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Taking cricket to the hill tribes

Sunday, 1 January 2012
Taking cricket to the hill tribes

Children from the hill tribe villages of the North of Thailand have been given the chance to play cricket in Chiang Mai and shown a surprising aptitude for the game, so it was time to take cricket into the hills

Over the last few years a heart-warming project that combines providing accommodation and schooling for Hill Tribe children from Akha villages in the north of Thailand with giving them the opportunity to play cricket in Chiang Mai has been set up and is going from strength to strength.

The boys have gained such enjoyment from the game of cricket and shown such natural ability that they now have their own team and play with and against the men; some of the boys have already represented Thailand at junior levels and are showing interest in becoming coaches, scorers or umpires. They have helped the senior coaches to run tournaments for younger children and helped look after the ground at Gymkhana Club and some have even begun watching Test cricket on the internet.

Initially the boys were staying in hostels in Chiang Mai but living conditions were not always satisfactory and finding enough time to train and practise cricket was proving difficult so the Hill Tribe Fund was able to finance their own house for the cricket playing boys, the so called ‘Pinky House’, and a very special cricket community was established.

Back in October 2011 two of the boys, Nikom and Chaiwut, had their family living nearby in Chiang Mai, Thailand and when their home near the river was struck by flooding, mum and dad as well as granny and baby sister all moved into the house with the adults all helping to look after the Hilltribe fund boys.

As a true sign of a growing friendship, the invitation was made by the family for us to visit their village for a New Year celebration and we had no hesitation in accepting their kind offer, as we were fascinated to see why it was that so many hill tribe children had such ability to play cricket, and whether there was any more natural talent hidden in the villages.

Coaches Martin and Puy Papworth with daughter Pin and intrepid reporter Locky set off on New Year’s Day to make the journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and onwards towards Mae Sai before turning off the main road in Mae Chan. The two boys came with us in the car together with granny and they gave us directions as we headed up into the hills, stopping only for supplies at a local market.

We reached the village of Sai Jan Pattana and immediately saw the traditional mud houses built on the steeply sloping road. We were soon surrounded by the local children who would follow us around during our stay and were we were met by a lady in full Akha costume who proved to be Nikom and Chaiwut’s other grandmother.

We were shown to our new home and the boys soon had a fire on the go with bamboo burning strongly so that we could cook our lunch but it wasn’t long before we all went to explore the local surroundings. We wanted to find a suitable place to stage a children’s cricket match the next day. Walking down the hill, we soon found the local school which had a concrete playground that was used for volleyball and basketball but which could easily be converted into a makeshift cricket ground.

Continuing downwards as the children went for a swim in the river, we were soon dreaming of plans for the future when we found a natural bowl that was used for grazing cattle and growing rice but which would make the perfect location to build a cricket ground. There was even a potential mud house pavilion and platforms for the spectators already in place.

The walk back uphill was a testing one but we had already seen why hill tribe children were such natural sportsmen and women, as the kids were always on the go despite the steep slopes they had to contend with. There was also a genuine team spirit as they were playing together and proudly showing off their village to the visitors.

We had already had a long day ourselves so we stopped for a short rest on the bamboo platform outside our house, admiring the view down the hillside and watching the children run around, as we talked about our first impressions of life in the village. It wasn’t long before we headed off again as news had come in that Paiwan, who had been part of the Hill Tribe fund sponsored cricket programme in Chiang Mai, lived only minutes away.

We went to visit his house and talked to his mother about a possible return to Chiang Mai but Paiwan would have to improve his school grades for that to happen as education is just as important as cricket on the programme. Another boy Vitun who had shown promise as a cricketer in Chiang Mai was also back in the village so both were invited to take part in tomorrow’s match.

Now it was time to go back to the house to enjoy a meal cooked by the two grandmothers on the open Akha hearth and then to drink a few beers as we were warmed by the fire before retiring to bed, excited by what we had seen and looking forward to what lay ahead.

Next morning we had a real feel of what life in a hill tribe village could be like, as the sun slowly burned off the mist that covered the hillsides, and the bamboo fire banished the morning chill. Coffee and porridge as well as some more traditional Thai fare made for a wholesome breakfast and it was soon time to head down to the river again to watch the children trying to catch fish.

Puy had gone off in the car to collect Nikom and Chaiwut’s parents and baby sister and everybody had to contain their growing impatience to get the cricket match underway as we awaited their arrival. As soon as the car came to a halt the cricket equipment was grabbed and was quickly put to good use as we staged an impromptu net session on the narrow strip of land in front of the house.

