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Mind the Gap

In deepest Thailand Neil Sowerby mixes work and pleasure

Written by . Published on July 6th 2011.

Mind the Gap

Me On Board An Elephant In The RainElephant back in the rainFewer students will be going on a gap year adventure thanks to the scramble to get a university place before fees treble in 2012. Which might mean missing out on a valuable experience, as travel editor Neil Sowerby discovers in deepest Thailand

WE just beat the cut. Another few days and the ochre mud track up to the Nun’s School will be impassible. The Real Gap Experience volunteers will be gone and for four months of summer monsoon the bulk of the 70 small children there will be marooned.

Some will go back to their subsistence farmer parents; others, orphans and the displaced, will remain. Still they are the lucky ones in a remote border area where human trafficking is rife.

The Buddhist nun come headmistress, Pimjai Maneerat, and her small team will strive to keep them properly fed, clothed and amused. A newly arrived bundle of illustrated textbooks is to help their basic education. The insect-thronged, humid nights, though, will be a particular ordeal.

Even before the last lap of our six hour journey from Bangkok, the rains were kicking in. Our powerful people carrier couldn’t make it up a steep tarmac trunk road and our party had to get out and puff behind with our bags for half a mile until the empty vehicle hit a flat stretch.

Grace At The Nun's HouseGrace At The Nun's HouseThe monsoon is all-powerful in these jungle highlands close to the Burmese border. Below on the central plains the rain is the bringer of rice harvests – staple of the Thai diet and essential for the export economy. The farmers hold rain ceremonies to ensure its annual return.

The day after our arrival in Sangklaburi, wading along a stream, wary of possible snakes and leeches in the muddy swell, I wished they had held off for a while. This wasn’t quite the jungle trek I had imagined. But it was harder-going on the subsiding hillside track.

It had been so much easier earlier on elephant back. The hulking beasts adore tramping the riverbed, even if the one I was perched precariously on (with an experienced handler, mind) shied and trumpeted when a party of monks in a speedboat swished past.

Such treks and other outdoor adventures are an essential part of a Real Gap Experience stay in Thailand, designed for youngsters taking time off before university.

A standard trip will last a month and the itinerary will also include sight-seeing in the capital, Bangkok, a stop-off in Kanchanaburi, to see the bridge over the River Kwai and the memorials to the World War II Death Railway, and a chance to understand the culture of indigenous tribes such as the Karen and the Mon. The Mon Bridge which connects their community to Sangklaburi town, is the second largest wooden bridge in the world and dizzying in its towering compass.

The NunThe NunBut it’s the chance to get outside the privileged student comfort zone and lend a hand in local volunteer projects that is the draw for most of the young folk signing up with Real Gap. Cynics would say it looks good on the CV (gap years spent on the beach don’t impress potential employers or colleges), but it was hard not to be moved watching the teenagers interacting with the kids at the Nun’s School.

The “getting your hands dirty” side of volunteering was shown at a project directly funded by Real Gap and still in its early stages. The Dream House, at Ban Mai outside Sangklaburi, shelters 35 abandoned Burmese Children. Its facilities are as yet rudimentary, but the dream is being made reality. The current batch of volunteers were digging trenches for latrines as we arrived. Supervised building work goes hand in hand with child care.

And these children need care. Real Gap’s director of volunteers Mark Foster introduced me to a bright-eyed toddler joining in the games in the big main hut: “She was found alone in August on a road near the Burmese border. Traumatised, shaven-headed, no one knows her story. We don’t even know her age.”

Personable Mark and his co-organiser in the field, A J Kingsley, a rangy American from Wisconsin, drive the projects. Idealistic but practical, they know their efforts are just a drop in the ocean. It’s about making a change, both in the living conditions of those they help and the mindset of those who come to help them.

A volunteer sees other aspects of Thai life, too. You get to hang out at Bangkok’s backpacker epicentre Khaosan Road or visit the great temples, the Reclining Buddha and Grand Palace complex. I’d recommend a a backwater canal trip that reveals the old Bangkok behind the tumultuous modern city. The street food, too, is a revelation after some of the stock Thai stuff that’s now a High Street staple in the UK.

Put Your Back Into ItPut Your Back Into ItKanchanaburi, 90 minutes north of Bangkok but a world away set among rolling limestone hills, trades heavily on its association with the Death Railway and the living hell of the Allied POWs who worked to build it. The town’s War Cemetery contains the graves of 7,000 British and Australian prisoners, 2,000 more in the nearby Chongkai plot.

Photo opportunities abound at Kwai Bridge, immortalised by the 1957 David Lean movie (which was filmed in Sri Lanka). It isn’t the original. The first was a wooden one was  replaced in 1943 by an iron one. Then this was repeatedly taken out of action by the US Army Airforce as the war swung against the Japanese. The middle section was rebuilt later as part of Japanese war reparations.

Real Gap At The BridgeReal Gap At The BridgeRespect seemed to be lacking at dusk as we were tugged underneath its arches on one of the town’s floating restaurants, while Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling blasted out. But after confronting the harsh realties of life nowadays and in the nightmare past of this region, it was time for the volunteers to chill.

Respect will definitely be shown in Part 2 of my report on Thailand, when I’ll visit Hellfire Pass and the Museum that brings to poignant life the horror and amazing courage surrounding the building of the notorious Burmese Railway...

Also don’t miss Neil Sowerby’s great guide to what to experience in the Thai capital: www.planetconfidential.co.uk/Abroad/10-things-to-do-in-Bangkok.


Fact file

Real Gap’s Thai Experience costs from £999, land only for four weeks, including accommodation (hotel/guest houses), all breakfasts, airport transfer and tour of Bangkok and Kanchanaburi.  For more information visit www.realgap.co.uk or call 01892 701890.

Gap Year For Grown Ups offers similar specially designed itineraries for the over 30s, very similar to that of Real Gap’s Thailand Experience, but on a shorter timescale. The Thailand Explorer is a whirlwind two week tour, providing the the opportunity to explore Bangkok, work Thai language skills, help to teach and care for underprivileged youngsters and relax on the island of Ko Lanta. Price starts from £999 land only,  including accommodation, tour of Bangkok and 24-hour support. For more information visit www.gapyearforgrownups.co.uk or call 01892 701 881

Thai Airways flies daily to Bangkok from £598 per person (inclusive and subject to change) for return economy. It also has a good-value internal Domestic Discover Thailand Airpass (valid for three months from date of issue) costing US$278 for 3-internal flight coupons with additional coupons available at US$92 each.  Further information: 0844 561 0911; www.thaiairways.co.uk  or e-mail reservations@thaiairways.co.uk
Frommer’s Thailand Guide provides a practical guide to learning about and discovering Thailand. Price from £16.99.


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