I’ve always had a fondness for Elephants, I’m not too sure why, I think it must be their sheer size. Luckily I never saw them in a zoo here in the UK when I was younger.
This was my first ever trip solo outside the UK, lots of my friends had settled down and the few remaining singletons weren’t really the backpacking/volunteering type, happier to sit in an all-inclusive hotel for 2 weeks.
Choosing a Volunteer Placement
I decided that I wanted to see Thailand and wanted to do more than just following the usual very well beaten path, I felt that volunteering was the way to go. Searching on Google brought up a million different options and some crazy prices.
I eventually came across www.thepodsite.co.uk who had some good reviews, there were a few options for volunteering with Elephants in Thailand, one of my friends had family who lived in Hua Hin so I went for the closest place which was www.wfft.org a couple of hours south of Bangkok in Petchaburi .
You could choose whether you wanted to work with just Elephants or with wildlife as well, I chose Elephants for the full 2 weeks. I booked to go over Christmas and New year 2009 for 2 weeks and another week at a hotel on the beach afterwards to relax.
Arriving in Thailand
Landing in Bangkok it seemed that everyone else had chosen the same day to arrive, getting off the plane there was a mad rush for the immigration desks, the queues were massive. Once through them I headed downstairs to get the coach to Hua Hin and away from hustle of Bangkok.
Getting to the Centre
I stayed in a cheap hotel for 1 night in central Hua Hin near the station and was picked up by taxi in the morning, arranged by WFFT. I was a little apprehensive as I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect, the rescue centre was situated near a small village on temple grounds, we pulled up to the main gate in front of a big lake with small islands that had gibbons swinging freely in the trees.
After a small introduction with about 10 other volunteers we were shown our basic but comfortable accommodation, then we were taken on a tour of the whole centre, they had so many different animals all with a different sad tale of how they came to the centre and the various injuries they had. Eventually we came to the Elephants and I was instantly in awe of these majestic animals, their shear size and laid back way they sauntered round their enclosures picking up fruit with their long winding trunks.
The rest of the first day we were free to explore, unpack and get to know each other. Sleeping that night took a while as the sounds of the forest with the Monkeys, birds and insects were so alien to me, I learned to love it and instantly missed it when I left!
First Working Day
The first proper day as per every day started at 6.30am and we were put into teams of 3 or 4 for each Elephant. We teamed up with a current volunteer who knew their way around and we had to head into the forest to collect the Elephants and walk them back to their enclosures while the sun rose through the trees, so peaceful.
The daily tasks involved feeding the Elephants Sugar Cane, Banana Trees, Pineapple plants and fruit that had to be washed and chopped. Cleaning out their enclosures including the massive poo (least enjoyable) and remains of any uneaten food. Washing the Elephants whilst getting a good soaking yourself (nice in the baking sun), preparing enrichment’s, walking them with the mahouts into the forest and down to the lake, maintenance around the centre and then the dreaded harvest.
The harvest involved getting on a truck around 9am every other day and heading out to local farms who had Banana trees or Sugar Cane that they wanted cleared from the land, sometime this involved a long drive out into the countryside and gave you a chance to see some wonderful countryside and out of the way places.
The Banana tree harvest was the toughest work, some weighed up to 25kg but once you got the hang of getting them up onto your shoulder it wasn’t so bad, I did realise I was pretty unfit though and the heat really took it out of you. The ride back to the centre was the best bit and most of the time we stopped at a river for a proper cool down.
Around the Centre
The centre had everything you needed, large communal kitchen, a laundry service, basic accommodation with showers, European style toilets, fans, internet access and even a small bar.
Breakfast at the centre was a do it yourself affair but Lunch and Dinner were buffet style with a great selection of Thai food, Green curry was always my favourite!
Some evenings the volunteers would go to the local village for dinner or out to Hua Hin and Cha Am for the night markets or to the bars. There were also rest days you could take and spend at the centre or go to the local Spa for a bit of luxury.
