9 Things to Know Before You Volunteer in Thailand

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Follow this advice to find meaningful, effective, & sustainable volunteer work in Thailand

As someone that’s considering signing up for volunteer opportunities in Thailand, you are courageous, adventurous, and desire to see change. However, you may not have stepped outside the borders of your own country, don’t speak a lick of Thai, or aren’t sure what to expect in this Southeastern Asian culture...and quite frankly, are nervous!

woman volunteering in thailand
Volunteering in Thailand will have moments of beauty and moments of despair. Here's how to prepare for the spectrum.

This is normal, and congrats to you for taking that first step in pursuing a calling to serve. The life of a volunteer abroad in Thailand is a pretty sweet one (and not only because of all of the fresh tropical fruit!). Before you volunteer in Thailand, here are 10 things you really need to know.

1. You have to be able to handle living far away from home.

Participating in volunteer programs in Thailand is one of the most exhilarating and adventurous decisions you could make! As you may know, this beautiful country (for most of you) is literally on the other side of the world. To some volunteers, this may be exactly what you’ve been wanting, while for others it may strike a nerve! Of course there are pros and cons to the distance, if one word of advice could be given it would be… don’t let fear hold you back! There are many aspects of life that are completely uncontrollable; rest assured that you will not be alone in this adventure.

Since it is of utmost importance that you remain committed to volunteer projects in Thailand, think critically about your ability to manage feelings of homesickness and culture shock. We'd hate for you to arrive in Thailand to do good work only to leave a few days later because you're uncomfortable. Understand if you're ready to handle the inevitable ups and downs that come with traveling and living abroad, especially in a country as unique as Thailand!

[Are you ready to volunteer abroad?]

2. Respect is important in Thai culture.

Thai people act with respect in all circumstances; in fact it’s the most important characteristic of their culture and relationship building! There are many levels of displaying it, including different titles given based on age and various Wie’s (bows) to be shown at the each time of greeting. A volunteer in Thailand will not be expected to understand this to the fullest upon arrival, make sure to take the time to talk to your program leader or on-site coordinator and do some research on this system and you’ll be an expert before you know it!

monk in thailand
Respect is integral to Thai culture.

Have you heard of the concept of losing face? This is integral to all actions—and interactions—within Thai society. Essentially, you should never make another "lose face," AKA experience embarrassment or be made to feel undermined. You can help someone gain face by being complimentary or giving credit to another, which can help strengthen relationships and your prospects for future opportunities.

Other fun facts about Thai society & culture:

  • The Kathoeys (aka Ladyboys) are widely accepted and many are nationally known and beloved celebrities. LGBTIQ* individuals are welcomed in society.
  • To not offend the locals, avoid patting the head of a Thai person or pointing the bottom of your feet at them.
  • It is rude to receive a gift and open it immediately! Don't be alarmed if your host family puts it to the side after receiving it.
  • Thai people are extremely afraid of ghosts! So maybe skip the haunted campfire stories?
  • In Thailand, the inviter pays for the meal at restaurants—so don't be surprised if you have to foot the bill!

3. You need to be flexible.

There are many cultural differences that you will experience as a volunteer in Thailand and it’s not possible to understand them all before your arrival! Prior to coming, work towards learning to laugh at your own mistakes! Your time as a volunteer abroad is a long lasting learning experience. Do your best to go easy on yourself and maintain an open mind. 

thai girl giggling
Learn to laugh at your own mistakes—trust us, there will probably be many!

In the West, people tend to be significantly more schedule conscience and anything someone may do to interfere with that is seen as rude. In Thailand, scheduling is a foreign term! When considering volunteering in Thailand it is very important to evaluate how schedule conscience you are yourself. This spontaneous way of living is different to many coming to the field. Rest assured though, that after a few sighs of frustrations you will learn to love this easygoing lifestyle.

Adaptability and flexibility are key traits of successful volunteers. Sometimes projects get delayed due to unforeseen circumstances (looking at you, rainy season!) or a meeting that was supposed to start a 2p doesn't get rolling until a few hours later. Patience is part-and-parcel with a meaningful volunteer experience, no matter where you are in the world. 

[Is it wrong to volunteer with elephants in Thailand?]

4. It's helpful to know some Thai before you come.

The younger Thai generation has strong English speaking skills and is ready to help ferang (foreigners) who are still learning survival Thai at any point. Upon arrival, do your best to ask questions, take a few language classes, and definitely do not be intimidated! When considering volunteering in Thailand view language learning as a unique challenge. Speaking Thai, even if only the basics, will give you a deeper understanding of the local culture and approach to life. 

Arm yourself with a Thai phrasebook (or some language apps) and actively treat every interaction with a local as a chance to learn a new term/phrase or to improve your pronunciation. We recommend focusing on spoken and conversational Thai before tackling the beasts of writing and reading the Thai alphabet.

And just in case—Phut Cha Cha Dai Mai Kha—“Can you speak slower please”? This phrase is one to keep in your pocket when volunteering in Thailand!

Thai cuisine, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

5. The food RULES. 

If you are from a Western culture, there are three distinctively different cuisines for each meal. Right? Eggs and pastries for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, meat and potatoes for dinner. When volunteering in Thailand, you'll quickly notice there really isn’t a distinction between your main meals. Roll with it; we promise you're not likely to tire of fried noodles. :) 

Adjusting to new spices and cooking oils can do a little number on a volunteer's tummy. You can try to start the adjustment process prior to coming (and become your local Thai restaurant's most favorite patron), or you can just mentally prepare yourself to stick it out in your first few days abroad. 

