Vignette of Thai Life: Of Kids and Bicycles

My favorite moments on the road are the small slices of life that simultaneously remind us how alike us humans are, and highlight how differently we express it.

One of our little ones puzzling out the science of pedaling.

One of our little ones puzzling out the science of pedaling under the watchful eye of his teacher.

We spent two months at a Thai special needs school, hanging out with the kids, helping out where we could and learning about daily Thai life. The school ran heavily on donations, mostly from local individuals and organizations. It wasn’t unusual for a high school or a local business to show up to serve lunch, or for a truck to back into the parking lot to unload new toys or teaching materials.

This particular moment was during morning assembly. The teachers happily announced they’d recieved a donation of “jakayan” (bicycles).

I cheered a little bit. (Finally a morning announcement with words I knew! Plus I love teaching kids to ride bikes.) As for the kids, like any human child, they cheered, clapped and ran around excitedly as the staff brought out 10 or so bicycles or various sizes and colours.

Then… they climbed on the bike luggage racks and waited.

* * *

I laughed and laughed. I’m laughing as I write this. The behaviour was funny because it was so foreign to me – in a lifetime spend around children, I’ve never seen that before – but it made so much sense.

Kids love bikes. European kids love bikes, North American kids love bikes, Australian kids love bikes, Asian kids love bikes. I’d bet money on South American and African kids loving bikes too. They take a little bit of skill to ride, but not a huge amount, you can control them, they can go fast, you can ride them with friends, you can ride for either fun or getting around and the list goes on.

So of course, these kids loved bikes too. Some didn’t know how to ride, either because they were too young or because they hadn’t grasped the concept of pedaling (remember, special needs school – many kids were non verbal, so you couldn’t just explain it to them) but they all loved having this toy to play with it.

Sitting on the luggage rack, though, gave the scene a uniquely Thai flavour. In Thailand, and particularly in this region of Thailand, people use bikes a lot, both for getting around and for exercise. Bike child seats aren’t readily available like they are in more developed countries/regions (or perhaps not affordable, but we never even saw any for sale), so most children learn to ride on the luggage rack as soon as they’re old enough to sit up and hold on.

Add to that their age (most of them under 7) and they development differences, and it’s only natural that the first thing they do when given a bike is wait on the luggage rack.

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Check Point: Almost a Year and a Half on the Road

These days, I’m in Taipei, Taiwan. I’m studying Chinese (or as I tell everyone around here, wo xue zhongwen) and I enjoy it (wo xihuan xue zhongwen).

I would have loved to be a travel blogger, but given that I can only find the motivation to update once every 6 (8?) months, it seems I’m not destined for such a career path. I always have lots to say and I tell it to myself as I’m lying in bed at night trying to asleep, but forging the link between my mind and the keyboard is, well, a lot of work. Also, while I wasn’t blogging, WordPress went and made their interface super ugly and unpractical so now I waste a lot of time cursing at my screen.

The last time I logged into the blog, we’d just crossed the border into Laos after 3 months in Thailand. Since then, we’ve…

…spent a month in Laos

Morning on the Mekong

Morning on the Mekong

…spent a month in Taiwan

Taipei on a smoggy fall afternoon.

Taipei on a smoggy fall afternoon.

…spent a month in the Philippines and visited a child that I sponsor

The gorgeous village of Batad in Luzon. (Not the town of my sponsored child - confidentiality prevents me from posting photos of the visit.)

The gorgeous village of Batad in Luzon. (Not the town of my sponsored child – confidentiality prevents me from posting photos of the visit.)

…spent 2 months going between Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei

Kampong Ayer, the water village in Brunei that we had the privilege of staying in.

Kampong Ayer, the water village in Brunei that we had the privilege of staying in.

…went to the Rainforest Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia

One of my favorite performers of the festival, Sona Jobarteh.

One of my favorite performers of the festival, Sona Jobarteh.

…went back to Taiwan to study Chinese for a few months

Also casually picked up rock climbing.

Also casually picked up rock climbing.

…took a weekend trip to Kyoto, Japan which really wasn’t long enough

Loved our Kyoto neighbourhood.

Loved our Kyoto neighbourhood.

…thought that Chinese wasn’t using enough of my learning power, so started taking an online TESOL (course on how to teach English) for my own personal interest

Sorry no pictures of that!

