Phrao, Chiang Mai, Thailand
On Tuesday, James and I arrived back into Thailand for our long-anticipated volunteer work with Warm Heart, a non-profit organization whose mission is to enable and build sustainable futures with rural villagers of Thailand. This time we weren’t heading into the craziness of Bangkok or into the paradise of the southern islands, but into Northern Thailand, where temples, mountains and rural villages define the region.
Our bus from Laos dropped us off in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city and about an hour and a half from where we are living. There we were greeted by Carol, a cheerful, kind, older American woman, who works for WH. She welcomed us to Northern Thailand and organized transportation for us to our living and working quarters in the more rural area of Phrao valley. Carol was accompanied by one of the older, intelligent girls from the Children’s Home at WH by the name of Nit. I was so impressed by Nit’s English and her ability to not only confidently show us around and give us direction but also her quick wit and relatable sense of humor. She is now a college student in Bangkok so we laughed together about the hectic city and shared some “going out” stories. After a quick trip to McDonald’s and the grocery store that Carol thoughtfully suggested we visit before heading out to the middle of nowhere Thailand, we got on a van with Nit to the beautiful but extremely warm region of Phrao.
In Phrao, we met PJ, who is a chairman at WH and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Although a Thailand native and originally from the Phrao area, he had quite the interesting story and seems to have travelled to more U.S. cities than I have, having lived there for 35 years. As you can imagine, he speaks fluent and articulate English, almost sounding as if he has a southern accent he picked up from somewhere along the way. We asked him how he ended up working for WH and he told us when Evelind and her husband, the founders, met him they pretty much gave him no choice but to work with them on the non-profit since he spoke such great English and was from the region- an obvious blessing for them to have discovered. PJ drove us to the volunteer house in the village of “Sii Pradu,” about a 10 min. motorbike ride away from the WH headquarters, and then back to WH where we experienced our first lunch at the dining hall, sorted out paperwork and rented the motorbike we will be using for the next couple of months. Both James and I have been looking forward to having our own motorbike to ride around on and explore with so we didn’t hang around too long before taking it for a spin and then back to the Pradu house to get organized.
My first few days in Phrao were full of mixed emotions. I was slightly culture shocked, wondering how I would spend a whole two and half months in a bug-infested, sweltering hot house in such a rural area. But at other times, I was overwhelmed with excitement when getting to know other volunteers, hearing about all the amazing things to do around the area during free time, and brainstorming on all the possibilities to help WH grow during my time here.
My living situation is no luxury apartment, with bees and mosquitoes being a constant threat and rat poop-covered floors and counters being the norm, but it is nothing less than what I expected coming to work at a non-profit in a rural area. While even though we have not yet met the founders because they have been away, so far the Thai and American mixed staff at WH have been extremely welcoming and helpful. They have made me feel comfortable at all times and I have no doubt they would go out of their way to assist me if necessary. I have not gotten to know the kids at the Children’s Home yet but enjoyed watching them run around and chat with other volunteers who have been here awhile. I look forward to forming bonds with them and hopefully sharing experiences together that will impact us both forever.
As for the other volunteers, they are wonderful. There are three living with us at the house and two living at the headquarters who we have gotten to know best but there are three more as well who are leaving soon and keep to themselves a bit more. The ones we have gotten to know are all around our age, either in college or in their middle 20’s, and all American. I have not been around so many Americans at once since I left the U.S. almost a year ago and although I always prefer diversity, it is kind of fun to have that common nationality factor again. We have all bonded fairly fast considering there isn’t much else to do during our free time other than hang out together.
This past weekend we all traveled to Chiang Mai and booked a guesthouse for a couple nights. We had an awesome time exploring temples, sharing knowledge, eating at markets and having drinks at a few different bars and clubs. One of the highlights of the weekend for me was the jazz club we went to called North Gate Jazz Co-Op. The Thai musicians were incredibly talented and I was so fascinated by their ability to play a style of music so distant from their country and culture. Apparently Chiang Mai is considered the “creative city” of Thailand, and for good reason. There is no shortage of street art, decorative temples, music variety and uniqueness. From their own style of food and art to the calmer, laid-back vibes, Chiang Mai is definitely a proud, plentiful city. Progression is thriving but it also remains deeply attached to its tradition and culture which makes it so special. On nearly every street there is a temple that is distinctly different from the rest. It is not only easy on the eyes but also a very calming touch to such a large, busy city. While I want to spend many of my weekends here getting to know Phrao valley and exploring other surrounding cities and national parks, I am happy to have Chiang Mai in close proximity and look forward to at least a couple more great weekends there.
Tomorrow the real work begins in Phrao as the founders are back and will be throwing lots of information and expectations our way I am sure. Last week I brainstormed a fundraising program that I want to work on implementing into Warm Heart’s operations and also decided to temporarily take over the social media accounts for the organization. I look forward to finalizing my projects and hopefully making some progress this week, not only in my work but also in my relationships with everyone at Warm Heart. It seems to be a wonderful organization backed by an extremely dedicated staff and a network of people who genuinely want to make a difference for the hill tribe villagers around the Phrao valley region. Time to bring the heat!
Note: Help me fundraise for Warm Heart by visiting my page here!