If the word “volunteering” evokes images of picking up garbage from the streets or collecting cans for fundraising, think again. With a little planning and an open mind, volunteering can be a philanthropic recess from the office and a valuable cultural experience. Although it's hard work, spending vacation time in the field is a great way to learn about a country. The spectrum of opportunities in Asia for willing - and paying - volunteers is vast and varied. Among the options: work camps in Bangladesh, construction projects in South Korea, and archaeological digs in Thailand.
If a volunteer vacation sounds like a worthwhile alternative to an easygoing holiday, be warned; Travelers lacking serious commitment or realistic expectations could be in for a hard time. “I would caution people against a casual approach to these vacations,” says David Minich of Habitat for Humanity, a U.S. Christian organization that arranges construction projects worldwide. “Management of expectation is critical. A 10-day contribution on a building site will allow you to see a portion of a lengthy process. Don't expect to save the world in a week.”
That said, immersion in a job provides an excellent opportunity to learn about the customs of local coworkers. And leave the guidebook behind. “For people who want to play the part of a carefree tourist, ” says Blue Magruder of Earthwatch, which offers a wide spectrum of volunteer opportunities, “this is the wrong thing.”
Many international work camps are run by local organizations that focus on social welfare and community development. Volunteers generally are placed in harsh conditions with no access to modern conveniences such as running water, and are asked to bring their own sleeping bags.