Samut Songkhram (Maekhlong), Thailand January 22, 2009

Update: Friday January 16 – Tuesday January 21 (Day 14 in Thailand)

Friday, January 16
Relocated from Bangkok to Samut Songkhram (Maekhlong). All arrangements in Thai language. Taxi to bus station and bus to Maekhlong. Comfortable aircon modern bus left three minutes early! One hour ride $1.80. Driver drove slowly to our enjoyment and relief, contrasted with “kamikaze daredevil� at wheel of the “rote too� share-ride van Tuesday who almost gave us heart attacks. Bus stopped in Maeklong, just pulled over on a main street and let us out. Town too small for proper station. Little idea how get to our new home. After much stumbling around the Lord brought us to Maekhlong Hotel. Checked in; then got together with Gong and Da. After chatting a while; we clambered onto back of their motorbikes for few miles ride to “Mercy House� development they wanted to show us.

New (estimated completion April) housing development on outskirts of town built by Christian contractor on land sold by government at concessional price with restriction that house sales are limited to low income people. 500-600 tiny houses, all exactly alike, on tiny plots of land, two storeys, approx 400 sq. ft. per floor, living room, kitchen, bath on first floor, 2 bedrooms on 2nd floor. Estimate 1,000 sq. ft. of land. Price Bt.400,000 ($12,000), Bt.6,000 ($180) down, Bt.2,500 ($75) per month bank mortgage loan. All houses are sold. The church bought two adjacent houses for ministry to development residents: English language and guitar lessons plus Gospel of Christ. They asked us to come next year, live in one house, teach English, proclaim Christ, staying as long as The Lord permits. We were startled/intrigued. Rent presumably Bt.2,500 ($75)/month. We’d rent (or buy cheap used) small motorbike/scooter for transport into town and around province which pancake flat, perfect for walking, bicycling, motorbikes/cycles.

That evening with G/D to casual weekend open air market: many stalls selling food, household goods, clothing, videos, jewelry, and expensive perfume cheap knockoffs where they mixed fragrances on the spot to your selection from menu of famous names.

Very nice dinner at church hall, then weekly prayer meeting. Some aspects familiar: worship songs tunes we recognize, then the dozen participants mentioned things for which thankful to God, then prayers of thanks, in Thai, of course, then prayer requests followed by prayer. We were introduced to each one, could communicate little, but could sense warmth in their greetings which made us feel wonderful. One had brought a friend who is not a Christian but who has sad problems at home and wanted prayer regarding her heartaches, and who, later on in the evening professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, so we were told. She did appear to have a new radiance. Her Christian friend who brought her has real empathy and compassion for her as she herself has a miserable home life, her husband having left her, she having returned to her parents home where her father treats her horribly. “We comfort with the comfort with which the Father has comforted us.� Despite trials she has the most beautiful smile and manner, and radiates an inner state commending faith in God.

Back to hotel with no-hot-water bathroom, its you pour bowls of water into toilet to flush it, lavatory drain water running over your feet, toilet up on a pedestal so the term “sitting on the throne� takes on new meaning, no mirror, bed with very hard mattress on top of planks, thin hard pillows and thin blankets that look like beach towels. One electrical outlet only, in most inconvenient location, so run extension cord to where we need power. Windows have no glass; just crank-operated plastic louvers so when open can see the 2nd floor houses atop shops jammed in just outside our room from which emanate all manner of most interesting noises 24/7. Room’s sole electrical lighting one small fluorescent tube, so effect eerie. No complaints. We’re content. All for just $10/night!

Hotel is just one of many identical shophouses in a block long row of shophouses. Only 18 small rooms on three floors so from street you don’t recognize it as a hotel except for two small signs one in Thai and other English the latter saying only “Hotel.� Across street is large Buddhist temple compound and along all nearby streets are countless food vendors each with own specialty from early in morning to late at night. Street life is vibrant; one gets impression that most Thai people in town like this spend much of their life in such lively open air community settings. First night awakened many times by strange noises including huge pack of dogs running through town, howling, plus music and chattering from homes tucked in very close behind our room. All in all it’s a scene that perfectly evokes visions of the “mysterious East.�

This e-mail being drafted days prior to sending; have no internet access for laptop computer as yet. Church internet connection has been offered but will be a couple days before we can take advantage.

Gong and Da took us to a school in the nearby town of Don Hoi Lot, about only 8 km. distant, seemed like 100 miles for old fogeys unaccustomed to riding pillion on tiny motorbike. No helmet. Observed weekly childrens ministry of Santisuk (“peace�) Foundation a Christian organization started by church but now independent with which church cooperates in loving service to children of very poor families. Thailand government schools are free, but students must buy school uniforms, books, paper, pencils, etc. Poor children cannot and thus are denied school, so Santisuk provides “scholarship� money to cover incidentals. Every Saturday sees organized activities run by Bible school students from Bangkok who make the weekly roundtrip to Maekhlong for loving service. We met some of them, lovely people; we impressed with work. Prior to departure, schoolyard invaded by large troop wild monkeys, aggressively seeking food, brazenly grabbing snacks from children. Startling, concerning, as monkeys carry rabies.

