Building A House For Friends

This video documents a house building project for our friends during the pandemic.

This video documents a house building project for our friends during the pandemic. A BIG THANK YOU to our YouTube viewers that put up with those pesky ads, to our Patreon patrons and to FEURICH, Vienna and Apogee Digital in US. Your support that made this project possible.

Krahan asked me to film and post a video about his house for him, so here it is. Filmed with iPhone 14 Pro.

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Video transcription

(The following transcript was brought to you by Whisper AI.)

I’d like to tell you about the elephants at Elephants World. The owner, Dr. Samat, had to return half the elephants to their former homes at the beginning of the pandemic and let almost all of his staff and many hotel employees go. The sanctuary went through some very hard times, not just the elephants but the Mahouts and the owner too.

Now, about our friend, Krahan. My wife and I met Krahan at Elephants World 13 years ago. Krahan was the head Mahout. He cared for the elephants very well and made sure everyone treated them with kindness. All were well fed. Krahan’s family lived at Elephants World in a lovely bamboo house. His sons, Saurang and Che, were our daughter Emile’s best friends.

The idea to build a house for Krahan as a gift started at the beginning of the pandemic when he lost his home at Elephants World. Almost everyone lost their jobs at that time as the elephants had no visitors. I like designing houses, so I made an architect’s plan for Krahan, something that would help him get planning permission and not be too difficult to build.

There’s a builder in Krahan’s village named Sonshai. He was without work due to the pandemic, so he was happy to work on Krahan’s house, and we employed him. Soon after the roof was built, the village went into lockdown and the builder’s yard was forced to close. Krahan had to camp with his wife and two sons under the roof. They tried to make walls with bamboo, but these leaked badly during storms.

Krahan’s house is surrounded by mountains and wild nature. You have to drive far out of the village to get a phone signal or the internet. The villagers have a unique way of sending and receiving mail and parcels. Each time we visit Krahan’s family, we stop in the town of Kanchanaburi. It’s famous for the bridge on the River Kwai. The best time to visit the bridge is at daybreak.

We love Thailand’s old trains. This is the famous Death Railway, one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world. In this case, a digital piano’s journey began on the opposite side of the world. The piano’s owner, Daniel Bleed, a musician from the United States, brought it with him on the plane to practice during his stay in Bangkok. Before he left, he contacted me and asked if I could suggest a school or a person in need of a piano as a gift.

By coincidence, the keyboard at the church in Krahan’s village had just broken, and they couldn’t afford a new one. So, I suggested we donate the piano to the church. Just at the end of Daniel’s stay in Thailand, he brought it over to our home. The current people in Krahan’s village are mostly refugees from Burma. They are Christian, and music is very important in their Sunday church service. Daniel’s piano was warmly received, and the broken keyboard passed gently into retirement.

Daniel’s piano ended its journey from America in the tropical mountains of Thailand and started a new life at the heart of the village. My wife, Kwan, is a wildlife artist. From time to time, she sells her sculptures. These elephants were carefully packed and sent off on a journey across the world from Thailand to Sweden. The timing of the commission was perfect. When travel became possible again, the builder’s yard opened, and we continued building Krahan’s house.

On our next trip over, we brought with us our builder friend Chin from Bangkok. Hong Chai had been hard at work, and we saw the house had progressed a lot from our previous trip. Finally, Krahan’s family had a dry place to shelter during the intense tropical rainstorms.

“This will be the kitchen, and this room for their sons,” we planned. It was time to make a shopping trip to Home Depot in Kanchanaburi, an hour’s drive or so from Krahan’s village. Chin carefully calculated the things we needed to buy next. We took some of Krahan’s neighbors along too, as some of them had never been outside their village before and were curious to know what a town looked like. So for them, it was a big outing. The builder’s yard was very helpful and delivered everything we bought, even though Krahan’s village was very far away from them in the mountains.

He cemented the walls and made them smooth, and Chin wired the house. Emily learned how to mix cement and that you need to wet the walls to make it stick. It was a lot of fun working with our friends as a team. Even though we were still working on the house, with all Krahan’s friends around him, I think he felt the house was already a home.

Mum wanted to make something personal for Krahan’s family, so she chose to make a sculpture of their dog, Bancor. Mum, surrounded by the mysterious Rocky Mountains, gave Emily the idea to paint four elemental dragons: earth, fire, water, and air. Emily got all her four paintings started and planned to finish them off when she got back home again. Cran’s little sculpture really looked like Bancor, and she thought she would show it to him. We didn’t expect his reaction.

