Education and Arts
Going overseas has a surreal nature to it. Every time I go, the lead up is filled with theoretical logistics, planning ideal scenarios, dreaming of this sights I'll see and the culture I'll be adapting to. It only ever hits me a few days into the trip.
This time is different. There's a different level of reality we're facing. For two and a half years now we've been figuring out what development means and how to approach it. All throughout our studies this trip has been at the back of our minds, almost as a build up to this experience.
And are we eager. Clutching onto any and every bit of information we're given, it's finally feeling real as we discuss vaccinations, visas and expectations. Based in the Strathfield campus we're also finally communicating with the Thailand explorers in Melbourne – two of the six people in our trip.
One thing I love about this degree is the small size of our cohort. It has meant we've had most of our classes together and have really grown as one body, so I'm really excited to get to travel with some of these people too.
We jet off to Bangkok at the end of May and the trip goes as follows:
- Jump with glee as we make our way to the airport May 21.
- Arrive in muggy Bangkok and make our way up to Maesot (Northern Thailand). Spend 10 days there visiting NGOs.
- Travel down to Ranong where we have three weeks with the Marist Mission, living amongst the locals, and getting a feel for what the organisation does.
- Return glumly to Australia
I've been to Thailand before when I was 11 – ten years ago now. We primarily stayed in Bangkok but went up north for a while too.
From memory, I can recount the sticky weather of Bangkok and the chaos of the city. Everywhere you went smells and sites overwhelmed you and you soon realised there was method to the madness.
I'm keen to slot back into that pace and try to immerse myself in that culture.
One thing I'm most looking forward to is visiting the NGOs in Northern Thailand. Seeing how NGOs operate in country is, and will be, fascinating to me. After doing some intern work in Australia, I've seen how Australian personnel communicate with on-ground staff and I've always imagined it being a different world in country.
So thanks for travelling to Thailand with me, I'm looking forward to this trip and I hope you enjoy reading about it just as much!
We started week one with a bang!
Ignoring the numerous illnesses we've all suffered (ranging from Dengue Fever to vomiting on the floor of hotel lobbies!) we've jumped gloriously into the thick of it.
We arrived in Mae Sot on Friday and went straight to the ACU share houses and met the Burmese students finishing up who all graciously and honestly told us their stories. The next day we were privileged enough to attend their graduation. The student representative speaker spoke so passionately about the trials they all faced and overcame to get where they were. It was evident, especially in speaking to the group the day before, how accurate this statement was.
Everyone was so honoured to be part of the ACU program. As the week progressed we realised truly how sought after this degree was – everyone we met in the community either knew of it or tried to apply for it!
We spent Sunday morning exploring Mae Sot. We soon discovered this this little town is so rich in both Thai and Burmese culture. This has meant Mae Sot has developed into a prominent hub for Burmese NGOs using Thailand as a base.
It was on this premise we spent our week. Monday to Friday we visited two NGOs a day ranging from education, to health, to human rights and even a political party.
The outstanding NGOs for me included Backpack Medics (a groups of hard-core medics trekking through the rural Burmese jungles to deliver medical aid), AAPP (a human rights group advocating and providing aid to Burmese political prisoners), and Borderline (a non-for-profit ethical cafÃ© selling fair trade goods and promoting environmental sustainability).
It was amazing seeing how intensely all the NGOs supported and relied on each other. They were all definitely grass roots, community based organisations. I feel so privileged to be able to have had exposure to so many different NGOs and to be able to discuss such prominent issues with them first hand.
What a week! Tomorrow we head to Bangkok to travel to Ranong the following day to spend our remaining three weeks.
After our first week in Mae Sot we took a private bus down to Ranong. We were all dreading the 8-hour journey, so it was to our surprise that the experience was something else. As we travelled further south of Bangkok the landscape started to change from urban sprawl, to flat plantations and salt lakes, to luscious mountainous ranges. It was a stark difference to dry Mae Sot. It was such a valuable way to see rural Thailand.
We got to Ranong where our facilitator for the next three weeks, Father Frank, met us. We were taken to our apartment block to drop off our belongings. We were split into three apartments on the top floor. The view from one side of the building overlooked the rooftops of the immediate Ranong housing and marketplace while on the eastern side we looked over a field, filled with locals every afternoon to play soccer, followed by mountains. Quite a sight, and one I never tired of.
