Chiang Mai, former capital of Thailand, is often referred to as the “Rose of the North”. Surrounded by mountains and countryside this city is significantly greener and less crowded than the current capital, Bangkok. There are many characteristics that draw in millions of tourists each year, including 100 plus elaborate temples, tropical temperatures, Northern Thai food, and the local people who instantly capture your heart. The city is also filled with significant needs, which in turn offers opportunities for individuals from all backgrounds to volunteer abroad in Chiang Mai.
Projects & Placements
The opportunities to volunteer in Chiang Mai seem to be more prevalent than the number of food carts on the street (…and that’s a lot!). As a result of the diversity in Chiang Mai, the needs of the city are diverse as well. One of the main crises in Thailand is that of “statelessness”. Villagers are not granted citizenship and are therefore caught in a cycle of poverty and unemployment that often can lead to more difficulties. Village life leaves many villagers uneducated and desperate for social and economic assistance, which often times leads to trafficking and exploitation. As many know, Thailand is a central location for this crisis, and there is significant need for volunteer work with low-income populations. Volunteering in Chiang Mai is great for individuals with backgrounds in social services or criminal justice, with many placements available in promoting social change.
One of the most sought after volunteer opportunities is teaching English at local schools and camps. This position is greatly rewarding. Foreigners are highly admired in Thailand, as is the English language! The openings for volunteering in Chiang Mai in positions such as these are vast and some are even paid!
Further opportunities for volunteer work in Chiang Mai include, but are not limited to, volunteering at elephant conservation camps, working at orphanages or children’s homes, health care, and village based projects.
Something that is crucial to keep in mind is Thai culture. Many Western countries give a lot of attention to schedule and timeliness. Native Thai people, on the other hand, are considerably spontaneous, which can be rather frustrating to incoming foreigners. A common phrase used is mai pen rai, which has countless meanings; one of the many meanings used in many contexts is “don’t worry about it”. While volunteering abroad in Chiang Mai it is essential to take the needed steps to become more flexible and ready for a change of events at anytime.
Life In Chiang Mai
From university students, NGO workers, and artists to refugees, nature buffs, and nightlife enthusiasts, it is safe to say that no matter how you classify yourself, there is a niche for you in Chiang Mai. If you enjoy the outdoors, you will not want to miss the opportunity to Hike Doi Suthep and experience a central landmark in the Buddhist faith, as well as what some say is the most exquisite view of the city. If you enjoy the energy of a city, you will not want to miss Nimmanhaemin Road for cutting edge food, art, clubs, and shopping. Throughout the week there are outdoor markets in various locations selling local handicrafts and delectable street food. The most attended market is the Sunday Night Walking Street in which locals and expats are able to participate in an unforgettable cultural experience.
The city of Chiang Mai is known for having a sizable expat community, who commonly gather to participate in activities including Ultimate Frisbee, volunteer work, and traveling throughout nearby countries. Chiang Mai is home to four lavish shopping malls, which will appeal to shopaholics. Ice skating, bowling, and rock climbing are a few of the Western activities that can be enjoyed by individuals who volunteer in Chiang Mai. There are many ways to participate in life as a Chiang Mai native, yet at the same time if you are on a quest to locate a burrito or a thin crust pizza, there are many authentic options available for exploration.
Many locals get around via motorbike, which tourists also enjoy as well as those who volunteer abroad in Chiang Mai. Motorbikes are effortless to rent. Although a simpler and safer option would be to get around on Rot-Dang, the local equivalent to a taxi, which should not cost more than a dollar a trip. These trucks hold up to ten people too. Tuk-Tuks are another type of taxi often utilized by foreigners with a capacity of two people. These tend to be higher priced, however both are well worth a try while completing volunteer work in Chiang Mai.
Accommodation & Visas
The cost of living in Thailand will amaze you. Based on the incredibly low prices, most volunteer programs in Chiang Mai will provide housing (covered by the program fee). Many volunteer organizations in Thailand will even organize a homestay with a native family. This opportunity allows volunteers to learn about the culture on a more intimate level. Through this experience volunteers are able develop their language skills, participate in festivals and holidays, and eat some of the most authentic food, as well as learning how to make it. For some volunteer programs in Chiang Mai there are other housing options available, so volunteers will need to contact their trip director to discuss these in further detail.
To volunteer in Chiang Mai you will need to apply for a visa, in addition to a passport. Many volunteer organizations will assist volunteers with this process, but if this is not that case give yourself approximately three months to complete the visa process; it can be an arduous. Most travel fees do not cover this expense, therefore plan to put some money aside to give upon submission of your visa. The visa requirements and processes seem to be ever-changing, so do your research and keep up-to-date.
Benefits & Challenges
Safety. Chiang Mai is an incredibly safe place to travel and volunteer abroad. International volunteers in Chiang Mai shouldn’t be concerned about safety as long as basic safety precautions are taken. Foreigners are highly valued and greatly protected by local authorities.
Language. A large majority of the younger generation speaks proficient English; it is not a struggle to find a local to assist you ordering food, catching a taxi, or finding a tourist destination.
Culture & Religion. The cultural difference can be seen as a challenge based on how vastly different it is from Western cultures. Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation therefore, many of the beliefs and practices translate into everyday life. In this culture, the trees, river, and even rice for example have sentiment. Therefore there is a higher level of respect toward them. The latter respect is difficult for foreigners to fully grasp, yet it is crucial to understand in order to successfully build relationships with locals. There are many forms of greeting, with each different one based on age and social status. While those who volunteer in Chiang mai will not be expected to master this, it can only help!
Dress. Along with respect comes modesty. Western Cultures generally reveal more skin than Thais. Revealing of skin can correlate with stigmas and loss of respect. It is important for females especially to stay covered (shoulders, stomach, moderate length shorts, and loose fitting clothing) and for men to keep their tops on despite the heat. This is very important while volunteering in Chiang Mai, as well as when visiting holy grounds.