Teaching in the Karen Hilltribe Village in Khunmaela, Thailand

Kiran McCann (2008, Engineering)

For centuries much of the population of northern Thailand has been composed of ethnic groups commonly known as ‘hill tribes’. The largest of these is the Karen group, with a population of around 400,000 in Thailand and a further eight million living over the border in Myanmar (Burma). Their history in northern Thailand can be traced back to the twelfth century, when it is thought that Karen originally came from Tibet, through China, Myanmar and eventually across the border into Thailand. The Karen Hilltribes Trust was set up in 1999 by Penelope Worsley in memory of her son, Richard, and since then it has gone on to raise over £2.5m to help improve health and education in over 400 villages in northern Thailand. Each year the charity arranges for volunteers to go out and stay with families in the villages and teach English in the local schools. This year I got the opportunity to stay with a family, in the village of Khunmaela.

I had met Salahae, the Karen manager for the Trust, in the small town of Khun Yuam and from there we drove in his pickup truck through the mountains towards Khunmaela, a journey of just over two hours. As we meandered up through the old mountain roads, steadily distancing ourselves from civilisation, I remember being absolutely blown away by the scenery. I had never expected it to be quite so stunning.

When we arrived in the village I was immediately greeted by the smiling face of Wittoon, my village father. I was later introduced to his wife and their two children and invited into their house, which would become my home for the next two months. Most houses in the village are of the traditional Karen construction, i.e. wooden structures, built on stilts. Wittoon’s house was similar, but slightly more ‘upmarket’, in that it had a bricked downstairs room (a rare luxury in the village), where the parents slept. Everything was very basic; the bathroom, for example, was somewhat different to a traditional English bathroom. It was located in a separate outhouse and consisted of a large container of (very cold) water for washing and showering with and a squat-style toilet with another bucket of water, used for flushing. I soon got used to it though.

The family were extremely kind and hospitable and they made it very easy for me to settle in to village life, ensuring I was well looked after at all times. My village mother, Nootaemo (literally “mother of Nootae”), was an exceptional cook, cooking up all sorts of traditional Karen dishes for us. Most of the food was quite spicy, which took a bit of getting used to (especially for early morning meals!). There was no distinction in the food that was eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner; all meals consisted of a bowl of rice accompanied by communal plates of vegetarian and meat dishes. Cooking was all done over an open fire and it was fascinating to see just how easily delicious meals could be cooked up with minimal cooking equipment.

As a rare foreign visitor, the villagers were all keen to get to know me better, so I was often invited to other homes for dinner, giving me an insight into the different lives of people in the village. One of the most memorable of these visits was to a local hunter’s house, where I was treated to a taste of that day’s catch: a huge wild boar. As it cooked over the fire, we sat around it, drinking the local rice whiskey whilst I heard about what it was like to work as a hunter in the hills. It was quite a surreal experience!

One of the things that really struck me about Karen village life was not only how friendly and welcoming everyone was, but also how relaxed the atmosphere was. There was no one stressing or running around, rushing to get things done; the pace of life was very slow and people generally seemed very happy and content. It was a refreshing contrast to life in the UK.
Overcoming the language barrier was initially a bit of a struggle, but it quickly became easier. I learnt some Karen (the hilltribe language) as well as Thai, and through the use of lots of hand gestures, actions and drawings it was possible to communicate most things pretty well, even if it took a little while.

The main purpose of my time in the village of course, was to teach English to school students. I spent three days a week teaching at the village primary school and the remaining two days at the secondary school at the village down the road. Initially it was quite daunting, having not done any formal teaching before, but the students were mostly very enthusiastic and willing to learn (that’s not to say there weren’t the usual troublemakers!) and I soon got into the swing of things. Lessons were unpredictable and I was often asked to cover for teachers or swap lessons just seconds before the lesson began, so I had to think on my feet and improvise a lot.

I usually started my lessons by getting the students to recite the alphabet, numbers, days of the week and months of the year. I found that this helped get them into “English mode”, whilst also giving me time to write whatever I needed on the blackboard. I would then do a quick recap of the previous lesson, just to check they had remembered it (if they didn’t, we’d go over it again until I was confident we could move on). Then I might teach some new vocab (getting volunteers from the class to write the Thai equivalents on the board) or get the students to sit in a circle and do some conversation practice by asking each other questions. I’d always finish with some form of game that involved the new words that the students had learnt. The students were all very competitive, so anything where there was some form of team competition was always good fun. I tried to keep things simple and quickly learnt which activities and games the students responded to best (variations on “Duck, Duck, Goose” always went down well with the younger ones).

The standard of English amongst the students (and teachers) was understandably quite low, since they are rarely exposed to any form of English language, so I tried to teach very basic vocabulary and conversation first, slowly building up their knowledge week after week. It was incredibly rewarding to see the students improving and they certainly seemed to show a real passion for learning English (to the extent where they would often beg me to teach them, even when we didn’t have a lesson scheduled!). I’d have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed being a teacher; it was hard work, but also a lot of fun!

My time in the Khunmaela passed remarkably quickly and before long it was time for me to say my goodbyes and make my way back home. Life in the village was so different to anything that I had ever experienced before, but I had instantly fallen in love with it. I met some amazing people and really felt that they had taken me into their community as one of their own. I hope to make that scenic journey from Khun Yuam to Khunmaela again, some time in the not too distant future, to pay them all a visit.

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