9 Top Tips on Volunteering

We’ve volunteered in five different countries and have a huge passion for travel, charity work and most importantly; change. We’ve therefore combined some top tips and experiences from our fellow travellers and volunteers to help you when planning your volunteering trip. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start, who to trust and where to go so hopefully this will answer some of your questions.

1) Rox Oquendo; Former Director of Hands on Manila

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“You don’t always have to donate money to make a difference in small communities, your time can be much more beneficial. Contact NGO’s in the Philippines to find out how you can get involved with their ongoing programmes. If you have any special skills you think may be of benefit, for example if you’re a medical practitioner then make the NGO you are volunteering with aware, you may be able to help with specialist missions. By volunteering you’re exposed to the real Philippines and get to explore places off the beaten track.”

Our first volunteering experience abroad was with Hands on Manila and we can’t recommend them enough!

2) Skye Sandhu-Nelson; Community Champion

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“Each person has their own reasons to give or volunteer and you’ve got to have an affinity to the cause your supporting which will be unique to each individual. This needs to be taken into consideration before deciding on where is right for you to volunteer.”

Skye is an incredibly experienced volunteer and as has supported the YMCA, Salvation Army, The Citizens Advice Bureau, local schools and play groups, Womankind Worldwide and many more.

3) Emily Hudson; Explorer

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“All I would say is get stuck in as any little job goes a long way, get to know the locals, learn their ways and work with them to help your cause. Don’t forget to keep in touch even after your time volunteering has come to an end. It’s such a buzz to get updates and see how things are progressing when you’re back home. Also, do some research on how you can continue to support your project from home through online tasks and spreading the word.”

Emily volunteered at The African Impact, Marine Conservation Project in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

4) Sam Rees-Davies; Backpacking Biker

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We met Sam in February 2017 on our first day returning to Our Home Community. Unfortunately it was their last night volunteering there but although we had very little time together we instantly knew we shared the same passion about Our Home.

“Our first and most important tip when volunteering is always plan your route before you set off on your journey. Initially getting to Our Home seemed impossible as we were travelling by bike from Ooty with nothing but road signs! When we finally arrived we were mobbed by so many excitable children. One of the most refreshing things when you speak to anyone at Our Home is that they never refer to it as an orphanage, it is quite literally their home. The sense of community and family is breathtaking. Never have I seen so many children with such a zest for life, and if you need inspiration to volunteer, this is it!

We spent our days playing football, painting, cooking and also took the children on a trip to the local dam. Reflecting on my time at Our Home my biggest advice is get involved as much as you can and think of something new to introduce, cooking macaroni cheese was certainly a first time experience for these Indian kids and it was great I could give them that.”

5) Chloe Leach; Backpacker

“If I was to give any suggestions to someone wanting to volunteer abroad I’d say first and foremost – do your research. There are a lot of ‘volunteer projects’ that are scams, especially in SE Asia. They take your money and it doesn’t go to benefiting the cause they ‘stand for’. Please ensure you look for ethical projects.

I’d also say, GET STUCK IN. You’ll probably be given some tasks that aren’t as enjoyable as others. However, it is what you make it and at the end of the day you’re there volunteering to benefit the lives of others and not yourself.”

Chloe has volunteered at SchoolsWorldwide, a charity that runs volunteer trips through schools in Namibia, and Elephant Nature Park in Thailand where we also had a fantastic experience.

6) Sofia Candy; Backpacker

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Sofia volunteered with the Soi Dog Foundation, Thailand in 2015 and has incredibly now adopted Sansa, a dog they fell in love with during their time there. Sansa has been living in the U.K. for almost a year and is loving her new family life.

“If you wish to volunteer at Soi Dog make sure you contact them in advance to arrange your dates as they get booked up quickly during busy seasons. Take some dog treats with you in a bum bag for when you walk the dogs, they love a treat! Wear comfy shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty and smelly … Hanging out with the dogs and cats all day can get messy but it’s an amazing experience and you’ll hear lots of stories about how these animals were saved from torture and cruelty. It’s a fab life experience you will never forget.”

