GoAbroad Interview

Matt Silverstein - Project Manager

Matt Silverstein - Project Manager

Matt has always been interested in an “alternative lifestyle” and has found just that. Matt is originally from Toronto, Canada and has a Bachelors from the University of Guelph in Philosophy and European History. As a Project Manager for Treetop Country, he spends half of the year living near a village in northern Thailand and the other half back home in Toronto. He fills his spare time with basketball (both in Thailand and Canada), baseball, film, and adventure. His adaptable personality has enabled him to change and grow with the new situations and cultures while learning along the way. He speaks basic Thai, gratefully self taught with much help from locals and friends.

With two young students from one of our affiliate schools in Wiang Pa Pao, near Chiang Rai, Thailand.
With two young students from one of our affiliate schools in Wiang Pa Pao, near Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photo by Matt Silverstein

Treetop is a pretty new organization, but already seems to have a base of alumni who love it! What sets Treetop apart from other volunteer experiences in northern Thailand?

There are several things that set Treetop Country apart from other volunteer experiences in northern Thailand, starting with the fact that it is so authentic. We’ve had many people come to Treetop after backpacking around Thailand, and nearly all of them have said that being in Wiang Pa Pao, at Treetop Country, gave them a special and unique experience to really feel like they were a part of a Thai community. Some people have even said that it has changed their entire perspective of what Thailand is and that most people on the backpacking trail and volunteering with big organizations in the north of Thailand have watered down experiences that don’t match the authenticity of ours. We are set up in the middle of a small Thai village and volunteers with Treetop are basically the only foreigners in our town.

Another thing that separates Treetop Country from the pack is the fact that our volunteers live in bamboo treehouses and live within what could only be described as a nature haven filled with beautiful fruit trees, fresh organic gardens, a river, and several bamboo structures!

Since volunteers are usually the only foreigners in town, is it easy for them to meet locals?

The last thing that really makes Treetop Country so unique is the special care that volunteers receive and the relationships that they are able to form with local people. I’ve been involved with large scale international volunteer projects in the past where volunteers barely get to connect with any locals outside of the school children they work with. This is just the opposite at Treetop Country, as volunteers quickly form special lifelong bonds with our staff (which are mostly Thais) and the teachers from our wonderful schools. Volunteers often find themselves wandering markets or at local restaurants/bars in the evening with the teachers who are always looking out for them and showing them the real Thailand that most travelers never experience!

How did Treetop end up near Wiang Pa Pao, a town not far from Chiang Rai, Thailand instead of the more touristy, beach south that draws so many internationals? 

Treetop Country’s origin story starts with a special lady named Sasi Meechai. Sasi was born in Wiang Pa Pao, Chiang Rai and she grew up in poverty, much like the majority of the students and families that Treetop Country is involved with. She, along with her three sisters, worked incredibly hard at all sorts of labor jobs helping their family and community rise up, and eventually Sasi met her husband, Allan Lim, a Canadian citizen originally from Malaysia. They found incredible success opening a Thai restaurant in Canada and Sasi has become a world famous chef, winning Iron Chef competitions and serving celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Chan, Jessica Alba, and Mick Jagger at her restaurant!

Sasi has never lost her connection to Wiang Pa Pao and her community and after finding her success in Canada, she and Allan decided to build and found Treetop Country right on her family’s property! Treetop Country’s volunteers interact daily with Sasi’s sister, Ma’Tom, who cooks for them and takes care of them, her nephew Aum who is the Treetop Country driver and helps volunteers with anything they need, and her parents who are community leaders and can always be found wandering around Treetop Country welcoming volunteers to the community!

Treetop Country is Allan and Sasi’s way of giving back to the community that raised her and creating something special that will bring new opportunities to local people, poor/disabled students, and travelers/volunteers who want to experience life in a real Thai village and community!

How did you become involved with Treetop?

I was very fortunate to meet Allan and Sasi years ago, as they are good friends with an aunt of mine who lives in San Francisco. I’ve done volunteer work abroad in the past and been involved with people in international development, it’s a great passion of mine. When they told me about Treetop and what they were developing here, I wanted to be involved. They needed some help getting it off the ground, and a combination of luck, timing, passion, and hard work landed me with the organization.

What is your favorite part of your job? 

The best part of my job is getting to meet all sorts of different people from all over the world! The volunteers and travelers who come to Treetop Country all have unique stories and personalities and I’ve been fortunate to meet some amazing people and form great friendships with volunteers, as well as local people in Treetop’s community. Since our project is “off the beaten path”, I find that our volunteers are generally great adventurers and ultra interesting people doing great things with their lives. This sort of project attracts really good people, it’s been a pleasure and a growing experience getting to spend time with them.

Your life seems like every child’s dream come true. You get to spend your days in a tree house! How did this idea come about? 

I can’t take credit for the tree house idea, that was built before I got involved with the project, but living in a tree house was a childhood fantasy! Many of our volunteers have said that it’s a bit of a dream come true to live in a tree house, so yea, it was a brilliant idea, kudos to Allan and Sasi for that one!

