingly random places as if some primordial god had stood under the surface and thrown a temper tantrum, punching upward spastically and aimlessly. Many parts are so steep that trees can’t grow on them, so the sheer cliff faces make bald patches amidst the sea of rich green jungle that clings to every other possible square inch of land. Though I haven’t traveled too extensively in Thailand, I’ve seen a fair bit of this stunning country and I think that surely this land has to be one of the most beautiful places.

Bongti Mountains

The village isn’t very far from the town, but the journey takes over half an hour to traverse because deep potholes as wide as a doormat mar the road every couple hundred meters, forcing the truck to slow down and drop into lower gears. We don’t mind; it gives us more time to view the landscape and settle into the slower pace of country life. It’s gently raining, which creates misty clouds that cling to the mountains. At the same time, the rain causes the dust particles in the air to fall back to earth and magnifies the full range of the valley’s vibrant green. I couldn’t get a picture to look this great in Photoshop if I worked at it for days! We go up a hill and down, and shortly after we have to ring a bell and bang our hands on the side of the truck to let the driver know we want to get off. I walk up to the window and give the man 100 baht and say “Cope-uhn-crahp,” which means thank you. We walk the last half kilometer to the school wondering which children we will encounter first.

When we get there the children are still at school so we tour around the compound taking note of all the improvements that have been done since we were last here a year ago. There’s a carport and stone-lined driveway in place of the field in front of the school. The walkway from the medical clinic to the girls dormitory has been paved. A large chicken coop now flanks the classrooms at the bottom of the hill. Some guesthouses have concrete verandas and steps instead of bamboo. There is a dark room where edible mushrooms grow out the side of plastic tubes. A large hydroponic fish tank feeds fertilized water into pots of newly growing plants. A new toilet room is being constructed next to the girls dormitory. We joke to each other that we’ve arrived back at “Bamboo Resort” while fondly recalling the way things used to be before this new round of construction.

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We sit on MomoCat’s porch and catch up on everything that’s happened in the past year. Dokmai and Bekah are going to kindergarten now. Tui, a Thai woman who lived in New Zealand for several years, has been helping out for the past year. Several volunteers we’ve worked with in the past were just here a few months ago or will be arriving shortly after we leave. And there’s a new baby at the school who likes to “practice opera loudly” at 3 in the morning! The students arrive home and we rush to greet them. Some of the children run squealing into our arms. Some are bashful at first and look away as we sweep them up in our arms and repeat over and over “I miss you big big!” It’s okay. I know that within an hour I’ll be chasing them around the dormitories and tickling them as they shriek with joy. We notice that with the students there is also some change: some boys and girls we know from previous trips have left, for various reasons, to live with relatives in the surrounding area. Their beds have been filled by new smiling faces with names like Niti, Megatoo, Shanymoo, Ehlapaw, Ehdaku and Nanapoe. The toddlers have aged another year and are now little girls, and we marvel at how big they’ve gotten. I realize that when I see my nephew back in Michigan in a few months I’ll have the same shock over how much he’s grown. The children quickly change out of their school clothes, do their chores and take baths before the supper bell rings. As always, the days meld into each other and as soon as we know it our week will be finished and we’ll be back at Suvarnabhumi Airport, waiting on our plane to India. But first, we will have many adventures at Bamboo School. Time is such a strange and wonderful and awful thing.

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