The 2000s will go down in the annals of marketing as the century tourism without a prefix went out of fashion. I’m told my ancestors justified their holidays with hard work and an ‘I’ve-earned-it’ attitude, but these days you feel obligated to buy carbon offsets just for a visa run to Mae Sai.
The buzz around eco-, agro- and volun- tourism, for all of its ad wizardry, does add a fresh dimension to travel in Thailand. While nature-based tours get plenty of attention through hotels in Chiang Mai, volunteer opportunities are too often overlooked. That’s too bad, because, in my experience, lending a hand to a worthy cause is one of the most rewarding ways to experience any city. It also puts you directly in contact with genuine locals that you wouldn’t otherwise meet.
Independent travelers can work out their own arrangements, but it’s hard getting in touch with the smaller charity foundations where the most interesting work is happening. Pay-to-play agencies make sense for short-term volunteers, and while paying to help out sounds a little backwards, these companies operate streamlined projects that can maximize the impact of short-term efforts.
Chiang Mai is overflowing with potential volunteer projects, but these are a few of the highlights:
Volunteer in an orphanage
Chiang Mai’s government-run orphanage, Viengping Children’s Home, is near the city hall, and they welcome foreign visitors who want play outside with the kids after school. These children come from every background imaginable. Some are true orphans; others have been abandoned or abused. Viengping is enormous and functional, if a little bleak, but the kids who stay here truly enjoy the chance to meet and interact with people from such far-off places.
Across from behemoths like Viengping are a host of small foundations and privately run facilities. These little places are always in need of assistance, though they’re usually reluctant to set up a revolving door for short-term volunteers to whisk in and out of the children’s lives. Many of these projects are funded by Christian foundations, and virtually all of them are more receptive to volunteers willing to make medium-term commitments – something like six weeks or more. Two of particular interest are the Agape Home for children with HIV/AIDS and the Wildflower Home, which is a shelter for single mothers in crisis.
When booking accommodation in Chiang Mai, it’s hard to find room without a view of a temple. This city has dozens of monastery schools, where boys from rural or impoverished families get a free education. The students are all monks for the time being – saffron robes, shaved heads and all – but most return to the laity when they graduate. English is part of the daily regiment, and school administrators (also monks) are generally happy to bring a Westerner in to help with speaking and listening practice.
Worth it for the photo-op alone, teaching English in a monastery gives visitors a level of access they wouldn’t normally enjoy in these temples. Everything from morning meditation to the monastic version of school lunch makes this one of the most memorable travel experiences a person could have. And let’s face it: a cauldron of curry is way more appetizing than a steaming vat of taco meat.
In fairness, you do more than bathe them, but who hasn’t dreamed of leading an elephant to a jungle river and giving it a good scrub? I’ve probably said too much.
Chiang Mai’s elephants have a serious unemployment problem. In the old days, they hauled fresh-cut teak logs to the river for transport, but the advents of tractors and national parkland have taken their toll on elephant livelihood. Elephant conservation centers have sprung up around Thailand to give these beasts something to do, whether that means painting pictures (seriously), kicking footballs or taking more baths than the average adolescent boy.
They make a living by putting on daily shows for visitors, giving rides and by charging volunteers for the privilege to work with them. These places are businesses, but they do good work. A stand-out facility that is 100 percent dot-org is the Elephant Nature Park. It runs a volunteer program with positions for general helpers, veterinarians and veterinary students.
Several institutes and NGOs in Chiang Mai are open to working with interns. Few offer any kind of salary, and most work through local agencies that charge a placement fee. The prospect of traveling halfway across the world and paying a company to hire them puts some travelers off, but it can do amazing things to a resume.
The best internships in Chiang Mai are for pre-med students. Several private hospitals near the city center take on students and pair them with an English-speaking doctor. Students are closely monitored, and they have opportunity to perform rounds, assist the doctor and observe medical procedures.
Qualified interns enjoy higher levels of responsibility, but the level of access across the board is high compared to internship programs in the West. I suppose that’s exciting or a little frightening depending on which end of the operation you’re on, but in either case, nothing happens outside of the strict supervision of the doctor.
The medical internship program run by Friends for Asia is well-organized. Its founder (a Peace Corps veteran) is an excellent resource for volunteers in Chiang Mai.