Stephen Bridger / February 2014
Before sitting down to write this account of my recent experience in Thailand, I took a trip down memory lane and re-read my travel memoirs from over 8 years ago. It was surreal to say the least. The first time I went to Thailand I was a fresh-faced 20-year-old thinking I had the whole world figured out and that I could conquer it if I wanted to. I was ego-centric, ethno-centric, and although still enchanted by the beauty of Thailand and its culture, my motivations were driven by chasing girls and drinking my face off!
Fast forward 8 years and my second experience in Southeast Asia was much more profound. Personal development and almost a decade's worth of life lessons certainly shapes a different experience. However, the people I met and places I saw also made the overall trip far more impactful. In spending time with the GVI volunteers in Baan Nam Khem, most of them were around 20 years old. I was so impressed with their generous hearts, maturity, and passion to make a difference. They are truly making the most of their time and understand how privileged they are to come from the developed world. Looking back I can't say the same about myself during my first trip to Thailand.
My time in in Thailand started with a few days relaxing on the beach at Koh Phi Phi. I made some fun friends from Romania, discovered beautiful beaches, and snorkeled in crystal clear aquamarine waters. The fire shows on the beach at night were impressive and it was nice to have some down time and rest up for what lay ahead. Various parts of the island offer suitable vacation options for couples, families, and party-goers. But after 4 days I was ready to pack up and begin the more stimulating stretch of my journey!
An easy 2 hour bus ride from Phuket took me to Baan Nam Khem in the province of Phang Nga, where the GVI volunteer base is located. I arrived late on Saturday afternoon, but those who time their arrival into Phuket before mid-day can forgo the bus ride and be picked up at the airport. Mind you the air-conditioned coach was comfortable and only cost 150 baht (less than $5).
Baan Nam Khem is a small rural village of about 2,000 people, located 30 minutes north of Khao Lak, the closest tourist destination. It's estimated that 60% of the village's population perished as a result of the tsunami in late 2004. This does not account for undocumented Burmese refugees, so it's impossible to know the exact number. When a catastrophic event hits a small community the impact is felt for years. For example many of the children residing at the orphanage are orphaned as a result of the tsunami. The impact of the tsunami among other challenges of the developing world make Baan Nam Khem a worthwhile base for GVI to set up operations.
Wandering through the village was haunting at times. Every villager I saw was likely affected by the tsunami one way or another. I have visited WWII concentration camps and famous battlefields but this was different. This devastation was so recent in history and not perpetrated by man. I can't really put into words how I felt. Whatever the feeling was seeing the friendly smiles of the locals after all they've been through reaffirmed why this was a special place to be. The uneasy feeling quickly dissipated as a result. I was welcomed with open arms by the GVI field staff. Jolyon leads the conservation programs. Martyna heads up community development related projects. Jason is the TEFL guru. Holly is a support staff who helps out on multiple projects, and Sophie is the base manager.
I joined the staff for dinner that evening and met some of the volunteers. The food was exceptional - perhaps the best I'd ever had in Thailand. On nights when a local cook didn't prepare dinner at base, we would enjoy a phenomenal meal just a couple hundred metres down the road. All of our lunches were there too. The flavourful curries and fried noodle dishes are some of the more popular items on the extensive menu. The restaurant is basic and unassuming in an open air setting with simple picnic tables set out for patrons. The kitchen is right in the dining area so we can observe all the action. It's run by a lovely young couple who always welcomed us with warm hospitality.
The polite nature of rural Southeast Asia never fails to provide a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Their adorable 3-year-old daughter would greet us at the tables with smiles and giggles while we waited for our food. The husband is an accomplished chef from one of the high end resorts in Khao Lak and his wife is as sweet as can be and very helpful. They make a good team. Like other GVI projects meals are included but in case you're extra hungry and want to sneak out for a bite, each main course costs a measly 50 baht (less than $2). The portions are huge though so I wouldn't expect many volunteers paying visits to the restaurant on their own time. Going hungry is not an issue here that's for sure.
