Hi all, volunteering with Lokgatat and Mundo was a very memorable 3 weeks for me. Isaan is one of the marginalized areas of Thailand, and people in Bangkok sometimes have a pretty discriminatory attitude about people there. But I found it to be wonderful, unique, and colourful.
When I applied to volunteer, I wanted to do my best to engage with the culture and lifestyle. If you feel the same way, home stay is the only way to go. I spent three weeks living in home stay in a village, in Bueng Kan province, in the Isaan region of Thailand (the Northeast). I stayed with Bees and New, the kindest newly-weds ever. They live in Bees’ spacious family home, with her equally sweet mother. Bees and New are both teachers at the school. When I arrived, I was honoured with a thread-tying welcome ceremony with teachers and village elders. I also had my first Isaan meal. I would come to love this tactile style of eating: using your hands to take sticky rice and scoop up a series of aromatic dishes, your spoon travelling from bowl to bowl, everyone sharing everything, no inhibitions.
Each morning I would go running, walking, or biking among the rice fields and rubber tree farms behind the village. Almost every morning offered a breathtaking sunrise.
My experience was a little different than some other projects in that I was at school for the full day. I would arrive around 8:30am and leave whenever Bees and New were finished, usually between 5:00pm and 6:00pm. During the day I helped with anywhere between 2-5 English classes, mostly with Kroo (teacher) Bees or Kroo Mungkorn. Between them, I always had a “go to” person if I needed help. That said, all the teachers would help me in a nano-second if they thought I needed it, even when they couldn’t speak English. The teachers are also a social community and I was invited to many events and gatherings. The language barriers made us all a little shy at first, but by the time I left we were undoubtedly friends.
Kroo Mungkorn, the head English teacher, is extremely dedicated. He was the one who sought out Mundo Exchange for a volunteer. He had realized that, since his students never hear native-speakers speak English, their listening comprehension and speaking skills are seriously underdeveloped.
I would read out loud so the kids could hear how I pronounced the words. Other times, I would ask questions to the class and then let them ask me questions. Be prepared to have some interesting questions! Sometimes I would ask questions to each student individually and help them through the answers (“how old are you?”, “what is your favourite food?”, “what time did you wake up?”, etc.). I kept myself from running out of questions by making sure I hit “who, what, when, where, why, how many, how long, and how much.”
The rest of the time, I would walk around the school grounds. The kids do a huge range of activities, and it was fun to just watch them. Eventually, a group would call me over to gossip. They don’t speak much English and my Thai is next to non-existent, so we had to work together to have any sort of conversation. But we always understood each other in the end.
In Bueng Kan, what you see is what you get. It’s not changed for foreigners like much of the rest of Thailand because there’s not really any tourists. The market is for buying groceries. Vendors bring fresh vegetables, piles of chilies, and fish swimming in rubber bins (dinner!).
Oh yes, and don’t go unless you’re willing to make friends with dogs, ants, and geckos.
During my three weeks, I was treated to an Isaan wedding, took a trip to Phu Thok mountain, walked the beaches of the Mekong River, had long conversations with a monk, and spent a day at Ban Chiang archeological site.
I would also visit the Mundo Volunteer House in Bueng Kan “City” just to give Bees and New some time to themselves. The Mundo staff made it eventful and educational. I had taken a risk by flying to a province my Thai friends had barely heard of, and putting my trust in an organization I had only emailed. Thai Laekplian Lokgatat and Mundo Exchange turned out to be more than I could have hoped. They were a constant source of tangible and emotional support.
What you must know about Isaan is that smiling and laughing are life. People don’t ask “how are you?”, they ask “are you happy today?” When I didn’t know what was going on, I just smiled and everything was okay. When I thought there might actually be a problem, then I started laughing, and everything really would be okay!
These fantastic kids are waiting for another volunteer to come share smiles and laughter with them! If you want to volunteer at a village school let us know!
At our home stays we pay our home mum for our dinners, breakfasts, extra water, electric and snacks. Depending on what you eat and where you go volunteers usually give from 1000 baht up. Some of us have helped our home stay mums and families more, and most of us pay around 1500 baht for a 7 day week. For those who do not pay then our Thai sponsor is forced to pay for your food and stay after you leave, which is a hardship. So far all of us volunteers have followed through and have been jai dee. At the village and in town too we also dress respectfully, meaning in Thai village land shorts to the knees or below, shoulders covered… Just do what you learned during your cross cultural orientation, forget your own culture for a few months or weeks, and enjoy something new.