Jayna Milan is a young travel and portrait photographer currently living in Seattle but she has lived overseas for over 18 years and traveled across 20+ countries snapping photos and eating good food. Jayna spent 3 months working as an intern at Buffalo Tours Hanoi Office and we had a chance to sit down with her for an interview about her experience with ETA and great passion for travel.

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Tell us about your first time travelling with ETA.

My first trip with ETA was to the northern Thai minority village of Om Goi. I went with NIST international school group, a group of 20-30 seniors who were completing a service trip for their International Baccalaureate requirements. Many of group had been before, so a lot of the village members remembered them and it was cool to see the bond that they shared.

Overall the trip was two nights and three days and it was an incredible experience.

To get to the village we hiked 3-4 hours in jungle terrain rather than take the main road, and when we finally reached the village, clusters of kids kept on popping out of the undergrowth to welcome us to their home.

We split up in groups of 4-5 and stayed in their stilted homes where we ate with the family, and got to experience living with them.

The next day we built the foundation of a water storage tank. It was hard work but rewarding and everyone tried their best to get it done in an efficient time. So many people from the village came to help out as well, including grandmas smoking pipes who could work as hard as any of us.

My favorite part had to be the last night when we got together with the heads of the community and many other local families to talk about what changes should happen next for the community. Many of the international kids couldn’t speak Thai, but those that could helped to translate. There was such a great sense of community involvement with everyone wanting to pitch in to help and ensure that there was change forthcoming, but none that would rapidly develop the village in a negative way. Afterwards, the school children put on a talent show for us and we did the same for them.

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What were your expectations before you went?

I hadn’t expected to become such good friends with the kids on the trip – we still keep in touch.I also didn’t expect that the guides from Buffalo Tours would have so much knowledge and commitment to the area. I presumed that just the school that was dedicated to helping the village, but soon realized that it was as much ETA’s project.

Tell us about your guides.

They were incredibly informative about the area, having visited the village a number of times. There was one session where all the students had to brainstorm ways to help the villagers (what kind of project they should do next), and the guides would go around and talk with the students. They went out of their way to help us communicate and share our passion.

Tell us about the most inspiring person you met on the trip.

It’s hard to pick just one person but the village head does stand out. He came to our meeting and helped to lead efforts with all the projects. He’s helped to develop the village in a way that has allowed gradual and positive change for the kids and community, ensuring that the projects aren’t just short term. Many communities would try to sweep in a bunch of new changes that don’t have long term goals, and in this case, I really think he pushed to create sustainable projects.

This wasn’t your first time travelling but what do you think it would be like for a student travelling for the first time?

I think it would be an eye opening experience to see how northern hill tribe communities have developed and changed over the years, at least hearing from community members would give you a sense of how much change has occurred. It would obviously also make you more grateful for how convenient and lucky we are to have an ongoing supply of electricity and water as the village frequently goes through shortages.

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Do you feel like you benefited from the trip?

I did, not only from gaining new friendships and being able to get a sense of what the village was like, but we physically built a structure that they will be able to use for the whole community. It was incredible seeing how close everyone was to one another and how the whole villages pitches in to work together.

So you felt like you learned a lot from the community themselves?

Yes, it reemphasized that for local communities like this one to preserve their cultural and traditional heritage, they have to make sure that long term sustainable goals must be transparently shared and talked about with the whole village. They’ll only work if the whole village is with it. And to ensure that these villages don’t lose their heritage, they have to slowly implement projects, not try to rush all at once because it’s a delicate process developing communities.

Who do you think would benefit from a trip like this?

I would say junior to senior high school students. The trip might startle younger kids a little bit but it’s perfect as an educational trip, especially if the kids have learned previously about the area and can actually create real solutions for the people living there.

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Why do you think it is important to travel while young?

It forces you to get out of your comfort zone and realize that the corner of the world that you occupy is smaller than you could have possible believed. It allows you to glimpse into the lives of others, and learn to become tolerant and accepting of other cultures and religions. You’ll also learn to appreciate everything that you have.

Tell us about the facilities and activities, how was it run?

The transfers were perfectly organized and well run, the guides helped to translate English to Thai throughout the trip and the teachers helped to mediate different meetings. When we played with the kids, the students organized what we were going to play and it was all very smooth.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?

For people to realize that the village is opening up for travelers, so when they travel there, everyone is very excited to meet and make you feel like home. Many villages, like this one used to be, weren’t entirely open to people coming because they thought that they’d be used in a negative way, but they’ve gained our trust, so when people visit, they should be aware of this.

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Visit Jayna and get to know more of her amazing photography work at: Jayna Milan’s Portfolio.

Read more about our work in Thailand here.

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