Justine De Knoop - 2015 Program Participant

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

2015 was a rollercoaster of emotions for me; lots of ups, but unfortunately lots of downs as well. In September, I finished my master's degree and it felt like the best moment to go travel and discover the world. More importantly, to discover myself. All of this gave me the courage to undertake the trip of my life. In October I jumped on a plane to Luang Prabang, Laos, where I taught English for a whole month to the most beautiful and kindest youth and novice monks. I could let all the pressure off of me and focus on the daily.

Mekong River, Laos

Mekong River

I met the most awesome people. People who didn't know me, who didn't judge me, but who still were there to comfort me when I needed it. People who made my stomach hurt from laughing so hard. People with whom I did the craziest adventures from elephant camp to riding bikes in Vietnam. I was free. I was truly happy. Going abroad not knowing a single soul changed me completely. I knew I needed to do something like volunteering in Laos to realize a lot of things.

Even though 2015 was pretty hard, I will always remember it as the year I got to know who my real friends were, the ones that were there for me when I was at my worst, the year I made a lot of new friends, a lot of new discoveries, and more importantly, the year I learned a lot about who I was, who I am, and who I want to be.

Why did you choose GVI?

After a lot of research, I found the Belgian organisation called WEP, which specializes in volunteering work abroad. They helped me really well preparing everything I needed and so did GVI. Even though it was quite expensive, I knew I was in good hands. It was my first time travelling on my own, so I was rather glad to know that someone was picking me up at the airport, and that the staff members were there if needed. They were like a second family during my time there, and a big part of the costs went to the organisation itself, so that's a good thing.

A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

One of the many temples in Luang Prabang

What was your favorite part about Luang Prabang? 

I had never been to Southeast Asia before. The idea to live in a rural environment with much less comfort and luxury then I'm used to in Belgium was something I really, really enjoyed. People do not have a lot, but they are truly happy and give you the biggest smile. The simplicity also struck me. Luang Prabang is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, so everything is still very traditional and authentic. No buildings, no towers! Lots of green and a lot of temples!

What made your experience unique?

Its location, without any doubt. Luang Prabang is located on the Mekong river and the trees are lush; it's truly magical. I fell in love.

How did local staff support you throughout your program? 

The local staff were really amazing. On my arrival day, someone was there to pick me up and bring me to my hostel. They gave me insightful advice for my stay in Luang Prabang. Each Sunday and each Wednesday, we held a meeting to talk about what went really good and what went a bit less good. They organized a lot of stuff for us: Lao lessons to learn basic vocabulary and how to teach English as a foreign language, but also more cultural activities. I was lucky to be in Luang Prabang during the festival of the light too. The staff invited us to typical activities, such as going to chanting at a local temple and making a khartong to send off on the Mekong river. The staff was also there to comfort us when needed; they were our second family during our stay, along with the other volunteers.

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

The only thing I regret is not staying any longer. It was pure happiness being there with the other volunteers who quickly became really good friends. Another thing I would have done differently is managing my money. There are no banks, only ATM's, and the rate is really high when getting money out. But don't blame me because when you see the shops at the night market, you'll understand me!

Volunteers in Laos in the mountains

Other volunteers who quickly became really good friends

Describe a day in the life of your program.

I had two classes everyday. One class in the morning and one in the evening. My first class in the morning was at 8:30 a.m. when I taught young Buddhist novice monks. When we got back from classes we had to lesson plan for the next day with our colleagues. There were two volunteers per class, which made it even more fun. For example, I was better at writing than my colleague and she was better at singing, so we just needed to find a good balance, which we did. The evening class was just down the road and was a class of approximately 20 students aged from 17 and 18. After classes, we were free. We wandered around the city, relaxed a lot, and enjoyed the (sometimes way too) high temperatures.

What was your favorite thing to do on your free time?

It's nearly impossible to list only one favorite activity. There are lots of things to do in and around Luang Prabang. Each day there is a night market down the main street, so that was one of our favorite activities to do. During the day we also went for fruit shakes, which were delicious! We also went visiting an elephant camp during a weekend, which was pretty unreal! We got to take the elephants for a walk, then bring them to the jungle where they sleep, and the next morning take them back and give them a little shower. We also went to the different waterfalls around Luang Prabang, such as Kuang Si Waterfalls and Tae Say Waterfalls. Mostly we just relaxed at the house or went for a stroll along the Mekong River.

Volunteer teacher with class of novice buddhist monks in Laos

With my class

What type of accommodation did you have? What did you like best about it?

All the volunteers stayed at Villa Merry 2, a villa hold by a lovely woman named KK. There was a staff who cooked for us and cleaned our room every Saturday. I was privileged because I got my own room with a double bed and private bathroom; other volunteers had to share a room with another volunteer and share a bathroom. I really loved the atmosphere; it was our little cocoon during our stay. It quickly became “home” for the four weeks I stayed in Luang Prabang.

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

I changed a lot. I realized, once more, that you do not need to have a lot of things in your life to be happy. I also learned a lot about myself, by going to Luang Prabang on my own without knowing what would happen or without knowing anyone. As a person who really lacks self-confidence, I can say I'm pretty proud of myself for making that decision. I'll be forever grateful for my time in Luang Prabang.