There’s plenty of opportunities to contribute to Thai society by volunteering in Thailand. The country is still emerging from feudalism and all kinds of people are lagging behind as economic growth accelerates. Here’s a very partial list, with links, of some of the programs that Todd Cikraji runs out of his office in Chiang Mai’s Friends for Asia. For a fee, they handle every aspect of volunteering including visas, cultural and language training – even accommodation. If you already know what you’d like to do and are coming to Thailand anyway, we can arrange direct visits to volunteer programs as part of our workshop program. Just drop us a line. Here’s a list of “just show up and do something” volunteering opportunities to get you thinking (it’s free):

Volunteer at an Elephant Camp

I spent a day volunteering at the elephant sanctuary just outside Chiang Mai. It’s a wonderful place, designed for the elephants rather than for humans. All of the elephants there have been rescued, often from cruel owners, and sometimes because they have been abandoned after becoming injured at work (those heavy logs they handle can roll and break an elephant’s leg or back). So the sanctuary takes them in and provides a safe, dignified life for them – free from human exploitation of any kind. One-day visitors like me get the opportunity to feed and bathe them in the river. The sanctuary also provides observation decks from which you can observe the elephants social lives.

This is the part I found fascinating. There was a blind elephant that caught my attention. She had been befriended by another female who escorted her everywhere, made sure that she was included in everything, and protected her from inadvertant injury. At night, her keeper told me, they would lean against each other to sleep.

These are just some of the opportunities that are available to volunteers here in Thailand. If you have a special passion to serve this way, drop us a line. Part of out workshop service is to find the right volunteering service for you.

Orphanage Volunteer Project

Orphanage Volunteer Project
Orphanage Volunteer Project

In Confucian societies, people without families are at a grave disadvantage. Individualism is de-emphasized here and as much depends upon who your family is as upon your personal qualities and abilities.

I know a beautiful, attractive woman, orphaned at an early age, who was engaged to a young army officer who loved her dearly but, when he announced his intentions to his family they refused to bless the relationship. “She has no family.” they told him. “What can she bring to our family?” He was 31 at the time, the youngest colonel in the Army, tall, handsome and commanding. But he did not hesitate to follow his parents’ wishes.

He broke off the engagement, offered to keep the girl as his second wife (she declined) and still helps her to this day whenever she needs ‘influence’ in her life. So you can imagine the plight of orphans in Thailand and why your help will be so welcomed.

Rural Schools Thailand Volunteer Project

It’s true everywhere and Thailand volunteers have found that it’s twice as true: rural schools get the short end of the stick when resources are being allocated. Young teachers are anxious to stay in cities where their marriage opportunities are broader, and older teachers want to stay close to families –which are much tighter in Thailand than in the West. And native English speakers are too  expensive for rural communities’ tiny budgets: the average farang English teacher makes twice as much–30,000 Baht–as regular teachers.

Pressure on rural schools has grown exponentially since the ASEAN Community adopted English as the regional second language, and the Thai Department of Education is making demands on schools without significantly increasing their budgets. This means that rural schools are thrilled to have native English-speaking volunteers in their classrooms, so you can be assured of a warm welcome!

English Education Volunteer Project

Young Monks Study Art and English in the Temple grounds
Young Monks Study Art and English in the Temple grounds

If you prefer to stay in town there are plenty of working-class schools that welcome Thailand volunteers with open arms. As in so many of our own cities, there are great disparities between wealthier areas and poorer ones, and between well-funded private schools and public schools. Another class of schools – until recently, the only public schools in Thailand – are the Temple schools. (The Thai word for ‘temple’, wat, means ‘school’).

They are bare-bones schools built in the temple grounds, and volunteering in one of them, as I did last year, gives you a window into both working-class Thai society and temple life. I greatly enjoyed my time at my temple school. Here’s a photograph I took of a class of young monks studying art in the temple grounds. They were drawing a stupa or chedi in the school grounds. The chedi is 800 years old and located right in the geographical center of Chiang Mai, ten minutes from my house.

Thai kids are a special delight to work with. In addition to their good humor (scowls are rare and bullying is unknown) they display an equanimity that our Western kids lack. I’ve taught all over the world and I must admit that Thai kids are my favorites. They lively, inventive, and amazingly respectful of adults. As you can imagine, in a Confucian society (whose state religion is Buddhism) elders are greatly respected. This is not just lip-service. For example, the school year begins with the children bringing gifts for their teachers and each in turn performing a full prostration–on the floor–in front of their teacher while offering their gifts. The downside?  Thai society values connections (Chinese: guanxi) far more than cleverness or book learning.

Home for Single Mothers in Crisis

There is no child support program in Thailand and Thai men often repudiate a girl who becomes pregnant, leaving her to raise her baby unaided in a society that revolves around family rather than state. Prospect for single mothers are quite grim if they do not have families of their own to fall back on.

This program provides food and shelter for young single mothers and trains them in practical skills. In this case, building the homes they will live in–out of bamboo!–and growing the food they need to eat. As you can imagine, there’s plenty of demand for experienced babysitters during class time!

Volunteer at an International University for Monks”

thai monksYoung monks come here from around the Buddhist world to study, and English is as important to them as it is to youngsters everywhere in the ASEAN region.

Your English speaking skills are a great asset to programs like this. If you’re able to stay for, say, an entire semester or even an entire academic year you will be all the more welcome, since most volunteers can only spare a few weeks out of their busy lives.

You’ll be partnered with a staff professor and usually teach 3-4 hours in the afternoons to a class of sweet-natured young monks from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India and, of course, Thailand. There are lots of Buddhist holidays during the academic year and the university – situated near Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai – is closed on those days. So the schedule is….relaxed.

Volunteer at a Children’s Home

childrens homeIf you love little children you’ll fall in love with these tiny sweethearts. Industrial accidents, abandonment, and small tragedies have left the babies utterly vulnerable. Again, Thailand’s social structure, which works brilliantly for those with families, leaves orphans underserved. This is where you can make a real difference.

You’ll help with childcare directly and also assist the nannies who care for the children full time. Their needs are simple and touching: lots of hugging, love, and attention. You’ll be amazed at how much it means to these tiny, bewildered little beings to have someone hold their hands, or walk them around the grounds. It’s that simple.

Volunteer in Thailand: More Reading

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