x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Thai lessons in love

Feature Danielle Dana Khoury spent three months teaching English at an orphanage outside Bangkok, where open-air lodgings, lice, dirt, mosquitos and the language.

An open-air house where volunteers and guests stay when visiting the Moo Ban Dek orphange in Thailand.
An open-air house where volunteers and guests stay when visiting the Moo Ban Dek orphange in Thailand.

I stood in my open-air house, scratching my lice-infested head with one hand, swatting away mosquitoes with the other, baby powder smeared all over my face, and the soles of my feet as black as soot. I stood and I stared, gagging, overwhelmed by the stench. One of the kids had done their business in my sink. It's not every day that someone defecates in your sink, and it's not every day you end up falling fiercely in love with that same person. But this was Moo Baan Dek, and lice, poo, dirt, mosquito bites - nothing could stop me from falling madly and deeply in love with my new home away from home.

I spent the last three months of 2009 volunteering at an orphanage called Moo Baan Dek (MBD) - which means children's village - in Thai. I've wanted to help orphans my whole life; I was losing motivation and interest in my job in advertising which I had been working at for a few years in London, so I decided to quit and follow my heart. The plan was to hopefully make a difference in someone's life and at the same time achieve one of my lifelong ambitions of travelling to and living in a country where I did not know a soul or the language.

So here I was, at MBD, an alternative education community three hours west of Bangkok. Founded in 1979 by Pibhop Dongchai and his wife Rajani, currently the principal and mother of the school. It's for children who have been orphaned, or come from extreme poverty and abusive families: the philosophy behind the school is that each child can be healed from their wounds and grow to their full potential if they are showered with enough love, attention, and freedom, and surrounded by nature. The children are between the ages of four and 18, but only kindergarten to sixth grade are taught at the village. Once the children complete sixth grade, they continue to live at MBD but study at a secondary school nearby until they graduate. MBD is funded solely by donations from individuals and organisations through Foundation for Children, a non-profit Thai organisation. Volunteers of all ages filter through regularly, some stay for a weekend, while others for a few months. All that is required is that we pay our room and board, we put our skills to use, and that we adhere to community rules and customs.

MBD is an hour's bus journey away from Kanchanaburi, the nearest town. The village is a one-kilometre walk from the main gate on the side of the motorway. Upon arrival, I was enchanted by the sheer beauty of it, the abundance of nature, the plethora of trees, surrounding mountains, brightly coloured flowers, dancing butterflies, the peaceful River Kwai, and best of all, carefree children running around with their infectious laughter floating in the air.

One hundred and fifty children and 32 full-time paid staff live in single-sex basic houses scattered throughout MBD. Every house has a staff member, and children of different ages, so that it feels like a traditional family. The staff act as parents; female staff are called Meh, which means mum, and the male staff Paw which means dad. The older children help take care of the younger ones, but everyone is responsible for their own tasks, from sweeping the floors to washing their own clothes. It's a very independent atmosphere, and everyone's encouraged rather than forced to take part.

Accommodation was basic. I had my own room and a little bathroom, with a flush-toilet. I slept on a thin mattress on the floor, and the mainly wooden house I stayed in was open-air, which allowed for many interesting night-time visitors such as bats and other creepy crawlies. There was no hot water; showers were ice-cold. After several painful showers, I discovered going for a long run beforehand made the experience a lot more bearable. It was a perfect solution - I got in good shape and stayed clean. (Could turning off hot water be a solution to the world's obesity problem?) Washing machines were a distant memory, and I had to hand wash everything. I'd remind myself, while this is an experience for me, this is daily life for millions around the world.

My main job at Moo Baan Dek was to teach English. This proved to be challenging, considering the children didn't know a word of English, and my Thai was limited. I used broken and butchered Thai (always welcomed with giggles), sign language and plenty of pointing. Some days it would click, and the children got it, and the most rewarding feeling in the world came over me. Other days, I'd get blank stares, they'd lose interest, monkey around, and I'd spend most of the class trying to break up fights or soothe a crying child. What made it even harder was that they're not forced to go to class. So you end up having children walking in and out of class (as well as dogs, cats, rabbits, and hens).

