On nights I can’t sleep, I fill the silence of my Bellingham home with the sound of motorbikes speeding down the streets of a Moklen village in Thailand.
There’s also the sound of waves hitting the beach and geckos clawing at the ceiling. These sounds aren’t really here, they belong in a certain time and space. Sometimes it is hard for me to grasp that once I was in Thailand. But, I know that I can go back when I want, with a strong support system to help me spend my time there responsibly and sustainably.
I went on the Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainability in Thailand Program in 2017 with the Institute for Village Studies and was there for a quarter of school, hopping between villages and homestays in three regions of the country. If I had to write about just one thing this trip did for me, I would choose the way it made me feel connected to others. Before I left, I thought it was going to be a lonely few months. Even though I had twelve classmates and three faculty members with me, I still had a fear of being in a new place and all the unpredictability that goes along with that. But, almost as soon as I arrived at my first homestay, I felt at ease. Everyone that I met during my trip was welcoming and caring. I felt welcomed and well taken care of, surrounded by people who gave me an endless feeling of safety and taught me about their community with openness.
I learned about certain aspects of these communities that I never would have from books.
One of the things that impacted me the most while living in Southern Thailand with the Moklen people, or “Sea Nomads,” was learning about the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 that ravaged many countries around the Indian Ocean. Because I was so young when the tsunami happened, I had never learned about it in detail, but while staying with the Moklen I learned about the ways their village had been affected. The Moklen are more attuned to the sea than most because of generations living and fishing on the water, but even with this knowledge, loved ones were lost in the waves. They were also impacted after the tsunami, as their traditional homes were destroyed and their land was occupied by beach-front resorts.
It was strange at times, learning the Moklen’s traditional fishing practices and their almost-extinct language while walking past huge hotels filled with tourists, many of them not knowing they were surrounded by a group of people with a rich history on that land.
It was even more strange thinking about how, if I was not on that specific trip with people guiding me, I probably wouldn’t have known either. I understand the draw of beach-front Thai vacations and resort-living. Thailand is a beautiful country. But, this trip made me understand even more that it is important to look around you and learn, really learn about others and the impact you may be unknowingly having on them. The tourism industry, as we see in many ways, has the potential to destroy indigenous land and practices and can leave people forgotten. But, done in a different way, it has the potential to lift up indigenous cultures and leave everyone with more of a feeling of connectedness.
Our main local partners while staying with the Moklen, Pee-Kay and Pee-Ying, have been working with the community to provide tourism experiences to travelers who want to learn more about local Moklen culture. They’ve gotten community members, mainly the younger generation, to provide tours like fishing and squid trapping expeditions, snorkeling, making traditional baskets and squid traps, etc. It’s their hope that having the younger generations lead these tours will give them pride in their culture- a culture which is often discounted by the Thai government and other tourist operators in the area. They are working on eventually getting the necessary permits to become legitimate tour operators, so they can sell their tours through agencies.
I am trying my best to put into practice the big-picture lessons that I was taught there.
Now that I’ve been home for awhile, aside from not wanting to forget the details of the trip (the smell of the streets, the taste of Tom Yum, the tones of the language), I am trying my best to put into practice the big-picture lessons that I was taught there. I’ve made a more conscious effort to relish the small, silent moments that I have with people in my life. And, I am realizing that every relationship is reciprocal. It is important to know that no matter how much you think you can give someone, they have something to give in return. Something to teach you- with mind or heart.
This article was written by Emily Stout, an IVS alum and Editor-in-chief for the WWU magazine The Planet.
The Social Action Plan is a defining factor of a study abroad experience with the Institute For Village Studies. It’s an opportunity for a student to utilize what they learned about international development by creating a proposal and implementing a project that is reflective of the larger goals of the communities they visited. Gage Neiffer is an IVS Alumni who traveled on the 2018 Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainability in Thailand Program. For his Social Action Plan, he returned to the Tai Yai village of Ban Tor Pae in Northern Thailand to teach English.
Why did you choose to return and teach English in Ban Tor Pae?
I decided to come back and teach in Ban Tor Pae as it was the best situation for both sides involved. It allowed me to come back and further experience a culture that I had connected with in a country that is bursting with vibrance; from the people, to the food, to the nature. It also gave this community its first long term native English speaking teacher.
How did your relationship with Ban Tor Pae influence the planning of your proposal?
I got to experience two full week as a student with this community through IVS before moving here. In those two weeks, I felt a very real and palpable connection with the people of Tor Pae. There was a lovely woman named Pi Liew who called me Son and I called her Mom. The local leaders of the village took time and energy every day to ensure our comfort and education was up to par. Anytime I walked anywhere I was greeted with smiles, warm hearts, and the gifts of food. This was a community that gave me so much and I wanted to pay it back in folds/.
Were there any particular factors that contributed to successfully implementing your Social Action Plan?
The factor that helped with my project’s success was first and foremost communication. There is not a large English proficiency in Ban Tor Pae and I have the Thai language skills of a four year old, so being thorough, explicit, and early with communication was paramount in implementing my Social Action Plan successfully.
Have there been any challenges and how have you overcome them?
There honestly haven’t been many challenges. I had everything set up before I left the village during my IVS program, so logistically I was set from the get go. There are some everyday challenges like not having the luxury of hot showers or a bug free bedroom, but those pains are a penny on the dollar of pleasure this place gives me.
Do you have any advice you would give to students to create and implement an effective Social Action Plan?
Choose something that is doable. What’s doable will vary greatly from person to person. For me, I had previous experience both living in a foreign country and teaching ESL, as well as a few months free to offer. Moving to a Tai Yai village to volunteer was not that big of a stretch. Just try and reach for the best looking fruit that you can realistically grab and take a bite.
Do you have any plans to utilize what you learned creating a Social Action Plan for future projects?
I plan on teaching English as a profession, so this experience will be quite useful in my future endeavors.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
All in all, I have nothing but good things to say about my experience with IVS. It allowed me to experience so many things that would have otherwise been completely off the table; notably this iceberg slow Thai immigration line I’m waiting in while writing this. But once again, a penny of pain on the dollar of joy that the Land of Smiles offers; sounds like a good deal to me.