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Some Helpful Tips on Volunteering in Southeast Asia

US Navy 110624-N-VE260-654 Sailors assigned to Naval Air Facility Atsugi teach elementary students English at Terao Elementary School












For travelers seeking a holiday that goes beyond the usual sun, sea, sand and getting sauced escape, volunteering can be an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to delve deeper into other cultures, meet new people and see a whole different side of your chosen destination. Southeast Asia is home to hundreds if not thousands of organizations that accept volunteers on a regular basis, so the only hard part is narrowing down the options.


However, before you sign-up for a week or more of selfless giving, there is the not-so-small matter of responsible volunteering to consider. ‘Voluntourism’ has exploded in Southeast Asia over the past few decades, which means that there are many companies that have jumped on the gravy train in the hopes of striking it rich by charging do-good travelers to lend a hand. Some of these organizations offer little to no benefits for the communities they claim to help, and in some cases they even cause more damage than good. On the flip side, there are also many volunteers who sign up for all the wrong reasons, which can cause a multitude of problems for everyone involved.


If you do want to volunteer in Southeast Asia, it pays to do your research first. Start by thinking about what skills you have to offer to people overseas. Sure, you may speak English, but that doesn’t make you qualified to teach it. Invest in some courses before you set out to save the world so that you have something legitimate to bring to the table. When looking into volunteer organizations, check to make sure that they are the real deal. Research where their money goes, how they select volunteers and what former volunteers have to say about their experience there.


Also, be honest with yourself, and be aware that volunteering is not for everyone. Many projects require volunteers to live in remote areas where you won’t have access to all the comforts of home. In addition, you may be face to face with rampant poverty, illness, abuse and corruption on a day to day basis. Can you handle being out of your element? And can you fully commit to the time period requested by the organization? For some other tips on responsible volunteering, check out this great article in Southeast Asia Backpacker on Responsible Volunteering in Southeast Asia.


If you’re thinking about volunteering in Southeast Asia but not sure where to start, we’ve put together a list of some of the more ethical volunteer organizations in the region to get you started. If there are any that we’ve missed that you think deserve a place on the list, feel free to comment below.



Conversations With Foreigners

Rather than charging huge sums to volunteers, Conversations with Foreigners has set up a sustainable model of cultural exchange for volunteers and Cambodian students at their conversational English language center in Phnom Penh. The students pay a small fee to learn English and gain a greater understanding of other people and cultures, and the volunteers only pay for Volunteer Housing costs, should they decide to stay in the organization’s accommodation. All of the money from the classes goes to the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT), a local NGO that sends skilled Cambodians into some of the poorest rural areas to teach rural people agricultural skills and proper sanitation so that they can empower the community members to improve their own livelihoods.

Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development

Grassroots works with Burmese teachers, social workers, health workers and migrant workers to promote education, human rights, and a safe working environment for Burmese migrants and their families in Phang Nga, South Thailand and Mae Sot. Their programs aim to provide education to the children of migrant workers, empower women through education and health care, and bridge the gap between the Burmese and Thai communities. Skilled volunteers can help by providing education, healthcare, IT assistance and administrative support.

Isara Foundation

Isara is unique in that it is one of the only free volunteer programs in Thailand. This non-profit organization provides free education to hundreds of Thai school children and implements projects that raise awareness about personal safety and environmental awareness. You can help by teaching English, computers or art to the children in the free learning center or by helping out at the Recycling Center, rebuilding classrooms and distributing free helmets to the community and the surrounding towns.


US Navy 120109-N-NB694-319 Sailors assigned to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) teach English to students at Nikhom



The East Bali Project

When the team from the East Bali Project first started, they asked the local villagers in East Bali what their main priority was and they said education for their children. Since then, the organization has gone on to increase literacy rates among young people, provide scholarships for disadvantaged school children, raise awareness about nutrition and sanitation, provide free healthcare to those in need and vastly improve water resources and infrastructure in the area. If you have experience and training in the specialist fields of agriculture, education, environment, health, infrastructure, technology, or nutrition and can commit to at least 2 months, you can make a difference with this award-winning non-profit organization.




Established in 1994, ProFauna is a non-profit organization that works in a non-political and non-violent way to protect wildlife and forests in Indonesia. They currently have two opportunities for volunteers in Indonesia: teaching wildlife and forest conservation at their education center in Malang, and a hands-on sea turtle conservation program in Bali. Volunteers pay a small fee that includes lodging and three meals a day.

