Early in 2013, I decided to spend the rest of the year saving up for an epic three month backpacking trip all around Southeast Asia. Visiting Thailand was the top priority, and I made plans to see as much of the country as possible.

While brainstorming various ways to travel around and immerse in the culture, volunteering became an obvious option. Volunteering in general is a great way to meet locals, explore a part of the country that a tourist is closed off from, and learn about the culture in a unique way. My experience with Starfish didn’t disappoint.

I met the volunteer coordinators, awesome Thai people, and was able to hang out with them, ask them questions, and work along side them. Worn taught me the basics of cooking Thai food. Nam led the volunteers around Surin’s Elephant Festival, an impressive cultural event. Nicky helped me see a doctor and get medicine for a relentless cough. I got to hang out with lots of Thai children at a local daycare, and I learned how much work it takes to care for elephants. Overall, volunteering helped me to connect with Thai culture on a much deeper level.

There were even more benefits that I hadn’t foreseen. A backpacking trip inevitably means you spend a lot of time planning your next move, figuring out transportation and obtaining a place to stay. For two whole weeks, I didn’t have to make a single decision. The program arranged housing and transportation for me, allowing me to just relax and go with the flow.

In addition, I hadn’t anticipated meeting a bunch of other volunteers, people who became friends and are now part of my extensive travel network. Bouncing around from hostel to hostel, it was rare that I got to spend more than a day or two with other travelers, so I was truly appreciative of being able to make long-lasting friends.

Above and beyond, working with the elephants was a highlight of my entire Asia trip, and it’s something I couldn’t have done without volunteering. As I learned more about the mistreatment of elephants and how the tourist industry intensifies it, I was increasingly glad that I didn’t just settle for an elephant trek or some such tourist attraction.

I’ve learned that any elephant that carries tourists in a carriage on it’s back has been beaten and broken. It would break my heart if I had unknowingly contributed to hurting these graceful, intelligent creatures. Instead, I participated in helping ones that were happy, healthy, and loved by their caretakers.

Without volunteering, my travels around Asia would have been incomplete.

This is a guest post by Mandi Schmitt from This Limitless World about her experience on one of our projects in Surin, Thailand. Mandi is an adventurous global explorer with a gypsy soul. She quickly realized that the normal, sedentary life just wasn’t for her and made it her life’s ambition to never stop exploring. 

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