This holiday was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had, I met so many nice people from all around the world, all there for a good cause, it was truly eye opening as to the abuse of wild animals for use in the tourist trade, I’d recommend it to anyone! www.wfft.org
In 2012 I went for a bike trip in Vietnam, after being inspired by a Top Gear episode where the presenters all rode from Saigon to Hanoi on a Vespa (Clarkson), Minsk (Hammond) and Honda C90(May). I had an initial plan of buying a bike (favoured by many backpackers) and riding with a friend, starting in Saigon and seeing how far up the country we could make it in 2 weeks.
I went for three weeks meeting a friend after a week, I had a vague initial plan of hiring a bike in Saigon and riding to Dalat and Mui Ne. I took my own helmet and gloves and arranged over email to hire a Honda Win from a bloke called Danh at Saigon Minsk.
The Bike Shop
Wandering down the road to pick the bike up I was expecting to find a shop, this was a very loose example, it seemed that bikes where being stripped down in the gutter outside a doorway! I found Danh, the bloke I’d been in contact with over email, he pulled out this old dog of a bike, he said he needed to give it a quick service and I could pick it up later, this made me a little nervous as it looked like it needed a rebuild, not just a once over!
Short trip to the Mekong Delta
I planned to ride to the Mekong Delta for a night, this was just to get used to the bike before my friend arrived and so I could build up a bit of confidence in the mad traffic. I made friends with a local bike taxi dude called Sohn, he agreed to show me out of the crazy traffic of Saigon, he also knew a guide in the Mekong Delta who’d show me around once I was there.
The next day I picked up the bike, it felt pretty small and the controls were awful, this thing had obviously been to the moon and back in miles. I bungeed my bag on the back and it was pretty obvious that this thing would never take two people and two bags! oh well change of plan needed then.
I met up with Sonn the bike taxi dude and we headed to the petrol station down the road, it was like being in a video game, bikes weaving in and out of busses chucking out clouds of diesel, you had to be committed in your direction with no hesitation or you couldn’t survive!
After filling up we headed out of town, this thing felt pretty loose, the speedo didn’t work, the sidestand kept dropping down but I started to get a feel for it, after an hour or so I suddenly felt something was wrong, the back of the bike was all over the place and I was doing about 50mph so rolled off the throttle and stuck my legs out, nearly losing it in the gravel at the side of the road, heart pumping and lorries thundering past, my guide was a good way off in the distance by now. Getting off the bike it was obvious the rear tyre was totally shot, I saw some stalls at the side of the road so I struggled to push the bike towards them, I asked this old lady with a bit of sign language where I could get it fixed, she pointed next door at a massive Honda sign, not sure how I missed that! The place was deserted so I shouted out and a small bloke in an oily vest appeared from a hammock, he didn’t look too pleased I’d just woke him up, I pointed to the tyre and within 5 minutes he had the shredded rubber off, Sohn had now shown up and chatted away to the bloke, it only cost £2 and we were off again.
We eventually made it across a large bridge that crossed into the Mekong Delta, we met up with Sohn’s friend who found me a hotel in the rice paddy fields. I wasn’t too comfortable exploring on my own on the knackered Honda and knew I’d get lost as the road signs were absolutely rubbish!
The next day I had a wander around the local town for breakfast and decided it was probably best just to head back to Saigon as I didn’t really want to spend out on all the tours offered and now my travel plans had changed I needed to save a bit of cash.
Here’s a video of me following a local back to the main bridge (sorry for the rubbish sound)
The bloke in the video left me at the bridge to make my own way back to Saigon, It took forever! I took a good few wrong turns the nearer I got to Saigon but eventually I saw in the distance one of the newest shiny towers in the city and just headed for that. I made it back in one piece and gave the bike back 2 days early, I got most of my money back as the thing was a death trap!
The Chu Chi Tunnels
My friend from India turned up in Saigon and we hired Sohn the taxi dude to take us to the chu chi tunnels north of the city, I went on the back of his bike and my friend went on the back his friends bike, it was a much better way to see the tunnels than getting on a sweaty tourist bus with the hordes of other tourists. We avoided the crowds and also saw some of the countryside, stopping for drinks and lunch.
