Dundalk mum Orla Crilly with her son Logan in Myanmar
They say travel broadens the mind and that was definitely my intention when booking this trip halfway around the world with my 10-year-old son.
As a busy foster mum the one-on-one time with my wee man is certainly limited, so I wanted an opportunity to thank him for sharing me all these years with so many other kids and to give him a wee taste of other cultures to help him garner an appreciation for his own life.
So a trip to see my friends Fiona Thompson from Inniskeen and Jo Swift from Scarborough in the UK was in order.
Both these ladies are based in the town of Mae Sot which is in Thailand but on the border with Burma (Myanmar). Mae Sot has a population of 120,000 and another estimated 100,000 in refugees and migrants.
As civil unrest in Burma took its toll over the past few decades many people escaped to neighbouring countries such as Thailand. Unfortunately, these displaced people are not recognised by local government and have no paperwork therefore leaving them stranded with little help or options.
They rely on their resourcefulness and help from international charitable organisations. Fiona and Jo work with the charities, Burma Border Projects and Acorn Overseas to provide help and support to migrant schools in the area to improve the standards in education to the refugees.
The Burmese are passionate about education being the way forward and I'd have to agree.
Discussing the itinerary for the trip with my son Logan, we were eager to interact with the migrant schools, play a game of football in the mud with the kids (it was rainy season) and to maybe even meet some elephants along the way.
Previous to boarding our long haul flights I wondered how my 10 year old would cope with the journey. When he found out he could sit for hours playing games, watching movies and having regular meals brought to him his reply was: “Mam, I think I'll be grand”. He didn’t even miss Fornite for the duration of the trip.
The trip went smoothly and soon we were flying over dense rainforests approaching Mae Sot, to be met on arrival by the welcoming face of Fiona Thompson. It's always great to see a familiar face so far from home.
Our lodgings were The Picture Book hotel. This is a training hotel for kids that have come through the migrant schools so it’s yet another step on their education pathway. We were very well looked after.
After a great night’s sleep, we went straight to our first school at Huay Ka Lake, stopping en route to buy some fruit at a local market for the kids. Logan participated in an art class, making key chains which were to be sold to raise funds for the school. I was given a tour of the school and its dormitories. It was very emotional and it didn't take long for the floodgates to open and
I don't mean the rainy season water management plan. Facilities were basic. Dormitories consisted of raised wooden platforms in buildings akin to a cowshed back home. The few personal items owned by students were hanging haphazardly on walls. The toilets resembled something you’d see in the movie Trainspotting. Washing facilities were from a scoop and a barrel.
The headmaster organised a few kids to play football on their pitch with myself and Logan. Most of the pitch was severely waterlogged, with the stench of raw sewerage running through it and the presence of one cow. Despite all this we had the most amazing experience with the kids. This was the highlight of our entire trip. These kids have so little but they are the lucky ones. They are safe. They are fed. They are being educated. They are happy. This is what I hoped Logan would experience. We left the school wetter, smellier and missing a piece of our hearts, as we left it right there, on that pitch.
The following day we visited another migrant school called 'Champion'. Here the smell of raw sewerage was noticeable at the school gates.
Dirty puddles of water were visible in the courtyard, where the kids walked in their bare feet. We had brought supplies of underwear from Ireland to give to the kids as was suggested. Logan bought sweets with his own money and distributed them to every child in the school.
We entered one classroom of kids close to Logan's age. The boys in the class became enthralled with Logan's Dundalk FC jersey. They all grabbed pens and started to replicate the crest on their pages. The giggles were priceless. I felt it my duty to teach them “C'mon the town”. The Lilywhite Army knows no bounds.
The facilities here were more cramped than the previous school but the kids seemed more vibrant and mischievous. The family that runs this school are truly inspiring. They work here from 7am-3pm to educate these kids. In the evening time they open up their home to educate kids who are unavailable to attend school during the day, as they are working with their parents to make ends meet. They call this facility 'Sunset School'.
It was at this school that I encountered our first child with disabilities. He was tucked up in a blanket and was prostrate on the floor of a balcony. Having a child with disabilities in this society is seen as a punishment for a past life mistake so literally the kids are kept under wraps. I've heard stories of Autistic kids being kept in cages to keep them safe. Some kids were abandoned and subject to horrific abuse. The supports for these kids are extremely thin on the ground.
We met several people working with different international organisations who were on the ground locally working with these communities. Two charities 'Right to Play' and 'Play Onside' run projects to immerse kids in sport and especially soccer. Many of the migrant schools severely lack the basic sports resources that the nearby Thai schools would have, such as sports clothes, shoes, equipment and a playable pitch.
For our last day in Mae Sot, we were taken to visit the Elephants at a nearby village. We were shown how to make protein balls for the elephants by hand and brought across the Paddy fields, much to the amusement of the field labourers, to greet our elephants. We fed them and walked them to their day spa, which was a big hole of mud. We watched them wallow as we basted them in the glorious mud. Afterwards, we walked to the nearby river and watched them splash about. We ended the day by lazing in a hammock in the shade with the elephants. Note: The elephants did not join us in the hammock.
'5 Star Holiday'
So what did my 10 year old make of the whole trip? Before we had even left Mae Sot, he was asking to return. Whatever a 5 star holiday looks like , this was definitely the opposite. Since our return, he has asked several times to visit again. I've overheard him tell other kids about the experience and even reprimand the family about wasting food because “the kids in
Thailand would be glad of that”. I've also heard that his new Burmese friends have been asking for him too.
I had hoped that the trip would be a profound experience for my son. Months later and many miles travelled, I know it's had a profound impact on both of us. It's so true that travel broadens the mind but it can also broaden the heart and that's something you don't find everyday.
If you'd like to contribute something to the welfare of this community, you can donate online to Burma Border Projects and Acorn Overseas, facilitated by Jo Swift, Education Program Director.
Just tell them Orla sent you!