In 2016, a few months after quitting my job (can’t remember which one), I decided to volunteer at Baan Unrak Thai Animal Sanctuary in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand. What I liked most about the sanctuary was that it practiced a no-kill policy. At the time of my visit, they had around 50 dogs, 10 cats, and a goat.
Baan Unrak Thai Animal Sanctuary
In 2007, a British traveler Gemma Ashford came to Sangkhlaburi to volunteer as a teacher for Burmese refugees. However, she soon began to notice the horrible condition of the street dogs scavenging in the town market. These dogs bore every mark of abuse — some limping, others bearing open and festering wounds. Many of them also carried diseases.
With her own funds and donations from family members and non-profit organizations, Gemma was able to start buying food and medical supplies for the animals.
Soon after, Baan Unrak School donated some land, and that was how the sanctuary was born. Since then, it has continued to grow with the help of international volunteers.
There are always work to be done at the sanctuary, from walking dogs, grooming, cleaning, DIY jobs, to raising local awareness. Everything you do will make a difference and help improve the lives of the animals there.
However, this is not a fun day trip to the petting zoo. I know there are ‘voluntourism programs’ out there that make you pay some money to be taken to orphanages or tribal villages or animal sanctuaries, where you spend a day socializing and taking photos with them, and you go home thinking that you’ve really made a difference.
Please do not expect the same here. This sanctuary relies entirely on volunteers to keep it running. The tasks that you’ll be doing are not all glamorous and some can be hard work. Here, you shed tears, sweat, and (maybe) even blood.
If you are a veterinarian, vet nurse, vet assistant, or student, you can apply for a paid position at Baan Unrak. They are always in need of people with veterinary skills, both for specific projects such as spay camps as well as for day-to-day treatments at the sanctuary.
Every day, with that many dogs in one place, there are usually at least one or two with some kind of health problems. On top of that, the local villagers also send in their pets, farm animals, or rescued strays for treatment because the nearest veterinary clinic is at least an hour away.
How to Get There
Sangkhlaburi is a small village located in a province called Kanchanaburi, which is approximately 7 hours’ drive from Bangkok. You have a choice of traveling on a direct bus from Bangkok to Sangkhlaburi, or on two separate buses from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and then from Kanchanaburi to Sangkhlaburi. The direct route is more convenient but can be slower.
I took the direct route. Once I got to Sangkhlaburi, I hopped on a motorbike taxi to get to the shelter. It was possible to walk (15 minutes) but it was very dark and there were no streetlamps. Due to language barrier, I had some miscommunication with the driver. He took me to an orphanage school, thinking I wanted to volunteer there. Luckily, one of the teachers knew the place I was looking for and translated it to the driver.
What to Bring
Sangkhlaburi is a remote village surrounded by nature. I’d suggest you to bring clothes that you would wear for a day hike in a tropical country, such as T-shirts, tank tops, shorts, and long pants. Other items may include:
- Insect repellent
- Sturdy hiking shoes/sandals for walking the dogs. Trust me — it’s a workout.
- Towels and toiletries
- Warm clothes for the cool season (Nov – Jan), when temperatures can drop to 10°C at night.
- Basic first-aid kit
- Sanitary products (tampons are generally hard to find in rural parts of Asia)
And most importantly, make sure the clothes your bring are the ones that you don’t mind getting dirty or ruined!
Where to Stay
Depending on availability, volunteers can stay at the Volunteer House just around the corner from the sanctuary. The two-story basic Thai-style house features an open kitchen on the upper floor, 2 bathrooms (with cold showers), 2 toilets, and 5 non-A/C bedrooms sleeping up to 12 people. Beds, sheets and mosquito nets are provided. The current rate is THB150 per person per night.
For those who prefer a bit more privacy and comfort, there are several guesthouses available nearby for reasonable prices.
I spent my first night at the Volunteer House because I arrived very late and there was no time to find alternative accommodation. The place was okay but rather cramped, with several rescued animals (cats, a baby squirrel, and a rabbit) roaming freely inside, so I was more than glad to move to a guesthouse the next day. I had a private room for only THB130 per night (this was in 2016).
What to Expect
Volunteers work on a daily roster with 1 day off per week, to be determined by the sanctuary manager. But if you would like specific days or extra time off, they will try to accommodate your requests where they can.
