Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Thai DO Love Their Plastic Bags...

Bags from a single, short trip out one afternoon

If you've spent a morning in Thailand at the JJ (Jatujak/Chatuchak) Weekend Market and done any kind of shopping whatsoever you arrive back at your room with enough plastic bags to stop a train - elevated or otherwise - and probably of a surprising variety, to boot. From the feather light bags we're used to seeing in the produce departments of U.S. grocery stores to heavy-duty grade thick ones like the solid green one in the top of the photo above that you could carry ten pounds of nails in without a single one tearing through.

This isn't to pick on JJ Market; it's safe to say almost any time you buy any item over there - regardless of how small and insignificant - it's likely to be handed to you in a sturdy plastic bag, as if your pack of chewing gum needed special treatment. It's simply how it's done there, and most of the time it's not worth mentioning.

Occasionally I'll just take the item out, put it in my pocket and hand the bag back to them (which saves them the cost, anyway) but if it's something I'm taking back home as a souvenir I take it home in the bag and let the recipient recycle it. The bags are different enough that they're a novelty of a minor sort, so I figure it's just part of the gift.

But Mommm... it's Tommy's turn to take out the trash!

When you stop to think of the sheer volume of them used over time in Thailand, though, the numbers must add up. Wondering about that as I was gathering up what seemed like a small arm load of them to take out to the recycle bin this morning I did a quick check... and they do.  Add up, I mean.

Bangkok leases nearly three quarters of the 2,000 trash trucks on the streets daily - like this on stuck in traffic on the Saphan Taksin bridge one morning

The people of Bangkok alone generate about 9,370 tons of garbage per day (that's 8,500 metric tonnes), and of that total almost 2,000 tons (1,800 mT) are plastic bags.

I read an estimate from their Ministry of Natural Resources and environment that if they'd quit with just the bags the country could save $21 million a year, or 650 million baht.

Yes, this is the same picture from a "Safety On The Job...Or Not..." post from two years ago

Most of the time the streets of Bangkok are cleaner than a huge metropolis in the U.S., but people are people all over, and when you have visitors adding to the trash both there and in slightly less obvious areas you do see trashy spots. If you don't buy that, take a look down between buildings or behind fences in an unused spot and you'll see it - just like at home. It happens.

San Francisco and a couple of other nearby cities have outlawed the plastic bag, forcing people to either buy/re-use paper bags or buy and re-use other plastic shopping bags, as may happen at some point in Thailand, as well.  The Thai already use fiber re-enforced, re-usable bags for many things, especially larger quantities, things moved on a regular basis and for some storage. I can't use the larger versions for groceries here, but I've brought back the smaller bags from there for groceries here. Not that I'm waste-free, but at least I'm doing part of my part.

It's a pie-in-the-sky hope Bangkok will eliminate the bags you see flying along in the exhaust of a bus or carried skyward by the wind, but they could cut their carbon dioxide production by an estimated 11 million tons per year if they did. Worth at least taking a stab at, I suppose.

While they think about it, how about if I put that pie in a styrofoam box and bag it up for you, hmm? I'll be right back with that.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Update On April 15th's "Reaping What We Sow"

Note: this translation uses the male "krap" instead of the female "ka", but it'll get the point across to the staff. I leave the tip below the wording, or leave them peeking out above.

I hadn't planned on posting today, but ten days ago on April 15th's post "Tips Of The Trade, Or Reaping What We Sow" I made mention of a note I leave with the daily tip for the housekeeping staff that reads "Housekeeping --  thank you!" in Thai, but at the time of the post I'd misplaced the original my friend had kindly written for me so I didn't have it to scan and share.

A reader from South Africa wrote to ask if I still had it, as she was planning a trip there in July and liked the idea. I looked around and still couldn't find the one from this last trip, but while doing some other filing this morning I found another, so, here it is: scanned, cleaned up and ready to print out if anyone else out there would care to use it.

