Liberal Arts and Science student Alexandra shares some of her experiences and photos from her summer spent in Thailand volunteering in an orphanage. A great example of how work experience and travel can be combined.
During the summer holidays I decided to volunteer at an orphanage in Thailand with my friend. We first travelled around Thailand and then spent one day and night on coaches and trains to reach our destination: Takua Pa. Sam and Gai are the owners of the orphanage and originally set it up in the wake of the 2004 tsunami which left several hundred orphans in the Phang Nga province with nothing. The orphanage began as a tent and now has the capacity to care for 40 children.
Our day at the orphanage began at 4.30AM, when we would wake up, quickly dress and go down to the kitchen to help with chores. My friend and I were put in charge of sweeping the grounds every morning to clear the leaves, and washing the kitchen floor. Sweeping the grounds proved to be more of a challenge than we first realised, as we were given a broom made of branches which we found embarrassingly difficult to use. We then helped to lay the table for breakfast and ate with Sam, Gai and all of the children. Breakfast was western-style for Jess and I, with toast and Nutella, where as the rest of the children would eat rice and meat. We then helped with chores until it was time to go to the local school. We arrived at the school and asked if we would be able to help there, they immediately agreed and put us straight in front of a class of 30 children. We had to quickly improvise and came up with a variety of educational games to keep the children’s’ attention. Every time we helped at the school we were able to teach a different class of students which meant we got a great experience of teaching different age groups. We taught for an hour at a time which was very tiring, especially with the youngest children, but very fun and quickly got us into the swing of teaching. Our biggest contribution seemed to be to help them to understand English grammar, which is quite illogical from a non-native point of view!
We had arranged to help build fences and a new chicken enclosure at the orphanage but unfortunately arriving during the rainy season meant that it heavily rained for 10 hours a day! As a result we couldn’t help with anything outside but we were able to make soap boxes with the family, which are then sold to provide an income for the orphanage.
In the evening we had free time to play with the children. We played educational games with them and helped them to practise speaking English. The children were all so lovely and kind to us, and they really made the early wake up and long day worthwhile.
Gai cooked all of our meals for us while we stayed at the orphanage and it was a fun experience getting to try such authentic food. I felt incredibly humbled and ashamed when I was too full to finish half of my food one night and was about to scrape it into the bin before I was yelled at to stop and realised that the children were extremely excited to finish my leftovers. I was also amazed to see how far Gai managed to make the food go, and how she ensured that everyone ate nutritiously despite the orphanage’s limited income.
However, on one day Gai took us to the local market, and once I saw where the meat was coming from I soon turned to a vegetarian diet for the rest of my stay. (Look away from the next photos if you’re squeamish!)
While we were there we visited the tsunami memorial. It was lovely to visit this after seeing how much effect the tsunami has had on the local people, and even on the landscape. The memorial involved a path of water which you had to walk through to reach the steps on the other side.
Overall, it was an amazing and humbling stay at the orphanage. Although we were not able to help in the ways we had intended I still felt so lucky to have had the experience I did and to be able to help in small ways. The children really appreciated getting out of chores for a few weeks and it was very fulfilling to see their English improve during our stay. The experience was difficult in many ways though; the early wake ups were hard and began to take their toll on our energy after a few days. I also found the diet quite difficult to get used to and missed Western comforts like a cup of tea after coming in from the rain! However, it was brilliant to have an experience so far removed from my comfortable life and throw myself into something challenging. If you want to travel to somewhere like this to help I would really recommend looking online and contacting orphanages directly, instead of paying an organisation an extortionate amount of money to arrange the experience. We were able to skype with previous volunteers at the orphanage to check that it was what we were looking for. I would really recommend a volunteering experience of this kind and I’m already counting the days until I can go back to help!