2008 – Lahu Villages and Kid’s Ark

Hi everybody, hope this finds you all having a great summer.  We sure are, and on many different planes.  David and I are still in Chiang Mai and will remain for a few more days.  Kana and Jenna went to Japan five or six days ago (and I miss them big).

Getting to Chiang Mai was moderately easy.  The day from Kona to Bangkok was long but easy.  We spent one night in Bangkok, then caught a flight up to Chiang Mai (a couple hour delay, but no big deal).  Checked in to the Smith Residence just outside the moat of the old city, a hundred yards to many good street food vendors, thirty yards to a couple of massage places, a twenty minute walk to a dynamite $4 lunch buffet at a 4 star hotel.  Staff is friendly and helpful.  Other years we’ve moved around quite a bit, but this year we anchored at Smith in Chiang Mai, took a side trip up to Pai (beautiful country but full of backpackers and felt hardly like Thailand).  The hotel (Smith) costs between $180 and $290 for a month, has a pool, rooms with air con, good view, new and clean and meals at the street places still cost less than a buck.

A few days after our arrival Mark’s wife Jenny drove us to a children’s home in a town called Lampoon, 20 miles south of Chiang Mai.  It’s run by a British guy, Crosston, who was a bobby in London for 9 years and has lived in Thailand for ten years and his Thai wife.  Mark “discovered” the place, did some preliminary research and suggested that HIHF consider providing some support.  The kids, 29 of them plus three Crosston children, were fantastic — energetic, smiley, seemingly very happy.  They don’t have any staff to help and don’t have any big donors.  What they give is from the heart, but we could tell it’s a struggle for them to make ends meet.  What impressed me most was the humbleness of the room for the five Crosstons.  Mark, David and I have talked about what we thing HIHF should do to help.  There are many things they need — money for food, clothing, medicine, transportation to school, and new washing machine.  My thinking is that we give them a thousand dollars for food and what they “save” from food expenses they can spend on what they themselves think is most important.  Crosston and his wife have the full respect (and trust) of David, Mark, Jenny and me.

We had a preliminary meeting with Daeng of Kids Ark and finalized plans for our trip to the Lahu villages to the north.  A few days later David and I and one of the Kids Ark staff, Kado, were on our way.  The K.A. staff did a wonderful job in organizing.  We made sure that the methane generator at Ban Hoi Taow would begin construction before we got there.  They filled the 4WD pick up truck (loan from KA) was full of useful things for the folks and children in four villages.  We stopped along the way to fill bags with candles, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, salt, and a few sweets– one per household.

I burned a compiled Pink Floyd CD before leaving Chiang Mai.  Out of town, fairly early morning sunrise caught  Buddhist temples with little round mirrors on the outside walls sending lazer streaks through the truck’s windows — song on the machine “shine on you crazy diamond”, it was beautiful to the point of almost feeling magical, certainly auspicious.  The next song to come up was “wish you were here” and we did.  Each of you.  The next song was “What do you want from me?” which would become the repetitive question in all the villages we would visit.

First we stopped at Ban Phong Hai, the “main” Lahu village where Rita and Allan, Kids Ark, have done so much good.  The latest miracle is the construction of a Trecking House which has recently become a place where the villagers can offer accommodation for eco tours through the jungle.  (I’ll try to help promote that place with my B&B internet connections — I think it has super potential and is a good way for the people to generate income and learn something about the outside world.  At Ban Phong Hai we picked up Sila, a 30 year old Lahu, good English and Thai, and head of the Lahu Association which is trying to build some unity amongst the 90 some Lahu villages scattered across n. Thailand.  It was good to see Sila again.  He had done the contacting with a nearby  Lahu man who knows how to make the generators, Mr. Paea.  (Mr. Paea and Daeng came with us to help build the generators in Cambodia last year.)

Getting to the village, Ban Hoi Taow, was almost a nightmare. Beautiful country, but the dirt road was severely rutted, extremely narrow and vertical.  Had there been even a light rain we couldn’t have made it.  Our driver, Kado, was expert in negotiating it.  I expected the village to be poor, but it was much poorer than I had imagined it to be.  The hole for the generator had been dug and all of the material was there except the metal cap.  The road was so bad that there was no way a delivery truck could get to the village to deliver the cement rings, sand, gravel, rebar, and other parts.  It was dumped at the bottom of the mountain/hill and the villagers carried it up by hand.  The village chief arrived shortly after we did.  Very nice man, maybe 65 years old, smily face and seemingly very grateful for the help we were giving.  We talked about their other needs — they wanted clearn water from the mountain (near the top) and hoped to have PVC pipe to carry it the three miles to the village.  They invited me to climb the mountain the next day to the stream so I could see what they were talking about.  Sounded easy enough.

