An hour later than expected a silver minibus picked us up from a bench beside the reflecting pools at Sukothai Technical College. Inside were various members of the ‘Entrepreneurial Project’ donning bright orange teachers and a scattered group of (more than slightly) confused foreigners. The overwhelming feeling was one of vague excitement, overshadowed by curiosity about what on earth had brought us all together.
Gradually, over the course of a few hours, the yellow capped (literally) farang gang joined together forces as an ‘English machine’. We worked our way round the surrounding tourist attractions (tram tours, ox and cart rides, bicycle trips, market stalls, restaurants, and local businesses (pottery, carpentry…), putting the staff through their paces by asking copious, often quite complicated, questions in order that they could complete their certificate in English for tourism. This is what I gathered anyway. Every step of the way was unexpected and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the ride in a cart behind two oxen; all of the members of the party had to temporarily trade in their bright yellow caps for traditional straw farmer hats, protecting us from the strong sun.
Our gang was compiled of about 10 Thai people who work with/ run the entrepreneurial project and a number of English speaking foreigners. A 17 year old Texan who arrived in Thailand 9 days ago to do an 11 month high school exchange through the rotary club; a 33 year old Norwhichian sign interpreter; a young couple travelling around Asia who were just about to go back to Luxembourg; a Polish teacher who had done some volunteering in a Thai school and a bit of travelling and a small number of ETAs from the British Council/ Thai Ministry of Education Summer Scheme. At one point during the tour on the bus (which was entirely in Thai), Nick was given a turn of the microphone and a set of headphones. He ended up listening to the recording of the tour in English and trying to quickly repeat the words to form sentences for everybody to hear and understand. It was good while it lasted (at least, it was entertaining) but not very sustainable.
The morning was spent at Sukothai Historical Park (my third visit, but there are always new things to learn). We first took the bus tour in Thai, with the occasional stop to get off and look around (by my request). Next up we travelled by ox and cart, but we didn’t cover much ground too quickly, then bicycle trip and onto lunch. We were sent to a room at the back, which was very sterile and white, closed off with glass doors from the main restaurant. I must have looked like I was struggling to use my chopsticks because one of the guys in orange quite promptly offered me (and only me) a fork! The afternoon, in my opinion, was more interesting because we visited places that I had never been to and got to speak to the owners and staff at local businesses, and even get to see some of them at work; making pottery, carving wood to make cabinets, sculpting mini Ganesh statues… all sorts. We also got to visit some lodges that were for rent and the owner looked surprised when I asked her if it cost the same if four people slept in a double bed as it would for two. We were supposed to ask unexpected questions, but she dealt with it well. The answer was yes this was fine.
I have taken to introducing myself to Thai people with my Thai name: Chaba (meaning hibiscus) because it is much easier to pronounce. There are no tricky ‘r’s or ‘l’s or hard endings like ‘tte’. It usually makes people laugh, but it is as much for their good as it is for mine. If not I end up being called Sha-lot-ayy. The last activity of the day took place in what seemed to be a primary school, though there were very few children. After more than 40 minutes of sitting around slightly aimlessly and being given little parcels of sweet desserts wrapped in banana leaves and some refreshingly cold chrysanthemum juice, the ceremony began. Official looking people wearing government uniforms arrived, wye-d the audience and were met with applause, before awarding multitudes of certificates to many of the people whose businesses we had visited, along with some others. I will openly admit that at one point I dropped off into a light sleep, just awake enough to hear the ripples of clapping hands and to quickly open my eyes and join back in. I thought that I had gone unnoticed, but one of the orange t-shirted ‘friends’ (rather than staff) pointed this out to the rest of the group. All of the farang gang who remained (the Luxembourgers left after lunch) were awarded with certificates of participation in Thai. Two of the 5 of us were given certificates with no names filled in, and one of us was given a certificate with a rather amusing spelling error (see below).
By this point it would have been too late for me to catch the last bus from Phitsanulok to my town/village/subdistrict, as it leaves at 5.30pm. For this reason I was first bundled back into the silver van with some of the others to Phitsanulok. Then two of us were transferred into one of the younger ‘friends’’ trucks to complete the rest of the journey. Doi is a 26-year-old linguistics student at the University of Phitsanulok and lives in Wang Thong. He introduced me to the best roti stand in town (which was incredible), we ploughed our way through the night market and proceeded to eat our ‘street food’ on a concrete ledge by the Nan River, before hitting the road to Wangsaipoon. By this point it was dark and we had to drop the Polish teacher, Jo, in the centre of town. Despite Doi being a fair bit younger than her he insisted that it was his duty, as a man, to look after her. It also transpired that Thai people (according to him at least) only consider people with white skin, yellow hair and big noses to be farang. Other Asians and people who are not of European descent do not seem to count. This was news to me.
En route, down the dark road, I learnt a bit about Doi’s life and also quite a few new Thai words and phrases. Although sentence structures seem to be very simple (example: Are you hungry? Would be Hiew(hungry) mai(question word)?) some words are extremely difficult to pronounce and can be easily confused with others. Instead of saying ‘my handsome older brother’ (brother can be outside the family- a loose kinship term) one could accidentally, and innocently declare ‘sex, sex’ (two different words for the same act). I do need to be careful with this one, my ‘teacher’ has warned me. The latter of the two is rather unadvisable. Also, instead of asking Doi to turn right I asked him to turn ‘buffalo’, this is just one of these things. In time (hopefully) I will learn. After the long drive, making our way through the closed school gates and keeping the school yard dogs at an arms length he drove back to Wang Thong and I ‘drove’ myself up the stairs and straight to bed!