Nestled in Southeast Asia, Laos is a well-kept, landlocked secret nestled in the middle of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and Myanmar. Despite its history of isolation and war, volunteers flock to this predominantly Buddhist country both because of its tranquil way of life and a desire to help strengthen the country’s growing infrastructure. Volunteering in Laos will introduce volunteers to an off-the-beaten-trail nation with a reputation for warmth (both the people and weather) and an abundance of temples. As one of the most historically well-preserved, traditional cultures in Southeast Asia, a chance to volunteer in Laos is not to be missed.
Luang Prabang is one of the most popular destinations for volunteering in Laos, due to its World Heritage UNESCO site status in the heart of the mountains and the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Volunteer work in Laos is a top pick because of the nation provides a sense of rurality, yet is complete with at-home amenities due to the rather recent influx of tourism. Luang Prabang is well known for volunteer projects in orphanages, working on developing farmland, and at the local elephant hospital. During downtime, individuals who volunteer in Luang Prabang will enjoy touring the well preserved architectural and artistic blend of traditional and colonial architecture which is a staple of Laos.
Vientiane, the largest city in Laos with an estimated population of 783,000 people, isn’t the typical capital city. Instead of high speed commuter trains, tall skyscrapers, or bustling bumper-to-bumper traffic, the relaxed pace of volunteering in Veintiane may come as a welcome surprise to international volunteers. River life is front and center in this city, due to its location on the Mekong River bordering Thailand. The most common type of volunteer opportunities in Vientiane are related to social projects, such as education, nonprofit assistance, and economic development.
Rural areas are also popular locations for volunteering in Laos, and placements in these areas usually involve volunteer work across multiple towns or villages. Since Laos is one of the least developed and most impoverished countries in Southeast Asia, volunteers are in demand to assist with community development and infrastructure. Only 75 percent of the country has electricity and most governmental and educational facilities are insufficient. In these areas, the most common types of projects are related to construction, renovation, and repairs.
The number and sheer diversity of projects and placements available for those who choose to volunteer in Laos is surprising and an attractive aspect of volunteering abroad in Laos. Most programs do not require volunteers to speak Laotian, since the majority of volunteer placements in Laos are conducted in English. Volunteer work in Laos can be as short as one week or last for as long as one year, though the average volunteer placement is eight to 12 weeks.
Education. If you are drawn to educational projects, imagine teaching English to novice Buddhist monks, or developing art activities for children. There are many volunteer opportunities in Laos teaching English to people of all ages too, while arts and crafts projects encourage creativity in the younger generations.
Community Development. If you enjoy hands-on work, construction projects could be perfect for you. Volunteers have the chance to spend their time repairing doors and windows, building and painting basic structures, like fences, or helping to improve farming practices in local communities. Other options for community development volunteering in Laos include working with homeless children and adults or assisting grassroots organizations.
Animal & Environmental Protection. For animal lovers, caring for baby goats or piglets on an organic farm or even nurturing the fast fleeting elephant population,a foundational piece of Laotian heritage, can be part of daily volunteer work in Laos.
Costs of volunteer programs in Laos span quite a wide range, with some organizations offering free volunteer placements and others charging nearly $6,000; but the average cost of volunteering in Laos for three weeks in just over $500. Volunteer program fees typically cover placements in legit volunteer projects, verified or developed by bona fide experts that know the area, landscape, and have well developed relationships with local communities.
Each volunteer program in Laos will have its own requirements for interested volunteers, some with a minimum age of 14, but typically 18 years old is the standard. Most do not require previous experience in any field to volunteer in Laos. Typically, the higher the cost, the more that is included, such as accommodation, food, domestic travel, on site support, airport pickup, in country training, and re-entry training upon arrival back home.
Laos is one of the least industrialized nations, and despite a recent surge in tourism affecting market prices, it is still a very affordable volunteer abroad destination. The national currency, the kip, has low value, so on average a budget of $20 per day for accommodation, meals, and transport will keep volunteers comfortable and well fed. Transportation will be the most expensive while volunteering in Laos’ due to the developing state of its infrastructure. Luckily, most program fees will cover these basic expenses. Clothes are very affordable at local markets (especially the night market in Vientiane), but beware of initial high prices and be prepared to barter.
The most common types of accommodations for volunteers in Laos are homestays, dormitories, or guest houses. The type of living arrangements offered vary significantly between rural or urban areas, and sometimes the option to choose will be available. In rural areas, homestays with local Laotian families is the standard. This is a great way to learn Laotian culture while helping their economy at the same time. You can expect very basic conditions, such as an outhouse separate from the main house as a toilet, bathing by bucket or in nearby rivers, sharing a room, and thankfully, home cooked meals.
Guesthouses and dormitories are the next most common, and are typically available in urban areas, like Luang Prabang and Vientiane. These usually have more modern conveniences than homestays, such as running water, electricity, and sometimes your own room.
A visa is required volunteer abroad in Laos. There are two ways to get one: apply by mail in advance with the Laos Embassy in Washington, D.C. or purchase a visa upon entry into Laos. While the process isn’t difficult, it does take time so it’s best to start as soon as possible. The most secure option is to apply beforehand.
Once the visa is issued, it must be used within two months, which makes planning ideal for coordinating a volunteer start date, finalizing housing, and purchasing plane tickets. Upon entering Laos, a 30 day stay will be granted, and it can be extended by the Laos Immigration Office in Vientiane for an additional 60 days for $2 per day.
Another cost to keep in mind is the departure flight fee also known as a “traveler’s tax” when flying home (or moving on to a new country to travel). International flights cost around $10 and domestic flights run about 5,000 kip (approximately $0.60). The total cost for legal entry or departure for 90 days is about $180 (with the $50 visa fee, $120 for an additional 60 days, and a $10 departure fee). This is important to include when applying for a scholarship or grant, as well as for planning an overall budget for your volunteer work in Laos.
- A Rewarding Challenge. While the lack of developed roads, difficulty with transportation outside of urban areas, adjusting to the tropical heat, and the Laotian language barrier can be difficult, the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages. Particularly in the rural areas, there are governmental buildings, such as schools, orphanages, and hospitals, that are in need of desperate repair.
- English Opens Doors. Since many men in Laos become Buddhist monks to avoid poverty, teaching them English will provide skills to serve them for their entire lives.
- Preserve Laotian Culture. Assisting with the depleting elephant population will ensure that more elephants breed and the population thrives for years to come. Volunteers will be a part of preserving a precious part of Laotian culture.