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A Return Trip to Baan Samkha

Thursday, March 15

Since there was nothing else to see in Nan due to all of the smoke, we left town and headed back south, Our next stop was Lampang, another favorite provincial capital of mine. On the way into town, we stopped at the amazing Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang, which is perhaps my favorite temple in all of Thailand. I think this is my 4th or 5th trip to see this temple, and I always am very glad that I came.

At night, we headed to the river for some excellent grub at the Riverside Restaurant. The band playing here also was dipping into the 70s material, as usual, but with a more mellow tone. We heard at least one Carpenters song. (See a pattern here?)

This morning we woke up and hit the road again. On the way out of town, I pulled off the main highway to visit Baan Samkha (Three Leg Village). I came here in January of last year to visit the school to learn more about their government-sponsored e-Learning projects. Since I am starting to build out my e-Learning company, I thought I should visit them again to see how they were doing.

The next hour or so was a lot of fun for all three of us (Todd, Jason, and myself). We hung out in the amazingly well-equiped (for a small village school) computer room, where the students were playing with the infamous one-child-one-laptop machines from MIT. Of course when it was my turn to try the tiny green computers, the first thing I did was view this website. I was very happy to see that it looked great!

Todd and I ended up teaching the kids a few English songs: "Jingle Bells" (by request) and "Row Row Row Your Boat". The latter was a popular choice, especially the line, "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily", which was sung with great enthusiasm, morphing into more of a "MEOW MEOW MEOW MEOW!"

Life is but a dream, indeed.

Jason just happened to take a video of the scene, and he posted it to YouTube. If you want to hear my beautiful voice singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat (with a loud MEOW chorus) then click on the video below. Check out the cool green MIT laptops as well.

Update 4/4/07The Thai government has decided to ban YouTube from Thailand, and so for now there is a big white space here where the video should be. Sorry about that!

Update 8/31/07Almost five months later, YouTube is back on in Thailand. Yay!

Unfortunately, we had many more miles to go today. I promised I would return someday with e-learning games to teach English to the students. I am not sure exactly how I am going to pull that off, but I am going to give it a try.

The road south was uneventful. We headed to Sukothai for the night, but after seeing that all of the guesthouses were full of farang backpackers, we decided that one more night in Phitsanulok (just 45 minutes away) was much preferable. Tomoorw, we will visit the ruins at Sukothai. But tonight, there's a beer garden with Christmas lights on the Nan River calling our names.

From Baan Saam Kha to Chiang Mai

This morning we were able to spend some time with Srimuan, the head of the elementary school in Baan Saam Kha. She told us more about how the students use technology and more about how the villagers are working hard to improve their lives.

There are two examples that stuck out in my mind. The first is how the students use the computers to practice the Lanna language. Lanna has it's own script, which to my un-educated eyes looks like a mixture of Thai and Burmese. Someone had created a Lanna font to use in Microsoft Word, and two elementary students showed me their proficiency in typing the script.

The second problem that the villagers are working on is to convince people not to burn the forests on the hills surrounding the village. There are many reasons to intentionally burn the forest, such as making hunting easier. But the villagers realized that with no cover on the mountains, the water washes off the slopes and that in turn makes the summers even drier than would be naturally. So the villagers of Baan Saam Kha are working hard to convince other villages to not burn the forest, so that everyone will have more water during the dry season.

Eventually, we had to leave Baan Saam Kha, and we headed north towards Chiang Mai. We made one stop in Lamphun province, to visit the 1000 year old Wat Phra That Haripunjaya. It was a beautiful day, so hopefully some of the pictures of the huge golden chedi will come out well.

Baan Saam Kha (Three Leg Village)

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It's been a wonderful day in Baan Saam Kha, or "Three Leg Village". When we first arrived, the kids of the village at the school all ran out to welcome us, giving us a wai and saying hello. We were then greeted by the energetic head of the elemenatary school, Khun Srimuan, who "checked us in" to the small homestay.

Our first scheduled event was to attend a meeting with villager leaders from Nakorn Sawan Province. One hundred village leaders from one amphoe (district) in Nakorn Sawan province had driven several hours to hear how the people of Baan Saam Kha had worked together to improve their lives. One big problem in Thailand is that many of the poor rural people have been given loans by the government and the banks, but now their expenses far outweigh their income. So much of the presentation by the village of Baan Saam Kha was about how villages can work together to reduce their debt -- both the debt of the individual families as well as the debt of the village itself.

After the meeting and a delicious lunch of pumpkin curry, glass noodles with pork, and fruit, we headed back to the school to learn more about the Internet pilot project that is going on in Baan Saam Kha. The project is being developed by the Wireless communication System Research group under the Telecommunication and Network Research and Development Division of the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC).

Although the elementary school now has a high-speed connection to the Internet, that is not the main purpose of the technology. Instead, it is a project sponsored by the Thai telecom companies trying to figure out how to best give phone service to the isolated rural villages. So it wasn't a project to use the Internet for education as I thought, but instead it was a VOIP (voice over Internet) project. In any case, it was still cool to be able to check my email on a fast connection in such a remote location.

Steven and I also went on a hike with a villager named Dtim. She pointed out many of the wildlife to us and explained about the different edible plants and animals that can be found in the forested mountains. The village has also built "check dams" to help collect water for the dry season, and she proudly pointed out the villagers handiwork. Unfortunately, she didn't speak English! But I could make out some of what she was talking about, like "the students built this dam" and "the crabs that live in the river are purple but the crabs that live in the rocks are green".

We finished the day with one of my favorite meals: mu ga-ta. Tomorrow we will spend some more time in the village and then head to Chiang Mai in the afternoon.

After taking the overnight train to Lampang last night, we spent most of the day today at the Center for Non-Formal Education in Lampang. As I might have mentioned before, this is a bit of a research trip for me, to learn more about how rural people in Nothern Thailand are using IT and the Internet in education.

We had a facinating talk with Dr. Suchin Petcharugsa, one of the instructors at Non-Formal Education. He is a follower of Seymour Papert and other MIT scholars, and is trying to bring Constructionism to education in Thailand. It reminded me a lot of my graduate studies where we were trying to build constructivist learning enviroments. (Or, in other words, educational software where students would learn by doing and by building things.)

Dr. Suchin also stressed the need to do more than just throw money and technology at rural people in Thailand. All too often, governments try to solve the problem of poverty by spending money. But really what the poor people need is help learning how to solve their problems on their own. They don't need directives from above, they need facilitators to help them use their "local knowledge" to improve their own lives. They have to decide for themselves what their problems and issues are, and then work together to solve them. More than money or technology, they just need to be empowered to make their own decisions, in their own way.

Tomorrow we head to the tiny village of Baan Saam Kha to see how they have followed the advice of people like Dr. Suchin, and how they have been able to wisely use the technology they have been given to solve the most important problems in their community.

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