“Education is endless, so wherever there are out of school children, I cannot stop.” – Samadthachai Pungpong
At 17, Samadthachai Pungpong set off on a 150km-plus trek from his impoverished home in Prachin Buri province to Bangkok, guided by the railway tracks and surviving off of whatever food he could scrounge along the way.
He left home after his parents told him to forget his studies and work on the family farm. Samadthachai decided he could not give up on his greatest joy: learning.
The pursuit of education would guide Mr Samadthachai’s life, first for himself in a literal sense and later as the driving force behind nearly a dozen community learning centers (CLCs) that he would help establish which would bring educational opportunities to hundreds of migrant children along the Thai-Myanmar border.
“I made up my mind that I needed to leave home. I didn’t know where Bangkok was, but I knew where the train tracks were that led there and began to follow them”
Fast track years later and Mr Samadthachai is now the headmaster of “The Borderless School”, a CLC in Toong Ka village in Ranong province’s Had Sompan sub-district. He has also helped launch 10 other CLCs along the Thai-Myanmar border over the past two decades.
As headmaster of the Borderless School, Samadthachai’s primary concerns are practical – just getting the children to school is a challenge. Every day, he drives between 50-70 km to pick up students who live in remote areas serviced by the school. There is no school bus for this job, just Samadthachai’s pickup truck, fitting sometimes up to 40 children. Far from an ideal situation, like many practitioners in the non-formal education sector, Samadthachai has learned to make do with what is at hand.
Four teachers and a Myanmar monk teach 64 students at the Borderless School, mostly migrants between the ages of three and 17. Subjects include the Myanmar language, English, Thai, mathematics, science, social studies and other subjects.
“Every human being has the right to an education – that is the key concept behind the Borderless School.”
The school is situated on a large piece of land and he has cultivated it to grow fruits and vegetables as well as raised livestock, that he sells to restaurants in the city. All this has been done with the aim of becoming self-sufficient. The profits go directly to operational costs and provide the added learning bonus of a “living school” approach for students.
Mr Samadthachai is in his early forties now, though appears older, undoubtedly due in part to the many roles he has taken at the Borderless School and other CLCs – teacher, custodian, cook, driver, entertainer, consoler, mediator and many more. Yet his passion and vision remain, ageless.
So much has changed through his dedicated and strong commitment. Only four years ago, the building that now houses the Borderless School was a long abandoned structure located on a palm tree plantation in a remote natural reserve. It’s hard to imagine that when seeing the school as it is today: neatly kept and brimming with enthusiastic students – many of their smiling faces decorated with traditional Myanmar thanaka white face paint.
Indeed, this belief in “Education for All” has propelled him forward in the face of myriad obstacles: abuse from those asking him why he is helping “outsiders”, teacher shortages, funding crises and border tensions.
“Education is the best solution to all problems.
Education enables us to make better choices in our lives.”
By Noel Boivin