Volunteering in SE Asia can be a wonderful, life-changing experience. Getting your foot on the first rung of the ladder in the conservation and humanitarian sectors is a chicken and egg kind of situation – you want a job to gain experience but the employers want to employ someone with experience which you can’t have until you get a job!
Through searching the web and talking to career advisers, you will probably come to the conclusion that to take that first step you often must volunteer. Volunteer travel is now big business and as the pool for governmental and corporate funding is continually shrinking, which is worsened by the increasing number of fund seekers.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are turning to volunteering as a way to fund their conservation or outreach activities. Paying to volunteer in itself sounds wrong, but when you think of yourself as a voluntourist and, if you volunteer, 100% of your money is paid directly to the project then this blow is lessened.
Editor’s Note: While we don’t necessarily advocate for paying for volunteering, (since there are ways to volunteer without paying, like through WWOOF) the author makes a good point that if you are going to pay you should only pay the volunteer organization directly and not a middleman.
Volunteering direct is booking and paying the organization directly rather than pay through an agent.
Many excellent projects around the world are crying out for paying volunteers and would be more than happy for you to come along and help out. There are many benefits for joining these smaller organizations. The most important will be that you will increase your contacts and network within the relevant NGO sector.
It’s “who you know”
The more you delve into the world of conservation and community development, the more you may realize that it is not what you know but who you know. Many positions are filled even before the job is publicized. Many of the top leaders in conservation actually started as a volunteer. The contacts you can make by volunteering directly can lead you to places you never thought possible. I personally was offered a PhD position in Australia in ecotourism as a result of people I worked with when I volunteered in Borneo.
After volunteering on my own I set out to help more people to volunteer directly and started Ecoteer. We now help around 2,000 members to find volunteering positions directly. We have scores of projects on our site and have introduced a member assessed rating system to help our members when they are choosing which projects to apply to. Through the past years of running Ecoteer and extensive travels and volunteering in SE Asia, I have found many small projects in need of volunteer help. Below I have listed my top 5 volunteer projects in Southeast Asia which could help you get on the first rung of the ladder.
Kalaweit means Gibbon in Indonesian. This project shows what can be achieved by a traveller with a mission — it is a sheer inspiration to any budding conservationist. In 1999, Chanee, an 18 year old Frenchman, set off on an adventure to save the Gibbons of Borneo. He found a small wildlife centre in the centre of Kalimantan, Borneo, where he first volunteered and started to buy gibbons from villagers who kept them as pets. At the wildlife centre, Chanee helped the Gibbons back to full strength and then set them through the long and tedious process of rehabilitation. Chanee also started a radio station with hourly messages about gibbon conservation and requests for listeners to report caged Gibbons. The Kalaweit organisation now rehabilitates 300 Gibbons and Siamangs, and employs 50 people (veterinarians and keepers).
Penyu means sea turtle. Help Our Penyu is a sea turtle conservation project in the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia. The project was initiated in 2009 by Azimi Ahmad, a Malaysian student. It is a registered charity in Malaysia. The Perhentian Islands are a heaven for travellers following the SE Asia backpacking trail; however, the high tourist population on the islands are causing big problems for the sea turtles. The project seeks to unify sea turtle conservation by engaging the resorts, villagers and school children in sea turtle conservation.
Help Our Penyu has already stopped egg poaching on one major nesting beach in the Perhentian Islands. In 2011 it expanded to protect a second nesting beach. Each week, Help Our Penyu run an after school club for the school children and host an information booth on weekends to engage tourists in marine conservation. Help Our Penyu initiated the Walk for Turtles campaign which was the first large-scale turtle track survey in Terengganu. The turtle track surveys are essential to accurately assess the nesting turtle populations of Terengganu.
If you are considering volunteering, there are several things to know about volunteering abroad.
3) Marine Conservation Cambodia
Founded in early 2008 by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia has committed itself to the comprehensive protection of Cambodia’s marine environment. They assist local communities in the sustainable use of their marine resources and provide alternative forms of income generation through ‘true’ eco-tourism and scuba diving. The project plays a big part in marine research in Cambodia and has an online photographic directory of marine species in Cambodia. MCC has had a positive ID on a seahorse species never found before in Cambodia – Hippocampus mohnikei. MCC has empowered the community at Koh Rung Samleom, who are now self-protecting a globally significant seahorse breeding ground.
4) Borneo Child Aid Society
In Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, it is estimated that over 50,000 children are not given any schooling. (Non-Malaysian children are not entitled to state schooling.) The Borneo Child Aid Society is helping to address this issue and are providing basic education for about 10,000 children. The project started in the mid-1990’s and is led by Torben Venning, a Danish humanitarian activist. The society works very closely with the Palm Oil Plantations and is helping to provide education for their foreign workers’ children who are not entitled to state education. The Borneo Child Aid society learning centres provides the children with basic math, science, Bahasa Malaysia and English lessons. Afternoon activities for the children are conducted with environmental awareness sessions at least once a week. The Borneo Child Aid Society is expanding its learning centre network to offer floating schools to the sea gypsies of the Sulu Sea (Bajau Laut) who live on boats off the coast of Semporna and the southern Philippines.
5) Ban Roean Ram Workcamps
Ban Roean Ram was founded in 2008 by Jatuporn Jitprapan and Uthai Tongkamkeaw, two passionate and caring Thai women. They now have a team of five Thai people and a few past volunteers are now helping them develop their network internationally. The purpose of the NGO is to develop sustainable development in villages in Southern Thailand. The centres provide locals with education about community development, traditional Thai culture and folk wisdom, (which is being lost) the local environment and nature. In cooperation with temples, schools, local government and with the community, Ban Roean Ram is aiming to establish groups around Southern Thailand with six objectives:
1. collect folk wisdom from sages
2. stimulate cultural as well as economic life in the village
3. improve opportunities for children and youths teaching them about Thai traditions
4. offer activities such as music, sports and establish a shop with local products
5. found local museums
6. found libraries
Volunteering in SE Asia is a valuable opportunity
Our world is full of amazing, inspiring and life-changing places to volunteer. Learn about volunteering in Africa and in Uganda, and our experience volunteering on an organic farm. There’s much to learn about volunteering.
About the writer, Daniel Quilter: After studying environmental science and ecotourism Daniel went on extensive travels and volunteering in Asia, Daniel fell in love with Malaysia. He wants to help more people to volunteer in Asia helping both the volunteer and the project through his sites.