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  • Writer's pictureJoanna

True Dilemma of Destination

So I don't know if I mentioned this yet... BUT... I got a volunteer job, teaching English in northern Laos.

Have I finished my TEFL?

Simple answer. No

I have one more assignment to do.

I should have been done eons ago.

Only ONE more assignment.

One redeeming quality of mine is that I take gold in the art of procrastination... and I've absolutely exceled at ignoring this one final assignment. It's all fine... perfectly fine... or at least it would be if I didn't have to continuously pay for course extensions.

I'll figure it out.


The Trio Bar, Nong Khiaw
Me with my Blueberry Sogu

The last time I did a bout of international volunteering, I was in Arusha, Tanzania, and had gone through a company called IVHQ. Now nothing against this company... and when I say that, I actually have quite a lot to say against this company...

... so...

While I was with them, I worked for a Women's Empowerment non-profit called Perfect Vision.  I loved it and I still assist with their social media, as well as their promotional and marketing material.


There is a thing called Voluntourism in the world and I'm not exactly a big fan of it. The main issue I have is that these are profiting businesses carefully disguised as charitable nonprofits. Hey - business is business. I get it. I wish I'd thought of it. Voluntourism is a staggering $3 billion dollar business today. Probably more by now.

The crappy part is that they take full advantage of people, especially young people, who are really adamant that they want to do their part to help save the world. Despite the astronomical amount of funds they bring in annually, usually a whopping 0% goes to actually supporting any of the non-profits they claim to support. Staff, food, accommodation and administration costs are minimal in developing countries.

Aspiring volunteers need to do more research into where they are going, but especially where their money is going. Unfortunately not to education, clean water or health services.

Pure greed. Pure business. Pure voluntourism. 

The Traveling Gypsy was a blog I was following and she did a great peice on voluntourism. I couldn't say it any better than this.

And the reality is that you cannot assume that all volunteering programs have a positive impact on developing countries.  Unfortunately, many volunteer organizations are completely unethical and exploitative because they make a very lucrative business out of commercializing poverty; therefore, they don’t actually want to help these communities in the long term because they’ll lose their business.  And they don’t actually care about the people."

It's a really interesting read... and makes you think more about the world of volunteering. Highly recommended. Read more here ~ The Traveling Gypsy / Voluntourism

But enough about voluntourism... I was there, I did it. I learned my lesson. This time I decided to seek out volunteer positions on my own. 

Which I did.

I spent a couple days online checking out opportunities in Thailand or Laos, concentrating mostly on English schools. Eventually I came across the NK Seeds site, and after reading Mélissa's story, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to volunteer for them.  I wrote a couple emails and I was accepted. January 8th was my start date. Everything was set!

About 5 years ago, a young French traveler, Mélissa, embarked on a backpacking journey through Laos. Along the way, she encountered a man who had been teaching English to the underprivileged children of Nong Khiaw, from the small comfort of his own living room. Mélissa was inspired by his motivation to help and it led her to set up NK SEEDS to help the children of Laos develop their English abilities for greater job prospects to keep up with the growing tourism industry here.

I love that.

You never know where travel will take you and I'm positive that young Mélissa had no idea her future would be here when she first arrived in Nong Khiaw.

I only had ONE problem.


Always something... and with me, it's usually visa-related, regardless of the country.

A few blogs back, you might have read about how my visa was set to expire on January 19th, but I'd taken it into the local immigration department whilst being in Luang Prabang, and I paid to have it extended an additional month. 650,000kip.

It was now valid until February 16th.

No problem.

Everything was grand.

Then I pulled another rookie move and LEFT the country. I went to Bangkok, rendering my extension NULL and VOID.

They could have told me... ?

Should I have known better?


Oh well... just a complete waste of money.

Anyway - when I flew back into Vientiane, I sought out the pre-purchased visa entry and confidently took my place in that lineup. "This was going to be simple," was the exact thought going through my head.  A breeze...

It was not a breeze... at all.

Funny that, eh.

The border patrol officer opened up my passport, looked at the visa, looked at me disapprovingly, pointed at my stamp and simply said, "No." 

What?  But I was allowed! I was allowed twice! I had TWO stamps allowing me to be here.


He pointed to the other line up and gave me a dismissive wave. Shit.

So I had the honour of going through the entire rigamarole again. I got to fill out all the forms again, present a passport photo again... and hand over a $40US entry fee... again again. No one paid my previous visas any concern, and absolutely nobody was interested in my numerous attempts to explain my extension, regardless of my repetitive pointing, exasperation and pleading smiles. 

Finally I just shut up and took my third entry passport stamp... and once again, I was permitted to remain in Laos... until February 4th.



I needed it LONGER!!!

My flight out of Vientiane and back to Bangkok was booked for FEBRUARY 6th.

I needed TWO more days.

They refused to give it to me.

How difficult would it be to just change the number on the stamp from a 4 to a 6? Especially considering my abnormal circumstances and the considerable amount of money I had already paid, on numerous occasions. It's not as if the stamp was an official Laos government wax seal. It was a simple black ink date stamp with manual rotating numbers. They probably got them in bulk from some kind of Laotian Home Depot.

