Travel to Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province and volunteer with elephants relieved from working in the tourism industry. Assist with monitoring the elephants’ behaviour as they are reintegrated into the forests and work alongside mahouts (traditional elephant keepers) and other locals to establish alternative livelihoods. Discover the unique culture of the Karen community, and the lush mountain forests of Northern Thailand in your free time.
Volunteer in the mountain forests of Northern Thailand and spend time in the fields with elephants relieved from working in tourism industry. Leaving behind their lives in the tourism industry, these gentle giants now live more natural lives as a semi wild herd in the Chiang Mai Province – an area famous for its traditional elephant keeping communities.
Volunteers can learn about elephant behaviour and contribute directly to the elephants’ wellbeing by providing working alternatives for their owners, mahouts and locals, allowing the elephants to live in the forest. You will observe elephants alongside mahouts who draw on generations of knowledge about elephants.
|24-hour emergency desk|
|24-hour in-country support|
|Airport pick-up (unless otherwise stated)|
|All project equipment|
|Food (except on long-term internship placements|
|Safe and basic accommodation (usually shared)|
|Group introductory call|
|Endorsed GVI Specialisation Course|
|Endorsed Leadership Course|
|Sustainable project work|
|Data collection and research|
|Real projects with partners|
|Weekly group check ins|
|Remote Academic Internship Supervisor|
|Remote Career Internship Supervisor|
|Preferential recruitment on GVI positions|
|Job portal access|
|Endorsed Careers Course|
|Career coaching sessions|
Certificates and achievements
|PDF reference - upon request|
|Linkedin reference and skills endorsement|
|Additional drinks and gratuities|
|Extra local excursions|
|International and domestic airport taxes|
|Medical and travel insurance|
|Personal items and toiletries|
|Police or background check|
Located in the heart of Northern Thailand, our base in Chiang Mai is surrounded by breathtaking mountains, fields, and forests. With beautiful hills all around, we have a bird’s-eye view over the fields and forests below. In the rainy season, the clouds roll through the base at eye-level. Being the middle of the jungle, elephants can be found throughout the surrounding areas.
When you arrive on base you will be welcomed by the villagers with a traditional Geju ceremony, which they perform for all new participants upon their arrival. During the Geju, food is blessed and pieces of string are tied onto others’ wrists to wish them good fortune.
The project work takes place in the Mae Chaem District, a 5-hour journey deep into the mountains, where the famous Karen elephant-keeping community resides. This community shares a unique and sacred relationship with elephants.
From the base, it’s about a 50-minute walk to the river where you can see buffalo walking about. Despite being very afraid of people and quite shy, you might sometimes see them in the village. The open-air base is divided into two buildings. The older building is usually reserved as a study area – or for staff meetings, presentations and lectures. It has a table with chairs, a hammock for reading, and a few small desks. The newer building is where people socialise. The library is in the new building. It’s small and basic, consisting of a few bookshelves. You can enjoy beautiful sunsets right in front of the base, and there’s a fire pit which we use in the evenings . Moonglow Ridge is a beautiful area to take mats and stargaze. During free nights, we like to watch movies on the projector, sit around the firepit, visit a villager’s home, or take a night stroll. Games (board and card games) are well received and enjoyable to interact with the local community members. There are also a few friendly dogs around the base.
GVI Chiang Mai allows you to experience the local lifestyle. Each volunteer gets their own homestay with a family in the local community. This allows you to become immersed in t...
We provide transfers to and from the Chiang Mai Airport. If you are not arriving within the pick-up window, you will find regulated taxi stands at the airport. You can easily tr...
You will have limited access to long-distance communications whilst on the program, so make sure friends and family know how often they can expect to hear from you. Wi-Fi is usu...
Breakfast is available at base before the morning hikes, and lunch and dinner are typically home-cooked meals provided by your individual homestays. Food is simple but nutritiou...
From November to February, Chiang Mai enjoys its cooler months, when the temperature is mild and mostly dry. The weather is hot and humid between March and June, but as we are b...
Enhanced cleaning and social-distancing measures in place.
We want you to make the most of the chance to live in – and contribute towards – the most diverse and unique wildernesses and communities on earth. Introducing GVI Experiences – immersive adventure, cultural and wellness activities exclusive to GVI that have been specially designed in collaboration with our local partners to support and stimulate sustainable economic development.