The Present

When I piled the last of my belongings into my car and drove away, I was exhausted. 3 years at a stressful (but rewarding! I do miss parts of it) job had gotten me to the point that I flew into a rage whenever I heard a phone ring. Walking into a pharmacy had me fighting the urge to turn around and storm out, and I had no patience whatsoever for people.

Since then, I’ve driven across North America, most of it by myself. I’ve chased cows and rode horses in Australia. I provided some entertainment (and hopefully some enrichment!) for autistic children in Thailand. I learned about elephants. I did a lot of hiking in rain forests. I met all kinds of people, laughed at all matters of jokes and said “thank you” in at least 5 languages.

It was around our first stay in Taiwan that I started to not hate the idea of slowing down. So at about 10 months in. By the one year point, so sometime in Malaysia, I realized I was getting tired of travelling. Which is good, really, since my savings won’t last forever.

In case anyone was wondering, there was never a big revelation moment where all the secrets of life become clear. Then again, I didn’t expect there to be. But I was hoping I’d figure out my priorities so I could decide what to come home to and I think I’ve accomplished that.

Ed and I survived spending almost every moment of every day together without either of us storming off. I won’t lie, the nights were, and still are, rough – I’m an ultra light sleeper with pretty severe insomnia and he’s a snorer who can sleep 12 hours a day…it’s like the worst sleep combination ever – but otherwise it wasn’t a big deal. I’ve come to understand what people mean by “when you travel together, you notice your differences more”, but it’s all just a question of realizing that you can either let your differences come between you, or you can just accept that you’re not and will never be the same person. Sometimes it was frustrating to not be able to move at my natural pace of ALL GO GO GO ALL THE TIME and do all the things I’d be able to do if I were by myself. But then I’d be reminded of all the things I could now do as part of a team that I couldn’t have done (or wouldn’t have enjoyed doing) on my own.

The last miles

I haven’t quite decided yet when I’m coming home. My “Epic Journey” account is running low but I can easily support us for a few more months without having to touch the “Back in Canada” account, so there’s no rush. We are thinking of spending Christmas in Taiwan, or rather I am and Ed doesn’t care. I still have a couple (3 I think) weeks of Chinese class and I might tack on a couple more if the school lets me. I don’t want to be on a deadline to return home, so I might as well spend Christmas here in Taiwan, where we’re comfortably settled in a decent apartment with Ed’s older brother.

After that, maybe we’ll go home, maybe we’ll make another stop or two.

I still have a lot of malaria pills left and it would absolutely break my heart to waste them (we ended up visiting way less countries than expected), so maybe we’ll make a stop in Cambodia. Myanmar, remote Indonesia and maybe India are options too but out of all them, Cambodia intrigues me the most. (They’re all excellent destinations, but I kind of feel like India’s too far out of the way while Myanmar and remote Indonesia are quite similar to places we’ve already been.)

Then, our taste of Japan was so short and so sweet that we can’t help but ponder the possibility of going back. It would be annoying in the winter since we’d have to stock up on jackets, but I do think Japan’s comfort, modernity and temperate climate would be a nice way to end this crazy adventure.

I love the possibilities.

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Looking back at 3 Months in Thailand

On January 1, Ed’s flight from New York and my flight from Sydney both landed at Phuket airport in Thailand. We didn’t speak a word of Thai and had only done basic research on the region. On March 31, we had our departure cards stamped at Friendship Bridge IV and entered Laos. Between those dates, we were given the opportunity to explore the country, try all kinds of foods and become fast friends with some really jae dee (kind/good hearted) people.

Our final itinerary: 1- Ranong 2- Bangkok 3,8 - Ayutthaya 4- Pak Chong 5- Khon Kaen 6- Phitsanulok 7- Sukhothai 9- Chiang Mai 10- Mae Hung Son 11- Pai 12- Chiang Rai

Our final itinerary:
1- Ranong
2- Bangkok
3,8 – Ayutthaya
4- Pak Chong
5- Khon Kaen
6- Phitsanulok
7- Sukhothai
9- Chiang Mai
10- Mae Hung Son
11- Pai
12- Chiang Rai

Continue reading

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Postcard from Thailand

Since finishing up our volunteering gig in Southern Thailand, I’ve been accumulating stories and reflections, but I’m no professional travel blogger and just can’t seem to make time for the occasional update. I also have trouble with writing just a few words – it’s either 3000 words or it’s nothing. And with my two modes being “on-the-go” and “asleep”, you can imagine how often I want to glue my butt to a chair to type up 3000 words!

