What do you think of when I say Thailand?
Full moon parties, Pad Thai, massage, elephants? When I stayed in Huai So, a small farming village near the Chiang Khong region, I experienced none of these things. Instead, I stumbled upon a side of Thailand much more genuine, interesting and beautiful.
I stepped off the (surprisingly luxurious) night bus at 6am one sunny Sunday morning into a modern but empty bus station, with sleepiness fighting anticipation. Soon two Thai and two farang (foreign) women arrived to collect me, with friendly greetings. They worked at the gender equality NGO I had planned to volunteer with.
We drove to a lovely air-conditioned office/ house in the smallish town right on the Mekong River: Chiang Khong. The city has a mostly Thai population, with some tourists stopping off for the night before heading over the river to Laos.
But it turned out Chiang Khong wasn’t my main destination after all. The next day, I got into a car with an adorable 7 year old girl and a middle-aged couple – P. Pan and P. Got (P. is a sign of respect – like Mr. or Ms. but necessary when speaking to anyone older than you.)
They were smiley but communication was difficult and frustrating…I spoke basically no Thai at that point and their English was pretty limited.
After 30 minutes driving through beautiful green and yellow rice and crop fields backing onto mountains, with Thai rock music on the radio, we arrived to my new home – a farming village called Huai So.
I was actually volunteering with the new NGO Khiang Rim Khong…a charity of just 3 staff, helping spread awareness about HIV/Aids and safe sex among the local villages. After much google translate and hand gestures, P. Pan and P. Got managed to communicate that they both had personal experience with the disease, and of its prevalence and danger in the area.
Off the beaten track
In this village, I never saw another foreigner. A little boy ran and hid from me when I arrived, he had never seen a farang so close in the flesh!
My room was like a large dusty wooden barn above the cafe/office, with just an ancient mattress in the centre. A toilet on the top floor had no roof and no flush, and hot water from the tap didn’t exist… Sometimes the water supply cut out completely! I never saw so many gigantic insects, praying mantis on the desk or butterfly swooping outside my mosquito net was a common evening occurrence.
The region is a major farming district, and we ate food from local markets and from P. Pan’s garden. P. Pan, having HIV, is particularly health conscious. We avoided using chemicals in the house, and washed vegetables well before cooking. Her crops are organic, but she said most Thai people care more about quantity than quality of crops, so heavy use of pesticides was normal even though it meant lower health of Thai people.
Thai Eating habits are so different to the UK. I think there’s always some mirroring between how we eat and our culture. In Thailand, you have plates on the table with different vegetables, meat and fish dishes, then pass the sticky rice between yourselves, grabbing a chunk and rolling it into small balls. You dip the rice balls into the dishes with your fingers.
In Britain, you have your own dish, with knife and fork. You never usually touch the food with your hands, and anyone else touching your food is a sure faux pas. (And Westerners rarely eat bugs!)
Mealtime is, in a way, a reflection of how individualistic society in GB is compared to warm, communal Thailand. In my house, fellow villagers were coming and going all the time. They were dropping by to offload problems, get free condoms, have an iced drink or just hang out on the battered old chairs. Everyone was in each other’s space all the time. It took a bit of getting used to, but in the end I felt like the villagers were my family.
Every morning at around 5, P. Got would head to the river to catch a fish we would eat for breakfast. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, we ate green vegetables, dried or fried fish and sticky or normal rice. Despite being health conscious, flavour is important in Thai cooking. Everything except the rice was heavily seasoned- cooking, we’d chuck in substantial amounts of sugar, MSG, salt, fish sauce, soy sauce, spice.
They warned me with glee at every meal about spicy food after the first day, when my eyes streamed with tears from Som Tum (spicy papaya salad.)
What did I learn?
It wasn’t always easy, living where it was a struggle to communicate, without all the comforts that are so easily available in the west. But it was 100% worth it.
I discovered how generous Northern Thai culture is, so ready to share food and help others. And how knowledgable about nature and herbs, in a way that we don’t usually think is important in the West.
My Thai hosts and friends aren’t obsessed with getting rich, buying the newest model, or being the most successful. They understand that a richer life is one full of human connections, of teaching and helping the world grow and improve, starting with the people and things closest to you.