Enhance your impact. Expand your adventure. Explore your world.
Joining a GVI program not only allows you to collaborate with communities or work toward preserving unique ecosystems – but it also offers plenty of opportunities to explore the surrounding area or travel further to see what other parts of the region have to offer over weekends.
Field staff are a great source of advice and have helped us put together the following information on local travel options. You can choose to travel before or after your experience with GVI (subject to immigration restrictions), solidifying the lifetime friendships you’ve established on the program. Please note that the below options are not included in the program fee, and would be up to you to arrange at your own expense.
Pai is an amazingly small backpacker town with a huge street-food market. Tours to the canyon, caves, and waterfalls are available. Check out Pa...
The Karen people are friendly, minimalistic, generous to outsiders, and caring towards nature and wildlife. There are a number of community elders who are very conversational an...
Visit the village’s Buddhist temple which is set alongside a sacred lake. During Thai holidays, you may hear chanting coming from the temple, see parades taking place, or witnes...
Ten minutes away from the village, there’s a campsite in a conservation forest. Upon request, we sometimes take what gear is available on base and sleep out in the forest. We st...
Join other participants for a game of football, volleyball or ultimate frisbee at a field next to the school. Just be sure that it’s not being used by the local students for the...
Take a hike along the corn fields to watch the sunrise. This trail offers excellent views of the forest. Or take the forest trail – you might even see some gibbons. This is quit...
Visit Boh Luh’s Smoothie Shop, a two-minute walk from base. Boh Luh sells delicious smoothies made from mango, banana, passionfruit, watermelon, and other fruit. Make use of the...
We have a projector at base as well as a large selection of movies. Sometimes we take a vote on which one to put on after dinner (or when we have a quiet afternoon)....
If you need to get a workout in, you’ll find our gym on the lower floor of our base hut. It includes a gym bench and weights....
On the lower floor of our base hut, you’ll find a ping-pong table. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself engaged in a heated ping-pong tournament against some of the mahouts!<...
Engaging intimately with a new context teaches global awareness, adaptability and critical thinking – skills highly valued in the modern marketplace. Local and cultural immersion is encouraged on all our programs around the world, and will also be one of the most enjoyable aspects of your experience. Luckily, there are many different activities that you can get involved in during your free time, or before and after your program.
On our community programs, the focus is on cultural topics, while on marine or wildlife programs the emphasis is more on the environmental element. Use your evenings and weekends to explore topics like local cuisine and religion, or how sustainable development challenges are affecting local contexts.
Most people in the village are animists<...
Many visitors to Thailand choose the destination because of its amazing food culture. From street food to culinary delights in the finest Thai restaurants, you will never be sho...
There are festivals throughout the year, the most notable being Songkran – the Thai New Year and water festival – held in mid-April, and the lantern festival in November. Nation...
Thai is the official language of Thailand and is spoken by roughly 36 million people across the world. In the project location, their first language is Pakinyaw, which you will ...
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If you’d like to find out what the experience of joining a GVI project is really like, simply contact us and we’ll put you in touch with one of our many Alumni.
We’ll try to match you to an Alum based on your location, nationality, age, stage of academic career, gender, and program interests. This allows you to gain insights into the experience that is most relevant to you.
Depending on your location you might be able to speak to an Alum over the phone or online, or meet up with them face-to-face at a coffee shop nearby. We also run a series of small events around the world where you can speak to GVI Alumni, Ambassadors and staff members.
Senior Program Coordinator
‘If only every student could do this. It changes your life in all the right ways,’ says Chris Heritage, parent of Luke Heritage, one of our teen volunteers who has participated on two GVI programs, one in Costa Rica and another in South Africa.
We are a parent-run organisation that is incredibly serious about health and safety, and increasing the impact, as well as the long-term career benefits of our programs. Our programs help young people develop the skills to select a career path that is personally fulfilling, and live a life aligned to the well-being of our planet and the global community.
Ken and Linda Jeffrey, whose son Sam volunteered with GVI in Thailand, talk about how the experience affected Sam. He also went on to volunteer with GVI again in South Africa. ‘I know it sounds like a cliche but in a sense, he did go away as a boy and he came back as a young man. Both of us could recommend GVI without any hesitation to any other parent thinking about exploring an opportunity for their children to explore the world and to see different parts of it.’
