Why did you choose this program?
Laos is one of the last southeast Asian countries still relatively unheard of in the western world, compared to its modernized neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. Not many people know that Luang Prabang, a charming little town located in northern Laos where the mighty Mekong River (world's 12th-longest river!) snakes through, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995! Even with its cultural and architectural richness, Laos is often overlooked by tourists. I am fascinated by human geography and wanted to learn more about Lao everyday life, especially children's access to education, which I believe is the key to transforming socio-economic landscapes of developing countries. This program gave me a chance to interact with locals, listen to their stories, share first-hand experiences and hopefully encourage volunteers to come discover this beautiful country for themselves.
What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
My first overseas volunteer experience was via IVHQ two years ago, and they have never disappointed. Compared to other organizations I've volunteered with, IVHQ is very transparent and makes sure volunteers are well-prepared with the essential information on pick-up, accommodation, project placement, cultural do's and don'ts, local contacts, etc., so we never feel helpless. This allows volunteers to better manage their expectations, which I've concluded to be so important, because that will affect your entire experience. My planning was made much easier with IVHQ's support and knowledgeable staff. That said, future volunteers reading this should note that they are 100% responsible for getting a visa in time, travel insurance (you can never be too careful!) and making sure to communicate their flight itinerary to IVHQ. Don't leave these to the last minute!
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
If you're like me and love history, culture and everything in between, take time to research beforehand so you have a better understanding and appreciation when you're there. Did you know Laos went through a civil war in the 1950s that lasted more than two decades and over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War, making it the most-bombed country in history? Neither did I, until I visited COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane (this is part of your orientation). As for program-specific advice, do your homework. Read reviews to determine if this is the right program for you. Ask yourself how you will be able to contribute, and the type of experience you want to get out of it. Not only should you strive to benefit local communities, the work itself should also help contribute to your personal development. With this in mind, you will definitely spend your time in a more meaningful way. Keep a diary of everything you learn. Also, reach out and connect with past or current volunteers via IVHQ Facebook groups to find out what is lacking at the placements. Where possible, bring along some useful items from home or, better yet, fund-raise to purchase whatever you need when you're in the country. Support their economy, buy local!
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
Orientation takes place from Monday to Thursday. Your co-ordinator will teach some basic Laotian phrases (very useful!), bring you on a city tour to visit temples/museums/night market so you have a chance to be bit of a tourist before easing into your volunteer position. On Friday, you will be accompanied to your placement, where you can start spending time interacting with the children. My childcare center is only a 5-minute bicycle ride away. Daily activities include teaching basic English to a class of 3-to-4-year-olds, like the alphabet, weather, shapes, colors & numbers. Volunteers have plenty of flexibility to introduce new words, though it can be quite challenging given their attention span; one suggestion is to incorporate games, songs or toys. In the afternoons, after bathing/feeding time, they are free to do coloring/drawing activities, or we simply play with them. On weekends, volunteers often go out of town to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng or Vientiane. There are lots of gorgeous sights to take in, and while you're having fun zip-lining, tubing, kayaking and bathing elephants, remember not to do anything reckless or disrespectful to the local community.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?
Unfortunately, I experienced muggers and burglars in Vietnam and Cambodia, so my fear of crime and snatch-theft was very real. It made me rather paranoid so much so I was looking over my shoulder every five seconds. Thankfully nothing exceptionally bad happened in Laos, except a handful tuk-tuk drivers who were out to make a fast buck out of tourists by over/wrongful charging. You will learn to deal with them gracefully, don't worry! In remote areas, you will find virtually zero english-speaking people; in case you run into trouble anywhere in Laos, always have a plan to contact your coordinator.
How can volunteers best handle culture shock?
Keep an open mind! I can't emphasize enough on managing your expectations. First-timers may have some trouble adapting, but nowadays there's so many resources to help you prepare for what to expect. Arm yourself with a good ol' travel guide. Share sentiments with fellow volunteers. Remember, you're never alone. Laos is still very much a developing country as a whole. At some point you WILL see things you normally wouldn't stomach back home, you WILL miss your creature comforts, you WILL get funny looks from locals (being a foreigner you automatically stand out)... all I can say is this: you can either sob miserably into your smartphone and buy a ticket for the next flight home, or sip some Lao Lao (their national whiskey), go with the flow and make the most of what this unspoiled country has to offer.
How has volunteering changed your life?
Over the years, I met young teens in rural areas who would walk for hours just to attend school every day. I met volunteers in the International Anti-Poaching Foundation's Green Army supporting brave rangers who risk their lives protecting endangered wildlife. I met rescued street children who now run NGOs to ensure underprivileged kids get to go to school. Interacting with locals gave me a newfound perspective on everything and I'm not exaggerating - it was a wake-up call that made me re-examine my priorities in life. Volunteerism has such positive ripple effects on people everywhere - through the sharing of ideas, skills and knowledge. It sounds cheesy, but the more people I meet, the more I realize our hopes and aspirations are not all that different from each other. The power of giving should never be underestimated; it's up to those who have that advantage to bridge inequality gaps. No matter which stage of life you're at, it's never too late to start!