Learning BIG LIFE in Thailand – (book)


 The Chalae Village of the Laku tribe

The sound of muffled pounding wakes me from my sleep. A tiny fire illuminates the workplace of the thirteen-year-old Thai “woman” who is pounding rice for the day’s meals. Her muscular leg stomps down on the log beam that causes a mortar to strike a deep bowl containing unhulled rice. For an hour she must do this, every day, in order to reap about two quarts of rice. To us, this seems like very hard work for a young “woman,” but our guide told us last night on our tour of this Hill Tribe village, she was just married. She’s got a long life of hard work ahead of her. This fact amazes eleven-year-old daughter, Sierra, who is finding the culture of Thailand far different from American standard life in Pennsylvania. Sierra would only have two more years of freedom and childhood play before becoming a woman, a wife, a mother? Startling! This sobering fact occupies Sierra’s mind for a long time.

On this month-long adventure to exotic Thailand, our family begins to clearly sees the spectacular lessons learned while traveling. This wandering lifestyle, whose seeds were planted on the Continental Divide, will become the norm of how and why we educate our children. Nothing will become more central to our children’s foundation of knowledge than what they learn while traveling the globe.

When the work elephants with the heavy chains around their necks and feet arrive at our hut a few hours later, I have to throw fear to the wind. The mahout, or elephant driver, with a cloth wrapped loosely around his head, turban-style, the tattoos up and down his arms and the rolled-up smoking leaves between his teeth, makes eye contact with me and motions for Bryce. He wants me to lift my nine-year-old son up over the elephant’s head and put him in the basket behind him. We are off for a half-day ride through the jungle.


The mahout bounces on the elephant’s neck and sings to her in an eerie chant the entire time he drives. The elephant’s baby follows close behind and we occasionally stop for her to nurse. We rock and sway with the animal’s large purposeful steps. The big leathery ears flap back and forth across our lower legs while our feet rest on the animal’s great head like a footstool. Orchids hung from the trees and are easily visible at this height. The mahout turns around and with his stained and missing teeth, smiles at us, unable to communicate in any other way. He takes my son from the basket and places him on the elephant’s head in front of him. Bryce turns around and beams at me and I know I made the right decision to bring my family to this wonderfully strange country.

Thailand is not the normal family vacation destination. Disneyland is. Bryce announced one time that a particular schoolmate had been to Disneyland five times and he has never been there. “Too bad,” I told him. “Disneyland is simulated adventure. Your parents believe in the real deal. You’ll have to wait to go until you take your own kids,” I tell him.

As we enter the Karen Village along the Mae Klong River on our elephants, a young girl is fishing, a man is kneading soapy laundry on a flattened log and a pig is rooting in the mud- normal village goings-on. We walk around the village, watching the pigs and chickens that roam freely and live under the huts on stilts, eager to snag any scrap of food that falls through the bamboo floors. Families cook supper on open fires, women sit nursing babies, embroidering cloth, winnowing rice.

Some kids we pass in an open dirt lot, play bat the plastic bottle over badminton net. With no rackets or birdie, they use the next best thing. My kids join in and discover that a language barrier is non-existent when it comes to laughter. They also understand that you can have to make-do with whatever “toy” is available to play with and having fun has more to do with a state of mind than an actual material object.

I once read an article in a women’s magazine about a mother who was having challenges with her pubescent-age child. She recommended taking them to a developing country at this point so they can understand how very much we have in America. They will come to understand that they and their “needs” are not the center of the universe. Although I did not bring my children to Thailand with this solely in mind, I can see it being illustrated over and over again. Experiences like this forced my children to grow up differently. Events like this contribute to the belief that we should not take things for granted and to live with a profound sense of gratitude for what we have.

It is the squealing pigs that impact my children the most, out of all or Thailand experiences. They are being drug to their death on a rope while their owners whack them on the head repeatedly, moving them closer to the campfires to singe off their hair. This Thai tribe is half Chinese and they are celebrating Chinese New Year by killing their pig for the feast. My children are visibly upset. We usher them away and down another dirt road in the village but are met with another family and their terrorized pig. We turn a corner and there is a third family working on the same act.