Download the Parent Pack and learn more about:
Our staff: All our projects are run by staff, selected, vetted, trained, and managed by our central office.
Health and safety: Our safety practices include a child and vulnerable adult protection policy and high participant ratios.
Staying in touch: See what’s happening on base, by following a hub’s dedicated Facebook page.
Free parent consultations: We would love to talk to you about exciting opportunities available for your child.
When it comes to support, we ensure that each participant is provided with unparalleled, 360 degree support, from your initial contact with the GVI Family, all the way through your program, and even after, as you become part of the GVI Alumni Team.
As part of this promise, we will ensure, whenever possible, that one of our dedicated staff will be available to meet you at the airport. In most locations, we also set up a Whatsapp group to help with managing airport arrivals. We will arrange with you prior to your departure that, should you arrive in the agreed upon pick up window, a member of our staff will be there to welcome you, easily identifiable in a GVI t-shirt or holding a GVI sign and wearing a friendly smile. This means there will be someone there to greet you as you land, and from there you will be transported to your GVI base to start your adventure and meet the rest of your team.
Enhanced cleaning and social-distancing measures in place.
All of our programs have short-, mid- and long-term objectives that align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). This enables us to report on our collaborative impact across the world in a streamlined manner, measuring which UN SDGs we are making a substantial contribution to. Furthermore, this will help our local partners and communities measure and visualise their contribution to the UN SDGs.
Prior to your arrival on base, you will be educated about the UN SDGs. Then once you arrive on base, you’ll learn about the specific goals we have in this particular location, our various objectives, and also clarification of how your personal, shorter-term involvement contributes to these.
Our aim is to educate you on local and global issues, so that you continue to be an active global citizen after your program, helping to fulfil our mission of building a global network of people united by their passion to make a difference.
Please note: Both conservation- and community-focused programs are offered at this location.
GVI Chiang Mai’s programs work in collaboration with the local Karen hill tribe and village of Huay Pakoot. To promote sustainable ecotourism, we work with the elephant-keeping community to assist monitor the introduction of elephants into their natural habitat after their previous lives in tourist camps.
Your contribution will assist in keeping these elephants in protected forests, continuing the conservation of these beautiful animals and what remains of their fragmented forest habitats, as well as providing funding to keep the project running. We also offer alternative livelihoods and English lessons to the local community. Upskilling in English helps facilitate a self-sustainable ecotourism industry. The goal of this project is to have semi-wild herds of elephants living, socialising, and foraging in their natural habitat – supervised by their mahouts from their local village.
We work with local mahouts to track elephants in the forest – collecting behavioural data through observation, taking note of the following:
Every week we do a health check (eye drainage, tongue check, etcetera). It’s important to note that we have a hands-off approach.
We conduct comprehensive surveys of the daily activity pattern and habitats of White-handed gibbons under natural conditions, which include:
We conduct day and night biodiversity hikes, recording any species we see, including birds, gibbons, bats, snakes, reptiles, lizards, amphibians, frogs, and toads. We add images to iNaturalist and eBird.
We work with the local government school – with both teachers and students. Our school-based teaching involves English language, health and wellness workshops, environmental education workshops, and sports activities. Our community-based lessons involve adult and child learners in the community. These are often informal evening sessions, based around what the learners want to learn.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals
All of our programs have short-, mid- and long-term objectives that align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). We want to be able to measure our collaborative impact across the world in a streamlined manner, so all our staff and volunteers know which UN SDGs they’re making a substantial contribution to. This also helps our local partners and communities measure and visualise their contribution to the UN SDGs.
Prior to your arrival on base, you’ll be educated about the history of the UN SDGs. Then, once on base you’ll learn about the specific goals of your location, the long-, mid- and short-term objectives, and also insight into how your personal, shorter-term involvement contributes to these goals on a global level.
Our aim is to educate you on local and global issues, so that you continue to act as active global citizens after your program, helping to fulfil our mission of building a global network of people united by their passion to make a difference.
GVI Chiang Mai Long-term Objectives:
1. Increase and promote ethical elephant tourism.
2. Create a viable self-sustaining eco-tourism program for the village. As well as supporting a stable herd of elephants living naturally in the forested area of the village.
