When traveling to Asia to volunteer abroad, one must consider the many different cultures within this magnificent continent. Most Asian countries have their own languages, currency systems, and set of ideals and rules. Thailand is no different. If you want to make the most of volunteering in Thailand, homework is a must before you arrive in this exotic land.
The first order of business might be practicing your wai. The wai is the action of pressing the palms together (like mimicking a prayer pose) at chest or nose level and bowing your head slightly. You will encounter this gesture almost immediately upon entering Thailand, possibly even on the flight in. While one isn’t required to do the wai, it is certainly an integral part of Thai culture. It shows respect and can be used as a hello, goodbye, and a thank you.
Throughout the country you will see Thai men and women doing this in front of Buddha statues, to signify reverence. In a country with a language barrier for many travelers, a simple gesture like the wai can bridge this gap and show appreciation for their culture.
Thai is the language spoken most often in Thailand; however, you will see English in most businesses and volunteer organizations as well. Numerous apps, phrasebooks, and downloads are available to help even the most inexperienced volunteer learn some basic Thai phrases. Thai people are accustomed to tourists, so do not be afraid to try and speak the language; more often than not they will know what you are trying to say, and will appreciate your effort.
Currency in Thailand is the Thai baht. Money exchange stations are scattered throughout most urban areas in Thailand, and also at the airport. Exchange rates are typically higher in the city. Also, know that major credit cards are usually accepted everywhere. Just make sure that, before you leave to volunteer abroad in Thailand, you contact your bank to give notice that you will be abroad, and for how long. This will avoid your card being put on hold by the bank due to concerns of theft or abuse.
Thailand is almost always humid and hot, though the country does have three seasons. Summer in Thailand runs from March through June, and temperatures can soar into the 100s. Rainy season runs from July to October and brings intense downpours. The cool season runs from November through February and is the most favorable. Many people drink hot tea and coffee to cool down — it sounds odd, but it works.
With temperatures soaring and the humidity ever-present, hydration is key. The public water supply in Thailand is often not safe for consumption by foreign volunteers, so bottled water is essential. Convenience stores are readily available throughout the country, so no need to worry about a lack of bottled water (but it is certainly something to add into one’s budget when volunteering abroad in Thailand).
Another aspect of the warmer temperatures is wardrobe. For many Westerners, hot weather means shorts and miniskirts, midriff shirts, and tank tops. However, Thai culture remains much more conservative in dress than many Western countries. Natives of Thailand are accustomed to “underdressed” foreign visitors (by their cultural standards), but it’s always a good idea to err on the side of being modest. Skirts and shorts that hit close to the knee, sleeves, and wraps to cover shoulders and arms (especially in a business establishment) can go a long way.
Pay especially close attention to your clothing if you plan to visit any temples — and really, if you’re volunteering in Thailand, you probably will. At a minimum, shoulders and knees are to be covered; wraps and pashminas for women are acceptable. Closed-toed shoes are a must, though flip-flops and sandals are worn regularly on the streets. One reason for the popularity of flip-flops is another custom that could take some getting used to in much of Asia. When one enters a home or some small shops, shoes are expected to be taken off and left at the door before entering. While this isn’t the case in all establishments, all you have to do is look for a pile of shoes in the doorway, and take your cue from that.
Another major custom of Thai culture that can go unspoken is their ability to remain calm. Rarely will you see Thai people lose their temper. This is something one needs to remember when volunteering in Thailand: keep your cool.
Thailand is a busy, bustling city with car and foot traffic everywhere. There are language barriers as well as cultural barriers, and it can be easy to become frustrated. Thailand is a great place to learn patience and composure, so take a breath and follow the lead of the serene Thai people.
Know that Thai people are used to international guests. If you are using your best judgment and remain open to suggestions and their culture’s specifics, you will make the most of your time volunteering abroad in this wonderful country.