7) Thuy An; Community Outreach Coordinator; YMCA Vietnam

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“Vietnam is a great place to volunteer and have a life changing experience. To make sure you have the most enjoyable time possible and not too much of a culture shock, this is what I would recommend:

  • First and foremost make sure you participate in a voluntary experience that will excite you. This way you will be able to put 100% into everything you too.
  • When planning to volunteer make sure you obtain necessary visas and documents required before you arrive to avoid any problems.
  • Be prepared to eat all kinds of food in Vietnam … the infamous durian and fish sauce is typical for daily meals, if you’re a picky eater or dislike smelly food Vietnam might not be the place for you!
  • Most Vietnamese people are nice and friendly but always be aware of scams and rip-offs when shopping in local or tourist markets.
  • Don’t get run over by a car! The traffic is crazy. When crossing the streets be alert, confident and steady.
  • Lastly, equip yourself with some local knowledge about wherever you go. The Vietnamese people will love that you’ve taken the time to get to know their culture.

Thuy An organised our brilliant voluntary trip with YMCA Vietnam in 2015.

8) Swostik Pandey; Student and Entrepreneur

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“Whilst volunteering in Vietnam I often found myself being so thankful for the opportunity to give back. My main advice for volunteering abroad is to be as passionate as possible. Most people only volunteer once or twice in their lifetime so give it all you have and make sure you don’t forget to embrace the culture. Not only does this teach you about the local people, food and lifestyle of where you are volunteering but it also makes you appreciate everything you have in life. My second tip would be to be outgoing. Being able to create memories is great but always remember the people around you are the ones who help form those memories. Whether it is sharing a smile or attempting to speak an unknown language, every little thing will go a very long way!”

We volunteered with Swostik in 2015 as part of the YMCA Vietnam Overseas Community Project.

9) KHTravels; Blogging & Volunteering Couple 

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Our ultimate tip would be to prepare yourself for the hardships that go alongside the incredible experience you will have whilst volunteering. Volunteering isn’t easy and can be a very emotional journey.

Your accommodation will be very basic with no luxuries; uncomfortable beds, no fans, mosquito bites, squat toilets, hand washing clothes, no TV and no wifi! Culture shock can also be daunting and you’re often in remote communities that may not have seen foreigners before so expect a mixture of responses. These are the first things to come to terms with and the rest will fall into place. We of course do not want to deter your from volunteering but you need to be aware of what you’re letting yourself in for and if this doesn’t put you off, then you’re ready to go!

So there you have it, from some of our most trusted friends from around the world, we hope you’ll find their suggestions and advice helpful. If you still have any unanswered questions then please get in touch.

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We’ve got 99 problems but travelling isn’t one!

The realities of coming home…

2380Two people, two back packs, nine countries, twelve planes, ten months and then … home. Did that just happen? Did we really just spend the majority of 2015 living our dream, fulfilling our wanderlust, exploring, adventuring, and travelling the world… to now be home?

The harsh reality is coming home is harder, much harder than going away and this is our first really personal blog. We’re going to let you into our minds and see how we are feeling now we’re home. If you’re NOT a traveller the likelihood is you won’t have a clue what we’re talking about reading this, and if you ARE a traveller we know you’ll be able to relate to this more than anything else you’ve read today.

Our year travelling Singapore, Australia, Bali, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and India came to an abrupt ending the minute we arrived back on home turf. As the plane landed in Heathrow we were a mixture of emotions; tired, sad, shocked, excited to see our families (we were surprising them) uncertainty, and most of all it all just seemed like a big haze, a dream, we couldn’t accept that we were now home. They say time flies when you’re having fun, well boy, we must have had a blast because it felt like we simply blinked and we were home again.

781After three months in India the journey in a black cab down the M25 was somewhat different to a tuctuc zooming around Delhi. All of a sudden we were being bombarded with being home; red busses, Ford KA’s, level roads, road signs, Costa Coffees, rain and we had to take all of this in as we made our way into Essex. Culture shock going to India? Forget that, coming home after so long is the biggest culture shock ever and you’ll either settle back in going back to your old ways or you’ll feel this now alien country is no longer home.

Our first few weeks home were incredible. Seeing the looks on the faces of both our families and friends when surprising them after so long was priceless, emotional and completely unforgettable. Sleeping in our own bed, the build up to Christmas, the welcome cold weather, the partying, it was good to be home. You know you’ve been away for a long time when you can feel yourself talking in slow, broken English to your mum!

However, as the weeks passed we both started to feel unsettled. Imagine being together 24/7 for nearly a year, just us in our own little bubble, doing what we want, when we wanted with no one to answer to and not being held back by the reality that is society. We feel it may have been easier if we came home and were living together, but we’ve both had to go back home to our parents, and we’re hugely thankful to them, but truthfully we just want to be together in our own little routine that we built whilst travelling.

