From Self-development to Sustainable Development. A voluntourist’s expedition

Five years ago as a starry-eyed undergraduate, I embarked on a rite of passage from the comforts of city life in Singapore to rural Northern Thailand for a community service expedition along with a group of fellow university students. Armed with next to naught construction skills—and in their place bundles of supplies collected through donation drives—we forged ahead, hearts filled with zeal to build toilets for the Karen Hill tribe community church, among other ‘charitable’ activities. The volunteering experience was, as with every other one described on blogs and Facebook walls, undoubtedly amazing and enriching. Yet by the end of the expedition, I became disenchanted, having realised that we had made no real sustainable impact on the villagers’ lives.

Unlike other expeditions, ours did not rely on intermediary agencies to undertake the arrangements and reap the profits from our fees. Instead, we liaised directly with locals to ensure they were equitably remunerated and in no way disadvantaged from organising our stay. While we were initially confident in overseeing the entire building process on our own, we could hardly progress without entreating the villagers to suspend their daily work manning their fields and tending to their animals to assist in building a community church toilet that really was not of much value to them. Despite these work disruptions, the villagers expressed immense gratitude for our contributions. It dawned on me that our brief placement at the village had in fact brought about more inconveniences and losses than good.

Unlike other expeditions, ours did not rely on intermediary agencies to undertake the arrangements and reap the profits from our fees. Instead, we liaised directly with locals to ensure they were equitably remunerated and in no way disadvantaged from organising our stay. While we were initially confident in overseeing the entire building process on our own, we could hardly progress without entreating the villagers to suspend their daily work manning their fields and tending to their animals to assist in building a community church toilet that really was not of much value to them. Despite these work disruptions, the villagers expressed immense gratitude for our contributions. It dawned on me that our brief placement at the village had in fact brought about more inconveniences and losses than good.

Operating through a vanguard of international developmental aid, this new wave of voluntourism continues to foster global hierarchies between the developed North and developing South, and the modern and those who do not adhere to this framework of modernity. There can be no sustainability in a system that leaves those in ‘need’ in perpetual dependence on the charity of their ‘saviours’. Nor in a laissez-faire arrangement that allows voluntourists to leave as and when they wish—mostly after a brief few months—and sees no need to hold them accountable for their ‘benevolent’ work. After their brief stint, their responsibilities towards those whom they have donated to, taught, or offered a few jabs of vaccinations, are simply cast aside for the next batch of volunteers, if any, to bear. If we have no tolerance for unstructured and unregulated welfare services, how have we come to expect others to learn to be self-sufficient, benefit and ‘develop’ in impermanent and inconsistent services that come and go? But if not us, then who? Whose responsibility is it to solve the problems of tomorrow?

Surprisingly, my subsequent adventure along this rocky terrain of voluntourism in North Thailand opened my eyes to answers, and possibly, solutions to this barrage of questions brewing in my head. After our village tour, we proceeded on to Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Mae Taeng District, an elephant and animal conservation and rehabilitation sanctuary initiated by the inspiring founder Sangdeaun ‘Lek’ Chailert. A 250-acre wide park, ENP allows its rescued elephants and a myriad of other animals to roam around the grounds freely. It is also an ecotourist organisation that entices voluntourists to contribute, either through their donations or labour, to maintain the welfare of the animals and sustain the park. Since 1998, ENP’s emotive appeals to a global audience through online platforms have welcomed a growing stream of volunteers from all over the world to participate in its conservation efforts.

I have to admit, I was initially sceptical about ENP. The park’s charming façade, with its wooden villas surrounded by lush greenery, and the deluge of vegan dishes that made their way from the kitchen to the buffet table, immediately recalled stereotypical elephant-riding adventure parks that have become so popular among tourists in Southeast Asia. And yet, there was something moving and gratifying about watching Lek and the local mahouts at ENP lovingly caress elephants, without the need to resort to the unsparing hooks that handlers so often use, as voluntourists go about their duties cleaning up animal shelters, loading heaps of corn for the animals’ meal time and simply enjoying themselves in the presence of these animals. A community mobilised around the welfare of these animals, rather than using them as entertainment baits that only profited their handlers, truly came as a rare sight.

As part of the visit to ENP, Lek included a series of lectures that introduced the uninitiated to an overarching understanding of animal cruelty in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, screening footage of elephants brutally spiked into submission to heed their masters’ beck and call. Through the park, her hope was to steer tourists away from animal circuses and other entertainment industries that exploited animals, while directing the goodwill of voluntourists who came to Indochina instead to an ethical and sustainable direction.

Even though Lek’s model of conservation received backlash and boycotting from locals in its inauguration, it nonetheless appeared to have gained their approbation through the years. When Lek first started out, she challenged the National Elephant Institute (NEI), a government-initiated entity that encouraged traditional elephant conservation methods through agricultural or tourist entertainment industries that financially supported both domesticated elephants and their handlers. Rather than opposing these traditional ‘touristic’ practices altogether and imposing ‘Western’ models of conservation that tended to silo locals and deprive them of their livelihood, she appealed to them for support. Lek situated her cause within an ecotourist framework that, according to Trisha T. C. Lin, allowed her to manoeuvre Thai society’s steady transition from an exploitative to ethical model—one that transformed elephant conservation into an economically viable ecosystem that is inclusive of the local community.

With the wherewithal generated from tourists, ENP uses the income to not only afford medication for these elephants, but give back to surrounding villagers who once vehemently condemned the sanctuary for encroaching upon their land. Most importantly, ENP has recruited local villagers, as well as mahouts who used to work in the entertainment industries, to work for the organisation. Despite their initial ridiculing, Lek proved the possibility of using loving ways rather than traditional hooks, preaching against unnecessary techniques to tame animals’ spirits. As in an interview, she hopes to “show people how to travel with responsibility and respect” and the possibility that love can change—an ethos that global developmental organisations continue to fall miserably short of. Our responsibility then, as Lek would have liked, is to spread her message to our communities back home.

Instead of imposing our modern and also very unsustainable Eurocentric frameworks of development, perhaps we ought to start working alongside local activists like Lek, those who speak of compassion in the language of their people. Voluntourism has great potential for positive impact, but rudimentary to any development work should be centred on those we are helping, and concerned with ways they can truly benefit.

Disclaimer: I am not sponsored by ENP, although I wish I was.


Written by Christie Cheng

Having completed her undergraduate in English Literature at the National University of Singapore, Christie worked at the National Arts Council, Singapore doing many literary things, and many government things. She is currently based in London where she is doing her MA in Cultural Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her research interests lie in non-Eurocentric theoretical discourses and applying these paradigms onto literary and filmic texts in making sense of contemporary societies, specifically those in Southeast Asia. She much rather learn about cultures through literature, film, art and traveling, than historical and anthropological accounts. But let’s be real, who doesn’t?