Travel Confessions: Cynthia Tan on volunteering in Laos

Published January 16th, 2015

To bridge the gap between high school and university, Cynthia Tan embarked on a month-long trip to Laos, volunteering and trekking around the Laos-Northern Thailand area. She schools us on the ins and outs of teaching English to the local kids, helping with building work in the community and even learning to cook. Here's her take on her Laos volunteering experience.


Cynthia working on the alphabet caterpillar at the nursery.


What inspired you to volunteer overseas and why Laos?

I had always wanted to volunteer somewhere, but didn’t know where exactly to start. In year 12, an expedition company came to school and offered a one-month program, which includes volunteering in Laos and trekking through the Laos-Northern Thailand mountains. As it was my first volunteering trip and my first time travelling without my family, I thought it was a great way to kick off solo travelling through this program to build my independence as well as being able to volunteer! So I guess I can say I didn’t choose Laos, but it chose me and I couldn’t be happier about the outcome!


The finished and decorated nursery.


Had you just finished school or study?

This was just after I had sat my year 12 exams and waiting for my university offers - definitely a great way to release all that exam stress!

Was it difficult getting the paperwork and visas arranged?

Paperwork took some time, but most of it was looked after by the organisation I arranged the trip with. Visas, however, were very easy with an Australian passport. I got my visa on entry to Laos for around $US50.


Cynthia painting for the women's cultural centre.


Describe a typical day volunteering in Laos.

Waking up early. That’s the killer, especially after a late night of chats and enjoying the local food and culture (lots of dancing)! After breakfast, I’d head to either the nursery or the women’s cultural centre, depending where help was needed that day. At the nursery I would normally resume painting the walls or drawing alphabet letters or pictures, whereas at the cultural centre, it was a lot of building work (cement mixing, painting, helping with construction). Lunch would take place in between and around dinner time, we would go help at the English tuition centre. This consisted of teaching, singing, colouring and talking. After dinner there might be some traditional dancing or even learning to cook what we had just eaten!


Learning to cook local dishes in the village.


What new skills did you learn in your job?

I think a huge part of this trip was learning about myself and how to be independent. I learn what I was good at, what I might be interested in, and even what I can see myself doing in the future. Some new things I learnt included cooking skills, painting and drawing (everyone can do this as long as you try), and ultimately, how to work with children.


What's your favourite memory from your time in Laos?

There are too many! To pinpoint it to one would be quite difficult, but the overall experience of learning how to live outside your comfort zone, cold water showers in winter (even getting sick) was all worth it. I always look back to this trip when I travel alone and I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to have had this experience!


Cynthia holds some of the local food.


What was the local food like?

Amazing! As long as you’re willing to try anything there is nothing to worry about. There is a wide variety, but a lot of spices and chilli and full of flavour. Typing about this makes me hungry!


Where did you stay during your trip?

During the volunteering period I stayed at houses of the local villagers - if I’m not mistaken, she was the village elder’s wife.


Teaching at the English tuition centre.


What was the biggest challenge you faced during your trip?

Being homesick and not having the comforts and everyday things we take for granted. As it was my first trip alone overseas to a developing country, little things from having cold showers to the lack of a computer for Facebook was a struggle. Also surviving a trekking trip was very tiring - many times I wanted to give up.


Cynthia trekking with her group in Laos.


What's the best advice you can offer to someone wanting to travel to Laos to volunteer?

Do it! It was a tremendous eye opener for me. Having grown up in Australia, I think we are often too comfortable. Going to a country such as Laos, you come back so much more appreciative of what you have and this trip contributed a lot to how I wanted my future to be. Nothing good ever comes easy, but it is worth it!


Rachel Surgeoner

A self-confessed 'food-tourist', I take hunting for the world's greatest sandwich very seriously, my quest has taken me from Berlin to Hoboken. Stopping off only for vintage shopping, craft beers and Mediterranean sunsets.