Leaving Saigon for Beaches and Mountains
After the chaos of Saigon we decided to escape by train to Mui ne a tourist town on the coast which was a nice change of pace from the city. We arrived at night and there were only 2 taxis outside the station, think we got a bit ripped off as it was only a little journey. Our hotel was right at the end of the main beach, it was the cheapest place available but was comfortable enough.
After a few days chilling on the beach eating fresh seafood we caught a small bus to Dalat, a really peaceful town up in the hills inland.
Leaving Dalat on a 3 day bike trip
While we were wandering around Dalat we came across a couple of places offering bike tours, after a bit of haggling we arranged for a 3 day trip down from the mountains into Nha Trang, it worked out to £50 each including bike for me and guesthouses. My friend went on the back of the guides bike and I got a Yamaha stepthrough moped.
I would absolutely recommend this to anyone heading to Vietnam, we saw so many sights (Coffee plantation, waterfalls and temples) ate some amazing food (Pho is delicious) and met some really friendly people (gatecrashing a wedding and wandering a proper market)
Here’s a video of the best bits, I’m afraid the camera wasn’t the greatest, it conked out after getting caught in a mega downfall.
Back in 2011 I decided I’d had enough of the endless 9-5, working as a Warehouse Manager for an electronics company. I was really at a dead end and needed an adventure, volunteering seemed like a good option, luckily I had internet access all day at work and spent most of the quiet days searching travel websites like www.lonelyplanet.com for inspiration.
I’d saved up about £4000 and the lease was up on a flat I was sharing with a friend, so the time seemed right to pack up and go.
On one of my days searching online for ideas I found a volunteer Computer Technician role in India, advertised at www.lhasocialwork.org .This looked ideal as I knew my way around computers as I’d grown up with them, the minimum length of time they needed someone was 3 months which was quite a commitment and it was to maintain the schools computers and help the students with any problems. I took the plunge, booked it and then set about planning, I knew that I wanted to return to Thailand to see friends I had there so also booked onward flights and worked out I could be away for around 4 and a half months in total.
The process of getting a visa took a while and made me nervous of sending off my passport, hoping I would get it back in time as I’d read too many horror stories on the Lonely Planet forums, I also needed larger passport photo’s and none of the photo booths around town did them, I had to go to a shop and get them specially taken.
Off to India
Eventually the time came for me to head off to India on my own, it didn’t seem real until I was sat on the plane high above India looking out onto the vast plains. When the doors opened and you felt the heat and humidty it was a shock as I’d just come from the cold and snow of the UK. I got to immigration and had to state where I was staying, I had no idea of the hotel name as I hadn’t arranged it, so I just put Hotel India! Grabbing my bag I made my way out of the air conditioned airport into a wall of heat and noise, there were lots of taxi drivers desperate for my custom but I managed to make out one holding a card with my surname scrawled on it. The driver didn’t say a word and just grabbed my bag and we walked off to the multistory carpark, we drove out and he turned sharp right driving right across a piece of bumpy waste ground until we came to the main dual carriageway, he didn’t hesitate and drove straight across the traffic to the other side, this woke me up a bit! That was quite a hairy ride, the traffic was crazy, big battered busses chugging out black smoke, passenger hanging out the windows, massive dirty trucks honking their tuneful horns, mopeds filling in any little gaps, it was chaos. Every time we stopped, the car was surrounded by hawkers selling everything from books to coconuts, tapping on the windows, my driver just ignored them and sped off.
