By Ewan MacDougal
In 2006-07, I volunteered for a year teaching English in a school in rural Northern Thailand. When I first decided to go to Thailand, the idea that I would be helping to lead a Scout camp there never crossed my mind.
It’s four years later now, and I’ve just taken a job working with a luxury holiday company that does tours to Thailand. One of the things they’ve asked me to do is start a blog of my Thailand memories to help promote the tours. Of course, their tours don’t include Scout camps. I came across my diary entry about the Scout trip, which was one of the most amazing things I did in Thailand.
Every student at every school I have worked at in Thailand has at one point or another been either a boy scout or a girl guide. The life skills that scouts promote are recognised as being so important to most Thai schools that all pupils are enrolled. Most schools take it seriously, in fact at the school where I was teaching, one day a week every pupil in certain year groups as well as many of the teachers are asked to come to school wearing the scout uniform. Thai people love uniforms; virtually everyone comes in their uniforms on these days, all very neatly cleaned and ironed.
The high point of the scouting tradition is the annual camping trip. I love hiking and camping, and when I was younger I was in a organisation similar to the scouts. Some of the staff at my school heard about this, and the year I was working in Thailand I was asked to be one of the leaders for the trip. My general traveling rule is to say “YES” to everything, and so that is what I did.
Early in the morning, the school gathered on the field fully kitted out: the boys with maroon berets complimenting there khaki shirts and shorts the girls looking the part in green dresses with the iconic scout scarves around their necks. In their hands, they clutched wooden sticks that forked at the top, something that was explained to me as “the weapon of a scout”. A few of the boys had taken the weapon part literally and turned their sticks into elongated catapults! Equipped with a sleeping bag, torch, and penknife all strapped to my back, I looked out over the crowed of khaki children all standing to attention as the 7 KM route was explained to them.
The walk was largely known to me. I’d explored quite a lot of the local area, but the final jungle campsite where we would be staying was somewhere I had never been. Upon arrival, the students set straight to finding wood to build their shelters, whilst the staff members who were taking the easy option of setting up shop-bought tents began to prepare a staff dinner. The other English teacher and I were volunteered to help prepare the meal. I think the Thai teachers envisioned this as a big joke. To them, the idea that a pair of 18-year-old boys might cook seemed an alien concept, but I actually quite enjoy cooking and was keen to see what Thai camp food would be like.
The staff had brought with them a lot of vegetables and meats. Everything was being prepared and then put into a big pot; my job was the very important one of chopping the onions, which it seemed was the most exciting task I would be trusted with. After getting through this, I decided to have a wander around camp and see what the scouts themselves were preparing.
All the students were required to build their own fires and prepare their own lunches. The camp was divided between the guides and the scouts, and it was interesting to see the culinary contrast between the two. The girl guides were all eager to show off their cookery skills, preparing elaborate and delicious traditional Thai dishes that certainly rivaled anything I’ve had from a restaurant. From home, they had brought with them elaborate blends of spices and vegetables. The smells coming from there pots were incredible. Vegetable soups and curries were being offered by everyone and all were extremely good.
Over on the boys’ side, a somewhat different approach to cooking was being taken. I certainly hadn’t noticed any live chickens on the hike into the camp, yet all over the boys’ camp this is exactly what was appearing. The boys seemed to value freshness rather than elaborate detail like the girls’ well seasoned dishes. In front of me the chickens were being killed, plucked and roasted over the camp fires. When it was done, the boys insisted I had a taste, and fresh meat certainly made for some of the best tasting chicken I’d ever had. All of the food certainly put the pasta and porridge sachets I normally bring camping to shame.
The students were all really excited that their English teacher was so interested in their cooking, but I’d soon had my fill of students cooking. It was time to go back to the staff camp and see how their meal was going. The school’s head scout was also the schools head of PE. He and all the other PE teachers were sitting around a table with plates of raw livers, kidneys and other unidentifiable meats I normally try and avoid, which is sometimes quite hard in rural Thailand where they’re very popular.
