I arrived in Udon Thani, one of the most northern districts of Thailand in early January 2016. Having travelled to Thailand with my family before, I thought I would have a little bit of common ground, but in reality this was not the case. It was unrecognisably different from some of the southern, more touristic areas of Thailand, and I had not realised until this point that the reason why the school was situated right on the Mekong bordering Laos is because this is the poorest and most deprived area of the country.
I arrived at the centre in Nong Khai 4 days before my work at the school began, in order to complete a teacher and cross cultural training program. I was a bit skeptical about this before I left, but actually it was very beneficial as my teaching experiences only consisted of some one on one tutoring and also gave me a chance to adjust to the very different kind of lifestyle that I would be living for the next month!
I focused on teaching very basic aspects of English which ideally will help the children to engage with tourism, as this is undeniably one of the most desirable jobs in the area. This included not only the language, but also hopefully the knowledge of some cultural differences; for example I put a lot of emphasis on when to say please, thank you, and you're welcome, along with general essentials such as explaining when and where buses leave from and what food is on a menu.
The children were amazing; so eager and enthusiastic. Often when I asked them to take a break and go and play they would refuse, instead following me and asking me the questions that I had just taught them, and repeating everything I said. Every day when I left the school we would have to have about 15 minutes of hugs goodbye and they would chase our truck as we left.
I also tried to focus more on the children's creative side, as Thailand, along with many Asian nations is very good at teaching children how to remember and repeat, but does not put as much emphasis on the creative subjects. Every day after school for 20 minutes I asked the children to sit with me on the floor and draw only from their imagination. At first it was quite challenging, a lot of them wanted me to draw for them so they could colour it in but by the end of my 3 week placement at the school I was genuinely amazed by how much the work they were creating had changed and how wonderfully imaginative it was. When I left I gave them all some colouring pencils and paper and hope that they are still using them now!
In the mornings I worked with the trainees, who are young people from rural Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Nepal who also lived at the centre. Largely their ambitions were to go into the tourism industry and try to aid its development in the northern regions of Thailand, as the other opportunities in the area are mainly limited to factory and agricultural work. The work at the centre predominantly focused around role-plays for likely situations, such as greeting people at a hotel or talking to customers in a restaurant. One of the main issues with this aspect of my teaching was the age of the students, as a lot of them were quite self conscious and often broke into Thai and Lao rather than persevere with their English, which proved in many ways to be a bit more challenging than the work at the school!
After my classes at the school, another volunteer and I held free drop in sessions for the monks living in Udon Thani. Monks do not work and rely entirely on donations, which makes learning a new language very difficult as most of the time it is unaffordable. This posed a few challenges as the standard varied wildly from a 69 year old who had lived in Europe for 20 years and was almost fluent, to 11 year old boys who spoke even less than my kids at the school. I found this one of the most rewarding aspects of my volunteering, as over the weeks the number of monks attending grew and grew from initially only one until there were around fifteen coming to the centre every evening. On a personal level I found it very enriching as well, especially with the older monks whose English was very good, as it was almost entirely conversation practice. Inevitably we ended up discussing Buddhism and their studies, which was an amazing experience as throughout my travels in Asia there was very limited opportunity for interaction with the Monks (especially being a woman; we are not allowed to walk with them in public, sit next to them on buses, pass them anything directly). I feel very lucky to have been able to have such intimate and unique experiences.
After 3 weeks in Udon Thani, I moved to a village called Na Long in eastern Laos. It was a 9 hour bus ride from Vientiane, followed by a 2 hour hitch hike in a cabbage truck with 2 Lao babies looking at me like I was from another planet. I was the first volunteer to go to Na Long and many of them had never seen a Westerner before, let alone blonde hair, resulting in a lot of people seeing me and pointing saying "foran, foran" meaning foreigner! I lived in a home stay with a man named Kharn who had previously been a trainee at the centre, along with his wife and 2 children. They spoke very limited English, but a Lao friend I made whilst in Thailand came with me for the first few days to help translate. They were a very lovely family and treated me very well, although conditions were unimaginably tough. Laos had the coldest weather they had seen in 30 years whist I was there, with the temperatures dropping to 5 Celsius. The houses were made of rattan with no doors, and there was constant rain making it almost impossible to make a fire. I taught at the school on the Monday but on Tuesday I was told that the school had been cancelled for the rest of the week due to the fact that 2 of the pupils, aged 5 and 7 had passed away from the cold. I stayed in Na Long for the rest of the week, going to their funerals and doing all I could lending clothes to the other children. There was a young woman called Kanchanh who was trying to teach herself English online who I stayed with for a while and taught but the whole environment was incredibly sad and after doing all that I could to help, I left.
I stayed with my friend Lai, a volunteer from the centre in her village, which was around 3 hours from Na Long. The family was incredibly welcoming towards me, despite the fact that no one spoke English at all apart from Lai, and I really appreciated being included in the family especially after the heartbreak of Na Long. They were having village celebrations (the reasons for this I never really understood) including a lot of beer Lao and karaoke. That evening I met a man who guided treks through the Phou Khao Khouay national park, so I spent the next 2 days trekking through the jungle which was an absolutely wonderful experience, the jungle was totally unspoilt and was one of the only areas in Asia where wild Elephants still live.
I then moved on to Vientiane, staying in a hostel near the Mekong. On my second day there I visited Wat Si Saket temple, where I met a 20 year old monk called Phon. Again, the cost of learning English in Vientiane is extremely high, making it almost impossible for monks who rely almost entirely on donations to receive a proper education. Phon came up to me asking if I spoke English, and asked if it was OK to practice conversation for a while. Of course I was very happy to help, and agreed to meet him and a group of his friends by the temple after they finished their studies for the day and practise their English, using the same materials which I would had used in the school in Na Long. I ended up staying in Vientiane much longer than expected in order to try to really help the Monks, and I think that whilst I was with them they improved drastically, especially with their pronunciation as I think it is very difficult trying to learn by yourself using only online resources! They were all in their early 20s, a similar age to me which made for a very interesting comparison in lifestyles! They were a lovely group, very sweet and appreciative, and on my last day in Vientiane, which happened to be my birthday, they took me to a sculpture park of Buddhist statues which was a very memorable birthday!
Upon reflection, I think the volunteering was, without question, one of the most exciting and eye opening parts of my 6 months travelling, despite being incredibly hard at times. I hope that it was as rewarding for all of the amazing people that I met during my time as it was for me. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that I have had due to your support and sponsorship; thank you very much.