The Girls: Of Course We Can
It's a beautiful place to go to school. Ban Sa Ngao is a quiet village on the banks of the Mekong in leafy Loei province in northern Thailand. Like all Mekong villages in Thailand, people in Loei have a view of the villages and forests of Laos across the river.
The school head teacher, Khun Kedsiya Wongsa, 57, grew up in this area and has fond memories of the river. "The Mekong was so important," she says. "As kids, we used to have so much fun playing and swimming in the water." And more than that, "the river was also our source of drinking and cooking water." Khun Ked (her nickname) grew up quite poor in a family of eight children. Her parents were farmers. "It was a tough life." she says. Teaching was an option for girls then, and so she became a teacher. She's been doing it for 33 years.
Today, she teaches math and health. She's also a school councillor. She leads the Scouts which includes all Thai students every Thursday (the day I visited the school). Khun Ked also teaches Thai dance - something dear to her soul. "Maintaining the culture is very important to me," she says. And on this Thursday, in addition to Scouts, Khun Ked is leading students through their rehearsal for an upcoming Thai dance competition.
It's a form of Thai folk dance called Romvong - where boys and girls keep time and dance in a circle, making opposing, elegant gestures with their hands.
The students are serious - the competition is in only a few days. One student tells me they are "89% ready." They rehearse the same piece several times as Khun Ked watches and gives them a few pointers - small but important adjustments to perfect the dance.
I'm impressed with the teenage boys. They're courteous and kind, and they want to get their moves just right. It's not easy as the hand gestures are so precise.
The rehearsal is fun to watch, and lasts about thirty minutes. When it's over, the girls spend some time talking with me. I want to learn more about their teenage lives in this lovely Mekong town.
Prae is 13, and she's the first to speak. Actually, she's the first to sing too. With my recorder off (and I'm still kicking myself for that) she sings me much of Charlie Puth's One Call Away. This is a reminder that I'm getting old as I've never heard of Charlie Puth. But it turns out One Call Away is a big international hit and one that any teenage girl would love.
Prae obviously loves it and she sings well, her eyes closed and head swaying. She tells me after that while she can sing the lyrics, she doesn't know what the whole song means. "I like learning English," says Prae, and she learns a lot of it by listening to Western music.
Prae, like her teacher Khun Ked and like many of her friends, grew up on a rice farm. She says her parents are encouraging her to do whatever she wants to do. So she's decided. "I'm going to be an army doctor. I want to help the people." And she won't let gender get in her way. "Of course girls can do anything boys can do. I can fight just like a man. I can do anything."
Em is 14. She also comes from a farming family. She tells me her favourite subject is Thai dance as she simply loves Thai culture.
She's also saddened by some of the things she sees around her Mekong community. "So I want to be a policewoman," she tells me. "It will be a challenge but I want to catch the bad guys." By "bad guys" she means people who are selling yaba, a popular form of methamphetamine mixed with caffeine that's also known as "crazy medicine". There is a huge yaba trade in Thailand, much of it coming from Myanmar. It's cheap and addictive, and can cause serious physical and mental health problems. Your average visitor probably wouldn't notice, but I'm told it's an issue in Thailand and throughout the region.
Em has another reason for wanting to join the police force: "When my dad was young he wanted to be a policeman. But he wasn't allowed as his parents wanted him to be a farmer. Now, he is really supporting me to join the police. I'm happy to live out my dad's career dream."
Ben is 15, and like the other girls, she's clear about what she likes and what she wants to do. Her favourite subject is mathematics, because "it's fun!" She says she gets really good grades in math now and in the future, she wants to help others do the same by becoming a math teacher. "I want to transfer my knowledge to other people," she says. Ben thinks math is especially useful to be successful in commerce and trade. She's growing up on a farm, where her parents are also supporting her career decisions.
And like the other girls, she doesn't see her gender as a barrier. "We can be a leader just like a man!" she says. "We can be the village head or anything at all!"
Natcha is 13. Her family situation is a bit different, in that her dad is the village head (like a mayor) and her mom is a teacher. Natcha loves volleyball. She says she loves being with her friends on a team and they have a lot of fun together. "I can play sports like football just like a boy," she says. "I'm just as good."
Natcha wants to be a nurse. She says she "wants to help people." Specifically, she wants to help people who may have become sick due to the use of pesticides in the fields. Pesticides are associated with various cancers, poisonings and other serious health conditions. In poorer farming communities in south-east Asia, it's common to see people applying pesticides with little or no protective equipment. She wants to help her community.
As for the Mekong, all of the girls tell me they love it. They can swim there, and fish too. Families plant vegetable gardens on the river banks. Though Prae says she's troubled by efforts to shore up the banks. Local authorities are building concrete and stone embankments all along this part of the Mekong. "They cut down the trees to do this," she says. "I don't like it."
The girls have taught me a lot. They are girls with a clear vision for their future. We all had fun talking about their lives and dreams.
The girls say goodbye. Khun Ked and I talk a little more. It's clear that life in this idyllic river village is lovely in many ways. But, as times change, it's not so simple.
She worries more about Thai youth losing their culture. She thinks it's important for teens to have the confidence to speak their minds, but they also need to know how to listen to adults. She also worries about teen relationships and the potential for pregnancy. It's important but hard, she says, to teach them about their bodies and sexuality. I'm told it can be tough to talk about these things in a small town, where one can't buy contraception, for example, without everyone knowing about it.
Overall she says, it's important for her to be a role model to these girls.
"I want to teach each of them to be a good person. I want them all to know how to live happy lives."
Gratitude: As with every post in A River Runs with Her, there are many people to thank. I really appreciate Khun Kedsiya Wongsa for inviting me to the Ban Sangna school, introducing me to the students and spending so much time with me. Thanks to Ben from the Mekong Riverside Resort & Camping who spent a lot of time introducing me to women in and around Pak Chom. Ben and her husband Mike run an excellent, peaceful resort and I hope to return sometime soon. And with thanks to Meow from Chiang Khan who was my guide and translator. Meow runs a guest house in beautiful Chiang Khan and if you're in the area, please look her up!