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Volunteer in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai: What’s the Difference? And What Are the Best Volunteer Programs?

Nick Callos
Written By
By Nick Callos
volunteer in chiang mai or volunteer in chiang rai

If you want to volunteer in Northern Thailand, you may wish to volunteer in a city such as Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. Though they have similar sounding names, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are two distinct, separate cities.

So, should you volunteer in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai?

Before making a decision, read some research we have done for you. In this article, we’ll cover all you need to know about these two popular volunteer destinations, including:

  • What do Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have in common?
  • What’s the difference between Chiang Mai  and Chiang Rai?
  • Best volunteer programs in Chiang Mai
  • Best volunteer programs in Chiang Rai

After reading, you should have a good idea of whether you wish to volunteer in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. 

What do Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have in common?

Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are wonderful cities in Northern Thailand. Both feature beautiful nature and a friendly local atmosphere. Additionally, both are known for their unique and revered temples. Special temples in Chiang Rai include the White Temple, the Blue Temple, and Wat Huay Pla Kang (home of the Giant Buddha). Special temples in Chiang Mai include Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phra Singh.


Volunteer opportunities for Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai are similar. If you wish to view elephants in their natural habitat, or even volunteer with elephants, Chiang Mai is the preferred destination but Chiang Rai is a fine choice too. Both cities have lots of childcare and teaching volunteer programs, as well as increasingly more ESL teaching jobs. Other volunteer projects center around construction, environmental conservation, and animal care for both cities. 

Located within just 3.5 hours of each other, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have similar climates. Northern Thailand has a tropical climate with three distinct seasons: 

  • Cool season (November – February)
  • Hot season (March – May)
  • Rainy season (June- October)

According to Frommers, December and January are the best times to visit Northern Thailand, as the weather ranges from the low 50s to the low 80s (Fahrenheit). This makes sightseeing, trekking, and more much more enjoyable. The hot season is also a good time to visit, though some days may get into the upper 90s. Whether you volunteer in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, November through May is an ideal time. The rainy season is fine too, but you may be limited some days on activities. 

What’s the difference between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai? 

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second-largest city after Bangkok, and the largest in Northern Thailand. The city has a population of 1.22 million. Chiang Rai is a bit smaller, with a population of 571,000

Chiang Mai, long considered a must-visit for any traveler, offers a greater variety of activities than Chiang Rai. For instance, if you want to enjoy the local cuisine and visit bars while volunteering, Chiang Mai has a much more happening nighttime scene. The weekend night markets are especially fun. If you prefer to relax in the evenings, though, Chiang Rai is the better option. 

Chiang Mai has many more famous events, notably the Yi Peng Lantern Festival. This festival offers days of wonderful lights, and is typically held in late November.  

Chiang Mai is also closer to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, a reserve known for its sustainable and ethical treatment of elephants. If you want to see elephants roam, this is among the best places to visit.

One key difference is that Chiang Rai is farther north than Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai is in the Golden Triangle, which is an incredibly gorgeous region. When visiting there, you’ll be conveniently near Laos if you wish to visit there. One of Southeast Asia’s most famous travel routes is the slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, Laos, and volunteering in Chiang Rai provides quick access to it. 

Overall, Chiang Rai offers experiences you can’t find elsewhere in Thailand, beginning with the Golden Triangle and its mesmerizing landscape. While volunteering in Chiang Rai, you can discover the Hill Tribe Villages and learn about the lifestyles of rural Northern Thai people. This is something not as accessible in Chiang Mai. 

All in all, you can’t go wrong with choosing to volunteer in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. Here’s our overall advice:

  • Volunteer in Chiang Mai if you prefer nature but like the convenience and entertainment of the city, and want to experience everything from Thai cooking classes, bars and night markets to elephant sanctuaries, national parks and jungle zipline adventures. Top volunteer programs in Chiang Mai include teaching English, construction, elephant conservation, and healthcare. 
  • Volunteer in Chiang Rai if you prefer nature and relaxation, and want to experience rural Northern Thailand, the Golden Triangle, and some of the country’s most unique temples. Top volunteer programs in Chiang Rai include animal conservation, childcare, and teaching English. 

