ICL - Sakon Nakon
Rajapachanukhroh 53 School
November 2017 - March 2018
My name is Carla and I am from Manresa, a city located near Barcelona. I am 26 years old and I studied Primary Education. I finished it two years ago, but there was no way to find work in this field in my country. So, at the beginning of 2017 I took a decision: I wanted to live a unique, interesting and exciting experience, doing some task as a volunteer in some place in the world. After searching and contacting different associations, I finally found COCAT and then they gave me the opportunity to come to Thailand working with the VSA (Volunteer Spirit Association) to participate as an English teacher at a Internship school in Sakon Nakhon, in the northeast of Thailand.
After a long trip, on October 31th I arrived in southern Thailand, not my final destination. The first week we were with VSA workers and more volunteers to introduce us to Thai culture. The taxi stopped in a small neighborhood where I lived my first week in Thailand. We made some Thai friends who worked for the VSA and they helped us to be well, comfortable and, step by step, feel better. We did many activities together those days. In just four days, those people were like my family. But the week ended and on Sunday I had to take two flights to go to Sakon Nakhon to start my project. It was time to say goodbye to other volunteers. I continued my adventure alone and again at airports.
Two school teachers were waiting for me at Sakon Nakhon Airport. After about forty minutes driving, we arrived at the school where I would live and work as a volunteer until March. The next day I started the classes. It was a Monday morning and I was very nervous. A teacher help me first day to introduce myself to other teachers and explain me a bit about the plan of every morning: rise the Thailand flag singing the hymn and then a first meeting with all students talking about the plan of the day or something to do it better. When I met the other teachers I felt good, everyone smiled and seemed happy about my arrival but at the same time I felt so nervous. Everything was new.
That morning, some teachers prepared my schedule of classes and then, they told me I had to start classes. So, obviously first day and first classes I had to improvise but it was pretty good! It was really interesting because, despite the students not speaking English, they could understand the game and played very well. Since then I have been improving classes, adapting to their ages and knowledge, varying activities, focusing on teaching an useful English language to them, using projections, doing crafts, many speaking and listening activities, also I have learned many strategies to make English fun and interesting. I have had absolute freedom to prepare classes and for me this has been exciting. It has been a challenge to teach English from children 6 years old to 18-year-olds. I have learned so many new things living with them every day .. language, culture, classes, calendar, food, rules, humor, attitudes, etc.
The start was hard, very hard. Perhaps what I found most uncomfortable at first was the looks of everyone all the time. Still now they continue doing it but, finally you get used about it and you understand it, practically they never see European people!
Aside from becoming a teacher at school, during these months in Thailand I have had other beautiful activities:
In November, during the first week with the volunteers we lived at the Loi Krathong Festival. It is about making circular decorations made with banana leaves and flowers, putting a candle in the middle and, in the evening, let it float on the nearest river. Everyone does the same and the river is full of beautiful light bulbs.
Every month I have seen many different and precious Buddhist temples and in some of them, I have had to climb long stairs! But it was worth it, from the top the views were beautiful.
I went to Bangkok in last week of November to see the place built in homage to the last king and his ashes. It was a school trip and I also went there as a teacher.
To renew the visa I had to do it in another country, so I went to Malaysia in mid-December one week with another VSA girl who had to do the same. First we went to the city of Penang for the visa staff and then to a beautiful island to disconnect before returning to the routine.
At school we have celebrated many things; from visits by Buddhist monks, a visit by the education minister, Christmas party, teachers' day, sports day, and there is still the end of the school course, which will be in March.
I learned some words in Thai. I like languages and I was interested in learning it, also for class hours and being able to communicate a bit with the students in their own language. It's very interesting to think that maybe I taught a bit of English but I think, they have taught me more about life. In this school I have also observed that in the morning they study the standard subjects that we know as sciences, language, math, etc. But in the afternoon, spend hours exploring aspects of Thai culture, such as dance, music, religion, art, crafts, etc.
Now it's only a month left and I think that when I return to Catalonia I will miss it. These months I have not been only a volunteer as a teacher of English. Not only I have lived the experience to teach abroad; I have lived in a relaxed, fast-moving and happy experience, watching new actions and reactions for me, making friends, passing fears and overcoming them, learning a new language, living new experiences, tasting new delicious food, not worrying me so much about the problems, relativizing things, living more with less, ... As soon as I can, I'll be back. I feel satisfied and happy and I am sure that those brave people who also want to do it, they will also feel it, I encourage them!
