we took public buses to mae hong son province (crazy 8 hour ride though the mountains in a cramped, decrepit school bus with holes in the floor and people sitting on top of each other. there were monks with televisions, hilltribes people in purple velvet, and babies hanging out of open windows.)
so look at that map- in the upper left corner, you see Mae Hong Son really close to Myanmar (Burma). all along that border, all the way to the bottom are the mountain ranges that separate thailand from burma. these mountains are home to dozens of different ethnic groups of people, each of whom have their own language, dress, traditions, and culture. Some live on the burmese side (or used to... before the military dictatorship in burma) and some live on the thai side.
there is a specific ethnic group that isdsi has ties to, they are called the Karen (pronounced, kuh-REN. emphasis on the second syllable, dad). Karen. so there is a Karen woman who works in the isdsi office, her name is toto, and she came with us on this field course because we visited 5 karen villages. they don't speak thai in these villages, they speak karen (although many villagers knew some thai, so we were able to communicate some).
so what we did was backpack from village to village.
we started in pakalo village, stayed one night there,
backpacked with all our belongings and clothes and notebooks and socks, up mountains and down valleys and along ridges and through jungle and over rocks and between vines and over rivers and past caves and vipers and leeches and fig trees and termite mounds and we heard gibbons howling and saw a thousand lizards and sweat like pigs (it was some tough hiking) to huey nam village,
we stayed 2 nights there,
then backpacked to nam hoo village, spent 2 nights there,
then to huey hee village, 4 nights there,
then huey tong kow village, 5 nights there.
all these villages were karen villages, and some had no road access- the paths we took though the jungle were the ONLY way in and out of the communities. the villages were maybe 20 houses large, all of them rice farmers (and chicken owners and pig owners and water buffalo and goats and dogs and cats). we would split up into 2's and each have a host family- sometimes they were young families, sometimes they were old grandparents, sometimes the houses had 4 generations living in them and we students were welcomed as one of them. the host families were truly amazing. just in a matter of days, the connections we had with these people and their community were unexplainable. we would eat, sleep, work, and sit with them, yes, but in every village we would all meet together as a community so we students could ask them questions about their livelihoods. sometimes we would sing american songs for them and they would sing karen songs back, and the joy that we all felt was wonderful.
but let me explain this further.
we visited all these communities because of what they all had in common- their relationship with the forest. all of them lived subsistence-based lives, growing and gathering all the food they consume, cutting all the wood they use, and fetching all the water they drink. the history of these karen communities with the forest was one of harmony and sustainability. they always have lived with the forest and their lifestyles have not been destructive to the ecosystems they inhabit. but the government begs to differ.
back about 100 years ago, the region's valuable hardwood forests (mostly teak wood) were discovered and started to be logged and exported. eventually it got out of control and thailand's royal forestry department decided to ban all logging and set up a thousand national parks, wildlife areas, and watershed protection areas. this seemed good because it protected the forests, but when these national parks were established, the government told all these hilltribes living in the mountains that they had to leave. the karen, the hmong, the akha, the lisu, the mien, the lahu all had to leave. their homes were now located on protected land and their human interference could not be tolerated.
sudden conflict of interests. it's the environmental groups that were pushing for the establishment of these protected areas. but the results were obvious human rights violations.
the karen villages we visited had attempted to push back on the government, claiming their way of life was in harmony with the forest, but their plea has not been heard. mostly for one reason: their form of agriculture.
lots of the karen practice swidden agriculture.
this entails a lot of slashing and burning, crop rotation, long fallows, and mixed seed. in actuality, the whole process is very sustainable and healthy for the forests they live in. it protects the watershed, diversifies the forest, and doesn't deplete soil nutrients (we studied a lot about this... we even got to help plant some). but whenever the government officials came out to the villages to see 'how they live sustainably with the forest', all they see is the karen lighting sections of woods on fire and they are immediately discounted.
so lots of these villages have had to leave,
some have been allowed to stay, but had to switch their livelihood,
but some have stayed against the rules, continuing to practice swidden agriculture, and every year forest rangers come to check on them, but the rangers feel sorry for them and let them stay, or they are bribed (... corruption is so common and it's really frustrating). but their place as karen farmers in protected areas is not stable- the government could put their fist down at any time and force out these villages. the future is unsure.
SO when we've spent a few days with a strange family, gone out and planted rice with them, played endless hours with their children, and met with the whole community about what we've learned and what else we want to know, the villagers are overjoyed. the government comes for one day and condemns their lifestyles, but we come to learn from them, legitimize them, and find that their lifestyles are beautiful and inspirational. the kind of connection that is then forged between us 17 american students and the community is strong and hard to explain.
so that is what the issue was generally about- there is a lot more too it and i could write pages and pages of all the conflicting interests and philosophical theories, but the experience was much more to me than that. seeing such simplicity in villages so disconnected from a destructive world was something i will never forget. when you killed a chicken, every bit of it was used and not wasted. when a six year old turned on the water spigot, she only turned it on for what she needed, not letting a drop spill. just living a lifestyle of MODERATION blew my mind. i growing up and even now i'm surrounded surrounded by EXCESSIVE everything, and i am glad and filled with hope after living in the same homes as these families. their affection toward each other was also a powerful thing to witness. the villages housed such an open sense of community that bowls were borrowed and friend's kids were disciplined. during one community meeting, my host dad, a new father, came and sat next to me. there was a kid sitting on the floor in front of us and my dad scooped him up onto his lap, gave him a big hug, then looked to see the face of whose child it was. it wasn't even his son, but that didn't matter. everyone showed such affection with each other, especially noticeable was fathers' affection to children. this is something not as common in american or thai cultures, affection being predominately effeminate.
other random experiences:
climbed to the highest point in mae hong son,
lived by myself with a village medicine man for 6 days,
attended a karen church service (many karen are christian... go figure),
husked rice by hand,
didn't sit in a chair once (you always sit on the floor),
slept through rain storms under fan palm roofs,
wove a basket,
got really sore,
got really strong quads,
swam in thailand's last major 'untouched by tourists' waterfall,
took 3 rolls of film,
learned a little of the karen alphabet,
identified tons of trees,
swat at a million sweat bees,
received gifts from strangers,
and received generosity, inclusion, and love from acquaintances who i could barely communicate with.
Huey Tong Kaw Village
This is what planting rice on the side of a mountain looks like.