Morning Shift: 8.00 a.m. – 12.00 p.m.
Afternoon Shift: 2.00 p.m. – 5.00 p.m.
Volunteers are also expected to be flexible, as the hours may vary depending on how many volunteers are in the sanctuary and what happens during the day.
A typical day begins with walking the dogs at 8 a.m. As soon as you unlock the shelter gate for the first time in the morning, you will be bombarded with a cacophony of excited barks. They just can’t wait to go on that walk! Some of the dogs will go on leashes, some may need harnesses, while some can go without. It all depends on their levels of obedience.
Several volunteers will have to stay behind to clean the cages, replace bedding and prepare food for the dogs so that they will come home to clean beds and a food bowl ready in their cages. Talk about 5-star treatment.
After the dogs return, volunteers will continue cleaning around the kennel areas, raking dead leaves, refilling water bowls, and washing the beddings.
At 2 p.m., after lunch, it’s time to go back to the shelter. Food for the animals is prepared for the second round of feeding.
The bigger and more active dogs will have to be walked again, while the smaller ones will be released from their cages for some playtime in the sanctuary compound.
During my stay, there was one dog with paralyzed hind legs. We had to keep a close eye on him to make sure that his legs didn’t get stuck in his wheelchair and that the other dogs didn’t play too rough with him.
In addition to the daily tasks mentioned above, there are always plenty of other projects such as sanctuary repairs, maintenance, painting, and lots of cleaning.
Volunteers are also encouraged to play and engage with the animals at the shelter whenever possible. This may seem trivial, but is actually an important task. Socializing the dogs will help them become more comfortable around people, thereby increasing their chances of getting adopted.
Health & Safety
Volunteers are advised to get tetanus and rabies vaccinations in order to work safely with the animals. However, this is only a precaution. None of the volunteers has ever contracted them. If you have pre-existing allergies or medical conditions that require medication, be sure to bring enough supplies with you, as you may not be able to find them locally. Also, bring rehydration salts if you’re not used to the hot and humid weather.
Fights may occasionally break out between the dogs and there are several ways that volunteers can help diffuse the situation. There are also specific protocols to follow when dealing with severely injured or aggressive animals. These will be briefed to you upon arrival to ensure that you are able to work safely and comfortably.
In any case, it is always wise to equip yourself with a good travel insurance to protect yourself should the unexpected happens. World Nomads provides the most comprehensive coverage for travelers worldwide.
Other Ways You Can Help
Volunteering for a cause that means a lot to you can possibly be one of the most fulfilling experiences you can get in your lifetime. But not everybody has the time or the money to travel to Thailand. Here are other ways you can help apart from volunteering:
You can either make a one-off donation or set up a recurring payment. Every little amount helps. Besides cash, you can also donate supplies such as dog food, drugs, bandages. syringes, and other surgical equipment. Click here to see the list of items needed.
Most of the animals at the sanctuary are waiting to find permanent homes. Go to the adoption page, look at the pictures, read the profiles of each of the animals, and see if you can’t find any that captures your heart. You can adopt from anywhere in the world (except Australia). If you’re unable to come personally to Thailand, they can arrange for someone to fly your new best friend to you.
Sponsor an Animal
Adopting an animal is a huge responsibility that not everybody can commit to and that’s perfectly understandable. However, if there’s any particular animal that you’ve taken a liking to and would like to help out, you can do so by making a monthly financial contribution. This money will be used to pay for its food, healthcare, and other expenses.
Be a Flight Volunteer
I only volunteered at Baan Unrak for one week. On my last day, as per the tradition, they took a photo of me — and another traveler who was also leaving on that same day — right before they sent us off.
It was a truly invaluable experience for me, especially because I don’t have much opportunity to interact with dogs in my own country. Malaysia is not a dog-friendly place, and neither is Thailand, apparently. Some abuse cases are so horrific that you simply can’t imagine anyone — much less the friendly, soft-spoken Thais — doing something like that to an animal.
I would highly recommend this experience to anyone who wants to make their stay in Thailand more meaningful. Forget elephant rides or playing with drugged tigers — if you want interaction with animals, this is the way to go.
Do visit their website if you wish to volunteer, donate, adopt, or sponsor an animal at Baan Unrak Thai Animal Sanctuary.