Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mae Sot, Burmese Migrant Workers and a Visit to a Thai Karen Village

Tak Province near Mae Sot with Burmese mountains in the distance

Along the Moie River in western Thailand and eastern Burma is an area where an ethnic group known as the Karen have lived for centuries. The Karen community straddled the river, which was the life blood for irrigation, transport and commerce. Fifty years ago, the Karen and other ethnic groups experienced a great disruption to their way of life when the British drew a political boundary along the Moie between Burma and Thailand, dividing families and local communities. 

Today, political instability and a government campaign to eliminate the Karen from Burma has led to a shift in population and political situation in Thailand. Thousands of Karen refugees have fled from the advancing Burmese army and now live in refugee camps in Thailand, from which they cannot leave. Others moved to Thailand to live with families or as migrant workers when the area where they lived became increasingly unsafe. Many still live in Burma but shuttle back and forth on small boats, staying clear of immigration officials in both countries. Internal politics as well as Thai-Burmese tensions have made it difficult to move freely. 

Recently, we accepted an invitation to visit friends who live in a Thai Karen village (these are Thai citizens, not Burmese, refugees or migrants). Flying to Mae Sot, we spent two days touring the area, meeting with teachers of children whose parents are Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, and attending a Baptist church service (really) delivered entirely in the Karen language, followed by a birthday party and community dinner. It was an intimate look at the way of life of a people I have only heard about. I came away with a better understanding of another aspect of life in Thailand, and a new perspective on this ethnic group shared by Thailand and Burma. I use the name "Burma" rather than "Myanmar," as the latter was chosen by the repressive military government without, as my Karen friend explained, asking the people. All of the people we met referred to their homeland as Burma. However, as was also explained, when in Burma and dealing with authorities, "We use 'Myanmar' just to play it safe."

This situation is most certain to change with the official opening of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Community in January 2015, as well as the increasingly democratic path being taken in Burma. In fact, one Burmese expatriate I met confidently predicted that "everyone will be able to go home before that."

This area is famous for its jade and other stones. Here a buyer carefully inspects merchandise in Mae Sot. The town also has many jewelry shops that sell rubies and sapphires which are mined in the area. Many merchants are Burmese muslims that settled in Mae Sot decades ago.

I have wondered who hems all of the tarps sold everywhere in Thailand. 
Apparently, it is this man.

Rice fermenting in the bed of a pickup truck.

Detail of a typical altar depicting a revered monk. This one is on the wall of a restaurant.

Tombs with ashes of the dead. 
My Thai daughter warned me that I would have bad luck for taking the photo.

Beautiful window at a Buddhist temple in Mae Sot.

Shop window, Mae Sot.

Al fresco painting outside a Burmese migrant worker weaving shop in Mae Sot.

Squat toilet with water basin for dipping flush water.

Decorative wall art at tea house, Mae Sot.

View from a tuk tuk, Mae Sot

Vendor at Mae Sot night market

Fresh batch of fried maggots. Yum!

Chinese Buddhist temple, Mae Sot night market

Squid kababs

Mae Sot night market fruit vendor

Hundreds of Burmese migrant workers come to Thailand to find seasonal work. With them come their children who their parents send to non-Thai approved Burmese schools. Although the Thai government does not recognize the schools, they are allowed to operate with Burmese teachers. The students do not receive Thai diplomas nor do they take the graduation standardized tests that are required for university attendance in Thailand. The students rarely finish high school, and those who do have a difficult time finding admission into a college or university. Talented students may receive scholarships to study for their GED and gain admission into universities in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.

Few computers are available so students do not have access to the internet. The schools are run by non profit organizations that receive donations from various sources. Some of the money goes for building materials, some for supplies, some for salaries. The teachers make an equivalent of $60US (2,000 Thai baht) a month, "If they get paid," the director of one education agency told me. Head teachers fare a bit better, making up to $150 (5,000 THB). Of the school-age migrant worker children, only 60% attend school and 3% graduate.