Baby Sea Turtle


Free the Bears

What began as one woman’s plight to stop the harvesting of bear bile has now grown into an vast international organization that aims to rescue bears and other wild animals that have been illegally poached and imprisoned. Free the Bears now has projects in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia and India, and they have rescued and rehabilitated thousands of animals. Volunteers can now work with the bear keepers at the world’s largest Sun Bear sanctuary at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in Cambodia to feed the bears, clean and maintain the enclosures and build new enrichments. The minimum stay is one week, but you can stay for up to 8 weeks, and all of the fees go directly back to support the bears.



Bumi Sehat

Voted the 2011 CNN Hero of the Year, Bumi Sehat founder Robin Lim started this life-changing non-profit organization when she began providing free healthcare to pregnant women and children under 5 years in 1995 in Ubud, Bali. Today the organization continues to offer free health services for mothers, including pregnancy, birthing, post-partum and breast feeding in their centers in Bali and Aceh, Indonesia. Medical professionals are welcome to apply for volunteer positions, as are English Teachers for the Youth Center.

Redefining Home; Teaching in Southeast Asia

After obtaining degrees in English Literature and English Secondary Education, Sean Lords packed up his bags and left to Seoul, South Korea where he lived for three years teaching English abroad. Sean has since returned to the States and is currently at work on his Master’s degree.


You’ve been flying for 16 hours; you’ve watched four terrible Tyler Perry movies, consumed some unpronounceable rice dish and kindly donated your shoulder to a lovely (yet drooling) 70 year old Korean woman. The plane is finally landing on the tarmac and all at once you realize you are nearly 6,000 miles away from everything you’ve called home for the last 20 some odd years. “How did you arrive at this point in your life”, you’re thinking. You had a five year plan, you had grades, and you had big ideas. Then you graduated. Getting a job was not as easy as it looked in the movies and suddenly you’re living in the spare room of your parent’s house. You’re not even given the chance to go back to your old room because it’s been retrofitted with yoga balls and an elliptical machine and is now referred to as the “fitness center”.

My choice to teach overseas came out of necessity. I knew I was better than the 7 dollar an hour job that I was working. Seeing my friends posting all about their new careers, their new kids and their new adventures left me feeling less than stellar and I decided I needed a change in scenery. A drastic change. I got on Craigslist and literally sent an inquiry email to every recruiter I came across. Rural location? No problem. First English speaker to ever live there? No problem. Oh, it’s a reform school for troubled high school boys? Perfect. I was set and nothing was going to hold me back. I was so set on my move that I wasn’t even going to research the city I was moving to (Hupo, South Korea? Sounds fine by me).

So let’s flash forward again. My recruiter picks me up from the airport and we exchange the usual awkward banter. Only this time it’s made more complicated by our language barrier. We spend the next four hours in conversation over a biking trip that he took or about how great Costcos are, I was never quite certain as the conversation took more turns than the road to the small village I was being led to.

When we arrived, I was escorted up a small flight of stairs that was entered from a side door to the town’s only convenience store. My room (a 12 by 12 square with an attached bathroom) was quaint and the landlord was more than excited to show off the heated floors (ondol) that they just had put in. Just as speedily as I was taken to the room, I was left. The door was closed and I stood facing the room’s only window. I remember it was raining outside because as I slowly banged my head against its frosted glass, a little condensation dripped down onto my nose.

My contract at that school lasted a year. It was a year full of breaking up fights, trying exotic foods I would have never had the chance to otherwise, falling two stories off a roof at 3 am because I locked myself out of my apartment, meeting some truly incredible people from all over the world and being given the gift of exposing hundreds of young minds to not only the English language but to our culture, our slang and our cuisine.

At some point in those 12 months my room, with its slightly peeling wall paper, bright pink duvet and shotty internet signal became my new home. My forever-excited Korean co teachers who would leave me strange notes and equally strange tasting snacks became my new family. My students became my friends. I gave them some wildly animated thumbs up (sometimes down) when they would get a new haircut. We’d high-five when they finally were able to pronounce marble, they taught me the insanely intricate dance moves to which the new pop song on the radio and we exchanged tearful hugs when it finally came time for my last day in the classroom.

I ultimately decided that I wasn’t ready to travel back to the United States. My home was now here in this foreign, come not so foreign country. I did some more Craig-listing. This time around I put in a little more research and a little more thought. I ended up in Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world, teaching kindergarten for the next two years. Each day was a new layer, a new meaning and a new way I defined the word home.

