6 Volunteer Projects in Southeast Asia

Fernando and I spent about half of our travel time volunteering, a little over 4 months total! Volunteering was something I wanted to do even before I started my trip. I wanted to spend time on organic and permacutlure farms to learn hands on what I had learned mostly in theory in a permaculture design course I took last year. I wanted to spend time outside, work with the land, and learn to live sustainably! We chose to travel and volunteer because we wanted to learn new skills, but also help others and save money along the way. We ended up doing more than just organic farming and our experiences at each project were special and unique and taught us so much. If you’re thinking about volunteering while traveling, my recommendation is, do it!

I’ve written a short summary about each of our volunteer experiences in chronological order. You’ll notice all of these projects charge a fee, that’s to cover food costs, wifi, electricity, etc. It’s more than fair and it was a lot less than we would spend just traveling, so we were happy to pay it. You can also find projects that charge a lot more, and places where you do a work exchange and don’t pay. We found most of these projects on http://www.helpx.net.

New Land Project

For almost 2 weeks we lived on a small piece of land in the  northwest of Thailand. I chose this project based on the description which mentioned we’d be doing organic gardening, natural building, and planting a food forest.  We’d also be living off-the-grid, no electricity and cooking over the fire. It sounded rustic and sustainable. I was sold!

Fernando and I got to stay in the newly built cob house. It wasn’t finished when we moved in, and it was one of the projects we worked on while we where there. It was surrounded by cotton trees and our nearest neighbors were our good friends Charlotte and Theo who stayed in a hut about 50 feet away. All volunteers  had their own private hut equipped with a mattress, blankets for the cold nights, and a mosquito net.

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Our house at the project. This is when we lived outside, before we could move in.
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Me moved in once we finished the floor
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Cotton Tree next to our house

We cooked, ate, and hung out in the rustic kitchen equipped with hammocks, library, and a bamboo platform where we could sit or lay down. We took turns cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the 8-10 of us and all of the food was local and vegan. We always had sticky rice (which I love), papaya from the land, banana bread cooked in the solar oven, and vegetables cooked in many different ways.

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Hanging out with the cat
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Fire-making skills were put to the test. One of the chores was cutting up wood from the property to use for cooking
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I really loved the food there, so healthy and sustainable
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Making banana bread in the solar oven-this thing was so cool!

We worked from after breakfast until it was time to make lunch, around 11:30, our work days were short but very productive. We spent a few days preparing materials for the garden beds. We cut up dead banana trees with the machete, crumbled elephant poop,  gathered straw from the nearby rice field, brought out the kitchen scraps, and then layered and left it for the upcoming planting season. We also worked in the nursery preparing seedlings from saved seeds and changing the growing trees to larger bags. A goal of this project is to reforest the old mono crop field with native edible and medicinal plants, so keeping the seedlings healthy and watered was very important. We learned to make a cob mixture to finish the cob house and even learned how to make the final tapioca layer mixture.

Even though the nights were cold, the afternoons were extremely hot and not very enjoyable when you don’t have running water. It was the middle of the dry season and  using the bicycle pump was useless, the well had run dry. So to take a shower we walked 30 minutes to use the bucket shower at the neighbor’s house, and sometimes we’d do our laundry there as well. It wasn’t convenient but we enjoyed the walk and it kept our water footprint quite low!

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Long walk for a shower, but totally worth it

Looking back, our time at the New Land Project was very special. We made life-long friends with wonderful people from all over the world. We’d wake up warm in our sleeping bags to cold, crisp mornings and the sun rising over the mountains. We used what we needed and worked with nature to sustain ourselves and the land. I’m really happy we went there.

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Mornings on the farm were my favorite

 

The cost for volunteering at the New Land Project was 150 Baht per day (about $4.50), it included 3 meals and accommodations. We worked about 4 hours a day 5 times a week.

Sahainan

This project was very similar to the New Land Project, but that was to be expected. The British woman running New Land was a student of Sandot, the Thai man who owns Sahainan.

There we also lived in a wall-less hut, cooked by the fire, and learned about permaculture. My work days consisted of leveling land to make garden beds, preparing the garden, and……not much else. A few days after we arrived, half of the group left with Sandot (our boss) on a 5 day road trip to pick up his new apprentice. So Fernando, our Swedish girl friend, French guy friend , and myself stayed behind to look after the farm. And we really enjoyed  being left home alone.

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The terraced garden beds we prepared and watered. During the dry season they’re used for vegetables and during the rainy season for rice.
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Our little hut at Sahainan

While Sandot was gone our responsibilities included watering the gardens and making sure the solar water pumps were working. I think Fernando used these days to make steps for our hut, but other than that we just spent a lot of time hanging out and cooking.

I really enjoyed harvesting lettuce and herbs from the garden to use in our meals. We also spent countless hours observing the hens scratching around with their chicks, and played with the cat and dogs. Our days at Sahainan were slow but happy, and it felt great to be living such a low-impact lifestyle.

