True Thai Colours ~ Re-Visiting “The Hills”, Mae Hong Son

Thai political campaign poster: Phea Thai

For the Future of Thai Children, (amongst other things) One PC Each and Free WiFi…

Thailand goes to the polls this Sunday. For weeks, the streets of Bangkok have been lined with colourful political posters: posters with pictures of bland-faced politicians and their pork-barrel promises of fiscal payouts to just about every demographic; posters of “everywoman” in her tennis whites and “everyman” in his golf gear; posters depicting the candidates as animals (a grievous insult) and exhorting people not to vote at all; pictures of a massage-parlour operator campaigning “against corruption”; and my personal favourite: a poster in official Thai flag colours promising WiFi and a free PC to every schoolchild.

Now, call me cynical, but having just recently returned from another trip to visit schools in “The Hills” of Thailand, I can think of many things that these children need more than their own individual PCs! Like: dorms with enough space for all the pupils who want to study but live too far from school; some proper bunks and some new bedding; somewhere to do their laundry; a spare uniform; a pair of new shoes; a canteen with a clean floor and enough tables and chairs; more teachers and auxiliary staff to help in over-crowded classrooms; the list goes on.

Historically, successive Thai governments have provided the barest of essentials for public schooling. True, Thailand is a “developing country”, but even so, it is well down the international ranks in terms of percentage GDP allocated to education (just 4.1% in 2009). The current government increased educational access to 15 years: three years of pre-school and grades 1 through 12, and it is true that 18% of government expenditure is on education, but this is in the context of low tax revenues and weak spending overall. In remote and marginalised Hilltribe communities, many of the auxiliary buildings in and around the local schools are funded, not by the government, but by charitable organisations.

At the end of May, just as the new school year was about to start, I was able to visit some schools in Mae Hong Son province in northern Thailand, with Susan Race, founder and manager of THEP – Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects, one of these charitable organisations. I’ve been on these trips before (see: Budding Potentials, Building Futures, and Schools), and what always impresses me – other than the beauty of the countryside – is the cheerful resilience of the local people.

The highlight of this particular trip was our stay at the school at Mae Lit and visiting the local community where the predominantly Karen people eke out a living growing cabbages and rice. We arrived on a Sunday, the last day of school holidays and stayed for the ‘official’ school opening.

Karen man in blue jacket and hat

Stopping for a Chat ~ Proud Father of a University Scholarship Recipient

Karen man and woman in front of fields

Side by Side ~ Karen Couple in Front of Rice Terraces, Ready for Planting

Portrait: Smiling Karen girl with short hair

Seven-Year-Old Ornwara is Starting Grade One Tomorrow! She is one of Sixty Students Accommodated in Three Dorm Rooms at the School

Group shot: Six young Karen children

The First-Graders: Ornwara’s parents won’t be there to watch her start school tomorrow – they live too far away – but she has her friends to keep her company.

Typical Karen House

Airing the Laundry ~ Typical Karen House, Mae Lit

Karen boy smiling between wooden rails

Always a Smile for the Visitors ~ Karen Boy, Mae Lit

Karen girl looking over a wooden rail

View from the Balcony ~ Karen Girl, Mae Lit

Elderly Karen woman sitting in her house

Frail Granny with Hand Tattoos Watches From Next Door

Elderly Karen woman with buffalo

Bringing Home the Buffalo ~ Mae Lit

Four Karen adults on their porch

Extended Family at Home ~ Mae Lit

Karen man in traditional tunic carving bamboo

Making Ties for Rice Planting

Village in the hills of Mae Hong Son

Afternoon Light Over the Hills ~ They’ve had electricity here for a year or so, but it is still hard to know where they would put all those PCs!

On Monday morning the dormitory children got up early to dress, cook themselves breakfast, eat, wash the dishes and do housekeeping chores before the school bell rang.

Children in school unifor doing tasks in a school canteen

Monday Morning Before First Day of Term: The Children Go About their Morning Tasks

Young boy eating vegetable soup

Spicy Vegetables for Breakfast

Thai girl in school uniform in a canteen kitchen

Kitchen Chores ~ Mae Lit School

Thai schoolgirl sweeping steps

Readying the School for Opening

Line of bicycles in schoolyard

Kids, Bikes and Dogs ~ A generous benefactor donated a number of bicycles to the school, so the children had a nice surprise for their first day back.

School lines from behind

Lines of Official Thai School-Girl Hair-Cuts

Monk on the school balcony

Monk Presiding

Woman talking to young Thai boy

Susan Chats to a Young Scholarship Recipient

Red torch ginger

Torch Ginger (Zingiberaceae) in the Schoolyard

Spring rice terrace

Fragrant and Impossibly Green ~ Early Rice on the Road Back Down Out of The Hills

These are some of the poorest villages in the country, where life changes slowly. The days in the fields are long and hard, so it is tempting to keep older children home to help. Many families have virtually no income, making it impossible to pay for uniforms, books, travel, and all the other things the government doesn’t provide for school-aged children. But, traditions are strong, communities are bonded and food is plentiful. The children at these schools are helpful, polite and wonderfully self-reliant. I have nothing against them having ready access to PCs – there is just so much else that they need more!

Regardless of who wins the next election, I have little faith that it will result in any major improvements in these communities. For these children to participate fully in the education that is theoretically available, but practically just out of reach, they will continue to need the help of “outsiders”. Susan will be visiting the students and the projects she manages again in November. If you are prepared to eat local (fresh and delicious!), travel rough on roads that sometimes disappear,To the Future (text)and sleep on the odd floor (with mats and bedding), I know she’d love to have you along to see what is needed for yourself.

In the meantime, happy travels.

  • gabe - July 1, 2011 - 3:31 am

    thought provoking as ever. love itReplyCancel

  • Signe Westerberg - July 4, 2011 - 12:18 am

    simplicity, gratefullness and many needs, not sure our precious young ones would be so gracious with so little. Just love the stories and associated pictures, thanks for sharing them. As for the election, seems there is a new woman at the helm.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - July 4, 2011 - 1:56 am

      Hey Signe! 😉 and 😉 to both your comments… I’d best not put my thoughts in print!ReplyCancel

  • Patrick Gallagher - December 17, 2012 - 9:18 am

    Another excellent and educational piece, Ursula. Thanks for sharing it.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - December 18, 2012 - 2:40 am

      I’m so glad you are enjoying some of my older posts, Patrick! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • john kenny - January 11, 2013 - 11:25 pm

    Fantastic story Ursula, but like you say , money speaks, unfortunatly, promises promises makes them more money, John11kReplyCancel

    • Ursula - January 12, 2013 - 12:37 am

      Thanks for visiting my PhotoBlog, John. Fortunately, the Hill people are pretty resilient, and for the most part manage in spite of unfulfilled government promises.ReplyCancel

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *