Everyone knows, that water is one of the most important minerals required for any organism to survive. Ye despite this, nearly 3 quarters of the world's population does not have a clean and regular water supply. This shocking fact prompted the senses of William Chang, our project week activity organizer, when he stumbled upon it. He then began searching for meaningful projects within Asia and when he learnt about Ban Ompai, a school in Northern Thailand, and the hardship that they had been experiencing, we (Aman, Alex, Saurabh, Abhi and Will) as a collective group decided to go and help them. Thus began our project week expedition. Ban Ompai is a school which has approximately 500 students, all local hill tribe children, which despite their presence in Thailand, are not recognized as Thai citizens.
The aim of the Ban Ompai project is to teach these children how to read and write Thai, and numerous other skills. The school is still in fact quite new, perhaps 8 years old, with the majority of funding coming from wealthy locals from all over Thailand. One such person contributing to the school's funding is Susan Race, but she is also a VIP among them because she is also one of the schools administrators and public face. She informed Will that the school required a new water tank so the children could have a reliable water supply, we all immediately agreed to help. The first step of project week for our group was to get everyone into Chiang Mai city at the same time. Will, Abhi, and me were all already in Chiang Mai from the geography trip.
Alex and Saurabh had to fly in from Singapore via Bangkok to meet us their the Tuesday before project week actually began. They arrived at around 1 am Thailand time. Once we were all there together, we stayed at a guesthouse which was fairly luxurious compared to the rest of our project week accommodation (it had aircon, TV, hot water and a fridge). Early in the morning, the 5 of us took a Taxi (the Chiang Mai Taxi is a red pick-up truck with a roof) to the airport a second time. This time it was to pick up Susan Race who was flying in from Bangkok to accompany us to Ban Ompai on her yearly visit. We had no idea to expect but in the end, she turned out to look rather normal.
After a brief introduction, her driver ushered us into a van and we began on a 5-hour drive into the foothills of Northern Thailand. The journey began to get boring after the first 2 hours, up till then the intriguing scenery and natural beauty had managed to entertain us. Furthermore, Susan Race began to give us a vivid description of the school, and what we'd be doing at it. When we reached Ban Ompai it looked rather much like anyone would have expected, a small school with numerous children and several houses.
The terrain was very 'hilly,' but despite this, the students had still managed to put up a football pitch. Suddenly, we realized they weren't different from any normal children in Singapore, and all they wanted to do was to enjoy life. Our first activity was to eat. We sat down for lunch with Susan Race and the principal of Ban Ompai, a man called, Mr. Sun Thon. After the delicious meal of local Thai cuisine, we headed up to our dormitories, which were on the top of a hill.
Mrs. Race informed us that the rooms we'd be sleeping in were the new boarding houses for some of the children. The fact that it was new somewhat instilled in my mind that the rooms would be fairly adequate. Once we got to our dormitories they didn't seem too bad. They had around 7 bunk beds (no mattress but at least it wasn't on the floor), each of which had a blanket, small pillow and a board of planks for a mattress.
This wasn't the irritating part; in fact it didn't bother any of us at all. The only issue I had with the bed was that one side of the bunk was shorter than the other, so the bed constantly wobbled and made lots of noise. IT WAS EXCEPTIONALLY IRRITATING! The other, creepier irritations were the massive spiders around the room. They were around 7 of them, each the size of a grown man's palm.
I don't really suffer from arachnophobia or anything, but I don't appreciate sleeping in pitch-black darkness with a spider hovering on top of my face. Suddenly the fact that you eat four full-sized spiders in your lifetime didn't seem to sound so peculiar. After we unpacked and had a short rest, we began working on a generator house. This probably seems like a simply task when provided with all the materials and dozens of helping school children, but the fact is that none of us had a clue what to do. We stood there for 5 minutes watching the elder children and the headmaster operating a cement mixer. We then figured that we could me most useful doing the most menial task, shovelling.
