On May 12th 2016, I left Scotland for what was going to be the most amazing, life changing experience. Travelling from Edinburgh to Thailand, I was full of excitement and nerves, slightly unsure what to expect, as I had never travelled to Asia before. Upon arrival, my volunteer group and me were greeted by three very enthusiastic and happy members of Challenges Abroad, which made the jet lag disappear and filled us with excitement; we had actually made it!
The first couple of days were spent exploring Bangkok, visiting the beautiful temples, tasting traditional Thai food and shopping around the street markets (I could have bought everything!) There was so much to see and smell; I was like a sponge taking it all in. On our second night we decided to see what Bangkok’s nightlife had to offer! The pubs played up to date chart music and the drinks were all ridiculously cheap which we took full advantage of. Although the drinks were cheap they were very strong so we soon realised we didn’t need as much as we thought, even my Scottish self was not prepared for that! So a bit of advice: if you have a night out would recommend not going for doubles.
The group were up bright and early for a ten hour bus journey to Chiang Mai. Feeling a little fragile from the night before wasn’t looking forward to a day of travelling but the bus journey was surprisingly pleasant. There was a hostess who came around with refreshments, meals and blankets which were super cosy and made napping the whole way much better. Before I knew it the dreaded 10 hours was over.
This is the day I had been looking forward to the most since applying way back in September; it was finally time to go to the Elephant Nature Park! WOO! They did not mess about, as soon as we met Aek, our guide for the week and dropped our bags in our rooms, it was straight to work. First job was unloading a van full of melons, which turned out to be my volunteer groups forte. Each day we would have a morning and afternoon task, which would either be cutting corn in the fields; hardest thing I have done to date but so rewarding, scooping up elephant poo, cleaning the park which involved more scooping up poo…have you ever seen someone look so happy to scoop up elephant poo?
Or the most fun of all, bathing the elephants! How often can you say you’ve bathed an elephant in a river? It was magical. Just look at my face!
This turned into a massive water fight between the volunteers rather quickly – possibly my favourite day the week (especially soaking Aek). In our free time we got to help out at the dog rescue centre, walking the many dogs that they have. You were also able to relax on the sky walk, where you could enjoy watching the elephants roaming around. One day I saw a dog who wasn’t too keen on a little kitty, so I went over to help the cat by picking her up, but she was so frightened by the dog she decided to go to the toilet all over me… guess that was my thank you for saving her! All in a days work.
On our last night we got the privilege to meet the founder of the park, Lek. She gave a speech about everything she has done, and educated us on the elephants she has rescued. This was a truly inspiring moment, to know that even though we were there helping out the park, we can go home and continue to do more to help save these elephants and we had gained the knowledge to educate others.
It was such a different feeling on the return journey back to Chiang Mai. On the journey there we were all so excited and loved every moment, so it was a little sad leaving, but I managed to catch up on some sleep and get ready for the next part of my adventure.
We travelled into the jungle to a hill tribe village called Hak Mai Tai. I was going with an open mind, as I wasn’t too sure of what the living conditions were going to be. We were the first volunteer group to go to this village so I was a little apprehensive about being good at teaching. Once arrived, we were showed our rooms, which we would be sleeping in for the next week. The set up was so lovely. They had prepared mattresses on the floor with plenty of blankets and a mosquito net covering three mats, so it was like a big sleepover all week! Once we were settled we had the opportunity to go and explore the school where we would be teaching and the dorm rooms that we were going to renovate. That evening, we had dinner cooked by the wonderful Nid. Oh my goodness her cooking is unbelievable and I will miss that back in Scotland! We picked our chosen age groups that we wanted to teach – I was desperate to have the older classes and luckily I got them! We got straight to work that night planning what we were going to teach on our first day. I was so excited to get stuck in and make friendships with the pupils.
In the morning we separated into two groups and went to the dorm rooms. I was in the girl’s dorm room, which I was happy about, as I’m a very girly girl and couldn’t wait to get decorating the walls. Firstly, the conditions these children were living in were shocking; I couldn’t imagine leaving a child to sleep there. The walls were in a bad condition, dirty floor with lots of bugs and cobwebs everywhere. We started off the week by cleaning everything, scrubbing the walls and sweeping the floor. The difference after this was crazy, you can imagine what it was going to look like at the end of the week!
On our first day walking to my first class, I started to get really nervous, would these children understand anything I was saying? Would they be so shy they didn’t participate? As soon as I walked in to my classes and saw those beaming smiles that greeted me, followed by a harmony of “good afternoon teacher”, the excitement that filled my body was unreal. I just wanted to squeeze them they were so cute.
We started off with an icebreaker game known as the ‘toilet roll game’, getting the children to say something about themselves. It was a little bit of a challenge trying to explain the rules of the game but with after the help of David and a lot of actions they all soon understood. This allowed me to see where the children’s speech and pronunciation levels were. Then we got them to fill out fake passports, allowing me to get a sense of how well the children could spell. Day one was just easing into things but after leaving my classes at the end of the day, I could not wipe the smile off my face. I was shocked with how much I enjoyed being there with these children and was buzzing to see how the rest of the week unfolded.
Over the next few days we painted the walls of the dorm rooms with primer, then a base of blue as requested by the girls. It started to look amazing.
Teaching was progressing much quicker than I thought, these children were just absorbing everything they could and it was a really beautiful thing to see. The games were the biggest hit with my classes, who doesn’t like to play games? ‘Fly Swatter’ was an all time favourite with both classes, and the inner child in me got more into it than the children sometimes. It was a great way to bond with the children and get everyone moving about and laughing.
On the last day we decided to make up a worksheet to test how much the children had learned over the week. It was such a surprise at how fast they managed to complete these and most of them were all correct! This wasn’t a surprise considering these children were so bright. For the last half an hour we took the children outside for a game of ‘tag’ and were joined by all of the other classes in school. It was so much fun, almost hard to describe the feeling of helping these amazing kids. At the end of the final class, we said our goodbyes to the children and explained that we had to go back to our own homes. When the children realised we would not be back on Monday, there were many tears and hugs. It was in this moment I realised how much of an impact I had on these children lives. It was so humbling to see and it really touched my heart. One of the girl’s parents handmade me a scarf as a thank you present and it was so beautiful and unique.
We then took the children who stayed at the school to show them their dorm rooms; we had painted a tree and it was ready for the children to put their own handprints on the tree as leaves. The children couldn’t stop smiling and it was such a good feeling knowing they loved what we had done with their room. Hopefully they’ll have a more pleasant experience staying there.
I will forever cherish this whole experience and it will be something I will talk about for years to come. I would absolutely recommend this trip to anyone who cares for this planet and just wants to learn and get stuck in to helping, hard work and insight in to an incredible culture surrounded by beautiful scenery and welcoming people.