Readers' Submissions

Thailand Offers A Lot More

  • Written by RW
  • January 9th, 2006
  • 9 min read


To Stickman’s Readers Far and Wide:
This is a song I wrote to describe my feeling about the Isaan Region and the Thai people.

"Isaan Roads: A tribute dedicated to the people of Isaan"
This special Thai Version was written by me, on August 22, 2001
Sung to the tune of Country Roads by John Denver

Just like heaven, Northeast Thailand
Long boat races, etch'd within my mem'ry

Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than vol-canoes
Livin' life so free.

Isaan roads, take me home, to the place of few farangs
Northeast Thailand, lush green rice fields
Take me home Isaan roads.

Village children gather 'round her
Farmer's daughter, stranger to big cities
Dark gray rain clouds, painted on the sky
Misty taste of Lao Khao
Monsoons fill my rai

Isaan roads, take me home, to the place of few farangs
Northeast Thailand, lush green rice fields
Take me home Isaan roads.

I hear that sound in the morning hours, it calls me
The Kaen re-minds me of my home far a-way
And walkin' cross those fields
I get a feelin' that I shud'a been home yesterday, yesterday ….

Take me home, Isaan roads, to the place I belong
Northeast Thailand, festive welcomes
Take me home Isaan roads.

I hope that everyone realizes that not all of the Westerners and other foreign visitors who come to Thailand come with negative intentions. Thailand does offer more than just sex tourism. The Isaan area in which I live is a beautiful place to spend time relaxing. It has its problems too but there really isn’t any place in the world that is totally perfect this side of Heaven.

I have met some really nice Thai people as well as farangs here over the 17 years I have been coming out to Thailand. I have met plenty of the other kind, often described in articles which appear in your publication. Many of those who wrote complaining about their Thai experiences created their own nightmares. I am not blaming them however. The French say “a chaque a son goute” – literally everyone to his own taste.

I first came to Thailand in January 1989 to meet my friend John, who I met in Saudi Arabia while we were both stationed there with the US Military Training Mission in 1981. John, along with two other American Vietnam war veterans were in the process of establishing an orphanage in Udon Thani for the left-over kids from the Vietnam War. The Thais there referred to these “half-breed” children as “farang kee-nok” literally interpreted as “foreign bird shit.” How wrong they were to brand these innocent children as anything less than their equals. Kids are kids. God doesn’t make junk. People do. And these kids are certainly not junk. They are treasure.

The place I visited for two weeks was at a small walled compound near Tesabahn Five Primary School located inside the city of Udon Thani at a center they named “Little Sheep” and which received some minimal financial support from the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which focused on abandoned and orphaned children. I was deeply moved at the conditions of so many Thai children I saw in Udon at that time—Thailand was then in the midst of a prolonged drought which had lasted several years but which fortunately broke that year. I had often ventured out to other countries to provide my labor and funds to take care of the less fortunate as a volunteer.

During vacation breaks from teaching I had been out to Mexico on several occasions to work with hill tribes, I had earlier worked with the first wave of Cuban refugees in New Orleans during the middle 60’s while a student at Tulane University, also flood victims from Hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Camille (1969). Later I had the opportunity to help teach Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War debacle. Migrant workers from Mexico in south Texas, black kids from the barrios in San Antonio Texas and from the poor rural areas of the Mississippi delta region in the 70’s and up to the early 80’s before accepting a posting as a teacher supervisor for a Military Language Institute operated by the Department of Defence to Saudi in 1981. So I knew what to expect. I had even done fund raising at various times as well as volunteering to serve and for projects in refugee camps as far a way as Angola, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Pakistan and the Philippines.

I returned to my teaching post in Saudi Arabia and planned to come out to help another Christian missionary whom I knew was doing some superb work at a base camp in Chiang Mai when I had a six week vacation coming up from the school. I had met the Kiwi mission director at a church service when he came to seek funding at my local church in America several years before and had been sending some financial support to help him in his efforts. He had spent some 20 years working with the Karin tribal people along the Thai-Burmese border and had established a project to provide honest employment and to train former opium producers in the Golden Triangle to convert to planting truck farming vegetables.