At 8.30am every day, everyone gathers to sing the national anthem and meditate. Afterwards, classes are held (in maths, science and English), and in the afternoons, the creative workshops, such as batik, woodwork, weaving, and music take place. Batik was my favourite activity, so I would try in vain to paint something beautiful, but only to give in to the fact that my batik blended in with the five-year-olds'. The handiwork from these workshops is then sold in the gift shop to visitors, and half the profits go to the children, to help them pay for secondary school when the time comes.

At mealtimes the bell would ring and we'd grab our plates and line up in front of the kitchen and eat on the wooden tables outside. Tasteless rice or rice noodles are served with every meal. Meat was a rarity, chicken turned up a couple of times a week, but pork and fake-jelly-meat would more often than not be the dish of the day. I tired of this quickly, and would torture myself with thoughts of normal non-orphanage food.

Other than fearlessly climbing the highest trees, covering their faces in baby powder to absorb the sweat, and taking turns picking lice out of each other's hair (everyone had it), the ultimate favourite pastime was the daily swim in the river. When the swim-time bell rings, kids come running, jumping, screaming, and flying into the river, some naked, some fully clothed, dragging you in with them. On Saturdays the whole community pitches in to help build the new houses for the orphanage. Everyone from the six-year-olds to the principal rolls up their sleeves and gets involved. We also worked in the organic garden, watering plants, weeding, fertilising and getting muddy.

While laughter is plentiful, many of the children still suffer on the inside, as well as the outside from their depressing pasts. MBD tries to create an environment where everyone feels loved and looked after. Take Kaihin, a 12-year-old who only has one ear, a prosthetic leg, and a deformed arm - the result of an unsuccessful DIY abortion. But this musically talented boy is one of the most popular kids around, several girls confessed to having crushes on him. These children know how to look past the exterior, and see what is really important.

Sundays were a welcome day off, I'd hop on the erratic local bus into town, or grab a lift from a friendly local who was happy to help out a farang (foreigner). It was on Sundays that I got to practice my ever-improving Thai with the silently laughing toothless grandmas of Kanchanaburi, ride elephants and scrub them clean in the River Kwai, climb the seven-tiered Erawan waterfall, have motorcycle adventures only to be saved by a sweet 70-year-old grandpa when disaster struck in the form of a punctured tyre miles away from civilisation, drink in countless sunsets and sunrises, sleep on a river raft while celebrating the king's birthday, cross the longest handmade wooden bridge in the world in Sangkhlaburi, and meet locals who had nothing to their name but were ready to share their food, their time and their lives with a complete stranger.

I always knew I was lucky, but this trip made me realise how lucky I am. To have freedom, choice, opportunity, the ability to travel, a loving family, and all the comforts I am blessed with. This was the first time I ever lived with people who have nothing and really got to know these people as friends, and listened to their stories. It makes it real. Becoming close to two women my age who make a monthly salary the equivalent of what I spend on a cinema ticket is what slapped me in the face. During the countless conversations we had, they taught me many things - but most importantly that they don't want our pity, they need our support.

From now on, instead of exploring different corners of the world by lying on beaches and sampling the nightlife, I plan on combining holidays with service trips, whether it's helping to build houses, or teaching. I believe getting to know the people, hearing their stories, learning about their culture, teaching them about yours and sharing your skills is what makes travel important. While financial help is essential to those in need, it's the relationships formed which help money go a lot further.

As I watched the likes of Federer and Nadal compete in Capitala Abu Dhabi from my front row seats, celebrated New Year's Eve (lice-free, I must add) at the Emirates Palace and as I became mesmerised by the flashy Burj Khalifa inauguration, it felt surreal that only a short time ago I was living at an orphanage in the middle of the jungle. But as I settle myself back into the plush Abu Dhabi lifestyle, it will be hard to forget Moo Yung's mischevous giggles, Kaihin's head bopping in rhythm to my iPod, Top's Spider-Man outfit, Nicky's dancing, Toey's love for UNO, Nan's beautiful smile, and all the other children and wonderful people who shared their lives, and most of all their hearts with me in Moo Baan Dek. My home away from home. travel@thenational.ae