Chiang Rai-nbow City

This post is long overdue! I’ve been pretty slack on blogging- it’s been busy and I rarely take my laptop home with me after work. Either I have something on in the evening or I want a quiet night in- laptop isn’t really needed for that… so the blogging has suffered a bit.

Time to catch up a bit!

In early October, there was a Buddhist holiday which coincided with a long weekend and so, Lisa, the amazing CEO of Thai Freedom House decided to take the staff on a trip to Chiang Rai and invited me to come along for the ride! And what a ride it was! I’m so grateful that I was able to go on this getaway, Chiang Rai was amazing and it was so lovely to get to know Lisa and some of the staff/students of the cafe better.

We hired a car, and started the long drive to Chiang Rai, stopping along the way to have coffee at the famous NGO Cabbages and Condoms which provides sexual health education to Thai people, gives out contraception and encourages safer sexual practices- especially in high risk places. Their cafe/hostel was super cute, lush and green- especially considering it was just off the highway, but the true drawcard was the creative and… appropriate decorations! Amongst the giant statues of condoms and posters with clever slogans, there was also this well dressed young lady-


Not sure if I’ll buying the dress, but I certainly admire her ingenuity. While there I grabbed a postcard, resisting the condom related merchandise which I’m sure have made excellent souvenirs for people the world over.

We continued on, dropping our stuff at our super cute hostel called “Breakfast in the Garden” which did indeed, serve breakfast in their cute little garden, before picking up a student of ours who has now gone on to study English for International Communication at Chiang Rai University- one of the best unis in Thailand- and certainly the most beautiful! Sadly, she has to pay international student rates (much more expensive than Thai nationals) and freshmen cannot work through the term, meaning she needs to rely on donations and support from Lisa and TFH to pay for her accommodation and tuition. If you’d like to donate and support her education, please visit our website ( and note what the donation is for (Shan Student University Fund). It was so special to see her passion for her education and the joy she has in studying. She showed us around the university (which was SO beautiful) and the pride she had in it was really lovely to experience- I’m grateful I got to meet and spend time with this vibrant woman and I pray she can continue studying to achieve her dreams of setting up an NGO in her home town so children can receive the opportunities she has had.

Once we had taken a tour around the uni, we all hopped in the car and visited the spectacular White Temple or Wat Rong Khun which is the creation of a Thai artist and is like no other temple I’ve ever seen before. It’s entirely white, covered in glass which seems to be constantly being cleaned or replaced, and extremely ornate. Surrounding the temple itself are beautiful gardens and then, in distinct contrast, the lake of hell which thousands of hands are reaching out from. Hanging from the trees around the temple are the heads of various famous characters and people including, but not limited to Gollum, Hellboy and random old people (they’re probably people, I just don’t recognise them…).


The interior of temple is just as fascinating as the outside- inside is a beautiful mural which covers the entire room, starting from the back which depicts a hellish sort of state of modern society, littered with illustrations of pop culture figures- featuring Harry Potter and Voldemort, Darth Vader, Superman, Batman, Micheal Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and so many more- it became a sort of game to find all the different references as you moved around the walls. Remember, it is a place of worship so it’s best to stay reverent and not squeal when you find something- keep it to an awed “ooh…”

As you move toward the front of the temple, closer to the Buddha the picture moves to one of a heavenly paradise- I assuming a state of nirvana- which was so intricate, colourful and beautiful! You’re not allowed to take pictures inside the temple itself, so spend sometime soaking up the images and the selfie stick free atmosphere… because it’s the only place in Chiang Rai which you won’t see one!

After checking out the White Temple we headed back to the hostel, driving around the city to check out the layout of the land before having dinner and having an early night after our looooong day.

The next day we woke up to pouring rain- which thankfully abated after breakfast (but not before we had to get an uber about 500m because of the random torrential downpour which we were blessed with! Today was to be spent at the Black House and Blue Temple- it seems everything in Chiang Rai is named after a colour of the rainbow, although not entirely unjustifiably!

The Black House is an art installation which is set over a large property comprised of about 30 or so different buildings, built in traditional Thai Lanna style, but with non-traditional interior design. The Black House is a shrine to the darker side of humanity with the idea that by revealing the dark side, we can stop fearing it. Cue lots of bones, vulnerability, death, phallic imagery, and decay. It’s a fascinating place to walk around and explore and by this stage, we were blessed with bright sunshine- it would have been creepy in the gloom of the morning… but also miserably wet. Most of the installation is outside, making me exceptionally glad for the sunshine!

After lunch and exploring, we moved onto the stunning Blue Temple which is newly built and painted with the most incredible blue iridescent paint which, in the light of the sunset, was absolutely phenomenal to behold. Definitely worth a visit!! We also popped into a super cute little cafe that was styled just like a British Tea House and was perched upon the river. It was clearly a popular place and like everywhere in Chiang Rai, a selfie hub!!

On our final day, we visited the most amazing tea farm, perched on undulating green hills, with a beautiful blue backdrop. The kiosk was perched on top of these hills and had the most beautiful views- we sat outside and had a picnic, watching the tourists come and go, taking lots of selfies and doing some of the most hilarious poses. It was wonderfully entertaining.

