Where to volunteer in Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand
VOLUNTOURISM has become an increasingly attractive way for travelers to immerse themselves in the local culture and give back to the community in which they are traveling. Northern Thailand is a particularly good place to do this, as there are many organizations that are helping improve the lives of children, refugees and wildlife in the region. Of course, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Volunteering can be an exceptionally rewarding experience, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horror stories about people who arrive on site with high hopes and lots of enthusiasm, only to realize they’ve been duped and this isn’t going to be the life-changing experience they were seeking after all.
The following tried and trusted organizations are a safe bet as reliable, reputable volunteer groups go. Friends for Asia has been operating out of Chiang Mai since 2007, when it was founded by expat Todd Cikraji, a teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer. Friends for Asia regularly places volunteers at various projects in and around Chiang Mai. Placements include medical and media internships, teaching, and working with children at an HIV orphanage.
Cikraji strongly encourages prospective volunteers to do some work in their field of interest prior to applying to Friends for Asia. “They have to realistically look at the skills and experiences they have,” he said. “How much is someone who’s never done any teaching or had any experience with child care realistically going to be able to contribute to a school?”
Friends for Asia volunteers who wish to work with children are required to submit a criminal background check before beginning their placement. Project fees vary from program to program, but all include pick-up from the airport, orientation, accommodation in central Chiang Mai, 24-hour emergency assistance, transportation if project sites are outside of the city, breakfast, lunch on workdays and several other perks.
Working with elephants
Surely every visitor to Thailand wants to get some face time with elephants, the most revered creature in the kingdom. The Elephant Nature Park allows travelers to do so in an ethical and humane way. The ENP rescues elephants who have been brutalized and forced to work in logging camps and at tourism parks, and gives them a chance to live a peaceful life in which they aren’t forced to work or breed. There are 33 elephants at this gorgeous park in Mae Taeng, and volunteers have a chance to observe them at play, feed and bathe them, and help out with tasks around the park that allow them to give back to these gorgeous creatures.
The ENP volunteer program runs 7 days/6 nights, though two-week options are available. The cost is steeper than at other facilities (12,000 baht or $403.50 for the week), but goes to an exceptionally good cause. The elephants here are treated well and given medical care to treat injuries sustained while doing forced labor. The ENP also takes in dogs in need of rescue, and currently houses nearly 300 canines, many of which were rescued from Bangkok during the 2011 flooding. Others were saved from the dog meat trade and brought to the park. Volunteer fees help with the costs of running the park, feeding the elephants, who can each eat up to 300 pounds of food a day, food and medical care for the dogs, and covering volunteer accommodations, meals and support.
ENP volunteers help out around the park with tasks such as planting trees to aid reforestation, washing and preparing food for the elephants, feeding the animals, cutting corn and yes, even shoveling elephant poo. Volunteers are also encouraged to help out with the dogs if they are so inclined, typically with bathing and washing them or just hanging out so they get some love and playtime. The days are long but rewarding and after-work activities include tubing and enjoying a beer with fellow volunteers. Most rewarding, however, is the interaction with the elephants and learning more about their plight in Thailand and throughout the world.
Caring for dogs
Care for Dogs is another animal-centric rescue center that welcomes traveling volunteers. There is no fee for the program, but volunteers are responsible for getting to and from the facility each day and donations are welcome. Care for Dogs works with homeless dogs in need of medical care and all-around protection and affection. Volunteers are asked to commit for at least four days, and duties include playing with and bathing the dogs.
A new life
If you’re willing to get out of the Chiang Mai area for a bit and head north, the New Life Foundation outside Chiang Rai offers volunteers a wholly unique experience. A kind of halfway house for people whose lives are in transition, New Life gives as much to its volunteers as it gets. Mindfulness is key to the New Life philosophy and meditation is regularly practiced and highly encouraged. Because New Life is a low-cost facility designed to be accessible to anyone who wants to become a resident, volunteers are asked to pay a small fee per day (it varies from 250–500 baht (about US$8-16) depending on how long you plan to be there). The fee covers the cost of a private room and three meals per day.
Volunteer work can include earth-building with natural materials, working in New Life’s organic garden or assisting with marketing efforts. Volunteers work about 4.5 hours a day, five days a week and are invited to participate in all yoga and meditation sessions, as well as movie nights, special events and weekend excursions. Residents and volunteers mix and mingle regularly, allowing those just passing through to learn from the inspiring people who have come here to improve their lives. New Life is located in a small village outside Chiang Rai and the surrounding community is extremely beautiful, the perfect setting for reflection and rejuventation.
A common complaint among would-be volunteers is the cost of securing a volunteer placement. This is all the more reason to do your homework before signing up for a project. Volunteer fees often cover the costs of food, accommodation and other volunteer necessities, as well as the general costs of running the organization. Most reputable volunteer groups make an effort to keep costs for volunteers low, but charge in order to be able to continue doing their work. If possible, reach out to others who have volunteered there before to find out if the cost and effort is actually worth it.
If you are interested in doing volunteer work in northern Thailand, it is best to research potential projects before embarking on your adventure. This will allow you plenty of time to organize necessary paperwork, such as a background check or travel insurance documentation, and ensure you are prepared for the experience before you arrive. And helping out locally in your own town will also go a long way toward making the most of your time abroad. As Cikraji put it, “Try it at home first, see if it’s for you, and then you will be able to contribute more when you come over here.”