Friday, 28 November 2008


Things are very tense here at the moment!! The PAD are refusing to leave Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports and the PPP (Ruling Government) are refusing to stand down. Last night tanks were spotted on Bangkok streets and ten buses full of troops were seen leaving Prachin Buri which added fuel to the rumours about the possibility of another coup. So far today, we have heard that Mr Somchai (The Thai PM) has authorised the use of force by the police to disperse the PAD who have responded by stating that there will be chaos in central Bangkok (They are threatening to block traffic at 50 intersections which would bring the entire city to a standstill) if the police move against them and that they are prepared to 'fight to the death'. In my opinion The tragedy here is that it's the Thai people's blood on the streets whilst the two leading factions battle it out using words, the media and anything else at their disposal. I guess the big question is are the two sides man enough to call a truce and sit round the negotiating table (which I feel is going to have to happen at some point anyway) before any more innocent lives are lost?

We are fine so please don't worry. We are at least a 30 minute drive from both airports so are no-where near the main trouble spots. Last night we were told to stock up on money, food and water as a precautionary measure which we did (Note to self: Don't let Chris do the stocking up ever again....he came back with what he loveingly called 'panic bought' donuts and ice-cream....honestly!!).

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Mae Hong Son (Day 2) - The Village of Mae Jong

I was going to split the details of my trip over two posts but when I sat down to write day 2 I discovered that to do it justice, and to share my impressions of the place (and some of the stories of the people who live there), the village of Mae Jong needed a post all to itself!!

The lovely Lane mentioned in her comment on the previous post that she was curious as to why the people are known as The Karen Hill Tribe so I thought I would try and give you a brief history.

If your not interested in the history you can skip this bit :-)
The Karen people are originally from Burma. There are roughly 7,000,000 Karen People in Burma and around 400,000 in Thailand. When the current Government came into power in Burma the Karen people aspired to have the areas where they were the majority formed into a 'region' within Burma similar to what the Shan, Kachin and Chin peoples had been given but, due to the fact that they boycotted the elections (This was because their people had been massacred by both the Japanese and the Burmese Army during World War II and had received no justice), they were not included in the 1947 constitution (The Karen were not the only ones...the Mon People got no consideration as well). I don't know what their name was originally but when Burma was carved up into different regions by the Government the Karen people took their name from the land on which they had lived. The Burmese Goverment (I should probably say Myanmar but I can't get used to calling it that) refuse to recognise them as Burmese citizens and the Thai Government don't recognise them either!! (They are known for their weaving and hand crafts hence the pictures). So, back to the village.

We were dragged from our peaceful slumber at 6am by the Princess's anthem being blasted out of speakers across the hillside. We were then lulled into a false sense of security by a few moments silence, when we thought we might be able to get a few more minutes shut eye, before the Kings anthem started!!! (No-one had warned us about that but I have to say that it's a very good alarm system....there is no way you could sleep through it!!). I dragged my carcass out of my sleeping bag and was shocked to discover that it was actually cold....proper cold!! Do you remember me telling you that the water for showering was in a concrete bath and that you had to scoop it up and pour it over yourself?.....well, I had to use all my powers of persuasion to convince myself to pour the second lot of water over my skin. The first one was bad but the second one.....holy crap it was freeeeeeeezzzzing!!!!! Then it dawned on me that that was how these people they washed themselves and their hair every single day. We had breakfast outside looking over the valley and then it was time for us go into the village itself.

I have never seen anything like it!!! The village consisted of about 40 houses all made of wood and bamboo (which had been built by the villagers themselves!!) and had a large clearing in the middle of it which was obviously used as the village meeting area. The whole place just bustled with life...there were little pigs (and I mean tiny wee things) that snuffled around your feet making very cute little snorting noises as you walked, cattle lowing as they were moved from one area to another, chickens scratching in the earth and people going about their daily lives. Traditionally this was one of the villages that farmed poppies which were then used for opium but some time ago the Thai King requested that they swap poppies for cabbages so as well as the rice paddies there were also tiers of cabbages growing up the mountainside.