At the same time, I do want a written trace of my travels because there’s no way I’m going to remember all this in a year.

So for the sake of journalling, here’s a somewhat-postcard format of a blog post.

Let’s start with a postcard photo. How about this one:

Dusk in Khao Yai National Park near Pak Chung, Thailand

Dusk in Khao Yai National Park near Pak Chung, Thailand

Dear postcard readers,

Finished volunteering in the South at the end of February. Was so hard to leave! Miss the staff and the kids at school very much. Also miss the food.

Went to Bangkok, stayed in a posh neighbourhood, visited touristy places. Took the train 90 minutes north to Ayutthaya to admire Thai ruins. Then took train east to Pak Chung to visit Khao Yai National Park. Didn’t see any wild elephants 😦 Did see some elephants by the road outside the park but unsure if they are wild. Our tour did not stop for them. Saw lots of bats and creepy crawlies. Took bus north to Khon Kaen because wanted to see Isaan region of Thailand. Khon Kaen ended up being beautiful but modern city. Loved Khon Kaen but will have to try again for authentic Isaan experience. Then took bus west to Pitsanulok. Scored front seats on top level of double decker bus. Very scenic trip through the mountains. Took bus from there to Sukhothai to see more ruins. Fell in love with Sukhothai countryside. Took excellent bike tour and visited several craft shops. Took bus back south to Ayutthaya to replace lost souvenir then took night train north to Chiang Mai. Visited museums, took street food tour and got massages. Leaving tomorrow by bus to Mae Hong Son further north west of here.

Miss you all, hope you are well and wish you were here.

In case that was too confusing, here’s map:

itiniary chiang mai

The Numbers:

1- Ranong, South Thailand
2- Bangkok, Central Thailand
3- Ayutthaya, Central Thailand
4- Pak Chung, North Eastern Thailand/Isaan
5- Khon Kaen, North Eastern Thailand/Isaan
6- Phisanulok, North Thailand
7- Sukhothai, North Thailand
8- Ayutthaya, Central Thailand
9- Chiang Mai, North Thailand
10- Mae Hong Son, North Thailand

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On Culture Shock

It was about 1pm. We’d been sitting on the concrete floor for over an hour with 30 children, many of them preschoolers with autism. The caretakers were sitting at a table in the middle of the room talking to each other and looking at their phones. There were no toys, no pillows, no distractions. If the kids got too noisy or too squirmy they were harshly scolded or slapped on the hands. I didn’t know how much longer we’d be stuck in here. The scene, after a similar one this morning (but that only lasted about 30 minutes) and some support staff members who were harsher than usual was too much for me. My eyes welled up with tears and I had to run outside to find a secluded spot for a good cry.

When travelers talk about “culture shock”, they go on about the food, the smells, the architecture (or lack thereof), but seriously, unless you’ve been super sheltered or are somewhere extremely remote, those things are trivial.

No, culture shock, the brutal in-your-face culture shock, happens when your beliefs get tugged at. And not your “you believe in God, I don’t really have a religion” beliefs either. Again, as long as your mind isn’t a narrow bridge, those are pretty trivial. I’m talking beliefs like about how life works, which values to prioritize, how you treat others. Controversial beliefs, you know, such as how people should behave according to their gender, how individuals should treat their families, how families should treat individuals, how friends should treat each other. And the biggest, baddest one of all: how children should be raised.

At that moment, my Western beliefs that school time should be structured, that students should be stimulated as much as possible and that they should be able to run around or play with toys during down times were facing the equivalent of a gang of sketchy dudes with baseball bats in an alley.


A bit afterward, I sat with Ed to talk about it.

Ed: So, what bothered you in there?
Me: I couldn’t stand to see all those kids penned up like that. Like cattle!
Ed: Ok. First of all, it was a big room. Second, it was air conditioned. And finally, the kids were having fun! Some of the staff were interacting with them, some were sleeping and the others were playing clapping games.
Me: But there were no toys! Nothing educational! Not even any music!
Ed: Sometimes when I was a kid there were times I had nothing do to do. You know what I did? I used my imagination.

