Written by Ashley Macnie, Student Product Manager at travelcuts
Continued from Volunteering in Thailand Pt. 4
When I first booked my volunteer trip with GVI, I had a rough idea of what life would be like in rural Thailand. The program field guide prepares you for the squat toilets and basic accommodations; it recommends a packing list and discusses things like currency, food, and seasonal weather; and it advises you on proper hiking gear and trekking conditions. What the paperwork doesn’t prepare you for is the relationships you’ll make in the village, and the lifelong memories you’ll create.
During my time with GVI, I met fellow volunteers, staff, and interns from throughout the United States, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Wales, Northern Ireland, France, and Australia. Basecamp is like a mini United Nations, tucked away in the mountains of northern Thailand.
Being on project in Huay Pakoot, you truly become part of a community. You start to become familiar with the villagers, greeting them in the morning with “Da blue!” as you make your way to Basecamp, or playing with the kids during free time. Or like me and many others, you become close with the resident dogs and even have your favourites. This is life in the village. You’re always covered in red dirt, you’re always battling the hills, you eat a ton of rice, and chances are the 4am rooster calls wake you up on a daily basis. But…you wouldn’t change a thing. It’s all part of the experience and you become thankful for all the little genuine, life-changing moments.
On my last morning in the village I said goodbye to my homestay family and, fighting back tears, made my way up the hill that they’re situated at the bottom of. After two weeks you get into a routine. About midway my canine friend (whom I dubbed “Doggo”), appeared at the top of the hill right on cue, and ran down to meet me. We only walked for a few metres when his puppy neighbour joined us to complete our morning routine. They chaperoned me to a fork in the road, and after a very sad few minutes in which we played and I (tried to) emotionally let them go, I continued on my own.
Walking up to Base that morning, my biggest feat was preparing myself for all the goodbyes. A group of us were scheduled to make the return trip back to Chiang Mai, where we’d enjoy our last few days together before departing volunteers flew home and the others returned to Huay Pakoot. Some staff members weren’t making the trip into Chiang Mai, however, so needless to say the emotions were running high as these were our final moments as a group.
We had breakfast as usual, and I made a concentrated effort to savour the view from Base, which had become one of my favourite things to do in Huay Pakoot. You can catch the perfect breeze as you watch the sun set, while being serenaded by insect songs and the distant, gentle knocking of wooden bells on the village water buffalo. If you’re looking for a “zen” moment, GVI’s Basecamp is the perfect place to achieve it.
The time to leave was quickly approaching, so after our meal we gathered our things and prepared to pile into the trucks for one last ride through the hills. It can take four to five hours to reach Chiang Mai, so we had to make ourselves comfortable.
I love travelling but I hate goodbyes. I am a staunch believer that you can make genuine, lifelong friends when you participate in group travel, or in this case volunteer tourism. These new, international travel buddies really do make the difference in your quality of moments and memories made…which makes it so much harder to return to your respective corners of the globe when you’re due.
With one final round of hugs, we hopped into our transports and left Huay Pakoot. It was a very hard departure for a number of us, especially those who fully immersed themselves into village life. Thankfully we had the long drive to Chiang Mai to use as recovery time.
Re-entering city life was a bit of a shock! I had become used to only having to share the road with the odd dirt bike, chicken, or water buffalo – Chiang Mai offered sensory overload! As much as it was hectic, it was also very exciting to explore a new part of Thailand that I hadn’t yet experienced. We dropped off our luggage at the hotel and almost immediately went for a walk. We were in search of a late lunch and some souvenirs, and Chiang Mai did not disappoint. We walked for hours until we were ready for a night on the town, after which we returned to our hotel with its air-conditioning and comfy beds.
The next morning we went out for breakfast at a restaurant that is a volunteer favourite, within walking distance from the hotel. After replenishing with some good food and fresh coconut water, I joined fellow volunteer, Ksenia, for a visit to Wat Chedi Luang – a historic 15th-century Buddhist temple in the heart of historic Chiang Mai.
Shortly after arriving we happened upon a ceremony for novice monks, and watched as they received new robes from family elders. Afterwards, we continued exploring and ran into a pair of Karen women, clad in traditional clothing. Ksenia broke out the Pakinaw she learned in the village and had a brief conversation with them as nearby tourists took photos. Apparently the Karenni women were an unfamiliar sighting for visitors from other countries. I had to laugh because for two weeks, that’s all I knew!
We continued on our walk and noticed a gathering around the entrance to one of the biggest temples, so we decided to check it out. We entered and quickly became spectators of another ceremony for the young monks. We joined a group at the back of the temple and listened as prayers were chanted over the loud speaker. There was around 150 monks, sitting in rows, surrounded by onlookers. It was one of those moments that gives you goosebumps, and both Ksenia and I were thankful we chose that day to visit.
Leaving the temple grounds I told Ksenia that I wanted to experience my first tuk tuk, so we hailed the iconic Thai taxi for a lift back to the hotel. It’s one of those things that seems very “touristy”, but it’s honestly a fun way to get around town. If you’re ever in Thailand, take at least one ride in these covered, motorbike contraptions.
With just an hour left before I had to make my way to the airport, we decided to do nothing but hang out on the hotel patio. Knowing I was about to finally leave Thailand, I was full of sadness and sentiment. It had been two hard yet amazing weeks in a country I was new to, with people from around the world who had quickly become great friends.
Prior to learning about this amazing program, I could have never imagined myself volunteering with elephants in the mountainous jungles of northern Thailand. GVI provides you with the opportunity to do incredible work on an international level, and I’m thankful that I pushed myself to do something outside my travel norms and comfort levels.
I hope you all have enjoyed my posts on my time with GVI Thailand Chiang Mai, and that you are inspired to take a volunteer trip of your own. If you need any more encouragement, take a few moments to watch the video below, then contact us to book your own once in a lifetime journey.