Best Volunteer Programs in Chiang Mai

If you wish to volunteer in Chiang Mai, know there are a variety of programs available. Take a look at some of the best organizations and projects below for volunteering in Chiang Mai.

Involvement Volunteers International (IVI)

Volunteer abroad programs for seniors and retirees - Abroadly

Involvement Volunteers International (IVI) launched in 1989 with a mission to educate, fight poverty, improve health and empower change through sustainable volunteer work in developing communities around the world. IVI has 112 projects across 23 countries, and has hosted more than 25,000 volunteers to date. IVI has a variety of volunteer projects in Chiang Mai. Read about a few popular programs below. 

English Teaching in Chiang Mai

Teach English at a childcare center, primary school, middle school, or high school, and help the youth of Chiang Mai improve their future job prospects. You’ll mostly use conversation, games, songs, and activities to help students improve English communication skills. 

Construction Volunteering in Chiang Mai

Provide crucial support in construction and renovation work by helping construct sanitation facilities, housing, temples, schools and more. Your help will go a long way in enhancing the living conditions of the local community. 

Elephant Conservation in Chiang Mai

The elephant population has declined significantly over the last century due to poaching, deforestation, tourism, farming and other human-related impacts. Through this elephant volunteer program, you’ll work at a sanctuary, helping to bathe the elephants, prepare food for them, and observe their behavior. This is an ethical animal volunteer program where you can truly make a difference. 

Volunteering Solutions


Volunteering Solutions was founded in 2007 and has placed more than 17,000 volunteers in programs abroad to date. Featuring 150+ projects across 27 countries, Volunteering Solutions has many programs in popular destinations, including Chiang Mai, Thailand. Known for high-quality, affordable service projects, their volunteer projects in Chiang Mai are especially impactful. Read about a few below. 

Medical Internship in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Shadow a Thai doctor in Chiang Mai and get practical experience diagnosing, treating, and caring for patients. If you are a pre-med or medical student, not only is this internship a great opportunity to boost your resume and gain experience at an international-standard hospital, but you’ll also get to help people in need. 

Teaching English to Monks in Chiang Mai

Wish to immerse yourself in Buddhist culture while helping monks improve their English skills? Then this is the program for you. As a teaching volunteer, you’ll hold classes at monasteries and temple schools. While you help the young monks improve their English skills, they’ll help you understand the spiritual side of life. This is a wonderful volunteer program if you’re looking for a transformative volunteer trip. 

Elephant Camp Project in Chiang Mai

Work in a quaint elephant village just outside Chiang Mai. Duties include feeding and bathing the elephants, as well as taking them for walks. You’ll get to observe and interact with baby elephants, which is truly an unforgettable experience. If you’re passionate about wildlife and elephants, this program is a great choice.

Global Vision International (GVI)

Volunteer Forever - Global Vision Internationa

An award-winning organization, Global Vision International (GVI) was founded in 1997 by Richard Walton and hosts volunteer and internship opportunities in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. To date, GVI has sent more than 25,000 volunteers overseas on programs ranging from construction, to animal care, to education, and beyond, with 95% of past volunteers stating they would want to travel with them again. GVI has numerous volunteer opportunities in Chiang Mai, Thailand, including the three below.

Volunteering with Elephants in Chiang Mai

Support community efforts to help reintegrate elephants into the wild. These elephants had been previously put to work in the tourism industry, and have been rehabilitated so they can return to native habitats. As a volunteer, you’ll monitor the elephants and work alongside elephant keepers to help them establish alternative livelihoods to exploitative tourism activities like riding elephants.