After school, she and Suang took Emily to swim in the river. Then they went off together in search of papayas to make into a papaya salad. Boer taught Emily how to make it. The ingredients are garlic, chilies, roasted peanuts, tomatoes, palm sugar, long beans, fish sauce, lime juice, and strips of crunchy unripe green papaya.

As we needed to head home the next day, we walked to Krahan’s father’s house to pay him a visit. Cran worked on Krahan’s house 14 hours each day, which is hard to do in Thailand’s tropical climate. We stopped to catch our breath at a restaurant on the River Kwai near the bridge before the long drive back home to Bangkok. On the journey home, Cran was looking forward to working on Bancor’s sculpture, and Emily was excited to finish her elemental dragon paintings.

Cran made lots of pencil sketches of Bancor to help her finish the detail on her sculpture. Then she made a mold of the clay in silicone so she could make the sculpture durable in resin. Krahan and Suang came to Bangkok to stay with us. It was the first time Suang had helped make a mold for a sculpture, and he seemed to enjoy it. Emily sees her mum make sculptures next to her each day and she’s started to make sculptures too. Mum’s teaching her all the different stages. Emily is discovering making things in 3D is quite different from drawing and painting in 2D.

From the mold, mum made a number of sculptures of Bancor, one for Emily, one for herself, and one for me, as we all love dogs. By coincidence, just as Cran finished a sculpture of Bancor, Emily finished her four elemental dragon paintings. We wondered what the model himself would think of his portrait.

When the cement was dry, we gave the walls a coat of paint. We started with a special undercoat in white made for cement walls. However, we had chosen a pinkish natural earth color for the walls. It’s a traditional practice in the village to paint the houses the same color inside as out. It’s the rainy season in Thailand, and we’ve had a lot of rain. The roads have turned from rock-hard red sun-baked earth to slushy, slippery soft mud. Emily made the most of every muddy moment.

When we travel, we sometimes take an electric piano with us. When we play outdoors, we power it with a 12-volt motorbike battery. That means we can enjoy our piano lessons and be outdoors in nature at the same time. In the daylight, we could see the house was starting to take shape.

Seven o’clock is the time for Chai and Suang to go to school. In the village, everyone has an outside toilet and shower. There’s no water, other than rainwater or water from a well. Krahan dug a number of wells at the back of his house and eventually found water, which he can pump to his house when he needs it. In Thailand, the countryside bathrooms that depend on water from wells are designed differently to those in cities. To get washed, you simply scoop bowls of water from the tank and throw them over yourself. Cold water showers really wake you up in the morning.

During the pandemic, we discovered the only person in the village who played piano had moved away. So we had an idea. Suang is musical; he plays guitar and drums very well. So during his school holidays, he came to our house in Bangkok and began piano lessons. Krahan’s house was almost finished. They didn’t own any furniture, and it was on our mind. The plan was to simply sit, sleep, and eat on the floor.

Then two unexpected things happened. My sculpture of Nina Simone, which was in France, had a buyer and was shipped to the USA to be displayed in a museum being built in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone’s hometown. Talk about good timing. Emily’s friend Betty Bennett, the owner of Apogee in the USA, has been encouraging Emily so much with music, recording, and art these past few years. Betty took an interest in what we were doing and made a big donation to Krahan’s house project. Miracles do happen.

That changed everything. We knew the size of every room, so we set to work, but we didn’t tell them, wanting to keep it a surprise. During the time we were helping Krahan and his house, we got to know his friend Somchai. Somchai lives in a little bamboo house with his family, and his passion is for music. Krahan told us that Somchai likes to sing with his wife, but his guitar got broken many years ago, so he hasn’t been able to play since.

One evening, Somchai came by to see Krahan, and we asked him if he’d like to play Khwan’s guitar, which he did. It made him feel really happy. Somchai was a hard worker, burning the candle at both ends. He had tiled the floor in a checkered pattern and more. We ordered the things he needed that had worn out, like sound equipment and cement, as we planned the trip to Krahan’s village with Chin to help finish tiling the floors in one go. It was especially important as Chin had estimated the time it would take to finish the floors, and we had arranged for the furniture to be delivered a day later.

As the house was almost finished, the final jobs became slower and calmer. Emily wanted to learn how to tile a floor and help Chin, so he taught her. Emily learned that you need to use a special type of cement, mixed just right, not too dry, so the tiles stick to it and don’t come loose. The tiles need to be straight and at the same height from the floor, checked with a spirit level. Up to now, the floor had been concrete and dusty. The tiles suddenly made the house feel more like a home.

