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Sun, sea and ... orphans? A vacation with a difference in Thailand

By Julie Clothier for CNN
  • Many travelers opt to help out at orphanages during their holidays
  • Katie Chapman, orphanage volunteer says it gives travelers a different experience of a country
  • Catherine Riley-Bryan runs the Bamboo School on the Thai border with Burma
  • "We can only accommodate those who live rough," she says

(CNN) -- Whether you place the responsibility with Brangelina, Madonna or Meg Ryan, there is no denying the adoption of children from impoverished nations by celebrities and other westerners is becoming increasingly popular.

But not everyone has the means the adopt a child from a foreign country, and many travelers opt instead to spend some time with orphaned children in developing nations as part of their vacation.

Journalist Katie Chapman traveled to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand earlier this year with her mother and two sisters for a two-week stint working at government-run orphanage Viengping Children's home.

Volunteering abroad was something she had always wanted to do and organized it through Friends for Asia, which for a fee of $600 per person sorted out the placement as well as accommodation, sightseeing trips, airport transfers, language lessons and paperwork.

"I used the Internet to search for volunteer projects in both Africa and Thailand and fired off some emails. The director of Friends for Asia replied to me that night," she told CNN.

If a mother dies during childbirth in remote areas, the baby is left to die because it's too hard to look after.
--Kate Miller, orphanage volunteer

"I then did some background research into the organization. I think the biggest fear you have at that point is that you're going to send money to a fake organization," she said.

Because this was her first time volunteering, Chapman said she was happy to pay an organization a placement fee, but next time she would contact the orphanage herself and cut out the middleman.

She stayed at Friends of Asia's volunteer house, which was basic but adequate, she said.

Also there were two Dutch women who were working at a home for single mothers in crisis, and an American man on his third project with Friends of Asia.

"That was the great thing; we were staying with like-minded people, each of us with a different project and completely different experience. It made for interesting conversation around the dinner table at night," Chapman said.

At the home, each locally hired nanny looks after 15 to 20 children, so volunteers like Chapman are able to help them share the load.

"The children's stories were hard to hear. Some had lost parents to HIV or other illnesses; many were abandoned in rubbish bins or dumped on doorsteps, while others were removed from violent homes," Chapman said. "But the orphanage is a happy place filled with kids' laughter and energy."

She said there wasn't much time for training so volunteers need to be ready to think on their feet and adapt to the situation quickly if they are to be of use.

"The biggest challenge was leaving each day. We would leave as the kids were out in the playground. They would run up to the fence and hold their hands out, sometimes crying, sometimes just wanting one last hug."

After their fortnight was up, Chapman, her mother and sister traveled to Phuket in southern Thailand

"It was great after a lot of hard work. That's the beauty of volunteer tourism; you can compare different experiences of a country," she said. "I am already planning to return next year with my husband. It beats any of my past overseas experiences."

Kate Miller, a mother of two from New Zealand, decided to spend her family vacation helping out at an orphanage in Kon Tum, Vietnam.

"Our family has traveled quite a lot and I always try to cover everyone's interests and also try to help out somewhere. My children were 11 and 13 and had a great time there," she said.

Miller helps with the resettling of refugees in New Zealand and tries to involve her children as much as possible so they already had some experience with different cultures.

"I think the most difficult thing to understand for them was if a mother dies during childbirth in remote areas, the baby is left to die too because it's too hard to look after. If the orphanage hears of a situation like this, someone will walk into the remote hill tribes to save the baby," she said.

"There are only two adults at the orphanage and around 100 children. No one is naughty. Everyone helps."

Miller organized her placement herself by using contacts she found in the Lonely Planet guidebook.

She did not pay a placement fee and stayed in the nearest town in a guesthouse, traveling to the orphanage during the day.

She says she would recommend her experience to others.

Catherine Riley-Bryan, a nurse and teacher, set up the Bamboo School in Thailand in September 2001, 220 kilometers north west of Bangkok on the border with Myanmar.

The area is home to displaced Karen hill tribe people and the school is home to 69 parentless children. Riley-Bryan also runs language classes for locals and an emergency medical center.

She has around 25 people approach her to volunteer every year, with about eight actually following through, some of whom stay a few days, others who stay for six months.

"Some people want to be entertained and they arrive without having made any arrangements, which is not ideal," she said.

"Some who can hack the pace are great. We eat simple meals of just rice and vegetables. We go to bed early and rise at 5am, which rules a few people out.

She said people needed to understand that volunteers did not get special treatment.

"We can only accommodate those who live rough. There's no TV, no shops and no Internet and rooms are bamboo huts. It's a seven-days-a-week job with the kids. They need to play, worship, love, be disciplined and wear culturally appropriate clothing."