When you talk to people who go to Northern Thailand, more often than not they go to Chiang Mai (translating literally to New City). However, when planning out my week up North, I wound up in Chiang Rai (translating literally into Old City). Really this only happened because I chose to volunteer for the week, and the volunteer program was based in Chiang Rai. But honestly I’m really happy with how my experience turned out, exploring scenery and towns slightly more true to Northern Thailand.

Volunteering in Chiang Rai

I chose to volunteer because I thought it would be an interesting way to experience the area while also learning more about some of the problems the community faces. Unfortunately there are so many companies taking advantage of people wanting to volunteer, spending most of their money on profit rather than putting it where it counts, so I did quite a bit of research into which company I felt comfortable volunteering with.

I found IVHQ, international volunteer headquarters, who partners with local volunteer groups in a variety of places around the world. In Thailand, they partner with the Mirror Foundation, which I cannot praise enough.

The Mirror Foundation was founded upon Thai students visiting northern hill tribes and uncovering issues which they helped to propose solutions. For instance, many of the hill tribes were not legal citizens, making it difficult to buy land, find work, or even travel. So Mirror Foundation has set up a citizenship program to document much of the people in these tribes. And this is just one of the many things they do.

For the volunteers that come, they can choose between teaching English, child care, and outdoor work. The English program ranges from small children to adults interested in expanding their language skills – even monks sometimes!

I chose the outdoor work, not finding out until our first day what I was actually going to be working on. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

The accommodation at the volunteer campus was certainly a humbling experience. No hot water, manually flushing toilets (literally dumping water until it’s all flushed), and sleeping on the floor with mosquito nets.

The girls dorm:

View from our balcony:

The bamboo hut, the best place to hang out:

We had breakfast, lunch and dinner provided and we always ate together. They told us we’d have rice for every meal… and we certainly had rice for every meal. But the food was amazing. Fresh vegetables with an array of spices, and fresh fruit complementing nearly every meal.

For the actual volunteer experience, our weekly task was to paint murals on bare walls at an elementary school.

Once we were nearly done with the walls, we were asked to do the walkways…

And the doors…

Until just about every blank surface was covered with cartoons and English words for the kids to learn. The kids loved watching us, and some even helped! There was certainly a language barrier, but smiles tend to be universal.

When our volunteer days were over, we’d go back, enjoy a cold shower (or endure it), eat dinner and walk around. The campus is surrounded by stunning landscapes, all within a quick walk.

And I quickly realized I had an odd obsession for rice farms. First of all, rice is potentially the biggest crop in Thailand, and also the biggest staple in any diet. Second of all, rice farms look so cool. They’re drenched in water to keep the weeds away, but the water creates the coolest reflections while the rice plants all stand out in neat and orderly fashion.

Homestay with the Akha Tribe

As a part of volunteering, every volunteer does a homestay – that is, staying with a local hill tribe. We tend to stay with a Thai volunteer employee, but I found out that there are a handful of organizations where you can pay to have the same experience. Eco tourism at its finest. We stayed a night with P. Manop’s family with the Akha Hill Tribe.

The people we met while touring the village were all sweet and kind to us, feeding us and giving us gifts. Their standard of living is so vastly different than ours, but their kindness and happiness put our lifestyle into perspective. Not only do they live with the land, but they live to support each other. When one family is struggling, the other families chip in. All of the food and animals are considered to be everyone’s. When a family is building a new house, other families chip in to help.

They live in the hills to avoid flooding and mosquitos. And because of the huge amounts of rain they get, most of their homes are lifted off the ground, terraced with the mountains.

And because their in the mountains, the landscape is beautiful, and it’s everywhere. They’re yards are their living rooms, with most people spending much more time outside than in.

And the food is amazing, or at least the small portion that we were able to taste of it. They dry their own spices and tea, and have mastered harvesting the local crops to continue growing for the next season.

And lastly, they’re quite resourceful. They have a lot of bamboo. Other than some of the metal roofs, everything is made out of bamboo, from the houses to the furniture to even the cups!

Blue Temple, White Temple, Black House

As another facet of volunteering, we were brought to some of the main architectural attractions in the area, all conveniently named by color.

First, we stopped at the Blue Temple, a beautifully ornate blue and gold temple near the city center. I found it interesting because it’s really quite contemporary, similar but bolder than many of the more traditional temples in Bangkok.

Then, we had a morning trip to the White Temple. To be entirely honest, I think the White Temple appeases tourists much more than those wishing to meditate or pray. Artistic by nature, I felt like the White Temple was more of a sculptural art piece than a building.

I found it interesting that there was a small outdoor Buddha statue that more people used to pray than the temple itself…

And lastly, the black house. The black house was created by a Thai artist to house his artwork and live alongside it. His artwork is animalistic, and I think a lot of people are intrigued by the many animal skins and bones around the area. My vegetarian architect self, however, was more interested in the buildings and landscape. But on a cautionary side note, no animals were harmed in the making of his artwork: as I understand it, the animals were already dead, and I’d like to find comfort in that.

Weird animalistic tendencies aside, the scattered structures were truly lovely. I really enjoyed imagining the campus as if I lived there, without the tourists and realistically without all the dead animal things.

And that’s a wrap on my Chiang Rai experience! My only regret is only volunteering for a week: my advice to anyone considering a volunteer experience, give yourself more time. The longer you stay, the richer the experience gets.

And for my friends and family missing my smiling face, here you go!

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