Together, we reframed our observations of how the school worked. (Since we were both raised in cultures different from the cultures of our parents and spent our childhoods switching back and forth between frames of reference, reframing cultural observations is something we do together often, almost as game.)

Bringing up bébé in the West

In the West (Euro-American) culture (or in my perception of the West), kids, special needs or not, are stimulated whenever they are not in bed. Down times are accompanied by toys, playgrounds, TVs and, for this generation, computers or smart phones. Days are tightly structured with school, homework, sports, arts and other hobbies crammed packed into a few hours. (No wonder anxiety, depression and insomnia seem to becoming the norm rather than the exception!) Most parents recognize harm in aggressive discipline, but many don’t understand alternatives so they pass off behavioural education to the school and daycare systems. The ultimate goals for an individual is to be self-sufficient, hard working and able to support a spouse and children. Achievement of these goals is demonstrated by an accumulation of knowledge (not exclusively academic) and material wealth.

Western children requiring a specialized education are expected to work toward the same goals. Their education is based on developing independence and the ability to function within a structured environment. Social skills are important, yes, but they are tool toward autonomy rather than social harmony.

Bringing up bébé in Thailand

When it comes to education in Thai culture, we’ve had to guess.

With no one at the school speaking enough English to explain something as complicated as culture (and even if there had been, I’m not sure anyone had been exposed to other cultures enough to be able to describe their own – it’s pretty hard to name and describe values and beliefs you’ve had your whole life until you’ve had something to contrast them with) we were on our own. Ed offered a perspective based on his Chinese upbringing but while Thai culture is closer to Chinese culture than Euro-American culture, they aren’t identical. As for me, I went home and read everything I could find on raising children in Thailand, but there’s a pretty wide gap between literature and reality.

We figured family is important. I suggested that families here in Thailand might even be horrified to hear how crucial “moving out” is in the West and how most individuals who are unable to live independently live in support homes as opposed to with their families. So while “successful” parenting in the West might translate to raising a child who becomes autonomous and is able to start a new family early in adulthood, “successful” parenting in Thailand might translate to raising a child who participates actively in family life and who has harmonious interactions with others.

From what we can tell, hierarchy based on age and role (such as teacher vs student) is quite pronounced in Thailand too. When reading testimonials from Thai teachers attempting to use techniques developed in the West, though, I realized that this hierarchy isn’t so much based on the desire to dominate (which is how us Westerners tend to interpret hierarchy), but rather out of a “tried, tested and true” mentality. Those teachers were open to trying these techniques but were concerned that if their students stopped being afraid of them, they wouldn’t be able to learn anything. So the need for hierarchy was actually for everyone’s benefit, not just a “power trip” for those at the top.

As for work, it seems that, in Thailand, everyone works. There’s no such notion as overstaffing here. Even if you go to Dairy Queen in the late evening, you’ll still be served by 6 people. This must, I imagine, alleviates a lot of stress in the workplace. Staff take turns looking their phones, answering personal calls, chatting with their coworkers yet still manage to put out pretty good service. (I think this is a little different in tourist heavy areas, but here in Ranong, service has always ranged from “quite good” to “exceptional”) Unlike the West, where work is generally perceived seen as a necessary evil and where getting the most done with the least resources possible is the key to success, work in Thailand seems to be perceived as a fun social activity that also helps pay family bills. And because businesses hire so much staff, I imagine that there are a lot of job opportunities for unskilled labourers (at least in cities like this one), so even the most challenged of children at our school can probably find work and lead a relatively normal life once they gain some maturity.

Adding context to the scene

Back to that room.

We were sitting there because the military was taking photos of the empty classrooms (I’m not sure why they were doing this, but they did make a donation that morning and they are technically the government so who knows.) It’s too hot outside at midday for the kids to safely play on school grounds and being in air conditioned room is actually a treat. They were to return to their classrooms for nap time as soon as the rooms were free. It was just taking longer than expected.

Sitting quiet and still while doing nothing is an obsolete skill for most in the West, but if you consider that many Thai children frequently follow their parents to work, or are expected to attend family gatherings, or go out in public, you realize this skill is probably quite useful for them. And it’s not like they were forced to be statues either, some of the staff were interacting with the younger children, and the other kids were developing their social skills by interacting with each other, using their hands and feet as toys.