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I loved harvesting food from the garden. We had lettuce, cilantro, parsley, and onions just to name a few.
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Doing my laundry on the farm- with a natural bar of soap.
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We spent a lot of time like this, hanging out on the hammock and playing with the animals

 

At Sahainan we paid 200 Baht ($6) a day which included 3 vegan meals and accommodation. The usual working schedule is 5-6 hours a day 5 days a week.

Yellow House

This was our first volunteer project in Malaysia and the first time we’d be working with humans instead of the land. The Yellow House is located in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur and volunteers staying there do a myriad of jobs.

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Banana Leaf Dinner at the house

On the day of our arrival we traveled by car to the downtown area of KL where we would be shampooing and giving hair cuts to the homeless. There were 4 volunteers and we each had a role, I was shampooing, and Fernando, who has more experience with a clipper, gave the haircuts. The “Street Salon” worked in conjunction with another organization that feeds hundreds of homeless every week. Men and women can go find a warm meal and get a haircut or wash on the same night. It was unlike anything I’d ever done before, but a very rewarding experience.

However, most of our days at the Yellow House were spent volunteering at a local school for refugee students from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The school was undergoing terrible financial hardships and as a result was understaffed. Fernando and I both seemed fit and were each given our own classroom, where we taught 2 hours of English, 2 hours of Math, and 1 hour of science every day to a group of about 10 students. It was a challenge to say the least, but we both enjoyed it so much. I had the grade 4 level class and my students ranged from 9-17 years old. It was difficult filling up 5 hours a day without any set curriculum or textbook, but we both managed and even got the students to like us. I liked spending time with my students, seeing their progress, and learning from them as well. They’ve had a difficult past but in the end they’re just regular kids. It was also nice to share this experience with Fernando, on our 20-minute walk to school we talked about our plan for that day and on our way back we talked about what we actually ended up doing.

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On our last day, Earth Day, we did a neighborhood cleanup. Here I am with the girls from my class.

We also spent two Sundays making food for the homeless and spent one day volunteering at the fanciest animal shelter I’ve ever seen. The cool thinhg about this project is the variety of activities we got to do all over the city.

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All of the vegetables were donated from the market, it’s produce that wasn’t sold and would be thrown away. Such a great idea to help feed those in need and prevent food waste.

We spent about 3 weeks at the Yellow House, a little longer than we planned but we really enjoyed working with our students and we knew that when we’d leave they’d be left without a teacher. There were a few things I didn’t like about this project, but all in all we felt really good about the work we did and the people we met.

The Yellow House costs $3 a day which includes some meals, wifi, and accommodations. Work is 5 hours a day, 5 times a week.

Cahaya Mutiara

Cahaya Mutiara is a Balinese foundation established by and for people with physical disabilities. Their mission is to foster and develop skills leading to self reliance. Some members live at the house and others use it as a meeting place and come and go. They were looking for volunteers to help in the permaculture garden, teach English, and help out around the house. We signed up!

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Here we are with some of the residents and long-term volunteers Mary and Stefan. This was the time we took a field trip to Kul Kul Farm.
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We took a trip to the sports center. This was taken minutes before Fernando dislocated his shoulder, ouch.

Our time volunteering here was a lot less structured than at the other projects, we had no set schedule, and no assigned tasks. Some days we helped out in the garden, other days were spent rehearsing “Heal the World” and other songs they would sing at an upcoming performance. Other times we would just hang out and talk with the men and women living there, or we played games like Hangman. Since we didn’t know how to cook typical Balinese food (their favorite of course) we didn’t cook much, but we helped prepare the food and clean up afterwards.

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The one time we made “pico de gallo” A Mexican salsa with tomatoes, onion, lemon, and cilantro

We were welcomed with big smiles and quickly felt like part of the family. It was inspiring to see how happy and optimist every one was despite having lived through so many hardships, it really brought some perspective to our lives. Needless to say we were happy to be there, and even though we were there to help, I feel we gained more than we gave from this experience.

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They make their own re purposed gift bags for their shop and gallery. They taught us how to make them with newspaper, cardboard, and glue.
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I gave a talk about my plastic-free travels and it was amazing! They were so inspired and motivating.

We paid $4 a day which included 3 meals and accommodation. There was no set schedule but we were expected to work about 4 hours a day 5 days a week.

Good Earth Farm Bali

This is a project I REALLY wanted to volunteet at, it’s the kind of project I had in mind for my travels. The Good Earth Farm is situated in the middle of rice fields just minutes outside of downtown Ubud, Bali. It’s a 1/4 Acre plot which uses elements and principles of permaculture to create a scaleable, edible and fully integrated landscape!

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Sunrise on the farm

We spent a little over two weeks here and it was fun, educational, and productive! Our volunteer group was small, about 3-4 of us, plus Nathan and Inochi, the two very cool and knowledgeable guys who run this place.