Life is not easy for this community.....if you look closely at the photo you will see a little track leading from the top of the hill to the huts at the bottom....the family who's land that is walk along the ridge, down the hill, work in the fields, walk back up the hill and then back along the ridge to their home......and they do that every day!!!

This is a picture of a man in the process of slaughtering one of his cows....every single scrap will be used in some way or other. I don't know if you can see it clearly in the picture but he has spread a bamboo mat on the ground just next to his house which he is using to keep the carcass out the dirt. The woman here is being helped by her neighbours to wash the entrails and other bits (bits is the technical term obviously!!)

We stopped and had a chat with this woman using one of the teachers as an interpreter. Her husband passed away a number of years before so she was out chopping her own wood for a fire later in the evening. She told us that the bracelets on her arms give her strength which is why she is still able to chop wood, cook and be a help to the community. She wasn't sure just how old she was but she knew that she was over 80.

Some of the villagers had got together and were sitting chatting in the meeting area of the village. I have to say that the number of people smoking was really surprising....I'm not sure why I found that so surprising but I did!! It was here that I met a woman who told me that her son was one of the first kids to go through the school and that he's now studying to be a Doctor in Chaing Mai. She earns two thousand baht a year (That's about £35) and she gives one thousand five hundred of it to her son....she was so proud of him!!! I tried to take some pictures of the villagers surreptitiously.....I hope I've managed to capture something of the place and it's people.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Mae Hong Son (Day 1)

I have been struggling for the last week to work out how to blog about my trip away....I think my main problem has been that I was deeply affected by it and I just didn't know how to share that with you!! So, I've finally decided that I should just start writing about it and see what happens....

I'm not going to bore you with the details of our entire journey (but it did involve being up at the ungodly hour of 4am.....the only reason you should ever be up that early is when you've not been to bed yet!!) so I will start with when we all met up at Chiang Mai airport. There were eight of us altogether and we were a truly international group - We had Karl and Britta from Germany representing the International Group of Bangkok, Vesna and Margaret from New Zealand representing ANZWG (Australia and New Zealand Women's Group), Carolyn and myself representing the BWG (British Women's Group), Brenda who is from the States and Susan who was leading the trip (She's originally from Tasmania) and has been working in the area we were visiting for over 20 years.

Our first stop was at a small market town called Hod (pronounced Hot.....which incidentally it wasn''s the cool season here and for the first time there was actually a breeze!!). The purpose of this stop was so that we could buy balloons and biscuits to give to the kids who's schools we were going to be visiting (The kids rarely get any kind of treats so it's customary to take something with you). Whilst negotiations were being done on price (It's Thailand...everything can be negotiated!!) the rest of us had a look around. Hod is populated primarily by Karen Hill Tribe people who, funnily enough, have moved out of the hills....there was not much to see but I did try and get some pictures of people living their everyday lives. (If you think the butcher here is bad then just you wait!!!)

We then travelled by van for another hour or so to the first village school that we were to assess - Just to give you an idea of where we actually were.....we were five miles away from the Burmese Border in the mountains of Thailand. This school is based in the village of Mae Sued but actually provides the education for students from 8 other villages (this will increase to 10 next year). They currently have 196 children attending, their ages range from 5 up to 15, and they have over 30 students who actually live on site because their home villages are just too far for them to travel to and from every day. Awww, I can't tell you how lovely it was to actually be able to see where our money has gone!! You can see from the pictures that there has been a lot of outside investment in this school.....but it still has it's problems. The site floods every year during the rainy season so for 3/4 months each year the kids are sitting ankle deep in water!! 'Why did they build the school there then?' I hear you ask.....well, they were told to by the education people in the then Government....and yes, they did tell the education people that the site floods every year but it didn't make any difference....they were told to build it there so they did!!! The other main issue they have is the facilities for the kids that live there.....two families gave up their homes (I think they are now sharing one further up the village) so that the kids would have somewhere to sleep!! But fear's not all doom and gloom....ANZWG have just hosted The Melbourne Cup (See, I got drunk for a good cause!!) and some of the money raised from that event is going to pay for a flood wall to be built and for new accommodation for the kids *grins*.