Thai food is WAY more than fried wontons, spring rolls, and phad thai. Try as much as you can while volunteering (you need the fuel to accomplish your projects, anyway 😉). Chances are, you’ll enjoy more of these unique dishes and traditions than you ever expected! 

6. Anger management is essential.

Generally speaking, the Western business environment is a stressful one! Even just in daily conversation Westerners tend to raise their voices, yell, and scream. Thai people, on the other hand, will nearly never show even the slightest sign of getting angry. In the Thai culture, the people are taught to always smile, never complain, do not yell, and definitely don’t display irritation. Showing anger or frustration is a sign of weakness or being a child, unable to control oneself. 

From a cultural lens, you need to focus on keeping your cool—even in less than ideal situations. When considering volunteering in Thailand, it is critical to be aware of this and to keep oneself in check while in the field. Getting visibly upset and angry could result in the end of a relationship. Don't let this cause fear, just awareness!

Jai Yen Yen! Keep your cool!

Dragon fruit at market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Fresh dragon fruit at a market in Chiang Mai

7. You will be surrounded by poverty and injustice.

In the Western world, often people are distanced from many social injustices that surround them. In order to get an accurate depiction of a crisis, one would have to turn on the news, pick up a magazine, or watch a documentary. In Thailand, many of these injustices are in plain sight! Poverty is real and readily apparent to anyone who is a volunteer. Thailand and the government put the number of those living in poverty at 10.5 percent in 2014. That’s approximately 688,600+ million people who live on about $1.25 per day. 

Amidst the beauty and splendor, those who volunteer in Thailand may witness beggars, signs of human trafficking, and deep poverty. It’s inescapable and heartbreaking to see. You need to be mentally prepared for it, especially if you come from a more homogeneous, relatively affluent upbringing. Before volunteering in Thailand, it is very important to consider that sights such as these will be a part of daily life. You’re human, so you will be emotionally impacted no matter what. The important thing to consider before volunteering in India is to learn how to manage those emotions

The incredible thing is that during your time as a volunteer in Thailand you will have the opportunity to do something about it, to make a positive impact!

[12 photos from volunteers in Thailand that are crazy-inspiring]

8. Check your expectations at the door.

Stop there! It cannot be emphasized enough; don’t approach your volunteer experience in Thailand with expectations! If you have never been to Thailand, your head is most likely spinning with varied glimpses of what the country may be like. The best thing you could possibly do for yourself is to enjoy where you are right now, and take one step at a time. This will allow you to stand in awe and wonder during each exciting stage.

The truth is that Thailand is a whole world different from the place you call home. There is so much to explore, so much to discover, and you can’t do that until you get there. During this time of preparation, don’t expect…anticipate.
Sign in Doi Suthep Mountain in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wise words on Doi Suthep Mountain in Chiang Mai

9. Brace yourself!

Some of you have never left your country of origin, so there is no doubt that you all have a vast array of questions, concerns, dreams, and wonders going through each of your minds. With all of this aside make sure you’re ready, because volunteering abroad is bound to change your life. Whether you end up deciding to spend years volunteering abroad in Thailand, or come back to your home country and spark a fundraising or awareness initiative, be excited! Very few people have the incredible opportunity of volunteering in Thailand in their lifetime, you are preparing to be one of the many fortunate ones. Make sure to come back and share you experiences with the world. 

You won’t find meaningful experiences like these locked up at home. The experiences you’ll have in Thailand, both good, bad, and everything in between, will stay with you for life. You’ll return home and to your career a more independent person with special experiences and become a catalyst for change in your field.

[The secret to long term volunteering abroad]

Next steps to finding volunteer work in Thailand

Now that you have the inside scoop, know where many volunteers choose to spend their time, and know common causes that volunteers are working to eradicate, it's time to choose who you want to volunteer abroad with! Choosing a program isn't as hard as it sounds, especially if you follow these steps:

  • Decide where to go. Figuring out where YOU should volunteer in Thailand is paramount. Have a short list of locations that sound ideal for your goals and skills (i.e. if you don't have experience working with animals, you might reconsider volunteering with elephants in Thailand). Don't let the lack of coastline hold you back—choose a place that's right for you.

  • Pick your project. Popular projects for volunteers in Thailand include conservation, education, and community development. Do some reflection on what skills and knowledge you bring to the table, and which project would best benefit from your time and energy.

  • Choose from the best volunteer abroad programs in Thailand. Pay attention to past participants’ reviews, program/university reputation, location, and how the project's needs match your skills. Some programs may even share contact info for ambassadors or past participants if you want the REAL dirt. Here are more considerations to make as you figure out how to choose the right volunteer program for you. Pro tip: You can use MyGoAbroad to compare programs side-by-side.

  • Plan your finances.  Sort out funding before you go to afford daily essentials and splurge on travel (in addition to program costs and airfare). Be sure to raise a little extra money to donate to the organization that you'll be working with. Learning how to fund your volunteer abroad adventure is essential prior to your travels!

  • Get prepared! Preparing to volunteer abroad is as fun as it sounds. With the days til departure number dwindling and your excitement boiling, it can be easy to overlook the details. Lean on us to help guide you through your pre-departure process—that's what we're here for.

You're ready to volunteer in Thailand!

thai kids playing in water
The joy you'll feel during Thailand volunteer programs is unmatchable.

After reading this list, is volunteering in Thailand at the top of your list? Is it the country where you have decided to make an impact? This beautiful place has its differences, its challenges, and its beauty. Now that you’re armed with more cultural information on how to be successful and not detrimental in the Land of Smiles, it’s up to you to decide if you’re ready to take on volunteering in Thailand full force!

Here are four volunteer programs in Thailand to get you started:

Topic:  Before You Go