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Volunteering at Baan San Fan, Bang Wan, Thailand

31 December 2010 11,092 views 10 Comments

volunteer/ visitor
toys, books and fun stuff
teacher lucy
working on the web
daily life
thank you

Bang Wan really is tiny. It’s 20 minutes from Takua Pa, the nearest proper town, on the road from Phuket to Bangkok, and you’d fly through on the bus without knowing you’d been through a village. There are paved and unpaved roads coming off the main highway leading to the school, houses and shacks that serve as the only shops in the village.
Friday is market day – the clearing opposite Baan San Fan becomes populated with stalls selling fresh produce, cooked treats (boiled corn, BBQ-ed kebabs and sticky rice, sticky rice, sticky rice), and some clothing & homewares. Market is a bit of an occasion: kids go before school, everyone is dead friendly, but it’s all over by 10am.
It seemed to me that Baan San Fan brings a lot to this village, by number of bodies and money spent at the shacks & stalls. Gai also told me that her neighbours have started looking after their homes better and making them nice since seeing the good example of Baan San Fan. It’s a cosy, friendly, welcoming village. I got to know quite a few people courtesy of our Christmas party, teaching at the school, buzzing around markets and wandering around – one of my favourite afternoons I sat outside one of the shacks sharing starfruit with two fairly elderly women, they spoke Thai, I spoke English, we had a great time.

volunteer/ visitor

The volunteer/ visitor clash was a bit tricky at times. I arrived fully prepared to give my energy & attention in whatever ways Baan San Fan would find useful and I had envisaged piling in to manual labour, working around the home & garden and getting nicely smug & satisfied. But, as I’ve mentioned before, there wasn’t much to do in general jobs or projects. With a simple & effective daily routine and fourteen pairs of helping hands Baan San Fan really does run itself, as a volunteer you have to push to do jobs. Unfortunately the one job that they did want me to assist with was washing up, and the washing up is done outside by an open drain i.e. costa del mosquito. So everytime I did that I got munched. I wasn’t much good anyway (they have this three bowl system..), in fact Sam was watching me one time and said ‘You don’t do the washing up at home do you.?’ So, I made up my own routines (sweeping my building) and chipped in where obvious (drying up).
There were projects that we worked on: digging the new pond, finishing Chicken Palace, making coconut oil & soap. Plus, I taught at the school, did some work with Wicked Diving on getting coconut oil orders and worked on the Baan San Fan website – projects I instigated but which everyone was open to.
I kept insisting to Sam & Gai that I wanted to experience normal life at Baan San Fan, no exceptions for me as the outsider. Although the day to day routines stayed the same, Gai did give me special treatment. Our meal times were more formal than would typically be I’m sure, and Gai prepared different & special foods & dishes for me.Our trip to Bangsak beach came about because I requested some ocean time – and I knew I was leveraging my ‘visitor’ status there. There was a day when we took a detour back from Takua Pa in order to go to Baan Nam Khem beach – there’s a tsunami memorial park there so Sam & Gai take most volunteers there they say. It was a really pretty, really well kept place, and stunning views out to the ocean and back to the mountains of Bang Wan. Another day Gai also arranged a lady to come from the next village to give me a massage because I’d mentioned it in conversation. I was really embarassed about that – I felt very self indulgent. So the volunteer/ visitor experience was mixed.

It’s Thai custom to look after guests especially well, so in that respect it is normal that I was treated differently. With regards to the projects etc I actually think the responsibility comes to those agencies who are sitting between the volunteer and the home. I organised my placement with WAVA and they coordinate locally with Andaman Discoveries. Like any agency service they’re connecting supply with demand (home with volunteer) and their service can make that connection really efficient, effective, valuable, or not. There’s much that WAVA and Andaman Discoveries do that’s really good but I think they can play a bigger part – educating the home on what volunteers want, and why, helping them plan for having a volunteer, perhaps putting itineraries of jobs together. And for the volunteers, telling them what to really expect, making suggestions for what projects to tackle (the school, website & work with Wicked Diving were my own initiatives), and letting them know what to bring. For example, the children love music so it would be great for other volunteers to being instruments etc.
I’m satisfied that in my two weeks I was valuable to Baan San Fan but for sure, more information & planning would make a difference.

toys, books and fun stuff

I took toys and things with me to Baan San Fan. I didn’t know the children’s ages in advance and I didn’t know what they would already have so it was a bit of jack pot.