671We’ve both had to adjust back in to our old lives, new clothes, hair and makeup done, nights out and expensive dinners. Gone are the days of 20p beer in the street with Pad Thai for dinner wearing anything we could reach for from our backpacks including the tops with international beer logos on (we would never wear those at home!) We found this really difficult, why can’t we walk around bare foot anymore?

As we’re writing this we don’t really know where we are going or what we are trying to say? It’s hard; it is really hard being home and we think people underestimate that. All we want to do is look for new and exciting opportunities, spend time on our blog, keep talking about the incredible experiences we’ve encountered and keep posting our favourite travel snaps. But the truth is no one really cares. At first this is hard to accept, but it’s true and you will soon realise that no one cares about the name of the volcano you spent a day climbing and were so proud of yourself for doing so. Yes of course everyone wants to know how it was… How was it? How was your year travelling? What was your favourite country? How can we answer any of these questions, have you got another year to listen to us? No not really, so you reply with “It was great, we can’t tell you our favourite country as they were all so different” If someone asks a question and you actually begin to open up and elaborate into your magical story, well to you it is, it’s almost guaranteed you will notice the person is not paying for attention, because they don’t care! And in all fairness why would they?

1051You experience all of these wonderful countries, with beautiful cultures and you embrace them throwing yourselves in head first. The people you meet become your family and you rely on them as much as you would your parents. We spent a lot of time volunteering so got to experience first-hand a lot of local communities and we fell in love with all of them particularly, Our Home Community in India. We now spend our days missing them and wondering why we aren’t there, we feel we could be of so much more use out in the big wide world, where we can freely express our love, passion and understanding that has become who we are.

We want to spend every minute of every day together because only we know what each other is feeling, but we can’t. That isn’t reality is it; we have to work to make a living so it’s back to our 9-5 desk jobs whilst our minds are still wandering to the days where what we would have for dinner was our hardest decision. We now realise the simplest luxuries that we took for granted, normal toilets and no more carrying around toilet roll? Much easier right? But so boring.

1118Travelling gave us a sense of purpose, and belonging that we can no longer feel here? And will we ever? It’s been three months since we returned and we still have the same hunger and desire to be waking up in the morning to something new, a different adventure every day. We miss the simplicities in life that is travelling and appreciating the treats when you get them! Our first Nando’s in Chennai was literally like heaven on a plate after six months. Being able to have it every week in Romford Brewery isn’t exactly the same. The excitement of having a decent Wi-Fi and being able to contact your friends and family for a real catch up is brilliant. So is being able to update yourself with the world of social media, not having it on hand every second of every day. Spending evenings watching countless friends episodes was a real treat, here they’re on Comedy Central all the time! The novelty wears off…

We were lucky travellers, only one case of bed bugs, a few Delhi belly occasions, a little bit of travel sickness, some sleepless nights. But we’ve come home with something much worse. We have a very bad case of the travel bug, and what’s the cure for that? To go again…

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Cambodia; more than just Angkor Wat

A country still visibly showing the scars of recent bloodshed and war, yet filled with beauty and an enormous history still beats strong.

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Pnom Penh

We began our journey in the capital city of Pnom Penh and spent most of our time volunteering at the YMCA, which you can read about here, but when we weren’t working we were often found eating at Mad Monkey!

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MM was our first hostel in Cambodia and probably the favourite of our travels! A bold statement to make, however, this is a hostel that offers unlimited beers two nights a week, a backpackers paradise… Yet this wasn’t even the highlight of our time here. With multiple themed nights during our stay, knowledgeable staff and most importantly, a restaurant that featured some of the finest meals we have had in Asia, this was a westerner’s dream in Cambodia.

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As a backpacker you will appreciate after plenty of rice, rice and urm… more rice, a menu offering succulent BBQ ribs, fiery fajitas, a vast array of burgers featuring juicy beef patties cooked to perfection, this place was like a heaven for us. This may sound like a sales piece but it really isn’t, if you’re backpacking in Cambodia, definitely spend some time at Mad Monkey, even if it’s just for the free beer. Alternatively head down to the local market to try the famous PP delicacies including the Angry birds fish .. on a stick! Yes, you heard that right!

