Upper VI: Journey to Thailand

Posted: 21st September 2017

Serena Gray, Travel Scholar

Serena Gray, Upper VI, is this year’s recipient of the St Augustine’s Priory Travel Scholarship, part of our vision of enabling girls to look outwards beyond their school lives to explore the contributions they can make to the global community – to make a difference in the world.  So far recipients of the scholarship have volunteered in Nepal and Tanzania and Serena used the scholarship to take her to Thailand.  Here she tells us about her journey.

‘After being lucky enough to have been awarded a Travel Scholarship by St Augustine’s Priory I spent five weeks exploring Thailand’s culture, cuisine, religion and traditions and teaching English in the north of the country at a primary school.

I started my trip in Bangkok’s busy streets which were full of terrifying traffic which was either grid-locked and stationary or zooming along six lane highways. From the high-rise buildings one can see the dramatic effects of globalisation with huge new air-conditioned shopping malls and skyscrapers looming over shantytown housing and 16th century Buddhist temples. The modern and the traditional mix of Bangkok make the capital a fascinating and cultural city, which I found both daunting and charming.

After visiting the Grand Palace and several remarkable Buddhist temples and markets in Bangkok I travelled four hours north to Kanchanaburi by train. The town is famous for the Bridge over the River Kwai which was part of the ‘Death Railway’ built by the Japanese during World War II using British, Commonwealth Allied prisoners of war as forced labour to link Bangkok with Rangoon in Burma.  The railway was constructed using virtually no mechanical equipment and resulted in a huge loss of life among the Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) and Asian labourers who were forced to construct it by hand. An estimated 13,000 POWs and 80,000 Asian labourers died of disease, starvation and brutality at the hands of the Japanese Army. Poor nutrition and lack of medication meant that some of the POWs returned to England weighing less than six stone and many suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of their maltreatment at the hands of the Japanese. The JEATH museum has a poignant mural with the words “Forgive but not Forget”. It was a humbling experience to visit the Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries in Kanchanaburi and Chungkai which between them are the final resting place for 8,550 Allied and Dutch servicemen who died having been forced to work on the railway.

From Kanchanaburi I went south to Cape Panwa to sample the seafood and quiet island life before returning to Bangkok to meet a friend who was joining me for the teaching project. From Bangkok we flew 685km to the Chang Rai where we were met by a driver who took us to Tha Ton, a small village 10km south of the Burmese border on the Mae Kok River. The contrast between the calm agricultural landscape around Tha Ton and the buzz of Bangkok was astonishing – almost as if we were in a different country. Our accommodation was surrounded by rice paddies and crop fields. Our neighbours were farmers and hill tribes and we were immersed in the natural beauty of the country surrounded by hills.

Thailand has had a long unsettled history of war and conflict over the past hundred years with its neighbours, Burma, Laos and Cambodia all fighting over its terrain at various times. This has resulted in northern Thailand’s population being ethnically diverse with migrants from Burma, and Laos settling alongside Thais and the local Hill Tribes. The area we stayed in was home to many of these ethnic minorities, many of whom were students at our school, having to learn Thai and English since they spoke a local dialect.

I spent two weeks teaching English at Huay Nam Yen Primary School and came away with a changed attitude to both school work and my education. The education system in Thailand, particularly in remote regions, is underfunded by the government resulting in a lack of teachers, resources, organisation, awareness of child development and an oblivious attitude towards learning disabilities.

On my first day at the school I was introduced to the English teacher, Molly, and taken to the Year 4 classroom to give my first lesson. A boy aged twelve sat at a desk at the back of the classroom – separated from the rest of the nine year old students and I asked why he was there, receiving the casual reply, “Oh just leave him, he is special”. In front of him was an exercise book with the letter A in the Thai alphabet repeated across the first 5 lines. This is normal for children in Thailand who suffer from any form of learning disability, from dyslexia to autism. The lack of the teachers’ understanding of learning disabilities means that children aren’t given any support learning to read, write, speak or learn. This really shocked me as I have friends who have dyslexia and, with the support of their parents, their school and specific exercises have been able to achieve As in all their subjects. My whole teaching experience was filled with shock at the lack of understanding towards simple things that we take for granted in the UK. The children, however, were so eager to learn and play with us, running around and showing us their ‘magic tricks’ with rubber bands and pencils. Their enthusiasm to learn and progress was inspiring despite their young age.

Thailand is not known as the ‘Land of Smiles’ for no reason. The smiles of those polite and happy children who had so few possessions but were blessed with such a wonderfully cheerful and happy outlook on life will remind me just how lucky I have been to have shared their joy and learning. I would like to thank St Augustine’s Priory for giving me the opportunity to travel to such a wonderful place and meet so many different people.  My time in Thailand was an experience that has changed my outlook on life.’

As with all our travel scholars, Serena made magnificent use of the opportunity to explore, become aware of different situations and contribute during her time overseas.  Thank you, Serena, for sharing your experiences in Thailand with us – an inspiration to those who follow in your footsteps.

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