2006 Thailand: Chang Abnam

Helped build a water cistern while at an elephant camp in Thailand.

Click above to see the set.

Click above to see the set.

A good notion in Thailand can become an exercise in frustration for farang or those not on Thai Time. You might hear of a project, but the start date gets pushed back, or supplies will be delayed for a week, or you lose time to unforeseen stomach viruses. I’m sure Chris Nutter, who built a hospital in Cambodia, could tell some tales on the matter of project delays in South East Asia.

When we heard Ahnon wanted to build a shower for the elephants we were excited to help. I was cautious, knowing there could be lengthy delays and the project might never get underway before I left. Surprisingly we started a few days into our second week of volunteer work at the elephant camp. The beginning was slow with clearing the area of dung and pineapple leftovers, putting in about four hours the first day. I had suggested we might use the pineapple truck, or even an elephant to help move the mess, but Ahnon wanted to do it by hand. The next day we put in maybe one hour and then heard through Nipon that the Director had not yet approved the project and we may have just wasted good time and sweat, though Issy, always the positive one, said we had cleaned an area that needed cleaning anyway. She is such a great example of a positive, determined Scottish woman. Frustrated, but not down, we waited several days for Nipon to show the Director (“a very bad man”) sketches Giab had made of the project.

[Funny side note: On the sketches Giab misspelled “cement” as “semen.” We had a good laugh, contemplating what the Director might think we had in mind for this project. Then again, Pattaya has more go-go bars per capita than anywhere else in the world, so in a way the streets are paved with…”cement.” ;^]

As coincidence would have it, a new road was being built in front of our hotel, and so the morning after Nipon got approval for the project a truck load of blocks and sand arrived, and a tractor was hired for 20 minutes to clear the area. If you’re thinking “why did you do it by hand, when a tractor was hired?” you’re not thinking in the “tribal” way. Unfortunately the earth was too hard for the tractor and later we ran into issues with the slope, but we were ecstatic things were moving so quickly and with motorized tools!

The following day two big piles of earth arrived, these were to even the land and try to get the slope right to left to send the waste and water into an adjacent gulley. We moved the earth by hand, and had eight new volunteers to help. A stump next to the tree proved to be hard work, with Nipon, Lee, and myself cutting and axing at it for about an hour. We even had Mloy and Monkong, two bull elephants, try and help us remove it. Giab almost lost her leg when the head of the hatchet came flying off and hit her on the ankle. By the end of day three we had made good progress.

Day four started with a tractor coming in and leveling the earth we had moved “tribally” by hand. I wish my father had been here at this point, because he would have spent the time to get the slope correct. We didn’t put in the required extra effort and the brick border and wire mesh were placed before I could fix it. Nipon had us place a bunch of fishing line to “see” the slope and all I could see was that it wasn’t right. As my friend Brad would say, “It’s good enough, what do the elephants care?”

Day five and in come the professionals! We were going to tackle the concrete pour ourselves, but these guys took time on their lunch break and did a great job. I tipped them 400baht (about $10) and they were very happy. Camoon and Dacoon finished the day by drawing an elephant and some volunteer’s names into the pad. Can you believe the pace of the job?

[Side note: Steel-toe flip flops. In Bangkok I was passing by a shop that sold workman’s clothes and such, and couldn’t stop giggling over the notion of steel-toe flip-flops. They do heavy construction in flip-flops, drive big Harleys, I’m certain the surgeons in ER are wearing flip-flops. It’s tribal, man.]

On day six I was hung-over and didn’t get to the site until 11am. I was happy they had started laying the bricks, and while I may look fine in the photos, I was swooning under the heat of the day. Turns out, Mr. Tong is Mix Master Mortar and I picked up some of his techniques quickly. By the end of the day the bricks had all been laid. It was such a good feeling to see this project move forward so quickly. Of course out of the shower, life was full of drama and not good times, with Ahnon drinking and acting even more irrationally than before. He threatened several mahouts and fired a good man in Mr. Nipon. I started doing my own things in the evening to avoid the drama.

Day seven and we started plastering over the bricks. I went and bought them a ball tap to discharge bad water, and you would have though I bought them a Porsche. The mahouts kept saying I was a good man, I wanted to say “Hell, that’s nothing, you should see John Cinti shop at Home Depot!” Again, I was humbled and ashamed at how I just buy a new tool or plumbing supplies when I need it. We plastered all day, everyone getting into the act and Mr. Tong doing the finish work.

Day eight and a little more plastering, a little clean up, and there you have a “chang abnam.” A great job by all, even if the slope runs a little in the wrong direction. We had to wait a few days for the cement to dry fully and today (Sunday 3/19) we finally got to have some fun in the water and watch the elephants appreciate a good long drink and a cool bath.