I'm sorry this post is so huge (There is a lot more to come so I'm going to separate them into different days) but I think it's important to give you a sense of the community here. This picture is of the local villagers harvesting rice in the paddy fields and this is the mechanised contraption they use for actually making the rice.

From there we then headed to the next school which was about a 20 minute drive away in the village (If you can call it was more like a wee smattering of houses) of Huay Sing. This is one of the schools that Susan has been working with for years and you could was just lovely!! In addition to their classrooms they had a large canteen, a library, a meeting area and four purpose built dormitories for the kids that stay there. Susan was there to interview 11 kids with the view to them going on to further education - the school only has the capacity to educate them to the age of 14!!

We were then transferred from our van into....wait for open air pick up!! I think the phrase 'Eeek....this does not bode well' was going through everyone's minds as we clambered in....and, I have to be honest, if we had known where we were going I'm not sure all of us would have continued!! The pick up wove it's way up a very very curvy single track road and then along a ridge at the top of a mountain.....I kid you not when I tell you that there was at least a 100 foot drop on both sides of us....and then the road disappeared.....and we were travelling on muddy tracks slipping and sliding everywhere....we just had to trust that the driver, who has been going there every three months for the last 15 or so years, knew what he was doing but it was a hell of a scary!! We arrived in the village of Mae Jong at dusk and were taken straight to the school so didn't get to see much of our surroundings (at that point). The school was right at the edge of the village and was spread over four levels which had basically been cut out of the hillside!!! This was the school we were spending the night in.

We were shown to our rooms which were in one of the dormitories at the top of the mountain. They were basic but there was a bed (we were two to a room so Carolyn and I shared) and each room had it's own washing facilities - A squat style toilet and a concrete tub with water in it for showering with. We set out our sleeping bags and secured our mosquito net and then went out with the others to take part in a candle lighting ceremony to honour the Princess who's official funeral service was taking place over the weekend in Bangkok (The one Chris went to see). As guests we were expected to lead the community section of the ceremony....this involved taking our lit candles and inserting them into a gravel square on the main table so that they stood upright and then each subsequent Student/Teacher/Villager added their own candle till the square was full. It was really moving and very beautiful!! After the ceremony it was time for dinner and, as the only Brits present, Carolyn and I were invited to open the school's brand new canteen which was built with money from the BCTFN (British Community in Thailand For the Needy). It was an honour to cut the ribbon and even more so when we discovered that the entire village had got together to help build it!! By torch light we made our way back to our rooms and settled for the night.....exhausted but happy!!

Friday, 21 November 2008


Last weekend whilst I was away in the back of beyond (I'm still trying to work out how to blog about my trip - please be patient with me) Chris had his own adventure here in Bangkok. It was the funeral of King Bhumibol's sister Princess Galyani and Chris decided to make his way down to the Grand Palace to pay his respects.

For those of you that don't know....the Grand Palace is not a million miles away from where the PAD protesters are camping out at Government House (They took control of Government House in August and are still there). Curiosity got the better of him and, safe in the knowledge that nothing would happen to him the weekend of the Princesses funeral, he decided to go have a nosey!!

He was walking past taking a few photo's when one of the guards (these are PAD supporters that volunteer to guard the entrances) spotted him and invited him into the compound!! He said he had never seen anything like it!!! There was a huge sound stage where the main organisers spoke (and speakers dotted around the whole compound so their supporters could hear what was being said regardless of where they were), tents were pitched up around the grounds, buses with their wheels removed blocked road entrances, tyres and sandbags blocked smaller entrances and there was razor wire all over the place!! He did laugh when he spotted this. I think I would have probably found it a bit scary but he said he just found it absolutely fascinating!! Aren't his photo's amazing

He also stumbled upon a temple with a huge standing gold Buddha that neither of us even knew existed....that's something that we both love about living go out for the day and it never turns out exactly as you expect!!