Famous for its beaches, its fascinating culture, its ancient sites and temples, and of course its cuisine – Thailand has much to offer the volunteer traveler. Thailand, the land of smiles, is bordered by Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar (Burma). Thailand is roughly the size of Spain and it is typically tropical and humid. Our programs are based in northern Thailand.
Chiang Mai is a popular tourist destination, encircled by mountains, lush rice fields, and natural forests. The city is considered the cultural and physical capital of (what used to be) the northern Thai (Lanna) kingdom. Chiang Mai is the home of an international airport, restaurants of almost every cuisine, incredible shopping and world class hospitals. It has long been a favorite of travelers. Although it is more laid back and traditional than Bangkok, this is still Thailand’s second largest city. It is also in the heart of the “Golden Triangle,” a beautiful and culturally rich region. The weather in most of Thailand is hot and steamy, but Chiang Mai offers some relief. Though seasonally it can get very hot, there are also milder periods, especially December and January. Projects are available throughout the year.
Watch: Shannon chats about the very popular Elephant Camp Program outside of Chiang Mai
ELI volunteers work with a few children's homes based in and around Chiang Mai. All the children at the homes range in age from 6 – 16. The orphanages are run by a few local families, and in general do not have much money.
These orphanages would have a hard time functioning without volunteers. The children arrive back from school around 4pm. Upon the arrival of the children back to the orphanage, volunteers spend time with them: Help cook, help clean, play sports, games, arts and crafts, help them with their homework, etc. Volunteers usually eat dinner with the kids too. Volunteers usually head back to the volunteer house at around 8:30pm, bed time. This is the general schedule for Mondays – Fridays.
This is an ideal program for upbeat volunteers interested in mentoring some of the poorest members of Thai society.
The children's home placements are open from mid-May to the end of September, open from early November to the end of February, closed during the entire month of March, April and the first two weeks of May. Closed during October.
The Asian Elephant is only thriving in Thailand due to the work of a few organizations, and ELI volunteers help with this massive effort at a Thai-run elephant camp in the hills just 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. After 2 days of orientation in the city, volunteers live on-site at the camp and assist the hill tribe staff with the bathing and feeding of 60+ elephants Monday through Friday. The camp hosts day visitors from all over the world, so volunteers also assist in educating the visitors and make sure that they are interacting safely with the animals and learning about conservation. The elephant camp is lively and has a very large staff - it’s almost a community of its own. Each volunteer is assigned to work with one elephant and mahout during their stay, so volunteers can learn commands and get to know the personality of their elephant. The typical length of stay is 2-6 weeks. Volunteers must be between 18 and 60 years old.
“I'd repeat my stay in a heartbeat! …The elephant camp is truly saving the Asian elephants which are diminishing at astounding rates. I spent a month with these magnificent creatures and continue to be in awe of them…On a daily basis, I rode elephants to the river for their bath, I cleaned up after them, I rode them into the dense jungle, helped the staff cut corn or grass to feed them. When I was not working with the elephants, I taught English at the public school. The students were so happy to see me and so filled with enthusiasm to learn! My normal one hour lesson often turned into two hours, with other classes asking if they could participate. The staff at the elephant camp was terrific. The kitchen staff had coffee ready for me each morning...along with a freshly prepared breakfast of my choosing. It just took my leaving my comfort zone to get to know them and before long different mahouts asked me if I'd want to work with their elephant. Their orientation was outstanding, and the follow-up support they provided was great. I loved every minute of my stay at the elephant camp....a month was just not enough for me...and if I could go back and spend a year I would. In fact, I just might!” -Allen T., Elephant Camp Volunteer
"The people were so friendly... and the elephants were amazing creatures to spend time with... Try and do absolutely everything possible at the elephant camp at least once. Take the time to be extra friendly to the camp staff and it will be rewarding for you!" - Tia, Elephant Camp Volunteer
"It was an adventure from day one. We had just arrived, signed in, put our stuff in our room and right away we were helping to take the elephants for a bath in the river. An amazing experience – we get off the bus, and in no time we’re leading elephants to the river!" Read the entire article here. -Korey, Elephant Camp Volunteer
Medical, Dental & Physical Therapy
The hospitals in Thailand are known the world over for their advanced and professional care. Students who intend to pursue a career in medicine can now learn about the medical system, tropical diseases and public health issues in the region. Students shadow doctors and assist staff 5-7 hours a day Monday through Friday, and successful interns are often invited to observe in the OR. This program is open to junior and senior pre-meds, nursing and medical students. Fourth year medical students and above are typically put into rounds. Evenings and weekends are free time. For more about the daily life in this internship, see Nancy's Photo Journal.
