Sunday, November 04, 2012

A Quick Trip to Sri Lanka

A quick trip to Sri Lanka
This article is longer than most I’ve written.  I actually shortened it quite a bit by moving a story about the 
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage to Asian Elephant Stories.    All the photographs from this trip are at

The driver who took me from the airport to the hotel in Kandy asked how long I would be in Sri Lanka. When I told him 5 nights he commented: “Not long enough sir, next year you stay one month”.  The man had a good point, but I get ahead of myself.  On the 13th I flew from Chaing Mai to Bangkok and then on to Colombo Sri Lanka.  The first nice surprise; Thai Airways offered to check my heavy bag through to Colombo.  I accepted.   Thai Airways is always my first choice for domestic flights in Thailand.  Sri Lanka Airlines was really quite delightful.  The service was wonderful.   They provide a menu for the in flight meal which is then served with metal flatware, that’s right gentle reader, no plastic forks and I was in economy!  I asked to move because my original seat was crowded.  No problem.  Just as they opened the exit door, the instant my lens started to fog from the abrupt change from A/C to reality, I saw these two faces. Better to be lucky than smart sometimes, a second later and the fog would have been way too much.
The 2nd shot
I took three rapid fire shots, the fog was way too much on the 3rd
The passage through the Colombo airport was absolutely hassel free.  Visa on arrival ($25 USD), then on to immigration.  Not many westerners on the plane so the line was very short.  Figuring this trip was going to me a small vacation with “no purpose” (no agenda, no assignment, etc. I decided to have the hotel pick me up at the air-port in Colombo rather than try to spend my first hours learning local transportation systems.   It was a 3 ½ hour drive to Kandy.  My Driver Changdra is a nice fellow who has been driving for a very long time.  The drive was very interesting.  We went from one small populace to the next, each a bit different yet all with the same flavor.  We stopped for tea and a snack which was delightful and then stopped to enjoy a view.  The traffic in Kandy approaches unbearable; I’m told it is nothing compared to Colombo.   Changdra drives with his horn, using brakes and accelerator to guide him through the path magically cleared by the “ngit nit” sound of the van’s horn.   According to my trusted driver and guide there are two types of tuk tuk.  Petrol driven made in India and Diesel made in Italy.  I may not get around to a detailed study about these vehicles, but they are pretty interesting.
Paper napkins
newspaper that is


SriLankan Tuk-Tuk's have personality
The Kandy View Hotel, which I found on was affordable.  The room provided a bit of a culture shock; it took hotel staff to show me how the electricity worked.  Fortunately they are very accommodating.  The roof top roof, where I found good wi-fi reception is a delight.  
Sunday the 14th.  Changdra was my driver again.  Off we went to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  (See Asian Elephant Stories) You can’t blame him, it’s his history with tourists and their expectations; he kept asking me if I wanted to ride an elephant.  No! The elephant orphanage is a sad deal. Yea they have lots of elephants but a few are really not looking good.  There are many young elephants.  Although I didn’t get a chance to see them, they have two babies that were allegedly rescued from some natural entrapment.  I think they were trying to tell me they were in a muddy area and could not get out of the water.  Like the mother and aunties would just walk off and leave them on their own.  I’m impressed but not in a favorable way.   I left there feeling an overwhelming sadness, it was just depressing
On their way to the elephant bathing
a tourist favorite

Next stop was an herbal garden.  They have guides who know these herbs and their uses. Mine told me he is a pharmacist working on natural curse for bad skin.  They show you all the benefits and explain they sell nothing.  Then, they escort you to the store where you can buy all this stuff.  Does this technique work?  You bet it does. I was concerned about getting my suitcase closed! The more time I spend in Asia the more I realize that natural herbs and spices can be effective remedies without side effects.
Herbal remedies
The place we visited is called The Island Spice Grove.  Turns out they have no website and it turns out that many tourist related businesses in Sri Lanka are without websites.  The reason is simple.  The Srilankan government taxes them and taxes them heavily.  Not a good business decision, not at all.

