February – May 2016
With the Volunteer visa for Thailand in my hot little hand, it was time to escape the UK and head for warmer Southern Thailand climes!
The mad dash driving Reg from Italy, out of the European Schengen zone and back to the UK in 9 days, was finally over. So too was the awful treatment I received from the Immigration Officer (Border Force) in Portsmouth…or so I thought.
- Regardless of whether you are considering volunteering in Thailand using a paid agency or for free, you need a visa. So as the Royal Thai Embassy in Wales is an easier drive from Somerset than hectic London, applied at this embassy.
- In addition to the application’s required (emailed) documentation, you need to submit the letter of invitation from the organisation for which you are volunteering.
- The Embassy contacts you following confirmation of your documentation.
- You take your passport in and the visa is applied to a page. Note that your passport must have no less than 6 months left, on entry to Thailand.
- At the time of applying, the single-entry visa for 3 months cost £50 and was granted in about a week from Cardiff.
Having volunteered with the same organisation in 2014, we decided to return to the Foundation for Education and Development (FED) again. We knew this organisation is working hard to advocate for Burmese migrants in Thailand and especially: “FED provides a safe and equitable environment for underprivileged workers, whilst promoting education and development opportunities for children and adults.”
Contact Mark Del Greco (Development Director) for more details should you wish to volunteer.
Leaving the UK
Finally, the day arrived and a 5 am start was in order as the National Express bus leaves Street for Heathrow at 6:50 am on a Sunday morning (£17 one-way). Only one bus per day from Street.
As the bus takes about 4 hours (3 hours Express) and the flight isn’t until 8pm, it’s a long 9-hour wait. Leaving the UK at zero degrees with a weather forecast of miserable and a very cold snap ahead, I can’t wait to arrive in Thailand!
If you have a long wait at Heathrow, bring as much food and drink as you can, otherwise you’ll need a small mortgage just for a biscuit. Ate our care package too quickly during the long wait, so forced to buy coffees and a couple of sandwiches before the flight.
The Etihad Experience
Etihad’s check-in was a breeze and the plane is on time so impressed so far; unlike my Cathay experience last year flying to Australia.
Boarded the plane and settled into the seat for the 7-hour flight to Dubai. Food on the plane is pretty good, you won’t go hungry. Staff are excellent and I can see why Etihad won Airline of the Year in 2015 – well-deserved! Great selection of onboard latest movies. My only gripe is that the seats are a tad small. Not quite as small as Cathay, but not much bigger.
With a change and wait of 1.5 hours at Dubai before boarding a larger plane, a painless and hassle-free exercise; only 6 more hours to Phuket.
Arriving in Phuket
Arrived in Phuket ahead of schedule but the Immigration process took over an hour; officers were working at a snail’s pace or too many planes landed at once. So slow was the queue that all luggage was off the carousel and placed on the floor by the time we were out!
Remembering the Humidity
Walked out of the airport and straight into a sultry thick wall of humidity.
Just missed the small 7:30 pm airport shuttle bus as it was too full, so had a wait of an hour for the next one. For the cost of 100B (Baht), this is the cheapest way to get from the airport to the Phuket Town bus station. A Taxi charges a minimum of 1,200B.
As we knew the location of the favourite hotel The Tint in Phuket Town (about 1.5kms from the bus station), had the bus driver stop along the way; didn’t fancy walking the distance from the station to the hotel with full packs on our backs.
Finally arrived after 10:00 pm to the friendly hotel staff and found our room – just as good as the stay 14 months’ ago. A couple of the ladies even remembered us – impressive! I highly recommend this hotel.
From Phuket Town to Khao Lak
As the FED office is in Khuk Khak, decided on accommodation in Khao Lak, which is about 3 kms from Khuk Khak. Have just under a week to get permanent accommodation and a bike sorted, before starting the volunteering assignment and being thrown back into early morning 9 am starts!
After good-byes at the hotel, walked our packs in sweltering humidity the 1.5kms to the bus station, for the 2-hour local bus (90B) trip to Khao Lak. A painless exercise and guess this is because of familiarity with this whole area.
Finally arrived at the next temporary accommodation: To Zleep Hotel. Lovely staff but rooms are on the small side for Thailand. Still, an ensuite is provided, a small fridge, and bottled water. Pillows are hard. Not much space for big packs and think this is a Flashpacker’s dig.
Found out on the second night that a buffet breakfast was included in the room price. Breakfast the next morning was good and plentiful.
Setting up in Khao Lak for the 3-month stay
Hired a bike today (225B/day) as it’s cheaper than using the Songthaews in Khao Lak. Because of the Cartel, tourists are ripped off handsomely. For the 3-month hire, I bartered the price down to 120B/day – bargain! This office has about 50 bikes for hire. Although only a 110cc, it’s big enough for travel to/from work in Khuk Khak.
