‘Ice is nice’: Blind Thai teacher wins royal recognition

It is not unusual for the visually-impaired to become teachers in Thailand, but most work in colleges and institutions of higher education, with few in primary or secondary schools. (File/AFP)
Updated 15 March 2019
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‘Ice is nice’: Blind Thai teacher wins royal recognition

  • The English teacher who has been blind since birth has inspired many across Thailand
  • Parents questioned his skills when he first joined the school two years ago, even though he had topped his graduation class at a prestigious university

BANGKOK: Damkerng Mungthanya is a 26-year-old Thai who wakes up at 5 each morning for his mother to walk him to a train station for the commute into downtown Bangkok, where a student accompanies him to the high school where he works.
The English teacher who has been blind since birth has inspired many across Thailand, winning recognition for his determination and service from King Maha Vajiralongkorn this year.
“Kru Ice is very nice, but if you are late with homework he will scold you,” said Janjira Kaewmaram, 14, referring to the teacher by a nickname his students use.
Yet his journey has not been without hurdles.
Parents questioned his skills when he first joined the school two years ago, even though he had topped his graduation class at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University and placed third in an exam for thousands of teachers nationwide.
“The school said some parents were worried,” Damkerng told Reuters in an interview. “Some asked, ‘Why did the school accept a blind teacher?’“
Damkerng was upset, but not defeated, saying he could not let the concerns of others hold him back.
“I have to prove that my abilities speak louder than disability.”
It is not unusual for the visually-impaired to become teachers in Thailand, but most work in colleges and institutions of higher education, with few in primary or secondary schools, like Damkerng.
“He has a passion for teaching,” said Veena Ratanasumawong, the department head at the Satri Si Suriyothai school where he teaches the eighth grade.
“I saw his ability for teaching and how he made it fun and got students engaged. He is well-prepared and very responsible.”
So it was no surprise that authorities at the school, where he had once trained, stood by Damkerng, vouching for him and allaying the fears of anxious parents. Now he is a hit with his students, whom he remembers by their voices.
“He is a big inspiration, and motivates us to speak English more,” said his student Janjira, adding that his lessons were clear.
A ceremony in February celebrated the conferral of one of the highest honors a Thai citizen can achieve, a letter from King Maha Vajiralongkorn acknowledging Damkerng’s contribution and hailing him as “a good role model for society and country.”
Damkerng says he was moved by the letter, which has encouraged him to continue teaching and set his sights on a scholarship for graduate school.


Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

A woman poses for a photo among poppies in bloom on the hills of Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California, on March 8, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2019
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Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

  • More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

LAKE ELSINORE, California: Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” the Southern California city of Lake Elsinore is being overwhelmed by the power of the poppies.
About 150,000 people over the weekend flocked to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near the city of about 60,000 residents, about a 90-minute drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles.
Interstate 15 was a parking lot. People fainted in the heat; a dog romping through the fields was bitten by a rattlesnake.
A vibrant field of poppies lures Dorothy into a trap in the “Wizard of Oz” when the wicked witch, acknowledging that no one can resist their beauty, poisons the wildflowers and she slips into a fatal slumber until the good witch reverses the spell.
Lake Elsinore had tried to prepare for the crush of people drawn by the super bloom, a rare occurrence that usually happens about once a decade because it requires a wet winter and warm temperatures that stay above freezing.
It offered a free shuttle service to the top viewing spots, but it wasn’t enough.
Sunday traffic got so bad that Lake Elsinore officials requested law enforcement assistance from neighboring jurisdictions. At one point, the city pulled down the curtain and closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon.
“It was insane, absolutely insane,” said Mayor Steve Manos, who described it as a “poppy apocalypse.”
By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened.
And people were streaming in again.
Young and old visitors to the Lake Elsinore area seemed equally enchanted as they snapped selfies against the natural carpet of iridescent orange.
Some contacted friends and family on video calls so they could share the beauty in real time. Artists propped canvasses on the side of the trail to paint the super bloom, while drones buzzed overhead.
Patty Bishop, 48, of nearby Lake Forest, was on her second visit. The native Californian had never seen such an explosion of color from the state flower. She battled traffic Sunday but that didn’t deter her from going back Monday for another look. She got there at sunrise and stayed for hours.
“There’s been so many in just one area,” she said. “I think that’s probably the main reason why I’m out here personally is because it’s so beautiful.”
Stephen Kim and his girlfriend got to Lake Elsinore even before sunrise Sunday to beat the crowds but there were already hundreds of people.
The two wedding photographers hiked on the designated trails with an engaged couple to do a photo shoot with the flowers in the background, but they were upset to see so many people going off-trail and so much garbage. They picked up as many discarded water bottles as they could carry.
“You see this beautiful pristine photo of nature but then you look to the left and there’s plastic Starbucks cups and water bottles on the trail and selfie sticks and people having road rage because some people were walking slower,” said Kim, 24, of Carlsbad.
Andy Macuga, honorary mayor of the desert town of Borrego Springs, another wildflower hotspot, said he feels for Lake Elsinore.
In 2017, a rain-fed super bloom brought in more than a half-million visitors to the town of 3,500. Restaurants ran out of food. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Traffic backed up on a single road for 20 miles (32 kilometers).
The city is again experiencing a super bloom.
The crowds are back. Hotels are full. More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest park with 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. kilometers).
But it helps that the masses of blooms are appearing in several different areas this time, and some sections are fading, while others are lighting up with flowers, helping to disperse the crowds a bit.
Most importantly, Macuga said, the town’s businesses prepared this time as if a major storm was about to hit. His restaurant, Carlee’s, is averaging more than 550 meals a day, compared to 300 on a normal March day.
“We were completely caught off guard in 2017 because it was the first time that we had had a flower season like this with social media,” he said. “It helps now knowing what’s coming.”