Volunteering Abroad In Thailand: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go
In many ways, Thailand is the ultimate volunteer abroad experience. It is accessible enough to agree with a first-time traveler, but unique enough to keep a seasoned volunteer coming back for years. You might wonder, since Thailand is such a giant in the tourism world, if its hype has surpassed reality or if it could really be as amazing as you've heard. As one of those seasoned travelers who keep going back, I've got to say, yes, it absolutely is.
Volunteer in Thailand
When doing your research about volunteering in Thailand, you will probably first be surprised by the sheer scope of opportunities available to you. From volunteering with elephants to preserving coral reefs to helping to bring modern healthcare to Thai hill tribes, there really is something for everyone. As you begin planning, use this quick guide to find your bearing in your Thailand volunteer abroad experience.
Know Before You Go:
Thailand is located in Southeast Asia, wedged between Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam in the north and then bordering Malaysia on the tip of its tail. Geographically, Thailand is amazingly diverse. From mountains to jungles to white sand beaches, Thailand has it all, and often in the same place. Thailand is generally more mountainous in the north, near the major cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and flatter and more agrarian as you go south towards Bangkok. Thailand's islands, some of which are only an hour's bus ride away from Bangkok, are almost all lush, tropical, and excellent for snorkeling and SCUBA diving.
Thailand prides itself on being one of the few countries never to have been colonized, and is currently ruled by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who aside from being a pretty good jazz composer and the only monarch ever to be born in America, has been a unifying force of the Thai people for nearly seventy years. Although Thailand's recent history has been very peaceful, there are long-standing political divides that you should probably know about before you stumble into a rally wearing a red or yellow shirt.
Although Thailand is an ethnically diverse country, 93 percent of the population considers themselves Buddhist, following the Theravada school of Buddhism. If you're interested in religion, you may be surprised that Thai Buddhism is much more animistic than forms found in other Asian countries. This can lead to some very unique cultural notes, like spirit houses, which are small doll-house like houses outside of every Thai building to serve as a place for the spirits to live and be worshiped.
The Thai language is extremely difficult to learn for many foreigners, as it is tonal and has few English cognates. Additionally, the Thai language is almost never written in the Roman alphabet, but in Thailand's unique script, which is both extremely beautiful and very difficult for an outsider to understand without some study. Luckily, most Thais speak some level of English and are almost always willing to point you in the right direction.
Types of Volunteering Opportunities:
The volunteer travel industry is very well developed in Thailand, and as a result, includes hundreds upon hundreds of programs to apply to in a variety of fields. When choosing the type of volunteering that is best for you, be sure to consider your own skill sets and interests. Although unskilled volunteers are always welcome, volunteers with specialized skills can often do much more for the organization in the long run and can provide services that the organization may have otherwise been unable to afford.
FEATURED PROGRAM: Global Vision International
Founded in 1997, Global Vision International places 2,000 volunteers and interns on meaningful, adventurous programs all around the world every year. And in Thailand, GVI has a variety of impactful and educational placements to choose from, including volunteering with elephants, teaching children, working in a wildlife conservancy, interning in coastal conservation, and much more – and depending on your travel style, you can stay for just one week all the way to 24 weeks, with side projects and excursions arranged by GVI’s staff and partners.
Through this program, you’ll have the amazing opportunity to work in a rehabilitation center for elephants that have been rescued from the tourist industry. Each day, you’ll work with a local team to care for and monitor elephants that have been released to live a more natural life in the forest – you’ll learn about elephant behavior, training, biology, social interactions, and much more, and you’ll even have the chance to help with a community outreach and education program. This project starts from one week at $1,840, and you’re invited to stay as long as 16 weeks if you’d like.