Visited the Fanari Resort Hotel, which we stayed in last time but in low season. As it’s high season and too expensive, the hotel offered their cheaper Fanari Apartments down the road for 600B/night, usually 800B (about AUD$23/night).
The apartment is a little down the road from the resort so away from the hustle and bustle of the main streets.
Quite spacious and serviced daily; with a large bathroom, fridge, air-conditioning, and parking, it suits perfectly. I even requested an electric jug for making coffee/tea, which was delivered the day after moving in. Thereafter, we also received an extra bottle of water, tea, coffee, whitener, and sugar.
Used the bike to do several trips shifting our heavy packs here from the To Zleep Hotel and settled in for the 3 months.
There’s a little restaurant with a couple of washing machines (20B per load) only a stone’s throw from the apartment and closer to the one used on our last stay. So, don’t even have to depend on the ladies charging 60B/kg for washing.
Khao Lak and Bang Niang revisited
I have to say, after 13 months away from SE Asia, it was great to be back! Where did that time go? Time melts rapidly into the past, but some things never change…
It’s also great to be back in the warmth after over a year of experiencing European winters…I’ve come to the conclusion that my body isn’t built for freezing cold weather. Although I love the magic of snow, I couldn’t live in a snow-laden country.
Many changes are happening in Khao Lak and Bang Niang.
The explosion of new buildings is everywhere and very noticeable. Guess it’s high season now and much more is open since last visiting here in low season – much prefer the low season.
Volunteering with FED
Volunteering again with FED is great albeit extremely busy. It’s rewarding to know that everything we do helps in some way or another – FED is always looking for volunteers, so what are you waiting for?
This is one organisation that doesn’t charge you for volunteering and hope it won’t in the future. Understandably, you will have to pay your way for everything. The standard working week is a 9 am-5 pm, Monday-Friday, so thrown right back into work after 13 months…
For those of you that may be thinking of volunteering with FED, there are many of your skills that can help. Everything from teaching English to the Burmese migrant children, writing skills for Reports, teaching IT skills to staff, office procedures, Project Management, Financials, and basically everything.
This time we worked mainly on a new Social Enterprise venture, which was in its infancy when we arrived. The ideas needed further brainstorming and documenting into a Business Plan to submit to Donors for funding.
Many weeks saw us also working some hours on a Saturday. However, knowing this was helping the establishment of a new cafe venture and training of disadvantaged migrant Burmese students, so as to offer students further opportunities, made Saturday work a pleasure.
Other tasks included researching a suitable cafe and training facility premise, developing a Training Curriculum, and designing the cafe’s layout. After settling on a premise, the working out of building materials and cafe equipment was also required.
In addition to the cafe tasks and Neil’s Mine Risk Education Training (MRE), we were responsible for designing, writing and co-ordinating the Annual Report to its published state, which is delivered to all Donors. I would be lying if I said there was any free time during the 3 months of working at FED!
Time disappeared much too quickly and it’s a shame that we didn’t get to experience the implementation of the Social Venture cafe as we were involved in the groundwork, which helped to gain funding. The building/renovation of the café would be both challenging and rewarding to say the least. I’m sure Mark is more than competent to handle this piece of work!
The cafe’s opening deadline is for November 2016, which in Thailand’s sea of Red Tape and bureaucracy, almost impossible to achieve.
2017 Social Venture update: You can still head to Khao Lak and help Mark with the cafe as there is still much to be done before open day.
Escaping work for some R&R
Even though life is busy as a volunteer, there is always time for exploring the surrounding region.
Quick jaunts to Phuket are easy from Bang Niang; a trip to Koh Phayam Island to escape Songkran; Koh Kho Khao Island; Water Park 360°; Bang Sak Beach; many trips to Takua Pa and White Sands Beach; and generally socialising with friends and work colleagues, filled any spare time during the 3 months. Read about all these escapades in this connecting post: Around Southern Thailand whilst volunteering.
Everyone knows that eating in Thailand is ridiculously cheap and delicious; and a gastronomic delight to say the least. These suggestions are but a mere few delectations, during the 3 months of grazing!
- Go Pong (10/1 Moo 7, Khuk Khak Subdistrict) – The food is still good but noticeably smaller portions for similar prices, and much busier with foreigners.
- The Duo Café (28/10 Moo7, Nang Thong) – Still a favourite haunt with the same owner and 2 staff members; think they remembered us! I may sound surprised but those of you that have spent a considerable amount of time in Thailand will understand. For those of you that haven’t, sometimes it can be like “Ground Hog Day” with locals Taxi drivers and Taylor shops – I guess we all look alike. Enough said and onto more restaurants…it’s beginning to shape out as a food blog, which isn’t the intent, although food is paramount when in Thailand.