We stood there for quite a long time (I'm not sure how many hours exactly) shovelling and shovelling heaps of cement into buckets which were then transported along a chain of school children to a building site. This process was repeated hundreds of times and by the end of the day, the house was built and we left a small indentation of our presence (it said UWC SEA PJ 2003 to be exact, and some initials) in the wet cement. After the work, we were given some free time to basically shower, change and be down for dinner at 7: 30. Susan Race also told us to bring torches as in Northern Thailand it gets very dark, very early compared to sunny Singapore. For dinner, we sat on a large table with the rest of the school staff and ate. Unfortunately we could only converse with Susan Race and 2 of the teachers as the rest could only speak Thai; and frankly none of us could speak Thai to save our lives.
After diner we returned up to our rooms. We sat around for 2 hours just talking and playing with a guitar loaned to us by one of the teachers. Fortunately, both Will Chang and I could play a little, so it didn't sound too terrible. All of us then slept soundly, apart from Saurabh who in the morning claimed he had the worst night of his life.
He had bitten an insect in half and spat it out! All we could do was laugh, but I doubt anyone would appreciate eating half a spider. This day was the first of actually constructing gutters and cement for the water tank. Today all the guys (me, Abhi, Saurabh and Will) went down to the bottom of the hill leading up to our dorms, where a huge mound of gravel and sand lay. Alex stayed up at the dormitories, soldering gutters together. Well, I found shovelling the entire day an extremely tiring process.
I wasn't bad at it; in fact I think I might have been better than the other 3 guys. But to make things worse, most of the little kids around were better than all 4 of us combined. The process worked like this, the pick up truck came down the hill towards the pile. We'd fill it and it would go up the ramp to the boarding house.
This process was repeated dozens of times until we (our small input was constant, as some of the other children preferred to play with sling shots, while we got to shovel) managed to fill up the requirements for sand. In the evening, the principal, some children and us the inexperienced shovelling crew, went off to a waterfall. It was a beautiful waterfall (the trail there was rather slippery but worth it), possibly 20 m high with a deep plunge pool where most of the little children played. Unfortunately, Abhi and Saurabh both were wearing jeans and had expensive equipment on them and therefore, they didn't come past where the truck took them. We returned to the school before nightfall where like the previous day we went up to our rooms, refreshed and came down for diner. Our third day was much like the previous one, except that on this case Alex accompanied us to the shovelling pits.
Today we needed to shovel gravel. In our free time when the truck was up at the boarding house, the group would take turns in throwing stones at each other and using the shovels to block ourselves. Like the previous day, we again went to the waterfall, this time, Alex never came along as the previous day she had slipped and wasn't too comfortable going again. This time, the 4 guys went to the waterfall and had a nice refreshing shower (we still had our shorts on if you were getting the wrong idea). It was still refreshing and when we got back to the school we sat down for diner again with the teachers. As always, the food was good.
The final day of our project was far less intensive, in the time we were there, numerous gutters were built, much cement was made and because we weren't part of the architecture of the water tank, I am still unaware of whether in the end it was built or not, although I heard Susan Race mention the price of cement being too high and the school being unable to pay for enough to build an entire new water tank. Today we basically slacked off. Susan said we could take ourselves on a tour of the local villages, which we did. I also took my time climbing numerous trees (getting back to my ancestral routes). In the late afternoon, it was time to depart and we said our goodbyes to Susan Race, the teachers, the principal and most of all the kids (all of which had learned my name because of the incessant repetition of Saurabh, screaming A-M-A-N D-A-N-G whenever we saw a small kid which was extremely often). Going to Ban Ompai was an eventful and unforgettable experience; it had humbled me and allowed me to live the life of a native Thai villager.
All the while, it also shed light on how fortunate I was as a relatively wealthy, opportunity-rich individual who had dozens of chance in life, that none of these people were given. It made me appreciate who I was as a person and let me learn about an entirely diff.