Majnu Ka Tilla
We finally arrived in Majnu Ka Tilla where the Tibetans had a large community, It was getting late and I’d arrived when Losar, Tibetan New Year was on, meaning everyone was on the move north to celebrate in Dharamsala. My driver pulled down this dirt road and we got out, he took my bag and we got to a large dilapidated building where I was greeted by monks who didn’t speak a word of English, I managed to muddle through with pointing and they showed me to a room. My phone was playing up and wouldn’t connect to the local network since I’d arrived, finally I got it to connect and got hold of the guy who’s number I’d been given as a contact, he said to meet him at his office the following day, I’d had no food and all the restaurants and shops were closed because of New Year, luckily I’d packed emergency packs of Mini Chedders that saw me through!
The next day I met with the contact at his office, he gave me my bus ticket, I had a good few hours to kill until the bus was leaving, I got a bit lost around the maze of passageways, lots of people staring at me, I found a small cafe and made friends with two Dutch girls who were luckily also waiting for the bus.
Very long bus journey
The bus finally arrived 2 hours late and it was a scramble, not knowing if it was the right bus. I stuck with the two girls and boarded, my seat was at the front and was already occupied by an old Tibetan lady who gave me a big smile, I sat down right behind the driver while everyone else fought over their correct seat, a French girl was very irate, shouting at the guy taking the tickets, she had to sit on the floor in the isle next to me and we drove off, eventually we stopped and she got on the right bus!
The journey was epic, 12 hours in total stopping multiple times for punctures and breakdowns, we stopped twice at India’s version of a motorway services, this was very basic. The first one had toilets that had no light in and the floor was awash with all sorts, flip flops were a bad idea. The food on offer was interesting, mainly deep fried things of all shapes and sizes, I passed and just ate some more Mini Chedders!
We stopped at some sort of makeshift border and two official looking men got on screaming and shouting, they walked along the bus, grabbed some bloke from the back and hauled him off. We then carried on as if nothing had happened and started winding our way up the mountain roads in the dark, you could feel the air getting cooler with every hairpin turn, sleep was not an option as the driver was playing some awful Bollywood movie at full distorted volume and there were constant horns blaring, along with never ending bumps and turns. I had prime position to see exactly what sort of state the roads were in that we were driving down, I wish I hadn’t! I noticed a few times that the driver would nod to his chain smoking mate who would open a small panel in the dash and grab something out, handing it to him to swallow with a glug of water. I can only imagine this must be some drug to keep him awake, this made me slightly nervous! The Tibetan lady next to me was chomping her way through some unidentified food and she offered me some, not wanting to cause offence I took what looked like a dried fruit, it wasn’t tasty and I wasn’t sat next to the window to slyly chuck it out!
The sun was now rising which just revealed in even more detail the sheer drop to one side and sheer crumbling cliff to the other, thankfully we made it to Mcleod Ganj in one piece, I was greeted by a guy that worked at the school, we walked forever to the guesthouse that had been arranged, up and down some long hills, I was knackered. The room was pretty basic, there was also foldup beds in the hallway, I later discovered that this is where the staff slept, very loudly! The view for breakfast was pretty good though.
The next day I was shown the school where I’d be volunteering, I had visions of a big building away from the hustle of the centre, I was wrong, it was right on the main street up a few dodgy steps and had only about 6 small rooms, I was introduced to the director and then the Tibetan computer teacher, I was then told that they were short on a teachers and would I mind teaching basic computing to a class, I was slightly hesitant but agreed. I made my home on a little desk in the corner (pictured) and was instantly asked to fix a laptop!
The following few days I focused on finding a better place to stay, doubling my budget to £10 per night I moved to a guesthouse a bit nearer the school down some of the dodgiest 200 steps I’ve ever seen! After a few weeks of these I was so much fitter, you could tell the new arrivals as they’d be gasping for air at the top.
The new guesthouse was run by some Kashmiri brothers and had comfy beds, wifi and room service! They also has a small cafe on the roof with a great view of Triund, perfect for breakfast and Kashmir tea.
I got settled into a routine at the school, planning lessons (quite a task), teaching a class in the afternoon, this was an experience as I had to have a translator to help for some of the Tibetans, I remember showing this one girl how to use a mouse, she sussed it in the end. Most of the students were only really interested in learning how to use Facebook and messaging software so they could contact family that they hadn’t seen in years back in Tibet.