I needed the 6th. The entirety of the remainder of my journey lay on the shoulders of my flight on the 6th.

The 4th did me no good.

Here ensued yet another lengthy conversation about my visas and obvious extension required... and I was certainly getting tired of it... rapidly.

So now, I have 3 Laos stamps in my passport.

~ January 19th

~ February 16th 

~ February 4th.

None of them are going to do me any good.

The immigration staff all kept telling me that I could extend my visa in Luang Prabang.

No, thank you.

Not an option.

I was down with my time in that boutique town.

For the life of me, I couldn't fully understand why there wasn't some kind of extension desk right there at the International Airport of the country's capital.... but obviously I don't know everything.

Finally I asked a hard hitting question... and when I say 'I asked,' I mean that I wrote my question into Google Translate:

"If I fly out on February 6th, can I pretend I didn't know that my visa expired on February 4th?"

Perhaps not the brightest question to ask the immigration officials, as they were exactly the crew I would be dealing with when I made my illegal departure.

Maybe I shouldn't have asked.

I figured I could act dumb and pretend I didn’t know my visa had run out. It was clearly stamped in my passport - February 16th. But then again, it was also clearly stamped - February 4th. They told me it would cost me $10US per day if I overstayed my Laos welcome. Ok... I was a little perturbed considering I'd already given this country so much money and was no better off that I was when I'd started.  Upon further investigation, I found out that I could also face jail time, so that would definitely be an adventure.

Travel hassle sure has its way of sticking to me and never letting me go.

Maybe it's me?

Maybe I seek it out, unknowingly.

I need a new matra.

So... I was back in Laos... until February 4th or 6th or until my jail sentence was complete. Who knew? So up in the air...


I caught my connector to Luang Prabang and from there, I jumped in the back of a tuk tuk and got dropped off right in front of my hotel, The Elephant Boutique.  Just to be clear, once again, it was hardly what I might describe as being boutique... and there was nary an elephant in sight.

I was mentally and physically exhausted. It had been a long day of traveling, grovelling, arguing, explaining, fretting and contemplating. I needed a good meal and bed... and a grocery store. 

My bus/van was set to leave at 9am the following morning, so I figured I would head out and buy some school supplies. I didn't want to show up empty handed. The hotel seemed quite trustworthy and the main desk was manned 24/7, so off I went to the supermarket, leaving most of my valuables behind. After having my computer stolen in Costa Rica, I am very uncomfortable with leaving it anywhere... but I did it.

I went on a bit of a back-to-school shopping spree, filling the cart full of pens and pencils, notebooks, erasers, highlighters, stickers, coloured paper and more. It was the most fun I'd had shopping in a long time! I felt like I was back in Grade 4. 

When my cart was properly loaded, I headed up to the front to have the cashier ring it all through. 

My total came to around $80CND... and I reached into my pack to pull out my credit card and pay for it.

Not there.


I realized in my state of trustworthiness, I'd left all my essentials in my hotel room. That's what I get for trusting. Desperate... and with people impatiently waiting their turn, I scrambled through my bag, desperate for any card I could find. Nothing. They were ALL in the hotel room.

ALL I had on me was a small satchel of cash.

And that cash definitely did not equal $80.

I laid all my cash out to the cashier, and one by one, she returned a school supply item off my grocery list until it reached a total I could afford.

It was horrific. I was one of those people.


No one in the line up liked me. The cashier was not impressed.  I was horrified and humiliated.

Shattered, I took what was left of my supplies back to the hotel. I briefly considered going back with my credit card, but was far too embarrassed to show my face there again.

Another time.

The bus trip was another adventure on a bumpy road. It took approximately three hours to reach Nong Khiaw and the scenery was stunning.  I met a lovely couple on the ride and when we arrived, we all shared a tuk tuk into the town. From there, everyone dispersed to find their accommodation.

So... where was my guesthouse?


I kept looking at the map... looking at the booking... checking out the address... and I just couldn't tie everything together. It was impossible. It just wasn't adding up. Not adding up at all.

Why wasn't it all adding up, you might ask?

I will tell you.

It wasn't adding up because I'd booked my guesthouse in another town... further up the Nam Ou River... by BOAT access ONLY.

I'm a clown. A real clown.

My attention to detail shone through, once again. Will I ever learn?

I did have accommodation through NK Seeds, but I wasn't set to start until the following day. Of course, with the power of online bookings, it was quick and easy for me to make another guesthouse reservation with the snap of my fingers.

So once that was sorted... I could finally relax and get to know my new home.

Nong Khiaw is a very small, but picturesque village which stretches out on both sides of the Nam Ou River, in northern Laos. It can't be described as anything but stunningly beautiful, surrounded by mountains, which look more like bumps and knobs covered with lush green vegetation.

Each morning at dawn, the clouds drench the mountains and the fog lingers over the river transforming the valley into a dramatic and almost haunted landscape. It's truly a photographer's dream... and I'm here now for a month... 

How will it be?Who will I meet?

What shall happen...?

Always something! I definitely knew that...

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