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Workaway/volunteering in Thailand
For any long-term readers of this blog you may remember a few months back I wrote a post on the Workaway scheme and how, for any long-term traveller it’s something that you should consider. Well, here I am at the beginning of my Asia trip. I think it would be rude not to participate in some Workaway experiences. In fact, I plan to do at least one week of voluntary work in each country that I visit. So, here it is my week of volunteering in Thailand…
A quick summary of what this post is going to be all about.
In this post I’m going “ramble” on about:
- Why I chose the placement I’m writing about.
- My hosts.
- What my host needs help to achieve.
- The set up for the “Workawayers”.
- Day to day life volunteering in Thailand.
- The abundance of wildlife in this “jungle paradise” – Trust me, there’s lots!!
- Local life.
- The benefit of volunteering in Thailand.
Why did I choose to volunteer in the Ban Na jungle?
There’s a fair few reasons if I’m honest. Growing up in a city back home in England where everything is “straight-laced” and developed. To then head to Asia, pocket full of money, backpack on, without a doubt I was looking for something completely different from the “norm”. Somewhere people live a lifestyle completely different to what I’m used to. After spending the first 18 days in Thailand on the well and truly beaten track. It was most definitely time to get off it.
Getting away from the main cities where, as a tourist everything is aimed at me. Everyone speaks English, everyone wants to sell me something. I just can’t get away from the feeling that staying on the tourist track, you miss out on what the country and its culture are really like.
Wanting to help a good cause. Helping someone work towards their dream… Gotta admit it’s pretty satisfying!
Did I mention it’s a jungle!? You won’t find one of them in England! For me, a certain amount of travelling is getting a little out of your comfort zone and experiencing someone else’s lifestyle. The way they live, the food they eat and the obstacles they have to overcome.
A long-term goal of mine, is to one day, buy a rundown piece of land and turn it back to its former glory. This is exactly what is going on here in this little piece of Ban Na.
So, what are my hosts like!?
In a word… Amazing!! I’m being hosted by married couple Whichai and Naianna. Both retired teachers with a lot of love for their country. Straight from the off, they’ve made me feel completely welcome and part of the family. Always asking if I’m ok and if there’s anything that I need.
Whichai a.k.a the crazy man.
It quickly becomes apparent that ex art teacher Whichai and self-taught builder is a man that will never stop. Constantly fettling and tinkering with something, it’s either with one of his rotten cars that he just can’t let go of or fixing something that doesn’t need to be fixed, he just can’t keep still. Always planning his next project. Every time I see Whichai, he’s driving a different car or riding a motorbike that I’ve never seen. Where is he getting them all from!?
Then there’s Naianna…
Without a doubt, the grounded half of the situation. Having retired from teaching a few years back, Naianna’s job it now to reign in Whichai’s imagination and keep him from taking on too much. Also’s sell’s the pineapples and helps look after their grandchild, Jasmin.
All in all, two of the happiest people you could ever meet.
So, what are Whichai and Naianna trying to achieve?
Keep Whichai entertained! Just messing! A long storey cut short, over 50 years ago Naianna inherited an old disused tin mine on a fairly substantial plot of land.
With all the surrounding land for miles, being used to grow palm oil and rubber trees, this monoculture has decimated wildlife. Without the diversity of trees, you can’t have diverse wildlife. This is where certain species become endangered or completely extinct over vast areas. One thing us humans are really good at is ruining nature for our own gain. Necessary or not, it’s a crying shame!
Soon after inheriting the land, Whichai and Naianna proceeded to replant the indigenous species of trees and plants. 50 years on, the abandoned tin mine has filled with water to form a beautiful lake and the natural jungle planted over half a century ago, now has a foothold and the indigenous wildlife of Ban Na is returning.
A year ago, they signed up to Workaway and have since been using volunteers to help plant more trees/shrubs as well as build and improve facilities for the next wave of Workawayers.
I think the really long-term plan is to start a little nature resort/jungle oasis and leave it to their children and grandchildren. In a region of no industry and struggling farmers, the work they do now could benefit wildlife and their family for generations to come. This hasn’t been said but I just can’t see it being any other way.
I’ll gladly give a week of my time to help this cause….
What’s the set up for Workawayers like?
That all depends on what you’re used to….
It ain’t no 5* resort, that’s for sure! Not yet anyway.
For me it’s more than adequate. Saying that though, I have lived in a small campervan for 8 months solid. Anyways, let’s get into it.
Depending on how many people are there at the time (maximum being 9) there is a choice.
There are 2 brick built rooms, both with double beds and electricity.
3 Tents on top of 10ft stands out in the jungle. (no power)
4 bamboo huts in the other side of the jungle. (no power)
Although, there was an empty room with power, I opted for one of the bamboo huts overlooking the lake. A pretty simple affair inside, a bench to sit on, a double matteress, mosquito net and that’s about it!