"I am a physical therapy student, and all I have been doing at the hospital is PT. They really paid attention to what I said. I'm mostly in the rehabilitation ward. I spent one day in out-patient. They worry about me getting bored, but I don't feel that way at all. The PT's are incredibly nice and seem very willing to learn from me as well as take the time to show me many things, even though they are incredibly busy. The patients are great, and I think part of the reason I like being in the same department every day is because I've gotten to know them a bit even though they don't speak any English. Most of them seem to love having me around, and they usually just ask me for help without words. I'm going to be very sad to leave them...They also have continuing education every Friday, which the director has asked me to attend. I also find that good. I think the fact that it's a learning hospital and that the director of the PT program specifically has a 5 year plan to make the program more internationally based has produced very good results. I also think staying in the same department is a good idea because you get to know the people so they care a bit more about helping you than if you were just in and out in a couple of days."-Rachel, Medical Intern 2011
Dental Internship: Many westerners elect to have dental work in Thailand because of the quality of care, so interns with this program have a chance to learn on modern equipment and work with highly skilled dentists. Program hours are Monday-Friday, 5-7 hours a day. The dental clinic is located at the hospital, so medical and dental interns commute together. This placement is open to serious pre-dental juniors and seniors and dental students. Interns are assigned to a supervising Thai dentist to shadow and assist as needed. Typical procedures include bridges, crowns, and extractions.
The minimum time commitment for these internships is 2 weeks. Conversational English is required, some Thai is helpful but not required. Health related internships are available year-round.
Please note for ALL medical placements: In order to maintain good relationships with the hospitals, ELI's policy is that once your internship is confirmed the dates cannot be changed. Further, all required paperwork must be submitted to the hospital 4 weeks before your arrival in Chiang Mai.
Our volunteers teach novice Buddhist monks, middle school to high school age, at different monastery schools located in the northern city of Chiang Mai. These teaching positions are a great way to learn about Buddhism and contribute in a meaningful way. The schools provide both religious and secular classes, providing secondary education for boys who are unable to afford such opportunities. All the students at four of the schools are novice monks and many, but not all, of the faculty and administration are Buddhist monks. One of the schools has both novice monk students and non-monk students (however the majority are monks) separated by classroom. Many of the novice monks are orphans from the hill tribes, and some of them are learning Thai as a second language and English as a third. The monastary teaching placements are open from mid-May to the end of September, open from early November to the end of February, closed during the entire month of March, April and the first two weeks of May. Closed during October.
to check your dates before you apply.
Teach in a Rural School
Our newest Youth Initiative project is also one of our most exciting! Volunteers have the chance to head out into the countryside outside of Chiang Mai and work in a rural community helping out at the local school. This program is separate from other Thailand programs. Volunteers stay in a local hotel and travel each day to work with a variety of schools teaching English to local children. While these schools usually have permanent English teachers, the language level of even the teachers is sometimes limited. Volunteers are very much needed to supplement the lessons and assist the teachers in learning some of the complex English grammar and pronunciation.
*Please note: This program is entirely separate from our other Thailand programs. You will be living and working with other Youth Initiative volunteers, but not with the other ELI volunteers and interns. This a perfect opportunity for an independent volunteer who is looking to travel on a tight budget.
This is a rare opportunity to intern with the top English language magazine in Chiang Mai! Chiang Mai is a fashionable Thai city, so this internship is a great fit for someone who is interested in lifestyle writing, event reporting, culture and interest pieces. Hours fluctuate based on assignment. Students who are at least rising juniors, majoring in journalism or communication are welcome to apply.
Interns in the project work with the Thai and foreign, native English speaking staff in one or many of the following areas:
*Editorial *Marketing *Web Design *Photography *Print and design *Multi media
The minimum time commitment is 4 weeks. No second language required, but a writing sample in English will be requested and you will want to bring your own laptop. These internships are available year-round.
"I had a lot of opportunities, received a lot of great feedback, and a lot of encouragement. My boss, an amazing woman, was very welcoming and took me under her wing, so to speak. She helped with my writing, allowed me to shadow her interviews and became somewhat of a mentor. They were very open at Citylife, and let me do as much as I wanted, giving me opportunities I would never have had in the western press. In my second month, I was even allowed to take my own pictures [which were published.] Thanks to the internship, if you Google my name, you can see my work. I now have a portfolio – not very big, but it’s an important start." - Stacey, Journalism Intern 2011
(Read the entire interview with Stacey and some of the articles she had published in Thailand here.)
For similar resources on other countries and programs, please see the "Experiences" tab above.
"The coordinator that we were with every day at the elephant camp, Jin, was exceptional at his job and extremely attentive to all our needs. I was amazed at how informed he was about the elephant camp, and how involved he was. Not only was Jin helpful with questions, he was also very kind and easy to talk to because of his sociability, sense of humor and easy-going attitude. While all the coordinators that I met during my volunteer experience were welcoming, I must say that Jin went above and beyond what I expected in an on-site supervisor." -XiaoXiao L.
