Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday, March 29, 2010


A wise person, whose name I no longer remember, once wrote that it was not the Destination that is important but, rather, it is the Journey. Over the past month our GSE team set out to Thailand as a Destination but found out that it was the day to day interactions both with each other and with the people of Thailand, the experiences that we shared, the new-found knowledge, the joys and, yes, sometimes the frustrations that made the Journey so very important to us.

I have tried to chronicle this Journey for you in the entries that I have made into this blog, so that you too would experience Thailand vicariously through our experiences. I wanted each of you to share the Journey and, therefore, may have been a bit verbose with my daily accounts. For this I have no apologies.

I also wanted to share the Journey with my best friend, Bob Sekinger, who was completing a nineteen-year Journey with cancer, en route to his final Destination. Bob was a man who loved life and lived every day with relish. A Quaker and a man of peace, Bob, though not a Rotarian, lived his life in the spirit of Rotary – Service above Self. When, several years ago, I stared through the doorway at my own mortality, it was Bob who, with my wife and family, shared his strength with me and sustained me.

When I left Virginia in February, knowing that I might never see Bob again, we kissed each other and Bob promised to Journey with me through the pages of the blog. When I arrived back in Roanoke a month later, my wife told me that one of Bob’s few pleasures that month had been to live the Journey with my team and me every day. Bob had passed away the morning of our return as we were somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

We are all headed toward the same Destination. How we reach that Destination depends to a large part on how well we make the Journey. The GSE team completed an important part of their Journey on this adventure. I hope that, through the blog, I have shared that Journey with you and made it a part of your own.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010


Early this morning we flew NOK Airlines (appropriately meaning "bird") from Trang back to Bangkok. While the rest of the team decided that they wanted to do some last minute shopping in Bangkok, I decided that my luggage couldn't fit even a credit card into their bulging sides.

The one suitcase that I had left home with a month ago with I believed to be extra space in it, had now become two fully loaded suitcases. The gifts that I had received from Thai Rotarians, individually small in monetary value, but with a lot of sentimentality attached to them for me, challenged my packing skills. Framed objects covered with glass had to be carefully wrapped in towels that I normally would have discarded. Gifts that I had purchased for family and friends, which seemed small enough when I bought them, seemed to take on lives of their own as I tried to find room for them.

Since we had to get up at 2:30 the next morning for our 30-hour flight from Bangkok to Tokyo to Chicago to Roanoke, I decided to use my time in Bangkok to reflect on the past month, during which we had journeyed some 2,000 miles in Thailand .

We had traveled from Bangkok to Suphanburi and seen the wonderous old capital of Thailand, Ayutthaia. We had been to Kanchanburi, saw the River Khwae and re-lived its infamous history.At Ratchaburi we inched our way through the longboats at the Floating Market and then, suffered the discomfort of our nine-hour "sleeper" train down to Surithami. We lounged on the lovely beach at Koh Samui At Nakhon Si Thammarat we went from having our feet massaged by fish to, the darkness of the bird's nest warehouse to the serenity of the Wat Mahatat and at Songkhla we witnessed a little piece of Europe with the statue of a mermaid in the harbor.

We had visited municipal offices, schools and universities, hospitals and engineering projects. We had shared our lives with the lives of people half a world away, with neither they nor we having a firm grasp of the other's language yet each having a better understanding as to who we all were.

We had visited with Rotarians from twenty-nine Rotary clubs, shared their marvelous food and laughed, danced and sang with them, and in doing so met the First Object of Rotary -- the development of aquaintance as an opportunity for service.

Finally, the past month has brought five strangers from different backgrounds together as a Team. We worked hard together and played joyfully together. We took care of each other if the exhaustion of the pace and the heat caused spirits to sag and pulled together to make the GSE experience successful. To Amanda Compher, Brooke Conover, Jennifer Green and Kip Mumaw I owe my gratitude for making my job as Team Leader so very, very easy.

I would also like to thank Ernie Bentley and Quanchai Laohaviraphab, the respective District GSE Chairs from Districts 7570 and 3330, for all their hard work, preparation and assistance in contributions to the success of the GSE trip to Thailand. They are accomplished professionals and a joy to work with.

