Today was the day that I would meet my fellow “volunteers”. I say volunteers, but I had booked a sports programme, Muay Thai boxing, so I can’t really say I was volunteering. Other people would be teaching English, helping out in orphanages, or building work, in a more “volunteering” role. However, saying that you have to pay for the privilege of visiting Thailand to undertake these projects, and the money goes towards airport pick up, hotels, transport to project sites, accommodation, and local support teams. The “in house” companies also donate regularly to different projects. So while you might be wondering why should I pay to ”volunteer”, the money does get used for what they say it will and also, and this is a big plus, it is an excellent way to be introduced to a country and, whether traveling alone or with friends, a great way to meet other like minded people, some of whom will remain life-long friends. Anyway I digress…. I went to the “welcome meeting” at 8pm that evening. I felt weird because having been on my own for the first two weeks in Thailand, I had sort of gotten into a routine of doing my own thing, and then to be surrounded by 50 other people… it’s a bit difficult to explain… but felt more alone now than I when I was on my own.
The next day we were met by our co-ordinators to be taken to Singburi, a small city 2 hours north of Bangkok, which was to be my home for the next 2 months.
The journey there was uneventful, but the countryside, when you get outside of Bangkok, is beautiful- sprawling green paddy fields, buffalos, and traditional Thai houses- this was the “real” Thailand. Singburi is not on the “tourist trail”, or wasn’t at that time, and not many foreigners visit, unless one is part of a tour/volunteering group such as the one I was part of. You get to see parts of a country that you normally wouldn’t see if you were just on a standard 2 week package holiday.
The people that look after you whilst you are here all work for a local company. They speak both Thai and English and are there to cater for your needs, as well as showing you the local attractions, transporting you to your daily activities, which in my case was 8 weeks of Muay Thai boxing. The accommodation was in the middle of nowhere, about 20 minutes from the main town by truck, and we were staying in the “brown house”. There were four separate houses, all close to each other, the brown house, blue, twin and lemon. Their names in keeping with the colour they had been painted. No shoes or alcohol were allowed in the houses and the food was only vegetarian. Our house had a main building, with 3 bedrooms, kitchen and 2 bathrooms and an out-building, which had been converted into dormitories. There was a list on the wall of sleeping arrangements and much to my hidden delight I had been allocated a single bedroom in the main building upstairs where the staff slept. I think it was something to do with me being the oldest, some 10 years older than the oldest person there. I have come to loath dormitories, having slept in quite a few on my travels, and now prefer to pay a little bit extra for a little bit more comfort and privacy.
I mentioned no alcohol was allowed in the house; however, we spotted a little “bar” across the road. I have put this into inverted commas because you couldn’t really call it a bar, not in the buy your drinks at the bar, sit in nice comfy seats AND actually be housed in a building, sense of the word. It was literally a few tables and chairs under a corrugated roof, with a fridge on the side of the road, and the bar staff slept there. Ha, but then this is Thailand (and one of the reasons why I love it so much). We frequented that bar every day and had some good times there.
Living at the brown house had its routines. Breakfast was 8-9am, lunch was 12-1pm and dinner was 5-6pm. Bit like being at school really, although the food was better. The first week of the tour was a sightseeing one and there was a lot of free time. Everyone was really nice, although there were a few girls who formed a little group and (maybe this was from being a bit older) but I thought they kept coming out with silly comments, and were not interested in anything that we went to see, only drinking and flirting with the boys. Now I am not saying there is anything wrong with that, most certainly not, but some of them didn’t really make the effort with anyone and it was slightly wearing after a while. We had our first Thai language lesson, which taught us the basics to get by, and an introduction to Thai culture- the dos and don’ts of living in this country. We had Thai lessons everyday of that first week. It wasn’t compulsory to go but as the activities were included in the cost of the trip it seemed silly to miss out on anything. I think I missed one, due to me and a guy from the UK, Niki, getting an impromptu lesson, in the bar the night before, from one of the co-ordinators, Yin. We came to the conclusion that the learning of Thai together with the consumption of alcohol made for an easier way to remember the words. Needless to say we did not remember anything when we went to our next lesson!
We had cooking lessons in which we learned how to make a variety of dishes, one being papaya salad. Papaya salad, or ส้มตำ-Som Tam, is one of Thailand’s national dishes. It is relatively easy to make, very nutritious, and can be quite spicy but very flavoursome.
The co-ordinators also took us for walks around the village, so we could get our bearings. Singburi is situated on the flat river plain of the Chao Phraya river, which weaves its way through the province. Near to where we stayed there was a small market with a few shops, and there were small restaurants along the river which serve different Thai dishes, including frog (กบ-gohp), which is actually quite nice, very spicy though but it tastes just like chicken. My favourite dish was chicken and rice (ข้าวมันไก่-Khao man gai) which was extremely cheap, around 20baht (about 40p). You will find that eating as the Thais do, on the street or in these little riverside restaurants, which are no more than a few tables and chairs, a cooking area and covered from the rain by a straw roof, are by far the cheapest places to dine. Wednesdays were BBQ night and we all piled into trucks (สองแถว-songthaew , literally meaning two rows – 2 benches fixed along either side of the back of a truck, covered with a roof), into town. The BBQ place was a small restaurant with long wooden tables and chairs and there was a “help yourself” array of vegetables, salad and sauces. On the tables were small BBQ’s, which had a sloping middle section to cook the meat on and surrounding that was boiling water, in which to cook vegetables. They are quite delicious, although not my favourite way to dine, but it was nice to have some meat after 2 weeks of vegetables. There was also entertainment in the form of karaoke and, love it or hate it, (I only get involved if I have sunk several vodkas) the Thais absolutely love it. In that particular restaurant the staff lower a projector screen, on which to play the video of your chosen karaoke song, you get given a microphone and away you go. There are loads of karaoke bars and restaurants throughout Thailand, so if this is how your get your kicks on a night out, then you won’t have far to look.