As for social skills, we noticed right away how well socialized the kids were. While some of the preschoolers cry for their mothers and the 4-7 year olds struggle with sharing, almost all the kids seem to have above average social skills when compared to their Western cousins. Eye contact is good, communication is effective (I actually had an easier time communicating with the kids than with the adults), fighting is rare and the older kids naturally look out for and help the younger kids. They pick up on cooperative games so quickly that I can’t tell which games are new to them and which they’ve known all along. And yes, this includes most of the kids with “severe” autism.

Somehow those long wait sessions were indeed educational, education being so much more than just learning facts and applying academic skills.

On Discipline

Discipline is probably the most controversial topic in child rearing anywhere. People just feel so strongly about the rights and wrongs in teaching your kids, well, right and wrong.

For me, the constant scolding (in a harsh, shrill voice) got under my skin. It was less about Thai culture, I think, than because of my experience with it back home. I don’t care for yelling. I was yelled at a lot as a kid (by teachers, by my mom – it’s just how things were done back then) and all it accomplished was develop my ignoring skills. Then, when I worked with children, yelling and harshness was seen as a loss of control, as a lack of empathy and as not having the competence to think of more child/situation-tailored solutions. The slapping of children in Thai schools doesn’t bother me as much, mostly because the slapping is very light, pretty much just a formality, but I still saw it as a waste of energy, especially when the child probably doesn’t understand what he’s being punished for anyway.

Ed offered a Chinese perspective: “My mom, my friends’ moms, my Chinese teachers, they all talked to me like that when I was little. With the exact same voice. I think that’s just how Asian women are expected to talk to children.” The testimonials I mentioned earlier suggested something along that train of thought, that teachers were worried that children wouldn’t behave or learn if they were not treated like this.

We can also consider it from the perspective of what earns respect for a teacher in the West. A Western teacher is respected for being empathetic, adaptable and interesting. So a teacher who scolds a lot in an annoying voice is more likely to be disrespected (hence my disdain for yelling). In Thailand, a teacher is automatically respected because they have knowledge to share. They are inherently “superior” in the social hierarchy. If they start treating the children as equals like a Western teacher would, they would theoretically lose their spot in the hierarchy and thus not be able to share their knowledge.

It must be noted too that the certified teachers at school, the ones who went to university (aka were expose to Western teaching techniques) were far less likely to use yelling and scolding to do discipline. (Which is actually not that different from back home – it seems that Western teachers and support staff, and even people like nurses and health care aids, who are older or less educated to tend to be gruffer and resort to yelling more than those with more extensive training.)

Where are the visual aids?

Visual aids have a huge place everywhere in modern Western teaching given that not all of us are blessed with being auditory learners. They are, however, especially crucial with special needs children, particularly with autistic children since struggles with spoken language are, like, a big part of what autism is.

It seems that visual aids are indeed used in some schools in Thailand and are taught in university (one of the teachers, I think she is a speech therapist, mentioned having used them at other sites in the past), but this school doesn’t use them. They also don’t use sign language with non-verbal children (they do use hand gestures for “hello” and “thank you” but because those gestures are part of normal interactions in Thai culture, they don’t think of them as sign language) All of my training has been about facilitating communication through visual aids so I had no idea what do.

I did make some pictographs (cards with pictures that can be used to communicate a need, discomfort or a want like thirst, tiredness, hunger or going to the bathroom) but since I was the only one using them, they ended up being more like fun flashcards or vocabulary builders than communications tools. I use sign language to back what I say too, a mix of Thai sign language and the hand signs I used back home, and the kids are somewhat interested, but again, no point in teaching them if no one else is on board.

I wanted to make visual schedules and timers too but ended up deciding against. After all, these kids were pretty good at communicating already. Thai life isn’t scheduled and timed the way Western life is either. Adults do go to work in the morning, come home at night and have hobbies, but routine, at least in more rural areas, isn’t as fine tuned or as strict as the routine we know. Oh, and nothing ever goes as planned. Some days cars break down. Sometimes there are random holidays. Sometimes people are late. For these kids, I decided, a schedule would be at best a waste of time, or at worst a source of frustration as it would rarely be followed. The notion of trusting one’s superiors makes me cringe, but given the cultural context, these children will probably gain far more by noticing cues from their parents and teachers than from a piece of paper. They would also gain a lot by learning how to deal with things they can’t control than by learning to control as much as possible.

