You Just Have to Keep on Smiling

For most travellers to Thailand a trip to the local prison is the last thing that they would want on their itinerary. In fact they would try to avoid it at costs. But while travelling in Thailand last year I bumped into an old friend who was teaching English as a volunteer in Chiang Mai Women’s prison.

Teaching model

Anna had been a model the last time I saw her, but she told me how volunteering had made her revaluate her life and see what was important. She told me that she and the other volunteers didn’t have much experience in teaching and lesson planning but the women always enjoyed their classes no matter what tasks were given to them.  

I was supposed to be on a break from my day job, but with ten years of teaching under my belt I knew that I could help to make a difference to the classes and to the women’s lives. 

Chiang Mai View

I was nervous in the cab on the way to teach on my first day. I could imagine the basic and degrading conditions of prisons that we see on TV, overcrowding and filthy like the ‘Bangkok Hilton’. Anna told me that the prison was modern, but when I arrived I was shocked. The prison was new, clean, and seemed like a happy place to be. Even as we passed through security checks, had our ID scrutinised, our belongings taken and doors locked behind us, we could see smiley happy women working in the gardens and going about their duties. Unfortunately we could not take photos of the prison so I have included some views of beautiful Chiang Mai

Straight 'A' students

As we passed the women in the corridors they all turned to smile and say hi, some were shocked to see ‘ferang’ or foreigners in their prison. We were taken to the classroom by two inmates and regular class attendees. They were both in their mid twenties but, as is usual for Thais, they looked much younger. The class was full by the time we got there and all the women sat in rows with their pens and paper out and ready to go.

I had always found Thais to be willing and enthusiastic learners but these women really put their all into getting as much as possible from the class. With a class of around 25 their levels varied wildly but the women didn’t complain if things were too easy or too difficult. They helped each other to communicate and translated words in Thai, eager to teach us something new as well. And they loved getting homework, they really would go above and beyond to improve their English. If only all students could be so passionate!

Chiang Mai Temple

Jailhouse rock

With such different levels to cater for, we concentrated on teaching new vocabulary and communicative games. The women loved to play games and laughed and joked the whole way through the class. Their favourite activity was singing and though we weren’t allowed to take a stereo in we compensated by singing acapella. I am usually the last one up for karaoke on a night out, but with these women I didn’t care that I can’t sing and neither did they. Anna and I sang the song the whole way through to give them an idea of the tune and then the women joined in. They didn’t mind that they couldn’t understand all of the words or that we sounded like a chorus of cats. 

For 90 minutes each week they could forget about their sentences and learn something new, even if it was Madonna's 'Like a Virgin.'

Chiang Mai Street Market

Breaking good

Many of the women had dropped out of school and some were in on serious charges, but they were never intimidating. They were such humble and gracious ladies that I was able to learn so much from. Though these women had lived through traumatic experiences and some had long sentences stretched out in front of them, they never lost hope and they never lost the ability to smile.

Just say yes!

So, though most people would never want to step foot in a Thai prison, I would say that you can learn so much. If you ever get the chance to do voluntary work you should go for it, as not only are you helping others and making a difference to their lives, but you can also enrich your life and take something new from the experience.