A very open plan kitchen/dining area on the edge of the jungle. A two-ring stove, a rice cooker, 2 fridges and a sink. What else do you need!?
One thing to note – Cooking is best done before night fall as if you’ve got to turn all the lights on then you’re going to be invaded by every critter you can imagine! Flying ants, moths, these big nasty green, beetle looking things, that only have one purpose in life and that’s to dive bomb your face. Not too nice when you’re trying to cook your rations.
Dotted around are a few toilets, some traditional Thai squat and drop as I like to call them, and one proper western style sit down affair. Thank the lord!
Also, there are 3 open air cold showers. Getting chomped by hordes of mosquitos as you try to shower isn’t no fun…
On top of all that stuff that you need to survive, there’s also a volleyball net, a few hammocks and a boat which you are free to take out on the lake. Oh, and some bikes that you can use to explore the surrounding area.
Day to day life volunteering in Thailand.
So far, I think I’ve set the scene pretty well. So, what is day to day life actually like volunteering in Thailand/in the jungle?
The set up that we have here in what I like to call the jungle paradise is, you are expected to work for 3 hours per day, 5 days a week. In return you get to stay here and have a taste of what it’s like to live in the jungle.
On some Workaway opportunities, food is included but they normally insist on you working 5 hours a day. I prefer it this way as it gives you more time to yourself and food is pretty cheap. Work here commences at 9am and normally finishes by 12.
During the week I spent at this Workaway placement, there was also a French lady called Margo. Margo is a middle-aged lady who has had enough of the French rat race. Since a young age she loved to travel as much as possible.
Hence why she sold everything she owned, packed all her remaining belongings into her backpack and now she travels solo around Asia with no end planned. Fair play!
Without anymore waffle, here’s a blow by blow account of my week in the Thai Jungle.
I arrived on the night train from Ratchaburi at 6.30 am. For 20 minutes I stood around, everyone starring at me as if I had two heads or something. Suppose they don’t get too many tourists here in Ban Na. Have they forgotten about me? Have I just endured a 10-hour night train for nothing? What do I do now? So many questions flying round my head. I guess it’s normal to be maybe just a little anxious in this situation. Is it?
Soon enough a face I’d seen on the Workaway website appeared. It was Wichai. Thank the lord! No I’m not religious in the slightest but you’ve got to be thankful to someone right!? Especially, as my last host in Ratchaburi had let me down but that’s another story…
After meeting Wichai, he quickly led me to his typical Thai motor bike, the trust Honda 125. Climbed on the back 65 litre backpack as well as my 28-litre daypack. A tight squeeze to say the least. Luckily for me, he only lived around 200m from the station.
I was invited in to meet the family, and for some breakfast. Eggs on toast, with a side of pinapple, with a side of barbeque pork skewers. Turns out, if it wasn’t for me, it would be barbeque pork and rice all round. Hey, don’t change your ways just for me!!
It was nice getting to know a little more about the family, Wichai, his wife Naianna, their daughter Earn and her daughter little Jasmine. Half Thai, half African with the best little afro you’ve ever seen.
It turns out, the very house we were sat in, and I must say what a beautiful house it is, was built by Wichai and Naianna themselves! According to the Workaway host information and the abundance of Wichai’s paintings on the wall, “but aren’t you teachers?”. Wichai, a man of many talents it seems.
So, there you go, within 20 minutes of arrival, I’m sat round their breakfast table, enjoying good food with a family I’ve only just met. Nope, that’s just not going to happen in England!
After a solid meal, Naianna drove me to “the jungle” and showed me around. I got the choice of where I stayed. Gotta go with the bamboo shack haven’t you…
A little while later, Wichai turned up, ready for work. The job for the morning was to build a frame out of anything we could lay our hands on to make a carcass that would hold two sinks in the new toilet block. Once that was done we proceeded to mix some concrete “half bag concrete, 3 sand” to be exact. The concrete was used to start building up the base that the sinks would fit on.
After spending 10 years in construction back home, this was completely different to anything I was used to. This was “jungle style!”
That was it for the day. Wichai took me to the local village for some supplies.
I spent the rest of the day talking to Margo and trying to cook without the ants eating everything before me. Living in the jungle is certainly a steep learning curve. Luckily Margo had that shit down! After all, it was her forth time here. Just one destination on her never ending visa loop around South East Asia.
It’s been a long day and I’m tired. With no light pollution what so ever, its black as a bag out here! Choosing that bamboo hut near the lake, with its 200m walk in the pitch black doesn’t seem like the best decision I’ve ever made right about now if I’m completely honest!
