Top 10 Things To Do While Volunteering in Thailand
Volunteering is a rewarding and unique way to experience the Kingdom of Thailand. Parts of Thailand are very much geared towards tourists, meaning it's easy to travel the Kingdom for months and feel like you've just done a contiki tour of pubs in the UK, without getting to know a single Thai person. It's a brilliant way to grow a beer belly, but not so handy as a cultural exchange or for growing as a person through travel. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to see what everyday life is like from a local perspective. It's a humbling experience to see first-hand not only the hardships many face, but also how their local communities help and support each other. To then be able to contribute through a Love Volunteers program you will get a healthy dose of warm fuzzy feeling in your stomach. It's also pretty cool to say "remember that time I volunteered teaching Buddhist Monks English/lived in a Thai village looking after elephants/renovated a school on an exotic island".
That said, don't think that volunteering means it's all work and no fun. You'll still get plenty of you time to check out why so many millions travel to this spectacularly diverse country every year. Thailand isn't that big and transportation is cheap, so you can realistically plan to see anything that takes your fancy from the islands in the far south to the northern border.
Here are my top 10 things to check out:
1) Trekking in Chiang Mai
The lush green landscape of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand is the Kingdom's most mountainous region. Love Volunteers offer several programs in Thailand for the lovers of outdoors and nature. So if you tick these boxes, then congratulations you've died and gone to heaven. It's all about doing a "rainforest/jungle tour" in Chiang Mai. Essentially you make your way through the rainforest/jungle, usually for two days with a local guide, but you can choose longer or shorter trips. During your trek you will stay with a local hill tribe who cook mouth-watering traditional food for you and spend the night sitting around a fire getting to know the locals and the others in your group. The trekking packages available through tour companies are quite diverse, with some even letting you pick and choose to create your own trek. Your options include, swimming under beautiful waterfalls, visiting a long necks tribal village, white water rafting, mountain biking, riding an elephant through the jungle, spotting gibbon apes, kayaking, cave rappelling, rock climbing and zip-lining from treetops.
2) Floating market
The floating market is an intoxicating experience. The delicious food, the array of bright colours, the culture, the fact it's a FLOATING MARKET! The best and most famous is the Damnoen Saduak market. If you don't fancy fumbling your way through the pronunciation, the easiest way to get there is book with a local tour company by simply saying "the floating market just outside Bangkok". They'll organise for a minibus to pick you up early the next day and take you to the market 100km away where a long boat with a guide will be waiting for you. Take a camera.
Songkran water festival is probably referred to in the English speaking world more often as "the world's biggest water fight". Held annually, it's the traditional celebration of the Thai New Year's Day which goes from 13th - 15th April. The idea is that they're washing away the old and starting the new year fresh. What this looks like is thousands of people running around the streets like lunatics armed with water bombs, buckets of water and water pistols and go nuts soaking each other. It's celebrated throughout all of Thailand but the biggest celebrations are in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya.
Remember to take the usual precautions before getting soaking wet. Only bring waterproof technology and keep your cash in a waterproof bag.
Loi Krathong/Yi Peng Festivals
The second festival is technically two separate ones, but they're held at the same time and celebrated the same way...so...let's just write them down as one. Again this festival is celebrated all over Thailand, however Chiang Mai appears to put on the best show with the biggest turnout. You may have seen postcards of Thailand with a spectacular sea of floating lanterns lighting up the night sky. This is what Loi Krathong/Yi Peng Festival looks like. The lanterns are an offering to the river spirits. The event is held for three days in November every year, however as it's based on the Thai lunar calendar the specific dates in November change every year.
The south of Thailand offers some of the best scuba diving/snorkelling at some of the lowest prices in the world. Some locations, you're surrounded by so many breathtaking fish that you'll find yourself accidentally punching them in the face as there's simply no where to put your hands. The two oceans surrounding Thailand are the Andaman Sea on the south east coast, which some argue is the best side. However the other being the Gulf of Thailand, also has some amazing sites such as Koh Tao which gives you the chance to dive alongside manta rays and whale sharks. So if you can only make it to one side, either way you're not going to miss out on seeing something amazing! Some of the better known locations are Koh Samui (where some Love Volunteers programs are located), Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao and Phuket Islands.
Shop around and you'll be amazed at how cheap you can get a PADI diving licence.
