Hi, I’m Philippa and I went to Thailand in June 2023, and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life! Going into it, as expected, I was nervous as I didn’t really know anyone going and it was my first time going to a different country without my parents. As it was an entirely new experience, it was very difficult to know what to expect but a few of the worries I had were about the language barrier and the new food I’d be trying for the first time.
The first thing most of us went through and most will go through, is jet lag. We went on three flights with the travel time being 24+ hours so as you can imagine, we were very tired. Some of the funniest memories of the first few days were us all falling asleep one by one, including the teachers, and us nudging each other to stay awake. Any awkwardness quickly faded and it was like we had known each other forever.
Once we started going to the school, I really found my love for the community. We spent each session with a different focus to educate but also engage and interact with the children. We focused on hygiene, finance, and conversational English. We would spend each planning session thinking of new ways to make it as interesting and fun for the students as we could, whilst keeping it beneficial and on topic. Over the first week, I felt like I really bonded with the children, and my favourite part was playing volleyball together at break time and getting absolutely crushed by the older children!
On the final day of the first week, we planted trees and did a community clean-up around their school to help reduce our carbon footprint. During this, some of the children kindly gave us flowers and stickers which I still have on my bottle now to remind me of them! They were all so welcoming and I found leaving the school to be the hardest part of the trip. Seeing their enjoyment and commitment to their education really made me see it in a different light and the purpose of it. They inspire me, even now, to make the most of the resources I am lucky to have and to use the privilege I have to help raise theirs.
For the second week, we stayed at the Elephant Nature Park to volunteer and support the elephants that have been through abuse, both mental and physical. The owner, Lek Chailert, did an emotional talk during the week where she spoke about her childhood and how she broke away from what was expected of her from her family to support these elephants that needed her. Her speech was impactful to everyone listening, with most in tears, whilst hearing about her heroic and dangerous positions she put herself through because she truly cares about these elephants, fighting against the government and the entertainment industry in Thailand.
At the Sanctuary, we also helped with the dogs that they saved, both disabled and saved from the entertainment industry and the cat Kingdom where they had over a thousand cats saved from the streets of Thailand and given a home. When you go to the sanctuary, you give them the comfort and attention each of these animals deserve. We also helped unload mango trucks (my personal favourite activity, and messiest!), we prepared them by cleaning and chopping them and we made elephant cakes filled with the animals' favourite foods. We also spent evenings walking around the elephant's homes learning about how they naturally live, like swimming in the river that runs through their home to clean themselves. We learned about their mahouts and family dynamics which I found fascinating as I never knew how much of their lives are built on family, and how the entertainment industry strips them of it.
The week at the Sanctuary was emotionally difficult with visibly seeing the abuse these animals had faced but also emotionally fulfilling by the knowledge that they’re now safe from that and we, as a group, were one part of supporting that.
...with Thai food now becoming one of my favourites and a weekly staple in our house. I was already a vegetarian but as a whole group for the first week, we ate vegetarian and the second, we ate vegan. I didn’t even realise that we had eaten vegan for the second week until I was told on the final day, and it inspired me to now be vegan. Every day, we would have fresh mangoes and watermelon which were grown around us. I recommend trying everything offered to you as you never know, it could become your new favourite!
The people you go with are in the same position you are with the same anxieties but if you put yourself out there, you will have the best, most rewarding trip. I have made some of my closest friends due to this trip who I still speak to everyday and I’m so grateful for this trip as it truly impacted my life for the better! I would highly recommend just going for it if the offer is there, you will learn so much about both yourself and other cultures.
Just do it, you won’t regret it!
If you have been part of a Challenges Abroad program and would like to share your experience, please get in touch on Instagram! @challengesabroad