GVI Chiang Mai was my first ever volunteering experience abroad, so I had little to no comparative perspective- and few expectations. I had never really traveled before, so having an interactive and informative conversation with Cormac (a GVI employee here in the UK) before hand, was an extremely helpful thing.
I arrived at CNX, my belly brimming with butterflies and my mind rife with curiosity. I- much to my surprise- managed to barter with a tuk-tuk driver to take me to my hostel for a relatively respectable price.
I found myself in the lobby of a beautiful hostel, waiting to bump into other volunteer's- which I did, Sophia, a gorgeous and bubbly German girl, and Brodie a strapping confident and absolutely hilarious Aussie bloke. I felt at home with them after a short while. I quickly found myself completely in my element, surrounded by some of the most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, (and this was the first few days).
We gathered together a group of people who weren't too jet-lagged, and set to the streets of Chiang Mai with safety in numbers, to explore what it had to offer. We didn't plan, we just set off, and wandered where our legs cared to take us. We saw temples, ate incredible Thai street food, walked and familiarised ourselves with not only the area, but one and other. I remember laughing a lot that day.
After we'd had the chance to get to know each other, we all met to watch a presentation and begin an initiation into the wonderful world of GVI Chiang Mai. I realised quickly, that the laid back- yet professional and organised way in which Danielle (the base manager) conducted our induction, would set the tone for the whole trip.
We all piled into the back of two mini buses, driving five hours up into the mountains past Mae Chem, stopping for lunch at an authentic Thai eatery. We were taken to a waterfall that day, the biggest and most beautiful I've seen to date.
Arriving in the village I can only describe as surreal. The tree covered mountains, and the sheer vast beauty that the topography of Northern Thailand is something that steals your words and thoughts, offering nothing but "wow".
I think the living arrangements, staying with homestay families, provides a more authentic taste to the whole experience, as well as a sustainable income for families the involved. In staying with our host families, we had the opportunity to learn far more about the local culture- something which seemed to me to begin with, almost esoteric, grew to be simply contrasting beauty.
We were given packed lunches to take with us on hikes in the morning, meeting for breakfast at base; sometimes I would meet other volunteers at Root's coffee shop- he makes the best coffee in the whole of Thailand I might add. I remember often cleaning my teeth as others put on their hiking boots. There was a real sense of community and family, both with our home stays, and the other volunteers and GVI staff members.
Hikes were hard to begin with- almost impossible in the hard beating Thai sun, trekking through thickets of jungle and up the side of mountains; however, each hike it got easier, I felt a genuine sense of achievement, and began to feel healthier within a short amount of time.
Either way, the challenge of the hikes were met by a reward of far higher measure; elephants. I can't really tell you about my first time seeing an elephant, I just remember being absolutely mesmerized, and so very lucky. These fantastic beasts, prehistoric, magnificent.
One of the most extraordinary sounds I have heard to date (and I studied music) is the elephants trumpeting, it is a sound which doesn't leave you hungry for anything.
I learned, even in my six short weeks, so much about conservation, culture and ethical elephant tourism. Some of what I learned shocked and saddened me, which is why I feel it is so important that GVI continue to do the work they do. I also I felt that after being in the presence of such prodigious animals, it was partially my responsibility to carry forth what I had learned sustaining and sharing the lessons that GVI had taught me.