By Mike Atkins
2003 – Many an Australian will claim whingeing to be the preserve of the English. I think that generalization needs a little work: whingeing is the preserve of the English AND expats in general. Sit around chatting in any coffee shop or bar in Chiang Mai, and conversation is bound to come around to the worsening pollution in town, the prices tuk-tuks charge, the lack of water, or any one of a number of grievances. Complaining does seem to be a popular sport in these parts, and the number of people who actually take it upon themselves to address problems directly is pitifully small. Enter a couple of guys who went against the grain.
The first person to offer white water kayaking in northern Thailand, Colorado native Jason Younkin mainly runs his expeditions and courses on the Mae Taeng, a long, winding river which flows from high in the mountains near the Burmese border down into the Ping River. Over the last two years, he has seen the river’s popularity explode and new operations set up on a regular basis. Day trippers enjoy relaxing on the river, adventure tourists love the challenge the Mae Taeng presents and local villagers have benefited from the extra income generated.
There’s a flipside though – the garbage has started to pile up. Every year, as the dry season stretches on and water levels start to get lower, rubbish from tour groups and visitors becomes more visible on the banks, and rock pools act like magnets for water bottles and crisp packets. When the waters rise again, it just carries the trash on from one village to the next.
Along with friend Mark Grindley, a fellow kayaker who works in the environmental development and conservation field, Jason decided that sitting around complaining about the trash didn’t do much good to anyone. So together, they came up with the concept for ‘Friends of the Mae Taeng’ and started making plans for a massive clean-up operation. They discovered through contacts in the environmental programme at Chiang Mai University (CMU) that the Faculty of Biology was planning a river project in the area, and so they arranged to work together.
In late April, the first phase of the project kicked off. Jason and Mark drove me out to the river to meet Dr. Chitchol Phalaraksh, a lecturer in the Biology Department who explained CMU’s involvement. “Basically, the University students are teaching people from eight nearby villages how to test the quality of the water. We can tell from the type of insects we find whether the water is good or bad. We had a workshop this morning and now the villagers are testing out what they’ve learned.” Wading through the water with fishing nets and sitting on the banks examining Petri dishes were nearly thirty representatives from eight villages in the area. Chitchol went on “We want the villagers to become more aware of the river’s condition. It is central to their lives, so it is important for them to take some responsibility for its condition.”
The next day, an army of about sixty, comprising villagers, students who had camped by the river and volunteers bussed in from Chiang Mai, pulled on rubber gloves, grabbed bin liners and started to scour one of the busiest 10 km stretches of the Mae Taeng for rubbish. As we drove, handing out water bottles and collecting bulging bags of trash, Jason put the project into perspective. “We’re not going to get all the trash, and in a few months it’s going to start building up again, but we’re making an effort and hopefully an impression. I hope people will see what we’re doing today and think twice about chucking their garbage in the river.”
It certainly seemed as though the last part was working out. We watched from the roadside as the litter patrol swarmed into one of the busiest sections of the river. The stalls erected on the river banks were doing a roaring trade selling beer and barbecue and there must have been a good few hundred people splashing around or sprawled out on picnic mats, enjoying their Sunday afternoon. The volunteers were all smiles as they dug brown bottles out of sand banks and rescued Styrofoam food boxes from the grip of tree roots. People stood up to watch what they were doing and before long were collecting up their own rubbish and even taking it over to the collectors.
By five o’clock, as the last truckfull of weary, grubby but remarkably high-spirited volunteers pulled in to the gathering point, nearly two hundred sacks of rubbish had been collected, weighing in the region of half a ton. People cheered as it was hauled into the rubbish truck and were already making plans for another operation later in the year. Jason and Mark were all smiles as we headed back to Chiang Mai. “Mission accomplished,” Jason said, “well, until next time.”