One kid who was especially problematic by Thai standards (his behaviour was pretty average by Western standards) eventually got his own schedule, but he was the only one for whom I thought it might be worth the effort. By the time he learns to use it, I’ll have left, so I doubt it will be all that useful, but at least all the staff are familiar with it and might use it down the road if they see the need.

The ultimate ultimate goals are always the same: happy, healthy kids with bright futures

After taking a step back and putting everything I witness into cultural context, I ended up with a lot of respect for what they are doing at school.

Perhaps these children won’t be pushed to their full potential academically, but they are pushed hard where it matters for them. They’re learning to be good family members (remember that they will mostly likely live with their families instead of in a group home when they grow up), they’re learning patience, they’re learning general routines such as washing your hands before eating and brushing your teeth after, they’re learning table manners, they’re learning how to look after those lower than them in the social hierarchy (the older children comfort and teach things to the younger children), they’re taught how to cope with extreme Thai heat and they are taught some manual skills that will help them be employed later on. Perhaps they won’t have the experiences and resources their Western cousins receive (but they do receive a variety of experiences- for example, just two weeks ago they went horseback riding!) but I wouldn’t be surprised if their adult lives are happier and more similar to those of their peers when compared to Western persons with special needs.

As for how I choose to interact with the children, it isn’t possible for me to let go of my Western training (one of the teachers asked me to slap a misbehaving child once and I couldn’t bring myself to deliver more than a gentle tap. Physical discipline has been drilled out of me pretty hard!) and I turn a blind eye to a lot of behaviours that Thai teachers would correct in a heartbeat. I do have to admit, though, that because these kids are so well behaved and have such good social skills, they learn new games and new skills much faster and have way more frequent positive interactions with me than what I’m used to.

So perhaps there is a method to the madness and it just takes a step back (or two or three) to appreciate it.

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Extending Our Thai Visas

I’ve spent the last week locked in our relatively small (I say relatively because most of the time space is no problem, but during a few days of quarantine it gets real small, real fast) with my new companion, Laryngitis. Laryngitis wasn’t very nice. He’s mostly gone but left me with a post-viral cough, ensuring that no one within hearing range will get any sleep from now on. (Post-Viral Cough and I have a long history, last time it stuck around for 9 months. It included one ER trip, several doctors visits, a fortune in asthma meds, lots of cough-induced vomiting and the most intense abs workout ever. The time before that was less extreme but I did cough myself into in a back sprain which was really, really, really not fun. I wonder what exciting stories I’ll have to tell about this episode!)

Anyway, I sat on my butt from Tuesday to Thursday, not wanting to hand out my germs to the kids at school (didn’t want to start the next pandemic, you know!) and school was closed Friday. By Friday, most of my voice was back and I didn’t care enough about the coughing to let it hold me down (Post-Viral Cough is such a regular customer in my life that if I gave into it, I’d never get anything done) so we stuck by our original plan for the end of week 6 and biked to Immigration to extend our tourist visas.

I feel like I should have a crazy story here, but I don’t.

Immigration is a huge red building on a major road, you can’t miss it. It takes about 30 minutes to reach by bike. Figuring out where to go isn’t all that tough either – the bored taxi drivers hanging around are quick to point lost tourists like us in the right direction.

Ranong, as I love to point out, is hardly a bustling tourist and expat center. It does, however, share a sea border with Myanmar, so I’m sure work at immigration is never boring. The big immigration police trucks with their big cages are quite the sight and always make me wonder how often they have to use them and whether they ever fill those cages up.

As one could expect, the outdoor (but nice and shady) waiting area was alive with Burmese families and workers filling out forms and waiting to submit their papers. We were about to line up to take a number when another Westerner walked by us and disappeared through a blue door. It had a “One Stop Station” sign on it and listed a bunch of services you could obtain behind that door (like, you know, a visa extension). We gave up on being numbered and followed him in.

I’d not sure if it was because it was Friday or if every day kinda looks like that but there were 4 people ahead of us. It wasn’t lost on me that the Burmese were made to wait outside while us foreigners got to chill with some air conditioning. I guess that’s where all the tourist tax goes.

