After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Volunteering in Songkhla Province, Thailand (18th May - 13th June)

With Ram at the Volunteer Centre.

We have recently finished a stint of volunteering at Ban Roean Ram Centre for Sustainable Development, in a small village called Banleab about half an hour away from Hat Yai (big city in the south). It feels a little difficult to look back on almost 4 weeks and sum it up in a blog post but here goes!

The centre was set up a few years ago and attracts volunteers from around the world (mainly European) to come and work there, doing a variety of projects from eco-tourism, teaching English, construction, and agriculture. We were on a 'mixed project' and therefore aimed to do a little bit of everything.

We arrived on a Wednesday night so for the first couple of days we didn't do much beyond some orientation, and we had weekends off. We went along to a local 'anti-drug' community event. There were a few speakers of varying levels of skill at engaging the kids (the local police chief didn't seem to do very well), but there was one stand-out speaker who had the kids onstage and engaged them very well. At one point we were made to stand up as the speaker introduced us to the children. Of course we had no idea what anyone was saying as it was all in Thai, and it was a little strange as our presence there was token at best as we had had nothing to do with the community at this point. At the end of the morning we were asked to pose for photogrpahs with one of the schools and then all the children were made to shake our hands. We felt like royalty! After the children had been packed off to school, the fun really began. The food for lunch was whipped out (a fantastic vegetable, prawn, rice and chilli dish) and the afternoon games began. It felt quite strange that the morning for the children was fairly dull at times and the afternoon events once all the children had gone were pretty fun! There was a catapult game which we were both hopeless at, and a game where a a piece of wood with marbles on top was balanced on two tin cans, the aim being to throw a golf ball at it from a distance and knock it over. Charlotte came fourth in the women's heat and Liam came first in the men's! We were ceremoniously presented with hand towels as prizes by the mayor of the town! There was also a golf putting game, but rendered extremely difficult due to the 'green' being a cracked, dusty and uneven wasteland, so it clearly took a lot of skill (or luck) to get the ball in the hole in a less embarrassing fashion than Liam managed!

Once we got into the swing of things our routine was generally thus: On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings, we would spend a few hours at the local primary school teaching English, and then in the afternoon either do some agriculture in the plantation at the centre, do some painting at the house, or clear the area around a hut being built which was going to become a community library. All of this was weather permitting and usually we got back from school in the baking heat, the kind where even sleeping is difficult! So usually we would take a break until 3pm, by which point it might be raining (of the 'heavens opening/God is angry' variety) so sometimes we had the afternoon off. The English teaching was fun, I think we both enjoyed it more than expected. Neither of us has ever had a burning desire to be a teacher (sorry Mum!) or even work with kids, so it was a new experience for us. We taught a nursery class of 3 year olds, then a combined kinderkarten class of four and five year olds, followed by either a class of 11 or 12 year olds. Although the littlest ones were pretty darn cute it was a bit strange to being teaching them the Roman alphabet when they don't even know the Thai one yet, so really we were there for a bit of entertainment and break up there day, and hopefully some basic familiarisation with English and foreigners! So we mainly coloured with them and sang songs with them (If You're Happy and You Know It, Old Macdonald, Wheels on the Bus, all the classics! Being only three some of them would just be napping through our sessions, or crying (one burst into hysterical tears when she saw us and the teacher explained "she's scared of foreigners"!). The next class were a little more receptive as they were more into the routine of school and more confident so we were able to teach them some colours, animals, numbers etc. They loved the games we played with them to help them learn but mainly because it involved running around (not neccessarily to what they were supposed to be running towards) and shouting (if we were lucky what they were supposed to be shouting)! It was a learning experience for us for sure, but we hit a wall with it after a couple of weeks given our limited teaching skills! We were doing the class with Emma, an euthusiastic English volunteer with the ton of energy required for the younger ones. She was also a dab hand at drawing things for the little ones to colour in so most of her days would start with her frantically sketching something for us to photocopy and hand out to the children to colour! So she was a Godsend to have with us and was naturally great with the kids. Despite corporal punishment being made illegal in 2005, both younger classes were subject to a stick or a ruler which the teach waggled about menancingly when the children got a little rowdy, it would have been preferable for us to deal with it ourselves rather than the teacher jumping in with her stick but of course somewhat impossible what with the language barrier! The other major distraction for the kids was a huge table laden with sweets which they were allowed to buy from the teacher. As a result they had bulging pockets of sweets and their teeth were sometimes atrocious. Apart from that the school itself seemed pretty good, and it seemed the younger ones were occupied and looked after much better than the older children.

