Chiang Rai is both a city and the northern most province in Thailand, sitting far away from the tourist infested islands and the urban chaos of Bangkok. Aside from being surrounded by towering mountains, forests, and waterfalls, waiting to be explored, the real unique aspect of volunteering in Chiang Rai is the access to local culture the city provides. Chiang Rai has not been influenced by mass tourism like southern Thailand, or even like its neighboring province, Chiang Mai. It’s a haven for authentic Thai culture and provides opportunities for volunteers to experience the community and kindness of Thailand and its people in a way that most volunteers and travelers never do!
Projects & Placements
Poverty is prevalent in Chiang Rai, especially in rural areas and hill tribe villages throughout the province, where there is limited access to quality education. Only small portions of the population obtain quality jobs (teaching, hospital workers, etc.) and can therefore afford to send their children to private schools, where they receive a good education and often times have Western English teachers.
The majority of children go to low budget government schools that cannot afford to pay foreign teachers. This leaves most of the children lacking English language skills, in a country that continues to develop more and more jobs that require the latter skill. Those who volunteer in Chiang Rai shouldn’t have difficulty communicating with program providers however, because reputable volunteer organizations typically have at least one staff member that can speak a little bit of English. Many local teachers can speak some English as well, so volunteers can almost always get by without knowing any Thai.
Teaching English. English teaching in Chiang Rai is the most popular and prevalent type of volunteer placement. In 2015, the 10 countries (including Thailand) that make up ASEAN will begin using English as their official language of business, which makes learning English even more important for school children in Thailand, since many future job opportunities will therefore depend upon their ability to understand and make use of the English language. There are schools all across the province of Chiang Rai, and volunteer programs that are actively seeking both long and short term volunteers to teach English in Chiang Rai, as well as other subjects (art, sports, music, etc.) in English. The length of teaching placements in Chiang Rai can range from one week to one year depending on the program.
Sustainable & Organic Farming. One thing that anyone who chooses to volunteer in the rural areas in Chiang Rai will notice is that the land is extremely fertile. While people may not earn a lot of money in these areas, high quality food is abundant. There are several volunteer programs in rural areas that offer volunteer opportunities for people who would like to get involved in organic and sustainable farming. It offers volunteers a chance to learn about gardening and sustainable local food sources while contributing to the community’s food security. Often times the farming projects are often located at local schools and are used to produce the food needed to feed the children who attend the school. Some volunteer organizations in Chiang Rai offer dual placements where volunteers can teach English and do farm work in the same time period, but generally farming placements can range from one week to several months.
Life in Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai city is the largest urban center in Chiang Rai province, and it makes for an interesting volunteer destination. Here volunteers will find a city rich in history, as it was founded in the year 1262 A.D. and was once the capital of the Mengrai dynasty. Now the city is best known for its main tourist attraction, the White Temple. The White Temple was designed by one of Thailand’s most famous artists in 1997 and has become a major international draw. Although Chiang Rai city has some comforts that Westerners are accustomed too, such as pizza restaurants and a steady stream of international visitors, its identity and vibe are still decidedly Thai. Unlike some other major urban cities in Thailand, Chiang Rai has been able to maintain its cultural roots. Volunteering in Chiang Rai city is ideal for volunteers who want to have a rich cultural experience with local people while also meeting other international volunteers, travelers, and backpackers.
Wiang Pa Pao is a small rural district that is located right in between the two major northern Thai cities, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Although the district is home to a bevy of waterfalls, mountain villages, coffee plantations, and historically significant temples, it is still one of Thailand’s hidden gems. Due to the lack of industry in Wiang Pa Pao, most local people are either rice farmers or small shop owners struggling to get by. Although there is quite a bit of poverty in the region, the local people truly live as a community and overcome their wealth deficit by working together to keep life afloat.
Wiang Pa Pao is the perfect setting for volunteering in Chiang Rai in an off the beaten path area, and volunteers will have the chance to experience what it’s like to live in a small Thai village amongst Thai people. Everyday is a learning experience as a volunteer in Chiang Rai, because the extraordinary culture is ever-present.
There are many hill tribe villages in the mountains which offer interesting volunteer opportunities in Chiang Rai as well, for people who want to experience something unique. Chiang Rai province is diverse in that it has urban, rural, and mountainous village regions.
Costs & Affordability
Chiang Rai is one of the cheapest places in the world for volunteering abroad. You can find excellent fresh meals for less than $2 all across the province and local buses will rarely run more than a few dollars, even to go from one city to the next. Markets offer clothes and souvenirs for no more than $5 to $10 as well. Cooking classes, adventure activities, and sightseeing tours are all very reasonably priced, especially in rural areas. Fortunately for those who volunteer in Chiang Rai, the city is much cheaper to visit than provinces and islands in the South of Thailand.
Accommodations & Visas
Accommodations for individuals volunteering in Chiang Rai will differ depending upon the host organization. Popular accommodation styles within the city include guesthouses, homestays, volunteer houses, and hostels. In rural areas, many volunteers will live in guesthouses or special volunteer houses. Accommodations directly on school premises are common. but volunteers typically stay with local Thai families in their homes or in rooms on their property. Unique housing options, such as staying in a treehouse while volunteering in Chiang Rai, are available too!
Individuals who volunteer abroad in Chiang Rai are technically required by law to have a special class of working visa, which can take quite a bit of time and effort to attain. There are several volunteer organizations in Thailand that will provide letters and information to help prospective volunteers attain the required visa, especially in urban areas. In rural areas, most organizations are a bit more relaxed about following the legal requirements for visas, as it is a law that is rarely ever enforced. In small villages or hill tribes, community leaders and police know about local foundations and organizations and are generally thrilled to see international volunteers contributing to their communities.
Benefits & Challenges
Warm Welcome and Celebrity Status. Since Chiang Rai is not as popular for tourists as it’s neighboring province, those who volunteer in Chiang Mai will be a bit of a novelty to locals, especially in rural areas. In small villages, volunteers will find that local people are fascinated by them and will want to meet them and welcome them to the village personally.
If You’re Shy. Getting stared at and treated like a celebrity can be a bit overwhelming for some volunteers, but it’s a unique experience. The kindness and curiosity of people is something that you cannot find in all locations when volunteering abroad in Thailand.
Language Barrier (the good and bad). Although good volunteer organizations in Thailand will have somebody who can speak at least a little bit of English, it can still be difficult and frustrating trying to communicate with the local Thai people. Unlike Bangkok or Chiang Mai, fluency in English is not as widespread in Chiang Rai. Local markets and encounters with local people can sometimes be confusing and difficult. While this is a challenge for those who are volunteering in Chiang Rai, it’s also a benefit, as it pushes volunteers to learn some basic Thai language and discover new forms of communicating.