Not all voluntourism opportunities are created the same. In fact, those very programs travelers think they are doing good end up doing bad. Not for the travelers themselves, but to local cultures, people, animals and the environment.
An abundance of volunteer vacation opportunities present themselves, particularly in SE Asia where volunteering is big business – but not all actually do the good which they speak of.
There are a handful of volunteer programs in Thailand, which offer responsible and sustainable tourism options. One foundation known the world over to offer volunteer packages around the country is Save Elephant Foundation. Every program SEF operates not only hires locals, but also works with local communities, provides care to people and animals, and takes the money spent to volunteer and puts it directly back into its many projects geared to saving not only Asian elephants, but other animals and people, too.
Elephant Nature Park Weekly Volunteer
The heart of SEF’s volunteer program is located 60 km north of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Elephant Nature Park, which is a world renowned sanctuary providing a home to elephants rescued from the tourism industry (elephant rides and trekking, circuses, etc.), street begging, illegal logging and more. Home to around 40 elephants, SEF’s flagship, ENP offers week- and two-week-long volunteer programs. At a volunteer at ENP, people help with the overall operations of the park. Chores range from the daily scooping of ele poo and preparing the animals’ food for snack time to bathing them, planting grass, cutting corn, teaching English in the local village and more. And, of course, there are elephants to watch, too! Volunteers have a morning and afternoon chore and an optional nighttime activity daily. The cost to volunteer (12,000 baht a week) covers transportation to and from the park, six nights lodging and three vegetarian buffets a day, special events and more.
Dog Rescue Project Weekly Volunteer
Also located at ENP is the Dog Rescue Project, which is home to nearly 500 dogs and hundreds of cats. This program is geared to the small animal lover and is a lot of hard work. Each day, volunteers work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a lunch break and tasks including cleaning the dog runs, de-ticking, bathing, walking and playing with the hundreds of pups rescued from the devastating floods in Bangkok in 2011, as well as the illegal dog meat trade, injured street dogs and more. The cost to volunteer for seven days/six nights for ENP Dogs is 5,000 baht a week.
Elephant Nature Park Dogs Weekly Vet Volunteer
If you’ve got a background in veterinary medicine and have some time to help out, Elephant Nature Park Dogs always needs volunteer vets to help care for the hundreds of small animals on-site. Unlike other programs SEF offers, acceptance is a case-by-case basis. For additional information and to submit an application, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unlike the sanctuary of ENP in the north, Surin Project, located in the Surin Province in northeast Thailand, gives volunteers an entirely different experience. Surin Project is housed within the Surin Elephant Study Center, which is where elephants are forced to be chained all hours of the day, or offer rides or performs in circus shows. The elephant caretakers here, also known as mahouts, receive a monthly salary and free housing for their families if they keep their elephants within the center. However, Surin Project aims to show these mahouts the value in promoting a more ethical elephant tourism approach. Surin Project works within the government run facility and provides a very hands-on volunteer program, both within the local community, with the mahouts and with the elephants they care for. Here, volunteers can see first-hand the impact their work has on the elephants and the mahouts. Money to volunteer here goes to give not only the mahouts, but elephants, too, a better life. SEF matches the government salary the mahouts earn, giving them an opportunity to fully support their families. In return, the mahouts agree to leave their bullhook behind, keep the elephants off chain for at least three hours a day, participate in cultural exchanges with the volunteers and work with the volunteers to help care for the elephants. So long as their elephants are with SEF’s Surin Project, they are not permitted to perform in shows or give rides at the center.
Volunteer activities include much of the same as ENP, but tend to be more labor-intensive, as well as emotionally challenging at times. Volunteers live and work within the community, as well as with the mahouts and their elephants each day. The cost for one week at Surin is 13,000 baht and includes homestays and three meals a day.
Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia
OK, so this isn’t Thailand, but it is close! After spending time at Surin, hop across the border to Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia, just outside of Siem Reap. Spread over 25,000 acres, this new rescue project is home to two elephants from the trekking industry. This volunteer program is focused more on agriculture at the moment, but also involves walks in the jungle with the elephants, tree planting and permaculture gardening.