Editorial: Backpacking with a difference

My summer volunteering in northern Thailand

Writer Trixie Croad

Photos by: Trixie Croad

“The first week was incredibly overwhelming and there were several moments I contemplated packing up and going home”

A young Thai child with a smile on her face

Earlier this year I was catching up over Skype with my best friend and world travel buddy when she planted the seed for what became the most rewarding summer of my life. As we contemplated dreams of travel and world experience, as we often do, and reminisced on past backpacking trips to the southern Alps of New Zealand, the islands of Greece, and the ruins of Italy, we decided on our next adventure we wanted to be more than just tourists and to delve deeper out of our comfort zone, as well as to give back to parts of the global community less fortunate than ourselves.

First to find a general destination: Asia- let’s go somewhere totally foreign to us (and also where our small amount of savings would go the furthest). The research then began, dodging all the touristy volunteer agencies just out to make a buck. We were trying to find somewhere our time and efforts would be truly appreciated by the people who needed it, and where we would gain an authentic experience. Finally we found Camillian Social Centre Chaingrai- a Catholic charity boarding facility for disabled children servicing the hill tribes of northern Thailand. They accepted our request to volunteer and the planning for a Southeast Asian adventure began.

May came around and we loaded our backpacks and hit the road. We had arranged it so our time volunteering at the Social Centre would fall in the middle of our trip, leaving us time on either side to do some backpacking. We started with a week in Bali, Indonesia before hopping the South China Sea to Vietnam. We then spent three weeks traveling by train, bus, motorcycle, and on foot on our way up from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north, experiencing everything from big cities to tiny villages, and from inland jungles and mountains to luscious beaches. With Bali and Vietnam under our belt, it was time to hang up our backpacks for a while and head to the social centre in Chiangrai.

The first week was incredibly overwhelming, and there were several moments I contemplated packing up and going home. Immediately the language barrier made everything a struggle. Something as simple as communicating that my bed didn’t have bedding took three days of sleeping on the plastic of the mattress to figure out. Having recovered from a bout of food poisoning just a few days before arriving, my appetite was not ready for a diet fully immersed in Thai culture for breakfast lunch and dinner, and the local shop in the village sold nothing Western other than candy and potato chips.

The children were instantly warm and friendly, but equally overwhelming. There were 37 children between the ages of four or five and 18, all with various, sometimes not officially diagnosed, physical and behavioural disabilities that needed constant one-on-one help and attention. Many of the children had Cerebral Palsy, some had Down’s Syndrome, ADHD, were deaf, etc.

On the very first day, after a short tour of the grounds, a staff member beckoned me to a classroom full of about 12 children ranging from around 6-15 years old and gave me a single word instruction. “English”. For the next two hours, I was to teach these children something about the English language, some of them unable to hear, speak, hold a pen, or even hold their head up to see the whiteboard. 45 minutes later I had one girl throwing a tantrum in the corner, a boy drawing on the wall, and perhaps two or three students mildly paying attention to my panicked efforts to teach them the alphabet.

Emotions were running high, I was missing the comforts of home and seriously doubting that my presence would help these children. I felt angry that the Centre would neglect these children’s education so much and I felt sorry for the children that I wasn’t able to help.

Description of photo

I would love to say teaching them English became easier and more productive- it didn't. What did change was my mindset and my understanding of the purpose my work here would serve. I realized that in a sense these children, just by being present at the social centre, were the lucky ones. Most had been brought to the centre by parents who were unable to look after them, some had no parents at all, and many had not had proper medical treatment or even diagnosis for their disabilities. Just being at the centre gave them the facilities and the attention they needed to attempt happy and fulfilling childhoods, and work towards being able to live happy and fulfilling adulthoods. Any English I could teach these kids was secondary to stimulating them and making them laugh, helping them with daily tasks, or helping them to learn to be self-sufficient. I looked around with these new eyes and saw happy children, enjoying their daily lives despite their limited ability.

Once we were settled in, had a bit more of a schedule and had come to terms with education not being the forefront of our work, we felt a lot more purposeful and we allowed the joy of the children to rub off on us. Our roles still included teaching english at the Centre, as well as to village children at the local church, but our main task ended up being to assist with physical therapy. This was really rewarding because we were able to spend one-on-one time with each child and we made it our mission to find ways to break the monotony of doing exercises by making them fun. The therapy room was full of games and toys which we utilized each session. Basically for five hours a day we got to have play time, and mix in arm and leg raises along the way. Through these sessions we really got to know each child, their personalities and preferences, as well as their physical and mental capabilities. Even for the most disabled of the children who couldn’t speak or control muscle movement, we were able to find ways to interact with them and make them laugh.

After spending just over a month at Camillian Social Centre, it was time to move on.

We finished our trip with a tour of northern and then southern Thailand, 10 days in Malaysia, as well as a day trip to Myanmar. We had been to six countries in three months, but it was our time in Chaingrai that we feel most empowered and enlightened by, not all the new stamps in our passports.

My feelings by the time we left Chaingrai had come full circle, going through an emotional rollercoaster along the way, and I found myself wanting to stay. I felt like we had begun to build such a rapport with each child and they had just started to be really comfortable with us, maybe we could've been a real support system for each of them if we had been there a little bit longer. They are quite unique, happy and, for the most part, fulfilled young people and while I miss them a lot. I feel they are lucky to have Camillian as their home, and are in good hands.