Sydney journalist Kristie Kellahan volunteered in 2001 to work six months in a Buddhist orphanage in Chiang Mai. As she reports, it turned out to be much more.
"It was such a beautiful, rewarding experience. Those six months have turned into an ongoing connection. More than 30 visits and 12 years later, the orphanage has become a big part of my life, the nannies and nuns have become my lifelong friends and I've loved watching the children grow up. There is no better way to get to know a country, its people, its humour, its hardships and its customs than through volunteering."
|Adorable! Pic: Julie Miller|
“Voluntourism” — travelling to assist others — is a growing phenomenon in Thailand and elsewhere, with options that range from paying to join an organized volunteering-plus-travel itinerary, to working directly with an organization that needs casual help.
Kristie notes that Thailand orphanages don’t necessarily welcome helpers (foreign or Thai) just dropping in at will. Volunteers shouldn't plan their trip to Chiang Mai (or elsewhere) based on the expectation of being needed.
She strongly advises, “Always phone ahead, and close to the date of arrival. Likewise, ask what they need in terms of gifts/donations. It will probably be something practical like disposable nappies or baby formula. NOT the stuffed toys (germ farms) or lollies (dental disaster) that most people turn up with.”
Volunteering is an excellent way to see Thai culture from beyond our own tourist “spectacles” and to look and learn. Several companies offer itineraries that combine volunteering with tourism activities, for which participants pay a program fee that can range from US$320 (for one week) upwards. The helping activities can include teaching English, outdoor work and participating in community development groups.
- Projects Abroad: www.projects-abroad.com.au/destinations/thailand
- International Volunteer HQ: www.volunteerhq.org/programs.html#thailand
- Go Differently: www.godifferently.com
|Pic: John Borthwick|
Meanwhile, established Thailand-based organisations that have volunteer programs include:
- Wild Animal Rescue Foundation, with projects like gibbon rehabilitation in Phuket and sea turtle conservation in Ranong. www.warthai.org
- The Mangrove Project, for daytrip mangrove planting not far from Bangkok at Samut Songkram.
- Habitat for Humanity, to assist with house-building alongside the needy. www.habitatthailand.org
|Pic: John Borthwick|
Elephants. Everyone loves ‘em and wants to work with them. There are possibilities with conservation centres such as the Elephant Nature Foundation in the Mae Tang Valley, north of Chiang Mai: www.elephantnaturefoundation.org, where Khao Jai Thailand editor and animal lover, Julie Miller spent a week working with rescued street elephants.
"After a life of servitude - often not the kindest - these rescued animals now live the life of leisure they deserve, and it's heartwarming and rewarding to be able to take a small role in their ongoing care," she says.
|Volunteers at ENP|
Finally, if can’t volunteer your time, the above-listed Thai organisations will find your cash donation truly valuable.