After a couple of glorious days in Chiang Mai, I was up bright and early to catch a 3 hour bus ride to Chiang Rai to volunteer. I was planning on sleeping on the bus, but I couldn’t stop listening to the conversation going on behind me. It was an elderly Thai man sitting next to a young Western man who was in Thailand to teach. They became quick friends- the elderly man spoke of the war, his experiences, and how much Thailand has changed since the war. They spoke about Thai people and how accepting/caring they are. They exchanged information and agreed to go to dinner sometime. I loved listening to all of their stories and was so impressed at how well they got along, and how interested they were in learning about each other. In Chicago, people don’t talk to each other much on public transportation, so I was intrigued. I talked to the Western man after the elderly Thai man got off the bus, and he told me he is in Thailand volunteering with the peace corps and is there for 2 years. He told me that teaching in Thailand has been frustrating for him, and that 20 of the volunteers that started with him have already left because in the schools, they are more interested in teaching the kids about being “Thai” than they are focusing on education. What an interesting perspective to get going into two weeks of teaching…
I arrived at the Chiang Rai bus station a bit early, and was greeted by someone holding a Mirror Foundation sign. We waited a half an hour for three others to arrive, then we hopped in the back of a pickup truck and headed out. We all had no clue what to expect. We pulled up to the non-profit’s headquarters, and were given some time to explore. There were animals everywhere, and lots of little huts. We were shown to our rooms. There were two female rooms with a bathroom in the middle. Each room had 12 twin beds with mosquito nets over them. The bathroom was open to the outside, and there was only one toilet that flushed. We were also told that there was no warm water, so we would be taking cold showers while we were there. I have to admit that the living accommodations were not at all what I was expecting/used to, but I was really happy to be there with amazing people and looking forward to the experience of teaching English in Thailand. That day we learned how to make Thai food, had dinner, then went to bed to get some rest for our full day orientation.
The second day we learned about the Mirror Foundation and how it was created by local Thai people, the culture in the hill tribe country where we were living and teaching, and who we would be teaching in the coming weeks. We got our schedule for the week, and had some time that evening to prep our lessons for the next day. Each day we had one assignment in the morning, then we would come back for lunch, then go to a different assignment in the afternoon. The places we taught varied. Some days were childcare for young children, others were teaching 5th grade, high school, going to an orphanage, teaching kids that were terminally ill at a hospital, or teaching monks. It was great to experience so many different schools and settings, but it was hard to not have enough time with the same kids to see progress. At night we would tutor children of the people who worked for the Mirror Foundation- this was most of our favorite parts because we got to see them 4 days a week.
The first day of teaching I was a little nervous. I haven’t taught in years, and have never taught children who don’t speak English. Luckily, there were volunteers that had been there for months before us, so we got to go with someone more experienced. We walked into the classroom, and all of the students stood up. In unison, they said “Hello teacher” then “How are you teacher?” The sound of all of the kids talking was overwhelming. We had them all sit down, and played hangman to have them guess the subject we were going to be teaching. They came up with festivals pretty quickly. We then went through flashcards with them, had them write the name of the festivals in Thai on the board, went over using the words in sentences, then ended with a fun game to review what they had learned. This is how most of the lessons we taught went. We did a variety of subjects- culture, hobbies, animals, body parts, etc. The kids knew a lot of what we went over with them, but it was concerning to me that they were just memorizing the flash cards, but didn’t know the basics of English like the sounds of letters. If I were there longer, I would have re-developed the curriculum to incorporate how to sound out words to teach the kids how to read English.
Each day was a new challenge. Some days we would show up ready to teach, with lessons prepared, and there would be no kids. They had a field day, or they were off practicing for the King’s Birthday celebration. Other days, the school would have something different they wanted us to teach. It was important to be agile and go with the flow. I was happy that I had prior teaching experience, otherwise it might’ve been a little harder to wing it. We were lucky enough to have Lek as our leader taking us to schools. He would help us with giving directions, and he was also our tour guide, bringing us around to cave temples, elephant parks, and waterfalls on days that we would show up at schools and they were closed. He really made us feel like our time was well spent on the days we didn’t teach, and he was one of the most genuine, caring people I’ve ever met. He was always looking out for us, and truly gave us a taste of what it was like to live in Thailand.
We had one “weekend” during the trip where I stayed in my first hostel. At this point I was used to staying in a room with lots of other people, so the experience was actually luxurious. I had my first warm shower in a week! That night we went out in Chiang Rai to a cool reggae bar. We met some people who had moved to Thailand from Missouri, and it was interesting to hear how much they loved the new lifestyle. The next day we met Minoop at the bus station, and he took us to see the white temple and black house, which were amazing. We then went to his village and did a homestay for the night. The first night they fed us, we played with the kids that lived in the village (some of them we had taught), and then watched a thai boxing match with the adults in a garage-like building. That night we slept on the ground in a hut under mosquito nets. Some of the girls stayed in an adjacent hut with some of the family members. The next morning we woke up early to the sound of motorbikes and roosters. We did a challenging hour-long hike to a waterfall. There, Minoop and a few others from the village made us lunch by making a fire and cooking using bamboo trees. It was such an amazing experience.
The Mirror Foundation sign; the truck that drove us around; where I stayed
The room I stayed in- was definitely roughing it; squat toilet in the bathroom
Food at volunteering. Almost every meal included rice (even breakfast). Getting noodles was a big treat!
There were animals everywhere onsite. The dogs were wild- they had fleas all over them- they would break into our rooms at night, chase people on their mopeds, and kill chickens because they weren’t fed 😦
The two girls I tutored; cute uniforms at the first school I went to
Teaching at Agape- a children’s orphanage. I will never forget this day. We taught the older kids about festivals (holidays), and made holiday cards. They were so positive and appreciative of us being there. Lek played guitar, and they sang the most beautiful Thai Christmas song (in my Thailand video if you watch it). It brought tears to my eyes!
The village we did a homestay in with the Apa hill tribe
We ate dinner in a hut- the food was amazing!
The families in the village were so warm and welcoming
Watching Muay Thai Boxing and playing with the kids at night
We made it to the waterfall!; prepping lunch
Prepping lunch in bamboo
They use some serious knives in Thailand!
Cooking food over the fire in bamboo; the final product- sweet potato soup, rice, eggs with veggies, and chicken and pork- sooooo delicious!
Back in the classroom- the kids had a lot of energy!
Teaching holidays with Thai writing on the board; a day at childcare
Outdoor teaching at “the office”
Leaving our mark at the Mirror Foundation; Saying goodbye to Lek
I will never forget these peeps- so glad I had the chance to meet them at volunteering
I met so many Chicago sports fans while in Thailand. This guy LOVED Derek Rose- met him while getting post-bar snacks at 7-11 in Chiang Rai (more video of him in the Thailand movie)!
I’m really happy I volunteered in Thailand. It was a great way to really immerse myself in their culture and see how they live. The people working for the Mirror Foundation were amazing, and I’ll never forget this experience! I also feel so blessed to have met the people that I did at volunteering. They were from all over the world- Mexico, Australia, Brazil, Canada, etc. They all had their own stories and I learned so much from them too. One of my biggest take-aways was GAP YEAR! I had never heard of this concept before meeting several people taking gap years- why isn’t this common in the United States? Before/after college is the perfect time to take time out to travel and get real-world experience before you start a career. I feel I’m doing it finally at 33!!!