3. Improve standards of living and job opportunities for people in the Huay Pakoot village.
4. Improve sustainable natural resource management in the Huay Pakoot area.
5. Ensure a thriving population of wild White-handed gibbons in the Huay Pakoot area.
The best decisions in international development and conservation cannot be made without accurate and up-to-date data or informed research. Our many field teams around the world collaborate with local and international partners to analyse data and draw conclusions. In addition, many of our participants have used research they have collected on their various GVI projects to complete their Masters, Doctorate, or postdoctoral studies. We also run a fellowship program which connects postdoctoral researchers at globally-respected universities with our many sustainable development programs around the world to support their research and ensure continuous improvement of our best practices on base.
International Ornithological Congress of Southeast Asia Conference in Thailand
Below is a list of core ethics and best practices we believe are essential to the operation of high quality, ethical volunteer and sustainable development programs. We believe that all responsible volunteer and sustainable development operations should focus upon these principles. If you are considering volunteering, these are some of the key considerations you should question, to ensure that your time and money contributes towards positive change.
We want to constantly develop our own understanding of ethical best practice. In so doing, we aim to provide an exemplary industry standard for other education institutions, international development organisations, and social enterprises. Our Badge of Ethics stands for the drive to always do good, better. Find out more, click on the Badge below.
We aim to design all our projects in collaboration with local organizations and communities and ensure that they are locally driven.
We aim to clearly define short-, mid-, and long-term objectives with sustainable outcomes for all our projects.
We aim to track, record, and publish the impact of each of our projects.
We aim to build in-country capacity by assisting local organizations in becoming self-sustaining.
For each local organization we work with, we aim to have a plan in place for withdrawing support responsibly.
We aim to ensure that every participant is assigned a clear role and that they are fully trained and supported to carry out their work by specialized staff.
In all our actions we aim to respect the skills and efforts of all and seek to protect the rights, culture and dignity of everyone who engages with GVI.
We work to ensure that credit for the results of any project, along with any data collected, research conducted, or Intellectual Property developed, remains the property of local organizations.
We do not condone and aim to withdraw support of orphanages and residential care centers.
We will live by our Child Protection and Vulnerable Adult policies.
As an organization, GVI is committed to striving toward best practice, and to educating both our potential participants, our partners, and the world at large about them. Both the volunteering and sustainable development sectors are increasingly, and rightly, under scrutiny. Many recent local and global articles highlight poor practices and questionable ethics. GVI is widely recognized for striving to apply global best practice in the volunteering, education and sustainable development sectors throughout our operations by reputable organizations such as ChildSafe.
However, global best practice is always evolving and we dedicate both time and resources to engage with internationally respected experts and learn from the latest research to ensure our programs both fulfil their potential to create maximum positive impact, and minimise their potential to create unintentional negative impact. Along with and as part of the sustainable development and volunteering community, we are constantly learning and applying this learning to practice. We do not always get everything right, but we seek feedback from our community members, partners, participants and our staff, and react accordingly. We know are already doing a great job, and feedback we have received confirms this, but we aim to do even better and are continuously refining our operations to improve upon our already excellent reputation.
We don’t support or allow participants to work in institutional residential care facilities, also known as orphanages. We partner with ReThink Orphanages and Freedom United.
Our Child and Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy requires all our staff and participants to complete a criminal background check and to learn why you shouldn’t reveal a child’s identifying factors in photographs. We support the ChildSafe Movement.
We don’t offer any programs where our participants engage in medical treatment. This is because our participants aren’t typically qualified to do this work and would therefore not be able to do this work in their home country. Our participants only assist with public health programs.
We don’t offer any programs where our participants work directly with people with disabilities. This is because our participants aren’t typically qualified to do this work and would therefore not be able to do this work in their home country.
Each one of our initiatives is aligned to objectives set by a local organisation or professional. Our staff and participants work to support these local actors in achieving their specific goals.
Our participants don’t replace the staff employed by local organisations. Rather, they support currently employed staff with achieving their objectives. Our goal is always to increase local capacity to address local problems.
Participants require training and support to ensure that they carry out tasks correctly. Our staff provide this training and support so that local staff can focus on what is truly important to their organisation at the time.