We would then move over to the junior school and teach a class of 11 year olds on Monday and Tuesday, and 12 year olds on Thursday and Friday. They were working through some dreadful books which we were supposed to help them with, full of nonsensical cartoons, from an overly Americanised perspective and too advanced for their capabilities (despite us both having done GCSE German, probably neither of us would have been able to do these books if they'd been in German). The problem was that the requirement to teach English to curriculum had only just come in at the school (it was the beginning of the school year in Thailand) and there were seperate books aimed at each year group, so each student was given their 'appropriate' book. But of course they weren't really at that level as they hadn't been doing the other books in previous years. They seemed to be be doing some English work from TV lessons (there were only a few teachers so most of the time it appeared that the classes were 'taught' by the TV) but this was mostly rote learning, copying down words which they didn't really understand, let alone able to read. We negotiated with the teachers and ended up working from the book for one lesson a week with each class and then the other day we did our own thing. We took things back to basics as their English was pretty much limited to "My name is..." and being able to answer the question "How are you?" with "I'm fine thankyou". So we devised some roleplays to teach greetings, basic questions about themselves and their families and numbers. Hopefully it was more relevant and useful to them than teaching them about buying a 'package of cookies' at the 'store' or what the weather was like in Alaska. Each day as we went over to the classes they were learning from the TV (the school only has 2 teachers to be in charge of everyone aged 6 to 12), and the lack of appropriate supervision when we were there sometimes made things difficult. We had a couple of 'characters' in our 11 year old class (one named Beer - Liam, don't get any ideas!) who made life tricky at times for the others to get on with their work. Ram (from the centre, who always accompanied us to try and translate) was keen on us 'just teaching the ones who want to learn' which completely went against our principles so we tried our best (with some success) to engage the more distracted ones as well as the attentive ones (after all there were three volunteers for a class of six children!). It's the age old dilemma of who to focus on the most; the kids that are the hardest to reach or the ones that are sat quietly and patiently waiting for you to teach them. We taught outside and were often distracted by other variables; kids wandering by from other classrooms and joining in, a poisonous centipede which the boys joyously hacked into pieces, and on our last day the boys all had 'fighting fish' in glass jars, they put the fish together and the fish attack each other until one dies. Thailand's version of conkers? Our last class before we left blew up into a big fight between some of the boys, which wasn't the nicest way to end our time there! But on the whole we enjoyed teaching the older children, they were all bright and good natured at heart and most of them were genuinely interested to learn. The main problem was distracting them from the distractions, so to speak. We built up a good rapore with all of them and on good days they would even beg us not to leave, which was quite heartbreaking.

The afternoons would often involve somekind of agriculture (weather permitting), often hoeing, weeding and planting corn, cucumbers, pack choi etc. We also used a funky contraption on a long pole to reach up and put a plastic bag over the fruit in the trees and then pull the string to snap an elastic band over it to keep the bag sealed. This was to stop the insects getting to the fruit, and since they were growing things organically they weren't using pesticides. The agriculture work was pretty fun when it wasn't too hot and we'd love to have an allotment at some point in the future. To avoid the heat Liam ended up buying a huge traditional wicker hat from the nearby village which the locals were extremely amused by as we walked back from the bus stop, however it turned out a little too impractical to actually do any work in! One week we helped to paint the centre a very fetching shade of green. Unfortunately between school and doing work in the afternoon it was too hot to really do much (all the Thais would be sleeping, as they mainly work in the mornings and evenings - and at night if they work on the rubber plantations) so the day often felt quite drawn out. Sometimes we would catch a songthaew (local bus - basically a pick up truck with seats and a covering on the back) to a nearby village and go on the internet. We also got friendly with the Cha Yen (Thai iced tea) lady in our village as we visted for our fix most days! Cha yen is Thai style iced tea, made with dark red tea, sweet spices, copious amounts of sugar and mixed with condensed milk. It is then poured over ice and then topped up with a bit of evaporated milk. Not being a huge fan of creamy drinks we couldn't believe how mind-blowingly good it was, and the sugar certainly helped to pep us up from our heat-induced comas!

