Roads Less Travelled : in Search of the Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects (THEP) Part 2

Truck on a steep, wet, red-dirt Mountain Road, Mae Hong Son Thailand

Wet Mountain Road
The paved roads slip away quickly in the Thai hills of Mae Hong Son Province.

I love driving into Thailand’s green, jungle-draped mountains, where the clouds hang so low they look like snow patches, and the sun traces the outlines of dark post-afternoon rainclouds and glints off the golden Buddhas and bejewelled temple rooftops.

If you turn off the highways, however, it is not long before the ornate temples – and even the paved roads themselves – disappear.

This is the territory of the Thai “Hill Tribes”; ethnic minority groups who are often Animist, sometimes Christian or Buddhist, but seldom rich enough to guild their places of worship. Some of the remote villages in these hills host trekking ethnographic-tourism, but mostly the people farm hill-rice for themselves on the steep mountain slopes, and eke a meagre living out of the market produce they grow. When I first visited the region, it was all cabbages; today they have branched out into corn, tomatoes, and soybean. But, what they get payed for the product of their labour, compared to what the consumers in the valleys pays for the produce, is a pittance.

It’s a hard life in this land beyond the reach of electrical poles and telephone service! But, the people are invariably welcoming – as I have discovered on all my previous trips into the region. 

This last May (see: The Faces of THEP), I was travelling with a small group of educators who manage the Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects (THEP), which I’ve written about several times before (see:  Ursula’s Weekly Wanders: THEP). It was day three of our travel with the indefatigable Susan Race, the driving force behind THEP, and we set off early in the hopes of getting up the steep roads before rains washed them away. Unlike the locals who navigate the treacherously slippery and rutted muddy tracks on motorcycles, we had the luxury of travelling in four-wheel drive utility trucks. Even so, there were some hair-raising moments!

We were off to visit a school high in the hills at Ban Huay Mae Gok – a village so small that it is invisible to my Google Maps. As remote as this village school might be, the children who attend it live in even more inaccessible locations: hence the new dormitory project that THEP was supervising. For without somewhere on-site to live, hill tribe children from these far-flung mountain hamlets cannot attend school at all.

Join me on a school visit beyond the guide-books.

Flowers on a Rudraksha Tree (Elaeocarpus grandiflorus), Mae Hong Son Thailand

Rudraksha (ไคร้ย้อย) Tree
The dainty flowers on a rudraksha (Elaeocarpus grandiflorus) tree are known as fairy petticoats. 
An hour or so out of Mae Sariang, we pulled in at a rest stop for a break, before turning our trucks off the main road for a second hour of driving. Everything is a long way away in “The Hills”.

 flowers on a Champak (Magnolia champaca) tree, Mae Hong Son Thailand

Champak (จำปา) Tree
The morning rain had washed everything clean, and the flowers on the champak (Magnolia champaca) tree smelled gorgeous.

Muddy road into Mae Sariang Hills, Thailand

Wet Muddy Road
The quality of the roads drops off pretty quickly as you leave the highway, and drive onto the dirt and into the rainclouds. (iPhone6)

Children in a dark Ban Huay Mae Gok School classroom, Mae Sariang, Thailand

No Electricity
When we reached Ban Huay Mae Gok School, we found the children gathered in dark classrooms. I looked at the solar panels around the grounds, and asked the principal why they had no power. He shook his head and shrugged: the school is beyond the reach of centralised electricity, and their storage batteries have expired and died. While their solar panels work in good weather, rainy season lasts a long time… When we visited, the school had been without power for about five weeks.

Thai children on the floor of a Classroom, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Karen Kids in the Classroom
The young Karen Hill Tribe children, many in their traditional shirts woven from purple cotton, …

Thai girls on the floor of a Classroom, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Girls Learning their Letters
… practice their Thai writing on the floor of a dim classroom.

Thai girls on the floor of a Classroom, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Girls Writing
Thai is their second language: these children speak Karen with each other and at home with their families.

View of TV Receiver on a building, outside a shuttered WIndow, Mae Sariang, Thailand

TV Receiver out the Window
We walked up a slippery hill to the newly-built and as-yet empty dormitory. Looking out the window, I could only reflect on the irony of having phones, television, and internet; all pretty useless when you have no power supply!

Two Thai men outside a shuttered window, , outside a shuttered WIndow, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Workers out the Window
A couple of local men watch …

Photographing a Thai squat toilet, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Checking the Toilet Block
… as Susan documents the progress of the building. She keeps meticulous records for reports to project funders.