And lastly, I would like to thank The Rotary Foundation, without whose inspiration and support the GSE program would not have been possible. The program is an important cog in the Rotary wheel -- bringing people together to promote a world of understanding, respect and, hopefully, peace.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Our participation in the District 3330 Conference is completed and, for the first time in a month we enjoyed the luxury of being able to sleep late. Our final appearance at the Conference was at a farewell luncheon where each of us made a short "goodbye speach" to the many friends that we had made in Thailand who had reappeared at the Conference. We were asked what memories of Thailand we would bring with us upon our return to Virginia and we all agreed that they would include the beauty of the country, the incredible food and, most importantly, the unbelievable warmth and friendship that had been extended to us by the people of Thailand.
I told the crowd that we would not be saying "Goodbye" but rather "Until the next time that we meet", for I feel that each of us would love to return to this wonderful country and to the many friends that we had made there.
In the afternoon District 3330 GSE Chairman Quanchai took us sightseeing in Trang. Our first stop was a small creek where we boarded wooden boats, powered by paddlers fore and aft, and traveled past a jungle-like setting until we reached a sheer rock cliff that was penetrated by a cave. As we journeyed into the cave we had to continuously watch out for (and duck) stalactites that threatened to conk our heads. Further in the cave we got out of the boats and walked, sometimes crab-like through ever-diminishing passages before returning to the boats. Now began the most exciting part of the voyage. As the ceiling of the cave drew ever nearer to the boats, we actually had to lie backwards in the boats to avoid the stone projections. I had the sensation that I was William Wallace in "Braveheart" waiting to be disembowled since, laying on my back, my stomach was considerably higher than my head. After four glorious weeks, this certainly would have been an inglorious ending to my Thailand adventure!
Emerging unscathed from the cave we all decided that this would be a great time to go to the beach, and so Quanchai took us to the incredibly beautiful beach of Pak Meng, on the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean. The beach, a wide strip of sand and sea shells, is bordered by trees that tower over picnic tables and beach chairs. As you face the sea, you gasp at the incredible sea stack formations that abound in this calm sea. I have traveled in twenty-seven countries on five continents and this had to rate as one of the most magnificent spots to which I had ever been.
It is not surprising that we chose not to return to our hotel for dinner, but rather to enjoy the evening right where we were. Quanchai took care of ordering our food from one of the many restaurants that dotted the beach and soon we were feasting on the treasures of the sea: a variety of snail that is found only in this part of Thailand; enormous prawns (four filled an entire plate); baked whole fish in cashew nuts; fried sting ray (yes, it actually tastes very good) and plenty of cold beer. As much as I love my favorite Thai restaurant in Winchester, I'm afraid that there is very little similarity -- the freshness, variety, and sublime taste of our al fresco dinner cannot be surpassed.
After the sun had set, someone suggested that roti might be an excellent desert and so we set out for another outdoor spot for thess delectable Indian crepes, plain or filled with banana. By this time it was getting quite late, I was im maak (full), and we had an early morning flight scheduled Bangkok. Although some of the team decided that they could still go for a two-hour Thai massage, I decided to call it a day.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Friday and Saturday, March 19 -- 20, 2010


And so we reach the most important destination of our month-long journey – the District 3330 Conference in Trang, a resort city near the Andaman Sea. Trang is a large city with an impressive number of modern, tall buildings. The hotel where the conference is being held is one of the finest in the city and the GSE team received royal treatment, with each of us in separate double-sized rooms on the fifteenth floor, with gorgeous views of the city and the mountains beyond.

A grand dinner was served to everyone on a third-floor terrace that surrounded a large, circular swimming pool. We were introduced to an array for past and present District Governors and Club Presidents. The highlight for me, however, was being introduced to Bicchai Rattakul. Bicchai (Thais are always addressed only by their first name, regardless of how important the person might be) was not only a Past President of Rotary International, but also a former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand – a role roughly equivalent to Vice-President of The United States!

I had previously met Bicchai when he was the RI Representative to District 7570’s Conference at The Homestead. When I mentioned thia to him, this 84-year old leader, without a moment’s pause, said how much he missed Bill Skelton, that I should relay his best wishes to Peggy (Bill’s widow) and I should give his regards to Joe Ferguson – both which I shall due upon my return.

