Wat Doi Saket project – Reflections on a week of volunteering

Although I only spent a single week teaching conversational English at the Papong school and living at Wat Doi Saket, I feel as though it was an experience densely packed with memorable moments.  Teaching English (even for a relatively short time) provided me with many memorable insights into the nature of Thai public education.  More than anything, I found myself consistently amazed by the seeming incongruity between the chaos that seemed to reign at the macrocosmic level of the school as a whole – with students running around wildly outside and class times shifting fluidly for no apparent reason – and the sense of calm serenity that dominated the classroom while I was actually teaching.  The students were very sweet and eager to chat with me about my life in Thailand.  Moreover, they generally exuded a fun-loving nature that was very endearing.  In addition to the various in-class experiences, I found it very gratifying to sit around and chat with the various other teachers during lunch and other “down times.”  The general ambiance throughout my entire week at the school was extraordinarily welcoming, and I had a great time teaching there.

In addition to my actual teaching responsibilities, I also found spending the week living at the Wat (temple) to be extremely interesting.  As an academic scholar of Buddhism, I sometimes find that my “book knowledge” of the Buddhist tradition outstrips my “experiential knowledge” of the culturally specific ways in which Buddhism is actually practiced in a country like Thailand.  Spending time residing at a temple is therefore very grounding.  For example, my stay at Wat Doi Saket happened to coincide with the annual Loi Kratong celebrations in the Chiang Mai area.  It was fascinating to be in a position to witness the preparations for the festival and chat with the monks, novices, and laypeople about what was going to happen, and then actually be there on the day of the actual festivities to see everything come together.  Furthermore, the fact that it was generally known that I was living at the temple for the week seemed to contribute to a general sense of comfort and belonging.  Rather than forever being trapped in the role of an outside observer, at times I began to experience a taste of what it feels like to be an actual participant in the goings on.  Past experience has taught me that opportunities such as that are very rare.

Jordan Johnson, November 2011

PHD candidate

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