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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

-- Photos by Teresa Malcolm

The Magic Eyes Barge in the Chao Phraya River north of Bangkok
On board a floating classroom

Kids encounter Thailand's river ecology up close

Chao Phraya River, Thailand

A former rice barge is chugging north on the Chao Phraya. And up on the 20-meter converted barge’s teak deck are three trays containing a bit of the river itself -- samples of a large, leafy water plant -- and 25 kids are getting their hands into it.

On the barge deck, Japanese student Risa Kimura writes in her workbook. She was worried before the trip: "I thought I might get seasick. Then when I came here, I liked it!"

Most of them. Some boys hang back reluctantly, some girls squeal squeamishly and clutch each other as their classmates pull apart the roots of the nonnative, invasive water hyacinth to reveal the life teeming there. Using magnifying glasses, the fifth-graders identify the tiny macro-invertebrates that have found a home in the plant: beetles, worms, shrimp, crabs, snails, spiders.

It is a simple measurement of water quality. Each species found is given a score based on its ability to live in polluted water, with 1 being species that can survive in the dirtiest water and 10 being those that need it clean. The highest-scoring species the children identify gets a 6: a damselfly nymph. The average score for that section of the Chao Phraya River that day, according to the students’ test, is 3.9.

Students explore the roots of a water hyacinth with the help of staff member Ruby Ilustrisimo, top, a 28-year-old Filipina.

“I think a good amount of life is here, but we can always make it better,” concluded John Gilbert, a 10-year-old American. “It’s OK for most river standards, but it’s not completely clean. It’s not like every creature could live in there.”

The water hyacinth investigation was just one activity among the games and hands-on study during a two-day trip designed to teach schoolchildren about the ecology of Thailand’s greatest river and what they can do to help preserve it. The learning experience is one of a number aimed at various age groups, run by the Bangkok-based Magic Eyes Barge Program, established in 1995 and now under the auspices of Chiang Mai’s Prem Center for International Education.

In January, I got to join the group of 25 fifth-graders from Bangkok’s New International School of Thailand. With these children of diplomats, nongovernmental organization workers, businesspeople and journalists, the barge was carrying a spectrum of nationalities -- Thai, Indian, Japanese, American, Canadian, Italian, Australian, to name but a few -- to take them, if not to the heart of this country, at least a little outside of the glossy comforts of the capital city’s wealthy quarters.

In the early ’90s, I lived in Thailand for two years, but I was in the Northeast -- my river was the Mekong between Thailand and Laos, far away from the Chao Phraya. My own experience with the “River of Kings” was chiefly on the boats that run as public transportation through Bangkok. And so I jumped at the chance for a little immersion, metaphorically speaking.

For the kids, a literal immersion was the undeniable highlight: swimming and diving from the barge while it was anchored in the middle of the river. Canoeing was also part of this treat, a relief from the afternoon’s heat. I had left my swimsuit behind, but joined the motorized dinghy that herded hapless young canoeists who strayed too far from our own boat and were carried by the current toward a nearby massive, modern barge, also anchored, and upon which a large dog ran back and forth, barking at the interlopers while the humans aboard worked.

The students hold their teacher, Jennifer Baccon, in the "Web of Life," a game that demonstrates the interdependence of all life on earth.

Just another taste of the river community we glimpsed as we cruised along the river, seeing other vessels -- barges big and small headed for Bangkok; long, narrow boats big enough for just one or two people fishing; recreational boats -- and on the banks temples, factories, and houses grand and humble. “The river is Thai life,” said native staff member Pradipath “Paul” Kumluerith, 32.

“It’s really sustainability in general that we’re teaching,” said another staff member, Erin Stanley, a 23-year-old Australian. “Sustainability being the connection of environment, society and economy. So we don’t simply talk about the environment the whole time. We’re going to say, ‘OK, so how’s that going to affect the people? And if those people don’t have the materials from the environment that they sell, how are they going to get money?’ We talk about the connections.”

The barge was meant to be its own little sustainable community. The students were called upon to prepare meals, wash their own dishes and swab the deck. The barge becomes a microcosm of the world, with conservation made a necessity by limited resources on board. Particularly water -- hence the three-minute shower rule, timed by the staff. It’s a way to get 25 kids showered and ready for bed in a reasonable amount of time, and also a way to drive home the point of water waste that threatens not only the Chao Phraya, but freshwater sources wherever these children may go next.

For it is international schools in Thailand, with children from typically well-to-do, globally transient families, that are the primary clientele for the Magic Eyes Barge Program, though some school groups and even adult groups have come from other countries. Some Thai schools have participated as well, and the Barge Program helps underwrite trips for less affluent local schools.

Breakfast is served after the trip to the market.

Aside from the program I joined, which was targeted at grades three to six, younger children can take day trips around Bangkok, and there are more in-depth studies for high schoolers. Instead of the simple investigation of water hyacinths pulled in by adult crew members, for example, students from senior classes get into the river to collect water samples that they then test for oxygen, phosphates, nitrates and other elements. The Barge Program also offers land-based trips in the Chao Phraya watershed and marine studies on the Gulf of Thailand.

After a night sleeping below decks on the moored barge, the kids were sent ashore with bowls and a limited amount of money to the market in the riverside town of Pathum Thani, where they were charged with buying breakfast for us all -- resulting in a smorgasbord of sweets and treats and even healthy food. There was also an accounting of all the plastic bags acquired with the food, despite the bowls the shoppers had, and a discussion of ways to make purchases that don’t produce nonbiodegradable trash.

Late afternoon on the second day, we cruised back into Bangkok, dropping the exhausted students off at a pier nearer to their school before the staff and I -- grateful for the peace and quiet after two kid-filled days -- continued south the rest of the way to where the barge is housed in a boat garage provided by Bangkok Bank.

For these students, the barge trip was just the beginning of a unit called “Over the River,” their teacher, Jennifer Baccon, explained. “What we do from this point on will come from the children’s questions from their experiences on this trip,” she said. From the trip, “they get the idea too that research isn’t just going on the Internet and it spewing information back to you.”

“Taking action is ultimately what we want the kids to do,” said Baccon, who has now accompanied two of her classes on a barge trip. “The best actions are the things that the kids just do because of this, even if they haven’t actually planned for it,” said Baccon, who taught for 18 years in Catholic schools in Sydney, Australia, before coming to Thailand eight years ago. “They turn to someone in the bathroom, and say, ‘Turn the tap off -- you’re wasting water.’ That’s real action and it’s really what we want.”

Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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