Volunteers Show Off Thailand

It's one of my favorite photographs. The vendor is Thai. She's wearing a woven reed sun hat and a huge smile, and she's slapping a generous scoop of ice cream onto a slice of bread. When I took this photo I wondered whether some helpful visitor had told her that Westerners like ice cream sandwiches.

Cross-cultural encounters can be confusing--and amusing. In Thailand there's a new free service to help introduce young international visitors to this exotic part of the world. The Bangkok International Youth Hostel is arranging for local university students to give hostel guests free tours, a friendly, safe introduction to cultural sites and the Thai lifestyle.

The hostel, which is affiliated with the worldwide network Hostelling International, is at 25/2 Phitsanulok Road, Thay-wej Market, Dusit, Bangkok; telephone 011-66-2-281-0361. It provides accommodations for up to 66 travelers. A bed in an air-conditioned, eight-bed dormitory costs about $2.70; without air-conditioning it's $1.55. An air-conditioned single room is $6.25. All rooms have private bathrooms.

Bangkok is exotic, with spectacular glittering temples, monks in tangerine robes and, next to most buildings, small spirit houses that are adorned with offerings of fruit, flowers and burning incense. It's also crowded and noisy, and can be wearing and intimidating for the novice.

The volunteer guide program was created so young travelers would not feel lost on their own or like anonymous members of a large tourist crowd.

The Thai Youth Hostel Assn. hasn't stopped there. It has also created two programs in which international travelers can volunteer during their visits.

In the first program, known as the International Volunteer Scheme, travelers help in Thai youth hostels as "public relations officers," being liaisons between the hostel staff and international visitors. For an international visitor, it's an opportunity to work closely with the Thai people, opening a wider window on their culture. For details or to volunteer, send an e-mail with your name, address and volunteering interests to bangkok@tyha.org.

A second program, new for 2001, involves helping low-salaried adults who work in tourism improve their English-speaking skills. Known as the HI Thailand International Community Service Program, it's for volunteers with certification or relevant experience. During four-week courses, volunteers create classes to help the tourism workers gain confidence in using English in their work. The courses, which are hosted by Thai Youth Hostels, take place throughout Thailand. For more information, contact HIT-ICSP Program Director Sara Nesbitt at snesbitt_tyha@yahoo.co.uk.

For more information on youth hostels in Thailand, visit http://www.tyha.org, call the Bangkok International Youth hostel at 011-66-2-281-0361 or e-mail bangkok@tyha.org. You'll find that the Web site has a lot of helpful information and advice on safety, culture and etiquette, from how to eat noodles to respecting Buddha images to avoiding jewelry store rip-offs.

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