Louise Gentle - 2014 Program Participant

Volunteers riding in a bus in Thailand

Group project day = turtle cleaning - The purple dye is an antifungal, antibacterial liquid that you apply to the turtles on certain areas of their bodies and apparently on your friends’ faces.

Why did you decide to apply for an international volunteer program in Southern Thailand?

I had always known I wanted to travel abroad when I was growing up, and luckily enough, I went on some amazing trips with my family. All of these trips were holidays, however, and I knew I wanted to do more with my first travels abroad alone. I wanted to volunteer.

Being a student, I was on a very low budget. Thailand is known as a very cheap place to go. My first priority was cost, however the next priority was location. I wanted to go somewhere where I felt I could help and give back to the community. Many people I knew had traveled to Thailand, and therefore I felt I could get a picture of the surroundings and the atmosphere of Southern Thailand.

How did you find out about GVI, and what made their coastal expedition program stand out when comparing options?

I was searching volunteer opportunities one night and stumbled across some volunteer projects that were relevant to my university degree. Looking into them a little bit further, I saw a difference in GVI when compared to other volunteer organizations I had found. I fully understood their core values in conservation, impact, and responding to the communities’ needs. I felt this was unique to GVI and having established a budget and an area to go to, I had settled on the coastal marine expedition.

Beach in Thailand

You may be sweating and melting from the incredible heat, but this view makes up for it all.

Tell us about the different types of conservation projects you were able to take part in during your time in Thailand.

One thing to note about GVI and their projects is that activities can change from week to week, depending on the needs of the community at the base.

Mondays were usually dedicated to traveling to the rainforests within our local area; we would complete a whole range of surveys, from biodiversity surveys to butterfly surveys and vegetation mapping. All of our work was vital, and we were rigorously trained beforehand on the common flora and fauna within the area we were based.

Tuesday generally would consist of half of our group going to teach English at the Similan centre, whilst the other half of the group would conduct bird surveys within the local area and national parks. As you can imagine, these were extremely early mornings; however, they were well worth it for all the birds you get to see!

Wednesday was turtle day; we would travel to two different turtle enclosures where we would scrub and disinfect the tanks and then clean the tiny turtle hatchlings. As you can imagine, this was always the most fun and definitely an experience to remember.

Thursdays were devoted to one of two activities. The first, teaching conservation ideas and promoting conservation awareness at the CDC (Community Development Centre) to children of varying age ranges. The second would be beach cleans, either at the local Ban Nam Khem beach or at a local national park. The beach cleans were very gratifying as you could directly see your impact and some pretty incredible views!

You have an academic background in environmental conservation, how did your participation in this expedition further your knowledge and skills?

This experience helped me gain some vital fieldwork experience, as well as give me a brief understanding of common conservation issues within Southeast Asia. I had some previous online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training, and therefore was quite well equipped for teaching English; however, I didn’t have any classroom experience, so leading the lessons I partook in helped develop my teaching strategy and more vital experience.

What was your housing like in Thailand?

The house we lived in was called Ban-See-Key-Ow, which means Green House. It was named after the bright lime green color, which also made it easy to find. The base has a large communal area where we would hold our debriefings and have dinner, and it had another social area adjoined where we would chill out on the sofas in the evening, watching reruns on the computer with the whole GVI family.

My sleeping situation was in bunk beds, with four in the downstairs bedroom and up to 10 upstairs. There was a garden, balcony, and cooking area where people could relax and bask in the sunshine. There was an inside bucket flush toilet and an outside bucket flush toilet with showers adjoined. These may sound pretty basic, however it was plenty; we never went without. There was a comfortable area on the landing on the top floor where you could chill and read a good book, or just sit and chat with your friends. It was more than I was expecting, and I truly enjoyed the base.

What was your favorite activity outside of the day-to-day structure of your program?

My favorite activity was probably our Thursday quiz night, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and Mean Girls, to name a few. A rule of the quizzes was that dressing up was extra points. We saw some questionable looking hobbits and elves on Lord of the Rings night! We also did a Zumba night and a debate night, which were some great variations to the structure!

