Much of today’s volunteer opportunities lie in Asia, and not unsurprisingly, due to the sheer size of it. When narrowing down a country for volunteer work, the gigantic continent can seem like it’s all the same. In actuality, Asia is incredibly diverse in climate, customs, and civilization that set the stage for the rest of the world to follow.
Asia has trapped me for nearly two years now without pause; first as an English teacher in South Korea, then as a volunteer in Nepal, and finally as a traveler/freelancer in India. From these experiences, and travel in between, I can assure you each Asian country is strikingly different from one another.
To make your selection process easier, Go Overseas has profiled the top ten Asian countries for volunteering, according to our user’s feedback. Here’s what we’ve got, in descending order.
If you’re type A and are looking for a country with a straightforward program (read: not India) you will find it in Japan. It has diligent people, immaculate streets, and efficiency like the Germany of the east. I was struck by Japan’s natural beauty and strategic mix of countryside and city when I traveled there.
Volunteering in Japan is an ideal way to afford an otherwise high cost of living, as many programs will provide you with accommodations. It's also a great way to get a read on Japanese society, which is known to be more reserved and closed-off to outsiders.
English is in high demand in Japan, and other volunteer programs could mean environmental work, as the Japanese are serious about city planning and ecological preservation.
Popular Volunteer Opportunities in Japan:
#2. South Korea
I’m biased, but South Korea has nearly all Japan has to offer in terms of food, nature, landscape, and cultural norms, while being cheaper. Much cheaper.
If you’re a history buff -- or even if you’re not – South Korea offers the opportunity to teach English… to North Korean defectors. Of course, there are also opportunities to teach English to South Koreans, as well, and you'll quickly get a feel for the importance of education if you do so. Korean students spend as many as 12 hours a day in school (though you won't be teaching for that long), so expect an ambitious work schedule.
For all their hard work, South Koreans know how to unwind, and drink more shots of liquor a week than any other country in the world! So despite long hours, you are sure to find yourself indulging in their nightlife culture.
Don’t want to volunteer as a teacher? That’s fine, there are plenty of other volunteer opportunities for you. Just make sure you visit the DMZ before you leave and (maybe) before it doesn’t exist at all!
Popular Volunteer Opportunities in South Korea:
Switching gears, India is everything the East Asian countries are not. Disorderly, unruly, in-your-face expressive. Due to its extreme diversity of 29 different states and 26 official different languages spoken, India may appeal to the restless volunteer.
Here, volunteers can experience multi-faceted programs of working with elephants in Rajasthan one week and teaching street children in Mumbai’s slums the next. Indian Railways makes it so easy and affordable to travel throughout the massive sub-continent in a reasonable amount of time. Just make sure you opt for an AC sleeper car if you're there in any other season but winter.
From waste management to natural disasters to childcare, India is a country with many different needs. As such, previous volunteers have rated the impact of their work particularly high here. For those up for a real challenge of important work with a bare-boned style of living (think bucket shower), look to India.
Popular Volunteer Opportunities in India:
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For such a tiny country, Vietnam has a lot to offer by way of cultural stimulation. Volunteers can come to eat pho and visit Ha Long Bay and the many centuries-old shrines the Southeast Asian country has to offer while completing their service work.
As this southeast Asian country is known to be a popular destination for backpackers and English teachers alike, you’ll never be so out of touch from other expats. While this may not seem like much, you'll realize how invaluable it can be over holidays and important events abroad to have a few people around you can relate to.
Vietnam can also be seen as a great transitional country, for volunteers interested in getting a feel for the culture before they commit to a longer stay and a paid position. With an abundance of English teaching jobs with flexible scheduling and high pay (when considering cost of living), there is high incentive to stay in Vietnam as a teacher; it's rated #2 by GoOverseas among countries to teach abroad in Asia in!
Last but not least, Vietnam may also appeal to the more adventure-seeking volunteer, as most of the population drives motorbikes and road rules aren’t really…enforced.
Popular Volunteer Opportunities in Vietnam:
For island beach paradise and easy cultural immersion, the Philippines and its 7,641 islands may lend itself well to volunteers looking to go far without experiencing drastic cultural differences. With an official language as English, volunteers will have one less hurdle as they help out in the rain forests of Luzon, the chocolate fields in Bohol, or in orphanages in Manila.
