A new adventure was awaiting me as I was about to discover very unique places in Thailand. I was leaving my Chinese family to be a member of a Thai family with people I had never met. I was going to be a volunteer with ‘Working Abroad’ in a local school in a province 5 hrs. north of Bangkok (Ban Na Khan Hak, Chaiyaphum province) and was going to stay at the families private home. I flew in with Thai Airways which is still the best I have flown. THE best thing for a long flight is a XXL Milka chocolate, by the way.
Arriving in Bangkok
Once you’re in Thailand, remember, always ‘wai’ back to a Thai that ‘wais’ at you (praying gesture with your hands to greet someone). I totally failed at my first ‘wai’. A cute hostel to stay at for one night in Bangkok is ‘SABYE Club Hostel’. You will have a hard time with the taxi drivers who constantly try to trick you which, although I was warned, happened to me right away. Always have them put on the taximeter no matter how strongly they refuse to. This time, I was too tired to care. Make sure to calculate some extra time in wherever you plan on going. You can easily take buses from Bangkok Mo Chit bus terminal to a number of destinations. There are also smaller terminals with buses leaving to the south etc. The buses are very cheap, my ride was only like $7 for a 5 hr. bus ride in a luxurious bus equipped with toilets and master seats. You can make a pre-booking online and make a seat reservation.
Amazing Thai Food
When the teachers who I would soon call my friends picked me up, I instantly got to experience the friendliness and openness of Thai people. Throughout the whole time, everybody would take really good care of me and always make sure I was well fed. MEALS in restaurants only cost around $1.50 and home cooked food is incredibly good. When you spend time in rural Thailand sticky rice will be THE thing. People eat it all day every day, using no cutlery and only their hands of course. There are various tasty combinations: from sticky rice with a spicy stew or spicy green papaya salad (Som Tam – best!!!) to coconut sticky rice with condensed milk and sweet papaya. The food is heaven.
Definitely try a local Pad Thai, morning glory, sticky rice with red sweet bean filling in a banana leaf and all the tasty different sweet potato and pumpkin desserts. My absolute favorite is hot pot where you simply cook everything in boiling water in a big pot in front of you. Always follow the rule: ‘peel it, cook it, or leave it!’. I even carried my own cutlery around in my bag and made sure to wipe the plates before eating off them. Basically, every drop of unprocessed water can result in bad stomach ache for your European stomach, so better be too careful than too careless. And beware, whenever you order a drink, even coffee, there will be a shot of condensed milk added to your drink if you don’t tell them not to (‘Not even a little bit sweet?’). And of course, it’s also common to eat insects and yes, they do taste of nuts.
Volunteering in Thailand
My HOST FAMILY’S home was located in the middle of a beautiful green valley. It was one of these very unique places in Thailand. It was the perfect idyll with a rooster that always sounded like it was about to die around 4 am, a beautiful panorama terrace and directly next to the school (I would always hear the kids singing in the morning). No one in my family spoke English (my sister Mochi a little!) but everyone was very welcoming and excited to host me. Also, the grandparents were there to welcome me (the whole time I was kind of scared of the one grandma since she always looked at me with an evil eye). It was a very unique experience for me to not be able to communicate verbally. I had been abroad so many times but not often to places where the written letters were so different and no one understood a single word English. I think it’s a valuable experience everyone should make throughout their lives. At points, it was really hard. Just imagine your cute host mom offering you food she prepared for you but you couldn’t eat it because you have to be careful with what you eat in Thailand but you can’t explain it to her. So you are trying to nonverbally explain but kind of just end up rejecting her while she looks at you with her puppy eyes and you just feel bad and frustrated that you can’t express your thoughts.
Having said that communicating with the KIDS IN SCHOOL went really well. They were so clever and motivated to learn that we managed to create our own way of communicating. Again everyone was so excited on my first day at school. A tall blonde European was something most probably had never seen up to this point. The living conditions in rural Thailand are beyond everything. Most of the kids live in poor conditions but every single one of them carries the biggest smile on their face every single day. My heart screams from admiration for that! They were some of the happiest kids I have met. My mom is a teacher so I’ve heard all kinds of different stories about kids in German schools. It was nothing compared to the situation in Thailand. Here every kid respected their teachers and one another.
Some methods I didn’t approve though, e.g. when a kid urged me to hit another kid that had misbehaved in class. It’s a different culture so it should always be viewed from a bigger perspective and not judged by single actions but this did not mean for me that I would play along with everything. It’s funny: while the kids are very active and play a lot on the colorful playgrounds, teachers in Thailand have a funny work ethic and love spending the day eating and relaxing. Things are definitely way more unorganized, e.g. my introduction to what current level the kids were on and which topics we should cover was shortened to a ‘Teacher Lisa (that’s how I was referred to by literally everyone), start talking to the kids!’. Well, I used my time well and tried to talk as much as possible to them (in English, while they probably only understood half of what I was saying). I also made them write down everything we covered to leave them with something that would last (western letters are not common for Thais).
Trips in rural Thailand
The teachers showed me around a lot and we went on TRIPS to Bangkok (‘Lisa, you want to go to Bangkok, you have got 30 min.’), the ancient city of Thailand (Wat Phra Kaed, Ayutthaya Historical Park), an area in the middle of nowhere that looked like the “Mansions of the Gods” in Asterix & Obelix, several temples, a Thai Stonehenge (Mor Hin Khao) where the Thais use to camp for New Years and Thai strawberry fields etc.
