Life in Chiang Mai: A Charitable Experience

Chiang Mai is stocked full of young American graduates looking to do good in this world. It is a city full of volunteers and retirees, some who care about the place in which they are lucky enough to live and others who seem entirely impartial to the happenings in this tiny pocket of the world. The typical NGO has gained weight in a town like Chiang Mai, within close proximity to so many hilltribe villages that are in need of outside help. Villages so poor that they only have one school, where most of the children are raised by their grandparents because their mothers left, long ago, to become ‘bar girls’ in the big city. Villages where fathers are either working in another place or spend so much time smoking the local weed that they don’t know what is going on around them.  This is a sad state of affairs for the future of Thailand, because that’s what these kids are… The future.
Living in Chiang Mai is an experience, certainly one that you will either love or grow to resent, but an experience none-the-less. The people you meet here will etch a place in your heart, without you even realizing until you are sitting in another place contemplating what the true meaning of your life is. The people here have done that to me, both farang (foreigner) and local alike. Chiang Mai is a place that captures your heart and will always be in your thoughts. One of the beauties of living in a relatively small town such as this, is that making friends is never a difficult task and in our time here we have been lucky enough to make many. So when we were invited to visit a hilltribe village with a group of Thai friends of ours, naturally we jumped at the opportunity.  
Drinking for Charity
This experience really began a number of months ago when we were invited to a charity night at a local cocktail bar. The premise of this night was that you could exchange a children’s book for a free cocktail and drink to your heart’s content. Of course you could also pay the normal price for a drink of which a portion was donated to the cause and then there was a BBQ feast for the cost of a cash donation. Drinking in Chiang Mai is the done thing, whether you are local or otherwise, and drinking for a cause just lends some charitable merit to the experience. So we went shopping for kids books and we drank the night away… We had absolutely no idea what kind of experience would come of it. At this point, it was just another night out in a string of crazy nights in Chiang Mai. 
Our journey began on a Monday, Asana Buscha Day to be exact – the day that commemorates the giving of the first sermon by Buddha – at 6:00am. Picked up in a friend’s car we set off on our adventure. In the true tradition of a farang in Thailand, there was little information given about where we were going, who was coming with us or how long it would take to get there. For some reason, no one except the driver is usually privy to this information, just one of the lessons we have learned in our time here. But eventually we made it to a gas station on the outside of town where we met another car load of people heading in the same direction as us. Still early in the day and with no idea that we were still many hours from our final destination we ventured on, now with a full tank of gas. 
A friend’s house in Mae Chaem
We arrived in Mae Chaem at around 10am, to another friends house, we were told, and we headed in to wait for some more friends to arrive before we kept on. It was at 10am that the Sangsom came out and the drinking began, bearing in mind that on a national holiday such as this, that the sale of alcohol in the entire Kingdom of Thailand is prohibited by the King – but they were prepared. They all partook in a drink or two, most mixing the locally made whiskey with water, unlike our driver who was also taking mini shots from the lid of the bottle. A quick trip to the market and the table was filled with local delicacies and us white-folk were offered bite after bite of interesting things with minimal explanation as to what they were. This set the scene for our entire trip, Dave and I amidst a group of Thai people not understanding most of what was going on, but joining in as best we could. A second trip to the market for more snacks and some rearranging of the cars, including the installation of an all important ice box and the concoction of a Sangsom and water mixture in a 1L bottle for our driver, and we were ready to continue our journey.
The Half Way Point
After a stop at the local market to get food and supplies both for our group and the village school we were heading to, and we were off literally bouncing up the hills of northern Thailand on very poorly maintained roads, always getting higher and higher into the mountains. The scenery was good to start with, but as we climbed higher the fog and mist set in making for a damp, clouded journey to our half way point. A little rattled from the bumpy trip we got out of the cars and sat for a while to have a break at a small corner store which was closed for no apparent reason. As we headed back for the cars we were told that our trip so far was the ‘easy part’ with a cheeky grin, and the hard part of the driving was still to come… Enough to make us at least a little nervous. 
Only part of our treacherous journey
Fairly soon the poorly maintained bitumen roads gave out to muddy roads with little to no grip and we fishtailed higher and higher into this treacherous part of the country. “As beautiful as Switzerland but as tough as Ethiopia, you will see” said our driver between swigs of his Sangsom refresher. And then we came to the mother of all inclines, a 60 degree climb up a thankfully straight stretch of road which was wet and muddy. “Here we go…” they said and I was suddenly grabbing for my seat belt for the first time since arriving in Thailand. He gave the truck all it had and we fishtailed up the incline, nearly losing it a couple of times – but we live to tell the story. It kept on like that for another 45 minutes. While I was wondering how anyone would be crazy enough to make this drive in anything less than a 4WD, we passed a couple of little old ladies on scooters making the same journey. Incredible!
