Strong Arms for Kids

My AMAZING Experience at Baan Unrak

As much as I try, I am just not very good at keeping any sort of journal.  I try and I try but I just never stick with it.  After my amazing experience in Thailand, I really wanted to write all about it in my journal, that is always sitting right next to my bed with a pen marking the page of my last entry, I just never got around to doing it.  So here I am seven months later having to remember everything that happened so that I can share it all with you and, of course, reminisce, as well.

Sangklaburi, Thailand

After being in Japan only a few short months, I was already trying to plan my first trip.  I have always thought about going to Thailand.  When I received an email, one day announcing a trip organized by a JET organization called GoMad, which was going to Thailand to volunteer at an orphanage during Christmas week, I replied almost instantaneously.  GoMad has brought a group of volunteers to the Baan Unrak Orphanage for Christmas for over 10 years.  After my experience in the Peace Corps, I realized how much more you can learn about a country and its people by living with them and working alongside them.  This, of course, is quite obvious, but how much of a difference there is, as compared to just visiting a country and backpacking around, took me by surprise.  So the opportunity to work in a small, out of the way, part of Thailand helping give children a Christmas they would never forget, instead of getting stuck in one of the many tourist traps around Thailand was something I didn’t want to pass up.  

I did some research on Baan Unrak Children’s Village and was very impressed with their philosophy and their mission.  You can go on their website at and learn all about the amazing things Baan Unrak does for their children, single mothers, refugees, and their local community of Sangklaburi.  

From the moment the 30 people were selected to go on the trip, we began work on our plans to make this the best Christmas ever, for the children of Baan Unrak.  Each of us were asked to sell Christmas cards, designed by the children, and woven goods, made by the mothers living at Baan Unrak, as well as, plan an Environment Day filled with activities teaching the children about the importance of protecting the environment and how to make nature fun, and create lesson plans for teaching English, which we were also going to be doing.  All of this kept me very busy, as well as, got me really excited for my trip to Thailand and my first “volunteer vacation”.

The time finally came, and I made the 18 hour trip to Thailand.  Yeah, you read correctly, 18 hours to get to Thailand from Japan…about the same time it would take if I left from New York…I won’t go into the boring details.  Then there was the, I think, 8 hour bus ride to the actual town of Sangklaburi, from Bangkok.  Good thing I had all that practice riding on run down old buses in Nicaragua and remembered not to drink too much water no matter how thirsty I was.  Some people were not so wise, and were desperately pleading with the bus driver to stop at a rest stop.  The bus driver did not want to comply because he was running behind schedule, but finally he gave in.  

When we finally pulled into town, the feelings of being back in Nicaragua came rushing back to me, all at once.  The place we were in, had a very similar vibe.  I will never forget what one of the volunteers said to me, “how do you stop yourself from wanting to save them all”.  Save them from what?  From my experience I explained, although they don’t have a lot of things, or brand new clothes, the most current toys available and perfect houses to live in, they are not suffering and are usually quite content with their lives.  I knew that once I arrived at the orphanage I was not going to meet a group of desperate, miserable children suffering through their daily lives.  When we finally arrived at the orphanage, after dropping our things off on the houseboat that we would call home for the next 8 days, I proved that I was not incorrect in my thinking.  We were greeted with so many little smiling faces.  They were so full of energy and excited that we were there to spend Christmas with them.

Baan Unrak is an amazing place.  I cannot repeat that enough times (I am actually keeping a tally of how many times I use the word amazing to describe Baan Unrak).  It started with one woman from Italy in Thailand working on an agricultural project, left with one orphan, and it is now a huge facility with over 100 orphans, working single mothers and refugees.  They have even raised enough money to build a fully accredited primary school in the community of Sangklaburi that is not only for the children of the orphanage but for the community, as well.  All of the children at Baan Unrak are vegetarians, and practice yoga and meditation everyday (again, please go to their website to learn more).

The day before Christmas we had a full day of organizing and preparing for the packed schedule of things planned for Christmas Day.  Our biggest task was wrapping over 300 presents that we had brought with us and separating them into age appropriate groups.  We also needed to create a performance for the children, as well as, organize everything for the sports activities in the morning and the coloring contest in the afternoon.  It was going to be a full day to say the least.  

Do I dare use the word magical at the risk of being made fun of, well, here I go…Christmas Day at Baan Unrak, for lack of any other word that could possibly describe it as well as this word, was MAGICAL and Amazing.  We started first thing in the morning, continuing with some of the preparations from the day before.  Then there was sports day.  It was only about 90 degrees with not a cloud in the sky, but that didn’t stop us or the children from enjoying relay races, soccer games and just plain goofing around.  Then we ate a huge lunch of a delicious vegetarian buffet (which we had everyday) full of fresh vegetables grown at the Baan Unrak garden, tofu and fresh tropical fruit.  Then there was the coloring contest right after lunch, where all the children worked together to make posters to decorate the stage for the evening performances.  Then we started on the preparations for the special Christmas Dinner.  Everyone would sit down for a formal (well somewhat formal) meal, at tables decorated with flowers and balloons and for dessert ice cream and soda (which is a very special treat for the children).  After all that, you would think it was time for the children to go to bed, with a day full of activities and a belly full of ice cream.  But, oh no, there was plenty more. 

After dinner, once they digested a bit, the children and some of the older kids living at the orphanage, each did a special yoga performance for all of the visitors that came to spend Christmas at the orphanage.  Baan Unrak also invited some of the children from the surrounding communities to join in the day’s festivities, as well.  After their very impressive, I mean really impressive, yoga performance, it was our turn to shine.  Some of the very creative and talented members of our volunteer group came up with a really cute Christmas play to put on for the kids.  I, of course, just did what I was told to do, since I am not very talented or creative when it comes to that sort of stuff.  It was about 10pm when the performances were over, and even though some of the younger children were already asleep on the benches, it was still not time for them to go to bed.  It was time for PRESENTS!!! We all dressed up in our finest Santa costumes and handed out presents and candy canes to over 300 children.  After all that, it was finally time for bed.  I can honestly say, the children enjoyed it and it was definitely the best Christmas I had ever had (yes, I know I’m s Jewish girl from Long Island, but its still saying a lot).


The rest of our week at Baan Unrak was a little less chaotic, than how it started out, and it gave us time to relax a little.  The children enjoyed the Environment Day.  One of the main activities was doing a town clean up.  And at the end of the Environment Day the students put on a trash Fashion Show.  Then we spent a day teaching English to a really eager group of students, whose English was really impressive and I spent another morning cutting “grass” on a deserted island that they wanted to use to grow vegetables.  This “grass” was not grass at all, but small trees with HUGE thorns on them.  This may have been my least favorite part of the week.  I’m not saying…I’m just saying.  And then, as if this wasn’t the most amazing Christmas week ever, it ended by me hugging an elephant.  I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end such an amazing experience.
(I counted 8 times that I used the word amazing just in this section)


To see more photos of Thailand and Baan Unrak, just click on the elephant

Google Analytics