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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thailand Laos Village Schools

In my 20's, going "on the road," was a guaranteed source of inspiration, punctuated by full impact encounters, and intriguing coincidences. I wasn't so sure if it would generate the same rewards three decades later, or if I might get sidetracked by neuroses and bodily distractions I've collected over the years. Two days after turning 56, I took off for a solo, 25-day trip to Thailand and Laos, cashing in my airline "infrequent flyer" mileage. It went by in a flash and delivered all the best goods of the antecedent, longer trips. You know the magic is working when you wake up each morning full of enthusiasm for whatever will unfold and the unknown people you will meet. Having spent my "career-years" in the non-profit sector, I included a number of visits to various projects that I either found by "googling" beforehand or by walking around in the towns I visited. The next few blogs will detail some of those project visits.

Before I left the U.S., I made contact with a guy living in Mae Hong Son, Thailand - a picturesque little town near the border with Myanmar. He is trying to get a "community service" project off the ground that will bring supplies for young students at remote schools in the hill villages close to the border. He saw me as a potential link to funders or to an agency that could act as a fiscal agent for donations and grants. I started to receive some rambling emails from him that answered just a couple of my questions and that implied we would spend several days together. I drew some boundaries on our upcoming time together and hoped for the best, knowing that we'd be bringing supplies to two school sites.

When the squat, bouncy propeller plane dropped me off at the little airport, it wasn't long before all my fellow passengers had made their way out of the facility and into town. Apparently, my internet friend had forgotten my arrival info. All the tuk-tuks and taxis were gone. A thick, friendly woman about my age rode me into town on her motorcycle, dropped me at my guesthouse (motel) and rode by my "host's" house to tell him I arrived. A few minutes later he knocked on my door, along with two associates.

He was a retired American who has lived in Thailand for about 25 years - beginning with his Viet Nam war service - stationed in Thailand. He then worked for Chevron in the states and returned to Thailand when his contract was bought out. Right away he told me he had the shakes from tying one on the night before and needed to drink some beer during our morning meeting. We headed over to a restaurant where he could tell me more about his work and his plans over his beers and my coffee. I'll call him "Down the Hatch" since the beers were followed by shots of whiskey and more beers throughout the day. One of his associates was a formerly high ranking, retired Thai military man who I'll call Mr. Sir. The other was a devoted assistant and driver for Mr. Sir who still does undercover work and could not be named. "Down the Hatch" and "Mr. Sir" met way back during the war years and they share a deep affection for each other.

We drove 55 kilometers into the mountains skirting the Myanmar border and first-gearing a long ways up a very narrow unpaved, extremely vertical stretch to reach a very remote, impoverished Lahu or Shan village. Miraculously I did not get car sick and did not even take a Dramamine when far smoother, straighter rides have made me sick back home. (Did the little white string bracelet that an old monk tied round my wrist in a Chiang Mai temple, have anti-nausea properties?) "Down the Hatch" was not so fortunate, and regurgitated a bit into his baseball hat. We passed by a couple of military checkpoints where teen-age soldiers were on the lookout for "illegal aliens" or drug runners from Myanmar.

The school building was just a room with no desks and a couple of pictures on the wall. All the kids stood in lines just outside the school room, waiting patiently for the blankets and school supplies that Mr. Sir handed out and stepping forward one at a time to be measured for a coat and shoes to be brought on a subsequent trip. When a child was given his or her blanket, they bowed in thanks and brought it to one of the mothers standing nearby. "Down the Hatch" and "Mr. Sir" also met with a young woman they've hired ($30 per month) to help the teacher with the younger kids who need their diapers changed etc. Many of the kids were coughing even though the weather is great. The villagers said they suspected one girl had malaria, but Mr. Sir said we'd get in trouble if we took her to a hospital without first letting the government health officials come to the village to see her.

Almost no teenagers or men were in sight. Allegedly, they were either tending an opium crop or smuggling it in from Burma. There seem to be no other job opportunities or agricultural options on those hilltops. As we drive to a second village Mr. Sir passionately tells me that education of the children is the single best hope for getting them away from a life involved with opium. The second village is less remote, even though we must walk across two bridges composed of side-by-side bamboo poles. Lots of villagers come across the bridges to carry the supplies from the back of our pickup truck. These kids appear much better off, if also more rambunctious. Their village is closer to town on lower, flatter ground that allows for fields of crops. They just got a water filtration unit the week before from another agency that targets Burmese refugees.

Again, "Down the Hatch" stands to one side while Mr. Sir does all the interacting with the children and the teachers (one teacher and three assistants for about 100 kids). As little confidence as "Down the Hatch" instills as the "face" of this would-be enterprise - as a team they definitely get supplies to places that need them. And even though a grander vision for economic alternatives is needed for these remote villages, every can of sardines, every pencil and notebook, and every blanket is really needed by these children. I feel very lucky to have been part of this field trip with them and hope that I might be able to steer some $ their way from my affluent environs in Palo Alto.


  1. Elliot
    Many thanks for your wonderful descriptions and for bringing this remote corner of the planet to our attention. I wonder if you have in mind a way to continue your involvement with these children. Is there an NGO that works there?? How can your readers get involved in sharing resources with these families??
    Did that guy really hurl into his hat, or were you just being....poetic?

  2. debabraham10:24 AM

    Thanks for sharing some of your trip with us, and for bringing to our attention these villages. Are you intending to continue your connection there, and if so, how?? What is the NGO providing resources for these families??
    Did that guy really hurl into his hat or were you being poetic?

  3. Hi Deborah,
    That guy definitely upchucked a little into his hat (maybe the coffee spiked with whiskey he'd had at our rest stop along the way). Still, I feel confident that a donation would reach the kids who need it and will send you info on how to make one. I'm going to ask my bookgroup if we might make a collective donation for books and I'm going to speak with the Youth Community Service group to see if they might want to adopt a school or two next year. You could join in on the books donation if you want.

  4. Marvelous story Elliot.