Visiting Baan Mae Had

Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Monk's hut in a rural Buddhist temple

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Sunday, December 26, 2004

My friend Monk Boun Savat is the village monk at Baan Mae Had. It is a small Karen village in Mae Hong Son Province. See Travel log number __ - it is the village that I arranged Stu to stay in for a few weeks.

For a while now I have wanted to go and visit Monk Boun Savat and spend time in that village. Seems like a good place to go and relax, read a book, meditate, maybe go for a walk in the jungle, maybe help teach the kids there, and of course visit Phra Boun Savat and have a chat. But, I have not been able to find the time to get there. :-(

Finally this month, I had some time. It will be a quicker visit than I had had hoped for, but that's better than nothing.

After finishing teaching with Kanjana on Sunday, I pack my bags and head up to Chiang Mai on the train. Luckily Boun Savat is in Chiang Mai and he rang me the day before I left. He is now waiting for me - I don't know how I was going to find the village otherwise, but I was going to try.

These are the notes I made in my notebook on:

Wednesday 15 Dec 2547:

Got up this morning and visited the village school. Kids were there cleaning the school, starting the fires and preparing breakfast. No teachers yet. These are young kids(see the pictures) and it was around 7 in the morning.

Walked a little through the village. A truck selling food had arrived. People were buying food to cook for breakfast. Although I am clearly an outsider, in this small and isolated village, the people do not fear me or look at me with suspicion. I can communicate very little with them, but they are happy for me to wander through their village.

Until Phra Boun Savat brought me to this village with a group of young Australian volunteers, in July, it had never had Westerners step foot in it. We only stayed 2 days, but later Stu came back and stayed for almost a month. This week a lone Westerner on a motorcycle also arrived. No one knows where he came from or how he found the village. But he left after a couple of minutes, unable to communicate with anyone. This was the talk of the town when Boun Savat and I arrived yesterday morning.

I have traveled from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on the train. A very comfortable and pleasant journey. Had a chat with an Australian from Benalla who was on the train next to me, and traveling with his Russian girlfriend. I arrived and headed to Wat Morn Thien and met up with Monks Boun Savat and Boun Thavee. Both were good. Boun Thavee is still having trouble with his foot. Seems painful. That night Monk Boun Savat and I traveled on the bus to Khum Yuom, It arrived at around 4 am. We slept a little on the benches at the bus station. Very cold. Boun Savat found a truck we could hire to take us to Baan Mae Had at around 6 am.

The truck ride (sitting in the back tray) was freezing. After living and visiting other areas of Thailand that are warm all year around, it is amazing how cold this part of Thailand is at night and in the mornings. After visiting a few other villages to pick up and drop off farm workers, we went to Mae Had. Paid the truck 300 Baht. Finally I was able to crop off the 4 boxes of donations that Kanjana had given me and that I have been traveling with to the village. YAY! - that has been quite an effort, but I know they will provide the villagers with some much-needed extra clothing.

Had a 'shower'. Tipping cold water over me in this temperature is not as easy as having a cold shower in my apartment in Bangkok. But the result is a clean good feeling.

Talked to Monk Boun Savat a lot about my observations of Thailand, Buddhism, etc. Discussed his future. Talked about Stu - who they still miss and want him to come back.

Ate dinner and slept in Boun Savat's hut with lots of blankets.

Today had breakfast - rice, vegetable and pork. A family cook for us and Boun Savat and I eat. The family has not eaten yet and will not eat until we do. They are not impatient and are happy to be able to be hospitable in this way. They just won't eat until we are full.

There are no major problems in Baan Mae Had. No theft, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, rape, etc, etc. The people are monogamous and I get the feeling that there are not many relationship issues. The village is almost self-sustaining in most ways. The population is not increasing (it's stable). Many of the young go to the cities to study and often they never come back to live here. They do send money back to their families though.

Thursday 16 Dec 2547

In the jungle surrounding Mae Had there are tigers, bears, deer, monkeys, gibbons, birds, squirrels, wild pigs and more. The villagers hunt all these animals and eat whatever they can catch. This is not only their traditional way of life but it is also almost an economic necessity. They can produce most of their own food but still need to supplement what they produce with either food brought from outside (with cash, which they have a limited amount) or by hunting. They do not seem to take much from hunting although this may be mainly due to the fact that there are not that many animals left in the forest.

I am aware of organizations such as Greenpeace, WWF, etc doing good work in lobbying governments, protesting and campaigning for the protection of the environment in the cities. No such organizations ever seem to come to places like Mae Had. It is here, or in the small villages in Laos, etc, where the last S. E. Asian tigers survive. It is in these areas where the environment still exists in a fairly healthy state and needs protection. The people in these areas do not use a lot of money (unlike governments or city people) and so for a low cost; organizations could educate and help the people in these areas to preserve their natural resources and the environment.

For example: traditional cultures in New Zealand and Papua Guinea had laws to protect the environment. If they knew of a breeding ground of a particular animal, hunting of that animal in that place would be prohibited / taboo. This protected the animals and also the peoples' sources of food. The traditional religions and practices of these people had (and still have in the non- Christianized areas of PNG) many such ways of self-preservation and of ensuring that they lived in a sustainable manner.