- The Boat (68/10 Moo 5, Bang Niang) – A regular Saturday Brunch/Lunch (never up in time on weekends for breakfast) haunt offering good service (hard to find in Thailand or at least in this area). Good food in lovely comfortable surrounds and free wi-fi.
- Pinocchio’s (Main road, Bang Niang) – Still the favourite Italian restaurant in Khao Lak. Ramone (owner) goes out of his way with customer service and quality of food.
- The Bakery (Nang Thong) – Prices increased since last visit but this establishment is always busy with foreigners and not locals – guess it’s the price. The food was a little bland this time so ate in Bang Niang mostly.
- Mr Dick’s (Down from and opposite side of Marriott Resort Hotel, Khuk Khak) – Good local food and prices, expect to wait for your meal as there is only one chef (owner) with one wok. The food is definitely worth the wait. The best part of this restaurant is the huge wooden penis sculpture (hence our name) at the front of the restaurant before you walk in – obviously a fertility symbol! You have to stroke the sculpture on entry or exiting…so we were told!
- Tarn Restaurant (Opposite side of the Day Markets) – This place obviously caters for tourists as the meals were tasteless and over-priced. Service was also poor.
- Mr Aek (Between Bang Niang and Khao Lak on the highway) – The food is cheap, authentic, and very scrumptious. Well-worth the hunt for this local restaurant. Don’t expect airs and graces here as the plates of food get thrown onto your table, literally!
- Gecko Bar (Bang Niang Beach) – Great friendly Thai owners (Black and Lin) and cool service – drinks are reasonably priced; this late night bar closes when the party is over. There are loads of games you can play here whilst taking in copious amounts of refreshments.
- Aun Aun’s – Scrumptious local food at cheaper than market prices. Everything is made fresh and the banana shakes are large, thick, and to die for!
- Oliang (On the highway between Bang Niang and Khao Lak) – You will find the best ice-cream here and at reasonable prices. Share the gigantic cocktails (99B) with your travel friends or try one of the delicious cakes to accompany your ice-cream. Local meals are available at good prices but beware, these are authentic and spicy.
- Seven Salad (Between Bang Niang and Khao Lak) – Only just opened a month with walls still having sign writing finished. This Swedish/local-run light and airy restaurant serves local and western meals, scrumptious and very fresh salads at reasonable prices. The bread is amazing!
- The Mango (Khao Lak Forest Resort) – If you feel like splashing out on some lush accommodation in a sumptuously-designed resort, then this is the place for you! I only tried The Mango restaurant here, which was cheap and great for local food. The fruit shakes are amazing!
- Seven (On almost every corner) – Not much change since 2014 and always a good place to stock up on basic essentials. Try to get there before the Chinese tourist buses that stop here; it’s like a plague of locusts sweeping in and devouring everything – nothing left after they’ve been!
- Night Markets (Bang Niang on Mon/Wed/Sat) – Apart from the touristy stalls selling the usual clothes, souvenirs, snacks, this time around the the food stalls were disappointing and selling all the same fast-food stuff as each other. Basically, everything is on show then you select what you want and this get’s re-heated while you wait. Only ate once here as the little stall that used to make the best noodles changed over to greasy fast-food (same cook and owners).
- Day Markets (Between Bang Niang and Khuk Kak) – open day and night, 7 days per week although stalls have differing hours. A little side-street local restaurant became our usual lunchtime haunt as the food is excellent value and food – reminds me of the great authentic Thai food I used to eat 20 years ago. And not the western-adapted, semi-tasting Thai meals dished up these days. Staff are very friendly and meals range from 40-100B.
Sadly, it is time to leave Thailand again as the 3-month visa for volunteering is up, so heading back to the UK for a brief visit.
Htoo Chit (FED’s Director) prepared a wonderful Farewell luncheon feast with lovely gifts, speeches, and accolades; very kind indeed. I even received a beautiful handmade traditional Burmese Longyi, which I’m wearing on this post’s thumbnail.
It was great to catch up with people we’d met back in 2014, but also to meet new comers to the organisation. I will particularly miss Mark and Mya Lay (aka ‘Hangry’) and can’t thank both enough for the hospitality and their ever-enduring help – extremely kind! I only hope that on finally returning to Australia, we can pay back the wonderful hospitality during a visit from both, if possible.
With a lift from Khao Lak to Phuket International Airport, just waiting for the Emirates flight back to the UK. Next travel chapter? Drive to Italy to start the Citizenship process…wish me luck!