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Fernando and Nathan in the workshop making a new chicken house

Our working day would start with breakfast and a meeting to discuss what we’d do that day. Sometimes we’d even play fun little games to get us excited. Then we worked from about 8:00-11:00, had lunch and a break, and worked a little bit more until 2:00 or so. Our evenings off were spent at the house, cooling down in a nearby river, or going into Ubud on our rented motorbike.

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A trio of French Canadian women rocks tars built this cob oven in a few days, I helped a bit and learned so much from them.
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The farm is pretty much  zero waste! We had a water filter and…
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Any plastic waste was made into Eco Bricks. How awesome is that?!
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But mostly, I loved this place for the baby goats. Adorable doesn’t cut it

We paid $5 a day which included 3 vegetarian meals, unlimited bananas, and very comfortable accommodations. We worked about 4-6 hours a day 5 days a week.

The Green Life Project

The Green Life Project is a non-profit organization based out of Kuala Lumpur. Their mission is to create a sustainable community and connect kids with nature, which they do by bringing them into nature and teaching them about organic gardening, fire-making, and other skills. We volunteered with them on two separate occasions, about 2 months apart. Since I already wrote about our first visit here, I’ll just talk about our second visit.

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The workshop consisted of literally building this house. And it was almost finished in 10 days

Our second time volunteering with the Green Life Project was during a bamboo building workshop they hosted on their new land. We came to help out and also learn more about working with bamboo and natural building in general. Coincidentally, Sandot, from Sahainan Farm in Thailand, was giving the workshop!

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It was pouring rain and I’m digging a hole
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I also helped weave these palm leaves for the roof

On the first day we cut down a dead tree to use for building and helped with the construction. Over the course of 6 days we helped dig holes, carry materials, and drag pipes through the leech-infested creek so they could have running water from a local source. The work was hard but meaningful. We were helping build an eco village for the community!

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It was hard work. Can you tell we were tired?

 

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taking a little break
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I worked for the fruit. On the land were an abundance of durian, mangosteen, and rambutan trees. And they were all in season. It couldn’t get better than that!
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Juicy rambutans right off the tree

We paid for our accommodations while volunteering with the Green Life Project, about $4 a night for the both of us and in exchange for our work we received 3 free meals per day.

The Mindfulness Project

This is the last project I volunteered at and the one we spent the most time at. Fernando spent two months here last year and fell in love with the place. He promised to go back with me, he told me such great things about it, so we did! The Mindfulness Project is unique because it combines yoga, meditation, buddhist teachings, permaculture, and sustainable living into one project. It’s also larger, having anywhere between 15-30 volunteers at a time.

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Walking from the village back to the project. We were surrounded by rice fields
The Mindfulness Project was founded a few years ago by Christian, a fun, outgoing, and hardworking guy from Germany who wants to make this world a better place. And now, volunteers from all over the world go to spend anywhere from 10 days to a couple of month months learning to embrace their true self and how to tread more lightly on this planet.

Living here was also very rustic. We had compost toilets, bucket showers, slept semi-outside, and had limited electricity. We might have been covered in dirt most of the time but it was wonderful to be in nature away from big cities and concentrated pollution.

Even though the days there were long, they went by fast. The gong wakes you up at 5:30, yoga is at 6:00, meditation at 7:15, and every one helps cook and clean from 7:45-8:20ish. The mornings are silent, and that silence is broken with an optional hug after breakfast. Sounds cheesy but it’s quite a nice way to start the day.From all the time I was there, I only opted out of the hug on one day when I was in a bad mood.

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Morning yoga – that’s me in black

Our working day was from 9:00-2:00, while I was there we did a few different jobs. We spent a few days working on the mud house, got really muddy plastering the walls, then sponged the walls, and finally cemented the floor. Other days were spent gardening on the farm and doing other permaculture stuff. I weeded, dug holes, plantes trees, and made banana circles. The land is new so there was always a lot of work to do!

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Sponging the walls to make them nice and smooth
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A day of plastering- I love these people! Can you tell we’re muddy?
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washing the mud off in the well. We would take proper bucket showers afterwards.
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The mud house!
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Making a banana circle on the land. We dug a big hole, filled it with compost, and planted bananas and other crops around the circle

After our 2:00 lunch we had free time until 6:00. Fernando and I sometimes took a nap, read on the hammock, or went into town to the market or to use the wifi. At 6:00pm we were ready for talking circle, my favorite part of the day. Every day we had two questions, the first was always the same, what was your favorite moment of the day?, and the second was always different. They were questions meant for us to open up, connect with the other volunteers on a deeper level, and create a warm and trusting environment. And it worked! We made great friendships while we were there and I really came to care for my new friends.

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Inspiring others to go “plastic-free”!

The plant-based food was prepared with mostly organic ingredients and tasted delicious. The bar was set high and those volunteering in the kitchen always did an amazing job to uphold it. I also loved that everyone was asked to use only natural, non-chemical personal care products to keep the land and water pollution free. And many of those products were made on-site by volunteers.

The Mindfulness Project is 200 baht ($6) a day which included meals, accommodation, yoga, meditation, and so much more!

 

 

 

 

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