Skip to Content

Teaching, Traveling, and Volunteering in Asia Before Colombia

James at Machu Picchu during his many travels.
James at Machu Picchu during his many travels.

Teaching Traveling: Welcome to James Pengelley, an Australian who has taught, traveled, and volunteered abroad all over the world, and now teaches in Colombia.

James, tell us about your background.

James: I spent my last semester of university on exchange in Singapore and was looking to do something that would really challenge me. I thought about volunteering but was quite put off by “volunteer” programmes that charge participants thousands of dollars for their contribution.

A friend of mine recommended a programme called Volunthai which is a family run business in the poor, rural northeast of Thailand, and I ended up spending 6 weeks at a high school that had very few desks and chairs, class sizes between 6 and 55 and I spoke absolutely no Thai.

I had spent a lot of time travelling during my teenage years and early 20s, but nothing prepared me for this. I was standing in front of the school on the final day of my visit, when I was inundated with gifts, many hand made and bought by the kids themselves… when I realised that just by offering my help and wanting to be involved, that I might have made a difference to somebody… and I look back on that day now as one of the days that changed my life.

Scouts in Thailand!
Scouts in Thailand!

TT: Interesting! Tell us more about your travels.

J: My most interesting travel experiences would have to include completing the fastest relay crossing of the English Channel in 2009, my 6 week solo adventure through Cambodia and Vietnam that I set off on immediately after volunteering in Thailand – Angkor Wat is one of the coolest places I have been to, and my 6 month journey from Australia to bogota where I currently teach English at International House.

We left Australia with the plan to find work in Brazil, stopped off in Africa for 6 weeks, and then spent 3 months looking for work and travelling before finally settling in Colombia.

TT: Wow! How did you plan for and pay for these travels?

J: This current journey had been on the card for about 2 years, talking, thinking, and saving money. My partner and I spent about 18 months saving collectively. It lasted almost exactly 6 months.

A child playing in Thailand.
A child playing in Thailand.

TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

J: My very first class… I was in Thailand and one English teacher came up to me and asked

“Jame, you wahn meet my class.”

I thought… why not… so he led me into the room.

“Everywahn, this Jame. He new teachah.”

And then he walked out, and left me in front of 24 13 year olds sitting on the floor watching me eagerly.

I also once taught a class, also in Thailand, that began with 55 students, and every time I turned to write on the board some students would sneak out of the room until, by the end of the class, I only had 3.

TT: Hah! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher, and in your career?

J: Teaching has given me a huge confidence in talking to people, thinking things through and being prepared. I initially went into teaching so that I could choose to continue travelling while I “figured out what I was going to do with the rest of my life”

I have found the choices this career has allowed me to make incredibly liberating and endlessly enriching.

Smiles in Thailand!
Smiles in Thailand! Could teaching or volunteering abroad make YOU smile?

TT: I totally agree that teaching is an amazing career! What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?

J: Teaching certainly isn’t for everyone, and the accessibility of EFL, especially in poorer developing countries, means that many people are in the profession merely so that they can travel, or avoid a 9-5 job in their home country.

For those who are passionate about teaching, and truly appreciate a smile on another person’s face, teaching is one of the most generous and productive careers one can choose to do. If that still hasn’t convinced you… watch this inspirational video.

TT: Thanks so much, James! For those of us dreaming of actually getting some sun in March rather than freezing here in a place like Boston, teaching abroad has such allure. Readers, what questions or comments do you have for James about teaching, traveling, and volunteering in Asia or Latin America?


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Saturday 31st of October 2015

I would appreciate your comments comparing Ecuador to Colombia.

I tried to retire in Chiang Mai, Thailand but the language difference made it impossible for me.

I am now headed to Costa Rica for a short while but then need to choose between Cuenca and Medellin.



Wednesday 16th of January 2013

Happy to answer any queries and questions....just let me know!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.