Nowhere is in Thailand
Long term volunteering
Written by Guillaume Collard from Belgium
I like to think that of all the volunteering adventures that have existed and will exist one day, mine was one of the most beautiful. In any case, it is unique and I hope you will enjoy reading about it as much as I did.
“Travel broadens the mind” (“Le voyage forme la jeunesse”, which means, in French, « Travel trains the youth »). What a phrase! So horrible, at first. I had heard it so often in the weeks leading up to my trip that I couldn’t hear it anymore. You know, those kind of quotes that seem to have been invented expressly to fill in situations where you have nothing to say? These are the kind of phrases that we learn by heart, that we hear again and again, but which, in the end, sound a little more false and meaningless, like “all good things must come to an end” or “there are plenty of fish in the sea”. Well, it’s precisely in this category that I put “Travel broadens the mind”. And yet, after 3 months spent on an island and in the Thai forest, I was forced to admit that Montaigne was right.
A sort of Robinson Crusoe who was stranded there
After a somewhat chaotic start to the year, I finally managed to convince my parents that it was in Thailand that I would find what I was looking for, another way of life. And now, after a few weeks, I find myself on a plane to Phuket with only Alex, the co-founder of Dalaa, the association where I will spend the next 3 months, as my local contact.
Alex is French, he has been living in Thailand for more than 20 years, in a hut in the middle of nowhere. He is a kind of Robinson Crusoe (as my mother nicknamed him because of his long beard and his nicely neglected appearance) who arrived there in order to “understand and fulfil the mission for which I am on earth”, as he says so well himself. That mission is to bring people together. To bring together languages and cultures, to bring together worldviews and religions, to bring together men and women around a common task and then (most importantly) around a good meal. Sitting on the floor, of course. Like Dalaa, whose slogan is “living, learning, working together”, for him it is not the work done that counts, but the moment shared in doing it, together.
I understood with him the importance of volunteering and what it really means. I really like his way of thinking: he is probably the most distant person from our society I have ever met. First of all, you should know that Alex is a very spiritual person: he meditates at least once a day and has a special relationship with nature. For him, it is literally a huge source of energy. At the beginning of my stay, one of the first things he said to me, during one of the long evenings we spent together, was that we must learn to deconstruct everything. According to him, everything around us is energy. A kind of transcendence that makes up everything and that can be transferred from one body to another. Of course, this view is not unique, but it was the first time I met someone who thought like this.
At first it was quite hard to believe, and I must admit that I didn’t immediately take seriously what he was trying to explain. But during our meditation sessions, he taught me how to feel and get the energy flowing in me. We even did some Reiki1 sessions, a practice that is becoming increasingly popular in Belgium. The thing with Alex is that he seemed to know everything. Meditation allowed him to analyse himself internally and to put everything he was experiencing into perspective. He found a solution to everything, always avoiding the headache. I have to say that it was a nice change from my daily life. It allowed me to deal with what I used to call ‘problems’ in a better way. Like a video game, I felt like I had access to a “cheat code” of life for several weeks. In the end, I think for my part it was more like “Alex training the youth”.
Thailand is a beautiful country, as are its people. It is situated between tradition and modernity. There is, on the one hand, the old generation, very attached to ancestral traditions, and on the other hand the new one, which is much more open to the world but which is strongly influenced by Western soft power. Most of the young people I met dream of the United States or Europe and are obsessed with having whiter skin, which there is synonymous with beauty and wealth. Just as some white people want to beautify themselves with a trip to the sun or a solarium, some Thai people slather white cream on their faces or cover their bodies with jumpers and jeans, even in 40 degree weather.
I was really struck by the pervasive fascination with the West, which put me and the other white-skinned volunteers in the spotlight every time we arrived in a new place. I soon stopped paying attention to all the “farang” (a typical Thai term on my trip, meaning “westerners” and including all white-skinned people) that came from all sides when we were in public spaces. Although it is understandable that some locals did not often see foreigners, since the far south of Thailand is not very touristy, I was not always comfortable with this: this feeling of being adulated for nothing else but the colour of one’s skin could be quite disturbing. It was a kind of reverse racism. When you consider what white people have done, and are still doing, in some of the countries that have been decolonised, I sometimes find it hard to believe in all the hype. Although the country is one of the few that has never been colonised (and this is a national pride!), it was in these moments that the sadness of white colonialism was most apparent to me. Those kinds of moments that tied me to a past that is inseparable from my present, in which I live more than comfortably, thanks to an exploitation that I never participated in but enjoy daily, and which is reflected in everything around me.
I miss Ma Tak…
Despite being financially precarious, most of the people I met were infinitely rich. They were rich in happiness, simplicity, love and kindness. After spending a month and a half in my forest hut, I went for 3 weeks to an island (still in the middle of nowhere, but this time a little further west), where I met Ma Tak and her family (“Ma” means Mother in Thai). Ma Tak is exactly as I just said, infinitely rich.
She is a person like few others you meet in your life.
She is the coordinator of one of Dalaa’s projects and has been hosting foreign volunteers in her own house 365 days a year for almost 10 years. She sacrifices her private life for the sole purpose of supporting the island’s economy with volunteers who consume locally, thus contributing, albeit very little, to the improvement of the lives of the inhabitants. Quite a slap in the face, for someone like me who needs his personal space. Although she only speaks about 10 words of English, her smile and gestures were enough to make herself understood. She has such a caring quality that even 10,000 km away from my home, at Ma Tak’s, I felt at home. In fact, what was supposed to be a small project visit for a week literally turned into a squat for almost a month, so incredible was the atmosphere and the place.
For me, who was looking for a change of scenery, it was really here, on KohSukkorn, that I was best served (for sure, compared to Bangkok, which is as modern as New York, the place seems to be in another world). It’s an island of just a few hundred people, living almost self-sufficiently from fishing and farming. These people, who surprisingly only had access to electricity 5 years ago, seem to live without worrying about time. Never in a hurry, they live to the rhythm of the sun and the calm moments of the sea.
It is strange how people with little seem to be much happier than those with everything. It’s strange how we persist in continuing to sink into this spiral of excessive consumption, which in the end seems to fully satisfy no one. In the end, wouldn’t the solution be to get lost in the forest or on an isolated island and live there for the rest of your life? For me, my choice is made! By the way, if this article has made you want to meet the “crazy bearded guy” or the “smiling little mummy” (and a lot of other great people I didn’t have the chance to talk about, thanks to P.A. and Joe), don’t hesitate for a second and go for it (and say hello to them for me, of course)! They will give you back unforgettable memories.