"This country is very beautiful and the food and the clothes are so special. The location of the volunteer house is optimal and it is a very very cute place to live." -Arja H.
"Thailand is amazing! I love it here! I think I've decided I want to try and find a job here full time. I couldn't be happier! Thanks!" -Emily M.
"At first I was a little nervous, but after a few days of teaching I feel confident now. I've also grown quite close to the group I arrived with, and we usually go out for dinner every night. I couldn't be more happy!" -Christian K.
"My favorite town that I was able to go to on my days off was a town called Pai. It was incredible, and there are a lot of scenic things that you can do in the town. It is a smaller town, but has guest houses on every corner. It is a three hour bus ride form Chiang Mai, but bus tickets are extremely cheap. Because I only had two full days off, I had to squeeze all of the activities into one full day, but you are able to pay for a half day tour, and the people are amazing! They take you to the hot springs, two temples, the canyon, the world war II bridge, and to an amazing waterfall. And at each location they gave you plenty of time to enjoy the area. There are other tour packages that you can purchase, such as river rafting, but due to our limited time we chose this one. It is a beautiful little town, and I recommend it!" -Ryane P.
"I suggest to all future participants to learn common Thai phrases because the native people do appreciate it when you speak the language, even if only a few words. I would also advise that future participants have an open-mind during their volunteering experience because it makes the time in Thailand more enjoyable and easy-going when you don’t have unrealistic expectations hampering your travels and work. I highly encourage participants to eat the local food that you buy from vendors on the street because not only is it more affordable than the restaurants, but it is also part of the experience of being in another country. I would also recommend going to the Sunday Night Market since there are so many interesting things to see." -XiaoXiao L.
"We took a Thai cooking class, which I HIGHLY recommend. You get to take a cookbook home with you and get to eat sooo much. We also went whitewater rafting, which I recommend as well. It was so beautiful and a lot of fun. The Mae Sa Waterfall was a beautiful place to explore and go swimming. I would recommend buying food there or bringing a picnic. There are I believe 11 waterfalls in total there and and was really gorgeous." -Kelsey N.
*Pre-Departure Packet *Airport Pick-Up in Chiang Mai *Orientation *City Tour *Accommodation *Breakfast (except the elephant camp, which includes 3 meals a day Mon-Fri) *Access to a Travel Nurse and Activities Coordinator *24/7 In-Country Support
Program Does Not Include:
*Round-Trip Transportation to Chiang Mai *Return Trip to Airport *Required Travel and Medical Insurance *Visa Fees
All ELI participants live together in Chiang Mai in the volunteer house, conveniently located in the city center near shops and restaurants. Bedrooms are shared when the house is at capacity, so be prepared to have roommates during the busy seasons (summer and fall). Breakfast is provided daily.
Elephant Camp volunteers live at the camp in private cabins, Monday through Friday. The cabins have a locking front door, a flushing toilet, and a stand up shower. Three meals a day are provided at the camp café. On the weekends, volunteers are welcome to stay at the volunteer house in Chiang Mai or sightsee on their own.
We ask that participants arrive on a date below between 8am and 8pm, so orientation can take place over the weekend and volunteers can start their program bright and early on Monday.
2014: January 3, January 17, January 31, February 14, February 28, March 14, April 4, April 18, May 2, May 16, May 30, June 13, July 4, July 18, August 1, August 15, August 29, September 12, October 3, October 17, October 31, November 14, November 28, December 12
Please note, for all medical placements, arrival dates cannot be changed once the internship is confirmed.
All volunteers in projects where they work near, or with children (all teaching projects, children's home and orphanage) must have a clean, certified police background check prior to their participation start date.
Travel insurance is not included in the program fee. We prefer to let participants decide what kind of coverage they need.
All prices are listed in US Dollars. The program fees reflect the costs ELI faces when setting up a program. We work hard to keep our costs as low as possible. ELI is a registered 501(c)3 non profit. US taxpayers may be able to deduct some or all of the program fees. If you are outside the US and wondering what these costs translate to in your currency, click here for an online conversion tool that will give you the approximate current exchange rate.
After you fill out the application form on our website, our application advisor will be in touch to help you with the next steps. We have set up a checklist here for you see exactly what steps you need to take to go abroad with ELI.
Length of Program
Teaching/ Children's Home
Medical and Dental Intern
Application Fee: $200 for all programs in Thailand (refundable only if we are unable to find a placement that matches your request).
Most programs can last up to six months because of visa restrictions. Private rooms can be provided at additional cost.