For information about the migrant worker schools, go to (Burmese Migrant Worker Education Center).

Saturday meeting of head teachers from the area near Mae Sot

A special lunch was prepared for us in one of the teacher work rooms.
This school was built by donations from New Zealand.

Toilets provided by USAID

Young Burmese volunteers at the school. They wear the distinctive Burmese powder on their face to shield from the sun's rays

Washing up after lunch.

Not far from the school is one of Thailand's most famous waterfalls, Phacharoen.

Phacharoen has 95 levels of tumbling water.

Beautiful ground cover at the national park.

Our visit to a small village only a few hundred meters from the river was an eye opener. Being guests at such an intimate gathering was humbling and highly educational. The people, both Thai and Burmese Karen, were very hospitable. It was somewhat surprising to attend a Baptist church service in a mainly Buddhist (95%) country, and amazing to listen to it being delivered (and sung) in the Karen language.
The church service was on the second floor of our friends' house.

Hymns are always part of the occasion.

Pot luck after the church service. The food seemed endless. 

A walk to the Moie River that separates Thailand and Burma.

A huge ceremonial drum at a local Buddhist wat (temple).

Down the street from the Baptist service, the monks had a full house too.

Monk meditation rooms.

Woven baskets for giving alms to monks.

This personable young monk stopped to chat and encouraged me to wander the grounds and take photos. Are you Burmese? "No, I'm Thai."

Burmese prayer banner and objects hung from strings to fend off evil spirits. Thai Buddhists are eclectic: they will accept anything that has the potential to protect them from harm, whether it is a Buddhist practice or not.

Side of a traditional house in the Mae Sot area: woven bamboo and leaves gathered from the forest floor. How long will it last? "Three years, or five if woven tightly."

This odd root is "krat ja," which must be cooked to be eaten. There were signs all along the road urging motorists to stop and buy. I think it is a starchy food, somewhat like a yam. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to cook and eat them. Maybe next time.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paradise Found

Notice the throngs of tourists. Oh, you don't see them? THAT'S WHY I LOVE IT!

One might think that a person living in a tropical location has his choice of exotic, peaceful getaways, and may imagine iconic scenes of hammocks under palm trees, coconut drinks and a Crusoe-like existence. To be sure, these places do exist, but only because they are not known by half of Europe's tourists. Beautiful beach resorts, highland bungalows and misty mountain hideaways abound in Thailand, but I find it difficult to enjoy most of them, as I require solitude and a peaceful environment. Thailand's well known resorts are not serene because of their popularity. But recently, I returned to an island that does offer the peaceful atmosphere that I need. My paradise is an easy bus ride from Bangkok, and since it has (so far) no high rise hotels, booming beach bars or massive resorts, it is often not on the tourist radar, and thus not many people crowd its lovely beaches. It is covered with verdant rain forests, sliced by streams with tumbling waterfalls, and has excellent diving and snorkeling. Here it is, without the name. But come visit and I'll take you there.

This is about as exciting as it gets here.

If you get bored doing nothing, you can watch the fishing boats going by.

The beach vendors had so few customers that they passed the time by collecting shells. No, that isn't a life guard: no lives to guard! He just wanted a shady spot to rest.

Jewelry offered by beach vendors, including illegal tiger tooth necklaces. I was this vendor's only customer that day.

OK, time to watch the fishing boats again, this time with their nets deployed.

One can fully appreciate the beautiful sunsets, as this is a place you can forget your watch and not check email.

Not an OSHA approved work site.

