Back in September last year, I was wondering whether there was place for me to do social work in Thailand. There were many places to volunteer here in Thailand indeed: orphanage house, elephant village, English class for kids, etc. Some of those they put in the websites were designed for farang (foreigner) who wanted to do social work in this country and they have to pay for that. The money would go to pay their accommodations and arrangements during the volunteering period and of course to the foundation they would volunteer at. To do some volunteer work in Surin province to take care Thai elephants, for example, you have to pay something like USD 300. pretty expy! In this volunteering trip I was preparing, I would travel to a place somewhere up to 6 hours from Bangkok and volunteer with my hands and effort rather than money.
After quite sometimes filtering those info, I decided to be interested to this organization called Dragonfly. Like other social organizations on the web, they also put innocent children faces on their homepage. However, that’s not the thing that made me wanted to volunteer with them. The organization was involved in some projects related to teaching (English), building facilities for rural community, wildlife project, and orphanage projects. And I was especially interested in their mud-house building project in Khon Kaen orphanage house. So I contacted Dan Lockwood, the Canadian who run the building project, asked him things I wanted to know, and packed my carrier.
I took Friday night bus trip to Khon Kaen city (as capital of the provice with the same name), about 6-7 hours from Bangkok, right after my office hours was finished that day. It is one of north-eastern provinces known as Isaan or Isan or Esarn). If you read my posting about Khao Yai, I met a famous Thai boxing athlete in the bus in the way to Khao Yai called Suban Panon. He comes from this city of Khon Kaen.
Early in the next morning, the bus arrived in Khon Kaen. With eyes half opened, my mind suffered from less sleep as the bus driver played some Thai slapstick comedy DVD with super annoying sound volume, all night long! People seemed enjoyed it though. Later, with other similar experiences, I knew that that’s one of Thai’s habits which I could then anticipate with tissue as earplugs.
I spent sometimes at the bus station waited for Dan who, at the same time as my tri, also traveled to this city from another neighboring city of Nakhon Ratchasima. I washed for wudhu and found a quiet corner to pray. Absolutely, there was no hong-lamard (musholla) in the station. Disregarding these Isaan Buddhists and monks who walked around in the morning to bless people and get food from them as the exchange around me, I took no time to think what they were thinking of me doing the strange moves of prayer. I thought they should have seen their Muslim folks somewhere in Bangkok praying.
Had finished my prayer, I took a walk a bit, took some pictures of bus station’s surrounding in that peaceful morning with beautiful splash of golden ray from the east. I learned that this city had about 145,000 residents, a small city. In a glance, even the main road was not that many people, unlike the Thailand capital I was living in. It was really good to get out from the routine swarms of people in Bangkok and got into much more peaceful city like this, which was well known for its silk industry and as an agricultural hub, later I learned.
About 7.30, my phone rang and Dan was on the line. He said he was approaching the bus station and would be arrived in no time. Great! In ten minutes or so, I saw a farang and thought that would be him. And yes he was. With Dan, there was a Chilean girl who was introduced as Sophia, a something like shoes designer who travelled backpacking on her own to Thailand. Volunteering at Dragonfly was in her agenda.
After a short chat, Dan, who spoke Thai very well, told us that the man (I unfortunately forgot the name) in charge in running Baan Luk Raak Foundation had arrived to pick us up. O ya, I forget to tell that Dragonfly was currently had a project to build a mud-building purposed to be a library at an orphanage house called Baan Luuk Rak Foundation (Baan Luuk Rak literally means House of Beloved Children). And I was more than ready to put dirt on my hands to build it into reality.
He, then man in charge of the foundation, was a nice person and spoke English fairly well. He drove us through the city for fifteen minutes, in his old big car. Arriving at the gate of the foundation, I noticed an unfinished brown walled building somewhere in the quite vast yard of the orphanage house. That was the mud house we were about to work on. When I read Three Cups of Tea months later, David Oliver Relin wrote that houses at Korphe – a remote village at Karakoram valley, Pakistan, where Greg Mortenson was saved when we was getting lost – were also made of mud. But I guessed this one in Khon Kaen was way better than those at Korphe.
As we passed the gate, I swept the compound with my eyes and estimated that the area was about 1 hectare, completed with class building, dormitory for the kids and staff, hall, office, kitchen and dining building, a football and basketball field. It was a good place to stay and play for the kids, I thought.
There we met with another volunteers: A Japanese, an American, and a Netherlander. To put story short, I expected to start my mission on the building which was actually around 60-70% finished. Dan gave us a brief explanation of the history of the building and how it was made initially. He explained, Dragonfly Community Foundation (DCF) was committed to promoting the use of sustainable and low-energy building methods and materials in Thailand – luckily these are also some of the cheapest methods! Thus far, DCF projects have focused on adobe (mud brick) constructions using locally sourced materials with low embodied energy as much as possible to replace more common concrete and steel.
