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Home to over half of the world's human population and comprising nearly one third of its land area, Asia is one of the world's most diverse continents. From the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia to the arid heights of the Tibetan Plateau, Asia offers an incredible array of unique destinations for volunteers to discover. Whether you dream of volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand or in a volunteer teaching program in Beijing, you're sure to find lots of exciting volunteer opportunities in Asia.
Though there are many prosperous regions in Asia, there are still many incredibly impoverished areas on the continent. In East Asia, for example, 12.5% of the population lives on $1.25 per day and in South Asia 31% of the population lives on $1.25 per day, as reported by the Word Bank. Especially in the poorer areas of Asia, much of the volunteer work is coordinated foreign NGOs. But there is an increasing number of local NGOs, providing volunteers with more opportunities than ever to participate in projects in Asia.
Environmental Conservation: Asia has some of the most beautiful and biodiverse landscapes on earth. Unfortunately, aggressive development, climate change and poaching have led to the destruction of habitats and near extinction of many incredible species. Fortunately there are a number of organizations dedicated to protecting the environment and wildlife in Asia which offer volunteers the opportunity to get firsthand experience of conservation through their excellent programs. The most popular destinations for travelers who want to participate in volunteer programs with the environment and wildlife are Malaysia, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
Education: In Asia, education is both widely provided by governments and traditionally highly valued in most Asian cultures. However, for reasons related largely to geography, poverty and gender, there are many children who fall between the cracks of their countries' educational systems. The opportunities for volunteer teachers in Asia are plentiful and can vary from teaching in an elementary school located in a remote village in Nepal to teaching English to university students in Seoul.
Healthcare: In many of Asia's poor communities, especially in the countryside where rural clinics are the sole source of free medical care, the local people are dependent on medical clinics that benefit significantly from volunteers. Healthcare volunteers in Asia can find opportunities ranging from HIV/AIDS education and nutrition education to medical diagnosis and the administration of vaccines.
Orphanages and Street Children: Volunteering in orphanages and with street children is another option for travelers interested in volunteering in Asia, particularly those interested in volunteering with young people. While orphans and street children can be found in all parts of Asia, certain countries have a disproportionate number of parentless and homeless young people. This is due to a number of factors including natural disasters (in the case of Sri Lanka and the 2004 tsunami), poverty (in the case of Mongolia where almost 40% of the population lives below the poverty line), and lifestyles (in the case of Tibet, where nomadic lifestyles have been known to force families to leave children behind). Volunteers can expect a range of activities, from helping with administrative tasks to cooking, sanitation, and playing games with the children and engaging them in activities such as crafts or music. It is worth noting that there has been controversy over orphanage volunteer work, particularly in countries such as Cambodia.
Community Development: Volunteers looking for community development opportunities will find a variety of them across Asia. These range from helping underdeveloped communities in countries such as Malaysia gain access to running water to assisting in construction projects in and volunteering in literacy programs in countries such as India, where only 3/4 of men and just over half of women are literate. Even in countries which are relatively well off as a whole, such as Taiwan, there do exist large gaps between the rich and the poor, so community development volunteers are definitely needed to lend a hand in disadvantaged communities.
Other Popular Fields for Volunteering: disaster relief, women's rights, economic justice, human rights (including refugees and migrants workers' rights), teaching English, youth advocacy and heritage conservation.
The lifestyles and cultures of various countries in Asia can vary significantly. Perhaps the best way to look at it is by region:
The countries of Southeast Asia (Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Brunei and the Philippines) encompass a wide range of cultures and outside influences. Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos have been heavily influenced by Buddhism (and in the case of Vietnam by Chinese culture). Whereas Islam is now the dominant religion in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Volunteers to these countries should note that in cultures dominated by Islam, the consumption of alcohol is frowned upon and conservative attire is culturally required.
Yet another influence on culture in countries in Southeast Asia has been Western countries via colonialism. One example is the Philippines, which was heavily influenced by Spain and America due to nearly 400 years of colonial rule. And yet, despite the differences in influence by religion and history, the countries of Southeast Asia do share some common features. These include rice paddies, stilt houses, dance drama and other distinctive forms of the arts, as well as literature.
Asia is home to some of the world's poorest regions as well as some of the most expensive cities. Generally the more rural the area in which you are volunteering, the lower the cost of living you can expect. And in urban settings, as in much of the world, volunteers can keep their cost of living low by adhering to a strict budget or opt to spend more to maintain a more luxurious lifestyle. The most expensive cities to live and volunteer in Asia, according to the international cost of living index by the xpatulator, include Tokyo, Japan; Hong Kong; Yokohama and a half dozen other Japanese cities; and Singapore. The least expensive cities include Thimphu, Bhutan; Calcutta and a number of India cities; Kathmandu, Nepal; Islamabad and a number of cities in Pakistan.
An estimated 2,200 languages are spoken in Asia (source). Like European countries, all Asian countries use their native languages as their official language. However, a handful have two official languages, one has three, and Singapore has four (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil). The most commonly spoken foreign languages are English (throughout Asia), French (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Lebanon) and Russian (in Central Asia). Volunteers in Asia can often use English to communicate with the staff at the organizations where they volunteer, but learning a few words of the local language not only goes a long way to creating camaraderie, it also makes the experience that much more rewarding.
With such a rich variety of cultures, landscapes and volunteer opportunities, Asia has something for everyone. Whether you're volunteering for a week or two or several months, you'll have a unique opportunity to experience Asia beyond the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal. You'll leave one of the world's most fascinating places,long mysterious to the Western world, with a real connection to the people and the region where you volunteer.
Do you think there is something missing in our guide to volunteering in Asia? Contact us and let us know! We want to make sure our information is relevant and up to date.