Alexandra Quinn tells The Gap Year Travel Guide about the time she spent volunteering to teach in Thailand with VESL.
I was first inspired to teach abroad after a representative from VESL came to my university. VESL is a small charity that runs meaningful volunteering and teaching opportunities in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.
Luckily you are not required to have previous teaching experience to volunteer with VESL. They seek people who are enthusiastic about teaching English; and interested in the unique experience of living and working abroad.
How to apply
Applying is pretty straight forward. From the VESL website (www.vesl.org) you can download an information pack and application form. There is a volunteer contribution to pay, but VESL give out loads of helpful fundraising advice.
I chose Thailand because it held a particular opportunity which appealed to my interests. In my home town, Blackpool, I had already volunteered at a local playscheme for children with special needs. For this reason, I’m pioneering a new volunteering role for VESL, working for a year in the special education department of Mengraimaharaj Witthayakhom High School, in the province of Chiang Rai in north Thailand.
In the classroom
A variety of roles are included in my teaching position. When students come in to the department wanting extra assistance with their English language work, I provide help with reading, speaking and writing. I also go in to classes with the special education students acting as a one-to-one helper during lessons.
Teaching in a foreign country like Thailand is so worthwhile; it makes you proud to think that you’re making valuable changes to the lives of so many people. There is a great culture of respect in Thailand, which makes you feel valued as a volunteer, and know your work is appreciated. Everyone I’ve met so far has been lovely, and done a very good job of making me feel welcome and showing me around Chiang Rai.
There aren’t many negatives about volunteering to teach in Thailand, apart from getting up at 6am on work days! There is also the obvious difficultly of the language barrier. At times it can be hard communicating with students and other teachers, because I came to the country without any knowledge of their native language. However even this can be a positive if you make it one. As I have been teaching the students everything they want to know about the English Language, they have been very happy to teach me how to speak Thai, in return.
When I’m not teaching I have lots of spare time to explore both the natural and man-made treasures that Thailand has to offer.
Before I came, I’d read about the famous night markets, and I wasn’t disappointed. Walking through streets and streets of cheerful, chattering people, buying fantastic food, drink, native goods and clothes is certainly my idea of an evening well spent.
On my first visit to the markets I couldn’t resist sampling some of the local delicacies, so I tried eating some cooked flies and silkworms, and a fried grasshopper or two. They weren’t bad, tasting quite crunchy and sweet.
Visiting the hill tribe of The Karen Long Necks was an interesting experience. They live high in the mountains, making their living from selling hand-made crafts to tourists. They wear heavy gold chains around their necks. On the way in, you can try the chains for yourself, but in less than a minute I removed mine, finding it far too heavy. I have no idea how the tribe successfully manage to keep them on from the age of five years old.
The White Temple
Given the amount of temples in Chiang Rai, it’s a good idea to be selective. I’ve seen about ten so far, and, impressive though they are, after a while they all start to look the same! Above all others, I would strongly suggest seeing The White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun. This magnificent building was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, and is surrounded by many dark, gothic type sculptures but is sparkling and golden within.
Sadly, you’re not allowed to take photos. Once you’ve finished gawping, removed your shoes (it’s a mark of respect) and gone for a peek inside, I’d recommend looking around the surrounding area. We spent a delightful afternoon checking out all the art museums and shops. I bought some lovely clothes at very reasonable prices.
Without a doubt, my favorite point of interest in Chiang Rai so far has been the Khunkorn Waterfall. Being Chiang Rai’s largest waterfall at 70 metres, it is well worth the trip, but remember to wear sensible walking shoes! With many little streams to hop over and some heavily muddy areas, I had the constant fear of slipping over or seeing my shoes float away.
Despite my worrying everyone reached the top safely. It was definitely worth it, the waterfall was stunning. I lost track of time as we stood; fascinated by its powerful cascade, lulled by the spray, transfixed by the rhythmic sounds, not wanting to leave. Several hours later we arrived home; exhausted, covered in mud and tree bark, but very happy.
Phayao is a gorgeous place, we spent the day exploring temples and visited a monstery, where we received a blessing from a Buddhist monk. The highlight of our visit was a twenty minute ride across Lake Phayao. We landed on a small island, where we were able to play some ceremonial instruments. Then we picked up a bucket of tadpoles to take across a very rickety bridge, which I thought I was going to fall off, to release them back in to the water. I’m not sure what the significance of this was! The river is full of colourful fish, so we had an enjoyable time watching and feeding them before our return.
A final word
Do as much as you can to immerse yourself in Thai culture while you are there. Thailand is a country rich in culture and unique customs. If you live by their rules and get fully stuck into their way of life during your stay, the Thais will certainly thank you for it, and you’ll leave knowing you had the best experience possible whilst you were volunteering to teach in Thailand.
Are you planning on volunteering to teach in Thailand? Let us know in the comments below.