I boarded a plane in Johannesburg, South Africa not knowing what to expect. Would the placement be legitimate, could I possibly be kidnapped upon disembarking the plane, would I be sleeping amongst mice and snakes? A lot of questions streamed through my head that I had no answers to. What if I didn’t like it there? I worked in the Air Force for eight years and have been in combat zones and have been through some pretty intensive training regimens but that type of training doesn’t prepare you for being in “the big world, all alone”. I was heading for Bangkok, Thailand to spend a few days prior to ending up in the place that I would be spending the next 9 months to a year. Bangkok was big and exciting and left me wondering what a small village in the North Eastern part of the country could offer. I knew that there would be no malls, no fancy restaurants, and most-likely no transportation. After my short stint in Bangkok, I boarded another plane to Ubon Ratchathani (about an hour’s flight).
Upon arrival, I was greeted by six Thai people, dressed to the nines. They were holding a sign with my name written on it and huge smiles adorned their faces. They wrapped me in their arms and gave me quite possibly the best “welcome” I’ve received to date. After having dinner, we made an hour journey to a small village called Phana. We were making the journey at night, so it was difficult for me to get a glimpse of my new surroundings. All I saw were headlights and heavy raindrops pelting the windshield. When we finally made it to my new accommodation, I was given a key and wished a goodnight. My new home was a beautiful, old, wooden two-story traditional Thai house. It had been turned into a research center some years back, but it was empty and waiting for a new occupant. I quickly chose one of the three rooms provided and began unpacking my bags, though I was exhausted and wanted to sleep.
After a good night’s rest, I woke up to birds chirping and people milling around below me on the street outside. After a quick shower, I was met by Add — a high-ranking official in Phana. Add drove me around Phana and gave me a tour of everything that there was to see. I was quite literally shocked as I had never seen such beauty in my entire life. Everything from the people waving and smiling, to the fluorescent green rice patties lining every road. There were shops galore and more restaurants than I could count. A feeling came over me that I could not explain, it was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. I quickly thought back to those ridiculous questions that I had been asking myself only days earlier, and began to laugh as I knew that the universe had given me a gift that many people will never have the pleasure of receiving.
The selling point of this new oasis was that of a monkey forest located just minutes from my doorstep. I had been so excited to see these Long-Tailed Macaques and today was the day. I quickly grabbed my backpack with camera gear packed neatly inside and jumped on one of the bikes sitting behind the house. As I got closer to the forest, I could see a couple small brown objects darting back and forth a few hundred yards in front of me. I was nervous yet thrilled at an opportunity to be so close to a life form so similar to ours yet so different. Upon entering what seemed to be the pearly white gates, I saw more monkeys than I had ever seen on National Geographic. There were hundreds just feet in front of me, looking at me inquisitively and making noises. I dismounted my bicycle and began to walk amongst these wild animals not knowing what their reaction would be.
I didn’t make any noises, and had been told about “the rules” of the forest prior to entering so the monkeys seemed OK with my presence. I spent about an hour there, just watching and admiring them. Upon meeting the local stakeholders and visiting the local temples, something in the back of my mind kept telling me to “go back, go back”. So, when I had a bit of free time — I once again, pedaled into the forest and spent more time with the monkeys. I knew that Thailand had a magical allure about it that many could not explain but this was far different. Being amongst the monkeys was a new found type of meditation not taught in books or in the temples. Their every move captivated me and made me focus on being aware. For the first time in a long time, I was thinking less and acting less. I guess I would describe it as an unveiling, a feeling of such profound peace and contentment that my body/mind had never had the privilege of knowing.
Over the following weeks, these voice in the back of my head (if you will), kept telling me to go back and so I would do just that. After about three weeks, I had spent around 60 hours with these beautiful creatures. There were about 1,000 monkeys in total, separated between three main groups. I would walk around and interact with each group but one in particular took the most noticeable interest in me. I would visit them multiple times a day when I didn’t have anything going on and just sit amongst them. After getting comfortable with me, weird things started to happen. I would have monkeys surround me and just watch every move that I made. They would come up and touch my arm and then run away again. The mothers would walk up to me and set their babies down to play (a sign of complete trust), and large males would bring their food and eat right next to me. They had let me in their circle and I was forever changed.
No longer did my mind wander about the to-do list, or the meeting that I had coming up. My mind was void of all worldly things and I was content. It has now been two months since living in Phana and I still go see the monkeys everyday, sometimes two or three times a day. On a daily basis, I am charged with feeding them rice, giving them water to bathe in/drink, and picking up litter that people leave in the forest. It isn’t necessarily difficult work but it can be tiring when the humidity is high and the sun is beaming down. On average, my work in the forest takes about three hours to complete. There are a couple of other volunteers that work in the forest along with me, they are both Thai and mainly focus on sweeping leaves from the pathways, and occasionally pick up trash along with me.
Outside of the forest, I have been teaching math, English, and science to a local secondary school. It has been a very rewarding experience so far but not the easiest of adventures. For starters, English is maybe spoken by less than 5 percent of the village. Therefore, trying to teach a subject in a foreign language can have its difficulties. I teach two hours of math on Tuesdays, two hours of English on Wednesdays, and two hours of science on Thursdays. The science classes have proved to be the most difficult as finding relatable information in an easy to understand format can be quite challenging. English and math classes have been a bit easier and have been going quite well — not to say that science hasn’t. The teachers at the school are lovely and really look after the foreigners in Phana.
Two teachers in particular have really taken me under their wing and have introduced me to a whole new world (only known by the natives) of Phana and the surrounding areas. Since being in Phana, I have: Eaten along the Mekong River, ridden an elephant in Surin, Thailand, swum under a waterfall along the Laos border, eaten lunch on a floating wooden hut as traditional boats paddle by, and fed monks in the pouring rain. Phana and the surrounding areas are truly magical and I’m so lucky to have been afforded such a thrilling experience. I just visited a local monk training school and will begin teaching lessons next month. How incredible it will be to teach monks English!
That is it for now but I will write more when I have a bit of free time. I am currently working on a few video projects for the forest/community and so time is not on my side. If you’re contemplating making the trip out to Phana, I would highly recommend it! Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions about the position(s) or just general questions about the area. I look forward to meeting you soon.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
Botswana 2013 1014