By Linda Van Hove
Accompanied by 11 other nursing students, I recently participated in a Cultural Study Tour in Thailand. What I imagined would be an enriching cultural experience turned out to be much more. I was given a gift of calm and loving kindness to begin my nursing career. I am a third year UoN student about to embark on my final semester of study before I hopefully gain employment as a new graduate nurse.
The tour commenced at the Boromarajonani College of Nursing situated in the northern city of Lampang. Founded in the 7th century, Lampang is not only one of Thailand’s oldest cities, it is northern Thailand’s third largest city. Despite its size, it feels relatively non-commercial and off the tourist trail.
It is difficult to limit my description to a few experiences or name a favourite. Each day of our 13 day tour was unique, full and inspiring. However, I think the true beauty of this trip was the deeper connection we were able to feel with the people we met, experiences we lived and the places we visited.
We were blessed to have an amazing local woman and nursing Ajahn (a Thai language term that translates as ‘teacher’. In Thailand Ajahn is a term of respect) provide us with language lessons, travel with us, organise meals, cultural activities and nursing student buddies for us. All of which greatly enriched our visit. She shared stories and explained customs and traditions, she was an engaging person with a beautiful compassionate soul, someone you instantly felt comfortable with and wanted to be in the company of. This connection with her enabled us to be totally immersed in local culture.
Our days were filled with many and varied activities including Thai massage instruction and practice, hospital and health care experiences and cultural excursions. A highly skilled, softly spoken practitioner instructed us on Thai Massage, which in itself, I learnt, is an artful pursuit. We would begin with a small meditation and yoga routine, facilitating mindful practice. Traditional Thai massage is a therapeutic healing practice based on the concept of vital life force energy, following lines or “Sen” in the body. Thai massage requires much skill and strength and involves compression along the lines, pulling and stretching limbs, and assisted yoga poses. Although receiving a Thai massage can feel a little uncomfortable, its benefits may improve wellbeing and circulation, and promote relaxation.
We visited the maternity unit and children’s ward at the hospital and received insight into the Thai healthcare system. We were guests at an alternative health centre where we enjoyed traditional ‘tapping’ massage, the steam room, concoctions of herbs to promote balance and the most elaborate ceremony of connectedness. We spent a morning at a volunteer run rehabilitation centre for people with brain injuries. The centre was established after an Abbot (the head of a temple of monks) cared for his mother who had a stroke. His benevolent wish is the basis of the centre, housed in the grounds of his Temple.
We learned about the importance of ‘metta’ which translates as compassion or loving kindness and features in the Thai nursing code of conduct. We also learned about ‘Tam boon’ that literally translates as making merit or a way of giving back. I found these concepts to be a welcome contrast to our culture of plenty and a suitable point of departure to begin a career, such as nursing, etched in compassion, giving and kindness.
One evening we travelled to the top of a mountain to meditate with monks. The temple’s Abbot* instructed us to free our minds, and if our thoughts were to wander, we must bring them back to our heart. Our unpractised legs shuffled and repositioned, most of us tried to engage in the moment. An ethereal atmosphere filled the room. After a 30-minute meditation we were encouraged to ask questions of this master. My problem was quietening my busy mind, other ‘nurses’ questioned the opportunity to help people at the end of life. His wisdom was simple: we cannot change a person’s journey and we must practice mediation. “Practice anywhere, any time – but be careful not to fall asleep”, he told us with a smile. His absolute serenity was imperturbable.
Early each morning I would walk to the market to see the activities of the busy town. A total feast for your senses and soul. Bustling food stalls with all imaginable produce from live frogs, to chicken feet, to the freshest vegetables and sweet sticky rice. On my journey each day, the same 93 year old man would wait on the same street corner for the same elderly monk. Careful to be lower than the monk, he would place his offering in the alms bowl, he then would crouch down to his knees to hear his blessing. I respectfully performed this ritual encouraged by my new friend. I was left with a feeling of overwhelming peace and connection.
On an overcast day we journeyed by bus out of town and soaked up the change in scenery along the way. We transferred to a roller coaster like ride up the steep mountain side in open back Utes to arrive at the base of Wat Chalermprakiat Prajomklao Rachanusorn. A further 20-minute climb on foot took us to what felt like the top of the world as clouds floated by. We were privileged to be the only group there. Pagodas and golden stupas appeared to be balanced delicately on rock, begging the question how on earth did they get there?!
We spent a morning at the Elephant conservation sanctuary outside Chaing Mai. I could hardly contain my excitement when an enormous, majestic, but ever so slow elephant, plodded past me. Several more passed by, all heading for the water, to have a bath for our entertainment. We had the pleasure of visiting the nursery and becoming aquainted with the youngest resident, a playful, adorable 11-month old infant.
Associate professor and founder of the project, Pamela van der Reit, is an inspiring and remarkable woman. Her passion for this tour was palpable. She gives herself fully, has a wealth of knowledge, though never judges or imposes her ideas. Her dedication to the tour plays a vital role in its success. A project jointly established by Pamela, is a children’s play space and ‘Fairy Garden’, situated in a previously unused outside area in the centre of the hospital. A welcome green space, that enables children at the hospital to play, and parents to enjoy their innocence in what otherwise may be a stressful unhappy time. Each year, accompanied by their Thai buddies, a contingent of potential registered nurses from Australia work to maintain the garden. It felt good to scrub, to clean and to plant new plants. It felt equally rewarding when the locals watched us hard at work.
The immeasurable hospitality we received had an immense impact on me, everyone was so generous, kind and happy to offer help. We had a free day, where myself and one other enthusiastic student joined a generous trio of nursing teachers for a bicycle ride around the old town and neighbouring countryside. How indescribably magnificent it was. We kept looking at each other with enormous smiles and saying, “Can you believe this? We are so lucky!!” On this beautiful sun filled day we visited temples, learned about Buddhism, paying respect and rituals. Our morning concluded with a stop at the market to collect supplies before a sumptuous Thai brunch filled with spice, sticky rice, warm soy milk and new friendships.
Note: The study tour was supported by the New Colombo Mobility Program funded by the Australian Government.