A special celebration was the SPORTS WEEK in our province with more than 30 schools participating. Towards the end of the week, there would be a big party for all teachers that totally got out of control with Thai screaming and dancing completely drunk, performing ‘artists’ singing while teachers would inappropriately slip them bank notes. Thai singing doesn’t sound anything like singing but more like a combination of all the people that are not gifted with a singing voice. I am so sorry to say that but it’s sadly true which had me particularly ‘excited’ every time the karaoke machine made its appearance (It’s a favorite hobby so it happened a lot of times!).
A common thing to do on national holidays is renting a raft that is a KARAOKE RAFT so you spend the whole day sitting cross-legged on the floor eating and singing while admiring the magnificent nature you’re surrounded by. Going on trips with my friends was always refreshing: Why take 2 cars with 6 people for a 5 hr. ride to Bangkok when we can also squeeze 4 Thai in the back? Why not let the teacher’s daughter drive the car who looks like 12? Why not drive 6 hrs. to get to a national park that is closed that day? And the funniest thing, whatever was planned for the day they wouldn’t fill me in and plans always changed throughout the day. I quickly adapted and always had a selection of clothes etc. with me and waited in anticipation for the next adventure. A trip I definitely won’t forget is the day when my friends organized a photo shooting where the photographer would capture me in traditional Thai clothes at various famous religious sights.
Famous Holidays in Thailand
I had so much luck on my world trip. This also proved to be true in Thailand since a lot of public holidays and CELEBRATIONS were happening while I was there. The infamous ‘Loy Krathong Festival’ manifests the idea of letting go of negativity and urges to focus on the good in life. In the festivities ‘Krathongs’ are released with candles to the water to honor Buddha and the goddess of water. The King’s Birthday (December, 5th) is probably the most important day of the year. Bike for dad (how the king is commonly called) describes an event when everyone rides their bikes wearing a yellow shirt. The whole country participates. The same day little August and I also planted a tree in honor of the king which is a very personal memory, knowing that this tree is growing and growing over the years now. I also was lucky to experience the monks marching from temple to temple which takes place once a year. When they got to our village my friends took me to the temple which was an attraction for me while I was the attraction for everyone else. At the celebration, a ceremony with the monks commenced during which everyone prayed and food (everyone brought it along) was handed to the monks.
One thing I didn’t expect was that TECHNOLOGY would play such an important role. I had actually told everyone that they might not hear from me for quite some time. Well, the first thing I was offered was the Wi-Fi code. Wherever we went while I was in Thailand, asking for the Wi-Fi code at a restaurant etc. was the first thing everyone was interested in. Also, I appreciated that everyone was so eager to take pictures, I like memories (some single pictures!). Little did I know that taking pictures (loads!) was going to be a major aspect every day and it didn’t take long that I was annoyed by it, especially since I am trying to really live moments and experiences with all my senses and don’t want to be disturbed by technology while doing that. Even while sitting on the grass admiring a beautiful waterfall (Tad Ton), checking Facebook every 5-10 min. was essential. It was hard for me to understand since I had assumed the more rural I got people would be more disconnected from the digital world and in a closer relationship to nature.
Finally, a reminder: going somewhere as a VOLUNTEER with an organization doesn’t necessarily mean that everything will go smoothly. The main aspects like accommodation, pick-up etc. were arranged beforehand but besides that, you will still have to take it day by day. Being a member of this big Thai family was a very rewarding experience. I left with a heavy heart and with a heavy bag full of beautiful Thai skirts and tons of gifts (which ended in me adding several kilos to my booked luggage in the middle of the night 5 hrs. before my departure!). One friend even knitted a beautiful sweater for me which is a very special gift. I hate saying goodbyes. The last day at school was a tough challenge. My lovely ambitious kids who were so grateful for everything came running after me when I was leaving the school premises and didn’t want to let me go. I had no control whatsoever over my emotions anymore and was tearing up like crazy.
Sights to see in Bangkok
Back in BANGKOK, I had another half day to explore the city and some more unique places in Thailand. Before I had checked out the ‘Golden Mountain’, the ‘Giant Swing’, the ‘Democracy Monument’ and one of the big Shopping Malls which are all massive buildings of corridors and worth experiencing. I made the most of my last day and went to the ‘Wat Pho Temple’ where I had the honor of participating in the biggest monk ceremony in Bangkok. I ended up going to the night markets with people I just randomly ran into at my hostel and searched around like crazy to find that awesome Star Wars Shirt I had seen earlier and that I desperately wanted to buy for a friend (and myself!). Because I was leaving for Australia next and I felt like my departure had come at a perfect time since I was seeking a change and was longing for some time in the western world. I loved Asia but I was looking forward to not being so special or let’s say different (mostly by appearance!) compared to everyone else.
A thing I definitely won’t forget about Thailand is the people’s warm caring attitude, even if it was getting a bit inappropriate at times when the second question after ‘How are you?’ is ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’. I actually also miss my early morning and evening cold bucket showers (another kind of ice bucket challenge!). Thais are very clean, so ‘showering’ twice a day is expected. I also won’t forget how ‘nurse Lisa’ had to take care of at least 5 kids who had fainted during the sports week opening ceremony. Everyone acted like I was ‘Saint Lisa’ yet I only performed common first aid. A fun fact towards the end, in Thailand it’s common to use the syllabus –porn in the surname which is associated with ‘being gifted’ and proudly shared on Facebook. Finally, a very special soul worth mentioning is little August. She was a friend’s kid who went to an international school and really made an effort at her young age to properly learn English. She and her ambitious friends made me cry as they were truly able to have a normal conversation with me. And so I think back to those moments with August when she was playing on her Ukulele and und we were driving through the night while singing in the car! It’s one of those moments that will always be a part of you.
Kòbkûn ká, Thailand!
Saenrak (my Thai name, it means having a big heart & lovely personality, such an honor)
~ Time for another continent, off to Australia ~