For the last six weeks I’ve been working in a small village school (250 students) about 200km down the Mekong river from Nong Khai City, Thailand. I taught English and it was probably one of the most significant and most useful things I’ve ever done with six weeks and certainly one of the most valuable experiences in my life thus far. It was challenging, exciting and sometimes daunting but at the end I found it an incredibly rewarding experience.

Some photos

One of the buildings at the secondary school I taught at (Thadokkam Wittayakom):

One of the buildings at the secondary school I taught at (Thadokkam Wittayakom)

Me helping students with a skit for an upcoming English competition:

Me helping students with a skit for an upcoming English competition

A vacant classroom:

A vacant classroom

A classroom (almost) filled with students:

A classroom (almost) filled with students

The School’s English teachers and me teaching the chorus line of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine — including a dance routine!:

The School's English teachers and me teaching the chorus line of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine -- including a dance routine!

This is where I lived for six weeks:

This is where I lived for six weeks

This student was practising for the book-reading element of the upcoming English competition:

This student was practising for the book-reading element of the upcoming English competition

Most of the school’s students assembling in the morning:

Most of the school's students assembling in the morning

Another view of the school:

Another view of the school

Robin, another volunteer, Ja, a teacher at the school, and I pose with students:

Robin, another volunteer, Ja, a teacher at the school, and I pose with students

What was it like?

Classes ranged in size from 5 to 50. We taught from the curriculum some of the time, and other times just came up with other things to teach and games to play. The most popular games included Charades, Hangman, Bingo, Simon Says, and Fruit Salad (for the younger ones). Robin, another volunteer from Holland, and I also tutored individual students for an English competition in which they would compete against schools in the district. We ended up getting to the second stage of the competition with both the skit and spelling-bee events. It was so wonderful to work with students that genuinely wanted to learn.

Classroom teaching was also wonderful, but it had its challenges. Many of the students simply didn’t want to be there. English is a compulsory subject for these students, so it came as no surprise that the majority seemed demotivated. The teachers weren’t particularly strict either, and this lead some students to think that they could just sleep through the classes. In one class, a couple of students spread a bamboo mat at the back of the classroom on the floor and fell asleep right there, just as we were teaching verbs and the Present Continuous tense. I found it funny at the time, but it’s still pretty upsetting that some of these students are so demotivated. It’s very difficult to motivate students that are literally years behind their class-mates and see no point in learning English. Many of these students are forced to turn up by their parents. It makes sense, obviously, — education leads to better prospects, but I feel that there is something missing.

The school is situated in a tiny village called Nong Seng. Most teachers stayed on campus during the week and went home for the weekend (few of the teachers lived within reasonable commute distance). They cooked breakfast and dinner for us, and we went out to the local restaurant for lunch. When I say restaurant, please picture a pretty basic kitchen with a few plastic chairs and tables set-up outside. Almost everything you eat in Thailand involves either rice (sticky, fried, steamed) or noodles. The food was delicious although there was at least one dish I had trouble with… namely, the fermented fish (seriously).

We got to visit surrounding towns and other schools. The fascination with “farang” (foreigners) is pretty awesome, especially when you’re on the receiving end. Everywhere we went, “farang! farang”, girls with their camera phones, and people looking at us in awe. It felt odd, and it was a little upsetting. The white skin, the coloured eyes and the coloured hair obviously played into the admiration… but along with it was the typically rich westerner stereotype. The children admired us for the lives they believed we lived back home, which is odd because I came to Thailand to get away from that life. It seems the grass is always greener, no matter where you stand.

So far, my trip has been a success and I am thoroughly enjoying Thailand for its culture, its food and its people. Thailand, like every country, seems to have its baggage, but it’s still a pretty awesome country. I’m slowly picking up Thai too — a relatively simple language albeit difficult to read and write.

Isara

I made many friends in Thadokkam and it was a shame to leave, but I’m sure I will see them again sometime in the future. I recently moved back to Nong Khai where I will be helping another organisation called Isara.

Isara

Isara is unique in that they allow you to volunteer for nothing — no money changes hands. This is the way it should be done! It’s a non-profit organisation with absolute transparency and many interesting projects to take part in. It’s a shame I only found out about them after arriving in Thailand — otherwise I would have skipped the other organisation altogether (since they charge about £300 per month — which is a lot in Thailand, or anywhere). Please read more about Isara — if you’re thinking of volunteering in the future, they may be a suitable fit!

Earlier today Isara reached a significant milestone in one of its latest projects. They’ve built a boat that is kept afloat by nothing more than the buoyancy of recycled plastic bottles. Their objective is to spread awareness about the environment and specifically to tell locals not to throw rubbish into the river. Kirk, Isara’s founder, will sail the boat down the Mekong river in a few weeks, stopping at villages along the way and delivering the message. Today, the boat was pushed into the river, and as we all hoped, it floats! You should visit this forum thread to read more about the project. Also, visit the picasa web album to see some pics of today’s event!

The boat launch

Note that the boat isn’t actually finished yet. All remaining work will be done while it’s afloat.

The boat on the river bank:

The boat on the river bank

Pushing the boat down:

Pushing the boat down

Almost there!

Pushing the boat down

Done — it floats!

Done -- it floats!

A view from above:

A view from above

See all the photos (plus a couple of videos)

I am hoping to stay in Nong Khai helping Isara until the end of February. I’ll try to keep this site updated. Hopefully, I’ll also have time to post some web-development-related stuff too!

Thanks for reading! Please share your thoughts with me on Twitter. Have a great day!