Then we went into tiny village Don Hoi Lot one of two most frequented tourist attractions in this the smallest province of Thailand, but frequented by Thais only. Been in province 2 ½ days and we’ve seen only one other group of foreigners. As we walk streets, we can understand just enough of the chattering to know that we are the subject of much surprise and amusement. We now have some of the perspective from the inside of zoo cages. Don Hoi Lot famous among Thais for dozens of rustic open air beachfront fresh seafood restaurants built over the water on stilts, and mud worm shells from mud of Maekhlong River estuary just outside which the village located. The shells of the “Hoi Lot� mudworm are local delicacy, we ate, actually thought they were OK, rather tasteless, slight rubbery texture, look something like tubular pasta, but served in superb sauce. Our restaurant simple, rustic, large, beautiful beyond description, situated among and shaded by many trees growing in the water of the Gulf of Thailand, with tables right over the water, cool breezes off the gulf. Idyllic. Seafood superb, cheap.

Back to hotel, nap, out into street life, chose one of hundred food stalls within a block, superb bowl of noodles +. Bt.25 (75 cents) total for both of us. Proprietor very curious about us. “Lek� very energetic, voluble lady, loves to talk, left her sister to cover the little food cart business, and sat down to chatter with us in machine gun rapidity Thai we could not grasp, for maybe an hour, asking many questions we could not understand or answer, invited us to go with her sightseeing tomorrow (Sunday), we demurred due to plans to go to church, she seemed to ask if she could accompany us, much to our joy, and we made arrangements to meet her. During chat she seemed to express much concern for us, our safety, our risk of paying too much for things, etc.

Our morning interrupted by cat yowling in hall by our room whose door has no weather stripping or noise retardant, you can easily see thru the cracks. Hotel seems built in manner designed to magnify sound; the hall has lino floor and conducts noise wonderfully. “Lek� appeared as arranged, her elder sister “tome� in tow. We had thought she intended to walk the 2km to the church with us, but she had small Toyota crewcab pickup into which we four piled, and off she went. After driving some distance in areas mysterious to us she stopped, indicating we’d arrived; yet we knew we had not. Somehow she had determined she was taking us to the Catholic church. After much unsuccessful discussion she started driving around again and pretty soon we began to recognize some areas and could point some directions and eventually found our way to the church. We asked if they were Christians and they said no, they are Buddhist. When in the church premises we invited them to stay, thinking that was their idea, but were surprised to discover their intention all along had simply been to transport us to church, we guess to spare us any inconvenience or cost of transport. What blessing.

Church meeting was much like many at home. Singing, testimonies, prayer, preaching, long stretches of repetitive choruses during which people pray, we guess, not sure, long sermon with shouting like some American preachers, and ending with something with which we’re not familiar, people going forward, standing, being prayed for, then falling on the floor and being wrapped in blankets. Startling. A cell group from Bangkok mother church was visiting this meeting. Lovely people. Would love to get to know them. It was the cell group leader preaching, not Gong. Haven’t heard Gong preach.

After church activities, which for us started at 10:30 and lasted till about 2:30, a nice man offered to drive us back to hotel for which we were grateful as it was the first hot afternoon since we’ve been in country. We walked a ways from drop off, and passed Lek’s food cart; she insisted we sit down on tiny stools at flimsy tiny metal customer table common to foodstalls/carts. She chatted all in Thai, great fun; we not hungry, had wonderful fellowship lunch at church, but a bowl of Lek’s superb soupy noodles with various add-in’s soon appeared; we asked if could pay but were refused. Hospitality! Later in the evening walked the streets around a big temple complex, all sorts of food stalls were set up, being a regular weekend entertainment, taking in sights, smells, sounds of evening street life, very vibrant. When we ventured toward some dark streets and alleys, a couple of people stopped us and in Thai we couldn’t understand exhorted us about something; we finally grasped they didn’t want us to walk into dark areas, concerned for our safety, telling us to stay in well lighted, well peopled, areas.

Monday January 19
Wonderful discovery: hotel’s water supply system includes large earthenware jars serving as holding tanks. Morning showers a real shock for us super soft “kone amereegah� (as Thais call Americans). This afternoon, having had a brief respite sitting in little pavilion right on the big river Maekhlong just a couple blocks from hotel, for a drink, with temp high in ‘80’s very hot in direct sun, we crawled back to hotel after long “walkabout� and photo shoot and brief dialogues with many Thai people. Delighted to discover that during day the sun on those big jars warms water to shower temperature.