We waited for the cement to dry and, late in the evening, Chin told us we could walk around the room. The white paint had run out, so we brought a tub from Bangkok with us and finished painting the kitchen. After all the hard work, we took some time to relax. Emily did a bit of gardening with Boer, and we had some father-daughter time collecting stones. I brought some wood stain with us and varnished the front doors as quickly as I could, as rain was on its way.

We were mindful of the furniture delivery later that day. We imagined that due to the rain, the wheels of a heavy lorry might sink into the muddy roads and get stuck. So, Emily and Chin tried to flatten the mud as best they could. The furniture truck was due to set off early that day, and although there was no phone signal in the village, we knew they couldn’t contact us. We told Boer we would go to Elephant’s World soon with a piano and, to keep the surprise, said that a truck would drop the piano off in the afternoon. Emily seemed just as excited as Boer, and it had been hard for her to keep the secret of the house.

The furniture movers were wonderful. They had given it some thought and split the delivery into two smaller vans in case the roads were impassable due to the rain. After a long day of driving, they headed back to Bangkok in the rainy night. They seemed to enjoy the surprise they gave the family as much as the family did.

Chin is one of our best friends in Bangkok. He came to work in the city many years ago from a poor rural family. Chin works full-time for the department that keeps the canals clean and spent all his free time building for local people so he could put his two daughters through college. Chin is always cheerful, making everyone smile around him. His gift is his cheerful disposition, and he probably isn’t even aware of it.

Chin and Suang had been on a school trip, so they hadn’t seen their room yet. This gave Bo-Wah something to put in her new cupboard. When you go to the hospital, you can invite family and friends. As the house was finished, we invited Quan’s mother and our driver, Mon, who we had known for years from our projects at Elephant’s World. Chin and Suang are Emily’s best friends. Even though they are older than her, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

In Krahan’s village, people live without the internet, so their lives are completely different from those in the city. They seem more at peace and have a deep love of nature. They know how to live a happy life with what seems very little to some but is rich in many other ways to others. Krahan seemed very happy to finally know what it felt like to be able to open his home and offer hospitality to his friends.

Now, a few words from Emily: “I know I’m growing up in a nice home with my parents, and when I look around me here in Thailand, I realize I’m lucky and that a home is not something to take for granted at all. Finally, I feel so happy my friends have a home of their own too. No matter what happens or the hardships they have to endure in Thailand in the future, they will always have a roof over their heads.”

Krahan’s family arrived in Thailand stateless as Karen refugees. And now, they have a little corner of paradise they can call home. It rained so much day and night. Our minibus sank into the mud, and by the time we had to leave, it wasn’t easy to get going. Thankfully, Krahan had a friend with a tractor who helped us make the bathroom and came to the rescue. We made our way back home.

We want to say a big thank you to Ernest Bittner at FEURICH Vienna, Betty Bennett at Apogee Digital in the USA, our Patreon patrons, and to those that watch our videos and put up with those pesky ads. Thanks to you, Krahan’s family now have a little corner of paradise called home.

About Krahan:

Krahan is Karen. When Krahan was 14-years-old, the Burmese army burned down his village. Krahan became a child solider to fight for his people. He spent the following years facing starvation and hardship in the Burmese jungle. His family got separated escaping the Burmese soldiers.

Eventually Krahan was reunited with his family across the border in Thailand where his people were given refugee status. The Karen people in Krahan’s community are Christians.

Krahan is skilled at caring for elephants. Due to his experience as a solder he became good at managing people. These gifts and experience were recognised by the owner of Elephants World and he was offered the job as head-mahout. Krahan lived and worked at Elephants World for 13 years. During that time we became close friends.

Krahan was let go by the owner of Elephants World, along with almost all the Elephants World staff, at the start of the pandemic. Thailand closed its borders so Elephants World had no visitor revenue. Half the elephants were returned to their former owners.

Krahan’s income only enabled his family to get by from month to month. Elephants World had been the only home Krahan and his family had known after arriving in Thailand as refugees. Without a job to support his family, Krahan returned to his Karen village on the Thai side of Thai/Burmese border. However, Krahan, his wife Bua and son, Sawang and Che, were homeless. It’s hard to see friends in this situation without wanting to help in some way.

History to the Karen conflict