Although I had not mentioned it, Changdra took me to the War Memorial Cementary.  There interned are the remains of 209 young men who lost their lives in battle between 1939 and 1943.  Sri Lankan, Indian, British, Canadian.   The cemetery is maintained by Adit, my compliments and I’m sure the thanks of the families of those buried there, go to him.  The grounds are immaculate!  I was particularly taken by the tombstone of one young British.  He was only 21 years old when he gave his life.
Beautiful Grounds


Adit, the grounds keeper
I truly admire him

Next stop the big Buddha.  Lovely   All white. This statue overlooks the city of Kandy, and as one might suspect climbing the stairs in the back of the structure gives one a marvelous view of the city.  On a hot sunny day compliance of the rule about removing shoes can cause one to walk rather briskly especially in areas in direct sunlight.  
View from the Big Buddha

The Big Buddha up close
The Big Buddha from the Temple of the Tooth Relic
Monday was a light day.  The only excursion I undertook was a trip to the Temple of the Tooth Relic.  It’s a beautiful complex.  Unfortunately I hadn’t done my homework and arrived later than might have been optimal.  They open the inner chambers of the temple for an hour and a half three times a day 05:00  09:30 & 18:00.  I was there in time to catch the ceremonious closing of the main chamber, where the casket containing the tooth relic is housed.  Next I return, I’ll plan a full day here.  The grounds contain the royal palace, places of worship for Hindi and Christian as well as Buddhist.  (Check this out before publishing)

Door Closing Ceremony

Meditation Hall

The King's Balcony

I spent 3 nights at the Kandy View Hotel.  It’s not modern plush and it’s not expensive.  My purposes were well served. I found the bed quite uncomfortable the first night.  Sunday morning the staff happily moved me to another room which I enjoyed.   The staff is delightful; the rooftop restaurant offers both a marvelous view and seriously excellent food.  The breakfast buffet is my favorite offering a variety of Sri Lankan food, fresh fruit, a coconut “sombon” which is a bit spicy, Indian foods and fresh pan fried Indian bread.  The Sri Lankan special lunch is also delightful .
While writing the start of this report, I was at the roof top restaurant and realized that it really is a special place.  Open air, great food and wonderful people.  Occasionally there is a little distraction like a torrential rain that might bother you even if you are in the center of the room.  That only happened once, other rains were gentle.  However, on Monday afternoon it rained a torrential down pour.  The little road behind the hotel leads to homes further up the hill.  It became a raging little river.  School children were gathered part way up waiting for the river to subside so they could continue their journey home.   An hour and a half later the river and the children were in their proper places.   At this time of year the best approach is to do the tourist visiting in the morning and mid-day.  Sure as the sun rises in the morning it rains in the mid to late afternoon.
Hotel Staff

In the Rain, the vines reminded me of elephants

School Children Wait for the Flooded Road to Dry

On Tuesday the 16th, I went to Negombo.  I took the hotel owners advice and hired his driver for the trip.  Negombo is not far from the Colombo airport and right on the beach.  My travel options were: 

  1.        Take a bus.  That wasn’t going to work because Sri Lankan buses are even less spacious than the 3rd class busses in Thailand.  I just don’t fit.
  2.        Take a train:  My early favorite until I found out that the train schedule would have included an all day journey on two commuter trains with doubtful good connections for the 2nd leg of the journey.
  3.        Take a tuk-tuk:  Sorry, it’s just too far to go in a tuk-tuk.  The tuk-tuk’s here in Sri Lanka are, in my opinion, more comfortable than the ones in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia.  Still not my cup of tea for a four hour journey. 
  4.        Hire the driver from the hotel:  A bit more expensive, but I didn’t take this short vacation as an endurance contest.  The driver happened to be Rivi, the son of Changdra.  In my humble opinion he’s a better driver than his dad; much less horn action and seemingly more patient behind slow traffic.
Along the way from Kandy to Negombo I noticed a couple of signs which I thought were pretty cool.  Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough to get a shot of the “Thirst Aid Station”.  Too bad it’s a great play on words.  The one I did manage to get was the Hotel Hilarious which boasts of special accommodations for foreigners, perhaps they have a special foreigner price as well.  Actually foreigners are charged more than locals.  Their logic is simple, foreigners have more money.  At least they are almost up front about it and it does leave some room for negation.  They would rather sell it to you for local price than give the opportunity to the stall next door.
Well it is in front of the hospital! 

