I spent two weeks of the month of January (a typically cold and uneventful time to be in Texas) volunteering with Mundo Exchange and Laekplian Lokgatat. As I write this now, I am already back home in Austin, dealing with freezing temperatures and plain gray days. Perhaps it’s mostly the weather, but it surely does exemplify how much I miss Thailand and everyone I met through Mundo Exchange.
My time in Thailand started with a short visit in Bangkok, followed by a grueling 10-hour overnight bus ride (for some reason I didn’t listen when Dalyn told me to take the train) to Nong Khai. When I finally arrived, my budding cold/jetlag hangover had fully sprouted. I was tired, stiff, feeling completely distraught with full-on culture shock. I sat waiting on the steps of the Thai-Laos hotel where I would meet my hosts, and though I was excited to finally start my volunteering journey I couldn’t help but focus on the current elements and miss home a bit. Then I saw Dalyn and Nalinrat (who I only knew from email, one phone call and some photos) round the corner and my mood immediately elevated. Dalyn yelled out an especially exuberant “Sawatdee ka!!” and I couldn’t help but smile as I went in to hug my gracious hosts. It truly was a sight for sore eyes. We then went to the Nong Khai volunteer home where I met another volunteer, Marta and my other Thai host, Yoon. We spent just a short time in Nong Khai which included a cultural outing to the amazingly weird sculpture park, Sala Keoku. Even though I was sick and out of sorts, I felt right at home with my volunteer family. They insisted that I sleep off the sickness, and Nalinrat made sure to feed me plenty of healing Thai herbs. I’m not quite sure what was in the medicines, but they really did work. By the time we travelled to the school placements in Bueng Kan, I was feeling much better and very ready to start my assignment.
I was delighted to wake up the following day with no cough (Dalyn’s requirement for me to able to start my first day of school), so I could meet the children and see what was in store for me.
Yoon stayed with me for the first day of class at a rural school while I got acquainted with the teachers, school directors and my surroundings. During free time between English classes, we quickly found a sweet spot to sit—under the gorgeous orange flowery vines in the courtyard. This also proved to be the ideal spot to gain many Thai children fans that seemed to thoroughly enjoy at the mere presence of a farang. Some were shy at first, but a few groups of kids quickly got adjusted to me, moving from the furthest table to sitting right at my own table. Yoon helped me practice a few phrases with them before going to our next English class. Most of my days at school consisted of helping with about three English classes, then spending the rest of my time just hanging out with the kids in the courtyard—sometimes practicing my Thai or their English, sometimes showing them photos or playing with my camera, but many times, they would just sit and stare at me and smile when I looked up. It felt a little awkward at first, but the children were so endearing, genuine and sweet that I couldn’t help but laugh. It turned out to be a great way to communicate with them and taught me more about just enjoying the presence of someone or something for what it is. We didn’t have to talk or try to impress each other; it was just nice to be there. Yoon told me this experience is good for the kids to become accustom with farang if they ever leave Bueng Kan to work in the hospitality industry.
During class, I helped the teacher call out English words and phrases and checked student writings for accuracy. Mostly, I was there to show the correct pronunciation and for the children to see how I write, talk and emphasize certain syllables. The students and teachers called me “Miss Candy” because it is hard for Thai people to pronounce “Candace.” I was perfectly fine with this nickname and it was humorous to tell my friends and family back home.
Everyday spent in the classroom was a joy, but I especially loved being able to bring my guitar and teach the kids a short song. Most kids had never learned an English song, so even just the few lines I gave them was a big task. They were eager to learn, though, and caught on quickly. By the end of class, we were all singing the song together. The next day I heard a girl humming the song to herself when I walked into class.
All the children were special to be around, but two girls really touched my heart. They always kept an eye on me and I on them. One was a kindergarten student, the only young one brave enough to sit right next to me at my table spot in the courtyard.
On the last day, they both made sure to get as much face time in as possible and one even passed me a note that said, “I love Candy.” My heart instantly turned to puddy and I felt so honored to have met these children. Just being with the kids, observing their morning ritual, eating lunch with the teachers and smiling in the courtyard made for an incredibly valuable and unforgettable experience. I miss it so dearly already and hope to be able to return one day. I hope after hours of giggling and posing for photos together that the children I met are a little more comfortable with farang. I know my own comfort level was broadened and I left the school with sore cheeks from smiling and laughing so much.
After feeling like a foreigner at school all day, it was so nice to come home to what felt like people I knew from ages ago. It really did feel as much like home as possible. We would check in and discuss our day, talk about what projects were coming up and have dinner together or walk to the beach. My whole intention in coming to Thailand was to have a challenge and adventure on my own, so having a home base while millions of miles from home was an immeasurable benefit.
My caring hosts also made sure to pack in as many cultural outings as possible during my short stay. I stayed overnight at a forest wat (read more here) and hiked to the top of the mountain Wat Phu Tok (with some needed encouragement from Yoon.) Both of those experiences really tested the limits of my character and helped me grow. I surely wasn’t 100% comfortable for the total time during these experiences, but those were the moments when I stopped and reflected on myself and got in the moment. Living in the woods like a nun was a bit of a challenge, but I know it was an experience few other tourists in Thailand get. By the time we reached level 5 at Wat Phu Tok, I was ready to stay there and not push myself to level 7. But Yoon, encouraged me to crawl up the somewhat scary last steps and I was so glad for it. These experiences were the kind I hoped to have while planning my trip but couldn’t possibly imagine until I actually did them.
I would like to thank my hosts for having me and helping to make my experience the best possible. Having Yoon (someone very close to my own age) around was incredibly valuable. He was tireless in his offers to practice Thai with me or show me hidden treasures at the beach. Playing guitar with Gyb was great and one of my favorite nights at the house. Dalyn and Nalinrat are so bright and full of energy. Volunteer Marta was so entertaining to be around and a true inspiration to keep learning despite our age. Intern Val was great to talk to and easy to connect with. Everyone, hosts and volunteers, worked no nicely together and made for a warm and pleasant experience. I wish them all the best!