Surrounded by breathtaking mountainous scenery in northern Thailand, volunteers will quickly ease into a very peaceful way of life that still exists here. Project work itself takes place in Mae Chaem District, a 5-hour journey into the mountains, where the famous Karen elephant-keeping communities reside and who have shared a unique and sacred relationship with elephants for hundreds of years.
HomeProgramsWomen’s Empowerment with Karen Hill Tribes in Chiang Mai
Spend your mornings hiking with elephants, and your afternoons teaching English at the primary school and women's evening classes. Immerse yourself in the local Karen community and learn about the role of women in Karen culture.
Travel to the jungle-covered hillsides of Northern Thailand, to support elephant conservation, education, and gender equality, in a local Karen cultural village.
In the morning hike with mahouts, traditional elephant trainers, through the mountainous forest terrain to conduct health checks of the elephants being reintegrated into their natural environment. In the afternoons, support English education for young learners in the local primary school. In the evenings, you will also have the opportunity to conduct English language, vocational or professional development classes with women in the community.
Throughout your time on the program, you will stay with a local homestay family, giving you the opportunity to learn more about the Karen culture, an ethnic and cultural group, originally from Burma, who live in the hills of Northern Thailand. Learn unique aspects of their culture first hand, like their language, Pakinyaw, their cooking methods, and how to make traditional Karen clothing and jewelry.
The specific focus of this program is how gender is perceived in Karen society. For example, mahouts are traditionally men, whereas women weave traditional Karen clothes. Both men and women take part in farming and rearing children. We work on empowering both genders through increasing access to English language education and supporting alternative income generation initiatives.
The main United Nations Sustainable Development Goal you will be contributing to is #5, Gender Equality. In addition by supporting English education and alternative income initiatives, you will also be contributing to UN SDGs, #1, No Poverty, #4, Quality Education, #8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, and #10, Reduced Inequalities.
Contribute to UN SDG #4, Gender Equality.
Assist with reintegrating endangered Asian elephants into the wild.
Immerse yourself in Karen culture.
Teach English to primary school children and women.
Explore the old city of Chiang Mai in your free time.
Cancel anytime and receive a full refund minus your deposit.
Life On Base
Our base in Chiang Mai is surrounded by breathtaking mountainous scenery. Set in northern Thailand, the project work itself takes place in the Mae Chaem District, a 5-hour journey into the mountains, where the famous Karen elephant-keeping communities reside and have shared a unique and sacred relationship with elephants for hundreds of years.
Enhanced cleaning and social-distancing measures in place. Learn more.
GVI Chiang Mai allows you to experience life like a local, as each volunteer has their own homestay with a local family allowing them to become immersed in the Karen culture and warmth of its people. Homestays are usually with their own rooms or single hut, and are located all around the village, usually a quick walk from the GVI base. This allows you the perfect opportunity to enjoy the fresh morning air and the sites of the village. There is cold running water available for showers, bottled water available for drinking, shared bathroom facilities and shared base duties, including cleaning and other chores (this is all part of the GVI experience)!
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 nutritious, and is primarily vegetarian with optional fish or meat available once or twice a week. During the first week, a staff member typically eats with each participant at their homestay, to help integrate them into the family.
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. WiFi is usually available at Root’s coffee shop in the village, but be aware that power cuts and storms can make this unreliable. Mobile phone reception is possible and quite reliable on site, and SIM cards can be purchased to use with your unlocked cell phone.
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 to June, but as we are based in a mountain community, the temperature usually drops at night, giving you a pleasant reprieve from the heat of the day. Monsoon rains are heaviest from August to September, but if you bring some rain gear and a sunny outlook you might see the elephants enjoying a muddy wallow after the rains.
Health and Hygiene
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.
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.
Follow GVI Chiang-Mai's Facebook page for live updates straight from the field. Get an idea of the types of projects you might be involved in, meet our staff and participants, experience life on this GVI base, hear about free time activities, and learn about the local culture and environment.
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.
Please note that the above images were taken pre COVID-19. All airport pick-ups and program operations now run with enhanced cleaning and social-distancing measures in place. Learn more.
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Meet the team - Senior Field Management
Deputy Director of Programs
Meet GVI’s Jill,also known by her rap name, Rainmaker, or her spiritual name, Field Whisperer. Her journey with GVI began back in 2007 as Thailand's Country Director, where she helped set up GVI’s first TEFL program!
Now she is based in Chaing Rai, Thailand. Jill's role involves providing support for all of our programs around the world. Working closing with each base, she looks to identify and manage any issues that occur so GVI are able to offer the best programs possible.
Meet Liane! Liane is known on base as “Base Mum” and is originally from England. Her journey with GVI began in March 2018 after she had finished working in Malawi for six months. Liane has also worked in both China and Australia, where she was a teacher. In her spare time Liane enjoys making the most of what Thailand has to offer, hiking mountains and scuba diving!
