I have learned so much during the field trips provided by ERI training team here in Thailand. We just had the last (and the most important) one for this semester in Chiang Khong, which is located in northeastern part of Chiang Rai district. On the morning of July 16, we all left our school, excited to learn from everyone at Mekong River School, which is situated across the Mekong river in the same district. I did not know until I got there that we were going to spend 3 days so close to the river!
Unlike the other field trips, I had an assignment this time: to capture the students’ experience and write a blog for the school focusing on the lessons learnt and how this trip is connected to the previous field trips. I believe I get such insights (into the culture and problems) by talking to the locals that I cannot include everything in just one blog post. Therefore, I’m going to focus on my personal experience in this post and share the blog I write from students’ perspective in the next.
The drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong takes approximately 6 hours, and the school provided for us a trip to the famous white temple, Wat Rong Khun. We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant before we reached Chiang Rai city and then spent an hour at the temple. I wasn’t surprised to find the temple full of tourists. I went around with a group of students and one of them (Jay) told me how the temple was painted white to reflect sunlight and keep visitors warm. We had decided to meet at 2:45PM at the parking lot and although a few people showed up a bit late, we got to our hotel on time.
We had three rooms on both the first and second floors. Men occupied the space on first floor and the rest of us went upstairs to rest and refresh. We had to go to MRS (Mekong River School) at 6. The hotel was also located next to the river. After putting my belongings in the room, I couldn’t stop myself from going outside and enjoying the serenity of this place. Thailand and Laos are separated by this river and we could see a part of Laos from where we stood. I had never been to any country’s border and it was interesting to see how close another country is, though I couldn’t enter it.
At the school, we were given a short introduction by Kru (Teacher) Tee Niwat Roykaew, the founder of MRS. His school focuses on educating younger generations and promoting community-based research. The community isn’t aware of their own strengths and people don’t know about the tools they could use to fight against injustice. Kru Tee told us how the history, culture and ecology of this community “isn’t fully realized”. After a 15-minute-long session, we were provided with delicious meal and I couldn’t stop saying “Aroi ma!” (which is ‘delicious’ in Thai). We did not have anything in the schedule for this evening so some people decided to go to the hotel and relax while the rest of us sang and played instruments at the school.
The next morning we had a couple of sessions – one with Kru Tee and another with P’Kun. Everything they talked about was new for me, except that I had sat in on some lectures and taken notes for students the previous week, so I had an idea about the environmental terms and other processes. They presented 4 topics:
- Overview of Mekong
- Damage done by the projects upstream
- Rapid Blasting
- Downstream communities and their livelihood
Numerous people depend on riverbank agriculture and trading between Thai and Laos communities. The river is also home to Irrawaddy dolphins, which Kru Tee said is an endangered species now. All the communities living across the river are also worried about the Mekong Rapid Blasting Project, which could put the ecosystem of Mekong at risk.
After lunch, we had a boat trip on the river and we went 16 kilometers upstream. The beauty that surrounded us was incredible. I have always been fascinated by the sight of clouds hovering over and in front of mountains. We were accompanied by a member of this school who focused on Rapids and how destroying them would affect thousands. When it was time to leave, I turned around and saw these dark clouds coming from the east. We quickly got into the boats and donned our raincoats. On the way back, there was a frightening rainstorm that almost ceased when we reached the deck. The vans took us to our hotels and we relaxed until it was dinner time.
Once again (and throughout the entire trip, actually), we were served delicious food by the members of MRS. Then we had spare time. I got a chance to speak with Kru Tee for a while and knowing that I was from India, he mentioned his trip to the country. He went to India a long time ago and was introduced to the idea of protesting against the companies over there. I could see the brightness in his eyes as he talked about having a hope, learning about things that could be done, about ways to approach problems like mining and land issues. He has been a primary school teacher for a long time before founding MRS and he knew English, so talking to him was relatively easy.
Kru Tee has worked for the welfare of villagers and for nature since a young age. He shared an experience from years ago when he (with the help of locals) successfully stopped the army from cutting down a forest. He knew of their plans beforehand and organized a movement at 4AM the morning that particular forest was supposed to be taken down. I was curious to know if he has faced or currently faces any security issues. Then he told us that during this movement he won the support of Thai army and convinced them of his desire to protect the environment. Thus, he does not face any danger from the army. Kru Tee does not use a cell phone or any means of online communication, so when anyone wishes to talk to him, they have to come to his school and talk in person (which I found to be really cool).
There was another very interesting conversation I had later that evening with a bird expert named Chak Kineesee. He facilitates birdwatching for tourists in several part of Chiang Rai. P Chak was curious to know where I go to school, what I study and how I liked Thailand so far. He told me stories of when he went to India. He also plays guitar and sings well. I am so glad that he let me record a couple of songs (that I really want to share on this blog). He mentioned how he started singing English songs to practise the language. The two songs I recorded are ‘Blowing in the wind’ by Bob Dylan and ‘Country Road’ by Jon Denver. He says he is not a professional singer and sings only for fun and entertainment (but he is so good!). P Chak also added a Thai touch at the end of this song! You can listen it below.
The next day, we visited Ban Huay Lek and learned about the Fish Conservation Zone in their village. They talked about their community and culture, how education is a priority for them and how Pak Beng dam could flood their village when built. The representatives included head of Huay Lek, ex-head, community philosopher and a school teacher. I am going to write more about all the details when I complete the blog I’m supposed to write for school.
Singing and Dancing
When we returned from the trip to Huay Lek, there was a cultural-exchange celebration and people had to perform either a traditional song or dance from their home country. I am the only person from India here and everyone else was able to perform in groups. Some students mentioned that they’ve never been exposed to Indian culture and therefore, were looking forward to a performance by me. It was terrifying to sing alone in front of such a big group, but I mustered some courage and sang one of the best Hindi songs, Mere Saamne Wali Khidki Mein. Because no one would understand the lyrics, I explained the meaning of the chorus, which translates to:
There lives a piece of moon
in the window across from mine…
The pity is that
it remains upset from me…
This is the gist of the song, while some people might still argue that I didn’t translate one or the other word correctly. (I apologize!) I love how ingrained music is in this culture and how it brings together people from different walks of life, of different age groups, different cultures etc. As my internship is coming to an end, I am recording all the things I’m going to miss, music being one of them. Here is another short audio clip that I want to share. I started recording at a random point when I realized how melodious the song is! This was a traditional song performed by 3 Karen students.
After coming back from the trip, I wanted to learn more about Kru Tee and found him mentioned in A River in Peril. If you scroll down the page, you’ll find a complete blog titled ‘Teacher Confronts Chinese Dams’. Kru Tee believes in “getting started”. During one of our conversations, he mentioned that planning and plotting isn’t going to help a lot. What we need is for one to do something, anything, when they see any wrongdoing. I’m so happy that I got to meet him and talk to him on several occasions. What a pleasure it has been to work for ERI and meet such phenomenal people!