Thanks for asking, Didi. Here's wishing you a safe and enjoyable trip. Please write again and share some of the high points of your adventure after you're home again.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Stay Off The Tracks? Well, DUH...

City people almost everywhere can often be distracted, oblivious to their surroundings or just plain dumb. Sometimes a combination. Natives and visitors in the Bangkok Transit System (BTS) stations are a good example. Another are people who exit the escalators in Thailand and just stop to check their phone while a half-dozen people shout while smashing together behind them, but let's save that for another day.

Most of the people you encounter there are either behind schedule and looking to join in on a crush to board - usually staring at their cell phones - or idly waiting for the next train to arrive and either walking around the platform or leaning somewhere, but still often playing with their phone. When I look at what locals are doing it seems they're more often changing whatever it is coming through their wired ear buds than texting, and thankfully there aren't many actual phone conversations, because most folks tend to speak loud enough for the person they're calling to hear them without the phone. I've never figured that one out, but that "what I'm saying needs to be broadcast" is all too often true in restaurants, as well.

Part of their obliviousness is often demonstrated by their proximity to the open pit that contains the train tracks, including the high voltage one. Despite the yellow lines and warning tiles with raised bumps for a tactile alert they still earn a blast on the whistle from a station guard.

There's usually at least one guard on either side of the track pit, keeping an eye out for those not using their own eyes. Whistles at the ready they're prepared to send a warning blast at any moment, and if you're withing, say, 10 feet it can make your ears ring for a few minutes afterwards - and that's after you've jumped a foot off the ground.

Oh, sure... he's smiling now, but that whistle he carries can be near-lethal!

Now, I admit I've received one of these warnings myself on one of my first visits to the Land of Smiles. I'd been leaning a bit too far toward "the void" to take a picture, and heard the whistle from a painless distance at the opposite end of the station. Realizing it had been directed at me I sheepishly moved back, smiled and waved a "thank you" to the guard, but at least I was aware of where I was standing and knew not to take another two steps to my right, but I understand that he didn't and was probably sighing "Oh, good grief... another fool tourist!"

At a couple of spots you'll see actual metal and glass barricades; gates designed to stay closed and only open when the doors of a train in the station open, but I didn't notice them in use during my last visit. I'd guess they'd help those nearest the edge from being accidentally pushed onto the tracks by a crush of folks behind them during peak transit hours.

Protective (but idle) gates at the Siam station

Not much of a profound thought for today, because your risks on the BTS are FAR less than any transportation (including walking) at street level, but I was talking with someone about it yesterday and thought I'd pass it along as a suggestion to be aware when you're otherwise tempted to be distracted in potentially hazardous situations.

My guess is the "penalty" is monetary, but it could also mean being knocked from the tracks three stories down to street level by high voltage!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Songkran 2013/2556 - California Style

A child receives blessings for the coming year

While San Francisco and "Thai Town" in the Los Angeles area hold more extensive Songkran festivals - with parades, floats and elephants to soak you, no less - I wasn't in the mood for any more of a soaking there than I've been willing to book in Thailand, so I didn't make an effort to attend any of them this year. I did my usual ritual of prayers, candles, incense and meditating, took a shower in lieu of a public soaking and called it a holiday by 08:00.

Detail of one of the beautiful and ornate fruit and vegetable carvings

However, a friend called a while later, saying that his home town of San Jose (about an hour South of San Francisco) was holding what they were billing as their First Annual Songkran Festival, so - somewhat reluctantly - I went and hoped for the best... or driest, whichever.

My worries on the drive there about my camera were, for the most part, baseless; it was a sane and delightful day. I came home with a little bit  of white paste on my face and got a few spritzes from standard squirt guns wielded by giggling kids there, but there were no buckets of water.