Senior Field Staff & Marketing Coordinator
This is Tom! He is our Senior Field Staff And Marketing Coordinator at GVI’s base in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tom is from the UK and before his arrival in the jungles of Chiang Mai, Tom had no experience within conservation. In fact Tom had never been outside the UK. Quite the jump, to say the least!
Meet the team - In-Country Staff
Elephant Science Coordinator
This is Chigusa, our Elephant Science Coordinator here at our Chiang Mai base in Thailand.
She has grown up in Switzerland where she studied environmental science and now plays a huge role in data collection and analysis at the base, allowing us to record and further understand the behaviour of the elephants.
This is Jonathan, a member of the GVI Field Staff at our Chaing Mai base in Thailand. He has joined us from Liverpool in the UK and has visited this base as a volunteer on seven previous occasions, making him the perfect person to support our volunteers.
Assistant Program Manager
Introducing you to Myles, also referred to as Coach. Coach is from Brooklyn, New York and has been the Assistant Base Manager for over a year now. Other experience includes working with cobras in Thailand, monkeys in Zanzibar and crocodiles in Florida. On top all this, Myle has 127 dreadlocks!
Meet Toby, who is originally from Cornwall in the UK. Toby came to GVI Chiang Mai, Thailand, in September of 2018 as an intern, fresh out of university. He has since become one of our Field Staff. Fun fact, once upon a time Toby was urinated on by a lion!
All of our programs have short, mid and long-term objectives that fit with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or 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.
Upon arrival to base, you will be educated about the history of the UN SDGs. You will learn about the specific goals of your location, the long-, mid- and short-term objectives, and also clarification of 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.
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. Here we work with the elephant-keeping community to help monitor the introduction of elephants into their natural habitat from their previous lives in tourist camps.
Your contribution will help to keep 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 whilst offering alternative livelihoods to the local community. The goal of this project is to have semi-wild herds of elephants living, socializing, and foraging in their natural habitat, supervised by their mahouts around their local village.
This allows us to offer support to the local community, assist in the conservation of these amazing animals, and to address many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as #15 – Life On Land, #4 – Quality Education, and #8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth.
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
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.
‘Avian Diversity as a Measure of the Impact of Megafauna Reintroduction into Evergreen Montane Forest.’
International Ornithological Congress of Southeast Asia Conference in Thailand
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.
For All GVI Participants
Introduction to GVI as a whole and the work in your specific location. Learn about the short, mid, and long-term objectives of the sustainable development projects at your base, which United Nations Development Goals they impact most directly, and which local partners we work with.
Health and Safety Training
Learn about the Emergency Action Plans in place at your base, the full Risk Assessment, and best practices for personal safety.
Child and Vulnerable Adult Protection Training
Learn about the importance of child and vulnerable adult protection best practices and how to apply them while on project.
For All Participants at Chiang Mai
Pakinyaw Language Lessons
Learn the local language Pakinyaw during your time in Chiang Mai with five basic Pakinyaw lessons with our Community Liaisons, followed by more advanced Pakinyaw lessons in the following weeks, if you choose.
Learn how to collect three different kinds of elephant data – behaviour, health check, and activity budget. You will be shown examples of the different types of behaviour and how to use data sheets to record the information.
A one-hour presentation that gives you basic training on how to Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), including how to teach vocabulary, and classroom management techniques.
Ethical Elephant Training
Learn about the methods used to train the elephants, how the elephant industry in Thailand works, and how we ensure the elephants in Chaing Mai are treated ethically whilst still being safe to work with and be around.
You will have the opportunity to go on biodiversity hikes, which vary depending on the season. You may learn how to collect birding data, how to set up mammal traps and camera traps, how to identify snakes and reptiles, and more.
You will have the opportunity to take part in a traditional Thai cooking class where you will learn how to make some of the local delicacies.
Learn the practical skill of how to weave baskets from bamboo with the Old Chief of the village.
Your Program Specific Training
Learn what it means to be empowered, and what role you can play in helping people (especially marginalised groups) to set up their own income generating activities.
Learn how to weave traditional Karen clothes, which is how many of the women in the village make an income.
GVI Online Community Development course (optional)
In this course, you'll explore the most common pitfalls of community development initiatives so that you can avoid them. You’ll also learn how to carry out community development work effectively and ethically and how local context impacts program development. 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.
Joining a program not only allows participants 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.
Long term field staff are a great source of advice, and have helped us put together the following information on local travel options. Many decide to travel before or after their experience (subject to immigration restrictions), solidifying the lifetime friendships established on program. Please note that the below suggestions are not included in the program fee, and are for the individual to organise at their own expense.
Chiang Mai Visit
Arrange a trip into the Chiang Mai, here you will find plenty to do, from cooking classes, Muay Thai training, and shows, too night bazaars, temples (including Doi Suthep) and the opportunity to enjoy a traditional Thai massage. There is the opportunity to go into Chiang Mai every two weeks, with the staff and volunteers going in for the new volunteer intake. There is no public transport to the village, but staff can assist you in booking transport to various places, and sometimes we organize a group trip to nearby attractions.