Any free time I had was spent fixing various laptops, this included an ancient IBM Thinkpad I was handed by two monks who didn’t speak a word of English, they just showed me the screen, full of popups and viruses, it was unusable! This thing was to be my nemesis, it required a complete wipe and re-install, quite a task when you don’t have any software and the thing was using a copied version of windows! Many hours were spent downloading things on patchy internet but I fixed it in the end, he was very happy.
At the weekends I’d wander around the town, finding the best restaurant to eat in, meeting fellow travellers, climbing mountains, taking pictures and even going to the Dalai Lama’s temple to hear him give a talk that I couldn’t understand!
When it finally came time to move on I was pretty sad, I’d got used to my daily routine, was a lot fitter, healthier, had made some great friends and have some excellent memories. The bus ride back was awful, 15 hours in total with lots of breakdowns again, I spent 1 night in a hotel in Pahraganj central Delhi then flew on to Thailand.
I’d recommend volunteering whilst travelling, it’s a great way to get away from being just another tourist on the usual trail, you get so much more out of your time and it’s very rewarding knowing you’re helping a bit.
Here’s a list of my personal favourite Top 10 Travel Writer Books
Uneasy Rider: Travels Through a Mid-Life Crisis (Paperback – 5 Mar 2009)
This is probably my favourite read at the moment, I’ve read it 3 times now. It follows Mike Carters 20,000 mile travel around Europe. It’s really well written (he is a journalist after all!) with wit and sensitivity.
Mike is inspired by the Long Way Round book by Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor. He did’t even have a licence at the start and his bike of choice is the BMW R1200GS, quite a beast for a novice.
I think if I had a job that I could do over the internet then I’d do exactly the same, although I’m sure I’d have to change the route a fair bit as Europe has changed a bit.
This is a legendary book written by Ted Simon about his round the world trip on a trusty Triumph 500cc Tiger Hundred in 1973. Covering 63,000 miles over 4 years, this is a great view of a time when travel was so different. This book has inspired so many to follow in his bike tracks. Well worth a read.
This is a dream trip taken by Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor around the world on BMW R1200GS’ Accompanied by the excellent television series, this book covers lots more detail on the trials and tribulations of an epic trip.
I’ve done a fair bit of travelling to India, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia and have managed to cut down exactly what I need to pack as the basics for my travels. Anything else I need then I buy there.
Passport, or you’re going nowhere!
Travel Insurance paperwork.
Your driving licence if needed. Worth keeping copies of all these on your email account.
Foreign currency, some small denomination included for Taxi’s etc.
Credit Card, always handy as a back-up and to book flights.
Debit Card, worth seeing if you have to notify your bank about where you’re travelling to.
Pre-paid card, I’ve never used one of these but can avoid some charges from using the above. Worth keeping details of phone numbers for reporting Lost/Stolen cards.
Hoodie or jumper for on the plane.
T-shirts, normally I take 5 maximum.
Shorts, just 1 pair.
Light-weight Trousers, normally wear jeans for flight.
Socks, couple of pairs, mainly wear flip flops anyway.
Flip Flops, wear trainers for flight.
Camera, I’ve now got a DSLR so it takes up a bit more room but a decent compact like this waterproof one will do, don’t forget the charger!
Phone, I normally take an old phone that can play music and I don’t mind losing (have lost a few) and charger!
Bluetooth Speaker, I’ve found these produces great sound and can be charged with phone charger.
Headphones, some nice lightweight in ear ones like these, some airlines have their own stupid plugs you can’t use though.
Travel adaptor, this one has been so handy in India, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Sunglasses, I wouldn’t trust the UV protection from any you buy whilst away unless in Duty Free.
Contact Lenses, I’m short sighted so take enough to wear every other day.
Torch, LED head torches are small and last ages
Sun cream, very expensive if you buy abroad, the travel versions at supermarkets are rip-offs though so decant some.