We don’t support the use of wild animals for entertainment purposes. This includes riding animals, having them perform tricks, feeding or bathing them or getting close to them to take photos
We don’t encourage, support or allow the rearing of “orphaned” wild baby animals kept at a “sanctuary”. The conservation value of these types of programs is negligent and would only ethically be used in extremely rare cases
When wild animals are restricted for conservation purposes we follow the guidelines of Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA), approved by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
We ensure that the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare are followed. These include the freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from distress, discomfort, hunger, thirst, fear, pain, injury or disease.
We ensure that conservation efforts are also always locally led, that community needs are front-and centre of any conservation effort and that our participants, projects and partners work to increase local community engagement in local conservation efforts.
We don’t offer any veterinary programs or animal rescue and rehabilitation programs. We don’t allow participants to do any work they would not be able to do in their home country.
A GVI program is an investment in your career. No matter which you choose, you will be working toward improving your employability by mastering new social skills, gaining further technical expertise and earning qualifications in many cases. Most of our staff are, in fact, GVI Alumni, and we have helped many of our Alumni discover, move toward, and earn their own personal dream jobs. Each program includes introductory workshops, ongoing presentations, as well as on-the-ground professional support provided by our very own trained staff members. In addition, our training programs are critical for helping us to ensure the long-term impact of our sustainable development projects around the world.
Learn about COVID-19 pre-departure guidelines, base expectations, personal and area hygiene practices and what we are doing to keep you safe.
Learn about the importance of child and vulnerable adult protection best practices and how to apply them while on project.
Introduction to the history and evolution of sustainable development, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and how these related to your project work.
Learn about our country locations and further opportunities available to you during or after your program.
An introduction to different survey techniques and best practice guidelines for surveys; introduction to different types of data and how to record information via a datasheet.
Learn about biodiversity and how biodiversity is measured, and classifying different species and how to identify species that indicate the health of the habitat.
If you have a passion for wildlife conservation then this course will provide you with the foundational skills and understanding needed to achieve your conservation-related goals. You’ll learn about the various methods of wildlife monitoring, as well as exploring the delicate balance involved in terrestrial ecosystem management. After successfully completing the course, which you have the option of doing prior to your in-country program, you’ll receive a certificate from the University of Richmond.
This online course, valued at £295, is included in all volunteering programs. Full course details can be found here.
We won’t sugarcoat it — traveling abroad is usually a complex process that carries an element of risk. But this is exactly why we’re passionate about providing extensive support throughout the process as well as the highest safety standards during the in-country phase. We believe that volunteering abroad should not only be impactful, but an enjoyable experience that carries as little risk as possible. This is exactly how we’ve been able to maintain our reputation as the most highly respected volunteering organisations in the sector over the past two decades.
Enhanced cleaning and social-distancing measures in place.
It takes courage to book a GVI program, get on a flight, and head off to somewhere new. Volunteering offers a level of cultural immersion that typical backpacking or holidays ju...
As the saying goes: ‘Expect the best, plan for the worst’. Cliched or not, we take it to heart. This tenet is at the core of how GVI operates when it comes to promoting the heal...
The weather isn’t just a topic for polite small-talk here at GVI. We have emergency action plans in place for all scenarios. So when the weather, or other natural forces, takes ...
Once GVI has matched a participant to a program that suits their passions and goals, our team aims to set the right expectations for them. In the event that false expectations a...
For over 20 years, GVI has prioritised the health and safety of our staff, participants, partners and local community members. In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, GVI has created the GVI health and hygiene team to put in place new standards of cleanliness, norms and behaviours that meet or exceed international recommendations to ensure the ongoing safety of GVI’s participants, staff and communities around the world. Internationally recommended practices, such as advice from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the governments Australia, UK and US, continue to be monitored and the standards are likely to change if and when international advice changes.
The work GVI is contributing to across the globe remains important and the following measures allow our participants to continue to join GVI’s programs and continue impacting positively on their world and the communities we work with. The following changes to our existing protocols have been made by the GVI health and hygiene team to strengthen our health and hygiene protocols and ensure that international standard safeguards are in place to protect our participants, staff and host communities.
Learn traditional Karen cooking
Connect with the Karen people's culture
Forage for forest medicine with a village elder
Visit Thailand's highest peak
Explore Thailand's elegant and mysterious waterfalls
See amazing biodiversity on a night trek
Take a sunrise hike up Two Tree Hill
Sleep under the stars alongside Asian elephants