A small part of the festivities

Although it only covered an area in total of perhaps two city block lengths there was something for everyone: traditional crafts booths, a variety of food stands (primarily Thai, thankfully), a Muay Thai competition/exhibition, some commercial establishments represented (insurance, cable and phone providers, banks - that sort of thing), a couple of health-related booths, bouncy houses for the kids and a number of other things.

Even though fighters wore protective gear, there was a medical team on duty

There was also an enclosed beer garden where people over 21 could enter and have snacks, enjoy cold Chang beer (one of the sponsors) and share some restrained water splashing. All in all it was a well-planned and well-run event, suitable for all ages.

Water bowls for the blessing ceremony

One of the special areas was a tented spot where one could receive blessings and good wishes from a line of seated monks. In a much more traditional style than the "water cannons" version of the holiday you removed your shoes, accepted the small bowl of water handed you by the volunteer and joined the line of kneeling folks moving along the line of monks.

Pouring a small amount of water from your bowl onto the outstretched hands of the monk you bowed your head and received your sprinkled blessing on your head. All wished you well for the coming year, saying "Good health to you," "Happy new year," "Good fortune in the year ahead," - that sort of thing. Being a warm and sunny afternoon the cool sprinkling felt good, and, being a human being with shortcomings, I'll take any good wishes sent my direction to help balance things out!

Fruit carving at the OTOP booth

There was a booth promoting the crafts association OTOP (One Tambon [district] One Product), which you'll run into in many places in Thailand itself, and another for the TAT (the Tourism Authority of Thailand). The TAT booth was distributing shopping bags, rolled posters of and brochures about Thailand.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand booth

Miss Songkran contest - one of the interviews

There was also a beauty pageant to elect a Miss Songkran 2556 that featured lovely ladies in traditional dress, being interviewed and answering questions as you'd expect at such a contest... "If you were to move to a country to promote Thai culture, where would you choose to live?"

A contestant answers a question

Miss Songkran contestant mingles with the crowd

Part of the Miss Songkran audience makes the most of the shade at the old California Theater

Although it was billed as being open from 10:00 to 17:00 some of the cultural activities began to shut down by 15:00, but the rest of the festival ran the distance.

Two members of the TANC stop to smile

Here's hoping there's a second festival next year. To all who put time and effort into this one San Jose's first Songkran festival yesterday (apparently a lot of that by the Thai Association of Northern California) - nicely done!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hello, Young Lovers / PDA At The BTS

PDAs - public displays of affection - aren't the norm among Thai people. By that I don't mean a mother lovingly patting talcum powder on her child's face roadside before sending them off to play; this refers more to intoxicated tourists pawing their current object of interest in a public or semi-public place outside of the club areas where the rules have morphed somewhat to fit the business at (or literally in) hand.

More often than not you'll see the recipient squirm uncomfortably and/or to pry their way out of the situation, unless it's part of a business transaction (i.e. a Rented Admirer's agreement) and then it's possibly tolerated, but not appreciated. You don't need to take my word for it - just note the looks on the faces of the Thai nearby when they're put in a position to see such behavior.

Leaving that aside, though, love is love, and gentle affection will usually bring a smile to even the more conservative Thai faces, as did the couple in this small photo essay today.

One afternoon while I was cooling off at Coffee Society, a delightful coffee shop spot to pass a little time on a hot afternoon while sipping an iced coffee and watching the world go by I had a chance to see just such a sweet scene. Coffee Society is directly below the Sala Daeng BTS station. 

[For the true newbies the BTS is the elevated light rail train system that can whisk you about the Big Mango. If you click on the links here you can read an introduction, a piece on statistics (and those damned stairs) and about tickets and fares.]

BUSTED! The young woman had just waved at me, seeing my camera pointed in their direction. The man had already seen me, smiled and waved.

On the station platform above me stood a couple peering down at the daily afternoon set-up of the Silom night market stalls. I say "daily" but every so often there's an edict handed down to clear the sidewalks and they're not there for a night or three. This particular day folks were erecting their stalls, much as you'd see along the main Patpong Night Market area being set up. You can also see more about that daily circus in posts 1, 2 and 3 if you want.

