Message from the Director of Friends for Asia, Todd Cikraji
Based as we are in Chiang Mai, Thailand, January and February are one of my favorite times of year. The weather is great; there are plenty of visitors in the city; and we’ve just come off of a major string of holidays starting with Loi Krathong, Thailand’s annual festival of lights, and ending with the Chiang Mai Flower Festival and Chinese New Year. It’s a great time to be hosting volunteers in Thailand.
January and February in Thailand
Across the Kingdom of Thailand, the number of visitors is at an all-time high. In 2012, more than 22 million tourists visited Thailand. That’s roughly double the number that tourists that arrived 11 years ago when I first moved to Thailand. While it may just be drop in the bucket, I take satisfaction from the fact that – out of those tens of millions of visitors last year – 280 were volunteering and interning at our project sites in Chiang Mai and Surat Thani.
Upcoming Milestone Year
It looks like 2013 is going to be a milestone year for us, as well. In January alone, we hosted 50 volunteers at all of our projects sites in Chiang Mai, Surat Thani, Kathmandu, Bali and Hanoi, putting us well on our way to having our biggest year ever. As FFA grows, I’ve been taken by the diversity of our volunteers. There’s certainly no blueprint or typical candidate. In January of 2013, we had seven volunteers aged 50 and above. That adds up to more than one out of seven, and it reflects broader statistics indicating that people at or near retirement age are taking a stronger interest in international travel to exotic destinations.
But there’s a major difference setting our volunteers apart from the crowd. While ordinary tourists are booking package tours, checking into five-star hotels and jockeying for position on crowded beaches, FFA volunteers and interns are out there connecting with genuine people. They’re teaching English to monks and novices; helping out with childcare services for children of single mothers; and lending a hand at an orphanage. After seeing the difference made in the communities our volunteers work, as well as in the lives of our volunteers and interns, it’s hard to imagine being satisfied in any other line of work.
Origins of Friends for Asia
I certainly understand the personal rewards of volunteering. I first came to Asia in 2001 as a US Peace Corp volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, then here in Thailand. After my Peace Corps experiences I moved to Chiang Mai and accepted a teaching position at the largest private school in Northern Thailand. I taught English for eight years in that capacity and oversaw groups of foreign teachers. During that time, I founded Friends for Asia so that I could help other foreigners connect with authentic community service projects in Asia.
Friends for Asia is Growing
But now it’s time for a transition. More volunteers and interns than ever before are signing up for our projects, and I’ve decided to leave my position as an English teacher so that I can devote all of my energy to FFA. This is an exciting proposition for me, but I believe that it is also great news for project sites. With that in mind, I’m excited to see what 2013 holds for Friends for Asia. Operating an expanding business is all the more rewarding when you know that, as you grow, the community in which you operate benefits directly.