We finally arrived in the small village set on the side of a mountain, the name of which I still don’t know, and headed for the school. The kids were ready and waiting when we arrived at 12:30pm and came to the cars to help carry the supplies we had brought – they had been waiting for us since 8am that morning! As always occurs in a situation with Thai kids, Dave and I were a point of interest, somewhat different to the people that they normally interact with. We headed to the central assembly area, a slab of concrete covered by a tin roof – which this same group built for them last year – for an honorary class. We were introduced as ‘Teacher Jay’ and ‘Teacher Dave’, but there were two other members of our group who did the real teaching for the day. There was a smaller attendance at the school then normal, considering that this was a Buddha Day and this was a Buddhist village, and the games began. 
All of the games that we remember playing in primary school are the same in any language apparently but at this school there was sweets! Lollypops, sugary treats and more and more sugar handed out to every kid in the group of about 50. From a Western perspective we were amazed… Kids aren’t even allowed to take one sugary treat to school in Australia, and these kids were getting a whole month’s worth in the space of an hour! As the games went on there was a beat required, so Dave took over the drumming portion of the lesson, a happy man indeed. The kids were enjoying their day of fun, all the while sneaking peeks at Dave and I. It took a bit to crack them, to be honest. These kids were obviously not used to the likes of us showing up at their school and they were understandably wary. Most of our group had disappeared into the kitchen to make lunch for the crowd, until one guy came around the corner with a fresh Sangsom for Dave. Drinking during class – this was new! Eventually I figured out the only way to crack the kindergarten kids… The answer is bubbles! Once the bubbles came out I had an army of kids waiting on my every breath!
Meditation to Finish Class
The class finally ended with a short meditation session and a lot of dirty, but smiling faces and the boys from our group entered carrying the biggest pot I have ever seen in my life… It was lunch time. One of our group members explained to us that these kids are lucky to get a decent meal during their school day – let alone what they don’t get at home and you could tell as each one of them came back for seconds that this was the case. And by this stage it wasn’t only the kids, many of the village people had come to the school to watch the class and have a decent meal. All dressed in shabby clothes and sitting on the concrete to eat their meal in a mismatched array of bowls brought to the school with them. The meal was served by hand with plastic bags as the only hygienic element to the whole affair. I later asked what the meal had cost to serve these poor people a decent meal and the answer absolutely blew me away… $30USD. That’s all it takes to be able to feed these poor people for a day and yet the school struggles to get by on the little government support they get and the donations from this community conscious group of Thai drinkers. 
Some of the boys serving lunch
Eventually lunch was done and it was time to retreat to the staff room for a few more drinks. This gathering later moved to the only store in the village and then the fun started. There was more food, of course and plenty more to drink with a few other escapades that I wouldn’t care to detail in a public forum but I can now say that I have seen a bong made with a machete, candle wax and some bamboo cut from the forest! It was then that the music started. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a set of maracas (originally intended for the kids) the afternoon entertainment took on an international form with Thai songs and Western songs all intertwined. Dave got into the spirit and with the help of a few others, he managed to create a drum kit out of a plastic lid, a pot and a few other various items with pieces of bamboo for drum sticks. All of this was taking place in a tiny store/house on the side of a mountain while I stood back and took in an atmosphere of fun and celebration and what I can only describe as the Thai way of life. As the sun set, it was time to take the treacherous journey back to our accommodation for the night and the festivities went well into the night with more food and more ridiculous antics of both Eastern and Western origins.
The Corner Store
A day like this gives me a great sense of pride and admiration of my group of Thai friends, who don’t need a Non-Government Organisation or even an organised charity to help their fellow people. These are just people with a sense of community who are giving to those who are less fortunate than themselves. And I consider myself so extremely lucky to have witnessed this day of charity with a group of such welcoming people, most of whom we didn’t know at the beginning, but who we now consider to be friends. Next year they plan to build a library for that same school and are now looking for corporate sponsorship to help their cause. These people are providing an opportunity to a small collection of kids who, without their help, would not have much else and I am extremely proud to know them. 

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