While they were watching they appeared to be taking turns sharing affectionate glances and little kisses.  I thought it was sweet, myself, but wondered what the others passing by might say, given the chance.  I couldn't see everyone walking past them from my vantage point below, but it was nice to see those who noticed them usually smile in their direction. If it was what I'd guessed were a couple - especially those, say, under 30 - they often smiled at the person they were walking with.

I was reminded of a movie that is "cinema non grata" in Thailand, if you'll forgive my bastardized latin, but many of you have seen it. Think Rogers and Hammerstein musical from the mid-1950s, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that included a story of forbidden love graced with the song "Hello, Young Lovers".

They stood there at the railing for at least a half an hour before moving out of my range of vision, apparently getting on a train or exiting the station.  Less than five minutes later they wandered by my seat at Coffee Society, nodded a greeting and went inside to order.

When they came out to find a seat to people watch as I'd done I motioned for them to join me, which they did. I showed them the photos I'd taken, and asked if they'd mind them put here on the blog. They agreed, as long as I didn't reveal any of the details they shared while we visited that day, so I'll leave their story up to your own imaginations.

So, here you are, you two. Since I've already emailed you the full images you know how to get in touch with me if you change your minds, but thanks again for the opportunity to observe and then visit with two very pleasant and gentle people. Stay in touch.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tips Of The Trade, Or Reaping What We Sow

30 to 40 Baht a day works wonders with housekeeping.

Never having personally done a poll on it I admit I don't have a definitive answer for you on how much to tip the folks who maintain your "home away from home" while you're on the road (your hotel, serviced condo or other type of room that you don't strictly maintain yourself) but I'd hope you leave them something on a daily basis.  It's one of those grey areas that rarely pops up even in the ever-changing "up to yooouuu" areas of travel interactions.

From personal experience and from conversations with other travelers, though, I can attest to the fact that if you're nice to housekeeping, they - as a rule - tend to go out of their way to be nice to you.  I've had extra pillows and towels appear without a request, flowers put in my room, soaps and shampoos from deluxe rooms in my regular room, etc. I know they were out of the ordinary because I've had others ask how I'd rated special treatment when they hadn't. "I didn't get that stuff in my room!" one friend groused. "Maybe because you're a cheap bastard?" I asked. He laughed, but he followed my suggestions and the next morning at breakfast he sheepishly said "I have a robe and some of that nicer stuff now".  Call it a bribe if you want, but I don't see it that way.

As we've mentioned in a couple of other posts (links below), tipping among Thai isn't a common thing, but those in the service trade and in regular contact with tourists have been exposed to the practice often enough that they recognize it for what it is, and they appreciate it.  From what I've been able to glean via Thai friends gratuities aren't built into their regular wage package as they can be in other countries, and as cheap as some people can be that's probably a good idea.

The bell staff provide a variety of services, and are good folks to have on your side.

I'd hope most of you would agree that tipping the bell boy who lugs your bags out of the taxi, into the hotel and up to your room has earned a gratuity, wouldn't you?  I tend to travel heavier than some , so I always make sure to tip fairly in that case. Sometimes Bt20 per bag, sometimes simply Bt100+, depending on the difficulty of the task. Some 45Kg guy who struggles up three flights of stairs with my 150Kg of crap and risks a compressed vertibrae or two naturally earns more, and why shouldn't he? It's not their fault the place doesn't have an elevator. A guy using both a cart and a lift shouldn't even break a sweat, so gets a lesser tip, like the example above.

Bear in mind that in a five-star hotel the bar may have been set a bit higher (although the better-off actually tend to be less generous, I've been told by folks who work in such places) but I'd suggest simply being as fair as you can be.

Do you think housekeeping cares if you leave your small change for them?  They don't.