Teaching English in Southeast Asia is not the solution for everyone dealing with the economic troubles that beset the United States at the moment. You need thick skin. There was not a moment in my time spent overseas that I wasn’t acutely aware that I was the minority (a sensation I strongly suggest everyone experience). You need an even thicker stomach. But most of all, you need an appetite to experience culture, a culture with eccentricities and shortcomings just like our own. You need an open mind to meeting people from all walks of life with viewpoints that will always challenge and cultivate that of your own.

Want to find out a little more but don’t know where to start? Unlike what I did, I don’t suggest Craigslist. The internet has some truly spectacular resources for those with a piqued interest in the life of an ex-pat English teacher. Dave’s ESL Café is a great place to start. There are several job posting boards and hundreds and hundreds of threads amongst its many discussion boards covering everything from which laundry soap is the best bang for your buck in Thailand to the trickier subjects like negotiating your appropriate tax category with your school.

Do you have any unique stories to share about your overseas teaching ventures? I’d love to hear from you below.

Country Guide for Teaching English in Southeast Asia

Country Guide for Teaching English in Southeast Asia

Kids in Ou Dong, Cambodia


Brunei is an ideal place to teach English, as it is safe, peaceful and the students are polite and respectful of foreign teachers. It also doesn’t hurt that teachers are not charged income tax, so you take home your entire salary every month. Moreover, many schools will grant housing assistance, cutting down your costs even more. However, standards are quite high in Brunei, as most of the teaching jobs are at primary and secondary schools. Therefore, you may find it difficult to find a job without a B.Ed or teaching qualification from your home country.


•You must be a native speaker from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand or the UK

•Bachelor’s degree, preferably a B.Ed, qualified teacher status such as a PGCE, Dip.T or accredited teaching certificate from your home state or province

•CELTA, TEFL and TESL certificates are not necessary, but definitely help

Work Visa:

You must have an employment visa to work in Brunei. Your school will arrange this for you, including all the paperwork and fees.

Expected Salary:

An average teaching salary in Brunei is anywhere from $42,000 BND to $77,000 BND per year (around $34,300 USD to $62,900 USD). Depending on the school, teacher packages might also include a housing allowance, settling in allowance and a bonus upon contract completion.



Back in the day, it was easy for backpackers to pick up work teaching English in Cambodia with no qualifications. However, times have changed, and schools in the kingdom have stepped up their game. Don’t expect to find a job if you haven’t invested in the proper education or certification prior to applying. The easiest places to find work are in Phnom Penh and Siam Reap. Overall, teaching in Cambodia is a pleasant experience, as the students are keen to learn, very respectful of teachers and quick to crack a smile or join in a laugh.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL or TESL certificate

Work Visa:

You must have a business visa to work in Cambodia. You can get a 30-day business visa on arrival in Cambodia and extend it every month, however, most schools will arrange a 6-month or 1-year business visa for you, including all of the paperwork and fees.

Expected Salary:

Anywhere from USD $500 to $3,000 a month. ESL schools in Cambodia typically do not offer plane tickets, housing, settling in allowances or bonuses upon contract completion.


East Timor

East Timor is one of the world’s newest independent nations, and is one of those off the beaten path type places where you won’t find hoards of tourists. As such, it can be a very rewarding place to work. The students are eager to learn, the salaries are decent and it is easy to head out on your days off to some of the world’s best diving spots, beautiful retreats in the mountains and miles and miles of pristine sandy beaches.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher


•Teaching Experience

Work Visa:

You must have a proper work visa to teach in East Timor, however, this is easy enough to obtain. The school or organization that hires you will usually arrange the visa for you, including all paperwork and fees. You can apply for the visa from a consulate in your home country or from within East Timor.

Expected Salary:

Salaries generally start at around $20.00 an hour, but could be higher depending on the school or organization and your experience. Employers may also include round-trip airfare, health and medical insurance and temporary accommodation upon arrival in East Timor.



Your best chances of finding work teaching English in Indonesia will be in the capital city of Jakarta. Here you will find many schools with competitive salaries and benefits. Elsewhere, English First dominates the English teaching scene. Salaries in Indonesia for ESL teachers tend to be lower than other parts of Southeast Asia, and working visas are expensive and slightly difficult to procure. Therefore, many schools may ask you to cover the costs of your own visa or sign a contract agreeing to repay the cost of the visa if you leave before the agreed upon completion date.


