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Donna in Thailand's Volunteer Travel Page

Welcome to Donna in Thailand's Volunteer Travel page. Here is where I will be keeping a record of my travels for all of you to read. Please leave comments for me. I would love to hear from you!

Diary Entries

Friday, 06 August 2010

Location: Flight to Kiev, Kiev Airport, Ukraine

So, how does one sum up the impressions and pleasures of an adventure like this?
I looked for a volunteer opportunity in a place I've never been, with a very
different culture. I came to Thailand to help others, but as expected, I feel
that I gained more than I contributed.

I've been impressed by so many things. Perhaps the most impressive is the mellow
nature of every Thai person I encountered. In almost a month, I never heard
anyone raise their voice or get uptight! Mai bpen rai (no problem). I almost
ran over a man on a motorcycle and...Mai bpen rai!

People in Thailand love to have fun (sanook!). Fun is highly valued! These are my kind of people!

The people in Isaan were warm and welcoming! Praew and Tawan, and Tik and Dee were hospitable and generous beyond measure. They welcomed me into their homes and families and shared their resources, time, and efforts in order to make me feel at home and to help me learn and enjoy this experience as much as possible. They went above and beyond any expectations that either I or Volunthai, the placement organization, expected. We became friends and family.

In the middle of my placement, when I went for part of a holiday weekend to Chiang Mai, I was given a warm and encouraging send-off by everyone in Tawan's household as well as everyone at his cousin's household (their houses are beside each other, sharing a driveway. Even though it's domestic travel, it's not everyday that someone gets to go to Chiang Mai!

People (students, teachers, and community members) really appreciated my being there, even if they were nervous about possibly being put on the spot to speak English! They appreciated my efforts to learn some Thai. There are certain sounds and phonetic blends in our language that are very difficult for Thai people to pronounce and likewise, ones in their language that are difficult for English speakers. We learned, laughed and struggled together!

I will always laugh at the memory of three boys who delivered Tawan's and
Praiew's motorbikes from school one day (their house borders on the school).
They needed to leave the keys and I was the only one at the house. In efforts to
avoid having to talk to me, they played"Hot Potato" with the keys. Finally they
tossed the keys onto an outdoor table and took off!

I loved that by the end of this trip, I communicated to people from around the
world in four languages (English, Thai, Hebrew, and French). Five, if you
consider my favorite - nonverbal communication!

I loved hearing the Thai greeting, "Sawadee ka" (or "sawadee krub" for men). I
truly enjoyed the status I had, not just because I was a visiting teacher from
abroad, but because of my age. Once I got past the bother of thinking that
people were making me feel old, I realized that I was being honored. I loved it
when my 33-year old mentor and friend Tik called me "Mum" or "Mum Donna" (and
when Praew's daughter Ning did, as did several of the teachers at the school). To Tik's two-year old son Tutor, I am "Yai Donna" (grandmom). And to the students I am Kun Kroo or Teacher Donna. (Donna with the accent on the second syllable).

While I was concerned that safety standards are so different than at home, there
is something very endearing (but scary to me) about seeing a whole family on a
motorbike. Kids go to school on the back of their parent's motorbike or they
ride with other kids.

I love seeing the students in school uniforms. They look like they're ready to

I adore (!) the end of school routine when a student leader gets each class
started in reciting their math tables in loud unison before they leave for home!

It was wonderful to see the students take responsibility for caring for both their school and teachers. Without being told, students cleaned the classrooms and brought teachers' dirty dishes back to the kitchen, among other things. At the end of each lesson, a student leader annouces, "Stand up, please" and the students thank their teacher in unison. They do not take anything for granted.

In the same manner of respect to teachers, Tawan and Praew, and many other teachers have been attending university on Saturdays and Sundays for two years to earn their Master's degree. Unlike our informal manner of dress when we attend training events, they dress up quite formally, in deference to their teacher (professor). And everything is beautifully ironed (unlike in my home)!

I was amazed to see the formality and respect given to our new young music
teacher when he transferred from another school. There was actually a formal
meeting in which all of our teachers and three teachers from his old school
attended. There were formal introductions of all attendees and speeches by our
director and one of the teachers who accompanied Dooey. It felt very caring, respectful, and civilized!

Thailand is a country that is 95 percent Buddhist. Buddhism is taught in public
schools. I was interested in seeing my friend Praiew leading the whole student
body in prayer during the Friday activity period held at the end of the day. The
children sat on the floor very respectfully and participated.

I am totally impressed at the reverence shown by each Thai person when they hear
their national anthem. Whether in company or alone, everyone stands at a very
still attention. I was in the bus station coming back from Chiang Mai when the
anthem sounded from the PA system. Everybody, without exception stood up and
attended silently. That was impressive.

I think it's cool how one of the major concerns people had for me was if I was
finding the food tasty. (Delicious is one of the first words I learned).

On both occasions, I enjoyed planting rice! The farmers and workers got a kick
out of the "pharang" (foreigner) trying it out! On the second occasion, at Tik's
and Dee's family's farm, Sammy tried it too. The other women were my age or
older, so I felt that I needed to make a good showing for a few hours! I am,
however, appreciative that I make my living a different way, and that I don't
get paid the meager amount that farm workers make. I later got a real kick out
of returning to the house and seeing Ning's reaction to my muddy disheveled
appearance (like, "Whoa! What happened to you?")

I enjoyed the jokes that Praew and I shared despite (or often because of) our
language difficulties! Now everyone there is using the expression "Old balain!"(brain) the way we refer to "senior moments".

I will miss Tawan's 5:30am music and news! On my last morning, he opened with
"Good Morning Donna, Good Morning Sammy!"

I will greet my dog, Cotton, who thinks I'm his Mommy, and recall the
innumerable street dogs who keep their distance from humans.

Rice at every meal was nice! I had almost no bread for a month and I felt the
healthier for it. In Isaan, besides regular rice, they also have "kow neeyow",
or sticky rice. They take that with their hands from a bamboo rice basket and
dip it in sauces. My hosts also introduced me to a huge variety of Thai fruits
and vegetables - many of which I liked and some that I wasn't crazy about. I
really like the name of one - "mangosteen". Sounds Jewish!

When something was pretty, my Thai friends would say, "Velly Beeooteefool!" I
would say the Thai version, "Sooay Makh makh!" After a bit, they finally told me
that depending upon the intonation, I might be saying, "very beautiful" or I
might be saying, "Bad Luck"!

I marvel at what I observed and what my young bicycle guide in Chiang Mai said
when I told him about the meal with the stir-fried silk-worms: "Yummy! Thai
people eat everything!"

I'm glad that I took a chance for my last two days on making my way to the south where I was blessed with gorgeous weather during the rainy season! The unusual and striking limestone cliffs and lovely aquamarine waters were just about as inviting as they are in pictures. I appreciated learning about the Tsunami from Yip who was there, and hearing about the resilience of the people.

I learned that the more flexible I can be, the more that possibilities for
personal growth and satisfaction present themselves. When I needed something or
was uncomfortable, I spoke up and got the help I needed.

Finally, I think of my mother who exhibited her own spirit of adventure and I hope that my children will join me on future adventures! I am grateful that I found this opportunity to do something for others while having my own life enriched as well. I have found new friends/family in a place I never imagined seeing. One day we'll meet again, either in America or in Thailand, "Land of Smiles"!

So, that's it. My summer volunteer adventure is over. Please continue to tune in
as I add some of my favorite pictures to this blog. And again, thanks for coming

Friday, 06 August 2010

Location: Bangkok Airport/Flight to Kiev, Thailand

Yesterday I had a great day and a wonderful final touch to my trip to Thailand.
I went on a day trip from Krabi to the Phi Phi Islands (pronounced "pee-pee").
These islands are considered to be among the most beaitiful in Asia. I was not
disappointed! We traveled quite a distance by speed boat. We saw gorgeous
lagoons with aquamarine water, surrounded by the huge and striking limestone
rock formations that Krabi and Koh Phi Phi are noted for. We snorkeled with the
fish. Somehow I couldn't get away from school this summer as even the fish
welcomed me into their schools! Typical Thai hospitality! A couple of times I
was just swimming along with them and then I found myself being right in the
middle, with loads of fish rubbing against me in a hurry! That's when I realized
that someone from the boat was throwing bread in the water! I was just a little

