In the autumn of 2012, Silvia and I spent three weeks volunteering at a rural primary school in Wang Nam Kheo. This begs the question of how we determined that going to Asia in the first place would be a good change for us. In other words: Why Thailand? How did we get the idea to volunteer? The seeds of this decision actually began to germinate about four years ago.
Back in 2009, we helped run an organic restaurant and health-food store in Majorca. We were involved with an association and began to do food fairs, as well as help organize cooking classes and thematic meals. We also began working mornings on a friend’s organic farm whenever he was short handed. It was through our friend that we found out about HelpX and Workaway. He had been running one of two completely closed-system organic farms on the island. He had been doing it for a few years already when we first got to Majorca. Our friend normally had a number of volunteers coming to his farm through the WOOFER system. This is how we first heard about volunteering abroad for room and board. So I ended up becoming the individual officially in-charge of organizing our own “Volunteer Program”. So I registered our association with HelpX.
We began hosting volunteers in 2010. They would come from all over the world, working a 20-hour workweek in exchange for room and board. It was a great experience for guests and hosts alike. We had folks from all over: Spain, New Zealand, France and the United States. Two years later, we left the restaurant and the association. Being Buddhist, I always wanted to go to a Buddhist country. So I registered with HelpX (this time as a volunteer) and applied for a few places in Thailand. That was how I met my friend Gun. She organizes foreign volunteers for a network of rural schools in the southeast of the country, only a few hours away from the Cambodian border.
In February of 2011, I left Majorca for Thailand. Silvia wasn’t able to go, so I was off on my own adventure. I’m sure that in a future post Silvia or I may talk about the pros and cons of traveling alone, in a group or with a single partner. I had done all my traveling alone prior to getting married and had recently made a few trips to New York alone. This was, however, very much different. I knew no Thai and was going some four hours northeast of Bangkok to an area where little English is spoken and foreigners were few and far between. Luckily, I wasn’t fully aware of this and when I did realize it, I had already been there for a few days so it was no big deal. Had I known, I may have had butterflies in my stomach the whole plane flight to Bangkok. As it stood, I had a great flight and I only had a few brief moments of nervousness trying to navigate through the airport to get a cab.
I really went into this blind. I didn’t really know too many people that had visited Thailand before. Moreover, I didn’t know anyone who had ever taught or volunteered there. Having no idea what to expect, I checked into a backpacker hostel in the Kao San Road section of Bangkok. I really did not like it at all. The ratio of foreigners to natives seemed to be like three to one! A ‘Disneyland’ for twenty-year olds. I found a few people there that seemed to be backpacking through Southeast Asia for all the wrong reasons. The alcoholic ex-pats that frequented the neighborhood were also extremely creepy.
I did stay three days in Bangkok, met these terrific guys from Peru and we all went to see the Royal Palace together. I ended up just tagging along with them. Traveling alone through the countryside and towns is quite cool, but alone in Bangkok can be quite intimidating if you’ve never been there before.
Overall, I found Bangkok noisy and alienating. I met an ex-pat from Ireland who told me that most Europeans that come to Bangkok to visit hate it, but many who live there see another side of Bangkok. As I was just passing through, I didn’t really have the time to properly explore the place and get a real feel for the different neighborhoods.
After three days, I felt rested enough from the long flight to take the four-hour van ride to Wang Nam Kheo. I was eager to leave the city and head out to the countryside. After about an hour or two the land began to rise. They call Wang Nam Kheo the Switzerland of Southeast Asia because its in the highlands and has many lakes with Alpine style bungalows. The region is largely (almost exclusively) agricultural with several larger towns involved in crafts and silk production. Wang Nam Kheo is a popular tourist destination for Thai people and few if any Felang (foreigners) go there. I arrived at the main rural school without incident, armed only with the directions written in Thai that I had printed out before leaving home.
I would spend the entire month of February 2011 in a town in the same province known as Paktongchai teaching a sixth-grade class. March 1st I was on a plane heading back to Palma de Majorca. I had made the trip without mobile phone (cell), laptop or camera. I took a diary instead. When I returned to Spain, I told Silvia that next time we had to go back together. I knew she would absolutely love it!
Long before we even had our own little troupe of HelpX volunteers, Silvia and I had spoken quite a bit about travel and volunteering. So it had been something that we were very keen on. We had no idea ‘when’, or ‘if’ we’d be able to do it. It was with great satisfaction and a little surprise that only a year and a half later, we were both in Thailand together! I never expected us to be able to do it in such a relatively short period of time. I figured, maybe in three or four years time. I mention a little more about that in my article “The Gifts of Janis”.
Silvia and I arrived at Bangkok on the 13th of November. This time we had reserved a proper hotel much closer to the airport. There’s nothing like first-hand experience. We ended up avoiding Kao San Road like the plague! We rested a few days at the hotel. It had a pool and some good places to eat nearby. On a Friday morning we headed straight for the Victory Monument in downtown Bangkok to get our van to Wang Nam Kheo. Sure enough, some four hours later, we were at Gun’s school. It’s called the Ban Butaka Primary School. It was amazing to see her again. She’s like my cool and eccentric Thai aunt! A great person.
As fate would have it, our arrival coincided with the wedding of one of Gun’s sons, Green. So the very next day, Silvia and I got into our ‘Sunday best’ to attend our first Thai wedding. It was awesome. After which, we found ourselves with three days of downtime before we would begin our volunteer work. We were fortunate to meet two lovely young girls from Germany and together the four of us did some exploring here and there. We even went to visit my old volunteering place of Paktongchai which, was about 40 minutes away by bus.
So that my friends is pretty much how we first ended up in Southeast Asia.