Even after a year, my Thai wasn’t particularly good, and that combined with my say “Yes” to everything travel philosophy landed me in some kind of manliness competition with the head of PE. We worked our way through the plates of meat, taking it in turns to eat pieces of the raw liver or kidney. My technique was to close my eyes, do my best to swallow it whole and imagine something different. I can’t say it was the best meal I’ve had in Thailand, but I’m still alive and I kept up with my opponent. In doing so I won a friend. For the rest of the year, I was treated as the head of PE’s adopted son. He started frequently taking me on outings with the rest of his family, which I’m sure you can imagine lead to a whole host of other adventures.
After lunch, the camping continued. There was a round robin of team-building games and challenges. The one I was supervising involved the scouts attempting to walk balanced on an empty oil drum, which obviously tried to roll in the opposite direction from them. In the end, they managed to pass this challenge by having their friends help steer the drum whilst the challenger just concentrated on balancing. There were also obstacle and ropes courses that some of the other scout leaders had built in the trees and a number of other challenges my Thai wasn’t good enough to understand.
In the evening, there was of course going to be a camp fire, and my new bond with the camp’s head scout meant that I was asked to lead the fire lighting ceremony, which is something I will never forget.
I of course said yes, without much understanding of what it involved. The other English teacher and I were then whisked away to the other side of the camp where none of the students could see. The scouts who were also taking part in the fire lighting ceremony were already there. I had no idea what was going on, but they all started stripping down to their underwear and indicated that I should do the same.
I complied, but then realised that the students were putting on grass skirts that they had been spending the whole afternoon making. I had no such skirt, and in the few minutes I had before the ceremony was to begin I only really had time to make something that came closer to an Adam and Eve style fig leaf than the skirts my counterparts had on. Next, the scouts started to use dye to paint tribal symbols on their bodies. Not sure quite what the symbols were, I decided it would be best to ask the scouts to help with mine. However, having eight scouts all simultaneously try and draw their symbols just left me covered in black paint.
Next came the scary part. We lined up, me at the front, and were all handed huge wooden sticks, two each with petrol soaked rags at the top. I could barley hold these sticks; the idea that they were going to be set on fire to make flaming torches was terrifying. How would I manage this without setting someone’s hair on fire? The torches were lit, and I looked to the scouts behind me to see what I had to do next, only to my amazement they were not just randomly selected scouts, they were all highly skilled fire breathers! They spun their torches in such skilful patterns there was no way I could come close to that. Instead I just waved my torches from side to side whispering to myself “please don’t set anybody’s hair on fire, please don’t set anybody’s hair on fire.”
We walked down to where the fire had been built; the whole camp had already assembled around it, waiting. Only I don’t think they’d expected to see the two English teachers leading the ceremony. The school where I worked was in a very small village, and they had never had foreign teachers before. Most had never even met foreigners from the western world, and as a result I was kind of a mini celebrity the year I was in Thailand. The scouts and girl guides saw us and a huge scream went up from everyone. Flashes from disposable cameras went off everywhere and people started to rush towards us.
I was sure this was it, I was sure this was the moment I was going to accidentally set someone’s hair on fire. Luckily, however, the camp settled down. I did a lap around the fire with the scouts behind me, impressing everyone with their elaborate dance, me waving my sticks awkwardly. We stopped when we got to director of the school. He said some Thai words I’m sure were meaningful but I didn’t understand, then wyes (a mini bowl), we bow lower then turn to the fire and push our sticks into it. The fire is lit.
By firelight, different people performed various stories and skits. During one story, I was asked to take part once again by the scout master. It was only when people started handing me shoes that I realised I was playing the handsome prince in Cinderella.
After the campfire entertainment had finished, most of the students were sent to bed. The only people left were myself, The PE teachers (of course), and the M4 students who had been deemed the worst behaved of the year. Their punishment was to stay up all night and guard the camp. I’m not sure how much of it was punishment, letting the misbehaved stay up late. I think it was more a case of keeping the students who were most likely to cause trouble in close sight.
In addition to keeping watch for wild animals, The M4 students’ duties were to cook for the staff, pork and chicken skewered with sticks and roasted on the camp fire like giant marshmallows. Cooking meat this way by my western health and safety standards made me a little concerned; I wasn’t sure my stomach could take much more punishment after the raw liver. I was wrong to be sceptical; the M4 chefs gave me what was undoubtedly the best BBQ pork I had ever had. Delicious!
I had a whole year of adventures in Thailand. If you want to read more about them, I’m slowly starting to put them on a blog for the multi centre holiday company I’m working with.