Dining room staff in hotels featuring buffets are more often the recipients of "pooled" tips, receiving a share of what's left in a tip box near the register or front entrance. If there's no house rule against accepting it, though, you can directly hand cash to a person who went above and beyond their regular call, if you choose to.

Earlier I mentioned a couple of other posts regarding tipping here in the past. There was a post about tip pooling back in January of 2011 that you might find amusing HERE, and another with some examples of tipping hotel staff from April of 2011 HERE.

By the way, you need to leave the tip for housekeeping someplace where it's obviously a tip so they don't think they're taking your money and risk losing their job. A note identifying a tip as such neatly does the trick, and I've yet to run into the housekeeping staff member who didn't know the word "housekeeping" in English. I tend to leave it on a corner at the foot of the bed, completely separate from anywhere I may leave other minor amounts of cash out, like on the desk.

What made me think of this today was a note I'd tucked into my brochures, receipts and junk from this last trip; a reminder of something unusual that happened while staying in a three star hotel where few spoke much English and things were a little more - let's just say basic, shall we?  I'd left a tip with a note in Thai saying "Housekeeping... thank you!", and when I returned later that day I found the note below.  Kind of nice, I thought, and despite their spelling it was a good example of reaping what we sow.

Friday, April 12, 2013

One Boy's Success Story - The Conclusion

Top on a visit to the Million Year Stone Park a year ago

When we left off yesterday I had - more or less - given my word that I'd attend the graduation ceremony for one of my sponsored students, Top, if I were in the country at the time.  If you don't care to go through the first part, I'd been sponsoring his schooling and visiting with him and his family for more than a handful of years, and seen him become a self-confident and upstanding young man - quite a change from the boy I'd originally met, who spent most of his time apparently fascinated with the ground directly in front of his well-worn shoes.  It had been a heartwarming transformation, and I'd been lucky to be along for the ride.

As can be the case when you're trying to arrange events with school kids - especially teenagers - it's a little like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. This year's outing with Top turned out to be a solo affair, and at the time he still didn't seem to know the particulars on his graduation ceremony that was around two weeks away.  We said our goodbyes with the whole thing still up in the air, and although I hadn't really said goodbye I figured "well, that's that".

Top helps at check-out with the family's supplies

This might be a good spot to mention that the Pattaya Street Kids Support Project is, by its own charter, structured to only provide assistance to minors up to (and through, naturally) the school year during which they'll turn 18. Top was somewhat of an oddball case, and I'd like to make it clear that for PSKSP to remain on the "up and up" the funds, contact and details for the extra year Top needed to finish trade school was handled by a trusted friend, although the regular folks were right there in an unofficial capacity to cheer him on.

Graduation gifts aren't normally given by one Thai to another, but I wanted to do something to commemorate his achievement "Western Style", so at the end of our grocery run last month I stopped Top at a watch shop and told him what my thoughts were, giving him a price range that was generous but not ostentatious and asked him to pick out something he'd like.  He'd dealt with my oddball Western ways for years so wasn't all that surprised, and picked out the watch below.

After taking the groceries and supplies back to his family's home we visited a few minutes before saying our goodbyes. As you may already know, the Thai aren't as a rule people who'll stand at the train station and weep, waving farewell with their hankies as their friends or loved ones pull off into the distance, but we all knew that there were no set plans to meet again - particularly under the PSKSP umbrella - but we had each other's cell numbers and emails. I reminded him that I'd gladly attend his graduation, but that he'd need to let me (or preferably my interpreting friend) know where and when it was, as I'd be leaving town in just a few more days. He assured me he would, and our day was finished.

I left Pattaya and went on with my holiday, and when I hadn't heard anything for a couple of weeks I'd figured the ceremony was to take place after he knew I'd be flying home and, somewhat sadly, guessed I wouldn't make it.

