This spring, we asked the 55,000 travelers subscribed to our mailing list for their stories about volunteering, teaching, interning, and studying abroad. We were overwhelmed with the amazing responses: people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world told us about their globetrotting adventures – why they traveled, how they helped communities in need, what they learned, and so much more. We’re excited to bring you some of the most inspiring stories in this new series!
Ashley Obrycki traveled with International Student Volunteers to Thailand in August 2016. On this adventure, she met with a group of fellow travelers from all over the world and volunteered to protect elephants, which are too often victims of illegal ivory trade, abuse from logging work and performance art, and encroachment on their natural habitats. Here is her story.
What made you choose this trip?
My interest in elephants and their well-being started out primarily when I learned about the ivory trade all over the world. I wanted to do something to help stop the killing of innocent animals such as the elephant, so I decided to step out of my comfort zone and explore Thailand with 11 strangers!
In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into because I realized that there was no way that I had the sufficient funds for a trip like this. But with the help from Volunteer Forever and the various generous donations given to me, I was able to proceed with my adventures!
I also saved up for a year, which was difficult because I was a full-time student and a part-time worker with very minimal pay due to few hours working. Since I was traveling alone and the flight was departing on the opposite side of the United States, my parents decided to go with me to California three days before my flight and spend some time in sunny Cali.
I tried to pack light, but it can be difficult to pack lightly on a two-week trip in the heat of Thailand. I was told to dress appropriately because Thailand is very conservative, so no spaghetti straps or short shorts! I packed a few long working pants and short sleeves because I was also volunteering to build a shelter for an elephant that had lesions on the bottom of his feet, making it hard for him to stand for long periods of time. Packing was super important because I needed to pack the essentials, but also not to over-pack (which is usually the case for me). I also packed some cute outfits for nights out that were still conservative but also cute and flowy to prevent excessive sweating!
The purpose of this trip was to spend my time volunteering for a good cause. Being a full-time student while working part-time, it can be difficult to find time in my schedule to give back to the community, so I wanted to give back in a big way by going out of the country!
Along with spending my days in the jungles of Thailand every night and morning (which was the best part!) during the week, we did spend a good amount of time in Chiang Mai city during the weekends!
I saw the lady-boy show, the night market that stretched for miles, went whitewater rafting, hiked to the most beautiful waterfall, saw the most beautiful temples, and spent the weekend nights clubbing! The best part of the trip? Spending time with the elephants and workers of the place that I volunteered with!
What advice can you give to fellow volunteers?
One advice for volunteering: have fun and disconnect from the internet! I’m not going to lie, it was difficult to not share my experiences with my friends and family back home, but you’ll have time for this once you get back. I took a few minutes out of my morning when I did have wifi to call my parents and let them know that I’m okay since the time difference was almost 13 hours. But I found that the more time that all of us had away from our phones, the more fun we had!
Another advice for volunteering in a different country is to not limit your food choices. Thailand has very rich dishes and they can also be very spicy! A lot of their dishes are egg- and chicken-based, making it difficult for vegans or vegetarians to enjoy their food. I don’t eat red meat in the States because I know that everything here is processed, but I did try pork in Thailand because I know how famous they are for their pork, and oh boy were they right! It tasted like chicken, so fresh and yummy! But all in all, don’t be afraid to try new things when volunteering in a new country!
My last advice for volunteering is to make sure you know the rights and wrongs of the country that you decide to volunteer in. Thailand is very conservative and has different laws compared to the US, so it’s important to know what can be done versus what can’t.
What’s something unexpected that happened during your travels?
When we came into Thailand, we were told of our task at the camp site. We had two weeks to complete our project, but because we worked so hard and so fast, we finished in about a week-and-a-half.
We were told that we had a surprise waiting for us if we finished early, which was very unexpected! On the last day of our project, we were told that the mayor of the town was paying for our stay in Chiang Mai for another night and going whitewater rafting! It was so unexpected and we were so grateful!
What’s something interesting you learned or a new skill you gained because of your trip?
I definitely gained a new sense of wanting to experience different parts of the world after this trip.
I also learned that I’m stronger than I thought I was! I spent two weeks carrying buckets of rocks, water, and sand across the camp site to make concrete for the foundation of the shelter and it was not easy at first!
I also gained trust in strangers, which is very unlike me, but being with my roommate and spending every experience together, I definitely gained trust between our friendship.
What was your favorite part of this trip?
There were so many amazing parts of this trip that it would be unfair to say that only one part was my favorite! But I did love the interactions that I had with the elephants in the camp and how well they were treated by all of the visitors and their mahouts. I also loved how wonderful the staff was at Ran Tong (the camp that we stayed in) and the time I spent getting to know the other girls in my trip!
Would you go on another trip like this again? Are you planning other travels anytime soon?
Oh yes! My roommate and I are already planning on going on an Asia/Europe trip over the summer sometime soon. It is just so funny to think that I got so close to my roommate within just two weeks, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Ready to Travel?
If Ashley’s story inspired you, click here to learn about how you can sign up with International Student Volunteers!
And if you’d like to learn more about volunteering in Thailand – or with elephants – check out these awesome articles:
Volunteer with Elephants: Thailand | South Africa | Cambodia
Volunteering Abroad in Thailand: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go
Volunteer in Asia: India, Thailand, Cambodia Programs Abroad
Sarah Vandenberg · Director of Partnerships
Sarah has worked as a researcher and consultant in the volunteer travel world since 2004. With a BA from the George Washington University and background working with both public and private sector volunteer organizations, she enjoys exploring the world and collecting and sharing stories, trends, and advice with travelers who want to volunteer, intern, or teach abroad.