Monday, 24 November 2008

Mae Hong Son (Day 1)

I have been struggling for the last week to work out how to blog about my trip away....I think my main problem has been that I was deeply affected by it and I just didn't know how to share that with you!! So, I've finally decided that I should just start writing about it and see what happens....

I'm not going to bore you with the details of our entire journey (but it did involve being up at the ungodly hour of 4am.....the only reason you should ever be up that early is when you've not been to bed yet!!) so I will start with when we all met up at Chiang Mai airport. There were eight of us altogether and we were a truly international group - We had Karl and Britta from Germany representing the International Group of Bangkok, Vesna and Margaret from New Zealand representing ANZWG (Australia and New Zealand Women's Group), Carolyn and myself representing the BWG (British Women's Group), Brenda who is from the States and Susan who was leading the trip (She's originally from Tasmania) and has been working in the area we were visiting for over 20 years.

Our first stop was at a small market town called Hod (pronounced Hot.....which incidentally it wasn''s the cool season here and for the first time there was actually a breeze!!). The purpose of this stop was so that we could buy balloons and biscuits to give to the kids who's schools we were going to be visiting (The kids rarely get any kind of treats so it's customary to take something with you). Whilst negotiations were being done on price (It's Thailand...everything can be negotiated!!) the rest of us had a look around. Hod is populated primarily by Karen Hill Tribe people who, funnily enough, have moved out of the hills....there was not much to see but I did try and get some pictures of people living their everyday lives. (If you think the butcher here is bad then just you wait!!!)

We then travelled by van for another hour or so to the first village school that we were to assess - Just to give you an idea of where we actually were.....we were five miles away from the Burmese Border in the mountains of Thailand. This school is based in the village of Mae Sued but actually provides the education for students from 8 other villages (this will increase to 10 next year). They currently have 196 children attending, their ages range from 5 up to 15, and they have over 30 students who actually live on site because their home villages are just too far for them to travel to and from every day. Awww, I can't tell you how lovely it was to actually be able to see where our money has gone!! You can see from the pictures that there has been a lot of outside investment in this school.....but it still has it's problems. The site floods every year during the rainy season so for 3/4 months each year the kids are sitting ankle deep in water!! 'Why did they build the school there then?' I hear you ask.....well, they were told to by the education people in the then Government....and yes, they did tell the education people that the site floods every year but it didn't make any difference....they were told to build it there so they did!!! The other main issue they have is the facilities for the kids that live there.....two families gave up their homes (I think they are now sharing one further up the village) so that the kids would have somewhere to sleep!! But fear's not all doom and gloom....ANZWG have just hosted The Melbourne Cup (See, I got drunk for a good cause!!) and some of the money raised from that event is going to pay for a flood wall to be built and for new accommodation for the kids *grins*.

I'm sorry this post is so huge (There is a lot more to come so I'm going to separate them into different days) but I think it's important to give you a sense of the community here. This picture is of the local villagers harvesting rice in the paddy fields and this is the mechanised contraption they use for actually making the rice.

From there we then headed to the next school which was about a 20 minute drive away in the village (If you can call it was more like a wee smattering of houses) of Huay Sing. This is one of the schools that Susan has been working with for years and you could was just lovely!! In addition to their classrooms they had a large canteen, a library, a meeting area and four purpose built dormitories for the kids that stay there. Susan was there to interview 11 kids with the view to them going on to further education - the school only has the capacity to educate them to the age of 14!!

We were then transferred from our van into....wait for open air pick up!! I think the phrase 'Eeek....this does not bode well' was going through everyone's minds as we clambered in....and, I have to be honest, if we had known where we were going I'm not sure all of us would have continued!! The pick up wove it's way up a very very curvy single track road and then along a ridge at the top of a mountain.....I kid you not when I tell you that there was at least a 100 foot drop on both sides of us....and then the road disappeared.....and we were travelling on muddy tracks slipping and sliding everywhere....we just had to trust that the driver, who has been going there every three months for the last 15 or so years, knew what he was doing but it was a hell of a scary!! We arrived in the village of Mae Jong at dusk and were taken straight to the school so didn't get to see much of our surroundings (at that point). The school was right at the edge of the village and was spread over four levels which had basically been cut out of the hillside!!! This was the school we were spending the night in.