That being said, the walk back to the hut yielded something rather special and certainly something I’d never seen before…
5.30am – Woken up by the sound of the jungle, what a sound it is! Don’t get me wrong you get the birds singing away back in the UK but nothing on this scale!! The sound of, must be at least 30 different species of bird and only god knows what else. Oh, yeah I know, chickens! Lots of bloody chickens!!
Again at 9am, Wichai turns up for work. This time were going to the palm/pineapple plantation. 200m by 1000m, or in farmer terms I think that equates to 50 acres or 20 hectares… Correct me if I’m wrong. In I don’t know shit about farming terms, that equates to a fuck load of land. 500 palm oil trees and 60,000 pineapple plants between the rows.
By 12 noon we’d filled Wichai’s little red 4×4 with as many pineapples as it could take. One think to note that harvesting pineapples in 35+C is some seriously sweaty work!
I spent the afternoon stalking the wildlife around the jungle.
Day off! Not that I really needed it, but it gave me time to catch up on some writing for this blog as well as plenty of time swinging in the hammock by the lake… Can’t be bad eh!?
The only slightly strenuous thing I really did today was got to the local village for some supplies. The local village being roughly a 12km round trip, bike it is then!
Now, there’s 5 bikes to choose from. Me, being a person that doesn’t normally plan ahead too much, chose the bike with the hardest seat known to man. I’m sure its made out of granite!
When I’d chose my bike, I couldn’t help but notice there was a wooden stick intertwined with the break lines. What on earth could that be for!? Speaking to Margo, there’s a damn good reason for the stick. She informs me that the local dogs (believe me there’s many) aren’t used to seeing people walking or riding a bike as ALL the locals use a motorbike. Even the 10 year old kids!!
Safe to say I took the stick! Without a doubt I’m glad I did. All was fine on the way to the shop. The odd dog here and there, but nothing to worry about. On the way back however, a completely different story…
So, there I am minding my own business cycling back to the jungle, shopping double bagged hanging from the handle bars, as you do. Next thing I know, that pesky dog lying in the road in the distance, lifts its head, sees I’m not on a motorbike. Within seconds, its on its feet barking wildly! CRAP!
It gets worse! 4 of his mates appear from nowhere to join the chase. Surrounded by 5 raging dogs the grandad stick is out! I, personally haven’t rode a bike for quite some time and trying to ride one handed while fighting 5 dogs off, while trying my best not to let my bag of food swing into the spokes of the front wheel is pretty challenging! Double bagged or not, the second that bag hits the spokes they’ll be scrambled eggs and chicken all over the place.
One way of combatting the dogs is MORE SPEED!!!
The rest of the day was pretty relaxed. Oh, and the worse rain I’ve ever seen in my life! One minute its all sunny and nice, 5 minutes later trees are snapping and let’s just say there isn’t a shortage of water here in May…. Just as turn the rice cooker on to make some dinner the power goes out! Margo informs me it happens every time there’s a big storm. Great!
Another day off. This time I used the boat and went out onto the lake for a spot of fishing. I say fishing, the only rod I could find had been fashioned from a tree branch with some staples in it for eyes and two nails 2 inches apart for the reel. Floating bread doesn’t work on this lake, neither does sinking bread. I suppose it helps to know what you’re fishing for in the first place…
That night was extremely bad for flying ants, there were hundreds. Not those little tiny insignificant ones you get in the UK either. These bad boys bust have been like an inch long and didn’t mind flying into your face.
This is where the biggest toad I’ve ever seen in my life comes in. On any given night you can here 4 or 5 in the immediate vicinity and every night this same one emerges from under the toilet cubicle for its nightly feast. Now big toads on any normal day would gross me out a little but this little fella is a good friend to have. Me and Margo watched him/her absolutely decimate the flying ants, within one hour there was only the odd one flying in circles around the light bulb left. Any that were foolish enough to land in the floor were chomped indiscriminately!
The day Margo left….
Today started at 6am, as Margo’s train to Bangkok leaves at 7am. Her visa in Thailand expires soon so she needs to fly to Indonesia to continue on her never-ending journey.
After her departure, we headed it Wichai’s house for some more eggs and pork. Happy days!
Then for another stint harvesting pineapples. This time joined by Naianna. Them two harvested while I manned the wheelbarrow. With another one of Wichai’s cars full of pineapple’s (400ish) they took me to one of the local street food vendors for some beef, pork and rice all smothered in barbeque sauce. Probably the best food I’ve had since being in Thailand.
Stomach full of food, I helped Naianna sell some of the pineapples at her road side stall. This gave me some time to pick Naianna’s brain on the local culture and farms. Keep reading for that insight…
Not long after, Wichai turns up on yet another motorbike and takes me back to the jungle.
Now the only workaway left. Left in the jungle all alone. I’d be lying if I said the night times weren’t the least bit scary. Especially when its dark and all the chickens that roam around are going frantic and climbing the trees. What the f**k is going on!?