Gibbon Conservation Volunteering in Chiang Mai

Contribute to the conservation of endangered gibbons in Northern Thailand. As a volunteer in Chiang Mai, you’ll help monitor, photograph and document the behavior of gibbons in the wild. During your time, you’ll also get to discover the local Karen community — a hill tribe village.

Wildlife Conservation Research Fellowship in Chiang Mai

Passionate about a career in environmental conservation? Then this is the fellowship for you. As an intern, you’ll help conduct vital research on conservation projects that protect habitats in Northern Thailand. By the end of the program, you’ll have enough learnings to co-author a scientific paper or help implement a conservation project. Your research will indeed make a real impact in the region!

Best Volunteer Programs in Chiang Rai

If you wish to volunteer in Chiang Rai, know there are a variety of programs available. Take a look at some of the best organizations and projects below for volunteering in Chiang Rai. 

International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ)

volunteer to plant trees with IVHQ

Founded in 2007, International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) is the top volunteer abroad organization in the world, having placed more than 132,000 volunteers in projects abroad. IVHQ connects thousands of travelers with opportunities overseas each year, enabling volunteers to work alongside local organizations and NGOs in more than 40 countries worldwide, including in Thailand. IVHQ designs its programs to deliver sustainable value for communities and the environment. If you want to volunteer in Chiang Rai, IVHQ is a top choice. 

Animal Care Volunteering in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Have a passion for dogs and cats? Then join this program and care for abandoned dogs and cats at a shelter in Chiang Rai. As a volunteer in Chiang Rai, you’ll care for animals that have been neglected, abandoned and injured. The goal is for these dogs and cats to regain their health and find a new loving home. It’s a truly rewarding experience that also involves the chance to live in a rustic hut and discover Thailand’s lush jungles during free time.

Childcare Volunteering in Chiang Rai

Assist at early childhood centers that cater to children from nearby villages and hill tribes. As a childcare volunteer in Chiang Rai, you’ll gain experience in childhood education while ensuring disadvantaged children have a better chance at educational and life success. Your help also goes a long way in helping the children’s parents go to work and support their family. 

Outdoor Volunteer Work in Chiang Rai

Make a tangible contribution as a volunteer in Chiang Rai through outdoor work. Types of volunteer work can include planting and harvesting rice, renovating classrooms and schools, cleaning gardens and farms, building water tanks, building drainage systems and more. It all goes a long way in improving the quality of life for locals.

International TEFL Academy (ITA)

Earn your TEFL certificate and teach English abroad with ITA

If you wish to volunteer in Chiang Rai long term, perhaps you should consider teaching English. You help the youth of Chiang Rai gain valuable language skills, as well as earn money to support your travels.

Through International TEFL Academy (ITA), you can prepare yourself to teach English as a foreign language and get direct job placement help. Founded in 2010, ITA provides the gold standard in TEFL certification, certifying 6,000 people to teach English abroad each year. Destinations such as Chiang Rai are quite popular thanks to a desirable destination and solid salary and benefits. 

To get certified to teach English in Chiang Rai, ITA offers high-quality, accredited TEFL courses both online and in-person around the globe. After you pass the course and gain TEFL certification, ITA even provides job placement assistance for destinations such as Chiang Rai. That’s right — ITA will help you find a paid English teaching job in Chiang Mai where you can expect to make $1,000 – $1,500+ per month (plenty to live comfortably in Northern Thailand).

Choosing to Volunteer in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are both popular volunteer destinations in Northern Thailand, and are great choices if you wish to volunteer abroad in Southeast Asia. Consider which destination’s atmosphere and volunteer programs best align with your preferences and goals for traveling abroad to volunteer. If you find the decision too tough, know you could volunteer in both locations, or volunteer in one city and travel to the other afterwards. 

Now, all that’s left to do is compare the volunteer programs above and make a decision. In no time, you could be on your way to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai for the volunteer trip of a lifetime. 

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