Southeast Asia is a great region to volunteer abroad in: there’s plenty of need, boundless volunteer projects and opportunities, incredibly friendly people, and it’s an extremely inexpensive area to spend some time in. Thailand and Cambodia are two of the top picks in the region to volunteer -- with good reason! -- but which one is right for you?
Each country has a distinct feeling from the other, especially because Thailand is more developed than Cambodia. But do not let the demographics deter you from looking at one over the other.
Both countries will expose you to their unique culture and chances are whichever place you end up going will be hard to say goodbye when you leave.
Demography, Geography & History
It’s hard to quantify need, but Cambodia is overall more impoverished than Thailand, with a poverty rate of 31% versus 8% in Thailand. This will not only affect the kind of volunteer work you find, but likely your entire experience. For the most part, Cambodia feels less developed and, well, poorer. Thailand has less developed areas, but overall is a much wealthier and more developed country. You won’t see anything like the excesses of Bangkok when you're in Cambodia.
Thailand has more than four times the population of Cambodia and is almost three times larger in size. Both countries boast a variety of landscapes. Thick jungles and gorgeous waterfalls abound in both countries. And while Thailand is known for its beaches, Cambodia has a few hidden gems to offer which are likely to be much less crowded and more relaxing than Thailand’s popular, often party-hopping islands.
In general, if you’re looking to get off the beaten path, Cambodia may be your best bet. Thailand is a bit more touristy (although you can of course find areas that aren’t), while Cambodia’s “touristy” areas (the biggie being Angkor Wat) are smaller in number and much more avoidable.
Another point of difference is the French influence in Cambodia, especially notable in its cuisine, dating back from its colonization by France for nearly a century from the mid-1800’s to the mid-1900’s.
The two countries have very different histories, and Cambodia suffered from a dark past from which it is still trying to heal. Only a few short decades ago the Khmer Rouge regime terrorized the country, killing millions of its people. The country is also struggling with unexploded landmines, left buried in rural areas since 1970.
Cost of Living & Other Practicalities
In many cases Thailand and Cambodia are very similar in cost of living. There are some areas of difference though. If you’ll be taking care of your own housing while volunteering, Cambodia may be a better bet with cheaper rent prices. However, if you are more worried about having some of the comforts of home, you’ll have a better chance of finding it in Thailand, most likely at a much lower price.
Also worth noting is currency. Thailand uses the Thai baht. In Cambodia, the official currency is the riel, but the U.S. dollar is just as common, if not more so.
Entering Thailand is slightly easier than Cambodia. No visa is required for Americans for stays less than 30 days, and a tourist visa can be easily obtained for a 60-day stay (for a fee). When your stay is up, you can make a “visa run” -- a good excuse to go out and see another nearby country -- and return to gain another stay. For Cambodia, a visa is required. It can be obtained at the airport or any border crossing (or processed ahead of time online or at an embassy) for a fee, and is good for one month.
Volunteer Opportunities in Thailand and Cambodia
There are an enormous amount of volunteer opportunities in both countries, generally very similar types of work and fields. Many of the same organizations run different projects in both countries (which also means you could easily pair two different projects together and volunteer in both countries!). Teaching English, working with children and orphans, community development, human rights, and HIV/AIDS education are the most common areas for volunteering.There are also opportunities for conservation and wildlife volunteering in both countries.
Check out these awesome projects in Cambodia:
- Marine Wildlife Research & Conservation with Fuze Ecoteer Outdoor Adventures
- Conservation Work with Frontier
- Community Building with ISV
- Human Rights Projects with IVHQ
Other great volunteer options to consider in Thailand:
- Community and Education Programs with CCS
- Volunteer Teaching with WorldTeach
- Working with Elephants with Global Vision International
Now YOU Decide!
When it comes down to it, Thailand and Cambodia hold many similar opportunities for volunteering, and if you know what you’re looking for and are willing to put in the effort, you can likely find it in either country.
Generally speaking, Cambodia is more off the beaten path - a little less touristy with a more authentic feeling. It is also probably the tougher country to adjust to, more suited to seasoned travelers who can handle rough conditions and in-your-face poverty.
If you haven’t lived in a developing country before, or if you are looking more for a “volunteer vacation” kind of experience, you might find it easier living in Thailand. It is probably a better place to ease yourself into the experience, offering more access to some of the comforts and conditions you’re used to.
No matter what country in Southeast Asia you end up volunteering abroad in, you are bound to have the experience of a lifetime. This often overlooked corner of the planet is teeming with opportunities for you to share your gifts and skills in a positive way. Don't delay - volunteer abroad in Cambodia or Thailand!
Photo Credits: Rachael Taft