We saw some famous caves in the cliffs but did not go in. One is called the
Viking Cave with pictures believed to have been painted by the Vikings. Another
cave had unusual gifts presented to a mythical princess in hope of fishermen
getting a productive harvest. We visited acouple of gorgeous beaches, including
the one where Leonardo DCaprio starred in"The Beach". Altogether it was gorgeous
and we were blessed with a lovely sunny day during the rainy season! When the
boat was traveling along at high speeds between places, we were jostled around
like on a wooden roller-coaster. My own version of a Thai massage! It really
loosened up my muscles (and vertebrae, other bones, teeth, eyeballs...).

The afternoon before, when I arrived at Krabi, I rented a little motor-scooter to get around. Fun, but a little unusual, as the driving in Thailand is on the left. I did ok on the scooter, and yes Dad, I am still alive.

Oh yes- on the island trip yesterday, I asked our guide Yip about the Tsunami.
He was 23 at the time. He shuttled back and forth between Krabi and the Phi Phi
islands bringing back bodies. He said that Krabi was not much affected because
mangrove forests with deep roots offered protection. However, the islands had no
such protection and were devastated with huge losses of life and property.

Wednesday, 04 August 2010

Location: Krabi, Thailand

So, as I learned before I came, it's best to be flexible. I took a chance that
things would work out with my mini adventure and last hurrah to the south of
Thailand. I ended up taking a mini-bus late at night headed to two towns in the
south - Phuket (No, it's not pronounced that way. It's "Pooket")
and Krabi. So this morning, when I thought we were getting close to my
destination, Krabi, the driver puts me off the minibus and gets another driver
to take me to a big bus to Krabi from a different town. So, that added several
hours to my trip but "Mai bpen rai!" (No Problem).

Wednesday, 04 August 2010

During this bus trip, I am seeing stores selling garden pottery and Thai candy. On the bicycle trip I took in Chiang Mai, our young guide took us to workshops where they were made.I hesitate to call them factories as they seemed more like cottage industries.

Tuesday, 03 August 2010

Location: Buses from Noryhest, Thailand

Again, last night I experienced what it must feel like to be a rock star! There was a wonderful party to bid farewell to me and to welcome three new people (my new young English friend Sammy, the new music teacher Dooey, and the woman who will be the new assistant director). The stage and tables in the assembly hall (a separate building from the other five buildings that serve as classrooms, library, teacher's room, and office) were decorated beautifully. There was a huge professionally printed banner over the stage proclaiming this celebration in our honor! Sammy's and my names were printed in English while the others were in Thai. The food was very tasty, and the proceedings were lovely! After dinner, the four of us were invited to the front of the room where we first listened to what seemed to be a benediction by a holy man (not a monk). Then a long receiving line formed. Guests advanced and tied short lengths of string on out wrists while either thinking or telling us what they wished for us. This is the third time since I've been here that I've either witnessed or participated in this lovely ceremony. What made it even lovelier was that we each had someone sitting behind us supporting our arm. My support was Tik (as she has been throughout my stay here). Prayo supported Sammy, and Tawan's elderly aunt or cousin who lives with her son and daughter-in-law,  and helps run the small shop next door supported Dooey's arm. I was wished everything from good health to a safe journey and a return to Thailand. I was both welcomed and thanked. My teacher friends and several students did this, ad well as directors and teachers from other schools. It was truly heart-warming.  

After that there were speeches by the director and a school board member. We were presented with gifts. Then the student leader made a speech for Sammy and me, and a group of younger girls spoke and sang. The highlight of the entertainment was Thai dancing by 8th and/or 9th grade girls. I wrote in an earlier entry about Thai dancing done by school teachers. It is quite another thing to witness the transformation of students I've worked with from young tomboyish girls into exquisite and graceful women with their elegant costumes; hair powdered, brushed and pinned back; make-up; and graceful dancing. They looked so completely different that I was only able to recognize one of the eight dancers. All Thai girls learn how to do this in school. Other girls were still in their sports shirts serving as wait staff.