•Must be a native English speaker from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand

•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL or TESL certificate

Work Visa:

To legally work in Indonesia, you must have a work visa called a KITAS. If you meet all of the requirements, your school should arrange this for you. However, the KITAS is very expensive (about $1,500 USD), so some schools may take the cost out of your paycheck in increments each month, ask you to pay up front for the visa and then pay you back in increments each month, or ask you to sign a contract so that if you leave before the contract finishes, you are obligated to pay back the remainder of the visa.

Expected Salary:

From USD $300 to $1,500 a month, depending on the school. This may or may not include a housing allowance or free board at a house shared with other teachers.



Teaching English in Laos is great for those who prefer a more laid-back vibe over the hustle and bustle of city life. Laos is one of the most chilled out countries in Southeast Asia, even in the capital city of Vientiane, where you will find the majority of jobs. In addition, the friendly people and spectacular scenery are added bonuses. You won’t get rich teaching in Laos, but the cost of living is low and the going is easy here.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL, or TESL certificate. **Some schools may hire you on without these qualifications, however, you may be looking at low rates per hour and part-time work.

•Experience is preferred but not necessary

Work Visa:

You must have a business visa to legally work in Laos. Most teachers come in on a tourist visa, secure a job, and then arrange the business visa from within the country. Your employer must sponsor you for the business visa, and they will usually arrange everything for you, including paperwork and fees. That being said, some teachers have reported that certain schools expect teachers to pay for the visa themselves at a cost of about $300 USD per year.

Expected Salary:

Salaries vary in Laos. Inexperienced teachers or those with no teaching qualifications may be offered rates are as low as $9 to $10 USD per hour and only a few working classes a week. For experienced teachers with legitimate credentials, the average salary is about $800 to $1,000 USD per month. It is very rare to find a school in Laos that will pay for plane tickets, housing, insurance or offer contract completion bonuses.



Teachers in Malaysia are rewarded with amazing scenery, a fabulously vibrant mix of cultures and religions, modern cities and incredible food. ESL students in Malaysia range from young learners just learning the alphabet to university students studying advanced grammar in an effort to study or travel abroad.


•Native speakers from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland are preferred

• Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL or TESL certificate

•Experience teaching

Work Visa:

You must have an Employment Pass to legally work in Malaysia. Most teachers enter the country on a tourist visa, secure a job, and then apply for the Employment Pass from within the country. Your employer must sponsor you for the EP, and they will typically arrange the paperwork and pay the fees. You must leave Malaysia to activate the Employment Pass.

Expected Salary:

Teaching salaries vary in Malaysia depending on the school or organization and your qualifications and experience. Average salaries range anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 USD. Some schools will also include a housing allowance, plane tickets and medical insurance.


Once a destination far removed from the typical ESL teacher’s bucket list, Myanmar is now enjoying a period of change, and English language teaching positions are becoming more plentiful. Yangon is where you will find the bulk of English language teaching jobs in Myanmar, and although the salaries may not be as high as those in other countries in Southeast Asia, the people you meet and the unique experiences you will have here make up for it.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL, or TESL certificate

**It should be noted that it is possible to find a teaching job in Myanmar without a degree or teaching qualifications. However, if you don’t have these basic requirements, don’t expect to make killer money or receive any benefits.

Work Visa:

You must have a business visa to teach English in Myanmar. If you secure a job before you enter the country, your employer will arrange the paperwork for a business visa for you. Once you have the sponsorship letters, you can apply for a business visa at any Myanmar embassy. The multiple entry business visa is valid for 6 months, but you must leave the country every 70 days to extend the visa.

Expected Salary:

The average salary for an English teacher in Myanmar hovers around $1,000 to $1,500 USD a month, although this varies depending on your qualifications and experience. Some schools will pay for your visa costs, housing, plane tickets and even bonuses upon contract completion. As more and more English language schools open in Yangon and beyond, salaries and benefits will most likely become more competitive.


It’s easy to see why so many people want to teach English in the Philippines. With over 7,000 islands, seemingly endless white sandy beaches, soaring mountains, verdant rice terraces, colorful culture and friendly locals, who wouldn’t want to work here? Unfortunately, finding ESL jobs in the Philippines is not easy. So many Filipino people speak excellent English that many schools prefer to hire locals rather than deal with the paperwork for employment visas for foreigners. However, if you really put your heart into it, you can find places that are willing to take on a foreign teacher.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL, or TEFL certificate

Work Visa:

Once you find work in the Philippines, your employer will have to apply for an Alien Employment Permit, which takes about 14 days to process. After you have this permit, you can apply for an employment visa.

