Warning!!! The following is an especially sweet slice of life from Lampang. For those who find my writing style just a little too cute, I advise you to stop reading immediately!
This being September, we are smack in the middle of the rainy season. It was no surprise then that the rain was coming down in buckets last night. It was fortunate that I keep a good supply of candles stashed strategically around the house, because this being Thailand, you never know when the power will suddenly go out. It was doubly fortunate that my wife has a large gas fueled oven for her khanom business, because after a series of especially close lightning strikes, followed by deafening peals of thunder we were plunged into darkness.
With my electric oven out of commission, the bowl of popover batter I had just whisked up would have been destined for the garbage without this gas behemoth. Forty five minutes later the entire family was devouring hot popovers slathered in butter and cherry preserves by candlelight while the storm continued to roar around us. Oh, for those of you who are wondering what the hell popovers are, picture golden brown soufflé like pastries that the gods on Olympus only wish they had to go along with their ambrosia!
I hoped that the rain would clear out by morning, because we had a very special event scheduled at school. The weather the next morning was as perfect as perfect could be. The sun was shining brightly in a blue sky, and the temperature was relatively cool. In short as Pop Larkin would say, everything was “perfick”!
The school morning started out as usual with a flag raising ceremony and singing of the Thai national anthem. Anuban has its own small flag pole, and two children, a boy and a girl are chosen each morning to help raise the flag. I still find it amusing to hear the children all singing at completely different speeds, but still all managing to belt out the tune with the kind of gusto that only young children can manage. After a few Buddhist prayers, the children sing the school song, first in Chinese, and then in Thai.
Then it’s time to drink a pouch of milk. Yes, I said pouch. Every child at every school in Thailand, whether government run or private, gets free milk every day. Sometimes it comes in cartons, but lately it’s been coming in plastic bags. A teacher snips a corner, sticks in a tiny plastic straw and hands out the cow juice. Invariably some little kid squeezes the bag and a fountain of milk explodes all over the place. Not surprisingly, the milk is of the UHT variety so that it doesn’t need refrigeration. I know the government is doing a good thing in providing this basic bit of nutrition. I’m sure in very poor villages this milk makes a big difference in keeping children healthy…still I personally think it tastes nasty. Oh well, what do I know? The kids slurp it up, so it must be that I’m overly fussy!
After drinking all that milk, you can probably guess what the next item of daily activity is. Yes, it is a walk to the toilet! These kids are still very young. If you don’t make them pee…well, there may be an accident later on.
Shortly after, my two classes line up and march to the front of the school where a big surprise awaits them. Lined up in the driveway are six horse carriages. This morning we are all going for a ride!
While you might see a horse somewhere else in Thailand, you won’t see the many hundreds we have here in Lampang. The city is justifiably famous for its rot-ma, or horse drawn carriages. All throughout the center of the city you will find them lined up like taxis, and just about everywhere you go around down you will hear the clip-clop of horse’s hoofs.
The horse carriages as you might imagine are immensely popular with tourists, whether they are foreigners or Thais. I used the word foreigners as opposed to farangs, because although Lampang doesn’t see the numbers of international visitors that you will find in Chiang Mai, we still get tourists from just about everywhere. You see a lot of Japanese, Chinese and Korean tour groups roaming the streets. You also see Thais from all over the country. We sometimes forget that many Thais like to go on vacation, and see things that they might not find in their hometowns. The horse carriages fall into that category.
They are certainly quaint, and invoke a simpler era long since past. Some narrow streets here though seem as though they were designed for horse carriages, and not for huge numbers of “horseless carriages”! There is one extremely narrow bridge here that I am always nervous about driving over, although the Thais don’t seem the least bit concerned…at least not enough to slow down, even a little. I swear if my truck had a few more coats of pain, I would sideswipe someone!
I hoisted up four children into one carriage, and climb aboard to get them settled in their seats. Soon our driver murmurs something to his horse and we are off, clicking and clacking down the street.