Then one morning in Bangkok after my morning walk among the locals I was reading the paper in my room when my cell phone rang. It was Tom, my go-between. "Top just called me. His graduation is at 3:00 this afternoon here in Pattaya. Do you think you can make it?"  Noting it was 20 minutes past 10 I replied "I can try, but I'm not all that optimistic about finding a ride there on such short notice." "Are you close to the BTS?" he asked - and then the light came on. "Yes!" I exclaimed "The bus! I can get a bus!" "OK," he continued "Call me when you get to Pattaya, and we'll go from there."

Top's graduation bouquet
I quickly showered, put on the single set of semi-dressy clothes I bring along each trip - usually taking them home unworn - took the BTS to the Ekamai station and walked the block to the Eastern bus terminal.

Evidently fate was along with me, because when I arrived at the window to buy a ticket for the bus that would get me there in time to make the ceremony there was one seat left. It left in 10 minutes, and I clambered aboard and spent the next two hours with the toilet door knocking into my left knee as people went in and out.

Arriving at the Pattaya bus depot at 2:20/14:20 I was cutting things close. I hailed a licensed bandit in a taxi and paid a dear price to get to the charity office, where my friend Tom was waiting for me.  I jumped into his car and we arrived at the hotel where the ceremony was to be ten minutes before it was to begin.

As it turned out, the ceremony itself was a private affair for students and faculty only, so we waited  outside with Top's mother, sister, younger brother and a close friend of Top's among a crowd of similar folks, all waiting for the graduates to come filing out.  As I mentioned, gifts aren't the norm there, but flowers and stuffed animals are, so I bought a bouquet for him, just as his sister and mother and friend had done. Smaller than the ones they'd purchased, but I didn't want to feel like I was showing off. Just me, I guess.

The first few times it happened I'd felt self-conscious when realizing I was the only (or one of a very few) Caucasians at an event or gathering, but I've grown to appreciate it for what it actually is, I guess - a privileged inclusion - and now I enjoy the "how do you fit in here?" looks I still sometimes get, as odd as that may sound to some. On this occasion I stayed somewhat on the fringe of things to avoid the possibility of Top having to explain that I'd paid for his schooling since his family could not, but the words of gratitude from his sister and mother were recognition enough.

By 3:20 we began to see the robes of students already recognized in groups emerging from the hall, most stopping to pick up a saucer with a cup of coffee and a cookie on it before descending the steps to meet the people waiting to congratulate them. Top was in one of the last groups, evidently, because it was nearly 3:45 before I spotted him filing out with a groups of other boys, all smiling and laughing.

A very pleased Top poses with his family

There weren't the extended clinging hugs and tears you might see at a graduation here in the USA, but there were smiles of acknowledgement and nods of respect exchanged for the flowers and congratulatory remarks between family, friends and graduates. It was restrained, but joyous - if that makes any sense. I stood back and watched with great satisfaction that I'd had a minor part in it for Top. After all, I wasn't the one who had to drag him out of bed to get him to school or stay on his case to finish his homework; I was merely the benefactor. Still, it was a great feeling.

Facebook - the same around the world! Students lined up to have their photo taken here...

For Top it was one of life's defining moments, and he stood holding onto the folder containing his diploma as though it were a life preserver, and, in some ways it might well be just that. 14 years of schooling through a rough childhood and adolescence was quite an accomplishment for this boy - now a man - who had actually learned a marketable skill, as well as hope for a good life ahead for himself, and, hopefully, his wife and children, if that's the path he chooses.

Top and his friends pose for one of their friends to take a picture

By now many of the groups were finished posing for photos and had begun to stake out spots to share the buffet dinner that was part of their graduation package, and Top was (casually) glancing about to spot his friends while we were still hold him in place to visit. I figured it was about time for me to cut him loose, so through Tom I told him "School wasn't ever easy for me, either, so I understand a little bit about how difficult it's been for you to stick with this."