5) See Bangkok by boat
There are a number of waterways that run through Bangkok, which you can take a long boat through, opening up a whole new part of the city to you. When you take the long boats from the central pier called Sathorn Pier or Tha Chang Pier, head north along the Chao Phraya canal. You'll not only see iconic tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and Wat Pho but it's also brilliant for people watching. One minute you see the houses of the super wealthy and the next a large family will be bathing and washing their clothes in the water. Eventually you'll get out of Bangkok and get to see the rural people who are still very traditional in the way they design their houses, dress and live. Great way to spend an afternoon and watch the sunset.
6) Island tours
There are no shortage of breathtaking islands readily accessible from your Love Volunteer program locations in the south of Thailand. You can tie these visits in with scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking or for those with the time and patience, paddle boarding. Otherwise all the tour operators offer long boat rides to the islands, which gives you the option of seeing a few in a day. They're fun to explore or to just unwind on pristine white sand in the year round sun. Some of the best are Phang Nga Bay, James Bond Island, Koh Pannyi and Sunset Beach.
7) Cooking classes
Whilst volunteering in Thailand a lot of the programs will give you the opportunity to eat authentic Thai food with the locals. An experience that you'll find impossible not to love. Luckily the option to learn how to cook like them is available throughout Thailand, of note in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Again, most tour companies will be able to organise this experience for you.
Normally you'll be taken to a market where your Thai cooking instructor will teach you about the different ingredients. Then when you return to the kitchen, most organisations tend to have their own garden as well. You'll again be run through ingredients, get to taste samples and learn how to pick the ripe crops for yourself. Picking the food yourself is also a great way to control how many chilli's go into your food. Whilst there's a lot to cooking Thai food, all skill levels will be able to get there in the end. When you're all done with the cooking, you sit around and feast on the delicious fruits of your labour. Once you taste the culinary magic you've created yourself, you'll swear to only ever cook Thai food from scratch from then on.
8) Party island
Depending on your personality, and likely age, whilst you're volunteering in Thailand, there's a chance you'll get an itch to really let your hair down and want to party. If this happens, then the island of Koh Phanghan is probably where you'll want to do it. It's host to the notorious Full Moon Party, Half Moon Party, Black Moon Culture and the endless other parties that are on every night in between, every month. In recent years they have been coping a lot of flack for their rampant hedonism and negative impact on the environment. So it's essential you do a bit of research to make sure this is your kind of thing before you get stuck on the island. But a lot of fun can be had with 30,000 people in good spirits, dancing at a free beach party, covered in fluorescent paint and partaking in activities such as fire skip rope. The trouble with drugs and violence reported in the media in my experience, are minimal and only appear to effect people who seek it.
If you care about our environment a very nice thing you can do the morning after the party, is round up your new friends you'll have undoubtedly made the night before and do a clean up on the beach. You'll be disgusted by the state of the beach the day after. It really is disappointing more effort isn't made to keep the once beautiful beach cleaner.
9) Get lost on a scooter
Whilst volunteering in Thailand you'll likely want to get to know the town you're volunteering in. Hiring a scooter for the day is a cheap and a great way to explore a city and its surroundings. Grab a map of the city and you can work your way through seeing everything they have to offer. If, like I often do, you get lost trying to find the store at the end of the day. A good trick is to pay a tuk tuk driver, again very cheap, to drive to the shop. You can follow them on your scooter, then if you need, take the tuk tuk home when you're done.
Make sure to carefully go over the bike to tick off any dings or scratches you find before you leave the store. This goes for anything you hire whilst travelling really. All too often people don't do this and receive a whopping big repairs bill when they return it, as they're accused of causing a heap of aesthetic damage that was already on the bike before the touched it.
10) Explore a national park
Again, those who choose the volunteer programs involving the outdoors and nature will love the national parks in Thailand. Two of the best are Khao Yai National Park North of Bangkok and Khao Sok National Park, in the south of Thailand.
Khao Yai is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a monsoon forest. You can climb pretty high at Khao Rom if that's your bag. There's also plenty of native animals to point your face/fingers/camera at with a shrill of delight. And There's also plenty of waterfalls, including the seven tier Erawan Waterfall which you can also swim in.
Khao Sok is the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world. There are enough animals to see to make the Jeep safari worthwhile. You can also chill out tubing or kayak in the Cheow Larn Lake. The lake has picturesque floating bungalows that are well worth staying in if you’re there for the night.