By: Christian Gronvall
I arrived in Nongkhai, Thailand in September. I had no idea what to expect except for that was going to a volunteer center to be trained for a few days in the local culture and language and then off to an eco-volunteer project in northern Thailand. After the initial excitement of the Tuktuk ride (small three wheeled Thai taxi) I finally arrived at the Openmind Center. It was not as big as I had expected but had a warm feeling to it with an outside kitchen and flags decorated on the walls. I looked over and I saw the Swedish flag – alright I was represented. At the gates I was greeted warmly by one of the trainees named Joy and I had no idea at the time that he was going to become one of my closest friends in the upcoming months of my stay. He told me he was from Laos and brought me into the center to meet the rest of the staff and I discovered that most of them came from small poor villages around the South East Asian region: Kambodja, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand etc. They all spoke fluent English which they had learned in just several months by working together with volunteers – the development they had made was apparent.I met the other volunteers whom I was going to share rooms with. They were all easy going which made me feel at ease – even the Israeli guy, Tom, seemed to have absorbed some of the peacefulness of the Thai atmosphere.
The next morning we had a meeting with the staff and trainees and were updated on the status of the projects we were planning to go to. It all seemed right until I was asked by the head of the Center, Sven, if I felt good about changing my project to another eco-project but in Laos instead since there would be more for me to help out with there. I was quite surprised and had already started to practice some Thai language but then remembered why I really wanted to be a volunteer in the first place: To help out as much as I could. So I agreed and was sent on my first class in Lao (the language spoken in Laos) and Lao culture which were held by the Lao trainees.
After spending a few weeks training, helping out at the center and other local projects I was finally off together with Joy to go on my great adventure: A small village named Ban Na located next to a national park which was famous for its elephant observation tower and great rainforests. I was to stay there for a month hosted by a local family with no internet or any modern comforts. When I arrived to their home it was very simple with not much more than concrete walls and wooden roof, some mats for sleeping, and an old TV. But to my relief they had prepared a king-sized mattress with mosquito net for the volunteer to sleep on. I soon became good friends with the family, their children and grandma who often helped me with my Lao studying.
My tasks was to teach the guides English so they could use their English skills to provide a satisfying experience for tourists interested in their ecotourism. The training took place in a small house in the village but I soon discovered that I could teach them more by spending time with them trekking in the rainforest during tours. That way they could directly apply what I taught them: learning by doing – Openmind centers philosophy of learning. I had such an amazing time during these treks which sometimes lasted for days with spending the nights in the rainforest sleeping under the open sky. At this time I had picked up enough Lao to communicate with the guides which made the English teaching more effective.
So the days went by fast and soon I was to leave Ban Na. I really felt sad because I had grown quite attached to the people there who really treated me as one of their own, like a brother. But it also felt good in a sense that I had really succeeded in what I came there for: To make a difference.
Credit : The Openmind Project (www.openmindprojects.org/)
Openmind Projects is nonprofit education and development organization arranging for overseas volunteer opportunities and providing free training and other support to local people, schools, conservation and other projects in Southeast Asia.