Treetop offers such a unique experience. Volunteers feel as if they are in the middle of the jungle in a tree house yet they enjoy WiFi and delicious, home cooked meals. What is the most important thing you want volunteers to experience during their time with Treetop?

The most important thing that I want volunteers to experience at Treetop is the kindness and the spirit of the local people. We offer people a special opportunity that is really, really hard to find through other programs, and that is the opportunity to really become a part of a local community, have local friends, and experience the real culture of northern Thailand. The volunteers who leave having had the best experiences are the ones who give the community as much as they receive. The people involved with our program (staff, teachers, neighbors) are always going out of their way to give their time and their love to volunteers, it’s really special when volunteers do the same for them and show their appreciation. 

Teachers often take volunteers out for lunch to show them the best local restaurants and food, and they are so kind that they often try to pay for the volunteers, even though they make a fraction of the money that most Westerner’s make. It’s that type of kindness that you’ll find all throughout Wiang Pa Pao; it’s what made me fall in love with the people and the culture.

Treetop is listed as the most affordable volunteer program in Thailand yet volunteers still enjoy top notch lodging, food, and placements. What do you guarantee each of your volunteers during their placements?

We guarantee our volunteers that they will have a special and unique experience that simply can’t be replicated anywhere else. We are committed to taking care of our volunteers from the moment that we pick them up at the airport in Chiang Mai, until the day that they leave Treetop Country and beyond, as we still carry on relationships and give updates to almost all of our previous volunteers! Treetop Country is a family and community run project, and we guarantee that you will become a part of our family and community when you stay at Treetop!

You live at Treetop half the year and the other half you spend back home in Canada. What do you miss about Thailand while in Canada and what do you miss about Canada while in Thailand?

While in Canada, I miss the relaxed lifestyle of Thailand. I miss the spirit of Thai people, the local transportation, and the general sense of adventure that comes with every moment of being in a foreign place surrounded by people speaking a foreign language. I miss the openness of the people and connecting with strangers all the time, as people wandering the streets of Toronto are not always open to conversation with strangers. You’re more likely to have the cops called on you than to have a good conversation when engaging some people here! Luckily I’m involved with and have close friendships with some Thai people in Toronto, so I stay connected that way.

While in Thailand I miss my family and friends in Canada, I miss the hustle and bustle of Western life, and I miss the amazing variety of restaurants and food styles in Toronto.

What is your favorite weekend trip in Thailand? 

The best place to go for a weekend in Thailand is Pai, in Mae Hong San province. Pai is a tiny little town surrounded by mountains and more recently has become one of the most popular places for tourists to visit. It’s about a three hour drive from Chiang Mai and makes for an amazing, but very dangerous, motorbike trip with its 762 turns in the road! I made the trip with a friend back in May, it was a blast. I went to Pai four times in the seven months I spent in Thailand and I plan on many more trips there in the future. It’s a real hippy town, most travelers go there just to chill out on hammocks and take motorbikes to visit the beautiful waterfalls, canyon, and mountains nearby. It is a great place to meet local people (if you make an effort), and to meet interesting travelers.

You haven’t been out of college for too long and seem pretty young to be managing a growing international volunteer organization. Were you ready when this opportunity presented itself? 

I’ve always been interested in living an alternative lifestyle and I love travel and new experiences. I mentioned before that I’ve done volunteer abroad stints as well, including three months in Tanzania and Uganda. When I learned about Treetop Country and what Allan and Sasi were trying to create, I knew I could help them develop this and turn it into something special. So yes, I was prepared for this and it’s been a continual process of growing and learning throughout its development.

What’s is in the future for Treetop? Are there any new developments or programs on the horizon? 

The future is bright for Treetop! We are a small scale project and our plan is to grow gradually, rather than instantaneously, as I have personally seen the negative effects of rapid growth on other volunteer programs. They sacrifice the quality of their program and the volunteer experience for the opportunity to attract great numbers of volunteers. We want to ensure that our program stays true to its roots and gives volunteers that special experience that is rooted in being small scale, but at the same time we have to balance that with the need for a steady stream of volunteers to provide jobs for local staff and a small economy for local people. Most importantly we need growth and more volunteers as we feel an obligation to provide volunteers for our various projects and English teachers for the school children, as volunteers create otherwise impossible opportunities for them, their families, and the community in the future!

We had three American ladies come to visit Treetop Country for just one day back in February, and one day was all it took for them to fall in love with the culture. They were welcomed by everyone and even attended a local village wedding that day. One of the ladies runs a small NGO called Seed International. Colleen has now come to meet myself, Allan, and Sasi in Toronto. We are creating a joint project in which she will lead a team of engineers and farming experts to build eco-friendly aquaponics gardening systems in Wiang Pa Pao, one at Treetop Country and one at one of our schools. She will also have electrical engineers who will install eco-friendly power systems. This is our latest project and there are many more to come!