Saturday, August 28, 2010

Child’s Dream - Thailand

After our informative tour with Child’s Dream in Cambodia we organised a visit to the main office of the organisation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to meet the founders – Daniel Siegfried & Marc Jennings. These two Swiss gentlemen worked for a banking outfit and spent a great deal of their careers in SE Asia. 7 years ago Daniel (same age as us) after a stint of volunteering (sound familiar?) decided to start an organisation that would assist children in Thailand. Marc Jennings, an (only slightly) older colleague decided to assist in the start-up period and well, decided to stick around.

They now head up a very well organised team which focuses on education, health and vocational support to disadvantaged groups in Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Laos & Cambodia. What we were very impressed by was their level of organisation, accountability and transparency. This (in my opinion) is due to their time in the corporate world and their reliance on funding from this source.

We joined them on a visit to a school catering to a Karen hill tribe. We were forewarned that the standard of schools was much higher in Thailand than Cambodia, and that the Thai government has the resources and management capacity to build schools themselves. Child’s Dream however, fulfils a need for boarding houses as many of the hill tribes live too far away to commute daily.

It turns out the forewarning was a good idea as the level of infrastructure at the school was far beyond anything we had seen in Cambodia. The school rooms were well furnished and resourced and the library was a particularly well designed area. This, Daniel confided to us, was a clear indication of the teaching staffs’ commitment to education and motivation levels – a big tick in the box. The big black mark against the school however was a number of half-finished and abandoned building projects that littered the grounds. Evidence of excavation, scattered building materials, poor quality and half constructed canteens, accommodation blocks and classrooms did not give the team the confidence to approve further development at the site. This was discussed over a lunch with the staff, with the assurance that Child’s Dream would visit again once their current projects were complete.

Another thing we should mention about Child’s Dream is the work they do with the Burmese refugees. A number of refugee camps exist near the border between the Burma & Thailand and as they are not legitimate citizens of Thailand are not provided an education by their host. This is the role of NGO’s and whilst many receive a fair to middling schooling, they are denied certification – a must for any substantial employment in Thailand. Child’s Dream assists with medical, housing and schooling initiatives and provide funding towards crucial internationally accredited secondary and vocational certification. One of the refugees, Dawa, was part of the team we visited with and with his camp-acquired engineering skills will be working on providing playgrounds and water solutions to many of the schools that the organisation is partnered with. We were very thankful to the team at Child’s Dream both in Cambodia & Thailand for giving us the opportunity to take part in school visits and their patience in answering any questions we had – we are very much looking forward to partnering with them in the future.

Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai & Burma

Chiang Mai

We left Siem Reap, Cambodia on 18th July, and after 22 hours on the road we arrived in Chiang Mai, a nice little place in Northern Thailand. Our sole reason for visiting Chiang Mai (we’d been there previously in 2008) was to catch up with the main branch of Child’s Dream and meet the Directors (more to come on this). While in Chiang Mai, we caught up on the latest movies, checked out the shopping spots, scrubbed up on our pool playing and seemed to have no trouble at all passing the time. We celebrated my 32nd birthday, a great day of spoiling ourselves silly with yummy food (talked Brad into visiting a vegetarian restaurant), 2 massages, a spot of shopping, a nap, some pool (kicked Brad’s butt), and steaks beside the river by candlelight.

Pai, Chaing Rai, Burma & beyond

Just 3 hours from Chiang Mai, perched high up in Northern Thailand, Pai is a peaceful (some say Hippie town). We enjoyed its relaxed feel for a couple of days and soaked up cool live music in the evenings.

By the way ‘The Life of Pi’ is a great little book to read if you get the chance, you just have to push on through the first little bit, then it gets into the good stuff – it’s also got nothing to do with Thailand...

From Pai, we rushed to Chiang Rai solely as a stopover to renew our Thailand visa’s by popping into Burma. At the border we handed over our passports, crossed the river, wandered around the markets (same as in any other country), then entered back into Thailand with another 15 days of visa – ready to head down country to an island paradise.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Livin' it up in Laos

Hey – I know you all think we’re still in Cambodia but that’s only because we’re really behind in blogs. Since Cambodia we have spent nearly a month in Thailand and are now lapping up the Laos lifestyle – which happens to be really lazy from what we’ve seen so far. I guess that means don’t expect blogs to fly out from the screen real fast as we’re too busy snoozing in a hammock and making the arduous 20 metre trek to the nearest restaurant to be worried about letting you all know what’s (not) happening.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Unwanted Legacy

As an engineer In the Army Reserves I received training in land mine clearance and wanted to learn about the problems that Cambodians face after decades of fighting. Few of the organisations that we had visited knew much about the issue other than it was a big problem but they talked of groups such as HALO, CMAC and MAG. As part of our trip with Child’s Dream we drove past a mine clearance team in action about 100m from the road and throughout our travels we had seen many signs notifying locals of cleared and uncleared areas.

