Hanoi, Vietnam – Voluntourism. The word and the concept – to volunteer while on holiday abroad – has the world of travel abuzz and the world of non profits seething. Open any Lonely Planet travel guide, and you’ll probably come across at least a small section on how to volunteer while vacationing to gain a more “real” experience with the country’s culture and people. Go on a travel forum discussing voluntourism and you would think the world is coming to an end because some kid on his or her gap year wants to travel and volunteer. Considering I’ll be voluntouristing (not sure if that’s word, but I’m running with it) in Vietnam, I thought I would share my thoughts, viewpoint, and expectations on the eve of my start date and see how they change by the end of my time here.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia - I have a confession to make. On the boat ride back to the pier after the sea canoe tour in Phuket, I had more than just a “pinch me” moment. I had one of those magical moments when everything in life comes together, the big picture comes into focus, and a path emerges through the forest. A moment of true clarity, if you will. I know, it probably sounds cliched or corny, but something happened on that boat that solidified my perspective of this trip and brought me great inner peace.
Siem Reap, Cambodia – As mentioned previously, the sea canoe tour I embarked on while in Phuket was absolutely amazing. The gist of the tour was to enter two hongs (open lagoons in the middle of a few of the limestone karsts) in Pha Nga Bay via sea cave during the day and then re-enter one of the hongs at night using only three forms of natural light. The only catch with the whole thing is that for most of the sea cave passages, you need to lie flat on your back – with the ceiling only inches from your face in some instances (good luck if you’re claustrophobic) – to glide through the cave without nailing your head. There was a guide with each canoe to do all of the paddling so you didn’t need to worry about it while trying to keep from smashing your face.
Bangkok, Thailand – Now this, this was the Thailand I was expecting. My time in Phuket was three days of in your face sensory overload. Of course, I stayed in Patong – the party capital of Phuket – which explains a lot of the high octane energy coursing through the place. But, there was still the beach, the sun, the food, the people, the hagglers, the “massage parlor” girls, the Tuk Tuk drivers, the constant noise. You name it, it was there, and I loved every minute of it. To top it off, I went on an amazing sea canoe tour in Pha Nga Bay that provided several more amazing moments.
Phuket, Thailand – I’ll start with a full disclosure: I didn’t leave the hotel my first day here. After almost 23 hours of flights, layovers, and delays I was exhausted and extremely jet lagged. And, arriving to the hotel at 1:30 AM most certainly didn’t help matters either. I was in need of some rest and relaxation, and I took it. However, I’m guessing that much needed R&R played a role in forming my initial impression of Bangkok, which was just, well, meh.