Thai labourer in a black head wrap, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Project Worker
THEP won’t pay for labour on building projects: schools need to find the money themselves, or persuade people to donate their time and skills.

Woman with plans in a dark wooden building, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Measuring for Bunkbeds
Susan and Khru Apichart – another driver behind THEP – measure the new dormitory for bunkbeds.

Karen children in a school canteen, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Giving Thanks before Lunch
Back at the canteen, the children are waiting for permission to start their lunch.

Karen girl Focussed on Lunch, Mae Sariang Thailand

Focussed on Lunch
It is simple fare: white rice, fresh tomato, a cabbage and pork mixture, and a biscuit for desert.

Karen schoolgirl eating Lunch, Mae Sariang Thailand

An Imp and her Lunch
Some of the children are enjoying our company as much as their meals, …

Karen schoolgirl eating Lunch, Mae Sariang Thailand

Smiling Girls at Lunch
… while others are busy socialising with friends.

Karen schoolgirl eating Lunch, Mae Sariang Thailand


Karen schoolgirl eating Lunch, Mae Sariang Thailand

Little Girl – Big Plate
The tiniest girl in the room was also the slowest eater.

Karen schoolgirl clearing her Lunch plate, Mae Sariang Thailand

Time’s Up!
We were not sure if she was full, or had just run out of time, when she returned her dish to the washing-up area.

Karen Girls on the Steps of a school, Mae Sariang Thailand

Karen Girls on the Steps
A couple of girls wave us off, as we head back to the school’s offices for our own lunch.

Women laughing over a northern Thai meal, Mae Sariang Thailand

Food and Laughter
A trip into the hills with Susan Race to check on THEP projects is never short on good, fresh, local food – or on laughter.

Karen Grandmother and Child in a shelter, Mae Sariang, Thailand

At the Shelter
Just outside in a sheltered rest area, a Karen grandmother and girl, both in traditional, age-appropriate dress, wait for their transport home. The principal of this school is enthusiastic about promoting English – even though that is the third language for Karen-speaking communities who have to learn Thai to get by. All around the school grounds, there are signs in English, with the corresponding pronunciation and meaning in Thai.

Portrait: Karen Grandmother and Child in a shelter, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Karen Grandmother and Girl
Grandma, who is wearing a beautiful mountain-coral necklace and a traditional head-wrap, has a mouth full of chewing tobacco. Betel nut has fallen out of favour.

Karen children lined up in a school courtyard, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Karen Kids in the Rain
It may be Saturday, and they may have had their lunch, but the children have not yet been released to go home; …

Karen children squatting in a school courtyard, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Khru Usa and the school principal have some donated toothbrushes to distribute.

Children in Karen tunics outside their Classrooms, Mae Sariang, Thailand

Outside the Classrooms

Susan Race and Thai education officials, Mae Sariang Thailand

The Work Party
Meanwhile, representatives from the the school, the village, THEP, and the Department of Education finish up their discussions outside the office.

Susan Race and a Village Headman, Mae Sariang Thailand

Susan and the Village Headman
Working with community leaders helps ensure more successful projects.

Utility truck on a rutted red-dirt mountain road, Mae Sariang Thailand

Rutted Mountain Roads
What drives up must go down again: soon it is time to get back into the trucks and navigate the mountain roads down the hill, … 

… and onto the next project.

Text: Happy Travels

Until then,

Happy Travels!


  • susan race - August 4, 2017 - 3:42 am

    You write SO WELL!!! Thanks again Ursula.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - August 5, 2017 - 4:09 am

      Awe, thanks Susan. It is such a pleasure travelling with you. 😀ReplyCancel

  • sidran - August 5, 2017 - 12:41 pm

    Humbling and inspiring. The image of the children in silent prayers is haunting. I am happy to see that these little dolls are healthy and happy.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - August 7, 2017 - 7:10 am

      Hi Sidran,
      Happy and healthy, they are indeed! No shortage of beautiful, fresh food. They have to work extra hard to get their educations, though.ReplyCancel

  • Ivy - September 4, 2017 - 12:21 am

    You are truly a master story teller both in words and images. Now, I too will look forward to your wanders

    • Ursula - September 4, 2017 - 7:20 am

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Ivy! It will be a pleasure to have your company.ReplyCancel

  • […] On the third day, we drove high into the mountains to look at a new school dormitory (see: Roads Less Travelled), and then to an old canteen and dormitories in need of repairs and sprucing up. On the last day, […]ReplyCancel

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