Located in Phang Nga, Thailand, this program invites you to learn about marine and coastal conservation while working alongside a local team of researchers and fellow volunteers. You’ll have the chance to help out with many different areas of conservation (with project focus changing depending on the season), such as sea turtle research and habitat maintenance, biodiversity surveys, beach cleanup, and community development and environmental awareness in schools, hotels, and community centers. This program starts from two weeks at $2,090, and you’re encouraged to travel around Thailand before and after your project to gain a fully immersive experience in the country.
If you’re interested in building a career or expanding your education in healthcare, GVI invites you to volunteer in a social center for disabled children in Phang Nga, Thailand. A few tasks you’ll take on include leading simple games and exercises, and engaging the children in playtime and art therapy activities - all of which are very helpful to teaching families how to care for children with special needs, and provide extra assistance in an area where resources for supporting disabled people are limited. You also may help with leading health and hygiene education and sports programs at a local school. Each week, you’ll work Monday through Friday, and during your stay, you’ll live with other volunteers in a dormitory. During your free time and weekends, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore beaches, islands, parks, and caves - you’re invited to volunteer up to three months on this project, starting at $2,090 for the first two weeks.
FEATURED PROGRAM: International TEFL and TESOL Training (ITTT)
Founded in 1993, International TEFL and TESOL Training (ITTT) is one of the world’s leading TEFL and TESOL course providers. With an online course, in-class courses in 27 different countries, and a combined course, ITTT certifies more than 7,500 graduates each year. ITTT’s TEFL courses come with worldwide accreditation, and as a graduate, you’ll receive lifetime job support including exclusive leads on unadvertised jobs, unique databases of potential employers, CV and resume review, cover letter assistance, contract consultation, and interview preparation. Online courses start at $190, in-class courses start from $1,490 for four weeks, and combined courses start from $1,195.
ITTT provides internationally accredited online TEFL courses for students of all learning styles - meaning you can earn TEFL certification at your own pace, with or without tutor support, and from the comfort of your own home. Through this online program, you can earn TEFL certification in Teaching Business English, Teaching English to Young Learners, and even an advanced Diploma in TEFL. Courses range from 60-hour introductory programs, to 50-hour specialized classes, to 250-hour TESOL diploma programs. Online classes are open to learners aged 17 or older, and you must be a native English speaker or fluent in English to sign up.
ITTT also offers in-class courses to receive TEFL and TESOL certification in more than 25 locations in 15 different countries, including Thailand and many others. These courses start from $1,495 for a comprehensive four-week program, which is divided into six main areas: teaching practice, foreign language experience, language awareness, student profile, teaching techniques, and a materials project.
ITTT’s teacher trainers in Thailand have years of experience teaching English as a foreign language, plus extensive backgrounds in curriculum development, customized course creation, eLearning, teaching business English, and much more. If you’d like to travel to Bangkok, ITTT’s Bangkok TEFL training program invites you to learn in a school that teaches children in the afternoon, and business professionals in the evening. The most popular training program offered by ITTT in Thailand - with more than 3,000 students graduated so far - invites you to Phuket, close to Thailand’s beautiful coast. And once you finish your certification, ITTT will provide job placement assistance so you can be placed as quickly as possible in a paid teaching position in Thailand or beyond.
If you’d like to combine an online course with in-class experience, ITTT has that option as well, including a 120-hour online program plus 5 to 10 days of in-classroom training. This course costs $1,195, and allows you to study on your own time from home with assistance from a personal tutor. After that, you can take an in-classroom course in one of more than a dozen locations, including Thailand. After successfully completing both portions of this course, you’ll be fully certified to teach English in Thailand or beyond.
FEATURED PROGRAM: LOVE VOLUNTEERS
One organization you should definitely check out while planning your trip to Thailand is Love Volunteers. Founded in 2009, Love Volunteers offers affordable volunteer and internship opportunities all over the world – and has nearly a dozen projects available in Thailand alone, starting from just $425 for your first week in the country. As a volunteer, you’ll work with a local partner organization that’s been fully vetted by the Love Volunteers team, to help with projects ranging from women’s empowerment, to children’s education, to wildlife and conservation, and much more.
Through this program, you’ll teach English to Buddhist monks in a temple either in Bangkok or in Chiang Mai. The work you’ll do (helping with homework, planning games and activities, cleaning the classroom, and assisting teachers with lessons) and the amount of independence during your placement will vary depending on the needs of the classroom and your comfort level with teaching. You’ll stay with fellow volunteers in a guest house, and on weekends, you’re free to explore the area, stock up on groceries and supplies for the coming week, and even visit the Golden Triangle, where the countries of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet.
If you have at least four weeks to dedicate to volunteering, you may want to take a look at Love Volunteers’ women’s empowerment program, where you’ll work in a women’s refuge center in Bangkok City. This center serves girls and women who have been sexually or physically abused, in crisis, and may not have a support base to turn to. Through this program, you’ll teach English and arts and crafts, help plan activities and workshops to build self-confidence, and more. You also can help look after children of the women seeking refuge at the center, and escorting vulnerable clients to doctor’s appointments. As with Love Volunteers’ other placements in Thailand, you’re welcome to explore the city and get to know the community during your weekends and free time.
Love Volunteers is offering an excellent opportunity right now for those who’d like to combine volunteering with adventure: through this program, you’ll help severely underfunded schools refurbish classrooms, purchase new supplies (desks, chairs, teaching materials, and much more), and have the opportunity to take a guided tour through Bangkok for one weekend with your fellow volunteers. Through your volunteer work and program fee, you’ll provide direct aid and tools for students to get a solid education – which will expand their employment prospects later. And during your weekends, you’re free to explore, travel, or just relax at your volunteer house close to the beach.
To learn more about volunteering in Thailand with Love Volunteers, click here.
FEATURED PROGRAM: GLOBAL NOMADIC
Global Nomadic is an excellent option for travelers who’d like to explore Thailand while getting a head start on your career. Through this program, you’ll volunteer or intern with a local NGO on a project relating to your degree or career goals. Global Nomadic works hard to make sure any placement you apply for is affordable--no matter how long you choose to travel--and you’ll receive full pre-departure support and ongoing, onsite support during your stay.Marine Conservation Internship
Global Nomadic’s marine conservation internship in South Thailand invites you to work alongside marine biologists and other scientists and conservation professionals while gaining hands-on experience in marine conservation, environmental conservation, biology, and ecology. You’ll be placed with a local NGO that promotes understanding and protection of marine biodiversity in Southeast Asia, particularly its coral reefs. Once you’re registered, you must complete a 10- to 14-day diving course to qualify as a conservation intern or research intern. During the project, you can expect to work six days per week, and will stay in a guest room at the NGO headquarters, which is located in a small fishing village. The application fee for the marine conservation internship is £349 GBP (about $500 USD), and college credits and opportunities for thesis and dissertation projects are available as well. Learn more and apply at: https://globalnomadic.com/project/marine-conservation-research-internship-thailand/Photography and Journalism Internship
If you’re interested in traveling to a more urban area, the photography and journalism internship through Global Nomadic may be the perfect fit. For three months, you’ll work with a company in Bangkok to prepare photo material for PR and marketing campaigns - tasks can include finding and editing images, selecting subjects and equipment, writing articles, and more in collaboration with a sales team. The cost for this program is $3,500 for three months, and also includes Thai language classes, which will come in handy while working with customers and attending networking events. To learn more about this internship, visit: https://globalnomadic.com/project/photography-journalism-internship-thailand/Startup Internship
Also located in Bangkok, this startup internship allows you to work with a fast-growing company, learn the Thai language, and get a head start on your career. Perfect for students majoring in business or IT-related fields, projects during this internship can include business development, financial planning, branding, fundraising, and more. You’ll work directly with the company’s CEO and founders to help grow and scale their business - you’ll also have lots of opportunity for networking and developing cross-cultural and interpersonal communication skills. The cost for this internship is $3,500 for three months, and you can join at any time. Read more and sign up at: https://globalnomadic.com/project/startup-internship-bangkok/
FEATURED PROGRAM: VOLUNTEERING SOLUTIONS (VOLSOL)
volunteer at a kindergarten for children who come from underprivileged families. With Bangkok’s rapid growth and urbanization, the divide between rich and poor has increased, with slum populations growing in number. As a volunteer, you’ll help with very basic support for slum children, including teaching English, assisting staff with day-to-day needs, caring for the children, cleaning and bathing them, feeding the children, leading playtime and games, and much more. This project starts from two weeks at $750, and you’re invited to stay up to six months.
