A few years ago, whilst working in London, I realised that I wasn’t particularly enjoying my job and life there. It wasn’t that I hated the daily grind of getting the Underground to work and sitting in front of a screen all day long, it was more that it simply didn’t excite me very much anymore. I began to ask myself rather too regularly “Is this it?”, accompanied by mildly suffocating visions of being on the Tube doing the same thing in another 10 or 20 years’ time. Although I had some wonderful friends, and a relatively comfortable life, something seemed to be missing.
At the age of 31 I decided that it was time I did something about it. I booked a flight to Australia and left with a laptop and a backpack in a state of nervous excitement. I had no fixed date of return and no job to go to. It was the most liberating step I have ever taken.
As I love the sea and being outdoors, I thought Sydney would be a relatively easy first step on my ‘living abroad’ plan – a spring board to other places – which it proved to be. After a couple of fun years living and working in Sydney, the familiar grind set back in, along with the quantity of superfluous material possessions I had begun to accumulate. I stuck everything on ebay and began contacting small Burma-related non-profit organisations in Thailand with an email asking “Do you need any volunteers – I can help build websites?”.
One organisation quickly replied. They were a Human Rights organisation based in a small town on the Thailand Burma border. I accepted, and the rest is history.
Since then I have really not looked back and I wouldn’t hesitate recommending that you somehow find time to escape your current life situation and head to somewhere like Thailand to do a stint volunteering – even if for only a few months.
OK, I want to volunteer. Where do I start?
If you’re interested in coming to Thailand as a volunteer – you need to decide what kind of work you would like to do, and for how long. Most organisations want at least a three month commitment as it will take you a while to become productive in your new environment. It’s important to understand that although you may be giving your time for free, your presence does at first distract other staff members from their daily work routines.
Most people tend to come and volunteer teaching English, but if you have experience in other fields, for example in IT, Medicine, Human Rights, Advocacy, or Marketing – you may be able to find a more ‘specialist’ positions in some of the ‘grassroots’ organisations out here.
You will need to get a visa to cover your time here. Information on visas is available at www.thaivisa.com. Try and get a multiple entry visa from an embassy in your home country before you leave as it is much easier than in neighbouring countries in SE Asia.
In Thailand, you can find reasonable accommodation for as little as 2-3,000 Thai Baht a month (US$ 64-96) – if you are heading to Bangkok, you will probably need at least double this. If you eat local food, you can easily eat well for 30 THB ($US 1) a meal. The rest is dependent on how much travel you would like to do, and whether you are partial to alcohol and cigarettes. Cigarettes are about 60THB (just under US$ 2) a packet, and a large beer is also usually about 60THB in restaurants. You can travel right across the country on buses and trains for between 500THB and 1000THB (US$ 16-32).
If you like going out, and don’t understand the word ‘budget’, as a guideline allow for $600-$1000 upwards a month all inclusive. If you will be living in more rural areas, are happy to eat locally, don’t drink huge amounts and are happy without air-conditioning, cable TV and all the mod cons, you can easily live on about $US 320/month.
Some suggested organisations to volunteer with
As my experience is with Burma-related organisations, I would suggest you contact one or two of the following:
Burma Volunteer Program – The Burma Volunteer Program place people in local schools, and some of the refugee camps on the Thai/Burma border. Voluntary work is usually Teaching English. Alot of BVP volunteers go on to other positions, sometimes paid, in local grassroots organisations following their initial stint with BVP.
Mae Tao Clinic – The Mae Tao Clinic is for volunteers with a medical background.
Bordermedia – An organisation I am connected with – for skilled IT and website-building volunteers.
Safe Haven Orphanage – For volunteers with experience working with Children. You will need solid references and be able to commit to at least three months.
A good website to find out more about the situation on the Thailand / Burma border is the Thai Burma Border Consortium website. Another website that will explain something about the Human Rights situation in Burma is the Karen Human Rights Group website.
If you have any further questions or comments, please feel free to post them below and we’ll try and get back to you as soon as possible.