Mae Chaem visit
It is a two hour drive to the town of Mae Chaem, and travelling around the village is easily done on foot. Here you can also visit the wihan of Wat Pa Daet.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon National Park is home to Thailand’s highest peak and is famous for it man waterfalls and stunning viewing spots.
Karen village surrounds
Due to the remoteness, our program is based in and around the village of Huay Pakoot. On weekends you will have the opportunity to explore the surrounding evergreen cloud forests, or why not go bird watching or look out for the smaller mammals such as gibbons and deer.
Huay Pakoot exploration
This quiet rural Karen village will be your home whilst on project, giving you a unique chance to learn about traditional Karen culture. Learn to cook Thai and Karen dishes with community members, and learn about everyday life in this traditional setting.
Discover the ancient country of Laos, where the fusion of French and Asian culture and charm make for a wonderful setting to experience a unique culture.
Railay Beach visit
Known for its pristine beach, lush jungle and dramatic rock formations, Railay is not something to miss.
The capital city of Thailand, known for its exotic atmosphere and ancient traditions. Pumping with colour, noise, and people, Bangkok is a place you need to see experience first hand if you are visiting Thailand.
Explore the golden kingdom of Ayuthaya, with its mysterious temple ruins, which were once gilded palaces.
Visit Ko Tao and Mu Ko Chang Marine National Park, and soak up the sun on these stunning white sand beaches.
Engaging intimately with a new context teaches not only global awareness but 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 is also one of the most enjoyable aspects of your experience. Luckily, there are many activities you can get involved with in 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 diverse and eclectic topics like Theravada Buddhism in Laos or how plastic pollution and climate change affects Indian Ocean coral.
The Asian Elephant is Thailand’s national symbol, but there are also many other notable species found in Thailand. These include the two species of bear, namely the Asiatic black bear and Malayan sun bear; gibbons and a dhole, also know as an Asiatic wild dog. You might consider doing a night hike while on base to look for snakes, frogs and other nocturnal animals. Otherwise try your hand at identifying unique birds and insects, and surveying the biodiversity in the forests around the village.
Spirituality and Religion
The official religion of the Kingdom of Thailand is Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced by the majority of the population, who visit monastery temples found throughout the country.
Many visitors to Thailand choose it as a destination because of its amazing food culture. From street food to culinary delights in the finest Thai restaurants, you will never be short of local dishes to try when exploring Thailand. The national dish of Thailand is Pad Thai, which is a popular rice noodle dish combining the flavours of sweet, sour, salty and spicy with stir-fried egg, tofu, sprouts, and other vegetables, served with lime and crushed peanuts. During your stay in the Huay Pakoot village, you will have the unique opportunity to sample traditional Karen food.
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.
Thai – This 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 learn whilst on-project.
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.
Our 10 Ethical Commitments
Locally Driven, Collaborative Projects
We aim to design all our projects in collaboration with local organizations and communities and ensure that they are locally driven.
Clear Objectives & Sustainable Outcomes
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.
Working Against Dependency
We aim to build in-country capacity by assisting local organizations in becoming self-sustaining.
Responsible Exit Strategies
For each local organization we work with, we aim to have a plan in place for withdrawing support responsibly.
Clear Roles & Specialized Training
We aim to ensure that ever participant is assigned a clear role and that they are fully trained and supported to carry out their work by specialized staff.
Respect for all
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.
Transitioning from the Orphanage Model
We do not condone and aim to withdraw support of orphanages and residential care centers.
Child and Vulnerable adult policies
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.
‘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.’
Parent Info Pack
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.
Support & Safety
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 are in place throughout each GVI program. Learn more.
Once a participant books, they will be assigned a personal support coordinator who will oversee their pre-departure journey. The support coordinator helps to bridge the gap between program enrolment and arrival at one of our field bases. Your personal support coordinator will ensure that you are provided with all the necessary information required to apply for visas, background checks, and any other documentation.
Upon arrival at the airport, participants will be greeted by a GVI staff member. All GVI staff are our own and all our programs around the world are run by our staff. All GVI field staff are background checked, Emergency First Response and safety trained. The minimum staff to participant ratio on GVI’s programs is one to six, although on several bases we have a ratio of one to three. When finishing the experience, participants will provide feedback on all aspects of their program.
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 just can’t achieve. This is why thousands of people around the world participate in paid GVI programs.
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 health and safety of our participants, staff, and local community members at all of our 20+ bases around the world.
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 a nasty turn, we are prepared to respond to stormy situations.
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 around a program are created, the GVI team takes immediate action to ensure that the situation rectified.
24-hour emergency phone
24-hour in-country support
Access to Alumni Services and Discounts
Airport pick-up (unless otherwise stated)
All necessary project equipment and materials
All necessary project training by experienced staff
Long term experienced staff
Meals while on project (except on work placements for long term internships)