Filling out the form was probably the longest part of the process. It can be made shorter by printing it off the website and filling it out beforehand, but seriously, who backpacks with a printer? We also had to pay a reasonable 5 Baht to photocopy our passport, departure card and visa, which can probably also be done ahead of time by those backpacking with a photocopier.

Then we just waited our turn, handed in our forms and passport photos, paid, smiled for some photos (they record photos of everyone applying, I guess they’re more likely to be up to date than the ones we hand in) and receive a stamp with the extended date. Just like that.

And that’s how you extend your tourist visa. Maybe if you look suspicious they give you a harder time but we had no questions asked. I had heard rumors of proof of onward travel too, but that was also a non issue (perhaps it’s different for those who have a visa-on-arrival or no visa at all).

Now we’re all set for our upcoming trip to Bangkok, to Isaan and to the North!

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5 Weeks In – Reflecting on our Voluntourism Experience

We’ve gotten well past the halfway point in our volunteering session at the Ranong Special Education Center. 5 weeks completed and 3 left to go!

Us with the team! (And a few visiting teachers from other schools.)

Us with the team! (And a few visiting teachers from other schools.)

I spent the weekend drafting a compilation of my notes to guide the next volunteers while on the side I’ve had a post written by Ken Budd at Intelligent Travel on the myths around voluntourism open on my phone. The combination has had me reflecting on my own experience with voluntourism and on what hard earned wisdom I’d like to pass on to others.

When I started looking into volunteering opportunities in South East Asia, I devoured whatever I could find on the topic so I was well aware that, yes, voluntouring is a controversial holiday activity. It seemed, though, that those hating based on personal experience were those who had gone into projects inadequately prepared, with limited volunteering experience and idealistic expectations.

Not wanting to, you know, end up bitter like them, I armed myself with a plan. Now that we’ve been doing what we can to help out here in Thailand for more than a month, I feel it’s time to evaluate.

Preparation: Choosing a project

I heard the horror stories about orphanages reportedly “buying” children for volunteers to look after (you would think that there are enough children needing a home that this wouldn’t be necessary, but I guess not), so I wanted to stay clear of orphanages. I didn’t absolutely need to work with children anyway, but I had in mind that if I did, I would look into volunteering at a school. If schools follow the same strategies as those orphanages and pay parents for their kids to get an education, that’s good, right?

To find the perfect project for myself, I investigated suggestions from my Lonely Planet book. I actually wasn’t all that interested in Thailand: everyone goes to Thailand and in my mind it was overrun by spoiled European teenagers and creepy old white men. Sumatra or Laos or the Philippines… Now those were proper prospects!

The organization that caught my eye, though, was Andaman Discoveries. Their website showed great understanding and commitment to sustainable tourism and fair exchange between locals and visitors. They were locally founded and operated but had a few Western staff members. I took that to mean that they were well in tune with local needs but also easy to communicate with. They just happened to be based in Thailand. That’s where I decided that a smooth experience was more important than trekking unbeaten paths and checked out their projects.

I felt life nudging me when I noticed that one of them was at a special needs school. While I’m not a teacher nor have any sort of official certification (unless a BA in psychology counts), four summers of training and full time hands-on work with children at Austime Quebec does earn me a rank slightly beyond “unskilled”. It’s also a field that I’m passionate about and study extensively in my free time and that, if I do say so myself, I kinda, you know, have a knack for.

I choose to stay for 8 weeks based on my experiences with Austisme Quebec. The day camps I worked at lasted that long, which was perfect. There was enough time to figure out how things worked, to build meaningful connections with the children and other counsellors and to become proficient enough to be able to contribute something worthwhile. And when the intensity of camp became too much and a break was needed, the summer was coming to an end anyway. I figured this would translate well to volunteering at a school so 8 weeks it was.

And that’s how I ended up in Thailand at the Ranong Special Education Center for 8 weeks.

Preparation: Goals

When people write about their unfortunate experiences volunteering abroad, the main problem seems to be unrealistic expectations that are, obviously, not met. Nobody’s life is radically changed, poverty isn’t cured, the houses they build aren’t Western dream homes, they are less qualified for most tasks than local workers and eventually the realization that Western (or rather, developed country) solutions aren’t optimal in other environments slaps them in the face. Then they come home feeling guilty, like they took advantage of someone’s hospitality, caused extra problems and sat around as if watching a freak show.