  • The chalk was no use because there was nothing to draw on.
  • The Slinky was a hit, til it got squashed.
  • The bubbles were a big hit, til they ran out.
  • The dot to dot and colouring in were a hit.
  • The balloons were a big hit for the Christmas party.
  • The books (Mr Men and Hungry Caterpillar) were no use because, although the children’s English was basic, I figured no self respecting eleven year old wants to flick through a toddler’s book.
  • The playdoh, counting cards and cards of Australia were also good.

On the whole the children are amazing at amusing themselves, inventing and playing games, so really the toys served better to introduce games that I knew how to play!
And speaking of amusing themselves, in the two weeks that I was at Baan San Fan I only heard the children disagree a fistful of times, just squabbles, and there was only one crying incident and that was mopped up in moments. Pretty impressive eh.
I think I brought something a bit different to the children… when we hung out or played I challenged them a lot; I’d be impressed by what they were doing – high jump, counting, plaiting hair, colouring, clapping games – and then I’d introduce a harder way to do it and see if they could. Like doing the clapping games with their eyes closed, doing the high jump scissor-kick style for example. I don’t know if they liked it or not but it seemed like fun to mix it up.


The insect situation was a consistent downward slide. By week two the mosquitoes had eased off to an average of two bites a day – negligible. My bathroom pets were pathetic: the lizard gave in to a large spider, the spider gave in to a centipede, the centipede died in the middle of the shower floor and so gave in to four or five hundred ants. Of some interest were the crickets (I think) which made ridiculous noises and went frankly ape shit whenever they came inside, and the small snail that took all of Christmas Day to crawl round the outside of the toilet bowl. Nasty.


Family meal times were pretty informal: people came and went, helped themselves, picked at extras from the fridge. Sam, Gai & I always sat together, started & finished our meals together but I think this was probably for my benefit.
Gai & Sam were vegetarian for eight years so she’s a really competent non-meat/ fish cook, in two weeks she didn’t produce anything that I couldn’t eat and only two things that I didn’t like. As is the Thai way there were always multiple dishes and the rice cooker was always on, a combination of white and red/ brown rice. For each meal Gai generally prepared two vego dishes for us (invariably with soya/ tofu because she was adamant I needed protein..) and then one of two other dishes for the children. Plus there’d be leftovers, sauces and perhaps other sides. Gai did some great soups: clear bases with any combination of mushrooms, carrots, spring onions, varieties of green leaves & herbs. There were a few deep fry dishes: tempura-ed vegetables – crunchy excellence, and fried papaya – wasn’t sure about that but ploughed on through :) The stir fries were great, veggie heaven, sometimes with rice or egg noodles, sometimes egg or turmeric fried rice, and we had sweet’n’sour too, a few times with deep fried, hard boiled eggs – I know..?!?! but trust me, it worked. And the curries were superb, mostly yellow curry with potato or squash, peanuts and other chunky veg. On the last two days Gai threw some mushroom, aubergine and onion salads together, they were outstanding.
I have definitely consumed heaps of new fruits and vegetables – only some that I could identify or name. I came to trust Gai so much that we joked I’d eat anything she gave me. The children loved watching me work through the spicier dishes. Of course to them they were luke warm but I was sweating, gasping my way through and it was worth every bite.
Like all children the world over, they don’t like vegetables and like all parents Sam & Gai use examples to encourage them. The poor kids – ‘you want to be strong like Lucy… eat your vegetables like she does’. They behaved themselves but their eyes said ‘are you kidding me, if I eat all my vegetables I might end up with hair that big too..’
We ate out a couple of times also. Ka nom jeen is a completely wicked dish. You sit at a long table with bowls of fresh herbs, veggies & pickles and you’re served rice noodles with your choice of sauce (fish, chicken, chilli etc) And that’s it – you take your noodle base and mix in whatever you want for each bite from the buffet of ingredients. It’s awesome. We also went out for excellent phad thai that had fresh banana flower on the side and coconut water with slices of fresh coconut in, yuuuum.
In town and at the markets we picked up sweet treats:

  • Sticky rice (yes, more rice) is a beautiful sweet snack. Wrapped in banana leaves, shoved in bamboo tubes, served with banana, coconut, mango, who cares, it’s gorgeous.
  • Also served in banana leaf were these little rice flour cakes with salt, coconut and brown sugar. If you told me they include a pinch of opium I’d believe you – they’re so incredibly addictive.
  • Speaking of bananas we had them grilled/ BBQ-ed. I’m not a banana lover but these were fantastic. Oh yeah, and we picked up bananas deep-fried in sesame seeds, also good, and sooo bad!
  • The fresh fruit was superb – always a treat to see what’s common, what’s exotic when you’re overseas. The papayas from the garden at Baan San Fan are bigger than watermelons and the pineapples are plentiful and juicy. I also enjoyed dragon fruit, starfruit, non hairy kiwi things, rambutans (I think). Almost makes up for all that starch, sweet, fried food :)

a taste of home

It turns out there are only two things I really can’t give up: coffee and exercise. For the first three days I had seriously small amount of both and I was a wreck. A quick briefing to Gai and we had Baan San Starbucks up and running so that was fixed (get it!) I wasn’t sure if I couldn’t give up coffee because I could see the coffee beans. Who knows, who cares. The exercise fix came from twice a day yoga, a request (demand?) to swim in the ocean and some skipping, frisbee and high jump, I would LOVE to go for a bike ride right now. The roads here are pretty good for it in terms of condition, distance, elevation, and I’ve seen a few bike riders going past. Next time I’m bringing Lola for sure.
A few times I’ve mentioned about not having alcohol here. I could have got beer but you’re requested (beforehand) not to drink in front of the children and really there’d by nothing more tragic that going to the corner shack and bringing back Singha to drink on my own, on my yoga mat… Also, it was actually fine, but I won’t get pious about it, my post triathlon fall from grace was awesome and this one will probably be spectacular :)

teacher Lucy

Teaching at the local school was definitely a highlight for me. I had hoped I would get to poke my nose in but I ended up teaching eight English classes. I was well pleased about this and the teacher was very enthusiastic but then she got to spend eight hours on Facebook…
The school was cute – neat rooms, the usual array of wall coverings (maps and the like), books & things stacked around, slightly scruffy chairs & tables, and computers too. It was an education for me seeing the different abilities of the students. Some real surprises across different ages, nationalities (there were Thai and Burmese students) and some disparities between children’s social, logic and academic skills, also their reading & writing compared to listening & speaking. I enjoyed planning the classes and then also having to think on the fly. It was tricky teaching with no mother tongue – just for instructions and so on, but obviously there were ways around. And it turns out discipline translates through tone and body language near perfectly :)

all things web

Baan San Fan’s website and reckoned it was pretty good but once I’d been at the home for a few days and spent some time with Sam & Gai I was really keen to make some improvements. Sam was open minded to this and gave me the log in details etc. I understood that the website had been set up by a previous volunteer (I think they still pay for the hosting too), it’s based on a CMS that I wasn’t familiar with but was easy enough to pick up. I didn’t make drastic changes, just rearranged & ‘uniformed’ the existing content, uploaded heaps more pictures, and added some new sections & content. I also tidied the back end – more for my own pernickity satisfaction :) I added a bunch of stuff about volunteering, about the projects around the home and how they’re working towards being self sustainable. Sam was pretty happy with what I’d done, mostly the photos I think. Actually, Sam was also really good online – he uses YouTube to find music for the weekend church services – and when I showed him how to upload the photos to the website he got it super fast. I was impressed.
So, it was good that I could stay in touch more than I’d anticipated, and good that I could work on something that I knew well and felt would make a difference to the home.