I had book a room at the Golden Star Beach Hotel.  I seriously doubt that I could have made a better choice.  The rooms are lovely.  Somehow I ended up in a room with a balcony and a marvelous view of both the Indian Ocean and the hotel pool.  I had eaten a couple of Sri Lankan sandwiches on the road so I wasn’t too hungry at lunch time.  I did, however, try a shrimp appetizer.  It was both beautiful and delicious.  
The restaurant is a winner, but wait.  I ordered the Fajita’s for supper.  Bad mistake, they were somewhere between awful and terrible.  My best advice, eat there but avoid the Fajita offering.  Meat was burned and too tough to chew, what was supposed to be beans looked and tasted like bad ground meat which had been refried.  The rice was dry but almost passable.  Did I forget to mention the tortilla’s, not at all.  There were no tortilla’s.  Where I come from the tortilla is the bread in which you place the contents of the Fajita.   Sorry, Golden Star, I tell it like I see it, smell it and taste it.  The next day I went to talk with the chef about the last evening’s meal.  His explanation was that Australian beef is very expensive and local beef not very good.  I suggested he stop selling the stuff and gentle reader I recommend you stay at the Golden Star, eat in the restaurant and by all means avoid the beef!  In fact it’s likely a good idea to avoid the beef in all of Sri Lanka.  Yes, it was that bad.

The next evening, my last night in Negombo I decided to try the special “set menu”.  The price was 1,800 and I nearly balked until I realized this was a four course meal.  The salad was actually an aspic and it was wonderful!  The soup was carrot and orange; man was it delicious.  I chose the fish and am so glad I did.  It was delicious and perfectly prepared.  The desert was wonderful as well.  I love surprises and received a very nice one with the bill.  The 1,800 was inclusive of all taxes and gratuities.  This was a marvelous meal at a great price.   Golden Star: Like I said, I tell it like I taste it, smell it and see it.
Marvelous Shirmp Appetizer

The first afternoon in Negombo was spent largely on a quick tour of the city.  In all fairness I didn’t realize I was on a “tour” until I returned to the hotel and the tuk-tuk driver explained my charges.  We negotiated and were both happy at the end of the day.  Where did he take me?
First stop was the lagoon.  This is a marvelous photo opportunity especially for those who like rugged looking boats.  I learned that the Dutch had built a canal from Negombo to some point a 100 Kilometers away.  The early occupation of Ceylon (today known as Sri Lanka) by the Dutch had some long lasting impacts.  Negombo is predominately a Christian city, Sri Lanka.  There is still a sizable Dutch presence in this city.
Boats in the harbor

Dutch Canal

Our next stop was what the driver referred to as the old Dutch Fort.  According to signage it was originally built by the Portuguese in 1600, captured by the dutch in 1678  and then “snatched” by the British in 1796.  Today it is a prison.   Of the original structures only the old tower remains.
Old Dutch Fort
We went to a rather large Buddhist temple which I found fascinating.  A monk came to meet me and give me a tour.  His English was excellent.   All of the statues are cement painted with natural colors.  The monk pointed out the mythological dragon (I had seen this in Kandy as well).  It has the head of a elephant with the mouth of a crocodile, eye of a bird, ear of a pig, body of a fish, tail of a peacock, foot of a lion,
There was a very quick stop at a smaller temple because I wanted a photograph of the Chedi.
Next we went to a Catholic church.  I gather this is the driver’s parish church. He was quiet proud of it, as he should have been. There was a service on going when we arrived.  Three women were singing the reverence.  It was really amazing.  This Catholic Church is one of several in Negombo.
Inside the temple in Negumbo

Beautiful Voices, Marvelous Music

Srilankan Mythology

My last morning in Sri Lanka was spent relaxing and walking on the beach.  My thoughts are that I would like to return and when I do I’ll just hang out at the beach.

I Love This Beach! 

Abundant Blessings, 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mae Tao Clinic to Stay in Thailand

Gentle Reader,

One thing I mentioned in a previous post was that a rumor about the clinic moving to Burma may be hurting funding.  Dr. Cynthia assured me that they were not moving.   Irrawaddye just published an article confirming that Mae Tao Clinic will stay where it is.  You can also see it at

You can learn more about the work being don by Dr Cynthia and her crew at Mae Tao Clinic

Save Elephant Foundation


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mea Tao Clinic

Gentle Reader,

A few days ago I posted my initial impression article which was written while I was still in Mae Sot.  I’ve been back three days and have had time to decompress, at least a little.  My initial impression was stick on accurate – Wow would be an understatement.  Today I’ll try to take a look at the scope of the need and Mae Tao Clinic’s contribution to that need. I’ll close with a bit of information on how you can help, if you are so moved.  Please note that the scope of this article is limited to Burmese migrants in Tak province. There are perhaps 65,000 registered and 150,000 unregistered Burmese migrants in Tak province (1).  This group, over 200,000 human beings, are all in Tak province.  They are just part of the bigger picture which would include the migrants and refugees all along the Thai / Burma border.  The bigger picture must also include all those in Burma who suffer at the hands of that junta. The scope of suffering and need is beyond comprehension.

