Land of 1000 Smiles

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February 1st 2012
Published: February 2nd 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

...certainly lived up to it's name as I arrived at Bangkok airport and was greeted by the smiliest woman I'd ever seen. Her smile grew even bigger as I waved in ackonwledgement of the ETC (educational travel centre) sign she was holding, as she nodded frantically "Welcome to Thailand!"

I'm spending my first three weeks here voluteering in a village school - something I've wanted to do for a long time, and finally here, I'm excited about the challenge and doing something worthwhile rather than just lazing on a beach! (Plenty of time for that later!)

The Thai lady tells me there's 6 of us in the volunteer group but no sooner than she says this her phone rings declaring two have cancelled - shame. So there are four of us; Myself and 3 x 20 yr old Swiss German girls. I am sharing a room with a girl named Talissa, then there are Anna & Lisa who are two friends on a five week holiday together. They all seem really nice, except they talk in Swiss German all the time! I was expecting there to be a group of about 10 of us so am a little disappointed at this stage...a little banter would have been nice. Still, it's the experience that I'm here for too so i'll just have to get on with it!

We have a night to explore Bangkok, so I decide to go off on my own rather than listen to more Swiss German that I can't understand! In the lively backpacker district of Baglamphu, I wander down the main street full of market stalls, street food sellers (yet again!) and busy bars & pubs. I come across one that boasts "We don't check for ID" on a massive sign outside so I decide to have a beer here just so I can take a photo. I get chatting to two rather handsome Dutch guys who speak perfect English and finally have a fun conversation! Later we head to another bar with a live indie band on and meet up with a group of loud sweaty Ozzies...the perfect remedy for my downer of a mood earlier in the day!...Lots of loud singing, jumping up and down & clinking of our Chang beers, toasting everything from Fish & Chips to Harold Bishop. I leave elated having had such a good night with complete strangers and look forward to more fun in the city on my return. I definitely got my banter!

So onward the next morning to a tiny village just outside of Angthong, 100km North of Bangkok. We meet the family who are all very sweet and welcoming. Our host, Surin, is a teacher at the school and she lives with her brother Pee Chai and sister in law Pa Luis (literally translated to older brother & Aunt, but this is what we call them.) Their chubby 11 year old nephew Pao lives in the house opposite but he is always here too, eating his way through the fridge and playing "Point Blank" on the computer. I've since noticed that a steamed pork dim sum dumpling is also called a "Pao" and wonder if he is actually named after one as he does show a shining resemblance...)

There are also seven (yes seven!) dogs. I only know four of their names, which are; Tiger, Pig and two puppies Crab & Sushi! They are very cute but they pee on the floor quite often and many a time I have stepped in it now!

I'm surprised that the house has a computer and even better the internet. It's a humble home, wooden and on stilits. The bedrooms are downstairs and we are shown to ours; 4 matresses lined up on the floor in a long thin room (see photo.) It probably looks horrendous, but to me I'm perfectly happy. It's funny, but to be travelling and doing something I've wanted to do for such a long time is so amazing, that to be sleeping on a hard matress or no matress at all doesn't bother me whatsoever. Neither does the fact I have to shower with a bucket and a jug or share said shower with 2 frogs, several lizards and whatever else decides to pop up out of the plughole. It's all part of the experience and I wouldn't change it for the world. Staying in a 5 star hotel wouldn't be real Thailand would it? And it would make me feel worse than I already do when I meet 200 beuatiful children at the school that afternoon, half of which I'm told are orphans.

They are all so happy to see us..."Farang! Farang!" the little ones shout (which literally means "foreigner'😉 as they run towards us and hold out their arms to be picked up. The older ones say "teacher, teacher!" and sometimes "beautiful!" and give you a hug too. So I'm walking along, sweating from the 20 minute cycle to school with a child hanging from each of my limbs...bit of a difference to walking into an empty office at 7:30am each morning with only the cleaner to greet me!

The 20 minute cycle to school is along the bank of a tranquil river and it's a blissful sunny morning on the first day teaching...I am in my own little world, until I hear a loud bark and look down to see a tiny but very angry dog yapping at my wheels! Then before I know it I have 10 of them chasing me down the road! A bit scared to say the least, but now it is a regular occurence every morning and I've found a firm "Piss off dog!" normally does the trick!

