It's no secret that just as traveling has made our world smaller, the impact of travelers upon the planet is getting larger. Currently, 'voluntourism' -- combining the excitement of seeing the world with the desire to give something in return -- has become the latest buzzword among compassionate travelers. Some of the best opportunities to get involved and make a difference lie in Thailand, which has become a hot spot with travelers the world over.
Even if volunteers posses only a passion for the issues at hand and little experience with the cause, they can still have a direct hand in contributing to the conservation of wildlife and the sustainability of the environment. Across Thailand, donations of time and money are having large impacts with small but effective organizations that work to balance the aims of the volunteer deftly with the needs of the organization and the local population.
Here are some top picks for volunteering in Thailand -- a stunning destination for work as well as leisure.
The Panya Project, located near Chiang Mai in the lush region of Northern Thailand, is much more than a sustainable living center. Founded by Christian Shearer, an American who spent his youth in Thailand, the Panya Project focuses on natural building, organic agriculture and permaculture -- designing human systems based on natural ecosystems. The result brings greater benefits to the land and to the people who work it.
Panya runs hands-on training courses in which participants help to create the design of tropical food forests, permaculture-style gardens, natural buildings and irrigation systems. Panya has planted a tropical forest on the land, and is cultivating a large production garden that will serve as a model for organic growing methods. Located on a fertile oasis of land bordering a national park, Panya accepts volunteers on a rolling basis and encourages visitors to stay for at least a week. The experience is truly community-focused, with volunteers cooking and building together, and assisting the organization in becoming fully self-sufficient.
The Wildlife Friends of Thailand
Run by Dutch-born Edwin Wiek, one of the foremost experts in animal rescue in Southeast Asia, this center provides sanctuary and rehabilitation for wild animals confiscated from the illegal pet and wildlife trafficking trade. These include five species of macaques, two species of gibbons, tigers, bears, crocodiles, civets, loris and exotic birds. The center strives to provide these animals with enclosures close to nature and, where possible, looks at reintroducing them back into the wild.
Bordering a beautiful lake and located on forested lands donated by the local community, volunteers sign up for a minimum of three weeks and assist in all aspects of caring for the animals. Work involves constructing new enclosures, giving tours to visitors, and assisting with park maintenance, food preparation and feeding. The center has recently built an excellent hospital for treating wildlife that is the largest in the region. Veterinary workers, doctoral students and professionals in specific fields (zoology, biology, animal behavior and veterinary medicine) with experience in wild animal medicine are also welcome to volunteer.
The Elephant Nature Foundation
The foundation is run by Thai-born Lek Chailert, a recipient of the prestigious Genesis Award for her dedicated work in saving the Asian elephant. Her flagship project, The Elephant Nature Park, shelters elephants that have been abused and neglected in the logging, trekking and entertainment industry. The park provides a sanctuary for over 30 rescued elephants on 200 acres of lush land near Chiang Mai in the beautiful Mae Taeng Valley. Volunteers play a vital part in assisting with the running of the center, including feeding, bathing, rescue and park maintenance. Volunteers can come for one-day visits or longer, and their contributions go directly towards protecting and caring for these gentle giants.