The first evening of the Conference was devoted to “Awards Night”. Although the proceedings were in Thai, I could not help by the seemingly endless number of Rotarians who stepped forward to receive their Paul Harris Fellowship awards. It was a wonderful display of support for the Rotary Foundation. The event went on until after 11:00 that evening.

The first Plennary session of the Conference started the next morning with an impressive parade of flags representing all the nations present at the Conference. Not only were the Thai and American flags carried in, but also the Japanese flag (in honor of the RI representative to the Conference), the Rotary flag and the flags of the eighteen Rotary Youth Exchange students who were present.

Bicchai made a speach to the Conference about the importance of water to the people of Thailand, and the necessity for developing systems to cleanse and protect this resource. Although in Thai, the speach was delivered so simply and eloquently, it was understandable and moving even to those of us who had no idea as to what his exact words were. I thought that this in itself was a remarkable achievement from this master orator.

Our formal presentation to the Conference, which was essentially the same presentation that we had been making to Rotary Clubs for the past three and a half weeks, went off without a hitch and we received a appreciative round of applause from the assembled Rotarians and guests.

The evening was dedicated to a "Magic Folk Program" during which, we had been told several months before, we were to present a 20 to 30 minute "American Culture Show." This was the evening that we had been facing with dread. Over our months of preparation, under the realization that there is no single "American Culture", we as a team, had decided that the best that we could do to present a panorama of American culture was to present a program that showed how music had evolved in America, from the wood flutes of Native Americans to Dixieland jazz, to the big band sound of the 1940's, to Dave Brubeck and Elvis Presley and finally to the one American song that we had been told was known and loved by all Thais, "Country Roads" to which we had written special verses appropriate to our visit.

The presentation would have covered what we thought were the requirements for the evening, but to be frank, it probably would have been quite dull.

A few hours before the "Magic Folk Program" we found out that we were not going to be the only "act" on the evening program. In fact, there were going to be some 25 presentations, lasting three to five minutes, none of which would include serious lectures. Quickly we revised our program and decided that we now sing just three songs -- "Shenandoah", "America the Beautiful" and our version of "Country Roads."

As we entered the hall were the evening's program was to be held, we immediately had our faces painted with white splotches -- a Thai custom for bringing good luck. We had a marvelous Thai buffet dinner. Bicchai came over to our table and draped a traditional Thai linen shawl around my shoulders -- a gesture that I found to be incredibly moving.

As the entertainment portion of the evening began, it became readily apparent that even our scaled down presentation was going to be too much. The acts ranged from carefully chorographed whimsical dance routines to acts that were somewhat reminiscent of "Hee Haw" -- pure silliness and joy. Quickly revising our plans again, we settled for enthusiastically singing the original John Denver version of "Country Roads". The entire audience cheered and joined us in the chorus. We could not have been a bigger success.

So much for careful preparation!

Monday through Thursday, March 15 -- 18, 2010


Where do I begin? I’ve been looking forward to our visit to Songkhla Province ever since I did my pre-trip homework, reading about the province’s beautiful beaches, its national parks, incredible wildlife and thundering waterfalls. Naturally, I knew that time would not permit us to visit all of these things – after all, we are a study group and not a bunch of tourists. Nevertheless, at all of our previous locations we had managed in the course of our somewhat exhausting full days to take in some of the scenic and historical attractions that made each region unique. Even our itinerary promised a day of sightseeing in Satoon.

Alas, it was not to be. With the exception of Wednesday’s visit to Songkhla, where we did enjoy some very worthwhile afternoon sights, to be detailed later in the blog, these days prove to be the least satisfying of our visit.

In all fairness to the Rotarians, who tried very hard to interpret the GSE program into what they believed it was, our experience with the people of Songkhla Province could not have been nicer. Our host families were wonderful to us and we made many, many friendships that will last long after we return home. In fact, I truly do not mean to mention any negative feelings, for I don’t want any of the lovely families that we lived with to feel that we were in any way disappointed with them.

