Smiling Faces and Bright Futures
Thanks to dormitory accommodation, these Thai Hilltribe girls – children of Lisu itinerant workers – are able to continue their school studies.
The remote, mountainous corners of northern and western Thailand – and neighbouring Laos and Myanmar – are home to countless small villages of “mountain folk” (ชาวเขา), or ethnic “Hill Tribes”.
These Hilltribes/Hill Tribes are not a unitary group. In Thailand alone, there are six major distinct ethnic minority groups – the Akha, Karen, Meo or Hmong, Yao, Lahu, and Lisu, plus a few smaller groups and numerous sub-groups, each with distinctive customs and languages.
Most of these groups are relatively recent arrivals in Thailand; going into the 20th century, the country was home to only a few thousand hill tribe members. However, over a period of 200 or so years, groups have drifted across the borders from China, Tibet, Myanmar and Laos. Today, the combined groups are estimated to comprise about a million people in Thailand.
Traditionally, the Hill Tribes are migratory people who practiced slash-and-burn subsistence farming. In the past, their members were regarded as foreigners by the Thai legal and social system: even today, many of them lack legal status because of their past migrations across international borders. And, even when they are legally recognised, the remoteness of their communities puts them out of reach of many mainstream services, and the differences in their languages and customs puts them “outside” mainstream society.
Hill Tribe children face particular challenges in accessing education. They may live a long way from the nearest village school. Thai is not their language at home. Their subsistence-farming parents have little money for extras, like uniforms or books. The schools in these remote hills also face difficulties, for while the Thai Department of Education pays for classrooms and teachers, they do not invest in ancillary supports, like canteens and dormitories for children who cannot return to their distant homes during term, or libraries and recreational books to encourage literacy in pupils. Nor do they support individual students whose families lack electricity, running water, and a meaningful income. It is still often the case that “Hilltribe people are not getting the education they need to determine their future in society.”
Fortunately, this is changing.
When the Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects (THEP) was first formed in 1991, schools in the hills were struggling to provide even basic infrastructure for their resident students, and many children were dropping out of school at very young ages. Since then, THEP has supervised countless school dormitory, canteen, and agricultural projects, and has supported over 300 students through scholarship funding. In the last two years, the first THEP-sponsored students have graduated from university!
I love a good-news story that involves children being able to follow their dreams of an education.
And, I love visiting Northern Thailand, where the people are friendly, the views are stunning, and the food is superb. Susan Race, who manages the Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects (THEP), visits the region several times a year. She checks on the school projects she has found funding for, consults with local staff on potential new projects, and interviews all of the many Hilltribe students who receive study scholarships through her organisation. She does all this with absolute transparency: anyone who is interested is welcome to join her on her trips – as I have in the past (see: Ursula’s Weekly Wanders: THEP)
It is always great fun accompanying her, and meeting some of the students who benefit.
Wings over Chiang Mai
I feel good as soon as I see the red tile roofs of the city and the surrounding green mountains. (iPhone6)
Travel with Susan is always packed full! By nine in the morning, we are at our first school, where the children sit quietly waiting for us.
Many of the children at this school stay all term in dormitories that have received funding though THEP project grants. Flanked by Khru Usa, one of the local teachers behind THEP, and the school’s Headmistress, Susan speaks to the children briefly.
Like a Pied Piper
Khru Apichart, a local Headmaster and one of the principal drivers of THEP, walks towards a school’s dormitory with a group of children.
Some of the older dormitory residents line up to meet us. The Lisu tribe consists of more than 58 different clans; the groups in Thailand are known as “Flowery Lisu” on account of their colourful traditional costumes.
The Lisu are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group, descended from indigenous semi-nomadic Tibetans.
Kids Line Up
About 55,000 Lisu live in Thailand, mostly in the remote, mountainous hills of the Northwest.
In the Girls Dorm
We are not really in “the Hills” here, though. These students live at the dormitory so that their parents can find itinerant work somewhere in the region.
Lisu Girl in her Dorm
The youngest dormitory resident is a five-year-old kindergarten student …
Lisu Girl in her Dorm
… with a lovely, cheeky grin.
In the Mosquito Nets
In the boys’ dormitory, the lads show us how the mosquito nets – which need to be replaced annually – work.
Dormitory in the Rain
The next school we visited has a number of tidy dormitories which accommodate several different Hill Tribe groups.
High Bunk – Low Ceiling
Inside one of the dorms, a Karen student in traditional dress shows off the top bunk.
Traditionally, unmarried Karen girls wear dresses made of lengths of white or cream cloth that has been hand-woven on a backloom – if not by the girls themselves, then by their mothers.
Hmong Dormitory Students
A group of smiling boys in their wonderfully ornate outfits made by their mothers, greet us outside their dormitory.
Inside a Dormitory
The conditions in the dorms are simple, but at this school, they are beautifully maintained.
The traditional Hmong black velvet costumes are richly embroidered, and decorated with beads and coins.
Khru Apichart in the Boys Dormitory
Apichart Intra was one of the founders of THEP. He takes an active interest in the projects and the children who benefit from them. Here, he is asking the dormitory students how it is going, and if they have any problems.
Hmong Boy in his Dormitory
Susan and the Teachers
After a quick lunch, we move on to a local district office, where Susan and the teachers prepare to interview scholarship recipients.
Students Filling in their Forms
Scholarship recipients are expected to submit their grades every semester, and update the THEP team on any changes in financial and living status.
Susan always invites interested people to join her on trips; these may be student sponsors, and/or members of organisations who have donated project money. They always enjoy meeting the students – many of whom are willing to try out their English.
Student Group Shot
No project can happen anywhere near a Thai educational office without the ubiquitous group shot! The Karen children in the front row are in traditional dress. We then got back in our van to drive further into the Hills: from Chiang Mai District, west into Mae Hong Son.
After the long and winding drive through the mountains between Chiang Mai and Mae Sariang, we arrived at our last stop for the day, Sangwaan Wittaya School. We were greeted by students in traditional Lanna, Hmong, and Karen dress.
Traditional Thai Dancing
They danced for us while we ate our freshly prepared dinner. (iPhone6)
It was late when we finally pulled into our guesthouse.
We’d had a long day of meeting students and teachers, checking out dormitories and bunkbeds – a day full of fresh food and smiling faces. And, we had an early start the next day to do it all again!
I love travelling with Susan and seeing how the schools and students are doing. But, you have to have stamina!
A trip with THEP is work.