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Should I Volunteer in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, Thailand?

Thailand by Ayako Watanabe

So you’ve decided to volunteer abroad in Thailand - great choice! They don’t call it the land of smiles for nothing, and you are sure to see plenty of them while you are out making a difference in this beautiful country. Furthermore, “sanuk” is a big part of Thai culture. What does it mean? Fun! And you’re sure to have plenty of that as well during your time in Thailand.

The question is, where do you want to volunteer your time? Buzzing Bangkok and cultural Chiang Mai are two of the most popular destinations for volunteers. Each city offers a multitude of opportunities in two very different settings.

Demographics and Geography

Bangkok is big. This capital city of Thailand is also the most populous, with more than eight million residents. The city is fast-paced, and volunteers will never face a shortage of things to see and do. Bangkok boasts popular tourist attractions like the Grand Palace and Buddhist temples such as Wat Pho and Wat Arun.

Culture is key in Chiang Mai.

Shopping and food abound in every shape and size, from mega-malls like MBK and Siam Paragon to mega-markets like the Chatuchak Weekend Market. And Bangkok is where you’ll find Thailand’s infamous red light districts and Khao San Road (backpacker central).

Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, but it has a decidedly smaller feel, with a population of around a million in the metropolitan area (much less in the city proper). With more than 300 Buddhist temples, Chiang Mai is a cultural center in Thailand.

Instead of towering buildings, Chiang Mai is surrounded by towering mountains and lush jungles. Chiang Mai will present you with the quintessential Thai opportunities to ride an elephant across a river and visit hill tribes in the surrounding villages.

Both cities experience a cool season from November through February. In Bangkok, hot season is in March and April, while rainy season runs from May to October. In Chiang Mai, the hot season is a little longer, running until June, and rainy season is a little shorter, from July to October.

Types of Volunteer Opportunities

Both cities in Thailand share a number of similar issues. Large numbers of migrants have brought up human rights issues, and there is a growing need for HIV/AIDS education. However, many volunteers will find themselves in more typical volunteer situations like working in orphanages or teaching English.

Volunteering in Bangkok is primarily human-focused. Opportunities including volunteering with special-needs children and orphans, teaching English, working with refugees, or helping out with HIV/AIDS education. In Chiang Mai, there’s a slightly greater range of options, including a few conservation projects. One popular activity is volunteering at an elephant sanctuary. Volunteers can also volunteer at a dog shelter near the city. Otherwise, Chiang Mai offers many opportunities similar to Bangkok, including volunteering with or teaching English to children, orphans, hill tribes or monks.

Bangkok and Chiang Mai hold a few overlapping opportunities, but still boast unique programs in either location; just make sure to do your research to find the perfect program for you.

Cost of Living

Overall, Thailand is an extremely cheap place to live. However, prices do vary and generally Chiang Mai is much cheaper than Bangkok. A cost of living comparison between the two cities shows that prices for consumer products, groceries and eating in restaurants are generally considerably lower (14-23%) in Chiang Mai than Bangkok. However, if you’re looking for the comforts of home -- a meal at McDonalds or a 2-liter of soda -- the prices may be lower in the big city.

If you plan to rent an apartment during your volunteer stay, Chiang Mai is 50-60% cheaper than Bangkok on that front. You can get a three-bedroom apartment in Chiang Mai’s city center for the same price as a one-bedroom in Bangkok. If you are volunteering abroad on your own, or your volunteer program does not include housing, this is certainly something to consider. However, if you are looking to do some shopping -- whether it be luxury goods, clothing, or electronics -- you are more likely to find the products you want at the right price in Bangkok, where there are more choices.

Decision Time...Bangkok vs. Chiang Mai

Bangkok does has some wonderful cultural sites of its own to explore

For those looking to experience the big city life and still give back, Bangkok is your city! It will be hard to forget your that far from home with the comforts of home close by in the name brands, restaurants, and movies you will recognize.

But Bangkok does not stop there. Once the day is over, you can kick off your shoes and head out on the town with essentially bottomless nightlife choices. And should you need a break from the city, Bangkok is in a great location to access other parts of Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Chiang Mai will provide you with a much more laid back and relaxed environment. While Chiang Mai is still a city, it offers more a a cultural experience of Thailand. There is also much more green space, allowing you to hike and experience nature- even through conservation efforts as well as volunteering with animals. Chiang Mai is also much cheaper for those looking to stay on a tighter budget.

When it comes down to it, Bangkok and Chiang Mai hold a few overlapping opportunities but still boast unique programs in either location; just make sure to do your research to find the perfect program for you. For the most part, Bangkok is a large metropolis where you will never find yourself short on activities while Chiang Mai definitely has a smaller feel and will give you a more "authentic" look into the culture of Thailand. You will not be cut off from civilization in either place, rather you will experience a new culture and come back a more enlightened person.

However, If you’re still having trouble deciding, never fear! All it takes is a night bus or train to travel between the two cities, so volunteers can easily make a weekend visit to the city they do not end up volunteering in.

Photo Credits: Rachel Taft and Ayako Watanabe
Rachael Taft

Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, worked abroad in Australia and Fiji, and traveled to 30+ countries, including backpacking solo across South America. In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael obsesses over all things her blog Girl, Unmapped.