I waited for the translation, and could see the look change slightly on his face. Not quite a smile, but a tightening of the lips.  "I just want you to know that I think you've done a great job, and I'm proud of you," as out of reflex I reached out and took his hand to shake it. He looked me straight in the eye, covered my hand with his and said (in English, something I'd rarely heard before from him) "Thank you.  Thank you so very much."

I was still standing there looking surprised when he smiled, and repeated what he'd said, shaking my hand again with both of his. "You're welcome, Top. Keep in touch and let me know how you do from here, will you?"  When that was translated for him he smiled again and nodded, glancing over at his friends.

"Go... have fun," I encouraged him, motioning for him to go over to them, and that needed no translation. He turned on his heel, waved goodbye and ran off to join them, his gown flapping in the afternoon breeze behind him.

Will I ever hear from him again?  Who knows - and that wasn't the point to begin with. There are plenty more who also need this simple step up, and I hope I can be there to help a few more before I need a nurse to take care of me.  Yes, it was a little sad to see the regularity of it come to a conclusion, but what a feeling to think that the ripples from this one pebble may spread across generations.

Sitting on the bus back to Bangkok a couple of hours later I saw the homes of people who labored - and would continue to labor - beneath the weight of poverty, and thought to myself "You've done a good thing."

As I've said before: we can't save the world, but we can save little pieces of it.  If you love and care about Thailand as I do, please consider joining in and saving one small bit of it yourself.  The website is the Pattaya Street Kids Support Project.  You won't regret it.

To paraphrase the 80's song: "The future's so bright, he ought to wear shades".

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Graduation Day: One Boy's Success Story

Top's file photo from late 2007 or early 2008

[Long posts tend to make my eyes glaze over, too, but today's story has a true happy ending, so I'll break it into two parts. Bear with me here.]

Those of you who've read posts here the past few years have seen stories about the Pattaya Street Kids Support Project, a small but highly effective U.K. charity I've had the privilege of being involved with for a number of years now.  Today and tomorrow I'm going to share a true story to show that it works... it really does.

The nickname for the somewhat dour-faced boy at the top is Top, and this is a truncated version of the years I've had the opportunity to help him build a foundation for his future.  Back in the beginning he rarely smiled; if I could catch him smiling at all the first couple of years I visited I counted myself lucky.

At the very start of 2008 on my first visit to speak with the folks on the ground for the PSKSP (being the skeptic I can sometimes be) it soon became clear this was an honest, transparent group and not merely a black hole to throw funds into as many are. More on that another time.

Top with the other contest winners

That initial investigative visit I was asked to judge a student photo contest. Around 30 kids had been given disposable cameras (the cameras and processing paid for by the visiting treasurer himself as a treat for the kids) and they had been told there would be an "international writer and photographer" doing the judging. Since I'm a writer from the USA,  do take a lot of pictures and happened to be handy I was handed a bag of processing envelopes and invited to "have at it". Two days later I was taken to the school for the awards presentation. The boy in the center of the photo above is Top, although I didn't know it at the time.

Right after the presentations I'd I overheard the teacher of this short, quiet and painfully shy "winner" tell my host that if there was nobody she knew of to sponsor Top that his schooling was finished, as his sister, who was barely an adult herself and was raising him alone, couldn't afford to get him through his final years. Their mother had left them on their own some years before when times had gotten tough, and I've never heard much about the father other than he'd taken off when both of the kids were small. Top was being raised by a sister who worked hard but was just unable to keep up. They had a roof over their heads, but it was "iffy", at best.

Top stood silently with his head down, saying nothing - but I knew he'd heard his teacher; if he'd been a turtle I suspect he'd have pulled completely into his shell. I'd already agreed that trip to school fees for one more student than I'd budgeted for, but what do you say to a child in a case like this? "Sorry, kid... you'll just have to make ends meet however you can in life - I need those three extra Starbuck Mochas a month"? I doubt many of you could. I couldn't.

