What It’s Like To Volunteer At A Sri Lankan Monastery

Your volunteer abroad experience will be a great way to broaden your horizons and create memorable moments!

Sri Lanka Volunteer Monastery. monks
Photos: Tracy Cheng

Teacher teacher, you bring Kinder Surprise for us?

Diploka, one of the little monks that I was teaching English to, jumped next to me and tapped my arm excitedly.

It was one of my first official volunteer trips abroad – I’d chosen Sri Lanka because my best friend from Hong Kong agreed to meet me somewhere “in the middle” (I was in Canada at that time) to travel for a few weeks, but we’d rejected the idea of Europe and Africa.

Types of Volunteer Activities

The volunteer ‘packages’ offered in Sri Lanka included options between staying in an elephant sanctuary for two weeks taking care of your own elephant, teaching English to young Buddhist monks or regular school children, taking care of local babies at an orphanage, or working night shifts at the beach to watch over turtle hatchings. For me, it was a toss-up between the elephant sanctuary, the Buddhist monastery, and the orphanage. I chose the monastery in the end for fear of the unknown dealing with animals or newborn babies.

Sri Lanka Volunteer Monastery
Photos: Tracy Cheng

My experience at the Monastery

I was assigned to teach a group of 4-6 Buddhist monks with ages ranging from 9-14 on a daily basis in the mornings, and had the afternoons free to myself to explore or volunteer at the orphanage (to which I did both in my 3 weeks there). As a former English teacher in Hong Kong, I expected my time at the monastery to be relatively easy; students in Hong Kong in the same age group were very obedient, and I’d (very incorrectly) assumed that Buddhist monks would be even more disciplined.

The organizer, Michael (who was also the husband of the host family that I was staying with), had advised for me to play games with the monks, and had informed me that they did not know any English at all.   Much to my surprise, the monks’ English level was higher than Michael gave them credit for.

My first class was with 4 monks, and I tested their knowledge by singing slowly, “A, B, C…”; the monks finished the song for me impatiently, hoping I could move onto the next topic (and give them their “Kinder Surprise” at the end of class). I asked them to list out some animals they knew, to which all of them shouted different animals at once (“Alligator!”, “Koala!” “Kangaroo!”). When asked to name different countries, “Sri Lanka”, “Australia” and “Bangladesh” were shouted out. (I assume the previous volunteer was Australian given the monks’ answers, but I’m not quite sure how “Bangladesh” came about). We ended our first class on a high note, with the monks forgiving me for not bringing them “Kinder Surprise” as it was my first class, and them giving me clear instructions on how to get them for their next class (“You go to Galle now?   Teacher, tomorrow you bring Kinder Surprise, ok?”).

Sri Lanka Volunteer Monastery volunteer
Photos: Tracy Cheng

The remainder of my time there was similar to teaching regular kindergarten classes; I brought play-doh, we played “Duck Duck Goose”, and “What Time is it Mr. Wolf”, colored in coloring books another volunteer had brought, and sang songs.

I myself was very curious about their life in the monastery, but unfortunately due to their extremely limited English, I was unable to get a lot of information from them. When asked about what they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the answer would always be, “Chicken, rice, and curry!”; when asked about what they do during the day, they look back at me with blank faces, and then resort back to their standard “Chicken, rice, and curry!” answer.

Tips for volunteer travel

I knew about the controversies surrounding volunteer travel and had greatly weighed both sides before opting to volunteer. Below are some tips with how I made my experience a fulfilling one:

Do your research

I researched extensively on which organization to go with, or whether I should go myself, find accommodation, and walk into a monastery offering my volunteer services. I have volunteered in the past for a day or two in orphanages in Asia without any organizations; I simply walked into the orphanage, and told them I was here to play with the kids for a day.

For Sri Lanka specifically, I’d decided to go with an organization (RCDP) in the end because I was arriving into the country by myself, and they would arrange everything from pick-up at the airport to accommodation and food for me. Keep in mind that all of these are for certain fees, which can vary greatly between different organizations; some other volunteers I met in our homestay doing the same program as me paid much more than I did, and as such researching for pricing between reputable organizations are also of great importance.

Sri Lanka Volunteer Monastery classroom
Photos: Tracy Cheng

Where the money is going

If this is important to you (and especially if you are paying a lot of money to an organization), take a look at where the fees that you are paying go to. The organization that I went with (RCDP) clearly listed out how much of my money went to the monastery, how much went to administration fees, and how much of it went to the homestay.

Keep expectations in check

The term “volunteering in a third world country” usually conjures up images of building houses for the homeless or feeding food to people living in poverty, and not having those volunteers in those areas would be detrimental to the citizens. While all this is noble and greatly encouraged, this is not the mentality I went to Sri Lanka with. On a more selfish perspective, I wanted to expand my travel horizons; while backpacking from hostel to hostel and going to the major tourist attractions was also on the itinerary for this trip, I also wanted to get to know the local culture and do something a bit different than what I usually get to do on my backpacking holidays. Having this mentality that I was not there to “make a difference”, but leave the country getting some exposure into the monks’ lives (and hopefully teaching them a few words in English that they could use in the future) was all I was looking for, and made the overall experience much more satisfying.

Sri Lanka Volunteer Monastery toy
Photos: Tracy Cheng

Be flexible

Most of the organizations out there act as a middle man. As such, ask a lot of questions beforehand but keep an open mind and be flexible. Some volunteers in my homestay signed up to teach school children (not monks), and arrived during the school holidays, to which organizations conveniently forgot to mention. These are quite a common occurrence with volunteer experiences (as with travel in general), and as such your volunteer experience would be much less stressful if you were flexible to accommodate changes.

Find out what you need to bring

As I paid a fee to the organization to organize everything for me, I’d naively assumed that school supplies and other items would be provided by them. This is where I fell out in my research; luckily for me, another volunteer had brought a lot of school supplies for the orphanage she was volunteering in, but soon discovered that newborns had no use for coloring books or play-doh, and were happy to share them with the monks. The monks enjoyed these supplies immensely, and our lessons would not have been as much fun without them!

As with traveling in general, do your research, keep an open mind, be realistic about what you can accomplish, and your volunteer abroad experience will be a great way to broaden your horizons and create memorable moments!

Tracy Cheng

Contributor, JST SHOP Vendor

Tracy loves photography and documenting her travels. She has lived in Hong Kong, London, Toronto and Los Angeles, and has a piece of her heart in each city.

Jetset Times in your inbox

Sign-up for our newsletter

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy and European users agree to the data transfer policy.