You could work at a clinic shadowing doctors, rebuild post-typhoon destruction sites, or work on marine conservation; Volunteers in the Philippines will find meaningful work and amazing Filipino hospitality no matter what sector, program, or island they chose. You are also sure to find yourself in a jeepney, a World Word II era jeep decked out in chrome and colors, or at a karaoke bar.
U.S. dollars go a long way in the Philippines for prospective volunteers looking for cheaper alternatives to Japan or South Korea, which also makes it affordable to get around. Budget airlines run cheap flights between islands, so you could travel cheaply during the time you aren’t volunteering!
Popular Volunteer Opportunities in the Philippines:
The country is diverse, and so are the volunteer opportunities. Thailand attracts thousands of travelers annually to its elephant sanctuaries, white sand beaches, and full moon parties.
Volunteers can find valuable work teaching English in Bangkok, working on the beaches in Krabi, or caring for elephants in Chang Mai. Since Thailand has been an established country for teaching and volunteer work for some time now, you're more likely to find a wider range of options here; I recently met a girl in India who had volunteered at a dog sanctuary in Thailand, caring for dogs with disabilities.
In their off time, volunteers can indulge in world-famous Thai food, massages, or shop for products that are ‘made in Thailand’. Like most all of the Southeast Asian countries, Thailand is very affordable, and foreign currencies go a long way. I remember eating noodles from street vendors in Bangkok for 20 cents when I was there a few years ago. Also, it's so central location in Asia makes it easy- and cheap- to get around!
Popular Volunteer Opportunities in Thailand:
Home to world wonder, Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, Cambodia is another country gaining traction as a volunteer destination in Asia. While it was once just a stop on the South East Asia backpack tour many travelers have visited, Cambodia has a unique history, culture, and traditions all its own.
The country harbors a tragic history of mass genocide between 1975-1979 under the Khmer Rouge, and as such, the majority of the population is under 30. Volunteers for child services or teaching English are in high demand here, and may even want to stay on for work opportunities once they find they don't need TOEFL certifications. Additionally, qualified volunteers in health services could be put to good use here.
If Cambodia piques your interest, I recommend learning more about its sensitive history first before you go. Watch the documentary ‘First They Killed My Father’, directed by Angelina Jolie, which you can find on Netflix.
Popular Volunteer Projects in Cambodia:
Despite being open to tourism and freed of military rule since 2011, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is still largely uncharted territory. For volunteers interested in a more 'off the beaten path' destination, I recommend heading here before they start accepting every major credit card.
Many volunteer opportunities here deal with working with Buddhist monks, making Myanmar an ideal location for anyone interested to learn about- or even practice-Buddhism. You can volunteer teaching monks in the mountains, live in monasteries, and explore a secret destination of Asia’s last frontier if you come to this location.
Currently, this beautiful country is suffering from one of the largest humanitarian crisis in the world: the persecution of more than half a million Rohingya Muslims that have fled across the border to Bangladesh, which could create additional volunteer opportunities. Also affected by this crisis are the regions one can safely visit, so make sure you do your research on where you'll be stationed beforehand.
Popular Volunteer Programs in Myanmar:
“Nepal is a poor country with rich people,” my Nepali friends told me when I was first getting my bearings. After four months volunteering as a journalist there, I've concluded this to be true. Though Nepal is among the top five poorest countries in Asia, the Nepali people are incredibly kind heated and treat foreign guests in their country like kings. Don't be surprised when Nepalis you meet once invite you to stay in their homes, give up their beds, and feed you the lions share at dinner.
Six year years after the debilitating earthquake in 2015, Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, is still suffering from devastation. For meaningful volunteer work rebuilding holy sites, or constructing schools in rural villages, Nepal is a country in need. What makes it better is that their culture is so founded on hospitality, you’ll be even more delighted to help.
To get a full picture of the country, I recommend fitting in a Himalayan trek or two before you finish your trip. In as short as five days from the second largest city of Pokhara, you can trek to the base camp of the 10th highest mountain in the world!
Popular Volunteer Opportunities in Nepal:
Other popular countries for volunteer work that scored just below this list are (weirdly all islands/peninsulas of): Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Fiji, Borneo, Singapore. If that sounds similar to a paradise vacation wish list, it’s because it is one. Channel your wanderlust into local engagement and volunteer work next time you feel the itch for exploration.
Throw a dart at a map and there’s a 30% chance it will land in Asia; it’s the largest continent harboring 60% of the world’s population. With that, you can figure there is a lot of demand for help and improvement. Wherever you may go -- be it east or southeast -- you are sure to gain (and to give!) from an experience volunteering half a world away.