Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jemma Pursell on her volunteer project in Thailand

(In the picture: Jemma and one of her friends)

Land of Smiles

The Land o, Concordia, International volunteering, thailandf Smiles, I never really understood the true meaning of this phrase until I actually travelled to Thailand. Can one place really be as happy and smiley as people make out? My conclusion is yes. The first time I travelled to Thailand I instantly fell in love with the place, the warmth and spirit of the people amazed me. During the month I stayed I volunteered in a school, teaching English to Children in a rural part of central Thailand, known as Chainat. I loved the experience and knew I wanted to go back.

4 years later I found myself on a medium term international volunteer project (MTV). I wanted to learn more about Thai language and culture and I also wanted to give something back. At first I was quite nervous about going on my own. Although I had travelled to Thailand many times before, this would be a completely different. The other project I took part in was group based; there were around 40 of us staying in an Eco House. Instead of Lonely Planet I would be a Lonely Soul. I thought to myself that there must be others out there like me travelling on their own. So I packed my Bag and Set of for the Land Of Smiles with my book and my beloved IPod as company.

I remember arriving at the chaotic bus station in the north eastern province of Khorat, Sweat dripping from my forehead, and my backpack weighing me down. I definitely
Stood out amongst all the Chaos, Locals were staring at me with confused expressions on their faces, some pointing whilst whispering ‘Farrang’, a term used to describe anybody who isn’t Thai. My smile was met by many, and I realised that I must be in the Land of smiles. A lady approached me introducing herself as Phai, the Greenway Co- coordinator, I instantly liked her, I practised my Thai with her whilst we waited for the other Volunteer, who arrived one hour later.

The 4 hour bus journey through the scenic rice fields of Isan has to be one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Farmers were at work in the blistering heat joking around and sipping the famous Lao Kao whiskey, trees and mountains everywhere, Cows and water buffalos straying from the fields on to the endless roads.
This was my introduction to Isan culture and daily life. I was even more excited about what would be waiting for us in the Village. The bus dropped us off at what appeared to be a makeshift Bus stop, it was pitch black and in the middle of nowhere I am so glad that we had a co-ordinator with us, It was at this point I realised I really was travelling of the beaten track.

My volunteer project was social/education and youth Development with one of the main focuses being Teaching English. However the problem was that with the months that I was volunteering Schools were closed for the summer term. At first I was quite disappointed as I really wanted some long term teaching experience in a small Thai community.
However there were many other things to be involved with such as the youth Club at our Greenway House. From the moment I arrived I was treated like family, but I would always be a farrang unless I improved my Thai. I became really good friends with a local farmer Pilam. Me and Tommy would often go over to his house for Thai lessons in return for teaching him English.

Most of the children in the village live with their grandparents whilst their parents work in Bangkok. They rarely see their parents as it is quite expensive to go to Bangkok from the village, and the only time they can make the trip is during the summer term. But most Children stay behind and help the families to farm. The one’s who can go to Bangkok, work as labourers or cooks to help support their families.

(in the picture: volunteers' accommodation)

Together with Greenway previous volunteers set up a youth club to support the local Children. The youth club was based at our accommodation. Local Children were allowed to come to Greenway throughout the day were we would organise activities for them such as English lessons, Playing Card Games, Drawing and tending to our Vegetable Garden, Playing football, basket ball and Takraw. Takraw is a traditional Thai game quite similar to Football, the only differences being that you have to keep the ball in the air at all times and a net is often used to pass the ball between two sides.
Something I found so touching about being in the village was the spirit and energy of the people, especially the children. I felt that I was part of this one big family as opposed to being just a tourist. I quickly settled in to life In Ban Denrat. The day after I arrived I found myself attending an Isan funeral; this definitely has to be one of the strangest things I have ever experienced. A funeral becomes a festival; literally, it begins at the house of the deceased, and then continues throughout the entire village. People were everywhere throwing water at each other, drinking Lao Kao whiskey from one glass and passing it around the crowd, they were celebrating the person’s life instead of morning and they insisted that we get involved. So there I was in the middle of a crowd practising traditional Thai dance and drinking whiskey in the midst of beautiful Green rice fields. Luckily we arrived during the season of The Thai Water festival, known as Songkran so I had the pleasure of being completely soaked for three days. The festival runs from the 12th-15th of April, people drive around in Pickups throwing water at each other and passing cars, concerts are held in local temples, Children are running around with oversized water guns.

(in the picture: Songkran celebrations)

My experience in Ban Denrat was incredible, I cannot explain fully but it is one of those places you have to see for yourself to really understand. I feel that I learnt a lot in the two months of my project.
I met some amazing people and inherited a new family, the entire village. Some of the Things I experienced such as going to a Thai funeral, celebrating Songkran, fishing with Locals, going to ceremonies at the Temple, learning to speak Thai and teaching English. I’m sure I wouldn’t have experienced these things if I travelled as a Tourist. I feel that I have seen the real Thailand and all these memories will stay with me forever.

(Jemma Pursell, 2008)

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Miss Bangkok Hotels said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. It's very informative. I love to read it and do hope to read your next story.

Dena Pursell said...

I am the very proud mother of Jemma Pursell. I have just read her story and agree totally. Becoming a volunteer has changed jemma completely and she has now gone on to teach in Sudan. she has gained a wealth of experience and aside from learning different cultures and meeting an abundance of different people she has become a more responsible and caring adult. I firmly believe that becoming a concordia internationasl volunteer has helped jemma achieve her dream.