Thailand…”The Land of Smiles.” Baan San Fan translates to, “Where Dreams Come True.” This is where I spent 12 days of my summer of freshman year in 2012. 15 of us shared one of the most amazing experiences in the world. We flew to Seoul, South Korea, and then made our way to Phang Nga, Thailand, where we would be staying with Sam and Gai, two of the most selfless and beautiful people I have ever met. Them, along with the children of the Baan San Fan Orphange, forever changed my life.

 

Baan San Fan was started after the tragic tsunami on December 26th, 2004. Sam and Gai traveled to the area and set up a tent, where they looked after a group of children. A Swiss man named Dr. Donat Schibler was inspired by this act of compassion and so he bought the couple a piece of land where they could continue their acts of kindness, where the orphanage now resides. Although the tsunami has happened now 10 years ago, San and Gai continue to take in orphans from the area, or children who just don’t have access to enough food or shelter to survive.

When we first arrived to the quaint little orphanage, made up on a kitchen house, and four other houses where everyone slept, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to bond with the children like I would normally with those who could speak my own language. I was wrong. The kids were shy at first, straying from eye contact when you tried so desperately just to make them smile. You could see a certain sadness in their eyes too, like part of their light had gone out. Each day, a bit of this awkwardness would shed, and you would grow on the children. I remember the first time I got Kiowata to smile. We had arrived to the orphanage only after her second week being moved there with her little brother, because her father had just recently died, and her mother had 5 other children she was trying to provide for. Her and her brother Diawan, were the most recent children to move in, and the hardest to get to smile. We tried everything- from making ridiculous faces and making complete fools out of ourselves, to trying to pronounce a word in Thai, and failing miserably. But when we finally succeeded, it was one of the most amazing things to feel.

 

baan san fan orphanage girls and i

Everyday was different. We pruned the tropical and lush trees in the back of the houses, while rewarding ourselves with delicious sugarcane, and we planted trees in their garden. One day we paved an entire cement patio, creating a circular driveway from the dirt road up to their kitchen house. We walked to the local schoolhouse where the children went five days a week and gave English lessons, in hopes of helping the students pass for the English exam that they were required to take.  One day the children took us to a waterfall park, where we swam in freezing rushing water with fish knocking into us with each stroke, and let the powerful waterfall beat down on our backs. Another day, we all went to the Unseen Khaosok Elephant Park, where we rode on elephants through a river and the jungle. It was one of the coolest things I had ever done.  We went to the local markets across the street, where we bought beautiful hand-woven clothes that were painted with gorgeous colors. The day we visited the Ban Nam Khem Tsunami Memorial Park was extremely emotional. We visited the actual beach that had destroyed thousands of people’s lives. Something about being in the same water was extremely eerie. Our last excursion consisted of our orphanage family taking us on a wooden boat, to another National Park full of beautiful green, blue water surrounding by rocky green mountains. We took bamboo rafts to a nearby cave, and it was breathtaking.

The food was out of this world. I didn’t realize how many ways it was possible to prepare rice. We had incredible shrimp dishes, and fresh meat from their own sustainable farm on their property. I would have asked for the recipe for every meal, yet I knew I would never be able to capture the spicy and sweet flavors of Sam and Gai’s cooking, back in the United States.

baan san fan orphanage elephants

I realized that I went into this trip hoping that I could change something for the better for these people, when in reality, they were the ones that changed me. These people have very little, yet they are happy. A new and fresh outlook on life, a restored faith in humanity, and an intensified appreciation for my own life is what I came back to the United States with.  Although I left part of my heart at Baan San Fan.

Find out how you can volunteer, or just help Sam and Gai continue to take in children and help make more dreams come true here. ไม่เป็นไร is the country’s motto, and is pronounced, “Mai Pen Rai”. It translates to “no worries.” 

Have you ever volunteered in Thailand?

 [feature photo via* baansanfan]

photos via Shane Autumn Nebbia unless otherwise noted

Shane Autumn is currently a senior at The University of Tampa, pursuing a degree in Communication, a minor in Spanish, and a certificate in International Studies. When this travel-obsessed, adventure junkie isn't out exploring the world, she can be found feeding her unhealthy addiction to chocolate chip cookies. Shane Autumn is an avid human rights and animal activist, and plans on starting her own non-profit organization someday.

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