The problem arose because the groups in each city that we visited within the province (Hatyai, Songkhla and Satoon) were under the impression that each of should provide a “vocational day” for us, with the entire GSE taking part in each other’s professional interests. This in itself might have proved interesting for one day; however, they apparently did not exchange notes on what we would be visiting in each city. As a result, we did essentially the same things in each city: visits to the municipal government offices, universities and hospitals, where officials read out loud (mainly in Thai) from PowerPoint presentations, various statistics about the economy, the water levels, health systems, etc., as we sat, somewhat uncomfortably maintaining our smiles, as an occasional photo of the beautiful things that we weren’t seeing flashed on the screen. Even when Kip was taken to the engineering department at a university, they weren’t prepared for his visit. The day before, the engineering professors were told that “William would visit the following day,” but they weren’t told who William was or why he was visiting (as it turned out, he had a fine time on his visit.)

The exception to all of the sameness was on Wednesday, when the Rotary Club of Songkhla arranged a lovely afternoon tour of some of the city’s highlights. After a wonderful lunch on the Gulf of Thailand, we were taken further down the beach to a statue of a mermaid guarding the harbor. The statue was very reminiscent of the famous “Little Mermaid” statue in Copenhagen, Denmark. From the beach we were taken to a tall hill, accessible only by an inclined cable car. The park at the base of the hill was filled with monkeys which, unlike the tethered coconut-gathering monkeys that we had encountered in Suratthani the previous week, roamed the park freely.

At the top of the hill stood a beautiful chedi, glistening in the afternoon sun. The view of Songkhla was magnificent, with the Gulf of Thailand on one side and a very large lake on the other – just as I had seen in the guidebooks.

Descending the hill, we next took a short ferry trip across the lake, past fishing weirs to a well organized museum, detailing some of the anthropology of the area. It also had a fine gift shop where I was able to purchase some gifts for friends and family.

With an evening presentation to three Rotary clubs still ahead of us, the Songkhla Rotarians realized that we would probably like to freshen up and thoughtfully provided us with hotel rooms where we could shower and lie down for an hour. The meeting with the clubs was terrific – good food (of course), karaoke, Thai dancers and exchanges of banners and gifts.

The afternoon and evening in Songkhla were certainly highlights for us. Whether it was the omnipresent heat, the exhausting schedule or the fact that I was a bit under the weather that soured us slightly on the rest of our visit to the province, we were finally ready to move on to Trang, the site of the District Conference.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Since we were fairly exhausted from our previous days’ activities, we talked our hosts into starting the day’s adventures at 9:00, allowing us an extra hour of much needed rest.

Our day began with a visit to the King’s project at Phakpanang – a huge dam built to prevent the salt water of the Gulf of Thailand from mixing with, and contaminating the fresh lake water that was used for irrigation. The two bodies of water thus separated surrounded an island on which the king’s palace (one of many throughout Thailand) was built in a Balinese style six years ago. Unfortunately, due to the king’s ill health, the king has never resided in the palace, except for its opening ceremony. So there it sits, unoccupied yet fully attended to, with lovely statuary and gardens, waiting for a monarch who may never return to enjoy it.

A complete change of pace took us to our next location – a large, warehouse-like structure, where birds’ nests are collected. Having eaten in Asian restaurants where I’ve seen bird’s nest soup on the menu, I somehow always imagined a structure of twigs sitting in the middle of a soup bowl. In fact, the soup is made from a membrane with which the birds (in this instance swallows) line the inside of their nest. The membrane is also used in a (very expensive) juice-like liquid which supposedly can cure whatever ails you. (I actually drank three of these small bottles during my stay in Nakhon. They were quite pleasant tastings, a bit fibrous, but I can’t yet vouch for the restorative powers.

The actual experience of view the nesting birds was, in all truth, not the most pleasant thing we have done on this trip. Donning facemasks, as we had done at the parawood factory the day before) we entered a pitch-dark room and proceeded to walk in the dark across a spongy floor (which proved to be bird droppings) to a spot where our guide shone a flashlight to various spots along the ceiling where the birds were preparing nests – thousands of them – for eggs that would never be hatched. That thought, plus the rather overpowering stench of the room, did not encourage us to make an extended stay.