After this, it was time to say goodbye and start the drive home, but on the way our interest was peaked by an interesting looking roadside temple which had menacing sculptures of mystical beasts eating people guarding its doors. Undettered (mostly) we drove in and hoped for the best. Somehow we stumbled into a HUGE and beautiful temple complex with so many different monuments to different Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses, all who are responsible for different aspects of ones life. It was a truly Thai experience- Lisa and I were the only white people I saw there- everyone else was Thai but we were all in states of awe over this pristine, brand new, vibrant theme park of eastern religion. Honestly, it felt like being in Disney land (Buddhaland) if you will- it was a total hit on the senses… overwhelming, especially after a weekend full of intense sensory experiences from the food, to the stories, to the scenery, and the COLOURS.


We navigated the Chiang Mai traffic, arriving home in the early evening. I was planning to see a film with friends after getting home if I made it in time… and I did… but I didn’t see the film. After such a hectic few days, I truly relished the early night, market food and bed which awaited me.

I had an incredible time in Chiang Rai and am so thankful that I was able to go with the team from FBC. Massive thank you to Lisa for giving me the opportunity to go and truly feel like a member of the Free Bird family.


Why would you do that?

It was around April when a girl at my gym asked me this question. She asked it with absolute shock, disbelief, and a hint of scorn. I had clearly, in her eyes, made a stupid decision- one that I would regret, sooner probably, rather than later. And fair enough, quitting your extremely stable, reasonably well paying job at a lovely school with wonderful teachers, understanding leadership and seriously great students does sound pretty extreme… but, to be honest, extreme was what I was going for.

6 months ago, I waved goodbye to freezing cold Melbourne, Australia- home of my heart and soul- and moved to the hot, wet embrace of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had all sorts of reasons for doing so- I needed to get out of my comfort zone, test my ability to trust God, give myself a chance to heal from my clean eating and exercise obsession, do something different, get out of Melbourne winter… the list goes on. But one of the most important driving factors which forced me to buy an (initially) one way ticket to Thailand was my passion for refugees.

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This is not the blog post for discussing the human rights abuses my government is currently committing in my name- if you want to talk with me about that, we can do so at another time- but their actions, or sometimes lack thereof, made me want to do something real related to the refugee crisis. I’ve always donated food and money to local refugee organisations, participated in online and physical protests, incorporated refugee narratives into my classes (in a remarkably unbiased manner, I’m proud to say), and voted with my feet and money by visiting and using organisations, enterprises, restaurants, businesses etc which support, educate and employ refugees who come to my beloved nation. I’ve tried to make them feel welcome, even when media rhetoric spews out bile indicating that they are not.

But it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something long term, sustainable and helpful- and I still want to do this when I get home. Combine this passion with all my other reasons for flying the nest, and you come to the answer to the above question:

I couldn’t NOT do it.

But the story started much earlier than that encounter, obviously, and even earlier than I’m going to go into here (again, not the purpose of this piece), but my journey tangibly began when I first started researching what was then a mere pipe dream. I spent hours, stolen in between feverish marking, exam supervising (sorry…), workouts, brunch dates, and episodes of Masterchef and Doctor Who, googling the different opportunities there were to teach English in Thailand.

Spoiler alert: There are LOTS.

Many of them are paid jobs in either local or international schools, some of them place you as a live in tutor in a (very) rich family, some of them are more like an agency which sets you up as a substitute teacher in different schools. I decided I didn’t want a paid position- it wasn’t my purpose in coming to Thailand.

So, I narrowed my search: “volunteer English teaching in Thailand”.

Again, lots of results. All over the country. Lots of very short term placements came up, with beautifully curated websites with lots of pictures of happy children being hugged by happier westerners. These looked promising… but as I looked more into it, delving into google to try to find blogs about the experiences of people on these programs, I started to realise that these were also not the sort of organisations I wanted to support. They were often quite new, geared toward people with no teaching experience who they expected (it seemed from blog posts) to come up with lessons on the spot with no training, resulting in a lot of games being played and not a lot of learning. They were geared toward one or two week placements… not something long term like what I wanted.

So I thought about what I really wanted, where I wanted to go, prayed a lot, and found myself googling:

“volunteer english teaching + chiang mai + refugees”

And there it was. Maybe 5th or 6th on the first page of results:

“Thai Freedom House: No one is free while others are oppressed”


I clicked. I read. I knew, instantly, this was going to be the place for me.

The volunteer information listed on the website was detailed and thorough- there was clearly a precedent for long term volunteers, and they weren’t going to mess around with just anyone. You could tell that this was a place that valued commitment and was not just a halfway house for privileged white travelers (of which I am totally one) to get their happy snaps with kids before moving on to the next party. This was a place that had existed for 12 years (10 years when I first started researching it) and was clearly doing incredible work. They also had a vegetarian (now vegan) healthy cafe and didn’t just teach English, but provided a space for Burmese (specifically but not exclusively; Shan or Tai Yai) refugees to call their own, feel safe and express themselves authentically. They  provided art, Thai, Burmese, and Shan classes so students of all ages could be creative, exist more harmoniously in the place they were currently living, be able to communicate with government officials if they ever returned to Burma, and most importantly- stay connected with their heritage and learn their mother tongue. They also had Shan dance and cultural classes. I knew I wanted to be a part of this experience.