I think it’s actually not a bad thing that people have felt that way and have talked about it. I just feel that the solution isn’t to boycott or look down on voluntourism (if anything, just discovering that Western solutions aren’t a one-size fits-all makes an experience worthwhile IMO), but rather brainstorm ideas to make volunteer-site relationships more fruitful for everyone.

Having extensive volunteering experience at home and none abroad, I went in with the same mindset I’ve always used: figure it out when I get there. Even when you have a detailed description of what’s expected of you (and usually you don’t), it’s hard to know exactly what you can contribute until you’re personally acquainted with the site or project.

It worked for me. Volunteering abroad was identical to volunteering at home, only with the added spices of the culture shock and language barriers!

On Location: Keeping the Eyes (and the Mind) Open

I think the first and strongest impression I had was this: the school is isolated, but not poor.

The relative meaning of poverty is worthy of its own 2k word blog post so I’ll spare the details, the important thing is that this school would probably more interested in news from the outside world (particularly in the field of special education since new discoveries probably take awhile to be translated into Thai) than in anything concerning basic needs.

Another thing I noticed is how much the school is part of the community. Several times a week, families, students from other schools, radio stations, even military representatives stop by to donate a lunch or a snack and interact with the children. You don’t see that often in Canada and it gets the wheels turning in my head for projects I could suggest at home.

On the more challenging and less rosey side of things, I did feel significantly held back by language barriers and a lack of understanding of what skills Thai children need to develop in order to function well later on in life. Culture shock is worth a post of its own, but for now let’s just say that making myself useful took a lot more soul searching and creative thinking than it would have normally.

And finally, the school had a lot of staff. Like so much staff. The teachers were also extremely competent and much more aware of Thai reality than I so I wondered what I could possibly contribute to this already excellent team.

Concluding: Where Could I Help?

So, Ed and I did the most logical thing: we observed, attempted to make ourselves useful and paid attention to the reactions we got.

I came to the conclusion that there were indeed ways we could contribute, but that they weren’t necessarily what I would have thought of if someone had asked me before the trip what I expected to do in this school in remote Thailand. Here’s an adapted version of what I wrote on my report:

1- New ideas: When we started, the staff asked us for “programs” but because our communication was limited, it ended up being very difficult getting them on board with new ideas. Many of the tools we use in the West inconsistent with Thai reality anyway. In the end, the new ideas that were most successful were simple exercises we could do one-on-one with the children (throwing or rolling balls instead of kicking, hand clapping games, pictograph cards, sorting games, easy art projects). Those activities provided diversity more than revolution, but diversity is still appreciated by those tired of blocks and clay every day!

2- Experience dealing with foreigners: Unless they work in the tourism industry, Ranong-ians rarely get to interact with people from the outside. Meeting people who don’t understand their language or who have unexpected reactions is a life experience they might not obtain otherwise. Staff as well as students can benefit (After all, the whole reason we embark on these trips is to have a foreign culture experience. Most people don’t have that opportunity, so we can bring the experience to them.)

3- English practice: English skills among the staff range from nonexistent to medium. Having English speakers on site allow those who wish to practice and improve their skills to do so. Some of the children want to learn English words as well and those who have the potential to eventually integrate the regular school system will need to know some English.

4- Time: I think this is where we are the most valuable! Even though there is a lot of staff, they are often tied down by paperwork (Thailand loves its paperwork!) or planning, so they all have limited time to give the children. Then, when they are with the children, they have to spread their attention over an entire group. Us volunteers, however, are free to spend an hour practicing a single skill with a child who happens to be in the right state of mind that day. We can afford to be patient with the child who takes several minutes to put on her shoes before lunch. I like to believe that the extra one-on-one time we can give to allow the children to develop given skills can have lasting effects as those children will keep those skills forever.

So whenever I feel like I’m not doing enough or taking advantage of their hospitality, I remind myself of #4 – that I can be useful, not because of my teaching skills, nor because of my foreigner status, nor even because I speak English, but because I’m a volunteer with time on my hands, no objectives to meet and no one demanding my attention. Exactly the same as if I were volunteering back home.

As for concerns about hurting the local economy, I can assure you that the school is fully staffed and that volunteers are a surplus (making #4 possible), that we pay rent and utilities, buy groceries, shop at local stores and eat at local restaurants. I think we are contributing as much to the economy as anyone!

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