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 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.
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.
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.
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.