I favourited the page, downloaded the application, and set myself a date in about 6 months for when I would complete it- roughly a year before I was intending to depart.

That date came quickly and I sent off my application. Emails to and from Lisa Nesser (the founder of Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe) followed and we finally decided on a start date- 6 months later than I initially intended- but which ended up being perfect as it meant I was absent for the low, smokey season, but present in the busy lead up to the dry, high season. I will forever be grateful to Lisa for looking out for me in my planning.

In that time, I bought my tickets, roughly planned the other parts of my travel which I’m doing post-placement, wrapped up my school year, started another couple of jobs to tide me over and provide me with a bit more spending money, and paid my dues to TFH. I decided that I would go with the option to be hosted by them, meaning that I paid a flat rate and they would provide me with accommodation, lunch every work day, the placement, a bike, a sim card on arrival, in country orientation, pick up from the airport/train/bus station, some Thai language materials and other handy bits and pieces. I’m so glad I did this- my apartment is awesome, close to everything, has a beautiful view and I didn’t have to think about it at all, so good for me, as you sure as hell know I would over think it in a major way.


I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous when I was arriving in Chiang Mai, as I knew Lisa was still in the States herself (our skype interview had taken place the week prior) and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really needn’t have worried. I was met by one of the past students and then staff of Thai Freedom House who is now studying at university in Chiang Mai! He took me first to my apartment, then took me to Free Bird Cafe where I met the staff of the cafe- all of whom welcomed me warmly and made me feel part of the Freedom House Family immediately. I was given a tour of the market, shown where a chemist, post office, and 7/11 was, along with some Thai lessons and a lesson on Thai culture and etiquette.

This feeling of family only increased when Lisa arrived. She and I sat down together to first discuss the goals of the organisation, the history of both TFH and Burma’s issues with its ethnic minorities, and her personal history which led her to this point. This orientation was so appreciated, important and worthwhile; it placed me in a headspace of respect for the work of TFH and made me place immense importance on what I do here.

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As we talked, we sorted out what needs TFH had and what I could do to meet those needs. We decided that I would work on developing a 12 week curriculum for the beginner and intermediate English classes, along with a partnering curriculum for students looking to go into further study- known as “The Pathways” curriculum. I would also help with the Hospitality Training program as both a tutor for the cafe’s amazing waitress, and a contributor to lesson plans, activities and resources. In addition to this, I would also be teaching English one night a week to a class of students ranging from 8 to adults. My hours would be 10-2 on Monday and Friday, 10-8 on Tuesday and 10-6 on Wednesday and Thursday. I would have a lunch break at 1 where I would receive the lunch the chef made for me (best. part. of. the. day) and could grab a tea in the morning when I came in.

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This structure and the obvious needs I would be fulfilling warmed my heart and continues to do so today. Lisa is so encouraging and direct about her expectations that I was always sure of what I would be doing and how it would be used- there was never a point where I felt like I was doing busy work- every thing- whether it be a lesson plan or finding the right picture for a flashcard- had a purpose and a point and this became a trend as I started completing tasks and still is, even now, with less than a week left. My time is valued by Lisa and by our students, and because of that, it’s extremely easy to value theirs and live up to the expectations set by Lisa’s example.

While my days are structured and consistent, they’re also varied and exciting! On Mondays, I teach and chat to our server about the different things she needs to know as a waitress. I’ve even had to teach some very basic maths (bye, bye comfort zone!)! After class, we have lunch together as a family- a highlight of my week, one which really emphasises the power of this organisation and the way it empowers those who pass through its doors.

Tuesday nights, I get to spend my evening with a group of crazy kids who love John Cena, Harry Potter and GOT7 and who are SO eager to learn that they come to TFH after already spending the day at school.

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Wednesdays, I get to host a lunch which invites the women of Chiang Mai- every nationality, creed, colour, religion, class, career- to meet new people, make new friends and connect in a city which could be quite isolating if you let it. I’ve met so many people through this lunch and I’m so grateful for the chance to host it and help other women find their tribe-for-a-time.

My days are never dull, never boring, never repetitive (except for that stage when I was making flashcards…) and most importantly, never worthless. I know, for certain, that the work I do here has lasting consequences, lasting impact and lasting worth.


Thank you to Lisa for making me feel so at home in this place and giving me so much responsibility. You are an inspiration to all who meet you and to many more who never will. Thank you for the hope that you spread, the education you freely provide (and not only to the students, but to all those who come to Free Bird Cafe), and the example that your life displays that one person can choose to make a difference- regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

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If you’re considering volunteering in Chiang Mai- or anywhere, really- I urge you to find a place that will make you feel the same way. Not just for a moment, but for good.

Because that’s why we do it- that’s “why I would do that” random girl from gym…

For good.

(And if you are coming to Chiang Mai, come and visit Free Bird Cafe. If you’re looking to volunteer somewhere and want a truly worthwhile, work based volunteer placement, check out Thai Freedom House.)