Then there was Karaoke with surprisingly good singing from my teacher friends including Tik and Jumpee, the school's regular English teachers! And then there was the rock star part! I was thanking the students and taking their pictures when some of them whipped out cell phones and had me pose! I didn't know where to look - flashes were going off from different directions! What a fun evening! The younger set went out to continue the party afterward while I went back with my old cronies, Prayo and Tawan, to pack and rest.

Yesterday there was another rock star moment. Sammy and I were in the teacher's room talking about lesson ideas for her while a large group of students were staring at us. When I asked if they were okay, one of them managed to express that they didn't want me to go home. They were very sweet!

Today I went back to the school for the last time but I didn't teach. Mr. Sawat, the school's computer guru, a really friendly and helpful man, transferred all my pictures to DVDs. I have about 10 GB of photos! (That's been one advantage of traveling solo - for a change I didn't annoy any family members with my photo taking!) Mr. Sawat also made a great farewell video for me from the school! It is really adorable, featuring the elephants from Chiang Mai! All the time I was in the office, I had the impression that I was a distraction to Mr. Sawat and that the director would not be pleased. As the morning progressed, it became apparent that he endorsed Mr. Sawat helping me with my pictures. He even let me take a picture of him on him in his office. I think he wanted to know that I would leave Thailand and his school with beautiful memories - which I am indeed doing.

Students gave me a final good-bye and many made beautiful cards for me (coached by their very capable English teacher, Tik! Then Tawan, Prayo, Tik, and Sammy drove me to Chaiyaphum where I got on the bus for Bangkok. I'll either spend the night there before flying down south for my last two days or I'll take a night bus.

Tuesday, 03 August 2010

Location: Nong Plong, Thailand

Last night I experienced what it is to be a rock star! I was among four people feted at a school dinner and show. I will write more about it when I can, but for now, I have to say that it was amazing. I have strings on my wrists to reflect the numerous blessings bestowed upon me by friends and strangers at the event last evening. Mr. Savat, the local computer guru who has been my technology savior, took some very good pictures that I will share!

There is much more to catch up with but I need to go now! Just wanted to check in. I am leaving in a few minutes for the last part of my travels, and as usual, my plans are still up in the air. Last minute Don! Love to all!

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Recent Messages

From Brenda
What a phenomenally amazing trip, Donna. How lucky you were. The pictures were incredible. Your description of your trip was awe-inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing this with me.
Response: Thanks Brenda! Hope you're feeling better!
From Kim
Amazing trip Donna!
Thank you for sharing your travel adventures complete with journals and pictures. I was amazed to see how rice is planted. It seems like such tedious work for such a tiny product. I was also impressed by your sharing about the level of respect that children have for teachers and their elders, their counntry and their religion. I especially love the statement, "Mai bpen rai!" What a great philosophy! I'm am so glad that you had such a unique and mutual learning opportunity about a different culture. However, I wonder if you gave them a false impression that American women are "height challenged!" Looking forward to seeing you in the end of August after your family bike trip. All the best, Kim :)
Response: At least this American/Canadian woman is height challenged! How about you go there next and see what impression they get! Seriously, it was a great experience. Thanks for checking out the site and more pictures to come! See you soon Kim!
From Jenny
Hi Donna! I finally got a chance to read the second half of your entries and I must say that this is absolutely AMAZING! I admire you for doing this. You're quite brave and selfless by going on this trip alone, to a country you've never been to before, where you cannot even speak the language and you devoted much of your time and effort to teach. According to my experiences, it's the riskiest situations that make everything worthwhile... and clearly, that's what happened to you on this trip! I was especially impressed by the painting elephant and the silk worms. I'm not sure if you know about this, but it's no secret of my fear of insects, so thinking of ingesting them... gives me shivers.
Glad to see that you got home safely, and I look forward to seeing more of your pictures!
All the best,
Response: Thanks Jenny! It's great to hear from you! It was an adventure, but one that was not without supports. So it wasn't overly difficult - but as you say, very worthwhile for me. Does my nephew know about your insect thing? Somehow I can see him giving you a hard time about that!
If he doesn't know, don't tell him!
From Ronnie
Your adventure has the ring of "Anna and the King of Siam" even though you were not teaching at the Palace. And, it seems that the teaching/learning went both ways - amazing how that happens when one has the bravery to go outside the safety of the known into the unfamiliar!
Response: The teaching certainly did go both ways! I don't know about bravery in this case. I had nobody to worry about (as Anna did with her young son), but I had wonderful people who worried about me and provided guidance.
From Beth
So, are you going to do some cooking when you get back to school? Just be careful about trying to adapt to of my mom's more memorable kitchen faux pas was "halibut cantomese" I recommend just leaving out the shrimp paste! Oy....
Take care, Beth
Response: The shrimp paste is out! About cooking, you should check put my Facebook page and see what my son Matti posted. Poor boy- no food at home, he says!
From David
Its fine as long as u don't come back with a new Tarzan.
Response: No worries there!
From david
Hi Donna,

