The small northern Thai town of Khun Yuam sits amidst a landscape so gorgeous you can't help but bound out of bed at first light.
After watching the sun erase the mist blanketing the valley we look for local coffee - no easy task in some corners of Thailand, these days (more on that later) - settle for Nescafe before stumbling upon cappucino, of all things (this is a small, out-of-the-way town), and then set off away from Khun Yuam's main street. We head down a motorbike-wide road, past Burmese temples and wooden houses, and ten minutes later we're looking at fields so bright green they hurt the eye.
It's Saturday, quiet, only a few people working.
And then, in the distance, quite a lot of people working. An extended family? we wonder. An entire village working a piece of land together?
A few clues in front of buildings set close to the road tells us this is a family of a different kind.
Buddha Kasetna School is an organic farm cum combination boarding school (for rural children whose families are too poor to support them) and orphanage (for homeless children). Kids find their way here via local farm associations, wats, and NGOS. Some are rescued from the sex and drug trades, others from the street, still others from abusive family situations. Some lack Thai nationality. The lucky ones have families to return to when they are old enough to carry their weight back on the farm.
Principal Anchalee Langpamun welcomes us, and Dave's camera, with warmth. A native of Nakorn Sawan, she's been with Buddha Kasetna since its inception over twenty years ago. She's proud of the school and of her 150 students, who range in age from five years to eighteen.
The school owns two subsistence farms, one devoted to vegetables and one to rice (one harvest a year, 5,000 kilos). Monday through Friday, in addition to attending school in the morning and afternoon, the kids spend two hours on one or other of the farms learning how organics works. All Saturday morning too, is spent with the plants; Saturday afternoons and Sundays are free.
With the help of twelve teachers who live on site Khun Anchalee supervises the kids, who are divided into teams, each charged with a different farm-related task. After we spend some time in the fields Khun Anchalee invites us up to the school and its dormitories, which sit on a hill above.
It's late in the morning and as a couple of teams finish up in the fields another is sorting waste plastics and other materials to sell for recycling ('We really try to waste nothing,' Khun Anchalee says). Others are dehulling rice,
and, in the kitchen, cooking Saturdays-only kanom (sweet and savory snacks).
Khun Anchalee walks us around the 'campus'. In addition to the two farms there's also a mushroom house and a large plant nursery - all run by the students. Further up the hill, next to a huge, meticulously manicured playing field ('All the students are out here in the evening, running, playing soccer, badminton, having fun,' she tells us.) sit the classrooms, computer room, and library, in two new buildings donated by the Singaporean Embassy.
Nearby is another classroom where female students learn to sew and make the students' school uniforms. 'Girls need to leave us with a skill,' Khun Anchalee says. Almost none of the students are able to go on to higher education, she tells us. While it's possible for boys to find manual labor on farms or in urban areas, girls without a marketable skill have a harder time getting by and, lacking work, might fall into prostitution. 'They must be able to take care of themselves,' she continues. 'And they must be able to take care of their own children by themselves, if necessary.'
I wonder if the children arriving from difficult circumstances don't have trouble adjusting.
'They do, at first,' answers Khun Anchalee. 'But later it's OK. Because as soon as they arrive here, they have 149 friends.'
If you happen to find yourself in Khun Yuam, the Buddha Kasetna School welcomes visitors (best outside classroom hours, 9a-12p and 1-3p Mon-Fri). Ask anyone in town and they'll point the way; it's about a ten-minute walk. The school, which receives very limited funds from the Thai government, also welcomes donations.