I wish I knew more about the “cowboys” who make up the carriage drivers. They certainly look the part, with colorful bandanas tied around their necks, and cowboy hats perched upon their heads. Many of them wear what look to be authentic cowboy boots, although they were made right here in Thailand. All they need to complete their persona is a hand rolled cigarette sticking out of the corner of their mouths, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they roll a few when not working. I do hope they don’t go whole hog and opt for a big wad of chewing tobacco. That would be a little too authentic!
I have no idea what breed of horses these are…if in fact they are horses, and not ponies. They certainly are calm enough being out in the middle of traffic, especially considering the way Thais drive. You might expect that people in cars or on motorcycles would slow down when passing, or give the carriages right of way, but this indeed being Thailand, you would be wrong. Motorists treat the horses the same way they treat everything else on the road; that is to say, as if they weren’t really there. The horses seem indifferent to the traffic noisily whizzing all around them. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a horse related accident, which is reassuring.
The children were so delighted to be rolling along that they could barely stay still. They are still at an age where they are not afraid to show how they feel. Seeing their ear to ear smiles and hearing their whoops of laughter, I think they are pretty happy at the moment.
Throughout our excursion they kept up a running commentary on everything they saw. When we passed by a shop overflowing with stuffed animals, they named every single one. “Look, Mickey Mouse! Winnie the Pooh and Tigger! Doraemon! Kitty!” Trotting by a fruit stand they called out like want bananas!” We had been learning the names of different fruit in English, and it was nice to know they remembered. They knew the names of the Thai pop stars on a poster in a shop window. All I knew that the comely young ladies weren’t wearing very much. (Yes, Old Sawadee always catches those details!)
When they weren’t excitedly chattering away, they were singing songs. I download a lot of music from You Tube to use in my classroom. One song the kids enjoy is about a race horse named Little Red. Listen to it here, and you will immediately know what lines they sang over and over again as we went along.
I’ve driven down these streets hundreds of times, but today, since we were moving along so slowly, I saw many little things that I had never noticed before. There were a number of small shops that looked worth checking out, including a place that sold herbal medicines, a café / bookstore and a sweet shop with dozens of different kinds of khanom. As we drove by a Chinese temple, I had time to admire a pair of intertwined dragons that were part of a large painted mural.
The children waved and called out greetings to everyone we passed. These folks in turn smiled and waved back. I know they must have thought the children in their school uniforms looked adorable, but I wonder what they thought of the Farang dressed in suit and tie.
When we first set out, I thought our ride would be relatively short, but instead it lasted for almost an hour. That was fine with me. I know the children hoped it would go on forever, but alas, eventually our carriage turned back through the front gate of our school. Soon we were all waiing to our driver, who let everyone pat and stroke the horse which had worked so hard that morning. Sawadee, having owned a horse or two in his time, brought out some apple slices, which “Little Red” devoured with pleasure. Somehow I don’t think this horse often, if ever, gets any treats.
Then it was time to wave goodbye. The horse carriages rolled off back out into the street, while the children marched off to wash their hands before lunchtime.
Some of you may think I’m making much too big a deal out of the morning’s outing. It was after all just a little “horsey ride”. Well, I agree that for me, although it was a pleasant way to spend part of a sunny morning, it was hardly an earth shattering experience…but for these young girls and boys, this is what childhood is all about. No, I take that back. These are the kind of things childhood should be about! For countless millions of children in every corner of the globe, childhood is nothing more than hunger, sickness and misery. Even if somehow they survive to become adults, there will never be any “golden memories” to look back at fondly.
The Thai children who went out for a horse carriage ride with me have no idea how lucky they are. Not a single one of them knows what its like to go to bed hungry. They all live in safe, comfortable houses, with plenty of clean water, warm blankets, and all the myriad of everyday items that many other children must do without. Everyday they get up and have a school to go to where they will have opportunities that so many children can never dream of.
It is my sincere wish that every single one of the boys and girls in my class will grow up to be healthy, happy, and perhaps even well educated and men and women. When they are married with children of their own, will they remember one lovely morning’s ride through the streets of Lampang? I hope so. Perhaps they may even dimly recall Old Sawadee sitting beside them with a great big smile on his face. I’d sure like to think so.
Many people say that the horse ride is one of the highlights of a visit to Lampang.