We were shown to our rooms which were in one of the dormitories at the top of the mountain. They were basic but there was a bed (we were two to a room so Carolyn and I shared) and each room had it's own washing facilities - A squat style toilet and a concrete tub with water in it for showering with. We set out our sleeping bags and secured our mosquito net and then went out with the others to take part in a candle lighting ceremony to honour the Princess who's official funeral service was taking place over the weekend in Bangkok (The one Chris went to see). As guests we were expected to lead the community section of the ceremony....this involved taking our lit candles and inserting them into a gravel square on the main table so that they stood upright and then each subsequent Student/Teacher/Villager added their own candle till the square was full. It was really moving and very beautiful!! After the ceremony it was time for dinner and, as the only Brits present, Carolyn and I were invited to open the school's brand new canteen which was built with money from the BCTFN (British Community in Thailand For the Needy). It was an honour to cut the ribbon and even more so when we discovered that the entire village had got together to help build it!! By torch light we made our way back to our rooms and settled for the night.....exhausted but happy!!


French Fancy said...

Oh good, I'm first to tell you that you - Carol - put all our lives in proportion by giving us this glimpse at how others try to get along with their lives without having all the advantages that most of us do.How sad about the kiddies ankle-deep in water and pretty typical of the bureaucracy that nobody listened about not building it there.

I see now why you had to drink so much the other month. :)

Looking forward to the next bit

Debs said...

What an incredible post, thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

The children look so happy, despite all that they have to contend with. I'm so glad they're going to have a wall to stop the school flooding.

I can't get over that road (!) too, it sounds terrifying to have to drive along it.

What an incredible experience. x

Anonymous said...

How absolutely fascinating. Both you and Chris had your owen wee Thai adventures at opposite ends of the spectrum. Glad to see you get the feel for what your work achieves.
Well done all of you.

JJ Beattie said...

Oh Carol, it sounds amazing. I can't wait to hear more about it.

Carol said...

French Fancy - It was a very humbling experience...inspiring one minute and really quite shocking the next(you'll see what I mean when I post the next instalment). What amazed me was the sense of community....the people really don't have a lot but what they do have they share (They really do work together for the benefit of everyone) and I think it's very sad that we seem to have lost that!!

Debs - It really was amazing to see the real difference the money raised is going to make and indeed is making!!

The road really was terrifying...the wheels were inches away from the edge at certain points!! I'm happy to say that it wasn't anywhere near as bad the following morning :-)

Anon - Your right, we both had very interesting weekends but for very different reasons!!

Lots of people here do really amazing things (much more than I have done)....I'm just lucky that as part of the welfare team I get to see the differences it makes first hand!!

JJ - It was mind really was!! I'm currently going though all our stuff before the packers come in on Friday but I will try and get the next instalment up in the next couple of days!!

C x

DJ Kirkby said...

This was fabulously interesting, I am so glad there is mor eto come. That butcher urk, urk, urk, I owuld have to be vegie if I lived there. Those kids sitting in rainwater up to their ankles, man! and tot hink they shut schools here if the weather is bad. That dirt track, wow, scary monsters! Glad you are back safely.

Caroline said...

A great post. True insight and a reality check! Thank you x

Pat Posner said...

An incredible post, C, thank you for sharing.

Lane said...

Wow. What to say. Fascinating. Humbling. And quite wonderful. Thank you. x

Am also interested in why they are called the Karen Hill Tribe?

Carol said...

DJ - I'm really glad you enjoyed it and oooohhh just you wait.....there is a photo of another butcher to come....

Caroline - It was a great trip...something that will stay with me forever!!

Pat - Thanks and your welcome :-)

Lane - Now you know why it's taken me so long to blog about it....I just didn't really know what to say!!

C x

Lily Sheehan said...

I feel quite priveleged to have you representing us Brits! Sounds like an amazing experience which I am glad you shared.

Carol said...

Awww thank you Lily....that's a really lovely thing to say!!!

I'm just adding pictures to the next bit so it should be up soon :-)

C x

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