Group picture taken with the children
Sometime in March last year, I made my first trip to Baan Dada Children's Home in Thailand. It was a cycling tour organised by Nick where some of us flew to Bangkok from Singapore and together with an enthusiastic group of cyclists from Thailand, we cycled some 360 km over 3 days to the rugged western region that borders between Thailand and Myanmar. It was a personal fund raising project for the purpose of setting up a vocation training centre at the home. I met both Dada Rama who hails from the Philippines and his assistant, Dada Prashanta who hails from Indonesia in person for the first time. Both "Dadas" (brothers in Sanskrit) have pledged their entire lives to help a worthy cause and they do not draw any salary at all. Their worldly mission is to give love to the less fortunate ones - the kind of sacrifice not many can do it.
The muddy path just outside the home
Dada Rama has been involved in setting up of Baan Dada for some 20 years, helping the children who are refugees from Myanmar forced out of their country to live near the border in Thailand. Many are either orphans or have single parent and they are poor. Dada Rama not only provides basic necessities like accommodation and food to them, he even sends them to school. For some, they study up to tertiary level and Dada Rama take it upon himself to see them through to their education. To keep them going for the longest time, they are very much dependent on continuous donations from well-wishers locally and overseas. They work on a very tight budget, scrimp as much as possible. Sometimes, Dada Rama will send the children to school on their school truck and in order to save on fuel, he will park the vehicle near the school and cycle some 20 km back. He will then make a return trip by bike to fetch the children home after school. For the record, the terrain in Sangkhlaburi is anything but rugged and flanked by mountain ranges.
With Dada Prashanta, Dada Rama and a French volunteer
Sometime late last year, I made a promise to Dada Rama that I will bring a group of volunteers in our humble bid to raise fund for them. By some sheer luck, I managed to get 22 of us from our outdoor meet up group for the trip. Save for me, this was to be their first trip to Baan Dada Home. Prior to that, I did brief everyone about the home, its purpose, the basic facilities & amenities and what to bring for our trip. Some of us even managed to meet Dada Rama who made a trip to Singapore one week prior to our departure.
Our trip was confirmed on 14 June, Saturday. Thanks to Thai Airways, I managed to get extra check-in baggage allowance for our group as many of us will be bringing donated items like children's clothes, toys, stationery, and books, among others. On the day of our departure, our total check-in baggage weight was some 600 kgs and the excess was waived off by the airline - I managed to heave a big relief, phew!.
We were to stay 3 nights at the home. Everyone had been informed that only basic amenities are expected and we had to help with 2 half days of farm work in the morning. In all, we had 15 ladies and 7 men in our group. Everyone was excited and raring to go.
Group picture after our waterfall hike
It was an early morning flight at 0740 hrs by Thai Airways and on our arrival, we were promptly met by our two assigned drivers. I had arranged for 3 passenger vans, 2 to ferry all of us and 1 just for our luggage. It is a long ride of 7 hours and covering some 360 km. On the way, we were to stop over at the Death Railway along river Kwai, the famed Tiger Temple and Hell Fire Pass in the lush Kanchanaburi region. We managed to tour around river Kwai but much to our disappointment, not the Tiger Temple and Hell Fire Pass which were closed for the day by the time we arrived in the afternoon.
We had many stopovers along the way and by the time we finally reached Baan Dada Home, it was nearing 2000 hrs. Rain has come early as typically raining season starts in July. We were greeted by sporadic rain along the way and the final 100 metres off road to Baan Dada is a muddy path rendered more muddy from the recent raindrop. We had to get off from our vans and hopped onto the tractor which will take us some 100 metres to the home - what a unique welcome! The two Dadas and the children were there to welcome us. Not wanting to waste much time, we were quickly shown to our dorms. For the 15 ladies, they will have the concrete block which houses two separate units that can comfortably accommodate them all. For the remaining 5 guys including me, we will have to settle for the the two nondescript wooden huts and a 2-storey wooden pavilion which has no walls. The latter has been built recently. I took the upper floor while Paul and Raymond took the lower floor. Madan and Derrick shared one hut and next to them, Boon Long and Wilfred. It was not the mosquito that bothered us that much (we had mosquito net and enough insect repellant to counter any element), we soon realised that the symphony orchestra comprising the frogs and toads could keep us awake the whole night. Our "wall less pavilion" has the direct hit. Trust me, the noise decibel was beyond my description but somehow we managed to overcome.