same same

Daily life at Baan San Fan taught me a lot about domestic, family life in general and that’s without the added features of rural lifestyle and the extensive number of children. I’ve mentioned elsewhere but one of the major adjustments I had to make was to the pace of life – to me things just happened slower. I mean, life was non stop but it wasn’t rat race. A lot of this is to do with the weather: in the middle of the day when it’s hot we didn’t do so much, and if it rained that changed the whole course of the day. And the day was dictated by the schedules of children, animals, motorbike repairs, markets and product orders. Gai consistently told me there was a routine around the home and that was true but the times were very fluid. Meal times, bed times even school bus times shifted on a daily basis. No drama, everyone who needed to clearly understood what was happening but for me it was a bit bonkers and tricky to know where to fit in. You know what was wierd too – someone else being in charge, telling me when we’d eat, go out etc.
All the above made me realise – and it wasn’t exactly a surprise – what a self-centred existence I lead. My day to day life and decisions don’t take into account or affect anyone to this extent. I particularly realised this with sport. The children were fascinated by the sport I did/ could do. I think that’s because they’re not familiar with other adults who do sport. And why would Sam or Gai go for a run, practise yoga, have a swim? From their perspective what purpose would that serve in their lives? The other area I really notice this was to do with working on the internet. Although Sam & Gai said they understood, it seemed clear to me that non-tangible, non-visible work makes less sense to them, and the children. How do you explain the value of website development, marketing and communicating with business partners compared to building a chicken shed..? Not just that, working on the computer, in the office was a solitary task. I sat in there for eight or nine hours some days. That’s fine by me, I had my iPhone, I went to get coffee from the kitchen, and obviously I’m used to that lifestyle. Whereas Sam & Gai tend to do everything together. Whatever the task they’re both present, they both contribute. Can you imagine that? Doing almost everything with your spouse… work, meals, errands, evenings, everything? Do you know anyone that lives that way? And without a holiday..! In my time at Baan San Fan I only heard Sam & Gai exchange some cross words a few times, I’ve never seen a partnership like it, it was very impressive. However, this approach of just being there for tasks was a bit bonkers for me – I find it hard just hanging about and, well, I thought it was inefficient. And for sure there are ways that things are done at the home that to me seemed really inefficient. Why, why must we go to Takua Pa to the shops every day?? Please, I beg you, make a list and let’s go twice a week! No doubt there were very reasonable explanations for things but my single, city girl logic couldn’t work it out.

thank you

All in, it was an incredible experience. Different in some ways to how I had anticipated, more rewarding in other ways, I learnt A LOT. I hope to stay in touch with almost everyone I met in the two weeks I was at Baan San Fan, as much for the work that I think we could do together as the friendships and familial ties that I made. My thanks, love and admiration go to Sam & Gai for their considerable hospitality and warmth. And my love, hugs, hopes for the future and Slinky-ness :) go to all the children: Kluy, Da, Mai, Mai, June, Sun, Mork, Fa, Jin, Bew, Nat, Piy, Rung, Jack.
Thank you also to friends and family who stayed in touch while I was there, your comments, texts and contact were supporting & encouraging, and really did make a different to me. Thank you.


visit to Baan Nam Khem beach

other posts on Baan San Fan

Boxing Day, Baan San Fan
Christmas Day, Baan San Fan
Christmas Eve, Baan San Fan
“Pi Lucy”
down to business.. Baan San Fan
Christmas preparations Baan San Fan
first 24 hours at Baan San Fan
toys, books and fun stuff to take to the orphanage
Volunteering at Baan San Fan Orphanage


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  • Michelle said:

    Yee-ha! Sounds amazing. Think the photo of the two little girls on the back of the van is brilliant – definitely one for the wall!


  • Cat said:

    Brill….a fantastic read as ever, and a great summary of a very worthwhile two weeks..in more ways than one! Just loved reading all the different angles of your time there…Those kids look cute as, and they seem to like their new ‘big sister’ too :-)
    Well done honey. Can’t wait to hear more about it in person.
    Enjoy the last leg of your trip.
    Stay safe.
    Love you lots

  • lucyjjames » Blog Archive » Christmas Day, Baan San Fan said:

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    […] Volunteering at Baan San Fan, Bang Wan, Thailand Boxing Day, Baan San Fan Christmas Day, Baan San Fan Christmas Eve, Baan San Fan “Pi Lucy” down to business.. Baan San Fan […]

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  • lucyjjames » Blog Archive » Opinion: “Way To Go”, Voyeur said:

    […] days or three months. I feel really strongly about this. In the short space of time that I was at Baan San Fan I was able to achieve a great deal of change, more than I would ever have predicted – and I […]

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