“One thing I didn’t expect was how happy the kids were. They were always laughing and playing with us. These kids have nothing except the clothes on their backs and yet they are so happy simply because they have a safe place to live and people to take care of them.”
By Ryan McDonald
Fifteen years ago a highly paid engineer in the Philippines gave up his job to live in a bamboo hut in western Thailand. He is now known as “Dada” to the 40 orphans he takes care of at Baan Dada in Huay Ma Lai, near Myanmar.
Baan means “house” in Thai and Dada is Sanskrit for “brother.” For the past three years I’ve led a small volunteer group to his home deep in the woods. It’s part of the Neo-Humanist Foundation and is referred to officially as Ananda Vidyadharma
I first learned of Baan Dada when a friend led a trip to a larger and better funded orphanage in the nearby town. She went as part of a group called Go-MAD. It means Go Make A Difference.
She showed me pictures of when she visited Baan Dada on a day trip. Something clicked inside of me and from that point I wanted to take a trip only to his place. I felt like he deserved more than being a “day trip.”
Where is it?
Three Pagoda Pass
The nearest landmark on a map is the Three Pagoda Pass, which is now a shrine commemorating an attempt by the Japanese tried to build a railway from Singapore to India.
This was the area where it was to have crossed from Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar). Baan Dada is about 45 minutes away from this in a town so small it’s not on any maps.
The nearest well known city between Baan Dada and Bangkok is Kanchanaburi (kahn chan a buu D). Even if you’ve never heard of the city itself, I’m sure you’ve heard of one of its landmarks, the bridge over the River Kwai.
Every time I lead a group to Baan Dada, we pass through this area and I make a stop at the bridge as well as the adjacent museum and nearby war cemetery. This year I surprised my group with a stop at a tiger temple, where you can pet a tiger and even put its head in your lap.
Accommodation & Food
When I first led a group, I really had minimal information about the place. There were lots of photos of bamboo huts and I was curious about where my group would be staying.
The author at the tiger temple
Luckily we had a nice brick duplex with cold showers and indoor toilets. Dada is planning to build a technical school in the area and this will be the teacher’s house when the school is finished. There are now bunk beds downstairs and a western style toilet on one side.
I think the food is one of my favorite things about the place. Volunteers and kids are served three heaping vegetarian meals a day with rice and water.
The boys stick to a Buddhist diet while at the home and eat no meat, garlic, or eggs. You can also join in with their morning yoga or get an actual Thai massage from one of the kids. Dada asks for a 120 Baht per day donation, which is about $4. It covers food and utilities.
Now the orphanage itself is in an unfinished building. The first floor is completed, but there are still two more to go. Several people have made financial and labor donations for building the house and Dada is hoping for a bit more to give the kids more space.
Mud bricks drying
They are fortunate enough to be able to make their own concrete and mud bricks. The concrete bricks were used for the house and the teacher’s house.
The mud bricks are used for things like the community center, weaving center, and future kindergarten building. The mud bricks are cheap to make and dry hard as long as they are protected from the weather during the rainy season.
One thing I didn’t expect was how happy the kids were. They were always laughing and playing with us.
These kids have nothing except the clothes on their backs and yet they are so happy simply because they have a safe place to live and people to take care of them. A few times I really felt bad when I would think about wanting a new iPod or computer. It really changes your perspective about life.
Children at Baan Dada
When I first visited there were 18 boys. It was actually known as Dada’s Boys Home. Now Baan Dada has 40 kids including 7 girls. There are two “Dadas” that run the home as well as a few mothers who do laundry and cook the meals in exchange for living there. When we visit, the kids call us “bruda” (brother) or “sista” (sister).
Dada strives to teach the kids practical life skills. The local schools provide the usual lessons, but Dada wants these kids to have some tangible skills for use in the future. Every morning the kids have a “morals” talk, then learn yoga and some learn Thai massage.
A few boys are in a band called “School of Rock” using instruments donated by past volunteers. Others learn about making bricks, plumbing, electrical, engine repair, and so on. They are in the process of buying rubber tree seeds and will learn about processing raw rubber. The long-term goal is to build the above mentioned technical school to teach the kids and locals about using computers as well as office skills, but that will cost a lot of money.
Naoki loves playing bass.
What about the villagers?
Dada makes a big effort to help the community as well as his kids. Every year when we visit we have a Christmas celebration for the villagers. About 50 local families show up and the volunteers entertain the kids with games and then a big lunch.
We always play games like “stomp the balloon that’s tied to someone’s ankle,” sack race, three-legged race, water balloon toss, and many others.
