Volunteering abroad is a great way to immerse yourself into a completely different culture, and one of the best locations to experience this cultural exchange is in the small landlocked country of Laos. Nestled between Vietnam, China, Cambodia, China, and Myanmar, this lesser tourist dominated destination gives volunteers the perfect opportunity to make a real difference and experience rural life in Southeast Asia.
Though there are hundreds of reasons why you should volunteer abroad this year, here are 10 reasons why you should most definitely consider volunteering abroad in Laos:
10. Cultural Discovery
With 67 percent of Laotians being Theravada Buddhist, volunteering in Laos will give the chance to experience one of the most important social forces in the country. You might even find yourself invited to local temples to take part in chanting with the monks.
Depending on the time of year, you can participate in a variety of cultural festivities. One of the most beautiful times is at the end of Buddhist Lent in November. To mark this event the locals celebrate Lhai Heua Fai, the festival of lights. In Luang Prabang, the whole town gathers at the bank of the Mekong river, lights their candles and sends their little boat of light floating away. This spectacle of thousands of candles making their way down the river is truly magical. Festivals like these give volunteers a sense of life in the community and cultural immersion that you can't buy from a tour guide.
9. Alms Giving
One of the most unique cultural experiences in Laos is the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. This daily tradition dates back to the 14th century, and locals are still waking up every day to prepare food for it. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage City over 20 years ago, Luang Prabang is the perfect place to witness and take part in this sacred tradition. Volunteers are encouraged to join the locals on the main road and wait for the procession of 200 monks, which starts at sunrise.
Expert Tip. Before attending, it's a good idea to read through the do's and don't's of the ceremony or ask a local to make sure you don't disrespect or offend the locals.
8. Delicious Cuisine
Laos is home to some seriously delicious food. If you love letting your taste buds take the lead in your travels, volunteering in Laos will offer you the perfect gastronomic adventure. Whether you are a vegetarian, a carnivore, or a not-so-adventurous eater, there is something for everyone’s mouth to enjoy in Laos!
Tamarind restaurant, located in Luang Prabang, has one of the best cooking classes in Laos, and its delicious menu will satisfy any foodie geek! During your break from volunteer work in Luang Prabang, you can also head on over to the night market and feast on fresh fruit smoothies, deep fried lemongrass, and mouth-watering coconut pancakes.
7. Historical Diversity & Adversity
Laos is a great country to explore for history nerds too. Its quintessential mix of traditional Laotian culture and colonial French architecture gives this country a unique flavour to say the least. Most clearly seen in the town of Luang Prabang, which has structures built between the 19th and 20th centuries.
During the Vietnam War, Laos unfortunately earned the title of the "World's Most Bombed Country." Over two billion tons of bombs were dropped within Laos’ borders during the Vietnam War, and there are still active land mines that make accessing some areas, like Phou Bia, entirely impossible. Yet, the Laotian people are slowly but surely turning this dark spot in their history into an art. At most markets, volunteers can expect to find jewelry handcrafted from disabled bombs (believe it or not!).
6. More Than Enough Adventure
Volunteer programs in Laos are the perfect opportunity for individuals with “restless feet syndrome.” Being surrounded by five major tourist destinations makes it pretty easy, and cheap (we mean REALLY cheap), to explore during weekends or before or after your program begins. Pop on over to Cambodia and scratch Angkor Wat off your bucket list or travel further north to the historical city of Chiang Mai in Thailand.
If you decide to stay in Laos and explore, you won't be disappointed or bored. From hot air ballooning over Vang Vieng to meandering down the Mekong river, exploring the famous Pak Ou Caves or spotting tigers at Nam Et-Phou Louey, Laos has something to please every kind of traveler.
5. Unique Teaching Opportunities
If you have a passion for education, teaching English to novice monks is one of the most rewarding volunteer placements available in Laos. In Laos, temples offer free education, and it is because of this that many decide to spend their entire schooling careers there. If monks in training decide to leave the monastery, they need a good command of English to secure higher paying jobs in Laos (and abroad) or to apply for scholarships to further their studies outside the temple. This means volunteer teachers at monasteries will be met with eager students who want to learn, and therefore have the chance to make a real, meaningful impact on their futures.
4. Empower Women
In Laos, only 60 percent of females can read and write compared to around 80 percent of males. This combined with the wage gap between genders leaves a large part of the population battling with a never-ending cycle of poverty, especially women. There are a number of volunteer organisations in Laos that work on addressing this problem through women's empowerment initiatives. These organisations help local women learn English to improve their job prospects and provide female entrepreneurs with business management training.
3. Wildlife Galore
Laos has an incredible mix of fauna and flora making it a great choice for wildlife conservation volunteering. In recent years, Laos has also received a lot of international attention after a variety of new species were discovered. Some of these discoveries included an antelope creature called the Saola and a completely new family of rodent known as the Kha-nyou.
For volunteers looking enjoy the wildlife during their time off, it is important to make sure that your choices are responsible. Volunteers can visit ethical elephant sanctuaries, the moon bear rescue centre, or go on day hikes to spot gibbons in their natural habitat.
The official national currency in Laos is the Lao kip and volunteers can expect a great exchange rate for their dollar, pound, and euro. Your spending money can go a long way if you prepared to try street eats instead of foreign restaurants with most meals ranging between $1 and $2.
Volunteers can flex their haggling muscles at the night market in Luang Prabang. If your skills are sharp enough, you can walk away with some great deals on souvenirs! With the cost of living being so low, you can save big on tourist activities. Temple hopping, hikes in the forests or trips down the Mekong river will only set you back a cool $10-20.
1. The People
Even though Thailand is fondly known as the land of smiles, the Laotian people are giving them a good run for their money. It is safe to say the locals in Laos are some of the friendliest you will meet. They are usually willing to help you out even if there is a language barrier in the way.
A top tip to really impress the locals is to wear the traditional sin while out and about in town. You'll return home with a few new friends or interesting conversations at the very least.
With so many great reasons to volunteer in Laos, it’s the perfect Southeast Asian country to make a genuine difference while traveling responsibly.
The only question left to ask now is, when can we expect you?
This article was contributed by Global Vision International (GVI), an international education program provider that helps connect individuals with volunteer organizations around the world that work closely with local communities. All programs are focused on providing participants with both personal and professional development.