We spent the night in an 8 dollar guest house in the town of Tha Ton where we had stayed two years ago.  Dave and I opted not to go to the massage parlor where the massage people taught us Thail belching and farting once before, but instead drank Mee Kong whiskey and talked the night away (outside the bungalow and on the banks of the river) about what was going on.

Next day, early, back to Ban Hoi Taow.  Mr. Paea had gotten there before us and made short work of setting the culverts, inflow and outflow pipes, and cementing the works.  David had planned to get (very) baseline health data on the kids of the village — but dumb us hadn’t realized that the kids would all be at school until 4 in the afternoon (long, very long, walks to and from school).  And I had no idea that the walk up the mountain would turn into a fingernail, buttbust, sunstroke followed by jungle thicket experienced.  I must have forgotten that I’m almost an old man now and was ready to give up after a mile or so.  But the three Lahu men who were my “guides” assured me the worst was behind us, so I continued.  It sure was pretty up there.  We almost reached Burma, then came to the conflux of two streams where they intended to send the water to their village.  The splash in the water felt wonderful.

Four or five hours later we made it back to the village.  David was asleep.  I was almost dead, but very happy I hadn’t given up.  Anyway, David deserved the rest.  He was so damn good at making the villagers realize that we were not to be feared or worshed.  He brought his wonderful sense of humor and the villagers seemed to get it.  I asked the serious questions in each of the villages (“What do you want from me”) in each of the villages, David made them smile and feel comfortable.  We handed out the “care packages we had prepared, then went on to two more villages late in the day to deliver more packages.  The only thing that gave us some concern about Ban Hoi Taow was the presence of a Christian church.  On the other hand, the cross on top was partially torn down (wind? Lahu? magic?)

Sidebar — one of the neat things about the way Kids Ark organized things was the clothing and blankets we gave at the villages were made by women at a crisis center they support.  Seems like everybody wins, and man were the villagers happy when they got the stuff.

That night we stayed at the Trecking house in Ban Phong Hai.  What a view.  Had dinner and fell asleep early.  Muscle ache to the max for me.  Early the next morning off to two more villages to hand out packages.  At each of the villages we went to we met with ten or twenty of the villagers, usually, I think they were the heads of each of the families in the village, sometimes with women and children too.  Each village had two to three hundred people, thirty to fifty families, thatched roofs, no toilets, bad water.  The villagers usually worked on others’ farms, paid three to four dollars a day for long hard days.  The villages were almost always way off the road on land nobody else wanted.  Kids had to walk six to ten miles to school, some of the villages none of the kids went to school.  David, who did rural health work with the peace corps in Korea said many of the villagers seemed to have symptons of TB.  Perhaps worst of all was the fact that such a small percentage of the villagers were considered Thai citizens.  In one village, none of the people had ID cards, which meant that they could not use hospitals, receive higher education, or travel any distance for employment.  When I asked them what the greatest need for their village was, replies were:

1.  ID cards
2.  water
3.  livestock (a couple pigs and cattle)
4.  methane generator
5.  transportation so the kids could get to school

(The order changed a bit from village to village, but the needs were strikingly similar).

Both David and I took lots of pictures and we’ll put together a DVD for everybody.

We returned to Chiang Mai, taking Sila with us.  He was going to be a speaker at a symposium in Bangkok arranged by the International Association of Jourists.  When traveling around with Sila he told me of the torture that the soldiers had inflicted on the Lahu, putting them in the ground, electric prods on the neck.  Sila will be trying to grab influential ears concderning the political status and plight of the Lahu.  That evening David and I took the staff out to dinner.  I had a good talk with Rita.  She asked me if I’d consider being on the Kids Ark board and I told her I’d be honored to help.  Allan’s stroke condition is not improving and she’s torn between helping him and continuing their work with Kids Ark.

In a few days David will be returning to Hawaii and I’ll be on a bus to Laos where I’ll have some meetings with Starfish (same organization we met in Sianookville last year Ron.)  My adventure will continue for another month, then I’ll be back with dear Kana and Jenna with another head full of very rich and satisfying experiences.

Later my friends, (and I still wish you were here),