Volunteer tourism in Thailand

Volunteer tourism is all the rage and can reap great rewards for all those involved. But can projects really help the community or do more harm than good?

By Helen Warwick
Published 22 Aug 2011, 14:25 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 16:48 BST

Slamming his foot on the gas and gripping the wheel, our driver knows his ascent up the water-logged, red-dust track is a losing battle. Manically gesturing for us to jump out the back, he attempts to steady the vehicle as the front wheels creak in desperation. "Now d'you understand why it's impossible to send volunteers up here during the monsoon season?" says Lucy, our project guide. "There are times when we can't provide supplies and the children go hungry," she adds.

We're heading towards the Thai Stateless Hill-tribes Education Centre — a handful of breeze-block buildings and a dilapidated temple above the Thai village of Sangkhlaburi. Five hours north-west of Bangkok, it's a world away from the neon-lit monster metropolis where go-go bars hug Irish pubs and luxurious hotels tower beside gleaming temples.

Known locally as 'the nun's school', it's run by Buddhist nun Pimjai Maneerat with the help of hoards of volunteers who educate and care for the 60-plus stateless children who live here. Some are Burmese settlers fleeing their native land while others are from the oppressed Karen tribes, relentlessly pursued by Burmese soldiers. Many don't know their own surname. Technically illegal immigrants, the refugees are allowed to remain in the region but are prevented from travelling elsewhere in Thailand. Unregistered, they are prime targets for child traffickers, ready to pluck them out of childhood and into forced labour or sexual servitude.

"There's a lot of hard graft involved in our projects," explains Lucy. "Volunteers may be here of their own accord but they have to put the hours in, even if they've had a heavy night on Thai whiskey."

It's an interesting idea, combining holiday and volunteering, and it's spawned a growing holiday trend — voluntourism. I'm here for a little experiment: to see whether mucking in for a few hours a day actually makes a difference or does more harm than good.

According to a 2008 study by research company Mintel, voluntourism is growing, with holidaymakers increasingly looking to give something back to a destination. Gap year travel firm Real Gap's managing director, Sam Cox, says: "It give volunteers the opportunity to find out more about themselves, other communities, and to learn new skills."

Despite this, there's huge debate as to whether short-term volunteer trips really help the local people. There's also concern the market may be flooded with organisations which fail to vet their projects sufficiently or want to make money through ill-conceived schemes. Sallie Grayson, programme director at volunteering company People and Places, says too many outfits adopt a smoke-and-mirrors approach — telling prospective volunteers what they want to hear while using buzz words such as 'responsible' and 'meaningful'.

She urges potential volunteers to be wary of operators that offer a placement within just a few weeks and request no information about you except your credit card number. "How do you know the project needs you?" says Grayson.

Up there in terms of impact is VSO, which recruits volunteers to live and work in local communities. Its shortest placements last six months, while longer ones are from one to two years. Many of its projects focus on specialist skills such as nursing and teaching, requiring two years' experience in a professional field, often with a degree — a stark contrast to two-week placements or so-called 'soft volunteer projects'.

I've joined a group of 15 Real Gap volunteers, aged 18-23, who've signed up for one of these 'soft' options — a two-week stint of either teaching, childcare or community work, followed by a week partying on Koh Phangan — for the 'Thailand Experience'. I say two weeks, yet I'm concerned to hear the working hours are from just 10.30am to around 3pm, with an hour's lunch, four days a week. It's a far cry from the long arduous days I was expecting and, disconcertingly, a short window of time to make a difference. Real Gap's product and commercial director, Nicky Macfarlane, insists, however, that the feedback it receives from the projects clearly shows the positive impact volunteer travellers have, and that their length of stay is irrelevant. "We're clear we're not development experts; we're gap travel experts," she says. "We don't 'create' any projects but ask our local partners to direct us in terms of what travellers do, how long they stay, and indeed if and when the project goals are reached."

My trip is a whistle-stop, one-week tour of Real Gap's 'Thailand Experience'. Before my arrival up north, I'd indulged in whip-cracking, 90-minute massages and cocktails in Bangkok and several days of slack sightseeing as we travelled from the capital to Sangkhlaburi, taking in temples and waterfalls along the way. I was now ready to 'do my bit'.

Stumbling in flip-flops up the final stretch of hill and dunking my feet in the warming red mud, I'm met with screams and yelps as beaming children run to greet us.

A gap-toothed boy in a dirty T-shirt and blue shorts prods the bottom of my chinos, hesitantly reaches for my hand and leads me to the school in a gentleman-like fashion, even though I'm guessing he's no more than six.

The school is very basic. But beyond the corrugated, crumbling roofs and faded paintwork we're surrounded with the exotic charm of lush rainforest, topped with tufts of hanging cloud and snippets of brilliant blue sky. Gingerly, he guides me to what I later discover is the temple. This open-air concrete building is stripped back to the bare basics, with a modest Buddha statue cloaked in incense, candles and various other paraphernalia. Spotting the nun shrouded in white beside the shrine, I self-consciously greet her with the traditional wai — my palms pressed together in a prayer-like gesture. She then slowly lowers her shaved head in acknowledgement.

"What can I do?" I ask the volunteers who are in their second week. Lucy steps in, "You can either clean toilets or teach the children."

