October 13th marks the anniversary of the passing of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who many generations had grown up with during his seventy-year reign. He was revered by many as a beacon of stability for the country and loved for his presence and connection with the people. My Thai friends, including a few expatriates, had expressed much respect and grievance following the news of his passing. I vividly recall having a video call that week to a friend living in Bangkok whom I met through AIESEC, telling me that she found herself in tears over the past few days whenever she was reminded of him because of how much he meant to her. She donned dark coloured garments in tribute to a national one-year mourning period, where flags would fly half-mast, and entertainment and celebrations would be toned down. A cremation ceremony will take place on October the 26th 2017, and among the attendees will be his son, the incumbent King Vajiralongkorn (Rama X).
“The mood in Thailand is still gloomy,” says Pattamas, “he will always be remembered.”
Pattamas, who goes by her nickname Ham, is a fresh university graduate who now works at AIESEC in Thailand to develop national volunteering projects in accordance with the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. She told me about how the late King Rama IX had inspired her. He had a passion for the arts when growing up. At 7 years old, he was given a camera which sparked a lifelong love for photography. As a student in Switzerland, he studied and majored in French literature and Latin, and was a saxophonist and jazz enthusiast. However, upon the realisation that he would soon be king at a young age, he shifted his focus towards politics as he knew he needed to be ready to run the country and serve the people. She went on to pursue a degree in arts, and continues to find what makes her happy every day.
Thailand is mainly conservative in ideologies and tradition, with the country’s culture and heritage being strongly characteristic of the Thai identity. “Our preservation of the national identity has a lot to do with the fact that Thailand has never been colonised by a western power,” explains Ham. Much of the rich culture remains despite the wide grip of globalisation catapaulting cities like Bangkok and Phuket into major international business and tourism hubs.
“Older generations are especially conservative, but the youth of Thailand see much room for progress.”
There is, however, a unique twist in areas where Thailand is progressive. For instance, its stance toward LGBTQ+ communities is positive in comparison with other conservative countries in the region. One way to view the effects of this acceptance of this colourful community is through the eyes of Eric, a student in Australia who visited Thailand during his summer break as a volunteer:
“I used to value money as the primary means to happiness. Having financial stability for my future, and to repay my parents is what I aspire toward in life. But when I saw how trans people in the streets of Bangkok could walk around and go about their lives without judgement or criticisms for their identity was truly eye-opening and challenged the way I viewed my values. The children at the school I was teaching at were living at the most basic level of income (the school was in a village in the mainly agricultural northern territory surrounding Chiang Mai) but they donned gleaming smiles and shouted infectious laughter in class and the playground. My experiences were a clear testament that money isn’t the only source of happiness – happiness is priceless.”
Since the country has historically been insulated from western influence (relative to some of its SEA neighbours - a collection of South-East Asian countries), Thais living outside of popular tourist destinations rarely find chances to interact with foreigners. In the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, English is the lingua franca to the many who have found work in international business and tourism, an industry which brought 21.5 million visitors last year. However, as Ham explains, “everywhere else in Thailand, proficiency in English is low – even by SEA standards.” Learning English and Spanish changed Ham’s life - she believes being multilingual is an essential skill which provides her with leverage to open doors to opportunity in the future.
“Whenever I go back to visit the more rural areas, I see the stark contrast between the villages and towns with the big city. Many youths want to learn, but the education system doesn’t cater well to the communities’ demands,” says Ham. She critiqued the lack of practical learning experiences, a lot of self-learning from textbooks, and the difficult transition to university. “We studied grammar and how to construct sentences in English, but never received the support or platform to practice it, so it was easily neglected. I know people who still find it extremely difficult to talk with foreigners.”
Five years ago, AIESEC in Thailand launched the Sawasdee Project. ‘Sawasdee’ means ‘hello’ in Thai, and the program aims to improve the level of English in rural areas and smaller towns by inviting volunteers from all around the world. The role of the volunteer on this program is to design classroom activities to engage and teach English to Thai students in elementary or secondary school. It is also a platform to represent your country (or countries) of origin. Understanding cultural nuances adds a refreshing change to the classroom experience and also sets up the students to be more familiar with cross-cultural differences - a quality which is hard to come by in more isolated areas.
"Only 38% of the Thai population have achieved at least a secondary education. It's one of the main issues we face as a nation."
The program’s success comes from providing a bridge for local students to interact with foreigners in a safe environment at school, overcoming the issue of distance and being secluded from many of the tourist hotspots. Volunteers tend to agree on one thing - the children are always a delight to teach. For those who visit Thailand, they are always amazed by the unique blend of global and local, the true taste of Thai food, and the hospitality of the locals. It is one of the best places on Earth to rediscover yourself, to fall in love, and to appreciate what you have.
This summer, the Sawasdee Project will welcome its twenty-sixth wave of international volunteers to communities in Thailand. For a project of this size and scope, it means that plenty of feedback and data from previous years have helped to continuously shape the opportunity and it will be interesting to see the improvements and tweaks this year. Returning volunteers share their experiences each year, and the stories of impact are always unique, personal, and profound - having changed them in many different ways.
As the one-year mourning period draws near to a close, who knows how Thailand will morph?
You’ll need to see history in the making yourself to truly appreciate it for what it is.
To find out more information on projects in Thailand or to be part of the next wave of volunteers on the Sawasdee Project, click here.