The whole reason I went to Thailand in the first place was to partake in a volunteering programme through a gap-year company called Real-Gap. I chose to do Muay Thai boxing, so I can’t really say I was volunteering. Other people were teaching English, helping out in orphanages or building work, much more volunteering style. But, having said that, I paid for the privilege of visiting Thailand to undertake a project – it didn’t matter what project – the money goes towards airport pick up, hotels, transport to project sites, accommodation and to local support people.
So, while you might be wondering why should you pay to “volunteer.” The money does get used for what they say it will and also, and this is a big plus, it is an excellent way to be introduced to a country and, whether travelling alone or with friends, it’s a great way to meet other like-minded people.
Even so, I have heard some outrageous stories about these volunteering companies. One is that a group of volunteers go to Thailand, paint school buildings, build something useful or plant some vegetables – all things that might help the local communities. However, once that group has left, it all gets torn down ready for the next group! So, who’s helping who? If you are planning on undertaking a volunteering project, do your research and choose a company that really does make a difference rather it all being about making a quick buck!
The first day of my journey in Thailand, I went to the welcome meeting. I felt weird because having been on my own for the first two weeks in Thailand, I’d being doing my own thing and now I was suddenly surrounded my 50 other people and I felt more alone now than I when I was on my own. I think it takes a while to meet new people and get to know them, but 50 all at once was a little intimidating.
The next day, we were met by our co-ordinators who would be looking after us and we all piled into mini-vans. We were off to Singburi – a small city 2 hours north of Bangkok and where I would be staying for the next 2 months.
The journey there was uneventful and the concrete jungle of Bangkok was replaced by beautiful green paddy fields which stretched into the distance as far as my eye could see. The air was much fresher in these parts and I could see people playing out their lives how they probably have done for years – this was the “real” Thailand.
Singburi is situated on the flat river plain of the Chao Phraya River which weaves its way through the province. Back then, Singburi was not on the tourist trail, it has probably changed a lot since then, but back in 2008, there weren’t many foreigners about. Unless they were part of a tour/volunteering group such as the one I was part of.
Near to where we stayed, there was a small market with a few shops and, along the river, there were small restaurants serving different Thai dishes including frog, tastes like chicken and very spicy. My favourite dish was chicken and rice or Khao Man Gai, a simple dish but extremely tasty and very cheap – around 50p! You will find that eating on the street or in these little riverside restaurants, which are no more than a few tables and chairs, a cooking area and covered from the rain by a straw roof, are by far the cheapest places to dine.
The people who look after you whilst you are part of the volunteering group all worked for a local company called Greenway. (I believe Greenway has since been replaced by a new company.) They speak both Thai and English and are there to cater for your needs, as well as showing you the local attractions, transporting you to your daily activities which, in my case, was 8 weeks of Muay Thai boxing.
The accommodation was in the middle of nowhere, about 20 minutes from the main town by truck, and we were staying in the brown house. There were four separate houses, all close to each other, the brown house, blue, twin and lemon – their names in keeping with the colour they had been painted. No shoes or alcohol were allowed in the houses and the food was only vegetarian. Our house had a main building, with 3 bedrooms, kitchen and 2 bathrooms and an out-building, which had been converted into dormitories. There was a list on the wall of sleeping arrangements and much to my hidden delight I had been allocated a single bedroom in the main building upstairs where the staff slept. I don’t know, but I think it was something to do with me being the oldest, about 10 years older than the oldest person there.
I mentioned no alcohol was allowed in the house, however, we spotted a little bar across the road. Not a bar per se, but a few tables and chairs under a corrugated roof with a fridge on the side of the road. We frequented that bar every day and had some good times there. This is one of the things that I love about Thailand – the people don’t have a lot, but they are extremely resourceful and work with what they do have. Who needs a proper bar anyway?
Overall, the volunteering experience was good, we went sightseeing, and we had language lessons and cooking lessons – an all-round introduction to Thailand and one where you get to see a different side to a country. It really was a blast!