Mae Tao Clinic serves Tak province and supports clinics in Burma.  The contribution made is immense.  I would invite you to spend some time at  The site is very well organized and well written.  You will see that the clinic is involved in three main areas:

First they provide health services.  “The Mae Tao Clinic, founded and directed by Dr. Cynthia Maung, provides free health care for refugees, migrant workers, and other individuals who make the dangerous journey across the border from Burma to Thailand” (2).   The daily patient load is around 300 per day and rising.  It’s worth repeating that approximately half of the patients they see each day make a day trip from Burma while the other half are migrants who reside in Tak province.  All medical services at Mae Tao Clinic are free to the patient.

The green uniforms tell me these children reside in Burma

Dr. Cynthia Maung, Founder and Director of Mae Tao Clinic
with one of her many pediatric patients 
Second they provide medical training.  “Mae Tao Clinic is viewed as an excellent training facility as it offers skilled trainers, including Burmese doctors, senior medics, and international professionals. Due to the Clinic’s high patient load, it also offers extensive practical training. Although travel from inside Burma to the Clinic is expensive and difficult, involving passage through areas of conflict and the passing of security checkpoints both in Burma and Thailand, participants come from all over Burma to attend trainings at MTC”.  (3) Their participation makes a difference in an untold number of lives in Burma.

Third they provide Child Protection: “While Mae Tao Clinic began as a humble health service delivery organisation, it has evolved into an umbrella social services network for refugees, migrant workers, and other displaced Burmese. As a focal point of these activities, child protection is the most rapidly growing area of need. The continued deterioration of services in eastern Burma, coupled with the steadily growing population of migrant families, accounts for the increased demand for our work” (4).  The Child Development Center (CDC) is Mae Tao’s own school with 1,000 students and several boarding houses.  By its self the CDC is a huge project!

Sign at the entrance of Mae Tao Clinic.
"We do not tolerate gambling, illegal drug-taking or human trafficking"
Many organizations are suffering from financial shortages.  Mae Tao Clinic is, sadly, included in this group. Anyone with an eye for numbers and a computer can clearly see that Mae Tao Clinic spends their funds wisely and always have the people they serve first in their minds.  Mae Tao Clinic also has a 4 year grant / contract with USAID.  Stringent audits are required as a pre-approval process for any money given out by USAID.  NGO’s who have questionable accounting practices need not apply.  Actually the audits are so stringent that only three accounting firms in Thailand are acceptable to USAID.  This says a whole lot about the quality and sincerity of the Mae Tao Clinic.

One of their recent / current challenges is funding for medicine at the clinic.  Mae Tao has enjoyed a restricted grant from a foreign government which provided some 10 million baht a year for the purchase of medicine. The contract ran out in June and has not been restored.  The agency representatives say it's bureaucratic delays and there nothing to worry about.  However it's been 3 months and Mae Tao is worried. 

USAID has already warned Mae Tao Clinic that they may be forced to reduce their funding in the 2nd and 3rd year of the contract.

Future and present fund raising plans feature diversity.  Past reliance on big government grants make them vulnerable.  Currently 60% come from big Government grants and the governments may be changing their helping strategies.  Mae Tao Clinic wants and needs more unrestricted money.  Given the stringent auditing and reporting requirements they must meet to satisfy their big government donors, it's easy to be certain the money goes to the right place. Audits are clearly posted on their website, they are hiding nothing!  

Interested donors have several options, based on their country of origin.  You can see those at  In addition to requiring funds to continue operations, Mae Tao clinic is always looking for medical volunteers.  Medical students, doctors, medics and nurses are all invited to volunteer.  

Since I’ve been in Thailand, pushing three years now, I’ve seen a lot of organizations that provide opportunities to donate and to volunteer.  Mae Tao Clinic is, in my opinion, the most deserving.  They need and they deserve our help! 

