“How long does it take to get to the school?” I asked Khru Apichart who had just turned off a minor road into an even more minor road. “About 45 minutes,” he replied. Then, with a twinkle in his brown eyes, he added: “Twenty minutes when I don’t have passengers!”
He was very proud of his new four-wheel drive utility vehicle, which was carrying us relatively smoothly over potentially bone-breaking potholes, up impossible inclines, and around dizzying single-lane curves. The patchy combination of concrete and packed dirt was too much for the van which had driven us into the Mae Sariang area of Mae Hong Son, so our official driver had lengthy breaks while we crossed all types of terrain to reach schools in remote hill villages.
It was day two of a three day trip into the hills of Mae Hong Son to visit various school building projects managed by THEP (Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects) and to interview students who, without the benefit of modest scholarships, won’t be able to continue their studies. I’ve talked about this collection of projects before, after my first visit, in my posts of mid- and late-November last year.
On the first day of this trip, we visited the new dorm that had been officially opened at Ban Mae Na Chang Nuea (you won’t find that on many maps!) on our last trip. Seven boys, ranging from age seven through to fifteen, were there to show us around. The other twelve-odd dormitory residents had returned to their families in even-more-distant and inaccessible villages for the weekend.
We were re-visiting this school because the dormitory still had no furniture: no beds or cupboards and very little bedding. The school principal was there, with costings in hand, to see if Susan Race, the THEP originator and manager, could find the necessary funding. They nutted out the details and we ate a full and delicious ‘pre-dinner’, knowing we were expected at another school for our main meal. But you can’t say no to food! Nor can you say no to a late afternoon dance performance, when the girls have been so excited that they put their make-up on in the morning, only to have it melt off their faces in the heat of the day.
These trips are about the children – and their ability to continue their educations against the odds. And it is the children that make these trips such a joy! Smiling, curious, making fun out of practically nothing, they seem to be thriving under very difficult conditions.
Once we reached our final destination for that day, we were treated to more food, more dancing, and a ceremonial opening of the canteen we had watched being built on our last visit.
We went on, in Khru Apichart’s new truck, to visit two more schools, where we were entertained by singing children and fed more food. More importantly, other canteen and dormitory projects were reviewed and students looking for scholarships were interviewed.
Susan does these trips two or three times a year, and you have to admire her for it! They are not particularly comfortable: the van has seen better days, and the roads, even the better roads, challenge it fully. Accommodation is often on floors: on this trip we slept on mattresses on the floor: one night in teacher housing, and another night in ‘cottages’ on one of the King’s agricultural projects. But, the food is great, scenery is beautiful, and the people are warm and welcoming. Most importantly, they so clearly need what little we can bring them, and are very happy to receive it.
When I got home and was talking to my husband, he asked, “Why doesn’t the government provide these things?”
Here’s hoping we can all do better for the children of the future.