Volunteering in ChiangMai, Thailand

There is more to Thailand than luxury hotels, pool bars and beach parties… I’ve visited this beautiful country once before, visiting important monuments and temples. I had stayed in a luxury hotel and explored the local surroundings, but I felt something was missing. There wasn’t an opportunity to meet the local people, nor did I immerse myself in the local culture. There was a feeling that I wanted more!!

I fell in love with Thailand but wanted to experience it on a different level.  Consequently, I think this is why I chose to volunteer. It really is the perfect way to experience the culture and get to know the people and the customs of Thailand. You get so much more than just staying on one of the beautiful resorts. There is no doubting that the beaches and hotels are stunning. I just felt that you don’t get to live and breathe authentic Thailand until you live and work like a local. A perfect combination to satisfy a love of travel and culture while giving something back to the country you are visiting.

2017 was a particularly difficult year for me, having made some bad choices and some good. I met some amazing new friends but lost some also, life is all about balance. We lost a very special person too which doesn’t get easier but it really does make you evaluate life and the people around you!! I’ve learned from it all and it inspired me to do book this amazing trip, life really is too short.

There have been a couple of things on my bucket list for many years; to work with children internationally and to work with animals. There were a few companies that I got in touch with, the first project was with Idex at a school in Chiang Mai. For the second project, I travelled to Surin to work with the Elephant Nature Park. I will concentrate on the project in Chiang Mai for this and post and save the Elephants for another.

I set off from Manchester airport on New Years Eve 2017, a perfect way to end a crappy year and to start a fresh one in a different country. Starting 2018, just me, my backpack, passport and money. I was a bit nervous, to say the least but excited in equal measures!! The airport was so quiet which didn’t help the sudden, overwhelming sense of ‘oh god I am alone’. I posted on Facebook declaring my nerves and farewells and to wish everyone a very happy new year. What was to follow would be a diary full of my best stories and all that Thailand had to offer me!

Day 1

I wanted a challenge and I think I got one, the volunteer house was very basic! After a difficult start, arriving in Chiang Mai with no pickup, I eventually made it to the house. Abandoned and empty because everyone was off for New Year. The people that were there were totally hungover haha. I was left to my own devices, which was daunting, to be honest but it was soon made better by my roommate from Barcelona. We explored the city and visited lots of temples, stopping for a few beers obviously! The highlight had to be watching a Gecko trying to catch a moth!!

My Facebook post from the previous day had such a lovely response, so many lovely messages of encouragement. Never underestimate the power of a few nice words, they got me through the first few days while I settled in!

Day 2

Today was our welcome meeting and orientation on Idex’s Project. There was a presentation on Thailand & Thai culture, social development, the role of volunteers, project activities, and personal safety etc. Basically, an initiation into the different projects and awareness of our surroundings. The pack of stray dogs living in the street were apparently our biggest risk. We were told to walk with a stick as they will attack at night, this made me belly laugh. Since my lovely friends, family and colleagues teased me for weeks about killer spiders and dragon fish this is how I developed my new nickname ‘Swampy’. All these things to contend with but oh no I just needed to worry about the residential stray dogs!

Yo, our project coordinator took us for lunch, one of the locals favourite haunts, the food was amazing. Have to say the venue was questionable and a whole new squatting experience for me loved every second.

Later that afternoon I visited the temple project and worked with the monks facilitating workshops with the tourists, helping the monks speak English and answer any questions. I learned so much about their culture and truly fascinating way of life. I was also promised a sunrise walk with them later on in the week. The monks were definitely my highlight today. Later on, we had a little fun in ‘Art of Paradise’, a 3D effect museum. Kids would love this in the UK.

The last pics for today are of our outside kitchen at the house. As a result, my sanitiser ran out pretty quickly, this was only the first day.

Day 3, 4 and 5

It was my first day at the school! We left the volunteer house at around 7:30 am as the school was about a 30 min drive depending on traffic. I was lost for words when we arrived. Oh my god the children, they ran to the gates screaming “teacher teacher”. I couldn’t wait to get started but I have to say I was overcome with emotion. The kids stole my heart from the very first time I met them. There was a bond that over the next few weeks only got stronger and stronger.