On a Wednesday we would tend to do something different. On our first Wednesday we did a bit of planting in the morning and set off to Satun province in the afternoon as Deng (who worked for the project) was going to see her family there. We hadn't realised quite how far away Satun was and the whole round trip was at least 8 hours, all in the back of Deng's pink pick-up truck exposed to the elements. The most entertaining bit of the day was watching Deng's sister selling compression style socks to various friends and family members; these socks apparently cured pretty much any ailment including spots, being too dark-skinned (skin lightnening is big business here as in most of Asia), even not being able to walk! Miracle socks indeed. They were being sold for 3600 Baht, which works out at almost £75! We watched a rubber plantation (big money in Thailand) owner's wife buy three pairs. As Liam commented, when your water supply isn't even safe to drink, spending over £200 on magic socks might indicate there are some skewed priorities somewhere! A couple of Wednesdays we drove off to visit Kris, a German guy who was volunteering at a national park nearby. We worked with him in the gardens of a local school, attempting to tidy up the school garden for inspection. As Kris rightly commented, it probably looked nicer before we hacked it up and nature was running its course! However, the day ended with a trip to the waterfall in the national park (more on that in the next post) which was beautiful and the perfect end to the day. Another time we went to see a lake just as the sun was going down, with an Irish guy living locally who popped by at the school to chat to us for a bit. The lake was really stunning, and it was fabulous to watch the sun go down behind the jungle-clad mountains surrounded by whispy low clouds.

Whilst volunteering we stayed with Ram and Deng, the two women who ran the project out of Deng's house. They had met whilst working at another volunteer project and decided to set up their own. They didn't get a wage for working with the project so both had other jobs; Ram was a hairdresser and Deng got up at 3 in the morning to work on a rubber plantation, and also worked with the local council. They were great fun to spend time with - Ram was utterly hilarious and Deng was an amazing cook. They really made our time volunteering special and it was really good to get to know them. Our first impression of Ram was pretty funny as we'd caught a minibus from the Malaysian border and then rang her to let her know we were in Hat Yai and needed to be picked up. Having assumed it would be a very short call we stupidly used our English mobile, rapidly zapping it of credit without getting anywhere. Ram couldn't understand anything we were saying (cue lots of "EH!?" from the other end of the phone). We eventually used a payphone and collared a young Thai guy to speak to Ram and explain where we were, and Ram came and picked us up with a huge grin on her face, explaining that she really struggles to understand English over the phone!

Sometimes we would have casual Thai culture, language and cooking lessons from them, which was a great introduction to the customs of Thailand. We would love to say that this means we can now whip up amazing Thai food but unfortunately a lot of the dishes it would be struggle to be replicated at home e.g. a curry made mainly from the leaves and flowers of a tree in a field nearby, and of course all fresh herbs and spices used. We also learned to make cha yen, the aforementioned addictive Thai iced tea. Our language learning didn't really get very far so I'm sure the kids at school were amused with us saying "dee mak" ("very good") to just about everything they did. There were also some cute kids from the village who would come and see us who we'd play cards with etc. Their names were Mintin, Min and Mon, and a little boy called either Phil, Will or Quill, depending on who you asked! They were very sweet and would say our names over and over again, taking particular delight in Liam's name and wandering about saying "Leeeeeeam, Leeeeeeam, Leeeeeam". We were later told that Liam is a simiiar word for a pointy nose in Thai (and also police constable), which might explain why they liked it so much!

I think perhaps what we enjoyed the most about the volunteering was living in a Thai village, seeing people go about their daily lives, and learning more about their culture. It was interesting hearing their thoughts on the upcoming election, especially on why Thaksin is so popular despite charges of corruption. We also got to attend Ram's friend Um's monk ordination party (most Thai men at some point become a monk for a short while, and the party was a send-off before he went. He had already been shaved and was wearing a fetching white robe, which is then swapped for an orange one on arrival at the temple) and witness some hilariously camp dancing to the karaoke (seemingly most Thais favourite past-time - the karoke that is!). It's great to now have some Thai friends and I hope we'll be able to keep in touch.

More to follow on the sightseeing we did during our time here!

Volunteering, Southern Thailand

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