Reviews of Volunteer Programs in Asia

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.

Volunteering with elephants in Thailand
Volunteering with elephants in Thailand
  • Biggest country: Russia is the largest country on the continent.
  • Smallest country: Maldives, spanning just 116 square miles (300 sq km) is the smallest Asian country.
  • Languages spoken: The major families of languages are Sino-Tibetan in East Asia and Indo-European in South Asia. Most of the countries use their native language as their official language, though a handful of countries also have European languages including English and French as additional official languages.
  • Size: Asia covers an area of over 17.2 million square miles (44.6 million square km), amounting to 30% of the world's land area.
  • Population: With a population of over 4 billion people, Asia is the world's most populous continent.
  • Countries: 49
  • Most popular countries to volunteer: Nepal, India, China, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam

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.

Volunteering and adventure in Nepal
Volunteering and adventure await in Nepal

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:

East Asia: Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and China. They all have Chinese-derived language characteristics, share a moral philosophy based on Confucianism and share the common dominant religions of Taoism and Buddhism.

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.

West Asia consists of Georgia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Palestinian territories, Oman, Kuwait, Yemen, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Bahrain, Israel and United Arab Emirates. It is predominantly Muslim and is culturally Arab, Persian, Hebrew and Turkish. Though it has a number of cities offering typical urban lifestyles such as Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv and Muscat, much of the area is desert and thus home to many nomadic groups. As in the largely Islamic areas of Southeast Asia, volunteers should be mindful of the strict customs around attire and the consumption of alcohol.

South Asia includes Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, British Indian Ocean Territory and Afghanistan (and by some definitions Burma and Tibet). It is very densely populated, hosting well over one fifth of the world's population. It has a rich mix of cultures, with two dominant religions: Hinduism (about 2/3 of the population) and Islam (about 1/3 of the population).

Central Asia, comprised of Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, typically hosts fewer volunteers. Historically its inhabitants have been nomadic and influenced by a variety of cultures including the South Asian, Turkish, Mongolian, Persian, Chinese, Arabian, Russian and Sarmatian. North Asia (also known as Siberia) hosts even fewer volunteers and is home to Indigenous Siberians and Ethnic Russians (currently the majority of the population).

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.

Contributed by Anis Salvesen

Photo Credit: Rice Terrace in Bali

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