My name is Lace and I volunteered with IVHQ in Laos teaching and caring at a centre for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Afterwards I took 5 months to travel to explore Laos, Asia and Australia. My volunteer experience has left a lasting impact on me and it was undoubtedly the best part of my travels.
My two weeks volunteering in Vientiane in Laos with IVHQ, absolutely flew by. It was challenging, tiring but fun. My only regret is not being able to volunteer for longer.
Now I am back home my friends and family joke whenever I mention Laos, ‘oh really you volunteered, how did we not know that?’ Due to the fact I have not stopped talking about my experience since!
As a thirty something who has travelled the world as a ‘holiday maker’ but never as volunteer, I naively and wrongly thought I knew myself pretty well. But my experience of volunteering challenged my perceptions of the world, the people in it and also what I thought were my capabilities. Here are my top five things I learnt as an IVHQ volunteer in Laos:
People Surprised Me Everyday
One of the main reasons I volunteered in Laos, were the recommendations from friends, all of whom unanimously voted that the Laotians are the most warm, humble and generous people they had encountered.
From the day I arrived, being greeted at the airport with a big hug by my IVHQ Volunteer co-ordinator. To the first day of my placement being welcomed by the staff and children with smiles. To my final day when the children made me an amazing thank you card, with little hearts on that represented each child and a big heart representing me.
Then there were kind strangers. One instance of many acts of ‘random kindness’ I experienced was on the way to my placement one morning. On the bus I sat next to a lady who had a bag of sandwiches. I pointed at the bag and made a munching sound as though I was pretending to eat her sandwiches. I was taken aback, when she took one of the sandwiches out of the bag and insisted I took it. I thanked her (in Lao of course ‘kop choi lie lie’) and rummaged through my bag finding a mini sewing kit. The lady looked so pleased when I gave it to her. Plus when I got to my volunteer placement the children greatly enjoyed the sandwich too!
It also goes without saying that my fellow volunteers were also brilliant and made me feel immediately at home in my new surroundings.
Prepare For The Unexpected and Improvise
I was one of the first volunteers to undertake this SEND project in Laos and had no idea what to expect upon arriving on my first day. Although I had bought with me some picture flash cards and toys in preparation, plus my brain was in preparation mode.
I was surprised on my first day at the daycare centre at the lack of decorations for the children to look at. As Valentine’s Day was fast approaching, myself and two other lovely volunteers set off to buy paper and crafts at lunch time. We got all the staff and children involved in crafting hearts and cupids. One little girl commented how happy she was we had made the centre look pretty.
I also hadn’t expected to teach, but a couple of the children were keen to learn English along with the staff, so I quickly got to work creating teaching materials. At the end of my placement, to ensure there was a record of the work that had been done, I created a learning and play log to help future volunteers prepare.
Learn The Language and Read Up About The Culture - A Smile and Big Hand Gestures Go a Long Way
Whether you are in Laos or volunteering elsewhere, you will probably find that people cannot speak the same language as you. I recommend having a go at mastering some of basics before you go. I wrote basic words on a wipe board that I hung in my kitchen in front of the kettle – to combine tea making with Laos learning!
If all else fails a big smile and hand gestures go a long way, as does a mini phrase book I kept in my pocket at all times to point at!
Also get acquainted with the local customs. Each country will have its own unique set of traditions and beliefs to respect and learn. Two things I learnt quickly in Laos was firstly pointing with one finger is considered rude, instead use your whole hand. Secondly never write a person’s name in red pen, as it is considered bad luck. Plus you are often given a nickname based on your physical appearance or what you like to eat, one of the IVHQ co-ordinator was called Ticky as he loved Sticky rice!
All About Food
As with many countries, the people of Laos love to dine and take their time to shop at the local market, prepare food and eat – food is an excuse for socialising.
Getting acquainted with markets is a must. To get the best deals arrive well before 8am and be prepared to haggle. Anything you need from delicious fresh mangos and bananas, stationary, teaching supplies to toiletries can be found.
Be prepared to take an hour or two to eat at each sitting. There are so many scrummy noodles, soups, broths and an abundance of sweet sticky rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. These dishes are all mostly prepared on a simple stove lit by wood and coal.
Every lunchtime on my placement as the children slept, I got taught to cook fish and learn the secrets of creating the perfect dishes. I did feel at times I was being fattened up like a turkey, the staff liked to squeeze me and encourage me to eat more. Be prepared to use your fingers and eat from the same dish or bowl.
Beware the papaya salad is super spicy, as I found out on the first day of my placement!
I was incredibly nervous before I arrived in Laos, not knowing what to expect especially arriving in a country with a completely different culture. I read the IVHQ manual and researched as much as I could before I arrived, but as with any adventure you never know quite what will happen. However I went with a willingness to help and do whatever needed to be done, even if not all the jobs were the most glamorous – for example spending an afternoon mending broken chairs. Getting to embed myself into a new culture and helping others was a reward within itself. Within two days of my placement I felt like I had been living in Laos for months. I felt so at home.
My overall top learning (ok I need to update the title to six learning’s!) was that I want to volunteer again and aim to try and take an ethical holiday at least once a year to help others. Thank you IVHQ for this amazing experience!