Founded in 2007, Volunteering Solutions (VolSol) offers more than 120 different projects for volunteers who want to travel the world and make a difference. In Thailand alone, VolSol hosts 19 individual programs in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Surin, ranging from child care, to teaching, to wildlife conservation, to medicine, and beyond. Since its founding, nearly 12,000 travelers have volunteered and interned abroad with VolSol, which also is one of the most affordable volunteer organizations in the world: their most affordably-priced programs start at just $200 for your first week abroad.
As a volunteer through this program in Surin, you’ll have the wonderful opportunity to interact with and care for elephants while immersing yourself in this Thai community. Surin is home to more than 400 elephants, which used to be employed as machinery for logging and agriculture - and in recent years as this work has been overtaken by technology, elephants have been used instead as tourist attractions, performing tricks to beg for money in larger cities. As a volunteer, you’ll work in a small village that’s home to elephants that are rehabilitated and cared for appropriately while also being employed as a means to educate others about these amazing creatures. You’ll learn to interact with the elephants, walk and feed them, work alongside local mahouts to plant and harvest crops, and much more. Your caring and support as a volunteer will ensure the elephants in Surin lead healthy lives for generations to come. This program starts from one week, with a project fee of $750 for your first week in Thailand.
If you’re in school for journalism, marketing, graphic design, or a related field, VolSol’s journalism internship in Chiang Mai, Thailand may be the perfect way to gain hands-on experience and learn about your future career. As an intern, you’re invited to work one month or longer alongside local and international staff at a magazine publishing house, where you can contribute to several different projects, including editorial, multimedia design, print and design, and marketing. Not only will you have an amazing learning experience, but you’ll also work alongside professionals as part of the team, carrying out different tasks to help with publication of this magazine. This internship starts from four weeks at $1,400, and you’re invited to stay up to six months.
Education: Despite a roaring, largely English-speaking tourism industry, English language learning in many parts of Thailand lags far behind other countries of a similar socio-economic status. Learning English is an extremely important skill for young Thais who want to make money in the tourism industry- which can range from being a tour guide to simply opening a hawker stand near a popular beach spot. In any case, speaking English can mean a huge income jump- and the opportunities for further education and development.
Teaching English is a great way to work with Thai children or adults in a structured, professional environment while also helping the students improve a skill that could seriously impact their salary and opportunities later in life. When choosing an education-related volunteer program, look for programs that have a strong support system for teaching volunteers. After all, there's a lot more to teaching English than simply speaking it. For example, Pod Volunteer (2014 finalist for best volunteering organization at the British Youth Travel Awards) offers a program to teach Enlish in government schools in Southern Thailand. We like that the teaching occurs in government schools as it allows for more oversight from the local authorities.
As another example, volunteers are welcome to teach Burmese refugees at the TaLar AurKlah Learning Center (since it teaches a Burmese curriculum it is not allowed to call itself a school). The area around Mae Sot by the Burma border is home to many refugees and migrants from Burma, many from Karen and other hill tribes. They are generally very underprivileged, with some living in camps and others working as low-paid labor on Thai farms. Their legal status can cause problems - for instance, Burmese children are often not able to continue their studies. In addition to English teaching opportunities, volunteers with a healthcare background are invited to teach basic hygiene skills to the students.