With tiny toddlers hanging from every one of my limbs, I predictably pledge my teaching skills, promising to get my hands dirty the following day.

Even though many of the Burmese children have little understanding of Thai, English is top of the agenda, as it opens up the flourishing tourism industry to them when they later look for employment in Sangkhlaburi. Volunteers plan their lessons (general conversation) the night before. As they've no prior teaching experience, I'm curious as to whether the classes are useful or merely an excuse to play with the children, aged from around 18 months to 13 years. They are adorable, after all, and it's tempting to squander the hours in maternal embraces. We begin with a sports lesson. The children gather around the kneeling volunteers, reciting the words for darts, football and basketball. Teased with magnetic darts and handfuls of sports equipment, chaos quickly breaks out among the boys.

But, in his Liverpool Football Club strip, looking like any other 13-year-old, one of the eldest children reprimands the younger ones. Clearly, there's a huge deficit in discipline, with just one nun and a couple of helpers as permanent fixtures in the children's lives.

Bullying and tantrums are conspicuous by their absence, though, and there's a harmonious air, with the older children nurturing the younger ones. Little wonder, as after the volunteers return to their luxurious hostel and iPods, they're left to their own devices.

As the lesson draws to a close, I feel fiercely protective; hugging or high-fiving each child. I know I'll be worrying about them all night, and my fears are given substance when I arrive back in Sangkhlaburi to a horrific story.

Back in 2009, 54 of the children were kidnapped from the school. Vanishing without a trace, they are believed to have been victims of the child-sex trade or possibly captured for body-parts replacement surgery in Singapore. The perpetrators have never been caught, and since these children are technically illegal, the Thai government does very little to regulate these communities. If I've ever wanted to 'do a Madonna' and adopt an orphan, this is the moment, and I feel utterly sick.

Struggle to survive

The following morning, we're led to what looks like a concrete garage. It is in fact the boys' bedroom that Lucy has decided we're painting today. Joyless and oppressive with greying walls and bleak windows, it's crying out for an overhaul. Skinny foam mattresses line the walls, the only thing to separate each child from the cold, hard floor. I set about it with a roller, transforming the walls with a layer of mint green paint, pausing occasionally to mess around with some of the strays who have escaped the classroom.

Prodding the volunteers to explain why they opted for this trip, the usual clichés are voiced, such as, "I want to make a difference," and, "It feels like I'm actually doing something of worth." And while I believe this is true, to an extent, if you want to make a 'real difference', I suspect you'd either go for longer project, or one which immerses you in the volunteer project for the entire period, rather than letting you party on your evenings off.

I'm desperate to chat with Pimjai, and as soon as the chance arises, I ask the nun whether volunteers can really help in just a few days.

"The centre would struggle to exist without Real Gap," she explains matter-of-factly. I learn that it receives no government funding and has to rely completely on donations. "Volunteers may be here for just a short time but I can't afford to employ local people. My concern is having enough food and water for the children." A real problem during the monsoon, when torrential rains turn tracks into mud baths, making travel to the school near impossible. Pimjai does admit, though, that the centre needs a long-term live-in teacher.

A bell rings, signalling lunchtime for the children and the end of our chat. Metal trays are laden with rice and murky green vegetables, before being carefully placed on the floor by the children. Facing one another cross-legged in two rows, they wait patiently until all have settled, and touchingly they recite a chorus of thanks before clearing their plates. I feel thoroughly guilty at the thought of my leftover banana pancakes from breakfast — the longer I spend at the centre, the more I appreciate life back home.

Some of the older children finish the leftovers of our chicken fried rice from the hostel, while others, like three-year-old Noppalong, are desperate for attention. Dashing over to me with her arms wide open, her big brown eyes will me to scoop her up, and she tries to clamber onto my lap. Worryingly, I'm aware of the speed at which I'm attaching myself to her. Before my arrival in Thailand, People and Places' Grayson warned me to refrain from hugging the children. "Make no mistake," she'd said, "making intimate connections with previously neglected or abused children will do more harm than good. With short-term projects, many of them will feel another abandonment after you leave."

In no time at all, my time at the orphanage comes to an end and I'm deeply disappointed not to be here longer. On balance, I probably got more out of the experience than the children on this project.

Hien Tran, responsible tourism manager at STA Travel (which sets up similar trips), says both parties reap the benefits, no matter how short the project, although he concedes "I'm certain the longer a traveller spends at a project, the greater the impact."

The question will remain — do these short trips cause harm or do good? But in my eyes, a short amount of time is better than no time at all. I'd trade any number of Thai massages, beach parties and massaman curries for a few more days here.
Essential:  The details

More info

Frommer's Thailand Guide. RRP: £16.99.

How to do it

Real Gap's Thai Experience explores Kanchanaburi and Sangklaburi, with an opportunity to visit and lend a hand at local volunteer projects. The four-week experience includes jungle trekking, the River Kwai, floating markets and indigenous Thai communities. Prices start from £999, land only, for four weeks including accommodation, all breakfasts, airport transfers and a tour of Bangkok and Kanchanaburi. www.realgap.co.uk

Thai Stateless Hill-tribes Education Centre, Nun Thaipimsikan, 302/12 Moo 3, Tdambon Nongloo, Amphur Sangklaburi, Kanchanaburi 71240, Thailand. T: 00 66 034 595 468.


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