Killing fields and Toul Sleng

Onto the serious stuff now and we did do things other than eat and drink in Cambodia. Visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng museum was a truly harrowing experience. Within the last half a century, Cambodia lost 2/3 of its population when the Khmer Rouge campaign, led by Pol Pot, slaughtered millions of men, women and children.

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The Killing Fields were unimaginable. When entering the site, you face a huge tower filled with the bones of hundreds of people, separated into different age groups, type of death and even body parts. When walking through the site, you pass sign after sign asking you to respect the deceased by not stepping on the bones which surface along the beaten path among the now green fields. Continuing your journey, you arrive at the killing tree and immediately feel your insides turn as you are told the gruesome stories of how children were flung against the tree to their death in front of their mothers.

The Tuol Sleng museum was another heartbreaking experience. A former school before the Khmer Rouge takeover, the museum takes you on a journey through what it was like to be tortured, often to your death, by your own people. Once you pass the thousands of head shots of the men, women and children that came and never left, you reach an old, gentle and happy man selling books.

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Chum Mey was a survivor of Tuol Sleng and had now published a book on his experiences. The most extraordinary thing about this man was his smile. Sitting in the same complex where he heard the screams of his family and friends being tortured to death, he was at peace now, knowing his beloved Cambodia had moved on from the terror that roamed the lands not so long ago.

Siem Reap

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Siem Reap is made for tourists, in complete contrast to Pnom Penh.

Full of restaurants, bars and fantastic markets, we spent eight days relaxing and taking in all that this wonderful town had to offer. Of course you really only go to Siem Reap for one thing; Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat was a wonderful experience which you could not compare to any other. Built in the 12th century and yet still standing strong, the structures of these temples are breathtaking.

Arriving at 5am, find yourself a quiet spot in the grounds amongst the grass and rocks, and watch the blazing sun rise up as the first rays of light creep over the temple. This was a moment that will stick in our memories forever.

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Later in the day, we spent our time meandering from one temple to another, each unique and each as awesome as the next. From the “Bayon” temple featuring hundreds of faces carved into the stone, to “Ta Prohm” used to film Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider. Trees the size of sky scrapers, drape over, around and even through the stone to the earth following hundreds of years of growth, epitomising the phrase, “life will find a way”.

Exploring Siem Reap

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Siem Reap is also a place where we experienced a lot of firsts, with plenty on offer to do, these were a few of our favourites…

We encountered the famous fish foot spa, of course with a free Cambodia beer!

We also took part in a Khmer cooking class, choosing from traditional dishes such as curries, banana leaf salads, sticky mango rice, fried banana, spicy shrimp salads and more. Learning about the spices used and how to get the flavours just right was great fun! After a few hours in the kitchen we were able to sit down and enjoy the masterpieces we had created!

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Lastly, we ventured onto a street food walking tour. Up to this point we hadn’t been too adventurous in terms of trying strange delicacies in Asia so we braved it out and did it all at once! Stuffed Frogs, chicken hearts, crickets, cockroaches… You name it we tried it! Would we do it again? No. But it’s something to tick off the bucket list! Whatever it is you want to do, Siem Reap is sure to offer it.

Cambodia is a country which you visit for its people as much as you do its sights. A nation crippled by murder and injustice in the not too distant past that recovered and prospered in the face of near extinction. The smiles that greet you still bear the scars of death but shine brightly and with hope.

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Travels

We have travelled 22 countries so far, and visited the majority of those during a year we spent backpacking through Australasia and Asia.

Travelling is something that is a priority for us, we’d even go as far to say a necessity. We have a hunger to explore, and will continue to fulfil our wanderlust through budget travelling and luxury breaks.

We’re currently back in London after four months volunteering at Our Home Community Orphanage. You can read about our adventures below:

YMCA Cambodia

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On our travels our aim has been to volunteer as much as possible, whilst exploring different countries and cultures. From the minute we arrived in Cambodia, we were exposed to such poverty and shocking homelessness including many victims of agent orange and survivors of the Khmer Rouge. This really encouraged us to do what we could to help.

After our fantastic time spent with the Vietnam YMCA, we decided to contact the YMCA Cambodia to see how we could get involved. After meeting with the Executive Director and seeing what a great cause this was, we decided to spend a few weeks a the YMCA Cambodia Learning Centre, a school for children of a local village, which funded community projects in Cambodia. We planned to spend our time teaching children aged 2-16 years old, as well as redecorating the nursery room, and redesigning the school playground.