I can be selfish, but actually standing there and hearing that about a child who was within reach of some sort of hope I just couldn't turn away. Through the translator I told the teacher "He'll be paid for. Please plan on him attending and keep him on the registration role." As part of the whole "saving face" thing we've already covered Top was to be told about this later in private by his teacher instead of in front of the group, but I left there that day with hope for his future.

Move forward a couple of years now. I'd made a handful of visits for lunchtime outings and shopping trips with the sponsored students and seen them all doing their best with their renewed chance at life. Some better than others, but if you're squatting on land in one of Pattaya's slum areas (there are, I believe, 13 of them) and living in a 15 square meter "building" that's been hobbled together from materials your parents found in the dump, without electricity and potable water in far too many cases, I daresay you'd find it challenging to keep up with school, too.

The first time I'd really seen Top smile. He'd just bought groceries for his sister and himself with his "shopping" funds, and was feeling good about providing something for his family.

Trust is something that must be earned, and it was gratifying to see Top and the others begin to recognize and accept me as someone who genuinely cared how they and their families were doing and weren't merely a flash in the pan. Although his English was still as weak as my Thai, Top began to smile when we were out doing things, and that felt good.

Top laughs after throwing a gutter ball on an outing with all "my" students - the first time any of them had ever been inside a bowling alley

In school Top was making an effort, but he was still struggling to keep up with academics in class. It wasn't any real surprise: without going into private family details he wasn't living in anything close to what you'd call a normal, healthy family environment, and it showed in his achievements at school. Also, it was easier for him to learn something more "real" and less academic. Everyone's different.

When an opportunity for learning a trade became available he was steered into learning to be an electrician; an honorable trade in any country. He worked hard, and did well, despite his home life, which had taken a turn for the better after his mother came back into the picture and helped turn them into more of a real family again.

Top stands behind classmates in an electronics class, late 2008

Each trip I'd make to Thailand I'd make a point of seeing each available student, and it was gratifying to watch them walk out of the school building and see their faces light up when they recognized me and knew their day had just taken a decided turn away from the ordinary.

The kids got to choose where they had lunch, and while Top originally chose Thai food (some of them are still stuck on KFC), once he'd gotten wind of "Sizzler" he seemed to have somehow found a second stomach each trip to accommodate the variety of things he wanted to try.

There was almost always a shopping trip involved if time allowed - if it didn't it was arranged after I'd left town - and Top, like the others, was always so proud to be able to contribute to his family's food store. Not being the cook at home very often he'd compare labels and select things he'd seen his sister buy. Rice is an obvious staple, and while he'd pick the brand they normally bought he could be caught sometimes looking wistfully at a higher grade (and naturally higher priced) type and would smile when told he ought to get that instead. 20 to 30Kg was a normal amount.

As often as possible the students were also encouraged to select some sort of treat for themselves, too, and one time Top picked a football that he carried out of the store like it was his first born.

Move forward another couple of years - to the middle of 2012, when - through a series of fortunate events - Top's family had been graced with some improvements.  They now lived in an actual structure, his mother had officially returned to the fold as a contributing member and things were better all around, although still on a month-to-month survival scale.

While loading the dozen-plus bags of groceries into their home that day Top's mother called to me after I'd said my "see you next year" farewell and was headed to the car to leave.  Shuffling through the front doorway she approached me and wrapped a long, heavy pink and white knit scarf around my neck. It was 100F but I smiled and thanked her, wondering where she'd gotten it. I was told she'd known I was coming in a month or so and had knitted it for me herself.

"His graduation is next year," she said with a proud smile, via our interpreter "Will you come for the ceremony?" Not wanting to take anything away from his efforts I didn't want to say I wasn't so sure about that, so I just said "If I'm in the country, I'll be there!"  That, I hoped, would save face all around, and we said our goodbyes - me sweating beneath the scarf wrapped around my neck.

A month ago that offer was called in, and that story will follow tomorrow.