Gallivanting and Giving Back in Thailand with Susan Skog
Please join us in welcoming writer and humanitarian Susan Skog to The Window Seat. She is the author of six books, including her latest The Give-Back Solution: Create a Better World with Your Time, Talents and Travel, which features Travelocity’s Travel for Good program. Her guest blog tells of her volunteer vacation through Thailand with her son.
My teenaged son, Evan, and I were hanging out the window of the Death Railway Train as it plunged through the emerald Thai countryside, dropping down along the River Kwai. We grinned at each other, our faces pulled tight by the wind, as tamarind trees with outrageous purplish plumes, enchanting temples, and farmers tending sugarcane fields rushed past our rolling car.
Evan and I and other volunteers soon went from swaying on train cars to bobbing like hood ornaments on elephants as our guides took us for a ride in Khanchanaburi in central Thailand. Just when I was ready to enjoy firmer ground, we were asked to take an elephant into the river and scrub it clean. I, not a great swimmer, relished this about as much as plunging off the diving board in fourth grade. Mid-way through the elephant bath, workers on the shores suddenly called out instructions in Thai. What’s this?
Ah, this is where the elephants dip us into the water. Ha ha ha. Funny Thai people. Oh, stop. Surely you’re kidding, right? And this part of the tour is optional, right? This Land of Smiles is a real scream. Or is that me screaming as my elephant plunges me into water with loaf-sized dung close by? Ah, my great Thai adventure suddenly got more fertile than I wanted. That evening at dusk, Evan and I and our fellow volunteers sprawled on a houseboat as a sunset splashed the water orange and pink and distant mountains shimmered in the reflection. It was Thanksgiving back home, and our appreciation was high.
Other than the brief elephant dunk, this volunteer vacation through the organization, i-to-i, was turning out to be better than we expected. In addition to serving meals to remote hill tribes and people who’d fled persecution in Burma, we’d danced, played, and served meals to gorgeous kids with AIDS, autism, and Down’s syndrome. In between, we swam under thundering waterfalls and shopped at amazing floating markets with bright saffron, green and purple silks and bronze Buddhas.
We’d also stuffed ourselves on awesome Thai food. It turned out that one of our guides, Tong, was a five-star chef who once worked in Los Angeles. (Another quirky reminder that the world’s definitely getting flatter). That Thanksgiving night, we feasted by candlelight on fat, fresh red snappers and steaming vats of coconut rice soup, tart with lemongrass.
As we toasted Tong and our guides and entertained ourselves with hilarious stories of Thanksgivings past, I hoped some of the joy would float out across the water, over the mountains, back up the River Kwai and somehow touch Gay, a symbol of the AIDS pandemic hitting Thailand hard.
I’d just met Gay the day before. She was a patient in an AIDS hospice located in the Wat Phra Baat Mamphu temple in Lopburi, north of Bangkok. The hospice still exists in too many shadows and stigmas. Only 10 percent of the patients’ family members will show up for their cremation and ceremony honoring their death. Meanwhile, we were told that more than 10,000 people are on a waiting list for the 800 beds.
The entire 14-day volunteer vacation blew our minds, from the time with the hill tribes, who lived in forest among barking deer, tigers, and peacocks, to peering up at ancient, golden Buddahs. But the time with Gay? That blew open my heart, which is why I went to Thailand in the first place.
Susan Skog is a six-time author, writer and presenter and focuses on humanitarian people and projects. Trained as a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times and Good Housekeeping, among others.
From time to time, the Window Seat publishes articles and blog posts written by guest authors to give you a fresh perspective on the world of travel.