Chaiwut, only 11 years old himself and the youngest boy on the hill tribe progamme, showed his young friends the basics of how to bat and bowl, and then it was time to stage our match before we suffered the fate of lost ball.

Paiwan and Vitun appeared and we gathered up the boys and all headed downhill towards the school. A team photo was taken with the hill side providing a highly scenic backdrop as the boys excitedly brandished their plastic bats and stumps.

The game was organized so that the older boys Nikom, who has already played for Thailand at under-14 level, Paiwan and Vitun acting as bowlers with the younger boys having a go at batting in the hope we could prevent the ball from disappearing too far into the undergrowth that surrounded the ground.

Some of the boys showed real promise and all of the local children seemed to enjoy their first taste of cricket immensely. We were soon discussing the idea of establishing scholarships for boys with the most talent to join the cricket program in Chiang Mai, and one of the boys was quickly offered a place for the following season.

We finished off our time on the school playground by staging a game of non-stop cricket where the batsman had to run whatever happened and the bowler could aim at the stumps whenever he had recovered the ball. An enjoyable morning was had by all before time was called and we headed off for the lunch interval.

We had been invited to the village party in the evening but an action packed day resumed after lunch with a trip to the local lake as our entire junior cricket team were packed into the car. Nikom showed us the way on his motor bike as the children sang along loudly to their favourite Thai music but we were concerned for the car’s well being as we turned off the main road and had to negotiate a river crossing.

I found the entry and exit from the lake rather awkward but the children had no such difficulty as they dived into the water and enjoyed splashing around together for a happy hour before devouring a plate of spicy somtam. We dried off as best we could before heading back to get ready for the party.

We all had reviving showers by using a bucket of cold water in the bath room, although we were able to make it a slightly more pleasant experience by boiling kettles of water on the fire. I was then treated to some pork barbecued on the same fire by Nikom’s aunt as Martin and Puy ate the vegetarian food they had prepared earlier. Our hosts had generously stocked the fridge with beer so we had an enjoyable time with all the family gathered together.

Soon it was time to head uphill to the village centre where the New Year party was being held and we were glad to sit down at our table after an arduous climb. A fantastic time was had by all as we were made to feel so welcome by the entire village from the older ladies dressed in their costumes to the youngest children who of course never stopped running around. We danced together with all villagers, listened to unfamiliar music, and tried to express our gratitude to our hosts for giving us this rare opportunity to join them in their New Year celebration.

We were glad it was downhill all the way back to the house and we never stopped talking as we shared our memories of another fantastic day. We quickly fell asleep, tired out by our day’s exertions in the village, but there was still more to come on our last morning with the hill tribe.

I woke early and walked down the hill after I realized that one ball may have been left at the school and showing great tracking abilities I found the ball on the small football pitch that was situated close to the playing field. After we had enjoyed our last breakfast cooked on the fire we met up with the family again to take the photos that will provide us with a permanent record of a memorable trip on which we have made a very real connection with a hill tribe community.

We packed up the car and were about to say our goodbyes when we were asked if we wanted to look at the family’s rice farm before we left. Of course, we said yes little knowing that we were heading on quite a trek which involved long stretches of precarious hillside paths and several river crossings.

The children who had befriended us were all as nimble as mountain goats, both the boys and two delightful little girls, but this is sadly not a description I could use about myself as I plotted my way slowly along the path and was forced to remove shoes and even trousers to achieve the river crossings.

The effort was well worth while as an hour’s walk brought us to the family farm and a well deserved rest on the bamboo platform with a thatched roof which could serve as somewhere to sleep when there was work to be done on the farm. Once again our thoughts turned to establishing a village cricket ground in these spectacular surroundings and mum and dad showed off their skills by finding exotic fruit we could eat and digging up vegetables that were then boiled a quickly made fire.

Time was now running short so we were forced to beat a hasty retreat back up the hill and eventually back to reality of the journey back to Chiang Mai. Many tears were shed by the children as their new friends finally left the village and we were close to turning back even after we had started our journey home.

It truly was an experience of a lifetime and we have vowed to return to the village as soon as possible and more importantly to build on our close connection with this hill tribe community. Nikom and Chaiwut will continue to play cricket and mum and dad will continue to share their experiences of village life with us. We are all hoping that some of the other children from the village we met will be able to join the program soon, so it could be the case of cricket being able to do make a contribution to life in a remote area of Thailand.