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. There is an increasing number of local NGOs, providing volunteers with more opportunities than ever to participate in projects in Asia.
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.
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.
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, and cleaning.
It is worth noting that there has been controversy over orphanage volunteer work, particularly in countries such as Cambodia, where orphanage scams have been on the rise. Whatever you do, make sure that your organization has background checks and doesn't allow short term volunteers to directly interact with children as two minimum requirements for volunteering responsibly with orphans.
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 ¾ 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 Types of Volunteering
Disaster relief, women’s rights, economic justice, human rights (including refugees and migrants workers’ rights), teaching English, youth advocacy and heritage conservation.
Planning Your Trip
Lifestyle and Culture
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 is comprised of 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 includes Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Brunei and the Philippines and 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).
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.
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.
10 Popular Countries in Asia for Volunteering
According to user feedback and in no particular order, here are 10 popular countries to volunteer in Asia.
- Japan: Take in (and help preserve!) the beauty of Japan, by volunteering abroad. Volunteers are in high demand in Japan, with projects ranging from elderly care and youth development, to preserving hiking trails or helping local farmers cultivate crops. You could volunteer in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, or lend a hand in smaller, rural areas.
- South Korea: If you're passionate about empowering local communities through childcare, teaching, or even politics, volunteering in South Korea may be a great place of interest. Plus, while in South Korea, you can explore the bustling city of Seoul, or immerse yourself in the rich history of their many temples.
- India: There are a wide variety of volunteer projects to contribute to in India. From assisting clinics and spreading awareness about the basics of health, to promoting literacy and the importance of education, volunteering in India is guaranteed to be a life-changing and impactful experience.
- Vietnam: Looking for a rewarding volunteer experience, with a side of adventure? Then look no further than Vietnam. Volunteers can contribute to impactful projects in topics like healthcare, education, human rights advocacy, and even sustainable eco-tourism.
- Philippines: Dreaming of island life and making a major difference overseas? Consider volunteering in the Philippines. You could work at a clinic shadowing doctors, help to rebuild post-typhoon destruction sites, or work in environmental conservation. Volunteers in the Philippines can find meaningful work no matter what sector, program, or island they chose.
- Thailand: 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.
- Cambodia: Cambodia is a popular spot for volunteers looking to support the development of local communities and wildlife. Animal rehabilitation is a major project in Cambodia. Volunteers can help rescue animals like elephants and sun bears, or help maintain the habits of sea turtles, fish, and other marine creatures.
- Indonesia: Volunteers love exploring the lush rain forests, vibrant villages, and historic sights of Indonesia. Volunteers can find unique and impactful work, volunteering with wildlife refuge, deforestation, tsunami relief, and more.
- Nepal: Six 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 great place to lend a helping hand.
- 10. Malaysia: From conserving wildlife in the island of Boreneo, to helping rural areas obtain fresh, running water for their villages, there are many opportunities for meaningful volunteer work in Malaysia.
Volunteer Programs in Asia
New Programs in Asia
Looking for something new? Check out these new volunteer programs being offered in Asia
InterExchange Foundation Christianson Fellowship
The InterExchange Foundation Christianson Fellowship awards up to $10,000 to young Americans who are passionate about helping communities abroad thrive and are eager to learn about the local culture. Fellows identify a project or an organization working on an issue they care about, and with the support of the Christianson Fellowship, contribute their skills and passion to that endeavor for at least six months on-location abroad. This intercultural experience is a meaningful way to help others, improve skills, and gain insight about another culture.
Operation Groundswell Financial Needs Grant
For those interested in an Operation Groundswell program, consider applying for financial assistance through the Operation Groundswell Financial Needs Grant. You'll submit information about yourself, the program you want to go on, and why you need financial assistance, and the OG team will review your information to determine what financial assistance they can provide. Applications are accepted throughout the year, so be sure to apply as soon as you apply for the Operation Groundswell program you choose.
Rustic Pathways Scholarships
Every year, travel company Rustic Pathways give away $250,000 to students from across the world. Scholarships are varied and it's worth checking back in after they've been awarded as late-season scholarship redistribution -- where uncollected grants are reallocated to new applicants -- takes place a few months later. Among their scholarships, the most relevant to prospective volunteers are the following: