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by Judy Evans
My unforgettable holiday occurred when my husband and I were part of a community service project to provide a clean water supply to a Karen village in the far north of Thailand. Funds were raised beforehand for the necessary materials: cement, glue and five kilometres of PVC pipe. Supplies were purchased on the way to Ban Huey Pong Lau. The stream which ran through the village supplied all the water for the villagers and their animals. Disease was rife and a clean water supply was seen as imperative for the improved health of the people.
Most of us stayed in the priest's house as he was away. By far the best house in the village, it was built on stilts with three rooms upstairs. Underneath, one corner was enclosed with a Thai 'squat' toilet. The village was neatly laid out with streets and lanes. The most brilliant bougainvilleas grew everywhere. Apart from the framework of the houses, virtually everything was made of bamboo. Most walls stopped short of the roof and were of horizontal or vertical woven bamboo slats. There was no glass in the windows although some had shutters. We had a beautiful view through the window to the mountains beyond. At night we could lie on our backs and see the stars through the gaps in the banana leaf roof. In the morning we'd waken to the gentle, rhythmic thuds of the women pounding rice. Then, around 7.00am a radio broadcast would blast out from the loud-speakers at the headman's house.
There were no chairs and just one table against the bathroom wall. We ate under the house with our plates on our knees. The clothes line consisted of thin bamboo canes supported on thicker uprights. There was never any wind and articles were hung over the line to dry. Every morning, the bell rang to call the people to the community hall for a church service with hymns and readings. On Sundays, the young girls would wear their long pastel dresses to church; a distinct change from the slacks and shirts worn through the week.
Our first task was to install a small cement tank at the 'source'; a small stream some five kilometres up the mountainside. The water would eventually siphon to the village: a simple system capable of being maintained without any specialist knowledge. As we walked to work that first morning, we found the gradient very gradual although the last section rose more steeply. Sometimes the stream wandered between steep banks; at other times you'd turn a corner, the river would widen out and, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, paddy fields would stretch for some distance.
Moulds for the tank, cement and sand were transported part way by a four wheel drive vehicle then men carried the materials for the last few kilometres. Washed river stones were used as aggregate.
The only available tools were hoes and machetes. If a handle broke, the nearest suitable bamboo was cut down to supply a new one. A line of workers dug a trench for the pipe. This would sometimes involve clambering up the side of a hill and chipping out a foothold before starting on the trench itself. The workers would have a wall of vegetation in front and a sheer drop behind them. All bar the very youngest and oldest helped with the trench.
Three men coming behind laid and glued the lengths together. At lunch we'd sit in a clearing and the villagers would hand out our boiled rice wrapped in banana leaves and tied with a strip of grass. After eating their meal, the men would disappear with their gings and machetes, returning with slaughtered rats or other small animals which would supply their meal that night.
We had one gas burner which ran almost all day. If we weren't cooking a meal, we were boiling water for the next day. We bought beef and pork on our way to the village and this was smoked when we arrived and hung in bamboo baskets out of reach of the many scrawny, flea-ridden dogs.
On our last day, water flowed into a tank in the village and siphoned its way through the pipes to the taps – one tap for every two houses. We all wore our newly presented traditional shirts to the party that night. We were given to understand the shirts were some of the biggest they had ever had to make!