volunteering in thailand
Volunteer tourism is fast becoming a niche market among both seasoned and rookie travellers, and in May, I was fortunate enough to volunteer at the Soi Dog Foundation in Phuket for two weeks.
Soi Dog was founded in 2003 and since it’s inception has sterilized over 84,000 dogs (meaning a decline in the street dog population) and eradicated rabies from the island entirely. They run a shelter and rehoming centre that holds over 400 dogs that have been abused, abandoned or neglected. They've also become an integral part in combating the dog meat trade of South East Asia, assisting in the care and rehoming of thousands of dogs that have been intercepted on their way across the border to countries like Vietnam.
I stayed at an area outside the main tourist hub. Each morning we were picked up by the foundation, driven to the grounds where we worked with our run-mates in individual runs of up to 22 dogs. Our main job was to simply walk each dog and give them their own time with a human, away from the pack. If we were able to finish walking all of our dogs (or those that would let us), we would then have a chance to spend time in the Old Dogs run, the Skin problems run, with the cats or to re-walk some of the more energetic dogs within our run. Then at 5pm, we would be driven back to our guest house. We also had weekends off, which gave us free time to enjoy the area as we pleased.
Volunteering while on holiday could be considered the definition of 'different' since the term 'holiday' suggests taking a break...some even see it as a reward to oneself for their hard work throughout the year! Volunteering often requires heaps of hard work—sometimes described as backbreaking—yet it brings so much to the traveller.
- Working in a real-life, smaller community helps integrate travellers deeper into a culture. For instance, while in Phuket, instead of getting to know only fellow ex-pats in and around my guest house, I was able to meet local Thai people who also shared a passion for animal welfare. These people were able to introduce me to a more authentic experience in a region known for its hyped-up tourism industry.
- There is also something to be said for the feel-good factor. No amount of beach-lounging could outshine the impact that 20 wagging tails had on me each morning. Volunteering allows a traveller to visit another country while simultaneously fulfilling a desire to help a cause they are passionate about. Plus, some of these causes may not be as easy to help in one’s home country (for instance, volunteering with the SPCA pretty much amounts to standing outside a supermarket dressed like a bunny to collect donations).
- Finally, I found that working with people (both local and foreign) towards a common goal helped me develop some of the strongest and most long-lasting relationships since college! Thanks to my experience at Soi Dog, I now have friends all over the planet and from all walks of life (including one in my home town who ended up adopting a dog I spent time with while in Thailand.) These sorts of relationships are made stronger by the cause that brings the volunteers together, making it a very unique and special experience.
Volunteer tourism is actually something that could suit most people, as long as they are passionate about the cause they intend to work with. The cost of volunteer tourism can vary from very little (the cost of accommodation, transport and meals) to very high (there are programs that charge people great sums to work with them). Some programs are in more remote areas, which could be challenging for the more “high-maintenance traveller”, while others are near populated areas full of amenities.
There are a number of ways to book a holiday based around volunteering. Soi dog was a very simple process: email them to say you are coming, where you are staying and they will pick you up (I booked my lodging directly and organized my own transport). There are also websites like www.i-to-i.com that offer packages all over the world, plus Intrepid and G-Adventures also offer different options for volunteer trips.
The beauty of Soi Dog was the variety: I was able to choose to stay in a basic guest house or the 5-star Indigo Pearl (or a mix of both). And with weekends free, I was able to explore further afield (Phi Phi Island). At the end of my volunteering, it was simple to tack on a trip to Elephant Hills. This could very easily be replicated for another traveller - or even a group!
Overall, I had one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was able to see heaps of a beautiful country, make amazing life-long friends, and I even got quite a bit of time to relax on the beach with a cocktail (which wasn’t boring at all since I had worked hard all week!) It’s really very easy to have a balance of both a volunteering holiday and a traditional holiday.
As a gauge all up, for flights, 2 weeks in a guest house, transport, insurance and meals/drinks, the total I spent was approximately $2500 for 16 days. If you've been thinking about - give it go... I'd be very surprised if you regret your choice.