The mornings of the next three weeks were spent rotating the different programs of the Marist Mission (MAF). After a few days of orientation we split into pairs. First off my partner and I sat in on some Burmese Secondary School classes, occasionally taking a class or two to offer some insight into Australian culture.
On the Friday of this week Teacher Appreciation Day took place. The teachers sat at the front of assembly and were completely humbled as each year group sung to them, washed their feet and gave them flowers. It was incredible to witness the love, respect and devotion the students had for their teachers and was a stark difference to how education is treated in Australia!
The second rotation, and the one I most valued, we were placed with a few members of the health team. MAF runs an HIV AIDS community program and we spent our mornings visiting different homes and families living with HIV. Everyone we visited was so welcoming and generous and we pulled out as much Burmese as we remembered from our lessons to try our hands at a conversation. The love the MAF staff had for their community was truly touching and seeing the reality of how many Burmese community members lived was such an insight.
We then spent a few mornings with the MAF Preschool program. Every morning we were greeted by wide-eyed grins as 75 3-5 year olds scampered away from and towards us. We played games with them, sung English songs and coloured in with them. Their energy and enthusiasm was gorgeous and we all appreciated their energetic waves goodbye every afternoon as they left school.
Each afternoon we were part of the ACU online diploma program. We got to know seven students who were so open to share their stories and we offered ours in exchange. Over three weeks we worked with Father Frank, their tutor (and our facilitator) on grammar and essay writing skills in the lead up to the beginning of their official program. They also suggested a few local spots to visit, and they showed us around them, offering historical, political and personal context to where we were.
This aspect of our trip was my favourite. It was so great to develop those relationships with these Burmese students and it was evident how much confidence our friendship gave to them. By the final days of our visit the Burmese students had transformed from timid English speakers to boisterous jokers, laughing at our jokes and making their own in return. Their friendship really made a difference to our few weeks there.
Throughout our time in Ranong we had numerous community dinners with the priests and sisters, we went out with our neighbours and spent time with the ACU online students. The people you meet really make a difference on a trip like this and I also became incredibly close with the five ACU students that I went over to Thailand with.
This month ended with a big dinner at a seafood restaurant with the ACU students and MAF staff. We sat outside enjoying the brief relief of rain, engulfed in the eternal Thai heat and in awe as we sat overlooking the stunning Burmese mountainous landscape across the ocean.
We have grown such an attachment to Ranong and those we have met. It is so evident what a magical place it is, and the development work MAF is doing in the Burmese community is so incredible.
We are all so grateful to have been able to gain a glimpse of what goes on here!
It would be dishonest to say leaving Thailand and returning to Australia wasn't hard. I always experience reverse culture shock coming home from Asia, usually paired with post-travel blues and despite being somewhat prepared to deal with it, it was harder than usual.
Looking back on my month on the Thai-Burma border I really value everything we experienced and were exposed to. For me, I think of it as a really honest and raw time, partially attributed to the fact were able to settle in only two locations for the month.
Being able to live like we would if we committed to this overseas work in long-term capacity really asserted my passion for Asia, travel and being totally encompassed in another culture. Even though we had merely a taste of what it could be like living overseas long term, it really sparked something for me and affirmed that I could pair my passion for development with living in these culture-rich conditions.
Gaining such a greater understanding of the Burmese history, political situation and culture first hand from both those forced to flee and those who chose to immigrate was so precious, and offered so much more insight than trying to get our heads around it by merely reading literature.
The relationships that we formed really made the experience what it was. I went with three other students from Sydney and two more from Melbourne. The experience brought us so close together and I realised when I returned how stimulating I found it to constantly be around people who were always thinking of development and to always be in discussion of the issues we were seeing.
After two years of anticipation, it's thoroughly strange to realise I've completed the immersion experience. This trip was a major influence in convincing me to study international development with ACU and now I'm back I can fully appreciate how valuable this aspect of our degree has been.
I want to thank all those involved in making the experience what it was and all the people that we meet who embraced us so wholeheartedly!
Thailand, you're a beauty.