Volunteering in Thailand Pt. 3

Written by Ashley Macnie, Student Product Manager at travelcuts

Continued from Volunteering in Thailand Pt. 2

If the first half of week one had a focus on elephants, then the second half definitely highlighted the community of Huay Pakoot. We had a busy long-weekend ahead of us, filled with weddings and a sports tournament in a neighbouring village.

Upon our arrival on Base, we were told that not one, but two weddings were going to be celebrated by the end of the week. The ceremonies were two days apart, and the second wedding was going to see Old Chief’s daughter be wed, so there was a distinct sense of excitement in the air. The population of the village also seemed to grow with visitors clad in traditional Karen garments.

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Thursday was a usual day of hiking and lessons, but that evening we got to experience the festivities that occur after a Karen wedding ceremony. We joined the party and all sat at a communal table, dining and socializing with the locals. It felt like any other wedding reception – everyone was happy and talkative, and those of us who were new got to test out the little bit of Karen language we retained over our first few days. It was a great way to start what would be an eventful weekend.

One thing to note if anyone is interested in joining the GVI team in Huay Pakoot – pack a flashlight! Remember the hills I mentioned in my first post? They don’t become any easier to navigate in the dark. Getting back to my homestay that night turned out to be quite the adventure!

Fridays are usually reserved for optional hikes or free time, but this week we were to be treated to a little journey through the hills of Northern Thailand. Driving through the mountains, passing dry rice paddies and small clusters of houses, we got to see new territory outside of our own village that was topped off with panoramic views. We were on our way to Nea Huang, a village about thirty minutes away, to support the teens of Huay Pakoot in a sports tournament. Some of the elephant mahouts were playing, as well as members of our homestay families, so it was an important affair.

Upon our arrival we disembarked from our trucks and walked out onto a huge, red dirt field full of volleyball courts and a soccer pitch. Lining the edge of the field were stalls upon stalls of food vendors, serving everything from fresh fruit to pad thai and beverages. Iced coffee and green tea were definite hits that day as the sun was blazing and the temperature was well into the 30s with the humidity. Sunblock was a necessity!

Huay Pakoot was being represented by a men’s and a women’s team in volleyball, with the men’s team doing triple duty to also participate in soccer and a sport I had never witnessed before – sepak takraw, or “kick volleyball”. It reminded me of soccer mixed with muay thai moves and seemed not only intense to watch but also to play.

The teams held round robin matches, often jumping back and forth between the different sports. We leapfrogged from court to pitch, and enjoyed food breaks in between games.

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One thing I was amazed by was the cost of our meals and snacks that day. Iced drinks and water were about 10 baht, food dishes averaged around 30 baht, and beer was 70 baht each – which equals about $2.50 CAD. You can really stretch your dollar while travelling in Thailand; it’s no wonder why it’s a backpacker’s paradise.

After a long day in the sun and with a day’s worth of games under their belt, we all returned to the village, enjoying an uninterrupted view of the night sky on our return drive.

As the following day was Saturday, we were allowed our first “sleep-in” of the week. However, when you’re surrounded by roosters, clucking chickens and a hungry, giant hog, there’s no such thing as sleeping in. Huay Pakoot starts to stir well before the sun rises, so if you’re a light sleeper, bring earplugs!

As I made my way past Old Chief’s house to get to Base, I saw that it was a buzzing centre of activity – food was being prepared, decorations were being hung, and a stage was being set up for a band that was arriving from another village. It was looking up to be an eventful evening and we were all eager to be a part of it.

We had nothing planned for the day aside from some R & R before the wedding, so we spent our time relaxing, going over our Karen lessons, reading, drawing, and napping. It was a well-deserved break after a week of hiking in the jungle. Even the Base dogs lazed about.

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We also spent some time visiting Root the mahout at his coffee shop. Root roasts his own beans and sells iced and hot coffee that ends up drawing in most of the GVI volunteers and staff. With hammocks, seating, and what seems to be a strategically placed location for catching the breeze, it’s almost guaranteed that if you can’t find someone at Base, they’re at Roots. The walls of his shop are even covered in murals painted by past volunteers.

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Once the sun started to set on our lazy day, we gathered our things and headed to Old Chief’s. The Geeju (or ceremony) had already taken place and the bride had changed from her customary white outfit (representing her single-status) to a colourful top and skirt with horizontal stripes, traditionally worn by married Karen women.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Huay Pakoot is a small village. Walking through it you will see some local residents here and there, but never a crowd. On this night, it was the complete opposite! The usually empty thoroughfare that passes by Old Chief’s house was now packed with locals and visitors alike. The entire GVI group was present and settled in around a number of the tables, where we ended up staying well into the night. We enjoyed a feast while listening to speeches from the wedding party, and once the band started up a few brave volunteers and staff joined the dance floor. By the end of it my flashlight was required once again, but luckily for me my homestay was a short walk downhill. It was an honour for all of us to be present for this occasion, and I know a number of our group still have fun memories of that night.

The next day saw us returning to Nea Huang for the finals of the sports tournament. The men’s team from Huay Pakoot were slated to first compete in the semi-finals for both volleyball and soccer, and had games lined up back to back. First up was soccer, so we headed over to the tents lining the pitch and grabbed seats directly behind the announcer, who provided lively commentary that reminded me of the European Championship or Liga MX. Unfortunately I didn’t catch him announcing a goal, but here’s a little clip to give you an idea of what Thai soccer sounds like.

Huay Pakoot ended up winning the game to move on to the final round for soccer. They then took a well-deserved break before starting their semi-final volleyball game. One of the GVI interns, Torin, had taken a chance to see if he could play as well. The team agreed, and despite the previous night being a late one for all of us because of the wedding, Torin played like a champ and Huay Pakoot won, moving on to the volleyball finals as well.

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It was another scorcher of a day, but despite the heat we saw some of the players playing volleyball barefoot or in sandals! I had been previously impressed by the mahouts in the jungle and their ability to move through the underbrush without any concern, often wearing nothing more than flip-flops. After witnessing them in this new role as they jumped between sports without much time in between, I was doubly impressed by their tenacity as athletes — especially in the blazing heat of dry season!

The final soccer game was due to begin, so we reclaimed our spots next to the field to cheer on our village. This time we were seated front row. We cheered, we enjoyed some cold Changs to fight off the heat, and we were thankful for the breeze that came across the pitch. GVI staff member, Pádraig, was even asked to offer up some fine Irish commentating to complement the moves on the field.

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During half time a fire truck took to the field to spray the grass with water, allowing the pitch to cool and to cut down the dust. This attracted children and volunteers who took the opportunity to run through its deluge as if it were a water park attraction. The young men of Huay Pakoot resumed their game, playing like soccer stars, and by the end of the match they were able to reclaim their title as soccer champions for another year.

The tournament was running late, so for time’s sake (and to ensure the games were finished before the sun set behind the mountains), the volleyball finals began before the soccer game even finished, causing the Huay Pakoot team to be split up. It was an immediate succession from one game to the other, and we had to run to catch the end of the volleyball match. We arrived just in time to see our village win and Huay Pakoot be named victors of another final! It was an awesome end to a busy and exciting weekend, and as we enjoyed another star-filled night on the drive home, I wondered how tired the mahouts would be on our hikes the following day.

We arrived back at Base and I went straight to bed. Despite being exhausted from the sun, it took me a while to fall asleep as I couldn’t wait to be reunited with the elephants.

Read more of Ashley’s adventure in Volunteering in Thailand Pt. 4!

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