Conservation: Although Thailand is very, very beautiful, the huge number of tourists around can be rough on the natural habitats. Volunteering for conservation is a great way to counteract this, and there are many local programs that accept short-term and long-term volunteers as part of their team. Conservation work can vary from working with research groups to help gather samples to taking an active role in educating the locals about recycling or other environmentally-conscious practices.
Our friends at Pod Volunteer offers an amazing Elephant Care and Wildlife Rescue project where you will have the opportunity to work with Asian elephants, gibbons, monkeys, bears, and other animals at the wildlife center. The experience is quite unique as you'll have the opportunity to live on-site the wildlife center. This project is a great experience for aspiring conservationists and veterinarians.
Since coral reef bleaching is a major threat for one of Thailand's numerous dive sites and thus an issue for Thailand’s tourism industry, you’ll notice that there are many volunteer projects that are centered on finding ways to help protect this amazing natural phenomenon. If you do choose to do a marine conservation program, prepare yourself to get wet, consider obtaining SCUBA open-water certification before you go. If you don't have access to SCUBA training, there are also many organizations that include it as part of their volunteer programs.
For example, OpenMind Projects offers volunteers who are experienced divers many opportunities to work at the National Park and Marine Research Center in Phuket. The center is based outside the main tourist areas but with easy access to the town of Phuket town and its beaches. Volunteer activities include diving in places inaccessible to tourists, participating in surveys, and reef cleaning at different sites along the Andaman coast. Volunteers without diving experience can teach English to the center's staff, help with surveys, develop promotional material, and interact with tourists. Volunteers may also assist in developing the mangrove trails.
Healthcare: Generally, healthcare standards are pretty high in Thailand. However, as in most places of the world, there are many underprivileged groups that do not have the same level of access as the general population. Volunteering with healthcare usually requires some level of healthcare knowledge and experience. However, this can be a great volunteering project for a gap year student planning on going into a healthcare-related field and is an excellent way to gain real world experience.
Since the healthcare field requires volunteers who are educated and very dedicated, volunteer projects may be more long-term than other types of volunteering programs and may feel more like an internship than say, helping build village infrastructure. Still, this is an excellent chance to give back in a way that many can only dream of. If you are a healthcare professional, volunteering abroad is an extremely rewarding chance to use your special skills with people who often don't have access to them.
Animals: Thailand's unique biodiversity extends well into the animal kingdom. Although Thailand is world-famous for its elephants, you should also know that Thailand is home to other amazing creatures such as sea turtles and macaques. Of course, with these animals comes many opportunities for unique animal-based volunteering. Since Thailand's native animals are such a huge part of its tourism, NGOs and volunteer groups often work to protect and rehabilitate animals that have experienced the negative aspects of so much attention. Volunteering with animals can vary to working as general laborer to interning in veterinary studies and is an opportunity both for short-term and long-term volunteers.
Most animal-based volunteer projects focus on one type of animal, so you'll have to face the nearly impossible choice of having to decide between elephants or sea turtles. Still, working with animals is extremely rewarding and guaranteed to give you experiences that you will never forget. The most important quality to have when applying to volunteer in Thailand with animals is simply a love for animals. The work can be hard, but for animal-lovers, is definitely worth it.
Cultural Notes that an International Volunteer Should Be Aware Of:
Living in Thailand gave me an interesting perspective on the local tourists. Although I was still, in many ways, a tourist myself, I saw many faux pas made by short-term tourists that caused me to blush. Thailand is, even today, a traditional society that places much value on ancient cultural practices. It's best to brush up, at least a little, before you hop off the plane.
1. Everyone has a deep respect for Thai royalty.
As I mentioned earlier, the King of Thailand is a large part of modern Thai cultural heritage. In a time of fast-paced political and economic change, many Thais view their monarchy as something absolute and eternal. Most Thais strongly revere the King, and can be made uncomfortable even by a foreigner's light-hearted joke about anything related to the monarch. It is best, when in the company of Thais, to refer to the monarchy with respect. Take time to learn a little about the King and the history of Thailand. Thai people will be extremely impressed if you show an interest in something they value so deeply and will think better of you, and all foreigners by association, because of it.