Mother and Baby at the Mae Tao Clinic



Thursday, September 13, 2012

Agape - One of 74 migrant schools in Tak Province

Gentle Reader,

Agape means unconditional love.  Love will be the only thing that will truly heal the wounds of 9/11; I could think of no better tribute than on the anniversary of that tragic day in 2001, to visit Agape Orphanage and Learning Center in Maesot Thailand.
Headmaster David Min Naing at Agape
David and two other head masters 
Tak province borders Burma and is teeming with Burmese people, culture and challenges.  Three of the seven refugee camps are in Tak, but that’s a total ly different story for the future.  There are thousands of migrant workers in Tak province, here at the grace of the Royal Thai Government but without many of the basic rights and privileges of a Thai citizen.

There are 74 schools (learning centers) in Tak province which support the children of migrant workers from Burma.  Perhaps in a future article I’ll take a deeper look at the political situation in which they must survive. Today you receive only a very brief background and a quick tour of a rather amazing campus.  Fair enough?

This article contains no information on how you can contribute.  Those of you who are interested please contact me and I’ll provide that information.  Depending on your country and tax status there are different options.
Boys at study, do they deserve an education and a chance in life?
Agape is one of the 74 schools. Headmaster David Min Naing is also the vice chairman of the consortium of 74 schools that support the migrant workers in Tak province.  The 74 schools support some 15,000 children, ranging from Nursery through grade 6.  David is quick to point out that after grade 6 most children are removed from school by their parents and put to work.  He also said there are between 15,000 and 20,000 children of migrant workers who are NOT in school.
Nursery Age Children, learning the Thai alphabet
 and beiing distracted by the foreigner with the camera .
After I left his company I sent David a flurry of short emails asking questions.  The last was just to confirm that he has 300 children.  His answer tells a lot about his operation, his philosophic approach and his finances.  I love this guy!  His answer "Agape has 300 children, 10 salary teacher including me are 3,500 thb per each, me the same, 3 volunteer teacher no salary just pocket money no more 500 thb.and 4people for boarding house care and cooks are  1800 thb per each. 1 day and gate watch and 2 night watch 2000 thb per each. and finally 2 free driver like me".

This headmaster does everything based on love, he even named his school Agape.  An incredible man, David has designed the buildings himself.  He prefers separate buildings rather than a typical elementary school configuration.  It’s like a small campus.  The construction and maintenance is done by staff, volunteers and the children.   In addition to the classrooms, auditorium, dining facility and dormitories, there is a pig pen, chicken house, fish tank and more.  Agape is to the extent possible, a self-sustaining community.   Each building was sponsored by donations from various charities.  Without their support, life would be unbearable for these children.  Still there is much to be done, and serious shortages of just about everything.
Boy's dormatory
Fish Tanks - part of being self sustaining!
Agape has 300 children ranging from nursery school through grade 6.  As I walked around the campus I couldn’t help but notice some of the activities.  In the nursery school the children were learning the Thai alphabet.  The kindergarten class was lined up to show the teacher their written assignment, in Burmese.  Other classes were studying from books that looked like readers

Writing assignment being checked
They caught me at the window!  
The sign says “Orphanage”, but that could be misleading.  Of the 300 children 14 are known orphans, 12 are abandoned (the status of their parents is unknown).  The rest of the children are  boarded at Agape while they attend school.  They are too young to work in the fields; the parents are happy to have them taken care of by the school.  The parents get care for their children while they toil and the children receive an education.  It may seem sad, but it really is a win-win scenario within an overall situation that is far less than desirable.

David tells me that the children must learn to love and respect each other.  To that end, each day begins with, and again I quote David from one of his emails  “ 1. First we bow to Thai national flag and sing Thai national song ,  happy children songs with action ,Christian  song.  and  pray Islam by Islamic children lead them self ,then Buddhist religious saying by Buddhist children them self, then for  Christian I lead to pray , then good morning song, then final song is pigeon song that all children singing with flying and sleep action and then all children go inside the class room.”  Next time I’m in Maesot I’ll record this!

Each day these children are taught respect for the nation that is their host and also to  appreciate each other’s religion and culture!   I love this powerful approach.   Much of the evil in the world is committed in the name of religion. Teach the children that we are all the same and that there is no benefit to religious persecution; that is his belief and I totally agree.   Agape is love!   Children are lovable and deserve our love and respect!

Beware of these children: They will steal your heart!
However, they commit no crime

David and most of the 3rd grade class

This article contains no information on how you can contribute.  Those of you who are interested please contact me and I’ll provide that information.  Depending on your country and tax status there are different options

The bigger Issue!