How to prepare for the trip
I started to think about doing a volunteer task more or less one year before to do it and about 9 months before I really informed and interested me about the options I had. I spent about two months looking at websites, making some calls and emails, and going to some talks of different org's. Finally the one that most seduced me was COCAT and from there they guided me and helped me a lot to finally work as a volunteer in VSA Thailand. Then came the issue of health insurance, vaccines, flight tickets and visa. The visa I had it two months before I left and to put the vaccines with one month's before to leave was enough. I bought the flight tickets about four months before. The insurance was also easy to do. I went to a trusted management and explained my travel plan. They advised me and I just had to make the payment.
The backpack was what I left for the last week. It was difficult to think what I could need for the next 6 months. In spite of trying to adjust it, I have to say that I put some more clothes in the bag that I needed (it depends of the weather of the country where you go and the kind of institution). In my school, to become a teacher, I had to wear black skirts or some elegant dress and blouses or shirts as well. It is the rule of the school (and all the schools of Thailand). Only at the weekend I have been able to put the clothes that I wanted, except shorts and tights. After the experience I think it's better to bring not too much clothes in the bag and if you need something you already will buy there (if the destination is cheap, great!) And will be more appropriate to what you will need.
Prepare the trip is not difficult, but I recommend you to go with time, without hurry and do it calmly and with enthusiasm.
Introduction to culture and society
Thailand was really a unknown country to me. I did not know almost anything about this culture or rules. Now I can say that it is a country where everyone is very grateful and everybody want to help you if you need it, but in rural areas, practically no one speaks English, so the difficulty of communication is a fact that makes the things harder. Also, an interesting thing is how Thai people look European people in rural areas, they are like in a shock! Everyone, absolutely everyone, look at you.
It is a country with the roles of women and men very marked, and women usually sit down with women and men with men, they rarely mix when they sit on the table. Woman teachers never wear pants for classes unless it is the sport equipment.
Other curious aspects for me of the Thai culture is that the hierarchy of ages is very clear; young people serve the elderly. The physical contact, nothing. I have hardly ever seen any hugs. Your greetings are always with your hands together as if you were praying. They always remove their shoes before entering a particular space. They don't eat with the fork; only spoon. Knives are not used, just to cook.
Every morning at school everybody sing the hymn in front of the flag and the king's picture and at the same time they raise the flag. When the hymn is being sung everyone is stopped! His language is totally different, like the alphabet but also his tune when they speak. Another curious thing is his obsession to be white and every day they put a kind of white powder on their faces. The King is like a God for them, they have absolute devotion for he and also for their Buddhist religion. Everyone has a lot of knowledge about their culture, but instead they are a pretty close country and practically do not know about other cultures in the world (at least what I have seen in rural areas).
How to move
For the first week in the South I took a taxi from the airport to the volunteers' house, following the instructions of VSA. Then, to get to school I had to take two planes; one to Bangkok and then another to Sakon Nakhon.
Once in school I've practically not moved too much. If we had to go to the village, some teacher with a car accompanied me. Public transport is not available here at school.
How to communicate
You have to communicate as you can. Here almost nobody speaks English, but it is interesting to see how little by little they are learning some English words and you learn a bit of Thai. Body language also can help you but be careful! Sometimes the gesture has not the same meaning in your country than in Thailand.
Here in Thailand the currency money is Bath, 100 Baths are roughly equivalent to 2'5 Euros. A good and comfortable meal costs around 70 Baths (noodles, salads and drinks). Very cheap. In general everything is cheaper than in Europe. I came to Thailand with Euros cash to change it here and also a credit card.
Here, they eat always rice accompanied by different dishes of vegetables, pork, chicken, soups, salads. Everything is very good and pretty spicy, some less than others. Also, noodles with vegetables and pork, chicken, fish, squid or shrimp are very typical. They usually make steamed food, boiled and sometimes sautéed in the pan.
At school we make three meals. At 7:30 a.m. in the morning we have breakfast at 12 a.m. we have lunch and at 6 p.m. we have the dinner. Teachers always eat in the canteen, although some day we go to some restaurant or fair and eat out or buy ingredients and make some dinner in some teacher's house. They have many fresh and nice fruits that compensate for the spicy meals.
Travel before or after the project
I think it depends on the project. In my case, I visit some temples on weekend around the school and in December I had to spend a week in Malaysia to renew my visa. But maybe I would advise travelling more after the project, I will actually do it. The project ends on March 10th and until 30th I will be travelling to Thailand.
I recommend travelling later. Before I would not do it, I think that you can enjoy more it later because then you know the culture better, you are more integrated in the country and you understand better the things, you live it in a different way.
The first month is hard, calm. Breathe. In a few weeks everything looks different. Be calm and patient. Do not think. Only live it.