Thailand is much more than full moon parties and Buddhist monasteries. While the country is typically seen as a place for rowdy beach holidays or spiritual retreats, this kingdom (formally called Siam) is one of the most culturally rich locations in Southeast Asia. A comfortable mix of developed nation and unexplored environment, volunteering in Thailand mixes sightseeing at the famous ruins of Ayutthaya with educational work in a tribal village, snorkeling off Koh Pi Pi, or caring for native tiger cubs. From the islands down south to the mountains up north, and the chaotic capital of Bangkok in between, individuals who volunteer in Thailand will have a vast number of opportunities.
Chiang Mai. This northern city is a colorful hub for tourists and expats, monks and musicians, refugees and aid workers. It offers quick and colorful urban scenery, as well as a slew of proactive non-profit organizations. Due to the large populations of Burmese refugees and resettled tribal peoples, volunteering in Chiang Mai in organizations which focus on human rights advocacy, education, and women’s livelihood projects is common. Those who volunteer in Chiang Mai can also choose to step outside the old city’s stone walls to participate in forest conservation and animal welfare in the jungle hills beyond.
Phuket. One of the largest islands off Thailand’s southwest coast, Phuket was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Volunteers play an important role in rebuilding infrastructure, assisting victims, and protecting the remaining marine wildlife still today. An increased interest in tourism also creates volunteer placements in Phuket that allow volunteers to fulfill positions with travel magazines, local tourism agencies, and grassroots activity organizations.
Bangkok. Like all capital cities, this one has its seedy, dark side. But if you look beyond preconceived stereotypes to Bangkok’s infamous gems – from the boisterous floating markets to gilded temples, kind locals, and cheap street food surprises – you’ll realize it’s an engaging place to volunteer abroad in Thailand. Fields such as youth development, education, healthcare, and human rights advocacy and awareness are all very highly needed volunteer placements in Bangkok, which address the city’s over 6 million inhabitants needs.
Education. Volunteer work in Thailand centered on education can range from basic English teaching to higher-education classwork that is subject-specific. Teaching certification may be required for higher levels of instruction and a TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) will come in handy anywhere. However, many rural schools and orphanages are eager to take volunteers without previous teaching experience – just speaking English is a bonus! These volunteer opportunities in Thailand can run from several days to several months, and it’s easy to find one that matches your skill set and intended length of time.
Refugee Assistance. Volunteering in Thailand in this placement area is more difficult to arrange, because Thailand supports temporary camps for ethnic refugees, but does not recognize their international United Nations status inside the country. Volunteers are desperately needed for female rights; human trafficking and protection organizations; media outlets; camp classrooms; and other refugee groups. If you’re interested in getting involved with Burmese refugees in Thailand, some organizations do offer placements assisting these specific refugees. These type of placements run from four weeks to a year and require a serious commitment from volunteers for the duration of their stay.
Conservation & Environmental Protection. These fields are quite popular for volunteering in Thailand, thanks to the nation’s unique and endangered species. Elephant care and forestry are two volunteer favorites. Though 11 of the country’s indigenous mammals are on international watch lists, Thailand is making strides toward environmental concern and education, with volunteers establishing conservation standards, monitoring wild species, and working with villages on sustainability projects. Those who volunteer in Thailand in conservation can be as short as one week, but three to four is the average length.
Thailand is repeatedly voted one of the top volunteer abroad destinations in the world, and the affordable cost of volunteer work in Thailand is one of the reasons it rates so highly. Typically, program costs cover accommodation and any needed training/orientation. Covering flights and insurance are usually the responsibility of volunteers, however. Many international airlines fly directly to Bangkok, and regional public transportation systems are cheap and dependable. Food may be provided by a host family or organization, but if not, street eats are delicious and only a few dollars a plate. Clothing and toiletries are equally inexpensive. Also, markets occur everywhere and are a perfect place to barter your way to bargains on anything from shirts to shampoo to souvenirs.
Volunteers must enter Thailand on a volunteer visa and placement organizers should help individuals apply for this. If not, information is available online at the Thai Immigration Bureau website. If your international volunteer program in Thailand does not endorse a volunteer visa, citizens of most countries can apply for a three-month visa. Thailand has a reputation for loose visa laws, so it can be a simple procedure legally entering the country. However, visa laws have been tightening in the recent years, so laws are not near as relaxed as they used to be. Visas may also be extended, which gives volunteers the freedom to renew their visa if they choose to participate in volunteer work in Thailand for longer than expected.
Accommodation is another component typically arranged by volunteer organizations in Thailand. In big cities, accommodation may be in a house or hostel-type environment with multiple volunteers sharing sleeping and dining quarters. In rural volunteer settings, accommodation is often provided by local host families. Both types of housing costs are typically incorporated into the placement fees; but, if living with a host family, double check that this money is being returned directly to the family for food and shelter.
- Adventure & Immersion. Understanding that Thailand is a travel hub for outdoor adventures, underwater sports, food trails, and cheap shopping, most international volunteer programs in Thailand combine volunteering with local activities and day trips. Wherever you end up, you can look forward to deep cultural immersion, alongside an altruistic experience.
- Buddhism & Conservative Culture. As you jump into Thai customs, be aware that much of the country practices the Buddhist religion and follows a conservative way of life. Be respectful of religious and spiritual beliefs, whether you’re touring a temple or walking through a busy city. Don’t dress for the weather, but follow the unspoken rule and keep your shoulders and knees covered whenever possible.
- Look for Transparency. Though every volunteer program in Thailand appears to have good intentions online, there are unfortunate stories of volunteers who have reached their placement only to find the organization doesn’t actually exist. Contact the program manager or director if you have questions or concerns, and look for other volunteer peer reviews.