I have been reading with fascination each entry. Your recent weekend topped the prior. Have a lot of fun this last week.

Love David
Response: So what do you think of your wife who swings between trees?
From Kristin
These posts are awesome!

Although, I have to say, they sell the elephant paintings at the circus in Hartford. Don't need to travel across the world for that. :)

I haven't been on my bike since Maine and am missing it. Trevor rode 60 miles on the rail trail the other day and I was entirely jealous. I'm getting back on the bike this weekend for sure.
Yes, we'll definitely have to bike some more when u get back.
I'm loving your blog! You are so brave!
Response: Thanks Kristin. But you have to see the picture of my elephant's painting!! It's gorgeous! A real Van Gogh!
From Iris
How long are you there for? You are so fearless and inspiring! When I get buzzed by mosquitoes or feel hot & kvetchy I think of what you're going through and fuggetaboutit. You keep going, girlfriend!

Response: Thanks Iris! Whenever I get too hot, I "take a bat!", as my hosts say!
From Laurie
Do you think the elephant would exhibit at MOMA? I have always wanted to try zip lining...what an incredible place to do it. I am loving this blog...keep it up.
Response: I think he should! I was so impressed with the elephant painting! I've never actually thought about zip-lining, but when I stumbled upon it on the Internet, it sounded cool - and it was!
From Karen
Hi Donna, We saw the elephants painting as well. It's amazing. You have done some fascinating activities! I did the Eastford ride yesterday, Monday - the same one we did last year. Jeff was there and Nancy and Tom Mann. Hopefully ,when you get back, we can do some bicycling. Karen
Response: I'd love to do some bicycling when I get back. I'll only have a week, as I'll be going to the Cape with my family on August 14th until the 21st - but afterwards will work too! How was the Eastford ride? Say "hi" for me to the other cyclists!
I was so impressed with the elephant painting!
From Donna
To my family and friends: please leave messages! I would love to hear from you! Donna
Response: Sorry everyone who's left messages! I didn't understand how to access them, but now I do! Thanks for the messages!
From melanie motter
Wow-what an amazing trip! I'm getting such a kick out of your entries. Don't drink too much beer! Love, mel
Response: Thanks Mel! The beer-drinking just lasted a few days. In Chiang-Mai, I had relief from the heat!
From Beth
Hey Donna, I find myself curiously trying to follow your vacation. I'm sending a second email as you can know I'm reading your blog. Sounds like the english/thai pronunciation is difficult. Reminds me of when I first started subbing & hated Fridays because kids "couldn't understand my pronunciation of words" so, I had Espie give a spelling test or two! Keep trying! And, maintain your sense of humor! I'm really enjoying your keep writing...I can wait to imagine where I go via you next! Take care.
Response: Hey Beth! Thanks for explaining how the message board works! So, when my New York friend can't be understood by kids in Connecticut, she gets our Mexican friend to give the tests! Reminds me of the time our handyman, an Irishman with a thick brogue, needed to get some additional paint for my Israeli friend's house, he asked her (with her thick Israeli accent) to call the paint store, because he said they never understand him!
From susan taylor
Donna, what wonderful entries you write - I can almost picture the places you visit and understand the daily life of the Thai people. Thank you for this gift! Susan
Response: Thanks for reading along, Susan. It makes me feel that I have company!
From David
Hi Don,

Keeping up with your entries which sound fascinating. How are you at remembering any childrens names?