Our "wall less pavilion" for 3 nights
We were to spend 3 nights at Baan Dada Home from 14 to 17 June. We got up early at 0630 hrs and after breakfast, we were shown around the premises by Dada Prashanta. Our first task in the morning was to plant banana trees. We picked up some spades and shovels and moved to the field. We were to dig holes big enough to place banana stems and there were markings made ready for us. Immediately, Hui Xin, Xingxia and some ladies set off with the task. At first, they had difficulty digging up the soil with the spades but very soon, they got the momentum going. I acted like a foreman by "barking my orders" and of course, it was made in lighthearted manner. We were enjoying it. Some of us carried the banana stems while some dug holes. The children also helped out. Sheepishly, the children seemed to have no problem with the digging while we struggled somewhat.
A pose in between farm work
It started to rain and our half day task was done, well almost I should say. We washed up and spent the afternoon visiting a primary school, exploring a cave filled with bats, trekking and exploring the waterfall. We were all soaked in the rain. When we came back after a hearty dinner outside, our truck was caught in the mud, some 50 metres to the home. Rendered no choice, we had to get off, switched on our torches and carrying our purchases from a 7-11 store and walked gingerly in the mud. Some of us did struggle to balance as our slippers were stuck in the mud. However, nobody complained about the muddy situation we were in and we actually enjoyed it.
We were supposed to continue with our farm work on the following morning but Dada Rama advised not to as it was still raining. He did not want some of us to fall sick while working under the rain. I then decided to gather all of us in the cookhouse so that we can present our cash donations and other donated gifts to them. The proceeds from this trip yielded us S$3,120 and added to that, cash donations from friends and supporters, our total contribution came up to about S$5,500. In addition, I also brought along cash donations from Doris, Nick and the rest from the informal advisory group amounted to S$6,338. First thing Dada did was to pay the overdue children school fees. Our cash donations did help them during this low season.
Bamboo rafting activity
In the afternoon, we went on a exploratory trip. We took a boat ride to the temple which will soon be submerged in the water when the dam is filled with water during raining season in July, trekked in the fast flowing river, had our elephant ride and did bamboo rafting and that took the entire afternoon. On our last night, we had another hearty dinner outside. We returned to the home where the two Dadas and the children were waiting for us. We had arranged a get-together with the children in the music hall on our last night. Much thanks to Doreen who arranged a list of prepared songs for us and Paul for downloading the songs on his mobile, we managed to pick 4 songs to sing to the children. We may not have sang in tune but we sang our hearts out for them. The children returned with loud applause. They too sang their own songs to us. It was a good bonding session with the children. Despite just few days of our stay at the home, some had already fostered special bonding with some kids. Jie Ling had her "lookalike younger sister" who sketched a nice picture for her and even wrote a "love" phrase in Chinese which is not completely correctly though, missing few strokes I think. Paul's special girl gave him a nice panda bear and a personally penned letter. Even Jen has found her "daughter" who really took care of her (Jen) especially during the trekking. She told me that she was really moved by her "daughter".
During the trip, we had quite a few comical moments and here are some. Wilfred brought two torches and enough spare batteries to last for a year. However, his two torches need triple A batteries but his spare batteries are double A type. He tried to do a trade-off with others but no taker. During our bamboo rafting activity, Raymond's frizzy mane was attacked by ants and he had to jump into the water to get rid of them. Derrick broke the key while trying to open the lock to their hut. He felt bad and even offered to buy new locks only to realise Dada Rama actually gave him the wrong key. We trekked for close to an hour to find the waterfall, many of us were wearing our slippers and when we finally arrived at the waterfall, Madan signalled for us to go back. I just got into the waterfall and Raymond was about to get in but serious looking Madan (not his usual jovial self) just can't wait to go back. We stayed for a while and signalled all to turn back. When we recounted all these moments, we just laughed it out. Everyone of us really enjoyed this trip although we had to rough it out, given the situation there. It is definitely not the one and only trip but more to come in the near future. Madan has already sounded that he will be organising one trip early next year and rest assured, I will provide as much support to him. Dada Rama and Dada Prashanta need our continued support in whatever way possible. As for me, I returned home with many bite marks especially on my legs but I am glad that the trip turned up to be one memorable one for all. .
Singing to the children