One year we tried to teach them duck duck goose, but due to language differences it ended up being “nyak nyak mwah.” One popular activity is “climb the greased bamboo pole.” There’s a bag of candy and about $50 at the top.
Dada is not all fun and games though. He also organizes a weaving center and the goat lending project. This project involves purchasing and lending goats to families in nearby villages. There was an initial purchase of six nanny goats and one male goat. Of these, the male goat and many of the females were lent out to willing families in a nearby village. There, the females are impregnated.
The weaving project
After the offspring are able to take care of themselves, the goats are returned to Ananda Vidyadharma so that they can be lent out to another village. This process is repeated continuously, resulting in an ever increasing number of goats for the local residents.
Dada also pays local villagers a fair wage to make clothes, bags, and even wicker products. Usually the volunteers will take some back to their home countries and sell them then send the money back to Dada. This money goes to help people that might have no other income. There are several other community projects Dada organizes.
I’m proud to say my first volunteer group in 2004 helped write a proposal to the American Women of Bangkok (two articles about Dada) for a grant to start the goat lending project. This project was accepted and is underway.
Part of the reason Dada is so involved with the community is because the locals can’t leave. Many of the locals are not Thai, they might be Karen, Mon, or Burmese (they don’t say Myanmarian because they don’t acknowledge the new government).
These immigrants are allowed to live in the area, but can’t leave and go to Bangkok without special permission.
Actually the weaving center is near the home in an autonomous state for Karen people. I and one other volunteer had to get special permission to enter the area just to see the weaving process.
What do they need?
They really need people to help around the home. Many donors send gifts such as toys and learning materials, which Baan Dada happily accepts, but they need volunteers to play with the kids and use the learning resources and even teach English.
My group can only go during our winter vacation (we are all English teachers in Japan) and we stay for about a week, but that has to include the full day it takes to get there and back to Bangkok. Some people have been able to volunteer for several months.
During this time the volunteers take part in the many community projects as well as teach English to the kindergarten kids at the home (or any other language you know). Some of the kids aren’t even Thai and can’t get into the local school until they speak Thai and have their papers in order.
The other thing they need is money. Material gifts are great, but wear out after a while, although they do have a wish list on the site. Sometimes several people send the same thing and they have extra notebooks, but not enough blankets.
You don’t have to send $1,000 to make a difference, the cost of sponsoring a child is only $50 a month.
The economy is so bad in Thailand that even $10 goes a long way. Some people request their donation be used for specific purposes. For example, two ladies donated around $200 while we were there and asked that it be used for a Christmas feast, and what a feast it was. I’ve never seen so much fruit.
Some volunteers offer to sell the weaving and wicker products without ever visiting Thailand. Other people might have local fundraisers that raise a few hundred dollars. A few hundred dollars to the local villagers is a year’s salary.
I was able to donate some website space for BaanDada.org and I’m currently working on an idea for Dada to buy some local wood products and sell them online for a slightly higher price to raise money. From November to December of 2006, my volunteer group raised about $2,000 selling special postcards. Next time we hope to sell Baan Dada calendars.
But can we actually visit?
If you find yourself in Bangkok then visiting is easy, and Dada welcomes people for any length of time. However, keep in mind that it takes about one day to get there and one to get back so anything less than 5-7 days might not be enough time to really enjoy your time there.
The kids start to open up after a day or two as well. The first thing to do is go to the Baan Dada’s contact page and email Dada and make sure it’s ok (he goes into town and checks email once or twice a week).
I’m working on step by step directions, with photos, for getting to the nearest Sangkhlaburi; they should be on BaanDada.org soon. There is a direct VIP A/C bus that goes from Bangkok to Sangkhlaburi (san klah buu D) and it only costs about $8 for the seven-hour trip. It’s the orange and blue #99 bus from Bangkok’s bus terminal.
Visiting Baan Dada has been such a rewarding experience for me. This year each volunteer was assigned 5-7 kids and we brought personalized Christmas presents for each child.One thing to be aware of is that in Thailand they drive fast and pass on hills and turns, even the buses. You might want to double up on motion sickness pills.
I am constantly thinking of ways to raise money and trying to figure out the next time I can go back. When I finish teaching in Japan I hope to volunteer at his place long term.
Dada welcomes everyone and you immediately feel like family. I hope you are able to visit him and meet the kids. My next volunteer trip to Baan Dada won’t be until December of 2008, but you are free to join me if you can get to Thailand.
Ryan McDonald has been teaching English in Fukushima prefecture Japan for more than four years and loves traveling in his spare time.
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