Morning coffee of the many generations old style Thais call “gawfay tung� (coffee filtered thru a large cloth bag) AKA “gawfay jeen� (Chinese coffee) served in an old traditional Chinese coffee shop. Bt.10, or 30 cents per glass. Superb. Tastes something like a rich Starbucks mocha you pay $3 for. Found our way into what is surely among the world’s most unusual and picturesque markets. The Maekhlong train station fresh produce, meat, and seafood market stretches about a quarter mile along the track from the station with the vendors stalls just far enough away from the track so the train doesn’t hit them when passing through. As train approaches, the vendors haul back their awnings that otherwise cover and shade the track which most of the day serves as the walkway through the market. Train actually passes over pans of food and produce, its wheels just missing them; amazing sight. Very few trains pass through, but it so happened that we were there on the tracks in the market as one approached and with vendors chattering at us to get out of its way we scrambled in between a couple stalls. Only in Thailand. Only in Maekhlong. You gotta’ love this place and its people. Photos will be posted as soon as can get web access.

The number of little cellphone vendor shops and little internet café like shops selling time on computers for gaming is just amazing. Cellphones and computer games are obviously the craze here as everywhere. Won’t allow me connect my laptop though.

Tuesday January 20
We spend days walking about as much as old bodies will allow, greeting, chatting with many people. In dense crowded markets we can hear people passing the word throughout the crowd, “the foreigners can speak Thai� which, of course, we really can’t, but the unusual clarity of Chuck’s tonality in this tonal language fools them; but that’s double edged sword because they rush into talk, expecting us to converse better than we do, and have to disclaim with embarrassment. They still seem unfazed and encouraging.

From moment landed Bangkok Airport we’ve spent $42/day, total, for two people, everything, lodging, food, transport, cellphone, incidentals, and right now can think of no other future expenses that would alter that pattern. Thank You, Father.

Wednesday January 21
Explored town main market of which railway track market an adjunct. Maekhlong is a “market town� of the sort found in most rural agrarian societies, the main town of an area, the place where farmers, fishermen, orchardists, planters, miners, other rural folk go to sell their produce, and buy their needs, and enjoy community. The town market is the heart of such communities. The Maekhlong central market is fantastic. Don’t have words that suffice. Larger than we expected for town this size, partly under permanent roofing, partly under awnings or roughly arranged canvas, anything to protect from searing sun. Hundreds and hundreds of vendors, arranged in a helter-skelter manner, selling fish, many kinds of fish, lots and lots of fish, as town a virtual seaport, only few km from Gulf of Thailand and on large river, plus meats, fowl, vegetables, fruits, with dozens if not hundreds of vendors for each of the different categories, Sales seems both retail and wholesale, with buyers both housewives and proprietors of restaurants, food stalls, and food carts. When you walk market you easily get lost, there seems no pattern to the layout, and it’s huge, complex, labyrinthine. Points of reference difficult to fix and remember. Never really understood or experienced the term “labyrinth� till tasting this market. The fish are particularly interesting as the varieties are quite different, of course, from those at home. Already eaten enough of them in dishes served on street to know they’re delicious. Will try to get many market photos sooner or later. It’s picturesque, photogenic to the max. The people are the heart, of course. We try to make eye contact with as many as possible, smile, watch for their return smile, then greet them in Thai, inviting their return and possible engagement.

After lovely lunch in shady cool pavilion of hospital “canteen� on riverside garden by hospital, we went inside and visited Mai, a brother in Christ and member of the church whom we had met Sunday, in hospital since yesterday with respiratory ailment caused by coconut dust he inhales doing his job (for Bt1,000 or $30 a week) for small factory that grinds coconut into dried flakes used in all sorts of cooking here and elsewhere. We prayed with and for him. I prayed in English and Da interpreted. Felt compassion for him. When he turned to Christ, his wife took children and left him. Jesus’ words about a believer’s enemies arising from his own family take on real meaning. Spent rest of afternoon looking at apartment houses about ten minutes walk from town center, the market, as possible alternative to hotel. Saw one almost brand new, very attractive, with small aircon studio apt. similar size to our hotel room, but better, having hot water shower and a small fridge, for Bt3,000 ($90) per month! Saw another, a few years older, but with larger studio apt., not quite so “classy�, for Bt2,500 ($75) per month. This building right next door to the only large western style supermarket in town, “Tesco/Lotus� of the U.K. This is certainly the town/country for those on restricted budget! Decided not to move; the hotel’s location too perfect, $100/mo.saving doesn’t compensate for hotel location. But they’d be pleasant places to stay for next to no money by home standards; ideal for missionaries.

All for now. Love,

Mom & Dad,
Grandma & Grandpa,
Chuck & Judy