The children all came from really tough backgrounds and what the school does for them is incredible. They do far more than just teach. They clothe, feed, love, protect, and play with them. Just being a small part of this incredible volunteering project was more than rewarding. It is quite difficult to find the right words to describe how it makes you feel. The kids are so grateful, so giving with their affection. I loved every second of being with them, exactly what I signed up for. Oh and have I mentioned that they loved selfies!!!

The induction to the project was actually really poor with little support from Idex. None of the teachers spoke English and it was really difficult to communicate. This forced you to be very resourceful, to say the least. We had help from another girl who worked for Yo but she was new, very shy and her English was broken. Ultimately this was the challenge I wanted so I did not complain. We taught using different methods, song, chalkboard, movement, play, illustrations, and demonstration. It was really hard work and hot but we taught them 3 songs in 3 days. One little finger, baby shark, and the freeze song!! At this point, I had already started to develop a very strong connection with a little girl called Ploy, more of Ploy later.

 We didn’t do much at all in the evenings, we headed out with our protective sticks, and had a couple of beers. We explored the night markets and then headed home as it was lights out at 10 pm.

Day 5: (evening)

Maddy, my crazy Irish friend and I hit the town. Mozzie spray was my perfume choice, absolutely horrible stuff but kept the pesky little blighters at bay. This was only if I remembered to apply it that is. One got me the day before 6 times on my bum cheek when using the lovely facilities, much to Maddy’s amusement!!

Day 6/7

We had the weekend off so headed north to Chiang Rai. I was dressed for the sun but it was bloody cold. We stopped at Mae Khachan Hot Springs which is very popular among Thai people. The locals try to sell you eggs to boil in the springs, it really stunk. Besides boiling eggs, I soaked my feet in the warm water, not sure which smelt worse. I could have sat there for hours though, really beautiful, better than any spa I have been too.

We visited a hill tribe living in the mountains!! This is where I had my first experience of Thai spiders!! I was looking at a scarf made by one the tribe members, I turned it around and there it was, a HUGE spider on the back. Bastard thing – I slipped in all the mud as I ran, not cool at all!!! The tribe ladies found it very funny though!

Fabulous day but left all my warm clothes back at the volunteer’s house in Chiang Mai – brrrrrr!!

We stopped at various temples. On was Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), an unconventional Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai, designed in 1997 by Thai painter turned architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. It was one of my favourite temples and I visited plenty of temples lol!!. The main building was painted white which symbolised Buddha’s purity and it was covered in mosaics of mirrors, which sparkled in the sun. Around the complex are intricate sculptures of demons, skulls, severed heads all hanging from trees with other bizarre objects. Fascinating and the path of contemplation was just amazing. We stopped at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Sean Ancient City a small district of Chiang Rai province, one of the oldest settlements in Thailand located on the Mekong River. We also Visited Wat Chefi Luang a royal stupa temple.

A very busy day, and was so looking forward to a nice hotel after a week in the horror house….. Oh no, nope even worse!!! The hostel they put us in was absolutely hideous!! Even a sneaky bottle of wine didn’t help me sleep as you listened to the cockroaches on the floor!

Day 8

Early start the next day to head to the Golden Triangle the border between Thailand, Burma, and Laos, stopping at one of the highest temples. Shame it was foggy as we saw bloody nowt. I had my first monk blessing, such beautiful souls, sat and chatted with him for a while – he loved the brits (I sneakily gave all the non-brits the bird)!! I didn’t I didn’t, just in my head #smug

So we headed over to Laos on a very dodgy boat, absolutely no border control. We sailed up to one of the little jetties, we got off and wandered around Laos without showing a passport. What’s that all about, I’m pretty sure you need a visa to get into Laos too. Illegal travellers, it was all a bit scary, to be honest.

A much poorer country and how they treated their animals made me cry. Baby monkeys chained on tiny leads next to an ostrich in a cage!!! Monkeys were being sold for food, yes they eat monkeys! Anyway, we eventually made it back without being arrested.

After a few more temples and Buddhas we started the journey home which took a lot longer. This was because the king was at one of the temples on our route home, gridlocked!! There was some good news though, the sun came out, unfortunately, I was stuck in the car and missed it. Better news was that I got my army/police pic! Happy days!

Day 8/9

Back to work with the most beautiful children, lots more selfies! They love having their picture with you. I know you shouldn’t have favourites but you know I mentioned a little girl called Ploy (pic of the one I’m kissing on the cheek) she completely stole my heart. She clung to me the whole time I was in the school. So unbelievably cute and affectionate!!