The local Karen religion and culture, although it seems very effective in teaching people to live in an ethical and harmonious way, seems to be lacking in environmental sustainability. Previously there was probably no need for these laws. The Karen lived a nomadic lifestyle. After a number of years they would move their villages and go to a new and fresh area - this in fact probably let the old area regenerate. The jungles of S. E. Asia have in the past been very lush and have provided an amazing amount of resources for the people living in them. Things are different now. The villages no longer move. The populations are bigger and the jungle is not as healthy and there is less of it.

One of the best things that an environmental organization may be able to do is to teach the people in the forests to develop their own forest reserves (protected areas). Perhaps they could allocate a section of their local forest where no hunting, farming or cutting could take place for a number of years. This would allow an area to regenerate as it could in the past. If this was supported by the village chief and explained to the locals it would be followed. The people in these areas are honest, honorable people. Perhaps some money could initially be given to the villages to compensate for the loss of some hunting area, but in the long run it would pay for itself in more resources and a healthier environment. After a number of years, the protected area could once again be used and another area could be 'given a rest'.

That was the end of my coherent note taking.

Other things I noticed and thought about included:

Most parents want to send their kids to the city to get an education and to get jobs. This already happens to a large extent although there still seems to be enough young people in the village. The people from the village who now live in the city send money home and come and visit when they can.

This practice obviously has benefits to the community but I also have some concerns about it.

Currently, as we saw when the volunteers were here in June, all the villagers help each other when it is time to plant rice or do any major work. They work hard helping in one person's fields and when finished they move to the next field. This is a time for the villagers to get together, work hard together and have meals together. At the moment in the village, there are some families that are richer or more comfortable than others, but the differences are not great. As I have already stated, the village is mainly a relaxed, happy, cohesive and safe place to live, free of crime and major unnatural concerns.

What happens when there are less and less young people to help in the hard work of farming? Less young people to grow up in the village and give birth to the next generation? What about when one family's children get good paying jobs in the city whilst another family's kids have poor paying jobs or no jobs? One family receives more money than another and the gap between the rich and poor grows. What happens when one family can afford to pay other people to do their share of farming?

Slowly the cohesive peaceful community becomes divided and less of a community. Less sharing of hard times and good times. Is this really progress for the community? I fear this is already slowly happening to these people. Once again their old customs and ways do not cope with these new events, as they have never had to before. More and more there will be pressure for the young ones to go to the city and earn money. More and more these young Karen people desperate for work and money in the city will be able to be exploited.

I hope this is not the case. I very much like the communities as they are now. Without a doubt they could benefit from more money and some further comforts, but it seems a very delicate balancing act to be able to bring these things into an old and happy way of life without destroying it. Already I suspect this same process has happened in many parts of Isaan (Thailand's North East, which has very poor farming conditions). In Bangkok there are now many Isaan people, some have done well for themselves whilst many others work in the hardest and poorest paying jobs. They also send money back home, but their home villages are no longer the same as they once were. Hmmm. Sad to see this happening to a nice, if slightly hard way of life.

Too soon I needed to leave the village. I needed to get across the border and get my passport stamped. With some help from Mong (thanks) we figured out that the closest border crossing was the Myanmar border at Mae Sot. So early one cold morning I said goodbye to Monk Boun Savat and some of the villagers and got in a ute (in the front this time - as I was paying quite a bit to hire it) and we drove to Mae Sot.

The scenery along the road and along the Thai / Myanmar border was quite beautiful in many parts. Along the way I noticed a Western man and his pregnant Thai wife who had parked their car. Also we passed what, at first, looked like a normal Thai village. It was in the most beautiful setting with the Moey River running along beside it and the rugged and tree covered cliffs and mountains of Myanmar right beside the river. However I noticed that the village went on for much, much longer than a normal village, the huts were very tightly packed together and the Thai Army had many vehicle check points near it. It was in fact a refugee camp and contained about 40000 - 50000 Burmese refugees. Thailand has quite a few of these camps and the numbers of refugees living in Thailand is enormous.

Eventually we got to the border. I crossed and the truck went back to the village. Again the border town was nothing to write home about - so I won't. Walking back across the bridge into Thailand I spoke to a nice Englishman who was living in Thailand. He said he'd driven along the same road as I had for part of the way and that perhaps I had seen him. I asked him if his wife was pregnant - she was. He was the only other Westerner I had seen along the way. I had lunch with him and his wife and they very kindly drove me to Kamphaeng Phet. That was very handy as I was yet to figure out how I would get back to Bangkok from the Myanmar border. From Kamphaeng Phet I could easily catch a bus back to Bangkok.

I was back in plenty of time to go to Sunday teaching with Kanjana. Also on this Sunday, my friend Hayley and her friend Laura were in Bangkok and they came to help teach. YAY!

Last week I also heard from my friend Jaree. She used to teach in the Kindergarten with me but left. She is now teaching in a school near the border, which has many orphans. And she no longer uses money. She does not accept pay, but instead accepts food and shelter and does not spend any money. I was delighted by this news for some reason. Jaree is a strong minded and intelligent girl and it makes me happy to hear that she has the strength to follow her principles. I love that in Thailand I get to meet some very interesting people, although I must say that it is rare to meet someone with such will power. I also love the fact that it is possible here for Jaree to get by without the use of money - it must be hard for her and she obviously has to go without some comforts, but it is quite possible. I lent her some of my warm clothes as she is a thin vegetarian girl and I imagine she must be freezing where she is. I hope they have arrived.

As I am finishing writing this the news is coming through now that hundreds of people have been killed in Thailand by tidal waves and thousands more in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, etc.
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