For some weeks now in Thailand I’ve been teaching English to teenagers with a disability, many of them in wheelchairs and now we’re travelling, the senior classes, to Maechaem, high in the hills above Chiang Mai, to hold an English teach-in to Karen hill tribe students.
Karens are tribal people, mountain dwellers, with their own language and traditions but now, through a fairly comprehensive out-reach program from the Thai government, are gradually being brought into the national community. The majority of Karens are Christian, Catholics.
Chiang Mai is a tourist city, famous for superb handicrafts and silks; its night market is one of the highlights of most farang visitors’ tours. But we won’t be staying there, instead we’re going to the Pa Fang Catholic Center, sited deep in Thailand’s largest national park and a centre of education for Karen children.
The Center – the spelling is American, as are the Redemptorists, who established this school – and the bus we’re travelling on has been donated by Danish well-wishers, and is specially designed to take wheelchairs up in a motorized lift allowing passengers be lifted in and out seated in comfort and safety.
The journey from Pattaya in Chonburi province adds three hours to the 10 to 12 hour Bangkok-Chiang Mai run. The unlit winding road through the National Park takes another three.
Our driver started driving at 5.00 am and we arrive at Pa Fang after 11.00 pm. I wonder how he copes but he shows up at breakfast the next morning showered and smiling, ready to take a spin on his bike, which he has brought along in the bus, packed in with the wheelchairs.
When we near gates of the Center, we spot the Center’s ute, lights flashing to tell us we’d arrived at the right spot and Father Eck, Chinese-Thai and imperturbable, even at midnight, welcomes us in.
My students, four in wheelchairs, are shown to a dormitory room – there’s one bed, five padded cotton mattresses on the floor and thick quilts. September is the cool season in Chiang Mai and I haven’t been in dormitory accommodation since boarding school. The students – by now I know them all by their nick names – kindly offer ‘Teacher’ the bed.
Teacher accepts with thanks. The mattress, too, is padded cotton and hard, but I’m so tired, I can’t feel anything. Next morning I wake to the sound of a rural day, roosters crowing, his hens scratching industriously among the cultivated herbs and the clatter of cooking pots as women wearing embroidered skirts of the hill tribes prepare rice-congee breakfast, overseen by a smiling nun, herself Karen. On the verandah I see a student, head bent in prayer, her body hunched into her wheelchair. She is one of two Muslim girls on this trip, a clever, alert young woman, bright eyes under her black hijab.
Soon we’ll be starting English lessons in Maechaem school, a government school with over 1000 students, the majority Karen, the only school in this mountainous district apart from a small private Catholic school about 300 kilometres away, most of those uphill.
Our ‘Sharing Knowledge’ project is underway.
Last year all celebrations were muted including New Year fireworks due to the death of the monarch. The students dutifully wore black tee-shirts and pinned black ribbons to their left sleeves as the nation mourned and several whitewashed elephants were brought from the old royal capital Ayutthaya, to kneel in obeisance before the royal palace. In Bangkok
Thais dutifully continued to wear black mourning for months while all public buildings and offices including schools and churches mounted life size coloured photographs of His late Majesty. Even the ancient Loy Krathong festival, when lighted candles in tiny paper boats, krathongs, are floated along waterways, were toned down. One of the songs the students enthusiastically practiced was about this festival, a happy, easy-to-sing melody, and later, under a full moon Thai and Karen girls joined hands to sing the old song.
November full moon shines
Loy Krathong, Loy Krathong
The water’s high in the river and the klong
Loy, Loy Krathong, Loy, Loy Krathong…
I’ll be sorry to leave Maechaem. The Karens are a healthy, hardworking community and hopefully, they will never be considered unwanted aliens in Thailand or need to assert their ‘separateness’ as is the case with Rohinja Muslims, Catholic Basques and Hindu Sri Lankans. Next year I shall certainly come back.
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