One of the teachers from the school where I was teaching at the time by the name of Roy had been to Thailand before and had met a Thai woman whom he later married. He had been married to his first wife, an American for 25 years before she had succumbed to cancer and he had been truly devastated by her death. He did pick up the pieces of his life when he came out to Thailand on a school break and met Kaisee, the Thai woman who was now the love of his life. A few years later Roy was killed in a tragic automobile accident while on his way to secure a visa for his wife.

Since I was on the same flight with Roy on this break he invited me to stay over in Bangkok for a day before I headed north to Chiang Mai to meet my Kiwi acquaintance Paul. Because he wanted me to feel welcome in Thailand, Roy rented the back room of a small restaurant for the evening and invited me and a lot of his Thai friends and his wife’s relatives to participate in a party. It was there that I met my wife who I married some three months later during my next vacation break. Several months later, she joined me in Saudi Arabia and lived there and then in the United Arab Emirates for the next seven years. I continued to work in the Middle East until the 31st of December 1997 when I decided I had had enough Arab culture to last a lifetime and to ventured out to Thailand to start a new more rewarding life’s dream to build an orphanage in my wife’s hometown of Buriram.

We arrived at Don Muang International Airport on January 1st and were greeted by elephants, and beautifully dressed dancers and local tourism officials. We were given a great welcome – but it was not just for us – it was for all who arrived that day to begin the tourism campaign Amazing Thailand. I still have some ragged t-shirts left from this event and the certificates they presented to us as we came through the gate that day.

Ever since my first visit to the orphanage in Udon Thani in January 1989 I realized I wanted to do something to improve the opportunities for Thai children. I wrote a series of English Grammar books while in the United Arab Emirates where I headed another Institute for the Emirati Air Force and sold the rights on the book to a publisher n the Emirates and the proceeds became the basis for our initial funds to construct the center. We have now been here in Buriram for 8 years and take care of a whole lot of kids – There are an estimated 30,000 children in this province in need of help: they are either frightfully poor, neglected, abused, abandoned, or orphaned. In order to support our efforts I cashed in my entire savings from some 13 years of work in the Arabian Gulf to build the center and then I secured a fulltime teaching position with the local university which has provided me with a residence visa and a small income. I have taught thousands of students here since that time and hope to continue to do so for another 6 or 7 years until I reach retirement age.

Over time the center has grown and facilities are improving and surprisingly we are getting help from within Thailand, but mostly from Westerners and Asians who have chanced on our website or have heard about us through their grapevine of friends. These wonderful visitors and volunteers come from afar – Aussies by the planeload, Singaporean teachers, university students from everywhere, backpackers on worldwide adventures, Canadians, Americans, English, French, Germans, Dutch, Irish, Polish, now even Belgians and Swedes. The charitably-minded people we have encountered come from many nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, economic statuses, age groups and varying religious persuasions. Even some who declare themselves to be atheists. Those who are concerned for others are truly international citizens. God bless them, one and all.

We have also visited some 400 rural primary and secondary schools in Buriram province over the past three years, establishing English camps for the less fortunate students and providing more than 180,000 free books, loads of school supplies and even 2,000 pairs of inexpensive shoes for kids in need. The donations to provide such items come from individuals, caring and loving and concerned people from around the world, not from the wealthy, not from organizations not from the government.

Unexpected packages filled with treats, books, video tapes, DVDs, children’s games, coloring books etc., arrive from Korea, Japan and elsewhere – folks who don’t even bother to provide us with a name or a return address so we can write them to thank them properly. Many of those who write or call us just want to come out to help for a short time before moving on to enjoy the rest of Thailand. The list goes on. Some come with items needed by the children here but often we refer them to other locations that we know of whose immediate needs are greater than our own. After the tsunami we had many offer to help which we redirected to those in the areas most in need of help. We maintain a list of contacts at children’s relief centers in Loei, Pang Nga and Pablachai as well as at other orphanages we are able to put them in contact with. We have had over 100 foreign visitors since December 2004. More are coming. “If you build it, they will come,” a line from the movie Field of Dreams rings true. If you want to help you can do so. Come join us and see for yourself.

Oh, by the way, the one missing element in this story: is that the Thai government which has only given us some minimal financial help for one year out of the eight we have been open. I wish you all a pleasant stay in Thailand. From a Luk Isaan (Child of the Isaan).

Roger Walker
Director, Tree of Life Orphanage Buriram

Stickman's thoughts:

Interesting life you must have up there.