I had been travelling for 34 hours, I was tired and a little apprehensive about whether or not I would even find someone at the gate waiting for me in Chiang Rai. It was not long before my rucksack came through baggage claim so I hoisted it across my back and went through. Looking through the crowd, I was very pleased to spot two smiling faces holding up a sign; IHF Hello Claire! They were two volunteers, Alex and Sophie, also from England. It was a comfort to meet them and on the ride back through Chiang Rai on the centre truck, the cool air and the excitement of reaching what would be my home for the next month woke me up! Passing a makro super store, which we have back home, the girls filled me in on what else to expect. My first week would be their fourth and final week at centre so it was nice they could show me the ropes a little bit. At the orphanage we all shared a room with Jovita the centre director, a long term volunteer who I found is very dedicated to her position and a lovely room mate.
My first day began with a little tour of the centre and meetings about formalities and then to discuss local tasks to be completed throughout the week. Volunteers do four hours of local tasks and four hours of international tasks online at the internet café. During the months leading up to my departure, I was assigned on 3 international teams for which I was donating a couple of hours a week to, now being at-centre the hours increase to four a day. Though there are about 4 or 5 internet cafes all at 10baht an hour, the girls showed me their favourite café as has lots of fans and the most comfy seats! It is a nice 15 minute walk to this spot just after a small crossroads where you can sample some lovely local fresh food stalls – this mainly consists of fried meat that is always served with a delicious sweet chilli sauce that comes packaged in a cute little pouch tied up with a mini rubber band.
So my first local task was to organize the classroom resources cupboard; it was in a bit of a state though was also a good opportunity for me to see the types of learning materials the centre had available to use for English lessons. In my first week I was to write a syllabus which would guide other volunteers when tracking progress and planning their own English lessons. The orphanage houses 26 children between the ages of 10 and 19; the children from the lower school arrive home before the older children at around 4pm. Sat on the floor surrounded by piles of books, I was very excited as I was about to finally meet the children. I didn’t want to overwhelm them with my enthusiasm so I let them come to me. I was first greeted by Nok and Nipa who seemed curious and cautious at the same time. As I looked up, they gave me a gentle smile which I returned before they scuttled off to their dorms. Jovita quickly helped me put the books back in the cupboard as tends to gets rummaged through by excited children if left unlocked. I sat outside with Sophie and Alex as we watched the rest of them come back. I received many nods and smiles though got a few big excited HELLO’s which I was very pleased with. I had my first noodle soup dish made by Kunu and then we planned the lesson for the evening.
My first English lesson was of a practical nature; we played a racing game outside. With the new vocabulary topic of clothes, upon hearing us call out the name of an article of clothing, the children had to run to a pile of clothes and put them on and race back. The girls at this class loved the competition and we played for 2 hours! Kunu and Nabee the house father and mother make dinner ready for 5pm so we can start English lessons at 6pm. The lessons are voluntary for the children and after a long day at school, you sometimes have to work hard to spark enthusiasm into their attendance. There is no teaching on a Wednesday so the rest of the school days are split into two classes, 13 and over and 13 and under. The children respond well to games and there is a decent amount of educational card games and learning flash cards to use as well as a ranging level of reading books for story time. In my lessons I would get them to practice a bit of writing and reading out loud with their new vocab lists before starting a ‘fun’ activity. You can be as creative as you like when preparing your lesson plans for these children, just anything you think they will enjoy/benefit from. One day Soithong came in to my room and spent about 20 minutes trying to ask me for glue, so I decided Stationary would be my next topic! I made some worksheets for them to colour in pictures to the relating words. These sheets were then used to decorate the new stationary box I made for the resources cupboard.
The children here began to bond with me by initiating play-fighting and let me tell you that the girls are just as strong as the boys! In fact all the children here seem to be great athletes and I am no match for their skill. Pairock for example had challenged me to join a two a-side game of badminton and the giggling cluster were quick to point out how I could improve my technique. However it was a great way to be welcomed into her favourite activity as she made it easier for me to interact with the girls that look up to her. All of the children enjoy playing on the field adjacent to the centre, and I was thrilled to one day find a group of them building their own goal posts by digging holes and securing the log posts in using mud.
One morning all the volunteers and directors climbed aboard the centre truck armed with a plan of our various local tasks, though we didn’t get anywhere fast. We tried to jump start it but it finally failed on us. Eventually, I go to the market with Kunu and Jovita via tuk tuk. I love the local market here, it’s very busy and it smells of various things but for a farang like me, it was quite exciting. Whilst we there we were also shopped for a birthday present. When it is one of the children’s birthday’s we buy cake and the directors and volunteers pitch in for a present. We make decorations and sing Happy Birthday after dinner. It is a lovely atmosphere here when it is somebody’s birthday.
Friday was my day off and I spent it visiting the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) which is very beautiful, also the tourist gift shop houses a nice gallery with a collection of Bhuddist art. I then went to Chiang Rai Beach which is a spot by the River Kok facing the mountains where many locals go to chill out. There is an array of food shacks who serve to these beach hut platforms built with bamboo where you can order beer and food. The girls had given me the number of the tuk tuk driver they were using, Mr Akuna I think he said his name was, he lives up the road from the orphanage near the swimming pool. His English is limited but he doesn’t charge you the tourist price and he waited for me at the White Temple before taking me to the beach and arranged to come and pick me up at 6pm, when the people that run the shacks start to close for the night. I headed back to the orphanage and was going to later head out to the night bazaar which is on every night. Unfortunatley, I tool a bad turn and threw up in the bathroom – Do not order the prawns! It was early to bed for me that night.
At the weekend, the directors work on the weekly report but other than that there is a very relaxed atmosphere. On a school night, the window from when the children come home from school to 8pm when they should head to their dorms to wind down before going to bed is the normal opportunity you have to interact with the children. However weekends are nice for getting to spend time with them or run certain activities or a trip to the pool. During my stay here, I introduced an arts and crafts class for the weekends to give the children a creative outlet. It was very popular and I was delighted to see how talented some of the children are here. I reckon some of them will make great artists in their adulthood.
Of course you have your days off for adventure and for relaxing though if you organize your day well, you can also fit in a bit a bit of exploring in the city. Whilst I was running some errands in town, I popped into the hill tribe museum which is a room in a government building set up to raise funds for projects in their villages. (PDA; Population and Community Development Association) The museum shop or handicraft centre sells authentic gifts and souvenirs which are priced for tourists but it is all going towards supporting the hill tribes. The 60baht entrance ticket came with a coupon for a free tea or coffee at the restaurant on the ground floor; Cabbages and Condoms. This place raises awareness about HIV and family planning. I treated myself to some 90baht noodles and headed back.
The SaturdayNight Walking Street is a massive market of food vendors and handicrafts and entertainment which runs on the road Thanon Tanalai which is closed down especially for this. I went with Sophie and Alex to experience it. The traffic of people is organized so you go down one way and up the next. It ends outside the above mentioned government building where an old basket ball court is replaced by a big stage with a local Thai band singing and playing music. There are loads of tables and chairs set up where locals come to eat, drink and dance, it is quite a party. If there are any tourists in Chiang Rai looking for a night out, this is where they will be. In the centre of the dance floor is a pole where loads of coloured ribbons are attached and everybody dances in a circle underneath. We were fervently encouraged to join in, although we didn’t quite catch on to all the moves – it was all good fun though.