What was the highlight of your experience with GVI in Thailand?

My personal highlight was teaching the English to the locals. Using the knowledge I had gained from my previous TEFL training, I put it all into action. It was amazing to see the impact we had on these park rangers, and they were incredibly fun! Not only did we teach them English, but if all parties had time they would stay behind and teach us some Thai, which was great fun.

Turtles preparing for a bath in Thailand

The turtles prepare for their bathing and washing routine from the GVI volunteers

What was the biggest challenge you faced while abroad?

Honestly, it was probably being in a different country on my own. I wasn’t exactly prepared for the shock of it. Some people thrive, and I would like to think that I surprised myself. Once I was at the GVI base I made friends very fast (mainly because everyone is just so incredibly friendly). What you have to remember is doing a trip like this on your own can be daunting, but everyone at the base was or is in the same position as you. All people want to do is make friends, nobody wants to be a loner on these sorts of trips. It’s all teamwork and you develop a sort of surrogate family at the base; you feel like you are home.

How did the GVI staff support you throughout your expedition?

The GVI staff in Thailand supported us in every way they could. They gave us a great introduction to the base, welcomed us, and shared so much knowledge about Thailand. All the staff members were extremely approachable and they were part of your own personal GVI family. They always wanted the best experiences for the volunteers, so they tried to provide as much variation and fun activities as possible. They would listen to every query you had and try their utmost best to answer them. They were great fun and I truly miss them!

What advice would you give to others interested in this program?

If you do decide to go, I would recommend traveling around as much as possible. There is so much to see outside of the normal touristy areas of Thailand, and some incredible people to meet. Thailand is known as the “The Land of Smiles”, and I can’t tell you how honestly true that is. There are amazing national parks, boat rides, and restaurants to try that are slightly off the beaten track. It’s a truly amazing trip and experience with GVI.

If you have any worries or queries, you can always book a call back from a GVI country expert, who can talk you through any questions you may have. I found this incredibly helpful, and my country expert must of received a ton of emails from me. They were amazing and replied so quickly!

What makes Phang Nga, Thailand such a great location for conservation work?

Everything about Thailand makes it a great location for conservation work. The biodiversity that can be found there is truly astounding. There are rainforests just jam packed with insects and other living things that are screaming to be explored. The coastlines with incredible views, but high levels of pollution, make them a particularly important point for conservation.

Unfortunately, in some places in Thailand and around the world there is limited knowledge about the impact humans are having on their environments and how that can affect ecosystems. That is why teaching conservation awareness is so important, as it doesn’t matter how many beaches you clean; if there is no knowledge about the issue, the issue will continue to fester.

Thailand has an incredible tourism industry as well, and unfortunately, some ethical and potentially damaging practices are taking place. Example of this include scuba diving on coral reefs, elephant riding, and visiting tigers at zoos. These are all issues in some places in Thailand and our work helps to support knowledge and education. Plus, we work directly with GVI’s partners in the communities to help conserve these environments.

Monk on a beach in Thailand

Beach clean surrounded by the local monks? Yes please!

How has your experience volunteering abroad with GVI impacted your life?

It has helped me to become more confident in myself, as well as assured me that if I put my mind to something I can do it. GVI has been a large part of my life since June last year, as I returned to become an ambassador and now am undertaking an internship, all whilst at university. My volunteer experience overseas has also reminded me how much I have in my life, and how I shouldn’t take it for granted. It all sounds so cliché, but I truly mean it. GVI has changed my life. I now have a great connection with an international organization, field experience, a holiday that will I never forget, and friends from across the globe.

After returning from Thailand, you were an ambassador for GVI, what was that experience like and what did it entail?

The alumni ambassador experience is pretty amazing, you get opportunities to earn points which correspond to money off your own or an elected person’s trip. I became very involved in the opportunities and really enjoyed the experience. It was really easy to earn points, and it has led to me becoming an intern for GVI. Serving as a GVI ambassador entails a variety of different activities, anything from writing reviews to attending events. It’s all about getting the word out about GVI; it’s great fun!