A typical day

We prepared for class from 8 am, teach from 9:30 am to 11:30 am. After that prepared lunch, then the kids slept so we headed out for our lunch. We returned back at 2 pm to wake them up for milk, cuddles, hair, and playtime. Lunch was provided but I didn’t eat anything from the horror house. Especially after being attacked by cockroaches after opening the fridge. Thank god me and Maddy found a little bakery, quiche and cake for lunch or Thai green curry. We would also have a smoothie in a little bar called Birds of Paradise opposite the Thai boxers that we watched most days!

Day 9

Started the day on a 5 am walk with the monks. It’s tradition for them to go out early to find food. They walk the streets before sunrise with a big tin bowl for people to offer them food, in return they give them a blessing. Very peaceful and spiritual! I felt really lucky being part of a project that allows you to join them. Even though I was one of the women behind and in silence. True to form, I got told off for asking questions. #standard

Loving the experience – felt a little homesick today but the power of the internet makes the world a smaller place!

Started to lose track of days at this point, blogging when I could… All the little ones gave me the best couple of weeks of pure unconditional love and fun, so happy and content in a very difficult world they live in. I had been so emotional the last few days of being with the kids, I was dreading saying goodbye. Ploy gave me so much without her even knowing it if I gave back a quarter of what she did I will have done my job!!! She clung to me as soon as I arrived in school every day, part of my heart will always remain in Chiang Mai, never underestimate the power of kindness and cuddles!!

Goodbye

Well, the day arrived to say goodbye and what a day, they put on a huge show to send us off!! We, however, had to perform too – I obviously took lead and decided to do the chacha slide, absolutely hilarious the teachers and children were giggling…..

I knew it was going to be emotional but nothing quite prepared me for how bad it actually was. The teachers were crying, the children were sobbing and Ploy clung to me, she touched my face as tears rolled down both our cheeks. No words were spoken as she couldn’t understand most of what I said in any case. There are some people who hear you speak a thousand words and still not understand you. In contrast, there are others who will understand without you speaking a single word. This happened with Ploy, a connection so deep. I just wish I could have brought her home with me.

After work, I had my first Thai massage of the trip. I needed to de-stress but it wasn’t supposed to hurt like this? I could hardly bloody move the day after. Wasn’t it supposed to be relaxing, I almost kicked her in the face, twice!!

Saturday

The weekend off again so headed to Lampang on Saturday to visit a few more temples and to an elephant sanctuary. Unfortunately, when we arrived it was more like an elephant Disney, full of shows and rides. It wasn’t great and I wasn’t happy with what I saw so I left. The second part of my volunteering trip would be on an elephant sanctuary project. I was hoping not to see elephants used like this whilst there.

We finished off at a local jungle market and it was just like being in the jungle, bugs everywhere. They were alive and dead, anyone who knows me well knows I hate creepy crawlies. I felt very proud having held myself together.  I characteristically screamed a few times which was much to the amusement of the locals. Seriously though, the food choices weren’t for me.

After visiting a few more temples it was back home to pack. I was due to leave the volunteer house on Monday for a couple of nights in a nice hotel. Thankfully with a pool, no bunk bed, and concrete mattress to relax before heading to Bangkok!

Sunday

We decided to go jungle trekking of all things. I was happy to report that there were NO SPIDERS but a flying beetle scared me. Worryingly there were lots of bear scratches on trees, not something you see every day. After a four hour trek, we reached Thailand’s highest point. Along the way were waterfalls, temples, crazy weather and lots of giggles. It was bloody cold up there though but the best day to date except being with the kids.

To say it has been an adventure so far is an understatement.

Inevitably came mine and Maddy’s last night so we headed for a posh meal out to Roof 69. We had an amazing meal, another Thai green curry, the best I have had so far. We had a few beers and then headed home to finish packing. Maddy was leaving for Koi Samui and I was heading to the lovely Park Hotel. I hated saying goodbye to Maddy but I was certainly ready to say goodbye to the horror house. The Park was like a 6-star hotel for me, the luxury of a comfy bed, a working bathroom and a bar. No killer dogs in the street outside either lol. I literally just chilled for the next couple of days and read Eat, Pray Love, wow what a book.

I loved loved ChiangMai, all of it, even the house – it really did put me back in the place I wanted to be!!

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