I flew out of Burma, one of the most scenic and culturally magnificent countries ive been to yet, feeling a little sad again saying the goodbyes to friends I had met.
I landed in Bangkok, a place I felt far removed from and not overly interested in becoming friends with. Knowing one name I headed to the street of tourists, tuk tuks and cheap accommodation. I was staying close to Khao San road in one of the many twisting alleys, but I forget its name and its irrelevant anyway, because all I did whilst here was sit on the internet, my head like a brick banging against the keys trying to get my future somewhat ordered. I finally made a proper website for my art, I updated my blog, and I wrote applications for a few artist in residency programs that I was interested in.
This work got my mind ticking, it was unusual to be writing up a resume again, especially the writing about myself and my art stuff, I haven’t partaken in this art wank for quite a while and had to re-embed a couple dozen arty words into my head that made me sound art..iculate.
Decontextualize, ambiguous, essentially, juxtaposition, I’m sure there’s more…..
Once that was done, I caught a bus out of there and headed to Mae Sot, a city on the Thai Burma border. I was going to a school that id been introduced to by a friend, the school did ‘art as a weapon’ stuff, focusing on street art, and I was interested in doing an art project with the students. Thinking I would be there for 2 weeks, it came as no surprise that I ended up staying 5.
The school consisted of about 15 students between the ages 19-22, 11 of which lived at the house with the head teacher/ funder/ hardest worker I’ve ever met named Eric. I stayed with 5 girls in the girl’s dorm room, all sleeping close to the ground in a row. It was an intimate place, and there was no time for privacy. We ate together, slept together, did homework together, discussed together, learnt and taught together. The students are Burmese migrant students, most of whose family live in one of the many refugee camps situated around Mae Sot. They all have for different reasons come into Thailand to seek refuge. Whilst staying here the students slowly started opening up to me, with some sharing their stories of why they had to leave their home country. This is a website that will connect you to the Brilliant Burma School page, where you can read for yourself the stories written in English by the students. They have all experienced hardships and decisions beyond their years.
This place was a lot of work, and instead of just doing an art project, I ended up also teaching a ‘sustainability’ program here. It was intense! Writing up a curriculum, designing classes, developing confidence, and learning myself these guidelines to life in a logical and teachable order. Sure im interested in the principles of sustainable living, and I feel as though I live a somewhat sustainable lifestyle, but actually teaching it was another thing. I wove the art project into this, and we decided to start a waste separation system in the house, in the hope of building a sculpture made from plastic.
In separating the rubbish we came to some crazy conclusions. This household acquired on average 20 plastic bags per day, a 2 litre bucket of compostable materials, and copious amounts of tiny packages that previously contained, soap, washing powder, coffee, sweet and savoury snacks and bountiful other things that Asian marketing seem to love to put in teeny tiny packages. In an attempt to make the students realise how much plastic they consume and the fact that it takes hundreds of years to break down Eric and I decided that the students would have to deal with all of their rubbish. Washing it, and reusing it, building a compost bin and brainstorming artwork and handicraft ideas. It was a really hard concept to get across as it seemed to them as being an irrelevant and unimportant issue. However after a few weeks of discussion, fact sharing, research, a trip to the local waste dump, and a day of street cleanup; the students started to show more interest and started to reconsider their use of plastics.
In my first few days here, the students, Eric and I went to a couple of refugee schools. As a part of the Art as a weapon campaign, Brilliant Burma art school was connecting with an art gallery in Sydney Australia to do a “Freedom to lead” Aung San Suu Chi exhibition, 256 portraits of this lady was the aim. We went out to these schools to do portraits with the students. Doubling on the back of bicycles, it was a fun day getting used to the students and experiencing their individual personalities and seeing their confidence pop up and down, with them practicing their teaching art skills.
The days were long and there was no time for privacy or silence. The morning wakeup call was something I will never forget. On one side of the school house we had a Thai school, and the other, a monastery. The school had a marching band of hundreds and each morning at 7.30 they started playing the Thailand national anthem. This wasn’t the usual loudspeaker playing an old record ticking and tapping over. This was a school marching band, sounding as though it consisted of hundreds horn blowing, base drumming, ratatat ear splitting…. wake up call. It was satirical and painful and when mixed with the loudspeaker prayers of the monastery, there was no chance of falling back asleep. I had though the 4am calls of the mosque were painful, but they were nothing compared to this jibber jabber circus talk in your ear.
Once awake and lining for the shower we had English class each morning. Lunch and then sustainability or website design class. The afternoons were debating time, and dinner was a nice time where all of us sat around the table talking. The nights I usually sat on the internet at the connecting school named ‘knowledge zone’ researching, and collecting information for the classes. It was the bicycle rides home that came the evident realisations of Mae Sot being a refugee town. Riding the bike in the rain, and seeing the streets lined with people sleeping under tarps or mosquito nets on the side of the road under harsh street lights, next to stray dogs, next to rubbish piles, next to their young children. Men sitting in circles smoking, women sleeping in lines hugging their possessions, next to them a loud drip of the rain water running off the roof and into their metal container.
After a few days of non-stop heavy rain and flooding, I wondered where these people would move to. The dam which held the areas water was overflowing into Mae Sot, they moved all people from the low land jail, and a few refugee camps had flooded too, needing help. The day before the flood I had been at the border line, restamping my passport for an extra 2 weeks in Thailand, as crossing the bridge that separated Thailand with Burma, I noticed all the leaf and tarped humpy like houses under it, low to ground roofing, housing many. The river had flooded the next day up and over these close to river dwellings. Sleeping in my bed upstairs next to these beautiful girls, I felt safe and warm. But perplexed by where all these misplaced no homed people would go. It was a sad and harsh reality, I can only hope that things get better soon, but knowing how young the humanitarian rights of Burma are, I can do nothing but worry and mourn knowing that it will be a long time till these issues are resolved…. If ever.
Its places like these that make you realise how unfair everything is in this world.
Its something so easy to ignore.
Its something so easy to forget.
Its something so easy to talk about, complain about and be sad about.
But these thoughts and words spoken to a friend whilst drinking a $3 coffee on a comfortable chair disappear once passed.
Its something so easy to Do something about, so please…