Expected Salary:

Salaries for ESL teachers in the Philippines are quite low compared to the cost of living, at about $800 to $1,000 USD per month. English language schools in the Philippines do not usually pay for flights, accommodation, or insurance. You may or may not get a bonus upon completion of your contract.


Once upon a time, it was easy for backpackers with few or no qualifications to pick up English teaching jobs in Thailand. In recent years though, the government and schools have become much more switched on, and now you need at least a bachelor’s degree to get your foot in the door in the competitive English teaching field. That being said, if you have the right qualifications, there are literally hundreds of teaching jobs available at any given time in Thailand.


•Must be a native English speaker from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the UK or USA

•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL, or TESL certificate

Work Visa:

To work in Thailand, you must have a business visa and a work permit. It is quite common for teachers to enter Thailand on a 30-day tourist visa, find a job, and get a letter of sponsorship from their future employer for a business visa. Once you have the sponsorship letter, you must leave the country to apply for a business visa at a Thai embassy. For those who accept employment before arriving in the country, your employer will arrange the sponsorship paperwork for you, and you can apply for and enter Thailand on a Non-immigrant Business visa. The business visa is valid for 60 days, and can be extended for another 30 days.

Once you enter the country on your business visa, your employer must process the work permit for you. You do not have to leave the country to do this, and once you have the work permit, you can extend your business visa so that it is valid for one year. When your work permit expires, your business visa will also expire.

Expected Salary:

English teaching salaries in Thailand run the full gamut from pitifully meager to more than adequate to save money and have a great lifestyle. Your salary will depend on your qualifications, experience and the school or organization you work for. The best thing to do is try a number of different schools before making a decision. Some schools will also provide accommodation, round-trip airfare, medical insurance and bonuses upon contract completion.


Vietnam’s economy has been booming in recent years, and the influx of money means that more and more students are now able to afford foreign language classes. In addition, an increase in foreign investment and the popularity of Facebook (even though the website is banned in the country), have really motivated the younger generation to learn English as a second language. All this adds up to an increase in jobs and competitive salaries for ESL teachers in Vietnam.


•Must be a native English speaker from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the US or UK.

•Bachelor’s degree

•CELTA, TEFL, or TESL certificate

•Teaching experience

Work Visa:

To get a work visa in Vietnam, your employer must sponsor you. Most enter the country on a tourist visa, and then either find a job or wait for their employer to submit all the necessary documents. Once your employer has submitted the letter of sponsorship to the government, you have 3 months to submit a police background check, obtain a medical checkup from an approved hospital or clinic, and submit original copies of your degree and teaching certificates. If everything is in order, you will receive a multiple entry work visa that is valid for the length of your teaching contract. You do not have to leave the country to change your visa.

Expected Salary:

Teaching salaries in Vietnam are quite high compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. You can expect to make anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 USD a month, depending on your qualifications, experience and the company that hires you on. Many schools will also offer a housing allowance, medical insurance, plane tickets and bonuses upon completion of your contract.

Teaching English in Southeast Asia

Teaching English in Southeast Asia

With natural beauty, friendly people, exotic food and gorgeous weather, it should come as no surprise that many people come to Southeast Asia on a holiday and never want to leave. One of the best ways to experience this incredible region for longer than just a few weeks or months is to secure a job teaching English as a foreign or second language.

What Qualifications do I Need to Teach English in Southeast Asia?

Gone are the days when you could rock up to an English language school in Southeast Asia and secure a job based on the color of your skin or the simple fact that you could speak English. Schools and governments across the region are cracking down on backpacker type teachers with no qualifications, and if you don’t have the proper education and certifications, you may find that your offers of employment will be next to nil. At the very least, you should have the following to teach English in Southeast Asia:

• A bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree – your degree does not necessarily have to be in the field of English language or education, but it certainly helps if it is.

• A CELTA, TEFL or TESL certificate. This should be from a properly accredited school, with courses that include classroom theory and practicum teaching hours. Online courses are generally frowned upon.

• A clean police record. Southeast Asia has its fair share of foreign pedophiles and criminals on the run, so most reputable schools will want to see a certified police background check.

• Experience teaching. While some schools will hire first-time teachers, the better schools prefer to hire teachers who have some sort of experience working with children or teaching in some capacity.

These requirements apply for most ESL/EFL schools. International schools are a different story, as many of these institutions require teachers to have a Bachelor of Education and teaching certification from their home country, province or state.

For more information about teaching English in specific countries in Southeast Asia, read our Country Guide to Teaching English in Southeast Asia.