Love David
Response: Hi Dave! I'm terrible at it! Actually, if I knew I were going to be here longer, I would put some effort into it, but my time is almost up. I just resigned myself to the fact that it was not going to happen. I do have some of them, though, with what I'm sure in incorrect pronunciation!
From Lea
Hi Donna,
What a surprise to find out you are having such an adventure so far away! How long is this to last? Will you ever come back? It sounds like you are having too much fun!!!
Thanks for including me in your travels,
Be safe,
Response: Hi Lea! You are right - I am having too much fun! It reminds me of my adventure 30 years ago when I went to Israel with only a few words of Hebrew! Thanks to you and occasional others, I've been able to keep up with that. But I only know Arthur A from BSBI with whom I can practice Thai!
From Kristin
This is great! Sounds like a fascinating trip!
Response: Hi Kristin! I even did a morning cycling tour of parts of the outskirts of the city of Chiang Mai two days ago. It was a fun way to see things and places I would not have been able to otherwise! Some biking together when I get back?
From Linda Hilliard
Donna--HI!! From Grand Isle, Vermont, where Lee and I have been camping for a week. I am so intrigued with your wonderful blog, and all the amazing new places and people and customs you have been experiencing. You go, girl, because your whole life and outlook are changing and that's great. I give you huge credit for being so brave and innovative to do this thing. I'm here, following your journey, and stay well.
Response: Thanks Linda! It is a wonderful thing to be able to try something new like this. I am truly fortunate. The school here just got a new music teacher, for Thai music. There is already one who teaches Western and Eastern music. I haven't had a chance yet to listen to their lessons. I think I should!
From Beth
Cool Donna! I was thinking about you & wondering where you landed this summer. It's 8am here and just woke up & very curiously read the blog through my very sleepy eyes. Can't wait to here more about your adventure! Take pictures & take care! Beth
Response: Hi Beth! Thanks for following along!
From Iris
WOWEE ZOWEE! This is such a good read. Donna, you are awesome!
Love, Iris
Response: Thanks Iris! How are you and the brood? I have to be honest - sometimes, there are words in Thai that sound like Hebrew to me! My Thai friends and I are laughing at each other's pronunciation! Good entertainment!
From Al Krupp
Hi Donna,
So you're a pharange in Isaan.
How exciting. and to think ,as a focused and intelligent school psychologist, disciplining yourself
into the daily journal routine. You're just fantastic. Jeri Jaminet always asks about you. Any bikes in Isaan?
Keep up the good work.
Response: Hi Alan, there are definitely bikes in Isaan (and loads of motorbikes and motor-scooters) - but no nice bikes like ours. The roads are also not conducive to nice road bikes. How are you doing?
From Susan Taylor
Hi Donna - what a wonderful adventure you are having - I hope you have your camera and are taking photos. Be well, I hope you continue to enjoy this experience. I'm so glad you had this opportunity!
Thanks for sharing it! Susan
Response: Hi Susan! I am taking plenty of pictures, but haven't had a chance to upload them to the site. Thank YOU for reading along with me!
From David Elkin [dad]
Dear Donna; I am enjoying reading your Thai diary. I am impressed by the insight you have of the people that you meet and the friendships you are forming. Bobby is also impressed when we discussed you on Sunday. Love, Dad
Response: Hi Dad! Thanks for the encouragement! It has been an interesting and fun experience! I miss you! Regards to Jenny! Love, Don
From michal twig
I hope you enjoy in Thailand.
I'm sure you have a lot of new adventures.....
I am looking to hear from you after you return....
I realise you recieve my message to your iphone.
Response: Shalom, Michal! How are you doing? I will be in touch when I get back! Love to the family!