Q. My daughter is planning her gap year and is keen to do some volunteer work with a friend in a country affected by last year's tsunami in South-east Asia. We have been researching suitable companies but are slightly daunted by the cost. Do you know of any smaller organisations offering volunteer trips to the affected countries that don't cost a small fortune? We would be happy to pay a bit extra if we knew that the money was going directly into the project.
Mrs G Hughes, Dorset
A. Since the 26 December tsunami, a number of projects have been set up to help rebuild the devastated areas and offer support to the victims. Volunteers can help on a variety of levels, from reconstruction of homes to clearing up debris from the beaches. Alternatively, teaching in schools and organising activities for children are equally valuable.
Obviously long-term and skilled volunteers are needed most, but by simply travelling to the affected countries your daughter will be helping to bring back vital business. It is worth considering that embarking on her first trip alone could be a daunting experience in itself, so you should both be sure that committing to volunteer work is not undertaken lightly. Most organisations are happy to accommodate school-leavers; the minimum age is generally 18.
For short-term volunteer work, Thailand and Sri Lanka seem to have the most possibilities for young people who want to lend a helping hand. Although the Aceh province of Sumatra and the Andaman and Nicobar islands suffered greatly, the volunteer work for those areas is focused more on local and skilled help, particularly since both have been subsequently affected by aftershocks.
More than 500 NGOs have been established in Sri Lanka since the tsunami, and with the help of local and international volunteers, good progress has been made in rebuilding along the coastline. The more developed stretch from Negombo to Bentota is fully functional again, however the less-touristy area further south is still in need of work. Aside from its breathtaking beaches, Sri Lanka has much to offer a first-time independent traveller, from its cultural heritage to its spectacular hill country and wildlife. Eighty-five per cent of the island was unaffected by the tsunami and yet the interior is still suffering from a lack of tourism.
The Different Travel Company (023 80 669961; www.different-travel.com) offers two-week working holidays in the beautiful beach town of Unawatuna, near Galle, for £940 including flights. There are a range of projects open to volunteers, including childcare, teaching, construction and environmental projects. The next trip departs on 15 October, with volunteers staying at the three-star Unawatuna Beach Resort on a half-board basis. If your daughter wants to extend her stay and explore the country after her placement, it is possible to return at a later date. If she doesn't fancy arranging it herself, the company can put together a tailor-made tour to explore the island further.
For a more authentic experience, try Explore Sri Lanka (020-8813 6622; www.exploresrilanka.net) which offers two-week projects around Weligama, famous for its stilt fishermen who fish perched on poles which are dug into the sea bed. Volunteers are based in one of the surrounding fishing villages, on some of the most beautiful stretches of beach on the island. This organisation concentrates on arranging smaller groups of four to 12 people, integrating volunteers with the local communities.
The work is focused on helping the community bounce back, organising an array of sporting events and other activities such as music lessons for the local children, or rebuilding work. Participating in the project costs from £699, which includes flights, basic B&B and transfers. The trips depart roughly every three weeks. If she wants to stay for a longer period of time after the placement, it is possible to change her flight free of charge.
In one of the worst-affected areas, the Rebuild Hikkaduwa Project has been set up near the site of the derailed train at Peraliya. The project's website ( www.hikkaduwa-info.com) provides comprehensive information of what help is needed and on current projects.
These projects do not, however, provide flights or accommodation, but rely on you just turning up and finding somewhere to stay. Volunteers are also asked to commit to a minimum of one month's work, although short-term placements are often available. Enquire two weeks prior to arrival. Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; www.srilankan.aero) offers return flights to Colombo from Heathrow for around £560 in September.
Alternatively, Thailand has many projects still running that require volunteers, primarily for the reconstruction of destroyed properties. Due to the amount of damage caused by the impact of the waves around Khao Lak and Koh Phi Phi, rebuilding in those areas will be ongoing. The UK-based Intercultural Youth Exchange (0870 774 3486; www.icye.co.uk) works alongside the Thai project Greenway ( www.greenwaythailand.org) in Ranong to help in the long-term planning and rebuilding of the village, with the aim of providing support to those who have suffered family losses. Participants are expected to work for a minimum of one week and a maximum of 12, and there are weekly departures. The cost of a two-week placement is £810, which includes flights, transfers and accommodation, primarily in hostels but also in host families. The project was set up within two weeks of the disaster and has been successfully sending out volunteers since.
If your daughter fancies a bit more independence and flexibility, then she might consider the Koh Phi Phi project ( www.hiphiphi.com), on the island captured in the film The Beach. Most properties were completely destroyed by the tsunami. The help needed here ranges from gardening to beach cleaning and rebuilding guesthouses.
There is no official project and it is a question of organising her own way there, which would allow her to stay longer if she wanted to. Although a slightly more adventurous option, it is exceptionally cheap. Volunteers meet up every night at the local bar to discuss the various tasks that will be carried out the following day, also giving new volunteers a chance to socialise.
Estimated costs for a fortnight on the island are around 10,000 Baht (£138) based on the costs of a basic room and meals. Thai Airways (020-7491 7953; www.thaiair.com) flies from Heathrow to Phuket via Bangkok from around £685 in September. Koh Phi Phi is then just an hour by boat.
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