This is life here in the tiny remote Thai village, very far from Pennsylvania, but very real nonetheless. As parents, we might try to protect our children from frightening things, but I also believe in putting BIG LIFE right in front of them, so they have to go through it, even if it makes them uncomfortable, even if it is scary.  It reminds me of the song the kids acted out when they were young, “The Bear Hunt.” “Going on a bear hunt, I’m not afraid, can’t go around it, gotta go through it.” What began with the storms and the river fords and the snow fields on the Continental Divide Trail is just continuing here in Thailand.

On another village to village trek in the hill country, our personal guide cannot speak much English. He carries a large machete, which fascinates 9-year-old Bryce. When I ask him what it is for, he says, “To kill things.” But really, he uses it to fashion bamboo presents for my kids.

He doesn’t speak when he creates something, just begins whittling with his machete: a hiking stick, cups, a thermos, out of bamboo. Since bamboo has a natural floor every 16 inches or so, he uses a section to make a water container, then fashions a plug to keep the water in. Then he makes a pea shooter with a narrow piece and wads wet paper inside it….homemade toys from the jungle, for life is simple and basic here ( no video games, computers or smart phones for entertainment.)

One evening, the kids bat an empty plastic water bottle back and forth with some local kids in a dirt lot. The water bottle is their “toy.” No need for language in words, they are communicating through smiles and laughter and by playing together.

When we stop in at a school and the kids sit in their desks and look at the dirt floor and the blackboard, they are thinking of their own lives and comparing and contrasting.

In the schoolyard, the boys are entertaining themselves with a top spinning game. They fling a top out onto the dirt yard and it “does battle” with the other spinning tops, trying to bowl it over and stop it. When my kids try their hand at it, it just sort of flops over for they can’t master the technique in only one or two tries. But they get an “A” for effort and enjoy interacting with the children on their level.

Back at home, my children were never the type to want material things. They rarely saw television, were not enticed by commercials nor laden by peer pressure to own the latest stuff.  These experiences with rural Thai children, however, and seeing how little they have, teaches them volumes about gratitude and how much is truly necessary in order to be happy.

About the time Todd and I were contemplating whether or not  to take the family to Thailand, Sierra was sitting on our living room sofa, when she discovered that if she pounded the pillow, a cloud of disintegrated foam dust poufs from the fabric. The sofa had been around a long time. I inherited it after my parents both died and we split up the home’s contents.

Sierra suggested, “Don’t you think we need a new sofa?”

“We could buy one, “I tell her. “Or, we could save that money and use it to go to Thailand where you can ride an elephant through the Hill tribe country and sea kayak with monkeys.


“I think the sofa is just fine,” she immediately decides, not missing a beat.

Sierra and Bryce are learning that if people are fortunate to have some disposal money after all their bills are paid; everyone has the freedom to decide how to spend it. We do not travel extensively because we are rich, as some may assume, but because travel is very important to us and our children’s education.

One of the most impacting experiences has to be when we unload our large backpack full of used sweaters and sweatshirts that we carried up to a very poor village. My friend, Susan, knew of their situation and the fact that it gets quite cold in the mountains and few have proper warm clothing. The kids went through their clothing before we left, grabbed any warm top they weren’t wearing or had outgrown. The Thai children stand in a line, ready to receive their articles and bow and say “khop khun” (thank you) after they receive it.

Susan says they will wear it every day during the cold season and pass it down for years until it literally falls apart. My children are touched to see little children expressing great joy in getting a hand-me-down old sweatshirt -such a little thing to my kids, who have so much, compared to these Thai village kids. And to think all of my children’s clothing was hand-me-downs from other family’s children. The circle of giving and sharing continues…invaluable lessons- lessons worth traveling half way around the world to have.


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2 thoughts on “Learning BIG LIFE in Thailand – (book) Leave a comment

  1. Nicely written as usual Cindy.
    And so true.
    Just yesterday I witnessed a group of kids kicking around an empty plastic soda bottle. (and laughing so hard every kick)
    In America, it’s hard to find kids who even play outside anymore.

    1. you’re so right Glenn- “nature deficient disorder” for sure- my kids had as much fun playing with rocks and sticks on the CDT (trail itself) as batting around a piece of trash- even llama turds they played in- whatever is at hand- can become a “toy” when they have some creativity!

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