It has only been a short time that I have been working with ATMA SEVA in Northern Thailand, but the past few weeks have been very eventful! My internship started with a trip to Wat Doi Saket and then to a Lawa Village, called Ba Pae, in the mountains of Mae Hong Song.
At Wat Doi Saket I was able to meet the novice monks studying there and see them take part in an annual gift exchange ceremony. I was given a tour of the monastery, including a beautiful new conference room used for retreats and ceremonies. This large white building overlooks the valley below with breathtaking views. It was built by a local businessman, working in Bangkok, who wanted to “make merit” and improve his Karma.
A few days later I found myself on a bus to the end of the line, where we would be met by my colleague’s cousin to help us on the final leg of the trip to the Lawa village. We hopped into the back of his truck to make the last 3 hour leg of the journey into the hills, on the dirt tracks. This was pretty rocky going and didn’t do much to help those suffering from travel sickness!
When we finally arrived however we were given a very warm welcome from the host family, who were very kind and hospitable. Their house is a large wooden building with plenty of room for us to sleep. The fire was alight in the kitchen and we sat down for tea, some great homemade food, and of course some local whiskey! The whiskey is brewed in the village and made from fermented rice balls. It is then heated in a large barrel with a fire beneath it until it is forced out of the container when it evaporates. The vapors are forced down a tube attached to the barrel, and collected in bottles ready to drink. Different families make different strengths, and local people in the village have their own particular favorites.
The point of our journey was to collect Katherine, another intern with ATMA SEVA, who had been teaching in Ba Pae for the last two months. During this time she had learned a lot of Thai (practically nobody there speaks English) and made a lot of new friends. The villagers seemed genuinely excited to have an English teacher and the kids especially were very sad to see her leave!
The local school is a nice collection of buildings with good sized classrooms and a big yard for sports and play time. The equipment for teachers however is basic, and it does not always run to the schedule that you might expect in some less rural places. It was great to see donated sports equipment (badminton sets and basketballs) being used even outside school hours. They kids were certainly happy to have it! From what I could see the children were very respectful and polite, happy and eager to work with new volunteers. They wanted to develop their language skills and seemed to be enthusiastic about their lessons, despite being a little shy to speak. Onsite there is a room for visiting teachers and volunteers to stay in, with a big bed, bathroom, and kitchenette for their use. Another teacher also stays in the school throughout the week, and returns to her family for the weekend.
While we were in the village we went to have a meeting with the “number one”, who is the elected head of the village. There are 12 villages in the vicinity that all elect a leader, who runs for two years at a time. From the 12 councilors a government representative is elected also. He told us that the village was very happy to have volunteer English teachers and was excited about the prospect of having more soon. I also had a tour, and met many of the local families and children. With 200 residents, Ba Pae is one of the biggest villages in the area, and one of the better off. The village of Ba Pae is one of the only villages in the mountain which has a basic health clinic, meaning sick villagers from the surrounding area are forced to walk there on poorly maintained trails for basic health care facilities.
Although we were visiting a week after Christmas, according to the Western calendar, we were there for the local Christmas celebrations, which were great fun! We visited the local church (built by missionaries) which was the center of the fun. Despite the fact only a percentage of the locals have converted to Christianity the venue was packed and everyone was welcome to the social event and the party! The children from the school put on a show, singing and dancing in traditional costumes, before more adult games took place. These included blowing up balloons as fast as you could – the winner being the first to pop theirs – and having grown men racing to eat cookies and drink milk from a baby’s bottle! There was also a selection of fairground games to be played, where adults and kids all won prizes donated from the church. These included toiletry kits, Dettol sets, sun hats, sweets and cookies. They proved very popular and it was highly amusing to watch the older villagers elbowing each other and pushing over the barriers to win as many prizes as they could. The competition was fierce!!
One of the tasks which we accomplished while in the mountains was to distribute clothing to a remote Karen village near to Ba Pae. ATMA SEVA learned about this village through a novice monk who is currently studying at Wat Saraphi. It is his home and he informed us of some of the challenges that they face throughout the seasons.
Simply finding the village was a bit of a challenge for us. It is tucked away down a small track which is hardly visible from the bigger track which substitutes a road! Luckily our local driver managed to locate the correct spot, and we walked down the trail to the houses.
It can be very cold in this region at night, and warm clothing is necessary – the donation from ATMA SEVA was gratefully received. While we were passing through we also took a look at their solar panels. These were provided some time ago by another NGO who never followed up on them or sent anyone to repair them. The government likewise has not followed up on promises to send someone to service them. ATMA SEVA had been informed that they have not been working for some time and as such the village had no electricity at all. We took the serial numbers and models for reference, and became apparent that it is possibly not the solar panel which is broken, but maybe just the light bulbs themselves. ATMA SEVA will continue to assist and work with this Karen village.
We were planning to stay in Ba Pae until the 3rd January; however the trip was cut short by the fact that there were no bus seats free for our return! Because a lot of students and adults who work in the city returned home for the Christmas celebration and New Year’s holiday season the seats were booked up long in advance. Luckily for us a neighbor was traveling to Chiang Mai on the 1st January in a pickup truck, and kindly let us sling our bags, and ourselves, in the back. It was considerably more comfortable than the bus and the ‘air con au natural’ was also very welcome, as well as the tanning session! It showed how limited the local transportation services are however, even taking into account that buses only run as far as the town 2-3 hours down the trail.
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