Right from the outset, UWC students were up to their necks in local culture – or, more precisely, up to the tops of their heads as they all got dressed up in traditional northern Thai clothing complete with farmers’ hats and flowery hair bands. As part of their Language & Culture class they also learned how to introduce themselves in Thai, say their age and where they are from. Despite it not being the easiest language to pick up the students tried their best as they knew they would be using these phrases the following day when visiting School For Life – a boarding school for children from impoverished or difficult backgrounds. Knowing these phrases turned out to be a great icebreaker when visiting School For Life and the time spent playing sports together (including impromptu arm wrestling competitions) and hanging out around the campfire was clearly a highlight for many of our visitors.
Living in Singapore, most UWC students would not have met many people like the children studying at School For Life. Most of them are from ethnic minority groups living in the mountains around northern Thailand. As well as the regular Thai curriculum, the students learn other skills such as organic farming and traditional performance – both of which they were able to show off their talent in as part of our itinerary there.
After a professionally run cooking class the following day, UWC headed up into the mountains themselves to experience a Karen village first hand. The Karen are a large ethnic group living in the border areas of Thailand and Myanmar. We learned about how the Karen are actually a very diverse group of people with a population of around nine million speaking several different dialects of their language, about how the local school only caters up to Grade 6 and how Christianity is a big driving force for unity and community spirit in the village, among many other interesting facts.
Things got very hands on when we arrived out our hosts’ house: they ran a workshop in weaving and handed around medicinal plants for everyone to try. Both activities highlighted the prevalence and importance of their traditional knowledge and practices.
The following day involved a visit to an elephant park and we discussed the challenges facing people trying to move elephant tourism in a more sustainable direction. The students came up with action plans such as regulation of practices, designated nature reserves and educating tourists. After that we headed to a local temple and interviewed an enthusiastic monk there to hear his insight into Buddhism and the monkhood.
As well as all this, there was also time to join in with the famous Loy Krathong festival – the students made their own floats from banana stems, leaves and flowers before releasing them down the river in silence as they contemplated their week – as well as some other important Thai activities such as rice farming and muay thai boxing.
Along the way the students from Singapore also learned other valuable lessons, as one person highlighted on their evaluation form: “Friendship is a really important and wonderful thing to have and without it obstacles would be harder.”