Pay to Work: volunteering in Asia

This story was originally published in the Bangkok Airways magazine.

Scrubbing the bear pools at WFFT

Scrubbing the bear pools at WFFT

Voluntourism is a way for people to combine their tropical trip with a working holiday – and across Asia there’s certainly no shortage of worthy projects on which to lend a hand.


If you’ve ever pictured yourself riding an elephant to work or spending a day chasing tiger cubs, then Thailand could be the ideal volunteer destination for you.

The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) runs an animal rescue centre south of Bangkok, near Hua Hin. Volunteers can choose to spend their time looking after neglected elephants, bonding with the magnificent creatures while they spend their days playing with, feeding and bathing them, taking it in turns to clean up after them.

WFFT is also home to hundreds of other rescued and abandoned animals including monkeys, bears, birds, civets and a very cheeky (and noisy) otter. The centre cares for all these injured animals on site, but its main objective is to release them back into the wild where possible. Volunteers spend their days preparing food, feeding and watering the animals, as well as shovelling plenty of poo!



Founder of WFFT Edwin Wiek was also instrumental in opening the Laos Wildlife Rescue Centre in July 2015 to care for injured animals. The centre is about 60 kilometres north of the capital Vientiane. The WFFT started a partnership with the Laos Zoo with the objective of setting up a wildlife rescue unit to assist with injured animals. The centre cares for a wide range of creatures including monkeys, bears, exotic birds, crocodiles and deer. Volunteers can help out with daily tasks, including providing food and water for the animals and assisting in the wildlife hospital and quarantine centre. The centre asks for a minimum commitment of three weeks from volunteers.



The awe-inspiring temples at Angkor Wat may be the major drawcard for the north-western town of Siem Reap, but hundreds of people are now heading there with more than sightseeing in mind. UK based charity Globalteer has several projects based in Siem Reap, including education programs, animal rescue and agriculture. The good news is no qualifications are needed; volunteers are placed depending on their life skills and experience.

Volunteer Ciara Mangan, a psychotherapist from Dublin, said the first time she stood in front of a classroom of 30 kids was a bit daunting. “The younger kids only knew limited English and obviously I didn’t speak Khmer, but somehow I managed to communicate, mostly using a lot of hand gestures.” Mangan also discovered volunteering didn’t stop at teaching. She also treated the kids for head lice. “They were really excited about it; they just wanted to stop scratching,” she said.

For Tim Siv, a pharmacist from Adelaide, volunteering was personal – his family fled from the Khmer Rouge when he was just two years old. He went back to Siem Reap and worked in the medical clinic at the New Hope project as a pharmacist and doctor. “It was one of the most amazing and rewarding things I’ve ever done,” he said, “but it’s also one of the most frustrating because we didn’t have access to all the medicines they needed. I came across so many kids with tuberculosis, HIV and hepatitis, but we could only treat what we could.” Siv said he also had the chance to try his hand at agriculture, helping to set up chicken and fish farms at New Hope. “It feels amazing knowing that I’ve contributed to something which will help the kids into the future. The time you spend volunteering is worth more than any money in the world.”

That’s something accountant Kara Child wanted to teach her nine-year-old son Kye. Child taught English at Globalteer’s Global Community Development project and Kye helped out in the classroom. “After living in London for the past couple of years, I wanted my son to have an insight into the plight of children and their families in countries which are not as lucky as ours. I think it has taught him not to take everything for granted.” But for those worried it’s all work and no play, Ciara Mangan has this reassurance: “When you have 20 volunteers all living in the same guesthouse, there’s a fair bit of fun to be had. Someone is always arriving or leaving, so it’s always a good excuse for a drink or two.”

Me with kids in Siem Reap

Me with kids in Siem Reap


If you’re good with your hands and don’t mind getting dirty, then volunteering with Habitat for Humanity could have the kind of projects you want to work on. The concept was born in the USA in 1942 and the charity was given a huge boost in 1984 when former US President Jimmy Carter jumped on board. Since then, Habitat for Humanity has built and repaired hundreds of thousands of homes for low income families all around the world.

Volunteers can get involved in constructing and repairing homes in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. In their spare time, visitors are also encouraged to interact with the community by visiting local schools and orphanages. Ariane Aliggayu from Habitat for Humanity says the experience of building homes for the poor transforms lives. “Both for the volunteers who work alongside Habitat home partners and for the families who see that there are ‘outsiders’ who care enough to help them break the cycle of poverty”.

So roll up your sleeves today, and as Mahatma Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see in the world”.