During one of the village meetings a HALO vehicle arrived and a regional supervisor was briefing the commune leader about the mine clearance activities that were being undertaken. We had an opportunity to briefly speak with him about the issue and he gave us an overview of the hierarchy and reporting structures in place. Each of the mine clearance groups work in different areas of the country and report back to a central government organisation to avoid wasted effort. To decide on where they will clear next they consult with village and commune leaders in the area and classify areas as high, medium or low priorities.

During the previous meeting I had heard a rumble that sounded like a distant explosion and I asked the guy whether this was from the clearance activities and he said that they had found and destroyed 3 anti-tank mines that day by detonating a small charge next to the mines. In addition to the anti-tank mines the other devices they destroy are anti-personnel mines and a wide variety of weapons and munitions classified under the generic term unexploded ordnance (or UXO’s) such as grenades and artillery shells. They detect these using metal detectors from Germany and Australia (MineLabs) and a ground piercing radar unit from the United States.

Aside from the obvious direct danger for children and adults of whom thousands are killed or injured each year in Cambodia, mines and UXO’s also prevent people from farming new land or building on uncleared land, stifling growth in the villages. One thing that struck us as quite morbid was the common use of old artillery shells as school bells – a chilling relic of the past but maybe a daily reminder of the dangers faced each day in this area of the world.


We had heard about a Swiss doctor who had founded a number of children hospitals in Cambodia and as part of his fund-raising efforts, performs a Cello concert each Saturday in Siem Reap. We thought this would be an interesting evening event and as it turned out, it was. It was readily apparent that he was very passionate about his work and just as apparent that he had a few “issues” with many of the larger health and development agencies around the world.

His hospitals offer first world medical care to the children of Cambodia, free of charge – relying heavily on private funding (currently US $35 million/year) to fund the 6 hospitals that he has founded. Critics of his approach argue that the money could be better spent by reducing the level of care and focusing on prevention measures, also stating that children in poor areas will likely be reinfected after being treated for illnesses. Regardless of who is right (I suspect they both have valid points), he and his hospitals which account for 85% of all children hospitalisations in Cambodia have saved thousands of lives and his selfless dedication to the monumental task was pretty humbling. Oh, and his Cello skills are pretty good too!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Maxine Shipway

We have just heard that our dear friend Maxine Shipway, Director of the Indian Orphanage, has just passed away. This news, whilst sad, did not come as a surprise to us as she has been in a Delhi ICU ward for almost a month now battling severe illness. We would not say this otherwise but Miriam and I both agree that she was without doubt the most selfless, kind and wise individual we have ever met. Suffering terrible ill-health while we were volunteering at the orphanage, she never failed to think of others first and cared for them in a deeper way than we have ever seen before.

Maxine has lived and served most of her life at the orphanage and as was her wish, will be buried there, under a big mango tree where her memory will serve as an example for all those who were fortunate to have known her. Our love and support goes out to her family – her husband Rick, and her children Clifton, Tammy & Beverley along with their families.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Temples of Angkor Wat

We dragged ourselves out of bed at 4.30am in time to meet the sun rising over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, it was none too spectacular, just a slow uncovering of the scaffolding covered Wat as the sky slowly lightened (we have heard this can be spectacular though). We then walked 15mins uphill to the top of to Phnom Bakheng a pyramid shaped structure with steep steps leading up & up & up on 4 sides, from where Angkor Wat could be glimpsed way down below, it was a lovely peaceful place to hang out and take in the surrounds.
As we headed off to the large Angkor Thom complex, we passed a long stream of wrinkly, saggy, baggy, big brown eyed elephant taxis on their way to ferry tourists around the Wats (our first close up encounter of the elephant kind). Brad snapped the perfect picture of Monks on the bleak grey background of Bayon, before they headed off in their Monk mobile. Bayon was a lifesize 3D puzzle in the process of being put back together, with 4 sided towers of smiling faces at every turn. Throughout the rest of this temple complex, we viewed beautiful carvings, walked up many steep steps, and said no to many trinket sellers. We visited one more temple before Ta Prohm which was most like what we expected to see throughout our visit of the ancient temples.
It is a temple hidden amongst the forest, crumbling with massive trees growing up & throughout the ruins. We skipped the last temple on our planned circuit due to the onset of temple fatigue, before heading back to Angkor Wat to finish off our 7 hour whirlwind visit of some of the temples of Siem Reap.

Wat a day!!

My Island Home...

On Sunday after doing a quick visa run into Myanmar, we ended up on a 26 hour bus journey from Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand to the South, then on a boat to our current tropical Island destination of Ko Phangan.

We’re both looking forward to relaxing in our hammock staring out at our lovely beach views, reading some books and getting fit & healthy. We’ll hopefully get more up to date with our blog, which is still back in Cambodia, when we’ve been in Thailand now since 19th July...