It was two days before my friend Ciara and I visited the school we were to teach at for the next few weeks. Those two days had been set aside, supposedly, for the purpose of acclimatizing and getting our bearings. So far, we had achieved neither, and I was quickly coming to terms with the enormity of the challenge that lay in front of us.

We had been dropped by our volunteering agency in the middle of nowhere, a town in the heart of rural Thailand, whose name we could barely remember, and where the road signs and locals alike bore not a word of English. We had been left in the care of a local man with a kind smile, but sadly his attempts at communication left us feeling more concerned than assured. We had been reduced to a system of elaborate hand gestures, and were beginning to accept that this might be a very difficult few weeks indeed.

You can imagine our confusion then, when we were bundled into the back of his van one afternoon to be driven not to the volunteering house, as we had expected, but to the school for a welcome meeting. We had not showered in 48 hours. We were still wearing the clothes we had left Scotland in.  Dreadlocks had begun to form in my hair. Pulling into the driveway of the school, I couldn’t help but fear that the staff might take one look at us and wish us a prompt “Sa wa dee”.  Thankfully, that was not the case.

The doors opened, and within seconds, we were swarmed with school children, desperate to shake our hands and touch our arms.

“Hello teacher!”  They called, jostling with each other to make it to the front of the crowd which was fast forming around us.  “Teacher, hello!”

I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but this kind of welcome was certainly a pleasant surprise. I felt more like a celebrity than a lowly Scottish student, and it was hard not to be perked up by the infectious smiles which stretched across the faces of our new pupils, eager to impress and welcome us to the school. We were led by the hand to the headteacher’s office, and we were relieved to find that though basic, he spoke at least a little English.

After welcoming us to Wiset Chai Chan and offering us a cold glass of water, we sat down and were given a briefing on what to expect during our placement. The school, he explained, was a small primary made up of approximately 100 pupils from the local area. Most came from the agricultural community, and would go on to become farmers when they reached their mid teens. Some might go on to university, but few left the rural villages in which they had grown up.  Nevertheless, their schooling was very important, and the teachers were very excited by the prospect of introducing English lessons into the curriculum.

I asked whether the children were currently taught English by teachers at the school, and the head smiled before replying, “Oh yes. They love the alphabet. We are very good at the alphabet at this school. We are very proud of it.”  He wasn’t kidding, I was yet to learn.

I was surprised to learn that the school system in Thailand was not all that dissimilar to my own experience in Scotland. Children attended primary school between the ages of 5 and 11, before moving on to secondary level. Despite the afternoon heat, the hours were also very similar, with classes taking place between 9am and 3pm. The major difference, as far as I could see, was that the classes do not keep the same teacher all year.  Instead, the day is split into hour-long periods, during which the children stay in the same room, and the teachers rotate. This was quite an exciting prospect for us, as it meant we would get to teach all different levels and ages, but it was also a bit daunting knowing how much preparation it would take to come up with lesson plans for such a wide scope of abilities.

“And what exactly should we be teaching the children?”  We asked. The question had still not been answered for us.

“You choose!”  He laughed.  “We are just excited that you are here.”

His optimism was flattering, if a little troubling.  Still, we were humbled by the welcome reception, and it felt great to finally be able to visualize the place that was to be our base for the next few weeks.

The school itself was small, made up of several buildings surrounding a communal courtyard, which was used for morning prayers, assemblies and playtime. I loved the fact that everything centered around this outdoor space. Scattered amongst the gardens were beautiful topiary sculptures and the air was thick with the smell of ratchaphruek and orchid flowers. At the heart of this space stood a Buddhist shrine, small and unassuming. The children bowed in respect as they passed the statue, before continuing with their games of hide-and-seek or hopscotch. It was a beautiful space, and wonderfully calming.


By the end of our first visit, we had found ourselves just as lost as before, and yet we also felt strangely assured, which was just as well, as there a few challenges in store for us yet…the first of which? Getting to school.

“You can cycle, yes?” Asked our guide that evening, as we returned to the volunteer house. I couldn’t help but notice the rusty old bikes which had since appeared in the courtyard.

We nodded, tentatively.

“Good, then you cycle.”

I gulped. We had only visited the school that once, and had done so in the back of a van. Although we knew it was a straightforward route, I couldn’t help but wonder at the distance involved.

“How far?” I asked our guide, who had begun to analyze a suspiciously loose-looking chain on one of the bikes.

He looked at me blankly, before returning to his work. His English, it seemed, had become somewhat selective.

“How far?” I repeated, unable to take my eyes of the rusty metal frame.  “One kilometer?  Two?”

“Yes,” he smiled.  “One or two.”

It was five. Five kilometers. Five kilometers down a busy highway, where cars and lorries showed little regard for cyclists and whole families on mopeds swooped dangerously close in order to get a look at the only Westerners crazy enough to attempt such a feat. Where drivers tried to shake your hand as they passed, determined wish you a pleasant day, whether it resulted in near-death incident or not. Where snakes slithered out from the nearby river and crossed the road perilously in front of you. Where I was convinced, every day for a month, that this would be the site of my death….

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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