See more pictures here Mud Building – Khon Kaen City (photo Gallery)
I observed that small mud building. It was about thirty something square meters and interesting. It was interesting because I’d never seen building like this before. It was built by putting the wooden stances, and then they (the previous volunteer builders) put the mud brick they made themselves, and then they covered the brick with, also, mud. So mud was everything and essentially replaced the common brick and cement to glue and cover the brick. The structure of the roof was a common wooden structure with common roofing. Small portion of bamboo was also used in the upper wall, right under the roof, which, interestingly would be covered with the mixture of paddy straw and mud.
The walls were ornamented with crafts of features like flowers, sun, cow, a boy in a ‘wai’ (typical Thai greeting) posture, etc. Some of the interior furniture like shelves and benches were built as an integral part of the wall. All – the walls, the ornaments, the furniture – were initially made of slurry mud. After the wall and everything took shapes and dried, they then were smoothed with a piece of straight wood. Later when the smoothing had finished, the naked surface would be painted with special mixture of mud and adhesives and the final product looked natural.
I spent day one mainly working on the upper wall. I cut some bamboo trees on the back yard and made frame from them. This would be the bones of the upper wall before covered with ‘special material’ of straw-mud mixture. I also did some dusty smoothing of walls. Some children took part on the jobs. One of them, around 8, was good in tools like machete and hammer. I was impressed by this young boy. Anyway, the bamboo cutting work reminded me of my childhood when I made most of my own toys from bamboo (my favorite was homemade kite) with my own hands helped by a sharp knife.
Day one ran fast when I realized that the sun had set. It was not that much works I expected, but no light meant no work and we got to continue tomorrow. After we cleaned up our messy looks and took shower, we then had dinner on the specially designed diner hall. Well, it was an open room without walls but the kitchen – as part of the building – was an closed room. This was where all the children and the staffs of Baan Luuk Rak had their daily meals together.
Kids were sitting on the ceramic floor ready with their food on the uniform plates when we arrived there. We scooped our rice and soup, took some oranges, and joined them on the floor. The children’s age were various among 4 to 15, I thought. And when they had dinner together like this, there were so many chants, laughter, talks, and even tears from some babies whose food were stolen by their older friends.
Foods were great. That night – I did not know whether it was because they had us as guests – they served pla pao (grilled fresh water fish covered in salt crust) for us. This had been my favorite during my stay in Thailand. And they also served vegetable soup with Isan style. The dinner was finished and it was time for us to take a walk a bit outside the fence of the foundation yard. We bought some drink and snacks, had a little chat on the yard (Dan taught us some Thai words), and went to bed for the next day mission.
The next morning, I got up, prayed, and took a chance to enjoy the quiet and a bit foggy morning. Then I saw some little boys played basketball on the field. This was a chance for me to mingle with them more. I hardly communicated with them as I couldn’t speak Thai and they didn’t speak any language I knew. But as we were all know, sport was a universal language, and they were seemed so happy I joined them playing.
When more kids also joined, many of them girls, and they got bored with the ‘throw ball to the ring’ game, they started to kick the ball, the basket ball. Well, I welcome the gesture and started to juggle the ball to impress them. Not long, we made two teams: 5 players in my team, and 7 players in my opponent, and we started to play football, foot-basketball to be exact. Wow! The girls played frantically but they were as good as the boys.
Fifteen minutes later, the game was over. Everybody was exhausted and nobody won. It was even. They seemed happy. Maybe it was because there was an adult who was willing to spend some time with them and gave them some attention. These kids were away from their family, so their family were their friends, the foundation staffs, and volunteers like us.
After taking a break a moment and breakfast, we started to work on the mud house again. Today, Dan explained to us how to make paint for the mud walls. We made the mixture under Dan’s guidance involving hot water, waited for it until it was cold, and applied it on the wall. The color of the paint was muddy color and so it looked natural and would give endurance to the surface of the wall. It was fascinating stuff.
In the middle of day 2, there was a bunch of senior high school students arrived to the orphanage house. They came to do some charity work and Dan took to time to ask them to work on the mud house too. So as they were new and I was by the time ‘quite experienced’ in working on mud house (1 day experience was better than 0 day), I gave them direction to continue to work on the upper walls I had left before. I told them how to make the material and apply it to make the straw-mud wall. They followed it successfully.
I kept working until afternoon (it was Sunday) and it was time for me to say goodbye. I wished I could stay longer playing with the mud and the kids, but I got to go back to my desk and computer tomorrow morning, which was 7 hours away from here. I packed my stuff, took some pictures of my final moment with those kids, and said good bye.
Dan took me to the bus station. He and other volunteers would stay in the house longer to make progress on the future mud library. I closed my eyes in way back home that night and thought what a nice experience and fulfilling moments I had the last two days. I hoped the best for the kids and the mud building in Baan Luuk Rak.
See more pictures here Mud Building – Khon Kaen City (photo Gallery)