We're given our time table for the week which shows kindergarten first thing every morning for an hour - fab! An hour of playing before teaching begins! The kids are jumping all over us, kissing us, hugging, pulling at our hair - it's mental but good fun! I finally get them all sat round with crayons & paper as they each draw something and thrust it in my face "Wow!" I say "Dii Mar Dii Mar" (I learnt a little Thai!) Of course I've no idea what the picture is meant to be, but then they are only 2/3, I can't expect a Monet.

Time for teaching begins and we're in pairs - I am with Talissa and we make a good team. We have class 1 first, ages 4-5, and are asked to teach them about family, though I do worry what this means to the orphans, but very obediently when I say "repeat after me...Mother...Father....Brother...etc" they all do in perfect unison...bless!

Unfortunately after the first day, Anna & Lisa decide it's just not for them and they would rather be on the beach. This does strike me as rather strange as, even if they are suffering from a bit of culture shock, you either want an experience like this or you just book a beach holiday in the first place! But nevermind, if they can live with themselves for deserting these beautiful children then so be it...(heartless beeatches.)

We teach all ages throughout the week, right up to 12 year olds. There isn't much of a lesson plan, we're just thrown in at the deep end, in front of a blackboard to teach! So I think back to when I learnt French at school; how to ask/tell the time, days of the week, I would like to buy..etc etc. It's tricky not being able to translate in Thai for them but we get there.

It is honestly the most rewarding thing I think I've ever done - to come away from a lesson, knowing that you have taught somebody something. Of course there are the naughty ones, but I secretly love shouting at them to get back in their seat! I also found a cane in the corner of the room so as well as using it to point at the blackboard, I also wave it around in a dramatic manner to tell them off with "Oi you! Back in your seat!"...I point it at them, they go back to their seat...It works!

One of the teachers tells me the children in Thailand aren't as clever as in England (she hasn't been to England) and apologises for them being naughty. I tell her that we do have very naughty children too and she is surprised! And she loves my story of when I was in Year 9 and my class locked our Spanish teacher Miss Cochrane out of the room for half the lesson...still makes me laugh to this day.

The school is funded by donations alone and is looked after by local monks who live in the onsite temple. There are numerous buildings/sleeping quarters for the orphans who live here too and there are many helpers to look after them We go there after school finishes to play with them and then help serve dinner - rice with 2 yummy thai curry dishes - and they can have as much as they want!...None of this please sir can I have some more...

There are often donations from local/national companies to the school. Just this week we've seen them receive 10 computers, hampers & hampers of food and a large cheque from a Thai bank. We also spent about an hour sorting 200 toothbrushes & toothpaste sets donated by a supermarket. People are very generous and kind hearted, like the majority of Thai people I have met so far. At 6am every morning everyone in the village prepares food for the monks, which they take back to the temple for breakfast. Surin, our host, asks if we want to get up early one morning to help her feed the monks, so we do. At 6:10am they walk past our front gate and on to the next house...Damn it! We missed them! But we're not allowed to holler after them, so we just have to wait patiently (for about 30 minutes!) until they pass again. Then I have to spoon rice into these massive pot things they have around their necks, being careful not to touch them (it is forbidden for a woman to touch a monk...though I am tempted just to see what happens) then we have to get on our knees and pray to them. The first time in my life I have got on my knees for anyone in this way! And they don't even say thankyou! The whole thing happens in complete silence then they move on to the next house. To be honest, I don't see why we can't just leave the food out the night before like we do for Santa, then everyone gets a lie in.

On the subject of food, I am continuing to eat amazingly, and nothing beats a genuine home cooked Thai meal! I help every night, going to the market, chopping vegetables, shelling prawns and learning lots of new dishes. We just have to keep telling them that we can eat chilli & spice as they keep toning it down for us but I like it hot hot hot!

So the first week is over, after working Saturday morning, we have a day and a half off. It's been amazing so far and I can't wait to get back to the children. When I was in India I was getting really rather concerned that I myself was in fact a heartless bitch as all the begging children (including one girl who repeatedly squeezed my leg while asking for money as we were stopped at the traffic lights in a tuk tuk in Delhi) didn't even get an ounce of sympathy from me, but being here, getting to know these beautiful children and seeing their smiling faces day after day, teaching them and helping them, is melting my cold stone heart. I love them all, even the naughty ones! I know it's going to be so hard when I eventually have to say goodbye but for now I'm cherishing every moment!


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