After a good night's rest, Sunday was orientation day. I sat in on most of the trainings and safety briefings as there was a large influx of fresh volunteers that had just arrived so my timing was perfect. We broke off into small groups and were presented with emergency scenarios. We were tasked with assessing the risk of each scenario before devising a suitable action plan. It was also important to review the rules and conduct expected of the volunteers. Understandably there are strict guidelines of how we must carry ourselves in the community. Drunkenness or any disrespectful behaviour is not tolerated. The volunteers are representing GVI and preserving its place in the community is vital to all of the initiatives.
I was impressed with the level of organization at the base. Obviously the amount of work that goes into preparing and training volunteers is reassuring, but beyond that how the base is set up with memo's, job rosters, and schedules is equally impressive. Having everybody actively involved in chores and holding each other accountable fosters an immediate sense of community. It was a tight-knit group of volunteers that were always looking out for each other and welcoming newcomers.
With the amount of training that volunteers go through I would definitely recommend to allow yourself at least a full 4 weeks to participate in a program. A lot of our enquiry is for 1 or 2 weeks. By the time you have everything under your belt and feel confident about fulfilling your assignment it's time to pack up and go home. Not everyone can take a month or longer off work but where possible try and allow yourself as much time as you can to make the most of your volunteer experience. The majority of volunteers at the GVI base were staying for 3 months or longer.
On Day 2, I was up early to join the conservation team in scrubbing sea turtle tanks. We went to a nearby navy base as well as the turtle centre in Thai Muang. It was hard work but also very rewarding. I work an office job so being able to get my hands dirty and break a sweat was a welcome change of pace. I may have been a little too keen with my scrubbing though as I broke two of their brushes. Sorry! It took me a few tries to nail down the right technique that the seasoned volunteers employed. The conservation team heads out to the turtle tanks every Monday morning at 6:30am.
Sea turtles are adorable little fellas! I never knew a reptile could be so cute! The patterns and designs on older turtle shells are all glorious works of art! The sea turtle is a graceful animal that emits a peaceful and calming energy. In many Eastern cultures the turtle represents a great symbol of luck and fortune.
After a sweat-filled, hard-working morning and another tasty lunch I joined Martyna and her volunteers that afternoon. We went to a nearby primary school and I observed English lessons taught to a kindergarten class. The volunteers were fantastic considering it was their first day teaching. They clearly paid close attention during our training session the day before as they led games, sang songs and drew pictures with the students.
In all of the classroom settings each teacher is paired with another volunteer. I think it's a great system to employ. It makes controlling the classroom a lot easier and the volunteers can work to each other's strengths and weaknesses. This format also lends itself well for lesson planning and after class feedback.
Feedback is a big theme with GVI. In every program the feedback model is practiced. What went well? What was tricky? What can we do differently tomorrow? At the end of each day there is a debrief at the base where volunteers hear about all the other projects and day's events. I was very much included in each debrief and always had rave reviews to share with the group. The evening debrief is an honest and constructive platform.
Employing this much feedback delivers a strong message -a message that GVI is continuously striving to be better. Volunteers have clear expectations and being held accountable ensures that meaningful work is taking place. I think many prospective volunteers expect that just because they come from the developed world they're going to show up and be rock stars right away. It's not like that. There is a lot of training involved and once volunteers are trained they are expected to keep growing and honing their skills. Don't get me wrong, it's not so serious that nobody is enjoying themselves. There are tons of laughs and fun times but be ready to take pride in every aspect of the work.
Once we finished with the kindergarten class it was off to the orphanage for after school programs. GVI volunteers visit the orphanage a few times a week. You wouldn't have guessed it by the way we were welcomed and how excited the kids were to see us. The novelty clearly hasn't worn off. Novelty is an inappropriate term to use anyway as the impact the volunteers have on these children's lives runs much deeper. The orphanage houses 90 kids, from toddlers to teens, many of whom come from troubled families. 90 sounded like a high number to me so I was expecting cramped conditions. That wasn't the case at all. The orphanage was expansive with ample living space and a massive outdoor playground. As we were led outside, the children starting jumping all over us in excitement. The energy and joy was contagious. I quickly found my niche with a soccer ball and we got a pretty good game going. When it was time to leave I wasn't ready. I wanted to keep playing outside with my new friends!
Despite difficult upbringings these children are well-behaved and respectful. They are cheerful, happy, and generally well-adjusted. There was one bully I noticed but that's to be expected from a group of 90. He wasn't doing anything particularly harmful either. Those who took part in the extra curricular programs were all actively engaged and keen to learn. These activities include English lessons and making arts and crafts. Many of the crafts are then sold in the community to raise money for the orphanage.
There is more opportunity for community work on the horizon as GVI recently partnered with the Community Development Centre for Burmese migrants (some legal and some illegal). The Baan Nam Khem base has become the model hub for other GVI community efforts throughout the developing world. Hats off to the staff and volunteers for setting the standard with structured teaching curricula, and for actively growing its local presence in Baan Nam Khem.
It was a long day, and after the evening debrief and a nice cold beer it was bedtime for me! The next morning I sat in on some health care training with Martyna. We prepared for a lunchtime visit to the Camilian Social Centre, which provides care to children with disabilities. Resources are limited in rural Thailand for the disabled. Buddhist beliefs suggest that those who suffer with disabilities inherit them as a result of karmic retribution for indiscretions in a past life. Thus there is often a struggle for empathy and compassion.
There are 20 children at Camilian. Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism are among the disabilities of those at the centre. I found that afternoon at the centre to be inspiring. The kids were full of smiles and much like the orphanage we were welcomed with open arms. We played various games and helped them build castles with toy blocks. After lunch we made paper mache maracas. GVI uses art and music therapy. The maracas I thought was an ambitious idea from the one of the volunteers, but everybody had fun and I suspect they worked out perfectly (I didn't get to see the finished product as they had to dry before attaching the handles).
Later that afternoon I accompanied Jason and his teaching volunteers to the Non-Formal Education Centre for English classes. These English classes are different from those taught at the schools. Members of the community voluntarily sign up for classes taught late afternoon or early evening. There is a mix of adults, children, and some make it a family outing. These students are more keen to learn the language given it's their decision to take the lessons. They likely recognize a need to speak English as tourism continues to grow in neighbouring communities. Each student completes an assessment to gage their existing level of English and are then placed accordingly into one of four classes. The experienced volunteers are generally teaching the advanced classes.
I had the pleasure of watching a young volunteer teach her first class and she was outstanding! The class was entertaining and captivating. She smiled brightly and commanded attention throughout. Her fellow volunteers were also impressed and will likely improve their lesson plans as a result. Three volunteers split time teaching the 90 minute beginner's class and then all 3 completed feedback forms on each other to go over the next morning. Jason was also present taking notes throughout the class with his own feedback.
Early the following morning we spent a few hours breaking down the feedback of the lessons and what everybody learned from the experience. Feedback is detailed and no stone is left unturned as body language, tone, gestures, eye contact and specifics from the lesson plans are analyzed and recounted. We then continued with training on developing lesson plans and tips on annunciation. Jason is very passionate about his role as TEFL leader. Like Martyna, he has a wealth of experience teaching abroad. Both Jason and Martyna run fun and interactive training sessions as it relates to teaching English.
Sadly my time at the GVI base was coming to an end. I am very grateful to have been involved with and see as much as I did. I learned a lot and although relatively brief these are memories that will last a lifetime. It was tough to leave as I grew fond of the community and would've loved to stay longer and help out more! The staff and volunteers work tremendously hard to make every moment worthwhile. Nobody's taking anything for granted and are soaking it all in.
This type of experience abroad is as beneficial to oneself and it is to the local community. We are enriching our souls on this journey of life by taking the time and our hard-earned money to give back in any way we can. I was so inspired and empowered. The big-headed young kid that first came to Thailand 8 years ago has sure come a long way. Thank you GVI and Baan Nam Khem for furthering that development and growth!