Jona Avila - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

Wanderlust. I have always believed that the knowledge one can gain from travelling is unparalleled in value, and I aspire to pursue a global career. While I had previously traveled solo before, each travel experience is unique and I wanted to experience Thailand beyond a tourist perspective. I also wanted to go travelling with my partner. Seeking knowledge and experience through travel is an ambition we both share, however opportunities to do so are getting scarce because of our busy schedules. Going abroad through a volunteer program was great way to take a break from our fast paced lives in a productive and meaningful way.

Khao Lak National Park, Thailand
Khao Lak National Park Biodiversity Hike

Why did you choose GVI?

Conservation was always something I wanted to get involved in, but I never had the time or opportunity. Studying a double degree full time, whilst also working part time, meant that most of my spare time (if any) was generally spent either covering more hours at work, or getting a head start on the next upcoming assessment. Thus, if I wanted to volunteer overseas I had to find a program that was short and aligned with the vacations set in my academic calendar. Fortunately, GVI offer a range of flexible programs that allow you to choose your volunteer duration. The Marine Coastal Expedition in Phang Nga, Thailand allowed short term experiences and had a start date right after my exam period. Furthermore, Thailand seemed like the ideal destination to learn about a culture and immerse myself in a more natural, biophilic environment, away from my usual busy routine.

What was your favorite part about Thailand?

The culture! Thailand is a very exotic country, rich in biodiverse oases and breathtaking natural scenery.

What made your experience abroad unique?

The conservation volunteering program was unlike any other overseas experience I’ve had.
People swimming in a waterfall in Thailand
Swimming in the waterfall after a biodiversity survey

The accommodation was shared between volunteers and staff, and was situated in the heart of a village. Thus there was a real sense of community and engagement. Being a part of a volunteer program also meant that we were able to work at conservation landmarks and centers while enjoying what they had to offer. For instance, we helped maintain turtle tanks for the Department of Fisheries and Coastal Development, as well as the Thai Navy Turtle Conservation center. While doing so we were taught how to handle the turtles, and thus allowed to pat and play with them (a big no-no for regular visitors to the centers!). After our work we would walk around the centers to admire their animals and learn more about their rehabilitation work.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

The staff on base were amazing in not only helping us integrate into our program but also understand how our time contributes to the development of the community. They are very knowledgeable of the local culture and anthropological narratives that have shaped the community. They provided us with both Thai language and culture courses, to alleviate the stresses of adapting to a new country and integrating smoothly into the community.

The staff supported us beyond the program. When I was ill, a staff member helped us organise transport to the hospital as we couldn’t speak Thai. In addition, they helped us plan our short holidays and encouraged us to explore different parts of Thailand when we had days off.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wished we could’ve stayed longer! While our short term program gave us an excellent introduction to conservation and was filled with a diverse range of activities, it would have been great to have had more time to participate and reflect on our contribution. If I were to undertake the conservation program again, I would endeavour to extend it to an internship based program. That way I can be involved in learning-based activities on top of volunteer work.

Volunteer inspecting a baby turtle in Thailand
Checking a baby turtle for fungal infection

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

The conservation team did a lot of traveling. This meant we had early starts every day! Each day we would get up bright and early to head off to either a national park, island, or conservation center. Upon arrival we would get straight into our work, which would either be turtle tank maintenance, mangrove forest clean ups, or biodiversity surveys. If it was turtle rehabilitation day, the team would start off by cleaning the tanks at the centers. Then we had to check and treat the turtles for fungal infection, before releasing them into their tanks. For the mangrove clean-ups, we canoed down the rainforest to collect waste. The calming scenery and wildlife made it feel like a serene stroll through the forest, rather than a clean-up.

The biodiversity surveys were undertaken through hikes. Depending on the national park, we would either hike up the hill and collect observations on the way done, or conduct the survey during the hike itself. After our work we would then go swimming in the waterfalls or have a picnic. Often we then would head back to the village for lunch, where GVI gives us an allowance to spend at a local family restaurant.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

GVI gave us every weekend off. Hence our weekends were dedicated to short getaway trips. Fortunately for us, GVI has a great relationship with the nearby dusita themed resort which is only a 5-10 minute bike ride away. Thanks to this relationship the resort offered GVI volunteers heavily discounted accommodation at one of their superior dusita rooms, and access to their pool packaged with either meal or spa vouchers.

One weekend, a group of the volunteers organised a trip to Khao Sok, a nature reserve in southern Thailand. As part of the trip we hopped on a canal tour of Cheow Lan Lake and had lunch on a floating bungalow right in the middle of the lake! The tour guides also took us on a jungle hike and cave tour. After our day tour we were dropped off at our jungle treehouse resort, where the manager organised massages for us in our own rooms. Staying at the treehouse resort was an awesome experience. Each morning we woke up to the sound of birds and other wildlife.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

GVI is all about integrating us into the local community. We stayed in housing similar to that of the local village residents. While our housing contained the necessities, it lacked heated water and had very basic plumbing systems. We’re not complaining though! Staying in the village certainly made the experience more meaningful and helped us appreciate our program more. It was a key contributing factor to understanding the local community better, and opening our eyes to the importance of GVI’s presence in the community.

Khao Lak National Park, Thailand
Khao Lak National Park

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty! The best way to make the most out much any abroad experience is to participate as much as you can, and take the initiative to go beyond the formal structure of the program.

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

My GVI program was both a rewarding experience and a significant lifestyle change. After my time in Thailand, I feel that I understand both myself and the world a little bit better. Being in the conservation team taught me how the actions of individuals are connected to the bigger picture.

After returning to continue my double degree in biotechnology and business, I have sought opportunities to participate in areas of sustainable economic development, to ensure that the skills and knowledge I have accumulated from my studies and GVI are applied in causes that have a positive impact on the lives of others. Being a part of the GVI Thailand conservation team also prompted me to be more conscious of my consumption and strive to be environmentally savvy.

Would you recommend GVI to others? Why?

Definitely, GVI has a range of flexible programs that can be tailored to suit your needs. Whether you are looking for a short term overseas trip, or a work integrated learning experience for your university course, GVI is always able to accommodate you.