On arrival to the school, the exterior of the building was quite simply a health and safety officers paradise. In the UK this school would have been closed down before even entering the building. Motorbikes parked in the children’s play area, piles of bricks stacked next to swings and dozens of mice and cockroaches running around. Once you entered the building it was actually quite a nice school, much more developed than what we have seen in other countries, however, cleanliness was a big issue. The older students had fairly nice classrooms with whiteboards and they had decorated them with their work and kept them tidy, but we were appalled by the nursery room which was for the children 2-4 years old.

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All of the children had fevers and it was no surprise based on the condition of the room they were sitting in five days a week. There was mouldy foam flooring which the children constantly tripped over, rotten curtains barely hanging from the window, dirty walls, ant infestations in every corner and the worst part, a bathroom that we could not even bare to enter because the stench was so foul. What we did notice though was the sink was blocked and had quite obviously been for some time as their was actual life beginning to form! Little tadpoles were swimming around, this may sound funny but it is no joke when this is what children were exposed too. We decided to make redecorating that room our key focus, as well as teaching the children English.

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For those two weeks we became full time teachers, and we can tell you it was no easy task! We spent the weekend before lesson planning and shopping for prizes, stickers and game ideas for the children, this was super fun. Their little faces were so delighted each time they won a prize or a sticker and it was a joy to see. For the younger students our teaching varied from nursery rhymes, colours, animals, comic strips and basic English. For the older students we helped with their pronunciations, grammar, new vocabulary, and even taught a bit of syntax and sentence structure to some evening classes of Cambodian Adults which we really enjoyed, it took us back to our uni days! The children were enthusiastic to learn and extremely happy to have us with them, but we must admit teaching seven classes a day was tiring and very hard to keep the smaller children entertained all of the time. Neither of us are teachers and after this experience we give our upmost respect to them!

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At the weekends we got an insight to these children’s lives when we went to do a bit of shopping at the local market, which has a name that actually translated into “dirty market.” This was where most of the children lived with their families who all had stalls selling meat, fruit, veg, toiletries and other general bits. The market stunk and the flies around the fresh produce was gross, we had to walk through holding our noses! The only good thing about this place was the fact we were greeted by so many of the kids from school with huge smiling faces wanting to introduce us to their parents. The children were filthy, still in their school uniforms on the weekend presumably because they had no other clothes and were all helping out on the stalls, doing what they could to help make a living. Again it was another moment for us that made us realise just how privileged and sheltered our lives have been growing up in the UK.

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So, with our mission being to completely freshen up the nursery room, we bought materials and paints and got to work. We ripped up the horrid old foam flooring to clean and disinfect the floor underneath, which was actually well tiled! We ripped down the horrid curtains and pulled off the peeling paint from the walls. After washing everything what felt like a million times, we painted the walls white which instantly made the room feel so fresh, we also painted pictures the best we could (neither of us are artists!) as well as sticking educational posters on the walls. Once finished and comparing the room before and after we are not shy to admit we are so proud with what a difference we were able to make. Unfortunately we could not sort the bathroom out, that needs professional work! But hopefully the nursery room will now be a much more enjoyable environment for the little ones to be in.

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Next we focused on the playground, which was of a decent size and location it just needed sorting out. We informed all staff at the school that bikes were no longer to be parked in the play area. We moved the bricks to the front of the school and asked for them to be collected, we picked up the litter and washed the floor and walls as best we could to try and ensure that the rodents stayed away. We then painted the walls with rainbows, weather and animals making for a brighter and safer environment. This is a playground after all and is meant to be fun!

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The two weeks quickly passed as we were so busy having a great time, meeting and teaching the children being our highlight. It was definitely the hardest voluntary activity we have participated in, but seeing the results at the end and knowing the children would be happier and healthier were well worth it. We can only hope that the staff at the school are encouraged by what we did, and amongst themselves decide to keep the school clean and continue to make improvements!

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Our volunteering adventure

As well as visiting incredible places, meeting wonderful people and making unforgettable memories, we also do our best to support those less fortunate than ourselves.

While at home we have been working alongside The Asian Circle, a fantastic organisation who support women in need throughout Asia.

We also provide ongoing support to Our Home Community Orphanage, a charity based in Kerala, India which is home to 40+ orphans.

Beyond the UK and India we have also volunteered with various international charities which we would highly recommend. If you have any questions about these organisations or would like more info on how to get involved please feel free to contact us.