This summer, I embarked on my incredible adventure to Laos and Thailand with only a backpack of necessities. I honestly can not summarize the amazing experience into words, but here I will try. This program is, in my opinion, the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding of all programs that Rustic Pathways has to offer in Southeast Asia. Right from the start, I felt comfortable and welcomed into my group of 16 teenagers who all shared interest in impacting the world, and demonstrated humility, integrity, and compassion. My group dynamic definitely set a positive tone for my entire journey, and I felt so blessed to have shared this experience with my new best friends. My leaders were super prepared with medical skills, and I always felt comfortable talking to them, no matter what the topic was. They trusted us to not do dumb things, which I think was important because this is an independent and personal adventure. The local staff were friendly, and it was fun to teach each other new words and aspects of our cultures. I felt safe knowing that I was accounted for and looked after, as we traveled through some slightly risky areas, especially in Laos. I was extremely grateful to be able to experience the realities of world travel while still never feeling threatened or in danger, which I think is something Rustic Pathways has truly perfected.
At first, I was nervous about how far my comfort zone would be pushed during this trip, as I was flying across the world with only a few belongings and I didn't know anyone beforehand. However, my group turned out to be a wonderful support group, and we all helped each other push our limits, learn, and grow from life outside our comfort zone in a painless way. Of course, there were times while we lived in our homestays, in sometimes extremely rural villages, where I felt uncomfortable, but every experience was worth the lesson that it taught me, and helped me grow in my awareness of the global community. I think the like-mindedness of people who choose to send themselves halfway across the world with just 5 things is a really important aspect of this program, and group dynamic can influence the entire trip a lot.
We visited 3 different villages, one in Thailand and two in Laos. We spent 4 to 5 days in each village, which i felt was a long enough time to build relationships with the locals and learn their individual cultures. Our homestay families were welcoming, and I will honestly never forget their hospitality. I enjoyed how much we learned about the rich history in Laos, which was so important to truly understand their way of life. I was so excited to learn about how these people, especially in the most isolated village, lived without influence of modern technology, and it was amazing to work alongside them while we built soccer goals, a fence, and a sign for their school. The service was often challenging, from mixing cement or laying bricks for a wall, to digging/hoeing dirt to transport to our worksite, or digging a long trench to lay pipes for water transport. At some points in the most rural village, I felt like there were more impactful projects that we could be doing, but I always kept it in perspective that the village asked us for specific things that they needed help with. I knew that whatever we were doing, they were really grateful for. It was awesome to spend time with villagers, learn a bit of their language, and share our vastly different cultures.
The travel days between Thailand and Laos were long, but never boring. I was really glad that we took alternate means of travel instead of just days of travel in a van. Our two-day boat ride down the Mekong was gorgeous, and I was never bored, even when stuck on the boat for 8 hours a day. The website really plays up the boat ride, I think, because we didn't stay on the boat for 2 whole days straight. We stayed in a hotel between the boating days in a small river town. Every place we ate at was beautiful and on the water almost always, and I felt safe in our hotel rooms even when they were pretty rustic. I was actually glad that we didn't stay in very high-end or nice hotels because I think it added to the experience and made it more memorable. Laos is definitely the most consistently beautiful country I have ever visited, and every simple view out any window was breathtaking.
By the end of the trip, everyone was pretty sick from either exhaustion or a virus. A few kids got food poisoning, and a lot of us got colds, fevers, or rashes. I know on a lot of these trips, getting sick or hurt is almost unavoidable, but Rustic always seemed pretty diligent about getting kids to hospitals if they need to see doctors, and they paid for medical bills for kids who had doctors visits. I suggest bringing day/nighttime cold meds, advil or tylenol, and a few packages of tissues (because you never know when you'll need them). We were able to shop for clothes & other random items at least 4 times during the trip, either at supermarkets or night markets, but I was surprised by how little I needed on a day to day basis. I also suggest buying something like a fanny pack while you're over there because mine was truly a life saver: I kept all my necessary items in it (passport, phone, hand sanitizer) and I was never worried it would be lost.
Overall, I strongly suggest pushing the limits of your comfort zone and trying out this challenging program. I see things in a new light since I've gotten home, and I wouldn't trade this new attitude for anything. I would love to discuss the program further if anyone is seriously interested.