That evening there was a little rain but the loudest thunder I’ve ever hear by a country mile. What’s that rule of thumb? Every second it takes the thunder to arrive after the flash equals the distance in miles. Is that true?
Well anyways, this was instant! Flash and then ground shaking thunder.
This morning started with me very nearly standing on a scorpion. Yep, definitely don’t be walking around the jungle bare foot.
Me and Wichai finished off concreting the sinks in the new toilet block. We also mixed and poured concrete into the cavities at each corner of the toilet block. Wichai builds things to last, no doubt about it.
I’m pretty gutted that I may never see the finished article.
That’s exactly where I’m up to now. It’s now 5pm and I’ve spent pretty much the afternoon writing this post. Its raining again and I can’t really see much exciting happening for the rest of the day, so I’m going to leave it there.
Unfortunately, today I leave Wichai’s jungle paradise. As too, my visa in Thailand is running out. I’ve only got 5 days left and so far, I’ve spent 25 days in Thailand without seeing a single beach. 5 days to get to Koh Tao, spend a couple of nights there sightseeing and snorkelling and then the dash across the border into Malaysia for the next leg of this trip.
I could easily spend another week here being Wichai’s apprentice but unfortunately, I must move on. I WILL BE BACK!!!
Now for some wildlife….
As I’ve stated at the beginning of this post, there is an abundance of wildlife here. Especially birds! Without rambling on too much I’ll just show you some of my favourite shots…
That is probably 25% of the different species I’ve seen here. It’s always when you don’t have your camera that the best shots appear.
Next time I’m here, I’m bringing a 600mm lens and a good tripod. Although jungle photography is hard, it’s a real bird spotters dream!
(please bare in mind that I don’t claim to be a professional photographer, these images are not edited, shot in jpeg and have to be optimised to less than 150kb otherwise this page would take too long to load)
The local people
As I said earlier, talking to Naianna, I got a bit of an insight into local culture and what they do for a living.
With very little industry or anything for that matter the people that live in Ban Na are predominantly farmers. Farmers without a voice, without options. They are completely at the mercy of the “factory prices”. Without competition for their produce the local processors can set whatever price they want, and the farmers have to sell to them because it’s the only way to pay their bills.
Normally, when this happens the farmers all sign up to what is called a co-operative that has its own processing factory ran by local farmers. If enough farmers join this co-op then they gain a little clout. All united and not willing to sell for less than a set price.
The problem in Ban Na is that there is a co-op which quite a few farmers signed up to but without a processing factory they still have no choice but to sell to the “corporate factories” that set the price and pay them a pittance. It seems the middle man is making all the money here.
Naianna tells me that if she takes her pineapples to the factory then she’ll get between 1-2 Bhat each. She can make 10 times that selling them by the side of the road.
The surrounding land is intensively farmed with whatever brings the best price. Over the last couple of decades, it has been rubber trees and palm oil trees.
5 years ago, the price for rubber was around 100 Baht a kg. Everyone ripped out their existing trees to plant solely rubber trees (bringing about the monoculture that we see today). Life for the locals was good. For a while.
People built new houses, bought new cars, basically had lots of money. The problem arises when everyone jumps on the bandwagon, the demand decreases and so does the price. From 100 Baht a kg 5 years ago to 30-40 Baht today. This left many people with half built houses, cars getting take by the banks. Life was and still is hard!
Now the best price is for a fruit called durien. A spiky, foul smelling fruit or as Naianna calls it “the rich mans fruit”. I saw a lot of durien stalls in Bangkok, selling to tourists. The fruits are big, heavy and at 2000 Bhat a kg, its not hard to see why the locals, once again are ripping out their trees to plant the rich man’s fruit.
Naianna fears that give it 5 years when all these newly planted durien trees start to bear fruit the same thing will happen. The demand will decrease and so will the price. Leaving the locals in the same mess.
Surely the way is to diversify!? Naianna says that some farmers are starting to do this but for many they are still chasing the illusive dream of wealth.
Its such a shame but until the government steps in and helps the farmers to be less dependant on the “middle men” this vicious circle will continue.
So, what do I get from Workaway?
Well, I think if you’ve made it this far you must be just a little interested!? Why not sign up yourself?
In all fairness, Workaway is a great scheme that allows people like, well, anyone to help someone else out and learn about their culture. A few hours of work for an amazing experience, the nice feeling you get from helping someone else.
Hell, you can even extend your travels by doing some Workaway. This last week at Wichai and Naianna’s has cost me roughly 1000 Baht in food and I’ve had an amazing time.
I think I’ve covered just about everything I can think of from my week volunteering in Thailand.
P.s I’ve managed to identify a few of the birds. If you know of any more let me know in that comments box. Thanks for reading!