I love love LOVE travelling but I hate being a tourist. Do you see the paradox here ?
So, to tackle that twisted feeling, I (once again) decided to volunteer.
This is, to me, the best way to actually feel like I deserve to be there, or at least, I do what I can to give back to a community that opened its doors to me. In my opinion, this is the best way to learn about a country and its culture. So, here is what we did:
In 2013, my (ex)boyfriend and I decided to travel around Asia for 5 months.
We spent 1 month discovering Thailand (like tourists), followed by 2 months volunteering.
The volunteering project took place in the region of Nakhon Si Tammarat, in a little buddhist village called Kuan Mai Bong Village. We stayed with a Thai family and participated to their program called ‘Roy Wan Pan Pba’ (you can find them on facebook), promoting self-sufficiency within the village as well as educational awareness towards that goal.
It was a very interesting experience that I recommend to whom is keen on a combined social, environmental and educational experience in Thaïland. There, we were in charge with all the garden duties (planting, watering, harvesting, uprooting, shovelling, feeding animals, etc… ), we gave English lessons in their ‘alternative school’ (every weekends), we visited schools in the region, we stayed 2 days a week in a host family for better integration, and we mostly learned a lot about the Thaï culture, as well as their language.
Look, I’m not to say what you should or shouldn’t do when travelling, but here is my take on things you should definitely consider when volunteering:
- Before you decide to volunteer, ask yourself if that’s really what you want. Be aware that you’ll be there to give more than receive. This is not going to be easy or a lazy holiday. It is a serious commitment, with real people (kids and/or adults) that is going to require your time, your energy, your desire to learn and contribute, and your open-mindedness to a different culture and lifestyle. It is no CLUB MED. No judgement here, if that’s what you like, fine! Just be honest with yourself and those around you.
- Get to know the project first. See if that suits who you are and if you can actually be of a real help there. For example, I wouldn’t do heavy lifting or building houses etc… But I can totally teach English, or French and I can take care of children or do some admin work,…
- No internet, no phone connexion, bugs, snakes, … Are you ready to live in wilderness ? PS: If I can do it, you can too ! Just make sure you get mentally ready for it + bring some mozzie repellent, a mozzie net, your vaccination up to date and maybe 1 or 2 medicines in case of emergency (I’m allergic to penicillin so I am rather cautious in that regards…).
- Initiatives, yes but independence, no. You will most probably be asked to be quite responsible and initiatives will be well received. But be aware that you won’t always be free to go where you want or do what you want when you want it… When I did my first volunteer project in Peru, I had some freedom on the weekends and that was great because I was able to travel and discover the surroundings. But on this project in Thailand, we barely had real time off. and when we did, we didn’t have a way to actually visit or leave the village … We had no car, the village is remotely located in the jungle and we had signed a contract that said we weren’t allowed to actually drive during our time there.
- I get very angry when I hear that volunteers pay thousands of $ on a project because It should NEVER cost you an arm to volunteer!
Of course you will have to pay a fee because you’re gonna get hosted, fed, insured, taken care of… BUT the expenses should always be justified.
If you want to volunteer but have no contacts, I recommend to meet with an organisation (but beware what they ask you for !)
This time, we met with the SCI Belgium team ( Short and long -term International and National Volunteer programs). They get paid but it isn’t something extravagant and they are very PROFESSIONAL !
I actually learned so much from meeting with them. Not only do they help you finding a destination and a program that work for you, they arrange the dates with the local association, inform and assist you about all the visa procedures, vaccinations, etc…. they also organise weekend trainings for their participants to actually educate them about culturalization, social adjustment, socio-economical awareness, … It was such an interesting experience that I absolutely recommend to do, at least once in a lifetime !
Amongst the expenses, there were the enrolment fees and insurance (150€, including the training weekend!!!) + between 150 – 300€ per month paid to the local association. Of course, transportation, flights, visas and vaccines were at our own expense as well. The whole procedure was totally transparent, we signed contracts and knew from the beginning what we were going to pay and pretty much what we were singing for. I really appreciated that. Once in Thailand, we met with the local association Songkhla (based in Hat Yai – kilometers away from the village), where we stayed 4 days for another training: learning the basics of thai culture and language ! SO so so beneficial !
And then of course the volunteering itself is full of surprises but that’s part of the deal and the excitement…
- If you feel scared, go with a friend or with your partner… It can be a bonding experience. Personally, I’ll say that it is tricky and challenging … Not only will you get to know sides of your partner that you had maybe never seen before, you will discover a lot about yourself too and all that while living with strangers (locals AND other volunteers from around the world), in a foreign country… It can be pretty challenging and eye opening ! Of course, I’m happy I shared that experience with my partner, as much as I’m glad I did my first project on my own… 2 totally different experiences!!! But also different countries.
Here is a little video I made for you to have a better idea of what our 2month project looked like:
As I said before, we also travelled around Thailand for a month. We did a pretty common tour:
- 4 days in Bangkok. Big busy city. Everything is excessive: traffic, noise, smells, crowded streets, skyscrapers, poverty, wealth, corruption, sex oriented activities/bars/tourism… It took me some time to understand and appreciate it… Mostly to get to know where to go, and what to avoid…
- 2 days in Ayutthaya (1H15 drive) – absolutely worth the trip.
- Lopburi -no stop – We saw the crazy monkeys from the train. keep an eye out for them!
- 2 days in Sukhothai ( about 5h by train) – I loved it. The hotel was a rip off – but that’s pretty common in Thailand… You do have to get ripped off sometimes … (You can try and avoid scam as much as you can but the risk is always present …)
Many temples to be seen there, such as Wat Traphang Ngoen & Wat Mahaburi.
- 5 days in Chiangmai (about 4H30 by train). Probably my favourite city in Thailand. The cafés, the art and the laidback atmosphere make it a very liveable city. There we visited the Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park, a rehabilitation facility for elephants. From what I’ve seen, I absolutely recommend it!! (As much as I discourage you from doing any zoo visits or hikes on top of elephants… especially if they have a wooden platform on their back and even more so if you’re not asked to sit just behind their ears … As that is the only way you should sit and other options are damaging ).
This visit taught us a lot about the terrible corruption and abuse happening around Thailand with elephants. As well as the ways to spot on traumatised elephants, read through their behaviours, understand their needs etc… NB: They are in real danger and we have to be aware of the situation. And if possible do our best to help.
- From there, we took the train on a 17h journey… And stopped in Suratthani, to take the ferry.
- 3 days in Ko Samui: very touristic.
- 3 days in Ko Pangan: even more touristic ! This island is famous for its Full moon party + drugs and excesses of all sorts…
- To Suratthani by boat. From there we took a train, then a tuk tuk…
- 4 days in Hat Yai – Songkhla : where our training took place for the volunteering project
- 2 months in Kuan Mai Bong Village, Roy Wan Pan Pba – Nakhon Si Tammarat
- Minivan to Chumphon. Back to the real life after 2 months in isolation … In our little volunteering bubble…
From there, we took a night ferry (an experience and the worst sleep ever)
- 5 days in Ko Tao: My favourite island (next to Koh Phangan and Koh Samui) we arrived there at 5 am. We knew we wanted to go to the least touristic side of the island so we took a cab and drove in that direction … Then we tried our luck and found a beautiful bangalow on the beach. It was paradise !
- back to Bangkok for a few days before the rest of our Asian trip
Hoping to travel again soon… I’m sure you see what I mean… You most probably feel the same way too!