And, like the proverbial breath of fresh air in the outhouse, we next found ourselves at a lovely restaurant on the shore of the Gulf of Thailand, with gentle breezes clearing our short-term memories of our encounter with the birds.

After a wonderful seafood lunch and a short walk on the beach we resumed the day’s adventure by traveling to the famous Wat Mahatat. En route we paused at small company making lacey confection that we had seen throughout our travels. Rice batter is sprinkled on heated, greased wok and, after a few seconds, it is gently peeled off as a large circular sheet, rolled and sprinkled with a sugary syrup. Delicious!

The Wat Mahatat is one of the most spiritual wats in all of Thailand. It is believed that this was the place where Buddhism first came to Thailand over 1,500 years ago. Although not as ornate as other wats that we have visited throughout our travels, the Wat Mahatat conveyed a feeling of reverence that was somehow more accentuated here. Everywhere, worshippers knelt, holding folded orange robes, in devout prayer. Throughout the adjoining buildings were statues of Buddha where, according to the wealth and importance in the community of the deceased, relatives could place the cremated ashes of loved ones.

With the day’s sightseeing adventures behind us, we attended a dinner party, given in our honor by seven local Rotary clubs. After much food, gift giving, banner trading, karaoke and good will, or final day in Nakhon Si Thammarat came to an end and we prepared for the following day’s trip to Hatyai.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

This morning began in fine style as my hosts took me to an outdoor market to select our breakfast. Although the market opens at 5:30 am, we mercifully did not get there until about 7:45. As we walked among a seemingly endless collection of food stalls, the wonderful aroma of known and unknown scents filled the air. Not knowing what to select, I left the choices up to my hosts -- and they certainly did not fail me.
One of the things about having no idea about what you are putting in your mouth, especially when it looks a bit strange, is that you have to have blind faith that your host/guide is not trying to poison you. This was one of the assets that I looked for when the team was selected back in October and, as a result we have all had a lot of fun trying new delicious dishes which, because of the language barrier, we still don't know what some of them were.
Our first stop of the morning was to a farm that was established as part of a project started by the Royal Throne, to assist poor farmers learn more about sustainable development. Everything grown on the farm is used to enrich the soil for future growth. Pigs grown on the farm are not used for food but rather as a source of manure forfertilizer. We noted that the farmer did not yet have a supply of water to irrigate his crops in the event of drought. In this part of Thailand the water table lies only a few meters below the surface, and the farmer was in the process of digging a collection pool for water, which will help ensure the success of his endeavors.
After touring the farm, the farmer entertained us with natives songs and demonstrated some native instruments. Kip had a try at playing a two stringed cello-like instrument. Though not quite a Yo-Yo-Ma, he was at least able to produce several recognizable tones.
Lunch was at an outdoor seafood house right on the Gulf of Thailand. I hate to keep writing about food, but the fresh seafood that we had for lunch was perhaps the best that we have yet eaten. To make the lunch even more pleasant, the fresh sea breezes were a blessed relief from the endless assault of 98+ degree weather that we've had a steady dose of for three weeks. As we ate, children pranced in the surf, enjoying themselves as only children can anywhere in the world.
The masked quartet that you see in the above photos was youer GSE team at a parawood factory.
Parawood is what is left of rubber trees after they are no longer able to produce sap for rubber.
The 10 to 15 year-old trees are then cut down, sliced into planks, dried, and eventually sold to furniture manufacturers. The work to produce the planks is extremely dangerous, with the workers using huge band saws. We wore the masks as protection against the small partcles of wood in trhe air - a byproduct of the sawing process.
We were appalled to witness the lack of safety devices at the plant. OSHA would be having a field day -- no guards on the saws, few of the workers wearing goggles and even fewer with ear protectors. I asked one supervisor who was wearing a jacket market "Safety" what the rate of accidents were at the plant. He surely must have misunderstood me (perhaps he thought "accidents" meant "fatalities", since his answer was that they had only one accident this year. I've more accidents than that in a single week in plants that had a full compliment of accident prevention measures.
Our last stop of the day took us up an arduous climb to a lovely waterfall. As boys slid down the smooth rocks into pools of water below, we were tempted (just tempted mind you) to strip off our clothes and join them. Ah, how nice it was to be young.