My year began with what seemed like the shortest car journey in history and before I knew it my bags were checked in and it was time to say goodbye to my family. These 4 people have been at the centre of my life for the past 17 years, always there for advice or a helping hand whenever it was required. It didnt seem plausible that I was about to say goodbye for a full year, words wouldnt come to me to try and convey the sudden worry that was sweeping over me every second that drew nearer to turning my back on these people and heading through the security gates. It was the most fearful and sad I have felt but I knew deep down that it was just a part of my adventure to come; and as the clichéd saying goes it wasnt goodbye, it was see you later.
What ensued was a day and a half worth of travelling around the globe. First a short flight from Edinburgh to London Heathrow where I spent the night before meeting all the other Thai volunteers the following morning for our departure to the country where we were to live for the next 12 months. Many a tear was shed as the other volunteers had to go through the same heartbreak that I had felt the previous afternoon. Flight number 1 took us from London to Mumbai-India in 9 hours. The first things to hit me stepping off that plane were the smell, heat and people. India is a country that I think I would love to visit but never stay, it is an assault on all of your senses and something that took me quite by surprise. It is plain to see that India is a country that is vastly overpopulated and has a clear class system. The girls were treated worse than the men when we passed through security and I felt a sense of unease the whole time I was in that airport. The next flight was a mere 4 hours from Mumbai-Bangkok.
So the official beginning of my Thai experience. At first everything was overwhelming but after getting over the initial shock I remembered why I had chosen Thailand as my country of choice. The Buddhist culture was plain to see in total contrast to the urban sprawl that is Bangkok. A beautiful gold plated temple with statues of Buddha and green grass lies next to skyscrapers reaching up into the ever changing tropical atmosphere. The volunteers and I had a few days in Bangkok to relax and explore before we went our separate ways to all our different projects. In the time spent there I only saw a fraction of the city however I would love to go back and explore in more depth the winding side streets and fascinating buildings that Bangkok has to offer. My highlight definitely occurred on the first night when we were taken to a bar located on the 47th floor of a skyscraper with 360 degree views of Bangkok. The blinking multicoloured lights that stretched on into the distance was spectacular and I had to keep reminding myself that this awesome country is my new home for another 364 days.
Goodbyes and good lucks were said to every pairing as they set off onto their own unique pathways. Then it was Kevin and my turn, an 11 hour bus ride brought us to our new home of Phana. Stepping off the bus took a massive weight off of my shoulders (I had made it half way across the world without getting lost or worse!) We were greeted by our host , Pitong who took to us as if we were long lost friends. We were then whisked off in the back of a bus to our home for the next couple of weeks. We were to be staying in a house owned by a local retired woman called Kalyeni. I was extremely nervous to begin with as I wanted to make a good impression and not make any blundering cultural faux pas’. It became apparent in the first few days that she loved having us around the house and the hospitality we received was unlike anything I have experienced before. Nothing was too much trouble and the meals were a spectacle. On our first breakfast Kevin and I counted 10 separate dishes of food, some delicious and some strange, all however were tried.
We were allowed to settle into our new surroundings for the first couple of days and there were 2 things that I realised I was going to have to get used to; the weather and the native wildlife. The only time Kevin and I found ourselves clean and not sweating were the occasions when we had a routine ice cold shower. Looking respectable is very difficult with gallons of sweat dripping out of your pores but all the locals find this hilarious as it is coming into their “winter” season. Within a few days we were covered in around 40 mosquito bites a piece and had grown accustomed to the geckos, snails, frogs and beetles that greeted us at any point throughout the day.
I spent the first week exploring and getting to know Phana with Kevin which we found great fun even if we did receive stares and shouts of “FARANG” (foreigner) from everybody that saw us. Phana is a rural town in the North Eastern (Isaan) part of Thailand that stretches on one main road around 2km long. We found out that the population is about 2,000 and that it has 2 primary schools, a couple of nurseries and a high school although a lot of pupils travel in from other nearby villages. The residents of Phana are some of the nicest people I have met. Everybody is keen to lend a helping hand when needed and although the stares are a bit daunting at first I learnt that its just out of curiosity as I am the total opposite of a Thai person in some respects. The language barrier was a difficulty straight from the word go. Unlike Bangkok where a surprising amount of people can speak reasonable English, in Phana English becomes useless and we relied upon sign language and guesswork for quite a while. We then also learned that people in Phana do not actually speak Thai, they speak Isaan which is similar to Thai but very confusing for us as at times we would effectively be learning sections of two separate languages.
Life in Phana is quite unlike anything back home since it is extremely peaceful and quiet (the loudest noise being a stray dog taking a disliking to us). Every task is undertaken at a slow pace which just increases the relaxed vibe. Time is not as structured as I am used to with times given to us for appointments running whenever the people feel like it. At first this became rather annoying as Kevin and I would turn up for events and have to wait around for a while but we are now used to just going with the flow. This “go with the flow” concept is a real revelation but it is easy to see why Thai people in general are so relaxed and happy. The events that Kevin and I have so far been to are usually very extravagant with a lot of effort being put in by the Phana people to make us feel welcome. We are usually guests of honour and liked to be shown off by the local council as mini celebrities. Daunting and uncomfortable to begin with as we were looked after constantly but we came to realise that it is normal to be treated this way and it is rude not to oblige.
A part of normality was restored when we moved into our own accommodation, a very nice (and large!) bungalow in the centre of Phana. A hard days graft was put in to clean the house from top to bottom and we then unpacked our rucksacks, a years worth of supplies. Decorating my bedroom walls with posters and photographs meant that I always have a bit of home to look at in the end of the day. This was also when responsibility really kicked in as we had to wash, cook, clean, etc all by ourselves but we found this to be no problem at all.
Although very different to my way of life back home and to my ideas of what Thailand may be like, I am so far loving indulging in every part of culture and lifestyle that is thrown at me. I have not started my job as a teacher yet as we were given the chance to settle in, however next month will see me, Kevin and the other 17 Thailand volunteers take a trip up to the northern city of Chiang Mai to attend a Thai language course and explore the mountainous area of this fascinating country.