Footprinter report: Learning Thai, Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand


By Cameron Welsh

The start of October saw Kevin and I repack our rucksacks and meet some of the other volunteers who are at projects close to ours at Ubon bus station. We were preparing to spend 3 weeks living and learning some basic conversational Thai in the northern city of Chiang Mai. It was great seeing the others again after a month and sharing stories about our experiences so far. An 18 hour bus ride ensued where I made the monumental mistake of wearing just shorts and a T-shirt. Thai transport always has air-con and it is kept at a constant maximum as Thai people like to escape from the humidity outside. So I spent the best part of the night shivering and trying to get some sleep (I certainly won’t make that mistake again!).

The following morning we arrived at the city of Chiang Mai. It was a total change in landscape as up until that point we were always surrounded by the flatness of rice paddies whereas we were now in the north so there was mountainous hills and luscious forest. My first impressions were that it was fresher than Bangkok and extremely beautiful being enclosed by greenery. Our group managed to find our way to the guesthouse Project Trust had booked for us in advance with little problems and we were greeted by more volunteers who had already arrived. That night we all decided to go out for a meal as we were all reunited once more. It was a great night filled with laughter, story swapping and of course pizza!!

The next morning was the official start of our Thai language course; we navigated the unfamiliar streets and managed to find the building with a few minutes to spare. The company running the course was called AUA and ran courses open to the public but we had a group placement. We were first introduced to the manager and then split into two separate groups. Our teacher was already in the room when we arrived, she did not say one word to us and we had no idea what was going on. It was a teaching technique we found out where she was waiting for us to speak to her in Thai before she would begin the lesson. It took us about 10 minutes to catch on but after we could see why she had done it. Our teacher was called Sassithorn and the first lesson was spent finding out how much Thai we already knew and what she was going to teach us for the next 3 weeks.

We went to AUA to learn Thai Monday to Friday for 4 hours each day with a lunch break in-between. I began to see my Thai progress rapidly as we used it throughout the lesson (no English was allowed in class) and we were able to practice it with locals out on the street. Lessons were always fun and Sassithorn was very down to earth so was never afraid to answer any of our questions and even gave us an insight into the culture from a locals point of view. Lunchtimes were always good as we got to try many a traditional Thai dish such as my personal favourites Kao Soi Gai and Massaman Curry. By the end of the three weeks we had a basic grasp of common questions and how to reply as well as some handy words to help out in difficult situations. On the second to last day we had a test where we had to speak within our whole group for an hour in only Thai. The night before consisted of frantic revision and trying to think up question – answer scenarios to act out. The test went fine for everyone apart from the occasional error which is totally normal. On the final day we were to be presented with a certificate for passing the course and receive a few short speeches from the teachers. We got her a present for being such a great help to us and the day was rounded off with some pizzas and then sad goodbyes.

The weekends we had off while we studied through the week were always put to really good use. The first one we spent up in the mountains on a jungle trek experience that we had booked midweek. It was by far one of the best weekends I have ever had. It began with a trip to a butterfly and orchid farm, a cave infested with bats and spiders and then a sweaty 5 hour long trek up and down mountainous hills and through thick jungle. The scenery was incredible and we spent the night in a rural settlement in the middle of nowhere. Another shorter trek the next morning brought us back into civilization where we drove a short way to an outdoor activities camp. Here we rode elephants (I was even allowed to control/steer mine), zip lined across a river, bamboo rafting, visited a “long-neck” tribe and went white water rafting where one of the girls in the other raft managed to fall in! Probably the best activity came right at the end when we got to wash and play with a baby elephant. At first it was daunting as it weighed the same as a small car but we realised straight away it was extremely playful so would spray us with water and lift us up using its trunk. We all returned back to the guest house thoroughly knackered but with huge grins and many stories to tell. The following weekend two other volunteers and I visited a tiger kingdom where you can pay to interact with tigers. I was sceptical in the beginning as I thought they would be drugged which I am against but it turns out they are just well trained from birth which put my mind at rest. We got to spend time with baby, juvenile and adult tigers which was amazing but terrifying as it is an animal that could overpower me in the blink of an eye. The only injury I got was a tiny scratch where a baby tiger decided to have a nibble of my ankle!

Once AUA ended half of the group had to go back to their projects as their schools started back from holidays. Kevin and I found out that we had the longest time off as we went back to work at the beginning of November. We decided to go and travel around some of the other cities in Northern Thailand with our time off with a couple of other volunteers. First stop was Chiang Rai where we visited the famous white temple which is actually based upon science fiction and more of an art piece than temple. We then had to get a bus all the way back to Chiang Mai to then get a bus to the small town of Pai. This second bus was horrific, twisty roads with a crazed driver not to mention we were squished onto a mini bus with all of our luggage. We spent 2 days there where we rented some scooters to whiz about the local area. The town itself is in the middle of a valley so we had plenty to explore such as temples, waterfalls and various scenic coffee shops. Our whole group had great fun but were rather glad to see the back of travelling by buses constantly for a couple of days!

Perhaps the best thing that came of our holiday after AUA was that Kevin and I made some friends with students at Chiang Mai’s University. They all had exceptionally good English and were really friendly and always wanted to show us around. So we managed to get a locals point of view of living in this city as well as seeing all the best sights as they knew the city inside out. This opportunity also meant that we could practice more of our Thai as well as learning new vocabulary and views upon Thai life. We spent our last few days in Chiang Mai with our Thai acquaintances and even managed to celebrate Halloween with them all at a local nightclub (there were some quite frightening costumes present). So our time in the North was over and it was another long bus back to our home in Phana. I had an unbelievable month but I was looking forward to start teaching properly with my new Thai skills. Kevin and I are hoping to travel back to Chiang Mai in April as it is renowned for its celebrations during Songkran (a Thai water festival).


Image credit: John Ryan Brubaker

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