2. Pollution is an ongoing battle.
As in most of Southeast Asia, Thailand lags behind many other countries in general environmental cleanliness, even when you're in some of the most beautiful areas of the country. This can be a little hard to get used to if you've never left first-world countries before, as well-trained volunteers sometimes get tired of toting around empty water bottles for hours before seeing a maintained trash can. Pollution, for many Southeast Asians, is not something that they think about every day. At least, not yet. You should not think of this as a reason not to go to Thailand, but rather a good reason to go and try stand out as someone who is willing to go, literally, the extra mile when caring for a place so unique.
3. Learn what it takes to be polite.
Take a couple of hours and brush up on general Thai culture. Although most Thais are very used to tourists and will forgive you when you, say, point at something with your foot, it's always best to save face if you're able. There are many good resources on the internet that will teach you a few basic rules of Thai etiquette that definitely impress Thais when displayed. If you are a little confused, say, on how low bow as you wai when meeting your local monks, just consult your neighbors. Most of the local taboos are somehow related to Buddhism, so you want to be especially respectful while visiting any local temples, palaces, or religious ruins.
4. Most Thais will assume that you're wealthy, and comparatively, you probably are.
I hear a lot of feedback from volunteers and travelers who tire of being unable to bargain with the local Thais because the Thais assume that they're rich. Well, to be honest, you probably make more money than many Thai households and can you really blame them for trying to make a little more when you likely have so much more than they do? Of course, you should absolutely keep up the bargaining, but try to at least understand where they are coming from.
5. There are a lot of tourists (and volunteers) in Thailand, and this can have some negatives.
A couple problems accompany tourists wherever they go such as pickpocketing, scams, and “tourist traps.” These sort of issues do sift into the local volunteerism world, so you should be on your guard even while researching volunteer abroad programs. As long as you're aware and do your research, you probably won't come into contact with any of these unwanted aspects of the travel world. So, stay on guard and don't forget to have a good time.
Summing It All Up:
I really don’t want to end this article by being cliché, but as a self-professed evangelical Thailand volunteer, this is really the opportunity of a lifetime. Volunteering in Thailand is an incredible experience, and you will return home with far more than a sunburn and great stories. Your host community will never forget a volunteer who was dedicated, hard-working, and willing to fly half-way around the world to join with them on projects that required an extra pair of hands. At its most basic level, international volunteering is an attempt to build relationships that transcend far beyond national borders. By volunteering in Thailand, you join this community in a way that not only benefits your host community, but helps strengthen a multi-national platform by which people can help people.
Work hard, learn carefully, and remember to say karp-khun (thank you) and you are setting yourself up for a volunteer experience to remember.
If you're wondering how you can afford a volunteer trip to Thailand, check out our list of 200 Volunteer and Study Abroad Scholarships and Grants or learn how you can volunteer abroad for free.
P.S. If you're still looking for a volunteer opportunity, check out our list of best volunteer abroad programs and recommended volunteer projects in Africa, Central America, and Thailand. You can also read about 7 Great Medical and Veterinary Volunteer Abroad Projects, 10 Dental Volunteer Abroad Program and Medical Mission Tips for Pre Dental Students, and nursing volunteer abroad projects for students and nurse professionals. Or, if medical volunteer projects aren't for you, be sure to read about our sports and coaching volunteer abroad, wildlife conservation and veterinary abroad, teach abroad, and intern abroad programs. Lastly, if you're under 18, you may be interested in a teen volunteer abroad program from one of our many great partners.
Brittany Edwardes is a Fulbright Scholar who spent the last year teaching and living in Southeast Asia. Brittany is very passionate about service learning, spending time outdoors, and making her own pasta.
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