Gathering storm. The monsoon rains add to the ambiance, as you can sit on the porch and watch the rain, or get cozy inside your bungalow.
This is my paradise. I hope you find yours where ever you are. You don't need a beach or a palm tree, just a slice of nature and solitude, whether in a town park, a nearby stream, a stretch of lonely beach, or your back porch. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Switching Gears

Now that I have not been a teacher for the past three months, I have done a lot of reflecting on the transition from the school campus and teaching schedule to a more flexible consulting position. Although still in education, my new job brings with it a different kind of responsibility as well as unforeseen challenges. When former colleagues ask me if I miss teaching, I am quick to reply, "To be honest, no I don't." It came as a surprise to me, and often as a shock or in some cases verification to others, but I really don't miss it. After 37 years in the classroom (4 more as a consultant to school districts), it was time to do something else. However, I am also quick to add that what I do miss is the camaraderie that goes along with teaching. I had to stop teaching to realize just how much of a social enterprise teaching can be, not only with students at various levels, but more with other teachers. This was driven home to me during the first week of school last month. I happened to have been on campus for business, and chatting with some colleagues and former students, when it was time for the first block of classes to begin. Suddenly, the halls were empty except for me. It was then that I understood that I was now an outsider, despite my continuing friendships with teachers, and as a parent of a student. I no longer had access to the school email system, in fact I could not gain access at all to the internet from my computer. I was no longer part of the faculty. It was a tough moment, and it still gives me pause every time I return.

This isn't my first consulting job, having done it for a few years in the U.S. for a state agency. But it is an entirely different set of rules when in a different culture. My position with an agency that advises the Ministry of Education involves special projects that involve English curricular issues in math and science. All of my colleagues are well educated Thais, many of whom studied or lived in the U.S., Canada, UK, New Zealand or Australia. When one is a lone westerner in an agency of 300, one tends to stand out. I find myself feeling that I need to ratchet up my efforts and be constantly on top of my game, as though all eyes are on me. They aren't (I don't think), but I can't escape the feeling. I enjoy the flexibility of working from home, or often from coffee shops with wifi, and dread the trips downtown for meetings, not because I don't like working there, but because the traffic jams are horrendous at the times I need to travel. Once there, however, I work with a cadre of about six educators developing projects and brainstorming new ideas to forward, which is very rewarding. It is an exciting time in Thailand as they revise their standards in science and math, and move to integrate English in many of their demonstration schools, and eventually nationwide as the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Community steams toward reality in 2015 with English as an official mode of communication between the ten countries. 

I find that my Thai is improving daily. It comes from deciding to actually listen closely to people speak Thai as well as trying to learn new words or phrases each day, studying the tones and emphases that can easily confuse non-Thai speakers. I carry a hefty English-Thai dictionary with me. It is well used, evidenced by the tattered pages. Learning Thai is a challenge, but it makes a world of difference in how I am viewed, as well as how much I learn about Thai culture. I have come to believe that it is not possible to understand another culture very well without speaking its language. I know many westerners here who consider themselves some level of "expert" on Thailand, but cannot communicate with anyone in the native language. I have found that by not making an effort, one's level of cultural understanding is quite low, as the language is rich in nuances that don't translate well. I've heard all the excuses for not learning Thai, but what it boils down to is respect. When one "expects" natives to speak English, to me it is a sign of great disrespect (I bite my tongue every time I hear someone gush "I found a bank teller who speaks English really well!"). I suspect Thais feel the same way although on the surface they would never show it. Having moved out of an English speaking environment (international school) to a Thai one has helped me understand so much more about the culture. Often it is a struggle to speak Thai, but it gets easier each day. I also have found that there are things about Thai culture I have learned that I would never have known otherwise simply because I know a modicum of the language, and am willing to try it, simple though my utterances may be. That, I believe, opens an avenue of trust larger than if I did not make an attempt at the language.

With a flexible schedule where I am treated as a professional who does not have to justify how my time is spent each day, the temptations are great to do little things other than work. I can't work at home anymore because while there I am constantly setting about doing chores that normally are left until evenings or weekends. So, I end up in coffee shops or restaurants, which have their own temptations to be sure. Granted, I spend more money that way, but I tend to get more work done there as long as an acquaintance doesn't show up and want to chat. 

So, the transition is coming along well. My greatest wish is that Bangkok hurry and extend its sky train out my way!